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I borrow characters and setting from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life I assume he wanted me to gain.
Thank you, Nilmandra, for beta reading this for me.
8. Looking for the Enemy
“My lord,” said the leader of the settlement, “we have considered the site to which you wish us to relocate, but we are still not convinced that living there will enable us to help keep the forest from the hands of the enemy. The area is already more or less held by your warriors.”
Thranduil frowned slightly at the “more or less” but knew it was only too true that his warriors had not been able to keep spiders and even occasionally Orcs from venturing into the area where he wanted the settlement elves to go. Seizing this small opening, he tried to use it to his advantage. “Surely your usefulness is shown by the fact that the enemy does venture into that area. Your presence there would help keep that part of the woods free from corruption but would place you so that our warriors could protect you should you need them.”
Thranduil watched alertly as the leader and Sólith looked at one another. Ah, he thought with satisfaction, we are making progress. After a long moment of silence, the leader turned back to Thranduil, who had kept his face impassive. “I cannot speak for everyone in the settlement, my lord. And all would have to agree to the move if we are to make it.”
Thranduil considered this fact. “Surely your people will listen to what the two of you recommend,” he said smoothly, smiling at them.
“I believe they will,” Celuwen’s father put in, equally smoothly, “but I, for one, do not feel ready yet to recommend any course of action. A decision like this can be made only after much consideration. And as I tried to make clear to Eilian, it is important to me, at any rate, that the decisions we make are respected. We are not fools; we are Wood-elves who know and love the forest. We would need to know that our king valued our presence before we moved closer to his stronghold.”
He met Thranduil’s eyes with a hard look while the leader, sitting next to him, looked resigned. Thranduil studied Sólith and read what he was being asked.
“The choice is yours, of course,” Thranduil responded, “but know that your presence would comfort us, as would knowing that you and your families were safer. I am sure that Lord Eilian, too, respects the service that you render us.”
“It would be good to know that, my lord,” Sólith said.
Once again, Thranduil felt a flare of anger at Eilian for not sending a message he could show to this stubborn Elf. If Eilian refuses to do this in a message, he thought resolutely, then he will have to do it in person. “Lord Eilian is on a mission for us at the moment and thus cannot be here to assure you of the extent to which he values your service. But we believe that he will wish to do so as soon as he is able.”
Sólith smiled a little grimly. “I look forward to that, my lord.”
Thranduil waved toward an attendant, who came forward to show the two Elves out of the Great Hall. For a moment, Thranduil sat thinking about the meeting he had just had. What had Eilian said that had upset Sólith so much? he wondered, for Celuwen’s father was clearly the stumbling block now preventing the completion of Thranduil’s plans for the relocation of the settlement. Whatever he had said, he would now apologize for it, Thranduil thought determinedly. He would not allow his son’s pride to stand in the way of greater safety for these Elves. Despite their independent streak, they were his people whom he was obligated to protect.
Eilian slid from one low branch to another, watching beneath him for any sign of the passage of Orcs. The creatures were large and clumsy, so if they had been this way, he was bound to see broken bushes or other disturbances in the forest. But the traces of their passing would be faint by now because the search for them had been so delayed. He hummed faintly as he went, responding to the summer song of the trees. A jay flew out of the branches in front of him and scolded him energetically as he passed. He smiled to himself at its fury and then turned his attention back to his task.
This hunt should have been carried out immediately after we saw the Warg, he thought. Ithilden has been taking the safety of this area too much for granted. Eilian supposed he could not really blame his brother. Ithilden had enough to worry about in the areas where the enemy was already known to prowl. He paused for a moment to eye broken twigs on the underbrush beneath him but decided that a deer had probably brushed against them. In contrast to the southern part of the forest, deer and other game were plentiful here. Too bad we have no time to hunt, he thought.
He came to a clearing with a stream running through it and glanced up at the westering sun. It was probably time to cease scouting for the day. Orcs on the prowl were easy to spot at night, and Eilian himself was exceptionally good at doing so. But his warriors were only too likely to overlook old tracks in the dark. He sounded the call that would summon the patrol to him to make camp for the night. Maltanaur arrived first, for he had been only a score of yards away, and then the rest of the patrol emerged in pairs from the trees and reported on their search. Last to arrive were Lómór and Galelas, who had been farthest north. As soon as Eilian saw the looks on their faces, he knew they had found something.
“We found tracks just as we heard your signal, Captain,” Galelas blurted. “There are signs of perhaps fifty Orcs. And there were half a dozen Wargs with them too.”
Eilian’s breath immediately quickened. “Show me,” he demanded. Galelas and the lieutenant leapt back into the trees, and Eilian and Maltanaur followed. About a mile north of the campsite, they all dropped to the ground, and, in the fading light, Galelas excitedly pointed out the traces of tracks and broken brush, whose meaning all four of them could read. They led eastward, paralleling the border of Thranduil’s realm.
Eilian straightened up and looked in the direction the tracks led, sorely tempted to follow them immediately. Reluctantly, he reminded himself that the patrol would be far less likely to lose the trail in daylight and that they could make rapid progress the next day, now that they had tracks to follow. “We will go after them at dawn,” he said and then led the small party back to camp where the rest of the patrol was waiting to hear what they had seen.
Eilian smiled at their eager looks. Many of the warriors in the northern Border Patrol were young, and he would need to remind them of the best tactics for fighting Orcs and Wargs, but they were spoiling for this fight. “There are signs of fifty or so of Orcs and five or six Wargs,” Eilian told them, watching them finger their weapons. “Sleep well tonight, for we will be underway at daybreak.” He turned to Galelas. “Good find,” he praised.
Galelas straightened, obviously pleased, but then hesitated, seeming to struggle with himself. “Lómór actually saw the tracks first,” he admitted. From behind him, Lómór smiled slightly at Eilian.
Eilian blinked. He would have judged Galelas to be too eager for praise to make such an admission. He smiled at the young warrior. “Then good for both of you,” he said lightly and went off to set out his blankets and get some of the patrol’s dried food for his evening meal.
He was not surprised when Galelas brought his own meal over and sat down next to him and Maltanaur. The youngling often sought Eilian’s company when they were on patrol, and Eilian was interested in him, partly because he was roughly the same age as Legolas, about whom Eilian worried, but also partly because Galelas was an interesting puzzle in himself. He was skilled but seemed to lack confidence, and he sometimes had trouble recognizing the strengths of his fellow warriors. Eilian had once had Galelas’s brother, Tinár, under his command, and Tinár had had the same problem but been far less aware of it than Galelas seemed to be.
“If we go far enough east,” Eilian observed to Galelas, “we may run into Legolas and Tinár. I would like to see how Legolas is doing in his first posting.”
Galelas frowned. “Legolas was sent to a border patrol for his first posting? I thought all new warriors had to spend time in the Home Guard first. I certainly did.” His tone was aggrieved, Eilian noted. Galelas tended to watch closely for anyone getting what he thought was favored treatment and to resent it when he found it.
“I would have been much happier to see Legolas in the Home Guard,” Eilian said, “and I know the king was reluctant to allow the posting, but the novice masters recommended it.”
“Why?” Galelas demanded, still sounding offended.
Eilian shrugged. “I do not know. I worry about him, though, and I would like to see him just to assure myself that he is all right.”
Galelas frowned down at the bit of waybread still in his hand. “Legolas is very good with weapons,” he finally said grudgingly. He glanced at Eilian. “You should not worry.”
Eilian smiled at him, touched by the youngling’s reassurance. “Thank you.”
Galelas’s mouth twisted in a small smile. Then he stuffed the last of the waybread in his mouth and got to his feet. “I am on first watch,” he said and went off to find the warrior with whom he would share guard duty, for with Orcs in the area, Eilian had been posting a double watch.
Eilian glanced at Maltanaur and laughed softly. “Young warriors are very amusing. Have you noticed that?”
Maltanaur snorted. “I do not recall you being particularly amusing when you were his age. I am astounded that you and I are both still here, actually.” He grinned at Eilian. “But then, I have beaten some sense into you over the years, and perhaps you can beat some into Galelas too.”
Eilian laughed again and then defended his warrior. “Galelas is shaping up nicely.”
“Yes,” Maltanaur agreed. “You are good for him. He likes you, and you praise him when he does well and that makes him more generous.” He looked at Eilian thoughtfully. “Have I ever told you that you are a very good captain?”
Eilian flushed with pleasure, for there were few opinions he valued more than Maltanaur’s. “Occasionally,” he said.
Maltanaur smiled. “I would not want you to get a swelled head, so I will not tell you that now.” He reached for his blanket and rolled up in it. “Go to sleep before I have to beat you in front of your warriors.”
Eilian laughed and rolled up in his own blanket. But rather than seeking sleep, he lay for a while watching the stars and listening to the murmur of the stream and the rustle of small animals in the underbrush. Tomorrow, they would set out on the trail of their enemies, and he was as certain as he could be that they would find them. In all modesty, Eilian knew he was a superb scout and that few creatures could move through the forest without leaving marks for him to follow. His blood was already singing with the excitement of the hunt.
It came to him suddenly that he was happy.
Legolas moved through the woods, scanning the ground for signs of intruders. His small patrol had been on its scouting sweep for two days now and was nearing the northern end of its territory. They had taken longer than they should have to get here because, in addition to their usual responsibilities, Todith had instructed them to check for illicit logging. They had found nothing, and the patrol had been without incident. A little boring actually, Legolas thought, but he had already learned that not all patrols were as eventful as his first one had been. Soon they would make camp for the night, and then in the morning, they would turn around and start back toward the Border Patrol’s main campsite.
Legolas was beginning to feel like an experienced warrior, one who could complain about tedium and wish for action, as he had heard some of the older warriors in the patrol do. Not that he would do so in the hearing of Galorion or Beliond, of course. Just the previous night, the lieutenant had told Tinár to stop looking for trouble, and after the fight with the spiders, Legolas thought that Beliond would be happy if Legolas never saw battle again.
Every time they had been on patrol since, Beliond had been by Legolas’s side at all opportunities, pointing out terrain that could harbor an ambush, or lecturing about the need not to be lured from the trees prematurely during a battle, or explaining yet again how to watch from the corner of his eye so that an enemy could not slip behind him or above him while he was shooting in another direction. “The novice masters do teach us these things,” Legolas had finally cried in exasperation.
“Do not be arrogant,” Beliond had snapped. “Arrogance can get young warriors killed.” And then he had gone on talking about where the best place was to sink an arrow in a Warg’s body. Legolas was sick of it and had begun avoiding Beliond in camp.
Suddenly, from a distance to his right, someone whistled a signal. Legolas froze, scarcely able to believe what he heard, for the signal was the one that meant someone had found signs of an enemy. He grabbed his bow off his shoulder, and, his heart racing, he leapt into the trees, and began moving swiftly in the direction from which the signal had come. He had not gone a hundred feet before Beliond was beside him, his own bow in hand too.
Another bird signal drifted toward them, and they veered slightly from their original course, at last finding Galorion, Tynd, and Fóril gathered in a small clearing. They dropped to the ground, and Tinár joined them a moment later.
Galorion pointed silently to the ground, and Legolas lowered his eyes to look at the tracks he was indicating. His breath caught, for there, unmistakably, were the tracks of Orcs. He dropped to one knee and scanned them closely, picking out five separate sets of prints. Straightening up, he drew a long breath, deliberately relaxing his diaphragm. It looked as if his wish for action was about to be granted.
“We will follow them,” Galorion murmured, so low that he was scarcely audible even to the Elves. “They are unlikely to be active at this time of day, but stay alert anyway.” They nodded, and the group followed him, sliding like shadows through the forest, looking for where the Orcs had gone to ground. They had not gone half a mile before Galorion halted and pointed down the small rise on which they stood. A dark spot was visible directly across from them where the ground rose again. A cave, Legolas realized, and then backed away as Galorion motioned for them to retreat the way they had come.
They stopped a hundred yards away to confer. “Shall we flush them out?” Tinár asked.
Beliond grimaced. “That might not be wise unless we know how many we are likely to flush. And going in after them would be dangerous.” He was standing next to Legolas, and Legolas was sure that Beliond was unlikely to allow him to be the one to go into the cave to drive the Orcs out. Even through his excitement over the coming of battle, he felt a momentary flash of relief and then was ashamed of himself.
“Surely the tracks tell us there five,” Fóril put in, confirming Legolas’s estimate. “And we cannot just walk away and leave them in there.”
“They could have joined others already in the cave,” Beliond pointed out.
Galorion’s eyes drifted to Legolas for a moment, and then he sighed. “The tracks do say there are only five. We will lie in wait in the trees around the cave mouth,” he declared. “When they have all emerged for the night, we will engage them, assuming that their numbers are not far more than we now believe.” Legolas nodded, determined to show his lieutenant that he was ready for whatever came.
They swung easily into the trees and moved back toward the cave to spread out in a half circle around its mouth and wait for their prey. Beliond landed on the branch next to Legolas. “Pay close attention to what you are doing,” he murmured.
“I have fought Orcs before,” Legolas whispered fiercely back. Beliond frowned but said no more. Legolas fingered the rune hanging around his neck. It was true that he had twice fought with Orcs when he and the friends he was with had stumbled on them in the woods, but for the most part, he had been able to stay in the trees during those battles and had not had to use his sword. He was confident in his ability with his bow, but the thought of hand to hand combat with the Orcs drove his heart into his mouth. It probably will not come to that, he assured himself. We outnumber them, after all.
Along with his fellow warriors, he waited tensely as the long summer day gradually faded. And then, just when he thought he could bear the waiting no more, something dark emerged from the mouth of the cave and took shape as an Orc. Legolas’s finger twitched slightly on his bowstring, but he held his fire, knowing that all five Orcs should be in the open before the Elves shot at them if they did not want to have to pry any of them out of the cave. His mouth was dry as he counted the Orcs who were now emerging.
Galorion waited until the fifth Orc had emerged and moved a short distance away from the entrance, and then waited a moment more to make sure that this Orc was indeed the last before he gave the signal to attack. With a steadiness that satisfied him deeply, Legolas drew his bow and released an arrow that drove deeply into the side of the neck of the last Orc to come out of the cave. From the trees all around the cave entrance, arrows flew, taking the Orcs completely by surprise. So far as Legolas could see, they all had arrows lodged in their bodies before they fully realized they were under attack, but three of them were still on their feet and scrambling to take cover and get their own bows into their hand. He aimed carefully and put an arrow in the eye of another Orc, who clutched at his face and then staggered and fell.
The two remaining Orcs had reached the shelter of a cluster of large rocks, however, and were now shooting back at the Elves. Legolas automatically dodged an arrow, scarcely noticing it as he fitted another of his own arrows to his bowstring.
Suddenly, the sound of a horn rang out as someone blew it again and again. Startled, Legolas realized that one of the Orcs was blowing it. Next to him, Beliond spat a single, very crude word in Dwarvish, making Legolas blink, and then sent an arrow into the chest of the Orc with the horn.
“What was that?” Legolas asked, his heart sinking, for he thought he knew the answer only too well.
“It was a signal,” Beliond answered. “There are more of them in the area, and we have no idea how many or where they are, but if they can be summoned by that horn, they are not far away.” He swore again, this time with a long, heartfelt string of Khuzdul. Legolas wondered irrelevantly if his father knew that Beliond had such a rich vocabulary and if it was part of what he was intended to learn from his keeper. Somehow, he thought not.
“Finish the one in the rocks,” Galorion shouted. “We do not want him at our backs when his friends arrive.” Before Legolas could even move, he caught a glimpse of Tinár flying gracefully through the trees to get a better angle on the remaining Orc. The creature was dead before it had time to turn around.
But the damage had been done. Beliond had been only too right and the Orcs to whom the horn was calling could not have been far away, for Legolas could now hear the sound of their approach from north of the clearing. “Move,” Galorion was shouting as he ranged his troops to face the newcomers. Legolas scrambled to obey, and again found himself waiting with Beliond by his side. His heart began to pound, for the amount of noise he heard suggested that the approaching group was large, and mixed with the sound of heavy Orc feet was a growling sound that Legolas had never heard before.
“Wargs,” Beliond breathed beside him. Legolas had time only to shoot him a quick, dismayed glance before one Warg, then another, and then four more came into sight. Legolas froze for a moment staring at them. He had been told about Wargs, of course, but he had never seen one. They were bigger than he could have imagined, some of them as tall at the shoulder as he was and as much as fifteen feet long. Even from a distance, he could see their fangs, glistening in the darkness. With unbelievable swiftness, the Wargs rushed into the clearing with a large troop of Orcs swarming after them.
Without thought, he drew and shot and drew again, aiming first for the Orc archers, as he had been taught to do. The Wargs prowled beneath the trees, occasionally rearing to claw at the trunks of the trees holding Elves, but Legolas forced himself to ignore them and concentrate, for now, on the enemies who could actually shoot him. The Wargs would be a problem only if the Elves had to take to the ground.
The Orcs had now sought shelter behind the rocks scattered around the area. Frustrated by his inability to get a clear shot at any of them, Legolas jumped from the tree he was in to the one next to him, took rapid aim, and put an arrow into an Orc’s neck. An answering arrow whistled past his ear, and he dodged, although he realized immediately he would have been too late if the arrow had been better aimed. His breath caught. Keep moving, he reminded himself and again jumped to another branch.
He reached for an arrow and was dismayed to realize he had just two left. I must make them count, he thought grimly and shot another Orc who had just risen with his own bow drawn. At that moment, Legolas saw Tinár leap to the ground, drawing his sword as he went. He must be out of arrows, Legolas realized, and saw Fóril jump down to cover his fellow warrior’s back.
It took only an instant for the Wargs to notice that two of the Elves were on the ground. Legolas saw one turn toward them almost lazily, and then, with terrifying strength, it crouched, sprang, and sailed toward them, claws extended and mouth agape. He had time to glimpse the fear on Fóril’s face as he extended his sword toward the Warg, but even as Legolas saw this unexpected emotion, he seized his last arrow and sent it straight into the spot on the Warg that Beliond had recently been lecturing him about. The force of the arrow drove the Warg slightly off course and sent it to the ground where it thrashed once and then lay still.
There were still far more Orcs on the ground than there were Elves in the trees, but Legolas knew he had no choice. Now, he thought. Now is the time. He glanced around for Beliond, who he could see was also out of arrows. Their eyes met and Beliond nodded. Legolas drew a deep breath, and with his sword in his hand, he leapt to the ground just as Beliond did. Immediately, three Orcs converged on him, scimitars raised. He raised his sword overhead and brought it down, swinging it from side to side to parry their blows. Then he stepped in and slashed horizontally at the midriff of the Orc closest to him, cutting deeply into his belly and dragging blood and bowels out again on the point of his sword. For a second, Legolas stared in fascination as the Orc clutched at his belly and then sank to the ground. A wave of nausea swept over him, but he gritted his teeth and whirled toward Beliond, who was now beside him, fending off the other two Orcs.
One of the Orcs charged Beliond with his head lowered, and Legolas brought his sword down on the Orc with a powerful, overhead swing, splitting his head. Then, suddenly energized, he whirled away and danced into the fray, trying to cover Beliond’s back as his keeper covered his. He slashed and stabbed and parried, and was exultant when he saw that the Orcs were as cautious in approaching him as they were with any of his experienced fellow warriors.
He had just stabbed an Orc and had to brace his foot against the body to free his weapon again, when he realized that the Orcs were backing off to make room for the Wargs. He could see Beliond off to one side, separated from him now and jumping away from a Warg, while swinging his sword at the animal’s neck. Alarmed, Legolas started toward him, but a low growl came from his right and he swung to find himself face to face with another Warg gathering itself to attack. Terror sudden roiled in his bowels, and for a second he could not move. Then he dropped to one knee, braced his sword, and waited.
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