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In the Deep Places: 10. Understanding
They reached the Nimrodel after dark. The setting sun had cast long shadows over the hills and woods, and the golden haze of the trees faded into deep night as they stood before the eaves of Lothlórien.
Legolas breathed deeply of the cool night air and listened to the endless susurration of the forest. The moonless sky was beset with myriad stars that wheeled and danced overhead, and their song blended with the night-speech of plant and tree. As they neared Lothlórien he felt the burden of grief and pain ease, the aching tension and weariness fade.
Aragorn too seemed more at ease. He appeared to take refuge in the small needs of the Company, and did not speak of their greater burden. Twice he had halted their flight from Moria to tend to the Hobbits. He had seemed to focus on them entirely: bathing their wounds with athelas and joking over the discovery of Frodo’s mithril coat.
But Legolas had not missed the way his strong frame bent with weariness when the others were not looking, or the way his hands shook when they touched Frodo’s garments, and passed within a hair’s breadth of the Ring.
Aragorn was fighting a battle within himself, one that Legolas did not fully understand and one that, for all his promises of friendship, he could not help Aragorn win. He could only stand in mute support at the Man’s side, and he felt the frustration of this helplessness twist within him.
Still, the golden forest seemed to stir some well of memory within Aragorn, and the lines of his face were less severe as he spoke softly of the Elves that lived deep within Lothlórien. Legolas had never traveled farther than the distance from Mirkwood to Imladris, and certainly had not ventured south past Dol Guldur. But he had heard tales of the Lady that dwelt here, and he shared what little he knew, seeking to reassure the Hobbits as they approached the shadowed woods.
Gimli, too, seemed unnerved by the silent expanse. He walked at the rear of the Company with Frodo and had not said much since they left Durin’s Stone. Legolas, looking back at them, had twice caught the glint of eyes that followed in the dark, and he felt a distant gratitude that Gimli stayed protectively with the Ring-bearer. He had not unstrung his bow, but he felt the stress on the thin fracture in its frame, and he had only three arrows left. If ever they came to shelter this night he would have to make more arrows, and replace the bow as well. He felt unbearably weary at the thought.
But for all Legolas’ words and Aragorn’s promises, at least one member of the Company was not reassured. Boromir stopped at the edge of the wood and refused to move for a long moment, staring distrustfully into the dark shadows. “Is there no other way?” he said.
Aragorn glanced at him with thinly disguised impatience. “What other fairer way would you desire?”
Boromir did not look at the Ranger, and when he replied his voice was tight with a thin edge of tension. “A plain road, though it led through a hedge of swords.” He glanced over at Aragorn then, an unfriendly look through slitted eyes. “By strange paths has this Company been led, and so far to evil fortune. Against my will we passed under the shades of Moria, to our loss.” There was a slight intake of breath from Sam, and Legolas started forward. But he stopped at a small gesture from Aragorn, and stood still. All the Company was weary and strained by grief, but Boromir was pushing a dangerous line. Aragorn showed no reaction, but waited for Boromir to finish. Legolas stood motionless beside him, waiting to see what the Ranger would do, but one hand strayed near the knife at his back.
Boromir continued, glancing from Legolas to Aragorn, and gesturing toward the trees. “And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say. But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed.”
Aragorn drew a slow breath, and it was a moment before he spoke in a soft, controlled voice. “Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth. But lore wanes in Gondor, Boromir, if in the city of those who once were wise they now speak evil of Lothlórien. Believe what you will, there is no other way for us – unless you would go back to Moria-gate, or scale the pathless mountains, or swim the Great River all alone.”
Legolas noted the skillful way that Aragorn had avoided Boromir’s challenge over the choice to go through Moria, and his pointed reminder of their current priorities. Boromir seemed to accept this as well, and looked away. “Then lead on,” he said at last. “But it is perilous.”
“Perilous indeed,” said Aragorn. “Fair and perilous; but only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them.” There was a slight pause. A shadow seemed to pass over Aragorn’s face, and Boromir turned back toward him, watching him with narrowed eyes. Legolas tensed. But Aragorn soon shook himself and looked up again. “Follow me!”
As they passed at last into the wood Legolas mused over this exchange. Necessity for action had won over the Men’s continued sniping, and Aragorn was speaking as a leader and captain. It seemed that he at least accepted that the Company needed him as such. But still there was doubt, and Legolas saw the way that Aragorn glanced at Frodo before leading them into the forest, and he remembered Boromir’s strange fixation during the long night in Moria. Truly the Company did bring evil with them, as they had done since setting out from Rivendell. And the strain of Mithrandir’s loss seemed to have brought all their tensions to the surface. Or is it more than that? Legolas thought of the Men’s strange behavior, and, to his shame, his own blind arguments with Gimli. If we continue thus the Company will splinter. And if this be not a contrivance of the Ring’s at least we serve It’s purpose. But how to overcome the tension between Gondor’s son and Gondor’s heir, or between an Elf and a Dwarf . . . that Legolas did not know.
The endless cycle of question and doubt, of wondering what was their own thought and what was the Ring, was exhausting. Legolas was weary, from lack of sleep and little food, but even more from the long dark under stone and Shadow, and aching grief. The temptation to lose himself in reverie as they walked under the gentle wood was nearly overwhelming. Again and again his eyes began to glaze, and he focused with effort on their surroundings.
The trees here were smooth, with silver trunks and rustling golden leaves that seemed to shine even in the dark. The stars were sharp and close above them, and Legolas heard their song like a call from the endless depths of time. The tree-song, too, was soft and deep as it never was in Mirkwood, where the trees were ever alert and wary to the evil in their midst. And as he listened he heard a new voice that ran and fell in silver tones through the dark.
“Here is the Nimrodel!” he said, when at last they reached the deep bank with the swift-running stream. He was aware of Boromir regarding it doubtfully, and Gimli was looking at him from beneath lowered brows. Legolas could all but read the Dwarf’s thought, of another stream in an Elven wood perhaps. He sighed briefly and began to tell them of the songs that Silvan Elves still sang in the north, of Nimrodel’s golden falls. “Follow me,” he said at last, when the others showed no sign of moving. “The water is not deep. Let us wade across. On the further bank we can rest, and the sound of the falling water may bring us sleep and forgetfulness of grief.”
“Or more than that,” Gimli muttered beneath his breath, and Legolas shot him an exasperated look.
“There is no tale of the Nimrodel giving aught save rest and ease to the heart.”
Gimli shrugged, but made no move toward the water. “And I am sure that we would all be well rested if we fell into deep slumber for days, and our hearts would be eased if we lost our memories.”
Boromir looked more on edge than ever at this, but Aragorn had his arms folded and was leaning against a tree, watching them with a distinct air of amusement. Legolas resisted the impulse to roll his eyes. “There is no stream outside of Mirkwood that has such power.”
“That you know of.”
“The Elves of Lórien have no need for protection of that kind.”
“And the Elves of Mirkwood do?”
“We do seem to be plagued with more visitors than trouble this wood.”
“So you have an enchanted river at your doorstep?”
“It is a simple enough precaution.”
Gimli snorted. “Oh yes, if one wishes to render any potential allies unconscious upon arrival!”
This time Legolas did roll his eyes. “Welcome visitors would be ferried across. And any fool ought to have enough sense not to go bathing in it!”
Gimli opened his mouth in rejoinder, but at this point Aragorn stepped forward and raised his hands. He spoke straightforwardly enough, but one corner of his mouth twitched suspiciously. “Enough. Legolas, cross the stream and we will see its effects. I for one am tired and do not wish to spend the rest of the night debating the merits of Mirkwood’s defenses.”
Legolas shot the Man a swift look and caught a definite glint of humor in his eye. He smiled slightly in response and then turned and leaped lightly down into the stream. The swift current flowed easily around his calves, and he felt the cool water through his thin boots and sighed as the pure stream washed away the ache of weariness and loss. Nimrodel’s sweet voice was clear and gentle, seeming to flow from the endless depths of time and memory and running on into song and legend.
The others appeared to feel this as well, and Frodo in particular seemed to delight in the play of water around his knees. Even Boromir and Gimli did not hurry in their crossing, though Gimli did stamp the water from his boots and shake out his leggings with more vigor than was absolutely necessary upon reaching the opposite bank. But he looked sidelong at Legolas as he did so, and Legolas recognized that he was being baited, and only smiled at the Dwarf before turning to lead them on into the wood.
They did not go far along the path, however, before Merry’s rather pointed inquiries about the chances of finding game or perhaps edible shrubbery prompted them to sit and share some of the dwindling supply of food from Sam’s pack. Legolas took his fair share of dried fruit and meat without any prompting from Aragorn, and ate swiftly.
Then he sat back, resting against the solid brace of a smooth tree bole with one leg drawn up toward his chest, and listened to the forest. It was so calm! The trees had not changed their song from the slow gentle rhythm that he had heard as they approached, and the voice of the wood seemed as one with the song of the stars, cool and soothing and remote. Where were the guards? Were this Mirkwood, the Company would have been sighted long ere they approached the wood, and the trees would have whispered of their movements. Aragorn said that the folk here dwelled deep within the forest, but surely they did not leave their borders unprotected?
No, it was more likely that they had been sighted, and even now were under observation. Legolas lifted his eyes to the boughs overhead, casually scanning the shadowed treetops. He did not see anything, but he did not expect to. The trees of Mirkwood would hide their guardians, even from the eyes of another Elf. These strange trees did not seem so responsive to their environment, but perhaps he simply did not understand their song properly. At any rate there was little he could do until the watchers chose to reveal themselves.
Legolas allowed his eyes to glaze slightly, feeling the night whispers wash over him and join the gentle song of Nimrodel. The immediate pain and anger of Mithrandir’s loss was slowly maturing into a deeper ache that pulsed within him. The cool whisper of the trees and stars soothed the burning of his heart, and the hurt seemed to blend into the long gentle grief of the running stream.
“Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel?” he murmured into the lull of the Company’s satiety. “I will sing you a song of the maiden Nimrodel, who bore the same name as the stream beside which she lived long ago. It is a fair song in our woodland tongue; but this is how it runs in the Westron Speech, as some in Rivendell now sing it.”
In a soft voice scarce above the gentle fall of silver water he began, drawing the words up from memory of long quiet evenings in the Hall of Fire, when he had finished his courier duties and had sat at peace and played games of song with Elladan and Elrohir, and later with Estel. The words seemed strange to his tongue, clumsy and rough for their purpose, but they brought the memory of firelight laving gold over smooth woodcarvings, and the flash of his friends’ eyes as they laughed, and the gentle light that played over their dark hair.
The words were of Nimrodel, but he sang in grief for the loss of that peace, for the loss of friendship, and of hope. He sang for Mithrandir.
But from the West has come no word,
And on the Hither Shore
No tidings Elven-folk have heard,
Of Amroth ever more.
It was too much. The pain welled within him and choked his voice, and there was no comfort in song, no, not even in the Song this night. He made excuse to the others, and forced himself to answer their questions, but he paid no heed to what he said. The keening grief cut through his heart, and he turned his face upward, and watched the stars.
Gimli sat at the edge of the path with his back against the soft bank and watched the forest. He was comfortably full, for the first time in days, because with the promise of game nearby Sam had not spared the rations. But he was not at ease. The others leaned back against the trees or bank and ate or talked softly together. He could see the lines of strain and grief in their faces, but their voices were lighter and gentler than they had been on the Dale, and even Boromir seemed to relax as no immediate threat materialized from the shadowed trees. As the last fragments of bread and cheese were consumed and the Company gradually fell quiet he even took out his shield and began to polish it with slow strokes, and that was as close as Boromir ever came to looking completely relaxed.
Gimli shifted uncomfortably to avoid a root that was digging into his back and shot a sharp look into the darkened woods. The trees loomed close about them. There was no underbrush, and the silvered trunks rose straight and smooth as pillars all around. But darkness fell between them, and it was silent. No bird sang, no insect whirred, and there was not even the squeak of a bat or the brush of an owl’s wings to disturb that silence. Gimli’s hearing was not as sharp as a Hobbit’s or an Elf’s, perhaps, but it was still better than that of many Men, and his night vision had been honed by years experience in dim caverns and half-lit mines where air was scarce and could not be wasted in the feeding of torches. But though he strained his senses to their utmost there was nothing to be seen in the forest depths, and he heard nothing save the endless murmur of the nearby brook.
He felt strangely lost in that emptiness. The forest’s silent depths unnerved him, and he felt as though he were suspended over some great abyss, horribly exposed and helpless to prevent the inevitable fall. There was nothing to catch him, nothing to hold on to. Khazad-dûm was lost. Gandalf had fallen, and Gimli had abandoned him there. He had looked into Durin’s mirror, and there had been only the endless fall of stars. Time itself seemed suspended here, and even the ground was soft and yielding. He wished for just one rock, one solid stone against which he could brace himself and get his bearings. But there was nothing. There was only the silence and the dark, and the endless fall of water.
The voice of the stream seemed to grow louder even as he listened, and there were words to it. Then he realized that the music was not in the brook alone. Legolas was singing. The Elf’s voice was soft, scarcely to be heard apart from the falling water. It blended with and seemed to compliment the stream, and Gimli found himself drawn somehow to the gentle song.
The words were of an ancient Elf legend, hardly anything with which a Dwarf might identify, and yet he sensed that Legolas’ intention was more than that. He sang of loss, and grief, and the depth of pain in his clear voice touched a well of sorrow in Gimli’s own heart.
Gandalf was dead. He was gone, and would never again appear unexpectedly in the inns and back-alley bars of the exile to lead Dwarves on unexpected adventures. He would never again come to the Lonely Mountain with a cartload of fireworks for Durin’s Day. Glóin would never have the chance to claim a rematch in his efforts to defeat the wizard at blowing smoke rings.
Gandalf was gone, lost in the abyss of Moria, and Gimli had left him there. He had abandoned Gandalf when the wizard had needed him most. His kin had fought and died for their home, and Gimli had done nothing. Gandalf had fought back Durin’s Bane, and Gimli had done nothing. Khazad-dûm was laid waste, Moria a tomb, and everything, everything was lost. What hope had they now? Without Gandalf, what chance had they? A rag-tag band of travelers, and a Hobbit with the One Ring – it was laughable. His lips drew back, baring his teeth in a feral grin, and a ragged laugh choked his throat.
But the song continued. Legolas’ clear voice rose and fell, his gentle tenor rich with a pure sorrow that carried no hint of blame, or guilt, bitterness or anger. There was only pain – sharp and honest without the confusion of mortal emotion. Gimli felt himself falling into that clear song, the ache of his own heart matched and mirrored in that grief, and slowly the weight of guilt eased. Then the song faltered, and Legolas fell silent, and there was only the endless fall of water. Gimli blinked and looked around. His face was wet.
“I cannot sing any more,” Legolas whispered after a moment. “That is but a part, for I have forgotten much. It is long and sad, for it tells how sorrow came upon Lothlórien, Lórien of the Blossom, when the Dwarves awakened evil in the mountains.”
Gimli shuddered at that, for it was very like what he had been thinking himself. “But the Dwarves did not make the evil.” He heard the words, spoken in his voice, desperately wishing them to be true, but not daring to believe it. He wanted Legolas to argue with him, so that he could fight back with ringing invective, so that he could drown out these plaguing doubts with certainty: for if the Elf said it, it must be false.
But Legolas only looked at him, and his eyes were full and dark with sorrow, and Gimli felt his own grief magnified and reflected in them. “I said not so,” the Elf whispered sadly, “yet evil came.” He continued, telling more of the story behind the words of his song, but Gimli did not hear.
His mind was reeling. Evil came. They could fight it, or cower before it, or ignore it, and it would come nonetheless. For the first time he thought of the dark tower just a few leagues to the north, and the long Shadow in Mirkwood. Evil had come there, and had grown, despite the efforts of the Elves. How long had they fought against it? How many had died? He thought of how Legolas had climbed the pillar of the Dwarrowdelf, just to be a little closer to the light. What would it take to make such a playful creature into the silent and deadly warrior that habitually walked with the Company?
And if the Elves suffered from evil they did not make, then did not the Dwarves do the same? Had they not been hounded and driven by a terror they could not face, and an evil they did not deserve? Gandalf had fallen in Moria, but had he not also faced a threat nearly as great in Dol Guldur? Gimli had heard rumor of such a thing, though the wizard never gave straight answers if asked. And the Dwarves had lost their homes, but so too the Elves were being driven from Middle Earth. Fading, they said, as if their time were somehow measured and cut short, these immortals. His father had spoken of them with scorn, the Elves from Rivendell who seemed secure and safe, and yet more fled to the Havens every day. The Wood-elves at least stayed, and fought, but how long could they continue? Against the growing evil, how long could they last? If the Fellowship failed, if Frodo did not succeed, they too would surely fall to darkness. They had perhaps another hundred years, maybe two, and what was that to an Elf?
Madness. This is madness. Gimli shook himself. He was empathizing with an Elf. Moreover, he was empathizing with the spoiled Elf-prince who had tormented him throughout their journey, who had insulted his kin and his heritage, and whose father had imprisoned his own father and had jeopardized the mission to reclaim the Lonely Mountain.
And yet the strange sense of understanding did not leave him. Perhaps it was the song, perhaps it was this too-silent and disorienting forest, perhaps it was the loss and grief that they all shared. Legolas finished his tale, saying, “the people of the woods did not delve in the ground like Dwarves, nor build strong places of stone before the Shadow came.”
There was a long silence. Legolas had tilted his head back, and was staring up at the stars. Gimli swallowed. He wanted, somehow, to convey his understanding, this sense of connection, before the Elf did something foolish and spoiled it. Finally he said quietly, hearing his own voice strange in his ears, “And even in these latter days dwelling in the trees might be thought safer than sitting on the ground.” The others turned to look at him in surprise, and he felt himself flush red. Madness. Truly I am mad. But Legolas looked at him a long moment in shock, and then nodded, and Gimli saw a glint of returned understanding in his eyes.
“Your words bring good counsel, Gimli,” Aragorn said, when he had recovered his voice. “We cannot build a house, but tonight we will do as the Galadhrim and seek refuge in the tree-tops, if we can. We have sat here beside the road already longer than was wise.”
Gimli suppressed a groan. Spending the night in the tree-tops! Clearly he was not the only member of the Company who was mad. Perhaps Legolas had done something to infect them all, with his song? “I was speaking in the abstract,” he muttered, as he pushed to his feet and prepared to leave. He spoke too quietly for the others to hear, he thought, but Legolas shot him a swift look, and he saw the hint of a smile play at the corners of the Elf’s lips.
Legolas led the way between the silvered trees and deeper into the forest. He could hear the heavy tread of the others behind him, and the rustle and crunch of the grasses beneath their feet. And yet the forest seemed somehow untouched, removed from the mortals that ventured into its depths. The silence and the sense of peace grew stronger as they ventured farther from the Nimrodel. The trees grew greater, vast grey trunks that stretched up to catch the stars. Legolas could feel their roots running deep beneath him, drawing up the eternal pulse of Arda. The branches swayed far above him, remote and free from the cares and grief of the earth. He reached out to touch the smooth bark as he passed, trailing sensitive fingertips over the texture of the wood. Life beat deep within the great boles, and he felt the long slow pulse of the ages, held in endless memory there.
He had never sensed anything like this before: it was as if time itself were powerless here. There was only memory, far stronger and more real than the fleeting troubles of a single Age. He longed to climb into these trees, to learn their song and dance in their branches, and to forget the pain of the mortal earth.
“I will climb up,” he said when at last they reached a small clearing in the midst of a cluster of the great trees. He tried to keep the eagerness from his voice, and spoke only of the mellyrn as they were called in song, for it was clear that the others were still uncomfortable. Boromir had stored his shield at his back, and was fidgeting with his Horn.
Pippin, however, put the others’ thoughts into words as he stood with hands on his hips, tilting back his head to stare up at the massive trunks. “They will be marvelous trees indeed,” he said, “if they can offer any rest at night, except to birds. I cannot sleep in a perch!”
You can’t? Legolas thought the words in a flash, and felt a sudden impulse to laugh, or scream, or cry. He was pushed beyond all exhaustion, and simply lacked the energy to do any of those things. He was tired, and here, in these profoundly Elvish woods, he felt little patience for mortal limitations.
“Then dig a hole in the ground,” he answered carelessly, “if that is more after the fashion of your kind. But you must dig swift and deep, if you wish to hide from Orcs.” Then he leaped easily up, and caught a branch high above his head. But even as he swung up a commanding voice called sharply from above, “Daro!”
Legolas dropped lightly down again and froze, pressing his back against the tree. He stared up into the branches and caught the glint of starlight on a drawn arrowhead. It was not aimed at himself, he saw, but at Aragorn. The Ranger stood closest to him, and had his hood over his face. “Stand still!” Legolas hissed. “Do not move or speak!” There was no knowing what the Elves in these strange woods would think of mortals in their midst, and with his hood up Aragorn looked every bit the scruffy and disreputable ranger.
The others were ranged about the clearing, looking nervously from Legolas to the branches overhead. He was dimly relieved to see that Gimli was some distance apart from them, hidden in the shadowed overhang where a tree’s giant roots had pulled up from the ground. It was unlikely that the border guard had seen him.
There came the sound of soft clear laughter, and one of the guards lowered his bow. His hair gleamed in the starlight as he stepped forward along his high branch. “Are you herding múmakil into Lothlórien, brother? They breathe so loud that we could have shot them in the dark.”
Legolas returned his smile, mindful of Aragorn at his side. The Man spoke Sindarin as well as any Elf, and even if he could not make out the captain’s words, Legolas was well within the Ranger’s reach. So he matched the guard’s humor with politeness. “I bring guests to the fair wood, my lord. We are weary, and would beg shelter for the night.”
There was a slight stir, and the last arrow was lowered as two more guards stepped into sight. But the captain’s tone grew stern. “It seems to us that you entered and sought shelter ere you stopped to ask permission.”
Legolas lifted his chin. This was a game he had played countless times before, in his father’s court or negotiations with the Laketown men. He was tired, but not so weary that he would lose this battle to a guard of the border patrol. “I beg pardon. I did not know your custom. In the future I shall certainly go and seek the border guard myself, rather than waiting for it to find me. I should not wish to inconvenience you.”
One of the other warriors stifled a laugh, and the captain shot him an annoyed glance. But his voice held a note of amusement when he replied. “We heard your voice in song by the Nimrodel. You are one of Thranduil’s people, are you not? Long has it been since our kin to the north visited this land.”
We might say the same, Legolas thought briefly, and there’s been little aid from our southern brethren, though the dark tower is near as close to your borders as it is to ours. But he said only, “We have long held memory of fair Lothlórien in song. It is an honor to walk in her wood at last.”
“But you do not walk alone. There is the Perian with you.”
Legolas froze for a long moment, and regarded the captain carefully. He returned the look, blue eyes frank and appraising in the starlight. His golden hair was tied back in archer’s braids to fall over his shoulders. Legolas was suddenly struck by the realization of how long it had been since he had spoken with another Elf. Only a few months that he had traveled with the mortals, and yet it seemed an age. He met the captain’s eyes, and the other did not look away. Rather that clear gaze held him, and sought to look within him, and Legolas felt the older Elf’s tone, deep and strong and resonant with the endless unchanging forest about them.
Finally he replied cautiously, “There are many who walk with me.”
“But the Perianrim are of special concern, we are told. One, at least, plays a great part in the Song of late. Bring him up: we will speak with him.”
Legolas smiled briefly. “How shall I bring him? Can you catch him, if I throw him up to you? Or shall I wear him tied about my shoulders as I climb?”
One of the other Elves laughed. “No need. We will manage for him.”
A silvery rope ladder came falling gently down from the upper branches to rest against the great tree trunk. Legolas gave a brief summary of the conversation to the others, and asked them to wait at the tree base. They seemed more than ready to agree: Merry and Pippin were regarding the ladder with deep suspicion, Gimli had not moved from beneath the raised tree roots, and Boromir was looking more on edge than ever as he listened to the Elvish voices in the dark. Aragorn had pulled back his hood, but did not look the least interested in taking over negotiations from Legolas. So it was only a few moments later that Legolas ran easily up the ladder, followed more slowly by Frodo and a strongly disapproving Sam.
Legolas could hear the Hobbit muttering as he climbed: “Don’t see why we have to come up there. They could just as easily come down. Isn’t no place for a civilized conversation, up a tree I mean, it isn’t right nor natural.” Frodo made no response: he was climbing slowly and steadily, and seemed to focus entirely on grasping each rung tightly as the rope swung beneath his weight. He did not look down.
But Legolas took pleasure in the climb, scarcely touching the light rope as he went higher and higher into the starlit branches. In far too short a time it was over, and he stepped out onto a large wooden talan that stretched between the mallorn’s branches.
The guard captain was waiting for him. “Mae govannen, kinsman. I am Haldir of Lórien. These are my brothers, Rúmil and Orophin.” He indicated the two other Elves beside him. All three were shrouded in identical grey cloaks that seemed to fade against the shadowed leaves.
Legolas bowed slightly to them each in turn. “I thank you for your kindness. I am Legolas of Lasgalen.”
Haldir stiffened. “Legolas Thranduilion? Forgive me, my lord, I did not realize.”
Legolas started to object, but Rúmil interrupted. “Our courtesy is lacking. Please, my lord Legolas, sit down and refresh yourself.”
Legolas closed his eyes. Oh, please, not now. He had no energy for this. The Silvan Elves were notoriously formal about royalty – one of the reasons, he suspected, that the lord and lady of Lothlórien had not claimed titles. Oropher had found it useful in banding together the disparate groups of Wood-elves, and the tradition had continued in Thranduil’s family, but few outside of Mirkwood used it. Yet it appeared that Celeborn’s people kept the Silvan tradition, when given the opportunity to exercise it. Elven negotiations could go on for days under the best of circumstances – throw courtly protocol into the mix, and there was no telling when they would get done.
But he opened his eyes and managed to say politely after a moment, “Thank you. I am weary, and it is good to sit and rest in the forest again.” He folded his legs under him and sat easily at the edge of the talan. After a moment’s hesitation the others joined him. Orophin offered him wine from a travel flask and seemed ready to break out a full kitchen to cook him supper. Legolas managed to dissuade him from this at last, saying, “It is a courtesy that will be better appreciated by my friends, the Hobbits, when they arrive.”
“Hobbits?” asked Haldir. “I have not heard the word before.”
“Periannath. Halflings, the Men call them, but they have chosen their own name removed from Elvish speech, and should be honored with it.”
“And they shall be.” Haldir promised. Legolas was faintly aware of Rúmil repeating the strange word to himself, trying it in various pronunciations. He spoke little of the Common Tongue. Orophin, however, was clearly ill at ease, and kept shooting nervous glances at the wine flask, then the small bit of lembas that Legolas had accepted in lieu of a full dinner. Legolas cast about for some distraction before the Elf apologized again for the quality of the wine, or begged leave to prepare just one small delicacy to tempt his appetite.
“I was not aware,” he said quickly as Orophin opened his mouth, “that our southern kinsmen were in the habit of carrying mortal ladders with them. Or is your skill at weaving so great, that you created it ready in an instant?” Orophin shut his mouth in surprise, but Haldir caught the teasing note to the question and smiled.
“It proves useful on occasion, when there is baggage to carry up, as you discovered. We rarely travel on the ground, but some items do not transport well in the upper branches. But I hear that you live in a cave now, and would not be familiar with the practical considerations of life among the Galadhrim.”
Legolas stiffened slightly. It was a joke, of course, but there was a blade still in Haldir’s words, and he touched upon a sensitive subject. “We must all do as necessity dictates, in this time under the Shadow. The Elves of Mirkwood have a place of refuge. But most live in flets similar to this, though the trees are not so great. No doubt in such a mallorn as this the talan is security enough for you.”
Haldir met his gaze with faintly narrowed eyes, and spoke softly in a voice of veiled warning. “We are safe enough. Orcs do not venture into Lothlórien.”
Legolas met his gaze. “No,” he said just as softly. “I suppose they do not.” The promise of what was unsaid: the weight of hidden power and history, stretched long between them. Then Legolas relaxed, and let the challenge pass. “Truly I have never seen the like of these mellyrn. They are beautiful.”
Haldir sat back, and the tension eased. “Yes,” he said quietly, and his voice was deep with love for the great trees. “Yes they are.”
There came a slight scuffling noise then, and Frodo climbed up into the talan and then helped Sam up behind him. Haldir laughed and rose to his feet. “And here comes your baggage now! Mae govannen, my lord Hobbits.”
The others rose also, and Orophin uncovered a small lantern and regarded Frodo and Sam with frank curiosity in its light. Legolas took the opportunity to push the wineskin into the shadowed corner of the talan with the side of his foot. In truth the drink was of rather poor quality. He wondered briefly if some trade might not be arranged between Lasgalen and Lothlórien, for though their wine was inferior the lembas was truly remarkable. As a waybread it would sustain a patrol for months, and it seemed to ease the heart and spirit as well. It would surely be a great aid to the companies that served long months under the Shadow near Dol Guldur. The patrol’s weapons, too, seemed to be of high quality. Legolas tucked these thoughts aside for later consideration and focused on the immediate proceedings.
Frodo had returned Haldir’s greeting hesitantly, his accent a startling contrast to the march-warden’s easy Silvan cadence. Haldir switched to the Common Tongue, speaking slowly and carefully, with apology for his inexperience. “We seldom use any tongue but our own,” he said, “for we dwell now in the heart of the forest, and do not willingly have dealings with any other folk.”
Indeed not, Legolas thought, and wondered what secret lay hidden in the Elf’s careful words. Haldir claimed to have gone abroad for the gathering of news, but Legolas had never seen him, nor heard of anyone receiving guests of the folk of Lothlórien, save for the infrequent meetings of the White Council. Arwen was of that people, and had dwelt there from time to time, but she traveled with a guard from Rivendell. When had Haldir last ventured forth? Before the end of the Watchful Peace? Before Legolas had been born, perhaps. Time held little power here, and it would take many long years for an Elf to forget language. And yet even in his halting Westron speech Haldir spoke in layers of meaning, and Legolas felt the power that dwelt in these woods.
But Haldir’s next words called Legolas back to give full attention to the conversation. “You do not look evil,” he was saying. “And since you come with an Elf of our kindred, we are willing to befriend you, as Elrond asked; though it is not our custom to lead strangers through our land.” And here is another piece to the puzzle, Legolas thought, watching him with narrowed eyes. So Elrond had asked them to give safe passage to the Fellowship. Haldir had not let slip that bit of information carelessly. The more he watched this Elf, the more certain Legolas was that Haldir had never done anything careless in his life. No, it was deliberate. But no representative of Lothlórien had been present at the Council of Elrond. And none could travel so swiftly to Imladris and back again, now that the mountain passes were closed.
There was some connection between Lórien and Rivendell, some communication that Mirkwood did not share. And, he thought, remembering the gentle peace that pervaded the hidden valley, even as it did these woods, there was power in them both that Mirkwood did not have. He thought that perhaps he could put a name to that power, and find the connection between Lord Elrond and the Lady. And he thought too of the Noldor that passed on to the Grey Havens from Imladris, more leaving every day. Was this why the Elves of Rivendell were so certain that their time was over, that they must leave Middle-earth? What will happen to that valley, to these woods if Frodo fails? And if it was the Rings, if the very havens of Elvendom in Middle Earth were so tied to the One Ring . . . what will happen if Frodo succeeds?
All this flashed through his mind in an instant, and then Haldir was continuing smoothly, “But you must stay here tonight. How many are you?”
Legolas took a slight breath. This was the inevitable question, and the one that he had been dreading. “Eight,” he said calmly. “Myself, four Hobbits; and two Men, one of whom, Aragorn, is an Elf-friend of the folk of Westernesse.” He paused to let this register, and Haldir raised his eyebrows.
“The name of Aragorn son of Arathorn is known in Lórien,” he said, “and he has the favour of the Lady.” He made no apology for having aimed an arrow at the head of the Elf-friend, and Legolas did not ask for one. He himself had been tempted to do the same in the past.
“All then is well,” Haldir said. “But you have yet spoken only of seven.”
Legolas found that he had unconsciously risen up on the balls of his feet, as if preparing for an attack. He forced himself to speak casually. “The eighth is a Dwarf,” he said.
“A Dwarf!” Haldir turned completely away from Frodo and stared at Legolas in shock. Both Rúmil and Orophin tensed. It took a moment for Haldir to recover enough to continue in the Common Speech. “That is not well,” he said stiffly, and Legolas had the distinct impression that he was wishing for the words to amplify this point. Perhaps Boromir could assist him, Legolas thought with some amusement. The Man had certainly proven himself adept at swearing in all forms of mortal tongues, from his native Gondorian to Rohirric to even a few words in the speech of the Wild Men. Legolas had learned more from listening to Boromir with a stubbed toe than he ever had from all his study in Mirkwood’s library.
But Haldir was frustrated in his wish, and only said, “We have not had dealings with the Dwarves since the Dark Days. They are not permitted in our land. I cannot allow him to pass.”
“But he is from the Lonely Mountain!” exclaimed a small voice, and they turned to see Frodo, standing quite forgotten in the middle of the talan. He faltered a bit under Haldir’s sharp gaze, but continued with determination. “One of Dain’s trusty people, and friendly to Elrond. Elrond himself chose him to be one of our companions, and he has been brave and faithful.”
Haldir regarded the Hobbit for a long moment, but Frodo lifted his chin and met his gaze, and Legolas smiled at the sight. Then Haldir bowed and said carefully, “Your pardon, Master Baggins.” And with that he turned back to Legolas and lapsed into rapid Sindarin.
“Is this true? Elrond chose one of the Naugrim to travel with you?”
“Yes,” Legolas answered. “He represents his kind in the Quest, of which you have had word.” And do not ask me to explain that logic. As if we had not enough trials on this journey.
“I suppose Lord Elrond had his reasons,” said Rúmil thoughtfully.
“Lord Elrond did not have to travel with him,” said Orophin, and Legolas was inclined to agree.
But he said only, “The Dwarf is a burden at times, yes. But Frodo Elf-friend spoke truly. He has been faithful on the Quest. He is brave, and a skilled warrior. There is no reason to deny him entrance.”
Haldir looked at him closely. “And would you grant passage to him through Mirkwood, my lord? Would you guide him through the hidden passages of your king’s chambers, and trust your secrets to him?”
Legolas met his gaze, and wondered again at this reference to secrets. But he thought of the light in Gimli’s eyes when he had fought the Orcs in Balin’s Tomb, and of the wracking grief that had taken him afterward. He thought of a Dwarf standing in the darkened passage of a cave and trying to hear Song in the stone, because an Elf suggested that it was possible. And he said quietly, “I would trust him with my life. I could not have survived Moria without him, and I owe him a debt that I cannot repay.” And he hoped that word of this admission would never make it back to the Dwarf.
Haldir studied him intently. Then he said slowly, “The word of a prince and a kinsman cannot be dismissed lightly. But you speak of something that has never been. No Dwarf may see the pillars of Caras Galadhon.”
“Then bind his eyes,” Legolas said impatiently. “But speak no more of this folly. The Fellowship must go on, and I will not leave him behind.”
Haldir exchanged glances with his brothers, then stepped back and sighed. He turned toward Frodo and spoke again in Westron, as if to signal his reluctance to debate any further. “Very good. We will do this, though it is against our liking. If Aragorn and Legolas will guard him, and answer for him, he shall pass; but he must go blindfold through Lothlórien.”
Legolas suppressed a sigh of relief at this. They had accepted his argument, and soon, he hoped, the Company would be able to settle for the night, and rest. He scarcely heard Haldir’s talk of the dangers that skirted the forest border – Orcs and wolves in recent days. But it was certain at least that the Fellowship could not stay on the ground any longer. Legolas thought longingly of the gentle curve of a living branch, and the luring melody of the forest song. But Haldir’s last words brought him up short.
“The four Hobbits shall climb up here and stay with us – we do not fear them! There is another talan in the next tree. There the others must take refuge. You, Legolas, must answer to us for them. Call us, if anything is amiss! And have an eye on that Dwarf!”
Have an eye on that Dwarf, Legolas repeated to himself in disgust as he started back down the ladder to the others. Oh yes, with the Hobbits on one flet with Haldir, he would be alone with the Men and the Dwarf on the other. And he dared not seem lax in his guard duties, if he was to keep Haldir from reconsidering their agreement. It was going to be a very long night.
Perian: a Hobbit
Perianrim: a group of Hobbits
Periannath: Hobbits in general
Next up: Chapter 11. Gimli climbs a tree.
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