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Stardust - Book I: 3. Moments of Weakness, Part 2
It was one thing to decide on the individual who would do the deed and another to determine the best way to attract his interest. Questions about how to proceed kept her from sleep that night as she paced in the little room she had so recently shared with her husband. She knew not the Elf's name nor his rank, nor how she should approach him. Did he ride with the Rangers as did the other Elves? If so, she might have very little time, for Rangers never stayed in a single place for long. She would have to be direct, and although she was known to be both fair and honest to a fault, asking a Man (or Elf) bluntly to bed her was beyond her experience. She knew there were women as well as men who were bold about such things, but she had never been such a woman, nor had any man ever been so bold with her.
She also thought, in some moments during the night when her self-mocking humor stirred and turned inward, that if she were mistaken and her husband yet lived, he would be wroth beyond measure with her for the course she was plotting. She pushed her indecision aside. She would explain, and he would either forgive her or not forgive her as the mood took him. She rather thought he would; he had ever been a prosaic man.
But she had no word from him, and as his mission was to bring the Riders to Gondor, the fact the Riders were here and he was not told her his fate. Sighing, she stopped pacing and prepared for bed. There was little chance of her attracting the attention of anyone other than Ioreth if she went about with dark circles under her eyes.
As it had been chance that first brought the Elves to her attention, it was chance that presented the opportunity to further their acquaintance. Or, to be more precise, the acquaintance of the one she had seen bathed in firelight the evening before.
After an uneasy sleep she awoke early, and having no better plan for the day thought to go to the milliners and tailors in the city's lowermost circle, there to gather scraps of fine cloth that could be fashioned for bandages in the Houses of Healing. The merchants had always accommodated her requests even before the host of Mordor brought the battle to their very doorstep, no doubt expecting her to return the favor by honoring their establishments with her business once the court of the Stewards left matters of war and returned to matters of pleasure. She did not dissuade them, although truth to tell her heart was not in Minas Tirith but lay far away, in lands long overrun by orcs and Southerners. She passed by the great houses in the second circle without pause, sparing only one building a brief glance. Like most of the noble residences it bore an air of genteel neglect, its graceful lines still obvious despite the general disrepair. They had attempted, briefly, to live in it when the obligations of kinship and oaths forced them to reside in Minas Tirith, but her husband could not stop sneezing no matter how many windows were opened, and they had quickly relocated to the rooms reserved for officers in the guards. Whatever the outcome of these difficult times, neither wished to long remain in the city.
He had remarked, more than once, that they should hire a caretaker in case they had the misfortune to spawn some lily-handed city dweller among their brood who would prefer the musty old building to their open stone home in the stately forest with its ancient, gentle trees. She retorted that it was a shame he couldn't unload it on his brother, since a house in the City would make it easier to kiss the hands of lords he wished to flatter. Her husband had shouted with laughter, suggesting that "hand" was not the appropriate body part.
Two things she did not want to deal with all in the same thought; her husband and her brother-in-law. If her mind tarried on either she had no doubt she would collapse on the spot, either screaming like the men out of the front lines who came too close to the terror of the Shadow's leader, or staring at nothing like those whose only hurt appeared to be that of a mind over-burdened with the horror of war. She would have plenty of time for collapsing if her plan worked. Indeed, all those around her would no doubt insist she spend a great deal of time in bed with her feet up. She pulled a face; the confinement that would come with success was another thought she did not wish to dwell on. So she again tried to lock her grief and fury away in a tiny corner of her mind.
Yet her dark thoughts made her pause in one of the entryways of the lowest circle, dashing aside bitter tears with the back of her hand. It wasn't fair, she thought to herself even as she tried to push aside the anger that was beginning to crowd her mind. They had done everything, everything, demanded of them by honor and by the Steward. Through great peril her husband had sought the Riders at the Steward's command, and he must have been successful for the Riders had come. Yet it seemed, at the end, cold fate brought victory to Gondor even while ensuring there would be nothing left for him or those that depended upon him.
And she stayed in the entryway, her tears drying on her face, as she heard something she had not heard in many a day. Song. Someone was singing, not the rough war songs of the Riders that had echoed through the city as the battle raged, but a song of warmth and happiness. It was in a language she had never heard before, yet she knew even as it flowed over and around her it must be Elvish. Surely no other language had the power to lift the heart with just in the hearing of it.
"It is far too early for you to be so cheerful," grumbled a rough voice. It brought her back to herself abruptly, and she pushed herself away from the stone wall but remained in the shadow of the overhanging archway. She peered down the narrow walkway to see if she could catch a glimpse of singer or speaker.
When she did, although she did not immediately forgive fate for its cold treatment of late, her harsh opinion of it eased somewhat.
It was the two she had seen by the fire the previous night, the stout broad Dwarf and his Elvish companion. They were on the main road, usually filled with horses and hand-drawn carts but empty this early in the morning. Both had their weapons out, the Dwarf with his axe over one shoulder, the Elf lightly holding his strung bow in one hand, ready to swiftly notch an arrow should need arise. It was akin to a swordsman walking through town with naked blade in hand. Normally the open display of arms would alarm her, but their demeanor was casual and there was no threat about them. Indeed, she thought they didn't even realize how they carried their weapons.
"I but greet the sun," protested the Elf, smiling. "You have been so busy staring at the pebbles under your feet that you haven't even noticed we walk in sunlight. It is so long since I last saw the clear light of day, it is as if I've never seen it before."
The Dwarf gave a skeptical snort, but his gaze returned to the path he trod. "There is some good stone-work here," he remarked, "but also some that is less good, and the streets could be better contrived. When Aragorn comes into his own, I shall offer him the service of stonewrights of the Mountain, and we will make this a town to be proud of."
The Elf shielded his eyes against the light he had so recently praised, tilting his head back to stare at the towers and turrets of Minas Tirith. "They need more gardens. The houses are dead, and there is too little here that grows and is glad. If Aragorn comes into his own, the people of the Wood shall bring him birds that sing and trees that do not die."
There was another grunt from the Dwarf. She thought they must be long-tested companions; they had a way of communicating as much with tone as with words that she associated with very old married couples. The Dwarf continued on his way, still studying the stone under his feet, and did not immediately mark that his companion was frozen in place, his clear eyes no longer on the buildings of the city but following the path of something high in the air. When he did notice he swung around sharply, his features hard as if he expected something had forcibly detained his comrade, his axe coming quickly into his hands. The scowl of a fighter faded into puzzlement as he could view nothing that stayed the Elf. "Legolas?"
The sound of the other's voice was so quiet she almost didn't hear it. "Look, Gimli. The gulls."
The Dwarf also gazed up at the birds riding the air currents over the highest points of Minas Tirith before turning his face to study his companion, his expression (what she could make out of it through the beard) concerned. But he did not give voice to his troublesome thoughts, whatever they may have been. Instead he leaned on his axe and spoke with forced lightness. "Come, Legolas. We must find this Prince Imrahil that Aragorn wants to meet, and perhaps gather news of the hobbits from him while we are at it."
"I am anxious about them as well." But the sea birds held his gaze, and he made no move toward his companion.
"Eh, take your time," the Dwarf finally said gruffly. "'Tis better for me to go ahead. Between your endless songs and trying to keep pace with your long strides, it is hard for me to study the stonework properly. Stay you here until you have your fill of flying creatures, then catch up with me. I doubt I will be far ahead."
A crease of amusement appeared briefly beside the Elf's lips. He turned his head down, affection in his clear eyes. "Indeed, friend Gimli; knowing your passion for stones, I'm sure I can stay here for many hours and find you have gone but around the bend in all that time. Will you give each rock a name as you walk, and inquire to know its place of quarrying?"
"Of course not," huffed the Dwarf. "That I can tell with a glance."
The Elf laughed softly. The sound sent such shivers up and down her body. It was if a cold wind touched her, one that left heat in its wake rather than chills.
Evidently the Elf's amusement did not so affect the Dwarf. Grumbling about Elves who didn't understand the first thing about the fundamentals of good stonework, the Dwarf Gimli continued on his way up the narrow street. He did indeed go more slowly without the Elf, often stopping entirely to closely view a mitered corner or a cobbled path, but the first bend was not very far away. Soon he was lost to sight. Releasing a breath she had not even known she was holding, she gathered her courage about her and stepped out of the shadows, moving down from the raised walkway to approach the Elf, who still stood rapt in the road and regarded the gulls with a steady and desperate eye.
If she thought him fair in the firelight, he was far beyond fair in the brightness of day. For all he had the general shape of a Man there was that about him, as there had been about the sons of Elrond, that made mistaking him as such impossible. Dared she address such a being? Well, it was that or continue to stare at him as if he were some sort of intricate carving that fascinated her. She took a deep breath, folded her hands in front of her, and ventured speech.
"There were such birds where I lived, before I came here. A stream ran through our land, and the birds seemed to delight in it though the sea itself was far away." He did not acknowledge her. Was he in some Elvish trance? "I suppose they were all shot by orcs for a quick meal."
"Many things of beauty have been destroyed by orcs," replied the Elf without looking at her.
She was piqued that he preferred the gulls to her, and replied tartly. "They were welcome to destroy their voices. Many a morn their squawking had me up hours before I was ready. I would have shot them myself if I knew how to use a bow. I hope you plan to populate Minas Tirith with birds that sing rather than squawk, Lord." Having spoken the words, she wished them unsaid; her brother-in-law had often commented, not favorably, on her acid tongue.
He swung his eyes to her, his clear eyes wide, and she felt his gaze upon her for the first time. Whatever spell the gulls wove upon him broke. His mouth quirked slightly, then the Elf smiled that genuine smile that first attracted her attention. He folded his arms around his great bow, holding it against his chest, his head tipping to one side as he looked at her. "I suppose they do not have the most musical of voices. Yet their cries speak to me of the sea, and for one of my kind that is the sweetest of music."
"Not as sweet as your singing earlier, Lord Elf."
He nodded his head in thanks, the smile still lingering on his mouth, but his gaze went beyond her, toward the path his companion traveled. Soon he would take his leave, and she might never again have a chance for his attention. She would have to speak. How in the name of the Valar do I do this? 'My Lord, you must be weary, would you like to lay down?' No, even that's too subtle. Bold; you must be bold. It doesn't matter if he thinks you a consummate hussy. Nothing matters except--
She ventured a step closer, too close for courtesy, and lightly laid her fingers on the sliver of exposed skin of his forearm, above the archery guard that protected his wrist. That brought his gaze back to her. He inclined away slightly, as if he was the one who accidentally transgressed, but she hardened her nerves and followed the movement, just for a moment leaning full into him before he took a big step back and she nearly stumbled without his support.
And, oh, did she have his attention now. His fathomless gray eyes were locked onto her countenance, and what was in them she could not read. She tried to step close to him again, but he planted the bow between them like a shield and she was forced to hold her ground. "What do you want?"
Bold, she reminded herself. "Lay with me."
He regarded her steadily, his expression lacking the smirking speculation she would expect from a Man, but yet unreadable. Perhaps he was used to being so accosted -- and a stray thought remarked that she would not be surprised if it were so. "Why do you ask this of me?" The words were softly spoken.
She could hardly tell him the truth, yet there was something she could say that wasn't quite a lie. She wrung her hands unconsciously with the stress of the conversation (and, had she but known it, her discomfort did a great deal to soften the heart of the one she approached). "I had never seen one of your kind before yesterday. There are none more alive, I think. It has been a hard siege and I -- I would feel alive again."
His expression smoothed and he gave a small nod, as if that were a reason he could accept. "I do not feel the passage of time as Men do, nor the press of mortality. And yet..." He paused, and when he did continue, he spoke more to himself than to her. "...I have been sore afraid more than once on my journey." Then he gave a small shake and brought himself back to her, and when he spoke again his voice was not unkind.
"Lady," he said, "I thank you greatly, but I have no need of the comfort you offer." She clenched her small fists at the humiliation of it, thinking he mocked her, and his face gentled. "If you are so sure it is what you need, however, I will not deny you."
Success. She crossed her arms across her stomach and hoped she wasn't going to be violently ill.
"How are you called?"
"Was that a hard question?"
"Torrey," she answered finally, which was true enough. Unable to pronounce her full name, her younger brother shortened it, and still teased her with it when they were both long into adulthood. He had died in the retreat across the river, felled by an orc arrow even as it appeared they had gotten safely away. One more reason she had to do this...
He lay one hand over his breast, in what she took to be a greeting among his kind. "I am Legolas. Torrey, this is a poor place for a tryst." He still regarded her with steady eyes that hid his thoughts, waiting for her to make the next move. She could turn away, honor intact, and he would not stay her...
...And spend the rest of a too-long life sitting at the hearth of my husband's brother ...
"Come with me." She held out a hand to him, but he did not take it. Instead he unstrung his great bow and tucked it across his back, then stood silently waiting. It seemed he would follow rather than walk with her. Turning, she led the way through the narrow paths, having to glance over her shoulder now and again to see if he were still there, for he did not speak and his footsteps were unnaturally silent. When she reached the building where the officers were quartered she had another uncomfortable moment; what would she do or say should she meet one of the soldiers in the halls? Whether it was the early hour or just fate being unusually kind, that was not a situation she had to wrestle with. With Legolas ever a silent step behind her, they made it to the second floor without needing to greet anyone. Once she opened the door to her rooms he passed her, walking quickly through doors and scanning the premises with a warrior's caution. She followed him when he entered the bedroom, and realized there were clear signs that a man had lived here, and recently. The Elf, however, made to the open window and looked out. He sighed, and then closed the shutters, shutting out the early morning light. "My friend Gimli would be pleased," he said dryly, turning to her. "You have an excellent view of many rocks."
She stared at him with wide eyes. A faint shimmer enclosed him, as if what little light in the room rushed to cling to him. She again thought of some intricate living sculpture that one could watch for hours without tiring. "I cannot stay long, Torrey," he prompted her, and she felt her mind come back to the present as if she just awoken from a dream. He was still leaving everything up to her, as if he could sense the conflict in her mind. She had a brief thought that she had chosen well, then she took a steadying breath and went to him, leaning against him again as she had in the street. This time he accepted her weight, yielding under it and bracing his back against the wall. His hands came up, but held her only loosely by the shoulders. Even now, she felt she could pull back and he would release her.
Finally, as she made no retreat, he moved one hand enough to stroke the back of her neck lightly. His long fingers combed through her hair, so much thicker and darker than his. "You shine," he murmured.
She glanced down at the hand against her shoulder, and wondered what it was that he meant. If anything shone in the gloom of her room it was the one before her.
Gently he wrapped himself around her. His embrace was neither warm nor cold. She had the queer thought that, even though it was bright daylight outside, starlight had taken physical form in her arms. She shivered, and he gave a wordless murmur that soothed her to stillness. She thought Elves merely fair, long-lived Men. She was beginning to wonder if they were something far, far different. Her dry humor briefly resurfaced--I'm about to find out... She lifted her lips to his, and although she did not stop thinking, exactly, what thoughts she did have in the next space of time were fragmented and imprecise.
She could not say if he took any pleasure at all, for he was silent throughout and the smooth skin under her hands did not warm or flush or dampen, although there came a point where she paid no attention to what he might or might not be feeling himself. He held her close when they were done, smoothing back her hair as she struggled for breath and wondered if her heart would pound out of her chest. His cool lips touched her forehead. "Sweet," he murmured. She turned her face into his neck and cried hot tears of shame, not for the act so much but for having never felt with her husband what she had just felt with this stranger. He made no move to disengage until her tears quieted, then he kissed her forehead again before pulling away. She sat up in bed, watching him dress as the sense of being in a dream again took hold of her mind. It did not fade as he bent over her and touched cool fingers to her cheek. "Try to be at peace, little one." He dropped a kiss against the crown of her head, then opened the shutters and, although they were on the second floor, vaulted lightly out the window. Such was her state of mind that she simply accepted that he somehow floated down and landed lightly on the hard ground. Then she shook her head, reminded herself there were several levels of balconies and other outcrops even a Man could hop down, and abruptly crashed back into the present.
She pressed a hand against her stomach, speculating. It was a lot to ask of just one time. Thoughts of defeat crowded her mind, and her head fell forward. Rubbing her forehead, she wondered if the Rider of Rohan who had been so attentive had been discharged. He had not been damaged in such a way that his ability to perform would be impaired.
What have I become? Sighing, she rose, and dressed, and went to the Houses of Healing, there to hear a lecture from Ioreth since she had not brought the cloth bandages as she had promised to do. With the ease of much practice, she shut her ears to the old women's long-winded words as she set about her rounds. The young Rider, she noted, was indeed gone, hopefully returned to his unit and not dead in the night of a sudden fever. In truth, there were fewer patients than she expected for so soon after a battle, and those that remained appeared in improving health so it was not as if some dread disease had suddenly ripped through her ward.
She was at the far end of the ward tending to the slops bucket (another in a long list of new experiences this past week, she thought dryly) when a whisper swept like a breeze through the room. "Look, the King; the King." She turned sharply, but all she saw was the flutter of a gray cloak before the closing of a door cut off her view. "That wasn't him," growled one who had a better view of the door. "He doesn't have hair like that! You mistake the cloak for the man."
"The King, you said?"
"He was here long hours, helping with those covered in the Black Breath," one of the wounded told her, his young face overlaid with awe. "He and the Elven lords stayed for much of the night. It must have been just after you left."
So there really is a King, she thought in such wonder she forgot to upbraid fate for bringing the sons of Elrond to the Houses of Healing even as she looked over the wall of the city to behold her own fire-gilded doom. But she did not have much time for wonder in the long day, for although her charges were fewer in number there were still far too many of them, and some were yet in dire straits. It was late when she returned to her quarters, her mind so over-tired that it seemed empty of all thought.
She was in the bedroom, pulling pins out of her hair and contemplating where she would find the strength to struggle out of her dress when her tired mind finally noted the shutters were open, and there was a soft glow in the room her unlit lamp could not be causing. She turned, too weary to be surprised, and simply accepted his presence. He moved towards her slowly, giving her time as before to reject or accept, but when she held out her hands he grasped them and pulled her into his embrace. It seemed there was to be more than just the one time. He was less tentative with his strength, perhaps now understanding that mortal women were not so fragile, and she was less passive as well. The dark helped, she decided when she could form thoughts again, although 'dark' was evidently a relative term where Elves were concerned. The strange glimmer that coated his skin didn't fade with effort. So she kept her eyes closed.
Her husband had been inclined to roll over and go to sleep when done, and in truth she never minded for she was much the same. Elves, it appeared, were different in that as well. Every time she started to drift off there was another soft touch from her partner, a stroke of fingers against her waist or neck that had nothing of lust about it. Finally she cocked open one eye to cautiously glance at him, finding his gaze steady on her face. "I did not expect you here."
He touched the bridge of her nose, and drew a line with his finger to its tip. "I did not expect to be here," he told her, honestly. "But I saw you in the Houses of Healing, just for an instant. I almost called to you, but there was somewhere else I had to be, and I did not want to bring you unwanted questions."
He wore a gray cloak... "Some thought you were the King."
Legolas smiled slightly. "He is darker, in more ways than one." The smile faded, and again he touched her face, brushing his knuckles carefully across her cheek. "There are all levels of horrors in war. I imagine you witnessed your share there."
She thought not of the young lads who died while in her care, but the man she had seen off only a few days earlier, and tears again welled in her eyes. "Shhh." Legolas slipped his arms around her, and she once more accepted the comfort he offered, not quite crying but sniffling against his shoulder. Even in the aftermath of passion, his skin was cool to the touch. As if his mind kept pace with hers, he murmured, "Do you know, touching you is like touching fire. I feel like I hold embers in my hands."
The cold can also burn, she thought, but she said nothing and he, too, fell into silence. Although he never stopped his distracting touches, her weariness was great and she eventually slept.
He was gone when she awoke, and she could have believed it nothing but a sweet, vivid dream except that his scent was all around her, on the covers, on her skin. She went again into the Houses of Healing, and still found enough to keep her well occupied into the night. There was much talk around her, about the new King, Faramir's ascension to the Stewardship, the armies outside the gates who were not dispersing to their separate countries despite the victory in the battle. Speculation abounded about the continued presence of so many armed men, and some even said that still more men were coming to gather in the Fields, but she was weary of even the talk of war and, as she did with Ioreth, she closed her ears to much of what was said.
Legolas was not there when she returned to her rooms, although she searched carefully for him, even looking behind doors. For all they glowed in the dark, she thought Elves could probably be invisible enough when they wanted to be. She took to her bed once convinced he was not present, and her sleep was dreamless. She awoke with his hand on her shoulder. Sleepy, she slid toward the wall to make room for him but he laughed his soft laugh and shook his head. "Up, up! The moon will set soon, and the stars are out, such stars as have not been seen in Gondor for many a year. Up!" He turned and was out the window in a flash. She considered letting him go in favor of sleep, but did not want to lose the opportunity and so rose and dressed, eyeing the narrow window but choosing the door. He was moving back and forth on the walkway, his eyes turned toward the gate that led to the lower circles. Had he been a Man, she would have described it as pacing; but he was not a Man, and there was nothing of nervousness or impatience about the movements. He did not touch her, but hurried her through the different gates. She pulled the cloak about her face, trying not to think about the type of woman who would walk out of Minas Tirith in the middle of the night in the company of a foreign soldier be he Man or Elf, but none of the guards so much as glanced at her and there would be no chance any recognized her from this night.
He guided her to an area next to the city's walls, a flat space with what must have been the only untrammeled greenery left in Gondor. He spread his gray cloak on the ground, and wishing for the comfort of her own bed she started to lay upon it, but he shook his head and pulled her over him. "I want to see the stars." She draped across him, and he kissed her softly, playing with her hair until he managed to pull out all the ties and catch the thick strands up in his slender, strong fingers. He laughed as he held a handful off of her neck. "The stars here are so bright I can still see them through this," he told her. She wasn't sure if he was insulting her or not; Men considered her hair to be one of her best features, she knew, but compared to the soft fluidity of his own locks the texture must seem coarse and rough. He turned his head and buried it in the heavy strands, inhaling slowly, so it must not have been too horrible to him. Then he went to work with his clever hands, unlacing her bodice and her other garments until there was nothing in the way of his designs. She thought that coupling under the stars must be a powerful experience for an Elf, for he cried out at the height of his pleasure and his body still trembled when he held her afterwards. She had never heard a pleasured sound out of him before. She pillowed her head on his shoulder, thinking, if not before, then this time, surely this time-- and nearly missed what he said to her. "What?" she asked, her voice thick with spent passion and encroaching sleep.
"The muster is complete," he told her quietly, his hands moving restlessly on her back. "We march tomorrow. We go to Mordor."
She felt nothing more than a certain melancholy acceptance that this fair one, too, would soon have his life snuffed out. "Why did we resist, if our men must now seek their doom elsewhere rather than finding it here?"
"I cannot say why things are the way they are," Legolas replied after a long silence. "I can tell you only that the hard victory won here was but a skirmish. The war must now be taken to the Enemy, or the sacrifices of your people will be for naught." His long fingers trailed down her arms. He caught up one of her hands and pressed it to his lips. "I did not want you to think I lightly went off without any consideration of you."
"But even should you survive, I will not see you again," she finished for him.
He did not deny it. And, for that, she liked him the more.
He kissed her forehead, the back of each slim hand, the tip of her nose. "I will not forget you."
"Then you are better than many a Man," was her tart reply.
He smiled at her in the faint starlight, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "I hope so," he murmured in amusement. "The memory of Elves are everlasting, Torrey. As long as I draw breath, you will have an honored place in my memory, one no other daughter of Man will share."
The words were sweet to her, but even so she hardened her heart against them. She had what she needed from him. She was sure of it. Whether it be death or life eternal, his fate was not her concern. She had her own future to consider.
Next chapter: The Truth Will Out
If you wonder at the timing (and I don't blame you, it's a bit tricky), I inserted the entire first tryst between these two paragraphs. I took the "at length" part of the second paragraph to mean Legolas and Gimli took their time, and even detoured as needed. ^___^
""They need more gardens," said Legolas. "The houses are dead, and there is too little here that grows and is glad. If Aragorn comes into his own, the people of the Wood shall bring him birds that sing and trees that do not die."
"At length they came to the Prince Imrahil, and Legolas looked at him and bowed low; for he saw that here indeed was one who had elven-blood in his veins."
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