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Battle of the Golden Wood, The: 7. The Testing of the Wards
Around him, he was aware of his company, flitting through the trees like silent shadows - dropping down to kill, disappearing again before they alike could be threatened. Already the orcs were in a fury with frustration and fear. No match for elves in a wood.
Erethon worked his way back to the borders, pulling the arrows from orc corpses while here and there, invisible in the leaves, an elf-voice would call out over the clamour and the tide of attackers would turn, making a futile search for the singer.
When his quiver was full and his belt could hold no more he turned back, just in time to hear a roar go up and a yell of orcish laughter. Before him one of the cherry-trees caught in flames, blossom flying up like sparks, but it was not the tree's destruction that pleased the orcs so well. They had dragged an elf from the burning canopy. He, doused in oil, burnt also, to the orcs great amusement.
"Ithildir!" Erethon cried, and, forgetting caution, he raced to his fellow's aid. Others of his company were doing the same and a great number of orcs came pouring out of the woods, attracted by the noise. It was pitched battle then, all tactics forgotten as he shot shaft after shaft. He carved a path to Ithildir's side and flung his cloak around the young archer. Relief touched him briefly when he knew the elfling would live, but he could not help realizing how dearly bought this victory was. Already he was once more without arrows, and the orcs had regrouped and surrounded him.
His company harried them, but the orcs had now learned better than to follow the taunting voices. They kept together, a great pack of swarthy Mordor orcs, with here and there the pallid, cats-eyed, Moria goblins among them.
Setting his back to a tree, the swathed form of Ithildir at his feet, Erethon laughed and gave himself over to the joy of battle as they came at him. His long knives were wet, his hands sticky, his arms black up to the elbow. Orcs fell as his company fired on them from the treetops, but there were simply not enough elves or enough arrows.
Just when he had opened his mouth to begin singing his death-song, a horn sounded from beyond Nimrodel and there came running, like a host of the Elder days, many Galadhrim in armour, lead by a warrior with a cloak white as cloud, wielding an axe inlaid with gold which flashed eagerly in the pale spring sunshine. Merethir, of Celeborn's household, who had come with the Lord out of Ost-in-Edhil, where together they had fought against Sauron the Deceiver face to face.
The orcs cried out in dismay, but Erethon's company was filled with hope, and surging forward, gleaning arrows all the way, the two elf forces trapped and destroyed the orcs between them.
"Well met, Guardian," said the white cloaked lord once the last of the din-horde lay in pieces at his feet, "Not late I hope?"
"You come in very fair time, my lord," Erethon cried, smiling. "Very fair time indeed."
From the high talan in Caras Galadhon Celeborn looked out and beheld from afar the burnings and the ooze of darkness beneath the leaves where orcs forced their way into his forest.
"It looks worse than it is," said Calandil, stepping up beside him, "They have no wood-lore at all. All along the East border they venture in, blunder about, and we pick them off as easily as spearing fish in a millpond. Before another hour is passed they will be nothing more than soil under the roots of your trees."
In the South, where he had sent Merethir, a line of silver gleamed as though Anduin himself had risen to crash upon the glam-hoth. All was hopeful, and yet Celeborn's palms itched for the feel of a weapon, and it irked him to stand here, letting others take the risks. Glancing sidelong at Calandil, he knew that his old friend was more than aware of this, and the look of sympathy was more than he could take. "You stink," he said.
Calandil laughed. He pushed back one of his many gold-tipped braids, leaving a smudge of black blood on his cheek. "Aye, as a perfume, better roll in cowpats than touch an orc...What troubles you?"
The braying of black horns sounded out and in the East, all along the river, single orcs and bands of three or five began spilling out from under the eaves of Lorien, joining the larger host which wound northwards like a poisonous snake, ever touching the borders and then drawing away.
"They test us," Calandil said. His slate-blue eyes, so like those of Daeron, narrowed as he understood the pattern, "They seek to find a gap."
"And in the seeking they keep our forces spread and diffuse, so that the greater burden lies on my Lady - to maintain the wards at all points. I like it not."
"No more did Thingol, when Melian bore the brunt of defending us," said Calandil, glad youth in his face as memory took him back to a more wondrous world. Thinking of Elu Thingol's storms of sudden anger - which broke like thunder and left the air refreshed behind them - Celeborn shared a smile with his friend. There were few now left who remembered King Elwë in all his glory, as a beloved kinsman, not just as a figure of dark justice in an ancient tale.
"He was right to mislike it." Celeborn said, "Too greatly Doriath relied on Melian, so that when her strength was withdrawn from us, we fell. I have sent Tasariel and her company to follow the host. The orcs will not find a hand's breadth of this border where we depend on magic alone. Perhaps if they believe us to be defended by arms at all points they will try another tactic."
"Am I to join Tasariel?"
"No. She and Haldir's archers will have to be enough. I need you here in case this is but a feint. Any frontal assault will come here, in the East."
"Then I will return to my wing and be sure they are ready." Calandil turned, the sweeping lift of his cloak and the glint and ring of his ornamented braids like a repeated character in the writing of Celeborn's life - each iteration unique, but the meaning at all times the same. It was good, in this changing world, to have something that altered not.
As Calandil descended, Celeborn walked over to the edge of the talan and looked almost straight down. There, far below, was the smooth shadowed bowl of the mirror glade, the mirror itself like a fallen jewel glimmering. Beside the mirror Galadriel sat, her hands in her lap, her back very straight. He thought her eyes were closed until she tilted her head and looked up at him - a glance as sharp and delightful as cold water on a hot day.
Do you not have work? She chided him in jest. Why are you idling?
It's said that to gaze on a thing of beauty is refreshment to the spirit. So I am not idling. I strengthen my faer by looking upon you. How hold the wards?
The touch of her mind drew away. If he followed he could sense Lorien - every flower, every glade, every hind that lifted a startled head to snuff the wind. Running through the whole country, as softly as fallen rain, flowed the golden power of Galadriel. With that influence, but brighter, stranger, and to his mind less trustworthy, twined the strength and white brilliance of Nenya.
At the edges of Lorien these powers merely whispered, telling of what had crossed into the land, but a mile within they coalesced together into an invisible barrier. Orcs, lured into the strip of woodland outside the barrier, were unable to breach that ring of will, and so remained helplessly within the outer woods, waiting to be picked off by the March-Wardens.
The wards hold well, Galadriel said, a hidden smile easing her tight-pressed mouth, And will continue so. That is as long as you do not make a practice of distracting me.
He smirked. When the time comes I will distract you well enough.
A small flicker of unvoiced laughter quivered the leaves above his head. You are such a fool, my husband. Why did I ever marry you?
That, he said, turning back to the chaos of messengers and the grim faces of his scribes. There was still no news from Haldir in the North. That I shall never know.
The sun had lowered now behind Caradhras, and the horn of the mountain was russet and madder red in her departing beams. Mallorn blossom tossed against a deepening sky as Haldir looked out and saw the orcs approaching, like a tide of thrice burnt oil spreading over water.
Mist strayed over the valley of Nimrodel. Quiet in the silvering dusk, the voice of the waters sang of love and hope and a far off meeting that Haldir knew had never in truth come to pass. Tonight it seemed an ill omen - the song of a maiden cheated of her dreams - just as time cheated the elves and stole from them everything for which they strove.
"But not yet," he said to himself, a whisper of denial towards the orcs and their Master, "You shall not take Lorien from us yet. Not if my hand can prevent it."
"Haldir!" The tree swayed slightly as Orophin swung up to stand beside his brother, laughing, "Tasariel comes, and Ai! the banners and the horns and the evening light on their armour - it is like a tale by the fire wrought in life! How we will sing of this!"
Childlike Orophin seemed at times, Haldir thought, and indeed he was too young to have yet seen pitched battle. Childlike, I hope he remains. For a short time. But the wish seemed little likely to be satisfied. He set the regret aside, telling himself to be content if his brothers both survived this, however their innocence might be lost. "I will hear no song before yours," he said, pledging the words against an uncertain future.
Tasariel's axe fouled in a shield. She dropped it and swept out her sword, but at the very moment when she was unarmed two orcs leapt upon her. She jammed the quillions of her sword into the belly of the first and tensed, hoping that her abused armour and bruised ribs would absorb the blow of the second. But the stroke went wild and the goblin fell, a long arrow neatly through the centre of its eye. Tasariel looked up and met the gaze of Haldir, now but a tall shadow against a sky full of stars.
"March warden," she bowed slightly in thanks.
Haldir's head raised. "Ware! Behind you," and he disappeared again, seeking more arrows.
Thus the weary night passed, and between them Tasariel's warriors and Haldir's archers drove the enemy west and then south along the fences of Moria. Many orcs were slain, trapped between the wood and the crags of the Misty Mountains. But there, where the fighting was fierce, many elves fell also.
"Too many," said Haldir and clasped his brother's shoulder as Orophin stood stunned, looking at the dead faces of friends whom he had thought to have beside him for as long as the world should endure. "See to it that you do not join them."
"I cannot..." Orophin looked upon Haldir with eyes as unquiet as the sea. Then he gave a mute, numb nod.
"You will sing this battle yet, chen-nin. You will sing for those who have been silenced."
But Orophin shook his head. "No. Haldir I cannot. I...just leave me be."
At Silverlode the orc army hewed down trees and flung them over the river, crossing it in speed. They paid very dearly for that timber. So much so that when they had gone over they came no longer even within bowshot of the trees but passed southward. Hugging the contours of Lorien they kept just beyond the archers' range, as if goading the elves to come forth and do battle in the plain.
"Do we let them go?" Haldir asked, as they rested for a moment beneath the glossy crown of an ancient holly.
"I know not," said Tasariel and whistled tunefully. At the bright notes a blackbird came fluttering from its nest and alighted by the elf-warrior's stained hand. It cocked its head and fixed one gold rimmed eye on her face. "My friend," she said to it, "Fly to Caras Galadhon and tell the Lord that the orc army departs towards Rohan. Are we to pursue them?"
The bird's flight made a brave picture against a dawn sky of palest yellow. Outriders of Tasariel's wing kept pace with the orc host, harrying them still if they came too close, but Tasariel and Haldir breathed deeply of the sudden quiet.
"Now we have time to listen to the grass," Haldir said, "I would send my brother back with an escort for those who have been injured. Rumil weathers this well, but Orophin..." he sighed, "He is very young."
"Then by all means," Tasariel took off her helmet and shook out the long fall of her dark hair, "Not all neri are made to be warriors, just as not all nissi are formed for the arts of peace. I speak as one who knows! Let him go to the healers and take Death itself as his enemy. He will not be less honoured for it."
So Orophin passed back though the protective spells that girdled Lorien with enchantment. There he was met by maidens bearing litters in which to carry those who were most grievously hurt, and after tending those whose wounds were slight, they departed for the healers' pavilion in the city.
But Haldir and Tasariel stood yet a while under the holly, and at length the bird returned, singing.
"Good," said Tasariel and unbuckled the latches of her mail, letting it fall with great content, "The Lord says not to pursue them - and I say aye to that. Let them go. We have at least thinned their forest, and earned some rest before the next assault." She smiled, "Will you drink with me to our first victory, Haldir?"
"I will." But in his mind, Haldir saw the orc host pass in fury and trampling over the long meadows of the Wold, coming on the unsuspecting Men there in all the stored wrath and humiliation of defeat. "What of Rohan?" he asked.
"What of them?" Tasariel shrugged, "Never have they sought our friendship. Little, I deem, would they want our protection. Let Rohan worry about Rohan. Or at the very best let the Lord and Lady worry about them. Your hands and mine are full enough."
Haldir spared a thought for the little Ringbearer, and for Aragorn son of Arathorn. He wondered briefly what impact this extra army of the foe would have on them. But Tasariel was right. Lorien could not fight the battles of all Middle Earth. They had repelled only the first questing finger of Dol Guldur. It remained to be seen whether they had strength enough to withstand the full blow.
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