A Tale of Mirkwood - Chapter Six - Riddles in the Dark
It was true that none were to blame for Legolas' disappearance, save the orcs. None were to blame, yet, Haldof blamed himself entirely. Through the passing days and nights, alone in the wilderness, his memories consumed him.
He remembered his own words vividly. "We should attack now and charge at them with full force." He also recalled Legolas' cautionary reply. "Nay, that would be leaving our backs to the enemy. They could flank us."
Haldof shook his head. "I asked him to trust me, and I betrayed that. What have I done?"
He had returned to the scene of their battle and discovered that the surviving Orcs had scattered and spread in large groups. At first, he knew not which to follow, and therefore chose randomly. When realizing his error, had to track a new band which led him nowhere again. Despair had begun to set in.
* * *
Yet, it was on the fifth night following the battle that a first glimmer of hope broke its way in through the murky gloom that had fallen over Haldof. He had been resting in the high branches of a tree when the distinct sound of horse hoofs could be heard approaching from the north. He silently slid down the trunk and stood on the lowest branch which afforded the best concealment. Peering out, he saw two white Elven ponies approach with fair Elven riders. It was Tarnil and Galamed. Haldof smiled and his grief lessened. He had not expected to see his two brothers so soon.
The horses stopped under the tree. Galamed dismounted and surveyed the ground. "Orcs have been this way some days past. Alas, I do not know if either Haldof or Legolas were amongst them."
Tarnil merely shook his head in dislike. "We should have followed the other Orc trail."
Suddenly, Galamed felt a rush of wind from behind. Tarnil and he reacted quickly, arming their weapons, only to see Haldof standing beside the trunk of the tree.
"Haldof!" Galamed was quick to embrace him. Tarnil leapt off his steed and joined them.
"We feared we would not find you," Tarnil added when they finally separated.
"I presume it is too much to hope that Legolas is here?" asked Galamed.
Haldof's face grew melancholy once more. "Sadly, it is." He told them of his disappointing efforts to find their brother.
Tarnil nodded. "The goblins have been busy, we have seen. They disbursed far and wide. It is good fortune, indeed, we have met, thus. I fear for Legolas, however."
"Have you been following this Orc trail?" Galamed asked as he knelt once more to the disturbed earth, searching for the faintest sign of Legolas.
"Since yesterday's morn," said Haldof.
Tarnil was eager to step in. "Have you reason to believe that Legolas went this way?"
Haldof's gaze lowered and avoided their eyes. "Nay, truth be told, I have found no evidence of him being taken or slain. Had he escaped, he would have masked his trail as best he could, I believe." He sighed. "I have neither seen nor heard anything that would give me hope to believe that he is still safe."
Tarnil and Galamed were pained at his words. Tarnil was the first to recover from the onslaught of sinking discouragement. He placed a strong hand on his brother's shoulder. "You have borne this pain alone, Haldof, but no more! Hope is not yet lost. Eventide is upon us, therefore let us resume our search tomorrow."
Haldof gazed at him and smiled. "He is much like Father," he mused to himself. The smile quickly faded. "Father! How did he bear this ill news?" he asked.
"Not well," Galamed said. "He worries much, as do all our kin."
Haldof's eyes grew dark; guilt made them so. He feared his father's blame for his most serious ill judgement.
They slept on the ground, near the horses under the shroud of trees and brush. Throughout the night they each took turns with a watch. Haldof was much heartened by his brothers' company.
* * *
Three days passed, and they grew ever more frustrated. The thick air bothered them greatly. Trails proved fruitless, and they felt ever more daunted, wandering and tracking with no results to aid them. Haldof, who was the most skilled at tracking, remained on foot as Tarnil and Galamed rode.
It was midday, and Tarnil and Haldof were pondering over some Orc tracks when Galamed's cry called them. "Brothers! Come hither!"
Tarnil and Haldof sprinted to where their brother stood. On the ground lay three dead Wargs, and a decapitated Orc. The Wargs had each been shot with Elven arrows. A foul, decomposing stench polluted the air. Galamed's face filled with woe. This evidence did not bode well for Legolas. Haldof sank to the ground in horrified resignation; his long, lean body folded up in sorrow. Tarnil was the only one to keep a clear head. He placed his sleeve over his nose and leaned over the bodies, eying them carefully. "They appear to be dead at least three days. All is not yet lost."
Haldof gazed up at him with pity. "You really believe so, brother? I fear you dream."
"His body is not here! He may be alive yet!" Tarnil's faith in Legolas' return was not yet lost.
"Need I remind you what cursed things Orcs do to the bodies of our taken, brother? You know of what I speak. Three days passed . . . he was hunted by Orcs and Wargs. I fear you think him alive merely because you wish to."
Tarnil's face grimaced. "I cannot believe the worst, Haldof. It is simply too terrible."
A silence fell. Galamed, who had surrendered into muted contemplation, at last spoke. "What then are we to do? If dead he is, it is unlikely his body shall ever be found."
"I say we return to our Father," Haldof said, resolutely.
"You would abandon him?" asked Tarnil.
"Nay, we must merely accept the inevitable. How many that are taken return to us? We have searched every trail and found nothing. If he was captured and is alive, surely he would have left us some shred of hope along his path. I do not believe he is lost because I wish to, Tarnil. I simply state what my heart tells me."
Tarnil shook his head; his eyes began to fill with tears.
Galamed again spoke. "So, what are we to do?"
* * *
King Thranduil passed the days in contemplative thought. Aragorn, his friend, had left and another had come in his stead. Gandalf the Grey, of whom the elves call Mithrandir, arrived having heard news of Sméagol's capture from Lórien. He grieved at the news of Thranduil's woe, but imperative concerns and responsibilities could not be ignored. He quickly set to work questioning Gollum. Hours passed wearily in the deep, dark cell. It was on such a day that Gandalf prodded and pestered the prisoner for answers to his riddles, yet again.
"I do not believe you, Sméagol! I want you to now speak the truth!" Gandalf's voice was stern and commanding, while pacing the dank cell.
Gollum squatted in his corner, muttering, and cursing under his foul breath. "It doesn't know nothing, precious," he said. "Precious was a birthday present to us, it was, gollum."
"A birthday present?" asked Gandalf skeptically. "From whom? Who gave you this birthday present?"
"Granny gaves it to us, she did. Yesss."
Galdalf let out a loud huff and stood, towering over the cowering Gollum. "I grow weary of your tall tales, Sméagol!" Gandalf held his staff and from its tip glowed a bright, white light.
Gollum wailed and cried, cursed and trembled with fury. "It's cruel!" he sobbed as Galdalf's radiant light went out. "It's cruel to poor Sméagol!"
"Now, Sméagol, you shall tell me where you found the precious, else I light my staff again."
"No!" Gollum wailed, bony hands tugging at Galdalf's great robes. "We founds it, we did, precious."
"Where? Where did you find it?"
Gollums escaped the creature but he refused to answer Gandalf's question. He rubbed his long hands, licking his fingers. "Cruel, it iss. Gollum. It is my own, my preciouss."
Gandalf's rod was quickly relit. Gollum let out more hatred cries. Galdalf, however, was resolute. "Tell me, Sméagol! Where did you find the precious?!"
Gollum desperately tried to cover his large eyes from the blinding light, but to no avail. "It burns us, it does! Turns off the light and we tells it!"
"I think not, Sméagol. You tell me, and then the light shall go out."
Gollum let out more howls, before saying: "In the river we founds it."
"River? Which river?" Gandalf demanded. Gollum made no reply except for the mutters and whimpers. "Which river, Sméagol, or my light shall grow brighter."
"No! By the Gladden Fieldses, we founds it. It burns usss!"
Gandalf stood shocked, and the light faded until all was again somber. Gollum crawled to the darkest corner and licked his fingers. Gandalf closed and locked the door, and made his way out of the dungeons. Echoing gollums could be heard resounding through the halls.
* * *
Gandalf sat with the King in his grand hall, and they ate by the fire. Candles flickered, and guards stood at their posts, ridged as statues.
"He is an odious beast, and yet, I pity him," Thranduil said and their discussions of Gollum continued in lowered tones.
"I, too, pity him; but, alas, I fear he can still do much damage. His heart is black with hate," Gandalf replied, after drinking some wine.
"Do you really believe he held in his possession the One Ring for all those years?"
"I know not for certain. If he speaks the truth of where he found it, it is possible. Isildur met his fate in the Gladden Fields. It is possible." Gandalf sighed. "I have yet to uncover what mischievous deeds he was up to, however." He began to smoke his long pipe.
"You speak of where Aragorn found him, I assume. The Dead Marches," Thranduil shook his head, "It does not bode well, Mithrandir. You know what lies near that land. If it was, indeed, the One Ring he carried, then that is dangerous power for a mischief-maker."
"Alas, I fear you are correct."
"You believe him tortured by the Enemy?"
"I do," Gandalf said, eyes, staring at the dying embers on the hearth.
"And what do you think he told them?"
Gandalf took deep breaths from his pipe, letting the smoke cloud and disburse. "Everything," he said at last.
* * *
The following day, Gandalf attempted once more to fill in the missing pieces to the puzzle that Gollum held secret. Gollum was not happy to see the wizard once more. Upon the door opening, he let out multiple mutters and curses.
"It should leave us alone, yess, precious. We have told it lots and lots, gollum!"
Gandalf, however, felt that he would be best to judge that. He sat in his chair in the doorway, staff in hand. Gollum knelt on the floor, rubbing his hands, many a gollum in his throat.
"Now, Sméagol, what happened in the Misty Mountains?"
"Orcses lives in the mountains, yess, my precious. Many nasty Goblinses."
"Now, you know I am not referring to the Orcs. Tell me of the name Baggins."
That name sent Gollum into a wild fury. "Curse it! Curse it! Gollum!" He sat and rocked back and forth, muttering curses under his breath, but did not answer.
"Sméagol, you will tell me," Gandalf said sternly. Gollum ignored him, and would not answer. "Do you wish to feel the light of my staff again?" he said, firmly grasping the handle.
"No, we doesn't! Curse it! My preciouss! Cruel, cruel it is!"
"Cruel I shall be unless your riddles cease!" Gandalf said. "Now, tell me of the name Baggins."
"Thieving, sneaking cheats it did. Yes, my precious. Curse it!"
"How did Baggins cheat you?"
"We plays a game, we did, and it cheatses! It stole my precious, gollum!"
"Game? What sort of game?"
"We played riddles, we did, and it cheatses! What had it got in its pocketses? It wouldn't say, no precious. Little cheat. Not a fair question. It cheated first, it did. It broke the rules. We ought to have squeezed it, yes precious. And we will, precious!"
Gandalf sat, dismayed. Bilbo's tale now was confirmed. Gandalf's greatest fear was taking form. "Sméagol, what were you doing in The Dead Marshes?"
Gollum, however, did not appear to hear him. He muttered to himself, rubbing his hands together. "Baggins will pay, yes, my preciousss. It will pay for its trickses, gollum!"
Galdalf repeated his question, but Gollum ignored him still.
"We now has friends, we does. We will teach the dirty thief some thingses, precious. We do have good and strong friends now, gollum! They will help Sméagol! They will teach the dirty little Baggins a thing or two, my preciousss."
Gandalf merely sat in awe and could only guess to what depth Gollum's treachery sank. His heart wept for the miserable wretch, but was ever aware of how strong and dangerous he still was. There was no limit to the creature's sinister ambitions where his Precious was concerned, and Galdalf knew it.
* * *
Thranduil stood under starlight. A half moon hung lazily in the sky while crickets hummed their nightly tune. Gandalf was admitted to the King's presence to bade his farewell.
"I am grieved to see you leave, old friend," Thranduil said.
"As am I to depart, yet, necessity commands it."
"Where does necessity call you, Mithrandir?"
"Sméagol's riddles do not satisfy me. I require further proof. I am off to Minas Tirith where, with hope, some answers may be gained," Gandalf said as a comely Elf-maiden brought forth his steed. "I have hope yet, that should my fears prove true, with time, a cure may be found for him. I look to your wise judgement in keeping him now, King Thranduil."
"Worry not, as we shall take great care. Fare thee well, Mithrandir! May you find the answers which you seek."
"Thank you, King Thranduil." He gazed deeply into the crystal blue eyes of the mighty Elven King. His voice then fell soft and warm. "Do not mourn Legolas, yet. I feel in my heart he is not as lost as is feared."
Thranduil nodded, but alas, he did not feel it in his own heart. Gandalf then mounted his horse and galloped swiftly into the night. Thranduil stepped onto the lattice-laced bridge and listened to the soft murmur of the gentle river. He was about to return to his halls when the sound of hooves fast approaching caught his attention. His first thought was that his guest had returned, but as the sound grew, Thranduil saw his three sons riding forth. Tarnil and Galamed shared a pony, while Haldof rode alone on the other. Yet, nowhere was Legolas to be seen. The King's face fell. The horses stopped, and the Princes dismounted. They stood before their Father and King, defeated, for Legolas had not been discovered and was now believed to be irretrievably lost. The truth of this was felt by examining their worn faces. Thranduil merely bowed his head, turned and entered his great hall.