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22. Land of Helm and Bow
Northern Brethil, Doriath, First Age 485
Right hand, left hand, left, left. Thranduil’s swords sliced an arm off one orc and the head of its partner. In the edge of his vision he spotted an orc trying to come at him from behind. Turning swiftly, Thranduil let one of his swords swipe its shield aside while his other one pierced its eye, killing it instantly. He had to tug on his sword a few times to release it from the corpse.
Drops of sweat trickled down his forehead, stinging his eyes; it was high summer and the night was hot and clammy. His shoulders hurt. Valar, his entire body hurt.
A black arrow whizzed by over his head and he ducked instinctively, wishing he had a third arm to hold a shield with. The past year he had laid the shield aside in favour of a second sword, but the twin sword strategy had its drawbacks.
Then came a new orc charging at him with its crude scimitar and Thranduil stopped thinking about shields, sweat or pain. His body worked on pure adrenalin as he mindlessly focused on eliminating the enemy. And the next, and the next.
At last the path was clear and he could catch his breath and wipe his forehead. To his left young Faraion did the same. It was hard to recognize the ellon as the one who had come to Doriath after the Battle of Unnumbered Tears twelve years ago, terrified and half-starved. For one, these days Thranduil trusted the ellon with his life. The past year he had become a veteran, hardened and deadly.
“Damn filth.” Faraion looked at his gloved hand, black with orc blood.
“Disgusting,” Thranduil agreed, trying to shut his nostrils to the fluids seeping from the piles of mutilated carcasses around them.
Maeldir, one of the new recruits, jumped down from a tree. “Another band on their way, Captain.” He had been scouting further to the north.
Thranduil sighed. The orcs just kept coming, pouring out on the Old South Road from the Pass of Sirion in an endless avalanche. How much longer could his march-wardens hold them off?
“How many?” he asked tiredly.
“Between eighty or a hundred, give or take.”
Thranduil refrained from saying an ugly word. He was the captain; he ought to set a good example. If only he could see an end to this.
They had been fighting for two days straight now, and as usual he had to use the entire border guard. The orcs were so numerous lately it was not possible to keep up the shift system Beleg had devised. This meant that they would have to fall back and rest eventually, and then the orcs could continue undisturbed down to the Crossing of Teiglin. From there, Beleriand was completely open to them.
It had happened before – on several occasions only this summer. And each time, when he helplessly watched the orcs return with their plunder and slaves from the human settlements along the road, Thranduil had felt like a failure. A sham.
The rumour of Túrin’s dragon helmet and Beleg Cúthalion’s bow had spread far and wide, intimidating the enemy and holding them back, but after a year without those two famous warriors around, the orcs had grown bolder.
Try as he might, Thranduil could not fill Beleg’s shoes. It appeared he was just not cut out to do heroic deeds like his predecessors.
The new orcs were upon them now and Thranduil resumed his stance; legs bent, swords held low. Every muscle in his body screamed at him to go lay down and rest. Ignoring them, he charged.
Around him his elves joined in: “For Doriath!”
But this time the orcs were too many and the march-wardens too tired, and in the trees beside the road the archers were out of arrows. Yard by yard the enemy pushed them back.
Thranduil was just about to issue the order to retreat into the forest when a familiar couple of arrows embedded themselves in the head of the orc he was engaging. Wailing, it toppled to the ground.
He did not have to turn around to look for the archer; he knew those feathers. Beleg was finally back!
Seeing more expertly aimed arrows soaring past, the march-wardens fought with renewed energy until the road was clear again.
“Acting Captain Thranduil, I presume?” Beleg stepped out from behind a tree trunk, grinning.
“I do not think I have ever been so glad to see you.” Thranduil wiped his glove on a patch of grass and touched his heart, but before he could complete the polite greeting Beleg had swept him into a rough embrace.
“Good to see you too. I worried when I heard from Mablung you had suffered losses recently.”
Thranduil awkwardly hugged his friend back, never one for public displays of affection. “We are holding out – barely.”
Maeldir returned with the welcome news that the Pass in the north was finally empty. Another blessing! That meant at least a day’s respite and a chance to rest at last; the sun would soon rise and orcs were creatures of the night.
On the way to their camp, Thranduil filled Beleg in on the dismal situation at the border. For the first time in many years they had lost elvish warriors this spring and summer, and lately there had been funeral processions sent to Menegroth almost weekly.
He did not have to add how much it had shaken him to handle those dead elves, elves he knew well after the years together as border guards. War was ugly, Beleg knew that already.
When he had finished, Thranduil was very eager to hear about his friend's adventures. “How did it go? Did you find Túrin?”
Beleg looked grim. “I did.”
“And? Will he not come back? We could need him and his helmet here. The orcs fear it.”
“I looked for him all around Doriath, and finally picked up his trail south of Brethil. He had been living with a band of humans – criminal humans. The Outlaws, as the settlers in the area call them – thieves, murderers… rapists. That kind of people.”
“No…!” Thranduil stared at his friend. “Thieves and ra…” He shook his head to dispel the horrible images he was getting. Images of his sweet boy doing unspeakable things. “But why? Why did he not go to the Men of Haleth if he wanted to live with his kin, or back to Hithlum?”
“You tell me.” Beleg shrugged.
“Has he also…? I mean… Did he…”
“I hope not, but… how am I to know? Though it does seem he means to reform the Outlaws, and make them fight orcs instead of their fellow humans. Túrin saved a girl from his companions once – and that was actually how I could get to him at last, for the father was grateful and told me where he had gone. But he was not easy to find, even for me!”
Beleg described how he had tracked the Outlaws from one place to another, until he finally caught up with them – only to discover Túrin was not there at the time, and his comrades proved to be none too friendly against elves.
“I laid down my weapons to show my good intentions but the brigands paid me back with hostility. They tied me to a tree for two days without food or water.” His voice sounded strained. “I honestly thought that was it… I was so weak and they were murderous, to say the least. Fancy dying like that. After all I have been through, all the battles I survived – only to lose my life to the hand of a dirty human thief.” He frowned.
Thranduil could well imagine the feeling; there had been moments the past year when he too had feared for his life and those had not been pleasant.
“They gathered around me and one of them held a burning torch,” Beleg continued. “I would have prefered the sword, I think. I reckon burning to death is rather horrible…” He clenched his hands. “Anyway, right then Túrin returned and talked them out of it.”
Thranduil nodded sympathetically, still shocked to learn Túrin would have anything to do with such scum. How was it possible the young man could have changed so much, so soon?
“But after you told him the king had pardoned him – surely he relented then?” he asked.
“He did not. He is proud, our boy… too proud for his own good. He seems to think people in Doriath would pity him. And also… these bandits he lives with have made him their captain, so now he has some grand plans of becoming a lord of Amon Rûdh and thereabouts.”
“I see.” Thranduil said nothing more, knowing all about ambition and seeking power. To rule a realm was not only his father’s dream; he desired it too. He may not be a great military leader but that was not really what he had wanted either. He longed to have what Thingol had: to organise a community, settle disputes, improve the people’s wellbeing and wealth – and, he had to admit, to live in style.
Back at their camp, Thranduil delegated the task of preparing breakfast to those who had scouted during the fight and therefore were less exhausted, while the rest of them drooped down on their blankets and bedrolls at any available spot to get some sleep before they ate.
For his own part, Thranduil could not rest until he had cleansed himself from the past days’ orc blood and filth. Removing his armour, he hurried to the river where he scrubbed his skin until it was red and raw before vividly attacking his clothes with a hard bar of soap.
Afterwards he stretched out on his back, floating naked with extended arms and legs in the cool water. He gazed up at the patch of sky between the overhanging eaves on either side of the river, still dark and starry but with a hint of orange in the east announcing dawn.
It was soothing to just be . To relax his sore muscles and forget about death and blood and the overpowering threat of Morgoth’s endless minions, if only for a moment.
Sirion ran slow and wide at this spot, being not far south of the Ford of Brithiach. Thranduil had been hiding from orcs up there in what felt like ages ago, but it could not be more than six or seven decades since. That had been the first time he felt the heat of battle; the sounds, the smells, the chaos. The first time he killed a sentient being.
Elves should not fight; it was unnatural. They were not like orcs. Or humans. Nothing like those horrible companions Túrin apparently fraternised with. To think they would force themselves on women! And steal from their own kin. Kill them, even.
If he had his own realm in the future, Thranduil would do like Thingol had tried and keep his people away from war. And he would make sure he succeeded too. His subjects would never have to sink to this .
To think he had been annoyed with his king in the past! He had wanted to join the wars raging around Doriath, the Siege of Angband and the Battle of Sudden Flame. Even when his father advised him to stay away from the Battle of Unnumbered Tears he had wanted to go, follow his wife there and prove himself valiant. But as always, Oropher had been right. War was not the Sindar way.
Yet, here Thranduil was, an acting captain of the border guard, fighting and killing day after day. Waiting for the inevitable moment when the enemies would be too numerous and his troops would succumb to them. Waiting for his death.
Death. Such an unnatural thing.
They all felt its presence now, hovering around them, never far away. Nobody talked about it; at least not with him. Leadership did that, he had noticed, it made you lonely. Even when surrounded by others.
At least Beleg had returned. Assuming he meant to stay, the burden of leadership would again belong to him, with Thranduil as second in command, and he would have someone to talk to as well. That was something.
A part of him wished that Beleg would release him entirely so he could go home. He repressed the thought, squashed it down almost angrily. That was the coward’s way out and whatever he was, he was no coward.
Besides, home was not the same anymore. Not without… He avoided thinking her name; he was in water after all, and naked.
It had been such a long time. Maybe… Just maybe.
Slowly letting his feet sink until he was standing on the muddy riverbed, Thranduil gazed at the surface. Aerneth, he thought without much hope of a reply. The hour was too early. She would be still asleep.
Instead her image formed, dark and slightly fuzzy from the ripples of the Sirion. He saw the same twilight sky above her as the one here. She was outdoors then.
“Oropherion.” She looked sad. Just like he felt.
Neither of them seemed capable of greeting each other politely anymore. Suddenly the corners of his eyes burned unbearably. Why? Why must things be like this?
“Are you swimming?” She was standing in water too. The river? It struck him it would be the very same river as he stood in then, only further south.
“I was,” he answered. “You?”
“Aye. It is horribly hot down here, and swarming with mosquitoes.” She waved one away. “Swimming helps a little.”
“Here too. Mosquitoes – and orcs.”
“Is it very bad?” There was a hint of worry in her appearance.
“Aye.” He did not elaborate.
“You know it cannot last. The foresight… the queen saw Doriath fall.”
“Maybe… You could come here.” Her voice was barely audible.
“I can’t.” He blinked to stop his eyes from welling over. “Even if… we… you and I were…” He paused to draw a breath. “Even if we would try again I… I cannot abandon my post. I have to prove I can do it. That I can be a leader.”
“You don’t have to prove yourself. Power is not important. Status cannot make you happy.”
“It is all I have left.” He reached out towards her, dipping his finger where her cheek was. Her image became distorted a short while and then cleared. “I do miss you though.” He took another deep breath, trying to dispel the heaviness in his chest.
“I miss you too.” She reached out her hand to meet his.
If he closed his eyes he could imagine their fingertips touching through the water. Opening them again, he let his gaze follow her arm, admiring its delicate shape, remembering how soft her skin felt. He continued to where the top of her breasts were visible above the surface.
“It seems very deep where you stand.”
“It is more shallow over there.” A faint smile hinted on her pink lips and they parted slightly. He remembered how they tasted and the feeling of her tongue caressing his. Her smell and the sounds she would make when he traced kisses along her jaw and down her neck.
She took a step backwards and another one. The image followed her, so to Thranduil she remained in the same spot, only now there was less water to cover her. He breathed faster at the sight of her bared chest, feeling blood rush down between his legs.
“You could move somewhere more shallow too,” she suggested.
Thranduil glanced at the path leading back to their camp. He could already smell the food the scouts were preparing; someone might come at any moment saying breakfast was ready. Still… the temptation was overwhelming. Perhaps if he hid himself partly in that alder thicket over there? He would be unseen from the path but not from the water.
Smiling at the nerve of it, he went through with his plan, seeing Aerneth smile as well when the water sank to his calves.
“Gorgeous,” she said.
“I do my best.”
“I do have one of those, aye.”
Chuckling she moved a few more steps until he could see almost all of her naked body. Reflecting the brightening sky, her skin glowed. He drank her appearance like a cup of fine wine, revelling in her long, slender legs, her curvy hips and mesmerising breasts. To him, she was perfection.
She slowly ran her hands down her body until she was touching herself, and he followed her example. Damn, it felt good after such a long time.
He closed his eyes to narrow slits so he could still watch her while turning his focus inward. Pretending it was not his own hand but her warmth coating his hardness, he increased his pace. In the dim light, the colour of her flushed cheeks appeared amber as she did likewise.
“I wish you were here,” she murmured. “You could lift me up and we would do it standing in the water.”
Thranduil grunted. He was beyond speaking at this point.
“I would feel your hands on my bottom. And you would feel my legs wrapped around your hips. My breasts would rub against your chest as you pushed in deep. Again and again.”
Drawing in a sharp breath, Thranduil came so powerfully it felt like an explosion. In the water image, Aerneth shook with her own climax.
“I wish you were here,” she repeated.
“I wish that too.” His voice was hoarse.
“Maybe one day…”
He nodded a little too quickly, his throat tightening. “One day.”
“You look relaxed. Had a good swim?” Beleg’s innocent question made Thranduil drop his gaze and bite the inside of his cheek to hide a smile.
“I did.” He fetched his bowl and filled it with the thin vegetable soup Maeldir and the other scouts had prepared. Meat was scarce now despite the bounty of the season; nobody had time to hunt.
“So… what shall we do about Túrin?” he asked as he sat on a fallen log beside the captain.
“What can we do? The boy wants to stay with his horrible new friends.” Beleg smiled mirthlessly. “He wanted me to join them, and was quite convincing about it too. I almost…” He broke off, and then sighed. “I love that boy so much; I would do almost anything for him. But that? To live with that motley crew of brigands… and to abandon my king. I could not do that, could I?”
Thranduil’s chest tightened. He loved Túrin too. “What did Thingol say when you returned? It is his adopted son, after all.”
“He was not happy with Túrin’s decision, obviously, but he is just as powerless as I. We cannot very well drag the boy back to Doriath and lock him up. Thingol tried that with his daughter already, and see how well that went.”
“However… Queen Melian gave me this.” Beleg went to get his pack, a large and bulky satchel, and opened it to show row upon row of packages wrapped in silvery leaves, with Melian’s flower emblem pressed into their wax seals.
Thranduil whistled silently. “Lembas… that must be the entire first summer batch.”
“She told me to do what felt right. I think she wants me to go to him and protect him, but I have not made up my mind yet. With the critical situation up here and everything…” He sighed. “I don’t know.”
They were silent for a while, pondering. Then Thranduil got an idea. “Maybe we could join our forces together.”
“How do you mean?”
“The border guard could relocate to Amon Rûdh. I remember the view was magnificent the only time I was up there; if we placed scouts on the top they would see the enemy when they crossed the Teiglin. Then we could place smaller units along the road, ready to ambush them. The orcs still fear Túrin – or at least his helmet. Maybe we could be more useful there than here in the marshes.” And in addition the environment would be more pleasant without the dampness and mosquitoes.
“The plan has merit,” said Beleg thoughtfully. “Whatever happened to his helmet?”
“He left it here, in our lodgings near the border. We could return it to him.”
“We would have to get the king’s permission.”
“He listens to you. If you say it is a good plan he will agree to it.” Thranduil felt a twinge of hope. Would he finally get to leave this horrible place?
“Dimbar would be lost, though, and if the orcs are feeling brave they might enter Brethil and bother the Men of Haleth.”
“The Halathrim are a clever folk and have traps all over the place; the orcs dare not venture into their forest. At least they never did before we began to guard the marshes.”
“True that.” Beleg’s face suddenly broke into a grin. “You know Tharan, I think this might actually be a good plan. We could make western Beleriand safe again and keep an eye on Túrin.”
The relocation took a while to organise, and it was decided that the bulk of the march-wardens would stay the winter in Doriath and join the Outlaws when the lands thawed. Orcs seldom ventured out of Angband that season anway; with Morgoth’s growing power, the winters were increasingly severe.
Thus, it was early spring when the elves of the border guard finally crossed the bridge to the Talath Dirnen, the Guarded Plain, setting out towards the hill of Amon Rûdh after a couple of months spent pleasantly in the comforts of Menegroth. The ground was still frosty and the trees naked, but buds were swelling and the air was full of birdsong.
When they got closer, Thranduil looked around with interest. The scarcely forested moorland seemed untouched and there was no trace of any humans. Where were the Outlaws hiding? All he could see was the tall hill looming ahead, bald and naked this early in the year.
Then suddenly Beleg emerged from behind a thornbush and came to meet them. He had come here several weeks earlier to prepare the Outlaws of their arrival, wishing to avoid a hostile reception like last time, and to plan with Túrin where to build their camps.
“We will camp here at the foot of the hill. Túrin does not want too many to know where he and the Outlaws hide.” He lowered his voice. “It is inside the hill itself. Almost like Menegroth but not at all as pleasant. And there is a dwarf – but I should not speak more now, you will see.”
While the others were occupied preparing their new lodgings, Beleg brought Thranduil around to the side and up a narrow path to a ledge, where some shrubs effectively hid a flat, rocky surface.
“Sharbhund,” he murmured, and suddenly faint lines in the rock appeared, revealing a door. Pushing it open, they went inside into a low tunnel. It was almost completely dark, but further in Thranduil saw a dim light.
“What was that strange password? Mannish?”
“Dwarfish.” Beleg’s eyebrows drew together. “Before you meet Túrin and the Outlaws, I must warn you. These halls are owned by a dwarf named Mîm and his son, who apparently are the last of their kind hereabouts, and I do not trust them at all. The father has become friends with Túrin, or pretends so anyway – but he hates the other humans, that is clear, and even more so elves. He has tolerated me so far, albeit barely, and I expect he will try to get rid of us at first opportunity. You have to be careful. Very careful.”
“I will,” Thranduil assured him, curious about the owners of this place. He had never met a dwarf before.
“Another thing… do not call Túrin by name. He calls himself ‘The Wronged’, and none of his men knows who he really is or anything about his past.”
They went through the dark passage, which was so low they had to walk almost bent double. After many twists and turns they came to a larger room, about the same size as Thranduil’s sitting room back home but with a much lower ceiling. The rough stone walls were without colour and ornaments and from the ceiling hung many iron lamps in thin chains, dimly lighting up the place.
In the middle of the chamber, Túrin and twenty-odd humans sat around a long, crude table, busily oiling weapons and polishing armour. Túrin’s elven sword and chainmail stood out; the others’ equipment was simple and worn, forged in many different styles. Just like their weapons, the Outlaws were a ragtag band of men, with some older, some young, some fair, some dark skinned. They had one thing in common though: their smell. Thranduil had never seen a more unwashed and unkempt company before. Orcs excepted.
At the arrival of the two elves, Túrin jumped to his feet and came to meet them. He looked older, with a longer beard and more worn features, and his face was too thin. Had he been starving?
“Tharan! Did you bring my helmet?”
Thranduil smiled. In some ways the boy was still the same. “I did.” He put a linen bag onto the table which the young man eagerly opened, his companions gathering around him to see.
When Túrin picked up the helmet and put it on, there was a collective cheer.
“Terrifying! Orcs beware.”
“Can I try it?”
All of them had spoken Sindarin with a Mannish accent.
“I am already your captain, and now I will also be your lord,” said Túrin proudly. “I shall no longer be known as Neithan – The Wronged, but as Gorthol – the Dread Helm.”
“Gorthol!” cried the men, some waving swords and axes, others banging their weapons on their shields.
A movement in the corner of his eye made Thranduil turn his head. An incredibly short and stocky person had appeared in a doorway in the far end of the room; his head nearly bald and his face covered in a large, grey beard. So this was what dwarves looked like.
The dwarf had been gazing at Túrin, but now he lifted his eyes to the newcomers. His bushy eyebrows instantly knitted together; his whole being emanating an almost palpable hostility. Like Beleg had said, it was obvious what the dwarf felt about elves. Without a word, the small figure turned on the spot and left.
This did not bode well. Not well at all.
Túrin meanwhile had positioned himself where all could see him. When wearing the helmet, his head touched the ceiling. "With my dragon helm and aided by my friends, I shall be invincible." His voice was strong and clear, echoing between the walls. “This area shall be known as the Land of Helm and Bow; a realm ruled by two great captains, with two great companies of warriors – the elves and the former Outlaws! I say former, for no longer shall you be outcasts and exiles, hated by your own people. I will make you great heroes.”
The cheer became almost deafening.
When the men had calmed down and Túrin removed his helmet, Beleg took him to the side. “I never agreed to creating a realm with you,” he said reproachfully, keeping his voice low. “My march-wardens are still under Thingol’s rule.”
“I know, I know.” Túrin shrugged casually. “I just wanted to incite courage in my men. As far as they are concerned, the elves follow me. They do not need to know the truth.”
“They will spread it, though. There will be rumors. If those reach Angband – and they will, Morgoth has many spies – we are doomed. We can resist small raider orc bands from here, but not full-scale war! The Dark Lord still has his balrogs and dragons.”
“Don’t worry, uncle Beleg. We will be safe, hidden inside the hill. I know what I am doing.” Túrin had fallen back to his childhood name for the other, perhaps involuntarily, or perhaps to play on his friend’s feelings.
“I hope you do.”
“I have to do this, I have to avenge my father! You know I always meant to strike back against Morgoth. This is my opportunity.”
Beleg’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “Though I do not like this, I promise to do my best to help you. You have my bow.”
“And my swords,” added Thranduil.
Sorry about the last two lines haha… I’m a hopeless quote thief. But with all the foreboding of this chapter I dare say we need a smile. :) In the next chapter hell breaks loose…
Note: I have taken some liberties with canon in this chapter. In the Silmarillion and the Children of Húrin, which tell Túrin’s story, only Beleg went to join the Outlaws, more or less abandoning the march-wardens who subsequently lost Dimbar and the northern marshes to the orcs. Meanwhile, Beleg and Túrin’s heroic deeds in what became known as ‘The Land of Helm and Bow’, attracted many humans and elves who joined them there.
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