Chapter 7: Dead End
Gandalf could run no more.
The wizard stopped for a breath of air, leaning against an old tree. Gasping painfully, he eyed his dimly-lit staff. This was the end; he would have to face them sooner or later. It was farther away from the palace than he had hoped, but his legs were screaming for respite.
"Kill him!" The shriek was upon his back. He swiftly whirled around, lashing out with his staff. The orc that had pounced on him fell onto the ground with a yelp. Gandalf stood his ground, eying the orcs menacingly.
Shortly after Legolas' flight, the wizard had escaped as the orcs spread out to pollute the forest air with their vile imitations of the prince. However, for some strange reason which he could not quite fathom, the orcs had given up the howling in favor of hot pursuit. Gandalf briefly wondered if he was indeed running in the same direction Legolas had taken.
Well, it was too late to find out. Gandalf raised his staff. There was a whole band of them, but he would not go down without a fight. It did not do well to underestimate Gandalf the Gray.
"Come, you foul monsters, if you desire a taste of a wizard's magic!"
A war cry ensued.
Orcs rushed forward, swinging their black blades, as the light-wielding wizard had managed to strip them of bows and arrows. Gandalf twirled his long staff with mighty force and speed, knocking orcs left and right. His moves were nearly flawless; orcs could not come near him.
Gandalf panted, risking a glance around while knocking another orc with a swift whirl of his staff. Despite his excellent fighting skills, the vigorous performance was fast taking a toll on his old body. He muttered a curse under his breath. Valar, why did you give me such a shriveled up remnant of a vessel? It was an unanswered complaint raised every time he hit the limits of physical barrier.
The orcs were tired and bruised, and some even swooning; however, he was still outnumbered. And soon, he would be overwhelmed. Gandalf gritted his teeth. Gathering the grain of strength left in him, the wizard lunged forward to meet another staggering orc.
A sharp cry of pain rang out in the air.
Gandalf turned, wide-eyed, as another orc slumped against him from behind. Moving quickly out of the way, he saw black blood running down the back of the ambusher. Embedded squarely in the orc's torso was a polished brown arrow with a dark feathered tip. A Mirkwood arrow.
Not daring to breathe, Gandalf raised his eyes – and met determined blue ones.
Gandalf held his breath; he dared not utter a word.
The elfling stood in the shadow, halfway obscured by the twisted trunk of the tree, bow ready in his hands. He tilted his head, eying Gandalf with an indignant pout to match the childish scowl. "You're late."
Gandalf opened his mouth at this; yet he did not get the chance to speak, for the elfling suddenly raised his bow again, swiftly reaching behind his back for another arrow.
"Move!" the child exclaimed, aiming his bow past the wizard in lightning fast movement. The wizard sprang to the side as the practiced hand let the arrow fly through the air. The arrow buzzed past his ear, singing a lasting prelude to the bloody scream that followed.
The wizard stared at the small figure standing on a large raised root of the gnarled tree. He was at a loss for words. "I told you to run," he muttered, more to himself in his state of dumbfounded shock.
The child looked up once again, his gaze resolute. "I did," he replied. The wizard's mouth opened, but closed. It then opened again, but still no words came out. Legolas blinked, and tilted his head once more with an impatient pout. "I came back."
Gandalf's jaw dropped, and this time, he did not bother to close it. The elfling perked up and deftly reached for another arrow. Gandalf's mind reeled even further. This elfling was dispatching messengers of death with the speed of an assassin. And here he thought the elfling was too innocent to understand death...much less murder.
Turning to face the orcs, the wizard saw that the enemies were hesitating. Numerous bodies lay on the ground. The light-wielding wizard was reunited with an elfling who was apparently no longer afraid to kill; staring at the face of an arrow, the orcs did not seem to favor the idea of charging forward. Gandalf smiled humorlessly. Foul cowards.
Aligning himself with the prince, Gandalf glanced down to his side. He could rebuke this bundle of oddities later. But he had the feeling that he would not get far in his reproach, for Legolas had beaten him to it. After all, the pointed look the elfling gave him made it clear that Legolas had to come to him because the wizard could not even follow quickly enough. Brave, thought Gandalf sourly, scanning the elfling beside him up and down with an inspective eye. But to a fault. Just like that Thranduil.
Gandalf uttered a soft string of curses when he spotted the stump arrow shaft protruding from the child's shoulder. The colorful chain of curses was aborted when Legolas tilted his head and peered up at him with an inquisitive frown. Gandalf coughed awkwardly.
The red blood was trickling slowly, stunted by the shaft blocking the wound. The elfling's face was pale and grim as he moved his gaze away from the wizard and looked steadily toward his enemies, arrow ready. He seemed to be oblivious to pain. Gandalf clucked his tongue. Stubborn Thranduilion.
The wizard tightened his hold on the gray staff as the orcs shifted uneasily. They seemed to see no other way but to charge. And charge they did.
Cursing again under his breath, Gandalf raised his staff. His intense concentration was abruptly broken by the innocent voice ringing from barely above his knees.
"That word sounds very bad, Gandalf." Disapproval evident in the young voice, the elfling released an arrow absentmindedly. The arrow struck the neck of the leading orc; he dropped at the spot. "Nana said nice people mustn't say such things."
Gandalf scowled. "Fool of a Leaf," he muttered, charging forward. In the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of the elfling tilting his head in confusion, but could not linger to upbraid him further. He was once again thrown into battle.
The wizard swung his staff defensively before the prince, while Legolas sent arrow after arrow flying toward the orcs. The arrows hit their mark with deadly precision, each one embedding itself at the neck. Angry as he was for the elfling's reckless disobedience, Gandalf had to admit that he was glad for the presence of his small ally.
"Only six more to go, my friend!" cried Gandalf, readjusting his grip on the staff. There was no reply.
Gandalf glanced back briefly, and quickly turned in surprise. The prince was standing unsteadily, as if it took all of his strength to remain in that position. His face was deathly pale. Legolas raised a shaky arm to shoot another arrow. The arrow bounced harmlessly off of an orc's arm.
Alarmed, the wizard quickly retreated to the elfling standing before the tree. Legolas quickly pulled out another arrow, and again lifted his arm. The arrow flew in an arc, and fell helplessly on the ground. Legolas frowned, and bowed his head; his small body swayed, as he reached out to the tree to steady himself.
"Legolas!" The wizard caught him by the shoulders, but snatched his hand away when the elfling jolted in pain. The elfling's cry was soft.
The wizard watched intently as Legolas slowly raised his head and looked past him. Following the gaze, Gandalf turned quickly to see the orcs gathering themselves with a smirk. There was only a handful left. Gandalf steadied his staff and, leaning the half-conscious elfling against the tree, charged forward once again with renewed strength driven from anxiety.
The leading orc charged speedily, sword ready; Gandalf gave a desperate battle cry.
When an arm's length from each other, the orc froze, his face a shocked mask of pain. Gandalf quickly drew back, puzzled, as the dark creature slowly dropped to the ground with a thud.
Simultaneously, more deadly tunes of death followed, falling from the skies faster than rain. It was a menacing black harmony, singing promises of demise. And demise they gave. Swiftly.
Shock turned to realization as one orc after another fell. Gandalf looked up and spotted a crown of golden head shimmering among the black silhouettes in the trees. His heart leaped with relief.
As the warriors appeared from among the trees, bows ready and eyes glittering, Gandalf turned to grab the elfling. His hands met empty air.
Shocked, the wizard whirled around in a surge of panic. An indignant cry burst from his lips. Legolas was locked in a deadly grip of an injured orc, who had seemingly risen from the dead. A blade gleamed by the elfling's white neck.
The elves pointed their arrows at the orc as he retreated slowly, a low chuckle dripping from his twisted mouth. He was bleeding from an arrow wound in the leg; Legolas, in his fading strength, had apparently missed the vital spot.
An elf stepped forward from the dark canopy of the trees, arrow pointed between the orc's eyes.
"Release him, orc, or you will meet death swifter than an eye can see." His voice was even, eyes calm and resolute in carrying out his threat.
The orc chuckled louder. "To what end, elf? I will die soon anyway." With those words he tugged at the prince, dragging him back.
It was Thranduil. The king leaped down from the trees, and stood facing the orc. The dawning light from the east revealed only pale and cold eyes. The king did not move.
"Release my son."
The orc threw back his head and laughed. The harsh, ragged voice echoed unpleasantly in the woods. "To see the day when the elf-king begs! This is something to be told!" He stepped further back, and brought the blade closer to Legolas' neck. Thranduil's eyes gleamed dangerously.
"We will release you, if you release the elfling mine." The king's voice was steady.
The orc looked around at the surrounding elves, who slowly lowered their bows. He chuckled and shook his head.
"I do not believe you, elf."
Thranduil's jaw clenched. The air was tense as he slowly reached up to his chest. Silence befell the party. It was broken only by a snap, when the strap that held the quiver of arrows on Thranduil's back became unclasped.
"Thranduil..." Gandalf began to step forward, but stopped short. He bit his lip. What right do you have to stop him, Gandalf? The voice in his mind was bitter, taunting. You let your guard down; you failed to protect the prince, when he was merely an arm's length away. He slowly stepped back, guilt biting him as he watched the king of elves toss his quiver to the ground. He could not bring himself to look at Thranduil's eyes. His heart burned with shame.
Not taking his eyes off of his son, who was half conscious in the grip of the orc, Thranduil proceeded to drop his great black bow, and began to undo the leather strap which held his sword in place.
The elves shifted nervously. Thranduil's eyes were still planted on Legolas as he called out evenly: "Retreat."
Gandalf clenched a fist as the elves silently dropped to the ground and withdrew to the bushes. Reluctantly he backed away with them. The last vision he saw of the standoff was that of the king unsheathing a last hidden dagger and dropping it onto the cold soil.
To Be Continued