“There,” Aladain gasped, the only words he could speak through his exhaustion. The royal guard had just surmounted a rise in the Black Land and now looked over the Mountain of Doom and the Dark Tower themselves. Everyone seemed chilled by the sight, except for Nuruwen. She smiled faintly, seemingly unwearied by the several days of punishing labor that they had gone through.
“Nuruwen,” Aladain said, his tone rather cold, “why do you smile so?”
“I am excited, my king,” Nuruwen replied demurely. “The thought of entering, of slaughtering Orcs and rescuing our gracious king excites me. I will not lie to you.” She bent her head in silent acquiescence. “I stand rebuked, Aladain…King Aladain.” Dark eyes flashed beneath smoky lashes.
“Very well then,” Aladain said in a gentler tone. He looked around him at the other guards, tense and silent in the deepening gloom. “We’ve run here in only three days. Well done. But I have no time to say anything further. Run!”
The guards dashed off across the treacherous terrain, leaping easily across cracks and gaps in the desolate waste. Aladain was the fastest, but Nuruwen was close behind. He felt a tingle of pride run down his back. He had helped her in much of her training, and she had become strong.
Barad-dûr seemed to fly to them beneath their swift feet. As they drew nearer, Aladain noticed that a door had been cut away, a gaping slash in the side of the tower.
Good. It would save them some notice.
Aladain slowed his steps and beckoned wordlessly to the others. “Through there,” he mouthed, and the guards nodded their understanding. Slowing, they slipped as easily as water through the opening.
Inside, it was dark and rank. Nuruwen instinctively moved closer to Aladain, her light fingers fluttering over his arm. He permitted himself a smile at the contact. After all, Nuruwen was very attractive.
“This way,” he whispered. Far above, he could hear the sounds of a furious battle, and the shrieks of many Orcs. His heart immediately leapt into his throat, and he knew at once that Thranduil was up there.
At that moment, however, just ahead of them, something came rushing, thundering like a wave of water. Aladain, peering ahead, saw a huge shadow coming forward as fast as if it were an avalanche, trailing an unearthly shrieking behind it.
Aladain had a split-second to take action.
“Down!” he bellowed. “Everyone! NOW!”
They hit the floor not a second too soon. The shadow rushed overhead, shattering everything it touched. Splinters and shards of rock and metal rained down on the guards, who covered their heads and waited for it to pass.
The screaming echoed around for a long time, and tendrils of the shadow kept rebounding inside the narrow corridor. Aladain didn’t dare to move. If anyone so much as twitched a finger, the shadow would leap straight for them, attacking them as they twisted out of the way.
Nonetheless, Aladain could see that three of his companions were dead, their bodies slumped lifelessly on the stone.
Above, the sounds of the battle were slackening away. Aladain couldn’t tell whether this was a good sign or not, but he knew that he could not leave Thranduil up there, alone – unaided – for one more instant.
Taking a desperate chance, Aladain began to crawl up the corridor. He twisted from side to side as the tendrils of shadow struck out at him, leaving gaping craters in the stone pathway.
He barely realized that below him, there was complete silence.
At last, the murderous fingers of darkness subsided, and he stood, shaking, brushing the slime and muck off his clothes. The sounds of the battle above grew ever fainter.
Gripping his dagger tightly, Aladain ran toward the sound.
He threw open the door and ran inside, sword flashing. Three Orcs were down before they could even so much as twitch a finger toward their weapons. Dimly, Aladain realized that the door he had passed through was engraved with the Eye of Sauron.
There was a shriek behind him, and Nuruwen flew into the room, sword upraised. She brought it down and across in a motion that relieved two Orcs of their heads. Twisting through to Aladain, she gasped, “Where is Thranduil? Where is Legolas?”
“I – ” Aladain began, and then he saw Thranduil.
All rational thought deserted him. Thranduil had been hammered to his knees, and two large Orcs were attacking him brutally with their jagged scimitars. His knives were moving slowly, almost hypnotically, and his face was running in blood.
Aladain was not even consciously aware of crying Thranduil’s name, but he did. However, there was no way he could reach him. The Orcs had closed a solid circle about him.
Then suddenly, Nuruwen was slashing through, toward Thranduil, her blade flying in a pattern of strikes that was almost beautiful. She reached Thranduil and, reaching forward over his shoulder with her sword, stabbed the Orc attacking him. It fell with a surprised look on its face.
Thranduil leapt to his feet in shock. He whirled around and saw Aladain, and his mouth opened. He stared.
Aladain fought desperately toward his dearest friend. When an Orc attacked Thranduil, Nuruwen whirled and dispatched it. Thranduil, his strength running out, struggled to parry another’s assault.
Nuruwen pressed her hand against Thranduil’s back in a gesture of support. Thranduil’s eyes briefly met his, and Aladain smiled at the Elf he knew and loved best. However, the smile dropped in horror as Nuruwen spun away and an Orc viciously cut into Thranduil’s back.
Thranduil, amazingly, did not fall. He whirled around and flung his knives to either side, both catching an Orc squarely in the gut. As they collapsed, he pulled his knives – black rather than white – from their corpses and whirled to behead two more. But it was too much. He sank down.
Aladain rushed forward and caught Thranduil. He tried to pull him to his feet, but Thranduil’s energy and life-force was fading. Drops of his blood stained Aladain’s clothes.
“Aladain, it is too late, find my son -“
“No, Thranduil, you cannot ask me to leave you – “
“Do it!” Thranduil spoke with a surprising vehemence for one who had been stabbed in the back with an orc-blade that was as like as not poisoned. His face was going gray, and his knives fell from his hand. “Find Legolas, bring him safely back to Greenwood, please, Aladain, if you ever loved me – “
“Thranduil – “
Thranduil closed his eyes and fell limp in Aladain’s embrace.
Aladain stared at him. Somewhere, in the back of his numbed mind, he thought that perhaps he should feel grief, but there was no room for grief in his mind. Just a hard, bitter fury.
The Elf gave a cry, his golden hair flying loose around his head like a crown. His rage was dreadful, all-consuming. His sword was his arm, his arm was his body, and his body was unstoppable. Orcs fell like flies, unable to stand before an Eldar revealed in his wrath.
Nuruwen had vanished among them, her dark coloring blending her.
Aladain was a bright and terrible angel. As he fought with wild, reckless abandon, it seemed that he glowed, a vision among the dark and filthy Orcs.
At that moment, the door flew open and the Mouth of Sauron came out, acting nothing short of arrogant. His eyes, hidden beneath the helm, snapped and sparkled with disdainful pride as he looked upon Thranduil’s still form and Aladain’s dreadful wrath.
“Save your strength, you pitiful elf lackey,” he said, his voice harsh and rasping, as he looked at Aladain. “The Necromancer has fled to your forest, and you will need all your strength to stay alive.”
He flicked a finger at the Orcs. “So. The elf king is dead. Release the boy. You may take the dead elf for….needs.” The Mouth moved to block Thranduil from Aladain.
Aladain whirled around. “Never will your foul things take Thranduil,” he said in a vicious voice. “Now step aside, if you value your cowardly head. I will severe it.”
“I’d like to see you try it,” the Mouth sneered.
Aladain’s sword came across quickly and easily, a flash of silver like a fish in the pressing gloom. It broke easily through the rusted armor and all the way through the Mouth’s neck. He had an instant to look shocked before he died.
“They’ll need a new Mouth,” Aladain said grimly, bending down and lifting Thranduil. The Elf was light, very light, and Aladain cradled him close against his chest.
He looked around the chamber. It was now, surprisingly, empty of Orcs except for the carcasses strewn about the room. Nuruwen was standing beside a pile, her eyes glinting as if to challenge anyone who tested her mastery over these Orcs.
Aladain laid Thranduil gently on the stone floor and turned him over to at least cover the wounds before he made his long, sad journey back to Greenwood.
The wound from the Orc’s blade was relatively small, and only a little blood was dripping from it. It didn’t look like the weapon had cut in very far. It certainly wasn’t enough to kill an Elf; there was no venom encrusting it.
Just above the wound, however, were what looked suspiciously like long scratches made by fingernails. They were long and black, and by the heat that they gave off, Aladain knew that they had been the truly poisoned wounds.
He ran his fingers over the long wounds, which had been ripped right through the cloth of Thranduil’s tunic, trying to figure out how they had been inflicted.
Nuruwen came to his side and bent down. Her face creased in worry when she saw the marks. “Did an Orc claw him? I see no other way these wounds could have been dealt. But still – they have done their job.”
She stood. “Prince Legolas!”
Nuruwen strode confidently into the next chamber.
Inside, it was dark and musty, but with a hint of a terrifying presence that nearly made Nuruwen’s hair stand on end. She looked about, gripping a dagger in her sleeve, at the empty black stone throne.
Before it lay a small form.
Nuruwen hurried forward and knelt beside the little one. Yes, it was Legolas. His eyes were closed. An expression of terror was frozen on his small face. What horrors had he seen, she mused, before he died?
But the little one was not dead. As she watched, he coughed, and his dark blue eyes fluttered open. They fixed on her as Legolas pushed himself to his feet, fright and suspicion in his face.
“Who are you?”
“Nuruwen Esteniel, of Greenwood. I am one of the guards, as Aladain brought us here. He is in that room.” She pointed past him, not bothering to prepare him for the fact that his father was dead. Let the little one find out when he would.
Legolas started past her, but then stopped and squinted at her fingers. “Why is there a black stain on your nails, Nuruwen Esteniel?”
“Oh, that,” Nuruwen said, holding out her hands. He was young; he wouldn’t know. “That’s orc-blood. Did you know that it is the color? Rather disgusting.”
Legolas wrinkled his nose. “And does orc-blood smell so pungently?”
“Yes,” Nuruwen said.
Legolas went past her into the other room. “Ali!” Nuruwen heard him cry, then, a few seconds later, “Ada…? Ali, what is the matter with Ada? Why does he sleep?”
She slid over to the doorway and looked out. Legolas was looking at his father, a quizzical look wrinkling his brow. Then his nose wrinkled as well, and he bent in to sniff the wounds on Thranduil’s back.
“Why did you do that, Legolas?” Aladain said.
But Legolas said nothing. Nuruwen saw his gaze turn back to the room that he had just come from – the room where she was standing. Legolas stared unsettlingly for a moment, then looked back at Aladain.
“Ali, why does he sleep?”
“He – he has found a new existence,” Aladain said, trying not to let his voice shake. “He is at rest in the Halls of Mandos.”
He steeled himself for the crushing grief, the desperate confusion, that he would see on Legolas’s face.
But Legolas just shook his head. “Ada isn’t dead,” he said confidently. “Just sleeping. He’s still alive.”
“Look, Legolas, I understand that this can be hard to accept -” Aladain began, unsure how he was going to make the young prince see.
“No,” Legolas interrupted. “Bring him home, Ali, and he will be all right.”
Aladain looked at Nuruwen for help, his eyes tormented and pleading. Nuruwen gazed coolly back at him, but there was a hint of pity in her eyes.
“My little prince, your father has gone,” Nuruwen said. “He is dead. But come. We cannot waste any more time here. We must return to Greenwood as quickly as we might.”
“You will find a way to awaken Ada,” Legolas said forcefully.
Aladain and Nuruwen looked at each other. At last, Aladain decided it was no use to argue further with the small prince. He had gone insane with the shock, perhaps.
The captain of the guard lifted Thranduil, his friend, to bear him one last time – back to Greenwood.
The three of them – Legolas, Aladain, and Nuruwen – hurried down the winding steps. Barad-dûr was curiously, ominously silent.
When they reached the bottom, where Aladain and Nuruwen had left the other guards, they realized that they were all dead.
They lay sprawled in various positions, black, smoking holes gaping in their chests, or arms, or legs, or heads – wherever the deadly beam had struck. Aladain’s throat closed, seeing his friends lying there in serene, silent repose. What hurt him worse was knowing what was going to happen to them – there was no way he would be able to bear all the corpses out of Barad-dûr.
He closed his eyes, sorrowing a moment for each friend lost, until he realized that perhaps the shadow-fingers had not been what killed them after all. Just below the holes, which were surprisingly small, were more of the strange marks he had seen on Thranduil. They had a biting, acrid smell.
Legolas’s nose wrinkled again. “That’s what the wounds on Ada smelled like.”
“Quick,” Aladain said. “We need to leave here as soon as possible.”
The journey back to Greenwood was slow and sad. Legolas often fell back, as his legs were much shorter than Aladain’s and Nuruwen’s. Aladain had to carry Thranduil, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted Nuruwen to carry Legolas. Whenever she thought he was not looking, he caught glimpses of her flexing her fingers and looking at Legolas as a hungry tigress looks at a piece of fresh meat.
In time, they reached Greenwood. But now it was changed, darkened, and the air was not as clean. It was harsher, harder to breathe, and a shadow had fallen over the sun. The trees grew thick and twisted, and their leaves trailed in wet black paths to the ground.
A bier had been built for Thranduil in a place where the woods were still clean, and he had been laid there and draped with garlands of golden flowers. It had broken Aladain’s heart to bid farewell to his nearest and dearest friend, but it hurt him more that Legolas seemed to be in denial over it. He seemed to think that Thranduil was still alive.
The shadows lengthened. The plague on Greenwood deepened. And Aladain heard the name Mirkwood whispered among the Elves, a word that seemed to have been taken from the men who had heard of the falling shadow. Legolas was now technically the king of Mirkwood, as it was called more and more often, but as he was too young, Aladain acted as regent.
In the south, there came whispers that Sauron the great, as he was openly titling himself, had built a fortress. Many search parties had been deployed, but no one ever came back to report. Soon, unwilling to risk the lives of the precious few warriors remaining to him, Aladain stopped sending the parties.
In the meantime, Aladain ordered that caves be constructed, hollowed out beneath the poisoned woods. He worked alongside the other Elves, leaving Legolas to wander, something which he was uncomfortable about. He did not want Nuruwen anywhere near him.
Soon, the caves had been completed, and the Elves went underground. Before he agreed to move completely from the tree homes to the dark and silent caverns, Aladain enlisted the help of an Elf who was skilled in protective charms to set a guard around Thranduil’s bier, so that no wild animal or fey creature of the shadows might touch him.
One day long after the Elves had gone underground, in the dark forest, Thranduil awoke.
He could not remember why he had slept so long, or why there was such a burning pain in his chest. Groggily he raised himself on one elbow, also trying to comprehend why he might be lying on a stone bier in a dark forest.
Was this his beloved Greenwood? A chunk of ice slid into his stomach. Why was it so dark, filled with shadows and evil murmurings? The place where he lay was still untouched, through what force he did not know.
He looked around and got a nasty shock when he realized someone else was there. An elf-maiden, tall and wiry, with dark hair and strange black eyes, stood nearby. She wore shadowy armor and looked vaguely familiar, yet he could not place a name to her. Nuru, nuru something.
She crossed to him as swift and soundless as a panther. “Sweet awakening, my king,” she whispered hoarsely, and bent to kiss him. He felt her smile predatorily against him, and his mind reminded him that he did not want this contact, yet he was too weak to pull away.
She pulled away, and he stared at her in disbelief.
Her lips and teeth were stained red with blood.
Here ends the `Greenwood Tales’ series. Yet the story doesn’t end here. Look for the sequel series to these tales, The Chronicles of Shadowfall.