When he appeared on the threshold I felt my heart dilate. A strange calmness filled me, such as never before I had experienced. He was there. I lay down the linen I was helping fold, and bowed my head.
"My lord Legolas."
"My lady Mėriel."
He advanced into the room, the others present falling silent. When he stopped in front of me, I found that I could not look at him. My eyes remained fixed on my fingers, resting lightly on the folded creases of the cloth.
"Would you be willing, my lady, to abandon these peaceful occupations for a more warlike quest?"
"That, my lord, depends on the quest you'll require of me."
He smiled. I raised my eyes to met his, but carefully, as carefully as when you dare challenge the skies, and look at the Sun.
"Many creatures used to dwell in the shadow of Dol Guldur, and not all of them have left with their master. I'm leaving again to go hunting them, and people of Ithilien shall be welcome to our party. Will you come, my lady?"
The wood, its green light. The same in which I had seen him for the first time. Running beside him, listening to the music of the bowstrings as they were released. I bowed my head.
"With joy, my lord."
"We leave at dawn." He paused, as if about to depart, but when the silence lengthened I looked up at him again.
"I am glad you are coming, my lady."
He did not wait for my reply, and in truth he seldom did. He walked away.
The hunting party assembled in front of the closed doors of the palace, speaking in low voices in the uncertain light that precedes sunrise. Mirkwood was always darker than the sky above its cloak of leaves, and the first gray hints of the day filtered with difficulty, blending shapes and features in one display of shadows. But when the prince emerged at last, my eyes found immediately the grace with which he moved, and before the others I understood that we were about to start on the chase.
Not many words were uttered that day. We travelled South, through paths invisible but for the experience of Silvan Elves, listening. The wood changed. On the invisble line before the foot of the mountains the trees shivered, the song of the birds left place for a moment to a pitched silence. The shadows deepened and lengthened, as we entered the part of the Woodland Realm that had suffered the most of the Dark Lord's malice.
Miles and miles stretched before us, plants uncounted before the forsaken path of the Dwarvish road and, past it, the empty terror and silent threat of the Lonely Mountain. But here the wood prepared itself, the earth waked, the trees gathered their strength before the weakness of a corrupted place.
In the watchful silence of Mirkwood we made our way, splitting after dark in three different directions.
"Come with us, my lady Mėriel."
Walking in the darkness unrelieved by lights where the hunters of Thranduil alone could find a way we never stopped, letting our minds wander, dreaming behind open eyes in the substitute for sleep that the Children of Men so often have envied us. Another dawn came, but no bird awoke to greet it.
The chase had begun.
I was raised to be a hunter and a tracker, not unlike each of the Elves that dwell in woods. Ithilien had been my territory, its every path one of my veins, its every vale a crease of my skin. Now I learnt another wood, I let it penetrate into my conscience, I let it be become part of me. Following the archers of Mirkwood I took down wild boar and stray wolf, creatures grown ferocious beyond their nature under the evil influence of the Necromancer.
We wept and sang a lament for them when we burnt their carcasses. Men and Noldor will deny it, but Teleri know it. Every animal hunted and killed lingers in the wood, becomes part of its music, its spirit inhabiting the wind till it finds a new life. We wished for them that day for it to be mild.
The sunset was red over the highest trees, and we fell silent, sitting on the ground around the pyre that burnt our quarry, purifying the earth. Some still chanted under their breath, their songs nothing more than the rustling of the leaves.
I tightened the string on my bow, let my fingers play with it as if with an harp. Almost inaudible was its melody, but its vibrations reverbarated in the subtle note of the wind. I raised my eyes. Legolas, seated across the fire from me, his bow resting idly on his lap, was watching me.
I did not smile. It had been a day of blood and slaughter.
In that early evening fading quickly into night every beauty was tainted.
The smoke filled the air, blighting it. The prince rose and moved through the bluish curls of vapour, approaching me.
"Let us walk, my lady. It was our duty to do this, but I do not like to watch its results unfold."
I bowed my head in assent and followed him. Our companions did not wonder at our departure, their eyes deep in contemplation of the flames.
Legolas chose our path throught the trees without hesitation, going farther and farther from the clearing where we had lit the fire, until the smell of charred flesh was nothing but an unpleasant remembrance, lost in the fresh scent of leaves and bark. In the thick of the trees, around us the sounds of the forest as the daily animals went to sleep and the creatures of the night crept out, we stopped.
"One day," I said, almost a promise in the belief I felt in my words, "One day the shadows of Mirkwood shall be empty of menace, and the light will be only a stain of radiance, not a knife in the eternal darkness Sauron the Fallen has left behind."
"May the spirits of the wood listen to you, maiden of Ithilien."
Silently, now we sat on a fallen trunk, its bark softened by moss.
"Talk to me about your land, my lady."
The sweet slopes, bright woods of my country were too far from this place, its subdued light, its hidden threat. My lost land. But as I closed my eyes I smelled again the thousand flowers that filled the clearings as Spring advanced, I saw again the golden and ruby beauty of Autumns that graced even the ruins of the ancient kings.
Before I could remember the poisoned vapours that sometimes the wind brought us from the narrow gorge of Minas Morgul, or the shadowy threat lingering at the end of the perilous stairs bringing into Mordor and his abandoned plains, I started speaking.
"Ithilien, my lord, is a land of sweet beauty. Leaves fall from the trees as winter draws nearer, we do not know the eternal green of your realm. But bright is the Sun in dappled paths on the new grass, and sadly beautiful the songs we used to sing among the branches of the trees. Sometimes we would visit the ruined halls of the kings of Men, and the oldest among us would remember their brilliant, fragile glory. The summers are long, and it seldom rains, although drawing nearer to the Great River the trees grow rarer, and heather stains brightly violet the banks above the city of Osgiliath, often covered in mist. But there we do not go. We remain close to our streams, their water tasting like dogrose on the tongue "
My voice trailed away. "But that was long ago. When we left the trees would hesitate in blossoming new leaves, and the water had lost its taste."
"Forgive me if I made you sad, my lady. It is possible that one day Mordor loses its corrupting power, and the beauty of Ithilien be restored."
"I wish I could believe you, prince of Mirkwood."
He made no reply, only gazing at me. At last he talked, his voice low but firm: "Two thousand years I have walked this Earth, my lady Mėriel, and never have I wished for anything more than the wilderness of Greenwood the Great. But now I feel as if I could leave this woods for the South and its gilded vales, and fight the shadow to reconquer its ancient beauty."
Like rippling water his words resonated in me, and I answered: "And I would return, if I were not alone in that fight."
In the falling darkness I could barely distinguish his features, but I felt his eyes, fixed on me. Slowly, he took my hand and brought it to his lips.
"You would not be."