1. Chapter One
Author's Notes: A challenge.
Disclaimer: All characters / place names are Tolkien's.
Beta: All thanks to my lovely beta who, despite having her own story to finish, helped me put the final touches on mine.
Among the Ruins
The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.
Legolas stood in the last of the copper light attenuating through the branches. The outcropping's face was awash in brightness and warmth. Below, a vast darkness welled up. His eyes alighted on the huddled form of his comrade, looking even more stunted and disgruntled from above as he stood watch over their mount. His smile wavered as he resumed his search and soon found what he wanted. Descending into the darkness, he dropped down beside his comrade.
Gimli, sitting with his back against the outcrop and his axe between his knees, squinted up at him. "Well?"
"We must move."
"And here, I was beginning to think you were growing sensible at last, and I could spend at least one night with good stone beneath my legs," Gimli muttered as he hauled himself up again.
"Good for the legs stone may be, but it would be poor for sleeping," Legolas returned, plucking his pack up with one hand and taking Arod's reins in the other. The horse needed little guidance. He knew his master's mind well now and could smell the water. "Arod is thirsty. We pushed him long today."
Gimli muttered something Legolas' ears did not catch. He knew he had pushed his comrade's forbearance harder than the horse today. Gimli had no liking for Fangorn and had told Legolas as much that this venture was but repayment for the Elf's company into Aglarond, a debt to be settled. His folk had always fought the growth of trees for they wormed their way into chinks, scaled walls and broke them down, cracked foundations and destroyed the work of hands.
Even though Saruman's fall had made it safer than of old, Fangorn proved Gimli's fears well-founded. Some of the trees jeered at the Dwarf, forgetting their master's decree. They flexed their roots under his boots, snatched at his cloak and beard, and once, covered him over in stinging nettle as if to prove that they endured longer than stone. Even Legolas' presence could alleviate only so much.
But as much as Gimli's misery dampened the journey, Legolas did not hasten it. In Aglarond, Gimli had lingered long though the oppressive darkness where no light had shone in years weighed on Legolas' soul. It seemed ill to him, when the lantern revealed the immense beauty of the caves, that such should lie forever shrouded in darkness, known only to the few who had the courage to seek it.
Their camp was a quiet affair. There was no fuss. Each knew his duty. Gimli dug the fire pit and lined it with stones, trusting Legolas—or, rather, the good graces trees tended to show to Elves—in gathering the firewood. Their waybread for the journey, which they had replenished in Rohan, and some salted venison washed down with a mug of cold stream water had begun to stick in Legolas' throat.
Afterwards, Gimli took up their mugs and walked down to the stream. Legolas tossed another log on the glowing fire and settled his back against the knotty wood of the yew under which he had spread his bedroll. In the unquiet of his own heart, he knew why he did not wish to leave.
He had hoped, upon entering the great wood that he might find his purpose renewed in the presence of ancient beings who had withstood Númenor's rape, the blight of Sauron, the fire and destruction of Saruman. And amidst their dark and masterful splendor, Legolas did, indeed, feel like a child again, wishing he had a hundred-fold more eyes for gazing. But whenever a westerly breeze stirred the leaves, it seemed that a white and unfamiliar rush sang in his ears that the song of trees could not quite suppress. Branches heavy-laden with the flotsam of years swayed all about him, drowning the forest floor in shades of watery green.
Fangorn was still strong, but it had grown old long ago. Like the legend of the mortal king who sat upon the highest pinnacle of his throne and watched his lands until his white beard fell to his knees, and his eyes had grown dim from straining to see his merry youth come round again. The hands might be knotted with sinew, the shoulders broad as mountains, but desire for one's youth did not make those green-leaf days bloom again. The red leaves fell thick at Fangorn's feet.
Three times, Legolas flung fresh billets on the fire and watch them dwindle to grey shadows of themselves. Gimli still had not returned. Fangorn was safer than it had once been, but Treebeard had still seen fit to warn them against parts still quite black and unfriendly. Barring the mischief a Dwarf might come to, there was also the Enemy to consider. Though Sauron and his greatest servants had fallen into the Darkness that had ever awaited them, the news of the Battle of the Morannon and the events at the Field of Cormallen had yet to reach many parts of the world. And those who had discovered the news of their master's demise, the deserters and outlaws of the battlefield, would be all the quicker now to revenge him. The hunted beast, wounded to death, would turn on his chasers, inflicting what harm he could simply to harm those who had robbed him.
Or, perhaps, he was being foolish, and Gimli merely sought some solitude. They had traveled long enough together that the petty squabbles and discomforts of the road no longer served to separate them as they once had, but it was only fair if each sought a little time to himself when the need was on him. Still…the wood was running low, and Legolas dared not leave the fire unattended to search for more.
The wind rose as evening fell, and the leaves filled the grove with their clamor. A dizzy rattling and creaking that sounded for all the world like wild, fearful laughter. Unsettled, Legolas rose and kicked earth over the fire before going to Arod for his white knife.
The swarthy man looking at him quite suddenly over Arod's withers did not seem nearly as surprised to see Legolas as Legolas was to see him. He held Legolas' knife between his fingers, blinking and smiling like a child with a toy.
He had an ill-favored look, his gaunt appearance and patched-together garments suggesting a prolonged sojourn far from the habitations of more reputable men. His eyes had a wild, liquid look as they danced over Legolas' arms, packs.
Slowly, keeping his hands loose and relaxed at his sides, Legolas took a guarded step back.
"Well met," he said, inclining his head. "You look as if you have traveled a long road. Would you care for something to eat?"
The man only continued to smile at him, and Legolas was suddenly aware of the shuffling of footsteps behind him, about him, of other shapes moving amongst the trees, a noose of figures drawing tight around their camp. At an unfamiliar hand on his bridle, Arod threw his head up sharply.
Legolas struck the horse's flank, the sound cutting the air cleanly as a knife. Arod took off, dragging his handler several feet before a tree effectively loosened his hold. The sound of the horse's retreating hooves pounded in Legolas' ears. He felt no fear, only the blood beat in his veins, hot and hard.
"My comrade?" he demanded, the words clawing up his throat. "Does he live?"
"Longer than you."
Legolas was already moving before the speaker had finished. He plucked his fallen knife from the ground, the tip quickly disappearing into the shoulder of his first adversary. But he did not linger to engage the second. When the man leapt back with a howl, Legolas darted through the gap in the circle, fleeing for the stream.
The light was waning fast now, the water high with recent rain. He forded it in great peril, scrambling up the bank just ahead of the hue and cry. Wet to the thighs, he crouched down on the hither bank, concealing himself amid the bracken.
Almost before he made the bank, the first of them cleared the treeline and stepped onto the sandy shore. He was a tall fellow, hooded and sinewy with a long sword hanging at his belt. He crouched to examine the place where Legolas had crossed in haste. Legolas, fingers aching for his bow, did not dare breathe as his hunter's eyes tracked over the very place where he lay hid. The cold, hard eyes looked straight into his own, and Legolas felt a jolt unlike anything he had ever felt. A strange feeling he could not place a name to.
The man rose. Legolas braced for the hue and cry. But none came, and when he raised his head a fraction above the ferns, the streambank was empty but for the gloaming on the rocks.
A sea of darkness stretched between him and the light.
He kept his eyes on it even as he waded through the mystery of Fangorn, holding to as straight a course as he could manage, using his bow, which he had found covered in leaves at the foot of an oak tree, to feel his way forward. Brambles caught at his legs. Branches grasped his arms. Unseen roots tripped up underneath his feet. The light never once wavered. Pale and constant as a star, but somehow, more earthly, brighter, steadier than the vaults overheard. It had no flicker, no flame. Though some distance away, its unnatural brilliance silvered the edges of the leaves about him, gilding them with frost. Legolas followed it like a mariner the bonfires revealing the sea coasts. A message, a trap. He did not know.
The ground began to slope up, grew treacherous, crumbling away beneath him. He slowed lest the skitter of rocks betray. Breathless, fingers stinging, he raised his head a little to check his position.
The lantern, for he saw now that his mysterious star was, indeed, a lantern of some kind, sat upon a small shelf of stone just above him and to the center. It let out a slender, blue glow like the moon at its most gibbous, but Legolas could not see what burned so. Someone had hooded it. Just beyond the reach of its light on Legolas's left, a deeper darkness split the stone in twain: a roofless cave.
The naked scowles were all that remained of the vanished people that had once dwelt here, the works of their delving eroded by centuries of rains and wind and overhung with moss. No one dwelt here now in permanence though, if rumors were to be believed, the intrepid or the avaricious from time to time sought the ancient treasures supposedly left behind in their darksome reaches.
Yet if robbers their attackers were, they had left no sign of a sentry, other than the light, no shadow deeper than any other shadow, though there were plenty places where a grown man might lie in ambush, observing and unobserved.
Legolas began to make his slow and painstaking way towards the nearest wall a good four meters to his left, aware that any slip of rock, any sudden shadow might betray him to the sentry. He breathed through his mouth, quieter that way, as he stretched for another hand- or foothold. All about him, the night labored and creaked. Somewhere below, a stream gurgled and whispered to the rocks. Now and again, the far-off cry of bats was flung through the night. A precious half-hour of work, stopping often to listen, and once to fumble for his knife when he thought he marked the scrape of a boot, had him three-quarters of the way there. His heart rolled in his ears. Sweat dampened his upper lip and underarms, and his shoulders and thighs trembled with the effort of holding himself in so awkward a position.
At last, the deep shadow of the inclining wall fell over him. The shelf beyond was utterly empty, bathed only in the dim radiance of the lantern which seemed to need neither oil nor trimming. He took a moment to gather himself then scrambled up and over the lip onto the shelf. He stayed there for a long moment, raking the shadows beside him and beyond him. Still no indication of another presence. No betraying scrape of hobnail boot on stone. No telltale sheen of a blade unsheathed in ambush or a shadow that did not move like other shadows. Behind the light, the cave stretched, dark and bottomless like a well laid upon its side.
The rough wall dragged over his flank as he pressed against it, the uneven coolness of the stone somehow steadying as he nocked his bow. Staying as much out of the light as possible, he began to edge his way around the semi-circle towards the cave entrance. Every couple of paces, he stopped, listened, watched for movement. He had reached the halfway mark between the lantern and the cave when he felt it. The spider's eyes—or so his comrades-in-arms in Mirkwood had once named that prickling sensation over one's skin, that sharp awareness of Another, when one is alone on a little-used path and the twilight is failing.
He did not stop. 'Never stop' his captain had always exhorted. Still prey is easy prey. He kept edging along the wall as if he had noticed nothing, every single one of his senses straining upward, cataloguing every subtle shift of weight, the creak of muscles, the softest of exhales through the mouth, the haunches gathering for the leap.
He dropped almost as soon as the shadow and lashed out hard from the ground with the haft of his bow. It connected fiercely with something that gave a soft, hoarse grunt and lurched to one side.
On his feet, Legolas swiped out again, striking only empty air this time, feeling forward the way a blind man feels for the earth with his stick. His knife gleamed in his other fist, bright, too bright, its edges traced with blue fire. Light and shadow swayed and grappled with one another until Legolas's head swam with the violence of it. His assailant had tripped over the lantern and torn the hood off. For a moment, the entire shelf blazed with silver-blue flame like a star, leaving Legolas exposed and vulnerable in what previously had been liquid shadow.
Then darkness descended like a candle extinguished by the wind as a cloak muffled the glare. Phantom lights swirled and danced in its wake. Legolas blinked furiously, his bow still held before him. He heard no movement from the other side of the shelf. By degrees, his vision cleared to reveal by bits and pieces, a shape, crouched low beside the lantern as if his attacker's loss of vision had rendered him too momentarily incapable of movement. The powerful shoulders and sinewy hands were unmistakable. As was the long sword hanging at his side. Stronger now, more than ever, Legolas felt that sense of Other, inexplicable and separate.
He edged back against the wall, casting a quick glance at the still-empty cave entrance. Letting his knife drop, he nocked another arrow from the quiver at his hip. With any luck, he might yet have enough surprise to kill this man and steal inside without his comrades coming to investigate the noise and light. The ash quivered as he hooked fore and middle fingers above and below the fletching, the third steadying the string as he drew it back to his chin. It drew without a creak, tension running like a fine thread through his shoulders, down his forearms, all the way to the arrow's slightly curved shaft.
Legolas adjusted a point, aiming to the center of the shadow.
"You will regret it if you shoot me, Legolas. I am more your friend than you know."
His attackers had not known his name. The unmistakable hint of Silvan brogue in the other's speech was telling, but he dared not endanger himself with his own softness.
"On your knees," he barked without loosing his draw. "Keep your hands from your sword. If you are my friend, in truth, you will do as I say."
The speaker remained where he was for a beat, snarled in deep shadow. Legolas sensed him tilting his head, considering, weighing. Then he knelt, his hands out to either side.
"Good. The lesson of trust has been well-learned."
Legolas said nothing in reply, but his draw loosened ever-so-slightly.
The voice's faintly chiding tone hung in the air, redolent of a crisp January morning after a night of expected peril and unexpected loss, of silver boughs and golden canopies whose dancing he would fain lose himself amongst only to be veiled by the darkness of cloth and the wariness of strangers.
'Alas for the folly of these days! Here all are enemies of the one Enemy, and yet I must walk blind…'
'Folly it may seem… yet we dare not by our own trust endanger our land."
"Indeed," Legolas replied to give himself time to think, hoping his companion might humor him and speak again. "And what errand brings…one of the Galadhrim so far beyond his marches?"
A flash of white teeth in the darkness, a subtle shake of the head. "A dark and largely unpleasant one. You are Legolas. The son of Mirkwood."
"Forgive me. I do not recall your name," Legolas said at last. It felt strange, to speak to this fellow as if they had met by chance at an inn along the roadside instead of at the edge of their weapons in the middle of a forest where none of their people had traveled for ages uncounted. "My fellows and I passed through your woods not long ago. But though the time has been short as we reckon things, much has changed—"
"My knees are growing numb. May I stand?"
The strange Galadhel stood and, before Legolas could utter one word of surprise or command, flipped the hood from the lantern. The silver beam lanced across his face and pricked his memory. Another, similar lamp had hung in the high branches above a platform seated amongst the silver boughs. It had raked over his person as it raked over him now, mimicking the gimlet eye cast by a soldier whose formidable presence had startled Legolas—this unmerited distrust from a neighbor when all he had wanted to do was lie down and sleep.
The light lowered, and as his dazzled eyes recalled their duty, a pale, stern face stood forth from the shifting shadows, crowned with golden hair. Eyes like stars pinned him with the same indelicate scrutiny as they had borne under the boughs of Lórien, but they had softened somewhat.
"There is no reason for you to ask my forgiveness. There was neither time nor opportunity to prolong our brief acquaintance beyond the perfunctory. I served merely as your guide—"
"Haldir," Legolas said as if the light had revealed it buried in a dark corner of his mind. "Yes. I remember now."
Haldir went very still and held up a cautionary hand. "Do not speak my name so loudly. We have talked too long as is."
Quickly, he did something Legolas did not see that doused the lamp at once. Legolas, blinded once more, waited until he felt a warmth all along his side and lips pressed so close to his ear, he flinched a little.
"There are five within. They are well-armed but lack discipline. Deserters." The word hissed like the curse it was.
"Gimli?" Legolas hissed back. "Does he live?"
A beat. "They did not kill him for they wished to make use of his knowledge of caverns to hunt out their lost fortunes. He still has the use of his legs."
A thousand questions swirled through Legolas' mind at the lack of utter assurance for Gimli's well-being, but he forced himself to grit his teeth and pick up his bow again. He let Haldir take the lead and slid through the cave entrance after him. It was narrow and roofless in places and smelled like the bottom of a river. Moss greened the moisture-beaded walls.
After a little, the corridor began to broaden and lengthen. Signs of chiseling marred the water-smooth walls. It was not wholly dark for a little light trickled down from the open roof, and gradually, a red light appeared over Haldir's shoulder, growing and reddening unevenly. A torch or torches. The sound of voices, worn and rough as chipped stone echoed oddly about them.
At the edge of the firelight, Haldir took hold of Legolas' wrist and squeezed once.
Legolas held back, his heart thumping harder now. From his angle, he could just glimpse the open part of the cave where a group huddled around a spat of makeshift torches and another lantern. There were five, as Haldir had promised, though to Legolas it had seemed like far more. Four of them were busy at the back of the cavern, shifting carefully through piles of rubble where it seemed a section of the wall had fallen away. Gimli, to Legolas' relief, was bundled up near the fallen wall, his face drawn and pale, but otherwise very much alive.
The gaunt leader of the group sat watching his men's progress, his legs outstretched, his head tilted back against the damp of the wall. His oily eyes flicked over as Haldir strode into their midst.
"Ho, Thurin," he drawled in the language of Men, eyeing Haldir up and down languorously. "Does the dark grow too thick out there for you?"
"It would have to be dark indeed to trouble me, Valachel," an unrecognizable voice answered, ruined by mere decades of wine and smoke.
The firelight cast uncertain shadows, but even so, Legolas marveled at the change in his companion. Gone was the pale hair and face of the Galadhrim, the starlit eyes. In his place stood a Man: tall but rather gaunt, grizzled hair clung to withered cheekbones, and the eyes were smoky, a scar running through one of them and puckering a cheek. He had never seen such a thing in waking life though tales of the First Age spoke of the arts of men who could change their shape and face at will. What magic was this?
'Thurin' laid a gnarled hand on the wall and scratched at it idly. "I like this business not at all. When have we ever kept captives alive? What for?"
The one named Valachel rolled his eyes and flapped a loose hand as if in dismissal of a too-oft heard argument. "Why do men do what they do? For profit. For need. For survival."
"The price may prove too high, especially since several among our number have more milk than blood in their veins," Haldir said. "He is the son of a Dwarf-lord."
"How is it you always seem to know more than you ought or guess better than you should?"
"A clever man should be able to do so."
"Careful. Some of our fellows less worldly than I who would call such 'cleverness' sorcery." Valachel got to his feet. "But me, I think it much more mundane. So, what would you have us do, if you led these men as you seem so eager to do?" The question was barbed and meant to bite.
Haldir only smiled. "I am no captain of men."
Valachel laughed. It was not a merry laughter, but a hard between-the-teeth kind of laughter, the unsteady gleam more pronounced in his eyes. He stood slowly. He was near but not quite Haldir's height and seemed to know it for he did not look away from Haldir's eyes, the way a small dog watches for the point in his larger foe's throat where he might sink his teeth.
He tapped the back of Haldir's hand with the tip of his knife "What do you always carry that thing for? What use is a lamp that gives no light?"
"I never said it gave no light."
"I've never seen it lit. You said it could show us hidden things. Where the treasure's hidden."
"And when we find the right spot, it will." Haldir rolled his shoulders. "By the cut of his raiment, the Dwarf is no coal-miner. And he has the manners and temperament of a king under the mountain. Best to be rid of him, or it will be our hides when the Longbeards descend on this place to reclaim him."
"I think you're lying." Valachel had not sheathed his knife. "I say, you're afraid the Dwarf is going to take your place. Is that it? Dwarf's sense is more useful than a dark lantern. Go on then, Thurin. Show us this light of yours, and maybe I'll remember better why you're useful to us at all."
"It doesn't work like that," Haldir said. The knife point digging into his chin cut off further speech.
"Make it work."
Legolas laid his fingers on his bowstring, but he did not dare shoot. Haldir stood between him and Valachel.
Haldir wiped a trickle of blood from his throat and crouched over the lantern.
Valachel stood over him, breathing fast and fingering his knife. "You think you're so smart, old man. I know your kind. I could ferret out swindlers from swine by the time I was eight years old on the docks of Umbar. Latch onto whatever band will have you and then a dagger is all you need. Well, I'm no fool like my father, Thurin. I'll not wait for your dagger in my ribs. That was your first mistake—"
Legolas saw the knife come down, but his shaft had already flown.
The blade clattered to the floor beside Haldir's knee, its lame glittering in the light of the kindled lamp. Valachel made a strange, gasping noise, his eyes widening in disbelief. Though whether it stemmed from the Elf at his feet or the arrow in his chest, they would never know. He fell and did not rise again.
Haldir was on his feet before the sound of his falling body reached the ears of the others, his blade unsheathed, his eyes brilliant in the pale light. Legolas already had another arrow notched and flying. A second man fell.
It was over quickly. Haldir slew one, and the last fled. Legolas did not look at the men he had killed but crouched beside Gimli, who grinned a little at him, wincing when Legolas touched his arm. He cut a glance at Haldir over Legolas' shoulder.
"King under the mountain, eh?"
Haldir did not delay but led them hotfoot from the caves, fetching up the little hand-lamp and striking out northward so far as Legolas could tell. That journey through the darkest hours of the night seemed endless as they followed the stream, crossing it back and forth several times, keeping to the rocks and scrambling over hard places when the easier way was to go around. A few times, Legolas was certain they doubled back on their own traces, and he became impatient where Haldir was leading them as fatigue dragged at his limbs, and the blood on his hands dried.
Gimli kept up gamely, but his face was ashen, and the way he clutched his arm concerned Legolas.
At last, when they had stopped for a brief halt, he turned to their guide.
"I have not rushed so since our Fellowship pursued orcs across Rohan," Legolas said, trying to make out Haldir's face in the faint moonlight. His tone was sharper than he had meant, nearly accusing, but there was little he could do to soften it now. "Why must we hasten so? It is time and past time we found a place to sleep the few hours of the night left to us."
Haldir paid no attention to his tone. He had shuttered the lantern for use only at need, and his face was all in shadow save for a flicker of moonlight dappling through the trees. For a long while, he was silent as if listening to the wind tossing in the branches.
"A league or so more, I know a place," he said at last. At Legolas' silence, he added, "There are others. The ones that we slew were but a splinter-band. Valachel had a dragon's penchant for pretty things and took more than his share from his fellows and his captain before he quit them. There are some two score who will miss the things robbed from them when they discover their missing comrades. We must be far away, and our trail hidden before it gets fully light."
Legolas went to Gimli and roused him at once.
The resinous tang of cedar wakened Legolas a little from the half-sleep he had drifted into during the trek. They had come to the edge of a small copse, and the grey of dawn could be glimpsed between the branches in the east. Though he was bone-weary, he insisted on tending to Gimli before all else.
At first, the Dwarf was reluctant to be touched, even after Legolas explained that the strange, grey man was an old comrade of theirs. He sat at the bole of a cedar with his left arm cradling his right as if the latter pained him. The shoulder looked strange and squared. Just looking at made Legolas, accustomed to battle wounds as he was, feel a sympathetic pang in his own shoulder and the pit of his stomach.
"How did this happen, Gimli?"
Gimli pressed his lips together, the old stubbornness rearing against new pain. Pain won out, and he looked out towards and the dawn, letting his breath out in a thin, tight stream between his teeth. "They beat me. Nothing much, but a good kick landed in the right spot, I suppose."
After seeing that their trail was well-covered, Haldir joined them. With Gimli's uneasy permission, he searched the area carefully with his fingers, noting when the Dwarf winced and the lack of movement in the limb. His face was grave. "My brother once sustained a similar injury after a fall from a height. The bone has slipped out of joint, I think, but I am no great healer, and I am loath to do something that might do you more harm than good in the wild, Master Dwarf. Best to bind it lightly for now, and tend it better when we reach the eaves of Lothlórien."
"Lothlórien?" Despite his pain, Gimli's eyes glowed at the word.
"It is the closest and surest place of safety that I know." Haldir pressed a few long, willow leaves into the Dwarf's palm. "Chew these. They will ease your pain. Try to sleep while they last."
Only when Gimli was comfortably settled did Legolas realize how famished he was. He had not eaten since camping down last night. But Haldir would not allow a fire just yet, so they eased their hunger on what provisions remained in their packs after their long trek up from Rohan where they had last bolstered their supplies. All that remained were a few withered apples, some hard cheese, harder sausage and a half loaf of bread, rather battered by their ordeal over the last few hours. Haldir supplemented what they had with lembas and a few hastily-gathered nuts.
"It is not quite their time, but they'll do," he said as he tossed the bag into Legolas' lap.
Legolas broke off the white corner of a lembas cake and put it between his lips; it filled him better than many a good meal he had eaten at a king's table. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched his companion. Haldir had made no move to his own rations. Instead, he snatched the leather thong from his hair and ruffled the errant locks until they spilled loose across his shoulders. Then he began stripping himself roughly to waist. There was an impatient, almost desperate, air to the way he peeled off his tunic and the worn undershirt beneath and flung them aside. Pouring a little water over his face and forearms, he set to work scouring at what seemed to be weeks of grime, sweat, road dust…blood. Wherever the water touched, brown skin grew paler, dark hair rippled to gold.
"Forgive me a lack of seemly modesty," he said, noting Legolas' look. "It is too long since I have been in my own skin, and I would liefer return to myself a little before I break my fast properly."
Legolas averted his eyes, cursing the warmth that rose up his neck at the confusion of burgeoning musculature and smoothness from an old man's thinly pelted chest. "May I ask you something?"
"This…" He waved a hand in Haldir's direction without looking. "I had heard of such things only in stories. How is it you have such magic?"
"It is not so much magic as an eye for form and color. I have walked among Men, and I know of their habits and speech. But that said, not all of Lórien's power is lost, and not all the knowledge of such arts died with Felagund."
"The lamp," Legolas said, understanding.
"The lamp reveals things for what they are. And water from the Nimrodel cleanses enchantment as well as weariness." He lowered his gleaming palms and sighed.
"I asked you what brought a Galadhel so far beyond the Golden Wood," Legolas said as Haldir rifled through his few belongings for a clean garment. "You gave me no answer."
"Oh, I merely dislike growing idle. Now that the war is largely over, there is little work for my hands, and my mind and body grow restless," he said, adjusting the nip of his belt. "However, I do not go abroad for my sake alone. Such men as Valachel do not serve only one master. Now that the Barad-dûr has fallen and Mordor's borders lie open, kings of other lands—Harad, Rhûn, Khand—look to conquer lands that had once conquered them. But they do not love those lands that brought their conqueror low and reward well those who bring news of our movements and strength."
"Those men were spying on Lórien?"
"They watched you pass with the King of the West, and they saw that the Lord and Lady would be abroad for some time with your company. If they had been allowed to reach Rhûn as they purposed, it might have gone ill for us."
"You risked much for us then. Gimli and I stand deeply in your debt."
"Nonsense. Have a strawberry. They are sweet after a night's long work."
And, as if by enchantment, he plucked a sack of wild strawberries from his pack and flung them into Legolas' lap. He had not eaten such in many a long year, and he savored the slight tartness on his tongue, the beautiful rediscovery.
"My father had strawberries often brought to table for the summer feasts," he said, selecting a brightly ripe specimen, "but they never grew so well or as so fair as these."
"High praise, indeed, from the king's son!" Haldir's eyes were wry, but his mouth smiled.
"Please. I do not stand upon formality. It is long since I have fulfilled a prince's duties and longer still since I have been my father's son." Only in the voicing of the words did he realize he sounded bitter and regretted the shadow that had fallen so unexpectedly on their easy banter.
Haldir cocked his head, nonplussed. "And what are you if not your father's son?"
What, indeed? It was a question Legolas had put all his effort of late into not answering.
He had been told more than once that he was blessed and cursed with his mother's mercurial Silvan blood. His father had instilled in him his own sense of Sindarin honor and tradition. Privately, he liked to think he was a being separate from both of them, a creature of adaptability, able to become whatever he must be whenever he must be it. To that end, he had quit the forest in the hopes that he might carve a niche for himself and only himself; he had become an envoy, a soldier, the eyes of a Fellowship, a hunter of orcs, a companion of kings, a friend to a dwarf…Yet now, the wide world had shrunk, and though he still held many of those parts close to him, he seemed to fill too many spaces or—on bad days—none at all. The resulting displacement had him all at loose ends.
His fingers snarled in the heads of the long grasses, nervous tension purging itself in nervous occupation, as if in uprooting the verge he could somehow uproot the disappointments and failings and painfully close realizations of his life. A smile, more self-recriminating than self-amused, pressed itself against his lips.
"Perhaps, I am Úner."
The poor jape fell flat as a stone into a pool for Haldir did not laugh. He seemed, much to Legolas' disquiet, to discern what lay behind his attempted facetiousness and did not press him when Legolas pled weariness as a palatable excuse to seek his bedroll. Sleep, however, was long in coming.
Arod found them early the next morning, and Gimli, after some grumbling, was persuaded to ride to spare his shoulder further strain—though Legolas managed to couch it in more diplomatic terms. It was almost a fortnight to Lórien from the midst of Fangorn Forest, and the first part of their journey dragged for they were hampered by fear of pursuit and a forest where few travelers had had the temerity to make a lane, much less a horse-track for easy travel.
At long last, the forest dropped away to either side, leaving only a few venturesome outliers to follow them beyond the eaves. Below them, the plain rolled away to a vague haze in the distance. With the threat of danger eased, a straight path ahead, and summer still stretching its fine warm limbs about them, the days passed at leisure. Legolas found the burden of traveling with an injured companion much lightened for Haldir's presence.
Freed for a time of danger and duty, the staid Galadhel lost much of his stiffness and proved capable of ready humor and incisive wit. His extensive knowledge ran the gamut from the bawdiest of tavern songs to husbandry and hawking to six different ways to cheat at bobstones Legolas discovered to his cost. When he had a mind, Haldir could run even Legolas himself, who had grown up with wine at his father's table, through the notes and tastes and textures of fine vintages across Arda and promised to let him sample some of his own make when they arrived in Lórien.
They did not always speak, and the silences between their conversations were oftentimes just as welcome and comfortable. At the end of a long day of travel, Legolas, whose turn it had been to fetch the night's firewood, stretched out his legs and watched his newest companion sort out the billets and kindling. Haldir had a deft touch— even wet, green shoots gave themselves over to flame under his hands though Legolas never did quite manage to catch how he did it.
Sometimes, in the coolness of the evening after he had succeeded in getting the fire lit, Haldir would linger over it, slowly feeding in larger and larger bits of fuel. The unpredictable dance of shadow and flame gave his chiseled profile a mesmerizing appearance: here a high cheekbone revealed for a breath giving way to a suggestion of lips, a tendon gleaming under his throat, an eye fastened on a distant thought Legolas could never quite tease forth. At times like these, Haldir seemed at once separate from and indelibly bound to the earth he crouched upon, to the wide grassland about them, to the twilight and silence themselves.
Watching him, Legolas shared in Haldir's strange communion with the night and the fire, taking quiet delight in this unexpected companionship that had blossomed so fulsomely after the inauspiciousness of their first meeting.
Suddenly, Haldir's eyes were no longer on the fire, and Legolas' heart gave a peculiar lurch in his chest. The Silvan's direct gaze never failed to leave him uncomfortable and wrong-footed, his face hot and hands quivering. A thing he had believed long buried uncurled in the depths of him. He stepped out of the firelight to see how Gimli fared.
Author's Notes: Readers will notice that I have borrowed two lines from the Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter "Lothlórien."