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Dragons in the Trollshaws
‘What are we doing here?’
Elladan grinned crookedly. ‘Eating?’ he offered.
‘Do not be so foolish.’ Elrohir picked the meat from the bone in his fingers and popped it into his mouth before casting the debris into the fire. ‘It seemed sensible enough when the man brought word south – after all, someone had to go and reconnoitre the situation. But the closer we get, the more stupid the whole idea seems.’
His brother shrugged. ‘Dragons in the Trollshaws, my twin. Who else has dragon-slaying in their blood?’
‘That’s about as rational as saying that we are genetically designed to turn into birds.’
‘Well – we might be,’ Elladan told him. ‘I have never tried it.’
‘No?’ Elrohir put another dry twig on the small fire. ‘What were you attempting when you jumped from the stable roof, then?’
Elladan shook his head. ‘How should I know? I was only about fifteen at the time. I had absolutely no sense of danger. Glorfindel suggested as my leg mended that I might want to consider talking over my madder ideas with you, since you had marginally more sense. The trouble was that they never seemed like mad ideas until after they had gone wrong.’
‘Well, this already seems to me to be one of our less intelligent exploits.’
‘Glorfindel should not have forbidden us to do it then.’
Elrohir gave a crack of laughter. ‘He cannot win – if he says nothing, and we rush headlong into danger, he gets the blame, yet if he commands us not to do something, we do it anyway. We are old enough, surely, to bear the burden of our own stupidity.’
‘Adar rolled his eyes at him – as if to ask him how he expected us to react to his words.’
‘And they were being so careful, too.’ Elrohir’s grin faded. ‘Tiptoeing round us as if we were eggs that might crack with just the smallest misstep.’
Elladan, too, sobered. ‘We must grow past it, my twin,’ he said. ‘Whenever we go home, it is as if we sink back into the worst excesses of brattishness. I am constantly surprised – when we are not in Imladris – that Glorfindel lets us get away with the way we speak to Adar. I am inclined to give myself a good talking-to – I am only surprised Glorfindel does not take us out onto the training field and beat the snot out of us. I would not blame him at all.’
‘We are not at our best when we are at home,’ Elrohir conceded.
Elladan opened his mouth to continue the thought – but then changed his mind. ‘What do we know of dragons?’ he asked instead.
‘Well …’ Elrohir grinned wickedly. ‘Once, in the gleaming mountains above the sea,’ he recited, ‘an egg rolled free of the nest in which it had been laid …’
‘Not that!’ Elladan denied, his face brightening, even as he scolded. ‘I doubt that we are heading towards a pet dragon who will take his friends flying above the clouds.’
‘I remember,’ his brother said wistfully, ‘how we would bounce with excitement when Naneth told us those stories – and then sit up half the night debating how we could seek out a dragon like Smudge to come and live with us in Imladris and be our companion.’
‘This nest of worms seems a good deal more hostile,’ Elladan said dryly. ‘There are at least half a dozen shepherd boys and goatherds who have been lost. Not to mention the animals they were guarding – the animals that were to keep their people from hunger over the winter.’
‘Perhaps,’ Elrohir considered, ‘we would have done better to seek the wisdom hidden in Adar’s library – and to have asked him and Glorfindel what they knew of the weaknesses of worms.’
‘But to do that, we would have had to speak to them.’ Elladan put a few more twigs on their hidden fire. ‘Speak to them and listen to their answers.’ He looked up. ‘There is no question, my brother – we have gone beyond stupid.’
Elrohir allowed his head to droop onto his arms. ‘You might be right,’ he agreed.
‘I am the first born,’ Elladan told him. ‘I am undoubtedly right.’
‘But it is too late to worry about that now.’ Elrohir pushed his head up and inhaled the cool air. ‘We must live with our mistakes, my twin. For good or ill.’
‘This will be our last hot meal for a while.’ Elladan narrowed his eyes to stare towards the range of hills where the danger dwelt. ‘And we will be sleeping cold – if we sleep at all.’
‘Dragons have a remarkably good sense of smell, it is said,’ Elrohir said. ‘And their eyesight is even better – they can see a mouse move across a patch of grass as they fly. And they know every rock and coin of their chambers – they cannot be approached unsuspecting.’
‘These worms seem – small.’ Elladan reflected on what they had been told. ‘And I doubt they have found much treasure here …’ He looked round him. ‘There is little in the way of riches here in the Wild. And then – do you think they might only recently have hatched? Dragons are not, if I recall anything about them, noted for their congeniality. Do they not seek to eat their nest mates?’
‘Surely that cannot be,’ Elrohir declared. ‘After all – even worms need parents. And there have been no reports of dragons in the North this age.’
‘One of Adar’s scrolls from the First Age speculates that dragon’s eggs can lay inert over centuries,’ Elladan said thoughtfully. ‘And that it takes fire to hatch them. Last summer was a dry one – and hot for the Trollshaws. There were fires aplenty and one part of the forest burned fiercely. Do you think …?’
‘You read scrolls from the First Age?’ Elrohir gazed at his brother incredulously.
‘I am not totally illiterate,’ Elladan said with dignity. ‘Just because I usually leave such research to you does not mean that I am incapable of doing it myself.’ He smiled and added reminiscently, ‘And I was desperate to find a dragon’s egg.’
‘Smudge, again?’ Elrohir relaxed. ‘I wonder if Naneth was aware just what a monster she had awoken in her trusting sons.’
‘She was the one who sent me to the library,’ his brother said dryly. ‘I think she was delighted to have found something that caught my imagination enough to make me want to learn all about it.’
‘I spent hours coaxing all the information I could from Glorfindel,’ Elrohir admitted. ‘And learned enough to make me aware that real dragons were not creatures you wished to meet – being more like Balrogs than over-large and amiable dogs. I was never quite as keen as you were to keep one as a pet.’
‘Yet you spent hours helping me search every cave and hollow in Imladris in the hope that we might find an egg,’ Elladan reminded him.
‘Only because I knew we would have no chance of obtaining one.’ Elrohir stretched. ‘But what we need now is to work out how we can slay dragons rather than domesticate them.’ He sighed. ‘And it is not easily done. They are well-armoured and very suspicious. More intelligent than most beasts – with the power of flight, claws like knives and the ability to breathe fire. The accounts I have read of the slaying of dragons suggest that a well-placed arrow is about the only hope of felling one. The eyes are vulnerable. It is possible to kill them by stabbing through the roof of the mouth into the brain – although it strikes me that it is highly unlikely that any attacker would survive getting close enough for such an attempt. And, at some times of year, their scales are softer – particularly on their underbellies – and it is possible to penetrate them if your steel is sharp enough.’
‘You make this sound like rather more than a walk in the woods,’ Elladan complained. ‘Anyone would think we had bitten off rather more than we can chew.’
‘Anyone might be right.’
Elladan smiled – a smile that made his face look boyishly confident. ‘But they have always underestimated us.’
‘They have done what?’ Glorfindel sounded incredulous, but in his belly there was a sinking feeling of total inevitability. Of course the twins had gone. Why would he ever have thought that they might not? No rational elf would charge off after dragons – so of course Elrond’s sons would have done just that. With no preparation, no training, no discussion of tactics – they would just stand up in front of a nest of worms and challenge them to combat. Stupid did not even begin to describe their actions.
‘It was, I feel, predictable,’ Elrond said wearily. ‘As soon as Tildor delivered the message we should have known that here was a challenge they would be unable to resist. What better way to seek to ease their pain than to confront dragons?’
‘I will take a group of volunteers in pursuit,’ Glorfindel declared. ‘What two cannot achieve, a full contingent of well-prepared warriors will. We will intercept Elladan and Elrohir and make them follow a considered plan of attack.’
‘Have we one?’ Elrond smiled slightly and shook his head. ‘We have over the centuries, my friend, planned how to counter most enemies – but dragons? I do not recall giving them any thought.’
‘One of the prime principles,’ Glorfindel said firmly, ‘is not to attack alone – and not to put yourself in a position where the worm can see you first. And that piece of good sense, they have already ignored.’ He glanced at Elrond, worried more than usual by his frozen pallor. ‘You cannot mean to let them go.’
Elrond allowed his head to droop on his hand, massaging his temples in an attempt to release the pain behind his eyes. ‘What can I do?’ he asked in despair. ‘I have failed them as I failed their naneth.’ He pressed his lips together, forcing himself to hold back any more telling expression of his misery.
‘They are your sons.’ Glorfindel stepped close enough to rest his hand on Elrond’s shoulder. ‘You love them.’ He tightened his clasp and involuntarily shook his friend in his determination to convey his message. ‘Why should it be your duty to coax them out of their obsessions? Why should it not be theirs to comfort you? I have had enough of cosseting them. This … What they are doing now is just pure recklessness – and I thought I had trained that out of them centuries ago!’ His fingers stilled. ‘Maybe what they are seeking is an ultimatum. Maybe they need you to put your foot down and tell them to stop.’
‘And maybe I would lose them altogether.’
Glorfindel sighed. It seemed to him that the twins were lost either way. ‘I will see who is best suited to this mission,’ he said. ‘And ensure that it is properly equipped.’
Elrond raised his head. ‘I will come with you,’ he said.
His friend and captain acknowledged his words with a single nod. This was not the time to tell Elrond that his place was in Imladris. The Peredhel would always feel he had failed Celebrían – Glorfindel could not ask him to remain behind as his sons rode towards their doom. ‘You will need your armour,’ he said. ‘And your blade.’
A wry smile accompanied Elrond’s response. ‘But most of all, we need bows,’ he said. ‘And archers – with good, old-fashioned stone-tipped arrows.’
Glorfindel frowned. ‘Flint flakes,’ he said, ‘or, perhaps, mithril. Light, sharp and impervious to dragons’ fire.’ His eyes looked into a distant past. ‘It might take a while to gather a sufficient supply.’
‘Time worth taking,’ Elrond asserted. ‘As long as it is no more than a day.’
‘I will see what I can do,’ Imladris’s captain agreed. ‘We are, after all, prepared for almost any eventuality.’
Elladan eased his way to the edge of the thicket of brambles. Most of the trees were little more than blackened spikes from the previous year’s fires – although a remarkable number were sprouting a fringe of leaves that suggested that recovery would only be a matter of time. The more opportunist and resilient plants had, however, put on an astonishing amount of growth.
Although not, it would seem, anywhere near a dark shadow that seemed almost blue beneath an overhang of rock.
‘You think?’ Elrohir murmured.
‘Occasionally,’ his brother retorted absently.
‘A matter of watching and waiting, now, it seems.’
‘Far be it from either of us to rush into action. No-one would describe us as impetuous.’
‘Not in our hearing, anyway.’
Elladan leaned forward fractionally, focusing on a slightly darker blur on the hillside. ‘Is that …?’ he asked.
The shape slithered, disguised by the shadow, until it reached the edge of the cramping rocks. Its tongue emerged first, split like a snake’s, tasting the air. A faint scent, acrid enough to make their eyes water, drifted towards their hiding place on the faint currents of air.
‘It is amazing,’ Elrohir breathed, scarcely loud enough for his brother to hear, ‘that they have any sense of smell at all – if that is the odour to which they are accustomed.’
‘I doubt their ability to smell out their prey has been tested scientifically.’ Elladan did not move his eyes from the place where the creature rested. ‘Perhaps if they are accustomed to their own stench, anything sweeter is offensive to them. Anyway, there is nothing alive within several leagues for them to scent out – nothing that is able to leave, at any rate.’
A blunt-nosed face appeared over the top of the rock and a deceptively harmless-looking, lizard-like creature clambered slowly up to spread itself in the late-afternoon sun. A substantial pillar of piled boulders tumbled as the beast’s tail flicked across the rock. Both brothers flinched.
‘It is bigger than I expected.’ Elrohir attempted to judge the distance across the valley to the bare hillside. ‘The tail …’ He stopped as the creature turned its head, its tongue still flicking curiously. The mottled scales mimicked rock – rock overgrown with different shades of green-gold lichen, while the lizard-like legs seemed more muscled than he could have imagined. The sound of claws scraping over rock arrived behind the view of the worm’s heavy movements, making it seem as if they were watching and hearing two entirely different scenes.
‘Surely that thing cannot fly!’ Elladan murmured disbelievingly. ‘If anything ever looked completely landbound …’
As if in response, the creature put back its head and … shook – and wings like great canopies of translucent oiled vellum spread wide to catch the light.
‘Would not fire arrows burn the membrane and cause the dragon to fall to its death?’ Elrohir asked
‘That would be too simple.’ Elladan could not take his eyes from the beast. ‘They are creatures of fire, after all. I doubt if ordinary flame would harm them.’
‘It would take more than a little rain to affect something like that.’
Elrohir grinned. ‘You sound almost admiring.’
‘It is remarkable – you cannot deny it.’ Elladan spared a moment to glance at his brother, before returning his eyes to the dragon. ‘I never expected to see a creature like that – something straight out of legend.’
The move came disconcertingly quickly. A single downbeat of the great wings and the worm rose into the air. It looked an effort – but with only a few more wingbeats, the dragon … changed. What had been an ungainly land beast – striking, but not intimidating – was clearly in its element. It moved with a speed and grace that left the observers breathless and doubtless would have impressed them even more had not …
‘It is coming toward us,’ Elladan hissed, looking over his shoulder to see if there was any chance of withdrawal before the beast was directly overhead.
‘Wait!’ Elrohir was insistent. ‘We cannot outrun it – our only chance is to remain unobserved. Keep still!’
A screech shrill enough to make them both clap their hands over their ears tore the sky and made even the rocks shiver.
‘That was not …’ Elladan twisted to look where the sound had come from, even as another scream bugled in answer to the first.
The second beast was bigger, its scales redder in tone, like the rusty stain of iron-rich rock. It came from above, diving down to challenge the first, claws outstretched, talons gleaming like polished basalt as the sun caught them.
‘It is coming out of the sun,’ Elladan remarked. ‘It is clever enough to plan its attack … and gives itself the greatest possible advantage. It has caught the first beast before it is high enough to manoeuvre easily and looks as if it intends to come down from behind and disable the first one before it can turn to fight.’
‘It would have done better not to draw attention to its presence.’ Elrohir kept his attention on the battle.
‘The worm already knew it was there.’
A blaze of flame licked along the golden dragon’s back as the red dragon’s head snaked down to bite into its neck, surrounding both of them with a ball of fire that licked their scaled bodies. The smaller beast screeched, arching its head back, a black oily smoke escaping its wide mouth. The red dragon’s talons ripped at the wing membranes, shredding them so that the smaller beast could no longer keep airborne. The victim writhed away from its attacker, attempting to fold its wings away from the vicious claws, but the grip on its neck did not lessen and the two creatures tumbled in a dizzying spin until, at the last moment, the larger of the beasts released its defeated opponent to smash to the rocks beneath. It shrieked in triumph as its great wings beat against the resisting air to push itself higher and higher until it was no more than a speck in the sky.
‘Well,’ Elladan said as empty silence replaced the nerve-wracking battle. ‘It would appear that the perfect way to rid oneself of a dragon is to have it confront another of its own kind.’
‘A self-limiting policy with an outcome that could prove to be a problem in the longer term.’ Elrohir shifted his gaze from the dot in the sky to the broken worm on the rocks. ‘Should we go and take a closer look?’
‘Do you know,’ his brother commented, ‘I think it would be much wiser to remain here and observe. At least until we can be sure that that creature will not be coming back.’
‘You think they might indulge in cannibalism?’
‘It seems likely. When did you last hear of anybody finding a dragon’s body?’
‘When did you last hear of anybody watching one dragon slay another? Most of the stories I have seen only ever mention one worm.’
‘I am not surprised.’ Elladan moved, leaning forward as if the few inches could improve his view. The words he murmured caused his twin to frown at him disapprovingly until Elrohir realised what had caught his brother’s attention.
A third beast was emerging from the shadow.
It was pale, smaller than the others, and clearly nervous, flicking its tongue constantly as it hesitated at the edge of its refuge. Its hunger, however, drove it and eventually it made its dash towards the broken ruin of its companion. Elrohir made a choked sound of revulsion as the worm tore at the garishly bright flesh beneath the split skin.
‘It is not dead,’ Elladan murmured incredulously.
The golden head lifted, flailing briefly as if attempting to force the shattered limbs to resist the assault, then, with a faint echo of its horrific shriek, the dragon collapsed to the rock, its cry cut short. The smaller worm ignored its protest and continued to feed voraciously.
‘It is now.’ Elrohir sounded nauseated.
‘I can smell them.’ Glorfindel found something singularly revolting about the miasma. It was faint yet, but still oppressive – and it weighed down on him like the edges of a nightmare.
‘Perhaps it is you who should not have come.’ Elrond pushed back the lock of hair that had escaped from his neat military braids and looked at his friend with concern. ‘It is not as if you have any good recollections of dealing with the creatures.’
‘Your sons?’ Glorfindel attempted to grin. ‘I would not say that!’
The sentries watched warily as the rest of the patrol took a brief rest. They had left their horses some time since –only hoping that the care the villagers could offer would be adequate – and were now on foot, taking advantage of what little cover the scarred countryside offered.
Elrond broke off a corner of lembas and offered it to his captain. ‘Eat,’ he commanded. ‘We will need to remain alert – and a lot of that is about good nutrition and adequate rest.’
‘The villagers reported seeing five of them,’ Glorfindel said. ‘Five! How can we possibly deal with a clutch of worms that big?’ He looked around at the fire-damaged countryside. ‘Morgoth designed the creatures to be able to resist almost any attack.’
‘They have not seen five at one time,’ Elrond said practically. ‘And eye-witness accounts are rarely accurate. There was only one report – of two in the sky challenging each other – in which I would place much trust. The others – well, they think they know what they are talking about, but I have my doubts.’
‘Even two, my friend …’ Glorfindel shook his head. ‘They are not easy to defeat. Many skilled warriors have fallen to a fearsome end after a headstrong challenge to a fire-worm.’ He stopped. ‘I did not mean to say that.’ He glanced at Elrond. ‘I know not what has come over me.’
‘Do you not?’ Elrond managed a smile. ‘It is long ages since you have had the stench of dragon in your nostrils – it will have re-awoken memories long-suppressed.’
‘Your sons are not fools.’ Glorfindel spoke matter-of-factly. ‘They know their limitations – although you might not think so, I am quite proud of the way they have turned out.’ He rubbed his hands fastidiously against his tunic to brush off the ash and charcoal that clung to them all. ‘This devastation,’ he said, ‘is not worm-wrought. These fires burned naturally – bringing life as well as destruction. The worms …’ His eyes unfocused. ‘The worms were drawn by the flames.’
‘Drawn?’ Elrond asked. ‘Or hatched?’
‘We can hope they are but newly hatched,’ his captain said. ‘In little more than a year, they will lack the wiliness a worm develops over centuries. They grow fast if they have enough food – but it takes more than size to make an opponent dangerous.’ He paused. ‘What I fear is that the heat of the fires has revived an older worm – and that we are too late to counter it while it is still half-asleep.’
Elrond looked towards the wilder hills, where he was sure his sons had headed in search of the nest of worms, but said nothing about attempting to catch them up. The twins would have to watch each other’s back – and he only hoped they had learned enough to keep themselves safe.
The smaller worm glowed – as if the feast it gulped from the softer underbelly of the slightly larger dragon had lit some inner fire – and it pulsed as if it could hardly contain itself within its own skin.
‘It is growing,’ Elrohir observed, ‘and deepening in colour, even as we watch.’
‘It might not have the chance to get much bigger.’ Elladan was watching something rather more distant. ‘Not unless it shows itself intelligent enough to get out of the way.’
His brother followed his line of sight, but before he had time to pick out more than what seemed to be a speck high in the sky, the small worm had turned to scramble frantically down the steeply-angled rock to seek out the deep cleft from which it had emerged. It disappeared so suddenly – and so completely – that, had not the partly-eaten corpse of the larger worm remained, the brothers might have begun to doubt the evidence of their eyes.
The relief was brief.
The fleck in the sky circled, much as eagles drifted on the thermals above the mountains. For some minutes it was impossible to identify its species, but it spiralled lower and lower, until its rusty colouring was clear in the low light. Its wings spread wide and angled, while its tail appeared to flex to refine its direction, and it floated silently on the breeze before folding back its wings to dive to the rock. It paused, turning its head, its tongue flicking in and out as it ensured that it was alone, then dragged its body forwards, scraping across the naked stone like an avalanche, pulling with it any loose boulders as if they weighed no more than pebbles. It stopped again before its meal, apparently suspicious of the inroads the small worm had made into the warm entrails, before lowering its head to feed.
‘It must be as long as the Hall of Fire,’ Elladan murmured. ‘And as broad.’
‘I will bear that in mind before inviting it to stay,’ his brother retorted.
‘It would never fit in the house we made for Smudge.’
‘It would have had Smudge for dinner.’
‘We need a plan, my brother.’ Elladan examined the land around the dragon. ‘They can move faster than we can – and clearly are formidable opponents. We will need a trap – or a phenomenal amount of luck. Possibly both.’
‘We need,’ Elrohir said, ‘to wait for Glorfindel to bring the forces of Imladris to our aid. This is too big a battle for us to fight on our own – and acknowledging that might well be the most sensible thing we have done in years.’
Elladan gave a short nod. ‘We will reconnoitre. After dark – dragons, if they bear any resemblance to their smaller cousins, will slow down as the air cools. We know of at least one worm hiding in the cave – we want to be sure there are no more here. Then I would like to know where this one takes refuge. As long as it comes out of nowhere it has the advantage – we need to track it to its home.’
‘Two days,’ Elrohir suggested. ‘At sunset on the day after tomorrow we will head back towards Imladris. Remaining here too long would be, I suspect, suicidal.’
‘It does not give us long,’ Elladan sighed, ‘but I daresay Adar would be relieved to discover that we are not doing our best to give a dragon indigestion. And we have already found out more than I had anticipated.’
A ripple of movement from the advance scouts alerted Glorfindel to the discovery of something unexpected.
Their approach had become quieter and more careful as the patrol had advanced across the blackened earth. They had spread wide so that they could take advantage of every scrap of cover and crept forward so secretly that even Glorfindel had found it hard to identify the exact whereabouts of each of his warriors.
‘Wait,’ he murmured to Elrond. ‘I will see what is happening.’
His lord looked at him – but leaned back resignedly against the scorched trunk of a survivor of the fire as his captain took charge.
Before Glorfindel had time to take more than a few steps towards the disturbance, a low whistle advised him that whoever approached was a friend. He stiffened – it was unlikely, in this abandoned forest, that his scouts would encounter anyone, let alone anyone they trusted to pass through their guard, unless …
‘My sons!’ Elrond met them halfway, clasping the first – Elrohir – in his arms with a ferocity that informed even the twins that he had feared that he would never see him again.
Glorfindel felt no need to express any affection for two he had helped raise. Instead, he squared his shoulders and leaned towards Elladan intimidatingly. ‘How dare you?’ he demanded, refusing to conceal his wrath to step delicately around the ellon.
Elrohir detached himself gently from his father’s grasp, patting his arm reassuringly as he did so, and stepped to stand beside his brother. ‘Because we are idiots,’ he said. ‘Because we did not think it through. Because we have let this fester for too long.’
Oddly, his concession did nothing to placate the elf who had taken headstrong elflings and turned them into disciplined warriors only to see them fall to pieces in the wake of their mother’s capture. But behind them stood their father – his friend, the elf he had returned to protect, the Lord of Imladris. ‘We will speak of this later,’ he said through his teeth. ‘At length.’
‘Yes, captain,’ Elladan responded automatically, only the faintest hint of a wince suggesting that he would not look forward to the conversation.
Although, Glorfindel was forced to concede as he listened to their report, perhaps his criticism of their behaviour would be a little less comprehensive than he had planned. They had done well – brought back vital information and done so without being noticed. And, astonishingly, they had had the sense to know that they could not achieve this task without support.
‘Two living worms,’ he said thoughtfully.
‘There appear to be the remains of three more,’ Elladan said. ‘Although it is possible that more hatched only to provide the food their siblings needed in order to thrive.’ He looked revolted. ‘They grow rapidly after feeding on their own kind – and seem to absorb more than simple sustenance – but the wings and claws appear to be beyond even a dragon’s digestion.’
‘I suspect,’ Elrohir added, ‘that, if we were to wait and watch, we would soon find ourselves troubled by but a single worm – but that worm would be far harder to counter than it is at the moment. And I do not see, even now, how we will kill it.’
‘Has anyone,’ his twin asked, looking from Glorfindel to his father, ‘ever killed a dragon other than during battle? For our losses, I suspect, would not be few before we managed to fell it, if we challenge it face to face. Subtlety seems called for – but I cannot tell how to come upon worms when they are vulnerable. They seem only too well designed to defend themselves from our attack.’
The silence that greeted his enquiry made him grin wryly. He half-turned to remove from his shoulder the bag he was carrying, kneeling to open it and using both hands to extract a hooked pillar of gleaming black. Elladan took a cloth-wrapped package from his own pack and unfolded it to display several hand-long, saw-edged teeth.
‘Everything I have read,’ he said, ‘suggests that dragon scales are almost impossible to penetrate – but the evidence of our own eyes leads us to believe that dragons are not invincible. At least, not when they are confronted by other dragons.’ He looked from the teeth and claw to Glorfindel. ‘We retrieved these from the largest of the dead worms. It may not be possible to craft them into weapons,’ he judged, ‘not here, but I wonder if they might – if you will forgive the pun – give us the edge.’
In the end, they had stuck with the simplest of plans. Wait, watch – and attack when the worms were distracted by each other. And then hope that dragon nature was such that the two worms would not combine against an enemy they would see as incidental to the real battle for mastery. The beasts were, after all, very young and lacked the experience to inform them that other creatures were anything more than food. With luck, by the time they learned better, it would be too late.
The claw had, in the hands of an elf old enough to look on the moon as a newcomer to the shores of Arda, produced flakes so fine as to be translucent, so lethally sharp that they were almost impossible to attach to the shaft – and hard enough to notch steel. He had not been able to produce many arrows, but those he had made were masterworks.
‘It will be a shame to use them,’ Elrohir said respectfully, admiring the perfection of one of the arrows provided for him before stowing it cautiously in his quiver.
‘Worth it, if we can rid ourselves of the worms,’ his brother said, inspecting a more ordinary flint-headed arrow. ‘I do not know if I will be much use with these – they look a little … old-fashioned.’
‘Dragons seem unable to affect rock,’ his father explained. ‘The Silvan had more success against them than the Noldor – and I am hoping that is down to the tools they used.’ He smiled slightly. ‘It cannot be because they were better archers, could it?’
‘Impossible,’ his son said promptly. He grinned. ‘Although they might well outshoot me with these.’
‘A dragon is a pretty large target,’ Glorfindel interjected. ‘I am sure that you will manage to hit something if you try. Just keep clear of your brother so that you do not accidentally injure him.’
The twins exchanged looks of resignation. At least the Dúnedain treated them with the respect due to ancient creatures from legend – to Glorfindel, it seemed, they would never be more than elflings whose every youthful folly would be brought up at every possible occasion. Elladan cast his eyes upwards and gave a slight shake of the head. In some ways he was glad of it – it felt good to be reminded of their carefree childhood, even though it could also be more than a little exasperating.
‘Are you ready?’ Imladris’s captain looked round the group imperiously. One of the hardest parts of command, he had always found, was knowing that the elves he sent into action would not return undamaged – and that some might not return at all. All he could do was prepare them as best he could and ensure that they were ready for what they faced. Here – well – they were all groping in the dark, but the warriors did not need to know that he was as nervous as they were. ‘We might,’ he said, ‘have a long wait. Keep out of sight until the worms have engaged in battle and have no attention to spare for us. Target the eyes and belly – and be sparing in your use of arrows. We will not have time to make more – and you really do not want to be forced into meeting a dragon’s attack armed with no more than a sword.’
His warriors melted into the dark, seeking out places where they could conceal themselves, yet have the best chance of bringing down the worms.
‘Are you sure you should be here?’ Glorfindel asked Elrond, clearly hoping to hear him say that he would secrete himself away from the dangers of the confrontation.
Elrond smiled. ‘Be content that I have agreed to remain with you,’ he said. ‘It is as much as you will get from me.’
Finally, he turned to the twins. ‘Be careful,’ Glorfindel said. ‘This is not the time for heroics. If you want to indulge in battle rage, stick to trolls. They, at least, are only marginally brighter than the pair of you – and you move more quickly than they can.’ He put a hand on each shoulder and lowered his voice. ‘Your naneth will not be happy with you if you sacrifice yourselves in some foolish idea of expiating guilt that is not – never has been – yours.’ He smiled a rather wolfish grin. ‘Do not give her the chance to tell you what she thinks of you as she retrieves you from Námo’s care. You would not like what she had to say to you.’
‘We are not as stupid as you seem to think,’ Elrohir declared.
‘I have always known that you could not be.’
‘Enough,’ Elrond told them, halfway between amusement and irritation. ‘You can continue to express your affection for each other later. We have work to do – and it is time to do it.’
Anor heated the grey rock to an uncomfortable warmth, but the shadows remained cool and airless. Which, Elladan reflected, at least helped confine the stink of the worm’s rotting carcase to a minimum. Nothing stirred around the rocky slope – except flies buzzing around what little debris the two worms had been unable to eat. Had he not known otherwise, he would never have believed that a dozen elves waited, hidden among the rocks and half-burnt trees, in the expectation that monstrous legends from the First Age were about to emerge from the dark obscurity of their myths.
It was not until the shadows were at their shortest that the smallest beast, its scales now marbled in a delicate bluish-grey that muted the glowing pallor of its underbelly, put its nose out of the cavern where they assumed it had hatched. It advanced slowly, clambering over the rock with an easy confidence that suggested it felt unassailable.
It had grown.
It had grown a lot.
Elladan bit his lip. They should have tried to kill it when it was small enough to see the wisdom in running back into its cave. He would never forgive himself if someone lost his life in this now more unequal battle.
The dragon sat sunning himself on the rock, much like the small green lizards that frequented the banks of Imladris’s waterfalls. Only what was appealing in something no longer than his hand, Elladan found strangely grotesque in a creature that looked as if it could swallow a sheep whole. It put back its head, its wide eyes moving to take in its surroundings and its tongue flickering constantly. Suddenly, with a noise that sounded like a thunderclap, it flexed its wings, opening them wide so that the creature seemed four times the size it had been. It moved, seeming to run for the edge of the rock on which it sat and, as it stepped off, the wings beat so that it seemed as if the creature was swimming its way across the air.
He was tempted. So tempted that he reached into his quiver to draw forth an arrow – but he stopped there. The plan was a sensible one. The emergence of this worm would draw the other – and they would have the best chance of killing them both. But, nonetheless … It went against the grain to let the worm escape.
The creature’s wingbeats sent dust flying horizontally across the rock, making him blink furiously to clear his vision. The stink was … choking. Bitter, acrid, stinging. And the sound – like a tempest beating at the sails of a great ship.
But it was sound that alerted him. He had, after all, seen this before. The shriek was distant, but it bugled a clear challenge – and it was getting closer. Suddenly it occurred to him that there was no guarantee that the battle would happen above their heads. The creatures could, after all, fly – and a few hundred yards would be all that were needed to put them both beyond the range of even the sharpest arrow.
The blue dragon did not respond as he expected. Instead of rising higher into the air so that it could meet the challenge, it folded its wings and began to drop back to the ground. Perhaps the creatures were brighter than they seemed. This one had definitely learned from experience.
Glorfindel’s whistle released the watchers from their paralysis. Whatever the plan, their captain had clearly decided to take what he could get.
Seven arrows flew, released simultaneously to strike the beast as it came down. Two struck it in the breast, one pierced an eye, whilst four others bounced off the armoured scales to skitter over the smooth rock. The worm screamed its fury and pain, and one further arrow flew to slice through the roof of its mouth and bury itself in the creature’s brain. The head arched back, writhing like a snake struggling to escape, beating from side to side even as the arrow shaft began to burn. Glorfindel stepped from concealment, as cool and elegant as if he were at a ball, and took careful aim, releasing a final arrow to penetrate the pale armour of the worm’s throat, presented so conveniently at an angle that allowed the missile to slice neatly between the overlapping scales.
‘I think that should do,’ he said with satisfaction.
Elrond grabbed his captain and dragged him back into hiding even as a blast of fire from above seared the place he had been standing. ‘Fool,’ he snapped. ‘Do you learn nothing?’
The larger beast stank of forge-fire, Elladan thought. Perhaps flame was something worms did not master until they were older – or larger. This one had certainly attained the knack. And it knew, as the smaller one had not, that it was not alone here. If it were sensible, it would leave now and compel them to seek out its lair. But then, if it were sensible, it would not be a worm.
The leathery wings beat as the creature pushed itself higher in the air and circled the steep rock. It had learned enough to be wary – but the smell of blood was clearly hard for it to resist. Beneath it rested the perfect meal for a dragon. Bait.
‘Come on,’ Elladan breathed. ‘You know you want it. Come and get the nice dragon meat while it is fresh.’
It took a while, but the creature’s caution gradually gave way to its greed. It came lower, breathing occasional blasts of flame as if to challenge any competitors, but when nothing happened, its confidence seemed to grow. It flew a final slow circuit on spread wings, then seemed to make up its mind and angled its flight to head for the tempting body on the rocks.
Elladan moved slowly, removing a dragon-claw tipped arrow from his quiver and checking it. They would only, he thought, get one chance to do this – and, if any of them were to survive, they had better get it right. He knew Elrohir to be the better archer – but Glorfindel was right: you did not have to be an expert in order to hit a dragon – only to hit it in the right place. And he rather thought that he had seen an opportunity – directly under the forearm, high on the ribs – where a well-placed arrow would strike directly through soft dragon skin into the worm’s heart. Always, that was, assuming that worms had hearts, and that they kept them in the same place as other creatures.
The dragon moved closer, swinging its hind legs forward to take the shock of landing, almost as if it wanted to offer them the best possible chance of penetrating its armour.
Elladan smiled. It was angling itself perfectly. He raised his bow, ready for the command, focusing on his chosen spot.
Only five archers were in the right place to attempt their shot, but each of them had centuries-worth of skill behind him, and the black-tipped arrows penetrated the softer scales of the worm’s belly as if they were cutting into butter.
The dragon flinched, pushed back against the cooling body of the other, but it recovered even as the arrow shafts began to burn. It bellowed, a wave of flame licking over the corpse without leaving any visible mark, and with a single swipe its claw split the armoured skin from backbone to belly as the red worm shoved itself to its feet. The wings spread and in a single beat pushed the creature off the ground even as another wave of arrows sought to pierce its hide.
The beast had reached the height of the treetops when it faltered, one wing missing its beat, and the creature turned in the air, twisting its head to stare at the sluggishly bleeding body of its opponent in surprise, as if wondering how so small and feeble a dragon had been able to injure it. Flame began to leak from the puncture wounds the arrows had sliced, from its breast, under its forearm, from its belly, and the bellow became a rock-shattering roar of pure rage as the worm turned into a fireball of white flame so intense that the watching elves had to shield their eyes.
Its fall burned even through closed lids and when the shaking of the earth settled and the blaze died down, Elladan still found himself trying to clear his sight of the incandescent silhouette.
‘It smells better cooked,’ one of the warriors commented.
‘But not good enough to eat,’ Elrohir grinned. ‘I think I would rather go hungry. I saw what eating dragon did to these two worms – and I am perfectly happy the way I am now, thank you very much.’
Elrond hid a smile. Glorfindel just did not look himself with his golden mane singed short and ragged. And it was difficult for him to maintain his position as to the twins’ recklessness when he had been the only member of the patrol to have suffered any injury in what numbered, nevertheless, among the five most frightening experiences of Elrond’s life.
‘We will attempt to incinerate the corpse,’ Glorfindel said firmly. ‘It may not burn – but I do not intend to leave it to the carrion-eaters without making the attempt. The last thing we want is for dragonish characteristics to develop in those who feed on the remains. At least that one,’ he said, looking towards the still-smoking hollow among the burned trees, ‘tidied itself away.’
‘We will collect the claws,’ Elrond said firmly. ‘And all the teeth you can find. The best weapons for attacking dragons seem to be their own tools – and we will not forget that. Moreover, we have not yet completed our search of the Trollshaws. I will not be completely at ease until I am certain that there are no more worms about to appear from some hidden corner of the world.’
The twins emerged from their cautious examination of the smaller worm’s cave, their arms filled with fragments of something mottled.
‘It would seem,’ Elrohir continued, ‘that there were no more than eight eggs. We have tried to piece them together – and I doubt there can have been more. There are the claws of two or three newly-hatched worms – we have counted them – and, in an alcove in the rocks, the desiccated body of another, slightly larger one that seems to have starved. I think we have accounted for them all.’
Elrond nodded. The atmosphere of the hills had changed – the silence had blown away as quickly as the smoke from the burning dragon, and, already, he could hear the beginnings of the return of small creatures that had gone into hiding. The threat had, he thought, passed. For now, at least. Although he would want the search to continue for a while yet. There was no harm in being sure.
‘Will you accompany us on our sweep of the area?’ he asked. He had not been able to assume for some time that his sons would accept his command and he did not wish to attempt to demand their compliance. Not now, when they appeared, at last, to be more themselves.
The twins exchanged a look that said that they knew perfectly well what was in his mind – and why.
‘We will,’ Elladan agreed. ‘We need to be sure that there is nothing else lurking here – and I think that Glorfindel has been waiting long enough to hold the kind of conversation with us that demands no response beyond an occasional gritted, ‘Yes, sir’. You, too, Adar, have been patient long enough.’
Elrohir piled the pieces of shell on a cloak spread out to collect them. ‘It is easier to speak away from Imladris,’ he said simply. ‘When we are there …’ He hesitated. ‘There is too much emotion. Too much pain in too many memories.’ He looked up at his father. ‘Let us come to an understanding – let go the self-reproach and begin again.’ He glanced back to the thick shells. ‘Who would believe,’ he marvelled, ‘that, once, we yearned to find one of these. That Elladan longed to have his own dragon and make friends with it.’
‘Dragons are for fighting,’ Glorfindel said flatly. ‘They make poor friends.’ He looked at the two ellyn he had loved since their birth. ‘But I think you have begun to subdue yours and turn them to your will.’
The twins looked at each other and grinned. ‘It is in the blood,’ Elladan said.
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