Karina stared out over the grim, gray battlegrounds around her. Hills blocked her view of the Morannon, but that didn't stop her from seeing the devastation that had already plagued the armies of Middle Earth. Bodies of elves, men, and dwarves stood out against the black of the dead orcs, pools of red and black blood smeared across the course brown grasses. The corpses were strewn across the plains in a grotesque form of art, the contrasts almost beautiful if not for the fact that thousands had died in its construction.
Arrows continued raining down on the orcs that dared to approach the entrenched armies. In mere minutes, the sun would appear over the bleak mountains in the east, shedding a hazy light through the dark clouds that covered the hostile landscape. At that moment, the elves, dwarves, and men would again charge the defenders in an effort to take the Morannon. In her head, Karina could hear a dramatic soundtrack playing a haunting song, building slowly into a crescendo as daybreak approached.
"Are you alright, my lady?"
"That is a question I cannot easily answer, Dagnir," Karina said softly, eyes still on the horizon. She could feel the tall elf's presence to her left, his own calm helping her find her own. "I am prepared for the fight, but wish it was not necessary all the same."
Dagnir did not reply. Karina's sharp eyes watched as an arrow felled an orc on the hills, piercing his throat as thick black blood erupted from his severed arteries, more dripping from between his yellow fangs as he fell forward in a heap. She turned from watching the carnage, feeling the steady strength of Thranduil approaching.
"Last chance," he said softly, stopping in front of her and tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear. "Are you sure you are ready for this?"
"Absolutely," Karina said firmly, a determined smile on her face. She could see the concern and love in Thranduil's eyes, so she took his hand in hers awkwardly, aware of the bulky gauntlets that hindered their fingers from entwining as they should. "Someone has to be here to keep you from doing something reckless."
"I will do my best, my lady," he said, taking her helmet from where she held it tucked under her arm and carefully sliding it into place. "As long as you promise to stay close to Dagnir and his guards."
"I will," she said softly. Thranduil gave her one last look before turning, pulling his own helmet on quickly as he made for the ranks of advisors and commanders that stood at the forefront of the Silvan army. Taking a deep breath, Karina unsheathed her sword, the sound echoing as the soldiers around her did the same. It was time.
Karina had retreated into her mind, letting the gifts of the Valar guide her. She was aware of the battle around her, of her sword slick with the blood of orcs dying at her feet, and of the screams of those around her falling, elves and orcs alike. But she had distanced herself from the pain and the suffering in order to do what had to be done. She was there for Thranduil. She would kill as many as she had to in order to ensure he was safe. Though she could not see him at the moment, she knew he was fighting not far from her own position at the foot of the hills.
Dagnir stood with his back to hers, the two of them fighting as a unit, as if they had always been a team. It had taken the elf some time to gain enough confidence in his charge's fighting to let her dive headfirst into the fray, and not to remain on the peripheries. But now the two moved together effortlessly, covering each other's blind spots.
Slowly, the pair moved up the hill, cutting a swath through the oncoming horde. Karina took a wide swing and severed an orc's arm and slicing through another's throat in one blow. They had reached the crest of the nearest hills, and her eyes could see the Morannon, just over a mile away. The carved gates looked like a scar in the mountain pass, dark and menacing, taunting them with its strength and seemingly impenetrable defenses.
"Oh God," Karina breathed, her eyes alighting on a sight that stopped her cold. It was not the wall of trolls across the entrance to the pass. It was not the sight of King Gil-galad's forces carving through the center of the enemy lines in a desperate bid to reach the Morannon, nor was it the lines of archers across the Morannon and in the mountains that were firing down on the attackers. Behind the trolls stood a line of enormous pikes, great banners stuck in the dark earth and standing over dozen feet over the heads of the trolls. Some did indeed bear great black banners, insignias of Sauron emblazoned upon them. But of the dozen pikes, seven were adorned not with flags, but with the bodies of the dead. Dead elves. One of which was unmistakably King Oropher.
"The king," Dagnir said, fury clear in his quiet voice as he paused beside her. He went on to use some language that Karina was surprised she actually understood. It was particularly vulgar.
"We can't let Thranduil see this," she said, coming back to herself and stabbing an orc through his exposed ribcage. She glanced down the hill and saw the prince deep in combat with the enemy that was still streaming over the hill.
"How do we keep him from cresting the hill?" Dagnir asked, shoving an orc off his blade with his foot. "He will see them eventually."
"Not if we get them down first," Karina said, the gears in her head turning at an alarming pace as she strategized how exactly to solve the problem. "His resolve is on a knife's edge already, this could break him. Thalanor! Keep the Prince from cresting the hill! Keep him safe!"
"Yes my lady," an elf to her right called back, quickly descending the hill once more to join Thranduil without question. Karina was grateful Thranduil had instructed the eight elves that made up her guard to follow her orders. She only hoped they would trust her with the convoluted plan she had concocted.
"What are you thinking?" Dagnir said warily, noting her eyes currently scanning the row of trolls. She was deep in thought, but her body still responded to the threats around her, her arm coming up to bring her sword in contact with a blade aimed at her head. Subconsciously she deflected the blade, her fist coming into contact with the nearby orc's jaw in a left hook, knocking him backwards onto the blade of one of her guards.
"We need to get close enough to shoot the ropes holding them up," Karina said, still fighting off the endless waves of orcs, gritting her teeth when she was forced to strike a killing blow but still continuing her conversation. "And then to retrieve the bodies."
"That's suicidal," Dagnir said, throwing a dagger just in time to stop an orc from striking Karina across her exposed back. The orc crumpled and slid down the hill, the dagger protruding from his eye. "Gil-galad's forces are close enough that we could get someone to take the shots, but we would have to get passed all those trolls."
"Not all of them," Karina corrected, taking a long breath of respite as the orcs stopped coming for a brief moment. She turned to Dagnir and looked him in the eye. "We just need to get by one of them."
"More will come and cut us off. We can't make it through that."
"We can with Gil-galad's help. Come, we must move quickly before Thranduil reaches the top of the hill. I doubt Thalanor will be able to detain him for long."
Karina began racing down the hill, making for the lines of elven soldiers driving a wedge through the ranks of Sauron's army.
"My lady!" Dagnir called earnestly, pausing long enough to give a sharp whistle. The remaining royal guards turned to see Dagnir gesture for them to quickly follow Karina, who was slashing her way towards the main elven force. She had a plan, and she was determined to make it work. For that, she needed help.
It took longer than she had hoped to cut through to the main elven force. With her seven guards, they managed to cut through, reaching the edge of the Gil-galad's army, where shield bearers looked at them with surprise as they squeezed through into the heart of the army.
"Where are you going?!" Dagnir asked, eyes on Karina now that they were relatively protected within the ranks of the Noldor. Karina didn't answer, as she found what she was looking for.
"Where is Aradae?" she shouted over the twanging bows and clanging of swords and shields, addressing the rows of archers in front of her.
"Lord Aradae leads the archers assigned to the King," one said, pausing long enough to glance at her before continuing launching arrows over the heads of his comrades into the lines of orcs. He apparently noticed the fact that she and the elves behind her were wearing Silvan armor. "What are you doing in our ranks? You do not belong here."
Karina ignored him, already moving forward towards the Morannon and where King Gil-galad was leading his forces in the assault. She scanned the archers she passed, looking for the one who would help her, hopefully without question. She finally found him, shouting directions at his ranks of archers. He caught sight of her as she raced in between the lines towards him.
"Karina!" he said angrily, grabbing her arm firmly. It might have hurt if she had not been so heavily armored. "You should not be here! Why are you even on the field?"
"I came to fight beside Thranduil," she said firmly, her guards all taking a knee behind her, staying out of the way of the archers behind them. "I need your help."
"I am a bit busy at the moment!" Aradae hissed. "Why do you need my help?"
"We need to get those bodies," she said, pointing in the direction of the grisly trophies the armies of Mordor had strung up in the path of the invading army. Aradae glanced at them before he looked back down at her, his brow furrowed.
"They are dead, Karina, we can't help them. Return to your ranks."
"Do you know what kind of psychological effect seeing them has on the soldiers? And how it will affect Thranduil when he sees his father up there?" she snapped back angrily. "It will be a powerful motivator if we get them down and out of enemy hands."
Aradae paused, looking back at the mutilated elves hanging from the pikes before them. He had obviously tried to ignore them for his own sanity, but she could see the rage and pain in his eyes as he looked at the bloody forms, half eaten by the carrion birds and hanging by their necks from the menacing spikes.
"If we take them, they will only string up more," Aradae said, trying to reason with her.
"I am primarily concerned about Thranduil at the moment," she said hurriedly, knowing that she was running out of time. "I can't let him see his father like that." Aradae gazed down at her for a moment, glancing at Dagnir, who knelt silently beside his charge, watching the exchange emotionlessly.
"What do you need?" Aradae asked with resignation. He knew better than to continue arguing with Karina.
"When we are in position, I need you to shoot the ropes holding up the bodies. Can you and your archers get shots off from here?"
"Yes. We will be ready for your signal."
"Excellent. Beriosid, stay here and watch for us to be in position. The rest of you, come with me."
"Wait," Dagnir said, grabbing her arm and pulling her down into a crouch beside him. "How do you plan on getting past the trolls and then back without all of us being slaughtered?"
"Did you see the fighting at the edges of this army? It is chaos. We are going to use that chaos to our advantage."
"We are already covered in blood, and the blackness will help. Grab an orc when you get to the perimeter and use it as a shield. Follow my lead. We will sneak right past the trolls and once we are in position beneath the bodies, we will signal for Aradae to cut them loose, and then we will carry them back out."
"That is nothing short of madness," Dagnir said incredulously. "You intend just to waltz in there and waltz right back out with no interference?!"
"Of course not. I am going to create a diversion first."
"How is that?"
"Did you notice the giant torches at the entrance to the Morannon? The orcs undoubtedly use them to create fire arrows, so they must be oil-based. Tip one over and chaos ensues, setting the ranks of orcs on fire."
"How do you plan to get there and knock it over and then start a fire?"
"Sneak in there as I said, then once behind the ranks, we can move about and knock over the torch. They won't be paying attention to the bodies after that."
"You are insane," one of the other guards said, unable to maintain his silence any longer. "We will die before we get anywhere near the trolls, let alone get to the torch or grab the bodies."
"Fine! I will go alone and get the king. You can stay here."
"You are not going anywhere, my lady. Prince Thranduil put us in charge of protecting you."
"Then you best come with me, because I am going to do this."
"Karina," Aradae said, having heard the entire plan from where he stood, still firing arrows into the approaching orcs. "I have a better way."
Aradae's plan turned out to be much more acceptable to the Silvan guards than Karina's. Together with his archers and a contingent of soldiers, the group launched their daring raid to rescue the bodies of the dead elves.
Breaking off from the main group, the archers fired volley after volley into the enemy ranks, creating a narrow path for the small squad of soldiers to make directly for the torches Karina had pointed out during their planning. With the cover fire, they made it quickly to the edge of the ravine, and together they tipped the oil basin over, the oil seeping across the open ground and soaking the dry grass. Aradae had the foresight to warn King Gil-galad of the plan ahead of time, and so the Noldor were poised to retreat from the flames as they spread across the open fields. The wind blew towards the south, so with luck the elves would not be caught racing against the blaze, but the smoke and the fire would cause havoc to the opposing forces.
As they lit the fire, there was an eruption of activity from the orc ranks. Karina and her guards made their move.
"I still don't like this," Dagnir said as he crept beside Karina, holding the bloody remains of an orc as a shield, moving as quickly as he could towards the line of trolls, which was losing its formation as a result of the spreading flames to the south. The smoke drifting over the field was helping to disguise the passage of the small group of elves, clustered together and holding the bodies of fallen orcs in a ring to hide themselves as well as they could. Luck was with them, and they were largely ignored by the orcs running in various directions around them, either towards the fight, towards the flames, or towards the safety of the Morannon.
"Almost there," Karina muttered back, glancing up at the trolls thrashing about just in front of them. Arrows were raining down on them, most of them pinging harmlessly against their thick armor. But one managed to find purchase in the eye slit of one troll's helmet, causing the creature to thrash about and let out a deep roar as it clawed at its face. Because of its anguish, it had moved out of position and gave the elves enough room to quickly dart forward past the armored line, finding themselves in the relatively unguarded plains between the army and the gates.
"Let's go," Karina said, dropping the orc she'd been dragging and moving immediately towards the pike where Oropher was hanging, broken and mutilated. Her eyes had been able to see the damage from a long way off, but it was so much more real standing below the body, waiting for the archers to release him from his swaying constraints. The hazy smoke kept the orcs and trolls from seeing her, but did little to hinder her own view of the corpses above.
Moments after taking up her post below the king, an arrow sang through the air, cutting the line. King Oropher's body fell in a sickening crunch, but Karina ignored the nausea that was threatening to empty her stomach, forcing herself to maintain calm as she slung one of the kings bloody and broken arms over her shoulder, Dagnir taking the other as they started dragging the body of the king back towards the opening in the line.
"He's still alive!"
Karina looked around quickly and saw one of her guards bent over one of the soldiers that had been freed of his bonds. She quickly let go of Oropher, trusting him to Dagnir's care, she dashed towards the elf that had spoken, quickly kneeling beside the fallen elf.
"Oh my god," she said heavily, putting her fingers on his throat and feeling a very faint pulse. "We have to get him to safety. Quickly!" Karina helped hoist the dying elf onto the back of her guard, following in their wake, pulling her sword to fight off any enemies that might spy them through the haze.
Fate was on their side. Karina's guards made it back to Gil-galad's ranks with nothing worse than a bad slice through the arm and a shallow cut in the neck from an arrow that very nearly found its way into Dagnir's throat. But Karina was more concerned about the elf that now lay dying, surrounded by Gil-galad's troops as she tried to treat him quickly so he could be moved back behind the lines and, with luck, live to see another sunrise.
"Get me bandages!" she shouted to no one in particular, hand on the elf's shoulder, which was oozing blood once more, having broken open from the rough treatment in freeing him from the clutches of the orcs. She tried to apply pressure while simultaneously stripping away the elf's armor, looking for further damage. One of her guards, Samarad, was trying to help, offering a free hand when she needed one.
"All his fingers are broken in this hand," Samarad said seriously, examining the unconscious elf's right hand. "And I think his shoulder is dislocated."
"He's a fighter," Karina said, noting the broken ribs and shredded leg. "I don't know if we will be able to save him, but he has lasted this long."
"We have to move, Karina," Dagnir said, appearing at her elbow. "The flames are hindering movement and Gil-galad is going to move to the north to continue the charge."
"Alright, give me a second," she said quickly, taking her knife and cutting off a strip of cloth from her tunic, pressing it against the injured elf's shoulder. "Do we have a stretcher?"
"No, we will have to carry him back behind the lines."
"Very well. Dagnir, help Samarad get him up. Where is King Oropher's body?"
"Beriosid carried him back with the others. We need to get out of the way quickly, before the army moves again."
"Alright, let's go," she said, standing and leading Dagnir and Samarad through the ranks with the injured elf.
"Aradae! Thank you for your help. But I have to go tend to the dying elf we rescued."
"I know. I just wanted to make sure you were alright. Be safe, Karina. You can't survive stunts like that forever."
"I will do what I can," she said, putting her hand on her friend's arm. "You be careful, too. I don't want to have to rescue you next."
"I will know I'm in safe hands if that does happen," he said with a smile, disappearing back into the ranks as Karina hurried towards the rear of the army, where she would help the healers piece the broken elf back together.
"Karina? What are you doing here?"
"Sircil?" Karina replied in surprise, pausing as she caught sight of the other healer leaning over the dying elf. "Oh, I joined the Silvan army today. My guards and I found this elf half alive."
"He is unlikely to make it much longer," Sircil said honestly as she returned to her task, cleaning off the seemingly endless number of wounds on the damaged body. Clearly, he had been tortured before being strung up on the pike. "He has been fighting for life for a long time without treatment. Several days, I would guess."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Start on his leg. I will work on his arm and chest. If he doesn't survive the treating of the worst of it, then his smaller injuries will not matter."
Karina nodded, pulling off her helmet and gauntlets so she could begin working. She tended the shredded skin on his leg, cutting away the infected flesh and applying ointments to the bleeding wounds. Elven magic could do wonders, but this would be a tough fight, for the healers and the unconscious elf.
"My lady," Samarad said softly as Karina stuck a knife into a deep gash just below the knee. She bit her lip as she tried to pull an arrowhead from the tibia without doing additional damage. Once she had it loosened enough, she stuck her thin fingers in between the parted skin to pull the metal tip free.
"Yes, Samarad?" she said without looking up, dropping the point in an empty bowl with disgust.
"I would like your permission to return to the Prince and inform him of our position."
"Good idea," she said, applying a healthy amount of ointment to the injured shin. "I am sure he is going to have some strong words for me when he hears." Without another word, Samarad retreated off onto his errand.
"You are with Prince Thranduil then?" Sircil asked, glancing up at Karina.
"Yes," Karina said simply. She was too focused on healing to realize the implications of her confession. If she had looked up, the look on Sircil's face would have told her that Sircil had not merely been asking about her position in the Silvan army.
Rather abruptly, Karina and Sircil's patient jolted, startling both elleths as he made to sit up. But he was in too much pain to do anything more than groan and sink back onto his cot, passing out once more. It was too early to know for sure, but Karina took his brief return to consciousness as a good sign. He was still fighting.
Well over an hour later, Karina stood, stretching her legs as she walked towards the covered corpses, leaving Sircil behind to continue tending their patient. His fate was still uncertain, so as she walked, Karina sent a silent prayer to the Valar that controlled her life that her recent rash assault on the forces of Mordor would not be for nothing, that the still unidentified elf would live.
"Which one is the king?" she asked softly, pausing beside Dagnir. The elf had maintained a silent vigil over the dead while she worked, his arms folded across his chest and his eyes focused on the bodies before him. In response to her question, he pointed at a body at the end of the line. Suppressing her growing nausea at the smells assaulting her and the knowledge of what she would soon find, she slowly walked toward the corpse Dagnir had indicated. Kneeling beside it, she closed her eyes, reaching a shuddering hand towards the edge of the white cloth covering the body. Letting out a breath, she opened her eyes and pulled back the cover, letting her eyes fall on the ruined face of the king.
Though she had only uncovered his face and shoulders, it was enough. His once vibrant, pale skin had turned gray, his lips blue and covered in dried red blood. His left eye had been half-eaten by carrion birds, and there were numerous other marks on his skin that had been made post-mortem, indicating the orcs had taken great delight in mutilating his body for sport. His hair had been cut unevenly, and his right ear completely severed. The rope that had held his body aloft was still wrapped around his throat. With trembling hands, Karina reach down and undid the noose, tossing it away angrily. There was no dignity left in his death, but she would give him what little she could. Though the rope was gone, the marks it had left on his throat were still there.
"I am sorry I could not do more for you," she whispered, closing her eyes again as she put a hand over the cold one that rested on Oropher's chest. She could feel the broken bones and a missing finger beneath the white sheet, but she did not flinch away. Taking a deep breath through her mouth, fighting against the strong scent of death around her, she continued. "But I promise, I will take care of Thranduil. I will make sure he lives through this war, and fulfills his destiny. You will be proud of him. He will make a wonderful king. I only hope that my small part in his life will be able to fill some of the void that your death has put in his heart. Be at peace, Oropher. Find solace in the Halls of Mandos. Your death is not in vain."
Opening her eyes, she gazed at the king one last time before covering him back up with the sheet. Her knees were weak as she stood. She had just enough time to step out of the ring of the dead before she doubled over, emptying the contents of her stomach onto the brown earth. She felt clammy as she stood again, wiping her mouth with her sleeve after her stomach was emptied.
She felt a comforting hand on her shoulder, keeping her steady as she tried not to heave again. She was grateful as she was lead away from the dead and the lingering smell of rotting, bloody fleshy.
"You did well, my lady," Dagnir said softly, his hand still on her shoulder. She just stared at the ground, trying to gain her composure as she took shuddering breaths to calm her rolling stomach. "For your first day on the battlefield, you have proven yourself a strong leader and a deadly fighter."
"Up until that last part," she said with a weak laugh, trying not to think about the taste of vomit in her mouth. "That was unfortunate."
"Not unexpected, however," Dangir said with a gentle smile. "You were not the only one to be affected by the sight. But you managed to create a partially viable battle strategy, enact it, rescue the king and the other elves, and save a life before you lost control. Not many can do that. Especially for their first battle."
"It isn't my first battle, but thank you for the support, Dagnir," Karina said, looking up into his calm grey eyes. "I have seen a lot of horrid things in the past few years."
"Regardless, no one thinks any less of you for being unable to stomach the sights you have seen today."
"Karina!" She looked around, thankful to see Thranduil racing towards her, dodging elves moving back and forth, bringing the wounded to the healers. He looked unharmed, and he had no trouble leaping over a pile of discarded armor in his haste to reach her. Throwing off his helmet, he quickly pulled her into a tight embrace, breathing a sigh of relief at having her in his arms again. His relief quickly turned to anger as he let go, glaring down at her.
"What got into you?! Samarad said you borrowed some of Gil-galad's army to launch your own assault on the gate!"
"That's not really accurate," Karina said, wincing against the strong emotions she could feel coming off of him. "We didn't attack the gate itself. I just didn't want you to see the elves hanging from the pikes. It was afraid what it might do to you, to see your father like that."
"Karina," he said softly, taking her face gently in his hands. His gauntlets felt rough but she just looked up into his dark blue eyes, her focus on the feeling of his anger fading to leave only love and relief. She had never felt such raw emotion from another before. "I saw my father before you did. I saw them cut him down and start mutilating his body. I appreciate what you thought you were doing for me, but you don't need to protect me like that. I have seen the horrors of war before. The thought of his body hanging on that pike was not nearly as horrible as the thought of losing you. The thought of you being up there beside him. My father's soul is already in the Halls of Mandos. His physical body is not important anymore. But you are still here and I don't want to lose you too."
"I am sorry, Thranduil. I just…" she sighed, thinking back to her thoughts just before she had made the rash decision to rescue the dead elves. "I just know what it does to people to see things like that. One of my friends, someone I worked with, was gunned down in a drug bust. Seeing his body broken and bleeding out, it was too much for me. And I have seen victims of violent rapes and serial killers. I didn't want you to suffer the way I have."
"I am stronger than you think I am, melamin," Thranduil said with a smile. "Just don't run off like that again, alright? I do not think I have ever been so frightened in all my years."
"Alright, I won't." Thranduil bent down to kiss her, but she turned her head quickly, so his lips just brushed her cheek. He looked rather hurt as he pulled away, looking down at her with a frown.
"Sorry," she said sincerely. "But you really don't want to kiss me right now."
"She's right," Dagnir said from his post several steps behind her. He sounded mildly amused. "You really don't."
"I vomited all over the hill back there not very long ago," Karina admitted, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb. "It wasn't pretty."
Thranduil just smiled and kissed her forehead instead, holding his lips there for several seconds before looking down at her again. "I am glad that is the worst that happened to you today," he said softly. "And to think you accused me of acting reckless. You are mad, do you know that?"
"Yes, I do," she said with a grin. "But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are."