"Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war:
We charge you, in the name of God, take heed;
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood; whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe."
-Shakespeare, Henry V
The wind is a sword in the valley of the Dragon, and my army sprawls between the Mountain's adamant arms like a net of a hundred cords, slowly to be severed. The fire before me bows under another gust, and a few embers scatter onto the dead ground. They darken, and will soon disintegrate.
Legolas hums the Lay of Nimrodel quietly beside me, and he is sharpening arrows wih a flint that scrapes uncomfortably and makes me want to peel my skin off. My son's flesh looks orange in the firelight, while the jewels in my scabbard send a prism of colours onto the green sides of the tents. The sword lies across my knees like a scepter of gold. It does indeed let me reign.
More than a carven throne that splinters into your back, more than a crown of dead leaves that grows brittle with the marching weeks, more than a "yes-my-lord" or an "after-you-my-liege," the power to shed blood makes a ruler so. And the king's sword must always drip first with the blood of his people. Each fatal charge he leads stains his hands - and few battles seem worth the grief.
Another gust of wind tears into the vale. Tonight we square off with the apparition of war.
"Father." He stops that accursed chafing. My hands are yellow.
"Father." I don't want to hear it.
"What is it, Legolas?" I jab the words into the air with a needle's precision.
"I take my leave for the night," he all but whispers, then rises and stamps on a few orange sparks. "That is all."
"I take it you have finished with the arrows?" I look up to meet his gaze as he tucks the darts into his quiver, running a slim white finger down the grey feathers.
"Yes, I have." He pauses, eyes flitting down at me as a scribe's flit toward the parchment from which he copies. He inhales, then asks it: "Will I need them tomorrow?" I wish he'd shot me in the ear instead; the blood would be so warm, and it would be my own. I grit my teeth.
"Why must you always-" The hyperbole withers on my lips and dissolves into the night. With effort I relax my jaw and soften my tone, breaking his gaze as I imagine sable darts pocking his flawless skin, his glistening mail. "I pray not, Legolas; I pray your arrows rust or pierce the eyes of spiders. Pray you the same, but rest well tonight." He inclines his head.
"Thank you, Father." He walks away, and I sit here alone, inching closer to the fire to rub my hands beside it, sword still carefully balanced across my thighs.
I palpate each yellow-looking finger of my left hand with my right, and if I wage war tomorrow, I shall weep. If Telerin blood must stain treasure tomorrow, I will shatter. Yet if Thorin Oakenshield keeps this morning's bargain, I then know nothing of Dwarves. (Nor of greed.)
The diamonds in my scabbard glow orange beside the fire, and that is fitting, though it riles me, dredges up memories of fire's seven sons and of how a jewel is the one thing flames cannot consume, nor battle mar. (A jewel, that is, and a cast-iron heart.) I trace the designs on the sheath with my index finger, follow the delicate vine and its emerald leaves, curl around each of the adamant stars like a wind in space. Orange, they appear ancient and nearly dead; looking at them pains me.
So I lift the sword and unfold my legs and rise, then place the weapon on the brown earth. I shouldn't leave the fire unattended, but it has shrunken enough that it will soon gutter on its own. At the moment I need to walk; I put my back to the flames and move.
The Lake-men house in the tents of my people-of course they do; that's what I'm here for-but they are mostly already within them, and if not, they sit outside in silence. I pass a man whose faded brown mantle bears four white patches and looks absurd, but his face is tear-streaked; and he twists a tarnished wedding band lethargically around his finger. He doesn't appear to notice my passing. He is what we're here for. Now, at any rate.
I rue the day I strapped bows to my soldiers and boots to their feet and dragged them out under the cold sky to claim Dragon-gold. I was a fool. I should have known these lifeless things would demand death of us, and though we will die for Esgaroth (as we would have, regardless, for Bard sent messengers seeking aid before he even knew of my host's assembly, and I pity the Man by the tent who turns his ring and weeps), there is no balm in that. We still die like Noldor for a senseless cause.
The wind moves among the tents like a silent adder slithering through a pile of fallen red leaves; I shiver and tug at my mantle, quickening my pace until I reach the bivouac of my own people. A few campfires still twinkle between the tents, and dwindling clusters of Elves circle around them. Harp-notes pierce the air like snowflakes, and a bard among one group seems halfway through a suitable song of hope in the darkness. He's halfway through Leithian.
"Of one fair gem," sings a young minstrel with the voice of a silver statue, "thou must be thief, Morgoth's or Thingol's, loath or lief: thou here must choose twixt love and oath!"
There's hope for Thorin's promise. (Oh, what some of us would trade for a jewel-and gold is reasonable.) Yet if he wages battle, I will be correct. (What some of us would trade.) Beren made his swap with Thingol-yet Lúthien made hers with Námo, and though they eventually wed and lived (and died) with one another, the rest of us traded their love and Thingol's pride for destruction. Doriath fell by a Jewel.
What frightened me was the frailness of her hand. Elwing's delicate fingers but barely gripped the Silmaril, knuckles jutting out pale under a coating of dried blood, probably her mother's, I didn't know. She was slung over the shoulder of the man in front of me, arms wrapped rigidly around his neck. I had only joined the rearguard of the royal party a few minutes ago, and we were all but jogging through the dimmest of Thingol's Thousand Caves, heading upward, out, and away.
My feet slipped in rivulets of blood even here in the hidden tunnels, and I noted the entangled corpses at the mouth of a side passage. A wet sword stuck out the back of each; their faces were stiff, angry, and afraid.
I began as Elwing turned her head: "My lady, close your-" But she'd already looked, and her eyes were dull like pewter. She'd seen worse today. She clenched the Silmaril and fixed her eyes on the ceiling above my head, looking past me while moving the Silmaril somewhere inside her mantle. I bowed my head to her.
We shuffled through the shadows, and I tried to scuff the blood off my shoes once we reached the dry places, the untouched places where dust clung to the chains of the lanterns overhead and fogged the glass of their globes. I heard the pounding of feet a few seconds before I started to run.
"Noldor behind! Noldor behind!" The call rushed upward through our muster like a swiftly rising flood. I looked up to see Elwing setting her fragile jaw as the tears began. Bows sang behind me, but I heard no one stumble; our men had fired first. All our feet struck the ground, and we weren't fleeing but bodyguarding the last of Elwë's line.
My peripheral vision caught a brightening behind me; the Fëanorian soldiers were carrying torches.
"How many are they?" shouted someone from the front.
"Fifteen," shouted someone from the back.
I exhaled. Good. It was a diminished search party, then, and we were more. My feet silently smacked the stone. An arrow buzzed past me and bounced harmlessly off the cave wall as the corridor curved again; I made out the squishing, imbedding sound of darts to the rear. Elwing's eyes were still fixed on the space behind me. I had to know.
"Are we winning?" There came a few moans.
"Yes." I noticed her lips were dry. A few more bowstrings thrummed. "We just won."
I exhaled, brushed drops of perspiration from my forehead for the first time. The tunnel was warm, and the stagnant air pressed on my lungs. Then a burst of cold shot into the corridor, weaving sharp fingers over the shoulders of the men in front. of me until it struck my face. I inhaled as we began to run again.
The men filed out the narrow exit in twos and threes ahead of me. The soldier directly in front of me ducked and placed a hand on Elwing's head on his shoulder. For an instant my foot rested half on the stone inside the tunnel, half on the dead yellow grass wilting on the outdoor ledge terminating the passage. A few snowflakes had begun to writhe their way down between the thin fingers of the naked tree branches, and only the hissing of the wind made a sound. The gusts whipped our faces.
I clench and unclench my hand to move the blood in it. At least there's no snow here, nor Silmarils. The minstrel and his audience don't seem to have noticed me, for the listeners backs are toward me, and I observe that the singer's eyes are shut. Amid the group sits the halfing, wrapped in two or three deerskins, rigid and attentive. The bard's skill is probably at work on his mind, painting the lay before his mind's eye in a living relief. May Irmo keep his visions of Angband mild. (Tomorrow will likely show him horror enough.)
The cold pricks my face and numbs my nose like an amputation. I should keep moving before the wind picks up again, so I walk forward down the row of tents, watching my shadow flicker on and off their sides. The spaces between most are dark and vacant, but among a few clusters of my people linger, singing. My people sing always, yet tonight their bold crescendoes fall fragile on my ears. I thank Elbereth for the Arkenstone, that might save them, and I walk.
If that stone has a tenth of the Silmarils' allure, surely Thorin will think it worth his gold. I bite my lip. Any more than a tenth, though, and the thought of it will only stoke his greed. The Arkenstone is a ball-and-chain, a broken mirror, and a case of gangrene. The Arkenstone is a lily in the snow, a pointillist's masterpiece, and a hot loaf of bread. The Arkenstone is beautiful. The Arkenstone is in that tent.
The Arkenstone is in the tent to my left, and I haven't seen it since this morning. (That shouldn't disturb me.) Another look might remind me what Thorin sees in it. (That's better.) Jewels like this don't capture me, but I will not sleep tonight anyway, and the Arkenstone is beautiful. I've stopped before the large tent's flap. The wind pries it open and lashes my hair against my cheek. I seize the blown flap and step in.
It is little warmer in the tent than outside it, and the Arkenstone lies naked on a three-legged oak table in the center of the circular interior, dazzling my eyes. I inhale sharply, blinking; the jewel is strong like the sun when one doesn't have to uncover it.
And it lies naked on the table, glittering white and yellow and orange in the lamplight, unadorned and inviolate. I watch it for a moment, keeping a superstitious distance-but what is it like? And it sits on the table blinking like a flare on a sinking ship or a lighthouse in a hurricane. What's it like to wrap your fingers around your final hope? Two steps forward, and I extend a hand.
You shouldn't. I do.
I am surprised when it doesn't burn my skin. I lift it, but do not turn my hand over, instead staring at the back of my hand, the argent light darting out between my knuckles. The flesh covering it glows red, casting the bones inside a hazy black. Each facet's edges protrude sharp as an arrow; were I to grip it tighter, I would bleed.
"That jewel is quite cold, is it not?"
"I did not expect that," I return, turning deliberately to face the istar. He has a habit of appearing at difficult moments. "Does it mean it favors me?" I smirk.
"You forget what sort of jewel that is, Thranduil," admonishes Mithrandir, and he takes a step closer to me. The flickering lamplight flings shadows across much of his face, rendering his expression illegible. "The handiwork of Aulë rejects no one-even if it ensnares his children most tightly of all."
"But that shall be only to our benefit on the morrow," I add, feigning hope and beginning to rotate my wrist. The stone's light scatters slowly around the tent, playing in the creases of the fabric, refracting off Mithrandir's silver scarf, catching in his grey hair, and finding out the worrylines around his eyes. "If this be truly Thorin's heart, our siege might have ended by noon tomorrow; he might be sitting on his throne by then with the Arkenstone in his crown and the dragon-gold as his footstool. In that case my people shall retreat unscathed." Mithrandir sighs like a falling star.
"Thranduil, you of everyone gathered here know best the sway of treasure on the heart. You know best of all that avarice and pride are the parents of death. Successful negotiations may not mean peace." I stroke the gem with my ring-finger and lift my gaze. The istar knows I know this, knows I fear it. But I'll keep wearing the mask with the hopeful eyes until Mithrandir beats its smile out of shape.
"Do you then call the halfling's effort futile?"
"On the contrary, I call it heroic. Yet only the Valar know what-if anything-it will accomplish. If you hope, hope with caution. Tomorrow is not a promise." He frowns, and does not move his gaze from mine. His eyes peel the optimistic veneer off of my words-he knows I am only trying to mean them - yet he will not comfort me.
"What is it, then?" I return, voice taut. "A menace? An epitaph? Must we Teleri always die for stones? You of all gathered here should speak hope, not venomous omens." His withered hand contorts around the oak-wood of his staff, and his eyes flicker toward the gem.
"I am sorry, Thranduil."
"Would you counsel me to war?"
"My lord king, I would counsel you to readiness." He bows his head and turns silently on his heel.
"Mithrandir!" I reprimand. One of his hands parts the heavy fabric of the entrance to the tent, and he does not turn around.
"Good night, my lord." The fabric falls back into place, then rushes in toward me with a wind from the Mountain. My hands are so cold, and the right hand, with its fingers on the Arkenstone, feels all but numb. I slam the jewel back onto the table with a thunk and a curse. The gem is perfect and glints up at me, glimmering until each sparkle prods my pupils like a barb.
I should cover it before I leave the tent, but I find I cannot, though the casket Mithrandir bore it in this morning sits close beside it. It seems wrong to conceal it, like suffocating a fawn. I turn from it swiftly, and do not look back as I exit the tent.
The wind greets me with a snarl as I emerge, and I glance up, for some reason, for the first time tonight. The sky is moonless and starless, seamless and black; it would appear a storm has moved in after a grey day. I can do nothing but hope for thunderstorms instead of a blizzard tomorrow. Storms are the best I can hope for. I glance back at the ground.
I should return to my own tent, try to rest without nightmares (oh, that's a poor bet tonight). I chafe my hands against one another, rubbing them, wringing them, feeling the cold, dry skin like scales. The nearest group of musicians has gone in for the night; the only sound I hear is the wind as it wails in the crags.
I don't own the Lay of Leithian. :) Thanks for reading!