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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.
3. Brothers in Arms
Legolas looked up as the scouts came running into the campsite. They had been gone longer than usual and dusk was closing in. But just as on the previous day, their excitement was obvious, and, as his own pulse quickened, Legolas once again marveled at the constant excitement this patrol offered. No wonder Eilian enjoyed serving here, he thought. In an unexpected way, the tension was exhilarating and made the quiet times seem tedious.
“You found them,” Eilian said.
“Yes,” the scout nodded a little breathlessly. “They are in a group of caves in a low ridge about five leagues southwest of here.”
The scout grimaced. “We could not tell with any certainty. It looked to us as if smaller bands are gathering together there, and this massed group has been in the area for a few days, perhaps waiting for others. The ground around the caves is very heavily trampled, so we could not make an accurate count, but we would guess there are as many as one hundred.”
With Beliond by his side, Legolas had drawn near to listen to this report. Now he drew in his breath sharply and glanced at his keeper’s grim face.
Eilian gave a soft grunt. “How many caves? Show me how the area where they are hiding is laid out.” The scouts obliged, making marks in the snow with a stick.
“There are three caves,” the first scout said. “At least we think they are three separate caves, although we could actually have been looking at two entrances to the same cave. You can see how the entrances are spread out, with these two near one another and the third one around a little turn in the ridge.”
“What is the rest of the terrain like?” Eilian asked.
The scout shrugged. “There are evergreens for cover, but not much else.”
Eilian frowned. “I do not like to go into battle without knowing exactly what we are facing. But this looks like a war party getting ready to raid some of the settlements. And they have probably missed their hunters by now.” He looked off into the trees with his brow furrowed in thought.
Legolas waited impatiently, eager to be in motion. He had the utmost faith in Eilian as a captain, but he felt an almost uncontrollable urge to be underway now.
“The whole patrol will go,” Eilian finally decided. “But we will use tonight to learn more about them if we can. If it looks as if they are on the move, we will engage them of course, but otherwise we will wait.” He looked around. “Get ready to move,” he ordered and reached to fit his quiver over his cloak.
Legolas had already strapped on his own quiver and now tightened the strap slightly, more because his hands needed something to do than because the strap was loose. He smiled to himself slightly at the contrast between the caution Eilian had just shown and the rashness he had been telling Legolas about only a few hours earlier. He was not altogether certain that Eilian was without rashness even now, but his brother was evidently not about to lead his patrol into more danger than was necessary.
Eilian looked around, satisfied himself that everyone was ready, and called, “Go!” Like everyone else, Legolas leapt into the trees and followed the scouts and Eilian. He judged that they had covered about three-quarters of the distance when the deciduous trees began to be scarcer and the patrol had to take to the ground, for the boughs of the evergreens replacing them swept downwards and made movement slow across distances. Legolas ran lightly over the snow, keeping to the shadows of the trees.
At last, the ridge the scouts had described appeared through the murky dusk, and Eilian whistled them to a halt and began waving them into position. As Legolas watched, he sent about a third of the patrol with the group’s lieutenant, Sórion, to stand watch along the top of the ridge, looking down at where the Orcs would soon be emerging from their day’s sleep. He pointed to half a dozen warriors who were farthest to his left and then gestured to them to move around the bend in the ridge and watch the single cave entrance there. Legolas guessed that Eilian himself intended to stay in the middle of his patrol, with the group watching the center entrance, for there, he would be in the best position to command any battle that might be forced upon them. Then Eilian turned to select those to watch the entrance on the right.
Legolas was crouching with Beliond in the shelter of a tree near the right side of the Elves’ line, and he tensed as Eilian’s eye fell on them, wondering if his brother might still be protective enough to keep them with him. But he need not have worried. Eilian waved him and Beliond further to the right, and no one less familiar with him than a brother would have seen the slight hesitation of his hand and the small flinch in his face.
As he moved into hiding beneath the boughs of an evergreen, Legolas felt a rush of affection for this impulsive, warm, talented Elf who was his brother. He had thought he was confident in his own ability as a warrior, but he found that he was deeply gratified by being treated as a competent warrior by Eilian, whom he had admired all his life.
As he settled down to wait next to Beliond, Legolas glanced around and found that he had trouble spotting the members of his patrol even though he knew they were there. The Orcs would never see them, he thought in grim satisfaction.
Gradually, the dusk deepened. Snow had threatened all day, as murky clouds had hung low in the sky. It had not begun to fall yet, but the night was going to be a dark one. Suddenly a black shape emerged from the right-hand cave entrance. Legolas froze to attention, watching it, and Beliond sounded a soft signal to alert the other patrol members.
None of the Elves moved, as the first Orc was followed by a dozen or so others, all carrying bows. The first Orc was larger, and, as was often the case with Orcs, his size seemed to match his rank, for he was plainly ordering the others into action. He returned to the cave, and the archers began moving off into the woods. Legolas wondered if they might be going in search of their missing companions, or if they were hunters, like the group the Elves had devastated the night before. With game so scarce, he did not like to think about what they might be hunting. He waited to learn what Eilian’s orders would be.
There was a second’s silence, and then Legolas saw darker shapes sliding through the dark shadows around them as half-a-dozen Elves went after the archer band under the leadership of Gelmir, identifiable by the unusual curve at the top of his bow, glimpsed briefly against a snowy background. Whatever the archer group intended to do, they had little chance of doing it now, Legolas thought with satisfaction. Gelmir might be full of jokes in camp, but he was a terror on the battlefield.
Again, Legolas settled to the task of waiting. The night grew colder, and he was glad of the shelter from the rising wind that the evergreen boughs provided. Then snow began to fall in large, heavy, wet flakes that stuck to every surface they touched, including his face. He pulled the hood of his cloak lower.
Suddenly, the silence of the night was broken by the muffled sound of tramping feet. A signal sounded from the far left of the Elven troops: Another Orc band was approaching. Legolas drew even deeper into the shadows and watched as a group of about twenty Orcs approached through the driving snow. The large Orc he had seen before emerged from the central cave now and seemed to be greeting the new arrivals. At least that answered the question of whether the two caves on this side of the ridge were connected, Legolas thought. They were, which probably meant that the third one was too.
Legolas had expected that this new Orc band would enter the caves and join the others who were sheltering there, but that was not what was now happening. The big Orc had shouted something, and, cringing a little against the stinging cold of the snow, Orcs were beginning to emerge from both of the cave entrances that Legolas could see. With a sudden sickening certainty, Legolas realized that the Orcs had been waiting for this last band and were now getting ready to depart.
The large Orc was grunting orders at the others, while tossing occasional glances in the direction taken by the archer band. They were probably supposed to be back by now, Legolas realized, not having planned on an encounter with Gelmir and five other Elven warriors. He eyed the Orcs milling in front of the cave entrances, trying to estimate their numbers and decided that the scouts had not been far off in guessing a hundred. But with a large part of his attention, he was listening for the signal from Eilian that would mean the start of the battle. They could not let this band roam loose in the woods to prey on Thranduil’s people.
And then it came, the soft, haunting hoot of an owl. Legolas rose from his crouch, drawing his bow as he did so and sending an arrow into the throat of an Orc who had happened to wander toward him. The Orcs stood for a moment in confusion and then, at a roar from their leader, the archers among them hastily readied their bows, while the rest unsheathed their scimitars. They began to fall back toward the cave, looking for shelter, but arrows rained down on them from Sórion’s group on the top of the ridge.
With a steadiness that came from long years of practice, Legolas drew and shot repeatedly, dodging Orc arrows as he did so. Orcs were falling with nearly every arrow an Elf loosed, but Legolas knew that what the Elves were really doing was evening the odds for when they had to draw their swords and fight hand to hand. They did not have enough arrows to finish off the Orcs without engaging in sword work. Legolas’s arrows were running low, and he knew he was not the only Elf in that situation.
A movement from among the Elves to his left caught his eye, and his heart stopped when he glanced over to see Eilian and Maltanaur racing through the snow and disappearing around the curve of the ridge, with Orc arrows nipping at the air behind them. “Pay attention,” Beliond barked, as an arrow tore through the edge of Legolas’s cloak, and he turned back to his own part of the fight, fervently hoping that Eilian knew what he was doing.
Some of the Orcs nearer the ridge had managed to duck through the arrows coming from above and were about to retreat into the cave. We will never be able to dig them out of there, Legolas thought in despair. Suddenly there was a stir in the center entrance, and, through the blur of dark and snow, Legolas saw a tall, slim figure, who was certainly not an Orc, standing in the entrance and swinging a sword at the Orc who was closest to him. Eilian! he thought, his heart in his mouth. He must have gone around to the third entrance and led the Elves there through the cave. As several more Elves erupted from the right-hand entrance of the cave, Legolas loosed his last arrow. Then he shouldered his bow and drew his sword. With a glance at Beliond to make sure his keeper was ready, he charged from the shelter of the evergreen and entered the fray.
The Orc nearest him was plainly startled by his sudden appearance and barely had time to turn to face him before Legolas’s sword came across his neck in a vicious chop that all but beheaded him. He whirled to be ready for the next one, with Beliond at his back doing the same. The Orcs were now caught between the Elves coming out of the cave and those emerging from the trees, but they still had the advantage of numbers, and Legolas found himself struggling desperately, as a second Orc and then a third joined the one in front of him. He dodged as a scimitar skimmed much too close to his head, thrust the point of his sword into the belly of the Orc swinging it, and then seized the Orc’s shoulder and shoved him off of his sword and into the other two.
Suddenly, a force rippled through the mass of Orcs, and it began shifting to his right. Even as he battled with the two remaining Orcs, Legolas realized that Sórion and his warriors had scrambled down from the ridge and were joining the battle along its left edge, and the Orcs were backing away before them. Legolas was glad of the increased number of Elves but less happy that the Orcs were now being forced toward where he and Beliond fought. The Orc with whom he was struggling slid away from his parry and whipped his scimitar around viciously. Legolas turned to block the blow but felt the Orc’s blade tear through his cloak and bite into his left arm before he could shove it aside. He drove the pommel of his sword into the Orc’s face and then brought the blade around to chop at the Orc’s neck, feeling a surge of grim glee as the creature fell. But his breath quickened as he looked up to find the whole band beginning to move toward him.
Then he heard the high, familiar call with which the warriors of the Woodland Realm signaled their presence to one another. The Orcs to his right seemed to pause. The snow was heavy enough by now to obscure Legolas’s vision of anything occurring more than ten feet in front of him, so he could not be sure of what was happening, but he did recognize the voice that had sounded the call: Gelmir and the Elves he had led in pursuit of the hunting party had returned.
As if the approach of these Elves had been the last straw, the Orc band broke and ran, scattering in all directions. Legolas and Beliond moved into the path of those emerging out of the snow in front of them, but the Orcs were no longer interested in the fight and shoved past them. Legolas drove his sword into one and was jerking it free again when he heard Eilian’s signal to rally to him. He turned to be sure that Beliond was ready to move, and his heart stopped. His keeper had dropped to one knee in the snow and was clutching at the thigh on his other leg. Legolas ran toward him.
“What happened? Are you hurt?” he cried.
“It is not deep,” Beliond grunted, “but I am not going to be dancing at the ball tonight.”
“Can you walk?” Legolas demanded, as he crouched to look at the wound. They could not linger here. In the confusion of snow and dark and the Orcs’ disorderly retreat, Legolas had no idea if the area was secure and indeed was reasonably certain it was not. Indeed, he could still hear Orc voices frighteningly nearby. He heard again Eilian’s signal to regroup, more urgent this time, for Eilian was undoubtedly counting heads and knew that at least two were missing.
“I can hobble if you can loan me a shoulder to lean on,” Beliond said determinedly. Then he focused on Legolas’s left arm. “Why did you not tell me you were wounded yourself?” he snapped.
Legolas looked at his arm in surprise. He had forgotten that he had been hurt. Blood stained the sleeve of his tunic, but the wound could not have been serious for it had already closed enough to stop the bleeding. Now that Beliond had brought it to his attention, it did hurt though. He grimaced. “I can still help you,” he said. “Let us get you on your feet.”
A shape loomed out of the snow, and Legolas jumped and reached for his sword but realized almost immediately that it was Eilian, with Maltanaur close behind him. Relief flooded Eilian’s face at the sight of them, and Legolas had to admit that he had seldom been gladder to see his brother. “Beliond’s leg is hurt,” he said, and Eilian crouched for a quick look.
“Take him back to camp,” he ordered Legolas, coming to his feet again. He patted Legolas’s left shoulder, evidently unable to resist touching him, and looked startled when Legolas flinched.
“I am sure Legolas meant to tell you that his arm is wounded too,” Beliond observed from the ground. He was slumping lower all the time, and Legolas’s worry for him increased.
“My wound is nothing,” Legolas told Eilian hastily, as his brother’s face showed his alarm. “It is closed already.”
Eilian turned to Maltanaur. “Help Beliond away from here and find someone to get him to camp,” he said, his voice low. “It looks to me as if you are going to have to carry him. Haste would be an excellent idea, I think.” Evidently, like Legolas, he had caught the sound of Orcs in the area.
Maltanaur carefully lifted Beliond, who was protesting in ever less forceful tones that he could walk if he could just lean on someone’s shoulder. Maltanaur started hastily away while Eilian took a quick look at Legolas’s shoulder. “Let us see if you are still fit to fight tonight or if you are going back to camp too,” Eilian said. Legolas was watching after Beliond. By the time Maltanaur had moved ten feet, they were lost to sight in the thick snow and dark. “The wound does seem superficial,” Eilian admitted.
Legolas turned to look at Eilian and gasped in horror. The big Orc leader was charging toward him from behind, with his scimitar raised.
“Look out!” he cried and leapt forward as Eilian whirled to see what had frightened him. Eilian brought his sword up but had time only to redirect the blow so that it sliced into his hip rather than his belly. With a vindictive grin, the Orc jerked his scimitar away just as Legolas drove his sword deep into his back. Red mist clouded Legolas’s vision, and he yanked his sword free and drove it in again.
“Die now!” he cried. “You are dead!”
The Orc lay on the ground and gave wheezing laugh. “Do you think I care, tree lover?” He looked with satisfaction at Eilian, who had fallen and was clutching his hip. “We have been after this one for a long time.”
Suddenly brought back to Eilian’s need, Legolas turned with a cry to his brother. The snow under him was already stained red, and Eilian’s face was pale. Legolas pushed his brother’s hand away from the wound, and his heart sank. It was deep and it was bleeding copiously, although its location was wrong to have caused so much blood loss. “Check his scimitar,” Eilian gasped.
Alarm rising, Legolas turned to look at the edge of the Orc’s blade and saw a thick, brown substance spread along it. His stomach lurched. Some sort of poison was in his brother’s wound, undoubtedly something that made it bleed. The Orc was still grinning at him, and Legolas wanted nothing more than to stab him in the face, helpless as he was. As if reading Legolas’s expression, the Orc made one last effort and threw back his head and called out for his companions as loudly as he probably could. With a soft cry at his own stupidity, Legolas picked up the scimitar and cut the Orc’s throat.
He turned back to Eilian. “We need to get away from here right now,” he said urgently. Eilian’s eyes were alarmingly unfocused, but he seemed to understand and made as if to rise. “Fool,” murmured Legolas and gathered him in his arms and stood up.
“The blood,” Eilian whispered. Legolas saw what he meant; the red blood that was dripping into the snow would lead right to them. He shifted enough to wrap his own cloak around Eilian and catch the blood. His heart pounded, for he could hear heavy feet and coarse voices approaching at a run. Treading as lightly as he could, given his burden, he moved in the opposite direction and then ducked into the shelter of an evergreen whose snow-covered limbs swept to the ground.
He propped Eilian carefully in the place where the highest limb he could reach joined the tree’s trunk and then drew his sword and slipped out from under the tree again. He could hear Orcs exclaiming over their fallen leader, but he saw them only as blurry patches of darkness through the snow and knew that they probably could not see him at all. He drew a deep breath and then ran in the direction that most of the Orcs and Elves had taken, deliberately sweeping snow from bushes and branches as he passed them. When he thought he was probably at the limit of Orc ears, he put his hands to his mouth and called as loudly as he could. “Help!” It would draw the Orcs, he thought, and might even draw Elves back to help them. Even if Sórion had not yet noticed that he and Eilian were missing, Maltanaur would have.
He whirled and, sliding into the deeper darkness of the trees, made his silent way back toward Eilian. He had gone perhaps half the distance when he heard Orcs coming and momentarily froze to let them pass without seeing him. When he crept in under the evergreen again, he found that Eilian was unconscious and a red stain was spread down the tree and onto the snow below. Biting his lip in his anxiety, he lifted Eilian carefully down and looked at the wound.
In one way, the bleeding was good, Legolas thought. It probably kept the Orc poison from getting too deep into Eilian’s body. But he had to stop it nonetheless. If he did not, Eilian would bleed to death. Moreover, he needed to do it here and now rather than taking Eilian back to camp, because any movement seemed to increase the rate of bleeding. And surely his brother was colder to the touch now than he had been when Legolas had left him. In his unconscious state, he could not adjust his body to the bitter cold of the winter night, and it would kill him almost as quickly as the wound would.
Legolas lifted his head and listened to see if his call for help had drawn anyone. But the only sound he heard was the howl of the wind. He and Eilian were alone.
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