Lalaith was feeling a twinge of fear as she crept along a narrow path woven through the high branches of the Mallyrn, the golden bows about her, washed silver in the light of the moon and stars that filtered down from the night sky above. It was a path that was little more than thick Mallorn branches twisted along the natural planes of their growth following one another in succession as each branch’s tapering boughs wove into the leafing tendrils of another, sturdy enough to support the weight of the light footed Elves that traveled this aerial pathway. One hand grasped at smaller branches above her for support while she clutched her bow tightly in her sweaty fist. She had possessed a curious apprehension of height for as long as she could remember, though she did not know why, for she was as lithe footed as any other Elf. But for the moment, she hardly realized her small concern, for a new darker fear had overshadowed all other emotion. She could hear the rhythmic hacking of axes, and flinched every time the sound of cracking wood assaulted her ears, for she loved the trees of this wood, home to her as much as Imladris was. The task of cutting the trees down moved more slowly than what the orcs had tried at the first; setting fire to the brush, and burning the trees down. But the power of Lady Galadriel was too strong for that, and the fires quenched and died before growing far, so the orcs had resorted to their axes, much slower work. Still, the death of even one tree was difficult for Lalaith to take. The creatures did not even mean to use the wood of the tree they felled, she knew, for Alcarion and Haldir had already shown her a clearing of abandoned trees felled at the forest eaves and littered about liked animal carcasses slain for the mere pleasure of killing something. There could be no reason for this senselessness, but that they did this simply to mock the Elves who dwelt in these woods, to give them a show of power.
Though small bands of orcs harassed the Elves of Lothlórien from time to time, this time, their numbers were greater. They had started on the western edge of the forest, cutting down the saplings and the younger trees that grew there, gradually cutting a wedge eastward, working even beneath the glaring sun, as if they intended to cut clean through the Golden Wood. Perhaps the thought of these orcs, was that they dared not make war upon the Elves beneath their own trees, and meant to cut their way to the heart of Caras Galadhon itself, their destination, to make war upon the Elves, there. Whatever their goal, these creatures were fierce and desperate. They were tenacious, but their progress was slow, and though their numbers were great, the Elves of Lórien had held them at bay, cutting them down systematically, and slowing their progress. And now with the arrival of the Elves from Imladris and Mirkwood, they were all but driven from the Golden Wood. For that reason, Lalaith had at last been permitted to leave the high talan and help, for the greatest part of the danger was gone.
Lalaith paused, her hand clutching a nearby branch for support as she gazed down at two dark shapes that had taken form through the tree branches and the thick ground vegetation where they scurried about upon the ground, half hidden by shadow, hunched dark shapes that she knew instinctively were orcs. They were alone, it appeared, on the very tip of the wedge the tree felling orcs had created, and would be easy targets, or so it was hoped.
“Those creatures?” She whispered to her companion who stood nearby. “They are orcs?” She could hear the trembling tones of her voice, and felt shamed that she was so frightened. A low aching twinge throbbed in the back of her right shoulder, and she shifted her stance slightly in an effort to alleviate the pain. Yet it did not fade.
“They are, my lady. You have never seen one before?” Alcarion asked, glancing back at her with an expression of sympathy.
“Not before today.” She admitted. “Though we have been here for two days, I have seen no orc, yet. My cousins have been protective, and my friend Legolas almost stiflingly so.” Setting her jaw, she turned her mind away from the pain, determined to ignore the throbbing ache in her shoulder.
“It is only because you are young, and untried. And they love you, my lady.” Alcarion answered with a thin smile of understanding. “My daughter has never seen one of these vile creatures either, and she is much older than you. I hope she is never called upon to deal with this orcish business, though-, one never knows what the future may bring.”
“What is her name?” Lalaith asked.
“Lothriel.” Alcarion answered. He paused a long moment, and glanced ahead of him at Haldir who, with Legolas, had disappeared further along the aerial path. “You have met her before, but I do not know if you would remember her, for she is rather shy.”
“I believe I do remember her.” Lalaith said softly, furrowing her brow. She did indeed remember Lothriel, a quiet, polite maiden, golden hair tumbling down her back, large shy eyes set within a face of fair beauty. She was a servant to Galadriel, and had been one of the maidens who had waited on Lalaith and Arwen when they had last come to visit in the Golden Wood. “She is near to Lord Haldir in age, yes?”
“Indeed, my lady.” Alcarion nodded, eyeing Lalaith with an expression that was at once rueful and sympathetic. “Lord Haldir exceeds her in age only by fifteen years. They have been close friends all their lives.” Alcarion’s eyes became somewhat troubled as he began to speak more slowly, “In truth, my lady, when we first met you upon the path, I was surprised by Lord Haldir’s remarks to you, for my daughter has had hopes that perhaps-,”
His words ended as swiftly as they had begun, for the harsh crack of axes below them was suddenly cut off by the hiss of arrows followed by the thunk of the narrow shafts penetrating the orcs’ bodies. Soft groans rose up, and the dark, half hidden shadows tumbled to the earth.
“Follow me.” Alcarion ordered, and he ran along the branching trellis as Lalaith struggled along behind him, grasping at branches as she went, for support.
“This is the eleventh for me.” Came a familiar voice soft and quiet from beneath them, and Alcarion bid Lalaith to stop as two Elves upon the ground came into view; Haldir and Legolas. Somehow, they had descended from the tree without Alcarion or Lalaith noting their departure.
“I am on thirteen.” Haldir returned smugly as he nudged one of the two dead orcs with his foot. “Do not forget the wager we made.”
“I was not entirely agreeable to that wager, Haldir.” Legolas answered, his tone carrying a hint of moodiness.
“You would say that now, my lord prince.” Haldir muttered smugly. “Now that you are losing. For when the orcs have been driven back, the winner claims the first dance with Lady Lalaith at the celebration feast.”
Lalaith’s jaw dropped, and she frowned angrily. She was barely aware of the concerned glance Alcarion gave her out of the corner of her eye. What were those foolish men making a wager over her, for? Did they think her incapable of choosing her own escort?
But her momentary anger was forgotten, as three more dark figures, came creeping from beneath the shadows like insects from beneath the rot of a stone to confront the two Elves.
The first barked something harsh in a language that Lalaith could not understand, though she guessed that the sound was not of the tones of the Black Speech. Doubtless it wished the two Elves to understand the mocking curse it spoke, and thus used the language of the Common Tongue, a language Lalaith had not yet learned. She had guessed right, for Legolas returned a seething reply to the orc’s harsh curse, and he and Haldir snatched their blades from the quivers at their backs; Legolas his two white knives, and Haldir a long bright bladed sword that glittered beneath the starlight.
The three orcs chuckled, and again one of them spat what seemed to be a challenge, yet made no move, waiting for the Elves to come at them.
Beside her, she became aware of Alcarion slowly drawing forth an arrow from his quiver, and she followed suit, hearing the wild thunder of her heart within her chest. The orcs locked in a face-off with the two Elves upon the ground were clearly unaware of the other two who watched from the treetops.
Lalaith’s attention was jerked suddenly away from the two as a movement beyond Legolas and Haldir caught her eye. Alcarion had yet to notice it, for he stood paces beyond Lalaith, his sight blocked from a jutting branch. But from the darkness of the shadows behind Legolas and Haldir, the dark shape of an orc came slithering slowly forward. Within its fist, was clenched a curving blade, and it raised the weapon high above its head, bearing its sights upon Legolas’ unprotected back.
Lalaith did not think. Her movements were more of instinct rather than conscious thought. She set the nock of her arrow to her bowstring, drew the string to her cheek, and let fly, hearing the familiar zip and thunk of the arrow flying from the string and into its target, the dark mottled skin of the orc’s throat.
With a high pitched squeal that ended in a frothing gurgle, the orc tumbled to the ground at Legolas’ feet, dead.
With sharp grunts of surprise and hatred, the three remaining orcs turned sharply, looking up toward whence the arrow had come. One orc snatched a bow that hung at its side, and drew back the string upon a black feathered arrow as Legolas and Haldir lunged forward, engaging the first two orcs in furious but brief combat, slaying them both within seconds of each other. Legolas’ flashing white knife sunk beneath the last orc’s ribs only a fraction of an instant after the arrow was released from the string, and flew toward Lalaith’s hiding place within the branches, seeming to grow larger as it came at her, destined for a spot right between her eyes.
“My lady!” Alcarion shouted from somewhere nearby, as if through an echoing fog. She felt a rough force lunge into her shoulder, and felt herself falling, hitting her shoulder hard upon the level Mallorn branch as a harsh thunk struck something above her, and she heard a grunt of surprise and pain that though it was a soft sound, seemed to echo long through the trees about her.
Glancing up, she felt a harsh breath pull into her lungs, and a part of her spirit turned inward upon itself, refusing to accept what her eyes were reporting. Alcarion stood above her, wavering on his feet as he gazed down in confusion and mild surprise at a black feathered arrow that poked through the front of his tunic. A bright spot of red was spreading over the cloth of his tunic around the shaft, and as he drew in a long held breath, it came out sharp and ragged, followed by a harsh cough that brought up drops of blood.
“My-, my lord? Alcarion?” Lalaith asked, her voice small in the forest that seemed suddenly silent as death.
But he did not answer. He simply glanced down into her eyes, with a helpless, almost remorseful expression as his strength left him, and his knees buckled.
“No!” Lalaith heard herself scream, and felt herself lunging upward to snatch at him as he fell, tumbling heavily from the branch, falling through the silent air, to land with a heavy thump upon the ground below, scattering leaves about him as he struck the earth.
“Alcarion!” Haldir’s voice shouted, and she saw the two Elves upon the ground rushing to his side. Her mind still could not understand what had happened as Lalaith scrambled to her feet, forcing her trembling limbs to work for her as she rushed along the tree borne corridor, and found a winding pathway, narrow, formed of a winding branch that led her down around a thick trunked Mallorn to the ground below.
Her feet scattered fallen leaves before her as she stumbled onto the earthen floor of the forest, and scrambled to where Alcarion lay, Haldir and Legolas kneeling over him. Haldir had caught hold of Alcarion’s hand, a look of numb horror on the March Warden’s face. Lalaith stumbled to the ground beside Legolas. Her fingers strayed to Legolas’ knee, seeking out his own hand and found it as he caught her trembling hand, enfolding it within the warmth of his. There were tears, she saw, within the March Warden’s eyes.
“Haldir,” Alcarion choked, his voice hardly audible.
“Alcarion, my friend, do not fear.” Haldir said in a voice thick with grief that trembled and shook dreadfully. “We will get you home to Brethiliel. All will be well. She and Lothriel and the healers will nurse you back.”
Alcarion’s eyes were shining in the dark, a thick stream of blood running from one side of his mouth as he shook his head despairingly. “Haldir-,” he coughed. “Haldir, listen.” Alcarion spluttered, his voice growing weak. His eyes were wide and bright. “My daughter.”
“What of Lothriel?” Haldir choked, his voice losing its sharpness suddenly, as if the knowledge of Alcarion’s inevitable fate had taken hold within his mind, weakening him.
“Lothriel,” Alcarion echoed, his voice fading as his fist tightened within Haldir’s. “Watch over her.” Haldir nodded, a wild, grieving nod as tears fell upon his cheeks. “She-, she-, lo-,”
The words he would have spoken, never came, for in the midst of a breath, Alcarion was gone. The light flew from his eyes, and his fist fell from Haldir’s.
“A-, Alcarion?” Haldir demanded, as if he had yet to realize that his friend was dead. “No.” A ragged breath choked within Haldir’s lungs, and he bent his head, soft sobs wracking his tall, strong frame as he wept for his dead friend.
A chill overcame Lalaith and she turned away from the terrible grief that swept over Haldir. Legolas leaned toward her, wanting to comfort her, but she pulled from him, and stood, staggering away, and fixing her eyes upon the orc that had slain Alcarion. It lay sprawled upon its back, its bow still within its fist. And-, she noted, it was coughing black blood, still alive though barely, watching the Elves with a sneering smile pulled back from sharp, ragged teeth.
The back of Lalaith’s shoulder twitched painfully, but she ignored it, and dove at the orc. She stumbled clumsily to the ground beside it, jarring her knees painfully. But she paid her own pain no heed, snatching the orc by the iron harness fastened about its chest, and nearly lifted it from the ground as she shook it rapidly. “Why?” She raged, anger and pain embodied in that one word as her gaze burned into the yellow eyed face of the orc that watched her with an almost humored expression.
“Do you not know?” The orc hissed low in a voice that gurgled through its blood.
Lalaith recoiled. She thrust the orc away, and stumbled backward upon the ground. She understood its speech, though she had never learned any tongue but that of her people. How could an orc understand the tongue of the Elves?
“Our master sent us for the little godling.” The orc continued, sneering at her horror, “The one he knows you Elves have been hiding.” The orc finished with a sneer.
“You lie!” Lalaith cried, coming back to herself, and scrambling to her knees. She could hear the disconcerted tremble in her voice beneath the revulsion she felt, and demanded, “What is the true reason for your coming to our Golden Wood?”
“Liar.” The orc hissed, rolling to one side, and snatching for her ankle, which she pulled rapidly away from its clawing hand. “You have the dirty little creature. Where is it?”
“I do not lie.” Lalaith’s mouth trembled, but she fought her emotions, refusing to let the sneering, yellow eyed creature see her weakness.
“Lies!” The orc insisted. “Where are you hiding the cursed little Vala?”
Lalaith drew in a fierce breath, hardly having heard the words the orc spoke. “Tell me why you came here, blasphemous orc!” She cried. “Tell me why you fell our trees, and murder our people!”
“We came for the Vala!” The orc spat back, spraying the side of Lalaith’s face with thick, black blood. “To kill it, as our master wishes! And to kill all your filthy race! Marr golug, lul gijak-ishi-,”
The black words the orc reverted to, were cut off in a dying gurgle as Lalaith, in a sudden frenzied rage, drew forth one of her knives, and drove it home into the creature’s chest, feeling the crack of bone as the blade drove clear through the beast, pinning it to the leaf strewn ground.
“Filthy, lying creature! May you rot eternally in the Void!” Lalaith spat, drawing the knife out, and plunging it back, once, twice, and again a third time into the dead orc’s body before she felt someone at her back. Legolas knelt behind her, his chest warm against her back as his hands slid along her arms and closed over her hands, to stop her rage.
Gently, but firmly, Legolas’ hands folded her arms in upon herself, his own arms curling warmly over hers, and in this embrace, he held her, his breath warm in her hair. “Lalaith,” he whispered softly, “I’m here.”
At the warm touch of his arms encircling her, firm yet also gentle, Lalaith’s raw fury melted away, leaving her no recourse but to weep. For Alcarion she mourned, but not for him alone. A portion of her innocence was dead, because of what she had seen and done this night, and she wept also, for herself. She had not lost her hold upon herself like this since her aunt Celebrian, the only mother she could remember, had sailed for Valinor. And Lalaith had only been a young girl, then.
“Hush, my friend, hush.” He whispered soothingly, as his hands found her thin shoulders and he turned her toward him, drawing her close like a child and she huddled against his chest, shuddering as she closed her eyes in an effort to shut out reality. She was sheltered and warm in his arms, her face buried against his neck, hidden against his cool, golden hair.
“Legolas, Legolas,” she choked. “Why did I come? Foolish child I am, to have ever though it was a game.”
“You saved my life, Lalaith.” Legolas returned, his own voice ragged at the despair in her tone. He too knew that she had reached a coming of age this night, and that she longed in vain to return to the way she had been before. “Your coming was the will of the Valar. For had you remained in Imladris, that orc would have struck me down from behind.”
Lalaith lifted her head from Legolas’ shoulder, and studied his face, scant inches from her own, she could feel his warm breath upon her face as she studied his bright eyes as they watched her, filled with worry and grief. Beyond his shoulder, she could still hear Haldir, his voice muffled as he mourned his fallen comrade. “So you are saved by the will of the Valar-, but Alcarion is taken from his wife and daughter?” She asked in a pleading voice. “Where is the justice in that?”
“I do not know.” Legolas answered heavily.
“No!” Lalaith demanded, pleading. “What is the answer? Why must the Valar allow this at all? Do they care not at all about us? Left here, bereft of the light of Valinor, upon Arda? Does Mandos care for nothing, but to fill his halls with the mourning dead, greedy tyrant that he must surely be?”
“I do not know the answers, Lalaith.” Legolas answered, his voice growing sharp for an instant, before he caught himself, and bowed his head a moment, before lifting it, and gazing long into her eyes with a face that pled with her for understanding. “I cannot give you answers, but I do know that I care for you, and that I wish to give you what comfort I can.” She felt his hands stray to her face, cupping her face with his fingers. “Do you trust me, Lalaith?” He asked in a whisper.
Catching her breath, she glanced up into his eyes, wondering as he drew close, and brushed his lips across her brow.
“I trust you. And will forever, Legolas.” She returned.
“Do you believe me then, when I tell you that someday the answers will come?”
Lalaith paused a long moment, her eyes hidden beneath closed lids as she contemplated his question. As she remained like this, she felt his breath, warm against her mouth, and then felt the soft press of his brow resting against her own.
“Yes.” She answered softly, then lowered her head and buried her face into his cool golden hair where it rested smooth against his neck. And his arms, warm and secure, encircled her, and he held her close, neither moving as Haldir remained paces away, keeping vigil at the side of his dead friend until the first hint of dawn lightened the sky, and the sons of Elrond, with their sister Arwen, found them at last.