The Greenwood Tales: Part 8 - Into the Shadow
He was so fatigued that he did not even hear the Orcish footsteps clunking alongside him until it was far too late.
They attacked with the speed of snakes. Thranduil had no time to even ready his bow before a huge Orc captain smashed full-force into him, slamming him to the ground. He rolled out of the way before the gigantic Orc could sever his head. He jumped to his feet, snatched one of the long white knives that he carried at his back, whipped around, and stabbed an Orc.
But the ambush party was large, and they had both the advantage of numbers and their surprise attack. As another point in their favor, Thranduil was exhausted. He had barely the strength to block and parry, let alone strike killing blows.
He stabbed several Orcs, but then the Orc captain jumped back in his way and attacked him viciously with a spear. Thranduil cried out in pain as the Orc cut him on the shoulder, arm, and leg. He whirled about, raising his knife, but staggered and fell to the ground.
The Orcs stepped back, but Thranduil was barely aware of the fact through a blinding haze of pain. He touched his leg, and saw with a strange detachment that his hand was covered in blood.
Then he heard the Orcs speaking.
"It looks tender," one said in a guttural, gravelly voice, smacking its lips. "We'll watch it bleed to death, and then it'll give us good eatin'."
"I claim its head," the Orc captain said. "It looks like a nice, sweet piece of juicy meat, and I want it."
"No, you won't `ave it all, you pig Ugroth!" other Orcish voices clamored. "You'll not `ave such a prime cut o' meat to yerself!" "Us haven't eaten in days!" "I claim shares of its head, too!" "There's lots of us, after all, and only one of it."
"I'm the captain, after all, and since when would you divide meat fair?" Ugroth jeered, shoving an Orc to the ground. "You should talk, Polog - you'd et it all if we gave you a chance!"
Then a fight broke out. The Orcs, whooping and hissing, drew their swords and attacked each other in a wild mêlée, clawing at each other and ripping tears through their crude armor. Ugroth snatched a smaller Orc, cracked its neck over his knee, and ripped its arm off. He began to eat it, snarling and bellowing.
If Thranduil had been able to see, he would have thought it disgusting. However, he lay slightly apart from the Orcs, red haze washing over his vision, his entire body wracked with unbelievable pain. Consciousness was slipping from him, but he had just enough presence of mind to grope about, find his knife, and slowly crawl toward the woods. The Orcs had caught him in a small clearing.
While the Orcs were engaged in their brawl, Thranduil crawled laboriously across the ground, leaving tracks of blood on the ground. He was fighting desperately against losing consciousness. He barely cared that he was grinding dirt into his wounds.
Thranduil reached the woods. With the last of his strength, he slid his knife into its sheath. Then he collapsed to the ground, and the world fled from him swiftly as he sank into oblivion.
At once, Thranduil knew that he was dying. He saw a ghostly, phantomlike shade of himself rise from his body. The shade lifted higher above what had once been him. Then it rose into the air and streaked like a white shot through the air. He was leaving for the Halls of Mandos.
But as he passed over Tol Eressëa, so far below him that it was barely more than a speck, something odd happened. Invisible hands netted into his soul and drew him down into the Undying Lands. He saw Elaimar walking in the gardens, and he cried out in a silent voice for her.
Then again consciousness slipped from him, and the only sensations came in brief flashes. First, there was a sweet, haunting singing, and a somehow familiar sound of a lute. Then darkness came again, relenting to let through a brilliant white light that touched his face and opened his eyes. He saw, as if from a great distance, Elaimar. She was singing, her hair falling about her in golden-white ripples of light. He held out his hands to her, and she enfolded herself into his arms. She was soft, wispy, and not altogether real, but he kissed her again and again, and tears streamed down his ethereal cheeks.
When next he woke, he thought he was floating among clouds, and the same song that he had heard was weaving about him. Then the lute seemed softly to bid him farewell, and darkness again fell over him.
Slowly, Thranduil awoke.
He stared in astonishment at his own hands, flesh-and-blood. He moved them, and pain did not jolt through his body like a spear. He quickly touched the wound on his shoulder, and it was gone. No blood marred his hand.
Astonished, he climbed to his feet. He had been dying, he knew it. And now, somehow, he was alive. He was standing in the same wood that had almost claimed his life. The Orcs were gone. He was whole, and seemed almost to glimmer faintly in the night. His wounds were gone. There was no pain.
And Thranduil knew, inexplicably, that Elaimar had saved him. She was the one who had caught his soul, nursed it tenderly, and returned it to his body. It was because of her great love for him that she had saved him from the Halls of Mandos. He closed his eyes, feeling again the softness and warmth of her ethereal form.
"Oh, Elaimar," he whispered. "My love. I know that it was you, and I know that you healed my wounds. I have seen you, and I know that you are happy in Tol Eressëa. I will find our son, a'maelamin. And I will rescue him."
Again firm in purpose, Thranduil ran.
It was evening of the next day when he reached the foothills of the Mountains of Shadow. The smell of brimstone hung in the air, and the hills were rocky and treacherous. Thranduil negotiated the slipping rocks with caution, skipping the cracks and winding his way carefully uphill.
It took him two days and a night to find his way through the foothills. They were filled with pitfalls and traps, and he often had to change his course completely to avoid any shortcomings.
As he climbed through the hills, he thought that a sneaking shadow crept alongside, never quite present enough for him to be sure that it was there. It slid away when he tried for a closer look, vanished for a time, and then reappeared when he least expected it.
As such, he remained constantly on guard, even sleeping with his knife gripped in hand. When he dared make camp, he saw the shadow flickering on the edges of his vision.
At last, Thranduil looked into the Mountains of Shadow. If it had not been for the thought of his son, he would not have been able to go on. The mountains rose like rapiers into the sky, completely blocking any access into Mordor. Far beyond, an orange glow lit the horizon. The sky seemed to hang in tatters around the blades of the mountains.
Thranduil drew a deep, weary breath, and continued on.
For several days he labored through the Mountains of Shadow, trying desperately to find any mark in the land that might point him to the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr. But there was none to be found, and in the end he only relied on his acute sense of direction.
The hot air scorched his throat, the going was extremely dangerous, and shadows flickered like a living corona around every outcropping. They were hissing, speaking to him.
You will never find the path...
Your son is dead...
You will die...
"No!" Thranduil cried aloud, his voice shattering the stillness as if it were glass. "No! Do not speak to me, you foul minions of Sauron! Leave me! I will find my son, and by Lady Elbereth of the Stars, you shall not have me!" As he spoke, he flung his arms out as if to banish the shadows from him.
At that moment, there was the pitter-patter of little feet, and, to Thranduil's astonishment, Legolas appeared on the ridge just above him.
His mouth fell open, and with Elven agility he leapt from rock to rock until he stepped onto the ridge. "Legolas!"
Legolas turned to face him, but almost immediately Thranduil sensed that something was not right. His son wore strange garments - they seemed to be the ones that he had been wearing when he was taken, but they were not right. His sweet blue eyes had an odd sheen to them. And his fingers - his fingers were webbed.
Even as Thranduil sprang, his white knife flashed through the air like a star. But the copy of Legolas whirled and snatched a black knife from inside its garments. The clang of steel was horrendous. Thranduil landed on his feet as Legolas whipped around and tried to catch him off guard. Thranduil blocked.
The copy of Legolas came after him relentlessly, but Elaimar's healing song had given Thranduil strength beyond that which he already possessed. He twisted low and stabbed Legolas in the stomach.
The body collapsed into smoke, and a black shadow rose writhing from it. It gave a shriek, then fled over the rise and was gone.
Shaking, Thranduil sheathed his knife. He noticed that there was no blood on it - only a strange gray sheen. He was close now to the Dark Tower and the Lidless Eye - but the short battle had weakened him.
He knew that that was Sauron's intent.
In one more day, Thranduil at last came to his quarry. The Dark Tower of Barad-dûr rose before him, grim and threatening, filling the entire space with its ominous presence. He stood on the top of a cliff and looked down into the bleak land of Mordor. Even from here, he could hear the ceaseless shouts and growling of the Orcs.
If he had had a mirror, he would have laughed grimly at his appearance. His skin was gray, caked with ashes and stained with soot. The sharp edges of the rocks had torn open innumerable gashes in his skin, gashes that had healed with grime in them and as such were red and swollen. His hair was more grayish-black than golden, and his entire body ached from the punishing labor. But still, he was alive, and he was armed.
Thranduil pulled a coil of hithlain rope from his quiver, tied one end of it to an arrow, and fired the arrow into a small crack on the top of the cliff. It embedded there, trembling slightly. Thranduil tugged on it several times to check that it was strong, then grabbed hold of it and began to slide down. Fortunately, the cliff was only about fifty feet tall.
Thranduil crept carefully across the broken and desolate ground. His footsteps made no sound as they fell, and he was very careful to keep hidden in the shadows. Ahead, he could hear rough Orcish voices carousing and clamoring, shouting at each other. He froze as the Orcs passed ahead, but they didn't see him.
One Orc lagged behind the others, gasping roughly at its fellows to wait. But Thranduil never gave it the chance. He leapt into the air, drew his knife, and came down smoothly into the back of the Orc's head. It fell without a sound.
Then, although it made him sick to do it, Thranduil yanked off the Orc's armor and clothing, and pulled it onto himself, completely hiding his travel-stained, but still recognizably elvish, clothes. He stuffed his hair underneath the helmet, hefted the scimitar, and followed the other Orcs, bending his legs to disguise his height. It also gave him the bow-legged look of the Orcs.
The party tramped along, huffing and snorting, shouting at each other. Thranduil was almost screaming with revulsion beneath the heavy, unwieldy Orcish armor. He was glad that the helmet hid his face. Only his eyes showed through the mélange of spikes that made up the helmet.
At last, the Orcs began passing through a small opening into a long pathway that wound down the side of a mountain. The path was broken and crumbling, but Thranduil, as an Elf, had sure footing. So sure that the Orcs looked askance at him and many grumbled in their throats that the Necromancer gave the best meat to those that were the least useful.
One Orc grabbed Thranduil and shoved him forward, throwing him against a rock. Acting immediately out of instinct, he grabbed his knife from beneath his armor and stabbed the Orc in the neck, right where its armor had a chink.
At once, Thranduil knew it was a mistake. All the Orcs whirled and charged at him, shrieking, flailing their scimitars.
Thranduil whirled and ran, wishing that he was not burdened by the Orc armor. He skidded blindly down a slope, then stooped, picked up a large stone, and heaved it. By the shriek from behind him, he knew that he had struck one.
He ran faster, not even daring now to bend down and pick up a stone. The Orcs were gaining on him. Thranduil ran with reckless abandon through the fields of broken rock that littered the slopes.
With startling abruptness, the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr rose immediately in front of him. Thranduil barely slackened his speed. With his knife, he slashed away the rotting leather hinges on a low door and dove through into a world of darkness.