4. The Iron Hills
“Naneth, why are there more stars over the plains than over the forest at night?” Eärundra asked, finally voicing the question that had been weighing on her mind since their first night camping under the open sky.
“The number of stars in the sky does not change, Eärundra, the sky merely seems bigger because there is naught to obstruct your view of it,” Ethiwen answered, smiling at the look on her daughter’s face as she considered this new information.
The travelers stopped for lunch beside a small stream where they might refill their water skins. Urithral and Rawien consulted their maps, peering off into the distance to gauge how far they had come.
“We should reach the Iron Hills by tomorrow at dusk,” Rawien estimated for the group.
“Who lives in the Iron Hills?” Narawen asked.
“At one time there were elves, before the Great Journey to the west,” Rawien replied. “Dwarves came next, and there are still colonies of them working the mines. Men also live in the hills – rugged men, who work the mines with the dwarves and men like those of Laketown, who trade the ores and metals.”
“Are there Orcs?” Tinánia asked, the desire to play warrior still persisting despite the lack of playmate.
“There have been Orcs at different times. I do not think there are any living there now,” Rawien answered, smiling. “I do not think you will need to defend us, at least not on this trip.”
Tinánia blushed shyly and moved so she was partially hidden behind her mother.
The party continued on, traveling until dusk and setting up their pavilions under the open sky. Rawien took the first watch, settling himself near a lone tree not far from the camp. The immensity of the sky was captivating, and it was easy to lose oneself in the stars that seemed to extend from east to west as well as high above. Centuries of life he had spent under the canopy of the forest, the trees warning of danger when needed or offering reassurance with whispers of goodwill. He felt vulnerable under the vastness of that open sky. He shrugged the feeling off. His instincts had saved him on many an occasion, so he was not wont to discount them; however the vulnerable feeling gave him no portent of danger to come.
The carts were fully loaded with carefully packed barrels of wine, and the caravan headed slowly north from the Old Forest Road. Elumeril was driving the second cart; which, while not as enjoyable as riding her own horse, gave her a fine sense of responsibility and pride that her father had entrusted the task to her. She and Ada slept under the stars with Orchalthon and Laerion, and she listened to their songs and stories and decided she would like to be a warrior, indeed, when she grew up.
The carts were heavily loaded, so when the axel snapped one day north in their travels back to Mirkwood, many hours were consumed unloading all of the barrels and removing the wheel. Fortunately, those who had rented them the carts had provided tools for repair for just such an occurrence as this. Orchalthon was quite skilled and made the repairs as quickly as possible; however nearly a whole day had been lost and Thranduil elected to stop for the evening. The cart was reloaded, as no one wanted to perform that labor early in the morning.
“Well,” Thranduil sighed, “I thought we would arrive at least a day ahead of the others. If they have no delays, we shall arrive together.”
Lathron sat up quickly, his breathing heavy and fast, a sense of panic in his heart. It was night, and the palace was dark and quiet. He had been woken out of slumber by a strong sense of urgency that all was not well. Lathron had been prone to strange dreams and visions, a rare thing among elves. He did not share these visions with his father, for Thranduil was not one to fancy with interpretations of things unclear. His mother was more understanding, and had since his childhood helped him to understand what such things might mean, as well as how to let go of those which could not be understood.
Lathron stood and donned a dressing robe. He opened the door to his balcony and stepped out into the cool summer air. He raised his face to the stars and let the breeze caress him. He quieted his spirit and waited, hoping for some further awareness as to the nature of his unease. In time the presence of his mother became very strong and he reached out to her, almost feeling he could touch her. Her look upon him was tender and loving, and he was comforted. The presence faded and he was again alone with the stars and wind for company.
“Lathron?” He heard his brother’s voice whispering from the door.
“On the balcony, Bregolas,” he replied softly.
“It is late for you to be awake, my brother.”
Lathron did not answer right away. It was not unusual for Bregolas to be up at this late hour. He was of Thranduil’s temperament and stamina, and his need for sleep was not great.
“Did you have a dream?” Bregolas prodded gently. His brother’s visions had always fascinated him, but were seldom discussed within the palace.
“Yes,” Lathron finally replied, slowly. “I am uneasy, as if something terrible is about to happen. But I do not know what the thing is, or how to stop it. And Naneth…” he paused.
“What about mother?”
“Naneth was there, but she was not distressed. She did not reach to me for aid. She merely looked at me, so tenderly that I felt as if my heart might break from the love in her eyes,” Lathron turned to Bregolas, a troubled look upon his face. “I do not know what the vision means, or why Naneth was there.”
Bregolas did not answer. He placed an arm about his brother’s shoulders and let his presence and touch provide the comfort and companionship that Lathron needed.
Lathron was the one who turned, as last, to face his brother. “Thank you, nín muindor a mellon.”
And though they both returned to their rooms, Lathron did not sleep any more that night.
Storm clouds appeared in the distance, dark and ominous, moving swiftly from the east. The temperature dropped quickly as the skies darkened. The small party stopped to retrieve cloaks from their packs, and lash the coverings over the wagons. Rawien frowned, watching and attempting to gauge the speed of the storm. The Iron Hills rose before them; they had perhaps another hours journey before them to reach their camp for the night. The next morning they would meet with the traders at a crossroads where the Iron Hills reached south and turned east.
Rawien, Urithral and Ethiwen convened near Narawen’s cart.
“I believe the storm will be upon us within the hour,” Rawien stated, his eyes turned again to the clouds. “Do we wish to find shelter, or continue on as far as we can?”
“I would feel more secure if we had some protection from the wind,” Urithral replied. “There, perhaps a league ahead, do you see the low hills? Why don’t we make camp on the west side of those rocks and allow them to bear the brunt of the storm?”
“Let us hurry,” Ethiwen shivered. “I think we will all feel the brunt if we tarry much longer.”
With that, the group moved forward, their speed increased as they moved quickly to the appointed rocks.
Elryndel and Sadron took the lead, galloping forward with the larger of the pavilions in hand, in hopes of securing a shelter before the Queen and the children arrived. Elryndel arrived first, Sadron not far behind him. Sadron saw Elryndel jerk in his saddle, and then fall from his horse, a knife protruding from his chest. Sadron’s first instinct was to go to his comrade, but his elven ears picked up strange sounds from the rocks.
“Orcs!” he shouted as he swung his mount around the other side of the rocks. He heard Rawien’s call of acknowledgement at the same time as a multitude of Orcs rose from the grass around the rock. They were lying in the tall grass, hiding, waiting in ambush. He quickly drew his bow and launched an arrow at the first, then hearing Rawien’s cry for retreat, he spun his horse around and headed back to the caravan.
A protective circle was formed around Narawen, Tathiel and the children, who were already hidden in the cart.
“How many?” Rawien called to Sadron.
“As few as 20, as many as 30. They are hiding in the tall grass and in the rocks,” Sadron answered.
With only six defenders, Rawien knew he could not draw the battle away from the innocent, nor could he hope to outrun them for they were approaching quickly. He swiftly contemplated moving Narawen, Tathiel and Eärundra to horses, but they would be more exposed initially and require further assistance than he could spare.
Sadron and Alagos calmly took up position at the front of the circle, unleashing arrows quickly and with deadly accuracy. All knew that this would be a fight to the death. Orcs seldom fought with weapons of distance, therefore the elven defenders would rely initially on their bows.
Rawien ran to Narawen. “You must hide in the cart, my Lady, with the children.” He passed several small daggers to her. She fingered the dagger quickly and then motioned Rawien to go.
The weapons were not for defense.
Rawien, Ethiwen and Urithral took up defensive positions flanking Sadron and Alagos. Calardan had proved himself competent with the bow, and took up position near Urithral. Arrows sufficed initially, with only the occasional Orc approaching close enough to require hand combat.
“Left!” Ethiwen heard Sadron call, and she spun, firing an arrow into an Orc that had arced around to approach from the west.
Narawen raised the tarp, and with Tathiel’s assistance lifted herself up to climb into the wagon. Suddenly she felt a burning pain in her side, and gasped, falling over the side to the wheel and then landing hard on the ground. Stunned, she lay still, waiting for her lungs to allow her to draw breath again.
Tathiel flung herself over the side of the cart, landing next to the queen. Narawen tried to speak to her, but had insufficient air to add sound to her words.
“Stay still and quiet while I look at you,” Tathiel whispered. She ran quick hands over the queen’s form, surprised when her hand came back wet with blood. She probed a little further, and felt the blade of an Orc knife protruding from just under the Queens ribs on her right side.
Narawen moaned softly. Tathiel felt dampness at her knee, and realized the lower part of Narawen’s body was soaked. She probed under the gown and found her fears confirmed. Narawen’s water had broken. The baby would be coming that day, in the midst of a battle, nearly two months earlier than when he was expected to make his appearance into the world.
At that moment lightning crackled and thunder boomed across the sky as rain fell from the sky in torrents. Tathiel flung her cloak over Narawen, attempting to shield her with her own body. Some minutes passed as even Tathiel’s elven sight faltered in the blinding sheets of rain. She did not see Rawien approach until he was nearly on her.
“What happened?” he yelled to make himself heard over the storm as he dropped to his knees beside her.
Tathiel guided his hand to the knife. “She fell when she was hit. Neither of us saw it. Her water is broken – I can feel her contractions beginning. The child will come soon.”
“We must get her into the shelter of the wagon. I will try not to jostle the knife.”
Tathiel nodded and ran to the wagon, crawling under the tarp and quickly arranging bedrolls and blankets for the Queen to lie on. Tinánia and Eärundra watched silently, their eyes wide with fear. Rawien appeared, gently climbed into the wagon bed and carefully placed the queen on the blankets as Tathiel held up the tarp.
“We must get away from here while we still can. The Orcs have retreated, at least for the moment. Do what you can to ease her, but we must go fast. Get that knife out – it does not appear poisoned but it should not wait.”
With that, Rawien was gone. Tathiel felt the wagon jerk forward as the horses were pushed into a gallop. Narawen moaned again as a contraction seized her and the wagon bounced, her hands clenched into fists at the pain.
“I am sorry my Lady,” Tathiel bit her lip to hold back her own tears. “I must remove the knife.”
Tathiel felt a soft touch on her arm and looked up into Tinánia’s face. The child scooted to the front of the wagon, and gently eased Narawen into her lap, pillowing her head in her arms, helping to absorb the jostling of the racing wagon. She crossed her arms gently but firmly over Narawen’s on the Queen’s belly, allowing the Queen to grasp her arms for stability, but not remove them.
Tathiel smiled, “Thank you, tithen min. That will help much.”
In the noise of the storm and jerking of the cart, Tathiel quickly removed the knife, then cleaned and bound the wound. No blood had spurted, and there was no evidence of poison – and for these small favors Tathiel was grateful. Narawen bore the pain quietly, gripping tight to Tinánia. She silently thanked the Valar that the knife had missed the child in her womb.
After some time, she felt the wagon slow and heard the quiet of elven feet approach the back of the wagon. Rawien drew back the tarp, and lightly jumped to sit beside her, the skies lighter behind him as the quick moving thunderstorm had passed them. “How is she?”
“The wound is not serious. Her labor pains are increasing, though. This rough journey has furthered her progress rather quickly. ”
He nodded. “We have found a small cave where she might give birth. There are no signs the Orcs have been here. Come, I will carry her inside.”
“I can hear you,” Narawen interjected, opening her eyes. “Is the battle over? Was anyone injured?”
“The battle is over for now, my Lady,” Rawien answered contritely. “We did not mean to speak around you. Please concentrate on your little one and let us worry for now about everything else.”
With that he scooped the Queen easily into his arms and carried her lightly into the cave. Tathiel followed with the blankets and bedrolls, and Tinánia with Tathiel’s medicine chest. Ethiwen quickly gathered Eärundra to her, and led her into the cave as well.
Tathiel quickly arranged the bedding and motioned for Tinánia to sit again at the top of the bedroll. Rawien placed Narawen before her, and settled the Queen’s upper body in Tinánia’s small lap. Tinánia resumed her ministrations, humming and gently massaging Narawen’s shoulders, arms, face and head. Narawen’s eyes were closed as she willed the pain through her and concentrated on the little one within.
Narawen started suddenly, her hands grasping her belly and a small cry passing unheeded from her lips. She panted through the contraction, then relaxed back into Tinánia’s arms. Tathiel was busy preparing the Queen for birth, removing the lower part of her gown and settling the cleanest blankets they had over her knees. Ethiwen squatted next to her on the floor.
“How may I help?”
“Water, cool to sponge the Queen and hot for the baby. Please heat these in whatever fire we can afford,” Tathiel handed her small tools for cutting the cord and helping ease passage, if needed.
Rawien knelt next to her again, and motioned her back.
“They are coming. Sadron saw a scout approaching us from the north, but they have hidden now that the storm has passed and daylight returned. They will come sometime during the night; and this time, as much as I can, I must lead them away from you. Alagos wishes to guard his mother; he will stay with you when the time comes. We are going to set up camp away from this cave, in the hope of luring them to us.”
“One guard,” Tathiel faltered.
“If I leave more, they will suspect we have hidden some and they will search for you. Ethiwen too shall come with us,” he grinned as she approached with the water, “for she is unsurpassed with the bow.”
She tapped him lightly on the shoulder as she set the water down. “I will do what I can, O Captain mine, but I have no delusions that my skills surpass any in this party. Except my husband, of course.”
“You have always bested him at that, have you not?” Narawen’s quiet voice teased. Her face contorted as another contraction seized her, and she squeezed Tinánia’s hand tightly.
Tathiel motioned Rawien away. “She is close. Go see if Alagos wishes to witness the birth of his brother.”
Another contraction seized Narawen, and the baby crowned. Narawen made no sound, she breathed as she had been taught, and when Tathiel finally said she could push, she pushed. The small body thrust forth, his shoulders turning slightly as Tathiel guided his passage. He slid forth, and Tathiel wrapped him quickly in a cloth, placing him on Narawen’s belly. Narawen let go of Tinánia then, and wrapped her arms around her new son; tears of joy spilling down her cheeks.
“Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo, tithen min,” she murmured, cuddling him close to her breast.
Tathiel rubbed him briskly, and he drew his first breath. He let forth the smallest of cries, and then his fist was in his mouth and he was snuggled in his mother’s arms. Tathiel deftly cut and tied the cord, and delivered the afterbirth. That done, she cleaned Narawen and settled her upon the blankets.
Narawen still partially reclined against Tinánia, who could not take her eyes from the infant, but now Alagos was present too, with his arms wrapped around his mother, stroking her hair and staring unabashedly at this little one he would call brother. They whispered softly to each other, and to the new little one who would grace their home.
The child was fair, the downy hair of his head the color of summer wheat, with eyes of blue to match his mother. For his mother he favored, in coloring and feature. He was tiny, smaller in size than most at birth, but appeared healthy despite his precipitous entry into the world.
Tathiel smiled at the picture before her. Ethiwen and Rawien were watching quietly from the entrance as they all appreciated the wonder of new life. Eärundra sat off to the side. She had not made a sound the whole time; nor had she taken her eyes off the scene before her. She quietly crept forward, settling herself next to her sister and gently stroked the baby’s downy head.
“Have you named him, My Lady?”
Narawen smiled at Alagos. “His brother and I have decided he shall be Legolas, our Greenleaf, for the Greenwood shall be his home, no matter where life may lead him.”
“Legolas it is then. It is a fine name,” Tathiel stroked his head gently.
Tathiel took a gown from Narawen’s pack and cut open the front, then used ties cut from the bottom of her gown to lace up the front. This would provide ease for nursing. Tathiel sat back, deciding to give Narawen time with this new little one before she would finish dressing them.
She stepped to the mouth of the cave, and saw Urithral, Calardan and Sadron in the distance, setting up camp.
“Where is Elryndel?” She asked
Rawien motioned her outside, and out of hearing range of those inside. “Elryndel fell.”
“Oh,” Tathiel breathed, as no words came that she might use to express her grief. She had not known Elryndel well, but he had long served the King as a warrior of his realm. His death would deeply grieve them all.
“We had to leave him there,” Rawien spoke softly, his voice tight. “Sadron said the knife was to the left chest, and he made no movement. I pray to the Valar he was dead, “ he ended harshly.
Oh, Rawien,” Tathiel reached out to him, the compassion in her voice nearly undoing what control he still maintained. But, he allowed her to hold him, comfort him. No sound escaped him, but gradually she felt his body relax and he pulled away from her.
“Go back to the Queen and care for her. Be prepared to leave in haste, should the need arise. There are two daggers next to your medicine chest….”
Tathiel started at this, but Rawien gently took her by the shoulders. “Narawen knows what she must do. You must know also, if she is unable. We will never let the children be taken alive, nor the Queen. Every warrior is taught the harsh truth that it is better to die by friendly hands than be forever tormented in an Orc den or the evil hands of their captains.”
Tathiel floundered, wondered if she could do this thing, wondered if she would know if it should be done. She drew a deep breath, finally raising her eyes to meet his and nodded her understanding. She wondered if understanding would be enough.
“May you never have need to do such a thing,” Rawien gently touched her cheek, then turned and walked away.
Tathiel returned to the cave. Ethiwen was hugging her girls, urging them to be brave and to obey Tathiel. Quiet tears ran down Eärundra face, but she made not a sound as her mother bid her farewell for the night.
“Ethiwen,” Narawen stopped her. “I know you go to fight tonight,” she said, reaching up to stroke Ethiwen’s cheek. “Thank you. I am sorry you must do this. We will watch over your young ones. May the Valar protect you all.”’
Ethiwen squeezed Narawen’s hand and knelt down to kiss her on the forehead. “I do what I must. Rest and be well, dearest friend. They shall not get past us.” Ethiwen left silently into the dusk.
Tathiel took the child from Narawen’s arms and handed him to Alagos. She finished cleaning the blood from the stab wound, and gave Narawen a quick sponge bath before slipping the altered gown over her head. She placed a cloak around her shoulders, and eased her back down into the bed they had made for her.
She took the infant then, and unwrapped him from his birth cloth. He mewed softly at the air caressing his bare skin, but did not cry as she bathed and diapered him. She swaddled him snugly and laid him back in the arms of his mother, opening Narawen’s gown and guiding his small mouth to latch at his mother’s breast.
Then they waited.
Rawien stood watch at the campsite. The wagons, horses and the remainder of the party were spread about much as they had been on previous nights, conveying a sense of normalcy. They had camouflaged the approach to the cave as much as possible, so that to the untrained eye no path was present.
The sun had set and the moon was rising. The thunderstorms had cleansed the air and the smell was sweet. The elves lay awake on top of their bedrolls, waiting.
Just before dawn the remainder of the Orcs they had battled only hours earlier attacked. Their approach was heard long before they arrived, as Orcs were not known for their stealth. The battle was predictable, as Orcs were also not know for their creativity, and the elves picked them off easily with arrows. Sadron received a deep gash to his left arm in a brief hand combat, and Calardan a flesh wound to the leg. All in all, they had fared well despite being outnumbered.
The sun rose, and the defenders ensured all were dead, quickly piling the bodies into a pyre and setting it aflame. Ethiwen had left this task to the men, and headed to the cave to reassure her children and bear the good news of a battle won.
The path to the cave entrance was undisturbed, and she had to move several large stones and branches away before stepping inside. It took several seconds for her eyes to adjust to the dark.
Silence greeted her.
“Alagos?” she called a second time, a little louder.
Ethiwen moved further in, stumbling over a figure lying on the ground. It was Alagos. She turned him to his back, and recognized the fatal blow of an axe to his chest. The chest cavity was caved in, the internal organs exposed. Blood had soaked into the sand, its crimson hue darkening the ground.
Ethiwen felt bile rising in her throat, and she rose, blindly running for the opening in the cave wall.
“Ai!” Her cry carried to the campsite. All heads raised, and the grief and fear on her face led them to drop all but their weapons and race to her.
“Alagos is ……,” she choked, unable to say the word. She gripped Urithral’s tunic tightly, “I went no further…”
Rawien drew his sword and entered first. He saw Alagos, lying on his back where Ethiwen had turned him. He quickly turned away, shuttering his heart. He could not reflect right now on the son of his King – his Prince; a warrior he had trained from novice. He could not think how he had lost two of his warriors in as many days. He could not think of those things now, or the grief and guilt would overwhelm him. He breathed deeply, letting his eyes adjust to the dark and then motioned the others in to comb the cave.
“Narawen,” Ethiwen’s tone was flat. The crumpled body before her had a knife deeply embedded in the left chest, Narawen’s hands clutching the handle tightly. Her eyes were open, fear and panic reflecting her final thoughts. Ethiwen began to shake, staring at her friend, at her Queen. Urithral gently turned her away from the sight, pulling her close.
The cave was quickly searched, for it was small, but not a trace was found of Tathiel or the children. Their packs, bedrolls, all that had been brought into the cave with them was missing as well.
“Here!” Sadron called them over. Near the far side of the cave, booted footprints appeared. They seemed to drop from above, and then spread out. The elves, despite their light steps, had already shuffled enough sand to obscure most of them.
Rawien reached up and felt a ledge. He jumped, pulling himself up. Sunlight poured into the small space. There was an opening to the outside, leading away into the hills. The booted footprints surrounded the aperture, but were then swept away with branches hiding the direction they had fled.
Rawien looked down grimly at them all. “These prints are from the booted feet of men.”
Ethiwen crumpled to the ground, silent sobs racking her body. Urithral knelt beside her, encompassing her in his strong arms as tears ran unbidden down his own cheeks. Rawien, Calardan and Sadron sat with heads bowed, silent in their grief. But there was naught to ease their pain.
Their Queen and Prince were dead; their infant prince stolen his first day in the world. Despite his own grief at the loss of those he held dear, all Rawien could think of was his King. Whatever would he tell the King?
nin muindor a mellon = my brother and friend
Tithen min = Little one
Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo = A star shines upon the hour of our meeting