The light is a peculiar thing this time of year. Opaque, thickened with age, like cream. Vellum stretched over a window. Perpetual late noon. The year is old and soon to die and the sun—when it chances to pierce the woollen impenetrability of the snow-leaden clouds—has not the strength to truly shine, but comes to earth in quivers and tremblings of a waxy distillation of pallid daylight.
Out of the brindled sky it trickles, pale fingers crawling down to glint and flash in the mists that fill the wood and catch in the bare tangles of the branches. It shivers, almost, through the slender limbs of birch and beech that grow tall and wild in this corner of the forest, a thin rime of watery yellow picking out golden lichen and silvery bark here and there. Never still, never truly bright.
The days are short and swift things, the sun rising late into the grey midmorning sky to paint the leafless trees with gold and slant spidery shadows across the forest floor, barely even crowning the upper treetops ere it begins its evening descent. Once it slips down into the southwest twilight is swift to follow, but the sun's glow remains long after the warmth of the fleeting day has bled away, the world transfixed for an hour or two on the edge of nightfall wherein a faint light lingers in the bruised ochre sky, while an eerie semi-darkness descends upon the umber-coloured pathways of the forest.
Brown light, un-light, light like decay. A season of submarine half-days. All things below are shapeless, smudged, indistinct in the dusk. Above, the trees twist dainty nets from bone-thin branches naked but for the ragged clumps here and there, roosts for crows that caw and jeer from on high.
In these hours nothing is as it seems.
(Vigilance. Caution. Fellowship. The watchwords of the Guard. Go gently, they warn: for everything is always exactly as it seems.)
To dwell within the marches of Eryn Galen offers some measure of safety from the outside world and all its perils. The borders of the forest kingdom are as intangible a boundary as once were Doriath's enchanted wards, yet there was a time when no soul could pass beyond those borders but they had the leave of the King (and even now the mere recollection of Silvan lords and the fey powers they command is oft enough to chase away unwanted visitors to the Wood). But no forest is without its own dangers, even to those who call it home.
It is not enough to rely on memory and wit to guide the feet through the roads and twisting tracks that weave between the trees, delving with the oncoming night deep into a world so far removed from the sky beyond their highest-reaching boughs it can seem at times to be beneath the earth itself. Down where the stars and sunlight cannot touch, an amniotic universe of abyssal darknesses and deceiving lights breathes with its own interior life, beckoning the unwary onto paths that wind between many-limbed pillars and lofty spires sprung up from the sepulchral dimness below. Soaring up and up into the cavernous gloom of the treetops, they lean too close for comfort, whisper and shift above and around until it seems the lonely traveller wanders in a great, somnolent sea, woven from the stuff of illusion and older than anything within it.
This land may be loved, may never be trusted. It is a living thing, as capricious as it is ravenous, and though there are more frightening things than Orcs lurking in its deepest hollows, to the incautious perhaps there is no greater threat than the forest itself.
(This, the folk of the gloomy wood learn when they are young, or do not survive to grow old.)
The most familiar pathways become snares for the unsuspecting, sunny glades luring the foolhardy to unwitting ends, and at this time of year, with snow resting thin and crisp upon the ground and the muffled bark of crows like laughter in the unclad trees, this darkening land feels hungrier than usual.
Fortunately winters are short here in the wood, and it is never long before that lacklustre light begins to strengthen again, seeking amid the rotten leaves and twisting roots the splashes of pearl-white, gold and purple that herald spring’s return. Once the snowdrops and crocuses rear their heads it is sooner still that all things turn toward green once more.
The marchwarden of the west thinks longingly of that time as she lengthens her stride to avoid a pothole, her foot sliding into an inches-thick layer of leaf mulch and sending a slow chill seeping through her boot. The northern leagues of the forest are still well within the grip of an unseasonably warm winter, the trees knowing not whether they are coming or going, and there is a general air of unrest within the marches of the great wood.
More than unrest—of unease.
Overhead, the trees bend their bare limbs closer to one another, as though they seek to weave together a canopy and shut out what dregs of daylight might make it through the thickening gloom. All but a few have long since shed their leaves. Dusk is still some hours away, the wan sunlight snagging in the branches to throw listless bars of brindled light and shade upon the forest floor, but there is a darkness stealing over the land, a pervasive kind of wintry murk.
Winter brings a stillness to the forest, a ponderous sort of hush in the slow dying of the light. Everything is drawing still, the wood closing in upon itself as the land falls into slumber, and if she had not known this realm as she does, the warden might be persuaded to believe that the trees themselves are shifting around her.
Idle fancy, surely. They're never so energetic this time of year.
And besides, the notion that they scamper to and fro as if they’ve nothing better to do is these days little more than a tale, told to children—the kind of thing she might whisper to her own daughter to fill her dreams with the tangling of knotted roots, the flourishing of living things in the wilderness of green and the bright bursts of light that splash upon the sodden earth below. Trees are creatures of habit, little inclined to leave their long homes. Mischief or danger might stir them but she knows this place: she knows each tree by the memories it carries, and even if there are times when they might seem to move, to exchange places and craft out new pathways until it is as if she walks through an entirely different region of the forest, she is as much a daughter of the Greenwood as any young sapling, and they have never yet led her astray.
Stories persist, still, particularly among the older generation, of trees taking a liking to an Elf, of glades and groves opening up where none had been before and luring the unwary to a sightless doom—of paths turning in on themselves and entrapping those who walk them, stealing them away for long years and centuries before spitting them out again changed and befuddled, if they are seen again at all.
More often, the stories say, folk simply vanish on the most familiar roads, and nothing is heard from them again.
In the womblike darknesses that permeate the deeper corners of the forest, she does not doubt there still live trees with more menace and mischief to them than those that populate the western marches. The Eldar never could tame the Greenwood; have never truly tried, and when the lords of the West came and set themselves up as lords within the Wood too, it had not been their will that allowed it.
And if, in the swaying of the canopy in the wind, one can almost hear the heave and rush of the ocean, it is not through witchery or artifice.
(It is not the same ocean.)
Perhaps she is too vast, perhaps there was not sorcery enough to spare, but no sea-magic ever laid its soft spells around her borders, changed her nature till she was a forest in truth no more. Perhaps, there were other magics found her first.
The sunlight bleeds through the wood and coagulates.
Up ahead waits her mate, looking back with a smile for her there warm on his mouth. She returns it, gesturing for him to go on without her.
Their daughter wanders on along the road before them, her delighted babble the brightest thing in this forlorn march of the wood. The warden cannot see her, but the sound cheers all hearts on a dour afternoon. She is a sweet-tempered young thing, fleet of foot and quick of mind and dainty as a willow, though more timid perhaps than her mother likes, and always darting far ahead chasing wisps and birds and all things just beyond the edge of sight.
Today, she sings of things without names, and hunts for the shadows that blink and grin out of hollows and root-gnarls.
Stories, thinks the marchwarden, picking up the pace to catch up with her family. This is what comes of visiting relatives. Her own mother has ever been full of tales and wicked fables, and delighted to have a new generation in whom to instil a healthy terror of things beyond the forest (of which the warden cannot say she disapproves, entirely, if the rumours from the south have any truth to them), but of creeping shadows and lightless pools too, and trees with hunger and malice in their hearts.
She had eaten such stories up as a child, and feels no fear to pass alone even in the darkest, trackless depths of the wood—she knows them all here, and with her bow at her back and the stars above she has never wandered further than a night or two’s walk from familiar landmarks. Though true, she knows better than to put the forest’s mercy to the test. She’d be a poor sort of warden if she feared to turn a corner in this place but even the King himself will not tread where he is not welcome.
(The Lord of the Wood wears a crown of beaten silver, his cloth is bright with starry gems, but his throne is shaped from the living earth and his sceptre was cut, they say, from the bough of a fallen beech. He is bound, vine and thorn, to the forest, for all he was not born to it, and was yet grown when first he walked beneath its shade.)
The distant clattering croak of a magpie draws her out of her reverie and the warden pauses, looks about her. Something has changed, is no longer the way it was.
There is new silence in the air, one less of withering and more of…waiting. The uneasy hush that steals away the life of the forest deepens and she looks ahead, to where her mate stares back with a faint uncertainty writ in his eyes. He senses it too, the unknown, and his gaze roves constantly across the spaces between the trees.
If it seems that those spaces are narrower than before, that the shadows fall in different patterns than they ought—surely it is only the transience of the light at this hour, shaping visions from uncertain sights. Surely it is only that she has been thinking on old stories, on the trickery of the wood's untamed heart. Surely…
Surely it should be daylight yet. They have walked since dawn—it was not so long ago they rested at noon, and the sun had still been a pallid glint through the trees when last she looked for it. Night falls swiftly, for certain, but not this swiftly.
She looks forward once more, seeking the familiar way through the trees where the path curves so clearly to the west. At least…it had done. She’s certain it had done. She knows this forest like she knows the laces of her boots. To the west, and on until home. How many times has she trodden this path before?
Her mate’s mouth moves, she sees him form words in his consternation but she cannot hear what he says. She cannot hear anything.
The birds have fallen still, the autumnal whisper of dying leaves in the branches gone. Nothing. There is no sound, not even—
The marchwarden pales.
She cannot hear Tauriel.