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Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
8. What Is Happening in There
Legolas studied the cottage in which he now knew Eilian was being held. Smoke rose from the chimney, and a faint light showed behind the curtains. None of the shutters had been closed on this warm summer night. Probably the Men were worried that doing so would look out of place.
“The dark will cover our approach to the cottage,” he said. “Men’s eyes are not good at night, and until the moon rises, they will be looking out from a lit room into darkness.” He turned to Beliond and Celoril, who crouched on the branch beside him. His patrol and the other settlers who had come to help waited in the trees all around them, keeping watch. The settlers seemed to be treating Celoril as their leader, and Legolas could only hope that meant they would follow Celoril’s softly given declaration that they were under Legolas’s command.
“The dark will help us,” Beliond agreed, “but if we go in, our eyes will need a second to adjust to the light. Much can happen in a second.”
Legolas grimaced. Beliond was right of course, but they were probably going to have to enter the cottage anyway. “We need to know more about what is happening in there,” he said slowly. “I wonder if we could see anything around the edges of the curtains.”
He felt an almost overwhelming urge to jump down from the tree and slip through the night to see what he could see at the cottage’s windows. His brother’s presence in the cottage tugged on him like a lodestone on a nail. This was Eilian, whom he had adored from earliest childhood, Eilian, who had made it clear to a small, bereaved Legolas that he would go away but he would always come back, and that Legolas could be as bad as he liked and Eilian would love him anyway.
But even in the face of an almost painful desire to be the one who crept to the cottage and peered in the windows, he knew he would have to send someone else. He could not take a chance on being hurt and leaving this mission without a leader. If he had learned anything about command during the last weeks, it was that an officer needed time to learn his own strengths, and his warriors needed time to see those strengths and trust them. It would not help Eilian if the patrol had to find a leader on the spur of the moment because Legolas had given in to his impulses. “I will send a scout,” he said reluctantly.
He slid to the ground, summoning his patrol at the same time. The settlers came too and stood in a little knot off to one side. Legolas turned to them first. “Can one of you describe the layout of the cottage?”
Celoril nodded. “There is a central sitting room that you enter as soon as you go through the front door. Doors lead off both sides of the sitting room to sleeping chambers. The one on the left is Celuwen’s. It would be very small. The one on the right is Sólith and Isiwen’s.”
“So the window to the left of the door leads to Celuwen’s chamber? And the one on the side of the house to her parents’?” Legolas asked.
Legolas turned back to the members of his patrol, running his eyes over them and assessing their individual skills as scouts. They were unusually keyed up, he knew, and had been ever since they had realized that their former captain was one of the Elves who were apparently in danger from the Men. “We need to send a scout to check the windows and see if we can learn more about what is going on in that cottage,” Legolas said, and he would have sworn that each one of them straightened slightly, hoping that he would be the one chosen to go.
Gelmir took a slight step forward, and for a minute, Legolas’s eyes rested on him. He saw the pleading look in the face of his brother’s friend and knew that Gelmir shared his own urge to do something, anything, that might help save Eilian from whatever plight he was in. But just as being the patrol’s lieutenant kept him from satisfying his own urge, he regretfully realized, it also kept him from satisfying Gelmir’s. He needed the best scout he had, and there was no question who that was.
“Riolith,” he finally said, “you go. Everyone else spread out and watch his back. I want you with arrows ready to loose if there is the slightest sign of trouble.”
Riolith gave him a single, grim nod and then disappeared into the undergrowth, seeking a sheltered path toward the cottage. For a moment, Gelmir looked incredulous, but then Legolas saw him take a deep breath, and without a word, turn to follow the other members of the patrol into the branches, with the settlers close behind. Legolas too went back to his post in the tree, watching Riolith’s shadowy form slip from place to place as he approached his target. He found he kept holding his breath and had to consciously remind himself to let it go again.
From the corner of his eye, he caught of glimpse of Beliond’s face and saw a look that he could not quite read, despite many years’ of spending most of his time within a few yards of the older warrior. Was Beliond questioning Legolas’s choice of a scout? His keeper had much more experience that Legolas did, and if he had advice, Legolas wanted to hear it.
“Is something the matter?” he murmured.
Beliond raised one eyebrow. “No. You do not like Riolith much, do you?”
Legolas shrugged. The question seemed completely irrelevant to him. “Not at present, no. He will be better once he has had his leave. He is almost due for one. Fortunately, he is a superb scout even when he is at his most difficult.”
Beliond’s mouth curved in a smile, and he nocked an arrow and turned back to watching the cottage. Legolas frowned at the back of his bodyguard’s head for a second and then pushed the incident from his mind and readied his own arrow. Beliond was incomprehensible sometimes, and Legolas did not have time to worry about what he might think now.
In an agony of impatience, he watched as Riolith crept in absolute silence, pausing first at the small window to the left of the cottage’s door and then the larger one to the right. Then he slid around the building’s corner to check the window on the side. Legolas glanced up hurriedly and then relaxed when he saw that Gelmir and Isendir had taken up posts that allowed them still to see Riolith. When Riolith reappeared and began making his way back toward where Legolas waited, he jumped hurriedly to the ground to wait for him.
“Legolas,” said someone just behind him and he jumped and turned to see Celoril and another settler.
“What is it?” he asked impatiently. He darted a look to see if Riolith had arrived yet, but he had not.
Celoril ignored his unwelcoming tone and indicated the other settler. “Isulas saw some things in the cottage from the tree tops.”
Legolas stared at him. “He what?”
“He went through the tree tops around the cottage and saw something in the sitting room.”
Legolas felt his anxiety flare into hot anger and turned on Isulas. “I gave no orders for that! I sent a scout who knew what he was doing. You could have given him away!”
Isulas looked astonished rather than offended. “All I did was travel through the trees. We always do that.”
Legolas opened his mouth and then shut it again with a suppressed moan. He had been about to deliver a speech that was familiar to every warrior he knew, the one that went something like “When you are under my command, you will not breathe unless and until I tell you to!” But what was the point of saying that to these settlers? They were not warriors, and they did not think like warriors. He was going to have to be very careful with them.
“What did you see?” he demanded grimly.
“A Man is holding Celuwen in front of him with a knife at her throat,” Isulas said soberly. Legolas cringed. That was bad. A hostage with a knife at her throat would be in great danger if he and his warriors tried to enter the cottage.
“Lieutenant,” said a voice, and Legolas turned to find that Riolith had returned. “I could see only into Celuwen’s chamber,” he reported, his face set. “No one is in it, but there were weapons on the floor. The sword is Eilian’s.”
Even though he had believed that Eilian was probably in the cottage, Legolas could not help the wave of anguish that washed over him at knowing for certain that Eilian was there and unarmed. What could possibly have happened that Eilian would allow Men to disarm him?
“I heard people speaking only in the sitting room,” Riolith went on, “Eilian and another male. They were speaking in Common and the other voice was strongly accented, so I assume that was one of the Men. And,” he hesitated but then pressed on, “I could smell death.”
For a second only, Legolas closed his eyes, trying to shut out the idea that someone in Sólith’s cottage had died. It was not Eilian, he comforted himself. Riolith heard him speaking. It was not Eilian yet, whispered another voice in his head, the one that had first surfaced years ago, when his mother died. Then he drew a deep breath and pulled himself together. “If the Men are killing those inside, then we need to act now.” He shoved aside the question of what Eilian would do if Legolas rescued him at the cost of Celuwen’s life.
“Get him out of the way,” Susta ordered, pointing his sword briefly at the body of Félas. “If someone comes along, we don’t want them seeing anything they shouldn’t.”
Eilian moved gingerly toward the body, trying to avoid stepping in the blood. He looked to where Isiwen had at last been allowed to tend to Sólith, who was just beginning to stir again. “Is there a blanket I can wrap him in, Isiwen?”
“In the chest in the corner,” she answered, indicating the chest from which Celuwen had taken bedding on the previous night. She was amazingly calm, Eilian marveled. He could see the source of some of Celuwen’s strength. He looked to Susta for permission to get the blanket.
“Wait.” The Man edged toward the chest, still watching Eilian, and then bent briefly to open it and pull out a blanket. As he did so, Eilian’s eyes flicked to Zalan, who now leaned against the wall, one arm pulling Celuwen back against him to shield himself from any move Eilian might make, and the other still holding the knife to her throat. Eilian stifled the fury he felt at Zalan’s touching Celuwen so that he could make use of the fact that Zalan’s eyes were on Susta. He dipped his fingers quickly into each of Félas’s boots, seeking to add a second dagger to his supply of weapons. To his disappointment, he found nothing. That probably meant that Sólith did not carry one either, he thought unhappily. Of course, from what Eilian could see, his father-in-law was unlikely to be of much help even if he had a weapon. Sólith was plainly still dazed and his moments of consciousness were brief.
Susta tossed the blanket to Eilian. He backed up, opened the door to Sólith and Isiwen’s sleeping chamber, and glanced inside. “Put him in here.”
Eilian spread the blanket on the floor and gently moved the body of Félas onto it, breathing a prayer as he did so. He wrapped the body in the blanket and then almost picked it up before he thought better of it and decided to drag the body to the other room. He did not want the Men to realize that Elves were stronger than they knew. With Susta watching from the chamber’s doorway, he laid Félas’s wrapped body on the floor and then responded to the jerk of the head that Susta gave to indicate he should return to the sitting room. To his secret relief, Susta closed the door to the sleeping chamber. Eilian did not want to have to think about the body in there.
Zalan had been looking restless for the last little while, and now he said something to Susta that made the other Man grunt in apparent agreement. “Woman!” Susta snapped his fingers to draw Isiwen’s attention away from Sólith. “Leave him. We need to eat. Cook the rabbits for us.”
Isiwen looked at the rabbit carcasses, lying on the floor not very far from where Félas had just been sprawled and her face paled. Eilian’s stomach protested too, so he knew what she probably felt.
Susta looked at them both. “You may be able to be fussy, but we are hungry. Cook them.”
Reluctantly, Isiwen rose from her place next to Sólith and picked up the rabbits. With her face set, she took them to the water bucket and sluiced them clean before she slid them onto the spit over the fire.
Eilian looked to see how Celuwen was doing, and found Zalan watching him. When Eilian’s gaze turned his way, he grinned and slid his hand casually over Celuwen’s breast, eyeing Eilian with a calculating gaze. Celuwen drew in her breath but made no move. Her eyes were fixed on nothing, as if she were concentrating on something in her own head rather than on what was happening in this room.
Eilian trembled with the effort it took for him to refrain from leaping at Zalan and killing him with his bare hands. I have to get her away from Zalan, he thought desperately. In truth, the only thing keeping the situation in the cottage in its current form was the knife at Celuwen’s throat. He could do nothing until that was removed. Once it was, he could and would kill Zalan as in as unpleasant a manner as he could conceive of.
Susta said something to Zalan that sounded like a reproof, and Zalan laughed but took his hand off Celuwen’s breast and contented himself with pulling her more firmly back against him. For a single, absurd second, Eilian actually felt gratitude to Susta, but then he came to his senses and considered what he had just seen. Susta was not the captain of this little group, but he evidently thought of himself as being in charge now that Khi lay unconscious. And Zalan’s actions suggested that he would defer to the other Man. Thank the Valar, Eilian thought. He would have been able to do nothing with Zalan, but Susta might be a different story.
He watched the Man, whose eyes kept darting to the fireplace, where the rabbits were just starting to cook. “You have not been eating regularly?” Susta shook his head. Eilian pondered that. These Men had come through the forest. There should have been game, even after the hard winter, but perhaps they were used to being fed from a supply wagon. Eilian had heard that the soldiers of Men sometimes relied on such things. “How do you come to be here?” he asked.
Susta grimaced. “It was Khi’s fault,” he said without hesitation, and Eilian instantly recognized the tone of a soldier about to complain about his commanding officer. He had heard the tone often enough, although seldom in his own patrol, thankfully, and had even occasionally adopted it himself.
“What happened?” he asked, making his tone as sympathetic as he could. He wanted Susta to see him as reasonably friendly, and it would not hurt at all if the Man were distracted by his own troubles.
“Our company was with some of the Dunlendings when the Men of Gondor came,” Susta said in disgust. “Why we were there, I will never know. No one tells us anything. We just had to be with the barbarians every day and then get caught on the wrong side of the river when the battle broke the wrong way. And everything was flooded. You would not believe the mud and the insects. We had to come more than forty leagues north before we found a ford we could use.”
Eilian gave a short laugh. “Officers,” he sneered. “None of them has the sense of a newborn puppy.”
“That’s the truth,” Susta spat.
Eilian looked at Celuwen and then turned to Susta. “I am sorry to trouble you with this, but I think my woman is tired.” He gestured at Celuwen. “May she sit? You know how females are. She will become petulant if she is kept on her feet for much longer.” He offered a silent apology to his wife, who now looked at him with her brows drawn together as if she were trying to understand some puzzle.
Still absorbed in his own grievances, Susta threw a quick look toward Celuwen and then said something in his own language. When Zalan scowled and made what sounded like a protest, Susta snapped at him, and after a second, the younger Man spat onto the floor and broke eye contact.
“Woman,” Susta jerked his head at Isiwen, who was tending the rabbits, “get a chair for your daughter.”
Isiwen shot Celuwen a concerned look, pressed her lips together, and slid one of the straight-backed chairs from the table over to where Celuwen stood. She ignored Zalan and murmured something to Celuwen that even Eilian could not hear. Zalan frowned and then casually flicked the point of his knife away from Celuwen’s neck just long enough to slit the sleeve of Isiwen’s gown and leave a shallow cut in her arm before he returned the weapon to where it had been. Isiwen sucked her breath in through her teeth and turned abruptly back to the fireplace. Celuwen suppressed a cry and then sank into the chair as if her legs could hold her no more. Even from where Eilian stood, he could see that she had started to tremble. She was at the end of her tether, he thought worriedly.
But while Zalan still had the point of his knife at her throat, he now stood behind her chair while she sat, leaving his chest and head exposed. Eilian again became very conscious of the dagger in his boot. At that moment, from close outside the window, he heard the soft warble of what sounded like a bird and yet, he knew, was not. His heart leapt, and he quickly looked down to hide the expression on his face that he knew might betray him. Had Maltanaur come? Susta had claimed that the Men had “taken care” of him, but they seemed to have no idea of how tough Elves could be. And then his ears picked up the soft sounds of someone in Celuwen’s sleeping chamber. He looked up hastily and knew at once that the Men had not heard them, but the crisis had plainly arrived.
In one swift movement, he pulled the dagger from his boot and threw it at Zalan. For a second, no one moved, as the knife’s handle quivered a little where it protruded from the base of the Man’s throat.
Then, as if realizing only belatedly that he had been stabbed, Zalan’s eyes widened in surprise. Simultaneously, Celuwen leapt to her feet, whirled, and snatched up the knife that Zalan held in his hand, and Isiwen grasped the heavy spit from the fireplace and brought it down hard on Zalan’s head, splitting his skull and sending the rabbits sliding off the spit and skittering across the floor.
“Stop!” shouted Susta, and, now weaponless, Eilian spun to find the Man’s sword pointed at his chest, with the tip about a foot away. “Stop, or I will kill him!”
At that moment, several things happened at once. The door of Celuwen’s bedroom burst open, and Elven warriors erupted into the room. The front door of the cottage also opened, and to Eilian’s surprise, Legolas leapt through it with his sword already in motion. And as Legolas stabbed at Susta from behind, a knife flew past Eilian’s right shoulder and struck the Man in the chest. Eilian whirled to find Celuwen standing with her arm extended. She had thrown Zalan’s knife, he realized. She looked at him and suddenly her face crumpled, and then somehow he was across the room and holding her in his arms while she sobbed.
“Isendir, Gelmir, check the other room,” Legolas ordered, leaning forward to make sure that Susta was truly dead and then yanking his sword from the Man’s back. Warriors, who, Eilian now realized, were from the Southern Patrol, hastened to obey, with Gelmir touching his arm briefly as he hurried past. He reappeared at the chamber’s door almost immediately.
“There is a dead Elf in here,” he said grimly.
Elves who were not warriors were now pouring through the front door, and one of them hastened into the sleeping chamber, as a second put his arm around Isiwen’s shoulder. “Sólith needs a healer,” she said shakily. She looked up at her protector. “The dead Elf is Félas,” she said, as the Elf who had hurried past came back and nodded his head in agreement.
Legolas turned to one of the Elves, whom Eilian recognized as one of his in-laws’ neighbors. “Get the healer,” he order briefly and then turned back to face Eilian. “How are you?” His voice sounded tight.
“All right now that you are here, brat,” Eilian said as lightly as he could.
Legolas met his eyes and then smiled faintly. “What are brothers for?”
More of the settlement Elves were still entering the cottage, crowding the room and raising the noise level as they exclaimed to one another. Eilian felt Celuwen tremble and glanced down at her chalk-white face. “Come,” he said softly and drew her into her own room, which was empty. He pulled her close against him and stroked her hair, crooning as he did so. “You were so brave. You are safe now. It is all over.”
From the other room, he could hear Legolas raise his voice and exclaim exasperatedly, “Everybody get out, except the healer and one person to help Isiwen!”
And then came the voice of Sólith, who was finally waking up. “I give the orders in my own house, Thranduilion. Not you.”
Eilian laid his cheek against Celuwen’s hair and groaned. His father-in-law undoubtedly had a monstrous headache and no memory of the events of the last few hours, but he knew who he thought was in charge here. The everyday world had returned, it seemed.
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