Autumn: Third Age 2847.
* The world fragmented. Green and gold dimmed, grew shadow like mould furring old bread. A fading autumn sun shone on Lothlórien and southern Mirkwood alike, but Mirkwood's trees gorged on light, soaked it in dimness, mocked its attempts to illuminate Night.
Once those distant woods had showed green, deep and mysterious. Before the shadow came.
One of the Úlairi, some guessed in the early years. Galadriel, whose eyes had stared into glory and blood and ruin would gaze eastward across Anduin, face moulded into ageless gravity, thoughts hidden. At times, if one looked close, red fire danced in the clear grey.
Stronger, she said. Older.
The Silvan Elves had withdrawn northward, yet the shadow stretched its fingers forth, and followed them.
There were two of them in the chamber. Lamplight plucked gold threads from the arras, blinked yellow eyes over silver cups, the wine-jug that breathed spice. A fire whispered, hugging charred wood to its breast.
“They will not come. Not any more.”
“Thou hast made its reputation too dark, my Lord.” The emphasis on the last words was honed by anger Ages old, still bitterly sharp.
“Thou knowest better.” One of the men turned from the window. He was smiling urbanely. Against the night that hunched outside, his hair was pale as flax, falling like bolts of water over a furred robe. There was youth in his face, but none in the lilac-coloured eyes that captured and held the firelight. He looked like a king, but no king of Middle-earth had possessed such power save one, long gone (and unlamented). Sitting back in deep cushions, he reached for wine. The warrior who leaned negligently against the wall, arms folded, looked back at him, face hard and closed as a beautiful marble tomb.
A stranger would have said these two could not be more unlike, but greater familiarity would reveal similarities in the expressions, the lift of a brow, the cynical curl of the mouth, an absolute self-possession in this place of shadows that dared not encroach on them. They had looked into the eyes of the darkest god.
A scream flayed the night, rapacious, starving. Only the damned could scream thus, and the Nazgûl were utterly damned. It was they who brought the shadows to Amon Lanc, where once an Elvenking had ruled. Held between death and life their presence ripped the world, and the Void seeped through the conduit of their enspelled souls. Thus the fortress on the stony hill became Dol Guldur, a name of dread where the unliving prowled. And the man who sat, fair and smiling, was Power. He could not dwell upon the Earth without marking it, bending it toward his presence.
“That is why thou art here,” the warrior said. “Well, thou art an optimist, I will give thee that.”
“Of course.” Barad-dûr was long arisen, Mordor thrived behind the natural armor of its mountains and the gate that walled it against the West. “And thou art here because I command it, and because of that silver haired beauty in the north. Dost thou fear to find him here one day, or hope for it?”
The warrior's eyes burned.
If I were not whom I am, Sauron thought, I would be dead now.
“I will deal with the wood-Elves in mine own time, and that is not yet.” He waved a hand, pushing the matter away. “Others concern me more immediately. They will move against me when they are sure who I am. And I need to know them. Come here.” he beckoned and the warrior, resisting the order just long enough to declare his independence, moved across the room, went down gracefully on one knee.
“Thou knowest them.” His voice was taut with the effort of control. “Or may make an accurate guess.”
“Yes, I can guess.” He tilted up the firm chin. “But I prefer not to make my plans based on guesswork, Vanimórë. And neither,” smiling, “dost thou.”
“Whom dost thou want?” his son asked. “And why?”
Sauron looked into his eyes.
“If only there were more than one of thee,” he said, mock-mournfully. “Imagine Glorfindel bound as thou art, Tindómion Maglorion. The Sons of Thunder.”
Vanimórë pulled his head away. “And I think I would almost like to see thee try, father.” He did not attempt to disguise the acid in his tone. “So that is it: Elven warriors serving thee? Impossible.”
“Why thinks't thou I wanted Maglor? Didst thou truly believe I meant to break him?” Sauron wondered. “My clever, foolish son. Do not confuse me with Melkor.”
That brought Vanimórë's eyes back to his.
“I do not waste such gifts.”
“He was dying.”
“He would not have died, any more than thou wilt die. That bloodline is not so easily broken.” He caught the great rope of Vanimórë's plaited hair wound it about his hand, and tugged. “Tamed perhaps...” he mused and seeing the fury rise again, laughed gently. “I knew thou wouldst release him.”
“Thou might well.”
“And yet he hated thee.” Sauron whispered against the lush, unwilling mouth. “Whom do I want? Tell me: What knowest thou of Anguirel?” Slowly unlacing Vanimórë's tunic, uncovering what was always a feast to the eye, he felt his son's acute brain retrieve the knowledge from a dark past: Húrin chained on Thangorodrim, Melkor's curse upon his kin, upon Túrin, Beleg Cúthalion, Gondolin, Maeglin the traitor...Vanimórë had seen only Húrin and Maeglin, but Sauron, close to Melkor, knew all that had passed, and through him, so did his son.
Loosing the black braid, letting the mass of hair flood through his hands to the rugs, Sauron said almost idly: “Melkor took it from Maeglin in Angband, gave it to me to replicate. It was a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, almost sentient.” He rose, drawing Vanimórë with him, and his son forestalled him then, offed boots and breeches himself, an act of defiance, an attempt to retain his dignity.
“I experimented with, and reforged Anguirel.” Sauron shrugged off his robe, went to stand behind his son, who lowered himself to his knees. “There was a somberness in it, a darkness, even then. Mûrazôr* had the temerity to ask it of me, when he was still a Man. A fitting blade, he said, for my greatest servant.” He smiled, and Vanimórë braced, hissing as Sauron penetrated him. He had prepared himself, knowing what this summons would entail, and hatred smoked from him, the tattoos coiling like serpents as he arched that long, supple back.
“I am being gentle,” Sauron chided, holding back the burgeoning pleasure, the fire in his loins as the ferocious grip that enclosed him. Kindness tested his son in ways more subtle than cruelty ever could. “Dost thou not want to know what became of it, why I speak of it now?”
“Tell me!” The words came as a snarl.
“I gave it to the fool. To my greatest servant.” His breath caught as he plunged harder into dark red heat. Ambitious and proud, Mûrazôr unerringly recognized Vanimórë as his greatest rival, but refused to see himself as less than an equal.
“My Lord, I am the son of a king,” he had said, and Sauron admired his daring, if not his intelligence.
“And he is my son,” Sauron crushed his pretensions with a snap of fire across the Man's mind. “Be content with what I give thee.”
Mûrazôr had been made to know, as the Ring he had so eagerly accepted devoured him, that Vanimórë occupied a place in Sauron's agelong plans no other could fill. As for his son, he regarded Mûrazôr with unveiled disdain, rebuffing his overtures, and thus earning his hatred.
“He took it to Angmar, and lost it when he fled from Glorfindel. But I know who found it, and who holds it now.”
He said no more for a long time, abdicating his control to delight in this interlude and, this time, to give pleasure. Battle though he would and did, beneath Vanimórë's power and brilliance, that immense and cultivated self-possession, lay a deeply sensual creature. In the end, his cry of release was harsh with self-loathing. (And, buried so far down in his soul that he did not hear it, but Sauron did, Vanimórë wept the scalding, frightened tears of a betrayed child.)
One day, Sauron thought, thou wilt know everything, and see through this cloud of hatred which suits me so very well. But not yet.
After, bathed and drinking wine with Vanimórë, splendidly contemptuous of his response and nakedness alike, kneeling at his feet, Sauron elaborated.
“He has the blood of the Ainur, of the Finwii. I can feel him when he wields Anguirel.” He closed his hand as about the hilt of a sword, opened his mind to the visions, gave them to Vanimórë.
The warrior's face was a jewel framed by a cloud of nightblack hair. His eyes were moonstone-grey and the fire behind them imperishable, tortured, drew its intensity from one long gone into the Dark. Sauron felt his son's startled recognition; the Fëanorean beauty was unmistakable, as it had been in Celebrimbor, in Maglor, but in this man was as dangerous and dark as the black fell-fires of Barad-dûr. Anguirel glowered balefully, the ancient Elven runes sang a warning filled with the red run of blood and reflected flame.
“Who is he?” Vanimórë asked unwillingly into the silence.
“One of Elrond's twin sons.” Sauron smiled a little over the rim of his cup. “They fought in the Angmar wars. He looks more like unto his Finwion predecessors than his father.”
“What didst thou to the blade?”
Sauron raised his brows. “Very little. I was more interested in its forging. But every maker adds something.” He picked up a fruit knife from the table, ran it across one finger. Scarlet bloomed along the cut. He ran it across his son's lips.
“Thy blood.” That was not so small a thing.
“His is a fierce and wounded soul. He slakes shame in slaughter since his mother's rape.” He pushed his finger deeper into Vanimórë's mouth, saw the question in his eyes. “Beyond Imladris I can see him. Mountain orcs captured his mother, used her until he found her. He did not know her, and watched as she was raped, and he lusted, as warriors do in battle. Now his guilt rides him nigh to madness, and he seeks to assuage it in killing. And the sword, ah, Anguirel delights in it.”
Vanimórë sucked the blood, drew his head back.
“Thou seekest to lure him here.”
“And he will come.” Sauron slid his hand about his son's throat. “He visits Lothlórien at whiles, has done for many years. I shall ensure that when he comes again, his own burning soul and Anguirel draw him to Dol Guldur, demanding vengeance.” He smiled. “Do not be jealous, my beautiful darkness. Thou must admit that to have one or both of Elrond's sons serving me would be truly poetic.”
Vanimórë's mouth curled in scorn. “For a brilliant man, thou canst be surprisingly delusional, father.”
Sauron laughed. “What wilt thou wager?”
“I never wager on certainties.”
“Neither do I. He will come when I call his name.”
He rose, walked to the great bed, deep in silvery furs and fine wool, and lifted something from a hook on the wall; a bridle not fashioned for any horse. The headstall was flecked with gems, the bit silver, set with little, blunt spikes. He worked at the buckles, watching his son's reaction with amusement.
“Come here,” he said.
The last winters had been vicious. Fell-wolves howled at the borders of the Golden Wood, and there were orc-bands with them, mad with hunger. Galadhrim patrols crossed the river, from Lothlórien's fresh-cool glades to a wasteland where the wind scoured fallen snow, scurried among the dead grasses. Once they found the remains of Men, perhaps driven from their holding upriver, and caught under the merciless blaze of the winter stars. Little remained but stains on the snow, scraps of furred cloaks that had not withstood the cold.
Spring came in power that year, her green skirts sweeping the snow north to the borders of the world. But still the orcs hunted, and the patrols pursued them, waiting on the grasslands until night fell, their cloaks melting into the land. It was on one such night under an muscling storm that hurled rain down like retribution, that two of the patrol were taken.
The skirmish was brief and savage, the rain another enemy. Only when the orcs broke and ran, did Haldir, checking his warriors for poisoned wounds, realize that he lacked two men. The Galadhrim pursued, but the greater part of the orcs turned, gave battle, and died. It seemed the captured Elves were a prize they were willing to give their lives for.
Or had been ordered to.
The patrol reached the edge of Mirkwood and entered, but skilled and forest-born though they were, their skill recked nothing against the Shadow. The storm had spent itself, but the darkness under the pines was thick, clogging. An unwholesome mist bloomed, and the path they followed faded into nothing. Black vines whispered sick-sweet dreams against their flesh. And there were screams; foxes, Haldir told himself, but with a peculiar intelligent malice to them. They came to the edge of a sucking bog that reeked of carrion, marsh gas wavering above it. When they skirted it, they found another path, which lead them, mocked by screams, back to the edge of the forest.
Eight returned to Lothlórien from that patrol, harrowed by shame. Mirkwood had taken them one by one silently, and Haldir cursing his pain and frustration, lead the survivors home. The dank fog seemed to cling to their spirits like unhomed fae.
“It would seem the Shadow of Dol Guldur wanted thee,” Galadriel said, steel surfacing in her voice. Her long hands folded tightly.
“Lady,” Haldir said, “We need more...”
“No,” Celeborn quashed him, and the Lady stared unblinking eastward as if she had not heard. “None of thee would return.”
But after that time the orcs grew bolder. One could hear them at night from the eves of the Golden Wood, hunting, camping, drinking. One night fires were lit, and the Elves saw the distant shapes capering and rutting.
By dawn they were gone, and Haldir took his men to investigate. They ran through beauty, the late spring morning ripe as a woman heavy with her summer child – and found what remained of two of their lost patrol.
The eyeless heads were mounted on spears, they had been scalped, ears sliced off, lips sewn shut over mouths filled with excrement. Haldir lifted his head, stared white rage toward Mirkwood, then spun at the drum of the ground under galloping hooves. The riders with mirrored, beautiful control, wheeled closer to take their measure of what had passed. Haldir knew them; it was said that the orcs of the Misty Mountains fled in terror from these twins with their eyes of ice and frozen fire, the Sons of Thunder.
The stench of orcs, of orc-seed, heavy in the lovely morning, leered at Elrohir from a dark cave, and he said, “No.”
Only his brother understood, but as he turned his mount, Haldir, as if realizing his intent, reached for the reins.
“You cannot!” he protested. “Sons of Elrond or no, the darkness of Dol Guldur will swallow you.”
“We warred against Angmar,” Elladan said, serene as the sky, and as impervious to Haldir's pleading. “We have gone into darkness before.”
Elrohir looked away, felt the bones in his hand stretch taut about Aícanaro's hilt.
“Do you, Haldir, return to Caras Galadhon. And take these,” Elladan gestured to the mutilated heads.
The Galadhel looked appalled.
“I will send my men back. You will not go alone.”
“No,” Elrohir said harshly. “You have already essayed it. This is for us.”
Haldir began to protest, and Elrohir simply looked full into his eyes. Whatever the warrior had been about to say crumbled on his tongue, and he inclined his head as to an inevitability. But he would not leave, he said. He would send some of his company back, and wait until the brothers returned.
Or did not.
Elrohir stared at the crouching gloom of Mirkwood. His blood hissed in his ears hot, swift, and Aícanaro hummed eager violence against his flesh. The touch of a hand, that calming moon-blue breath across the pulse of his rage, a rage that quenched itself only and briefly in blood, brought his head around to meet his brother's eyes.
“We are here,” he said, as if that explained everything. This was not their land, nor did they have a duty, but neither of them considered this a duty. Their self-appointed task of escorting Arwen to Lothlórien had been accomplished, and she was now ensconced in Caras Galadhon. Who was there to command them?
The sun, slowly sinking, struck at the wall of trees. A low mist exhaled from deep within. It smelled of rot, stagnant water. Every nerve in Elrohir's body screamed anticipation.
“You knew,” Elladan said. “You knew since we crossed the river.” There was no censure, no accusation, only acceptance that he understood. Blood called for blood in both of them, but for Elrohir vengeance was darker, more violent, terrible.
“Yes.” He had sensed death, seen it like a crimson corona about the sun.
“It is foolhardy.”
Both of them knew what, or rather whom, dominated their grandam's mind when it dwelled on Dol Guldur. The name evoked no fear in Elrohir. He quivered like a hound that scents its prey, waits for its master to slip the leash. But how could he explain to Elladan that the darkness of the forest beckoned him, sultry and seductive as a lover in the night, that his fuming rage demanded slaughter. That last at least, his brother understood, if not why.
“They will all be long dead.” But Elladan was not trying to dissuade him.
“We cannot know that,” Elrohir said. “The orcs are not so far ahead of us. And there is always vengeance.”
They stepped into the trees.
And Mirkwood drank them.
The woods about Imladris would be alive on such an evening, Lothlórien's glades starred with elanor and niphredil. This was another world, a silent one. Moisture clung from the pine needles, the cobwebs that swagged from tree to tree. Fungi, sweating unhealthy pallor, erupted from the forest floor, from wet bark. One cluster, over-ripe, pustulent, burst, scattering a dust of spores. Elrohir waved the tiny clouds away, saw movement, and span toward it. Only the mist. It moved among the pines in unnatural patterns as if disturbed by fitful winds in this place where no breeze penetrated. He looked back, and could not see where they had entered the forest, yet only moments had passed. A spike of panic stabbed at his guts and as ever, when fear rose, he lifted his head, challenging it until it curled sullenly upon itself.
If a warrior allows fear to unman him he has lost the battle, Glorfindel had told the twins long ago. Lost it for himself and all those who fight with him. Fear is as much your enemy as those you fight.
He had looked at them, the reborn Elf-lord, with those jewel-blue eyes that had been burned away when he fell with the Balrog, his hands on their shoulders, and the sun running molten through his hair.
Yes, I have feared, he had said, his smile radiant, confiding. And so will you. And you will learn how to conquer it.
Elrohir took a long, steadying breath. His brother touched his arm, pointed. There was a path through the pines, overhung with webs and narrow, but straight, trampled by the passing of heavy feet. Elladan crouched, frowning, then rose again lithe, soundless.
“Black uruks.” His voice was pitched very low, and the woods ate it.
Mountain orcs were a smaller breed. Black Uruks originated in Mordor, were larger, stronger, more cunning. They had formed the bulk or Sauron's army in the Last Alliance, and few were seen in the West.
The scream was a razor across their nerves. It skirled up in agony, choked to silence, then “No, No, No!”
And then they were running, intent, furious. The voice was a woman's. The voice was their mother's. And though Elrohir knew the tortured Elf could not be Celebrian, that she had long departed Middle-earth, logic found no handhold in his blind, intent mind. The trees, black, hunched close, resembled rock, the carrion-smell of fungi and rot was from another place, another time.
The shadows deepened as the sun set beyond the Hithaeglir, and the shrieks rose again, more distant, ended in despairing moans. The pines flickered by in their cloaks of mist, and the path they followed lead into a tangle of rotting wood.
Chill sweat idled down Elrohir's temple. He turned to his brother, chest tight with the effort not to scream, to loose the horror. And Elladan was not there.
The shock, the impossibility of Elladan's absence should not have steadied him, and yet it did. He slammed his eyes closed for a moment, teeth set, recalling Celeborn's words of the fated Galadhrim excursion, how paths changed, turned the warriors, accustomed to forest, back on themselves, chased them to the edge of bogs, hounded them with cries.
It is not my mother.
And still, and still...
“Please!” Celebrian's voice cried.
He spun and, faintly luminous in the gloom, another track yawned before him, a tunnel under the close-growing trees.
Into the dark.
As he ran, he reached down into the soul-bond, and touching his brother's spirit. Elladan was alive, but lost.
Just as I am lost.
Paths opened easily, then vanished to reappear again. The woman's cries sounded from different directions, so near at hand he would stop, call out to her, voice falling muffled. Fool, he berated himself, and as he cursed, her voice begged and cajoled and accused him. He struck himself across the face, gagging on shame, needing the pain, wanting to kill and kill until the unwholesome ground was soaked with black blood.
Elrohir! her voice called, sobbing, then, came the rhythmic moans of a woman in the throes of sex. You wanted this, I saw you, you wanted me...
He bent over and vomited abruptly. No! His skin shivered, cold, clammy against his tunic.
Hurdling a viscous pool, he plunging through a wall of fog and shockingly, out of the pines. He came to a halt, blinking at the change. Wind stirred his hair with a scent of iron and oddly, fire, pushing the mist and lingering night down into the trees. Before him the ground rose, mossy boulders and outcroppings of rock shaking themselves free of the forest. Above him the natural bedrock rose into the hard lines and angles of masonry. Against a clear dawn sky, walls and towers showed black, sharp. Angry elegance brooded deep in the sculpted stone. He breathed control into his lungs, and his mind cleared, as if he had walked out of smoke. Tears burned cold on his cheeks, and he swallowed through a throat gone ashy. His mother was not here. He had been led, lured to this place.