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Astonishment in Mirkwood
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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5
Strange Prey

Summary: The hunting party of Legolas discovers a company of Dwarves in the forest. What will they do?

Author’s notes:
The descriptions of this chapter follow "The Hobbit" closely. Some lines are directly quoted. See footnotes.

Nimphal and Brandor are two real-life friends of mine who helped in the creation of their characters, following the good old role-playing tradition. Their Sindarin names were created by two other friends (and fellow writers) Casey Toh and Finch, whom I owe my sincerest thanks.

Stupid humorous thing does not want to happen. Maybe I should not try to do it in Mirkwood, of all places?


~~~

CHAPTER 3: STRANGE PREY

[Mirkwood, in the year 2980 of the Third Age – several days later]
(1)

The small party of hunting Elves – all six of them – walked quietly in a single file on the Old Forest Road westwards. They had taken the shortest way possible: along the western border of the forest and then following the Celduin – that the Northmen called the River Running – southwards ’til they reached the Road. Now they had been walking on it for what seemed Ages(2). For even though they were well used to the darkening of their woodland home, seldom did they wander off this far, and the knowledge of that made them feel gloomy.

The Road itself was gloomy, too – it looked like a gloomy tunnel, framed by great trees that leant together above it into some sort of arch, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves. The quiet under the shadowy arch of great branches was so deep that even their light Elven footfall seemed to thump along while all the trees leaned over them and listened.

For the keen eyes of the Silvan folk was it not difficult to pierce the dimness and see quite a little way to either side in that darkened green glimmer. Occasionally even a slender beam of Anor had the luck to slip in through some opening in the leaves far above, and still more luck in not being caught in the tangled boughs and matted twigs beneath, stabbed down thin and bright before them. But this was seldom and it soon ceased altogether(3).

That in itself would cause no problem for the Wood-Elves. Master Bowman Brandor(4) was concerned nevertheless. This narrow Road, that wound in and out among the trunks, was the ultimate trap. He wished they could go over the trees, but the brittle old branches might not be able to carry their weight – at least not as long as they still followed the Road.

The tall, broadly built, ash-blond archer had walked many perilous paths in his long life. He was not a young Elf anymore, not even by Elven measures. Born in Doriath, not long after the Elvenking himself, Brandor fought the invading Dwarves as well as the sons of Fëanor, protecting Dior Eluchíl – and failing. His father’s people belonged to the Leikvin – Danian Elves who remained east of the Ered Luin(5), and to his father’s kindred had he fled, with his three brothers, after the fall of Doriath, ’til the whole clan decided to seek refuge under King Oropher’s rule, somewhen at the beginning of the Second Age. So, yea, he was used to the life under trees and all the perils that the woods could hide. And yet, this walk towards the darker parts of the forest – and the Tower of the Necromancer – filled his hearth with unease.

A slight noise from the side made him raise his great bow with the speed only a seasoned warrior was able of – but it were a couple of black squirrels only, looking for something to eat. His keen eyes caught a glimpse of them, running down the tree-trunks and whisking off the path, only to scuttle behind another trunk. Brandor lowered his weapon again. There was no use wasting his arrows on them – they were horrible to taste, and besides, they could not afford to make a fire.

“We shall need to leave the Road, soon,” Brathadir, his twin brother said in a low voice – they looked so alike that even other Elves found it hard to keep them apart. “We are near the Enchanted River, if these cobwebs are any indication.”

With that, he pointed at the dark, dense cobwebs with their thick threads that were stretched from tree to tree or tangled in the lover branches on either side of them.

“We have reached Spider territory,” Falathron, their third brother remarked with disgust, while Minethlos, the fourth one, only nodded quietly, shooting a worried glance towards their young Prince, the leader of this particular hunting party.

Prince Legolas needed not to be lectured about the Giant Spiders, of course; nor was he an inexperienced young elfling any more. He had fought many vicious fights against the fell creatures that were infesting the forest; still, everyone in Mirkwood felt very protective of him, and that was the reason Silinde had selected Brandor and his three brothers to accompany him.

And where they went, Nimphal(6) went, too, Brandor’s life-mate – a small, quiet Silvan woman with a pale face, soft voice – and deadly hands. A Master Bowman herself, she was as quick as lightning and heard better than any other archer under Silinde’s command – with no-one else would the Prince be safer than with the five of them.

“At least the Spiders cannot block the path with their webs,” she commented with a shrug. “Whatever magic keeps it clear, I am grateful for it.”

The others nodded and went on, listening to the strange, grunting and shuffling noises in the undergrowth. As well as they knew the woods, not even they would guess what might be hurrying among the fallen leaves that lay pled endlessly thick on the forest floor. This was a different place from their current dwellings, even though in Legolas’ childhood all this had once been part of the realm of King Oropher, his grandsire. He still remembered Lasgalen, Oropher’s tree city on the slopes of the Emyn Duir, the wide telain high upon the magnificent trees where he was born – in a happier time, before Greenwood the Great began to darken.

And dark it had become indeed, even for them, who spent their lives under the trees. The longer they went on and on, the more Legolas longed for a sight of the sky, for a golden beam of Anor to warm up his heart. For the gentle caress of the wind upon his face. The heavy air lay motionless under the forest roof, and it was everlastingly still, dark and stuffy – very different from his childhood memories. It seemed to have an ill will, determined to suffocate them slowly and mercilessly.

If we cannot keep the Darkness from creeping northwards, this is what our realm would become shortly, he thought with a chill. It has swallowed two-third of the forest already – we are the last obstacle in its way.

“Anor has set,” Brandor’s voice intruded his grim thoughts; they all could feel the sunset, even though they could not see the sky. “We should rest – and we should do so on the road. I can feel Wargs – from far away, but they are closing.”

“As if the Spiders were not bad enough,” scowled Falathron. “’Tis unusual to seem then north of the Old Forest Road.”

“They are growing bolder with every passing loa,” nodded Brathadir grimly. “How long ‘til we reach the Road anyway?”

“Two more days, if we cross the Emyn Duir in the morn,” answered Brandor. “We should reach the Enchanted River in one more march, cross the water by boat and come out from under the trees at the westernmost slopes of the Hill.”

“Unless the paths have changed since we went due south the last time, and we are lost already,” added Minethlos gloomily. Unlike his brothers, he was less than cheerful by nature.

Legolas shook his head. “The paths cannot be changed, not the old ones, built and enchanted by the Faithful. My mother told me once when we still dwelt in the Tree City of Emyn Duir, not far from here, that the old roads were made by the elders of the Avari, back in the starlit days, before the rising of Ithil and Anor. ‘Tis said that they have not changed ever since, and no ordinary evil can touch them – no Wargs, no Spiders, nor other foul beasts.”

“What about Orcs?” asked Nimphal. Legolas shrugged.

“I know not. The Noisy Folk has evolved since the Elder Days. Mayhap they are a threat on the road. We should set a guard while the others rest; for I cannot be sure that these trees would warn us. Their hearts are black, it seems.”

“I shall take first watch,” said Brandor, taking his hereditary bow, named “The Swift Raven of Battle” by his great-grandfather, back in the First Age and worn by the eldest son in every generation of their family ever since. “You rest.”

And thus they had an unruly rest, taking turns to watch and glaring at the pale, malicious eyes that watched them from under the trees or above from the branches, and they were glad to go on on the next morn. For some of those eyes were huge and bulbous, and they knew that the Spiders had caught up to them.

After another march, just as Brandor had guessed, they finally reached the Enchanted River. It flowed deep and fast to the northeast, and they were relieved to see its black water, for they knew all they had to do was to walk aside it against the stream and they will reach their destination. To their surprise, though, they heard loud – and not all too pleasant voices from the direction they were marching to.

Yrch?” asked Nimphal in a whisper. Brandor shook his head.

“It sounds differently. We should continue on the trees, though.”

All agreed with him, and at once they swung up the trees that were a little stronger and sturdier here, approaching the source of voices with great care. Brandor had been right: they did not sound like Orc-yells; still, one could not be suspicious enough. Finally, they reached the ford of the Enchanted River, the very place where once Oropher’s wooden Bridge had crossed the narrow of the water – now long rotten and fallen, leaving only the broken ports near the bank. This was the place where the woodland folk always kept a boat to cross the water, for even they would have fallen in enchanted sleep, had they tried to swim across.

The six Elves came as far to the ruined bridge as they dared – they still could not know who (or what) was making such noise on the other side of the water. Legolas went first, for his eyes were the keenest; a fact that the archers had to admit, even though they were not happy that he exposed himself to any unknown perils. When he finally located the source of the voices, however, he could not help but grin broadly.

A small figure kneeled on the brink of the river – hardly four feet tall, mayhap even less, with a round head and curly brown hair – and peering forward cried in a rather high and piercing voice, “There is a boat against the far bank!" Now why could it not be this side!”

For we need it for our own purposes, little one, Legolas commented to himself, still grinning. Whoever these people might be, they clearly had no idea how dangerous yelling around in Mirkwood could be. He narrowed his eyes to get a better look.

The small stranger had no beard, and a second, closer look revealed that he was barefoot – walking on rather large and hairy feet indeed. That and the fact that he was using the Common Speech made Legolas almost certain that the stranger was one of the Halflings Mithrandir used to visit, far away in the West… almost as far as the towers of the High-Elves, on the way to the Havens. What was such a small creature doing in Mirkwood? And how many of hem might be there?

At that moment another voice sounded from behind the Halfling – deep, guttural and harsh. “How far away do you think it is?” the second voice asked.

Legolas stiffened involuntarily, not listening to the conversation any longer. That second voice belonged to a Dwarf, there could be no doubt about that. Soon he discovered not only the owner of the second voice – a rather big, important-looking Dwarf with imposing behaviour – but several others of that stunted race as well. The different colours of their hoods made it easier to count them – after all, a twelve-yard-wide river was no challenge for keen Elven eyes. Legolas collected thirteen of them, aside of the Halfling, before retreating between the trees again, where the water would not carry his voice.

“There is a whole company of Naugrim,” he told his escort in almost-whisper. “Thirteen of them, unless I miscounted… and one of the Halflings Mithrandir is so fond of.”

“What might they be doing here?” asked Brandor with a frown. Legolas sighed.

“I cannot say. At the moment they are apparently trying to get our boat – which means they intend to cross the river.”

They looked at each other in concern. Uninvited visitors had seldom been welcome in Mirkwood, even less so in these times of dire need. Not to mention how furious King Thranduil would be about their trespassing. The King had good enough contacts to the remaining Dwarves of the Ered Mithrin, but these here were obviously of a different sort, or they would not have come from the southwest. This did not look good.

“What shall we do?” asked Nimphal quietly. “If they cross the river and rouse the Spiders with their noise…” she trailed off. Neither of them needed help to imagine the consequences. Not that they were not able to defend themselves – Spider-hunting was part of the Border Guard’s regular duties – but Elves were preparing the clearings for their family feasts all over the northern part of the wood… if the Spiders were driven northwards, the elflings, who helped with the preparations, would be in great peril.

“We must alert our people,” decided Legolas. “We cannot keep them from crossing the river; that would reveal our presence, and we would be hard-pressed to stand up to thirteen of the Naugrim, unless we want to shoot them from the treetops. Nay, ‘twould be better to follow them and find out what they are up to.”

“But we have been sent out for the hunt,” Brathadir reminded him, more than a little disappointed.

“There are a dozen other hunting parties out there,” replied Legolas, “who, hopefully, will bring home rich bounty from the hunt. Yet we alone can keep an eye on these Naugrim and see that they do no harm. You, Falathron and Minethlos will hurry forward to warn our people, while Nimphal, Brandor and I shall remain to watch the Naugrim.”

The archers tried to protest, but Legolas gave them what was known all over Mirkwood (and beyond) as “the Thranduil look” – that peculiar expression of impatience and cold rage that silenced even the bravest warriors of the Silvan folk. In these moments the young Prince showed an uncanny resemblance to his royal father, and it was usually unwise to disobey him, as he had inherited Thranduil’s tempers as well.

Thus the three younger archers shut their mouths and turned back obediently, while Legolas crept forward again to see what the Dwarves had been doing in the meantime.

It seemed that the stunted folk had been very busy indeed. They had already succeeded in pulling the boat over to the other riverbank with the help of a long rope that had been fitted out with a large iron hook at one end. Now they were about to ferry themselves over across the water, fighting about in which order they should come. A particularly big and fat Dwarf seemed the most dissatisfied, grumbling all the time while the others were pulling the boat back and forth between the two river banks with the help of a second rope that they had thrown across the water, right into the branches of a nearby tree. Legolas was glad that he and his people had been deeper in the woods – being caught by one of those nasty iron hooks would have been painful.

In that way, one by one, the Dwarves got safely over to the other side of the Enchanted River, the very fat Dwarf being the last one and about to climb up the shore, when Legolas perked up his ears. He heard a flying sound of hooves from the path behind them.

“Be ready,” he whispered to his remaining companions. “The others must have roused some prey behind us. We might not return with empty hands, after all.”

“They prepared their hunting bows, but it was already too late. Out of the gloom under the dark trees came suddenly the dark shape of a flying deer – a magnificent beast, his bony crown as thick as a Man’s arm. It changed straight into the Dwarves and bowled them over, then gathered itself for a leap. High it sprang and cleared the water with a mighty jump, too far for the Elven bows to hit it from up in the branches. Brandor’s “Raven” was the only one strong enough for a good shoot, but he was also in the worst possible position.

Legolas clenched his teeth in frustration; that single deer could feed the whole court during the feast. The plague on the Naugrim and their noisy feet, he thought angrily. He had not seen such a great, well-fed beast for years in the northern woods.

Yet the deer did not reach the other side in safety. One of the Dwarves, obviously fearing that some hidden guardian of the boat may appear, had bent his bow and fitted an arrow as soon as they had landed. Now he sent a swift and sure shot into the leaping beast. As it reached the further bank, it stumbled. The shadows swallowed it up, but Legolas could hear the sound of hooves quickly falter and then go still.

The Dwarves, however, were alarmed by the shrill wailing of the little Halfling. Apparently, the very fat Dwarf ad only sent one foot on land when the hart bore down on him and sprang over him. He had stumbled, trusting the boat away from the bank, and then toppled back into the dark water, his hands slipping off the slimy roots at the edge, while the boat span slowly off and disappeared.

“Quickly!” Legolas hissed to Nimphal, who was the fastest of them, while the Dwarves launched a desperate rescue action on behalf of their unlucky comrade. “Get the boat and bring it back to this side; you can catch it in the curve some hundred feet from here. Brandor, cross the river with her and get that deer! I shall not leave it behind for the Wargs, while our people suffer hunger. Go!”

Knowing that there was no use arguing with their Prince in a mood like this – not to mention that he was right – Nimphal and Brandor ran off quickly and noiselessly, while Legolas remained sitting in the branches and watched the Dwarves pulling the fat one out of the water with the help of some more ropes – after which he fell promptly asleep. They tried to shake him awake, but to no end. Legolas smiled. He had fallen into the Enchanted River himself more than once, so he knew that the magic would fade shortly.

From afar he could hear the dim blowing of horns in the wood and the sound as of dogs were baying. It seemed that the other hunting parties were luckier than his own. The presence of dogs gave him the hint he needed – the Faithful, too, were out hunting. Only the Avari had hounds that were trained for the hunt.

Suddenly, on the path below him some white deer appeared, a hind and fawns as snowy white as the hart had been dark. They glimmered in the shadows, and the sight of them filled Legolas’ heart with joy – it had been many seasons since he saw white wild in Mirkwood for the last time. Three of the Dwarves leaped to their feet and loosed off arrows from their bows. None seemed to find their mark. The deer turned and vanished in the trees as silently as they had come, followed by the laments of the Dwarves.

Legolas descended from the tree without the slightest noise. He approached the deer carefully. They stood close and watched him with bright, unmoving eyes. He murmured softly in the ancient tongue of the Faithful, endearing them to flee to the North. No Elven archer would raise his or her bow against white deer for many seasons to come. Not until they have become numerous, filling the northern forest again.

The hind allowed him close enough that he could stroke her head and neck, flatting her ears in delight as if listening. Legolas whispered a protective spell over her and the fawns; a spell that every Elven archer will recognize, at least those of the Faithful and the Silvan folk, for they were accustomed to the use of earth magic. The good beasts will be safe, untless they ran into Wargs or other evil things. But even for that, the peril was lesser in Thranduil’s realm. And the return of the white deer mayhap will signalise the return of better luck to the woodland folk.

Nimphal appeared next to him soundlessly, as if stepping out of a tale herself. The deer looked at her with interest; then they turned and walked away on the old path northwards.

“Brandor has found the hart,” whispered Nimphal. “He will take the boat and row up the river ‘til the King’s palace. What will we do now?”

Legolas bit his lower lip, thinking hard.

“We shall escort the deer ‘til the beach wood,” he finally decided. “We cannot risk to lose them; this may be the only chance for getting the game back into our forest. That is but a short way on the old path, it should not take us longer than two days.”

“What about the Naugrim?”

“They will need more time for the same path, I think. More so since they will have to carry the fat one who had fallen into the Enchanted River. Once the deer are safe, we shall return to watch them again.”

Nimphal gave him a doubtful look. “I believe not that the King will allow you to postpone your bonding ceremony, jut to watch the Naugrim some more.”

Legolas tilted his head to the side. “We shall see. These Naugrim are here for a purpose. And do tell me, what do Naugrim desire strongly enough even to face the perils of our darkened woods?”

“Gold,” prompted Nimphal, feeling a little insulted; every Elfling could answer such a plain question. “Jewels. Riches of any sort.”

“So it is,” agreed Legolas amiably. “And since they are here, that means some old hoard has to be somewhere close, too. Now, would it not be mutually useful if the King offered them his hospitality for a part of that hoard they are looking for?”

“The King is not very fond of the Naugrim,” pointed out Nimphal carefully. Legolas shrugged.

“Depends on the Naugrim. Some of those who dwell under the Ered Mithrin helped to carve our fortress out of the hill’s living stone, as you know.”

“That was then,” replied Nimphal soberly. “This is now. And right now, these Naugrim are invading our woods, frightening what little game there still can be found – and who knows how much trouble they still are up to cause? The King will not be pleased.”

“Which is the very reason why the Naugrim will have to be watched,” prompted Legolas, his eyes sparkling with delight. Nimphal shook her head.

“You are devious, Legolas!” Among themselves, Legolas never demanded to be addressed by rank.

“I am learning to be,” he admitted, his good humour fading a little. “One day I will have to take over the burden of kingship, after all, and I need to be prepared. Now let us hurry up, ere we lose track of these deer.”

~~~

(1) Yes, even Elves need some time to walk almost a hundred miles from Thranduil’s palace to the Old Forest Road. Marvellous, but they can’t just grow wings and fly. Though they probably would not mind. :)

(2) I might mess up a little with Mirkwood’s geography. The map does not show the Enchanted River cross the Old Forest Road… for the sake of my story; however, I let the river be a little longer. Sorry.

(3) See: "The Hobbit", p. 138.

(4) The name means Fortress Dweller in Sindarin.

(5) The Blue Mountains that once parted Beleriand from Eriador. The Leikvin or Danian Elves are actually Nandor (= Green-Elves). Hey, ’tis not my fault that Tolkien gave everyone and everything at least three dozen different names!

(6) Her name means White Wave in Sindarin. The other names were borrowed from Tolkien himself.


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