11. 11 - A Night For The Daring
- Chapter 11 / A Night For The Daring -
It had been several days since I had returned to Edoras, prompted by Elswide who knew nothing of my project to travel to Mirkwood, bearing what I had then thought to be news of death. Too empty and shocked to feel grief, I had obeyed her gentle urging. The city was still they way we had left it: untouched by war, which had finally triggered the anger I had carried in me since the grim news. I had seen enough of war-waging and carnage; I was leaving. And so it was halfway through Edoras that I had seen him ride into the city, all golden splendour and hero's glory, at the King's side.
Alive! Deaf to the shouts of joy of the crowd I had stood frozen, dissecting the vision and fearing it might be naught but a dream born from my wishful thinking. But no; Legolas lived, Aragorn and Théoden King as well. They had returned victorious from a battle in which fate had switched favourites at the very last moment. And all my hopes had risen from their ashes.
He had even smiled at me as he rode by, adored and admired by the crowd, a living symbol of those ancient and glorious times where our two races were friends and comrades in arms rather than occasional allies; and I, shaking in shock, had only stared back like a mare about to be put down. Thinking back about those instants, I wished my wits had not abandoned me so at the mercy of his charm, in so vexing and strange a situation.
Legolas had then noticed my attire and frowned, turning his head to look at me again, but I would not deceive my heart by thinking it was because of any beauty I then possessed. My clothes were simple and fit for a journey, a bag of provisions at my side; and I knew he must have wondered at my destination. Or perhaps not… I had remained in Edoras, but had not seen Legolas since that day. He had not come asking after me, and the possibility that the prospect of me leaving left him indifferent hurt in ways I could compare to no other pain I had ever felt.
I glared at the mirror and, from behind the polished metallic surface, the image glared back. Not good enough, I thought as I straightened my dress with trembling hands. I would never be good enough, for it had fate's decision and not mine to bring me into this world with mortal blood instead of elven. And never before had I resented this, until now.
Willing the tremors of nervousness away, I stepped back to get a better and maybe more objective look at the result. Truth to be told, I was rather satisfied with my appearance: the dress lent by Elswide complimented my figure, but not in a way that would flatter my curves more than my modesty. Besides, said curves were yet to be regained, for dire times had left me with more bone than flesh. No jewels, save for the signet ring I had yet to return to Legolas' possession. Pale, frightened eyes stared back at me as I reached my face. They would betray me, if my hands did not…
Cursed be this feeling in the pit of my stomach, this nervousness born out of nowhere that darkened the moments that should have been carefree! And cursed be my desire to seek out a man whom I should not be thinking of. Legolas would not, could not be interested in anything I had to offer – at this was so little! So spoke my reason. But my heart, the shrivelled up thing that still beat in my chest despite all my efforts to smother its voice, reminded me of all the times where he had sought me out of his own free will. Tonight was a night for celebration, a night for the young and the daring. For once, I would go find him… And come what may.
I turned away from the ghostly image, breaking the line of thought, and walked out; instantly, light and laughter and the distant sounds of music assaulted my senses. The corridors and hallways of the palace were full of people drinking, talking, laughing and generally celebrating the feeling of still being alive. I carefully pushed my way past them, ignoring calls from groups of men and the occasional bolder touches intended to draw me into their arms for the evening. I could walk freely now amongst them; no longer did I have to hunch my back and force my voice, no more did I fear their eyes. The dark times were over.
I turned around at Elswide's call, smiling back at my beaming friend.
"Come!" she motioned me to her table. "Sit with us!"
I obeyed and settled into a chair beside her, then took the time to look around. The Great Hall of Meduseld shone golden, tonight. Torches and fires burned all around, illuminating the gold-painted columns and ceilings and casting fantastic shadows on the walls. A group of musicians played a cheery tune, fiddles and lutes inviting to the dance; and dance people did. Drinkers and dancers mixed between the tables laden with food and ale, swaying in joy or drunken haze.
Elswide pushed a cup towards me. "Drink!" she laughed, watching my fascination with our festive surroundings. And she downed a goblet of her own. To her other side, Ceolwulf imitated her, his eyes already glassy; and for an instant, my heart constricted in my chest at the realisation that the feast would not end well for everyone. But I also knew that Elswide would not listen to my warnings, no more than she ever had in the past.
Someone pushed me from behind; just a drunkard, but the unexpected touch had made me stiffen in alert. Suddenly the crowd gathered around me did not seem so unthreatening, eyes turned in my direction felt fixed on me. Willing my muscles to relax and my mind to wander to a more pleasant subject, I brought the cup to my lips, but the ale tasted bitter in my mouth. No, I had been wrong. Nothing had changed, for me. I still saw the evil in people rather than the good.
A flash of pale gold drew my attention. People moved in my line of vision, and the lights of the fires played tricks on their blond locks, but I had been certain of what I had seen. And indeed, a moment later, I spotted Legolas as he headed towards the main doors; his hands were empty.
"Excuse me," I breathed out and sprang from my seat, grabbing a full cup as I left the table and sloshing half of its contents on my hand in the process. But there was no time to lose. A night for the daring…
"Leaving already, Master Elf?" I called out as I neared him.
Legolas turned around. He had changed for the occasion as well, and his dark green tunic brought out his striking eyes even more; for an instant, I stared at him in wonder.
"Morwrei." He smiled and looked me up and down. "You look beautiful tonight."
There was no greedy spark in his eyes, none of that leery sweetness that most men put into their compliments in his voice, no disguised meaning. I could feel that he was sincere, and it made my heartbeat race. But before I could reply he started to turn away, dismissing me with a curt nod.
"You truly are leaving," I blurted out; and as he looked at me once more, raising an eyebrow in surprise, I could not help but whisper. "Why? Will you not stay for the feast?"
Legolas closed his eyes briefly. "I cannot find cheer in my heart tonight," he replied quietly. "So many have fallen…" He seemed to hesitate as he looked around. "We elves treasure life above everything else," he murmured. "Every death is a tragedy, and is mourned, and here…" He motioned to the happy, dancing crowd and shook his head.
"I will go stand watch," he said eventually. "The stars will soothe my pain."
"Oh," I managed to squeak out and tried to hide my disappointment. What else was there to say? Maybe he truly was appalled at our mortal ways of dealing with death, and specifically of thinking that the living deserved our attention more. Or maybe it had been meant as a gentle rebuke, a way to spare my pride. But in any case there was nothing I could reply.
I nodded numbly, feeling the heat of a blush touch my cheeks. Shame and disappointment burned inside my chest. Truly I had been beyond foolish to attempt such a clumsy, ridiculously forward approach. And unless the single cup of ale I had drunk had been spiked, I could not even blame the alcohol for my rash move.
"Is this for me?"
I looked up reluctantly. Though I always longed to see his face, I feared the condescending kindness I would read in his eyes. But Legolas was looking at the goblet of ale that I was still clutching. I nodded slowly, holding the cup closer as though I could pull it into my body and thus make this reminder of my foolishness disappear.
I saw his hand reach out to take the cup from my trembling fingers, and looked up to watch him raise it to his lips, his eyes never leaving mine as he drank the contents. They seemed darker all of a sudden, bewitching and dangerous. Then he handed me the goblet back. I lowered my gaze as I accepted it, and froze when his hand touched my cheek and pushed my chin up so that I was facing him again.
His thumb caressed my cheek, and I felt my knees go weak. He could not know not what sensations he was stirring with this simple gesture, what emotions he awoke in me with his stare, and I both loved what he was doing and hated him for it. I knew that when his hand would leave my skin, it would feel like being robbed of the air I was breathing. But please, please Béma, let him continue… I leaned into his hand, seeking to extend the contact, and he did not withdraw it.
My eyes widened in shock. I could not imagine him teasing me for cruel pleasure, watching me open up under his touch only to rip it away forever. But then…?
Legolas smiled. "Tomorrow," he said quietly. "Tomorrow I will find you again."
The he pulled away, but the warmth of his hand lingered on my skin. And though I shivered with cold as it faded, I was grinning. This moment, this touch, I would not have exchanged them for all the distraction and joy the celebration could offer. And while the world outside was still dark, while the armies of evil still marched to crush the free people of these lands, I had hope again.
I woke up with the screams and the thunder of feet running down the corridor. Hurriedly crawling out of my bed and grabbing for my shawl I wondered whether the city was under attack again. If yes, I needed to prepare quickly and run. For all the glory of our recent victory I was not deceived: thick, stone walls had helped us tremendously, and here all that shielded us from the attackers was made of wood. And wood, as I remembered too well from my past, could burn.
I ran to the door and, leaning against the wall, cracked it open, so that only a ray of light fell into the room and I could see what was happening. A group of guards ran down the corridor, their armours clanking loudly; then they disappeared behind the corner and, save for the vanishing racket, all became silent again. I frowned. Though their direction was the Great Hall, I could hear no alarm bells, no cries of alert and no clashing of steel, and I came to the conclusion that I had been wrong. This was no attack, though something was truly amiss.
I hesitated. Being informed of what was happening had saved my life several times in the past. But now I had no disguise to protect me. If there truly were enemies in the palace, it would not be a mere beating that I would get.
In the meantime more doors had opened, and several other maids peeked into the corridor. Just like me they were only wearing their night-dresses and clutching shawls and blankets around their shoulders.
"What happened?" asked Freida, one of the younger kitchen aids. "Are we under attack?"
Her last words were picked up by the worried voices in the rooms around us, whispers echoing down the passage: we are under attack! I rolled my eyes at such credulity. It was thus that armies were defeated and kingdoms brought to their knees. Panic would corrode the spirits from the inside, breaking resolves and breathing fear into the hearts of soldiers. It was certain defeat, as good as if they turned their own blades against themselves.
"No, we are not," I snapped. "No sounds of battle, no screams, no running. No attack."
"B-but maybe we should be running?" muttered another woman.
Suddenly I heard footsteps approaching and, forsaking all caution, stuck my head outside. It was Théoden King, his guards walking a few steps behind; along came Aragorn, the dwarf Gimli, and Legolas. I met his gaze, knowing that he would warn me should there be danger. He knew I would not break down at bad news.
He nodded at Aragorn then broke his stride, pausing to lean towards me.
"Go back to your bed," he whispered. "And tell the others to do the same."
His eyes were serious, and I understood that even though not immediate, a threat still loomed above our heads. But I trusted him to warn me in time. I nodded and watched him turn away to catch up with the King. And as I ushered the other maids back to their chambers, I understood that any promises given had to be put aside. Once again war had decided for us and, lest we wanted to trip and fall, we had to follow.