26. Chapter Twenty Five
'Yes, the colour of the sky has changed,' said Rumil. 'It was the first thing we noticed when we came out from under the trees of Mirkwood. Even from there it could be seen, whenever we went out hunting to the east of the wood. Something is stirring in Mordor.'
Haldir nodded, half his mind pondering this meteorological strangeness, the other half very aware of the letter which his brothers had brought back to him from Mirkwood only an hour before, and which was folded up in the deepest pocket of his shirt with only a single layer of cloth separating it from his skin. He would not read it straight away. It was too precious for that, since there would be no others for a long time. He would savour its presence, maybe until tomorrow or the next day. Haldir smiled to himself. It was all he could do not to tear open the seal and read it this very minute.
'What schemes are you hatching, brother? I recognise that secret look on your face,' said Orophin, pausing momentarily from eating. It was the first thing he had said for some minutes.
'You haven't lost the power of speech, then?' said Haldir. 'Didn't they feed you at all in Mirkwood?'
'I think the King would have been only too pleased if any relative of yours could be extinguished as quickly as possible, if his honour were not actively involved in their demise,' said Orophin morosely, helping himself to another portion of stew.
'So it didn't go well,' said Haldir.
'If by 'go well', you mean had Thranduil spent the months Legolas was away at Dol Guldur planning his impending nuptials, then no, it didn't go well. But the prince and his father seem as close as ever, despite what Thranduil considers to be your irritating presence in Legolas' life.'
'It was something of a shock to him,' said Haldir.
'So you've taken to eating bread again, Haldir. Pass me some, will you?' said Orophin.
'His stomach always comes first,' said Rumil. 'You'll get no sympathy from him until he's well-fed.'
'I don't want his sympathy,' said Haldir waspishly. 'Only whatever intelligence he's brought back with him.'
'Intelligence? Well, there you may be expecting a little too much…'
Rumil ducked as a well-aimed spoon came perilously close to his head.
'As to intelligence, the King is as close on the subject of his military plans as he has always been. He let Saelon take us round the guardroom workshops twice, and to visit the defence posts three times. Even Saelon himself was embarrassed by the end. On the subject of the alliance the King said not a single word, despite Legolas' gentle attempts to persuade him.'
'Can we go now, Haldir?' said Orophin getting to his feet and yawning hugely. 'If there's any more news we can tell you tomorrow.'
Haldir waved his hand dismissively.
'I'm sorry you weren't here to celebrate the New Year,' he said.
'But you kept us a bottle or two, didn't you?' said Orophin.
Haldir went to the kitchen and came back with three bottles of red wine. Orophin made a sound of appreciation and tucked them neatly into his travelling pack before going to the edge of the talan and beginning to descend.
'Haldir,' said Rumil, pausing on the threshold. 'How is Cerveth?'
Haldir looked away, and his brother saw the answer in his face. Rumil sighed deeply.
'So you're blaming yourself as usual,' he said.
'He was my responsibility,' said Haldir. 'I failed him.' He sat down heavily in a chair.
'Do you still think that you can avert all danger, like you tried to do for me and Orophin when we were elflings?' Rumil said softly.
Haldir bowed his head, his face set and stubborn.
'Brother…' said Rumil after a time, a different note in his voice. 'You might like to know…Legolas was well when we left him. I'm to say that you must come and see him as soon as you can, and that he will not brook a refusal.'
'How can I, Rumil?' said Haldir wearily. 'He must know it's impossible.'
'It isn't impossible. Don't deny yourself any more than you must, Haldir.'
Haldir sighed noisily. Rumil laid his hand gently on his arm. At last Haldir smiled, tilting his head back and looking at him upside down.
'Thank you, Rumil. And thank you for taking the trouble to make the journey for my sake.'
Rumil leaned down and kissed him on the side of the head, then turned and descended the ladder to the ground. Haldir waited until his steps had died away before reaching into his shirt and taking out the letter. It was thick and heavy, made up of several pages of creamy parchment sealed with green wax and impressed with a beech leaf. Haldir had never noticed Legolas wearing a ring with a seal on it: he must remember to ask him about it next time they met.
He slid his finger slowly under the fold of the paper, ready to break the seal, but a wave of pure longing washed over him. He closed his eyes, stroking the rough nap of the parchment with his thumb, and it was then that he realised where the longing had come from: the letter carried with it the fragrance of Legolas' body. Haldir lifted it to his face and breathed in deeply, and at once tears came into his eyes. Yes, it was his light, musky smell, right here in the room with him. This was the nearest he had come to Legolas for four months, and it would be many more months – years, even – before he would come any closer.
He felt his throat tighten with grief and tears threatened to spill from his eyes. But he blinked them back, not wanting to stain the letter: he must make every pristine detail of it last for as long as he could. This time the seal broke with a little cracking noise, and he unfolded the sheets. There were seven of them, closely written on both sides. The opening was dated the same day that Legolas had parted from him, and glancing quickly through the whole screed he saw that it was a kind of diary, with entries over the months since then, finishing on the day Rumil and Orophin took their leave to come home to Lorien.
Carefully he flattened the sheets with his left hand, then began to read.
November 10th 2953 Anduin
My dearest, most beloved Haldir,
I have taken the first watch. This is the coldest night I have ever spent, since not only does my body long for you beside me, but my heart cries out to you also. If I didn't believe that one day we would no longer have to part, I would not be able to bear the pain of leaving you. Indeed I can scarcely bear it. Your brothers are kind and good company, but their resemblance to you makes your absence even sharper: every moment I am reminded of you, and yet every moment the distance between us increases.
Haldir flung down the letter on the table and stood up, pressing both hands to his temples. Moments later he had snatched it up again and was reading on, pacing restlessly up and down the room.
The only thing I can do to bring us closer is to keep this letter next to my heart, against my skin, so that when you touch it you will know it has touched me too. Forgive me, Haldir, I know I sound foolish, like an elfling writing his first tentative words of love before he has even reached his majority, but my own dignity is the least of my concerns tonight. If you were to ask me now to spend the winter with you in Lorien, I would turn away from my duty and come to you willingly.
Haldir groaned out loud, unable to prevent himself from crushing the edge of the parchment in his hand. Quickly he smoothed it out and sitting down on the edge of his bed, read on.
I must end, Haldir, for if I don't, I will get up and kick earth on the fire and rouse your brothers from sleep, and tell them we are turning back to Lorien at once. I will put this letter away and turn my face towards Anduin and let his deep current soothe me. The moonlight is shining on his waters which are flowing towards you. I will watch them, knowing that in a few hours they will stream past Lorien. In truth, Haldir, we are not so far apart, however great the distance between us, for you are here in my heart, and always will be.
December 1st 2953 Mirkwood
Haldir, I could not write before. Partly because of the hardship of the journey, for the snow worsened and made travelling almost impossible. But partly because after that first night I didn't trust myself to write, for it made the wound of leaving you too raw. It is raw again tonight. I'm in my house, alone. It is some hours past midnight.
My father made a great celebration of my return. I think he truly thought that this time he would not see me again, although whether he had a greater fear of Dol Guldur or of you, Haldir, I don't know. I accepted the many toasts that were made in my honour, and also in your brothers' honour, in thanks for Lorien's part in the expedition to Dol Guldur. Many have begun to speak openly about moving closer in alliance to Lorien, but though my father smiles politely I cannot say whether his mind has changed. If there were a rapprochement, I could see you more often, Haldir, until we can be together for good.
The snow is deep outside. I know in Lorien you are somewhat protected from the extremes of the elements, so I hope you're warm. Or maybe you're on duty at the White Gate, or at Cerin Amroth. Whichever it is, I am with you, Haldir. It's hard to be alone here tonight, remembering how you came to me in this house, and how we loved one another. There is nothing that does not speak to me of you.
December 22nd 2953 Mirkwood
My beloved Haldir,
I drank too much last night at the festival and my head is still aching. I wish you could have been here with me, but since that's what I think every moment of every day, there's nothing new in it. I know what you will be doing: working as hard as you can, taking on everyone else's duties, reading those lore books you keep in the guardroom. And you're right. We must do what we can to abate the pain of being apart. There's little to keep us occupied in this cold, but I've been planning a new garden which I will begin in the spring. You must come and see it soon, Haldir, and maybe you could bring me some of the plants and flowers of Lorien to try out in it. I know the mallorn was not happy outside my door, but as I told you, he needs a mate, so bring me some seeds. Or send them if you can't come yourself.
Haldir, there's going to be a war. Oh, you know it as well as I do, but each year I'm more sure of it. We have noticed changes in Mordor, chiefly in the skies. Clouds and lights too strange to be caused by mere weather. And when the war comes we will defeat the enemy. I will do what I can, and I know you will. And when it's over everything will be new, and we will be together.
It seems so easy to write it down, a goose quill scratching shapes on a leaf of parchment. I can't see how it will be, but I know it nevertheless.
It is then I begin to imagine our life together. There's so much I don't know about you, Haldir. Will you wish to live in comfort or simplicity? Will we fight over where to put things, or will it be a matter of complete indifference to both of us? What will we do when we no longer have to watch for the enemy? Swim in Anduin? Or will you prefer the pleasures of dry land instead?
It cheers me to think of these things, and yet at the same time it breaks my heart. I have the lock of your hair beside me. When I sleep, I will put it under my pillow. Keep yourself safe, Haldir, for your sake, and for mine.
You know that I love you.
February 3rd 2953 Mirkwood
Haldir, my father has mentioned your name for the first time since you left Mirkwood. It was accidental: he was addressing Rumil, and your name came to his mind instead. But it prompted him to speak of you later, when we were alone.
He asked me whether my foolish infatuation was not yet over, and whether I had chosen a suitable mate to bear my son. My asking what my father would do if I had a daughter instead did not improve the temperature in the room. I tried to calm matters by telling him I would be by his side for as long as he needed me, but he accused me of waiting for him to die so that I could go my own way. Haldir, he is impossible sometimes. He knows I love him and he has my loyalty, but once he has fallen into a dark mood, nothing will shift him from it.
More and more he speaks of Doriath and of Dagorlad, and it seems to him that there is nothing we can do to hold back the darkness that is coming ever closer to his realm. I am more hopeful than he is, but it's not enough to cheer him. I think I'm the only one now to whom he speaks his true mind. For others he shoulders the burden of Kingship, caring for his people like a true father. But I, whose father he is, help to carry the burden. I don't begrudge the task: indeed I'm glad to do what I can to help him.
But sometimes his grief weighs me down, Haldir. In this mood he has no hope for the future: he thinks it will all come to nothing. He is wrong, but why should he listen to me, who have never seen the dark lord face to face as he has, even when I have been to Dol Guldur.
I send you my love, Haldir.
March 1st 2953 Mirkwood
Your brothers are preparing to return home so I must finish my letter. What can I say to you? You know I wish I were coming with them, instead of taking up my sword and my bow and riding out to guard duty again. What can I send you? I have asked myself the question since first I came home to Mirkwood, and haven't yet found an answer.
Rumil and Orophin won't be leaving until the day after tomorrow, so I'll try to find something by then. I hope the spring is come to Lorien: probably it comes earlier to you than to us. Haldir, I have re-read the beginning of this letter, and I am grieved that I let so much of my own pain into the words. But I will not change it now, for though it may hurt you, it will make you more sure of my love for you. Leaving you was like being torn in two, and…
Haldir looked up suddenly, the letter in his hand. He could hear a strange sound, a deep resonant hum. Beside him on the table, the half-finished wine in Orophin's glass was vibrating, and tiny droplets were leaping up to the rim of the glass and falling back like dark raindrops. Carefully Haldir placed his hand flat on the table, and he felt the vibration through the wood. It was coming up through his feet as well, and outside the bare branches were tapping together as if a strong wind had just risen. It was still deep night, but now there was light in the sky: he could see the way it fell thick and slanting on to the floor. Laying down the letter on the table, he went quickly to the edge of his talan.
There was no wind. The light was red, and the noise was getting louder. Suddenly the floor lurched and he was thrown down, scrabbling on the wooden boards to save himself. The low hum became a deep rumble, then a roar, accompanied by voices outside crying out in fear. Seizing hold of the table, Haldir dragged himself to his feet, then threw himself down the ladder, which swung so violently from side to side he was nearly thrown off. He began to run towards the guardroom, but the ground quaked beneath his feet and he fell many times on the way.
Several of his captains were there before him, some in their sleeping-clothes, all with expressions of ill-concealed fear which he knew must mirror his own.
'What news?' he demanded.
'None,' said Rumil. 'It could be anything, Haldir. A trick of the enemy, or…something worse…'
The ground shook again suddenly. Rumil staggered but caught hold of Haldir and they managed to stay upright.
'Is it Durin's Bane?' he whispered.
'No,' said Haldir, 'although the light is the same. Rumil, come with me.'
Galadriel and Celeborn were waiting for them. They wanted Haldir to wait until the trembling of the earth had passed before climbing to the watch post at the very top of their talan, but he made himself a harness with some rope and went up straight away, for the watch post looked south east to Mordor and was closer than either Cerin Amroth or the Tongue.
'So, it has come,' he said to himself quietly, as he looked out at the boiling red sky far away over Mordor, clinging on to the trunk which shook as if it were in the middle of a strong gale. Mount Orodruin was awake again, and the earth trembled even in Lorien. 'The Ring has not passed away. The dark lord's power grows, and we will have to face him in battle again.'
He watched in silence for a long time, his heart heavy with grief for those who would perish in the conflict that would surely come. He wondered whether he and Legolas would be among their number.
It was nearly dawn when the earth stopped quaking. Haldir climbed down to Galadriel and Celeborn's talan and unfastened the harness which had secured him to the great mallorn. All around him were smashed objects: glasses and pots and vases, and the wooden bench that had been built around the trunk of the mallorn had split half way across. Haldir looked at Galadriel sadly.
'So it begins again,' he said.
Galadriel nodded. 'At least we are prepared,' she said. Celeborn stood behind her, his hand on her shoulder. They were both pale but there was an undeniable strength in them as they stood calmly before him.
'Will it be enough, what we have done to prepare?' whispered Haldir.
'Yes,' she said simply. 'We've done everything we can, Haldir. We can do no more than that.'
'Do you think it will be soon, Lady?'
'Soon enough. He must build up his forces and bring his allies together, but there is no longer any doubt that he will do so.'
Haldir sighed deeply. 'We will be ready,' he said.
Although the tremors had passed no-one felt like being alone so Haldir spent some hours in the guardroom, drinking with the guards. The place was full and some of his warriors had their partners and even their children with them, so reluctant were they to be parted from them after the frightening events of the night. Everyone wanted to be near him, as if being Guardian of Lorien he could avert danger by his mere presence. Haldir did what he could to bring comfort to those who found it by his side, and at last when the bitter red light passed and the sun came out again, people began to drift away back to their own homes.
Haldir walked wearily back to his own talan and climbed the ladder. Amazingly only one glass was broken: all the rest of his belongings were intact. The letter was where he had left it; he was astonished to find he had forgotten all about it. Picking it up, he saw that he had reached the last page.
I will not be whole until we are together again. Whatever dangers come between us, they can't keep us always apart. Keep up your heart, and I will do the same, my dearest, most beloved Haldir.
I am yours.
Just below there was a scrawled note.
Rumil has a gift for you.
'Rumil!' said Haldir out loud. He folded up the letter carefully and put it into the pocket of his shirt, then took it out again and slid it behind the fabric against his skin. His gut clenched with longing as the light fragrance of Legolas' body came up to him from the parchment.
He knew he should try to sleep, but what with Mount Orodruin and his brothers returning and the letter, he knew it was a waste of time trying.
It took him quite a while to wake Rumil.
'What do you want, Haldir?' his brother mumbled. 'We can't do anything about it. It's a force of nature.'
'I came to get my gift. The one Legolas gave you for me.'
'A gift? I don't remember any gift,' said Rumil, pushing himself up reluctantly on his elbow. 'Well, there was something he gave me when we were leaving, but it's just a dirty piece of cloth.'
'Give it to me,' demanded Haldir.
Rumil got up, grumbling to himself, and rummaged in his pack.
'Here,' he said, and fell back into bed.
It was a piece of woollen cloth, ragged and dirty. Haldir unfolded it, and whatever was inside it fell to the floor. Reaching down he saw that it was a handful of beech mast.
'Did he…say anything about the gift?' said Haldir, bemused.
'Haldir, can't we talk about it later…' groaned Rumil.
'Think, Rumil! What did he say?'
Rumil groaned again, but he did think.
'Ah, I remember. He said you were to plant them soon, since he had gathered them at the end of the autumn and they would not last much longer out of the earth. And he said…before they were fully grown, you would be together. He said he was to have a new garden, and so must you. Now, can I go to sleep?'
Haldir sat on his brother's bed, listening to his gentle breathing. The beech mast lay in his hand, and looking at it, it was almost as if he could see the green shoots hidden in the unimposing brown shells. There was life in these hard husks, and if he cared for it, it would grow.
For the first time he felt a faint echo of hope: yes, there would be war, but maybe they would win. Maybe Thranduil would make alliance with them. Maybe things would happen of which nobody had yet even dreamed, and which would bring them the victory despite the enemy's formidable strength. They had defeated Sauron before, so why not again? And when the enemy was defeated, then he and Legolas could be together.
Haldir wrapped up the cloth and thrust it into the pocket of his shirt, then began to climb down the ladder, wondering where would be the best place to plant his beech trees.