A day had passed, and then another before Milloth and Rainion had returned. And when they had they stayed long enough to trade out horses and speak in private with their father. Then with a kiss to Artis’s forehead they were off again.
As for father, he and she had not spent their customary walks at twilight together. The first night he had missed and Istuion had sought her out, not telling her why but to apologize and say he would be there the following evening. He was not. They had missed twilight’s when he was away or had business, but never before had she been there standing alone. Why does he not tell me. Why does he not tell me anything?
Her chest heaving with a sigh Artis sat up to rest at the edge of her bed, abandoning her book to the nightstand. A cold northern wind batted against the windowpanes, and the harder it blew, the deeper the chill that something was amiss delved into her bones.
Wrapping a soft, woven ivory blanket around her shoulders she rose to her feet and began to pace slowly around her quarters. Stopping in the wide curve of the bay window she cast her eyes down to the main courtyard below. Eery shadows danced away from the torches and through the naked tree branches as the wind poured over the high walls. Only the necessary Eldar guards and troops had remained as the others had been sent to fight both the enemy and fires to the east. She had not seen her father leave . . . but then again she had not seen her father at all.
Her emerald eyes rose to search the horizon and she was about to turn away when she saw it; the faintest orange glimmer amidst the darkness to the south. Her breath faltered as she looked again through the ripples of rain coursing over the glass. That was past the bridge . . . The Eldar were no where near there . . . .
“They won’t get there in time,” she muttered under her breath. But maybe . . . maybe I can make it. Dropping her blanket she paced to the red mahogany armoire and changed out of her nightdress into the trousers, tunic, and leather curiass she kept hidden beneath her skirts. She opened a side cabinet and stopped. Then she remembered that Istuion had taken her bow and short swords several days back. ‘To ensure that you do not follow through with any bad ideas,’ had been his words. Sucking a harsh tisk through her teeth Artis fixed a thick cloak over her shoulders and strode purposefully out of her room.
None of the few servants still out in the halls stopped her or spoke to her, but all of them moved out of her way. Taking the steps two at a time Artis swung open the doors to her father’s study. She did not bother stopping to look around the empty room as her eyes locked on her target that hung against the wall over the cold fireplace. Crossing over the Lorien-woven rug, a victorious smile curled up her lips as her hand easily reached and closed around her father’s ebony bow.
_ _ _ _ _
The wind pierced through the thick wool of her drenched cloak. Almost there. Almost there, she told herself as she whispered to her steed, urging the animal to run faster. The black giants of trees watched her as she flew forward, racing towards the distant glow of fire. She had heard the talk. Goblins. She had seen pictures and heard tales of what they looked like and what they did. Artis told herself it could be worse. It could always be worse.
Cresting the next rise Artis reigned in her mount, the horse reeling around at the abrupt halt and stomping as the inferno came into view. The whole outpost was awash with flame, and the shouts of battle and crash of steel echoed up from the knoll. Turning back she tied her horse to a tree a short ways off then backtracked back to survey the chaos.
Bodies littered the ground and only a small number of human soldiers remained. But what puzzled Artis was the enemy. They were fewer in number than she had feared . . . though she didn’t know what to expect. The problem was that they were too tall to be goblins; too tall and too thick. The enemy crushed in past a line of rangers and the fighting intensified. Overwhelmed, she pulled the ancient bow from her back and notched an arrow when a hand clasped over her mouth.
Artis could have sworn her heart stopped. Her body went rigid as her head was pulled back . . . and then her heart stopped again.
“What in Valinor,” Istion growled as he glared down at her, his dark hair fallen from it’s usual ponytail to hang wet and wind-whipped across his hardened features.
“A-Ada,” she gasped, staring up at him in shock.
“You should not be here,” he said darkly, releasing her as he turned his steel-grey eyes towards the fire and fighting several hundred yards away.
“I –” The words wouldn’t come. I wanted to help. I know I could. You can let me. You can trust me. I am strong enough. “Ada?”
Istuion took the bow from her hands, his care more chilling than the bitter light in his eyes that stabbed down at her. “We are going home.”
“Wha — but the humans,” she insisted, suddenly discovering her heart as it lept back to life, pounding furiously in her chest as she watched him walk away. “You cannot leave them to this!”
“I can, and I will,” he said simply, the words flowing too easily from his mouth. “You will learn, daughter, that humans only bring this,” he said, motioning to the desperate fight below, “no matter how much hope is placed in them.”
Artis followed a few steps and stopped. “They wanted to help. They could have.” She turned to look back as one of the large beasts cut down another Arthedain soldier. So much blood . . . so much death. They didn’t choose this death. “We have to help them!”
“No. We do not. Get your steed. We are going home.”
“Ada! How can you –“
“Enough!” he hissed, whirling around to face her as the main hall of the fort collapsed, crushing the few wounded with tremendous crash and explosion of embers. “You are my daughter, and I said we are going. You will never hold a bow again.”
“Damn it all!” she suddenly shouted, stepping towards him. “What did they ever do to you? Punish me later,” she insisted, desperate. “I will bear whatever consequences that you see fit, but please, Ada! They are dieing!”
Istuion looked back to the outpost where the last three soldiers, Jarrin among them, faced off against twelves of the beasts. “They chose this,” he mutter bitterly as he pivoted to walk away.
Artis stared at him in disbelief. She moved to follow, but her joints felt stiff, her core ached . . . and screamed and thrashed as the rain drove ever harder down to the earth. “No,” she whispered, halting.
“What?” Istuion asked, the Eldar’s fury filling the air around them. Before it would have made her quiver. Before she would have retreated, ashamed and begging for his forgiveness. But not now. If he didn’t tell her why he hated them, that was on his head, not hers.
“I said no,” she responded quietly, her head held high. “You chose this.” Not caring to see the reaction on his face she snatched the black bow from his hands and sprinted away in the dark towards the hissing ruins and screams of fallen men.
She felt numb as she dashed down the far side of the rise, letting gravity pull her ever faster towards the flames and monsters and men. Nock, draw, loose. Nock, draw, loose. The first arrow buried its barbed tip deep in the back of the first beasts head even as the third shot from her string. Artis did not know if it was fear or shock, but she was certain it was not bravery that drew her closer.
Seeing the enemy drop and her sprinting to join them the men suddenly attacked the tall beasts with a renewed energy. Another fallen beast, then another. The soldier to the right was knocked to the ground, but an arrow through the monster’s arm gave the man enough time to cut it down.
Then, a cry from the side drew her attention. One of the enemy stood over Jorrin, a spear through the man’s chest. With a shout Artis rebounded off a charred post to help the man when the wind was knocked out of her. The world spun and as Artis crashed to the ground all her senses rushed back to her. The blood, the fire, the burned flesh crawled into her nose, the screams of the wounded lost in the dark and the roar of a defiant fire poured into her ears. Artis had but seconds, scrambling for a muddy, lost shield before an enemies meteor hammer came crashing down with a resounding crack upon the wood and steel. The shock racked her body, slamming her head against the hard ground, the layer of mud and ash not offering a bit of protection. The shield remained whole.
A roar reached her, not quite human, not quite beast, and as the foul creature brought his arm up to attack her again a bolt of lightning shot through its chest. The white-blue light flashed over her vision again and again. It resounded through the woods around them and as she sat up, the air around her crackled with energy. Looking up she saw Istuion standing over the last of the creatures, a long, sparking dagger sticking up out of the the top of the beasts head. He was magnificent, and terrifying. Was that really her father? She wanted to both run to him and to flee. But there was no going back. It might have been the only thing she was sure of.
One of the soldiers staggered over to her, pulling the shield off of her and offering her a hand up. Seeing the shock and gratitude in his expression she too his hand, rising shakily to her feet. The fire had finally began to die down and a dim, grey light rose in the east. Steam rose and swirled about them as the cold wind continued to blow through the high branches. Retrieving the bow she turned in a slow circle, the growing light revealing the full extent of the human’s losses. Seeing one of the last soldiers kneeling beside the commander Artis joined him. Blood trickled out of the side of Jorrin’s mouth, and he could only manage a sputter as she knelt down to try and help stave the hot flow seeping from his mortal chest wound. She had never seen so much blood.
And then she looked to Istuion, and he looked back at her. As drenched as the least of them, Artis had never seen her father so expressionless. “Ada,” she said weakly, her mouth dry as droplets of water coursed down her face.
His cold eyes saw right through her. There was something in that look. It was angry and betrayed and it cut her to the core. Retrieving a long knife from the neck of one of the creatures he cast a disdainful look at the pitiful remnant of the human outpost. Then his gaze found hers. “Since this is what you want, help them to the human fort the the east. Do not bother coming home till you do.”
No going back. He would think less of me if I did not stand by my decision. I would think less of me. Standing, Artis nodded curtly, not caring that her arms shook and that the cold sent an aching shiver through her body. “So be it.” Was she so wrong? Ada.
Nodding, his cold eyes flicked over her, checking for injury, and she could feel every droplet of water, every bit of mud and blood on her. Then Istuion turned away from her, and disappeared into the shadows of morning.