12. 12 - Patience
- Chapter 12 / Patience -
I was finding it ironic, really, that it should be during the brief respite granted by a victory that I should find myself facing a blade directed at my heart. I took a step back, watching its wielder warily.
"Now you listen to me," said Alfreda, pointing her kitchen knife in my direction to emphasise her point. "That elf, he is no good for you."
I scowled, displeased that something as private as our friendship should become a subject of gossip. It was still so tentative and fragile, as though a mere thought could blow it out like the flame of a candle. And yet, for all its uncertainty, I valued it more than anything.
I glared back at Alfreda. "And who is?" I snapped. "Some drunk, like Ceolwulf, who will beat me senseless, or a vicious bastard of Osred's kind? For that is all that this war has left us with, Alfreda. All the good men are dead. Besides," I added after a moment of thought, "there is nothing between us."
"Oh, I wouldn't be so certain about that," my friend grumbled. "I've seen the looks he gives you, you know."
He does? I bit back the question, loath to reveal my feelings about Legolas. There was no need for another dirty rumour, especially one that concerned him. Instead I composed myself a sardonic smile.
"Oh, does he now? With all that looking, I am surprised that he even finds the time to fight off the orcs, then…"
It was Alfreda's turn to scowl. "I am warning you, that's all," she mumbled. "He's not for you."
"And I will not make it my goal to prove you wrong," I retorted calmly; but her words had struck true.
Ever since that night, the times when I had seen Legolas had been rare and brief. No more had he sought me out to talk, no more had he smiled at me across the hall. In the scarce occasions when I had managed to steal a glance of him I could tell he was busy and preoccupied, entirely focused on whatever he and Aragorn were planning. I missed his presence, but did not fool myself either. War changed everything, for the worse or, in my case, for the better. He had come to me in dark times, but peace would change it all. Surely what comfort my company could provide could not compare to the call of his home. He would leave someday, I knew that. When was the only question.
"Aargh!" I cried out as the icy water splashed from the bucket and onto my feet.
Resisting the urge to chuck the bucket into the well as revenge, I set it down and took a deep breath. The air smelled of spring and of the sun that had yet to show itself. It carried the fragrance of the simbelmynë that grew on the mounds of the kings of old, and my already foul mood grew melancholic. Amongst all the difficult days of my life, these last ones had been the darkest. Victory had been snatched from Saruman, but rumours went that it had only been a skirmish in the face of a greater war. Messengers brought news of armies marching north, of banners embroidered with the symbol of an eye, and of destruction. But our own armies remained stationed in our cities, our blades in their sheaths. And amongst the people, impatience grew.
It was yet to be decided whether we would ride off to face the enemy far from our homeland, or whether we would leave the other lands to their fate, as they had done when Rohan was in need. The uncertainty was like some strange state of existence between life and death. We feared to fully enjoy what pleasures life provided for fear to lose them again should Théoden King decide to help Gondor against the attack; but precautions had to be taken in case he would not, and so we worked, lived and breathed, but our hearts were not truly here.
As for mine, it ached dully with each day that passed without a sign from Legolas, but I dared not go find him. Maybe whatever had happened that night had offered him a long-awaited excuse to step away from a mortal he had grown attached to, and thus to protect his heart and his life? Maybe said mortal was expecting something he could not give? Maybe she had seen something that had never been but a fantasy?
None of these possibilities could be excluded, no matter how I wished my dreams to come true. I refused to cling to Legolas like I had seen many a simpering maid do, insulting his pride and my own. I would not humiliate myself by dogging his steps and coming up with ridiculous excuses to speak to him. I was determined to keep my head high through either victory or loss. But the ring on my finger remained an uncertain sign, either to be returned or kept; and though it gave me a legitimate reason to seek out Legolas once and for all, I dared not in case he chose to have it back, and took away this last proof of our friendship.
I shook my head, as if to strengthen my resolve in this state of mind. Lifting the bucket again I started to make my way back to the palace, where Alfreda and Rowena awaited the water to prepare the midday meal. It was heavy, pulling on my arm muscles and pinching the skin of my palms, and I cursed as I dragged it down the path, sloshing water everywhere.
"Here, let me help," came a voice.
Strong hands took the handle and lifted the bucket as though it weighed nothing. I looked up to find myself facing Aragorn.
"Morwrei, if I am not mistaken?" he said, smiling.
"No, my Lord… I mean yes." I curtsied. "It is I."
He nodded and started walking towards the palace, carrying the bucket full of water for me.
"Legolas speaks… highly of you." He turned his head to watch my reaction, and I reined it any emotion that his words could have triggered, wondering what word he had deliberately avoided.
"Does he, my Lord," I said in an even voice.
Aragorn grinned. "No need to pretend around me, Morwrei. You and he seem to keep tiptoeing around each other, but I know what I see." He sighed. "Legolas is a complicated being, and he is an elf – that word alone defines his behaviour. You will have to be patient… and very determined." He glanced back at me and laughed. "Although I am certain that last advice is quite vain. You seem to be a woman of iron will, Morwrei."
I bit my lip. Many emotions had been awakened by his words, many hopes rekindled. But they were mine to keep, until come true or proven wrong.
"Thank you for the advice, my Lord," I said quietly. "And for your help."
"My pleasure." He set the bucket down. Then he looked towards the mountains and frowned. "The beacons," he murmured.
I turned around as well and, searching the snow-covered peaks, finally saw it. Nested between two ridges there was a small fire flickering in the distance; a lone signal in the middle of the eternal snows, reverberating a call for help through miles and miles of land.
"The beacons!" Aragorn shouted and turned on his heels to run into the palace, climbing the stone steps two by two. "The beacons are lit!"
Gondor calls for aid.
Now there was no doubt left that the Rohirrim would assemble for another battle; Théoden King would not leave a cry for help without reply. It would be far from our home, on the battlefield of another land that the fate of Middle-earth would be sealed. Our men would ride to see it done, leaving Edoras to the women. The King himself would lead the army, Aragorn by his side… Legolas would follow; and if he fell, the news would never reach me.
But the spark of hope kindled by Aragorn's words refused to die, and I found myself racing to the kitchens, the bucket forgotten on the ground.
"Alfreda!" I breathed out as soon as I passed the door. "I need you to lend me your horse."
I pulled on the leather strap, checking that the saddle was firmly fixed on Sleipnir's back while he lazily chewed on his bit, unconcerned by my feverish preparations. Opening a saddlebag, I began stuffing it with provisions gathered in the kitchen under Alfreda's disapproving stare, and the warmest items of clothing I possessed. Dunharrow lay high in the mountains, and the air was much colder there as in Edoras, even in the summer.
A rustle in my back alerted me of a presence and, as I looked up, I met Legolas' all too familiar eyes.
"What are you doing?" he said softly, a shoulder propped against a pillar.
I felt my heartbeat quicken under his stare.
"Preparing," I replied, trying to keep my voice even.
"And where are you going?" He was looking straight into my eyes, as if he tried to read my intentions, and I lowered my gaze. My hands began to shake with the effort of pretending I was not affected by his presence, and I squeezed the leather straps of the bag until my knuckled whitened. I did not want him to see how much I craved his attention and his touch; he was free to guess my feelings, or discover them by showing his own.
"I will be riding with some of the women to Dunharrow," I replied in what I hoped was a detached tone. "It is a tradition in our country, for the women to wish the men farewell as they leave for battle."
Legolas cocked an eyebrow. "And you, whom will you be saying your goodbyes to?"
He seemed so calm, so unconcerned, that I felt jealous of his self-control. How unfair that he should remain so unfazed while I ached, struggling not to let a confession of my love spill from my lips. Was it only a perfect mask, obtained through endless practice? Or did he truly feel nothing after all?
"Someone dear to me," I whispered. "Although he does not know it."
It had not been subtle or wise; but the disappointment that had risen in my chest at his apparent indifference had pried the words from my mouth. I resumed my work, checking the state of the saddle in order to take my mind off this bitterness, until I felt a hand lay on mine, imprisoning it in a gentle yet firm grip.
"He knows," Legolas whispered. "I know."
He pulled my hand to his chest; I could feel the heat emanating from his body through my dress as he drew closer, almost pinning me against Sleipnir. His eyes were dark, like the night when he had drank from my cup.
"I know how you feel," he said quietly. "But you are mortal, Morwrei, and I… I am an elf."
I looked away at his words, knowing too well how true they were. I had chased a dream and caught naught but air, and offered my heart to a shadow of my own free will. But until then I had clung to mad hope that some miracle could change the way of the world and alter our natures, offering us a future. I had admitted the reality long ago; accepting it was another matter.
I nodded, crushed by that realisation.
"And yet, the world is changing so fast… What importance will it have tomorrow? What importance does it have tonight?"
I looked up in disbelief to see Legolas smile sadly.
"I cannot deny that I have desired…" He shook his head, as though to rid his mind of an unwelcome thought. "Your place is not there, Morwrei, amongst those condemned to die. You burn too bright for their company. Stay here…" he whispered. "Stay safe. And if this is indeed your wish, you have my word that if I am still alive when it is all over, I will find you again. And then, if your heart has not been swayed by time or logic, I will seek out your company, as a man courting a woman. But if you find someone closer to your heart…" He smiled again. "Know that I ask no promises of you."
I had to grab the saddle to steady myself when he pulled away; my knees were weak, my hands trembling, and I thought my heart should have escaped its cage long ago, so fast it was beating in my chest.
"I will wait," I whispered hoarsely, barely believing what he had just said. What a cruel dream it would be, if I woke now in my bed!
"No promises," he shook his head and, upon reaching the doorway, turned around. "Goodbye, Morwrei. And may this not be our last."