Shannai actually let out a cry of joy when he stumbled into the open. The Dwarves halted, fighting for breathe, leaning on each other to avoid collapsing into a heap of metal, axes, and leather. Legolas came out last, halting to take a look around swiftly. The horses were nowhere to be seen. It probably meant nothing – yet.
“What now?” Gimli asked, his words followed by deep gasps for air.
“We wait,” Legolas answered. All four heads turned to him.
“Wait?!” Shannai almost shrieked. “But… The Orcs…”
“Thalión has summoned the horses,” Legolas said quietly, looking back at the forest over his shoulder. “We will not make it far without our mounts.” He was not glad about this, either, but he knew their options were limited. It was highly unlikely that they could outrun the Orcs, in the case the horses would not appear.
“How soon –” Fundal was about to ask when Thalión barged into the open, Asthaldo close behind.
“Soon,” the silver-haired Elf answered, checking his companions for any grave injuries. “The horses are coming.”
Gimli muttered something of useless, weed-stuffing animals, but his words were lined with relief. Soon, they would be on their way away from here, far from Orcs and their arrows.
Thrénandu was next to appear, his pace slower than the others’. His eyes kept darting to the forest and back at his companions, calculating. “Where is –”
“Here,” Dínnor called out, appearing from the woods. He stood for a moment, stilling his breathing back to normal. His eyes sought Legolas as soon as he was calm again. “Where are the horses?” he finally asked, directing a quick glance at his Cousin.
“Coming,” Thalión answered rather distantly, a small smile appearing to his face. “There,” he lifted his hand to point across the open field: a group of animals raced towards them, halting some yards away with greeting snorts.
“Let us go and mount while we still have time,” Dínnor said quickly, starting towards the horses. When he realised not everyone was following, he turned back. There was no surprise on his face as he found Legolas standing on his place, staring at the forest with a worried frown. “Legolas, come. They will make it in time. There is no point in waiting, while we can prepare to leave.”
“I will wait for Rafél,” the Prince said absently, the frown increasing. “Something is amiss…” he said then, more to himself than to his companions.
Dínnor tried not to grimace as he strode to the smaller Elf and gripped his arm. “Come.” It was no longer a kind request, which the others noticed immediately. Thalión looked alarmed when Dínnor bodily dragged Legolas to the horses. “What is going on?” the silver-haired Elf demanded, but the elder cousin shot him a glare that would have silenced a flock of birds on a spring-morning. Stunned and even more worried, Thalión went to his own mount.
They guided the animals further away from the forest, eyes lingering in the shadows. Legolas was anxious to return to the edge of the trees, but Dínnor refused to allow any of them back to the danger. So they waited, moments sliding by with awful slowness. Dínnor kept both swearing and praying in his mind that their missing companions would join them soon.
The first thing they heard was the noise the Orcs created in their wake. Soon after, two Elves stumbled into the open, the shadows moving behind them like violent waves. The enemies were not far behind.
“Rafél,” Legolas whispered, realising something was out of place. The way the guardian kept leaning on the other Elf was alarming enough. But what scared him more was the swift glimpse to the other’s fëa. It was rather visible that Rafél tried to hide his discomfort, but Legolas was able to catch a hint before he was shut out again. Without another thought, Legolas dismounted from his place on Morchaint’s back and started to make his way towards the two Elves.
Before two steps, Dínnor caught up with the Prince, blocking his path. Angry glance was given to his direction, but it soon melted into one of terror. It took a fraction of a moment from the Cousin to understand the fearful eyes were directed at the scene behind him. He barely had the wits to catch Legolas as the Elf sprang forward with a cry of alarm. It was enough work to hold the strong warrior in his arms, but he was able to catch a glimpse at the forest’s edge. And his blood froze.
Some time before he and Aronnen reached the open ground, Rafél knew his fears were true. He had not put thought on that possible misfortune, but it began to be too obvious to be just simply ignored. There was poison in his system. The arrow was completing the mission appointed to it.
When he stumbled, Aronnen caught him readily. Giving the other a brief, grateful look, Rafél forced his body to cooperate. We are so near. Fight it just another moment, and then you can rest, he urged himself on. But his body refused to obey: it was too far gone, venom in the blood working its way all over his form. He was going down at any given moment.
Plunging through the final layer of branches was like a dream. Rafél’s eyes were losing their focus, his body fighting between painful cramps and icy-cold shivers. He had been shot by Orcs before – more times he could count – but always he had tended the poisoned wound immediately after. Today, there had been no such chance. Today, he might suffer of it with his life.
“)Just a little longer,(” Aronnen encouraged, throwing a fearful look behind them. The Orcs were too near. He could already smell them, and one glance told him what his senses warned him of: they would be caught. The others were too far. And had they been closer, they would have still been outdone in moments. “Rafél –” The silent words ended in a gasp as something jolted at his back. The pain was brief, and the overcoming oblivion too demanding to be fought.
Rafél stumbled when Aronnen’s body jerked suddenly. When the other Elf collapsed to the ground, he had no choice but to follow. His every nerve burned in a desperate fight against the poison and weariness. His mind could barely make out the fact that the other was dead, that there was an arrow buried to the unmoving back. He blinked, unmoving. He knew he had to move, to fight, to survive. But he was simply too tired… He needed more time to adjust his body.
Legolas’ frantic call, both inside and out, was what drew Rafél’s attention from haziness. He lifted his head, finding the Prince easily enough. Legolas called out his name again, struggling in vain against Dínnor’s firm hold. The others stood in indecision, prepared to attack.
One look back told Rafél why exactly they hesitated. A second later, the first Orc approached him, receiving Thalión’s arrow as it reached down to attack the wounded Elf. Hundreds of feet trampled the ground, the full force of the Orcs appearing from the darkness of the forest.
With renewed will to defend himself, Rafél drew his knife, plunging it into the next foul creature that dared to approach him. When he had the next moment free of struggle, he turned at Dínnor. “Take him away, Dín!” he knew his voice was broken, harsh. Yet all he cared was that his companions would take their leave. They stood no chance here.
“No! Rafél!” Legolas screamed, and for a moment, Dínnor was rewarded with a fight worthy of all his skills.
“Take him!” Rafél repeated, just a moment before the Orcs finally got an upper hand, forcing him to the ground. His battle was lost. For Valar’s sake, Dínnor, don’t you dare to go against me now! For Legolas’ sake… But he knew that the Cousin loved his Prince like a brother, and would see no harm come to him.
Indeed, Dínnor had no intentions of letting Legolas go. His heart yearned to go and do something to aid his long-time companion, but the rational side held him in place. The Orcs were too many. They had already brought Rafél down, swarming around him, towards them. If they would not leave now, none of them would walk away from this place. “Legolas, please!” he cried out, trying to yank Legolas back towards the horses.
“No! Let me go! You cannot leave him! I cannot –” Legolas screamed, his struggles frantic. He would have drawn his knife and used it, but Dínnor’s hold secured him too tightly to do that. His fëa was a myriad of confusion, held back from Rafél by the other Elf. Nay, please, Rafél! Do not block me out now! Not at this moment… His fight was powered by endless, dark void of his despair; fear of losing Rafél overwhelming him with its intensity.
Dínnor cursed, for a moment wondering if he should just let Legolas go and follow him to the battle. He and his cousins had made impossible to a reality before – it would be his honour to do so again. But not when Legolas’ life is depending on me. Rafél’s last wish – his command – was to get Legolas out of danger. Gifting us all a painful, worthless death would be nothing but mockery towards him. With a swift, sure movement, he freed his right hand and brought it down on the back of Legolas’ neck, hard. The Prince sagged against him with a gasp of surprise, eyes closing in unconsciousness.
After the Prince was secured, the eldest Cousin wasted no more time. Picking Legolas to his arms, he made his way to his horse, mounting it swiftly. “Let’s go!” he commanded, bringing his shaken companions back to reality. Uncertain eyes looked at his direction, but he merely held Legolas tight against him, encouraging his mount forward.
The horses were only too happy to leave, the presence of the Orcs making them nervous. The others followed Dínnor in silence, knowing nothing more could be done. Still it did not mean they did not regret of not doing things differently. Losing so many of their own was a painful reality to bear, and they tried not to dwell in it.
The coming morning, however, would be a dark one.
“Noise” was not enough of a word to describe the sound that a few hundred Orcs could create, a Man decided as he reached the open land where the dark creatures had gathered. After crossing the river, the foul creatures had spotted something. Elves, he knew now. He had already seen three corpses on their way here.
His two companions, both on horses like himself, threw disgusted looks at one more dead Firstborn that lay near the edge of the forest. The body was mutilated, a token of the hate the Orcs held against the eternal creatures. Or anything living, the man smiled to himself. “What happened there?” he demanded to know, halting his horse beside an Uruk that was in command at the moment. Like a dog, aiding a shepherd, he thought. But as long as the Uruks remained under his control, he was happy enough.
A large group of Orcs was gathered together, observed by the others. It did not require much logic to know something was drawing their attention. “A living prisoner,” the Uruk-hai retorted harshly. Not that he was disrespectful – his voice, like those of his kin, sounded naturally like that.
“Truly?” the Man asked, surprised. “How might that be? Is it not an Elf?”
“It is a tree-rat alright,” spat one of the Orcs hovering near to them, disliking the entire idea of a living Elf. “Those commanded us to leave it alive,” the creature pointed at the Uruks.
“Do we have a need for a prisoner? We are already late as we are,” one of the other Men spoke. He was far more solidly built than the first, a big man with rough features and scars running across his tanned skin. The third, silent companion beside him was much alike the second: great in size and not too pleasant to look at. Their purpose, however, was not in beauty, but in strength.
“It won’t hurt to look,” the first Man said, dismounting. He was, after all, the mind of this group. His two kinsmen were merely protecting him, and keeping order – if needed. Though he did not doubt for a moment that if the Orcs desired to slay them and cook them over a fire, they could do it just too easily. He did not like the idea, but couldn’t do much to help it, either. As long as they shared same interest, everyone was safe.
Crossing the distance, he reached the gathered Orcs. The smaller creatures were roughly shoved aside, the Uruks providing him a way to the prisoner. True to their word, there was an Elf, alive. Gazing down at the creature, the Man frowned. The Elf was not bound, yet he made no move to fight. He merely lay there, breathe laboured, eyes glazed. “Is he wounded? Deadly?” the Man asked.
“Shot with an arrow. He probably won’t last, but the Elves are tough,” one of the Uruk-hai answered, gazing at the slender being with hungry, malice-filled eyes. “Shall we kill him?” The creature sounded all too eager to fill the plan.
“We do not need more burden,” another Man pointed out, halting beside the smaller, still frowning Man. “Let the Orcs finish it, and move on.”
“Wait…” the small Man said, holding his hand up. He kneeled on the ground, reaching towards the Elf. He searched the tunic for a while, and then found what he was looking for. He revealed an embroidery marking on the collar. “I have seen this sign, on my years in Dale.” He caressed the mark with his fingers, a smile playing upon his lips. “This sign is only carried by those of a high rank in Woodland Realm. Royal rank.”
“So?” the other Man asked. “It is only an Elf, noble blood or no. He has no gold or jewellery with him.”
“But in eyes of some, he is worth much,” the small Man smiled coldly. “They say that Elessar is in Helm’s Deep. And the King, of what I have heard, has a… deep affection towards Elves.”
The other Man thought of this. “We shall not win a battle with a prisoner,” he said haltingly.
“Nay, but we may gain an upper hand in a strategic place.”
“The Elf might die on the way.”
The small Man shrugged, rising back to his feet. “Then we lose nothing.”
The other two Men accepted this, the silent one approaching the group. “Let’s be on our way, then,” he said gruffly. “Tzórag isn’t going to be happy if we make it there when the battle is already over.” The leader Uruk growled in affirmation: they had the same orders, and he knew the price he would pay if they came late.
Nodding, the small Man took a step back to allow his bigger companion closer to the Elf. The other Man took an axe from his belt, weighting it in his hands. The Orcs watched in silence, as if still hoping the Elf would be killed. The Firstborn was suddenly very still, as if expecting the killing stroke. “He is aware of us,” the small Man snorted. Then he turned and returned to his horse. “Take him upon yours,” he noted to the Man with the axe.
Rafél, engaged to his seemingly endless battle against the poison, was only dimly aware of the discussion taking place beside him. He was still confused: Orcs had no habit of keeping Elves alive, if they were not to be tortured. Few of them had touched him, especially after realising he was not going anywhere on his own. I just hope the others have better fortune than I, he prayed. It was only a matter of time before his life would end – rather painfully so. If not the poison, then the foul creatures around him would take care of it.
As the voices went on, Rafél forced his attention back to focus. They were speaking of him. Of King Elessar. Of a battle… Trying to sort out the information with his faltering thoughts, the guardian felt a new wave of dread swell inside him. Yet he had no time to ponder, as something solid hit his head, hard. Blackness came rushing down on him.
The dawn was near when Legolas finally regained consciousness. His eyes blinked several times for focus, his senses informing him slowly. He was upon a horse, held in a comforting embrace. The only sound was that of hooves as the horses made their way across the plains.
Shifting, Legolas took in the group around him, briefly wondering why he was riding with Dínnor. The back of his neck hurt, the ache somewhat dulled by now as he began to master his body again. Not a single word greeted him, and with a puzzled frown, the Prince glanced around again.
Everyone rode in deadly silence. Gimli sat alone atop of Morchaint, but for once, the horse seemed to be mindful of his rider and did nothing to dislocate the Dwarf. Shannai and Fundal rode together, Adír with Thalión. Thrénandu kept his distance to others, seemingly brooding over something. Alone, beside the other free horses, trotted Lumén.
One glance at the horse, and Legolas’ memory flared. Images invaded his mind. His heart clenched in agony, and all the discomfort he had felt drowned in dark realisation. His fëa was almost hushed, dwelling in some dark hiding-place, mourning over its lost companion. If Rafél had not locked me outside, I could have shared his last moment, he thought with remorse. I would know, for sure… I could have shared his pain. He would have reassured me: that we shall meet again… Instead, his guardian had brutally pushed him aside, forbidding him from using their bond. For the first time in months, Legolas felt completely alone.
All his dreams, all his hopes, ruined. Nothing seemed to matter anymore, but the dark void that now replaced his heart. Leaning back against Dínnor, uncaring how weak it made him look, he closed his eyes. His hands, fisted in his lap, caused pain, yet it did not rival his inner agony. Grief a moment, Legolas allowed to himself. Lose it all, for a moment. Then you must gather yourself, and see for the things that matter more than you ever will. After that… He did not smile. But in his mind’s eyes he already welcomed a vision of letting go. He was too tired to fight on. Rafél had given him faith, held him up when he would have collapsed. Alone, I am not going to make it. And I do not even want to.
The day was a good way past afternoon. The sky was clouded again, lengthening the shadows ever more. Under the leaves of a small wood created by some two dozen of trees, the company had halted, giving both the horses and themselves a long-needed rest. The Dwarves would have preferred an open land to stay on, but the trees seemed to give the Elves a feel of security, and so none protested.
As the others stood or sat nearby, Dínnor and Thrénandu discussed of their next move. It was a hushed argument, though only the Captain seemed to have some kind of a plan in his mind. Dínnor merely wished them to wait until someone presented another plan of action. No one looked to Legolas’ direction, though it was clear that the Prince’s words would be heard before they moved anywhere.
Gimli, sitting on a trunk of a fallen tree, paid little attention to the discussing Elves. The light weight on his lap, the silken hair under his caressing hand, were enough to draw his entire concentration. After dismounting, he had pulled Legolas aside with him. The Elf had looked almost relieved when he settled down next to the Dwarf. Before Gimli knew it, Legolas’ head rested on his knees, the lithe body pressed close to him. A silent request for comfort, and the lord of the Glittering Caves was not one to refuse.
Travelling his thumb over a cheekbone once again, Gimli was almost disappointed when he found no wetness there. Legolas had not cried. If he had, his short companion would have felt somewhat more at ease: now he was afraid. The empty, lifeless look in the blue eyes made his heart clench in agony. He felt a need to do something. Say something. Yet he had no words to his friend. Nothing he could come up with could possibly rival the Elf’s sorrow – not ease the pain of the other felt inside.
Moving his fingers in a slow, gentle motion, Gimli was soon lost in thought. He had been always aware of the strong relationship between the Prince and his Guardian. Ever since seeing the two together for the first time, he had known Rafél was something special for Legolas. During their latest adventures, something had changed. He was not sure what – few seemed to be aware of it, though most believed that Thalión knew something. However it was, he had a living testimony of that relationship here in his arms: Legolas had not uttered a single word since regaining consciousness. He seemed to avoid everyone – even the life itself. Gimli felt humbled that the Elf actually allowed him to offer whatever comfort he could give. How I wish you were here, Rafél. Not that it would only solve this entire problem, but you would know what to do. Glancing down at the pale mask of beauty, Gimli considered once again if he should say something. But Legolas seemed completely ignorant of the world around him, and the Dwarf finally decided his words would go to deaf ears.
A movement on his side caught Gimli’s attention, and he lifted his eyes from his friend. Thalión, who had been silent for a long while – actually ever since Dínnor had commanded them to move out – cast a mournful look at Legolas. A small smile was bestowed upon Gimli, a silent praise in the powder blue depths. Finally, after listening Dínnor’s and Thrénandu’s debate for a good while, he looked ready to join the others.
Something in the Cousin’s posture spoke volumes, making the two, discussing Elves halt their conversation in alarm. Dínnor met his younger relative’s eyes carefully, visibly cringing back when their gazes met. Asthaldo stepped forward, but halted again, deciding it was better not to interfere. He had seen this coming: Thalión was close to snapping. Now it was time to take out his frustration, anger and sorrow.
“You knew,” Thalión practically seethed taking one more step towards Dínnor. Only two feet away from each other, they both held their ground. “You knew he was hurt! And yet you did nothing!” It was simple enough to guess whom they were talking about.
“I obeyed the order he gave me,” Dínnor replied, trying to keep his voice in check. If his temper flared, he did not want to take it out on his cousin.
Thalión snorted disgustedly. “Using common sense seems to be beyond you…”
“Do you so wish to see me lay there, arrow in my back?!” Dínnor all but roared, eyes blazing. For that would have been his fate, had he stayed with Rafél. Thalión was not the only one hurting here. ‘Guilt’ was a word too lame to describe the pang of emotions he tried to struggle down at the very moment. He knew he had made a mistake. He knew there was none to blame but him. And if it would come to that, he would not deny it. Just now… he needed to ease some of the pain searing him from the inside.
Thalión began to show signs of pure fury as well, knowing Dínnor could take all he had to offer. “Would it be my choice –”
“Silence!” The pure strength and roughness in the voice silenced every ounce of sound. Everyone turned in dismay and shock to look at Gimli. “If you must, continue your quarrel somewhere else.” The Dwarf glared angrily at the two ashamed Elves. His hand hovered over Legolas ear, still caressing the braided hair. “Legolas?” he asked then, so softly that few could believe these two different tones belonged to the same creature.
Legolas actually shifted, blinking himself out of whatever reverie he had been in. Slowly, the Prince sat up, his eyes meeting no one. Without hesitation, he stood and walked away from the trunk he had been laying on, halting some distance away from the others. His back turned to his companions, eyes staring at the shadows, he pulled his hands around his body, as if trying to seek comfort.
Dínnor was the first who dared to move, taking a small step towards the younger Elf. Regret shone in his eyes, his voice broken and hushed as he spoke. “Legolas, you must understand: had there been any other option –”
“I do not hold this against you, Dínnor,” Legolas interrupted him. His voice was even, calm, pure of emotions, completely distant. Reminding Gimli of the Dead they had summoned, long years ago, under Dunharrow. “He made his choice… however lost the purpose of it may be to me.” Silence drew in length, everyone sensing Legolas was not done yet. Nor had any of them anything to say; words would not amend deeds done. Finally, Legolas lifted his gaze, staring at the sky, then back at the open land beyond the trees. “I go south,” he stated. His eyes could not make out the shape, but he knew that the White Mountains lay before him, in the distance. “Those who wish may continue north. I shall join Aragorn and inform him of this new threat.” He frowned, the expression unseen to the others. “How could we ask aid from those who do not have the means to defend themselves?” he whispered, knowing that those few who could make out his words would understand his reasons to go south, instead of home: there would be no help offered to them from north. Maybe Dwarves could spare some of their warriors, but soon enough they might have their own battles to fight. As much as it hurt Legolas to admit it, he had come all this way for naught. And for the top of it all, I pay a high price of it. He did not dwell in the idea, knowing he would entertain the thought long enough on their way to Rohan – as well as long after.
The lack of help was not the only reason why Legolas wished to alter his course. The shadow of Dol Guldur was growing, and he wished to be as far from the place as possible. Entering Eryn Lasgalen might end up fatal to them all, as well. He had learned his lesson in one go. If others decided not to go on with him and join their people, he would not be responsible.
“Let us be on our way, then,” said Thrénandu suddenly, calling for his horse. “Sooner we get back to safe lands, swifter we can spread news of our enemy’s movements.” There was surprise on more faces than one, but none disagreed. They were mounted and riding in two minutes, making their way steadily, everyone keeping a sharp eye for any threat imaginable.
An hour later, Legolas suddenly drew apart from the others, guiding Morchaint to a small hill slightly aside from their path. His eyes searched River Anduin, and the forest he could barely make out in the coming evening. His heart slowed its pace, time stopping. The miles between the two places disappeared, the world vanishing. All that remained was the uncertainty, the pain, the loneliness… How can I go on without you? You promised to protect me, to keep me safe: who now will fill your oath, Guardian? Who now shall protect my heart? How can I now save myself from the shadows that grow with each passing minute…
“You know, you shall meet him again,” said a gentle, fair voice, dropping Legolas back to the living world. Shannai’s horse stood beside Morchaint, the light green eyes shining with compassion. There was no joy in their depths, none of their normal liveliness. “He will wait for you, and when the time comes…” Shannai halted, frowning. “He would not wish you to hurry, so do not do anything… stupid,” he said with an attempt of a smirk.
Legolas nodded. How could he tell his best friend he was so tired, that none of this seemed to matter anymore? That most of all, he feared himself. What lay beneath all the layers of slipping control. Rafél had known of the darkness within, trying to give Legolas enough strength to bar it away. Now, Legolas was not certain how long he could fight the yearning inside him.
The Dwarves, seated behind the Elves, shifted slightly. With a sad smile, Shannai touched Legolas’ arm briefly, then turned his horse and rode back to the others who had now halted to wait.
Staring at the distance for a moment longer, Legolas guided Morchaint back, taking his place on the head of the company. His mind now rested on the travel before him, he pushed his dark thoughts back. There would be time for them, later…
“I can’t believe this!”
Shannai was not alone with his opinion. The entire group, staring at the direction of the Helm’s Deep from a high rise, saw what the Elf did – and fully agreed. This was getting almost ridiculous.
“It is not the same army,” Thalión almost groaned, shaking his head. “They have been joined by the force of the Orcs that parted their way from the army we saw… But the Men are from elsewhere.”
“From East,” Dínnor muttered.
“What do we do now?” Fundal asked, crestfallen. “There is no way we are going to get inside the Deep through that number of enemies.”
Dínnor chewed his lower lip, Thalión eyed the army once more, Shannai rubbed his temple in obvious misery, and the Dwarves looked thoughtful. Legolas, observing the area much as Thalión did, came suddenly aware of Gimli and Adír starting a debate on their own language. The discussion did not last long, but taking in Fundal’s brightening expression, the Dwarves had come up with an answer.
“We know how to get inside,” Gimli finally said, fingering his beard thoughtfully. “But the horses cannot enter that way.”
“The horses know how to stay out of trouble,” Thalión stated.
“Good. Then let us move on, before the fight actually starts,” Gimli decided, moving towards Morchaint. Legolas followed him suite, secretly smiling at his companions’ confused looks. They did not like this, being ordered around by a Naug. No one was about to argue, however, and with a swift gallop, the riders made their way west from the Deep.
They reached the White Mountains a few miles from the citadel, dismounting swiftly. The Dwarves made their way up the rocky terrain, as if seeking for something. In the meanwhile, the Elves saw their horses off, giving them final pats and soft, comforting words before letting them go on their way. They would not go far, but being sensitive creatures, they would keep far from the foreign army.
“What do you think they are planning?” Asthaldo asked from his side beside Legolas as the Elves made their way after the smaller creatures.
“What would a Dwarf search from a mountain-side?” Legolas replied cryptically. His was not in a best of moods, but tried to keep himself from falling to a silent grieving. He needed to stay sharp now! Would he let his sorrow take the better of him, he would be no use to his friends.
“A cave?” Shannai suddenly gasped, almost bouncing. “They said they know a way inside. Getting inside means there has to be another entrance!”
“How very logical…” Thrénandu muttered, but was completely ignored by Shannai.
“True: we are seeking another entrance,” came Gimli’s voice, and a moment later the Dwarf appeared to their line of sight. “Hurry now, Elves! We had better make our way quickly, as the way is not short, and…” he halted, trying to find a proper choice of words. “These passages are rarely used.” This made more than one Elf grimace in understanding: they might get lost. In a cave.
“Did you find the entrance?” Legolas asked instead, matter-of-factly. He had travelled with Gimli often enough to trust him underground. He had also spent time in Glittering Caves, which meant he was not a complete novice in caves. Yet he wanted this voyage to be over and done with, as soon as possible. Firstly, he had no desire to linger in cold, dark, oppressive cave-system any longer than he had to. And secondly, he was worried about Aragorn. They had no way of knowing if their companions were actually in Helm’s Deep, but so they all believed. It was not much help they could offer, but they wished to give it, nonetheless.
“Yes, we found it alright,” Gimli answered, waving with his hand impatiently. Unlike the Elves, he was eager to get into darkness, surrounded by solid walls of stone.
When the Elves saw the small entrance, more than one began to shake their heads. Even a Dwarf had to bow to fit in, only Fundal being short enough to be able to walk straight in. “The cave gets higher some distance ahead,” Adír comforted the Elves, but the mirth in his eyes was not missed by any.
“Do we have torches?” Asthaldo asked suddenly. Everyone shook their heads. “Great…” he muttered. “Should we go and seek –” he suggested, gazing back at the open plains.
“We do not have the time,” Legolas sighed. “Gimli?” he gestured towards the entrance, signalling that the Dwarf should lead the way.
“I will go first. Adír shall be the last. Fundal… Well, just be somewhere in the middle,” Gimli snorted, then turned, adjusted the pack on his back, and plunged into the darkness. Legolas followed swiftly, showing his kinsmen this was no place to hesitation. Dínnor went next, followed by his cousins, Fundal, Shannai, Thrénandu, and finally Adír.
The darkness was so immense that it took a moment from all of them to adjust. Colliding into rocks and each other, they made their way forward slowly. It did not take long, however, before the natural glow of the Elves kept them from crashing to each other, illuminating the darkness with a phantom-like radiance. It took another lengthy moment before they came to a higher part of the cave, and the Elves could actually make their way on their feet, yet they still had to keep themselves bowed if they did not wish to make a closer acquaintance with the roof.
Moments ticked by, turning into eternity. Sense of time was easy to be lost in the darkness, and soon they were simply just walking, unaware of the minutes – or hours – passing them. Deeper they went, led by Gimli, the Dwarf never halting for a break or to check his direction. When they came to a junction of several tunnels, the Dwarves looked this way and that, then picking up their pace again. They seemed certain enough of where they were going.
Down, of that Thalión was sure. The passage was not steep, but he could sense it running lower. It made him feel no less troubled. The walls seemed to be closing upon him, suffocating. He had visited caves before, but this was not even a common tunnel: it was unused, a path dug for situations like theirs. Not for the first time, he envied Legolas careless way of walking ahead; the Prince didn’t even seem to notice they were under several dozens of miles of stone.
To tell the truth, Legolas was barely aware of his surroundings. His mind travelled its own paths, his body merely walking ahead after Gimli. His thoughts, however, seemed to be revolving around themselves, no clear pattern anywhere. It was like a dreamless sleep, a vision you could not remember when you wake.
The other Elves were hushed and moved carefully. They felt trapped, but there was nothing to do for the matter but bear it. Thalión was visibly stressed, but the others let him be: better that than to enter the panic-filled thoughts themselves.
Shannai, as expected, was the first to break the long silence. “Where is this tunnel leading into?” His voice was light, conversational, and it took an instant from his kin to understand he did not share their distress. He sounded almost… curious.
“To Glittering Caves,” Gimli answered from the head of the company.
Shannai’s eyes widened in the darkness, his breath catching in his throat. “You mean Aglarond? The dwelling-place of the Dwarves?” Of course Gimli meant the very same place, and he also knew it, but he kept babbling like an over-excited child. And excited he was. Long he had waited to go and visit Gimli’s new home, to meet his people, to learn everything – more or less – worth knowing of them. Now the chance stood before him, some miles away. His companions could hear him bounce restlessly, and for the rest of the way, Shannai chatted in unceasing litany. It didn’t matter if someone took notice or not: his enthusiasm was too great to be dulled by such a minor detail.
When finally, probably hours after, they entered a larger tunnel, Dwarves seemed to join into Shannai’s joy. They recognised these parts. No more guessing of the road: it stood clear before them, familiar and inviting. The Elves followed the three other creatures, stretching their bodies as they finally were able to walk straight.
After a minute or two, they entered a more commonly used cave. The walls were smooth and round, speaking of several hours of work upon them. Yet there were places, great halls full of glimmering stones, that had not been touched by any hand.
Turning another round, they came across a group of Dwarves, both companies halting in surprise. The Dwarves, recognising Gimli, made honouring bows and spoke in their language, answering Gimli’s questions swiftly. After a short converse, Gimli turned to the Elves, his face grave. “The enemy is fully settled before the Deep. There is no way out. Or well, routes like the one we used… But, anyway, Aragorn’s group is here! They just reached the place before the army of Men arrived. And you were right,” he said pointedly at Dínnor, “they came from east. From where, how, or why, no one knows yet.”
“Then let us go and find our friends,” Asthaldo decided when Legolas made no move to reply. Gimli nodded, and led the way again. When they passed a greatest hall of stone they had seen, glimmering lakes and pillars of stone filling it, they saw first signs of battle: women, children, and the elderly people sat in small groups, hushed and worried expressions on their faces. Gimli and Legolas remembered only too well the last time they had witnessed such a sight.
The people stared at the passing group, shock and awe on their faces. They had seen Eldar on the battlement, with their King, yet there was more now. Especially the one that kept smiling at them, looking around in a fashion none of them had witnessed from an Elf before.
“Come and stop gaping,” Thrénandu hissed and pulled Shannai along when the Elf would have halted to let a small child touch him. “These people are confused enough: you do not need to add it.”
Shannai merely shrugged, waving his hand at the child as they exited the caves.
It was a short way through the citadel, the Men giving way to the unexpected company. Heads were bowed, but the Elves spared no thought at that. They would soon fight side by side, if it came down to a battle. And none of them expected the enemy army just to camp outside the fortress for nothing.
Reaching the fresh outside air, the Elves welcomed it gladly. Just standing there for a moment, outside the wide doors, they looked at the blue sky, the sun shining down on them, a lazy wind blowing across the air. When the gazes lowered, fair faces darkened in recognition: a future obstacle of their plans lay before the stoned walls. The number of the villains seemed even greater now they had a closer look.
Shannai was already glancing around eagerly, but knew better than to go wandering: they had important tasks to attend. He could venture later. And that I surely will do, having come this far! he promised to himself.
“Aragorn!” Gimli shouted suddenly, making his way towards an approaching group. The Man looked up from his discussion with Gandalf, blinking is surprise. The Men, Elves, and two Hobbits stopped on their tracks, disbelief evident on their faces. Then the two parties made their way to each other, hands clasped in greeting.
“What in the name of Valar are you doing here?” Aragorn asked as soon as he regained his voice.
“How did you get inside?” Pippin asked immediately, frowning.
“As for why, you can guess,” Asthaldo said, hinting at the army before the Deep. “And how…” he glanced at the Dwarves with a smile, “our friends here know more ways in than one might believe.”
Aragorn nodded, his eyes seeking Legolas. The Elf was quiet enough to go unnoticed. The blue eyes stared at the army gathered before the gates, tracing at the movements of Men on the battlements. A warrior inspecting the situation, the King of Men decided. Yet there was something… wrong. His eyes checked the group again, a frown appearing to his face. Something unsettling was upon all of the arrivals. “Where is Rafél?” he finally asked, noticing one of the Elves was missing. He saw two new, Shannai and Thrénandu, recalling their names from the past, but at the moment he was more puzzled with a certain Guardian’s absence.
The silence that followed was all but pleasant. Legolas’ eyes dropped to the stone under his feet, refusing to meet the curious glances. The Dwarves looked at the Elves, waiting for them to explain. The Firstborns, usually quick and smooth with words, cast their eyes down. It took a long time before Dínnor answered, his voice low and broken: “We lost Rafél.”
to be continued…
)Sindarin(: - Westron:
Naugrim – Dwarves (Naug - Dwarf)
Author’s Notes: Ha! Finally! This took long enough to write… and what a headache it was! But now it is done, and it is your turn to speak out: how was it? (I know, it could have been better…)
In the next chapter, as promised, we shall join in with… Thaíly! Yes, he will be the ultimate star of that chapter! And for those wishing to see more of him: breathe easily! He is going to have more prominent role in the future.
For the next time, ciao!
Story Info / Part one…