Free of her own peril, Karina quickly sobered at the thought of what she still would face once the battle began. And what the soldiers around her would soon face. Her joyousness soon ended as dread permeated the air of the camp. Everyone felt it. In the morning, they would be marching to the Black Gates of Mordor.
The healers were just as brooding. Some would be traveling with the army to the front lines. Karina was one of the few that would stay behind in the camp to tend those that were injured beyond what could be dressed in the field. That meant those on the verge of death would be brought to her care. The only comforting thought Karina could muster was that Duross would be the one conducting the necessary surgeries. She had seen war films. This may not be one of the World Wars, but she had a strong feeling that she would have to witness more than one amputation before the end. At least the elves wouldn't suffer from typhoid or trench fever.
Unable to bear the stifling silence and depression that filled the medical tent, Karina went for a walk. No one stopped her, each elf in his or her own thoughts. She knew where she wanted to be, and her feet brought her to the Silvan camp, where she found Thranduil deep in conversation with his father's lieutenants. But upon catching sight of her coming towards them, he dismissed himself, walking towards her, concerned.
"Is everything alright, Karina?" he asked, putting his hands on her arms and looking into her eyes for answers.
"Yes, I am fine," she said with a gentle smile. "I just could not stand staying in the medical tent any longer. I can feel the anxiety in my bones. I needed to get away, so I thought I would see how preparations are coming here."
"We are reviewing plans, but we have been impatiently waiting to move on the Morannon for weeks, as you know," Thranduil said, taking her arm and leading her towards a nearby tent that stood open, a table and chairs just inside, rolls of parchment thrown haphazardly across the tabletop. "My father is conducting an inspection of our troops at the moment."
"Why are you not with him?"
"I am staying here in case of messages from King Gil-galad. It is entirely possible new plans will be added at the last moment." Thranduil guided her over to one of the chairs, holding her hand as she sat before take a chair facing her. "The lieutenants have expressed multiple concerns already regarding the plan of action, and I have been attempting to put their minds at ease."
"That must be a difficult task," Karina said seriously. "I cannot imagine anyone will feel any peace of mind knowing that they will shortly be facing down hordes of orcs in an assault on Mordor."
"But it is necessary," Thranduil said with a sigh, sitting back in his chair. As she observed his pensive eyes staring at the ground at her feet, his brow slightly furrowed in thought, she could see the king he would become. Regal and intimidating, he sat in his chair as if it were a throne. But not as King Gil-galad had sat in his. King Gil-galad was an old king, comfortable with his power, but Thranduil was the one that looked old, wearily contemplating his duty. He looked like a reluctant king, quietly accepting his rule and the responsibilities that came with it, always deliberate in his words and actions.
"This war is not going to be easy for anyone," Karina said, leaning forward and putting her hand on his knee. Thranduil looked up at her, meeting her eyes squarely. "But you will endure. This is not the end. Lives will be lost and darkness will grow, but the light will return someday."
"Is this you trying to be comforting, or is this another of your prophecies?" Thranduil asked with a half smile. Karina returned it, her hand still on his leg.
"This is me telling you that I have faith in you, Prince Thranduil. Whatever happens tomorrow, I will be waiting impatiently for your return. This will not be the last time we see each other."
"I certainly hope you are right," Thranduil said, taking her hand in his gently, eyes still on her as he kissed her fingers lightly.
"Prince Thranduil." The two elves looked around at a robed elf standing at the tent entrance. Thranduil quickly stood.
"Captain, what can I help you with?"
"King Amdir wishes to speak with your father about the layout of his forces during the siege. He is concerned that his forces will be exposed on the lower plains. Archers from the hills could decimate his forces."
"Their arrow range has been tested, Captain," Thranduil said, walking around the table and gesturing for the officer to come further into the tent. "His swordsmen will be located far enough from those hills that they should be away from harm during the first hours of the attack. Look, those hills are over five hundred meters from your position." Thranduil pointed at a corner of the map where a row of hills stood along the edge of the plains. "Their bows are not strong enough to reach over three hundred."
"And when our own arrows fail and we must attack with swords? What then? They shall have the heights and we do not have enough shield bearers to defend us from the raining arrows that will fall on us as we press forward. We should take the heights and hold them before attacking the Morannon directly. We will need a place of strength to attack from."
"King Gil-galad has stated that the priority needs to be the Morannon. The quicker we break through the forward ranks and attack the gate itself, the quicker we can separate the forces inside Mordor from those lurking outside."
"That leads us open to being surrounded on three sides," the captain countered. "Taking the gate will be suicide if they manage to cut off the forward lines from those behind."
"Regardless, that is what the King has decided. If we can drive a wedge into their ranks, striking hard and fast, we can place archers on the flanks to prevent a pincer move by the enemy."
Karina listened closely to the battle plan, her eyes darting across the maps and charts on the desk as she carefully took in all the data being provided about the upcoming battle. She could see both sides of the argument. A hard initial push for the gate could potentially decrease the length of the war significantly, and with properly placed defenders, a pincer movement could be avoided. But it was risky. She could see the captain's view as well, seeing his troops, which were not as well armed or defended as Gil-galad's, as vulnerable from attacks on the heights. Scouts had apparently reported that there were significant armies of orcs and men already positioned in those hills. Depending on the strength of those armies, it could very well be suicidal to have the Silvan elves attacking so close to the heights.
"Do you have siege equipment?" she asked suddenly, cutting into the debate, her eyes still scanning the maps. "Trebuchets or ladders or anything?"
"No, we do not," Thranduil said, his voice betraying his curiosity.
"How exactly did you intend to break through the gate?"
"I think the king was hoping for the gates to be open, but we can scale the cliffs if necessary."
"That is your plan?" she said, looking up at Thranduil. "Scaling the cliffs? That is a terrible plan."
"It is the best we have," the captain said stiffly. For all his talk against suicidal strategies, he did not apparently take kindly to this strange elleth criticizing their battle plan. "If we can cut down their numbers quickly, they will be forced to send more troops out through the gate, and we will use that opportunity to enter."
"That doesn't seem to fit with King Gil-galad's wedge theory," Karina said, pulling the map closer to her. "And what makes you think they won't just sit behind the gate, firing arrows down at you? Thousands of you will die while they wait behind their walls. If they do open them, it will not be much different. The Morannan is in that canyon, and they can pick you off easily in that narrow passage. It's just like when the Spartans were able to hold off hundreds of thousands of Xerxes' troops with only three hundred men. It is simply suicidal."
"Whatever battle you are referring to," the captain said, confused. "I am not familiar with it. But there is no better way. We simply have no other options."
"He is right, Karina," Thranduil said softly. "We must break through the gate and this is the only way."
"I refuse to believe that," Karina said, standing and shuffling through the maps. "Do you mind if I study these for a while? I want to see what I can come up with."
"Certainly, but I do not think you will have much better luck than we did," Thranduil said doubtfully. "I will be back shortly, Karina. I have to go speak with King Amdir."
Karina just nodded in response, eyes firmly locked on the map in front of her.
It was over an hour later, her eyes still trained on the map in search of an answer to the problem of the Morannon, that someone again entered the tent.
"Lady Karina? What are you doing in here by yourself?" Looking up, Karina saw King Oropher standing in front of her, a rather surprised look on his face.
"Prince Thranduil left to speak with King Amdir about the battle strategy, so I thought I would stay here and see if I could think of a better plan than just attacking the Black Gate head on."
"I commend your efforts, my lady," the king said, apparently amused by her determination to find a plan when months of effort by the kings had turned up nothing. "But there is little choice but to attack the Morannon directly. Were you a military strategist in your past life?"
"Not exactly, but I studied asymmetrical warfare at the academy," Karina replied, standing upright to look the king in the eye. "I have never particularly understood conventional warfare. It is all just a numbers game. There are much better ways of fighting."
"You do not mince words, do you, my lady?" Oropher asked, shaking his head, probably thinking about her naivety. She was, after all, only twenty-four, where as he was several thousand years old. What could a child do that some of the greatest elven military minds could not?
"I apologize, my lord. I am sure you know best," she replied, curtsying respectfully. She liked the king, but he was sentencing a lot of elves to death. The ranks of elves would break against the Morannon like waves on the shore, with about as much effect. The landscape would not change just simply by a show of force, not in the short amount of time they were aiming for.
"It is quite alright. I admire your willingness to speak your mind. And for someone so young, you also seem very wise, but almost naively idealistic."
"Even after all the horrible things I have seen in my short years, I refuse to let them affect my outlook on life. I am idealistic because I know that the right people, the small people, can make the biggest difference." Belated, she realized she was stealing Gandalf's wisdom. She let it go since he was apparently not in Middle Earth yet, and had yet to actually share this wisdom.
"I think I understand why you were brought here, Lady Karina," Oropher said, taking a seat and gesturing for her to do the same. "You say only one person can change the future. That is the purpose of your kind, so I shall not argue with you on this point. But perhaps it is not the small people making big changes, but the small changes made by important people that are the most significant. Those with eyes on the full scale of a situation may be the only ones able to tip in the balance in the tiny way that is needed to reach the desired outcome."
"Touché," Karina said with a smile. She looked around as several officers walked into the tent, bowing to the king.
"My lord, King Gil-galad would like to see you in his tent."
"Of course he does," Oropher said with a sigh. "Excuse me, my lady. I am afraid I have to leave you on your own again. It was a pleasure talking to you."
"The pleasure was all mine, my lord," she said, standing again and curtsying. King Oropher took her hand and placed a swift kiss on it before departing with the soldiers, leaving Karina to herself again.
Karina sat back in her chair, leaning on the arm and rubbing her bottom lip as she thought about the looming battle. She knew there was a better way, she just had to find it.
Karina jumped, looking up at Thranduil. She had not seen him enter the tent or walk over to stand beside her chair.
"No," Karina admitted as he took the seat his father had recently vacated. "But I will think of something."
"Please enlighten me if you do," he said pleasantly. "I am intrigued to hear more of your theories."
"Your father did not seem terribly interested."
"Did he return from his inspection?"
"Yes. He left to speak with King Gil-galad not long ago."
"Hmm, I wonder what that is about. I hope they are not changing plans significantly this late."
"Whatever it is about, I am sure it will not affect tomorrow too greatly."
"We shall see," Thranduil said heavily. Karina could see exhaustion in his eyes. The war had yet to begin, and the prince was already looking defeated. It worried her to see the resignation in his eyes, the acceptance of his fate. There was little hope in his eyes.
"What is wrong, my lord? I can see it in your eyes. Something is not right."
"Do not worry about it," he said, giving her an obviously forced smile. "It is nothing."
"It is not nothing. Please, tell me. Perhaps I can help."
"It is unlikely," Thranduil said wearily. Karina stood, holding out her hand expectantly. Thranduil looked at it, then up at Karina questioningly.
"Come," she commanded softly. "Walk with me." Thranduil put his hand in hers, and she pulled him to his feet, hand still in his as she led him out of the tent. He followed obediently, remaining silent as she led him through the sea of tents.
"Where are we going?" he asked finally as they passed out of the Silvan camp and into the space between the elves and the men. Karina did not respond. She just continued on, walking through the no man's land between camps. Eventually, they reached the edge of the tents, a series of hills lining the border. Thranduil stopped, making Karina turn to look at him questioningly.
"What are we doing out here?" he asked, brow furrowed. "It is dangerous leaving the camp."
"We won't go beyond the sentries," she said with a smile. "Just sit with me on top of the hill." Thranduil obeyed, following her up to the top of the hill. They could see men and elves standing guard just beyond, and from their vantage point, the sea of tents sprawled out below. Karina lowered herself down onto the grassy hilltop, pulling Thranduil down next to her.
"Why did you bring me out here?" Thranduil asked curiously, watching Karina as she stared out over the tents. Far beyond the tents to the east, she could see the gray wasteland that lay before the Morannon. In only a few hours, Thranduil and all these elves, men, and dwarves, would be fighting for their lives on that plain.
"I don't know what will happen tomorrow," she said quietly, eyes still focused on the darkness to the east. "But today, I want you to think of other things, happier things. You have a lot on your mind, Prince Thranduil, but a cluttered mind will only hinder you for what lies ahead." Karina paused, eyes shifting to Thranduil, who continued watching her, transfixed. "I have often had trouble sleeping, the weight of the world on my shoulders when it did not have to be. You are not alone, my lord. I am here for you, just as you were there for me when I needed you. If you will permit me, I would like to help relax your mind for a moment. It will help you sleep tonight and to be ready for the morning. I cannot help you on the battlefield, but I will do everything I can to make sure you are ready."
"I appreciate the thought, Karina," he said with an indulgent smile. "But I will be alright."
"Of course you will. But there is no need for you to feel such stress all the time either. Humor me."
"Very well," Thranduil said, turning to face her and folding his legs beneath him. "What would you like me to do?"
"Close your eyes," Karina said softly. "Breathe slowly, and follow my instructions."
Karina and Thranduil sat alone on the hilltop for at least an hour as Karina directed Thranduil through her own meditation ritual. During her first few months on the force, Karina had witnessed some brutal murders, rapes, and muggings. She had been unable to let go of the images she had seen, and it had driven her to seek professional psychological help. But the only thing that had truly helped was when a college friend, noticing her fracturing psyche, had brought her along to a meditation circle. Karina had been skeptical, but within minutes, she found her mind relaxing, the images that haunted her becoming hazy as the air within the incense-filled room. The images would not fade completely, but her mental exercises were enough to keep her going and to strengthen her resolve.
Karina fell silent, letting Thranduil's mind go where it would without her direction. Her own mind was focused on the sound of the wind in her ears. She had retreated deep into her own thoughts, deeper than she had ever gone before. It was surreal, feeling like she was floating in some abstract way, outside of her own physical form. She had heard of others accomplishing such things during meditation, but she had always believed herself grounded far too much in reality to accomplish the feat herself.
"Karina. Karina, are you alright?"
Eyes fluttering open, Karina found herself wrenched back to the present, her mind returning abruptly to where she was. Thranduil had his hand on her arm, a worried expression on his face.
"I am sorry, I went much deeper into my meditation than I had expected," Karina said with a sigh. "Anyway, how do you feel?"
"Better," Thranduil said with a smile. "And you? I was worried when you stopped talking. You were barely breathing."
"It comes with the deep meditative state, though I have never accomplished it before. The important thing is that you are relaxed and calm."
"More so than I have been in a very long while, my lady. Your ways are strange, but effective."
"I am glad. I can see the darkness in your eyes has lifted somewhat. I guess I shall have to be content with that."
Thranduil didn't reply, he just stared at his hands folded in his lap. Karina waited patiently, not wishing to rush him. She hoped he was going to share with her what he had learned from Amdir that had upset him so much. She wanted to know what the elves were getting into in the morning.
"I am afraid, Karina," he said softly. She was surprised at his confession, but her face remained passive, waiting for him to elaborate. "I am afraid for my people and what they will face in Mordor. I am afraid what the kings will force their armies to do to take the Morannon. You are right, of course. It is suicidal to attack that gate. I hate sentencing my people to their deaths, and I hate my inability to find another way."
"You will find a way," Karina assured him firmly, taking his hands in hers. "You will break through the Morannon. I told you that I have faith in you, my lord, and I meant it. It is the nature of war that people die. But it will not be in vain. Their lives will mean the end to the darkness that blankets Middle Earth. They are here because they believe, and so should you."
"You always have such motivational speeches, my lady," he said, amused. Standing, he held out his hand, helping Karina to stand beside him. "Let us go have dinner one last time before we part ways."
"As you wish, my lord."