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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 13. Perplexities
And while the hobbits slept in Wellinghall, the long hours of the night passed with excruciating slowness for Fangorn's border-land guests. Gimli's eyelids felt like leaden weights, and although it was a struggle to keep them open, fear provided ample inspiration. And when, at intervals, fear failed, the Dwarf would press thumb and forefinger against his eyes until the burning ceased ere he opened them again.
But naught more out of the ordinary occurred, and the birds were now singing sweetly as Gimli blearily watched the first rays of the sun come streaming through the canopy.
If I had a stone, I would throw it to silence these mocking-birds, he thought, casting an uncharitable look at the treetops. Beside him, Aragorn stirred, raising his dark head, and the Dwarf considered the Ranger for a few moments. All through the night, while Gimli squirmed and shifted, Isildur's Heir had sat quite still with his knees drawn up to his chest against the cold, and his arms clasped around them as he watched the darkness. Towards the early hours of the morning, he had bowed his head, and Gimli had thought his friend had succumbed to his weariness at last. That, too, had been cause for the Dwarf to fight to remain awake, for he had not the heart to disturb the other if Aragorn had managed to snatch a few hours' sleep.
Now, though, the Dwarf had his doubts whether he had, for though the Ranger seemed alert enough, his was not the attention of one who has rested soundly. There was determination in the other's eagle-keen glance, but also a certain grim quiescence, as of one who, emerging from long meditation upon some imminent doom, now faces it with the knowledge that there is naught to be done but endure with dignity. After a few moments' silent contemplation of the newborn day, Aragorn turned to Gimli, and the weight of the Ranger's stare was palpable. The other's eyes seemed darkened somehow—as seas beneath a stormy sky, lacking their usual quicksilver glitter, and Gimli shivered, taken aback.
Aragorn saw his reaction, and a slight smile curved his lips ere he released the Dwarf, saying, "Come, my friend, let us finish this business of ours!"
With a grunt of agreement, Gimli hoisted himself to his feet, wincing slightly as blood rushed to numbed, tingling extremities, and he watched with something akin to envy as the Ranger rose smoothly, apparently none the worse for having sat still as a statue all night upon the cold ground.
"Where shall we begin, though?" the Dwarf asked, grateful that the other took the lead naturally so that Aragorn would not see him limping along as circulation returned to his legs. The Ranger strode to the edge of their clearing, which ended in a short drop to the battlefield, and stood there, gazing down over the ruin. "Upon the death grounds?"
"No, for there will be little to read there, unless Éomer is less thorough than he seems," Aragorn replied. "And I think it will be of little use to search the area round here, for see!" The Ranger pushed aside some brush to expose a swath of scored earth. "Whatever hoard of creatures passed us in the night, they have trampled the ground, destroying any marks the hobbits might have left. Or rather," and now Aragorn stooped to run his hand over the earth, scooping up a fistful of loose soil, broken roots, and one wriggling worm, "rubbed away…." He let the topsoil slip through his fingers 'til naught but the worm, the roots, and a few very small pebbles remained, and then he tilted his hand to let them slide off and fall back to their native element.
"Overturned," Gimli corrected, "I would say that an odd sort of plow or shovel had been used to turn the earth, but that the spacing and shallowness do not merit such a conclusion. But trust a Dwarf in matters of excavation: something has dug into the ground and torn up what lay beneath."
"It has indeed," the Ranger murmured, frowning as he considered the marks. Rising, he began to describe a circuit about the edge of the clearing, pausing here and there to examine some mark or other which, to the Dwarf's eyes, seemed all rather similar in nature. Eventually, though, Aragorn hefted a stone rather than a bit of dirt or a few pebbles.
"What think you of this, Gimli?" he called over his shoulder. Coming to stand at the other's side, the Dwarf sucked in a breath and stared at this latest find in bafflement.
"I have worked for many years as an apprentice to my father, who has much skill with gemstones, but also with decorative masonry," Gimli said slowly, reaching out to take the rock from the Man, and he turned it in his hands, scrutinizing it carefully. "But this… never have a I see such a thing before!"
For the stone had runnels on its surface, almost as if chiseled. But the marks were not smooth enough or straight enough for craft, and as Gimli ran a finger along the inside of one of the grooves, he felt the minute, rough-broken edges, and a fine, powdery dust coated his fingertip. "I should say that the rock simply… crumbled... disintegrated, almost, as if exposed to some grinding surface. But that is impossible!"
"Even had mining been my trade, I should bow to your judgment in such matters," Aragorn replied, shaking his head. "But as a hunter, I, too, am at a loss, for I have never before seen such marks. It is unusual for prey to grind away the stone as it goes in any case, but even so, those that have the weight to do such damage have not the… art, I suppose I shall call it, to achieve this." The Ranger stood and stood silent for a moment as he made what survey he could through the underbrush.
"Well," he said at last, "we shall find nothing here, for these marks have covered or buried any that the hobbits might have left. Let us make a survey of the river banks, for that is the likeliest destination of two escaped prisoners."
Man and Dwarf crept then through the tangle of trees and brush, and the mystery of the stones and earth trailed after them, occupying their anxious thoughts. But Fangorn merited close attention if one would go unmolested and unscathed through its trees, and as they wormed through the gnarled trees. And though Gimli wished his friend no ill, he admitted a certain private satisfaction over the fact that Aragorn had always to duck to avoid branches and the like, whereas he, a Dwarf with little love for forests, was easily able to pick his way forward.
Well, not easily, perhaps, Gimli amended, grimacing as he tripped among the roots of a tree and cut his hand on a thorny bush as he tried to steady himself. But I need not crawl to fit through some of these spaces!
But in fact, Aragorn seemed little troubled by the terrain, facing each obstacle with practiced equanimity so that he, at least, acquired no new scrapes or bruises in spite of the clinging plant life. At last, though, the stream appeared before them, and the Ranger halted, glancing up and down the river bank to get his bearings.
"This way," he beckoned, turning to his left to follow the river downstream.
"Why this way, and not the other?"
"Assuming that either Merry or Pippin remember aught of our planning in Imladris, they would know that if they followed the flow of the stream, they would come within sight of Edoras. The Rohirrim have few permanent settlements—all of them are well-fortified and strangers rarely know of them, for they do not put them on maps. Helm's Deep, the stations of the Marshals of the Mark, and Edoras are the only towns that are well known to outsiders, and none of them, save Edoras, lie near enough to the Entwash to be seen from its banks."
"Sound reasoning if one knows so much about Rohan, but I doubt me that the hobbits would recall such details. I rarely saw any of them, save Frodo, spend any length of time in the library at Rivendell."
"True enough, but nothing stops us from searching upstream as well. This is but a place to begin. Carefully!" Aragorn warned, quickly reaching back to steady the Dwarf as the latter slipped on the damp roots of a large, twisted tree.
"Thank you," Gimli said, once he had regained his footing, and he cast a glower at the offending tree. "Well, lead on then! 'Twill be a long search," the Dwarf sighed. A long search, and I hope not a hopeless one! To bear such ill news back with us would be torment indeed...
And as Aragorn and Gimli searched the riverbanks, their companion, now their ransom, swayed along over the plain, clinging to the pommel of the saddle that separated him from his mount, Arod. Darkness heaved and swelled in the field of Legolas's vision, darkening the land, distorting it in a dizzying, sickening flow that was a mockery of the graceful movement of water through a streambed—
"Steadily, Master Elf! I should not wish to answer for you to your friends." Legolas blinked and fastened his eyes on the golden apparition of the Third Marshal of the Riddermark. Beneath a bright morning sky, Éomer frowned at him uncertainly, and though the Elf knew full well that it was simple concern for a guest's safety that prompted that regard, still, he felt it as a measure of his own strangeness.
How must I seem to him? Even as mortals once appeared to me: sickly, weak… damaged. And is that not the truth? Legolas made an effort to sit up straight in the saddle, to focus thoughts stretched out and scattered along the tides of darkness and too many mortal years, conscious still of his dignity before the eyes of a Man at least, but only just. As if to drive the point home, the Marshal kneed his horse closer, so that they rode side by side, and leaned in toward the Prince.
"Should we halt for a time?" he asked in an undertone, which only cut more deeply into the Elf's wounded sense of self.
"No, for you have need of haste," Legolas replied in a low voice, and did not add, For it would humiliate me if you stopped on my behalf!
But the Horse Marshal seemed to hear his thoughts, for a quick flare of uneasy understanding flashed in those blue eyes, and with a cry, he raised his hand and signaled the small escort of ten to quicken the pace. Legolas clung to Arod's reins as the horse darted forward, and he swayed against the saddle peak, ill at ease with such unnecessary things. No Elf needed such gear to control a horse, and Legolas felt the intervening layers of leather and metal as an impediment to the usual bond that sprang instantly between himself and any good beast.
But perversely, he relished it. That awkwardness fit him perfectly at the moment, and so he had not asked his captors to remove either bridle or saddle, feeling that if there was to be any awkwardness, he might as well have a cause for it. One which lies outside of myself,he thought, if only to himself. For he had not needed Aragorn's cautious inquiries yesterday to know that he suffered from more than pain and weariness. That had become plain despite his disorientation and the dimness of his senses—or rather, because of them.
Only at intervals could he rouse himself from that confused state, and after he had made his offer to Aragorn and Gimli (and Éomer as well, naturally), he had slipped back down into the depths of elvish desperation, feeling that strength born of a moment's need fade away even as his companions had been swallowed up by distance. Indeed, it was as if the sense of darkness and disintegration worsened with the miles.
Why that should be, he did not know, and the frustration was incredible. What is wrong with me? This wound is painful, it jars me, it is a distraction and a hindrance, but should that be enough to plunge a prince into so strange and unnatural a night? Legolas had never been severely wounded before, and in that he was fortunate. But that merely frustrated him the more, for why then should he succumb so quickly or easily to the disruption of cuiniant? Such weakness came as a shock to all, he knew, and to him more even than to his companions, for in the hours after Boromir's death, he had thought he had borne up well enough, save for that one bad moment before the makeshift pyre, when something—something had got in him, and he still knew not what had possessed him to remember the horror of Feänor and his sons.
Whatever it was, perhaps it had but lain sleeping. For with the rising of the sun, something had changed in him: perhaps the journey had demanded more of him than he had had to offer, but as noon of their first full day on the hunt had approached, he had felt the first strangling tendrils of darkness curl about him. And since then, it had not released him for a moment, and the Elf felt his most basic faith shaken.
What is this darkness? What is it? Why is it? It lay over him like a smothering drape, and in the moments of his deepest desperation, he could shape but one thought, one plea: Lift this veil, I beg! But it remained, and Aragorn and Gimli were gone, leaving him feeling quite bereft, even if he had insisted upon this course himself.
From the meeting below the downs, that course had taken him south with his captors, who had split into two companies—those accompanying the Third Marshal with their unusual guest, and who had much need of haste; and the others with their wounded, riding more slowly behind. All throughout that journey, Legolas had drifted along the fine border between the waking world and that of dark introspection, held in suspension between those two states by the jarring unfamiliarity of riding a saddled mount. It had taken him some while to realize that Éomer rode at his side, keeping him under careful watch, but he could spare that detail little attention, intent upon keeping his seat and his sanity.
With the help of the horses of the slain, though, the Marshal's small company had ridden all that night and swiftly, so that the moon was riding low in the sky and the night lay deep all about when at last, they came to a fortress town upon a hill above the plains. When at last they had passed its gates, the Third Marshal had ordered most of his men to stable and bed, but a few horsemen he had retained at the ready.
Legolas he had steered firmly into the hall to be seen by his surgeon, a gruff-faced, greying man with thick fingers, who had proved unexpectedly skilled and gentle. Not that Legolas had been in much of a mood to appreciate such seeming paradox, feeling himself lost in alien surroundings. For the surgeon spoke no Westron, only the rolling, slow speech of Rohan, and Éomer had not translated, whether because the Marshal had not the skill or because there was little of import to translate, Legolas had not known.
"I would not ask you to try your strength," Éomer had said when the man was nearly finished. "But I must reach Edoras by the morrow, for Théoden King shall have much to say to me. I fear," and here, the Third Marshal had offered a slight, somewhat bitter smile, "that I, too, may come under the king's judgment. And worse for me, for I shall have a cell, rather than a room, if things go ill!"
Legolas had frowned at that, shaking his head sharply as he ran the words once more through his mind to make sense of them. At length he had asked, "You have one hostage; is that not enough for your king?"
"'Tis not a matter of one or three, but my decision to ride against the Orcs that shall be questioned. That I allowed two strangers to go freely and unescorted about our realm will be a secondary matter," the Man had replied, sinking down onto the stool that the surgeon had just abandoned. Éomer gave the big man a courteous nod of thanks, and the other bowed in reply, then gathering his satchel, left the room silently. Legolas, meanwhile, had shrugged slightly, unused to the sling that the other had fashioned for him. It had helped to ease the burning pain across his shoulders, but done little to ease his mind, and the hall seemed to him populated with strange shadows, which made masks of mens' faces.
"Maldis tells me that your wound is not poisoned, which is glad news. But is there aught else that we can do for you? For though I mean no offense, I must say, Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood, that you do not seem well to me." The young man had bent clear blue eyes upon the Elf, and there had been a deep concern and puzzlement there, but also a great heart, and a willingness to help— at once strangely comforting but also off-putting.
Perhaps had it been Aragorn sitting across from him in that moment, Legolas might have spoken more freely, for at least the Ranger was not unversed in elvish ways. But Éomer had had no knowledge of what he suffered, and for all that he had seemed—and seemed still—an honorable man, the prince had known too little of him to lay bare what afflicted. And besides—what could any Man do?
"No, there is nothing to be done on my behalf," Legolas had said quietly. The other had stared at him some moments, then given a slight shrug, as if to say 'As you will it!' and then risen, laying a hand on Legolas's arm.
"Come then, for we begin tonight and take our rest in Edoras tomorrow."
So they had left Aldburg. The ride through the night had been swift, almost perilously so for Legolas, given his waxing disorientation, and now, as the sun reached its midmorning station, the courts of Edoras rose high above them, gleaming in the light.
The Elf gazed at them a moment, watching the scintillating effect of sun on golden eaves, and tried to let the play of light dissolve the darkness that seemed to gather so thick about him. But the shadows seemed to mock his efforts, clinging tightly to that hall, tarnishing its brilliance, and the Elf had flinched before that night-in-day, retreating once more to the familiar torment of his daydreams.
Some time later, loud voices crying out in Rohan's strange tongue roused him once more, as did his mount's change of pace. The high-spirited Arod snorted as he slowed to a trot and then (reluctantly, it seemed) came to a halt as guards swirled about them. At his side, Éomer signaled him to dismount, and the Elf dropped heavily to the earth.
Amidst the bustle of men come to take charge of the horses, and the cries of greeting, Legolas found himself distracted almost to the point of pain, yet he could not withdraw as he had earlier. Buffeted on all sides by the Rohirrim and their horses, retreat was impossible, and he cast his glance round, seeking some place of quiet from which to observe, if he could, the proceedings.
And as he looked, his gaze riveted upon the Third Marshal once more, who stood some little distance away, speaking softly and (or so it appeared to the Elf) urgently with the commander of the guard. Legolas drifted his way, drawn to a familiar face at least, and as he approached, the commander glanced up, uneasiness rippling across his bearded face.
Éomer looked over his shoulder and, seeing the Elf, beckoned him over to join them. "Brand, this is Legolas the Elf, Prince of Mirkwood forest. He is my charge and my guest until the king judges me," the Marshal said, using the Common Speech out of courtesy to the Elf. "By his own will has he come hither, and he has suffered injury doing battle against plundering Orcs, and I would not have the hospitality of the Mark put to shame before him."
"I shall take the message up to the high court, my lord," replied Brand. "But if I may warn you, Third Marshal, things have gone ill here since you rode away in haste. Tidings have come from the Fords of Isen and they are not good."
And when he hesitated, then, Éomer shook his head. "Tell me," he demanded bluntly.
Brand looked upon him, and Legolas saw the pity in the other's face, as he announced: "Théodred is fallen, lord. The king's mood is black with grief."
For a moment, Éomer said nothing, but Legolas, watching the Marshal closely, blenched as that hideous, oily darkness cast its pall upon the other. It coiled itself about him, and the Elf felt the terrible sense of loss that gripped Éomer as those words registered their significance.
"Théodred, dead?" he asked, and Brand nodded unwillingly. "How many with him?"
"Too many, as is ever the case," the man paused, and his eyes flicked swiftly to Legolas, ere he said to him quickly, "Your pardon, prince!" And then came a flurry of Rohirric, while Éomer listened grimly. Finally, Brand paused, and the Third Marshal nodded slowly.
"Brave the bearer of bad news," he said softly, and clasped the man's shoulder. "Thank you, Brand. But I must see to our guest, and then go before Théoden King, if he will it. Come with me, please, Legolas," Éomer said then, tersely polite, and the Elf obeyed, following along as the young man went swiftly up into the city. In silence they walked, though all about them came the voices of men and women going about their daily business. But there was a sense of tension, of fear even, in the air, and the Elf marked many warriors stationed at intervals, and many messengers who darted through the streets on their errands.
And everywhere there are shadows! Indeed, they leered in every alleyway, and hugged men tightly, wavering now and again as Men went about their business. And if no one else could see them, everyone, he though, felt them after a fashion, even the iron-eyed guards. What is wrong, that all here lies so deep in the shade? Legolas wondered, shivering.
"This way!" Éomer turned suddenly into a gated inner court, and led the way across the yard to a tall house or inn. The Third Marshal seemed known to the keeper, who merely bowed and gave Legolas but a passing odd look. He said some word, which Éomer acknowledged briefly ere he turned left and led the way up the stairs. At the top of the stairwell lay a comfortably furnished room.
And as Legolas went to stand at the window that looked out over the courtyard, the Third Marshal closed the door behind them and sighed softly.
A moment he remained facing the door, and pain and loss echoed within the confines of his soul. Théodred, gone! Ah, cousin, and the fight yet so hard for us here!
But Éomer had been born to the hard discipline of a warrior, and so he set his grief for Théodred carefully aside, and then he turned toward Legolas. The Third Marshal prided himself on his ability to judge a man's character, and he had never yet erred in such matters. But never before have I faced one of the elvish race... And so he stared at the Elf's back, attempting to order his own impressions.
There was about the other some force or sense of presence that raised the hackles—like a note drawn out upon a taut string, one that slid uneasily into discord—but he felt drawn to Legolas in spite of that disharmony. Curiosity, perhaps, played its part, for whatever his words to the three wanderers the day before, Éomer was not one to reject the novel simply for its strangeness, though he balked at too easy acceptance. Rather, he preferred to study his unfamiliar guest until he learned the key to the other's moody, distracted silence.
Crossing the room quietly, he came to stand at the other's side, and a swift-darted glance out of the corners of his eyes confirmed his suspicion that the Elf, for all that he gazed out the window, saw little or naught of what lay before him. Nevertheless, Éomer decided that what lay before them might be the best place to begin.
"Behold the court of the King! Edoras has ever been the heart of Rohan," he explained, "even in the ancient days of its building. This guest house was made to serve the needs of officers and heralds. Yonder lies the great hall of Meduseld, where the king's household is kept. That king is Théoden in these days of doubt, but before him Thengel, whom my father served ere his death. A pity that you came not hither in former days, for Thengel was accounted a strong king, as was Théoden in his youth."
Legolas was silent a moment, and Éomer wondered whether the Elf had heard aught, but at length, the other spoke in soft reply, "More than a thousand springs have I seen. Some five hundred have passed since Éorl came, and Men call this hall old! A blink of an eye to we who dwell in Mirkwood, and yet those years lie heavy upon us now. Your Théoden is dying, and his son is dead: the children of our children go to the grave before us, and it will grow but worse as the season turns!" The Elf shook his head and drew a deep breath, glanced sideways at Éomer. For his part, Éomer should not have liked to guess the look upon his face; Legolas had not to guess, and something like chagrin played then over his fair features.
"My apologies, Third Marshal," he murmured, then hesitated a bare moment ere seeming to admit: "I fear that my tongue grows wayward as darkness waxes!"
"Do you feel it, too, then?" Éomer asked, his interest piqued by that last remark. "The brooding shadow that lies upon us?"
"It lies upon all this land and colors all things," Legolas sighed, turning from the window as if in disgust, unable to bear the mockery of clear skies. "Even the stars no longer shine so brightly!" Again he paused, and shook his head. "But you speak as if something goes ill here, in this place, beyond the fall of the heir to your throne."
"Much goes ill here," Éomer replied, with grim surety. "You shall see it for yourself, I doubt it not. In truth, that is why I brought you here, rather than present myself immediately to the king, for I would not see one of good faith plunged blindly into the mire that is politics in Rohan of late. I shall have to acquaint you with my sister, if I am able, though perhaps she will take to you of her own accord.
"In any case, Master Elf," he continued, then, "know that we of Rohan have always followed the House of Éorl. Five hundred years may be but little time to one immortal, but to us, it is long indeed, and such loyalty is hard to break with. Thus when the royal house falters, so do we all, for we do not judge our kings lightly or swiftly.
"Théoden was once a man of great wisdom and heart, but it is now more than ten years since the shadow fell upon him. Fools we were, to be so long blind, for now the noose is drawn tight, and who knows but that we approach the last gasp?" Éomer grimaced in scathing self-recrimination. "The king is under the sway of one councilor—do not ask what has happened to the others!—and this councilor is called Gríma, or Wormtongue when his back is turned. Does that not tell you something?"
"'Wormtongue'?" Legolas murmured. "Aye, that is telling."
"Wormtongue has the king's will bent to his every whisper, and he would control all that moves in Rohan. I told you not to ask after other advisors, but should you do so, you will find them quite peacefully asleep among the simbelmyne, tucked beneath the turf of the grave mounds. And I doubt not that one day all of Rohan will lie upon the pyre, for Wormtongue will not wage war even when one is given to him by our enemies, and fights ever to undermine those who perceive the threat to the east.
"Even against Isengard, which lies within our bounds, he was slow to move, and ever he feeds men's fears. 'What can we do against a sorcerer? Against a power so ancient and deep in its treachery? Or is it treachery? Surely one so high must have a purpose!' Such words he speaks, and men listen, for there is that in his voice that is… compelling," Éomer admitted.
And Legolas cocked his head, and for once, his green eyes were as sharp as of old as he asked, "Why do you tell me this, who am a stranger and a hostage in your land?"
"I tell you because Wormtongue will not like your presence here. Ever he speaks against the folk of the Golden Wood, and though I will admit that such suspicion of Elves is native to my people, I like not the hatred and fear that I hear in Wormtongue's voice when he speaks of them. Dwimordene may be a perilous realm, one that a mortal should not dare to approach, but let it lie!" Éomer shook his head. "What use in stirring up fear when there is little basis for it? Truly, until Aragorn's words yesterday, I knew not whether the Elves remained there, for we have seen naught of them since time out of mind."
And like that, as if the mention of the fading years had summoned it, the shadow swelled, and Legolas clenched his teeth, shutting his eyes, as momentary focus slipped away. "This Wormtongue may rest at ease, for I fear that in my present condition, I am little threat!" he admitted, unhappily.
"Are you?" the Third Marshal asked in a soft voice, narrowing his blue eyes. "Are you, indeed, Legolas of Mirkwood? There is some power in you that draws men to you, or else repels them. I can feel it even as we speak! And though Aragorn spoke carefully in a difficult place, still, do I not guess correctly that your errand is more than mere vengeance? That some other, greater matter draws all of you on? What else would bring an Elf, a Dwarf, and a Man who claims to be Isildur's Heir to hunt Orcs in our land?"
The Elf made no answer, only returned the other's gaze impassively, but even silence was an answer, and Éomer nodded.
"Say nothing then, and keep what secrets you can! But I would have you know this: I am loyal to Rohan, and to the bond that it has with Gondor. To those who oppose Mordor's agents, I would offer my aid. At present, it may be little indeed, and doubtless it shall grow less ere the day ends," the young man said with bitter humor. "But such as it is, it is yours to ask. For as I said, I would trust you; I would trust Aragorn, and learn more of him."
Legolas blinked at that, taken somewhat aback by the intensity of those words, and for a moment, he felt the other's desperation akin to his own: it was a brief moment, but it struck something vital in the Elf. Who are you, young one, that you have such faith? The question sprang suddenly to mind, and the prince considered the strange twist of fate that had thrown him together with this brash, eager, sincere young man. It was… refreshing, and though the Elf was almost afraid to hope, his wonder remained with him, refusing to fade away after a few minutes' silence. Minutes! What are minutes to me? And yet, despite a fine elvish disdain for mortal reckoning, they were important nonetheless.
"Your trust is a greater gift than you know," Legolas said at last, searching the other's face with care. "Few are they who would offer the same upon so brief an acquaintance, and," the Elf laughed softly of a sudden, "they walk now in Fangorn, by your leave!"
Éomer gave a short bark of laughter as well, and shook his head. "Then it seems we deserve each other! Fate is a strange mistress indeed, but not without a sense of justice, even if only ironic… or is it poetic? Well, we must still make our appearance before the king, but I am glad that we have spoken. Come! Let us end this waiting." With that, the Third Marshal strode quickly to the door, which he opened and waved Legolas through ere he followed.
Down the stairs went they, and across the courtyard to a small gate in the fence that led onto a small, well-paved path bound for Meduseld. Up a flight of broad stairs they climbed, and came at last to an open yard where stood the entry to the great hall. Legolas would have gone swiftly on to those doors, but Éomer touched his arm, slowing to a halt.
"I would not do you any discourtesy, but I should warn you that weapons are not allowed within the hall, save only to high officers of the realm. And even they are not always immune to such requirements. Háma, who commands the guard here, will see to all such matters, and you may put your trust in him, for he is an honorable man."
"We of Thranduil's realm follow custom where it leads, so long as it leads not into evil," Legolas replied. "Lead on!"
Sure enough, the door warden greeted the two courteously but firmly demanded that they surrender their weapons. Éomer said naught, only unbuckled his sword-belt and handed it over, though it was clear that he was unhappy with the arrangement. Legolas unclipped his quiver from its new position at his side, and gave up his dagger. The commander—Háma?—pursed his lips as he gazed at the Elf, and hard blue eyes wandered over Legolas's person, seeking any suspicious bulges or outlines that might indicate a hidden weapon.
But at length, the man bowed, and he signaled his men to open the doors. Together, Elf and Marshal stepped through, and after the bright morning, the hall seemed dim indeed. Legolas shivered, suddenly gripped with a sharp, insistent sense of dread and uneasiness. The darkness is spun thick as a spider's web here! Glancing at Éomer, he saw that the other, too, suffered from doubt, but there was anger beneath the fear. The Marshal's boot heels clicked upon the flagstones, seeming too loud in the silent hall. As a tomb it is, Legolas thought, and shivered again, pulling his cloak more closely about him as he walked.
Down a hall, to another set of doors, where they were admitted without question, and up to the foot of a dais where sat a Man aged beyond any that Legolas had ever seen before. At his feet sat a second man, and the Elf had but to look at him to realize that he gazed now upon Gríma Wormtongue, for there was an aura of cruelty and malice that clung to him like flies to carrion. This is what controls Rohan? Legolas thought, and felt a flare of disgust and amazement.
"Ferthu Théoden hal!" At his side, Éomer bowed, giving greeting to his lord king. "I come before you as custom and law demand, and I bring to you one who seeks the leave of Théoden King to walk in Rohan: Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood." At which, the Elf bowed as well, as gracefully as he could manage with a sling.
"And what of the others, Éomer?" the king's voice was harsh, rusty with disuse, it seemed—or else feeble with old age, Legolas knew not which was closer to truth. But it was clearly the voice of one quite displeased. "Brand reports that you spoke of this prince as hostage as well as guest. Where now are the others, then, for whom he stands?"
"They are now in Fangorn, and unless aught befalls them, they shall come hither when their errand is done, my king."
"It is not given to you, Third Marshal, to judge who may and may not walk in Rohan!" Wormtongue spoke for the first time, and his tone was sharp, though the Elf discerned the malicious glee that underlay the other's severity. He has waited for this to happen, for Éomer to make a misstep! For how many years has he waited? Legolas wondered, green eyes narrowing as he gazed at the councilor. "Further, it is not given you to abandon your post at your own whim, taking men who are not yours to command. What excuse can you make for your departure from this court, without permission and in time of peril?"
"The Eastfold was breached by Orcs, your majesty," Éomer replied, refusing to dignify Gríma by addressing him. He kept his eyes upon his king, and the councilor hissed softly. "More, there came to me word that Orcs of Mordor were with them, though they split away from the main host early on. If it is true that the one who sits in the Dark Tower colludes with the wizard in Orthanc, then that line must be cut or we are lost. And as the safety of the Eastfold is my charge, I rode against them, seeking to prevent our enemies from learning aught of our movements or from turning aside to plunder our people."
"And you did not think to warn us of this? Nor of the law that binds you to protect your king, when Edoras is vulnerable? How many men did you draw off from the defense of these courts in excess of those allotted you?"
"The law also bids me protect those who are beholden to the king," Éomer shot back, darting a poisonous glance at Wormtongue. "In destroying the Orcs that prey upon our people and raid our herds, I have acted to protect my king and his people, and uphold the law of this land! Had I ridden with fewer men, I would have been remiss, for we would have risked a defeat."
"And then you compounded your error by allowing two strangers to wander free in our realm!" the councilor continued as if the Marshal had not spoken. "Instead, you take hostage one of them—the only one among them to respect Rohan's laws!—and expect us to take no heed of your actions? I fear you demonstrate a woeful lack of judgment! Or is it a lack of loyalty?" Wormtongue demanded, and Legolas caught his breath at that.
"Do not you speak to me of loyalty," Éomer grated. "Théoden is my king and my mother's brother, and I would never betray him!"
"That is for others to decide, not you, dear boy. And I may say that one so willful in matters requiring kingly judgment may find his words have little force where the question of his loyalty is concerned," Wormtongue said silkily, as he raised a hand. "Your willfulness, and the recklessness that it fronts, have led you too far astray this day. That cannot be condoned. My liege, with your permission?"
Théoden sighed heavily, but he nodded, and Wormtongue called out something in his own tongue. Guards appeared, rushing to obey the summons, but Legolas saw the ashen disbelief in their faces as they realized what they were called upon to do. And the Elf, watching through the eyes of one not bound to merely physical sight, nearly choked as the darkness seemed verily to blossom, twining itself about all present, drawing them into the evil that seemed to prevail over all of Arda as the counselor spoke:
"Take him below to the dungeons, and let him learn the price of his folly. I suggest, Éomer, Éomund's son, that you take this time to reflect upon your actions, for you may soon be required to answer for them!"
"I will answer gladly, if only the king judges me," Éomer retorted, and then, shaking off the restraining hands of the guards, he walked proudly away, seeming to drag his captors with him rather than the reverse. A door opened and then closed again behind them with ominous finality, and Legolas turned back to the dais, feeling unfriendly eyes upon him. Wormtongue was staring at him, ill at ease, clearly, and the Elf met that stare dispassionately. For a moment, the two stared, and it gave Legolas some small pleasure to realize the other's frustration as that malicious gaze met the blank wall of elvish inscrutability.
"It is a pity that you had to witness that, Legolas of Mirkwood," Théoden's voice sounded, and Legolas glanced up at the aged monarch, who regarded him now with great weariness. "Rohan once feared no treachery."
"The Age grows dark, o king of the golden hall, and all are beset, from Mirkwood to Gondor," Legolas replied. "Treachery comes in many forms, but rarely does it spring from an honest heart."
"An honest heart? Éomer has not one!" Wormtongue interjected. "My liege, it may perhaps be best to wait upon judgment of this one. Realizing that he is a stranger, he has none the less been complicit, however unwittingly, to the breaking of the laws of the realm by offering himself as hostage. Such a matter needs careful consideration ere any action is taken."
"We shall consider the matter, but he came in good faith, and Rohan keeps its hostages well," Théoden replied. "Besides which, he is a prince and injured as well: courtesy binds us to keep him honorably."
"Assuredly, lord," Wormtongue hastened to agree, though not without a deadly glare in Legolas's direction. "Shall I see to his lodgings?"
"Nay, let Éowyn see to him. 'Twill do her good to keep her mind from her brother," Théoden sighed softly, raising a hand slightly. "Go now! Leave me and I shall send for you later. Éowyn will come soon." Legolas blinked at the dismissal, wondering where he was to go, but a guardsman signaled to him, and the Elf, after bowing once again, followed the man out of the throne room. The doors swung shut in his wake, and they went swiftly out to the courtyard once again.
"Wait here!" the guard said, his Westron accented but understandable, and the Elf nodded. The man hurried away, presumably to find Éowyn, and Legolas felt what vigor the confrontation with Wormtongue had roused drain out of him. The interview was over, and he was now alone in Rohan!
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