The long column of elves wound its way silently through the forest of Eryn Carantaur. Legolas had planned to travel the last few miles-where forest gave way to open flood plain-under cover of darkness. And as dusk fell, the column left the forest, cut eastwards across the flood plain and joined the Athrad Road.
The ruins of Minas Athrad stood, dark and mysterious, silhouetted against the starry sky.
Slowly and quietly, the elves threaded their way down the road, through the ruined gatehouse and into the castle ward. Legolas set guards at the gatehouse and at the breaches in the great walls. Then, with the castle secure, the elves set to work by the light of the moon.
Eowyn watched in fascination as groups of elves worked silently in perfect accord, anticipating one another's movements, and providing timely help, like bees in a hive. They stabled the horses in the shelter of the northern wall, and installed the support crew in the ruins of the keep, turning the Great Hall into a workshop and the solar into a healing room. The cook set up his field kitchen in one of the two bastions on the southern wall. And Legolas commandeered the other bastion as a war room.
The Mirkwood elves had escorted the support crew on the journey and were now installing the craftsmen and their equipment in the Great Hall.
Orodreth and Maeglin had helped the swordsmith, Nolofinwë, test the chimney of the massive fireplace and erect his portable furnace. "The walls of this building are very thick," said Nolofinwë, "and the flue is well-sealed, so I should have no trouble getting the fire up to temperature-and without filling the healing room above full of smoke…"
Finrod and Amras had helped the bowyer, a fellow Mirkwood elf called Taurnil, to improvise a workbench against the eastern wall of the Hall.
"The light will be good here, Mahtan," said Taurnil to his fletcher, "coming from all around us. And we can hang our patterns on this pier." He looked up towards the ceiling. "That is strange-the pier is not full height…"
Finrod turned to Taurnil's fletcher, "We have met before…" he said.
"No, I do not believe so."
"You are not from Mirkwood-"
"So it must have been in Imladris that we met, when I attended the Council of Elrond with Prince Legolas."
"I have told you," said the fletcher, "that we have never met before-"
"Fëanáro," called Taurnil, "come and help me position this vise."
"Excuse me," said the fletcher to Finrod.
, thought Finrod. Give me time. I will remember where I have seen you before.
Finally, when the camp was complete, the elves laid out their bedrolls under the stars, and settled down in the grassy castle ward to rest. Lulled by their gentle singing, Eowyn soon fell asleep.
When she awoke it was still dark.
She was lying-as Legolas had insisted when 'he had agreed to let her come'-in Legolas' bedroll, snuggled in his arms, warm and comfortable. Legolas was awake, still singing softly to the stars. How unworldly elves can be
, she thought. How wonderful and how different from men! How could I ever think of leaving him?
However infuriating he can be sometimes…
And she rolled over so that she was lying on top of Legolas and kissed him, tenderly.
"Good morning, melmenya," he whispered, "are you warm enough?"
"Mmmmm," she whispered back, burying her face in his hair. She felt his hands slide down her back and wrap themselves around her hips, pulling her body against his, and she laughed softly at the proof of his love for her.
Legolas laughed too. "We cannot now, melmenya," he whispered, stroking her hair, "I need to make a start on organising the raid." He hesitated. "I am sorry, Eowyn. You were right and I was wrong. We did agree that ours would be a relationship of equals and I had no right to try to stop you coming here." And he kissed the top of her head.
"Besides," he added, mischievously, "I like having you in my bedroll."
Eowyn raised her head, so that she could look him in the eye when she gave him her stinging reply, but a movement-like the movement of a creature-over by the castle keep caught her attention. And some instinct told her that whatever it was would disappear if she startled it. I must keep very still
, she thought, just raising her eyes to get a better look. Gods, what is that?
And for a moment she was completely overcome by fear.
"What is wrong, melmenya?" asked Legolas, anxiously.
"Shhhhh!" She pressed her hands down on his shoulders to keep him still.
But the creature, striding across the castle ward, had become aware of her. It paused for the briefest of moments, turning to look her directly in the eye, then it continued on its journey, disappearing through a gap in the castle wall, its graceful, sinuous motion at odds with its hideous appearance.
For a moment, Eowyn continued to watch the empty space. Then she buried her face in Legolas' shoulder and cried.
"Oh gods," she sobbed, "Oh gods, no!"
"Are you sure it was not an orc, my lady?" asked Haldir.
"Of course I am sure-it did not look like an orc-"
"Orcs come in many shapes and sizes," Haldir persisted.
"IT WAS NOT AN ORC!"
"Melmenya!" cried Legolas, surprised by her uncharacteristic outburst, and he put his arms around her and tried to calm her.
"Describe it to us again, my lady," said Gimli.
"It looked like a man-or an elf-tall and lean and it walked upright. But it was naked and covered in thick grey hair-everywhere except top of its head, which was bald. It had long fingernails, like claws. And its face… Its face was angry and it was baring its teeth." Then she added, in a very small voice, "And I was afraid of it…"
Legolas hugged her, exchanging glances with Haldir and Gimli, who both nodded in agreement. This was not like Eowyn. The Shieldmaiden who had protected the women and children at Helm's Deep by standing at the entrance to the caves and slaying every orc that tried to enter and who had ridden into battle at Pelennor Field, with a hobbit before her, bringing down two Mûmakil and slaying the Witch King of Angmar-this woman did not frighten easily.
"We will search the keep again, melmenya," said Legolas, "looking for any trace of this thing; and tonight we will post guards within the castle wall as well as without."
"You think it will come back?" asked Haldir.
"I think," said Legolas, "from what Eowyn has told us about it, that we are sleeping in its lair."
Shortly after dawn, Rumil and Orophin returned from scouting the main orc band at Eithel Hûn. "They are still there," said Orophin, "clustered around the spring itself. About sixty of them now."
"They are strangely subdued," added Rumil. "Normally groups of orcs are noisy. They bluster and bicker and fight. But these are just sitting. Waiting…"
"It is eery," agreed Orophin.
The scouts sent to observe the other orc bands-on the island of Toll Thâr, to the south west in Eryn Brethil, and across the river at Habad Penn-reported similar behaviour.
"They sit and wait," said one of the Mirkwood elves. "Some of them have their knees drawn up to their chests and rock back and forth, moaning. It is as if they are in pain. My lord…" he hesitated.
"Yes, Valandil?" prompted Legolas.
"It-it seems wrong to attack them when they are so defenceless."
Legolas nodded. "It does. But we have no choice Valandil. This-this condition of theirs may only be temporary. And I would not be surprised if our attack roused them from their stupor."
"At least." said Haldir, when the Mirkwood elves had left them, "it appears we can attack each band in turn without worrying too much about the others coming to their aid."
"Yes, it does," said Legolas. "Eowyn, what are your thoughts on all this?"
Eowyn, who had been sitting quietly, staring at her own feet, raised her head and looked at Legolas. Her face was pale and drawn and her eyes seemed unnaturally large. "I think it is the creature," she said.
"I think they have seen it."
Legolas motioned Gimli, Haldir and the rest of the elves to withdraw. Haldir herded them outside, but he himself remained hovering just beyond the door.
Legolas knelt before Eowyn and took her hands. They were deathly cold. "My love," he said, "you are not well and I am going to ask Master Dínendal to look at you."
She stared at him, surprised. "There is nothing wrong with me, Legolas," she said. "The creature-the creature frightened me, that is all. And I think it has frightened the orcs. There is something strange about it. But I am not ill…"
But her voice sounded small and brittle.
"Shhhhh, my love," Legolas whispered, kissing her forehead gently, "let me take you to Master Dínendal-do it just to humour your stupid, bigoted, oppressive elf-husband. There is plenty of time-we will not be leaving on the first raid until just before dusk."
And he lifted her into his arms and carried her across the ward, into the keep, to the solar, which Master Dínendal had prepared as a healing room.
"What did she mean, the orcs have seen the creature?" asked Gimli.
"She is not well," said Orophin. "She does not know what she is say-" Rumil gave him a sharp dig in the ribs as Legolas and Haldir approached.
"How is she?" asked Gimli.
"I do not know, elvellon, and I am worried," said Legolas. "We have searched the castle keep twice but have found no trace of this creature. I did not see it-nor did I sense anything when it passed. None of the elves on watch saw it. The only person who has seen it is Eowyn-"
"Are you sure that this creature exists?" asked Orophin.
"Of course it exists," said Haldir, quickly stepping between Orophin and Legolas. "Eowyn is no foolish maid, but an experienced warrior who has seen many strange and terrible things on the battlefield. And if she says she saw it, then there was something to see, even if its exact nature was hidden by some spell."
"Yes," said Legolas, "and we will keep looking until we find it." Gimli cleared his throat in agreement. "But let us plan our attack on the orcs," Legolas continued. He turned to Haldir. "I want forty warriors, and the healer Findecáno, ready to advance by mid afternoon; we will leave at four."
The March Warden nodded.
"Thirty of us will take to the trees," he continued, "encircle the orcs, and shoot five volleys down into the encampment. Once the shooting is over, the rest of us will move in on the ground and deal with the orcs that are still alive-though Gimli and Haldir will each take a live prisoner and bring him back here. I am sorry, Gimli," he added when the dwarf began to protest, "but this task is important and requires your strength and your determination, elvellon.
"Now, does anyone have any comments?" he glanced at each face in turn-Gimli, Haldir, Rumil, Orophin-all shook their heads. "Good. I leave the preparations in your hands, March Warden. I will be in the healing room if you need me."
Eowyn was sitting in master Dínendal's makeshift dispensary, carefully preparing a thick herbal paste.
"Master Dínendal asked me to help him," she said. "This stuff stops infection and helps skin knit together, apparently. But it takes a lot of grinding." She grinned, rubbing her face, and accidentally smeared some dark green paste across her cheek.
"Are you feeling better?" asked Legolas, gently wiping away the smear with his thumb.
"I was never ill, Legolas," she replied. "When do we leave?"
Legolas hesitated. But he did not want to have another fight with her. "At four," he said. "In five hours."
"I will be ready by then."
"Let me speak to Master Dínendal for a moment, melmenya, then I will come and help you with your paste."
Legolas beckoned the healer over and drew him outside the solar. "How is she?" he asked quietly.
"I am not sure, my lord," replied the healer. "She insists that she is not ill and I confess I can find nothing physically wrong with her, but-but I agree with you that she is not herself. She is-vague."
Legolas nodded. "What have you given her?"
"Nothing my lord-her recovery, such as it is, is due to her own constitution. Are all human women so strong?"
Legolas shrugged. "She is the only woman I know, Master Dínendal."
"Hmmm. I suspect that she is still protected, to some extent, from magical
harm by King Elessar's healing powers-this creature is a being of magic, is it not?"
"I do not know, Master Dínendal. I do not know anything about it; Eowyn is the only person who has seen it."
The healer nodded, gravely. "There is a tonic I could have given her-something that we give to elves who are fading-the early symptoms are quite similar. But in the end I was too unsure of the effects it would have on a human to risk it. And, besides, I did not want simply to mask her symptoms-we know nothing of this condition and we need to observe it carefully. So, instead, I put her to work. Taking her mind off the creature seems to have helped."
"Is it safe for her to go on the raid?"
"I believe that her physical symptoms are simply a reflection of her mental state my lord-and you will know better than I whether her mind is fit for battle."
In the event, Legolas spent a few pleasant hours working at Eowyn's side, preparing the healing paste. They talked and laughed and teased each other and by the end of it Eowyn seemed restored to her normal self.
And Legolas decided that they should both prepare for battle.
"Take care of her for me Gimli," whispered Legolas, briefly clasping the dwarf's shoulder before effortlessly swinging himself up into a tree. The majority of his warriors were already aloft, awaiting his command. Legolas gave them the signal to advance and the elves began to move silently through the trees, making not the slightest rustle to give themselves away.
We must be within a hundred yards of the orc encampment
, thought Legolas, but the forest is silent. Eery.
Within seconds they had reached the edge of the clearing. Legolas looked down at the orcs. They were exactly as the scouts had described them-grouped around the spring, waiting silently. And they were frightened. He could feel it.
Legolas experienced a moment of remorse for what he was about to do. But he reminded himself of the countless times he had dealt with the aftermath of an orc attack-burying the dead, comforting the violated-as best he could-and despatching cleanly those whose body and spirit were too torn and broken to survive.
Gods, it had to be stopped!
He gave the signal.
Thirty elves, encircling the encampment, simultaneously nocked an arrow, drew, and loosed-a good third of the orcs were gone. Of the rest, some began to panic, leaping to their feet and trying to run-they were brought down by the next volley. Some orcs stood their ground, drew their weapons, and scanned the trees, searching for the enemy-they fell in the third volley. But a large number had simply remained sitting on the ground, as if they accepted their fate-and most of those were picked off by the final volleys. Then the shooting stopped and the ground force ran forward, Eowyn amongst them, to finish off any survivors.
Legolas dropped to the ground and drew his white knives.
Gimli had no idea how to take a prisoner-he suspected it involved pointing an arrow at an orc and making some sort of threat. The March Warden will be in his element
, he thought. But I will have to improvise.
He selected a slow-moving Uruk Hai as his target, drew his axe and ran towards it. It was sluggish-the whole band was sluggish-but big. Using a slight incline topped with a large flat stone as a ramp, Gimli leapt into the air, throwing himself onto the Uruk's back and battering it about the head with the flat of his axe. Caught completely by surprise, the Uruk Hai had no defence. It sank to the ground, unconscious, taking Gimli with it, and trapping the dwarf's legs beneath the dead weight of its great torso.
Gimli pushed his hands against the Uruk's shoulders, struggling to free himself-Just who is supposed to be the prisoner here?
Then a commotion amongst the elves to his right caught his attention. A warg was rampaging through the encampment, trampling all in its path, and heading straight towards him-"Awwww!" Gimli roared, pushing, and wriggling, and swearing, but he could not free himself.
So this is it
, he thought and he turned his head to face his doom.
But a small warrior with long golden hair had placed herself between him and the galloping beast. She raised her sword and awaited her chance.
Legolas had heard his friend's battle cry and was running towards him, knives drawn, already aware that he might be too late, when, with a mixture of horror and pride, he saw his wife place herself in the path of the furious warg.
Eowyn waited, sword raised, until the animal was almost on top of her. Then, like a bullfighter, she stepped aside at the critical moment, and calmly brought her blade down in a two-handed slice.
The beast fell to its knees within inches of the dwarf's chest, its head almost severed from its neck.
"Retrieve all the arrows," shouted Legolas. "We cannot risk burning the bodies-it might alert the other bands-and we do not have enough elves to bury them. We will build a pyre and stack the bodies on it. But we will not set it alight until after the other orcs have been dealt with."
They dragged Gimli's dazed Uruk Hai and Haldir's orc back to Minas Athrad and down to the remains of the castle dungeon. Gimli inspected the cells and pronounced one of them sufficiently secure to hold the prisoners, but Legolas also posted four guards at the door.
"We will question them first thing in the morning," he said. "What they tell us may affect how we plan the next raid."
The elves were celebrating their victory in typical elven fashion, sitting under the stars, singing softly. But tonight Legolas was too agitated to join in. "Eowyn," he whispered, "come with me." And he lifted her to her feet and led her across the castle ward and into the bastion that was serving as his war room. There, he closed the broken door and wedged a saddlebag beneath to keep it closed. Then he took her in his arms.
"Have you any idea how it felt," he said, "watching my wife risk her life to save my best friend? All I could think was that I might lose you-that I might lose both of you, in one instant."
"Of course I know what it is like, my love. I have watched you fight! I have watched others I loved fight-and die!" said Eowyn. "But Gimli is my friend too. And, more than that, he is my comrade and I would have done the same if any of the others had been in the path of the warg. And so would you-"
"I do not think I can bear it, melmenya," said Legolas.
"Do you think I can bear seeingyou
in danger?" asked Eowyn. "But I do not have a choice. And neither do you, Legolas," she added, firmly. But she reached up and stroked his face.
He pressed his cheek into her hand. "I need you, melmenya," he said.
"I know, my love. And I need you, too." She smiled, "But we will have to be quiet!"
He seated himself on a piece of masonry, with Eowyn standing before him, and slowly unlaced and removed her leggings, gently rubbing her stomach and her inner thighs as he exposed them. Then he pulled her down onto his lap and opened his own leggings, so that his erect penis stood between her thighs.
"Oh Legolas," she whispered, stroking him gently.
But when she lifted herself and tried to sink down on him he stilled her. "No, not yet, my love." And he wrapped his hands around her hips, tilting her backwards and pulling her closer, and he began rocking her up and down so that the hard ridge of his shaft rubbed gently against her most sensitive flesh.
"Oh my love," she whispered, shivering, "Oh Legolas; Legolas, please."
"Shhhhh." He knew she liked to be penetrated quickly and he usually enjoyed her impatience, but tonight he needed to feel like a real elf-and that meant taking things slowly.
He took her little hand and placed it on his penis, gently pushing it closed around his shaft, then began to guide it up and down. The sensation was exquisite. But Eowyn began to squirm against their joined hands, begging him to enter her, and the effect of her need on his body was devastating. Gods
, he thought, I will not last: she makes me as impatient as she is
. And he lifted her quickly and brought her down upon him, coming as soon as he felt her warmth surround him.
And Eowyn, now used to his elven stamina, waited the few moments it took him to recover then began to ride him, hard and fast.
Legolas was sleeping more deeply than usual and it took a moment before he was fully awake.
"I am sorry to disturb you, my lord…"
"What is it, Valandil?" he asked, gently shaking Eowyn, who was still sleeping in his arms.
"It is Maeglin, my lord. He was on watch last night, at the breach in the western wall…" Valandil shook his head, bewildered.
"He is dead, my lord. When I went to relieve him this morning, I found him dead."
"His neck has been broken," said Dínendal. "Snapped by someone with great strength."
"Could it have been the Uruk Hai?" asked Legolas. "Could he have escaped from the dungeon?"
"That is the first thing I thought," said Gimli, "so I went down there and checked. But he is still in the cell-they both are. Curled up in opposite corners, sobbing like babies."
going on?" asked Legolas, in exasperation.
The dead elf was sprawled face down across a pile of rubble, like a rag doll that some child had thrown down in a tantrum. Eowyn crouched beside him and looked up at his face. "Dear gods," she said softly.
"What is it melmenya?"
"His expression," she said, "he looks-he looks terrified."
"Master Dínendal," said Legolas. "Take him to the healing room and examine him thoroughly. You know the sort of thing we are looking for-"
"Yes, my lord."
"Let me know what you find as soon as possible. Haldir, speak to the warriors, calm them down. I am sure this was done by an outsider, but discreetly check that everyone is accounted for. Eowyn, Gimli, let us inspect the ground carefully, and see if we can find any trace of the killer. This is beginning to feel familiar, meleth nín."
"Legolas," said Eowyn, as they examined the ground around the breach in the wall, "this is where the creature disappeared yesterday."
"I know," said Legolas. "Something strange is happening here, Eowyn-the orcs, the creature, the way you
behaved after you had seen it… There is something evil
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