To Dream - Ch33: Shadow
`*' signals a footnote
`***' signals a line spoken by Oloriel or Nessúlë in the Common Tongue, of which they are not extremely fluent.
A/N: I hate to say it, but I'm travelling away from book canon a bit in this chapter. This happened mostly because I forgot exactly how the council happened that led to marching on the Black Gate, and some of the things I thought I knew turned out to be not quite right. It's a little bit late in the game to be fiddling with my plot so I'm just gonna forge ahead as best I can. I don't think it's anything too big, but I thought I'd fess up before someone called me out on it. (And no, I'm not telling you what's different. There's a good chance that some of you won't catch it, and that's fine with me ,_~).
Chapter 33.) Shadow
And the night that comes with quickened pace
Is ignorant of dawn.
- Anna Akhmatova
Recap: Our protagonists have made it up the Anduin to the Pelennor Fields. They arrived on time (with book canon) to aid in the victory against the army of Mordor. During the battle, Oloriel witnessed Halbarad sacrifice himself to save the life of Aragorn.
The sun was going down in a blaze of crimson behind the peak of Mindolluin* as the Men of the West looked out over the reclaimed Pelennor Fields. The dark armies had finally been driven back, and now all that remained to be done was care for the dead, the dying, and the wounded.
Weariness was etched into every bone of every body, but even as the last shreds of light remained, there were still those who remained on the field, searching through the fallen.
Oloriel and Elladan, having reclaimed their mounts from the black ship, made their way slowly through the field, training their keen vision on the fallen around them. Not one yet had they found alive and hope began to grow dim in their eyes.
As they wended their way between the ruined, charred cottages and once vibrant fruit groves of the Pelennor, Oloriel caught sight of a fluttering black cloth. She quickly turned her mare from the path and sent her into a brisk trot. Elladan followed quickly, having apprehended her thoughts.
The king's standard still stood, rammed into the ground where Oloriel had left it. With almost reverent movements, Oloriel slid from her horse and walked over to the great stave, letting her hand trail down the smooth wood. She took the black cloth in her hand and spread it out, inspecting it. The black pennant was mostly unsullied, though one corner had been frayed and trampled in the mud. Thankfully, the flaw could be easily repaired.
She felt a warmth against her lower back and recognized it for Elladan's reassuring hand. The Elf stepped up closer to her and let the same hand slide around her waist, pulling her against him. She barely managed to contain her extreme discomfort as the arm now circling her pressed into a wound on her side. The Elf, unaware of her injury, looked up at the black and silver banner and smiled slightly.
//It still stands.//
"Aye, that it does," Oloriel nodded shakily. Looking toward her right, where she had seen a movement on the edge of her vision, she continued in a whisper, "And so does he."
Elladan followed Oloriel's gaze and saw Aragorn dismounting from his horse and crouching over one of the fallen. A great breath escaped him. For the moment, at least, the future king of Gondor was safe.
He continued to watch as Aragorn bent his head down low and whispered something into the dead man's ear. Then, with great reverence, he lifted the body up, struggling only slightly beneath the weight, and began to carry him away.
Elladan turned from the sight, grieved. "Halbarad fell."
"I know," Oloriel murmured. "I know, I saw it..."
"He was the last of Aragorn's kin. How the race of Men is diminished." Elladan shook his head dejectedly and began to move away.
Oloriel turned to him quickly. "Do not say such things. Men fought bravely today; there is still strength and honor in them."
Elladan turned back with dull eyes. "But is it enough?" A shiver ran down Oloriel's spine as he spoke. "Look at the field, Oloriel, look at it... we have lost much and we will not survive another battle."
"There is still hope that the Ringbearer will prevail," Oloriel stated firmly. "We simply have to hold until then."
Elladan rubbed a hand across his face, as he looked eastward toward the black outline of the Ephel Dúath*. "A fool's hope, yes."
Oloriel stared at her beloved. This was not like him. Usually he was the one to comfort and uplift her - where had his spirit gone?
"Shall we seize the boat then, and sail into the West before anyone can stop us? Do we give up and go home?" Oloriel spoke with a sarcastic undertone.
Elladan looked down at the beaten earth. "No, we stay. We stay because it is the only chance we have at finding peace for ourselves, free of shame. But will we ever truly grasp it? Will there ever be peace? I have seen so much death, `Riel... so much death. And it never stops: not with the passing of years or centuries or millennia. It never stops."
Oloriel did not know how to reply to the pain in his voice, so she didn't. Instead, she left the black standard where it stood and continued to search among the fallen bodies, to see who or what could be recovered. A few moments passed before Elladan shook himself from his stupor and began to help her with the grim work, but neither one spoke to the other.
A muffled cry away to the north caused Oloriel to look up suddenly. She saw Elrohir, several hundred yards away, fall to his knees next to something. A cold bite of fear strung her heart and she quickly ran back to her horse, mounting up and making her way at a reckless pace toward where she had seen the Elf kneel.
What she saw when she arrived there eased some of the anxiety in her heart. Nessúlë was covered in filth, lying prostrate on the ground, but her eyes were open and clear.
She quickly dismounted and knelt down beside Nessúlë, across from Elrohir, grasping her hand apprehensively.
"What is it, what is wrong?"
The other elleth grimaced slightly. "I... my leg..."
"Is injured," Elrohir finished for her, "We must get her off the field."
"I can't walk very well," Nessúlë spoke in a disgruntled tone, "That is why I laid down. I didn't feel anything until after the battle, but then the pain was terrible and I became rather light-headed."
Elrohir didn't reply, merely lifted Nessúlë up into his arms while Oloriel took the sword from her friend's hand. The Elf started walking resolutely toward the gate, still some great distance away, before he was stopped by Oloriel's gentle admonishment.
"You cannot carry her all the way back, Elrohir. Take my horse, I can ride with Elladan."
She spoke these words just as Elladan rode up. The Elf, having heard her offer, reached his hand down silently to pull her up behind him.
Elrohir accepted the proposal and did his best to gently lift Nessúlë onto the horse so she sat sideways across its back. Despite the efforts, Nessúlë still let out a small hiss of pain. With a dark brow, Elrohir mounted up behind her and gently wrapped her in his arms as they began to move slowly toward the city.
A few moments passed before Nessúlë finally broke the silence. "This seems all too familiar," she sighed wryly, remembering the first time she and Elrohir had met, the day she and her companions were attacked by Orcs outside of Imladris.
"Yes," Elrohir agreed, "You do have a propensity for getting yourself into trouble... I should not have let you fight."
A warning fire lit up in Nessúlë's eyes. "You could not have stopped me. And it would have been a mistake if you had. Every sword was needed in this battle, and I dispatched as many of the enemy as most did, I am sure. I may have even matched you."
Elrohir chose to ignore the fire in her eyes. Perhaps he had seen it too often and was now inured to its heat. "You flatter yourself, lady. One sword hardly ever makes the difference. ...And I would have gladly taken all your killings to spare you this pain."
Nessúlë narrowed her eyes and muttered for his hearing alone, "I will keep my killings and my pain. At least they are my own."
Elrohir nodded curtly and turned his eyes forward, toward the city gate. Conversation ceased between them until they were quite close to the gates and another controversial issue had presented itself.
"You will not take me all the way to the Houses of Healing, Elrohir!" Nessúlë glared at the Elf holding her. "I will be tended to well enough in the tents with all of the other soldiers. I am no great lady, and deserve no special treatment. Neither do I need special treatment, for I am not in any grave danger."
Elrohir pressed his lips into a thin line. "You are one of the Eldar and will be seen as a great lady wherever you go. The healers will surely welcome you there, and you do deserve special treatment, because unlike the soldiers you were never expected to fight. Of your own will you put yourself into danger for the cause of Men and have gained great honor because of it."
"Let me keep my honor then!" Nessulë snapped, "And do not carry me away like a sack of grain."
Elrohir smirked. "No one will think less of you, lady. You are injured, and I hold the reins. You may try if you like, but I do not think you have the strength to wrest them from me."
Nessúlë did not continue to protest, but her clenched teeth showed clearly her displeasure.
During the journey toward the gate, Oloriel and Elladan had been riding several feet behind the arguing pair, trying to act as though they were at ease with each other. They were not completely silent, but the conversation was somewhat strained as they both tried unsuccessfully to forget the words spoken on the field before the discovery of Nessúlë.
Oloriel could feel the shadow that still clung to Elladan's spirit, and she did not know how to drive it away. It was almost as if the Elf was wrapping it around himself and wouldn't let go. On the outside, he still looked lordly and valiant, riding into the city to bowing heads and awed greetings, but she could feel that all was not right with him, and it made her ache inside.
It was almost an hour later when a fuming Nessúlë had been safely deposited in the Houses of Healing and farewells had been exchanged. Elrohir would not be drawn from Nessúlë's sides, despite her fury, but Elladan and Oloriel both felt that they should return to Aragorn's encampment in the fields below.
The air was still tense between Oloriel and Elladan as they made their way back down through the many levels of the city. Oloriel rode her own horse now, and so there was not even a comforting touch to dull the sharpness of their silence.
Both Elves knew that their thoughts were laid bare to the other, and neither one attempted to close themselves off. They were both far to weary for such an effort. As a result, their miseries, heartaches, and worries swirled together and mixed until it was hard to distinguish where one's own pain began and the other's ended.
They had made it to the second level of the city before Elladan broke the silence.
"You did not tell me you were injured."
Oloriel smiled bitterly. "There seemed to be more pressing matters. It's nothing serious."
Elladan flinched at her tone. He could feel her hurt acutely, and knew that she was suffering just as much as he.
//Will you let me look at it before you retire?// he questioned softly.
Oloriel nodded her ascent.
"I see that you have already wrapped some of your other wounds," Elladan commented as he packed herbs into the nasty gash in Oloriel's side, "Do you need me to reapply them?"
Oloriel shook her head slowly. "They were all shallow; nothing to be anxious over."
Elladan took long strips of cloth and began to tie up Oloriel's wound. She held her shirt up just enough so he could work, but was careful not to reveal too much. The delicate procedure made her decide that, gentle and skilled though he was, it was not worth the effort to be nursed by the Elf who was courting her. She was far too exhausted to want to deal with propriety. All she really wanted to do was curl up into a tight fetal position and forget. It was a rather discomposing state to be in, for she had never once in her long life been this weary.
"It should heal quickly," Elladan spoke with reassurance as he finished wrapping the bandage around Oloriel's midriff. She pulled her shirt back into place, and the two of them sat silently watching each other for a moment. Finally, Elladan broke the stalemate by leaning in to place a kiss at her temple. "I thank the Valar that it was not more serious," he whispered.
This affectionate gesture seemed to break down the last remnants of the brittle wall that stood between them. Oloriel smiled softly and leaned into his shoulder.
"I am sorry for what I said earlier," Elladan whispered into her hair. "I should not have let despair take me, not after the miracle of today."
Oloriel nodded her head where it lay against him. //No need to ask forgiveness. I understand.//
The two sat there for a few moments longer, taking comfort in each other's presence. As she leaned against him, Oloriel let her eyes wander around the small tent they were in. This one had been raised for the two Elven maidens, but now that Nessúlë resided in the Houses of Healing, only Oloriel would sleep there. She did not look forward to the prospect. As she had been after Isengard, so she was now: she did not want to be alone. And she had a feeling that Elladan did not want to be either.
Reluctantly, Elladan began to move away from her, preparing to go find his bedroll and leave his ladylove to her repose. A hand on his arm halted his exodus. He looked down at Oloriel and caught the pleading look in her eye. He sighed. It really wasn't proper. His heart was telling him to forget propriety, that they had just survived a meeting with Death and simply needed to be near each other, to be reminded of life, but he did not want slander to come upon his lady.
With his heart and mind torn in two, he decided on a compromise. Gathering up an armful of blankets, he beckoned for Oloriel to follow him outside. The weather was mild, and the stars would be a comfort. Making his way to a place where several other tentless soldiers were taking their rest, he spread out the blankets and created a makeshift bed. Oloriel sank down upon it gratefully and let him wrap her in his arms.
//Hannon le.// He heard Oloriel's gentle whisper in his mind. Smiling, he pulled the last blanket over them both. And with such comfortable, and comforting, accommodations, the two Elves bent their minds toward the Path of Dreams, where they could walk together away from the sights and sounds of war.
Aragorn's countenance lightened as Elladan and Oloriel entered the tent. He had seen them early that morning, before the sun was up, sleeping peacefully next to each other and was glad that they at least had found a few hours of peaceful rest.
The night had not been so kind to him, however. He had not slept at all. For most of the quiet hours he had employed his healing skills where they were needed, and whenever there was a lull in activity his thoughts would turn to the grim future and not allow him rest or peace of mind.
Arien* was at the zenith of the sky and the time had now come to speak of that future. His eyes grew somber as he wondered how the council would meet his proposal. He had not taken up authority yet and would command no one. The choice to stand with him was a free one.
Éomer King, Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, and Elrohir were already assembled in the tent. Now Elladan with Oloriel had come, and a few steps behind them, Gandalf. For a moment these leaders of the West gazed upon one another and a collective breath was held. They were the instruments of fate, and each one prayed in his heart that they would choose aright.
After some discussion and explanation, Aragorn had finally made his mind known. The other two men of the council looked rather apprehensive, the two Elven princes seemed resigned, and the glitter in Gandalf's eyes made one wonder if he was quietly surprised, or shrewdly pleased. Oloriel stood calmly at the side, thoughtful. She was no leader, and knew that the decision did not lay with her. She would follow where Aragorn led.
The plan was simple: they would march to war against the very gates of Mordor, and with the act, keep Sauron's roving eye strained upon them and nothing else. Victory was impossible, this was known, but victory was not what they needed most. The Ringbearer needed time - time to see to the end of the Dark Lord's power. And time was something that the armies of the Free Peoples could give him.
They were silent for a while. At length Aragorn spoke. "As I have begun, so I will go on. We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. To waver is to fall. Nonetheless I do not yet claim to command any man. Let others choose as they will."*
Then Elrohir said: "From the North we came with this purpose. We will not turn back."*
"As for myself," said Éomer, "I have little knowledge of these deep matters; but I need it not. This I know, and it is enough, that as my friend Aragorn succoured me and my people, so I will aid him when he calls. I will go." *
"As for me," said Imrahil, "the Lord Aragorn I hold to be my liege-lord, whether he claims it or no. His wish is to me a command. I will go also."*
With the council agreed on this point, other matters were brought forth to discuss. Such as the muster of the force departing, and what defenses would be left for the White City. It was some hours later, when Oloriel finally left Elladan's side, and made her slow way up through city streets toward the House of Healing.
"It may have been quite beautiful once," Nessúlë spoke with a faraway look in her eyes as she gazed out her small window onto the city below. "So much of it has burned. Should the war ever be won, it will be hard to have the celebrations dampened by such ruin."
Nessúlë knew that she was talking mostly to herself, but she did not mind. Oloriel had been with her for several hours already, and they had now settled into an easy companionship, talking or sitting quiet or reading as the thought took them.
A few minutes passes and Oloriel came to stand next to the window seat where the other elleth reclined. She peered out the window as well, but her eyes were drawn more to the fields below than to the white walls and city streets. With her keen sight, she could see the tents clearly, and thought she spied a few people that she knew by name. Apparently all those of her close acquaintance were still closeted away somewhere, planning and rethinking and planning again.
A few moments of silence ebbed away before Nessúlë pinned Oloriel with a penetrating glance.
"You have not spoken of them at all this afternoon."
Oloriel let out a dry laugh and turned away from the window. "Do you really want me to? I doubt you will like what there is to hear."
"What, has Elrohir bribed the healers to tie me to my bed?" Nessúlë quipped, "Has he melted down my sword or stolen my horse?"
Oloriel laughed more mirthfully at this. "No, nothing that amusing I'm afraid."
A pregnant pause ensued as Nessúlë waited for the revelation.
"They mean to march against the Morannon*."
The words hung lifelessly in the air for a moment before floating indifferently to the ground. Nessúlë sighed.
"They go to death then?" she asked no one in particular. As Oloriel looked on, the she-Elf's face contorted into a bitter grimace and she turned away as if to hide. "Sometimes I despise myself," she whispered almost inaudibly.
Oloriel looked worriedly at her friend, not understanding why she had said that.
"My leg... I will not be able to go, will I?" Nessúlë stared blankly at the wall opposite her.
Knowing that there was no use pretending, Oloriel nodded slowly. "But that is no reason to be angry with yourself, mellon," she tried to comfort, "Even the mightiest worries take injuries. No one will blame you for not being there."
Nessúlë laughed bitterly. "That is not why I am angry with myself. Not at all!"
"Why then?" Oloriel knelt down beside Nessúlë and tried to catch her eye.
"Because..." Nessúlë did not blink as a single tear rolled down her cheek, "Because for a moment I was happy for my injury. I was happy that it would not be me, that it would not be my death!"
A sparrow somewhere outside began to sing tentatively. The merry notes clashed with the tense air in the healing room.
"If I was well," Nessúlë spoke tremulously, "then I could hide behind my own ambition and stubbornness. I see now that this is the truth of it. It's easy to be fearless when fate pushes you along; you do not have to think about why you are going or where you are going. But my body betrayed me, and now my thoughts are all I have left... and even they betray me."
For the first time in their acquaintance, Oloriel witnessed Nessúlë crying, and she would not see such a thing again for many long years. It made her feel as though the world had been tossed in a bag and shaken up side down. The strong were becoming weak, the weak were becoming strong, madness was wisdom, and prudence was folly. The world was remaking itself, and in the depths of her spirit she wondered if she would ever feel at home again.
Two days had passed since the fateful council was held. Time had been needed to ready the Men, but in some ways Oloriel wished that it had not taken so long. Then perhaps this would all be over.
She felt numb as she passed out through the broken gates of the Rammas Echor* in the bleary morning sunshine, her horse flanked by the son's of Elrond. Up ahead was the rest of the vanguard where Aragorn rode, proud and grim, and behind stretched a host of seven thousand Men. To her eyes it looked like a great company, but in her heart she knew otherwise. The immense presence of the Ephel Dúath did much to further impress this thought into her mind.
Who knew what lay beyond the great black peaks? What terrors dwelt there? It might be that the Dark Lord had unleashed only a taste of his evil. The Nazgúl king had been slain, yes, but this did not diminish the sense of hopelessness that Oloriel could feel throbbing from the Men around her, or from herself.
And yet, mixed with the hopelessness was also a sense of determination and fortitude. They marched to what would, in all likelihood, be their doom. But still they marched. They marched against cowardice and slavery, against malice and cruelty. They marched against fate and darkness, against all the powers of the world that sought to snuff them out. They marched in a last attempt to save their homes, their children, their wives and their sweethearts. They marched for honor and love and duty and for the days of peace which they had never seen, but which still sung to them out of the Ancient Days and beckoned to them with a hope that would not be denied. They marched with a hardened glint in their eyes that bespoke of unquenchable spirit. They marched because they would not cower and wait to be slowly eaten by the shadows. If these were to be the last days of Men, then they would rush headlong into the darkness with sword brandished high. They would not go quietly into the night, but would pierce it and be consumed.
Oloriel's bright eyes lifted up to the sky as a soft spring shower began to fall lightly upon her. She pushed the cloak of her hood back and let the raindrops caress her face. This was perhaps the last time that she would feel the gentle touch of the rain in this land, and for her it made the experience all the sweeter. She was one of the Eldar: she did not fear death. Her spirit was bound up with Arda, and as long as it endured so would she.
She wondered absently what death would feel like. Not pleasant, surely, but she thought she could bear it. For peace free from shame, as Elladan had said, she would bear it if she must.
Unfortunately, it would not be so easy to see others die. Oloriel's gaze wondered to the Men around her, and then to Elladan beside her. No, that would be almost unendurable. Indeed, if Elladan's soul fled to Mandos, than in all likelihood so would hers. The prospect of dying from Grief scared her more than the prospect of dying by the sword.
Elladan brought his mount nearer to Oloriel's and reached his hand out to grasp her own. He had read her thoughts and did not know of any other way to bring her comfort.
A small smile tugged at the corners of Oloriel's mouth. Elladan was with her now, and for the moment that was enough.
1. Mindolluion - The mountain which Minis Tirith is built against/around.
2. Ephel Dúath - "Mountains of Shadow" that enclose the lands of Mordor.
3. Arien - The sun.
4-7. Paragraphs taken from Return of the King: Book Five: Chapter IX: "The Last Debate".
8. Morannon - The Black Gate
9. Rammas Echor - The wall hedging in the farmlands around Minis Tirith.