Heavy, ironclad foots trampled hurriedly down the hillside, bright torches blazing angrily between the trees. The creatures grunted and called out orders and curses of their own harsh language, one of them occasionally loosing its foothold on the loose earth, tumbling down. They had weapons, axes and knives, held in tight grips; their breathing was fast and they were excited to be on the hunt – trailing a lone, panicking prey. The leaves themselves in the trees appeared to shudder by their presence. Every animal, both the deer and the wood mouse, had hurried to hide beneath foliage or run far away from the danger.
Not far up ahead, an elf was fleeing on fast light feet. He wore only a tunic and a traveling cloak whipping about him; he had no armour or protection, no shield. In one hand he clenched a long white knife, and with his other arm he held a cloaked bundle pressed close to his chest.
He had been running for over a mile beneath the moonlight and the orcs pursuing him gained strength from the darkness of night and would not stop. He could not stop, for a breath or a break, and it seemed that however fast he ran, the orcs were on his heels and gained more and more speed. Not daring to risk a battle with them – they were too many – he tried to outrun them. Had he not been protecting the precious bundle in his arms he would have met them straight-on in battle, but now he could not, without harming …
An arrow wheezed past and buried in the trunk of a tree on his left. Oh, why did they have to bring bows with them? Had they only been carrying swords and other weapons with shorter range, he would feel a bit safer.
Unexpectedly he turned sharply to the right, his feet unconsciously finding themselves on an old small path. Only a moment later he turned from it, breaking through a shield of bushes and avoiding to be hit by a branch by an inch, ducking beneath it.
The orcs were closer now, but the thick foliage seemed to slow them down a little. The elf had not the courage to take joy or gratification in it yet. It was a matter of minutes before they again would be just so close they could grasp at him; but he could not let that happen. His life was barely worth the child he held in his arms, but he felt not ready to die yet. He had just married – two years was little time for an elf – and if he fell now, the orcs would kill the child too, with no doubt. That could not be allowed to happen. He needed to protect him at all costs.
He flashed by time and landscape. Soon the trees opened up into a plain hillside with only high grass. Here it was open and he was vulnerable, glowing softly in the darkness; it was if the weak moonlight reflected on his skin and hair and clothing. He was a clear target but had no choice. It was the fastest way. Faintly, he heard the sound of loud rushing waters.
Another arrow flew close by, and his warning senses saved his life yet again to avoid it; but he stumbled slightly. He heard a shout behind him. The orcs must think he was hit. He tried to hurry his steps. He had crossed half the field now.
It went dark when the last moonlight went behind a thick cloud. The orcs saw better in darkness than elves, even dwarves, but the elf had the advantage of silence and if he could outrun them among the trees again …
There was not much left now – the wind brought the familiar smell of leaves and pine needles towards him and he took a deep breath. It filled him with new strength.
Then suddenly, a blinding pain flared up in his thigh, and his vision dimmed for a moment and he stumbled; he clenched to the knife as he fell, his last protection. Every heartbeat felt like drums against his chest. The child sensed his pain and cried out. Behind them, the orcs shouted and growled in delight, closing in.
"I will not let them," the elf gasped. Breathing was harder, as if someone was stepping on his lungs. "I will not let them take you," he promised a little louder, stronger, and gathered his strength. He broke the arrow that had pierced the back of his thigh. In one movement, though not as smooth as usual, he was on his feet and running again. The orcs seemed surprised and called out, pausing, grunting amongst themselves in anger. In a moment, the elf could – though limping slightly – run freely.
The moment he reached the tree line, it ended with a shower of arrows. He threw a look over his shoulder, gaining the sight of a dozen or so orcs preparing another shot. He dashed on with more panic than before, pain and adrenaline driving him on like a madman. He lost sense of time and had no direction – the feeling and sound of his heartbeat and the whistling of arrows and the rushing of blood past his ears and the wind in his eyes almost overwhelmed him.
Thirteen arrows buried in the grass and the trees. The elf spurred onwards. The child was crying and he could not silence him, could barely breathe, and managed not to say any soothing words.
For a moment he thought the orcs no longer pursued him; their steps were not heard. Then he realized it was because of the sound of water rushing loudly up ahead drowned their steps. It was close by. Only a large wild river could sound so loud. A river that could save their lives, if he hurried.
He broke through thick foliage and trees and a last black arrow flew past him into the night. He could barely see a thing; the trees stood so closely here, and up above, the sky was invisible.
There was no grass beneath his feet, but rock – a cliff. He stopped right in his tracks. One step further and he would have fallen down a rushing current, a waterfall, of which the night concealed its bottom. The child finally silenced his cries in his arms, but continued whimpering softly. The elf's eyes surveyed the area in alarm, but there was no other way. If he followed the side of the river, he would be shot down. But the waterfall …
He glanced down; it was a long way and the darkness veiled the water. He only heard loud, wild whooshes echoing between cliff-walls. When the orcs broke out from the foliage, he whipped around; they finally stopped when they saw his vulnerable position. He was trapped. They moved forward slowly. One of them held up a bow, arrow ready on the string; another growled impatiently awaiting their leader's orders. Their grunting breaths and the elf's gasps went unheard beside the river.
The elf raised the knife and held the child closer to his chest, taking a careful step backwards. His foot balanced on the edge of the cliff; it almost made him loose his balance and his gaze broke off from the orcs' grim faces and the water. He made a last choice and turned around; sheathing his knife at the same time as he kissed the child's head. A last whispering oath crossed his lips.
"I will not let them have you, little one."
"This is foolishness of the highest degree!" Gimli cried dismayed. "Aragorn, you're supposed to look after him, both of them in fact, and you sent him on a suicide mission!"
The man looked at him sternly. "It was the only way! Legolas refused to part from Eldarion, if only was it to place him in safe hands of a guard. Perhaps it is best this way. I have faith in him. He is strong, able to fight and defend himself, and a fast runner. He will, Gimli, he will make it!" He must. Please Valar, let Legolas and Eldarion live, Aragorn silently pleaded. Let them live and have a safe passage to Mirkwood.
Gimli the dwarf had just arrived from the battle below, set on the Pelennor fields. (A slight irony since they spoke of this era as a warless one. The next-last battle for Middle Earth had stood here, but now that made it the third-last battle). Their enemies had originally been orcs, which someone must have gathered from scattered troops and remains from Sauron's armies. A last attempt to crush Gondor.
It was not a very large battle to begin with, they had thought, but then strange men had begun to mix between the orcs. Men no one recognized and or could decide the origin of. They were not Haradrim, Rohirric or Gondorian, or any other people they knew of. This new threat, an unknown people deciding to siege Minas Tirith, made the men nervous. The enemy's forces seemed never to end; if one orc died another came to its place. How they could be so many and where they came from was a mystery. Some said only magic could hide them in the landscape; but they must have been hiding in the empty shadow lands of Mordor.
They had fought for two days. And these men were also strangely strong, almost like elves; they could fight for hours without tiring, it seemed, and wounds did not hinder them. Gondor's strength was enough to counter them, but since the Destruction of the Ring not two years ago, the land was yet healing and they did not want so many soldiers to die now when the War was supposed to be over.
Aragorn had sat upon the throne during these two years. At first people had wondered, some opposed, his choice of mate – he had taken a male elf as husband and not a Gondorian wife, King Thranduil's son Legolas of the Greenwood.
It was a miracle, many said, when the couple, half a year after they had married, were blessed by a child. Legolas had given birth only a few months before this battle, to a son whom they had named Eldarion. The elf's condition was very rare but elven healers from Imladris had been there to help and confirm, and they explained that elven males had often been able to carry children before the rising of Sauron. The darkness had lessened the numbers of such males, and pregnancies and children in general with elves. But after the destruction of the Ring, the elves had found new hope and children were seen in Imladris and Mirkwood, the last elven lands in this world of Men, where elves yet remained. The child and his parents were first frowned at, but by now they were seen as the luckiest in Middle-Earth, and the people of Gondor loved them.
It was apparent that these new enemies sought to wipe the city to the ground. They had once managed to take a prisoner, one who seemed almost mad. He had lost one arm by the elbow and was laughing in malice between his words. It was one thing that frightened them about him – he felt no pain, at least not much, for he had many open wounds that would make a man crawl on the ground begging to die, but he was ready to fight and almost killed a guard. How this was possible, they did not know.
Aragorn wished only safety for his family. Minas Tirith was a good stronghold, but they were also caught between the armies, the river Anduin, and the mountains behind them that the city was built into. Eldarion would be escorted during the night away from the city, taking a side-route to Rohan or if possible, Mirkwood. Stubborn as he was, Legolas would not let a guard take his son, but himself. Aragorn finally had let him, but had felt immensely worried when Legolas at last ran away from the city, cloaked in nightly shadows. He had taken no horse for elves are speedy and silent; a steed might only gain unwanted attention.
Hence the reason for Gimli's fuming.
"Why did you let him? A King as you should know better, as do I, because I know the lad will only go into trouble - his nature to handle situations cannot be denied! He will only attract trouble-"
"There was some reason behind it, and we are desperate Gimli! And in Mirkwood they both are safe. I would rather send Legolas away than have him fighting here, among these enemies. Orcs are one thing, but these men … You have seen them, Gimli." Aragorn's face was grim and strained. He looked old, in a way he had not looked before; more near his true age. That he was 91 years old was something that few could believe, since his appearance was that of a forty-year old.
"There was reason, yes; very little so. But now we might never see any of them again!" Gimli accused. Then he rubbed his temples, lowering his gaze a little and softening his voice. "Lad, send someone after him, or try to send a message to Mirkwood. The beacons, have they been lit?"
Aragorn nodded. "Aye. Rohan is alerted and I trust that Éomer sends his aid; I ordered the beacons lit once I realized our dire situation two days ago. This new threat … what is it? Who are leading these men into such a barbaric death, fighting painlessly alongside orcs?"
Why was I so foolish to let him go alone?
The water around him came as a shock.
His son screamed. Himself – he did not know, he might have cried out as well, as he dropped quickly in a barrier between air and falling rushing water, down, down, down …
He came crashing down and was swallowed by blackness. At once, he began to sink. It took a moment for him to get his limbs moving and he made a small kick with his left leg. He needed to get above the water! The child…
He began kicking and used his free hand to swim upwards. Still he felt tired, and his body hurt, and his mind felt a bit dizzy. He could not see a thing, and only when he felt air touch his hand he realized how deep down in the water he had fallen.
The elf broke the surface with a gasp. He took no notice to the fact that here, a crescent moon was shining, a thin ray of light upon the landscape. The water felt cold.
He held the child afloat; making sure the boy could breathe, and tried to find a direction to swim to. The waterfall made currents and he took help of them to slowly make his way towards land. He felt exhausted; as if he could drop down and simply sleep. But he could not abandon the boy so.
He crawled up upon a gravelly shore, holding Eldarion close to his chest. With his legs yet in the water, too tired to move further up the riverbank, he pushed away the child a little to a dried spot and prayed he still was breathing. His own came in gasps. His body was yet in shock, pumping with adrenaline. He imagined sounds or perhaps he did not imagine them; cracking of woods and trees, a bird far away, an owl, the water splashing and the waterfall's restlessness, and a humming voice in his head; a faint cry of a child ...
"Eldarion, please stay with me, please, please live …Saes penneth, saes."
A stream of elvish passed his lips. He reached out with a trembling hand and began untying the lacings that held the bundle tied and the child safe. He bumped against Eldarion's small face with his hand; the child was wet all over, slightly cold, and suddenly let out a wail. Even in his shaky condition, Legolas knew that water grew one cold and he needed to get the child warm, and out of his clothing to dry.
He managed to lift the youngster out of the tied cloak but found not the energy to take off his clothing; he merely pulled him close and let his head drop in exhaustion. Legolas lost consciousness to Eldarion's wailing and a small fist firmly holding his hair.
The air felt cold, stinging to his skin. Eragon awoke with a gasp, sitting straight up. At first he thought they were under attack. He already had begun to set up barricades in his mind. The magic, which was ever-present in Du Weldenvarden, pulsated about him. He gasped at the strength of the shock wave. It reminded him of dagshelgr that had happened not a day ago, when they were near Síthrem, an elven city – where spells had tied around him and spellbound him, and the magic had been so much at one moment. Now the magic felt just as strong, but not in that same captivating way.
'Saphira, can you hear me?' he called out. He felt that she too was awake, even if she was circling the skies to keep away from elven eyes other than those of Arya and her three companions. 'Did you feel that too?'
'Yes, I did,' she answered. 'But I have no idea of what it was. Maybe it is something in this forest, or some spell of the elves.'
Eragon came to his feet and silently made his way into the camp. By the fire, Narí and Arya sat conversing silently. Both looked up and greeted him as he arrived. He sat down beside them. He felt uneasy and restless. That wave of magic still felt as a warning, one of danger.
"I woke with a strange feeling," he said. "I can't explain it, but it was definitely magic. Did any of you feel this too?"
Arya nodded a bit absently. "Yes, Eragon."
"Do you know what it was?" Eragon wondered. It was not anyone trying to scry us? he thought. But no, it didn't feel like it … It was more … powerful, is the word I can find for it. I did not feel like being watched.
"We are not sure," Narí replied, lowering his voice a little and glancing at the other elf. "But I believe we ought to find out." He cast a glance at the sky. "Daybreak will soon come."
Morning was cold and gray and the air bit his skin. Gravel crunched beneath his boots. In his hand Roran held a bow, and Baldor was armed with the same weapon, not far behind him. Both were searching for trails of newly passed deer.
After Eragon's disappearance and Garrow's death, Roran and some men from the village had helped each other to save what could be saved from the burned down farm that had once been Roran's home. After that, it took five months before Roran could even think of returning to the place where Eragon's secret, that blue stone, whatever it was, had caused Roran's father Garrow's death. Yesterday he had gone to the farm, his home, where he had lived his whole life and grown up, where Garrow had lived his life. There was only burnt ruins and moss-clad moldy wood left; but looked like he could use some parts of the land for planting and harvesting crops still. At least he would have something to do for a living.
He had felt and still felt slightly panicked, feeling despair and sadness and anger. He had finished his service in Therinsford to help with the mill, and had a little money. But now, with no farm, no real home, no animals – not anything – and with Eragon and his blue stone the only reason for this and Garrow's death –there was no chance that he could prove to the butcher Sloan that he was worthy to marry his daughter, Katrina. Both were madly in love.
She had tried to convince him to speak with Sloan but he couldn't, because if Sloan found out he would just drive them apart – if she married Roran, Katrina would have no house, no farm, home to inherit. All would have to be built up from the start. All these thoughts plagued Roran's mind as he and Baldor tracked the valley for prey.
"Over there," Baldor said lowly, pointing towards a trail running beside the edge of the Anora River, leading towards a blackberry bush. Roran kneeled by the side of it an inspected it; it looked old, so he dared to speak up about what had bothered him all night and all morning.
"Can I ask for some advice? You seem to understand people."
"Of course. What is it?"
Roran hesitated for a moment, trying to find the best way to start, and only their footsteps were heard for a time. "Sloan wants to have Katrina married, but not with me. With everyday that passes the bigger is the chance that he'll arrange a marriage that benefits him."
Baldor stepped around a rock to avoid stumbling on it. "What does Katrina say about it?"
Roran shrugged. "Sloan is her father. She cannot keep defying him for so long or the one she wants may claim her."
"And that's you, then."
"No wonder you were up so early this morning."
A silence fell between them, as they continued to follow the old trail. Perhaps they would just find an old resting place where the deer had been last and slept and ate. I want to clear my mind, that's all, Roran thought. It doesn't matter if I catch anything … even if I would have nothing against a warm meal tonight. During the whole night he had lain awake and tried to think of a solution of their dilemma.
"I cannot stand the thought of losing her. But I doubt that Sloan will give his blessing, since my home and living is a nothing."
"No, I do not think so either," Baldor said and glanced at his friend. "But what did you want my advice on?"
A laugh escaped Roran's mouth. "How am I supposed to persuade Sloan? How can I solve this without creating a blood feud?" He felt frustrated and defeated. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Don't you have any ideas?" Baldor wondered. He was a bit intrigued and he wanted to help a friend, but in a matter like this … A man with his right mind would find his courage and ask the father of his beloved if he could have her hand in marriage.
"I do, but none of them are very attractive. Once I had a thought of telling everyone that Katrina and I are betrothed – of course we are not in reality – and give a damn about the consequences. Then Sloan would have to give his approval."
Baldor frowned. "Maybe," he said thoughtfully, "but that would stir up a lot of displeasure in Carvahall. Not many would like to be on your side. Besides it'd be unwise to force Katrina to choose between you and her family; she might regret it later."
Roran sighed and drew a hand through his hair. "I know, but what choice do I have?"
"Before you do something that drastic, I think you should try to get Sloan on your side," Baldor suggested. "There's a chance that you can succeed after all, if he realizes that no one would like to marry an angry Katrina. Especially since you're around and can make the husband to a cockold." At the thought of that, Roran grimaced and stared at the down. Baldor laughed. "If you fail you can safely go on, knowing that you've used all options. Then the risk is less that people will despise you because you have broken against traditions, and they might instead think it's pigheaded Sloan blaming himself."
"Nothing of that is easy," Roran pointed out.
"Well, you knew that from the beginning." Baldor became more serious. "There'll surely be harsh words if you challenge Sloan, but it will eventually all calm down – if not as usual then at least so it's bearable. Except for Sloan only those who are really prudish that will feel wronged, like Quimby. I don't understand how Quimby can make such good ale when he himself is so taut and bitter."
They had been walking upwards now, to the west, and Roran glanced off towards the mountains. They should turn back soon. The sun was barely visible on the gray sky, clouded but yet a shining point in the skies, yellow and warm.
Roran nodded. He knew that grudges could live on in Carvahall for years. "Thank you for listening. It was…" His words stumbled and he didn't know what to say. He had spoken like this with Eragon; he could recall it was about everything, from deep seriousness to childish fears. They had been, like Eragon had once said, brothers in all but blood; always there, ready to support and listen to each other. Now that bond was broken. It felt like a gaping whole inside of him.
Baldor didn't ask what he had been about to say, but stopped instead resting a foot on a stone and drinking from his water pouch. Roran felt a bit relieved and continued walking up ahead; still thinking only of Katrina. That deer was nowhere in his mind. Oh, what am I going to do? I must marry her. I love her. I cannot watch her marry another man.
A sharp smell sticking his nostrils stopped his contemplations. It smelled like burned meat and wood on fire. Roran blinked in surprise. Who else can be here in our valley this time of year? He turned around in a circle to determine from which way the smell was coming; it appeared it came with the wind from the road. The breeze brought with it a smell of smoke and newly cooked food. It smelt so good he felt his mouth watering.
He signed to Baldor to come closer, who hurried forward. "Can you smell that?" Roran asked.
Baldor sniffed the air and nodded. Together they followed the smoke back to the road – which led into the valley and into their village – and continued on it to the south. In about a hundred feet it turned around a clearing of trees. The smell was strong now; through the morning mist they heard voices. Roran hesitated. They did not want to surprise men who were out hunting, and get hurt or shot by mistake. But something felt … disturbing, unusual. This was no normal hunting party. Maybe it was the size, by the voices it sounded like a group much larger than any family in Carvahall. They were not from around here.
Without thinking, Roran walked away from the road and crawled into the bushes. Baldor did not follow. "What are you doing?" he hissed, not liking the feeling of this.
Roran signed silence, pressing a finger against his lips, and sneaked in parallel with the road as quietly as he could. When reaching the turn of the road, he stopped and in a kneeling position glanced through the bushes into a soldier camp. Thirty dusty, armour-clad men were in sight, helmets and spears sparkling in a sunray that broke through the clouds. Even though they were all dirty from what seemed like a long journey, the emblem of Galbatorix was fully visible on their red tonlets – a red flame outlined with a golden thread. Their leader, or probably owner, was eating stew and bird cooked over several fires. The men carried swords; there were also archers and those with halberds.
His blood went cold when he saw and recognized two large, bent black-clad figures by the opposite edge of the camp. They fit directly into the description of the strangers that had come to Carvahall when Eragon had come with his strange, blue stone. Servants of the Empire!
I could kill them now and revenge Garrow. But when he put an arrow to the string, Baldor, who had resignedly sneaked behind him in silence, stopped him.
"No, that'll only get us killed," he murmured.
Roran glared at him. "Those … those devils, they …" He did not realize that he was trembling. "They're back!"
"Roran," Baldor whispered persistently, "there is nothing you can do. Look, they serve the king, and even if you got out of it alive you would become an outlaw. You would put Carvahall into danger."
"What do they want? What can they want?" Roran muttered. The King. Why did the king allow my father to die in such misery?
"If they had nothing from Garrow, and Eragon fled with Brom, they must be looking for you, Roran." Baldor waited a moment so that his words could sink into Roran's head. When he realized exactly what that meant, Roran's eyes widened and he glanced from the road to the camp.
Roran stared a moment into the unknowing soldiers' camp, his blood soaring and his heart pounding to have revenge and find the peace he wanted. He wanted to kill those two black strangers, bury them with arrows - that was the only justice they understood. His whole body tensed.
"We have to hurry back and warn the others," he whispered, managing to tear his mind from the revenge but he kept his gaze fixed at the dark, round-backed beings. "Only those two strangers have horses. We will get to the village before them if we run."