Late Third Age, but before "The Lord of the Rings"
This story was written for the Teitho fanfiction contest, and I was so pleased that it did well. The theme was: "Unlikely Heroes".
Chapter 1 The Minstrel to the War Is Gone
Two elves sat late on a balcony of the Last Homely House, situated in the valley called Imladris. One was the ruler of the valley, dark-haired and stately, an elf who oddly bore a faint hint of mortality about him. The other was a ruler's son, come from a land of darkness, who took great pleasure in his visits to this haven of peace and safety.
Prince Legolas spoke with a hint of reluctance, "I will be pleased to have Lindir accompany me on my journey to Lorien."
The lord of the valley swirled the wine in his silver-chased goblet and said dryly, "Try to contain your jubilance."
A hint of red flushed the cheekbones of the younger elf. "I…of course I will be happy to…you mistake me, Elrond."
Elrond chuckled richly to see Legolas struggle to find words. He took pity on the floundering prince, and said with the diplomacy he was famous for, "You mean that you are hesitant to accept responsibility for one who is so valued for his unique and immeasurable talent."
Legolas felt a momentary desire to take the easy road, then stiffened his backbone and said, "No, Elrond, though I am well aware of his value. I hesitate because he has been chief minstrel here for an age. His world, as it should be, is within doors: composing, teaching, and performing. How long since he has ridden for more than a sunny afternoon? How long since he has held a sword or bow? I am not traveling with a war party, nor do I desire Imladris to provide one. He may be…" At this point Legolas' courage deserted him.
The elven lord was not so reticent. "A liability. You think you will have to cosset him, and protect him from harm."
"Will I not? Forgive me, but times have changed since we rode Arda freely and without care. He should wait until the darkness is defeated. He has not been to Lorien for many a year; what difference if he waits a while longer?"
Elrond rose from his chair and gracefully extended a decanter to refill Legolas' goblet. "No doubt you are correct," he said smoothly, "Do not give it another thought; we will not speak of it again. Tell me, how do you find the recurved bow your armorer introduced? Glorfindel does not favor such a style, but a Mirkwood elf's opinion cannot be ignored when it comes to archery."
Relieved, Legolas responded quickly to the subject change, yet he felt a vague discomfort—as if he were an elfling who had disappointed his favorite tutor.
Legolas put two fingers to his lips and sounded an eerie, high-pitched call. High above, in the vaulted sky of a brilliant summer day, a gyrfalcon answered him. It soared on the rising air currents as the day heated from a cool dawn, its wingtips flexing ever so slightly to keep its flight level and smooth. The sun gleamed on blinding white feathers markedly flecked with dark brown and grey. Suddenly the wings folded back and it plummeted like an arrow, straight for Legolas. The elf did not react except to raise one gauntleted wrist, to which the bird settled with soft, purring chirps.
Legolas' companion could not keep silent. "She is magnificent! It has been a week since we left Imladris and I still cannot believe how beautiful she is!"
Legolas laughed as the bird seemed to understand and first ruffled its feathers, then laid them straight and smooth again. "She is that! We have none to rival her at home; truly she is a gift fit for the Lady of Lorien. I wonder that Elrond could part with her."
Lindir asked curiously, "You do not have gyrfalcons in Mirkwood?"
"We do, but there can be few to rival this one in all of Arda." As he spoke he transferred the majestic raptor from his wrist to the perch secured before him on his saddle. He treated the bird as if she were a queen of men, with respect and courtesy.
Lindir smiled at the way the gyrfalcon drew her sharp beak gently along the back of Legolas' glove. The smile was short-lived though, as his thoughts returned to a well-worn groove that had been briefly interrupted as he watched the falcon. He pondered again on the subtlety and deviousness of the Lord of Imladris. He was certain that Legolas had not wanted to bring him along as he took a long road home to Mirkwood, by way of going to Lorien first. He wondered if his lord had applied direct pressure, or allowed guilt to do his work for him. Probably the latter, the minstrel thought resentfully. Why not use a tried and true tactic that worked so well for him?
The minstrel shifted in his saddle, lifting one hip and setting it gently down again. He had been riding a week but his muscles still protested. He watched the almost sensuous sway of the rider before him and grimaced. Had he ever ridden so well and with such grace? If he had, those days were long forgotten in the mists of time. Shifting to ease one part of his body had awoken other aches; these were in his arms, shoulders, and back. Legolas had insisted that they have sword and knife practice each night when they camped. He swore it was to keep him in fighting trim, but Lindir knew perfectly well that the warrior from Mirkwood feared that Lindir would not be able to defend himself if they were attacked. And he was right, Lindir thought. //Too long have you sat at harp and desk. You sing the ballads of fell deeds and bitter struggles, of darkness spreading and light quenched, yet you have lived a dreaming life, kept safe from danger by others' blood. You are a coward, my fine minstrel, for you have left danger to them, as if your voice gives you rights above them. See yourself for what you are. He despises you, and no wonder. Only his princely manners protect you from his scorn.//
If Legolas wondered at the quiet demeanor of his traveling companion, he did not remark on it. He was a little surprised that someone whose entire life was devoted to music did not sing—not on the trail, nor in camp—but a prickle down his spine kept his thoughts ever focused on their surroundings. Though this first part of their journey should be reasonably free from peril, he could not quell the feeling that something was amiss. He had little attention to spare for an elf who, truth be told, did not interest him particularly once the talented mouth and fingers were stilled, and the music a memory.
That night, as they made camp, Legolas was brought from his introspection by a questioning purrrrr-iiip from the falcon. She was sitting on a perch forced into the ground near the fire. Legolas had planned to hood her for the night, but so taut were his nerves that he hesitated to leave her blind and helpless, even if it would make her more comfortable. He turned his head to look in the same direction as the bird, and saw Lindir caring for his horse. For the first time since they had left Imladris, Legolas observed the bard carefully. The elf was the same height as Legolas, with dark hair that almost blended into his tunic of midnight blue. His leggings were of the same color, and neither bore any decoration except for the small pin that proclaimed him a harper. Legolas suddenly realized that the elf he was staring at was far different from the genial, accomplished master of the great hall. His hands moved slowly, and his bearing was that of one who labored beneath sorrow, care, or – shame? Legolas' eyes narrowed. He did not know Lindir well, but it was obvious something was amiss with the elf. He determined to discover what it was and help if he could. Tomorrow, on the trail, he would try to discover what was troubling the minstrel.
Lindir sat huddled high in a thickly leaved oak, his face drawn and hands shaking. How had it all gone awry so quickly? One moment they were riding along at a sober pace, sparing their horses for the mountains ahead, and the next they were ambushed by vicious men and left with disaster. Lindir's companion had fought like a demon, shouting at Lindir to escape. He had not abandoned Legolas, of course, at least not in the beginning. He had tried to fight, but a few hours of practice had not even begun to renew old skills. His sword had been struck from his hand and cackling death had surrounded him. His companion's knives had cleaved a way to him, and a hard shove had sent him spinning away from those who quickly clustered around the only threat to their heinous plans. He heard a voice cry, "Run, Lindir! You only distract me, having to watch for you! Go, and I will find you when I have dealt with these vermin!" Lindir, realizing he did endanger the prince by remaining and forcing him to try to fight and protect him at the same time, obeyed and hared off into the trees. He found a hiding place high above the ground, just as the sun began to set and waited.
All through the night Lindir waited for Legolas' return. When dawn lightened the sky he heard a piercing cry and scrambled along the branch on which he had spent the night, as far to the end as he could go. He saw the gyrfalcon some stooping toward him and, without thinking, put out his arm, calling to it frantically. The bird back-winged and reached out with its talons, gripping tightly. Lindir bit back a sharp cry as the claws bit through his tunic and into his flesh, but he held still. When the bird finished mantling and folded its wings, the claws relaxed somewhat, allowing Lindir to maneuver it onto a branch beside him. With trembling fingers he untied the scarlet jesses, then ripped a piece of white cloth from his under-tunic where a blade had slashed the sturdy fabric. He hurriedly searched for a small twig, then broke it carefully at an angle so that the pointed end resembled a quill. Repeatedly dipping the tip in the blood dripping from his arm, he wrote a short message to the Lord of Imladris. He tied the scrap to the jesses and refastened them to the bird's leg. It shifted restlessly, picking up the feelings of near-panic that flowed from the elf. Lindir bent down so that he and the bird looked eye to eye, then the minstrel touched the feathered head lightly. Lindir had not had to communicate with an animal for many a long year. Yet another weakness in him, he thought in despair. Afraid to try for a complicated message, he simply concentrated on a mental image of the valley and its lord. "Home!" he projected fiercely. "Go home!" The bird mantled again and shrieked. "Home! You must go home!" Suddenly the bird leaped from the branch and arrowed into the sky, while Lindir sat back limply. He had caught the merest flicker of understanding from the bird's thoughts, but he believed the falcon was now winging homeward. Having done all he could think of to summon help, Lindir climbed down from the tree and began to search for the area where the battle had taken place. He was terrified of what he would find, for there could be only one reason why Legolas had not come to find him. He soon realized he could not find his backtrail, for tracking was a skill he had never learned, even in his youth. He began to simply jog through the trees where the way was more open, figuring he could not have trod a narrow path at the pace he had been running the evening before.
The Valar smiled on him, at least in this, for he found the place he was looking for almost at once. It took no elven tracker to read the signs that were all around him: flattened ferns, gouts of blackened blood, sword cuts on the trunks of trees, and the prints of several horses. Again and again Lindir raked the clearing with desperate eyes, then he began to push hands and arms through the few places that brambles still stood, or ferns were undamaged. His hands were torn but he took no thought for that as he searched for the body of the Prince of Mirkwood. Finding nothing, he began to extend the search, circling wider and wider. Still nothing, and a small hope flared in his breast, a hope that he forced down, for he did not dare to believe that Legolas was alive. Then, nearly an hour later, when that hope insisted on rising higher and higher despite his best efforts, he saw it. There, through a thicket at ground level, was a hint of pale yellow—a color often seen in Oropher's line. With dragging steps Lindir forced himself toward it and slowly parted the branches before him. He sat bonelessly in a sudden, graceless heap, relief washing over him. It was his horse. Dead. A fine chestnut, with flaxen mane and tail. He had completely forgotten the color was close to that of Legolas' hair. He had felt so intrusive in Legolas' presence that he had not even jested about it, as Elrohir and Elladan would surely have done, given such an amusing circumstance.
Lindir was about to turn away and continue his search when his gaze was caught by the bundle tied to the saddle. If it had been under the horse, it would have been crushed, but it was spared that ignominious fate. Lindir hesitated and then stepped to the horse's side. He unfastened his bedroll and the bundle. Then he straightened and put back his shoulders. There was no sign of Legolas body, and he could not believe such vicious men would bother to bury the elf. That meant that they had taken Legolas with them, as they must have taken their own dead. Lindir began walking along a trail that even he could track—horses and men, taking no care to hide their passing. Lindir began to jog again, until he came to the end of the wood. Across a wide meadow was a cluster of huts, perhaps a mile away. Lindir backed up into the woods again and thought furiously. Dead or alive, he believed the men had taken Legolas in that direction, perhaps into the village itself. He looked at the few and pathetic items in his possession. His eyes lingered on the thick bundle, turned away from it, then returned. He was going to get Legolas away from those men. If dead, he would bring his body back to Imladris. If alive, he would rescue him. A short, harsh bark of laughter jerked from his throat. Rescue! He, Lindir, rescue the Prince of Mirkwood from desperate cutthroats! He began to laugh harder, and the sound rang with an hysterical edge to it. Digging his nails sharply into his palms, he regained control of himself and began to plan. For farce or not, the minstrel was going to war.
Ten minutes later, Lindir had devised a strategy. It was insane, of course—he acknowledged that. It had no chance of success and would merely give the villains two elves instead of one. Nevertheless, Lindir rose from his cross-legged crouch and began his preparations. He pulled his dagger—new and still awkward in his hand—from his belt and began cutting off large hanks of hair such that the remainder just brushed his shoulders. He did not even glance at the long tresses that fell to the ground, except to note that he must bury them before he left. Ever since the ambush he no longer looked like the stylish elf that had ridden from Imladris, yet he took a handful of dirt and rubbed it into his hair, dulling it and clumping the silken strands together. He unrolled his bedroll and set about making several things from the rough weave, using the small, clever kit that all Imladrians carried when traveling. A headband first, which he settled firmly, making sure it held his hair down and snug over his pointed ears. Next, since he could not hide the elven nature of his clothing, he made a rough surcoat to cover all. The fact that he had never sewed a stitch in his life gave an air of realism to his desire to appear as someone completely untrustworthy and down on his luck. He made several other adjustments to his appearance, including a patch over one eye—which also helped secure his hair—and deep gouges down one cheek. He rolled in more dirt to complete his disguise.
He then took up the other bundle and yanked the coverings aside. The lute twanged in protest, but his grim expression never changed. He forcefully tightened the pegs of the third and eighth courses until they broke, the high keening 'ping' echoing painfully in his heart. He took the brambles that had served so well on his face and hands, and gouged the shining wooden bands which made up the belly of the instrument. He flicked nicks from the surface with his dagger and then rubbed the lute well with dirt, darkening the fresh wounds so they would look like those to be expected from a long and hard life. When he was finished, the lovely instrument Glorfindel had gifted to him looked like something that should be thrown on a midden. With the last strips of his blanket he tied a rough sling for carrying the lute. As darkness fell, he tossed it over his shoulder. Without even pausing for a deep breath, he started out of the cover of the wood.
Lindir pressed his back tightly to the rickety wooden wall of the alehouse. The dark of a moonless night, normally not much of a hindrance to elves, seemed thick and malevolent, carrying a miasma of all the filthiness men could produce when living like animals. They were worse than animals, Lindir thought savagely, for no animals would amuse themselves as the men within were doing, at this very moment. Lindir's stomach heaved, bile in his throat, at the thought of what was happening as well as the knowledge that it would be some time before his plan could work. He felt again a consuming self-loathing and guilt, for if he were not merely a minstrel, the elf within the alehouse would not be at the mercy of monsters as fell as any orc, though they bore the faces of the Afterborn. He heard a slight sound and slid along the wall, keeping in the darkest shadows away from any torchlight. His heart pounded, but it was merely a scrawny cat. Things were going well, better than he had any reason to expect. He had snuck into the tiny village without difficulty, and by hiding and listening had learned that the entire industry of this huddle of hastily thrown-up habitations was thievery and mayhem. Since it appeared the habitual state of the men—when not out raiding and ambushing travelers—was soused to the eyeballs, Lindir had little to fear from the few guards who staggered about shouting, "Who goes there?" to every starving cur or piece of wind-blown refuse. The women, poor shivering souls, kept within doors and no doubt had learned to hear and see nothing. The village could not have been in existence for more than a few months, or Imladris would already have heard of their nefarious activities and put a stop to them.
Taking a deep breath, and using all the performance skills he had honed in his lifetime, Lindir straightened away from the wall and walked boldly out of the noisome alley and around to the door. His gate was graceless and he had a slight limp. His shoulders were hunched and he looked both servile and malicious. He walked through the ill-fitting door and swept his gaze furtively around the room. The air was thick with smells he preferred not to identify, as well as smoke from pipes and a poorly maintained chimney. Raucous laughter came from men grouped in a semi-circle by the back wall. One man stumbled backward in order to vomit an overabundance of ale in a corner, and Lindir saw what caused the men's amusement.
The one he sought hung from ropes fastened to the wall and to his wrists. His back faced the crowd, while his face and chest were forced against the rough planks that formed the small tavern. His back bore witness to the abuse that had been inflicted upon him since he became a captive.
End Chapter 1