Parting Gift

Chapter 4. Servants of Darkness

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The city of Caras Galadhon was well lit as Legolas' white stallion galloped around its outer wall heading towards the great southern gates. Fainrîn had settled down once they had put some distance between them and the Falls of Nimrodel, and Eldarion noticed that Legolas had also relaxed somewhat during the ride. Though they did not speak of it, the Prince was fairly certain that whatever had been following them had given up the chase. He marked the sentries that had been placed on the great green wall, realizing that that was the first time he had ever seen the city's outer wall guarded. When they reached the southern gates, they instantly swung open and the two companions quickly passed through them, and the gates closed soundlessly behind them.

An anxious Hrethil greeted them on the other side.

"I'm so relieved to see you both!" he exclaimed as the two dismounted. "When it grew dark and you had not yet arrived, I feared the worst. Are you all right?" he asked worriedly, his quick eyes inspecting the two for any injury.

"We are fine," Eldarion assured his friend. "But what is happening here?"

The question seemed to trigger something in Hrethil and he grew serious.

"Come," he said, turning around and urging them to follow him. "Haldir has called a meeting on the lawn. It should begin at any moment. He was also concerned for your safety," the young Elf said, as they began climbing the stairs and pathways that would lead to the great lawn, "and wished to wait for your return before beginning."

"You have not answered our question, Hrethil," Legolas said quietly. "What has happened?"

"One of our northern patrols has been attacked," the Elf explained. "Two of the Elves were badly injured and one was slain."

"By Orcs?" Eldarion questioned.

"No," Hrethil answered. "We believe it was a pack of wolves."

"Are wolves common in Lothlórien?"

"During the time of the Shadow they were common enough," Hrethil said. "But never have they been so bold."

"These are no ordinary wolves," Legolas said thoughtfully, as they reached the wide lawn.

"We feared as much," Hrethil nodded. "Come," he said again. "Haldir is waiting."

Hrethil moved into the throng of Elves that crowded the spacious lawn, with Legolas and Eldarion following close behind him.

"What did you mean by that?" the Prince asked quietly.

"I speak of the gaurhoth," Legolas answered.

"Gaurhoth." Eldarion repeated the strange Elvish word. He was not familiar with it.

"Yes," Legolas replied. "The werewolf-host."

The three companions stopped near the front of the crowd. Haldir was standing on a small dais that had been erected in front of the fountain. On either side of him stood Rúmil and Orophin. Hrethil signaled to the Guardian that Legolas and Eldarion had arrived safely. A look of relief crossed Haldir's face when he caught sight of the two lovers. Legolas gave him a reassuring smile and the Guardian nodded, his expression growing serious as he called the attention of the crowd.

"My friends," he said solemnly, waiting for the chatter to die down, "I have called you here tonight to discuss a matter that affects us all. As some of you may have heard, one of our northern patrols was attacked today not far from the Falls of Nimrodel." The Guardian paused and looked pointedly at Legolas and Eldarion and the Man involuntarily shivered. They had been in greater danger than he realized.

"Calad was slain." Murmurs rose from the crowd at the ill news, but Haldir continued, "Aurglîr and Corunar were badly injured. Our healers are tending to them and I understand that they will recover. But they are delirious and feverish from their wounds, and not much information can be gleamed from them. They were found by Orophin's patrol that was on their way to replace them. I shall now let my brother speak and he will share his findings with us all."

Haldir stepped back and allowed Orophin to take the center of attention. The silveren-haired Elf looked at his peers gravely, with an unmistakable sadness in his eyes. Though his voice was low, it carried easily to the hushed crowd.

"My patrol came upon Aurglîr and Corunar in a small clearing not far from Nimrodel. Their clothes were torn and bloodied, their ribs cracked, their bows destroyed. Corunar told me before he lost consciousness that a host of wolves had taken them by surprise from the north. He counted perhaps five or seven in number, but there could be more. He said that these creatures were larger and fiercer than any he had ever seen. Although numerous arrows lay around the clearing and in the trunks of the trees, no blood was found on any of them and we can assume that they missed their mark."

A ripple of disbelief ran through the crowd of Elves. Aurglîr, Corunar and Calad were all fine archers. It was unfathomable that they were unable to kill a single beast, even outnumbered as they were. Haldir held up his hand for silence and Orophin continued.

"There is more," the silveren-haired Elf said, his voice more forceful than before. "We do not believe that these were ordinary wolves," he explained. "For among the wolf tracks we saw in the clearing, we also found larger, man-like prints that belonged to no Elf or Man. I do not know the reason, but I fear that the gaurhoth have entered our blessed realm. I also believe that it was never their intention to slay the patrol they came upon, but only to wound and weaken them. If my patrol had not arrived at the scene, I believe that the gaurhoth would have returned and they would have brought their Maker with them."

There was no stopping the excited talk and raised voices that followed Orophin's revelation. Such evil entering Lothlórien was unheard of, not since the War of the Ring, when Sauron's forces had threatened to overrun the Elven land.

Haldir stepped forward and attempted to regain control.

"Please! Please!" he called, his hands raised in a signal for silence. "We must decide what to do."

"We must find their lair and kill these foul beasts!" someone called out.

A chorus of agreement followed the remark.

"Yes, I agree," Haldir said. "But we must be cautious in our actions. I value my brother's opinion and his tracking skills, but there are too many questions left unanswered. There is little doubt that we are dealing with the gaurhoth, but we do not know their intentions, or that of their Maker, if indeed they have one with them."

"There must be a Maker," an Elf said from the side of the crowd. "These creatures would not be able to strike without a leader."

"The gaurhoth are not mindless drones," another Elf said. "They have the natural instinct of wolves. They travel in packs, and it is not uncommon for them to kill for food or when the moon is high."

"Their attack came during the day," a third Elf countered. "And the fact that they did not kill two of our kin, nor feast upon them is most unnatural. It can only mean one thing, that Orophin's conclusion is correct. They were saving our people for their Maker."

"But a Maker!" a younger Elf exclaimed in alarm. "I have never dealt with the gaurhoth and their history is unclear to me, but you all speak so easily of a Maker. Such a person must be well versed in the Dark Arts and a long-time servant of the Dark Lord. I cannot believe that a sorcerer of such power could still dwell among us!"

"Evil can never be wholly destroyed." A silence filled the air as Legolas' clear voice spoke. "It may be defeated and diminished, but ever it lies in wait until the moment it is strong enough to rise again. We have grown lax in our vigilance. These creatures must be found and their intentions revealed, but Haldir is correct. We must proceed with caution."

The Prince of Greenwood stopped speaking and looked to the Guardian to take command of the gathering.

"Tomorrow's trips to the hythe will be cancelled," Haldir stated. "Although there have been no incidents in the South, it is not prudent to transport goods when there is a threat of attack. I will send a host of Elves to guard the ships until the danger has passed. I wish to speak to my Captains now. We will formulate a plan and choose the best scouts, trackers and those who have dealt with the gaurhoth in the past, from among you. That will be all for tonight. Come! Take your supper now and do not dwell too much on this. We will meet this evil and defeat it together."

The gathering dispersed and most of the Elves went to the banquet hall to take their supper. A group of Elves stayed behind and approached the dais where the Guardian and his brothers waited. Eldarion assumed that these must be the Captains that Haldir wished to see. He felt a tug on his sleeve and turned to look at Hrethil.

"It is not our place to stay," the Elf told him. "Let us do as Haldir suggested. I confess I am quite hungry. There has been too much excitement today and it has not been pleasant."

"Very well," the Prince agreed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gimli walking towards them. The Dwarf had been standing near the edge of the crowd.

"I am glad to see you both well," he said seriously when he reached them. "Orophin brings ill tidings. My people have also dealt with the gaurhoth, as you call them, in the past. They are fearsome creatures. You were both too close to danger today."

"That is true," Legolas replied, "but we have returned unharmed."

The party turned to head towards the banquet hall, but Haldir's voice stopped them.

"Legolas!" the Guardian called. "Would you join us?"

The Elven Prince nodded and glanced at Eldarion.

"I must stay and speak with Haldir. I will see you in a little while," he told the Prince. "And do try to leave something for me," he said sideways to the Dwarf.

"It shall be a small something," Gimli retorted, "seeing as you eat like a bird."

Legolas laughed lightly as he walked to join Haldir and his captains.

For a moment, Eldarion stood and watched the Elves by the fountain. A slight twinge of jealousy was starting to creep into him, which he quickly smothered. Legolas' words to him by the falls rang in his mind. Haldir was no threat to him. How could he still think such thoughts, especially during a time like this? With a sigh, the Prince turned and began walking towards his companions.

~*~*~*~

Upon entering the main banquet hall, the three friends were waved over by Narwarán, who had managed to secure one of the smaller tables by the far side of the hall. The table was already filled with sweet meats and other Elven fare that Eldarion had grown accustomed to eating.

"Eldarion," the Elf said warmly, when they approached. "I am relieved to see you well and unharmed. When news of the attack reached us, I instantly regretted leaving you by the falls. Where is Legolas?"

"He stayed behind to speak with Haldir," the Prince answered, taking a seat beside the Elf.

"Ah," Narwarán commented. "That was to be expected. I have no doubt that Legolas has dealt with the gaurhoth before. There was a time when Greenwood the Great was known as Mirkwood, and for good reason." The Elf paused and offered the Man a plate of sweetened meat.

"Thank you," Eldarion replied, taking some meat and passing the plate to the others. "I confess," the Prince continued after a moment, "I have never encountered the gaurhoth. Indeed, I know very little about them and their history. How were such fell creatures made?"

"The gaurhoth are an ancient evil that have been among us since the First Age of the Sun," Narwarán began, "and they have been a scourge on my people. Their origins are uncertain to me. One would have to delve deep into the great libraries, such that can be found in Minas Tirith or in the great lore books of Lord Elrond to know their true beginning. But I have heard tales that during the First Age, many tortured spirits that were believed to have once been thralls of Melkor came to the land of Beleriand. Whether they were once Maiar spirits shed of their earthly forms or whether they were some other form of evil beings, I do not know. But in Beleriand they entered the form of wolves through sorcery, and they had the ability to understand both the Black Speech of the Orcs and our own fair tongue."

Narwarán paused for a moment to take a bite of his meal, but when he noticed that his companions were listening to him intently, he quickly swallowed his food and continued.

"From these creatures, the Dark Lord forged a mighty army and during the long Wars of Beleriand, they fought against us, defeating many of our strongest warriors, under the banner of Sauron. Eventually, the Dark Lord and his Werewolf-host came to a Noldor tower on the River Sirion and conquered it. This tower became known as Tol-in-Gaurhoth, the "Isle of Werewolves", and there Sauron ruled for a time, until Huan, the Wolfhound of the Valar, came to challenge him. Draugluin, Sire and Lord of the Werewolf race, fought Huan in a great battle. In the end, Draugluin fled to the throne of Sauron, his captain, and died at his feet after speaking the name of Huan, whose coming had been foretold.

"Sauron, the shape-shifter, then transformed himself into a Werewolf greater in size and strength than Draugluin, but even so, Huan held the bridge. By no means of sorcery or strength of limb could Sauron free himself. Therefore, he surrendered the Tower to Beren and Lúthien whom the Wolfhound served. The Dark Lord then fled in the form of a great Vampire Bat and the evil enchantment fell from Tol-in-Gaurhoth. The power in the realm of the Werewolves was broken in Beleriand forever."

Narwarán finished his tale and looked round the table. Hardly anyone had touched their food, so rapt were they by his story.

"Please, eat," he encouraged them. "Your supper is getting cold. Did Haldir not say that we should not dwell on this overmuch?"

Eldarion nodded and took a bite of his sweet meat. The Prince had suddenly become aware of how very hungry he was.

"How can we possibly dwell on anything else?" Hrethil exclaimed as he stabbed at his meat. "My blood boils at the audacity of these fell creatures. To enter our fair woods and threaten our people. On the eve of our departure, no less!"

"Calm yourself, Hrethil," Eldarion told his friend. "You will need a cool head if you wish to deal with these dark servants."

"And deal with them, I shall!" Hrethil declared. "I will not leave Lothlórien until those wolves are destroyed. I could not bear to leave these beautiful woods with the knowledge that they have been tainted with evil."

"Those are fighting words," a voice said from behind them.

The group turned to see Orophin approach them.

"May I join you?" the Guardian's brother asked.

"Please do," Narwarán replied, standing up and pulling out the empty seat on the other side of him. "What plans have you and the other Captains formulated?" he inquired.

"We will do a broad-based search tomorrow along the northern borders of Lothlórien," Orophin answered, helping himself to the food at the table. "Each team shall be composed of five trackers including the Captain. At this moment, the Captains are approaching the Elves who they wish to join their teams."

"I gladly volunteer my services," Hrethil spoke up.

"And I gladly accept," Orophin smiled. "In fact," the Elf continued, "I approached your group in the hopes of recruiting you all," he paused meaningfully and looked at the Man, "for my team tomorrow. That is, if you are willing."

"I cannot speak for the others," Narwarán said, "but I would be happy to be part of your team."

Orophin looked at the Man and the Dwarf.

"I will understand if the two of you choose to decline," he said. "I imagine that Legolas would want you for his own team."

"Legolas will be directing his own team?" Eldarion asked curiously.

"Most definitely," Orophin said. "He has encountered the gaurhoth on many an occasion during the dark years of Mirkwood."

Eldarion nodded thoughtfully and glanced to his right, where Gimli also sat in quiet contemplation.

"What say you?" he addressed the Dwarf.

Gimli grunted.

"My instincts say that I should join Legolas' team," he admitted. "That Elf needs watching over. But I wonder," he paused and looked at the Man.

"You need not wonder, Gimli," Eldarion said good-naturedly. "I am capable of taking care of myself. And I agree with you. If anyone needs 'baby-sitting', it is your old friend."

The Dwarf made some sort of disparaging sound, but did not dignify the comment with one of his own. The Prince often chided him about his "baby-sitting" responsibilities, which the Man knew aggravated the Dwarf to no end.

"I will join your team, Orophin," Eldarion said, addressing the Guardian's brother. "It would be my honor to do so."

The silveren-haired Elf looked surprised by the Prince's acceptance, but his surprise was quickly replaced by a sincere smile of gratitude and he acknowledged the Man's statement with a nod. Eldarion's unfortunate encounter with his brother the day before had been recounted to him by Narwarán earlier that afternoon. Orophin had been incensed by Rúmil's actions and had resolved to separate the two as much as possible. Trying to repair and improve his own relationship with the Prince would only be hampered by Rúmil's rashness. But the Elf believed that working with the Man tomorrow would be a positive start.

The group settled down to enjoy the rest of their meal, and conversation soon drifted to lighter topics that took their minds off tomorrow's impending search. Eldarion found himself so at ease with his companions that the Prince did not even notice that his lover had not joined them for dinner.

~*~*~*~

While it was true that Legolas did not join the others in the main banquet hall, the Elven Prince did not skip dinner that eve. After discussing matters with Haldir and his captains, the two Elves had retired to the Guardian's chambers to have a private supper. A small table with a simple meal had been laid out on the Guardian's balcony, which overlooked the glittering lights of the city below. For a while the two Elves ate in silence until Haldir reached over and clasped the Prince's hand.

"I was concerned for yours and Eldarion's safety today," he said seriously. "You were much too close to danger."

Legolas smiled and squeezed Haldir's hand reassuringly.

"We have returned unharmed."

"And for that I am thankful." The Guardian released the younger Elf's hand. "But did anything happen to the two of you today? Did you feel a presence in the woods?"

"Yes," Legolas answered. "The trees warned me of danger. They spoke of an evil that had entered Lórien and I could feel their pain."

Another silence followed until Legolas spoke again.

"I believe Orophin's conclusion is correct," the Prince said. "The presence in the woods was strong, Haldir, and could not have come from the gaurhoth alone. It was menacing, as though some sorcery had blocked out the light of the sun and made the world overcast and gray. For a moment, I felt as though time had gone backwards and I was in the dark days of Mirkwood once more." The Prince sighed. "If only Mithrandir were with us."

"Do not despair yet," Haldir replied. "Your people lived in a sea of darkness for centuries, and were never defeated. Neither will we. Have you thought about which trackers you will bring with you tomorrow?"

"The Dwarf will come with me, and I doubt I have any say on that matter."

The Guardian laughed gently. "And Eldarion?"

"I will ask him," Legolas said thoughtfully, "though I have a feeling that he will wish to go with another team."

"What makes you say that?"

"He is strong-willed, like his father. He may wish to exercise his independence and not feel over-protected by my presence."

"Perhaps," the Guardian agreed. "I have approached a number of our best trackers and scouts this eve. You may have your pick from among them."

Legolas nodded and their talk also moved onto lighter matters. After supper, the Elven Prince wandered around the numerous pathways of the City, but inevitably found himself heading towards his chambers where he knew his lover would be waiting for him. As he crossed the hanging bridge that would lead to their quarters, he heard raised voices from below and Eldarion's name drifted to his sensitive ears. Curious, he stopped and leaned lightly over the rope edge. Two pathways beneath him, he could see the outline of Rúmil and Orophin having a heated conversation in the moonlight.

The Prince knew that he should not be listening to the brothers' private conversation and he smiled to himself ruefully, realizing that he had also picked up some of his lover's more "undesirable" traits. *Was it his fault if the Elves did not keep their voices low?* he rationalized. He did not have any more time to justify his actions, for Rúmil's voice rang out clearly in the still night.

"Have you gone mad?" the Elf exclaimed. "Whatever possessed you to ask that half-breed to be part of your team? Let Legolas deal with him since he is so fond of mortals."

"Keep you voice down!" Orophin hissed. "Eldarion is a fine warrior and tracker. He will be a valuable asset to my team. It is you that has lost your senses. What were you thinking when you challenged him to one-on-one combat?"

"I was thinking that I would teach him a lesson."

"Well, apparently it is he who has taught you a lesson instead."

Rúmil's eyes blazed with fury and for a moment, Orophin thought that he had pushed his brother too far.

"Make sure he stays out of my way," Rúmil said in a low, but lethal voice. Then the Elf spun on his heel and stalked away.

"Rúmil!" Orophin called after him. "We are not finished."

Legolas watched as Rúmil did not heed his brother's words. With a shake of his head, Orophin followed his brother down the pathway. After a moment, Legolas also turned and continued his walk to his quarters, his thoughts lingering on the conversation he had just heard. He had underestimated the division between his lover and Rúmil, and this troubled him. Perhaps he should have a word with Rúmil? Or perhaps he should mention this incident to Haldir and let the Guardian speak to his brother? The Prince shook his head, abhorring his indecision. At the very least, he knew that Eldarion would not take kindly to any interference on his part. The Man's pride would insist that he be allowed to deal with his own problems.

When he stepped inside his quarters, he found Eldarion lying leisurely on the bed with a bowl of fresh strawberries.

"What is this?" he asked as he removed his light boots and sat down cross-legged on the bed.

"Dessert," the Man replied. Then he stood up and went to a table to pick up a smaller bowl. "I also happened to bring something else for your sweet tooth," he added.

"Oh?"

The Man sat back down on the bed opposite the Elf and dipped his finger into the bowl of cream, holding it out for Legolas to taste.

The Elf leaned forward and sucked the Prince's finger, his tongue slowly running up and down its length and swirling at the tip as he withdrew his mouth. Eldarion flushed at the Elf's gesture and his lips parted as he watched his lover.

"Delicious," Legolas said playfully, "but I can think of something else that will taste better."

The Elf leaned over once again and captured the Prince's parted lips, the sweet taste of strawberries and cream mingling in their kiss. When the kiss ended, Eldarion resisted the urge to toss the bowls of food off the bed. There was a fatigue in Legolas' clear blue eyes that he had not seen before and the Prince knew that there would be no more play tonight. Instead, the two lovers lay down with the bowls of strawberries and cream between them.

"I will be heading one of the scouting teams tomorrow," Legolas said, dipping a fresh strawberry into the cream and placing it in his mouth.

"Yes, I know," the Man replied.

"Will you join me?"

Eldarion took a bite out a particularly large strawberry and chewed it thoughtfully before answering.

"I was certain that you would ask me," he began, and then stopped abruptly. "I hope you do not mind," he began again, turning to face the Prince, "but I have already agreed to join Orophin's team."

"I suspected that you would join another team," Legolas replied, then raised a questioning eyebrow, "but Orophin's team?"

Eldarion chuckled.

"I am also a little surprised," he admitted. "But he approached our table tonight during dinner and asked us so sincerely . . ." The Man trailed off and shrugged. "I could not refuse him," he said simply.

"And is that the only reason?"

The Prince shook his head.

"Why do you ask questions you already seem to know the answer to? Indeed, why do we bother speaking at all when you are able to read my mind?"

"Because I enjoy hearing the sound of your voice," the Elf replied, grasping the Man's wrist as he was about to place another cream-dipped strawberry into his mouth. Legolas pulled the wrist towards him and allowed Eldarion to feed him the strawberry, taking the time to sensually suck the Man's fingers and lick any remaining cream.

"You can be such a cruel tease," Eldarion whispered, wondering how Legolas could make the simple act of eating strawberries so erotic.

"I am no tease," the Elven Prince replied as the Man fed him another strawberry and he once again caught the firm wrist, placing the moist fingers into his mouth. "For a tease," the Elf continued, slowly sucking the fingers one by one, "is just that. And do I not reward your patience in the end?"

"Yes," the Prince agreed. "But a reward is given for something that has been earned," he continued mischievously.

"Very true."

"What then, have I done to warrant these attentions?" He fed the Elf another strawberry, enjoying the feel of Legolas' tongue as it wrapped around his fingers, mimicking the actions it often lavished on another part of his body, where heat was pooling now.

"I am rewarding you," the Elf said, "for your maturity."

"Maturity?" Eldarion repeated in an amused tone.

"Yes." Legolas turned to face the Prince and quickly dipped another strawberry into the cream, placing it in his mouth before his hand trailed down the Man's chest, stopping at the growing bulge in between the Prince's legs. He gave it a slight squeeze.

Eldarion let out a moan and rolled onto his back. Legolas smiled and propped his head with his free hand in order to get a better look at the expressions of pleasure that crossed his lover's face.

"I am impressed," the Elf continued, "that you have agreed to work with Orophin tomorrow, despite your feelings towards him. Not to mention your recent encounter with his brother."

"Those matters are unimportant now," the Prince sighed as Legolas' hand continued to massage his hardening arousal. His pants would soon become uncomfortably tight.

"They are worth bearing in mind," Legolas said seriously. "I trust you not to do anything foolish or rash tomorrow."

Eldarion turned his head to meet the Elf's gaze.

"I will not," he said solemnly.

"Good."

Legolas lifted the two bowls and placed them on the bedside table. The fatigue Eldarion had seen in the Elf's eyes had disappeared and when Legolas returned his attentions to the Prince, Eldarion was once again reminded of the remarkable stamina of the Elves.

 

Chapter 3