In An Age Before – Part 15
Greenwood the Great - The Second Age of the Sun
"Never hath I been so put out," Galadriel complained as she slogged through a fen 'nigh the east bank of Anduin. "First to be run out of Ost-In-Edhil, thence conveyed with haste 'neath the Hithaeglir, and last held prisoner in a tree. The days grow dark indeed. And now I hath become a fugitive in the wild." She attempted smoothing her hair with one hand, but that merely let the hem of her skirt find the mud. She grimaced and sighed.
"Think thyself not a fugitive, but rather an agent upon a secret mission," Beinvír said as she leapt lightly from stone to stone to avoid the muck, "in service of some noble lord."
At this, Galadriel growled and cast a baleful eye on Celeborn, who was lagging behind and deep in conversation with Helluin. "Noble lord indeed," she muttered.
"Oh come now," Beinvír said, "'tisn't so bad here. Surely thou hast seen worse. Helluin hath related to me the suffering of the Helcaraxe..."
"Mention not that accursed place," Galadriel spat, "o'er 30 years, icebound, shivering, dressed in cloaks made from heirloom tapestries lest we freeze to the marrow, and all the way seething with resentment against the House of Feanor. 'Twas hate and want of vengeance alone as kept us warm."
Beinvír cocked her head and regarded the princess. If anything, she was more mirthless than Helluin and exhibited 'naught of her friend's humor. For an Elf, she seemed to enjoy the natural world little, favoring refinement and comfort, or the artistic and intellectual pursuits. Beinvír had come to suspect that she'd perish in the wild if left on her own, and that thought was appalling to the Green Elf. She couldn't decide if this state was due to her royalty, her Noldorin ancestry, or her long years of dwelling in cities. Beinvír resolved to ask her friend about it. In the meantime, they had passed the waterlogged yards 'nigh the bank and now stood on solid ground. Here they awaited Celeborn and Helluin.
It was now 17 Lothron, (May 17th), and they had been walking for three days, the first two only at night and in strictest secrecy, with some lessening of stealth since this morning's crossing of Anduin. Ere they had left Lórinand, Helluin and Beinvír had spent four nights crafting a raft that they'd hidden amongst the reeds upon Anduin's western shore just north of the mellyrn woods. When they were finally done, they'd guided Celeborn and Galadriel from Lórinand late at night, shrouded in their own cloaks to hide them in the dark so that none marked their passing. Helluin had led them first north through the mellyrn, then into the fields 'nigh where Berlun's cabin had once stood. Of that homestead there was now not a trace; not even the two mounds remained. Helluin had been speaking with Celeborn of the Man and his kin ever since, for the Sinda seemed enthralled by her tale.
"...and so Berlun indeed shifted shape, taking the form of a great bear, and in that form did he slay many Yrch," Helluin was saying as they approached. Celeborn's eyes were lit with wonder.
"And yet thou say he was truly a mortal Man...'tis amazing."
"'Twas just so, and none more amazed than I," Helluin said, "yet I saw his grave and the grave of his wife, and I saw also his children growing up." She had looked around, scanning the margin of the forest and the hither bank both upstream and down. Helluin added in a distracted manner, "We art 'nigh of the homesteads of his people that once stood upon the borders of Greenwood, though if indeed any still live in these lands I know not." It had been over 1,200 years since she had last seen Berlun and his family, and since then, many Yrch had traversed this country.
"Thou hath seen many wonders in thy travels, Helluin, and thy tales make me feel young again," Celeborn said.
A soft look of reflection marked his face as he recalled the long gone years of his youth in the peaceful woods of Neldoreth and Region. Life had been good much of the time while the power of Melian kept Doriath safe and the stars had still been bright. Too soon, it had seemed, duty had constrained him to Menegroth. And then with the sun and the moon there had come war. But also Galadriel had come with her brother Finrod, for Thingol was their great-uncle through their maternal grandfather, Olwe. Now, though the realm of Doriath had fallen and all the treasures of the Noldor were lost, still he had his treasures, his wife, and of her a daughter, Celebrian, and at times also the straining of his sanity from trying to keep them happy.
Over the last few days, Celeborn had realized that he enjoyed being outdoors again and being unconstrained by a ruler's duties. He enjoyed being on a journey, an adventure, and what he hadn't anticipated was that he had actually found himself enjoying Helluin's company. She wasn't the menacing, homicidal maniac he had expected. She wasn't like the other Noldor he knew, nor was she quite like a Sinda or a Nando. She was a curious blend of cultural traits from all of them. Maybe it was the influences of all those she'd met in her travels, or maybe she was simply unconventional. In any case, he found it a pleasant surprise.
They rejoined Beinvír and Galadriel, and the lord stood by his wife. Helluin was still surveying the area, a growing tension sharpening her eyes. Beinvír noted this and came to stand close beside her.
"Trouble?" She whispered. "What doth thou sense?"
Helluin made no reply but continued to scan, paying now the most attention to the forest. From its shadows a few birds were startled up, screeching and taking flight from their nests. Beinvír's eyes widened in alarm.
"Get thee down!" Helluin cried, leaping forward. Celeborn and Galadriel reacted but slowly to her warning, but Beinvír was already unshouldering her bow. Helluin was barely in time to stand before them ere a flight of black-fletched arrows whistled from the trees. They found their mark but rebounded harmlessly off her armor.
Quickly she shucked off her travel bag and then her bow and quiver. Thrusting the latter into Celeborn's hands, she donned her hauberk and doffed her cloak.
"Slay any that approach, my lord. I trust thou hast not forgotten how to shoot?"
For answer, she saw that he had already shouldered the quiver and was stringing her bow. Beside him, Beinvír stood with an arrow already knocked, searching for a target. A few more arrows flew towards them, but these Helluin knocked out of flight with sweeping motions of her sword. Then the enemy broke from cover and charged. A dozen Yrch armed with the rusty, jagged scimitars of their kind. From the woods another half-dozen arrows came, but now both Celeborn and Beinvír had marked their path and returned fire. They continued shooting towards where the arrows had come from and screams amongst the shadows 'neath the trees told of them striking their marks.
Helluin snatched the Sarchram from her waist as she charged to meet the foes on foot and the blue battlefire was kindled in her eyes. Ere she met them, she flung the Grave Wing. It struck the first Orch, cleanly hewing off his head, ricocheted to slash the chest of another, and then struck off the sword arm of a third ere it returned to her. Helluin caught the ring in her left hand and with it parried away the swords of two Yrch attacking her in concert from the front. Then with a great sweeping stroke she hewed both their bodies asunder with Anguirel, sending up a spray of their black blood. She was actually laughing as she lunged and sunk her blade into a third, and then with a sneer, she twisted her body and flung his torso aside off her sword.
"C'mon thou craven, worm-bellied, toadspawn," she taunted the largest of them, an Orch captain with leather scraps sewn to his pate and Man scalps adorning his belt, "thou were but born to die, snaga!¹" ¹(snaga, slave. Black Speech of Sauron)
The Orch gave only a guttural howl in response as he strode forward. He traded three blows with Helluin ere he pitched backward with a shriek. An Elven arrow had taken him in the eye and bowled him over. 'Twas one of her own, she noticed, and it had passed her ear by not even a hand's breadth ere striking its target. Guess Celeborn can still shoot just fine, she thought as she advanced to meet another pair of Yrch.
To her left, another Orch fell with one of Beinvír's arrows in his throat, and then a second died from an arrow fired by Celeborn. Helluin met the two Yrch in mid-stride. The one on her left she struck in the throat with a jab of the Sarchram, while at the same time hewing the neck of the one on her right with Anguirel. Of the last four, two died from the second flight of the Grave Wing, while Beinvír and Celeborn shot another each. She caught her weapon and surveyed the field. Only one foe still moved.
The wounded Orch who was missing his sword arm had fled, staggering back into the forest. He had barely made it 'neath the trees when there was violent movement amidst the branches, a shriek of terror, and a wet, crushing sound. The branches swayed a moment longer and then were still. All was silent save the breathing of the four Elves. Helluin rejoined her companions and drew out a rag to clean her weapons of the Orch blood. She noted the other three staring into the woods and nervously eyeing the trees.
"Huorns," she stated, "or at least one Huorn. They despise the Yrch, and all others upon two legs little less, but perhaps they shalt suffer us to pass. We shalt see."
Her words were not at all reassuring to the others.
At her suggestion, the four sat upon the grass and waited a while. Though it seemed early still, they shared out some bread and cheese for their noon meal, washing it down with a cold, pale wine. Helluin kept an eye on the forest but detected no further movement amongst the trees. The Huorns were paying them no attention; neither advancing out of Greenwood, nor moving about within it. She deemed this a good sign. In the meantime she made small talk for the sake of distracting her companions, complimenting Celeborn on his shooting and telling them that another three days' march lay ahead within the forest. Too soon their meal was finished. A quick glance up at the sun revealed that an hour had passed since the battle. At least she had marked the return of the birds to their roosts amidst the branches.
"'Tis time to be on our way, I deem," Helluin told her companions, knowing their nervousness would only increase the longer they waited idle. Another hour or another day would change the wariness of the trees not at all. To them, such spans of time meant nothing. "Remain thou close together and close to me as well," she advised as she gathered her quiver, and bow.
The others packed up their baggage and rose, and Helluin led them forth toward the woods. Now as they approached Helluin began a song, and this was one she had learned long before in Valinor, written in praise of Yavanna, the Goddess of Growing Things. She sang of the goddess' chant that had first brought the seedlings of Laurelin and Telperion to sprout on the hallowed mound of Ezellohar, the Ever Summer-Green. The melody rose and fell but the tempo was slow and insistent, and it conveyed a sense of upward destiny and a yearning for light and the free air. 'Twas a growing song, oft sung in orchards and fields in the Undying Lands, for to encourage the spirits of the olvar there. As she approached the forest, she noted the subtle harkening of the trees, an almost imperceptible canting of their boughs and a straightening of their leaves.
Now being from Valinor, the words had been set down in Quenya, and this song was unknown to Celeborn and Beinvír. Still, Helluin was surprised when a clear voice joined hers, weaving a harmony that added complexity and fullness to the tune and magnifying its power. The vocal range was somewhat low but the pitch was perfect. Just to confirm what her ears told her, she looked back and saw Galadriel singing, her phrasing flawless, and her voice pure as the notes of a golden harp. Helluin smiled her thanks with her eyes and received a glint of acknowledgement in return. She wouldn't actually have characterized it as a smile, but 'twas a start.
In response to their duet the trees straightened and seemed to stand taller, and they commenced a slight swaying in time with the song. Better still, it seemed the music pacified the spirits of tree and Huorn alike, and this indeed had been Helluin's hope, that by their voices, clear and Elven sweet, they should announce their goodwill to the forest.
After a mile Helluin let her voice trail off. Galadriel questioned her with a glance.
"'Tis about the borders mostly that the Huorns congregate to repel invaders," she explained, "and they hath granted us their leave to pass, else we should not hath come this far unhindered." The others nodded in understanding but couldn't help staring over their shoulders from time to time as they walked.
They were heading almost due east amidst the boles of great trees whose canopy closed o'erhead in a continuous roof of green. Like Fangorn, Greenwood was a mature forest, its trees full grown and spaced in harmony above a carpet of leafmould and mosses. There was very little underbrush to pick through and for the most part their passage was unimpeded. Now they felt the cool stillness and the scent of loam, and the faint rustle of leaves far above. Unlike Fangorn, the way was not so dark or so dense, nor was there the heavy atmosphere of anticipation and tension. The Elves felt less closely watched and much less ill at ease. The almost constant creaking of branch and root that permeated Fangorn was not to be heard; here it seemed the wood was more at peace, more sleepy, and perhaps more content. The "treeishness" that Treebeard had spoken of was diffused, for Greenwood was by far the most extensive forest in the northwest of Middle Earth.
Helluin led them onward through the afternoon and evening, and during that time they saw nothing remarkable. What little wildlife the group encountered was mostly birds, or squirrels that fled up the branches, there to stare down on them in curiosity until they passed. The birds ignored them. When the dimness of nightfall o'ertook them, Helluin directed the group to an outcropping of quartz boulders that had been sifted to the surface by the slow churning action of mighty roots in the soil. The trees constantly stirred and gnawed the substrate, turning up all manners of inedible detritus, much as one spitting forth the seeds or pit of a fruit. Though aforetime Helluin had rested undisturbed wherever she'd liked, she had been alone then and basically ignorant of the peril, and where one might pass as innocent, four together might be deemed a threat. And times were darker now. She would take no unnecessary chances with her companions.
"Must we lie thus upon rocks?" Celeborn asked, more out of curiosity than pique.
"Perhaps and perhaps not," Helluin answered, "but on this first night, I should be ruled by caution. In Fangorn many trees walked at night and by camping amidst stones were we preserved from trampling. Here I hath not witnessed such...restlessness, yet neither hath I seen Huorns at the border aforetime. Perhaps the times hath changed things."
Celeborn and Galadriel looked at her with uncertainty. Her reputation for jest notwithstanding, neither had ever known a forest to go on the move. Helluin shrugged.
"'Tis all too true," Beinvír said, "in Fangorn Forest the trees went about their business in the dark. I think perhaps business is less pressing here, but I shalt rest amidst the rocks tonight just the same." She proceeded to choose a spot and spread a pelt to cushion her repose. Beside her, Helluin set down her bag and weapons ere she found a comfortable niche and lay down on a groundcover made of many cat skins. Eventually, after some grumbling, their guests did likewise.
Many hours later, while darkness still ruled the wood, Galadriel sat bolt upright sensing some disturbance afoot. She nudged Celeborn with an elbow, then shook his shoulder to roust him. After he too sat up, they stared into the darkness trying to pierce its curtains with their Elven sight. Sometime later Beinvír turned and then started up, feeling about on the ground nearby.
"Helluin, she hissed in the Noldo's ear, "Helluin, harken to me; something strange is afoot here 'bouts."
Helluin looked o'er the edge of her sleeping fur with one blue eye, glowing like a close-shrouded lamp. Roused now, she too could feel the activity in the ground beneath them. She passed a hand 'cross the soil and came up with wriggling things.
"'Tis but the roots shifting and driving forth the earthworms," she muttered, "and now they doth surface all 'bout us. Huh. They've not a foot amongst them. Go back to thy rest. They art more upset than we."
Beinvír grimaced at the thought but lay back down, edging closer to her friend in the dark. Nearby, Celeborn and Galadriel were gingerly picking up the night crawlers erupting from the soil beneath them and flinging them thence beyond the rocks. It went on thus for several hours ere the ground finally settled.
Shortly later the sun began to rise at last and the company got up, shaking out stray worms and gathering their bags for their day's march. Galadriel gave Helluin one dirty look, obviously blaming her for the conditions. Celeborn appeared tired and disgusted more than wroth. Beinvír simply shook out her pelt, plucking off a fist-sized snail that she carefully set down amidst the rocks and shooed away. Helluin finger combed her hair, tossed out the couple worms she found entangled there, and seeing the others ready, set out walking east without a word. It had been strange night but there was nothing to be done about it as far as she was concerned.
"Be glad 'twas worms and not spiders," she muttered under her breath somewhat later. The others were trailing behind and had said nothing to her since they started out. 'Twas 'nigh noon and they were three-quarters of the way from Anduin to Laiquadol. Abruptly Helluin stopped and sat down on a large exposed root. "'Tis time for lunch," she announced simply and set about drawing forth foodstuffs from her bag.
Beinvír, accustomed to Helluin's moods, sat on the root beside her and drew forth a wineskin, then searched her bag and set out some small cakes she'd brought from Lórinand. After looking around trying to understand why Helluin had picked this spot, Galadriel and Celeborn joined them. Eventually they too proffered rations and joined in the meal.
"Doth thou anticipate yet another night keeping such close company with the vermin of the wood," Galadriel asked at last after spitting out a prune pit. Helluin sighed.
"I hath no expectations," she said, "and last night was indeed my first such acquaintance with Greenwood's kelvar. They art normally more discrete."
Galadriel shook her head. If not for her overriding desire to reach the enchanted stream she would never hath borne such base accommodations. 'Twas barbaric; akin to what she fancied life amongst the Avari would entail.
When night fell they were but three leagues from Laiquadol, but Helluin decided to camp out, for were Oldbark home, he would most likely be "asleep" ere they arrived. So as not to become more of a nuisance than necessary, she found an outcropping of granite and guided her companions up upon it. The darkness descended, and at first all seemed quiet. The Elves went to their rest, Celeborn and Galadriel in the highest possible spot, Helluin and Beinvír side by side a fathom away in a comfortable depression.
'Twas probably just past midnight when an ominous creaking and a rustling grew all about them in the dark. The activity spread rapidly and involved all the trees for some distance around. It seemed that they were moving their branches together as if lashing at the wind rather than being lashed by it. The Elves lay silently amidst the disturbance, expecting something to happen, but having no idea what. Shortly later they were assailed by an overpowering ammoniacal stench fanned forth by the swishing leaves. Rest was impossible.
"What the...?" Celeborn managed to choke out.
Suddenly a large herd of hairy bodies burst forth from the darkness and literally o'erran their camp at great speed. Scuttling forms on many spindly legs fled over and between them with no regard to their presence. None paused or showed the least interest in them, acting rather as if the Elves were simply part of the landscape to be trampled in the haste of their scrabbling flight. The reek grew well 'nigh unbearable and stuck in their throats. 'Twas a frantic rout, an inexplicable stampeding of creatures by the trees. In the nearly pitch-black forest, the details had been impossible to make out in the confusion.
"Stay down," Helluin whispered to Beinvír, who had rolled o'er and was clasping at her and cringing in alarm. Helluin covered her friend's head as the last of the many frantic feet clattered past. Quite obviously this foul smelling horde was being driven in haste as cattle or sheep to a roundup. Afterwards the nearby trees immediately grew still and silent again, but the disturbance continued on in pursuit where the creatures had fled. The distasteful stench was far slower to dissipate.
"What in Udûn was that?" Galadriel demanded, already on her feet and pacing over. "Hast thy friends here taken to driving their herds by night? And herds of what pray tell? Helluin, hath thou led us hither for thy mirth at our torment?" She asked suspiciously as she stood tapping her foot in irritation.
"No mirth hath I enjoyed, O Princess," Helluin muttered, "for I too hath missed the joke."
Helluin uncurled and released her hold on Beinvír, who sat up in confusion and stared into the woods where the creatures had fled. Helluin too sat up and was about to answer when the rushing of boughs resumed. All ducked down and cast their eyes about in apprehension. This time 'twas a large number of pale sacks being passed from tree to tree, flung and caught and flung again, and slung forcefully from branch to branch following the earlier rush of creatures. This was barely discernable, and only because the branches parted at times to admit errant beams of pale light from Ithil o'erhead. The sacks were accompanied by the musty odor of long accumulated mildew and dust. Soon that too passed away into the distance and silence resumed. Helluin noted errant strands of coarse webbing drifting down and settling on them from the branches above.
"T'would seem the forest hath grown less patient with its tenants of late," she said, "and the trees hath driven forth the spiders of Greenwood, following them with their egg sacks as if they were but so much unwanted baggage. 'Tis very strange."
"Spiders! Spiders? They were big a sows," the princess shouted.
"Nay, truly. I deem most were but the size of kettles or dogs...those sorts of things," Helluin said, hoping to placate her. "'Tis but their legs that make them seem larger. Anyway thou saw that none stayed in their flight. I am sure they were more terrified than we and art by now far away. Pray return to thy rest."
After Galadriel had stomped off and lain down, Beinvír spoke silently to Helluin, asking with uncertainty, Thou say the forest hath not been agitated thus in the past?
Indeed not, Helluin replied. They were lying face to face wrapped in their pelts.
Then whyfore now doth thou think?
I hath no idea, Helluin admitted, but perhaps Oldbark shalt enlighten me. He if any shalt know what passes in Greenwood...and I am very curious. Dost thou not think it strange fortune that such should befall us two nights in a row in so vast a place?
I do think so and I am indeed suspicious. At least no harm hath befallen us thus far.
Nearby Celeborn and Galadriel lay with their eyes ceaselessly flicking to and fro through the dark, and neither could but wish to hasten the dawn.
When morning eventually arrived, (and Galadriel was certain that it had been somehow delayed), they picked off fallen cob webbing and went their way without even breaking their fast. The princess would stand for no delays.
Beinvír walked alongside Helluin, nibbling in a distracted manner on a stale roll she'd found in the bottom of her bag. Celeborn and Galadriel were walking ahead of them.
"How far thither today, Helluin?" She asked. "Art we close to thy goal?"
"Indeed so," Helluin said, glancing up from habit but unable to see the sun. "I should wager no more than another league at most," she guessed hopefully.
She was worried about how to present her companions to Oldbark and how to phrase Galadriel's request for the water from his enchanted stream. Of course the Onod considered it nothing of the sort, merely wholesome and nourishing water. She was still wondering about it when she noted a familiar presence ahead that Celeborn and Galadriel had just walked right by. She took Beinvír's hand and slowed her pace, catching her eyes and nodding ahead. They were greeted ere she could speak.
"Ohhh-hoooo...the wandering Elfling, come again to visit the old forest," Oldbark said in Sindarin, "I see you have brought company this time, Helluin Maeg-mormenel of the Host of Finwe. What is your friend's name? The hasty version shall do for now," he asked, looking closely at Beinvír who tried to smile back at him despite her nervousness. He twisted around to catch a glimpse of Celeborn and Galadriel who were still walking off, deeply engrossed in their conversation. After squinting at them and shaking his 'head' he asked, "and are the oblivious ones with you as well?"
"Indeed so," Helluin said, 'hastily'. She placed a reassuring hand on Beinvír's back and introduced her to the Onod. "This is Beinvír of the Laiquendi of Eriador, my friend and companion upon the road. The others art Celeborn, son of Galadhon, son of Elmo of Doriath, and Galadriel, daughter of Finarfin, son of Finwe."
"Greetings, Beinvír of the Laiquendi friend and companion on the road of Helluin." He gave the Green Elf a smile ere he continued. "Soooo...a prince and a princess now travel with you, Helluin. It would seem you have come up in the world." Helluin noted a quick flick of his right eyelid that might possibly have been a wink. Her own eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Some 'rumors' I had heard of them from across the river," he revealed, "and yet more tidings from the near bank. The trees there thank you for the song, and so I thought it only proper to do some...umm, housecleaning, in preparation for their arrival."
To his credit, he said all that with a straight face. Helluin groaned and Beinvír giggled.
"So 'twas thee who rousted forth the spiders?" Beinvír asked, still chuckling.
"Yes. Such smelly creatures and so ill-mannered," Oldbark said, "always sniping and backtalking...not at all suitable company for royalty to encounter. Had they presented themselves with their usual comportment it would have reflected badly on Greenwood Forest and I should have been mortified. I did well to disperse them don't you think?"
"I suppose so," Helluin agreed. The spiders had been ever snide in her meetings with them, lying to her and taunting her from the safety of the trees as she walked the forest.
"And so art they now gone thither for good?" Beinvír asked. "And gone whither?"
"They have been encouraged north to join their kin for a time near the Emyn Duir," he said with a cunning grin.
Driven north into the kingdom of Oropher and Thranduil no doubt, Helluin thought, and I am sure thou shalt soon enjoy word of their aggravation at being thus afflicted.
"Of course they shall eventually migrate back," Oldbark sighed. "I cannot permanently expel them into other lands, and in truth, I need them in the forest for pest control." At Beinvír's questioning glance he explained, "How else am I to keep the squirrels and other rodents in manageable numbers?" At this she nodded.
Oldbark smiled at Beinvír's understanding. Then he turned to where he had last seen Celeborn and Galadriel and let forth a piercing whistle. Several moments later the couple rejoined them, looking annoyed.
"What now, Helluin?" Celeborn asked.
"Whyfore art thou summoning us hither as dogs to thy whistle? Doth thou regard us now as hounds?" Galadriel asked, fixing her eyes on Helluin. She noted that the Noldo and her companion were standing still a distance away beyond a great tree, regarding it as if in consultation. Their behavior added to her growing store of irritation. "Hath thou tarried 'nigh seeking yet more wisdom from the trees? Honestly, Helluin, hath we not a goal to reach ere another night of frenzy and discomfort fall upon us? Worms, spiders, and now trees. I deem thou art stalling. Enough! Come, we shalt go forth at last to our destination."
"Sincerely do I apologize for the worms, my Lady," Oldbark said, turning to face the couple and presenting his most courtly manner, "for they art but shallow creatures and hath little sense of propriety. Yet what realm is without its dullards, its knaves, and its scoundrels?" Here he sighed and shook his 'head' much as any other harried and put upon monarch, then sketched a stiff bow to the royals. "I am Oldbark, Lord of Calenglad i'dhaer. Rest assured that thy vassals," here he indicated Helluin and Beinvír with a partial nod, "hath lodged suitable complaints about thy...hmmm, treatment."
For a moment Galadriel's expression tightened in disbelief, then she opted for a more gracious mien and gave Oldbark a formal curtsey. Beside her, Celeborn bowed. Helluin tried hard not to roll her eyes at their manners since Oldbark was humoring them by making the more formal his speech. She thanked the Onod silently for trying to absolve her of blame, but she noted that Oldbark had said nothing of the spiders.
"I am sure 'tis but an occurrence of ill providence and casts no reflection upon thy rule, my Lord," Galadriel said graciously, also not mentioning the spiders. "Honored art Prince Celeborn and I to enjoy the peace of thy forest. Long it hast been since last we walked in so great a wood, and longer still since any amongst our peoples hath met with a Lord of the Onodrim."
"Ummm-hmmmm, 'tis so indeed. Long Ages it hast been since any of Finwe's folk save Helluin came hither 'neath the boles," Oldbark agreed. "Of Lord Olwe and Lord Elwe's folk hath some come at whiles, and indeed to the north lies the realm of King Oropher. He was known to thee upon a time, I believe, for he hast mentioned thee both."
"So we hath heard from Lord Amdír of Lórinand yonder 'cross Anduin," Celeborn said, "for at first he had joined Oropher in his realm ere returning to the mellyrn wood. Ere that, he was with us in Eregion, yon Hithaeglir. I hope his realm is at peace."
Oldbark nodded and hummed a wordless approval of the sentiments. The kingdom of Oropher had been well when last he had been 'nigh. He, however, was more curious abut the 'rumors' he had heard from across the river, and in particular about the Lady.
"My Lord," Galadriel said, sensing the Onod's interest in her and hoping the tidings of her behavior in Lórinand had not come to him enlarged by gossip and grown to mythic proportions in the telling. "Helluin hath provided some tidings of thy realm, and there is a matter about which I would seek thy counsel..."
"Indeed there is a matter in which I should seek thine, and I am thankful to Helluin for her timely conveyance of thee hither," Oldbark countered. He looked at Galadriel carefully, actually making her feel uncomfortable under his scrutiny. Being her host, however, Galadriel tipped her head bidding him continue. "I hope thou can aid me, for it seems an affliction hath come upon my home. Laiquadol is stricken with baldness."
For several moments the Elves were silent in confusion. The Onod turned east, gesturing with a sweep of his 'arm' so that the boughs there obediently parted enough to reveal a vista of a tall, partially barren hill. The company was little more than a mile away from it now.
"Something is causing to die all that grows upon the height above my halls," Oldbark said sadly, "leaving so far all else untouched. It saddens me to see it blighted thus." He turned back to Galadriel and the branches shifted back into place, closing the window on stricken Laiquadol. "I sense you possess a power, my Lady, which might offer some remedy."
Now Helluin thought this farfetched at best. Galadriel had shown herself the least adapted to life in the forest and was most adapted to the city. Wherefore should she be able to cure the mange of the wood? Nevertheless, she held her peace and listened. The princess was seriously considering Oldbark's request; her focus turned within as if assessing her potential strength.
"Lead me thither, my Lord, and I shalt do what I can," Galadriel told the Onod. There was determination in her voice, Helluin noted. It seemed that she at least believed that she could do some good. The group turned to make their way to Oldbark's halls.
Upon their arrival the group immediately ascended the hill.
"When did this come to pass?" Helluin asked Oldbark as she examined the dried or wilting flora atop Laiquadol. The Onod had led the four Elves thither and now they stood at the high hill's crown amidst snags and dying trunks. Downslope the devastation trailed off and it seem thus far only the topmost area was affected. O'erhead Anor shone strong and bright, standing 'nigh the zenith, nearly noon.
"In the last decade mostly," he told her, "well 'nigh in the blink of an eye it seemed. Some blight I deem it, borne on a pestilential wind from the south."
A stench of Mordor perhaps, Helluin wondered, could Sauron be assailing Greenwood?
Behind them, Galadriel was turning in a circle and staring about while clutching compulsively at the pendant that hung around her neck. She had been doing naught else since arriving. Oldbark had looked at her hopefully, watching as she gingerly laid her hands on a blighted trunk.
'Tis long dead and far gone, Helluin thought as she watched, good for naught but firewood. But then she noticed a faint greenish glow surrounding Galadriel's hands and it brought back a distant memory. That pendant had seemed familiar when she'd first seen it, back when the princess had rounded on her in the talan in Lórinand where she and Celeborn had been imprisoned. Now Helluin realized why.
Well 'nigh 1,500 years before she had seen one similar, clasped about the neck of Idril Celebrindal in Gondolin. Turgon's daughter had worn a green gem possessed of the virtue to preserve and heal. To gaze through it gifted one with visions of life unfaded, and it had endowed her with a healing touch. The Elessar; that had been its name! But when had she last seen it? Helluin tried to remember. She had spent so many years in the delta and the lands outside Avernien, ceaselessly on guard against spies and enemies. Only infrequently had she spent time in the settlement and more rarely yet had she passed time with Tuor and Idril. Idril had not been wearing it as she sat with Tuor ere Helluin had taken her leave of them and journeyed to Vinyamar. Indeed by then it had been years since she had seen it. Whither had it gone? She filed the questions away for another time.
By now the greenish glow had spread all o'er the dead trunk, while Galadriel's face showed deep concentration. Incredibly, a hint of color had suffused the shivered bark and the exposed wood had lost its ghostly greyish cast. The dried trunk seemed to swell subtly, as if sap now flowed within. The effect quickened and healthy bark spread to enshroud the heartwood as the glow of green intensified. At the tips of shriveled branches, points of new growth developed; the precursors of buds and eventually leaves. Everyone was amazed. The Onod nudged Helluin and offered her a smile.
"She has certainly lived up to the rumors," he whispered. "I cannot thank you enough."
What rumors? Helluin wondered. I had heard naught but of her mania ere we set out. Huh. I suppose all is well that end'th well, but I wonder wherefrom comes his news.
Galadriel's spiritual healing proceeded through the afternoon, but when the sun dipped to the Hithaeglir she ceased.
"I hath need of Anor's healing light, else naught shalt come of my efforts." She looked around measuring her progress against what remained to be done, nodding to herself. "I shalt continue on the morrow and thou should find thy home restored ere evening."
"'Tis magnificent, my Lady!" Oldbark exclaimed. If an Onod were capable of dancing he was close to doing so. "I am in thy debt. Allow me to offer thee and thy company my hospitality this night."
Galadriel looked at him carefully and with some uncertainty. "Is thy hall free of spiders?" She asked.
"I am sure of it. Indeed it seems all the spiders hath removed north...a migration of sorts, I suppose," he said innocently. "'Tis their nature perhaps. Who truly knows what doth stir in a spider's heart." He gave the equivalent of a shrug.
Galadriel nodded, accepting his assurances, and the company made their way downhill to Oldbark's hall. Indeed their rest was untroubled that night...by vermin.
Some hours after Oldbark had planted himself with one foot in the stream, Helluin was roused by a hand shaking her shoulder. Half enmeshed in a pleasant memory for once, and expecting that it was Beinvír, (who had taken to engaging Helluin more often at night as the events of their travels became more bizarre), Helluin merely wrapped an arm around the person and pulled them close. She was treated to a hiss in her ear.
"Psssst! Helluin! 'Tis I, Galadriel! Get off me!"
Helluin started up abruptly and sat staring at the princess, who had extracted herself and was smoothing her hair. She managed a, "Huh?"
"Be that the stream enchanted of which thou spoke?" Galadriel whispered urgently. She was pointing to the freshet in which Oldbark was standing. With a groan, Helluin nodded and lay back down hoping to recapture the memory from she had been so abruptly dragged. Beside her Beinvír lay quiet. Nearby, Celeborn was motionless. Helluin shook her head. Galadriel was already crawling stealthily towards the water.
The next morning, Helluin noted that the princess was surreptitiously trying to compare their relative heights. If there was a change in Galadriel's stature, Helluin couldn't discern it. The princess was unchanged save for a subtle puffiness about her cheeks and eyes. Later, after breaking their fast, they resumed the mending of the blight upon Laiquadol. It seemed to Helluin that during the first hours, Galadriel was taking more frequent breaks than she was normally wont to do. By evening, as expected, the hill was again green with living plants. It was little short of a miracle and Oldbark was ecstatic.
"Whatsoever I might do to repay thee, thou hast but to ask," the Onod told the princess.
'Twas obvious to Helluin that Galadriel could barely contain herself when she heard his words. She immediately broached the topic of the enchanted stream. Oldbark nodded.
"The stream you seek indeed runs though my hall, but the virtue thou crave hast gone out of it of late with the failing of the life upon Laiquadol," he explained. The fall in Galadriel's face was well 'nigh comical, but Helluin dared not laugh. "Now perhaps it shalt resume as thou hath rejuvenated the olvar with thy Elven magic," he said hopefully. "We shalt see. I should suggest thou drink, and if the virtue is indeed restored, than thy stature shalt increase much as did Helluin's aforetime."
Galadriel looked at Helluin by reflex and the dark Noldo could but shrug and look away. 'Twas 'naught that she could do and she'd had no idea that the stream had been affected. Later, as Galadriel sat beside the stream, filling and quaffing cup after cup of water, Helluin came to her and sat down. For several moments she chewed her lip and formed her questions.
"Whence came thy Elessar, Princess? Is it indeed that same as was borne aforetime by Idril of Gondolin?"
Galadriel swallowed yet another mouthful of water and groaned. She felt bloated but anything would be worthwhile if she could but exceed Helluin again in height. Somehow the quest had taken on inertia in the doing, and even she could see the obsessive nature it had visited upon her. Galadriel shook her head in irritation. She felt no different.
"Nay, 'tis not the same. Elrond hath claimed that the Elessar of Enerdhil¹ was passed from Idril to Earendil ere she and Tuor took ship upon Earrame into the West. I am surprised thou know this not, Helluin." ¹(Enerdhil, renowned jewel-smith of Gondolin. UT, Pt 2, Ch IV AHoCaG, pgs 248-9).
"I but recently remembered it at all, having seen it but infrequently even in Gondolin. In Avernien I was mostly keeping a guard upriver and in the lands about Sirion, and spent but little time in Tuor and Idril's company. I was far away when last Earendil sailed."
A sadness came upon Helluin at the memories of the sack. So many had died and no few by her hand, and all for the fulfillment of that vain and wretched oath. She was glad enough to have accomplished Ulmo's bidding, but still the memories were bitter.
Galadriel looked at her bowed head and thought back to what Elrond had said of that attack by the sons of Feanor. Of the rampaging Noldo with blue fire flaring in her eyes, bearing a black sword against which no foe could stand. Amrod and Amras had become mighty hunters in Beleriand, twins given to fighting side by side in battle, and yet Helluin had slain them as if they were children. Much like the sons of Feanor, Helluin had the blood of the Eldar on her hands yet had failed of her quest. She had not stayed the Sack of Avernien nor saved the children of Tuor and Idril. Much else than the disposition of the Elessar had occupied her thought in those days. The perception of Helluin's melancholy moved her to pity and sorrows of her own.
"The gem I bear came of Celebrimbor," Galadriel said softly. "He wrought it with great effort to fulfill a whim I had mentioned but in passing. Never did I think he had taken the desire hidden in my heart as a command to his. I had but aired my sorrow o'er the fading of beauty in Mortal Lands, and he spent more than twenty years recreating a work long lost to the Noldor. It hath much the same virtue as Enerdhil's gem. Celebrimbor finished it but shortly ere the Gwaith-I-Mirdain seized control of Eregion. He presented it to me as a token of his heart at our last parting, beside the very door he had wrought with Narvi for Khazad-dum. Helluin, I fear greatly for him. He had become dear to me as I would never hath thought possible. He hath the craft, but not the flaws of his forebears."
"I too fear greatly for him," Helluin said, "and I fear the treachery of Sauron, and his mastery. Twice now he hath come to me disguised, and neither time hath I marked him. I feel he shalt corrupt Celebrimbor in the end. He is too persuasive a foe. Celebrimbor desires to advance his craft and thus gives the Master of Lies an entry into his heart. And in creating the Elessar, hath not Celebrimbor already partaken of the path upon which Sauron sought to lead us? By doing thus, freely and for love, hast he not made easier the crossing of that line to his heart?"
Helluin paused and Galadriel watched her carefully. During all their years together they had seldom actually talked thus, and more seldom still, agreed. Celebrimbor was in peril from the love in his heart and the talent in his hands, not a darkness within his soul. But Helluin had claimed to have twice encountered Sauron...that she knew of. Why had he sought her? What had he wanted? How had she escaped him?
"Whither did Gorthaur the Cruel find thee?"
"First in Ost-In-Edhil, on the day I came thither; indeed not an hour after I left thee. He appeared as a guildsman and we drank wine in a tavern. He asked after the Sarchram. The second time was not a month past, in Fangorn, where he wore the guise of an Onod."
Incredible! Galadriel had never once seen him in Eregion despite all the years he had hidden amongst her people. Her eyes slid down and for a moment lit upon the weapon at Helluin's side. She had seen it aforetime but had never paid it much attention. Now she read the cirth and shuddered.
Helluin had engraved a fell sorcery upon the Sarchram, not to merely slay an enemy or bring victory, but to damn the spirits of her vanquished to the Eternal Night. Galadriel shivered. To come not thence to the Halls of Mandos after the hroa failed, but to be forever trapped, a fëa naked in the Void. It was equivalent to a mortal grinding the bodies of their fallen foes to paste so that the eternal rest of a pyre or tomb lay beyond hope. In her heart, the daughter of Finarfin felt a chill of foreboding. Such virulent and unamendable hatred would be very attractive to one who reveled in darkness. And Sauron had twice sought her out. Galadriel had heard tales of the wars of Beleriand and Helluin's conduct in them; her unquenchable bloodlust, her unremitting frenzies of slaying, and the maniacal laughter that had accompanied her screams of, 'Kill 'Em All!'
Galadriel would indeed have questioned Helluin further, but the bulk of water she had been drinking made felt its presence with urgency. She was required to excuse herself.
Helluin sat silently, feeling the approach of a brooding mood. Celebrimbor had taken his first step on the road to fighting off the stain of Mortal Lands, the very goal Sauron had suggested all those years ago, and he had done it to please his princess. And now Galadriel had just been staring at the Sarchram cirth...paying them every bit as much attention as had Sauron. All this atop her memories of Avernien; it left her feeling like singing a maudlin song. I hath to get out of here, she thought by reflex, there's no more to be done. That night the company's rest was disrupted by the flight of the millipedes.
Helluin was rousted from an unwelcome memory of her journey through Ossiriand in the company of Maedhros and Maglor. The brothers were depressed by the failure of their attack, the weight of the curse, and the impossibility of satisfying their oath. Elrond and Elros were despondent o'er the destruction of their homeland and the slaughter of their people. She herself was worried, nervously anticipating the appearance of the Laiquendi. In all it was a mirthless and demoralized company that went forward, missing friends lost at Avernien, many of whom she had slain herself.
As usual it was Beinvír who had crawled over and wrapped her arms about Helluin, shaking her and relentlessly whispering in her ear, "Helluin, Helluin, harken to me. Something strange goes forth; the ground moves!" Her eyes were wide with alarm.
With a groan, the dark Noldo raised her head past her friend's hair and looked about in the dimness 'neath the trees. Sure enough, the ground about them was become a moving carpet of tubelike bodies, armored and segmented, the largest close in size to her lower leg. They advanced slowly by wavelike motions of their myriad, short, hairlike legs, but at a steady pace and all in the same direction, none tarrying, and paying them no mind.
"'Tis but a migration of millipedes, Beinvír," Helluin muttered in amazement. 'Twas rare to see even one of their kind. She realized that they were coming down from Laiquadol and making for the forest through Oldbark's hall, as therein lay the only path. "They sup on rotten wood and the like and art harmless. I suppose they flee starvation now that the olvar upon Laiquadol art restored. Huh. Pay them no mind."
"Pay them no mind?" Beinvír whispered incredulously. She crawled up until she lay full length atop Helluin, ensuring that she was completely off the ground as the creatures passed by. 'Twas much the same reflex as rules one drowning when they attempt to climb up the body of a rescuer and rise into the air. Where Fangorn had been threatening, Greenwood was simply bizarre. "We hath to get out of this forest," she hissed, "'tis too uneasy and too alive, and...and too strange."
Moments later Galadriel was up, mercilessly shaking Celeborn and dragging their belongings to and fro seeking a place unupholstered by the carpet of crawling animals. She was muttering in disgust and irritation while Celeborn pleaded with her to be calm. The invasion lasted a couple hours and then trailed off to a trickle of smaller stragglers. Long ere morning all had returned to normal.
Oldbark greeted them cheerfully after stretching and shaking his branches to greet the morning light. Galadriel immediately set upon him, still aggravated by the night wanderings of his kelvar.
"My Lord, though I seek not to seem ungrateful of thy hospitality, I must protest. Our repose was sorely disrupted by the flight of thy creatures...millipedes they were, and many, crawling o'er us in a horde of such proportions that I am still aghast. 'Twas quite unseemly and disconcerting, to be roused thus and o'errun as if we were but so much leafmould or mulch!"
Oldbark appeared suitably mortified. Indeed he looked carefully around all the ground nearby and then both up the path and out the hall into the forest. Last he returned an apologetic gaze to the princess.
"I am sorely embarrassed and indeed vexed, my Lady. I had nary a suspicion that such would come to pass, I swear. I humbly beg thy pardon on behalf of the subjects of the woodland; millipedes art, as thou may know, simple scavengers and scant little than mouths afoot. They hath scant sense of genteel manners or the proper modes of conduct. Indeed they art given at whiles to such moronic, herding behavior, oft thinking perhaps that many making the same mistake doth make the action right. They art kelvar, my Lady, yet of such simple grade as to be somewhat unfathomable...at least to me. Still they art necessary for the management of a forest, removing litter ere it become intolerable. Again, my Lady, I humbly apologize for thy inconvenience and suffering. I shalt speak to them and convey thy displeasure, but I doubt it shalt elevate their comportment."
"Very well," Galadriel said, seemingly placated for the time being, "I can only imagine the overbearing nature of thy duties here...so many beings of such various kinds to organize and o'ersee. I thank thee for thy concern and attention." She shook her head sympathetically and wandered to the stream with her cup.
Helluin caught the Onod's eye and with a cant of her head indicated that she desired to speak with him outside the hall. He nodded to her and walked out, followed closely by Helluin and Beinvír. Once outside, they took counsel.
"I think the time hath come for our departure," Helluin said. "I feel I hath accomplished my intent in conveying hence Galadriel and Celeborn. I am glad of the restoration of thy home, but I find viewing the princess' hydrophilia tiresome."
"'Twas not the spiders then, or the worms, or the millipedes that have driven you forth?" He asked just to be sure. "Such things are not common occurrences as you know."
"Bah!" Helluin dismissed with a wave of her hand, "I hath tarried in Greenwood long enough to suspect such was merely a welcome of sorts. I shalt no doubt return someday when it hast worn out." She examined Oldbark with an eyebrow raised in knowing calculation. "Feel free to extend such welcome to thy guests as thou see fit. I am sure they shalt tarry 'til either thy stream provides its virtue or Galadriel burst."
The Onod chuckled but admitted naught to evidence such a perverse sense of humor.
"I wish you both well upon your journeys," he said, offering them a warm smile. "Return at your leisure, either of you, and enjoy then unmolested the forest." He turned to reenter his hall, but then stopped and faced them again, a serious look upon his face. "Helluin, beware of Morgoth's little slave. He takes not an interest in one without cause. I am sure you know this, but I worry for you, Elfling, I do. The two of you must watch out for each other. I feel that soon the times will darken as they have not in an Age. Fare well upon the road." And with those words he strode back into his hall.
To Be Continued
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