While perusing one of my favorite sections from The Two Towers, I stumbled across a passage that had bothered me for some time. Those of you familiar with the books will recall that Gimli and Legolas have an Orc-killing contest at Helm's Deep, a contest that Gimli wins by one Orc. About halfway through this little game, while comparing tallies, Gimli reports that he has killed twenty-one Orcs while Legolas responds with a number of twenty-four Orcs. However, just before this, Legolas had twenty Orcs to his tally while Gimli had two. How did Gimli manage to come up with nineteen Orcs while Legolas dispatched only four during the same interval of time? I thought about this for a bit and then decided to write an answer to my self-imposed question. And for those interested, here is my theory on this little puzzle…

Knife-work

"Ai-oi! The Orcs are behind the wall! Ai-oi! Come, Legolas. There are enough for us both! Khazâd aimênu!"

Startled by the dwarf's sudden cry, Legolas backed away from the parapet where he had been looking to pick off a few more Orcs with his dwindling supply of arrows. He thought he had caught sight of someone who appeared to be a leader, but he was waiting for another flash of lightning from the departing storm to make certain before shooting. Though the moon now hovered above the edge of the horizon, its pale light was not sufficient for differentiating leaders and subordinates. Yet archery was completely forgotten at the thought of Orcs behind the Deeping Wall.

"Gimli!" the elf cried, trying to find his friend upon the dark rampart. He could hear noises down in the Deep, but amidst the clamor of battle and the cries of commanders, he could not determine whether these noises were Orcs or merely confusion among the horses. "Gimli!" he called again, but he received no answer.

He must be mistaken, Legolas thought with a frown, scanning the shadowed recesses of the area behind the Deeping Wall. Yes, the night was very dark, and yes, the senses of men were easily confused and confounded in the chaos of battle, but for Orcs to creep behind the wall… The elf shook his head. He could not see how this might have happened unless they had scaled the pathless mountains behind the Hornburg. Marking this incident as faulty judgement—which could be used in the future to tease a certain dwarf—Legolas turned back to the battlement, intending to resume his archery.

But as he was leaning over the parapet, another shout along the wall interrupted him. However, this time it was the voice of a Rohirrim guard who cried out in alarm. "The Orcs are in the Deep! Helm! Helm! Forth Helmingas!"

Under his father's tutelage and during the many skirmishes with Orcs beneath Mirkwood's leaves, Legolas had learned a few very important lessons about battle. If one soldier shouted a warning, it was to be treated with prudence but suspicion. If two separate soldiers shouted independent warnings, it was to be treated as fact. Following this philosophy, Legolas swung away from the battlement just in time to see a legion of Rohirrim leap from the wall and into the Deep, brandishing swords as they shouted their challenges.

"Aragorn!" Legolas cried out, readying his bow and preparing to follow the men. "Orcs are behind the wall!"

Further down the rampart, Aragorn's head jerked up at the elf's shout, and his eyes widened in surprise and disbelief. But despite the impossibility of Legolas's claim, the Ranger also began redirecting men off the wall and into the Deep. If Orcs were behind the front lines, then they were practically knocking at the doors of the Hornburg itself. And if they won through to that, then Helm's Deep was truly lost. There would be no dawn for any of them. Gandalf would return only to find a collection of corpses, and it would be his lot to drive off the creatures that feasted on the remains.

"What is this of Orcs behind the wall?" a voice suddenly demanded, and Legolas looked to the side as Eomer came rushing forward.

"I know not how, but—" Legolas's eyes suddenly widened as he caught sight of the parapet behind the Third Marshall. "Eomer! Down!"

Eomer reacted purely on instinct, dropping to the cold stone upon command, and he was not a moment too soon. Legolas swung his bow through the air, using it as a staff, and clubbed aside an Orc who had managed to get a ladder against the wall and climb over it. The foul beast squealed like a pig at the slaughter, but Legolas could not follow up his strike and kill the creature, for an entire group of Orcs was suddenly pouring over the wall, sensing the distraction that their brethren in the Deep were causing. And with most of the men now fighting behind the wall rather than defending it, the goblins were free to attack.

Legolas stepped to one side as Eomer quickly regained his feet, and then Aragorn was beside them, along with several other men. "They have coordinated this too well," Aragorn hissed, pushing against Legolas's back as he dodged a sweeping blade. "We can ill afford to face our enemy both within the Deep and upon the wall. There are not enough of us!"

Legolas nodded and started to respond, but an overzealous Orc forced him to shove aside both Aragorn and Eomer as he rolled to a more open area. His move cost him, though, as the Orc he had initially struck joined his comrade and knocked Legolas's bow away when the elf was coming out of his crouch. Leaping back and trying to find more room for maneuvering, Legolas swept out his hunting knife, driving the two Orcs away with a wide swipe at the air. It bought him only a few seconds of time, but it was enough for the elf to readjust his approach to the battle. Shifting his weight to the balls of his feet, Legolas readied himself as the first Orc drove in, sword swinging. Ducking beneath the swipe, the elf came up inside the creature's guard and allowed the goblin to impale himself upon the prince's silver-hafted blade.

Unfortunately, it was not a clean kill, and the Orc's dying screams grated hard upon Legolas's sensitive ears. Startled and disoriented, the elf missed an opening to kill the second Orc, who had overextended his guard in an attempt to aid his comrade. The other goblin now moved out of range even as a flash of lightning streaked across the sky. Jumping back and pulling his knife free of the dying Orc, Legolas turned his face toward his second opponent.

His timing could not have been worse.

Caught between lightning and moonlight, his gray eyes and fair features stood out in the night like a signal flare. The Orc that he fought stopped cold, and a cruel hatred began to build within the creature as it shouted to its comrades.

"Ilid! Ilid!"

Wincing at the name of his people spoken in the foul tongue of the Orcs, Legolas moved quickly to silence his enemy. The goblin tried to block his blow, but the elf was swift as a striking viper. Catching the Orc's sword on the hilt of his knife, Legolas swept in and then out, wrenching the weapon away from the goblin. It flew over the wall, tumbling out of sight even as the disarmed Orc made a futile grab for it. A moment later, his throat was laid open by an elvish blade.

But the damage had been done. The Orc's cry had been enough to attract the attention of every other Orc upon the wall. They had heard the word ilid as clearly as had Legolas, and now they all knew that there was an elf in their midst. Every eye fastened itself upon the prince of Mirkwood, and a dark loathing burned brightly in the hosts of Isengard.

"Legolas!"

Seemingly out of nowhere, Aragorn was suddenly beside the elf, pushing an Orc off the blade of his sword even as he tried to turn and face the rest of their opponents. Somewhere beyond them on another section of the rampart, Eomer could be heard crying a challenge to the Orcs. A few now facing Aragorn and Legolas turned, and the ring of steel could be heard beyond the group.

"Must trouble follow you everywhere, son of Arathorn," Legolas murmured, readjusting his stance so as to work with Aragorn at his back.

"Those Orcs were not shouting about my race," Aragorn retorted. "If trouble follows anyone, it follows you, son of Thranduil."

Legolas snorted at this but gave no answer, for his concentration was now upon the Orcs. Though many of them had been distracted by Eomer and the other men, a thin circle was still closing upon Legolas and Aragorn. The melee form of attack had now been abandoned and they approached with gleeful anticipation but also with caution, for they knew the foe they faced. It was an odd picture, actually. Battle and war raged upon all sides, yet here, in a close circle with an elven prince and a future king in the middle, was a calm. A lull. A lull that precedes a storm, Legolas thought despairingly to himself. And even as he reached this conclusion, the storm broke.

The Orcs not occupied by Eomer and his men lunged forward, moving as a group after the manner of men. It was not the first time Legolas had witnessed such an unusual style of fighting in the Uruk-hai, nor would it be the last. But he was given little chance to ponder it, for he was swiftly involved in a knife fight with two of the largest Orcs, who had taken the pleasure of confronting an elf as their own right. Two swords flashed at Legolas from different sides, moving simultaneously and with a speed that might have put Gwaihir to shame. In that moment, Legolas was given two choices for survival. He could step forward between the Orcs and face them alone, or he could back into Aragorn and hope that the sudden contact did not disorient his friend and lead to his death. Given these options and their consequences, Legolas chose the first.

Kicking against Aragorn's boot heel as a signal that the Ranger's back was no longer protected, Legolas leaped forward, swinging his knife to the right while bringing his left arm up to block on the other side. The sudden movement caused both Orcs to readjust their swings, and so the blow from the left glanced off the thick leather of Legolas's gauntlet while he was able to parry the other sword with his knife. With both Orcs slightly off-balance, the elf quickly pressed his advantage, lashing out with his left fist and driving one of the Uruk-hai back while swiping his knife at the other's gut. It was a fast move that all but guaranteed success. It should have worked.

Unfortunately, Legolas's knife met with chain mail.

Valar! the elf swore silently, feeling the edge of his knife scrape against linked metal. It was now Legolas's turn to be off-balance, and the Orcs immediately seized the opportunity. An ironclad fist slammed into the elf's lower back, and Legolas felt his breath knocked from his body as his inner organs were forced up against his lungs. But this hard blow was actually a blessing in disguise, for it pushed him out of the way of a sword thrust. Moving with the punch as the sword missed him by scant inches, Legolas allowed the momentum to turn into power behind his own knife thrust, and swinging about, he drove the point of his knife through the chain mail that had thwarted him only moments before.

A sword dropped from a nerveless hand, and the stabbed Orc let out an eerie howl that swiftly turned into a gurgle. One left, Legolas through grimly as he started to retract his knife and face the other Orc.

But the problem with lodging a blade in a suit of armor or mail mesh is that retrieving it can be difficult. Now was no exception, and the knife did not come free on the first pull. Have all the fates turned against me this day?! Legolas demanded, trying a second time to pull the knife free. But as before, it did not move.

The elf would have tried a third time, but instinct and heightened senses suddenly warned of an attack from behind. Releasing the knife and allowing it to fall along with the dead Orc, Legolas hit the ground and rolled, barely avoiding the sword of the second Uruk-hai. Now unarmed and very conscious of the fact that smaller Orcs were beginning to swarm toward them in the event that the larger Orc could not finish the job, the elf looked desperately for an opening to capture his opponent's blade or at least rearm himself with something. At this point, even a piece of chipped stone might do. But the Orc was giving him no opportunities, and the repeated thrusts and swings kept Legolas moving in a graceful but potentially fatal dance.

Backwards, forwards, and sideways, Legolas covered the bulk of the rampart as he leaped and dodged skilled attacks by the large Uruk-hai. He seemed to be holding his own, but he knew well that this could not continue. The other Orcs watching the fight were anxious for a bit of the elf themselves. The fear of offending an Uruk-hai chieftain kept them back for the moment, but it would not last long.

Fortunately for Legolas, these surrounding Orcs affected not only him but also his opponent. The large Uruk-hai was apparently jealous of his right to dispatch the elf, and he had no intention of allowing smaller usurpers to steal this pleasure from him. Sensing that he had only moments before others started crowding in, the towering Orc began to speed up his attacks, making minor mistakes in his haste. And these minor mistakes gave Legolas the opportunity he needed.

Until now, the Orc had protected himself so well that the elf could not slip beneath his guard and gain the leverage he needed for a throw or a twist. And being lighter than this creature, leverage was key. But now, with the attacks faster and less controlled, Legolas began to see patterns and chinks in his opponent's defense. Good, the elf coaxed silently, making his expression smug and arrogant so as to further antagonize the Orc. Faster now. You are too slow to hurt me. You must be faster. Faster. Yes, much faster. Faster even than that. There!

Ducking beneath a high and rather sloppy punch, Legolas slammed himself into the Orc's midsection, found purchase upon the rough armor, turned, and pulled the Orc over his back. With a roar of astonishment, the Uruk-hai abruptly found himself flat on the ground. But despite all odds, he had managed to retain his weapon, and instinctively swinging it over his head, he almost caught Legolas's chest.

Quickly jumping away and once again cursing the fickle hand of fortune, Legolas suddenly stumbled over the Orc he had killed with his knife, and he spotted his blade still protruding from the chain mail. It was a gamble, but Legolas took it. He had very little to lose at this point. Reaching down, he seized the haft and nearly sobbed with relief when the knife came free, making an odd sucking sound as it pulled against flesh and tissue.

Yet the moment spent grabbing his blade had been a moment too long. His large opponent had regained his feet, and instinct alone saved Legolas from losing his head as the Orc's sharp blade whistled through the air. Hitting the ground and using his shoulder to gain momentum, Legolas rolled into a crouch, ready to put an end to this. But even as he did so, he sensed a presence behind him and lunged to the side as yet another sword came down.

Wondering if the situation could possibly get any worse—and deciding that such a question only prompted the inevitable—Legolas turned in his crouch and moaned at the sight of a small, mountain goblin who had grown tired of waiting and now wished to spill the blood of an elf. In a terrifying moment of truth, Legolas realized that there was no escape. The world seemed to slow to a crawl as the elf frantically searched his mind for options. He could hear the advances of the Uruk-hai behind him, but if he turned to meet that opponent, then the mountain goblin would finish him. But if he dealt with the mountain goblin first, then the Uruk-hai had a clear opening. Nor did he have time to dodge, for the blades were descending. He had to block and counterattack, but he could only act against one of them.

It seems you shall win this game after all, Master Dwarf, Legolas mentally sighed. My time has been cut short. And with this thought, he surged upward with his knife, plunging it into the heart of the mountain goblin. Stroke completed, he twisted around to face his other foe. It was futile move, and Legolas knew that the Uruk-hai would cut him down ere he could block the stroke. But he refused to die without at least making an attempt to defend himself.

But much to the elf's surprise, he completed his defensive spin without interruption. Greatly confused but acting quickly upon instinct, Legolas leaped forward in a desperate offensive gamble, his knife up and ready to deflect any blows should the Orc by toying with him. As a result, he very nearly skewered Eomer.

"Legolas!" the man cried out, hurriedly leaping back and bringing his own sword up to the guard position.

"Eomer!? How…what…" Legolas blinked, completely bewildered, and looked about and hoping to find something that would explain what had just happened. His eyes eventually found his large Uruk-hai opponent lying headless at Eomer's feet.

"You seemed to be in need of assistance," the Third Marshall of the Riddermark explained, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I believe that smaller Orc took you by surprise. However, had I known that aiding you would incur your wrath, then I might have hesitated before saving your life."

Legolas groaned slightly as he tried to calm his racing heart. If Eomer was anything like Aragorn, this incident was not going to be forgotten in the near future. Or the distant future, for that matter. Glancing up and down the bulwark, Legolas was swift to note that all the Orcs had been dispatched and their bodies were being thrown over the side of the Deeping Wall. Apparently, his Orc had been among the last to be killed. "My apologies," the elf said quietly as he turned back to Eomer. "I did not see you approach. And you have my thanks for your assistance."

"You warned me when the Orcs first came over the battlement," Eomer answered with a shrug. "A life for a life. The exchange seems fair in my eyes."

Legolas smiled, deciding that, despite their first inauspicious meeting out on the plains, he could grow to like Eomer. "A fair exchange indeed. But still, you have my thanks. There are some in this world who would hesitate before saving one that was not of their kind."

"Perhaps, but I am not one of them."

"Legolas!" a new voice growled, and the elf turned with a sigh to confront Aragorn's flashing eyes. "Will you never cease to try the limits of your fortune?! I did not fight my way to your side only to have you leave when trouble pressed close!"

"It was either leave or disrupt your fight," Legolas answered. "I have no desire to inform Lord Elrond that you died because I backed into you during a skirmish."

The Ranger grunted and shook his head, but no other reaction was forthcoming. His quick eyes ran over Legolas, searching the elf for signs of injury, and then he turned to Eomer. "Gamling sends a message that the Orcs in the Deep have been killed. He reports that they crept in through the culvert. Gimli and others are now attempting to block it."

"They will choke off the stream," Eomer mused with a frown.

"And hopefully the Orcs with it," Aragorn pointed out. "But there is little need to concern yourself over flooding. I foresee that we shall either triumph before the waters become a problem, or we shall be dead and it will not concern us."

"Such optimism you display," Eomer sighed.

"I have seen him worse," Legolas commented, searching the wall and finding the bow that had been knocked away from him. Slinging it over his shoulder, he studied his knife and grimaced slightly. Forcing it through chain mail had dulled the point, and there were many burrs along its sides.

"In what circumstances has Lord Aragorn been worse?" Eomer asked.

"Situations far more dire than this one, though I am hard-pressed to name many that might qualify," Legolas answered, pulling out his whetstone from a small pouch that hung from his belt.

"At least we are afforded a brief respite now," Aragorn murmured, his dark, gray eyes reaching out over the lands beyond the Deeping Wall. "The enemy seems to have withdrawn for a moment. Use this rest wisely, my friends. It will not last long!"

"Twenty-one!"

Legolas looked up as he ran his knife over the whetstone for the last time and gave a mental sigh of relief at the sight of Gimli whole and upon his feet. And wearing a rather smug look of satisfaction, he added to himself. "Good," the elf said aloud. "But my count is now two dozen."

Gimli's brow furrowed, and Legolas could feel the question forming in the dwarf's mind. The elf's last total had been twenty. During the time that Gimli had been gone, the dwarf had killed nineteen Orcs. Legolas had killed four. Why such a small number?

"It has been knife-work up here," Legolas explained with a slight smile. There was a quiet chuckle on the part of Aragorn while Eomer shook his head in silent disbelief.

Seeming to sense that he was missing out on something, Gimli scowled and looked as though he wished to pursue the subject. But he did not, instead mumbling something about going to the elves for information and then moving to the parapet to look out over the hosts that swarmed before Helm's Deep. And content that he was still ahead in their game, Legolas sheathed his knife and began to scour the area for arrows. One skirmish had been won, but the battle still raged on. And as Aragorn had said, this rest would not last long.

Khazâd aimênu—The dwarves are upon you. (Khuzdul/Dwarvish)

Ilid—Elf (Orkish/Black Speech)

Some of the dialogue has been lifted from the books. If you want a reference, I'm using Ballantine's 50th anniversary edition of the Two Towers, paperback version. See pages 178-9.