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A Creature of Fire  by daw the minstrel

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

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7. Dale

With a snap, Legolas came to himself again and glanced left and right to catch glimpses of Sinnarn and Vanduil staring incredulously at the mountain. He sounded a signal meant to call the rest of the patrol to him in all haste. Galelas came running, touching Vanduil’s arm as he passed, and then suddenly, they were all there, looking at Legolas with alert faces, awaiting his orders.

“What is it?” he demanded of Beliond and Nithron. “What could have caused those fires? They are far too widely spread to come from lightning.”

The two keepers looked doubtfully at one another. “I do not know,” said Beliond unhappily. Legolas knew that Beliond hated being uncertain of what danger Legolas might be encountering, and even in this tense moment, he was grateful for the restraint Beliond showed in leaving him to do his job.

“We need to find out what is happening,” Legolas said. The Woodland Realm was entirely too close to the mountain for the Elves to ignore events there. If Sauron’s followers were attacking Erebor, then Thranduil’s people could easily be their next target. “Come.”

He turned to lead them out of the trees and into the grasslands, gradually speeding up from a trot to a steady run that would eat up the leagues between the woods and the mountain by the time the light began to fail. Beliond ran just behind Legolas’s left shoulder, and when he flicked a glance to either side, Legolas could see Nithron shadowing Sinnarn, and Galelas watching over Vanduil. At the sight of Vanduil, Legolas could not help feeling a moment’s worry. We will soon find out if the youngling has learned enough, he thought grimly, and then he settled down to husbanding his breath.

And then his thoughts turned with single-minded concentration to Tuilinn, and fear twisted in his gut. Dale lay close by the foot of the flaming mountain. He could not see it clearly yet, but it seemed to him that the smoke rose from the town as well as the mountainside. Surely she has already left, he reassured himself, but he found he could not believe it. She was still there, and in his heart, he knew it.

They had run for perhaps an hour when he saw a scattering of half-a-dozen short, stocky figures running toward them, with the tall grasses parting before them like a river before the prows of so many small boats. He recognized their build and gait almost instantly: Dwarves. Dwarves could move quickly when they wanted to, and these were going fast enough to freeze his blood. They were fleeing, he thought in despair. And a fire on the mountain was not enough to make a Dwarf run. With sickening certainty, he knew that his worst fears had been correct: Something evil had descended on Erebor.

He increased his speed and changed his course slightly so that his patrol’s path would intercept that of the Dwarves. They ran on, closing the distance between them and the Dwarves with a speed that reflected an urgency Legolas knew they all shared.

He could tell the exact moment when the Dwarves finally caught sight of them, for the long-bearded leader faltered for a second and then made a quick gesture that sent four of the Dwarves veering off to one side, so as to keep out of the Elves’ way. Two of those sent to the side looked small to Legolas. Children, he thought. They are being sent off to safety while the other two meet us.

As the two older Dwarves approached, he saw to his increasing alarm that both of their beards were blackened around the ends and edges. They were singed, he realized in horror. These two had been very close to the fire. Moreover, they were without gear or weapons, suggesting the haste with which they had fled their home.

Legolas slowed to a stop and motioned most of the patrol to stay in place while he and Beliond went forward to speak to the Dwarves. He had inherited his father’s suspicion of these creatures, but they were the neighbors and allies of the Woodland Realm. Moreover, they would be able to tell him what the trouble at the mountain was. The bearing of the Dwarf in the lead looked familiar to Legolas, and suddenly he realized that it reminded him of Thranduil’s. Obeying his instinct, he put his hand over his heart and bowed deeply. “Legolas Thranduilion at your service.”

The two Dwarves exchanged a sharp glance, and then they both inclined their heads. “Thrór, King under the Mountain,” said the first Dwarf, “at yours and your family’s.”

Legolas tried to conceal his surprise. No wonder this Dwarf reminded him of Thranduil. Thrór had been King under the Mountain for 180 years now, ever since he had led his people back to Erebor after they were driven from the Grey Mountains by the reappearance of dragons there. “My lord, you are obviously in distress. Can we help you? Can you tell me what has happened?”

Thrór gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Help us? I do not think so. Ruin has followed us, even as we tried to escape it, and now we must survive as we can.” His tone was bleak, and with a sudden jolt, Legolas knew what Thrór was talking about. And now that he realized what the trouble must be, he could not believe he had not seen it before. Only one thing he knew of could rain fire onto a mountain.

“A dragon,” he breathed. “A dragon has come.” When Legolas had been a young warrior, first stationed in the Northern Border Patrol, he had seen a dragon kill a family of Dwarves and attack an Elven patrol. Indeed, everyone in this small group except Vanduil had been there. Legolas’s heart began to pound so loudly that he was surprised when no one looked askance.

Thrór nodded grimly. “He descended on us with only the wind from his wings for a warning. He set the trees on fire, and then he waited by the Great Gate and destroyed my people as they tried to flee.”

“What about Dale?” Legolas demanded. From the corner of his eye, he saw Beliond shift slightly and knew he that he probably should have expressed some sympathy for the plight of the Dwarves before he asked about the Mannish town, but he could not help himself.

Thrór’s face twisted sarcastically. “The worm is crawling through the tunnels of the mountain, but he will not forget Dale.”

Using every ounce of self control he possessed, Legolas kept his voice from shaking as he asked, “Do you know if there are Elves in Dale, my lord?”

Thrór looked at him, and suddenly his face softened slightly. Legolas realized that he must not have sounded as cool as he had hoped to. “No,” said Thrór, “I regret that I do not.”

“Then we will go on.” Legolas hesitated. “I would give you a weapon, my lord, but I fear we will need ours. But when you enter the forest, look for Elorfin and the rest of the Northern Border Patrol. I am certain that they will see to it that you have the supplies and weapons you need.”

Thrór grimaced. “Weapons are the least of my concerns right now. We cannot fight this enemy, and I doubt if you can either, son of Thranduil, but I wish you well if you are searching for any of your people.” He jerked his head at the Dwarf who stood by him, and the two of them pivoted and began trotting toward where the other four waited. For a second, Legolas looked after him, seeing not a member of an untrustworthy race, but someone who had lost nearly everything he had. But he had no time now to sympathize with anyone else’s loss, as his thoughts turned worriedly to Tuilinn.

“Legolas,” Beliond began, “are you going to be--.”

Legolas cut him off and signaled to the four warriors waiting behind them. Ignoring Beliond’s concerned look, Legolas set off again, the others in his wake. With the whip of his fear driving him on, he set a rapid pace, and his patrol seemed equally determined to lose no time. Even apart from any concern they might feel for the inhabitants of Dale, they had all met Tuilinn and Fyndil.

They ran for what seemed like far too long a time, but gradually the mountain and town drew near, and Legolas saw that he had been right. Sending him into near panic, smoke rose from behind the walls of Dale as well as from the flames dancing over the mountain. They had reached the point where a road ran between fields to the town gates, and he could see people hurrying out of the gates, a few driving or dragging carts, but most simply clutching bundles. Their frenzied haste made their terror obvious even from where Legolas was.

Suddenly he smelled the smoke and realized that the wind had not only shifted but was rising, blowing the dark smoke in their direction. And then he caught the wild clang of bells. The people on the road began scrambling wildly, as if looking for cover, and over the sound of the bells, he could hear their shrieks.

“Come,” he urged and redoubled his pace.

The wind rose still further, filling his ears with its roar. And then he saw it. From around one of the spurs of the mountain, a flash of light sailed into view, and his breath caught, for now the light resolved into a huge shape like that of a gigantic red-gold bat. Legolas stared incredulously at the size of the monstrously beautiful thing. It was far bigger than the one he had seen nearly two-hundred years ago.

But he had no time to waste, he realized abruptly. With terrifying speed, the dragon roared down upon the field to their right, loosing a tongue of flame that turned the half-grown grain into a fiery wall, driving some of the fleeing people back onto the road, screaming in their panic.

With frantic speed, Legolas fitted an arrow to his bowstring and shot, but he knew even before the arrow flew that it was pointless. The angle was wrong. The dragon was too low and any darts would simply bounce off the iron-hard scales that clad the great beast’s sides and back.

The dragon wheeled and slowed only twenty feet over the heads of the shouting, scrambling people on the road, and then, while Legolas and his patrol were still running toward the terrifying scene, the dragon swooped down, extended a huge clawed foot, and seized a young woman who had frozen in terror in the middle of the road.

Legolas heard a cry of horror and glanced to see Vanduil rooted to the spot, staring at the scene before him. “Vanduil, move!” he shouted and was relieved to see Galelas taking Vanduil’s arm and shaking it firmly. As if coming out of a trance, the young warrior gave a small moan and then reached for another arrow.

Loosing arrows as he ran, Legolas leapt forward but was far too late to help the writhing, screaming woman. With a single flap of its wings, the dragon soared aloft again and flew back toward the mountain, ignoring the Elves’ arrows as if they had been so many fleas taking irritating little digs at his sides.

Breathing hard, Legolas skidded to a halt where the other fleeing people were now stumbling back onto the road. He tried to speak with a man whose face was filthy with ashes, but the man ignored him and ran in the direction from which Legolas had just come. When Beliond tried to block his path, he dodged around him as if Beliond were simply a rock that had somehow landed in the road.

“Adrylle! Adrylle!” shrieked a grey-haired woman, who was tottering back toward the town, her eyes on the dwindling dark shape of the dragon.

Another woman caught at her arm. “No!” she choked. “We cannot help her. We must get away before it comes back!” Tears streamed down her face, but she held on to the older woman’s arm, refusing to let her return to Dale.

A man now came running toward them and seized the older woman’s other arm. “Come, Kaayn.” He began urging the two women along the road, but Legolas put out a hand to stop them.

“Good sir,” he beseeched, “what is happening in the town?” This time both Nithron and Sinnarn were in the trio’s way, and they stopped, with the older woman’s keening rising to a sharp wail. Legolas caught a glimpse of his nephew’s distressed face as Sinnarn put out a hand to try to soothe the hysterical woman, but then he brought his attention sharply back to the man.

As if he had only just noticed this patrol of Elven warriors, the man turned toward him, and Legolas could see that his eyes were wide and dazed with what he had seen. “Did you not see it?” the man asked, his voice trembling a little.

In the face of this man’s distress, Legolas curbed his anxiety and made his voice gentler. “Where are King Girion’s soldiers?” The soldiers of Dale should at least be cool-headed enough to tell him if there were Elven visitors about, he thought, swallowing the terror that had arisen in his breast at the sight of the young woman being carried away.

The man pointed a shaking hand back toward the town. “There were some in the market. They told us to leave while we could.”

Legolas released him. “Go. May the Valar be with you.” He waved his patrol onward, and they raced toward the town gates as the shattered refugees hurried unsteadily in the other direction. Dodging a woman carrying a small child, Legolas led them through the gates and turned right. He had been to Dale occasionally over the years and seen it flourish and grow after the Dwarves returned. But he had never spent much time in any town and had not wanted to. And while he had seen the aftermath of many battles between warriors and creatures of darkness in the forest, he had never before seen the results of an assault on a town full of people. If he had not known where he was, he was uncertain that he would even have recognized Dale.

Dark smoke billowed from dozens of flaming thatched roofs, stinging his eyes and clogging his throat, and with it mingled a hot mist that felt like steam, the two together making it impossible to see more than a dozen yards in front of him. Large stones had been knocked from the town wall and lay strewn in the Elves’ path as they hurried along the chaotic street, dodging frightened townspeople who emerged from the muck and then disappeared into it again in the direction of the gate. From all sides, Legolas could hear the frightened babble of voices, including the higher pitched tones of women and the wails of small children. He was nearly overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster through which his patrol was moving.

They swept into the area where he knew the market had to be, and suddenly, he had to put out his arms to prevent a man in the armor of the soldiers of Dale from running into him. “Where is your captain?” Legolas demanded.

“Further back,” the soldier said, pointing behind him, “up the street toward the palace.” He did not react at all to what surely must have been the unexpected appearance of Elven warriors, but Legolas supposed he had seen so many shocking things that day that he had no more emotion left to give to Legolas and his patrol. From off to the side of the street, the sound of someone moaning caught all of their attention, and the soldier hurried toward it. For a second, Legolas hesitated, but then he assured himself that whoever had been moaning was being tended to and signaled his patrol forward.

They picked their way through the rubble in the marketplace. Legolas could see that most of his patrol had lowered their bows, but Vanduil still had his clutched in his hands as he scanned the sky. Legolas moved toward the young warrior. “We will have plenty of warning if it comes back,” he said in what he meant to be a reassuring tone. Vanduil jumped a little at being spoken to but then swallowed and lowered his weapon. Galelas was close enough to Vanduil’s other side to hear Legolas speak and patted Vanduil on the shoulder, shooting Legolas a look that could only be described as grateful.

They turned up the street that led to the palace, and almost directly in front of him, Legolas found a soldier clad in dazzling Dwarven armor and issuing crisp orders to those around him. “Clear that street,” he instructed two soldiers. “Tell them the dragon is gone for now, and they can flee if they want to.” The two nodded and ran off.

“Captain,” Legolas said, and the Mannish leader spun to face him. Legolas put his hand over his heart in salute. “I am Legolas Thranduilion.” He hesitated. He knew what he wanted to ask, but he also knew what his duty required him to ask. He drew a deep breath. “Can we help you?”

The Mannish captain returned his salute. “I am Gwigon, son of Girion.” Legolas blinked. This then was the oldest son of the king of Dale. Gwigon swept his eyes over the six Elves. “Is this all of you?” he asked.

“Yes.” Ordinarily, Legolas would have been insulted by the question. Six Wood-elf warriors could do a great deal of damage, but given what he had just seen, he understood Gwigon’s skepticism.

Gwigon made a small sound that Legolas would have understood as a laugh if they had not been standing in the middle of the ruin of hundreds of people’s lives. “I do not know that anyone can help us now. We are urging people to escape to the woods or the river. Indeed, my father is at the river now directing the evacuation and sending my mother and younger brother to safety if he can manage it. You and your warriors can help us evacuate people if you are willing. And I suppose you might as well keep your bows at the ready. The creature is not invulnerable, after all. We just have to get a good shot off from directly under him.” Legolas’s breath quickened a little at the thought of such a dangerous ambition.

“We will help of course.” He hesitated again but decided that he was entitled to take special care with his father’s people. “Can you tell us if there are any Elves in Dale? We have reason to believe that two of our people are visiting the healers here.”

Gwigon grimaced. “Yes, they are here, but I have not seen them today.” At the news, Legolas’s heart leapt, although he could not have said if it was with elation or despair at the idea of Tuilinn’s presence in this devastated town. “The healers are busy enough, I am afraid,” Gwigon went on. “Your people were staying with old Deric. Go back to the market and take the street that will slant down to the left. You might as well clear that street as any other, and you might find your own people too.” He turned away as a soldier ran up the street from the marketplace.”

“The river is still steaming, my lord,” the soldier panted, “but it is navigable.”

“Good,” Gwigon nodded. “Go and tell the others to send people that way if they are nearer to the river than the gate.”

Legolas wasted no more time but spun and led his patrol hastily back through the marketplace to turn into a street that ran downhill on their left, disappearing into the steam that was evidently rising from the river. As Legolas looked down its length, he could see a scattering of people at the lower end. Here, near the market, the dragon had struck hard, and the air was thick with the acrid smell of burned roofs, but further down, the houses were still intact.

She is there, he thought suddenly, and he felt an almost irresistible longing to run to her at once. Who could say what danger she was in? But he knew what he had to do. “Check the houses,” he told his warriors, and then glanced at the ruined structures around them and added, “or any other place where people might be sheltering. Tell them to go to the river or the forest and do it quickly while the dragon is busy elsewhere.” He shut his mind to thoughts of the woman the dragon had carried away and just what it might be “busy” doing.

He climbed over a fallen beam that partially blocked the entrance to what had probably been a dwelling and scanned the front room, into which some of the still-smoldering embers of the thatched roof had collapsed. Looking for anyone who might be hiding or trapped, he quickly crossed to the doorway leading to the hall and the two bedrooms behind, but the place was empty. He went back into the street and then on to the next place, quickening his pace a little, as his desire to get Tuilinn away became ever more urgent.

He rapped loudly on the door of the next house. “Anybody there?” He had put his hand on the latch to push his way in, when the door jerked open a crack, making him draw a quick breath of surprise. But he steadied himself and looked down into the eyes of an obviously frightened woman. Trying to make his face and voice as reassuring as possible, he said, “Mistress, Lord Gwigon has sent us to tell you to flee the town now while you can.”

She stared at him for a dazed moment. “It is safe to flee?”

“Yes, but you must go now.”

She hesitated for only another second and then spun back into the house, letting the door swing open to show Legolas the cause of her concern. A wizened old man huddled in a corner, clutching a woman’s shawl to his chest. “Come, Grandfather,” the woman said, drawing him to his feet and attempting to help him toward the door.

“I need your grandmother’s shawl,” he pleaded.

“Of course you do,” she crooned. “No one will try to take it from you.”

“Hurry,” Legolas urged, his impatience growing by the moment.

The woman shot him a harried look and tried to hasten the old man along, and immediately struck by guilt, Legolas stepped forward to take his other arm and help him out onto the street where he saw Sinnarn coming out of the house opposite with a baby in his arms and Nithron right behind him escorting an anxious looking woman. These people were going to need help getting anywhere, Legolas realized.

“Sinnarn!” he called, and his nephew turned toward him. Legolas helped the old man across the street. “You and Nithron take these two with you and get them all down to the river.” Sinnarn nodded, and Nithron hastened to take the old man’s other arm. They hurried off down the street, and Legolas scanned the next two houses to see Beliond emerging from one, while Galelas and Vanduil came out of the other, none of them evidently having found anyone.

Legolas was trotting down the street toward the next building, when all at once his hair whipped into this face from behind. He pushed it back impatiently and then suddenly froze with his hand still lifted. Wind! The wind was rising again! And at the same time, he heard the town’s bells begin to clamor and a rumble sounded in the distance, growing louder by the second. The dragon was coming back.

“Take cover!” he shouted, sending an agonized glance down the street to where Nithron had picked up the old man, and he and Sinnarn and the two women were disappearing at a run into the fog from the river. On his hasty passage across the street, Beliond seized Legolas’s upper arm and yanked him into the shelter of a pile of rubble, where Galelas and Vanduil were already fitting arrows to their bowstrings.

Legolas grabbed for an arrow, darting a quick look at Vanduil as he did so. “Stay under shelter,” he told the young warrior. “Wait until its head has passed over and then step out only enough to take a shot at its belly. And then be ready to get out of sight again because it is likely to come back.”

Vanduil nodded. His face was paper white, but his hands seemed steady enough on his bow. Legolas shot a glance at Galelas, who was just behind Vanduil. Galelas gave a small nod, and Legolas turned to find an opening through which he hoped to be able to see the dragon’s approach. He had no doubt that Galelas would look after Vanduil.

The wind rose more quickly than Legolas could have imagined. He realized that his breathing was too quick and deliberately slowed it. He needed to be steady if he was to shoot at the dragon. And then, suddenly, he saw it – a great, dark shape sweeping over the buildings. And at the same moment, over the roar of the wind, he heard a sound it took him a second to recognize as the wail of a frightened child.

Frantically, he snapped his head around, searching for the sound’s source. And then his heart seemed to stop altogether, for there, running up the street, was Tuilinn, carrying a child of about two, who was sobbing hysterically.

Without a second’s hesitation, Legolas darted out from under the shelter of the fallen stones. “No!” cried Beliond, grabbing at him, but Legolas was far too quick. From the corner of Legolas’s eye, he could see the gigantic form of the dragon sailing directly toward him, but he had no time to worry about it. Tuilinn turned a face to him that was first startled and then dissolved into a sob of relief.

And then he saw flame from the dragon’s nostrils flicker toward them, and with a speed he had not known he possessed, he grabbed her around the waist and pulled both her and the child out of harm’s way and into the ruins, aware as he did so of Galelas standing in the open, shooting arrow after arrow to drive the dragon off.

“You fool!” cried Beliond. Legolas took the shrieking child from Tuilinn and shoved him into Beliond’s arms, startling the keeper so that he stopped scolding and backed away a little, automatically jiggling the child and then starting to croon to him. Legolas turned to look with wonder into Tuilinn’s wide grey eyes.

“It is coming back!” Vanduil shouted from Beliond’s other side. Legolas grabbed Tuilinn’s arm and shoved her deeper into cover and then hastily reached for an arrow, seeing Galelas already loosing a shaft. But before Legolas could get to an opening, a loud crashing sound smote his ears, and the roof of their hiding place tumbled down upon them.

 





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