10. The Last Bastion
Leaving Minas Tirith behind, a sense of joy filled Elrohir and Legolas, and all their worries seemed to fall away. Even Elrohir found it difficult to keep thinking about Haleigh's blackmail and their task ahead when faced with lack of suffocating buildings pressing down on him.
They pressed on, making brisk progress, but still finding the time to enjoy each other's company in a way that neither had been able to for the past year. Legolas was adamant that Elrohir not tire himself out, and insisted on stopping and resting for a few hours every night while he kept watch.
By the time the pair left the borders of Gondor, they were feeling renewed. Save for a few skirmishes with bandits who were easily dispatched, the trip had been uneventful. As agreed, they met up with Faramir on the border, and he was glad to see them almost back to their laughing, joking selves of old again.
That night, they sought shelter in a small hamlet as a huge storm whipped the plains before them.
Joining Faramir in the almost-empty dining room in the inn, Elrohir let out a sigh as he sank into the chair.
"Lass insisted on keeping watch every night and is exhausted. His head had barely touched the pillow and he was asleep!"
"Hmm, and of course you had to put him to bed to make sure he was properly exhausted before you came down? I suppose too that you realise that the walls in dwellings like this as thin?"
"We were discreet," Elrohir said, waving it off. "I have heard that the Southrons view couplings between the same kind with greater disgust than the Gondorians -- if that were possible."
Faramir gestured towards the hood over Elrohir's head.
"You are probably safe in a small place like this, where all people care about is eking out their next meal. If you remove that in a larger town or city, I can guarantee that you will be arrested, poked, and prodded-and that is only for being part-Elven. These people have all but forgotten about the presence of the first-born, and even tales of the Elven army's second march against Sauron did not reach their ears."
Elrohir shook his head in amazement. "It never fails to amaze me how ignorant people are!"
"You forget that you were lucky enough to be born a son of Elrond."
"Yet I cannot see your father sharing your understanding."
A momentary cloud passed across Faramir's face at the mention, although he appreciated Elrohir's blunt character.
Knowing he had hit a sore point without offending, Elrohir shrugged off the awkward moment and said, "There are times when I wish the world were filled with people as enlightened as you, Éowyn and Éomer. But that would make everything too easy and too perfect."
"Yet you do not complain about Legolas."
Elrohir's face lit up. "Lass is beautiful."
"Can he do no wrong in your eyes?"
"Can Éowyn, or Elboron, for that matter?"
"No," Faramir said, smiling at the thought of his son and wife.
"You must miss them," Elrohir said, calling for another tankard of beer.
"Every day. But enough about me. What's the latest Haleigh has been up to?
"He deserves to be strung up and dangled from the tower of Minas Morgul! I had to endure days of endless taunts about the wisdom of allowing someone like Lass to train Eldarion. He spoke of it as if Lass had a disease! I know you might say he cannot help being brought up to think in this way, but you cannot deny that he is a repulsive reptile!"
"Yes," Faramir said, thinking hard. "Yet, you choose to rescue his son without expecting anything back from him."
"I may not have a son, but were Lass to be captured --"
"Having a good heart who empathises with the plight of others is nothing to be ashamed of, Elrohir."
"It must be Lass's influence on me, then."
A quiet chuckle passed between them.
Staring at the dying fire, it was a while before Elrohir said, "Whether Haleigh chooses to turn his back on his traitorous and black dealings after this, I will leave Gondor for a long break. I was a fool not to see this earlier, but in my desire to protect and defend Lass from those who wished him ill, I had forgotten to protect him from myself. Valar, how much he must have suffered!"
"Better late than never."
A sudden influx of cold fear hit Elrohir, cutting of his reply.
"Lass!" he cried, recognising the reason for his distress being a sudden change in Legolas's emotions that passed through to him.
Flying up the stairs three at a time, Elrohir burst into the room to find Legolas killing two men wrapped in black. Large flames were already licking the corner of the room, and a few more bodies lying to the side bore witness to the swiftness with which Legolas had countered the attack.
"Let's go!" Faramir cried, helping to gather up their belongings.
Shouts from below signalled the discovery of the fire.
"Come on, Lass!" Elrohir said, dragging Legolas from the room.
Slipping out the back of the inn, the trio disappeared into the blackness of the night and straight into the storm, leaving the hamlet in turmoil.
It was an hour before the storm calmed enough for them to hear themselves think, and Legolas wiped the rain from his face and turned to Elrohir.
"What happened?" Elrohir said, as Legolas showed no signs of speaking first.
"I heard a rustling, and saw a blade coming for me."
Elrohir recognised that Legolas was still recovering from the encounter with the assailants. Killing was against his nature, and Elrohir knew that he was upset as he was unsure if he had shed blood in error.
"You were defending yourself."
"They were men of Talik's," Faramir said, picking up the cue from Elrohir. "Those men were from his elite Assassin's Guild. It appears that they are on to us."
"I will ensure then that the message goes out to their base that they have been successful in their attempt," Legolas said, although there was no mistaking the tremor in his voice.
"You knew they were following us?" Elrohir said.
"Yes, although I was unsure of who they were at the time. I saw their falcon this afternoon, and she told me that she was with a group of trained and armed men. I did not know of their intentions, and did not think about it after," Legolas said.
Seeing Faramir's confused look, Elrohir said, "The Southrons often utilise falcons to carry their messages, and Lass is able to speak with them."
"Perhaps we should press on, then," Faramir said. "Already I fear for my men in Krashnon's court."
Agreeing with Faramir, the trio set off across the plains. There seemed not to be any signs of further pursuers, and so they settled into a quick pace, stopping only to allow Faramir rest, before pushing on towards Talik's castle.
It was late in the afternoon when they finally reached Halabaad, a bastion of strategic importance, guarding the only ford of an otherwise torrential river. The city was large, and a steady stream of peasants and tradesmen flowed in both directions, watched closely by swarthy sentries.
Slipping into the menagerie, Elrohir and Legolas kept their cloaks pulled well over their heads and slouched through, ensuring to tread as heavily as possible. Even so, Legolas was starting to think they should have waited for night to fall before attempting to enter the city, as a few curious glances were starting to be thrown in their directions. He was glad that Faramir had suggested blackening his face and hair, for his golden mane would have stood out -- even with a cloak covering it -- in a city where men's hair were thicker and blacker than even Elrohir's raven mane.
"You there!" a sentry cried from behind, gesturing at Legolas.
Pausing in his step, Legolas turned slowly, Elrohir close beside him.
Faramir was over in front of the sentry in an instant.
"Mi'lord, wha' di'ya think of the weather today? Sure could use a cold beer, no?"
Legolas almost smiled when he saw Faramir press a coin into the sentry's hand discreetly.
"Oh, no, nothing!" the sentry said, waving Legolas on. "I thought you were somebody I knew, but I was wrong!"
Once through and past the gates, Faramir lowered his hood enough to grin at Elrohir and Legolas.
"Don't let anybody tell you that money can't take you a long way!" he said. "Now keep your heads down and slouch more; you are still looking too graceful to be wretched travellers. If anybody approaches us, let me do the talking!"
"Yessir!" Elrohir said, doing such a good imitation that Legolas began shaking with silent laughter.
"Enough of that!" Faramir said, almost letting out a laugh too. "Let's go!"
He led them through the busy thoroughfare, taking many turns, twisting and winding through the warren of alleys lined with squalid houses. By the time he stopped, the Elves found themselves struggling to pinpoint their exact location, and the sun was starting to glow red over the rooftops, casting long shadows around.
Before Faramir could say anything, a large crowd of children rushed towards them, and immediately started shouting in the local dialect, their arms outstretched. It did not escape their attention that the children were too thin and their clothes filthy and threadbare.
Legolas found his head being clawed at by a tiny boy, who stared up at him with pitiful eyes. Drawn to the young one, Legolas bent down to listen to what he was trying to say.
"Rassah nish, salar --"
Legolas's smile froze, and he reached out to grab the boy's other hand. It took the child a while to realise what had happened, whereupon he let out a cry of pain.
All eyes were upon the pair, or, more accurately, the tinder box wrought of mithril in the boy's hand.
Caught in the act, he started crying, and dropped the box with a loud clatter on the floor.
Relenting upon seeing his tears, Legolas released his arm. Seizing the opportunity, the boy, together with the entire hoard of children, melted away into the shadows without a sound.
Bending down to pick up the box, Legolas was still taking stock of the situation when a door was thrown open, and two very big and very drunk patrons stepped out of a dingy pub.
Their attention was drawn to the squat pub with its cracked window panes, so caked with dirt that light had difficulty filtering through. A blast of hot air greeted them as Faramir ducked within, bringing with it rancid smells of unwashed bodies, spilt beer gone bad, and debauched merry-making. Stooping to avoid the low beams designed to keep the heat in during harsh winters, Elrohir and Legolas followed, the latter lapping in all the sights with interest, although Elrohir noted the recoil he gave when a leering face peered too close to him.
Feeling Elrohir's arm at his elbow, Legolas saw that he had let Faramir break away from them, and so quickly joined him at the counter.
"I'm lookin' for a certain Mister Salanor," Faramir was shouting at the bartender to make himself heard above the din raging around them.
The grimy barman's face lit up, and he sat down the pint he had been filling with a loud clunk.
"Mister Salanor? This way, goodsir! I wasn' told he had been expectin' yer till tomorrow! Still, I believe the goodsir himself has returned, so please follow me."
They did as they were told, ending up in the back of the pub, separated from the melee by a long thin corridor.
Seeing two scruffy creatures snoring on the table, the barman grabbed them by their collars and hurled them down the corridor.
"Ge' yer filthy skins away before I lay in ter yer!" he cried.
"Tell Mister Salanor tha' Willdom 'as arrived wi' clients," Faramir said as the trio settled into the seats.
"Very well, very well, sir. Can I get yer somethin' ter drink?"
"Very well. Tha'll be on the house."
"Nice ack-sent," Elrohir said, grinning as the barman passed out of earshot.
Before Faramir could answer, the barman was back with three tankards, startling them with his speed. Legolas noticed then that bits of his breakfast remained nestled in his beard, and was reminded of Gimli all of a sudden.
Faramir and Elrohir started to drink, while Legolas stared into space.
"Lass?" Elrohir said, slipping his hand under the table and placing it on his thigh.
"I was thinking if I should perhaps have let the little boy get away with the box. After all, my father has a hundred more of those, and it would easily be worth a nice house in a better neighbourhood," Legolas said.
"Make no mistake, Legolas," Faramir said. "The money would not have gone to giving him a better life. These children are orphans working the streets for crimelords who take whatever they find. Perhaps they might give him meat with his gruel for a week as a reward for the loot, but come next week, he'll be back on the streets again."
"Then perhaps we should take him away, back to Gondor --"
"There is only so much we can do, Lass," Elrohir said.
Legolas's reply was eaten by the arrival of a bearded man.
Faramir jumped up and embraced the man.
"It is good to see you, Salanor!" he cried.
Salanor, embarrassed at the warm greeting, allowed Faramir to drag him onto a chair.
"None of that here!" Faramir said, slapping him on the back.
Elrohir noted then that the barman was standing a distance away and watching them with interest with the pretext of polishing the wall, and so he made a large show of downing his tankard of beer and gesturing for another round to be brought over.
Making use of the break in scrutiny, Faramir introduced Legolas and Elrohir to Salanor, who almost jumped out of his seat.
"My Lords!" he cried, but was prevented from bowing by Faramir's firm yank.
"What are you doing?" Faramir hissed. "What has happened to throw you into such a state?"
Salanor let out a long sigh, taking a gulp of beer and waiting for the barman to drop out of sight.
"These are uncertain times. it appears that Talik and Ackwin, his younger brother, are fighting each other. News from the capital is that Krashnon is weakening by the day, and it will not be long ere the time come to appoint an heir.
"But do not concern yourselves with these things, my Lords. The only thing is that security has been tightened tenfold as a result, and the usual sentries guarding the castle have been rotated. We need to find a means of dealing with them."
"How many sentries are there at any one point?" Legolas said.
"At the weakest entrances, two."
Legolas thought for a moment, before he ventured to say, "Leave them to me. All you need to concern yourself with is to get us to Halim's cell and back out again."
"But there will be too many for us to incapacitate without raising an alarm!"
"Just do as he says," Elrohir said, already having an idea of what Legolas was planning.
Faramir nodded, sealing the matter.
"Halim's disappearance will not stay unnoticed for long. It is essential we find a means to escape," Faramir said. "Salanor and I should search for some steeds."
"Meaning he is afraid that we would ruin things were we to go along," Elrohir said to Legolas, swapping his once-again empty tankard for Legolas's still-full one.
"At the rate you are drinking, I should not wonder at that," Legolas said, as Elrohir took another gulp.
"If you look that way, you would see that the barman is starting to wonder at your untouched mug, for any man worth his weight in salt would have finished two pints by now. It is not my fault you refuse to touch a drop of this."
"How you can allow such vile liquid down your throat is a mystery to me!" Legolas said.
Salanor gaped at them. This was not what he had expected the mighty Elven lords in King Elessar's court to be like. In fact, at the way they were jibing at each other, they seemed almost -- normal.
"No, Elrohir," Faramir said, trying not to snigger. "It will be easier for two of us to move around. Salanor will take you back to his apartment, which conveniently overlooks the castle's side entrance."
"A grand idea," Elrohir said. "Lass and I could use some quiet time before the battles sure to take place tonight."
Legolas had to slide his hand under the table to prevent Elrohir from moving further along his thigh, a gesture that did not go unnoticed by Faramir.
"Shall we?" he said, knowing that Elrohir was growing restless with the waiting.
They left the pub, Salanor taking time to toss a large bag filled with coins at the barman, who thanked them profusely, bowing to the floor.
"Should we worry about the barman?" Elrohir said as they settled amongst the cushions and rugs in Salanor's small living room, and the Men lit up long pipes.
"No. He has worked for me for years and has received enough benefits and money to know better than to betray us. Even if he does, we plan to be gone by daybreak tomorrow," Salanor said.
"We do not mean to force you to leave your home," Legolas said.
"This is not my home, Lord Legolas. I was taken from the borderlands and sold as a slave here as a child. It was only with the grace of the Gondorian ambassador did I manage to get liberated. Sadly, he died, poisoned by one of Krashnon's agents before I could repay my debt to him. Henceforth, I pledged my life to the service of Gondor, and it is here that you find me."
"I have need for a man in Ackwin's employ. You will do well with your knowledge of Talik's court," Faramir said, helping himself to some grapes.
"Could you elaborate more on the situation, Salanor?" Elrohir said.
"My Lord, you should not concern yourself with Southron's internal upheavals."
"On the contrary, you must surely realise that Talik has his father's war-mongering nature, whereas Ackwin is a peace-maker, who would extend a hand of friendship to Gondor. As such, the outcome of their struggle for the throne could well be very important to us."
"That is not for you to worry yourself over," Faramir said, seeing Legolas make an impatient frown. "Leave it to us soldiers of Gondor."
Realising he had gotten carried away again, Elrohir fell silent, and the conversation meandered for a while before Faramir and Salanor left in search of steeds.
Seeing Legolas staring out of the window, deep in thought, Elrohir watched him in turn.
After a long while, Legolas turned to Elrohir.
"Roh, shall we bring the little boy back to Gondor? We can give him a better life."
Elrohir froze, knowing that Legolas was thinking about Elrohir's own longing for a child of their own.
Hearing no response from Elrohir, Legolas turned around to look at him.
"Do you not think --"
"Would you be able to choose between him and the gulls?" Elrohir said. "You will love him as your son, but can you let him go? There are a thousand children to save out there for every one you wish to take in, Lass. Yes, I ache for a child of our own, but I do not want us to lose him. We cannot forget that we are immortal, whereas mortals will pass on. I do not want you to have another tie to cut when we leave these shores."
"But what about your needs?"
"I have Eldarion, Elessiel and Narssin. Dan too is getting married, and will have little ones of his own. They are enough for me."
"That boy does not deserve a life like this."
"Many born into this world do not deserve the lives they lead, and many kings and queens do not deserve the riches they enjoy. Yet, all that matters to me now is your happiness. I might have given you doubt, but I will do my best to realise this wish of mine."
A smile broke across Legolas's face, chasing away all the remaining worries and doubts.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.