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Leaves of Gold: 4. The River Flows Away
Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus, XIII
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
One age of the world wanes away before my eyes, and another one waxes.
Today at dawn I stood with Gandalf in the old hallow of kings on top of Mount Mindolluin, looking at the Great River that ran towards the distant shimmer of the sea like fleeting days. And there, on the edge of living earth and slumbering snow, the sign was given. Long years had Gondor awaited it, while the memory of my forefathers faded into worn words on the pages of yellowing books, while hope diminished and faith washed away with turning tides. But not all matters are matters of faith; there are those that even the strongest of hands cannot enforce or hinder. The sapling sprang from the soil in the appointed hour, and my future was written upon it.
Only now do I see clearly the course of my growth.
As I step into the white stone chamber where I have dwelt since Minas Tirith hailed me as the King, a motionless figure is standing by the window. Evening has already darkened the sky. The lanterns on the walls are unlit, and the only faint light in the room originates from the great night-time fires burning outside the castle. The shadow of the iron bars on the window wavers on the floor.
I close the door behind me and turn the key in the lock, until it clicks. Legolas turns around and closes the distance between us with a few swift steps. I wrap my arms around him and pull him into a tight embrace. We stand like this for a long time, every inch of our bodies pressed together, reluctant to let go. One of his hands is resting steadily on the nape of my neck while the other is moving on my back. His fingers stop in the hollow below my ribs and bend slightly, sighing on my skin. Warmth floods through me. I breathe in his scent of open land and green woods, so different from the stagnant air of the city. Legolas kisses me with soft lips and the coarse stubble on my chin grazes his smooth skin. We let the kiss deepen and linger, forgetting ourselves into each other, unwilling to put the moment into words.
When we finally pull apart breathlessly, Legolas's gaze radiates into me like sunlight through fog, persistent and gentle.
"I saw you plant the White Tree on the courtyard," he says quietly. "How far off is the time?"
"The escort is already closer to Gondor than Edoras. Only a few days now, a week at most."
"Who is riding with Lady Evenstar?"
"Master Elrond with his sons and the household of Imladris. I believe Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn joined them in the Golden Wood with more of your noble folk."
Legolas's face is in the shadow, but a restlessness I cannot decipher is stirring in his eyes. He sighs. "We have loitered too long. You should have expelled me from your chamber weeks ago."
"I know." I cannot keep sorrow entirely away from my voice.
Legolas takes my hands and turns my palms up. He looks at them intensely. His touch explores their furrows, the hard and soft patches of my fingers, the surface of the skin oft torn and recovered, the veins looming under it. His thumbs stop in the dents of my palms.
"These hands are not for me," he says. "Their task is to heal the wounds of the earth, to sweep the darkness from the hearts of Men and rebuild stone upon stone where it crumbled away under the Shadow."
Legolas brings my hands to his lips. His breath concentrates into dew against my knuckles. I think I see something quiver on his face, but it is impossible to tell for certain in the twilight of the room.
"Aragorn, I will not come to you again."
The words remain between us carved in stone, deep and finite.
We both know it must be so. If I were lesser, a peasant without a wife or a lone warrior seeking bodily comfort from a brother in arms, I might not be condemned. But when the King falters, his realm will fall. We have no other choice but to disarm ourselves, for our weapons will not suffice against this. There is no shelter of woods, of war and world torn apart for us now. There is but a barren city of stone, built upon the customs and laws of Men. Here the streets are narrow and even the largest rooms too small. They will not accommodate the laws of the wild.
I feel a tug inside me, as if somebody were trying to pull the heart out of my chest.
Legolas lets his hands drop down to my waist. My fingertips take in the warmth of his lips, they move to his cheekbones and his brow, run through his hair. He sighs and pulls me to him. Our faces are close enough for our lips to brush. I lick his upper lip very lightly with the tip of my tongue, and his hips buck against mine. Desire floods into me as a familiar fiery stream that settles into my groin. I push him against the wall, my hands seeking the naked skin under his tunic and fumbling for the laces of his trousers. Legolas gasps and melts momentarily in my arms, but then he clutches my shoulders and captures me between the cool stonewall and his heat-emanating body with one quick, well-aimed move.
"No rush," he whispers into my ear. "There is time still."
"Not enough," I reply, and my voice is rough as stones in the city walls, bare as a leafless forest.
Our hips are restless, demanding, fierce enough to wound, as they press together. I hear my own rapid breathing and shiver as Legolas's hands wander along my body.
"I will show you how short moments may seem longer," he says. "Undress."
I take off my cloak and tunic, my boots and trousers. The stone floor feels cold beneath the soles of my feet. Legolas lights a lantern on a hook on the wall and turns to look at me. He touches my face tenderly and strokes my sides. His caresses wander down my back and continue to my behind.
"Now, undress me," he pleads, and his gaze moves on my naked body like light on water.
I am all aching, iron-hard lust.
I slide my fingers under his tunic, between the soft fabric and heated skin, letting the sensation flow into me. The garment falls to the floor. I kneel down to take off his boots. Slowly I open his trousers and take them off, too, releasing his rigid, arching erection. Legolas's eyes close and his lips crack open, but his hand twines into my hair, holding my head still, preventing me from taking him into my mouth. In the flickering light of the lantern the edges of his face and body soften and smoothen. The scars he bears seem faded like a well-worn map. They are pale and nearly invisible streaks under the skin that has grown even and whole to cover them -- so unlike the traces of time and life on my mortal body.
I breathe against his flesh and a moan falls from his lips. I feel his nails press red sickle-shapes on the skin of my shoulders.
"Please, get up," he says.
I rise to my feet and Legolas moves behind me. I let out a sound as his arms wrap around my waist and his breathing fondles the back of my neck. I feel his arousal press onto my back. He nibbles my ear and draws a moist line on the sensitive skin below it with his tongue.
"Go to the bed," he whispers, and that whisper is made of fire.
I climb onto the bed on top of the heavy, soft covers. His body is a soundlessly gliding stretch of moonlight among the shadows of the room as he settles next to me and finds a bottle of oil from under the bedding, where I hid it last night.
He knows how to touch me.
His breathing lingers on my susceptible skin, his strong taste on my tongue, the sweep of his hair on my neck, the weight of his thigh upon mine. He is a bright flame bending languidly against me, and I let myself burn. When I am finally trembling and ready, mere bewildered words and pleading noises and impatient touches, he straddles my lap and pours oil on his hands. Its scent mingles with ours as he applies it to me and fits me fully inside him.
My fingers dig into his narrow hips, and I cannot suffocate a moan as the fire flares through me.
Legolas remains still for a moment, looking at me ardently. As if in a flash of memory I see myself through his eyes: a fleeting, transforming creature dashing by, whose beauty and strength years will shed too soon, who brushes his persistence like a faint current of air and then dissolves with the passing wind. I want to leave a trace of myself in him, so all would not fade. I want something of us to remain when I am gone and he has left these shores, and no one will remember. But how does one change the colour of the sky or shape of a mountain, how does one brand the surface of the sea? How can an immortal body be marked? How can a memory be carved into an infinite mind that has all eternity to forget?
My lips form words, but my voice stops in my throat. And then the words matter no more, because he begins to move.
He rocks back and forth, rising and falling as if on top of a wave, quivering under my hands, wailing a few syllables that remotely resemble my name. His wiry and lean warrior's body arches and tenses and flings. He touches himself and I touch him. I am the song of blood in my own ears and thick throbbing desire, painful edges of teeth against the marsh of my tongue, a relentless rush of noises. And finally we are one big glowing churning spilling spasm, and in its core my heart is struggling its way out of my chest, as if trying to crawl inside his skin and nestle next to his heart.
When it is over, Legolas is lying in my arms, and I am still inside him. At length he rises and seeks among the pillows a linen cloth to wipe us both clean. I turn to my side and he lies down, facing me. The soft light of the lantern lingers on his skin like a caress. Our fingers interlace and warmth closes around us as a circle inside which we breathe in each other, listening to the night: the heavy footsteps of guards on the courtyard, the wind sweeping over the high walls, the cries of birds hunting in the dark.
I think of the voices of white birds that froze him for a moment in Pelargir. A mist veiled his eyes then, as if elven-sleep had suddenly got a hold of him. The moment passed, but left an icy crust inside me.
"Do you hear the sea?" I ask after a long silence.
The smile dims on his fair face.
"I do not feel its smell or hear its words, but its song ceases in my heart nevermore," he says. "Day after day I know where it crashes onto the rocky shores, like a tree knows dawn after dawn where light will rise to nourish its growth."
Restlessness stirs inside me, but I need to know.
"Will you go to the Havens?"
He remains silent for a long time before answering.
"I will, but I do not know yet when. My people have plenty to do in your realm, and I wish to initiate their work."
I press closer to him and bury my face in his hair.
"I cannot ask you to stay longer than your will allows, just as you have never asked me to alter my choices. All I ask for is you not to depart over the sea without telling me."
"That I promise. In return, I would not have you leave this world without bidding a farewell," he replies.
"You have my word on it."
Legolas's lips are on my temple, and his voice is a mere whisper.
"Aragorn, this sorrow will yet pass for us both. My image will slowly wither and disperse in your memory, and a day will come when you can no longer restore the sound of my voice in your mind. Such is the way of Men's hearts."
The truth in his words stabs me. I move my head and lower my forehead to touch his.
"What will this change?" I ask, although I know the answer.
"Everything. And yet nothing." His face is grave. "Evenstar will take her place as the Queen of Gondor by your side, and together you will rule a thriving realm for many years of Men, and the line of Kings will continue."
His hand withdraws and emptiness replaces it in mine.
"I will go to the Glittering Caves and to Fangorn with Gimli, and then to my father's country. The time I will remain away will seem long to you. But I will return and bring my people from Mirkwood to the forests of Ithilien; thus the land will be blessed, and filled with lush growth and joy once more. I will send them to the White City to plant blossoming gardens, while the folk of the mountains labour and build the city anew."
Legolas's eyes are dark water with reflections of stars in it.
"Perhaps sometimes, if the King and Queen so wish, I will visit them as an old friend," he continues. "I will entertain them with stories of my journeys and hold their child, who will look at me with his mother's eyes and smile his father's smile. I may sing him a song in my own tongue, a song of the moon peeking into a beech forest from between green branches in the half-light of the morning. And as years pass, I will see on my visits as the firstborn grows and takes up bow and sword, while the youngest babe is still stretching in his cradle."
Legolas places my hand upon his chest. His fingers are cool, yet warm on top of my own. I feel the steady beating of his heart, and blood is pulsing in my veins in the same rhythm.
"But here, here nothing will change," he whispers, pressing my hand against his heart, looking at me as if I were sky and sea and earth, all together.
That is when I cry.
He holds me tightly in his arms. Somewhere in the distance of heavens stars are bursting to life and dying away. My tears are petty in comparison, but large and painful as they are shredding their way out of me.
I fall asleep with Legolas's face bright before my eyes and his voice a quiet stream in my ears.
The groves of dreams are strange and hazy, but one of their trees I know. It has grown here before my time, and here it will still be, when I am gone. Slender and straight it rises from the ground, calm and still while the world is changing.
I see the green leaves turn golden against the blue sky. I see the sky fade into a metallic grey and a chilly wind blow through the leaves that shrivel and wither and are caught in the wind. I see the tree crook and hang its breaking branches while moss swallows the trunk. I see life leak out of the tree.
I try to touch the tree and wrap my arms around it, but I cannot, for I no longer have a body. Lady Galadriel is standing next to the tree like an ice-white flower in the grey of the winter. I read sadness on her face. I try to cry out to her, but I cannot, for I no longer have a voice. She turns her back, walks away and leaves the tree to die. A mighty storm shakes the wasted trunk, and it shivers, wails, breaks and screams as a beast struggling in agony. I watch all this from a chamber of stone behind a barred window, and I cannot break out, though the scream is cutting to my very core.
I wake with a start. It is still dark outside, and the soft glimmer of fire is dancing on the walls. The lantern has gone out. Legolas is standing naked at the window and looking out. Calm and still while the world is changing.
"Were you weeping?"
Legolas turns towards me a little too swiftly and sharply. His body is firm and alert, but his face remains in shadow. It is hard for me to imagine traces of tears on it.
"I thought you were asleep," he replies, and his voice tells me nothing.
"I saw you. I saw you wither and die."
"What do you speak of?"
I think of the Lady, the sadness on her face and something else behind it -- absoluteness, inescapable will to settle matters into their predetermined course. I think of how she turned her back and walked away.
"Come here." I say it as a quiet plea, and Legolas does not resist. He sits down next to me on the edge of the bed. I sit up and stroke the back of his hand with my thumb. "Something happened to both of us in the Golden Wood. You do not need to tell me, if you do not want to," I say, "but will you still let me tell you? I wish to understand, that is all."
He nods slowly. I tell him about the vision that the Lady had painted before my eyes in Lothlórien; the tree that was the source of strength and courage to me, a home and shelter; and I tell him about the dream where I saw the tree die.
"The tree was you," I say. "It was always you. But I do not understand the meaning of this."
Legolas is still and mute as a statue of stone, as if his spirit had suddenly escaped, leaving behind but an empty shell. When he finally speaks, there is more sadness in his voice than I have ever heard before.
"I knew it had to be her doing. I just did not know how."
"No. It was our doing. I came into your arms, because I wanted you. Not because I was sent against my own will. You must never doubt that." I fall silent and hesitate before continuing. "Unless you have a different story to tell."
Legolas smiles a quick and faint smile that flashes in the dark.
"I do not doubt that. Yet we have been but insects in the webs of those stronger than us," he replies. "I will tell you. It is better we both know."
And thus he begins to tell me. With each word the image is woven fuller and wider, the threads take their places and the colours brighten. I see my path grow narrow and my fate tighten around me, and there is no wriggling out of it. The Evenstar shines far ahead, but another sheen lights my dark road. My predetermined part is to build a bridge between two worlds, to amend what has been broken; but I myself must always remain divided in two, without wholeness. I must build my happiness upon what I have been granted, even if my will were otherwise.
"Now you know what message was hidden in your dream," Legolas says to end his tale. "But it was wrong about something. I will not wither and die. I have not taken on a heavier strain than I can bear. We must not drag the past behind us or push the future ahead as a burden, but take life as it is given to us in this moment."
"That is precisely what we have done, and now we are paying the price," I say, and my voice stumbles and breaks.
Sadness is still veiling his eyes, but something else ripples behind it. "Then let us at least make the most of the moments that still belong to us," he replies.
Slowly Legolas draws the heavy bedcover off my legs, until the chilly night air is licking my skin. His hands move over my body, and he opens me with fierce, overwhelming tenderness. Then he takes me for the last time. He sinks into me, is inside me like a knife deep in an open wound: cutting and burning, making me writhe and scream. One day the coarse patterns of scar tissue will cover the wound. I will be able to look at it and touch it years from now, alone and in secret, when nobody knows, not even him.
Time and again we whisper onto each other's skin all we shall never say after this night.
Shadows crawl along the floor to the bed and spread over us. Behind their mesh silence grows between us fuller than the words of any language. The cold blade of the moon descends between us. The sharp-edged morning light opens a gulf between us, and we stand still on both sides of it. We watch a story known only to the two of us turn colourless with the night, become unnoticeable and unimportant as it is buried under time and memory.
His story. My story.
Outside on the courtyard the White Tree is growing, reaching out its branches towards the sun and heralding the beginning of a new age. The hour will come when a guard sees from the highest watchtower the one who is to step to the throne by my side. When she arrives, I will take her hand and smile at her as if I had seen her face before my eyes every moment, as if her voice had never languished from my ears, as if her image had never dimmed in my deceitful mortal memory. And songs will be made of us that tell how all the stars flowered in the sky, when King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.
They tell of nothing else.
When Legolas and I leave the chamber at dawn, our steps part into different directions. I do not look back, and I will never know if he does.
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