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A Creature of Fire  by daw the minstrel

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.


3. Galelas

With the thick green leaves of summer rustling overhead, Legolas slipped through the forest, and as it had since he had first led this scouting mission into the woods, his body thrummed in harmony with the contented song these trees sang. He marveled yet again at how alive the forest was here, in contrast to the twisted trees in the shadowed south. He had almost forgotten what it felt like to be so at one with the woods, he realized. He had nearly lost his memory of this normal, everyday reality in the face of what was happening in the southern part of the Woodland Realm.

The little group he led had spent the last two days examining the ground and undergrowth for signs that an intruder had passed, listening for disturbances in the song of the trees, and checking the places in this part of the forest where strangers would be likely to camp if they were innocent or hide if they were not. Legolas had been pleased to find that he remembered this terrain well, although he had also seen that, since his last posting here, two streams had carved out new beds and a forest fire had destroyed old trees and left room for new growth at the edge of the territory this patrol was scouting. Yesterday, they had checked that area, and now they were moving back toward camp, sweeping once again through ground they had examined two days ago.

Legolas caught the sound of running water ahead and whistled a signal meant to draw the patrol’s members to him. Almost immediately, Beliond emerged from the trees to Legolas’s right. He had no doubt been keeping Legolas well in sight, but his bow was still on his back, so he too must sense the trees’ placidity and not be worried that some enemy would descend on them without warning.

“Unless the squirrels start hurling acorns at us, I think we are safe so far,” Beliond observed. Legolas grinned. He rather thought that Beliond had mixed feelings about the serene life of the Northern Border Patrol. Beliond was probably relieved that Legolas was out of danger, but given the wide-ranging life he had led before becoming Legolas’s bodyguard, he had to be bored on occasion too.

Gweddyn and Deliwyn appeared from Legolas’s left. Legolas glanced to Gweddyn for an assurance that all was as it should be, but he gestured for his much younger partner to speak. “We saw signs that a black bear has taken up residence near the border, Lieutenant,” Deliwyn said eagerly, “but nothing else was different.”

“Deliwyn found the claw marks,” Gweddyn said. The younger Elf tried to look indifferent, but he could not suppress a smile

“Good,” Legolas approved. He had watched with interest as these two worked together, occasionally asking Gweddyn how Deliwyn was doing, and he had been impressed by the way Gweddyn was unobtrusively offering guidance. Legolas had been young himself the first time he had served in this patrol, but he had not realized that the older warriors engaged in such deliberate care. Of course, he had always had Beliond by his side and that relationship had had its own quirks. It still did, for that matter.

Legolas turned as the remaining two patrol members approached. Galelas and Vanduil had been scouting well beyond where Beliond had been, so Legolas was not surprised that they were the last to arrive. Legolas lifted an eyebrow at them. “Nothing,” Galelas said.

Legolas waited to see if he would say anything more, but when he did not, Legolas shrugged and began giving orders. “As you no doubt hear, we are approaching the stream. We need to check the banks again, and then we will stop to eat.” Vanduil and Deliwyn both brightened, and Legolas had to suppress a smile. He had forgotten how hungry young warriors always were. “Gweddyn, you and Deliwyn search to the north until you get to where the banks rise. Then cross and start south again on the other side. Galelas, you and Vanduil do the same in the other direction. Beliond and I will cross immediately and begin searching on the other side.”

They all nodded and then fanned out slightly to approach the stream with the caution that was appropriate when drawing near to anyplace where animals or other, less harmless creatures might come to drink. Legolas raised a hand to halt them in the last of the trees that stood just where the ground began to slope away to the water. Elsewhere, the banks of this stream rose high and steep, but for about a mile here, they were low and the stream spread out more widely and flowed more slowly, making it an ideal place to come for water.

Legolas looked in either direction from where he stood but saw nothing stirring except the butterflies that floated in the tall grass. When no one else sounded an alarm either, he motioned them forward. Gweddyn and Deliwyn immediately approached the stream and then turned to their left and began moving away, scanning for signs that anyone unexpected had been there. Galelas and Vanduil did the same to the group’s right.

For a second, Legolas watched them go, noticing the way Galelas stayed slightly behind Vanduil and let his own search pattern slightly overlap Vanduil’s to lessen the chance that they would miss anything. He felt a stab of reluctant admiration for the care Galelas was taking. Then he turned his attention to the task at hand and led Beliond straight ahead to wade through the cool, knee-deep water.

On the other bank, they paused to drink and fill their water skins and then began searching to the north, knowing that the low banks ran further in that direction. Legolas saw tracks of deer and fox, although he saw no sign of the bear that Gweddyn and Deliwyn had reported. It must have another drinking place, he thought. We will have to find it and make certain that nothing more dangerous than bears shares it.

At that moment, a signal came from ahead, bringing him to sharp attention. Gweddyn and Deliwyn had found something. He began trotting toward the signal’s source, aware of Beliond off to his side doing the same thing. Almost immediately, he saw the two warriors. They had evidently reached the end of their assigned area on the other bank and had crossed to begin working their way south again. They were crouched, looking at the ground, but Gweddyn rose and came forward a little when he saw them. Without a word, he pointed to the tracks near which Deliwyn still squatted.

Legolas approached carefully, watching where he stepped so as not to disturb anything, but he need not have worried. The tracks Deliwyn guarded were deep and clear. Legolas looked at them for a long moment. “Now what do you suppose Dwarves are doing in the king’s woods?” he asked aloud.

“Getting a drink,” said Galelas’s voice, and Legolas turned to see that he and Vanduil had just arrived.

Legolas eyed Galelas coolly. “And have you an explanation for why they are drinking here?”

Galelas’s mouth tightened. “No,” he said grudgingly.

Legolas looked at him steadily. Then, satisfied, he turned to the others. “Spread out and see if you can find where they went.” He glanced at Gweddyn. “You saw no sign of them on the other side of the stream?”

“No,” Gweddyn said.

“Then they are here somewhere. Those tracks are not more than a few hours old.”

The group scattered and began to search, their efforts gradually taking them away from the stream and into the edge of the trees. Suddenly Legolas lifted his eyes from the ground and turned his head to listen. The trees to the east seemed to be disturbed. He whistled softly, calling his patrol to him. “That way,” he said, pointing east.

“What of it?” Galelas asked, his tone a little cautious. He obviously had no wish to draw another sharp word from Legolas.

Legolas glanced at him, more surprised than annoyed. “Listen. The trees are puzzled over something unusual. Do you not hear it?”

Galelas grimaced. “Perhaps.”

Legolas saw Vanduil and Deliwyn exchange a look and then turn round eyes on Legolas. Galelas eyed their faces and then turned abruptly to start in the direction Legolas had indicated.

As Legolas moved to go after him, Beliond slid to his side. “I have told you about that before,” he said smugly and then moved off a little distance away. Legolas glared at him for a second before turning to concentrate on the search. Every Elf Legolas knew could hear the song of the trees, but Beliond had always claimed that the king’s sons were more in harmony with the woods than others were. Legolas had begun to think that Beliond might be right, but he did not have to like being told so.

Within a hundred yards, Galelas spotted the broken tips on a shrub that showed where the Dwarves had passed. “There were only two,” he said, “although they were probably fetching water. There could be others.”

Legolas nodded, and they moved cautiously forward. Suddenly a familiar scent filled Legolas’s nostrils. He paused, sniffing the air.

“Someone is roasting venison,” Vanduil murmured gleefully. “Perhaps they will invite us to mid-day meal.”

Legolas shot him a warning glance, and he sobered. It would not do for this young warrior to get too cocky, Legolas thought. “Those doing the roasting are not very far away,” he said. “Everyone move into the trees. Encircle them and wait for my signal.”

Without a sound, the other disappeared among the branches. Legolas leapt into a nearby maple and, with Beliond a short distance to his left, he jumped from branch to branch, moving toward the source of the smell. Suddenly, through a break in the greenery, he saw them – four Dwarves gathered around a fire, over which they had suspended the haunch of a small deer. He slid to a lower branch, eyeing the campsite. He counted four packs, suggesting that the Dwarves in front of him were the sum total he was likely to find.

He slid his bow from his shoulder and, with his heart quickening a little, he waited to be sure the others had had time to position themselves. Then he pulled an arrow, fitted it to his bowstring, drew in a deep breath, and gave the signal. With a single push of his legs, he leapt down into the area near the fire, landing with his arrow pointed at one of the Dwarves and his face as stony as he could make it.

At the same moment, Beliond landed next to him, his arrow trained on a second Dwarf, and Gweddyn and Deliwyn appeared as if by magic on the other side of the fire. A second or two later, Galelas and Vanduil slid silently into view, their arrows at the ready. The Dwarves froze, one of them in the act of reaching out to turn the meat that sizzled over the fire. From the corner of his eye, Legolas caught a glimpse of another Dwarf’s hand twitching toward his axe. He drew his bow and pointed it at the offender. “If you are wise, Master Dwarf, you will remain still.” For a moment, no one moved.

Legolas swept his eyes over the Dwarves and settled on the one with the longest beard. “What are four Dwarves doing in the Elvenking’s woods?” he demanded.

The Dwarf drew a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. “We have the right to travel to and from Erebor,” he declared defiantly, making Legolas give him grudging points for courage. “Your king and mine agreed to that.”

“What Lords Thranduil and Thrór agreed to was that you could travel through the woods directly west of Erebor and north of there. You are south of where you should be. Or are Dwarves unable to tell where they are in a forest?”

The Dwarf bristled, but to Legolas’s satisfaction, he evidently recognized the cleft stick in which he was caught. He could admit to being lost, and thus look like a fool, or he could admit to deliberately violating the kings’ agreement, with consequences he could not predict. In truth, looking at the scene in front of him, Legolas was reasonably certain that the Dwarves had been hunting the deer and had continued to pursue it when it fled south. If they had been intent on something more threatening, they would not be sitting in the open, with the smoke of a fire and the smell of roasting meat to give them away.

The Dwarf finally decided to ignore Legolas’s question. Moving slowly, he held his hands out, palms up, in a mime of injured innocence. “We are on our way to the mountain and have simply paused to eat. We will be on our way again as soon as we have finished.”

Legolas gave a short laugh. “You will be on your way now.”

One of the other Dwarves made a disgusted sound. “You mean to rob us of our meal?” he cried.

Legolas could see the other Elves stiffen, and the Dwarven leader must have seen it too because he hastily gestured his companion into silence. “The venison is surely ready by now, Master Elf,” he said, “and there is enough for us and you too. Perhaps you will eat with us before we leave?”

Legolas raised an eyebrow at him. “You are generous with the deer you have caught in King Thranduil’s wood,” he said dryly.

“It would be a shame to waste the meat,” the Dwarf said.

No one moved, as Legolas stood for a moment, weighing his choices. Wasting the meat would indeed be shameful. What the forest gave should not be lightly tossed away. Besides, he knew his patrol was hungry. “Very well,” he said finally. “You four sit over there.” He gestured with his still-drawn bow to a spot a little away from the fire, and with their eyes on his arrow, the Dwarves did as they were told. “Gweddyn, you keep an eye on our ‘hosts.’ Deliwyn, if that venison is cooked, see to it that everyone has some.” Legolas eased his bow out of its draw and then returned the arrow to his quiver. Except for Gweddyn, who stood guard, the other Elves followed his lead.

Deliwyn moved toward the fire, examined the meat, and then, with a smile of anticipation, drew his eating knife and began to drop slices of it onto the elegantly wrought Dwarven plates that had been laid ready. He brought the first of it to Legolas, who eased his pack off his shoulders, removed his own eating utensils, and accepted the food. “Serve the Dwarves’ leader next,” he murmured, and Deliwyn nodded.

“They were probably poaching,” Beliond muttered from his seat next to Legolas.

Legolas nodded. “We will try to make sure that the next time they do it, they at least have enough sense to take their kill back to their own territory before they cook it.”

Beliond snorted, but said nothing further.

For the next few minutes, they ate. The Dwarves huddled silently together, continuing to eat and watching the arrow on Gweddyn’s bow. Legolas looked approvingly at Gweddyn’s blank face. He did look menacing. Glancing across the fire, Legolas saw Galelas speaking quietly to Vanduil and decided he wanted to have a word with them. He rose and went to where they sat, watching Galelas fall silent and look away at his approach.

“You two were late responding to my signal,” Legolas said. “What happened?”

Vanduil looked at him with stricken eyes, but before he could speak, Galelas said, “Nothing happened.” Vanduil looked at him from the corner of his eye.

Legolas gazed at them steadily. Finally, he said, “Vanduil, go and take the guard from Gweddyn so he can eat.” The young warrior nodded, leapt to his feet, and trotted off to obey. Legolas waited until he was engaged in watching the Dwarves and then spoke to Galelas in a low voice. “How is Vanduil doing, Galelas?”

“He is doing well,” Galelas declared.

“Was there a problem in getting into position around the Dwarves?”

“As you saw, we were where we were supposed to be.”

Legolas suppressed his exasperation. “Very well,” he said. “Then I must conclude you were simply slow. That could have disastrous consequences in the wrong situation.” With his mouth stubbornly set, Galelas gave a single sharp nod. Legolas gave the matter up and walked to where the Dwarves were finally showing signs of having had enough to eat. A glance told him that Gweddyn was polishing off the last of the venison, while Deliwyn had extinguished the fire and was making sure the ashes were scattered.

“We will escort you to your proper path now,” Legolas said. “I expect that my captain will send word of your trespass to my king, and it would not surprise me if he sent word to yours.” The Dwarves all flinched. Thrór would probably not be happy they had violated the agreement he had made with Thranduil. Legolas gestured the Dwarves to their feet, and they gathered their packs. “You and Galelas, lead the way,” Legolas ordered Vanduil, and the young warrior immediately started north at a brisk pace, with Galelas at his side and the Dwarves falling in behind. Legolas motioned Gweddyn and Deliwyn to precede him, and then he and Beliond brought up the rear of the party.

Beliond gave Legolas a satisfied look and murmured too low for anyone else to hear, “You certainly put the fear of the Valar in them. I expect that venison is churning away in their stomachs right now.” Legolas could not decide if he was gratified or not by his keeper’s assessment of his actions.

They walked for slightly over a league before Galelas and Vanduil halted and stepped apart to let the Dwarves pass between them. “Here we are,” Vanduil said, cheerily.

The Dwarves looked slightly uncertain. Legolas had noticed before that Dwarves were not always able to tell exactly where they were in the woods. It was an observation that never failed to rouse deep pity in him. “I suggest you travel a bit further north before you turn east again,” he said. “That way we can avoid any more unpleasantness.” The Dwarven leader nodded once and then, without a word, led his companions north.

Legolas turned to his own patrol. “Come. We need to finish scouting. Elorfin will be looking for us this evening.” The group set off and was soon once again sweeping through the forest, searching for signs of intruders.

Evening had fallen by the time they reached camp. “Mae govannen,” called the sentry in a familiar voice. “You return late.”

Legolas looked to see Sinnarn approaching, with his bow in his hand. Something white on Sinnarn’s hand caught his eye, and he waved the rest of his party on while he turned aside to speak to his nephew. “What happened?” he asked, indicating the bandage wrapped around Sinnarn’s left hand.

Sinnarn grimaced. “That is none of your business, Legolas.”

Legolas blinked and immediately knew that Sinnarn had been imprudent in some way. “As this patrol’s lieutenant, an injured warrior is my business,” he said sharply. “What happened to your hand?”

Sinnarn sighed. “I was fire jumping, and when I landed, I fell back with my hand in the fire.”

Legolas gaped at him. “Fire jumping! What possessed you to take such a foolish risk? I suppose neither Elorfin nor Nithron was around at the time?”

“You suppose correctly,” Sinnarn said. “I am not an idiot, after all. But you cannot tell me you have never engaged in fire jumping. I saw you do it after the mid-summer festival two years ago. I think you were trying to impress a maiden.”

Legolas could feel his temper rising. He had indeed leapt over a fire after the summer festival, competing with some of his fellows to see who could jump the farthest, but Sinnarn was incredibly cheeky to raise that memory now. “What I did after a festival and few cups of wine is completely unrelated to what you should be doing as a warrior in this patrol,” he said sharply. “And I am your lieutenant here, Sinnarn. Speak to me with respect.” In the back of his head, he suddenly heard both of his older brothers saying more or less the same thing to him when he had made the mistake of addressing them too familiarly while on duty.

Sinnarn sighed slightly. “Yes, Lieutenant,” he said woodenly. “It will not happen again.” It occurred to Legolas that Sinnarn had probably heard the same speech too.

Legolas drew a deep breath and relaxed a little. “Sometimes I believe you do not understand the seriousness of what we do, Sinnarn.”

Sinnarn looked away and then back again. “I understand it only too well,” he said defiantly. “How could anyone raised in the palace not? But surely that is all the more reason to amuse ourselves as we can.”

Legolas blinked at him. He had never heard Sinnarn take this slightly bitter tone before, but then, he had not been posted to the same patrol as Sinnarn for some time. “I would not want you to cease taking joy in your life,” he said slowly, “but while you are here, you owe it to your fellow warriors not to take foolish risks.”

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

Legolas started to walk away, but then stopped. “Was your hand badly burned?”

Sinnarn smiled. “No. The bandage can probably come off tomorrow.”

“Good,” Legolas said and then made his way into camp, intending to report to Elorfin. He spotted his captain across the camp’s central clearing, talking to Galelas.

When Legolas approached, Galelas glanced at him and then spoke to Elorfin. “Is there anything more, Captain?”

“No,” Elorfin said, and Galelas saluted and withdrew, with his back stiff. “I hear you found some wandering Dwarves,” Elorfin said.

“Yes, we did.” Legolas wondered for a second if Galelas had been presumptuous enough to give Elorfin the patrol’s report, but he dismissed the idea. Every member of the patrol had probably been full of the tale of the Dwarves the minute they walked into camp. Even now, behind him, he could hear Gweddyn regaling two other warriors with the story. In as much detail as he could, he told Elorfin about the encounter.

When Legolas had finished, Elorfin nodded. “You made the right choice to simply send them on their way, I think. They do not sound threatening, and we are supposedly friendly with the Dwarven king.”

Legolas could not help smiling at his tone. “So Lord Thranduil says.” Indeed, Thranduil’s tone when he spoke of the Dwarves was very much like Elorfin’s.

Elorfin laughed and then said, “Galelas tells me that Vanduil is still having trouble keeping aware of the need to position himself correctly when he is excited.” Legolas’s mouth dropped open, and Elorfin’s eyes suddenly narrowed. “You did not know?” he demanded.

“No,” Legolas admitted. “I did not. They were late responding to my signal to show ourselves to the Dwarves, but when I asked Galelas if there had been a problem, he denied it.”

Elorfin frowned. “He did? That surprises me because he told me what happened as soon as I asked him how Vanduil did.”

“I did ask him, Captain,” Legolas defended himself.

Elorfin looked at him shrewdly. “Is there something between you and Galelas?”

“Perhaps,” Legolas sighed.

“Then take care of it quickly, Lieutenant,” Elorfin said crisply. “I will not have this disrupting my patrol. Galelas has served well here. I will speak to him about not undermining you if I have to, but it would be far better if you can come to a truce so he does not have to be ordered into behaving well.”

“Yes, Captain.” Legolas saluted and made his way toward his flet, his mind busily seeking – and not finding – some way to “take care” of what was wrong between him and Galelas.

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