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I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enlarged imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.
AN: This story takes place in two different years. It starts in the winter of 2758-59 TA but has flashbacks to 2460. Here is what “The Tale of Years,” Appendix B of The Return of the King has to tell us about those years:
2460 The Watchful Peace ends. Sauron returns with increased strength to Dol Guldur.
2758 Rohan attacked from west and east and overrun. Gondor attacked by fleets of the Corsairs. Helm of Rohan takes refuge in Helm’s Deep. Wulf seizes Edoras. 2758-59: The Long Winter follows. Great suffering and loss of life in Eriador and Rohan. Gandalf comes to the aid of the Shirefolk.
1. The Southern Patrol
February, 2758 TA
Legolas ducked his head under a snow covered branch and rode the last few feet into the camp of the Southern Patrol. Having been alerted by the sentry’s signal, the patrol’s warriors were turned toward him and his companion, curious to see who approached. But the patrol’s captain was already in motion toward them, and Legolas slid from his horse and into his brother’s embrace. “Hello, brat,” said Eilian.
With a warm rush of affection, Legolas returned the hug. He had not seen Eilian in over two years, for their trips home on leave had never overlapped. Then he extricated himself enough to step back and place his hand over his heart in formal salute. “I am reporting for duty, Captain,” he said.
“So Ithilden warned me,” Eilian responded, returning the salute and extending it also to the older warrior standing next to Legolas. “Mae govannen, Beliond.” Beliond nodded easily, but his eyes were scanning the campsite. His task was to protect Legolas, and while Eilian was nominally his captain for the time that Legolas would serve in the Southern Patrol, his orders came straight from the king. Legolas knew that Beliond’s first priority would be to learn the layout of the camp and decide where in it Legolas was likely to be safest.
Not that there was much about the campsite to examine, of course. In contrast to the other patrols in which Legolas had served, the Southern Patrol moved its camp frequently, seeking to be where Orc activity was heaviest in this most dangerous part of the Woodland Realm. Thus there was a fire, and the snow had been packed down, but there were no flets or even tents here. Instead, warriors’ gear was hung from trees, and Legolas assumed they would simply bed down in hollowed out snow banks formed around low growing tree limbs, with piles of evergreen branches beneath them to insulate them from the cold ground. In this, the longest winter he could remember, the thought made him cringe a little. Ordinarily, Elves’ ability to control their bodies meant that they were not susceptible to cold, but that did not necessarily mean that they liked it.
Eilian signaled to a nearby warrior, whom Legolas recognized as Gelmir, Eilian’s long time friend. “Gelmir will take care of your horses,” he said. “Stow your gear and then come and visit with me.” He rested his hand affectionately on Legolas’s shoulder. “I have missed you, little brother, although I cannot say I am wholeheartedly pleased to have you here.”
Legolas made a wry face. He had served under Eilian on one previous occasion, in a safer patrol than this one, and Eilian had not been wholeheartedly pleased to have him even there. Like the rest of his family, Eilian tended toward over protectiveness when it came to the safety of one whom he undoubtedly still often saw as his baby brother. But his last service under Eilian had been years ago, and even then, Eilian had eventually come to treat Legolas as a capable warrior, so Legolas had hopes that this tour of duty would go smoothly. “Nonsense,” he said lightly. “You are lucky to have me.”
Eilian looked startled and then laughed and slapped him on the shoulder, and Legolas walked off with Beliond to find a likely place to sleep. Eilian would settle down, he thought. At least, he hoped Eilian would. And if he did not, Legolas would speak to him about it calmly and respectfully. There would be no quarrel, he vowed.
Legolas started toward a likely looking snow mound, but Beliond stopped him. “Not there,” he said. He pointed to the other side of the cleared area. “Over there.” Without comment, Legolas did as he was told. Beliond’s job was to protect him, and Legolas normally left him to it. Besides, where he slept really made no difference to him. They slung their packs over a low branch and contemplated the piles of snow around them. “Let me do this,” said Beliond. “You go and see Eilian.”
Legolas frowned. “I do not like to leave you to dig our sleeping dens by yourself.”
“Go,” ordered Beliond, already looking around him for a useful fallen branch or, even better, a chunk of stiff bark that could be used as a shovel. “You have dispatches and packages to deliver, and I want to be sure this is done right anyway.”
Legolas snorted. “I do know how to build a snow den, you know.”
Beliond responded by seizing one of the packs Legolas had been carrying and shoving it into Legolas’s chest. “Deliver these,” he said and turned back to his task.
Legolas took the pack and started toward Eilian. He would have to do cleanup the first time it was Beliond’s turn, he thought. He approached Eilian, who was sitting near the fire talking to Maltanaur, the warrior who served as his body guard, just as Beliond served as Legolas’s. “Hello, Legolas,” Maltanaur greeted him. “It is good to see you again. I have just been reminding Eilian that you no longer need your nose wiped.”
Eilian shot him a glare, and Legolas laughed. Maltanaur had never hesitated to tell Eilian when he thought he was acting stupidly. Eilian shifted his glare to Legolas, who smiled innocently, opened the pack, and pulled out a small packet. “Dispatches from Ithilden and Adar,” he said. He lifted the pack: “And letters and packages from home for your warriors.”
“Give me the dispatches,” Eilian said irritably. “You go and pass out the other things. You might as well make yourself popular on your first day in the patrol.” Legolas tossed him the dispatches and began circulating through the camp, greeting old friends and introducing himself to the warriors he did not know. He was interested to see that the latter group was small. He had served in every patrol but this one in his two hundred odd years as a warrior, and he had come to know most of those who served the Woodland Realm under the command of his oldest brother, Ithilden. As he circled the camp, he handed out letters and carefully wrapped packages that he knew contained cloaks, scarves, and even the occasional precious bit of waybread that someone at home had managed to set aside for some Elf who was far away but was much loved and longed for.
He returned to Eilian, who now sat alone at one side of the fire, watching two warriors clean and bone fish on the other side. Legolas handed him a letter and a package. “From Adar,” Legolas said.
With the delight of a child, Eilian ripped open the package to find soft, grey rabbit skin gloves. He immediately stripped off the worn, stained gloves he was wearing and pulled on the new ones. He held up his hands and admired them. “Adar always seems to know what I would most welcome,” he said. “But then, he seems to know about everything that goes on in the Realm anyway, so I suppose that is not surprising.”
Abruptly, he sobered, picked up the letter in his lap, and began turning it in his gloved hands. “Do you know what was in the dispatches?” he asked. Legolas shook his head. Eilian sighed. “Men are at war south of us,” he said. “And the winter is working hardship on those who have survived the sword and the arrow.” He looked at Legolas. “How are things at home?” he asked soberly.
Legolas grimaced. “Game is scarce,” he said. “I do not think anyone will starve, but many a meal consists only of acorn meal mush.” They both watched the warriors who were now putting the fish over the fire to cook. There were not many fish for a patrol of this size. One of those doing the cooking carefully added clean snow to a pot near the fire. Melting was undoubtedly the process by which the patrol obtained most of its water for drinking and washing, for ice covered the ponds and most of the streams in the forest.
“We will survive,” said Eilian simply, tapping the letter on his knee. He slid his dagger through the seal and started reading it. The letter was short, for presumably Thranduil had put anything to do with politics or the Realm’s defense in the dispatch. When he was through reading, Eilian glanced up at Legolas with a small smile. “Apparently, there was much discussion at home before you were assigned here, brat, and it looks as if Ithilden won. But now, Adar wants me to take care of you, and it turns out that you do not think you need to be taken care of. Which one of you should I heed, I wonder?”
He was not going to quarrel with Eilian about this, Legolas reminded himself. He raised an eyebrow. “When have you ever obeyed Adar so easily? And besides, Adar probably tells Ithilden to take care of you, too. ”
Eilian laughed. “True enough,” he admitted. “Poor Ithilden!”
Drawn by the smell of the cooking fish, the rest of the patrol was beginning to gather around the fire, and Sórion, the patrol’s lieutenant, came to join them. “Are we scouting tonight, Eilian?” he asked, accepting a plate that was rather meagerly filled. Legolas looked up from his own skimpy plate, eager to know the answer to Sórion’s question.
Eilian nodded. “Yes, we will look toward the west again. This weather is slowing the Orcs down, but it is not stopping them.”
Legolas felt an immediate thrill. He knew that, in contrast to the border patrols in which he had previously served, the Southern Patrol saw almost constant action and sought out Orcs when none approached them. He also knew that it was this constant excitement that drew Eilian to service in this patrol and had led him to spend as much time as Ithilden would allow in captaining it. The Shadow weighed heavily enough on those who served here that Ithilden insisted they all be rotated out of the area on a regular basis, and he saw no reason to exempt Eilian from that requirement. But every warrior in the Realm’s forces knew that this patrol was Eilian’s, even when someone else was temporarily serving as its captain. Legolas had been fascinated by tales of the Southern Patrol’s valor and had wanted to serve as one of its members for as long as he could remember.
The light of the dull winter day began to fade soon after the patrol had eaten what slender fare there was, and as soon as it was dusk, Eilian sent two pairs of scouts out to hunt for signs of Orcs. Legolas watched as warriors moved about the camp, readying themselves to be instantly away if the scouts should bring back positive news. He checked his own weapons and made sure that the arrows in his quiver were not tangled.
Then he pulled himself into a tree limb that was reasonably free from snow and sat trying to find stars in the cloudy sky. For years now, he had used this means to quiet himself when waiting for battle. Lifting his eyes to the stars usually allowed him to concentrate his energy instead of wasting it in restless anxiety. But tonight, his stomach was tight and his nerves were taut.
“Legolas,” called a soft voice from below, “may I come up?” He looked down at Eilian and nodded, and his brother swung up to sit beside him. Eilian eyed him and then looked away. “I do not want you to think that I am here because you are my little brother,” he said. “I have something to say to you that I say to all warriors new to this patrol.” He glanced at Legolas, who nodded to show that he accepted this explanation for Eilian’s presence, although he was not absolutely certain that he did.
“When you fight here, so close to Dol Guldur,” Eilian went on, “you must always remember that the Shadow is close. It waits always to enter into the little cracks and faults that lie in all of us, that it might widen them into gaps so that we feel, and say, and do things we would not ordinarily do, and become strangers to ourselves. Perhaps you are tenser tonight than you usually are before battle.” He looked at Legolas from the corner of his eye, and Legolas held himself absolutely still. He had not intended to tell Eilian of his unease. “I am not asking you if this is so,” Eilian went on quickly. “But if it should be, then you would not be the first warrior who has felt this way. Remind yourself that it is the Shadow acting and not your true self. Your true self is there underneath, waiting to be found again.”
They sat for a moment in silence, and Legolas felt a sudden easing of his disquiet. He laughed softly; Eilian had always known how to soothe away his fears. Eilian turned inquiringly toward him. “Thank you,” Legolas said, and Eilian grinned and patted his leg.
“The scouts will be back soon,” he said. “I predict we will see battle tonight. Would you like to wager perhaps?”
“No,” Legolas answered immediately. “I seem to recall losing a very nice pair of leather bracers to you the last time we had a wager.”
Eilian laughed. “Perhaps I can get Gelmir to bet. He has a nice warm scarf I have my eyes on.” He leapt lightly down from the tree. At that moment, a sentry sounded a call and two of the scouts came running back into the campsite. Excitement radiated from them, and without even thinking, Legolas dropped to the ground and, like everyone else in the camp, moved toward them.
“Well?” Eilian asked.
“A band of nineteen Orcs is coming toward us,” one of the scouts reported, his voice breathless with excitement, “all of them carrying bows. They looked to be hunting for meat rather than battle because they are going toward the area where we found rabbits yesterday.”
Eilian’s face sharpened. “They are hunting? Did you see signs of a larger band for whom they might be providing?” Both scouts shook their heads. Eilian thought for a moment and then asked, “They are coming toward us, you say?”
The scout nodded. “They are perhaps three leagues west of us now, but they are headed straight for us.”
“We need to stop them, and then we can decide how to go about searching out the larger band,” Eilian decided. He glanced at the warriors gathered around him. “You know what to do. Move!” And as one, the members of the Southern Patrol leapt into the trees and began to move west, with Legolas among them and Beliond at his side.
Legolas had engaged in this kind of battle more times than he could count, so he knew the basic strategy. Move into positions in the trees that the Orcs would eventually pass; wait until they were all within range of Elven arrows and then shoot, taking out as many as possible before the arrows were gone and the Elves had to take to the ground and fight hand to hand with swords. The snow that lay thick in the tree limbs made movement a little slower than usual, but like everyone around him, Legolas had coped with a great deal of snow this winter, and he was accustomed to its presence by now.
He judged that they had gone about two leagues when the scouts who had found the band slowed, and Eilian signaled for the rest of them to halt while he conferred with them. Then he turned and motioned them to spread out in the trees a little to their left. Legolas slid into position, his stomach beginning to tighten again. Deliberately, he relaxed, took his bow in hand, and fitted an arrow to the string. Next to him, Beliond too had his weapon at the ready, and the two of them waited in motionless silence. They were at the front of the line of Elves and thus would have to wait for all the Orcs to pass and assure that the rear guard did not escape to warn anyone.
Knowing that confusion would reign once the battle started, Legolas glanced back to make sure he knew exactly where all his companions were. And in a discovery that did not surprise him at all, he found Eilian looking at him from a place that was more or less in the middle of the line of warriors. For a second, he locked eyes with his brother. Eilian held his gaze, glanced past him to Beliond, and then looked back at Legolas. He smiled rather wryly and resolutely turned his attention to the woods ahead of them where Orcs were no doubt already approaching. Legolas glanced at Beliond too. His keeper looked serene, but Legolas was certain that he had just been displaying his most reassuring countenance to Eilian. Beliond looked blandly at Legolas and then crouched on the branch to wait for the Orcs. After a second’s pause, Legolas grinned and joined him.
They did not have to wait long before they could smell the stench of Orcs and hear the sound of their feet, muffled by the snow. Suddenly, a dark shape emerged from between the trees, followed by two others, and then a solid line of Orcs, with bows in their hands.
Legolas held completely still as the Orcs began to pass beneath him. The scouts had not exaggerated: All the Orcs had bows, a fact that made them dangerous to the Elves who waited in the trees, out of reach of swords but not arrows. He counted as the Orcs passed and had reached sixteen when his eye was caught by an unexpected flicker of movement further along the line of Elves. An owl had swept into the area and landed on a branch, completely untroubled by the Elf who crouched there. As the owl landed, it dislodged a clump of snow that plummeted to the ground amidst the Orcs. The Orc closest to where it fell jumped, snarled what sounded like a curse, and then glanced up. For a second, time stood still, and the Orc stared at the Elf, who would have been invisible amidst leaves or even bare branches but was clearly outlined against the white of the snow. The Orc was still standing with his mouth hanging open when Eilian sounded an abrupt signal to engage.
With grim certainty, Legolas knew immediately that his and Beliond’s task was to make sure that the last three Orcs did not escape. Before Eilian’s signal had died away, he loosed an arrow at the closest one, who had stopped in confusion and was partly screening its two companions. The missile lodged in the Orc’s throat followed almost instantly by a second arrow that must have come from Beliond’s bow. The Orc staggered and then fell, sending a spurt of black blood over the heavily trampled snow. Legolas drew again and shot as soon as he had a clear view of the two Orcs who had been following, but by that time, they had managed to recover their wits and were dodging behind trees and nocking arrows of their own. Legolas ducked and his heart sped up, as one of them sent a black-feathered shaft whistling past his ear. Then, coming from behind him, an arrow embedded itself in the tree next to him.
Beliond let out an exasperated sound and, from the corner of his eye, Legolas saw him turn to shoot and watch for arrows approaching from behind them, while Legolas continued to try to pick off the two Orcs sheltering in the trees. One of them sent a rapid series of three arrows toward him, forcing him to duck behind the tree trunk. He darted out again with his bow drawn and suddenly realized that he had seen no arrows from the second Orc for some time. With a certainty that drove the breath out of him, he knew that it had gone to warn the larger band from which this small one came.
He focused on the Orc who was between him and the one who had fled and drew to shoot at it, but his shot went wide when Beliond jostled him out of the way of an arrow from the larger group of Orcs behind him. As he seized another arrow, the tally he always unconsciously kept warned him that his supply was running low. Enough of this cat and mouse game, he thought, and shot his own quick series of arrows at the parts of the Orc that stuck out from behind the tree. The creature let out a bellow and drew its arm back, and Legolas immediately leapt toward it, coming to rest in the tree right above it. The Orc was swearing lustily and clutching its arm, all the while trying to peer around the tree to see where Legolas was. With a spurt of grim satisfaction, he shot his last arrow straight down, splitting the Orc’s skull. Then he glanced quickly back to make sure that Beliond knew where he was, and at a signal from his keeper, he shouldered his bow and started after the fleeing Orc, with Beliond right behind him.
The snow that had betrayed the Elves’ presence to the Orcs, now turned friendly and showed the hunting Elves exactly where the Orc had gone. As he skimmed through the trees over it, Legolas scanned the tramped path by which the Orc hunters had approached, watching for any marks that might show that their quarry had left it and struck out in a different direction. At the same moment, Beliond touched his arm and he spotted the line of lumbering tracks branching off southward from the main trail. Legolas turned aside to follow, and in wordless harmony, Beliond came with him.
His heartbeat accelerated as he leapt from tree to tree, watching the ground closely, and suddenly he was almost on top of the Orc, whose progress had been slowed by the knee-deep snow through which it was wading. He stopped and drew his sword, bracing himself for the close fighting to come, but Beliond flew past him and beyond the Orc, with his bow and one remaining arrow in his hand. Legolas watched as Beliond stopped and turned back to trap the Orc between them, but the creature had seen him go overhead and loosed an arrow at him that sent Beliond dodging. The Orc had left the fight early enough that it had at least half a dozen shafts left and now it sent them one after the other at Beliond, forcing him back into the shelter of the tree trunk.
Legolas’s breath caught as an Orc arrow passed within a hair’s breadth of Beliond’s ear. Enough, he thought suddenly, and with a familiar mix of repugnance and savage joy, he jumped from the tree to land behind the Orc and reach around to draw his sword across the creature’s throat. Black blood spurted onto his arm before he could withdraw it and the stench of Orc filled his nostrils as the Orc crumpled to the ground. Beliond now landed on the ground beside him and crouched to make sure the Orc was dead, but Legolas had no doubt.
“Are you all right?” he asked, and Beliond nodded.
Suddenly, Eilian too was on the ground next to them and Legolas glanced back to see Maltanaur in the trees above them. “Did any escape?” Eilian asked, his face pale.
Legolas grinned at him. “Of course not. What do you think Beliond and I have been doing here?”
Eilian looked at him with startled eyes, and then suddenly his face dissolved in a rueful grin. “Giving me a headache,” he responded. He sighed. “You did well, brat. Perhaps you are a warrior after all.” He indicated the dead Orc. “Shove it in a snowbank and then join the rest of us. We will go back to camp for the rest of the night. Tomorrow will be soon enough to search for the larger band to which these hunters belonged.” He turned and was gone, but not before Legolas caught a glimpse of his face and read the resigned dismay there.
Beliond laughed softly. “I do not think you will have big problems with Eilian, Legolas. He has seen enough that he knows he has to let go of the idea that you need his protection.”
The two of them bent to drag the Orc into hiding, and as he did so, Legolas wondered why this moment that he had desired for so long did not leave him feeling more satisfied. For oddly enough, he felt sad, as if he had lost something precious. It must be the Shadow, he thought, remembering Eilian’s words. What else could it be but that?
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