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Fire and Shadow  by daw the minstrel

4.  Ithilden’s Story

Legolas was firing arrow after arrow, but the dragon sailed overhead as if he were not even there.  I am an archer, he thought desperately.  If I cannot use my bow to protect the weak, then what use am I?  He ran after the dragon, still firing.  Then, in a movement so slow that he had time to notice the beast’s razor-sharp teeth, the dragon opened its mouth and blasted the opening of the cave with fire, making the underbrush burst into flame.  Horror drove the breath out of him like the flame shot from the mouth of the dragon.

Suddenly, his attention was caught by cries from the cave.  He turned to see two figures silhouetted in the flames, struggling to get out of the cave as if they feared being trapped there.  "No!" he cried, starting toward them and trying to make himself heard over the noise of the dragon and the fire.  "Go back inside!"

Hands caught at him, holding him back when he needed to get to the cave mouth quickly.  He struggled to free himself from the restraining grasp on his shoulders. “Wake up, Legolas,” said his father.  The hands on his shoulders shook him slightly.  “Wake up!”

His eyes came briefly into focus to see his father’s concerned face bending over him. “It was a dream,” Thranduil told him, “only a dream.”  Relief flooded Legolas’s system.  It had all been a dream!  He relaxed for the first time in days and allowed himself to drift off into a light sleep again.  Thank the Valar. It had all been a bad dream.

In his half sleep, he could hear the people around him talking.  “The events trouble him in his sleep,” Thranduil was saying, worry in his voice, “but he will not talk about them.  He seems so disturbed by them, that I have considered forcing the issue.”

“Give him time, my lord,” said Belówen soothingly.  “He will speak when he is ready.  Let him be the one to bring the matter up.”

“Alfirin says that he and Sinnarn were talking about these things last evening,” Ithilden put in.  “Sinnarn has been reluctant to speak about what happened too, and according to Beliond, he saw far less than Legolas did.  And then, you know that Legolas tends to see himself as responsible for everything that happens anyway.”

There was a second’s silence and then Thranduil’s voice said rather dryly, “Something you would never do, iôn-nín?”  Ithilden laughed a little, and Legolas felt a familiar admiration for his oldest brother’s confident attitude around their father.

He tried to make sense of the conversation he had overheard and briefly failed.  The events at the cave had been part of a dream, had they not?  Suddenly, he came fully awake, eyes focusing on the ceiling and knowledge settling in his heart.  No, they had not been a dream. They had been real.  Someone had been in the fiery mouth of the cave, but it had not been Sinnarn.  Had it been Beliond?  He did not know and anxiety twisted in his gut at that realization.

“Good morning, Legolas,” Thranduil said.  Legolas turned his head to see Thranduil and Ithilden standing next to his bed. The healer must have left, he thought.  Good.  Healers tended to tell you that their medicine might be “slightly bitter” and their treatment might make you “a little uncomfortable” and then pour the vilest concoction imaginable into your mouth and poke good and hard at whatever injury you had sustained.  All he wanted now was to be left alone to try to work out what had happened.

“Your morning meal is on its way,” his father told him.  “I fear I must meet with my advisers again this morning, but Ithilden will stay with you for a while anyway.”

“I can manage by myself,” Legolas protested and struggled to sit up.  A stab of pain in his side reminded him suddenly of broken ribs, and he clutched at them, breathing hard.

Thranduil moved forward quickly to help him into a sitting position.  “Yes, I can see that,” he said, with one eyebrow lifted.  A quick knock sounded at the door and it opened to admit a servant with a tray holding a bowl of porridge and a cup of water.  Legolas looked at it glumly, and Thranduil laughed.  “Eat your porridge, child, and you might get something better for meal.”  He nodded to Ithilden and then left the room.  Ithilden sat down next to the bed.

“Ithilden, I am begging you to leave me alone for a while,” Legolas told him. “I promise you that I will eat, but so far as I can tell, I have not had a single moment’s privacy since I was brought home.  I do not mean to offend you, but I am sick of having other people around all the time!”

Ithilden looked sympathetic but made no move to leave.  “Adar does not want you left by yourself, especially when you are sleeping.  You are very restless, and he is afraid you will somehow hurt yourself.”

Legolas ground his teeth in frustration.  He was certain that if he could just have a little peace, he could reconstruct the events that had led to his being injured.  He could feel them trying to make their way into his mind.  He simply needed to relax and let them emerge.  “How is Beliond?” he asked.  If he was to have people around him all the time, they could at least give him useful information.

“He is better.  His pain is lessening and his arms are healing well.”  Ithilden smiled.  “He is a tough old bird, Legolas.  The healers are likely to pronounce him well simply because they want him out of the infirmary.  I understand he is giving them a great deal of trouble.” 

Legolas smiled at the image of his keeper harassing the healers.  At least Beliond’s condition was improving, Legolas thought, although he still shuddered to think of the pain Beliond must have experienced.  Burns were nasty things.  “Tell me more about serving as a lieutenant under Beliond,” he said.

“Eat and I will,” said Ithilden.  Legolas unenthusiastically began to spoon up the porridge, and Ithilden gazed off into the distance, as if he were seeing another time and place.

 

~*~*~

Ithilden looked up in irritation at the sound of Suldur’s strained voice.  “I loaned you my whetstone, Anilith,” he said, “and now I cannot find it.”

Anilith scowled at him but did not get up from his position stretched out on his blanket.  “I cannot help your carelessness,” he said.  “I returned the stone to you yesterday.”

“You were the last one to use it,” Suldur insisted, standing over him with his fists clenching and unclenching.  Heads around the camp were turning in their direction, and Ithilden could see Beliond beginning to rise, but Ithilden was already on his feet and moving.  Beliond settled back down on his own blanket, but Ithilden could feel his captain’s eyes on him as he approached the squabbling warriors.

“Would you like to borrow my whetstone, Suldur?” he asked, with an ease he did not feel.  Both warriors turned to him.

“I would like to have my own back again,” Suldur said stiffly.

Ithilden nodded.  “Anilith will look for it and return it to you if he has it.”  Anilith opened his mouth to protest, but Ithilden ignored him and pressed on.  “And you will search your own belongings again in case you missed seeing it the first time.”  Suldur pressed his lips together, looking unhappy.  Ithilden gestured toward Suldur’s pack a short distance away, and the other warrior hesitated and then whirled and started toward it with Ithilden right behind him.  Ithilden did not look back, lest Anilith look smug and Ithilden be tempted to kick dirt on his blanket.

Suldur rummaged in his pack, frowning all the time.  “I still do not see it,” he spat.

“Come and borrow mine,” Ithilden told him and then caught at his arm as he rose.  “Remember that the Shadow speaks through us all here, Suldur,” he said in a low voice.  “It feeds our discontent and in turn is fed by it.  Keep sight of yourself as best you can.”

Suldur glared at him for a moment and then his shoulders slumped.  “You are right, of course,” he said with a grimace.  “Thank you for the reminder.”

Ithilden nodded.  “And I ask that you remind me in my turn.”  They made their way to where Ithilden’s belongings were stowed, and Ithilden fished his whetstone from his carefully organized pack.

Suldur took it with a sigh.  “I suppose I have to go and apologize to Anilith,” he said glumly.

Ithilden smiled. “Tomorrow will be soon enough, and maybe you will be lucky and he will discover that he has your whetstone after all and have to apologize to you.”  The smile that Suldur gave in return was small, but when he walked off to sharpen his sword, he looked far more at ease than he had been. Ithilden looked to see if Beliond was still watching, but the taciturn captain had already lain down with his arm thrown over his face.

In the two weeks that Ithilden had been with the Southern Patrol, Beliond had spoken to him only to issue the orders that Ithilden was supposed to convey to the rest of the patrol or carry out himself.  They had been moving toward Dol Guldur, taking every precaution possible to avoid alerting the enemy to their presence.  Moving by day when the Orcs slept, they had set a double watch at night and lit no fire to avoid attracting them. In combination with their approach to the Shadowed, diseased area around Dol Guldur, the situation was beginning to wear on them all.

“Lie down and sleep while you can,” advised Nithron, who was rolled up in his own blanket next to Ithilden’s.  He was facing in the other direction, and Ithilden had been unsure if he were still awake.  Unable to deny the wisdom of the advice, Ithilden sighed and did as he had been told.  “You handled Suldur well,” Nithron added, still not looking at him.

Ithilden smiled wryly to himself.  Coming from Nithron, that was overwhelming praise. And as much as I am likely to get, he thought.  He did not think he needed constant praise to keep him happy, but his appointment as a lieutenant was new enough to him that he would have liked to have some indication of whether he was meeting his captain’s expectations.

He rolled over onto his side, his mind busy going over Beliond’s scouting plans for the next day.   The captain intended to break the patrol into pairs, who would spread out and probe within three leagues of Dol Guldur all along this side of it.  Beliond had told Ithilden how the pairs were to be arranged, and Ithilden was wondering whether the captain’s choices were the strongest possible.  He supposed it did not matter, because Beliond was unlikely to ask him his opinion anyway, and it seemed presumptuous to give it uninvited.  But he thought perhaps he should give it, that that was part of his duty as an officer.

He sighed.  He knew exactly why his father had been assigning him to different patrols every six months over the last few years, and why he had made him an officer in this one.  Thranduil was feeling the strain of managing both the realm’s troops and its governance in the increasingly dangerous world that the Greenwood had become.  He had wanted Ithilden to learn what serving in every part of the realm’s forces was like, and now he wanted him to learn to lead those forces.  Then, assuming all went well, Thranduil intended to put him in command of the troops.  Ithilden was not a person who was given to self doubts, but he could not help feeling a little intimidated by the prospect before him.

Do not think about that now, he told himself sternly.  You do not have to do anything now but be this particular patrol’s lieutenant.  Learn what you can.  You have always been able to do what was asked of you. You will be able to do this too.  You have no choice really.  Adar needs you to do it.

Sleep began to creep over him, and his mind drifted back to his parting with his parents.  I have apparently not made any glaring mistakes yet, Naneth, he mentally teased.  Is that a cause for joy?  Somehow, he did not think his mother would find the joke funny.  Ithilden was sometimes bothered by the knowledge that his mother found him too serious, but he could see no way to be other than he was.  Meeting his obligations required seriousness on his part, so far as he could see.  The path of Elven dreams opened before him, and he walked forward to meet it, slipping for a while into a starlit, tree-filled world where no danger would ever threaten the people he loved or the realm he was born to serve.

“Ithilden,” someone murmured in his ear, and he came instantly awake.  “Orcs,” said the sentry, and every muscle in Ithilden’s body tensed.  He leapt to his feet, bow already in his hand, and then began moving around the camp with the sentry, rousing the other warriors. Nearby, Beliond was doing the same thing, and within two minutes, every Elf in the patrol was high in a tree, with all gear stowed in the branches.  Throughout this entire mission, they had slept with their gear in their packs so that refuge in the trees could be easily sought, for their goal was to find out what their king wanted to know without the enemy ever realizing that they had been there.  As they had neared Dol Guldur, the number of Orc bands had increased, and this was the second time in a week that they had had to take to the trees in the night.

Ithilden crouched immobile on the branch with Nithron next to him.  A cricket’s chirp came from straight ahead of him, and his breath quickened slightly with the knowledge that the Orcs would be passing directly through their campsite.  He glanced around him to make sure all was as it should be and noted with approval that even he had trouble spotting the Elves around him.  With a skill that Wood-elves all seemed to be born with, they had faded into the trees around them.  He had not yet engaged in battle as part of this patrol, but he had been impressed with what he had seen of its readiness.  And then a slight whiff of the stench of Orcs drifted to his nostrils, just as he heard the first muffled tramp of their heavy feet.

Within what was probably a short time but seemed an age, a dark figure lumbered out of the trees and crossed the campsite, followed closely by another and then by three more.  An owl hooted wisely; Beliond was reminding them that they were expected to hold their positions and not to fire on the creatures below them.  He knew quite well that it went against the grain of every warrior in the patrol to let the Orcs pass, but given that they were not in a position to do battle with the massed forces of Dol Guldur, stealth was the means by which they could carry out their mission and survive to report on its results.

This band was not a large one.  Waiting tensely overhead, Ithilden continued to count as its members appeared and disappeared among the trees and concluded that there were perhaps twenty members.  Almost all of them had bows, however, which was unusual.  He wondered fleetingly if this was some sort of special force or if the Orcs were training more archers.  If the latter were the case, it did not bode well for the Elves, who were accustomed to being able to stay out of reach in the trees and shoot arrows into Orc swordsmen who could not reach them.

Suddenly, Ithilden stiffened. One of the last Orcs to appear had stopped and bent to sniff at the ground around him.  Next to him, he was aware of Nithron tensing too.  Orcs had a sense of smell that was surprisingly acute for creatures who reeked so strongly themselves.  Ithilden had always wondered how they could tolerate their own presence.  The Orc below him now lifted his head, sampled the air, and then let out a guttural shout and simultaneously reached for his bow.

Beliond had undoubtedly been watching the Orc just as Ithilden had been because, as the Orc reached for his bow, Beliond gave the signal for the Elves to attack.  Ithilden rose to his feet and sent an arrow into the Orc who had sounded the alarm, but as he did so, he mind was racing with thoughts of where the other Orcs were in relation to his patrol. Most of them had already passed the Elves’ position and were therefore behind them, and although three still remained below them, all of them were now falling to Elven arrows. The Elves needed to be quick and thorough about this, Ithilden thought grimly.  They could not allow any of these Orcs to return to Dol Guldur and report their presence, not if they wanted to see home again.

Nithron shoved him and an arrow sailed past from behind him.  Blessing his keeper’s alert presence, he spun to find that Orcs were now running back toward them, shooting as they came.  Ithilden drew and shot, sending an Orc to his knees, and then shot again so that another Orc stumbled over him, clutching at his eye socket from which an arrow now protruded.  All the while, he tried to be aware of arrows flying toward him, and also of whether he might need to intervene in the positioning of the troops around him.  He had never before acted as an officer during battle, and meeting the added responsibility took all of his concentration.

Suddenly, he heard a clear signal rising above the noise of battle, and his heart froze, for this was the signal that meant stop the enemy’s progress at any cost.  And just as he heard it, he saw that two Orcs had passed back under the line of Elves and were about to disappear into the forest in the direction of Dol Guldur.  Without even having to look, he knew that he and Nithron were closest to the two and would have the best chance of stopping them.  He loosed one last arrow after the two Orcs and then began moving swiftly through the branches after them, with Nithron close behind him.

Ordinarily in a chase such as this, the Orcs would have had no chance of escape.  Elves were far quicker in the trees than Orcs were on the ground.  But this close to Dol Guldur, the trees were twisted and failed to provide the springy footholds that Ithilden was accustomed to using in making rapid passage through the branches.  Moreover, the undergrowth was thick and dark here, and the two Orcs that Ithilden and Nithron sought had disappeared into it before the Elves had had a chance to spot them.

Straining every sense, Ithilden moved forward as silently as possible, scanning the undergrowth as he went.  With deliberation, he slowed the beating of his own heart, so that its pounding would not drown out any small sound the Orcs might make.  And then, to his right, a small movement in the bushes caught his eye.  He signaled its presence triumphantly to Nithron, and his keeper nodded in silent understanding.  The two of them crept toward the bushes and then paused and exchanged a glance.  There was no way they were going to be able to dig the Orcs out of their refuge if they stayed in the trees, Ithilden thought, and he knew from the resigned look on Nithron’s face that his keeper had come to the same realization.  The two of them shouldered their bows, drew their swords, and then, with a coordination born of over fifty years of fighting together, they leapt to the ground and ran toward their targets with a silence that only Wood-elves could have carried off.

They did not have far very run.  They had barely entered the underbrush before they spotted the two Orcs who were now openly fleeing before them. With a speed born of the heat of battle, Ithilden rushed forward, sword at the ready, forcing the Orcs to turn and take a stance or be cut to pieces when he slashed at them from behind.  The Orc who was closer to Ithilden swung at him with an arcing blow that was meant to take his head off.  Ithilden parried but felt the shock all the way up his arms.  Orcs were not artful swordsmen, he reminded himself grimly, but they were strong.  From the corner of his eye, he could see Nithron engaging the other Orc.

As if reading Ithilden’s thoughts about Orc sword play, the Orc shoved Ithilden’s blade aside with his own and then brought it around to swing straight down at Ithilden chest.  With gleeful skill, Ithilden deflected the blow, knocking it to his right and then moving in with a quick thrust that drove up under the Orc’s unprotected ribs and deep into his guts.  The Orc’s sword arm moved, as if the owner did not yet know that he was dead, and then realization dawned on the creature’s face, and it slumped to the ground with Ithilden yanking his sword free as the Orc fell.

He spun, looking for Nithron, and found his keeper grappling with the other Orc, who had moved in close and was trying to slice the edge of his scimitar across Nithron’s back.  Ithilden jumped forward and shoved the tip of his own blade between the Orc’s shoulder blades.  With a grunt, the Orc loosened his hold on Nithron and then stumbled forward onto his face as the keeper moved out of his way.

For a second, both Ithilden and Nithron stood, breathing hard.  Then Ithilden bent over the second Orc to make sure he was dead.  He had just finished checking both Orcs when he realized that Nithron had slid to a seat against the trunk of a tree, with his hands clutched to his side.  “Are you hurt?” Ithilden asked in alarm, hurrying toward him.

“I do not think the wound is deep,” Nithron answered tightly.  He was plainly straining to control his pain and whatever was going wrong with his body.  Ithilden bent for a moment, pushing his keeper’s hands aside to look at the cut.  Nithron was right: the wound was not deep, thank the Valar. The Orc’s blade had probably been deflected by one of Nithron’s ribs.  Ithilden stood and then cocked his head to listen for some indication of how the rest of the patrol’s fight had gone. He needed to get his keeper back to where he could be cared for, he thought worriedly, but he did not want to take him into a battle. He heard no clash of swords, and indeed heard very little commotion at all.  That probably meant the battle was over, and Ithilden assumed that the Elves had won, but he could not really be sure of anything, he reminded himself.

“Come,” he said, helping Nithron to his feet and drawing his keeper’s arm around his neck.  “Let us go see how the others have fared.”  They made their way back toward where they had left the rest of the patrol, with Ithilden listening all the while for any sign of trouble.  They had drawn within a few hundred yards of the battle site when three of their companions came into sight, obviously searching for them.

“Help me,” Ithilden ordered, and one of them ran forward to take Nithron’s other arm around his neck.  Nithron was growing lightheaded and had begun to stumble.

“How did it go?” Ithilden asked.

“The Orcs are all dead,” his companion told him.  “Beliond seems to think we will need to move quickly now however.”  Ithilden nodded. That did not surprise him. No one from this Orc band would report their presence to Dol Guldur, but the commotion of battle could have been noticed, or the slaughtered Orcs might be missed when they failed to turn up wherever they were supposed to be, or someone might stumble across the bodies that the other Southern Patrol Elves were undoubtedly now trying to conceal.  They needed to do their scouting and get out of there.

They emerged from the trees to find the rest of the patrol dragging dead Orcs into a shallow hollow and piling brush over them.  Ordinarily, they would burn the bodies but that was not an option here. The smoke would be seen or smelled. “How is he?” Beliond asked, hurrying toward them.

“I think the wound is minor, but he will be out of commission for a while,” Ithilden told him, easing Nithron’s arm off his shoulder and lowering him to the ground.  Suldur came running toward them with a healing kit in hand.  He was the best in the patrol at emergency treatment of wounds.  He bent over Nithron, cutting his tunic away from the wound so he could see better.  Ithilden crouched next to them, watching anxiously.  Suldur poured water on the cut and then looked again.

“I do not think the blade was poisoned,” he finally opined.  Ithilden breathed a sigh of relief.  Orcs used poison often enough that sometimes the wound itself was the least of a hurt warrior’s problems.  This band had not been expecting battle, though, and their blades had probably been clean.

“Do what you can for him,” said Beliond briefly.  Ithilden rose to stand beside his captain, who was regarding him appraisingly.  “You are aggressive in battle,” he said.  Ithilden blinked.  He was not sure if he was being criticized or complimented.  “You are also very capable in a fight,” Beliond went on, “just as you are with most things.  It would not surprise me if you turned out to be a competent officer.”

Ithilden felt a sudden spurt of pleasure at this rather stingy praise.  Now here is a source of joy, Naneth, he thought.  I will have to tell you about it.

Beliond looked down at Nithron, who was groaning slightly under Suldur’s ministrations.  “I will tell you though, I would not have Nithron’s job for any kind of reward.  Get what sleep you can. We are moving at first light.”  He strode away to send others, too, to what rest they could find.  Ithilden stared after him, bemused but still grateful for the assessment Beliond had given him.

 

~*~*~

Legolas laughed, clutching at his broken ribs as he did so.  “Poor Beliond!” he exclaimed.  “He thought that Nithron had a rough job guarding you, and then he got me.”

Ithilden smiled at him. “I do not think he finds guarding you to be such a hardship.”

Legolas welcomed the reassurance but could not help responding, “He is still in the infirmary though.”

Ithilden’s face grew serious. “He is recovering, Legolas.  Nithron was hurt guarding me too, but you see him hovering over Sinnarn these days.”

Surrendering the argument, Legolas dropped his head back on the pillow and smiled.  “Sinnarn must have been a shock to him if he thought that he was getting a younger version of you.”

“I am not sure he has recovered yet,” Ithilden laughed.  He rose, took Legolas’s tray, and moved it to the table. Then he picked up the cup that stood there.  “You should take this and sleep for a while,” he said.

Legolas immediately braced himself.  He had not felt right in refusing to take the medicine from Alfirin, but Ithilden was fair game.  “No,” he said firmly.  “I do not want the medicine any more.  It clouds my mind.”

Ithilden frowned.  “Belówen says you need it, Legolas.”  His voice held just a hint of warning.

“No. I cannot think straight when I have taken it.”

Ithilden paused and then set the cup down.  “I will talk to Adar,” he said.  “He can decide.”  At the look of relief on Legolas’s face, he suddenly looked concerned. “Has it been so bad to be a bit dreamy for a few days?” he asked.

“My mind plays tricks on me when I take the medicine,” said Legolas, knowing that he sounded strained.

“What do you mean?” Ithilden asked.  His face sharpened with suspicion.  “Is there something the matter that you are not telling us about, Legolas?”

“No!” Legolas bit his lip as Ithilden frowned at his emphatic tone. “I just prefer to be more in command of my thoughts.”

Ithilden stared at him for a moment and then grimaced and patted his shoulder. “I will talk to Adar,” he said again.  “If the medicine is just to dull your pain and help you sleep, I will tell him I do not think you should be forced to take it if you do not want it.”

As he had many times in his life, Legolas experienced a rush of gratitude for his oldest brother’s strength.  Thranduil would listen to Ithilden.  He would not have to take the mind muddling draught any more.

A knock sounded at the door, and Ithilden went to answer it.  To Legolas’s surprise, Amdir stood in the doorway.  Legolas had forgotten that, like Sinnarn, Amdir was now serving in the Home Guard. He was obviously on duty and apparently had a message for Ithilden.  “My lord,” he said, “a messenger has arrived for you.”

“Can he not wait?” Ithilden frowned.

“He says it is urgent,” Amdir responded.

Ithilden grimaced and then glanced thoughtfully back at Legolas, who was watching them with cautious hope.  “Very well,” Ithilden said.  “But you will need to stay with Legolas while I am gone, Amdir.  He is not to be left alone.”

Amdir’s face brightened, and Legolas knew that his own must look much the same.  “Yes, my lord,” Amdir said cheerily and bounced into the room to take the chair by the bed almost before Ithilden was out of the room.  Legolas gazed at him with satisfaction.  A chance to talk to Amdir was an unlooked for opportunity.  Amdir knew what Legolas needed to find out.





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