The Glade Part I
Legolas bit back a groan as he made another supreme effort to find a foothold on the tree trunk. For one blessed moment he was able to catch a heel against a knotted lump of bark and he gasped with relief as the wrenching pain in his shoulders eased, but then his heel slipped on the noisome slime that oozed down the trunk. He was unable to hold back a cry as his fall was sharply halted by the leather thongs that dug cruelly into his wrists.
How long had he been suspended from this beech now? Was it hours or days? He knew not; he had lost all sense of time. Ever since that first brutal beating by the jeering orcs that had captured him and hung him from a tree like a deer carcass, he had found his recollections growing more and more hazy. The last thing he could remember with any certainty was leaving Elrohir sleeping by their campfire not a league distant while he had crept off to enjoy the sunrise in the glade that he had played in as a child.
Although taking Elrohir to see this glade had been the aim of their trip into the southern woods, Legolas had wanted to spend some time there alone with his beloved beech trees before sharing the place with his lover. How he regretted that rash decision now! So eager had he been to reach the glade before sunrise that he had paid no heed to the curious quiet of the trees thereabouts. Just before he had reached his objective, he had been set upon by a band of orcs. They had subdued him with ruthless efficiency and brought him the rest of the way to the glade themselves. His shock at his first sight of the glade in many years had at least managed to numb him to the first half-dozen or so blows of his savage beating.
Raising his head, he gazed around the glade through swollen eyes. It was a ruin, a ghastly parody of the fair glade he remembered from his youth. Once it had been a beautiful meadow, full of light, encircled by lofty beech trees. He had loved it best in the spring, when it had been carpeted by bluebells that grew so closely together it was as though a blue mist was flowing between the trees. Legolas closed his eyes in sorrow as he remembered romping through those bluebells as an Elfling, breathing in their heady, clean scent and delighting in the joyous song of the beeches. It was spring now, but no bluebells grew here today. All the plant life hereabouts was blackened and withered. The trees were warped and twisted into grotesque forms; glistening fungi and lichens sprouted from their bark and black moss and vines weighed down the branches, choking out the light. In place of the blue haze of bluebells, a grey shadow twined its way around the boles of the trees. No tree song filled the glade now; instead, sinister whispers, full of malice, crept into Legolas’ mind.
A black wave of despair washed over him. What dark necromancy had entered the Greenwood that could bring such a blight upon the forest? Legolas let his head droop once more. He supposed he would soon find out: three of the orcs that had captured him had been ordered to fetch their captain in case he wanted to question their captive before they finished their sport with him. He knew exactly what they would do to him; the evidence of what the orcs had done with the other hapless elves that had fallen into their clutches was all around him. Legolas shuddered. Even though his eyes were closed, he could still see the grisly remains of those poor folk, strung up in the other trees around the glades. He did not think he would ever be free from those images. He murmured a soft prayer, beseeching Námo to grant them peace and forgetfulness in his halls.
“Stop that whining, you miserable, stinking Elf!”
A vicious punch to his stomach made Legolas gasp. He opened his eyes to see one of his brutish guards leering at him. He had a moment of grim satisfaction to see that blood was still pouring down the side of orc’s face from a torn ear received during Legolas’ desperate fight to free himself from his captors. His satisfaction must have shown on his face, for the orc snarled at him.
“You won’t be smiling when our captain gets here, oh no!” The orc licked his lips and ran clawed hands up Legolas’ leg. The prince choked back a cry of revulsion. “And when he’s stripped your mind bare,” gloated the orc, “we’ll finish our sport with you. And you can be sure we’ll take our time. No sense spoiling our fun with an Elf as pretty as you by breaking you too quickly.”
Legolas flinched as the groping hand moved higher up his leg. Regardless of the searing pain in his shoulders, he kicked out, striking his assailant in the groin.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” he croaked and spat what little saliva he could muster into the orc’s face.
“Why you slimy cesspool maggot, you’re going to pay for that!” howled the orc and drew his knife, holding it to Legolas’ throat.
At the sound of the cold, clear voice that rang out across the glade, the orc dropped his knife as though it burned him and dropped to his knees, cowering upon the ground.
Instead of feeling relief, however, pure dread flooded Legolas’ senses. A tall man, hooded and cloaked so that his features were hidden, had entered the glade. He advanced on the captive, giving a hissing laugh as he did so. It seemed to Legolas that a piercing chill preceded him. He had never met such a fell being before, but from his father’s tales of the Last Alliance, he could put a name to him: Úlairi. What was one of the Dark Lord’s servants doing here, in the Greenwood?
Legolas watched in growing horror as the Ringwraith approached. Despite that fact that Legolas was suspended a few inches above the ground, the Ringwraith was so tall that his face was on a level with Legolas’. Even when no more than a hairsbreadth separated them, however, Legolas found that his eyes could not pierce the shadows beneath the black cowl.
He flinched back, pressing his head against the tree trunk when a gloved hand reached out to cup his chin. An icy cold chill fanned out from where the hand held him and spread throughout his body until Legolas was shuddering violently from the deadly cold. As his face was turned towards the empty hood, Legolas fought to overcome the terror that swept through him.
Suddenly the Ringwraith released his grip on Legolas and gave a menacing chuckle.
“Thranduil’s get!” he crowed. “This is an unexpected prize. My master will be pleased with the gift I will bring him today.” One black-gloved finger trailed down Legolas’ cheek. “But royalty does not travel alone. Who was with you?” And grasping Legolas’ face between both hands, he intoned, “Show me!”
What followed was worse than anything the orcs had done to him. An unclean mind entered his own, relentlessly probing for the information it sought. Desperately, Legolas fought to keep thoughts of his lover hidden, but to no avail. The vile mind slid into his own with ease, taking possession and slicing through the layers of protection that Legolas struggled to hide his thoughts behind. After a fierce battle of wills, the final barrier crumbled. With a victorious cry, the Ringwraith stepped back and the hateful penetration abruptly ended.
Only then did Legolas realise he had been screaming. Exhausted and sick at heart, he let his head drop to his chest, only vaguely aware of what passed next.
“One of the sons of Elrond the half-breed!” the Wraith marvelled and gave a triumphant laugh. “Oh my prince, today you have brought my master not only power against one Elven realm, but three! He will reward me richly indeed. I think I will ask him if I may have you as my pet once he is done with you.” Then with one last stroke down Legolas’ cheek, he turned to the assembled orcs.
“You fools! This Elf was not alone. There is another one out there. Find him and then bring them both to me.” With that he swept out of the glade.
“You heard him, lads,” shouted the orc leader. “There’s another one of those filthy Elves nearby. After him! We can leave this one unguarded; he ain’t going nowhere.”
For some time after the orcs charged off, Legolas fought simply to take a steady breath, so horrified had he been by the violation of his mind. His stomach roiled and he was trembling violently from the chill that had seeped into his very bones. He wondered if he would ever feel clean again.
Inevitably though, once the horror had subsided somewhat, his thoughts turned to Elrohir. Although he desperately hoped his lover had escaped and had made his way north to warn the king, deep down he knew that Elrohir would never abandon him.
“Blessed Elbereth, keep him safe,” he whispered through parched lips.
Then, in desperate need of comfort, he began to sing a simple hymn to Elbereth that he had learned as a child. His voice was roughened and it cracked several times, but he did not give up; once more the glade bore witness to the beauty of an Elven song.
He sang on and after a time it seemed to him that the poisonous whisperings of the trees lessened. At first he dismissed that thought as wishful thinking, but then his dangling feet found purchase once more against the tree trunk. This time the bark did not feel as slippery as before and his grip held. Sobbing with relief, he managed to work his way into an easier position that relieved the weight on his shoulders and arms. The relief was short-lived, however, for soon intense pains shot up and down his arms as the blood flow was restored. Lolling back wearily against the tree trunk, he returned to the solace of his song.
And then he heard it, faint and weak, but most definitely there: “Rest, my prince. I will protect you if I can.” It seemed that the shadow had not completely conquered the heart of the beech tree after all.
His voice had faded almost to a whisper when a harsh shout caught his attention. His heart almost ceased to beat when five orcs staggered into the glade, bearing a heavily trussed, but wildly struggling Elrohir. The orcs flung Elrohir roughly to the ground and at a barked order from their leader, three of them dashed off to round up the others. The other two turned to their latest captive and began to punch and kick him cruelly.
“Elrohir!” Legolas cried in anguish, and then desperate to draw the orcs’ attention away from his lover, he began to taunt them. “Get off him, you cowardly brutes. Are you so terrified of Elves that you can only fight us when we are tied up? You snivelling pieces of warg dung! You’re afraid that we would tear you from limb to limb if you had to face us unbound.”
Evidently one of the orcs tired of Legolas’ taunts, for he broke off his attack and strode towards the prince. “Shut up, you little squealer, or I’ll wring your blasted neck!” he growled.
The orc had covered half the distance between them when, without warning, the two branches that Legolas was lashed to snapped, causing him to tumble heavily to the ground. He lay there quite stunned for a few heartbeats, unable to move. It was only when the orc’s leering face loomed over him that he was spurred into action. Using the only weapon at his disposal, he gripped one of the broken branches and thrust the splintered end towards the orc, putting all of his waning strength into the strike. Had Araw himself guided his aim, the effect could not have been more deadly: The branch pierced clean through the orc’s chest. The orc convulsed once and coughed a spray of black blood into Legolas’ face. Then he toppled over and lay still.
Legolas scarcely spared the slain orc a glance; all his attention was on Elrohir who was putting up a spirited fight against his assailant, despite being bound hand and foot. Pausing only to snatch up the fallen orc’s dagger, Legolas struggled to reach his lover. Weak though he was, he staggered to his feet and lurched across the glade. He had nearly reached Elrohir when his lover managed to knock the remaining orc down with a deft swipe of his bound legs. With a strangled cry of rage, Legolas fell on the orc, burying the dagger deep between its shoulder blades.
For a while Legolas could not move. He simply lay across the orc’s body, regardless of the foul stench that assaulted his reeling senses, his laboured breaths roaring in his ears. The pain of his wounds that he had pushed to the back of his mind during the brief battle now returned with full force.
“Legolas! Legolas, answer me please!”
Eventually the desperation in Elrohir’s voice got through to him and he pushed himself up to his knees. Blinking, he tried to look at his lover to assess his wounds, but he found it hard to focus.
“Elrohir, are you hurt?” he gasped.
“No more than a few cuts and bruises,” came the reply. “But you! Oh my love, what have they done to you? Hurry and cut my bonds so that I can tend to you.”
Reaching out blindly, Legolas pulled free the dagger from the dead orc’s back and managed to locate the leather thongs that bound Elrohir’s wrists and ankles. He severed them with trembling hands. But when Elrohir went to take him in his arms, Legolas pressed a restraining hand to his chest.
“We must get out of here now,” he murmured, wondering why the trees had begun dancing around the glade. “Hurry!” he mumbled. “Úlairi!”
Then the roaring in his ears returned and a sparkly, grey mist began to swirl before his eyes. The mist grew thicker, then turned black and he knew no more.
When he opened his eyes again, it was to see Elrohir looking down at him, deep concern in his eyes. The cold shock of memory hit him and he struggled to sit up.
“Úlairi!” he gasped. “We must leave now!” A wave of dizziness struck him and he collapsed into Elrohir’s strong arms.
“Do not fear, beloved. We are safe here,” came the soothing reply. “We are several hour’s march north of the glade and we are up in the trees. They will hide us until you are well enough to continue.” Elrohir stroked Legolas’ hair soothingly.
Reassured, Legolas let Elrohir ease him back down onto his makeshift bed of moss draped with a cloak. Looking about him, he saw that they were in a makeshift talan, sheltered from prying eyes by the interwoven branches of the oak that was giving them shelter. Elrohir was right; the trees would hide them.
The trees… Legolas bit back a sob.
“Elrohir, did you see what has befallen the glade?”
“Aye, I did,” replied Elrohir heavily. “I am sorry, beloved. I know how much that place meant to you.”
“How could such a thing happen?”
“I know not, but when we report this to your father I am certain he will do all he can to rid the woods of whatever darkness has taken up residence there. And I promise you that if there is anything the folk of Imladris can do, we will help also.”
But Legolas shook his head, unsatisfied. “Nay, you were not there long. You did not feel it as I did. There is an evil at work there darker and older even than the Úlairi. I do not know if we are strong enough to defeat it.” But then as he thought of the beech tree that had aided him at the last, a flame of determination kindled in his spirit and he met Elrohir’s gaze with resolute eyes. He grasped Elrohir’s hands firmly in his own as he endeavoured to make his lover aware of the seriousness of his next statement.
“But I will not sit idly by and watch as my beloved Greenwood is devoured by this shadow,” Legolas vowed. “I will fight it to the last, Elrohir, and do whatever it takes to rid the forest of this evil. I will not rest until the woods are clean once more, no matter how long it takes.”
Tired out by this vehemence, Legolas’ eyes closed and he drifted off to sleep, his final words still hanging in the air.
Elrohir bent down and kissed Legolas on the brow. “I believe you, my love,” he murmured.
A distant look came into his eyes as he gazed down upon his sleeping lover and suddenly he was not seeing Legolas asleep upon the talan, but Legolas standing tall and fearless in front of great, black gates in a time and place remote from the here and now. He was surrounded by foes that pressed in on all sides, but he did not falter. With deadly skill, he hewed them down with his gleaming blades.
As quickly as it had come, the vision dissolved and Elrohir was gazing at his sleeping lover once more.
“Aye, I believe you,” he whispered again.
End of Part I