5. What Marches Down The Mountain Pass?
Part Five: "What Marches Down the Mountain Pass?"
" . . .The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam . . ."
W. B. Yeats, The Hosting of the Siddhe, (1893)
Another parley took place at the mountain gate early the next day, but Thorin remained obdurate, even after learning that Bard held the Arkenstone as security against a rightful share of the hoard. Furious at the hobbit, Thorin banished Bilbo Baggins from his sight, telling him he could use his promised fourteenth to give to the men of Esgaroth. Even the revelation of the presence of Gandalf did not soften Thorin's heart.
"You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the mountain," Gandalf chided, as the group watched Mr. Baggins being let down the rock wall that guarded the gate. "But things may change yet."
"They may yet indeed," replied Thorin, and he refused to relinquish the fourteenth share of gold until a time of his own convenience. It was apparent to all that he hoped the arrival of Dain would relieve him of even this obligation, while forcing the return of the Arkenstone. Bard set a deadline of twenty-four hours for the delivery of the gold, but this seemed an empty demand as the delegation made its way back down the mountain trail, richer by only one small hairy footed burglar.
"The dragon greed is in full possession of him," Thranduil said sadly. "Our last hope of avoiding a battle is to intercept Dain and persuade him to talk some sense into Thorin. However, given the nature of dwarves and treasure, I fear that there is little chance of it."
Legolas noted that his father carefully avoided looking at Mithrandir, who was very much the author of this current muddle. Bard merely looked grimmer than ever. Legolas knew that it was not for greed that Bard fought. The men and women of Esgaroth had placed their trust in him, and without the gold to rebuild, the town and its folk would die out.
The day passed, and the night. The next morning dawned grey and chill, with a wind out of the west. Winter was upon them, as were the Dwarves, for runners reported that an army of Naugrim had rounded the eastern spur of the mountain and were marching up the valley.
Trumpets blew, calling men and elves to arms.
Legolas watched while Galion performed the grim duty of putting Thranduil's hair into braids and strapping on his leather armor. He marveled at his father's apparent calm, and then marveled again as Thranduil turned about to strap Galion into his gear. "We have had much practice at this, Galion and I," Thranduil said. "One does not stand on ceremony before a battle."
"You expect a battle this day?"
"I still have hopes for a peaceful resolution, yet my experience tells me otherwise. Have Fefelas armor you up."
The main host of the Naugrim halted at the river, but a few of the dwarves continued on to make an envoy.
"We are sent from Dain son of Nain," they said when Bard and the Elvenking went out to meet them. "Who are you that sit in the plain as foes before defended walls?"
These dwarves were a different matter entirely from Thorin's half starved band, and Legolas could see that they meant deadly business. They wore full chain mail over leggings of flexible mesh and helms of iron. They carried heavy axes, but each also was armed with a short broadsword and a round shield. Their long beards were plaited into what looked to Legolas to be the dwarvish equivalent of warrior braids and tucked into their belts. The very look of them made Legolas keep a ready hand on his bow.
"We have business with Thorin," answered Bard, "and you shall not pass until we have received our due from him. Then we will retire."
The dwarves liked this not at all, and many angry words were exchanged before they retreated, muttering in their beards. Bard immediately sent messengers up to the gate, but a hail of arrows rather than the promised gold met them. Meanwhile, the dwarvish army began to advance northward along the eastern bank of the river along the mountain spur.
"Fools," said Bard. "They know little of battle strategy above ground. My spearmen and archers can have them in volley from the heights of the eastern spur at my word. I say we attack them now while they are still tired from their march."
Thranduil shook his head. "Nay, Bard, you are still new to kingship. This war is for gold, and I will wait a long time before I begin a battle for gold alone. Do not be eager to waste your men's lives without dire necessity. We have the advantage of numbers and position. Let us hold and hope that some compromise can still be reached."
But it was too late. The dwarves sprang suddenly forward in the attack. The battle had begun. Arrows hissed down from the eastern heights, and Legolas drew his own bow, waiting until the first of the advancing Naugrim should come within range.
Even more suddenly, the sky darkened and thunder and lightning sounded from the mountain's peak. A black cloud of moving shapes in the sky appeared from the north, moving not with the wind but with their own volition. Legolas saw his father look upward with an expression of pained horror.
"Halt! Dread has come upon you all!" cried a loud and masterful voice. Gandalf strode out between the two advancing armies, his arms held wide. Fire flew from the tip of his staff, and the sight of him brought the two sides to an amazed standstill. "The Goblins are upon you! Bolg of the north is coming, and his bats provide a cover of darkness. They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!"
The fighting ceased, as dwarves, elves and men stared at the sky in horror and confusion.
"Come," said Gandalf, "there is still time for council."
Thranduil and Bard retired hastily to the camp to plan a defense. Within a short time, Dain joined them. "Only a fool fights in a collapsing cavern," he said tersely, "and my father, Nain, raised no fools."
"We are outnumbered," said Thranduil, with a look at Gandalf. "Our only hope is to lure the orc army between the spurs of the mountain, where we can catch them as if between two jaws. You, Bard, have men already upon the eastern spur. I will set my archers and pikemen upon the southern spur, ready to charge when the goblins come into the valley."
"I will join Bard on the east," said Dain. "His army is fewer and my dwarves are closer to that spot."
"Who is to lead the feint that will draw the orcs into the valley?" said Mithrandir.
"My men will do it," replied Bard. "The orcs will think us easier prey than dwarves or elves. Come! To the mountain! Let us take our places while there is yet time!"
Some of the swifter elves accompanied Bard to the top of the eastern spur to spy out the approaching armies. Legolas would have gone to join them, but Thranduil shook his head. "Time to do what I brought you here to do, Legolas. You and your men will stand with me on the ridge they call the Raven Hill. My nobles and I will have need of a body-guard before this day is out."
He motioned the others on and bade Legolas stay behind with him for a moment. "This orc attack is what I feared all along. I now have little hope that the rest of my army will arrive in time, but we must hold out as long as possible. I am keeping you near me for a reason. If I should fall, the elves will look to you. Keep your head and listen to Magorion and Séregon."
"And if I should fall?" Legolas said.
Thranduil smiled bitterly. "In that case, one of my nobles will lead what is left of Mirkwood. You and I will be meeting in the Halls of Mandos, and we will be beyond caring, I deem."
The hike to the heights of the Raven Hill took about half an hour, and time was drawing short. Mithrandir was with them, along with the hobbit, who looked overwhelmed but ready to make a good showing of himself, with his short Elven sword. Magorion was there, and Séregon, and others of the lords of Thranduil's court, all in full battle attire, and a group of what Legolas realized to be Elf-women, dressed in male clothing and wearing armor. These were the healers, and although they carried weapons, they would not use them until the utmost need for self-defense, as it was believed that their power to heal was diminished by the taking of life. They found an old dwarvish guard post cut into the rock of the Raven Hill, where the healers could shelter and defend at the very last.
Elven pikemen were arrayed along the lowest slopes of the spur among the rocks, with groups of archers stationed above them. The thunderstorm had passed to the southeast, but the day was turning ever darker as the flights of bats grew thicker in the sky above.
They had not been long upon the hill when the first of the orcish wolf riders rounded the eastern spur of the mountain and were met by a group of Bard's men. The Esgaroth soldiers held out long enough to whet the orcs' fury and to allow their army to gather behind the resistance. Seeming to give back in defeat, they retreated to either side, causing the orcs to pour into the valley in a disorganized rush after the fleeing men.
When the orcs were well within the confining spurs of the mountain, Thranduil gave the signal, and the Mirkwood archers let loose a volley of arrows. With the goblins reeling from the bombardment, the pikemen charged down from the rocks in a deadly rush. The rocks were soon slippery with black blood, and the orcs retreated back toward the east.
Then, from the eastern ridge came the deep-throated cries of, "Moria!" and, "Dain!" as the dwarves charged in, wielding their two handed mattocks. With them came the men of Esgaroth, brandishing their long swords.
As the orcs met this new attack, yet another wave of Mirkwood pikemen charged in, this time led by Pallanen, the captain of the forest guard. From the heights, Legolas could see his dark head disappear into the melee and hear his voice among the battle cries. Legolas longed to loose a shot into the fray, but he heard his father's calm voice say, "Hold. Save your arrows. They will be here soon enough."
For a while, it seemed that the orcs were being beaten back and were retreating south down the valley, but soon there came cries from the north. The orcs had scaled the mountain and were pouring down the southern slope above the gate. Some made their way along the ridge and assailed the Raven Hill from the north, just as the orcs in the valley recovered and began to swarm up the valley slope.
Now, Legolas brought his bow into use, as did Glavras beside him, along with the rest of the bodyguard and those of the nobles who carried them. One after another, Legolas took careful aim and knocked back orcs who came up the ridge. He heard the sing of metal behind him as Thranduil drew his sword. The Elvish blades all glowed with a blue light now, even that of Mithrandir, who sat upon the ground, seemingly deep in thought or meditation towards some blast of magic before the end.
Down on the valley floor, a host of wargs came snarling, and with them rode the bodyguard of the goblin king, Bolg. These were not the puny cave goblins but huge orcs with metal armor and scimitars of steel. Legolas could see the forces of Bard being forced back up the sides of the eastern spur, and the tide of orcs now reached the Raven Hill. The carnage in the valley was terrible, and the bats plunged from the sky to feast upon the blood of the dying.
"Form ranks," Legolas yelled to his men "Form ranks around the king!" He fired his arrows as fast as he could pull them, and yet the orcs steadily advanced.
All at once there came a cry from the gate. Trumpets sounded and the wall of rocks collapsed into the pool. Out sprang Thorin and his dwarves. "To me, elves and men," Thorin cried in a voice so powerful that Legolas could hear him over the din of the battle. "To me, my kinsfolk!"
Thorin and his dwarves were a relative few, but the fire of battle filled them, and they charged through the goblin ranks like a battering ram. At the sight, Dain's folk took heart, along with the men of the lake. They flooded back into the valley.
Thorin fought mightily, but the bodyguard of Bolg, whose iron ring he could not pierce, brought him to a halt and soon he was surrounded himself.
Legolas was no stranger to combat, but his experience had been with forest skirmishes, quickly over. This was his first time in such a protracted battle, and although new to it, he could tell that his side was losing. The orcs were close upon him now, so near that he could almost see the pores in their skin and smell their foul breath. He stepped back involuntarily and caught his father's eye sidelong. Thranduil had a strange look about him. He shook his head as if to say, "I am sorry," and then uttered a high-pitched, bloodcurdling scream. This was the first time Legolas had heard his father give an Elvish battle cry, but he had little time to reflect upon it, for he heard the same cry coming from his own throat and from the throats of those around him as he followed his father headlong down the hill in a full out charge.
He was running fast now, so fast that he would surely have fallen if he had paused to worry about where he put his feet, but Thranduil's scream had filled him with a kind of madness, as it had the other elven lords. The orcs, met with this daunting rush of Elf-warriors in full battle-fever gave back against the onslaught. Legolas fired one arrow after the other. Soon his quiver would be empty and he would be forced to scavenge from the bodies of the dead. He drew his bow yet again, felt an arrow pass close enough to his head to waft his hair. At the same time he heard a twanging sound. His bow abruptly lost tension, he felt a stinging pain at his right eye, and that side of his vision went dark. He put his hand to the right side of his face and brought it away covered with blood. It took him a few moments to understand that his bowstring, snapped by the passing arrow, had lashed him across the eye. He dimly hoped that he still had an eye left behind that torrent of blood, but he was far too deep in the battle fury to much care.
He wasted only a few seconds trying to slip his now useless bow into its carrier before abandoning the attempt and letting it fall. He hated to see it trampled underfoot, but no weapon, no matter how cherished, was worth his life. He reached back to his quiver and drew his matched knives. The world looked strangely flat to him now, but he could fight with his knives on instinct alone. Magorion had taught him well.
He could see Magorion swinging his sword, just up the slope beyond Thranduil and Galion. He spared a moment of gratitude for the patient hours his father's general had spent teaching a clumsy elf-child the rudiments of close combat. Many a time, those very sharp blades, inexpertly wielded by the novice prince, had nicked Magorion. Had it not been for the fact that elven skin healed without a scar, Magorion would probably resemble one of those patchwork quilts the Edain favored. That patient instruction was saving his life now, and Legolas knew it.
They had reached the valley floor by now and were in the thick of the fighting. It became much harder to see the course of the battle from the midst of it. All Legolas could do was to keep any attacking orcs away from his father as best he could until the battle ended however it ended. He heard cries, something about eagles. He heard a strange roaring sound and saw what looked to be a bear moving through the fray, batting orcs to right and left. The Elvenking's group fought their way toward the spot where Thorin had been surrounded. Whether they were anywhere near to reaching it, Legolas could not tell.
Legolas had stayed to Thranduil's right, so that he could keep his father in the view of his good eye. He realized his fatal strategic mistake too late, when he was hit from his blind side and knocked flat. Something heavy stepped on the back of his head - it felt like the paws of a warg - grinding his face flat into the dirt for a few moments. He heard the swish of a flying spear.
When Legolas came to himself and was able to make his limbs work again, the battle seemed to have passed off to the south. All around, he heard the sounds of groaning and weeping, and the muttering of the dying. Groggily, he pulled himself up and staggered toward the spot where he had last seen his father.
He saw Thranduil sitting on the ground, cradling Galion's head in his lap. The broken off shaft of an orcish spear protruded from the esquire's chest.
Thranduil looked up. "Ai Rodyn, Legolas, what happened to you?"
Legolas shook his head impatiently. "My bowstring snapped. It is nothing. What of Galion?"
Thranduil nodded in the direction of a headless orc and the equally dead warg he had been riding. "He came at me. Galion threw himself in the way of his spear. Such a stupid, brave thing to do!"
Thranduil returned his attention to his stricken esquire. "Why, Galion?" he whispered.
"My duty, Sire," Galion said weakly. "How bad is it?"
"Not bad," Thranduil lied.
"It hurts like a demon," Galion said, and a fine trickle of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth. Thranduil and Legolas exchanged a silent look of dismay.
"For the love of Elbereth," Thranduil cried, "will someone fetch a healer?!"
* * * * * * *
To be continued . . .
Rodyn: Sindarin for Valar, the gods.