5. Not So Glorious
By the end of the second day with the orcs Estel had had his fill of adventure. For some reason he could not understand, the orcs traveled through the night and rested during the day, mostly stopping under the cover of trees or rocks. The places they chose were as unpleasant as possible-- wet, stinking, and hard on the back when they tied him to a tree or bush. The only thing important to them was to be out of the sun.
In the first moments after he had run smack into the front of one of them in his flight from Legolas, they had scooped him up and carried him. Later, they bound his wrists together and dragged him along behind them. He had tried refusing to walk, but to no avail. They simply put his arms around the neck of one or another of their company and let him dangle, which hurt his wrists more than being dragged. The rough bindings cut into his skin, and he bled with each new tug on the rope.
Once, while being lifted, he had tried the same kick in the groin that had allowed him to break free from Legolas. The orc he kicked had gone down in pain, to the vast amusement of his fellows, one of whom had then casually backhanded Estel in the face, knocking him down and stunning him for long enough to regain control. They had not allowed him the chance to kick since that time, and in addition to the pain in his wrists, his nose throbbed and bled intermittently, making breathing a torture as he tried to keep up. Tears made matters worse, burning and stuffing his nose further, but tears were becoming harder to hold back.
He wanted his nice soft bed back at Rivendell. He wanted the kindly, if distant, presence of Master Elrond and his sons. He wanted his mother. He wanted Legolas too, but he did not think the strange elf would ever forgive him even if they should meet again.
The orcs took their time heading south, walking at a pace that was easy for them, if not for their young prisoner. They stopped from time to time to eat their evil tasting rotten food, to urinate on trees, and to torture any small wild creature unlucky enough to fall into their hands. Estel did not understand the Black Speech, although he could sense the peril in the laughter when the orcs spoke it. Sometimes they used a debased form of Westron as well, and he began to understand that they were taking him somewhere for a purpose he could not quite comprehend. At least they did not mean to kill him quite yet.
They crossed a wide river when the moon hung high in the night sky and continued on south for another few hours before the sun began to rise. The orc band found a spot amid a cluster of large rocks and a few unhealthy trees to hide from its rays. Soon, the orcs fell into a noisy sleep while one of them remained on guard. Estel's rope was tied to a small tree with his hands bound so tightly he had no chance of undoing the knots and creeping away. He fell into an exhausted sleep himself.
He was awakened from an uneasy dream by rough hands stuffing a filthy cloth into his mouth, and he felt himself lifted up and carried some distance away from the sleeping group.
"This'll keep you from squealing and waking the others up," the orc guard said quietly. "Two more days before we reach the wood and then we get you south to the tower and yer breakin' in will start for true. All the time, the bosses get the finest stuff, and I'm right sick of it. Once it gets back to the likes of us, it's all spoilt. For once, just once, I'm going to get a little while it's still fresh. And no one will be any the wiser."
The orc laid Estel face down in the grass behind a large rock, and he felt a knee in the small of his back, pinning him down as the orc's hands left him and seemed to busy themselves elsewhere. "Now, you just lay quiet. The more you fight, the worse it'll be."
He had no idea what was happening. He heard strange rustling sounds, felt a tug at his clothing and then heard a gurgling sound as the orc's weight was abruptly jerked away from his back. A few warm drops hit the back of his neck, and suddenly he saw the face of Legolas in front of him.
The elf made a quick slashing motion across his lips with his finger, cautioning him to silence. He cut Estel's bindings with a knife that glistened black. Still silent, Legolas led him away, not allowing him to look back.
"Oh, Legolas, I thought I'd never see you again," Estel said as they ran away.
"Hush. I've been following ever since the mountains," the elf said. "I knew that one of the vile creatures would take you aside eventually."
"I was so afraid. Why did you wait?"
"Because five to one is poor odds, even for me," the elf answered, and as if to offer proof, an arrow came zinging past them, followed by a volley of more.
Legolas uttered the word Estel had first heard him say back on the riverbank. "They've heard us. Run, Estel. Run fast!" he said, reaching into his quiver and turning to face their pursuers.
The two closest orcs dropped, each with an arrow in them, but then the third was upon him. Abandoning his bow, Legolas drew his long, matched knives and managed to disembowel the third orc just as the last one hit him from the side with full force. The two of them went down, weapons flying, in a welter of arms and legs, the orc clawing at the elf's eyes and snapping at his throat.
The orc was large, and to Estel, it looked as if Legolas was getting the worst of it. Without stopping to think, he picked up a rock and flung it at the orc's head, opening a gash and stunning the orc just long enough for Legolas to throw him off. The elf snatched up a fallen sword and plunged it through the orc's body. He stood for a moment, swaying on his feet and then cast the bloodied sword away with a gesture of disgust.
"I thought I told you to run, " he said. "Good shot, by the way."
"I practice with berries," Estel replied.
Legolas looked at him blankly for a moment and then burst out laughing. He sank down onto the grass and put his head in his hands. "That was a bloody mess if ever there was one. Well, Estel, you've seen death now. Not so very glorious or exciting, is it?"
Estel sat down beside him. "You're hurt."
Legolas looked down at his left upper arm where his sleeve gaped near the shoulder, revealing a bleeding cut. "Not badly. We can be thankful that most orc archers can't hit the broad side of a mountain. This one was aiming at my neck."
The thought of an arrow piercing anyone he cared about made tears spring into Estel's eyes, and he turned his head to hide his babyish weakness from the elf.
"This is no more than a deep cut, and it seems to have bled freely. It could have been much worse." Legolas took the bottle of wine from his belt and uncorked it. "It is a shame to waste such an excellent vintage, but I think my father would rather have his son back than a sample from Master Elrond's cellars."
"What are you doing? "Estel asked, as the elf first dribbled some of the wine over his abraded wrists and then upended the bottle over his own wound, wincing as he did so.
"Cleaning the wounds. Orcs may be terrible marksmen, but they dip their arrows into all manner of foulness so that even a chance hit will do damage. "
"I know. I saw them making water onto their arrows last night."
Legolas wrinkled his nose. "Estel, my young friend, you have no idea how little I wanted to hear that." He frowned, flexing his left hand experimentally. "It burns like the fires of Orodruin and my fingers are turning numb. I fear there was something far worse than orc piss on the arrow that nicked me. We must get away from here. Come, help me hide these bodies."
Estel nodded solemnly and took a leg. The two dragged the first dead orc back the short distance to the copse. Soon all five were hidden in a crevice between two large boulders and covered with what little brush the elf could find.
"There," said Legolas, "by the time the stench alerts their comrades we will be long gone." He strode briskly off to the north, pausing once as if to make sure that Estel followed.
"Legolas, you called me your friend just now," Estel ventured timidly. "Am I your friend? Is that why you rescued me?"
"I would not let any child remain in the hands of such brutes, especially one so . . . so well known to me as you. But I will make you a bargain. If you promise to cooperate and let me get you out of here, and if you promise never, ever again, to kick me where you kicked me, we can call each other friends."
"You mean, in the mountains?"
Estel saw the elf's lips curl in a smile. "Yes, in the mountains."
"I should not have done that. I am sorry."
"And well you should be. Now let us never speak of it again."
"Legolas . . ."
"That orc back there. The one whose throat you cut . . ."
"Cutting a throat is not noble, but it is the best way to kill when swiftness and silence are required."
"I saw him, he . . ."
"I know, and I did not want you to see that."
"But I did see. What did he want with me?"
Up ahead, the elf sighed, and his shoulders tensed. "It is best that you not fill your mind with such filth."
"But I want to understand," Estel insisted.
"There is evil in this world, Estel," Legolas began with obvious reluctance, "especially, there is great evil in the dungeons of Dol Guldur and among its servants. They would have broken you, lad, if not in body, then most certainly in spirit. They meant to hurt you until nothing of your own self remained save the need to please them to stop the hurt. And thus spoiled, they would have sent you back out into the world to do their bidding. They especially like to take the children of Men because they are more easily broken and remolded than those who are grown. Who knows how many they have done this to and what evil they are doing now out in the world? I could not let this happen to you. To you above all.
"Now, please, "Legolas continued. "We must be far from here before nightfall. The light of the sun hurts the eyes of the orcs, so they avoid it. But they come out at night, especially in these parts. Follow me closely and try to keep up. And ask me no more of these things."
Estel nodded. He still did not understand, but he now felt that he did not want to. "Where is your horse, Legolas? Why did you not bring him? We could move more swiftly if he were carrying us."
"A horse can be heard for miles around, and I needed to move silently. Gwaeren is a short march to the north, which is where I left him and bade him stay. When we reach him, we will ride hard. At a gallop, we should be out of the worst of the orc country before dark, and then we will stop."
"Your horse obeys you like that?"
"It is elvish horse craft, Estel. I trained him from the time he was foaled, and he understands me. Do you know where I learned this? From none other than Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond. They are the finest horsemen I know. And you can learn it too if you go back to Rivendell and open your eyes and ears. The House of Elrond has much to teach you, if you have the will to learn it."
"Will they teach me to kill orcs the way you did? I think I hate orcs even more now that I have met them."
The elf's voice held a sad note. "When you are of the proper age, I am sure they will teach you how to defend yourself against orcs. Of all the elves I have known, Elladan and Elrohir hate orcs the most and are the best at killing them. They have reason."
They ran across country for about two hours. As time passed, Estel noticed that his companion began to hold his arm close to his body and his pace slowed making it easier for him to keep up. When the sun shone directly overhead, Legolas gave a soft whistle, and, from a copse of trees up ahead, there came an answering whicker. The gray horse trotted into view and moved to greet his master. The elf laid a gentle hand on the horse's neck and put his head close to the animal's muzzle, muttering soft words against the velvety nose.
"Is this magic?"
"No magic, just a familiarity with horses and their ways," Legolas laughed. "I send my breath into his nostrils. That way he knows me for a friend."
Leaving the horse for a moment, he knelt to examine a weed at his feet. "Mark this well, Estel, this plant is called Athelas, Kingsfoil, and you should learn to recognize it, for it has many uses for one who travels the wild."
With a swipe of his dagger, he cut off a large bunch of the leaves. "Here, take the leaves in your palms, thus, and rub them together. Breathe the vapor deep into your nostrils, and then rub some of the herbs into your chafed wrists." He ran a gentle finger along the bridge of Estel's nose. "I do believe the orcs have broken it for you. It may never be as straight as before, but the Athelas should stop the pain and the bleeding and allow you to breathe more freely."
"As for myself, "he continued, "it should normally be boiled into a tea, but we dare not risk the fire." He chewed a handful of the leaves into a pulp and spat them back into his hand. He pressed the paste into the cut on his shoulder, which was now swelling and turning colors. And then he chewed and swallowed another handful of leaves stolidly.
"Will that heal your wound, Legolas?" Estel enquired.
"Athelas heals many things," the elf replied, with an enigmatic look that Estel had never seen before and found less than reassuring. "Come, we must be off now," he said, vaulting into the saddle and pulling Estel up behind him. He leaned forward, close to his mount's ear. "Run, Gwaeren, carry us home," he whispered, and the great horse sprang forward.
Estel had never been on a galloping horse before, and he would have found the speed exhilarating had not the situation become so grave. He leaned his face into the soft cloth of his new friend's cloak and hung on tightly.
They made good time. The green grass of the meadows beside the Anduin flew past beneath the horse's hooves. The sun began to near the tops of the mountains to the west, casting long shadows and bringing a chill to the air.
"It is time we stopped. Gwaeren needs his rest, and the orcs will soon be out."
They found a copse of densely spaced trees where the horse could stand hidden and made camp for the night. Legolas leaned back against a tree, pulling his cloak around himself. He brought out a wrapped packet of waybread and broke a portion off for the boy, but when it came time to take his own, he stared at it for a moment, swallowed hard, and put the waybread away again. Instead, he chewed grimly on some of the remaining Athelas leaves.
"No fire tonight?" Estel asked.
Legolas shook his head. "No fire. They'd see it. We won't have fire until we reach my father's gates. Are you cold?"
"Yes." Estel was also afraid, but he left that part unspoken.
"Then come on." Legolas held his cloak wide, inviting the boy in. Estel went over and snuggled close to his friend's side, feeling much safer. Legolas was not soft like his mother, being all wiry muscles, leather, and bones, and he smelled . . . different. Estel had always thought that the elf ladies of Elrond's court smelled very pretty, and he had thought it was from some kind of perfume. Legolas was at least three days past any perfume or even his last bath, yet he smelled of clean earth, leaves, and rain. Estel decided he liked the smell of elf very much indeed.
"Better?" Legolas asked.
"Better," Estel replied as he settled into sleep. But sleep proved elusive, despite his exhaustion. He jumped with each strange sound of owl hooting or the wind stirring the grass, and the elf slept fitfully too, twitching and muttering to himself as if he fought nightmares.
When dawn came, the weather had changed to a misty rain, and the air had cooled. Estel was dismayed to see that there were fine lines of pain around Legolas's eyes and his skin had lost the luster that was so common among the First Born. Again, the elf passed him a fragment of waybread but took none for himself.
Their path that day took them ever northward, but they veered east, away from the river and headed closer to the dark line of the forest. Ever so often, the horse would falter before the elf recovered and urged him on. Estel could only cling to his friend's back and hope for the best. Then, he felt Legolas begin to shiver.
"Are you cold?"
"Legolas, you burn to my touch," Estel said.
The elf shook his head. "We must get as far as we can. I must reach home, for your sake and for mine."
In mid afternoon, Legolas swayed as he sat, and Gwaeren slowed to a walk. "Estel, we must find a place to stop. If I try to ride another step, I shall fall. My eyes dim, too. You must find a place where we will be safe."
Estel leapt down from the horse and led it to the cover of trees. Beneath them, the elf slid from the horse's back.
"Forgive me, Estel. I need to rest," he said, staggering a few feet and falling onto his side in the grass. "Just to sleep, for a short time."
The elf was silent for a while, breathing heavily. "Estel?"
"If, for some reason, I do not wake, I want you to take the horse. Give him his head and he will carry you to the house of my father. Stop for no one other than one of my people."
"I won't leave you."
"You may have to. I . . . will fight to wake. But you . . . must promise."
Legolas sighed faintly. He did not speak again.
"Please, Legolas, don't make me leave you. I don't want to be out here all alone. Please don't leave me!"
The elf's breathing slowed. Estel watched in helpless fear while he pulled his knees up to his chest. The body, and the hands that had been so hot, began to cool. All that remained was the slow rise and fall of the chest.
The terror of the wilderness rushed in on him then, and the tears began to flow. Carefully, he crept beneath the Elven cloak as he had done the night before, and wrapped his arms around Legolas's shoulders, laying his cheek against the broad, leather clad back. Nestling into the body of his friend, he sobbed for a time, and then fell into an uneasy sleep.
Sometime after dark, he was awakened by the sound of footsteps on the grass. The horse shifted on his feet, also alerted.
Estel took up Legolas's bow and set an arrow to the string, but he found himself unable to draw it. The bow was too strong for him. Dropping the bow, he pulled one of the matched long knives from its sheath. He crouched and made himself ready, as the footsteps came nearer.
"Drop your weapon, son," came a voice out of the darkness. "My name is Radagast, and I mean you no harm.
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