Crouching Shadows by Fernstrike

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Story Notes:

Companion to my fic 'Where The Shadows Lie', taking place approximately 2 years after the concluding events. Reading that fic will make this more meaningful, but doing so is not strictly necessary.

Warnings for very mild blood/gore and brief mentions of childbirth.

Written for B2MeM 2017. Prompt: "It was the possibility of darkness that made the day seem so bright." - Stephen King. Green Path. One edit has been made from that version, in that I have omitted Eldarion's age. I'll leave it up to you to decide when you think he would have been born!

"The light is failing. The shadows crouch deep and dark in the corners of the room, waiting to swallow the tables and chairs and food and wine, and take Eldarion with them as well, take everything worldly until all that is left are the cold, white stone walls, waiting empty for anything at all to live in." - from 'Where The Shadows Lie'

Sleep was eluding Eldarion. He rose from his bed, disentangling the warm blankets and furs that had gotten caught up in his restless tossing and turning. The nurse maids had told him to take rest, even if only for a few hours. Hithwen's long, gruelling labour would last well into the morning and afternoon, and there was no point fretting further until he keeled over from anxiety and exhaustion. His wife was only one room over after all, under the care of the nurses and two of his sisters, battling a fever that came and went. A runner was poised to inform him should anything transpire. Even so, there was no chance at all of him sleeping now.

He went to the window, where the sky was turning a shade lighter than black. The moon had slipped down from his perch, making room for the sun to follow. The first stars were blinking out, leaving gaps in the deep, dark heavens. In the far distance, Ithilien was a grey blur, slowly gaining substance as light pushed the darkness into its daytime form, as shadows.

Today was a strange day for the birth of a child. Today marked exactly two years since his father's death.

If there was one thing similar between then and now, it was the anxiety that ate away at both his thoughts and the stability of his stomach. Back then, it had been from the weight of the ancient crown. His mother, still alive, had been an icon of despair. His mentors were departed or departing, and he was left to be just another forgotten king of a prosperous land that had no need for heroes or the glory of noble lineages.

That was before the shadow creature; before he'd been forcibly thrown from his path and thrust onto a new one, one requiring diligence and a firm hand round the hilt of an old sword. It had taken that incident to turn his eyes to the shadows that scampered from light, waiting to resurge if only given the absence of illumination. Now, he sat strong on his old throne, and, not caring for peacetime or war, carried Andril with him always. Days like this would be the perfect day for such a thing like that creature to strike again - to crawl into the hearts of the weary, the weak, and the afraid. He was ready. He had to be. He was the king.

If only he could carry his bright blade and old crown into the dark realm of dreams.

A shiver ran up his spine, and he swept his thick robe from where it hung by his bedside, ensconcing himself in the warm fur and fabric.

He'd had a respite for a week, but last night, it had returned to him. Like a vision, the dream now swept into his waking eyes, the image clear, rising out of the shadows of sleep.

It was not a recollection of what had happened - the Deceiver, the Abhorred, a mangled, twisted shade, spreading his own fear through the forests of Ithilien, lamenting his sorry fate. No, the shadows of Eldarion's dream were alive, strong, wild with triumph. The laughter in his ears had been like the chittering of a thousand black insects. They had welcomed him like a brother, grinning mockingly. They'd returned him to the fateful clearing and cavern in the woods, where the sun had blinked out so bright only when the shadow had fled. The dream had then shown him not a young elf with maggots in his eyes, but a Gondorian soldier. More than that - one of the royal guard. The chittering insects had swarmed into the gaps of light in the canopy, laughing at his horror.

It was only a bastardisation of what you saw, he affirmed to himself. The watches had been posted for the two years since, and there had been neither sight nor sound of the Deceiver. Still, he could not shake the sense of waiting, as if his dreams could become reality, and hinged on his ability to keep his feet, never stumbling.

He opened the window, and the gusting air blew a dark lock of his hair across his face. He breathed in the smell of the morning, barely broken - dew on grass, wet earth, morning blooms and closing night blossoms, the cool scent of early winter slowly descending upon Gondor. Fresh and clear and good.

He reached for his goblet and pitcher of water, and a flash of bewilderment sparked inside him. His hands were shaking. Why? He clasped them together, hard, squeezing the trembling out of them. It's only the cold, and your own worry about Hithwen, he affirmed, clenching his jaw. He gripped the pitcher's handle until the knuckles of his hand turned white.

The water was cool and sweet when he drank of it. He hadn't realised how parched he was. Strange, to be so parched. His dream, a night ago, seemed in counterpoint to that. Water had, after all, been the bewildering terror. Water had followed the visions of the shadows and the body.

So much water - it took up everything above and below the horizon. He saw it descending, like the wings of a heraldic eagle claiming the sky, slowly shutting out the sun.

He was there - he was rooted to his throne, in a temple with soaring frescoed
cielings. The yellow stone was strong and old, but the wave was tearing all asunder. He could not move - his hands were bound to the armrests, a bloody dagger in one hand, the palm of the other marked with a scarlet slash. Something was looming over him. A shifting shadow, in the shape of a tall man.

He knew - an irreversible, cataclysmic mistaken had been made. What had they done? Why was the ground trembling and cracking beneath his feet? Why was the Winged Crown falling from his head? Why was his throne plummeting down and down and down? In his ears, he heard the snapping of stone and the screaming of a million souls. Above it all, the chittering of shadowy insects swarmed his hearing, his vision, raging with red eyes against the sun that slipped beyond the wave.

Hithwen had woken him then, her eyes bright with excitement and fear, to tell him their child, at last, was on the way. It had taken several moments to blink the strange dream-vision from his eyes, before he could allow himself to feel excitement instead of terror.

He was glad he had not had the chance to sleep this night. He feared to see that strange land again, drowned by shadow creatures and water and blood. He feared to feel that sensation, of waiting on the edge of something terrible he could not flee from.

The city of his dreams felt old - very old - and yet not so. The thought of it chilled his blood. Perhaps tomorrow, or the day after, when his son or daughter was finally born, he would go to the tapestry room, and see if he could find its image etched in any of their histories.

Adar or Naneth would have known, he thought. He tutted, scolding himself for thinking such thoughts. His grief may be old now, but it did no good to remind himself of what he'd lost in the past two years, wallowing in loss rather than relishing memory. His father. His mother. The remaining members of the Fellowship, who'd stood side by side with him, from the day his eyes blinked open, to the day his father's shuttered. Legolas and Gimli weren't gone yet - but they'd sent word some months back. Since the Deceiver had not shown his face since the incident in the clearing, they'd begun work on the ship. With them gone, that would be the end of the old world, the one of his father. The new one would be Eldarion's Gondor.

But he was soon to have a child! All was not loss and despair. He needed to remember that. He could not help but recall the golden summer afternoon, all those years ago, when his first sister had been born.

The walls of Minas Tirith glowed in the sunlight. The leaves of the gardens were vibrantly green, the fruit ripe and rich in shades of orange, yellow and red. Eldarion clutched his father's warm hand, stumbling over his feet. Five years old, but still shorter than most of the other noble boys his age. "You will grow, I promise you," his mother had laughed.

She was with the nursemaids now. His sister would be born before the afternoon slipped away, they said. He'd gasped in
fear, when his mother had started to shout in pain, and his adar had quickly brought him just outside, to walk in the gardens. His pulse was still racing, and he clasped his hands tight together, nervous.

"Fear not, Eldarion," his father said, with a warm, reassuring smile. "She is proving to be far less trouble than you were."

"What are you going to call her?" he asked meekly.

"We've no idea yet. We shall have to wait and see her character."

"She better not
pull my hair."

"She doesn't need that duty!" His father laughed lightly, ruffling Eldarion's hair. He cried out in protest, and then smiled wide, attaching himself to his father's leg and refusing to let go.

"That's what you get!" he giggled, as his father struggled to pull himself along the garden path.

"I surrender!" he
said at last, sitting heavily on a stone bench and throwing his hands up. "Nobody shall get the better of Eldarion again."

He laughed and clambered up onto the stone beside his father. He peered up through the dense green foliage, squinting at the sky. Blue, and white, and - storm clouds?

He pointed, and his father followed the line of his finger.

"Rain?" he asked.

His father nodded. "Not to worry. With a little rain and
sun, we'll see the arches of colour in the sky."

"The cloud is dark." He didn't need to voice the other thought in his mind - his father knew him well enough. He knew Eldarion listened to too many stories, of
councillors and priests alike, tales of the old gods and omens. The shadows above could make him feel only one thing, and that was apprehension.

His father wrapped an arm around Eldarion. "Perhaps it is simply Manw sending us a reminder."

"What reminder?"

"When your sister is born, it will be a birth brighter than the sun. We would never know that
beauty though, Eldarion, if we had no shadowy cloud to set beside it."

A shuffling noise sounded from the stone edge running beside the window sill. Eldarion jolted out of his reverie, his heart plummeting to his feet. A thrill of recognition sped up his spine, and he threw a hand beneath his pillow, grabbing the knife he had slept with for the past two years. He edged close to the window, expecting to see it - the strange, twisted, fae-like shape of the Deceiver's broken spirit. He'd been waiting for it. It was time, then - when Gondor felt strong and his own future was on the edge of fulfilment. If it indeed came now, he prayed the blood of his line would avail him, whatever needed to be done.

When he looked out though, he nearly cursed his own folly. A robin redbreast was perched on the little stone ledge, cocking its head inquisitively, to marvel at this strange king with his mussed hair and wide grey eyes and little curved knife.

"Go on little bird," he mumbled, nodding out towards the Pelennor. "You want to be the first to get the worms, don't you?"

The robin abruptly took off, flitting across the city, riding the cold air down to the fields. The bird twittered, echoing out across the plains - and perhaps it was only Eldarion's hazy mind, but it sounded like the chittering of an insect.

"Eldarion the shadow fades from view and the light slowly returns to the clearing - light that in its absence was not known, but with the darkness fled, now shines out bright and clear, memorable and precious." - from 'Where the Shadows Lie'

Chapter End Notes:

Thank you for reading!

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