A party from Mirkwood
It was a fine summer morning on the high road. The cloudless blue sky seemed to stretch on forever and morning dew clung to the needles of the great evergreens. Elrond sat high on his saddle, appraising his surroundings carefully. He had an uneasy feeling. At first, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary; nothing moved in the undergrowth and the forest was quiet. Too quiet. No bird could be heard praising the rising of Anor with their joyful song and no rodent was scurrying in the undergrowth. There was an unmistakable menace in the air.
The small contingent from Imladris stood in the middle of the road. They had received news from Mirkwood that a party of elves traveling to the havens would be coming this way and Thranduil had expressly requested that they be allowed to rest for a while in the hidden valley before passing onto the west. Apparently, the group was mainly constituted of families with young children who were seeking to escape the ever growing shadow in the east. They had dispatched a messenger ahead to announce their arrival and should have made camp on this precise spot the night before. The sun was now approaching its peak, however, and they had yet to see any sign of them.
"Do you think they were delayed, Elrond?" asked Glorfindel, his voice worried.
"Maybe..." The peredhel was still trying to pinpoint the cause of the nagging sensation, but it proved elusive and his irritation was growing. Not that he would let any of it show in front of his soldiers, but the seneschal had become a close friend over the centuries and could see right through his mask.
"What troubles you, meldir?"
"Something is wrong here. I can feel it."
"I have been uneasy myself for quite a while now. Do you think that we are in danger?"
"Nothing immediate, no..." Elrond reflected. "We will wait for them here until noon and, if there is still no sign of them by then, we will ride forth to meet them."
"Why not go now, if you don't mind me asking?"
"They are wood elves and might have taken shelter in the trees. We could ride right past their camp and never see them."
Noon came and went as the troop waited in silence, and the Mirkwood party never showed. On a sign from their lord, the warriors set out with a trot. By then they were all worried and on alert, for such a delay did not bode well. No messenger had been sent forth and the seasoned soldiers knew in their hearts that some ill must have befallen them. And they didn't have to go far to be proved right.
They had been ridding for a little over an hour when the foul smell assaulted them. The stench of rotten flesh mixed with blood and other bodily fluids reached their nostrils and with it came the dreadful knowledge: orcs. They drew their weapons and spread into formation, closing ranks around their lord, much to his annoyance. Moving forward as one, they soon heard voices to match. The fell voices of Morgoth's beasts marred the quiet of the forest. They urged their horses forward, pushing them to a canter, with the knowledge of what they would find heavy in their minds and deep rooted hatred in their hearts. They rounded a bend and suddenly were upon them.
The orcs had heard the cavalry and were scrambling to their feet, reaching for their weapons. The swift approach gave them no time to ready themselves though. The elves dove upon them with a wrath that would make even their master cower. Many tried to flee before them, but they weren't given that chance. It was finished as soon as it had begun.
It was only when the orcs all laid dead that they took time to assess the situation. The foul beasts had been camping in the middle of the road among the remnants of what had been a group of thirty or so Sylvans. Bodies littered the ground and torn limbs were scattered all around the place – ellon, elleth and elflings alike. Some had tried to defend themselves and had died clutching their weapons, but most of them weren't warriors and they had been outnumbered almost five to one. It had been a massacre. One of them had been impaled on a spike and roasted over the fire. A few had been raped, regardless of gender, and their naked bodies were still leaking semen. Everywhere they turned, they were met with unseeing eyes, faces twisted in pain and mouths opened in screams of mute horror.
The soldiers ghosted around the camp, hoping against all odds to find a shimmer of breath in the dreadfully mutilated remains, but knowing in their heart that it was a hopeless quest. Even surprised the orcs would have left none alive. If they had intended to take prisoners, they would have moved right away, regaining the darkness of pit holes they called home. They had stayed instead, too engrossed in their feast to be bothered even by the glaring sun above their heads.
The elf lord had seen enough bodies in his long life to know those had been dead for hours. Given that the bedrolls still laid open on the ground, the attack had to have happened some time during the night. Even if they had ridden ahead straight away, they would have come too late to save the Sylvans. Just like the last time. Always too late...
Images flashed before his eyes, memories superposing themselves to the present and mingling together until he couldn't discern one from another. The small group turned to a sea of corpses. Walls rose around him, grey stone replacing the green of the forest and the dying embers of the camp fire roared in a blazing inferno. The once beautiful city laid in ruins, it's arches and turrets crumbling under the heat. His mind though barely registered the destruction around him. He couldn't tear his eyes from the mutilated bodies littering the ground. Unblemished faces rose in sharp contrast from the blur of soiled garments and bleeding limbs, faces of elves he had known all his life, of friends, of fellow scribes, sparring partners... And in front of the blasted gates, kept upright by the pole that had been shoved up to his head in a mock welcoming posture, stood the lord of the city himself, the last of the Fëanorians. His long time confident.
Bile rose to his mouth. This was no battle. It was a slaughter. He who had walked the plains of Dagorlad looking for survivors suddenly felt once again like a green soldier in the aftermath of his first battle. Except that these were no soldiers, no trained warriors ready to sacrifice their lives to protect those they held dear. Innocents. Butchered for the amusement of mindless beasts. Sheltered in the sanctuary he had created all those years ago, it had been easy to forget that outside the peaceful valley, the Shadow continued to cause death and devastation.
It was too much. Elrond dismounted and almost ran for the trees, all thoughts of dignity forgotten as he couldn't bear the horrific sight any longer. He knew he was acting like a craven but if he stayed there a minute longer he would be sick, and so he fled the carnage, leaving Glorfindel in command of their troops. As it was, he didn't make it far into the forest before he had to stop. He collapsed onto his knees and heaved violently. Even when his stomach had emptied he remained prone, his head resting against the trunk of an aged oak. Tears fell unnoticed down his cheeks. He felt so old and weary of the cruelty of the world that in this moment he wanted nothing more than to take the road west himself and sail for Valinor. But his task in Middle Earth wasn't completed and so he had to find the strength to go on.
He took a few moments to steady himself before pushing himself up. His warriors were tending to the remains of the wood elves and he had a duty to perform. He was about to return to the road when a rustle to his left caught his attention. He peered cautiously at the thick bush and was met with two large blue eyes staring right back at him through the branches. He stayed frozen for a moment before dropping on his heels. The frightened gaze followed his every move.
"Hello there, little one" he said in his best reassuring voice. "What are you doing here?"
Only silence met him.
"Were you hiding in there, penneth? It's alright, you can come out now. You are safe."
The eyes blinked and suddenly the child bolted out of the bush and flung himself into his arms. The momentum propelled him backward and he fell heavily on his back with a cry of surprise. Small hands clutched desperately at his tunic. The little one followed him to the ground and curled against his chest, sobbing desperately. Once he recovered from the shock, Elrond enfolded him into his embrace and held him close.
"I have you, penneth, you are safe now. Hush, don't be afraid, it will be alright."
This was how Glorfindel found him a few moments later. He had heard the shout and came running at top speed, weapon ready, thinking his lord might be in danger. The sight that greeted him froze him in his tracks. The wise and dignified lord of Imladris was lying on the ground, hair mussed and strewn with fallen leaves, and holding a small shivering bundle on top of him. Gray eyes met his green ones in silent acknowledgement. Seeing no immediate danger, the Balrog Slayer sheathed his sword and crouched beside him.
"En… What exactly happened here?" he asked in an uncertain voice.
The child was startled from hearing a voice so close to him. He obviously hadn't noticed the other's approach. Shimmering eyes grew wide in wonder as he beheld the radiance of the reborn hero. His mouth opened in a perfect "o" and he reached for the golden strands. Glorfindel chuckled at the reaction. He had had that effect on so many elflings since his return!
"So, little one, you like my hair, hum? How about you come into my arms so that Elrond can get up?"
He opened his arms in welcome as Elrond dropped his and made to get the child off of his friend, but the elfling withdrew as soon as he noticed his intent. He whimpered and grabbed the peredhel's tunic once more, his tiny little fist so tight that the knuckles turned white.
"I think he doesn't like your idea, my friend. How about you give us some space so that he may calm down? I'm sure I can manage on my own."
It took a while, but the child finally settled down. Elrond held him with one hand while he pushed himself up. He sat there for a long time, singing softly, until the little one fell asleep at last.
"He must have been exhausted." Glorfindel whispered. "Do you think he was one of them?"
"Probably. He must have escaped in the confusion. Poor child."
"What are you going to do with him? Should we send him back to Mirkwood?"
"I'll take him with me for now. We need to know more before we can decide what's best for him. We don't know if he has any family left there. I'll need to inform Thranduil of what happened anyway, so I can ask at the same time. How are things going on the road?"
"We burnt the orc carcasses and the soldiers have started to construct litters so that we may carry the remnants back and give our friends a proper funeral."
"Do you think you can manage without me? I would like to get him home as soon as possible."
"Aye, that would be best. We can't risk him waking and seeing the others… Ten guards will go with you to make sure you are safe."
Anor – the sun
Imladris – Rivendell
Ellon (pl. ellyn) – male elf
Elleth (pl. ellyth) – female elf
Elfling – child elf
Meldir - friend
Penneth - young one