32. Before the Plunge
Did I dream? he wondered, struggling to recall what was rapidly fading from memory. A fragmented image of a thousand bright points, and a noise like none he had ever known remained, but it was, in the end, quite indistinct. Nevertheless, it troubled him in a vague manner, and as he lay quietly on his back, trying to fall asleep again, he worried over it like a hound over a bone. Just my luck, he thought wryly. After his long talk with Pippin earlier that night, he had thought he might sleep the better for the sense of resolution and purpose that their new-made conspiracy had lent him. Alas, it seemed that no sooner had he laid one concern to rest than something else popped up to trouble him.
And so at length, when worrying failed to yield any insight and sleep still did not come, he sighed softly and sat up. Glancing once more at Pippin, who, as was his wont, had not stirred at all, oblivious to the world, he slid out of bed and after a moment's consideration, pulled his shirt and waistcoat on and grabbed his cloak off the chair. A few minutes later, a small shadow slipped out into the hallway and made for the stairwell.
Back in the Shire, Merry had loved it when he had grown old enough that Frodo or Bilbo would invite him on occasion to join them on their nighttime walks. Striding along the deserted ways of Hobbiton with them, he had always found it an odd sort of thrill to see the town so—as if he were walking through another's home when that other was away, seeing things as they had been carelessly left. Listening to Bilbo's tales of his own adventures as a thief, or simply his amusing stories about the neighbors—never malicious, but simply cast in a way that showed up the element of the ridiculous—Merry had found himself looking at others in new ways, always amazed by how night shed light on daytime faces, how people altered under the flow of nocturnal words and observations.
Of course, Rohan was not home, and by night, Dunharrow was more alien than ever the Shire had been; for it had never been familiar, comfortable, safe, and so by night, if not precisely threatening, it felt flat and reticent. Things here did not speak to him of their owners so readily, and as he stepped out into the inner court, the flicker of the torches on the walls as silhouettes passed before them reminded him that there were places in the world that never truly went to sleep. As he stood there, gazing up at the guards, he caught a glimpse of a white-clad form far above them, up upon one of the watch towers, and blinked. Éowyn? What is she doing up at this time of night? he thought, frowning, even as the pale figure moved away. After but a moment's consideration, Merry made for the tower. It's not as if I'm getting any rest tonight anyway!
As he made his way up the tower's winding stairs, he wondered at her. It was one thing to find her up at dawn, taking, he suspected, such peace and solitude as she was likely to get in a day, given the many duties that either were required of her or which she took upon herself. Merry had still not sorted out which were which entirely, only that he had noted enough of the latter to wonder what drove her. But given the long hours she kept, she surely ought to use the night to rest. I know she is often late to bed, but 'tis past midnight! he thought. Surely only the guards ought to be abroad at this hour. Particularly on so chill a night, he thought emphatically, for as he climbed, panting a bit, his breath showed in little silvery puffs. Merry pulled his cloak closer about himself, which proved a wise precaution for no sooner had he emerged onto the tower roof than a wind blew across it that made him clamp his mouth shut to keep his teeth from chattering.
Across the way Éowyn indeed stood, gazing west, garbed in her usual flowing white, but with a heavy, fur-lined green cloak about her shoulders. There were no others about, and Merry hesitated, wondering if he had been wise to come here. She had not asked him to intrude, after all, and for all that she seemed to welcome his presence in the mornings, it occurred to him, in light of his recent thoughts, that perhaps she needed solitude and found it now this way since she could not find it in her morning walks. But if he had thought to slip away, then he waited too long, for even as he considered leaving her to her meditations, she turned, seeming to sense she was not alone.
"Merry," she said, sounding surprised.
"My lady," he replied, making her a bit of a bow. "I thought I saw you up here, so I came to see... I'm sorry if I've disturbed you," he apologized.
"You do not disturb me," she replied, turning back to the west, and after a moment, he joined her there, though a bit cautiously. He had a better head than Sam for heights, but no real desire to look down and see just how far up he was. "Can you not sleep? Is there anything I may do?" she asked him after a moment.
"I just had a bit of an odd dream, that's all," Merry replied. "Can't remember much of it, save the noise and the brightness—like hundreds upon hundreds of candles. I thought a bit of air would do me good."
"Indeed. Do you often dream such dreams?"
"Me? No, hardly ever, though ever since we left the Shire, I've had some strange ones, and also some bad ones. There is so much in the world that is great and terrible," he said softly. "And there are so many sad things, too."
"This one you speak of was one of the strange ones, then?"
"I think so, yes. It isn't that I woke up frightened, but just... I felt odd," he replied, and shrugged slightly, before glancing up at his tall companion. "What of yourself? Do your dreams keep you up?"
"I do not dream anymore," she replied, and something in her voice told him that blessing though such might seem, she did not count it so.
"Oh. Then I suppose they wouldn't trouble you," he said, a bit ridiculously, and sought some less awkward subject. Alas, words failed him, and so they lapsed into a rather heavy silence, both of them staring into the darkness, thoughts quite evidently elsewhere.
Are you sleeping? Merry thought to the night, envisioning Legolas and Strider walking distant battlements, or else pacing the edges of a slumbering encampment. I hope so. And I hope your dreams are better than mine. And that the wind isn't so cold where you are, or the ground too hard. And that you are near. And that they were well. That above all. The journey could take a month if it meant he would see his friends come back hale, which, given his impatience to see them again, Merry thought was rather magnanimous of him. Of course, we need you sooner than that—things happen in the world, and Frodo and Sam are out there somewhere...
"I wonder where they are now," Merry said and sighed. Beside him, Éowyn's breath caught audibly, and she bowed her head suddenly, much to his surprise. And perhaps it was a trick of the light, but she seemed to his eyes to grow even paler. Did her lip tremble? Merry cocked his head anxiously. "My lady?" No reply, but were those tears...? "Éowyn?" he asked, in a more uncertain tone. Still no reply, and in the face of her grief—shockingly evident in one who had 'til now seemed a very rock in a river of tumult—Merry was appalled with himself. She's her uncle and brother to lose at Helm's Deep, after all, and Théoden such an old man, and so recently recovered. And I'm always telling Pippin to have a little consideration! "I'm sorry, my lady, I didn't mean to—"
But before he could finish, Éowyn shook herself, looking away as she wiped quickly at her eyes. And she grasped his hand in one of hers, then laid her damp one atop it, chafing his between her own two for a moment. Or else wringing it, Merry thought, concealing a slight wince, for Éowyn's hands were neither smooth nor dainty, and as he'd had occasion to remark before, considerable strength lay in those slender fingers.
"Do not be," she said softly, and gave him a small smile, still tearful despite her efforts. "You have been very kind to keep me company lately, Merry. Very kind."
Merry flushed and shook his head. "You've nothing to thank me for, my lady. We're the odd men out, I suppose, you and me and Pippin, us being hobbits and you a woman in the middle of all these Riders," Merry replied. "We've got to stick together, then, and keep everyone else out of trouble." To say nothing of ourselves, he added silently, but decided Éowyn did not need to hear that.
For her part, Éowyn's eyes remained downcast, and her grip had slackened. And it seemed to him, in that moment, that she was as the sick man who, having suffered his worst pains in the midst of his fever, awakens to find himself no longer possessed by them, yet the sufferer still, and subject to a deeper ache and exhaustion that leave him wondering whether he will be himself again. And if not, whether he will find much to miss in the man he was, Merry thought, gazing up at Éowyn.
Moved to a sudden, deep compassion born of that insight, he dared to reach up and pat her hand. "It will be all right, lady. You'll see," he said quietly, but with an earnestness that surprised even him. Certainly, Éowyn seemed startled; blue eyes widened, and her lips parted slightly, as if in astonishment.
Or as if she would speak, Merry decided, noting how her chest stilled on an indrawn breath. For long, she remained motionless, and her gaze grew distant, or else turned inward, and Merry found himself holding his breath. Finally, however, she spoke, and when she did, it was from that other space, wherever and whenever it might be: "I would you were right, Master Brandybuck. I would I could believe that you are right." She paused, and he sensed she struggled with herself, and for a moment, he thought she would lapse back into silence. But then: "Tell me something, if you will, Merry. Tell about your home. I know I have asked you before, these past few mornings, but... tell me once more."
And such was her tone, that Merry, normally quite willing to speak of the Shire at the drop of a hat, found himself hesitating. No mere inquiry of politeness, this, nor, he thought, a simple change of subject. What is she looking for from me, by asking this? he wondered, fearful of saying the wrong thing. The wrong thing! I wish I'd more practice in this, but I suppose the Shire doesn't lend itself to heavy talk, even in heavy times. Robbed of speech, he asked instead, hoping for some hint of what it was Éowyn was truly after, "What would you like to hear about, my lady?"
"Anything you like. Or no, tell me what you love best in your Shire," she replied, changing her mind at the last moment.
"What I love best? Well, there are so many things to love, 'tis hard to choose," he temporized, thinking furiously of afternoons spent on the Brandywine, or singing in the evening after the spring planting was done, or stealing his mother's berry tarts. Of Bilbo telling stories before the fire, at Bag End. Of his mother and father, and lying out on the grass with them and any number of cousins, watching the wandering stars shoot across the night sky in the summer. Nightly wanderers... nightly wanderings... Memory and the idle thoughts of the past hour coalesced, and took on a different cast in that moment, as his thoughts strayed once more to the darkness beyond the walls, and friends at peril, perhaps, where none could see. Strider's words in The Prancing Pony came back to him then with force enough to make him shiver: They will come upon you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help. Some dark place, far from home and helping hands, where the night showed nothing, but instead swallowed murders...
"I think," he said slowly at last, speaking with great care as the very words seemed to unfold for the first time in his mind, "I think it's the nights in the Shire that I love best. Not that hobbits are much for being out at nights, unless there's a birthday party or some other celebration. And it's not that I like the nights for their own sake, although I do love to watch the stars fall in August, and I really loved walking with Bilbo and Frodo at night—just the three of us, seeing things no one else did, because everyone else was indoors.
"But... I liked the nights in the Shire, because you could like them, if you know what I mean. Now that I've seen a bit of the world, and even the elven realms, lovely as they are, I don't know if I would've found much to like about the night sky outside the Shire, knowing what I know now, and seeing how there are always folk watching the darkness for danger. It's not like that at home, not really, and I miss that. I truly do," he finished quietly, and glanced up at Éowyn, who was standing still as a statue.
"The Shire must truly be a peaceful place," she said at length. Then, after a brief hesitation, she finished, in a voice so soft Merry could scarcely hear her words: "I fear I should be quite out of place there."
"I don't know why you would say that, my lady. Well, I suppose you are a bit tall, but you'd be welcome should you ever go there," Merry replied gently but with certainty.
"Perhaps. But I am a shieldmaiden—born to a troubled land and a restless people, and ungentle in my ways. I think I would be ill-suited to your land, though I would be glad to find otherwise," she replied, and closed her eyes, seeming unutterably weary of a sudden, though still she did not bend nor let shoulder stoop, which only made that exhaustion the more incongruous.
"Then glad you should be, for it is otherwise. Perhaps, my lady," Merry ventured to suggest, "if you slept on it awhile, you might see things differently in the morning."
Éowyn snorted then, and gave him a wryly amused look, the first real humor he'd seen from her since they had met. "Think you so, Master Brandybuck?" She shook her head, but then: "I should rest for a time, for I am weary," she admitted. "And dawn shall come soon; we must be ever ready, who watch the west. One never knows when the king may return."
With that, they left the tower together, hand in hand still as they made their way down. But as they came at last to the door that opened onto the court within, Éowyn paused, ghostly in her white as she looked gravely down upon him, and reached to take his other hand. "I am not unmindful of the care you take of me, though you try to hide it," she said then. "And I... am very grateful," Éowyn said, a bit awkwardly for the slight quaver in her voice. She paused, drawing a deep breath as she sought to master herself once more. "Only, say nothing of this to my brother, please, he is already too solicitous and should be unbearably more so if he heard I had said any such thing!"
At that, Merry, chuckled. "Well, he is your brother," he remarked. But then he sobered. "My lady," he began, and then stopped himself with a shake of his head. "Éowyn, I do not know what troubles you, though plain it is that you are greatly grieved by some dark care. I'm only a hobbit, you see, and the world is very wide and you're very tall, if I may say it, and given all that, I'm in over my head and no one to take a brother's place. But friends aren't brothers, and they've always an ear open for each other." He paused, frowned, and then said, "What I mean is, if you ever think I could be of help, then it's nothing I'd not do for a friend. For any friend."
Éowyn was silent a moment, before she said softly, "Thank you, Merry. Good night." And with that, she flowed away, leaving Merry quite wide awake in her wake, watching after her.
"Rest well, Éowyn," he said at length to the empty space where she had been. "Rest peacefully."
He heard him before he saw him. At so late an hour, all others in the Hornburg had gone to their rest, save one, and Legolas had been content to wait upon his return. Indeed, he had been glad the other had stayed away so long as he had. It gave him time to think, to compose himself and consider his approach. Nevertheless, the night was growing rather old, and the Prince of Mirkwood had wondered idly whether he might not find himself in the ironic position of lecturing Aragorn over endangering himself and others by ignoring exhaustion. He wondered what Aragorn would make of the irony, whether it would amuse him or merely irritate him. And he wondered which he himself would prefer.
There was, however, but one way to find out, and so as the Heir of Isildur passed by the little alcove where Legolas stood waiting, he said casually, "I had thought your lieutenant would have sent you here sooner." It was a rare thing to see a Ranger so badly startled, and in other circumstances, Legolas would have laughed aloud, as Aragorn whirled, instinctively putting his back to the corridor wall, knife already to hand before Legolas had finished speaking. However, this time, the Elf merely raised a brow as he stepped forward, and, eyeing the knife, observed, "Weariness hinders our judgment, and can lead to costly mistakes, after all."
By then, Aragorn had recovered himself, and with a glare for his friend, resheathed his dagger. "So it does. The more reason for Elves not to skulk in the shadows—the Rohirrim tell tales still about the netweavers of Dwimordene, after all." For a moment, he stood gazing intently at Legolas, and then he sighed. "What is it, my friend?" he asked in a much less terse tone.
"There are matters I would discuss with you, some concerning the Steward of Gondor," Legolas replied. "And while I am sorry to keep you from your rest, we shall not have time tomorrow."
"True enough. Come then," Aragorn replied, and the Elf fell in at his side. And as they walked, he eyed the messenger tube stuck in Aragorn's belt, wondering whether Galadriel or Elrond had sent any other news that Halbarad had not seen fit to tell. But that is not my affair, he thought.
"How is your shoulder? I did not see you in the hospice hall," Aragorn said as they walked, glancing aside at him.
"It need not concern you," Legolas replied.
"Then you did seek out a healer."
It was one of Aragorn's irritating habits to put things in such a manner that there was little room for misdirection. But rather than sigh over it, Legolas said simply, "No. And it is not your concern because you are weary, and because I do not suffer unduly. Let us not speak further of this."
For an instant, Aragorn seemed as though he might protest, but after a fulminating moment, he shook his head. "As you wish, then," he replied, even as they reached the door to his chamber. Someone had been by to light the lanterns in the wall sconces, so they had not to fumble about in the darkness. Legolas glanced about as he closed the door behind himself. It was small—none of the rooms in the Hornburg were overlarge, it being a fortress before all else, and with so many camped within its walls, both soldiers and citizens, all men found themselves somewhat displaced. But small though it was, it had a bed that was not a cot and it was private—both considerable luxuries at the moment.
Aragorn undid the clasp on his cloak with one hand, and dropped the garment carelessly onto the bed. The messenger tube he laid in with his pack, and a moment later, he had done off the heavy sword-belt and set that carefully atop the nightstand. With a sigh, he stretched his arms overhead and turned to Legolas once more.
"There is not much room to sit, but wherever it please you," he said, lowering his arms.
"Pity there is no window," the Elf replied, after considering and rejecting the low stool in one corner. And so he settled instead upon the bed, while Aragorn leaned back against the wall opposite him, arms folded across his chest, one leg crossing the other at the ankle.
"Indeed," he replied. Then: "You said you would speak of the Steward and some other matters. Speak then, for," and here a glint of humor did finally show in the other's eyes, "I do not wish to test my judgment tomorrow."
"Good news for us all," Legolas replied, and then considered Aragorn closely a moment. "I have thought of how I might present matters to the Lord Denethor. As concerns the quest of our Fellowship, I deem Elrond's counsel wise still, that secrecy is needed more than confidence. Although I know nothing of the father, and would not speak ill of the son, I own Boromir's actions do little to convince me I should speak to the Steward his father of our business." Aragorn said nothing, though he nodded, and though Legolas sensed that it pained him to hear this, he did not feel the other was offended. And perhaps I do him an injustice to imagine he would be. 'Twas he who learned of Boromir's fall at the edge of Boromir's sword, he thought.
"I had thought to say simply that I bore a message from the Lady Galadriel to Rohan and to Gondor," he continued, "and that King Théoden had lent me a horse of my choosing to take also a message to the Steward without sending a man of his own. That, I think, he will not question. But if I seek to remain in the City after I have delivered my message, then I doubt not he would wonder at it. So, I ask you, since you have served with him: what is his likeliest answer if I do not leave? How will he react?"
Aragorn bowed his head, seeming deep in thought, or else memory, and after a time, he pinched the bridge of his nose, then rubbed at his temples, as if in some discomfort ere he replied, slowly, "The Steward of Gondor is not a man to be easily manipulated, particularly where Gondor is at stake. He is not one to countenance secrecy in others if such secrecy touches on matters of the realm." He lowered his hand then, and met Legolas' eyes, as he said, "He will certainly question you closely if you remain in the City, and it would not go well, for you will find none more keen-sighted in all the South Kingdom."
"Would he mistrust an Elf where the Enemy is concerned?" Legolas asked.
"He would not need to, for your ends would not match his own, and that he will not accept," Aragorn replied.
"Were I to plead injury and a need to rest, would he accept this?"
"He would, if he found nothing else to rouse his suspicion. However," Aragorn cautioned, before Legolas could respond, "even when I served in Gondor, Denethor had many ways of learning what he wished to learn. He oversaw Gondor's spy rings for years, and even while Ecthelion lived, there was some question, among those of the high circles of the City, whether Denethor had not more men and means devoted to such purposes than he told in council. Since I left Gondor, rumor has made much of the sharpness of his insight, and 'tis said he has surprised no few with knowledge they had thought secret from him. It is no easy thing to lie to him or even to misdirect him, for it is difficult to guess what he may know that may set him on your trail. And once set, he is as the proverbial wolfhound."
Legolas considered all of this thoughtfully. "And you do not believe these later rumors are... exaggerated?"
"No, I do not."
The Elf eyed him shrewdly, noting the grim tone, and remembering also Boromir in Imladris, his pride in Gondor and doubt of Aragorn. It all took on a different cast, hearing Aragorn speak of the man's father, and after a moment, he asked, "How bad was the blood between the two of you when you left Gondor?"
At that, Aragorn gave a soft, wry snort, though his eyes held not a glimmer of mirth when he replied, "We did not part well."
Legolas grunted softly. "So: Lady Galadriel, in her wisdom, sent a warning to Rohan and Gondor, and sent Rohan riding to the assistance of Minas Tirith. As I traveled south from Lothlórien, I was wounded, but had little time for proper care, being in a great hurry. King Théoden allowed me a mount of my choosing if I would send word to Denethor that he will come. And if Lord Denethor will permit, my duties completed, I would remain for awhile to recover before I return to my lady, assuming the Enemy permits. Were you Denethor, would you find aught in that to make you suspect me of omission? Or what question would you ask in his place that might put me in the unenviable position of lying to him?"
For a time, Aragorn said nothing, standing with his eyes closed and his head tipped back as he considered this. At length, he shrugged and looked back at Legolas, and said, "He may wish some token or proof that you are of the Galadhrim, for you wear no livery. But I can think of nothing else at the moment, I fear."
"What of the message she sent? Is there aught in it that would uncover she spoke to you, and not to Théoden or Denethor?" Legolas asked.
"You have heard the message."
"But is it writ so? Halbarad had left some things silent, after all," Legolas replied, and then paused, seeing Aragorn's incomprehension. Which concerned him, for it was not like the Ranger to overlook the obvious. "The message—that she wrote, and which you had with you when you came in..." he prompted, and of a sudden, the other's face lightened.
"Oh. Nay, Legolas, that was not from Galadriel—the lady sent her message by word alone, even as Halbarad delivered it," Aragorn replied, seeming at once amused, but also... Embarrassed?. The Elf could not decide what that peculiar emotion was that flickered in the other's eyes as Aragorn bowed his head after a moment, in an effort to escape, apparently, Legolas' scrutiny.
"But the case is from Lothlórien, that is plain enough by the workmanship," Legolas said.
"Aye, it is. And you may have the case if you are willing to forge the letter. Even after so many years as Men measure time, I would not trust my hand not to give you away to Denethor," Aragorn said, the silence in that speech giving Legolas cause to wonder what that note had been. But since his friend clearly was unwilling to speak of it, and since he had no time to spend upon the question, Legolas let it drop, saying only:
"Then I shall do my best; one diplomatic note is much like any other," he replied, and rose to depart.
But Aragorn gave him a sharp look, and said, "I thought you said there were other matters than Lord Denethor you wished to speak of, Legolas."
"There were, but I should not keep you so long," Legolas replied. Aragorn raised a brow.
"Perhaps you wish to take that messenger tube with you? Take it, if you truly wish to use it," he said. "Just remove what is in it."
Legolas blinked, surprised. Not that Aragorn should let him use the case, but that, after taking some pains to say nothing of the contents, he now suggested Legolas handle them himself. And so you think he would be justified in suspecting you of reading private messages had you the chance? the voice of conscience asked wryly. Were he a Man, he might have blushed over that, but he was not, and so he simply went and retrieved the case from Aragorn's pack. Pulling the cap free, he carefully shook the letter out, and resealed the tube. Then, unsure what Aragorn would have him do with the letter, he glanced over to the Dúnadan, who pushed away from the wall and came to join him... and so blocked his path to the door, coincidentally. Legolas raised a brow.
"I would take my leave of you," the Elf said, as he handed the scrolled paper to him, and then waited upon a response.
"I know you would." Aragorn paused, gazing meditatively upon the letter that he turned now in his hands. And to Legolas' even greater surprise, suddenly handed it back.
"Why?" Legolas asked, making no move to accept it.
"Because it seems to me that of late we have been too much in the habit of giving each other grief," the Dúnadan replied in a low voice. At that, Legolas' jaw clenched as those words touched a sore spot between them; but after a moment, he took the letter in hand, retreated a pace and, with a final glance at Aragorn for permission, unfolded it and read.
A short message it was, and Legolas, unfamiliar with the ways of the Dúnedain of the North, was uncertain at first that he grasped what was said. It seemed no letter alone had come to Aragorn out of Lothlórien, and he wondered what the gift was that went with it. The last line certainly seemed that it ought to mean more to him than it did, but although the Elves of Mirkwood dealt little in the high matters of the Bardings or of the Dwarves, confining themselves mainly to commerce with them, Legolas was a prince not untutored in the art of politics, among which arts, that of reading between lines was not least.
Which was why his head came up in the snap of an instant as the import of the message sank in, and after staring at the other in some shock, he set the letter aside on the bed, and seized Aragorn's shoulders tightly, drawing him close. Thoughts awhirl with astonishment, he gazed intently into the other's eyes. It cannot be... surely not! "But I cannot see it in you!" he exclaimed after a moment's intense scrutiny. "And it does not sound in your voice, either."
"Marriage is not so discernible in Men, Legolas," Aragorn replied, with a slight smile. "Surely you know this!"
"But you bonded to an Elf..." He trailed off as all the consequences unfolded before him. "Valar," he breathed. Then: "It is nearly a month since we left Lothlórien! Why have you said nothing for so long?" he demanded.
"In truth, it simply had not occurred to me that this was anything to be shared until tonight. It was not... planned," Aragorn replied, and with that one word, in all its taut flatness, Legolas understood then how things must have happened, and casting his mind back over their stay in Lothlórien, he swiftly came to a conclusion.
"That first night in the lady's care, when all of us were so grieved, you stayed away 'til dawn."
"Aye." Lowering his eyes, Aragorn took a step back from Legolas and sank heavily onto the bed, elbows leaned upon his knees, hands clasped together. "I was raised by Elves, but I have been long among my own people, and we would not call that a marriage—in secret, without any vows, and against her father's will in the matter. Why should I speak of what was done without thought?"
"But Arwen is—"
"—fortunately the wiser of us. I fear I have not been a very good husband to her; indeed, given the circumstances, I do not think I could have thought myself so before tonight," Aragorn admitted, giving Legolas a wry half-smile. "She made her will plain enough that night, and I could not hear it for what it was. But now her choice is clear, and so is mine, and that being so, why hide it? At the least I would share the news with my friends."
"I see," Legolas replied, digesting these words. And admittedly, he owned himself a bit ambivalent still over the whole affair—for Elf to wed Man, it was no small thing, and though it had not happened among Legolas' people, no one was unfamiliar with the tale of Lúthien, which had seemed to him always a great tragedy in many ways. But then again, he could not think wholly ill of a union that had led down the wastes of time to the friend before him, and after a moment, he moved to touch the other's shoulder. "I am glad that you told me," he said quietly. "And I wish you the long joy of her, and she of you... for all our sakes."
"Thank you," Aragorn replied, and for the first time since Moria, his smile was utterly sincere, without a hint of irony or sadness or wry humor, and for a moment, something of that light in him shone through the shadow of recent days. But his eyes were grave still, and he looked searchingly at Legolas, and the Elf sighed softly, realizing that the other was not through with him yet. But as he slid down the wall to sit across from the Dúnadan, Legolas arched a brow at him and said, with a faint air of reproval:
"I see that even the giving of good tidings has its ulterior motives."
Aragorn snorted, but he did not deny it. "The affairs of the world are not shaped to one end only, and princes above all others cannot forget that. I would have told you tomorrow had I not seen you tonight; indeed, I've to tell my own men tomorrow, and not simply because they deserve to know their Chieftain has finally wed. It does not lessen my desire that you should know because I would have you be so honest with me in return, any more than it lessens my desire that they should know simply because they have a right to know this."
"And on what matter would you have me be honest with you?"
"Speak as you had intended when you accosted me this evening, and do not worry about the candlemarks," Aragorn replied, and his eyes now were dark with concern as he gazed at Legolas.
It was Legolas' turn to bow his head, as he reconsidered what he had thought to say earlier. For in light of Aragorn's words, he found he had no desire to revisit griefs at the moment. But we cannot set them aside without airing them, he thought, and so nodded. "Very well. But before I do, I have need of some plain answers from you." He lifted his eyes and sought Aragorn's, and when he had the other firmly under his gaze, asked: "Do you believe that there is any chance that the Quest shall succeed in light of the Darkness foreseen?"
At that, Aragorn was silent for a very long while, though his gaze did not waver. Finally: "For myself, I do not believe that there is. But neither may I say that I know this."
"But you believe it. And believing, you will still play it out until the end."
"And what do you suppose lends you will enough to do this?" Legolas asked, his gaze growing very sharp as he pinned Aragorn with his stare. And when no reply was immediately forthcoming, he reminded him, "A plain answer, Aragorn."
"Some questions do not lend themselves to plain answers," the Dúnadan replied. "But as plainly as may be, it is because of Arwen, who, as I said, is the wiser of us."
"So you will ride into Sauron's very arms for her sake?"
"For her sake, but more for her wisdom—we do not live without some joy, even under this doom you and I foresee; since I am alive, it behooves me to act as one living should. Beyond that," he continued, "I am here, and I am, without my willing it, Isildur's Heir in this space of time, among these people, and no other can say this. Therefore I will do what is asked of Isildur's Heir, as Aragorn, to do, because it is mine to do as best I may. And perhaps that, too, is a sort of joy, though different from all others."
"I see," Legolas replied, with a sharp nod. "Then for your honesty and my own, hear my answer. For myself, I do not believe there is any chance the Ring will be unmade. But I will say I know it, for this Darkness does not seem to me to be that of an even-handed fate, ally of lurking hope. It is not an accident; it is now the one end of the Song as I see it, and we do but dance to its broken tune. All that we do shall be made to serve that end. So I see it.
"Nevertheless, your lady wife is wise indeed, and we find such joy as can be had, in order that we may say at least that we left nothing undone when the end comes. For the moment, joy, or its pale cousin, comes most oft to me in the deaths of those orcs that destroy the better form of joy—our friends. Therefore I ask you not to contest vengeance in this instance, for it makes me useful since all our roads lead to battle and the planning of the same. For a prince without his people, in this space of time, who has made himself a follower, there is little other purpose."
He paused, and then asked, "Do we understand each other?"
Aragorn did not reply at once, and his face was troubled, but eventually, he nodded. "I believe so."
"Then I am satisfied," Legolas replied, smoothly rising from the floor. Aragorn stood as well, and they walked to the door then, Legolas tucking the messenger tube into his belt. "Rest well, Aragorn. I shall see you on the morrow."
"Until then," Aragorn replied, opening the door, and the Elf slipped out into the corridor. But he had gone only a few strides, when he was obliged to stop. "Legolas," Aragorn called softly after him, and he half-turned to see the other standing in the doorway. "Thank you," was all that he said, and the Elf blinked as the Dúnadan turned away then, and the door shut behind him.
A moment longer, Legolas stood there in silence, ere he turned and slowly made his way down the hall, in search of paper or parchment, ink, wax, a bit of seasoned wood, and audacity enough to sign Galadriel's name. And when he had found all that he needed—a rather lengthier task than he would have preferred—he went with a lantern up to the highest point of the Hornburg—to the platform where the king's banner hung limp in the night. The guard there gave him a curious look, but upon recognizing him for the Elf in the king's company, let him be.
And so Legolas sat awhile, thinking carefully ere he set pen to parchment, and as he thought, he plied a small paring knife over the wood, cutting away the corners to make a circle and then turning his attention to the surface, into which he began to cut the design he remembered with precise strokes. Long indeed had it been since any Elf of Mirkwood had had speech with the denizens of Lothlórien, but there were still records in his father's library, fortunately, and some of them from Galadriel that he had read long ago. He only hoped that Denethor had not any such convenient source of comparison, but there was no help for it—such a letter could not be accepted without a seal, after all.
The sky had grown a dim grey before Legolas took up the finished letter, scrutinizing it carefully. Then, after blowing gently upon it one last time to be certain it was dry, he rolled the parchment up and inserted it into its borrowed case, and then descended from the heights. Baggage, bow, breakfast, and his horse were seen to in short order—indeed, the stable lads and several Rangers were already busy in the stalls, and one of them had seen to saddling his horse, much to his disappointment.
"You would lose time stripping tack at every station," said a voice at his elbow, and he turned to see Aragorn standing there, looking much improved for a few hours' rest.
"True enough," Legolas acknowledged, as he strapped his pack behind Arod's saddle.
"Courier posts are set every twenty-five miles, hard by the road on the south side."
"I noted them as we rode from Edoras," Legolas replied, and Aragorn grunted.
"And the letter?" he asked.
"A pretty forgery, if I may say it. Let us hope it convinces Lord Denethor," the Elf replied, giving the straps a final tug before he turned to face Aragorn. To his surprise, he found the other holding out yet another letter to him, which, after a moment, the Elf took. Brow knit with puzzlement, he turned it about in his hands: there was no name upon the front, and the wax bore no imprint of arms, but in the fashion of those of lesser means, signs—or in this case, letters—had been traced about the seal: thúle, rómen, anga, lambe, one at each quarter, as if marking a compass. "What is this?" he asked.
"Should your scribing fail to convince wholly, or should Lord Denethor ask whether you had any companions, give him this," Aragorn replied, with a slight smile. "Only give him the letter and say that you were bidden give it by one who joined you on the road south. Other than that, I can think of no question he might ask that you could not answer truthfully with safety, nor any answer that would keep him from seeking further."
"Ah." Enlightened, Legolas tucked this latest missive into his scrip which held also Théoden's token. Then he reached and clasped arms with the Dúnadan, who squeezed back firmly as grey eyes sought green.
"Go carefully," said he.
"And you as well." Legolas paused, searching the other's face a moment. "Until Minas Tirith?"
"Until then. Take care, my friend," Aragorn said, giving him one final squeeze before he stepped back. And Legolas swung up into the saddle, taking a moment to settle himself as well as he could in the infernal device ere he clucked his tongue at Arod. The horse tossed his head and, obedient to his master's will, walked down the aisle, out the stable doors, and into the morning air. The sky was brightening over the ramparts, sending long morning shadows westward, and since the yard was yet relatively empty, Legolas touched his heels to his mount's sides. "Noro lim!"
With a snort and a whinny, Arod surged forward, swift as his name made him. Glancing back over his shoulder towards the stable, Legolas caught a glimpse of a tall figure standing in the doorway there, hand raised in farewell ere the road bent towards the gate and hid him from view. The gate guard let up a cheer for him—whether out of custom or thinking that with him went news of victory, he knew not, nor even if they recognized him as not one of their own. And just as he and Arod clattered down the causeway and onto the greensward, the first rays of the sun came streaming over the mountains, setting all the eastern sky afire.
With a cry of challenge for the red dawn, Legolas set forth for Gondor.
They will come upon you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help.—"Strider", FOTR, 162
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