by Val Evenstar
Author's Note: I might as well admit it, this is my first (serious) LOTR story and my first entry ever in a fan-fic contest. It won second place in the August Teitho contest. Suffice it to say that I'll be smiling for weeks.
I wrote this as I was preparing to leave for college - and I got to thinking about a bunch of people who are really important in my life. And a particular few of them who helped me during an incident similar to the one described... they know who they are, and the only reason I wrote this was for them. Through a series of very strange coincidences and/or act of God, it fit the contest theme perfectly, so I decided to enter it.
The sharp blade swept high through the air as its twin slashed low. The elf could feel the wind generated by his opponent's strike, and he instantly knew how this would end.
He spun, golden hair flying, and flipped the grip on his own knife as he turned to meet the attack.
His blow never landed – just as he expected.
A length of polished steel slid smoothly up next to his neck while the matching one appeared just underneath his ribcage.
Not again, he thought, suppressing a few mental curses as the blades stopped millimeters from their marks.
On instinct, he froze, knowing that the slightest motion could inadvertently send his opponent's blades into his flesh.
Both attacker and victim were motionless; only their heavy breathing filled the silence. Defeated, the blonde elf struggled to rein in his frustration. Why did it have to happen today? Out of all the innumerable days of his life, why did it have to be this one?
"Resume your places," a familiar voice called, and the dark-haired victor swiftly but carefully removed the weapons from his opponent's proximity. Now released, the fair-haired elf quickly picked up his fallen knife and strode to a place opposite the other, until they were separated by about a meter and a half. Raising their weapons to the salute, they both respectfully inclined their heads.
The older elf who had given the order nodded politely at the two and then stepped back, motioning to another elf about his own age. Both were clad in the traditional style of Mirkwood warriors, in contrast to the younger duo who lacked the distinguishing insignia on their tunics and braids in their hair.
As the fair-haired elf watched, he couldn't stop his face from flushing slightly. This was probably the most important day of his life so far, and a mistake now would not bode well for his future. He furiously tried to calm his racing heart – he knew he should have easily regained his breath by now – but was unsuccessful. Though even his keen hearing could not make out the words of the older warriors, he could well guess what they were discussing.
I did terribly and they know it, he thought. I've trained so long and hard for this, and now I'll fail simply because I can't seem to make these knives do what I want them to...
He groaned inwardly and again asked himself why it had had to happen today.
Today was the day that really mattered – today, he and twelve of his classmates were taking the test that would determine whether or not they would become warriors in the forest realm. And he knew that even though he was the king's son, the masters would grant no special favors. All students were equal in their eyes.
Standing at attention, he kept his eyes trained on the dark-haired classmate opposite him, but his mind was away with the two warriors who were deep in discussion. He knew them both – the one who had just stopped the match was the head master, in charge of training all of Mirkwood's aspiring warriors. His name was Maeglin, and under his guidance many young elves, including Thranduil himself in olden days, had honed their skills. The blonde prince held this elf in the highest esteem, but it was the shorter of the two elves that he truly admired.
A foot shorter than the head master, Golradir was labeled by his students as the most dwarvish-looking elf of their acquaintance. But being a little broad and heavy for his small size didn't prevent him from being one of the best warriors in all Mirkwood. He was particularly renowned for his expertise in bladework. Swords, knives, and daggers were his preferred weapons, and he wielded them well. Though over five thousand years old, he repeatedly emphasized the fact that he never stopped learning. His young charges could easily believe this – they'd spent enough hours watching him experiment with every possible technique or combination of moves.
This was the elf who walked towards the young combatants now. He bowed to the dark-haired one and took his place, much to the prince's surprise.
"Show me what you have learned, Legolas Thranduilion," Golradir said in a pitch that only the fair-haired elf would hear. There was no teasing in his voice, only a hint of playfulness that showed the friendly support the master was trying to offer his student.
Legolas inclined his head and re-adjusted his grips on the twin knives. The edges were sharp, though he would have preferred to have them dulled, for he did not wish to hurt his opponents by mistake. Though he was sure with a sword and nearly unsurpassed with the bow, the prince hated the long knives with a passion. Like all elves, he was gifted with excellent coordination, balance, and speed, but when he took up the twin blades, he felt as clumsy as a human. While he was, in truth, better than a human could be with the knives, he knew he fell far short of the elven standard.
No matter how hard he trained, the weapons simply seemed to elude him. When armed with a sword or bow, or even completely unarmed, he acted almost on instinct, able to integrate all his senses and training into a smoothly efficient dance of death. With the knives, he found himself having to think about what to do next, which target to aim for, or where to move. It frustrated him to no end – and it frightened him, too, for he knew that if anything would be his undoing on this day, it would be those knives.
"Ready?" Maeglin asked quietly, and Legolas and Golradir shifted into their fighting positions. The young elf held his right knife in a reverse grip while his left hand extended the blade forward in the normal underhand fashion. His master faced him with a far more confident stance, both blades gripped in the normal position, because he knew he could reverse them in the blink of an eye.
Strangely, Legolas felt much better about sparring with his master than with his classmate. For one, he knew that the skilled warrior was just too good to hurt him, even accidentally. Also, he felt that a good match against his instructor would speak volumes more than his previous poor attempt against his classmate.
He sidestepped carefully, waiting for his master to make the first move. Though this was not required, it was common courtesy – as well as common sense, the elf thought. After all, one did not deliberately goad a formidable foe. Legolas knew that his instructor appreciated it when his students took the initiative and attacked, but the prince knew he would be hard pressed enough to simply defend himself.
The first strokes were slow as Golradir thrust out with his twin blades to attempt a distraction. Legolas knew what was happening; they would warm up a little by testing each other's defences, and then the real work would begin.
He parried and returned the strokes that came his way, still moving only at moderate speed, though to human eyes the blades flew fast. Legolas blocked a quick stab at his head and flicked the same blade down to parry the mischievous twin aimed at his thigh. Turning quickly, he thrust his reverse-held blade at the master's side. The older elf skipped out of the way rapidly, but grinned at his opponent, letting the young elf know that the strike had been a good one.
Of course Legolas knew his instructor well enough to know what was coming next. With a flash of twisting blades, Golradir started a hard attack, giving Legolas no time to enjoy his temporary victory. The elven prince struggled to keep the whirling blades away from his body, trying to use his relative height and agility to stay clear of the blows. More than one knife came too close for comfort, and the young elf was disappointed at the number of times the blades paused for a split second, giving both himself and the audience the chance to see where a real enemy would have injured him. The prince was delighted when one of his knives slipped under his master's guard and gave him the chance to pause for that second, but the moment was shortlived.
Legolas knew that he couldn't expect to best his master, but he hoped that he was at least demonstrating that he was capable with the knives. Hopefully, he wouldn't do anything stupid like in the last match...
Too late, the prince saw the knife coming. He started to turn the blade in his right hand so he could parry, but his sweaty fingers slipped. When the knife met his master's, the impact sent the weapon flying from the prince's unsteady grip. He knew better than to follow the falling blade with his eyes, but he knew his heart had tumbled to the ground with the steel. Twice now he had been disarmed!
Then a clash of metal alerted him and he realized his left knife had somehow met one of his master's. With a start he realized that the first blow had merely been a distraction – and this one he'd blocked by chance would have been the killing blow. Why could he never seem to remember that they each had two weapons? After training with them for almost a quarter of a century, surely that simple fact could have remained in his mind!
He threw his left hand up in an attempt to redirect his master's knife, but then realized that a sword move like this one wouldn't be effective against twin blades. As if to prove that point, Golradir's knife, on the return journey from the one that had taken the prince's weapon, slashed the air a centimeter above Legolas' chest. Both teacher and student froze at the cry of "Stop!" from Maeglin. Golradir's knife was hovering over the fair-haired elf's heart, clearly showing what would've happened in a real fight.
Legolas desperately hoped that his father wasn't watching, but immediately abandoned the foolish thought. What father wouldn't watch his own son at such an important event? And more than anything on this day, Legolas did not wish to disappoint his father. So it was with a calm expression that he retrieved his wayward blade and bowed to his master. Only his blue eyes reflected the mortification and turmoil within.
For the second time in a very short while, the elf found himself standing at attention while two of his masters sent meaningful glances over his head. His heart sank, and he gritted his teeth, prepared for the worst, when Golradir walked toward him. Having a student asked to quit the test was an uncommon occurrence, but not unheard of.
Golradir drew close to his student and positioned himself at the young elf's right shoulder, his back to the head master. Pitching his voice so that their conversation remained private among a forest of sharp-eared beings, Golradir said, "I can see what you're trying to do."
Legolas remained at attention, but he almost couldn't stop the soft smile that started to lift the corners of his mouth. Golradir had said this very sentence to him not five decades ago, when he was an inquisitive elfling. Legolas had been secretly watching the master practice his swordplay in one of the palace rooms, and one day after Golradir had apparently left, he had gone to the middle of the room and tried to imitate the movements he'd seen.
Perhaps the master had left, then returned for something he'd forgotten, or perhaps he had been there all along; but it was not five minutes later that the elfling heard the familiar words echo through the room.
"I can see what you're trying to do," the master had said as Legolas stared up in wonder and fright at the famed warrior. And instead of scolding the child for disturbing him, Golradir had told Legolas to come back, to watch and to learn. In this way the elfling learned how to move in combat and stay alert to the signs of danger.
During his warrior training, Legolas had avidly attempted to imitate his teacher's way of using a sword. Many times, the perceptive Golradir would notice something new in the elf prince's technique and recognize it as an invention of his own. "I can see what you're trying to do," he would say laughingly, and then tell the prince the correct way and why he'd chosen to do it like that.
Now his teacher's voice held no mirth, only a soft seriousness that spoke of genuine understanding. "You're trying too hard," Golradir said, much to his student's surprise. None of this emotion showed on Legolas' face, but the aged elf read it in the blue eyes. "You're concentrating so much on the little individual pieces, each tiny thrust and parry, that you're losing sight of the larger picture," Golradir continued.
That's because I have to concentrate on my technique. I'm not good with knives, even after so long, and if I stop thinking about what I'm doing, I'll stop doing it all together! Legolas responded in his mind, though not a sound escaped his lips.
"You need to think about your ultimate goal: the defeat of your enemy. Look for openings, or coordinate your strikes to create them. Exploit weak spots; don't be afraid to press your advantage."
"Yes, Master Golradir," Legolas delivered the standard reply, hoping the slight strain in his voice went unnoticed. The ultimate goal is to pass this test, he knew. The ultimate goal is to become a warrior in my father's kingdom, and I'm so close to losing it...
"Listen, Greenleaf, you wouldn't be here today if we didn't know you were ready," his master said, discerning the thoughts hidden behind the placid face. "If you could have failed this test you would never have started it. We have faith in you; have a little faith in yourself. And even if you don't, you do have faith in us, and we are telling you that you're ready."
Legolas had heard those same words over and over again during the last few months, but he still wasn't entirely ready to believe them. "But Master," he said softly. "I'm just not as skilled with these knives as I am with a bow and arrow. You more than anyone know this, after all the extra training you've had to give me just to make me the way I am now."
"There you are wrong," Golradir replied. "You are a gifted archer, that is true, and you are also a skilled one. You may not be a gifted swordsman, but you are skilled. Gifts come naturally; they just help certain things come easier to each of us. Skills, now, they have to be developed over a long, laborious period of time. I have known many a gifted swordsman with no skill at all. But I have known many skilled swordsmen who were not gifted in the least.
"You have been blessed with both gift and skill, Legolas.
"But just because something does not come easily does not mean that it will never come. You just have to dig a little deeper and work a little harder to uncover it.
"The skill is there, Legolas. You and I have worked hard enough to instill it, as you said. Now just trust it for what it is, instead of faltering because of what it could be."
"Yes, Master Golradir," Legolas replied, but this time his words flowed from a grateful heart.
Golradir turned back to Maeglin and nodded. The head master motioned for them to take their places once again.
Legolas closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He felt the handles of the knives in his hands and silently meditated on the words of his mentor. He did trust his masters, and if they knew he would succeed...
Slowly he opened his eyes and let the fear and trepidation disappear.
The knives are merely an extension of your body, Legolas had heard Golradir say a thousand times, but never before had he actually understood. Oh, he accepted the concept, but he'd never felt as if the long blades were parts of his arms.
But now he felt almost as if he knew what they wanted to do. It wasn't like a sword fight where he could subconsciously process information and react instantly; this was no instinct he was following. It was practice and repetition of techniques being somehow combined with the knowledge of the mind and the information from his senses.
The first knife parried a strike while the second faked; then he turned and took the blades with him, sliding one low while keeping the other available to guard himself. The strike did not hit; Golradir was a master and his blades now were moving fast and true.
Legolas did not know how long this whirlwind exchange lasted; he felt no small degree of surprise that he hadn't been hit by now. But then, the masters did trust in his abilities, did they not? And who was he to doubt their wisdom, which they had proved time and time again?
He caught himself thinking about a particular thrust and immediately abandoned it. Instead, he focused on Golradir's movements. A memory sparked as he recognized an old practice pattern he'd learned long ago...
Even if his teacher did modify it, Legolas knew where the pattern would place him. Parrying a blow, the elf sidestepped a low strike and aimed a thrust at Golradir's heart. The movement was promptly blocked by his teacher's swift blade and followed by a vicious counterattack. Despite all his attempts to defend himself, Legolas still felt annoying little pauses that indicated his teacher would have managed to stab him.
Suddenly he skipped to the side, ducked under a flashing blade, parried a spinning thrust and shoved his right hand up under his teacher's guard.
The tip of the knife hovered at Golradir's throat.
Immediately both elves stopped moving.
For a moment, all sound ceased. Legolas almost blinked, wanting to look around and see if he had done something wrong. Then, slowly, Master Maeglin began to clap.
Soon the other masters and classmates joined in, followed closely by a shout of triumph that had to be Thranduil's, and appreciative applause from the rest of the elven audience.
Legolas slowly lowered the long knife, wondering exactly what had happened. He knew without a doubt that Golradir would never have let this happen deliberately. So then ... he had actually managed to slip past his master's formidable guard!
Well, I suppose even a little skill can go a long way, he thought wryly. Though I still have much to learn...
A grinning face stared up at him, and then his master grabbed his shoulders. "That is exactly what I wanted!" he laughed, finally gathering his long-time student in an embrace.
The fair-haired elf returned the hug, too overcome to do anything but whisper his thanks.
At the end of the day, Legolas stood with his classmates as they swore their warrior's vows to king and homeland. He saw delight written on the face of his father, and his heart swelled. And as Golradir came to him to plait the warrior's braids into his golden hair, Legolas saw tears in his teacher's eyes.
The elven prince drew his gaze away from the heavens and back into the palace grounds. A smile graced his fair features as he saw Golradir standing under an archway. He hadn't seen his mentor since the celebration had begun to die down an hour ago. As Legolas approached, he could see the pride written all over Golradir's face – pride for him, his classmates, and the innumerable warriors the master had trained throughout the years.
When they met, Golradir was smiling as well.
Holding up a finger, the older elf silenced Legolas before the prince had even had a chance to thank him. "I have something for you," he said, countenance now grave.
The prince did not respond; he knew he was not meant to.
In one swift motion, Golradir drew two long white knives, and the blades shimmered in the starlight. Legolas could not hold back an astonished gasp. A day ago he would not have desired anything like this, but now, tonight...
Tonight there were no words for what he felt.
The blades were the colour of new snow, intricately carved with designs intimately familiar to the silvan elves, patterns laden with meaning. The handles were of ivory, extended now towards him as Golradir held out the gift.
Awed, Legolas took them. With a quick twist, he swung them up together, watching in silence as the moonbeams played on the sharp blades. And master and student stood, gazing intently as the light reflected off their shining eyes.
"I don't know what to say," Legolas admitted, when at last they tore themselves from the enchanted sight.
"I understand, my friend. There is no need for words."
Legolas pulled Golradir into an embrace. "Then I am truly blessed."
This piece is dedicated to my masters.
You taught me to read, write, fight, think, and believe.
You are my father and mother, 'sisters' and 'brothers', teachers and mentors.
You trained me to be warrior in these dark times – to stand up for what I believe, to never compromise, to defend those unable to defend themselves, and, most importantly, to walk in the truth and live in love.
You stood beside me and prayed over me as I grew, sparing no effort, holding nothing back. Even now, as I embark on my quest, you are still there to guide me – only now you see me not as a child, but as an adult.
May I never dishonour you.
Finally, I give thanks to my Lord and Master – for in my weakness You make me strong.