Legolas wiped the blade of his knife on a tuft of grass, regretting the necessity to smear yet more black Orc blood upon the forest floor. He yearned to climb into the trees and sing them a soothing, healing song, but now was not the time. Killing took priority over healing these days.
He sheathed the knife and turned to his lieutenant. ‘Talagan, see to the disposal of the corpses. I’m going to take Celedir to follow the survivors. I need to be sure they won’t return.’
Talagan frowned and drew him aside. ‘Don’t do anything rash,’ he said. ‘I know it rankles to let even one Orc escape, but there are too few of us to hope to destroy a horde like that. It was a miracle we were able to drive them out of the forest with no loss of life as it was.’
Legolas shook his head. ‘Don’t worry. But I won’t rest easy until I know they’re back in their stinking dens in the mountains. I’ve just got a feeling…’
‘What? Have you sensed something?’
‘I don’t know. Legolas pressed his fingers to his forehead as though willing the vague feeling of unease to form into a concrete thought. ‘Even before we met these Orcs I felt as thought the forest was trying to tell me something, but nothing’s clear. I thought the feeling would go away once we drove the Orcs away, but if anything it’s increased.’
‘Why not send Tathar with Celedir? They’re your usual scouts. Why does it have to be you?’
In Talagan’s eyes, Legolas could read the message. Don’t let me be the one to bear the news of your demise to the king. While he sympathised and usually relented when faced with his second’s concern, this time he felt he had no choice.
‘I can’t explain why, but I have to go. There’s something I must do.’ Legolas struggled to find the words that would explain the sense that he was needed elsewhere. Called. ‘It’s my fate,’ he said in the end.
Talagan gripped his shoulder. ‘May Elbereth guide you safely back,’ he said.
Legolas forced a grin to break the seriousness of the moment. ‘If she doesn’t, my father will be after her with a very sharp sword. Don’t worry, Talagan. I’ll be back by noon tomorrow at the latest.’ Calling Celedir, he left at a run.
As close as they were to the northern edge of the forest, it didn’t take long to reach the meadows that lay beyond the eaves. A trail of trampled grass, blackened here and there with blood, told its own tale, but even without it, Legolas would have had no problem picking out the Orcs as they ran towards the mountains. Their guttural curses were carried back to him on the wind, along with their stench.
He was about to turn away when he froze. ‘Do my eyes deceive me, or is that a smaller trail breaking away from the main one?’
Celedir frowned and walked forward a little way. ‘You’re right; it branches off and doubles back towards the forest. It looks like it meets the forest over there.’
Legolas cursed when he saw where Celedir was pointing. ‘There’s a village not far from there. Come!’
He broke into a run and followed the trail eastwards along the forest shore. He would never forgive himself if more innocent blood was spilled on his watch. Memories of a dearly loved face, battered almost beyond recognition, flashed into his mind, but he pushed them away. His people needed him to be strong. The indulgence of grief was barred to him for as long as there were Orcs to kill.
He opened his mouth to urge Celedir to run faster, but closed it when the sound of running feet and laboured breathing came to them. With it came the tingling down his spine that told him his destiny was near. He drew his knife but let his arm drop to his side when he turned and saw who it was who approached.
He was no Greenwood elf, that was for sure, but neither was he an enemy. The hood of his grey cloak was flung back, revealing raven hair and a face of such beauty that no mortal could hope to possess. Noldor then, thought Legolas. Imladris. Yet there was an earthy sensuality to the stranger that didn’t quite sit with that assessment.
All this he took in in an instant, that strange, light-headed sensation of heightened awareness informing him that this meeting was pre-ordained. Then he saw the blood on the stranger’s face and hands and pushed aside all other considerations. He ran to him, Celedir on his heels.
‘My brother,’ gasped the stranger. ‘He’s wounded. Orcs.’
‘Where is he?’ Legolas caught his arm when he stumbled, but the man shook him off with an impatient gesture.
‘This way. Hurry!’ He set off at a run, without glancing behind, heading for the spot where the Orc trail entered the forest.
They soon came to a patch of thicket, not far inside the forest. Legolas saw a gap in the criss-crossed brambles, as though someone had recently forced their way through. That must be where this man’s brother was sheltered. Sure enough, the stranger crouched down and pushed through the thicket wall. Legolas followed into the green cave beyond. There, on a thick bed of last year’s leaves, lay a man identical in every way to his brother. Even before the first brother spoke, Legolas knew who they must be. The fabled sons of Elrond.
‘Elladan, can you hear me? I’ve brought help.’ The first man, who Legolas now knew must be Elrohir, knelt down beside his twin and brushed the hair back from his brow before glancing back at Legolas. ‘Please help him. He’s taken an arrow to the shoulder. I think it was poisoned.’
Legolas turned to Celedir. ‘Go back to Talagan and fetch help,’ he ordered. ‘Now!’ he said, when Celedir looked like he was about to object to leaving his prince alone with strangers. Celedir left at a run.
Legolas knelt down on Elladan’s other side. ‘Help’s on it’s way. There’s a village not far from here. We’ll take you there.’
He turned to Elrohir. ‘How many Orcs did you encounter? Where are they now?’
‘A dozen. There are none left.’ Elrohir scowled. ‘But they were part of a much larger force. I would have followed them to find out where they were going, but I couldn’t leave Elladan. I—’
As if responding to his name, Elladan stirred a little and winced. Elrohir immediately stooped over him, murmuring words that Legolas couldn’t catch. The furrows on Elladan’s brow smoothed but he didn’t wake up.
‘That’s still twelve Orcs fewer to despoil these woods,’ said Legolas, ‘and twelve against two was no mean feat. You have my thanks. You must have run into the band that my men chased out of the woods earlier. They—’
He broke off, startled at the snarl of rage that contorted Elrohir’s face. But it disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared when Elladan stirred again and opened his eyes.
‘Elladan,’ he said and bent over his brother, laying a palm on his brow. ‘How do you feel?’ All trace of anger was gone, replaced by a tender concern. Legolas almost wondered if he had imagined it.
Elladan winced and put a hand to his shoulder. ‘Like someone set fire to my shoulder.’
Legolas gripped his sound arm. ‘You were hit by a poisoned arrow. Don’t worry; my men are on their way and they have medical supplies with them, including the antidote you need. We’ll have you back on your feet before long. Then we’ll be able to welcome you to the Greenwood properly.’
‘The Greenwood?’ Legolas looked up at Elrohir, startled by the venom in his voice. He recoiled at the shards of ice that were Elrohir’s eyes. ‘I didn’t think any still called it that.’
‘Elrohir…’ Elladan grasped Elrohir’s sleeve, a look of pleading in his eyes.
Elrohir jerked his arm away, his eyes never leaving Legolas’s face. ‘Mirkwood is what we call this benighted forest. And we say of the folk who live there that they are more dangerous and less wise.’ He snorted. ‘Hardly more dangerous if they cannot even control the Orcs that wander into their domain.’
Destiny or not, this was more than Legolas could bear. He stood up, his hand reaching for his knife. ‘If it wasn’t for your brother, I would gut you right here. But he needs both our help.’ He hadn’t felt such a sense of loss since his mother had died. He felt as though the Forest had betrayed him. It had promised him his destiny and instead he had to contend with this ungrateful son of a Warg.
Whether something of his hurt showed in his eyes, or if his words concerning Elladan had reached Elrohir, Legolas didn’t know, but the icy glare softened and he nodded his head. He turned to his brother. ‘Forgive me, Elladan. I should have considered you.’
But Legolas couldn’t fail to notice that Elrohir made no apology to him, nor could he ignore the brief scowl Elrohir sent his way as he tended to his brother. It told him that hostilities were postponed, not over.
A full moon cast a silvery sheen over the trees and dwellings of the village by the time Legolas had finished setting a guard; he had no wish for the remaining Orcs to return and catch them unawares. He hastened to the talan upon one of the lowest branches of a spreading oak, where the village healer lived. Once there, he found Elladan peacefully asleep, the arrow safely removed and the antidote to the poison administered. Before leaving the room, the healer assured him the patient would be well enough to travel to the stronghold in two days, where he could continue his convalescence in greater comfort.
It was only then that he noticed the pair of icy grey eyes regarding him from the other side of the bed. It was the implacable gaze of a wolf, assessing whether to attack or dismiss him. The hairs on the nape of his neck rose as once again he felt the touch of destiny. But his anger with the arrogant Noldo overcame all other feelings.
‘There are words still between us, Elrondion.’
‘What do you suggest, Thranduilion?’
So Elrohir had learned his identity. There was a mocking tone to his pronunciation of his father’s name that suggested Elrohir regarded him of no account. It riled Legolas all the more.
‘There’s a quiet glade an arrow’s flight to the south. We can settle the matter there.’
Raven eyebrows rose a fraction. ‘Now?’
‘Why not? Are you afraid of the dark?’
Elrohir scowled. ‘I was thinking of my brother.’
‘The healer says he won’t wake up till morning. Or don’t you trust the judgment of a mere Wood-elf?’
In response Elrohir rose and picked up the cloak that was draped over the back of the chair. He gestured towards the door. ‘Lead on.’ Elbereth, even the way he said that managed to be insulting! If the Forest believed his destiny lay with this piece of Spider dung, it was seriously mistaken.
They walked to the glade in silence, Legolas fuming like Orodruin all the way. What was it about Elrohir that had him so riled? Elbereth knew he had dealt with his share of insolence from raw recruits in his time, but none had him seething like this. A small voice told him that none of the recruits had been possessed of such bewitching beauty that made his skin prickle with desire, but he pushed that thought aside. His aim was to teach Elrohir a lesson, nothing more.
It didn’t take long to reach the glade.
‘How shall we settle this?’ asked Elrohir, removing his cloak and slinging it over a low branch.
‘No weapons,’ replied Legolas, unbuckling the scabbard that held his long knife and throwing it onto his own cloak at the edge of the clearing. ‘We’ll wrestle. The first to pin down the other is the victor.’
‘Best of three?’
‘I suppose I should give you a chance.’
Legolas stripped off his tunic and undershirt. Elrohir did likewise. Legolas found his eyes straying to the Peredhel’s broad chest and shoulders. He swallowed and forced his eyes to meet his opponent’s before they dropped any lower. Now was not the time to ogle Elrohir’s finely muscled chest, or wonder about the sparse ebony hair that curled upon his chest.
‘Ready?’ he asked, his voice sounding strangely hoarse.
They both sprang at the same instant and met, chest to chest, grappling at arms and kicking at each other’s legs. This first attack was more to assess the other’s strength than to topple their opponent. Legolas quickly realised that Elrohir had the advantage in weight and brute strength, whereas he was the more agile.
They broke apart and circled each other, Legolas kept his eyes fixed on Elrohir’s. An owl swooped low over the glade with an eerie screech, but Legolas took no notice of it. Elrohir’s eye’s didn’t so much as flicker. Legolas’s admiration for him rose along with his chagrin. Elrohir’s inexperience of the forest was not going to count against him as much as he’d hoped. He couldn’t rely on a distraction giving him an opening.
In the next instant, Elrohir sprang. Legolas side-stepped, but Elrohir flung out an arm and caught him round the waist, flipping him face-down into a pile of dried leaves. Acting purely on instinct, Legolas twisted and kicked out his legs. He managed to connect with Elrohir’s ankle. Elrohir crashed down beside him and Legolas gave a smile of satisfaction to hear the grunt Elrohir gave as the wind was knocked out of his lungs. Leaving no time for the twin to recover, he straddled Elrohir’s back and forced one arm up behind Elrohir’s shoulder blade.
‘Yield?’ he asked, unable to keep the triumph from his voice.
‘I yield,’ said Elrohir, his voice muffled against the leaves.
Legolas released him and backed away, watching his opponent as he rose to his feet in one fluid movement. He had expected Elrohir to take a few moments to recover, therefore he was unprepared when, with a snarl, Elrohir flung himself at him and bore him to the ground. Legolas bit back a cry as he felt his arm twisted behind him, his shoulder grating painfully. Then a hand clamped across the back of his head, pressing his face into the same pile of leaves he had thrust Elrohir into only a few heartbeats earlier.
‘Yield?’ a voice hissed in his ear.
‘Now we’re even.’
The weight on his back was released and Legolas twisted aside and rose. He was tempted to attack immediately, as Elrohir had done, but he guessed that Elrohir would expect that. The last thing he wanted was to find himself pinned down beneath that steely strength again. He was angry at himself for being caught out like that and determined to get the better of this maddening man who had managed to get under his skin in such a short time.
They circled each other once more. Legolas was baffled by the rage in Elrohir’s eyes. He could think of nothing that would warrant it.
‘Why do you hate me so?’ he asked, thinking words might prove a distraction to his opponent. ‘What can I have possibly done to you?’
Elrohir darted forward and tried to kick Legolas’s legs from under him. Legolas stumbled, but managed to stay upright. He landed a blow to Elrohir’s shoulder as he twisted out of the way.
‘What have you done?’ Elrohir asked, rubbing his shoulder and resuming his circling. Legolas felt sure that he hadn’t caught Elrohir more than a glancing blow, so any pretence of pain on his part was just a ruse.
Sure enough, Elrohir immediately feinted to Legolas’s left and then attempted to grapple him with his apparently injured arm. Legolas had anticipated the move and managed to evade Elrohir’s grip, catching him behind the knees as he dodged. Elrohir crashed to the ground with a bellow of rage.
Before Legolas could follow up with an immobilising hold, Elrohir rolled away and staggered to his feet. Legolas cursed inwardly. Against anyone else, that attack would have given him the victory. If it hadn’t been for Elrohir’s obvious dislike of him, he would have relished this fight. It had been a long time since an opponent had challenged him like this. Once again the nape of his neck prickled as he felt the touch of destiny.
The match went on, each opponent striving to find the other’s weaknesses, taking turns to try to bring the other down. Several times one or the other was brought down, but neither was able to take advantage. The night wore on. Legolas’s patience was wearing thin and he could see that Elrohir, likewise, was becoming frustrated by his inability to fell his opponent.
‘What have you ever done?’ Elrohir repeated eventually, resuming the conversation as though it had never been interrupted. By this time they were both breathing heavily, perspiration beading on their chests and brows. He gave a bitter laugh. ‘Do you really want to know what you have done to me and mine?’
‘Yes, tell me!’
‘Nothing, that’s what!’
Legolas didn’t know what he had expected to hear, but that certainly wasn’t it. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
But his momentary confusion cost him dear. He let his gaze slide to the ground for just an instant and that was all Elrohir needed. Before Legolas could fix his eyes upon Elrohir’s again, strong arms wrapped around his waist and pulled him to the ground. The next instant an arm was jammed up against his windpipe and Elrohir’s face was so close he could feel his breath against his cheek.
‘I mean you did nothing,’ spat Elrohir. ‘You and your kind. You feast and sing and dance around your fires, while you let the Orcs multiply without check.’
‘How can you—’
‘That’s what happened today, isn’t it?’ Elrohir ploughed on, ignoring Legolas’s indignant protest. ‘Oh, you may have put up a token fight, but you were content to let the Orcs leave your woods and wreak destruction elsewhere.’
‘My brother was injured…could have been killed, thanks to you and your so-called warriors. And that’s not the worst of it…’
‘Then explain why the Orcs that took my mother came from Mirkwood, cur!’
And now Legolas saw the pain and bitterness that lay behind the hatred. ‘That can’t be possible,’ he said, struggling to free himself from the crushing weight that pressed against his throat.
In response Elrohir pushed down even harder, making it hard for Legolas to draw breath. ‘Believe it,’ he said, his face contorted. ‘I went into those stinking dens after her. And when I found her, the Orcs who were torturing her…mutilating her…all bore the mark of Dol Guldur. If your folk had done their duty, those Orcs should never have left your forest, let alone reached the Misty Mountains.’
‘Our duty? What—’ Legolas gasped, incensed.
‘Aye. Your duty. While you were making merry, those Orcs captured my mother. Have you any idea what it was like, finding her, so broken that we were forced to send her over the Sea in order to save her?’
It was as though a red mist descended upon Legolas’s eyes. Unable to push away the arm that pinned him down, he bit it hard, causing Elrohir to yell and relax his grip. That was all Legolas needed. He punched Elrohir in the jaw and took advantage of Elrohir’s momentary daze to reverse their positions.
‘Have I any idea?’ he cried, his face a mere hairsbreadth from Elrohir’s. ‘Merrymaking? Is that what you think we do? For centuries we’ve battled the malice of Dol Guldur, losing countless numbers of our people in the process. Including my…my own mother!’
He saw Elrohir’s gasp of shock and the dawning of shame in his eyes, but Legolas couldn’t stop now. The words that had been bottled up for so many years now tumbled out of him. ‘For years we appealed to the White Council for aid, but what help did they send? None! We’ve fought alone, seeing men, women and children slaughtered and where was Imladris or Lothlorien when that was happening? Maybe you were merrymaking, because you certainly didn’t think it worth your while to come to our aid.’
He was shaking by this time, but more from the attempt at holding back long-suppressed tears than rage. As he continued it was as though he was outside himself, watching himself purge his soul of all the bitterness he had suppressed for centuries. Things he had never said to anyone. Not even his father. ‘What happened to your mother is terrible, but at least she still lives. My mother was forced to watch as my baby sister was hacked to death in front of her, then they raped her and nigh tore her flesh from her body before she, too, was killed. Do you think her spirit will ever recover from such a horror? Do you?’
Tears poured down his face and he punctuated his last words by slamming Elrohir harder into the ground. Even so, he couldn’t let go of years of watchfulness. An ominous clicking sound caught his attention.
Releasing Elrohir, he sprang to his feet and dashed to the edge of the glade, where they had left their weapons. Fighting to regain his equilibrium, he picked up his knife then threw Elrohir his sword. Elrohir was rubbing his neck, looking about as dazed as he felt.
‘Spiders,’ Legolas said, wishing he had brought his bow with him. ‘At least ten, by the sounds of it.’ By now he could hear the rustling of many legs through the leaves. From the way Elrohir’s eyes widened, he could tell that Elrohir could hear it too. ‘Have you fought spiders before?’ he asked.
Elrohir shook his head. ‘I’ve heard tales, but I had no idea they were true.’ He drew his sword.
‘We must stand back-to-back,’ Legolas said. ‘Aim for their eyes. And watch out for their sting. They can paralyse.’
There was no time for more. A black tide seethed down from the trees and rushed towards them. Legolas counted a dozen, all fully grown. Soon they were surrounded. Legolas drew a tiny throwing knife from his scabbard and flung it into the eyes of the closest. With a squeal, it collapsed and rolled onto its back, its legs convulsing. Then the tide was upon them and there was no more time to think. Legolas dodged and slashed at eyes and legs, all the while aware of Elrohir doing likewise behind him. It was a grim fight. Time seemed to stretch to eternity but in reality the moon was only a little further across the sky by the time they stood panting amid a pile of carcasses.
Legolas turned to face Elrohir. The Peredhel was smeared with black blood and his hair was matted with webbing, but the hatred and rage had gone from his eyes, to be replaced with something else. It was a look that caused the muscles in the pit of his belly to clench and awoke his senses yet again to the whisper of destiny. He swallowed, lost for words.
‘Are you hurt?’ Elrohir asked.
Legolas shook his head. ‘You?’ It was all he could trust himself to say, now that his heart had started to pound so hard he could feel it in his throat.
‘No. I—’ Elrohir took a step forward. ‘Elbereth! I can’t fight this any more. I—’
Who made the first move after that, Legolas couldn’t say. But suddenly they were in each other’s arms, hands clutching, mouths melding in a demanding kiss. When they needed to part for air, Elrohir frowned and said, ‘Legolas, what I said…I’m sorry.’
Legolas smiled and shook his head. ‘I needed it. I had so much anger inside. I had no idea. And now it’s gone. I feel…free for the first time in many years.’ And it was true. There was a lightness to his spirit that he hadn’t felt since the Shadow had first arrived in the forest.
‘Me too.’ Then with a soft laugh, Elrohir said, ‘It was a good fight.’
In reply, Legolas kissed Elrohir again, marvelling at how right it felt. All around he could hear the trees rejoicing that their prince had met his soul’s mate at last.
He took Elrohir’s hand. ‘Come. There’s a pool nearby where we can clean up.’
And as they walked out of the glade, his heart soared to know that he was no longer alone. It was clear that there were explanations and apologies still to be made and they both had deep wounds that needed healing, but they were on the path to recovery. They had all the time in the world to mend each other’s hearts. Together.