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Beneath a Gibbous Moon  by Bodkin

Beneath a Gibbous Moon

It was the kind of rain that would find its way through a mountain five thousand feet above your head to soak you as you sheltered in the dark of a bone dry cave; the kind of rain that would seek out the slightest chink in a solid roof or the smallest weakness in an ancient wall to weasel its way in and saturate your longed-for bed; the kind of rain that proved the malevolence of elements presumed natural and innocent.  What chance did oiled wool and greased leather stand against it?

He hunched the poor protection closer round him and thought of all the things he would like to say to the one who was about to relieve him of this vain watch.

The road beneath him gleamed in the swelling moon as occasional breaks in the cloud allowed the indifferent light to pick out the wet chalk, stirred up and broken by the hooves of the now long-past trains of reputed merchants.  The trees huddled against each other, like brothers relying on each other to offer protection against a threat they could not drive off and the night sounds were subdued beneath the incessant lash of the spiteful whips of rain.

‘Nothing would get past you, my friend, now would it?’ a soft voice murmured in his ear.  ‘We can depend on you for our lives.’

‘Sarcasm becomes you not,’ he informed the new arrival. ‘Had I not known perfectly well who you were, you would be currently attempting to keep your innards from spilling in the mud.’

‘You flatter yourself,’ the elf informed him.  ‘You are good for a man – that I concede – but there is no comparison between us when it comes to speed and agility.’

‘But maybe, when it comes to street fighting…’ The man shifted slightly to reveal the blade he held low and ready before sheathing it.

‘I doubt Lord Glorfindel would approve of that,’ the elf observed.

‘Multifarious though his experience has been, I doubt he has had to escape from many baying mobs.  Or spent nervous months amongst those who would spit him as soon as look at him.’

‘I will make a point of telling him of the gaps in his knowledge next time I see him,’ the elf promised.

‘You would, too,’ the man said sourly.

‘Of course I would,’ the elf agreed, his sunny smile only emphasising the man’s glowering.  ‘I look forward to seeing how he responds – it is not often that the Balrog slayer is proclaimed inadequate.  Not, I believe, since Gondolin fell – and I am not entirely convinced that the insult might not have had something to do with the event, whatever the history books might say.’

‘I am so glad we met.’  The man attempted to shake the worst of the water from his bedraggled dark hair.  ‘I did not know what I was missing.’

‘How could you?’  The elf spoke with a condescending kindness that might well have inspired physical violence had it not been accompanied by the teasing sparkle of bright eyes.  ‘You had not before experienced the delight of friendship with a real elf – only those of Noldor blood who take themselves far too seriously.’

The man eyed him cynically.  ‘I think you have given me something to report to those who might object to your denigration of a noble kindred.  I doubt Elrond, for example, would take too kindly to your words.’

The elf raised his face to offer it to the rain – which seemed, the man noted, only too willing to lave it gently before sliding to rinse his fair hair, leaving it silken smooth.  If there was one thing he envied the Firstborn, it was their relative indifference to inclement weather – of which they had seen far too much recently.  Then, he thought morosely, there was their ability to keep clean even in this mud-soaked patch of land halfway to nowhere.

‘He is far too polite to say what he might think.’  The elf looked down and grinned at the man.  ‘While I am a Wood-elf – and, as such, expected to behave intemperately.’

‘Which you proceed to do at every available opportunity.’

‘Why not?’ The elf looked out over the saturated countryside before them, where nothing moved but water.  ‘A reputation needs to be upheld if it is not to wither away.’  He glanced sideways at the man.  ‘You should go and get some rest,’ he suggested.  ‘Dawn will be here soon enough.  And you do your best to ignore it, but it is obvious to the meanest glance that you are exhausted to the point of collapse.’ He indicated the empty outlook.  ‘There is nothing here with which I cannot deal – and I believe our companions offer hot food and conversation.’

‘If I lie down in this I risk drowning,’ the man groused.  ‘And I am not hungry.  I might just as well stay where I am.’

The elf turned his smile to the lowering clouds.  ‘The stars are still there,’ he observed.  ‘And on their re-emergence will shine all the brighter for having been hidden awhile.’

‘And in their absence the creatures of the Enemy prowl more freely.’

‘Even the stoutest of orcs will seek shelter on a night like this.  Your rest will be untroubled – if ever you can be persuaded to seek it.’  He paused.  ‘The fate of Arda does not rest entirely on your shoulders, my friend.  Do not think it.’

‘Is that what your weight of years tells you?’ The man’s voice was dryly sceptical.

‘It is what my eyes tell me.’  The hint of light in the fair face illuminated the elf’s serene smile.  ‘We do not stand alone – we are the product of all that has gone into making us.  Blood, training, experience – we balance on the shoulders of those who have brought us to this place and our people stand behind us.  For good or ill, we are their delegates at this knife’s edge.  We do what we can.’

The man’s dark eyes brooded over the shadowed countryside.  ‘It began in such hope,’ he said.

‘And will end in hope.’

‘Do not do that to me,’ the man growled.  ‘I have come to dread foresight and prophecy – they do nothing but deceive those who hear them into thinking that the Powers will bring them through to a most improbable victory, when all the evidence is to the contrary.’

‘You have heard your share of both,’ the elf admitted.  ‘Enough to know that they are easier to interpret in retrospect.’

‘I doubt I will live long enough to discover how the future wraps them round with significance.’

Above them, the wind tore the clouds to rags and let Ithil brighten the bleak lands below, glinting silver on the glut of transitory ponds that filled every hollow.

He clutched his wet cloak round him and suppressed a shiver.  ‘Do you not wish you could go home?’ the man asked.  ‘Back to your people and your forest of green trees and live in peace?’

The elf did not answer for a time, but the look on his face was wistful, as if he was remembering times that he doubted would come again.  The clouds shifted and reformed, and the absence of light made the world beyond their post seem darker than it had before the moment of brightness.

‘Do not you?’ he retaliated finally.

The man’s face twisted.  ‘I have no home,’ he said.  ‘Not now.  Not really.  Not for a long time.  I sometimes wonder if I will ever again be able to rest my head in a place where I can feel at ease.’

‘You need food,’ the elf told him, ‘food and a warm fire.’

‘And a skin or two of good wine – and dry clothing, freshly laundered and cedar-scented, and a soft bed in a safe haven.  A bath.’  The yearning in the man’s voice made his companion smile.  ‘And I will get none of them.’  He sighed.  ‘Old wounds are making their presence felt and reminding me that I am no longer young – and yet, what choice do we have?’

‘None.’  The elf sounded comfortable with the conclusion.  ‘I did not want to come – argued that this affair was none of our business and we had our own troubles to face – but I was wrong.  We have no choice, my friend, but to stand against this and hold firm – and die, if die we must.’

A spatter of rain slapped at them in a final display of petulance before the breeze blew the clouds apart. 

‘The temperature will drop now,’ the man said ungratefully.  ‘And we will be left to freeze in wet clothes.’

The elf looked at him in amusement.  ‘They must have finished their council now – and be sleeping peacefully.  You should be safe to return to shelter – such as it is – and take an hour or two of uninterrupted rest.’

‘At one time I would not have believed it possible to talk so much about so little.’

‘Those times must be long past,’ the elf teased.  ‘Back in the days of your innocence.’

The man smiled reluctantly, but his expression sharpened as the elf cocked his head to pinpoint a sound beyond the hearing of mortals.  ‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘Probably nothing.’  The elf soundlessly loosened the blades he carried and shed his cloak to puddle in the mud.  He did not need a swathe of fabric getting in his way.  ‘Wait here.’

He was gone before the man had opened his mouth to protest.  Arrogant, he thought resentfully: that was elves for you.  Pleasant enough most of the time – but, when it came to a fight, they would leap into action and leave men standing.  Most of them found men to be a liability in battle, he knew – slower-moving, less skilled, less observant and not so quick-thinking.  And, of course, they had the experience of millennia to call on at need – as men never could.  He should be used to it by now – but he still found he resented the assumption that he should keep watch while the elf took action.

The man strained his ears, but, even knowing the elf was out there, he could hear nothing but the drip of the bushes and the whisper of leaves.  His breathing shortened.

There should be nothing to worry about – but you could never be sure.  And, no matter how many times the guard held, it only took one failure to bring about disaster. 

A hiss attracted his attention and he narrowed his eyes to see a pale hand wave him forward.  The man frowned.  Clearly whatever the elf had found was not a threat – but what had he seen that was significant enough to …?  He shrugged.  Anything odd was worth investigating.

And he could move quietly – he knew he could – but he had never managed to be no more than smoke on the wind.  Creeping up on an elf was an impossibility, so how was it that his companion twitched as he came close enough to stir the air behind him?

‘What is it?’

He followed the elf’s gaze.

A mist was rising from the wet ground, stirring and twisting between the trees as if dancing to a song he could not hear.  Wisps of vapour, white in the moonlight, seemed at times almost solid, then faded to nothingness in the shadows.

‘You brought me here to watch these will-o’-the-wisps?’ he murmured incredulously.  ‘It is nothing but an effect of this delightful weather.’

‘You know better than that.’  The elf’s shining eyes settled on him briefly.  ‘Look more closely.’

The man frowned.  He had seen such things on a thousand mist-filled mornings – why were these phantoms any different?   He stared at the silver trails, willing himself to discover what had stirred the elf’s interest – and found himself drawn to the elegant twining of the formless forms, longing to reach out, to touch, to surrender himself, to share the mystery they offered.

‘Blink.’  The elf grasped his arm, as if he was holding him back. 

‘I do not understand,’ the man said.

‘There are,’ the elf said sadly, ‘those bound to this world without surcease – and not all of them are friendly.  Do not follow these wights – they will lead you astray and keep you enthralled until you are lost to yourself.’ 

The man drew a breath.  ‘They do not affect you?’

‘They could – they have come close before now … but I am older than you.  I have learned that there are paths it is wiser not to tread.’

‘We must not come this way.’

‘They have no power in daylight.’  The elf watched the desperate dance of the shimmering shades and his voice was subdued.  ‘No power when confronted with life and love and joy.  They are little but shadow and memory.’  He did not raise his voice – the last thing they wanted was to attract the attention of anything living in these bleak lands – but the wisps shivered as he spoke, each softly pronounced word heavy with command.  ‘We know you now,’ he said clearly.  ‘And you have lost.  Return to the shadows and leave us alone.’

He turned and walked away without looking back.  The man glanced from one to the other and saw the wisps of gleaming mist settle back to the pools, marbling the dark water and turning it milky.

‘Come, my friend,’ the elf said.  ‘It is not wise to linger here.’

‘You are more than you seem, elf,’ the man said.  ‘You present yourself as a simple son of the forest – but you are more than that.’

Ithil’s light caught the elf’s profile as he turned and smiled.  ‘I am my father’s son,’ he said, ‘as are you.  We are both more than we seem.’

The man gave a brief snort of laughter.  ‘Everyone knows who I am,’ he said.  ‘It sometimes seems that those I meet know more of me than I know of myself.’

‘That is on the outside.’  The elf shook his head.  ‘Beneath the skin …’ He paused and inspected the man intently.  ‘You are the pivot on which the world turns, Isildur Elendil’s son.’ He smiled wryly.  ‘For good or ill, I know not.’

The Númenorean halted as the words rang in him with an unwelcome recognition.  ‘Did you have to say that, Thranduil?’ he protested.  ‘Do you not know that the words give life to the thought?’

The elf contemplated the man and shrugged.  ‘You need to get out of those wet things,’ he said practically, ‘and eat.  Mysticism never seems as intimidating on a full stomach.’  He indicated the growing band of light in the eastern sky.  ‘The night is past,’ he said.  ‘Our elders will have made whatever decisions their endless repetition of long-argued debates deem wisest and be ready to issue their commands. I doubt they will have noticed our dereliction.’  He paused.  ‘Whatever happens, my friend, I am glad to have come to know you.’

The pair regarded the smoke of a thousand small cooking fires dotted across the plain as the gathered armies of men and elves prepared for what might be their last day, before looking toward the dark shadow cast over the Enemy’s forces.

‘It will not be long now,’ Isildur said.  ‘The waiting is hard – but I think the battle will be harder.’

‘And who knows who will see it through?’ Thranduil said soberly.

The two regarded each other grimly.  The morning promised well, as mornings often did, but clouds lay deeply banked towards Mordor – and none could know how the day would end. 

‘Not I,’ said the man, ‘but you will be there.’

The elf grinned.  ‘Now who is proposing fateful burdens for another to bear?’

‘You will be there,’ Isildur repeated.  ‘To see the darkness fade.’

‘But for now …’ Thranduil rested his hand on Isildur’s arm as the man took a moment or two to gather himself.  ‘Breakfast calls.  A wise elf – or man – never fights a battle on an empty stomach.  Come, my friend.  Let us disregard a future we cannot read and take the short time we have to spend as best we can.’

Isildur squared his shoulders and uttered a resigned sigh.  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least it has stopped raining.’  


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