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Chapter 4 May the Forest Keep Them.
Ahead to the east a flock of birds flew in lowering circles, fighting each other noisily.
“Those are carrion crows clashing over some prize, Toroch, let’s go see!” Ereinion urged, fearing they might be battling over Lagortâl’s remains.
They rode along the forest eaves, following the noisy cawing. As soon as he found an opening Toroch crashed through the undergrowth, his step sure even in the dying light, sending the crows to the treetops in a squabbling disarray of feathers.
They found Longdel first.
The sturdy, faithful bay was pierced with many black-feathered shafts. Her head lay some twenty paces from the rest of the body, where crows had been busy picking at it. Not far was Megorlas’ body, unmoving, cut open with a single slash, his head smashed into the ground.
The smell of blood was old but still dense; it unsettled Toroch as much as the sight undid Ereinion.
Toroch was out of himself with grief, rearing and stomping and tossing his head in helpless rage while the crows mocked them from the closest branches, unafraid now, eager to get back to their bounty. Fearing the sorrel would hurt himself in his sorrow, Ereinion used a firm hand and steady heels to force him to trot away from the ghastly clearing —in any direction that took them away until they could breathe freely. When they had put some distance between them and the grisly clearing, Ereinion managed to talk the horse down into a quivering stop.
What now? He looked around in panic. The orange glitter of the burning tower could be seen ahead to his right -apparently they had doubled back. He could not make sense of the horse’s jumbled thoughts, nor the forest’s, or perhaps it was his own, all shaken by the grim discovery.
“Wait here, Toroch,” he encouraged, sliding off the tall steed. He looked around for clues, listening to a wind that had crept in unobserved, unrestrained, and that now brought a sense of danger and urgency to the forest.
Arien had already gone beyond the horizon and the night shadows were slithering out fast, surrounding them, making it difficult to find tracks. Toroch caught his attention then, trampling insistently under a thick oak and scrapping at its trunk. He approached the horse carefully, examined a stain on the trunk. It looked as if someone with a bleeding wound had found support there for a while.
“Lagortâl’s?” Ereinion wondered.
Searching the ground around the oak he soon found more blood tracks moving away. If those were Lagortâl’s, it made sense that he might have been trying to run from the orcs before he finally succumbed to his wounds. Whether the two had been together or Megorlas had been riding to help Lagortâl, or the opposite, he would never know. With deep regret that he had not even checked on Megorlas or retrieved his belongings he started following the blood trail on foot, Toroch in tow.
Suddenly, the sorrel picked up the pace and trotted past him, neighing in urgent despair. Ereinion hurried up behind, sure that Toroch had found his rider.
It took some effort to drag the horse from the side of his dead master. Ereinion stood away respectufully as Toroch nipped and groomed his elven friend, then walked up and patted him.
“He is gone now, to Mandos,” he whispered. “I sure hope horses do go there as well...I am sure that he misses you, too,” he added, sharing the horse’s deep sorrow. “We must do what we must, Toroch, Hathol needs us..” To his surprise, the horse headbutted his lying friend one last time and then followed him deeper into the forest.
He found the clearing easily enough, where the three orcs lay dead. From there, he retraced his earlier steps, guided by the whispers of the trees until he found the hidden ravine where he had left Hathol. The great chestnut tree greeted him with relief.
“Wait,” he instructed the horse. He approached the hiding place noisily.
“Hathol, it’s me, I came back for you!” he called out as he dragged himself through the low branches of the juniper bush and rolled into the ravine. Only to be met by feverish eyes and a long knife aimed at his head. “It’s me, Hathol! Come, I will take you back to Eglarest!”
The wounded elf blinked and then gasped, lowering the knife. “What on Ossë’s beard are you doing here! I told you…”
“There is no time, we need to hurry!” Ereinion threw the waterskins over his shoulders, sheathed the long knives and buckled them aroud his waist and then started dragging the wounded elf, who could do nothing but complain in pain. With some struggle he managed to pull Hathol out. They lay outside in the clearing, panting, one in pain and the other in exhaustion. The sky was completely dark by now, but a handful of stars shed enough light for Hathol to recognize the big sorrel.
“Toroch? Where did you find him?”
Ereinion dragged himself up to his feet. “There’s no time. Toroch, come, you’ll have to lay down, he cannot stand… Will you be able to hold yourself up, Hathol?” he asked, as the wounded guard hauled himself on Toroch’s back. “Now, easy, easy, careful, Toroch, up now,” he crooned, struggling to support Hathol as the tall horse lurched up to his four. Ereinion winced at Hathol’s pained breathing.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Will you be fine?”
“Climb up, Ereinion… Toroch can carry us both… we need to warn everyone…fast…”
Ereinion pointed north with a quick, wicked smile. The reddish glimmer of the fire tinged the sky there. “I think the alarm is raised,” he chuckled, a nervous glee surging in him.
“What’s that?” Painfully, Hathol had managed to turn slightly on Toroch’s back and now looked at him with a frown. “What did you do?”
“I set the Barad Hen on fire,” Ereinion giggled. “Do you think they will see it from Eglarest?”
“Hîrvegil… will have your hide … Mount up…” Hathol managed in a voice that was tired and quivering.
The pain in Hathol’s voice brought back the direness of their situation, and the impending terror of the army that marched against them. Abruptly, the strange giddiness that had filled him disappeared, leaving behind fear and uncertainty. Tiredly, Ereinion climbed behind Hathol, holding most of the wounded elf’s weight, and urged Toroch home.
“I found Megorlas and Longdel,” he whispered as they rode. “They are dead, too…”
Even after checking that Hathol had passed out from the pain, Ereinion continued speaking softly -mostly so as not to feel so utterly alone, trusting Toroch to pick the fastest way back home.
“Bring me Faunvorn, Tharonîl, and go!”
Hîrvegil strode into the stables dodging hurried stable hands pouring in and out of the commotion in the streets, apparently running urgent errands. Círdan had orded the alarm raised, the bells in the docks were tolling insistently and people must have seen the distant fire and taken it for what it was: a summons to immediate evacuation, instead of a paced one.
“Your menace awaits in the yard with your patrol, Commander. Take care of your business and I will take care of mine,” the stable master retorted, busy, it seemed, taking stock of feed. “How long do you think we have?”
“That’s what I intend to find out, my friend, but I would say less than we hoped…” he shot back as he crossed the stables to the back yard at a run.
“I sent Duilin ahead, Hîrvegil. The children left through the east door,” his second greeted him while he mounted his short-tempered black courser and cast a look around at the assembled riders.
“I said two or three riders, Arminas, not a whole battalion,” he grumbled, counting at least twelve riders packed in the yard. “Six at the most. We ride till we find the scout, then split if necessary. The rest of you report to Erestor, all hands are needed now for immediate evacuation!”
With that he urged Faunvorn into a trot and, once they cleared the eastern door -and he made sure that the patrol followed in an orderly line- into a thundering gallop. He could not shake the feeling that their time had been cut dangerously short.
Arien was still visible on the western sky when they sighted the scout ahead. He slowed Faunvorn down, allowing his second to catch up with him.
“Ease it down, Hîrvegil, Arminas feels guilty…” Oldáin said, his voice appeasing.
He shook his head, aggravated. Two thirds of the patrol was made up of flaming-eyed, orc blood-thirsty Noldorin warriors, survivors of Dorthonion and the Dagor Nirnaeth who burnt wildly with survivor guilt. “Well, he and his remorse can take a swim to Balar, for all I care… I need no regretful, reckless warriors looking for redemption in my army,” he spat, struggling to keep his indignation at a low hiss.
“...he feels guilty because he did not check on them after blade practice,” Oldáin finished calmly with a smirk. “What news, Duilin?” he called out, raising his hand so they all stopped and waited for the scout to catch up with them.
“The children’s tracks are clear, they followed the trail… may have reached the forest,” Duilin said as he rode up to them. He pointed behind him to the distant copse. “But.. Hîrvegil.. I also found orc tracks to the east, to the Círorne, and no traces of Lâgortal or Megorlas,” he finished with a grimace.
A soft, worried murmur arose within the ranks.
Hîrvegil shook his head. “Someone put the Barad Hen to fire, I doubt orcs would signal their presence like that. Our best hope is that one or both found the children and are bringing them back…”
“That is nonsense, Hîrvegil. We are wasting time, our king’s heir is lost out there, who’s with me!” Arminas spat hotly, heeling his horse onwards and breaking ranks.
“Enough!” Hîrvegil thundered, forcing Arminas to a stop. “Two boys and two foresters are missing, and there may be orcs on the loose as well. Three of you ride with Oldáin, follow Duilin to where he saw those orc tracks, start forth from there towards the tower and wait there for us. Give a warning call if you find any of them. The rest with me, we will follow the children’s tracks until we find them, are we clear?”
Of course Arminas would choose to follow him, he thought in annoyance as the patrol split up seamlessly in unspoken accord. Scowling at his second’s knowing snort he raised his hand and signaled his small group into a slow canter along the trail, entrusting Oldáin’s to the Starkindler’s protection on their way east.
Night had settled in by the time they reached the forest, when Arminas raised a hand and urged them to a stop. Hîrvegil could feel it to, an urgency in the trees and also a friendly breeze that brought good news. Silently, he signaled his companions to spread out and take cover under the trees, while he and Faunvorn stuck to the trail.
A slow, rythmic clip-clop could be heard ahead, amongst the trees.
Hîrvegil nudged Faunvorn to a stop and waited.
A tall shadow popped out from the cover of the trees, carrying a dark shape slumped on its back. Faunvorn’s friendly, soft snort was all the confirmation Hìrvegil neded, but he had to smile as he glimpsed two extra legs behind the tall sorrel’s. The child must have slipped into hiding after he heard them ahead.
He chuckled in relief. “Nice try, Pînarphen,” he chuckled, using one of the many friendly names with which he tried to poke the young Noldo out of his earnestness. “Were we orcs, though, your back would be a pincushion by now…”
“Hîrvegil, help us!” Recognizing his voice, the child had left the cover of the horse’s hind quarters and rushed to him, sheathing two long knives as he ran, so much fear and despair mingled with relief in the quivering voice that Hîrvegil feared the boy was hurt.
“Ereinion! Are you unhurt? That’s Hathol on Toroch, Heledir, hold him up!” Arminas barked while Hîrvegil dismounted and held the child, who was now a handful of anguished sobs and rambling explanations.
“They’re coming, Hîrvegil, the orcs, and Megorlas… they, we need to warn Círdan, and I… I…”
“Easy, child, you are safe now, you are safe, are you unhurt?” he crooned, kneeling down to look the sobbing child in the eye. He held him back by his shoulders and spoke calmly.
“Calm down Ereinion, calm down. Report, please. What happened?”
It worked somehow. In between hiccups and stutters Hîrvegil got the tale out of the blubbering child and then hugged him tightly, feeling the mighty tremors that shook the thin frame.
“Can you guess how far they are, Ereinion?” he asked softly when he felt him calm down a bit.
“Hathol is seriouly wounded, Hîrvegil,” Arminas interjected, coming to them. “Heledir is checking him over, but we will need to get him back now…”
Hîrvegil sighed as Ereinion tightened his desperate hold on his neck.
“Lagortâl and Megorlas are dead,” he told Arminas. “There may be more orcs around…and… if I understand rightly there’s a large army coming at us from the North,” he said. He felt the deep sigh Ereinon took as he pulled off from his comforting embrace and looked up at them.
“I left them there,” he sniffled. “I could not… even…”
“Easy, child,” Arminas, said, squatting beside them and pressing on the bony shoulder. “The forest will keep them… will take good care of them. Oldáin and his patrol will find their remains, bring their belongings back home…and you brought Toroch, well done…”
“He was in the Barad Hen,” Ereinion hiccupped… “I… I lit the tower… so Nargothrond will come?”
“Toroch was at the Barad Hen?” Hîrvegil prompted. “Was Lagortâl there, too? Did he leave any messages?”
He looked up to meet Arminas worried glance. He had sent Lagortâl and Megorlas on a scouting mission with instructions to collect any message Orodreth’s captains might have left for him. Ever since the disaster in the North, a few of Orodreth’s higher ranking officers had been defying their lord’s ban by exchanging intelligence with Hîrvegil, mostly out of guilt about their inaction, he guessed, and afraid that, cut from the few surviving elven settlements by their king’s decree they would be redenderd even weaker in their isolation.
Ereinion wiped his eyes and nose and shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he sighed, “but I… Hathol… he picked Lagortâl’s weapons, and then I picked his cloak.. for Hahtol…”
Hírvegil took a deep breath and summoned all his patience, sensing the child’s need for reassurance. “You did good, Ereinion, you took care of Hathol, that’s all you had to do…”
“Oh… Hathol gave me his pack, I forgot!” the child said, unshouldering the bag that he carried and handing it over to Hîrvegil. “Lagortâl’s” he whispered. “I did not look into it, only treats for Toroch,” he hurried to add, mistaking Hîrvegil’s worried expression for rebuke.
Hîrvegil searched the contents of the bag feverishly. “There!” he said, bringing up a piece of parchment that he handed over to Arminas. “You did good, Ereinion, I need you to calm down. Can you guess how far are they? Could you see the Forest of Núath from up there? Eithel Nenning? Were they all marching down in our direction?”
The child was sobbing again, overwhelmed by his questions and unable to provide answers. He looked up with a grimace at Arminas’ warning tone, fearing he was about to be chided. Instead he saw the worried look of his warrior as he handed over the parchment. He surrendered the bawling boy to Arminas and walked a few paces away, straightening the creased, blood-stained parchment, barely noticing Nargorhond’s seal under the unsteady starlight.
“Massive forces amassing at Tol-in-Gaurhoth. Orodreth will not come forth, tell Círdan and Falasadron to flee now. May the Lord of Waters protect the Falathrim. G. I.”
He stod still for a moment, looking at the parchment without actually seeing, noting idly the hurried initials of the signature and the date: five days ago. Gildor must have risked a lot to come down and leave the message there.
“Hathol needs urgent care, Hîrvegil.” Heledir’s concerned voice brought him out of contemplation. They had to move. He crumpled the parchment in his hand and nodded to Arminas.
“You take the children back and report to Círdan and Erestor, tell them that war is upon us. Heledir, Gelmir,” he addressed the two other members of his patrol, “follow the children’s tracks, find Oldáin, meet me at the Barad Hen. I need to get a clearer idea of the movements of the enemy…”
“No!” Ereinion freed himself from Arminas and tried to hold the commander back.
“Hîrvegil, they are coming, we must go!”
He shook his head. “I’ll be careful. But Hathol is your responsibility now, Ereinion, he needs your help, and you must also report to Círdan what you saw. Our people need us to do what we must. Go now!”
Cîrorne: Ship forest. A wood where Círdan’s foresters would grow the trees best suited for shipbuilding.
Pînarphen: Little noble one.
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