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Ithilden moved quietly around the edge of the campsite, making sure that nothing untoward lurked in the darkness. For some reason he was uneasy, but he could neither see nor hear that anything he had not encountered on his last round ten minutes ago. The stars and his own innate sense of time told him that his watch would soon be over and he could awaken Sarelad to take his place. He strongly disliked the opaque darkness that formed the night in this part of Mirkwood, although it was not new to him. He had spent time patrolling here when he was younger. He did not envy Eilian, whose lot it was to command the southern patrol now.
He leaned against a tree and considered the things that Aragost had told him. It seemed to him a good thing that there should be a cautious friendship between Mirkwood and these Dúnedain. He did not immediately see how it could be useful, but one never knew what the future might hold. He did not completely share Thranduil’s mistrust of Men. But then, he had not been born yet when the Battle of Dagorlad took place. He had not seen the things that Thranduil had seen.
His thoughts turned to Legolas and Turgon. He had meant it when he said that their foolish actions had imperiled their future as warriors of Mirkwood. He had frequently had doubts about Turgon anyway. He was wild and undisciplined and always had been. Unless he changed drastically, no comrade would want to depend on him to be where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to be doing.
Legolas was different. Quite apart from his uncanny skill with weapons, he had always been serious about his training and, until the incident in the spring, had never given any of the weapons masters cause to doubt his future for a single second. Given the proper guidance and, Ithilden thought with grim determination, separation from Turgon, Legolas would probably be able to redeem himself, but one never knew how the young would react to disaster. Thranduil would undoubtedly inflict the most painful punishment he could conceive of when they returned home. After that, Ithilden would see what the future brought.
A faint noise from the left caught his attention. He paused only a second and then picked up an equally faint smell. Orcs! Many of them. Perhaps as many as thirty at a short distance yet, but coming this way. He was instantly in motion, rousing the camp, directing his quickly alert companions into defensive positions.
“You two,” he ordered Legolas and Turgon, “get into the trees and stay there.” The two younglings were up the trees almost instantly, weapons in hand. Sondil and Thrambor scrambled after them. The Men accepted his command without protest, bowing to his long experience in dealing with Orcs in Mirkwood. They took up spots behind trees, as did Ithilden himself. Within three minutes after he had picked up the foul stench of the Orcs, they were all in position with bows ready, awaiting the arrival their enemy.
The strategy against Orcs was simple: take out as many as possible with arrows and then, when they got in too close for a bow to be useful, be ready to hack at the rest with swords, preferably with another warrior at your back. Artful swordplay was not required. Ithilden did not have a lot of respect for Orcs as fighters, but, as the first captain under whom he had ever served had once said, they were too stupid to recognize their own danger and thus were just stupid enough to be dangerous.
Within another minute, the Orcs had begun to swarm into the campsite. Eight bows sang almost in unison, with each arrow hitting a target. Indeed, the Orcs were so thickly crowded together in this overgrown woods that it would have been hard to miss hitting one of them, and Ithilden knew that the Elves were all well-trained. It looked as if the Men too knew which end of the arrow was which. The first flight of arrows caused the Orcs in the front to hesitate, but those rushing on behind them were not to be stopped. The confusion gave the archers a second chance to fire, though with less success, and then the beasts had poured through into the campsite, firing their own bows in the directions from which the arrows had come. Ithilden got off one more shot before an Orc was upon him and he had to draw his sword.
He swung his sword but the beast parried and the two of them grappled. An arrow whizzed past his right ear and lodged in the Orc’s throat. He glanced up in the tree to see Legolas dodge an Orc arrow and move off to deliver a similar shot to the Orc who was battling with Sarelad. He knew that Legolas’s aim was precise, but that particular arrow had come entirely too close to his head for comfort. He would have to have a little talk with his brother after this battle was over. He heard Sarelad curse loudly as Legolas’s shot whistled past his hair. Perhaps Sarelad would want to take part in the talk too.
Drawn by the sight of a group of Orcs attacking Berioger, Turgon had violated Ithilden’s orders and was now down out of the trees. He ran across the clearing, firing arrows all the way. Ithilden had the irrelevant thought that Turgon’s draw was the sloppiest he had ever seen an Elf use. What had the archery master been thinking when he trained this youngling? Turgon dove into the bushes at the other side of the clearing with an Orc in hot pursuit. In the tree over Turgon’s head, Sondil drew and fired. The Orc crashed to the ground and Ithilden hoped that Turgon had had time to get out of the way of its fall.
As suddenly as they had appeared, the Orcs were withdrawing. But as they withdrew, one of them put a horn to his mouth and sounded a call. Ithilden groaned. They were signaling for reinforcements. There must be more of them in the area somewhere.
The Elves were down out of the trees now, and all of them began to scavenge for arrows. They would need any they could find. Ithilden checked for injuries and found that Sondil had had an arrow slice the flesh of his upper arm. “It is nothing,” the woodcraft master declared. “It did not lodge.”
Aragost’s shoulder wound had ripped open again. Ithilden had heard that Men were slow to heal, and here was clear evidence of it. He marveled that they ever managed to survive a campaign. Other than these two minor injuries, they were unscathed, thanks to their enemy’s blind rush into the campsite. The next time, the Orcs would know what to expect, and they might not be so lucky.
He paused to check briefly on the steadiness of the two younglings and then set them to binding Sondil’s and Aragost’s wounds as quickly as they could. They worked efficiently enough, although they both looked a little dazed. The busier they were kept, the better off they would be. Sondil and Aragost talked to them easily as the younglings ministered to their wounds, attempting to settle them down. Both warriors had directed the young in battle before.
Too soon, the Elves again heard the approach of Orcs, this time perhaps as many as fifty. Ithilden arrayed his badly outnumbered defenses once again. At the last minute, he turned to Turgon. “Stay in the trees where I have put you this time, Turgon,” he growled as fiercely as he could. “I swear to you that if you do not, I will personally make it impossible for you to sit a horse for the ride home.” Turgon seemed cowed by the threat, and Ithilden could only hope he remembered it once the battle had started.
Again the Orcs swept into the campsite. And again the battle followed the familiar pattern. Ithilden saw Berioger swinging his sword and backing up before two Orcs who were bearing down upon him. He saw Aragost charging and heard him shout “Elendil!” as he beat back the creature before him. In terror, he saw someone fall from the trees, with an Orc arrow in his chest. There were too many of them, Ithilden thought in despair. And just as that thought occurred to him, arrows flew from beyond the edge of the campsite, and the Orc with whom Ithilden was struggling fell dead at his feet. With a hair-raising shout, a group of Elven warriors swept into the clearing, driving the Orcs before them. For a moment, the confusion that in Ithilden’s experience was almost always part of battle deepened. Then the Orcs broke and ran. Most of the newly-arrived Elves rushed after them, but one stopped before Ithilden. “Are you all right, brother?” asked a familiar voice.
Eilian. It was Eilian and the southern patrol, searching for the two wandering younglings and arriving just when they were most needed. Ithilden almost collapsed in his brother’s arms, but turned instead toward the clearing, seeing again in his mind that figure falling from the trees pierced by an Orc arrow. Sondil was swinging down from a branch, nursing the arm that had been wounded in the first round of the battle but seemingly otherwise untouched. Sarelad had rushed to Berioger’s side and was probing his thigh, where blood was slowly spreading through his clothing. Thrambor had fetched a pack and was moving quickly to their aid. Aragost had gone to the edge of the clearing and had placed a hand on the shoulder of a crouching figure who was pulling frantically at the shoulders of the one who lay there. Simultaneously, Ithilden and Eilian saw what was happening and hastened to the spot.
Legolas was rocking and moaning, grasping at Turgon in the vain hope that his friend would jump to his feet, laughing at the joke he had played. Both of his brothers saw at once that Turgon would never play jokes again. Ithilden pulled gently at his little brother, trying to draw him away from the tragic form before him, but Legolas did not seem to know he was there.
And indeed Legolas did not know that Aragost and both of his brothers stood next to him. He was far away in another time and place. In his mind’s eye, he saw Turgon raising his arms overhead as he rode a horse for the first time and then promptly falling and breaking his collar bone; diving from the high rocks into the pool where they all swam because someone had dared him; venturing onto the early winter ice covering the same pond and responding a hair too slowly to the ominous cracking noise. He remembered Turgon comforting him when Thranduil had scolded him, drawing a wild dog away from a frightened Annael, lying through his teeth when a palace cook asked if it had been the three of them who took a pie intended for the king’s table. He remembered unruly, exciting, loyal, maddening Turgon. And oblivious to his brothers’ arms reaching out to him, he fell on the ground and wept for the child who had been and the adult who never would be.
Eilian sat next to the Man called Aragost and carefully worked the bandages around his wounded shoulder. He glanced across the clearing to where Ithilden sat leaning against a tree, both arms wrapped around Legolas, who sat beside him. Legolas had stopped weeping but had withdrawn into himself and had not spoken since Ithilden had pulled him away from Turgon’s body. Still, he clung to Ithilden’s side like a small animal seeing shelter in a tree. In Eilian’s opinion, Ithilden looked none too hale himself. Turgon had been in his care, and Ithilden had taken his death as a personal failure.
“They are taking this hard,” said the Man he was tending. When the Man had first spoken to him, it had taken Eilian a moment to realize that the Man was speaking in Sindarin. What to make of this, he did not know. He supposed Ithilden would be able to tell him about these Men, but in the meantime, he accepted their presence and was grateful for the help they had provided in defending against the Orcs.
“Do Men not mourn the death of their young?” he asked as non-judgmentally as possible.
The Man sighed. “Yes,” he said simply. “But perhaps we expect to see death more than you Elves do.” He still could not get over the fact that all three of Thranduil’s sons were here in the clearing. If the Valar had intended them to form a friendship, they could not have arranged things more opportunely.
“Ithilden will learn from events and then be ready to move on when he needs to be,” said Eilian, with an assurance born of long experience of his brother’s strength. “Legolas, I am less sure of. He is young and Turgon had been his friend since before he can remember.”
“He behaved honorably with us,” Aragost commented thoughtfully, “despite the fact that he was obviously suspicious of Men when we arrived. He looked after his friend as best he could. He fought well and with discipline tonight. He’ll be all right.”
Eilian made no answer. He hoped the Man was right.
Sondil approached him with two cups of warm liquid. “This one is the sleeping draught,” he said, indicating one of the cups. Eilian nodded his thanks, took the cups, and then rose and crossed over to where his brothers sat. He offered the sleeping draught to Ithilden, who took it and began coaxing Legolas to open his mouth and drink it. He poured enough of it down the youngling’s throat to be satisfied and then waited, with Eilian settling at his side, for the herb to take effect. Within a few minutes, Legolas’s eyes glazed over as he drifted off into an uneasy sleep. Ithilden lowered him to the ground. Sarelad appeared at his side, offering a blanket. Ithilden tucked it around his little brother, and then he and Eilian moved to sit a small distance away so that they might speak without disturbing him.
Eilian took the empty cup from Ithilden’s hand, and replaced it with the full one of now cool tea. Ithilden looked at it suspiciously. “I will sleep when we get home,” he said. “Right now, I am responsible,” and the stress he put on the last word told Eilian everything he needed to know about Ithilden’s sense of guilt.
“It is just tea,” Eilian protested. “I would not lower your alertness in a situation like this.”
Ithilden took a drink and sighed. “I have much that I need to tell you.” In his customarily efficient manner, he told Eilian what he knew about the Men. He finished by asking, “What did you think of Aragost?”
Eilian shrugged. “For the little time I have spent with him, I liked him, but you know him better than I.”
Ithilden smiled in relief. He knew no-one who was better at judging people that Eilian was. He was glad to have his own judgment of Aragost confirmed. “They wish to go closer to Dol Guldur,” he said wryly.
Eilian looked at him and laughed. “Then I was mistaken. I had not realized they were crazy.”
“Will you take them?” Ithilden asked.
“Of course, if you wish.” Eilian hesitated. “Will Adar mind, do you think?” he asked.
Ithilden shrugged. “So long as they are nowhere near home, I think not. And they are kin to the Woodmen. I am in command here, and I judge that they will make good temporary allies. I am not presuming to form a treaty or anything remotely like it.” Then he added, “If Adar does object, I will tell him that I ordered you to take them, which I now do.”
Eilian smiled wryly. He envied Ithilden his self-confidence. Ithilden was the only person he knew who did not sometimes tiptoe carefully around their father. Unless, of course, you counted their little brother. Eilian contemplated the sleeping figure of Legolas for a moment. “Whatever possessed the brat?” he marveled. “Adar must be spitting fire.”
Ithilden nodded. “He was when I left him,” he said. He suspected that, faced with Turgon’s death and the pain of Legolas’s loss, some of Thranduil’s anger would be muted, although he knew that there would still be consequences for Legolas’s actions beyond what had happened here. Thranduil would never leave the shaping of his son’s character to chance. And indeed Ithilden himself was not willing to surrender his demand that Legolas prove himself to be trustworthy and responsible before being allowed into the ranks of the Mirkwood warriors. In some ways, Turgon’s death had only proven the folly of the younglings’ behavior. His own responsibilities as commander of Mirkwood’s forces meant that he could take no chances. As tonight had proven, Mirkwood was a dangerous place, and it was too easy for people to die. Legolas had done as he was ordered and fought well tonight. That was a first step. There would be many more.
Eilian reached out and touched the shiny silver ring on Ithilden’s right index finger. “I am sorry I could not be home for the betrothal ceremony,” he said. “I wish you joy.”
Ithilden sighed. “There will be joy,” he said, “but not on this day.” Side by side, they settled to wait for daybreak.
When the dawn came, they sorted themselves into two groups. Sondil and Aragost both seemed to be on the mend from their injuries, although the Man was still healing at a pace that appalled Ithilden. Berioger’s thigh wound was not serious, although it would have impeded travel, but for the fact that Eilian’s people had left their horses at some little distance when they were summoned to the campsite by the sound of very horn the Orcs had used to call for reinforcements. Sarelad and Berioger were each now mounted behind one of the Elves of the southern patrol. Aragost approached Ithilden to take his leave. “I thank you for your help,” he said. “I will see to it that kind words are spoken about the Wood-Elves among the Dúnedain. Perhaps in the future, our two peoples can unite against the shadow.” He and Ithilden clasped each other’s forearms in a warrior’s farewell and then he, too, turned to mount behind one of the Elves.
At the last, Eilian embraced each of his brothers tightly. He stroked Legolas’s hair and spoke softly into his ear. “I wish that there were words to take away your pain, Legolas, but there are not. I am sorry about Turgon. I know that he was your close friend for your whole life, but you have much life ahead of you yet. Turgon would never wish you to despair.” Eilian did not know if his words had made any difference, but he drew comfort from the fact that Legolas briefly tightened his embrace. He was functioning better today than he had been in the night, but his grief and his guilt were written on his face.
To Ithilden, he said, “Give my love to Adar. And kiss Alfirin for me.” Then he slapped Ithilden on the shoulder, mounted his own horse, and led the southern patrol and the Men who were their guests south along the path, where they were quickly lost to sight.
Ithilden, Sondil, Thrambor, and Legolas prepared for their own leave taking. Carrying Turgon’s body in an improvised litter would have been slow and difficult in the dense forest, and Ithilden wanted to reach home quickly. So they wrapped Turgon’s body in a blanket and draped it over the back of his horse. Legolas stared at the anonymous bundle that had been his friend and then turned away wordlessly. There was nothing he could say. They mounted their own horses and then they, too, rode out the campsite and started for home.
Author’s note: According to Appendix A of The Return of the King, Aragost was chieftain of the northern Dúnedain from 2523 to 2588 TA. He was the seven-times great grandfather of Aragorn, in whose life, as we know, Legolas also had a part to play.
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