Going home resembles never having left. Countless miles you tread, under the hoofs of the horse hard land stained with grass and rock you do not know, then one day the animal raises his ears and neighs. You do not heed him, because you know it already, where you are: shapes and smells, sounds you recognize as your very own. For one moment your heart lifts, and you believe that you have done that impossible deed, turning back time.
But its tides never turn. The future of the Eldar has no boundaries, the bottom of their past is deep; yet with all their power, they cannot break the limits of Eä. When we reached our abodes, the forsaken place where centuries had been light on our hearts, we found to greet us a sadness that we had no words to speak. The Orcs had not ruined our dwellings, their fear stronger than their hatred, but earth and wood and sky had reclaimed what was theirs, had broken the steps, invaded the thresholds. Leaves of many years were a carpet of disdainful sadness under our feet as we trod the paths once more.
For many days we spoke in whispers, our spirits heavy. We set about repairing, rebuilding, archers watching silently the invisible borders of our land. And yet, even this melancholy was more bearable than the thought of being so far. We did not regret Mirkwood, however safe we had been there. Always in my mind Legolas was with me, the remembrance of a past sun, a jewel hidden in the folds of my memory when I closed my eyes to sleep. In my dreams he spoke in words subdued, and when I woke up I embraced nothing but the shadow of my desire. When I rose from my bedding and walked once more among the trees, greeting them, calling them by their true names – their memory was long, their voices spoke of sorrow, but our absence they forgave – I knew I could not have stayed. Split, forever split in two until the shadow had passed.
We found in the woods traces of Orcs, but also traces of Men. The rangers of Gondor had passed from our territory, their Nůmenorean blood called by the remains of our presence. Time and time again they had dwelt in our abandoned places, leaving behind the blackened rocks of small bonfires, the flattened grass where they had more often camped. Dark stains on the stone spoke to us of long past deaths. We mourned for the spirits that had left Arda, exhaling their last breath here. Their shadows joined our sorrow, and together we walked.
And yet we could find joy, however small, in the labour of our work, joy in seeing the herbs revive under our skilled hands, the earth heal as we weeded out the tainted life brought by Mordor and its winds. We tasted the water, smelled the air, and knew that our time was counted and scarce, scarce even by human accounts and their short memory. Every futile victory was a losing game, a doomed challenge to the power of a storm we could not withstand. We stole moments at the price of years of pain. But such is the perseverance of the Eldar and our faith, the same that brought us to die for four hundred years under the red shadow of Thangorodrim: a belief in the power of a great deed, even knowing that it will bear no fruit. When all hope will fade, Elves shall perish of iron and fire, under stars unchanged.
The life I had left behind was the unseen colour that shaded my days. Every joy was bitter with memories of that other place, the place that held a part of me: had I left all of myself in Mirkwood, it would have hurt less. Somewhere, somehow, I would have been whole. But even as the music of the streams reminded me of his singing voice my heart rejoiced when my eyes opened every morning on the lazy slopes, gentle smells of Ithilien, and every tree reconquered, every pool sweetened by our presence was new life in my veins. My home, my only place. Stronger than happiness, stronger than love was the conscience of being where I should be. Against that grim resolve forty years of light could do nothing but wither and fall.
It was then that I became a warrior. My hunting craft honed by the silent warfare against the evils that had haunted the woods, I raised my bow to kill. I schooled myself in feeling nothing as the Orcs fell. Their terrible face was the mask of the beauty they once possessed, their shrieks as they lay dying the echo of the voices with which they had begged for mercy in vain. Once Elves, corrupted by the Black One that could not make, only ruin. The sages whispered our time on Middle Earth was passing, that we would remain but as memories of things past. In the blind, yellow eyes of dead Orcs I saw the mirror of what we could become. In the decaying ruins of realms long gone, the print of what we would be.
Love was under my eyelids, elation in my heart as I ran through the bushes, the track of the Orcs still fresh in the air. My nostrils dilated, I followed my companion as he chose the path through the undergrowth, till we reached the trees. There he stopped abruptly, examining the ground.
"Men have passed here, not long ago."
"No. Their boots were soft, their steps silent. Rangers."
"They are on our same chase."
"If they can defeat them, we withdraw."
I nodded. We passed into the wood, now more carefully, our ears strained. The life of the forest was watchful as we moved, the animals silenced in fear. Knife and arrow and blood; the infamous war of the wood, of hiding and surprising. In the darkness when Vanyar and Noldor had left for the West, Telerin learnt the cold art of surviving thus. Times where different then. There was no sun, no moon. Only stars to light our paths, but they shone brightly. The first Orcs resembled us more closely. The tales of those who were alive to see it are shrouded in a mist that smells of fear.
The hand of Acharn on my arm, and I stopped. He looked aside, nodding imperceptibly. Noiselessly, we took to the trees. Not long time passed before the Men broke into the clearing. Four of them, their daggers unsheated, and stained with blood. They talked in low voices, and with urgency.
"What are they saying?"
I spoke no language but my own; Acharn had learnt Westron from the Men of Esgaroth, and listened.
"The Orcs are behind them, but their companions should have stopped them. They are splitting to cover the strays."
"We should do the same."
He nodded. "Watch the clearing. Wait until the moon raises. Then withdraw."
I bowed my head in assent, and he was gone. The sky was dark, the stars undimmed; Tilion was still far. The clearing was now empty, but for one Man, who had stayed behind. He sat on a rock near the edge of the bushes, watching the wood where his companions had disappeared. He lay down his dagger, and raised his sleeve over his elbow, taking off his thick brown gloves. He was wounded, although not deeply.
Curiously I watched him. I had seen from afar the Men of the Lake City on the edge of Mirkwood, but had had no desire to speak with them. The Důnadan I had spoken with, marveling as I saw the time pass leaving marks upon his brow; and yet his manner of speech, his very attitude was that of a high Elven lord. The Men of Gondor we shared our land with were always a glimpse in my eyes, something to avoid. To them, we had been always un unseen presence, a taste in water and wood.
The Man took a sip from his flask, his slumped shoulders telling me of tiredness, He poured some water on his wound, and as he tended it I saw the Orc. The Men could not have expected somebody to escape so far, not if they had left only one behind. And yet this Orc had made it, not a fighter but a tracker, small and stealthy in the bushes, his large nose strained. More difficult to see, more difficult to kill, and yet surely now the Man would turn and pin it to the ground…closer and closer drew the Orc, a knife now in his hand.
The arrow left my bow, the action a reflection of my thought, and the Man stood up at its hissing through the air, at the yelp with which the Orc died. Now he took his dagger, and called.
Names perhaps, I wondered. I remained silent, my muscles tense. Receiving no answer the man took his bow, a grimace of pain on what of his face I could see that was not hidden by a hood. I could not understand what he said now, but he was aware of my presence, his senses sharpened in the imminence of danger. I could have retreated unseen, left him there, with his bow and his fear, alone in the woods until his companions came back; but the thought of the Orc kept me. Silently I slung my bow on my shoulder, and descended from the tree.
As I advanced out of the shadow of the wood in the starlight like a pale veil I held my hands high, to show the Man I meant him no harm. At first keeping me under the aim of his bow, when I was closer he lowered it. His lips uttered a single word, a breath of surprise, and reverence.