"Water. Give me water."
"Where's Mama? Mama!"
"Please, help him. He's not dead yet, we can save him, someone, please-"
The sword dragged from his hand as he trudged, trying not to step on the corpses. And all around him, blood, moans, weeping –
"What's the point? We're all dead anyway!"
He plugged his ears.
Heavy clouds shifted, and pale sunlight sifted into the gray-blue of morning. A surreal calm hung heavy, no longer filled with screams and fear but a weary restlessness.
The boy halted in his tracks, too tired to walk. The shelter seemed so far away. He pried his stiff fingers from the blood and grime of his sword, but the fingers stuck on. With a great sigh, he hung his hand, willing gravity to loosen it in time.
Rooted, he now stared blankly at the carnage about him. The people drenched in blood, the monsters with faces twisted in agony. And the elves – fair creatures who had come marching through the night to offer their lives. Shining armors, beautiful blades, all lying in silence. He dropped to his knees.
He could not believe he was alive, still breathing, still living. Not while these beautiful beings lay dead. Not after the eternity of the blood-flooded night. No pain could make him believe.
He closed his eyes. The moans and shouts sounded far away. He was so tired.
A gruff voice stirred him back into awareness. He raised his head to see a dwarf approach, shouting at an elf who strode before him. The boy recognized him. It was the only elf who had not worn a gleaming armor; the elf who had ridden to Edoras. His fair face was marred with dirt, pale hair tangled with streaks of blood. His was undoing his leather pauldrons when their eyes met.
"I tell you, stubborn princeling, you need to go to the hea -" the dwarf came to a stop, only then spotting the boy. "Well!" he exclaimed, "here's a lucky lad."
Dropping the pauldrons onto the ground, the elf scanned him swiftly. "Are you hurt?" His voice was surprisingly soft, a cool blue of gentle twilight.
The boy blinked, and shook his head without a word. The elf reached out, and placed a hand upon the boy's head. Before the boy could respond, the elf moved away, seemingly satisfied. The dwarf glanced at him, and then turned back to the boy. Among the crinkled lines and blood-tangled beard, the dwarf's amber eyes were warm. "Go to the shelter and get some rest, lad."
The boy stared at the elf. The elf was bending over bodies, checking each one. There were no knights in shining armor rising from the dead.
"Where are the other elves?" There had been so many. So many, and mighty.
The dwarf looked at the elf, who rose from a body, and took a crumbling step. The dwarf's body twitched. Undecipherable curses flew from his mouth.
There were no more. The elf was the only one remaining. No one of his kind had survived. The boy looked blankly at the elf, who continued on walking. "Why," he whispered, "why did they come?"
The dwarf sighed, and placed a hand upon the boy's head. His hand was thicker, heavier. Coarser. The boy blinked up. "Aren't they immortal?" he pressed. "Weren't they supposed to go to an everlasting life after leaving the shores?"
The dwarf gave another great sigh. "Aye," he said. "They are."
The elf was turning back toward them. He walked slowly, his steps deliberate.
The dwarf glanced. "Maybe one day you'll understand, lad," he said, and his eyes looked tired and worn. "One day you might understand, and remember the day elves stood and fell at the forefront in the battle of men."
The warm hand left his head. The boy watched as the dwarf walked away to join the elf, and resumed his nagging about seeing a healer. The elf smiled faintly, and replied, to which the dwarf retaliated with an explosive shout. And thus exchanging words, the two unlikely companions walked away, side by side.
The boy looked up. The clouds were breaking, and the sunlight slowly peeked over the gray, its rays gaining strength as they touched the blood spilled upon the earth.
Refusing to rest, he helped the adults clean up the battlefield. He checked the bodies and helped cart them away, but no man had been found alive so far. He grimly went about working, and yelped when fingers moved against his bare ankle. It was a bloody hand protruding from underneath an Uruk corpse. He dropped to his knees and began to push the grimy head off. A bloodshot Uruk eye stared up, venomous even after death. He tried not to look.
After a few whimpers, he managed to push off enough of the gigantic head to reveal a white-haired man gasping underneath. He looked no younger than sixty.
"Help!" the boy cried, frantic. "Help! This man is alive!"
Silence echoed in the battlefield. There were too many dead, and two few living. Everyone was scattered with their own corpses to unearth. The boy panicked. The old man was breathing shallowly, crushed by the weight of the body above, his eyes glazed and unfocused. The boy began to desperately push at the Uruk body. It did not budge. The old man wheezed. The boy's hand slipped with the grime and blood. He dug his nails, pushed and heaved, and his knees began to slide on the muddy ground. He wanted to cry.
And then, suddenly another pair of hands was pushing at the body, and it rolled over with ease. The boy stared. Yellow hair came into view, tickling his chin. The elf was kneeling next to him.
With a sharp inhalation, the boy moved away, as the elf swiftly checked the man over. His expression was grim. With a gentle caress of the man's forehead, he began to murmur gently in a language the boy could only guess to be Elvish. The man's breathing began to slow. Deepen.
"Gimli," the elf called, his voice sharp. The boy turned to see the dwarf hurrying this way, strips of cloth draped over his arms wedging together a water basin. The elf reached out a hand, and the dwarf grunted. The boy reached for a cloth and dunked it in water, and twisted water out of it.
The dwarf grunted again. "Good lad."
The elf took the cloth without taking his eyes off of the man. He bared the man's midsection; the boy looked away, feeling ill. How the elf knew where the wound was, he had no idea.
He was jolted by a hoarse scream from the man. He bucked and writhed as the elf cleaned his wound, one hand pressing him down. The boy inadvertently pushed down the man's writhing torso as well as the elf cleaned, teeth clenched.
It seemed to last forever; among the bucking and screaming, the boy was barely aware of the soothing words the elf was saying, words he could not understand. The old man began to shiver at last, and the elf quickly bandaged his wound. "Gimli," he said briskly, "fetch Aragorn. He will not last long."
The dwarf started. "But shouldn't I help you while the lad – "
"The boy cannot run as fast as you can. Hurry."
The dwarf took off into a sprint, his short legs leaping over the corpses. The boy stared after him, incredulous.
"Hold him down."
The boy turned to obey, and saw the elf was otherwise occupied – he was taking off his wrist guard. The boy watched, puzzled, as the elf bared his left arm up to the elbow. And using his other hand, he drew out a long white knife.
"What are – "
Crimson spurted. Blood dripped into the gaping mouth of the old man. The man moaned, and licked his lips. The boy froze, horrified. The elf continued to hold his smooth pale arm over the man's mouth, letting him drink from the crimson flow.
"Is it true," the boy said, shaken, "that elf-blood has the power of immortality?"
The elf smiled vaguely. "No," he said. "Animal blood is nutritious enough to temporarily revive a dying man." He glanced with a knowing smile. "But I would advise you not to try this until you are older."
The boy was torn between horror and awe. "Are you a healer?"
The elf's smile faded. "No," he said, turning his gaze back to the old man. "Not anymore."
The man's eyes blinked. They were now focused. The elf pulled his arm back, and the boy hurried to hand him a cloth. He pressed on the cut as the elf secured the knot, but blood continued to seep through, and he wanted to cry again.
"Why?" he whispered. "Why do you do this?"
The elf turned to glance at him. The boy felt faint. "We will die eventually, you know. Even if you die to save us. But if you don't do this, you will live forever."
The elf looked up at the gray-blue sky, and held out his hand. The boy looked up also, and saw a white bird fly overhead.
"Look." The elf slowly brought his gaze back down. "Even such a small creature cannot be brought down by the hatred on this earth – and think you, son of Man, that your life weighs less than that of a bird?"
The boy stared back, bewildered. "But, your people – every one of them died."
The elf looked at him, patient. The skies were so gentle, calm, as if the war had not happened at all. The dots of scurrying people and wailing mothers seemed so insignificant beneath it all. "What happens now?" he blurted. "We lived this night, but our fathers are dead, and our brothers and dead. And your people – they gave up immortal lives for us mortals, and for what?"
He breathed in, surprised to find it raspy. A tear fell, and then another, and he rubbed at it in frustration, only to find his whole face bathed in tears. He rubbed furiously at the rough skin with his dirty hand. "What is the meaning in all this?" he choked out, bitterness lumping in his throat. "How will we survive this war when your people didn't? What if we are attacked again? What then? Why continue to live through all this misery? We are going to die anyway."
He had heard the laments of the old men in the previous night, putting on their armor. We will all die, they had said. Why struggle against the inevitable? Why continue to fight, when you know death is near? Why does it matter whether it is tomorrow or ten years later?
Do you want to die, son ofHama?
The gray-eyed man's gaze burned into his mind, stripping off the layers of resentment, reaching into the fear underneath. He did not want to die. When death came howling at his feet, he wanted to fight, struggle, scream.
But why live, when all must die?
The ranger had said those precious living moments were worth the fight. But was it really worth it? To see other people die in his stead? To hear these wails and moans, the corpses scarring the land?
There was silence as the boy wept. The elf did not move.
When at last he inhaled deeply, the boy found the elf's gaze upon him. An ageless serenity lingered in those clear slates of blue, a smooth surface to the unfathomable depths that lay within. The boy dropped his gaze, suddenly ashamed. The elf spoke.
"We are not so different from you that we would willingly march to death," he said, slowly. "But there comes a time when heart overruns reason. When valor defeats fear. When you must answer to the call of destiny. And though there be not a single life breathing after the battle, the elves will not have given their lives in vain."
The boy shut his eyes. "Forgive me," he whispered.
The elf looked down at his own hands, looking weary. "You carry a great weight of many deaths upon you. Whether they were in vain is for you to determine, Haleth, son of Hama."
The boy looked up in surprise, but turned when he heard shouting. A woman was running this way, accompanied by the gray-eyed man from the previous night. The elf drew back, sheathed his blade, and with a final whisper to the old man, rose to his feet.
The man bent to swiftly check the old man, and seemed relieved. "You got to him in time. A cart will come for him soon." His eyes then traveled to the elf's bandaged wrist. "Gimli will not be happy when he sees that," he said dryly.
"He won't see it," said the elf, strapping on his wrist guard. "Unless you tell him." His smile was different. More boyish, mischievous.
"You are going to be the death of me," muttered the man darkly. "Come to me later. Gimli tells me you are injured."
"He does not, you brat."
"Aye, aye, my lord." The elf gracefully removed himself from the path of the woman, who flung herself onto her father with a vehement cry.
The boy stood as well, uncertain, and the elf glanced back. His smile for him was a fleeting one. He reached out his hand, and the boy moved toward it, as if drawn by a magnet. While the man tended to the injured soldier and the woman's cries filled the air, the elf gently grasped the boy's hand.
"Live, child of Man." The whisper followed his trail as he disappeared among the broken bodies. "Live."
Alone, the boy gingerly opened his hand. In it was a single white feather.