4. Black Wings
'Fly, crow, away, and follow, raven,
And all that croaks for war.'
In a dream, Legolas stood upon the western bank of a great river, staring nervously out over the water and listening to shrill orcish cries from the eastern shore. With the odd omniscience of sleep, he knew in his bones that the currents rushing past were those of the Anduin, but the river was much wider here. He must be far to the south, and indeed, although the clear night was chilly, the breeze from the east felt far warmer against his skin than he would have expected for a night in Nínui.
In his hand he held a great bow, much larger than the one he had carried for the past eighty years since he'd lost its predecessor at the Battle of the Five Armies; its carvings felt strange against his sweating palm. His senses prickled, ever alert to danger from across the river and from the dark night around. He strung the bow and set an arrow to the string.
A bank of dark clouds swarmed up from the south, blotting out the stars, and Legolas felt a cold dread seize his heart. "Elbereth Gilthoniel," he whispered, frightened into the piety of an elven-child calling upon the queen of stars in the lonely darkness of his bedchamber. What horror drew nigh?
A dark mass broke away from the thick clouds and resolved itself into the shape of a huge winged creature. Fierce voices rose in ululation from the eastern bank, as if saluting one of their own. His heart hammering, Legolas drew the great bow and took aim upward into the night, his muscles straining for the shot. Such a thing could not be allowed to exist.
And then, in the manner of a dream, the scene wavered. Legolas felt his body grow insubstantial, slipping sideways. He blinked and found himself sitting in a boat in the bushes along the riverbank below, staring upward at a figure whose shadowed head seemed caught in a net of stars like white gems. The bow sang and the arrow flew. The dark silhouette tensed in anticipation and then slumped. "Missed it," said the Imladren elf, Indavir.
A deep, rough voice with the accent of Erebor boomed beside him. "That was a mighty shot in the dark, laddie. At least you tried."
"But who can say what I might have hit?" replied the elf.
From the night sky there came a soul-piercing shriek of triumph that made Legolas want to clap his hands over his ears, only to discover that he had no hands, nor even a body . . .
Legolas sat bolt upright in his bed with a gasp, the eldritch cry still reverberating through his mind. Beside him, Nestalinde stirred from sleep and put out her hand to steady him. "What is the matter, my love?"
"Nothing," he muttered, trying to bring his ragged breathing under control while she stroked the small of his back. "Just a bad dream."
But as he settled back down into the warmth of the covers and curled himself around his wife, he could not rid himself of the nagging sense that something had just gone very wrong indeed.
If Legolas had worried about any repercussions from his precipitous marriage, they failed to materialize. The morning following his Begetting Day celebration, when he and Nestalinde had come down together to breakfast wearing the unmistakable demeanor of a mated couple, Thranduil had greeted them with a look of stupefied amazement that Legolas would have paid his weight in mithril to have captured in a painting. He quickly replaced it with a wink and a nudge -- and a murmured quip about the acorn not falling far from the tree. But since then, Legolas would often catch, sidelong out of the corner of his eye, his father watching the two of them with an expression of pure joy on his face.
While his happiness waxed, the news from the world outside grew ever grimmer. Messengers from Dale reported that both Dain and Brand had refused the envoys from the East for the final time, sending the Easterling ambassadors off muttering that they had sealed their fate. They had come to Mirkwood asking the Elvenking for his aid in the coming conflict. Thranduil had only shaken his head. "I will. If I can." After the Dalesmen left, he turned to Legolas and said, "I fear attack from the east, but the south worries me even more."
Meanwhile as winter progressed toward spring, Thranduil's armourers set about the grim business of sharpening swords and pike-heads, preparing weapons for as many fighters as possible. On the first day of Gwaeron -- the anniversary of his friend Aragorn's birth, Legolas thought with a pang -- a breathless runner stumbled out of the forest, bearing news from the patrols in the southern part of the wood.
"Dol Guldur is on the march, my Lord," he gasped after the guards helped him inside and brought him before the throne. "Half go west to Lothlórien, the rest march north to us. They are many!"
Thranduil nodded, his face somber. The scout's news confirmed the anxious twittering of the birds. "How many?" When the elf hesitated, trying to catch his wind, Thranduil snapped, "Out with it, man! I need an estimate of their troop strength!"
The scout choked out a figure. Legolas saw his father swallow hard and shut his eyes. "Bard and Dain are on their own. Magorion, assemble every possible fighter."
"Every fighter, Sire?" The chief general's face looked equally grim.
Thranduil gave a quick nod of his head. "Even the women. We march at dawn."
Watching the general's retreating back, Legolas felt a cold dread settle in the pit of his stomach. "So many," he whispered. "How could Khamûl have amassed such an army?"
"They breed like maggots. But be of good cheer, son," Thranduil replied with a bravado that rang hollow in the face of the recent news. "They may have us outnumbered three to one, but a single Wood-elf is worth two orcs on their best day. And you, Legolas -- you're worth ten. I'm glad I have you with me in this fight."
The following dawn, Legolas rode at his father's side as Thranduil's army set off to the south. They left a small remnant in the caverns, safe behind the spell-guarded doors, consisting of women, youngsters, and the few men with children who had not yet attained their majority. Thranduil's parting words, spoken to those bereft men, hung heavy in Legolas's ears. "Your charge is as important as those who go to fight. You guard the hope of our realm. Open these gates for no one but my son or me. And if it comes down to it . . . don't let them get the children."
"Should we not have stayed in the stronghold?" Legolas kept his voice soft, barely audible over the footfalls of his grey gelding and the sounds of the moving army -- the creak of saddles, the clink of weapons and armor, and the rhythm of marching feet on the moss of the forest floor.
Thranduil shook his head. "And end up like rats in a trap while they burn the woods around us? No, this is my forest, and I will not let them defile it. I've been retreating for too long. This time we go to meet them."
Legolas cast a quick glance back down the train to where Nestalinde rode with the other healers. At least they had not been parted. He'd sooner have had her back at home, but she had accompanied the King's armies on every campaign since the Last Alliance and would not change her custom now.
Another thing had not changed. Above, clearly visible through the breaks in the treetops, the carrion crows circled lazily, as they had done on the journey to Erebor eighty years before. Thranduil looked up and set his jaw in a grim line. "They know me, and they know they will feast well at the end of this march. Filthy birds," he muttered, pulling his cloak up to hide his hair. "I wish they would leave me alone."
The army traveled south for a fortnight, moving at a pace brisk yet gentle enough to leave the less hardened fighters with enough strength for the inevitable battle. They came at last to the area just north of the Old Forest Road. To the west, the land rose into the dark heights of the Emyn Duir. As they marched, Legolas could sense the wild unease of the trees and smell a queer reek upon the wind.
After a sidewise glance and a nod at Magorion, Thranduil held up a hand. "Here," he said, reining his big bay stallion to a halt. "We make our stand here. They're close now."
"I can smell them," Magorion muttered. "It will be soon."
Thranduil turned his horse while the captains arrayed the troops out in a deep line. When they were assembled, he raised his voice to be heard by all. "My warriors, my people -- we fight today for the very existence of our realm. Expect no mercy from this filth. Fight to your last breath, your final drop of blood. For if we lose this battle, we will be in the thrall of the Enemy, and those left living will envy the dead."
No cheer rose from the ranks. The only sound was the rustle of grimly nodding heads and some scattered sighs.
Thranduil dismounted from his charger. He whispered a word into the animal's dark-tipped ear and gave it a slap on the rump. Something about the finality of the gesture and the wistful look on his father's face as the horse cantered off northward put a pang into Legolas's heart. He had seen that expression only once before, in equally dire straits.
At that moment, an iron tipped arrow flew out of the south and buried itself high in the trunk of an elm. A second arrow followed, and another after that. As each hit, it burst into flame, setting the branches alight. The trees, dormant for the winter, did not catch readily, and yet they burned. What evil substances did these creatures of The Enemy have at their disposal?
"Yes, Father?" He pulled his attention from the burning trees to meet Thranduil's steady gaze.
"I want you to take one hundred fighters and head back north a furlong."
Legolas drew in a breath to protest. "I should be here at your side. I'm not some child, to be sent far from the danger!"
His father laid a hand on his shoulder and spoke softly, seemingly unbothered by the challenging of his orders. "I'm not doing that, son. I want a good fighter at my back in case they maneuver around behind us."
"Do you really think they'll attack from the rear?"
"It's what I'd do." Thranduil smiled grimly. "I remind you, the healers are behind our lines. They'll bear the brunt of the attack if that happens."
Legolas shrugged and bit back his own smile. How well his father knew him! How well he knew them all, to command the loyalty and cooperation of each and every one of them with just a word and a glance. He touched his heart and bowed. "Aye, my Elven-lord. Kings rule, and princes serve."
Thranduil nodded and gave his shoulder a parting squeeze. Legolas could hear the obscene screeches of the advancing orcs, still unseen among the trees to the south. To their left, another arrow hit and a big pine tree flared up in a rush of flame. Above their heads, the few leaves still clinging to the branches of the oaks and elms crackled and burned. Already, despite the chill of Gwaeron, the heat from above felt like a baking summer day out on the plain.
Thranduil frowned, shut his eyes and raised his hands in a whispered incantation. A wind picked up out of the west, fanning the flames eastward, but keeping the worst of the heat and smoke away. "Go now, Legolas. Go quickly, and may fortune be with you!"
Legolas turned and sprinted northward, beckoning warriors to join him as he went. His last view of Thranduil was with sword drawn, greeting the advancing enemy with wild laughter, the light of the fire glinting off his hair.
North he led his group the required distance and then set them facing into the seemingly deserted woods. He commanded a mixed crew, with several of his father's best warriors and the rest hastily assembled conscripts. One of them, a girl dressed in the simple homespun garb of the Laegrim, bore a spear fashioned from the straightened point of a hook such as the foresters used to prune the young saplings. She wore only the minimal leather armor issued to the foot troops. Legolas gave her a reassuring smile. "No matter what happens, you stick close to me, all right?"
For a time, as he stared northward into the empty woods, Legolas thought that nothing would happen -- that Thranduil had cooked up the possibility of a rear attack to get him out of the way. He shifted from foot to foot, feeling the heat of the conflagration at his back and listening to the faintly heard clangor of the battle off to the south. A hare burst out of the trees and darted past him, followed by several more, then a crowd of squirrels, a lone fox and finally three deer.
Bringing up the rear came a giant spider, undulating on eight legs and leading a column of tiny spiderlings. "Your doom comes upon you, Elf," it clicked as it scuttled past.
The forest began to echo with the same fell cries he had heard from the opposite bank in his dream. Orcs. Many orcs.
Rather than pondering his impending death, Legolas set an arrow to his bowstring and thought of Nestalinde, somewhere back between the lines with the other healers. He smiled at the memory of how, the night before, the two of them had shared the same blanket. While those within earshot had politely pretended not to notice, he had made love to her for what they knew might well be the last time. She was something worth fighting for. Something worth living for.
The loving smile still lingered on his face when the first orc appeared from the trees and he put an arrow in its skull, right between the eyes. He heard the other bows singing around him as he drew and loosed methodically, knocking the orcs back as they came swarming.
Letting the battle-fever sweep him along, Legolas fell into a familiar rhythm: pull an arrow from his quiver, nock, draw, loose, and then reach behind for another. To the east, fanned by the wind, the forest was full-ablaze. Legolas felt the heat of it against his right cheek. Fools, he thought! All the orcs had managed to do was give them a barrier against attack from that direction.
To his left, he heard a thud and a gasp as an orcish arrow found its mark and a warrior fell. Fefelas! For thirty years he had served as Thanduil's valet, while Galion served as his butler. Then he had been assigned to Legolas. He had liked the fellow well, although he had given him the lightest duty of all, preferring to dress himself and tend to his own needs. He shook his head and kept fighting. No time to mourn; no time to feel; no time even to think.
The orcs were upon them, and soon would come the time to draw his knives in close combat, yet Legolas still clung to his bow. He drew an arrow and used it to stab an onrushing orc before setting it to his bowstring. He cast a quick glance to his right, to where the Laegren girl wielded her makeshift pike with fierce determination. What he saw chilled his heart.
"Freeze!" he yelled, ignoring her look of wide-eyed terror and loosing a shot that sailed past her head close enough to waft her hair. Behind her, a big orc crumpled to the ground, his sword stilled in mid swing. She continued to stare at a spot just past his shoulder, her eyes widening further.
'Oh, no!' he thought, and prepared to leave this life, just as he heard a wheezing grunt and felt hot droplets hit the back of his ears. He whirled to see a strange elf clad in muted brown and green wiping the blade of his knife on the tunic of the orc whose throat he had just slit.
The dark-haired elf placed his hand to his heart and bowed in a gesture incongruously courtly for the chaos of battle that surrounded them. "De alârjamê, kundûlmâ."
Out of the trees they materialized, dressed in hues that made them seem as if they were ghosts birthed by the forest itself. They wore no armor and carried only the simplest of weapons, but with their numbers to augment the troops of Legolas, soon the besieging orcs were no more. They were the Forest Folk, those whom Thranduil's elves called the Evyr, Legolas realized. His mother's people.
"We come to fight for our King," said the tall one who, by his voice and manner, seemed to be their leader.
Legolas nodded, both in assent and in gratitude for saving his life. "Then let us do that."
He threw back his head and let out the elven battle-scream he had first heard his father utter at Erebor. All around him, he heard voices taking up the cry. Surrounded by his mother's people and his own, Legolas ran southward.
They found Thranduil's group sorely beset. Legolas fought long that afternoon, amidst the heat and smoke of the great burning, until the sleeves above his vambraces were sodden with black blood. Slowly the tide turned, the elves pushing the orcs back until the foul creatures began to flee south to Dol Guldur in a full rout.
His final memory of the day was of Thranduil, his hair and skin dulled by the soot save for two pale tracks down his cheeks, holding up a hand amidst the carnage and crying, "Halt! Let them go -- we have won. The victory is ours!"
Legolas turned, laughing, to the little Laegren girl, who still fought like a demon beside him. He swept her into his arms whirled her about, laying a chaste kiss on her blood-soaked cheek as the skies opened with the first rain of spring, dousing the fires and washing them all clean.
In the early hours of the next morning, Legolas sat dozing on a log outside the hastily assembled tent of the healers. Soon, his wait would be over. The worst wounded lay inside, while those more fortunate left the tent in a steady stream, wearing bandages and slings.
The procession of casualties slowed and stopped, and suddenly Legolas heard a burst of blistering profanity issue from inside. He bit his cheek and stifled a grin, amazed at the extent of his father's vocabulary. He heard curses in Elvish, Westron, Entish, and if not mistaken, even a few words of Khuzdûl thrown into the mix.
Presently, Thranduil stepped from the tent, leaning on Galion's arm and limping only a little. He offered a ceremonious bow to Nestalinde, who walked beside him. "Forgive me, my daughter, for my uncustomary vulgar language."
"Of course, my Lord," she replied with equal formality. "Indeed, you showed great restraint. That arrowhead was in a very sensitive area."
Thranduil coughed and turned to Legolas, clasping his shoulder. "See to your wife, son. We all need some rest."
"How like him to wait until everyone else has been treated before seeing to his own wounds," she chuckled as Thranduil hobbled off.
Legolas said nothing, just pulled her to him, and the two of them embraced and kissed, oblivious to the fact that they both smelled like a smoky abattoir, she covered in red blood and him in the remnants of black.
"You are well?" he said at last. In the grey light of dawn she looked paler than usual.
She nodded. "A little tired. And you? All through the night I expected to see you coming through with a wound."
"Not even a scratch this time," he said with a shake of his head and a laugh. "I suppose I'm charmed now that I don't have to make up excuses to see you."
"That is well," she said, coming close again and laying her head in the hollow of his shoulder. "I have been so worried for you. You see, my love, I am with child."
De alârjamê, kundûlmâ: You we hail, our prince (Primitive Elvish courtesy of Darth Fingon)
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.