The Black Dragon
Author's note: This chapter contains some descriptions of violence and alludes to rape. Use discretion accordingly.
Chapter Thirty-three: The Black Dragon
She could feel the warmth of the sun on her back, the cool wet strands of grass clinging to her legs. She could hear the distant chatter of meadow larks, but all of these sensations became secondary as she watched Legolas ride away, across the rippling green horizon with Sulindal at his side. His gait was a little more unsteady than usual, ever so slightly stiff, and she wondered which bothered her prince more—his wounded shoulder or his frustration at the past events.
How strange his eyes had seemed to her! His eyes seemed so distant as if regret haunted his every thought. Of course, all of these musings in her mind were sheer conjecture. She did not know anything for certain, and there had been precious little time for talking in the past hours, or days for that matter. The most upfront Legolas had been with her was when he had apologized to her at the end of the canyon's secret pass. He had apologized to her, as if he supposed she blamed him for the horrifying turn of events—the ambush, the slain archers, Farothin's disappearance. Farothin.
She sighed as she thought of him. Surely Legolas did not believe that she blamed him for whatever had happened to Farothin. Miredhel bit her lip and looked away from the diminishing forms of the riders. She had not given Legolas that impression, had she? From the appearance of things, she had. Miredhel decided that when Legolas returned she would set his mind at ease and clear the matter with him. He had enough troubles without her adding to them.
All that was left to her was to wait. Miredhel very much wanted to improve her acquaintance with Celeril whom she had only spoken with briefly in their ride to Rauros. She walked over to where the princess stood, apparently good-humouredly enduring a conversation with Adrendil. Before Miredhel could even contrive a greeting, Adrendil spoke.
"Lady Miredhel," he said. "How kind of you to come speak with me!" He looked benignly at Celeril. "Will you give us a moment, princess?"
Celeril shared a look of confusion with Miredhel and then quietly stepped aside as Adrendil had requested.
"Captain Adrendil," Miredhel began. "I am not sure--"
"I think you know that I hold you in the highest regard, my lady," he interrupted smoothly.
"Well, I--" she said, a little uncomfortable in not knowing what he could possibly say next.
"And I know you share a special relationship with the prince," he said coyly.
She blinked. She certainly had not expected him to say that. "He and I are friends, Captain," she testily replied.
He smiled and leaned toward her. "Very good friends," he said softly.
Her face grew warm under his curious gaze. "I'll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself," she said smartly.
"It's quite obvious to everyone, my dear," he told her. "Prince Legolas, if not already, is precariously near falling in love with you." Adrendil stopped to gauge her reaction to his words.
Miredhel silently cast her eyes down and said nothing.
"Oh, didn't you know?" Adrendil said with mock surprise. "He is."
She lifted her chin and deliberately met his clever eyes. "Our business is our own," Miredhel said. "What can you mean by saying such things?" she asked with an edge to her voice, a careful warning to Adrendil that he had trespassed beyond the realm of polite conversation.
"You are charming," Adrendil said, his eyes glittering, "but I did not allude to your relationship with the prince to embarrass you. I mean to ask for your help, assistance which I know you can lend, because of your intimacy with our leader."
Miredhel choked back a denial, and Adrendil continued.
"You see, I had become rather well acquainted with young Farothin, and I am very fond of him," he said and swallowed slowly as if a lump caught in his throat. "I am so worried for him."
Miredhel eyed Adrendil curiously. His concern seemed genuine. She nodded her head. "I know how you feel," she agreed gently. "I worry for him also."
"Is there any more news concerning his disappearance?" Adrendil asked her. "I had hoped, given your closeness with the Prince, that you might have more information. It would be a great comfort in my sorrow." He piteously clasped his hands over his chest.
"On my honor, there is nothing I can tell you that has not already been said," Miredhel answered.
"Oh," Adrendil said disappointedly, his shoulders slumping. "I had hoped that the prince might have found a clue to Farothin's disappearance when the two of you were leaving the canyon." He paused and lowered his voice. "I wouldn't have even said anything, but… well, it matters not."
"Never mind, my lady. It was foolish of me to waste your time so," he said and gave a slight bow, turning to leave.
Miredhel caught his arm and stopped him. "Captain, do you think the prince found some sign of Farothin in the canyon?"
"Why? Did he found something?" Adrendil asked inquisitively.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "No. Prince Legolas knows how worried I am. He would have told me."
"Are you certain of this, my lady?" he pressed her.
"Yes," she said firmly.
"Then there can be no questions on the matter. Again, I apologize for disturbing you," he told her politely.
Miredhel frowned as he walked away, not entirely sure of what exactly had just transpired. She glanced over her shoulder to catch one last glimpse of Legolas' fleeting silhouette on the horizon, but he had already passed from sight.
Legolas followed the green curve of the valley dipping toward the small village that sprawled between the wetlands. He could see small neatly tended fields fanning out like bright patches of gold and noted a smallish wall, really more like a spindly fence, encircling the main part of the village. There were a few scattered buildings made of stone and wood, with walls and roofs of thatched grass whitened by the sun.
Sulindal spied a youth perched upon the wall next to a gate and pointed him out to the prince. "Look, Legolas. They have a look-out man."
"Look-out boy is more like it," Legolas countered. "I have always been ill at guessing ages of men, but I wager that he's not yet ten and five years."
"Do you see their wall?" Sulindal said, arching an eyebrow.
"I don't suppose that rickety fence would even keep pigs in, if pressed to do so," Legolas said.
"What chance have they against an attack from those orcs?" Sulindal asked, staring ahead at the boy.
Legolas shook his head and answered. "I must persuade them to leave and make for the fort at Calenfen on the edge of the Entwash. Aragorn keeps a garrison there, and at least they would have more protection than that fence."
"What if the orcs lay siege to Calenfen? A fort and a garrison would be no match for the numbers our scouts reported," Sulindal pointed out.
Legolas thoughtfully rubbed his forehead. He did not want to admit his doubts and indecision to Sulindal. He knew Sulindal could be trusted. Moreover, he was a loyal friend, but Legolas was a prince of Eryn Lasgalen, a Greenleaf, and with that name came an indelible sense of pride. He and Sulindal were friends, yes, but Legolas was still the leader, and he would act the part.
"No, you are right, Sulindal. Calenfen will need more protection. If the people of Rilmost are willing, we will escort them to Calenfen and then send riders to Minas Tirith to alert the king," Legolas planned.
"If the people of Rilmost are willing…" Sulindal repeated. "Their village is about to be overrun with orcs. Why wouldn't they accept our help?"
"You would be surprised, Sulindal," Legolas said slowly. "Men are such odd creatures—they are stubborn and proud to a fault. They may find it beneath themselves to accept our aid. We are elven kind. They may not even wish to speak with us."
Even as the prince spoke these words, the boy at the fence became aware of the approaching riders. The youth peered curiously at the elves, his eyes growing larger and larger as they neared. The shiny metal tackle trimming the elves' weapons and clothes gleamed in the sun; both Legolas and Sulindal's eyes were bright, and their long fair hair rivaled the burnished wheat in the fields. The boy slowly took in all these things, and then with a gasp, he nimbly leapt down from the wall and ran into the village.
Sulindal looked amusedly at Legolas. "It appears you may have not been too far off the mark, my lord."
Legolas nodded. "I have been around enough men by now to know," he answered wryly. Before the war, he had really only known one man, Aragorn, but the War of the Ring had changed all of that. He had been thrown headlong into a world of men—first through getting to know Boromir, man of Gondor, and then Eomer, Theoden and the cold lady of Meduseld, Eowyn, and that despicable Grima, and Hama…there were too many to name; Minas Tirith had been more of the same, men, women, and children all over and everywhere at once, thousands of tiny sparks flickering in the darkness. Their light burned and faded so quickly, for their mortality had seemed but a breath to him. Yet during his time with the Fellowship, Legolas had learned to care for these mortals. For all their eccentricities and weakness, they lived and loved passionately. Their friendship felt like Spring time. Aragorn was as true a friend and brother as Legolas had known, and he would honor and defend that trust until his dying breath.
The elves pushed through the swinging gate and entered the town. The few villagers along the dusty path stopped in their tracks to stare at them. Legolas and Sulindal only gained a few yards before a thick, burly jowled man, fairly bristling, met them in the road with the young lad from the wall trailing behind him.
"Here now, you two," he shouted. "Stop right there!"
They stopped, and Sulindal fought hard to conceal his amusement and curiosity under a serious expression.
"Who are you? From where do you hail?" The man leaned on his pitchfork and peered menacingly at the mysterious strangers on horseback.
"We mean you no harm," Legolas advised him. "I am Legolas, and my companion is Sulindal. We have ridden in great haste from the northern woods with a group of our kinfolk to bring you tidings of a most serious nature. Who is your leader here? I would bear this news to him first."
The man paid no heed to Legolas' question, but continued to gawk open-mouthed, his brows pushing together, until finally he sputtered, "Elves, that's what you are…elves."
The small cluster of villagers that had gathered around the elves murmured in agreement and some in fear. Legolas and Sulindal exchanged glances.
"Yes, we are elves," the prince said.
The man spoke again, his voice full of disbelief. "Elves…I've heard stories about you people." He inched closer to Legolas and Arod. "Bedtime stories to tell children…about heroes who did impossible deeds, killing giants and monsters…" He paused, and his eyes grazed across Legolas' immaculate features, his brilliant eyes and long lashes, the white-blonde hair falling past his shoulders, his silvery-green tunic, deceivingly slim frame, and smooth hands. The man's lips curled disapprovingly. "How disappointing!" he guffawed and drove his pitchfork into the ground. "These two puffed-up pigeons couldn't do any of those things, I reckon." He looked toward the tittering crowd for approval and continued. "--Ridden in great haste with tidings of a most serious nature—bah!"
More quickly than men could measure, Legolas was off his horse and standing before the burly man. The elf's great height dwarfed him, and in that slim frame which the man had marked only moments before as being weak, there was an undeniable strength.
"You would do well, man of Gondor, to censure yourself in strangers' company. Tell your leader we are here. I will brook no more delays from you," Legolas said resolutely.
The man's eyes narrowed at the elf who had spoken to him so. He turned away, and then whipped around again, pulling his arm back to strike the impertinent stranger with a thunder-fisted blow. His ignorance of elves proved his undoing. Elven reflexes being what they are, Legolas saw the fist coming before it ever struck him. He caught the man's hand in the air and closed his fingers around it.
The onlookers gasped. Sulindal muttered in elvish. The man huffed as he tried to free his hand from the elf's grip while Legolas stood there, assuming a look of incredible boredom. The man strained and flapped his free arm, trying to remove himself from Legolas' grasp to no avail, and the crowd fell silent as they learned first-hand of the control and strength of elves. It was awe-inspiring and belittling all at once. Eventually the prince pulled the man's arm in close and spoke to him in a low deliberate voice:
"I can trifle with you no longer. You have wasted enough of my time. Go now." He released the captive hand, and the man sprawled to the ground. Sulindal offered a hand to help him up, but he would have none of it.
"A curse on your mothers," he spat, pushing the kindly offered hand away. "Be gone and may death take you all!" He scrambled to his feet and glared at those who had humiliated him.
A new villager found the courage to speak. "Had you gone to Minas Tirith during the War, instead of hiding in Rilmost like a coward, Milreth, then you would have known to show more respect to these elves. They are not to be underestimated. In the battle of the Pelennor fields, I watched an elven warrior slay a Mumakil beast single-handedly."
Sulindal eyed his friend beside him. "All by yourself?" he whispered and mischievously elbowed Legolas as they swiveled to see the new villager.
This man wore a kindly expression on his face and was of medium height and build with dark brown hair and a full beard.
"I am Grimborn," he said. "Please forgive Milreth's impertinence, my lords. My father is the master of this village. I will take you to him."
They met with Grimborn's father, Grimlaf, and the elders of the village in a meeting hall of sorts that had a dry, swept floor and thatched walls of curving limbs and woven grass. Introductions were made, and Legolas told them of their plight.
The elders did not seem particularly concerned.
"Thank you for taking the time to warn us of this danger, but we are simple folk. We hoard no treasure or valuables of any interest to orcs. What reason would they have to attack our village?"
"They are malevolent blood-thirsty fiends! They don't need a reason!" Legolas cried out, his distress evident. "Your village lies between them and Gondor. I do not know what their purpose is, but they will move past this village in the dead of night and will not think twice of staining your doorsteps red with their vengeance."
One of the elders cleared his throat uncomfortably, and all of the old men shifted in their seats or where they stood. Finally Grimlaf addressed Legolas' statement, "You are elf-kind," he said, wrinkling his brow, "Never before have your people offered warning or protection to the men of the Nindalf. Why now, Legolas of Greenwood?"
"I am friend to your king, Aragorn Telecontar. I fought beside him in the War, and now I would fight for his people as my own," Legolas told him. "This is no small, roving band of orcs. You must leave your village before nightfall and head for the fort at Calenfen for protection. My people and I will see that you make it there safely, but you cannot stay here."
Grimlaf exchanged glances with some of the other elders. From his rustic seat, he could see the morning sun from the window. The elf had said before nightfall. "It will not be easy to convince our people that this action is necessary. We must discuss this decision among ourselves."
"Discuss it then," Legolas answered, growing impatient, "but there is only one decision to make. You must leave!"
Grimlaf pursed his lips and nodded. "We appreciate your counsel and your offer of aid. It is very generous," he rasped. "I will send someone for you at noon."
The prince's face grew flushed, and the knife wound in his shoulder throbbed. He had gone against his father's wishes in this matter. They had come so far, and three elves had died in order to save this village, this village which now seemed like it would rather be left alone. Pressing his hand to his shoulder, Legolas grimaced and looked down at the floor, and then Grimborn moved to escort the elves from the room. "I agree with you," he said in hushed tones, but old men find comfort in talking rather than taking action."
"If the elders choose not to leave, then your people's fate will be bathed in blood," Legolas said hotly. "You must convince them, Grimborn."
Sulindal reached for Legolas' arm to steady him. "We have traveled many miles to bear this news," he said, his gray eyes full of concern for his friend. "We will wait for your father's answer. May the rest of our company join us in your village?"
"Yes, of course. There is a tavern across from here where you may rest and find refreshment," Grimborn said. He led them to the establishment, a taller building with crude tables and chairs, and introduced them to the barkeeper, a short bear of a man named Berdwit. Then Grimborn excused himself and left to join his father.
"Did you see the sign above the door?" Sulindal asked with a small smile.
"No," Legolas said, falling into one of the closest chairs. "Why?"
"The tavern's called The Black Dragon, he answered. "Fitting, don't you think?"
"Spare me your ironies, Sulindal," Legolas groaned. "I suppose we should signal the others to meet us." He gripped the side-arms of the chair and pushed himself up.
Sulindal frowned and quickly answered, "I will go. You should stay here—in case the elders reach an early decision."
"Very well," answered Legolas, who thankfully settled back into the chair. He could not remember the last time he had slept, and his body protested this omission with his every move. Sulindal quietly left, and within moments, the prince was fast asleep.
He dreamed he stood on the open plains of Gondor at night, the White City behind him gleaming like a spectral beam of moonlight. Then without warning the sky erupted into flames, giving form to a terrible great shape pulling over the horizon. Legolas' heart clenched in fear as a pair of brilliant yellow eyes fixed on his. Ancalagon. Fire roared all around him, and he could distantly hear Miredhel calling his name. If that beast touched her… Hate washed over him, and Legolas ripped his knife from its scabbard.
He startled awake and found himself gripping his knife while Miredhel stood away from him with a confused expression on her face.
"Legolas!?" she asked. "I tried to wake you, and…"
"I am sorry," he said and slowly resheathed his knife. "I must have been dreaming."
"Well, from now on I should let you sleep, if that is the measure of the response I am to receive," she teased.
"When did you arrive?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.
"Not long ago. Sulindal mentioned that you were not feeling well."
"That traitor," the prince muttered.
"He is concerned for you," Miredhel said. "Does your shoulder give you pain?"
"I am fine," he answered stubbornly.
Miredhel looked at him as if she knew better, and Legolas sighed, gingerly moving his left arm.
"It does ache," he answered reluctantly, "and my arm feels…stiff."
"Can you lift up your arm, Legolas?" she asked gently.
"Only so far," he said, "but it is really not that bad, and I am sure that by tomorrow—"
"You will not be able to move it at all!" Miredhel finished for him. "I am going to go get Colmaethor right now."
"No, Miredhel!" he exclaimed anxiously and then added, "I would rather be at your tender mercies."
"He is a far better healer and much more experienced than I am, Legolas."
"But I trust you more," he insisted.
"No, my prince. It could be serious."
He loved it when she called him my prince. Legolas smiled feebly at her. "I have a hard time refusing you when you say that, but this time I must. I need the Galadhrim's unwavering support now more than ever. I cannot afford to appear weak before them."
"But Legolas, you were stabbed. Certainly that excuses you," she said firmly.
He lowered his voice. "Miredhel, I don't need excuses right now. I need strength. Will you help me?"
"Yes," she answered and sighed. "I should clean the wound and then close it." She removed the bandage which she had fixed in the canyon and then pulled out her new knife and set it on the table before them, and the barkeeper watched the elves with increasing curiosity.
Legolas frowned at her. "What do you plan on doing with that knife?" he asked worriedly.
Miredhel recognized his unease and patted him on the arm. "I just thought it might be easier to amputate," she answered casually and then began to sift through her bag, glancing at the prince out of the corner of her eye.
He paled for a moment and then wrinkled his nose. "You Lorien elves have such a cracked sense of humor."
She smiled mischievously at him. "Oh, I am only trying to get you to relax a little, Legolas. It simply will not do if you faint in the middle of the tavern while I am trying to stitch you up."
He artfully ignored the comment about him fainting. "No, really, Miredhel. What is the knife for?"
"To cut away your tunic and leather overshirt, so I can do what we've just been discussing."
"No, you should not have to do that. I will just take them off," he said and began to loosen one of his leather gauntlets.
"Well, I did not believe that you would care to disrobe, here in the middle of a tavern—"
"No one else is in here," he said, pulling off the second gauntlet easily enough and setting it on the table beside its twin.
"That barkeeper is in here," she said, and they both turned to see the man peering at them as he dried a tankard and plunked it on a shelf. "And I feared that you might not be able to lift your arm enough to remove your shirts."
"I shall if you help me," he answered and went to work on unfastening one of the leather straps running across his chest.
"Why does that barkeeper continue to stare at us?" she whispered, leaning over to help him push the leather end through a small silver buckle.
"You don't have to keep your voice down, Miredhel. He doesn't know Elvish," Legolas said teasingly.
"I doubt it."
"He keeps looking over here," she said nervously as she slid off the first leather strap connecting to his weapons' brace and quiver.
"He has never seen elves before," he said and leaned toward her. "It is because you are so beautiful."
"You are. I haven't had enough opportunities to say that to you, but you are." He took her hand and kissed it. "This journey has been horrible, Miredhel. I have not been able to take care of you or treat you like I would, like you deserve." He let go of her hand and tentatively began to unfasten the other leather strap across his chest.
"Legolas, I do not…" she began to say.
He stopped for a moment with the buckle and shook his head. "When this is over, and we are safe within the walls of Minas Tirith, I promise you that we will have our long-awaited dinner, and I will take you to all the moonlit gardens you desire." He met her dark eyes and swallowed softly. "I mean to court you to the fullest meaning of the word courtship, Miredhel, for you deserve nothing less."
He undoubtedly had already captured her heart without such splendid tactics, but who could resist an offer made as thus? "I would be honored," she said and kissed his cheek.
Legolas smiled and then went back to the work of pushing the leather strap through the buckle, wincing when he lifted his shoulders to shrug off the rest of the brace. Miredhel eased off the quiver from his back and then carefully set it next to the mounting pile of the prince's hardware that now covered the table, noticing with unease that Berdwit the barkeeper continued to watch them intently.
On top of his suede overshirt, Legolas wore an elvish-tooled belt, and when he started to take it off, the barkeeper lunged out from behind his station.
"No, you musn't!" he heartily exclaimed, bustling over to their table. "My, yeh elves are a peculiar folk! I can't allow that in here. Not where anyone passing through could see yehs!" His eyes wandered to Miredhel, taking in the willowy length of her body and her roguish hazel eyes. "Not that I can blame yeh, with a looker like her," he said and conspiratorially nudged Legolas.
"I suppose privacy would be better," agreed Miredhel slowly, using the Common Tongue so the man could understand. "Do you have somewhere out of the way we could go?" she asked and added, "A place where he could sit down while I worked?—Or even better, somewhere he could lay down until I finished?"
The man's eyes widened at her suggestion, and he nodded with an appreciative, toothy grin. He took the elves to a door off the side of the main room. "You won't be disturbed in here, my lady," he told Miredhel and then pulled Legolas aside. "She's really something!" the man told him with awe in his voice.
"She really is," Legolas agreed and entered, shutting the door behind him. He heaped his weapons and possessions next to an empty jar on a smallish table beside the door and looked around the room. It was a curious room to be located in a tavern, being only large enough to be considered a small storeroom, but instead of housing barrels of wine and drink, or shelving glasses and mugs, the only furnishings were a shabby bed and a crate set up like a nightstand.
"This is odd, don't you think, Legolas? Do you think he lives here and sleeps in this room?" she asked, sitting down on the bed and opening her satchel.
Suddenly the Berdwit's lusty smiles made sense, and despite his fatigue, Legolas nearly burst out laughing. He quickly turned away from her and fought to regain his composure; he would not dare tell Miredhel of the man's licentious interpretation of what they were really doing. He was sure she would be mortified.
He cleared his throat. "Men tire more easily than elves, Miredhel. Perhaps he takes rest in here."
His suggestion seemed to mollify her curiosity, and he haltingly finished removing his belt and added it to the pile on the table. He reached for the bottom hooks on his suede overshirt, and Miredhel waved him over. He sat down next to her on the bed, and she nimbly unfastened the tiny hooks and parted the suede, gently lifting the torn part from his wounded shoulder.
"That orc ruined this beautiful embroidery," she said sadly, setting the doeskin on the bed.
"I am sure that was his intention, too," Legolas teased, "and gouging my shoulder with his horrible dagger was just an unfortunate side-effect."
"Very unfortunate," Miredhel agreed, reaching for the top clasp on his tunic. She separated the fabric, and her thumb brushed against his chest, grazing the smooth white skin just below his neck, and Legolas silently gasped. Both elves forgot to breathe. The playful mood that had pervaded the room vanished when their eyes locked, and the prince could not hide the intensity burning within his. He murmured her name, and she brushed her lips against his and then deepened their kiss. Reluctantly, she pulled away, and neither of them spoke as she released the intricate clasps down the front of his tunic, revealing the chiseled breadth of his chest and torso. He was perfection, sculpted living perfection. She remembered the night after they had fought the dragon, and she had applied ointment to the burns on his back; she remembered what it had felt like to touch his skin. They had been little more than acquaintances then, and now…
His eyes, a darker blue than usual, were so intense, and the desire there consumed her. That night in the field when she had looked upon him and touched him, they had only been acquaintances, but now, now she knew she loved him. Now, being this close to him was bliss and agony. He leaned toward her, and they kissed once more, her left hand sliding down his neck to rest between the fabric of his shirt and the warmth of his right shoulder. A sigh escaped his lips, and he trailed kisses from her mouth to her ear and then down the curve of her neck as she slipped the fabric from his uninjured shoulder.
With every nibble, every kiss, her senses abandoned her. "Mmm…this is another reason…why Colmaethor should have come…" she breathed.
"Exactly why he shouldn't have," Legolas countered, lifting his head to kiss her lips again and then again.
Miredhel felt like she had fallen into a dream, the best dream she had ever had. Grief had no place there, nor did pain, but when she opened her eyes, the dried blood on Legolas' shoulder reminded her that her prince was injured and of her duty to him. She longingly withdrew from his embrace and reminded him, "Legolas, your shoulder..."
"Then let's hurry and be done with it," he growled.
With the utmost care, she lifted and pushed the tunic away from his left shoulder, and he hissed as the fabric tore away from the dried blood around his cut.
She poured a clear liquid from a small bottle out of her knapsack onto a scrap of cloth and tenderly began to clean the edges of the wound. One moment it was soothing and cool against his hot skin and then stinging horribly the next, and he squeezed his eyes shut and tried not think about what Miredhel was doing to him. How could one who brought him so much pleasure also bring him so much pain? With one hand she pushed the skin around his cut together, and with the other, she began sewing a chain of tight stitches across the wound.
Miredhel kissed the side of his brow. "I know this must hurt," she said sympathetically. "Do you want to lie down?"
"No, I am fine," he answered, his eyes watering. He closed his eyes again and forced himself to think of happier things—the sound of hobbits laughing, the greedy bulge in Arod's eyes when he fed him an apple, the smell of the forest on a summer's breeze, Miredhel in his arms with flowers in her hair…
"I am finished," she said, and Legolas let out a breath he did not know he had been holding. He was very much disinclined to look at her handiwork, but look at it he did, and she had done a well enough job. With a great sigh of relief, he flopped back against the length of the bed and pulled her to him.
"That feels so much better," he pronounced.
"Really?" she asked incredulously.
"Of course not! It hurts like Mordor," he said. "But I feel better knowing it's been treated." He leaned toward her and moved a droopy curl away from her face. "Thank you," he said softly.
"You were brave, my prince," she answered and bent forward to place a kiss next to his stitches. "You even smiled before I finished."
"I was thinking of you," he said, running his finger along the edge of her ear and down her jawline.
He thought of how he should very much like to pull her into his bare arms and hold her for the rest of the afternoon, but that idea would probably not be the best call with a newly sutured shoulder, not to mention the host of elves that would be prowling the premises looking for their leader. More importantly, there were Miredhel's interests to consider, and she deserved more than he could give her right now. He sat up and pushed his fingers through his hair and then looked down at her with adoration in his eyes.
"Thank you," he said again, delivering a swift kiss to her cheek. "I suppose I should get dressed." He subsequently stood and cautiously pulled his tunic back over his shoulders and with Miredhel's help secured the toggles in place. She picked up the soft leather overshirt to hand it to Legolas, but when she did, something small and shiny fell out of the inside pocket and onto the bed.
"What is this?" she said and picked it up before Legolas could retrieve it. She slowly turned the object over in her palm. It was a metal piece of jewelry, an enamel leaf pin. Farothin's pin.
"Where did you find this?" she asked, her voice strange.
"Back in the canyon," he answered quietly.
Her face fell as she looked at the pin, then Legolas, and then back at the pin again.
"I see," she murmured and handed him the pin, lightly folding his fingers over it. Adrendil had been right. Legolas had found something and kept it from her. He had not wanted her to know, or he had not trusted her with the truth. The reason really did not matter now. Miredhel stoically picked up the leather overshirt again and wordlessly helped the prince into it.
Legolas hardly knew what to say or do. He knew she was upset, but he had expected her to be more vocal about it. That sort of response he could contend with. He feared for her grief, and he feared for himself if it should take her again.
Miredhel started to fasten the tiny hooks down his leather shirt front. Her hands trembled as she worked, but there was deliberateness to all her movements as if she were completely intent on fixing the prince's clothing.
"Miredhel," Legolas said, trying to get her attention, and then again, "Miredhel." He could not tell that she even heard him, and finally he grabbed both her arms above the elbows and stopped her.
"Miredhel," he repeated one more time. "I know you must feel angry, but believe me when I say that I only wanted to protect you. I didn't want you to lose hope, as I had."
"I never expected it to hurt this much," she said softly, finally lifting her eyes, and the prince drowned in the despair he found in her gaze. She pulled away from him and then resumed helping him put on the rest of his gear, and Legolas let her, hoping to find some words or wisdom with which to comfort her before they finished. He found none. All he could manage was a meek "thank you," and he followed her out the door.
They waited silently together in the main room of The Black Dragon with the man at the bar still favoring them with a suspicious glance every so often. Not very long after, Grimborn joined them, sullen-faced and weary.
"My father and the elders have reached a decision. Come with me," he said.
Legolas stood and then offered his arm to Miredhel, signaling that she might join him. They left The Black Dragon and crossed over to the town meeting hall where Eledhel and Sulindal also waited for them.
Together the elves and man entered the shade of the hall, and in passing, Legolas whispered to Eledhel, "She found out about the pin."
His friend's eyes narrowed. "What fool told her? I'm going to kill him! Was it Adrendil?" he hissed and pounded a fist into his palm.
"No, I told her," Legolas said.
"She found it. I had to."
"Was she really upset?" Eledhel said, sneaking a furtive glance at his sister.
"More like really quiet—All she said was, 'I see.'"
Eledhel winced. "She said that? That's the worst. Think of it as the calm before the storm."
"I can hear both of you, you know," Miredhel interrupted. She looked at her brother. "And Legolas isn't the only one with whom I'm upset."
That silenced both of them, which was probably for the best since Grimlaf stood up to deliver his conclusion.
He bowed to the elves and then announced, "Again, I thank you, Lord Legolas, for warning us of this imminent danger. I have decided to send the women and children away for protection to Calenfen as you proposed, but the men shall stay here to defend our farms."
Legolas bitterly shook his head. "Then you sentence your men to die," he said. "You must reconsider."
"And what if we did abandon our village? The orcs will destroy everything. This land is our livelihood," the old man told him.
"A summer's harvest is not worth the lives of your men!" Legolas argued. "There is nothing you will be able to do to stop this army. They will tear the flesh from your bones and burn your lands to ash for spite."
"The elders and I have made up our minds, Lord Legolas. Our decision is final."
"Your decision is wrong," said a small voice in the back of the room. This time Miredhel had spoken, and men and elves alike looked at her with surprise. With a pale face, she moved to stand beside the prince.
"How many more must die to feed their ravenous appetite?" She asked the room.
"Miredhel," Legolas reproached her.
She ignored him and continued to speak. "This elf lord you see standing beside me is a prince of Eryn Lasgalen. He was a member of the Fellowship that saved your lands, and your king is like a brother to him. Prince Legolas left his home out of love for Gondor. He has risked much to bring you these tidings. Two of our own have died so we might save the people of this village. One is still missing," she said. "For you to choose to stay and die a fool's death completely undermines their sacrifices. If this is your will, then they died for nothing."
The room fell completely still as the men eyed one another uncomfortably.
All avoided eye contact with the elves.
Silence. Utter silence.
"And this is why we don't allow women at our council meetings," Grimlaf chuckled, and the men in the hall laughed, some of them half-heartedly, for not all of Miredhel's words had fallen on deaf ears. "Escort the lady from the room," the old man instructed his son.
"If she is not welcome, then I shall leave as well," Legolas told Grimborn with complete seriousness.
"And I," said Sulindal.
"And I," said Eledhel. "Our business here is finished. Have your women and children ready to leave within the hour." He proudly offered his arm to his sister and the elves quitted the village hall together, their faces a perfect homage to dignity and forbearance.
Once outside, however, their solemn expressions gave way to mirth. Eledhel quickly cracked a smile. "Of all the audacious elf maidens—my sister—thrown out of the town hall!" he laughed and pulled his sister into a hug. Sulindal shook his head and kissed her cheek.
"Farothin would have loved to have seen that," he told her with a sad sort of smile.
But Legolas crossed his arms and said sternly, "Well, that just set human and elf relations back a hundred years." His eyes, however, said differently, and there was no mistaking the undeniable amusement sparkling within them.
Grimborn joined them on the sandy path and bowed to Miredhel. "I am sorry, my lady. I hope you will understand that not all men are of my father's opinion," he stammered and turned red. He had never seen a lady so lovely or daring and felt three shades of clumsy and ignorant in her presence.
"Of course, they are not," she said warmly, and he turned red again.
"Lord Legolas, I will prepare our people to leave and bring them to the front gate," he said. "I understand from your captains that you wish to bury your fallen warriors as well."
The prince affirmed his remark, silently wondering if he would ever have the opportunity to do the same for Farothin.
"I shall oversee their burials," Eledhel volunteered, and Sulindal offered to assist Grimborn in readying the villagers for their flight to Calenfen. Miredhel and Legolas were left alone again, and both decided that they would rather stay outside and wander the paths of the village than go back to The Black Dragon to wait. It did not take Miredhel long to bring up the subject of Farothin's pin.
"Do you believe he is dead?" she asked him.
"I think he must be," Legolas told her gently.
Miredhel bit her lip and glanced away, her eyes smarting. "I refuse to believe it," she insisted, "although my mind tells me you must be right."
Legolas glumly kicked a loose pebble along the walk. "I admire your hope," he confessed and reached to hold her hand. "I envy it. I think it must ease the pain of not knowing."
Miredhel let out a bitter laugh. "None of it's been easy, Legolas. I've known him since he was born, from the time I could pull him into my lap for a story to the time he got his warrior's braids. How could you not tell me about the pin, Legolas? When you knew how worried--how frightened I am for him!"
"My only thought was protecting you, Miredhel," he said, squeezing her hand, but that was the last response she wanted to hear.
Eyes flashing, she pushed her hair back and exclaimed, "I'm so ridiculously sick and tired of being protected! Eledhel has made it his duty to be my personal guardian over all things my entire life. I don't need that from you."
Legolas pulled her off the path. "You don't know what you need," he said in a low controlled voice that he used to win arguments. She looked away, and the prince drew her in close to him. "I'll admit you have some skill with the bow, but you're no warrior, Miredhel. You don't have the training or the experience, and you are stubborn and won't follow the simplest of directions. You do need my protection, more so than you want to admit."
"If I don't have the training or the experience which you deem so important, it's because my high-handed brother would never allow me to join the Forest Guard," she snapped. "How can I prove myself with the two of you constantly interfering?"
"'Prove yourself?'" Legolas repeated incredulously. "Who are you trying to fool, Miredhel? You've had Grief and have been given a second chance at life, but you're still so fragile. I see it in your eyes, and I can feel it when I hold you. Now is not the time for 'proving yourself.'" Never before had Legolas been so blunt with her. Never before had he been so scathingly honest.
"Is that why you wouldn't let me go look for Farothin?" she asked, trembling.
"I wouldn't—" the prince started to say, but he was interrupted.
A boy ran in between them. His face was flushed, and there were tears in his eyes. It was the same youth that had watched Legolas and Sulindal from the gate.
"My lord," he said breathlessly and caught the Elf by the sleeve. "Something's happened. A horse came in. I thought there weren't no rider at first, but…"
Legolas and Miredhel exchanged glances, their argument temporarily forgotten. "What is it?" he asked.
"There's…there's a body, sir. You must come quickly!"
Legolas looked questioningly at Miredhel, and the fear in her eyes held the answer. "I'll go see," he said.
"I'm coming with you," Miredhel insisted, and the prince did nothing to stop her.
When the village wall and gate drifted into view, both Legolas and Miredhel could see the horse of which the boy had spoken, his curly tan coat torn and bleeding.
"Farothin's horse!" she exclaimed and broke past Legolas into a run. A small crowd of elves and men had gathered by the wooden gate. Belegil saw them coming and caught Miredhel by the waist before she could join the pack of onlookers.
"No, Miredhel. Stay here with me," Belegil said and pulled her away to the side where Legolas' sister also stood. Celeril's eyes glistened wetly, and she covered her open mouth with a shaking hand.
"Is it Farothin? Is he alive? Let me see him," Miredhel begged and twisted away from him, but he held her fast.
"Believe me, you will not want to remember Farothin as he is now," he said and then added softly to himself, "I wish I would not remember him this way."
Meanwhile, Legolas pushed into the crowd where Colmaethor and some of the others had carried the body. It was indeed Farothin. Legolas could tell that much by the tangled whorl of hair spread across the wet grass. The similarities ended there. This elf's face was barely distinguishable; abuse had twisted his features into a mottled mass of purple and red. One eye was swollen shut, the other, closed, and his cheek sported a deep gash or claw mark. Legolas was not sure which. The elf's bottom lip was split, and blood trickled from his mouth down his chin to his neck which had a length of rope still tied around it, chafing the skin raw and pink. His clothing hung in crimson shreds, hardly concealing the physical truth of what Farothin had suffered.
There was no doubt in Legolas' mind that Farothin had been tortured. Repeatedly.
Stunned by the horrors written before him in the pallid flesh of his young friend, Legolas sunk to his knees beside him. He took one of his knives and carefully cut the noose from Farothin's neck. His mind turned to anguish as he wondered what they must have done to him, the mockery he must have endured in his final moments. The prince angrily drove his knife into the sod. His eyes gleaming, Legolas stared into the sun. Its stark brightness challenged every murderous feeling within him. At length, he looked away and resignedly said, "It is over, then. At least we may have the chance to bury his body now."
"We may have more than that," Colmaethor said. "Look!" He pointed to Farothin's chest which almost indeterminately rose and then fell. "He lives yet."
Hope washed over the Legolas' face. "Can he be saved?"
"I cannot say for sure until I see the rest of his injuries. We'll have to stop his bleeding first, and out here in the dirt is no place to try."
Legolas gently gathered Farothin into his arms with Colmaethor's assistance and lifted him up. The prince's injured shoulder cried out in protest, but his determination to see his friend take care of overrode all other feelings.
"Where will you take him?" someone asked, Legolas was not sure who, for everything had become a blur since Farothin's arrival.
"To The Black Dragon," he replied and hurried toward the tavern. Miredhel saw him pass with Farothin's bloodied form wrapped in his arms. She fought the urge to cry out and quickly buried her face against Belegil's chest.
"You were right. It's horrible," she sobbed, but she did not have long to test her misery. Colmaethor stopped and asked her to come with him, for he would need all the help he could find to pull Farothin back from death's greedy clutches.
One of the village midwives had seen their need and had met them at the tavern. She had spread a blanket across one of the tables and barked at Berdwit to go and heat some water. Legolas eased Farothin's body onto the table, and Colmaethor cut away the remains of his tunic. His eyes burned at the sight before him, and the prince placed a reassuring hand on Miredhel's back, whose shoulders had softly began to shake.
Farothin's chest was a maze of lacerations that curved across the entire extent of his torso and around his sides to his back. He had been beaten and whipped until they had literally torn the skin from his body. Slashes scored the length of the Elf's arms. His wrists were bloodied and bruised from being tied up, and one of his shoulders was dislocated as if they had stretched him out too far in their brutality. With trembling hands, Miredhel began to help Colmaethor wipe away the blood and foam from Farothin's spent body, and she could not fathom what the damage would be like on his back.
"You are with friends," she whispered softly. "It's over now, Farothin..."
The sleeping figure twisted on the table as if he had heard his name, and his face twitched.
"Farothin?" Legolas said.
The Elf's arm shot out from the table and seized Legolas' hand with surprising strength, pulling him closer to the table. Farothin's body convulsed, and his eyelashes fluttered. His one uninjured eye opened, yellowish and bloodshot.
"I have seen him," he croaked. "Blood, and rack, and ruin…they are coming…" His chest heaved, and Farothin coughed, the sides of his mouth stained scarlet. His eye bore into Legolas'. "He will not stop until all of Gondor is ash and flame…I saw it in his eyes, his yellow horrible eyes...I can still see it…"
Legolas took an involuntary step back from the table. His insides contorted with fear and loathing, and he remembered his dream. "Farothin, what did you see?" he asked, but the Elf had drifted into an unsteady sleep once more.
Miredhel's face paled, and her hands dropped loosely at her side. "He cannot mean—Legolas, we saw him fall—I shot him," she cried.
"Ai, I do not know. I do not know," the prince said, reeling from Farothin's revelation. The youth had been tortured, he had lost a lot of blood, and perhaps he was delusional. Legolas tugged on one of his braids in frustration. There was no way of telling when Farothin would wake again, and Legolas still had to try and evacuate Rilmost before nightfall if they were to have any chance of making it to Calenfen successfully.
The door to the tavern opened, and Grimborn quietly approached the table. "I just heard." His eyes wandered over the mutilated body of the Elf. "What happened to him?"
"He was caught and tortured by orcs, the same orcs that are moving on your village," Legolas said.
Legolas' eyes flashed at the man's discomfort. "Go and get your father. I want him to see this." He watched Grimborn leave, moved Farothin's arm back onto the table, and then reached across to straighten one of his legs that seemed oddly twisted.
"Colmaethor, I think his leg is broken," Legolas guessed, hating the fact that there should be another complication. There seemed to be no limit to the orcs' cruelty or to their sadistic genius. Farothin's once lithe strong body lay utterly ruined before them, broken and battered, and all the prince could do was watch helplessly as Colmaethor peeled away the tattered fabric of the elf's leggings.
His leg was indeed broken, if not crushed, but the elves' attention was drawn away by the fresh crimson streaks running down Farothin's thigh.
"Ai, what else could they do to him?" Miredhel wept aloud as she sponged up the blood.
When Colmaethor cut away the fabric from the Elf's hips, the bruises and the blood told all. Her eyes wide, Miredhel dropped the rag she had been working with, and shuddering, turned away from the body. Colmaethor averted his gaze and gripped the sides of the table until his knuckles gleamed white through the blood that stained his hands. Legolas could only stand there, stunned. A muscle twitched in his jaw, his wet eyes stared vacantly across the bar room. The orcs had assaulted Farothin, violated him; however one might phrase it, the dark meaning remained, carved in the ruin of the elf's flesh. A single-minded fury rose consumed the prince. With an anguished cry, he picked up a chair and sent it crashing into the table beside him.
Miredhel's head snapped toward the commotion. "I cannot do this," she said bitterly. "I cannot." She fled the room, passing the old man Grimlaf on her way out.
He looked at her distress and smirked. "This is why we shouldn't allow women-folk in taverns."
Once outside, she exhaled a long, shaky breath from lungs that seemed to have collapsed from the horrible truth she had witnessed. She could feel the comforting brush of grass against her ankles, and the sky was still deep blue. The sun was warm on her shoulders, and she imagined she could hear the song of meadowlarks as she had before, in the morning when she had watched Legolas ride into the village, when she would have given anything just to know that her dear friend still lived. She closed her eyes and wondered if death might have been a kinder wish after all. Miredhel heard the door to the tavern open and close and then felt two arms wrap firmly around her. Legolas.
"Miredhel," he whispered her name softly and rested his head against her shoulder. "I am sorry that you should have to see such things, such horrible things."
She opened her eyes and looked at him through unshed tears. "Legolas, how can we stay in this world that hates us so?"
He reassuringly rested his palm against her cheek. "Because we can hope to make it better, Miredhel—because we can believe in the worthiness of the innocence and beauty still left in this place." He smiled sadly and kissed her forehead. "I wanted to tell you that Grimlaf changed his mind after seeing Farothin. He has decided to evacuate the entire village."
"He has?" she asked, her voice hopeful. Perhaps her friend's sacrifice was not in vain after all. "What of Farothin? Will we take him to Calenfen?"
"We will leave soon, Miredhel, and he still requires much care and more skill than either you or Colmaethor possess, I'm afraid. I hope there may be healers at Calenfen who may help him."
Miredhel was adamant. "He needs elvish medicine, Legolas," she insisted.
"We are too far for anyone to try and take him back to Lothlorien or Eryn Lasgalen, and there is no one in Gondor with that kind of skill--," Legolas stopped, his eyes darting to Miredhel's.
"Estel," he remembered, the word hanging on his lips.
"Hope?" Miredhel asked confusedly.
"Aragorn," Legolas told her and then shook his head, "But no, he is many leagues away still, and I fear Farothin would not survive the race across Gondor on horseback or even in a wagon. Such a trip would endanger his life and the rider who would bear him."
"I will go. I will take him to Minas Tirith," she said, her eyes pleading. "Please, Legolas, let me to this for him."
He answered without hesitation. "No, Miredhel. I will send someone to do this, but it will not be you, my lady."
"Legolas, that is unfair," Miredhel protested.
"We have been through this before, Miredhel," Legolas said firmly, taking a breath before he was to launch into another detailed explanation of why he felt this way.
At that very moment, Grimlaf emerged from the doorway of The Black Dragon and joined them beside the step. He looked keenly at the she-elf beside Lord Legolas and extended his hand to her.
"Dear lady, I wanted you to know that my heart grieves for the tragedy of your friend. I realize now the truth of your words and the folly of my own." The old man said kindly and bowed his head. He continued: "I listened to your conversation from the door. There was much I confess that I did not understand, but know this—I would help you save your friend.
"If it is your desire to bear him to Minas Tirith with ease, there is a stream that drains into the Anduin not far from here. Some of our men fish from time to time, and there is a portage and several small boats. With them goes my blessing." He bowed his head again before them, and then left the elf prince alone with his maiden.
Miredhel's eyes brightened. "Legolas, boats! That way will be much quicker and safer."
"Miredhel, I have already given you my answer. You are not going to take Farothin to Minas Tirith all by yourself. I simply will not have it." Her excitement faded, and Legolas took her hand again and folded it in his. "If you truly want to help Farothin, then go back inside and help him now," he told her. "I will go and find a suitable escort for Farothin and send him to the tavern. Then I want to see you out by the gate on your horse, ready to go."
She bit her lip and nodded in agreement, surprisingly not offering any further argument against the prince's word. Legolas smiled and kissed her hand before releasing it, pleased that he had finally gotten through to her. She opened the door and watched him leave with a secret smile of her own on her lips. After all, Legolas had said she was not to take Farothin to Minas Tirith all by herself, and that she certainly would not do!
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