The Greenwood Tales: Part 9 - Shadowfall
Closing his eyes, Aladain tried to remember the startling vision that had summoned him from his fitful rest. He had seen Thranduil running alone, across an empty plain, while eagles called above him. Next he had seen him toiling through the dreaded Mountains of Shadow, and then last in the depths of Barad-dûr, searching in vain as the light of his torch dimmed. Last he had seen him dead before a shadowy throne.
"No!" Aladain whispered aloud, clutching his temples. He swung out of bed and paced wildly through the palace. The gibbous moon, visible through a broad window, was almost completely obscured by a bank of dark clouds that smelled of rain.
Another guard, Nuruwen, came silently to his side. "Aladain, or perhaps should I call you King? What is the matter?"
"Visions that haunt me," Aladain answered grimly, grasping the sill and gazing out as wisps of torn cloud fluttered around the moon, wreathing it in a nimbus of light and shadow. The stars were dim. "I fear that Thranduil has met with an ill fortune."
Nuruwen sighed. Her features were much darker than the rest of the Wood-elves, and her hair was a very deep brown rather than golden. Her eyes were a strange black.
"Visions do not always have portent," she said.
"I have not slept well since he gave himself to Shadow," Aladain answered. "Every night I have had dreams, always of Thranduil."
It might have been his imagination, but he thought that a hint of jealousy washed across Nuruwen's face. "Oh? That is not surprising. You have known him almost from his first breath. But why should you so worry?"
"I fear that he has met with an ill fate," Aladain repeated.
He turned to look at the Elf-maiden. She was lithe and well-muscled, standing as tall as he did, and she was wearing the shadowy armor that she refused to discard even in sleep. Her eyes glinted beneath the dark curtain of her hair. She was the daughter of Esten, another of the guards who had at last chosen to step aside and let his daughter take his place. She had a reputation for behind harsh and set in her ways, and Aladain had often had to remind her of her sworn duty to the crown of Greenwood and its sovereign.
"If you so worry," she said, "send out a party of Elven trackers."
Aladain was about to open his mouth and gently rebuke her, but a vision flashed before his eyes with such clarity that he involuntarily reached out to touch it. It was Thranduil, running through the mazes of Barad-dûr with Legolas, trying desperately to escape before the jaws of darkness closed about him.
Ahead, a figure that stood nearly nine feet waited, wreathed in smoke and flame. Black robes flowed about it in a corona.
At once, Nuruwen was holding him up. He barely realized that he had fallen into her arms. She gazed down at him, worry in her coal-dark gaze. "Aladain. Tell me. What did you see?"
Aladain did not even answer. Instead, he ran to gather the other guards.
Before another hour had passed, the royal guard had left Greenwood, Aladain in the lead. They were running, and Aladain had told them that very few rests would be taken. He trusted that the people of Greenwood could manage themselves well enough for a short time.
Slightly behind the other guards, Nuruwen's eyes glinted.
Inside, the passage was completely dark and smelled of rotting flesh. Choking back the bile that rose in his throat, Thranduil ran up the twisting corridor, bending low to avoid smashing his head open. The Orcs were close behind him, and their whoops and shrieks were earsplitting in the enclosed space.
Thranduil leapt clear of the low earthen passage and came out in a stone corridor. Looking wildly about, he hurtled off toward the stone stairs, which were shrouded in half-darkness. The stone was slick and crumbling, but Thranduil leaped up them three at a time.
The Orcs were not nearly so swift and surefooted. They stumbled, falling behind, shrieking curses that nearly made Thranduil's ears bleed. One or two made an attempt to follow, but the rest fell back and began creating a fence of spears to bar the Elvenking's way out.
Safe at last from pursuit, Thranduil paused in the uppermost corridor. It was narrow and dark, and a horrid stench filled the place.
Trembling slightly, he sheathed his knife back beneath the Orc armor and pulled the helmet into place. Then, bending his legs again, he clanked down the hallway, growling at any Orcs that looked too closely at him. Most of them ignored him.
Listening carefully for any sign of his son, Thranduil moved down the hallway. Then, from up ahead, torches flared with such abruptness that he froze and pressed himself back into the shadows.
"I'm telling yer to do what yer ordered, flea-meat!" the first Orc growled. "The Necromancer's got some sort of fancy plan in mind. Planning to make a fortress in some big forest. Something about green. Stupid thing, in my idea. But that ain't the point. Yer supposed to do what yer ordered, or the Necromancer will skin us and use us to decorate his tower."
"Yer pathetic, Urgu," the second Orc said, his voice low and rasping. "Especially to be spoutin' off about the Necromancer's plans like your skin's worth more than mine. To set yer little mind straight, the forest was called Greenwood. The Necromancer is planning to make a fortress in the southern part, which he fixes to call Dol Guldur. Now don't babble about it no more. There could be ears listenin' in."
Thranduil realized that underneath the heavy Orc helm, his forehead was dripping with sweat. Sauron, planning to build a fortress in Greenwood? This explained the strange shadows that he had seen, and the feeling that something was wrong at the Sheelala - and other times, as he thought of it. His heart was beating so loudly that he was sure the Orcs must hear it. Slowly, he backed off down the corridor and hurried the other way.
The Elvenking spent many hours in the depths of Barad-dûr, searching in vain for his son. He didn't dare to call his name, and the almost-complete darkness made it hard to see more than a few feet ahead. He groped his way along like a blind grub, sometimes reverting to hands and knees.
Suddenly, his fingers slid into a pool of liquid. Recoiling back out of instinct, Thranduil held his hand before his face. Even in the darkness, he could tell that it was blood.
He shuddered, wiping his hand on his armor. Looking up he saw that the roof above him extended almost higher than he could see. Narrow steps were cut in the wall, seeming to be newly made. He could just make out the imprint of Orcish feet on the stone.
Thranduil hurried up as quickly and quietly as he could, lest another Orc should see him and question why he was going up the steps alone, with no apparent weapon. However, luck seemed to favor him. He reached the top of the staircase undetected.
Here, it was so completely dark that Thranduil knew he would need light to go on. He groped about, found a torch and flint, and struck the stone against the wall many times, until a small spark appeared. Immediately, he put the torch to it, and the oil-soaked wood caught. Holding the torch high, Thranduil looked about.
He seemed to be standing in a row of dungeons, the cells reeking of old blood and rotting corpses. Slime trickled down the stone walls to gather in rancid pools. The iron bars that walled the dungeons were rusted and thick, and high overhead bats flapped and shrieked. Thranduil cast the torch about, shuddering. Was this where his son was being kept?
The dungeons were deserted except for him and the slow drip of water. Thranduil shuddered, drew in a deep breath of air, which was fouled now with Orc-stink, and began down among the rows of dungeons.
There were so many dungeons that they soon swallowed the lone Elvenking in a dark and deadly maze. Most of them were empty, but a few dungeons still had a skeletal hand clinging to their bars, or a skull lying on the ground amid the dust. Thranduil shuddered.
Soon, he had become hopelessly enmeshed in the dark maze, wandering aimlessly through corridors, taking whichever turning seemed right. The echoes of his footsteps resounded eerily off the walls. To all eyes, the seeming Orc was lost.
Thranduil was painfully conscious of the fact that his torch was burning down. If he was going to find Legolas, he was going to have to find him soon, or be forever lost in the impassable labyrinth. He started to run blindly, panic spreading over him in a choking wave. He heard as if from a long distance his own voice, crying aloud, "Legolas, Legolas!"
The echoes danced crazily about for ages. As soon as it seemed they would settle down, they would bounce off the walls again and play around, until Thranduil was surrounded in a web of sound.
He ran faster, trying to escape the echoes, the heavy Orc armor clanking and banging. But then, his ears detected a change in the echoes. It sounded like a voice calling.
Thranduil whirled around and ran toward the sound, praying that it would not die out before he could find the source of it. He ran blindly around a curve, and by the fading light of his torch, he saw Legolas in a cell, clinging to the bars. Legolas shrieked when he saw the Orc come clumping about the corridor, and fled back into the deep shadows.
"Legolas, Legolas, no!" Thranduil said, running to the bars and pulling off his helmet. Although his face was smeared in grime and dust, he was still recognizable. His tangled hair fell loose, and it glimmered like a river of grayish-gold in the dim light.
Legolas's eyes went very wide. He ran back out of the dusk and thrust his hand desperately through the bars. Thranduil grabbed it, and for a moment they clutched hands. Then Thranduil let go. "Legolas," he whispered, his voice almost a moan. "Are you all right? Did they hurt you?"
"No, not really," Legolas said faintly, obviously still scared. He pulled up his sleeve and showed a strange cut to Thranduil. It was the symbol of the Lidless Eye, cut into his small arm, and it was black. It looked like some orc-knife had carved it into him. "This is all they did."
Thranduil winced. Then he slid his torch into a bracket and grabbed the huge lock. Using a spike that he broke off his armor, he carefully tried to pick the lock, but the huge bolt was strong and resistant to it. To make matters worse, Orc voices were starting to echo through the dizzying labyrinth.
"Is there someone in there with you?" Thranduil gasped as he worked the lock harder. "Is it another Elf?"
"No one," Legolas answered, his voice barely more than a whisper. "I am alone."
Thranduil jammed the spike back into the lock, his heart pounding in fear, as the Orcish voices came closer, shouting and shrieking like a nightmare. However, the spike snapped in Thranduil's hand, and the splinters cut Legolas's cheek. Thranduil was vividly reminded of the Lay of Leithian, when Beren and Lúthien were trying to cut a Silmaril from the Iron Crown.
"Hurry, Daddy!" Legolas whispered, as loudly he dared.
Thranduil broke another spike off the Orc armor and worked it into the lock, but the spike again shattered. He swore and whirled around. The Orcs obviously knew their way through the maze better than he did; they were coming closer.
Legolas had shrunken back into the shadows, terrified into silence. Thranduil was growing frantic. Unable to think of anything else to do, he snatched his helmet, stuffed it back on his head, and stood in front of the cage menacingly. At that moment, the Orcs barged around the corner.
They stopped short and eyed Thranduil suspiciously. One stepped forward and gargled out a sentence in Orcish. Thranduil stayed stiff.
"Move it, scumbag!" the Orc growled. "The Necromancer wants the kid. Says something about wanting to make a demand. Now move yerself, afore my spear moves you." He laughed, a guttural, snarling sound.
"I was `ere to complete that order," Thranduil replied, making his voice as gravelly as he could. "Now move it, and I'll bring the whelp up to the Necromancer."
The Orc looked highly suspicious. "The captain told me to fetch `em. And you ain't even got no weapon."
Thranduil growled, his eyes flashing beneath the helmet, and stepped forward. Surprising both himself and the Orc, he seized it around the neck and cracked its collarbone over his knee. The Orc dropped like a stone, lifeless.
The other Orcs surged forward. "What do you think yer doing, pig?" another snarled.
Thranduil settled back into a fighting stance, but not an Elven fighting stance, which would have given him away. He bent his legs hideously and leaned forward, leering beneath the helmet.
The Orcs at last retreated. "Let `em bring the pig," one muttered. "Necromancer knows it's fought like a little beast every step of the way. Good luck `e'll have." They turned the corner and vanished.
Letting out a breath that he hadn't even realized he'd been holding, Thranduil crossed over to the dead Orc and rummaged in the filthy skin pockets that were tied around its waist. If Sauron had told it to release the prisoners, chances were good it had the key....
After several minutes of tense searching, Thranduil located the key. It was long and crooked, and the iron was rusted. It felt unpleasant in his hand, so he went over to the lock and undid it quickly. The gate creaked aside.
Legolas darted out of the cell and ran to Thranduil. However, Thranduil waved him back, as the spikes on his armor were long and jagged, and he didn't want to take a chance on cutting Legolas. The younger Elf understood, and nodded.
"Come on," Thranduil murmured, hoping that his torch would not burn out. With Legolas near by his side, he began to weave back through the dark mazes, trying to remember each complex turning he had taken. He was more or less sure on each one, although there came a few times when he had to make a blind guess.
Thranduil's torch went out with a suddenness that even he had not anticipated. He and Legolas were swallowed into complete darkness. Only the slow drip of water made any sound besides their own harsh breathing.
They stood together in the darkness for several minutes, neither sure what to do. Then, abruptly, there came the sound of clunking Orcish footsteps, and a band of the foul creatures rounded the corner, their own torches alight.
"Foolish dunce!" one snarled at Thranduil. "I've gotta come find you because your torch burned out? The Necromancer has better things fer me t' do. How come he isn't bound?" it added, jabbing a clawlike finger at Legolas.
"Do yer think he's any threat?" Thranduil sneered. " 'E can barely stand up proper."
The Orc gave them highly suspicious glances, then picked up Legolas, who began to kick and squeal. "Come on, y' little brat. Let's go. The Necromancer is waiting to see you. Move it, you." Another Orc jabbed Thranduil to make him walk.
The Orcs climbed higher and higher out of the dungeons, climbing up an insane amount of stairs toward what must be the keep of the Necromancer. Legolas had enough sense not to reach out for Thranduil, although his father was walking just behind him.
At last, as the Orcs were gasping and panting, a high iron door came into view, etched with the same symbol that had been cut into Legolas's arm.
The Eye of Sauron.
One Orc, who seemed to be immensely important and therefore was allowed to do such, took a key from a ring at his belt and slid it into the door. He twisted it. There was a low churning sound, and the door swung open, revealing a black corridor beyond.
The Orcs clumped through. The passage was wide, and the angles were sharp. The black rock had once been polished, but were now chipped, and cracked. Substances that Thranduil didn't want identified were splattered across them as well. The entire place reeked.
Ahead, there was a tall figure robed in black, with a high helm upon his head. His eyes burned like coals through the slit in his helmet, and he surveyed the Orcs as if he considered them little more than playing chips to be won or lost at will in the game of life.
The Orcs bowed low. "Messenger," the captain rasped. "Mouth of the Necromancer. What does he say?"
"Give me the child," the Mouth replied, reaching out lazily for Legolas and taking him from the Orc's harsh grasp. "As we intend to make a fortress in Greenwood, it is essential that we have sufficient provocation to make the cowardly king think the wiser of a fight to drive us out. The Necromancer will deal with him in time - through our spy, of course."
Thranduil was desperate. He would sooner die himself than watch his son be carried into the very lair of Sauron, but he was outnumbered at least fifty to one. His knives were still hidden, but two elvish blades would do little against the combined scimitars of the Orcs. He knew that more Orcs would follow at once if a disturbance was reported.
Thranduil made his choice.
As the Mouth carried the screaming Legolas toward the door, Thranduil pulled out his knives, the twin blades flashing in the low light of the chamber. Screaming every vile curse against Orcs that he knew, he plunged himself into the center of the Orcs' numbers, determined to fight until they claimed him.