Our Race Begins
Chapter Nine: Our Race Begins
The race course followed a circular trail beginning at the southern gates of the city and wound about the Golden Wood. A great congregation of elves assembled with shouts and song to lead the five on horseback through many winding paths to the tall and strong gates of the city. The five competitors followed the throng, casually visiting amongst themselves, speaking of the race.
"What does this horse race have to do with archery, Eledhel?" grumbled Haldir.
"Everything!" replied Eledhel enthusiastically. "On this last part, you must use speed and agility, along with your bow, in order to win. Along the raceway, we have set up checkpoints. You must stop at each checkpoint and hit the targets there before continuing. If you miss a target, however, you must return to the previous checkpoint and start over."
"Sounds easy enough," commented Belegil.
"Did I mention that there are a few choice obstacles on the way to each checkpoint?" added Eledhel.
Miredhel began to doubt that she even belonged in this race. Obstacles? How would she keep up with warriors like Belegil, or even her own brother for that matter?
Legolas noticed the glum expression on her face and debated on whether or not to say anything to her. Even if it were a kind word, she would more than likely take offense than not. Prudence dictated that he stay silent.
"My lady, what troubles you?" Legolas asked. He cared naught for prudence.
"Excuse me, my lord?" Miredhel responded with after a pause. Was he talking to her?
"I just wanted to know if anything troubled you, my lady. You seemed rather withdrawn for a lady who just won the hearts of so many."
"Oh," she said and straightened up, "I was just focusing on the task at hand, the race that is." She paused. "I still mean to win our wager."
The ears of Belegil, Farothin, and Eledhel immediately perked up, wondering about the terms of this wager. They rode silently, hoping to listen to the prince and the lady.
"Do you fear change so very much, Lady Miredhel?" asked Legolas, referring to Eledhel's choice to leave Lothlorien.
"I fear nothing," she said and tossed her head.
"That I cannot believe," declared Legolas, "for I believe you are afraid that I will win my wager today." The other elves leaned forward.
"Ha!" She laughed scornfully, and then softened, "I do not fear change, neither do I wish it."
"Sometimes life changes for the better," Legolas suggested.
"Such as…" she prompted him.
"Such as making new friends," finished Legolas. "And winning races… and certain wagers," he added as an afterthought.
Lady Miredhel blushed. Prince Legolas, although horribly proud and conceited in her eyes, was not altogether unpleasant looking. She had agreed to his condition of the bet on a whim, for he had been so charming in the garden at the time. She met his gaze and assured him, "My lord, whatever the outcome may be, I will graciously accept the terms of our wager."
"And I as well," agreed Legolas, a bit too happily. Miredhel seemed to shrink at his enthusiasm.
"Only…" Miredhel paused and lowered her voice. Her brother and his friends leaned forward to catch her words. "If you win," she whispered, "I do not wish to…you know, in front of everyone."
Eledhel and his two friends exchanged curious looks. Meanwhile, Haldir who knew nothing of the wager was utterly confused.
"What are they talking about?" he asked loudly.
"Shh! Uncle, we are trying to figure that out!" answered Farothin. Despite the friends' fond hope of uncovering Miredhel's secret bet with the prince, it would be of no avail. The merry parade of elves had arrived at the city gates.
The five archers lined up at the entryway to the city. From the gates, Legolas could see the race path marked by flags. He whispered to Arod, telling him to be quick-footed. The signal flag dropped to the forest floor. The race had begun.
The horses leapt from the gate. Legolas delighted in the feel of the light forest breeze on his cheek and the way Arod's mane whipped across his hands. The other elves stayed in stride together, all within the distance of a nose. The first part of the course drove straight through the woods, tall mallorns gracing the outer flanks of the horses.
Eledhel shouted above the pounding hooves, "Ai! The first checkpoint draws near."
Feeling the urgency of his master, Arod pulled in front of the rest of the horses. Legolas leaned forward, his eyes drawn to the trail before him. He could see a fallen log blocking the path before him. Arod neatly bounded over it, and Legolas had to duck to keep from catching his head on some low-lying branches overhead. The other elves followed suit, chasing the prince. Eledhel cleared the log with ease, then Haldir, Belegil, and Farothin. Farothin forgot to stay low in his seat and nearly fell. As Farothin struggled to save his balance, Lady Miredhel sailed past him. Hearing the pursuit behind him, Legolas kept his lead and reached the first checkpoint. There he left Arod and hurried down the marked path towards the targets.
The serenity of the forest surprised Legolas. Birds skittered in the trees at his approach. With each long stride, he knew that Eledhel could not be far behind him. Legolas felt that he often shot best under pressure. With the targets insight, he swept out his bow and an arrow as he ran. In less than a moment's time, he took aim and struck the target. Three more remained, and three more met the deadly point of his arrow.
Eledhel met him as he turned. "Run hard, Legolas, or I will catch you!" he laughed. Legolas barely heard him, for he was already gone. He met the other three archers on the path. Exchanging no words between them, they merely gave each other determined looks. Miredhel, like her brother, was fleet of foot and now ran in stride along Belegil toward the targets. She felt no fatigue, only the light rhythm of her feet over ground.
Legolas rode on with eyes alert for any would-be troubles. He dared not look back, lest he be caught off guard for even a second. His intuition served him well. The raceway abruptly turned off the wider trail to follow a narrow path. Horse and elf turned at the marker, heading into a darker part of the wood. This new turn took the riders along a curvy path where the trail dipped down, only to briefly rise and then fall. Limbs and fallen trunks littered the path. This part of the forest had forgotten the sun, so closely were the trees and leaves knit together.
Legolas dodged an outstretched branch. Eledhel drew near. The prince, however, did not wish to hazard Arod's safety by riding too fast and taking unnecessary risk. The path constricted, passing Legolas would prove most difficult, and the prince made sure that his horse moved to block Eledhel's advances. Meanwhile, Haldir chased not too far behind the leaders, and Miredhel strove along side Belegil. She was light and her horse small and nimble, easily dodging each obstacle. Belegil and Farothin, however, had made the mistake of choosing their warhorses for the race. Though strong and doughty in battle, these horses possessed neither the quickness nor agility of Miredhel's fair mare.
The next checkpoint revealed itself along a thorny hedge of bright berried-bushes. Legolas and Eledhel dismounted and began sprinting in one simultaneous motion toward the targets. So smooth were their paces that human eyes might dismiss them for wild deer springing through the wood. Legolas knew Eledhel's reputation for speed among the Galadhrim. 'He must not pass me on foot,' Legolas vowed silently. A deep ravine appeared through the mallorns. Legolas could see the trail markers and targets on the other side. How was he supposed to get to the other side? Obviously the distance was too far to jump. Legolas paused to think, and Eledhel caught up with him. His eyes scanned down the side of the ravine. A slender coil of rope hung from the side of a tree. Eledhel had followed the track of his eyes and spotted the rope as well.
They both lunged for it at the same time. Eledhel caught one end, and Legolas grabbed the other end.
"Let go, Legolas! You know I grabbed it first!" exclaimed Eledhel.
"Look, if we fight over this rope for much longer, then the others will catch up to us," Legolas insisted, his hands still gripping the rope.
"Okay, so let go," Eledhel said and gave the rope a jerk.
"I was here first," Legolas tugged back.
Eledhel felt the rope tighten and tugged back. He faltered for a moment and then slipped off the side of the ravine. Luckily, he still held the rope.
"Now look what you have done," he shouted at Legolas.
Legolas felt annoyed. He could already hear the approach of the others. The scuffle over the rope completely wasted his lead. "Hold fast, Eledhel, and I will pull you up." In a matter of seconds, Eledhel had climbed out of the ravine with the prince's help, but it was too late. Haldir had already arrived, and he could see Belegil and Miredhel through the trees.
"My, my," smirked Haldir, "what has happened here?" He sharply bent his bow and fired at the first target.
"Why did we not think of that?" moaned Legolas. "You just had to go for that rope, Eledhel." He quickly grabbed his bow, and struck the first target with ease.
Eledhel had fired as soon as he saw Haldir hit the first mark. He made the next three with blinding efficiency. He turned and ran back down the trail, leaving Legolas behind him. Haldir and Legolas' motions seemed synchronized as they pulled and released. Since Haldir was one target ahead, he started down the trail before the prince as well. Now Legolas was in third place. He hit the last mark without fault, turned, and ran furiously back to his horse. He passed Belegil and Miredhel.
Belegil shouted to him, "What happened back there?"
"I should have just left him at the bottom of the ravine," Legolas muttered and kept on running.
Belegil beat Miredhel to the ravine. He spotted the rope and lassoed an overhanging tree limb. He swung over with ease and positioned himself to aim for the first target. He felt an arrow whine past his shoulder.
"Miredhel, are you trying to kill me?" he screeched.
She reloaded and fired again, hitting the second target. Now Belegil realized his mistake. She fired two more times and vanished back down the trail. Belegil took his shots and made his way back over the ravine. Farothin materialized just in time to see Belegil use the rope.
"Here, Farothin, I will just leave this here for you!" Belegil said and quickly left, so his friend would not see his laughter. Meanwhile, Miredhel gained on the prince. Soon she could see his form through the trees and hear the clatter of Arod's hooves. Legolas suspected someone followed closely. Yet when he finally glanced back, he could not contain his surprise to see Miredhel.
"Are you surprised, prince?" she called to him, marking his expression.
"No, just delighted to see you give into your true feelings and chase after me!" He gave her a wicked grin. Under his breath, he urged Arod to pick up speed. He would not let her pass him.
The narrow path opened up into a wide avenue among the trees. Miredhel had nearly reached Legolas' side when Arod broke into a full gallop. The prince could see the final checkpoint. Eledhel and Haldir had just arrived, dismounted, and were heading toward the last targets. As Legolas reached the checkpoint, jumped off Arod, and headed toward the targets, he could hear the gentle murmer of the Nimrodel. The path turned toward the river.
Before him, he could see Eledhel and Haldir crossing the river over a narrow log. Haldir tried to roll the log with the hopes of knocking Eledhel into the water. Eledhel was not about to lose his balance for the second time that day, and he skillfully kept his balance. As soon as the log slowed, Eledhel worked his feet to spin it in the opposite direction. Haldir, caught off guard, fell with a splash. Eledhel stopped mid-log and began to laugh. Haldir looked severely disgruntled. His hair plastered to his head and water dripped from his nose. Eledhel laughed so hard, his eyes began to water. Haldir reached for the log and gave it one clean twist, sending Eledhel over the side and into the river. By now, Legolas reached the log and darted across, scarcely looking at his two soggy friends. By a stroke of luck, he had retaken the lead.
He found the final targets and took aim as Lady Miredhel appeared at his side. "What happened back there?" she asked as she drew and fired.
"Haldir thought Eledhel dirty and in desperate need of a bath," guessed Legolas, chuckling. She laughed with him, and he could not help but see her as beautiful, the way she held her bow, smiling, and the way the her hair captured the sunlight. For once, she was at ease with him, leaving her pretention behind.
Legolas and then Miredhel hit the final target and ran back toward the river. Her speed surprised him, but his legs were longer, enabling him to outpace her. They crossed paths with her brother and Haldir, barely able to contain their merriment at the two dripping elves. With the last leg of the race before them, however, neither stopped to laugh. Legolas signaled to Arod to start running, and the prince caught and swung up on the horse in one fluid motion.
Legolas and Arod quickened their pace through the wide arc of trees. He could hear the crowd's near murmur and caught glimpses of the fair city through the forest. The path before him lay open, straight and clear, and he dared once more to glance back at his opponents. Eledhel gained on Miredhel who followed Arod closely, too close. Haldir was not far behind, and just appearing around the curve were Farothin and Belegil, charging forward as if at the siege of Dol Goldur again.
The prince rounded the final curve. The city gates loomed before him. Even now, his fellow archers drew near, threatening to strip him of his lead; yet Arod knew no weariness, and Legolas charged forward. So close to the end, Miredhel only hoped that her horse had strength enough to push past the prince and she would win her bet. Then she and her brother would stay in the Golden Wood, and Legolas would trouble her no more.
"Only a little more, Thorontal," she begged her steed, but fate would have a different plan. Her horse stumbled, given over to exhaustion, and Eledhel soared past her, kicking up a cloud of dust and leaves. As the dust cleared, Miredhel winced to see the prince pass the gates first, followed by her brother. She had lost the race, and more importantly, her bets with Eledhel and Legolas.
She took third place, and the elation of the elves on her behalf replaced her sorrow with joy. She cheered with the rest of them to see Haldir, followed by Belegil and Farothin, cross the gates. The elves escorted their archers toward the center of the city, wherein Lady Galadriel could present the champion with a prize.
Legolas caught Lady Miredhel's eye in the midst of busy celebration. His countenance seemed odd to her. Could it be that the prince was embarrassed at the attention given him? Their eyes met, and she looked away. He could see her blush and raise her fingers to her mouth, only to linger there. Legolas' ears burned, and he hoped nobody noticed. Both elves felt strange discomfort, together wishing for and fearing the realization of their wager.
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