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In the Deep Places: 14. To Walk Free
They started again early the next morning. Gimli awoke to the low twitters of birdsong overhead and a heated debate between the Hobbits nearby. There was a disconcerting moment when he could not open his eyes, and then he remembered. He threw off his dew-laden cloak and got to his feet, rubbing his face and stretching to work the kinks from his back. The ground was soft enough for sleeping, as he’d said to Legolas, but it still didn’t compare to a proper bed. He winced as a muscle in his neck twinged, and he rubbed it gently as he listened to the Hobbits.
“No, you can’t have any dried venison with breakfast; you ate it all yesterday while we were walking.” That was Sam.
“No I didn’t, I only had two strips for lunch, and we didn’t have elevensies at all yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that.” Pippin had the aggrieved tone of one who has suffered much. “Have you looked in Merry’s pack? Maybe he hid it in there.”
“I haven’t looked in any of our packs, because I can’t see, any more than you can,” Sam was evidently short of patience. “And there’s no use trying to find more anyway, because it’s gone.”
“What about those cakes that Haldir gave us?” Frodo had stepped in as peacemaker. “You still have some of those, don’t you Sam?”
“Yes, we’ve got enough for first breakfast, anyway, but it’d be nice to have something more substantial to go along with them, Mr. Frodo.”
“We’re in Lothlórien now, Sam.” Merry had evidently joined them, and he was in an expansive mood. “You have to think like an Elf! They don’t need substantial breakfasts. Be at one with your surroundings. Smell the air; hear the birds, the wind in the trees, the rustle of – ow! Pippin kicked me!”
“You should be more at one with your surroundings, Merry,” Pippin said. “Then you’d move out of the way and you wouldn’t get kicked.”
“Speaking of Elves,” Frodo said over his cousins’ scuffles, “where’s Haldir? And the guard? Didn’t they bring supplies for breakfast?”
“They are not far off, Master Baggins,” Legolas spoke from less than three feet away, and Gimli flinched in surprise. His sharp ears could discern the movements of the Hobbits, and a distant rustling of branches told him that the Men were somewhere in the woods close by. But Legolas made no noise that Gimli could hear.
The Elf’s customary stealth had been a minor annoyance before in the journey, as he had a nerve-wracking habit of appearing silently where Gimli least expected him, or dropping without warning from the trees to land almost on top of him. Gimli was certain that he did it deliberately. But blind as he was now, he had no way of knowing where Legolas might be, unless he spoke or sang, or unless he, Gimli, walked straight into him. The Elf was a menace.
“The border patrols are gathering,” Legolas continued. “Two small companies passed close by three hours before dawn, and now Haldir has gone to co-ordinate their patrols before they make for the eastern border. Our other guard is standing watch in the trees until his return.”
Gimli did not ask how the Elf knew all that, when to his knowledge they had both been sound asleep through the night. The Hobbits accepted Legolas’ explanation without question and turned their attention to the food packs. Gimli left them to it. At the moment he had a more pressing concern.
From the Hobbits’ words it seemed that no one was being permitted to remove the blindfolds yet, even to attend to basic necessities. This suspicion was confirmed by a disgruntled muttering to Gimli’s right as Boromir tramped into the clearing and sat down heavily. “This is ludicrous. What my father would say . . .”
Aragorn sounded resigned as he also sat down with a thump and rustle of leaves. “It isn’t that unreasonable, Boromir. From what Gandalf told me, Gondor’s laws have become even stricter than those of the Golden Wood.”
“Gondor’s laws make sense,” Boromir retorted. “Not allowing us to take off the blindfolds for even five minutes doesn’t make sense, it’s just, it’s just . . . inconvenient!”
“You managed all right.”
“I think I was in a patch of nettles.”
“There aren’t any nettles in Lothlórien.”
“It can’t be. You’re imagining it.”
“Think you that my senses are imaginary? Did I imagine the dream that led me to Rivendell? Did I imagine the Halfling bearing Isildur’s Bane? Did I imagine –”
“Fine. I’ll give you some salve for it.”
“You aren’t coming near it!”
There was a musical laugh and Gimli turned his head instinctively toward it. The Elf had moved in front of them. “The hands of a king –” Legolas’ voice had a distinctly mischievous note. Aragorn groaned and there was a rustle of sudden movement and a thud followed by a peal of Elven laughter and a sharp yelp.
“Is someone hurt?”
“Someone hit me!”
Legolas was laughing so hard that he could scarcely speak. “My . . . my apologies, Master Took. Aragorn . . . Aragorn is . . . Aragorn is throwing things!”
Aragorn snorted, but he was laughing too. “Blame Legolas, Pippin. He brought it on himself.”
“But I’m the one that got hit!”
Legolas seemed to have regained some control. His voice was calmer as he spoke, this time from a greater distance. Gimli guessed that he had walked over to Pippin. “Here, let me feel . . . ah, it’s nothing much. Where is . . . oh, thank you Merry. I expect that Aragorn will be wanting this back now.”
His voice came closer to them again, and something thumped to the ground near Gimli’s feet. “Throwing your waterskin, Aragorn? Isn’t that rather wasteful?”
Aragorn grunted and there was a shifting of leaves as he felt for the container and picked it up. “It was sealed tightly. And you deserved it.”
“Then you should work on your aim. As Peregrin pointed out, I was not the one hit.”
“My aim is fine. You ducked.”
Legolas laughed again. “Then you should not make so much noise when you throw. Had I known you would hit Pippin, I would not have moved.”
“See, Pippin?” Merry said over the noise of Aragorn and Boromir jointly pelting Legolas with their waterskins, “be at one with your surroundings. Then you’d know when people are throwing things at you.”
Gimli relaxed and joined in the general amusement. Legolas’ laughter was contagious, and the Hobbits seemed to have regained some of their normal high spirits. Pippin actually attempted to tackle Merry, and the two Hobbits might have come to grief had they not been laughing too hard to do any damage. As it was they kicked leaves over the area where Sam was carefully sorting the morning’s rations, and Frodo had to restrain the gardener while Aragorn calmed the youths down and Boromir searched for the scattered cakes. Legolas was no help at all in the crisis, as he had collapsed with laughter near the edge of the clearing.
Gimli joined Boromir in seeking the fallen cakes, chuckling to himself as he felt through the soft drifts of leaves. He recognized that there was a slightly ragged edge to the Company’s amusement: this was more than anything a release of stress. For too long they had labored in darkness and fear, grief and weariness. In the daylight, with the birds singing overhead, even Gimli could appreciate the peace of Lothlórien. Unnatural though the woods surely were, there was at least no evil here. The blindfolds offered a paradoxical freedom: the Fellowship had no choice but to rely upon their Elven guards, and thus the long burden of watchfulness and tension was relieved.
The Hobbits, unaccustomed to the strain and grief of recent days, were the first to react. Gimli noted that Pippin, who along with Frodo had taken Gandalf’s death most hard, was now the most exuberant in teasing his older cousins. It was a relief to hear the young Hobbit laugh freely again, but Gimli resolved to stay alert to Pippin’s mood swings. In the wake of the grief and self-blame he had shown earlier, this light-heartedness could easily give way to hysteria. Frodo was more subdued than the others, though he did join in the laughter once Sam had relinquished his threat to hit Pippin with his skillet. He was older than the others, of course, and naturally more restrained, but Gimli could not help but wonder if something else were damping the Ring-bearer’s spirits.
The Men were more like himself: seasoned warriors who knew too well the burden of their quest to ever wholly relax. But they delighted in the cheer of their smaller companions and enjoyed the chance for merriment. In these darkening days, when agents of Sauron had encroached even upon the Lonely Mountain itself, any respite from the Shadow was to be treasured.
It was the Elf that confused him. All through their journey Legolas had been reserved, holding himself slightly apart from the others save for Aragorn and Gandalf. He was ever watchful, ever vigilant, seeming to take it as a personal duty to guard the Company at all times. But now that was cast aside and he laughed and joked as freely as the Hobbits. It seemed a wild change of character.
Perhaps only a few days before Gimli would have dismissed the archer’s antics as mere Elven vicissitude, as he had done when Legolas had climbed the pillar in the Dwarrowdelf. But he had journeyed with this Elf for weeks now in the Wild. He had fought both with him and beside him. Together they had seen the ruin of Khazad-dûm, and Gimli had not forgotten Legolas’ words when he had succumbed to grief at Balin’s tomb. His father would have said that it was an exercise in futility to seek reason for an Elf’s actions. But Gimli was not his father.
Perhaps Legolas’ behavior was understandable after all. He had been under greater strain than any of them in Moria. Gimli thought of the Elf’s razor edged watchfulness during their long journey through the Mines, the naked terror of his cry when they had faced Durin’s Bane. After all of that, and Gandalf’s death, it was perhaps not so strange that he should be fey now, after his first night’s sleep since before Caradhras.
Gimli considered all of this while he felt through the dry leaves for Sam’s scattered cakes. When he had found all that he could he set them on the Hobbit’s spread cloak and stood, brushing off his hands. It did not occur to him to question his new insight into the Elf’s behavior, any more than he would second-guess his musings about the Hobbits or the Men. Sometime in their journey his attitude had changed. Somewhere in the shared perils and grief of Khazad-dûm Gimli’s mind had opened, and in the stillness of Lothlórien his preconceptions of Elves as a whole had been tempered by his experience with Legolas as a person. He had no love for the archer, but he was slowly coming to understand him. It was a change so slight as to be unseen, like a hairline fracture in the foundation of a citadel. But this was a crack in the keystone of Gimli’s ideology, and it could crumble the close-held beliefs of millennia. Gimli did not notice.
He had a bigger problem. Haldir might not be present, but there was no telling where the other guard was. Somewhere above them, he supposed, and undoubtedly watching them now. And in any case he would not remove the blindfold. He had accepted it as part of his duty to the Ring-bearer, and though he had not forgiven Legolas for his role in that, he would not go free while the others were blind. Honor forbade it. And there too was pride: he would bear this hardship at least as well as the Elf. Which left the difficulty that his bladder had been signaling for the past few minutes: how was he to answer nature’s call while blindfolded?
Well, if the others could manage it he certainly could. Gimli had a fairly good idea of the clearing’s size now from the movements of his companions. He counted eight steps back to his bedroll between the mallorn’s roots and felt his way carefully around the large smooth trunk. He struck out to the right, away from the direction that Aragorn and Boromir had come from, hoping to avoid Boromir’s nettles. But there seemed to be little danger of those, for Aragorn was right. This forest was devoid of any type of undergrowth at all. Unnatural, Gimli thought as he groped his way between the pillared trunks. He felt ridiculous, and he was uncomfortably aware that there might be Elven eyes watching him even now. Well, let them stare. He had nothing to be ashamed of.
He found a spot between two large trees that seemed as sheltered as any and finished his task quickly, his shoulders hunched against the prickling sensation of prying eyes. By the time he reached the clearing again his fevered imagination had conjured dozens of Elves perched in the tree branches above, all pointing and snickering at him. With an effort of sheer will he refrained from tearing the blindfold off and stalked, stiff-legged and bristling, into the clearing. Ridiculous. What next, are we to crawl on hands and knees for their amusement? Ridiculous, ludicrous, stupid stubborn conceited . . .
He calmed somewhat as he returned again to the familiar voices of his companions. The sensation of being watched faded, and he relaxed further when Haldir joined them and immediately organized the breaking of camp, with no mention or indeed acknowledgement of Gimli at all.
Like all warriors Gimli was intimately familiar with the organization of his weapons and pack, and after weeks in the Wild even the Hobbits were able to gather their gear together swiftly despite the blindfolds. Swiftness, however, did not imply silence, and the Company was still showing the effects of the sudden release from stress and grief. The Hobbits bickered good-naturedly and continuously, despite having their mouths full of cake. Boromir commiserated quietly with Gimli about Elven paranoia, and Legolas composed a rhyme in Sindarin that made Frodo giggle and was met with stony silence from Aragorn. Gimli caught the word dunedain and guessed that it had something to do with Aragorn’s waterskin marksmanship.
But they set out again before the sun had warmed the early morning chill from the air. Legolas left off teasing the Ranger and began to sing softly as they left the clearing. Gimli found himself falling in naturally behind the Elf. Legolas had made no mention of their conversation the previous night, and Gimli did not bring it up either. What understanding they had shared was largely the result of sleep deprivation and whatever spell lay upon these woods, he thought, and it was best not to dwell upon what could not be helped.
Still, it was good to have the anchor of the Elf’s voice ahead of him. Gimli walked easily along the path, his shoulders back and his hands loose at his sides. Now that he was not forced to grope blindly through the trees his earlier tension faded. If there were Elves watching him they would see only another warrior of the Fellowship, no less confident in the wood than his companions. He had long experience deciphering direction from sounds in the dark, and even amongst the open trees he followed Legolas’ soft voice without hesitation. He accepted the continual song as one of his companion’s quirks, in this case a useful one. Gimli did not notice that in his newfound tolerance he had come to think of the archer as an individual, and no longer merely as an Elf. And it was not until much later that it occurred to him that Legolas might be guiding him deliberately.
It was noon, and the sun was high overhead, when they passed from the cool woods into an open area and stopped. Legolas could feel a change in the forest as they approached; the tree-song grew so deep and still that he could no longer follow it in vocal melody. Instead he sang a series of children’s songs from Mirkwood, ignoring the questioning murmurs this raised from Haldir and Aragorn.
There was something very different about this place. The forest’s voice was soft, muted to a slow rhythm that flowed into the deeper harmony of Ilúvatar’s Song, like a sun-warmed current upon the surface of an ocean. Power swelled as a tide to Ithil’s call, and he felt its resonance in the windless stir of the leaves overhead, in the hushed tremble of the earth beneath his feet.
So intent was he on these mysteries, straining his mind and senses to their utmost, that he did not hear the approaching war party until it had entered the meadow and was nearly upon them. Legolas stilled instantly upon catching the faint rustle of garments and the shift of the arrows in their quivers. He cut off his song in mid word and stepped quickly to the side, so that Gimli would not walk into him. “Aragorn,” he murmured, turning his head toward the Man as the rest of the Fellowship halted in confusion.
There came the creak of leather and chain mail as the Ranger felt his way past the Dwarf, and then his voice sounded close by Legolas’ ear. “What do you hear?”
“A large company of Elves approaches. The trees did not signal their approach, and they came swift and silent. They are armed.”
“He has gone forward to meet them. I do not know where the other guard is.”
Aragorn drew a soft breath and Legolas felt him turn back to face the others. “We have company. Likely they are members of the home guard, sent to join the border patrols. Stay alert, all of you, but remain calm. I do not think they mean us harm.”
“Frodo –” Boromir began, but at that moment Haldir rejoined them.
“Irthuil is leading reinforcements to the border,” the March-warden announced. “The marauding Orcs have been destroyed: they will not trouble Lothlórien again.” Legolas wondered at the other Elf’s certainty – in his experience, once agents of the Enemy had gained entry to an Elven realm, they never stopped trying to come back. “The remnant have scattered and are being pursued west toward the mountains. And,” Haldir paused, and Legolas could feel his intense gaze upon him, though he could not see, “there was one other. A small creature, hunched near the ground but it ran swiftly. It was among the Orcs, but it did not seem one of them.”
Legolas kept very still, careful to betray nothing by word or sign. Gollum was too bound up with the Ring, and Haldir too clever, to risk giving any clue as to the footpad’s identity. The March-warden had spoken of secrets, and here indeed was a secret Legolas would trust to none but the Fellowship. Aragorn spoke quickly, as if having the same thought and seeking to distract the guard’s attention, “Did they shoot it?”
“No.” Haldir’s focus expanded to take in the entire Fellowship. Legolas could envision him searching them each in turn, and he was silently grateful for the blindfolds. The Hobbits, in particular, were not trained to withstand scrutiny like this, and might have given away much in an unguarded look or questioning glance. But bound as the Company was there was little chance that even Elven eyes could discern anything important.
Haldir seemed to realize this, and he spoke briskly. “They did not know if it served the Orcs, or were a captive, or merely an unlucky traveler. It fled southward, down the Silverlode. Irthuil deemed it of little importance, and sent scouts to ensure that it left Lothlórien, but did not trouble about it further. A third of his company is pursuing the remaining Orcs, while the others go on to the northern borders. Also,” he continued, “they bring me a message from the Lord and Lady of the Galadhrim. You are all to walk free, even the Dwarf Gimli. It seems the Lady knows who and what is each member of your Company. New messages have come from Rivendell perhaps.”
His voice took on an ironic lilt as he said this last, and Legolas wondered at the transparent excuse. What messenger could possibly traverse the blocked mountain paths, or go south all the way to the Gap of Rohan and north again to Lothlórien so swiftly? Either the March-warden was jesting to disguise his Lady’s power, or the Lady claimed friendship with an Eagle.
And further, there was his casual dismissal of the Orcs’ threat, and of Gollum. Legolas imagined Thranduil’s reaction if he had reported that an unknown creature had entered Mirkwood and he had let it go without capturing or killing it, but that he was fairly sure that it would leave again pretty soon on its own. He flinched involuntarily. Either this captain Irthuil enjoyed living dangerously or the Lord Celeborn was far more lenient than his northern kinsman. And with this power to protect his realm, Legolas thought, considering the deep peace all around them, surely he can afford to be. And just as surely we cannot.
He was brought sharply back to attention by a soft rustle of the grass as Haldir stepped toward him. Swiftly Legolas shook his head, taking a pace backwards. There was a pause, and he could feel the March-warden’s hesitation. Certainly his first inclination was to unbind the prince first, and just as surely Legolas was desperate to be free of the restricting cloth. But he shook his head again and gestured to where Gimli stood at his side. The Dwarf had borne the brunt of the guards’ suspicion and prejudice ever since they had entered Lothlórien, and Legolas knew the cost of the blindfolding to his pride. He would not admit any guilt for his role in binding the Dwarf, but it was only right that Gimli be freed first.
Apparently Haldir accepted his decision. After a moment the March-warden undid Gimli’s blindfold with a fair speech welcoming him to the Naith of Lórien. Legolas breathed softly in relief: from his limited experience, it seemed that Dwarves delighted in formal greetings of this type. He was glad to know that these Silvan Elves could apply their elaborate courtesies where they would be most appreciated.
Then Haldir slipped the blind from Legolas’ eyes, and he forgot all else in a rush of sheer joy. His first sensation was of the blessedly cool air washing over skin that had been covered and irritated by the hot cloth for so long. Then from the frustrating darkness there came light, so sharp and bright that it stung his eyes and made them water, but he could not look away. Colors overwhelmed him in a rush of greens and golds: the blaze of leaves veined amber in the warm sunlight, the verdant grass studded with white and gold stars. Niphredil, he thought, and marveled to see what hitherto had been remembered only in song.
The meadow sloped away before him, but to the left there rose a great mound with grass soft and new as if it were yet spring. It bore as a double crown the vast golden mellyrn in a ring circled by pillared trees of white, and it seemed to Legolas that their roots delved to the foundations of the earth, and their branches stretched up to brush the heavens.
Legolas caught his breath. Here was the source of this forest’s song, here was the heart that beat perhaps once in an Age, and pulsed with a blood so rich in memory that all else was drowned to insignificance. Every color was new and fresh, every leaf edged sharp as if it had come into being at the very moment of his eyes’ unveiling. And at the same time it was old, so old that time was forgotten and rendered meaningless, so that history and legend were made one with the eternal now. He could feel the strength of this place in the fiber of his being, and the ancient song thrummed within him and he felt suddenly so young, so young and insignificant before the weight of memory and years uncounted.
“Cerin Amroth,” Aragorn whispered, and Legolas looked toward him in surprise. The Ranger’s voice held a measure of mingled joy and grief that he had seldom heard from his friend before. Aragorn’s face betrayed nothing, but his eyes were clouded.
The war party had slipped by them into the trees, many turning to look more closely at Gimli as they passed. Legolas supposed that they had likely never seen a Dwarf before, but to his mind that did not excuse their discourtesy. Fortunately Gimli ignored them.
The rest of the Fellowship spread out, taking advantage of the opportunity to rest. Boromir settled cross-legged among the fern at the edge of the field, his shoulders hunched as he picked at the grass. Merry and Pippin soon joined him. Freed from their blindfolds, the two young hobbits seemed to have doubled their usual energy levels. They apparently had taken it as a personal mission to cheer the dour Man, and before long Boromir was drawn into showing them his broadsword, and then laughing at Pippin’s attempt to wield it.
Frodo and Sam were more solemn, rubbing their eyes and murmuring softly as they gazed up at Cerin Amroth. “I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning,” Sam said.
Legolas smiled at that and reached for his waterskin. He had been singing all morning while they walked, and the water was a blessing to his parched throat. He took some time to return the container to his pack, using the delay as an excuse to study his smaller companions.
Surely no one, not even the Hobbits or the Dwarf, could stand in this place of memory without feeling its power. But he had not expected such perception from the gardener. Truly Hobbits were amazing creatures. And then his heart stuttered as he recalled that that had been one of Mithrandir’s favorite sayings.
But Haldir had also heard Sam’s remark, and he drew the pair away, leading them up the slope of Cerin Amroth. Legolas hesitated. In truth he wished to follow, to climb the mellyrn at the crown, for perhaps then he would understand the depths of their song. But Aragorn had cast himself down in the grass and was staring into space, his gaze distant as he absently turned the ring of Barahir round his finger. Something in his manner struck a chord of alarm in Legolas – his eyes were too dark, too close to the gleam that he had seen in them before, when Aragorn had admitted the temptation of the Ring. This was a place of memory more personal to Aragorn, and Legolas would not stand by if the Ring were drawing upon his vulnerability here.
And yet there was the Ring-bearer to consider as well. Haldir had been frustrated in his inquiries before, but it did not escape Legolas that the March-warden had now maneuvered so that he could question Frodo and Sam alone. More than his personal wishes, Legolas had a duty to see that the Hobbits were not tricked into betraying their Quest.
“Where are they going?” A rough voice growled beside him, and Legolas turned to see Gimli staring intently after Haldir and the Hobbits. A surge of relief flashed through him as he saw the answer to his dilemma.
“Haldir is taking them to see Cerin Amroth,” he answered. “Master Dwarf, would you…?”
Gimli glanced at him in brief surprise, but his attention was focused primarily on the potential threat. “Aye,” he grunted, and set off up the slope. Legolas watched as he clumped up the hill, his head lowered determinedly. The Dwarf could not climb up if Haldir took the Hobbits into the treetops, but he would stay near by. The March-warden could not help but be aware of his presence, and would not question Frodo and Sam too closely lest they report it back to the Dwarf. Legolas smiled. He could not have wished a better deterrent had he climbed up personally with them, for Haldir dared much in service of his realm, and likely would have pressed the issue even in the face of Legolas’ censure. But now the March-warden’s prejudice was working against him, for he would not risk drawing a Nogoth’s attention to his curiosity, lest Gimli think to use the Fellowship’s secret against him.
Games and games and more games, Legolas thought wryly. And you play them well, Haldir of Lórien. But do not think to match against Mirkwood. It is not through strength of arms alone that we keep the Shadow at bay.
It did not occur to him to question his trust in a Dwarf over his fellow Elf. Nor did he stop to wonder when Gimli had ceased being merely a Dwarf, and had become a companion.
Instead Legolas stretched out in the sunny grass beside Aragorn. Freed from his concern about Haldir, feeling young and fey before the ancient forest, he cast off his quiver and knives and arched his back, stretching in a luxuriant curve against the warm grass. His movement pulled Aragorn from his reverie, and the Man laughed softly.
“I meant to ask you, ‘Spiders in the Thickets,’ Legolas?”
Legolas grinned, his eyes closed and his face turned up toward the light. “It was that or ‘The Orc-maid and The Dragon.’ I did not wish to shock Master Baggins.”
“Hmm. Difficult choice. But given the option between Mirkwood drinking songs and children’s songs, I’d say the drinking song is less shocking. What kind of place lets children sing things like that?”
“‘Tra-la-la-lally, down here in the valley –’”
“Aargh!” Aragorn groaned and struck his shoulder. “Bad enough that I had to listen to that growing up. I think that Elrohir invented it just to tease me.”
Legolas laughed and sat up, shaking the grass from his hair. “No, my friend, he invented it to tease Arahad, your many times great grandfather. And then he and Elladan taught it to me.”
“I bet your father loved that.”
“H’m. He threatened to initiate another Kin-slaying.”
Aragorn laughed and fell silent. For a time they simply sat together, comfortable as old friends that did not feel the need to speak. Legolas played idly with the soft grass, twisting it through his long fingers without pulling it up. He could fall into the peace of this place, could lose himself in the timeless melody and there would be no war, no hurt. No strife could ever touch them here.
And yet . . . and yet there was something else. At the edge of his awareness, skirting the borders of that peace, the Shadow still lay. Had he climbed the mellyrn with Haldir, what would he see? The land of Lórien was still without stain, but Dol Guldur loomed to the north, and the woods beyond the river were twisted and black. Such is the difference between Lothlórien and Lasgalen, he thought, and shall I find peace here, while my people fight alone?
“Forty years.” Aragorn’s voice was soft as if he spoke to himself, but his words pulled the Elf from these dark thoughts. Legolas blinked and looked over at the Man. Aragorn sat with elbows resting on his drawn up knees, rubbing the ring of Barahir absently while he stared at the meadow before them.
Legolas tilted his head questioningly, waiting, and after a moment Aragorn continued. “Forty years have passed, and yet it looks the same. Nothing has changed.”
Legolas considered that for a moment. Aragorn seemed troubled by more than his words suggested. “Did you expect it to?”
“No. Yes.” Aragorn sighed. “I don’t know. But it seems strange, that it should be untouched when all the rest of the world is changed.”
This was very close to what Legolas had been thinking, and more than strange, it seemed bitterly unfair to him. But he said only, “You have met the Lady, Aragorn. Is it in truth so strange to you?”
The Man glanced at him, one eyebrow quirked. “Perhaps not. But I would not be so envious if I were you. The power that protects this land comes at a cost.”
“Thirty of our warriors died last year, Aragorn, defending Mirkwood from the Shadow. What cost is greater than that?”
“Maybe that of knowing that your time is over, and your lands will be lost, whether to the Dark Lord or no. Think you that Lothlórien will remain unchanged, Legolas, if Frodo succeeds in his quest?”
This was something that Legolas had considered before, and he did not answer. Perhaps Lothlórien and Imladris were the weaker for their dependence upon the Elven Rings. But sitting here, with the sun warm upon his face and the land utterly still and peaceful around him, it was hard to believe that they suffered much.
Aragorn sighed heavily. “I would not have it so. I would keep the Golden Wood untouched, and whole, were it in my power. I would save Rivendell, and Greenwood as well.” His next words were a mere breath, soft as the breeze that ruffled their hair, “I would save her.”
Legolas watched him closely, but Aragorn did not look up. They were coming close now to the heart of Aragorn’s unease, Legolas thought, but still there was more. And better that he learn the truth now, for if Aragorn fell all of Middle-earth might follow. “How would you save her, Aragorn? What power would you claim?”
Aragorn lifted his head and met Legolas’ gaze. His eyes glittered with fierce challenge. “I claim nothing. Do not think to test me, son of Thranduil. I have done nothing, nothing to merit suspicion, and I am not subject to you!”
Legolas was taken aback, but he spoke evenly. “Haven’t you? Not two days ago you admitted that the Ring –”
“Quiet!” Aragorn hissed. “Will you speak of that here? I trusted you as a friend, and you turn my words against me!”
“Nay,” Legolas protested. “I only –”
“Only what, Legolas? Only tried to catch me, only tried to force me to admit folly? And what then? Then would you say that the Heir of Isildur is weak, and take the Ring for yourself?”
Aragorn’s face was twisted, his voice venomous. Legolas stared at him in shock. This was not the Aragorn he knew, the friend he had trusted for nearly 70 years. The Man’s anger was too quick, too hot – out of proportion to Legolas’ query. It spoke of Aragorn’s personal doubts, far greater than any external accusation. This was the Ring, it had to be.
But Aragorn continued, his words dripping with suspicion and malice. “Yes, I see it now. So clever, Legolas. You would take the Ring, for safekeeping of course. And who would suspect? Who better to bear it than an Elf? And what then? Would you bring it to Mirkwood, and give your father another trinket for his treasury?”
Legolas leaped to his feet, unable to sit still any longer. Whether he be led by the Ring or no, Aragorn was treading upon dangerous ground. He glared down at the seated Man and his voice was deadly soft. “You presume much, son of Arathorn.”
Aragorn jumped up, his hands clenched. “Do I? Can you claim that you have not thought it? You covet the power in Lothlórien, Legolas. Do not pretend otherwise. And here is a greater power, within your grasp. You could destroy Dol Guldur. You could make Greenwood great once more – you could cover all the world with your forests. The Elves need not flee Middle-earth, your warriors need not die, your family –”
“Enough!” Legolas spat. “I sicken of these games, Aragorn. I do not want the Ring. I have never wanted it. It is foul with an evil that turns my stomach, and if you cannot see that then you are even blinder than your ancestors. You know what it is, and still you are tempted! Isildur’s betrayal is nothing compared to what you would do!”
Aragorn struck, driving toward Legolas’ jaw, but the Elf was faster. Instinctively Legolas blocked, one hand catching Aragorn’s fist and the other striking at his elbow in a move too quick for mortal eyes to see. But he caught himself at the last instant, and stopped a heartbeat from breaking the Man’s arm.
For an eternity caught between one breath and the next they stood in frozen tableau, staring at one other in shocked silence. A curlew cried once, twice in the distance and was still. The freshening breeze stirred the trees and caught in long tendrils of Legolas’ hair.
Then Legolas drew a shuddering breath and stepped back, releasing Aragorn’s hand. “I did not mean to . . . forgive me, Aragorn. I should not have spoken so.”
Aragorn closed his eyes for a long moment and bowed his head. “No, it is I . . . I am sorry, Legolas. I know not what came over me.”
“Don’t you?” Legolas whispered.
Aragorn passed a hand over his eyes and shook his head. “The Ring. It has to be the Ring.” He opened his eyes, and they were clear. Full of pain, but the hateful glitter was gone. He was Aragorn again. But his voice was heavy with self-loathing. “I thought I was stronger than this. I thought I could resist it. But you are right. You are right. I am weak, and I endanger us all.”
Legolas sighed wearily. Suddenly the entire cycle of grief and anger, guilt and pain, seemed too much to be bothered with. “Foolish mortal. When will you learn to listen to me? I have told you twice before: you are not alone. Your strength is great, and if you will trust us it will be greater still.”
Aragorn ran a hand through his hair and rubbed the back of his neck. “It seems that the Elves are full of wisdom today. Tell me, Legolas, whom should I trust? Would you claim friendship with all the Fellowship?”
The Man was teasing, but there was an edge to his words, and Legolas remembered the challenge of before. Do not ask me to trust the Fellowship until you can do the same. For an instant he was uncertain, but it was not the Dwarf that gave him pause. Instead he saw the figure of a Man outlined in dim light, sitting watch in a great hall miles beneath the earth. Boromir. His heart cried out in warning, and it was all he could do not to look aside to where the Man tussled playfully with Merry and Pippin.
Legolas pushed this doubt aside. It was not for him to judge, when surely he had served the Ring’s purpose as well. He thought with shame of his cruel words to Aragorn, and to Gimli. But he met Aragorn’s eyes fearlessly. “I would. I have journeyed now with Men and Dwarves and Hobbits, and I would be honored to claim friendship with them all.”
There. It was said, and he could not take it back. And more than that: it was true.
Aragorn studied him for a long moment, but did not challenge him. Instead he looked down, and rubbed the edge of his thumb against his ring. “But is it enough?” he murmured.
“Was it enough before?”
The Man looked at him in confusion, and Legolas bent swiftly and plucked a tiny bloom of elanor from the grass. He turned the delicate stem in his fingers, aware of Aragorn’s gaze upon it. “You have the love of the Evenstar, Aragorn. You say that this glade has not changed from the time of her promise to you, and the flowers now are as bright as they were then.”
“I did not ask it of her!” Aragorn protested. “I would have prevented it if I could. You would remind me now of my further failing, that I have brought death to the one I love –”
“No.” Legolas said, and looked intently into his eyes. “I would remind you that she made that pledge freely, knowing full well your strength and your weakness. She loves you, and she trusts you, as I do. All these long years it has been enough.” He took Aragorn’s hand and pressed the flower into his rough palm. “And now you have not only our love, and your own strength, but the Fellowship as well. Is it not enough?”
Aragorn hesitated, looking at the blossom he held. “Without Gandalf…”
Legolas threw up his hands in exasperation. “Still you do not listen! Arwen did not give her love to Gandalf. She gave it to you. She trusted you. Though by Elbereth I cannot see why, for some reason she believes in you, stubborn, unwashed, sweaty, hairy, clumsy mortal Man though you are!”
Aragorn laughed. “Ever the Elves are so courteous and charming. Stay your sweet words, Legolas, or my pride will overwhelm me.”
“Hmph. Fear not, elvellon. That would be the least of your deficiencies.” Then, sobering, he said again more softly, “Is it not enough, Aragorn?”
Aragorn sighed. “I do not know. But . . . I think that it is more than any Man could ever merit, or ever wish for. Thank you, mellon nîn.”
Legolas smiled and clasped his arm briefly, and then stepped back. Haldir and the Hobbits were returning, followed closely by Gimli. The Company would be leaving soon. But as Legolas moved to collect his gear he said, loudly enough for Aragorn to hear, “At last. I think that I would have better luck getting through your thick skull if I used one of my arrows.”
Aragorn smiled faintly and looked again at the flower he held. Gently he traced one blackened nail along the delicate golden petals. Legolas paused, and watched closely, but Aragorn stood straight and strong and his eyes were very bright. “Arwen vanimelda, namárië!” he whispered. Something eased in Legolas’ chest, and he smiled.
Nogoth: literally “stunted one,” a not very nice Sindarin word for a Dwarf.
Ithil: the moon
Next up: Chapter 15. More tree-houses for Gimli.
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