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Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
7. Men in the Settlement
Eilian froze. Across the room from him, he saw Celuwen, her face chalk white, with a Man standing behind her holding the point of a knife to her throat. He took an involuntary step toward her, and the sword at his ribs suddenly bit into his flesh. “Do not move, Elf,” said a voice to his left in heavily accented Common. “You move; you die. And so does she. Indeed, I suspect that Zalan would enjoy the chance to kill her. He is made like that.” The eyes of the Man holding Celuwen shifted rapidly back and forth from the speaker to Eilian, and when he saw Eilian looking at him, he grinned and prodded Celuwen so that a trickle of scarlet ran down her neck. She drew her breath in sharply but said nothing.
Her eyes went to a point on the floor between them, and Eilian saw the dark shape sprawled there, with blood from a gaping wound in his belly spreading in a pool around him. Félas, Eilian realized, recognizing the settlement leader. A loop of Félas’s bowels protruded from the gash, and Eilian was as certain as he could be that he was dead. The rabbits that he and Sólith had butchered lay in a small heap next to the body, where they had dropped from Sólith’s limp hand.
“He came to talk about my proposal for the settlement’s defense,” Celuwen said faintly. She sounded as if she were having trouble drawing in enough air to force the words out.
Abruptly, Eilian felt himself becoming a warrior again, and his vision expanded to take in someone other than Celuwen. He scanned the room. In front of the fireplace, where the fire now blazed brightly, despite the warmth of the fading summer day, Isiwen was tending to a third Man, who lay with the leg of his trousers cut away from the protruding shaft of an arrow. Even from where Eilian stood, he recognized the fletching on the arrow as Maltanaur’s. What had happened to his keeper? he wondered, his breath coming a little quicker.
Isiwen looked up at him and Sólith, who stood just to Eilian’s right. She glanced at Celuwen and then at the body of Félas, naked pleading in her face. She was warning them to take care. If Félas had been cut down in front of her and Celuwen, Eilian did not doubt that she was terrified.
“I am going to take your weapons now,” said the Man to his left. “If you move, Zalan will cut the woman. Do you understand?” Eilian hesitated for a second before nodding. “You too,” the Man added, speaking to Sólith, who also nodded.
The Man who had been holding Eilian at sword point eased into sight now. Like his companions, he was dark, bearded, and broadly built. Eilian eyed him narrowly. I was right, he thought. They are from the east. Given what he had heard about the mercilessness of the Easterling armies, the thought gave him no comfort. The Man approached Eilian carefully and took his bow, quiver, and sword, as well as the knife at his belt. He ran his hands over Eilian’s body, checking for more weapons, but did not check his boots. Eilian was acutely aware of the dagger hilt pressed against his right ankle, and his fingers itched for it, but he did not dare to act while the knife was at Celuwen’s throat.
The Man moved from Eilian to Sólith, taking his weapons too. Eilian wondered if Sólith also carried a dagger in his boot. If he did, then he might be a useful ally in a fight when the time came. Still facing them, the Man moved to the door of Celuwen’s room, tossed the weapons through, and pulled the door shut.
“Does either of you know anything about healing?” he asked, glancing from Eilian to Sólith. And Eilian now noticed that the shoulder of his tunic was torn and bloody. “Do you know anything about healing?” the Man demanded again sharply. “That woman has medicines, but she says she cannot get the arrow out of Khi’s leg.” He flicked a suspicious glance at Isiwen, who was gazing pleadingly at Sólith. A calculating look came into the Man’s face, and he beckoned to Sólith, who hesitated, glanced at Celuwen, and approached the
With ostentatious casualness, the Man brought the hilt of his sword down in a heavy blow to Sólith’s temple. Celuwen and Isiwen both cried out in protest, and Sólith crumpled slowly to the floor. Isiwen jumped to her feet.
“No,” the Man said, putting his sword point against Sólith’s chest. “You may tend him after we are cared for.” He jerked his head at Eilian. “You help her.”
Eilian caught his breath and turned slowly to edge around the body of Félas and go toward Isiwen. He looked as reassuringly as he could at Celuwen as he passed her, and she actually smiled faintly at him, although her eyes went back immediately to her unconscious father. She was plainly shaken.
His mind moved rapidly, trying to assess the situation. How was he going to deal with these Men while keeping Celuwen and her parents safe? He thought again about Maltanaur and glanced at the closed window, where the curtains had already been drawn. Where was his keeper?
“And do not count on any help from your friend with the horses,” said the Man. Eilian glanced back at him, and the Man bared his teeth. “I will admit that he did some damage, but we took care of him before we came in here.” Eilian kept his face blank only with great difficulty. “Unfortunately,” the Man went on, “the horses ran away. The fool did not have them tethered. When Khi can travel again, you will give us food and medicine and help us catch the horses and then we will leave. We would be gone by now if that cursed Elf had not attacked us.”
Eilian had to fight to draw in his next breath. Had these Men killed Maltanaur? His hands clenched involuntarily, but he forced himself to open them again. Whatever had happened to Maltanaur, Eilian was in no position to help him now. He crouched next to Isiwen, looking at the Man, Khi, he supposed, who lay unconscious, probably from the recently stitched gash on his head. It had bled copiously into the towel Isiwen had put beneath him.
“The arrow will need to be cut out,” she said in Sindarin, her voice trembling a little. “I have never cut an arrow free before.”
“Speak Common,” the Man said sharply. “Zalan does not understand it, but Khi and I both do.”
Eilian looked at the unconscious Khi. The languages he understood were probably irrelevant at the moment. He glanced up at the other
The Man eyed him suspiciously but apparently could think of no reason not to give his name. “Susta.”
“Are you the leader of this group, Susta?” Eilian asked and knew at once that he had hit a sore spot. Susta’s mouth tightened.
“Khi is,” he said, with grievance thick in both words.
Eilian forced a look of knowing sympathy onto his face and turned to look at Khi. “He is lucky you are here. I can cut the arrow out, but I will need a knife.”
Susta hesitated. “Let the woman do it.”
“She does not know how.”
“You tell her.”
Eilian grimaced and decided not to mention that Isiwen might accidentally damage the muscles in Khi’s leg further. “Very well.” He examined the arrow and the site where it was lodged. Then he snapped the shaft off to keep it from wiggling and twisting the point while she was removing it. “I will stand just over here so I can see what she is doing,” he told Susta. The last thing he wanted to do at the moment was surprise the Man by his movements. There would be time for that later.
Susta nodded, and Eilian rose and moved a little to one side, studying the
Susta hesitated for a second longer and then approached Isiwen with his knife drawn. He paused. “Remember that Zalan has the other woman,” he said. Eilian and Isiwen both nodded. Susta handed his knife to Isiwen, having to look up at her as he did so because she was taller than he. He scowled. He resents her height, Eilian guessed immediately. He thinks of both Isiwen and Celuwen as inferiors, probably underestimating their strength. Eilian stored the information away in his head. Anything could be useful. Anything at all.
Isiwen turned to hold the knife in the fire to clean it. As she did so, Eilian scanned the three Men. He could not always judge the ages of Men, but Susta and Khi both looked to him to be of middle years. Their faces were lined, and Khi’s hair and beard were lightly streaked with grey. Zalan, on the other hand, was young, and when Eilian looked at him with tip of his knife still at Celuwen’s neck, his stomach tightened. Zalan’s eyes glittered with enjoyment of the scene before him. Eilian had once before seen a Man like Zalan and had concluded that he was broken inside. Whatever Men had for a fëa was missing. Zalan would cut Celuwen’s throat and take delight in doing it. I have to get her out of here, he thought, fighting to keep panic at bay.
Isiwen looked up at Eilian to wait for his instructions. “Slide the point of the knife in along the flat side of the arrowhead,” Eilian told her. She did so, and even in his unconscious state, Khi groaned. Susta’s eyes narrowed and she froze. Disconcertingly, Zalan laughed. Eilian looked at him sharply. He had not harmed Celuwen again, but she looked terrified. She knew quite well the kind of Man he was.
“Isiwen cannot help hurting him,” Eilian protested to Susta, and after a beat, he nodded grimly. For a few moments, Eilian concentrated on helping Isiwen get the arrow out of Khi’s thigh. At last she had the arrow in her hand.
“Give me my knife,” Susta ordered sharply, and she handed it to him and then turned back to try to stop the bleeding from the wound the arrow had made. Susta wiped the knife on his trouser leg and slid it into its sheath. “Help her,” he ordered Eilian, who now crouched too and helped Isiwen bind the leg tightly. For a second, he wondered if they might do better to let Khi bleed, let him bleed to death if he would be so obliging. But he shied away from the thought with a flush of shame. Khi is not going to hurt us anyway, he told himself. He was not even terribly worried about Susta. He would have taken the Man down by now under most circumstances. It was Zalan he was worried about.
“Now she tends to my shoulder,” Susta said when they had finished with Khi. “You stand over there.” He pointed to a corner of the room that was far from both him and Zalan. Eilian went where he was told. He was close enough to the window that he could hear birds singing. A neighbor called to someone as he walked along the path near the cottage. Out there things were still ordinary, he marveled. It was only in here that a nightmare had sprung to life.
Legolas lay in the underbrush, watching the Elf stroll unconcernedly along the path that crossed in front of him, leading through the center of the settlement. Everything looked disturbingly normal. Had he been wrong in thinking that something was the matter here, that the Men his patrol had followed all day were dangerous intruders? He had been so sure. The forest here felt wrong, and he had urged his warriors on with increasing concern as the day wore along.
A bird sang sweetly off to his left, making his breath catch. “Come,” he commanded and raced off to where the signal had come from, with Beliond at his heels, both of them keeping carefully out of sight of the path. They found Isendir near a thick clump of lilacs. He beckoned to them and suddenly Legolas saw Gelmir, bent over someone sprawled face down on the ground. He hastened up and then stopped short, as Gelmir’s white face turned to him.
“It is Maltanaur,” Gelmir said. “We found him in the bushes.”
Legolas could scarcely believe what Gelmir and his own eyes told him. What was Maltanaur doing here? Could there possibly be a Home Guard patrol here already? He had seen no sign of one when he scouted the settlement. “How is he?”
Looking grim, Gelmir pointed to a deep sword wound in Maltanaur’s back. “He is in a bad way. He needs a healer.” He detached the emergency healing kit from his belt, pulled out clean bandaging, and pressed it against the still bleeding wound.
A sudden thought struck Legolas, one that should have occurred to him sooner, and he glanced hastily around. “Search,” he commanded Isendir and Beliond. “See if there is anyone else.” He did not voice his fear, but Beliond at least knew what it was: If Maltanaur was here, then the chances were that Eilian was not far away. And if Eilian were unharmed, then he would never have left his wounded keeper to lie alone like this. They began hastily beating through the underbrush, and Legolas rose to join them.
At that moment, Riolith and Fendîr came sliding through the bushes. “Lieutenant, we found a dead Man shoved in the underbrush about fifty yards in that direction,” Riolith said. His eyes went to Maltanaur, and his breath caught. “Is he --?”
“He is still alive,” Legolas answered. “How did the Man die?”
“Arrow in the neck,” Fendîr said briefly. He looked at the quiver still strapped to Maltanaur’s back. “One of his,” he added.
Legolas’s heart began to beat even faster than it had been doing. There had been a fight. Maltanaur had killed a Man but been wounded himself. But where was Eilian?
“Legolas,” Beliond called softly. Legolas turned to see him pointing to the ground a short distance away and went to see what he had found. “Four Men have been here. This is where the scuffle was. It looks like more than one was wounded.” They crouched over the marks. Spatters of blood lay beaded in the dust, and there were clear marks where the dead Man and Maltanaur had been dragged away into hiding. Legolas eyed some long scuff marks.
“Two of them were dragging the third between them when they left,” he said slowly, picturing two Men with the arms of the wounded one around their necks and his toes trailing in the dirt. The marks led toward the nearest cottage.
A soft signal came from behind them, and all of them melted into the trees or the underbrush, where Gelmir was still tending to Maltanaur. From the branch where he stood, Legolas saw a settler come walking along with a string of fish in his hand, evidently on his way home with his family’s evening meal. A source of information, Legolas thought immediately and dropped to the ground again, with Beliond quickly following.
“Mae govannen,” he greeted the Elf, who seemed completely unperturbed by his sudden appearance.
“Mae govannen,” the settler responded with a smile. He glanced toward the trees where the rest of the patrol was still concealed. “I did not realize that Sólith’s son-in-law had brought so many warriors with him.”
Even in his current anxious state, Legolas felt a spurt of surprised amusement. These settlers apparently knew their own woods every bit as well as they had always claimed they did. But the moment was short-lived, as worry about Eilian came flooding back. “Is Sólith’s son-in-law here?”
The Elf nodded. “He and Celuwen are both here. Did you not come with him?”
“No. Lord Ithilden has asked us to check on some Men, and we have followed them here. Do you know if there are any Men in the settlement?”
The settler shook his head. “Not that I have seen."
Legolas drew a deep breath. “I am called Legolas. May I ask your name?”
“Celoril, we believe that these Men are dangerous. Look,” he invited and showed the marks in the dirt to Celoril, who blinked. He may not have been a warrior, but he had undoubtedly tracked a great deal of game, and he knew blood when he saw it. “Whose cottage is that?” Legolas asked, indicating the one to which the marks appeared to lead.
“Sólith’s,” Celoril said, and for just a second, Legolas’s world stopped. Over Celoril’s shoulder, he could see Beliond looking at him with concern.
He forced himself to concentrate on what he had to do. “These Men are probably in Sólith’s cottage,” he told Celoril. “We need to be sure that is where they are though, and we need to know that all of your neighbors are safe. We do not know all your neighbors or who should be where, and if we go into the settlement, we might create a stir that would alert the Men. Can you help us?” He hated to involve Celoril in searching for the Men, but he could not see that he had any other choice.
Celoril stared at the blood on the ground and nodded slowly. “I can get one or two others to help me, and we can check on everyone.”
“Tell people to go inside and stay there,” Legolas said, trying frantically to think of what else he needed to tell this Elf. “Stay away from Sólith’s cottage because that is probably where they are, but do not take that for granted. Go carefully.” For a moment, he wondered if he and his warriors should conduct this reconnaissance themselves, but he immediately dismissed that as impractical. “And we need a healer. One of my warriors is hurt.”
Celoril nodded. “I will send the healer. And I will come back and tell you what I find out.”
“Good.” Legolas stepped back, and Celoril walked off into the settlement, glancing around him but not looking back at them.
“Good decision, Legolas,” Beliond murmured, and Legolas glanced at him. He hoped Beliond was right.
An hour crawled by. A healer came almost immediately and set about tending to Maltanaur, with her face grim. Legolas sent his warriors into the treetops to scout around the edge of the settlement, learning what they could. He and Beliond circled Sólith’s cottage several times, traveling through the branches and noting every bit of cover near the cottage and every window that might give them access. Then he scaled an oak and sat staring at the cottage, trying to guess what was happening there. The curtains were drawn, and no one went in or out. Beliond climbed to the branch beside him.
“We need to get the Men out of there and keep everyone else who is inside safe,” Legolas worried aloud. “And that probably means we need to know more about what is happening inside.”
Beliond nodded. “We will see what Celoril has to tell us,” he said softly, “and then we will plan.” Just as he finished speaking, they saw Celoril coming along the path toward them. They dropped to the ground and waited.
“They must be in Sólith’s cottage,” Celoril confirmed. “No one has gone in or out of there for several hours. Everyone else is accounted for except for Félas, our leader. He went to see Celuwen about something earlier today and has not been seen since.”
Legolas drew a deep breath. “Then at least we know what we have to do,” he said grimly. “Thank you. You should go home now.”
Celoril raised an eyebrow. “Nonsense. These Men have invaded our home and threatened one of our neighbors. I am going to help you. Five others are also making their way here through the trees. We have never served as warriors, but we can certainly use a bow and these Men need to be removed from our midst.”
Legolas looked at him, half in admiration and half in dismay. The idea of untrained civilians running around while a battle was going on scared the wits out of him. “It is too dangerous,” he said firmly.
“It is too dangerous to leave the Men where they are,” Celoril answered calmly.
In the back of his mind, Legolas heard his father’s voice, speaking sharply about the stubbornness of settlers. I might as well save my breath, he thought resignedly. If they will not listen to Adar, they certainly will not listen to me. “You will have to follow my commands,” he said grimly. “Otherwise, we will have chaos, and people will be hurt when there is no need.”
Celoril eyed him and Legolas met the inspection with a steady gaze. This was not something he would even consider negotiating about. Finally, Celoril nodded, apparently satisfied. “We will follow your orders, for we know we have no battle experience, but we will not leave.”
“Very well,” Legolas said, as his ears told him of the arrival of the other Elves. “Now we need to plan.”
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