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Battle of the Golden Wood, The: 3. Into the Trees
"Do off your weapons." The voice was musical but chill, ageless with arrogance, and laden with an accent Oswy could barely understand. He spoke slowly, as if unfamiliar with Westron, and that was good, for Oswy's knowledge of the language was also slight.
"I do not..." Anger woke in Oswy's heart. He was lord now - albeit lord of a sacked village, leader of children - but his father had given him this sword with his last strength and he was loath to easily part with it.
"Oswy, please!" Leofwyn knelt over Cyn protectively, and looked up with resignation. Mindful of her son's dignity she spoke in Rohirric so that the creature who watched their quarrel could at least not understand the words. "He could slay you where you stand. For your bondsman's sake do not anger him."
"He is but one!"
"And that is enough."
Oswy held her gaze for a while, wondering at how small a step it was to go from mother to councillor, but he could not endure the steady regard long. She was right. Sighing, he put the sword and his long knife down on the grass in front of the creature's feet.
"The Man's sword also."
Feeling utterly humiliated, Oswy tugged Cyn's blade from its scabbard and placed it with the rest. When he had done so, the archer stepped forward, pinning the weapons under one lightly shod foot. Sunlight filtered through the boughs of the ancient cherries and there was silence for a second, and then a clamour, very close, of orc voices, yelling in agony and fury. Slipping into dreams, Cyn cried out in answer, something of the pain in those screams calling to him. Already his brow was damp with sweat and his face sunken.
The creature - elf, it must be, Oswy thought - did not stir at the sounds. The stillness in it was like that of the trees. With another Man, even an enemy, Oswy would have begged for help, asked for succour for his wounded. But tales spoke chillingly of the mercy of the Golden Wood. Few were allowed in, and fewer returned, and of those none were unscathed; wrought strange by whatever power dwelt within. There was nothing the elves might bestow that it was good for a mortal man to receive.
But Gytha did not remember the tales. With a child's desperation and innocence she ran up to the elf and took two handfuls of his cloak, looking up beseechingly. "Please help us! Please help my daddy!"
The elf's aim had not once wavered from Oswy's face, but now the hooded head tilted, as if listening, and then he took the arrow from the string and replaced it in its quiver. He slung the bow on his back and crouched down, face to face with the little girl. "Boe adar lin dartha i Hîr a Hîril beth," he said, and taking down his hood he showed a face fairer than that of mortal man, with long dark hair and eyes like starlit steel, "Be boe ammen." But he smiled at the child as if she was a rare flower.
His expression was distantly kind as he turned back to Oswy. "I am Erethôn, march-warden of Lorien. You will come with me."
"And if I chose not to?" At the high-handed treatment, Oswy's anger flared again and he clenched his fists, thinking that perhaps he could yet fight the creature hand to hand. It was tall, but did not look sturdy. In the corner of his eye, he was aware of a change in the texture of the light - a swift falling of shadows too patterned to be the movement of leaves, and when next he looked three other elves stood in a circle around their small group, bows drawn.
"That choice is not yours," said Erethôn coldly, "The orcs who pursued you have been slain. Yet I deem you to have news the Lord and Lady must hear. Therefore you will come." He picked up Oswy's weapons and passed them to one of his silent companions. Then he whistled and all three horses trotted up to him as if they had been raised by him from foals.
"Come, Oswy," Leofwyn's voice broke into his feeling of betrayal and doom, "What cannot be cured must be endured. Help me set Cyn on a steed."
It was, by the angle of the sun, but an hour after noon, when Oswy looked back in the direction of the free fields of Rohan once more, and with a heavy heart bid them farewell. He did not imagine that he would ever see them again; not at least as a free man, in possession of his own spirit. He wondered once more whether it might not have been better had they thrown themselves into Anduin and so met a clean death, but for Cyn's sake, and for the sake of his daughter, he did not now try to attack the elf who lead them, knowing that while death might release him, it would leave the children all the more unprotected.
Even discounting their strange guide the path was disquieting. Oswy was used to the open plains, to sky overhead and views for miles. Here among the trees he felt hemmed in. There could be enemies on every side, waiting in ambush, and he could not see them. The air was still, yet sometimes a breeze would wander like a sinuous brook through the quiet, and bring the smell of flowers unknown to Man. Then the canopies of the trees tossed with a noise like the sea, and light fluttered dizzying over his head, and he felt more removed from the world at every step, haunted by the sweetness of days and places he had never seen; ages long ago gone to dust.
As their journey progressed the feeling waxed, until all things became touched with awe and fear, and he perceived each raindrop on the end of a twig as a diamond and each blade of grass as a new creation, each shade of green a new colour, each shape a reason for wonder. There was a power resting over the whole land like the golden light in Autumn just before a storm, and under that power all things were revealed as stainless and full of glory. He found himself asking if perhaps this holiness was not in fact the truth. The truth that underlay all. A truth that sometimes Men were simply too busy to notice.
The ground fell away into a thickly wooded combe, like a vast bowl. At its lip they paused, and Oswy looked out, seeing, far off, a mighty hill crowned with towering trees, their stems of silver garlanded with blossom radiant as gold. It was from them that the unearthly scent flowed, and at the sight of them he felt freed of something, as though a burden he did not know he had been carrying had been set down.
"What is it?" he said to himself, "What do I feel?"
Erethôn smiled again his small smile. His slender hand reached up to steady Cyn in the saddle. "You feel the power of the Lady of the Wood," he said.
And Oswy cursed. He had not, after all, reached some understanding of the nature of purity. He had merely been ensorcelled by the temptress in the centre of the web. Deeply ashamed, he bit his cheek until the blood ran, determined not to be so weak again.
Thy father must await the will of our Lord and Lady,
As must we. (Lit: It is necessary also for us.)
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