1. Tracking Monsters
Legolas stared ahead at the dark thicket growing up at the base of the cliff wall. All morning he had followed strange tracks to this point, but his senses now warned he should take care. He paused. Silence. He took another step, his hand resting on the haft of his knife. A growl reverberated from the undergrowth ahead. At least he thought it a growl. It was unlike any sound Legolas had heard before. He looked again at the large tracks sunk deep in the soft earth of the forest floor. It would take a heavy creature to leave such marks. Pads like a wolf, four toes - but no claw marks. Very odd.
The villagers claimed the creature – a beast not seen before in these lands to the Elders' knowledge – was some form of monster, one of Sauron's leftover evil creatures come from the Shadow Lands. Legolas wasn't so sure. The descriptions he had been given bespoke an animal of mighty proportions, but without having seen one, he could not judge its intent. Whether the beast was evil or simply a hunter had yet to be determined.
With slow, deliberate movements, Legolas climbed into a lebethron tree. It welcomed him with joyous song, speaking of wind and sun and rain – and to take heed and care. Yet the tree was not overly concerned for him. Reassured, Legolas stretched out on a branch and waited with his eyes on the thicket and the cliff. If the creature was evil, he would know before he returned to Ascarnen.
For about an hour Legolas lay in the tree, waiting for the beast to show itself. The sun reached its zenith, the hot rays fracturing as they filtered through the leaves and dappling the forest floor below, turning the ground gold. A slight movement caught his eye, and as he stared, Legolas realized the creature had come from its den on silent pads. It blended well with the forest floor, with its golden coat spotted brown on the lighter underbelly.
Legolas swallowed hard. He had heard of such creatures but had never seen one. Yet there was no mistaking the raw – or lion as men called the beasts – below him. The catlike creature was as large as a Dwarf's pony! It crept under the tree, its ears flickering back and forth. White splotches on the backs of the ears flashed like signals.
Another glimpse of white caught his eye, and Legolas realized the beast was not alone. Now that he knew what to look for, he spotted three more of the creatures, their movements coordinated, similar to the packs of wargs he knew in Rhovanion and yet strangely different. But Legolas sensed no evil about them, only curiosity and intelligence.
Pack hunters. The giant lions were pack hunters. And they had come over the Ephel Duath to make Ithilien their home. The biggest of them yawned, revealing long, dagger-like canines. His breath stilled in his chest. These lions could be cause for concern.
He followed them.
Legolas moved through the trees, watching the roe prowl. They hunted with great coordination, their ears flicking and signaling each other. Their coloring let them lie low in the brush until a great buck walked directly in front of one of them. She leapt up, wrapping her great paws around the neck, sinking long fangs into the deer's throat. The others moved in, helping to hold their prey, but the female who had pounced managed the kill. She released her hold and took the deer's nose into her mouth, suffocating the animal.
After eating, the roe slept long in the spattered sunlight on the forest floor. When they woke they tumbled and played, and all the while, Legolas watched and learned, laughing at their antics. No monsters were these. They were just animals – dangerous animals to be sure and efficient killers, but beautiful creatures.
They returned to near the thicket, where Legolas discovered a cave hidden in the cliff wall under thick undergrowth. He smiled as the largest of them washed the face of the smallest. What would the Men of Ithilien do to such creatures? Men in general carried an inherent fear of things they did not understand, and many living things suffered when sharing the same territory with them. The Men of Gondor would not see the beauty, the importance of allowing such animals life, while maintaining a respectful distance.
Legolas did not fear the feladroe, as he had come to think of them for the caves in which they made their home. He respected them, acknowledging the great cats should be given wide berth. Oh, they knew he was here. They'd raised their great heads and looked directly at him up in the trees. He attributed it to a keen sense of smell and simple instinct.
The largest of the feladroe – Tirn, Legolas called him – watched him now from where he sprawled on a large boulder in the small clearing before the thicket. His tufted tail curled up and down, but Tirn's eyes never leaving him.
Legolas started to sing. Tirn's ears pricked forward, his nose wrinkling. He sat up, his unblinking, golden eyes intent on where Legolas sat with one leg dangling from a bough well out of reach of sharp claws. Leaning back against the trunk on his branch, Legolas continued his song, staring back. Tirn sat perfectly still, except for the tail that seemed to have a mind of its own. It flicked back and forth.
The smallest of the feladroe, Gasgarach, for the missing tooth on the left side of her mouth, lay nearby, watching Tirn's tail. Her head moved with tiny jerks as she intently fixated on the dark, dancing fur. Dagnir, the one female who had brought down the buck that made up the lions' dinner, slept heedless of him. Her feet twitched and jerked in her sleep, and Legolas imagined she dreamt of the chase. The dominant female, Ris, lay near Tirn, ignoring Legolas completely except for a single ear that flicked back at his song.
As he continued singing, Tirn stretched, reaching mighty paws out before him, his hindquarters raised high into the air. Sharp claws, which Legolas had discovered during the hunt, peeked out from the soft feet before being sheathed in velvet toes. Efficient weapons were those. Legolas admired the care given, acknowledging the kindred spirit of the warrior in the feladroe. They killed only what they needed to survive. They groomed each other, allowed time for play. Oh yes, Legolas felt a kinship with these beasts.
Tirn plopped back down on the rock, his tail never ceasing its flicking, nor his eyes leaving Legolas's place in the tree. A strange rumbling sound emitted from deep within his chest.
Legolas smiled, but kept singing. Great cats indeed. His smile faded. The Men would not see them that way, however. They would not feel any kinship or care other than seeing warm pelts and trophies. They would only see the danger, the competition for game, the threat to livestock. Legolas pitied the creatures.
"I'll do what I can for you," Legolas vowed to Tirn.
Faramir would not like his report. He had come to search out the creatures to determine what they were and how to eliminate them if necessary. Legolas could easily decimate this family group with his bow here and now if he wished. But he had no intention of drawing an arrow against these creatures. Indeed, if he could, he would preserve them and find a way for the Men and feladroe to coexist.
Taking up his song again, Legolas turned his eyes to the sky and the stars overhead. When he looked back, the lions had disappeared into the darkened thicket.
Ascarnen – Sindarin. "Rushing Water" The name of Legolas's colony in Ithilien
raw/roe – lion/lions
feladraw/feladroe - cave lion/cave lions
Tirn - Watcher
Gasgarach - Gaptooth
Dagnir - Slayer
Rîs - Queen
The European cave lion was one of the largest cats to ever live and became extinct approx. 10,000 years ago. Though called a cave lion, they also favored grasslands as well as forested and mountainous regions.
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