The Web Of Darkness

Soledad

Chapter 026

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Chapter 26

Chapter Notes

The events referred to it in this chapter are described in detail in my other story, “The Prisoner of Dol Guldur”. To a certain extent, almost all of my stories in Tolkien’s world are interconnected, with the exception of a few AUs. You do not really have to read “Prisoner” to understand this one; although you might actually like it. ;o)
The degree of Thranduil’s kinship to Celeborn is semi-canon at best. This is a family tree I have worked out for my stories and use in all of them. You are free to disagree.
The Vault of the Dead has been established in my similarly-named story. Again, you don’t have to read it to understand this one.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
PART 26

Drizzt never learned how the encounter between the captured goblin and the Master of Esgaroth had turned out; and honestly, he did not truly care, either. As much as he liked the Lakemen, they were well able to protect themselves without him worrying about them. Besides, in the next morning the rafts of Mirkwood arrived, and he forgot about the goblins entirely.

For with the rafts came Silinde Ladyhawk, as proud and radiant as ever, and the first thing she did after her arrival was to seek him out – not that it would have been so hard, considering that he was the only Dark Elf in a crowd of white-skinned, straw-haired Men. But it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless, even though the means of her arrival surprised him a little.

“We have traded with the Lakemen for things that do not grow in our woods for many years,” explained Silinde, sharing her wineskin with him. “Things like butter and apples and, before all else, wine; for I have to admit that we are very fond of it, and so is our King,” she added, taking a healthy swig. She could afford it – only very strong wine made the Wood-Elves drowsy, and this was a rather mild one.

“Do all those goods come to the King’s palace on rafts?” asked Drizzt.

“In truth, they rather come up the Forest River in barrels,” she replied, handing him the wineskin again, “though they are often just tied together like big rafts and poled or rowed up the stream. Sometimes, though, they are goaded on flat boats, too.”

“Hmmm,” Drizzt had to admit that tasting Elven wine after all those days he had to drink ale or mead with the Lakemen was a blessing. “And when the barrels are emptied, you bring them back to Esgaroth the same way?”

He had made no thoughts about how Wood-Elves acquired their food, aside from the hunt and the collecting of berries and mushrooms. He realised now that he should have known they ought to have other sources. The fare in King Thranduil’s stronghold had been better than what little the darkened forest could have provided.

Silinde nodded. “There is a water-gate in the King’s caves, opening to a stream that flows under the lowest regions of the palace, and joins the Forest River some way farther to the East,” she said. “The King’s servants cast the empty barrels through the trapdoors cut in the floor above the stream, and open the water-gate, so that the barrels can float on the stream, carried by the current to a place far down the River, near the eastern edge of the forest. There the raft-Elves collect them, tie them together and float them back to Esgaroth… or to Dale, whichever the case might be.”

Raft-Elves?” repeated Drizzt, a bit dazed by all those things he had to take in at once.

Silinde laughed. “Well, calling them raftmen would not be entirely accurate,” she said reasonably. “They are a clan unto themselves: families that have always dwelt alongside the River and know it better than anyone else. They have been doing this since the King has moved the realm to the North; ‘tis said, though, they had lived that way – sometimes even on house-boats – since the dawn of time.”

“You do not belong with them, though,” said Drizzt. “So why have you come with the rafts?”

“’Tis faster than running all the way,” answered Silinde with a grin. “Truth be told, I have come for you. Your work here is done, I heard; time for you to return home.”

“Home?” asked Drizzt gravely. “Do I truly have a home among you?”

Silinde gave him an exasperated look. “Have we given you any reason for doubt?” she asked back, clearly a little hurt.

“Nay, you have not,” replied Drizzt slowly. “But in wartime one might forge alliances that may not hold on after the war is over. I have seen it before… and I am prepared to accept it again.”

“Obviously, you never had an alliance with the Silvan folk before,” said Silinde. “We do not go back on our word and neither does our King. He might be a bit… short-tempered sometimes, yet he would never abandon a friend or ally.”

“Has King Thranduil returned from the war yet?” asked Drizzt.

Silinde shook her head. “After they had torn down the walls of Dol Guldur with the help of the Lady Galadriel, he went on to Lothlórien to stay with his kin for a while. They have not met since the end of the Second Age, I am told.”

“Lothlórien?” the name said Drizzt nothing, although it did have a melodious, almost magical sound.

“The Golden Wood, which lies between Anduin and the Misty Mountains, opposite to Southern Mirkwood, on the western side of the Great River,” explained Silinde. “Lord Celeborn of Lothlórien is a cousin to our King. He came up on the River on boats with many of his warriors to help us fight the armies of Dol Guldur, after having repelled three attacks on his own borders.”

“It still seems a little odd to me that the King would tarry with his kin, no matter how long they had not seen each other, instead of hurrying back home to see what damage the war has done to his own realm,” said Drizzt thoughtfully. “He does not strike me as a person who would waste his time celebrating victory while there is much rebuilding to do.”

“You are right; he is not,” answered Silinde. “Nor is he tarrying in Lothlórien to celebrate, although he would have reason for it – and not only because the Dark Lord has been defeated. He has… re-found something he had thought lost for an entire Age.”

“Re-found what?” asked Drizzt with a frown.

“His son,” replied Silinde gravely. “Remember what you have learned about the King’s older sons?”

Drizzt thought about it for a moment. “Yea; all three were slain in the battles of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men,” he said.

Silinde nodded. “That was what we all thought, yea. It seems though that not all of them were slain, after all. We have found one of them: Prince Enadar, the King’s second-born… or what is left of him.”

“Found him? Where?”

“In the deepest, foulest dungeon of Dol Guldur,” Silinde’s voice was barely more than a whisper, her haunted eyes still mirroring the deep shock of those memories. “He was injured in the Last Battle and dragged away from the battle plane of Dagorlad by the Enemy’s servants. They kept him in that fetid hole, without company, without sunlight, all the time… and we never knew it. We never sought after him. So many fell in that battle… we never found the bodies… and he was kept alive all this time, too strong to fade away…”

Her voice broke. Drizzt shuddered, knowing what that must have done to a Wood-Elf, destined to live under the open sky, to talk to the trees and the good beasts of the forest. The King’s son must have been exceedingly strong of spirit indeed.

“How long…?” he asked. He could not quite remember when the Last Battle was said to have taken place, but he knew it had been a long time ago.

“More than three thousand years,” answered Silinde tonelessly. “Even for one of us, that is a very long time – having spent a whole Age in darkness has taken its toll on him. Unlike your kind, we cannot bear solitude and the lack of fresh air well. He is but a shadow of himself – wasted away almost completely. He did not even remember his own name.”

“The King must be devastated,” murmured Drizzt. Silinde nodded.

“He is. But he is also overjoyed, for Enadar seems to remember him… though little else.”

“Will his memory of happier times ever return?” asked Drizzt doubtfully.

“We can only hope,” answered Silinde. “In any case, he is terribly weak; in no shape to travel the long way home. Lothlórien is much closer, and they have good healers. I assume the King will wait for Prince Legolas’ return from Gondor ere even thinking of moving Enadar.”

“So Prince Legolas came back from the war unharmed then?” that news lightened Drizzt’ heart. It would have been a cruel fate for the Elvenking to gain one son back, just to lose the other one.

“Oh, he is still in Gondor and shall remain there ‘til his friend, the King of Men is crowned and wedded, they say,” replied Silinde. “But he fought his way through terrible battles with scarcely a scratch upon him; and he is said to have performed great deeds. Taking a winged Nazgûl off the skies with his bow is only one of them. Only in the Battle of the Hornburg, he slew some forty Orcs with his arrows and knives. And he apparently walked the Path of the Dead, too,” she shook her head in amazement. “Who would have thought that the little elfling who once used to play with my son on the treetops would become our greatest warrior one day?”

“On the treetops?” repeated Drizzt. That sounded… dangerous, even for a Wood-Elf.

“That was a long time ago, back in the Second Age, when we still lived in Lasgalen, the tree city of King Oropher – our King’s father – in the Emyn Duir,” explained Silinde. “They were inseparable, my Rhimlath, Galion’s granddaughter Mírenin and the little Prince.”

“His brothers must have been considerably older, then,” said Drizzt. Silinde nodded.

“They were. Prince Dorothil, the eldest, was the shining hope of us all – he would have made a great King one day. Prince Enadar was quiet and withdrawn, but with an inner strength that perchance helped him to endure three thousand years of captivity. Prince Orchal, the third-born, was always merry and loved music. Princess Celebwen… she was a sad one, hit by the Sea-longing at a very young age and could no longer find peace under the trees. A shame, truly – she was a beauty rarely seen even among Elves.”

“What is this Sea-longing you are talking about?” asked Drizzt, a little confused.

Silinde sighed. “’Tis a terrible curse of the Sindar, who, after all, have descended from the Teleri, the Sea-Elves of old. Those hit by the Longing have no other choice than to sail to the West, the Undying Lands, sooner or later… or fade away in sorrow. Nandor Elves are mostly spared, and so is the Silvan folk; but our King comes from an ancient line of Sindarin Princes; from the royal clan of Elwë and Olwë themselves.”

“Of whom?” Drizzt was quickly losing count on all the unknown names.

Silinde gave him an apologetic look. “Your pardon, Drizzt Do’Urden; I forgot that you have not grown up with our legends. Well, Olwë is the King of the Sea-Elves in the Undying Lands. Elwë Singollo – called Elu Thingol in the Grey Tongue – was his brother, the King of Doriath. They had a third brother, Elmö, our King’s grandfather. Elmö’s sons, Oropher and Galadhon, found refuge in Elwë’s realm after the fall of the First City of the Quendi. Galadhon was the father of the Lord Celeborn of Lothlórien, who is espoused to the Lady Galadriel.”

Another Elf might have wondered why the King had not met his close kin for an Age or longer. As a rule, the Elves of Middle-earth seemed to keep close contacts to their clan and family. There was a slight undertone in Silinde’s voice, though, whenever she mentioned the Lady Galadriel, and thus Drizzt suspected that whoever this Lady might be, she probably was not well-loved among the woodland folk, despite the fact that she was apparently powerful enough to tear down the walls of Dol Guldur.

Of course, the Drow had not been particularly fond about their powerful Matrons either, but that had been different. Female Drow were inherently evil, cruel and treated their males like dirt. It had been a mild shock for Drizzt to realise that while among Wood-Elves, too, the head of the family was the eldest female, family bonds in a Silvan clan were based on mutual respect and equality. This was the first time ever that he heard an Elf speak about another Elf with… well, if not disdain, still with a great amount of suspicion.

He decided to ask Alagos about the Lady Galadriel later. He could not be entirely certain how it worked among Wood-Elves, but back home, it would have been perilous to ask a female questions about another female – especially a powerful one. It might have been a harmless thing here, but he preferred to err on the side of caution.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the meantime, the arrival of the Elves had become known in the entire town, and people came out of their houses to the quays to greet them. With them came Mistress Íreth, the Elvenking’s chief healer, who had spent her time in Yrsa Brinningrsdaughter’s home, treating little Halli, the boy whose leg had been bitten off by the water goblins. She must have been truly excellent in her art, for the boy was said to be on his way to heal completely… well, as completely as it was possible for him. But since Yrsa had taken him in as her own, he could hope for a good life.

Íreth and Silinde greeted each other in the manner of very old friends – they were related by their offspring’s marriage, after all – and exchanged a little gossip and news about the battles fought near the King’s palace and at Dol Guldur, respectively. Íreth would tell a little more about Prince Enadar’s horrible state – as Silinde only knew about it from Alagos, who had been sent back to Mirkwood with the King’s instructions for Lord Maelduin, who was to rule the realm in his absence. Íreth, on the other hand, had been on the battlefield, treating the wounded, when the long-buried Prince had bee found. She just had not talked about it yet, uncertain whether the King wanted any-one to know. But as Silinde knew it already, she saw no reason why to remain quiet any longer.

“You would not recognise him,” she said to Silinde, full of sorrow. “He is more dead than alive; all shrunk skin and dry bones and enormous eyes – like a wraith, truly. When we washed off him the hundred-years-old layers of filth, we truly feared there would be nothing left, once we were done.”

“A whole Age in a fetid hole, without fresh air, without sunlight…” Silinde shuddered. “Imagine what that must be like.”

“I am trying very hard not to imagine it,” replied Íreth grimly. “Or else I might lose my mind. ‘Tis bad enough to live in our King’s caves, no matter how splendidly they are built – I would be glad if I never had to see a cave from the inside again.”

“Perchance you shall not have to do so any more,”” said Silinde. “Now that Mordor has fallen, our woods will be cleansed again, and we can return to our old ways, living in the trees. I for my part ma looking forward to it – I never liked to be trapped under the hill.”

“Still I deem that many of our people will sail,” said Íreth thoughtfully. “Not so many of us Faithful, for certain, but a great number of the remaining Golodh from Imladris and Edhellond. The days of their greatness have long gone, and they cannot find a home in the woods as we do. I pity them; I truly do.”

“Do you not wish to see the Undying Lands?” asked Drizzt. He had heard but very little about that mythical place during his short stay in the Elvenking’s halls, but it seemed to him as a true paradise. That someone would not want to go there…

Íreth shook her head. “Middle-earth was meant to be our home from the very beginning, and we do not wish to leave our home, not even for the so-called wonders of the far West. The Powers that dwell there might have meant well when they summoned our people to journey to the West; to live there under their protection. In truth, though, they only cut the Eldar off their true roots. Took them from the place where they were meant to be.”

“Your people did not follow the summons, then?” Drizzt was stunned. To refuse the call of the gods themselves required a great deal of courage and stubborn independence. Besides, would it not have been better to live in a place without wars and darkness?

“I am old enough to remember the times when there was no Sun and no Moon, and the light of the Two Trees did not reach these shores,” answered Íreth. “But already the oldest living things had arisen: in the Sea the great weeds, and on the Earth the shadow of dark trees. And beneath the trees small things faint and silent walked, and in the valleys of the night-clad hills there were dark creatures, old and strong. Our people awakened at the Waters of Koivie-néni at the same time that Elentári, Queen of the Heavens, kindled the stars – and starlight was the very first thing our eyes saw, and we remain the Children of the Stars forever, and feel no desire for the bright radiance of the Undying Lands.”

She paused for a moment, lost in her memories. Then she opened her eyes again, sighed and continued.

“I was there when Aldaron, Lord of the Forests, came to us, riding his huge white steed, to summon us. Many have followed – those were dark times, and the Great Enemy, to whom the Dark Lord of Mordor was but a servant, hunted us like game and dragged those he had captured to the deep pits of Utumno, his fortress in the North, to twist them into Orcs, through unspeakable tortures. Many of the Quendi were frightened and welcomed the chance to find refuge somewhere where would be no darkness and no peril.”

“But not your people,” guessed Drizzt. Íreth shook her head.

“Nay, we would not leave the place of our birth. We are called the Faithful for a reason. Ilúvatar meant us to dwell here, and here we shall remain ‘til the end of Arda. ‘Til the world is re-made.”

“Not all of us have the choice,” said Silinde with a sigh.

Drizzt frowned. "Why not? Can the Powers force you to sail to the West?”

“Of course not; nor would they ever make the attempt,” Silinde smiled sadly. “But those who were slain cannot return to these shores, once they are released from the Halls of Mandos. If I want to be reunited with my spouse before the end of Arda, I will have to sail, eventually.”

“Why can they not return?” asked Drizzt, a little baffled.

“When they are rehoused, their new bodies are taken from the flesh of the Undying Lands,” explained Silinde. “They could no longer dwell on these mortal shores. Glorfindel was the only one who ever returned – and for that, the Powers had to change his very nature, or so our King says. He is closer to the Powers themselves than to us now… ‘twas the only way to send him back, it is said; and he was needed.”

Drizzt decided not to ask who Glorfindel was, not in the moment. His head was buzzing with all those unknown names, and he did not think he would truly need to know every detail right away. He did have an interest, for certain, but he hoped that he would have time enough to study the ancient legends once they had returned to Mirkwood.

Which reminded him of something…

“Are we returning to the King’s halls at once or shall we wait for the rafts?” he asked. The ellith exchanged questioning looks.

“I have got a boat,” said Íreth thoughtfully, “large enough for three people. We can leave any time the two of you wish – unless you want to wait for the rafts.”

“I do not,” declared Silinde promptly. “’Tis slow progress – more so against the stream.”

“’Tis all the same to me,” said Drizzt. “I shall welcome the chance to return, though. As much as I have come to enjoy the company of Men, I have missed to be among Elves again.”

Íreth looked at Silinde. “Your choice then, Captain.”

“The boat it is,” decided Silinde without hesitation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And thus in the next morn Drizzt Do’Urden took his leave from his newly found friends among the Lakemen and took the boat with the two ellith to return to his own kind. Mistress Íreth turned out to be one of those Elves who had lived near the River all their lives; she could guide the small vessel with the help of a single oar against any stream that might try to drive them off their route seemingly without effort.

Perchance the songs she was singing while she did so – in a tongue too ancient for even Silinde to understand – had something to do with that.

Travelling on the Forest River was unexpectedly pleasant, despite the hot summer sun that would otherwise bother the Drow. But here the trees grew very close to the River; so close that some of them had their roots in the water, and their crowns leaned inward, providing a shadowy route near the river bank. The forest seemed to be lightening already, with the evil of Dol Guldur no longer poisoning water and soil; birdsong filled the air, dragonflies danced above the water, and here and there the russet forms of deer could be seen as they came down to the water to drink. There was a peaceful air about the whole landscape; one Drizzt had not felt for a very long time.

“The forest is changing,” he said quietly. “The gloom that used to sit heavily over the trees seems to be clearing up.”

Silinde nodded. “Soon it would no longer deserve the name Mirkwood,” she said, “and I for my part am glad I lived to see this day. Once this was known as Greenwood the Great – perchance we can give it back that old name again.”

“One day we might,” agreed Íreth, “yet not for a while yet, I fear. There are still very dark places within the forest; places where the evil of Dol Guldur has dwelt too long and the hearts of the trees are black. Cleansing the forest will take a long time – unless we get help from the Onodrim. Alas, it has been Ages since one of them would come to the North.”

“Who… or what are these Onodrim?” asked Drizzt.

“The Onodrim are the oldest and tallest of all races ever born to Middle-earth,” replied Íreth. “They seem to be half-Men and half trees, are easily fourteen feet tall, and their eldest is said to have lived in Middle-earth for nine Ages of Stars and Sun. According to legends, they awoke in the great forests of Arda when Elentári rekindled the stars. They came from the thoughts of Kémi, Queen of the Earth, and were her shepherds of the trees.”

“Kémi of the many names is the Lady you mayhap know as Mielikki,” added Silinde for Drizzt’s understanding.

“Men call them Ents,” continued Íreth, “and shepherds and guardians they proved to be, for if roused to anger, the wrath of the Onodrim is terrible. They can crush steel and stone with their hands alone. Justly they are feared, even among our own people; but they are also gentle and wise. They love the trees and all the Olvar and guard them from evil.”

“Olvar is how the Lady Kémi called all those living things that cannot move,” explained Silinde, “like the trees and the shrubs and flowers and other plants. The Onodrim, however, can very well move, even though they do look like trees – or so they say. I have never seen one of them.”

“I have,” said Íreth, “back in the Second Age of the Sun, when the great forests of Eriador were burnt by the Dark Lord, and the Onodrim came to the North to find their lost spouses. For in the First Age, the Entwives became enamoured of the open lands, where they might tend to the lesser Olvar – the fruit trees, the shrubs and the flowers, the grasses and the grains – whereas the male Ents loved the trees of the forests. So they parted ways, and the Entwives came to the wide, open lands south of the Greenwood, where they were worshipped by the race of Men, who learned from them the art of tending to the fruits of the Earth.”

“Yet before the end of the Second Age, at the same time when Sauron burned the great forests, the gardens the Entwives were destroyed, too, and with the gardens went the Entwives,” added Silinde. “No tale tells about their fate; perchance they went to the South or the East. But wherever it was, it was beyond the knowledge of the Onodrim of the forests, who wandered in search of them for many long years.”

“And it was then that you met one?” asked Drizzt Mistress Íreth.

The healer nodded. “That was when I met Treebeard, the Eldest, indeed, and it was an encounter I will never forget.”

“What was he like?” pressed Drizzt, eager to learn more about such wondrous creatures.

“He looked like a tree… like a talking, walking tree,” replied Íreth. “Like oak or beach was his huge, rough-barked trunk, while his branch-like arms were smooth and his seven-fingered hands were gnarled. He seemed to have no neck at all, and his head was tall and thick as his trunk. His brown eyes were large and wise and seemed to glint with a green light. His wild grey beard was like a thatch of twigs and moss. He was made of the fibre of trees, yet he moved swiftly on unbending legs, with feet like living roots. Swaying and stretching like a long-legged wading bird… only larger, much larger. He was quite the largest creature I have ever seen, and I have seen my fair share of trolls in my life.”

“And he could talk, you say…?” Drizzt was amazed, wishing a chance to see one of these tree-shepherds with his own eyes.

“At the time of their awakening, the Onodrim could not speak,” answered Íreth. “But after they had met the Elves, they learned that art from us and have loved it dearly ever since. In fact, they have learned many languages, for they enjoyed it greatly. ‘Tis said that they have even devised their own language – one that none but the Onodrim ever mastered. Their voice rolls slowly as thunder… or the timeless booming of waves on forgotten shores; no-one who has heard it once will ever forget it.”

“Alas, they have not been seen in the North for at least a whole Age,” added Silinde. “Not since the gardens of the Entwives were burnt and turned into the Brown Lands, empty and dead; although we still sing the old songs about their long search for the Entwives. If there still are any of them left in Middle-earth, they ought to dwell in the great Entwood, southwest of Lothlórien.”

“Are they mortal, then, and can vanish from the earth?” asked Drizzt, saddened that he might not get his chance to meet them.

Íreth shrugged. “They cannot die in the manner of Men, through age,” she said, “but they have long become a dwindling race nonetheless. They were never numerous and could be slain with steel and fire. But the worst part is that no new Entings have come after the departure of the Entwives. Also, after the burning of the vast forests of Eriador – where once many of them roamed – they had only small patches of woods where they could have lived: the Entwood itself, and the Old Forest in Eriador, which has shrunk to a tenth of its earlier size, or so I heard.”

“That is sad,” said Drizzt. “I would have loved to meet them – they would be something new to me, something the likes we had not had back in Faerûn.”

“Mayhap one day you get the chance to travel to the South and visit the Entwood,” replied Íreth. “But as they are unlikely to come to the North ever again, we shall have to work with our own moderate skills to cleanse our woods from Sauron’s evil.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They reached the Elvenking’s stronghold shortly before nightfall and found the place buzzing with excitement. Things about Prince Enadar’s rescuing had apparently become common knowledge all over the palace – the merry and light-hearted Silvan folk seemed unable to talk about anything else. Drizzt’ return was barely acknowledged, which was fine with the Drow. All he wanted for was some peace and quiet... although the latter was not easy to find at the moment.

“Come with me,” said Alagos, who had come to greet both him and Silinde. “My talan is a little farther away from the King’s Halls; there you might rest for a while.”

“I am not tired,” protested Drizzt, which was a blatant lie, of course; but despite his weariness, he did not want to offend anyone by retreating from them.

“Not in body, mayhap, although fighting a Nazgûl leaves a bone-deep weariness that takes a long time to fade,” replied Alagos with a knowing look. “But you must be weary of spirit, too. The Lakemen are good people, but they live in a crowded town and can be a tad… noisy. Staying with them can be hard on the ears.”

“They mean well,” said Drizzt in their defence, though Alagos’ description made him laugh. It was a very accurate one.

Alagos nodded, his greenish-brown eyes twinkling. “I know. Mayhap a little too well sometimes – like when they force their mead upon you. Now come with me.”

There was an edge of order in his voice. Somehow he almost sounded like Zaknafein during weapons training. And though Drizzt was no longer conditioned to obey that tone without consideration, he found himself following the tracker nonetheless.

“How do you do that?” he asked, half-laughing, half annoyed.

Alagos shot him a shrewd look over his shoulder. “The trick is to believe steadfastly that the other one will obey,” he replied, grinning. “I have spent six thousand years or more with disciplining young Elves – ‘tis a second nature to me already.”

They did not have to go very far, which made sense. Alagos was the King’s chief tracker; he needed to be within easy reach all the time. His home was built in the crown of a gnarled old oak; not just a talan but a regular tree-house, a comfortable hut cleverly hidden among the higher branches. It’s roof was masterfully woven of twigs and covered with leaves, arranged so that they would lead the rainwater into a wooden trog, from where it could be harvested and used.

“Rainwater is the best for your hair,” explained the Silvan woman of undeterminable age who was collecting the dried clothes from the wooden racks standing under the tree. She seemed vaguely familiar, but Drizzt could not quite remember where he might have met her. Of course, he had met many Elves at the King’s court, most of them only fleetingly.

“My wife, Rodwen,” introduced her Alagos. “You might have seen her in the palace – she is the King’s chief bread-maker.”

“Welcome to our home, Drizzt Do’Urden,” she said. “Alagos has told me a little about you. I am delighted to finally meet you and learn more.”

“I hope I am not intruding,” began Drizzt, but she waved his concerns off.

“Nonsense. “Alas, we have more place than we can use, and it is so rare that we can entertain guests. Do climb up, you two,” she added, turning to her husband. “I shall be with you shortly.”

Drizzt and Alagos climbed the rope ladder to the tree house. It was basically a single chamber – albeit a fairly large one – divided into smaller rooms by thickly-woven blankets fastened on wooden frames. The furniture was sparse, consisting mattresses filled with dried grass, also framed in wood, canopied by heavy curtains in greens and browns and covered with kilts, as well as beautifully-crafted large chests that held all the family’s belongings. Aside from a small brazier for cold days, barely anything was made of metal.

Drizzt had the feeling that Alagos and his wife only used the tree house to sleep. The rest of their life most likely took place either in the King’s Halls or – in Alagos’ case – somewhere out in the wilderness. It was certainly a very modest home that told little about the taste of the inhabitants.

Then something occurred to the Drow.

“Why did your wife say that you had too much place,” he asked. “The house is not that large; in truth, you would have a great deal more living space if you removed the inner walls. They are just framed blankets, after all. What do you need so many separate rooms for?”

“We do not,” replied Alagos. “Not any longer. But this was what our home used to look like, back in Lasgalen, in King Oropher’s tree city, when our sons were still with us. We never had the heart to change it.”

“You never mentioned that you had sons,” said Drizzt in surprise.

“There was no need to do so; for they are dead,” answered the tracker. “Slain in the Battle upon Dagorlad, all three of them, like so many others from our people. Like the King’s own sons.”

“Not all of them, it seems,” said the Drow.

Alagos shrugged. “I wonder which is worse. Had I found any of my sons in the shape Prince Enadar is in, I know not if my heart could have borne it. At least I can remember them as they were: young, fair and valiant.”

“’Til you meet them again,” added Drizzt. But Alagos shook his head.

“Not ‘til the End of Arda, I shall not. The Faithful do not follow the summons of Mandos. Not even in death do we leave these shores, and thus we are not rehoused.”

Drizzt nodded. “Mistress Íreth mentioned something light that during our journey on the River. But what happens to you then? Do you haunt the forests like disembodied spirits?”

“Nay,” said Alagos. “There is a place where our fëar, our spirits can rest when we die. ‘Tis in the far South and is called the Vault of the Dead. No-one knows where it is hidden; but if a dead Elf does not want to go to the Halls of Mandos, Erikwe, the Herald of the Dead guides them to the Vault, where they can dwell ‘til the world is re-made.”

“And you believe that is where your sons are now?” Drizzt had a hard time to imagine that.

Alagos shrugged. “There is no other place to go for us. We are the Mori-kwendî, the Dark Folk; we do not go to the West.”

“I know,” said Drizzt. “Mistress Íreth told me about that, too. I just never thought it would be true for the dead as well.”

“Dead or alive, they are still the Faithful,” replied Alagos with another shrug. “Besides, many of us have kin among the Dead that would not be welcome in the West; at least we do not believe so, although some say that we may be mistaken.”

“Why not?” Drizzt frowned. “For having refused the summons of the Powers?”

“Nay;” said Alagos darkly. ”For what they have become.”

“What have they become?” Drizzt felt utterly confused.

Alagos sighed. “You have been told how the Great Enemy made the first Orcs, have you not? How he captured Elves, tortured and maimed them in flesh and in spirit to make them into twisted monsters?”

Drizzt nodded wordlessly. He still could not imagine how that would be possible, but there was no reason for the Wood-Elves to lie to him, therefore it had to be true.

“My parents were among these Lost Ones,” continued Alagos grimly, “and so was my first wife. When the Powers made war on the Great Enemy, and the walls of his dark fortress fell, we found Orcs in the deep pits of Utumno who still had some of their Elvish traits.”

“Wait a moment!” Drizzt interrupted. “Your first wife? I thought Elves of Middle-earth mated for life, and only once in eternity.”

Alagos shook his head. “That might be the case among those who have fled to the Undying Lands; we on these shores do not have that luxury. Had we not remarried after our spouses were taken, back in the sunless days, we would have died out thousands of yéni ago.”

“What happened to your first wife, then?” asked Drizzt. “Was she turned into an Orc?”

“I never learned about her fate,” Alagos sighed. “Or about that of my parents, for that matter. But I… I found a brother in the pits, a brother I never knew about.”

Drizzt shuddered. “How was that possible?”

“No-one can tell for sure,” said Alagos. “We do know, though, that the Lost Ones were forced to breed there, in their foul captivity, to produce more monsters for their dark master. However the first generation born there was not fully evil yet – they were not entirely beyond help. My wife, my parents… they were gone, but my brother I took home with me. He had been born in the pits – born as an Orc already, but I still could find the features of my mother in his hideous face. So I took him home – I was not the only one to do so. The Faithful never abandon their own.”

“I cannot imagine that to have been easy,” said Drizzt quietly.

Alagos nodded. “It was not. The first few generations of Orcs, although they were us a lot more alike, had already lost their connection to the flesh of Arda and were doomed to die, just like mortal Men are. They were wretched, short-lived creatures who bitterly hated what they had become… or how they had been born. Our Wise-Women tried their utmost to heal them, at least their spirit, but sometimes not even strong earth magic can mend that which had been utterly broken.”

“And yet you took them in as part of your family,” said Drizzt. “Could they adapt to a live among you at all?”

“My brother was never able to endure the light of Anor,” replied Alagos with a weary sigh, “but we walked and hunted under the starlight together for many long seasons. He learned our tongue, yet lived in a cave, outside our dwellings, hiding from all eyes. All those rescued by their kin led solitary lives, allowing only their closest kin to see them… until they died, either of old age (an age that was but the wink of an eye for us) or slain by wild beasts or some hiding dark creature that remained in the woods after the Great Enemy’s defeat.”

“Where is he now?” asked Drizzt. “Has he gone to the Vault, too?”

“I assume so,” answered the tracker. “My brother lived several yéni, ‘til Erikwę came for him, and he followed her gladly. I know not whether my parents, my sons, my first wife truly are in the Vault, but I know that at least my brother is – and that he is now free from the hideous form that had been forced upon him. ‘Tis my hope that among the other Elven spirits, he might finally have found peace.”

They were silent for a while, Drizzt shaken by all the misfortune that had happened to Alagos’ family. His respect for the ancient Elf grew steadily. After all this, Alagos had still found the strength to lead a full life and, so it seemed, a content one. The Drow wondered if he would be able to do the same, or if one needed the lifespan of an immortal to develop that kind of strength.

“’Tis a harsh fate your family has suffered,” he finally said.

Alagos shrugged again. “We are not the only ones. All old Elves could tell you a story very alike ours.”

“That makes it not easier to bear, I deem,” said Drizzt.

“You learn, given enough time, to let go of the past,” replied Alagos simply. “You cannot live any other way. Perchance this is why the Sea-longing does not hit us the way it does hit our more… refined cousins. Our roots in the earth of our birth are deep.”

“Enough deep thoughts for one evening, I shall think,” the brisk voice of Mistress Rodwen interrupted them. “’Tis time to eat and to rest; the concerns of tomorrow can wait.”

The two ellyn followed her to the open platform before the house, where a low trestle table stood, already laid for a light late supper. Small silver lamps were hanging from the branches above their heads, providing them with just enough light to eat. The singing of many clear Elven voices could be heard from below and from the neighbouring trees, mixed with the calls of the night birds.

“There will be much singing and dancing tonight,” commented Mistress Rodwen, passing the basket with fresh bread to Drizzt. “I think I shall leave the young ones to it, though. But worry not,” she added, turning to Drizzt with a smile. “We shall teach you proper dancing ere the summer is over. You are an Elf, after all; ‘twould be a shame to leave you so wooden-legged.”

The prospect, frankly, quite terrified Drizzt, but the taboo of arguing with a female was too ingrained in him to protest. Alagos grinned at his very obvious mortification, but after a while came to his aid.

“That has to wait,” he said. “It seems our guest has a visit from an old friend.”

Drizzt looked curiously in the direction where Alagos was pointing, and his heart leaped with joy. Under a tree less than a few yards away lay Half-tooth, licking one large paw in a fastidious manner shared by all felines and glanced up to him expectantly.

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