The air tasted metallic.
The sour smell of copper blood mercilessly pervaded the forest, shading all who walked in its depths a deep hue of red. Dusts of dried blood hung heavily in the air, mingling in a suffocating blend of red and black. The foul stench lingered on the tongue with an acrid bitterness, unwilling to be wiped away, clinging to the skin with a stubborn will of its own.
The trees did not sing. They did not whisper, did not sigh. The speeches and the songs, which had been patiently taught by his kin many generations ago, were now silenced by the tired weight of heavy blood and the clamor of ragged screams. But the silence of the forest was a grim relief to his people, for it offered respite from the daily chain of endless shouts and cries. As long as sounds of death did not break it, silence was precious, silence was golden. The joyful memory of the songs and the whispers could be compromised easily for such a relief now, amid the weary hearts of the elves.
A light crunch sounded from underneath his feet. He frowned slightly, looking down upon the bloody ground. Remnants of jagged bones lay under him, grinding against each other like grainy pebbles. Soiled to dust, crumbling like ash. Such tactics were not often used by elves. They shot and slew swiftly, cleanly. But now, in the lone camp in the forest, the singed grains of the bones gave testimony to the grueling bloodbath that had soaked the land, the chaotic madness of murder and battle.
He usually did not make a sound when walking on – or climbing, or running or leaping, for that matter – well, whatever it may be that he walked on. And therefore, the sudden sound, however soft, took him by surprise. Blinking down at the bones, he smiled ruefully. His body seemed unwilling to obey the commands of its normal habit and training; the weight of blood on the green leaves of the woods was pulling him down with a groan, heavy and weary.
With a determined inhalation, he readjusted the leather strap that ran across his chest and held his quiver in place. Doggedly running his tongue over the smooth surface of his teeth, wiping away the dust particles of dried blood that coated them, he swallowed, and stood erect. He would not let the black blood of wretched lives and deaths weigh upon him. He was the only figure that stood between his people and their doom.
He turned, determined gaze sweeping through the trees one last time. The mountains loomed nearby, overshadowing the small clearing that lay in the heart of the dark woods. All around them stretched never-ending seas of trees, entrapping them in their safe haven of thin sunlight. Stacks of black bodies lay in a circular pile, creating a thick barricade against the surrounding forest that loomed so near. Small openings were deliberately left in between the heavy corpses in a methodical order, through which keen arrows protruded readily. Archers were kneeling on the ground, hidden behind the barricade, bows drawn and bodies taut.
When at last his steps began to head back to the cluster of tents that stood in the middle of the barricaded camp, his eyes met thoughtful dark ones. He nodded slightly in greeting, refusing to let his weariness show. Not to this advisor.
When he made to head for his tent, the dark-haired advisor slowly moved in his direction. So there was no escape. He let out a quiet breath. It mattered not. He could not avoid this; he would not avoid this. He stopped and waited for the advisor to approach. It would be meaningless to continue to run, to hide. He would have to face this for many years to come, continually prove himself. Not only for the satisfaction of the advisor, but for the confidence of his people. For approval from the voice of his own strict conscience.
The older elf bowed slightly in response to the calm greeting. "There is still no sign of relenting. Sooner or later, they will attack again." The respectful voice belied the cool sharpness that emanated from his words. He was waiting. What will you do now, little one?
Clear blue eyes focused on the orbs of brown. He did not need to think long. "We will continue to fight. Our people are not yet ready to give up hope."
The advisor's hard gaze did not yield. They looked straight into the depths of his mind, daring, challenging. "Time is against us. Each day that passes in our entrapment under their siege diminishes our hope."
When he was met with silence, he pressed on further.
"Send for reinforcements, my prince. The king will come to our aid."
The youth's jaw tensed. "Who will go for aid, Lord Tembor?" Blue eyes searched dark ones gravely. "Who should be the one to penetrate the thickening layers of orc arrows and reach the castle?"
The advisor's voice was even. "Send any at will. The warriors will obey you. You are our leader."
The young prince watched the advisor in silence. The air was thick and heavy; he could not breathe.
There was a chance that his father would come to his aid. The news of their predicament would doubtlessly have reached the castle by now. Legolas knew his father well, but he had not seen enough of the dangerous gleam in his father's eyes in the battlefield to safely guess how the warrior king would respond to the news. The tidings of his son leading a battle that he could not win; the news of his people trapped in the southern maze of the forest, Dol Guldur only a breath away from their throats, holding out against a siege. Stranded alone amid a sea of orcs, supplies and strength dwindling, the enemy swelling. There was no need to send a messenger and ask for reinforcements. They would come eventually.
The question was time. It was a war of attrition now, something that they had not expected when they set out to scout the new area ensnared in darkness. His father would know of this sooner or later, that much was certain – but it was now a race, a race against time. They had to fight against their own weariness, their decreasing resources and hope, as they continued to protect themselves in the heart of the enemy's territory. Reinforcements were a surety and a hope, but nonetheless distant; the king himself had marched with his people not long ago toward the eastern marshes, concerned about the darkness that had appeared recently in the hidden swamps. Contact had been broken, and none knew if he had returned safely. Reinforcements were a luxury that none could dare hope for anytime soon.
Lowering his eyes, the prince heaved a great breath. "No, Tembor." Looking upward, he smiled faintly at the silent advisor. "I will not send for aid. We will continue to fight."
The older elf did not argue. With a slight bow, he excused himself to join the guards.
When the dark-haired elf was out of sight, Legolas' shoulders sagged visibly. His courage had been waning little by little, with each day spent in silence, each eerie quietude ripped apart by a blood-curdling scream. And with each conversation with Tembor.
But the advisor was not the one who had planted the seed of wavering doubt in the young commander's mind. No, the seed had already been there, and the roots had grown, the solid foundations of his strength already cracking silently through time. Though the prince was strong of will and fierce in heart, his ground had been already tampered with, prepared to break and crumble beneath his feet when met with a sudden attack. What had been done by the orcs and the siege was only a final touch of the destruction that had progressed, already at the peak of its utmost decay.
He had heard the adamant disapproval of the court advisors when the king mentioned him as the leader of the expedition to the southern woods. Legolas had been present at the council, as was customary, when his father surprised all who were present by ignoring the oppositions of the council members. He had only looked straight at his son, awaiting an answer.
With a strange sense of numbness, Legolas began to walk. His feet carried him forward idly as he chewed on his lip.
Do not think. Do not think. Do not think.
He desperately replayed the mantra over and over in his head, willing the whirling images and deafening sounds to leave the vacuum of his mind. He could not surrender to despair now; he could not disappoint his father. He could not disappoint himself. He had heard the advisors' reasoning and concern when he accepted his father's offer. He knew of the stakes as well as his father did, as well as the advisors did. He was young and, though experienced and seasoned in battle, was yet to be proven in his ability to lead and command. It was only natural for the council members to consider their prince unprepared for such a danger. His eyes were still young and vivacious, and his body was lithe and willowy, not yet hardened from the ripening of adolescence. He had only just reached his majority.
But his father's eyes had asked him the question, directed neither at the youngster nor the warrior, but at the prince and the son of the leader of the people. And the prince was not one to refuse, not when he saw what his father was asking.
So he had nodded.
Another soft crunch rang dully in his ears. His eyes looked down, barely perceived the flattened pile of bone particles underneath his feet. Stained with dried red and black. He numbly ran his foot from side to side, watching with fascination as the powdered bone spread like sand upon the ground. Portions of the grains seeped into minute cracks on the hard, dried earth.
Legolas' gaze became lost in the small stretches of the abyss. The yellow cracks reminded him of unfinished earthenware that he had once seen in a pottery workshop. The firing had been done, but the apprentice who was making it had mistakenly left an entrapment of air within the ceramic bowl. And when fire was breathed upon the dark bowl, transforming it into a hue of red, a deep crack had appeared along the dry surface, marring the beauty of the craftsmanship. The piece had been left unfinished, as firing it further would result in an explosion; the beautiful red bowl of dried earth would shatter, spew out the deep moisture of the earth, and it would collapse into itself, engulfing the hearth with a blazing fire that would dance, lick, swallow the remnants of what had once been. Everything, burned to nothingness.
Perhaps if they battled enough, viciously clawing and tearing at each other – perhaps if they spilled enough blood upon the earth, staining it, perhaps if they poured enough grains of bone dust into its cracks – perhaps then, the earth would open up and swallow them too, consume them in bright avenging fire.
Eyes vacant, he resumed his walk.
He had already read his father's thoughts when he accepted the proposition. The expedition was a dangerous one, and there was slim chance of making significant discoveries. Success was a secondary agenda; he was either going to bring his people back safely, or die in the attempt. The ways of royalty were clear and simple. One would choose the most dangerous path of all, and lead the way in hopes of clearing the path for his people to tread – and if meant stepping over his corpse, so be it. Though many flourishing regimes of elves and men were beginning to enter a new era in the ever-changing world, retreating into a system guaranteed of safety and posterity, the elves of Mirkwood still lived every day in the traditions of the past. Shrouded within the dark depths of the mysterious forest, they lived each day for nothing but itself, living out the legend and lore of valor and danger. Surrounded by life-threatening menaces and forced to fight every day for a right to exist, the code of the Mirkwood elves was plain and true to the heart of the rustic valor that flowed through their ancient veins. And the kings and their heirs followed these simple truths faithfully, wielding blades and bows at the front lines of battle, leaving the worry for tomorrow up to those who would survive to live another day.
His senses were painfully reawakened to the crude stench of blood as a guard raised a shout. Swiftly notching an arrow to his bow, he flew to the barricade and kneeled between the tense guards, watching. Distant rumbling could be heard. The orcs were on the move.
The pounding of feet upon the ground gave a slight shudder to the bloodied surface of the earth on which they stood. Gripping his bow, Legolas' fingers slid against the thin coat of bloody dust, ashy against the smooth wood. An inaudible melody of battle began to run along his veins with a faint hum, a familiar song of death. As it drummed louder and louder in his heart, propelling his limbs into practiced movement, he watched himself take a battle stance, his honed body all too ready to launch into the familiar dance of battle. And soon he would be swept up in the thundering roar of the drums, the pounding music of blood and screams, as feet trampled the earth, flying among the corpses, blades glistening under the dulled sun. And he would lose himself in it, the frenzy of battle, and his soul would watch from afar, distantly, calmly, as his body performed the deathly dance with practiced ease and fluid grace. And when the roar died down, fading into a distant hum, he would either be a part of the faded remnants of nothingness upon the stained dust of the earth, or still be standing, bloodied and weary, reaching out forlornly toward the dull rays of the sun.
All of the elves were kneeling behind the barricade now, arrows notched and eyes alert. A portion of the army was lying at the center of the circular wall, nursing their debilitating injuries. Though injuries had been recurrent, no elf had lost a life so far; to Legolas, that alone was his victory, his only and the greatest.
Raising his hand, he gave a signal. Behind the archers stood the lancers, weapons ready. The small fortress, built with nothing but a circle of stacked orc corpses, now resembled a porcupine, baring its teeth at all intruders from outside.
Legolas slowly raised his bow. The rest of the archers followed suit. Their eyes glittered sharply.
They would hold out against the siege for a long time yet; rations were still aplenty, and no warrior was yet wearied. They were still determined and ready, their spirits calm and experienced in the face of battle.
And he alone stood between them and despair.
Even if the orcs swept over their small encampment with sheer number and brute force, the elves would go down with a vicious struggle; their spirits would be unconquered. The true battle that raged in their hearts was the battle against the loss of hope. The battle for inner strength. And for Legolas, that battle was ten times worse, the daily pressures and pain silently gnawing at his scorching heart.
The first glinting pair of eyes appeared. Legolas released his arrow.
Against the swarming mass of orcs, the endless net that threatened to enclose them in doom, the elves began their retaliation.