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A Creature of Fire  by daw the minstrel

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


6. Heading East

From his concealment in the undergrowth, Legolas watched as Galelas examined the ground on one side of the cave’s mouth, while Vanduil did the same on the other. Legolas was relieved to see both of them staying close to the wall of the low cliff, out of the line of sight of any intruders who might be standing guard in the cave. Not that Legolas thought there really was anyone in there. The patrol had seen no marks of a stranger’s passage, and they had searched with their usual thoroughness. Still, Galelas and Vanduil were going about this in the safest way, and Legolas approved of that. He did not want to have to send another warrior’s body home to his family, and in his youthful eagerness, Vanduil reminded Legolas entirely too much of the dead Naran.

As Legolas watched, Galelas darted a quick look at his partner, and Legolas realized that he too was worried that Vanduil might not be where he was supposed to be. But the younger warrior was conscientiously keeping near the cliff, and Galelas quickly returned to searching. When he had finished, he flattened himself against the rocks on one side of the entrance and waited with his bow at the ready. After a moment, Vanduil too completed his search and took up a matching position on the other side of the cave. Then they looked to where they knew Legolas was hidden and waited for the order to go into the cave.

Legolas raised his own bow, and without further delay, sounded the signal, simultaneously rushing forward to support his warriors as they slid through the cave entrance. He saw Sinnarn and Nithron running toward the cave too, and without looking, he knew that Beliond was right behind him. But as soon as he entered the cave, he knew it was empty, just as he had anticipated. They all lowered their bows.

“Nice job,” he told Galelas and Vanduil. Galelas slapped his young partner approvingly on the back, and Vanduil beamed. Vanduil was doing better, Legolas thought. There was no way to predict how he would do in a true emergency, but at least he was keeping his head in the routine searches the patrol had carryied out in the last few days on their scouting mission east. He might yet be made into a Wood-elf warrior.

Legolas stepped out of the cave into the failing light of early evening. “I think we have come far enough today. We will go back toward that stream and camp for the night.” No one said anything, but the way their shoulders relaxed and the promptness with which they started toward the stream told him they were all happy to be settling in for the night. They set up camp with practiced efficiency. Sinnarn and Nithron dropped their packs and went off to see if they could find small game to roast for their evening meal. Galelas went to fetch water, while Vanduil constructed a fire pit and Legolas and Beliond gathered wood.

Legolas dropped his armload of wood near Vanduil, but, when he turned, intending to claim a seat with his back against a large oak, he found Galelas just behind him, returning from the stream. Galelas made an ostentatious display of stepping out of his way. Legolas could feel his jaw tightening, but he said nothing and continued to the oak. Surely Galelas was getting tired of his surliness by now, he thought. The Valar only knew, Legolas was. The only time Galelas reacted pleasantly to Legolas was when he praised Vanduil. He seemed to take genuine pride in the young warrior’s progress, and Legolas had been forced into a reluctant admiration for Galelas’s generosity with him.

Thinking about Galelas made him recall the letter from Eilian that had come just before the patrol left on this mission. He pulled the letter out of his belt pouch and unfolded it to read again. Eilian’s letters were nearly always worth reading more than once.

Dear Legolas,

I hope this letter finds you well and in good spirits. I trust that the slowness with which mail reaches me here accounts for why I have not heard from you yet. I do not want to meddle in your private life, but anyone could see you were suffering from the Shadow when you came home the last time. Please write to me and let me know that you are recovering. As you know, I have had my own troubles with Shadow sickness, so I know what it is like. Troublesome as you are, you are dear to me, brat, and I am anxious to know how you fare.

Legolas grimaced. He had replied to Eilian’s last letter as soon as he could, but the courier had been late and his letter would then have had to wait until someone was going near Anyr’s settlement. He hoped Eilian had received it by now. And he knew only too well how Eilian had suffered from the Shadow. Eilian had been far more despondent than Legolas had when Ithilden had removed him from active duty. Legolas fervently hoped that his brother was healing now.

Life in this settlement goes on in ways that I could not possibly have anticipated when Celuwen persuaded me to pass the summer here. First, I must tell you that as the weather has grown warmer, I have discovered that these settlers have a most charming custom in which I have no doubt you will be interested. Until now, I have been bathing in the river shortly after dawn. The birds have sung to me while I splashed about, but they and the flashes of morning sunlight on the water are all that have kept me company as I did so – unless you count the mornings on which Celuwen joined me, but of course I would not be indiscreet enough to write about those.

A week or so ago, however, the afternoon grew uncomfortably warm, and I decided a dip in the river would feel good on my sweaty skin. So I collected my wife (I assumed she was hot too – you know what a thoughtful husband I am) and we made our way innocently to the place where we have been bathing in the mornings. Given the heat of the day, I did not expect to find the river deserted, and as it happened, we found half-a-dozen Elves already frolicking merrily together in the water. I caught a glimpse of Anyr, and we hesitated for a moment in the shelter of the trees, trying to decide whether we should both go elsewhere or whether I should join the males here and Celuwen should try to learn the place where the wives and maidens swam.

And then, out from behind Anyr jumped a maiden whom I have previously met only when she was skipping through the woods gathering roots to cook for that evening’s meal. I tell you, Legolas, I was reduced to open-mouthed astonishment because, so far as I could see, everyone there was clad only in water drops and sunshine. From the look on Celuwen’s face, I believe she was as surprised as I was.

In my usual cheery way, I suggested that we join our neighbors and assured her that because I am married, this array of bare skin would be like a display of art to a blind Man, but for some reason she did not believe me, and we went elsewhere to swim. She swore that in the settlement she is from, such mixed bathing is not customary, and given that her adar is that settlement’s leader, I can well believe it. Sólith is about as likely to allow mingling in the bare as he is to send me a scroll declaring what a fine son-in-law I am.

Even reading this for the second time, Legolas let out a whoop of laughter that made Vanduil and Galelas turn toward him with startled looks, so he tried to muffle his glee. Only Eilian could have stumbled on such an unexpected scene, Legolas thought in wonderment. His own visit to Anyr’s settlement had produced no such amusements. Of course, the river had been rushing over its banks and swirling among the trees at the time, but who would ever have guessed that the settlement Elves engaged in a practice that would have been judged scandalous at Thranduil’s stronghold.

Suddenly it occurred to him to wonder what life was like in Tuilinn’s settlement. Celuwen’s reaction to the mixing of male and female bathers showed that the settlements’ customs varied. For a moment, he pictured a naked Tuilinn slipping through the water, but the effects of that thought on his body made him hastily turn his mind elsewhere.

Still, he wondered, what if Tuilinn were used to behaving as freely as Anyr’s people did? Celuwen had lived near Thranduil’s stronghold for most of her youth, but Tuilinn had been born in a settlement. How would she adjust to life in the palace? He quailed a little at the thought. Perhaps she would not even be willing to make such a change. In their night together, they had had things that seemed far more important on their minds and had not talked about whether she would leave her village.

There is no point in worrying about that now, he told himself firmly. We will cross that bridge when we come to it. He turned his attention back to Eilian’s letter.

You will, I trust, remember my telling you that Celuwen has been trying to organize some of our neighbors to build cottages in the trees. I regret to report that this project is making only slow progress. Everyone here has built both flets and cottages of course, so in theory, they know how to do it, but Celuwen has had to organize a crew of workers to carry out this larger scale construction, and I fear her efforts are sometimes frustrated by the tendency of her laborers to drop their tools and depart without a second’s warning if some opportunity to amuse themselves arises. They are willing enough to start a day’s work, but they lack what our tutor used to call “sufficient perseverance.” (Was he still talking about that when he taught you, brat? He used to lecture me on it at some length. If anyone had “sufficient perseverance,” he did, much to my dismay.)

Yesterday, for example, Celuwen greeted the Elves who showed up in the morning with a list of lengths to which boards would need to be cut, and set them to sawing and smoothing them. I worked with them for a while, so I know they began industriously enough. But I had to leave, and when I returned, it was obvious that they must have stopped working after only a short time. My friend Enuldor told me later that someone had come by with the news that the strawberries had finally grown ripe enough to pick, and they had all gone off to gather them. He was a bit apologetic, because I believe he really does think that the settlers need to take measures to protect themselves against floods, but as he said, the berries were ripe today, and who knew when the floods would come again?

Celuwen is trying to be patient, but I am afraid she is increasingly discouraged by how hard it is to make any progress with her plans. And on this occasion, she was angry with me because I too had left. What she said was that I am an adult and she is not my naneth, so I may do as I like, but what she meant was that if she were my naneth, I would be confined to our flet so as to have time to think about my actions.

As it happens, she is mistaken about what I was doing when I left the building site, for I was not out gathering strawberries, but I am not certain she would be any more pleased if she knew what I was really doing. I am feeling the urge to confess to someone, and you will no doubt be honored to know that I have chosen you as my confidante.

I am enjoying myself here in the woods. Truly I am. But I have become increasingly worried about the inability of these people to defend themselves. I see no reason to believe that the forces of Shadow will abandon these woods and leave us all to live in an Anyr-designed dream world. Evil could sweep down on this charming place at any moment, and these people would be like children before its onslaught.

So in secret, I have been training half a dozen of them to use a sword, to arrange themselves well for battle against Orcs, and to shoot something other than game with their bows. They are all good shots and willing pupils. I think they may be as worried as I am about the lack of defenses. After all, their families live here. Enuldor is one of those I have been training, and I think he might make a good leader for these settler-warriors after I leave.

I have not told Celuwen about this of course. Anyr does not object to building the cottages in the trees. Indeed, I think he finds the idea charming. But he almost certainly would object to my training his people as warriors, and Celuwen firmly believes that we should not violate his wishes. Ordinarily, I trust her wisdom, but in this case, I fear too deeply for these people’s safety to allow the situation to continue as it is. So while Celuwen would be vexed with me if she knew what I was up to, I intend to continue doing it anyway. It turns out that marriage is not always an easy state, even when one is a model husband like me!

Legolas grinned. Eilian had courted Celuwen for years and married her in defiance of her father’s wishes and, even more impressively, Thranduil’s express orders. Even when he and Celuwen quarreled, which they did, he was obviously deliriously happy in his choice. Any complaints he made about marriage were just so many puffs of empty air.

For a moment, he wondered if his father would object to his own plans to bond with Tuilinn, but he rejected that thought out of hand. Tuilinn had no irate father forbidding the match. At least, Legolas assumed she did not. And Eilian’s marriage had worked out well, which meant that Thranduil would be more likely to approve of Legolas’s. Besides, Legolas knew in his bones that his father wanted what was good for him and what could be better for him than Tuilinn?

He had, of course, been watching for her during this whole scouting mission to the eastern part of the Northern Border Patrol’s territory. She should be returning from Dale any day now and his patrol was searching for intruders in an area through which she would have to pass. He smiled to himself.  What if she were to walk into this camp right now? They could spend the whole night together again.

He shook himself out of this fantasy and looked again at the passages in Eilian’s letter that told of his worries for the settlement. Legolas found them sobering. About this one topic, Eilian was as serious as Ithilden ever was. Legolas’s anxieties rose again. What if Tuilinn wanted to continue living in her settlement? Would she be safe there?

He glanced up as Sinnarn and Nithron came back into camp, each carrying a brace of rabbits that they had already prepared for cooking. They handed them over to Vanduil, and then Sinnarn came to plop down next to Legolas. “Where is Nana?” he asked and then gave a sharp cry and raised his hand to his head as an acorn bounced off it.

Legolas laughed. “I think he is in the tree.” Another acorn came pelting down, striking Sinnarn on the ear as he tried to dodge.

“Truce!” he cried. “I apologize.” Leaves rustled overhead, but no more acorns rained down on Sinnarn, so Legolas assumed that Beliond was pacified. Sinnarn cautiously relaxed, and Legolas turned back to Eilian’s letter.

I hesitate to bring up the topic of Galelas because I fear the subject is a sore one for you, but I have been thinking of him as I train these Elves, and I hope that you have been able to overcome your dislike of him and see the good warrior who lurks under his sometimes discontented surface. He wants to do well, Legolas, and he needs to be recognized for what he can do, which as a matter of fact, is a great deal. Please tell him I wish he were here to help me teach these over-aged novices. He is quite good with young warriors. He would no doubt be good here too.

I almost forgot to tell you that I have made friends with an acquaintance of yours. His name is Ródien, and he is as bright an elfling as I have met in some time. He asked me if I knew the “captain” who had brought food to his people after the flood, and after a few moments of cudgeling my brain, I realized he was talking about you! Does Ithilden know about your promotion? The little scamp has been nosing around the area in which I conduct the warrior training, and I am a bit concerned that he will discover what we are doing, but if he does, I think I can just swear him to secrecy. He looks to be the type who would enjoy knowing a secret.

Legolas grinned to himself. Ródien had been one of the children Tuilinn was caring for when Legolas met her, and even then, the child had been eager to see Legolas’s sword. He had apparently not changed much, and if Eilian was not watchful, he would be exacting sword fighting lessons as his price for silence. I will have to tell Tuilinn when I see her, he thought, and then felt a flush of pleasure at how natural the thought felt.

Write to me, brat. Do not make me ask Beliond for a report on you! For some reason, his messages to me are often surly. I suppose I could write to Sinnarn. He always tells everything he knows so I am sure of a thorough account of what you are up to. But you know I like to hear from you and determine for myself that all is well.

Your loving brother,


Legolas let the letter fall into his lap. The smell of the roasting rabbits made his mouth water, and he felt a flush of contentment with his family, with his future, and with this moment in the woods.

“How is Eilian?” asked Sinnarn, and Legolas realized that Sinnarn too was rereading a letter, one written in Ithilden’s small, precise hand.

“He sounds much better.” Legolas grinned. “He has discovered that the males and females in the settlement all swim together.”

Sinnarn laughed. “Perhaps I should go and visit him!”

Legolas gave an answering laugh and then gestured to Sinnarn’s letter. “How is Ithilden?”

Sinnarn’s mood suddenly sobered. “He is the same as he always is – weighed down with all the cares in Arda. But there does not seem to be anything in particular.”

Legolas eyed him thoughtfully. As he had several times lately, Sinnarn sounded almost angry at his father. “Surely Ithilden is not complaining.”

“No, of course not.” Sinnarn twisted his father’s letter between his hands.

Legolas hesitated. “You sound as if you blame him for being burdened.”

“He chooses to live the way he does,” Sinnarn snorted. “He could let others take some of his responsibilities off his hands. He should not have to shoulder them all just because he is the king’s oldest son.”

Legolas frowned. “Your adar’s responsibilities are not a matter of choice, Sinnarn. He is who he is, and he has a duty to the people of the Woodland Realm. We all do.”

Sinnarn made an exasperated gesture. “Well, I have decided that I will not live that way, and fortunately any fool can see that I am not fit for the kind of responsibility he carries anyway.” He turned a tense face to Legolas. “And you are a fine one to talk! I know you were worn down after that last tour of duty in the south, and I know the family was worried about you. So do not pretend that you do not find ‘duty’ to be wearisome sometimes!”

“I never said that,” Legolas protested. “I said it was unavoidable.”

At that moment, Vanduil called, “The rabbits are ready!”

Saved the trouble of answering, Sinnarn got to his feet. “I will get your meal too,” he offered and strode off toward the fire. Struck by a sudden notion about what might lie behind his nephew’s sometimes irresponsible behavior, Legolas watched him go but then was distracted by a glimpse of motion from the corner of his eye. He turned to see Galelas, who was obviously returning from the stream with his and Vanduil’s refilled water skins. Galelas nodded curtly to him and crossed the little clearing to put the skins with his and Vanduil’s gear.

Beliond leapt lightly down to land beside Legolas.

“Was Galelas eavesdropping?” Legolas asked him.

Beliond shrugged. “Not deliberately. The stream is behind you and he was just returning. But he did hear much of what you and Sinnarn said, I think.”

“As did you,” Legolas said dryly.

Beliond gave him a bland smile. Sinnarn returned with two plates of food, and as he handed one to Legolas, Beliond relieved him of the other. “Thank you, young one,” he said and began to eat. Sinnarn rolled his eyes but went back without protest to get another plate, which he took to a place next to Vanduil.

As he ate his meal, Legolas found that his eyes kept drifting to Galelas, sitting next to Nithron on the other side of the fire. He was a little ashamed of the fact that he had not passed Eilian’s greetings on to Galelas. It is better if I keep away from him, he told himself, but the excuse suddenly seemed weak. He was happy enough himself that it felt ungenerous not to tell Galelas something that would probably please him.

When he had finished, he rose, took his dirty dishes to Sinnarn, whose turn it was to wash them, and then walked to stand in front of Galelas, who looked at him in surprise. “I had a letter from Eilian, Galelas. He asked me to give you his regards.”

For a moment, Galelas did not answer. Then he said, “I heard he was on an extended leave.”

With a start, Legolas realized that Galelas sounded worried. “He is,” Legolas agreed, “and it seems to be doing him a great deal of good.” He could not suppress a smile as he thought about Eilian’s letter. “At present, he is in Anyr’s settlement. Do you know it? Tinár has been there.”

At the mention of his insufferable older brother, Galelas’s face stiffened. “I have heard Tinár talk about it.”

Legolas could hardly blame Galelas for his reaction. If Tinár were his brother, he might have to leave home. “Eilian is training some of the settlers in defense,” Legolas told Galelas. “He says to tell you that he wishes you were there to help him because you are good with novice warriors.” Galelas blinked, and Legolas could have sworn a faint pink tinged his cheeks, although by the firelight, it was hard to be certain. “I can see that in the care you take with Vanduil, of course,” he added a little awkwardly.

Galelas made no answer but looked at Legolas with his face unreadable. He probably thinks I am patronizing him, Legolas thought in exasperation. He gave Galelas a nod and then turned to go back to where Beliond had decided he was to sleep that night. He would set the watches, and then he would go back to thinking about Tuilinn and forget all about the irritating Galelas. He had passed on Eilian’s message, and that was all that could be expected of him.

Sinnarn carted the dishes off to the stream while Vanduil cleaned up around the fire and then banked it for the night. Sinnarn returned, and Nithron climbed a tree to stand the first watch. The patrol settled in for the night. Legolas rolled up in his blanket to walk a dream path with Tuilinn’s hand in his.

In the morning, they began the last part of their journey east. They should reach the edge of the forest around mid-day, and then they would turn to go back to their home base. The morning passed in unruffled routine, and again, Legolas was pleased with the performance of everyone in the group, including Vanduil. As they drew near to the place where the trees gave way to the grasslands, Legolas’s thoughts turned even more persistently to Tuilinn. The sharp pang he felt told him how much he had been hoping to see her on her return journey. Surely the patrol had not missed her? She must still be in Dale.

He emerged from the last of the trees, eager to look east across the grasslands, toward where the mountain loomed over the town. One could see far here. Perhaps he would be able to see her and Fyndil approaching. He turned his eyes toward Erebor, and abruptly, he froze. For a second, he could not understand what he was seeing. Smoke smudged the sky over the mountain, and rivers of red ran up its slope. With a jolt, he accepted the knowledge of what his eyes were telling him.

The mountain was on fire.

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