“A brand?” Legolas demanded, starting forward, his eyes filled with concern. He joined Gandalf and Aragorn, and Lalaith did not protest.
“A brand from a heated iron, burned into her very skin.” Gandalf clarified in a soft, saddened voice.
“But I’ve never seen it before in my life.” Lalaith insisted. “Neither has Arwen, nor Aunt Celebrian. How could…?”
“It is written in the Black Speech.” Gandalf said. “Like the markings on the One Ring. For the ring, it must be placed in fire for the writing to be visible. For you, perhaps it appears only when evil is near.”
Lalaith furrowed her brow. It would explain the pains in her shoulder. “Gandalf, it says-, It’s the word for slave, isn’t it?”
Silence followed her query, and then she sensed Gandalf nodding slowly. “I’m afraid so.” He said softly.
Lalaith closed her eyes for long moments. She’d guessed right. Then slowly, she opened her eyes, and asked, “What happens if you touch the markings?”
She felt the gentle pressure of Gandalf’s weathered hand on a spot just above her wound, followed by a soft sigh. “Nothing.” He said.
“Oh.” She sighed disappointed, then, a sudden thought struck her, and she said, “Legolas?”
“Go on.” Gandalf reassured him as Legolas hesitated. “She just said you could.” A moment later, she felt the familiar warmth of two of his fingers tracing a line across the same spot Gandalf had touched earlier, and in spite of the pain in her wound, and everyone looking on, she had to restrain a delicious shudder at the touch of his fingers against her bare skin.
“It’s gone.” Aragorn murmured, awe in his voice as Legolas drew his hand back. “As if it had never been there.”
“But her wound isn’t.” Legolas murmured anxiously. “Her blood is already seeping through the bandage.”
“That can’t be helped, now.” Lalaith exclaimed, hearing renewed orcish shrieks drawing near.
Everyone looked toward the shattered doorway, seeing the hunched shadows of lumbering orcs coming closer .
“To the bridge of Khazad-Dum.” Gandalf commanded breathlessly.
“Can you run?” Legolas asked Lalaith, his eyes worried as Boromir snatched Aragorn’s torch from the corner, and the group rushed toward the cracked, broken doorway.
“Of course I can. It’s my shoulder that is hurt, not my legs.” Lalaith smiled bravely, fighting the pain in her shoulder. “Besides, I have little choice, don’t I?”
The Fellowship dashed over the shattered stone and wood of the doorway and into the vast chamber beyond, as uncounted numbers of orcs collected behind them, their shrieks, and high pitched warbling echoing through the enormous cavern.
Lalaith snatched her bow from her quiver, hoping that the wound in her shoulder would not affect her aim as the Fellowship rushed through the dark. Shrieks were coming at them from all sides now, and even above their heads as she risked a glance upward.
Indeed, as she suspected, there were black, beetle like shapes, orcs, their ugly, jagged armor clattering noisily as they scurrying out of the cracks in the ceiling, and scampering on all fours down the pillars to pursue them, as if a sudden tide of evil had been unleashed on the Fellowship all at once.
In the light of the torch and Gandalf’s staff, Lalaith could see ahead in the darkness, a solid wall coming into shape, with a door at its base. That was their destination, if they could reach it. But the glimmer of hope that had begun in her heart was squelched as masses of squealing, shrieking orcs closed in before them, cutting off their escape, and their group was forced to skid to a stop, now completely surrounded, an island in the midst of a raging sea of leaping, shrieking demons.
Ignoring the fire that seared through her shoulder as she moved her arm, Lalaith snatched an arrow from her quiver, and drew her bowstring back, waiting for the orcs to move first. She risked a quick glance at Legolas, his own bowstring drawn taut to his cheek. They had little chance against this many orcs. This was where they would meet their end. At least she was here, with him.
Legolas’ chest swelled with a shaky breath as he glanced over his shoulder at her, and held her eyes with his. Their shared glanced lasted no more than a moment, but to Lalaith it seemed to last an eternity.
At this moment, Lalaith longed, more than ever, to see the moonlight on his face once more, to feel again the comfort of his arms around her, to taste his kiss. But his gaze would have to be enough until they found themselves in the Halls of Mandos.
But what would become of Arwen? Lalaith found herself thinking as their eyes broke, and they faced again the orcs massed before them. What would happen to her when she learned she had lost Aragorn? And what of the ring? Had they failed? Would Sauron have it once again?
A deep rumble in the distance, as of stone scraping on stone, interrupted her thoughts. The victorious cries of the orcs surrounding them turned immediately into shrieks of alarm as the creatures glanced furtively about, looking for the source of the noise.
Lalaith’s own eyes darted over her shoulder. Far down the rows of pillars, a bright orange light, as of a blazing fire shining through the rows of pillars, was moving toward them, drawing slowly closer, as if whatever creature was coming, still out of their sight, but just one row of pillars away, was made itself entirely of flames.
As another rumbling echoed through the black cavern, the orcs panicked and scattered, and in only a few moments, the path toward the shadowy doorway was once again open to them. Lalaith, her wounded shoulder now throbbing from the strain of her effort, lowered her bow. Gimli chuckled aloud at the departure of the orcs, but he was the only one to do so. Everyone else had turned their eyes on the orange flicker drawing ever closer.
“What is this new devilry?” Boromir whispered close to Gandalf’s shoulder.
For a moment, Gandalf did not answer. Instead, he shut his eyes tightly, as if in deep thought. As another rumble echoed through the stones beneath their feet, Gandalf once again opened his eyes, and slowly muttered, “A Balrog.”
Lalaith felt a chill shudder course through her body at the word as she stared at the approaching light.
“A demon of the ancient world.” Gandalf continued softly. “This foe is beyond any of you.” Lalaith’s stiffened muscles sprang again into action as Gandalf cried suddenly, “Run!”
And as one, they were again rushing toward the massive wall where the doorway loomed high. Gandalf and Aragorn paused on either side of the doorway, waiting for the others to pass through.
“Quickly!” Gandalf ordered.
Boromir was the first through the door, Legolas and Lalaith were just behind, with the hobbits and Gimli coming after them.
Broken stone steps began just beyond the first shadows, and Boromir scurried down these, glancing back to see if everyone else was coming behind. In his haste, Boromir did not see that the stairway before him had broken entirely away, and ended abruptly at the edge of an abyss, until it was almost too late. Turning forward in the last instant, he saw the edge of the precipice, and jerked back on the last step before he plunged to his death, teetering precariously and crying out in alarm, his arms flailing as the torch fell from his grasp, and plummeted into the pit far below where jagged rocks loomed sharply, and violent flames, fueled by volcanic fissures, licked upward. In spite of his efforts to regain his balance, he still would have toppled downward, but for Legolas, who dashed from behind and snatched him back, the two tumbling backward onto the steps at Lalaith’s feet.
“Legolas! Boromir. You’re not hurt, are you?” She pleaded, grabbing them both by a shoulder, and pulling them up. “Come, we can go down this way!” Another set of steps fell away to their left, narrow, and broken and marred, but still mostly intact, that meandered downward and jutted out into the darkness as it descended into the chasm below them, following a crooked path that, Lalaith hoped, led eventually to the bridge they were to cross.
Behind the hobbits, Gandalf had fallen, exhausted, against the side of the wall.
Noticing Gandalf’s pause, Boromir ordered, “Wait.” He put a hand gently on Lalaith’s shoulder and she stopped as did Legolas and the others, for the old wizard.
“Gandalf!” Aragorn breathed, turning back, his hand grasping his arm to assist him.
“Lead them on, Aragorn.” Gandalf ordered, and nodded across the vast chasm of blackness toward a carved stone bridge in the dark distance. “The bridge is near.”
Aragorn paused, clearly not understanding Gandalf’s order. Gandalf was the leader, after all.
“Do as I say!” Gandalf cried, pushing Aragorn back. “Swords are no more use here!” Gandalf gathered his strength, pushing himself up, and the group started in a rush down the steps.
Lalaith, somehow, found herself at the front of the group, with the hobbits. Boromir and Aragorn with Gandalf, were behind them, with Gimli and Legolas last of all. As they reached the section of steps where the stairs turned and continued to descend alongside the first section of steps, Legolas leaped down into the midst of the hobbits, right behind Lalaith.
“You are still bleeding.” He murmured worriedly as they continued down the steps, narrow and steep, that turned and descended outward down into the vast pit below them.
“It cannot be helped.” She answered back, fighting the throbbing pain of her wound all the more. She could feel the wetness of her blood against her skin as it seeped through the bandage. “We are not far from the bridge. Once we are across it, and safe, Gandalf will staunch the wound.”
“You’re growing weary, Lalaith.” He insisted. “You’re losing blood.”
“I will be all right.” She insisted, shaking her head.
Legolas glanced at her, looking as if he wanted to say more, but their conversation cut short as they drew to a stop at a portion of the steps that had completely broken away. They would have to jump across.
“Go, Legolas.” She ordered. If she paused a moment, and regathered her strength, she would be able to make the jump, but not now.
Legolas cast an apprehensive glance at her, but obeyed, leaping nimbly to the other side, and turned. He beckoned to her, but she shook her head wearily, and he turned his focus on Gandalf beside her.
“Gandalf!” He called to the old wizard who hesitated, and glanced back over his shoulder as the wall they’d passed beneath shuddered, part of the ceiling above it breaking away. Something massive beyond the wall, bright and flaming orange, was trying to break through. But then Gandalf turned forward and with a determined jump, leaped across the void. Legolas caught him, steadied him, and he was safe.
Seeing the old wizard make the leap, gave her confidence, and feeling a renewal of strength, Lalaith dropped down a step, preparing to jump across to join them. But in that moment, an arrow flew out of the darkness to her left, cracked against the steps beside her, and went spinning over her head, off into oblivion. The orcs had found them again! To their left, and up on a level above them, a row of pillars disappeared into darkness, and a line of armed orcs had collected, using the pillars as shields as they fired upon the Fellowship, entirely exposed upon the broken steps.
Using the strength she had gathered from her momentary rest, she rushed back up to the steps above Aragorn and Frodo, the last of the company, and ignorant of the continued hail of arrows from the line of orcs behind the broad pillars, snatched one of the few unbroken arrows from her back. Against the protesting scream in her shoulder, she released the arrow at the orc that had fired the first arrow. Her own arrow struck true, hitting the creature with a quivering thunk, and the body toppled from its perch, falling into the flames below. Aragorn and Legolas released two more arrows, and two more orcs fell into the pit.
“Merry! Pippin!” She heard Boromir shout, and just as a grumbling crack broke the edge of the cracked steps away, he snatched up the two hobbits, and leaped across the emptiness, landing heavily, but otherwise unhurt as Legolas and Gandalf helped to steady him and his smaller charges. The steps he had been standing on moments before, however, went crashing into the pit below them, shattering against the broken, fiery floor.
The hail of arrows continued unabated from the orcs cowering in the darkness, and Lalaith, Legolas and Aragorn returned the fire, sending orc bodies dropping into the fire below, until one black arrow zipped out of the darkness, its fletchings clipping Lalaith’s ear with a hiss of wind, caught her bow, and flipped it out of her hand. She cried out, startled, and helplessly watched it fall, spinning away into the depths below her. It had been a gift from Elrond and Celebrian, one she’d had for hundreds of years. The same bow she’d used to battle the orcs in Loth Lorien.
“You all right?” Gimli turned with a growled. His voice was gruff, but Lalaith could see concern in the dwarf’s deep set eyes.
“An orc arrow knocked my bow out of my hand. It’s gone.” She lamented.
“Augh, better it than you, elf-girl.” He said, then offered her the slightest of grins, and turned forward again. Lalaith smiled slightly at the dwarf’s simple gesture of kindness, feeling somewhat better.
“Sam!” Aragorn gasped, and grabbed the hobbit up, flinging him across the widening distance into Boromir’s arms. Immediately he turned toward Gimli as if he intended on throwing him as well. But the dwarf put out a protesting hand.
“Nobody tosses a dwarf!” He insisted, and with a mighty yell, jumped on his own, his short, stout figure flying across the abyss, his booted feet at last scraping the rough edge of the stairs on the other side.
Lalaith caught a breath in her throat. Gimli hadn’t jumped far enough! He was toppling backward into the chasm! At the last instant, though, Legolas thrust out a hand, and grabbed the only thing he could snatch in that moment, a handful of Gimli’s beard, and strained to pull the dwarf up.
“Not the beard!” Was all Gimli could offer Legolas for thanks as the elf strained to pull his heavily armored, stocky frame to safety.
Aragorn fired another arrow at the orcs, sending another one plummeting downward as Legolas finally managed to pull Gimli to the lower ledge of steps. But no sooner had Aragorn’s arrow been released from the string, when another crack appeared in the stone, at Lalaith’s feet. With a gasp that was almost a shriek, she scampered backward, and dropped to one knee, grabbing onto Frodo’s cloak and pulled him up with her as Aragorn struggled to help the hobbit and to find a handhold for himself at the same time as the steps fell away beneath him.
“Aragorn!” She shouted, grasping his arm as his legs dangled over the abyss, and helped to drag him up.
The three of them were safe, for now. But as Aragorn and Frodo found their feet again, and the three of them turned to the others waiting on the ledge below, Lalaith’s heart dropped.
“Steady.” Aragorn ordered, clasping Frodo’s shoulder with his free hand. “Hold on.”
The chasm was too wide now to ever hope of making it across safely. Even with their combined strength, there was no way they could possibly throw the most vital member of the Fellowship, Frodo, light as he was, that far.
But when Lalaith looked out over the chasm, and met Legolas’ eyes, she could see, by the sheer anguish written on his otherwise fair countenance, that Frodo was not the one he was most concerned about now. Boromir’s face carried a similar expression, but Lalaith hardly glanced at the human, her eyes fixed, unmoving, on Legolas.
“Lalaith.” His mouth formed silently, his face pleading.
A furious roar behind them in that moment, made the three spin around, directing their attention above them. The wall was cracking and buckling inward, the Balrog doubling its efforts to get at them. Huge boulders were breaking away from the ceiling, and raining down around them with every blow from beyond the wall. Only a few paces upward, one sharp edged boulder smashed into the steps with a bone jarring crack, cutting clean through the stone before it tumbled down into the pit beneath, trapping the three helplessly in the very moment that the base of their steps, already dangerously eroded from time and the lack of care, finally cracked and began to tilt.
Aragorn grabbed Frodo’s shoulder firmly, and Lalaith clasped the hobbit’s other small shoulder as Frodo drew in a frightened gasp. The steps rocked beneath them, tipping one way and then the other as Gandalf, Legolas and the others watched helplessly below.
“Hang on!” Aragorn yelled.
To what? Lalaith wondered mutely, but did not have the strength to say it, as she gazed numbly at Legolas, who looked desperate enough to leap back up across the chasm in an attempt to get to her. Gandalf seemed to sense his emotion, and put a steadying hand on the elf’s arm. Neither of them, nor Boromir, nor any of the others blinked, or glanced away from Lalaith and the other two trapped on the teetering stairs.
Backward the stairs rocked, then to the side. Valar, help us. Lalaith pleaded within her mind, desperately, hopelessly, convinced that they were about to topple to their deaths amidst a rain of rubble and boulders. But no sooner had the thought escaped her mind, when the stairs began to tilt forward, farther, toward where Legolas stood, waiting eagerly.
“Lean forward!” Aragorn shouted, and Frodo and Lalaith gladly obeyed him as the steps tilted closer and closer to those waiting below. “Steady!” He cried again.
“Come on!” Legolas blurted breathlessly, extending his arms as the three drew closer, ever closer, and then suddenly with a crash, the stairs collided, and Lalaith felt herself propelled forward through the air, flying right into his waiting arms. Gandalf caught Frodo, and Boromir caught Aragorn, but Lalaith, for one moment, knew nothing but Legolas as his arms, warm and sturdy, wrapped around her, and held her tightly for a moment before he drew back and steadied her shoulders, mindful of her injury, his warm, comforting hands sliding upward to her face, searching her eyes as if to reassure himself that she was with him, that she was safe.
“Lalaith-,” he choked in a voice that sounded as if he were near to sobbing, studying her with eyes that glistened with what looked suspiciously like tears.
“Legolas, I’m here. I’m safe.” She gasped, grasping his hands and drawing them away from her face. “But we must go. Now.”
The others had already started down the steps, and Legolas, as if remembering suddenly, snatched her hand in his, and the two elves darted after their companions in their rush toward the bridge of Khazad-Dum.