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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.
6. Thin Ice
Legolas limped into a dense stand of small trees and then, when he thought he was screened from the pursuing Orcs, began to run so as to draw far enough ahead that he would be hidden from the enemy’s sight in the still falling snow. He needed a minute’s respite to think about what to do now. He had to get away from the Orcs and get back to Eilian, for he had been gone far too long and was worried about his brother. But he also had to make sure that the Orcs did not double back to seek shelter in the caves. He had led them a good distance away from the caves, but he could not take a chance on their coming upon him and Eilian again. They needed to pass the rest of the night undisturbed if Eilian was to be ready to be moved in the morning.
To his alarm, the trees suddenly seemed to disappear in front of him. He came to an abrupt halt as he emerged from their cover to find himself at the edge of a large, snow-covered pond. He could change directions and run along the edge of the pond, or he could cross it. Oak trees held out their arms enticingly to him from the other shore, and almost intuitively, he responded to their invitation and began to run across the ice. If he could get to shelter on the other side, the Orcs would be very visible on the icy pond, and he could probably pick off a few more of them, he thought. Moreover, if things went wrong, he knew he could move through the oaks far more quickly than the Orcs could move on the ground, even given the snow covering the oaks’ branches.
On the other hand, he would be visible on the pond himself if the Orcs came upon him before he got across. He sped up a little at that thought and had gone just beyond the center of the pond when a tremor underfoot and a faint creaking noise made him aware of a more immediate danger. Hastily, he scanned the ice that was visible under the snow cover and there he saw something that made him flinch: the edge of a darker patch of ice.
Given the long cold of this winter, he had not stopped to think that the pond might not be solidly frozen, but the darker ice told him that this pond was spring fed, and where the spring bubbled up, the ice was thin despite the bitter weather.
The noise of the Orcs rose behind him, and he began to edge sideways, away from the thin patch, so that he could continue his crossing, but suddenly, an idea struck him. He hesitated for just a second and then, with his heart in his mouth, violated everything he had ever been taught about safely crossing ice and ran straight across the pond. As he ran, he had a momentary picture of the woodcraft master who had trained him as a novice; Sondil would have been chewing pine cones if he could see Legolas now. The surface flexed beneath him and frigid water seeped into his right shoe, but he reached the far edge just as the first Orcs emerged from the woods on the other side. Arrows sailed toward him, but failed to reach him as he limped showily up the bank and into the edge of the woods.
There he paused and bent to grasp his right leg as if an injury were growing more painful and crippling by the moment. With a howl, the Orcs who still pursued him stormed out onto the pond. Legolas took a quick moment to count them; there were nine left. He dodged behind a tree, nocked his second-to-the-last arrow, and emerged to send one of the Orcs crashing to the ice with an arrow protruding from his eye. He ducked behind the tree again and watched, holding his breath, as the Orcs reached the center of the pond and then kept coming. Ice was unpredictable, but surely it could not flex under him and then hold under the heavier Orcs, he thought desperately.
A loud crack reached him just as one of the Orcs let out a hoarse cry and then slid from sight for a moment before bobbing up again. He thrashed at the ice around him, trying to get a hold, but his heavy gear was pulling him down and his efforts to save himself were only smashing more of the ice. Three more Orcs slid toward the growing hole and splashed into the water. Legolas stepped out from behind the tree and loosed his last arrow at the Orc who was closest to him and stood looking back over his shoulder at his floundering companions. The Orcs who were just behind this nearest one jumped back when the arrow struck him, and the ice again cracked ominously before it gave way to create a large hole into which they were all now dumped.
Without waiting to see if they would manage to extricate themselves from the pond, Legolas hoisted himself into the nearest oak and began to fly through the tree limbs on a route that would take him around the pond and back toward his brother. Any Orcs who escaped from the water would be forced to stop and try to build a fire where they were so they could dry themselves. If they did not, they would die of exposure long before they could travel far enough to reach the caves.
And now all of his anxious attention was focused on what he might find in the cave. In his mind’s eye, he saw Eilian’s pale face and then the blood seeping steadily from the wound on his hip. He pressed himself to move faster. Eilian needed him and he could not afford to be overly cautious.
The trip back to the cave seemed endless, although when he made himself be rational, he knew that he was moving quickly, even when the deciduous trees disappeared and he had to take to the ground. His brother, who in one of Legolas’s earliest memories was kissing away some childish hurt, lay wounded and helpless. With a final burst of speed, Legolas ran across the snow and ducked through the cave entrance.
Eilian lay on his uninjured side, curled into a tight ball. His eyes had fallen shut again and, with Legolas’s first frantic glance, he could see that blood had trickled down from Eilian’s wound and formed a small pool beneath him. I was gone too long, he thought in despair and rushed to his brother’s side. One touch told him that his brother was too cold for safety.
The fire had died down to a few glowing embers, and the wood he had brought from the stock in the central cave was gone. He would have to go into that cave again and get more, he thought grimly. Without hesitation, he slid through the opening into the other cave, and without looking to either side, he hurried to the small, remaining stack of wood and gathered as much of it as he could carry. He returned to the first cave, put a few more sticks on the fire and then coaxed it back to life.
Then he turned to inspect Eilian’s wound. He eased the quiver strap loose and lifted the blood-soaked pad of bandaging. The bleeding was not as rapid as it had been when Eilian was first hurt, he was relieved to see. The haru must have slowed it, but now he had no more of the herb. He hesitated and glanced at the fire. He could probably slow the bleeding further with snow, but he would have to be careful not to chill Eilian to a dangerous level. He stood, threw another piece of wood on the flames, and then walked to the cave entrance and grabbed a handful of the snow that had drifted in front of it.
He returned to his brother, crouched next to him, and without giving himself time to think, slapped the icy handful on Eilian’s hip. His brother’s response was gratifyingly immediate. Eilian groaned in protest, and his hands moved feebly to try to push Legolas away. “Hold still,” Legolas commanded, trying his best to sound like Thranduil at his most authoritative.
Eilian obeyed almost instantaneously and then, his eyes fluttered open, searched his surroundings for a moment, and came to rest hazily on Legolas. For a moment, he looked blank, and then he looked relieved and smiled slightly. “You hid too,” he said approvingly. “Good. I was afraid they would find us and win the game.” His voice was almost too weak for Legolas to hear, and his eyes now wandered away again.
Legolas looked at him in alarm. Eilian was clearly not in enough command of himself to control his body’s response to cold or the Orc poison. Somehow, Legolas needed to rouse him. The snow in his hand had melted, so he went to the cave entrance, got another, and crouched to press it firmly against Eilian’s wound.
“Valar!” Eilian cried, in a voice that was, for a moment, gratifyingly strong. “What are you doing?”
Legolas used his free arm to keep Eilian from pulling away. “I am attempting to stop your bleeding.” He thought about what Eilian had said. “Did more Orcs come while I was away, Eilian?” he asked. If more Orcs were near, Legolas did not know what he would do. He had no more arrows, and he did not think he would dare to leave Eilian again.
Eilian ceased struggling and seemed to be trying to concentrate on answering Legolas’s question. “No Orcs,” he finally mumbled and then lay quietly for a moment.
“Do not go to sleep again,” Legolas ordered sharply. He got another handful of snow and was happy rather than sorry to see that its cold bite roused his brother at least enough to push at Legolas’s hands again. He tightened the grip of his free arm and held Eilian firm. At last, he was satisfied that the bleeding had eased enough that he could put the rinsed out bandaging on the wound and reapply the quiver strap.
Still crouching, he turned to find Eilian watching him with a half smile on his face. “Do you know that because of me you are twenty years younger than you would have been if Naneth had had her way?” he asked a little dreamily.
Legolas blinked. He did not know what he had expected Eilian to say, but that was certainly not it. He moved to lean against the cave wall and gather Eilian into his arms again. “What do you mean?” If he could keep Eilian talking, he might be able to help him rouse himself enough to stay awake and perhaps even gain some control over what was happening to his body.
“Naneth wanted another baby long before she and Adar conceived you, but Adar said that I was causing them quite enough problems already,” Eilian answered, resting his head against Legolas’s chest. “She longed for you for years before you turned up, red-faced and squawling, in the palace nursery.”
For a moment, as he stroked Eilian’s dark hair, Legolas considered this picture of his mother, looking eagerly forward to his birth. He felt a spurt of wistful warmth, sorry for what he had lost even as he took joy in knowing that his mother had wanted him so deeply.
Then he turned his attention to his brother. Eilian’s tone was light, but Legolas could hear the hurt underneath. Eilian was usually full of rueful acceptance of the difficult child he had been, and Legolas suspected that his wound must have made him vulnerable to troubled dreams. That and the Shadow, he reminded himself. Eilian had fallen victim before to the despair it caused.
“Tell me more,” Legolas prompted gently and was pleased to see Eilian drawing himself together to concentrate on his story.
“I can see now that Adar had every right to say I was causing problems,” Eilian said slowly. “I told you that Ithilden had led a party of warriors toward Dol Guldur to see for himself what was happening. That and things I heard Adar say should have told me that trouble was upon us, but I was so wrapped up in my own desires and grievances that I could not think of anyone or anything else, even at the solstice feast.”
Eilian walked slowly toward Gelmir and Celuwen, thinking about the conversation he had just overheard between his parents, and as he thought, his hurt bloomed into resentment. He knew he sometimes had trouble living within the boundaries his parents and masters set for him, but he did not think he should be called a ‘problem.’ He had accepted the fact that his father sometimes found him difficult to deal with, but surely his mother could have come to his defense. He had thought that she understood how hard he found it to face the same dull round day after day.
“What is the matter?” Celuwen asked as Eilian flung himself down next to them.
“Nothing,” Eilian grunted and reached for one of the three cups that she and Gelmir had arranged on a blanket between them, along with some berries, some bread and cheese, and skins of wine and water. He poured some wine into the cup and took a long swallow. Like everyone Eilian knew, he had drunk wine from childhood, but it had been only in the last year that his parents had allowed him to drink it unmixed with water. His father probably would not like him drinking it unmixed at the feast like this even now, he thought with defiant satisfaction. He turned to find both Celuwen and Gelmir watching him.
“It does not look like nothing,” Gelmir observed.
Eilian grimaced. “It is not worth talking about. Come and dance with me, Celuwen.” He put down his cup and pulled her to her feet, and the two of them joined the other Elves who were whirling gaily around the green. The music would raise his spirits, he thought, and joined in the dancing with a will. He grasped Celuwen’s waist and picked her up to swing her around, and she turned her face to his and laughed. He grinned back at her, and they joined hands, and for a while they moved in harmony to the music, as they had done since they were tiny.
When the music stopped, they made their way slowly back to Gelmir, whom they could see standing near their blanket and talking to Gîl-garion and Fendîr. Eilian dawdled a little. He did not want to join the others just yet. “You look very nice in that green dress,” he said, feeling suddenly shy.
She looked surprised. “Thank you.” She smiled at him and then, with her face slightly flushed, she turned abruptly to face forward. In silence, they walked back to where the others were talking and laughing in a way that suddenly seemed to Eilian to be too loud. They sat down quietly, and he poured more wine for them. She added water to hers.
Eilian drank his wine and let the talk of his friends sweep over him as he looked across the green to where his father and mother sat, she still leaning against him. The elation that had come from dancing with Celuwen abruptly faded away. What did his father mean that they had ‘enough problems’? He was doing well at the warrior training, if one did not count the times he got into trouble. He had thought that Thranduil was pleased by his prowess with weapons, was perhaps even proud of him.
Suddenly his eye was caught by the sight of Ithilden approaching the high table. When had he reached home? Eilian wondered, his attention quickening. And more exciting to think about, what had he found? To Eilian, Ithilden often seemed as unimaginative as their father did, but he had occasionally seen his brother working with a sword or a bow on the practice fields, and he had never failed to be fascinated by his skill. Eilian only hoped that he would one day be as good. Moreover, he had to admit that he was secretly impressed by the way Ithilden could make experienced warriors do his bidding with a flick of his fingers. If anything was happening around Dol Guldur, Ithilden would have found it out and whatever was lurking there would have been sorry that he did.
His parents both straightened at his brother’s approach. Lorellin reached to pull his head down and kiss his cheek, and Thranduil rose to clasp arms with him. Eilian was struck by how relieved both of his parents looked, and when he thought about it, he supposed that the mission Ithilden had been on was a dangerous one. Now Ithilden was speaking soberly to Thranduil, and Eilian could see his father’s mouth press into a thin, hard line. Thranduil patted Lorellin’s shoulder and followed his son away from the green, while Lorellin inclined her head graciously to listen to an Elf who had just approached the high table. Her face looked strained, Eilian thought fleetingly.
He felt a momentary impulse to go to his mother and ask what the matter was, but he hesitated. His parents and brother tended to exclude him from conversations about troubles, so his mother would probably not tell him what was going on anyway. He had always assumed that they were trying to shelter him because he was young, but now he suddenly wondered if they thought he was a ‘problem’ and would add to their troubles rather than ease them. He drained his cup and poured himself more wine.
“Eilian, will you not tell me what the matter is?” Celuwen’s voice startled him out of his reverie. She was looking at him with concern.
“Nothing is the matter,” he lied. He did not want to tell her what he had overheard. He took another swallow of wine.
She regarded him in silence for a moment. Then she hesitantly asked, “Do you think you should have any more wine?”
He bristled at the implied criticism. “Yes, I think I should,” he said defiantly and took a deep drink. Celuwen probably believed he was a problem too, he thought.
“Hello, Eilian,” said a soft voice, and he looked up to see Thriwien, one of the two maidens whom he and Gelmir and Celuwen had met on the day he had jumped the river. She smiled sweetly at him. “I was hoping you would dance with me,” she said demurely.
Eilian felt a rush of gratification at her obvious admiration. “I was hoping you would dance with me too,” he said and rose to offer her his arm with a flourish. As he led Thriwien onto the green, he caught a quick glimpse of Celuwen rising and walking away from their blanket. His heart contracted, but he resolutely ignored it and put his arm around Thriwien, who was looking up at him from under lowered lashes.
“I looked for you on the archery field yesterday, but I did not see you,” she said. “None of the other novices is as good with a bow as you are.”
He had spent the day in the armory, but he did not intend to tell Thriwien that. “We have other kinds of training too,” he told her and swept her out among the dancers.
For some reason, the minstrels played for a much longer time than they had when he had danced with Celuwen, and he found that he was relieved when the music finally ended. Thriwien danced well, but she was not as graceful as Celuwen, and she did not know how to carry on a conversation, he thought disapprovingly. It was with relief that he finally left her with her parents and returned to Gelmir, Fendîr, and Gîl-garion. He picked up his wine, and, seeking distraction, he went to join his friends, whose voices had risen a little.
“Gelmir, you could never make the ride that quickly at night,” Fendîr said.
Gelmir appeared to hesitate. “Perhaps not,” he admitted reluctantly.
“What are you talking about?” Eilian asked.
“Gelmir says he could ride at night from the stables to the meadow and back while I counted to two hundred,” Fendîr told him.
“I just admitted I could not do that,” Gelmir said defensively. “But my horse is still faster than yours, and he does well in the dark too.”
“I could do it,” Eilian said. They looked doubtfully at him. “I could,” he protested, and suddenly his excitement rose as a daring idea struck him. “On my adar’s stallion, I could.” He could not resist laughing as all three of their mouths dropped open. He took another swallow of wine.
“Are you allowed to ride that horse?” asked Gelmir.
Eilian grinned. Gelmir knew perfectly well that he was not. The question was Gelmir’s way of trying to caution him. “Of course! Let us try it out right now,” he went on enthusiastically. “And we should wager too. I would even let you lower the number to be counted off. My adar’s stallion is the fastest horse in the realm.”
A long, elegant hand reached over his shoulder to take his wine cup, and he abruptly realized that his friends’ eyes were fixed in alarm on someone behind him. “It is time for you to leave now, Eilian,” Thranduil’s voice said. “Say good night to your friends.” His father’s hand settled on his shoulder.
He turned to look up into Thranduil’s face. Eilian could read the irritation in the grey eyes with no trouble at all, but something else in his father’s face made him blink. Thranduil was deeply upset. Surely, Eilian had done nothing to cause this level of distress. With very little choice, he did as he was told and allowed himself to be steered to a point a short way off the green. There Thranduil came to a halt and released him.
“I have to return to the feast for a while,” Thranduil said, “but you have plainly had too much wine already. Go to your chamber, and I will speak to you about this when I have time. You should know better, Eilian!” Without waiting for Eilian’s response, the king turned on his heel and walked back toward the green.
For a moment, Eilian stood staring after him. Even his father’s voice had sounded different. It was tight, as if Thranduil were trying to control words or even a cry that was threatening to escape his lips. He abruptly wondered if his father might be worried about something besides him. He turned and started slowly toward the palace.
His eye was suddenly caught by two people hurrying down a path to his left that led to a group of cottages. He recognized Ithilden instantly, but it took him a moment more to realize that the person with him was Siondel. Eilian blinked. Ithilden’s arm was protectively around Siondel’s shoulders, and from where Eilian stood, it looked as if Siondel was weeping. Whatever could have happened? Eilian had seen Siondel on the green earlier, and he had seemed fine then.
Eilian hesitated. He really should go directly to his chamber. If Thranduil came to speak with him and did not find him there, Eilian would be in serious trouble. But the normally placid Siondel looked so upset that Eilian was worried for him. Besides, he wanted to know what Ithilden’s involvement in all this was. His brother had just returned from an exciting mission. Somehow it seemed as if whatever was happening now was probably connected to that, but Eilian could not think how.
I will just take a quick look, he thought, and then I will go to my chamber. Adar will not be able to leave the feast until it is over, and that will not be for a while yet. He veered from the straight path to the palace and started after his brother.
As he darted onto the path among the trees, he found himself facing a warrior who was evidently crossing the path and heading into the woods. The warrior smiled at him, but Eilian thought he also looked a little dismayed. This was the second time Eilian had unexpectedly come across this warrior in the woods in the last two weeks. He had never seen him at the training fields though, and the warrior did not seem to be part of the Home Guard, so what he was doing was a puzzle that Eilian had not yet explored.
“Mae govannen, Maltanaur,” Eilian said and walked on without waiting for a response.
Eilian’s voice trailed off while Legolas was smiling to himself at this description of his brother’s first encounters with his keeper. Thranduil must have been seriously worried about Eilian to have set a bodyguard on him even before he became a warrior. Legolas supposed it was no coincidence that Eilian had first noticed Maltanaur as he wandered in the formerly peaceful forest while Thranduil was concerned over the possible return of the Shadow. Legolas looked down to see that Eilian’s brows were drawn together into a frown.
“Legolas,” Eilian asked uncertainly, “was I hiding from Maltanaur in a dream?”
“What do you mean?” Legolas did not understand the question.
“I thought we were playing a game,” Eilian said a little vaguely. “So when he called, I did not answer. I thought you were hiding too. Did I dream that?”
A horrible possibility suddenly occurred to Legolas. “Was Maltanaur outside the cave here, Eilian?” he asked and winced to hear the sharpness in his voice.
Eilian twisted his neck to look up at a Legolas. “I do not know,” he said, sounding miserable.
Legolas nearly moaned with despair. He had known that Elves would come after them as soon as the storm eased, so they probably were already out. But if the search party had already looked for them near the battle site by the caves, then they might not come back this way again. He suddenly realized how heavily he had been counting on other Elves finding them so that Eilian could be moved in a litter and thus not have his wound jostled too much. The other Elves would also have had more herbs to ease his brother’s bleeding. But now, Eilian’s fate seemed still to depend on Legolas alone, and that thought filled him with terror. Get hold of yourself, he thought sternly. Eilian needs you.
He looked at his brother’s anxious face. “We will wait until daylight and then start back to camp,” he said, as calmly as he could. “We have no more arrows, so we dare not move until then. In the meantime, we will try to get your bleeding under control.”
Eilian looked directly into his eyes and smiled faintly. “Whatever you say, brat,” he said trustingly, and then leaned back against Legolas’s chest again with Legolas’s arm tight around him.
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