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I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enlarged imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
AN: This story takes place in two different years. It starts in the winter of 2758-59 TA but has flashbacks to 2460. Here is what “The Tale of Years,” Appendix B of The Return of the King has to tell us about those years:
2460 The Watchful Peace ends. Sauron returns with increased strength to Dol Guldur.
2758 Rohan attacked from west and east and overrun. Gondor attacked by fleets of the Corsairs. Helm of Rohan takes refuge in Helm’s Deep. Wulf seizes Edoras. 2758-59: The Long Winter follows. Great suffering and loss of life in Eriador and Rohan. Gandalf comes to the aid of the Shirefolk.
1. The Southern Patrol
February, 2758 TA
Legolas ducked his head under a snow covered branch and rode the last few feet into the camp of the Southern Patrol. Having been alerted by the sentry’s signal, the patrol’s warriors were turned toward him and his companion, curious to see who approached. But the patrol’s captain was already in motion toward them, and Legolas slid from his horse and into his brother’s embrace. “Hello, brat,” said Eilian.
With a warm rush of affection, Legolas returned the hug. He had not seen Eilian in over two years, for their trips home on leave had never overlapped. Then he extricated himself enough to step back and place his hand over his heart in formal salute. “I am reporting for duty, Captain,” he said.
“So Ithilden warned me,” Eilian responded, returning the salute and extending it also to the older warrior standing next to Legolas. “Mae govannen, Beliond.” Beliond nodded easily, but his eyes were scanning the campsite. His task was to protect Legolas, and while Eilian was nominally his captain for the time that Legolas would serve in the Southern Patrol, his orders came straight from the king. Legolas knew that Beliond’s first priority would be to learn the layout of the camp and decide where in it Legolas was likely to be safest.
Not that there was much about the campsite to examine, of course. In contrast to the other patrols in which Legolas had served, the Southern Patrol moved its camp frequently, seeking to be where Orc activity was heaviest in this most dangerous part of the Woodland Realm. Thus there was a fire, and the snow had been packed down, but there were no flets or even tents here. Instead, warriors’ gear was hung from trees, and Legolas assumed they would simply bed down in hollowed out snow banks formed around low growing tree limbs, with piles of evergreen branches beneath them to insulate them from the cold ground. In this, the longest winter he could remember, the thought made him cringe a little. Ordinarily, Elves’ ability to control their bodies meant that they were not susceptible to cold, but that did not necessarily mean that they liked it.
Eilian signaled to a nearby warrior, whom Legolas recognized as Gelmir, Eilian’s long time friend. “Gelmir will take care of your horses,” he said. “Stow your gear and then come and visit with me.” He rested his hand affectionately on Legolas’s shoulder. “I have missed you, little brother, although I cannot say I am wholeheartedly pleased to have you here.”
Legolas made a wry face. He had served under Eilian on one previous occasion, in a safer patrol than this one, and Eilian had not been wholeheartedly pleased to have him even there. Like the rest of his family, Eilian tended toward over protectiveness when it came to the safety of one whom he undoubtedly still often saw as his baby brother. But his last service under Eilian had been years ago, and even then, Eilian had eventually come to treat Legolas as a capable warrior, so Legolas had hopes that this tour of duty would go smoothly. “Nonsense,” he said lightly. “You are lucky to have me.”
Eilian looked startled and then laughed and slapped him on the shoulder, and Legolas walked off with Beliond to find a likely place to sleep. Eilian would settle down, he thought. At least, he hoped Eilian would. And if he did not, Legolas would speak to him about it calmly and respectfully. There would be no quarrel, he vowed.
Legolas started toward a likely looking snow mound, but Beliond stopped him. “Not there,” he said. He pointed to the other side of the cleared area. “Over there.” Without comment, Legolas did as he was told. Beliond’s job was to protect him, and Legolas normally left him to it. Besides, where he slept really made no difference to him. They slung their packs over a low branch and contemplated the piles of snow around them. “Let me do this,” said Beliond. “You go and see Eilian.”
Legolas frowned. “I do not like to leave you to dig our sleeping dens by yourself.”
“Go,” ordered Beliond, already looking around him for a useful fallen branch or, even better, a chunk of stiff bark that could be used as a shovel. “You have dispatches and packages to deliver, and I want to be sure this is done right anyway.”
Legolas snorted. “I do know how to build a snow den, you know.”
Beliond responded by seizing one of the packs Legolas had been carrying and shoving it into Legolas’s chest. “Deliver these,” he said and turned back to his task.
Legolas took the pack and started toward Eilian. He would have to do cleanup the first time it was Beliond’s turn, he thought. He approached Eilian, who was sitting near the fire talking to Maltanaur, the warrior who served as his body guard, just as Beliond served as Legolas’s. “Hello, Legolas,” Maltanaur greeted him. “It is good to see you again. I have just been reminding Eilian that you no longer need your nose wiped.”
Eilian shot him a glare, and Legolas laughed. Maltanaur had never hesitated to tell Eilian when he thought he was acting stupidly. Eilian shifted his glare to Legolas, who smiled innocently, opened the pack, and pulled out a small packet. “Dispatches from Ithilden and Adar,” he said. He lifted the pack: “And letters and packages from home for your warriors.”
“Give me the dispatches,” Eilian said irritably. “You go and pass out the other things. You might as well make yourself popular on your first day in the patrol.” Legolas tossed him the dispatches and began circulating through the camp, greeting old friends and introducing himself to the warriors he did not know. He was interested to see that the latter group was small. He had served in every patrol but this one in his two hundred odd years as a warrior, and he had come to know most of those who served the Woodland Realm under the command of his oldest brother, Ithilden. As he circled the camp, he handed out letters and carefully wrapped packages that he knew contained cloaks, scarves, and even the occasional precious bit of waybread that someone at home had managed to set aside for some Elf who was far away but was much loved and longed for.
He returned to Eilian, who now sat alone at one side of the fire, watching two warriors clean and bone fish on the other side. Legolas handed him a letter and a package. “From Adar,” Legolas said.
With the delight of a child, Eilian ripped open the package to find soft, grey rabbit skin gloves. He immediately stripped off the worn, stained gloves he was wearing and pulled on the new ones. He held up his hands and admired them. “Adar always seems to know what I would most welcome,” he said. “But then, he seems to know about everything that goes on in the Realm anyway, so I suppose that is not surprising.”
Abruptly, he sobered, picked up the letter in his lap, and began turning it in his gloved hands. “Do you know what was in the dispatches?” he asked. Legolas shook his head. Eilian sighed. “Men are at war south of us,” he said. “And the winter is working hardship on those who have survived the sword and the arrow.” He looked at Legolas. “How are things at home?” he asked soberly.
Legolas grimaced. “Game is scarce,” he said. “I do not think anyone will starve, but many a meal consists only of acorn meal mush.” They both watched the warriors who were now putting the fish over the fire to cook. There were not many fish for a patrol of this size. One of those doing the cooking carefully added clean snow to a pot near the fire. Melting was undoubtedly the process by which the patrol obtained most of its water for drinking and washing, for ice covered the ponds and most of the streams in the forest.
“We will survive,” said Eilian simply, tapping the letter on his knee. He slid his dagger through the seal and started reading it. The letter was short, for presumably Thranduil had put anything to do with politics or the Realm’s defense in the dispatch. When he was through reading, Eilian glanced up at Legolas with a small smile. “Apparently, there was much discussion at home before you were assigned here, brat, and it looks as if Ithilden won. But now, Adar wants me to take care of you, and it turns out that you do not think you need to be taken care of. Which one of you should I heed, I wonder?”
He was not going to quarrel with Eilian about this, Legolas reminded himself. He raised an eyebrow. “When have you ever obeyed Adar so easily? And besides, Adar probably tells Ithilden to take care of you, too. ”
Eilian laughed. “True enough,” he admitted. “Poor Ithilden!”
Drawn by the smell of the cooking fish, the rest of the patrol was beginning to gather around the fire, and Sórion, the patrol’s lieutenant, came to join them. “Are we scouting tonight, Eilian?” he asked, accepting a plate that was rather meagerly filled. Legolas looked up from his own skimpy plate, eager to know the answer to Sórion’s question.
Eilian nodded. “Yes, we will look toward the west again. This weather is slowing the Orcs down, but it is not stopping them.”
Legolas felt an immediate thrill. He knew that, in contrast to the border patrols in which he had previously served, the Southern Patrol saw almost constant action and sought out Orcs when none approached them. He also knew that it was this constant excitement that drew Eilian to service in this patrol and had led him to spend as much time as Ithilden would allow in captaining it. The Shadow weighed heavily enough on those who served here that Ithilden insisted they all be rotated out of the area on a regular basis, and he saw no reason to exempt Eilian from that requirement. But every warrior in the Realm’s forces knew that this patrol was Eilian’s, even when someone else was temporarily serving as its captain. Legolas had been fascinated by tales of the Southern Patrol’s valor and had wanted to serve as one of its members for as long as he could remember.
The light of the dull winter day began to fade soon after the patrol had eaten what slender fare there was, and as soon as it was dusk, Eilian sent two pairs of scouts out to hunt for signs of Orcs. Legolas watched as warriors moved about the camp, readying themselves to be instantly away if the scouts should bring back positive news. He checked his own weapons and made sure that the arrows in his quiver were not tangled.
Then he pulled himself into a tree limb that was reasonably free from snow and sat trying to find stars in the cloudy sky. For years now, he had used this means to quiet himself when waiting for battle. Lifting his eyes to the stars usually allowed him to concentrate his energy instead of wasting it in restless anxiety. But tonight, his stomach was tight and his nerves were taut.
“Legolas,” called a soft voice from below, “may I come up?” He looked down at Eilian and nodded, and his brother swung up to sit beside him. Eilian eyed him and then looked away. “I do not want you to think that I am here because you are my little brother,” he said. “I have something to say to you that I say to all warriors new to this patrol.” He glanced at Legolas, who nodded to show that he accepted this explanation for Eilian’s presence, although he was not absolutely certain that he did.
“When you fight here, so close to Dol Guldur,” Eilian went on, “you must always remember that the Shadow is close. It waits always to enter into the little cracks and faults that lie in all of us, that it might widen them into gaps so that we feel, and say, and do things we would not ordinarily do, and become strangers to ourselves. Perhaps you are tenser tonight than you usually are before battle.” He looked at Legolas from the corner of his eye, and Legolas held himself absolutely still. He had not intended to tell Eilian of his unease. “I am not asking you if this is so,” Eilian went on quickly. “But if it should be, then you would not be the first warrior who has felt this way. Remind yourself that it is the Shadow acting and not your true self. Your true self is there underneath, waiting to be found again.”
They sat for a moment in silence, and Legolas felt a sudden easing of his disquiet. He laughed softly; Eilian had always known how to soothe away his fears. Eilian turned inquiringly toward him. “Thank you,” Legolas said, and Eilian grinned and patted his leg.
“The scouts will be back soon,” he said. “I predict we will see battle tonight. Would you like to wager perhaps?”
“No,” Legolas answered immediately. “I seem to recall losing a very nice pair of leather bracers to you the last time we had a wager.”
Eilian laughed. “Perhaps I can get Gelmir to bet. He has a nice warm scarf I have my eyes on.” He leapt lightly down from the tree. At that moment, a sentry sounded a call and two of the scouts came running back into the campsite. Excitement radiated from them, and without even thinking, Legolas dropped to the ground and, like everyone else in the camp, moved toward them.
“Well?” Eilian asked.
“A band of nineteen Orcs is coming toward us,” one of the scouts reported, his voice breathless with excitement, “all of them carrying bows. They looked to be hunting for meat rather than battle because they are going toward the area where we found rabbits yesterday.”
Eilian’s face sharpened. “They are hunting? Did you see signs of a larger band for whom they might be providing?” Both scouts shook their heads. Eilian thought for a moment and then asked, “They are coming toward us, you say?”
The scout nodded. “They are perhaps three leagues west of us now, but they are headed straight for us.”
“We need to stop them, and then we can decide how to go about searching out the larger band,” Eilian decided. He glanced at the warriors gathered around him. “You know what to do. Move!” And as one, the members of the Southern Patrol leapt into the trees and began to move west, with Legolas among them and Beliond at his side.
Legolas had engaged in this kind of battle more times than he could count, so he knew the basic strategy. Move into positions in the trees that the Orcs would eventually pass; wait until they were all within range of Elven arrows and then shoot, taking out as many as possible before the arrows were gone and the Elves had to take to the ground and fight hand to hand with swords. The snow that lay thick in the tree limbs made movement a little slower than usual, but like everyone around him, Legolas had coped with a great deal of snow this winter, and he was accustomed to its presence by now.
He judged that they had gone about two leagues when the scouts who had found the band slowed, and Eilian signaled for the rest of them to halt while he conferred with them. Then he turned and motioned them to spread out in the trees a little to their left. Legolas slid into position, his stomach beginning to tighten again. Deliberately, he relaxed, took his bow in hand, and fitted an arrow to the string. Next to him, Beliond too had his weapon at the ready, and the two of them waited in motionless silence. They were at the front of the line of Elves and thus would have to wait for all the Orcs to pass and assure that the rear guard did not escape to warn anyone.
Knowing that confusion would reign once the battle started, Legolas glanced back to make sure he knew exactly where all his companions were. And in a discovery that did not surprise him at all, he found Eilian looking at him from a place that was more or less in the middle of the line of warriors. For a second, he locked eyes with his brother. Eilian held his gaze, glanced past him to Beliond, and then looked back at Legolas. He smiled rather wryly and resolutely turned his attention to the woods ahead of them where Orcs were no doubt already approaching. Legolas glanced at Beliond too. His keeper looked serene, but Legolas was certain that he had just been displaying his most reassuring countenance to Eilian. Beliond looked blandly at Legolas and then crouched on the branch to wait for the Orcs. After a second’s pause, Legolas grinned and joined him.
They did not have to wait long before they could smell the stench of Orcs and hear the sound of their feet, muffled by the snow. Suddenly, a dark shape emerged from between the trees, followed by two others, and then a solid line of Orcs, with bows in their hands.
Legolas held completely still as the Orcs began to pass beneath him. The scouts had not exaggerated: All the Orcs had bows, a fact that made them dangerous to the Elves who waited in the trees, out of reach of swords but not arrows. He counted as the Orcs passed and had reached sixteen when his eye was caught by an unexpected flicker of movement further along the line of Elves. An owl had swept into the area and landed on a branch, completely untroubled by the Elf who crouched there. As the owl landed, it dislodged a clump of snow that plummeted to the ground amidst the Orcs. The Orc closest to where it fell jumped, snarled what sounded like a curse, and then glanced up. For a second, time stood still, and the Orc stared at the Elf, who would have been invisible amidst leaves or even bare branches but was clearly outlined against the white of the snow. The Orc was still standing with his mouth hanging open when Eilian sounded an abrupt signal to engage.
With grim certainty, Legolas knew immediately that his and Beliond’s task was to make sure that the last three Orcs did not escape. Before Eilian’s signal had died away, he loosed an arrow at the closest one, who had stopped in confusion and was partly screening its two companions. The missile lodged in the Orc’s throat followed almost instantly by a second arrow that must have come from Beliond’s bow. The Orc staggered and then fell, sending a spurt of black blood over the heavily trampled snow. Legolas drew again and shot as soon as he had a clear view of the two Orcs who had been following, but by that time, they had managed to recover their wits and were dodging behind trees and nocking arrows of their own. Legolas ducked and his heart sped up, as one of them sent a black-feathered shaft whistling past his ear. Then, coming from behind him, an arrow embedded itself in the tree next to him.
Beliond let out an exasperated sound and, from the corner of his eye, Legolas saw him turn to shoot and watch for arrows approaching from behind them, while Legolas continued to try to pick off the two Orcs sheltering in the trees. One of them sent a rapid series of three arrows toward him, forcing him to duck behind the tree trunk. He darted out again with his bow drawn and suddenly realized that he had seen no arrows from the second Orc for some time. With a certainty that drove the breath out of him, he knew that it had gone to warn the larger band from which this small one came.
He focused on the Orc who was between him and the one who had fled and drew to shoot at it, but his shot went wide when Beliond jostled him out of the way of an arrow from the larger group of Orcs behind him. As he seized another arrow, the tally he always unconsciously kept warned him that his supply was running low. Enough of this cat and mouse game, he thought, and shot his own quick series of arrows at the parts of the Orc that stuck out from behind the tree. The creature let out a bellow and drew its arm back, and Legolas immediately leapt toward it, coming to rest in the tree right above it. The Orc was swearing lustily and clutching its arm, all the while trying to peer around the tree to see where Legolas was. With a spurt of grim satisfaction, he shot his last arrow straight down, splitting the Orc’s skull. Then he glanced quickly back to make sure that Beliond knew where he was, and at a signal from his keeper, he shouldered his bow and started after the fleeing Orc, with Beliond right behind him.
The snow that had betrayed the Elves’ presence to the Orcs, now turned friendly and showed the hunting Elves exactly where the Orc had gone. As he skimmed through the trees over it, Legolas scanned the tramped path by which the Orc hunters had approached, watching for any marks that might show that their quarry had left it and struck out in a different direction. At the same moment, Beliond touched his arm and he spotted the line of lumbering tracks branching off southward from the main trail. Legolas turned aside to follow, and in wordless harmony, Beliond came with him.
His heartbeat accelerated as he leapt from tree to tree, watching the ground closely, and suddenly he was almost on top of the Orc, whose progress had been slowed by the knee-deep snow through which it was wading. He stopped and drew his sword, bracing himself for the close fighting to come, but Beliond flew past him and beyond the Orc, with his bow and one remaining arrow in his hand. Legolas watched as Beliond stopped and turned back to trap the Orc between them, but the creature had seen him go overhead and loosed an arrow at him that sent Beliond dodging. The Orc had left the fight early enough that it had at least half a dozen shafts left and now it sent them one after the other at Beliond, forcing him back into the shelter of the tree trunk.
Legolas’s breath caught as an Orc arrow passed within a hair’s breadth of Beliond’s ear. Enough, he thought suddenly, and with a familiar mix of repugnance and savage joy, he jumped from the tree to land behind the Orc and reach around to draw his sword across the creature’s throat. Black blood spurted onto his arm before he could withdraw it and the stench of Orc filled his nostrils as the Orc crumpled to the ground. Beliond now landed on the ground beside him and crouched to make sure the Orc was dead, but Legolas had no doubt.
“Are you all right?” he asked, and Beliond nodded.
Suddenly, Eilian too was on the ground next to them and Legolas glanced back to see Maltanaur in the trees above them. “Did any escape?” Eilian asked, his face pale.
Legolas grinned at him. “Of course not. What do you think Beliond and I have been doing here?”
Eilian looked at him with startled eyes, and then suddenly his face dissolved in a rueful grin. “Giving me a headache,” he responded. He sighed. “You did well, brat. Perhaps you are a warrior after all.” He indicated the dead Orc. “Shove it in a snowbank and then join the rest of us. We will go back to camp for the rest of the night. Tomorrow will be soon enough to search for the larger band to which these hunters belonged.” He turned and was gone, but not before Legolas caught a glimpse of his face and read the resigned dismay there.
Beliond laughed softly. “I do not think you will have big problems with Eilian, Legolas. He has seen enough that he knows he has to let go of the idea that you need his protection.”
The two of them bent to drag the Orc into hiding, and as he did so, Legolas wondered why this moment that he had desired for so long did not leave him feeling more satisfied. For oddly enough, he felt sad, as if he had lost something precious. It must be the Shadow, he thought, remembering Eilian’s words. What else could it be but that?
I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enlarged imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
2. Eilian’s Story
Legolas stirred, felt the cold air that the movement let in under his blanket, and groaned and drew the blanket tighter around him. I should get up, he thought. His innate sense of time told him that it must be nearly midmorning, and he had felt Beliond leave their sleeping den a short while ago. At first, Legolas had been annoyed to find that Beliond had dug them a single den, but he had to admit that in the night, he had been glad of the warmth of another body, and that was despite the fact that he had slept only lightly so that he could stay in enough control of his body to keep from freezing.
You will feel warmer if you get up and move around, he told himself, and wrenched his eyes into focus. The opening of his den framed pale winter daylight through which a few light snowflakes drifted. He lay watching them for a moment, distracted from his discomfort by their airy grace. Then he brought himself back to the business at hand, which was getting up to face the day. You are a warrior of the Woodland Realm and a son of its king, he told himself. Get up!
In a rush of motion, he flung off the blanket and launched himself out of the den and onto his feet. He had slept in his cloak and now pulled it around him and made for the campfire, where several warriors, including Eilian, were seated, eating bowls of something that at least looked hot. As he reached the fire, he found Eilian’s friend Gelmir serving himself thin porridge from the cooking pot. “Did you have a lovely sleep, my lord?” Gelmir teased. “I can send someone to look for your valet to help you dress if you like.”
“Shut up, Gelmir,” Legolas responded pleasantly. Then he laughed. He presumed that Gelmir was talking about Beliond when he referred to Legolas’s ‘valet,’ and the idea of Beliond waiting on him struck him as amusing.
Legolas had never been fond of porridge, but now his stomach grumbled over its empty state, and he reached for one of the bowls stacked nearby. He poured a ladleful into the bowl and was reaching for another when he hesitated and glanced over at Eilian who was seated nearby. “Is there enough?” he asked. The dearth of this winter had made him self-conscious about his appetite.
Eilian smiled. “We have plenty of porridge. Ithilden has seen to it that we will not starve.” Legolas served himself and sat down next to his brother. As he ate, he looked around for Beliond but did not see him. The trees here were strange, he thought. Their limbs were twisted, and the undergrowth around them was thick and tangled. Beliond could be quite nearby and not be seen. He shuddered slightly.
“Where is my ‘valet’?” he asked Eilian.
“He is tending to your horses, I think,” Eilian answered.
“Are we going to look for the larger band today?” Gelmir asked. Legolas looked up attentively, finding that he was eager to be moving against the enemy again.
Eilian nodded. “We will send scouts out soon.”
“Why wait?” Legolas heard himself ask a little sharply.
Eilian turned to him. “After last night’s battle, the patrol needs to rest. An hour or two of delay will make no difference.” He eyed Legolas steadily, and Legolas suddenly found himself remembering what Eilian had said about the nearness of the Shadow causing people to do and say things they would ordinarily avoid. He looked across Eilian at Gelmir, who now sat staring moodily into the fire. Gelmir was usually a cheerful sort, but one could not have told that from looking at him.
Legolas put his bowl down and sighed. “I am sorry, Eilian. I should not have questioned you like that.” He gestured toward the misshapen trees. “The Shadow is so real here. I have seen its effects throughout the Realm, of course, but I have never felt them so strongly in myself.”
Eilian nodded. “I understand. I remember what it was like when I first came south too. For that matter, Gelmir and I both remember what it was like when the Shadow came back to Dol Guldur and ended the Peace.” He stared rather dreamily at the woods around them. “So much of the woods was beautiful then, Legolas. You cannot imagine what it was like.”
Eilian was right. Legolas could not imagine the Woodland Realm without the constant threat of enemy attack hanging over it. “It must have been shocking when the Shadow returned,” he said.
“It was,” Eilian agreed. “We were in our first year as novices. Do you remember, Gelmir?” Wordlessly, Gelmir nodded. “Of course,” Eilian went on with a grimace, “it took me a while to notice that there were big changes going in the world. I am afraid that I was too absorbed in the changes in my own life to pay much attention at first.”
“Tell me about it,” said Legolas, resting his elbow on his knee and his chin on his fist.
Eilian sighed. “As I recall, my primary concern was finding some sort of escape from the boredom of daily training and drills. We all thought we were training for routine guard duty, after all, and that did not strike me as a very exciting prospect. If I had not been the son of the king, I might have chosen to do something different.” He paused as if wondering what that his life would have been like had it taken that other tack.
Then he went on. “I remember one day the masters were busy with the older novices, and we young ones were sent on a kind of treasure hunt, following clues from one location to another to find a dozen arrows.” Legolas nodded. He was familiar with the game, having played it himself as a novice. “You will probably find it hard to believe that we were sent by ourselves, but the woods near home were safe then. I remember that day partly because the hunt was fun while it lasted. Also,” he added with a grin, “it was a hot day, hot enough that I feel warmer just thinking about it.”
“The last arrow has to be by this part of the river,” Eilian declared, running up to the edge of the high bank and peering down at the water running rapidly through the narrows far below. “Down on that rocky strip along the edge, I would wager.” He dragged his tunic sleeve over his sweaty forehead. The river looked inviting, he thought. They could at least splash cool water over their heads when they had reached the riverside.
His four companions came up to stand next to him and look down. “It looks as if there is a path that zig-zags down,” said Gelmir. “I wonder where it starts.” He leaned forward to try to trace the path to its origin at the top of the ridge, but overhanging rocks and bushes made it impossible to see the path at the point where it neared the top.
“Come,” Eilian urged and started along the edge at a trot, scanning for a place to enter the path.
“Wait!” Siondel cried. “What is that?”
Eilian skidded to a halt and turned to see the other novice crouching near a rock that thrust out over the river. Siondel clutched at the rock with one hand, and leaning out and reaching with his other hand, he drew a rope back onto the bank. “I noticed the bit tied around the rock,” he told Eilian, who was now next to him, and not for the first time, Eilian was impressed by the other’s sharp eyes. Siondel began drawing up the rope and, in a short time, the end appeared with an arrow tied to it.
“The last one!” cried Fendîr triumphantly, grabbing the rope’s end and untying the arrow.
“How annoying it would have been in this heat,” Eilian said in disgust, “to work our way to the bottom and find the arrow dangling twenty feet over our head.”
“If we noticed it at all,” Gelmir added.
“Siondel would have seen it,” said Eilian offhandedly. Siondel blinked at him as if a little surprised by the praise. Eilian had always found Siondel a bit too reluctant to engage in actions that he judged would lead to trouble and Eilian thought would be exciting, and the two of them did not spend time together outside of training. But, to Eilian, fair was fair, and Siondel was undoubtedly good at seeing signs in the woods that Eilian missed. I will have to ask him to show me how he does it, Eilian thought.
“So now we go home,” said Gîl-Garion. He looked along the bank and made a face. “The only rope bridge along here is three leagues in the wrong direction,” he sighed. “We have been quick, but we will still be late getting home.”
Eilian glumly acknowledged that Gîl-Garion was right. He had hoped to have time to swim before evening meal and so wash away the heat of the day. And he had plans to go out tonight and wanted to be on his way as early as possible. Suddenly his eye was caught by the rope that Fendîr was still holding. “But we have rope here,” he cried. “There must be some way we can make a bridge. The two river banks are not far apart here.”
The rest of them looked doubtfully at him and then at the rope. “How do you propose to anchor it on the other side?” Siondel asked.
Eilian’s mind was working busily. “We could attach the rope to an arrow and shoot the arrow into a tree on the other side,” he suggested.
Even Gelmir shook his head at that one. “It would never hold,” he said.
“There must be a way,” Eilian maintained, looking around. His mind still on the idea of using a bow to launch the rope across, he suddenly noticed a tall, slender young tree growing near the edge of the bank. As if in a trance, he walked forward, staring at it, and his pulse quickened pleasantly. “We can use this tree,” he breathed.
The others turned toward the tree, looking puzzled. “What do you mean?” Siondel asked.
“We can tie one end of the rope to my waist, and the other end to the tree,” Eilian was speaking quickly now, his excitement building. “I will climb the tree, and you four will use the slack of the rope to pull the top of the tree down. Then when I tell you to, you release it. I will jump as if I were simply going from one tree to another, and indeed that is what I will do because the bent tree will fling me far enough that I can grab hold of the maple that is on the other side.”
“Eilian, that is far too dangerous,” protested Siondel.
“Do not be silly,” Eilian declared, busy untying the rope from the rock. “What could go wrong?”
“You could miss the maple tree and swing down to smash into the rocks on this side,” Siondel answered.
Eilian paused but only for a moment. “Suppose you had a rock in those branches,” he reasoned, “and you pulled the tree back and let it go. Would you expect the rock to land on the other bank?”
The other four turned to study the tree and the distance. “Perhaps,” Siondel conceded reluctantly. “It is hard to be certain.”
“And I will be pushing off from the tree,” Eilian argued. “I will go farther than a rock would.” He started toward the tree with his blood already singing. Today had been more amusing than anything the novices had done for a long time. He could not bear to go straight back to the humdrum of their normal routine. The leap across the river would be a moment to treasure.
The others all followed close behind him. “It might work,” Gîl-Garion said. “It probably will.” He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself.
“Of course it will,” Eilian said. He tied one end of the rope around his waist and started up the tree. And suddenly, the others were chattering with excitement too. Eilian was pleased but not surprised that they had accepted his plan; his companions nearly always did. Except for Celuwen, of course. He frowned as that thought flitted across his mind and then shoved it aside. Celuwen had become increasingly unsympathetic lately. He did not know what had come over her. He found a solid place to tie the other end of the rope and knotted it firmly.
He looked down to make sure that the other novices could reach the loose part of the rope. “Do you have it?” he asked.
“Yes,” called Fendîr. “Are you ready?”
Eilian moved as close to the top of the tree as he could. “Yes,” he called to them. “Pull!” They joined together to haul on the rope, and the tree bowed over away from the river. Eilian could feel the tension in the trunk under his feet, and his own body tensed in anticipation. He crouched, bending his knees and testing the feel of the tree a little.
“That is as far as we can go, I think,” Gelmir called, and Eilian glanced down to see them straining to hold the rope.
He looked across the river at the maple tree that was his target. Then he grinned. “Go!” he shouted and they let go of the rope. With startling speed, the tree whipped upright, and he only just managed to catch the right moment to leap away from it. Suddenly, he was sailing through the air like a bird. The maple tree rushed toward him, and he reached out to embrace it. For a heart-stopping moment, his finger tips scrabbled at its nearest branch, and then he had his hand firmly on it and then his arms around it.
With a cry of exhilaration, he swung up onto the branch. He grinned across at the other novices who were jumping and down and cheering. He felt wonderful, as good as he had felt for months, he thought. He drew a deep, satisfied breath and let it out, and then began to climb to the ground so that he could tie the rope firmly to the maple tree’s trunk. Across the river, he could see Gelmir scrambling up to get the rope’s other end, so that it could be anchored more firmly to a larger tree on that side too. Within minutes, all of them were across, laughing and slapping him on the back.
“We are going to have to leave the rope here,” Siondel observed.
Eilian shrugged. “We will tell the novice masters that we made a new bridge,” he grinned. “They should thank us.”
Siondel raised an eyebrow but said only, “You never cease to surprise me, Eilian.”
Eilian laughed. “Show me how you see so much in the woods, for that never fails to surprise me.”
Siondel smiled. “When we have a free day, I will show you if you like.”
Eilian nodded enthusiastically, and then they all started for home. It was late afternoon when they reached the warrior training fields and knocked on the door of Lómilad’s office. “We are back,” Eilian announced unnecessarily.
The head novice master raised his eyebrows. “You were quick,” he observed. “Are you sure you found all the arrows?” Gîl-Garion stepped forward and laid all twelve arrows on his desk. Like the rest of them, he was quivering with glee at having completed their task speedily enough to surprise Lómilad. The novice master ran his gaze over them, and his eyes narrowed. “How did you do it?” he demanded.
“It was Eilian’s idea,” Fendîr bubbled. “We rigged a new rope bridge at the point where the last arrow was hidden, so we did not have to take the long trip to cross the river.”
Lómilad’s gaze settled on Eilian, who abruptly felt apprehension flood him as he recognized a look of controlled exasperation that he had seen only too frequently on Thranduil’s face. “Explain,” Lómilad ordered, and suddenly they all quieted, for his tone made it clear that the ground under their feet was none too solid. All of their eyes followed Lómilad’s in turning to Eilian.
Eilian licked his lips. Surely Lómilad was not going to be fussy about the leap across the river. After all, he had predicted that it would succeed and it had. He drew a deep breath and began an account of how they had gotten the end of the rope across the river. When he had finished, Lómilad regarded him steadily for a long moment.
“The rest of you may go,” he finally said, and throwing sympathetic glances at Eilian, the other four novices lost no time in leaving. An uncomfortable silence followed their departure. Finally, Lómilad sighed. “Must I point out to you that you took a needless and foolhardy risk, Eilian?” he asked. “Is it possible that you do not already know that?”
“But I was certain that I could make the leap, Master,” Eilian protested. “I did not see it as a risk.”
“You never do!” Lómilad’s tone had sharpened. “And unfortunately, you are quite good at convincing others, too, that no risk exists. You have a gift for evoking loyalty in others, Eilian, but then you too often lead them toward potential disaster. Where is your good judgment? Where is your common sense?”
Eilian felt his certainty wavering, and suddenly he recalled the moment when his fingertips had just brushed the maple tree. What if he had not been able to grab the branch? But he had been able to, he reminded himself. He had judged the distance and his own ability to jump it correctly. Did that not count as good judgment? He pressed his lips together and waited in silence for Lómilad to finish.
The novice master was regarding him steadily. Finally, he sighed again. “I never want to hear about you engaging in such recklessness again, Eilian,” he warned. “If you cannot learn to temper your daring, then you will be a menace not only to yourself but also to others, and I cannot allow that in a potential warrior. If you wish to remain in the training program, then you will exercise more caution in the future. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Master,” Eilian said woodenly. At the moment, he was not sure he wanted to stay in the training program anyway. Guarding the palace and retrieving lost elflings struck him as a less than appealing prospect, but he decided that now was not the time to make that feeling known.
“You may go,” Lómilad told him, and Eilian saluted and left the building.
As he came out into the heat of late afternoon, two figures emerged from the shade a large stand of oak trees. Gelmir had waited for him, and Celuwen was with him. Her dark hair, which was usually pulled back into a braid, curled damp and loose down her back, ending at her hips. She had evidently already been swimming, and Eilian felt again the longing to dive deep into cool water.
“Was Lómilad angry?” Gelmir asked.
“Yes.” Eilian really had no wish to elaborate on that answer.
“What about?” Celuwen asked. “You did not tell me that Eilian was in trouble, Gelmir.”
Eilian grimaced as Gelmir began a spirited account of how Eilian had gotten the rope across the river. He, Gelmir, and Celuwen had been playmates as children, sharing games, sleeping in one another’s homes, and trading confidences with one another as they did with no one else. But in the last few years, as they had begun to leave childhood behind, Celuwen had turned into a puzzle that Eilian did not always understand. He was not sure how she would react to the jump across the river.
“You should have seen him flying through the air,” Gelmir said with relish. “He looked like a bird.” Then he and Eilian were both forced to stop in their tracks, for Celuwen was standing still with her mouth slightly open, drawing quick breaths.
“That was a stupid thing to do, Eilian,” she said emphatically.
Eilian felt the rise of exasperation that she often provoked in him these days. “Why were you waiting for us, Celuwen?” he asked impatiently. “Did you want something?”
She paused, seemed to pull herself together, and began walking again. “I wanted to know if we were still planning to go star watching tonight,” she asked a little stiffly.
“Of course,” said Gelmir.
Eilian heard him but his attention was elsewhere, for he had suddenly become aware that two very pretty maidens were approaching. He drew himself up a little, and from the corner of his eye, he could see Gelmir doing the same thing. “Hello, Eilian,” said one of them with a sweet smile. “And Gelmir and Celuwen,” she added.
“Hello, you two,” Eilian smiled back. “You both look cool as spring rain on such a hot day. It is a treat to see you.” They giggled and continued on their way. Both Eilian and Gelmir turned for a moment to watch their departing backs.
Gelmir snorted in disgust. “How do you do that?” he asked Eilian, who laughed and turned to start toward home again, only to find Celuwen standing in his way.
“I am afraid I cannot come tonight,” she told him.
He blinked at her, for there was something in her face that he could not read. “Is something the matter, Celuwen?” he asked, concern flaring.
“No,” she said. “I am simply needed at home tonight. I came to tell you that, and now I must hurry. My parents are waiting for me.” And before he could say anything more, she had whirled and trotted off down the path toward her family’s cottage.
“What is wrong with her?” Eilian asked. Gelmir looked at him sideways, but made no answer. Eilian shrugged. “I know what we should do!” he cried suddenly. “Let us stop and swim for a while on our way home.” And with a grin of agreement, Gelmir turned into the path leading toward the river.
“Eilian?” Sórion had approached, and Eilian turned to hear what his lieutenant had to day. “The scouts are ready.” Legolas was abruptly dragged back from a hot summer day in his brother’s youth to the cold reality in front of him.
“Good,” said Eilian, getting to his feet. “Send them on their way. The Orc band those hunters came from has to be a large one to have that many archers out hunting for food. We do not want them roaming this part of the woods.” Sórion nodded and went off to dispatch the scouts.
Eilian glanced down at Legolas, who was still seated, fingering his empty porridge bowl. “Are you shocked by how lightly I took my novice training?” he asked, cocking his head to one side and smiling a little.
“Of course not,” Legolas maintained, although in truth, he was a little taken aback by Eilian’s account of himself.
Eilian’s smile widened. “Liar,” he said easily. “My only excuse is that I had grown up, to the small extent that I had done so, during the Peace. You were serious about becoming a warrior from the time you were small, brat, but you had reason, and if I did, I did not know about it then.”
He started off to see to his day’s duties, and Legolas watched him go. Legolas had admired Eilian’s skill and daring as a warrior for as long as he could remember. He could not help but wonder how his brother had changed from the irresponsible youth he had just described to the formidable warrior and captain he had become. He would have to ask Eilian for more of this tale when they both had time. But now, he needed to get ready for possible battle, for Orcs were near and Eilian’s scouts were notoriously good at finding them.
I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enlarged imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
3. Brothers in Arms
Legolas looked up as the scouts came running into the campsite. They had been gone longer than usual and dusk was closing in. But just as on the previous day, their excitement was obvious, and, as his own pulse quickened, Legolas once again marveled at the constant excitement this patrol offered. No wonder Eilian enjoyed serving here, he thought. In an unexpected way, the tension was exhilarating and made the quiet times seem tedious.
“You found them,” Eilian said.
“Yes,” the scout nodded a little breathlessly. “They are in a group of caves in a low ridge about five leagues southwest of here.”
The scout grimaced. “We could not tell with any certainty. It looked to us as if smaller bands are gathering together there, and this massed group has been in the area for a few days, perhaps waiting for others. The ground around the caves is very heavily trampled, so we could not make an accurate count, but we would guess there are as many as one hundred.”
With Beliond by his side, Legolas had drawn near to listen to this report. Now he drew in his breath sharply and glanced at his keeper’s grim face.
Eilian gave a soft grunt. “How many caves? Show me how the area where they are hiding is laid out.” The scouts obliged, making marks in the snow with a stick.
“There are three caves,” the first scout said. “At least we think they are three separate caves, although we could actually have been looking at two entrances to the same cave. You can see how the entrances are spread out, with these two near one another and the third one around a little turn in the ridge.”
“What is the rest of the terrain like?” Eilian asked.
The scout shrugged. “There are evergreens for cover, but not much else.”
Eilian frowned. “I do not like to go into battle without knowing exactly what we are facing. But this looks like a war party getting ready to raid some of the settlements. And they have probably missed their hunters by now.” He looked off into the trees with his brow furrowed in thought.
Legolas waited impatiently, eager to be in motion. He had the utmost faith in Eilian as a captain, but he felt an almost uncontrollable urge to be underway now.
“The whole patrol will go,” Eilian finally decided. “But we will use tonight to learn more about them if we can. If it looks as if they are on the move, we will engage them of course, but otherwise we will wait.” He looked around. “Get ready to move,” he ordered and reached to fit his quiver over his cloak.
Legolas had already strapped on his own quiver and now tightened the strap slightly, more because his hands needed something to do than because the strap was loose. He smiled to himself slightly at the contrast between the caution Eilian had just shown and the rashness he had been telling Legolas about only a few hours earlier. He was not altogether certain that Eilian was without rashness even now, but his brother was evidently not about to lead his patrol into more danger than was necessary.
Eilian looked around, satisfied himself that everyone was ready, and called, “Go!” Like everyone else, Legolas leapt into the trees and followed the scouts and Eilian. He judged that they had covered about three-quarters of the distance when the deciduous trees began to be scarcer and the patrol had to take to the ground, for the boughs of the evergreens replacing them swept downwards and made movement slow across distances. Legolas ran lightly over the snow, keeping to the shadows of the trees.
At last, the ridge the scouts had described appeared through the murky dusk, and Eilian whistled them to a halt and began waving them into position. As Legolas watched, he sent about a third of the patrol with the group’s lieutenant, Sórion, to stand watch along the top of the ridge, looking down at where the Orcs would soon be emerging from their day’s sleep. He pointed to half a dozen warriors who were farthest to his left and then gestured to them to move around the bend in the ridge and watch the single cave entrance there. Legolas guessed that Eilian himself intended to stay in the middle of his patrol, with the group watching the center entrance, for there, he would be in the best position to command any battle that might be forced upon them. Then Eilian turned to select those to watch the entrance on the right.
Legolas was crouching with Beliond in the shelter of a tree near the right side of the Elves’ line, and he tensed as Eilian’s eye fell on them, wondering if his brother might still be protective enough to keep them with him. But he need not have worried. Eilian waved him and Beliond further to the right, and no one less familiar with him than a brother would have seen the slight hesitation of his hand and the small flinch in his face.
As he moved into hiding beneath the boughs of an evergreen, Legolas felt a rush of affection for this impulsive, warm, talented Elf who was his brother. He had thought he was confident in his own ability as a warrior, but he found that he was deeply gratified by being treated as a competent warrior by Eilian, whom he had admired all his life.
As he settled down to wait next to Beliond, Legolas glanced around and found that he had trouble spotting the members of his patrol even though he knew they were there. The Orcs would never see them, he thought in grim satisfaction.
Gradually, the dusk deepened. Snow had threatened all day, as murky clouds had hung low in the sky. It had not begun to fall yet, but the night was going to be a dark one. Suddenly a black shape emerged from the right-hand cave entrance. Legolas froze to attention, watching it, and Beliond sounded a soft signal to alert the other patrol members.
None of the Elves moved, as the first Orc was followed by a dozen or so others, all carrying bows. The first Orc was larger, and, as was often the case with Orcs, his size seemed to match his rank, for he was plainly ordering the others into action. He returned to the cave, and the archers began moving off into the woods. Legolas wondered if they might be going in search of their missing companions, or if they were hunters, like the group the Elves had devastated the night before. With game so scarce, he did not like to think about what they might be hunting. He waited to learn what Eilian’s orders would be.
There was a second’s silence, and then Legolas saw darker shapes sliding through the dark shadows around them as half-a-dozen Elves went after the archer band under the leadership of Gelmir, identifiable by the unusual curve at the top of his bow, glimpsed briefly against a snowy background. Whatever the archer group intended to do, they had little chance of doing it now, Legolas thought with satisfaction. Gelmir might be full of jokes in camp, but he was a terror on the battlefield.
Again, Legolas settled to the task of waiting. The night grew colder, and he was glad of the shelter from the rising wind that the evergreen boughs provided. Then snow began to fall in large, heavy, wet flakes that stuck to every surface they touched, including his face. He pulled the hood of his cloak lower.
Suddenly, the silence of the night was broken by the muffled sound of tramping feet. A signal sounded from the far left of the Elven troops: Another Orc band was approaching. Legolas drew even deeper into the shadows and watched as a group of about twenty Orcs approached through the driving snow. The large Orc he had seen before emerged from the central cave now and seemed to be greeting the new arrivals. At least that answered the question of whether the two caves on this side of the ridge were connected, Legolas thought. They were, which probably meant that the third one was too.
Legolas had expected that this new Orc band would enter the caves and join the others who were sheltering there, but that was not what was now happening. The big Orc had shouted something, and, cringing a little against the stinging cold of the snow, Orcs were beginning to emerge from both of the cave entrances that Legolas could see. With a sudden sickening certainty, Legolas realized that the Orcs had been waiting for this last band and were now getting ready to depart.
The large Orc was grunting orders at the others, while tossing occasional glances in the direction taken by the archer band. They were probably supposed to be back by now, Legolas realized, not having planned on an encounter with Gelmir and five other Elven warriors. He eyed the Orcs milling in front of the cave entrances, trying to estimate their numbers and decided that the scouts had not been far off in guessing a hundred. But with a large part of his attention, he was listening for the signal from Eilian that would mean the start of the battle. They could not let this band roam loose in the woods to prey on Thranduil’s people.
And then it came, the soft, haunting hoot of an owl. Legolas rose from his crouch, drawing his bow as he did so and sending an arrow into the throat of an Orc who had happened to wander toward him. The Orcs stood for a moment in confusion and then, at a roar from their leader, the archers among them hastily readied their bows, while the rest unsheathed their scimitars. They began to fall back toward the cave, looking for shelter, but arrows rained down on them from Sórion’s group on the top of the ridge.
With a steadiness that came from long years of practice, Legolas drew and shot repeatedly, dodging Orc arrows as he did so. Orcs were falling with nearly every arrow an Elf loosed, but Legolas knew that what the Elves were really doing was evening the odds for when they had to draw their swords and fight hand to hand. They did not have enough arrows to finish off the Orcs without engaging in sword work. Legolas’s arrows were running low, and he knew he was not the only Elf in that situation.
A movement from among the Elves to his left caught his eye, and his heart stopped when he glanced over to see Eilian and Maltanaur racing through the snow and disappearing around the curve of the ridge, with Orc arrows nipping at the air behind them. “Pay attention,” Beliond barked, as an arrow tore through the edge of Legolas’s cloak, and he turned back to his own part of the fight, fervently hoping that Eilian knew what he was doing.
Some of the Orcs nearer the ridge had managed to duck through the arrows coming from above and were about to retreat into the cave. We will never be able to dig them out of there, Legolas thought in despair. Suddenly there was a stir in the center entrance, and, through the blur of dark and snow, Legolas saw a tall, slim figure, who was certainly not an Orc, standing in the entrance and swinging a sword at the Orc who was closest to him. Eilian! he thought, his heart in his mouth. He must have gone around to the third entrance and led the Elves there through the cave. As several more Elves erupted from the right-hand entrance of the cave, Legolas loosed his last arrow. Then he shouldered his bow and drew his sword. With a glance at Beliond to make sure his keeper was ready, he charged from the shelter of the evergreen and entered the fray.
The Orc nearest him was plainly startled by his sudden appearance and barely had time to turn to face him before Legolas’s sword came across his neck in a vicious chop that all but beheaded him. He whirled to be ready for the next one, with Beliond at his back doing the same. The Orcs were now caught between the Elves coming out of the cave and those emerging from the trees, but they still had the advantage of numbers, and Legolas found himself struggling desperately, as a second Orc and then a third joined the one in front of him. He dodged as a scimitar skimmed much too close to his head, thrust the point of his sword into the belly of the Orc swinging it, and then seized the Orc’s shoulder and shoved him off of his sword and into the other two.
Suddenly, a force rippled through the mass of Orcs, and it began shifting to his right. Even as he battled with the two remaining Orcs, Legolas realized that Sórion and his warriors had scrambled down from the ridge and were joining the battle along its left edge, and the Orcs were backing away before them. Legolas was glad of the increased number of Elves but less happy that the Orcs were now being forced toward where he and Beliond fought. The Orc with whom he was struggling slid away from his parry and whipped his scimitar around viciously. Legolas turned to block the blow but felt the Orc’s blade tear through his cloak and bite into his left arm before he could shove it aside. He drove the pommel of his sword into the Orc’s face and then brought the blade around to chop at the Orc’s neck, feeling a surge of grim glee as the creature fell. But his breath quickened as he looked up to find the whole band beginning to move toward him.
Then he heard the high, familiar call with which the warriors of the Woodland Realm signaled their presence to one another. The Orcs to his right seemed to pause. The snow was heavy enough by now to obscure Legolas’s vision of anything occurring more than ten feet in front of him, so he could not be sure of what was happening, but he did recognize the voice that had sounded the call: Gelmir and the Elves he had led in pursuit of the hunting party had returned.
As if the approach of these Elves had been the last straw, the Orc band broke and ran, scattering in all directions. Legolas and Beliond moved into the path of those emerging out of the snow in front of them, but the Orcs were no longer interested in the fight and shoved past them. Legolas drove his sword into one and was jerking it free again when he heard Eilian’s signal to rally to him. He turned to be sure that Beliond was ready to move, and his heart stopped. His keeper had dropped to one knee in the snow and was clutching at the thigh on his other leg. Legolas ran toward him.
“What happened? Are you hurt?” he cried.
“It is not deep,” Beliond grunted, “but I am not going to be dancing at the ball tonight.”
“Can you walk?” Legolas demanded, as he crouched to look at the wound. They could not linger here. In the confusion of snow and dark and the Orcs’ disorderly retreat, Legolas had no idea if the area was secure and indeed was reasonably certain it was not. Indeed, he could still hear Orc voices frighteningly nearby. He heard again Eilian’s signal to regroup, more urgent this time, for Eilian was undoubtedly counting heads and knew that at least two were missing.
“I can hobble if you can loan me a shoulder to lean on,” Beliond said determinedly. Then he focused on Legolas’s left arm. “Why did you not tell me you were wounded yourself?” he snapped.
Legolas looked at his arm in surprise. He had forgotten that he had been hurt. Blood stained the sleeve of his tunic, but the wound could not have been serious for it had already closed enough to stop the bleeding. Now that Beliond had brought it to his attention, it did hurt though. He grimaced. “I can still help you,” he said. “Let us get you on your feet.”
A shape loomed out of the snow, and Legolas jumped and reached for his sword but realized almost immediately that it was Eilian, with Maltanaur close behind him. Relief flooded Eilian’s face at the sight of them, and Legolas had to admit that he had seldom been gladder to see his brother. “Beliond’s leg is hurt,” he said, and Eilian crouched for a quick look.
“Take him back to camp,” he ordered Legolas, coming to his feet again. He patted Legolas’s left shoulder, evidently unable to resist touching him, and looked startled when Legolas flinched.
“I am sure Legolas meant to tell you that his arm is wounded too,” Beliond observed from the ground. He was slumping lower all the time, and Legolas’s worry for him increased.
“My wound is nothing,” Legolas told Eilian hastily, as his brother’s face showed his alarm. “It is closed already.”
Eilian turned to Maltanaur. “Help Beliond away from here and find someone to get him to camp,” he said, his voice low. “It looks to me as if you are going to have to carry him. Haste would be an excellent idea, I think.” Evidently, like Legolas, he had caught the sound of Orcs in the area.
Maltanaur carefully lifted Beliond, who was protesting in ever less forceful tones that he could walk if he could just lean on someone’s shoulder. Maltanaur started hastily away while Eilian took a quick look at Legolas’s shoulder. “Let us see if you are still fit to fight tonight or if you are going back to camp too,” Eilian said. Legolas was watching after Beliond. By the time Maltanaur had moved ten feet, they were lost to sight in the thick snow and dark. “The wound does seem superficial,” Eilian admitted.
Legolas turned to look at Eilian and gasped in horror. The big Orc leader was charging toward him from behind, with his scimitar raised.
“Look out!” he cried and leapt forward as Eilian whirled to see what had frightened him. Eilian brought his sword up but had time only to redirect the blow so that it sliced into his hip rather than his belly. With a vindictive grin, the Orc jerked his scimitar away just as Legolas drove his sword deep into his back. Red mist clouded Legolas’s vision, and he yanked his sword free and drove it in again.
“Die now!” he cried. “You are dead!”
The Orc lay on the ground and gave wheezing laugh. “Do you think I care, tree lover?” He looked with satisfaction at Eilian, who had fallen and was clutching his hip. “We have been after this one for a long time.”
Suddenly brought back to Eilian’s need, Legolas turned with a cry to his brother. The snow under him was already stained red, and Eilian’s face was pale. Legolas pushed his brother’s hand away from the wound, and his heart sank. It was deep and it was bleeding copiously, although its location was wrong to have caused so much blood loss. “Check his scimitar,” Eilian gasped.
Alarm rising, Legolas turned to look at the edge of the Orc’s blade and saw a thick, brown substance spread along it. His stomach lurched. Some sort of poison was in his brother’s wound, undoubtedly something that made it bleed. The Orc was still grinning at him, and Legolas wanted nothing more than to stab him in the face, helpless as he was. As if reading Legolas’s expression, the Orc made one last effort and threw back his head and called out for his companions as loudly as he probably could. With a soft cry at his own stupidity, Legolas picked up the scimitar and cut the Orc’s throat.
He turned back to Eilian. “We need to get away from here right now,” he said urgently. Eilian’s eyes were alarmingly unfocused, but he seemed to understand and made as if to rise. “Fool,” murmured Legolas and gathered him in his arms and stood up.
“The blood,” Eilian whispered. Legolas saw what he meant; the red blood that was dripping into the snow would lead right to them. He shifted enough to wrap his own cloak around Eilian and catch the blood. His heart pounded, for he could hear heavy feet and coarse voices approaching at a run. Treading as lightly as he could, given his burden, he moved in the opposite direction and then ducked into the shelter of an evergreen whose snow-covered limbs swept to the ground.
He propped Eilian carefully in the place where the highest limb he could reach joined the tree’s trunk and then drew his sword and slipped out from under the tree again. He could hear Orcs exclaiming over their fallen leader, but he saw them only as blurry patches of darkness through the snow and knew that they probably could not see him at all. He drew a deep breath and then ran in the direction that most of the Orcs and Elves had taken, deliberately sweeping snow from bushes and branches as he passed them. When he thought he was probably at the limit of Orc ears, he put his hands to his mouth and called as loudly as he could. “Help!” It would draw the Orcs, he thought, and might even draw Elves back to help them. Even if Sórion had not yet noticed that he and Eilian were missing, Maltanaur would have.
He whirled and, sliding into the deeper darkness of the trees, made his silent way back toward Eilian. He had gone perhaps half the distance when he heard Orcs coming and momentarily froze to let them pass without seeing him. When he crept in under the evergreen again, he found that Eilian was unconscious and a red stain was spread down the tree and onto the snow below. Biting his lip in his anxiety, he lifted Eilian carefully down and looked at the wound.
In one way, the bleeding was good, Legolas thought. It probably kept the Orc poison from getting too deep into Eilian’s body. But he had to stop it nonetheless. If he did not, Eilian would bleed to death. Moreover, he needed to do it here and now rather than taking Eilian back to camp, because any movement seemed to increase the rate of bleeding. And surely his brother was colder to the touch now than he had been when Legolas had left him. In his unconscious state, he could not adjust his body to the bitter cold of the winter night, and it would kill him almost as quickly as the wound would.
Legolas lifted his head and listened to see if his call for help had drawn anyone. But the only sound he heard was the howl of the wind. He and Eilian were alone.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
4. Eilian’s Story, Part II
Legolas grabbed another handful of snow and thrust it against the wound on Eilian’s hip, hoping that the cold would slow the flow of blood that still trickled steadily onto the ground beneath him. Even in his unconscious state, Eilian flinched away from the icy touch on his skin where Legolas had enlarged the tear made by the Orc’s sword, cutting away the cloth despite Eilian’s need for warm clothes, both because he needed to see the wound and because he feared the cloth had been contaminated with the poison. Legolas had to clasp Eilian firmly to his chest to keep him from squirming away. His brother’s eyes were closed, he noticed worriedly. That was not a good sign.
As he waited for the snow to have an effect, he turned his head constantly, listening for any sound of Orcs that might come to him over the rising howl of the wind. He and Eilian were somewhat sheltered beneath the evergreen, but Legolas was by no means certain that they would escape the attention of passing Orcs if they caught the scent of blood. He heard what sounded like two different calls from Orcs, but they were at least a mile away. He did not find that far enough to be comforting and knew he needed to work quickly, but he could not move his brother until he had gotten some control over the bleeding.
At last, he decided that the snow had done as much good as it was going to. Working rapidly before the bleeding could start again, he removed the emergency healing kit attached to Eilian’s belt, pulled out a small package of herbs, and sorted through them, fingers fumbling in his haste. He cursed softly. Where was the haru? Triumphantly, he seized the light silvery leaves. It would be better if he could grind them and mix them with a little water to make a paste, but he had no time. He shoved the herb in his mouth, chewed it, and then spread the resulting pulp on the gash in his brother’s hip as he spit out the residue. Haru was supposed to slow bleeding, but Legolas had no idea if it would be effective against the Orc poison. Eilian’s blood stained the paste almost as soon as Legolas had finished spreading it on the wound.
He needed to get pressure on the wound, he thought frantically. He pulled the bandaging from Eilian’s healing kit, folded it into a pad, and clamped it over the injury. Then, working with his free hand, he unbuckled Eilian’s quiver and tugged on the strap, dragging it off of his brother as it came unthreaded from the loop in the quiver. He pressed the center of the strap on top of the pad and then drew the strap around Eilian’s lean hips and cinched it tightly to hold the bandaging in place.
He wrapped Eilian’s cloak more closely around him and pulled off his own to layer over the top. As he did so, he noticed that the rune of protection that Eilian wore around his neck had slipped out from under his tunic, and he tucked it in again, fervently hoping that its magic would somehow help. Then, drawing a deep, shaky breath, he sat back on his heels, able to take a second to think for the first time since the Orc had come out of nowhere and attacked his brother.
The wound had needed immediate care, but Legolas was almost as worried about the cold as he had been about the scimitar cut. For a moment, he contemplated building a fire, but his ears had told him that there were Orcs in the area and the possibility that they might smell the smoke made him dismiss that idea out of hand. Still, he needed to warm his brother somehow. Panic welled up from his gut, but he pushed it firmly down again. You can do this, he told himself. You have to do this! Eilian needs you. The Shadow is fanning your fear. Get hold of yourself!
His instinct was to keep his brother among the trees, for it was natural for him to see safety there. But the storm was growing worse, and despite his effort to stay calm, it was with a prickle of fear that he admitted to himself that Eilian would not live out the night if he did not find them better shelter. And the only shelter he could think of was the caves in which the Orcs had been camped. They were not far away, and given that the Orcs had undoubtedly had a fire in them, he might be able to risk lighting one there too. The smoke would spread less, and the Orcs might think that any smoke that did escape lingered from their own fire.
Of course, if they were close enough to smell the smoke from the cave, then that would probably mean they were seeking shelter there themselves. That thought made his heart quicken a little. But I cannot see that I have a choice, he thought in despair, and rose to his feet with Eilian cradled gently in his arms.
He listened for one last time and then stepped out from under the protection of the evergreen. The wind struck him with a force that made him strain against it. He had thought that the storm was fierce even in their hiding place, but out in the open, he realized that snow was falling thick and fast, and the wind was driving it into drifts that were now thigh deep. He ducked his head and struggled toward the right hand cave entrance, picking his way carefully around the mounds of snow that undoubtedly hid the corpses of Orcs. He could see an occasional arrow protruding and was suddenly acutely aware of his empty quiver.
He paused at the cave entrance and listened but heard nothing. Still, he hesitated. Perhaps the trees were safer after all. Then Eilian shifted slightly in his arms and moaned, and reminding himself of the peril in which his brother lay, Legolas ducked through the low entrance into the cave.
The reek of Orcs struck him like a blow and, for a moment, he held his breath and then had to force himself to let it out and draw in the foul air. But he did it. Eilian needed shelter and Legolas was going to see that he had it. The cave in which he stood was very small, perhaps ten feet by ten feet, but the ceiling rose a good twenty feet over his head. A second low opening undoubtedly led to the central cave.
Still worried about what he might find in the other two caves, he lowered Eilian gently to the rock floor against the small cave’s back wall. He had never lifted his brother before, and Eilian was heavier than he looked, the muscles in his torso adding hidden weight to his slim frame. As Legolas rose, he flinched to see the fresh blood on the sleeve of his tunic. Evidently, even being moved from the trees to the caves had made Eilian’s wound begin to bleed again. As had been the case since his brother had been hurt, he felt the urgent need to do several things at the same time, fearing that his failure to do any of them immediately would cost Eilian his life. But an Orc’s arrow or sword would kill his brother more quickly than his wound would, and Legolas knew that he needed to make sure the cave was safe before he tried to stop Eilian’s bleeding again. He drew his sword and stooped to slide cautiously through the entrance into the middle cave.
He found himself in a large space, and he relaxed a little when a quick glance around told him that it was uninhabited. Again, he was assaulted by the stench, which was worse in here because this cave had evidently been the one in which most of the Orcs had camped and their offal was scattered about. Indeed, the remains of a fire still smoldered near the entrance, driving home to him how short the time had been since the Orcs had begun to emerge from the cave to muster for action. The battle had seemed to last for hours, and although he knew from experience in other battles that that had probably been an illusion and that events had moved quickly, the warm embers of the fire still surprised him. There was firewood stacked near it too, and he nearly wept with relief at this gift that the Orcs had unwittingly left for Eilian.
Eager to get back to his brother and build a fire, he moved swiftly toward the opening into the third cave. This one led down a short tunnel to another small cave that was empty. As soon as he was sure of that, he whirled and raced back into the central cave. He would use the wood to build a fire in the cave where Eilian now lay because the smaller space would be easier to keep warm. He was hurrying toward the stack of wood when one of the charred bones on the floor caught his eye. He froze, staring at it, and suddenly, his stomach twisted in a spasm, and he turned aside to retch.
For a moment, he stood shaking, and then he drew a deep breath and steadied himself. Eilian was waiting with his life in Legolas’s hands; there was no time for this self-indulgent horror. He turned back and keeping his gaze firmly on the wood, he filled his arms with it and the nearby bit of kindling and slipped back into the cave where Eilian lay.
He hastily arranged the wood as close to Eilian as he dared and then lit it using his flint and tinder. The Orcs had found good, dry wood, he thought grimly as the fire caught, and once again pushed aside the thought of what they had cooked over their well fed fire. He took his water skin from its place under his tunic and set it next to the fire. Despite its proximity to his body, it had grown slushy during the hours that the Elves had kept watch on the cave, and he and Eilian were going to need water. He placed Eilian’s water skin next to his own and then turned to the task of once again slowing his brother’s bleeding.
He could not bear the thought of putting snow against Eilian’s hip again, for his brother was already colder than was safe. So this time he immediately used the herbs and bandaging from his own healing kit and cinched the quiver strap as tightly as he could. Then, after a second’s hesitation, he used some of their water to rinse out the bloody bandaging he had just removed. The healing kits had held only a small amount, for they were not intended to be used for any length of time. It if had not been so cold, he could have used his dagger to cut strips off their cloaks, but Eilian needed every bit of warm clothing they had between them. He laid the used bandaging near the fire to dry.
Then he glanced quickly at Eilian. Legolas intended to try to rouse him, hoping that even in his weakened condition, Eilian could use his control of his body to help keep the cold and poison at bay. But there was one more thing Legolas had to do before the snow outside became too deep. Steeling himself to go back into the storm, he ducked out of the cave again and set about gleaning arrows that he yanked from the rapidly freezing bodies of Orcs. Even after staying away from Eilian for long enough to grow anxious, he could find only a dozen or so that were usable. They would have to do, he thought. He needed to wake Eilian now if he ever expected him to wake again.
Eilian had stirred slightly during the time Legolas had been out of the cave, and the color in his face was less ashen. The fire must be helping, Legolas thought, with his heart leaping. Perhaps he could now wake Eilian up enough to be useful. He bent to remove his own cloak from around Eilian and put it on. Then he sat down next to his brother with his back against the cave wall, pulled Eilian up to lean against his chest, and wrapped his cloak around both of them, hoping he could help his brother by sharing the warmth of his own body.
He had a sudden vivid memory of himself as an elfling sitting on Eilian’s lap and fighting sleep while his brother told him a story about a fawn that had wandered too far from home and was looking for its mother again. He knew how the story would end, for in Eilian’s stories, the baby animals were always gathered into someone’s loving keeping, but he wanted to stay awake to hear Eilian tell it. Now he looked down at his brother’s dark head. “Wake up, Eilian,” he crooned. When there was no response, he shook Eilian slightly. “Wake up now. I need you to tell me a story, so I will not be so afraid.”
Eilian stirred slightly, and Legolas shook him again. “Come, Eilian. You have slept long enough. Wake up now.” His brother’s dark lashes suddenly fluttered, and his eyes opened, only to slide in confusion around the scene in front of him. “Did you have a lovely sleep?” Legolas teased, echoing Gelmir’s words to him from what seemed at least a month ago, and knowing that his voice was much too shaky to reassure Eilian of anything.
Eilian turned his head at the sound of Legolas’s voice and looked even more confused to find himself cradled in his little brother’s arms. “What happened?”
“The Orc captain took a slice out of your hip,” Legolas said. “And something on the sword is making the wound bleed. Remember?”
Eilian wet his lips, and Legolas stretched to reach one of the water skins and offer him a drink. “Now I remember,” Eilian said. He considered his surrounding for a moment. “Are we in the Orc cave?”
“Yes. Fortunately the Orcs are not.”
Eilian tried to sit up straighter, but Legolas restrained him. “I have slowed the bleeding, but movement seems to speed it up again,” he said. “Stay still.”
“My patrol is probably battling those Orcs,” Eilian protested. “They need me.”
“They do not need you dead,” Legolas said sharply, “and a blizzard is in progress. I expect that both the Orcs and our companions have sought shelter until it passes. All we have to do is wait until the patrol comes back for us. Lie still, Eilian!” He tightened his grasp around his brother’s shoulders and was relieved when Eilian suddenly slumped against him.
They sat in silence for a moment and then Eilian groaned softly, alarming Legolas. “Maltanaur is going to kill me,” Eilian groaned, and Legolas surprised himself by laughing.
“He will probably kill me first,” he observed, “especially if he thinks I have not done a good job of caring for you, so stop squirming.”
With a sigh, Eilian relaxed against him. “You are mighty bossy,” he said, a little drowsily. “You are still my baby brother, you know, even if you are a warrior.”
Legolas smiled slightly but did not like the way that Eilian’s eyes were drifting shut again. “Help me pass the time by talking to me,” he urged, hoping that Eilian would stay awake better if he was speaking. “Tell me more about yourself as a novice. What did Adar say about you being flung across the river from a bent tree?”
“He did not know. Lómilad believed that what happened among the novices was his business and not that of the novices’ families.”
“But Ithilden must have known,” Legolas protested. “When I was novice, he always knew when I had gotten into trouble. The masters sent him a report.”
“Ithilden was away,” Eilian said. “He used to command the troops from the field then, you know. He would travel from patrol to patrol with his aides and his guards to get a sense of how matter fared. And, as it happened, he and Adar were very worried just then about rumors they had heard about increased trouble in the southern part of the woods. So he had gone to check with all his captains about what they had observed in their areas. As I said, I was too self-absorbed to think much about that then though.”
“When did you realize how serious matters were?” Legolas asked.
Eilian sighed. “Even as dense as I was, it did not take too long. No one could have lived with Adar and Ithilden and stayed as selfishly engrossed as I was for long. Even the day I jumped the river, Adar was worried and I knew it. I just chose not to admit it, for then I would have had to behave differently, and I did not want to do that.”
Eilian walked into the family sitting room where he expected to find his parents sharing a cup of wine before evening meal. His mother was alone when she turned to smile at him, however.
“Hello, my sweet one,” she said. She eyed the silver trimmed black tunic and leggings into which he had changed when he came home from training. “You look very dashing tonight.”
He smiled back at her, his spirits rising, as they almost always did in her presence. He strongly suspected that she sympathized with some of his adventures more than she ever admitted, especially in his father’s presence. He bent to kiss her cheek. “You look beautiful as always, Naneth. Where is Adar?”
“He is still meeting with his advisors,” she responded as he went to pour himself a cup of wine. She shook her head when he offered to refill her cup. A small frown puckered the skin between her eyebrows provoking an instant desire to smooth it away in her second son.
“We did a treasure hunt at training today,” he told her and was immediately rewarded by seeing her smile at his enthusiastic tone.
“Searching for arrows?” she asked. “I remember when Ithilden did that, and, as I recall, he enjoyed it too.”
Eilian shrugged. “Ithilden probably enjoyed the drill,” he observed a little resentfully. He sometimes grew tired of hearing about how Ithilden had done as a novice. Ithilden had had the excitement of battling Orcs to look forward to when he finished the training, Eilian thought, not boring routine patrols.
“Ithilden was not born grown up, you know,” Lorellin chided gently. She looked at him thoughtfully. “Are you going out tonight?”
He nodded. “Gelmir and I are going starwatching.”
“Celuwen is not going?” his mother asked, sounding faintly surprised.
He scowled. “She says she is needed at home, whatever that means. Celuwen is behaving very strangely these days. I cannot make her out at all.” As he spoke, he suddenly realized that he had been hurt when Celuwen had told him that he had behaved ‘stupidly’ in jumping the river and that, moreover, she would not come out with him that night. He looked up from his wine to find his mother regarding him steadily. “What is it?” he asked.
She smiled slightly. “Have you talked to Celuwen about why she acts as she does?”
“No,” he frowned. For some reason, he found it harder to talk to Celuwen these days.
“She has been your friend for a long time,” Lorellin said gently. “Do you not think she deserves a chance to talk to you about whatever is bothering her? You are not usually so ungenerous toward your friends, iôn-nín.”
Eilian grimaced. For some reason, he found that the idea of talking to Celuwen was both enticing and alarming.
“I thought you liked a challenge,” his mother prodded, and he glanced at her to see an expression on her face that he could not read. If he had not known better, he would have thought she looked a bit mischievous.
The door opened and Thranduil entered the room, drawing Eilian to his feet. Thranduil crossed to where his wife sat and kissed her brow. “Good evening, my love.” He accepted the cup of wine Eilian had poured for him, sank into a chair, and took a deep draught. Then he waved Eilian back into his own chair.
“Was it so bad?” Lorellin asked sympathetically. The creases were back between her eyebrows, Eilian noted.
Thranduil grimaced. “Bad enough. We will see what Ithilden has to tell us when he returns and then decide what to do.”
“Is this about the trouble that seems to be happening in the south?” Eilian ventured to ask. He had heard exciting rumors at the warrior training fields and was reasonably certain that Ithilden was away exploring them. If there was anything to the rumors, he was sure that Ithilden would find out. His brother was sometimes maddeningly controlled, but Eilian also firmly believed that Ithilden was also the most formidable warrior he knew.
“You do not need to concern yourself about this now, Eilian,” Thranduil said shortly. He set his cup down on the table next to him rather more forcefully than was necessary. “Let us talk about something else.”
“Excellent idea,” Lorellin agreed. “Let us talk about the summer solstice celebration. May I borrow some of your attendants to help decorate the green?”
Thranduil smiled at her. “You may have whatever you like, and you know it,” he told her. At that moment, a servant came to tell them that evening meal was ready and the three of them moved to the dining room where they continued to talk about the upcoming feast. They had finished their soup and were starting on the venison stew when the door opened and Ithilden came striding into the room, his wet hair suggesting that he had returned only a short while ago and bathed hastily. Eilian blinked, for his brother’s face looked more weary and strained than he had ever seen it before.
“Ithilden!” their mother cried, rising to embrace him.
“Good evening, Naneth,” he responded, kissing the top of her head. “Good evening, Adar.” He patted Eilian’s shoulder on his way to clasp arms with their father. The servant set another place at the table, and Ithilden sat down, accepted a plate of stew, and began to eat with what looked like relish.
“Would you like me to tell you what I learned now, Adar?” he asked Thranduil.
Their mother looked as if she would protest, and Eilian was not surprised when their father said, “No. Eat your meal, and we will talk later.” But he did feel a stab of disappointment. Whatever Ithilden had been doing was probably exciting, and he wanted to hear about it. Ah well, he was going out with Gelmir anyway, and he knew that several pretty maidens were going to be in the woods tonight too. He could amuse himself quite nicely without knowing about what was troubling Ithilden and Thranduil, he thought.
Eilian stood at the edge of the rocks and looked down at the pool in the bend of the Forest River, a good twenty feet below. A short distance away from him, Fendîr hesitated before drawing a deep breath and then pushing off to dive into the water below. Eilian clapped his hand lightly. Fendîr would scramble up a tree quite happily, but he had never been fond of diving from the high rocks. Eilian thought he deserved credit for hiding his nervousness.
“Good!” called Thelion. “You next, Siondel.”
When the novice masters had announced after mid-day meal that the youngest novices would spend the rest of the day practicing rescuing drowning people, Eilian had scarcely been able to believe his ears. Between the treasure hunt the day before and swimming today, they would be doing something fun for two day in a row! Although Thelion was the blade master, he had somehow been designated to supervise them. From some good natured remarks directed toward Thelion by the other masters, Eilian suspected that he had won the chance to take them swimming in some sort of lottery. On a hot day like this one, even the novice masters were looking for relief.
They had practiced dragging one another from the pool for an hour or more, and then Thelion had sent them first to a low ledge and then to this higher one to practice diving. Siondel now followed Fendîr into the pool. Gîl-Garion stepped up to take his turn.
Eilian watched them idly. Diving from the upper rocks held no terrors for him. He had done it regularly since he was an elfling. It was exhilarating but not particularly challenging. His eyes were suddenly caught by a figure on the path that ran along the edge of the pool: Ithilden stood watching the novices. He did so from time to time, claiming that assessing potential warriors was part of his responsibility, but Eilian could not help but feel that his brother was scrutinizing him in particular, and he was not always sure he was living up to his brother’s exacting standards.
A sudden idea popped into his head, making his heart speed up a little. He sidled up to Gelmir. “How much will you wager that I can dive so as to splash Ithilden?” he whispered.
Gelmir looked at Ithilden standing on the path, and his eyes widened. “You would not dare!” Gelmir was a little afraid of Ithilden, not as afraid as he was of Thranduil, but afraid nonetheless.
Eilian grinned. “Do you want to wager?”
Gelmir frowned. “Eilian, the rocks are close there. I am not sure it is such a good idea to dive near them.”
Eilian looked at the rocks Gelmir was talking about and felt a pleasant tremor of apprehension. “That is what makes it fun to do.”
“Your turn, Eilian,” called Thelion, and, ignoring Gelmir’s frantic mutters, Eilian stepped to the edge of the rocks, eyeing the water near his brother. If he wanted to splash Ithilden, he needed to enter the water less than cleanly, but he would need to be very careful if he also did not want to knock himself senseless on the rocks. He drew a deep breath, bent his knees, and then launched himself into the air. For a second, he sailed effortlessly, and then he twisted his body slightly and, with a brief sting to his side and a painless scraping sensation along his left shin, he plunged into the cool, green water.
Before he even surfaced, he was certain that he had succeeded in sending water out of the pool and onto his brother’s tunic and leggings, but the first thing he did when his head broke out of the water was to turn toward Ithilden to make sure. His brother was hovering at the edge of the pool, with his clothes well splashed and fear on his face. Eilian suppressed a grin and swam to where Thelion waited for him, his face pale.
“Get out!” Thelion snapped, and Eilian grimaced. He supposed he could not expect Thelion to be happy that he had splashed the troop commander. He pulled himself out of the pool and onto the rocks near where the blade master stood. “Let me see your leg,” Thelion said, and suddenly Eilian realized that blood was seeping lightly from a scrape along his left shin that was beginning to sting a little. Thelion inspected the scrape and then stood and looked at Eilian with anger plain on his normally amiable face. By this time, Ithilden had reached them.
“What was that supposed to be?” Ithilden demanded, grasping Eilian’s arm and turning his brother to face him.
“It was just a joke, Ithilden,” Eilian protested. “Surely you do not mind getting a little wet on such a hot day.” Ithilden drew a deep breath and was seemingly unable to speak. To Eilian’s surprise, his brother’s hand trembled slightly on his arm.
“Let me do this, my lord,” Thelion said. “This is a matter for the novice masters.” Ithilden looked at him for a second and then gave a curt nod. He released Eilian’s arm and strode away without another word. Eilian watched him go, astonished at his brother’s public loss of control.
“Eilian,” Thelion said sharply, and Eilian turned back to him. “As I understand it, Lómilad reprimanded you yesterday for needlessly endangering yourself. Apparently, he made no impression. I am assigning you to cleaning weapons in the armory for the next week. If you so much as jump from a stool to the floor, I will see to it that you work there for the next month. Do you understand me?”
Eilian blinked. Thelion was the most easy-going of all the novice masters, and Eilian liked him. Thelion’s disapproval bothered him more than he liked to admit. “Yes, I understand,” he said.
Thelion nodded. “Good. You may go. I suggest you try to make peace with your brother. You frightened the life out of him.”
And suddenly, Eilian was ashamed of himself. Ithilden had looked tired and strained the previous evening. He should have been trying to ease his brother’s worries, not add to them, but it did not come naturally to him to see that Ithilden even had worries. “Yes, master,” he said and began to dry himself and pull his leggings and tunic on. He would go and apologize to Ithilden and assure him that he would behave more sensibly from now on. He left the pool, where Thelion was now waiting for Gelmir to make his dive.
“But when I got home, Ithilden was talking to Adar in his office and then he left that very afternoon with a party of warriors to ride south and see for himself what was happening near Dol Guldur,” Eilian finished. “So I never had the chance to talk to him before he left.”
Legolas had listened with interest to this tale of events that happened before he was born. The flow of blood from Eilian’s hip had slowed, he noticed with satisfaction, and his brother felt warmer, but he was tiring and Legolas feared that he would soon slide away into a sleep too deep to be good for him.
Suddenly, he heard a distant sound through the constant howl of the wind. He sharpened his attention and heard it again.
“What is the matter?” Eilian asked, having evidently felt Legolas grow tense.
Legolas hesitated but then decided that Eilian needed to know what they faced. “I hear Orcs,” he said. “I think they are coming this way. Do you hear them?”
Eilian lifted his head from Legolas’s chest and listened. The sound of rough voices came again. “I hear them,” he breathed. He listened again and then they looked at one another. “There are more than two or three,” Eilian said.
Legolas nodded and began to slide out from under his brother. “You stay as still as you can,” he said. “I do not want the bleeding to start again. I will lead them away from the caves.”
“No,” Eilian began to protest.
“Yes,” Legolas said firmly, picking up his bow. He looked at Eilian who was, he knew, helpless to stop him from doing what he intended to do anyway. “Stay awake,” he instructed. Then he bent to place Eilian’s hand on the hilt of his sword. If Legolas did not succeed in leading the Orcs away, he doubted that Eilian would be able to defend himself, but that could be all the more reason for his brother to have his sword to hand. “I will be back soon,” he said, straightening again, and ducked out of the cave entrance and into the snowy night.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
Thranduil awoke with a start and lay for a moment in his dimly lit chamber trying to determine what had pulled him so abruptly from the dream path along which he had been walking. He felt as if he had forgotten something or perhaps mislaid it. Something was absent that should have been securely tucked in his safekeeping. But what?
He rolled onto his side and gazed at the fire that burned low in the grate. It had been months since any of the inhabited parts of the palace had been without fires, for the cold of this Long Winter was penetrating even into the normally temperate caverns. The forest still yielded enough fuel to keep his people warm, but they were having to go further and further afield to find it without harming healthy, living trees. His people might yet be driven to cutting these trees down, but they would not do so without pain, and Thranduil would mourn the forest’s loss along with them.
He thought again of the late-night meeting he had had with his advisors over the dwindling food supplies. They had proposed gathering all of the food into a central storage and then rationing it so that at least all of the children would be well fed. The adults could survive for longer with less to eat, but the little ones needed nourishment to grow properly. He did not like to interfere with his people’s management of their own supplies and thought they would see to the welfare of the children on their own if they were reminded of the need to do so. But his advisors’ plan was well thought out, and he would have to tell them quickly if they could act upon it, or it might be too late to do much good. He sighed. Problems always looked worse in the night, he reminded himself. He should set this one aside to consider in the light of day.
He tried again to think of what might have awakened him, and suddenly he realized why he was disturbed. He caught his breath sharply. The bonds he had with his children told him that one of them was in trouble, and without even trying he knew which one it was. Something was the matter with Eilian. He sat up and reached for his night robe. He would not sleep again tonight.
Given his middle son’s daring habits and the nature of a warrior’s life, this was far from the first time that Thranduil had felt terror tug at his heart on Eilian’s account. Eilian had frightened him beyond reason from the time he was small. Thranduil had tried to restrain his son’s impetuousness by every means at his disposal: advice, punishment, close supervision, anything he could think of. But the only person who had ever really had an impact on Eilian’s behavior had been his mother. His desire to please her had made him curb his own impulses in a way that nothing else ever had. Lorellin had always argued that Eilian was doing his best to earn Thranduil’s approval too, but Thranduil had never been able to see it, particularly not when Eilian had been younger.
In recent years, Thranduil thought that Eilian had become more responsible in his role as a warrior and captain, but he still did not trust his son to take sufficient care of his own skin. Now he drew on his robe and went to sit in the chair nearest the fire. He took up the poker, stirred the flames, and added more wood. Then he sat back, leaned his head against the chair, and closed his eyes for a moment. How cruel love was, he thought. It tore away any armor one might don against grief, and, in the bodies and spirits of those one loved, it made one vulnerable to all the mischance that was possible in a dangerous world. He would sit vigil this night for the child he did not understand but loved anyway, in the depths of his heart beyond those in which understanding was necessary.
“The storm is passing,” Maltanaur announced. “How many Elves will you send with me to search for them?”
Sórion glanced quickly around at the warriors who were sheltering from the storm in the thick evergreen grove. When the storm had grown worse, he had ordered them to let the last of the fleeing Orcs go and take refuge here. The battle had probably gone on longer than it otherwise would have because Sórion had realized that he was in command only when Maltanaur had finally told him that he could not find Eilian anywhere.
Maltanaur had not seen Legolas either, for that matter, and Sórion counted himself lucky that Beliond had been sent back to camp before Legolas’s absence was discovered, or he would have had both keepers breathing down his neck. He was surprised that Maltanaur had waited as long as he had, but he supposed that the wily old warrior was far too experienced to go haring off in the middle of a blizzard, even if he was frantic over the loss of his charge.
And on the verge of anger, too, Sórion could see, although he thought that Maltanaur’s incipient fury was probably caused mostly by worry. But if at least one of Thranduil’s sons was not injured now, they would both be by the time Maltanaur got through with them.
“I need to send a guard of at least six warriors back to camp with the three newly wounded ones,” Sórion said. “The rest of us will form the search party.”
“I will be in command of it,” Maltanaur said flatly.
Sórion nodded. Maltanaur and Beliond usually behaved as if they were under the command of Sórion and Eilian, but everyone knew that in matters of Eilian’s and Legolas’s safety, they answered only to Thranduil. “I will send the wounded on their way, and then we await your orders.” He went to see to his warriors as quickly as he could. If one or both of Thranduil’s sons were injured, it would be best to retrieve them with all speed. The storm was abating, but the cold still bit deep, and too many Orcs had escaped in the confusion of the battle for Sórion to feel comfortable leaving two warriors on their own, even under the doubtful assumption that they were both hale.
Legolas slid along the front of the ridge outside the cave, moving as far away from the entrance as possible before running across the snow and taking shelter in the evergreens. The snow was beginning to lessen, and although enough was still falling that his light tracks would be filled in short order, he did not want leave any more sign than he had to that someone was in the cave.
Outside of the cave, he could hear the Orcs more clearly. They were a mile or so away, coming from his right and heading for the cave. The band was on the small side, but it was big enough. The sound of their tramping was muffled by the snow, but he guessed there were between ten and fifteen. His mind worked frantically, trying to think of how to draw them away from where Eilian lay helpless.
With his heart beating wildly, he ran so that his path would cross that of the Orcs as far as possible from the caves. The noise of their passage grew louder, carried toward him on the wind along with their smell. The fact that he was downwind from them meant that they would have to rely on their eyes and ears to know where he was, and that gave him an advantage, for he thought he could let himself be heard and seen or not, just as he chose. But what would draw them after him?
They should see a crippled Elf, he thought suddenly. They should think I will be easy prey, and if the storm is beginning to let up, perhaps they will want food more than they want shelter. His stomach twisted again as he thought of the bones in the central cave. I will need to be careful, he thought. If anything happens to me, Eilian is not going to survive.
He was now directly in the path that the Orcs were following, but he moved slightly across it so that they would be between him and the caves and thus would have to move away from Eilian to follow him. Then, with his heart in his throat, he waited in the shadow of an evergreen for the Orcs to approach.
As he waited, his thoughts drifted to the story his brother had been telling him of those hot summer days when he had first been a novice and the Shadow had begun to make itself felt again in Thranduil’s realm. Despite his tension, he could not help smiling slightly to himself at the wild young Elf his brother had been. He was not at all surprised by the recklessness Eilian had attributed to himself. His father had always discouraged such stories being repeated to Legolas, probably fearing that he might want to imitate the brother he loved so uncritically. But Legolas had overheard enough over the years to know that Eilian was seldom as careful as he should be of his own safety.
He had to admit, however, that he was a little shocked by the lack of concern about the return of the Shadow that Eilian had evidently displayed. How could his brother have been so untroubled by the presence of a threat that was one of the central facts of Legolas’s life? Legolas could not remember a time when he had not seen fighting the Shadow as part of his duty both as the son of the Woodland Realm’s king and as someone who was outraged by the damage the Shadow did, even apart from the personal suffering it had caused him in the form of his mother’s death. But Eilian had been raised in a time of peace, he reminded himself, and he had been young when the Shadow returned to Dol Guldur. It was really no wonder that he failed to understand just what that return really meant.
His ears told him that the Orcs were drawing near. In the snow and the dark, he had to let them get much closer than he liked before he could be sure they would see him. He forced himself to stand still when every nerve in his body cried out for him to move, to get to where there were trees he could scale, to put as much distance as he could between himself and his much more numerous enemy. As he peered through the snow at the shadowy outline of the first Orc, he suddenly realized that if he wanted them to see him, he was going to have to stay within a distance that was within reach of their bows.
For the first time, he felt a tremor of fear. With determination born of long training, he shoved it aside. He would simply have to be careful, he told himself. He drew a deep breath, nocked one of his precious few arrows, and stepped out from the trees long enough to send an arrow winging its way into the throat of an Orc who carried a bow. Then he whirled, with his cloak flying out in as eye-catching a motion as he could manage, and set off through the trees, limping as obviously as possible.
Behind him, there was a moment’s stunned silence, and then, with a roar, the Orcs came after him. An arrow flew past his left ear, and he began moving a little more quickly, weaving among the trees to make himself a more difficult target. Another arrow sailed sailed into a tree over his head, making his breath quicken, and for a moment, he was forced to leap ahead where he was reasonably certain that the still-falling snow would veil him from the less acute eyes of the Orcs. He nocked another arrow and fired it the minute he could be certain of hitting another Orc archer. Then he once again let himself be seen and hobbled away with the enemy in pursuit.
I have to lead them far enough away that they will not go back to the cave, he thought, but I cannot stay away from there for too long. He spurted forward again over the top of the drifts and then waited for the Orcs to wade through the snow and catch up so that he could use another arrow. He loosed the shaft and then slid into view and deliberately tripped, trying to make himself look vulnerable. Eilian would have enjoyed this game, he thought bleakly. I will have to tell him about it. And then he wondered, How is Eilian now? Has he moved enough to start the bleeding again? Did all the Orcs follow me? He could not know the answers to these questions, but he also could not stop asking them.
Eilian lay as still as he could, listening to fading sound of Orcs drifting to him over the moan of the wind. Be careful, brat, he silently urged. Take no chances. I see that you are a warrior. You have nothing to prove to me or anyone else.
And surprisingly enough, he meant it. As he had told the story about himself as a novice, one part of his mind had been busy noticing what Legolas had managed to do while he had been unconscious. They were sheltered and reasonably warm and his wound had been tended to. Eilian knew his little brother well enough to guess that Legolas had probably anguished over each of those things, but he had done them and then had wrapped them both in his cloak and asked for a story.
Eilian smiled to himself a little wryly. He had felt distinctly odd letting Legolas take care of him. His care for his little brother was one of the most constant forces in Eilian’s life, and he could feel its shape changing, even as he clung to it. You will never be grown up enough for me to stop protecting you as much as I can, little brother, he thought, so there is no point in even trying. He found that certainty satisfying. What was the meaning of anything if he could not keep those he loved safe?
Then his anxiety bubbled up again. He most assuredly was not protecting Legolas at the moment. Be careful, he repeated to himself. Be careful.
He shifted slightly. Although he knew that movement would worsen his bleeding, the pain in his hip made it very difficult to stay still. He had not told Legolas about the pain. His brother could do nothing to alleviate it, so there was no point in upsetting him. He squirmed in an effort to find a more comfortable position and then stopped himself as best he could.
Think about something else, he told himself, and immediately his mind went to Celuwen. He was only too prone to thinking about Celuwen even when he tried not to, and talking to Legolas about her had brought her uppermost in his mind. Naneth knew what the matter was with her and with me too, he thought wryly. His mind began to drift, and he pictured again how the young Celuwen had looked when he had followed his mother’s advice and gone to speak to her after completing the next day’s tedious work in the armory.
As Eilian approached Celuwen’s cottage, he rehearsed in his mind what he would say. He would tell her that he and Gelmir had missed her the other evening and that he hoped she would sit with them and dance with him at the solstice feast the next evening. And if she said she would not, he would ask her why. He and she had danced together at feasts from the time they could first toddle. If she refused him that, then he thought she owed him an explanation.
He emerged from the trees to find both Celuwen and her father on their cottage roof repairing the thatching. He stood for a moment looking up at her. To make it easier to move about on the roof, Celuwen had tucked the hem of her skirt into her belt on one side. As it moved in and out of the drape of her skirts, the long line of her leg was visible in glimpses halfway up her thigh. And suddenly, Eilian’s breath caught and he felt an unexpected stir of desire.
It was not as if he had never seen Celuwen’s legs before, he told himself a little desperately. Indeed, he had seen her naked. After all, they had slept in one another’s homes when they were little. Moreover, he and she and Gelmir had defied the conventions that said that males and females swam in separate pools and gone to a pond in the forest to swim together. But then there had been that day when she had hesitated while undressing and had finally dived into the water still wearing her shift. And in an unspoken accord they had never referred to, he and Gelmir had left their leggings on. That had been the last time that Celuwen had gone to the forest pool with them. It had been years ago, he realized and with the thought came the admission that they had been different then. This maiden who was now before him surely could not be the elleth with whom he had played. And yet she was, and that too, made him breathless.
Celuwen turned and caught sight of him standing below. “Hello, Eilian,” she called and, after looking to her father for permission, she climbed down the ladder, untucked her skirt, and came to speak to him. Her face was flushed from the heat, which must have been even worse on the roof, and he watched in fascination as a drop of sweat trickled down the opened neck of her gown to disappear between her breasts. He suddenly realized that she was looking at him quizzically and waiting for him to speak. He tried to swallow but found that his mouth was too dry.
“I came to ask if you will sit with Gelmir and me at the solstice feast tomorrow,” he finally managed to get out.
She looked pleased. “Of course I will. Do you have to eat with your parents?”
Eilian nodded. In the last year, his father had begun requiring him to sit at the high table and form part of the pageant of royalty while the feast was in progress. “But I will be free to do as I like once everyone is finished eating,” he told her. “I was hoping we could dance together.” Her eyes were grave now, and they looked at one another for a moment as if they had things to say that had not occurred to them before.
“Go on inside now, Celuwen,” her father’s voice interrupted them. “Your naneth needs your help with evening meal.”
“Yes, Adar,” she said without taking her eyes from Eilian’s. And then she flashed him a smile and ran into the cottage.
Eilian found himself face to face with Celuwen’s father and felt color rising to the roots of his hair. Celuwen might not have known what he had been thinking, but her father certainly did. “Goodbye, Eilian,” her father finally said, and taking the hint, Eilian turned and fled.
Eilian shifted impatiently. His father was talking to one of his advisors who had brought a report and was now bending over the king listening to instructions. Indeed, this advisor was the third one who had interrupted the feast so far, and the royal family had been late arriving at the feast because Thranduil had been shut up with his council until the very last minute and beyond. Eilian assumed that they were still conferring about whatever was happening near Dol Guldur, but the only thing he knew for certain was that his father appeared worried and was assuredly short tempered.
His mother smiled at him from his father’s other side. She could read him quite well and knew he was eager to be released so that he could join his friends. The advisor bowed and withdrew, and Thranduil turned back to the feast.
“The musicians are ready and waiting for your signal to begin, my lord,” Lorellin told him. Brought back to something that was important to his wife, Thranduil gestured for his minstrels to begin the music that was a significant part of his people’s celebration of their oneness with Arda.
Eilian leaned toward his father. “Adar, may I be excused?”
“Not yet,” Thranduil answered. His tone was peaceable enough, but there was also a note of warning in it, and Eilian bit his lip. His father wanted to talk to him about something and was waiting for the right moment to do it.
Hand in hand, two elflings came running up to the high table. “My lady! My lady!” one of them cried. “Come and dance with us!”
Eilian could not suppress a grin, and a glance at his father told him that Thranduil was smiling broadly as Lorellin rose and ran lightly around the table to clasp hand with the elflings and dance away into the crowd of Elves now moving onto the green. Thranduil had often enough told the story of how his first glimpse of her had been at a feast where she was dancing with an elfling. Children frequently sought her out at feasts even now that she was queen.
They watched her dance for a moment in companionable silence. Then Thranduil said, “I understand that you have behaved recklessly at training.” He turned his sharp grey eyes on Eilian, who could feel color rising into his face.
“Did Ithilden tell you that?” he asked resentfully.
“No. He should have but he did not. However, you should not be surprised by now to learn that many people run to tell me of events great and small, particularly when they know those events will be as important to me as your well-being is.” Thranduil’s face softened a little. “You are precious to your naneth and me, iôn-nín, more precious than you evidently are to yourself. Do you want to make your naneth unhappy?”
Eilian grimaced. Thranduil certainly knew where to turn the knife. “No,” he responded. And in truth, his father’s expression of affection moved him far more than a scolding would have done.
“Then do not do things that would frighten her if she knew about them.” Thranduil’s tone was firm now, and all Eilian could do was nod. “You may go,” his father told him and Eilian rose, bowed, and started off toward Gelmir and Celuwen, whom he had spotted sitting together at the other end of the green.
He had gotten about halfway to his friends when he realized that he had forgotten the delicately colored stone he had found in the garden that day. Celuwen liked such stones and arranged them in different patterns in her family’s cottage and out of doors too. He turned back to retrieve it from where he had left it next to his plate at the high table, but the dancers were so thick now that he was forced to go around the edge of the green and approach the high table from behind.
His mother had returned from her dance with the elflings and now leaned against his father, laughing and telling him of things they had said that amused her. Neither one of them noticed Eilian’s approach. His mother turned her joyous face toward his father, and Eilian’s heart leapt at the sight of her. He would be more careful in the future, he resolved. He did not want to make his mother unhappy.
“We should have another baby, Thranduil,” Lorellin said in a low voice.
Thranduil gave a short laugh. “So you have said before. And I have said before, do you not think we have enough problems raising the child we have?” He sobered. “Besides, the times are bad and I am afraid they are about to get worse. I am not sure we should be bringing another child into the world just now. Eilian is likely to have to use every single warrior skill he is learning, and having even two sons doing battle with the enemy is more than I can bear to think about.”
Eilian stood hesitantly behind them and finally decided that he would give the stone to Celuwen another time. He withdrew as silently as he had come and walked pensively toward his friends.
Eilian’s mind was wandering slowly along the corridors of memory and dreams. On some level, he was aware that the fire was dying and the cave was growing colder. The wound in his hip was throbbing, and although he knew he was to keep still, he could not help moving.
Someone was whistling a signal that meant he was to come out, but Legolas had said to keep still. He and Legolas were hiding. The other elflings were searching for them. For a second only, he wondered at the fact that Legolas was with him, playing this game, but then he was swept up in the joy of fooling his friends. Someone called his name and Legolas’s too, but he kept still, just as Legolas had told him to do.
The voices faded away, and he drifted for a while in silence. He was growing quite drowsy and he thought he might just take a little nap. His last thought before he fell into deep sleep was that Maltanaur was going to be amusingly angry when he realized how well Eilian had fooled him.
AN: If you want to read about Thranduil’s first meeting with Lorellin (when she dances with elflings), that event is told in Nilmandra’s story “First Celebrations” which is here at Stories of Arda.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
6. Thin Ice
Legolas limped into a dense stand of small trees and then, when he thought he was screened from the pursuing Orcs, began to run so as to draw far enough ahead that he would be hidden from the enemy’s sight in the still falling snow. He needed a minute’s respite to think about what to do now. He had to get away from the Orcs and get back to Eilian, for he had been gone far too long and was worried about his brother. But he also had to make sure that the Orcs did not double back to seek shelter in the caves. He had led them a good distance away from the caves, but he could not take a chance on their coming upon him and Eilian again. They needed to pass the rest of the night undisturbed if Eilian was to be ready to be moved in the morning.
To his alarm, the trees suddenly seemed to disappear in front of him. He came to an abrupt halt as he emerged from their cover to find himself at the edge of a large, snow-covered pond. He could change directions and run along the edge of the pond, or he could cross it. Oak trees held out their arms enticingly to him from the other shore, and almost intuitively, he responded to their invitation and began to run across the ice. If he could get to shelter on the other side, the Orcs would be very visible on the icy pond, and he could probably pick off a few more of them, he thought. Moreover, if things went wrong, he knew he could move through the oaks far more quickly than the Orcs could move on the ground, even given the snow covering the oaks’ branches.
On the other hand, he would be visible on the pond himself if the Orcs came upon him before he got across. He sped up a little at that thought and had gone just beyond the center of the pond when a tremor underfoot and a faint creaking noise made him aware of a more immediate danger. Hastily, he scanned the ice that was visible under the snow cover and there he saw something that made him flinch: the edge of a darker patch of ice.
Given the long cold of this winter, he had not stopped to think that the pond might not be solidly frozen, but the darker ice told him that this pond was spring fed, and where the spring bubbled up, the ice was thin despite the bitter weather.
The noise of the Orcs rose behind him, and he began to edge sideways, away from the thin patch, so that he could continue his crossing, but suddenly, an idea struck him. He hesitated for just a second and then, with his heart in his mouth, violated everything he had ever been taught about safely crossing ice and ran straight across the pond. As he ran, he had a momentary picture of the woodcraft master who had trained him as a novice; Sondil would have been chewing pine cones if he could see Legolas now. The surface flexed beneath him and frigid water seeped into his right shoe, but he reached the far edge just as the first Orcs emerged from the woods on the other side. Arrows sailed toward him, but failed to reach him as he limped showily up the bank and into the edge of the woods.
There he paused and bent to grasp his right leg as if an injury were growing more painful and crippling by the moment. With a howl, the Orcs who still pursued him stormed out onto the pond. Legolas took a quick moment to count them; there were nine left. He dodged behind a tree, nocked his second-to-the-last arrow, and emerged to send one of the Orcs crashing to the ice with an arrow protruding from his eye. He ducked behind the tree again and watched, holding his breath, as the Orcs reached the center of the pond and then kept coming. Ice was unpredictable, but surely it could not flex under him and then hold under the heavier Orcs, he thought desperately.
A loud crack reached him just as one of the Orcs let out a hoarse cry and then slid from sight for a moment before bobbing up again. He thrashed at the ice around him, trying to get a hold, but his heavy gear was pulling him down and his efforts to save himself were only smashing more of the ice. Three more Orcs slid toward the growing hole and splashed into the water. Legolas stepped out from behind the tree and loosed his last arrow at the Orc who was closest to him and stood looking back over his shoulder at his floundering companions. The Orcs who were just behind this nearest one jumped back when the arrow struck him, and the ice again cracked ominously before it gave way to create a large hole into which they were all now dumped.
Without waiting to see if they would manage to extricate themselves from the pond, Legolas hoisted himself into the nearest oak and began to fly through the tree limbs on a route that would take him around the pond and back toward his brother. Any Orcs who escaped from the water would be forced to stop and try to build a fire where they were so they could dry themselves. If they did not, they would die of exposure long before they could travel far enough to reach the caves.
And now all of his anxious attention was focused on what he might find in the cave. In his mind’s eye, he saw Eilian’s pale face and then the blood seeping steadily from the wound on his hip. He pressed himself to move faster. Eilian needed him and he could not afford to be overly cautious.
The trip back to the cave seemed endless, although when he made himself be rational, he knew that he was moving quickly, even when the deciduous trees disappeared and he had to take to the ground. His brother, who in one of Legolas’s earliest memories was kissing away some childish hurt, lay wounded and helpless. With a final burst of speed, Legolas ran across the snow and ducked through the cave entrance.
Eilian lay on his uninjured side, curled into a tight ball. His eyes had fallen shut again and, with Legolas’s first frantic glance, he could see that blood had trickled down from Eilian’s wound and formed a small pool beneath him. I was gone too long, he thought in despair and rushed to his brother’s side. One touch told him that his brother was too cold for safety.
The fire had died down to a few glowing embers, and the wood he had brought from the stock in the central cave was gone. He would have to go into that cave again and get more, he thought grimly. Without hesitation, he slid through the opening into the other cave, and without looking to either side, he hurried to the small, remaining stack of wood and gathered as much of it as he could carry. He returned to the first cave, put a few more sticks on the fire and then coaxed it back to life.
Then he turned to inspect Eilian’s wound. He eased the quiver strap loose and lifted the blood-soaked pad of bandaging. The bleeding was not as rapid as it had been when Eilian was first hurt, he was relieved to see. The haru must have slowed it, but now he had no more of the herb. He hesitated and glanced at the fire. He could probably slow the bleeding further with snow, but he would have to be careful not to chill Eilian to a dangerous level. He stood, threw another piece of wood on the flames, and then walked to the cave entrance and grabbed a handful of the snow that had drifted in front of it.
He returned to his brother, crouched next to him, and without giving himself time to think, slapped the icy handful on Eilian’s hip. His brother’s response was gratifyingly immediate. Eilian groaned in protest, and his hands moved feebly to try to push Legolas away. “Hold still,” Legolas commanded, trying his best to sound like Thranduil at his most authoritative.
Eilian obeyed almost instantaneously and then, his eyes fluttered open, searched his surroundings for a moment, and came to rest hazily on Legolas. For a moment, he looked blank, and then he looked relieved and smiled slightly. “You hid too,” he said approvingly. “Good. I was afraid they would find us and win the game.” His voice was almost too weak for Legolas to hear, and his eyes now wandered away again.
Legolas looked at him in alarm. Eilian was clearly not in enough command of himself to control his body’s response to cold or the Orc poison. Somehow, Legolas needed to rouse him. The snow in his hand had melted, so he went to the cave entrance, got another, and crouched to press it firmly against Eilian’s wound.
“Valar!” Eilian cried, in a voice that was, for a moment, gratifyingly strong. “What are you doing?”
Legolas used his free arm to keep Eilian from pulling away. “I am attempting to stop your bleeding.” He thought about what Eilian had said. “Did more Orcs come while I was away, Eilian?” he asked. If more Orcs were near, Legolas did not know what he would do. He had no more arrows, and he did not think he would dare to leave Eilian again.
Eilian ceased struggling and seemed to be trying to concentrate on answering Legolas’s question. “No Orcs,” he finally mumbled and then lay quietly for a moment.
“Do not go to sleep again,” Legolas ordered sharply. He got another handful of snow and was happy rather than sorry to see that its cold bite roused his brother at least enough to push at Legolas’s hands again. He tightened the grip of his free arm and held Eilian firm. At last, he was satisfied that the bleeding had eased enough that he could put the rinsed out bandaging on the wound and reapply the quiver strap.
Still crouching, he turned to find Eilian watching him with a half smile on his face. “Do you know that because of me you are twenty years younger than you would have been if Naneth had had her way?” he asked a little dreamily.
Legolas blinked. He did not know what he had expected Eilian to say, but that was certainly not it. He moved to lean against the cave wall and gather Eilian into his arms again. “What do you mean?” If he could keep Eilian talking, he might be able to help him rouse himself enough to stay awake and perhaps even gain some control over what was happening to his body.
“Naneth wanted another baby long before she and Adar conceived you, but Adar said that I was causing them quite enough problems already,” Eilian answered, resting his head against Legolas’s chest. “She longed for you for years before you turned up, red-faced and squawling, in the palace nursery.”
For a moment, as he stroked Eilian’s dark hair, Legolas considered this picture of his mother, looking eagerly forward to his birth. He felt a spurt of wistful warmth, sorry for what he had lost even as he took joy in knowing that his mother had wanted him so deeply.
Then he turned his attention to his brother. Eilian’s tone was light, but Legolas could hear the hurt underneath. Eilian was usually full of rueful acceptance of the difficult child he had been, and Legolas suspected that his wound must have made him vulnerable to troubled dreams. That and the Shadow, he reminded himself. Eilian had fallen victim before to the despair it caused.
“Tell me more,” Legolas prompted gently and was pleased to see Eilian drawing himself together to concentrate on his story.
“I can see now that Adar had every right to say I was causing problems,” Eilian said slowly. “I told you that Ithilden had led a party of warriors toward Dol Guldur to see for himself what was happening. That and things I heard Adar say should have told me that trouble was upon us, but I was so wrapped up in my own desires and grievances that I could not think of anyone or anything else, even at the solstice feast.”
Eilian walked slowly toward Gelmir and Celuwen, thinking about the conversation he had just overheard between his parents, and as he thought, his hurt bloomed into resentment. He knew he sometimes had trouble living within the boundaries his parents and masters set for him, but he did not think he should be called a ‘problem.’ He had accepted the fact that his father sometimes found him difficult to deal with, but surely his mother could have come to his defense. He had thought that she understood how hard he found it to face the same dull round day after day.
“What is the matter?” Celuwen asked as Eilian flung himself down next to them.
“Nothing,” Eilian grunted and reached for one of the three cups that she and Gelmir had arranged on a blanket between them, along with some berries, some bread and cheese, and skins of wine and water. He poured some wine into the cup and took a long swallow. Like everyone Eilian knew, he had drunk wine from childhood, but it had been only in the last year that his parents had allowed him to drink it unmixed with water. His father probably would not like him drinking it unmixed at the feast like this even now, he thought with defiant satisfaction. He turned to find both Celuwen and Gelmir watching him.
“It does not look like nothing,” Gelmir observed.
Eilian grimaced. “It is not worth talking about. Come and dance with me, Celuwen.” He put down his cup and pulled her to her feet, and the two of them joined the other Elves who were whirling gaily around the green. The music would raise his spirits, he thought, and joined in the dancing with a will. He grasped Celuwen’s waist and picked her up to swing her around, and she turned her face to his and laughed. He grinned back at her, and they joined hands, and for a while they moved in harmony to the music, as they had done since they were tiny.
When the music stopped, they made their way slowly back to Gelmir, whom they could see standing near their blanket and talking to Gîl-garion and Fendîr. Eilian dawdled a little. He did not want to join the others just yet. “You look very nice in that green dress,” he said, feeling suddenly shy.
She looked surprised. “Thank you.” She smiled at him and then, with her face slightly flushed, she turned abruptly to face forward. In silence, they walked back to where the others were talking and laughing in a way that suddenly seemed to Eilian to be too loud. They sat down quietly, and he poured more wine for them. She added water to hers.
Eilian drank his wine and let the talk of his friends sweep over him as he looked across the green to where his father and mother sat, she still leaning against him. The elation that had come from dancing with Celuwen abruptly faded away. What did his father mean that they had ‘enough problems’? He was doing well at the warrior training, if one did not count the times he got into trouble. He had thought that Thranduil was pleased by his prowess with weapons, was perhaps even proud of him.
Suddenly his eye was caught by the sight of Ithilden approaching the high table. When had he reached home? Eilian wondered, his attention quickening. And more exciting to think about, what had he found? To Eilian, Ithilden often seemed as unimaginative as their father did, but he had occasionally seen his brother working with a sword or a bow on the practice fields, and he had never failed to be fascinated by his skill. Eilian only hoped that he would one day be as good. Moreover, he had to admit that he was secretly impressed by the way Ithilden could make experienced warriors do his bidding with a flick of his fingers. If anything was happening around Dol Guldur, Ithilden would have found it out and whatever was lurking there would have been sorry that he did.
His parents both straightened at his brother’s approach. Lorellin reached to pull his head down and kiss his cheek, and Thranduil rose to clasp arms with him. Eilian was struck by how relieved both of his parents looked, and when he thought about it, he supposed that the mission Ithilden had been on was a dangerous one. Now Ithilden was speaking soberly to Thranduil, and Eilian could see his father’s mouth press into a thin, hard line. Thranduil patted Lorellin’s shoulder and followed his son away from the green, while Lorellin inclined her head graciously to listen to an Elf who had just approached the high table. Her face looked strained, Eilian thought fleetingly.
He felt a momentary impulse to go to his mother and ask what the matter was, but he hesitated. His parents and brother tended to exclude him from conversations about troubles, so his mother would probably not tell him what was going on anyway. He had always assumed that they were trying to shelter him because he was young, but now he suddenly wondered if they thought he was a ‘problem’ and would add to their troubles rather than ease them. He drained his cup and poured himself more wine.
“Eilian, will you not tell me what the matter is?” Celuwen’s voice startled him out of his reverie. She was looking at him with concern.
“Nothing is the matter,” he lied. He did not want to tell her what he had overheard. He took another swallow of wine.
She regarded him in silence for a moment. Then she hesitantly asked, “Do you think you should have any more wine?”
He bristled at the implied criticism. “Yes, I think I should,” he said defiantly and took a deep drink. Celuwen probably believed he was a problem too, he thought.
“Hello, Eilian,” said a soft voice, and he looked up to see Thriwien, one of the two maidens whom he and Gelmir and Celuwen had met on the day he had jumped the river. She smiled sweetly at him. “I was hoping you would dance with me,” she said demurely.
Eilian felt a rush of gratification at her obvious admiration. “I was hoping you would dance with me too,” he said and rose to offer her his arm with a flourish. As he led Thriwien onto the green, he caught a quick glimpse of Celuwen rising and walking away from their blanket. His heart contracted, but he resolutely ignored it and put his arm around Thriwien, who was looking up at him from under lowered lashes.
“I looked for you on the archery field yesterday, but I did not see you,” she said. “None of the other novices is as good with a bow as you are.”
He had spent the day in the armory, but he did not intend to tell Thriwien that. “We have other kinds of training too,” he told her and swept her out among the dancers.
For some reason, the minstrels played for a much longer time than they had when he had danced with Celuwen, and he found that he was relieved when the music finally ended. Thriwien danced well, but she was not as graceful as Celuwen, and she did not know how to carry on a conversation, he thought disapprovingly. It was with relief that he finally left her with her parents and returned to Gelmir, Fendîr, and Gîl-garion. He picked up his wine, and, seeking distraction, he went to join his friends, whose voices had risen a little.
“Gelmir, you could never make the ride that quickly at night,” Fendîr said.
Gelmir appeared to hesitate. “Perhaps not,” he admitted reluctantly.
“What are you talking about?” Eilian asked.
“Gelmir says he could ride at night from the stables to the meadow and back while I counted to two hundred,” Fendîr told him.
“I just admitted I could not do that,” Gelmir said defensively. “But my horse is still faster than yours, and he does well in the dark too.”
“I could do it,” Eilian said. They looked doubtfully at him. “I could,” he protested, and suddenly his excitement rose as a daring idea struck him. “On my adar’s stallion, I could.” He could not resist laughing as all three of their mouths dropped open. He took another swallow of wine.
“Are you allowed to ride that horse?” asked Gelmir.
Eilian grinned. Gelmir knew perfectly well that he was not. The question was Gelmir’s way of trying to caution him. “Of course! Let us try it out right now,” he went on enthusiastically. “And we should wager too. I would even let you lower the number to be counted off. My adar’s stallion is the fastest horse in the realm.”
A long, elegant hand reached over his shoulder to take his wine cup, and he abruptly realized that his friends’ eyes were fixed in alarm on someone behind him. “It is time for you to leave now, Eilian,” Thranduil’s voice said. “Say good night to your friends.” His father’s hand settled on his shoulder.
He turned to look up into Thranduil’s face. Eilian could read the irritation in the grey eyes with no trouble at all, but something else in his father’s face made him blink. Thranduil was deeply upset. Surely, Eilian had done nothing to cause this level of distress. With very little choice, he did as he was told and allowed himself to be steered to a point a short way off the green. There Thranduil came to a halt and released him.
“I have to return to the feast for a while,” Thranduil said, “but you have plainly had too much wine already. Go to your chamber, and I will speak to you about this when I have time. You should know better, Eilian!” Without waiting for Eilian’s response, the king turned on his heel and walked back toward the green.
For a moment, Eilian stood staring after him. Even his father’s voice had sounded different. It was tight, as if Thranduil were trying to control words or even a cry that was threatening to escape his lips. He abruptly wondered if his father might be worried about something besides him. He turned and started slowly toward the palace.
His eye was suddenly caught by two people hurrying down a path to his left that led to a group of cottages. He recognized Ithilden instantly, but it took him a moment more to realize that the person with him was Siondel. Eilian blinked. Ithilden’s arm was protectively around Siondel’s shoulders, and from where Eilian stood, it looked as if Siondel was weeping. Whatever could have happened? Eilian had seen Siondel on the green earlier, and he had seemed fine then.
Eilian hesitated. He really should go directly to his chamber. If Thranduil came to speak with him and did not find him there, Eilian would be in serious trouble. But the normally placid Siondel looked so upset that Eilian was worried for him. Besides, he wanted to know what Ithilden’s involvement in all this was. His brother had just returned from an exciting mission. Somehow it seemed as if whatever was happening now was probably connected to that, but Eilian could not think how.
I will just take a quick look, he thought, and then I will go to my chamber. Adar will not be able to leave the feast until it is over, and that will not be for a while yet. He veered from the straight path to the palace and started after his brother.
As he darted onto the path among the trees, he found himself facing a warrior who was evidently crossing the path and heading into the woods. The warrior smiled at him, but Eilian thought he also looked a little dismayed. This was the second time Eilian had unexpectedly come across this warrior in the woods in the last two weeks. He had never seen him at the training fields though, and the warrior did not seem to be part of the Home Guard, so what he was doing was a puzzle that Eilian had not yet explored.
“Mae govannen, Maltanaur,” Eilian said and walked on without waiting for a response.
Eilian’s voice trailed off while Legolas was smiling to himself at this description of his brother’s first encounters with his keeper. Thranduil must have been seriously worried about Eilian to have set a bodyguard on him even before he became a warrior. Legolas supposed it was no coincidence that Eilian had first noticed Maltanaur as he wandered in the formerly peaceful forest while Thranduil was concerned over the possible return of the Shadow. Legolas looked down to see that Eilian’s brows were drawn together into a frown.
“Legolas,” Eilian asked uncertainly, “was I hiding from Maltanaur in a dream?”
“What do you mean?” Legolas did not understand the question.
“I thought we were playing a game,” Eilian said a little vaguely. “So when he called, I did not answer. I thought you were hiding too. Did I dream that?”
A horrible possibility suddenly occurred to Legolas. “Was Maltanaur outside the cave here, Eilian?” he asked and winced to hear the sharpness in his voice.
Eilian twisted his neck to look up at a Legolas. “I do not know,” he said, sounding miserable.
Legolas nearly moaned with despair. He had known that Elves would come after them as soon as the storm eased, so they probably were already out. But if the search party had already looked for them near the battle site by the caves, then they might not come back this way again. He suddenly realized how heavily he had been counting on other Elves finding them so that Eilian could be moved in a litter and thus not have his wound jostled too much. The other Elves would also have had more herbs to ease his brother’s bleeding. But now, Eilian’s fate seemed still to depend on Legolas alone, and that thought filled him with terror. Get hold of yourself, he thought sternly. Eilian needs you.
He looked at his brother’s anxious face. “We will wait until daylight and then start back to camp,” he said, as calmly as he could. “We have no more arrows, so we dare not move until then. In the meantime, we will try to get your bleeding under control.”
Eilian looked directly into his eyes and smiled faintly. “Whatever you say, brat,” he said trustingly, and then leaned back against Legolas’s chest again with Legolas’s arm tight around him.
I borrow characters and situations from Tolkien but they are his. I draw no profit other than the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
7. A Brother’s Keeper
Maltanaur controlled his impatience as he watched the scout circle carefully back around the sheltered spot under the trees, looking the ground over once again. The scout finally looked at Maltanaur with his face puckered in a frown. “One Elf came this way, followed by a dozen or so Orcs. The Elf was limping.” He pointed to the uneven depth of the marks in the snow.
“Only one?” Maltanaur asked sharply. His breath quickened. He could not imagine what would separate the sons of Thranduil from one another unless true disaster had befallen them.
The scout nodded unhappily.
“Which one?” Maltanaur demanded.
The scout looked at the ground again. “Legolas, I think. The stride is slightly shorter than Eilian’s usually is. Of course, if Eilian were injured, his stride might alter too.”
Despair swept over Maltanaur. He was fond of Legolas and wished no evil upon him, but he had had charge of Eilian’s safety for many years now, and somehow, the mercurial young warrior had wormed his way into Maltanaur’s heart. Maltanaur and his wife had conceived a daughter, but in Eilian, he had found someone he cared for like a son.
“How old are the tracks?” he asked.
The scout shrugged. “In the snow, it is difficult to tell, but probably no more than three hours.”
Maltanaur nearly groaned. Three hours ago, the search party had been following another group of Orcs that they had found near the caves where the earlier battle had taken place. They had disposed of them, and when they saw no sign of their lost ones, they had started another sweep back through the area. These tracks of a single, limping Elf were the first indication they had had of where Legolas and Eilian might be. They were lucky to have found these, sheltered as they were by trees from the blowing snow.
“Follow them,” he ordered grimly. Much could have happened in three hours, and given that Legolas was alone and injured, Maltanaur had no illusions about his chances against a band of Orcs. But the searchers needed to know what had occurred, no matter how horrifying it turned out to be.
The scout nodded and sprang rapidly forward again, running lightly over the snow with his eyes scanning from side to side. The rest of the search party kept behind him, so as not to disturb the trail, but they too watched for tracks. The Orcs were easy to follow, but they did not want to miss any sign that Legolas had lost his pursuers and gone in a different direction.
Maltanaur could see the scout coming to a sudden halt at the edge of a clear area that was visible through the trees ahead. He moved rapidly up next to him and found himself at the brink of a pond. What he saw there drove all the breath out of him. The ice on the pond was broken, and water with a thin skin of ice covered the pond’s center. And on each side of the broken area lay the body of an Orc with an Elven arrow sticking out of it.
Maltanaur motioned his companions to wait and then edged carefully out onto the icy surface. He inspected the fletching on the arrow in the nearest dead Orc, easily identifying the shaft as one of Sórion’s. It was gleaned, of course, he thought. He looked worriedly toward the broken ice. Who had gone through that hole into the frigid water? he wondered unhappily.
“Maltanaur!” called the scout, and he turned his head to see what the Elf wanted. “The snow is disturbed in the trees on the other side of the pond,” the scout told him, indicating the oaks that lined the other shore. With his heart leaping, Maltanaur spun to look where the scout was pointing. And when he looked, he saw what the scout meant: Snow had been knocked from the branches of a series of oak trees that stretched along the shore, moving back in the direction they had just come. Someone had moved through those trees, leaping from branch to branch.
Maltanaur’s eyes narrowed at the thought of an Elf who was wounded enough to limp being well enough to make the long jumps whose marks he could see. And suddenly, he snorted. Clever elfling, he thought in approval, scrambling back to the near shore and beginning to run along it with his eyes on the trees across from him. Let us see where you lead us. You leave a trail that speaks of being in a hurry and you are doubling back. Where are you going in such a hurry, I wonder?
But the real question was one that Maltanaur scarcely dared to ask, and that was if, by some wild chance, Legolas might be hurrying not because he was going somewhere but because he was going to someone.
Legolas stood just outside the entrance to the cave and scanned the pale morning light. It was time, he thought. They could wait no longer. He would have to give up all thought of rescuers and get Eilian back to camp himself. His brother was growing weaker by the hour, and Legolas needed to act now to get him to camp, where there would be medicine and food and safety. He drew a deep breath and ducked back inside the cave.
Eilian lay with his face turned toward the entrance, waiting for Legolas to tell him what they would do now. His docility frightened Legolas almost more than his wound did.
“We will go now, Eilian,” Legolas said and picked up their waterskins from near the fire. He strapped them both underneath his own tunic, unwilling to sacrifice any of Eilian’s body heat to keeping their contents liquid. He checked to be sure that the quiver strap was tight over Eilian’s wound. Then he removed his cloak, wrapped it over the top of Eilian’s, and rose with his brother in his arms.
They emerged from the cave to a snow-covered world. In the clearing around the caves, the wind had created deep drifts, and Legolas found that, weighed down by Eilian, it was harder to move easily over their top. He felt as if he were wading in loose sand that tugged at his feet with each step he took. Moreover, the frigid wind that swept over him slid icy fingers under his tunic. He clutched Eilian more tightly and made for the shelter of the trees, where the snow would be less deep and there would be some protection from the wind. It was five leagues to camp. He would need to keep his footing sound and his wits about him if he was to get Eilian safely back there.
As the trees rose protectively around them, he relaxed a little. He could hear their concerned murmur and was grateful for their company. “It is good to back among the trees again, is it not?” he said, and only when Eilian did not answer him did he realize that his brother’s eyes were once again drifting shut. “Wake up!” he ordered sharply and Eilian’s head snapped up.
Eilian frowned. “There is no need to shout,” he said with dignity. “I am right here.” He dropped his head against Legolas’s shoulder.
Legolas nearly laughed. “Talk to me,” he urged. “Tell me about what happened when you followed Ithilden and Siondel. Where were they going? What did you find?”
For a moment, Legolas thought that Eilian was not going to answer him. Then, slowly, his brother seemed to rouse. He pulled his brows together in concentration. “They were going to Siondel’s family’s cottage,” he finally said. He sighed. “I should have realized what had happened. I knew which warriors had gone south with Ithilden. But how could I even suspect what I would find?”
Eilian trotted along the dark path in the direction that Ithilden and Siondel had taken. He emerged in a small clearing in which three cottages stood. Two of the cottages were dark, their inhabitants undoubtedly at the solstice feast, but light spilled from the open door the third cottage, the one in which Siondel’s family lived. Aware that he was uninvited, Eilian approached the doorway with care and peeked inside.
No one was in the small hallway that ran from the front to the back of the house, but Eilian could hear voices coming from the sitting room whose entrance lay just inside the front doorway. To his concern, he could also hear weeping, not only Siondel’s but also that of his mother. Then, startling him, he heard Ithilden’s voice, laced with despair. “I am so sorry,” he said.
Eilian’s breath caught. What could have upset his normally unflappable brother? Eilian felt as if the solid ground underneath him had suddenly shifted. It frightened him to hear Ithilden sounding so hopeless, for Eilian had always thought of Ithilden as strong in the same way that their father was strong. He did not always like it when their strength was exercised in curbing his own actions, but he had never doubted that both of them could solve whatever problem he or anyone else ran into. With his heart in his throat, Eilian edged into the hallway and looked through the doorway into the sitting room.
For a moment he could not make sense of what he saw. Siondel and his mother stood weeping and clinging to one another, while Ithilden hovered near them both, his face a study in misery. And in the center of the room, on a table that was probably the one upon which the family usually ate, lay Siondel’s father, wrapped in his cloak with his ornate knife laid upon his breast. His eyes were closed and his face was a waxy white.
Eilian stared at him in fascination, and suddenly it dawned on him that Siondel’s father was dead. He drew a deep, trembling breath and took a step into the room. He had never seen a dead Elf before. He knew that in the past Elves had died. His own grandfather had died in battle at Dagorlad. And he knew that when Ithilden had been young, Elves had battled Orcs and giant spiders right here in the Woodland Realm and not all of the Elves had survived the fight. But Eilian had never even known anyone who died. Black spots began to dance at the edge of his vision.
Suddenly, Ithilden caught sight of him standing in the doorway, and his face filled with dismay. “Get out of here, Eilian,” he said sharply. He took two steps to cross the room and shoved Eilian roughly out of the sitting room and then out of the cottage.
They stood for a moment on the cottage doorstep with Ithilden’s hands on Eilian’s shoulders and Eilian breathing hard and trying not to disgrace himself by fainting. Ithilden’s face softened a little. “Go home, Eilian,” he said. “Siondel may need you tomorrow, but for now, this is not a place you should be.”
An Elven couple came hurrying up from the direction of the green, sorrow written large on both their faces. Eilian recognized them as the neighbors who dwelled next door, and he moved out of the way so that they could go inside to Siondel and his mother. Ithilden patted Eilian’s shoulder, more gently this time. “Go home,” he said again and went back into the cottage, closing the door behind him.
Eilian stood in the dark for a moment, trying to comprehend the way his world had just changed but finding it beyond him. Abruptly, he whirled and began to run, through the trees, along the path, across the bridge, and up the steps to the palace. He sped past the startled looking guards and down the hallway where the royal family lived, not stopping until he was in his own chamber. But whatever he had been fleeing had followed him home. He flung himself onto the bed with his heart pounding so hard that it felt as if it would come out of his chest. He closed his eyes to try to calm himself but saw again the white face of Siondel’s dead father and opened them in a panic.
“Eilian, what is the matter?” His mother’s alarmed voice brought him suddenly to his senses. He turned his head to see her standing in the doorway and tried to get up but she was across the room and sitting on the edge of his bed with her arms around him before he could rise. “What is it, my sweet? What is the matter?”
He gulped, swallowing the sobs that threatened to escape and reduce him to childhood. “I am all right. I am sorry I frightened you, Naneth.” He drew a deep, steadying breath. He would not increase his mother’s alarm if he could help it. “Do you know about Siondel’s adar?” he asked hesitantly.
Her face suddenly creased with sorrow, and she drew him closer in her embrace. “Yes, I do.” She stroked his hair. “It is as your adar and Ithilden have feared,” she told him. “The Shadow has returned to Dol Guldur. Orcs are beginning to multiply again and the forest is twisting.”
He leaned his head against her shoulder and was somehow calmed rather than frightened by the horrors of which she spoke. At least Orcs were an enemy one could fight. He was growing more skillful with a sword and a bow by the day, and he could suddenly imagine the use to which he would put those skills. The thought made him feel less helpless. They sat for a time in silence. Eilian drew comfort from his mother’s warm presence and hoped she took the same solace from him. Finally, he sat up.
“Naneth, am I a problem to you and Adar?” he asked. “Because if I am,” he went on hastily when she looked startled, “I can change. I can do better. I know I can.”
Understanding was creeping into her face. “Eilian, did you overhear your adar and me talking at the feast?”
He nodded. “I did not mean to,” he hastened to say. He did not want her to think he had been eavesdropping.
“Foolish child,” she chided him gently, “why do you think I want another baby if not for the fond memories I have of you and of Ithilden too? And even now, you are not a problem for me, Eilian. You are a joy to me with your excited grasping after life. You often lack judgment, it is true. But you are young yet, and you are one of those who will not come into his own until you can take your excitement from life’s real problems and challenges so you do not have to make them up.” She patted his cheek and smiled. “I understand, my sweet.”
“Is something the matter?” Thranduil’s concerned voice suddenly asked. Eilian looked up to see his father standing in the doorway and struggled to his feet.
“Eilian knows about Siondel’s adar,” Lorellin told Thranduil. His father grimaced and looked at Eilian.
“Death is not easy to accept,” he said soberly, “but I am afraid this is not the last death you are likely to see, iôn-nín.” He crossed to where Eilian stood, put his hands on Eilian’s shoulders, and pulled him close to kiss his brow. “I will keep you safe as long as I can, but the day is coming when you will have to go forth to protect the safety of others as one of the Woodland Realm’s warriors.” He held Eilian at arm’s length and studied his face. “When you do, you will need to be responsible and mature. I will have to trust you not to engage in the kind of nonsense I saw and heard this evening, Eilian. I will expect better of you.”
Eilian nodded. At the moment, he could not understand why he had drunk so much, and had he actually meant to race his father’s stallion? And Celuwen, he suddenly thought. I will have to apologize to Celuwen. “What will happen now?” he asked.
Thranduil sighed. “Tomorrow, Ithilden and I will begin making plans for the realm’s defense. And you,” he added with a wry smile, “will go back to training where you will obey the masters and cease risking harm to yourself from your own foolishness.”
Suddenly, such a normal course of action seemed like part of a noble mission. “I will,” Eilian resolved. “Or at least,” he amended honestly, “I will try.”
A half smile crossed Thranduil’s face. “See that you do.” He turned to Lorellin. “We should go now. I told Ithilden we would visit the family after the feast was over.” Lorellin rose and put her hand in Thranduil’s.
“Good night, my sweet,” she said to Eilian, and the two of them left the room.
Eilian dropped into a chair near the empty fireplace and let his head fall back against it. What would he ever do without his mother? He knew he would soon be old enough that he would be supposed to need her no longer, but he could not imagine how he would ever sort himself out without her help. Still, he thought that tonight he had begun to understand what it would mean to be one of his father’s warriors. At least I did not weep, he thought with some satisfaction. I was enough of an adult that I did not to do that.
He was surprised that his father had not scolded him, but he supposed that Thranduil had been so preoccupied by the death of a warrior and, even more, by what the return of the Shadow would mean for his people that Eilian’s offenses had seemed small in comparison.
He considered going to bed, but he felt restless, and he was seized with a sudden desire to see the stars. He rose and made his way past the guards, more calmly this time, and crossed the bridge to enter the palace gardens. He shut the gate behind him and began to wander among the flowers and fountains. It was always so peaceful here. The scent of his mother’s roses was in the air.
He froze, as a sudden movement caught his eye. In a dark corner, where a bench nestled under a shady arbor, someone sat, quietly waiting for him to pass. His hand sought the handle of the knife that was sheathed at his hip as he cautiously moved closer to the intruder.
Someone sighed. “It is only I, brother,” Ithilden’s voice came out of the darkness. With relief, Eilian let his hand fall from his weapon and approached the bench.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, sinking down beside Ithilden, who moved something out of the way to make room for him. With a start, Eilian realized that what Ithilden had moved was a wine bottle.
“I am contemplating the notion of mortality,” said Ithilden, wrapping his tongue carefully around the work ‘contemplating.’ “I find I do not like it.” He poured wine from the bottle into a silver goblet in his other hand.
Eilian frowned. What was Ithilden talking about? If he did not know better, he would think that his brother was drunk.
“I do not like it at all,” Ithilden repeated, his voice tight. “One minute someone is alive, and the next they are dead. That strikes me as unacceptable.” He took a deep draught from his goblet. “Unacceptable,” he murmured again.
Shock flooded Eilian’s system. Ithilden never drank too much. Not ever. Eilian turned sideways on the bench to regard his brother. He tried to think of something to say but could think of nothing that did not sound ridiculous. This was Ithilden after all, Ithilden who was supremely capable and self-confident to the point of arrogance sometimes.
Ithilden looked at him. “The Shadow was here and Mithrandir drove it out,” he said, his voice growing bleaker by the moment. “Now it is back, and we begin all over again, and I do not know if I can bear it.” To Eilian’s utter disbelief, his brother’s voice had begun to tremble.
Eilian did what seemed the only thing he could do. He took his strong, dependable, self-possessed older brother in his arms and held him while he wept.
Legolas tightened his tired arms around Eilian, struck by this image of Ithilden in a moment of despair. To him, as to Eilian, Ithilden had always seemed a rock to which he could cling, and he was shaken by the idea that Ithilden had been so beaten down that he had gotten drunk and then wept in Eilian’s arms.
“That night was when I realized what the return of Shadow meant,” Eilian murmured into Legolas’s shoulder. “I was so self-absorbed that it took a great deal to penetrate my thick skull, but what I saw that night did it.”
Legolas glanced down at Eilian’s drawn face. “You always say you are self-absorbed, Eilian, but in truth, I have never found you so, not with me.”
Eilian smiled slightly. “I had that extra twenty years to grow wiser before you came along.”
Legolas smiled back and then bent his head to plow on through the deep snow. We are at least half way to camp, he told himself. You will have help soon. But even as he thought this, he felt something warm trickle over the fingers of his left hand. Without looking, he knew that Eilian’s wound was once again bleeding enough to soak the bandaging and run down his hip. Panic fluttered in his belly, and he looked quickly at Eilian’s face. His brother’s eyes were half shut.
“Wake up!” Legolas cried, but with a perverseness that seemed drawn from the story Eilian had told about his younger self, his brother’s eyes now closed all the way.
Legolas halted and stared at Eilian. Perhaps he should stop and put snow on Eilian’s wound. That would slow the bleeding and rouse Eilian too. But could he take the time? He needed to get his brother back to camp as swiftly as possible. Despair born of love and fanned by the Shadow nearly made him sink to his knees, and he knew with certainty that he would not be able to bear it if Eilian died in his care.
A bird trilled hopefully in the distance.
Legolas stood for a moment in silence, too stunned to be certain of what he had heard. The bird song came again, and with a wildly beating heart, he answered. Within three minutes, Elves were dropping to the ground all around him and Maltanaur was walking toward him with his arms out.
“Give him to me, Legolas,” he commanded.
In an unreasoning reflex, Legolas tightened his grip on his brother. Gelmir appeared suddenly at his side and touched him gently on the shoulder. “Let Maltanaur take him, Legolas. You have done enough for now.”
Maltanaur stepped in closer and lifted Eilian from Legolas’s arms. “Where is he hurt?” he asked briskly, as he moved into a clearer space under a pine tree and set Eilian down.
“His hip is bleeding,” Legolas said. “There was poison on the blade.”
“Were you able to slow it at all?” Maltanaur had removed a healing kit from his belt and was opening it.
Legolas licked his lips. “I tried,” he said and heard his own voice trail off. Maltanaur looked up at him sharply, and Gelmir turned from where he had been helping Sórion build a fire. “He kept bleeding again,” Legolas said thickly.
Gelmir put his arm around Legolas’s shoulders. “You and I should go back to camp now, I think. Maltanaur will bring Eilian.”
“No!” Legolas could not imagine leaving Eilian now.
“Yes,” said Gelmir. “You can trust Maltanaur, Legolas. He has been taking care of Eilian for a long time.
“No,” Legolas said stubbornly.
Gelmir gave him a long, level look. “Then come by the fire and let me make you some tea,” he finally said, and Legolas allowed himself to be led away, although he made sure to sit where he could see his brother.
“Get me some warm water, Gelmir,” Maltanaur ordered, grinding haru against a rock with the flat of his knife. He loosened the quiver strap around Eilian’s hips, lifted the blood soaked bandaging, and then paused in silence for a moment. He glanced at Eilian’s pale face. “You fool,” he said, his voice harsh. “I left you safe and sound. How did you let this happen?”
Eilian remained blissfully unconscious, but Legolas jumped to his feet and evaded Gelmir’s grasp to approach his brother and his keeper. “Stop scolding him,” he snapped. “The Orcs had been hunting him in particular. Did you know that?” Gelmir brought a water skin that he had warmed near the fire, and Legolas snatched it from his grasp and held it out to Maltanaur. “Fix the herb,” he commanded.
Maltanaur looked at Gelmir. “Can you not keep him out of my way?” he asked in disgust. “He looks worn out enough to fall over.”
“I will stay out of the way, but I will stay here,” Legolas announced, and with a glare that made Gelmir back away, he moved a little to one side so that Maltanaur could tend to Eilian. The keeper cupped the ground herb in his palm and then poured a little warm water over it to make a paste that he spread on Eilian’s wound. Then he put clean bandaging over it and replaced the strap.
As he was drawing the strap tight, he glanced at Legolas. “The quiver strap was a good idea, Legolas. Eilian was lucky to have you with him.” Legolas felt suddenly unbelievably grateful to have Maltanaur’s help for his brother. The keeper rose and signaled to two Elves who had been building a litter with branches and a cloak that belonged to one of them. They lifted Eilian carefully into the litter, covered him with more cloaks, and started back to camp.
Legolas started after the litter, but Maltanaur caught at him and then wrapped Legolas’s bloodstained cloak around his shoulders. “Eilian is warm enough,” he said roughly, “and I think you need this back.” He ran after the litter, leaving Legolas to hurry after him with Gelmir at his side.
With Eilian securely in a litter, they made the trip to camp in a shorter time than Legolas could have dared to hope. As they entered the campsite, the dozen or so Elves waiting there jumped to their feet and ran to meet them. Legolas started to trot forward, anxious to help move Eilian from the litter, but suddenly found himself face to face with Beliond, who was leaning on an improvised crutch but was still mobile enough to make sure that Legolas could not get past him.
“Are you injured?” Beliond demanded, grasping Legolas’s arm with his free hand.
“No.” Legolas tried to shake him off. “I need to help move Eilian.”
Beliond spat a word that made Legolas blink. If nothing else, having had Beliond for his keeper had expanded his vocabulary considerably. “You had better be grateful that I need this crutch to hold me up,” Beliond went on, “because if I did not, I swear I would beat you with it. What you need to do is lie down! There are others who will care for your brother.”
Legolas eyed him cautiously. Beliond was obviously near the edge of reason and had perhaps slid slightly over it. “I will lie down as soon as I know how Eilian is,” he said placatingly. Beliond slightly relaxed his grip on Legolas’s arm but did not release it. Together they made their way to where Eilian was being examined by the two Elves who were the best emergency healers in the patrol.
One of them looked up as Legolas drew near. “He will have to go home,” the Elf said, “but I think we can keep the bleeding in check until the healers there get hold of him.” And suddenly, Legolas sagged against Beliond, who stumbled slightly and braced himself with his crutch.
“Yes, yes,” mumbled Beliond. “Now you see sense. Come. You can sleep now.” And Legolas let himself be tucked into a snowy sleeping den. He could sleep now indeed.
Legolas sat next to the litter upon which Eilian lay, wrapped in several blankets and waiting to be carried home. The camp life of the Southern Patrol flowed around them but left them a small space in which they could exchange a few, last, private words. Eilian’s face was still pale. It would be some time before he recovered from the kind of blood loss he had suffered, but at least he was unlikely to freeze to death during one of his occasional bouts of unconsciousness. Legolas brushed a stray hair out Eilian’s face.
Eilian turned to him and smiled faintly. “Behave yourself while I am gone, brat. You have turned out to be quite a warrior, and I would not like the patrol to lose your services.”
“I will take care of things for you here,” Legolas told him. “You do as the healers tell you at home.”
Eilian’s smile broadened. “Just as I always do.” They both laughed.
Sórion approached. “Dispatches came while we were engaged in the battle, Eilian. I can take care of them, but there was a letter for you too.” He held out a sealed message.
“Legolas will read it to me,” Eilian said weakly. Sórion handed the letter to Legolas and left them again.
Legolas glanced at the graceful handwriting but did not recognize it. He slit the seal with his dagger and began to read: “My dearest Eilian.” He stopped suddenly and hastily scanned the next few lines. Then he looked up at his brother, who was patiently waiting for him to go on. “It is personal,” Legolas said tentatively. “It is from Celuwen.”
Eilian’s face lit up with painful hope. “Give it to me,” he said, trying to extricate his hand from the blankets.
Maltanaur approached them. “It is time to go.” He frowned at the way Eilian was disturbing the blankets and tucked them around him again.
“I will give it to Maltanaur,” Legolas said hastily. “He will make sure it does not get lost, and you can read it yourself when you are stronger.” He handed the letter to Maltanaur, with Eilian’s eyes following it greedily. Maltanaur glanced at it and then tucked it into his belt.
“Not now,” Maltanaur told Eilian firmly, ignoring his faint sounds of protest. “You may have it later.” He turned to Legolas. “I have told you this several times already, Legolas, but I will say it again before we go. You did well, and you saved this one’s skin when he had once again wandered into such trouble that he could not save his own.”
Legolas flushed at the praise, but still felt he had to protest. “Eilian was not doing anything reckless, you know. He was seeing to me.”
“Then it is you who should have been taking more care,” said Beliond’s voice from behind him. Legolas grimaced without turning. Since their return, Beliond had been hovering over Legolas, with lectures about the need to keep from letting down his guard at any time.
From his litter, Eilian laughed weakly. “You tell him, Beliond. Take care of him for me.”
Maltanaur signaled to two waiting Elves, and they picked up Eilian’s litter to begin the long trip home. Legolas watched them leave and felt suddenly alone.
Thranduil poked at the fire and then returned to his chair at Eilian’s bedside. The healer had been reassuring, but Thranduil was taking no chances on his son becoming chilled. Eilian was awake now and was groping for the letter that Thranduil had placed on the bedside table while he slept. Thranduil put the letter in Eilian’s hand and watched with a faint smile as his son’s face relaxed.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Better,” Eilian answered automatically, and Thranduil gave an exasperated smile.
“Shall I read you the letter again?” he asked.
“No,” Eilian answered. “I know what it says.” They remained for a few moments in companionable silence, and then Eilian turned his head toward his father. “Do you remember the summer that the Shadow returned, Adar?”
Thranduil was startled by the question but nodded grimly. That was a time of horror that he would never forget.
“I was telling Legolas about it,” Eilian continued. “I do not think I have ever told you how sorry I am for the trial I was to you and Naneth at that age.”
Thranduil patted Eilian’s arm gently. “You are still a trial to me sometimes, iôn-nín, because I worry that you do not take sufficient care of yourself. But you are also a source of pride to me now, just as you were then, and I would never wish to have been without you.” Eilian smiled faintly, and his eyelids drifted shut again as he fell into a deep sleep, with his letter clutched loosely in his hand.
Thranduil studied him as he slept. When Eilian was awake, his face was always mobile and lively, stamped by the active imagination that was tirelessly at work. But when he slept, his face relaxed, and he looked once again as he had when he was young and still untouched by what he had seen since then. Thranduil took the letter gently from his son, put it on the table again, and pulled the blankets up to Eilian’s chin.
Thranduil sat for a while then, stealing time that he should have spent with his advisors, but unable to leave the son who lay before him or his thoughts of the one whom Eilian had left behind in the south. Thranduil had not been happy about posting Legolas south, but Ithilden wanted to make Legolas a lieutenant soon and had argued that he needed to have had wide experience before Ithilden could do so. Besides, he had said, Eilian will look out for him. And now Legolas was on his own. Not entirely on his own, of course, Thranduil reminded himself dryly. There were other warriors, and there was Beliond. Still, Legolas was in a dangerous place with no one from his family to protect him.
Thranduil sighed. He supposed that he would have to accept the fact that his youngest son was an adult now and, from what he had been told, a ferocious warrior too. That was good. That was what Legolas needed to be. And yet, in his mind’s eye, Thranduil saw a small, blond elfling running to him with his arms lifted to be picked up. Where had that elfling gone? Resolutely, Thranduil turned from this vision. Legolas was what he was, and Thranduil could only trust that his son would come home safely again.
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