Canohando had grown accustomed to finding Malawen always close at hand. He could not believe at first that she was gone.
He had not seen her on the way back to Caras Galadhon nor in the few days the Company spent there after the Queen's death, but he had not been looking for her. He'd been occupied with Elladan and his men, helping them prepare for the journey back to Gondor and bitterly aware that he was unlikely ever to see them again, these Men who had become his friends. He had assumed the Elf-girl was somewhere in the vicinity, keeping out of sight. He still thought of her as a child, in spite of her insistence that she was full-grown.
But now he had been traveling for days and there was no sign of her. He went circumspectly, reminding himself that he had no host of soldiers at his back any more; he was alone again, as he had been when he left his mountains. But then he had been in a fever to find the Lady of the Jewel; for months he had been on edge, and the hunger for what he could not name had filled him to the exclusion of all else. Now he was empty.
If he had not promised Arwen to find the Shire and Rivendell, he might have remained where he was among the dying mallorns. He might have made his home at Cerin Amroth, throwing up a little hut to shelter him and dwelling evermore in sight of the white stone under which his Lady slept. But he had promised.
After some days he came out onto a broad plain. A jagged shadow against the western sky showed him where the mountains lay, and off to the east there was another belt of trees, not so tall as the mallorns and leafless in the early spring. The Great River must lie there, he thought, remembering that Arwen had told him to follow the river north. He drew back under the mallorns; he would not venture out on the open plain as long as there was woodland to conceal him. He turned toward the river that would be his pathway into the north, staying a stone's throw inside the border of Lorien.
He tried to bring the Queen's image before his mind as he walked, but it was Malawen's pale little face that came instead, her eyes resentful and challenging. She went on to Valinor after all, perhaps. I hope she did. He hoped so indeed; he had urged her to go with the other Elves, but he missed her. He had not known how much he would miss her.
One of the Elves had come to him before they all left, carrying a bag of soft leather over his shoulder. "You are the one they call the Queen's Shadow?" he had asked, and at Canohando's assent he had handed over the bag. "Lord Elladan bade me give you a supply of lembas for your journey." He had regarded Canohando curiously. "Strange enough when we furnished a Dwarf with our food, during the War, and now an Orc! But you are no ordinary Orc, by all accounts. Arwen Undomiel drew some strange admirers."
He had been guarded but not hostile, and Canohando had smiled at mention of the Queen. "Who could see the Lady and not love her?" he had asked, and the Elf had clapped him on the shoulder. He'd said something in the Elven tongue as he turned away, but all Canohando was able to catch was the name of Elbereth; it was months since Arwen had tutored him in Elvish, and he had forgotten much of what he had learned.
But he was grateful for the food: a campfire might draw enemies to him. He would have had to eat his meat raw and that was too like the old days for his peace of mind, even if the taste had not been repugnant to him. Thanks to the lembas he need neither hunt nor cook, and as darkness fell he climbed one of the mallorns and slung his rope hammock from the branches.
He was wakened by voices and a glow of light under his tree, and he looked down to see a party of Orcs gathered round a fire, roasting hunks of meat on the ends of their knives. There were three of them, and he gave silent thanks that he had not risked sleeping on the ground. Then there was a howl of glee from a little way off and another Orc came in view, carrying something that writhed and screamed, fighting vainly to escape.
"Eh, look what I found hiding behind a tree, mates! Here's a bit of fun to pass the time – looks like some of our lads already had a go at it, but there's plenty of life in it yet." He flung his captive down by the fire and she sprang up to dart away, but another of the Orcs caught her by the ankle and dragged her back, shrieking.
Elfling! Canohando caught the branch over his head and pulled himself up, forcing his mind to stay cold, calm. He snatched his bow from where it hung and crept out along a sturdy limb that overhung the fire.
The Orc had pinned Malawen to the ground and she was silent now but still struggling, thrashing and kicking in her efforts to free herself. "Not so fast, whey face, not so fast! Had a little taste of the brand, have you?" He dug his fingers into her hair, jerking her head around into the light. "Yes, yes, just a touch. Well, we'll fix that up for you. We'll see you're finished proper tonight, trust us for that!"
He laughed horribly and then he gagged, catching at his throat, trying to pluck out the arrow that suddenly protruded from it. Malawen was up before he fell, flinging herself away from the fire into the darkness beyond, and the others made no move to stop her, staring up at the tree in astonishment before they dodged back out of the light.
Canohando lay motionless along the branch, waiting. An arrow flew past him and glanced off the mallorn's trunk. Still he waited; he could hear the Orcs crashing about down below, shouting to one another, and two more arrows sailed past, farther off. Get yourself into a tree, Elfling, he commanded silently. He peered down, trying to see where the Orcs had gone.
There was a noise below and he saw something dark climbing up toward him. He let the Orc pass him by and then he lowered himself to the ground, soft as a cat. There were shouts a little way off and then what sounded like a dying shriek; Canohando set off in that direction with his heart pounding. Carefully, Ghul-rakk, he warned himself, reverting to the name of his childhood in his terror for the Elf-girl. If that was her voice she is dead already, but if not you will do no good by running into a trap!
A voice rang out behind him and he flattened himself against a tree; the Orc who had been in the mallorn blundered past, and a shout up ahead answered him.
"Shaffa's done for! There's a gang of 'em, the filth – let's get out of here!"
"Where's the little whiteskin?"
"For all I know she's flew away like a bird! What's it matter – this is no place to play, and it's too much trouble to cart her along, even supposing we could find her. Come on, curse you!"
"Shut up then, fool – aieee!" It was a squeal of panic. "That was too close, that was! Come on –"
The voices ceased but Canohando could still hear movement, stealthy now, as the remaining Orcs tried to escape in silence. He pressed himself against the tree trunk, hardly breathing as he listened to the faint noises of their retreat, and he remained motionless for a long time after he could not hear them anymore. At last he relaxed and began to feel his way through the darkness.
"Elfling?" His voice was no more than a breath, but there was an answer from the branches above him.
"Here," she whispered, and he was up the tree in a heartbeat.
It was too dark to see anything, but he found her by touch, his hand meeting her fingers as he reached out to grasp a branch. "Elfling!" he choked, feeling as if something had him by the throat. He climbed onto the limb she was sitting on and drew her with him back against the trunk; then he closed his arms around her as if he would never let go, holding her fast and murmuring in her ear, "Elfling… Elfling…"
She trembled, her body stiff and resistant for a moment, but then she slumped against him, clinging to him and pillowing her head on his chest. He could feel her shuddering in his embrace and he rested his cheek against her hair.
"Elfling, what are you doing here? I thought you had gone with your people."
"I told you, I am not fit for Valinor." Her voice was strained and she cleared her throat. "I thought I would stay alone, but I was afraid…"
"You have been following me? You are more stealthy than fog in the river bottom! But why did you stay hidden?"
"I did not think you would let me come."
His arms tightened around her. "No. I would have told you to go to Valinor." But he was glad she had not gone.
"I cannot," she said. "Take me with you, Canohando."
A door opened somewhere inside him; almost he heard Lash's flute again, and Frodo's voice lilting under its clear notes, warm and merry.
"You should be with your people –" he began, but he didn't mean it, not anymore, and she said again,
"I want to go with you. I will follow after, if you will not let me walk alongside." She made it sound like a threat, and he laughed softly, muffling the sound against her hair.
"I will bring you to Rivendell," he said. "Some Elves are still there, I think."
He felt her nod against his chest. "All right. I don't care where we go."
He would not let her climb down from their refuge while the night lasted. "We are safer out of sight here, little one. Go to sleep; I will not drop you." He braced himself firmly against the tree trunk and held her secure in his arms.
She slept at last, a warm, limp bundle against his heart, and he sat wakeful through the night, watching the stars through gaps in the branches and breathing in the fragrance of her hair. Contentment seemed to sink into his very bones; he was more at rest than he had ever been, and yet piercingly aware of every scent and sound of the night.
When morning came he climbed down, cautious and watchful, and followed the Orcs' tracks for a long way, making sure they were gone before he let Malawen leave her hiding place. He found the body of one of the orcs a few yards from the tree with an arrow in its eye, not one of his arrows. He retrieved his hammock and the bag of lembas on his way back; the orc he had shot still lay by the burnt-out fire.
"Are you an archer, little one?" he asked when he had called her down from the tree. "It was you
who shot the second orc last night?" She turned slightly to show her quiver strapped to her back, and he laughed in delight.
"They went hunting a dragon, those fellows! Good for you, Elfling – "
"You rescued me," she interrupted.
"I rescued you," he said, "but we drove them off together. Come, we will eat the waybread as we walk – softly, now; there may be more enemies about."
Setting a zigzag course among the mallorns, he was a grey shape hardly to be told from the shadows that moved on the forest floor, as the high branches swayed in the wind. And Malawen behind him seemed at one with the woods, her garment of like color to the new little seedlings that carpeted the ground, her pale hair and skin like sunbeams striking down through the trees. It would have taken a watchful enemy indeed to see either of them.
Canohando looked back and their eyes met. She smiled, and the loveliness of her marred face nearly stopped his breath. Always before she had looked sullen or angry, her beauty hidden behind clouds, but today in truth she was Elven fair. He faced forward once more, caught between joy and fierceness: she trusted him, this little one, and he would not fail to protect her!
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