Lothlórien – Third Age of the World
There was little left. Sunlight baked the soil that had long lain damp and moist beneath trees hundreds of spans high, so large that buildings had been built into them. One could only imagine the grandeur of the place, only bits and pieces spoke of the creatures that had once lived here not so long ago.
Rowen could feel the pain of the trees, so few left, of their lost companions, as well as the elves that had once nurtured them and lived within their lofty boughs. She sat crouched among the broken spars and branches, eyes closed to absorb what she could feel.
She had always been good with such things, her empathy with nature a skill she treasured deeply. Still, being so open also brought with it heartache, for she could sense the loss, the agony of so many gone. She opened her eyes slowly, squinting in the too bright light. Around her lay a forest, but dead, most of the trees down and rotting in the sunlight with smaller, more stubborn growth hiding their ancestors great size. Only a few clung to life, the grey bark smooth, yet stained with the fires that had taken most of the others, chipped and battle-scarred from ax and sword.
But what about the people, those creatures that had lived among the branches of the Mallorn? Had they retreated to those lands across the sea? Were there any left? She doubted it, looking at the devastation around her. How could they stay, seeing their home decimated in this way?
How long had they withstood their enemies only to fall to nature's wrath, and once vulnerable, to those very creatures they had fought against, hunted for, and nearly destroyed themselves.
The orcs after the war of the ring became hunted creatures. Hiding amid the shadows of night, they remained in the world, certainly far less once Sauron had been defeated, but still a threat to the peaceful peoples of the world.
A hundred years past and still they roamed the wilds and places like this, torn apart and left for dead.
Rowen nearly wept at the sight.
“There is nothing here.” Sweeney gripped her arm, her brother's attempt to interrupt her thoughts.
“Nay, there is far too much. It hurts to feel it all.”
Sweeney pulled her to her feet, his gray eyes concerned. “Then why stay? Why come here at all if you knew what it would be like?”
Had she known the pain here? Probably, but she had not been able to resist the urge to see, to view a stronghold of such graceful beings, only to find it like it was.
Had anyone seen sight of the elves in recent years? She could not remember anyone speaking of them. They had been forgotten, only tales in a war nearly lost to memory, as people preferred to push such horrors aside to live their normal, and now relatively peaceful lives.
There were just a few that had not forgotten those trials, and strove to remember those days. Rangers like her, like Sweeney, who wandered the wild lands still.
She brushed off her brother's hand. Ran a hand through her dark hair, hot from the sunlight overhead. Sweat trickled beneath her breasts under her tunic, coated the back of her neck. She'd be itching for days if they didn't bathe soon, yet she could not imagine getting into the murky waters of the streams crossing the dead elven city.
She waved Sweeney aside and stepped over a downed tree, bending over to brush her fingers over the wood rail still attached to the trunk. Carved intricately in detail so small she had to feel it more than see it, it spoke of the skill of the people who lived here.
Galadriel had left long ago, with Elrond, Celeborn, gone across the wide sea to their elven lands that none but they could access. A heaven of sort, in Rowen's mind. How lucky to have such a haven to return to.
She had no idea where she would go, once the gods took her life. She tried not to think about it, for despair would set in once she did, wondering if there would be anyone who would miss her once she was gone.
Sweeney would, of course, for they were close as siblings could be, constant companions for many years. But some day she was sure he'd find a woman more suited to him than a sister, and she would then be alone.
There were few men who would accept a woman like her for a companion, too strong, too opinionated, too much like a man for a man to appreciate. She rolled her eyes. She wasn't going to pretend she was something else. She was what she was. A good ranger, with good skills. She could fight as well as Sweeney, she could read tracks for days with little to show for it, and could make a hearty stew if she felt like it. What more could a man want? She shook her head, glancing over her shoulder at Sweeney, who had sat on a log, smoking his pipe.
“All right, I suppose we must leave. I don't want to make camp here.”
Sweeney look up at the sky, the pipe clenched between white teeth. He was a handsome man, dark hair brushed his shoulders, nearly blue in the sunlight, slanted eyes gained from their mother only emphasized his high cheekbones. His mouth, usually curved in some amusement, curled down now as he considered the time.
“We've only a few hours until dusk. Hardly time to get anywhere near out of the wood. Might as well make the best of what we have. There's plenty to burn for the fire. We can make a passable bed right here.”
Rowen shuddered at the mention of the fire. “I don't think I could, Sweeney. The trees... they have long memories. Fire took them down.”
Sweeney shrugged, eyes narrowed as he squinted at her. “Your call, you're the one who feels such things. We can do without a fire, it's warm enough.”
She had few other reasons to decline Sweeney's suggestion, except for the fact she felt too much. But he was right, it would take them a full day to be free of the once golden wood, to find a place to cross the Anduin that flowed nearby.
Still, she did not have to like the idea, no, not at all.
woke abruptly, body filled with tension and not knowing why.
Moonlight filtered through thick clouds overhead, the stars appearing
then disappearing behind the thin whispery covering. She lay still,
aware of Sweeney's breathing near by, the other two men with them as
well, still deep in slumber. Their guard, a young man they'd picked
up months ago was far too quiet for being awake.
She growled softly, annoyed that he had fallen asleep again. Rollling to her side, she pushed herself up to sit, surveying the sleeping men, and then, slowly, the area around them. They had made camp in the lee of two huge downed trees, masked by their size, it had felt almost enclosed. The moonlight glinted off the grey bark, but left most of the area around them in shadows.
She spoke softly, not wanting to wake the others.
When there was no answer she sighed and rose to her feet, grunting at the hitch in her back. She was getting old if she couldn't move without a groan or two. Shaking her head, she stepped over Sweeney. A hand on her ankle nearly made her scream.
“Has he fallen asleep again?” Sweeney's voice was rough with sleep, and irritation.
“I don't know. I'm checking it out.”
She smiled at him briefly as he rolled back over, jerking his cloak over his shoulder. Moving quietly, Rowen headed toward Ren's position, a few paces beyond the farthest tree.
When she reached it he was not there.
Rowen turned slowly, worry growing in the pit of her stomach. “Ren?”
“Here,” a voice sounded at her elbow, with Ren nearly hidden at the base of the tree. He yawned, jaw cracking at the effort. “What is it?”
She glared at the boy, hands on her hips.
“You were sleeping!”
Ren shook his head, holding open one eye. “I wasn't. Had one eye open.”
“For the love of the gods, Ren, we could have been attacked!”
He yawned again, scratching his head. Rowen stepped back a step. Ren's cleanliness was less than godly. “By what? The forest is clear. Could see for leagues...” Ren stopped as she continued to glare.
“Fine, I'll get up. Or better yet, since you're awake, you can take over.”
She couldn't speak for a moment, wanting only to throttle the man. She waved him away toward Sweeney. She'd suggest they lose him the next town. Once he had settled down again, Rowen moved further away. Better to let go of her anger, he was young, if foolish. One of these days he'd be sorry, or they would all be. She sighed, sitting on one of the trees and pulling up her feet. Arms wrapped around her knees, she stared at the once grand forest with a sadness she couldn't push away.
What had happened here? How had the forest come to such terrible straits? No one really knew, most was simply rumor for few had seen the forest, and fewer yet had been allowed inside the wood. The elves of Lorien had been known for being reclusive. Tales told of their guardians spoke of fierce silent warriors that could hide within the branches of the forest like so much a part of those trees. Few went in, fewer came out to speak of it.
Yet they had aided the world when needed. And what had they gained from Sauron's defeat? She looked at the forest around her and thought little.
Rowen jerked up her head, startled to find she had lost track of time with her thoughts. The moon had shifted, sending long shadows of near dawn over the wood. She could hear someone snoring, loud enough to cover the sound of a nearby stream.
Goosebumps prickled her skin and made her shiver.
She turned her head slowly, eyes scanning the shadows, but she could see little. There was too much cover, too many shadows from the trees, the scrubby bushes, the mounds of rotting wood for her to see very well.
It was too quiet, beyond that of the men snoring.
No night sounds at all. No crickets, no wind sighing through the trees.
Had it been that way earlier? She could not remember.
Her hand shifted to the dagger at her side, easing the blade free of the sheath on her belt. Another sat in her boot top, another at her back. Nearly frantic now with a deep sense of foreboding, she jerked her head toward the men. Had a shadow moved? Or was she being foolish, seeing things that were not there. Her eyes strained to see, head cocked to hear something that was not normal.
The hand when it covered her mouth made her scream, ineffectual as it was being muffled, the other gripping her wrist was like a vise of steel. The voice, when it whispered into her ear, sent a wave of cold surprise down her spine.
Rowen shivered, eyes wide as she tried to see, to look to the side at the person holding her captive in a far too easy manner, to see if anything was happening to her friends near by.
They were surrounded by shadows, hardly more than darkness upon darkness. The shadows bent down over the men, and Rowen cringed at what she though must be happening. Knives killed silently. They would not have known it was coming, her role as guard to provide warning ineffectual.
But nothing glimmered of metal, only muffled grunts as the men woke abrubtly, held down by the shadows leaning over them.
A curse sounded, an oof as someone tried to break free, a faint sound of laughter from one of the shadows.
And still the hand kept her captive, her head held back against a solid backdrop she assumed was a person's chest, her blade dropped from fingers grown numb.
She should have tried to break free, but the strength in the hold on her wrist suggested she'd not have much luck. They were both stiff, arms held out in an odd parody of a dance, wind ruffling strands of hair.
They caught the moonlight, longer than hers, and pale as the light that gilded them silver.
Rowen's eyes widened further, her breath caught at the sight.
The shadows shifted near the men, rising to full height, dragging her friends to their feet. She heard Ren sob faintly, heard Gordie grunt as someone shoved him forward, his red hair bright against the shadow behind him.
Then the creature holding him shifted, the covering that had hidden him from view slipped to reveal more silver hair, and skin as pale as ivory. Eyes glowing faintly, he pushed Gordie toward her. Behind him, Ren stumbled, guided as well, if not gently, and then Sweeney, far too silent, and Dorn at the rear, all held hostage by what she could now see where cloaked warriors.
Not orcs, too tall for that, and not men with their stealth.
She held her breath, unwilling to concede just who might have them now surrounded and held captive.
They were dragged from their camp, pushed and prodded, forced down a trail she had not seen. Only that one small glimpse gave any clue to who they were, kept apart from one another by a warrior in between. Unable to see the trail well, Rowen stumbled over a branch, cursing but felt a hand on her arm holding her back from a fall to her knees.
They made little sound. No breathing, no words, nothing but shadowed faces. At least she knew they were real, and not ghosts of the creatures that had once lived here.
An hour before dawn, when the sky had finally begun to lighten, the moon still bright in the sky, they stopped. A stream trickled nearby, moving over rocks to give some sound to its presence. Trees grew taller here, if young by Mallorn standards, yet still gave some shelter. Rowen sat down, pushed to a seat by a firm hand on her shoulder. Ren collapsed, huddling over his knees, the emotions coming from him both terrified and embarrassed. Sweeney remained silent, a warning of actions to come, while Gordie and Dorn only grunted, shoved down beside her. What would come next? Had they trespassed? Did the rules of the once grand forest still exist? Should they not have come?
Rowen stood up, surprised when no one moved toward her. The shadows, whatever they were had slipped back into the trees. Only one remained, a tall darkness that turned as she took a step forward.
“Nay,” a hand lifted, pale in the darkness, almost floating with the graceful movement. Palm out, he held her in place with the one word, the voice sending a bevy of goosebumps down her spine.
“We mean you no harm,” Rowen hissed.
“Indeed?” The comment held laughter, an arrogance that made her bristle. They were not helpless, had fought enough battles that she felt confident had they met in other circumstances the result would have been far different. At least, this is what she told herself as she wavered on stepping toward him still.
Sweeney made the choice for her. He leaped to his feet, a blade gleaming in hand, probably hidden deep within his garments. The shadowed creature shifted imperceptibly, meeting Sweeney's attack silently, a blur of cloak, shadow and man.
Rowen held her breath as in what seemed like hours, but was in reality only seconds, Sweeney was tossed onto his back, all breath lost from impact, to have a very long, wicked dagger held to his throat.
“Please...” Rowen held out her hand, terror making her voice hoarse.
A hand reached up to draw back the shadowed hood. Long hair slipped free of the confines of the fabric to drape long down the creature's chest, gleaming like a waterfall of silver. A stubborn chin jerked toward her, silver eyes gleamed with irritation.
“No harm meant?” The dagger moved slightly and Sweeney gurgled an insult, still struggling beneath a booted foot, fingers gripping the leather tightly. “He does not seem to agree.”
She could only stare, mouth open at the sight of the elf. Another grunt from Sweeney made her blink away her surprise. “He's impulsive.”
“He should be more cautious. Had I been an orc, he would be dead.”
Had they been orcs she would have smelled them before being caught unawares. “I did not know the elves remain as yet in Arda.”
He grunted, an answer that offered no answers, but he moved back a step, lifting the dagger from Sweeney's throat. Her brother hissed, rubbing his neck, and rose carefully to his feet.
The elf remained still, waiting for Sweeney to move, but her brother, finally thinking clearly, only touched a few fingers to his brow.
“My apologies, elf. I had little idea of just who had accosted us.”
“You are in Lothlórien.” It was a simple statement.
Sweeney glanced around him. “We thought it a dead place.”
“It is dead.” The elf turned away, sheathing his dagger. He was taller than Sweeney who stood six foot. A gesture from the elf brought movement from the trees and suddenly there was light, a glow from several torches held by more elves. That they offered the light for Rowen's benefit was clear, for the glow in their eyes dimmed at the brightness.
It gave Rowen ample opportunity to view her captors, too see just what she had come to see. An elf. It had been beyond hope, yet here right before her stood males of that race, warrior and yet ghosts of what had been. They surrounded Rowen's band, faces grim, eyes so keen she felt the sharpness like a knife stabbing her back. She ignored the fear she felt from her guards, from Ren, and looked at the one she sensed to be their leader.
He stood staring out at the forest, most of the devastation hidden by the smaller trees. Stiff, shoulders back, he offered no welcome, only resistance to yet another trespass against his wood. She shivered faintly at the pain she could feel buried deep.
“We truly meant no harm.”
“There is nothing here for you. Why come?”
Rowen glanced at Sweeney. His glance, wry and amused, said it was hers to explain. “I... we simply wanted to see.”
A faint snort came from him but he turned around, chin rising to stare down at her from his height, grey eyes glittering in the moonlight. His hair gleamed, the rising dawn behind him reflected in the shimmering strands. “To see our destruction?”
There was anger behind the words, fury that had been held tightly in control for years. Rowen shuddered, but stepped closer. She couldn't stop her hand from lifting, touching him for the briefest moment before he shifted out of reach. “Nay, elf, to see the glory it once was.”
“You have no cause to be here,” he argued. “A foolish decision. Orcs could have killed you easily, for all your guardians.” He shook his head, a glance of disdain at Ren, proving to Rowen he had indeed fallen asleep. But had she been any better?
“I like to think we would have been alerted before they came upon us,” Rowen retorted, unable to hide the emotion the elf had drawn from her. “Once we saw the destruction, we thought little lived within the wood.”
The elf's stare intimidated her, made her feel worse than Ren. She stepped back, lifting her chin to stare back. “What do you mean to do then?”
“You will remove yourself from the wood at dawn.”
“So you guard a border still.”
“I guard what I must,” he said and turned away.
Rowen woke with another start, surprised that she had fallen asleep, groaning at the cramps in her legs. She had wedged herself into the crook of a fallen tree, curled over her knees to think out what to do.
When she woke the sky was pink with dawn, streaks of red marring the brightly pastel sky. The elves, five of them, all stood staring at the sky with reservation she could feel as keenly as the terror from Ren last night.
Sweeney settled beside her, crouching in order to whisper softly, out of earshot of the elves. “Something is wrong.”
Rowen wiped the grit from her eyes, coarse this morning probably from lack of sleep. She struggled to her feet, watching the elves intently. “They don't like the sky.”
Sweeney took her arm, turned away from the elves. “We must get out, Rowen. They have allowed us here, but to stay longer invites disaster. They do not like us here.”
She had to agree, she could sense even now their dislike of the men, of her, of their invasion into their wood. “I am sure we won't have much choice but to leave. I don't like their expressions though, this is not good.”
The elves had turned, with three of them melting into the trees, gone from sight within steps, while the other two, the leader of the night before and one other remained standing in front of Rowen and her brother.
“What is wrong,” Rowen asked, rubbing her arms as a sharp shiver ran down her back.
The leader elf glanced back at the sky with a deep scowl. “There has been blood spilled this night. We must see to it.”
She'd heard the old adage, was surprised to hear it voiced by the elf as something real. “That's an old wive's tale,” she began, but the stopped at the look he gave her.
“You will remain here,” he said, clearly annoyed by his decision.
Rowen looked at Sweeney and then stepped forward. “If there is trouble, we can help.”
The look from the two elves suggested otherwise.
“Look, we aren't defenseless.” Rowen hissed as the elves turned away. “You have no right to command here...”
She stepped back when the leader turned around, his glare an icy grey sliver of ice. “I am Haldir, March Warden of Lothlórien for more than an age past. You will remain here. Until I return.” He stalked past her, sent a glance at Sweeney that had her brother bowing in agreement, and disappeared into the trees much as his previous elves had.
The one remaining elf smiled faintly. “For your safety, we wish you to stay.” He touched his brow and then was gone as well.
Sweeney let out a long breath. “Haldir? I thought him long dead.”
Rowen pulled her eyes from the wood, straining as yet to see the elf. “Clearly not, if it is true.” She turned to look at the men. “What say you? Do we stay?”
Their decision she found later had curious consequences.