2. A Village Under Attack
The calm waters of the great river Anduin were only slightly disturbed when the lithe but strong form of a blond Elf, naked but for his leggings, dived in. Legolas resurfaced with a broad smile, pushing back some wet hair that found its way in front of his eyes; then started swimming with natural skill along the river. Being the end of February, the sun hadn't warmed the water much, but Legolas didn't mind. For him it was merely the perfect time of year: the last remnants of ice finally melting and new life emerging from underneath it. He could clearly see the first green patches sprouting apprehensively wherever he rode with Gimli on Arod; and even Fangorn Forest, which they visited four days ago, looked particularly lovely, despite its many millennia of existence. So it didn't surprise him much when Gimli admitted that he indeed liked the place and that the visit was worthwhile.
Speaking of which…he thought as an idea formed in his mind, and he swiftly swam back to find the Dwarf sitting a pretty good distance away from the river on a tree-stump, tending to a fire.
"Come, Gimli!" cried the Elf. "Will you not wet your feet for a while?" He dearly wanted a companion to his water games, and Gimli was the only one around, not to mention one of the best friends one could possibly have, in spite of his race.
The only answer he got back was a very indignant: "No, thank you, and you very well know why!"
"The water is quite nice," insisted Legolas in a coaxing manner. "Do you not want to find out that it is wrong of you to fear the water so much? Fear does not become you…" he added, aiming for where Gimli didn't wish to be doubted: his pride.
But the Dwarf knew Legolas better than the latter thought. Even though Gimli flared up at first, he quickly realised that for some reason the Elf was trying to get him into the water and was using whatever means possible to do just that. So he relaxed once again and even smiled.
"If you think that with that you will get me into the river, I can tell you to stop wasting your breath. I'm not getting close even to the riverbank, so do whatever you like. And weren't you supposed to hunt for our luncheon today? What am I preparing the fire for? Stop fooling around and find us something to eat!"
As Legolas realized his efforts weren't working quite the way he wanted, his eyes darkened momentarily. Yet he had in mind of letting Gimli know just how stubborn he could prove: he intended to see that the Dwarf got into the water, one way or another. And now he was motivated by other reasons as well: he wanted to punish Gimli a bit for thinking only of his stomach while there were so many things that he should see around him; and also for accusing him of 'fooling around.'
"All right… what do you want to have?" he asked, sighing in mock defeat.
"Anything, as long as it's meat and edible!" said Gimli, feeling his mouth watering at the prospect of a fine roast.
Oh, this is too easy, thought Legolas, restraining a sly smile; he knew Gimli would give that kind of answer. He quickly disappeared underneath the water.
Gimli remained agape for a few moments, trying to set his mind straight on what had just happened. "Legolas?"
He didn't get any answer, something that made him more than a little nervous. After all, to Gimli's eyes, the Elf sank too abruptly for his comfort. And now the Dwarf couldn't help thinking that for some reason Legolas was forced to sink in. He waited for many long moments, hoping that Legolas would resurface soon and assure him that everything was all right. But, Gimli was soon more than certain that something was terribly amiss and Legolas was probably in desperate need of help, while he was just stalling on the shore. How was he supposed to get into the river though? He hated the water!
Nevertheless, the thought of Legolas drowning made Gimli put aside any reservations he had. Discarding helmet and armour, he rushed into the water. Making sure he always stepped on firm ground, he strained his neck to see over the surface and find any sign of Legolas. His eyes darted in every direction, but it was of no use: Legolas was nowhere to be seen.
"Blasted Elf, where in Aulë's name are you?" he shouted in frustration, feeling any chance of rescuing Legolas slipping away.
Suddenly, he saw something jump at him and land in his hands, feeling cold and clammy. Such was Gimli's surprise and fright that he was ready to drop the fish into the water but for Legolas's cheerful voice stopping him.
"Careful, Gimli! You should not let our luncheon get away!"
Gimli froze momentarily, trying to grasp what had just happened; and realised that he had been tricked.
"Very funny!" he growled, annoyed.
"Oh, I find it quite funny from here!" grinned Legolas. He knew Gimli would run out of patience long before he would need to come up for air, so it was easy to wait at the bottom of the river until Gimli decided to wade into the water.
"I thought you were drowning! Serves me right for worrying about an Elf!" answered Gimli and, with many a huff, he walked out of the water. "And what's this supposed to be anyway?" he added, holding the fish with two fingers from the tail in sheer disgust, "I said…"
"You said 'As long as it is meat and edible.' Fish qualify as such," Legolas interrupted him, still grinning mischievously.
Gimli let out a loud groan.
"Deer is meat and edible; rabbits are meat and edible; partridges are meat and edible! Did you have to go after the one that stinks of water?" he cried in exasperation, dropping the fish by the fire.
"I take it then you do not want it?" asked Legolas innocently, a tinge of sweetness in his voice.
All Gimli did was return to his tree-stump, arms crossed, his back to the fire, the fish, and the very amused Elf.
"I suppose not," concluded Legolas. With a slight smile still tugging his lips, he picked up the fish to prepare it for cooking.
"Are you sure you do not want any? It has turned out quite tasty," said Legolas, now fully dressed and eating another morsel of the now-roasted fish.
"I think I said no," replied Gimli, his voice low and sounding like a growl.
However, Legolas noticed that some of the Dwarf's determination had died down. He knew now it wouldn't be long before Gimli broke.
"As you wish," replied Legolas. "A pity though. Who knows when we will have such a nice meal again."
"I do. And after today's… events, I can't wait till we reach Minas Tirith. I'm sure that there won't be any fish at the anniversary festivities of Sauron's defeat!" said Gimli.
Legolas laughed heartily. "We are a good week's ride from Minas Tirith yet, not to mention that the banquet will be even later! Can Dwarves stay without food for so long?"
"If they're to avoid eating fish, yes!"
But the truth was that Gimli's stomach was grumbling enough that he was ready to accept even that kind of meal. The smell had become too tantalising for him and he could swear that he sensed whenever Legolas swallowed another tender piece of fish.
Finally and with much hesitation, he turned his head slightly and said a soft: "Legolas?"
No more words were needed. Legolas merely handed Gimli his plate, already filled with his share from the fish and even clean of any fish bones and skin.
"Thank you," murmured the Dwarf, turning now to face his companion as he started eating.
"You are welcome," replied Legolas. "So how do you like it?" he asked curiously.
"It's… acceptable," remarked Gimli.
But Legolas didn't fail to notice how swiftly the morsels disappeared from the plate. He shook his head with a mild chuckle.
"Dwarves…" he murmured good-humouredly.
"Elves…" retorted Gimli, a smile visible underneath his beard.
Just then a woman's scream cut through the air, sending both of them off their seats.
"That was close!" exclaimed Gimli.
Legolas reached for his bow and quiver without a word. Before the Dwarf could blink, the Elf had started sprinting towards the direction the scream had sounded from. Seeing that there was nothing else he could do, Gimli grabbed his axe and rushed behind Legolas as quickly as his feet could carry him.
Her feet barely touched the ground as the frightened woman ran for her life, pushing aside branches and bushes that blocked her path. And yet, her pursuer was only still one step behind her, his hand ready to grab her hair as it flowed behind her.
"Now I got you!" shouted the man triumphantly, grabbing the woman with both arms.
"No!" she screamed, earning a slap to her face that sent her to the ground. Not daring to rise, she quickly backed against a tree, facing the stocky, sun-tanned form now towering over her.
"My, my, aren't you a pretty one," remarked the man as soon as her eyes locked on his own. He unsheathed his scimitar and pointed it toward her.
"It's a pity that our captain said we're to take no prisoners," he continued on, letting the blade of his weapon brush against the woman's cheeks. "I'll just offer you some of my valuable moments, but then," and at this his blade found the woman's graceful neck and settled on her life-vein, "I'll have to cut your throat."
The defenceless woman knew that it was no use pleading for her life. Sobbing, she closed her eyes, letting the tears trickle down her face, and waited for what was to come next.
It was to the twang of a bow that she opened her eyes again. The man was still standing above her, but now there was an arrow protruding from his chest. He certainly never saw that coming, for in his coal-black eyes there was nothing but confusion as the lifeless body fell in a heap right before the woman. She remained still for a few moments, willing her mind to register what had just come to pass; then slowly turned to see if she hadn't just escaped from one danger only to land in another.
The woman first noticed the handsome and youthful features, which surpassed the measure of Men, as the archer approached; but it was not that which made her gape in awe. It was the inward light that seemed to emanate from him, brightened by the kindness in his blue eyes. That sight alone gave her an indescribable sense of calm and security, making her realise that she was looking upon an Elf. The woman had been told since childhood that the Firstborn were beautiful, yet strange and mysterious creatures, so one should be wary of them; yet now that an Elf was actually standing before her, it seemed that there was nothing to fear.
"Are you hurt, lady?" asked Legolas, eyeing the woman closely for injuries.
The woman shook her head, disregarding for the time being her bruised cheek in her enthralment in the presence of the creature. A loud voice calling out made her flinch, but the Elf clasped her shoulder reassuringly.
"Fear not, he is with me."
Truly enough, Gimli appeared out of the woods, panting slightly. The first thing he saw was the Man with the arrow buried in his chest, and the Dwarf actually groaned in disappointment as such a sight.
"I told you I had him!" he rebuked Legolas.
"My apologies, Gimli. The next time we encounter an enemy I shall lay down my bow and wait till you place the killing blow," replied Legolas teasingly.
"Bah!" exclaimed Gimli, waving off the answer. "I would like to see what I've missed." While he was examining the body, Legolas helped the woman to her feet. Just then, Gimli cried out again.
"Legolas! This one was a Corsair!"
The Elf turned and looked at the dead Man. He was dark-skinned, apparently after many years under the relentless rays of the sun; his clothing was light to allow free movement; and on it were the colours of the city of Umbar. This struck Legolas as strange, because he was with Aragorn's forces when Umbar was destroyed and the Corsairs were dispersed. What was such a man doing in these parts of the world?
"There are others as well," said the woman, finally recovering her courage.
Both Legolas and Gimli faced her, waiting for her to tell her story.
"I'm Shoneen. My village is by the river a little to the south of here. We are neither large nor rich, being content with peace and quiet. However, we have always been attacked by the Corsairs, looting us of everything they could lay their hands on. Even our children were taken away, for the Corsairs were always in need of more crewmembers on their ships. We thought that after we had heard news of their defeat during the war two years ago we had been finally freed of such a menace.
"But today a ship with black sails appeared, catching the sentries napping, and started its usual plundering. My husband and my father gathered all the men to fight back, though none of them are trained warriors, while I and the rest of the women and children tried to flee to safety. As for him," she said, at that moment pointing at the dead Corsair and her tone saddening, "He saw me as I was running away and gave chase. I don't know what happened to the others, and yet I'm afraid to go back because of what I might find there."
As she finished her narrative, Legolas and Gimli exchanged a look, the same thought flashing in both their minds. The Elf immediately let out a long, melodious whistle, which was answered by a joyous neigh.
"Perhaps it is not too late, lady," said Legolas, answering Shoneen's confused look, "and I am sure that the men will welcome a bow and an axe by their side."
"You will help us then?" exclaimed the woman, her face brightening despite the abuse it suffered. "Oh, thank you! Thank you both so much!"
Just then a proud horse appeared, jumping over some bushes, and quickly stood in front of Legolas, nuzzling him in greeting. Legolas patted Arod's neck and, without losing any more time, he climbed up and helped Gimli settle behind him.
"Do you know of somewhere safe to go?" he asked then Shoneen.
"There are some caves east of the village where the Corsairs don't dare go. They don't know the paths through the caverns and they're afraid of getting lost. That is where the other women and children are hiding, too."
"Then we shall meet there."
"Which means we can end all this talk and move this horse!" pointed out Gimli impatiently.
Legolas nodded his understanding and, with a soft command near Arod's ear, they galloped away, leaving Shoneen behind.
Another villager fell down as the scimitar of a Corsair ran through him. The seaman cried out his victory and quickly entered the house closest to him to see what valuables he could find.
In a few moments, he had stepped out… only to find the tip of a blade inches from his face.
"You won't defile these things with your foul hands!" said a grey-haired, muscular man, his eyes piercing the Corsair with loathing. It took one swift movement that belied his age to slay his adversary.
With that done, Dírhavel then rushed to join the other militia and heard his son-in-law's voice: "Release your arrows!"
With barely an error, all ten men fired upon the incoming tide of Corsairs.
"Nock arrows!" Arminas cried out again. While he was placing an arrow on his own bow as well, another wave of Corsairs approached dangerously close.
It was true that Arminas wasn't a warrior, but he had a good advantage: improvisation. Before any of the scimitars fell on the archers' heads, he cried at the top of his lungs: "Second half, release!"
And, in a heartbeat, ten more men a few feet behind let loose their arrows, slaying all the Corsairs unfortunate enough to be on the first line, giving Arminas's men the time to fire once more, taking down many men of the second line as well. After that significant damage to the Corsairs, all the archers threw down their bows and unsheathed their swords to do battle face-to-face.
"That was a good move, lad!" cried Dírhavel, who had now come by his son-in-law's side. He quickly punched an attacking Corsair before cutting him down.
"And yet more are coming!" replied the young man above the clash of armour, as he parried another of their attackers and stabbed him with a small knife.
Just then he saw something that sent a chill to his heart. "They are burning the houses!"
"Cut your way out! We must stop them!" commanded Dírhavel.
Without losing any time, every villager charged with all their strength, killing any Corsair who had a torch in his hand. Arminas was quickly disposing of another seaman that dared approach his own home when one of the Corsairs stabbed him treacherously in his side. The young villager quickly doubled over onto his knees.
Dírhavel watched this scene unfold before him in horror. The lad was like a son to him and, more importantly, he was the husband of his only daughter, whom both men loved dearly. With a new fire burning in his chest, he grabbed a spear that had fallen on the ground and threw it against one Corsair, then lunged against the other.
However, Dírhavel was no challenge for the giant of a man who stood before him. His sword was old and rusty, and his strength was quickly failing him. And when his weapon was broken in two, Dírhavel knew that this was the end of him.
But then, as if by some sort of enchantment, his adversary froze, blood trickling from his lips, and crashed to the ground to reveal a hatchet buried in his back. Yet what truly caused Dírhavel's amazement was the sound of hearty laughter.
It was at that moment that Legolas and Gimli appeared, riding on a cantering Arod.
"This time I was quicker!" cried the Dwarf in triumph.
"I was not aware that this was a speed contest," retorted Legolas.
"It was from the moment I threw my hatchet!" Gimli jumped off Arod to land in front of a very surprised Man. Legolas alighted as well and introduced himself to the villager.
"I'm Legolas of the Woodland Realm and this is Gimli, son of Glóin. A woman by the name of Shoneen told us of your trouble and we came as quickly as possible."
"How it was that my daughter found you I don't know, but your assistance is most welcome," said Dírhavel, still eyeing them curiously. After all, merely seeing either an Elf or a Dwarf would be a rare thing, let alone both. "You couldn't come at a better time. The men are getting tired while the Corsairs keep attacking."
Just then, Arminas arose, clutching his bleeding side. "Dírhavel, we should keep fighting…" he said weakly.
Dírhavel shook his head. "You're in no condition to continue, Arminas. This wound is too deep."
"But… I must…" Arminas swayed on his feet, and Dírhavel quickly offered him his support.
"I'd rather see you somewhere in safety. Shoneen's heart will break if she loses you because of your stubbornness!"
"If I may, I suggest he rides Arod," said Legolas then, pointing to the proud horse. "He will carry him without error to the caves to the east, where the women took refuge."
"I gladly accept your advice, wise Elf," said Dírhavel, bowing his head. They helped Arminas onto Arod. The horse stood patiently till the wounded man was comfortably seated on his back, then listened to the Legolas's word on taking the man to the caves and obediently cantered away.
As Arod was disappearing into the woods, Legolas faced Dírhavel again. "How many are the Corsairs?"
"The ship that unloaded them is a schooner, so I reckon they are about a hundred of them, more or less," replied the Man.
"Only?!" exclaimed Gimli with a broad grin, "We can take them single-handedly, Elf!"
The Man gaped at the Dwarf's eagerness.
"Their weapons and fighting skills are much better than ours," he faltered, "and you're only two!"
"Yet Gimli and I have faced much worse, I assure you," answered Legolas.
"Aye, we have! So there is no reason to linger here any longer!" said Gimli. Not waiting for an answer, he quickly grabbed his hatchet and rushed to the battle.
Legolas looked after Gimli, his friend's fervour in battle never ceasing to surprise him. "Crazed Dwarf…" he muttered with a shake of his head and followed with long strides. By the time he had reached his companion's side, Gimli had hewed two of the foes and was now fighting a third one. The Elf easily disposed of him with one of his arrows.
"Ach, so you finally came!" cried Gimli with a broad smile.
There was no time for an answer, however, for at that moment some Corsairs cornered a few villagers and were ready to slay them.
"We will have to separate! I shall handle these!" shouted Legolas, while hurrying to the men's aid, his arrows already landing continuously upon the Corsairs.
"I will see you when the battle ends!" answered Gimli. Swinging his axe to the left and the right, the Dwarf rapidly hewed the Corsairs one after the other, finishing off with a mighty blow any who still attempted to rise. Soon he found more militia and aided them in fighting off their own adversaries.
The Corsairs were facing difficulty with the villagers, not expecting them to fight back with such efficiency and organisation. But now that two strange creatures, which seemed to be able to shoot and hew everyone that stood in their path, had also joined the fight, they were quickly dismayed. It became clear that this was no longer a battle worth fighting, so the horn of retreat was sounded and the Corsairs started back to their ship.
As soon as they saw the backs of their enemies, the villagers started cheering at their victory and quickly gave pursuit to make sure that none of the Corsairs remained close to their homes. Gimli joined them, swinging his axe threateningly at a couple of seamen trying to run from him.
Such was his battle frenzy that he failed to notice that the rest of the villagers had given up on their chase and he was soon left alone. Gimli looked around for any sign of a friendly face but there was none. Still, he had made sure that his share of the enemies were taken care of, so for him the battle was over. He started marching back to the village, eager to find Legolas and tell him of his battle accomplishments, when a large shadow covered his own. Sensing immediately that somebody was trying to sneak up on him, Gimli turned around, swinging his axe.
Even though he hit the Corsair that attempted to attack him squarely on the face, he found out to his dismay that another one quickly took his place, wielding a great mace. The Dwarf blocked the weapon before it harmed him, but before he could manage his deathblow, a pair of hands caught him from behind, forcing him to the ground. In a matter of moments, his axe was thrown aside and Gimli was held down firmly by three Corsairs, while the fourth one was ready to crush his head with his mace. Just then, a hoarse voice boomed behind the Corsairs.
Gimli's captors immediately froze as though stung and lowered their heads in submission. Not understanding the meaning of this, Gimli turned his head in curiosity and saw a burly man, clothed in black, his long grey beard tied in beaded braids. His piercing eyes, reflecting only a cold, ruthless soul, seemed to look through his men and fill them with terror. It didn't take a great mind to understand that this man could only be the captain of these lowly crooks.
Gimli wasn't the only one who studied his adversary, however. Indeed, the captain eyed the Dwarf from head to toe, raising an eyebrow. He sat on his heels, his gaze locking with the short creature's threatening one, and a strange glint shimmered in his eyes.
"Well, well, what have we here?" he finally asked, not to anyone in particular, much less to Gimli. "A Dwarf away from the safety of his mountains?"
"He was fighting alongside the villagers, Captain Sador," said a tall man. "It's because of him and his Elf-companion that we were forced to retreat."
"Like those miserable fools weren't able to fight you back on their own, Ramandur!" rebuked the captain. "You think I didn't watch how you made a mess out of things? He and his friend just cut the battle short."
"I suggest we kill him, Captain!" said one of the men nearby. "It will be a small satisfaction in this defeat, but it will be a satisfaction nonetheless."
"You might suggest, but I command, worm!" growled Sador, "and I command that we take him aboard the ship."
Although all the crewmembers looked utterly surprised by this order, no one seemed to have the courage to question it. On the other hand, nobody seemed ready to comply with it either.
The captain narrowed his eyes to a slit as he stared at each and every one of them. "You dare defy me?" The venom in that gentle tone made even Gimli shudder.
"Captain, if I may," finally replied Ramandur, "Apparently none of us see the purpose of dragging a Dwarf into the ship."
"And this is why you're only second-in-command and not a captain!" snapped the captain. "You've obviously never heard of the legendary treasures that Dwarves mine and hide in their cities under the earth, where none can reach them, keeping them only to themselves to hold and cherish! Well, it's high time they shared some of it with us! I'm sure they'll pay a handsome sum of jewels and gold to see one of their own walk free from the hands of some 'nasty' Corsairs," he added with a smirk of satisfaction. It was obvious he thought his plan was flawless.
However, as Gimli listened on, he grew more and more horrified. For he had realised that the captain was making a terrible mistake: he was forming this plan because he believed that Gimli belonged to the race of Dwarves that lived to the East of the Anduin, something that couldn't be further from the truth. Gimli didn't dare think what would happen if Sador discovered that error in judgement. He had to escape now!
"That will never happen!" he shouted. With a swift movement, he had wrenched himself free from one of the Corsairs that held him by his hands, punching the other so as to get away.
But it was hopeless. All four of the men quickly lunged at him before he managed to sprint to safety and pinned him on the ground, their daggers threatening to cut his throat if he so much as dared to move again.
"On the contrary, Dwarf. It will happen. Otherwise we'll just have to find some amusing way to kill you and make up for the trouble we got into because of you," Sador corrected him, towering above him, the smile that hardly concealed his cruelty never leaving his face. "Tie him up and take him to the ship!"
Even though Gimli fought bravely, the Corsairs tied his legs and hands behind his back quickly and carried him towards the ship. When they were ready to lock him on the lower decks, he screamed the name of the only one that he wished by his side to aid him in his predicament:
But the crash of the closing door drowned even that desperate call for help and he was left in darkness.