Harthalin held his gaze for a moment.
“One of the spider queen’s offspring?”
Eldriun nodded, solemnly.
“It could be no other. She was in the cave with Prince Thranduil and the Nazgul, and before long she spun her way down from the ceiling to chase the rider off. We offered her peace for that intervention, but she attacked us in spite of it. Fortunately for the Prince and myself, Lord Elrond showed up and helped us defeat her.”
“The spawn of Ungoliant are not to be trusted, even in common purpose. But I am grateful you are well. You were sent off last time before I even got the chance to wish you luck.”
“The night is young, stick with me.”
Her brief smile was the brightest thing he’d seen in what felt like weeks.
“Sooner than you think, El. Come.”
While skirmishes still raged behind them, Harthalin led him to the bottom of a tall slope that wound its way up through a large crop of trees. The tree placement was thin at the slope’s base, a progressive incline at first, then gradually the saplings erupted into a total concealment of the path’s true course as it snaked its way up the hillside. The blackness of the fading night was nearly impenetrable here. Only their elven sight prevented them from stumbling over their own two feet.
Her voice was low as they came to a stop.
“I was sent to lead a small force to guard the bottom of this slope. The enemy has a fortress up there somewhere, and we had reports that they may be concealing more numbers within it. This is the only way up or down. But when we arrived we found several more injured from the surrounding battles. They had been trying to eliminate the remains of the enemy’s siege weapons, just as the Spears had. They whispered reports of Prince Amroth.”
Eldriun whirled around at the sound of that name. Harthalin’s sigh was thick with foreboding.
“They said one of the dark riders, one of the Gwetherain, captured him while he was tending to their wounds. I do not know what purpose he would have with him, but they said the rider set a course straight for this slope and vanished into the darkness above.”
“It took him alive, but for what cause?”
“We don’t know. But you should speak with Lord Elrond first. I am bid to hold this area and cannot leave it. We are too few and now have care of several others. But you should not pursue him alone.”
Eldriun’s hand moved to the crest on his armor, to the memory of the love, lost, for whom he now stood.
“Never alone, Harthalin.”
“El, please,” her hand moved to his arm, steady but firm. He countered before she could say more.
“If that were Auren who had been stolen up there, would you still be preaching such caution?”
Her eyes lowered, searching for explanations that would not come. He spoke again.
“Your path through any given moment shines out the clearer until it becomes personal. Then light is dark and dark is light. It doesn’t matter. Only the feeling matters. But how many more would be alive today if we held all our kin in something close to equal light, if we allowed that same emotion to spark our action to their defense?”
He paused a moment before continuing.
“Lord Elrond took Prince Thranduil back to the main force. They intend to push this way but it will take time. He sent me here to find the Spears and the last word I have shows me this is the way. There is nothing further to discuss.”
He pulled his arm free from her and strode forward into the night.
He caught himself, emotions stirring, the conflict within always the same beneath the shadow of war. He turned to meet her eyes once again, those of a friend with whom he had shared much over the long years. Her words were calm, her demeanor never wavering. A soldier. But the intent, the feeling, simmered just beneath the surface.
In contrast and for the most fleeting of moments, his voice was the one of the two that cracked.
“Márienna, old friend.”
With that his paces carried him through the spattering of trees and towards the flickering sight of campfires near the top of the slope. After a time he came to the land’s rise, and saw now that it breached into the top part of the hillside almost like a doorway, the earth elevated in parting to allow at least two or three to slip through the opening at a time. The leaves above drew a gaping canopy, concealing Eldriun’s movement from those closest to the camp. Their voices were distinct and unmistakable, Men of the East, long aiders and abettors of Sauron’s host.
Eldriun kept low, his mind flirting between stealth and direct assault. Quickly he chose the latter and darted to his right, slipping between two of them who were distracted by conversation and around the ever rising hilltop. His pace quickened, his eyes searching for any clue of Prince Amroth or his captor.
Further into the hillside’s crown he ventured, his walled path twisting to and fro until he came around a barely lit turn and to his astonishment, met the glare of death once more. The horse shifted its legs ever so slightly, the tense, blazing fire behind its eyes catching sight of Eldriun the moment he came into view. The steed of a black rider had been chained to a post here, and from about fifteen feet apart they stared each other down.
Eldriun swallowed carefully, his fingers dancing above the hilt of his blade. The beast reared up suddenly, a gush of air pouring out of its mouth in distaste. But to his shock it did not cause the commotion he expected and quickly calmed. He crept ever closer, his eyes never wavering from its tense and unyielding frame, seeming almost ripe to spring forward against its shackles at any moment.
As he nearly came upon the creature it stirred again, a seeming gesture of crude indifference, almost like it had been commanded to be silent by its master. He passed it without further incident, his head spinning back to be sure of its location more than once. The stairs drew further and further into the sky above. These were of intelligent make and unquestioned design, and by the time he got to the top of their path he gazed out into the clear architecture of the Alliance’s great foe.
The hulking statues of Mordor were prevalent everywhere, monuments to the calculating depravity of evil in its most base of forms. The everlasting kindle of the faint blue torches granted a dim countenance to the specter of death all around. Archways and spikes littered the area like locusts in summer, the work of the enemy never reserved in inspiration, but always garish and proud in every aspect. Eldriun’s face upturned at the sights, but deep within he could feel his purpose close.
He could already see where his steps were leading him, and as he emerged into view with the towering statue of a robed figure behind him, the sight ahead was nary a surprise at all.
A short grouping of stairs lead to a ritualistic lookout over the valley beyond. On the ground lay Prince Amroth, his body still, the wind of life not visible anywhere on his countenance. Next to him stood another figure, and as it turned towards Eldriun he met the smoldering eyes of the Witch King for the second time.
It made no move to attack him or to even advance. It simply stood…waiting…as if beckoning him to come closer. Before he could even sense that his muscles had responded he was already scaling those steps. What devilry! He tried to stop himself, to draw his blade, to bring his voice to bear in hopes of warning someone…anyone…and all for naught.
He was in thrall to the greatest of the Nine, and no power could breach that bond unless the Gwetherain willed it. Eldriun poured every measure of his heart into resisting the force now driving his body without his consent, and yet it was futile. The terrible, icy voice of the Witch King echoed into the air as he drew El forward.
“You come to late, servant of Gil-gil-lad. Still seeking out conflict wherever it emerges, still hoping you can reach your brother before the fall.”
Eldriun moved to speak but he could not. He could do nothing but take one step closer, and then another, each one a furious strife within his mind that he was unable to conquer. The Witch King’s body, a haze of indiscernible mass beneath his robes, seemed to flutter in sick delight as Eldriun now stood but a few feet away. It’s arms opened wide before him, its eyes like scorched windows into nothingness.
“Know that The Elf-King will never see his prince again. He lives, for now, though you cannot sense it. Lord Sauron sees fit to ensure he suffers in the dungeons of Barad-dur long before death rises to take him.”
Eldriun’s voice was a trumpet upon the walled confines of his mind. He tore at the darkness, his soul a churning bubble upon the boil of his intent. Yet again, he failed. His eyes began to well, the sweat pouring down from his brow in reverence to his broken attempts at liberation. The Witch King’s psychic embrace wall all consuming.
“So to shall you embark in search of the realm of the Unseen, Eldriun, fallen warrior of Gondolin. Such is the will of Sauron!”
The cold rush of steel splintered through El’s armor like lava through glass. The blood poured out of his stomach like a sieve, his hands feigning gestures of containment that were of no use. He fell then, no more in control of his broken dreams now than in wars past. The Witch King hovered over him like a pall in winter, and as his eyes rolled into the back of his head, Eldriun could see only a future bathed in the tempest of ruin.