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Battle of the Golden Wood, The: 22. An End Comes
They were but two day's ride from Dol Guldur when the first orc burst from cover before the startled noses of the leading horses. Running full pelt, looking behind itself as it tore the armour from its back in order to go faster, the snaga fled from some unseen peril straight into the elvish host. Its look of utter surprise was beyond price, and Oswy found himself grinning fiercely. Even so some of his people had looked when first they beheld Saruman's army coming upon them. See, he thought, How your deeds return to you, foul one!
The snaga hesitated, panting, leaning on its knuckles - its long arms trailed on the ground - aware of the scores of arrows turned its way. The forest seemed to draw its breath as the elves paused, reluctant to slay so pathetic a thing. It opened its mouth, tongue lolling out, eyes wide with terror. And then the bushes were flattened, bracken torn up, as a squad of Uruks trampled their way out of the undergrowth. They too were looking behind rather than before them, but their presence gave the snaga either courage or a more overriding fear. It raised its rusty, notched scimitar and leapt for Merethir's horse.
It died at once, pierced by three shafts, and the Uruks fell before Celeborn and his knights like wheat before the scythe. Then the Lord of Lorien raised his hand and signalled for quiet. It fell, absolute. Even the elven steeds stood motionless, neither snorting nor swishing their tails. Oswy's breathing became a loud matter, though he tried to muffle it behind his mailed glove.
No sound of bird broke Mirkwood's sullen silence. But distantly, as yet on the edge of hearing, though growing louder every second, there came a clamour. Oswy heard the ring of mail and sword, the harsh yelling of orcs and hissing of the huge spiders; elven battlecries, and - stirring something he had almost forgotten in him - the shouts of mortal Men. In return a fervour went through the host of Lorien, the knights sitting straighter, Erethon's archers lifting their heads, fire in their grey eyes. Then Celeborn laughed aloud. "Hear!" he said, "It is the army of Thranduil. He drives them before him, straight into us. Like a speck of dust between our two cymbals, we will clash on them and the wood will resound with the noise!"
"For Lorien! For the Lady" cried the host about him. But Celeborn said "No, not for Lorien alone, nor even for all Elvendom. For Middle-earth and the dawn of a new age."
Thus it was that when the forces of Lorien came racing like an ocean wave through the dark shadows of the wood of night, and burst upon the last orc host, every voice was raised in praise of sunrise and clean day. There the fighting was close and deadly. Trapped between two elvish armies the orcs were filled with rage and terror. Like a cornered boar, they fought, possessed with fell strength and killing madness. Unstoppable unless they be hacked in pieces. Many a merry elf died in that last of the battles of the Golden Wood. Still, the sun had barely passed the noontide when the glamhoth lay slaughtered, and the warriors of Lothlorien and Eryn Fuin found themselves facing one another over a pile of the slain.
It was a strange army, Oswy thought, that of Thranduil. Other than himself, Lorien's folk were all elves, moon-bright, sharp as lances, with the light of stars in their eyes. But Mirkwood's army had great, hulking Men - some clad only in paint - and bears who walked like Men, with human cunning in their faces. Men, little different from the Rohirrim, there were also, armoured like woodsmen in heavy leather, billhooks and adzes and a motley of other gleaned weapons in their hard hands.
Oswy found it unsettling to be among Men again. For a moment he saw them as an elf might - noisy, clumsy, but full of swift impatient life and bearing their own strong beauty. A tug of homesickness came over him briefly, all the sharper because he had pledged himself to an elven Lord.
Taking Merethir with him, and Ardil with the mallorn banner of Lorien, and Oswy with Thingol's device, Celeborn rode into the space between the two forces and waited. Ere long, there came from the host of Mirkwood an Elven King with his herald and his banner-bearers. He was arrayed for battle in armour of an ancient make, and his cloak was green, though much bespattered with blood. Helmless he was, his gleaming, golden hair crowned with mayblossom and catkins. A necklace of emeralds shone verdant about his throat, and his scabbard was wrought with many gems, carved in the shape of fresh green leaves. Glad and fair was his face - as kindly, and yet as fierce at need, as the sun of high summer. Thranduil, King of the Elves of Northern Mirkwood. Mighty among the Firstborn in these later days.
There seemed a resemblance in the looks of the two elvish rulers, as though at several generations remove they might share a common forefather. But not as friends did they ride slowly together, rather with the wary faces of those who have once been at odds, and wonder if trust is possible again. Wondering at it, Oswy was aware of the unease of the elves of Lorien behind him, and before him he saw the forces of Eryn Fuin stiffen slightly, their expressions closed.
Then Thranduil dismounted. Swiftly, Celeborn followed suit, his axe left in its mount on his saddle. "Cousin," he said, quietly.
Thranduil inclined his head, his lips turning up slightly, "Kinsman."
At that they embraced, gold against silver, as though the sun shone upon snow, and what began as a formal gesture became, half way through, something of a grudging hug.
Both armies relaxed at once, and long sundered friends on either side signalled to one another, waving.
"A star shines on our meeting," said Thranduil, stepping back, "You came to rescue me?"
"To aid, certainly," Celeborn smiled, "We have been hard pressed, and I wished not to waste time sending messengers when I might go myself. Better to come where I am not needed than arrive too late where I am."
Thranduil made as if to speak, but at the last, with a look of great self-restraint, he closed his mouth and motioned to his army. There came out from its ranks a mighty Man, thrawn and tall. His hair and beard were white with age, but no sign of frailty lay in the bare shoulders under his tunic of simple wool. With him came a second man, in raiment of boiled leather, incised with small birds. Blond as a Rohirrim, he was, and he looked on Oswy with surprise and concern. "This is Grimbeorn the Old, Lord of the Beornings. And Ulf of the Greenwood. My friends and allies, this is Celeborn, Lord of the golden land of Lothlorien."
Oswy was at first indignant, and then amused at his own change of heart, when he saw the looks of suspicion which went through the faces of the Woodmen at this introduction. They seemed to dwell happily enough beside the elves of Mirkwood - who, to Oswy's eye, looked little different from the Galadhrim - but they quailed at the name of the Golden Wood. Many were the Men in Thranduil's ranks who looked anew at Celeborn with fear, and stepped back.
Ulf was not one. He grinned - a gape of broken teeth behind his sandy beard. But there seemed little warm about the smile. It was a challenge, rather. "There is one among your company who is no elf, Lord of Lorien," he said, a hint of accusation in his rasping tenor voice, "Though he is clad and shod and mounted as one. How comes he here? I understood the borders of your land were closed to those not of your kind."
"I turn no one away who is in need," said Celeborn, mildly, "Though it is true we have not had open dealings with the world outside for many years. That may now change, as we see fit." He beckoned Oswy forward, and - understanding, suddenly, that Ulf feared him ensorcelled, kept in Lorien against his will - he came in his own time, looked Ulf in the eye proudly. "This is Oswy Edhellon, Lord of the Oshelmingas of Rohan, who offered his service to me in this time of war. He is held by no spell stronger than his word, and he may depart at any time with my blessing."
"Lord Ulf?" Oswy glared unkindly upon the Man, and endured a raking gaze which searched him for signs of enchantment, dropped, puzzled, when none were to be found.
"Ah," said Ulf, looking doubtful, "Well, perhaps not all tales are true. But if not, you will not mind me speaking at more length with the boy, in company of other Men?"
"This is neither time nor place for your folly, Man of Greenwood," said Celeborn, with a narrowing of the eyes that made those around him breathe softer. "I return now to Amon Lanc. If you wish to have further speech with Lord Oswy you must come there."
He turned to Thranduil - who had been watching this exchange with a bland, polite expression, and a lurking hint of humour in his bright eyes. "Dol Guldur is taken, though for now it still stands. Will you not accompany us and watch it fall?"
"For many hundred years I have yearned for such a sight," said Thranduil, suddenly fierce, "And grievous are the wounds its spawn inflicted upon my realm in these past days. Gladly will I go with you to witness its ruin." He smiled - a brief flash, like light from the facet of a gem - "Even if it means encountering your Lady wife once more."
"Thranduil," said Celeborn, "We have only just begun speaking again. Let this not be the shortest truce in Eldarin memory."
Many orders were given, and the greater part of Thranduil's force departed Northwards. Then Grimbeorn bid the elves farewell. "I have no care for stones," he said, "Be they in towers or heaps. But the bees are humming in the meadows of my folk, and there is much to put right. A good fight, my Lords, but may it be the last in my lifetime!" Then he put his axe over his shoulder and strode away Westwards, towards the mountains. His folk, man and beast alike, went with him, a shuffle of bent backs and silent strength, he among them - in the shadow - seeming neither Man nor Bear, but both at once, grizzled and formidable.
Ulf, however, spurred his mount until he was riding beside Oswy. A company of his followers fell in behind him and mingled with the elves of Lorien, apparently at ease, though their backs were very tense. "Speak freely to me," said Ulf softly, "Are you truly here by your own will? You are but a child, and..."
"You ask me to speak freely?" Oswy would hear no more. He doubted that Ulf had faced down a Nazgul, or come unscathed through the dread sorcery of one of the Enemy's rings, or saved the life of a king. He was no child! "Then I will speak. Am I ensorcelled? Only as any man of good heart might be who sees something wondrous, and rare, and doomed. Look at them, Ulf, and tell me you do not feel it too! Ill fortune, I thought it, to be trapped between orcs and the Golden Wood, but now I am glad, for I have seen a beauty few men can look on and then live without." He shook his head, as a horse shakes off taunting flies, and despaired of trying to explain. "If you have seen them, and you still do not understand, then you never will. But I take it ill of you to doubt my Lord's word, and I will prove his truth on your body with my sword - if you carry on."
At that Ulf laughed, unabashed. He flung up a hand "Enough! I do not call him a liar. My only desire was to set you free - if you were captive - and to bring you back among your own kind. But I am glad the endeavour is not needed."
Ulf's black cob nickered gently as the host turned back towards Dol Guldur, and its rider looked approvingly on the forest about him. Already it seemed less diseased, even to Oswy's plains-trained eye. He could imagine the improvement was all the more obvious to the woodsman. And only then, looking at the sudden, astonishing change from coal to chestnut in the boles of the trees, seeing a glimmer of new buds where there had swung the sucked-dry, skeletal prey of spiders, did Oswy realize how much he had begun to take for granted the magic of the elves. He had begun to see it with the eyes of the Galadhrim, as nothing more than the way the world was. Yet had he looked upon it as one of his countrymen might, would he not too have been afraid?
"I do understand," said Ulf, quietly, "I am from Rohan myself - from the Westfold. My folk have long had trading links with the Woodmen, and one night - bringing good beef of the Mark to exchange for timber - I heard the elves of Mirkwood singing in the distance. Then I could not go home. I could not bear to think I would never hear it again." He smiled wryly, "So I settled among the woodmen, and have a wife here - the daughter of the headman - and two sons, thankfully too young to fight. I dwell among my own people, but I can go and see Thranduil's folk whenever I will, and I count myself the luckiest man in Middle earth."
"Because the songs of Rohan have no evil to speak of Mirkwood. Lorien is the Land of Peril - the Wood of the Witch-Queen, where the sorceress sits weaving her webs of spells. Who knows what the elves of that land are like. Terrible, I deem!"
Only a few short months ago, Oswy knew he would have nodded in sage agreement to this. Somehow that made it all the worse. "The Lady Galadriel is my Lord's wife," he said coldly, "And I will not have her spoken of thus. Ere long, if you come with us to Dol Guldur, you will see her with your own eyes. You will know then that she is a no Sorceress, but a Lady, high and brave and fair as the sunrise."
"If so, then I will hold myself rebuked," said Ulf smiling, "And look! I knew not that Lorien had a Lord - he is not in the songs. I am as willing to be proved wrong about your Lady. I own I am curious to see her. But now remember that I spoke out of ignorance, and let us be friends, for you are doughty and loyal, and I wish you well."
Afternoon sun shone slanting into the clearing and onto the bleak hill of Amon Lanc. Then many cankers in the treetops were touched with honey coloured light and withered or broke away, leaving smooth bark that glowed with subtle browns, or glossy silken grey. It was in this time of golden sun that the sound of Lady Galadriel's party came first to the tents of the encampment. Newly returned himself, Oswy stood beside the pavilion in which Thranduil and Celeborn sat, speaking softly as they exchanged their tales of war. Ulf sat beside him, and they watched together as the riding of Lorien's maidens came into view.
White was Galadriel's palfrey and golden were the bells upon its bridle, and they rang soft and sweet. Her hair was a crown upon her head, deeply gold as the sunshine, and her mantle was as cloud, edged with small flowers of elanor. Upon her pale brow and upon the ladies who followed her a light seemed to dwell, otherworldly, and a glister of pearl drifted about the hems of their dresses, their horse's polished hooves.
"Ahh..." said Ulf, and smiled. But Oswy's gaze did not linger on the Lady, it was drawn to the one woman in that riding. Leofwyn sat among the maidens of the Galadhrim, and looked well there. Proud and tall, warlike and not at all out of place, she seemed. Like a shield maiden in tales of old, archaic and splendid. Some of the Lady's power, perhaps, spilled over Leofwyn and showed not illusion, but the truth of her inner strength.
Then Galadriel dismounted, giving her reins to Rumil of Lorien, and the elven Lords rose and went to her. Oswy followed, keeping to his Lord's left - though he much desired to run to Leofwyn rather and find out from her how his people fared. There would be time for that later.
"Thranduil Oropherion," Galadriel smiled upon the King of Northern Mirkwood with a smile of great charm, "I am glad to meet once more my husband's kinsman. Too long has the silence lain between us."
She turned almost reluctantly to Celeborn, looked in his face as though she hoped to see the answer to many unspoken questions there. But if she found answers, she said nothing. At her gravity and her questing gaze his open look of welcome faltered a little, and he frowned. "I bid Thranduil be present as he has suffered most and warred longest with this place, and has a right to watch it fall."
"You have great faith in my abilities, my Lord," said Galadriel, and if her voice was teasing, her eyes were full of doubts and rebuke, "Though you know them to be diminished. I had not thought to have an audience for this."
"I am no 'audience'," Thranduil bridled, "Have I not been at war with Dol Guldur five, nay five hundred times longer than you have, and with no power but the strength of my arm..."
"Peace," said Celeborn, and drew a hand through his hair in seeming weariness. "My Lady, you were the most powerful of all elves in Middle Earth long ere the Ring came to you, you were the strongest while you bore it, and you are still the strongest. I have no doubt you will bring down these walls as easily as I might crumble a handful of dried leaves." He sighed. "And Cousin, try not to look for insult where there was none intended. Just for this short time may we tear the works of the enemy and not each other?"
At that the Lady laughed quietly. Then, walking a little apart she turned her face to the tower. She was still a moment, facing it, glimmering in its gloom like a slender lily at the foot of a mountain. Then she raised her arms, holding the sunshine in her open palms, and she began to sing. Dark and sweet was her voice as pouring honey, and as honey the words seemed to fall from her mouth - heavy, golden, with a power almost visible, curling about the base of the black stones of Dol Guldur; seeping down into its hidden dungeons, rising upon its walls as the deep yellow light which comes before a storm.
A wind sprang up, and the treetops tossed, dust showering from the withered leaves. A dark autumn came with a skirl of soot and fume upon cold air. Dead leaves fell and for the first time in many a century the sky was visible from beneath the trees. A bare winter descended upon the forest. Branches whipped against the sky and shed dirt like a rain of shadow. Galadriel sang on, and her voice strengthened - clear and sweet and dreadful as the notes of glass. It rang in Oswy's head and through his blood, and all his bones were shaken as water. He fell to his knees and clasped his hands over his ears just as the sound - a high, pure, yearning, unendurable sound - was answered.
Dol Guldur spoke. Its stones groaned. Its voice cried out from the walls - a hollow roaring, deeper than the foundations of the earth. And the earth replied. At first only a tremor Oswy could hardly distinguish from his own, the ground began ere long to ripple, and then to buck like an unbroken colt. Still Galadriel sang, the light upon her like the radiance of another world. Stronger yet streamed the melody of power from her lips.
Upon the battlements of the Dark Tower Merethir's company had trained its own devices, hurling stones and treetrunks against them. There were there some small scars, some few splintered stones, the result of all his fury. But now, beneath the song of the Lady of Lorien, those scars opened. Splinters became fissures, cracks became chasms, running like lightning from the clawlike turrets to the squat, immovable base, and down, further. Caves and corridors beneath the earth began to collapse. The tower thrashed like a tree in a tempest, and the dead power that kept one stone upon the next was scoured away. Masonry began to fall; arrhythmic, and the harsh, booming roar of the song of Dol Guldur strove with the terrible sweetness of Galadriel's.
Then the earth rose and opened. Oswy cried out in terror as the world tilted and a pit gaped beneath the foot of the tower. Cold was the smell of that abyss, dank and chill as a world of buried things - air sighed from it and stroked his shuddering hands with a clammy mist. "Bema! Oh Bema!" he cried, scarcely knowing what he said, aware in some small, resentful corner of his soul that he was not the only Man on his knees. There was scarcely one standing. But the elves were upright and their faces were turned to the tower, and in their eyes was something utterly strange. Something he neither knew nor wanted to understand; fey and furious and full of joy.
A moment of balance. Oswy felt as though a nail of ice were being slowly drawn through his eye; he could scarce breathe or think for the aweful, dreadful beauty of Galadriel's song. A vein burst in his nose and blood flowed and spattered on the silver-grey steel of his mail. He tossed his head, trying to make the sound go away, and at that moment the first wall slid like a slope of scree down into the pit. The air was filled with choking dust, and small falling stones, and - from some vault now burst apart - a rain of ill made pewter coins bearing the device of the lidless Eye.
Darkness ate itself. Now that the first wall had fallen the others followed swiftly - the ground gaping for them, closing in upon them, over them, crushing and burying them. There was an edge of triumph to the Lady's voice now - vindicated, perhaps even relieved. Oswy looked up to see Thranduil and Celeborn standing very straight among the tempest of falling boulders, with their eyes shining.
At last, after a time that seemed very long to Oswy, there was nothing more of Dol Guldur to fall. The shaking earth had consumed it all, and now it stilled. The armies of Lorien and Eryn Fuin stood upon a bare round hill, and the westering sun shone unobscured upon a scatter of loose stones and a scar of new-turned soil.
He shook himself, hardly able to believe what had happened. Awed and terrified almost out of his senses. Had not a fortress stood there only this morning, that now was completely unmade? He struggled to his feet and stood, swaying, leaning on Thingol's banner as a prop, and oddly, irreverently, the thought came to him that he should be thankful that he had made no wager with Ulf on the matter of the Lady's Sorcery.
As the tower fell, Celeborn fought the urge to laugh in sheer delight - the power and the music of Galadriel curled about him like a storm, and he felt like a mariner, in a small boat, running before the tempest. This was his lady - unaccompanied, unmuffled, unchanged by the cold white voice of arcane craft in the form of a worthless ring. She needed it not. She never had. And surely now she would see it.
The ground shook and he rode it, exalting. Other men sought out danger on the untamed ocean, threw themselves at foes too great for them in battle, sought out the thrills of speed and danger and death, but he, he had wed the elemental force, and brought the storm home to live with him. Where other men saw something to fear, he saw only her splendour, and Oh, how he loved her for it!
Dol Guldur was fallen, and the place where it had stood smoothed over. Galadriel muffled a cough behind her hand and sighed, her proud head drooping a little. Then she raised her arms once more and began to sing of springtime, as though she would clothe the bare hill with green grass. Celeborn's heart leapt at the thought that she would turn her mind to new growth; to a future here in Middle-earth. Surely this was victory, and her strength had returned? Might not the sea-longing itself have abated in her, now that Nenya - the cause of that ailment - was no longer? Might not things now return to how they had been, without it? He breathed in a clean air, prepared himself to welcome happiness.
But Thranduil stepped forward, and caught Galadriel's sleeve, his face dark. "No," he said, "Of destruction you may sing - for destruction you have brought on many a realm. But you will not sing of beginnings or times to come. I will not have your curse rest upon my wood. Eryn Lasgalen will not come to ruin because of you."
At that, Celeborn's heartbeat faltered, and he looked to her, awaiting her anger - praying for her anger. The Galadriel he knew would let no one speak to her thus, king or no. But instead of the biting rage he hoped for - the stare that would have intimidated a Balrog, the flash of a haughty and imperious spirit - she lowered her hands, and looked in Thranduil's face with eyes full of resignation, and defeat. She said nothing, but turned and walked away.
Then Celeborn felt as Dol Guldur must have felt when the pit opened up beneath it. The foundations of his world were broken and cast into darkness, all the more bitter because he knew that he had built them on false hope, deluding himself. In pain, he took hold of Thranduil and spun him about. "There is no curse!" he cried; not sure to whom he spoke - his kinsman, or his wife's retreating back - "All things come to ruin! Every ancient oak in the forest must fall in its time - it is the way of this world."
Did he speak to Thranduil or to himself? In desperation? In folly? Or in truth? "You pick up the seeds, you take them somewhere else, you plant anew. It grows again, young and fresh. That is the way of things in Ennor! It is the way things are. It is no curse!"
But Thranduil seemed unmoved. He gave a small, bitter laugh, though his gaze was not without pity. "You have to think that, cousin. You married her. I did not, and I do not have to take that chance."
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