2. Friends, Foes, and Snapping Branches
“I wagered gold on Prince Legolas. Eluthuil of Lórien thought I was mad.”
“That is only because the Lórien and Imladris have not seen the prince shoot. When they do, they shall regret their laughter, my friend.”
“This shall be the Year of Mirkwood, mark my words!”
“Your Prince Legolas shall have to be very fine to surpass our Eregolf, Mirkwood.”
“Watch and learn, Lórien. Pride cometh before the fall. There is no finer archer in Middle Earth than our Legolas! Today the title of Lórien shall fall!”
“We shall see! May the best elf win!”
“He shall, friend, he shall. And it will be the Champion of Mirkwood.”
He took his place several paces behind his own quiver and bow, instinctively looking them over. His bow was the one he always used, carved in the Mirkwood leaf-and-vine pattern with his name and lineage etched in elvish runes near the base. The arrows had been crafted especially for this occasion--Mirkwood brown with green fletching and his initials near the end of the shaft. He had tested, handled, and re-tested every arrow, bent, strung, and re-strung the bow, and though every practical sense in him said that they were ready, his mind was assailed by an endless barrage of “what-ifs” and nightmare scenarios. As the last of the novices took their places on the field, the candidates turned in unison to face the platform. The host of the elf lords rose at Lady Galadriel’s command, her beauty and splendor so great that for a split-second, Legolas could not recall where he was. Then she rose as well, and he remembered. She said nothing; the command was a simple nod to Langcyll.
Langcyll bowed to the Lady, and turned to the candidates. “To your places and make ready to begin!”
Legolas could not help glancing at his father before turning to face the field. Thranduil wore an expression too neutral for Legolas to read. He slung on his quiver and lifted his bow, testing the string. This first stage of the Trial was the most rudimentary exercise of archery--striking a stationary target. Legolas dared an imperceptible glance right and left. On his left was Eregolf, son of Bregsul, the champion archer of Lothlórien. That made him formidable by the reputation of Lórien archers alone. On his right was Gaerongil, son of Feredir of Imladris. He knew many of the other novices considered this stage of the trials so simple that they would hardly concentrate. Legolas had no intention of allowing his focus to slip for even a second. Each shot was a stage of the Trial in itself, and must be given his full attention.
He drew his first arrow, awaiting the signal from Langcyll. The crowd had fallen silent as the novice master of Mirkwood raised his sword. Legolas took careful aim, drew back the bow, and waited. In a flash too quick to follow, the sword fell, bows twanged, and thirty-six arrows were embedded in the bull’s eyes of thirty-six targets before the throng had a chance to gasp.
And so the contest began: the novices loosed their arrows, the arrows were removed from the targets by the overseers, and the novices shot again. Some left multiple marks in the center of the target, yet in other cases, it seemed that only a single arrow had struck, for there was but one hole being filled again and again by arrowheads. Watching from the platform as the contest went on, Elladan of Imladris leaned forward to speak to Berensul, “I congratulate you on the skills of your brother, my friend.”
Smiling without taking his eyes off the field or Legolas, Berensul replied casually, “Are you not premature on your congratulations? They have only just begun the most simple stage of the trial.”
Elladan grinned back, both of them knowing him to be a good judge, “In such a stage, there runs the risk of error through carelessness.” Limloeth and Eirien glanced back at him, and Arwen and Haldir leaned forward to listen. “See how hurriedly some of them shoot--they do not pause to aim or draw back properly. This stage is not a test of speed, but accuracy, and yet they grudge even an extra second to study their aim. And their hopes of the championship may pay dearly for it.”
“Young Prince Legolas is not among those of whom you speak,” Lady Narmeril of Mirkwood had also been listening to Elladan.
“Nor is your daughter, Lady,” Berensul observed, nodding to where Merilin of Mirkwood had paused to correct her grip on the arrow before letting it fly. “Nor Faron of Imladris. But my learned friend is right, those candidates who do not take proper care in this stage may find it the stage that destroys their chances.”
As if confirming their observations, a shot from one of the novices missed the bull’s eye by a fraction, causing a gasp from the spectators and a wince from Haldir--the unfortunate elf was from Lórien. “Do not despair, Haldir,” laughed Arwen. “The contest is still young, and they have many events in which to demonstrate their skills.”
“AND incur faults!” added Elladan, gaining laughter all around.
The tension decreased little as the Trial wore on. Then, just as both spectators and archers were relaxing into the pattern of aiming and shooting at a single, bull’s eye target, the overseers switched to a new one: a white target with a line of red spots no larger than a coin, right down the center. This, unlike the first stage, WAS a speed trial, but both speed and accuracy were required to avoid faults. The candidates stood ready, bows at rest, until Langcyll gave the signal. Then they whipped out arrow after arrow, shooting each red spot in turn until each target had a line of arrows down the center, some neater than others. Gasps and cries rang out as the elves in the crowd attempted to discern who had scored the highest.
Prince Belhador leaned forward in his seat, narrowing his eyes. “It was too close. I cannot tell who ranked best in that stage.”
“Eregolf of Lórien was very accurate,” observed Arwen. “And our Faron and Gaerongil. And Mirkwood‘s Legolas and Candrochon. I could not see who finished the most swiftly.”
Mithrandir turned to her with a smile. “It was young Prince Legolas. Your Gaerongil was just behind him, followed by Lord Eregolf of Lórien and Princess Lalven of Lindon. I think the tally shall reveal that Legolas, Faron of Imladris, Candrochon of Mirkwood, and Eregolf of Lórien completed the stage with the most accuracy--in that order.”
The next stage involved moving targets. The novices stood groups of six in clearings scattered throughout the greenwood--each one surrounded by spectators shouting encouragement to their favorites. Smooth, thin discs of fired clay, barely visible in the greens and browns of the forest, dropped from trees and were lofted into the air from unseen sources. Their brows furrowed with concentration, keen elven senses watching the space about them, listening for the whistle in the wind, even feeling the movement of the air as the targets flew in every direction. The novices increased their score by striking the most targets, but also incurred faults for every target that they missed. When the stage was over, the overseers would count the number of arrows on the ground that had missed their mark.
From a smaller platform in one of the tall, sturdy trees behind the young archers, Thranduil watched his youngest son with a sense of pride that he carefully avoided displaying. But the skill of the fifth elf in the line was not unnoticed by the other elves. “Prince Legolas is the finest Mirkwood archer of this generation, my lord,” Lady Narmeril remarked quietly from behind him.
“Indeed,” agreed another of the elf lords. “He has not yet missed a single target. He is a credit to Mirkwood.”
Thranduil said nothing, merely made a small neutral noise. While he certainly agreed with the other elf lords’ assessment of Legolas, the prince was still very young and had much to learn. On the ground and from surrounding trees, the overseers began tossing targets of another color into the air--pale tan instead of dark brown. These were “friend” targets as opposed to “foe” targets and the archers were not meant to hit them.
The object of the elven lords’ admiration was concentrating so hard on not missing his targets, that when the first tan disc appeared in the air, he did not grasp the significance of the change in color, but fired at once and saw the target explode into small, harmless fragments. Then he winced inwardly as mind caught up with instinct and he heard the cry of “Fault!” from one of the overseers. *I had a perfect score until now,* Legolas berated himself, but there was no time to dwell on the fault, for the pace was picking up. He focused his mind on noticing the color as well as the position, speed, and angle of the targets, and began hitting them accurately again.
From his seat in the trees, Thranduil made no reaction to the fault other than to pull his mouth slightly to one side, an action that went unobserved by the other elves standing or seated behind him. Lord Elrond chuckled, “Still a credit, if not as utterly perfect as one might hope.”
To the watching elves, it seemed an eternity between each stage of the trial. To the competitors, there was scarcely time to catch their breath. Legolas made no additional faults that round; though he was disgusted with himself for having made such a careless error, he knew better than to let it interfere with his concentration. The next stage was just as grueling; the candidates’ skill and care of their weapons was tested with speed trials of restringing bows and refilling quivers. The contest was now running on the time of each of the contestants; there would be no pause between stages. Scores would be affected by who finished first.
Sweating, his hands shaking, Legolas knew he was ahead as he finished the string of his bow and fired a test shot at one of the targets. Bull’s eye. The Trial turned into a stream of consciousness where he felt he was inside a tunnel. Standing up and swinging his two quivers onto his back, he whistled sharply. His gray mount galloped over; Legolas wasted no time but leapt to the horse’s back, “Noro lim, Lanthir! Noro lim!” Lanthir sensed his rider’s fervor and galloped off at full speed into the next stage; the first of two obstacle courses. *I mustn’t ride too hard or I risk missing targets,* Legolas thought as he readied his bow. Shooting from horseback was tricky. Lanthir raced on through the woods, and Legolas strained his eyes watching for targets.
He was peripherally aware of other horses galloping to try and catch him, and identified them by their sounds. Merilin, Eregolf of Lórien and Faron of Imladris were just behind him, but Candrochon was gaining on them fast. He could hear Tathar entering the riding course, and there were so many other riders behind him that it would sap his concentration to try and identify them.
The riders passed under a banner of white flags, and the obstacle course had begun. A small black target on a stick was suddenly thrust into Legolas’s view from high in the trees. He drew an arrow, took aim, and heard rather than saw it hit its mark as he passed below. Wasting no time, he targeted the next that popped out from behind the trees and struck it cleanly. Behind him, he was aware of more twanging bowstrings, whistling arrows, and targets being struck. And some arrows whistling through the air without hitting anything.
Without warning, a branch snapped out and whipped across his neck, nearly unseating him. Obstacles! And another fault. *Curse the Valar!* He managed not to miss the next target, but heard another horse gaining on him. Eregolf of Lórien. *If I speed up, I may bounce too much and miss a target. But Eregolf has doubtlessly played a clean game; if I lose ground to him, we may lose the championship.* “Noro lim, Lanthir!” he whispered, and thought he heard the horse snort doubtfully. But Lanthir obeyed, and Legolas fought to keep his arms steady as he aimed for the next target.
But in spite of all that, the aim was true. *I must not forget to watch for--ai!* Legolas ducked frantically as another branch (doubtlessly pulled back by one of the overseers) swung out at him. It whipped over his head, and he heard a shout, a startled whinny, then a crash. *So much for Eregolf.* But Candrochon was not far behind, and his name did not mean “bold rider” for naught. Legolas dreaded the thought of facing his very nimble comrade in the footrace that would be in the final stage.
Looking ahead, he sucked in his breath. There was a massive log fallen across the path, and logs were never left across Mirkwood paths by accident. Lanthir would have quite a jump over it--and just beyond it, Legolas could see another red target against a tree. *They would not make the target so obvious without reason. This shall be a complicated shot.* He knew as he bore down on it that he had two choices: shoot before the jump, which would be an easy hit with no fault, or shoot just as Lanthir jumped, risking a fault--but a much higher score if he should strike the target. He could not slow down to think; Candrochon was too close, and if Legolas did not keep the lead going over the jump, he would be pinned in second place on the narrow horse trial until the start of the footrace--where Candrochon would have a still greater advantage.
*I must choose now. There is little time. If I fault, I will still have only three. But if I should strike during a jump, I will gain many points. Perhaps even if Candrochon should outrun me, I would still have the higher score.* His time was up. “Noro path, Lanthir, noro bell!” Legolas leaned forward, bow and arrow ready, as Lanthir bore down on the log. He would have but one chance.
The shouts from other elves at their vantage points along the riding course reached the noble elves still awaiting the outcome. “Prince Legolas is attempting the jump shot!” Gandalf called to Berensul.
Limloeth gave a hissing intake of breath, “That was the shot I missed in my Trial.” She did not say, but the others recalled--the fault from that failed attempt had been the reason Mirkwood lost on points.
Belhador was all but hopping up and down at the end of the platform, straining to see through the thick trees. “The view of the course is obscured. Would that we could see what was happening!”
All the prince’s siblings could do was gauge the reaction of the crowd of elves who were able to see the course. The few seconds it would take for Legolas to clear the jump on horseback felt as an eternity.
Lanthir was yards from the log, then feet, and Legolas readied himself. He felt the horse’s front legs rise *draw back now,* his back legs launch themselves, *aim*--and as the gray stallion was in full leap over the log, Legolas loosed his arrow. Time seemed to stop. Lanthir’s head went down as he lowered himself back to the ground, his back legs pulling themselves cleanly over the huge fallen tree. The arrow aced forward, forward, on, on…
A massive cry of triumph and disbelief erupted from the watching elves, and Limloeth clapped her hands to her mouth as the elves of Mirkwood exploded into cheers and embraces. “He has done it! He has done it!”
Shouts for silence and attention heralded the attempts by the next competitors. Some opted for the safer shot and scored the usual amount of points for striking a stationary target. Others attempted the jump shot. None completed it. As the last horse cleared the jump and the contestant’s shot fell to the left of the target, the Mirkwood elves went wild again. Legolas was now far into the lead, both on points and speed. Many had burst into songs of victory, but Elladan of Imladris remarked, “Their songs are premature yet. They still have the footrace, and it is the hardest stage of all.”
His mind reeling, it was all Legolas could do to aim and shoot as he rode through the remainder of the horse trail, trusting in Lanthir to keep them on the path. A part of his mind felt as though it was still at the jump shot, suspended over the tree and seeing his arrow fly toward the target. And another part was in front of him, watching for obstacles and somehow managing to keep his arrows pointed where they needed to be. The rest seemed caught in some kind of haze, and try as he might, he could not bring himself back into full awareness, though he knew he risked a serious mistake if he did not focus.
It was Candrochon who finally brought him out of it. A bow twanged not far behind, but a muffled curse followed the telltale silence of a missed target. *I must pay attention. I must be as far ahead of Candrochon as possible at the start of the footrace.* “Noro lim, Lanthir!” The elven horse was growing weary, but Legolas had not only exercised himself for this great event. He knew Lanthir could last the rest of the race.
*I must make ready; we are almost there!* Legolas leaned forward tensely. Then he and Lanthir burst over some low branches into a clearing surrounded by banners, signaling the next stage--the footrace. They had barely cleared the trees when Legolas was off Lanthir’s back, urging the horse to the side of the clearing. He whipped out an arrow and shot a target on a tree above the spectators, signaling his entrance into the next stage. An overseer waved a white flag of clearance, and slinging his quiver back on his shoulder, bow in hand, Legolas broke into a hard run just short of a full sprint and dashed into the trees.
Noro lim, Lanthir!--ride on, Lanthir
Noro path, Lanthir, noro bell--ride smooth, Lanthir, ride strong.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.