Chapter Twenty-eight: Brown-Lands
The sun dipped low in the west, spreading a brilliant crimson fan across the Brown Lands, and to the east, the land fell away to the rush of the Anduin, gleaming dark and cold, like an ancient blade of deadly length. The elven company had not lessened their pace since leaving the borders of Mirkwood behind them. Not once had Legolas looked back to catch a final glimpse of the dark eaves of his sires' land, for if he had then surely he would have seen a solitary figure on horseback slip from the shadows and take the road behind them.
Since taking leave of his king, Legolas turned his mind toward the road ahead, the route his company must take and above all the safety of his people. He did not have any real assurance that they would even reach the first towns in time enough to provide a defense against the encroaching enemy. As his bright elven eyes peered into the graying horizon of the Brown Lands, Legolas searched unabatingly for any trace of orc or beast, but to no avail. What time that had saved by leaving earlier than intended still might not be enough, and the uncertainty of the endeavor weighed heavily upon the young elven leader. He did not want to fail; he must not. He stretched out his fingers and then closed them again, rolling back his shoulders to prevent the stiffness that comes with hard riding.
They would keep on, he decided, even with the fall of the sun, they must not stop, save to water their mounts. Their success depended on their ability to outstrip the legions with the speed of their riding and eclipse them in stealth through a forgotten pass before and through Emyn Muil. So onward the elves pressed with grim eyes and hearts and the surety that comes with the realization of nothing being certain except the cold fall of night and the hard ride ahead.
Every elf felt it. Whether it was their heightened sense of awareness or plain warrior camaraderie, each member of the company shared the weight of the task before them, trusting in the hope of success and their new, idealist leader. One can only suppose that many of them had different reasons to follow young Legolas. Despite his great age among men, Legolas Greenleaf still ranked as barely more than a youth compared to his own, and some elves followed him for this very reason—for his youth, his exuberance, or perhaps that these inspired them to feel their own youth again also. Many more of the company, especially those of Eryn Lasgalen, followed the prince out of loyalty to the house of Oropher, to Legolas himself. Many more, from either wood, rode now for their love of this new hero among elves, the hope and promise and light unchecked within his steady blue eyes.
Regardless of their motivations, the riders with their sleek tunics, glinting flashes of silver, swept across the desolate lands, their fierce purpose betrayed by the well-loaded quivers or the elegant blades and bows—long, curved, deadly. All were splendid, ready to trust in the weight of a weapon in their grip, fell-handed warriors of old, lost from the eyes of men in the final years of the third age, and now they would charge into the world of men again in the name of honor, the loyalty of one binding them all to a fate unknown.
Keeping pace in this great host rode a less battle-proven elf, and though her courage flagged with the sinking sun, onward she rode. Not entirely sure of her place in such a company or even why she was there, she would have not turned back, and she supposed a great deal of that resolve was lent through the presence of the one ahead all the others on his white Rohan steed, his hair flipping back in the wind like a beacon, or a home-fire urging her forward. Miredhel sighed and swept a fly-away curl from her eyes. She had heard from his own lips that he loved another, yet still she followed him. She felt as thought she were bound to play the fool.
With a slight clip of her heels and a soft command, she urged her new horse forward through the racing throng, her goal being to meet and keep pace with her brother. Miredhel was upset on many levels—about the journey, the danger, seeing Legolas with another, and how angry her brother would probably be—and some might think her foolish for seeking out her brother at a time like this, especially when he was one of her chief causes of anxiety. All this considered, she also felt incredibly lonely, despite the fact that many of the other elves she knew as old acquaintances or even friends. Yet she sought the sense of protection and comfort that only his brotherly presence could provide, and Miredhel only hoped that he would not be too cross to be wholly unsympathetic.
She slid past Adrendil who regarded her with a certain amount of real surprise. He did not speak, but dipped his head in respect with a sly smile favoring his mouth. When she at last reached Eledhel who rode to the right front flank, her brother turned with a quizzical look in his eyes and said, quite nonchalantly:
"I was wondering if you were ever going to join me, Miredhel. Sulindal and I were going to make a wager on it. Ahh, but no need for that now."
Miredhel peered at her brother nervously. She had not expected him to take her decision so well or so calmly for that matter. He should have, in the very least, turned a nasty shade of red and shouted a bit, but at the moment, he merely rode complacently on his horse, his grey eyes as dark pools in the fading daylight.
And his lack of reaction made Miredhel's insides quake more than any amount of shouting. She would much rather a blow-up, than this well-mannered silence. It was just not…right.
"So, Eledhel," she tried, "you have no objections to my being here?"
Her brother snorted and then laughed in an eerily, fake sort of way. "No, no," he said, "I have plenty of objections," and he hemmed a second, his eyebrows furrowing together, "not that any of them matter now, since here you are!"
Sulindal shot Miredhel a sympathetic glance. "Now Eledhel, like I told you earlier, Miredhel is a fine hand with a bow. She could have easily joined the forest guard years ago."
"Oh, shut up both of you," said Eledhel irritably.
Miredhel more than happily complied with his request, for she had precious little desire to speak of anything at the moment, and especially not Legolas! Her intense sorrow and shock at seeing him with another lady had faded in the long hours of riding. Now anger threatened to boil up and pop like hot pus from a blister. 'A disgusting analogy, but a fitting one,' Miredhel mused as she thought of how pleasing it would be to let one of her arrows 'accidentally' fly into the prince's royal hindquarters during an attack. 'Would serve him right, too,' she thought, and the planning of such a scheme, how she would have to switch arrows , of course, so no blame would darken her character, and hit him at such an angle to cause no real damage, save a seriously sore riding seat! Such plans made her feel much better, and she scarcely noticed the dim fall of day into dusk as they rode, nor Farothin, Haldir's young nephew, returning from scouting ahead.
Sulindal and Eledhel had noticed, however, quite some time ago, and had hastened to the front where rode their lord and commander, Legolas. Seeing Farothin as well, the prince bid the company to stop and rest their horses. All dismounted with a serious eye to the incoming scout, wondering of the tidings, ill or fair, that he must bring. In no time at all, Farothin was at Legolas' side, panting with news.
"My lord, we are within reach of one of the orc battalions. Their pace slows. The many miles over foot, it seems, has caught up with them."
A ghostly smile played across the prince's lips as he pondered the news. "And now, it seems that we shall catch them as well." His bright azure eyes flitted up toward the sky in the last failing moments of daylight and slowly became steely hued as his jaw set resolutely.
"How many of them are there?" he asked, and his mind began to concoct a plan.
According to Farothin, a blackened, dead line of trees- almost a small forest- dotted the horizon. The elves could drive the orcs into the trees and easily surround them. All elves present, the captains decided, were woodelves whether it be from Lorien or Eryn Lasgalen, and would prefer coverage of trees in attack as opposed to the usual wide, gaping territory of the Brown Lands.
"What if this battalion is not alone?" asked Sulindal quietly.
"They were," Farothin bristled, a little indignant that Sulindal would question his findings.
"Are you suggesting a trap?" Legolas replied. The captains' heads now shifted from Sulindal to face Legolas with a collective look of surprise.
"Farothin, though doubtlessly a skilled scout," Sulindal began, and now Farothin beamed at him, "cannot see what lies beyond the horizon. None of us can. A whole legion could be waiting for that battalion."
Legolas nodded in agreement and pressed his fingers to his temple as if in deliberation. The elves stirred in his silence.
"Your Lordship, how can there be any question to our actions? Isn't our purpose to kill orcs?" asked a Mirkwood captain with a certain amount of relish in his voice. It was Adrendil.
Our purpose," Legolas corrected, "is to warn the towns of Gondor, which we will be most unsuccessful in doing, if we are all slaughtered."
"You have with you the best warriors of both woods! How could we possibly fail?" Adrendil exclaimed, and a few elves murmured in agreement.
"Forty-three of even the 'best' warriors is no match for a legion of orcs, Captain Adrendil," Legolas said pointedly, the ire in his eyes a dark warning to the elf.
"Prince Legolas is right," Eledhel agreed, glaring at Adrendil. "I propose that we send someone further along the banks of the Anduin to confirm the number and status of the party Farothin described."
"Would we have time for this, Farothin? Before the orcs pass the dead forest?"
Farothin shifted uncomfortably and nodded. "Yes, there would be time enough, if I hurried."
"No, we will have to send someone else, for you have ridden hard to relay this news and should rest your horse. Any volunteers?" Legolas' eyes scanned the group.
"I will go," answered Eledhel, and he glanced over to the horses where his sister happily patted her new steed.
"Good." The decision pleased Legolas. "Choose another archer to ride with you."
"I already have," answered Eledhel, and he left the captains and the prince to secure his mount for the mission.
"Sister darling, he said with a contemptible brotherly sneer," we are taking a little ride, you and I."
"Isn't that what we have been doing for the better half of the day?" she retorted, annoyed at the smug look on his face.
"No, this little trip is for just you and I," he said smoothly, giving her a hand in mounting her horse. "We are going to pay some orcs a visit."
"Orcs?" she gulped and then looked down.
Eledhel swung up on his horse and would have ridden out, if Legolas had not appeared at that very moment, a look of heavy consternation written across his peerless face.
"Eledhel, certainly…certainly you are not taking your sister along as back-up, are you? Are you?" queried the Prince.
"It would appear so," Miredhel blandly answered for her brother. She had wanted adventure, she had yearned for her brother to include her, and well, here it was. She was surprised at how her anticipation and longing for such a moment had resulted in a nauseating, nearly panicking grip of tension across her entire body now that the moment had arrived.
"And Miredhel, are you wholly convicted to partaking in this task?" Legolas asked. His eyes pleaded her to stay, to admit that her actions were in jest.
Miredhel's fear dissipated into swift satisfaction that Legolas worried for her safety. Let him worry. After all, he had gotten her into this in the first place, and for what? Certainly not love. He did not love her; no his heart belonged to another.
Her reply was cuttingly to the point. "Yes, my brother has faith in me," she said with a strange sidelong glance at Eledhel before she directed her eyes back to the prince and added coolly, "although, some do not."
"Are you sure you will not stay, Miredhel? With me?" Legolas reached for her hand, not caring the Eledhel looked on.
"Very sure, Prince Legolas. Besides, you would not even miss my company for two days, no wait—two hours—before you replaced me with another, I'd wager." Miredhel offered no other words or farewells and both brother and sister took off in search of the orcs, leaving behind a very confused Legolas.
* * *
After several moments of strained silence, Eledhel looked intently at his sister. "What happened back there?" he asked.
"Nothing you do not already know—that I believe him to be the single most infuriating person in Middle Earth."
The corners of Eledhel's mouth drew up into a semi-smile. "I will ask you this again, Miredhel. What is there between you and Legolas?"
She cast her eyes down. "Not even I know the full answer to that," she mumbled and looked up to her brother.
His expression softened. "I always hoped we were closer than this, sis—that you could tell me things."
"I know, El, but…he was your friend first, and you know, prince and hero and everything—and well…"
Now his soft grey eyes began to twinkle. "I always knew he admired you, and then suspected, well, more than admiration," Eledhel said.
"Admired, maybe, but I think he has already formed a lasting attachment to someone else," Miredhel said truthfully, catching her brother's eye. "He is not really serious."
Eledhel shook his head. "No, sis. I disagree. We've talked about such things before, him and I, and he never mentioned having any serious relationships. Quite the contrary, actually."
Miredhel bit her lip and knotted her fingers in her lap. "Hmm," was all she could bring herself to say aloud to Eledhel; although in her heart, she began to have her doubts about the scene she had witnessed with Legolas. Perhaps her brother was mistaken, and Legolas had deceived them both. She hoped that she might be found wrong on all counts, but her heart, having been wounded in matters of love before, warned her to keep up her guard.
* * *
Now Eledhel and Miredhel crept closer to the party of orcs, and Miredhel's innards lurched as she saw their crude helmets and brutish scimitars gleaming in soft moonlight. She swallowed dryly and whispered to her brother, "Tell me why you asked me to come with you?"
"Punishment," he whispered back gleefully. "Since you wanted to tag along with the real warriors, I thought I would let see what it's really like."
She punched his arm. "You troll!"
"You are not afraid, are you?" he teased her.
"I am NOT afraid," Miredhel hissed back.
"Good. Then stay here while I creep in for a closer look."
"By myself?" Miredhel groaned and then reasserted herself. "Sure. I will be fine."
Eledhel stopped for a moment and looked back. "Listen, sis. If anything should happen, you ride back to the company. If they give chase, then head for that dead forest. You can hide better in there."
Miredhel nodded. "Got it. I will just wait here until you return."
Her brother rolled his eyes. "Didn't you hear anything I just said?"
Minutes rolled by. Miredhel waited quietly, patiently for her brother. Eledhel had not returned. 'Just where could he be?' She irritably wondered. Then she heard a sudden, distant clang of metal, followed by a hushed gurgle and then a shout in orcish. The hasty glow of torchlight and more shouting in the Black Speech ensued. Filthy language, that. Some of the words she picked up on in the common tongue, many of them curses she had heard uttered by Belegil when she had once cleaned a nasty arrow wound. Whatever had happened out there in the inky dark probably involved her fool brother, and as much as she hoped and prayed for his safety, she could not linger for his return. She had listened to all of Eledhel's instructions, despite whatever he believed.
The torchlight grew nearer, and Miredhel made the decision to ride back. She whispered to her horse, and together they began to move quietly through the low glade where she had hidden herself. She pulled an arrow from her quiver and loosely fit it to her bow, just in case the need should arise. To Miredhel's astonishment, her silvery bow wrought from Gondolin of old, sparked in the darkness and began faintly shimmering a soft blue glow. The old tales were true! Miredhel could not wait to tell Eledhel, if she got to see him again, that her bow did glow, which also meant that orcs were near. That realization extinguished all of Miredhel's excitement over her bow. Orcs were near! The steady nearing flicker of torches threatened to give her position away, and the sound of many hideous voices shrieked louder, then louder.
"Garn! You maggots, he couldn't have gotten far. Spread out!" one of the orc chiefs shouted.
"Nar!" another snarled. "I won't be gutted like that fool Borbrat."
"The big boss'll roast you filthy squeakers if you don't! Call the wargs—there might be more out there."
'Big Boss? Who might that be?' Miredhel wondered for a second before she latched onto the last part of the orc's remark—Wargs! She stiffened in the shadows. She thought about Eledhel's warning to seek protection in the dead forest if being chased…but she was not under pursuit yet. Before she could decide, orcs sprang into view, and Miredhel felt the quick flight of arrows pass her by as her horse leapt into a full gallop.
"There's one now! An elvish wight—bring it down," the orcs screamed with delight.
"Call the wargs!"
Her options lost to her, Miredhel had but one choice—to ride for her life. She chased through the graying shadows of the Brown Lands, at times the thick reedy clumps of prairie grass slowing her speed. The wargs and riders gained on her; she could hear their heavy padded footfalls closing in. She turned in her seat to see five behind her. With the dead forest long behind her, Miredhel's only real hope was to reach the company before the wargs caught up with her.
The closest orc was a low-browed, bulbous nosed villain, and to Miredhel's dismay, he pulled out a heavy-looking black crossbow.
"Fly, Fly away little bird!" he crowed, "Fly for all the good it'll do—I'm gonna stick you like a roast hen!"
"Not if I stick you first," Miredhel whispered and drew her silver bow, pulled tight by a green and gold Mirkwood arrow.
She aimed for his neck and missed, and then quickly reloaded to miss again. This was quite different from firing at targets in a tournament—those did not shoot and curse at you. Miredhel figured she had one more shot before the orc could reload, and she could not hope that he would miss again, being as close as he was. She pulled her arrow and fired, striking his hand. The orc yelped and dropped his bow.
"Quickly now," Miredhel urged her horse, and she rolled to the right of his back, leaning into the horse's neck. As she did so, one of the other warg riders charged forward.
Her horse squealed and careened, nearly causing Miredhel to lose her seat. Her torso jerked to the front, and a good thing too, for she just barely missed the swing of the orc's rusty scimitar.
He laughed wickedly and swung again, but his blade fell short. Before he could try a third time, a golden-shafted arrow ripped through his throat. She aimed her next arrow for the front forelimbs of the snarling warg chasing behind her, with the dead orc still hanging in the saddle. She thought there was precious little chance that she could actually kill one of the wretched things, but perhaps she could disable it. At least, she hoped so.
Miredhel narrowed her eyes and turned to fire. One arrow in the upper leg, the monster stumbled. Then two, he yowled and fell, writhing and scratching at his wounds. A success, small—but a victory nonetheless. She still had four more wargs and riders giving chase.
She strained her eyes to the horizon and saw the other elves. Her friends, Belegil and Sulindal, and Legolas… "Ithilien, Ithilien," she cried against the wind.
But the orcs were simply too close, and her friends, too far away.
Two more had pulled almost even with her, brandishing their black jagged blades high above their heads, bellowing all sorts of vile insults. Miredhel did not even carry a sword with her. All she had was the long knife from Thranduil. She certainly could not fight them blade to blade. She pursed her lips and decided it mattered little.
"Foolish orcs!" She smirked and brought them down in one, two shots, each falling with a look of astonishment on his face.
Still, two more orcs remained—one of them being the chief whose hand she had shot earlier. He charged with unbridled fury gleaming in his pale-slitted eyes as he yanked her arrow from the blackened flesh of his hand.
"I'll have you for that, little bird!" he bellowed, sliding a serrated dagger from his belt.
Miredhel gasped and looked ahead. The other elves flew toward her, but the did not seem close enough. She would have to save herself.
"Just a little more," she said through clenched teeth. Miredhel quickly pulled another arrow from her quiver. She turned to aim, but before she could settle her bow, the orc leapt from his warg to Miredhel's horse.
His sinewy fingers stretched for her shoulder and when he could not quite reach it, grabbed a clawful of hair and pulled her down across his lap.
"Said I'd have at you," he snarled and closed his fingers around her neck with the very hand she had shot only seconds before. His own blood, black and hot, oozed from the torn wound and ran down her neck as the orc tightened his grip and began to squeeze.
Meanwhile, Miredhel's horse, maddened by the orc's assault skidded and bucked, causing her enemy to close his fingers together even more.
"Tell that beast to stop," he ordered.
"Noro, noro lim," Miredhel choked out. Stopping was the last thing she wanted to happen. She lay still in his hold, while her mind raced. She knew not what to do. One hand held her bow, and the other dangled at her side. Her knife still hung at her belt, but could she really grab it to stab him, before he did worse to her? She shuddered, her eyes drifting to the dagger in his hand.
"You're afraid--" he gloated, angling his head and body over her as he licked his lips, "you should be." He hissed so close to her face that she could feel and smell his wretched breath.
Miredhel grimace and tilted her head away, but the orc dug his nails into her neck and mashed his face to hers in what could only be described as a horrible kiss. His black cracked lips were on hers, and then his teeth, and then, his tongue.
Rage snapped within Miredhel, and her bow arm became like a god's hammer, and she rammed her silver bow into the side of his head. He jerked back, his fingers uncurling from her neck.
"I am NOT afraid," she seethed and swung her bow back across his head, and then again and again, driving the butt repeatedly into his temple.
"Die, you miserable wretch!" she cursed and shoved him to the rapid flight of hardened earth below. Miredhel drew her sleeve across her mouth, wiping her lips clean, and she grimly smiled to herself in the dark of night.
She did not see the warg quickening his pace behind her.
With sheer malevolence and bloodlust lending unnatural speed to the beast, his terrible, swift paws tore the earth with each fell stroke as he gained on the horse and elf. He rounded a large boulder and then leapt upon it, arching his back in anticipation of his prey.
Miredhel only saw the fast approach of her kindred, and hope welled up in her chest for deliverance. She did not see the warg, not until it was too late.
Her horse balked, and then she spied the great wolf, his shaggy coat edged by moonlight, ready to pounce. He sprang down from the rock in a splintered second. Miredhel fumbled for her knife, her eyes wide, and she flinched as his claws closed in.
Only they never reached her.
A shower of gold and green fletched arrows struck the warg in midair, and he fell short of Miredhel and her horse. She gripped the handle of her knife, her other hand flew up to steady her heaving chest, her posture curved and shrinking. Another volley of arrows sailed over her head. The other wargs and orc abandoned their hunt and high-tailed away in the opposite direction. The elves had come.
Belegil, Sulindal and a great many others flew past her, bows and swords ready, in deadly pursuit of the enemy. They rounded the land, finishing Miredhel's handiwork, killing the wargs before they could return to their masters.
Legolas stopped at her side. "Miredhel, are you alright?" he asked, and then, "Where is your brother?"
Although she still fought to breathe, Miredhel straightened her posture. She put away her knife and hung her bow at her back, pausing for a deep breath before she answered. "I am not hurt, but Eledhel is still out there."
Legolas nodded thoughtfully. He had been terrified to watch the orcs' assault from a distance, not being able to help her, save her, strike down the enemies that chased her; although he had to admit, she had held her own. At the moment, however, he very much wanted to hold her, touch her, kiss her, make sure she was really there before him and perfectly well, but…he could not. He was, after all, the Lord of Ithilien now, and his responsibilities took precedence.
"What of the orcs?" he asked, "how many?"
"120 or so, and wargs—they had all stopped to rest when Eledhel and I saw them. They are well within our reach, my lord, if we move now."
"If we move now…" Legolas repeated to himself. He turned to Farothin behind him. "Call the others back, for we ride into battle. Make haste!"
The young elf took off, and Legolas turned back to Miredhel. "You are not injured in any way, are you?" he asked, gently picking up her hand. He peered at her closely.
"You already asked that," she reminded him.
"I know," he said, "but I just wanted to be sure." He squeezed her hand in both of his. "What happened back there?"
"Eledhel went in for a closer look. When he did not return, I rode back," she simplified her story.
"With some extra friends," Legolas added. "You did not have to do that, you know," he said. "Why did you? You should have stayed with the group, with me." Accusation edged his tone.
"I wanted to do my part for Ithilien," Miredhel claimed in a soft whisper, leaning in closer to the prince, placing her other hand on top of his. "That is why we are here, why I am here, isn't it?" She stared at him.
Legolas lowered his voice. "You are here, because I could not bear the thought of leaving you behind, because I--"
"Legolas, quick. Over here!" Belegil shouted, waving his arm.
The prince cast his eyes down and sighed. He gave Miredhel a stern look and said, "All I ask is that you be careful. When we ride into this fight, you could hang back, out of harm's way, if you wanted." He dismounted from his horse and ran to Belegil.
An orc lay prone in the dirt, wheezing with a single bloody fist balled across his chest. Belegil hunched over him, knife in hand, and beckoned Legolas to draw near.
"Repeat what you said!" he demanded. "Tell me where your troops are going." He glanced over to his friend, "This one is a captain or leader, I think."
The orc's eyes rolled back in his head, and he coughed and then spat at Belegil's boots. "The little gold bird flew away," he rasped.
Belegil and Legolas exchanged confused looks.
"Miredhel?" mouthed Belegil silently.
"Would her blood taste sweeter than her lips?" the orc asked through a fit of coughing.
Legolas' eyes darkened, and at once he was on his knees, pointing his long white knife at the orc's throat. "What did you do to her?" he growled, and the orc chuckled mirthlessly.
Legolas drove his fist across the orcs' temple and then wrapped both hands around his neck, pulling his head up in a vicious shake. "Tell me!" the elf demanded.
"Heh, heh, heh," the orc choked out, "her lips…"
Legolas snapped his neck.
"Legolas!" Belegil admonished in shock. "He could have told us their plans, their leader, everything!"
Legolas stood and dusted his hands off. "I doubt that."
"He would have, with a little persuasion…he kept muttering big boss, the big boss. Why did you kill him like that?"
Legolas' eyes drifted to rest upon Miredhel. "I should have never let her come with us," he muttered, walking back toward his horse.
Belegil suddenly smiled in understanding. "Oh ho!" he said, sheathing his knife and following the prince. "Oh, Legolas. You and Miredhel? Great Valar, she's a fireball," he laughed.
Legolas glared at him.
"Well, she is," he excused himself. "I would not worry too much for her in battle. She is every bit as tough as her brother, had to be, growing up with him. She can fend for herself."
The elves mounted their horses, and Belegil smiled slyly at Miredhel. "Prince Legolas here just killed a nasty orc for you, sweetheart," he called and winked. "Nothing says love like snapping someone's neck!"
Miredhel groaned and buried her face in her hands.
Legolas glared at Belegil again, and then called the elves to attention. "Listen! We will spread into three flanks and force the orcs toward the dead forest. Shoot to kill, let none escape, and take no prisoners!"
The elven riders plunged into the darkness. Across the desolate land they rode. All was still save the soft clip of horses' hooves in the hard-packed earth and the rustle of elven cloaks against the wind. One of the company, a Mirkwood elf, began to sing in a low voice a song of old, of war and battle, of death and glory:
Across dark fields, flew elves in haste,
In night's grim hour, they would lay waste,
To deadly foes and battle's throes.
Morning's glory, they yearned to taste.
The moon was dark, the hour late,
Hidden enemies lay in wait,
To spring, to kill, their greatest thrill,
And feed in orcish lust and hate.
At last both clashed in mists of red,
The quick, the fearless, and the dead,
Their elvish lord threw high his sword,
And all orcs learned anew to dread.
In killing orcs, they found their quarry,
Elves fought and died, all tasted glory.
Remember well, this tale to tell,
Dagorlad, so ends their story.
Miredhel did not take much comfort from that song. She rode uneasily, her eyes darting about, expecting at and moment for a pack of wargs and horrid orcs to appear. She glanced behind her; she had fallen to the back in shameful accordance to Legolas' suggestion. To the rear of the company, the Brown Lands were even more still and silent. With satisfaction, she turned to the front, but her eyes caught something as she moved—some glint of metal, like a ring or the tip of an arrow in the distant grey. With care, she turned her head to look again. Someone rode behind them, covered in the gloom of night and a dark cloak. When she turned to look again, the rider was gone.
Up ahead rode Legolas, so cool and calm, with bow in hand, grim eyed and stern-faced, to all who looked upon him. The dead forest loomed on the horizon, and the scattered orcs' lights glimmered across the shadows like fallen stars. Not far from the approaching elves, a warg waited, crouched down, his shaggy coat blending into the faded land, his yellow eyes ever watchful. At last, he caught a scent.
"Spies! Elves!" he howled in his own tongue, and the whole of the orcs ran to join him, dreaded weapons in hand.
The elves faltered not in their course.
Their lord raised his bow. "Ithilien, to arms!" he cried, and the warriors drew their arrows as one arm, releasing a golden swarm of deadly might. The arrows smote the orcs' black shields, necks, thighs, and chests. Some shrieked and fell, but most kept running, swords and spears held high, toward their foes.
The gap between the two forces narrowed until orcs and elves collided in a thundering clash of steel and iron. And from the back, Miredhel watched her kinsmen transform in swift and terrible vengeance. Her eyes were drawn to Legolas as he charged into the horde, firing one arrow after another in a seamless perfect sweep of motion. His eyes blazed, for fury shone in his face; she had never before seen him so.
Following his lead, the elves swept through the orcs and wargs, forcing them toward the dead forest as planned. Belegil and Sulindal led the second flank, wielding their swords as deadly as any foe hammer of old. These elves were not the kinsmen or friends Miredhel had known. They were utterly foreign to her—the deadly gleam in their eyes, the lethal certainty of their skill. They were terrifying—
They were warriors.
Miredhel followed their lead, plunging into the fray. She dodged orc blades as she circled the outer edge, training her eye and bow on any target within striking distance. Meanwhile, Legolas and the captains had led the rest of the warriors deep within the pulsing mass of a hundred bodies. Driven wild by the scent of elf flesh and insatiable blood lust, the enemy assailed the company, but to no avail. For the elves had formed a wedge through the heart of the orcs, fighting them from inside their own ranks while skilled archers shot from the outside, picking off the leaders one at a time. Slowly the elves pushed the dwindling mass of orcs closer to the dead forest.
Wind stirred in their favor, and the clouds broke momentarily. A pale slice of moonlight burst from cover, illuminating a brief crack of battle. Among the vague thorny silhouettes of orc bodies, Miredhel perceived a face she knew as well as her own—it was Eledhel. He lived! But the joy welling up inside dissolved as she caught a gruesome body rise from the ash and slime of the battle plain and stagger toward her brother's open back.
"Eledhel! Behind you!" she shouted.
He did not turn. He could not hear her above the din and roar of open battle. Miredhel cursed her foolishness for even hoping that he might. She guided her horse frantically to push her way toward him, at least close enough that she could get a clear shot to fell the orc. She reached in her quiver. Her hand found nothing. All her arrows were spent.
Now the slowly creeping orc pulled a scimitar from a fallen comrade.
"Eledhel," she screamed again, cupping her hands around her mouth. "Eledhel, watch out!" Her hand fell in frustration to her belt, and her fingertips curled around the hilt of her knife. She slid it from its sheath in desperation, and flung it with all her might at the orc. The blade struck him in the neck, and he gurgled a choking cry as he crumpled to the earth.
Her brother turned, his eyes lingering on the jeweled hilt embedded in oily skin. He quickly pulled out the knife and looked up to see his sister upon her horse standing tall above him.
"Thank you," he said, his eyes gleaming. "Now clear out of this mess before you get hurt."
"Before I get hurt?" Miredhel scoffed. She took her knife from his hand and pulled some arrows from his quiver. "Nice of you to show up, by the way."
"At your service," Eledhel said and mock-curtsied, turned and then thrust his blade through a charging orc. "Now get out of here!" he warned her, as he ducked under the swing of a broad-ax. With a smirk, Miredhel shot his assailant.
Eledhel glared at her and then slapped her horse on the side. "Go!"
But the tide of the orcs' fleeing was such that Miredhel was drawn into their current, pushing toward the blackened forest. It was then that she saw the cloaked rider again, heading for cover under the eaves of the woods, and Miredhel broke away to follow him.
She dismounted from her horse at the woods' edge. She could slip under the trees virtually unseen this way. Miredhel armed her bow and followed the tracks under the trees. The orcs had also sought refuge in this dark tangle of long dead branches and twisted thickets. Miredhel could hardly believe she was doing this, as she silently swung up into a tree branch so she could better look for the rider, and she would have an open range on orcs as they ran past. 'If only Annariel could see me now,' she mused sadly as she lay in wait. Every orc she faced, every orc she killed was penance for her friend's death, penance and revenge all wrapped up into one neat package. Miredhel checked her quiver; she had five arrows left. Five more chances to better Middle Earth. She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them at the quick approach of running feet.
It was the rider, still swathed in black, upon his horse. Orcs had cornered his steed into the razor-sharp tangles of a spiny thicket. The horse jolted and bucked, and the rider swung a curved sword, desperately trying to beat back his foes while staying mounted. If Miredhel had any doubts about where the rider's allegiance lay, they dissipated with her spotting the sword. It was clearly elvish in make and design.
She shot one of the orcs, giving away her hidden position. Now they were on to her. She edged to the inside of the dead tree trunk and shot another one of the nasty brutes as he ran for her. More orcs swarmed the horse and rider, and the rider did very well to keep them at bay with the tip of his sword. Miredhel watched in astonishment at one of the orcs latched onto the rider's cloak, trying to pull him off his horse. The cloak ripped from his shoulders, and behold! The rider was not a he, but a she! A fair blonde maiden with clear blue eyes--in fact, the very maiden Miredhel had seen in Legolas' embrace before they had left.
"Lierwen!" Miredhel gasped, and the girl heard her voice. Her eyes darted up to the tree branch where Miredhel had been hiding, and the orcs seized this moment to knock the girl from her horse.
She rolled to her right to miss the blow of their spears. She quickly pushed herself to her feet and slowly inched back, sword in hand. The orcs leered at her and then almost simultaneously all converged on her at once with dagger, axe, spear, and sword.
"Help!" she cried as they surrounded her.
At that very moment, Miredhel could have walked away, of course, and left the girl to a horrible demise at the hands of orcs. Legolas would be heartbroken, but time heals such wounds, and in the end he would find comfort in her arms. To Miredhel's credit, that thought never even crossed her mind. She softly swallowed her surprise at the rider's true identity, and used her last arrows to pick off the orcs surrounding her. The girl deftly swung her blade and beheaded or stabbed the remaining two. When the last orc had fallen, the girl sunk to her knees and dropped her sword, pressing one hand to her side. Dark red blossomed from beneath her hand, over her tunic, and her face paled as she looked down to her hands and saw them covered in her own blood.
Miredhel swung down from her tree branch and ran to the girl, who drooped amidst the clutter of slain orcs.
"Tell Legolas that I am sorry…and that I love him," she said breathlessly, curling her arm around her side.
Miredhel gently brushed the fine blonde hair away from the girl's eyes. "No, no. You can tell him yourself," Miredhel insisted. "I can help you. You'll be just fine." She helped the girl to her feet, so she could lean on Miredhel's shoulder. "Careful," she said and picked up her torn cloak and handed it to her. "Keep applying pressure to the wound."
Howls of more orcs echoed through the trees as the elves closed in on the remnant of their army, and a green fletched arrow whistled right past their heads.
"Mirkwood arrows…Legolas…" the girl moaned.
"We can not stay here. It's worse than a shooting range! We have to move," Miredhel decided. The girl's horse had long since run away, so they would have to clear the woods on foot. She wrapped her arm around the girl's shoulder, and together they hobbled through the slain, the chaos and fighting, and the dark twists of spidery branches and trees. The dead forest transcended into a forest of the dead. Everywhere sprawled gruesome bodies, torn and wide-eyed, a dark carrion feast.
And somewhere, an ember, in fiery orange, drifted from a forgotten torch, of which the possessor had fallen with three arrows in his back. The ember danced in the night air like a firefly in midsummer, and then fell away into a heap of dry under brush, cackling, hissing, and then burning.
Miredhel smelled smoke before she saw actual flames, but the fire spread quickly through the old, dry wood. Soon the entire forest was ablaze, trapping the two elves deep in its cauldron.
One look back told her that they would soon be caught like kindling, if they did not get out soon. Flames licked the bases of the trees all around them.
"Come on, we are almost there," she reassured the girl wilting at her side, and Miredhel then all but dragged her past the flames, past the trees, and into the clear night, where she could even see faint stars in the sky through the smoke and ash.
"At last, we've made it," Miredhel sighed. Not far ahead, she could see some of the elves piling corpses into mounds. Legolas stood among them, quite unscathed, still glorious with traces of his battle-hardened countenance lingering his eyes. Unseen, she gazed at him, her mind playing back to those moments of sweet confession they had shared together in his tent. The way he had danced with her at the feast. His eyes when he had asked her to keep his ring. The memory of tasting his lips, the feel of his arms, so strong around her.
"It was but a dream," she whispered to herself, and all of her reserve and self-control could not ease the ache in her heart or stop the steady stream of tears from rolling down her sooty cheeks. And in her wretched state, Miredhel glanced to the girl at her side. Her face was drawn and white, and she began to slide away from Miredhel's shoulder. She had fainted. Miredhel carefully lowered her to the ground. The girl's eyes dimmed and her lids drooped shut. Her breathing slowed.
"No! Awake! Awake!" Miredhel called, "You must not sleep, not now!" She cradled the girl's head in her lap and firmly patted her pale cheeks.
The girl's lashes fluttered briefly.
"Please, for Legolas. I would not have him lose the one he loves so dearly," she said, and as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she knew she meant them. Grief crippled her heart in waves of searing pain, but she knew the truth of her words, and perhaps, that is what hurt the most. Miredhel cupped her face in her hands and wept anew as the girl in her lap drifted away into a dreamless country. The night grew cold, and ash from the forest fire spun softly around them like winter's first snow.
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