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3. Face in the Water
Forest of Brethil, First Age 458
The canopy overhead hid the sky completely, and the only source of light was moonlight reflecting in the calm surface of the river Sirion to their right. The terrain was difficult to traverse; moss covered trunks and dense ivy littered the ground. It was a very different forest from the one surrounding Menegroth; wilder, fiercer. A bit like its inhabitants, actually, the Men of Haleth.
Thranduil had never met a human before this campaign, but now here he was, trying to lead people of that race into battle. They made too much noise, he figured, but otherwise they seemed friendly enough. The little he could tell from the short time he had known them.
“Shall I bid them to be more quiet?” he murmured to the ellon beside him.
“Nah, it is still at least a league left, and my guess is it will take an hour or more in this rough terrain until we get close enough for the orcs to hear us.” Amroth bent to tore off some brambles that had got caught in the metal greave protecting his leg. “Perfect. Now my trousers ripped, too,” he grumbled. Their leg armour covered the front of their calves, but behind them the fabric was bare. “How typical of our dear captain to assign us this route on the ground with the humans, while the other units get to move through the trees.”
Amroth was Thranduil’s closest friend since Beleg had become captain of the march-wardens. Cúthalion – strongbow – they called Beleg now, because of his almost uncanny skill with his favoured weapon. The past decade he had spent nearly all his free time with the much older Captain Mablung, and only deigned to notice his former friends when he wanted to point out something they did wrong. To be corrected – and on one occasion even punished – by his former best friend was beyond humiliating, but perhaps that was part of growing up. Your friends changed, and so did you.
“My Lords, can I have a word?” It was Halmir, the leader of the human troup, speaking in his heavy Mannish accent. Thranduil was still not used to seeing men’s faces up close, and it was all he could do not to stare rudely. They were wrinkled, with an assortment of spots and marks, and their chins were overgrown with thick hair. Only the really young were smooth and unblemished like elves.
“Of course,” said Amroth. “Any problems?”
“The men are growing tired, My Lord; they are not used to this fast pace, wearing full armor too.”
“Oh. Are they?” The two friends exchanged surprised looks. Humans really were exceptionally weak, it would seem, they had barely been walking five hours.
“Aye, and there are several younger boys, as you know. We need to rest a while.”
“If you must,” acceded Thranduil reluctantly.
They stopped in a glade, where a huge fir tree had fallen partly into the river. Thranduil selected four elves as sentries to climb the trees around and look out, while the others sat or lay down to rest.
As usual during breaks, the company became divided with the men on one side and the elves on the other. Not by design, it just happened. They were so very different, and in addition many of the men seemed slightly intimidated by the taller and stronger elves. Besides, the humans smelled , as if they only washed themselves once a week or less.
Thranduil removed his helmet and gloves, and drank his fill of the sweet river water. He sat on the shore, allowing the light breeze to cool his moist temples. Tonight was unusually warm and humid for the season, and the thick, padded jacket he wore under his chainmail was not helping much.
It was good to be here, anyway, out on his first real wartime mission, even if it was only to secure the safety of their own borders. Thranduil had hated the past two years when the war between Morgoth and the Noldorin elves had raged in the north, while he was unable to do anything. King Thingol had refused to send out the march-wardens, despite their captains’ urging, saying he would never aid the Noldor after what they had done to his kin in Valinor.
Sure, killing elves to steal their ships and chase after the Silmarils was pretty grave as crimes go, but this was not just about helping the Noldor. They had a shared foe in Morgoth. If the Lord of the Dark continued to breed his dragons, balrogs and orcs unrestrained, he might be impossible to stop. The strong magic fence around Doriath would protect their city, but if everything around it became desolate and ruined by dragon fire, what good would it do them?
“Quit those bleak thoughts,” said Amroth cheerfully, and splashed a handful of cold water in Thranduil’s face.
“Stop it,” he hissed, and looked around to make sure nobody had noticed. “I am your commander now.”
“You look just like Beleg did that time.” Amroth grinned. “Remember? When the elfling who fancied you nearly drowned him.” He dipped his hands into the river again, but Thranduil dodged his attack.
“Do that again I will punish you.” He glared at his friend. “We are on a serious, dangerous mission. This is not the time, nor the place for fooling around.”
“Valar, Tharan, you are such a bore sometimes.” Amroth shook his head and stalked off.
Thranduil calmly wiped his face. Amroth would probably sulk a while as usual, and then pretend nothing had happened.
He pondered over the other’s words. Maybe he had become a bore, but being a leader weighed on his shoulders, even though it was over such a small unit of elves and humans as this. If something bad happened, it would be he who took the blame, not Amroth. As Oropher had said once: With great power comes great responsibility .
Then he smiled wryly; of course he remembered the incident Amroth had talked of. A soaking wet Beleg chasing after the skinny little elleth was actually one of his funniest childhood memories. Beleg had always been rather arrogant, and that had been something they could tease him about whenever he showed off his archery skills or bragged about his other achievements.
Aerneth, that had been the elleth’s name. She had been such an annoying shadow that summer, but thankfully she moved back home afterwards and he had never seen her again. However flattering her adoration had been, it had not been worth all the taunting from his friends.
A ripple in the river drew Thranduil’s gaze, and he quickly jumped to his feet when he perceived a pair of eyes looking at him from under the surface.
A fish? Or something dangerous? His breath caught.
The eyes were gone again. Had he imagined them?
Very carefully he moved closer, squinting to see better in the twilight. Nothing. No fish, no diving orc; only the gravel and stones of the riverbed beneath.
Perhaps it had been a trick of the light, or the reflection of two stars?
It was time to go anyway; or he would be late for the impending battle.
Thranduil’s unit arrived at last to the edge of the Brethil forest, its northeastern part. They had made it on time despite the delay; there was still no sign of the approaching orc legion.
The company spread out to find good hiding spots in the dense clusters of young shrubs.
If everything had gone according to plan, several other warrior units would be hiding further west, positioned at regular intervals on both sides of the Old South Road. When the orcs got to the road, they would have to regroup and walk in a thin file. The road itself was hardly more than a footpath anymore, it was not used much and very narrow between the trees, but the orcs had to follow it to reach the elven cities in the west. It was the only way for an army to pass over the river Teiglin.
When the last of the orcs were on the road, they would be ambushed; shot by elven archers in the trees on the sides, and attacked from behind by Thranduil’s footmen. That would force them to run forward – unless they wanted to enter the forest, where more elves hid, which was unlikely. In effect, they would be herded towards the Crossing of Teiglin, where they would be even more exposed and vulnerable, and this was where captain Beleg and the bulk of the march-wardens would attack them from the other side of the river. Hopefully that would be the last anyone saw of those orcs.
It was anxious waiting, especially for the humans who could not see well in the twilight and needed to trust their elven companions’ eyesight. The leather of Thranduil’s left glove was rough against his fingers, as he repeatedly gripped the swordhandle and then relaxed. Grip and relax, grip and relax. Beside him Amroth toyed with the end of one of his many black braids. To battle, Thranduil wore his hair plaited as well, but he had chosen two fishtail braids that kept his hair away from his face.
A sound reached their ears at last; the tramping of many feet. Thranduil’s and Amroth’s gazes met, and in his friend’s eyes he perceived the same mingle of excitement and anxiety he felt himself. It was time! Today would be their first encounter with real flesh and blood foes, rather than the stuffed leather orcs on their training grounds.
Soon they could see the approaching legion; a dense mass of different-sized helmets, banners, a forest of spears, and in the front, an assortment of mismatched shields. No two orcs wore the same armour or weapons – it looked like they had just scrambled together any warring equipment they had gotten their hands on. There was no conformity, and seemingly not much discipline either. They walked together, but not in unison, and not in straight lines such as the elves prefered.
Again Thranduil met his friend’s gaze. They did not have to speak, he could see the other thinking the same as he. What a bunch of ruffians!
Thranduil wrinkled his nose as he caught the orcs’ horrid stink. He had expected it, older elves who had fought orcs during the earlier battles of Beleriand had described what those creatures were like, but experiencing it was something else. Bile rose in his throat, and he had to fight down an urge to throw up.
Just as predicted, the orcs began to regroup and walk ten or fifteen abreast along the road, keeping some distance to the trees. The line would be long; there must be many thousands of them.
Only a small part of the army had come up on the road when there was a disturbance among them. The hidden elves could hear the enemy talking in their harsh language. What had happened?
The orcs began to spread out, coming closer to the forest. They walked slowly and cautiously, like they searched for something. A few of them were close enough that Thranduil could see them clearly. Just like with their weapons, there was no uniformity to their looks; most of them were short in stature and had protruding canines, but some were fairer in colour, others darker, some had big, deformed faces, others looked almost like scarred elves.
The orcs’ noses were twitching, and with a twinge of fear Thranduil realised they were smelling them , his company! But how? Then it struck him: the men . The orcs must have perceived the scent of the unwashed humans!
He cursed under his breath. He should have foreseen this, and made the chief part of his unit hide deeper inside the forest until the orcs had passed. A few scouts close to the border would have been enough. But there was no point in dwelling over past mistakes.
“ Fall back ,” he mouthed to Amroth, and beckoned the way they had come. He gave the same silent order to the other elves and humans nearby, who spread the instruction further. Soon the whole company was retreating, as soundlessly as they could.
Walking quietly was hard for the men, they could not see where they went and the dense undergrowth tangled in their feet. More than once a faint crack or rustle made Thranduil wince. He sent a silent prayer to Tulkas, the Vala of war, begging him to hide their noise from the orcs.
It did not help; after only a few minutes an orc’s guttural roar and a cry of pain told him one of them had been caught.
A man came scurrying, jumping over a fallen log and halting in front of his commander. He clutched his bleeding shoulder. “They almost got me!” he hissed.
Thranduil did not bother to be silent anymore; they were already exposed. “Run! Return to the river!” he called.
They dashed through the forest, where the undergrowth still was trampled after their coming through earlier. The orcs would be able to follow them easily, Thranduil realised; the flattened vegetation was a dead giveaway.
It was very tempting to just abandon the humans and take to the trees, but of course he could not do that.
He glanced at the river ahead, here was a shallow part; the Ford of Brithiach. On the other side he saw the land of Dimbar, a stretch of empty grassland which usually was waterlogged this time of the year. They would be able to run faster there than in the forest.
“Over the Ford!” He waved for the others to go into the water, while he stayed to cover their backs. The river was wide, and it was slow walking over the slippery stones, but the orcs had not caught up with them yet. He heard them coming through the forest, but saw none.
The few warriors who had made it to the other side were clearly visible when they began to jog over the grass, but there was no helping it. Hopefully the orcs were not as fast as them, and with luck there were no archers among them.
If only they could hide somewhere! Then the orcs would probably continue following the company’s old tracks down south along the Sirion, until they came to the magic fence around Doriath and had to turn back.
Again he thought of the elleth Aerneth and her water powers, and wished he had those too. He could have made the river part to let them hide under the surface, with a bubble of air to breathe.
As if the river had heard his wish to hide, a thick mist began to form in its middle. It welled up in a cloud and spread out in all directions, upstream and downstream, and a few yards up the shores on either side. Thranduil gaped in surprise and shock as he felt the tiny droplets against his face, and watched the forest behind him disappear in opaque, white clouds.
Then he regained his composure; whatever this fog was, they must use it.
“Gather in the middle,” he commanded.
He heard faint splashes as the others’ obeyed. The last two men went past him, and he followed them down into the cool water and began to wade.
The chilly surface reached his thighs and filled his boots; they would be absolutely ruined, and they were almost new, too. He had liked those boots. Then he scolded himself for thinking about clothes now; if this worked they might survive, that was the only thing that mattered!
Thranduil had nearly reached the center of the river when he saw two blue eyes in the water. It was the same pair he had seen earlier tonight! Then they had been real. A face surrounded the eyes this time, a female face with blonde hair, and it did not disappear immediately as it had before.
He stared at the apparition, his heart beating fast. What was this? Some new vile monster of Morgoth’s?
Full, pink lips moved as the image whispered a single word.
And then it was gone.
The mysterious mist lasted several hours, long enough for the orcs to do what Thranduil had predicted; follow their trail south, fail to find them, and then return back to the road. Meanwhile his company waited, huddling close together, shivering and cold, but alive.
When the last orc had passed, the fog thinned out and soon it was entirely gone. The warriors looked at each other, not knowing what to think.
“The Vala of the water must have saved us,” said Halmir, the human leader.
“Aye,” agreed others. “Ulmo saved us!”
“Ulmo saved us… Ulmo hid us…” The words echoed among them.
As they waded ashore, Thranduil was deep in thought. Could it have been Ulmo he saw? But the face had been female , he was sure of it. The cheeks and chin had been rounded, almost heart shaped, and the eyebrows delicate. The Valar were neither female, nor male, they just chose such appearances when they took physical form. Ulmo always used a male form, and he was said to wear a dark, foamy helmet. The face Thranduil saw had worn nothing on its head.
Maybe it was one of Ulmo’s helpers, the Maia Uinen? The Maiar were like elves, only more powerful, and they were real males and females. Queen Melian was a Maia, who had married Thingol, an elf. But why would Uinen visit Thranduil, show herself to him and hide him from orcs? It would have made more sense if it was the Vala of war, he whom Thranduil had prayed to before.
They were all gathered on the shore now, wet and bedraggled, and Thranduil decided he would think more about the face in the water later. They still had a job to do, an orc army to chase. By now the orcs would be back on the road, and soon the elven archers would attack. Thranduil must hurry if his company was going to be able to block the orcs’ retreat path.
Halmir and a younger man came up to him.
“Milord, me sons are miss! Me two boys!” The man’s accent was almost unintelligible.
“His sons, my grandsons. Huor and Húrin,” said Halmir. “They were among the first to cross the river, and I think they might not have heard when you called us back to hide in the fog.”
“We cannot look for them now, but they will be safe in Dimbar. As far as I know, there are no dangers in that land. We return for them once the orcs are defeated.” Thranduil tried to sound reassuring, while secretly wondering how they could be so stupid as to bring young boys into battle.
“They might stray too far east,” Halmir protested. “Huge spiders dwell there. The youngest is only thirteen!”
“Am I in charge of this unit, human, or are you?” Thranduil snapped, losing patience. They had to leave now .
The man gave him an angry stare, but then bowed curtly. “You are, My Lord.” He spoke to the other man in their own language, probably trying to convince him they would have to come back for the boys later.
Thranduil had his company regroup, and then began to follow the now rather wide trail back to the road. The orcs had been cutting down plants and shrubs to widen the way, and Thranduil was not the only elf to frown at the needless violence.
When they were almost back where they had first been hiding, Thranduil motioned for his unit to wait. Choosing a handful of elves to follow him, he climbed a nearby tree. The orcs had likely left sentries behind to guard the tracks in case they returned – at least that was what he would have done in their shoes – and it would be a good idea to come from a direction they did not expect.
Soundlessly passing from tree to tree, they creeped closer. Soon a foul smell reached their nostrils; Thranduil had been correct in his assumption.
Amroth waved to catch Thranduil’s attention, and pointed below him. He nodded, he saw them too. They were five, stupidly sitting together in the open instead of hiding among the shrubs. They breathed so loud he could have shot them in the dark.
Thranduil slid his sword out of its scabbard, and held his breath as he slowly passed to a tree just behind the orcs. He felt, more than heard his companions on either side of him, advancing on their unsuspecting prey.
His gaze met Amroth’s, and a surge of adrenaline flowed through his veins. His friend’s eyes shone.
“Doriath!” With that warcry, Thranduil dropped to the ground and decapitated the first orc in one swift stroke.
“Doriath!” The others jumped a heartbeat after him, and ended the rest of the orcs just as efficiently as he had done.
It was over so soon, they almost did not know how to react. Standing beside the corpses, the elves looked at each other, smiling rather foolishly, trembling with surplus energy. Neither of them had been in a real fight before; King Thingol had stayed out of war ever since the First Battle of Beleriand over four hundred years ago.
Then the reality of what they had done hit them, and their smiles waned as they took in the scene. Cut off body parts littered the ground, and on the head Thranduil had severed, milky blue eyes bulged out like dove’s eggs. The tangible smell of blood mingled with the odour of the other body fluids the creatures had expelled when they died, together with the ever-present orc stink. Thranduil felt sick again, and as they returned to the waiting company he noticed one of the others silently bending over a bush to vomit.
Killing was ugly; they had known this with their minds, but nobody could have prepared them beforehand for what it was actually like .
They continued, upholding as fast a pace the humans could muster. Thranduil tried not to think about the dead orc head, instead he focused on the annoying squelching of his wet boots.
It took several hours until they caught sight of the orc legion ahead. The sun was high, and the orcs were resting, night creatures as they were. The humans in the troop needed rest too, so Thranduil had them pull back into the forest where they made a simple camp. It felt good to finally be able to remove his boots and dry his feet. But they were indeed ruined, he noticed. A shame.
Late in the evening they broke camp and continued, and soon they spotted the orcs trudging along the road. By then, the shooting must have already commenced, they could hear growls and yells in the distance, and the orcs in the rear were trying to hurry forward.
Thranduil had his company spread out across the road and a little way into the forest on both sides. The men and a few of the elves were armed with axes, the rest of them with swords. Then they marched. The orcs had still not spotted them, and they were in no hurry to catch up; the closer they got to the river crossing before the battle began, the better.
After a while, they came to the site of the first archer ambush. Here clusters of orc corpses were scattered, the many arrows still protruding from their bodies. When Thranduil’s company came close, they were joined by the archers themselves, who elegantly dropped down from the nearby trees. Most of them had empty quivers, but after retrieving some arrows from the corpses they were good to continue. A few of the shot orcs proved to be still alive, but the newcomers helped put an end to them.
Somehow Thranduil found it harder to kill a wounded orc, who was unable to defend itself, than it had been to decapitate the sentry before. The sound his victim made when he drove his sword into its heart was one he would not easily forget.
Along the way, the rest of the archers joined them. When they finally arrived at the battlefield by the Teaglin river, Thranduil’s footmen had grown into a small army, and Galadriel, who had been with one of the archer units, had taken over leadership. She was a war veteran unlike him, and Thranduil was happy to fall back.
Along the road, Thranduil had killed nineteen wounded orcs, and he had found it became easier with each time.
Of the battle itself, he could not remember much with clarity later. It was so chaotic, and he had a hard time sorting through the various events. Was it early or late in the encounter he was hit in his shoulder by an orc spear? It did not pierce his chainmail, but left an ugly bruise. And when he fought three orcs alone, was that before or after the spear incident? He did not know, but the sight of Oropher coming to his aid then, was something he would not forget. Never had his father seemed taller, stronger and more fierce. Never had his son loved him more.
The sounds and smells of battle were repressed into Thranduil’s subconsciousness after a while, as well as most of his coherent thoughts; he let his reflexes take over. He had trained for this his entire life, and he found he was good at it. All those endless running laps, pushups, swordplay routines and footwork exercises were paying off. His hands and legs moved like he were dancing, and around him foe after foe fell to the ground.
The battle lasted for hours. Not until the last orc was dead, did the pain and exhaustion catch up with Thranduil. He could not remember ever being this tired before; his sword hand trembled so bad he could hardly sheathe his weapon. His shoulder ached dully, and a multitude of small nicks and cuts stung.
“Well fought, friend.” Captain Beleg touched his shoulder, unfortunately just where the spear had hit him. He tried hard not to wince. His childhood friend's praise should not mean anything to him, but apparently it did; and some of the weariness left him.
Beleg, too, had cause to be proud today. He had led his first battle, with the older veteran Mablung serving as his second in command, and he had won with hardly any losses. For every fallen elf or man, he could count at least thirty dead orcs.
Thranduil watched the other as he moved on. Maybe one day it would be he who was the great leader, he who could take credit for such an impressive victory as this.
Halmir came up to Thranduil then, and even before the other opened his mouth he knew it was about the missing boys. Darn. He had almost forgotten them. Being the grandchildren of the human leader, they were important . He had to find them.
“Aye. We will go to Dimbar and search for the boys now.” With a sigh, Thranduil gathered the remainder of his unit.
Somehow he had a feeling these boys, these Huor and Húrin were important. He could not say why – they were humans after all, what could such achieve? But the feeling would not leave him, and all the way back he mulled over both them and the face in the water.
Because this story focuses on the grey elves (the Sindar), I have decided to use Sindarin words sparsely in dialogue. Assume that everybody speaks Sindarin, unless it’s stated otherwise. Back in those days almost everyone did, because the grey elves would not speak Quenya (Noldorian) or Khuzdul (Dwarfish). However, some Sindarin epessës (taken or given surnames) will be used, such as Thingol (meaning grey cloak), Círdan (shipwright) and Cúthalion (strongbow).
If you have questions, don't hesitate to review!
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