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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 8 ~ Whispers in the Dark II

The gradual influx of displaced Elves had already begun to disrupt the daily routines of all the villages they passed through.  The king’s presence, however brief, helped calm their fears for a time.  They were heartened to know their king was taking serious notice of their plight and intended to do something about it.  Privately, Thranduil hoped he appeared more confident than he felt.

They traveled at a brisk pace, mounted on strong woodland horses which would make easy work of the more than seventy leagues between them and the southern marches.  All thirteen of them were dressed in sturdy hunter’s tunics, armed with bow and blade as well as two of Thranduil’s great wolf hounds.  By all accounts, there would be more than enough hateful creatures in their path to warrant extra caution.

It was south of the narrows on the afternoon of the third day that the aspect of the wood began to change for the worse.  The trees had begun to wither, and their leaves were strung with webs.  Thranduil stopped his horse for a moment and tied his hair back before venturing farther beneath that ghostly canopy.  Just the sight of it made his skin crawl.

They continued at a more cautious pace.  The road was still clear enough, but the trees on either side gradually seemed more malevolent, and in a year or two the whole path would likely be overgrown.  The green things that had thrived in the wood for centuries still tried to unfurl their leaves, but they were sickly and choked with thorns. 

No one spoke.  The air was heavy in the summer heat, and there were very few sounds at all.  A carrion bird called down at them, almost as if warning them away.  There were no more songbirds, only dry web-bound carcasses hanging overhead.

The sudden rustling of a squirrel leaving its drey drew their eyes upward at once.  It was a strange comfort to see something so common in that eerie landscape, but the thin branch snapped and dropped the hapless creature into a web.  A black spider as large as a cat darted out and immediately rolled it into a silken cocoon, silencing its cries forever.

The Elves sat rooted in place, horror-stricken.

“I am not spending a night here,” Galadhmir hissed.  

They continued slowly forward for another hour.  The deeper they went, the plainer the indications became.  Thranduil’s every sense was prickling with the danger of the place, the brooding malice.  Even the horses were uncomfortable.  He wanted to see Dol Guldur, but he began to doubt they would be able to make it that far.  He sniffed the air and glanced at his brother.  “Galadh,” he said grimly, “what does that smell like?”

Galadhmir frowned as though he had been trying not to notice, but he obligingly drew a few deep breaths.  “Like Mordor,” he decided. 

Thranduil nodded.  “And that,” he said, meaning the brooding malice weighing invisibly upon all of them.  “What does that feel like?”

“Feels like Mordor,” Galadhmir said again, growing more unsettled. 

After another few hours, it was becoming too much for even the strongest among them.

“My lords,” Dorthaer ventured at last, “it is not safe here.”

They were all thoroughly unnerved.  The shadows had deepened into evening, and there were strange cries in the air.

“We shall not stay much longer,” Thranduil promised them darkly.  “I have seen all I need to see.”

Directly ahead of them stood an especially gnarled tree in the gloom.  Thranduil reined his horse to a halt, suddenly suspicious.  Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but the bark seemed to have moved.  He dismounted, picked up a small stone and threw it at the trunk.

Galadhmir choked, and a collective shudder of disgust shook the company.  The entire tree was alive with spider hatchlings, each as large as a fist.  They roiled for a moment, but did not leave their nest site.

“Unbelievable,” Thranduil growled.  “And there is Orc sign,” he said, pointing to the tracks along the path.  “Ai, not again, not here!”

A heavy scuffling in the brush truncated his tirade.  Thranduil seized his bow just as a spider the size of a pony reared up on the path ahead of them, hissing and waving them away from her young.

The next moment she was pierced by thirteen arrows, thrashing on her back.

“Ai, Belain!” Galadhmir seethed as they backed away from the violence of her death throes.  “We should never have come this far!”

“I will not argue that,” Thranduil agreed, making a grab for his horse, but he came up short as he heard a kindred cry.  The look on Galadhmir’s face made it evident that he had heard it, too.  Indeed, they had all heard it.

“Stay with the horses!” Thranduil commanded his brother.  “Dorthaer, dismount and come with me!”

There was no time for any of them to object.  Drawing his sword, Thranduil leapt into the brake with the dogs, pulling away from the thorns which grabbed at his sleeves.  Dorthaer came close behind.  They beat away the webs as best they could, following the tortured cries.  There were no words, but Thranduil knew an Elvish voice when he heard it.

They stopped for a moment, panting, glancing around a haunted-looking glade.

“Perhaps it was a contrivance of the necromancer,” Dorthaer suggested, obviously wanting no part of this chase.  “You should not separate yourself, sire!”

Thranduil only held up a hand to silence him.  Now the air was filled with the strident howling of wargs, also drawn to the sounds of distress.  “Find him,” he commanded the hounds.

They plunged only a few steps deeper into the wood before they came upon the limp form.

“Ai, Fanuilos!” Thranduil exclaimed, sheathing his blade and gathering the mutilated Elf into his arms at once.  “I think it is Bregolion!  Go, go, go!”

They ran back in the direction they had come, though now there were wargs on their heels.  Behind him, Thranduil heard Dorthaer curse in pain but they did not stop running.  A terrible howl split the night just as they spilled back onto the path.

The ten mounted Guardsmen immediately formed a protective ring around their king as Thranduil leapt astride and Dorthaer helped him set what was left of Bregolion in front of him.  Then they turned and headed north at a mad gallop.

The horses needed no encouragement, and they thundered up the path.  With one arm clutching the deadweight in front of him and the other holding the reins, Thranduil found himself with no ready weapon but speed.  The cacophony of yelps and howls told him the wargs were dangerously close, yet were feeling the bite of Elvish arrows.

Without lowering his eyes, Thranduil whipped the ends of the reins into a knot and dropped them; the horse knew the way out.  He could not reach his sword, but drew the dagger from his quiver. 

A frothing warg was running alongside him.  His panicked horse strove for even greater speed, but could not outrun it.  Sparing all the attention he could, Thranduil met that predatory gaze, holding his dagger ready and waiting for it to pounce.  It never did.  Instead, a familiar mocking laughter echoed through his mind before the beast slowed and gave up the chase.

He was jolted back to the simple task of remaining mounted as his horse vaulted over a ravine.  On the other side, Thranduil pulled them to a bone-jarring halt, though the stallion seemed to have no interest whatsoever in slowing yet.  They had emerged into the uncorrupted wood at last, and the others were not far behind.  Thranduil wheeled his horse around and brought it to stand at the edge of the ravine as the rest of them crossed.  As he suspected, the wargs were reluctant to follow them beyond the reaches of the shadow just yet.  They stood frothing and snapping on the opposite bank, but a last volley of arrows silenced them. 

“Are we all accounted for?” Thranduil asked at once.  Galadhmir was unscathed, but shaken.  Three Guardsmen had sustained superficial wounds, but the other seven were unhurt.  Dorthaer sounded weak in the darkness, but claimed he was all right.   

The nearest village was an hour's ride north if they hurried.  Bregolion was moaning like a madman, and the sooner he had the attention of a healer the better.

Dorthaer blew his horn as they approached, and the people came out with lanterns to meet them.  Bregolion’s condition was truly shocking, and he was carried away at once.  The others who needed any immediate attention followed, Thranduil among them, not only out of concern for his company, but because the local healer had insisted when he had noticed the small bloodstains slowly spreading over the king’s sleeve.

Once inside the house, the healer began by tying Bregolion’s wrists and ankles to the table with soft cords while his assistants tended the others’ cuts and abrasions.  Thranduil paid no attention as his own minor wounds were dressed, but rather watched the master work.  In the light, the true extent of the Necromancer’s handiwork was revealed, and it was deeply disturbing.  The fingers of Bregolion’s left hand seemed to have been chewed off.  His entire body had been severely beaten and branded with many evil signs.  Worst, his eyes had been burnt out, likely with hot irons, leaving only bloody sockets.  He was plainly not lucid, perhaps a blessing under the circumstances. 

A mixture of pity and grave apprehension clouded the healer’s face as he applied salve to the burns and bandaged the open wounds, mercifully wrapping the sightless eyes.  He kept glancing at Thranduil and then quickly away again.  Was he looking for answers?  Reassurance?  Some sign that his king was equal this new terror?  Thranduil had never felt the burden of his responsibility to these people so keenly as he did now.

The cuts the thorns had left on his arm seemed harmless enough, though they were red and irritated.  They were dressed with a green oil and beeswax salve and bandaged, but as he rolled down his sleeve and refastened his vambrace, Thranduil noticed Dorthaer had unexpectedly taken a turn for the worse.

“What happened?” he demanded.  The captain of his Guard was suddenly flushed and his eyes glassy.

“He has been bitten by the spiders, my lord,” the apprentice healer explained, removing the compress to reveal two swollen puncture wounds on Dorthaer’s neck.  “The venom has never proven fatal from a bite of this size, but he will be ill for a time.”

Thranduil sat back again, more exasperated than tired.  His idyllic world was quickly unraveling.  They were all looking at him, looking for some shred of hope.  Now that he had seen their troubles, what would he do?  What could he do?

Lord Galadhmir appeared in the doorway.  Everyone acknowledged him and then returned to their duties.  “The others have been settled,” he said.  “They wished to be certain you were not seriously injured.”

“It is but a scratch,” Thranduil said, truthfully.  “Not all of us were so fortunate.”

They were delayed there for several days while Dorthaer recovered his strength.  Whether Bregolion would recover at all remained to be seen.  None could guess whether the damage done to his mind could be righted.  Because he would have otherwise been inquiring after him at every moment, Thranduil spent a great deal of time at his bedside in the healer’s house.  Perhaps it was an outlet for his frustration at his inability to do anything else, or perhaps it was because he felt some measure of personal responsibility for him.  It required uncommon courage to approach that haunted citadel, as he well knew.

Bregolion had quieted by the second day and no longer thrashed when he was touched.  Thranduil tried to encourage this by simply holding his uninjured hand for hours at a time, talking to him, singing, doing whatever he could to reach the spark of sanity he felt sure lingered in that tortured mind, to assure him that he was once again surrounded by care and compassion.  The sound of his voice seemed to have at least a deeply calming effect, which seemed promising. 

“I wonder that he is even still alive,” Galadhmir said bleakly on the fourth day.

“I believe he wants to live,” Thranduil replied, changing a compress on a particularly vicious burn.  “Somewhere deep inside he must have much to live for.”

Galadhmir was silent for a moment, looking down at Bregolion’s ruined body with sympathetic discomfort.  “I hope we may all prove to have such courage,” he said.

Thranduil looked up at him, sharing the same gnawing disquiet.  “Indeed.”

He was suddenly distracted as he detected movement in that hand which had been limp so long.  Thranduil shared an anxious glance with Galadhmir.  “Bregolion?”  He called him directly in as conversational a voice as he could.  “We have all been quite concerned about you.”

Bregolion’s hand tightened around Thranduil’s own, then weakly wandered up to touch the king's face.

“My lord?” he whispered at last, as though hardly daring to believe it was not simply a cruel dream.  “How did you find me?”

“By happy accident,” Thranduil said, unable to stop a smile spreading beneath Bregolion’s fingertips.  “I believe you heard our voices and called to us, as best you could.  But we must take you back with us soon.  Your family has all but despaired of you.”

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