The War of Light and Shadow
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A/N: Thanks so much for all the reviews. They're so much appreciated. Thanks also to everyone who has added me to their Favourites/Alerts lists. Enjoy the chapter.
Chapter 45 – Red And Black
Aethal leaned his head back against the cold, damp rock in the hope that the cool sensation would refresh him somewhat. Normally being on watch would not pose a problem; he had performed the task many times in the past in all sorts of weather. But tonight he was tired. The Crebain attack, although brief, had tired out all the Men and it was he who had drawn the short straw and been placed on the first watch; perhaps because he was still young, still green, still learning. It was not uncommon that he should end up doing what the older, more experienced Rohan men were not keen on doing. That was the curse of being a rookie soldier, he assumed and something that he just had to live with. At some point, he imagined that even Commander Eomer himself had been at the bottom rung of the ladder. There was plenty of time yet to seek glory and earn respect. But for now, he was stuck on watch and he would not grumble to anyone but himself.
The rain splashing loudly on the wet ground, making the existing puddles ripple, did little to keep Aethal's mind occupied. Quite the opposite, in fact. It had an almost hypnotic effect on him. He felt his eyelids starting to grow heavy. Fighting hard to stay awake was proving increasingly futile. A couple of minutes' shut-eye couldn't hurt. Nothing was coming.
It was not the sound of approaching danger that woke the snoozing man of Rohan, for this danger was eerily soundless. Rather, it was a feeling in the air, an unnatural chill that surpassed even the cold, damp of the bad weather. Aethal woke up mere minutes after he had given into the call of sleep, shivering uncontrollably for no apparent reason.
Blinking his eyes rapidly, Aethal retrieved his heavy sword from where it rested at his side. His gaze swept the space ahead of him, although he did not really know what he was looking for. The rain continued to fall but at least it had eased slightly in the past few minutes. Through the wet haze, Aethal could see nothing and yet somehow he just knew that something was wrong.
Slowly, the young man rose to his feet. A quick glance into the cave behind him showed all the others to be sleeping. Still inexperienced and trying to prove that he was indeed cut out to be a part of Rohan's elite clique of warriors – an even more attractive proposition now that the fight for freedom reportedly lay just around the corner – Aethal decided that it would be stupid to wake the Commander on a baseless hunch.
So, he turned back to the rain and cautiously took a step outside. The chill immediately increased and he found that his sword shook in his hand as he continued to tremble. With painstaking caution, he made his way further outward, eyes peeled for the supposed threat on their camp.
No storm lingered; only the rain persisted. No thunder rumbled around the area, no lightning crackled through the air. And yet the air felt charged.
"Hello?" Perhaps it was not the smartest idea to call out into the darkness given that an unknown threat maybe lurked nearby but it was all he could think to do. His voice was met with nerve-jangling silence.
It was too murky in the rain and the darkness to see much of anything and Aethal felt his bravado waning. Stopping when his foot slipped slightly in the mud, he paused and listened for a long moment. Nothing at all. Perhaps he had been imagining everything after all. Maybe the Crebain attack had rattled him more than he had first thought. Just as he was turning to go back to the cave where the others slept on oblivious, the snapping of a twig breaking through the silence to his right startled him so much that he physically jumped. He instinctively froze, eyes roaming about.
Something was out there.
His heart thumped so loud in his chest that it almost drowned out the soft patter of the rain. He strained to hear anything out of the ordinary above the pounding. Aethal took a hesitant step backwards. This time he was convinced he saw something, a shadow moving out in the haze. Panic raced through him fiercer than ever and he backed up further.
There was no way he could have escaped the creatures even if he had been prepared for their coming. They moved impossibly fast in spite of their impressive size. Aethal did not even have the chance to unleash the scream that caught in his throat at the sight of the black-robed beasts that suddenly appeared before him as if conjured to this place by magic. His head was sliced cleanly off with one swift blow of a heavy broadsword.
The Wraiths, numbering only four this time, did not waste any time. They had not come for the young soldier of Rohan. With the minor irritation dispatched with they moved swiftly and silently towards the now unguarded and completely unaware sleeping Men.
None were disturbed by the preternatural presence moving amongst them. They did not make a sound as heavily booted feet stepped deftly around sleeping bodies. It was not clear to them exactly what they had come for. Only four had deigned to come, following directions provided to them by agents of the Shadow - spies.
Gliding effortlessly amongst the bodies, the Wraiths searched peaceful faces. If the pretender to the throne in Gondor was somewhere amongst these Men then the Wraiths could not identify him. The trouble was that none of the agents and spies sent out to track him had actually seen this legendary young king. None of the Wraiths knew what their master's most feared and enigmatic enemy even looked like. Why, they could have looked the young man directly in the face and have been none the wiser. They were not frustrated though. There was time yet to worry over the descendent of Isildur.
Sniffing the air proved similarly useless to them. So many filthy Human bodies nestled into such a small space made it all but impossible to discern anything useful. The stench was off-putting and they wanted to leave but they were duty-bound to remain.
And yet they had been drawn here with the storm. There must be something useful to gain.
The four walked with perfect ease in the darkness. They did not see the world or its inhabitants as mortal Men did for they were no longer of this world. Whilst they had been termed 'wraiths', ghosts of Arda, it was the people of Arda who appeared almost as ghosts to the Nine.
All but one in this cave appeared to them in this manner.
As their gazes caught sight of it glowing marginally brighter than those surrounding it, the Wraiths hissed in sheer hatred. They had seen this halo around a being before. They saw it in their master – or rather in the vessels their master chose to occupy.
These shadows held self-restraint far superior to the majority of Sauron's lesser servants and yet they advanced now on the brighter presence like moths drawn to a flame in the darkness.
Only one Elf could possibly be travelling with the Men – the one their master desired almost as much as he desired the king of Gondor. The Guardian.
How pleased their master would be if they returned to the Black Lands with such a coveted gift. And, they reasoned, the Guardian was official mentor to the future King of Gondor. Surely then, the ancestor of Isildur – the most hated amongst all Men – could not be so far away. Who knew what other rewards would come with capturing the hunted pair. And they so deliciously unaware of the dreadful fate that awaited them all; that made the prospect sweeter still.
Kinnale sighed deeply and turned over under the cover of his blanket. Sleep had come easily to him once they had at long last reached the shelter of the caves Legolas has so fervently insisted they reach with all haste. But now, several hours later, pain was beginning to niggle at his senses, drawing him up from the numb depths of sleep. His head pounded like nothing he had ever felt before. In fact, his whole skull felt as though a fierce fire was raging within it, emanating from his face.
And yet…Kinnale shuddered. Chilled, he tugged the thin blanket further about himself but it had little effect on the cold that had seeped deep within him. It had not been sensible to light a fire in such a confined space with no ventilation and whilst spies of the Enemy were abroad, but now Kinnale wished that it had been possible because he was freezing. Perhaps he could share Ciaran's blanket. He recalled his son fussing over him as he laid down to sleep; he doubted that the boy had ventured far from his side. Reaching out, he tried to locate the edge of his son's blanket without having to endure the inevitable trauma of opening his…eye.
Unfortunately, the feat proved impossible and he succeeded only in prodding his unsuspecting son in the back a couple of times. Rather reluctantly, he forced the lid of his one remaining eye open, braced for the explosion of pain that predictably reverberated around in his skull.
Once the pain had ebbed, Kinnale waited for the blurriness to clear and for his eyesight, such as it now was, to adjust to the darkness of the cave. After a moment, he was able to see the bulk of his son right in front of him and he more accurately reached out to pull the young man's blanket towards him.
Suddenly though, movement caught his eye. Perhaps one of the Rangers was awake still or one of the watches returning from duty. Idly, he wondered who had organised the watches for the night, a task that he would normally have taken on himself rather than leaving it to the less experienced Rohirrim. Coming to the conclusion that it would better to ask one of the Men awake for another blanket rather than risking waking his son in the process of his act of larceny, Kinnale rose slightly from the ground, propping himself up awkwardly on his elbows.
Granted, Kinnale's vision was most seriously impaired, not just by the fact that he now only had one eye but also by the thick darkness, but one glance in the direction of the movement convinced him that something was not quite right. For a start, the shape was much too big to be any of the Rangers of Rohirrim. They – for there seemed to be four of them - had to bow their hooded heads just to stand in the low cave and they wore so many thick robes reaching all the way down to their feet that it appeared that they glided with ethereal stealth across the cavern.
Kinnale watched as they congregated around something or someone on the floor near the mouth of the cave. Another chill made its way through him. Whatever they were, they were no allies of the Cause For Freedom.
Blindly, because he feared to take his one good eye off the creatures, Kinnale reached out for his sword, which rested in its scabbard behind him. To shout the alarm now would certainly attract the attention of the intruders and at least one man should be armed when they attacked if that was indeed their purpose here this night. Weak, uncoordinated fingers scrabbled to locate his weapon as he watched the four figures bend lower, silhouetted blacker even than the natural darkness. Kinnale knew then for certain that these were creatures of Shadow.
Unfortunately, it was not his sword that Kinnale's fumbling fingers ended up hitting first. He hit soft flesh in place of cold steel – his son.
The query had left the boy's mouth a mere second before Kinnale's strong hand clamped urgently over Ciaran's lips. It was too late. The damage was done.
Quiet though the noise may have been, it had been heard by the Enemy.
Kinnale watched in horror as the four black figures straightened abruptly from their bows, perfectly in synch with each other in the movement, heads, shrouded in black hoods, turning towards the source of the disturbance. As one, they let out an unearthly screech that pierced through the silence of the cave, reverberating loudly and echoing for an impossibly length of time.
Chaos ensued. Awoken by the sound, Men leapt to their feet, weapons already poised in a trained and much-practiced response to danger. But they were no match for these beasts, that much became instantly clear to the experienced warriors. Stunned by both the abruptness of their waking and the towering Wraiths in their presence, the Men froze, some latent instinctive reaction to terrible Dark danger. The creatures though did not pause. They feared no man, feared no mortal weapon. Even the Elf posed no threat to them.
Legolas was one of the first to come to his senses. He snatched Aragorn's arm from where the man stood motionless beside him and forcefully dragged him away from the horror of what he was witnessing. At the same time, the Elf yelled to the other Men, all stood similarly petrified at the sight of the Wraiths, "Get out! Get out now!"
His voice broke the spell and panic raged through the people crammed into the cave as they all ran for the entrance of the cave. The Wraiths ignored them all completely. They did not care for Rangers or the Rohirrim – at least not the fleeing ones.
As Legolas herded a reluctant Aragorn outside with the others, a couple of Rangers suddenly backtracked, weapons already drawn, for the Wraiths had set their sights on their Commander and his son; the two unfortunates who had interrupted them when they had come so tantalisingly close to discovering their purpose here. For all their patience when it came to the Dark Lord and his orders, to be thwarted by a mere mortal man was unforgiveable, they could not let it pass and they would soothe their egos in blood.
In the confusion, the Wraiths had advanced upon the one-eyed man and his son, unhindered by the panicked mortals fleeing the cave. It was anger that drove them onwards now and that could not be halted.
Kinnale was struggling to get up from the ground, aided by his terrified son. Both had seen the Wraiths advancing on them and both were horribly aware that there was no way out; they were blocked on one side by the cave wall and another blocked by the towering creatures of Shadow. Trapped.
Outside, people, led by Eomer, were being herded away from the vicinity of the attack, away from the danger and the horror of the great creatures attacking them. However, some were staunchly refusing to leave. All the Rangers had cottoned on to the fact that their commander was in trouble and were not about to run and leave him to his fate no matter what the Rohirrim said. Legolas and Aragorn were also watching the Wraith's progress, although Aragorn's guardian was desperately pleading with the young man to leave while there was still a chance of escape, before their attentions turned on the future king. It was obvious that they did not know who Aragorn was yet and Legolas didn't want to alert them to that fact. Therefore being so ignored was not going down well and Legolas had taken to trying to physically force the man to run.
Pushing him away from the scene unfolding before them, Legolas commanded firmly, "Go! Aragorn, you have to go!"
Wide-eyed, Aragorn was staring wide-eyed at the Ringwraiths but he managed to mutter, "That's them; the ones I have seen in my dreams."
"Aragorn," Legolas interrupted in a stern voice, taking Aragorn's arms securely so he could look into his eyes. "You have to go now. Aragorn, go."
Finally fixing his wavering gaze upon his mentor, Aragorn nodded slowly, at the same time saying, "But Kinnale…"
Out of the corner of his eye, Legolas noticed the Rangers rapidly coming together again, preparing for their ill-advised assault and he was anxious to get to them in order to convince them against their plan of action before they all ended up getting themselves killed – inevitable given their enemy in this case. But before anything else he had to ensure that Aragorn was safely out of harm's way. Given Aragorn's position and what he carried around with him, Legolas didn't want him anywhere near the Nazgul. He'd always considered them being in Mordor too short a distance to be certain of safety. This was much too close.
"Listen to me now; you have to get out of here. Go with Eomer." When the boy opened his mouth to protest, Legolas firmly told him, "The Rangers will help Kinnale. Aragorn, I need you to go with Eomer."
"I'm going to help Janor."
The Rangers were receiving their final, hurried instructions from their second in command and Legolas knew it was only a matter of moments before they recklessly blundered into battle with an unbeatable foe. "Aragorn, go right now," he said, already moving backwards away from his ward as he spoke, hand on the hilt of his knife. "Go to Eomer and the others and stay there."
"Promise me you'll stay."
"I can fight."
"Not this you can't!"
"Right, but you can."
"Of course not; I'm going to help the Rangers get Kinnale and Ciaran and then get out of there. But you cannot be there when we try."
"Because you are far too important to risk," Legolas told him, voice growing more rushed by the second but full of sincerity nonetheless.
Looking into his guardian's blue eyes, panicked despite his obvious attempts to hide it, Aragorn asked quietly, "And you're not important?"
Legolas smiled softly in spite of the frantic need to quickly intervene with the Rangers' fool-hardy plan. "Not nearly as important as you, Aragorn." Aragorn did not like this observation one bit but Legolas ignored his look of consternation, continuing his short steps backwards away from his reluctant ward. "Now please go."
Already having realised that there was no way he could win any argument with his guardian – and secretly wanting to get as far away from his living nightmares as possible – Aragorn nodded and finally moved away. He hated to run, especially when other Men were standing up to fight this terrible foe and yet he would not disobey Legolas, not when the stakes were so high; his guardian knew best.
"Janor," Legolas called, running toward the gathered Rangers now that he saw Aragorn retreating away from the cave.
"Legolas, thank goodness you're here to help."
Grabbing the man's arm in a grip that must have hurt with its strength, Legolas told him, "We have to go now."
"Now. Get out of here."
The Rangers, stunned by Legolas' command, looked to him in utter confusion. "Kinnale is in there," Veron shouted angrily at him, gesturing to the cave with his sword, as if the Elf was entirely ignorant of that fact.
"I know that, but…"
"I am not leaving my commander in there to be torn apart by those…" Janor started in protest, equally wound up as his comrades.
"Do you know what those things are?" Legolas demanded of him, moving forward suddenly in an openly threatening gesture in the hope it might spark some sense in the man's mind.
"I don't care," the young man concluded, going to shove the Elf aside so he could get back into the cave and carry out his mission to rescue his commander.
Standing tall, Janor proudly announced, "I am not afraid of my enemies."
"Then you are a fool," the Elf spat, eyes raking down Janor's body in blatant disapproval. Any other time, Janor would have quailed under the gaze but there was no time for that; lives were at stake.
"And you are a coward."
Despite their resonating deep inside him, Legolas let the words wash over him, refusing to wallow in the truth of them – there were more important things to worry about now and the words came from a place of fear and anger not sincerity. Taking Janor's arm a little more gently this time, Legolas shook his head. "Come away."
"Are you crazy? If we don't do something they'll kill Kinnale and his son."
Looking with open regret towards the cave, Legolas sadly came to the conclusion, "They're already dead."
Backed up against the cold, damp stone of the cave wall, Kinnale stared in terror out of his good eye at the four beings, radiating darkness, looming threatening over him and his son coming slowly and unstoppably closer – they were like a force of nature. Their arrival was inevitable but they were taking their time, lengthening the moment and thus the terror they inflicted. Ciaran was cowering, in a most literal manner, beside him. The boy, in his horror, had dropped his weapon to the ground and was quivering, slowly sinking closer to the cave floor as though that could spare him. Not that it mattered that his son was cowering. Kinnale doubted that the two broadswords would make any impact upon these particular enemies.
He wanted to speak. He wanted to know what these things were, what they wanted, how they were going to kill their helpless victims. But he found that his mouth was too dry; words would not come. It would have been pointless anyway. What could he really ask? Besides they were not obligated to reply. They had not spoken yet; they used their silence as a weapon of fear and it was working perfectly.
So close were the Wraiths now that Kinnale had to strain his neck to look up into four identically empty hoods. No faces were concealed beyond deep black fabric. And they there was most certainly a presence of some kind beneath heavy, plain black robes for Kinnale could feel it.
They halted only inches away from Kinnale and his son. They stood, still and silent, as though waiting for instructions. The air was so cold now that Kinnale felt himself beginning to shiver uncontrollably, and yet it remained charged as in the moments before a storm. It was a curious feeling.
For long moments the creatures stared – or at least Kinnale assumed they stared; he had yet to see any evidence of eyes. Kinnale felt them as if they were rummaging around inside his invaded mind and found that he wanted to scream out loud from the pain the intrusion caused. Vaguely, he recognised the sound of his son's cries at his side but he could do nothing to ease them right then.
Strange, indecipherable words, low and hissing, emanated from the creatures, proving that they could speak. Or maybe it was all in his mind. Kinnale couldn't be sure; nor did he care. They did not seem to be angry. They did not seem to feel anything. Kinnale found that he was actually glad that he did not understand the language they used, for it hurt his ears even to listen to. Never before had he heard the Black Speech of Mordor but he had no doubt in his mind that that was what the creatures were speaking.
Swallowing thickly, Kinnale asked hoarsely, "What do you want?" It was pathetically weak, he knew, but it was all he could manage. To him it was an immeasurable achievement.
The tallest of the four lifted a great, pitted sword in its clawed hand and Kinnale then knew precisely what they wanted.
Kinnale was a proud man, a brave man, unyielding before the wrath of the Shadow; he would not now quail from that which he most feared. Slowly, so as not to startle the creatures into action, Kinnale bent down to pick up the sword that his son had dropped to the cave floor. It felt heavy in his hand, unnaturally weighted; he was not certain if he could even use it against these creatures of Shadow but he felt better holding it in his hand.
A laugh came from the black hoods and it chilled Kinnale.
"Fool." It was rough, harsh Westron; unpractised.
Kinnale trembled. It was a threat thinly veiled in mockery. He knew the creature was right though, he was a fool; there was no defence. There was nothing he could do now to save his life. Worse than that, there was nothing at all he could do to protect his son.
Desperation coursed through him, no doubt intensified by the presence of these most terrifying agents of Shadow. Never before had he felt thusly. His heart pounded so hard in his chest that he thought it would burst or give in from the enormous effort of pumping.
"Drop it," the voice commanded and, completely against his will, the sword slipped from between Kinnale's fingers and clattered to the ground.
The four Wraiths advanced closer still, swords held high.
Closing his one good eye, Kinnale breathed deeply, shakily, but the air was stale and unpleasant and choked in his throat. Death had never scared him when it had remained in the abstract but now it was breathing down his neck it seemed so much more terrifying. However, unavoidable as it was, he would accept it with honour.
Ciaran, remaining cowered on the ground at his father's feet, his eyes closed, unwilling to look again upon the dreadful Shadow. He heard his father's heavy breathing, felt his fear, the air was thick with it. He wanted to move, to run, or to help, but he found himself paralysed. Tears fell from his eyes. Bravery in the face of death was harder than he'd imagined.
He heard Kinnale's sword clatter down in front of him then heard his father breathe a deep sigh. For some reason, he felt like he must open his eyes. Not knowing was scarier, it turned out. Unfortunately, darkness was all he saw when he opened his eyes. Blinking, Ciaran looked up and straight away wished that he hadn't. He saw four figures towering over his father, blacker even than the darkness of the natural night that surrounded them.
Red swiftly followed black, obscuring his vision momentarily. He didn't need to see to know what had happened and horror filled him, pulsing through every nerve in his body and making him shake. A heavy thump followed – his father's dead weight dropping to the stone floor by his side.
Wetness covered him, thick and hot and he knew it to be blood. His father's blood. He felt himself retch and he was suddenly glad that his vision was a haze of red for he did not want to see what had become of his father. He heard a screech and wondered if perhaps it had been torn from his own throat. Yet it sounded wrong, unfamiliar, unearthly.
Through the black and red haze suddenly a light appeared, bright against the dark world and the screeching increased tenfold. The creatures of Shadow were angry. Were they hurt by the bright light that Ciaran now stared at? – proof perhaps that there was yet hope.
Curious as to the source of their distraction, Ciaran climbed up onto his knees, aware that the cave floor was now slick and slippery with the blood that had poured from his father's broken body. Wanting to locate the source of the light, Ciaran started rubbing at his eyes, trying to clear away the blood that had spattered all over him. However, although his efforts proved useless, they also proved unnecessary as a split second later he heard Legolas' voice calling out clearly but urgently, "Get him out!"
The next thing Ciaran heard was the clashing, grinding of steel upon steel. He wanted to see what was going on around him, wanted to witness the battle he supposed was going on. But shapes, dark and moving rapidly in the shadows of his vision, were all he could make out. He wanted to retrieve his sword, to help but he found his limbs disconcertingly numb and he fumbled even the simplest movement of bending forwards in search for his fallen weapon.
Hands grabbed at him then and he was hauled to his feet.
"Oh gods," Ciaran heard someone – it sounded rather like Kalub – breathe and panic fluttered in Ciaran's chest. What could have been so bad that even the experienced, hard-hearted tracker found it horrific?
As he was dragged away, Ciaran turned back. He wanted to know what was happening.
Just as he turned his head though, whoever was holding him up tugged him away and a hand was pressed against his head so that his face was buried safely against a firm shoulder.
Muffled though his voice was, Ciaran complained, "I want to see," pushing weakly against the person holding him.
Whoever was holding him – he was still uncertain – held him tighter but did not slow in his progress, dragging the boy from the cave.
"No, you don't," unmistakeably Janor informed him.
Stumbling away, Ciaran heard the screeching increasing, the frantic clashing of swords. He wondered who was fighting. Afraid of those creatures of Darkness, Ciaran was worried that perhaps his friends were still inside the cave. So powerful was his fear that he was glad that it was not he fighting those horrific monsters. He didn't have the time to feel guilt for that thought.
"Legolas!" someone close by shouted, although it was nearly lose amidst the background noise.
Ciaran felt suddenly comforted. Legolas was fighting. If anyone could face the Shadow and come out the other side the victor it was Aragorn's Elven guardian. He wondered if Aragorn was also here. No, the protective Legolas would never allow his ward to be near the agents of Mordor. He was glad for that.
Rain pounding against his body alerted Ciaran to the fact that they were outside and it refreshed him somewhat. If nothing else then it would cleanse him of the gore covering him. Above the sound of the rain splashing around him and the shouts of the other men fleeing the scene, Ciaran heard the noise of a fight in the cave behind them and he turned. It was darkness that now obscured his vision.
"Ciaran, come on," Janor commanded, tugging at him again.
"My father." How strange the words sounded to him, quiet and distant.
Janor paused, hesitated at the shaky plea from the much younger man. He was sympathetic, desperately so. But now was not the time to indulge or console. Now was the time to flee.
"We have to go now."
Ciaran wanted to protest, to return to his fallen father but as Janor pulled him away as fast as was possible he found that he was powerless to resist. Anything to get away from the terrible reality that waited behind him.
To Be Continued…