Battle of the Golden Wood, The
11. The Sortie
"Take this," Celeborn turned his horse and passed Oswy a banner mounted on a long, shining spear. The pennant snapped angrily in the east wind, streaming out over the elvish host. There, on a field of midnight blue, circled eight comets with heads of diamond and tails of silver about a moon of pearl. They gleamed even in the barren, brown light. "And do not let it fall. It is the emblem of my King."
"My Lord!" said Oswy, aghast at the honour, "Though I die it shall stand."
"Gurth a choth in edhil! Gurth an glamhoth!" cried the Lord of Lorien, setting his heels to his horse's flank. The riders surged forward behind him. Oswy saw now why the elvish cavalry was called a 'wing' - they rode as if in flight. Pale were their horses and their mail silver, their shields as white as snow.
For a moment he was upborne as though soaring amid the wings of swans in the light of the first sunrise. There was a glimmer about the elves' faces and their hands, and the unsheathed blades of their swords. Their spears shone with wrath, and the Mordor filth of cloud above seemed only to make the elvish warriors blaze more brightly. Oswy felt at once ungainly, squat and clumsy among their tall elegance, and uplifted, permitted a last glimpse of something aweful and beautiful, before it passed away into memory and song.
A din of mocking shrieks greeted them as they flew toward the enemy host. The army of Dol Guldur drew up in deep ranks about their precious engine. At the gallop the cavalry formed into a spear of riders; Celeborn at the point, Merethir and Calandil with their greatest knights to his left and right. Behind them, in the shaft of the spear, rode the rest of the force, the archers in shelter behind the knights. Oswy found himself beside a slight elf with amber eyes who carried the emblem of the Golden Wood - a banner of fresh spring green with a mallorn as its device, its trunk glimmering silver and its flowers of gold. She nodded at him and gave a smile like quicksilver. "I am Elien. Stay beside me and I will see no harm comes to you."
He bit back the retort that he did not need to be defended by a girl. "Then Oswy, Oshelm's son, will do as much for you," he said with breathless courtesy.
Across the orcs' own pontoon they sped, hooves drumming wild music from the splintered wood. The river lapped at their heels as they surged forward, wind in their faces, standards streaming above. Now a thundershower of arrows whined out from the enemy horde to ping uselessly from elvish armour, or fall behind riders protected by their own speed. Erethon's archers unshipped their bows and returned fire, shooting with as deadly aim from horseback as though they stood at peace among the boughs.
The sharp point of the cavalry touched the first rank of orcs, drove inwards. The wedge of knights forced through the enemy shieldwall, making a gap that those in the shaft filed in to fill; carving and holding open a way to the machine, and a path by which to return.
At last there stood naught between the elves and the siege engine but an Uruk chieftain upon a Lord of Wargs; grey backed, red of eye and tooth. Celeborn's spear took the Warg through the throat, but there it stuck fast. He cast it away, taking the blow of the Uruk on his shield, and, drawing his axe, he clove the creature's head in two and trampled its body beneath the hooves of his horse.
There beneath the shadow of the engine he stopped, and Oswy, amazed, saw him set his hand to the timber of the great bow and speak to it in tones of command. Orcs scaled it from the other side, thick as maggots on a corpse, and Erethon's folk picked them off unerringly as they came. Yet more replaced them, and then more, and one by one the archers fell idle as their arrows were spent.
Now stationary, the sortie was surrounded; a glimmer of light in a raging sea of darkness. By Oswy the knight who protected him was dragged from his horse by two wargs and torn between them like a rag of meat between dogs. The press of the horde drove inwards through the gap - the young archer, Ardil, meeting it in hopeless valour armed with naught but his two knives. Courage flared in Oswy at the sight. He wedged the pole of the banner of falling stars in his stirrup and, holding it one handed, he fell upon the orcs with his father's sword. Stabbing one through the shoulder, he turned to find Ardil had slain the second. As they smiled their thanks to one another the cavalry closed the gap, putting them both in shelter once more.
"Na vedui!" said Celeborn, as Merethir hewed down three of the machine's attendant goblins behind his back. He looked up and cried in a clear voice "Drego!"
At once the elves wheeled their horses. Striving their utmost they pressed the din-horde back, widening the path they had kept clear between them. The wedge of knights reformed and sped down the open space to crash like a storm upon the forces that stood now between themselves and Lorien. Turning, Oswy saw the Golden Wood - green leaves fluttering, a scent of springtime - and breathed in with relief. Safety, so close.
But at that moment darkness fell on him. The Nazgul. The creature it rode came down like plague, and the vast stretch of its naked, featherless wings drove the stench of decay into his face. Heavy, slow, it turned above him, and the cowl of the wraith's hood swung from side to side as if it sniffed out spilled blood, or Oswy's fear. His limbs became as water and his heart trembled. Yet he was not its prey. It passed overhead, and the claws of the fell beast reached out, iron-taloned, towards the Lord Oswy had pledged his honour to protect.
"Baw!" shouted Elian at Oswy's side. She stood in her stirrups. "Gurth a Ulaer!" and she hurled the banner of Lothlorien straight through the stretched hide of the dwimmerlaik's wing.
Dark blood fell on her. The creature turned and its huge head came down. Oswy saw a beak filled with teeth, heard a sound like that of vast shears, told himself he should do something, he should... Then the wraith leaned forward and there came a whispering from the emptiness beneath its hood, as though it breathed out. Shadow took him, he swayed in the saddle, chilled to the bone, clinging to the King's banner as to a last glimpse of starlight in a world gone black.
Elian's body fell on the ground and the emblem of Lorien fell next to her, the bright golden mallorn settling into blood and filth, broken as she was.
The fell beast rose into the sky, ungainly on its injured wing, pursued by the last arrows of the elves, and it was only as it withdrew that Oswy's strength returned to him. He looked down. "No," he said, "No." Had he not said he would take care of her? Truly, he was nothing but a curse to these people. He began to dismount, thinking that at least he could bring home the standard she bore and thus preserve her honour. But, as Oswy paused, Ardil slapped the rump of his horse hard.
"Noro! Noro lim."
And he found himself galloping fast in the retreat with nothing to show for the end of a brave life but tears.
Warg riders pursued them, and orcs surged behind them so the Anduin seemed engulfed in a tide of seeping oil - so many of the foul creatures were clambering over one another, driving their comrades' faces into the mud of the banks as they scaled them. The water ran black and sluggish, choked with orcs bloodcrazed enough to try swimming.
Gaining the borders of Lorien, the sortie plunged on through an acrid wilderness of dead trees. Soot clung to Oswy's face and choked his breath, and his eyes were raw with weeping and with smoke.
Within the wards Calandil's wing and the other half of Merethir's forces were drawn up in safety. Fresh and rested, they were eager to avenge their wood and their fallen friends. The sortie passed through them just as the pursuing orcs ran howling within bowshot, and the arrows of the elves came down like falling water on the army of Sauron. The dead were piled in heaps among the black and withered trees.
Disoriented by safety, Oswy reined in. Around him healers helped the injured out of their saddles. Erethon's folk dismounted eagerly, accepted parcels of new arrows brought by maidens from the city, and returned to the fray, disappearing into the untouched woodlands that surrounded the gash of black devastation. Archers in the trees safe within the wards shot volley after volley into the burnt slot in the borders until it became a charnel mound where the orcs feared to tread.
Down that black treeless scar Oswy could see across the river to where the siege engine stood, unmarked, unchanged by the elvish charge and sacrifice. Even now the enemy was winding up the great cable to fire it once more. Grief filled his throat. They had done nothing. They had failed.
There came a jerk on his horse's head. He looked up, surprised. Calandil had taken his reins and was pulling him towards the ridge where Celeborn sat on his horse looking out at the battle with grim satisfaction. Orc blood marked Celeborn up to the elbow, and one shoulder was red with gore. Oswy had not yet seen such a hawk like, predatory look on the elf-Lord's face and he quailed before it, knowing himself dishonoured. He breathed in and forced the words out firmly, but in a very small voice. "I am sorry," he said, speaking rather to Calandil, whom he feared less, than to the Lord of Lorien, "I was forewarned but still I faltered. Still I could not stand when the wight was there."
"Well," Calandil's mouth quirked in a small, sad smile, "Third time is the charm. Though I would not call this failure."
Celeborn turned to look at Oswy with vague bemusement, stirring out of deep thought. "The banner of Elu Thingol stands," he said quietly, "Was that not all I asked of you?"
"But," Oswy was ashamed further by their remote kindness, "So also stands the machine of the orcs, and... and the standard of Lorien is lost."
"I am aware of the deed of Elian," said Celeborn, "And honour her. As for the engine, look."
Uruks took one of the huge missiles from the pile beside the machine, loaded it into the great bow. Oil dribbled from its tip, igniting eagerly as the goblin marksman pressed a torch to it. It occurred to Oswy suddenly that he stood in the very centre of where the bolt would fall, and a flash of thought showed him the rain of fire, the heat, the agony. With a maul the orcs struck the lever to fire the machine.
As a new bow, drawn fully back and loosed without an arrow, will sometimes burst apart in the hands of its wielder, fracturing into shreds, driving into his hands and face, so the siege engine exploded. The frame, no longer capable of containing the massive forces of its tensioned cable, tore apart, and went flying. Oak beams mowed down ranks of the enemy host - falling, shattering, splintering. The oil-soaked arrowhead tore into the heap of other missiles. They erupted in flame and great gouts of it arced through the air, spattering on the Uruk-Hai, setting alight the fur of the Wargs. Primal terror took the wolves of Dol Guldur and they ran hither and yon among the horde, howling, spreading the blaze.
Seeing it, the orcs who fought still among the trees of Lothlorien were dismayed. They retreated to the further shore of the river, pursued by the arrows and the laughter of the elves. But those who had ridden in the sortie cheered, and one began to sing, a music full of rushing hooves and fire, sublime speed and the white blaze of the spears of the Galadhrim shining in the darkness.
"For Galenros," said Celeborn as if to himself, "And for Ragnir, and for Elien. For Guilin and Gelion and Lhunuil." He sighed.
And for Oshelm, Oswy thought, moved and oddly comforted, And Ceolwulf, Eldwyn and Folcwine... It was the first time he had dared think of them. But it no longer seemed strange to recite their names beside the casualties of Lorien. It seemed...right. His mood was lightened and his guilt assuaged at the thought that they would be avenged together.
'Gurth a choth in edhil. Gurth an glamhoth.' = 'Death to the enemies of the elves. Death to the din-horde.
''Na vedui!" = At last!Drego!" = Retreat!"Baw!" = No! Don't!"
Gurth a Ulaer." = 'Death to the Ringwraiths.''
Noro. Noro lim.' = 'Ride. Ride fast.'
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