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Leaves of Gold: 2. Leaves of Gold There Grew
Look: I feel how I'm moving away,
how I'm shedding my old life, leaf by leaf.
Only your smile spreads like sheer stars
over you and, soon now, over me.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Sacrifice
Translated by Edward Snow
Arwen vanimelda, namárië!
Thus I bade my farewell to a memory in sunlight by Cerin Amroth. On that hill I once stood, the hand of Evenstar folded inside my own, and chose my path. Long years have passed and I am divided in two: a foster child of the Elven-folk and an heir to the kingdoms of Men, two who belong to different places and times. When I step out of this realm, I will leave behind Estel, the foster son of Rivendell; despite what darkness the road ahead may hold, he shall ever linger on that green hill with his Evenstar, in the fairest of moments he has known. The fate of Aragorn son of Arathorn I will take upon me for good and bear it until my death, be the end of the road one short stab of sword away, or beyond long years of peace. For all is changed, and I can no longer turn back.
Lessened by one was the Fellowship when it entered the Golden Wood. And although he was but one, he was more: he knew earth and wind and meaning behind all things as only few know. With him our road may have twisted and wound, but it never strayed from its course. Without him the way is hidden, and I know it is my part to take the first steps.
I do not know yet what will guide them.
I must spend my grief away until it wears thin and leave here the burden of mourning, for the strain is heavy already, and strange mists cover our path. I must grieve deeply in solitude, I must grieve openly in the company of those who know the same sorrow, and then I must leave behind what has been and look towards what is yet to come. For the days of my life are growing shorter, and in the flow of time they fly by ever swifter. Even if I will be granted to walk the full span of my forefathers' kin on this earth, stone will be consumed but little and not many springs will run dry within the cycle of the years I will see. My bond to the Elf-kindred makes my time look a brighter and more fleeting flash by their slowly diminishing life. This bond is both a gift and a burden, true yet incomplete; I may never be one of them, but were it not for them, I would not be what I am today.
I am divided in two and see my own steps falter, I see them tarry.
Lady Galadriel placed a riddle into my heart as she put us through the trial of her gaze. She awakened a memory in me that had worn thin and faded, like a banner that had been waving under the sun for too many summers. She coloured it anew and wove the threads into their rightful places until the vision was clear before me, as if I had woken up to it this very morning. I saw in my mind the most familiar and beloved tree of my youth. It was no taller or fairer than other Rivendell trees, but I knew by heart the very shade of red that hued its top in the springtime, I could tell in the midsummer already what day of the year it would shed its first autumn-coloured leaf, and I could see the black and green web of its branches against the sky even with my eyes closed. Slender and straight rose the tree from the ground, calm and still while the world was changing.
Under the tree I saw myself, taller and stronger than my fifteen years of age, although not an ounce wiser. I pressed my hand to the smooth-white tree bark that was both cool and warm. Life wavered powerful below it, burning my hand like sunlight, whirring against my fingertips like insects' wings. I wrapped my arms around the tree and pressed my cheek against the trunk. I imagined what the tree would have told me, had I been given the gift of hearing possessed by the Elven-folk.
I have grown here before your time, and here I will still be, when you are gone.
The strength of the tree flowed into me and cast a shimmering shelter around my heart, making me courageous and omnipotent.
Thus ended the memory and it was folded away, frail and colourless. I wondered and wanted to ask the Lady of her meaning, but the elven-light of her eyes was already turned away. She was having a silent conversation with Legolas of Mirkwood in a manner that only another Elf could understand. Legolas's lips were softly parted and a rare glow burned his cheeks. He seemed to be breathing in the words of the Lady, but I could not read their secret in him.
With that I left the Lady's halls, but the riddle lingered, gnawing at me. If the trial was meant to tempt us, why should she have shown me what was no longer in my reach? To abstain from it was easy, and I needed not lower my head under her gaze. How did she believe she would lure my heart with images of the past? For while the place was dearer to me than any other on earth and my hope was bound there, there is no magic known to Elves, Men or any other creatures that could reverse the flow of time.
There are many things I do not yet understand.
The weariness and wounds of my body have been washed away by gentle rainfalls and light winds, but the black scar of loss remains. Among the shadows of the woods my grief seeks the company of the one whose heart I know to be closest to my own in this matter. While death is different to Elves than Men, the sorrow wrought by it is no less, and of all my companions it was he who knew Gandalf as I did. We had walked with him on his journeys over many years, and countless were the tales he told us and kept from others. Memories have been stained dark by the loss, but if we can help each other brighten them into jewels on the band of days and nights, then the road may yet hold hope for us and our steps will be lighter.
I find Legolas on the flet where he has made his resting place. He is sitting near the edge of the narrow wooden platform, his knees bent, his body a stripe of light against the shadows rippling in the stream of air. The greenness of spring is long gone from the thick leaf-curtains fringing the flet; only the thin light of winter is reflected on their gold-veined surfaces. Legolas's fingers are fondling the worn wooden floor absently, and I can tell his mind is wandering in the Northern forests. I cloak my voice in light tones as I address him.
"I am surprised not to find master Gimli in your company."
He smiles and looks at me.
"Master Dwarf expressed his wish to get some rest after the tedious trials of the lunch. I do not believe we will see him before dinner."
"It is good our companions know how to gather their strength."
His smile shrivels away. He stands up and steps towards me, his gaze alert, then stops to examine my face.
"Aragorn, you mourn still."
"As do you. A farewell left unsaid is the hardest to bear." My voice is suddenly unfamiliar and broken. "Gandalf was gone too swiftly."
"In times of war and peril there is seldom time for a farewell," Legolas says quietly.
"It could have been prevented," I say, and bitterness rolls in me heavy and crushing. "I foresaw the danger, yet did not warn him well enough."
Legolas's eyes flash like light through the thick ceiling of the forest.
"Few things can be truly foreseen," he replies. "Time is a story that changes by the moment, and none of us may understand their part in it until it has been written through to the end."
"So may it seem to Elves, but to mankind time is an ever-narrowing path, the end of which is brought closer by every step," I say, my voice rising. "Many is the moment when a mortal wonders if his choices have gone astray. And if he will learn to choose any wiser, before the path comes irrevocably to the end."
"Have we not at each fork of our road chosen the direction that seemed to hold most hope for us at the time? Some choices are not made lightly, but under constraint."
"If something is done under constraint, how does it deserve the name of a choice anymore?"
The rawness in my voice surprises even me as I cry out the words. Legolas freezes, and nothing is moving on his face. Black and blue shadows are smouldering deep in his eyes.
"Because we could have given up and turned around, yet we carried on," he says very quietly.
And then he pulls me into his arms. My sigh vents out heavily into his hair. His chest is rising, his muscles tensing and relaxing under his skin. His frame is firm and warm and yet cool, his touch light and steady. My furrowed forehead rests against the arch of his smooth neck. His fingers move in my hair slowly, soothingly, and his voice falls in bright droplets among the branches that surround us.
"Grieve not for what is out of reach. Every deed will lead to others; water will run endlessly from within stone where it has once been unleashed from earth's captivity and break an ever wider passage to rush through. We cannot change the past, and the future remains veiled always. Perhaps the only meaning is written in this very moment."
I sink weakly against him and let him cradle me. His breathing follows mine in the steady rhythm of nights and days. He is the earth and I am a tide that comes and goes. He is the air and I am an insect that flies in it for a moment. Together we are the mourning that will pass because it must, but not vanish; it will grow to be a part of us, a step on our path.
He turns his head, moving it hardly for the width of a stalk of grass, but my lips hit unintentionally the skin below his ear. His hand starts in the folds of my tunic.
Desire stabs me deep and unexpected.
I hear Legolas gasp sharply and realise he has felt the stirring in my body. Instinctively I draw apart from him; my first thought is to turn around and walk away without looking back. Yet I do not take a step. I stand still, looking at him. I listen to my own heart that is hammering like hard rain on the surface of a flooding river. A narrow crack flickers on Legolas's face, but it seals up immediately and leaves behind a smooth, inscrutable expression.
His arm stirs and I quiver to yield. For one moment I imagine he is going to strike me. There are desires and deeds which must go unnamed and unspoken of between two men, and between a man and Elf they would be considered no less than unnatural. Once in the past the curtain of friendship fell from between us and borders were crossed that should not have been. We replaced it and never spoke of what had passed. I thought I had banished the weakness from me far into distant shadows. It would be but justified if he punished me for my failure, for betraying our friendship again.
But Legolas does not strike. He takes my hand, raises it and presses it onto his chest, upon his heart. The beat is steady and stable under his flesh and bones. Slowly he moves my hand lower along his body, towards his waist and ever downwards. I follow the movement with my eyes, until he stops it. I can feel him through the grey elven-fabric of his trousers. He is emanating a surprising heat, like a fiercely breathing, tense animal preparing for an attack inside its fur.
He hardens against my hand, and his desire cuts into me as deep as my own.
Water will ever run from within stone where it has once been unleashed from earth's captivity.
I raise my eyes and look into his, where the elven-light burns dark and serious. Legolas's face is serene, but I see thoughts swarm in him restlessly. I draw my hand away. A shadow touches his brow before he speaks.
"Forgive me. I was too bold. I would not have you turn your eyes from the light that shines at the end of your path."
I feel another stirring inside me, this time about my heart.
"When even the wisest fall, there is naught but darkness on the path, and the very next step may meet an abyss," I reply. "Small is the comfort of memories and dreams in such times."
I raise my hand on Legolas's face. I run my fingertips over his cheekbone, along the graceful arch of the jaw. My thumb brushes his lips and my hand continues onto his neck. A low sound emerges from his throat and he clutches my wrist, stopping my touch.
"Yet I would not have you stray on a whim."
"It is no whim to me," I say, and know I have spoken the truth.
"Neither is it to me," he whispers.
And that is the end of words.
We stand still at the face of this understanding, both of us waiting for the other one to move first. Slowly his fingers tighten around my wrist. I hear my breathing stumble and break, mingle with his breathing as my face brushes his. His lips are there, moist and warm, and he kisses me deeply.
Everything in me is directed towards him, every thought, every touch, every rush of blood inside my veins.
Finally he breaks the kiss and looks at me examining, searching. I press my forehead against his, resting in the moment. His voice is not stable nor certain as he asks,
"What will this change?"
I remain quiet for a moment before answering.
"Everything. And yet nothing."
I draw back and another rift visits his face before hiding swiftly away.
"So be it, then."
I am divided in two.
I touch him. It is a mortal man's touch: impatient, hasty. It tries to grasp time and restrain it. His body is calm, nearly motionless against the fire of my hands. Life wavers powerful below his skin. He has grown here before my time, and here he will still be, when I am gone.
I taste moist woods and earth in him, living flesh and the spirit that inhabits it.
Slowly we remove every parting item of clothing from between us. We open the tight laces of tunics and rigid buckles of belts, arduous fastenings of trousers, uncomfortable knots of underwear. I know the clothes will be heavier to bear and their stains more difficult to wash away once I put them all on again. But Legolas touches me where I am both soft and hard, and I grow towards his light like a stalk. We intertwine as one as he guides my hands and mouth on his familiar, yet strange body. Wind blows quietly through the cage of branches above us. Leaves of gold move against each other.
When sleep crouches into me, Legolas's hand is upon my heart. He is awake beside me, the warmth of his skin on mine. His gaze lingers upon me spell-like. His arms will only loosen their hold of me when I know it no longer.
When sleep takes me, he remains.
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