|About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search|
Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.
Chapter 7. Heroes
The river swept Eilian away from the elflings, whose piping voices pierced the water's low growl: "Hurry, Eilian! "Swim hard, friend Eilian!" "I hurt myself! Bring Nana!" Then they were gone.
They will be fine, he told himself, and gave a hard kick.
He struggled to stay as close to the wall as he could. The current was weaker there, and he felt more in command of himself. He would need all the control he could muster if he was to do what he planned.
He kept his gaze on the glowworms. His knee banged against a rock, and he recoiled and glanced down. Submerged rocks were more common along the wall too, but he could not spare the attention to watch for them. Anyway, he hoped they would prove useful. At least the frigid water numbed whatever hurt he had suffered from the rock.
As he swam and watched the ceiling, he tried to let his mind reach out and sense where he was. Did the river still run under the forest, or was he swimming under the Stronghold? He felt only faint threads of the life of the woods. He could not even picture how the sunlight slanted through the trees now, or whether the day was still fair. Did that mean layers of rock rose overhead?
He scanned the glowworms. Had he missed it? If he had, he would soon find himself plastered against the water gate, trying to shout loudly enough to make himself heard over the flooding river. He would never be able to swim against the current.
He stiffened. There it was--a large square of darkness amid the glimmer of the worms. He tried to stop his movement by jamming his hands against a ripple of rock protruding from the wall, but the rock was slick and his palms slid off. He grabbed at a fissure in the stone. For a desperate instant, he could not tell if his numb fingers were holding, but his feet swept past him so he knew he had stopped. He heaved himself toward the wall, drawing the stone into a hug. His feet found purchase on another rock beneath the water.
He studied the ceiling. This was the hard part. He was reasonably sure the dark square marked the trap doors into the palace storerooms. He, Gelmir, and Celuwen had discovered that the worms did not like being disturbed and would stop glowing if they were moved. The trap doors were opened two days previously when a raft left for Esgaroth. All he needed to do was get himself up there and bang on the doors until someone heard him.
Now he had time to examine the outcrops and crevices along the wall. Keeping his arms wrapped around the stone, he stretched one numb foot out and groped for a toehold that would take him a little to his left. He found a narrow ledge and started to shift his weight. His foot shot off the ledge, and the river swept his legs out from under him. For an instant, he dangled from his armhold, then hauled with all his strength and managed to return to his starting place. He clung there, breathing hard.
He tried again, seeking a better place to stand, but he had to return to the same one. The problem was that his feet were so cold he could not use his toes to grip as well as he usually did when moving in the trees. He imagined digging in with them and hoped they were doing what he pictured. Cautiously, he loosened his arms. When his foot held, he pushed off with the other one and grabbed for a higher rock over his new standing place.
Again his foot slipped and his legs floundered, but he grappled both arms around the rock and drew himself up to kneel on a slanting, slippery surface. Before he had time to slide off, he scrambled to his feet, clawing along the wall to find handholds. He ran two quick steps and stood precariously perched as high as the rocks would take him, with his hands overhead, dug into a crack.
For the first time since he started climbing, he eyed the dark square, a yard or so away in the ceiling. Thank the Valar, now he could pick out the wooden slats. It really was the trapdoor. Breath seeped out of his mouth, and his shoulders eased a little. He frowned at the wooden frame, the slats, the bits of metal he could see. What would make the best hold?
The door rested on a sturdy frame, but the fit was tight, and the handles, of course, were on the other side. He could not imagine where he might find a grip secure enough to leave him banging on the door rather than tumbling back into the river. What then?
He wiggled his thawing fingers further into the crevice and glanced down at the rocks and water below his feet. If he hurt himself badly enough, he would be no use to Legolas and his friends, but if he could not raise the alarm, then what had his struggle been for? He decided the chance was worth taking.
He tightened his hands, bent his knees, and pushed as if he were jumping a fire. His feet swung through the air and banged against the trapdoor. They swung back, pushed, and banged again. Then he fumbled for footing so he could reposition his hands. Swing, bang! Swing, bang!
He paused and flexed the fingers of one hand and then the other. Cook was probably in the kitchen, a flight of stairs up from the storeroom. Eilian had to make as much noise as he could. He pushed, coiled his knees in the air, and jammed his feet hard against the wood.
Suddenly he was dangling above the rocks, holding on by one hand. His heart thundered into a gallop. Grunting with effort, he swung his other arm up and groped for a hold. Then his feet found their perch on the rock, and his hand once again found a grip in the crevice. He stood panting for a moment, hands stretched above his head, bare feet crowding one another on the rough surface. He drew a deep breath and pushed off again.
His feet met empty air. Cook peered down through the open trapdoor, mouth agape, huge butcher knife in his right hand.
"Lord Eilian! What in Arda?" Cook dropped the knife.
"Help me up!"
Cook reached a hand through the opening and hesitated. "How?"
Eilian nearly laughed. "Catch my feet. Brace yourself though."
"Wait. I will get help."
Eilian felt his fingers slipping. "I cannot wait. Here I come." He launched himself off the rock and hurled his feet into Cook's fluttering hands.
Cook's fingers tightened painfully around Eilian's ankles, and he suddenly thought of all the times he had seen Cook wielding a knife or a mallet. Then he was being dragged upside down over rough wood into an apple-scented room full of barrels. Cook sat on the floor, breathing hard.
Eilian scrambled to his feet. "Where is my adar? I have to tell him where Legolas is."
Lorellin wrapped her arms around herself and watched Eilian and Gelmir maneuver the flat-bottomed boat the last few yards down the tunnel. When it had become clear what was going to happen, she had run to the palace and changed to a tunic and leggings, but she had not bothered with a cloak. Thranduil put his arm around her. His eyes too were on the boat, and she felt the tension in his body.
"Wait! It is caught." Eilian twisted the light boat slightly. Cook stepped forward holding the pot of lard he had been sent to fetch. Thranduil's shoulders were smeared with it. But Eilian and Gelmir managed to ease the boat through the space without further greasing. Eilian shuffled backward again, and the boat emerged into the cave. He and Gelmir hastened toward the river, climbed down onto the ledge, and set the boat next to the water's edge.
Lorellin eyed it narrowly. Would it be strong enough to save her son? Both ends were closed, leaving an opening in which a single person was intended to kneel with room enough also for a good-sized pack. The side rose only halfway up Eilian's shin, the shallow draft meant to let the boat skim over rocks that would bring a bigger craft to grief.
"Will it hold all three of them?" Annael's mother spoke for the first time since she had come hurrying into the cave to hear if Eilian had indeed found the boys.
Her husband put an arm around her. "They are small enough to squeeze in."
They would have to be, Lorellin thought. This was the biggest boat that could be forced through the narrow entrance.
Eilian lunged to where the boat hook lay. His tunic now covered the bruises and scratches on his back and arms, and she had seen the way his feet bled before he jammed them back into his boots. Oddly, though, he seemed calmer to her than he had since he came home. He slid the hook into the space in one of the boat's covered ends and tied it to the metal ring on the boat's frame. His hands resting on the boat's side, he looked up at Thranduil. "If you think Ithilden has things in hand by the water gate, I am ready to go."
Lorellin stepped forward out of Thranduil's grasp. "No, Eilian. I will go."
Eilian's head snapped toward her. He opened his mouth, then glanced at his father. "Adar?"
"Lorellin--." Thranduil's voice quivered with alarm.
"I will go," she repeated. "I sailed boats up and down rivers, streams, and lakes all over the woods long before Eilian was born. Moreover, I am smaller and lighter, so the boys will be able to fit into the boat better." She moved next to the boat. "Help me launch it, and then hold it while I get in," she told Eilian.
"Lorellin, no." Thranduil stood next to her, his face white. "It is too dangerous."
She whirled on him. "No more dangerous for me than for Eilian! Legolas needs me. I can feel it. And I will waste no more time arguing. Help me, Eilian, or I will do it myself."
Eilian held on to the boat and looked to his father for some sort of guidance.
Thranduil wiped his hand over his face. His gaze met hers, probably assessing her determination. She knew he had gauged it accurately when his face sagged. "Tell her what she will find, Eilian."
Eilian gave what sounded like a suppressed groan. Then he straightened and drew in his breath. "They are on the right soon after the river bends to the left. You can shelter from the current behind the rock they are on. There are plenty of craggy places on the rock where you probably lodge the boat hook, but you will have to be quick."
She nodded and bent to lift one end of the boat and slide it into the river. Eilian hesitated only a heartbeat before taking the other end. Thranduil came forward to help him hold the boat steady while she climbed in and took up the double-ended paddle. Thranduil gripped the boat's side for a moment after Eilian stepped away.
"Take care, my love."
She nodded, and he pushed the little craft out into the current. As the river hurried her into the tunnel, she glimpsed him sprinting back toward the exit, with Eilian close behind. She would see them when she brought the little ones out at the water gate.
As she had expected, she needed the paddle only to steer. She concentrated on controlling the boat, getting the feel of it, and learning how much strength and cunning she needed to bend it and the river to her will. The boat skimmed along, responsive even to her shifts of weight. She would have to keep the elflings still once she had them tucked in behind her.
She had spoken truly when she said she had been up and down the forest's waterways in all weather and states of flood. Her girlhood home had been on a river, and she had frightened her parents more than once by the audacious glee with which she braved white water. Rapids had called to her in whispers more seductive than the voices of the young males who came along before Thranduil. The current she rode now was easy to manage compared to some of those she had flown over then.
She watched the surface of the water, reading it to know what lay beneath and then guiding her boat to avoid what trouble she could. The boat's draft was shallow, but she would take no chances that might keep her from taking Legolas to safety.
She realized she was leaning forward, willing the river to bend left and carry her to where her little boy waited for her. Their bond stretched between them like a wire along which news of his being flowed. Since she had realized he was in trouble, that wire had vibrated, making everything else around her exist only at a great distance. His fear and longing for her lodged like pain in her heart. I am coming, sweetling, she thought. I will always come. It seemed to her his anxiety lessened a little.
The glowworms vanished from the ceiling ahead, and her attention narrowed to a single point. The river was turning. Just beyond that turn, she needed to slide the boat right and tuck it in behind the rock where the elflings perched. She nudged the boat hook with her knee to be sure she knew where it was.
The rock wall on the left drew back, unveiling the glittering worms again. She angled the paddle, the little boat swung around the curve, and there, on the right, was her baby, looking straight at her, as if he were expecting her.
He jumped to his feet. "Nana!" The other elflings scrambled up too.
"Stay back!" she cried.
They scuffled back against the rock wall, watching her with huge, eager eyes.
The boat shot toward them like an arrow. She held the paddle steady, then gave a quick flick of her wrists to slip toward the rock. She snatched up the boat hook and rose to her knees. If she missed now, she would never be able to work her way back upstream to them. She would sail out through the water gate and run back to the cave to try again. Would the elflings have the patience and courage to wait? Would they realize the boat would come again? She doubted it.
The hook was tied to the back of the boat, so if she wanted it to hold, she had to let the boat slip most of the way past before she tried to jam it into a crevice in the rock. The current seemed to slow to a summer eddy. The rock drifted past her, showing her every bump and crack, daring her to swing the hook now and see what happened.
It was directly in front of her.
It was to her right.
Over the rock's top, she glimpsed Legolas's brows lowering, his mouth opening to cry out. She focused on a crevice with a lovely curve of stone on the side, clutched the hook, and swung.
The hook lodged in the crevice with a jar that ran all the way to her shoulders. She waited until the rock jerked it from her hands before she seized the paddle and dug it into the water. The current had leapt once again into its frantic race to the water gate and it fought her like a wild thing. Was she strong enough? Should she have let Eilan do this after all?
The boat swung around and tucked itself just where she wanted to be, in the shelter of the rock, and the current loosed her from its grip. Breathing hard, she hauled on the rope connecting the boat to the hook, drawing the boat as close to the rock as she could. Then she coiled the rope around the cleat and fought with the river for enough purchase to tie it.
Arms trembling, she let go and looked up to see three small faces peering down at her. She drew a long breath. "Shall we see about getting you out of here, sweetlings?"
Immediately, all three of them stretched their arms out to her and bent their knees, as if they intended to take flying leaps into the boat. "Nana!" Legolas cried. Annael's face screwed up, and he let out a loud sob. Turgon's dark brows met over his nose.
"Wait!" She raised her palms to stop them. "Listen to me. Can you listen?"
They all pressed their mouths shut, though Annael continued to hiccup. Legolas took his hand.
Lorellin swallowed. If any of them had jumped, he would have wound up in the river and she had no idea how she would have saved him. "You see how little my boat is? I need to get you in it one at a time and arrange you so we all fit. All of you back up and sit so I do not have to worry about you falling into the river."
Eyes never leaving her, they scuffled backward and plunked down on the rock.
She hesitated. Then she did something Thranduil would probably have deeply disapproved of. "Legolas, scoot toward me so your feet are over the edge." She should have made him play the king's son and wait, but he was her baby and she was taking him first.
Legolas's face lit up. He slid toward her, arms out, fingers opening and closing. Her hands closed around his sides to pull him against her. He flung his arms around her neck, and she nearly wept. He was alive. He was safe. And he was hers.
When she lifted him, the boat swayed, and she felt him stiffen. "I have you, sweetling." She tightened her hold. "A tree in a windstorm would not drop you, and I will not either." Now she was confident. She had cradled in the treetops when the west wind blew. The rocking of the boat held no terror.
She bent to lower him into the boat. For a moment, she feared she would have to pry his hands off her neck. Then he loosened his hold and let her tuck him into the cramped space.
Tears ran silently down his face. "I skinned my knee."
In the confines of the boat, she could not bend to kiss it, so she touched her fingers to her lips and then to the raw spot. "Better?"
He sniffed and nodded.
"Sit still now while I get Turgon and Annael." She rose to her knees again to face the other two elflings.
"Annael should go next." Turgon's face was solemn. "Sometimes he is afraid."
She smiled at him. "What a good friend you are, Turgon. Come, Annael." She wiggled her fingers, and he slid trustingly into her hands. She settled him and then Turgon on either side of Legolas. They huddled together, but even so the space was so small she was going to have to stay up on her knees.
She picked up the paddle. "Are you all ready to sail down the river again?"
Legolas's mouth twisted, and Annael bit his lip, but Turgon nodded. "We are sailors."
She laughed. "We are not far from the water gate, so we will be out soon. When we get to the gate, we all have to duck down and make ourselves very small."
"All right," Legolas said.
Lorellin reached over the elflings and yanked on the rope tying them to the hook. It slithered free, and she hastily faced forward to start on the last part of her journey.
For a heartbeat, the boat hesitated. Then it darted into the current. She pictured Eilian swimming in these waters and shuddered. They are safe, she thought. They are all safe.
The boat slewed to one side. Small hands clutched at the back of her tunic as she used the paddle to steady them on their course.
They will be safe soon, she amended.
The open trap door to the storeroom flashed past overhead, and she glimpsed faces. Then the current seemed to quicken, as if the river knew it would soon be free of this narrow, rocky prison and would run among trees, where it belonged.
Ahead, a sliver of daylight curved over the surface of the water. Her heart thumped. With the river so high, the fit would be tight.
"Get ready to duck when I tell you," she said.
The boat flew toward the gap between water and rock. Gripping the paddle so tightly her hands hurt, she maneuvered them into the center where the space would be widest.
She bent forward, chest flat on the front of the boat, neck twisted as she tried to see if the elflings had made themselves small enough. Did they have their heads down? She could not tell.
The river roared in her ears. Something hard slid lightly along her spine.
Light bloomed all around her. Voices shouted. "There they are!"
Over them all, she heard Thranduil and Ithilden. "Get hold of the boat! Careful! Move it!"
She lifted her head and turned to see Legolas, Turgon, and Annael still huddled over, clutching one another, but safe. Safe!
Hooks yanked at both ends of the boat, and it jerked sideways. They were being hauled to the river bank. Then hands reached for them. Annael's father plucked him from the boat like an onion being pulled from its bed. His weeping mother wrapped her arms around them both. Turgon leapt onto shore and into Mirdaniel's embrace. For once, he was silent.
She reached for Legolas and found him being lifted to nestle against Thranduil's chest. He locked his legs around his father's waist. Ithilden appeared with a cloak and wrapped it over the still wet elfling.
Then strong arms caught her up and helped her to shore. Eilian kept his hold on her and regarded her anxiously. "Are you all right, Naneth?"
She put her trembling hands on his shoulders. "How could you swim in there without telling anyone, Eilian? I want you to stop doing these stupid things right now!"
He blinked, then laughed. "Naneth, you just sailed a very small boat along a flooded underground river. I am not sure you are in a position to talk."
She tightened her hands. The frustrating thing was he was right.
Thranduil had obviously heard the exchange. "Come, love," he said to her. "I think we need to get our two elflings home and into a hot bath. You too, for that matter." He jerked his head at Eilian and led them all toward the palace.
"Lift your arms," Ada said.
Legolas did, and Ada slid his nightshirt over his head. "Ada, I think it is still daytime."
"I know, but Nana needs a nap after paddling that boat. You would not want her to be lonely while she takes it, would you?"
Legolas shook his head. He really did not mind keeping Nana company. He was all warm from his bath now, and he was a little bit sleepy.
"Come." Ada took Legolas's hand and led him out into the hallway and then through the doorway to Ada and Nana's little sitting room. The door to the sleeping chamber was open, so Legolas could see that Nana was already in the bed. Her dark hair spread over the pillow, looking the way treetops did at night against the starry sky.
She lifted her head and stretched out her arms to him. "Come, little bird. I need you in the nest for a while."
Legolas did not know what that meant, but he thought he liked it. Nana lifted the covers, and Ada slid Legolas in to cuddle up against her.
She looked beyond him and laughed softly. Legolas heard rustling, and then the bed sagged and when he looked over his shoulder, Ada was behind him. "Are you tired too, Ada?"
"You and Nana have worn me out." Ada put his arm over Legolas so it rested on Nana too. Warmth flowed off of Ada and wrapped around Legolas's body and maybe around Nana too.
"Is your back sore?" Ada asked Nana.
"A little," she said, "but it is only a bruise."
Legolas wiggled so he would sink into the sheets. Then he put his head against Nana. She smelled like soap and the tea Ada had given Legolas to drink too. It was nice here between Ada and Nana. For a moment, Legolas thought he heard the roar of the river, and the cold dark of the tunnel tried to spread through his mind. He hunched his shoulders.
Nana stroked his hair. "Why did you go into that tunnel, Legolas?"
"We did not do it on purpose. We were playing in the boat and the boat fell in the water and the rope broke."
She kissed the top of his head. "You must be more careful, sweetling. I could not do without you."
He sighed. "I love you, Nana."
Ada said, "I love you too, Nana, and I think you must take care as well."
"Yes." Legolas put his arm around Nana's waist. "Take care, Nana."
Nana laughed. "Go to sleep, you two."
Legolas let his eyes slip out of focus. He would sleep for a while. He was safe here.
One more chapter, a short one I think, to tie up loose threads.
|<< Back||Next >>|
|Home Search Chapter List|