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A small contingent of soldiers rode from Minas Anor the following morning in the quiet before the dawn. Led by Imrahil and Thranduil, the party was hardly more than a collection of their personal guards and attendants; Elessar had little of his army to spare, and there were Men and Elves enough in Emyn Arnen for the task at hand.
Imrahil did his best to clear his mind. He had sent Nerdanel and Erchirion to Ivriniel in his stead. Elphir, as the heir to their principality, would remain in Minas Anor with his family unless Elessar required him elsewhere.
Caras Ernil was only a few hours’ ride across the river from the capital, and they were approaching it as the first light crested the mountains. The stately hills rose out of the gently rolling landscape, casting the valley in prolonged shadow. They were met on the road by a border guard of both Men and Elves who were anxious to receive and direct them toward the city. Imrahil recognized the cautious relief of Faramir’s men, but saw something different and almost incongruous in the Elves. Their eyes brightened with a childlike excitement that their king had come empowered to act in this land on their behalf, absolutely confident that he would prove equal the task.
Imrahil led the party on as the road climbed into the forested slopes. Behind them, one of the guards blew his horn to announce the arrival of the acting Steward. The Elves raised a horn call of their own, one which must have been sounded for centuries amid the trees of Eryn Lasgalen, but had never before been heard in Ithilien. It stirred many voices which would otherwise have remained silent, and Elves appeared in their dozens along the route, drawn inexorably to Thranduil.
The regal stone roads leading into the city had been recently repaired and leveled, and the crumbling buildings had been rebuilt. Though still uncompromisingly Gondorian, Caras Ernil had been designed for beauty and was less severe than Minas Anor, its appearance softened by the surrounding forest. A pool planted with water lilies adorned the central square before the palace, and an impressive plinth stood in its center, the inscriptions upon it indicating that it stood ready for a statue of Elessar. There was a wholesome tranquility about the place that would have seemed incredible if one considered that it had only been six years since the place had been reclaimed from the influence of Mordor. The common name had arisen of convenience while Faramir had labored over an appropriately poetic name for the place, but his ultimate decision had been too long delayed to be effective.
The party dismounted, following Imrahil’s example. Grooms appeared to attend the horses, and Faramir’s seneschal descended the stairs to greet them. “My lords,” he said, bowing deeply, “we are grateful the King saw fit to send you to us so quickly. Will you be wanting refreshment after your ride?”
“Take us to the body,” Imrahil bade him, more abruptly than was usually his wont. “I would see it before all else.”
“At once, my lord.”
They were led into the Steward’s House, through the grand halls and into a discreet room in the back. The remains lay shrouded on a long table. Imrahil steeled himself as the pall was removed, and observed the skeleton with a critical eye. The left arm was clearly truncated above the wrist, an old wound. While that particular misfortune may have been common enough in Gondor, together with a familiar missing tooth it left little room for doubt.
“This is indeed my sister’s husband,” Imrahil said flatly, unable to feel any emotion in that moment. Doubtless it would come later.
“I am truly sorry,” Thranduil said with surprisingly obvious sincerity. Despite having seen more death than Imrahil could fathom, it seemed always to strike the Elvenking deeply. “I liked him very well, despite our brief acquaintance.”
“I regret you did not know him better,” Imrahil agreed as the pall was replaced, feeling the sorrow welling belatedly in his chest. “I have known few worthier men than he.”
Thranduil’s eyes hardened in strangely benevolent way as he recognized Imrahil’s distress. “We cannot restore Beleg’s life,” he said, “but we can avenge his death. Will you come with me now, or shall I return for you?”
“I shall come,” Imrahil said without thinking. At that moment, he wanted to be anywhere else. It was not until they had returned to the courtyard and remounted that he realized he was not certain where they were going or for what purpose. Thranduil had quietly assumed command, and was now allowing the Elvish messengers who had accompanied them from Minas Anor to lead them deeper into the hills.
On any ordinary day, Imrahil imagined the small city the Elves of Ithilien had built for themselves would be a quiet and subtle place, blended with the forest as Faramir had described it. Today, however, was no ordinary day, and scores of Thranduil’s people had turned out to greet him.
Legolas stood on the stairs outside the great hall, flanked by his household. His arm was still supported and bound, but it looked more useful than it had when they had parted last. “Welcome to Emyn Lasgalen, my lords,” he said with a wry smile. “I had hoped to receive you under more auspicious circumstances, but my house is yours all the same.” He greeted his father warmly in their own tongue and said that he knew what he had come for. Then he turned and led them in.
The inside of the hall was adorned with a riot of subtle detail, painted carvings, tapestries, murals and trophies. Against the far wall, in pride of place, a well worn suit of Thranduil’s battle armor stood on a display, a relic cherished by the Lasgalenath as they sojourned in distant lands. They had obviously expected him to come for it sooner or later, and had set beside it other useful items for his convenience, most notably a neat pile of fresh clothes. Quickly and without compunction, Thranduil shed the scorched festival tunic he had been forced to wear since the explosion, and availed himself of a new one.
Imrahil heard Legolas apologize that there had not been time to make the new clothes very fine, an objection which Thranduil immediately dismissed as being of no consequence whatever. Rather than feel neglected, Imrahil was flattered that they thought highly enough of his knowledge of their language to speak naturally in his presence.
Inevitably, Thranduil’s expression sobered as he asked after their wounded. Legolas agreed to take him to them. Imrahil let them go with a wave of his hand, content to wait.
“Prince Imrahil,” Erelas said, appearing at his side, “please sit and rest. Some refreshment has been provided for you and your men.”
Imrahil thanked him and saw that a generous table had indeed been set at the far side of the hall in the dappled morning sunlight. The guardsmen had already helped themselves, and Imrahil was happy to join them. He had begun to regret refusing food at Faramir’s house.
When Thranduil returned it was with new purpose, his face set as if in stone, reminded of his own grievances. His presence and his mood flooded the room immediately, and all the Elves stiffened, ready to leap at his command. Even Imrahil felt it, the coiled energy of a frustrated beast of prey. He and the guardsmen stood as the Elvenking briefly approached the table, just long enough to cut a generous bite of smoked boar and wash it down with a glass of wine.
“Did you find them worse than you expected?” Imrahil asked cautiously. It would have been callous not to inquire, but he almost dreaded the answer.
“They will heal,” Thranduil assured him, “but it will be a long road yet for some. Someone will be held accountable for their blood, just as soon as we have dealt with this distraction here.” He turned away and summoned his guard with a sharp flick of his wrist. Dorthaer and the others immediately began armoring him.
Elven soldiers had begun to gather outside without having been formally called; first twenty, then fifty, then a hundred. Word had spread quickly, and from what Imrahil had heard of life in Mirkwood, its army was well accustomed to mustering at a moment’s notice.
A wild and lusty cry rose from the growing crowd as Thranduil emerged and swung astride his horse. Imrahil followed with the rest of their party as Dorthaer methodically separated those who would accompany them immediately from those who would stand in reserve and those who would serve as scouts that night.
Suitably armed and reinforced, they returned to Caras Ernil to meet with Faramir’s captains.
Imrahil slept fitfully that night, unable to quiet his wandering thoughts. He missed his family, and was plagued by concern for Ivriniel. He was too agitated to mourn Beleg, and too occupied with their plans for the following day to have any peace. The whole situation seemed dangerously close to spinning completely out of hand. Perhaps the contagious energy of the Elves made him restless. None of them were sleeping. They were due to ride well before first light.
At last Imrahil despaired, climbed out of bed and hastily dressed himself. He stirred Ciryon awake, who helped to armor him. He wandered the quiet halls, aimless at first, but inevitably he sought out waking company. He did not actually want to be alone. A soft, familiar rasping sound drew him into the courtyard.
Thranduil sat beside the lily pool, carefully whetting his sword by starlight. He was not alone; the whole courtyard was full of Elves silently coming and going, attending their gear and preparing their weapons.
“Too anxious to sleep, Imrahil?” Thranduil asked. The Elvenking did not seem importuned by his presence, but genuinely concerned. That in itself lightened Imrahil’s heart amid all his swirling cares, that in so short a time he had merited a place among Thranduil’s friends. “That has often been my fate,” he continued, “and I would say to never mind it, but I understand that mortal kind are more adversely affected than we by lack of sleep.”
“That is so,” Imrahil confirmed, seating himself nearby, “and no doubt I shall regret my restlessness in the morning, but that is no help for it now.” He sighed. “This ridiculous interruption by Orcs is extremely ill-timed.”
“Do not be troubled on that score,” Thranduil said, resuming his attentions to his blade. “Orcs are no novelty to me. If we have not secured Ithilien’s borders within three days, I miss my mark.”
Imrahil said nothing, and after a few moments he sensed that Thranduil guessed that was not his only concern.
“You are thinking of your sister.” It was not a question.
Imrahil laughed silently. If he did not, he would weep. “Beleg was never actually of noble blood,” he said. “I remember when he first came to Dol Amroth as a boy, begging to be taken as a squire by one of my father’s Swan Knights. He excelled at everything he put his hand to. Ivrieniel set her sights on him before long, and she was determined to have him one day.”
Thranduil said nothing, but a ghost of a smile touched his lips as he rinsed his sword in the water.
“I have rarely seen two people so perfectly suited to one another,” Imrahil continued. He laughed again. “Beleg was so afraid of offending our father than Ivriniel had at first to ask for her own hand on his behalf. I could well believe that it had been she who had proposed marriage to him.”
Thranduil’s bittersweet expression had depths Imrahil dared not explore. “I have observed that a love as true as that will have its way in spite of all else,” he said gently. “I regret that they have been parted before their time. That is a grief I know something of myself.”
To his chagrin, Imrahil realized that he did not know what had become of Thranduil’s queen, Legolas’ mother. That she had died had almost been an unconscious assumption on his part, a certainty of intuition that had not required further explanation. He would not ask now, although he suspected Thranduil may be in a mood to confide in him. It felt like vulgar curiosity at that moment.
“I would not be so quick to judge the quality of Beleg’s blood,” Thranduil continued, changing the subject. “There is more to nobility than simple accidents of birth, as I am certain you can appreciate. My father and I had no claim of kingship upon the Elves of Eryn Galen except what they granted us when we were adrift in the world, and we have spent our lives honoring their trust. I would like to think our blood has proven noble enough for them.”
“No one who sees them can doubt their love for you,” Imrahil assured him, not that his assurance was necessary. “I did not mean to fault Beleg. He was a prince in all but name. Ivriniel must have heard by now, and I wish I could be with her. I know this will have hurt her more deeply than any loss we have endured before, and to be kept from her by Orcs is almost unbearable.”
“Your lady wife will comfort her when you cannot,” Thranduil said. “Forgive me if I assume too much, but I would venture to observe that you and she are at least as felicitously matched as was your sister. Treasure that bond, trust it, savor it while it lasts. Without it, few men can claim to have truly lived.” He sighed, his eyes fixed on some distant and unseen ideal. Then he returned to himself, hardened, militant. “Meanwhile, we have King Elessar’s interests to consider. Any woman worth her salt, as I assume both your wife and sister to be, will understand that.”
“Indeed,” Imrahil agreed reflexively, although in retrospect he knew it to be true. Ivrieniel would not resent his duties here; she respected, even idolized, a man’s duty to his king. She would forgive him, but he resolved to make good his absence all the same. She deserved that much.
“Our time has come,” Thranduil observed, looking beyond Imrahil. An Elvish scout was approaching. He stopped and offered his habitual obeisance to his king, then hurried to acknowledge the Prince of Dol Amroth after an unsubtle nod from Thranduil in Imrahil’s direction.
“We now believe that Orcs have been descending out of Cirith Ungol into the forest surrounding the Morgul Vale,” the scout reported. “The signs indicate that they do not return daily, but there is reason to believe they will be there tonight. The scouts await your command, my lords.”
Thranduil looked to Imrahil.
“The scouts will hold their positions,” Imrahil decided, “and report the location of the Orcs if they are sighted. If possible, do not engage them until we have brought up the body of our force.”
The scout bowed again. “Understood. We will await your arrival, my lords.”
After the preparations of the previous evening, it took less than an hour to assemble the soldiers and the captains, a small but capable force one hundred strong. A vanguard of scouts and Rangers led the way, followed by Imrahil, Thranduil, and the foot soldiers. The Morgul Vale was at least thirteen leagues distant, and it would be a long journey yet. With any luck, they could be in position before the sun set.
It was a wearily monotonous march through the deep places of the Ithilien woodland. Meals were taken on the move, and only two halts were called in the course of the day, those only in order that the men would arrive in a fit state to fight.
Just as the westering sun cast an orange glow over the sky, they arrived within sight of Minas Morgul. It was still a dreadful place with a cold and foul aura that was difficult to endure. Most of the Gondorians had already faced such a horror by advancing upon Mordor itself during the war, and Imrahil supposed most of the Elves had experienced something of Dol Guldur, but still there was noticeable trepidation throughout the ranks.
“Take courage,” Thranduil said, spurring his horse forward. “Even the bravest hearts can feel it. There are no cowards here.”
Imrahil could not help but admire his firm paternal leadership, and the men did stiffen almost imperceptibly as the Elvenking passed. He was quite correct; no man could be truly brave who did not know fear. Fear was not shameful, fear was natural, and in those few words he had convinced them that even mighty Thranduil knew fear, and yet he advanced. They would do no less.
The main force was halted in position upwind of the valley. The scouts who had been watching the area for days came to make their report as dusk fell. “The Orcs appear to be descending from Minas Morgul under cover of darkness to hunt,” the first among them said. “Based on their past behavior, we expect them to show themselves tonight. There are no more than two dozen of them, and should not prove any great challenge for this force, my lords.”
Thranduil nodded gravely. “We will be prepared to engage, whether they be massed or dispersed,” he said. “Let us make short work of this.”
Imrahil remained with him so that they could better coordinate their command. A captain of the Rangers named Drambor would lead the vanguard.
Night fell slowly, or at least it seemed so in the enforced silence. No one spoke, no one moved, and the noise of the nocturnal insects soon masked what noise could not be helped. The valley was eventually lost in darkness, a growing mass of cloud shrouding the moon. The Elves remained especially attentive, knowing the Men were relying upon their sight.
It became a very wearisome wait after a few hours in the dark, and the looming presence of Minas Morgul made it decidedly unpleasant. Imrahil rested his eyes for a moment, knowing many sharper than his own continued the watch. Thranduil stood as if made of stone, hardly seeming to breathe. He was an old hunter, and knew his craft. The horses were anxious and restive, but each was minded by an Elf tasked with keeping the animals in order.
Another hour passed. A stiffening wind stirred the clouds, occasionally admitting a brief glow of silver moonlight. A whispered intake of breath beside him made Imrahil look out into the valley again. Still no one moved, but the air seemed thick with anticipation now that their quarry had been spotted.
The figures seemed small at this distance, but were unmistakable as they entered the relative emptiness of the valley. The Orcs seemed cautious, but not unduly concerned, leaving the mountains in small groups; first three, then six, then ten. The scouts had been quite correct. The final tally, if Imrahil’s eyes still served, was seventeen. When the Orcs had strayed far enough from their cover, Drambor would halt their progress while he and Thranduil swept them from the rear, closing the net. It would be quick and clean, so long as no one lost his nerve and sprang the trap too soon.
Imrahil frowned. The Orcs had stopped and seemed to hesitate. The stillness of the night suddenly seemed as fragile as glass as he silently willed them to disregard their instincts and continue south. Apparently, they were of a different mind. The foremost party turned tail and signaled a retreat.
Thranduil cursed and leapt astride his horse as Drambor’s archers loosed their shafts and his infantry gave chase. Imrahil also swung into the saddle and followed as the Elvenking led their few horsemen in a desperate chase to close the gap to the north before the Orcs regained the mountains.
There was little enough time to think as they galloped into the valley, but Imrahil was instinctively aware of how exposed they had become. The unexpected distance had left their infantry far behind, stripping them of more than half their strength. It was unnerving enough to charge toward Minas Morgul in the dead of night without also knowing one was rapidly advancing beyond the reach of all help.
It would be a near-run race. The Orcs were surprisingly swift on their feet, but Thranduil was closing the distance, riding with the terrible single-minded focus of a predator.
Imrahil heard a guttural roar as a dark shape flew across their path and tore Thranduil from his horse. His own mount panicked and spun off the road, but Imrahil managed to keep his seat. His heart thundering against his ribs, he had enough presence of mind to return immediately and assume command. He ordered ahead those riders who had already overtaken them, and several more who followed, but halted the last two. Providentially, they were both Elves.
“King Thranduil has been attacked,” Imrahil hurried to explain, indicating the direction.
“Follow us, my lord, if you will!” they bid him, turning aside at once. Imrahil followed. The crashing of a tremendous struggle in the covert guided them forward.
Then all the noise abruptly ceased. Fearing the worst, Imrahil dismounted and secured his horse as the Elves did the same and crept forward on foot. Several paces into the underwood, they hesitated and shared a strange look. Imrahil was about to question them when he also heard what had confounded them. He heard voices, not strained as he might have expected, but engaged in stiff conversation. The Elves moved to advance further, but Thranduil’s voice sternly bid them stand down. They stood amidst the tall grass, abandoning all pretence of stealth, Imrahil with them.
The fleeting moonlight illuminated an extraordinary scene. The Elvenking and an enormous Uruk were still entangled on the ground, locked in a hostile embrace which bespoke the raw violence of the fight, yet neither seemed willing to dispatch the other. They remained at that awkward impasse for some time, their words too indistinct for Imrahil to make out.
Finally, very slowly, they released one another and regained their feet. Imrahil realized he had been holding his breath, and exhaled. Thranduil and the Uruk regarded each other in silence for another long moment and exchanged a few more quiet words. Then, incredibly, the Uruk grudgingly submitted himself to be bound.
At Thranduil’s signal, the two Elves rushed forward to secure their unexpected prisoner. Their king gave them some terse orders and then returned out of the brush. Imrahil could now see that he was bleeding from several significant injuries, but none seemed to affect him so much as the new shadow behind his eyes. Though not unnerved, he seemed strangely shaken.
Imrahil was burning with curiosity. “My lord, what happened?”
Thranduil hesitated. “Even I am not yet certain,” he said, wiping a trickle of blood from his brow. “I have much to consider, and much to discuss with you, but first we must retrieve Captain Drambor and gather our men.”
“Agreed,” Imrahil said, but Thranduil had already turned and whistled for his horse.
The rest of the horsemen were returning from the charge. “The Orcs evaded us, my lord,” the foremost among them reported to Imrahil. “They retreated into the mountains, but did us no violence. We sustained no losses.”
“Neither did we,” Imrahil sighed, “although it may easily have been otherwise. Thank you, captain. Return across the Morgulduin and await further orders.”
As their forces regrouped south of the stream, Imrahil turned his horse and went in search of Thranduil, strangely irritated. The entire excursion seemed to have been for naught, and he was keen to have some answers. When at last he found him among the rest of the party on the southern bank of the stream, the Elvenking was having his wounds cleaned and dressed.
“You seem to be the only casualty, my lord,” Imrahil observed with a sharp smile. “How did you manage to charm the beast into sparing your life?”
“Quite the contrary, my friend,” Thranduil said. “It was he who charmed me. I have assured him of an immunity from harm which may not be wholly within my power to grant, so I must insist that you also afford him your protection.”
Imrahil bit his tongue, suppressing his first reaction, and carefully reframed his reply. “I imagine you have a compelling reason for taking such liberties,” he said.
Thranduil met his gaze unflinchingly, clearly understanding his frustration and incredulity. “I do.” He waved away the healer’s attentions and stood. “Come, walk with me.”
Thranduil led him several paces away from the camp and into the forest. The wind was stiffening, the thick spring leaves rustling loudly in anticipation of a storm. There would be rain before they regained Caras Ernil.
“I may have been overhasty when I said that Orcs could no longer surprise me,” Thranduil said at last. “I have never before encountered one like him, and I am convinced we must proceed with utmost caution. Nothing is as it seems anymore.”
Imrahil scoffed. “The beast attacked you with malicious intent. I see no novelty in that.”
“But he did not attack me,” Thranduil insisted. “He unhorsed me and merely stopped me killing him, defending the retreat. That is what first arrested my attention. I believed I was defending myself, yet I found I was the aggressor. There is an air about him for which I am completely unable to account.”
“What are you saying?” Imrahil demanded. “Are we to accord these Orcs greater consequence simply because they have acquired new civility in their speech?”
“I am saying that I am intrigued,” Thranduil persisted. “I believe this matter may prove to be quite serious, and therefore worthy Elessar’s attention. I could attempt to explain myself in detail, but I fear this is neither the time nor the place. A courier may yet arrive at Minas Anor soon enough for the King to meet our return to Caras Ernil.”
This incredible turn of events continued becoming ever stranger. Imrahil’s head was spinning as he considered calling Elessar away from Minas Anor at a time like this to come gawk at an Orc, but Thranduil was in earnest, and someone of his experience was not to be taken lightly.
“Prince Imrahil!” It was Captain Drambor, pushing his way through the lashing foliage. “My lords, the men are agreed that they desire to be gone from here more than they desire to rest. With your permission, we are prepared to march south at your command.”
Imrahil sighed. There was no time to be overly cautious. “Very well, Captain. Form the line and begin the march.” He turned to Thranduil. “Dispatch whatever messenger you wish. I trust this will all become clearer tomorrow.”
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