"But even more would I give for a hundred good archers of Mirkwood." Legolas at Helm's Deep...
One Good Archer of Mirkwood
The Misty Mountains and the Great River had long since faded into the far blue horizon of the west. The tangled greenbriar and birdsong of the forest edge had days ago given way to the green twilight of the deep woods. Sian looked up at faint glimmers of sunlight trickling through the canopy a hundred feet above. The swift grey shape of a hawk, broad winged and long tailed, one who belonged to the heart of the forest, flashed out of the shadows ahead. Sian marked the explosion of feathers from the smaller bird who had just become its lunch. "At least someone's eating on time today."
"Where will we stop Lady?" The young man, riding just behind her, was far more concerned with the state of his stomach than the three mules that were his responsibility.
"At Thranduil's halls." She looked back, a train of twenty more mules sprinkled with other wranglers and armed horsemen wound out of sight on the sinuous trail. Pacing ahead, like great grey shadows were the two wolfhounds, Efa and Dewi. Behind them rode two of her best men, Rhys and Ieuan, mailclad, with shields bearing the sign of a black hawk; stout, broad-winged, with a short, boldly striped tail. Her sign; a sign telling any who would covet the goods carried by this caravan that it was under her protection. A sign that had earned her such respect in lands to the east, that her guards had for years, only raised their weapons in practice.
The young man (she could not remember his name, he was one of the mule wranglers from Caer-Gaint), looked up uncertainly at the densely woven canopy. They had been traveling under its tangled tapestry for nearly a week. Even now, close to the Elvenking's halls, it seemed only a little lighter, a bit less ominous. "I've heard there are giant spiders here..." he trailed off uncertainly.
"Fairy tales." Sian snorted. "And no match for our archers, if they aren't." She had seen their webs two days back, well off the trail which was cleared and protected by the woodelves. She had seen their glittering eyes in the dark, but that was all. She glanced back at the wrangler's face, sixteen maybe, wide-eyed with wonder...or fear? Had she ever felt that way? She couldn't remember that far back.
"It's rather...murky, for archery." he said uncertainly.
"That would be why it's called Mirkwood."
"I heard it was once called Greenwood. Greenwood the Great. Before the dark things came. Did you know it then?"
She turned in her saddle, fixed him with a steely look, "I'm not that old." And this was her first journey through it, though that did not seem like a wise thing to tell him right now. These western lands were new to her. Forests she understood, the river cottonwoods and the coastal mangroves of her homeland. But this! This place was like an annoyed serpent, stirred from its hibernation, shabby with shedding skin. Sian had been riding all morning, senses on the alert, waiting for the serpent to strike. The Knowing, her grandmothers called it, that forewarning she had sometimes of things about to happen.
Something in the gait of the mouse-dun gelding under her shifted. She felt the sudden tension, the tucking of his blue-grey haunches under him. Ahead the wolfhounds had stood up just a little taller on their toes, ears gone from half mast to full alert.
Sian spun her horse on the narrow trail, knocking the mule-wrangler's bay cob aside. She let out a shrill whistle, a perfect imitation of a kestrel's alarm call.
Her men moved. Twenty-three mules moved, in none of the directions Sian needed them to move. She swore mightily in three languages, none of which had ever been heard in Mirkwood. She had briefed the wranglers on emergency procedures, but none of it had sunk into their placid farm-raised, corn-fed heads. She uttered three more oaths, one Dwarvish, one orcish and one she'd got from an Avari tracker. She grabbed the headstall of the young mule-wrangler and shoved his mount into the trees.
The look of startled confusion on his face shifted to disbelief. And pain.
His thigh had sprouted a short, black, ugly arrow.
The air filled with the thwipp thwipp thwipp of more arrows. Sian drove the wrangler and his horse up against the protective bole of a huge liriodendron. "Stay!" She plunged back onto the trail, yelling, in orcish, that she was Sian DuCudyll and she would stack their heads at the gates of the Elvenking himself. She called them cowards and craven and lower than pondscum and threatened them with tortures unimaginable as she slid among the trees on the nightshadow dun and found them one by one and hewed them down with her longsword. Few of them stood against the onslaught of this...they were not sure what. They were used to woodelves and lakemen, and the odd Dwarvish party, but this travel stained woman in leather and wool and raw silk, little bigger than they, with her long light blade wheeling silver circles around her like a falcon put the fear of unknown magic in them. They fled, or died.
Orcs. Damn their rotten hideous hides. Their black souls. If they actually had souls. Sian was sure they didn't. She had never seen so many as here in the west. And hadn't the folk of Caer-Gaint said they would be the biggest danger? Normal bandits could be swayed by her very reputation. Or if they had never heard it, they could be driven off easily. But these... creatures of the nameless dark...
Around her arrows fwipped and whined off tree bark, or thunked into flesh, not all of it orcish. Her men had melted into the trees, slipping silently from them to shoot or hew with sword as they had been trained. The wranglers were a different matter, a few had short hunting bows or knives. One was armed with two small hatchets which he was throwing, with some accuracy. But they were not warriors. And the mules, wisely, were attempting retreat. Orcs ran everywhere, like a drop-kicked nest of hornets. Sian couldn't count them exactly, but there had to be three dozen if there was one. All was in confusion.
The attack ended as abruptly as it had begun, there was the thunder of vanishing hooves down the trail, a few last shouts in orcish (somewhat dimished in numbers), and the cries of the wounded.
Sian, now on foot, whistled again, the plaintive call of a young falcon. Men, wolfhounds and one big mouse-dun gelding materialized out of the woods.
"They're gone, Lady." the chain-clad guard named Ieuan said. "Except for those." He nodded to a few orcish carcasses sprawled over logs and rocks.
"And so, it would seem, is our mule train." She counted heads, all of her guards, a few with minor wounds, half of the mule wranglers. "Find the rest." she said. And called one of the dogs to her, the big female, Efa. Together they combed the ferns and rocks and fallen logs till they had found the rest of the wranglers, fallen or hiding where they could.
"At least none are dead." she finished the wrapping on the leg of the young wrangler.
"Yet." Ieuan said.
Sian passed her hand over the wrangler's body, like a hawk gliding over a field. Something her grandmothers had taught her, realigning the body's energies. It would aid the healing. She touched his brown curls. He looked paler than he should for such a simple wound. She looked up at Ieuan, "Poisoned?" She said in her native tongue, one the kid wouldn't understand.
"Maybe. I do not know enough about these western orcs"
"Get them to Thranduil, as fast as you can." she said that in the common tongue, so the boy would hear. "The woodelves will be of more help than us."
The boy forced a smile through his pain. "The are Sindar among them. The Sindar have good healers I have heard."
Sian smiled back at him, a smile that didn't quite make it to her eyes.
They rounded up four of the mules, packs gone or listing hard aport. Sian's men had most of their horses, and the wranglers had half of theirs. Gear and packs were ditched, a few young trees were sacrificed for travois poles, long shafts dragging behind mule or horse, with a platform to carry the more seriously wounded.
Sian turned to Ieuan, "Move with all speed, do not stop for anything. Send Gwylan ahead, he's got the fastest horse, other than Eos. Tell Thranduil to send some reinforcements if he wants his shipment back in one piece."
"Trackers?" Ieuan asked.
"They're orcs. It won't take a woodelf to track them. I could use a few dozen of their best archers though. These orcs will likely have friends a little farther down the road."
"Orcs, with friends?" Ieuan raised an eyebrow.
Sian almost smiled, slapped him on a hard shoulder. Winced and thought better of it. "Get a move on."
It had been years since she had lost a shipment. That alone was like a thistleburr under chainmail. But the mule packs contained only wine and cloth, flour and fruit, and other things the Elves could not get from their forest home. It was the mules themselves Sian was worried about. Mules and four good horses in the tender loving care of a pack of orcs. She would hunt each one of those...she thought of a few more complimentary curses for them in a few more tongues aquired in her travels...down and personally put his head on a stake. For each mule, each horse, and each of the men under her care wounded by their black hearted arrows.
It would be useful, however, to have help.
Evening light was still slanting warmly across the fields beyond Mirkwood, but here under the trees, the shadows were as dark and green as the bottom of a lake. A wide winged shape floated soundlessly across the trail, flapped once, twice, mothlike, and vanished. Far away the hoo hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo HOO! of its mate echoed through the trees. Ahead, the dim grey shape of the wolfhound Efa drifted along the trail.
Efa stopped, cocked her ear back along the trail. Sian reined in the dun, held her breath, listening. Nothing, nothing a human could hear. Soundlessly she dismounted, gave Eos a gentle slap on the rump, sending him down the trail at a slow trot. She circled quietly back through the woods alongside the trail. Dim light, great tree trunks, the distant ghost horse whinny of a screech owl.
Then light trotting feet on the trail. A dark grey horse flickered into view between the trees. Sian slipped behind an ancient oak, then a shaggy hickory, like a hunting panther.
She stepped onto the trail behind the horseman. Definitely not an orc, or giant spider, but someone who should have been riding with a bit more care on a dangerous trail. She raised her short horseman's bow. "If you were an orc," she said, "you'd be dead now."
The grey horse spun in place, and stood as still as granite. A mare, of a breed Sian didn't know, but the midnight-grey color suggested a young horse, two or three years at the most, not the near white of a mature grey horse.
And she was wearing no tack. No bridle, no saddle, no harness of any kind. Not even the jaw ropes used by the tribes to the south of Sian's native land, or the neck rope she sometimes used for training. A filly, green, barely trained, and no gear. Sian's bow drooped in amazement. In the dusk, the rider was a dark, cloaked shape, a longbow and quiver slung at his back. No sword either. Not a horseman's weaponry. Efa stalked up to him and stood, nose sniffing his soft-soled boots in fascination.
"Sian DuCudyll?" the voice was male and sounded like forest twilight and wind in the trees and water on rocks and morning birds.
Sian shook herself, strode up to him, looked up, somehow a faint shimmer of moonlight seemed to have found its way into his shadowed face. A face with the kind of calm sharp-edged beauty of a falcon. He looked a bit like the Avari trackers she'd encountered in the east. A bit, the way the great silvery gyrfalcon resembles the small dark kestrel. Efa grinned up at him with a look of pure canine adoration on her face. He leaned down and laid a gentle hand on her broad head.
"Thranduil sent you?" Sian asked.
His eyes glimmered faintly, like distant stars. "Yes."
"Safe in our halls."
"Where's the rest?"
"The other couple of dozen archers I could use."
"Here." he gestured to himself.
"What?" she looked around, half expecting a hundred Elven archers to materialize out of the trees. She'd seen the Avari, the East-elves, do exactly that once.
Nobody materialized. "You're it?"
He nodded, a shadow of puzzlement in his face.
"You're kidding." She looked up at a face which didn't look any older than her young mule wrangler. "What in all the four corners of the world"?! She swore then by darkest depths, and heights and roots of mountains in a few languages the rider apparently didn't recognize,"was that pea-head of an Elvenking thinking, sending me one kid with a longbow?" She said a few other things in total and complete frustration that she would have thought better of if she hadn't been tired and hungry and sore and worried about her men, not to mention wondering if the horses and mules had been cooked for dinner by the orcs. When she had grumbled something to Efa about Thranduil could just get his own damn caravan back, she turned to find her one archer had gone.
It was a long cold hungry night. Heroic tales were full of heroes who rolled up in their cloaks and had feasts by roaring campfires. Sian knew the authors of such tales had never been much farther than their hearth fires. Her blankets were in a mule pack, probably warming some orc, and her supper was probably also warming some orc. The forest floor sprouted roots and rocks that found the places on her aching body where they could most efficiently keep her from real sleep. There didn't seem to be anything in Mirkwood that would suffer an arrow. In the morning, there were some black squirrels of amazing (and plate-filling) size chattering over her head, but they seemed charmed. No arrow would touch them. Eos had come trotting back to her whistle at least, and stood looking morosely at inedible shrubbery. Efa had not found so much as a wood mouse. Sian thought about the young Elf on the grey horse. Offending the Elvenking's messenger was perhaps not the brightest thing she'd ever done. At least, he hadn't looked like someone of high rank. She kicked out the fire, damped it with dirt, and packed Eos. Well, she would just have to rescue the mule train herself.
The Elvenking's messenger got several hundred heartbeats down the darkening trail before his temper cooled to annoyance. The grey filly slowed, feeling the tension in her rider's body slacken, feeling the gentling of his mood. Her rider considered several things; the warrior woman with the long braid the color of a kestrel's tail was new on this route, and exceedingly rude. She had insulted his people, his king, and had looked at him as if he was only a boy who would get in the way.
But...she was brave enough to go chasing off after a dozen orcs, if the tales of her men were not exaggerated. And Thranduil had assumed they were. After all, did not his people keep the dark well at bay so close to his halls? He breathed a long centering breath, let it out with the rest of his annoyance. She wasn't really angry with him, she didn't even know his name. She was tired, hungry, sore in a way only the Edain could be. He could feel that, as surely as he could feel the breath of the filly he was riding. The first thing Sian DuCudyll had asked was how her men were. That, at least, showed compassion and concern, even if her words (many of which he did not understand, except for the emotion behind them) showed a serious lack of diplomacy, decorum, and understanding of his people.
And there were times when the Elvenking did have his head at the wrong end of his digestive system. This might be one of them. The King had sent only Celegaraf to Sian's aid, and she would not have even the aid of Celegaraf's most inept student, if he returned to Thranduil's halls now. He had misdirected a message to the king, and to Celegaraf, and, well, bent the truth to at least half a dozen other people of the court so he could prove, what? That he would let anger and the hasty words of one of the Edain turn him from this quest he'd so eagerly sought? That he could not fulfil even the simplest of missions? He tensed his back, shifted his weight, the filly stopped. He turned, stared back down the trail into the dark wishing for owl sight. The filly's ears flicked, forward, then back. "That's what I think, Ithilin." He said aloud, in Sindarin, turned her and rode back the way he'd just come.
Sian knelt, hands sprawled on the warm earth, studying the cratered ground beneath her feet. A blind Dwarf could have followed this trail, what she wanted to know was how far ahead they were. Too far, even though, thanks to the fine smooth floor of Mirkwood, she had not slept much. Still, the orcs were lousy horsemen, and unless they wanted to carry all the stolen goods themselves, they would keep the horses and mules awhile longer, and they would not travel far by day, even in the dim light under the mighty trees of Mirkwood. She had found a few items dropped by the wayside, but probably much of the caravan's goods would be useful, even to orcs. And despite her men's prowess at arms, judging by the tracks, there were still nearly two dozen of them left.
The unmistakable sound of an arrow lodging nearby. She found herself staring at a long green-feathered shaft stuck between the first two outstretched fingers of her right hand. Her eye traveled up the Elvish runes on the shaft and along the arrow's trajectory. She eyed a maple branch, half hidden by summer leaves, stood slowly, pulling the arrow up with her. "Ok." she called, "I get your point." She was answered with silence. She studied the tree where the shot had come from, the woods surrounding it. Only the usual forest rustlings and birdsongs. She frowned.
"If you were a dozen orcs, you would all be dead." The voice came from directly behind her. Sian whirled, the arrow raised like a dagger, hand on her sword hilt. He stood there on the trail, dappled with early dawn light filtering through the green canopy. All green and brown and silvery like beech and birch, hair the color of winter grass, eyes the color of the sea. As if the spirit of the forest itself had taken the form of a person. There was an unreadable expression on a face that still looked about sixteen and a half. Maybe twenty, but that was pushing it. Without even so much as a whistle, the grey filly wandered into view.
Sian looked at the tree branch whence the arrow had come, eyed the arrows in his quiver; same ones. "Where's the rest?" she nodded toward the branch. The other archers, she meant.
"I'm it." he said, echoing her earlier words.
"I suppose you shot this from over there and magically paffed yourself over here."
"Magic? That's what your people always say when they don't understand something."
His face was still unreadable, but there was a glint in his eye, like a clean-whiskered cat by an empty cream bowl. He held out a hand; long-fingered, chiseled, strong-looking as a hunting greyhound's feet. Sian delivered his arrow into it. "Hmmph." Well, he had come back, if indeed he had ever gone far. He was still not two dozen archers, but he was better than none. She eyed the tree where the shot had come from. Maybe a lot better than none. "Well," she said, "You may not call it magic, but that was a shot my guards would remember. And if you can do it again, one archer may be all we need." It was as close as she could come to an actual apology.
Sea grey eyes and earth brown met and locked.
Sian did not know these woodelves well. Many were Avari, perhaps not unlike the ones she'd occasionally met farther east. Simple earthy folk, and even they seemed to be made of treewind and starsong. But this one...there was something in those sea-grey depths that didn't quite match the childlike naivety and innocence of the face. Like looking at a mountain, half hidden behind grey mists.
He knew only a little of the lakemen, but there was something in the dark hawk eyes of this woman that was different. The face was as weathered as a strong mountain, and she met his eyes unflinching as no Adan he could remember ever had. Underneath it ran another thing, like a merry stream seen from a mountain height. A quiet smile broke over his face. As one they nodded to each other, a brief, cautious bow.
"Coming?" She had already turned toward her horse, caught his reins with one hand.
"I was sent to give what aid I could."
"I'm sure it will be...enough." She wasn't really sure at all. But it had been a good shot. And he would know more of these woods than she. Sian lifted a foot into the stirrup and swung onto Eos. "You know my name, I don't know yours."
He hesitated, there were times when it was better to be someone other than himself. And it was Celegaraf who was supposed to be here, not him.
She gave him a sharp look, like the dark night-seeing gaze of a fierce little barn owl. He glanced away, then back, "Legolas." He said softly.
A few badly blocked blows, and partial knowledge of many languages had left Sian with a tendency to freely reinvent anything she heard. Besides, she was still starving. "Eggless?" she said.
"Leh-go-loss" he enunciated, somewhat louder.
She had already nudged Eos into a light trot, she glanced back at the Elf, "Eggs'n'toast?"
He shook his head, half smiling, "In your tongue, Greenleaf." He swung up on the grey filly, light as a leaping cat, wondering what she would do with that one.
"Hey kid,"she said, "bring any breakfast with you?"
Sian was hungry, but there was also the problem of feeding a creature the size of six large men, one who would normally spend most of its day stuffing itself with salad. There had been little for Eos to eat, and less now. The grain had been packed with the mules. Efa could go longer without eating, but she had been eyeing every squirrel that passed overhead, to no avail.
The Elf had, in fact, brought breakfast. Sian munched the waybread he handed her with delight. Nothing like the cram of the Dales. Light, sweet, with a sprinkling of nuts and dried fruits that tasted like the forest smelled. There was a darker, harder cake for the horses. And Efa approved heartily of Elvish baking.
They ate it with the horses moving at a brisk, ground-eating trot, Sian floating above Eos's back, heels hard down in the stirrups, leaning a little over his neck. She glanced back, the Elf just sat, his filly sailing along like a boat on flatwater. Sian remembered the filly's name, Ithilin, she never forgot a horse, especially one as fine as this, but the kid's name escaped her. What was it again?
"Hey, this stuff is great," she said between mouthfuls, "If there's any of my personal stash of wine left, when we catch those," she broke into a string of words, unfamiliar to the Elf, and as pleasant sounding as greenbriar feels, "I owe you one. Several, Lettuce."
There was no room to ride abreast on the narrow forest trail, so he followed her lead, studying her, as he might study an unfamiliar forest fungus. Dwarf-short, and not much slenderer. Nearly as uncouth, as well. Yet her wolfhound glanced at her with affection, and her horse did more than suffer her presence. She had a kind of grace, like those agile little forest hawks that occasionally blasted through the birdfeeders leaving behind only a small blizzard of sparrow feathers. She matched the look of her shield sign; the strong, broad winged hawk that lived in her native land. And her men spoke of her with respect.
But then, he did not much understand the ways of Men.
The trail widened, passing under great grey trunks, like the vaulted halls of some ancient High-elven king. Sian dropped back beside the grey filly, slowed to a walk to rest Eos. "How do you do that?" she asked.
"Ride her without even so much as a neckrope?"
Legolas gave her a blank look. One might as well ask how do you breathe? How do you sing? "How do you do that?" he countered, gesturing at the reins in her hand.
She looked down, perplexed. What she wanted was a concise, step by step dissertation on Elvish Horse Training 101. What she got made her think of that old saying about not asking Elves for counsel; for they would say both yea and nay...yea, nay, yea, neigh. She rode in silence for a dozen hoofbeats. A hundred. As if explaining to a child, she said, "you pull the rein, the horse's head turns, he follows his head." She looked over into grey eyes like sun on water, with a glint of amusement in them. One gull-wing eyebrow cocked slightly. And?
"You use the natural tendency of the horse to follow his head." she elaborated, "You teach him, through slow and gentle stages, to accept the bridle and bit, to respond to the slightest whisper of a pull. You think of where you want to turn, you tighten a muscle, pull the rein, tighten the bit in his mouth, and he use your body as well, he follows the shift of your weight, the movement of a leg." She looked hard at the Elf, "Your turn."
"You think, she turns."
"But how do you get there. You can't get on a horse you've never seen before and just do that..."
He gave her a long look, an eagle peering down from its eyrie.
He could. Of course he could. "Explain." she demanded.
There were words in his own tongue, whole songs that told of the kinship between Kelvar and Olvar and Quendi, but nothing in the common speech that could bridge the gap between Edain and other lifeforms. He rode in silence for what seemed to him like a moment, a few breaths. Then he noticed her growing impatience. A brief and hasty folk, one of his teachers had said. How true. He saw something other than impatience in her eyes though, a kind of hunger, a curiosity. She really wanted to know. There was no way to tell her, except in his own people's songs, and she would not understand them. He glanced at her again, her eyes falcon sharp, as if trying to bore a hole through him to the truth.
Well, hadn't Finrod Felagund sung wisdom to the First Men? He began, softly, uncertainly, like the first trickle of a stream at the top of a mountain. The song grew, soon flowing under its own weight.
She turned in the saddle, one leg slung over the pommel, letting Eos pick his own way. She did not know the words, although now and again one sounded a bit like the few Avari words she had picked up. But the song went beyond mere language, weaving its memories and images of older, purer times, when the Quendi first learned the languages of birds, and woke the trees. It drifted away into birdsong and treerustle and muffled hoofbeats on leaf litter. Sian rode on in silence, the quiet wood sounds in the wake of the song left her with an aching longing, like the distant wailing of gulls. That song was like drifting over a clear sea, seeing flashes of things far below that she couldn't reach. She felt that he could sing her a hundred songs and she would only have caught one shining fish. Only understood one hair on the whole horse.
"You're older than you look, aren't you." she said.
"Why are your people so concerned with age?"
Sian shrugged, "A mark of your experience. Your wisdom." she wrinkled her brow as an ache from yesterday made itself apparent, "Your ability to sleep on rocks and eat bark and bugs, and still hunt orcs in the morning."
His eyes took in the fleeting expression of pain. She was neither old nor young, as the Edain judged such things, but already she was showing signs of that oddness that made his people long ago give hers the name Engwar; the sickly. Some of the wise said it was like Death, a gift from the One. Why? What was the point of it? Not even the wise seemed to know. His eyebrows dropped like falcon wings and he studied the backs of Ithilin's ears.
Sian studied him, chiseled cheekbones and strong jawline softened by the wintergrass mane flowing around his neck. He looked so young, and in the light of day, not so different from any beautiful young man. But no boy of Caer-Gaint, or of her own land beyond the sunrise, could have sung that. She had heard Elves lived longer than the trees, maybe forever, and that age only touched them slowly, if at all. She had seen three score Avari melt into the trees without leaving so much as a footprint. Maybe it was the way the old the tales said, they were just spirits catching light, imitating human form. But spirits didn't eat, or leave sweat marks on horses. And she had traveled far and heard many tales, not all worth believing. "Hmmmp. I guess you were probably learning the names of every lichen and salamander in the forest when my great-great-granny was in diapers."
Legolas looked up, " your mother."
She raised both eyebrows. Leaned forward and legged Eos into a long-strided trot. "Come on, Legolam, we're not getting any closer to those orcs."
"It's Lego..." his words were lost in a whirl of leaves and dust.
The first hint Sian had that something in the forest had changed was the Elf squeezing beside her on the narrow trail, and Eos stopping as if he'd run into a wall. The two horses stood, shoulder to shoulder, staring down the trail, ears forward, then back, then sideways in uncertainty. Efa stood ten yards away, looking first up the trail, then back at the two people on the horses, as if asking for an explanation. Sian held up a dampened finger, what air was moving in this dense gloom came from behind them. Neither Efa nor the horses could smell anything. She looked at the Elf, but he was already on the ground and moving silently into the trees. Had he stopped them? He turned toward her, "Stay here."
"Legoland!" she hissed. Maybe he knew this forest, and maybe he was learning the names of its trees when her mother was in diapers, but she was still responsible for this mess, which made her the one who made the decisions and the one who would get shot at first. She dropped to the ground and moved after him. Almost as quietly. She caught his shoulder, spun him neatly around. The first look in his eyes was that of a cat who has been picked up when it was about to leap on a bird. He took a long breath through his teeth, "it would be better if one of us stayed."
"While the other does what? Gets himself killed?" She wasn't at all sure he could get himself killed, but just the same, " What did you hear? See?"
Her grip on his shoulders was far stronger than he'd expected for a woman her size, and she had to reach up to hold him. He thought of shaking her off, but her eyes reminded him of Celegaraf's. Or a badger whose prey has been stolen by a raven. He let out a slow breath, shook his head, "I...feel...something." He found himself at an unusual loss for words, but he would not have had to use words with one of his own folk. He pointed down the trail, "Dark." he finally said, and it sounded totally inadequate. "Death." The image in his head was unclear, but the feeling was strong, strong enough to make him want to go in any direction but ahead.
Sian released her grip, kept one hand lightly on his shoulder, "Stay with me. If you hear this, " she let out the hunting hawk cry, "start shooting at anything that isn't me or a horse or a dog. If you hear this," she made the kestrel alarm cry, "get your tail out of there." She gave him a couple more signals; hand and sound, for moving left or right, or going into the trees, the ones her guards had practiced over and over. She hoped the Elf had a good memory.
He hesitated, frowning into her dark eyes. He was not one of her guards to be ordered about thus. He was...
...he was supposed to render what aid he could. He could hear the voice of his teacher, clear as if she was here, 'in conflict, be fair and generous, in leading you must learn to follow'. There was no time to argue, and by the look on her face, he wouldn't win anyway. He set his jaw and nodded.
She was already moving into the trees beside the trail.
Silently they parallelled the trail. Out of the corner of her eye, Sian saw how the Elf slid noiselessly past branches, stepped among the roots and moss covered rocks. He used no magic she could see, but he was quieter and more fluid than anything she'd ever known. If they both got back alive from this, she would ask him to explain this too.
That would probably be about five hundred more songs.
The green twilight brightened, a hole appeared in the canopy where a forest giant had fallen in a storm. A tangle of young trees blocked the trail from view. Sian heard the raucous sound of partying ravens. The wind shifted and a terrible scent came to her nose.
Legolas chirped to her, the squirrel sound she'd just shown him. He pointed up at one tall pine. Sian flicked her hand, like a hawk banking for a turn. He leaped up and vanished into the foliage. She peered through the brush, feeling better that a quiver full of highly accurate arrows was backing her up. The scent of extremely dead orc wafted to her on the breeze.
"Bleaarghh!" she stepped out from behind the shrubbery. Made a quick study of the ground. Called; the slow, measured knock-knock-knock of a female raven. Before her, a mob of young ravens whirled and scrambled out of the way, vanishing into the trees, the bolder ones backing down the trail a few yards. Behind her Legolas landed with all the noise of a hunting cat. Some empty mule packs and three dead orcs littered the trail. She turned and caught him making a worse face than hers. He looked, in fact, a little paler than even a woodelf should look.
"They're," he half choked, "...they're even worse than I imagined."
"Imagined? You mean you've never seen orcs before?"
He looked up, straightened his face to something nearly resembling calm, "I have not had much opportunity for travel."
"Spending too much time learning all those fungus and lichen and salamander names, I guess."
He did not honor that with a reply, or even a glance. "What happened?"
"What do you think?"
"Not by our folk." He wished he'd spent more time listening to Celegaraf's tracking lectures. He looked at Sian, kneeling by one of the corpses, poking at it with a stick. He forced himself to look closer. They had to be hideous alive, they were even more hideous in this semi-dismembered state. They made his skin crawl and his stomach twist like a ball of courting serpents. "Sword blows."
Sian nodded. "What kind?"
"...kind of sword?"
He gave her a blank look.
"Not a light one like mine." She kicked at the side of one of the orcs, its leg fell off revealing a scabbard that looked like it had been made of things abandoned at the bottom of some foul city's garbage midden. She pulled out a short, exceedingly ugly blade, heavy, crooked and toothy. She held it up, raised a questioning eyebrow.
He was beginning to get the picture when she whacked the orc blade into the same body, producing a dark oozy gash identical to the ones that had already shredded it.
She looked up to see her one good archer vanishing into the woods. She could swear she'd never seen a woodelf turn green before.
"You ok, kid? Legless?"
He was leaning against a large oak, eyes closed. "Legolas." he said without opening them. "I saw wrong. We were in no danger." And if he saw wrong again, they could both be dead. Perhaps he was foolish, coming on this journey, after all. "They were killed by their own kind, who are now far down the trail."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Come." she touched his shoulder, gentle as a wren landing.
He opened his eyes and followed her back to the trail. The ravens fell back at Sian's approach, but closed in curiously behind the Elf.
Sian knelt on the ground, pointing to the tracks left by their prey. "What can you tell from this?"
It was a trampled mess, he could vaguely pick out a hoofprint or two, and the heavy boots of the orcs. And a lacework of raven prints over it all. He shook his head, feeling about as intelligent as moss.
"Here." Sian pointed to a globby blur, "overlapping hoofprints, mule, at a slow trot, dragging her toes, scuffing the dirt a little, Molly, I think, she had a toe crack, right here. And these orcs," she pointed to another smudge, "are getting steamed because they can't make the mules go any faster. Somebody," she moved down the trail, poking at more blurs, "got peeved and started a fight, a couple of packs got ditched, and a couple of orcs got dead. More goodies for the ones who survived."
"How old? How long ago were they here?" he asked.
"Half a day. But the mules are slowing. They don't like being driven, and like orcs even less. So they will either slow the whole caravan down enough for us to catch up or they will get themselves eaten for dinner."
"How do you know...how old the trail is, I mean?"
"The weathering in the tracks: wind, ant trails, bugs, squirrels," she glanced up, eye to eye with a young raven, head cocked inquisitively to one side, "the clean-up crew. And these," she stood, kicked at a pile of mule droppings, "definitely fresh."
He nodded. They mounted their horses, leaving the ravens to their job.
They moved out at a hard trot, breaking into a slow gallop when the trail opened up enough. They could not maintain that pace for long, galloping was easier to sit, and fast, but used too much wind. For long hard chases, a good trot ate up the ground best. They dropped back to a walk, fed the horses more of the Elvish waybread. Came to a small dark stream. Efa trotted to its banks, looking thirsty.
"Whoa!" Sian shouted at her. Efa hesitated staring at Sian with big dark eyes, then up at the Elf.
Legolas slid by, waded his filly into the stream, she put her head down and drank. Efa followed.
"Legs, you sure this one's ok? I was told to beware of the streams here, we carried all our water."
"This one is safe." he slid off, filled his waterskin in a shallow pool upstream of the wading horse.
Sian dismounted, led Eos up to the water, dark and clear as night sky, a few green and brown leaves floating in an eddy. She unslung her own near-empty waterskin.
"At least, safe for Elves." he added.
Sian looked up sharply, her skin near full, hands dripping with enchanted Mirkwood water. Water rumored to drop the unwary traveler into a sleep of a hundred years. That's what the mule wranglers had told her. She caught the glint in her companion's eyes, like the distant sun on the stream.
He broke into a smile, a flat out grin, at the look on her face. Then laughed.
She stared at him for a long breath, thinking a dunk in the pool behind him might adjust his attitude. But his laugh was sweet and light and merry. Like sun on green spring grass. It warmed her in a way the rough joking of the men she traveled with never did. She grinned back, straightened, waterskin full.
They rode on, the stray beams of sun that found their way through the tangled branches overhead, getting longer and lower and oranger. Horse and wolfhound showed less eagerness to move on, and even Sian was getting achingly tired of riding. She considered stopping, for a few hours, then moving on in the dark. Sian had fought foes in the dark, but dark under moon and stars. Dark where the glint of steel and the shadow of a body could be seen. Here, under the eaves of Mirkwood, was the darkest dark she'd ever encountered, outside a cave. They would have to ride under torchlight, and stay back far enough to not be seen, until dawn, when they would have light enough to attack.
"Lego," She had hung back, letting the Elf drift ahead. It had sunk into her head that well traveled or not, he would know this forest better than she. He turned to face her, slowing the filly to a walk. "The orcs may be able to run forever, but the mules won't and neither can we. Or I, at least. We should rest a few hours." Sian told him.
He nodded. "Not here. Farther down the trail it will be safer."
The light faded to deep pine-shadow green. Here the forest was denser, older, wilder, hung with tangled vines and creepers and cobwebs. On the journey in, the torchlight had danced off jeweled eyes, in the brush, in the trees. Sian eyed the Elf, he sat straight and strong, seemingly unperturbed by the nameless rustlings on either side of the trail. Farther down it will be safer? Riiiight...
His back, relaxed and moving and part of the horse, stiffened. Ithilin stopped. Sian rode up beside him. " Leggy," she whispered,"Greenleaf?" He peered ahead, wide-eyed into the dusk.
"More dead orcs? I hope." she said.
He shook his head, together they slipped forward, silently, on foot.
Something large thundered off the trail ahead of them, crashing into the brush. The small rustlings on either side were silenced. "That's no orc." It had four legs, or more, whatever it was.
He hissed a low word, in Elvish.
"Deluwath...ahhh, scavengers." he moved, light, soundless, bow half drawn. Sian stayed beside him, sword in hand, long knife in the other.
Something grunted, fifty paces away, in the undergrowth. He glanced in its direction, but Sian couldn't quite read the expression on his face. Trepidation? He pulled the bowstring a little tauter.
They rounded a bend in the trail. In the middle lay a large pale mound, splotched with dark. As one they moved forward, circled it, Legolas paced down the trail a few strides, searching.
Sian dropped in the middle by the mound, an all too familiar pattern of haphazard splotches and long ears. "Molly." she whispered. Sorrow and anger, at the pointless evil of the orcs, at her own lack of power to change things, boiled in her like an erupting mountain. She shoved it all back down, as she always did. The men she commanded had no time for weeping women.
She felt a touch on her shoulder, looked up into the shadowed eyes of the Elf. "They've all gone. They're far ahead." She stood, sheathed her sword. Paced off, hissing some words under her breath, her face gone hard as mithril.
Legolas's eyes took in her face, the spotted mule, hewn with many cruel strokes, the broken packs and scattered goods, things his people would have treasured. He bent, ran a finger around the dead mule's rear hoof. Found the toe crack. Life was the ultimate treasure, unlike the goods carried by the caravan, it could not be replaced. Who...what were these yrch that they did not understand this?
Sian, searching the ground in the failing light turned, saw him hunched by the mule's head, face shadowed by his hair, cloak in a dark pool around him. She could read no more in the fading trail than he. She returned, knelt by him.
"She tried to hold them back for us..." his voice faltered and went silent.
"Greenleaf?" Sian said.
He looked up, even in the near dark she could read the distress on his fair face, see the tears in his eyes. He looked the way she felt. It went to her heart like an arrow. None of her men, not her most trusted guards, would have shed tears for a mule. She sat down hard, on the ground by him, put a hand on his arm. His other hand found hers, the touch of a swordmate, a companion on the road, but warmer, gentler than any of the men she knew.
"I have heard of their evil." he said. "I have sat by the fires and heard the old tales. Read the stories. But this..."
"Wherever they go there is a great trampling and rending and crushing. They seem to delight in destruction, I think they are bred for it."
In as voice as soft as owl feathers he said, " They were us once."
"Elves. Taken by the Dark Powers and twisted, corrupted. So the tales say. I cannot believe it." he closed his eyes.
Sian studied his shadowed face, suddenly it looked old as the Misty Mountains. She passed her hand over the mule's face. "I'm sorry Molly. Sorry I slept at all, sorry I wasn't faster."
Beside Sian soft words began to weave themselves into song, a quiet song like mouse rustle and stream trickle, like autumn sunset and mothflight and owl wings in the dark. She listened, and as in the other song, images formed like a waking dream, without her knowing the words. It was a lament, maybe written long ago for some other purpose, but woodelves, it seemed, spun words like she could spin a sword, making it up as they went along.
They rode, forgetting to stop, forgetting to look for the spot Legolas considered safer. They rode on until black night came on them. They lit one torch, and Sian studied the trail. They could ride awhile longer, half the night perhaps, without overtaking the orcs and making their presence known, then rest until there was light enough for shooting and swordwork. They rode, in silence, burning through one torch and another, and another. Halfway to dawn Sian found herself hanging off Eos's side, and in Legolas's arms. He eased her the rest of the way down to stand on uncertain feet.
"You fell asleep on your horse. This would be a good place to stop."
"I can keep going."
He gave her a stern eaglish look. "The horses need to stop. And I would that you were awake when we encounter the orcs." The look softened, Sian thought she might, in exhaustion, be imagining the gentle concern in his grey eyes.
"I am an archer, not a swordsman." he added. I need you, as you need me.
They made something like a camp in the middle of the trail. Legolas made the smallest fire Sian had ever seen and stocked a tiny pile of deadwood near it. It gave off no smoke and little heat, but enough light to beat back the dark. Except for the dozens of glittering eyes she saw in the trees and undergrowth. "What are those." she asked blearily. And who's going to stand watch?
"Daumcrist, celeganc, gorcarach, nguruthos." He pointed to eyes the color of garnets or amythest or jade. "Don't worry, they will not bother us." with that he rolled up in his cloak and lay down, bow close to hand, putting Sian between him and the fire. She took note of that, rolled herself in her own cloak, glad of him at her back. The horses stood off a few yards, dozing on their feet, Efa lay down on the other side of the fire, waiting for dawn.
It crept slow through the upper canopy, the first slanting rays of red light accompanied by a few lone twitters and trills of birdsong. Sian woke at the first note, pushed the sleepfog back a bit slower than she once had. She could hear the stamp of a hoof, a light snort, the reassuring sounds of horses waiting for breakfast. Slight crackle of fire behind her, and her arms wrapped around something large and warm and solid, breathing the slow, measured breath of sleep. Efa. No, not furry.
She raised her head and realized with a start she was half wrapped around the Elf, a leg over his cloak-wrapped quiet form. She sat up hard and distentangled herself in embarrassment. He didn't move, maybe he was still asleep.
His eyes were open, staring dreamily at the distant treetops.
She flushed scarlet and wondered what kind of apology to make, if any. He didn't move. She leaned over him, eyebrows knitted. Waved a hand in front of his eyes. No reaction. He was asleep. Like a horse sleeping on its feet, or a bird who could fall asleep on a branch without falling off. Or dolphins drifting gently through the night, the breathing part of their minds still awake.
She let out a relieved sigh, stood. Wandered down the trail a few yards, studying the tracks left by their prey. They were not far ahead. She unslung her waterskin, took a long swig. Eyed the brush on either side of the trail. Denser here, but not impenetrable. She shoved her way into it in exactly the way the Elf hadn't, muttering about briars and wondering if the three-leaf pattern she was looking at was the same as the itch-weed farther east. Just to be safe, she would chose something else to finish her toilet with.
She was in a most inconvenient position from which to launch a defense when the brush six yards away exploded into fury. Some nameless dark blob fronted by glittering eyes mowed down a medium sized sapling on its way to Sian's carefully chosen briarfree space. She scrambled back into the brambles behind her, the long knife moving with more surity and speed in the tangle than her sword.
The beast dropped three yards away and moved no more. The forest resounded with the rustlings of squirrels and the twitter of birds. And one especially clear mockingbird trill. She untangled and arranged herself, hacked her way to the fallen beast. It lay, a great, grey lump, clawed and tusked and otherwise unknown to her...with a green-feathered arrow neatly through its throat. She yanked it out, glared up into the trees above her. If he was there, she couldn't see him. She hoped he had seen even less. She whistled back the ok signal. Stepped back out onto the trail.
He was kneeling by the fire, carefully damping it out.
She handed him back his arrow, cleaned of the beast's green slime. "Nice shot."
He glanced up, nodded in acknowledgement, but said no more.
Her own men would have made such an incident the butt of their jokes for days. She wondered briefly what she was going to do when it was his turn. If he had one. Did Elves do it in the woods? She shook her head, he still seemed a bit too ethereal for such...earthly concerns.
He gave it no thought. When it was necesary, he simply melted into the trees. He could feel the presence of the forest creatures, good or ill, hungry or afraid. He'd known the uraegwath was there a moment after Sian had left the trail. He'd had eyes only for its corrupt form and had protected his companion in arms well enough, although Celegaraf would have told him his shot was far too slow.
They rode on, and Sian asked him about the life of the trees and the language of birds and whether snow could make it to the ground in winter here. He had been taught it was polite to encourage a guest to talk about themselves, and it seemed a good idea to know more about someone on whom his life might depend. so he listened, offering what knowledge he had in answer to her many questions. And he was curious. He could feel her curious eyes on him, as well. At first she had looked at him the way the women of the court did, as little more than a boy; young, naive, more in need of protection than of use. That had shifted somehow on this trail, he was not sure why. He had not changed, had not done anything worthy of notice. And there was one question that was buzzing around his head like a deerfly. Why was there no man attached to this woman? Perhaps she was like the Dwarf women, who often chose to spend their lives without the company of a male. The question escaped his lips before he'd thought much on it; then it occured to him that it might not be considered a polite question. "A closed mouth gathers no foot" one of his teachers had told him. He winced.
Sian looked at him in surprise, then snorted out a laugh, "What man would ride this trail with me, eh? From the sea to the mountains, to the deserts, to...well, here."
"Your guards have."
"That's different. That's their life. None of them are...ah...interested. Nor I in them."
Silence. It stretched for a hundred hoofbeats.
"And, all the best ones are taken, or dead, or prefer the company of men, or inhabit the songs of yore." Sian snorted again. "The more I know of Men, the more I appreciate my dogs." She looked up at him, as if suddenly realizing who she was talking to, an apologetic look on her face, "Present company excluded, of course."
"I am not a Man." he said.
She gave him a long look, as if expecting him to reveal that he was actually a girl in disguise (something well familiar to Sian). Then she understood. Elf, not Man.
Was there really any difference? She wondered. And began wishing that this trail they were riding together were longer.
It was not long until the mule droppings were very fresh. And Efa's ears twitched into the alert position.
"Daro." Legolas said quietly. When Sian gave him a strange look, he added in the common speech, "Halt. I think they are close." His eyes traveled up the grey trunks around them, and fixed on a tall liriodendron. "From there I might see where they are."
She nodded. He rode Ithilin under the tree and leapt straight up to a branch Sian would not have wanted to reach assisted by a goodly length of rope. He vanished into the greenery.
From the thinner foliage near the top, he could see the great sea of trees rolling in green waves down to the river that flowed into Anduin. He could see the high wispy mares' tails, the small crescent that was not the moon, but another, more distant, wanderer of the sky, he could see hawks circling far to the west. Not even an Elf could see through the leaves to the trail or anything that was on it. What he could see was the wave of disturbance in the orcs' wake; an owl frightened from its day roost, the first curious, wary ravens following the orc pack, and ignoring the owl, the swaying of high branches as tree dwellers fled. They were close enough it did not take an Elf to see these things.
At the bottom of the tree he told Sian, "They are close, very close." He smoothed a place in the trail and drew how the trail bent through the trees. "We are here, they are here. This is a hundred paces." His mind whirled with the lessons he'd been taught on planning such attacks. "We could..." He looked up at Sian giving him a hard hawk look. He hesitated. It was not wise to tell your elders what to do, even if they were younger. He closed his mouth on his thoughts.
"I think", she said, "you in a tree would be a good thing. If there was some way to get ahead of them, we could ambush them."
His keen-edged falcon expression shifted into a faintly wicked smile.
He could parallel the trail, easily and silently outdistancing the orcs. He and Sian would close on them like a hawk's talons. She worked out the details, he threw in a few things he'd only heard in theory, some things Sian knew from experience, and some things that were new to her. Together they forged a Great Plan.
Like all Great Plans, it did not go as planned.
Sian blew her small store of arrows in the first moments of milling confusion. Mules and horses plunging this way and that, orcs screaming and roaring, running back and forth till it seemed like there were three times as many of them. They were dropping like hailstones, a greenfeathered arrow in each throat, except for the occasional one Sian managed to hit herself. It wasn't easy, she was a marginal archer at best, and the tangled melee made it near impossible to pick out a target and send an arrow there before something else, like a mule, or a tree got in the way. Legolas at least, was above the action, out of reach, able to take calm, clean shots. Sian finally threw the bow down and drew her sword. It sang through the remainder of the confused orc horde like a hawk through a flock of fat doves. They were faster and more agile than some of the men she'd fought, but their swordsmanship was of the hack and slash variety, it was easy to outmaneuver them.
Almost all of them. She didn't see where the big one came from, he was just suddenly there, taller, wartier and angrier than the others, wielding a sword that looked like a refugee from some barrow down. Something light and swift and stolen, made for some ancient king of men. She spun and ducked and blocked, and caught sight of one of the little dark ones out of the side of her eye. She lashed out with a kick, spun, punched and slashed in the same heartbeat, kicked again. The last four were on her. What had happened to her archer? These guys were supposed to be dropping with arrows in their throats.
He was there, wailing into the big one with a heavy orc-sword grabbed from a fallen foe, longbow missing, quiver empty.
Slash-bamm-block-kick. Sian wove silver circles around her and the Elf. He flailed and whacked with all the grace of a bounding warthog, nearly as dangerous as the abominable orcs, Sian wasn't sure if he was wielding the sword, or it was wielding him. He wasn't even trying to block, he was just ducking, dodging, and swinging wildly back at the orcs. If he lives, she thought, I'm going to have to teach him something other than archery. And hadn't he heard of gleaning arrows from the field?
An orc went down. Then another, this time to the Elf's borrowed orc-sword. He let out a yell, in Elvish. It sounded rude.
Sian spun again, punching the sword out like a stooping hawk's talons. The last orc went down before her. She drew her sword up into a guard position, stepped lightly in a full circle, making sure nothing was still moving. She broke into a grin. "Not bad Legland! Not bad at all!"
He was sprawled across a big orc, in that graceless pose that only the dead or unconcious can achieve, winter grass hair stained with a growing pool of very red blood. Sian stared for two long breaths. He could not do this. Elves were above mud and blood and death.
She dropped to her knees, caught him up in her arms, warm, and still breathing. She laid him out gently, carefully on clean ground. Found where an orc had connected with his head. A nasty gash, but possibly no worse than anything she'd ever suffered. Head wounds tended to look like exploding volcanoes anyway. She let out a breath, fished in her belt pouch for the cloth she kept for such emergencies, and pressed it to his head.
He opened his eyes. The world swam into focus, more or less, through a nasty yellow fog. He couldn't quite hear through the din in his head, like a hundred Dwarves bringing down a mountain. So this was what it was to die? He had heard the old tales, of the heroes of the past, heroes who gave up their immortal lives for some great cause. He had hoped his would come later rather than sooner, but...He managed to focus on the face before him; Sian, dark eyes wide with concern. "Are they..." he managed to croak out.
"Yeah, they're all dead. Most of them to your arrows, I think." She searched his sea-grey eyes for the signs of fading she'd often seen in Men, of spirit loosening its hold on the physical. His eyes had a strong clear light in them, like starlight, like dawn.
He sighed. Said something low and indecipherable in his own tongue. He touched Sian's face, "I...go now...to the halls of Mandos...to sit...beside my ancestors..." The Dwarves had tunneled their way into his stomach as well, it felt as if he'd been drinking Dwarven beer.
"Bullpockey." Sian said, with perhaps more vehemence than necessary. She was not entirely sure anyway. This would not kill a Man, but then, he was an Elf. She put a hand on his chest, felt his steady breath, his even heartbeat. "And if you do, I'm going to pirate a ship, sail straight off the edge of the world, storm the...whatever spirit world your people go to, and drag you back here, if I have to fight off the whole pantheon of Elven Gods." She had even less idea who they were, and if she was offending them, she didn't care. She had offended nearly everyone else's gods at one time or another. "Can you feel your feet?"
"Yes." he looked bewildered, why did she want to know about his feet?
"Wiggle your toes." she ordered. It worked for Men at least.
He did, the expression on his face changing to bemusement.
Sian inspected the rest of him, which mostly seemed to be in one piece, under the orc-blood and dirt. She gently lifted his shoulders, leaning him against her, one hand firmly on his head dressing. "Looks like you might have a couple thousand years to go before that Halls of ...whatever...thing."
"My head feels like a Dwarf mine."
"Yeah, I know." she stroked his back, comforting him, and realigning the energies as she'd been taught long ago by her grandmothers, and hoping it worked the same for Elves. "You're supposed to use that sword to block too, you know."
"Uhhh." he leaned against her for awhile, focused on his breathing, trying to calm the Dwarf party in his stomach. Sian's hand, moving over his back felt good, the brush of a bird's wing, straightening and calming his scrambled fea. It surprised him that she would know how to do this. But then, considering what else he had seen of her, it really was no surprise.
Sian dug further into her pack and found herbs and dressings, then remembered what the young wrangler had said about the Sindarin healers. "Unless you have something better?" she asked him.
He shook his head, and realized that was an awful idea. Sian eased him back down on the cool ground, resting against Cae, the earth-mother. Sian lit a fire, far bigger than necessary, he could hear her muttering something about "...how'd that Elf get that little fire going..." In the space of a few breaths, it seemed, she was back, gently cleaning his wound, applying herbs and a final dressing. Straightening his hair, cleaning the orc blood, as well as his own, from the rest of him. Lifting him again, so he could take a long drink of some steaming herb tea she held under his nose. It smelled unusually good for a concoction of the Edain. Like morning in the forest. He sipped it slowly and the dwarvish din receded from his head. He rested again, watching the small birds high in the canopy, and the wheeling shapes of the vultures coming in, beyond human sight. The orcs would not stay long to blight this part of the trail.
Sian knelt beside him again, laid a gentle hand along his face, "I'm going to go collect the mules. If you're ok? Efa will stay beside you."
"I'm fine." The vultures had been joined by ravens, low enough now for even Sian to see. "Clean-up crew's here." He echoed her earlier words, pointing at the sky.
Sian looked up, her men would have been quailing at the sight, remembering stories of dark raven gods. They would not have known that Raven was a wise teacher, that the Vulture Goddess was a nurturing mother as well as one who took death and started the life cycle anew. She wondered what the woodelves' stories would tell. Her hand stayed on his face for a long moment, wishing he would ride with her farther than Thranduil's halls. Would he? She stood, and went to round up the mules.
Sian tried to keep the pace slow and easy, but Legolas seemed steady enough on his filly, and the mules picked up the pace, wanting to get out of the dimness of Mirkwood, and the nameless rustlings off the side of the trail. He sang, soft and low, then louder and stronger, and the songs wove themselves into a story of the forest, its people, and the long struggle against the dark, of which he only had this one experience. They passed the place where Molly fell and there was nothing there, no bones, no orcs, only a few bits of rough orc armour, a broken sword, and harness hardware. The clean-up crew had been and gone.
They rested one long night, not far from the Elvenking's halls, mules lined up and down the trail, Efa dozing by the same small fire, Legolas sandwiched between Sian and the fire, his broken bow long since discarded, his quiver containing half his original arrows. It felt good to have her at his back.
At midday they crossed the Forest River and passed through the great gates, with most of the supply train intact. Woodelves and mule wranglers and her own guards milled around in greeting, the mules, horses and supplies were whisked off to wherever the Elves kept such things, and Sian was whisked off to a bath and clean clothes. She did not see what happened to her one good archer.
He came to collect her in the evening, finding her in a long hall full of scrolls and paintings and sculpture, thinking that perhaps she should learn to read Elvish. There was a feast, and they were waiting for her; her men, and Thranduil's folk, who were glad of the things she'd salvaged from the caravan. She looked down at her borrowed green tunic, the edges trimmed in tree-viney knotwork. She guessed it had originally been made for some Elven noble. It was not quite long enough for a gown (her tall boots covered the space between floor and hem), but none of the Elf-women's gowns would fit her short, solid figure.
Her archer bowed low and graciously, "The lady Sian DuCudyll is the fairest of her land that we have had the honor of hosting."
"I am the only one of my land you've had the honor of hosting." she said wryly.
He smiled, wide and a little lopsided. And said something incomprehensible in Elvish. Whatever it was, it sounded like poetry, she didn't ask for a translation.
The woodelves knew how to party, that's all she could think. Sian was escorted into a whirl of light and song and movement and scent of flowers and food and forest. Her guards, the wranglers, swirled around her asking about her rescue of the mule train, telling their own tales of the return through Mirkwood and of the Elvenking's halls. It flowed over her like ocean surf, she had eyes only for her archer. He carried himself as he always had, with the lithe grace of a hunting cat, but with something else as well. Some veil seemed to have come over his face, hiding much of the spirit she'd seen on the forest trail. He made her think of a young falcon, sitting on the glove for the first time, trying to look strong, when he didn't feel that way at all.
He finally led her across the room, to the high table at the far side. Seated in the center were two people who had the look of kings and queens everywhere, no matter the culture. He bowed low before them, exchanged some words in his native tongue. Sian followed his lead, thinking of the things she'd said about Thranduil (an age ago, it seemed), and hoping he couldn't read minds. She raised her head, met his sea-grey eyes, and the paler eyes of his Lady. Calm and noble they were, and deep. It was like looking into the sea itself, or the mists of time. Like seeing those far mountains on the horizon, the ones you rode towards for weeks as they rolled up over the edge of the world.
There was something familiar about them. Both of them, the eyes, the high cheekbones, the chiseled jawline, the golden hair flowing like a mane around a long clean neck. Sian shook it off. Like any people she was unfamiliar with, they all looked alike.
"...I have not heard the tale of how you got my caravan back..." the King was saying.
Sian blinked, bowed briefly and sat in the seat he indicated. She told the tale, glancing at Legolas often, impressing on the King the intelligence, wisdom and skill of her companion. Maybe it would get him a promotion or something.
Something strange was happening in the Elvenking's face. He looked like a wolf whose tail is being pulled by a raven. He politely heard out the whole tale, his face showing subtle signs of growing agitation. Then, when he was sure Sian's tale was done, he turned to Legolas and said something long and low in Elvish. Sian looked from one to the other, and suddenly it struck her how similar they were, not just the similarity of race, something closer. Something in the body language too, her archer looked exactly like a kid being quietly chewed out by...
"Legs," she said, and poked him in the arm.
He looked up sharply, startled, saw her questioning look, composed his face. Let out a sigh. "It's a long story."
"My father is not pleased. I...I ...it was supposed to be another one who rode out to aid you. Celegaraf. I took his place. I did not tell anyone."
"Your father..." she looked up at the Elvenking. He still looked like an annoyed wolf. His lady was whispering something to him, probably trying, as was the case with women everywhere, to talk sense into her man. "Oh boy." She looked back at her one excellent archer of Mirkwood, her companion on the road, purveyor of Elvish waybread, singer of tales, guardian of relief stations, who had risked his immortal life to pull her bum out of the orcish fire. "...the bloomin' prince of Mirkwood!" She dropped her face in her hands, shook her head.
Finally she looked up at him. He looked like the young grey wolf she'd seen once across a moonlit clearing, poised to melt back into the forest. Young and old, strong and vulnerable, wise and innocent all at once. She did not ask why he hadn't told her. She thought she knew. She had done it herself, long ago; ridden out against the wishes of everyone, to prove something. She smiled the slight smile of shared experience.
He nodded in understanding.
His father fired off a quick burst of Elvish, tense, polite, understated.
It probably meant, "Wait till the party's over..."
They bowed. The King and his Lady said some more genteel words to her, promising supplies (and a few Elvish guards) for the journey out. They said nothing about her archer being the wrong one. They already knew what she thought of him.
They escaped through the party throng, like grey wood-hawks fleeing through the branches. Through the caverns of the King, by the stables, then riding out bareback under the spearshafts of moonlight that found their way to the leaf-littered forest floor. Out by the river, on the old road, they went in silence, galloping now, wind in their hair, no need for the slow measured trot of long journeys. Finally they burst out into starlight, and open sky. Ahead lay the open lands to the east, the Lonely Mountain, Laketown, and Sian's own lands far, far away. They had not said a word since the feasting hall, there was no need, sometimes, for words. Sian let Eos's reins loose, he dropped his head to graze. She leaned back, head on his rump, staring up at the stars. "Tell me your people's star stories." she said.
He lay stretched out along Ithilin's back, looking up, "That would take many nights."
The understatement of the Age, Sian was sure. "Tell me one, then?"
He sang a star story, and another. Then faltered into silence. She would ride out tomorrow and there were so many more stories to tell. And to hear. And places to see and...
"Greenleaf," she said, "Glasdalen", translating his name into her own tongue, "Come with me." She added quickly,"With us." He was silent so long she began to think he'd had too much Elvish wine and had fallen asleep.
When his voice finally came out of the dark, it was soft as nightwind. "I cannot." Then he was standing by her horse, looking up with wide eyes.
Sian slid off, faced him, earth brown eyes meeting sea-grey. There was no need to say anything else, she understood. Family, clan, kingdom, responsibilities. Then it came on her; the Knowing that it would not always be thus for him. He would make that journey some day, back along the road she had come and alone over the mountains, then under the roots of those mountains in the deep dangerous dark and beyond, far beyond anything he had ever guessed. But it would be long after her time.
He saw something in her eyes, some passing shadow of what she had seen.
She saw his eyebrows knot, questioning. "You'll have your journey, someday." was all she said.
He closed his eyes and circled her with his arms.
For a moment she stiffened in surprise, then wrapped her arms around him. She pressed her face against his chest, hearing the distant drum of his heart, feeling the lean power that would someday shoot from the sky the dark winged shape of her vision. They stood for a heartbeat, for forever. Time had as much meaning as it had for Elves. It stretched and circled back on itself, and finally broke in a dawn full of warm light and birdsong.
The caravan came out of the dark fastness of Mirkwood into the midday sun of the western lands. To the west lay the Misty Mountains, the River Langflood, and further south, the Anduin leading down to the sea. Sian turned in her saddle, behind her, twenty-two mules lifted their huge ears, happy to see grass and sunlight. The wranglers from Caer-Gaint broke into laughter and raucous joking. Efa perked her ears and sniffed at a rabbit trail. From the front of the line, one of the Elvish guards called "Daro!" Sian raised her hand in the signal for her men to stop as well. The Elves swirled quietly around her on their horses, their leader, hair in a long dark braid down his back, stepped forward, bowed from his place on a compact blue roan mare. "You are safely through the forest. Here, we turn back, Lady. Safe journey."
"Cuia anann-gala." Sian returned the salutation she'd been taught. She hoped she'd remembered it right, and wasn't actually telling him "there are eels in your dwarf's beard" or something.
He smiled and said, "Navaer."
"Thank you, and safe journey home." Sian added.
The Elves turned and melted back into Mirkwood.
Except for one.
He rode forward, clad in green and brown, mounted on a dun the color of sand and mountain rock. His hair was the kind of blinding silver-white Sian had only seen on mountain snowfields. The braid was long enough for him to sit on and streaked with...green? Maybe he was trying for camoflage, that hair would make him a target for sure, especially in the deeps of Mirkwood. Sian's eyebrows knotted, had she forgotten some part of Elvish protocol? She tried to remember what Legolas had told her. She eyed the dun again, he was bridleless, but wearing a light saddle, firmly girthed, with stirrups, and breast band. The rider had a longbow and quiver slung on his own back, but the horse was packed with a second bow, a short, strong horseman's bow, an extra quiver with arrows matched to that bow. And those un-elvish stirrups. So an archer could stand up off a galloping horse and shoot accurately, something more useful on the open plains than in the deeps of Mirkwood. There was other gear tied to the back of the dun's saddle, more than the rest of the Elvish guards had carried. Sian's eyebrows went up like a hawk taking flight, a Knowing tickled at the back of her thought.
He nodded to her, a slight, polite bow, with a little bobble, like he wasn't quite used to doing that sort of thing, "Uh, my Lady."
"Sian." she interrupted him.
"My Lady Sian."
"Just Sian." she had a feeling about this. And she was not going to be able to deal with this "my Lady" stuff for very long."
"Our prince said you might have some need of one good archer of Mirkwood, beyond the eaves of the wood."
She had noticed him before, he stood out from the other Mirkwood Elves as a pinto horse stands out in a field of somber bays and browns. She had not had much chance to talk to him, the Elves had kept to themselves, going ahead on the trail, vanishing into the trees, or falling behind to cover the rear. This one in particular, had spent much of his time vanished into the undergrowth, scouting. She studied him. His face had the ageless beauty of a hawk, his eyes were the changing color of the sea, twinkling with merry sunlight. His voice sounded like treewind and birdsong. His mouth looked like it wanted to quirk into a grin. His clothes seemed more practical than stylish, and more than a little inventive. He was not carrying a sword, but there were two long knives tucked between his quiver and his back.
If Legolas had sent him, he was a good enough archer, Sian nodded at the knives, "You know how to fight without a bow?"
He half suppressed a smile, straightened his face, trying to look serious, "Celegaraf taught us." he touched the hilts of the knives, "Faster than a sword." He nodded at Sian's sword, "Although, perhaps not faster than yours."
"We'll see. What's your name?"
Her eyebrows folded like a stooping hawk's wings, "Sil...what?"
He made a wry face, "My mother is a bard, and thinks every name should be a story in itself. My friends have shortened it to Ran. It means 'wander'."
Sian looked over at her guards, exchanged glances with Ieuan and Rhys, it was their chance to lodge an opinion on an addition to the party, one on whom their lives would depend. Sian had been known to ignore those opinions, and she had a strong opinion this time. A feeling about this Elf with snowfield hair and sunlit eyes.
Rhys and Ieuan looked at each other, Ieuan raised a questioning eyebrow. The silver and green-haired Elf not only didn't look like any Elf they'd ever seen, but in his mottled greens and browns and greys, with edges like loose fall leaves and grass, bird feathers woven into odd places on the hems, he didn't look like any warrior they'd ever seen either. Rhys shook his head slightly, shrugged. They eyed Sian, and gave her the slightest of nods.
"Come on then." Sian said to Ran.
He fell in alongside her singing a song, in the common tongue. His small dun cob had a longer stride than Sian had expected, because soon Ran was even with Eos's head.
Sian smiled, dropped the reins on Eos' neck, ambling along with the sun on her face, listening to the song, a tale of adventures at the feet of the Lonely Mountain. She reached for Eos' reins.
They weren't there, the rest of his bridle wasn't there either.
Eos flicked an ear, then stretched his stride to catch up to Ran and the dun who were now a horse length ahead.
Ran grinned back at Sian, Eos's headstall looped over one of his arms. "Our prince said you wanted to learn to ride the Elvish way..."
It was going to be an interesting journey.