Trouble on the Anduin
Chapter Thirteen: Trouble on the Anduin
Upon his return, Legolas informed the other elven warriors of the findings. In the briefest of councils, the prince decided to leave the road and give the piles of dead orcs a wide berth. Disquiet spread among all the elves. Even those who were not privy to Legolas' words sensed it, the uneasy dread settling among them. Legolas tried to keep his eyes bright and cheerful. There was little need to worry the innocent.
The warriors now took position along side of the company, sandwiching the unarmed. The prince's return and his grim face, along with the sudden summons of his archers, heightened every elf's senses to the possibility of danger. Even the youngest elf babe stirred restlessly in his mother's arms. The company rode quickly now, eyes scanning every shadow and every movement, down to each swaying blade of grass in the fields. Their ears caught the drop of each hoof against the earth and the beat of every wing in the sky as their ever-increasing anxiety amplified nature. The air grew still and thick as they neared the Anduin.
Ever since the elves' return, Miredhel knew that something foul had happened. She read it on her brother's solemn expression and saw it in Legolas' eyes. Let them pretend as if nothing was wrong. She knew better. She wanted to go to them and ask of their troubles, but she knew she could not. She was merely an elf maiden, just the sort they thought necessary to protect. She wished for courage, to go and offer up her bow and service to Legolas, but she knew what her brother would say. She hid behind that excuse, and she despised herself for it. So she rode quietly onward instead. The Anduin was near.
They reached the great river just as the sun fell into the shadows of the Misty Mountains. Through a ravine of slick rock, the river ran fast and deep, reflecting the last crimson rays of the sun. An ill omen, Legolas thought, as if blood pours from the wounds of the earth. Because they left the road, the elves did not meet the river at the bridge. They could not cross here. Legolas shaded his azure eyes with his long slender hands. The bridge was still a league further down the riverbanks. He knew he could easily summon the energy to meet the bridge before dusk and ride on into the night, but as he studied the careworn faces of his followers, he knew he should break camp for the evening. They were weary…and some were frightened.
Many had left the safety of the Lothlorien for the first time. The discovery of the orcs plagued his mind. He had seen death in many forms, but this, this was something new. The flesh had been shredded to ribbons. Swords, axes, and arrows left no such marks. He looked again at his followers. They depended on him and him alone. For the first time, Legolas felt the full weight of the enormous responsibilities of leadership. He had no one to turn to for guidance—not his father, brother, or even Aragorn. How could he keep his people safe against an enemy that rips through and devours the slain? Legolas clenched his fists in frustration. He wondered what his father would have done, what he would do right now. He would have to trust his own judgement.
"Make ready to camp for the night," Legolas announced. "We will cross the river at dawn."
Upon his orders, the elves lit no large fires; instead, a few small lanterns cast a merry glow across a morose campsite. As the night darkened, fingers of cold mist crawled forth from the river. Hazy, white curls snaked toward the camp, winding and twisting around the elves, squeezing all sight from them.
"Ai! We are blind in this soupy fog," cried Eledhel, his eyes darting toward the camp perimeters.
"I know. I cannot even see our night watch, although I know they are there," Belegil contended.
"If someone or something attacks the camp, we are ready and more than capable of fending off any advances. Our ranks boast the best archers and swordsmen of Lothlorien," Legolas said, attempting to make his voice match the confidence of his words. These were his friends to be sure, but he was also their leader. He must reflect strength and confidence. Eledhel and Belegil left to join the night watch, leaving the prince to his thoughts.
The camp rested quietly at least, breaking their elvish waybread and drawing new strength from its substance. Legolas studied the camp as he ate. His eyes, so alert, noticed every detail—the children with their bright eyes and cherubic faces, the steady way the mothers sang low lullabies. Miredhel sat with them, cradling a child in her arms. Her hair had come undone and spilled down her back, across her cheek. She looked up, and their eyes met. A lesser elf might have looked away in embarrassment, but neither Legolas nor Miredhel were the kind to back down from any encounter. So they continued looking at one another, both feeling a little silly, but neither wanting to be the first to look away.
Miredhel stared back at the prince in sheer defiance. His eyes, as blue as ever, looked decidedly grim to the maiden. 'You do well to hide your emotions, but your eyes betray you, my lord,' she thought. The experience of many years, duty, and hardship, resided in the depth of his gaze.
At the same time, Legolas could see the same fierce flame of independence he had witnessed once before in the 'Lovers' Ring' garden. Her face never flinched under his scrutiny. Her eyes accused and mocked him, but he read there also great sorrow and pain. She walks in sorrow and loneliness, mused Legolas. "We are not so different, you and I," he murmured to himself. His thoughts were interrupted by Sulindal's return.
"Hail, Legolas," he greeted him, and the prince finally averted his eyes to look at his friend.
"How goes the night watch?" the prince asked, his fair face troubled.
"Quietly, almost too quietly for my liking." Sulindal's eyes scanned the night sky.
"What do you mean?"
"Listen…do you hear it? Nothing, no crickets' chirping, field mice, birds or frogs can be heard…"
"I see what you mean," Legolas said and tilted his head. "I wonder that I did not notice before."
"I believe it may have something to do with the Lady Miredhel," observed Sulindal. "I watched you watching her for a full five minutes before I finally greeted you." Unlike Belegil who was often brash and loud, Sulindal was soft-spoken, unless provoked, infinitely preferring quiet observation of the world and people around him.
"You did, did you?" Legolas finally responded, somewhat detached. He did not mind Sulindal knowing his regard for Miredhel, but he blamed himself for not paying more attention to the safety of his own camp. A fine leader he was turning out to be, distracted by a pretty face. Legolas had about decided to join his archers in the night watch- "that is where their leader ought to be anyway, not half-dreaming in the moonlight," he muttered to himself—when Sulindal's low voice broke through his thoughts again.
"What is she to you?" he simply asked. A simple question indeed, and Legolas was not quite sure of the answer himself. An unsuccessful conquest? No, that did not seem right. A thwarted love affair? No, that seemed horrid.
At length, Legolas sighed and responded, "She is…Eledhel's sister." He managed to say it convincingly, even managing to convince himself. He was not having this conversation. He did not want to think about her when the camp might be in danger and some horrid new threat might be at large in this abysmal fog. He needed to focus. He abruptly stood and picked up his quiver, signaling the end of the conversation.
Sulindal gave Legolas an exquisite look, a combination of 'You are fooling yourself if you think that,' and 'I know better.' Belegil and Sulindal looked nearly identical—same broad shoulders, determined chin, and flaxen hair, yet Sulindal's grey eyes missed little. They were his greatest defense and strongest weapon in times of battle…and conversation.
"I understand if you wish to keep it between the lady and yourself," Sulindal said slowly. "Your forbearance is admirable. Never did you utter a single word to any of us about kissing her in the 'Lovers' Ring' garden."
Legolas dropped his quiver and sat back down. He looked at Sulindal in pure astonishment. "How did you…did she tell you?"
"No, Miredhel has ever been private concerning such things. I decided to walk in the woods after the banquet to clear my thoughts. I heard your voices and then saw you past the gate." He smiled, eyes twinkling. "I believe you could have lit up all of Caras Galadhon with that kiss; however if you do not wish to speak of it, be assured you have my silence on the matter."
Legolas looked at Sulindal carefully. Sulindal would stay true to his word, if he had known of the kiss all this time and said nothing of it, especially when his own brother was considered to be one of the nosiest gossips in the Golden Wood. Legolas had felt that Sulindal had been more difficult to get to know, for he was far more reserved than his brother. Perhaps, here was the confidante he had been longing for, at least in terms of his problems with the girl.
"The kiss was the agreed term for our bet. I would be her friend, perhaps more if she let me," Legolas confessed.
"…but she will not permit it?" guessed Sulindal.
"We only ever end up arguing," Legolas said bitterly. "It is futile to try, and now I find I have much more pressing matters to attend to, than one maiden's wayward heart."
Sulindal leaned forward, his eyes earnest. "Legolas, I beseech you. Do not give up on her."
"Would you have me ignore the rest of the camp?" Legolas asked, a little irately.
"Of course not, but you have friends who would help you. The entire weight of the camp does not have to rest on your shoulders alone."
"I know, but I worry for our safety, friend, even with elven warriors such as your brother and yourself in our company." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "I cannot shake the sights of the bodies on the road, the smell. I cannot place it. It lingers in my memory. Something about the smell…so acrid…more than just burnt orcs. What could lay waste to fifty orcs like that, as if they were tinder caught in a fire storm?"
"Other than a few elven warriors?" Sulindal jested, and Legolas permitted what looked like a small smile. "Perhaps, King Thranduil will have intelligence on this new foe, if it be an enemy at all. In the mean time, tend to your heart, young prince," Sulindal said.
"She does not seem to desire the companionship of anybody," Legolas pointed out.
"Aye, my lord. She still grieves…"
"Did you know that Belegil and I had a sister?" he asked, not really waiting for an answer. "She was our junior by many years, closer to your age, I imagine. Belegil and I spoiled her shamelessly. She had the sweetest soft grey eyes…" Sulindal looked lost in the memory, but continued, "She and Miredehel were friends, more like sisters really."
"What became of her?"
"She was head-strong and closer in disposition to Belegil than I would care to remember. When they got together…" he sighed and shook his head. "She sought training as a warrior with the bow and sword, which we happily granted. When she came of age, she joined Eledhel's division of archers. They were close, not just because we were all friends. Sometimes, I think they might have fallen in love if given the chance, if fate had been more kind."
"What happened?" Legolas asked, already suspecting the truth.
"The War of the Ring…the defense of the Golden Wood…Annariel, that was my sister's name, escaped unscathed. I think Miredhel desperately wanted to join Eledhel's division, but he would never allow it. He was always over protective with her…" Sulindal cleared his throat and continued, "When the Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn gathered all the warriors, swordsmen and bowmen alike, to lay siege to Dol Goldur, Eledhel's company was chosen as was mine and Belegil's. Miredhel was left behind.
"Orcs, wargs, everything foul, choked the woods. During the siege, a dark shape, a nameless cloud, some say the evil thrall spirits set loose from the dungeons, shrouded the moon. I lost sight of her. The shape wavered and was gone, but my sister had disappeared. Only later after Galadriel layed bare the pits, and we piled and burned the slain enemy, did we find her. Eledhel brought forth her body, trampled and ruined, in his arms. So young, so fair…" Sulindal looked up to the night sky, his eyes wet. No stars could be seen.
"I have visited the burial mounds there, Sulindal. Neither I, nor my people, will not forget the great sacrifices made."
"This war has required sacrifices of everyone. We are all bound in grief."
"And Miredhel?" asked Legolas.
"She suffered cruelly, blaming herself for not having been at Annariel's side, her brother and I for not saving her, and all of Mirkwood by association."
"Including myself, I see."
"I will not speak of how she nearly wasted away from heart ache, her fiery spirit spent from grief, or how Eledhel struggled with the decision of taking her to the Grey Havens. I will only say that for the first time in many months has her spirit returned."
Legolas glanced furtively at the object of their conversation. Eledhel had joined her, offering the comfort of his shoulder where she lightly rested her head. "She is lucky to have a friend such as you, Sulindal, and a brother like Eledhel, but I can make no promises." Legolas rose and stretched. "I must join the others now."
Legolas joined Farothin on the edge of camp near the river. He had spent many hours on nights such as this, watching and listening for unseen foes. He honed in on the steady pulse of the river, the whispering of the grasses, the way the wind moved through the trees. He listened for any change that might signal danger. He could hear the steady breathing and munching of the horses as they grazed. Everything seemed exactly as it should. Legolas relaxed and deeply inhaled. His breath stopped short in his throat. That distinctive fetid odor, the same that he had smelled at the road with the mangled orcs, tinged the chill air. He gripped his bow and pulled an arrow from his quiver.
"What is it?" whispered Farothin.
"That smell…the dead orcs…do you smell it?" Legolas hissed, his bright eyes scanning the hazy dark.
Farothin nodded and whistled a low birdcall to alert the others to the danger. He, too, fitted an arrow to his bow. The horses began to twitter restlessly, neighing and stamping their hooves.
"The horses are nervous."
"Something draws near," Legolas added.
"I also feel it," said Eledhel. He had heard the whistle and joined them, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Someone should go calm the horses. They will give our position away or worse, scatter in the night," suggested Farothin.
"I will," whispered Legolas in a voice audible only to elven ears. "Farothin, you stay on the river-side of the camp. Eledhel, I want you to take the western side of the camp. Tell the camp to blow out the lanterns. We will use the mist and the cover of darkness to our advantage." Both Farothin and Eledhel brought their fists to their chests and saluted him in the elven style; Legolas nodded and left.
He stealthily crept along the steep riverbank toward the clearing where the horses grazed. Legolas kept his bow in his right hand, an arrow ever ready in his left. He could hear the horses pawing and snorting. Elvish steeds rarely spooked. The scent was stronger now. He reached a grey mare first, her eyes wild. "Shh, fear not," he comforted the beast and tousled her mane with his fingers. He saw from afar the last lantern light dim at the campsite. All was dark, save the spare light of the moon, which hid behind a wisp of clouds. He patted Arod's flank as he passed and moved in the direction of the scent.
Legolas slid between the columns of trees that blocked the vertical bank of the Anduin from view. He guessed from the sound of the current that the river was a good drop down, at least fifty feet. He paused behind a tree trunk, catching his breath. The putrid scent nearly over powered him now. The air grew thick around him, and Legolas smelled blood in the air.
The wisp of clouds now clothed the moon, and all light was lost. The night was pitch-black, and the prince was alone. His ears pricked to the low rumble of someone, some creature breathing, followed by a sharp crack, like wood being snapped. He dared not move from his position. He checked his peripheral vision. All seemed still, save his heart pounding in his chest. Panic and fear chased through his veins, raking his body with self-doubt and loathing. 'Fool! You should not have come alone!'
Crack! An enormous pine slapped the earth. The ground shook as if lightning had struck down from the sky. Crack! Another tree whipped down, this time grazing Legolas' side. The trees and the night thrummed in the rhythm of torture. The breathing grew louder, and the elf could hear the beast drawing each distinct thunderous breath.
Legolas tightened his fingers on his bow, steady he told himself, and briefly rolled his shoulders back, a habit he used to calm his nerves before battle. He lightly released his fingers and squeezed the bow again. Calm returned, and the archer was ready.
He swung out from behind the tree, fitting an arrow to his bow and firing toward the breathing. Legolas pulled himself against another tree, edging his way closer to the smell and the rustling sounds. In the inky night, he could see no more than his hand and bow in front of him. The ground pulsed beneath his feet. The horses whinnied, followed by the pounding of many hooves. They had stampeded. Legolas heard a muffled thump from the trees, and then silence. The rank odor had vanished, and only the hot scent of fresh blood lingered. He felt his body sag involuntarily and then checked himself. He could not be sure the threat was gone until he had swept the area.
Legolas stepped into the clearing, weapon still in hand. All of the horses were gone, hopefully of their own volition. He could not blame them. He knelt to the ground and then stood. It was too dark to check for any tracks of predators. That would have to wait until morning light. He moved steadily back to the tree line and the river where he had first heard the breathing. Legolas was sure of one thing; the creature he encountered tonight was no ordinary wolf, bear, troll, orc, or anything thinkable.
The elf kept his guard up and stole back toward the river and trees. His eyes busily scanned the close-knit woods for any sign of movement. Scarcely looking at the ground before him, he stumbled over a fallen log. Legolas scrambled toward his feet in disbelief that he had not seen it before. He looked toward the base and ran his fingers along the scratchy bark until he reached the breaking point of the tree. Almost as if someone had snapped the tree like a twig, the trunk broke off in jagged ends two feet above the ground. At that moment, he noticed four other trees, fallen in the same manner. Deep gouges marked the trunks. Legolas bent down to study them and then swallowed hard. The choking smell had returned.
His arms darted out to grab his bow when a hard jerk toward his chest sent him reeling toward the river. As he tumbled over the bank and fell, he drew his long, white knife, frantically slicing the open space before him. He struck something hard. It was too dark to tell what. Before he hit the river below, Legolas found himself wondering if it was such a good idea to fall blindly into a ravine with a blade in one's hand…
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