Black Breath


by Cassia and Siobhan

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    It was the elf’s turn to go wide-eyed.  “You can’t!  Not here, not now!” he shook his head emphatically.  In sight of an orc camp with nothing and no one on hand was a horrible place to deliver a baby, even had he known how to do so, which he didn’t.
    Maraen gasped slightly as she sank down to a sitting position but managed a weak, wry grin.  “I don’t know how it is with elf women, Legolas...” she panted slightly around the building contractions,  “but I have no control over this.  The-the baby’s coming whether I want it or not!”
    “Can you move?  Can we...” Legolas was at a complete loss.  He didn’t know how it was with elf women either, much less human ones.  In his centuries of life experience, this was not something he had ever been called upon to do before.  Birthing was work for midwives, not warriors. 
    Maraen shook her head somewhat desperately, the terror of their situation clutching at her young heart.  “Legolas... I can’t!  It’s coming right now!”  She looked up at him with large, pleading brown eyes, looking much younger than her seventeen years.
    “I-I thought I’d have my mother with me... my aunt Betha even... Legolas... Legolas, I’m scared!  I-I don’t know how to deliver a baby!”  Maraen was nearly crying, but they were both careful to keep their voices at the lowest whisper possible to avoid detection by the nearby orcs.
    “That makes two of us,” Legolas murmured, too softly for her to hear.  Running his hand over his face he forced himself to be calm and rational.  Maraen needed someone to be strong and in control of the situation, even if he did have no clue what he was doing.
    “It’s all right Maraen, everything is going to be fine,” the elf assured gently, crouching down next to the girl and squeezing her shoulders gently.  “Your body knows what to do, listen to it.”
    “Well right now it wants to scream,” Maraen whispered dryly.
    “Well don’t listen to that,” Legolas replied with a small grin.  “Unless you want to invite a troop of orcs to this happy event.”
    “Let’s skip that,” Maraen gritted out through her teeth.  She bit her lip hard and took a deep breath.  Fear was not helping her pain any.  “Legolas... what do I do?”
    Legolas’ mind sought blankly for information it did not contain, but when he spoke he acted with confidence to give the girl courage.  “You need to lie down. Come on, I’ll help you.”
    Gently, the elf prince laid the young human girl down upon the mossy ground, wishing he had someplace better and someone more experienced on hand.  He rested his hand gently on her stomach, feeling the little life move under his fingers. 
    Maraen was trying to be brave, but as the time drew nearer, her resolve began to crumble.  “They’re going to kill us... they’re going to kill my baby like they’ve killed Erron...” tears slid down her cheeks.  She restrained a sob.
    “Shh, shh...” Legolas soothed gently, lightly stroking the girl’s hot face with the back of his fingers and brushing her auburn hair out of her eyes.  “Breathe deeply and try to remain calm, it will make this easier.  I’m not going to let anything happen to you or your baby, I promise you that.”
    “Y-You swear?  You won’t let them get my baby?” she pleaded with large, childish eyes, tightening as the contractions became more forceful.
    Legolas gripped her hand firmly, squeezing it and letting her hang onto him.  “I swear,” he reiterated seriously.  “I will die before I let any harm befall you or your child.”
    The girl seemed to relax a little, obviously trusting the elf implicitly.  “Y-You’re so good to me, Legolas, and you don’t even know me...” she murmured.  “Here you had to leave searching for your friend to get home and now you’re waylaid by some pregnant girl and a pack of orcs...” Maraen winced and drew a deep breath in as another contraction gripped her sharply.  “You-you didn’t ask to get stuck with me, and now this... I’m sorry.  I’m sorry this is happening...”
    “Shh,” Legolas placed his fingers softly against her lips, stilling them.  “None of this is your fault.  You can’t control when your baby comes, I just wish I had someone more knowledgeable here to help you.  Father will just have to manage the ceremony without me; it will hardly be a crisis I think.  As for Estel...” Legolas closed his eyes.  He couldn’t think about his missing friend right now.  That was too hard and too painful and he had to keep all his attention on the task at hand.  “Lord Elrond was right, he and his sons do know this area, and Estel, better than I do. If he’s out there, they’ll find him.”  He wished he believed that, but it eased Maraen’s mind a little, so his words served their purpose.
    The girl stilled slightly, but then her eyes grew large and she gripped his hand tightly.  “I-it’s coming!”
    Legolas knelt by her side and laid his hand on the top of her skirt and hesitated, looking questioningly into her eyes for permission.  He was not at all comfortable with this situation, but someone was actually going to have to deliver the baby, and unfortunately the only someone around who wasn’t an orc was him.
    Maraen nodded slightly.  She was hardly more comfortable with the situation, but what couldn’t be helped couldn’t be helped, and she had started to trust Legolas.  At first the strange elf had frightened her, but she had come to like him and respect him quite a bit in the last day or so.
    Gently, Legolas helped her get ready to bring her baby into the world.  It was not a moment too soon because everything was happening rather swiftly now.  Maraen clenched her jaw and kept perfectly silent, no matter how she hurt, because she knew that the slightest sound would bring down a horde of orcs on their heads.  Legolas spoke softly, soothingly to her.  He slid in and out of elvish and the common tongue, but it didn’t matter because she was barely hearing his words, just his gentle tone of voice and the comfort of having him near.
    When the child began to appear, Legolas was relived... but he quickly became concerned, because the baby was not coming out.  He could see the infant’s shoulder and arm, but nothing else.  He had no way of knowing that this was not the way the baby should be coming, but his mind suddenly flashed to the only reference he had, which were stories he had been told about his own birth.  It had been a difficult labor and he had been lodged sideways in the birth canal.  He and his mother had both nearly died, or so he had been told.  A zing of panic shot up Legolas spine.  He didn’t want Maraen and her baby to die like this, just because he didn’t know enough to do anything...
    Praying that he was doing the right thing, Legolas tried to turn the baby so that it was head-first, because that seemed logically the best way for it to be.  It was difficult and he could only hope that he was helping the situation and not making it worse.
    Maraen was scared; she could tell something was wrong.  “Legolas?  Legolas!” she whispered desperately, wanting to know what was happening, why the pain was different now. 
    “It’s all right Maraen,” Legolas lied for her peace of mind.  “The little one’s just a bit twisted, but it’ll be all right.”
    Legolas had no idea how long it took, but just as the sky was beginning to streak with grey, the baby did somehow end up in the right position for delivery and the elf caught the small infant so that it did not have to touch the ground.  He breathed a sigh of relief as the baby spluttered a few times and then let out a soft, low burble.  He bounced it gently, soothing it with soft, elvish words, not wanting the child to cry and give them away. 
    “Maraen,” he whispered softly to the exhausted mother.  “You have a daughter.”
    Maraen laid her head back in weary relief and happiness.  “And she’s all right?” 
    “She’s fine,” Legolas assured, looking down into the tiny face.  “She’s beautiful.  Maraen...” Legolas glanced about, uncertain what to do now, he had the general idea, but did not want to do anything wrong. 
    Fortunately, Maraen did have some idea about follow-up care and was able to tell the elf what to do and how to separate the baby from the umbilical cord.

    Finally the whole thing was actually finished and Legolas pulled his outer vest off, wrapping the tiny child in the soft, warm, fleece-lined leather.  Laying the baby in her mother’s arms, he brushed gentle fingers over the infant’s forehead.  The small babe looked so incredibly tiny and fragile.
    Maraen beamed down at her baby.  “She’s so perfect...  What shall I name her, Legolas?”
    The prince was surprised by the question.  “Surely, that is a question for yourself and your husband to decide.”
    A shadow crossed Maraen’s face and her eyes glistened.  “Erron must be dead, Legolas... he would never have left the baby and I alone otherwise,” she choked out softly.  She loved her husband so terribly much that it was a horrible thought, but one she could no longer deny.
    Legolas laid his hand gently on her shoulder.  “You don’t know he’s dead, Maraen. There are many things that could have happened,” he comforted gently.  It was the same thing he had been telling himself about Aragorn so many times now it was almost painful to try to give that hope to someone else, yet he knew how important it was to cling to hope, no matter how slim. 
    “Perhaps...” Maraen said wearily.  “But even if he is, I know he’d be grateful to you for the care you have taken of a complete stranger.  And... I-I want you to name her.”
    Legolas was slightly staggered by this turn of events.  “You offer me an incredible honor, young one,” he smiled gently down at the girl.  “Very well, if I were to name her, I would call her Estelle.”  He brushed the now sleeping baby’s cheek.  “Estel means hope in the Elven tongue,” he explained.
    “That was the name of your missing friend, was it not?” Maraen said softly, compassion and understanding showing in her tired eyes.
    Legolas nodded once.  “It was... one of his names.  One that fit him very well when he was...” Legolas kept himself from saying, “When he was alive” because he still refused to accept that Aragorn could be dead.  He still clung to that hope.
    Maraen smiled weakly.  “Then I am most honored for my daughter to carry that name.  It’s beautiful, and it seems perfect, just like her...”
    “Rest a little now, Maraen,” Legolas said quietly. “Regain your strength.  We will leave for Rivendell as soon as you are ready.”
    They would not have as long to rest as they would have liked.  Legolas slid out of the grove to check on their unwanted company in the woods, leaving mother and daughter sleeping.  A few minutes later the baby’s cry broke the stillness, loud as only a baby can be, and insistent.
    Legolas turned on his heel and fled back to the enclave where he found Maraen sitting up and rocking the baby hurriedly, her eyes wide as she tried to shush the child’s perfectly normal testing of its new lungs. 
    “I-I’m sorry, I don’t know why she did that...” Maraen shook her head, fear igniting in her eyes. 
    Legolas guessed that the little one was hungry, but there was no time to worry about that now.  “Babies cry, it’s not your fault.  Come, we’ve got to get out of here, there’s no way the orc sentries will have missed hearing that.”
    Maraen struggled weakly to her feet, clutching her baby to her breast.  It was far too soon after delivery for her to be moving and her body protested sharply, but she ignored it because she had no other choice. 
    Legolas saw how pale she was and gave her his arm to lean on.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry but we have to go.”
    The young mother just nodded and the new threesome hurriedly pressed further back into the trees as the sound of crunching footfalls and coarse shouts confirmed their fears: the orcs had indeed heard the cry and come to check it out. 
    Legolas chafed at their slow speed and pressed Maraen as fast as he dared, but he was beginning to fear it would never be enough. 
    They could hear the orcs behind them clearly now and knew they were on their trail.  Giving up stealth for as much speed as they could get, Legolas and Maraen ran through the trees, although Maraen felt sure each step would be her last. 
    Finally she tripped and stumbled, unable to go on.  Legolas halted by her and she pushed her baby into his arms.  “Run Legolas!  Take Estelle, take her away from here!  Don’t let them get her!”
    Never in a million years would Legolas have left a young, vulnerable thing like Maraen to the mercy of the orcs.  Instead, he stooped and scooped both the girl and her baby up into his arms, with one arm under Maraen’s knees and the other supporting her back.  She wrapped her arms around his neck and he moved off as fast as he could with his new burden. 
    It was a good thing that elves were naturally stronger than was normal by human standards, but Legolas was still considerably slowed by his burden. 
    The desperate flight ended minutes later when a dozen orcs that had split off and cut around another way to outflank their prey, burst out of the trees on the left, near at hand. 
    Legolas was forced to relinquish his load, setting Maraen down on her feet and quickly drawing his bow.  The young mother clutched her baby tightly as Legolas’ hand flew in a blur of motion, stringing arrow after arrow until five of their attackers lay dead. 
    Unfortunately, the delay was all the main troop behind them had needed to catch up.  The hideous creatures poured from the trees with shouts of the hunt and Legolas moved to stand squarely between them and Maraen and Estelle, his bow already in motion.  He had sworn to protect the two humans to the death, and he did not make light promises. 
    Drawing his bowstring back again he let the arrow fly as the black horde rushed towards them like the horrendous floodwaters the elf had beheld earlier in the year, easily as frightening as any force of nature they had yet witnessed.
    Legolas picked off as many as he could with rapid, steady shots until they crowded too close for his bow to be very effective and then he drew his knives. 
    The elf prince’s speed was almost inhuman as he spun, whirled, deflected and slashed, trying to be everywhere at once, trying to counter the enemy and at the same time keep them away from Maraen and Estelle. 
    The odds were overwhelmingly against them and Legolas held no illusions.  This was a battle he could not hope to win, there were far too many orcs and with Maraen in tow he could never hope to outrun them.  The cliff wall to their back both helped and hindered their efforts.  It helped, because it at least kept the enemy down to only three fronts they could attack on, but at the same point it was a liability because it left the small trio nowhere to flee, even if they could have.
    Four orcs rushed Legolas at the same time.  He stabbed one, twirling away from another and slashing at the third, but the forth slipped inside the tiring elf’s guard.  Without realizing it, Legolas side-stepped just in time to save his life, but felt a blinding stab of pain shoot through his shoulder before he even had time to register the danger.  The elf had barely a moment to take in the orc, the knife blade buried half-way into the soft flesh of his shoulder, only inches from its intended target, which had been his heart.  He had even less time to react, but somehow he did. 
    Striking out with the swiftness of a serpent, Legolas buried his own blade deep in his assailant’s midsection, kicking the beast back.
    The orc fell away with a cry, ripping his blade free of the prince’s shoulder as he did.
    Legolas couldn’t stifle his own cry of pain as the curved, serrated blade did further damage on its way out, leaving a fast-growing crimson stain spreading across the front of his forest green tunic.  He was not allowed time to deal with the pain or the injury.  
    Grimly, the prince ducked and struck, leaping away from another assailant, but his strength was running short.  It was incredibly painful to move his left arm and the orcs, spurred on by the scent and sight of blood, redoubled their attack.
    A heavy orc body slammed into him and Legolas flipped the creature over his back, but his injured shoulder screamed in pain, slowing his movements.  The fallen orc grabbed the elf’s ankle, wrenching his feet out from under him.  Legolas fell and landed heavily upon his left side, making his head spin dizzily.  Before he could rise the orcs were on him.  One kicked him in the back, another in the chest and shoulder as Legolas tried desperately to roll away from the jabbing, slicing blows of their scimitars.
    Legolas stabbed one of the creatures in the leg and the orc howled, hopping away.  Just as swiftly, another of the beasts kicked the prince’s knife out of his hand, ruthlessly stamping on Legolas’ wrist and hand, forcing him to drop it. 
    The press of the orcs was suffocating and Legolas was slowed by pain and blood loss. 
    Nearby, Legolas heard Maraen scream.  His heart wrenched and he struggled harder against the orcs that were attempting to keep him down, but there were just too many of them and flat on the ground like this he had no room to maneuver.
    A heavy boot landed on the elf’s chest, pinning him to the ground and crushing the air out of his lungs.  Dark spots danced before Legolas’ eyes as he felt the harsh steel of an orcish blade bite the flesh under his chin, pressing down on his neck.  Overhead a loud, blood-curdling shriek filled the air, but Legolas had no time to wonder what it was, indeed, he barely had time for the realization that he was about to die... before the orcs were suddenly stopping... looking up.  In his confused and slightly oxygen-starved state Legolas couldn’t figure out what was going on.
    Whatever the reason, the orcs did not bring their blades down for the deathblow, and Legolas could have sworn that they looked almost frightened.  That was not too much of a wonder actually for at the same moment a dark shadow fell across his own heart and he shivered as if an impenetrable cloud had crossed the sun, turning its rays to frost.
    From his position he could see little, but something did indeed sweep across the sun for a moment, like a great bird coming in for a landing.  Legolas heard a thump as if something had landed close by and the orcs holding him drew back a little in fear.  It was then that Legolas had the first clear look at the approaching evil that would haunt his nightmares for many years to come. 
    A great, evil looking black beast stood about two stone throws away, folding up it’s great, bat-like wings in evidence of the fact that it was what had just landed.  But it was what was sitting atop the beast that was turning every heart in the clearing cold.
    Robed all in black with only the metal tips of his cruelly pointed boots and sharply jointed gloves showing, a figure dismounted from the creature and walked towards them.  It was the first time, although not the last, that Legolas beheld something he had only ever heard of before in tales... a Nazgûl.  One of the Nine most dreaded servants of the Dark Lord Sauron.  Ringwraith.  Witch King.  Master of nightmares and lord of all that was dreadful and twisted.
    The Nazgûl spoke a command in the Black Speech that Legolas did not understand, nor did he wish to for the very sound of the black words hurt his ears. 
    Immediately the orcs pinning him down took him by the arms and dragged Legolas to his feet, holding him roughly between them and intentionally twisting his injured left shoulder, causing their prisoner to wince.
    Now Legolas could see that Maraen also stood captive between a set of orcs, clinging to Estelle and trembling.
    At a nod from its master, the dark beast the Nazgûl had arrived on lifted up into the air and flew away, giving the captives a wicked glare before it did so, as if it would have liked to be allowed to eat them all.  Legolas reflected for a moment how very much he would like to shoot the loathsome creature out of the sky, but that was obviously not possible at the moment... maybe another time.  If he lived through this current situation that was.
    As the ringwraith approached, Legolas pulled against the orcs that held his arms and was rewarded by a swift blow to the head that made sparks dance before his eyes.  His shoulder throbbed unmercifully as he hung forward against the hands that held him. 
    The Nazgûl’s dark gaze swept the area, taking in the frightened, sobbing girl clutching her baby, the bleeding elf warrior with the flashing eyes and the heaps of dead orc bodies that strew the glade.  Obviously the girl and the child were not responsible for any of them, which meant that this one elf had taken on and killed more than two-dozen orcs in hand-to-hand combat, totally unaided.  It was impressive, even for an elf. 
    The Witch King cared little for the lost orcs in a personal sense, they were easily replaceable.  They were tools to use, he felt no responsibility towards them, however, they were tools that had been wasted and resources that were lost because of this elf, and that did not please the wraith at all. 
    The Nazgûl stepped carelessly over the bodies in his path, his black robes swirling around him like dark mists.  Legolas watched his approach with apprehension.  The elf felt a dark fear such as he had never before experienced clutch at his heart.  The being before him was completely evil, more so than anything he had ever crossed in all his many years on Middle-earth.  Indeed, the only way he could have been faced with a greater dread would have been if he were to come face to face with Sauron himself and all his evil malevolency.  However, this was quite as close as Legolas cared to come... a lot closer actually.
    The wraith paused by Maraen and Estelle, stooping slightly and sniffing them.  Maraen turned positively white with fear and the baby shrieked in uncomprehending terror as the young mother clutched at the precious bundle so tightly as to almost risk hurting the child. 
    Legolas tightened.  He was afraid that Maraen was going to pass out, but amazingly she did not.  The young girl was sturdier than she looked.
    It only took a moment for the Nazgûl to know that neither of these humans was of interest to him.  He moved on, stopping in front of Legolas, his empty hood regarding the prince with a blank, dark glare.  Legolas did not shrink from the malevolent gaze, but met it with his own.  Inside his heart hammered roughly in his chest and he felt icy cold, but his will was strong and he had the strength of the Eldar in his blood; he did not back down. 
    It felt as if the wraith were looking for something, as if he was searching every fiber of Legolas’ being.  A call was being issued, but for what purpose the elf prince knew not.  In any case there was no answer and when the dark being was satisfied that the elf did not have what he was seeking he withdrew his will. 
    The elf warrior was strong, but he did not possess the one thing that the wraith’s master coveted above all else.  Yet Sauron knew it was stirring.  He was calling it to himself and he knew it would try to answer.  That was part of the wraith’s mission now, searching, looking... somewhere, somewhere out here the One Ring was trying to return to its maker, and he wanted to find it.  They had been scouring the banks of the Anduin for years now, but Sauron’s eye was beginning to turn its attention to the almost forgotten lands west of the Misty Mountains, yet secrecy was still essential.  The time was not yet right for anyone to know that the shadow was once again re-gathering itself in the darkness of Mordor.
    The Witch King laughed softly, a low, chilling sound.  “You are strong, even for an elf,” he hissed, his dark voice both harshly grating and strangely seductive, unsubstantial like mist, yet as piercing as steel.  “You would be more of an asset to me alive than dead I think, at least for now...” he turned back to his orcs.  “Kill the woman and child.  I have no use for them.”
    Maraen bit her lip in terror as the orcs turned on her, knowing there was no escape.
    “No!” Legolas cried urgently.  Kicking out suddenly, he caught one of his captors in the shins, pushing them back as he twisted sideways, wrenching his arms free and causing no small amount of pain to his injured shoulder.  Ducking one orc he punched his good shoulder into the creature’s gut, flipping it over his back and relieving it of its weapon in one fluid move.
    Jumping away, the elf prince clutched the orc scimitar easily in one hand as he put himself between Maraen and the creatures that intended to kill her.  Dispatching all three of them in under half a minute, Legolas once more found himself battling almost a dozen orcs as the creatures recovered from their initial surprise and rushed to retake the captives. 
    Legolas retreated quickly, keeping Maraen and Estelle behind him, but he knew he had no more chance of escaping with the two humans than he had before.  Alone, yes... but not with the woman and child.  Yet if they all had to die, he would die fighting.
    The orcs pressed the elf back, until the small trio found itself forced up against the face of the cliff at their backs.  There was nowhere to go and no way out.  The orcs paused their attack, circling their prey like a pack of wargs preparing for the kill. 
    The Nazgûl laughed darkly.  “Brave, but ultimately futile.  You’ll never get out of here with them alive.  Now on your own I do believe you just might, but you’re too noble to leave them behind, aren’t you elf?  Such a pitiful weakness for one so strong.  It’s too bad. I would have enjoyed shaping you into something more befitting.”  He shook his head mockingly. 
    Legolas still stood protectively in front of Maraen.  He was breathing hard and agony was shooting through his shoulder; he was nearly spent, but his gaze was firm.  “The only way you’ll ever touch me is if you kill me,” the prince said, his voice low and dangerous. 
    “Unless...” Legolas hesitated.  He glanced back at Maraen’s pale, terrified face.  Estelle was too over-wrought to even cry anymore.  He had sworn his life to protect them and he meant it.  The prince swallowed his own fear and plunged ahead.  “Unless you let them go.  I offer you this trade, dark one, their lives for mine.  What are they to you?  A girl and a mere babe, they can do you no harm.  Let them go free, and I will stay with you, whatever you have in mind.  It is the only way you will ever get me alive if you truly want me.”  Legolas had never made an offer he was more afraid of in his life, but it was the only chance he seemed to have left to try to save Maraen and her baby.
    “Legolas, no!” Maraen protested from behind him.  She would not see the elf prince make such a sacrifice to save her life. 
    “Hush Maraen!” Legolas said quietly.  “Think of your baby.”
    The wraith seemed intrigued by the offer.  “You are in a very poor position to bargain with me, elf, but still... it is an interesting idea.  And do you give your word that you will not run if I do as you ask?  You will submit to whatsoever I choose of you?”
    Legolas took a deep breath.  “So long as it harms no one save myself... then yes.” 
    The Nazgûl knew better than to expect unconditional obedience from the elf, but that didn’t matter.  Once he got his hands on the fair being, that would all change.  “Very well then.  Lay down your weapon.”
    Legolas obeyed slowly.  Immediately several orcs rushed forward and bound his hands, obviously not trusting the elf very much, but the wraith waved them away from Maraen and Estelle.  Striding forward he let his shadow fall upon the young woman, gazing down at her trembling form.  A foul wind stirred around him and Maraen felt as if she had suddenly been plunged into a lake of ice as the black breath washed over her.  Her knees buckled and she swooned senseless to the ground with her baby still in her limp arms. 
    “What have you done to her?!” Legolas demanded both angry and afraid.
    The wraith walked away from the still forms.  “They are not harmed, merely unconscious.  When they wake they will not remember you, elf, nor me, nor anything that has happened these past two sunrises.  Now come... you have promises to keep.”
    Legolas choked back his fears as the orcs moved out, prodding him along with them.  Glancing back over his shoulder to where Maraen lay, the elf prince hoped that no evil would befall them, alone and helpless as they were, and that they would make their way safely to Rivendell, whether they remembered what had happened or not.  At least worrying about them kept him from considering the dark possibilities of what exactly the Nazgûl had in store for him, and he was sure that whatever it was would not be pleasant.