Year 3437 of the Second Age, Year Three of the Siege of Barad-dûr

Black-fletched arrows sprouted from the bodies of the Men strewn along the faint trail. Draft horses hung in their harnesses, their throats and bellies slit. Some of the wagons still burned, sullen, smoldering heaps of wreckage. Fat black flies droned everywhere.

Elrond waved a cloud of insects aside, looking down at a torn banner that had been trampled into the dirt. He wasn't sure, but he thought the emblem belonged to one of the larger holdings in South Ithilien.

"My lord!"

Elrond looked up at the hail. Erestor gestured from his position atop a small hill.

"They are returning!"

He raised a hand to show that he had heard, and returned his attention to the ambush site. Some of the squad had stayed with him, and they went through the ruins of the supply train. A meager pile of salvaged supplies had been dragged off to the side of the trail, away from the corruption of the dead.

Most of the food had been stolen, along with much of the healers' supplies. The hardest loss was the water barrels. The few that hadn't been stolen had been smashed, their precious contents spilled onto the thirsty ground.

Others continued to sort the bodies. No Orcs, he noted. Sauron had set his corrupted Men against the caravan, attacking during the day. And all too successfully, he thought. They'd found only five survivors, and he doubted one of them would last the day.

A disaster. There is no other way to describe it.

He heard the jingle of harness, looked up to see the first riders cresting the hill. He recognized Amroth and his squire in the lead. The others followed behind on foot, leading horse-drawn litters. Silvan Elves walked the edge of the rescue party, bows strung and ready.

Isildur joined him, pulling off his heavy leather gloves and tucking them into his belt. He surveyed the site through narrowed eyes.

"Survivors?" Elrond asked, gesturing to the row of horse-litters.

The Man grimaced. "After a fashion. The venetas says a number of the Men took sick last night. They decided to divide the patrol, with most of the able-bodied staying with the supply train."

"And rode straight into an ambush," Elrond sighed.

Isildur's lips thinned into a tight, angry line. He scanned their surroundings again. He waved over one of the Silvan Elves, a slender young male with fox-brown hair and leaf-green eyes.

"My lord?" the Elf asked.

"Take one of your fellows, track back to where the ambush party waited. I want to know how many there were, where they came from, and where they went. I want your report by sundown at the latest."

"Lord." The scout bobbed his head, an eager light burning in his eyes. Silvan Elves lived for the hunt.

The Elven scout gestured to one of his fellows and they loped off together like young wolves. Elrond watched them go, then shifted his attention back to Isildur.

"What do you expect them to find?"

Isildur did not answer him at first, but watched the others as they organized the wounded. "Curious place for an ambush, is it not?"

Elrond frowned. They had used this route before, without trouble. Why strike now? He went to the horse-litters. The ragged line slowed, then halted at his approach. One figure lay still, his eyes closed. His flesh looked grayish-blue, like old wax. Elrond peeled one cold eyelid back and looked at the bright red staining the whites of the Man's eye.

"The venetas feared it might be plague," Isildur said without expression.

"Plague?" Elrond repeated, then shook his head, dismissing the idea at once. He could feel a wrongness creeping through the Man, an icy stagnation that meant to thicken the blood and still the heart and breath. Elrond drew his hand away.

"This is no plague, Isildur. This Man has poison in him."

"Poisoned? How?" Isildur demanded.

"That, I cannot tell you," Elrond said. "It could rise from any number of sources: food gone bad, tainted water, even a simple mistake with herbs used in cooking. There are some Men who take sick from herbs that are beneficial, or do no harm to others. He could be one such."

"And the others? How likely is it that so many with the same weakness gathered together, yet took no steps to their own protection?" He shook his head, putting aside his frustration. "Can you help him?" Isildur asked, low-voiced.

Before he answered, Elrond stood back and gestured for the litter-bearers to continue on.

"Not here," Elrond said.

"You helped me."

"You were in far better health to begin with, shieldbrother," Elrond said, keeping his own voice soft. "This Man..." --has no trace of Elven blood to help speed the healing, but that is something I cannot explain to you. "...needs the full resources of the healers at the camp. The best we can do for him, for all of them, is dose them for pain, and bring them to the camp with as much speed as we can muster."

Isildur scowled and turned to glare down the line, then up at the Sun.

"And the day is already half-gone."

* * *

Elrond gave his blades into the keeping of the warden outside the pavilion, then slipped inside. Men and Elves crowded together inside. He recognized many of the Men from the ambushed convoy. The Men appeared listless, drained of their strength and vitality. Perhaps it is plague after all, Elrond thought in disquiet, a return of the Evil Breath.

After a moment, he dismissed the thought. The Evil Breath had been Morgoth's creation, and however grand he styled himself, Sauron was not the equal of Morgoth. Even if he could replicate that foul working, such ills cared nothing for allegiance. It would kill Sauron's own Men as well as the Men of the Alliance. And without his army, he cannot take Middle-Earth, not unless he gains all of the Rings.

He took up his usual position, at Gil-Galad's left hand. Vilya's absence gnawed at him. Untouched by Sauron's corruption, it could not consume him as the seven and the Nine devoured their bearers. Still, he longed for it, as he longed for the beauty and peace of his home. Is this how it is to be wed, and forced to part? Perhaps it is best that I am unwed! To be parted from the Ring and my lifemate...

One of the Men slumped to the ground, resting his head against his knees. An Elf in the grays and russets of Eryn Glasen crept forward, reaching out a hand to the exhausted Man. Elrond recognized him as the scout Isildur had sent ahead from the ambush site. Even from across the tent, Elrond could sense the crackling jolt that struck through the Elf, the instant awareness of attraction. Seemingly unaware, the Man reached up and took the proffered hand.

Man? He's little more than a boy, no matter how you measure the years. As for the other...

"What is it you suspect?"

The sharp tone shook him out of his distracted state. He looked back towards the center of the tent. Isildur stood before the leaders of the Alliance, ostensibly giving his report on the ambush.

Isildur's grim expression became even darker. "They knew exactly where and when to strike."

"The Enemy has the use of many creatures that may spy out many secrets," Gil-Galad said.

Isildur nodded. "Where those eyes may be concerns me." He took a breath, then said, "I fear we harbor a traitor."

"You have proof of this?" Gil-Galad demanded.

Isildur hesitated, then shook his head. "Nothing I might lay before your justice--or yours, my lord," he added, looking to the High King of the Dunedain. "I have only suspicions."

"Then speak when you have proof," Elendil said, and there was nothing of a father in his voice.

"My lord--"

Gil-Galad raised a hand for silence. "You make serious charges, Isildur. You must be able to substantiate them."

Isildur drew breath to give answer to that. Taking a half-step to the side, Elrond caught Isildur's eye and made a slight gesture. Let it go.

"The possibility must be considered," Isildur pressed stubbornly.

"And it will be considered," Gil-Galad said, "when there is more than vague suspicion to be examined. What else remains to be said about the convoy?"

"Seven dead, twelve wounded, and four of those expected to leave the world by dawn," Isildur said in a clipped voice. "Six struck down with some kind of illness, though Master Elrond believes that they were poisoned."

Elrond found himself the recipient of level stares from both kings.

"Peredhel?" Gil-Galad invited him to explain.

"Some of the Men did indeed appear to be poisoned, but I cannot give its source. It could have come from any number of sources, even an advance strike by the Men who later ambushed the convoy."

"Which is why--" Isildur began.

This time, it was Elendil who raised his hand. "Enough, Isildur. We have heard you. We will consider the possibility. For now, we must focus on the losses from the convoy."

Isildur pressed his lips together, gave a jerky obesiance. "My lords."

He stepped back, yielding his place to another. Elrond listened with half an ear to the reports, he had heard or seen it all himself already. When at last they were all dismissed, Isildur was already gone.

* * *

He found Isildur near the southern edge of the camp, perched on a jagged chunk of rock, wrapped in a cloak against the night's cold.

"Must you creep up on me like a fishwife's cursed sneak-cat?" Isildur snapped.

"And a good eve to you as well, shieldbrother," Elrond said mildly. He ignored Isildur's ill-temper, propping his foot against a rock and resting against it.

"I am not imagining things," Isildur announced to the air.

"No one is saying you are."

"No, and no one is heeding me, either." Isildur turned to face him. "Something is not right here, Elrond. I cannot point to a place and say 'there it lies,' or give a name to the hands working mischief--but it all feels as it did the last year before the Fall."

"It is Mordor," Elrond began, three words that released a flood.

Isildur surged to his feet. "I am aware of that! I may be a homeless vagrant pretender-lord of a disgraced people, but I have not yet abandoned my senses. There is something amiss here, among us!"

Elrond recoiled at the venom in the words. They had the sound of an oft-repeated phrase, a taunt a jailer might hurl at his miserable prisoners.

"Why do you speak so, Isildur? I have never spoken ill of you, yet you give me back words that are not my own."

Isildur's anger faded, but he sensed it had not fled entirely. It was instead banked, waiting to be stirred to life again.

"No, not you," Isildur sighed, rubbing at the line of tension creasing his brow. "Others of your kind. It becomes harder to keep the peace among the men. There have been four duels alone in these past three months. Duels between Elves and Men."

"What duels?" Elrond demanded, putting a hand on Isildur's shoulder. He had heard nothing of this.

The Man made a weary gesture. "The first I could dismiss as the foolishness of young hotheads--which we have no shortage of, in either race. But the others..."

"What others?"

"There are always disputes among fighting have them stand ready day after day, it wears away at them. So tempers flare over small things, harsh words are traded, sometimes even blows. Yet it has come to knives, more than once!"

"When I said 'duel,' I meant it," Isildur said with some impatience. "These were not fits of temper over a game of dice, Elrond. I speak of meetings during late-watch, away from the patrolled borders of the camp."

"Why did you not speak of this earlier?" Elrond asked. Such as when the kings asked you for proof.

Isildur sighed. "It is for the Captains to control their Men. There have been no deaths--yet. The strength of the Watch has not been compromised--yet. There is yet no cause to bring this matter to the court of the Kings. Yet."

"You spoke with their captains?"

"Of course," Isildur retorted, twisting around to glare at him. "Among the Men and the Elves. One of them looked at me as if I were something scraped off of his boot--when he deigned to look at me at all! Then he waved me off as if I were a first-year page, and apparently did nothing about the problem, for the latest hotblood hails from his company!"

"Who is this captain?" Elrond asked.

"That...sodden Elf-pup with the unpronounceable name." Isildur made a disgusted gesture towards the encampment of the Silvan Elves.

Elrond closed his eyes. Thranduil. I should have realized. He looked up and saw that Isildur had withdrawn into a brooding silence. The Man stared in the direction of Barad-dûr. Even weary, angered, he kept a defiant stance. Elrond reached out, grasping him by the arms.

"Shieldbrother, leave this in my hands," he urged.

Isildur kept to his tight-lipped silence, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"I swear to you," Elrond said, meeting his gaze, "I will see this matter through."

"Hmph. Perhaps he will hear an Elf where he will not hear a Man," Isildur said, though the words clearly galled him. "I wish you much luck with it. Though we spoke the same language, he seemed not hear a word I said."

Elrond sighed. "The Elves of Eryn Glasen have always been...reclusive, less inclined to be open to the ways of others. They do not always see the value of other ways, or the need to follow them."

Isildur snorted. "Their heads are so far up in the trees, they have become stuffed with clouds."

Elrond looked away. He wondered what Isildur would say of the Silvan Elf who would come courting the young Man from Ithilien. What would Isildur say to his own suit?

"I will speak with Thranduil, shieldbrother," he promised. "And I will make certain that he keeps better watch over his people."

"Good luck to you with that," Isildur said.

Elrond sighed, and sent Isildur off to find some rest. A good portion of his bad temper could be attributed to the fact that Isildur had not stopped moving since they'd rode out in search of the convoy, almost a full day ago. Food and rest would restore him.

Turning to face the Silvan camp, he took a steadying breath, and pressed forward. He was not looking forward to this meeting.

Thranduil's banner hung over a Silvan-style tent. Where most of the Alliance members made do with treated canvas, the Elves of Eryn Glasen had brought along the round, felt-sided tents the Silvan Elves used in their journey-times. Only the banner and slightly greater size made Thranduil's tent any different from the others around it.

One of the front flaps had been pinned back. A dark-haired Silvan Elf sat on his heels before the entrance, keeping watch. Seeing Elrond approach, he rose smoothly to his feet.

"I have business with Thranduil," he said.

"My lord is indisposed," the squire said, stone-faced.

Elrond sighed.

"I will see him. Whether this matter is addressed in public, or in the privacy your lord's rank deserves, I leave to you to decide."

"Oh, let him through, Methedion. I cannot work for all of his chatter," came a sharp voice from within the tent.

The young esquire faded back out of Elrond's path. Thranduil appeared at the entrance to his tent, muscular arms folded over his chest. The Sinda's black leather wrist guards looked inky against his close-fitting gray sleeves. The Wood-king glowered at him.

"Well?" he demanded.

"Perhaps we might speak in private, lord," Elrond said.

"Put off your sword, then, and come in. I have no time to waste standing about."

The young Elf re-appeared, displaying that almost mystical attunement good squires had with their overlord's wishes. In silence, Elrond unbuckled his swordbelt and gave his blade over to the squire. Glîndin he kept at his belt, loathe to put off his oath-blade. Thranduil glanced at it, but did not demand it be turned over. Elrond followed Thranduil inside.

The newly-ascended King of Eryn Glasen kept a casual living space, he noted. The only opulence appeared in the form of a large silver goblet and a matching ewer beside it. A flicker of disquiet ran through him. It was early in the day for drinking.

"Well, what is it?" Thranduil asked, refilling the goblet. He did not offer any to Elrond.

Elrond opted for bluntness. "Have you heard account of duels among the soldiers?"

"Oh. That." Thranduil waved a hand in dismissal. "A series of minor disputes the impetuous took to knife-point."

"And did you discipline those responsible?" he asked.

Thranduil frowned. "I saw no need." He picked up his goblet. "Coming down like a Dwarf's hammer on the slightest infraction will not improve morale."

"A duel is not a 'slight infraction.'" Elrond said.

"I think you make too much of this, Peredhel. No duel progressed past first blood, and none of the injuries were serious. They healed in less than a day."

"The Elves healed with speed. Men heal more slowly, are more prone to wound-fever, which can take root through even minor hurts."

"Well, that is hardly the fault of my people," Thranduil said.

"No," Elrond snapped, "it is your fault that discipline has fallen so low in your ranks. The wounds your soldiers deal to the Men require the resources of our healers to tend them--resources stretched thin enough with battlefield casualties."

"This sounds rather like the rant that Southern princeling delivered."

"Yes," Elrond agreed. "That 'displaced lord of a disgraced people.'"

"Now we come to it," Thranduil said, putting his goblet down. A strange gleam lit his pale eyes. "This is less about the duels and more about that Man's pride."

"These Men are our allies," he began in a patient tone. How often had he been sent to give this speech, to smooth over ruffled feelings? And how often had he felt he may as well have spent the time more profitably talking to rocks? But he kept his thoughts and feelings off of his face. Gil-Galad's herald could not sneer at the leader of the Greenwood Companies--no matter how much he deserved it.

Thranduil snorted. "Allies? Is that how you choose to describe it?"

Elrond frowned. There was a decidedly unpleasant undertone to Thranduil's words, a gleam of malice in his reddened eyes. "Make sense," he snapped.

"You lecture me on behavior seemly for one of my station. Yet you crawl in and out of a mortal's tent, an Elf Lord lowering himself to play concubine to one of the Engwar."

Elrond schooled his features into an impassive mask. Engwar. Not a word used by those who loved Iluvatar's mortal children. And since Thranduil insisted on mixing the Silvan speech into his Sindarin... He has most likely just called me Isildur's whore.

"We are shieldbrothers," Elrond corrected, hearing the chill creeping into his words. He would deal with the insult to his shieldbrother's honor later, once he had seen to his duty. "But I am here to discuss your behavior. Are you so hungry to return to your father's side you will doom all those who follow you?"

Two vivid spots of color blazed high in Thranduil's cheeks. "You insipid mongrel!" he hissed.

No-one had ever dared speak so in his presence, not even Maedhros. His spine stiffened, and with great effort, he kept his hands down. He would not add 'Kinslayer' to his names, nor sully his oath-blade, no matter the provocation.

"Be careful how you speak to me, Thranduil. An insult to me is an insult to the king," he reminded through clenched teeth. Nienna teach me patience... before I strike that smirk from his face!

"Gil-Galad is not my king," Thranduil said.

"And yet your father answered his call. Will you put your father's word--and his honor--at naught?"

"Do not dare come speak to me of honor!" Thranduil said, rising to his feet. "Not in the name of the cursed Noldor! Had they honor, they would have heeded the will of the Valar, or turned back and sought pardon! Had they honor, they would have kept to themselves, and not married into the blameless kindreds, spreading their Curse with their seed!"

"You speak of things you know nothing of," Elrond warned.

"Oh?" Thranduil demanded. "Let me tell you what I know. I see the pride of the Noldor, who set themselves above all the other kindreds. I see them with their blood-stained hands and their curse-shrouded fëar, dragging others into their Doom. And I see my people, the Sindar, who for love and loyalty, forsook the Journey. I see the Silvan Elves, who never knew war, forced into battle. Into the fray I must lead them, but I will not do so under the shadow of the Noldor!"

"You forget the true Enemy is the one sits in the Dark Tower. Do you believe he cares for the difference between Noldor, Sindar, or Silvan Elves? Or any of the other kindreds, for that matter. I assure you, he hates the Vanyar as much as he hates the Sindar." Elrond let the words linger for a moment, then pressed his point. "The Enemy sees us all, Eldar, Atani, and Naugrim, as future thralls, or obstacles to his rule that must be destroyed. This insane dueling cannot continue! It is for you to insure all in your company keep proper discipline."

Thranduil glowered, stung into silence.

"You've delivered your message, herald," he said at last. "And I have heard it. Rest assured, I will speak with my men. Your delicate Engwar need not fear death from the scratches of the thorns of the Wood-Elves." Thranduil waved a dismissive hand.

"Excellent," Elrond said, matching him for cool distance. "So we may expect an account of your peace-keeping measures at the next council?"

Thranduil grimaced. "You will find no fault in my people's actions, Peredhel."

"I do not look for fault, lord. I look to keep the Alliance strong."

Thranduil looked up from his wine cup. His eyes were dull as gray stones. "We are in Mordor, Peredhel. The only strength here is his."

The weariness in Thranduil's voice drew him up short. He looked at Thranduil with new eyes. He has had no time to grieve...and he is not the warrior Amroth is, he can find no consolation in battle. Perhaps Thranduil did not interfere with the duels because he believed death was unavoidable. He drinks not to cloud his mind, but to dull the pain.

Deeply troubled, Elrond left the tent. Strapping on his sword again, he started back towards the Noldori cantonments. Thranduil must be sent away from Mordor for a time, Elrond thought grimly, before his despair sends him to Mandos --taking the rest of his people with him.

"Master Elrond!"

His thoughts scattered, and he looked back over his shoulder towards the one who hailed him. The lord of Lorien wore his dark hair tied back in a long tail, an austere style that suited him well.

"What are you stalking in the camp, under such a storm cloud?" Amroth greeted him.

"The matter of the duels."

"Ah." Amroth grimaced and looked back along Elrond's route. "So what does Lord Free-From-Fault have to say on the matter?"

"That I make too much of it," Elrond said.

Amroth sighed. "He is too young for this, Elrond...and now he is darkened with memories of war and death, his brightest years forever clouded."

What was it Isildur had said? Immortal memory endures.

"Too young," Elrond agreed, "but unlikely to grow older, much less wiser, if the Enemy is not stopped here." And if he does not learn to think before he speaks

They began the long route back towards the other Elven cantonments.

"The Silvan Elves are a peaceful folk," Amroth said. A shadow darkened his expression, like a cloud before the Sun. "It takes a great deal to rouse them to fight."

Elrond stopped in his tracks. Amroth continued on a few paces, ten realized Elrond was no longer beside him. The lord of Lórien looked back at him in question.

"So it is," Elrond said softly. "Curious, then, that is has come to knives at least four times."

"Five, by my count," Amroth corrected.

"This tale gets better with every telling," Elrond sighed. He resumed walking.

"I suppose it is being argued that the Atani are at fault," Elrond said after a while.

Amroth answered with eloquent silence.

"Let me see if I can guess the pattern: one of the Atani gives deliberate insult, the Elda demands apology or retraction, none is given. The insults continue, until it comes to blades and blood."

"One would think you had observed such things," Amroth said dryly. "These quarrels are far too quiet for my should take much more to goad a Silvan Elf to draw blade, even in self-defense. We are faster, stronger, well able to disarm a quarrelsome Man if we must."

"Which leaves us back at the question: what drives them to it?"

"If we had the answer to that, I imagine a number of fogged views would be made clear. A good thing you have a loremaster's patience--and curiosity."

Elrond drew breath to ask just how it had fallen out as his task to solve this riddle--then realized it only required the king's official command. Which he will not make without better cause. Still, much of governance is done 'unofficially.' He did not mention Isildur's shadowy traitor--though with this news, it was beginning to take firmer shape.

"How has it worked out among the Elves of Lórien?" Elrond asked.

Amroth shrugged one shoulder, a gesture likely learned from one of the Men of the squad.

"I ordered them put to discipline. I have not heard of any further incidents."

By the tone of his voice, he does not expect to, either. Elrond made a mental note to inquire among the Healers. They might be able to discern a pattern among the number of injured and when the hurts were inflicted. But would the pattern point to a traitor?

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