The Grey Havens
Something was not quite right. Rather, something was not quite right with Alunim and she couldn't place what it was. Perhaps her nerves were getting the best of her, twisting up inside her to the point she thought she might fall off her horse. Perhaps she was feeling fear, the sort that came from nowhere and had no explanation. Or perhaps, and she considered this to be the most likely source, she was feeling suddenly very out of place in what she considered to be her home.
The Grey Havens were a place that didn't change. It was ironic, really, considering they were next to the ocean that was always changing and growing and moving. New buildings, and homes more importantly, hadn't been added for an age, nor had any of the old ones been drastically altered beyond the usual repairs. No child had been born in a thousand years. Alunim could not remember the last time someone moved there for any reason other than sailing.
The endurance and sameness was a charm of the Grey Havens that Alunim liked to do without. It was the reason she left in the first place.
It made her more uncomfortable than she would've thought possible to be back home. She'd left shortly after she turned one-thousand, thoughts of seeing the beauty of Imladris mixed with her desire to get away for a bit. The last time she had been here, her mother and father had sailed to the Undying Lands. The last time she had been here, her family was reduced to just her, her uncle Cirdan, and her older brother Rumil. It depressed her, so she left before it got the best of her, before the sadness and emptiness took all she had left.
Some parts of her couldn't help but regret that decision.
She pulled her horse to a trot under the arch, patting its sweating neck softly. Mud caked its legs and breast muscles, some of it having splattered on her riding boots. It had started raining three days after she left Imladris and hadn't stopped since. A week and a half or pure rain and mud had left her feeling miserable and exhausted. She thought of the bed she had left behind over one hundred years ago and pulled her horse to a stop.
She vaulted herself off, landing on the moist cobblestones without a sound. She felt very odd being back after so long. She felt wrong, out of sorts, foreign almost, as she looked around at the buildings she had grown up in, playing on. The banners were still just as faded as they were when she left. She caught herself staring at the one that depicted the moon over the ocean. The one for the first festival of fall. She'd missed a hundred of those festivals. The thought should make her sad but all she could think of was how much more fun and lively those festivals were in Imladris.
She pulled her horse closer to her side and started walking towards the center of the city. It was eerily quiet and deserted in the entrance, making her wonder just how much of her city had left since she'd last been there. Alunim did not like thinking so poorly of her city. Part of her loved it and an equal part of her hated it. She shook her head, gripping the leather reins tightly. They were slick with rain water and left behind dirt that felt very out of place surrounded by the cleanliness of the Grey Havens.
This was her home and she should be happy to be back.
The air was salty and humid, making her skin feel softer than it had in a hundred years. Everything smelled the same and looked the same, but something was different.
There was hardly anybody left, that's what was different.
"My Lady!" Alunim looked up at the elf hurrying towards her. He was an assistant shipwright, the second in line to her Uncle Cirdan. "Lord Cirdan is waiting for you down by the docks."
She assumed he would be, considering he hardly spent any time away from them. Cirdan was a focused elf who produced the finest ships in all of Middle Earth. They were sturdy yet beautiful and hadn't failed to deliver anyone to the Undying Lands yet. She considered them to be very similar to her uncle, as he was just as reliable and strong.
"Your horse." The elf extended his hands to take the reins from her. She wondered how long they'd been waiting for her to turn up. She hadn't sent word that she was coming home, but there she was, feeling awkward and out of place. She was back, however, and she thought she should stop dwelling on the differences between the Grey Havens and Imladris. There was plenty to love here, and she needed to remember that. She needed to remember why she had decided to come back.
When she'd left, she thought she would never come back. She hated it then, all of it. She hated that her mother and father left her with her uncle and brother and she hated that she couldn't do anything about it. She'd been training to be a healer in Imladris for fifty years when she realized it was wrong of her to run away. They needed a good healer and she could give them that. Even if she knew she would be dealing with Sea Calling, she knew that she was needed. She was a sea elf and she was needed back home. She tried not to be upset. This was her home.
She thought if she repeated it enough, it would eventually be true again.
Alunim shook her head and returned her attention to the elf. He was staring at her, waiting for her to respond. She nodded in thanks and started walking towards the docks. They were a ten minute walk, if she were quick, and took her through the most populous part of town. There were a few elves, here and there, but it was so empty it made a sick feeling settle in her stomach.
She was home. She said the mantra over and over again in her mind and it still felt wrong.
Alunim sped up, making it to the docks faster than she normally would have. There were three elves there when she arrived; her uncle and two of his assistants. They were all looking away from her, staring at the ocean. She cleared her throat, plastering a fake smile on her face. She supposed she should appear happy to be home. Her uncle turned first, holding out his arms to her. He seemed surprised to her see her, but he greeted her in the same warm manner he always had.
Alunim took the few steps to him and buried her face in his chest. He smelled like salt.
"Uncle." Alunim squeezed him tighter. "I've missed you."
"You've been gone too long." Cirdan pushed her back while keeping his hold on her shoulders, eyes scanning over her. She noticed his eyes lingering on the blue and brown clothing she was wearing, the colors of Imladris. She couldn't remember the last time she had worn the blues and purples that represented the Grey Havens. "The years have changed you."
"Not you, Uncle." Alunim said, glancing up at his sun lightened hair and tanned skin. He was the same as always. Just like everything else.
"I didn't expect you back. Not after the way we left things."
She blushed, remembering the fight she had with both Cirdan and her brother, Rumil. She looked away from him, feeling shame bubble up as she remembered what she said to him, and turned her attention towards the two elves that were flanking Cirdan. She was home. There was no point in reliving what had been said. She tried to put a smile on her face as she looked at the two elves. The tallest was holding carving tools while the other's hands were covered in white paint. Alunim knew they had been working on one of the boats. She had been gone for years and nothing has changed. She imagined she could be gone for another thousand and it wouldn't make much of a difference.
"Have you come home?"
Alunim didn't know. "Yes." She supposed she had. She disliked that the idea made her feel sad deep down in her chest, but she didn't say so. "I finished my training, so I thought it was about time I came home."
Cirdan looked around him for a moment before he waved his hand at the two elves, sending them away. "I need to show you something."
Alunim didn't like his tone, but she followed him regardless. They walked in silence towards Cirdan's workshop, her anxiety and panic building with each passing moment. She turned her attention away from the back of Cirdan's blond head and towards his workshop. It was wooden and salt-worn, the paint peeling in places and completely gone in others. The double doors were thrown open, showing the numerous workbenches and unfinished boat pieces that were strewn about inside. She expected him to lead her inside and was surprised when he continued down the stone path that snaked around the back.
Alunim stopped talking when she saw the bodies. There were ten of them, all covered in blood and rotting. Their hands were paw like and covered in bits of metal that were more rust than anything. Their hair was matted and lanky, as if it had never been washed in the entirety of their miserable lives. Her first instinct was to think they were goblins but she knew that was wrong. They were orcs, but unlike any she had ever seen. They were huge, large as men and covered in thickly corded muscle. She recoiled at the smell of them, burying her nose in the shoulder of traveling cloak. It was so overwhelmingly strong, it was a wonder she hadn't noticed it from the moment she arrived back. But then again, she had been distracted.
"They were raiding the eastern border some days past." Cirdan said quietly. "There were more, but we didn't have the numbers to stop them from getting away."
"How did they slip past the Rangers?" Alunim asked, doing her best not to inhale.
"We don't know. They came in the middle of the night, no warning."
Her eyes scanned their bodies, confused as ever. They certainly smelled like orcs, if not worse. It was not their size that set her one edge, however, as much their shape. Orcs were nasty little things that climbed in and out of places like bugs, oozing from every orifice, and causing general mayhem. As she looked at the creatures in front of her, two very particular things stood out to her; the white paint and their overall apparent lethality.
"Where did they come from?" She asked, pushing one of them with her foot. She bent down, keeping her nose pressed into her cloak, and stared at one of their faces. She noticed it had blood in its teeth. The sick feeling in her stomach worsened considerably.
"Alunim, I know little more than nothing." Cirdan was a fierce man who had been a fierce warrior, although those times were long past him. She could tell he was confused and that scared her. There was an edge to his voice, a hesitation, that made this all seem worse. He didn't know how they'd gotten into their home and that didn't bode well for them. She suddenly thought of her brother, her black haired brother who was a member of the City Guard. He should be here.
"What?" Alunim stepped away from the bodies, the smell making her light-headed. "Where is he?"
"He's not been seen since the attack."
"How can you not know? He's your nephew, he can't just disappear. What happened?"
Alunim could feel her chest constricting, making it hard for her to breathe. When she had made her decision to come home after completing her training to be a healer, she'd thought she would be returning to a small community that was slowly dying out. She would serve those who left until it she was free to do what she wished, go where she wanted. She'd imagined Cirdan would make the boats, Rumil would guard the city, and she would make their time in the Grey Havens easier. That was how it should have been; it would have been if she hadn't left. An unnatural amount of shame washed over her when she realized that she left them, truly and completely.
Cirdan lowered his head, looking away from the bodies. "The orcs, or what we are assuming are orcs, attacked in the middle of the night. We had no warning, and less time to prepare. All the guards we have left were drawn to the gates, leaving very little protection left in the city."
"So Rumil went to the eastern border? You lost track of him there?"
"He stayed in the city." That was odd. Alunim felt her face scrunch up in confusion, making it almost impossible for her to avoid smelling the dead orcs. She moved back from them, turning away so she didn't have to look at them and smell them for any longer than necessary. "I went to secure the border and when I returned he was gone along with three boats and the designs we use to make them."
Alunim focused on the cobblestone ground, doing her best to process what her uncle had just said. It made no sense. She balled her hands into fists, staring at the ground with such intensity it made her head hurt. There was moss growing in between the cracks, giving it an eerie quality. When she was an elleth, she had liked to collect moss and make little pies out of it and give them to her brother to see if he would eat them without knowing. The thought seemed ludicrous at the moment.
She turned to look at her uncle, feeling tears pricking her eyes. "Cirdan, what's happening?"
"Alunim, we've looked everywhere for Rumil. I sent word to the rangers to, to the dwarves in Ered Luin. There hasn't been any sign of him."
"Your nursemaid, Mithuiel." Cirdan sounded truly sorry, even though he had never understood the need for Alunim to have a nursemaid. Her mother, Cirlyn, had insisted and Alunim was all the better for it. Mithuiel was perhaps her favorite person and had been her closest friend in the Grey Havens before she had left. The news of her loss made her feel like a knife was wedged in between her ribs and twisted violently. "She was with Rumil, so I have been told. Some of the guard and a few citizens were lost as well. Twenty in total."
Alunim blinked back tears, doing her absolute best to not think the worst of what she was being told. The facts were simply not adding up. She'd come home to live in peace. Never in her wildest dreams or with her most outlandish thoughts would she have imagined this was waiting for her. The Grey Havens were peace and tranquility personified and she returned to find them dirty and unclean. They were tainted by the creatures and the deaths of those she loved, sullied by pain.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. "I don't like to think about the possibility, but we must face what is in front of us; three boats are missing and Mithuiel is dead." She didn't understand. "We didn't find a body."
Alunim mulled those words over in her mind. No body. Her uncle had said that some of them escaped the City Guard. Rumil had to be with them, a captive for some reason. "Have you sent out riders to find him?"
"We don't have enough to devote to it."
"Then I'll go." She said without thinking.
"You can't. It isn't safe."
"I'm ashamed of you, Uncle." Alunim turned to look at him sharply, completely shocked to hear him saying such things. He was close to Rumil, closer to him than anyone else, in fact. They were very similar, the two of them, both determined, strong, and focused. Rumil was several thousand years older than her and that had kept them at a distance to each other. That'd never been the case with Cirdan. "I will go, if you cannot be bothered enough to find him, I will."
"I'm not saying I don't want to find him. You know I do. This situation is trickier than you think, Alunim, and I will not send you into danger. We don't know what happened. We don't know where those boats went or what happened to the plans. We can't be too hasty or they could be lost to us forever."
"Rumil could already be lost."
"Alunim, please, listen to reason."
Alunim felt tears spilling out. She wiped them away roughly, looking away from Cirdan so he wouldn't see. "How long has he been gone?"
Alunim's attention was drawn back to the bodies instantly. Six days. They had been laying there for six days, waiting for her to see. Cirdan probably thought it would make her understand more, but all it did was make her indescribably angry. She pushed down the urge to hit something, choosing instead to walk away so she wouldn't do something she would regret. She loped up the stone path, away from the bodies, and back towards the workshop. She knew Cirdan would follow her.
"Where are you going?"
"To get my horse."
"You just got home. You need to rest, eat something."
"No." Alunim started walking again. "I can't. He's been gone for six days and the only thing you can do is stand there and tell me to relax for a bit." Alunim did nothing to try and lower her volume. "There were rumors of orcs traveling close to the Bruinen. I will start there and see if I can find anything."
"You can't mean to track them down on your own?"
"I mean to track them down, whether I am alone or not." Alunim slipped past the workshop, ignoring her uncle following behind her quickly. "Elladan and Elrohir will go with me. We can start from Imladris and fan out, tracking them until we find something."
"And if you don't?"
"Then I will keep looking."
"They killed Mithuiel." Her chest clenched up again and this time the feeling didn't go away. "What did you do with her body?"
"We buried her at sea."
"I'm happy to have seen you, Uncle." She cut him off before he could say anything else. She didn't like his pessimistic attitude and was determined not to let it affect what she thought of her brother. He was missing, taken most likely, along with the plans for their boats, and she wasn't about to let them get away from her. "I'll try to keep in touch."
"Alunim please listen to me." Cirdan called after her. Against her better judgment she stopped. "Something's changed."
"You're just as stubborn as when you left."
When she looked at his face she felt a small amount of guilt creeping up. "The longer we wait, the farther away he gets. I promise I'll be safe." She had no way of guaranteeing that, but she didn't allow him the chance to say as such before she was hurrying towards where they had tied her horse up, mind already thinking of all the places Rumil could be, all the places she would have to look.