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Eschewal

Chapter Text

Legolas rode on the bench seat of a cart, Hannah seated beside him, reins in hand, with Nigel and Henri standing on either side of the two drays pulling the overloaded wagon. Unsurprisingly to Legolas, Hworin had insisted upon staying right beside his Prince, and thus rode in the cart itself upon the mound of oilcloth which when erected constructed the large tent many of the refugees slept under at night. Since Hworin was still recuperating from his injury, his place on the soft cloth and in the cart was a fair enough seat; no one had yet to insist the elder Wood-Elf give up his spot to allow someone else to ride for a while, and nor had anyone asked for Legolas’ seat, being that all believed him to be nearly blind still. Besides, Hannah was as insistent upon staying at the Prince’s side as Hworin.

The going was slower than Legolas expected. The camp of Edain, Eldar, and the few Dwarves – whom Legolas had still not met, though he had caught sight of them this morning and they seemed entirely uninterested in meeting him – were mostly unhorsed, so those with the fortune of having mounts or carts upon which to ride were still forced to move at a snail’s pace so as not to leave the rest of their group behind. For now, they could still make use of the rafts so long as they followed the river north; a few of the Edain were tugging these crafts by their ropes, moving against the southward current while they ambled along the water’s side, with a couple others using long poles to direct the rafts away from the grassy bank of the watercourse. Wisely, the humans had packed the most vital of their chattel upon the carts, just in case one of the rickety rafts pulled free of its rope, such that nothing of import would be lost. Of those who had horses or carts upon which to ride, turns were taken to allow everyone a break from walking, with the elderly, injured, women, and children naturally being given precedence over the young, healthy men, who were also tasked with protecting the others, and thus were required to walk on the fringes of their moseying mass of people so they could be on the outlook for danger.

To the Prince’s glad surprise and despite the procession’s sluggish pace and the tiring endeavor of walking while both keeping constant lookout for potential attackers and watch over the naturally boisterous children, Legolas heard very few complaints from the many Edain in their group. Even the youngsters remained optimistic and lively, though they were clearly tired, hungry, and cold. Indeed, although he heard a few good-natured grumbles about various gripes such as sore feet or the length of someone’s time spent riding when it was felt to be someone else’s turn to do so, the only true grievance he heard was from a toddler who whined when her father – who hobbled along on crutches – would not carry her. A man beside the two offered to carry the youngster, which made the Wood-Elf smile and the toddling Adan girl giddy with joy when her father agreed to allow the other man to appease his youngster. The child tittered joyfully when the Adan hauled her to sit on his shoulders, and then began to gallop as if he were a pony. This didn’t last long, though, for the man was more malnourished than most of the others, and from what Legolas could recall from the many introductions made to him the night before, this Adan in particular hadn’t been a refugee, but was merely a straggler who had joined the others for his own safety while travelling north.

There are so few men amongst us, the Wood-Elf reflected with worry as he tried to count how many males were in their group, and then decided, Of the men here, most are likely to be of little use should we face true peril, although I would wager all will fight to their deaths to protect their friends.

While the able-bodied males carried weapons, most of the people were entirely without any means of defending themselves. A few of the women had shoddily fashioned arrows and scrawny bows, as did some of the elderly Edain, but from what the laegel had been told, few of them knew how to use these arms with any proficiency.

I would that I had my own bow and quiver, he thought longingly of his weapons, suddenly wishing he had asked Aragorn if he and the twins, or Kalin or Reana, had found his long knife amongst the Orcs.

The bow he supposed he could replace easily enough, but the long knife had sentimental value to him, being that it had been a gift from his Naneth millennia ago and he did not like the possibility of his having lost it. More disturbing to the Prince was his feeling of being dependent upon others for his protection, much less a bunch of Edain whom he did not know, and even less so in that it seemed these people were such poor archers they apparently couldn’t fell sufficient game to fill the many hungry bellies of their kith. Legolas could forgive their inability to hunt, however, as most of these Edain were farmers who were accustomed to having fields of grain and barns of livestock upon which to depend for their meals, with guards around their settlements or villages. Still, their clumsiness in hunting worried Legolas, for while helping the refugees pack up the camp at dawn, the Silvan had seen for himself the stores of food they had remaining and thus knew their supplies would be gone long before they reached Bree.

Perhaps when next we stop for a while, I can borrow a bow to hunt, he decided, harkening back to his promise to Hannah and Faelthîr to do so. They cannot complain about my lack of sight hindering my hunting, for surely I will do better than have they, he told himself with a lighthearted grouse. Hannah especially was intent upon looking after Legolas, as had she promised to do, and reminded the Wood-Elf evermore of Elrond with her paternal instincts. It might take some convincing before she gave her blessing for him to hunt.

Earlier this morning, there had been some debate about whether to continue along the Greyflood until it became the Hoarwell, and thus they were far enough north to travel through the woods and wilds westward towards Bree, thereby bypassing the South Downs on its eastern side, following the path of the East Road above the Downs without truly travelling upon the road; or, whether to chance the swamps around the abandoned area of Tharbad to find the Greenway, which they could then follow in its northwesterly direction before heading directly north between the South Downs and Barrow Downs, which would lead them to Bree. The reasoning behind some of the Edain wishing to follow the Greyflood and then the Hoarwell for a while longer was because they did not wish to lose the readily available source of fresh water and fish from the river, nor have to abandon their rafts for conveyance of their goods. Others wanted to avoid such a long and convoluted path.

In the end, though, and to his amazement, Hannah had asked for Legolas’ opinion, deferring to him because she believed from what he and Faelthîr had told her that Legolas was more familiar with the area than were any of the humans – most of whom hailed from the far south or from the other side of the Misty Mountains entirely. Consequently, Legolas suggested they follow the Greenway. It would cut days off their travel by allowing them to move along a more direct path, and by doing so, it would allow them to traverse several settlements and villages established near the road, from where they might obtain supplies or aid. Anything on the rafts they could not carry would simply have to be left behind, with the faith it could be replaced. The sooner they reached safety, the better, to the laegel’s thinking. It was for this very reason they had not stopped today, save for long enough to allow the children to eat the leftover venison and for the horses to be allowed to graze and drink along the river’s shore for a short while.

A nearly full day of riding was taking its toll upon the Elf. The jouncing and jolting of the cart caused the Prince to bounce upon the hard bench seat; already, Legolas’ rear was sore from it. His head hurt. His eyes hurt. They had chosen to save their meal for later, so other than the children, no one had eaten this morning – including Legolas. All in all, he was in better health than a day ago, though not entirely well, and were he in Imladris or at home, the Prince would likely be in bed with a twin, Elrond, Kalin, or Estel hovering over him to ascertain the Silvan had everything he needed. But in the woods with a group of traumatized humans whom Legolas began to suspect needed him more than he needed them, the Wood-Elf refused to let any of his aches or pains diminish his good mood. He had taken two doses of Faelthîr’s tincture yesterday – one when first she made it and one before bed, and another upon his wakening this morning – and each dose incited within Legolas a greater hope he would regain his vision entirely, which kept his cheerfulness buoyed. He could now see more details and a greater range of color, such that the Silvan could distinguish individual leaves still clinging to nearby trees and could note the difference of the autumnal colors of each, for the leaves blew everywhere around the sluggishly moving group of refugees; yesterday, all of this would have been a dull, greyish blur. Faelthîr had surely saved the Silvan’s sight.

I wonder where she is amongst all these people, he questioned when his wandering thoughts turned to the she-Elf. He would have guessed the Noldorin Elleth would be seated beside Hannah to share her company and guidance, rather than Legolas, since yesterday it had seemed to the Prince the two women were close friends and shared counsel freely. And yet, Legolas discerned Hannah was troubled by Faelthîr having not having explained to the Adan woman how Aragorn, Chieftain of the Rangers, and Estel, one of those whom the Elleth had wronged, were one and the same. As much as he still distrusted Faelthîr, he nearly felt sorry for her over the she-Elf’s apparent fall from Hannah’s favor.

Glancing beside him at Hannah as he deliberated whether to broach the topic of Faelthîr, to try to mend the rift between the two women, Legolas became distracted by his vision yet again. Having only gone a few days without seeing well, his being able to see more clearly was a wondrous thing, and he could not get enough of taking in every sight around him. And now, he could truly see what the people around him looked like, whereas before he had based his judgment of them upon their voices and actions. For example, Legolas had pictured Hannah to be an older woman, hard-worn by work and life; seeing her clearly currently, the Elf knew his conclusion was right. The woman wore plaited, long hair the color of darkly brewed tea, though it was streaked with hoary strands. She was taller than were most of the other women among them, with eyes the same shade as the underside of a maple leaf in spring. Hannah’s gaunt frame was hidden by her simply made, grey linen dress, though under it she also wore trousers, with her feet clad in sturdy boots usually preferred by farmers who spent their days trudging through the mud of fields. Her astute visage was heavily lined with wrinkles, especially so around her eyes and mouth, which was perpetually set in a brooding frown, as if the Adan spent most of her time in deep thought.

Her husband Nigel, on the other hand, had a drooping belly hanging over his trousers’ waist. Even the starvation and hard living of the refugees’ ordeal both on the compound and on the run had not thinned him. To keep his pants up, the man had ropes tied to loops at the waist in both back and front, which ran over his shoulders to connect in the semblance of improvised suspenders. He was nearly as short as a dwarf. His unkempt, stark black hair curled wildly around his head, tangling in his equally disheveled beard, which reached all the way to the middle of his stout chest. Even his eyes were black as coal.

They say opposites attract, and never have I seen two who look and act more unalike than Hannah and Nigel, the Silvan told himself, hiding his chuckle at this thought behind a feigned cough. Even their demeanors were dissimilar, for while Hannah was always thinking and most often quiet and serious, Nigel was boisterous, talkative, and humorous.

He had yet to place many of the other faces he saw, for he had yet to speak to them to match the visages with the voices. Henri was one of the few whose identities he was sure of, and the man also aligned with what the Elf had assumed of him prior to being able to see the Adan. The young man was about Estel’s age, with skin like sunned, weathered leather, dark blond hair, and pale golden eyes – of course, none of this could the Prince have guessed from his voice. No, it was the Adan’s demeanor that aligned with Legolas’ perception of him. He had thought Henri to be quiet, submissive, and glued to Nigel’s’ side. And this was the case, for wherever Nigel went, Henri followed, absorbing every word the older man said, helping him with every task, and seemingly looking up to Nigel as if the stout human were a father figure.

I would say many of these poor Edain have lost their families or have not seen them in months. Perhaps Nigel has become to Henri the father he has lost or is missing. Legolas was perpetually amazed at the good will and wholesomeness of which people were capable; never more so than now did he feel joy and wonder at this, for these refugees had suffered together, fought together, and now fled together, taking care of each other when it would have been easier for many of them to part and find their own way to safety, rather than to remain amongst the others who were less capable of surviving alone. These are surely good people, he assured himself.

Beside him, Hannah sighed in a contented, pleased way, which pulled the Prince from his musings, ere she quietly told the Elf, “I am glad you are with us, Legolas. I thank the Maker we found you, dear.”

He did not know how to respond to this random comment except to say, “I am very grateful for your having taken me in and glad to be with you, also, Mother.”

As she did every time he called her Mother, Hannah smiled at him. The trust he felt for her was as strong as it had been since first he had met her, and odd though he found it to hold such absolute faith in a woman he barely knew, upon seeing the honesty in her smile, Legolas beamed back at her in pleasure to have thrilled her with this simple appellation. The odd thought of what his father might say to hear him call this Adan woman mother crossed his mind, ere he promptly cast it aside. He called Elrond “second father,” after all, and meant no disloyalty to his own father by saying it.

Hannah returned to watching the world around them for a moment, her acute gaze searching the woods for hidden peril and her kith for secreted injury or dire need, until Legolas thought to ask, “It seems most of the people with you are women and children, or are elderly. What caused this disparity in your flight from the slave compound?”

Again, Hannah sighed, though this time she did it out of frustration. The late day’s fading sunlight brightened the white in her hair, causing the otherwise drab brown of it to glimmer as if it were glistening with dew. The Adan woman spared him a brief glance before she answered, “Our menfolk were much harder to free during our rebellion. Many of them were too broken down or ill to run, though all of them fought to allow the rest of us the chance to flee. And a number of them died during the fight. But we were forced to leave them behind, for they fought to keep the supervisors occupied, giving their women and children the chance to escape. What has happened to those of them who survived, I fear to speculate. And few of us know who lived and who died during the fight. Many of the women and children here pray every night their husband or father is amongst the survivors.”

Having heard of what his Prince and Hannah spoke, Hworin piped up from behind them, “Those men who did manage to escape with us were those who were assigned to the farms with the women and children, as they were older and incapable of the harder work in the mines; or, like me and Nigel, Henri, and some of the other younger or hardier ones, we were amongst those who were guarding the women and children during their escape.”

Shifting in his seat to look upon his fellow Silvan, Legolas reached out and laid his hand upon Hworin’s shoulder, for he could hear the regret in the Wood-Elf’s voice before he saw it plainly upon Hworin’s face, and he wished to comfort him. Laying his own hand over his Prince’s for a moment, the Silvan servant nodded at Legolas to show he was fine. The younger Elf knew of his elder, He rues not being able to save Phresia and Lirion, the former of whom died fighting and the latter of whom had died from the sorrow of his lover’s death. He could find nothing comforting to say to Hworin, though from how the elder Elf smiled at his beloved Prince, this simple touch from Legolas had done enough.

Thus, Legolas removed his hand and settled back into facing front once more. He again viewed the world around him with simple awe, each detail of every face appearing beautiful to him, for these people appeared authentic, hardworking, and loving of each other, which made them more beautiful than if held to the standards of beauty by which people were normally judged. Of all the faces he could now perceive with his improved vision, Legolas was happiest to see Hworin’s benevolent and familiar countenance. Upon first learning of and meeting his fellow Wood-Elf in the tent the day prior, the laegel had thought that although he did not immediately recognize Hworin’s name or voice, if he could but see his fellow Elf he might know him – and this had turned out to be true.

Upon the coming of dawn this morning, Hworin had stood upon his bed – the branch of the elm beneath the one upon which Legolas slept, that is – to shake gently his Prince to wake him. And after sleeping with another bellyful of Faelthîr’s medicines to aid in reducing the swelling in his head, Legolas had been able to see Hworin clearly for the first time in the orange light of Anor’s grace. He had nearly wept at the sight, for as he had thought, Legolas did in fact recognize Hworin. Over the many years and many servants who had served in his father’s halls, some of whom cycled through various jobs in the stronghold or worked for a while before eventually seeking livelihoods in other ways, there were few who had remained in Thranduil’s household for as long as had Hworin. Off the top of his head, Legolas could only think of Faidnil having served the Elvenking for as long as Hworin; and upon realizing this, the Prince felt ashamed for not having known Hworin’s name, although to be fair to Legolas, Hworin had been the King and Queen’s servant ere the Queen died, and then been relegated to the kitchens as a personal cook for the King, with the kitchens being one of the few places in the palace the Prince never visited, and thus he could not recall ever having spoken to the Silvan servant. Moreover, while Hworin was his given name, absolutely everyone – including the King – called him by the sobriquet ‘Rin,’ and Legolas then realized he had never known the other Elf’s true name was actually Hworin. Had Hworin thought to introduce himself yesterday by his nickname rather than his actual name, Legolas would have known who he was immediately.

In fact, this morning when he had merely stared at the elder Elf with pleased awe to find he recognized him, Hworin had inquired worriedly if Legolas was all right, to which the Prince had replied by calling Hworin ‘Rin,’ grinned in welcome at the other Silvan, and laughed heartily with ease and joy. Legolas’ delight had been mirrored by Hworin, who was reassured to find his Prince was well and likewise, pleased to learn his Prince remembered him. When his father found out about all of this – if Legolas ever scrounged up the bravery to tell him, that is – Thranduil might find some glimmer of humor in hearing of this, at least.

At least I did not wake Rin by moaning or calling out Estel’s name in my sleep. I would never be able to look him in the eye again, he teased himself, smiling widely at the taunt, though he turned this grin towards the river so neither Hannah nor Hworin would see it and wonder what he found so amusing after their morbid topic of just a moment ago.

With this in mind, Legolas’ thoughts naturally strayed to his shared dream with Aragorn. It pleased the Elf greatly to think he need never be parted from his lover while both of them lived, even should distance separate them – they could always convene in their dreams. Even when it came time for him to go home to the Greenwood, should Aragorn not accompany him as the Ranger said he would, Legolas could be appeased by knowing he could speak to the man during their sleeping hours. While the Prince’s faer was no longer as rent by sorrow as it had been over the last year, he need not fear said sorrow’s return or growth due to the absence of his Adan lover – not if he could merely sleep and see his beloved again, speak to him, and perchance even enjoy himself with Estel as had they done last night.

Having never been interested or inclined to bond his faer with another’s faer prior to Estel, Legolas had never once considered what doing so might entail. I would never have guessed our joining would bring such joy, he reflected, his faint smile growing until unknowingly, the Silvan was grinning at everything around him. From where Aragorn had said he was sleeping the night before, Legolas believed his lover would very soon be home in the valley, be tended to by his father, and thus, the Ranger was soon to be safe and cared for. He was relieved Estel had not argued with him but promised to go to Imladris for healing, but also, he was relieved Kalin, Reana, and Elladan were on their way to find him, although he did worry whether they would be able to do so now the refugee camp was on the move.

As it had each time he thought of his and Estel’s dream thus far today, the Wood-Elf’s mind strayed to replaying the events of said dream, in which he and the human had enjoyed the other’s company in an inexplicable, incorporeal intimacy of their faers, which had been demonstrated in their dream-bodies to bring each an ecstasy surpassing any the Prince had ever felt from his physical body alone. I would never have thought we could make love whilst sharing a dream. We will have to try doing so again very soon – especially if it takes Estel a while to heal and he cannot come to Bree soon. Just the recollection incited his imagination to meander into new acts he should like to perform with the man while they slept; more importantly, though, Legolas wanted Aragorn with him in reality. Sharing and sensing his lover’s feelings and faer during a dream was wonderful, but the Prince wanted more to feel the man’s whiskered cheeks under his hands, to recline his slender form against the human’s broader one, and to enjoy the press of Aragorn’s lips against his own. He shifted where he sat, his shaft thickening slightly with his prurient thoughts, while his grin grew until he laughingly chastised himself, Smile any harder and all around you will assume you a bumbling fool!

“A coin for your thoughts,” Hannah offered, bumping her bony shoulder against his upper arm to catch his attention away from his idle contemplation of the fiercely, starkly beautiful grey sky overhead, the straggling clouds looking like long strands of drawn out cotton stretching from the mountains to Anor in the west. The sun was long past its zenith and slowly moving to fall behind the horizon in the distant west: the days were growing ever shorter with winter’s approach. When he turned to look at Hannah, he was entertained by how the crow’s feet around her eyes crinkled as she smiled at him. It made her appear less somber and brooding, and much more motherly. “You are in a very chipper mood, dear.”

Chortling in amusement and with a bit of embarrassment, as he could not imagine explaining to the woman why he was so happy, Legolas demurred, “Yes. I have much over which to be cheerful today.”

Hannah did not press further, though from the peculiar smile she gave him in return, Legolas could tell she wanted to ask more questions. And she might have, had not someone chosen this very moment to attack the group of refugees.

The telltale hiss of an arrow flying through the air alerted the Prince to the danger long before he heard the first scream of the Edain reacting to injury, or calling out in confusion or fear. Without thinking and before the first arrow even met its mark in the mass of people around them, Legolas launched himself at Hannah, knocking her to the side and covering her with his body, while behind him, Hworin cursed loudly – the elder Wood-Elf had heard the sing of the arrow just as had his Prince, and Hworin had thought to do the same for his Prince by throwing his body over Legolas to protect him. The elder Elf cussed because Legolas was trying to save Hannah rather than save himself.

And then came the first scream from the Edain. It was a woman who screamed, though why she did so the Prince could not discern, except that she sounded not in physical pain but emotional anguish. An arrow hissed by Legolas’ ear, landing with a thud as it hit the rail of the bench seat on Hannah’s side, not but a few inches from where his own head was pressing down against the woman’s head to keep her out of harm’s way. With Hannah still under him, he rolled both of their bodies off the bench seat and to the scant protection of the floor boards, keeping his form ever upon the Adan’s to shield her. Once both of them were hidden as well as he could manage, the Elf rose upon his elbows to peer out over the rails.

Chaos erupted.

Hannah’s cart was in the interior of the grouped procession of refugees, such that behind and before and on either side of Legolas, people were running to the cart instinctively, as if huddling together in the middle might offer them protection. Horses and wagons were abandoned. Parents were gathering up their offspring, who did not understand what was occurring, and with their children under their arms like sacks of grain or clutched to their chests, they ran towards each other, making a cluster of now screaming Edain, but also making a large, easy target of themselves should their attackers wish to strike the people down one by one with their bolts and arrows. The able-bodied who had been surrounding the group for protection had their swords and bows drawn, as they backed in towards what was now a writhing mass of nearly a hundred refugees surrounding Hannah’s cart. With wide, fear stricken eyes, they peered out into the dimming environs of the approaching nightfall to try to find from where the danger came, but whoever had been shooting at the refugees did not continue just yet. Nigel and Henri were crouching upon either side of the drays leading the cart, using the horses as buffers. The Dwarves were clambering down from their own cart to hide under it, though they held axes at ready. Along the river, those who had been pulling the rafts were hunkered down in the tall grasses and reeds. One such raft floated away in the southbound current, its rope trailing snakelike behind it. He could not see Hworin over the backrest of the cart’s seat, but Legolas figured this meant the elder Elf was hunched low enough to be safe.

Of the several shots made by the marauders, most had not hit anyone fatally save for an elderly man who now laid dead upon the ground with the fletching of an arrow visible just before his ruined eye, the shaft and head of it sticking out of the other side of his head. The woman whose scream had come first could be heard no longer. Her keening was now indistinguishable amongst the frenzied screeches and petrified exclamations. Legolas saw her knelt on the ground, holding her child where the girl had fallen – said youth had an arrow lodged in her belly. She did not cry herself, but stared uncomprehendingly at her mother as if in question of her mother’s tormented shrieks, all the while a blossom of bright red blood began to bloom across the midsection of the girl’s dress. She could not have been more than ten, by Legolas’ distracted assessment.

A voice rang out, sounding authoritative and deadly, and quieting most of the clamor as it demanded of the menfolk and handful of women who held their swords and bows at ready to fight, “You are hemmed in on all sides. Lay down your weapons or my men will start firing upon your women and children! Now!”

This threat alone caused a sudden uproar of screams from mothers and fathers in fear for their loved ones and progeny. Being that none of the folks creating a ring of feeble protection around their large group could see the man from whom the voice came – much less any of the other men the voice claimed to have surrounding them – the refugee menfolk turned on heel in circles, their weapons still drawn and at ready to kill.

“Put them down, now!” the same voice shouted. “We’ve no use in killing you.”

Under the Wood-Elf with her thin, long fingers gripping tightly the cloth of the arms of the Prince’s tunic, Hannah whispered, “It’s them. The supervisors,” she muttered in a high-pitched, near whimper, her fear blatant in her voice as she continued, “They’ve come to take us back. We can’t go back. We can’t.”

“And you won’t,” he murmured to try to calm her, though in truth, he could not and ought not to promise such a thing.

Peeping up to check the cart behind him, Legolas finally caught sight of Hworin. The cart was not very well made. It was missing several boards on the backing between the bench and the cart itself, and it was through one of these gaps that the Prince saw how Hworin was flattened on the oilcloth tent. In his hand, he held his bow while his quiver lay beside him, but the Silvan was unable to use it just yet – not without knowing how many men there were surrounding them and not while the others were in danger of being caught in the crossfire. Under the laegel, Hannah’s scrawny frame quaked with terror and another small whine erupted from low in her throat, reminding the Prince of a wounded, frightened dog. He could feel every one of the Adan’s too prominent ribs, so tightly was he pressing her down to the floorboards.

There was no time for rational thought. Legolas acted on instinct alone, and his instinct told him he needed for Hannah to be strong and assertive as was she normally, else the others would not follow her lead.

“I will not let them take a single one of you back if I can help it,” he vowed to Hannah, all the while looking at Hworin to communicate to his fellow Elf his intentions. Hworin understood his Prince just fine, it appeared, but judging by the mounting terror in his brown eyes, he did not like it one bit. Quickly, lest the harriers make good on their own promise and start firing into the refugees, Legolas instructed the woman, “But we must draw them out. We must make them think we are surrendering. I need you to be strong, Hannah. I need you to lead your people as you have been doing these past weeks.”

Hannah didn’t respond verbally, but he could feel her head shaking in negation under his own.

“Tell the men to lay down their weapons,” Legolas insisted to the woman.

Legolas held a hand out to the gap in the boards, where Hworin peered back at him. His fellow Wood-Elf regarded his Prince and saw the determination in the laegel’s face. Without needing to be asked, the Silvan deftly, surreptitiously slid his quiver through the gap, followed by his bow. Hworin did not once consider whether his Prince would be the better shot, for the elder Elf knew this was the case – except, neither truly considered how a day prior, Legolas had not been able to see anything but distortions and shadows. No, what Hworin feared was not handing his weapon over to his Prince, but that in doing so, he was allowing his Prince to take the chance he thought should be his to take to protect his liege.

“Tell them, Hannah, for fuck’s sake,” he swore at the woman, uncaring of his vulgarity and unnoticing of how much he sounded like his father just then in ordering her rather than requesting. This was not the time for pleasantness. “They will listen to you. Tell your people to lay down their weapons,” he hissed at her.

A single arrow – a warning shot – came whistling through the air; this time, the projectile flew into the outer ring of the thronged together group of women and children, where it struck another young and innocent girl, hitting this one in the neck. Glimpsing over the handrail just above his and Hannah’s heads, Legolas had a clear view of the child’s eyes when they went wide, ere she toppled over lifelessly in her mother’s arms. The mother, meanwhile, screeched hellishly, and forewent any concerns for her own safety. She stumbled out of the group of her kith, took her lifeless bairn in her arms, and wailed while dropping to her knees, clutching her girl against her breast.

“This is your last warning!” came the disembodied voice.

Legolas could hear amusement in the man’s tone, his enjoyment of the refugees’ fear sparking the dormant ember of righteous wrath inside the Elf, which was ever present, ever waiting for outlet, though rarely did he turn this upon anyone or anything except those of the Darkness. For harming innocent women and children, these assailants would incinerate in his comburent rage, or he would die trying to see it so.

“Trust me,” he asked of Hannah, raising his head again only enough to look her in the eyes. “Trust me and I promise that until my last breath I will work to ensure all of those men lie dead and as many of you survive as possibly I can. But you must trust me.”

Whether it was his words or the grieving mother’s cries of heartache, Hannah’s indecision finally broke. The fear seeped from her vapid, emerald eyes, and the strength of her returned. She took in as deep a breath as she could with Legolas’ weight upon her thin chest and shouted out to the others whom she led, “Lay them down, my friends! Put your weapons down! Do as he says!”

To Legolas’ relief – but also to his slight amazement, for despite his having believed the Edain would listen to Hannah he was still shocked to see them do it so readily – their protectors began to lay down their bows, swords, knives, and crudely made spears. The group of refugees had been travelling relatively closely together, such that all hundred or so of them were visible to the Elf, with none of them seemingly having strayed too far north or straggled too far south on the mostly treeless stretch of riverbank upon which they travelled, and since the refugees had run to each other for safety, he hoped he could focus the harriers’ attention away from the bulk of the Edain, if nothing else.

There cannot be enough men to have surrounded us on all sides, the experienced Silvan reasoned quickly, his warrior’s mind rapidly supplying him with a myriad assortment of such calculations, all of which came second nature to the well trained and battle seasoned Wood-Elf. They are surely not on the other side of the river, he ruminated, for the refugees had been traversing close to the bank so if there were men on that side of them, they would have to be across the Greyflood, and if they are, they cannot swim across before my arrows find them. If they were north of us, we would surely have been alerted by those travelling at the head of the group. And if they were behind the stragglers of our group, Hworin would surely have noticed their approach, he debated with himself, for his fellow Silvan had been riding facing backwards so would have noticed being followed. They must want the refugees alive; else, they would just begin picking them off without asking for surrender. This works in our favor. They would not waste good slaves if they can help it. Most of his cogitations were based upon hope, Legolas realized, but there was little else he could suss out in such short time, and sometimes, hope was all one had upon which to rely.  

“That’s right,” the man’s voice shouted in victory. “Now step back, with the women and children,” he told the menfolk, who obeyed, leaving their weapons on the ground as they backed in towards the fearful huddle of their kith and kin. “Go on now,” the man prodded, sounding like he were shooing cattle into the pen, which was exactly what these Edain were to the man speaking – no more than livestock.

Legolas peeked out over the rail to check if their ruse was working. With the Edain’s protectors disarmed, the harriers came out of the woods along their left side. As he had discerned, the refugees were not truly surrounded, for no attackers appeared from the east on the other side of the wide river, from the south behind the caravan, nor from the north where they had been headed. Counting them the best he could without giving away his intent or his location, Legolas noted there to be about fifteen attackers, though he knew there might still be some hidden in the tree line.

“Ah, ah, ah,” the same voice chastised someone. “I see that dagger on your belt. Throw it down or I will put you down.”

Legolas finally saw the man speaking as he approached the group of Edain from the side. The man was just a man – that is, he had pleasant enough features, with dark hair pulled into a tail at his nape and watery blue eyes. He did not appear evil or tainted by the Dark. He was relatively clean and kempt, wearing clothing suitable for travel but nothing terribly fancy. The sword on his belt was the kind made by any smith in any village, and in his hands, he held just a simple long bow, a poorly fashioned arrow attached at the string, ready to be fired at the young Adan to whom he spoke. Said Adan did as requested, pulled his forgotten dagger from his waist, which was little more than a paring knife, and tossed it away. This caused the harriers’ leader to smile in triumph.

“Legolas?” the woman under him susurrated in question.

Not looking down, the Elf shook his head at her, hoping she would quiet. He wanted to give their attackers a few more moments of feeling in control in hopes for any lingering in the woods to come out with the others.

The leader allowed his bowstring to fall lax, removed the arrow from it, and then hooked his weapon upon the latch upon his back with one hand while sliding the arrow into a quiver belted on the hip opposite his sword. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? None of this has to be hard. You know why we are here, don’t you?” he asked, and then continued, answering his own question, “Of course you do. You stole from us. We gave you jobs, houses, food to put in your bellies, in your kids’ bellies, and how do you repay us? By burning down the Overseer’s house, nearly killing the kind man who took you in, and then stealing food, horses, and most importantly, the ore and jewels, the very wealth we’d gathered to provide for you, to house and feed you, to protect you. And how many of us did you kill to get that wealth, hmm? How many of your own did you murder during the chaos of your robbery?”

The laegel hazily wondered if any of what this man said was true. He tried to recall the conversation from the afternoon before, when Hworin, Faelthîr, Nigel, and Hannah had related to him all the events of what had transpired concerning their imprisonment and eventual escape from this Overseer’s compound. In the end, he found it didn’t matter. The two children who had been struck with arrows, one of whom was dead and the other likely dying, had done nothing to deserve being shot down like rabid dogs, and he would not lie here and wait for these Edain, Dwarves, and Hworin – or himself – to be taken as slaves as recompense for whatever the Edain had stolen to get away from the harsh conditions under which they had been suffering, at the mercy of this supposedly benevolent Overseer.

Perhaps Hannah saw the momentary vacillation upon the Wood-Elf’s face. Perhaps she thought his lack of action meant he would not act at all. Or, perhaps Hannah wanted for Legolas to end the man ere he revealed any more damning information about the refugees and their actions. She again grabbed the sleeves of the Elf’s tunic – the very tunic she had helped dress him in after aiding him in bathing, the one she had taken from her own husband’s clothes, ere she then fed Legolas and tended his wounds.

“Please,” Hannah whispered to the Prince in a voice harsh with anger but on the verge of tears. Her undernourished face was pallid save for two bright spots of rubicund anger high upon her pronounced cheekbones. “Save as many as you can. And kill those bastards.”

He glanced down at her, saw the hope she held that he would keep his word and aid her people, and knew he had to do this as efficiently and expertly as possible so he would not be wasting his life, for should he only take down a few of the attackers before they brought him down, the refugees would pay for his mistake with their lives. With the practiced motion of a natural archer, he ran his fingertips over the arrows in Hworin’s quiver, counting them in doing so.

Twenty. And there are fifteen of the Overseer’s men, if I counted correctly.

He knew Hworin had crafted these, so they were well made – he only hoped his improved but not yet mended eyesight and fortified but not yet restored body would not hinder him in letting each arrow find its mark.

As he crawled to his knees in preparation, trying his best not to crush Hannah in doing so, Legolas grasped Hworin’s bow in one hand and several arrows in the other, with the quiver on the bench seat beside him for easy access.

Legolas notched his first arrow, leapt to his feet to stand up, thereby drawing the men’s attention to him with his sudden movement and appearance, and prayed, Eru, please guide my hands and eyes so my aim is true.