ca. III 134
She stood beside the table in the middle of an otherwise empty room, pondering over a table top, which was how she was when he found her. He did not recognize her at once, and knew immediately that they had not yet met. Even her manner of dress was unfamiliar to him.
'Hello?' he ventured.
Her head remained inclined, but she lifted her eyes to meet his gaze.
'Have we met?' he asked, although he knew they had not.
She shook her head. 'No,' she said shortly and turned her eyes back to the table top, where he could not see what she was doing.
'Do you work in the kitchens?' he tried again.
That question seemed to capture her full attention. She raised her head slowly and stepped away from the table, walking up to look him directly in the eye. 'I take it that you are Master Legolas, then?'
'Yes,' he said. 'You know who I am, but I do not know who you are. Are you new to the staff?'
'I should think not!' she said, but softened her exclamation with a smile.
Before Legolas could continue his questioning, a messenger appeared in the doorway and called to the woman, speaking quickly in the Common Tongue, which Legolas was still trying to learn.
'You'll have to pardon me, Master Legolas,' the strange woman said. 'The king would like to speak to me.'
Legolas nodded to her as she left him alone in the room. The messenger remained behind, giving him a strange look. 'Do you think I could follow her?' Legolas asked the messenger, speaking slowly in the Common Tongue.
'I was not given instructions for you, sir,' the messenger answered in their native language. Legolas looked uncertainly after the strange woman.
'Do you know who she is?'
'Of course, sir, but I think King Thranduil would be better suited to answer that question.'
Legolas opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it, pulling back the corners of his mouth and breathing a soft sigh of frustration instead. 'Oh, you are dismissed,' he said as an afterthought, speaking quietly to the messenger who appeared anxious to leave.
Curious, Legolas walked over to the table the woman had been studying. Spread out on the counter was a map of Greenwood the Great from the northern reaches of Thranduil's kingdom to the far southern edges of the forest. 'Why was she studying Greenwood?' he asked the map, as if the scroll would answer. Finally, his curiosity won out and Legolas hurried away to track down his father.
Thranduil was right where Legolas first sought him seated in the main hall, discussing some private topic in hushed tones with the strange woman. As Legolas approached them, the pair nodded in agreement and turned to look at the newcomer.
'Ah, just the Elf we were speaking of,' said the woman, smiling.
'Yes,' said King Thranduil. 'I would like to speak to you, Legolas.' The king rose from his seat next to the woman and motioned for Legolas to approach.
'What is it, Father?'
'I would like to ask you to accompany her back to her kingdom.'
He said nothing, but it was clear that Legolas did not want to accept the task.
'Please, Son. She will help you to better learn the Common Tongue.' Thranduil knew his son wanted to become more proficient in the Westron speech. But Legolas apparently needed a little more convincing. 'And . . . she requested protection from her escort.'
'And you mean for me to offer that protection to her?'
Thranduil nodded. 'She wishes to leave immediately.'
Legolas pondered silently for a brief moment before giving an assenting nod. 'I will accompany her, Father, as you have requested.' He spoke as if he really had a choice in the matter, although Legolas knew quite well that Thranduil would not have accepted 'no' for an answer.
'Thank you,' Thranduil smiled. The two Elves looked back to where the Elf-maid had been sitting, but she had already left the room.
'She wanted to leave immediately,' the king said, 'and I believe that is where she went.'
'I will try not to be away too long,' Legolas vowed as he left his father to follow the woman. As he jogged after her, Legolas realized that he did not know what her name was, nor where her home kingdom was. 'What did I volunteer myself to do?' he said under his breath.
'We haven't been introduced,' Legolas said as soon as he found the Elf-maid. She was where Thranduil had predicted, making her horses ready for the return trip.
'I apologize,' she offered without turning away from her job of harnessing the horses.
After a long silence, he tried again. 'You know who I am.'
Pausing only long enough to glance up from the lashing she was tying, she nodded.
'But I don't know who you are,' Legolas continued.
'I apologized,' she offered gently, but did not give her name.
'Do you mean not to tell me who you are?'
'Oh,' she exclaimed in surprise, 'did it seem that way? I didn't intend for it to.' She didn't pause long enough for him to tell her that it had certainly seemed that way before changing the subject. 'We'll be headed for the mountains.'
'We won't be crossing the mountains, will we?'
'No. I told you that we were going to the mountains because they are our final destination.' She finished lashing one horse and turned to the other. 'And because it is snowing in the mountains.'
'Snow?' Legolas asked eagerly. There had been very little snow in the northern forest that season.
Smiling at his enthusiasm, she nodded. 'Dress warmly.'
'Oh, I had not thought of what I would take for myself,' he thought aloud.
'Well, pack quickly,' she counseled him. 'Aláren is fetching food for the journey and I was hoping to leave as soon as she returned.'
'I won't be long,' Legolas tossed over his shoulder as he hurried to prepare for travel.
Within the hour, they were underway. Midday was long past before they started out, but the travelers were eager to get to their destination and decided not to delay their departure. Aláren drove the horses as they set off along the road to the south.
'Aláren,' said the other woman, whose name Legolas still did not know, 'Master Legolas would like to become more proficient in Westron, so why don't we try to help him?'
'That is a pleasure and a relief,' Aláren said rapidly in Common Speech. 'I learned to speak Westron before I learned any form of Elvish, living in Gondor and all for several years. My Elvish is still quite fine, though, since I speak it more than Westron these days, but I only know the local dialect from our parts'
'Aláren,' interrupted the other woman, 'slowly.'
'Oh, I'm sorry,' she apologized, turning around from her perch of the driver's seat to nod to Legolas.
He smiled back because he could not think swiftly enough to come to the words to accept the apology. Carefully, he composed a sentence to address to the other woman, and mentally checked it over before speaking. 'I still do not know your name, and now I've come along on your journey.'
The Elf-maid laughed merrily. 'Did I forget to tell you my name?' She paused to throw back her head in laughter. Aláren seemed somewhat amused, though she didn't laugh quite as hard as the other woman. Sighing as her gales of laughter came to an end, the woman finally told him her name. 'My name is Ithildin.'
'It is a pleasure to meet you, Ithildin,' Legolas repeated her name slowly. 'Isn't that from . . . ?'
Ithildin nodded. 'Yes, ithildin is a material made from mithril.'
'What is this . . . vehicle?' Legolas asked, changing the subject.
'It is a sleigh,' Aláren replied with a chuckle. 'Much better suited for traversing snowy roads, but the runners are light enough that they pass over these well-beaten tracks easily enough. It will probably need some minor repairs when we arrive home, though.'
Legolas pondered the trip that lay ahead of them. He tapped Ithildin on the shoulder to get her attention. 'Why did you request protection?' he asked quietly in Sindarin, casting a cautious glance at Aláren.
'She can't understand,' Ithildin assured him, 'but she already knows. There is much evil that may befall a traveler between your home and mine. We were fortunate to arrive without incident. I highly doubt our return trip will be quite as safe, although I will hope for the best.' She glanced uneasily over her shoulders and Legolas did the same.
Aláren began to hum loudly just then, and Ithildin jumped.
'We have no need to fear for some time yet,' Legolas said. For one who was so concerned about a safe trip home, Ithildin seemed curiously unarmed as far as Legolas could tell.
'In that case, Master Legolas,' Ithildin said, 'I was at the reins all night, so if you'll pardon me, I may nod off.' That was the last thing she could remember saying. Within a few moments, Ithildin was sound asleep.
'She let me sleep last night,' Aláren informed Legolas quietly. 'She was so bent upon talking to King Thranduil that she wanted to drive through the night. But don't worry, Master Legolas, if you'd like to sleep, I'll be fine just driving through the night.'
'Where are we going to, Aláren?'
'You're following Ithildin very blindly,' she noted. 'We're going to a kingdom in the mountains called Hithil moon-mist.'
'South of the mountains?'
'No, no, just the mountains.'
'Isn't that difficult for . . . who is the regent?'
Aláren turned around, surprise clearly written across her face. 'You really don't know?'
Aláren looked at Ithildin, whose head slumped forward. 'Maybe you shouldn't know.'
'Not supposed to.' Aláren glanced at Ithildin again. Legolas looked at the sleeping Elf, following Aláren's lead, but Ithildin revealed nothing. Her head bobbed slightly as the sleigh crossed an uneven rut.
'You'd do best to follow her lead, Master Legolas,' Aláren said softly. 'It is a rather long journey, even traveling through the night.'
'But when we come to the river' Legolas began.
'That won't be until tomorrow, and even then I know how to navigate crossing the river.' With that, she did not seemed disposed to talk further. The light that filtered through the leaves overhead waned as Legolas dozed off. Within his father's realm, he knew that he did not have to be on his guard. It would be noon of the next day before they reached the borders of Thranduil's realm.
Legolas and Ithildin awoke at the same time. The sleigh hit a deep furrow in the road, jostling the pair. Both were confused at the first instant, and sore from sleeping in some awkward position. A thought occurred to them simultaneously and the two exchanged a questioning look.
'Oh, I was wondering when you'd be awake,' Aláren said, and they broke their gaze and looked at her.
'Have we been asleep all this time?' Ithildin asked sleepily, looking up at the evening sun which peered back through a hole in the dense, leafy canopy overhead.
'You have, ma'am, but Master Legolas was awake for all of this morning. He was letting you sleep on'
Legolas sat up with a start. 'It's the evening?' he exclaimed.
'Oh, yes, sir. Has been for quite a while. You dozed off a couple of hours ago. I suppose you didn't find me entertaining enough to keep you awake, and that afternoon sun can be quite a powerful sleeping spell.'
Legolas tried to shake off the remnants of sleep that clung to his mind like spider webs. Spiders. . . . He blinked. 'I should not have been asleep,' he muttered to himself.
'Don't worry, Master Legolas, everything has been quite fine.'
Ithildin yawned and stretched her arms. 'I have slept for too long as well,' she said as she stepped down from the sleigh to walk alongside. Legolas, too, jumped lightly from the sleigh to walk next to it on the wide path. He carried his bow with an arrow nocked and ready.
'You seem alert,' Ithildin noted as she reached into the sleigh to pull out the parcel that held their provisions for the trip. She had noticed, as Legolas had, that it was suddenly and ominously quiet in the forest as the dusk set in.
'Oh, Master Legolas,' Aláren said, turning back to look at him, 'there hasn't been a need for that so far, and it seems to me that everything will be just fine for our return home.'
As Aláren turned back to face forwards, Legolas glanced behind them. Ithildin was surprised to hear the twang of Legolas's bow. Alarmed, she looked first at him, and then behind them.
' Yrch!' she breathed in unison with Legolas. Three Orcs marched behind the sleigh. The closest one had been the target of Legolas's arrow, which was lodged in its arm.
'Nice shot,' Ithildin said sarcastically. 'Great, make them angry.'
He shot another arrow at the Orcs and a look at Ithildin, who was hopping into the sleigh. 'Have you ever been in a battle with Orcs?' he asked under his breath, but she still heard.
'No,' she replied in the same sardonic tone, looking nervously back at the trio of Orcs, noting that the leader had been felled by Legolas's second shot. 'Have you?'
Legolas didn't reply, but felled the two remaining Orcs with two more arrows and leapt into the sleigh.
'Aláren, we must hurry,' Ithildin said, leaning forward over the driver's seat to whisper in her ear.
'Oh, ma'am, you know all is quite well in Greenwood,' Aláren said lightly. She had not heard Legolas fire his arrows, nor had she heard the conversation that had passed between the passengers. Before Ithildin could urge her onward again, an Orc sprang onto the path in front of the horses. As soon as the creature had its bearings, it shot an arrow straight at Aláren. The horses, thoroughly spooked, reared back before the monster, then with a jerk began to run. The jolt threw Ithildin and Legolas back onto the passenger bench and nearly out of the sleigh entirely. They came to a shuddering, crackling stop as the runners stuck in a deep rut in the road. Legolas regained his feet almost instantly, shooting off an arrow at close range. Ithildin clambered over the driver's seat to tend to the injured woman.
'Aláren,' Ithildin shouted, but the Orc's arrow had been too well-aimed for Aláren to survive the attack. Arrows rained down from overhead, and Legolas turned around to shoot at the Orc archers perched in the trees. Ithildin watched as a few of his arrows lodged in trees instead of their intended targets. She reached out and grabbed his arm as he made ready to draw back another arrow. 'We must flee!' she shouted.
Legolas fired off another shot, which hit its mark, before looking back at Ithildin.
'The runners are splintered,' she informed him, scrambling over the lashings of the sleigh onto the back of one of the horses. Legolas turned to shoot again and found himself face to face with a large Orc. Panicking, he jabbed out at the Orc with the arrow he held in his hand. The Orc crumpled before him.
'Cute,' Ithildin called, 'add that to your bag of tricks. Now get on the horse!' Instead, he shot at an Orc still in the trees.
'No, Legolas, get on the horse!' Ithildin whispered something to calm the horses, which were still very frightened. Legolas hopped over the driver's seat and climbed onto the second horse. Ithildin drew a sword and began to hack away at the horses' lashings. 'You could help,' she muttered to him. He pulled out a blade to cut the lashings, but the two could not make much progress while trying to duck the continual volleys of arrows from above.
Ithildin suddenly sat up erect upon her horse. She began with a whisper, ' Erinon galadhad, lasto beth lammen.' The trees rustled their leaves in response. ' Daro!' she shouted, throwing her arms apart in a huge gesture. Although she had just been shouting to Legolas, her voice seemed completely different now powerful, echoing and forceful. Legolas stopped short to look up at her. The Orc archers fell from their tree perches as the leaves in autumn.
'Ride, ride, ride!' she called as she sliced through the last two lashings, simultaneously freeing both horses. Neither he nor the horses needed the urging as soon as they were freed, the horses took off at a gallop. Ithildin breathlessly repeated a spell or a chant Legolas could not understand as the horses bore them away from the sleigh and the site of the ambush, but as he looked back over the path they'd traveled, the darkness behind them seemed to close in and the trees seemed to obscure the road as soon as they passed.
When the horses finally slowed to a stop, Ithildin swiftly jumped to the ground. Looking up, she could see no light, but whether that was because of the dark leaves overhead or the dark sky above, she could not tell. Legolas rode up behind her and leapt from the horse before it stopped completely. Ithildin whirled around, brandishing the sword had forgotten but still held drawn.
'Ithildin,' he said softly, trying to calm her.
'I'm sorry,' she choked out. 'I forgot I had it in my hand.' She sheathed the sword and found that she was still clutching another parcel in her other hand. Peering inside, she found the waybread and water Aláren had fetched for the journey. Just before the ambush, Ithildin had been very hungry, but even an Elven-feast would not have tempted her after the flight.
'We should make camp,' Legolas whispered.
'I'm not tired,' she replied. 'We both just woke up.'
'I know, but the horses need the rest.'
With an assenting nod, Ithildin led her horse off the path and into the dense woods. They needed to walk only a short way before the road was completely out of sight, but they would not risk lighting a fire. Hours passed before either Elf made any noise silence reigned until Ithildin began to cry.
'Aláren?' Legolas asked gently.
'She was my friend,' Ithildin managed between sobs. Legolas knew there would be little he could do to console her and stood by uncertainly for a few seconds. Finally, he clapped a hand upon Ithildin's shoulder, patting it a couple times before giving it a comforting squeeze.
'Have you lost many friends?' she asked.
'No,' Legolas admitted. 'I have been very fortunate.'
Ithildin suddenly shrugged off Legolas's hand and turned to face him, although it made little difference in the dark. 'How long have you lived?'
'What relevance does that have?' he questioned her.
'Just please tell me.'
'I'm forty-seven years old, as Men measure it.'
'Really?' she said in surprise. 'I thought you were much older than I or at least you'd lived through more.'
'Well, how old are you?'
'I've spent the past fifty-four years on Middle-earth since I was born, I mean.' She laughed to herself. 'We're just new little things, aren't we? . . . Aláren was more than one hundred.'
'That's still very young,' Legolas noted.
Ithildin nodded and lapsed into silence.
'Ithildin,' he began slowly, 'I'm very sorry about Aláren. I feel as though it's my fault I should not have let it happen I should have been more alert I should not have fallen asleep'
'Let us not speak of her until we reach my city,' she interrupted. 'It brings me too much. . . . .' She let her voice trail off into a sigh.
'How far to your city?'
'Not too far, if we ride hard. . . . And if we do not encounter any further troubles.'
'It will begin to get light in an hour or two,' Ithildin said, suddenly breaking the silence that had settled upon them. 'We can have some breakfast at day break and then start off. But we shall have to walk.'
'The horses should not be run today,' Legolas agreed. 'But they cannot eat lembas.'
'Well, the trees will just have to give us something for the horses,' She rose to her feet and walked over to where the horses stood. She was silent for a few seconds before turning to the horses, murmuring to them in a Sindarin dialect of which Legolas understood little. Ithildin talked to them, sang to them, watched them, and brushed them as best she could with her bare hands.
The sky was just beginning to grow light when Legolas spoke again. 'What are you saying to them?' he asked curiously.
'Different things. Praising them for their hard work, chants for strength and endurance, and just soothing them.'
'Perhaps a little lembas would do them some good, if we could get them to eat it.'
'These horses have been spoiled with lembas for years. Especially Ethur, haven't you, beauty?' Ithildin directed the last part of her comment to the horse she'd ridden, lovingly rubbing Ethur's neck. She glanced over at the other horse and her startled in surprise. 'Why is there blood on my horse?' she suddenly exclaimed.
'Are you injured?' Legolas asked.
'No you were riding Carlith, not I. You must be injured.' She pointed at the bloodstains on the horse in the dim morning light. Legolas quickly rose to his feet and was suddenly and painfully reminded of exactly why Carlith bore his blood. He gasped through his teeth, grimacing in sudden pain.
' A!' Ithildin exclaimed in alarm. 'Where are you injured?' she asked in an urgent tone, rushing over to where Legolas stood still clenching his teeth from the stinging pain. He could only point at his injured knee. He stood still as Ithildin knelt behind him to examine the wound. 'What happened?'
'An Orc arrow grazed the back of my knee,' he said.
'Do they poison their arrows?' she asked herself softly.
Ithildin looked in dismay at the cut across the back of his knee.
' Ai!' he suddenly shouted, jerking his knee away. 'What was that?'
'I apologize,' she said as she rocked back onto her heels. 'I was just checking to make sure your knee was not poisoned.'
'By doing what, precisely jabbing at my knee with needles?'
'No, it was just a little pinch. Now calm down and let me see that knee.'
Frowning, he reluctantly lowered his knee again, allowing Ithildin to examine it more closely. 'Oh,' she exclaimed, 'this will not even require medicine to heal.'
'It hurts all the same.'
'I'll bind it for you. You are not to think of how much it hurts, and all will be well by noon.'
Fine by noon was not the prognosis Legolas had hoped for, but it was far better than what he feared. He stood still while Ithildin splashed cold water from their supplies onto the back of his knee. She pondered for a moment before deciding to use the sash of her dress to bind the wound. 'There you are,' she said once she had finished.
Legolas looked down at his knee, and the strip of embroidered green fabric now tied around it. The wound was still sore and the makeshift bandage hindered his movement. Still, it would be better than going the whole day in pain. 'Thank you,' he said.
'You are more than welcome,' she replied as she handed him a piece of lembas. 'But I should be the one to thank you. You saved my life.'
'Duty,' Legolas said, shrugging. He looked down, clearly disappointed with himself. 'I did not fulfill my duty as I should have.'
'No, Legolas, you have more than fulfilled your duty. Aláren was a great loss, but our journey is not yet unhopeful. Do not count your losses until the road is through otherwise, you may lose the courage to reach your destination. Now then, let us continue and we shall reach the mountains by the afternoon.'
Noon was fast approaching when Legolas spoke. They had passed the morning mostly in silence, interspersed with humming, singing and whistling. 'Carlith needs water,' he said suddenly. He had been riding a few lengths behind Ithildin, but nothing that morning had gone wrong.
Ithildin was so absorbed in monitoring her own horse that she almost did not hear him. Once his words registered in her mind, Ithildin stopped her horse and turned around. ' Eithel,' she said, pointing to the spring off the trail a short way. ' Si nathon.'
Legolas was somewhat uneasy about her sudden use of Sindarin. She often threw in an occasional Elvish term, but usually she spoke in Westron.
'Where?' Legolas replied in Westron. He knew very well where the spring was, but he wanted to see what response she gave.
' Nef brethil.'
Legolas slowly turned from the path and walked the horse to the spring, which was on the near side of the birch tree, as Ithildin had said, and as Legolas himself knew.
' Daro! Ydar! Halt!' Ithildin's voice carried through the trees to Legolas's ears. He also heard the last line she added, although it could not have been more than a whisper. ' Dulo thi, Legolas. Thi!'
' Ethe. Name,' Ithildin demanded. As Legolas approached, he saw that she was still astride her horse, but was staring down in contempt at what appeared to be a Man.
'You ask my name?' balked the Man. He seemed to be approaching the old age of Men. The Man had not noticed Legolas's approach, so Legolas slipped silently from Carlith's back and crept up behind the Man. He bent his bow, standing at the ready with the arrow aimed straight at the Man.
' Pedo, Adan mellon? Úmellon?' Legolas demanded.
The man startled and whirled around. He was surprised to find Legolas standing behind him not only standing behind him, but prepared to kill him, if necessary.
'Wha-what did he say?' the Man stuttered.
'He said "Speak, Man friend or foe?"' Ithildin interpreted.
'Which is less dangerous?'
Ithildin did not reply to the man. ' Legolas, ernil,' she said, ' chebo cúnin. Hi Adan únath firn. If he proves true.' The last sentence was added in a low whisper. Legolas was not sure if the Man heard it or not. Reluctantly, Legolas lowered his bow, but he did not lower his guard.
'Legolas?' repeated the Man. 'Ah, Greenleaf, I have heard much of you.' The Man did not seem to think that Legolas would understand the Westron. Legolas's chin lifted and a shadow passed over his face. The Man's dark tone sounded foreboding. And if the Man could interpret his name, he might have understood all that they had said.
Ithildin quickly acted as if she were translating what the Man had said to Legolas. ' Tiro hi Adanrandir.'
' Non tiriel,' he assured her without taking his eyes from the Man.
'My prince wishes to know what you mean by that comment,' Ithildin interjected.
The Man looked up at Ithildin. 'Traveling through Greenwood, one hears nothing but "Prince Greenleaf."'
' Ethe,' Legolas said. He did not know why Ithildin wanted him to continue to pretend as though he knew nothing of the Common Tongue, but he would trust her. They were closer to her home than his, and if escape proved necessary, she would have to lead the way.
'Name,' Ithildin repeated. When the Man hesitated, Ithildin addressed Legolas. ' Ernilin,' she said in a warning tone.
' Hírilin,' Legolas replied, raising his bow and drawing back his arrow.
'Wait, wait!' cried the Man. 'My name is Farothoin!'
It was Ithildin's turn to take offense at the Man's words. 'Farothoin?' she repeated in surprise. Her dark brown eyes filled with rage. 'How dare you enter the realm of Ithilas!' she hissed.
The Man laughed. 'Ithilas is dead.' He took a menacing step Ithildin's horse. 'The heir of Ithilas is young and weak, ill-suited to the throne, even more so than Ithilas, as you well know,' he paused before the last word, which he emphasized carefully, 'Ithildin'
' Adan nibin a thaur! Gurth! Le gurth!'
Legolas let his arrow fly, but Farothoin anticipated and somehow deflected the shot. Farothoin sprinted off and Legolas began the pursuit. He threw his Elf-blade after the Man, but Farothoin disappeared in the trees before Legolas saw if the blade hit its mark.
He suddenly became aware of the sound of hooves behind him and quickly moved out of the way as Ithildin galloped past on Ethur. Carlith followed, stopping only long enough for Legolas to mount before racing in pursuit. The trees soon thinned, and the riders reached the edge of the forest with no sign of Farothoin.
' Huan! Ruag!' Ithildin shouted after the Man, cursing him.
'Na adan firn?' Legolas asked
'Draug! Lhûg!' she continued, not heeding his question.
'Na adan firn?'
Finally, she turned to him, still seething. 'No,' she said. Her tone seemed rude, but Legolas attributed her curtness to anger.
'Who is Ithilas?' he asked cautiously.
'He was a great king Hithil Aranon.'
Legolas scrutinized the woman before him. She was breathing heavily, but whether that was from her ride or her rage, he could not tell. She had seemed in no great hurry to arrive at her home kingdom, or had not since Aláren's death. 'Are you an exile?' he finally asked.
Ithildin's concentration upon the forest eaves was broken. 'Exile? No, not at all!' She glanced back at the woods. 'Farothoin was, though. It was he who murdered King Ithilas, even as the king sat upon his throne. Le gurth!' she shouted at the top of her voice after the Man in the forest. Ethur snorted, as if the horse were reinforcing Ithildin's curse.
'I should have shot at him from the trees,' Legolas muttered to himself.
'Yes, you should have,' Ithildin agreed, 'but there is nothing to be done about him now. He will receive his reward.' She turned with her horse away from the forest to face the foot of the mountains. After their twisting chase through the forest, they ended up only a short distance from the road they'd been traveling. 'Come,' she sighed, 'let us eat a little something before we must part ways.'
'Part ways?' Legolas repeated in slowly, as if not fully comprehending the meaning of her words.
'The horses will travel through the city, but we cannot take that route.'
Ithildin pretended not to hear his question as she slid down from Ethur's back. She glanced at him and caught the set jaw and the distrustful look in his eyes. 'A, Legolas, you know that I am no exile. It is simply a household rule that I am not to ride through the streets of the city.'
He said nothing in response. His eyes softened, but his jaw remained set.
'Come,' she said, 'let us eat before we start into the mountains. Barered.' The last word was only a sigh, but it was obvious that she was very happy to reach the mountains of home.
The horses were sent down the main road bearing a letter from Ithildin that simply said, 'I am come.' As the two Elves started up the Rath Dolen, the hidden streets, Legolas began to wonder about the snow Ithildin had mentioned before they left his home.
'Where is the snow?' he asked. As they climbed higher, the air became steadily colder, but they still tread upon dried leaves and needles which covered the path.
'Just a little higher,' Ithildin said.
Exactly as she said, within moments the trees, which were already more sparsely distributed than in the forest, began to thin and patches of snow appeared on the path. 'Loss,' Ithildin breathed. She sprinted ahead to where the snow lay more thickly upon the ground, then turned to Legolas, her features suffused with utter joy.
'Come!' she called. 'Come to the snow!'
When Legolas reached her, he found Ithildin kneeling upon the snow. She was rummaging through the provisions bag, which was now mostly empty. Looking up and smiling at him, she offered him a hooded white cloak. 'Golloloss,' she informed him. 'A snow-cloak for you.'
Legolas accepted the cloak, made of fine and light-weight material, but held it in his hands instead of putting it on.
'You must put it on,' Ithildin informed him. 'It is very warm.'
He looked over his shoulders, as if he expected an Orc to leap down upon them the moment he was off-guard.
'It is safe, Legolas. We are in my realm now, and even the Rath Dolen are protected. I will help you to put it on.'
He removed his quiver and bow and handed them to Ithildin, then threw the cloak around his shoulders and fastened the crescent-moon-shaped brooch to secure the cloak. It was not a cloak made for an archer, which he regretted as he pushed the folds of fabric over his shoulders.
'It will not keep you warm if you just let it hang down your back,' Ithildin said.
'If I am to wear my quiver and bow, I must wear the cloak like this,' he said.
'But you will be cold,' she protested as she helped him with his quiver and bow.
Legolas said nothing. He did not feel disposed to speak after observing the change that had come over Ithildin upon reaching the snowline.
'Where is your blade?' Ithildin asked as she pulled the hood of the cloak from between his back and his quiver.
'I threw it at Farothoin.'
'Did it hit him?'
'I do not know.'
'I hope so,' she said with sudden vehemence. 'Ruag.' He could hear her take a deep breath to calm herself. She stepped away from Legolas and began to dance on the snow.
'Oh yes!' she replied before spinning around a final time. 'I am so glad to see the snow.' She threw her arms open and her head back as if she were going to embrace the sky. Instead, she leaned backwards and allowed herself to fall not onto the surface of the snow, but into the snow itself.
'Ithildin!' Legolas exclaimed, hurrying over to where she lie. She rolled over onto her stomach, still lying in the snow, before accepting Legolas's hand to help her to her feet. Snow clung to her dress and hair in clumps. 'You are covered in snow,' he informed her, stepping back as it seemed they were standing too close to one another.
'Good,' she said. 'Why are you suddenly so somber? Is your knee bothering you?'
'No, my knee is well.'
'Well then,' she said, placing her hands on her hips, 'you shall return my sash. And you shall have to laugh.'
Legolas raised an eyebrow. 'Shall I?'
With a mischievous grin, she took a step forward not on the snow, but through the snow. She was reminded of why the Elves walked upon the surface of the snow with her second step, tripping over some hidden obstacle and falling gracelessly into the snow, face first.
He did not laugh, but he did smile as he reached down to help her to her feet again.
'I did not do that on purpose, I shall have you to know,' she said as she stood, this time on the surface of the snow. Legolas laughed softly to himself as Ithildin walked to fetch her own cloak from the provisions bag. After fastening the brooch, Ithildin produced a pair of white gloves from the bag and slipped them on. Just as Legolas was wishing that he, too, had a pair, Ithildin offered him a pair gloves, white like her own.
'I hope they will not prove too small,' she said.
'Thank you,' he said graciously as he pulled them on. 'You brought these things for me?'
'Well, not really,' Ithildin murmured, looking away.
Legolas understood Aláren. 'I cannot take these.' He tugged at the gloves, trying to pull them off.
'No, no,' Ithildin said, placing her hands over his in an effort to stop him from removing the gloves. 'If she were with us, Aláren would have given them to you. Please, take them.' Legolas looked into her eyes, as she stared back with all sincerity, asking him to keep the gloves and cloak. In a barely perceptible manner, he smiled, the corners of his mouth moving only faintly. But in his eyes shone gratitude.
'Thank you,' he said softly, still staring into her eyes. A few breathless seconds passed with their gazes locked before Ithildin suddenly blinked and shook her head, as if just waking up. She laughed softly at herself as she realized her hands were still clasped over his. Stooping to pick up the provisions bag, she slipped one of her gloved hands into his.
'Let us away,' she said cheerfully, tugging him down the Rath Dolen. Once they were a few steps down the road, she let her hand slip from his to pull up the hood of her cloak.
'Is it far to your city?'
'It is not far to anything within the realm of Hithil. It is a very small kingdom, and we are content to remain as such, which is why we remain closely allied with your people.'
Legolas said nothing for a moment. Her answer did not satisfy him. 'When will we reach your city?' he attempted again.
'We have already passed Hithind Greymist. The only other city in the kingdom is the city of Hithil, our destination.'
Still, Ithildin had not answered the question. 'Do we have much longer to travel?'
'No look! Barennyn!' She pointed to elaborately wrought gates which obstructed their path the gates of home. Immediately behind the gates sprang up a dense evergreen forest. The snow-covered trail slipped under the gates and into the forest. 'They should meet us here,' Ithildin said, mostly to herself. 'Well, these are the Hithil gates. Allow me to be the first to welcome you. This is the Kingdom and City of Hithil, and I,' she paused to open her arms wide in a welcoming gesture, 'I am'
'Ithildin, hírilin!' interrupted a voice. As if on cue, two sleighs pulled by four horses each glided over the snow of the dense evergreen forest on the far side of the gates.
'Si!' Ithildin called. 'Non si!'
Several Elves stepped out of the first sleigh and unlocked the gates. Both sleighs rode out onto the Rath Dolen to turn around for the return journey.
'I come bearing ill news,' Ithildin informed the Elves as they approached on foot and in the sleighs. 'All the good news I have to offer stands beside me.' She gestured toward Legolas. 'My companion my worthy companion shall be renown as a slayer of yrch and a pursuer of Farothoin. We shall prepare a great welcome for Legolas, son of Thranduil.'
Legolas was surprised at such praise, but the welcoming party of Elves gave him little heed. 'Farothoin?' they asked darkly.
'Yes, we encountered him in the forest at the foot of the mountains. We pursued him, but to no avail.' The other Elves began to clamor with questions, but Ithildin ignored them. 'Dulo, Náraen,' she called. As the others fell silent, one Elf approached her. 'Náraen-hil,' she began, 'hi na Legolas-ernil.' The introduction was all that Legolas understood, as the rest of the conversation was conducted in a dialect that sounded vaguely like Sindarin. Legolas watched Náraen as his features filled with grief. Occasionally, Ithildin gestured to Legolas, and Náraen looked at him. When her story was through, Náraen bridged the space between himself and Legolas in two great strides and threw his arms around him. Legolas, confused and frightened, stiffened and cast a questioning look at Ithildin over the other Elf's shoulder.
'He is Aláren's father,' she informed him.
Náraen stepped back and placed his hands on Legolas's shoulders. 'I am grateful for your efforts to protect my daughter,' he managed slowly in the Common Tongue.
'I am sorry they failed,' Legolas said. In the back of his mind, he absently wondered if he had spoken that slowly in the Common Tongue at the beginning of their journey now, having spoken Common Speech almost exclusively for two days, he was beginning to communicate more rapidly. Legolas glanced at Ithildin in time to see the larger part of the Elves surround her and escort her to one of the sleighs. The party set off through the gates and into the evergreen forest.
'Come,' said Náraen. 'The queen will want to have an official reception for you, and you must get ready.' Legolas followed Náraen to the other sleigh. Legolas's first experience with a sleigh had not been very pleasant very uneven and bumpy. He was surprised to find how easily the sleigh moved over the snow the only time they slowed or stopped along the trip home was right after they passed the gates two Elves hopped down to shut and lock the gates, and then the company was off, following distantly the sleigh carrying Ithildin. The sleigh bore them quickly towards the home of the queen, who wanted to officially receive Legolas, although he could not guess the reason for the reception.
The evergreen forest proved less than one league deep, and soon the road opened up to the snow-covered mountainside. As they climbed above the heights of the trees behind them, Legolas looked back. In the waning evening light, far in the distance, he could just make out the trees that made up his home.
They soon reached the palace, but Ithildin's sleigh was nowhere in sight. Legolas wondered when he would see her again he longed for anything familiar, as he felt very much out of place. He realized he was the only Elf in sight wearing dark green the rest were clothed in very pale grey or white. At his home in the forest, grey-clothed Elves would seem very conspicuous, but even the white-clad palace guards seemed to blend in well with the white of the palace walls and the snowy terrain.
'Come,' Náraen said, bidding Legolas to step out of the sleigh. 'It is nearly nightfall, and you have much to do before you see the queen.'
'Will she receive me in the morning?' he asked.
Náraen regarded Legolas warily, as if Legolas had said something to reveal his own great stupidity. 'No,' he said slowly. 'She will receive you before the moon-rise feast.'
The mention of food reminded Legolas of his hunger, although he did not like the prospect of waiting until moon-rise to eat. He followed Náraen into the palace before gathering the courage to ask another question. 'Why is she receiving me at night?'
Náraen stopped and turned around to give Legolas another look. These looks were beginning to make Legolas feel extremely unintelligent. 'You are in Hithil - moon-mist. The queen always receives guests under the rising moon.'
Legolas nodded with comprehension.
'Náraen!' called a female voice behind him. Before he turned around, Legolas hoped that it might be Ithildin, but her voice did not match that of the approaching woman.
'Hello,' said the woman. 'My name is Laerdil. I am an attendant of the queen. You are Master Legolas?'
'Yes, I am.'
'You shall want to change out of those,' she eyed his tunic, 'things immediately.' Legolas frowned slightly, self-consciously fingering the hem of his tunic. 'I mean no offense,' Laerdil continued. 'Your garments are just not suitable for court. We shall be more than happy to provide you with apparel as long as you stay with us.' She turned to look at Náraen. 'You are dismissed, Náraen,' she said disdainfully. Náraen turned on his heel and left the pair without a word.
Legolas's frown deepened. He did not care for Laerdil's manner too condescending all together. As she led him through the halls, he wondered if the queen behaved the same way.
The 'apparel' Laerdil offered fit Legolas well but it did not suit him. The tunic was particularly strange to him from his belt up, it was fitted to his form somewhat tightly, excepting the sleeves from the elbow to the wrist where they hung loosely and flowingly. Legolas frowned at his reflection in the glass hanging in his chambers. The sleeves looked like they belonged on a dress of his mother's, not Legolas' tunic. He looked to the elegant white chair that held his clothing from home, as well as his bow and quiver. After putting on his quiver and bow over the white cape he had been given, he checked the glass again. As a final touch, he wrapped the extra fabric of the loose sleeves around his arms and put on his bracers over them.
Finally somewhat comfortable in this new garb, he walked to the hall where Laerdil waited. Upon seeing that he still wore his weapon, Laerdil looked dismayed, but said nothing about the bow or bracers. 'The court is assembling,' she informed him, 'and the queen is making ready now. Soon they will begin the reception. Now, as you enter the hall, you must . . .' She began to instruct Legolas on the courtly customs of Hithil. He did not interrupt to inform her that he knew what he was doing, that he had spent most of his short life in the courts of Northern Greenwood, or that he was the son of Thranduil the king of that realm. Laerdil seemed so happy giving directions that to stop her would have been almost cruel.
They reached the main hall and Laerdil stopped her instructions abruptly. She pushed Legolas to stand alone in the arched entrance to the hall. He eyed the court assembled in the hall all dressed much like he was now, in varying shades of grey and white, except none wore a quiver or bracers. Trumpeters on either side of him announced his arrival to the hall with a brief fanfare.
'Go!' Laerdil whispered, reaching over to give him a slight push. As Legolas marched solemnly toward the raised dais on the opposite side of the room, he hoped that the queen would be different from her subjects he had encountered so far. Other than Ithildin, of course, as she was the only one who had not gone to great lengths to belittle and disrespect him. The members of the court were silent as they regarded him.
He reached the stairs that led to the dais and distantly recalled Laerdil's directive that he should drop to one knee and bow his head to await the entrance of the queen. There was a flourish of silver trumpets to announce her entrance. The hush of the hall seemed to become more reverent as she turned to survey her court.
'Tonight we assemble,' began the queen, 'to receive Prince Legolas Greenleaf, son of King Thranduil of the Northern Realm of Greenwood the Great. Arise, Prince Legolas.'
Legolas tried to remember what Laerdil had said to do next as something in the back of his mind fought to make itself known. Something about the queen's voice. . . .
'Le pedon, mellon,' the queen said softly.
As he rose to his feet and looked up at the queen, Legolas found the reason for nagging in the back of his mind and a host of questions. There before him stood Ithildin. She had changed her clothing to the popular shade of white. His first thought clear enough for Legolas to understand was doubting she could not be the queen. But the silvery circlet resting upon her head countered that argument.
Seeing that he would not speak, Ithildin held out her hands to him and took a step down. He, in turn, stepped up to take her hands. With her hands holding on to his, she directed him to come and stand next to her on the dais, facing the court.
'Prince Legolas was my sole protector on our journey from his home. He valiantly defended me in the face of great dangers. We owe him our deepest gratitude.' She turned to face Legolas before finishing. 'And I owe him my life.'
He noted that she did not mention Aláren in her speech praising him. Ithildin motioned for an attendant, and Laerdil stepped forward, carrying an delicately engraved box fashioned out of dark wood. Ithildin released Legolas's hand to accept the box from Laerdil. 'Le onon hin,' she said only loudly enough for Legolas to hear, 'a token of my gratitude.'
She presented him with the box, which he accepted. Once he had taken the box, Ithildin opened the lid, revealing a pair of exceedingly fine Elven blades, with intricate patterns engraved down the blades.
'These knives were once a gift from your father to mine,' she announced for all to hear. 'Now, I give them to you. Though they can in no way begin to express how deeply we desire to thank you, it is my hope that you will accept them as a token of gratitude, a token of friendship, and a token of welcome to the Land of the Moon-Mist.'
'I thank you,' Legolas said, bowing his head.
Laerdil stepped forward to shut the lid of the knife case and take it from Legolas as Ithildin once again offered him her hands. He took them and she again turned him to face the court. 'Tonight,' she announced, releasing one of Legolas's hands to make a sweeping gesture, 'we feast in honor of the prince of Northern Greenwood!'
Legolas and Ithildin turned to face one another, him bowing low and her giving a small but respectful curtsey. She stepped forward and took his hands. 'Wait until I have left,' she whispered to him, 'then bow to the court and follow me.' She kissed his cheek rather ceremonially before curtseying to the court and departing through a curtained door on the side of the dais. Legolas did as she had directed and exited through the same door as she had used.
'Ithildin!' he said sharply as soon as the door closed behind him. She was nowhere in sight.
'Do not address the queen in such a manner,' Laerdil snapped.
'Calm yourself, Laerdil,' said a soothing voice belonging to Náraen. Legolas was almost glad to see him. 'Do you need to speak with the queen?' he asked Legolas.
'I should like to see her, yes. Before the feast, if possible.'
'And where will you await her?'
'Do you have gardens?' he asked uncertainly as he removed his quiver and bow he finally felt comfortable enough to go without his weapons.
Náraen smiled. 'Yes, we have many gardens. Laerdil, deliver the gift to the prince's quarters, and then inform the queen that the prince wishes to see her, in the main gardens, before the moon-rise feast.'
Laerdil pursed her lips, but said nothing as she stalked off with the knife box tucked under her arm. As Náraen led him to the main gardens, Legolas wondered at the sudden reversal of power between Laerdil and Náraen. Legolas's opinion of Náraen was greatly improved with N$aacute;raen's new-found sense of power.
'The queen will be with you at her earliest convenience,' Náraen informed him as they reached the gates of a courtyard. 'Here are the main gardens. If you will excuse me, I must tend to many errands before the moon-rise feast.'
'You are dismissed,' Legolas nodded to him.
'Master Legolas?' Náraen began.
'I was most pleased to hear of your betrothal to the queen. Just ignore Laerdil she is only an ill-mannered servant.'
Legolas was too surprised to react for a moment. 'Thank you, Náraen.'
'Yes, sir,' Náraen bowed slightly and left the gardens.
He was grateful for the time he would have alone time to gather his thoughts, and to prepare to meet Ithildin again. Betrothed? Betrothed! Utterly shocked, Legolas stood stock still for what seemed like a very long time before finally looking around to take in his surroundings. He cast his eyes about slowly, as if expecting another unexpected revelation to leap out at him from behind a tree. So far in Hithil, everything had been quite a surprise.
He was relieved to find nothing extremely surprising about the garden. Snow blanketed the ground in the garden, though the white was spotted with a few bright winter-blooming flowers. Tall evergreen trees and short evergreen bushes grew throughout the gardens. He saw a few elegant, silvery chairs in clustered groups around the gardens and could hear the sound of a cold, burbling brook. It was not quite home, but at least it felt familiar.
Ithildin came into the gardens without a sound. Legolas had planned to observe her from his tree-perch, but his plan had not taken into account his reaction to seeing her. She was a vision if the Moon herself were to walk through that winter garden, she could not have looked more beautiful. Her dress was the color of pale yellow moonlight, decorated with beads, diamonds, and everything delicate, glittery, and luminescent and trimmed in mithril. She seemed strangely exposed, even though the dress swirled about her feet on the snow and the fine mithril collar reached to her chin. It was her arms they were clearly visible through the long, lacy sleeves. And her hair in the court of his father, it would be improper for him to see Ithildin with her hair down. Legolas felt as though he should look away, but he was unable to. It was as though the garden had suddenly grown dark, and Ithildin was the only source of light.
'Legolas?' she said in a low whisper. 'I do not wish to play games. Please just come down.' She did not even look to find him, but settled into one of the silvery chairs to await him, removing her delicate circlet with the crescent moon insignia to hold it in one hand.
'Here,' Legolas replied, trying to preserve the hush of the garden. She did not turn around.
'Please,' she said wearily. 'A long night lies ahead and much merrymaking. Just come speak to me.'
Legolas lighted from the tree and gingerly tread upon the surface of the snow. Ithildin made no move to look at him until he was standing beside her. She rose from her chair and offered him a snow cloak. 'I thought you might be cold,' she said.
'Thank you,' he said as he accepted the cloak and threw it around his shoulders. 'Surely you are also. . . .' His voice trailed off as he motioned to her visible arms.
'Legolas, why did you wish to speak to me?'
Distrust flashed in his eyes. 'You have not been honest.'
'I beg your pardon!' she exclaimed in a whisper.
'You did not tell me who you were.'
'I told you once we were underway! I apologized!'
'No, Ithildin, not your name. You did not tell me you were the queen of Hithil.'
'Legolas, you did not journey all this way under the assumption that I was anything less . . . did you? Surely, your father told you.'
Legolas shook his head. 'Neither did he inform me that we were. . . .'
'We were? . . .'
'Wha-what?' she exclaimed, shattering the almost-sacred hush over the garden.
'Náraen told me he was pleased to learn of our betrothal.'
'Oh,' she sighed with relief, 'Náraen only wishes that we were betrothed. He would see me married as quickly as possible, and must have made some false assumption.'
'And you. . . .'
'Oh, I mean you no offense, Legolas, but I do not have the slightest intention of marrying any time soon. Perhaps in an Age or two.' She smiled. 'Does this clear up all of your concerns?'
Legolas smiled slightly and nodded. 'Thank you for answering my questions.'
Ithildin's smile faded and her gaze fell. 'Will you join me in mourning Aláren?'
'Of course,' he said gently. 'What must I do?'
'Just do as I do.'
Ithildin knelt upon the snow and tilted her head back to the moon. Light seemed to gather around her as thickly as mist, ensconcing the more distant reaches of the garden in shadow. In hallowed silence, Ithildin picked up a dark red bag setting beside her. She opened the bag and pulled out thin strips of rich, heavy material of the same color as the bag. Following her lead, Legolas tied one strip around each of his elbows, letting the ends hang loose. She gave him a wider strip of the red material. At one end was embroidered in silver thread runes spelling out Aláren's name. Ithildin wrapped this strip around her waist as a sash, although her dress had no sewn waist. The silver runes shone brightly as she rose to her feet.
'You are through,' she informed him as he stood. 'I have a little more to do.' She retrieved her circlet from the chair where she left it and carefully placed it on her head. Legolas, suddenly and newly aware of the impropriety of the situation, turned his back to her.
'Legolas?' she asked. 'Why have you turned away?'
'In Northern Greenwood, it would . . . not be appropriate for me to see you with your hair down,' he said. 'I suppose the restraints are . . . different here.'
'Hm,' was all that Ithildin said. 'Well, you may turn around now, since I have put it up.'
Legolas glanced over his shoulder at her. In her hair, dark red ribbons were woven into several braids which twined around the back of her circlet. In her hand, she held the dark red bag which had held the mourning bands.
Ithildin looked rather bemused. 'Your modesty is somewhat . . . charming,' she said with a wry smile, 'but you may find it inconvenient someday.' After depositing the bag on a chair, Ithildin started toward the gates of the garden. 'Come along now, Legolas,' she said, managing to sound both appropriately somber and happy at the same time. 'We feast in your honor.'
That night Legolas remembered with amazing clarity a very clear blur. Whether it was because of too much wine, too much excitement or too little rest, he never determined. Whenever he tried to recall the feast in his honor, he could recall mostly sitting next to Ithildin and enjoying the food very much, along with a few scattered images of what a few of the courses looked like. After the feast came a few images of some sort of ball or dance he seemed to remember politely declining Ithildin's invitation to dance, and the next image that came to mind was of Ithildin teaching him one of Hithil's favorite dances. From what he could recollect, Legolas thought he had enjoyed the dancing, the feast and the entire night. Most of the rest of the evening was slurred together in his memory, flashes of white and grey, smiles and laughter, music and dance, and a delicate circlet, fashioned of mithril, with the crescent moon insignia of Hithil and, finally, retiring to his chambers some time after the sun had risen. Before falling asleep, the last thought that crossed his mind was that it had been a long day and two nights since he'd last had the chance to rest.
When he came to himself again, the sun was just beginning to set. A flash of panic sparked in his mind as Legolas was thrust back in his memory to the last time he'd awoken from sleep just before the Orc ambush, darkness was beginning to tinge the sky as it was now. In a split-second, he mentally relived the entire ordeal, ending with Aláren's death. A wave of grief washed over him as he sat up, remember his failure and its consequences. Looking around, he saw that he was still in Hithil, which somewhat surprised him. After the blur of the night before, it seemed like he could be sure of nothing. He saw that a fresh set of clothing had been laid out for him on one of those elegant chairs that seemed to be everywhere. On top of the light grey clothing laid the red mourning bands he'd worn the night before. After dressing, Legolas knelt and tried to perform the mourning ceremony as Ithildin had shown him just the night before, although it already seemed like a distant memory. Satisfied with the bands, Legolas set off to find Ithildin to have her check the mourning bands, he told himself. But he wasn't sure if he believed himself.
Laerdil was waiting outside the door to his quarters, busily examining her hands. 'The queen requests that you join her for the moon-rise meal,' she said without looking at Legolas.
He was slightly tempted to remind her of who he was, but decided against it. 'Can I see her before then?'
Laerdil raised her eyes to give him a skeptical look. 'Why?'
'I . . . I wanted her to check my mourning bands.'
She gave the knots a perfunctory glance. 'That will do.'
'Then is there nothing I can do to talk to her before supper?'
'Look, Sir,' she began, drawing out the title in derision, 'Hithil is in the middle of an important phase. I have been directed to tell you to wait until the moon-rise meal, but if you feel as though you just cannot go another minute without her, the queen is in the winter gardens.' Laerdil took a step closer to Legolas with a menacing look in her eyes. 'Do not interfere, Strange-Elf.'
Legolas drew himself up to his full height, secretly wondering if he might want to wear his bow and quiver again today. 'Laerdil,' he said in his best commanding tone, 'you are dismissed.' She looked at him incredulously, but marched off without another word.
When she had left, Legolas allowed his body to relax, but his mind could not. 'An important phase,' he repeated pensively as he headed toward the winter gardens.
Legolas reached the garden gates and stopped short. Seated in those ever-present, silvery white chairs were ten Elves. One, he assumed, would have to be Ithildin, but they were all wearing long hooded cloaks six of the Hithil snow cloaks, three cloaks of a grey color similar to the traditional Sindarin shade, and one heavy cloak of dark red. Snippets of their conversation, hushed though it was, made their ways to Legolas's sharp ears, but he understood little. He heard names he recognized: Aláren, Náraen, Ithildin, Legolas, Thranduil, Farothoin. Everything else seemed to be in their dialect of Sindarin. Although it sounded like the same language Legolas spoke, the words themselves were not similar enough for him to understand.
After they seemed to have finish the story of his arrival in Hithil, the group moved on to other things. Legolas could pick out fewer words once they finished the discussion of people that he knew. His attention had begun to wander when he heard a word that pulled him back into focus 'Mithlond.'
'I lynd?' Legolas breathed. The council of Elves seated in the garden suddenly fell silent and Legolas realized his mistake.
One of the white-cloaked Elves turned around to look at him. He was relieved to find it was Ithildin. Upon seeing him at the gates, she sighed, although he couldn't tell if it were a sigh of annoyance or relief. 'Dulo,' she called to him. Legolas entered the gardens and Ithildin introduced him to her council. He recognized a few from the feast, or at least that was where he was pretty sure he had seen them. The grey-clad Elves were from Hithind, the other city of Ithildin's kingdom. The Elf in red proved to be Náraen. Legolas realized that the cloak matched the mourning bands he wore.
After the introductions were through, Ithildin said something to her council in their dialect. The nine other Elves stood and, after bowing to Legolas and their queen, quickly left the gardens.
'Was there something you wished to see me about?' Ithildin asked as she motioned for Legolas to have a seat.
'I only wanted to know if I tied the mourning bands properly,' he said, holding out his arms for inspection as he sat in the nearest chair.
Ithildin examined the knots and nodded approvingly. 'Thank you for interrupting,' she said with a wry smile.
'Why do you say that?'
She sat back in her chair and tilted her chin up toward the moon. Legolas saw the same effect he had seen the night before gentle light suddenly gathering around Ithildin in a mist. 'I needed some time alone,' she was saying, but Legolas was only partially listening. As she spoke, he reached toward the mist, as if trying to snatch a handful of it. Ithildin looked down at what he was doing.
'Oh, no,' she said, 'you cannot catch it.'
"It is not water mist. It is light mist.'
Legolas looked at her inquisitively.
'From the moonlight,' she explained. 'The songs say that the ancients used to sing down the light of the moon, and that the light, the moon and the mountains loved the ancients so much that the moon and the mountains began to bring down the light themselves. So it has been since the Elder days. The Elder kingdom was much more grand than this one, of course. But, for a time, the kingdom of Hithil was able to benefit from that of the Elder days.'
Her explanations raised more questions in Legolas's mind than it answered, but he pushed most of them aside. Above all, three things suddenly stuck out in his mind Laerdil's 'an important phase,' Ithildin's 'for a time,' and the council's 'Mithlond.'
'Why were you discussing the Grey Havens in your council?' he asked cautiously.
Ithildin turned quickly to face him, a look of surprise in her eyes. 'How much did you hear?'
'Just "Mithlond,"' he said.
Ithildin nodded, as if approving the limited information he'd received. Legolas cast his mind on the feast of the night before. Although no conversations came to mind, he could recall many people referring to 'the last' 'the last feast of honor,' 'the last fortnight,' 'the last of Hithil.' At the time, he had thought it odd briefly before brushing it off, but now it pressed against his thoughts.
'Ithildin,' he said slowly. 'There is something afoot in Hithil.'
'I am aware of it,' she said calmly. 'I am the source of it, I suppose you could say.'
'What did you do?'
'Do not overly concern yourself, Master Legolas. The short history of Hithil is coming to an end, and what I did or did not do will soon matter very little.'
Legolas sat in stunned silence for a moment. 'What do you mean, coming to an end?' he finally managed.
'My people must leave these mountains,' she said softly.
'Mithlond,' Legolas breathed, fitting one piece of the puzzle together. 'But why are you going to the havens?'
'There is Evil coming, Legolas. Great evil. The Earth knows it.'
'No!' Legolas cried, still not fully believing what Ithildin said. 'The earth remembers an echo of its old fear this shadow of the fear will pass unfounded,' he insisted.
'Legolas,' Ithildin began slowly, casting her eyes to the ground. 'The Earth's memory is deep and long, it is true, but you know very well that no fear is enough to make the Earth cower once it has passed. The Earth has had time to recover. This marks a new fear the shadow is not one of former fear, but future darkness.'
'Many years hence. Generations and generations will pass away in the houses of Men.'
'In that time, you can build a great army you can defend the land!'
'My people would not be safe from this evil not even within my palace walls. Greenwood the Great will be forever changed. The shadow will always hang over our great home even your father's realm will be affected. My realm will be destroyed.' Ithildin looked into Legolas's eyes. Looking back, he could see all the pain and sadness in her eyes. The decision had only been reached with much deliberation with her counselors and the consent of her people. It had weighed greatly upon her. 'I do not wish to abandon Greenwood to such evil. I would defend the forest and the mountains to the last tree and the last rock to the end of my life. But this evil will be too great for the kingdom of Hithil. The city of Moon-mist would be among the first to fall and then we would be of no use to anyone. The loss of our lives would be in vain.'
'It would be in vain if you fled in the face of a vague and distant fear.'
'Legolas!' Ithildin said sharply. 'My people are not like yours!'
'They are Elves, are they not?'
'We are, but we do not have the strength, nor the numbers, nor the heritage of your people.'
'If you leave, the land will become lonesome and sad its desolation will invite the great evil you fear.'
'If we stay, we would be quickly defeated we would become a symbol of the speed and power of a great enemy. "He destroyed the entire Kingdom of Hithil," it would be said, "in two days. They were preparing their army for hundreds of years. How then could we withstand him?" The free peoples of Middle-earth would lose heart.'
'You would destroy any possible hope of resistance?'
Ithildin said nothing for a long time. Her shoulders heaved in a sigh and her gaze was distant and weary. 'Legolas, my dear friend,' she began in a voice that little more than a whisper, 'I have heard all the arguments from all my counselors I have made the arguments with myself. I have ought counsel from the wisest Elves Celeborn, Galadriel, Thranduil, others and everything comes back both yea and nay. But the voice of my people has spoken' Ithildin paused. Her eyes shut and her voice was laden with emotion when she spoke again. 'We go to the Havens, and from there, over the sea.'
That was the only discussion Legolas remembered with any clarity from his time in Hithil. He passed 'the last fortnight' with the people of Hithil, but the nights blended as the first one had flashes of white and grey, dancing, singing, mirth, festivals, feasts and Ithildin. During the days, if neither of them felt inclined to sleep, she would recount to him tales of the history of Hithil. After a few days, she realized that he wasn't learning the history at all, so she began teaching him the songs instead.
She was the only one he saw during the day, then she disappeared into council from sundown to moon-rise. From the moon-rise feast until dawn, Legolas found himself continually surrounded by sound, commotion, Elves, light, snow and food. Eventually, he stopped trying to do anything to remember the history, to remember the Elves he met, to remember the food or the time or the activities or the fun or the diversions. He did his best to enjoy his time there, but even as he lived it, his memory was tainted by the ominous knowledge that all of it would end soon.
The only memories he tried to make were those with Ithildin, but even then he failed miserably. During the night-long parties, she was able to sing and dance with the best of them, as if nothing ever were nor ever could go wrong. But during the day, Ithildin seemed quiet and withdrawn. More than once, Legolas was reasonably sure, she had openly wept in front of him . . . but he couldn't seem to remember what he did in response. . . .
'What day is it?' he asked one day as they sat in the solemn silence of the gardens. The trees and the snow seemed to detect Ithildins somber mood and matched it. She had tried to teach him a song about Ithiel, the maiden of the moon and an ancestor of Ithildin, but eventually she stopped because she simply did not have the heart to continue.
The second, she said. We leave tomorrow.
Legolass eyes widened in surprise. 'Tomorrow? But that is so . . . soon.'
'I know,' she said softly.
'Ithildin, may I ask you something something about the history of Hithil?'
Ithildin perked up. 'Of course, anything about Hithil.'
'Who was that . . . Man we met on our way here?'
She frowned. 'Farothoin,' she said disdainfully. 'I told you, he was the assassin of the great king, Ithilas.'
'Ithilas was your father.'
'And Farothoin called you weak and ill-suited to the throne.'
'Yes, he did. Thank you for reminding me.' There was an edge in her voice.
'I did not mean to offend you,' he said gently. 'But I wanted to know . . . more about Farothoin. How did a Man come to murder an Elf-King?'
'We misplaced our trusts. He came to us and seemed wise, and my father took him onto the council.'
'But why did he kill your father?'
Ithildin shrugged. 'I suppose that we must continually learn that Man cannot be trusted with power. I believe he wanted to rule the kingdom himself, and would have killed me if we did not capture him first.'
'Then why was he in the forest that day?' The day of their arrival seemed to Legolas as though it had been only yesterday and years ago.
'He escaped,' she said as if it were obvious. 'He cut off his own hand to escape.'
Legolas was too surprised to speak.
'He is still very dangerous, I believe, and he still seeks power. If ever a Man without a right hand enters your home, capture him immediately. He is never to be trusted.' Ithildin sighed. 'There will be no counsel tonight, our planning is complete. Tonight is the last feast and the last ball of Hithil. The last moon-rise . . .' Her voice trailed off and she paused for a moment. 'And tomorrow we leave.' She rose and looked around the winter garden, eyes full of sadness. 'Well, let us make ready,' she said softly, turning toward the gates of the garden. 'Tonight will be one to remember.'
Unfortunately, Legolas was never able to recall anything about it.
The day of the departure came upon Legolas very suddenly. It seemed impossible to believe that an entire fortnight had been passed in merrymaking and that he could remember so little of it. But as he rode upon Carlith's back alongside Ithildin riding Ethur, Legolas could no longer naively deny that the city of Hithil was coming to an end. In front of them and behind them stretched an impressive caravan of Elves, horses and carts bearing a varied collection of possessions.
To Legolas, the procession was a sad sight, but, judging by Ithildin's silent tears, he was probably among the less affected segment of the population.
'Ithildin,' he said softly as he guided his horse closer to hers, 'you really don't have to do this.'
Ithildin did not look at him, and did not say anything. Her only response was a sniff.
'If you will not stay in Hithil, then come live in my father's realm. You and your people are welcome there.'
Ithildin looked at Legolas, and he thought that he saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes. 'We . . . no, we could not impose upon your people.'
'It would be no imposition, I promise you'
'And where would I go? What would I do? Just come to live in the palace with your family? And after a few years, just conveniently marry you?'
'You would be'
'No,' she said firmly. 'I will marry for love, not convenience. I will stay with my people not because I want the power, but because I love my people.'
'I did not mean to propose marriage to you, Ithildin,' Legolas replied. 'Not to say that I would never propose marriage to you, just that' He stopped short when Ithildin looked at him curiously.
'I cannot stay in North Greenwood because it is not where my people have decided to go,' she paused to glance at Legolas, who looked as though he were about to speak. Before he could say anything, Ithildin quickly continued, 'And you should not come with us to the Havens because . . . there is something else for you. . . .' Her voice trailed off and Legolas looked at her, surprised that she knew what he was about to offer, and even more mystified by what she had said. Before he could ask what she meant, Ithildin continued. 'Perhaps you will come to visit us in an Age or two.'
'And perhaps then I will propose marriage to you.'
Ithildin turned her head quickly to face him, her eyes wide with surprise. 'And perhaps,' she said slowly, as if testing the words to see if she wanted to actually say them, 'perhaps I will accept.' Legolas, staring straight ahead at the column of Elves, smiled.
'We shall see,' Ithildin continued. 'If I long for you the way that I long to remain in Hithil, then we shall certainly see. In an Age or two.'
'One,' Legolas said decisively. It was Ithildin's turn to stare straight ahead and smile.
It seemed all too soon they reached the fork in the path that would take Legolas to his home and the people of Hithil along their journey. The procession came to a halt, and a few Elves broke out of the caravan formation. They were those who were planning on living in Thranduil's realm mostly Elves from Hithind. Once they had separated from the rest of the procession, Ithildin raised a hand and all action stopped.
'Legolas, Prince of Greenwood the Great,' Ithildin began in a voice to carry to all of the caravan, 'someday you will stand among worthy companions, fearless in the face of unimaginable foes. You will be wise, and wise enough to know when to regard the counsel of others. Your skills will be honed to a point so fine that you will be valuable to any company. Someday, the very fate of Middle-earth may rest upon your shoulders, and you will valiantly and faithfully rise to the occasion, preserving and defending all that is good in this land. I thank you, and my people thank you, for saving my life, and also for helping us to commemorate the last fortnight of Hithil. In your care, I entrust a complete record of the history of Hithil to be kept in your father's care. I hope that you will travel in safety to your home.'
Ithildin and Legolas sat astride their horses, still side by side for a silent moment. Ithildin realized that she had delivered the entire farewell speech gazing into Legolas's eyes, and guided her horse back a step.
'Farewell,' she added softly, looking at the ground.
'Thank you, Ithildin, Queen of Hithil.'
She looked up. 'No,' she said sadly. 'Hithil is no more.'
Legolas shook his head. 'No, you will always be the queen of the people of Hithil.'
Smiling modestly, Ithildin lowered her eyes again and guided her horse back another step. 'Farewell, Master Legolas,' she whispered.
'Farewell, Madame Ithildin.' He reluctantly guided his horse onto the fork of the path that led to his home, then stopped to watch the caravan pass.
Without looking at him, Ithildin lifted her head to look down the path she was to travel. Her horse started forward, and within a few steps, the rest of the procession jolted into motion. Legolas watched until she passed through the trees, then started to turn his horse away. He glanced at the people of Hithind who would now be joining his people, then back at the procession, before turning his horse around and galloping down the trail.
'Ithildin!' he called as he came even with her. She turned to look at him, surprise clearly written across her face. 'I . . . I shall see you in an Age.'
Smiling, she replied, 'I hope so.'
'May you travel in safety to the Havens and beyond,' he bade her. 'And I will see you in an Age.' He slowed his horse to a stop. Ithildin looked back at him as he again watched her pass through the trees and out of sight. But only for an Age, he told himself.