Author's Notes: By way of warning, there's a touch of gore in this chapter, specifically toward the end. Not enough to risk the PG-13 rating, but I thought I should warn you up front.
Chapter 30: The Roads Less Traveled By
The morning was strangely quiet.
Perched upon a large branch, Ithildae, captain of Greenwood, surveyed the forest with wary eyes. Even in the darkest days of Mirkwood, dawn had never been quite this silent. It was as though all of Arda stood upon the precipice of a dark chasm and waited for a coming wind that would either save or destroy.
His jaw tightening, Ithildae shook himself from his thoughts and rose from his crouch. Whatever came, the elves of Greenwood would meet it as they had always met the Enemy: dauntless and defiant. They would retrieve their prince, and they would teach his captors what it meant to take one of their own.
But in the meantime, they would concentrate on finding a pair of missing Marchwardens.
Ithildae rested a hand upon the comforting presence of his belt knife and watched the scouts around him. He did not agree with this mission, but he understood the reasons behind it. He had seen for himself how the darkness had affected Haldir, and he knew that he could not allow one so influenced to interfere with his king and those still on the trail of the Orcs. Beyond which, Lord Celeborn and Lady Arwen had both requested his aid in locating Haldir and Orophin, and Ithildae had always found it difficult to treat their wishes as anything other than commands. But even so, the inkling to rebel was growing in his thoughts. Ithildae's place was beside his king, as it had been since the end of the Second Age when Thranduil's father fell in the Battle of Dagorlad. His sworn duty was to protect the ruler of Greenwood. How could he do that if he was chasing after Lothlórien's wayward Marchwardens?
A hushed voice broke his musings, and Ithildae turned as one of his elves approached. "Report," he ordered, his own voice little more than a whisper. The woods were too quiet for anything else.
"We believe we have located more of the trail. And perhaps signs of a struggle."
Ithildae frowned. "They came upon Orcs?"
The other elf shook his head. "There is evidence that Orcs have traveled this way, but the struggle seems to have taken place between the two brothers."
A cold dread seized Ithildae's heart. "They fought?"
"We believe so, my lord. There are marks that would indicate this. Yet we cannot determine how the conflict ended."
They moved quickly, silent and sure as they passed from branch to branch, and Ithildae felt the rest of the group drawing together around them, anxious to know if they had indeed found evidence of Haldir and Orophin. "Here, my lord," the elf said, dropping onto one of the lower branches. "Two sets of markings upon the branch, and both imprinted heavily for having been made by elves."
"As though one strove against the other," Ithildae said, crouching down and running his fingers over the faint tears in the bark. "You did well to find these. Your skills are to be praised."
"It was more by fortune than by skill. We noted broken limbs higher up and they led to this place. It seems our quarry fell from the upper branches, and there are signs above that indicate they struggled there as well."
"Bits of the trunk have broken off," Ithildae noted, rising and examining the coarse wood. "Someone was pressed against it. But how did this confrontation conclude?"
"That is what we have yet to determine, my lord."
A new voice called out to them and Ithildae looked up to see one of his more talented trackers signaling for him to ascend. Hoping they had discovered additional clues, Ithildae quickly climbed higher into the trees. "You have found something else?"
"Naught that pertains to our search, my lord, but listen!"
His brow furrowing, Ithildae cocked his head to the side and closed his eyes, concentrating on what he could hear. For a moment, the slight movements of the surrounding elves were the only sounds that came to him, but then, faint and distant, he caught other sounds. Sounds of metal and voices raised in challenge.
"Swords," he whispered, opening his eyes.
"It seems that our kinsmen have found more Orcs, my lord."
"Indeed." Ithildae murmured. A thought came to him and he glanced down at the twisted limbs and bent leaves far below, the only evidence that two Marchwardens had passed this way.
Ithildae frowned, considering the path before him. He could continue the search for Haldir and Orophin. It was what had been asked of him, after all, and he was a dutiful elf. But his first loyalty lay with his king rather than with his duty. And if his king was under attack…
Turning his eyes south, Ithildae came to a decision. "The hunt for Haldir and Orophin is ended," he said. "We now travel a different road."
Startled faces met this announcement, and Ithildae felt hesitation rise in the hearts of those around him. "My lord, is this wise?" one of the archers asked. "We hunt for those deemed a danger to both themselves and our own forces."
"The stray Marchwardens will have to be left to their own devices. As for our own forces, Orcs pose a greater risk to our king and our prince than do the foolish actions of Lothlórien's errant guards. Now come!" he ordered, descending into the lower branches and suiting word to deed. "We follow the sounds of battle."
They had settled into a routine very quickly. For Haldir, this was not unexpected. Routine was a way of pushing thoughts to one side. The same actions were repeated over and over with but slight variations, allowing Haldir's mind to drift away from what it was that he and Orophin were doing. Not that Haldir was inattentive. Far from it. He was possibly more alert now than he had ever been before. But it was not necessary to analyze each and every step along the way. He did not need to think about what might lie around the next corner because a system had been devised to deal with that, and this, in turn, was what kept them moving around each new corner. Had Haldir stopped to consider the danger of journeying further and further into an underground Orc stronghold with only his brother as company, he would have been unable to continue. But with distance and routine to shield his mind, he could forget about all that and concentrate on listening for Orcs. Haldir was not particularly pleased by this development, but he was wise enough to realize that there were few alternatives. They had come too far already.
The routine itself was quite simple. Good routines usually were. Haldir and Orophin would move forward swiftly but carefully, checking all crossing tunnels for Orcs. When their own tunnel divided, they would stop and choose their next path. Then Haldir would draw his bow and step into their new hallway. At that same time, Orophin would dart around him and charge forward in silence. More often than not, a goblin would be posted as a sentry somewhere in the corridor. He would jump at Haldir's appearance, but his eyes would be drawn to Orophin's movement, giving Haldir a chance to shoot him ere he could sound an alarm.
This arrangement worked well providing there was only one sentry. On hallways where there were two, Haldir would aim for the one furthest away while Orophin hastened to dispatch the nearer guard. They had been fortunate in their efforts so far, but Haldir knew it was only a matter of time before he missed or they came across a hallway with more than two sentries. He did not know how they would handle that, and because of routine, he had managed to avoid thinking about it.
Orophin's hushed voice was so low that Haldir had difficulty hearing it. At least he appreciates the danger, he sighed, turning to look at his brother.
"The tunnel splits ahead. There are two new roads from which to choose."
Haldir nodded and drew his bowstring back. "We take whatever path descends. If both descend, we take the left."
Orophin bobbed his head once and allowed Haldir to move ahead of him. They had been frighteningly consistent in their choice of both downward paths and left paths. Neither could explain why. It was one of the few things about this entire journey that they agreed upon, and as such, it was not questioned. Haldir wondered if he would come to regret that. Instincts were valuable and not to be disregarded, but this drive to travel down and left was unnerving.
A touch on his arm drew his mind away from such thoughts. Routine took charge once more as Orophin tipped his head forward and to the left. Haldir looked ahead and nodded his agreement. Both tunnels descended. They would take the one upon the left.
Pressing himself against the side of the tunnel, Haldir eased forward until he had a good view of the right fork. He and Orophin carried no torches as it made them easy targets, but this meant that they were essentially wandering about in the dark. There were some torches in wall sconces burning fitfully, but these were few and far between. It was difficult to see much in the shadows, and Haldir's eyes scoured the darkness until he was absolutely certain that no sentry in the right fork would be able to see them as they crossed into the left.
"We move," he breathed. Orophin tensed at his back and Haldir tapped his bow once upon the floor as a signal, counted to three, and then stepped around the corner.
Weight poised upon the balls of his feet, he immediately came to a full draw and sighted along the arrow shaft as Orophin sprinted past him. Far down the sloping corridor, firelight reflected off metal as a goblin shifted, drawn by the unexpected movement. Haldir's arrow whistled over Orophin's head a moment later, and Haldir smiled grimly when he heard a thud and a strangled hiss. At the same time, he heard a blade slice through flesh and turned just in time to see Orophin dispatch an Orc without armor that had been lurking in the shadows only a few yards away.
"The last four turns have all had two guards," Orophin whispered. "We are nearing something."
Haldir frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but a gleam of metal even further down the corridor suddenly caught his attention. Snatching an arrow from his quiver, he loosed it just as a startled shout rang out in the darkness. The cry died quickly, but Orophin and Haldir both froze, listening for the sounds of running feet. A long minute crawled by before either of them dared to breathe again.
"Three guards," Haldir hissed, still listening intently. "We are indeed nearing something. But if that is so, then why did the shout bring no other guards."
Still crouching beside the fallen Orc, Orophin said nothing for a moment, his eyes intent upon the darkness. "Perhaps you silenced the third swiftly enough," he finally said. "Or perhaps…" He trailed off, a strange look flashing across his face. "Perhaps what we near is to be guarded but also preserved. The one who commands this filth would not wish to lose his prize to sport. Perhaps there are no other guards. Perhaps these three were the last. We are deep enough to be near dungeons."
Haldir considered that. "You think we near the prisoners?"
"I think it a likely possibility. We were brought here for a purpose. What if that purpose is not to kill the Orcs' commander but rather to rescue those taken captive?"
Doubts were quick to rise in Haldir's mind. "You still believe our actions are directed?"
"Perhaps not directed, but guided, certainly. And if you do not believe that, then believe this: that shout should have brought other guards, but none have come. These Orcs were guarding something, that much is clear. But I see no signs of what they might be guarding in this tunnel. Why? Perhaps because they are not meant to be next to that which they guard. And to me, that indicates we are very close to their captives. Perhaps only a cavern away!"
Haldir pressed his lips together in a thin line and moved back to the hallway they had just left. He could see no signs of activity, and he could hear nothing from the right fork. Orophin's reasoning made sense, and he was more inclined to trust it now that they had left the twisting darkness behind. For reasons he did not know, the strange shadows upon the ground did not extend into the caves, and Haldir's mind felt reasonably clear. And yet… How was it that they had come so far so easily? It could not be by fortune alone. Nothing was ever so simple. Perhaps their path had been made in part by both fortune and by the Orcs. "It may be that they wish us to find the prisoners," he murmured.
Only now aware that he had voiced his thoughts aloud, Haldir quickly shook his head. "If you are right, then fortune has been unusually kind."
Orophin's eyes gleamed in the darkness, and his blade flashed briefly as he wiped it on the dead Orc beside him. "You do not trust fortune."
"Nay, I do not. But neither do I spurn the gifts she grants."
What might have been a muted chuckle came from Orophin's direction as the other elf rose and turned away. "You are forever contrary."
"And you are forever talking," Haldir answered, unable to deal with the other's lack of concern. "Now hush."
To Haldir's relief, Orophin complied and said no more. He waited quietly while Haldir paused to mark the tunnel they were leaving, scratching a faint symbol in the wall with the tip of an arrow. Once their path out of the caves was clear enough for elven eyes, Haldir returned to his brother, and together they moved down their new corridor, which proved to be much steeper than the other tunnels had been.
It was also much shorter. Haldir soon discovered that this tunnel divided not far beyond the third guard, and he frowned, not trusting its length. Routine began to give way to fear and doubt. Had they made a mistake in choosing this path? But no, that did not feel right. And there had been three guards. Surely Orophin was right about nearing something of great value. Something like prisoners. That made sense, even if other things did not.
"Haldir, the path—"
"I know," Haldir interrupted, stopping. He stared at the upcoming split, wondering if this was simply another sign that their journey was nearing its end. "Left," he murmured at length. "Neither path descends, so we will turn left once more."
"There is a red glow coming from the left," Orophin observed. "A torch must sit close to the turn. We will be easy to see."
"Then we will also be quick," Haldir said briskly. He notched an arrow and partially drew his bow, moving forward once again as Orophin fell into step behind him. They soon reached the point where the tunnels forked, and Haldir eased forward until he had a good view of the right side. The way was clear, so he signaled to Orophin that he was about to step into the left tunnel. Orophin nodded and Haldir once again tapped his bow upon the floor, counted to three, and then moved.
The first thing he saw was a torch only a few feet away from his face. Its light blinded him and he hastily stepped to the side as Orophin rushed past, struggling to see into the darkness beyond the flames. He sensed more than saw light reflecting off metal a stone's throw away and he hurried to shoot. But Orophin suddenly returned and seized his arm, stopping him.
"Bars!" the younger elf hissed. "That metal is not armor but bars! We have found a cell, Haldir! We have found a cell and the way is open! We were right!"
Haldir blinked, still partially blinded by the torch, and Orophin quickly drew him forward until the light was behind them both. The blindness passed quickly as his eyes readjusted themselves to shadows, and in a matter of moments, Haldir could make out thick black bars on the left side of the corridor. Even further away, a second torch burned brightly where the tunnel ascended into darkness, and Haldir felt his heart lift with hope. Perhaps fortune had favored them after all. This was obviously a significant cell of sorts. Why else would three Orcs guard the adjacent tunnel? Perhaps they had found the prisoners. And if Orophin was right about this, perhaps he was also right about their purpose here.
Then Haldir saw the cell's open door.
Hope died away.
Ignoring the concern in Orophin's voice, Haldir pushed him aside and moved forward, despair settling hard upon him. He should not have ignored his instincts. It had indeed been too good to be true. They had come all this way and found a cell, but it was the wrong cell. All things considered, they had probably walked straight into a trap.
There was a sharp hiss behind him, and Haldir turned in time to see his brother's face cloud over. "The door is open," Orophin murmured.
Haldir nodded grimly. "There are no prisoners here."
"But perhaps this is not the only cell. Perhaps there are others about. Or perhaps the prisoners are shackled and unable to move. Would the Orcs leave the door open then?"
"It would be unlikely," Haldir sighed. "Though we may think them otherwise, Orcs can be quite prudent. They would not leave a cell unlocked even if the prisoners within were restrained. They would take every measure available to prevent escape."
"But the Orcs are not acting as though they are prudent!" Orophin argued. "Prudence would not have drawn the bulk of their force away from the entrance. Prudence would not have left but two guards in every corridor."
"And that is precisely the problem," Haldir shot back. "We should not have been able to come this far, Orophin. The ease of our journey can only mean that they were expecting someone to attempt this and wished for that someone to reach the depths of their stronghold. This has all been an elaborate trap!"
Orophin was silent for a moment, his gaze turned inward, and then he shook his head. "No," he said, seeming to speak more to himself than to Haldir. "It might have begun as a trap, but it has since become something else. We knew we had to come this way. We both knew. There is another purpose here." He frowned, his features dark in the torchlight, and then he strode forward as though filled with sudden resolve.
Determined to stay at his brother's side—especially in light of his denial—Haldir followed, expecting to be assailed at any moment. Yet no attack was launched, and they soon reached the bars and the open door, which now felt strangely familiar to Haldir. His senses prickling, he glanced uneasily between the two ends of the tunnel, almost hoping to see Orcs so that the waiting would be over.
But still there was nothing.
Orophin's whispered shout spun Haldir around, and he searched the darkness for his brother, eventually spying him within the cell itself. "Orophin, what—"
"Lord Legolas. The hobbit. They are here!" Orophin hissed, dropping to his knees.
"In an unlocked cell?" Haldir demanded, looking up and down the tunnel once more.
"Unfettered in an unlocked cell," came the answer.
A terrible thought struck Haldir. "Do they live?"
There was a moment of hesitation. "They breathe."
Something about that answer sent chills down Haldir's spine. Deciding that caution would have to wait a moment, he gave the ends of the tunnel one final glance and then entered the cell. A gagging stench nearly drove him back out, and his stomach lurched violently, reeling along with his senses. Steeling himself, he pressed forward until he reached his brother, all the while wondering what in Arda could possibly cause such a vile odor.
"I see no wounds," Orophin told him, running quick but careful hands over Legolas. "And I feel no injuries. But they do not wake, and I do not think their own waste could cause this smell." He paused and glanced around. "Especially since there seems to be nothing in the way of such waste."
"Perhaps they were recently moved here, and for this move, perhaps they were drugged," Haldir murmured, stepping over Legolas and kneeling beside the hobbit. He ran his own hands over Merry's head but found nothing that would explain his unconsciousness. Continuing the exam, he searched hurriedly for broken bones that would need to be set ere the hobbit could be moved.
"But that does not explain the open door. And what of the smell?"
Haldir frowned and looked up at the bars, staring at them as though they might contain answers. But the cold iron mocked him with silence, and the red light beyond revealed nothing. More certain than ever that this was trap—though he was hard-pressed to explain either the trap's purpose or why the trap had yet to close—Haldir sighed and turned his attention back to Merry. With no other options, he might as well play along. It would make Orophin happy, at least. "I do not know what makes this smell," he whispered, easing his hands beneath the hobbit so that he could be turned onto his back. "But I do not think we should wait for answers. If Merry and Lord Legolas can be moved, then we must leave at once."
"There is nothing to indicate they should not be moved," Orophin said. "But I think we should learn what…Elbereth!"
Staring down at Merry, Haldir also swore. The hobbit now lay upon his side, partially turned over, but Haldir could not complete the process. His eyes were locked on a black film that dripped from Merry's mouth and coated his chest. A thick, sludge lay on the floor where he had rested, and Haldir stared it, flickers of memory pulling at his mind. The stench that had first assaulted him now rose up with a vengeance, clearly coming from whatever Merry had been forced to ingest.
"You were right," Orophin breathed. "They were drugged. Or at the very least, the hobbit was. But with what?"
"Dol Guldur," Haldir hissed. "When we cleansed Dol Guldur, we found this same paste. I did not know its purpose then, nor do I know it now. But it was evil. Others with me recognized it, and they blanched at the very sight. But they would tell me nothing."
"It reeks of Morgul poisoning," Orophin whispered, his eyes widening. "Could this—"
"I do not know," Haldir interrupted, scooping Merry into his arms. He rose quickly, and moved toward the door. "Can you carry Lord Legolas?"
For answer, Orophin picked the other elf up, adjusting him so that his head was cradled on Orophin's shoulder.
"Good," Haldir said, hurrying out of the cell and praying that he was wrong about the existence of a trap. "We must move with all speed. If they are poisoned, I fear they have not long. And if they are but drugged, then there is still something dark at work within them. Haste!"
Thranduil was stranded among the archers.
Under other circumstances, he might have been content with this state of affairs. He was gifted enough with the bow and had put it to good use against the masses that swarmed the clearing. But it was neither his best nor his favorite weapon. During the time of the Last Alliance, he had developed an almost Noldor fondness for the sword, a weapon he considered to be far more personal and direct than the arrow. And in facing the creatures that had stolen his son, Thranduil very much desired to be personal and direct. But that opportunity was lost to him, for the forward ranks of both Orcs and elves had closed.
The original plans had called for Thranduil to be at the front of these forward ranks, but the plans had changed with the sounding of three Orc horns behind Greenwood's position. They could ill afford to be attacked from the rear when the bulk of their force was engaged in the clearing, so Thranduil and several other captains had fallen back to organize the teams that would hunt down the forces abroad ere they could be a threat. As a result, Thranduil had not seen most of Rivendell's retreat, and he had been far back in the lines when the signal to charge was given. The opportunity to stand at the front was now lost, and those wishing to take part in the attack were forced to join with the archers. It was a position that ate away at his patience, and Thranduil found himself fighting a battle against not only the Orcs but also a rising tide of frustration.
He also found himself running short of arrows. The overwhelming number of enemies they faced provided the elves with no end of targets, but there was an end to their supply of bolts. Additional quivers were hidden further back in the trees, but Thranduil was reluctant to take one. While he was not unskilled as an archer, there were others about more talented than he, and the king felt that they should be given priority when it came to the extra quivers. So with his few remaining arrows, Thranduil was now searching out important enemies, a slow and tedious task that only added to his frustration. But unless he wanted to change the entire nature of the attack, he could do no more. And changing the attack would compromise their carefully laid plans, so Thranduil checked his growing anger and turned his attention to finding a new target.
Sweeping his eyes across the teeming hoards, Thranduil noted a few Orcs near the back who seemed to be captains and sighted his next arrow upon them. But then he stopped, his attention suddenly drawn even further back. A prolonged volley from Lothlórien's archers had cut away at the press in the rear, and Thranduil could now make out something odd: A ring of tall Uruks that did not press forward with the rest of the troops. They stood their ground, crying challenges and orders but never moving. And in their midst was…
Nay, not quite a man, Thranduil thought to himself, his eyes narrowing. Not anymore. But once. And from his appearance, a man who carried the blood of Númenóreans.
The king frowned and lowered his weapon, a feeling of uneasiness creeping over him. There was power in this man who did not seem to be quite a man. And from their behavior, the Uruks respected him. Perhaps even feared him. Surely he was the commander that had orchestrated the abduction and the attack on Rivendell. But why was he upon the fields? Both Thranduil and Celeborn had expected him to remain in the safety of the caves. That was one of Celeborn's primary reasons for sending an advance rescue party into the caverns. They needed to seek out and kill this man. Yet here he stood, all but inviting death.
Raising his bow again, Thranduil kept his eyes upon this man but did not come to a full draw. Life in Mirkwood had taught him to always look a gift horse in the mouth, and this unusual development demanded an explanation. Why did this man endanger himself? True, he was protected at the moment, but battles could change in an instant, particularly when elves were involved. He would not be protected indefinitely, and if he had survived the fall of the Morannon, then surely he was wise enough to know that.
For a moment longer, Thranduil debated the questions. For a moment longer, he paused. Then the moment passed and he drew the bowstring back to his cheek. Mirkwood may have taught him to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it had also taught him to take the horse. And with that thought, he fired.
But his hesitation cost him. The ranks of the enemy closed even as he shot, and the man disappeared behind a wall of teeming Orcs. The arrow slammed into the neck of mountain goblin, and Thranduil swore softly. But he now knew what to look for, and his sharp eyes quickly found the ring of Uruks again. He could no longer see the man, but if he killed those protecting him, perhaps that would change.
Drawing another arrow, Thranduil targeted one of the Uruks, but then he stopped, considering. If the Uruks were killed, then this dark commander might take refuge behind smaller Orcs, and it would be difficult to track him. He could slip away, possibly even disguising himself as one of Gondor's men in the confusion of battle. But if the Uruks remained, they could act as a marker that would be seen from afar, and the commander would be easy to find.
An idea came to Thranduil.
It was not a particularly good idea. It was not a particularly rational idea. It was a foolish, brash, and utterly reckless idea that would have been discarded the moment it arrived were it not for one thing: this idea happened to fall into that peculiar category of ideas that sometimes worked by virtue of sheer novelty. Thranduil had learned to never overlook such ideas.
But it was also an idea that required changing the nature of the battle. Because the Orcs' commander had appeared upon the field, Thranduil felt such a change was warranted, but his own captains might not agree with the direction he wished the battle to take. No, for this to work, Thranduil needed a conspirator who would recognize the opportunity offered, who would be eager to accept it, and who would have the power to carry it through.
Elrohir, Thranduil thought, recalling the startling ferocity of the initial attack. He would welcome this idea.
Thranduil's keen eyes swept the ranks of Imladris, looking for the younger of Elrond's twin sons. The elves were scattered and mixed with the men of Gondor, but despite the confusion, Thranduil searched quickly and easily. He was accustomed to such conditions, and he knew well how to sift the chaos of a battle. But after a minute or two of thorough searching, he found nothing.
Elrohir was not among Rivendell's forward forces.
The feeling of unease returned, but Thranduil pushed it aside and expanded his search to include Rivendell's rear forces. Perhaps Elrohir had dropped back. It was an unlikely scenario given Elrohir's reputation, but Thranduil was not yet ready to consider the alternatives. He needed Elrohir alive and hale if he was to carry out his plan.
And then Thranduil found someone else who might work just as well.
With gray eyes as fey as Thranduil's own and a face that promised death to all that opposed him, Aragorn appeared in the back lines where the forces of Gondor and Rivendell merged. He had obviously been in the battle earlier, for his sword was dark with the carnage of Orcs, but it looked as though he had left the clearing and was only now returning. Where he had gone and what had happened to so darken his mood, Thranduil did not know. The thought came that Elrohir's absence might be related to this, but Thranduil pushed that thought aside. If something had happened to Elrohir, then something had happened and naught could be done about it now. Now was a time for vengeance, and while Aragorn was not an elf, he had proven himself to be more than a man, at least in battle. For Thranduil, that was enough.
Before he could reconsider his actions, the elven king shouldered his bow, dropped from the trees, and began to run. As though tasting his fury, the shadows upon the ground swirled and danced, writhing in dark coils. A part of Thranduil's mind cried out in warning, but Thranduil ignored it. The decision was made and there was no going back.
He hastened past his own archers, moving so quickly that they gave him no heed. Soon he was weaving through the rear of Rivendell's ranks with a skill born from centuries spent amidst tangled trees. He angled himself toward a point several strides in front of his quarry, never once slowing his pace for fear that he would be recognized and stopped before he could begin. Ere long he began moving through more men than elves, and just as Aragorn was about to force his way through the middle ranks and into the front lines, Thranduil reached him.
His hand shot out and grasped Aragorn's right forearm. Feeling muscles jerk in surprise beneath the gauntlet, Thranduil tightened his grip as the man swung around and pulled Gondor's king back toward the trees with a surge of elven strength. The bewilderment on Aragorn's face when he realized who had accosted him was worth every risk that this plan would entail, and Thranduil smiled slightly even as he stopped and began to speak.
"Our enemies' commander is upon the field."
Aragorn blinked, and the raging fury within his eyes ebbed. "He risks himself?"
"Even as we do," Thranduil answered, releasing Aragorn's arm.
Almost as though the elf's touch had been a calming influence, feverish intensity returned to Aragorn's face, and he looked toward the forward ranks where the clash of swords and shields echoed loudly. "Where?"
"Toward the rear. Were we closer, you could see the ring of Uruks that protects him."
"Can the archers—"
"If his guards fell, he would seek cover elsewhere, and there is no guarantee that the archers would be able to track him. At the moment, he has no reason to run, but should that change, he might use whatever power he possesses to elude us."
Aragorn turned back to Thranduil, and the determination in his eyes told the elven king that he had chosen his ally well. "I assume you have brought me this information for a purpose," Aragorn said, unconsciously moving aside as several men rushed past them.
"The trap we laid was intended to catch and hold the Orcs," Thranduil said, speaking quickly and quietly. "It was not intended to penetrate their forces, for we did not expect their commander to show himself. Now that the situation has changed, I believe our response to it should also change. We must attack their commander directly. His death is necessary. And to that end, I would ask that you accompany me beyond the frontlines of the Orcs."
Fire flickered in Aragorn's face, but it was tempered now as he considered the logistics of Thranduil's proposal. "How are we to penetrate their forces? The Orcs have closed rank against us, and you said yourself that our formation is meant to hold and to trap, not to drive within."
"Order a press to the south and pull back your eastern forces."
Several different emotions flashed through Aragorn's eyes. "This will change the structure of the entire battle. We should alert the others."
"The elves will adapt accordingly. We have employed this strategy before."
A moment of hesitation came, lasting no longer than a heartbeat but seeming to stretch into eternity. Had need been less dire, Thranduil might have laughed. The choices of Isildur had made fruitless Oropher's death before the gates of Mordor, yet now Thranduil waited for Isildur's descendent to choose a course that would base their survival on their ability to work together.
Then Aragorn nodded, and the moment of hesitation was over.
All thoughts about Oropher and Isildur were pushed to the side, and Thranduil stepped back, a grim smile flashing across his face. "Join me behind the northern lines where your forces meet Lothlórien's."
"I will be there shortly," Aragorn answered. Then he was gone, slipping into the press of his men, and Thranduil turned toward the trees, quickly moving beneath the safety of their branches and heading west toward the cave.
Tracking the battle and its participants closely, Thranduil stopped when he neared the westernmost of Gondor's northern forces. Lothlórien's archers were now above him, but if they recognized the king of Mirkwood, they gave no sign. Their attention was on the clearing, and their rain of arrows was thick as it poured onto the hosts before them.
Having reached his destination, Thranduil settled back to wait. Waiting was an aspect of battle that he truly loathed, but knowing that his plan was in motion made the wait bearable. The shadows about his feet were quiet now, and Thranduil chose to interpret that as a good sign. His heart raged still, but his mind was clear. He could feel tendrils of darkness lurking about the edges, but it was not unlike what he had faced many times in Mirkwood when Nazgûl raided the outlying settlements. Regardless of whether his plan succeeded or failed, he could rest easy in the knowledge that it was his plan and not some contrivance of the enemy.
After a time, Thranduil began to see changes in Gondor's forces. The eastern ranks began to thin, and behind the curve of the northern line, men gathered and pressed toward the front. It was not long before the Lothlórien archers above realized that something different was happening, and their captains began to adjust their position, just as Thranduil knew they would. About the same time, the Orcs always realized that a change had occurred, and sensing weakness to the east, they surged against the dwindling line. From the north, Lothlórien's forces answered with a rain of arrows, and a portion of the Orcs swung toward these arrows in an effort to break through Lothlórien's ground defenses. With their enemies' attention divided between the eastern lines of Gondor and the northwestern archers of Lothlórien, the opportunity to strike was clear to all. Horns rang out, loud and defiant, and between the two forces, the northern ranks of Gondor charged.
They hit the lines of the Orcs like a wedge and drove through the ranks, forcing them to divide. The ripples of change immediately spread across the battlefield, and on the other side of the clearing, Rivendell was suddenly forced south by the charge. Greenwood moved west to accommodate them and began to press back, breaking open the very shell they had constructed to trap the Orcs. The frontlines deepened and cracks began to form.
Aragorn chose that moment to appear at Thranduil's side, and together they watched in silence as the ranks of the Orcs splintered. Holes opened, offering escape to any enemy that would take it. But none fled. Unease settled yet again in Thranduil's mind. This was not normal.
"Why do they stay?" Aragorn murmured. "Why do they not run?"
"The captain," Thranduil answered, casting his eyes toward the back of the Orcs where he knew the ring of Uruks waited. "They stay by his will."
"Not even Sauron—"
"There are but few Orcs here compared to the legions Sauron amassed," Thranduil said, turning his eyes to the battle close at hand. Gondor's press had driven the Orcs away from the edge of the forest, but to their right, a large number of Orcs were all but in the branches as they attempted to break through Lothlórien's spears and reach the archers in the trees. An uneven line was forming that linked the two groups, and Thranduil now watched this line very closely. It was the key to his entire plan. The moment it broke…
"Now!" he ordered, surging forward and sweeping his sword from its scabbard. He felt more than saw Aragorn racing beside him, and the two kings made for the gap just as the line shattered. Like wine bursting from an old cask, Orcs tumbled beyond the lines, forced forward by the press behind them, and using this movement as a mask for their own movement, Thranduil and Aragorn plunged into the wake of the split.
It worked surprisingly well.
The enemy's concentration was focused upon the front. So numerous were the Orcs that little attention was given to the center of the field, which was where Thranduil now found himself. His arrival was a shock to each new goblin he encountered, and his speed was such that they had no chance to recover. But word of his presence began to spread, and gradually, a portion of the Orcs turned inward. It became more difficult to force his way forward, and Thranduil drifted in front of Aragorn so that the path they needed could be smaller. Without missing a stride, Aragorn fell back slightly and began a perfect counter to Thranduil's movements, surging left when Thranduil hit right and blocking right when Thranduil struck left.
Confusion among the Orcs now spread like ripples in a pond. Those caught between Thranduil and the frontlines were at a loss, not knowing if they should turn inward or continue to press outward. Arrows from the north and the south fell into the western portions, opening the way before Thranduil and further disorienting the enemy. Making use of the growing chaos, Thranduil quickened his pace, spotting the ring of Uruks and hastening toward them. They were close. They were very close!
But they could not get closer.
Thranduil had employed this particular attack only once before, but he had used similar strategies many times. And when the frontlines ruptured and enemies entered the back ranks, stragglers in the rearguard fled, allowing the elves to attack from all sides. But that was not happening here. Because of what he'd seen earlier, Thranduil had anticipated this, but not to the degree in which it now presented itself. There was a solid wall of mountain goblins—creatures that hated the day almost as much as they hated the elves—between Thranduil and the Uruks. And they would not be moved. Had they even skirted to the side of the battle, it would have been enough. But they did not. They stood their ground and cried challenges to the elven king who could go no further.
"Hold," Aragorn shouted. "We need hold this position for but a moment."
When their forward progress stopped, the man had shifted until he was back-to-back with Thranduil, giving him a clear view of the battle behind them. Whatever Aragorn now saw gave him hope, and Thranduil decided to believe in this hope. He could not turn to look himself as he was fending off a press of goblins, but Aragorn had proven trustworthy this far. He could be trusted a little farther.
Dropping back a bit in an effort to find more room to maneuver, Thranduil felt Aragorn take control of the attack. The man began a press against the forces they'd just broken through, and Thranduil's moves became more defensive than offensive. Sensing weakness, the goblins sprang forward and Thranduil might have been forced to retreat even further were it not for a stream of arrows that suddenly appeared from the west.
Well done, Tawar, Thranduil thought, sending out a silent praise to his captain above the cave's entrance. Tawar had obviously read the battle correctly and determined that secrecy was no longer paramount. His archers were now attacking the rear lines furiously, and the Orcs intent upon Thranduil pulled back, dismayed by this new attack.
"Forward!" Aragorn shouted, and out of the corner of his eye, Thranduil witnessed the arrival of several Rivendell captains, undoubtedly making use of the same strategy that had enabled the king of Greenwood and the king of Gondor to come so far. Now Thranduil understood what Aragorn had seen when he told him to hold, and now armed with greater numbers as well as a flurry of arrows from the west, they could pierce the final ranks.
The goblins shrank before the names, and Thranduil charged forward with Aragorn at his side once more. Together they drove a wedge through their enemies even as Rivendell's captains also attacked, and caught between sword and arrow, most of the Orcs were swept aside and trampled. Onward they pressed as streams of blood, both black and red, shot up around them. The ground became slippery, and Thranduil was soon sliding more than running. Screams and cries and clashes of arms rang loud in his ears, but still he pushed on, never losing sight of his goal.
And then he was there.
He plunged his sword into the Uruk before him. To his right, Aragorn's swipe relieved another of its head. A Rivendell captain broke through on his left and killed a third. The ring broke and the Uruks stepped apart in order to move more freely. But Thranduil had eyes only for the man they had protected. A man who now stepped forward with his sword raised in mockery of a salute.
Returning the salute with a hard smile that did not reach his eyes, Thranduil attacked.
Blades met with a force that sent shivers down Thranduil's arms, and he spared a moment to wonder at this man's strength. For a second or two they were locked together, unable to move, and then Thranduil felt the pressure ease. The man jerked away in a move designed to disrupt Thranduil's balance, and with a grace that might have been elven, he brought his sword around for another strike.
But Thranduil moved first.
Anticipating the tactic, he broke away just before his opponent did. He allowed the attack, but he angled his block and the man's sword slid harmlessly to his left. Pressing the advantage, Thranduil surged forward with elven speed and delivered a hard cut from the right. A lesser opponent would have died then, but the man who was not quite a man recovered in time to answer the attack. Shifting his weight to his right foot, he pivoted and blocked. Thranduil's sword was deflected enough that it but grazed the arm, skittering across leather and chain mail.
But having gained the upper hand, Thranduil was not about to relinquish it. Moving quickly to adjust his balance, he tightened his grip and forced his sword down. Without the momentum of a full swing, he could not break through the armor but he could force the man into a retreat. And unprepared for this new tactic, the man had no choice but to stumble backwards, striking out with his sword in a move that was purely defensive.
Advancing before his opponent could recover, Thranduil struck again. As before he was blocked, but Thranduil was relentless. He attacked again and again, making his strikes swift and hard. The man reacted, moving far too quickly for mortal abilities, but Thranduil was faster still. With a blinding series of feints and blows, he continued to drive his opponent back. But for all of Thranduil's skill, he could not penetrate his guard. Wherever he struck, he was blocked. Wherever he attacked, he was rebuffed.
Chilled by the man's ability, Thranduil increased his speed even more, but the man answered him, their movements becoming so fast that they were naught more than a blur to all else. His enemy could offer no attack of his own. Thranduil was too swift for that. But it seemed that he could stand against the elf indefinitely. Realizing that help would be needed to dispatch the man, Thranduil began angling them toward a clash of arms to his right, hoping that another would join the fight. It was not the honorable thing to do, but Thranduil had never seen an advantage in according the enemy honor.
And then the man slipped.
Slick with blood, the hidden ground betrayed him. For the briefest of moments, his defenses faltered, and Thranduil saw his opening. With one quick thrust, the elven sword plunged into the man's chest, tearing open the leather jerkin and forcing its way past the chain mail. The man's mouth opened in a soundless scream, and his sword clattered to the shrouded earth. His blood singing with fury, Thranduil pushed the sword deeper and then twisted it violently, ensuring that the blow was a fatal one. Eyes as black as the darkness of Dol Guldur stared at Thranduil, and Thranduil met them evenly, never flinching away. The man slowly sank to his knees, shuddering, and Thranduil started to withdraw his sword. But what happened next stopped him cold.
The man began to laugh.
The cool morning air became cooler still, and Thranduil fought to keep his horror from showing on his face. He recognized this laugh. It was the laugh of a doomed man welcoming the end, but it was also the laugh of a victor achieving success against all hope and all odds. It was the kind of laugh heard far too often among Thranduil's own people during the years of Dol Guldur and the Necromancer, and it was the kind of laugh that summoned dark memories better left buried. Such a laugh did not belong here. Not in the moment of their triumph!
And then the man began to speak.
"Well done," he hissed, his hands wrapping themselves around the sword in his chest."Well done with both…the fight and…with your son."
Thranduil's stomach clenched, and his ears became deaf to the sounds of the battle that yet raged around him. "What of my son?" he growled.
"I must…thank you for him."
A shadow seemed to pass over the sun, and time crawled to a stop. Thranduil was suddenly aware of Aragorn standing on the other side of the dying man, his eyes filled with terrible recognition.
"He was a…wonderful student. Thank you for…letting me teach him."
And with these words, the man who was not quite a man slumped forward, his chest tearing against Thranduil's sword, and the moment that should have given Thranduil great joy was suddenly shorn of its glory. The body slid off the sword and fell to the ground. Shadows rose to meet it, and a shuddering groan was heard from deep within the earth. The cries of the Orcs faded, and a hush seemed to fall over all.
The shadows clouding the ground became layers upon layers of smoke, and they surged upward as though in celebration, choking the air. Throughout the clearing, cries of dismay were heard, and battle was replaced by a desperate struggle to breathe. His lungs screaming and his eyes burning, Thranduil staggered forward, unable to see anything through the sudden haze. He heard Aragorn coughing somewhere off to his right, and Thranduil quickly moved toward the sounds. A patch of black swam before him, and he reached out, seizing Aragorn's tunic and pulling the man close.
"You knew him!" Thranduil hissed, trying to limit himself to short, quick breaths. "Who was he?"
"The Mouth of Sauron," Aragorn answered, his own breath coming in tight gasps. "We met him before the Morannon."
Thranduil's heart shuddered. Legolas had told him of Barad-dûr's lieutenant, and Thranduil had heard rumors from creatures fleeing the ruin of Mordor. The Mouth of Sauron inspired fear still. But he had been reported dead, lost in the destruction of the Black Gates!
"The caves!" Aragorn suddenly coughed. "If the shadows extended into the caves…"
"Legolas," Thranduil whispered. If the tunnels were filling with smoke, they would become a death trap for any caught within.
But the clearing would be no better if the smoke did not lift soon. Tightening his grip on Aragorn's tunic, Thranduil propelled the man forward. They had to look to their own safety ere they could see to the safety of others, and for that, they needed to find a place where they could breathe.
As though cued by this thought, Aragorn suddenly stumbled and began to wheeze, shaking violently. Thranduil's hold on his tunic was all that kept him on his feet, and the elven king hastened his pace, forcing the man forward with one hand while the other knocked aside all obstacles with the flat of his sword. Thranduil could not risk combat without knowing whether he struck Orc, man or elf.
But Aragorn could run only so far, and with shuddering gasps, he collapsed to his knees. Fighting off the hated feeling of helplessness, Thranduil stopped and swung around, searching the smoke despite his stinging eyes. Still he could see nothing, and he did not know if they had gone far enough to escape the bulk of the Orcs. Yet it was plain that they could not go further. Should the foul creatures wish to fight again, he would have to make his stand here.
Praying that their position was defendable, Thranduil tightened his grip on his sword and cursed all that the Dark Lord had wrought. Their enemy was dead, but his corruption lived on.
Ainu Laire—Thank you. I'm glad the battle was exciting from Aragorn's perspective. As for Aragorn getting captured…well, he did use a somewhat risky strategy to get to the Mouth, so perhaps that will fill your quota of Aragorn angst. And this story is definitely not at the climax yet, but we're close to it. In other words, we're near the finish, but a lot still has to happen. And there will be more angst. Promise!
AncientHistory—Thank you! And I'll try to update soon for you.
Anomynous—Legolas won't die. At least, not in this story. That's too much of a canon breach even for me.
Belphegor—Do I remember you? Of course I remember you! You sent me my first fanart! Nobody forgets that! Anyway, sorry to leave you dangling about Elrohir. I think the most Tolkien ever said on the subject was that whatever path (men or elves) the twins chose to take, they undoubtedly chose the same one. And I'm glad you liked the Legolas and/or Merry section. It was meant to be unnerving more than horrific, so hopefully that was the gist of your reaction. Chapter 21 was supposed to be outright horror. Seems to have worked… Anyway, I was thrilled to see your name again and even more thrilled that you're still here! That made my day.
Chrystalline—No, Elrohir definitely dropped his sword. He used the bow once to get their attention and then tossed it aside in favor of the sword, because that was a more personal weapon. Same philosophy as Thranduil. So he was holding his sword when he was shot. Anyway, many thanks for your comments and I'm glad you like Elrohir. He's a rather feisty character, in my opinion.
Deana—Yes, poor Legolas. And poor Elrohir, Merry, Sam, Pippin, Aragorn, Thranduil, Gimli, Celeborn, Ithildae, Orophin, Haldir, Arwen, Rosie, Elanor… You know, with the exception of those last three, nobody is doing all that well. Huh. Maybe I should do something about that.
Etharei—Oh, you're more than welcome for the Mirrors review. Wow, I love that story! And don't you dare start apologizing about your tardiness when my own tardiness could eclipse anybody's! Sorry about the Elrohir cliffhanger. I didn't expect to upset as many people as I did with that one, but I suppose that might be viewed as a good thing. At least people are getting excited. That's usually a good sign. And I'm glad you liked the ambiguity of the scene with Merry and Legolas. Someone else asked about that because earlier I had Merry resisting more than Legolas. And there's actually a reason they're more or less at the same level right now, but even so, the ambiguity added to the eerie feel, I think. So it was a stylistic choice as well as a plot point.
Firnsarnien—Four cliffies? Nah… Elrohir I'll accept as a cliffy. We're still dangling on that one, too, aren't we? Haldir and Orophin…not so much a cliffy as a steep slope. They're fine. Well, for now. They might not be next chapter. Legolas and Merry… Eh. Possible cliffy, I suppose, except that we've had worse from them in previous chapters and that still hasn't been resolved. So it's not a new cliffy. And Mr. Mouth is now taken care of, so all things are fine! See? No cliffies! Except for Elrohir.
Frodo—You're very right about Haldir and Orophin. They're that monkey wrench that got tossed into the works. There is definitely a reason they were able to make it to Legolas and Merry, but the reason was supposed to work in reverse. And I'm glad you liked Calbenarth. He's a rather fun character, in my opinion, and I'm using him to represent Mirkwood as a whole. I hope it works!
Jazmin3 Firewing—No, I never did decide on a name for Mr. Mouth. I've basically gone with Nimue's original suggestion of Ted. I think he looks like a Ted. Arwen and co. will probably make an appearance next chapter. And Pippin and Sam will almost definitely be in the next chapter. Hope that will satisfy you!
Just Another Writer—"Dragging" is definitely the right word. The story dragged in the middle, so I apologize for that and for making you wait. But we've got the rescue partially completed now, so rescue aftermath is soon to follow. As for the wounds, Legolas and Merry are whole. The wounds won't reopen. But there will be other repercussions, so just hold on to that thought. You're on the right track.
Lamiel—The approach of Orophin and Haldir is actually something of a miscalculation on Ted's part. He wanted the reverse: an easy exit. But we'll get into that later. And you're right about Merry and Legolas. At least, for the moment. They're pretty much equals now, but that will change in bit. It ties in with why Ted was placing himself in harm's way, so you're very right to be suspicious about his presence. Ah, such observant reading! That's it. I'm going to brainstorm up a story that keeps even you guessing.
LegolasGreenleafGil-Estel—Yes, that's true. Fathers weren't talked about much in the books. Legolas does mention his father once or twice (he's among the few that do) but he never refers to him by the title "father." It's always "king of Greenwood" or "my lord." If he were in a court situation with other kings and advisors, I would understand the decorum. But these instances come when he's wandering around with Gimli in a more relaxed setting, which leads me to wonder how formal the father and son relationship was. As for good stories to send your dad…Well, the stories would be too many to list, so I'll give you a rundown of the authors I periodically check on or who have written truly amazing stories in the past: Altariel, Avon, Camilla Sandman, Celandine Brandybuck, CNell, Coriel, E. M. Theis, ErinRua, Etharei, Honesty, Ithilien, JastaElf, Jenolas, Jocelyn, Lamiel, Le Rouret, Lindelea, Littlefish, Marnie, Meckinock, Mercat, M. N. Theis, Nightwing, Nimue, Nol, Pearl Took, Raven Nightstrider, Scribe, Shadow975, ShireDweller, Silvermoon Lady, Sphinx, Treehugger, Victoria Hughes, Werecat, and Zimraphel. (Behold the alphabetical order. I'm lame, I know…) Anyway, some of them are on FF, some are on SoA, some are on HASA, some are on Open Scrolls, some are on LotR Fanfiction, etc. They're all over the place. If you want specifics, let me know and I'll track it down for you.
Nariel—Thank you so much! That's quite a compliment, and I'm glad you and your friends enjoy this. That's a giant ego boost. Thank you!
Nessa Ar-Feiniel—Many thanks! I will undoubtedly need it.
Pip4—You're very welcome for the info on Merry. And he's back in this chapter, too, though he doesn't do much. Sam and Pippin should show up next chapter, so I hope you can be satisfied with that!
SpaceVixenX—You picked up on the contrast! Yay! I actually considered putting some reference to sound in the last chapter because it was a big theme, but then I decided that was overkill. And most people caught it anyway. Congratulations!
Tarawyn—Elrohir's wound isn't a backfire. It's an accident. nods sagely Anyway, your comments about Aragorn's irrationality are definitely appreciated. I'll work on that. I could trot out the old excuse of "the shadows made him do it" but you're probably tired of that one by now. ;) Seriously, though, I'll try to calm him down a bit. I think I may have gotten a bit carried away. And I'll cut back on the methodology, too. You're right, it is dragging things out. French Pony made a similar observation, and I trust the two of you implicitly. (Believe it or not, I actually applied your recommendations to Thranduil's section of this chapter. You should have seen it before I started cutting things out. It was unbelievable.)
Tsukiko-lina—Welcome to the story! I'm thrilled you're here and that you liked the beginning!
Wispykitty—Well, I'm probably failed in the fast chapter updates, but I just want to state for the record that this is not the longest I've gone without updating. I once went nearly an entire year for one story. So I'm doing a bit better. Not much, but a bit.