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The Seeds of Time  by daw the minstrel

Thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.

Chapter 2.  Funeral

Eilian watched the smoke from the funeral pyre drift through the trees and stiffened.  He blinked, and then, with an effort, he opened the fists he found he had made.  It was only smoke, not Shadow.  Tendrils of Shadow had not yet crept to his family's doorstep, choking the life out of everything in their path.  Not yet.

Next to him, Gelmir shifted.  Eilian glanced at him, but Gelmir's eyes were on the ground.  Eilian grimaced.  The normally cheerful Gelmir was taking this hard, so hard that Todith was making him take a month's leave before he rejoined the patrol.  Eilian hoped the time at home would do Gelmir good, but he thought he himself would go mad if he had to sit around for a month while orcs and spiders crept northward toward his home.

Thranduil intoned the first few notes of a song of mourning, and along with everyone else, Eilian joined in.  His mother's soprano rang clear and sweet, but she scanned the trees as if searching for something, some comfort probably.  Eilian hoped she could find it.  He wished he could too, but it was hard to look at these trees and not see the misshapen ones he had only recently left.  He had failed to protect the woods to the south, so how honest was it to look to the forest for comfort?

Legolas clung to their mother's hand and crowded against her side, eyes wide, face solemn.  He had been silent during the ceremony, but his mouth moved now, although Eilian could not hear him.  That his little brother knew the song of mourning brought bitterness to the back of Eilian's tongue.  Their mother said this was the first time Legolas had gone to a funeral, and yet he still knew the song.

As always, their father's posture was erect and his face serious but composed.  It had taken Eilian years to recognize that his father's public face was not exactly an act, but neither did it appear without cost, albeit a cost his father seemed endlessly able to pay.

Sometimes Eilian felt weak with gratitude for the Valar's wisdom in making him a second son.  He owed much to his father's realm, but at least he did not owe it the rigidly straight back that was all he could see of Ithilden.  His older brother bore a weight of responsibility under which Eilian feared he would have bent and maybe broken.

The fire roared and collapsed in on itself in a rain of sparks.  The heartbreakingly small wrapped bundle of Fithral's bones plunged into the flames.  Eilian cringed, and from the corner of his eye, he saw Gelmir flinch.  He looked away into the smoke-smudged trees.  Then it was over.  Fithral's parents staggered toward home, supported by neighbors and family, and those in attendance began drifting away.

Eilian looked for Gelmir but found him already gone.  He was unsurprised to see Ithilden stride off toward the stables without speaking to anyone.  His brother had always needed time to himself when he was troubled.  Eilian, on the other hand, looked forward to wine, music, and company in the Glade.  The idea of time alone made a shudder run up his spine.

"May I lean on you, sweetling?"  His mother appeared, Legolas in tow, and put her hand on his arm.  "I am more glad than I can say to have you home with me tonight."

He opened his mouth to make his excuses, then saw how pale she was and tucked her hand into his bent arm.  He would go out later, after his mother and father retired for the night.  "You may lean on me any time, Naneth, though to me, it still feels the other way around."

They waited for his father, who was speaking to one of his advisers.  When he finally joined them, Legolas pulled free from their mother's hand and ran to greet him, arms raised.  "Carry me, Ada."

Thranduil's severe face softened as he scooped Legolas up to rest on his hip and kissed the round cheek.  "Are you tired, little one?  You behaved very well."

"I was good."  Legolas nodded.  As they started home through the starlit dark, he put his arms around Thranduil's neck and twisted to look back at the funeral pyre.  "Nana said this was for Fithral, but where was he?  Which warrior was he?"

Eilian cringed.  His mother must have felt him do it, because she squeezed his arm.

Thranduil spoke steadily.  "Remember what Nana told you?  Fithral's body was hurt, so his spirit left it and went to the Halls of Waiting.  When he is ready, the Valar will give him a new body."

"Where is his old one?"

"That was it, wrapped up in the cloth on the fire."

Legolas considered this information.  "His body was very small.  No wonder he had to leave."

They entered the palace and made their way to the family's quarters.

"Time for bed, sweetling," their mother told Legolas.  "Bid Eilian good night."

Eilian's parents went off down the hall, his father still carrying Legolas.  Eilian entered the sitting room and blinked in the blaze of light from the fire and half-a-dozen lanterns.  He went to the small side table, poured himself a cup of wine, and settled onto a high-backed bench near the fire.  The last time he was home, Legolas had been demanding that their father tell him a story after their mother kissed him good night.  Anything to stay up a little longer, their mother had laughed.  So she would be back soon.  Eilian probably would not have to stay long.  A few moments in Legolas's presence would have lifted her spirits, and Eilian could be on his way to see his friends.

The door opened, but to Eilian's surprise, it was his father who came into the room.  Eilian rose, but his father motioned him back into the chair and went to pour himself some wine and then take one of the chairs that sat on opposite sides of the fire.

"No story?" Eilian asked.

His father smiled.  "Alas, at present my stories are out of favor, and your naneth's are the truly desirable ones."  He sipped his wine, dropped his head against the back of his chair and closed his eyes.

Eilian glanced down at his cup and swirled his wine.  "You are tired.  You undoubtedly did not expect to have to preside at a funeral tonight.  I am sorry we brought you trouble."  He looked up to find his father, head still tilted back, watching him from under half-lowered lids.

"I am sorry for your loss of a comrade, Eilian.  Ithilden tells me Fithral died while you were scouting together.  That must be difficult for you.  Would you like to talk about it?"

Stomach twisting, Eilian set his wine down on the table at his elbow.  "There is not much else to say beyond that."

His father glanced away.  "Eilian, I do not want to pry, and you have been a warrior long enough to judge your own reactions.  But I also know your patrol has been in difficult situations of late, and perhaps the strain is wearing on you."  His eyes met Eilian's again, and one corner of his mouth quirked.  "I do have some experience of combat, you know.  It is possible I could help you get some perspective on things."

Eilian rubbed his damp palms on his leggings.  His father thought the "strain" was "wearing" on him?  Well, it was, and far more than it should have been.  Because his father was right.  He had seen comrades die before.  Why was he taking Fithral's death so hard?  He must be disturbed by the conditions he had seen in the woods.  He had never been that far south before, not even in the Peace.

"There really is not much to tell, Adar," he said slowly.  "You know what we were doing.  Todith told us we were to explore to the south, locate the orcs' camps, see if we could tell whether they were on the move and if so where, try to find a way through their lines.  I gather you and Ithilden are considering an attack on Dol Guldur?"

His father nodded.

"Good.  The woods are suffering."

"I know."  Thranduil's face was impassive, but Eilian believed his father did know.  Body and spirit, he was so connected to the Woodland Realm he probably felt the twisting of each tree. In the face of his father's stolid endurance, Eilian felt like Legolas whining over a skinned knee.

Thranduil drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair.  "Eilian, if Ithilden and I do decide to attack Dol Guldur, any details you can give me might be important."

"I told Todith everything, and Maltanaur probably did too."

"Tell me."

Eilian sighed.  "We were scouting during the day because Todith told us not to engage them, just learn what we could.  We knew one of their camps had to be nearby because of the number we saw hunting at night, but for the life of us, we could not find it."


Maltanaur whistled a signal, then crouched to touch one of the orc tracks scarring the bank of the stream.  He glanced up at Eilian.  "Since dawn maybe," he murmured.

Eilian nodded.  That made sense.  The orcs would have gone to ground when day straggled into this part of the forest.

A soundless stir of air announced the arrival of Gelmir and Fithral.  Eilian pointed at the tracks, then at the unmarked bank on the stream's other side.  They all craned their necks to look up and down the streambed.  Maltanaur grimaced, and Eilian sympathized with his unhappiness.  If the orcs were taking the trouble to cover their trail, they must know elves were nearby.

Eilian hesitated.  Should they split up and search both directions at once for where the orcs had emerged from the water?  That would be quicker, probably.  He opened his mouth to give the order, then bit back the words.  Todith had told them to take care.  He should muster his small patience and follow the safer course of action.

He held up four fingers and gestured north, then saw the slight curve of Maltanaur's mouth indicating his approval.  Good.  Eilian would be able to lead the search without his keeper's glare prodding his spine at every step he took.  He studied the underbrush crowding the stream and suppressed a sigh.  It was far too dense for them to see much from any place other than the water.

He slid down the bank into water that rose midway up his shins and felt like it had only yesterday been a snowbank in the Emyn-nu-Fuin.  His toes curled in his boots, and his leggings clung to his protesting muscles as stiffly as if they were frozen there.  He darted a quick look to be sure they were not, and hoped Maltanaur had not seen him do it.

The tearing hurry of the stream meant they did not have to worry overmuch about noise.  Still he moved carefully, and even he could not hear the elves behind him.  They were unlikely to find orcs moving about in daylight, but he kept his bow in his hand anyway as he swept his gaze from side to side, looking for telltale tracks, and racking his brain to think where the orc camp might be.  Where could they have found dark shelter for a large band?  He and the other scouts had been all through this part of the forest and found no sign of the caves the creatures preferred to use.  Could they be hiding in a stand of pines?  If they covered the branches with canvas, the space beneath would be dim enough.

As if he had conjured the dark, he took a step and found himself peering through a swirl of Shadow.  He stiffened and halted where he was, his gut knotting in revulsion.

All his life, Eilian had found solace among the trees.  They sang to him, calmed him, made him happy and at peace.  Now evil was snaking its way through the woods, like a poisonous vine, choking the life out the forest and replacing the rustling shade with the cold absence of light, something Eilian had learned was far different from leaf-dimmed daylight or star pricked night.  He had moved through patches of Shadow off and on since his patrol ventured so far south.  They never failed to shock him.

Behind him, someone stirred.  He glanced over his shoulder to see Gelmir and Fithral darting anxious looks at the tangled undergrowth along the banks.  Maltanaur's mouth was pressed in a thin line, but he caught Eilian's gaze and flicked his eyes ahead.  They had to keep searching. Eilian swallowed the bile in his throat and started moving again, breathing shallowly, reluctant to suck the fouled air into his body.

From a distance, a blackbird called, but Eilian heard no other birds and missed the rustle of small animals moving through the leaf litter.  He realized the muscles in his shoulders were tight, but they stayed tight even when he tried to relax them.  He felt like a fool for being so tense.  The orcs were in hiding and were unlikely to emerge in daylight.  He had nothing to fear, but he could not help himself.

He was probably responding to the fearful note in the song of the trees, he thought.  They should have been alive with the rush of spring sap and the uncurling of their leaves to the lengthening days.  Instead, their leaves were edged with slimy black and shriveling in on themselves, and their song quivered with pain.

Then, as if they had pushed out from behind a curtain, the shadow fell away and the air grew sweet.  A blue jay swooped overhead and lighted on a branch.  It eyed the elves disapprovingly and scolded them before rushing away on bird business.  Eilian felt light enough to fly after him.

He slogged through the water for another half-dozen paces before he reluctantly slowed to a stop and turned back.  "We should check that stretch of the stream again."

Gelmir groaned, then quickly said, "Sorry."

Maltanaur slapped Gelmir on the back.  "You saved me the trouble of making that noise myself."

"You think the orcs are back there?" Fithral asked.

"The trees are unhappy there," Eilian said.  "I think we need to look again."

"I do not see how we could have missed signs of the orcs leaving the stream," Gelmir said.

"Neither do I," Eilian said, "but we still need to look again."

"Come on, Gelmir," Fithral said.  "My feet are freezing.  When we get back to camp, you can rub them for me."

Gelmir snorted.  "When pigs build nests in oak trees."

Eilian laughed along with the others, but he heard the tension in Gelmir's voice.  When the patrol had headed south, Todith had warned them all about the strain the Shadow would put on their spirits.  "We had experience with it when Sauron was there," Todith said.  "It intensifies whatever doubts and weaknesses you might have and turns them back as weapons against you.  Be alert for it in yourself and in one another.  You can learn to turn it aside and weaken its power, but it is the rare warrior who can escape it entirely."

Eilian feared Gelmir was tinged with Shadow sickness now.  Eilian would not press his friend to learn what weak spot the Shadow had found in him, and he did not think he could bring himself to tell Todith about Gelmir either.  He would keep watch and support Gelmir as best he could while Gelmir wrestled with his demons.

For now, though, he had to set his concern for his friend aside.  He led the way back toward the darkness that looked like soot smudged across the air, choking the life out of the land.  He drew a deep breath and, before he had time to think, he forced himself back into it.

Immediately, his skin crawled, as every nerve in his body writhed in an effort to escape the Shadow's contaminating touch.  He was not exactly afraid.  Truth be told, Eilian usually enjoyed venturing into dangerous situations.  They set his heart pumping and his body tingling and made him aware of how alive he was.  What troubled him here was not the peril, but the corruption that made him feel as if something vile had slithered inside his tunic and, even worse, inside his body, inside his self.

He struggled onward, once again sensing the deep dismay of the trees.  Looking for anything that might tell him where the orcs had gone, he scanned the edges of the stream.  A faint breeze rattled the shriveled leaves overhead.

Eilian halted, head lifted, nostrils flared.  "Do you smell that?" he whispered.

The others sniffed, but Eilian was already moving toward the eastern bank, following the stench of orcs.  He scrambled up over a boulder, pushed his way through a thicket of brambles, and halted to sample the air in all directions.  Maltanaur, Gelmir, and Fithral slid through the brambles and came up next to him.

"I lost the scent," Eilian murmured.  "Do you smell them or see any other sign?"

Arrows in their bowstrings, they spread out, scanning in all directions.  Eilian strained to hear, see, smell anything that would tell him where the enemy had gone to ground, but the Shadow muffled everything.  Except the song of the trees, of course.  He heard that and cringed at the way their trouble seemed to extend right down into their roots.

Right down into their roots.

He stiffened, then dropped to his knees and set his ear to the ground.  For a moment, he heard nothing.  Then a rough voice rumbled at the far edge of his hearing.  Heart pounding, he jumped to his feet and whistled a signal.  As he expected, Maltanaur was near and came running first.

"Tunnels," Eilian said.  "They are in tunnels right below us."

He heard the light steps of Gelmir and Fithral, and then a crash and a cry.  For a heartbeat, Eilian froze.  Then he ran toward the sound on legs heave as stone.

Dirt foamed through the already dim air.  A twisted maple slowly tilted, its branches stretched out to the other trees as if pleading to be held, its roots tearing away and rearing up like a gigantic, spiked shield.  Everything seemed to be sliding toward a hole collapsing into the forest floor.

Everything, including Fithral.  He clung to the reeling maple, his legs already in the hole.  Orcs growled and shouted, and clawed hands clutched at him.  In the churning confusion, Eilian saw the three long gashes pouring blood down Fithral's thigh as clearly as if they were laid out before him, ready to be cared for.  Those will have to be stitched, he thought, just before Fithral vanished into the hole.

It had taken only an instant.  Gelmir had been darting from side to side, trying to get a shot that would not hit Fithral, all the while shouting for help.  Now he ran toward the hole, but Eilian was there before him, bow raised.

Half-a-dozen orcs were scrambling away from the light, hands raised to shield their eyes.  Two of them dragged a struggling Fithral by the ankles.  Eilian loosed an arrow, and one of the draggers let go and stumbled backward.

An arrow whined past Eilian's ear.  He dodged, but not before he glimpsed an orc yank a knife from its belt and slash at Fithral's throat.  Gelmir and Maltanaur were shooting into the tunnel, but a flurry of orc arrows made them jump away from the entrance.  Eilian was sidling toward the entrance when Maltanaur grabbed his arm.

"No," Maltanaur said.  "Get the rest of the patrol.  These orcs will stay put until night."

"Fithral!" Eilian cried.

"He is already dead."

"He might not be."  Eilian struggled to free himself.

"He is."  Gelmir's voice was wooden.

Eilian looked at the hole.  The hail of arrows had stopped, but he could hear the rumble of orc voices and the thud of their feet.  Their archers undoubtedly waited where the tunnel grew dark, ready to shoot anyone stupid enough to enter the confined space.  Moreover, he thought the tunnel ran in both directions.  Orcs could lurk behind as well as in front of someone coming through the hole.  In his mind's eye, he again saw the knife slashing across Fithral's throat.

"Gelmir, go tell Todith what we found.  Maltanaur and I will keep watch here."  Eilian heard his own voice quaver and realized he was crying.


"So Gelmir went," Eilian said.  "By the time the patrol came, dusk had fallen, so Todith stationed us around the opening to cut the orcs down as they came out, but they never did.  Eventually we went into the tunnel after them."

Eilian gripped the arms of his chair.  The stink of that place's evil would linger in his nostrils until the age ended.  Sometimes he felt as if its pollution still lingered inside him, as if he had carried it home to his family, his little brother.

His father had been watching the fire, his brows slightly drawn down.  Now he turned his face to Eilian.  "I did not realize the patrol engaged them."

"Nor did they," Eilian said.  "The tunnels were like a maze, but we searched them all.  The orcs had gone out another opening.  It turned out there was an exit into the streambed too, concealed by a boulder.  I had climbed over it without having the wit to see what it hid."

Thranduil ran a forefinger around the rim of his wine cup.  He spoke slowly.  "When you went south, did Maltanaur or Todith talk about the possibility of Shadow sickness?"

"Yes.  I think Gelmir suffers from it.  Todith asked Ithilden to give him an extended leave."

Thranduil nodded.  "If Gelmir has Shadow sickness, then he will need time with his family among healthy trees.  He will have earned it by putting himself between the Shadow and his home."  He scanned Eilian's face.  "What of you, Eilian?"

Eilian blinked and straightened.  "Am I suffering from Shadow sickness?  Of course not."

"Are you sure?  Your naneth says you are upset."

"And you conclude I have let the Shadow damage me?  How should I react to Fithral's death?  Should I be carefree?"

Thranduil set his wine down with a thump.  "Watch your tone of voice, Eilian."

Eilian's throat tightened at the effort of holding back the words he had been about to unleash.  He swallowed.  "I beg your pardon, Adar."

Thranduil leaned forward.  "I am not criticizing you.  I am trying to help you."

"Thank you."  The words sounded stiff even in Eilian's ears.  He sighed.  "I know I am more on edge than usual, but surely you see why.  This was not a good death, Adar."

His father grimaced.  "I know.  I also know you did all you could."

The tension in Eilian's stomach eased.  "Thank you," he said again, but this time, he meant it.

The door opened and Lorellin came in, smiling to herself.  Eilian and his father both rose.

"He is asleep?" Thranduil asked.

"Yes."  Lorellin took the chair closest to the fire, while Eilian poured her some wine.  "He was cuddled up against me, chattering away about what he and Eilian were going to do while was home and he fell asleep in the middle of a sentence.  You had better rest while you can, Eilian.  He has big plans for you."

Eilian laughed and handed his mother the cup.  "I think Ithilden has plans for me too, but perhaps the two of them can negotiate."

He resumed his own seat.  He hoped he could spend time with Legolas.  Seeing the world through his little brother's eyes reminded Eilian that beauty and joy lurked around every corner of the Woodland Realm.

His mother took up her knitting, and Eilian eased back on the bench, sipping his wine.  The fire was warm and the clicking of his mother's knitting needles was soothing.  Perhaps he would not go out tonight after all.  He felt as sleepy as Legolas, as if he might be able to sleep the night through without stumbling onto a dream path crowded with terror.

Why had he reacted so sharply to his father's careful question?  He must be more tired than he had realized.  How good it was to be home.

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