Writer's Note: I feel terrible about the cliffhanger I left you all with, and the coming week will be quite busy for me, so I decided to post this very short chapter to get you over the hump, if you will. It's a bit rough, so let me know if it needs reworking.
Disclaimer: I make no money from this work. Anything recognizable from The Lord of the Rings belongs to J.R.R Tolkien and affiliates.
Home With the Fairies
Chapter Seventeen: The Road Not Taken
Thunor and I galloped into the middle of the battle.
It was chaos; orcs built like linebackers and taller than men held wicked looking weapons made of some kind of black steel. They clattered in their armor that almost seemed melded with their skin, and the ground seemed to shake beneath their boots as they ran, though it might have been just me shaking on the horse. They were all running in the same direction through the trees, but some had already fallen to the ground face first.
The closest orcs surged towards me, but luckily Thunor was very maneuverable and easily able to outrun them. I drew my knife in a surprisingly steady hand just in case. I spurred the destrier on for a short distance, following the direction of the orcs, when I heard a call in a clear, Elven voice.
I couldn't understand it, but when I looked up there was Legolas, the Elf of the Fellowship, standing high on a rock with his characteristic bow and arrow. He was shooting arrow after arrow, and the orcs around me fell in quick succession.
"Flee, flee!" he cried, but I shook my head and turned Thunor towards him, cupping a hand around my mouth as we cantered forward
"Where is Boromir? We have to find Boromir!"
Despite the grunts and general din of the orcs all around, there was no way those sharp Elven ears hadn't heard me. Legolas didn't spare a moment for confusion, but dashed off the rock and away, moving more agile than I'd ever seen. I looked back and saw the charging forces of the orcs and dug my heels into Thunor's sides to gallop after him.
Then without warning I saw the elf running right at Thunor and me through the trees on a clear collision course. "What are you—"
Lithe and nimble, he jumped straight from the ground on to a moving horse—a galloping horse. He slipped right in behind me, as though he'd practiced this move a thousand times (and maybe he had) and grabbed the reins from my shocked fingers.
"This is no time for questions; we must protect the halflings," he said, voice right in my ear. I couldn't bring myself to be embarrassed, still feeling surprised and afraid as we thundered through the forest, much faster than I had dared to go.
I felt the ludicrous urge to correct his use of "halflings", but controlled myself. Legolas was an infinitely more skilled horseman than I, and he quickly directed Thunor to the sounds of steel on steel and what had to be a dwarf hollering in Dwarvish, neatly avoiding all the orcs in between.
"Think you can take a dwarf, do you!" A redheaded dwarf with a squat, thick helmet and heavily engraved armor swung his axe in a deadly arc, giving the closest orc an uppercut that sliced collarbone to ear and the one next to him across the throat. Blood spurted, and I felt my stomach tighten with nausea, but the fight continued on and the dead orcs were quickly forgotten in the wake of battle.
Legolas jumped off Thunor as suddenly as he had jumped on, the fleeting warmth at my back gone fast enough that I twisted in the seat. Behind me were more orcs, charging through the forest, scimitars raised. Ahead, Legolas and Gimli had taken care of the orcs in the immediate area, but it looked like another wave was coming.
The elf called something in Elvish and Thunor jerked to attention, then the archer was off and Gimli was swearing and running after, calling back a hurried "this way lass!"
I gave half a second's thought to dwarves' penchant for calling me lass, before I kicked my heels in and Thunor took off. It was a haze of orcs, yelling in Dwarvish and Common, the twang of the bow as Legolas fired while jogging, all while I tried not to run down the Fellowship members.
Between one heartbeat and the next I spied up ahead a particularly big orc not running like the others, but walking with a calm precision. I'd yet to see a single orc with a quiver or bow, but this one had its already drawn and was pulling up another arrow.
I raised my knife and cantered Thunor forward, the only thought in my mind of Boromir lying against a tree, pierced with black-feathered arrows.
I didn't have to think, I didn't even breathe. When it raised that huge ebony bow up and unhurriedly notched one of those black-tipped arrows, my knife went straight for the bowstring.
And then we were thundering by and the orc's weapon was useless, the bowstring cut smooth as butter. Just as the wave of satisfaction hit me, I saw in the next moment Boromir in the clearing the orc had been shooting at, struggling to stand with an arrow already in his shoulder. I pulled Thunor up short, the horse stamping and nearly rearing, but I didn't even notice as I almost fell out of the saddle to get down. The big orc with the bow was rushing Boromir now with his sword, but the Gondorian had his own steel up, ready to hold him off. The sharp tang of blood, sweat and metal was heavy in the air, as I stood frozen on the edge of the clearing when the two collided. The sound of metal scraping against metal was harsh, and it had to be painful as Boromir resisted the force of the orc, all while using the same arm that had an arrow through the shoulder.
The blades slid along one another and then with a deft twist Boromir broke the hold, the orc stumbling back on the uneven ground, and my trance similarly shattered as Thunor whinnied high-pitched behind me.
Orcs were approaching, and one had already reached the clearing. I spotted it charging Boromir from behind, and the heat of the moment eclipsed my fear.
Éowyn's lessons hadn't taken into account an orc twice my size or one wielding a sword as long as my leg, but I had a sharp knife and no sense it seemed. Without a second thought I tackled the new orc around the middle, my sharp knife going for the gut. It skittered off the armor, but I'd surprised the orc and managed to get a second hit right in the side where the armpit is—a common weak point in armor I was going to kiss Nori for mentioning.
The orc got its bearings quickly though, and I was tossed through the air to hit the ground heavily, the wind knocked out of me. I could see the orc stagger up, probably more pissed than hurt, but there was definitely blood dribbling down its side, which sent a bolt of fierce pride through me.
While my blow didn't kill him, the arrow through the throat did, this one yellow and green feathered. The orc choked, hand going to where the arrow was embedded, and looked down at me. Its yellow eyes were angry, like it didn't know fear even when blood bubbled up and around the wooden shaft. Then it toppled backwards and fell with an audible thump on the leaves, giving one final shudder.
My eyes were fixed to the corpse for only a minute before the sound of war cries in guttural voices drifted over from a distance. I recognized the voices of the dwarves, and looked over wildly to see one of the dwarf guards from my companions knocking the legs out from under an orc and slamming the head of his axe into its skull. It was a testament to my state of shock that I didn't so much as flinch at the violence of it. There were more dwarf guards behind him, but I didn't see Nori or Bofur. They had to be there though, and I felt a rush of relief that made my fingers tingle when I thought of how they'd followed me.
I was still sprawled on the ground gripping my knife with white knuckles when I looked over to see Boromir thrust his sword home in the big black orc, wrenching the blade up through the chest cavity just for extra measure. When he pulled it free, entrails slipped out and pooled on the ground as the big orc collapsed in a heap.
Sound seemed to vanish into a vacuum as Boromir turned around and looked straight at me, his face bloodied and bruised, and clearly radiating surprise before it morphed into anger. The sound of fighting bled away, the yelling and screaming, the running. I could hear the crunch of Boromir's footsteps on the leaves as he took several steps towards me, his panting breath and mine, and then when his hand reached up for the arrow still lodged in his shoulder all sound snapped back and suddenly I was overwhelmed.
Three things happened in that moment: Aragorn burst into the clearing, one of Nori's knives whizzed by me, the whistle of it cutting through the air above me, and Boromir dropped to his knees.
Then there was the dull thud of the knife connecting with an orc behind me, and Gimli and Legolas were suddenly fighting the next wave of orcs. I stood up shakily and looked behind me, seeing one of Nori's fine, Dwarven knives with the gold engraving buried hilt-deep in the eye socket of an orc. Looking away, I didn't get two steps before I heard the labored breathing of another orc behind me—like there was an endless amount ready to replace the fallen. I whipped around, knife out, and the thing swung its scimitar in a wide arc up before bringing it down in a straight line for my head.
It was like the Matrix—everything in slow motion courtesy of the likely lethal amounts of adrenaline in my system. I dodged to the side of the orc and almost tripped down the hill around its side. The beast couldn't turn quickly enough though, and I had one glorious moment at its exposed back. The armor was too thick though, remembering the jarring of my hand against the plate mail before. In the next second the orc turned to me, arms raised up again, and that same sweet spot I'd hit before exposed.
I slammed my knife into its side with both hands, feeling warm blood run down my knuckles, and the thing let out a garbled grunt before smashing the hilt of its blade into my back. The blow felt like it broke my spine, and I wrenched my knife out as I listed to the side, gasping for breath like my lungs had been crushed. My blade was covered in black blood, and my back was going to be a giant bruise, but when I looked up at that orc, all I saw was a challenge.
I may not have ever fought in a war before, or even taken a self-defense class, but I'd seen plenty of action movies in my life. The smaller guy was perfectly capable of winning with a bit of cleverness and quick reflexes.
I backed up to create some space and give me a chance to recover from the blow, even as the fire in my veins temporarily covered the pain. The orc charged me this time, arms down and scimitar aimed for my belly, and I didn't bother to deflect but jumped to the side again and twisted around the orc's back. While the front of the orc's legs were protected by metal, the backs—especially the back of the knee—were not. I kicked hard as I could with my Elven boots, and with the advantage of the slope the orc tripped forward.
My next blow was the last. I slammed my knife down into the exposed back of its neck, the soft flesh giving way in moments. The blade went at least four inches deep, blood spurting on to my fisted hands at the force of the blow; then the orc gave one great tremor before falling dead.
"Two cracked ribs," I heard the ranger say, leaning over Boromir and putting some kind of paste on the wound on his shoulder while Legolas and Gimli hovered. I slowly climbed back up the hill to the clearing where the Fellowship, Nori, and one dwarf guard had gathered. The other dwarves were nowhere to be seen.
Legolas looked up at my entrance, and Nori looked up a beat later, spotting me too.
"What were you thinkin'?" he yelled, rushing over. "You hurt? You're shaking! Where's your knife?"
My hands were trembling and the world looked a bit foggy on the edges. Then without warning I leaned over and retched all over my boots. My mouth felt sticky and gross, my limbs like they were made of stone, and I almost had to stop myself from just giving in to this sudden wave of exhaustion and sitting down in my own vomit. All the adrenaline, all the rush of the fight had left me shaken and cold.
Nori grabbed me by the shoulders and guided me to sit a little ways from the contents of my stomach. He touched my face and arms, checking over for injuries while I watched, feeling like I had temporarily left my body. I felt a bit like I'd taken a blow to the head, but I couldn't remember if I did. Nori checked my eyes just in case, but didn't mention a concussion. My hands were caked in drying black blood and there were rivulets all down my forearms. My shirt was stained with it too, and I had little cuts and abrasions all over. My back felt like a rhino had stepped on it.
"I killed it," I told him, though I couldn't tell you why those were the first words out of my mouth.
"Well done," Nori said, though he didn't sound particularly proud or happy. "It looks like it nearly killed you too." He patted my shoulder though, and I think he was just more concerned that I'd killed anything at all. I felt weirdly pleased and still slightly sick at the thought.
The dwarf guard came over then, holding out my knife like an offering. He'd wiped the blade down at least, so it wasn't covered in orc blood anymore. "Straight through the back of the neck. Who taught you that?" he asked.
"Sylvester Stallone," I mumbled, a kind of delirium making me laugh at my own joke. I sobered up in the next moment though when Aragorn stepped back from Boromir and helped the other man stand. "Is Boromir okay? Where's Thunor?"
I'd spoken louder than intended, and suddenly everyone was staring. The four remaining members of the Fellowship were gazing at me baffled—Gimli and Boromir—and calculating—Aragorn. Legolas was watching me with an expression I couldn't read, petting Thunor's nose, and I felt myself deflate slightly at the sight of the horse. Thank goodness he'd survived this mess.
"We have not had the pleasure to meet yet, milady," Boromir said suddenly, "and yet it seems you know me." He looked worse for wear, but very much alive. His clothes were traveled stained and now bloodstained, his cape all ragged at the bottom. There was a makeshift bandage on his shoulder and his unbuttoned tunic showed another around his ribs.
"And Gimli," Nori added suddenly, and I remembered my moment of insanity, calling the dwarves to fight for Gimli. The dwarf in question looked, if possible, even more confused and a tad angry because of it.
I stuffed down the ridiculous impulse to wave at the Fellowship, still feeling a bit drugged, but not quite that loony. "I'm Maddie," I said, and something in Aragorn's expression changed. There was an awkward moment as I tried to figure out where to even start my explanation, but thankfully Aragorn stepped in.
"Gandalf shared the letter of a woman with prescience of the quest, but he was skeptical of your role," he said, voice carrying despite how softly he spoke. "Your foreknowledge was proven too late to summon you."
"I can hardly blame you," I said after a moment of thinking. "I was skeptical too. But Boromir's here so I've done my bit." I half expected myself to fade away or pop back into my apartment at home, but the forest persisted, and I could feel the crack of the dried blood on my hands as I flexed my fingers. The acrid smell of it would be burned into my memory for a long time.
"Pardon?" Boromir said.
"I promised Faramir I would help you," I said instead of explaining, and thankfully was interrupted by the entrance of Bofur and the rest of the party. Counting the dwarves, I was thankful to see there were no casualties. I'm not sure how I could have lived with myself after putting them in deliberate danger twice if one of them had died.
"Helping these folks means throwing yourself into a battle?" Bofur exclaimed, his bloody mattock in hand. He jogged closer and gently held my chin in one hand. "Her eyes are dilated," he said, but I couldn't tell to whom.
There was some talk then, but I felt another wave of tiredness hit me. Then a loud exclamation: "The halflings, we must save them!"
It was Boromir who spoke, and then Gimli was loudly interjecting with something. I couldn't quite follow the conversation because Bofur had wetted a dirty handkerchief and tried to wipe some of the blood off my hands. There was so much though that his handkerchief was quickly stained red and yet more black blood was in the cracks and crevasses of my hands. I didn't have the right mindset to resist the ridiculous urge to rub my hands together and murmur, "out damn spot!"
"We must follow the Uruk-hai," Aragorn said, his calm voice cutting through the wood. "But we will have to follow on foot and two cracked ribs would be dangerous to run on."
"You cannot mean to leave me here!" Boromir declared. "I have much to make up for," he said more softly.
"You must be healed first, and we will need the strength of Gondor if we wish to give this quest a chance. There is no one better than you that could do this," Aragorn encouraged, putting a hand on Boromir's shoulder.
I couldn't hear the rest of what was said, but was instead distracted by Gimli's reunion with Bofur and Nori. It seemed they knew each other from Erebor. "Gimli, this here's Maddie," Bofur introduced, and I smiled as well as I could given the circumstances. "Met 'er after a run-in with wargs. She knows Bilbo," he added. Then Bofur waved his hat at the redheaded dwarf, as though there was anyone else he could be talking about. "This is Gimli, son of Glóin. His father was a member on the quest to defeat Smaug," Bofur explained, and I nodded along.
"And where do you go now, lassie?" Gimli asked, a bit gruffly but kindly enough. It was hard to tell he was younger than Bofur and Nori given all the lines on the dwarves' faces; the only obvious difference was the bright color of his hair.
"I suppose Minas Tirith where the fighting will be." I hadn't quite thought my words through, because Gimli laughed heartedly and the other dwarves snickered.
"Now that you've had a taste for battle you want more!"
"No, no," I raised my hands up in a placating gesture, and the sight of all that black blood still crusted on my knuckles made my stomach heave again. I'd rather not get into the grit of battle again if I could help it. "I was going to Lothlórien for guidance, but now…"
"You mean to go to the Lady of the Wood!" Gimli bellowed, drawing the attention of the other three members of the Fellowship.
"The Golden Wood is several days north by a fast horse," Aragorn said, his tone sounded thoughtful. He wasn't dressed in any great armor, only dark, weather-stained clothes and with several days' beard growth, but he still managed to look authoritative in our midst. Something about his stance reminded me of Elrond for a moment. "The Elves would be able to quicken your healing, Boromir," Aragorn said before turning back to me. "And if you seek to return south then that is a boon."
"I promised Faramir that I would help Boromir if I were able, and I am definitely able to do that," I said. There was more discussion of logistics, and the Fellowship whispered together for a moment, likely about Frodo and Sam, but I sat, mind blissfully blank.
When the talk was over I was stirred to stand by Legolas' approach with Thunor. "This is a strong horse," the elf said, patting Thunor's thick neck, the horse nudging Legolas playfully like he was a kitten and not a destrier. "If you treat him well he will be loyal to you."
"Isn't it so with all animals?" I asked, accepting the reins back. I wondered if I should feel jealous of Thunor's obvious affection for Legolas, but Elves had ways with animals I couldn't comprehend.
"Very true," the elf replied with a smile.
Then he called out in Elvish and made some whistling sound that drew four ponies out of the trees. Bofur, Nori and company started to gather them together from where they'd scattered in the fighting. Nori was giving Legolas a very suspicious look, but Bofur seemed a bit friendlier.
"Been well, Prince Legolas?" he asked as he walked by. Unfortunately I couldn't ask how Bofur knew the elf as Boromir came over then, only walking a little gingerly despite his injuries.
"How come you by a warhorse?" he asked, reaching up to rub the white spot on Thunor's forehead. The destrier remained quite calm, and I wasn't sure if that was because of Legolas' influence or because he liked Boromir. Why did he only stamp and shake when I was around?
"Perks of being a ghost wanderer," I said with a smile. Up close Boromir's resemblance to his brother was much more obvious. They had the same nose, the same curve of the lips, and when Boromir's eyebrows furrowed it reminded of me of Faramir's thoughtful face. "You look like your brother," I blurted out then blushed.
Boromir looked surprised at the comment. "You must tell me as we ride how you came to know him."
"Sure," I said, face still a bit hot.
When Aragorn moved in front of me to offer me a leg up, I realized he, as a Man, would likely expect me to ride sidesaddle. I rode astride whenever I could, usually when Men, who seemed to be offended if I flashed my ankles, did not accompany me. (The dwarves hadn't cared a lick.) Something about sitting sidesaddle in front of Boromir—a true solider with a bearing that Baiard had distinctly lacked—reminded me too much of stories of the damsel in distress saved by the knight and riding off into the sunset. This time the damsel saved the knight, thank you very much.
With that thought in mind, I was very deliberate when I nodded to Aragorn but went around him and stuck my foot in the stirrup and mounted up without help, swinging my leg over like I wasn't wearing a skirt at all. (Secretly, it had taken me about six tries to perfect that.) The Fellowship looked amused at my moxie, even Boromir, who I thought might be the most uncomfortable with this.
"I dislike sidesaddle," was all I said to Boromir's questioning look, and I think I caught the edge of a smile from him while Bofur and Nori snorted. My long skirt coupled with my calf-high boots meant you couldn't see much skin anyway.
With a bit of grudgingly accepted help from Aragorn thanks to Boromir's cracked ribs, he mounted up on the destrier behind me. The moment he was seated I felt wired, incredibly aware of Boromir at my back. He smelled of leather, earth, and musk, and when he carefully rested his hands on my waist, I swore I could feel the heat of his palms through the layers of wool.
We made some quick goodbyes, and Aragorn wished us the best of speed. "I wish there was more time for questions, but I fear with every moment the distance grows too great," the ranger said in reference to the Uruk-hai.
I wasn't sure if he was fishing for information on the future or just commenting, but given that I probably wouldn't be seeing the Fellowship again until the very end of their journey—even if Boromir wanted to go to Helm's Deep there was no way I was going near another battle—it couldn't hurt to say something. At least that was my thinking.
"Don't lose hope," I said, winking at Legolas.
Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli would track the Uruk-hai, while Boromir and I hurried to Lothlórien for Elvish magical healing. Afterwards we'd head back south, either meeting the Fellowship at Edoras or further on at Minas Tirith. I couldn't read Boromir well enough to tell if he was disappointed or upset that he was separated from the rest of the Fellowship. He did seem pleased at the idea of returning to his homeland though.
Bofur and Nori came over on their ponies after the three other members of the Fellowship left to gather their supplies from the river. The dwarves still needed to find two ponies before they could leave, and their route would not take them through the Golden Wood. I wished them all the best and—with me gone—safer travels. They did the same, and Bofur opened his mouth with a mischievous look on his face only to get an elbow in the ribs courtesy of Nori. "Not in front of a lady, you lout," Nori hissed none too quietly.
I felt a bit awkward as I kicked Thunor's sides, aware of Boromir's legs just behind mine, but then we were off, and we left the corpses of the orcs behind alongside the original story of the Fellowship.