16. Chapter Fifteen
They were expected, and friends and kin had come to the White Gate to greet and praise them for their part in banishing the dark lord from Dol Guldur. But although it was already known in Lorien that many of the Galadhrim had not returned and lay in the earth of Mirkwood, the sight of such a small company and of so many wounded silenced their joy, and the welcome quickly turned to tears. Haldir felt the grief like a heavy weight around his shoulders, and he could not help thinking that he alone bore the guilt of sending so many to their deaths. Now that he had been named Guardian, he truly felt for the first time the loneliness of being in sole command.
Despite all this he had thought he would be comforted by being home again, but everything was strange: the golden mellyrn and the grey beeches which lined the path he knew so well, the mossy stones, the green forest light; all of these things seemed suddenly meaningless and empty because Legolas was not beside him. Everything spoke to him not of itself and of his own place here in Lorien, but of the prince's absence, and he felt it like the edge of a blade against his skin.
The ache in his shoulder pulsed in time with the beating of his heart and he began to long for the sight of the healing house, so that he could take another draught of poppy juice now that his own supply was used up. But he knew he must go first to see the Lord and the Lady, and when they reached the lawn of the Fountain he left Rumil and Orophin in charge and asked to be admitted to their presence. Never since their talan was built had he found it so arduous to climb the many stairs, but he summoned his strength and at last stepped on to the high platform where both were waiting for him.
He refused any refreshment, beginning at once with his report, but as he spoke the pain became so bad that it was like noise in his head, and he could not clearly hear what they were saying to him. He struggled on, watching their faces carefully until Celeborn smiled at something he had said. In that moment Haldir thought he saw for the first time a likeness between the Lord of Lorien and Legolas. Haldir had never really believed the old tale that Celeborn and Legolas' grandfather Oropher had been kin from Doriath, but now he thought that it might be true that the same blood ran in their veins. And it suddenly seemed to Haldir that to touch Celeborn would somehow bring him closer to Legolas, and would ease for a moment the cold agonising void that had opened up in his heart because Legolas was not here. So breaking off from what he was saying he stepped forward, reaching out with his good hand.
But before it could come to rest on Celeborn's arm he saw the look of surprise on the elf lord's face, and then he knew that he had seen only what he desperately wanted to see, and that it was not the distant connection of blood but Legolas' own body that he wanted, and then he was hit by a wave of longing so strong that he drew in a sharp breath and swayed sideways. At once Celeborn steadied him with a hand under his elbow and Haldir let out a breath of relief, still hoping to feel the comfort of it. But of course there was no echo of Legolas in the touch, and in that shocked moment Haldir finally understood deep in the marrow of his bones what a part of him had somehow been stubbornly refusing to believe: that Legolas was far away, and that there was no prospect of seeing him again for years.
In his disorientated state the understanding was too much for him, and for a second or two there was blackness before his eyes. When he came back to himself Galadriel was beside him, and she and Celeborn were leading him to a cushioned bench in the centre of the room. Haldir tried to protest, angry with himself for giving way to weakness, but they insisted, and a few moments later Galadriel handed him a green glass filled with a fragrant cordial.
'We should not have let you speak to us without resting first, Haldir,' said Galadriel, as he drank. 'The messengers told us you had been wounded, and I venture that is the reason for your indisposition.'
'Yes,' said Haldir breathlessly, glad to have a valid excuse for his loss of control.
And indeed the pain was very bad, and when he pushed aside his cloak at Galadriel's insistence, the dark stain on his tunic showed that he was bleeding again. Galadriel made him strip to the waist and herself undid the soaked bandage and tended the wound, and when she had finished both she and Celeborn refused to listen to another word from him.
'No more, Haldir. Tomorrow will be soon enough for the news,' she said.
Haldir looked at them, and though they were as familiar to him as his own kin now they seemed strange and unknown, and he knew that the change must be in him, because of Legolas. He shivered suddenly, and Galadriel got to her feet and, supporting him by the arm, accompanied him down the white steps to the lawn of the Fountain.
'You'll go to the healers. Promise me, Haldir,' said Galadriel.
Haldir nodded and, turning, saw that Rumil and Orophin were waiting for him. Despite his promise to Galadriel he went to his own talan, sending Rumil to fetch some poppy-juice from the healing house. His brothers didn't want to leave him, but he was afraid that if they watched him through the night, he might do something to betray his secret in his sleep; so he sent them away, calming them with assurances that he would take care of himself.
The minute they had gone he opened his pack and frantically pulling out his belongings one-handed, he rummaged in it until he found the beech leaf pin that Legolas had given him. He sat down slowly on his bed, holding it in trembling fingers, fighting the absurd desire to press his lips to it.
'By the Valar, what has he done to me?' he said out loud.
Gently he traced the edges of the pin, then passed his thumb down the straight central vein that ran from the stalk of the leaf to its tip, and from which all the other veins ran obliquely. But instead of the enamelled metal, his hand remembered instead the silk smoothness of Legolas' skin, and the strong muscles beneath it, and then his eyes closed as he remembered the yielding softness of his mouth and his warm sweet breath on his cheek as they lay together on the night of the festival.
Haldir let out a hoarse gasp of longing, and all at once he knew he could not be the Guardian of Lorien, not if it meant giving up the chance to be with Legolas. The insight shook him to the core, and his hand began to tremble so much that he dropped the beech pin on to the wooden boards.
'No,' he muttered to himself, but he didn't know whether he was refusing his duty to Lorien or his longing for the prince.
He stood up suddenly and went to the edge of the talan, and for a long time he stared blindly into the darkness, completely motionless apart from the continued trembling of his unbandaged hand. Once or twice he spoke out loud, a few ragged incoherent words, while his spirit struggled with an impossible choice.
At last he turned quickly and now he was full of purpose, flinging open the wardrobe and taking out a second pack and throwing it on to the bed. Cursing at how difficult it was to do things with only one useful arm, he loaded the pack with clothes and a book or two and other gear from the wardrobe, then picked up his weapons and piled them up on the table. His whetstone and tinder box were already packed, but he would have to go to the guardroom for his other belongings before leaving. The big lore books would be too heavy to take: Rumil and Orophin could have them, along with all the other things he would leave behind when he went to Mirkwood. His heart gave a great beat of shock at the thought of parting from his brothers and his home, but he had no choice: his way was clear before him now.
He would get some lembas and some more poppy juice from the healing house on his way to the White Gate, and fill up his flask for the last time from the silver basin in the lawn of the fountain once he had asked the Lord and Lady to release him from his duty. The thought of that was even more terrible than leaving his brothers but he pushed it away, struggling to close both packs one-handed. He hoisted them both over to the edge of his talan and turned back to his weapons, examining his bows and choosing the best one before buckling on his sword belt and his quiver. He couldn't carry all his gear with his injured shoulder, so he would have to get a horse from the stables. Maybe he could give the lore books in payment, or his spare bows. He could get new ones made once he reached Mirkwood.
He was ready. He would go now, he wouldn't wait for morning. He stood on the threshold, glancing round for the last time at the talan in which he had lived for so long, his whole energy turned towards Legolas. He was about to throw one of the packs down to the ground when he remembered something. Flinging his bow down on to the floor, he crossed to the bed and kneeling beside it, reached out beneath it and pulled out a wooden chest. Opening the lid, he took out six or seven spare bowstrings and some pots of wax and stowed them in his tunic, then reached into the chest for the few things he had left of his parents': a mithril chain of his grandmother's which his mother had given him; a lore book of his father's; and his parents' binding cloth, a faded dark blue silk with embroidery of silver thread. Hurriedly he pulled them out but they emerged tangled with a small leather bag whose contents spilled out on to the floor with a clang of metal.
Haldir turned to see what had made the noise. It was a heavy gold signet ring, and for a moment he didn't recognise it. Then he remembered precisely where he had got it, and the knowledge hit him like a blow in the gut. Haldir closed his eyes and passed his hand distractedly through his hair, trying to shut his mind against the memory of the one who had given him the ring. In this moment when he had torn up the very foundations of his life, this was absolutely the last object he wished to see. For a long time he stood, irresolute and tormented, but at last he reached out and picked up the ring. In silence he weighed it in the palm of his hand, looking down at it with something very like hatred. Then all at once his shoulders sagged and with a deep groan he slid down on to the floor until he was leaning against the side of the bed, his legs pulled up to his chest, curled up tightly on to his side. The ring fell out of his hand and rolled along the wooden boards, coming to rest beside the green beech leaf pin.
This last blow was too heavy to be borne and, at the end of his endurance, Haldir fell into a strange drifting state. Afterwards if ever he thought back to that black hour, he was never sure whether he had been overcome by the sudden sleep of complete exhaustion or by some strange half-conscious state; but whichever it was, it allowed the memories attached to the long-forgotten ring to rise to the surface of his mind and play themselves out before his eyes, memories which in earlier years used often to torment him in an old recurrent dream from which he would wake shaking and drenched in sweat.
It began at Dagorlad, his first battle, when he had only just come of age. Of course he had known what violence was, even before he had stood in the Galadhrim ranks before the army of darkness, but death on this scale was new to him. He saw too many die that day, kin and comrades. Some met their end quickly, their eyes still open as the light faded from them, but others died hard, screaming out their last hours, writhing with pain, struggling to breathe. On that same day and for its own survival, his heart had vowed never again to contemplate the dangerous possibility of love.
Afterwards he felt the guilt of one who is incomprehensibly still alive when so many others have died, and even when the fighting was over, for a full day he refused to rest, helping the healers tend the wounded, fetching water, digging alongside the others as they prepared the wide trench in which they would bury their dead - those who had not been lost in the Dead Marshes - among whom was Amdir, their King.
At last Haldir stumbled into his tent, so exhausted he could barely see. One other of his company had survived, but not a friend. They had always been rivals, not because Haldir wanted it but because the other understood no other state. He was called Hirgon, a name which fitted him for he was as hard as stone. But when he pushed himself drowsily up on to his elbow and squinted at Haldir from where he was stretched out at the far end of the tent, in that hour of darkness they seemed to each other like long-lost kin, and desperate for comfort they wrapped themselves up in the same blanket, shivering with cold and loss. Haldir had not yet reached his full height and Hirgon, being the taller, curled his long body behind Haldir's and wound his arms round his chest, chafing his cold hands and murmuring in his ear until finally they both stopped shaking and lay still. Haldir fell into a pit of sleep so deep that he did not dream, but something woke him suddenly, a hand on his face, tracing the contours of his lips, and something hard pressing into the small of his back. In a rush all his memories of the battle came pouring into his undefended mind, and he gave a moan of despair.
'Hush,' whispered Hirgon, and leaning over, he put his lips to Haldir's and kissed him hard.
Haldir had always been close and affectionate with his comrades, but until that moment no-one had touched him with such animal lust. He had dreamed of his first experience of physical pleasure, and this was not at all how he had imagined it would be. But in the aftermath of battle, drenched in death, his body responded fiercely to Hirgon's, wanting nothing more than blind forgetting. Hirgon was not gentle with him, and their coupling was harsh and bloody, much like the battle itself, but Haldir abandoned himself to it, rutting like a beast who feels the current of life rising in the springtime and must throw himself into it, even at the risk of drowning.
Afterwards Hirgon rolled off him and turned away, sated. There was no tenderness between them, either on that day or later, although they came together again a dozen times. Hirgon died in the last days of the siege of Barad-dur, but Haldir's heart was still cold and he barely grieved for him. That first joining made a pattern in his body which had held all these years, and although he learnt the skill of giving and receiving pleasure, for him the act had never become more than the meeting of a desperate need.
If Haldir woke at this point in the dream it was with a painful erection and the bitter memory of the black months and years which followed Dagorlad. But if he slept on he found himself in Amroth's tent on the morning after he had been with Hirgon, and the King was saying to him,
'My father is dead, Haldir. He is dead,' in a quiet meditative voice which worried Haldir far more than wild grief would have done.
He was assigned at once to Amroth's bodyguard, and the King swore that he would do all he could in the years that followed to ensure that Lorien would never again go to war so ill-equipped. The defences of Lorien were strengthened, and Amroth sought help from all those who could offer it. Thranduil of Mirkwood, whose father like Amroth's had died at Dagorlad, shut himself up in his realm and sent no answer back with Amroth's embassy, save that they were not to return. Lindon was too far to help Lorien, but from the new stronghold of Imladris Elrond sent sword masters and bowyers and smiths and lore books to assist the Silvan elves in rebuilding their defences, and Amroth decreed that there would be an army of warriors who were ready to fight at all times, even though no war was foreseen. He made guard posts at every corner of Caras Galadhon and outside it, but he did not appoint a Guardian, saying that it was his own task to keep Lorien safe.
But although Sauron had been defeated, the Third Age of Middle Earth was an unquiet time for the elves, for many thought he would one day return; and they saw the rise of the Kingdoms of Men, and they knew their time was passing.
In his dream Haldir was always at the King's side, and his young mind was like a sponge which absorbed every bit of military knowledge it came across so that as the years passed his gifts were recognised and he rose in the ranks to become lieutenant, then captain of a company. As he grew more experienced he began to offer his own wisdom as well as implementing that of others, and he became a trusted member of the King's council. Then after a thousand years of the Third Age came the shadow and the rise of Dol Guldur, and the first time Mithrandir came to Lorien; and afterwards the King built the great mound of Cerin Amroth, and the talan in which he dwelt high in the mellyrn. And although this was a fearful time of girding against the return of the enemy yet Haldir was happy, and he loved and respected the King and what he had done for Lorien. It was now that Haldir always tried to wake himself up because he knew darkness was coming, and he did not want to live through it again.
But the poppy juice prevented him from waking, and so he saw himself standing with a company of elves, holding the King's horse while Amroth went deep into the forest again to speak to Nimrodel, begging her to come to live with him as his queen. And he saw the King's haggard and drawn face as he returned alone, refused again. Haldir's heart was sore within him, especially since he himself had found a lover who pleased him more than all the others, and who had caused him for the first time to believe his heart might finally open to a lasting love.
And then the darkness was on them. All around him the Galadhrim were fleeing in terror at the news of what the dwarves had woken in Moria, and every day more and more telain were left empty as whole clans went south to take ship over Sea. For Haldir and his brothers this was madness, and dishonourable madness. They would stand and fight for Lorien and for Amroth, whatever bane might be on them, balrog or orc or no.
And now came the worst part of the memory. Haldir struggled to free himself from it, groaning and thrashing as he lay on the floor of his talan, but he could not escape. He was outside the borders of Lorien, under the eaves of Fangorn, which at that time drew much nearer to Lorien than in the present.
'She has consented,' said the King, his pale eyes full of tears. 'If I take her away to a place of safety, she will be mine. The haven – there is the haven in the south, Haldir.'
His horse snorted, tossing his head, impatient to be gone.
Haldir frowned, uncomprehending, causing the wound he had taken on his temple the day before to begin to ache again. 'Who will take Nimrodel to this place, Sir? We're so few, we can barely spare anyone from the guard-posts.'
'I will take her, Haldir. I have said so.'
'But you'll return swiftly? Sir, we are down to less than half our usual numbers. We've made sorties every day for the last month against the orcs. I don't know…' His voice trembled and he stopped and cleared his throat before continuing. 'I don't know how much longer we can hold them.'
Amroth looked at him for a long time, unspeaking. In his face there was a wild elation shadowed by a terrible sorrow. At last he took the heavy gold ring from the little finger of his left hand.
'Haldir, you love Lorien,' he said, his voice twisting with some deep emotion. 'Take this, with my thanks for your many years of service.'
He turned then, and began to mount his horse.
'Sir!' cried out Haldir, seizing his arm. 'When will you be back? What will I tell our warriors? Without you it will be even harder to fight. I beg you, don't do this, not now when we need you most!'
Amroth whipped round to face him, and his eyes were wild.
'I must, Haldir,' he whispered. 'I cannot live without her. I cannot.'
His face sagged, as if the weight of his decision had suddenly pressed down on him, and at last Haldir understood that Amroth wouldn't be coming back. He stared at him, horrified, but his hand slipped from Amroth's arm and the King swung himself into the saddle.
'The ring will prove that I have truly gone,' said Amroth, unable to meet Haldir's eyes. 'Tell them…'
Haldir waited with desperate hope, but all the King said was,
'Tell them whatever you want, Haldir. Farewell, my friend.'
He dragged on the reins so hard that the horse squealed with pain, but it turned to the touch of his spurred boots and Haldir put up his arm to protect himself from the gouts of mud that flew up under its hooves as the King galloped away.
'Amroth!' cried out Haldir, but the horse's stride did not falter and soon the King was out of sight between the trees.
Haldir stood staring after him in frozen disbelief, then at length looked down at the gold ring in his hand. Suddenly full of rage, he flung himself on to his horse and shouting orders at his escort, turned his face towards Caras Galadhon. He made sure that he was well ahead of the young warriors who accompanied him, for it would not do for them to see that he was almost choking on his own tears, and shaking with a cold that sank gradually right down to his bones.
In the terrible hours that followed he methodically discarded every part of him which might lead him to act as Amroth just had, ruthlessly scouring out of his heart the tender feeling that had begun to grow for his lover and vowing never to desert Lorien for any cause whatsoever, however seductive.
When he got back to Caras Galadhon with the news, it was his flint-blue gaze that gave the truth to his words, rather than the ring he carried in his hand. And as he rallied the other captains and stood firm against everything that threatened Lorien, his heart wept with sorrow for his land and his comrades, but at the same time it hardened against his lover, and he cast him aside without mercy. Even his brothers came to fear his countenance for a time, and when soon afterwards Celeborn and Galadriel came to Lorien for good, to rule them as the Lord and Lady of the Wood, they saw as they always had before his absolute loyalty to Lorien and his love for his comrades, but they saw also the new coldness of his heart, and hoped that it would one day be warm again.
When Haldir came back to himself he was in tears, drained and tormented by what he had seen, and the candle was guttering low. Before him on the wooden floor were the ring and the beech pin, and as his eye fell on them he knew at once that his decision was made. Whether he loved Legolas or not, he could never turn his back on Lorien. His loyalty had been the root of his being long before Amroth's betrayal had annealed it once and for all into his heart, and that could never change. He would serve Lorien until she needed him no longer, and everything else must come second.
'But I want him…' he whispered into the darkness. 'How can I live without him?'
And hearing himself speak the words he truly understood for the first time what Amroth had felt for Nimrodel, but still he could not forgive him.
'I have no other honourable choice,' he said out loud. 'I cannot go to Legolas and he cannot come to me, so I must live without him.'
The pain was terrible, but he gritted his teeth against it, not sure whether it came from his shoulder or his heart. It was then that the candle flickered and went out, and he sat for a long while in the darkness before getting up to light another, and straight after he went to find the poppy juice, drinking a long draught from the bottle. When the pain had eased a little he picked up the ring and thrust it into its leather bag and back into the chest. The beech pin he shoved deep into the bottom of his pack. Afterwards he forced himself to tidy up his belongings, returning everything to its proper place and putting his bows on the rack on the wall and his swords and knives in the corner. He couldn't clean them one-handed, so he would have to take them to the guardroom at first light. He couldn't attend his Guardian's braiding with his weapons in disarray. Now he was cold to the bone and empty of emotion, and so he couldn't understand why he had to keep stopping what he was doing to wipe his streaming eyes.
When everything was orderly he boiled some water and made himself something to drink, then laboriously stripped off his travelling clothes and changed into some sleeping linens before getting into bed. He wedged his injured shoulder with a pillow and tried to sleep but his body had not yet concurred with his mind's decision to abstain from love, and in the velvety darkness he was slowly flooded with desire. Haldir groaned and squeezed his legs together over his erection but it refused to subside, so he eased himself quickly, trying not to think of Legolas as he did so, but it was impossible not to remember the sweetness of his mouth and his hard slender body. He came with a dry choking gasp, but afterwards he still ached with longing, and it was then that he knew absolutely that what he felt for Legolas was more than just the desire of the body.
'I will see him when I can, weakness though it is in me,' he whispered to himself. 'If he hasn't already forgotten me…'
But Legolas had said he would be waiting for him, and even though Haldir's old self would have found the notion laughable, the strange new self that he was now hoped fervently that it was true.
The next morning Haldir received the Guardian's braids from Galadriel and Celeborn, and all who saw him afterwards marked the change in him, and ascribed it to the burden that he had taken on to his shoulders on that day. For no-one knew what he kept hidden in his heart since he never spoke a word of it to anyone, although his brothers thought they had guessed the truth of it. Gone was the Haldir who took lovers as easily as he took air into his lungs; but when he put aside his carefree ways, he also lost some of the spark of lightheartedness that had lit him from within; and although he was gentler than before there was less laughter about him and more sternness.
In the first years after he had parted from Legolas, he built on the foundations he had laid when he had formed the companies of the pellarim from those willing to go beyond the borders of Lorien. Never since Amroth's day had Lorien been so well defended. Haldir oversaw the training of every elf who took up arms, and those who came to maturity under his leadership were hardy and resourceful as well as skilful in all the crafts a warrior should know. His captains were the most gifted of those who sought to serve Lorien, and all who fought under him grew to respect and love him, especially now that none had cause to complain of a broken heart at his hands.
Although these were the years of the Watchful Peace, and a time of bliss and plenty for the elves, never did Haldir let the defences of Lorien lapse, knowing that one day Sauron would return. And indeed he never wished to be spared the smallest particle of his duty, because unoccupied he would have to face the longing which he carried with him always, and which could not be assuaged.
1. Hirgon composite name, from hir-lord and gon-stone
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