I was far from home, lost in this strange land of twisted boughs and tangled vines. Light did not penetrate this canopy, and it hadn’t in many long years. The evidence was in the soil, rot and decay all around me. Everything that grew here was warped by the evil that saturated the earth and the air. It smelled like mold and mildew, like the putrid stink that escaped disturbed swamp waters. But there was something else mixed in the miasma that polluted the air … dead things, flesh decomposing into some kind of unsavory, viscous stew. There was only one thing around here that could cause the forest to exhale such an effluvial mixture … spiders.
I was long overdue to meet the Wood elves who were to be my guide through Mirkwood. I started to think that they had abandoned me altogether. But I ran into a bit of trouble with my horse, and he threw me and ran away not long after we started our journey along the Old Forest Road. He wasn’t my horse, thank the Valar. I’d left my grey at an inn and traded him for a common brown who, I was told, was immune to the odd things that we might encounter along our way. I was duped, of course. The first inkling the horse got that we were entering into dangerous territory, and he panicked and fled, leaving me to continue on foot. I would call him a dumb beast, except that I felt like I was the dumb one for coming here.
“Go to Mirkwood, he said. I trust you over anyone else to accomplish this task, he said. Well, balls to that, I say,” I complained after stepping on the thousandth gnarled root that line the path.
“And a mighty big pair you must have to come all this way on foot,” someone said from above.
I looked up and found two elves sitting on a branch that grew over the road. They were female, but they dressed like the men, in simple moss green tunics and leggings. They both had long straight hair the color of honey, braided at their temples and tied in the back. From what I could see, they had no armor and no weapons, and they wore soft soled boots that would let the foot feel every grain of sand. I guess I had no reason to complain about my own feet that were well protected by their thick bottoms.
I bowed as was proper, though it was difficult with the two of them above me, not in front of me. “Ladies,” I greeted. “I am Captain Rúmil of–”
“Lothlórien. Yes, we know,” one of them finished for me. “We’ve been expecting you. Should have passed this way two days ago, Captain. We were beginning to think something happened to you.”
“I … seemed to have lost my horse,” I said embarrassed to admit it. “He became spooked on the road further back and–”
“Did you get him from Balkí?” asked the other elleth. “In the village of Arstad?”
“As a matter of fact, I did,” I said, recognizing the name of the man.
“No wonder you’re late then,” said the first elleth.
“Should I be worried that I left grey in Mr. Balkí’s care?” I wondered.
The pair of ellith swooped down and landed next to me as graceful as felines. That’s when I noticed they were twins. “He’ll take great care of your horse, Captain,” said one.
“Unless he finds a high bidder,” said her sister.
“What?” I cried.
“Don’t listen to my sister. She’s a trickster,” said … well, I’d lost track of which one was which.
“You know my name, my ladies. Might I have the pleasure to know yours?” As I spoke, I noticed that one wore her braids in a double row, while the other wore hers singularly. At least now I could tell them apart.
“I am Corweth,” said the elleth who spoke to me first, the one with double braids. She seemed brash compared to her sister.
“And I’m Messel,” said the second.
“It is very nice to meet the both of you, but if you’ll just show me to an officer or a high commander . . .” I was interrupted by their annoying stares as they giggled. “What?”
“We have no commander,” said Corweth.
“We just happened to be there when your letter came, and then we volunteered to be your escorts,” said Messel.
“They would let their women risk their lives in this forsaken place?” I wonder aloud, and instantly wished I’d not spoken. Both women closed in on me, eyes narrowed in suspicion. I was a stranger in this unfamiliar and strange land. I should have known better.
I’d forgotten what Haldir and Orophin told me about Wood elves. They were unpredictable, just as these two were now. Corweth circled me, watching every move, every flutter of my eyelids, sizing me up. Then she stopped when she came around, putting her face up to mine. “It’s a good thing you’re pretty, Captain. Otherwise I might have reason to slash you for insulting my kingdom. Mirkwood might seem forsaken to you, but it is my home, and the only home I’ve ever known. I’d give my life to protect it.”
“Sister, you cannot threaten a guest of the King,” said Messel as she interrupted the very tense moment happening. Then she stepped up to me. “You must excuse my sister. She is very passionate when it comes to our home. I’m sure you meant nothing by it,” she said.
“No, of course not. You must excuse me Lady Corweth. In Lothlórien, our women are not allowed to participate in army life.”
“Pfft,” she said, making a cynical noise. “Amazing that you have not fallen prey to the enemy then.” Corweth backed away and started along the road. “Let’s go, Captain. It will be dark soon, and we don’t want to be in this part of the forest when the sun sets.”
I looked to the canopy above. “How can you tell?” I murmured to myself. Ever since entering the Old Forest Road, it had been dark, and I could not decipher between night and day. At least I had found my escorts, even if we got off to a bad start. I made a mental note not to cross Corweth again. She seemed to have a short temper. I was beginning to see why Wood elves had no discretion against women in their army.
We walked along the road for a while and I began to wonder. “Where might your horses be, if you don’t mind my inquiry?”
Corweth gave me a confused glare, and then turned to Messel. “He’s serious, isn’t he?”
Messel shrugged her shoulders, and Corweth turned back to answer me. “Wood elves have no horses. Only the King, his son the Prince, and a few of his court have them.”
“Then how do you navigate the forest at a quick pace?” I asked.
Corweth rolled her eyes, and walked to a nearby tree. She grabbed a large vine hanging nearly to the ground and took it in her hand. “We go up, Captain.” She scampered up the vine until she was high up in the tree, where she waited for us to follow her.
Messel smiled and grabbed the vine, but she paused to look back at me. “Don’t you navigate the trees in Lothlórien?”
“Well … uh … we do … but … uh–”
“And you call yourself an elf,” Corweth called down. “Show him how it’s done, sister.”
Messel looked at me with shy eyes, blinking through her long lashes. “Trust the trees, Captain. Respect them, and they will never fail you. There is always a vine or a branch where you need one.”
“So you swing through the trees?” I asked with awe.
“Swing, climb, run, we travel high in the canopy,” Corweth said, hearing our conversation. “The spiders tend not to come up to the top. They fear the sun and the moon. We’ll be safer up there than down here.”
I started my climb up the vine, remembering how I used to do this all the time when I was an elfling. Corweth and Messel made it look easy, as they gracefully climbed higher. I was careful as I started out, but soon I found my footing, and picked up my pace. The sisters would go ahead, and then stop to wait for me to catch up. Corweth seemed to be getting annoyed again.
“You’d travel much faster without your cloak,” she said.
I shook my head with defiance. “I’ll not leave it. This was a gift from someone long ago. It has sentimental value that cannot be replaced.”
Corweth spiraled down her vine, coming back to me. When she reached me, she looked at my cape and then to me. “Give it here, Captain,” she demanded.
“I said I would not leave it behind, and I mean not to,” I demanded.
She closed her eyes and sighed. “Just give me the cape, Captain. I’ll not do anything to harm it, if it means that much to you.”
Reluctantly, I gave her my cape, unpinning it at the neck first. Messel watched her sister’s impatience, then my brooch caught her eye. “I thought Lórien elves wore a green leaf brooch veined in silver,” she observed.
“Usually we do, my lady, but I gave mine to a special friend for safe keeping,” I said. Actually, Túron, my ex-lover had taken mine to remember me by when he left Lothlórien. Now, I wore a silver elven knot, designed in an intricate motif of intertwining loops that had no beginning and no end.
Corweth heard my answer and looked me over from head to toe. “Special friend?” she inquired. Then a fiendish smile touched the corners of her mouth. She came back to where I stood anchored on a large branch, and took the cloak from Messel. Then she gave me a particular glare. “Have you met the Prince before, Captain?”
“No, I have not, but I look forward to it, my lady,” I answered as cordially as possible to be sure I was on her good side.
She gave me a hard look before she smiled. Then she reached around and patted my bum, a most unexpected move. I must have looked as shocked as I felt, for she laughed at my expense, her sister joining in the fun. “And I’m sure the Prince will look forward to meeting you too, Captain.” Corweth folded my cape rather hastily and shoved it into a pack that she carried on her back. “For safe keeping,” she teased, and with that we were on our way again.
When we reached the higher parts of the canopy, we started forward. Corweth and Messel were very agile as they leapt from bough to bough, barely rustling the leaves. They hopped along as though they were on the ground and there was no fear of falling. I was much slower, checking my surroundings before each jump. I knew I slowed the women down considerably, and I feared that Corweth might tire of me and leave me. I found myself putting my faith in Messel. She seemed to be the more level-headed sister who would not leave a guest of the King behind.
“You’re doing much better than I thought you would,” commented Messel. She tended to stay with me and let her sister go on up ahead.
“It’s been a very long time since I’ve done anything like this,” I said, jumping from one branch to the next. I never took my eyes off my path.
“Don’t you travel through the trees in Lothlórien?” she asked with surprise.
Corweth answered for her. “The elves of Lórien have forgotten what it is like to navigate the trees.”
“I beg your pardon, Lady Corweth, but we live in the trees,” I corrected.
“You live in them, yes, but your feet never touch the bark.” Corweth turned to Messel to give further explanation. “They live in houses built amongst the trees, and they tread upon walkways that join them.” Corweth turned by to me with narrowed eyes. “If you kept your faith in the trees, they would not fail you.”
“You’ve said that before,” I murmured. Then I directed my answer to Messel. “We honor the mallorns with great care. To climb around in the ancient forest would be disrespectful.”
“And how would you know, Captain? There are very few Sindarin elves that speak their language anymore,” Corweth argued.
“I know. I am one of them,” I said quietly.
Corweth looked back at me, eyes narrowed to slits, but she said nothing, and we continued on our way.
* * * * *
Although the forest was dark because of the dense canopy, I could tell that night had finally fallen upon us. Every now and again, I got a glimpse of the moon or a bright cluster of stars. I became surer of my footing and was able to keep up with Corweth and Messel as we traveled through the high boughs of the trees. After a while, Corweth stopped and signaled for her sister and me to do the same. Messel looked back at me and lifted one finger to her lips. I nodded in compliance.
Corweth climbed down a few branches, watching the forest below us. She looked up at her sister and smiled fiendishly, giving a nod and a wink. Messel answered with a twinning smile and glanced around her, searching for something.
“What is it?” I whispered.
We were in a part of the forest where a mixture of pine and oak grew. Messel spotted a pinecone hanging from one of the branches and plucked it from its stem. Then she tossed it to Corweth below. “Come, Captain Rúmil,” she said to me.
We climbed down until we were at the same level with Corweth, who was carelessly tossing the pinecone from hand to hand. That made me more than a little nervous, for obviously, she had spotted something in the lower part of the forest. She pointed to an area under us, and I squint my eyes and focused on the place. I didn’t see anything at first, not until they moved. Two very large, nasty spiders were sitting on a giant web strung between multiple trees. I gasped, never having seen spiders of such grand proportions before. I started to reach for my bow fastened to my back, but Messel reached for my arm and stopped me. Then she gestured to another place below, and I looked down again. Far below on the ground was an orc, alone and seeming to hide amongst some of the underbrush.
“Now, Captain, you’ll see why we travel up high in the trees,” said Corweth. She pointed to the spider’s webbing. “They cannot see very well, but they feel every tremble of movement, especially through their webs. The orc knows this. That’s why he’s hiding.” Corweth examined the pinecone in her hand and glanced to Messel. “Those spiders look hungry, wouldn’t you say, sister?”
“Famished,” she answered with an impish grin.
Corweth took aim and carefully dropped the pinecone. It bounced off of one of the mooring threads that anchored the web between the trees. The spiders turned towards the direction of the disturbance. Meanwhile, the cone fell to the forest floor, next to the orc, who jumped when he heard it land. He came out of his hiding place, and the spiders spotted him. Slowly, they moved closer and closer until they were right above the orc, who was too busy checking his surroundings. He didn’t think to look up until it was too late. The spiders attacked swiftly and silently, the only sound being a grunt that came from the unsuspecting orc. In a matter of seconds, the orc was completely wrapped in the spider’s sticky web, like a caterpillar in a cocoon. His body was carried up to the giant web, where he was placed off to the side, a meal for later.
“They won’t kill him right away,” Corweth informed me. “They’ll paralyze him so that he can’t escape, but he’ll be alive and fresh when they are ready to feed. Nasty business, the feeding of spiders, and a horrible way to die … eaten alive, the juice sucked right out of you.”
I gave a disgusted look. “I’m glad we’re above them,” I commented.
“Aye, we are safer up here, but not out of danger. Come, let’s get going while the spiders are busy settling their meal,” Corweth said as she climbed up towards the canopy. Messel and I followed close behind, and we kept moving for a while.
We must have traveled most of the night, only stopping briefly every once in a while to drink from our water skins. I was lucky to still have mine. I’d left it strapped over my shoulder when I was riding, forgetting to attach it to my saddle. It was one of the few things I had with me when the horse threw me and ran away. Of course, I had my bow, which I always fastened to my back. And in my pocket, there was a bit of lembas, elvish waybread. I didn’t have much; I’d tucked a piece away instead of taking the time wrap it in its leaf covering and put it back in my saddle bag. Thank the Valar for my hastiness, or I wouldn’t have any food at all.
Corweth and Messel took a pouch from their journey pack and opened it to reveal strips of something dark and petrified. It looked like flat sticks of some sort. Each woman ripped a bite off with their teeth, and then chewed it for a very long while. Then, Messel offered me one.
“What is it?” I asked, taking the offered stick and examining it closely.
“Dried venison. Good source of protein to keep your strength up,” Messel answered.
I sniffed it, tried to break a piece off, and when I failed, I handed it back to her. “I believe the leather of my boot is softer, and would be easier to consume.”
Messel looked at the meat, shrugged her shoulders and took another bite. Corweth rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You have to eat something, Captain.”
“I’ve lembas in my pocket that will suffice,” I said, reaching into my tunic and bringing out the bread. I was surprised to find spots of black mold growing on it. The humid air of the forest had gotten to it. I hadn’t considered that. Lembas was kept wrapped in a leaf to lengthen its freshness. Obviously, the thick, wet air of the Rhovanion made my waybread spoil quickly. Feeling deflated with my findings, I stuffed the lembas back into my pocket.
Corweth guffawed and took her boot off, waving it at me. “Eat up, Captain.”
Messel shared in a laugh, and then offered me another piece of the venison. I took it and fought to bite a piece off. I had to admit, once my saliva started softening it, the flavor was not half bad.
Through with our abstemious meal, we were off again. After a while, I noticed that the trees were thinning at their tops, and the branches were becoming smaller and less suitable for traveling along. We descended about half way to the forest floor, but kept to the trees for now.
“We’re getting close to the outermost borders of Mirkwood,” Messel informed me. “Soon, we’ll be able to walk on the ground again.”
I was delighted to hear it. My muscles were aching from all the climbing, swinging and jumping. “It seems like we got here quickly.”
“There are shorter ways to reach our lands when we travel the trees,” Corweth said. “Once we reach the river, we’ll be within the borders. We’ll be safe there, but I’d advise you to keep your bow on your back. Mirkwood elves are very suspicious and unforgiving if they think they are being threatened.”
“Does that hold true even when I’m being escorted?” I asked. I was beginning to feel more like a prisoner than a guest.
“Any and all threats are vanquished quickly,” she warned only once. I said nothing more on the matter and kept my bow to my back.
Half the day later, I heard the distant rush of water, and knew we were getting close to the river. I could not wait to touch my feet to solid ground again. After roaming trees for two days, I began to think that my original complaining about roots in the road was frivolous.
“We’re here,” Corweth announced, and she hurried down a large beech. They were all over the place, I noticed. Huge majestic looking beech trees, seemingly untouched by the poisons of the rest of the forest.
“Once we cross the river, how much further until we reach the King’s home?” I asked.
“Not far,” said Messel. “Only a couple hours.”
That was surprising. It took nearly a day to reach some of Lothlórien’s closest borders. I thought King Thranduil would have more territory than this, and I realized that it was the evil and the darkness that closed in on him and his people, eating away at his lands.
Finally, I touched ground and gave a sigh of relief. It felt rather strange to walk a straight line without the surface bowing. It still felt like I was walking on branches. I wondered if this was similar to what Cirdan’s shipwrights called sea legs, the ghostly feeling that the ocean was still below their feet. Corweth and Messel seemed to adjust quickly, and so I did the same, ignoring the odd sensation.
“Our numbers have diminished over the years,” Corweth said as we walked towards the sound of moving water. “Mirkwood’s borders used to go out past the river, but with fewer elves to protect the kingdom, our borders have shrunk. The spiders keep pushing closer, but we push back even harder. Now we use the rivers as part of our defenses. Spiders and orcs won’t pass them, and even if they tried, they would fall to our arrows.”
“Mirkwood elves are avid archers, Captain,” Messel added, pride tinging her words.
“Yes, I know. I’ve heard of your great skill with a bow. I’ve always been intrigued. I myself prefer the bow over the sword. My regiment is made up of archers. We are among the first to enter into battle, abating the enemy’s front lines before the swordsmen troops advance,” I boasted.
Corweth stopped and gave me a sharp look. Her eyes regarded me skeptically. “I would not have marked you for an accomplished archer.”
“And the bow on my back?” I asked. I was becoming tired of her ridiculing.
“Just because someone carries a bow does not mean they know how to use it,” she answered.
“I should like to test your theory, my lady,” I challenged.
“Are you summoning me to engage in a contest, Captain Rúmil?” Corweth seemed delighted by the idea.
“Perhaps when I am done with my official business.”
“I accept,” she agreed.
“Come on,” Messel interrupted. “We should be on our way.”
We finally made it to the river, and I was disappointed with my findings. “How are we supposed to cross here?” The river was flowing fast, too fast to cross by foot, if it was shallow enough, or by swimming.
“We’ll go by boat,” Corweth said, her voiced raised above the loud turning water.
I looked around, but saw no boat. Even if there was one, the current was far too swift to paddle across to the other side. “I don’t understand,” I complained. “I don’t see how we are going to–”
“I wouldn’t stand there if I were you, Captain,” Messel called out. She look up and I turned around, following her line of vision. Behind me stood what was left of an oak, long dead with only about ten feet of the trunk left standing. The first thing I noticed were all the holes and broken arrows protruding from it. I swung around to ask Messel what this was, when Corweth made the unmistakable sound of a whippoorwill.
“Captain, if you’d so kindly step to the–” Messel called again, just as something whizzed by my left ear. It was so close, I felt the hairs at my temple move. Too late, I fell to one knee, turned and looked up. There was a new arrow embedded in the dead tree trunk with a thin rope attached to it. My eyes followed the rope to the other side of the rapids, and there I saw a pair of elvish guards tying their end of the rope to another tree.
“What … in the name of Eru … was that?” I complained, having come close to death. “I was almost shot!”
“Next time listen to my sister,” Corweth said coolly, as she loosed the rope from the arrow and began tying it around the tree. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought she wanted me to get stuck with an arrow through my head.
I got up and dusted the dirt from my leggings, trying to control my ire. Meanwhile, Messel was rummaging around in the nearby bushes. At least I thought that’s what she was doing. What I thought was a bush was actually a blanket of some sort. It looked like magic from where I was standing, as the elleth whipped the blanket away, revealing a rowboat.
“What was that?” I asked curiously.
“That is a camouflaging quilt. It’s made of a very rare thread. There’s only four like it in all of Middle-earth. It’s similar to a looking glass, picking up the reflection of its surroundings,” Messel said. She bunched up the material and stuffed it into the front of the boat.
I went to the boat and helped the women drag it to the edge of the river. Now I could see what their plan was. We would stand in the boat, and use the rope to pull ourselves across the raging river. “Why do you cross here and not where the water is more calm?” I wondered.
“The river flows like this for miles both ways. This is the shortest distance between shores. The quick paced water ensures Mirkwood’s safety. Nothing can cross it. The quilt hides the boat from anyone who might try, and sentries are stationed here to make sure no one does.”
“Why not just place guards along here?” I asked, as we climbed into the boat and started our way across the river. It was not an easy way to go, but with the three of us pulling our way, we went fairly fast.
“We don’t have enough people to spare. Besides, the river is more than efficient for protecting this part of the kingdom,” Messel answered. She gave me a stern glare. “Whatever you do, Captain, don’t let the water–”
“Orcs!” yelled the sentries on the other side of the river.
I turned back to the bank we pushed off from, just in time to see three orcs run out from the cover of the trees. Instantly, I reached for my bow, but Corweth stopped me. “Keep us anchored to the crossing rope. Messel and I will take care of the orcs.”
At that exact moment, one of the orcs produced an axe and stomped towards the old dead tree. His yellow teeth flashed just before he swung his weapon, cutting the rope. It went limp and our boat started moving with the fast current. I still had it in my hand, and I knew it was the only thing that would keep us from floating downstream. “I’ve got this, you shoot the orcs,” I called to the women.
“Rúmil, no!” Messel panicked. “You can’t hold it with your bare hands. The current is too strong. It will–”
But too late I realized my mistake. The current grabbed the boat and it went swiftly along the river. Once we reached the end of the rope, it slid across the palms of my hands, feeling like instant fire. Rope burn, I thought, but I knew I couldn’t let go.
Corweth and Messel were firing arrows at the orcs, as well as the sentries. The orcs were firing back, but the elves had the advantage in numbers. While they battled, I ignored the pain in my hands and pulled with all my might, trying to reel the boat to the shore. It was almost too painful, and I was losing my grip. Suddenly, I felt a hard punch to my thigh that knocked me towards the side of the boat, and I stumbled. My right hand slipped and I felt the icy water below, but caught myself before I fell overboard. I looked at my leg, and saw a black arrow protruding from it.
At the same time, I began to feel very dizzy and sleepy. The first thing I thought was that the arrow was poisoned. “Messel!” I yelled to get her attention.
Messel turned to me and saw the arrow. Then she saw the wet sleeve of my tunic, and yelled to her sister. “Damn it! He’s touched the water! Rúmil is losing consciousness!”
“Grab the rope!” Corweth yelled back, and Messel acted fast.
I couldn’t understand why she didn’t mention the arrow in my leg. That seemed much more important than a soaked sleeve. It was only water. And why was I suddenly so tired? My eyes closed involuntarily. I tried to speak, to tell the women that I’d been poisoned. Surely they would know to check the wound for signs. No words escaped my lips. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t get my lips to move at all. Sleep overwhelmed me. So … tired … need to … … rest.
ZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz . . .
Chapter end notes:
Hello, and if you've read Part 1 and have returned for Part 2, then welcome back. If you haven't read it, then I'll suggest that you do, so this story makes a bit more sense. As always, please leave a review. Thanks for reading.
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