My eternal gratitude goes to Docmon, who was persistent and patient in figuring out what the pace of this story should be and how to get it there. She also corrected everything else that went wrong and was just generally beta-extraordinaire. As usual. Thank you, Docmon!
Additionally, the opening dialogue and the closing dialogue are quoted directly from Tolkien's books. The first can be found on pages 474-475 of The Fellowship of the Ring while the last can be found on pages 19-20 of The Two Towers. Finally, I should add that I'm taking my cues from bookverse rather than movieverse. Sorry, Aragorn fans, but Andúril doesn't get any screen time in this story.
For reasons he did not yet understand, Legolas felt restless.
It was a strange, confounding feeling that was further complicated by unfortunate timing. Around him, the rest of the Fellowship—with the exception of Frodo—debated whether they should turn east for Mordor or south for Minas Tirith. The roaring voice of the falls further down the Anduin forced them to speak in raised voices, but Legolas was having difficulty following their words. It was just as well that he had already contributed his own preference for the road to Minas Tirith. He did not know if he could concentrate on the conversation long enough to add anything substantive again. There was something elusive here… Something that filled him with unease…
"It would be mad and cruel to let Frodo go to Mordor," Merry was saying as Legolas struggled to track both the debate and his disquiet. "Why can't we stop him?"
"We must stop him," Pippin put in. "And that is what he is worrying about, I am sure. He knows we shan't agree to his going east."
The hobbit continued on, but Legolas once again became lost in his own thoughts. Perhaps it was the next step of their quest that troubled him. He had no wish to go to Mordor, but should that be Frodo's decision, Legolas would honor it and follow him into the darkness. They all would. But even so, the thought of such a journey made Legolas shiver. Perhaps his dread of the dark land lent itself to his restlessness.
No. No, that was not the cause. It was something else. Something closer. Something he could not put a name to. Something—
"Begging your pardon, I don't think you understand my master at all," Sam said loudly, his voice pulling Legolas back to the conversation. "He isn't hesitating about which way to go. Of course not! What's the good of Minas Tirith anyway? To him, I mean, begging your pardon, Master Boromir." There was a pause, and they all glanced toward Boromir.
But Boromir was no longer with them.
A chill crept down Legolas's spine. Where was the man? Legolas straightened and turned his head toward the forest that lined the banks of the Anduin. Sam resumed speaking, but Legolas ignored him. The conversation would soon be of little importance, for something closed upon them. Something that was not easily discerned. A shadow? A spy? An unwelcome regard? Legolas frowned, straining his senses. Keen eyes tracked the green grass of Parth Galen until it disappeared into the trees. Then Legolas turned his eyes to the forest, searching every shadow and every break within the trees. Onward he probed, moving his gaze even further west to study the slopes of Amon Hen until at last his gaze rested upon the broken stone ramparts atop the hill. And there, in the space of time it would take to blink, he caught sight of…
His eyes narrowed and he took a step forward, but by then it was gone, almost as though it had never been.
So intent was he upon the crest of Amon Hen that he missed Boromir suddenly emerging from the forest and moving toward them across the lawn of Parth Galen. When he did catch sight of the man, he was pulled back to the immediacy of their surroundings so quickly that he nearly cried out. As it was, he could not prevent himself from jerking in surprise, which earned him a look of both concern and amusement from Gimli. Legolas opted to ignore the dwarf. With his attention back on the Fellowship, he was once again caught up in feelings of restless anxiety. Only now, it was worse. It had increased tenfold, and Legolas was not one to ignore his instincts: The Fellowship needed to move.
They all needed to move now!
"Where have you been, Boromir?" Aragorn asked, seemingly unaware of Legolas's rising alarm. "Have you seen Frodo?"
"Yes," Boromir said slowly, his words halting as though he was unsure of what to say. "And no. Yes: I found him some way up the hill, and I spoke to him. I urged him to come to Minas Tirith and not go to the east." Boromir's eyes flashed, filling with sudden emotion. Rage. Terror. Shame. But as quickly as these feelings appeared, they were gone again, and Legolas felt his anxiety turn to fear. "I grew angry," Boromir continued, his voice slowing even more, "and he left me. He vanished. I have never seen such a thing happen before, though I have heard of it in tales. He must have put the Ring on." Boromir hesitated now, and the muscles in his jaw twitched. "I could not find him again," the man said, and it seemed as though the whole of his attention was placed upon Aragorn. "I thought he would return to you."
Every muscle in Legolas's body tightened. There was something that Boromir was not saying. Something that he struggled to conceal. Aragorn sensed it as well and continued to press the man, but Legolas's mind was now comparing his growing need to flee with Boromir's obvious evasion. His conclusion only lent to his panic: Something had happened to Frodo. Something had happened to the Ring-bearer!
And suddenly Sam was no longer sitting but standing, angry words tumbling in a flurry from his mouth. Merry and Pippin were also up, and Legolas felt Gimli at his side, the dwarven axe gleaming bright in the late morning sun. Aragorn and Boromir were both speaking again, but Legolas's mind was as Greenwood in a windstorm, his thoughts tossing and beating against one another in a frenzy of activity. Then Sam was running. So were Merry and Pippin. Aragorn tried to call them back, but Legolas had care for only one thought: find Frodo.
He was at the trees before he realized that he had broken away from camp. Short huffs of air behind him revealed that Gimli followed closely. Somewhere in the back of Legolas's mind, the more rational part of him was screaming at him to stop. But the fear that had prompted action was greater still, and he lengthened his stride as he raced through the forest, neatly weaving between tree trunks until the ground began to rise beneath his feet and then—
It was as though he ran headlong into a stone wall.
Stopping suddenly, Legolas reached out a hand to brace himself on a nearby tree, his mind spinning. Gimli stumbled to a halt beside him, his face creased in bewilderment. Legolas understood the feeling well, for he shared it. The fear was gone. Or rather, lessened. In the back of his mind, he could still hear its murmurings, but they were a faded echo only. The urgings had no power, and bereft of their drive, Legolas's thoughts seemed to tumble away. The sensation was not unlike being thrown from a galloping horse.
"Durin's beard," Gimli whispered.
"You felt it also?" Legolas asked, struggling to right his drifting mind.
"I know not what madness possessed me, but yes," Gimli said, raising a trembling hand to his brow. "There was fear and confusion, and then when Boromir brought news of Frodo's disappearance…" He trailed off and shook his head.
"Some foul sorcery is at work," Legolas said grimly, looking about. "Some art that whispers of threats and shadows. It came upon us as we debated, but I failed to recognize it for what it was."
Gimli frowned. "Perhaps it was simply unease for where our path might turn."
Legolas shook his head, growing certain of his conclusion. "We have known since Imladris that every step of this journey brings us closer to Mordor. Nay, a greater power was required to break our Fellowship." He paused, his brow furrowing. "And for purposes of which I am ignorant, it has now chosen to release us."
"If it was indeed sorcery, then I doubt we were released by choice," Gimli said. "Rather, I believe that our release was the work of the stone."
Legolas blinked. "The stone?"
"The stone set down by the men of Gondor," Gimli clarified, his focus seeming to turn inward. "Aragorn said this hill was an old outpost for the men of Númenor, and their workmanship is evident. The stones they laid were placed with words of warding, and the stones remember. I felt their power when first we drew in sight of them. They are not so quick to forget their makers, and perhaps that is why Aragorn seemed not to feel the unrest that we did. He is closely attuned to the arts of Westernesse, and though he failed to note Boromir's absence, he may have been afforded protection from the fear that afflicted the rest of us, even from a distance. Until we drew nearer the hill, we were not so shielded."
"Nor were the hobbits," Legolas whispered, and his blood ran cold. "The hobbits! Gimli, we must—"
"Hold!" Gimli ordered, seizing Legolas by the arm even as the elf turned. "Whatever devilry separated us might still be in effect. Think before rushing back! How was this wizardry achieved? What was its goal? And how might we counter it?"
Legolas wrested his arm from Gimli's grasp, but even as he did so, he found himself unable to escape the dwarf's logic. Taking a deep breath, he struggled to slow his racing thoughts. "Through little effort of their own, the servants of the Enemy cause feelings of fear and unease," he said. "Recreating such feelings would not be difficult. As for countering them, simple awareness may be an adequate weapon. Knowing the purpose is sometimes enough to enable one to defeat such feelings."
"And regarding that purpose?" Gimli prompted.
Hoping that he was now calm enough for his senses to work unhindered, Legolas closed his eyes and reached forth with an awareness born from centuries among Greenwood's trees. He refrained from reaching too far, wary that the source behind the fear might feel his regard, but his caution soon vanished in the face of what he discovered much closer at hand.
"Orcs!" he exclaimed, hurriedly struggling to gauge both number and distance. "Orcs on the western banks! Gimli, they have crossed the river!" He opened his eyes and looked to the dwarf, finding his sudden alarm mirrored in the other's eyes.
"Whatever caused us to miss Boromir's absence caused us to miss the orcs as well! We were routed and separated, as prey before hunters!" Gimli hissed, his hands tightening about his axe.
"Yes, but perhaps Amon Hen may aid our companions as it aided us," Legolas said, thinking rapidly. "Perhaps the orcs will fear to set foot where their master's regard cannot follow. Come! We must gather the Fellowship here. At the least, we will be together and our thoughts will be unhindered." And with that, Legolas suited word to deed and turned back toward the river, striking out at a quick run.
"How far is our enemy?" Gimli demanded as he hurried after Legolas. "And what is their number?"
"Too close and too many," Legolas answered curtly, his eyes searching the trees. Even given the influence of an unknown sorcery, it was a wonder he had not sensed the orcs before. But then, he had attributed yesterday's forebodings to spies upon the eastern shore. The threat had seemed minimal during the night, and come morning, the restlessness had set itself upon him to the point where he had been unable to—
Warnings blared through his mind and he slid to a halt, snapping the Lothlórien cloak tightly about himself and pressing into a thick stand of trees. Catching Gimli by the shoulder, Legolas jerked him to a stop and pulled him close, all but wrenching the dwarf off his feet in the process. The dwarf sputtered as though to protest, but then he fell silent, seeing what Legolas had finally seen: Only a stone's throw away, a party of orcs searched the forest, and Legolas found himself intensely grateful for the voice of the Rauros. Had it not been for the mighty waterfall, the enemy would have surely heard their coming.
"Mountain goblins," Gimli identified, his voice so low that even Legolas had difficulty hearing him. "I count six."
"I marvel that you survived so long without me by your side, for there are seven," Legolas corrected. "The last is further ahead."
Gimli scowled and poked his head around the copse of trees. "Are you certain?"
"Yes!" Legolas snapped, yanking the dwarf back. "They are making for the river. And I doubt very much that this is the only party in these woods."
Gimli sniffed but did not argue. "If Frodo is found, the rest of the Fellowship will gather back at the camp," he murmured. "Should the orcs continue in this direction…"
Legolas pressed his lips into a thin line, sharing the dwarf's unspoken fear. "We must lead these orcs elsewhere. If it is prey they hunt, then prey we shall be, for we are lesser prey than hobbits."
Gimli nodded, his face solemn. "Not together, though," he counseled. "I will lead them off and draw as many after me as possible. You remain hidden until they have passed and then follow behind. Once we are a suitable distance from the river, unleash your bow. We will catch them between us, and if fortune is kind, the hunters will become the hunted."
"They might be more enticed by an elf," Legolas said, reluctant to let Gimli hazard such a menace alone.
"They are from the mountains!" Gimli countered. "Their hatred for my kind is as deep as their hatred for yours. Few there are who do not remember the War of the Dwarves and Orcs. Besides," he added, nodding toward Legolas's bow, "that will be more effective coming from behind than an axe would be. You may be able to kill several ere they realize you are attacking."
Legolas hesitated. As the lure in their trap, Gimli would shoulder the bulk of the danger, a fact that would not have troubled Legolas a month or so ago. But the darkness of Moria and the spells of Lothlórien had unraveled an ancient prejudice, and now accounting the dwarf as an odd but treasured companion, Legolas was loath to allow Gimli to claim this risk for himself. They were already separated from the rest of the Fellowship. If things went ill, there were none here to assist them.
"We must act soon," the dwarf hissed, his eyes on the orcs as they moved closer to the river.
Unfortunately, Legolas could think of no better plan. And it was unlikely that he would come up with one in the time remaining to them. "Lead them south," he finally acquiesced, nocking an arrow. "The hobbits were veering north when last I saw them."
With a look of triumph, Gimli gave a quick nod and hastened away. Moments later, he had all but vanished into the trees, the cloak of Lothlórien concealing him from even Legolas's forest-trained eyes. It soon became easier to watch the sudden bending of grass and saplings than it was to watch Gimli himself. The dwarf was moving quickly, curving around the group of orcs and positioning himself so that when they saw him, they would immediately follow in the desired direction. It was a fair plan, and it not only gave them a chance of success but also a chance of surviving. Unfortunately, the drawback was that Legolas now had to wait.
He gritted his teeth and shoved aside the unrest that had trickled back into his mind. Its potency had diminished considerably, but it was yet a distraction. Nevertheless, it was a distraction he could overcome. Gimli would show himself to the goblins soon; Legolas's patience need only last until then. Compared to ambushes he had set in Mirkwood—some of which had lasted for several days—this should be an easy thing. No outside sorcery could hold sway. His mind was his own. He could wait in hiding for as long as was required. For as long as Gimli delayed. For as long as—
Gimli's baritone rang through the forest, and Legolas loosed a sigh of relief. He was not certain that he could have kept up the wait much longer.
"Filthy wretches!" the dwarf added, and Legolas caught a gleam of sunlight reflecting off a raised ax. "Face me so that I may rid the world of your miserable hides!"
The orcs roared with hatred and immediately began running toward the dwarf. Gimli held his ground a moment longer, and then he turned and fled, calling insults as he did so. As stratagems went, it was not the most subtle thing Legolas had ever undertaken. Fortunately, these orcs seemed not to see it for the obvious trap that it was. Or if they did, they did not care, for they immediately gave chase, their scimitars raised high in challenge and their voices clamoring threats. His bow partially drawn, Legolas stepped around the stand of trees so as to have a better angle for his archery.
And found himself face-to-face with two new orcs.
The orcs stared in surprise, seemingly frozen. Fortunately for Legolas, his own reaction was more immediate. Even shy of a full draw, he was close enough for his arrow to embed itself in the first creature's face. The second arrow was swiftly in hand, and as the remaining goblin recovered from its stupor, Legolas sent the bolt into its neck. It crashed to the ground with a choking scream, but Legolas's attention was already elsewhere. All the commotion was bound to draw more orcs toward Gimli, and if the seven currently chasing him were not dispatched quickly, Gimli might soon find himself surrounded. With his heart in his throat, Legolas raced after the dwarf.
It was not hard to trail them. Gimli's shouts and the answering calls from the orcs ensured that. Settling low into his run, Legolas quickly gained back the distance he had lost, darting through the forest as only a wood-elf could. One of the orcs soon appeared between the trees, trailing behind his companions. Then another came into view. Legolas paused long enough to lodge arrows in both, and then he continued forward. The kills were not clean; little time was he given to aim his shots. But under the circumstances, Legolas did not care. He could sense a malicious regard turning in his direction, and he knew that time was short.
He now drew within range of three more orcs, and stopping once again, he felled them in rapid succession, his bow humming as he worked. Then there was a dwarven roar and an orc scream. Hopefully, this meant that only one remained of the original seven, and crashing through the trees, Legolas arrived in time to see Gimli finish off the last.
He was also in time to see an entire host of goblins appear, advancing toward them from the west.
"Gimli!" Legolas cried out in warning.
"Left!" Gimli yelled, charging in the indicated direction. A large outcropping of rock had forced the advancing orcs to split around it, and Gimli now made for the smaller southernmost group. Feeling as though he had little choice in the matter, Legolas followed as best he could, stopping often to raise his bow and thin the herd.
Then he and Gimli were among the orcs, and quarters were too close for arrows. Shifting his bow to his left hand, Legolas drew his long hunting knife and whipped it across an orc's throat, ducking the spray of black blood that followed in its wake. Instinct commanded him to dodge right, and he narrowly missed taking a spiked club to the ribs. Spinning about, his knife caught the clubbing orc in the face before he reversed direction and slammed the haft down hard on another's helm.
Forward and backward, Legolas danced his way around blows and stabs. One orc extended its sword arm too far, and Legolas slipped inside its reach, shoving his knife into its gut while at the same time using its own sword to deter three others. Then the orc fell and Legolas vaulted the corpse, catching a glimpse of a dwarven axe arcing downward on his right. The blade gleamed through the filth that coated its sides, and Legolas was forced to leap sideways as a headless orc toppled toward him.
And then they were through. The forest was clear before them, and Legolas was not about to let the opportunity pass. "Onward!" he cried, and Gimli seemed to be in complete agreement. Together, they put distance between themselves and their pursuers, threading in and out of the trees and trusting that the Lothlórien cloaks would soon hide their presence. A roar of anger followed them, but the iron-shod orcs were no match for the promise of death that drove Legolas and Gimli. Enraged by their prey's impending escape, goblin archers rained arrows down upon the forest, sharp and swift, but whether by the weave of the Golden Wood or by the interference of the trees themselves, the archers were foiled. No bolt found its mark, and eventually the arrows stopped altogether as the orcs faded from view.
Another rock outcropping rose ahead them, and Legolas sprinted around it, shifting direction and turning back toward Amon Hen. He could feel the menace of orcs all about them. Their hatred pulsed through the forest, and Legolas could only hope that he and Gimli had drawn enough away from the river to give the remainder of the Fellowship a chance. If the leader of these orcs was wise, then he would have also sent patrols to the northern side of Amon Hen, but now, perhaps Boromir and Aragorn would not find themselves flanked from the south.
A broad stand of green then caught Legolas's eye, and whipping his head toward the sight, he found himself whispering a silent prayer of gratitude. Not far ahead stood a dense thicket, choked with bushes and young trees all competing for the same space. Standing as tall as the height of a man and sprawling outward to perhaps twice that in width, there was a shadowed space beneath the lowest branches just large enough for a tired elf and dwarf. Legolas immediately made for this unexpected haven, dropping to his knees in a hard skid before diving beneath the branches. Gimli rolled in after him, his chest heaving beneath his chain mail. "I counsel that we act with more prudence in the future," the dwarf whispered.
"Now that we have drawn their attention, I agree," Legolas said. His hair catching on branches, he ducked his head and shuffled around trunks and stalks until he could see the forest behind them. Far away, his sharp gaze caught glimpses of orcs moving slowly through the trees. For now, they seemed to be searching with eyes and ears; when the orcs turned their noses to the hunt, it would be time to move again. But until then, he and Gimli would take what rest they could, and grateful for the momentary reprieve, Legolas forced the muscles in his back and shoulders to relax. It seemed he was not yet accustomed to the greater pull of the Lothlórien bow.
"How many arrows have you?" Gimli murmured.
"Seven," Legolas answered, reaching back into his quiver to verify his mental tally.
"Once those are spent, can you use orc arrows?"
"I would have to come by them first," Legolas said, now turning his attention to his knife. He eyed the gore coating the blade with disgust and began wiping it off upon the ground. "It might prove easier to retrieve my own."
Gimli gave him a look of disbelief. "Yes, I can see how that would have been a simple task during our last encounter."
"Would you rather ask the orcs for a loan of their bolts?" Legolas retorted, deciding that his knife was as clean as circumstances would allow. Returning it to his sheath, he bellied forward to the edge of their shelter, tracking several orcs who seemed to be moving with greater purpose than the others. "This is not the first time I have found myself bereft of arrows, Gimli, and I assure you that my skill with the knife is—" Legolas cut himself off, his eyes narrowing. "We must go."
Gimli tensed. "They have found our trail?"
"Not yet, but it will only be a matter of time," Legolas said, crawling out from beneath the thicket. "They are putting their trackers to the task and they are sniffing the ground. Come!"
As a silent tandem, they began moving toward the perceived safety of Amon Hen. Their journey was quick and signs of pursuit soon faded, but even so, they paused often to survey the forest and listen for orcs. The woods were quiet save for the voice of the Rauros. Above the roar of the waterfall, Legolas thought he caught the sound of blades ringing against one another, but it was difficult to be certain and the noise was too faint to give him any sense of direction.
"Should we make for the camp?" Gimli wondered, standing back-to-back with Legolas as they stopped yet again to look for orcs.
"I know not," Legolas admitted. "If the goblins catch our scent and follow us, we will undo all that we may have accomplished. But if the rest of the Fellowship is in need…" He trailed off, uncertain.
"The same doubts plague me," Gimli said. "I wish for the blades of both Boromir and Aragorn at my back, and even the hobbits have become adept so long as they remember to stay together. But if in returning we bring these creatures down upon them, then they are better served by our absence."
"For now, yes, but for how much longer?" Legolas murmured, starting forward once more. He suddenly pulled up, his nose wrinkling. "Beyond those boulders," he breathed.
Legolas's brow furrowed. "Few."
"Few enough that I would consider risking an encounter."
Gimli grunted, his expression dubious. "I have no qualms with pitting my axe against orcs, but I again counsel prudence."
"Then you will have it," Legolas said, deciding that it was his turn to be the lure. "Move to their west while I venture to their east. We will surround them and I will draw their attention with my remaining arrows. When they turn toward me, you will have an opening in which to attack."
"You wish to expend your last arrows here?"
"The time for archery is all but over. We are hunted now, and any attack in which we engage must be close and quick. I suspect this will be the last group of any substantial size that we can prudently dispatch."
"It seems that elves and dwarves disagree upon the meaning of prudence."
Legolas raised one eyebrow. "A short time ago, you yourself became bait in a forest filled with goblins."
"That was before I counseled prudence!"
Legolas raised the other eyebrow.
"Mahal save me from the stiff necks of the elves," Gimli groused, twisting his axe in his hands. "So be it. West?"
"West," Legolas said, hiding his smirk by turning his back on the dwarf and moving east.
The boulders loomed before him, and Legolas gave them a wide berth. He could hear the orcs speaking quietly behind them, and as he moved further north and east, they came into sight. There were ten goblins huddling together in the shade of several large trees. Legolas was not overly surprised. Noon was approaching, and the sun was bright overhead; orcs did not fare well beneath its gaze. Perhaps fortune still favored the Fellowship. At the very least, it seemed now to be favoring the elven and dwarven representatives.
Eying the terrain, Legolas decided to make his attack from atop a small, sunlit knoll a bit further to the north. If the orcs cried out, their shouts would be directed away from the main party and hopefully masked by the noise of the Rauros. Legolas would also be easy to see but not easy to attack. The advantage would be in his favor as the orcs struggled upward in their heavy armor. Additionally, the trees grew thick here. Higher ground would hopefully make for a better vantage point and better archery.
So resolved, he hastened toward the hillock and moved to the eastern side before creeping to its top. Crouching close to the ground, Legolas studied the forest between himself and the orcs and noted several clear paths for his arrows. Having determined the particulars of his attack, he then searched the trees beyond the orcs until he caught a gleam of metal. There was Gimli, and the dwarf seemed ready. Channeling the last of his restlessness into a far more useful feeling—his revulsion for orcs—Legolas raised himself to his full height and fired.
The orc nearest Legolas collapsed without a sound; his companions seemed not to notice. That quickly changed when a second orc collapsed next to the first, this time with a sharp groan. Immediately, clubs and swords were raised, and an angry cry went up as Legolas hit a third orc. He held his bow aloft in challenge and angled his head so that his golden hair caught and held the sun.
A shout of dark loathing indicated that they saw him.
The orcs started toward him, their eyes shadowed with hate. Legolas drew his bow for another shot, relishing the strain in his muscles as the pull of the great bow competed with his strength. Upon seeing him draw, the orcs hesitated, and the moment they did so, a small figure emerged behind them, his axe laying into the rearmost goblin and cutting him down. Another followed before any could react, the dwarven weapon slicing through the orc armor as though it was no stronger than leather. Realizing that there was another enemy with which to contend, the orcs swung about, which was Legolas's cue to bring down his fourth orc.
He reached for another arrow and nocked it, but he hesitated in his draw as he watched Gimli. The dwarf was making quick but brutal work of the remaining orcs and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Legolas decided that Gimli probably needed to expend some of his own restlessness and merely held his fifth arrow, covering Gimli while still allowing the dwarf his spoil.
But as he did so, he could not help but think back on the nature of his unrest. He had felt it again after moving away from the slopes of Amon Hen, though it had been diminished. Then it had started to build once more, but now…now it seemed to be fading altogether. Perhaps it was a work of sorcery that could not be maintained for an extended length of time. Or perhaps…
A cold fist clenched his heart. Perhaps the orcs' purpose had been accomplished.
There was no longer any doubt in Legolas's mind. Even if they brought all the hosts of the enemy with them, they needed to return to the Fellowship. Relaxing his bow, he moved toward Gimli just as the dwarf finished off the final orc, knocking it to the ground before following up with a killing strike. With the threat gone, Legolas opened his mouth to call out to the dwarf and speak of the need to return, but then he stopped.
His eyes narrowed.
Without conscious thought, he had numbered the corpses, a result of training that had been drilled into him over the course of centuries. That training now sounded a warning, and heeding that warning, Legolas tallied the slain once more, hoping to confirm the deaths of all ten orcs.
He counted nine.
His breath caught and he stopped his walk, spinning about in search of the last orc. In the midst of the dead, Gimli had apparently come to the same realization and was brandishing his axe, watching the forest closely. But the trees that had concealed their approach now concealed their enemy. There seemed to be no trace of the missing goblin.
And then something hit Legolas from behind.
He staggered forward, his bow and arrow flying form his grasp and clattering to the ground. He caught himself on his hands before being driven to his stomach by a sudden and pressing weight atop his back. Desperate to regain his feet, he tucked one shoulder and rolled sideways over it while slamming his elbow backward. The strike encountered unforgiving iron, and a sharp, tingling sensation raced up and down the length of his arm. But it stunned his attacker long enough to allow Legolas to shift out from under him, and the elf hastily scrambled back to his knees.
Yet that was as far as he was allowed to go, for the weight returned, hitting him from the side and flipping him onto his back. His quiver dug painfully into his back, but he soon had more pressing concerns. A metal glove seized his throat as the orc straddled his chest, and Legolas grabbed the gauntlet with his left hand while his right snagged the orc's other arm as it drove a jagged blade down toward his head. He stopped it inches above his face, and for a moment, the knife was all he could see. Then the hand about his throat squeezed, and his gaze was drawn to the sneering, drooling face of one of the largest mountain goblins he had ever encountered.
The orc growled deep in its throat and then its yellow eyes snapped upward at the sound of dwarven feet thundering toward them. "No closer," it hissed, tightening its grip on Legolas's throat.
"If you so much as leave a scratch on him, I will carve you into so many pieces that the wind will scatter your remains from here to the High Pass," Gimli rumbled, his voice filled with deadly promise. "Step away."
"So's you can kill me?" The orc laughed grimly, spittle raining down upon Legolas. "No, you're the one who'll be stepping away. Keep moving forward, and I'll have me a bit o' sport. Drop the axe, and I'll kill him quicklike."
Legolas felt that neither option was especially favorable, but his ability to protest had been taken from him. The fist around his neck kept tightening, and his vision was beginning to waver as his throat closed off. His feet scrabbling for purchase, he bucked hard for air, straining to dislodge the weight on his chest, but pressing down with heavy armor and greater girth, the orc could not be moved. Legolas's breathing became labored, and as he continued to buck, he struggled to twist his fingers beneath the hand around his neck, hoping to loosen the hold. The hand holding the knife began to creep downward, relaxing and then pushing suddenly as Legolas's arm trembled beneath the strain. With terrible certainty, Legolas realized that he would soon lack the strength to hold off both the knife and panic. If either broke through, the results would be deadly.
"By Durin's hammer, you will regret it if you kill him," Gimli vowed, his voice seeming to come from far away. "And know that dwarves keep our oaths."
"So do I," the orc hissed. "I am Garg, son of Ogluk, son of Bolg. Azog, the Great Goblin King, was kin to me. You'll not deny me this prize, but how the elf dies I'll leave to your stinking hands. Back away, and he dies now. Keep coming, and I puts out his eyes and nails him to the ground by his ears so's I can deal with you. After that…" The orc paused and looked down, his eyes glinting in a way that made Legolas's stomach knot. "After that, the real sport begins."
"All this for an elf?" Gimli demanded. "If you are indeed kin to Azog, then you are an even bigger fool than I thought!"
Even as he felt the knife draw closer and even as a desperate need for air began to overtake his mind, Legolas blinked, wondering if Gimli had strayed into madness. How would insulting his captor help the situation? But Garg seemed to be equally confused, and his attention once again turned to the dwarf.
"That simple elf that will not last an hour under your hands, and yet you gloat over the prospect of torturing him even as the bigger prize stands before you," Gimli continued, his voice rising. "Or do you not see the likeness? Azog was slain by Dáin Ironfoot, and Dáin is my kinsman."
Garg's fist tightened so quickly that Legolas could only draw one last, frantic breath before his throat closed altogether. His lungs screamed, his bucking became more desperate, and the knife descended until it hovered just above his left eye. But as the world faded, an idea tickled the part of his mind still capable of coherent thought. And obeying this idea in the midst of his weakening struggles, he began to shift his weight onto his right side, praying that Gimli could hold Garg's attention just a little longer.
Gimli seemed more than up to the task. "Dáin was only a few years past thirty when he slew Azog outside the Eastern Gates of Moria! Most dwarves can barely forge their own hammer at that age. Azog was weak, Garg. Weak! Killed by a stripling! But you are weaker still, for Azog did not try to shelter himself behind an elf!"
It was now or never. His vision tunneling, Legolas released his hold on the hand at his neck and snapped his arm down to the sheath on his belt. The feel of his knife haft seemed to rally his last remnants of strength, and rising like a star above the stricken elf, the white blade gleamed brightly before Legolas put the force of all his anger and all his desperation behind it and drove it hard into Garg's chest.
He had neither the strength nor the leverage to make his strike a fatal one, but he did not need to. Garg reared back, both hands releasing Legolas to fumble at the knife, and then Gimli was there. The dwarven axe swung in from the side, and Legolas's chest expanded with a rush as the weight atop it disappeared. The sound of a body hitting the earth several feet away revealed Garg's fate, but Legolas did not turn his head to look. His only purpose was breathing. For long moments, he greedily sucked in air and counted himself blessed. His chest and throat ached, and he wondered how much protection the cloak of Lothlórien would offer if he simply huddled here for the rest of the day.
Then a shadow blocked the sun, and Legolas tensed for a moment before recognizing Gimli's outline. The dwarf knelt next to him, and a hand descended to gently prod the base of Legolas's neck. This seemed to rouse scattered elven faculties, and Legolas batted the hand away, feeling his own throat for damage.
"Durin's anvil, Legolas!" Gimli hissed. There was a slight tremor in his voice that spoke of sudden fear followed by sudden relief. "Do you take pleasure in making my life difficult?"
"That orc seemed overlarge for you," Legolas croaked, deciding that he would live but that his throat would be sore for several days, "so I allowed him to catch me instead. I was the diversion for this trap, after all."
"At least I may rest assured that the orc did no damage to your wits, for it seems you have none," Gimli growled, but the anger in his voice was ebbing. "It would be well if you warned me before you attempted that again."
Legolas grimaced. "I assure you that I have no intention of repeating my actions." He paused and looked at Gimli, his eyes suddenly narrowing. "But perhaps I should make a similar request of you. What on Yavanna's fair earth were you attempting when you took it upon yourself to taunt that orc?"
The world had lost enough of its gray haze for Legolas to catch the resurgence of anger in Gimli's eyes. But then it was gone, and the dwarf bent down, pushing a strong arm beneath Legolas's back. "My original role in this plan, as you explained it, was to come at the orcs from behind while you held their attention with your bow," Gimli said curtly, levering Legolas into a sitting position. "When you decided to hold their attention through other means, I had to resort to other methods. Given the possible outcomes, I believe you should be more grateful for my actions."
Rubbing his throat, Legolas leaned forward, determined to sit under his own power. "My apologies," he murmured, "and also my thanks. But I would still ask you to explain your intent."
Gimli sighed and looked away. "I had hoped to enrage the orc to the point where he would loosen his hold on your throat long enough for me to throw my axe at him. His knife-hand would almost certainly have come up to block the throw, but I feared for the safety of your throat if he also pulled up with his other hand."
Legolas blinked. "You intended to throw your axe at him? Gimli, that axe is not designed for throwing!"
"Nor is your neck designed for squeezing!"
The dwarf had a point. And as Legolas continued to rub the base of his neck, it was a point he had to concede. "True enough," he said quietly. "But I hope you will forgive me when I say I am grateful that you did not need to throw the axe. And for our next adventure, I think that I will also counsel prudence."
"Elves," Gimli grumbled, shaking his head and rising to his feet. Legolas raised his brow, but Gimli said no more, instead collecting his axe and moving toward the fallen Garg. Deciding not to ask Gimli what was bothering him now, Legolas looked about for his bow and the arrow that had been nocked at the time Garg attacked. Finding both within easy reach, he gladly reclaimed the weapons and then eased himself to his knees. The world spun for a moment, so he remained still, willing his strength to return quickly. They had tarried here too long and needed to find the rest of the Fellowship.
The sound of metal grinding against metal caused him to look up, and he watched as Gimli retrieved the knife that still protruded from the chest of a headless Garg. "Yours, I believe," Gimli said.
Legolas grimaced, dreading how long it would take to properly clean his knife. And then he ceased to focus on the knife but instead focused on sudden movement in the trees just beyond the dwarf.
Even as he cried the warning, Legolas had his arrow nocked and drawn. The moment Gimli dropped, he loosed the bolt, and a strangled gurgle echoed from the trees as an orc even larger than Garg almost knocked Gimli over in its fall. Legolas was immediately on his feet, the next arrow in his hand, but he was barely given time to come to a full draw before being forced to release the arrow at a second orc. An enraged roar was cut short by his last arrow even as Gimli recovered enough presence of mind to lodge his axe into the fourth and final member of this latest orc party.
The forest fell silent.
"Those are no mountain goblins!" Gimli whispered, staring at the fallen creatures.
Legolas could only nod in silent agreement. These last four had walked as a Man would walk, tall and unstooped. Their shoulders were broad, their weapons of good make, and they had not cringed before sunlight. But unraveling the mystery of their origin would have to wait. Legolas bent and collected his knife from where Gimli had dropped it, and then he turned and began walking, eyes and ears even more alert. "We must return to the camp," he said to Gimli when the dwarf caught up to him. "The unrest has left me, and I fear what this might mean. Moreover, I do not think we are being pursued by the main party."
"Then you think that we are no longer their goal?" Gimli asked, his tone grim. "Do you think that they have found—"
But whatever Gimli had intended to say was drowned out by a sudden, resounding horn blast. Both elf and dwarf froze as the echoes built around them, and they looked at one another in fear and realization. They had heard that horn before on the borders of Rivendell.
"Boromir," Gimli breathed. "He would not sound the horn unless—"
Once again, Gimli was cut off by the horn call, but this time it was shrill. Pained.
No words were spoken. No words were needed. Consumed by a single purpose, Legolas and Gimli raced forward, careless of any that might see them. For Boromir to blow the Horn of Gondor meant that he was in dire straits, and now was the time for haste. But the calls were coming from the northern side of Amon Hen, and even as he ran, Legolas was overcome by a sickening wave of despair. If he reckoned the calls aright, then he and Gimli had at least two miles to cover ere they even neared the man. He could only hope that other help would be able to reach Boromir in time.
The horn cries came again, but they were fainter now, as if the caller had no strength for breath. Then they ceased altogether. By now, Legolas and Gimli had drawn even with Amon Hen and had almost reached Parth Galen, but as silence descended, they slowed their race. The direction of the last horn cry was firmly etched in Legolas's mind, yet the forest stretched out before them, vast and daunting.
"Prudence," Legolas whispered, hating the cruel logic that gripped him but unable to shake its grasp. "Slower and with caution."
Gimli's eyes filled with anger, but he looked away, his shoulders slumping. "Prudence," he agreed, his voice pained. "We do the Fellowship no good if we arrive only to die with them."
They were silent after that, setting their pace at a quick jog through an unspoken accord. They ventured not onto the lawn of Parth Galen but rather kept to the trees, allowing the weave of Lothlórien to hide their movements. Above them, the sun climbed toward its zenith, and the trees cast dappled shadows upon the forest floor. For many minutes, Amon Hen loomed high above them to the west until at last they began to leave its slopes behind.
Now they saw evidence of battle. Fallen orcs began to litter their path, and though they no longer had a horn to guide them, the trail of death was clear. The forest was eerily still, and once again hearkening to prudence, Legolas slowed his jog to a walk, drawing his knife. Gimli's eyes flashed, but he did not argue. Together they crept forward, listening and watching and reaching outward with senses primed for any hint of orcs. But the reek of the dead was all they received. Until…
Legolas stopped and cocked his head. Voices? Yes, voices. Two voices. One was so faint that it could not be discerned, but the other…
"Aragorn," he breathed, now moving forward at a quicker pace.
The carnage wound around boulders and small hills, but Legolas chose a straighter path. His ears were intent upon the sound of hushed words, and Gimli followed silently, trusting the elf's hearing. Then the voices died away, but Legolas did not turn back to the trail. He continued forward, slinking beneath the trees until a glade opened up before him, sunny and bright. It would have been a pleasant place had it not been for the orc carcasses upon the ground. And on the far side, propped against a tree with a grieving Ranger crouched at his side…
Sorrow seized Legolas's heart, and for a moment, he could only stare. A sharp intake of air beside him heralded Gimli's realization, and Legolas wrenched his gaze away to share a look of agony and grief with the dwarf. Then he bowed his head, closing his eyes against the tears that threatened. Gimli remained an unmoving presence at his side, and together they mourned Boromir in silence. But a moment was all they could spare to grieve for the Captain of Gondor. Boromir was gone, and Legolas knew not what hurts Aragorn had sustained. Mustering his weary strength, he opened his eyes, raised his head, and moved into the clearing, his attention focused upon the man who yet lived.
"Alas," he whispered when he reached Aragorn's side. "We have hunted and slain many orcs in the woods, but we should have been of more use here." He knelt, intending to offer comfort, but his stomach suddenly tightened at the sight of arrows protruding from Boromir. Memories of the man's valor and loyalty flashed through his mind, tearing asunder whatever it was he had thought to say, and a sliver of guilt edged its way into his heart. Perhaps if he and Gimli had returned sooner… Or better still, if they had remained when the Fellowship scattered… "We came when we heard the horn—" He broke off, shaking his head. What was done was done. Boromir was now beyond their aid; it was time to focus upon the living. "But too late, it seems," he finished, forcibly turning his attention to Aragorn. "I fear you have taken deadly hurt."
"Boromir is dead," Aragorn said. It was an unnecessary thing to say, but perhaps the Ranger needed to hear it aloud. Perhaps they all did. "I am unscathed," he continued, "for I was not here with him. He fell defending the hobbits while I was away upon the hill."
"The hobbits!" Gimli cried out, and Legolas jerked at his voice, almost having forgotten the dwarf. "Where are they then? Where is Frodo?"
"I do not know," Aragorn said wearily, and it did not escape Legolas's attention that the man had yet to move. "Before he died, Boromir told me that the orcs had bound them; he did not think that they were dead. I sent him to follow Merry and Pippin, but I did not ask him if Frodo and Sam were with him. Not until it was too late." Aragorn bowed his head and reached out to take Boromir's lifeless hand in his own. "All that I have done today has gone amiss," he murmured. "What is to be done now?"
"First we must tend the fallen," Legolas said, sheathing his knife. He was unable to even think of choosing their next path before seeing to Boromir's needs. "We cannot leave him lying like carrion among these foul orcs."
"But we must be swift," Gimli warned. "He would not wish us to linger. We must follow the orcs if there is hope that any of our Company are living prisoners."
"But we do not know whether the Ring-bearer is with them or not," Aragorn said, turning to Legolas and Gimli for the first time since their arrival. Legolas took his interest as a good sign, but his heart quailed at the uncertainty in Aragorn's eyes. "Are we to abandon him?" the Ranger asked. "Must we not seek him first? An evil choice is now before us!"
Legolas pressed his lips together. The unrest might be gone, but in its place was something darker. Something despairing. Something that would dissuade them from following the orcs who had taken their companions. "Then let us do first what we must do," Legolas said, now firmly convinced that their choice of paths should be put off until their minds were better prepared for it. "We have not the time or the tools to bury our comrade fitly, or to raise a mound over him." He paused, wondering if he had just replaced an impossible decision with an impossible labor. "A cairn we might build," he ventured at length.
"The labor would be hard and long," Gimli said, shaking his head. "There are no stones that we could use nearer than the water-side."
"Then let us lay him in a boat with his weapons and the weapons of his vanquished foes," Aragorn proposed, seeming to gather himself. He rose to his feet, but his eyes turned back to Boromir. "We will send him to the Falls of Rauros and give him to Anduin. The River of Gondor will take care at least that no evil creature dishonors his bones."
Doubt wavered still in the Ranger's face, but a look of purpose was beginning to grow. Legolas took heart. The Fellowship was broken, they had lost at least one more member, the fate of the hobbits was uncertain, and as for the Ring… But Legolas was a firm believer in hope, and he trusted Aragorn, even if Aragorn did not trust himself. Glancing over at Gimli, he found further reason for hope. The dwarf's expression spoke of sorrow, but it also spoke of courage undaunted. Determination steeled itself within Legolas's mind, merging with grief to form a resolve strong enough to counter the looming despair. They had not come so far only to be denied now. Tragedy had befallen them this day, but Boromir would be avenged. It was time for the hunted to become the hunters.