6. Falls the Remorseful Day
"To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before."
In the summer of the year that Calen turned four, Thranduil finally gave in to Legolas's repeated requests to be allowed to see how things fared in the world of Men. Obeying Thranduil's dictum to give Erebor, now teeming with orcs and other foul creatures of the Enemy, a wide berth, Legolas led the scouting party to Laketown himself.
He stood now, at the end of what had been the causeway. Big fluffy cumulus clouds drifted serenely across a brilliant blue sky. A warm breeze riffled the waters of the lake. Yet all was silence save for the roar of the falls off to the south.
The blackened stubs of rotting pilings poked up through the water, recalling to his mind the devastation over eighty years past when Smaug had fallen on the old town in his death plunge. A short distance to the south the lake birds still wheeled and dipped above a patch of water that sparkled with the fire of gemstones below, flying low to snatch up an occasional unlucky fish in their claws.
From the rushes at Legolas's feet came the whir of wings, and a flash of blue shot upward. A startled muskrat that had been drowsing in the shelter of the bank launched itself out into the water, leaving a vee of ripples in its wake.
Watching the heron flap off, its blue plumage a brighter spot against the azure of the sky, Legolas paused to let his heartbeat return to normal. 'Where do they go when the summer ends and the sun dips low in its passage across the sky, turning the air cold?' he wondered, recalling a day long past when he had pondered the same question along with a heartbreakingly young Aragorn. 'To what strange lands and climes?'
The memory came back with full force: standing with Aragorn at the south end of the lake with the roar of the falls in his ears and the spray against his cheeks, gazing out over the precipice at the faint silver ribbon of the Celduin winding its way southeastward toward the Sea of Rhûn. On that long-ago morning, his heart had been filled with a hunger to see those far off lands, a desire so keen he could almost taste it. Time, he had told himself. There would be all the time in the world to travel with his friend and stand at his side.
"Oh, Aragorn," he sighed, "where are you now?"
No answer came. Only the sough of the wind and the soft chuckle of the wavelets against the bank.
"Legolas." Glavras' voice brought him back to the present. "There is something you must see."
Past the remains of the guard hut, Glavras led him to a spot where the blackened earth of a makeshift forge still showed in places through the long grass. Beyond that, hidden by a clump of brambles, they found a jumbled pile of skulls and bones, tossed heedlessly aside like so much garbage.
Glavras kicked at a broken link of chain that lay half-buried in the dirt, rusted from four years' exposure to the wind and rain. "They killed those inclined to fight and led away the women and children for slaves."
Legolas shook his head, remembering his trips to Laketown, with the rough but kindly men who shared their ale with him and the laughing barmaids who had caressed him with their eyes. Thranduil had always warned him never to become unduly fond of mortals; they did not live long enough, he said. Not that Legolas had listened . . .
"This was a mistake," he said, his voice grating in his own ears. "The world of Men is finished. There is nothing for us here. Nothing."
It was a dispirited group that Legolas led back through the Girdle and westward along the river path toward the caves. However, as they reached the ranks of beeches and came in sight of the great gates, a small figure came hurtling across the stone bridge, its pale hair streaming behind. "Daddy!"
Legolas choked back a sob as he gathered his son up into his arms, feeling the pain leave him. 'Why do I have the strength to go on?' he asked himself, as he buried his face in Calen's hair. 'This is why. And it is enough.'
* * *
The years passed, and the elves of Mirkwood learned to make do with what the forest provided. They drank wine made from gathered berries. They ate venison, and bread made from nuts. They wore leather and silk, which was in plentiful supply from the spiders. Thranduil, in his cups, was wont to laugh and say that even the humblest of his folk dressed better than kings. Oropher's vision of a life natural to elves had come, at last, to pass.
Calen grew from a sweet child who learned his harp without a murmur and brought injured animals to his mother in the healers' ward, into a gentle young man with his father's hair and his grandsire's bright blue eyes. Upon reaching his majority, he found his vocation as a healer, taking his place beside Nestalinde.
Despite the wizard's girdle, Thranduil's soldiers remained ever vigilant. As his father's ablest warrior, Legolas was often away from home for weeks at a time supervising the border patrols that stood guard against an invasion from Dol Guldur that never came. And with each time away, came the joy of homecoming as he returned to the arms of his wife. With Calen long past his majority, they even began to speak tentatively of another child. Legolas had never been so happy.
No news from the outside reached them until a day in the last weeks of Ninui, one hundred and twenty-three years following the battle under the trees, when two men made their way through the Girdle and were brought by the border patrols to the stronghold.
Legolas, summoned from the sword-practice chambers, arrived in the throne room still in his shirtsleeves. With a quick nod to Radagast, who had come to stand high in Thranduil's esteem during the past hundred years, Legolas took his place beside the throne, just as the guards conducted the pair into the King's presence. He heard his father gasp softly. "Elladan Peredhel!"
Legolas would scarcely have recognised the son of Elrond, so changed was he. A jagged scar marred his right cheek, pulling the corner of his mouth up into a perpetual sneer, and his hair showed streaks of grey.
However Legolas's eyes were only for the aged man who leaned on Elladan's arm. His dull hair was white, his face deeply lined. His wizened body was bent with the weight of too many winters, and he shuffled beside his companion with slow faltering steps. "Aragorn . . ."
Ignoring protocol, Legolas leaped down from the dais and rushed to their side. The old man looked up at him with a vacant stare. "Who are you? Do I know you?" he said, just before he staggered and fell heavily against Elladan's shoulder.
"Healers! Fetch the healers," Legolas shouted, and a footman ran off to do his bidding.
"And a chair," added Thranduil.
Galion, ever at the ready, swiftly produced a chair and Elladan eased Aragorn down onto it. "You must forgive my foster brother, my Lord Thranduil. The years have not dealt kindly with him."
"Nor with you, it seems," Thranduil muttered. "What brings you to my halls, Master Elladan?"
"Even the blood of Númenor cannot fend off the hand of time, especially after a life of such travail. Aragorn's life is ending, and I bring him to you, my Lord Thranduil, that he might have a sanctuary in his last days. The time draws close. I think he will not last beyond the anniversary of his birth on the first day of Gwaeron."
"Elrohir," Legolas interrupted. "What of Elrohir?"
Elladan gave him a sharp look. "He fell in battle, many years ago. On the docks at Harlond, before the White City."
He paused and bent his head, seemingly lost in old grief. "If only we had not been so slow. But Indavir, used to the light of Imladris, hesitated to go underground at the Paths of the Dead. His horse balked and hampered by his own fear he could not make it obey. We lost precious time waiting for him to master his mount and himself, for Aragorn refused to leave one of his Fellowship behind."
"We know nothing of the events outside our own realm," Thranduil prompted. "Be plain. What happened?"
"We came too late; that is what happened," Elladan said, his face twisted with emotion. "Our ships sailed up the Anduin, and we began to unfurl our banner, preparing to do battle. But all was devastation before us, with the city in flames and that cursed captain of the Nazgûl flying his evil beast over the plain. I saw it right away -- we had no chance, and Elrohir saw it too. All we could do was to convince Estel to get out of there -- to save the last Hope of Men."
Elladan took a deep breath and covered his face with his hands. "He would not leave, though. Not until four squads of Haradrim came at us and Elrohir and Indavir fell holding them off. The dwarf died too, on the end of a Southron's spear. He made a good accounting with that axe of his before the end; even though he and Indavir had never gotten along, he avenged his death. Halbarad and I managed to drag Aragorn away, and we escaped along with the remnant of our army. We've been hiding and fighting ever since."
Nestalinde arrived then, with Calen in her wake. She bent over Aragorn, gentle hands measuring the beat of his pulse. With an encouraging smile, she offered him a draught of their precious miruvor. Aragorn managed to choke down a few drops and smiled back. "Arwen . . .?"
In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Elladan turned anguished eyes upon Thranduil. "Do you know what running from a battle does to a man's spirit, my lord?"
Thranduil sighed. His face was stern but his tone kindly. "Yes, Elladan, I do. What of your father? What became of Master Elrond?"
Elladan shook his head. "When Sauron the Accursed put that Ring back onto his finger all our secrets were revealed to him. Vilya, so long our shield, became our undoing. The forces of the Enemy found Imladris and they spared nothing in bringing it down."
Legolas shot a quick glance at his father, whose mouth had set into a grim line of comprehension. They had spoken of it little, but Thranduil had long suspected that the other Elven realms held the Golodhren Rings of Power. This confirmed it.
"After the rout at the Pelennor, we headed north straightway," Elladan went on, "but it took us weeks, evading orcs all the way, and . . ." He paused, his face pinched with grief. "When we reached the valley there were none but the carrion birds to welcome us."
Thranduil covered his face with his hands. "Oh, alas!"
"He knows," Elladan said, laying a gentle hand on Aragorn's shoulder. "He knows she's dead. He saw the evidence with his own eyes. I think the reason he has allowed his wits to wander at the end is so that he might know the balm of forgetfulness. How I wish I could do the same."
Elladan looked up, and Legolas found himself transfixed by piercing grey eyes. "He deserves a little peace, a comfortable spot to lay his body down in death. He fought so long and so bravely for so little. He was a man, my brother Aragorn. Unlike you, Legolas. On the whole, she was wrong to think so highly of you."
A gasp ran through the assembled elves at this slur to their Prince.
Legolas shot a quick glance at the throne, where Thranduil had narrowed his eyes and tightened his hand around the shaft of his carved wooden scepter. The staff was no mere decorative prop; Legolas has seen his father sling it once with deadly accuracy at a spiderling that had stolen in on the heels of a careless guard. He sensed now that Thranduil would not hesitate to send it flying at Elladan in rebuke for insolence toward a member of his family, great-great-grandson of Lúthien or no.
He gave a subtle shake of his head, staying Thranduil's angry hand. Elladan spoke out of grief rather than contempt. "She?" said Legolas, although he knew the answer well enough.
"I would have given anything for a smile from Gilraen, or a kind word from her lips," Elladan continued. "But she blamed me for Arathorn's death and would not be swayed. You, Legolas, you, she loved."
"Loved?" Legolas murmured. "I never knew." And then, at the pain in Elladan's eyes, the other revelation: "I never knew."
"She let you hold her hand while she died. She let you promise to take care of Aragorn, as you would a son. And what did you do, Prince?" Elladan shook his head, his voice choked with emotion. "At the last moment, you broke your vow and deserted him. You have spent almost a long-year living the good life in your father's halls while Estel and I have slept in ditches and caves fighting Sauron and his minions. You are forsworn, Legolas Thranduilion!"
"What?" Legolas responded, stung at the truth of it. "What could I have done to change any of this? I am only one man."
"Who knows what small thing will change the tide of fate? At least you could have tried."
The doors at the end of the throne room flew open, this time without the aid of any footmen. A dark-haired figure stalked into the room, his russet and gold robes streaming out behind him. "Did somebody just speak my name?"
Once again, Legolas found himself staring into a pair of amber eyes that twinkled with malicious amusement. Eyes he had not seen since Elrond's council. "You . . ." he whispered.
The sensuous lips curled upward in a smile. "Well met, Prince. And indeed, what small thing might you have done had you not taken my counsel that day? Fortunately for me, you did take it."
With a swift glance downward, Legolas noticed what had escaped his attention on that long ago bright morning in Imladris: the missing forefinger on the stranger's left hand. And now, on the middle finger of that same hand, a gold ring gleamed. "You!"
"At last you begin to understand who and what I am. I have borne many names. Mairon. Gorthaur. Sauron. But your kind knew me once as Annatar, and what a gift I gave you, Thranduilion! Your heart's desire -- a beautiful wife who loves you, a strong, handsome son. Tell me, are you not grateful?"
Legolas glanced quickly about the throne room. Why were the others not reacting? Save for a collective shudder when the stranger entered, the assembled elves stood quietly. Too quietly. They barely seemed to breathe.
Time had begun to behave strangely. In the sconces, the candle-flames ceased their flickering, standing frozen for several heartbeats only to start up again fitfully with the slow undulation of reeds underwater. Legolas realized that no one else could see the stranger or hear the two of them as they spoke. Except . . .
To the left of the throne, the brown wizard had snapped to attention, glaring at the newcomer. Radagast. Radagast could see him too.
"Did you think your puny girdle could keep me out, brother?" Sauron asked, focusing his attention to the throne. "You always were a bird-loving fool. I, and my servants, could come in any time I wanted. I merely chose not to do so until now."
Legolas felt his heart turn to lead within his chest. The secret spells had not sealed the gates against Sauron either. "Will you kill us now?"
Sauron turned back and laughed. "Why should I want to do that, Prince? I have you exactly where I want you. I confess, of all of them, your father was the one who gave me the most worry. He held a realm against me for the better part of an Age with no Ring of Power to aid him. But in the end, you, the long-awaited son Olórin gave him only to use you as a pawn, were the key to bringing him down."
He turned his attention to Aragorn, slumped in his chair beneath Nestalinde's hand. "Your hope is dying. The world outside belongs to me now. Here you all will stay in your precious woods, becoming creatures of cave and dell, forgetting and forgotten."
Legolas shut his eyes in horror. 'Ai, Elbereth, what have I done? I have put my son into a cage . . .'
If only he could go back to that day so long ago and undo his folly. If only . . .
There is always hope, a small still voice said in his mind, for those with the courage to see it through . . .
"Radagast!" Legolas's head snapped up. "Radagast, can you put me back? Please help me make this right again!"
Legolas watched as a beatific smile suffused the brown wizard's face. "At last I know why Yavanna sent me," he said with a laugh. "I who once existed outside of time and the material world can go there again. And I can take you with me."
"You cannot," Sauron hissed. "Even I have not the ability to do such a thing."
"Don't be so sure," Radagast said. "You should have paid more heed to the minor strains of the Music. Evil has great power. It has always been thus. But the Good retains strength beyond your ken. My love for the beasts and the birds of the air has increased me, while you have diluted your essence into that Ring of yours. Radagast the fool, Aiwendil the afterthought has one last burst of magic left in him, my fallen brother, and there is nothing you can do to stop me."
"Nothing?" replied Sauron, although his smile did not cover the chill of fear in his eyes. "Nothing except to point out to this elf what a price he will pay for it. It is exceedingly dear, Prince," he said, with a pointed look at Calen, who stood beside his mother.
Legolas froze, as the understanding washed over him. Slowly, those around him seemed to have sensed that something was amiss. Thranduil's face showed a dawning fear. Nestalinde gazed at him with sorrow, yet the look in her deep grey eyes was one of acceptance. Calen merely looked confused.
'Oh, my son, my beautiful son,' he thought. 'If I do this thing, if I do what is right, you will never be. All else, I can sacrifice: father, wife, my own life if need be, but this?'
And yet, how could he not?
His heart ached with love for them. With his coming of age vision of a green leaf withering in its branch, Legolas had expected to live single and die young, leading him to the knives and bow rather than the more peaceful pursuits his father urged upon him. What an unexpected joy his wife and child had been! He had savored every moment as if stolen from a harsh destiny: lying beside Nestalinde in the night and waking to her smile; watching his son grow into a splendid young man.
He now realized that in following his own happiness he had bound his strange fate inextricably with that of his own son, and both would share in his choice. Thranduil's parting words before his departure for Rivendell rang in his ears: "You are like an arrow aimed at my heart." How true!
And yet, he recalled his father's other words: "Better to die on your feet fighting like a man than on your knees weeping like a slave." Better not to live at all than to live in a cage.
Sauron scowled as if sensing Legolas's growing resolve. "Don't be a fool! If you leave these woods and venture into my land, I guarantee you will not return whole."
"If that is what must be," Legolas said, fighting to keep the grief from his voice as the arrow transfixed him. He turned to the wizard. "Radagast -- let it be done."
The wizard nodded and gave him a smile whose edges softened with sympathy. "Stay resolute, Legolas. He will no longer be able to approach you."
As Legolas steeled himself, he saw Radagast allow the veil to fall away. The old brown man grew taller, younger, a being of blazing light and beauty.
As the light swelled around him, outshining the flickering candles, and Sauron screamed in negation, Legolas fixed his eyes upon his son. 'I promise you, Calen, I will not forget you. I will survive, and I will come home. You will live again; I will find a way back . . .'
* * *
Legolas came back to himself in the golden light of Elrond's council chamber. He blinked hard, and watched a leaf resume its gentle fall to earth. Something nagged at the edges of his mind. Something he knew he needed to remember -- something important -- but the more he tried to recapture it, the more the memory slipped away and dissipated like a puff of mist off the Forest River in the hot sun.
He turned, only to see an empty chair beside him. Had not someone been there just a moment before? And why did he feel this awful ache in his heart?
Aragorn, the last hope of Men, the man Legolas loved like a son -- and why did that word cause him such grief? -- knelt at the feet of a hobbit. "If by my life or death I can protect you, I will. You have my sword."
Mordor. They would be going to Mordor, to stand on the very spot where grandfather Oropher had left this life. Legolas knew he would not return unscathed -- if he returned at all.
Trust to hope, said a small still voice in his mind, and Legolas nodded. This was his strange fate.
'To whatever end awaits, my friend,' he vowed, and stepped forward, his voice ringing clear and strong. "And you have my bow . . ."
'Leave your home behind, lad,
And reach your friends your hand,
And go, and luck go with you . . .'
A.E. Houseman, The Recruit