Parting Gift

by Menel

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Chapter 6. Traps and Ambushes

Legolas marked the stillness of the wood as he led his team towards Lothlórien's northern border. It was a chilly, autumn day, though no wind blew through the branches of the trees. Arien was high in the sky, but the warmth from her rays did not reach the earth below. Behind him, he could hear the heavy footfalls of the Dwarf as they marched. The Elf was concerned that he had set an unmanageable pace for his short-legged friend, but the Dwarf had stubbornly insisted that they would not be delayed on his account.

"Do not fall behind because of me," Gimli had warned him. "I will manage just fine."

Legolas had known better than to argue, and quickly discovered that his friend was true to his word. The team progressed well, and whenever the Elf's keen hearing picked up the Dwarf's slightly labored breathing, he would imperceptibly slow down the pace to allow Gimli some rest. If the other Elves noticed this, they did not comment on it.

When the company reached the mighty Celebrant, they did not cross the river as some of the other teams had done. Instead, they continued their journey on the river's eastern shore, taking them to the northernmost area of the wood. At noon, Legolas found a suitable place to have the midday meal, veering away from the well-worn track to a small, murmuring brook not far from their path. Gimli smiled approvingly as the Elf settled himself upon a high rock at the source of the stream.

"I did not realize that you knew these woods so well, Master Elf," he commented, sitting by the bank of the stream.

"Did you think that the blind was leading the blind, Master Dwarf?" Legolas chided in return.

"It would not have surprised me in the least," Gimli retorted, taking a hearty bite out of his bread roll. "Did you really know that there was a brook near our path?" he asked suspiciously.

"Why, of course!" the Elf laughed. "The woods told me so."

"Bah, the woods told you so," Gimli grumbled. He dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand, but it did not prevent him from casting a furtive look at the great trees around him. He did not mean to be disrespectful. "What else have the woods told you?" he asked after a while.

"They are fearful," Legolas replied seriously. "They feel the unwelcome presence of dark forces and their unease grows stronger as we reach the border of the silveren Wood."

"I have felt it as well," Immacar agreed, approaching the two friends. Legolas and Gimli watched as the raven-haired Elf seated himself by the bank next to the Dwarf. "I hope you don't mind if I join you?" he asked them.

"Not at all," Legolas assured him. "You are most welcome." Turning his head to the left, he nodded to the other two Elves in his company, Mordúlin and Maedlûth, who were resting by a broad mallorn tree, not far from their little group. The Elves returned the gesture with a friendly smile before resuming their quiet conversation. Satisfied that all was well, Legolas focused his clear blue eyes on Immacar. "What are your thoughts on our journey so far?" he asked.

"Although it has passed without incident," Immacar answered, "the stillness of the wood unsettles me," he confessed. "It is like the calm before the storm, so to speak, as though nature waits with bated breath for something terrible to strike."

Legolas nodded thoughtfully, nibbling on a handful of berries.

"Aye," the Dwarf agreed. "I have not your senses, but even I can tell when there is evil afoot. It is this waiting for evil to strike that I have no patience for," he declared. "My people would meet it head-on, and deal the first blow if we could!"

"Dwarven diplomacy," Legolas commented, his eyes twinkling as he shared a mischievous grin with the other Elf. Immacar merely laughed.

"As a child, I was told that the height of the Dwarves was a measurement of how quickly they would lose their temper," he informed them with a sage nod of his head. Now it was Legolas' turn to laugh.

"Then you had best watch what you say," Gimli responded, automatically putting his arms on his hips, "lest you find out the truth of that statement." The Dwarf's words and actions were serious, but his kind eyes held mirth, reassuring both Elves that all was said in jest.

"I have no wish to discover the truth of that statement," Immacar replied, "for however short a Dwarf's temper may be, it is more than compensated for by the might of his actions and the blow of his axe."

"And an Elf's fair words are swift to soothe the injuries of the tongue," Gimli said, returning to his meal with a satisfied smile. He liked Immacar best among the Elves in the company. Immacar was striking in appearance, with raven hair and violet eyes. There was something in his temperament and disposition that reminded the Dwarf of another warrior that he had become friends with. Indeed, if it were not for the Elf's violet eyes, one would have thought that Immacar was the Elvish reincarnation of the Prince of Dol Amroth.

Gimli had also discovered that Immacar and Legolas were quite close, having often hunted and tracked together in the past. During the long days of the Shadow, when few of the Lórien Elves ventured outside their land, Immacar had been one of the most intrepid scouts of the silveren Wood, bearing messages far and wide on behalf of the Lord and the Lady. For this reason, he was accustomed to the manners of the other races and was at ease among them. His travels had also made him fluent in the Common Tongue, and he spoke the language without a trace of his Sindarin accent.

The lunch continued peacefully and for a while, the travelers were able to put aside the dangerous task at hand. Mordúlin and Maedlûth joined the group by the stream, wishing to relax their feet in the cool water before they set off again. At length, Legolas looked up at the sky and then turned towards his team.

"My friends," he said, "we must be on our way."

With a heavy sigh, the company stood up and gathered their belongings. There was work to be done and soon they were walking on the path they had left. They did not travel far before Legolas halted and knelt on one knee, studying the ground intently.

"What is it?" Gimli asked, coming to stand beside his friend.

"Tracks," the Prince answered.

"The gaurhoth?" Mordúlin questioned.

"No," Legolas grimaced. "They belong to a more familiar foe. Orcs."

Mordúlin stiffened. It had been many a moon since an Orc had dared to set foot in the silveren Wood. While there was no doubt that the foul creatures still existed on Middle Earth, they lived in small groups, scattered and divided in the shadowy recesses of the land. They were mere foot soldiers, disorganized and confused without a strong leader to guide them. Who then, could have gathered them together and given them the courage to enter the sacred realm of Lothlórien since the passing of the Shadow?

Immacar followed the tracks for a short way, but quickly returned to the group.

"There are more tracks up ahead," he said with concern. "It appears that this band of Orcs met-up with another band of their kind before continuing on their path. A quick estimate of their number would be about thirty to thirty-five."

"Then let us follow the path they walked," Legolas said, "for these tracks are not even a day old. It appears that a greater evil than we anticipated descended upon Lothlórien last night, for more than the gaurhoth roamed these woods."

"First the gaurhoth and now Orcs," Gimli muttered as they went on their way. "Do you think that these dark creatures are in league with one another?"

"It is a safe guess," Legolas said, his swift steps following the bold trail that the Orcs had left behind. "The gaurhoth require a Maker, and we all know that Orcs, when left to their own devices, are no more than cowardly minions. They need the strength of a powerful leader to unite them and give purpose to their actions. It is more than likely that the Maker is this person."

All talk ceased as the team silently retraced the tracks of the foul creatures, thoughtfully reflecting on their Captain's words. The trail lead them to the border of the silveren Wood and continued along the wood's inner perimeter. Every once in a while, a group of two or three Orcs would stray from the main pack and venture into the wood, but they would not scout far and their tracks soon converged with those of their comrades.

Legolas remained puzzled and concerned by these tracks. No effort had been taken to conceal them and although Orcs were not known for their stealth, these tracks were much too obvious, even for their kind. How was it possible that the border patrols had not seen nor heard these creatures pass during the night? Where had the border patrols been? Had the attack of the gaurhoth left them in such disarray that all patrols had been recalled to Caras Galadhon? That seemed unlikely, but it was still possible. He remembered the heavily guarded main gate of the city when he and Eldarion had arrived the night before. Perhaps the patrols had been recalled to Caras Galadhon for safety purposes. On the other hand, if the patrols had remained in the area and had seen the Orcs, why had they not engaged them in combat? Were they outnumbered, or had they chosen to observe their enemy's actions instead, in order to gain some insight into their purposes? At any rate, these sightings should have been reported to Haldir at once. The Elf shook his head in consternation. There were too many questions left unanswered.

Furthermore, there was the direction of the tracks themselves. From what Legolas could discern, the Orcs were clearly mapping the perimeter of the wood's northern border. But what was their objective? Were they planning an invasion or some sort of attack? How great were their numbers? Pausing to look to his left, the Elf scrutinized the forbidding Misty Mountains rising in the distance.

Immacar came to stand beside him. "What it is it?" he asked quietly.

"I fear that we are being lead astray," Legolas replied thoughtfully, his keen eyes scanning the cragged rocks at the base of the mountain range. "These tracks may be a decoy to draw our attention away from where danger really lies."

"What makes you say that?"

Legolas shook his head. "A feeling," he answered simply.

Immacar remained silent. He had journeyed with Legolas enough times to know that the Prince's instincts were never wrong. He was about to follow the direction of the other Elf's gaze when Legolas suddenly turned around, and in a movement too quick for the eye to follow, drew his bow and took aim at the trail in front of them. There was no time to take cover and without hesitation, Immacar followed suit, vaguely aware that the other Elves stood with their bows ready, the Dwarf with his axe drawn. A wisp of brown and silver moved in between the great trees, but all else remained still.

"Halt!" Legolas called commandingly. "Who goes there?"

"It is I, Tharlirod," came the reply, as a brown-haired Elf stepped from the cover of the foliage onto the path on which Legolas' team stood. The other Elves in Tharlirod's team also emerged from their hiding places further down the path and made their way to the Greenwood Prince.

Legolas relaxed and went to meet the other Captain. "You are far from your designated search area," he said seriously as he greeted Tharlirod.

"Yes," the Elf agreed, "but we have been following these Orc tracks for the better part of the afternoon. They have lead us here."

"What do you make of these tracks?" Legolas queried.

"They are unusual, but systematic," Tharlirod explained. "We noticed that they follow the inner perimeter of the wood. Every so often, a smaller group of about three or four Orcs will delve deeper into the wood, but they never stray far and quickly return to the main band. The band that we were following converged with another band of orcs of approximately the same number and left the forest. We chose to continue following the tracks of the second band of Orcs to see how far they went, to find out how much of the woods they had mapped."

"This second band," Immacar interrupted, "are the tracks that we have been following?"

"Yes," Tharlirod confirmed. "I confess," he added, "that we are at a loss to explain their purpose."

"Oftentimes, when one is confused or uncertain, the most simple and obvious answer is the best," Legolas said thoughtfully, more to himself than to the others present. The Prince's gaze fell on the ground, where the Orc prints were visibly embedded on the earthen floor. Then he looked up, his clear blue eyes glinting with newly acquired knowledge. "Take us to the site where the tracks converge," he said.

Tharlirod nodded, motioning for the others to follow him. He was somewhat relieved to have encountered Legolas' team. He held the Greenwood Prince in high esteem and believed that the other Elf would know what to do with the strange trail. He lead them back the path his team had tread not too long ago. It was some distance around the perimeter of the wood and none failed to notice how the trees lost their natural luster and shimmer as they walked.

"Legolas," Gimli said softly, "what is wrong with the trees?" The Dwarf's eyes roamed the ancient mallorns, disturbed at their forlorn sight.

"They are in pain," Legolas answered tensely. "Some evil enchantment has fallen upon this part of the forest. I can feel it spreading throughout the northern border. No doubt the other patrols have encountered this change as well." For a few moments he wondered how Eldarion was faring, but decided not to pursue that line of thought. His lover was in good hands, surrounded by loyal friends and an experienced Captain.

"The site is up ahead," Tharlirod called back and the two teams emerged into a clearing filled with orc tracks. Mordúlin involuntarily held his breath, the stench of the Orcs still lingering in the area despite their having passed the night before. Maedlûth crinkled his nose in distaste.

"Even if the Orcs had left no visible trace of their passing," he said quietly to his friend, "their foul smell would undoubtedly have given them away."

Mordúlin nodded as he watched Legolas immediately begin surveying the area. "I wonder what he has planned?" he said, with a nod in the Prince's direction.

"We will find out soon enough," Maedlûth answered, walking to where Legolas now stood deep in conversation with Tharlirod, Immacar and the Dwarf. The remaining Elves were of the same mind and soon all were tightly grouped around the two Captains listening intently to their conversation.

"What should we do?" Tharlirod was asking.

"We will do what is expected of us and follow these tracks to their origin," Legolas answered.

"Legolas," Immacar interjected, "you have just finished telling us that you believe these creatures are setting a trap for us. Now you wish for us to walk straight into their clutches?"

"Dear friend," Legolas answered, placing a comforting hand on the other Elf's shoulder, "knowing that a trap awaits us is the first step in not getting caught." He turned to the others who had now clustered around them. "We will spend the night here," he announced. "Two of you will return to the city to inform Haldir of the tracks we have found."

"These tracks," he continued, "are unlike any we have encountered in the past. For although they are systematic in design, they were made as obvious as possible so that a blind man may follow them." Legolas paused for a moment and then said strongly, "And follow them we shall, for though there is no mistaking their direction and the evil that is hidden within the Misty Mountains, it is the only lead available to us at this time. These tracks coupled with the gaurhoth's attack leave no doubt that a sorcerer of great power is harnessing these evil forces. We must find his lair."

A murmur of assent went through the small gathering and Legolas continued. "We will not walk blindly or defenseless," he said. "I will ask Haldir to send reinforcements to us and they should arrive before noon tomorrow. We will head for the Misty Mountains while Arien is still high to minimize the threat of attack and see how we fare from there." He paused again before saying thoughtfully, "I realize that this is far from a definitive plan, but it is the best we can do for the moment. In all likelihood, there will be a trap waiting for us and we must be at our most alert to avoid disaster. I fear that this a decoy for some greater plot, and if that is the case, we still cannot avoid it."

"Your words are true," Gimli spoke up. "These foul creatures have made the first move and now it is our turn. We can do nothing but play this game out, and in the end, we will be victorious."

Legolas gave his stout friend a small smile, thankful for the Dwarf's words of reassurance. Indeed, Gimli's confidence radiated from him, infecting the others with his certainty. The meeting was dismissed on a purposeful note with Maedlûth and Lhunatar, a member of Tharlirod's team, remaining behind to speak to their captains. It was decided that they, being the most fleet-footed among the Elves present, would return to Caras Galadhon and inform Haldir of their plans. The two Elves listened intently as Tharlirod gave them instructions, while Legolas set to writing a short note on a piece of parchment addressed to Haldir. When all was ready, the two scouts bowed briefly before the Greenwood Prince and then set off, quickly disappearing through the great forest. Legolas watched them go and a small sigh escaped him, his thoughts inadvertently returning to his young lover. He hoped Eldarion was safe.

When he turned around, he noticed that Mordúlin was standing near him. "Is there something you wish to tell me?" he asked the Elf.

Mordúlin stepped forward. "I don't mean to be rude," he began hesitantly, "but when you said that we would be spending the night here," he paused, "you didn't actually mean that we would be staying *here*?" he inquired, looking around the clearing. The smell of the orcs was positively suffocating him.

Legolas laughed. "Have no fear, Mordúlin," he said. "We will climb high into the trees closer to the border of the wood where the stench can no longer offend our delicate senses."

Mordúlin grinned sheepishly and nodded. "Very well," he said, a distinct note of relief in his voice.

Beside the Prince, the Dwarf was grumbling. "Another night of sleeping in the blasted trees!"

~*~*~*~

In another part of the silveren Wood, near its northwestern border, two other teams had joined forces in an effort to combat their enemy. However, their plan was of an entirely different nature from the course of action that Legolas and his fellow scouts had decided upon. Instead of pursuing their foe into unknown territory, they had chosen to entice their adversary to come to them. After all, Rúmil reasoned to himself as the two companies trekked towards the designated dell, different opponents require different types of strategy. The gaurhoth were not common Orcs, whose strength came from their numbers. Werewolves were highly skilled and cunning creatures. Even a small pack would be difficult, but not impossible, to overcome.

Orophin's plan was for the best, the senior Captain considered. If only his brother had not been so quick to volunteer himself as bait in an effort to protect that mortal. It was unlike Orophin to be so impulsive. Rash decisions belonged to his domain and he had, once again, lived up to expectations. A slight smile began to twitch at the corners of his mouth. He actually found the whole situation rather amusing and would've laughed out loud at their foolishness, had the circumstances not been so grave.

Rúmil had always been one to appreciate a good joke or a clever trick, even if he was at the receiving end of it, which was a rare occurrence indeed. However, those rare instances inspired in him the terribly unbecoming desire for revenge, which was why the Elf was certain that he would survive this encounter with the gaurhoth. He glanced over his shoulder at his fellow piece of bait, who was walking a few paces behind him. Of course, he thought, revenge may be a moot point if the Prince does not survive the night. The Elf's mind clouded at the thought. As much as he disliked the Man, he could not allow that to happen. Perhaps some of his younger brother's sense had rubbed off on him after all. He could not deny that Eldarion was the heir to the throne of Gondor, and the wrath of the King and Queen, the Evenstar of his people, was not something that he wished to face. Incomprehensibly, especially to himself, the Elf gave the Man the barest hint of a smile.

Eldarion caught Rúmil's hesitant smile and did not return it. Though he could sense the sincerity behind the gesture and see the uncertain look in the Elf's gray eyes, he remained unmoved. Since the dispute at the clearing, he had adopted an unreadable expression of calm that would have made Legolas proud. *Legolas!* he suddenly thought with a start. When the Elf found out what he'd done, Eldarion dreaded to think of the consequences. What had he promised his lover the night before? That he would not do anything foolish or rash. Unfortunately, his current actions fell quite neatly into both categories. He shook his head. He would willingly be bait for a hundred gaurhoth if only he were guaranteed to see Legolas in the end.

Beside him, Hrethil walked dejectedly. The Elf's normally light-hearted mood was dampened and his shoulders slumped uncharacteristically. The two friends had had their own argument not long after the party had left the clearing, and the Prince now regretted his harsh words. He knew that Hrethil had meant no offence and had only been concerned for his safety, but Eldarion's stubborn streak refused to let him give in to his friend's suggestion. Hrethil had brought up the point that someone would have to return to the city to report to Haldir the day's events and their plans for the coming night. Why could Eldarion not be this person? For his part, the Prince had been appalled. He adamantly refused to back out of the plan now. To do so would be an act of cowardice, and to return to Caras Galadhon as though he were a burden on the company even worse. Hrethil had countered by arguing that it had been an act of foolishness that had goaded Eldarion into accepting this forsaken plan in the first place. At this point, the Prince had lost his composure and told his friend to return to Caras Galadhon himself since he was so concerned about the matter. Hrethil did not reply and no more was said about the matter, but a heavy silence hung between the two companions as they walked. Eldarion knew that he would have to make amends, but now was not the time.

The Prince noticed that the group had slowed their step and he took a moment to examine his surroundings. They were very near the border of Lothlórien and if the Man gazed hard enough, he could just make out the Misty Mountains as they rose dimly in the east. The trees in this area had also lost their silver sheen and appeared forlorn and gray in the fading afternoon light. Eldarion wondered how far this evil spell had managed to penetrate into the silveren Wood. Thus far, it appeared to affect only the trees along the border paths, but the Man was certain that it would not take long for it to weave its magic deeper into the fair wood if its source were not found and stopped quickly. The Elves from Rúmil's team, under the direction of their Captain, began fanning out to investigate the surrounding area. The Prince was shaken out of his thoughts as Narwarán came to speak to him.

"We have reached the dell. It is a little to the right, down that path," the Elf said, pointing in the direction of a small path in between the great mallorn trees. "Come," he said, motioning for Eldarion to follow him, "the others will survey the area. You should see where you will be spending the night."

Eldarion followed Narwarán down the narrow trail into the dell. The site was larger than the Man had been expecting, but otherwise it was exactly as Rúmil had described. At the far end was a high rock face that rose approximately two hundred feet into the air. Its smooth surface made it slippery and impossible to climb as a means of escape, while its height ensured that no one would be able to jump from its top without causing injury to themselves. The surrounding trees were tall and broad, providing good cover for the Elves to lie in wait undetected. Eldarion stood in the center of the dell and looked around him. He suspected that the gaurhoth would have to enter from the same path that he had just walked, as the underbrush and foliage at the base of the trees appeared to be too thick to penetrate. It would be advantageous to their party if that were the case, but one could never be certain, the Prince reminded himself, remembering that the creatures possessed extraordinary strength.

"We shall set-up camp over there," a voice said to his left. Eldarion did not react to Rúmil's sudden appearance by his side, though he was disconcerted to have been taken off his guard. *I must be more alert,* he reprimanded himself, at the same time conceding that Rúmil was an Elf after all. The Captain was gesturing to the area at the base of the rock face that together with the encircling trees would allow their company to surround the gaurhoth as the beasts entered the dell.

Dusk was rapidly falling and it was not long before the Elves from Rúmil's team returned from their scouting mission. After a quick word with the two captains, one of the Elves took his leave. Eldarion inadvertently looked at Hrethil, who was standing near the path. Apparently, someone had already been designated to return to Caras Galadhon and report their activities to Haldir. Hrethil was not looking in the Man's direction and it appeared to the Prince that the Elf was studiously avoiding any eye contact with him. He sighed inwardly.

As he looked away, he saw one of the Elves from Rúmil's team approach him and wordlessly hand over two rabbits that the Elf had trapped. Dinner, the Prince presumed, as he accepted them with a nod of his head. The Elf bowed slightly in return before disappearing into the high branches of the trees as his companions had done. Eldarion turned around to see Rúmil building a fire by the campsite. Sharing a campsite with only Rúmil for company would probably be the most trying experience of the whole night, the Prince mused. Steeling himself for the events ahead, he strode determinedly to where the Elf sat.

"Can you cook, Princeling?" Rúmil asked, without so much as looking up.

"Not with any great skill," the Man admitted, "but skinning and roasting two rabbits is manageable."

"Excellent," the Elf replied. "Then I shall leave dinner to you."

Eldarion watched with raised eyebrows as Rúmil finished tending to the fire and then stretched out on his bedroll with his legs crossed, his head propped on a low-lying log and his hands clasped across his stomach. The Elf was completely relaxed. He had even closed his eyes. Had he forgotten their purpose for being there? The Man knew the answer to be a firm 'no' as he marked the bow and quiver by the Elf's side and the keen long blade that hung from his waist. No doubt the blade's sister was also within arm's reach. Aware of the rabbits that he held in his hand, the Prince set about skinning and cooking the two carcasses.

Two hours later, Man and Elf sat on opposite sides of the fire eating the last remains of the roasted rabbits. Eldarion had thought that two rabbits would be too much for both of them, but had quickly discovered that he was famished and that Rúmil also possessed a hearty appetite. For some time now, the Prince had been living primarily on a diet composed of Elvish waybread, fresh fruits and sweets. The smell of the roasted rabbit and its tender, juicy flesh had flared inside him the desire for the richer fare of Minas Tirith, perhaps even the heady meals found in Dwarven halls. What had Gimli said about smoked leg of lamb? And malt beer? The Prince smiled to himself. Could there be a more inappropriate time to daydream about food? However, that thought did not prevent his roaming eye from focusing on the last bit of rabbit leg being kept warm over the low-burning fire.

"Would you like the last piece?" he asked the Elf out of politeness.

Rúmil shook his head. "No," he replied. "I have had enough. Too much, I believe. The last piece should go to the cook for his admirable efforts."

Eldarion lifted the rabbit leg from the fire, saying as he did so, "My thanks, Rúmil. Your comment, if I am not mistaken, was dangerously close to a compliment."

A small smile curved around the corners of the Elf's delicate mouth. "Every healthy animosity requires some sort of repartee," he answered.

The Prince grinned in spite of himself as he settled on top of his bedroll once more. These were the first words that he and Rúmil had exchanged since the Elf had built the fire. The Man had presumed that the night would be spent in silence and the possibility did not bother him, since he was quite content to keep to himself. But if Rúmil was going to make an effort at civil conversation, then he would reciprocate. He took a bite out of the rabbit leg and began chewing the meat thoughtfully, his gaze drifting upwards to the branches of the trees around them.

"Do not look for them," Rúmil said commandingly. Then he softened the tone of his voice. "You will not find them," he explained. "I, myself, cannot see where they hide. If there are dark spies watching us, you would only draw attention to them by your actions."

Eldarion nodded, focusing instead on the rabbit's leg in front of him. "Do you really believe that the gaurhoth will come tonight?" he asked after awhile.

"Nothing is for certain," the Elf sighed, "but it is a safe assumption. They have failed in their responsibilities to their Maker. He will send them out again to complete their task. We can feel his power as he casts his spell across the border of our wood. You have also seen the change in the trees and felt the stillness of nature."

The Prince nodded again. "But how will they know where to find us?"

"They will follow the scent of your roast rabbit, of course."

Both of them laughed at the Elf's joke, but at the back of their minds, they recognized the truth that lay at the heart of the statement. The cooking, the fire, the campsite - all were done to draw attention to themselves, to lead the gaurhoth to them. When their laughter died away, Rúmil fixed the Prince under his piercing gaze before speaking again.

"You must never look a werewolf in the eye," he said seriously. "The unnatural light that burns there will trap and mesmerize you. A few seconds off your guard is all that they will need to destroy you. They are shape-shifters, like the Dark Lord himself, and they may come to us in the form of either Man or beast."

"Or woman and child," the Prince added softly.

"Yes," the Elf agreed through gritted teeth. "Do not be deceived by their appearance. You must show them no mercy. The clean slice of your blade through their neck will swiftly kill them. Make no mistake, Eldarion. You have never encountered creatures such as these before."

The Man remained silent, listlessly picking at the last bits of his rabbit leg. He had lost his appetite thanks to the unpleasant talk about the gaurhoth. He felt that a change of topic was in order.

"Why do you dislike me so?"

It was a question that had been playing around the edges of the Prince's mind, but surely he hadn't just said it aloud. Had he? A quick glance at the Elf's normally calm features now etched with surprise confirmed his worst suspicions.

Rúmil composed himself quickly.

"I could ask the same question of you, don't you agree?"

The Man let out an exasperated sigh.

"Why must Elves always answer a question with a question?"

"Does that bother you?"

Eldarion glared at the smirking Elf. "I am not an Elf," he stated matter-of-factly.

"You don't say?"

The Prince ignored Rúmil's mocking tone and continued. "Therefore, I will not evade the subject at hand, as your kind is so adept at doing. To be honest, my attitude towards you is merely a reaction to your dislike of me. You raise the hackles on my self defense mechanisms, and I do not understand your reasons for doing so. I have never done anything to cause you grief, and if I have, then it has occurred without my knowledge." Eldarion stopped speaking abruptly, realizing how much he had just revealed and how easily he had done so. Where was this sudden confession coming from?

The Elf looked at him impassively, giving no sign whether the Man's words had affected him in any way. He returned Rúmil's even gaze, schooling his features to reflect the Elf's own bland indifference. For some time they sat opposite one another in perfect stillness, and the weight of the Man's confession melted away like embers from the burning fire. Rúmil would not even acknowledge his words. The Prince should have expected as much. Still, he would not be the first to break his gaze. So intent was he on not losing this battle of wills that he did not realize that the Elf was speaking to him. Rúmil's voice sounded distant, as though the Elf were speaking to him from a dream.

"Is it not true that my people have treated you with respect and courtesy at all times?" Rúmil was asking him.

"Yes," the Prince answered, slightly confused by the question. "But some Elves have been less welcoming than others."

Rúmil chuckled. "And you believe that I fall into that category?"

"Don't you?"

This time the Elf laughed out loud. Eldarion could not follow Rúmil's line of reasoning, although he was certain that the Elf must have one. What was wrong with him tonight? First, there were the fantasies about lush meals, followed by his inexplicable confession, and now he couldn't seem to focus on a simple conversation. It took him another few seconds to recognize that Rúmil was speaking once more.

"Yes, I suppose I do," the Elf conceded. "Do you know why the others are . . ." he trailed off, searching for the right word, " . . . uncomfortable . . . around you?"

"It is because of my relationship with Legolas," the Man answered simply. "They do not understand it and they disapprove of it. Some believe it to be folly on both our parts, others see it as nothing more than a passing fancy." Eldarion shrugged. "It matters not to me."

"Why then, do you single me out from the others?"

"Because you are different."

The Elf said nothing, but waited for the Man to continue. There was a momentary silence, as the Prince now searched for the right words.

"You act as though I have offended you," he began hesitantly, "as if my very presence offends you. You harbor some deep-rooted resentment towards me that I cannot fathom. It leads me to sometimes wonder if it is me that upsets you so, or if I am somehow representative of something from your past. If that were the case, then you are not being fair. I should not be held responsible for events that happened before me, even if I may be a sad reminder of them."

"Even if I see the same folly being played before my eyes, only with deeper implications and richer resonance?" the Elf laughed bitterly, momentarily dropping his elvish composure. He shook his head, knowing that he spoke in riddles, but now was not the time to enlighten the young Prince. "I have underestimated the depth of your sight. You are wise beyond your years, as Legolas likes to say. But we will not talk of this now. Survive this night, Princeling, and you shall earn my respect. Only then will I tell you what you wish to know."

With these words, the Captain drew the conversation to a close and stood up. "We should get what rest we can," he said, his voice returning to its commanding tone. "I will take the first watch. We will keep watch in four-hour intervals. I shall wake you when it is your turn." He gave the Man a curt nod before striding to the tall trees along the outer edges of the dell.

Eldarion lay down on his bedroll, his eyes following the retreating figure of the Elf. It was late. The cold night air blew around him as he drew his blanket over his shoulders. He did not think that sleep would come to him this night. Nevertheless, he closed his eyes and eventually drifted into a fitful rest, his broken dreams filled with snatches of laughing blue eyes and silky silveren hair. Yet, in the corner of his mind, he saw another figure in the distance clad in silver and gray. This person's face was hidden by the hood of his cloak, but Eldarion knew who it was. The figure watched them and the Prince did not mind. He could feel an immense sadness and longing emanating from this being and the Man found himself wondering, was there anything he could do to ease such pain?

~*~*~*~

Four hours later, Eldarion sat on a log at the base of the camp, his back to the high rock face and the resting form of Rúmil. The Captain's watch had been uneventful as his was also proving to be. Although it was still dark, the Prince knew that dawn would soon be approaching. His earlier tension and anxiety had left him, as the threat of attack faded with the coming dawn. It appeared that he would survive this night after all, and his thoughts returned to his conversation with Rúmil from the night before. Would the Elf really tell him what he wished to know? The Man did not doubt it and his curiosity burned with the desire to speak to Rúmil as soon as possible.

Suddenly, a sharp wind blew the remaining warmth from the embers of the fire. Eldarion stood up instinctively, his hand on the hilt of his sword. There was something in the air that reminded him of his time with Legolas by the bank of Nimrodel, when his lover had sensed the threat of oncoming danger. This same menace now enveloped them; the only difference was there would be nowhere to run. But that had never been their intention. The wind continued to blow, whipping the Prince's dark hair across his eyes, which he brushed away with a quick sweep of his hand. He turned around to rouse the Elf, but Rúmil was already standing, bow in hand. He motioned for Eldarion to prepare himself, and the Prince also drew his bow, taking aim at the dark path that lead to the dell. He could see nothing, but he was acutely aware of the vicious rustling of the leaves and the moaning of the trees. His heartbeat quickened as his body prepared to fight.

Then, just as suddenly as it had come, the wind died away and all was still once more. The Prince tensely held his drawn bow as long seconds passed, turning into minutes, but nothing happened. Could they have been mistaken? Out of the corner of his eye, he stole a glance at the Captain. Rúmil remained focused on the path ahead, his expression cold and forbidding.

Whatever doubts Eldarion had were dispelled as his attention was drawn back to the narrow path by the sound of a low growl. It was followed by a pair of fierce eyes and the Man watched with horrified fascination as a great hulking creature stepped out of the shadowy path into the dell. He avoided the glinting yellow eyes as Rúmil had instructed him, instead taking in the creature's shape and form. It walked on all fours, but it was seven times greater in size and shape than any wolf he had ever seen. Its paws were large enough to crush a child's skull, and its long black claws scratched the earth as it slowly circled the dell. Although shaped in canine form, the Man could almost discern the more 'human' characteristics of the beast. Its chest was unusually broad, the powerful haunches leaving no doubt in the Prince's mind that the beast could walk on its two legs should it choose to do so. Upright, he estimated that the creature would stand at least eight feet tall.

For a moment, Eldarion felt paralyzed as he watched the gaurhoth enter the dell one by one. Their steps were predatory and measured in their synchronicity. The Prince tried to recall Orophin's report from the previous attack. How many had there been? The Captain had estimated five to seven. Four creatures stood in a semi-circle around the dell. Where were the other three?

Eldarion had no time to think as the first creature nearest to his left rushed at him. Instantly, he released his arrow noticing how a second arrow from Rúmil's bow flew by its side. The force of the two arrows hit the creature in the chest momentarily breaking his stride, but they did not stop him. With a snarl, it continued towards the Prince who had drawn and fired another arrow. Effortlessly, the werewolf batted the arrow away in mid-air. The creature was coming much too fast and would soon be on top of him. The Man did not have the Elves' lightning reflexes, but he managed to strap his bow behind his back and draw his sword. To his right, Rúmil had already been engaged in combat by the creature nearest to him. Eldarion was vaguely aware of the arrows that rained down from the treetops. Some of their companions had already dropped to the forest floor to aid them. But they were too far away and the Man knew that he would have to face this creature alone.

The Prince braced himself, as the werewolf rose on its two hind legs, preparing to lunge at the Man. Eight feet had been too tentative an estimate, Eldarion thought as the beast towered over him. Without waiting for the creature to leap, he charged the werewolf with his sword, stabbing it in the chest. With a fierce howl the beast staggered backwards but did not fall. Eldarion withdrew his sword and raised it again to strike, but before he could do so, the creature knocked him down with the full force of its weight as it fell on top of him. The Man lost the grip on his sword and it landed a few feet away from him. As the werewolf raised itself to strike again, Eldarion moved backwards to grab his sword, but the creature simply leaned over him and placed a great paw on the Man's wrist, the immense pressure forcing Eldarion to release his weapon once more.

The werewolf bared its teeth in delight at the Man's helpless position, lifting its other paw, the black claws silhouetted in the remaining moonlight, ready for the kill. But before the werewolf could finish him off, an arrow pierced its exposed flank. The beast howled in pain, turning around in the direction of the shot. Out of the corner of his eye, the Prince could see Narwarán at the far end of the dell about to release another arrow. This momentary distraction was all Eldarion needed to reach down for Legolas' jeweled dagger tucked neatly on the inside of his boot. In one smooth motion, he pulled the dagger from its sheath and drew the blade deeply along the length of the werewolf's body, cleanly cutting the beast in half. The Man rolled away as the werewolf gave one last keening cry before falling to the ground. Its head landed sideways, facing Eldarion and the Prince found himself still mesmerized by the glinting yellow eyes as the fierce fire that burned with them dimmed until they were empty and lifeless. Eldarion became aware of his own rapid breathing as he tried to slow it down. He looked around him and discovered Orophin by his side, a look of concern on the Elf's face as he leaned over the Man.

"Are you hurt?" the Captain asked urgently.

Eldarion shook his head. "No," he answered. "Just a little bruised."

Orophin's eyes quickly searched the Man for any injuries. Satisfied that Eldarion was indeed well, he smiled and reached out a hand to help the Prince up. Grasping the Elf's strong forearm, Eldarion winced at the sudden spurt of pain that flared from his crushed wrist. Orophin looked at him darkly but gently took the Man's wrist to examine it.

"It is not broken," he said after a moment, a note of relief in his voice. "But the swelling will take several days to subside. I have some salve that I shall rub on it to keep it warm and then I'll bind it. Try not to put too much pressure on it," the Elf advised. "It will heal quicker."

"A sprained wrist is small payment for one's first encounter with the gaurhoth," a silky voice said behind them, as Orophin's brother came to join them. The Elf was holding his arm and Eldarion could not help but notice that the gash he had inflicted had reopened and was bleeding again. This did not stop Rúmil from bending down to retrieve the Man's sword and dagger, careful to hide his admiring glance at the slain beast at the Prince's feet. "I believe these belong to you," he said, returning the weapons to their owner.

Eldarion nodded his thanks, sliding his sword into its scabbard with his left hand and cleaning the dagger on his breeches before returning it to its sheath. Orophin was rummaging in his small pack, presumably for the salve he had mentioned. The Prince took the time to survey the dell. The four creatures lay dead at different places. The two that had attacked both himself and Rúmil were near the rock face where they had set-up camp. The remaining werewolves had not made it to the center of the dell before being slain by their companions. The Elves did not look worse for wear. A few had minor cuts and bruises like Eldarion, although the Prince noticed that Hrethil and Narwarán were both tending to Aglar, who appeared to have a large gash in his left shoulder. Aside from this injury, they had survived the night relatively unscathed. Orophin's plan had been a success. The Prince was starting to feel that he could now allow himself to relax when one of the Elves from Rúmil's team cried out.

As though an unnatural darkness befell them, yellow glinting eyes appeared around the dell from the underbrush that Eldarion had fervently hoped would be too thick to penetrate. He understood now that the first four creatures had merely been their bait to draw their companions out into the open. Who had laid the trap for whom? Ignoring the flashing pain in his wrist that was flaring into his arm, the Man withdrew his sword once more. The battle was not yet over. Beside him, Orophin and Rúmil had drawn their bows. The Elves at the outer edges of the dell were moving backward toward their captains until they stood in their own semi-circle, their backs guarding one another. Hrethil had managed to find his way to the left of the Prince, the look in his eyes assuring Eldarion that all had been forgiven. To his right Orophin stood with his silver hair gleaming with the coming dawn. Eldarion was suddenly reminded of Legolas and how fiercely beautiful the Elf must have been in battle. Orophin, sensing that the Man was looking at him, turned to meet the Prince's gaze.

"Maetho norn(1)," he whispered. "Tôl acharn!(2)"

"Gurth nan gaurhoth!(3)" another Elf cried as the werewolves charged.

They were surrounded and outnumbered but Eldarion fought with the battle cry ringing in his ears. These creatures possessed superhuman strength and only a host of arrows could bring them down. In a matter of minutes, the Elves were relying on their agility and skill with the blade to defend themselves. Eldarion lost track of the limbs he had hacked off and the creatures he had run through with his sword. When he saw Hrethil fall, a cry remained strangled in his throat. He could not tell if his friend was injured or slain. As the Prince tried to make his way to his fallen companion, he was hit forcefully from behind and he stumbled and fell to the ground, quickly turning around in a defensive posture to block the creature that had struck him. But the werewolf's quick reflexes evaded the Man's attempt to strike him and the beast reached out with one enormous paw to lift Eldarion by the neck.

The Prince flailed his legs as he was lifted off the ground, his left hand immediately trying to loosen the death-like grip that was suffocating him. With his sword in his right hand he tried to slice the creature's chest, but it was no use. Held at arm's length, he was too far away from the werewolf's body to attack the beast effectively. Slowly the air was being drained from his lungs as asphyxiation overtook him, his consciousness was fading with his last breath. Then a burst of air reached his passageways as the werewolf suddenly released him. Eldarion fell to the ground with a thud, striking his head on a rock. Sharp stabs of pain erupted at the back of his skull, his whole body felt as though it had shattered into hundreds of pieces. He looked up to see Rúmil slicing the werewolf that had attacked him, cleaning severing the beast's head from its shoulders with his long blade. And then nothing.

~*~*~*~

Immacar woke with a jolt. He had had a terrible dream filled with dark creatures entering and raiding the silveren Wood. Not since the days of the War of the Ring had Lothlórien been invaded in this manner. His beautiful city had been razed to the ground, the ancient mallorn trees burnt to ashes. The Elf shivered, vowing silently to himself that such a day would never come while he still lived on these shores. But the time of the Elves was ending. It had already ended. There would be no one to care for the woods once his people had gone. They would continue as they were, but without song and light, the trees themselves would slumber until only ghosts would haunt this hallowed place.

The raven-haired Elf had already taken his turn at watch, but his nightmare prevented him returning to sleep. It does not matter, Immacar thought. The sun would rise within an hour or so. He would prefer to see the sunrise rather than fall into a restless sleep. Standing up and silently passing the snoring Dwarf, he made his way to the edge of the flet where his Captain stood as still as a statue. Legolas had also taken an early watch, but apparently his mind was too preoccupied with other matters to find much rest.

The Captain greeted him with a brief nod when Immacar came to stand beside him, then immediately returned his attention to what he had been looking at before. Immacar followed the other Elf's gaze and saw a strange red smoke rising in the distance. There was no doubt that it was coming from within the silveren Wood, along the far northwestern border. He rapidly turned to look at Legolas again, but this time the Prince did not meet his eyes, his attention remaining fixed in the distance. Wordlessly, Immacar also studied the unnatural red smoke, a pit seeming to open in his stomach. Something had happened. The Song had been silenced in that area of the wood, replaced by hushed whispers and cries of pain. The Elf knew with a terribly certainty that Orophin's team had been sent to scout the northwestern trail.

~*~*~*~

Rúmil briefly knelt to inspect the Prince, but Eldarion was out cold, blood flowing from the wound at the back of his head. The Elf had no time to try and rouse him, nor tend to Hrethil who lay a few feet away as the battle was not over. In an instant the Captain was on his feet again, standing in front of the Man as his twin blades sung savagely and blood lust flowed through his veins. He had lost sight of his brother and his other Elven companions. Rúmil's vision was filled with darkness, his hearing overpowered by the sound of growls and the cries of the trees. He knew that he would die protecting this Man that he had despised, and even in the heat of battle, the irony of the situation did not escape him. His own lips curled into a feral snarl as another creature rushed at him. The Elf had long since emptied his quiver but he held his ground as the werewolf approached. With a leap, the beast attacked, throwing the Captain to the ground. They grappled on the forest floor, Rúmil lashing out with whatever strength he had left. The werewolf was overpowering him and he heard his own voice scream in pain when the beast drove its claws through his thigh.

It was at that moment that a flash of red light blazed from the entrance of the dell. The gaurhoth stopped their attack, their quarry already dead or too weak to put up any resistance and turned to face this newcomer. Even the beast that pinned Rúmil to the ground turned and bowed in what the Elf would have described as a reverential manner; were it not for the way the creature trembled. It is afraid, the Captain realized. Rúmil craned his neck to try and glimpse this strange being, but could see no more than shadow and an unnatural red fire that burned in the distance. When it spoke, its voice was deep and forbidding, reverberating around the dell. The language was foreign but strangely beautiful to the Elf's ears. He could not understand it, but gathered that it was directing the gaurhoth to do its bidding. The creatures began to leave the dell, carrying unconscious Elves upon their backs. Rúmil wanted to cry out when he saw Orophin being taken away, but his throat was dry. A werewolf came to collect Hrethil, but their leader stopped him.

"Leave that one," it said slowly, its voice changing timbre and cadence as it reverted to the Common Tongue. "He is too close to death and will be of no use to me."

The werewolf passed by Eldarion, not giving the Man a second glance. So, Rúmil thought to himself. They are only interested in Elves. Who then had been the bait on this cursed night?

The werewolf growled at the beast that held Rúmil as it made its way to the entrance of the dell. It was time to leave. Their Master had already vanished. The werewolf returned its attention to the Elf and Rúmil knew in his heart that he would be killed and not captured. No mercy, he told himself as the beast leaned over him, its fangs inches from the Elf's face. In a swift movement, Rúmil had taken up one of his long blades that had fallen to the side during the struggle and stabbed the creature in the eye. The werewolf roared and shifted its weight onto its hind legs, its claws still embedded in the Elf's flesh. Rúmil screamed in pain, the possibility of his leg being ripped off never more real to him. In a viscous stroke he drew the blade up again and severed the werewolf's paw from its front leg, the claws still digging into his thigh. The beast retaliated by striking him with its other arm, dragging its long claws across Rúmil's chest, ripping the fine Elven garment to pierce the alabaster flesh beneath. Then it lunged forward again, but the Captain had anticipated this move and brought his blade up to protect himself. The weight and velocity of the werewolf ensured that it fell upon the long knife, the blade driving straight through the creature's heart. With a soft whimper it died, covering the Elf with its bloodied body.

~*~*~*~

When Eldarion came to, the first thought in his mind was *Hrethil!* Concern flooded back to him together with his consciousness and he tried to sit up, but the throbbing ache which quickly spread throughout his head prevented him from doing so. Gingerly, he touched the back of his head and felt the sticky, wetness there. Blood. Running his hand over the wound, the Prince was relieved to find that it was not as deep as he had feared and the blood had stemmed its flow. With a groan he managed to lift himself to his elbows. Turning his head, he saw that Hrethil still lay to his left and that the Elf's face had taken on a deathlike pallor. He was about to crawl to his friend when a voice stopped him.

"Eldarion!" it hissed.

The Prince looked to his right and saw Rúmil pinned under the weight of an immense, dead werewolf. Glancing at Hrethil one last time, the Man crawled on all fours to the fallen Captain.

"I thought you would never wake," the Elf told him when Eldarion reached his side. "Help get this stinking beast off me!"

Eldarion smiled to himself, finding the Elf's predicament rather amusing. "I don't know, Rúmil," he said slowly. "'Tis not such a bad accessory."

The Elf glared at him for a moment, but then his lips curved into their own customary, mischievous grin. "It is good to know that you can still see the humor in this situation," he answered in between pants as he and the Man both heaved the creature off the Captain. "There may be hope for you yet, Princeling."

Eldarion did not respond as he looked over the Elf. Rúmil's clothes were drenched in blood, most of which had come from the werewolf. There were deep scratches on the Elf's chest where the beast's claws had torn his clothing, and there was a gash in his left side. The Man did not think that the Captain had been too seriously injured until he saw the severed paw and the three large claws jutting like stakes from the Elf's thigh. They would have to be removed.

Rúmil had managed to sit up and his eyes automatically fell on the werewolf paw that was causing him so much pain.

"You have to pull them out," he told Eldarion in a low voice. "And then we can bind the wound."

"You need medical attention," the Man replied seriously, "as does Hrethil," he added with a backwards glance at his friend's immobile figure.

"We will worry about that later," the Elf answered. "First you have to pull out the claws."

Eldarion took a deep breath and scanned the surrounding area until his eyes landed on what he was hoping to find. Reaching a little way behind the Elf, he picked up a small, smooth piece of bark that had somehow managed to remain unstained with blood and handed it to the Captain.

"Here," he said. "You may want to bite down on this."

Rúmil looked as though the Man had offended him with the mere suggestion, but after looking at the claws as thick as daggers in his leg one last time, he accepted the bark silently.

"Ready?"

The Elf nodded, wrapping his hands around the top of his thigh tightly to provide support, while the Man held the lower half of his leg to prevent him from thrashing. Eldarion gripped the mutilated paw at its base, his injured wrist now swollen and an ugly shade of purple. This would hurt him too, but it would hurt Rúmil a great deal more. Not too long ago the thought of causing Rúmil pain would have brought a guilty smile to his face. But they shared something now.

The Prince looked to the Elf for confirmation, and when Rúmil nodded his assent, Eldarion began to steadily pull the claws out. Rúmil's face instantly contorted in pain and a long, anguished cry was muffled by the bark in his mouth. When at last the claws had been pulled free, the Elf heaved a sigh of relief and fell back against the ground. The Prince looked at the paw in disgust and threw it away. He placed his left hand over the gaping holes to stem the blood flow, eventually taking hold of the Captain's hand to replace his own.

"Hold this," he instructed. "There may still be some packs and supplies scattered around the dell. I will look for them."

"Taking after your father in the healing arts, I see," the Captain replied faintly. He was feeling lightheaded after the experience and the blood loss.

"Don't you dare pass out on me!" Eldarion warned, shaking the Elf a little too roughly. He was rewarded with a quick slap on his bruised wrist.

"I will do nothing of the sort!" Rúmil snapped. "Now go find those packs!"

Relieved that the Elf still had fire in his spirit, the Man stood up and for the first time, was able to have a good look around the dell. Aside from the four werewolves they had slain during the first round of attack, there were another five lying dead around the dell. On any other night, nine werewolves would have been a good kill, but on this night, the price had been too high. Eldarion was reminded of this as he studiously averted his eyes from the mangled body of Aglar. Then the Man found what he was looking for - Orophin's pack, discarded a few feet away. His own pack, as well as Rúmil's, had miraculously remained untouched by their campsite. He picked these up as well and hurriedly went back to the Elf.

Rúmil had drawn himself back up into a sitting position; his grey eyes more focused as he watched Eldarion bathe the wound from a flask of water and then pull out some clean bandages to tightly wrap it.

"You'll cut off the circulation," the Elf couldn't help but say, wincing as another knot was tied.

"That is the point," Eldarion replied. "You've lost a lot of blood."

"I'll manage," Rúmil muttered. Then he grabbed the Man's arm with a force that surprised the Prince. "They've taken the others. You must go after them."

The Man looked at him as though he'd gone mad. Then he shook his head. "I can't leave you like this."

But the Elf only gripped his arm more painfully. "Listen to me," he ordered. "Haldir knows where we are. He will send Elves to come find us, but it will be several hours before they arrive. We cannot afford to wait. The trail grows cold. The gaurhoth travel quickly and do not need cover of darkness. You must follow them and find their lair."

The Captain paused and the Man remained silent.

"There are great forces at work here, Eldarion," Rúmil went on quietly. "Evil which I thought had been destroyed has only been dormant, as Legolas said." He sighed. "The Maker was here last night. It was he who ended the battle."

The Prince's head jerked up. "You saw him?" he said breathlessly.

"From a distance. But I heard his voice. Beautiful but terrible it was, like the kings of old."

"What else did you gleam?" There was hesitation in the Elf's eyes, as though he feared to reveal too much. "You must tell me!"

"What do you know of Harad?" Rúmil asked at last.

"Very little," the Man replied, "save that is lies to the south of Gondor and that it is a desolate desert land and that the customs of the their people are different from ours."

"The Dark Lord had many servants in Harad," Rúmil continued, "and a few who mastered his Dark Arts. After Sauron's defeat, the good people of Harad rose up against those who had been loyal to the Dark Lord. But not all were found. Some may still be among living among them in secret, while others fled."

"You believe that the Maker is a servant of the Dark Lord from Harad?"

"It is possible," the Elf admitted. "We waste time hypothesizing. You must go now."

Eldarion hesitated. It was not fear or cowardice that prevented him from agreeing. The Elf's words made sense. They had already lost valuable time and yet . . .

Reading the uncertainty in the Man's eyes, Rúmil leaned forward and spoke again. "We are not so very different, you and I," he said slowly, his gray eyes piercing the Man's very soul. "I see that now. If our roles were reversed, I would leave you here as surely as you must leave me. There is no other choice."

"There is always a choice," the Prince countered softly.

"Our choices stem from our character. In that way, they are almost pre-destined," the Elf replied. "You are quick of mind, brave of heart and strong in spirit. You know what you must do."

Eldarion nodded, his eyes still locked with the Elf's. Finally, he broke his gaze and began to attend to his own injuries. Within a matter of minutes the Man had refilled his quiver and retrieved his weapons. As he leaned over Hrethil to check on his friend, he spied among the cuts a pair of deep bite marks.

"What can we do for him?" he asked the other Elf.

"Werewolf bites are poisonous," Rúmil answered sadly. "He is beyond our assistance. He needs stronger medicine. Perhaps Haldir will get here in time." The Captain had added the last sentence to comfort the Man, but he did not have much hope. Eldarion cleaned and dressed the superficial wounds; finally slinging his pack around his back, ready to depart.

"Take care, Princeling," Rúmil said. "Do not try to take them on your own. Wait for the others or come back for assistance."

"You will see me again," Eldarion replied. "We have a conversation to finish!" he called as he strode away. With his back to the Captain, the Man did not see the Elf smile as he left the dell.

 

Translations:
1. Maetho norn - Fight hard
2. Tôl acharn! - Vengeance comes!
3. Gurth nan gaurhoth! - Death to the werewolf-host!

 

Chapter 5   
Chapter 7