Apology/Disclaminer: I am very, very sorry that this chapter took so long. Life went into overdrive, what with school and rehersals and people’s birthdays and sewing and whatnot. This chapter is longish, though – I hope that makes up for it a little! And I Do Not Own Arda. As you know, I hope.
Chapter Twenty-One: More Trouble
So I’ll stand here with my whole desire
In the middle of this forest fire
Till I’ve nothing left to show
And new life begins to grow…
–Nichole Nordeman, Burnin’
I bolted for the space between two Men on the riverbank ahead of me and the two who had just stepped out of the forest. One of them moved to intercept me, but Emeryk took off from my shoulder and flew into his face, wings beating hard. I ducked, was past, kept running. I reached the trees, but I was headed away from the river, my only landmark. It would be very, very easy to get lost.
I could hear the Men, crashing through the brush behind me, stealth now thrown to the winds. Training, sense, and blind panic were all fighting each other for supremacy. Training said to do anything neccessary to escape alive, eluding or dispatching my pursuers. Sense said to find a way to shake them off, then find the river again. Panic told me to merely run.
I compromised, continuing to run while looking for a hiding place. The willows were not enough to hide me; their foliage was too sparse, and the branches slender. The Men had kept the distance between us steady. They knew the territory, I did not, and so it was not too hard for them to keep up with me.
Emeryk swooped down above me, squawking – appearantly he had gotten away unhurt. I spared a glance upward to make sure, then ducked under yet another branch. The shadows were growing longer and deeper as the sun set – perhaps I would be able to get away in the dark. I had been walking since dawn, and the weeks of ceaseless travel were beginning to tell on me.
I heard something hiss through the air and turned, ducking by instinct, just barely in time to see a knife miss me by about six inches. I felt something in my stomach drop.
Oh, Eru. They weren’t just robbers – they were quite ready to kill me.
That should not have been surprising, but in an odd, distant way it was. I’d most likely have to fight them, and I knew that I would lose. Because now I was free, I had a choice, and I was not going to kill another of Iluvatar’s children.
I had already seen far too much death. I would not have another stain on my hands. I would fight, yes, if there was any hope of escape, but just to save myself I could not kill. I am not what Gorthaur made me.
It was not very long after that I realized I was hopelessly lost, and slowed. I had not seen a likely place where I could hide all the while. The underbrush and willows might possibly conceal me from a cursory glance, but they were far from enough. And if there were other hiding places I’d no idea where.
The Men were drawing closer; I was about to keep running when I heard the sound of a throwing knife again. I ducked, half-turning, and that saved my life.
The knife had been thrown low in anticipation of my ducking. But because of the turn it only made a gash across the back of my left shoulder, instead of hitting me squarely.
Even so, I stumbled. The wound was deep, and crossed almost my whole back. The fabric of my tunic was soaked with blood in moment, and if I continued to lose it at that rate…
In the handful of instants that I had before they reached me I pulled out my sword, right-handed, awkward – to move my left arm was agonizing. I knew I would lose this fight, exhausted, wounded, weary-hearted and lost and determined not to kill, but I would not be taken easily.
The first Man charged, and I blocked his thrust with an effort, moving so that my back was against a tree. I have never been as adept with my right hand as my left.
He stabbed to the right and once again I parried, my arm jarred by his heavy sword and the impact. Then there was another, and wrenched to the side in time to block again. The other relaxed his guard for a moment, and purely from training I swept my sword toward his unprotected side, before I caught myself and pulled back to block a blow from another Man who had joined the fray. Though I was outnumbered and all of them were fair swordsmen, I had been trained in Gorthaur’s service, for Mandos’ sake, and there were moments flashing past when I could have simply killed them.
But I knew that I would not. And though not all of them joined the fight there were still too many, I felt dizzy, my mind drifting away as I automatically blocked and parried, my shoulder burned like fire and the blood was dripping down…
And then as I twisted to block yet again someone slammed their sword-hilt into the back of my head, and my last thought was to wonder why they had even bothered…
I came to when someone unceremoniously dropped me to the ground. I kept my eyes closed for several moments, gaugeing the situation.
My wrists were bound behind me, and my ankles tied as well. The bleeding from my gash had slowed, now only a trickle, but I could feel that the back of my shirt and tunic were well and truly soaked with blood. It was unpleasant, but the pain was bearable.
I opened my eyes and found that I was lying at the base of a tree in what seemed to be the bandits’ camp: a cave, stream, and several crude shelters. About fifteen of them were standing nearby. One of the ones whom I had fought was talking to another, who seemed to be the chief. “-And then Marek threw his knife, and it got her across the back. She stopped running then – coward Elf – and got against a tree for our attack. It was strange; she fought like a demon, but didn’t kill any of us.”
I allowed myself a vague, satisfied thought that at least I had given them some trouble, but it was banished by the other’s response.
“Probably has a weak stomach, poor lass.” There was no question as to the statement’s sarcasm, and someone snorted with laughter before the leader continued. “Looks like she’s awake now. Bring her over.”
Two Men detached themselves from the group, and one of them yanked me to my feet. My vision swam as I was roughly lifted and carried, and I realized that I’d lost even more blood than I had guessed. When I was set down it took all my concertration to see the Man in front of me clearly. All that I really noticed was that he was slightly taller than the others, but looked no more pleasant, maybe even less so. My pack, sword, and knives lay on the ground not far away, near the other Man who had been speaking.. I wondered where Emeryk was, but at least he would be fairly safe away from the band, which would be likely to use him for target practice. But I could not help – just the smallest bit – feeling betrayed. I’d have thought that he would stay with me.
The chief was beginning to speak, I realized, and I forced my attention back. “What is your name,Elf?”
There was no real reason not to tell him. “Morien.”
“And what is your business in our woods? If you have a very, very good reason-” he grinned nastily “-we may let you go.”
I doubted that very much. “My business is my own, and utterly unconnected with anything that might interest you. I do not believe that Na-Tathran is anyone’s property. And if you mean why am I here, specifically, it is because your charming comrades ambushed me, of which you are no doubt aware.” It was undeniably foolish, but I let sarcasm take the reins. After all, I did not have much to lose; it did not seem that I would ever reach the Sea now.
The Man almost disinterestedly backhanded me across the face, and the only reason I remained standing was the grip that the two others had on my arms. My head snapped to the side hard enough to make my neck ache.
That shouldn’t hurt, a small, oddly amused part of my mind said. It sounded rather like someone I’d known a long time ago. You’ve had worse, after all. Cheer up.
I was ignored as the chief turned away to look at my weapons. Another, with an audience, emptied my pack. I think they were all disappointed with the contents. There were only a few wafers of waybread left, some of the herbs from the healing kit, my water-bottle, and folded at the bottom my extremely ragged spare tunic. All in all, none of it was worth the trouble of waylaying me.
I had a vague feeling of satisfaction, and then realized that I was also beginning to feel delirious. I didn’t know how long I’d been unconscious, but it seemed that on top of losing far more blood than was good for me my shoulder had the beginnings of a bad infection…
I don’t remember much of the days, two, maybe, or perhaps even three or four, that came after that. I don’t know either why the bandits kept me alive; maybe they just though I would die on my own and so no one bothered to kill me. I was simply tossed back to the side of the camp, where I had been, and left there. I think I remember someone pouring water down my throat, once. But again, I’m not sure.
But at last, through a pounding headache that barely left room for thought, I heard a familiar sound. It took me a moment to register it.
Cawing. Emeryk. He hadn’t really left me, then.
With an effort, struggling, I lifted my head slightly and saw him land on the ground next to me. I didn’t have the heart or strangth to shoo him away as he hopped closer, and pecked my hair lightly, pushing it back from my face.
“Emeryk…” I whispered, my vision swimming again. And then I heard something just as familiar as his caw, but so strange, under those circimstances…It was a battle-cry. One I knew as well as my name.
For a moment I was sure I had imagined it, but several arrows, a warning, thudded into the trees and ill-built walls of the camp. Suddenly a band of Elves was in the open and the Men came out, some fighting, some running..I closed my eyes, trying with all my concentration to remain conscious.
The just as suddenly it was quiet, and I was carefully lifted to a sitting position by several pairs of hands, and someone was saying “It’s all right, lass, you’re safe-“
“She’s hurt,” another voice broke in, distant – I was losing my battle to stay awake – “Looks like an infection – Linedhel, lend a hand here-“
Now, to Those Of You Who Have Figured Out What Is Going On: Please don’t give it away to people (anyone?) who hasn’t. Pleeeeease? It would ruin the suspense, and you know I like to keep as many people in as great a state of that is is possible…But please review!