Parting Gift

by Menel

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Chapter 5. I Rui anin Gaurhoth 1

The following morning, the inhabitants of Caras Galadhon set about their business even earlier than usual, and a grim determination could be felt in the air. Breakfast had been quick and efficient, with less talk and chatter filling the Elven hall than Eldarion was used to. After the meal, he and Legolas had returned to their room to pick up their belongings before setting out to meet the other trackers. The Prince stood now, looking out of a window in the room. Below him, he could see a host of Elves gathered by the fountain on the large lawn. Haldir was addressing them, and after a while, about half of the Elves left the clearing, headed towards the city's main gates. The Prince knew that these Elves had been assigned to guard the ships at the hythe and that they were on their way there now.

"Legolas," he said, turning around. "We should go."

The Elf nodded his head in agreement, strapping his leather braces onto his forearms. He picked up the two sets of bows and quivers that lay on the bed, handing one of them to Eldarion. It was a present he had given the Prince while they had been in Minas Tirith, and it had served the Man well. He watched as Eldarion securely fastened the bow and quiver onto his back and the Elf did the same. As the Man moved towards the door, Legolas placed a hand on his arm to stop him. The Prince looked at him questioningly. The Elf bent down and removed a slim leather sheath that was shaped like a small knife, from the inside of his boot. He held it out to Eldarion.

"Here," he said. "I want you to take this."

Eldarion accepted the sheath and removed the jewel-encrusted dagger from its case. Then he shook his head.

"This is yours," he said, attempting to return the dagger, but Legolas would not take it back.

"I want you to have it," the Elf insisted. "I will not be there with you today. Indeed, I may not see you for many days. At least, not until the hunt has ended. Take it," he said again. "You may need it."

Eldarion looked into the Elf's eyes and saw the concern in their blue depths. He slid the dagger into its leather case before speaking again.

"If you want me to be part of your team," he said slowly, "I will come with you. I'm sure that Orophin could easily find a replacement for me."

To his surprise, the Elf shook his head.

"You must do what you think is right," Legolas answered. "I would never inhibit your decisions. While I confess that I would be comforted to have you with me, being by my side does not guarantee your safety."

"Very well," Eldarion nodded. He bent down and tucked the dagger into the inside of his boot as he had seen Legolas do. The dagger was secure and well concealed against his ankle. When he stood up, he found himself swept into the Elf's arms.

"Be safe," Legolas whispered, resting his forehead against the Man's.

"I will," the Prince replied, tilting his head to catch the Elf's lips in a kiss.

For a few moments, the two lovers stood in the middle of the room in a lingering embrace, until Legolas finally released the Man with a warm smile. The Prince felt a stab in his heart at the realization that he may not see that smile for several days, or the possibility that he may never see that smile again. Suddenly, he was filled with a burning desire to be part of Legolas' team. Legolas was studying him carefully and the Man began to wonder if the Elf could truly read his thoughts. He met the Elf's firm gaze with one of his own and smiled reassuringly. Of course, he would see Legolas again. This was only a tracking expedition. They were not embarking upon a war. Grasping the Elf's hand and giving it a slight squeeze, he led them out of their chambers.

~*~*~*~

On the wide lawn, Eldarion caught sight of Hrethil and Narwarán and moved to join them. They were standing with another Elf whom the Prince guessed would be the fifth member of Orophin's team.

"Good morning, Eldarion," Narwarán greeted him. "This is Aglar. He will be joining us."

The Prince shook Aglar's hand, but did not have time to properly greet the Elf as Orophin suddenly appeared. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rúmil pass by their party on his way to join his own team. The Elf cast a look of unconcealed contempt at the group and did not stop to greet them. Eldarion shook his head, thankful that he would not be seeing Rúmil for a little while.

"We shall be leaving shortly," Orophin said. "Have the introductions been made?" he asked, looking at Aglar and Eldarion inquiringly.

"Only just," the Man replied.

"Good. There will be time enough to get to know one another later. We are just waiting for my brother to give us any final instructions."

"Will Haldir be leading his own team?" Eldarion asked him.

"Not if Legolas has anything to say about the matter," Orophin said, inclining his head in the direction of the two Elves. Haldir and Legolas were standing a little apart from the other groups and from what Eldarion could see, appeared to be engaged in a heated conversation.

Well, heated for Elves, the Prince thought, revising his original assessment. Legolas was gesturing with his hands to emphasize his point and the Guardian was adamantly shaking his head in return. Finally, some sort of resolution was achieved and the two Elves headed towards the main gathering. Legolas stopped by his own team and greeted them. Scanning the Elvish faces, Eldarion recognized two of them. There was Immacar and Mordúlin, whom the Prince knew to be both highly accomplished trackers and scouts. However, the third Elf was a complete stranger to him. Still, the Man relaxed, knowing that his lover would have tested warriors and scouts accompanying him, not to mention the ever-faithful Dwarf. Haldir had also made his way to the small dais and now stood ready to address the crowd.

"My friends," he called, as the chatter died away and the Elves focused their attention on the Guardian. "I wish you all the best today. May fortune favor you and may you find swift answers to our questions. If some teams choose not to return to the city by nightfall, you must send one of your scouts back to inform us of your whereabouts and your intentions. I myself, will not be leading a team today," Haldir said, casting a significant look at the Greenwood Prince, "for I have come to the decision that it would be wise for me stay behind and direct our efforts from here." He paused briefly. "Go now," he said, "and let your actions be ruled by wisdom and not by the sword."

With a final salute to the Guardian, the gathering dispersed and Eldarion was swept by the crowd of Elves towards the city's main gates. Once outside the Elven city, the Man caught his lover's eye one last time before Legolas' team headed towards the northern border of Lothlórien. The Elven Prince waved in farewell, his shining hair a wisp of silver as it blended into the fair wood.

With a sigh Eldarion turned to his own team, who were already several paces ahead of him. He jogged to catch up with them and quickly fell into step behind Narwarán. In the lead, Orophin set a brisk pace and behind him there was no idle chatter or conversation. They walked in single file along the smooth woodland path. Eldarion found the silence and stillness of the forest engulfing. No breeze blew through the trees and the soundless footsteps of his Elven companions left no mark upon the trail. The Prince could not help but feel relieved when he finally heard the trill of a distant bird.

It was not long before they reached the fast-flowing Celebrant and the company passed over the bridge that Narwarán had constructed. Orophin did not pause to rest as they had done two days before, when Hrethil had lead them on their excursion to Nimrodel. They continued onwards, veering from the path that would have taken them directly to the falls. Instead, they traveled on a parallel trail, and through the patches in the woods, Eldarion could glimpse snatches of the stream as it flowed gently on their left. As they traveled deeper, the sweet voice of Nimrodel reached their ears and lightened their hearts. Even Orophin's serious mood lifted a little and he stopped when they came a small clearing.

"We are not far from the site of the attack," he said. "We should rest here and have something to eat. It is almost noon. There will be much to do afterwards," he added, sitting down and stretching his legs.

The group followed suit and soon they were all seated comfortably, enjoying the various fruits that they had brought with them. Hrethil had quickly engaged Narwarán and Aglar in conversation. Not wishing to intrude, the Prince turned to Orophin for company. The Elf smiled as the Man approached, motioning for Eldarion to join him. There was an awkward silence for a moment as each tried to think of something to say. Finally, the Prince spoke.

"It is good to hear the voice of Nimrodel again, however distant it may be."

"Aye," the Elf agreed. "Her singing comforts me as well. Have you grown so fond of our fair falls?"

"I fear I have," Eldarion admitted. "From only one visit, I have managed to retain such unforgettable memories." The Man suddenly flushed at his words, momentarily forgetting his encounter with Orophin's brother. While that was also an 'unforgettable' memory, the Prince did not have that particular incident in mind. Rather, he had been thinking about his revealing 'conversation' with Legolas the following day.

"What I meant by that," he quickly added, trying to cover his discomfort and not noticing Orophin's amused smile, "is that the woods were unnaturally silent today during our march. It perturbed me and I was relieved to hear Nimrodel singing. It made me feel that the woods were still alive."

"The woods are always alive," Orophin answered. "Life is never silent."

The Man did not seem to understand this comment and so Orophin continued.

"Silence to you," he explained, "is the absence of sound. That is what you meant when you said that the woods were 'unnaturally silent'."

Eldarion nodded in agreement.

"That is not what silence is to us," Orophin said. "Indeed, silence is a rare thing in our lives, for we are bound to the song of Ilúvatar, as are the hadhodrim 2, in their own way. You are a man and therefore, are able to act independently of the Song."

"What do you mean by the 'Song'?" Eldarion asked, fascinated by the subject that he had inadvertently brought up.

"The song of Ilúvatar is what binds us to all life. Through it we are able to hear the speech of the trees, the whispers of the rocks, the gurgling of a brook. It gives us abilities and perceptions that the firiath 3 do not share. It is what you would call 'Elven senses'. That is why we are able to reach out over great distances, to see and hear what happens in other places, as the Song is being sung there. I understand," Orophin said after a pause, "that you have exceptional senses for a Man."

"My eyesight and hearing are keener than that of my people," the Prince admitted, "but my abilities are limited when compared to the Eldar. And I certainly do not know of the song of which you speak."

"That is perhaps for the best," the Elf answered. "I understand now that the song of Ilúvatar can be seen as both a blessing and curse. For while the song remains, so do my people. But as it diminishes, my people also fade. And that, young Prince, is why the time of Man has come upon us."

Eldarion nodded thoughtfully. He had learned a great deal from this conversation, increasing the respect he held for the Eldar. It was no wonder then, that the fair folk were known as the Firstborn. Then he smiled ruefully.

"Perhaps that is why men chatter so much," he said aloud, voicing his inner thoughts. "We feel the need for sound and choose to create it instead of listening to nature. By contrast, the Elves in their silent reflection are never alone."

"Well said!" Orophin laughed.

"It is ironic," Eldarion commented.

"You will find that many things in life are," the Elf answered, rising to his feet. He held out a hand to assist the Prince, which Eldarion gladly accepted.

"It is time to move on," Orophin said to the others. He gave the Prince a small approving smile before setting off into the woods once again. The rest of the company picked up their weapons and small packs, purposefully following their Captain.

The light-hearted mood that had been generated at the clearing died away as the team approached the site of the attack. Here, near the edge of the wood, the wind, which had not lifted her head to so much as rustle the leaves of the trees, suddenly blew forcefully around them. Eldarion observed that the mallorn trees had lost their customary silver sheen and their bark appeared dull and gray. He reached out his hand to touch the gray bark and was surprised to feel the heat that emanated from the tree. He pulled back his hand in astonishment.

"We can feel their pain," Hrethil said sadly, touching the Man on the elbow and motioning for Eldarion to keep moving. "We shall tend to them later."

The Prince nodded and followed his friend, wondering what the song of Ilúvatar was communicating to his Elven companions. Even with his ordinary mortal senses, communing with nature would bring him pain. What more for those bound to life itself?

Orophin stopped suddenly and held up his hand for silence. With a quick gesture, he motioned for his team to take to the trees. Swiftly and silently, the company leaped into the trees nearest them and climbed their strong branches until they were some distance from the ground and were able to observe the woodland floor below. Eldarion was grateful for his penchant to climb trees as he perched on a branch, with Hrethil on the other side of the same tree. They both held drawn bows and were ready to fire.

Long moments passed as the company waited tensely in the trees. Just when Eldarion thought that whatever Orophin had sensed had passed them by, a child appeared on the ground below. The Man blinked to make sure that his eyes were not deceiving them. No, the child was definitely real. It was a girl, perhaps no more than eight years old. She had dark brown hair that fell to her shoulders and she was dressed in a simple brown smock. *What is she doing here?* the Prince thought to himself in amazement. He looked at Hrethil, hoping to ask his friend the same question, but the Elf's attention was focused solely on the child beneath them. His face wore a grim expression and it seemed to Eldarion that Hrethil's grip on his bow had tightened. Concern mounted in the Man as he realized that the Elf was prepared to fire. A quick glance around him determined that the other Elves also had their arrows aimed at the helpless child, though no movement was perceptible in the trees.

Confusion swept through the Prince as he watched the scene below him. Before he had time to fully grasp the situation, a woman appeared. Her hair was of the same dark brown color and texture as the girl, though it was unkempt and blew wildly about her, and her clothes were also of the same style and cut. She spoke to the girl in a harsh language that Eldarion could not understand, grabbing the child roughly as she did so. She shook the girl fiercely as she bent down and admonished the child, her language crude and guttural to the Prince's ears. Suddenly, she stopped and stood up straight. Her back was to the Prince and he watched as she lifted her head up in a strange manner, almost canine-like, and appeared to sniff the air. Then she turned around, slowly surveying the woods, and Eldarion caught her eyes. What he saw sent a shiver through his body. In her unnatural yellow eyes, there glowed a dreadful wrath and the Prince knew beyond a doubt that she and her child were servants of darkness.

Satisfied that there was nothing amiss, the woman grabbed the child's hand and pulled her away, quickly walking in the direction of the edge of the wood. Orophin signaled to the others that they were to follow, soundlessly treading a path through the thick, intertwining branches of the trees. Narwarán and Aglar did the same, but Hrethil paused and looked at the Prince before standing up.

"Can you walk this path?" the Elf whispered with concern.

Eldarion nodded.

"Not as skillfully or as swiftly as you," he said. "But I shall manage."

The answer seemed to satisfy the Elf and Hrethil nodded in return, turning around and following Orophin and the others through the trees. With a deep breath, Eldarion stood up and surveyed the trees around him as he had seen the woman do. Their company was clearly alone and the Prince wondered how the other teams were faring. How was Legolas faring? He banished these thoughts from his mind, thankful for the girth and strength of the mallorn trees as he began to thread his way through them. He was of a heavier and wider build than the Elves, but he knew that the great trees could easily support his weight. The trick was ensuring that he did not slip and break his neck.

~*~*~*~

The group tracked the woman and her child from a distance until they reached the edge of the silveren Wood. Here Orophin stopped, though his eyes never left the retreating forms of the two figures. They walked across the high grass towards the shadowy passes of the Misty Mountains.

"Should we follow them?" Aglar said to Orophin.

The Captain shook his head.

"No," he replied, his sharp eyes still fixed on the two figures. "I suspect that they will return and they will bring more of their kind with them. We will be prepared for that. But until then, we should return to the site of the attack and examine it more carefully. Perhaps there were clues that my patrol and I missed in our haste yesterday afternoon."

The team waited until the woman and her child were a fair distance from the wood, though their keen Elven eyes could easily make out the dirt stains on their clothes and the waving motion of the child's hand as she brushed the tips of the high undulating grass. At last, Orophin turned from the sight and made his way back. Not wishing to disturb the tracks that the strangers had left upon the earth, the company traveled through the trees again. Orophin lead them through a different path and it was not long before they came to the site of the gaurhoth's attack.

It was a small clearing, not unlike the one the company had rested and had their lunch. Arrows were scattered haphazardly into some of the trunks of the trees. They were not concentrated in any particular area, as though the patrol had not known which direction to fire and had taken a broad defensive response to the surprise attack. Orophin held up his hand again and the team became as still as the trees they were in. Silently, the Elf drew his bow, signaling to the others that there was another presence in the clearing. For a moment, all seemed at a standstill. Then Orophin let out a low bird-like whistle and a few seconds later, a similar whistle answered his call. The Elf relaxed and dropped lightly out of his tree, with Narwarán, Aglar and Hrethil not far behind. They walked to the middle of the clearing. From the far side, Eldarion saw another team of Elves drop from their hidden perches and enter the field.

"What brings you here, brother?" Orophin called out.

"Tracks," Rúmil replied, as he greeted his brother with a firm warrior's handshake at the center of the clearing. "We found fresh tracks of a she-wolf and they lead us here. We saw this wolf-woman briefly. She had deep brown hair and those unnatural yellow eyes. She appeared to be searching for something, though we could not discern what. We were careless in our pursuit and she was able to evade us."

"We have also seen this woman of which you speak," Orophin said seriously. "She was searching for her child. My team followed her and the child to the border of the wood. They were headed in the direction of the Misty Mountains."

"The Misty Mountains," Rúmil repeated in disgust. "That is not surprising. There are few places on Middle Earth that servants of the Dark Lord can still find refuge. Why did you not follow them?"

"There was no need," Orophin said. "They will be back, of that I am certain. It is fortunate that our teams have run into each other. There is strength in numbers. It was my idea to return here, in the hopes of discovering some new information that I may have missed yesterday."

Rúmil shook his head.

"The site has remained untouched," he answered. "We have gone over it carefully. There is nothing more to be found. With the exception of the she-wolf, who did not linger here, there have been no other visitors to the area. He cocked his head to his right. "Do you have a plan, brother?"

"I do."

The Elves had gathered around their two captains, paying close attention to the brothers' discussion, knowing that their decision would concern them all.

"I would like to set a trap for the gaurhoth when they return," Orophin explained. "If we are to fight them, I would prefer to do so in our own surroundings, where we have the advantage." Around him, the Elves nodded and murmured in agreement.

"I concur," Rúmil said slowly, "but any trap requires some sort of bait."

"Perhaps," Orophin said, regarding his brother uneasily.

"Nay, not perhaps," Rúmil said sternly. "It is a necessity. If you truly wish to trap the gaurhoth, we must first find a suitable place to set the trap. I already have one in mind. But in order for the trap to be successful, we must have a bait to lure the gaurhoth there."

"What would we use for bait?" Aglar spoke up.

"Why, one of us," Rúmil said lightly, but his gaze fell directly on the only Man in their group. Eldarion met the Elf's gaze defiantly, not flinching for a moment. "It is only logical," Rúmil continued, "since the gaurhoth appear to be after victims for their Maker's dark arts. A seemingly unguarded and isolated person would quickly attract their interest."

Orophin could feel the anger rising in him at his brother's insinuation, but he held it in check, glowing darkly at Rúmil as the elder Elf elaborated his intentions.

"As for somewhere to set the trap," Rúmil went on, "there is a dell, close to the border of Lothlórien, that would be an ideal place for our 'bait' to pass the time. On one side of the dell is a rock face that will provide protection and shelter. The trees surrounding it are tall and dense, providing adequate cover for us to lie in wait and guard our friend." Once again, Rúmil spared a glance at the Man, the sarcasm in his voice thinly veiled as he said his last word.

"Do you also have someone in mind to act as 'bait'?" Eldarion asked coldly.

"Since you have brought it up," the Elf answered in a lightly mocking voice, "I was thinking of *you*."

Before one of the Prince's friends could protest, Rúmil held up a hand for silence.

"I have my reasons for such a choice. Hear me out. The Prince is the only Man among us and is not as familiar with the silveren Wood as we are. Neither does he have the swiftness or dexterity that is required to fight among the trees, as we are accustomed to. It is in his best interest to remain upon the ground, where he is more comfortable with his weapons and where he may retain his bearings."

"Leaving him upon the ground makes him the most vulnerable to attack," Hrethil said heatedly, coming to stand beside Eldarion.

"That is precisely why he is called 'bait'," Rúmil said in reply, his eyes glinting with something akin to malice.

"Eldarion has never dealt with the gaurhoth before," Narwarán added. Images of Rúmil's match with the Man were still fresh in his mind.

"The Prince has shown his ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations," Rúmil countered. "No doubt he will learn quickly. He is capable of handling himself." The Elf walked to where Eldarion stood, until they were standing face-to-face. "What say you, Princeling?" he taunted in a low voice. "Will you be our bait?"

*I trust you not to do anything foolish or rash tomorrow.*

The Man met the Elf's level gaze.

"Yes."

A look of triumph crossed Rúmil's face and he nodded.

"No," a voice spoke up. The Elf and Man turned to see Orophin approach them.

"No, Eldarion," Orophin said again. "You do not have to do this."

"I know," the Prince replied. "But I have listened to your brother's arguments and I cannot fault them. He is correct. I will better serve our efforts on the ground and would only be a hindrance in the trees."

"That may be so," Orophin answered slowly, "but my brother left out the most important fact in his arguments, and that is you are no ordinary Man. You are the Crown Prince of Gondor and we would be grossly irresponsible in our duties should we let you put yourself in such danger."

"I understand all too well the call of duty," Eldarion replied seriously, "which I why I shall not shirk from the one placed before me. I choose to remain upon the ground, and precisely because of who I am," the Man added, "none of you can stop me."

Orophin looked at the Prince's stern expression and knew that the Man would not be swayed.

"Very well," he sighed, still disapproving of the Man's decision. "However, it is far too dangerous to let you stay by yourself. I will accompany you."

Rúmil looked at his brother in surprise. He had not been expecting this.

"No," he protested. "That was not part of the plan."

"Plans can change," Orophin snapped. "I would not allow one Elf to act as bait for these fierce creatures. I will most certainly not allow a Crown Prince to do so!"

"Fine," Rúmil said, dropping his voice. "But you do not have to be his companion."

Orophin laughed suddenly, startling everyone.

"What is this?" he exclaimed, stepping closer to the other Elf. "Does my brother play at a double standard?"

Rúmil fumed at his sibling's words.

"Though I often do not act like it," he said warningly, "I am your senior in both age and rank. I will not allow you to do this."

The two brothers stood facing each other, oblivious to the amazed looks they were receiving from their companions. Never before had the other Elves seen Rúmil and Orophin act like this. Knowing that he was the cause of the disagreement, Eldarion remained at a loss of what to do as he stood in between the two Elves.

"Do you at least concede that Eldarion cannot act as bait by himself?" Orophin asked impatiently.

"Yes," Rúmil replied testily.

"Who then will you have accompany him?"

The words flew out of Rúmil's mouth before he could stop them.

"I will."

Rúmil watched as a look of shock crossed his brother's face, undoubtedly mirroring the same expression that he bore. Gathering his wits about him, the Elf attempted to explain his decision.

"From those of us here, no one has more experience with the gaurhoth than I. This will balance out the Prince's lack of experience. Furthermore," he continued, "I am the most skilled in closer quarters combat, which will serve us well upon the ground. It appears that I am the logical choice."

He met Orophin's eyes, marking the look of utter disbelief that still remained there. Glancing to his right, he noticed with some surprise that Eldarion's reaction to this sudden development was one of complete calm. If the Man was uneasy or had been taken aback by his decision, he did not show it. Behind him, both Hrethil and Narwarán appeared to be at a loss for words.

"Then it is settled," the Prince spoke up, his commanding tone putting the issue to rest. The Elves present were distinctly reminded of the royal heritage that he brought to bear. "We should head to the dell that you spoke of, Rúmil. Will the gaurhoth be returning by dusk?"

"I expect so," the Elf replied. "We will be ready for them. Come!" he called. "There is much to do."

With a wave of his hand, he set off in the direction that Orophin's group had come from. Shaken from the unusual scene that had unfolded in front of them, the other Elves followed the senior Captain, unsure of what to make of the exchange they had witnessed. As they were about to enter the wood once more, Rúmil felt someone grip his arm and hold him back. He turned around in annoyance and met his brother's steel gray eyes.

"If this is another one of your tricks," Orophin hissed, "I will not stand for it!"

Rúmil pulled his arm free defiantly.

"We are far beyond any tricks now," he said darkly, stalking off into the dimming wood.

 

Translations:
1. "I Rui anin Gaurhoth" - The Hunt for the Werewolf-host
2. "hadhodrim" - dwarves, as a race
3. "firiath" - mortal beings

 

Chapter 4