My reflection in the water was nothing but a blur. The creatures of the pool felt the Shadow as keenly as any of us; they moved in tight circles of fear, breaking the surface with ripples like scars. An unquiet wind shook the leaves, their furious rustling an answer to all its fears. The smell of the air had changed. The words of the wizard had broken the peace, told me all I needed to know.
I had not been alone in listening to him, my limbs quivering as his voice described the grass of our land downtrodden and ruined, the hills blackened and marked by Orcish fires. Orc-work had passed through our woods like a fell wind, trees had been uprooted and left to die. The Men of Gondor were fighting back: the blood they spilt, the blood they lost themselves mingled and further tainted the earth. Our abandoned dwelling were host to whispers of better times long past.
Elves know when their time is over. Nonetheless, sometimes they choose to ignore it. I had not taken part in the council that had followed Mithrandir's departure. My people had gathered and talked long, raised their voices in disagreement as for countless time had not happened. I was not there. My mind was made up; I had nothing to say. Ithilien demanded we came back.
I had left the palace unheeded, the Elves of Mirkwood had ears for our council alone. For forty years we had been as one, but now our roads parted again, at least for a time. They were Wood Elves themselves; they understood that our allegiance lay with the trees that had seen us been born. But I could not be serene, and desired to see none; Legolas least of all.
He had kept me whole, his love had made me forget. Because he was there the voice of the longing for my land had grown to a subdued whisper into my heart, like the faded print of a sorrow long past. We had left Ithilien because we knew it was lost to us, no longer a haven, no longer a safe place. And yet its earth was our flesh, its streams our blood, its trees our bones. Tainted or pure, it was our home, our mother. Tearing away our need for it had been tearing away a piece of our soul. You can learn new woods, you can love new paths, grow accustomed to different skies; but you belong to the ones that your eyes first saw as they opened. The Blessed Realm of Valinor itself had not been enough for the Elves grown in the darkness of Arda lit by stars alone, before Sun or Moon were ever wrought.
I raised my head. All around me the wood murmured with a disturbed voice, the whistling of the wind through leaf and rock a vain protest. No wind could now chase away the clouds. Whatever creature the wizard and the Důnadan were casing through the wilderness, its footsteps had been harbingers of doom.
No sound announced him, but the prince needed not to touch me for me to feel his tension, a bowstring drawn to its limit. I did not turn to look at him. I feared to know what was inscribed in his beloved face.
"I am going back." In my voice was a sadness that was but the outline of my resolve. There was steel in my decision, as much as it tore me apart.
"I know it," he replied, "But I cannot come."
Now I looked at him, his brow creased, his grave features a mirror of my own. His hands were clenched into fists.
"I would never ask you to."
"And yet I want to. My father forbids it."
"The king is right. Your duty lies here."
"But my spirit shall leave with you."
He sat down on the grass beside me. The blades were shining, pearls of humidity like raindrops on their pointed ends. His presence made the wind gentler, but my pain keener. This long happiness had split me in two; my allegiance was divided. Not until the Shadow had passed could I be whole again. Choices will have to be made, when Evil walks the Earth; but their necessity only makes them harder.
"A part of me will linger here."
"A part. Not all of you, my lady."
"I cannot – "
"Your love goes to your land. I wish I could have made this your home."
There was despair in his strength as he took me into his arms, bitterness in his mouth as his lips crushed mine. To those born to believe eternity is their heirloom, having no time is difficult to understand. But when they do, urgency streaks their every act, and living becomes painful.
"Too long we have waited, thinking all the ages of the world lay before us, and countless seasons could pass in play before our choice. Marry me before you leave, Měriel."
"There is no need. I will come back."
"The war is upon us, and none that live to see such times know whether they shall live to see their end. I shall not be parted from you, not if our spirits are made into one."
"And I shall not mar our goodbye with an act of despair." I took his hand, whose lines I knew so well. The texture of his skin was to me more familiar than my own. "Always has the shadow passed. There is still hope."
The melancholy in his eyes was a blade cutting through me. "I wish I could believe you, my lady."
"Then do." I did not dare caress his face, the contours that would be emblazoned in my memory for ageless years. "Our spirits shall not be parted. The memory of our seasons together shall not fade. Wars shall be fought and won. And when Ithilien be renewed and the Shadow only a remembrance stained with sorrow now healed, then I will come back, and marry you in the green light of Mirkwood before the leaves fall."
"When the war breaks, come back then. Together we shall weather this storm."
"This I can promise. The dawn of the new sun will find us together."
There were tears in his eyes now, tears on his lips. Like tears tasted my mouth when he kissed me. The wind was subdued. This chain it could not break.
It took a month to put together the long ranks of the Elves of Ithilien, a month to gather food and weapons for our long journey back. The last evening before our departure a banquet was held, and many songs sung, many cups raised for the friends who were going away. Thranduil king spoke, and he said: "For long years we have hunted and sung, drunk and lived together. This will be your home till the breaking of the world. When the times grow perilous and the storm draws nearer, then we will call you, and hold together against the tempest." Gelmir our lord raised his cup, and promised. Together we would fight and die, if dying needed be. We would seek the halls of Mandos together.
I have no memory of it. That last night I spent walking the woods with Legolas, son of the king, my promise to him a pledge, my tears a seal. Stars polished by sadness shone above our heads, and keener the smell of musk than ever before. When the sun rose, we watched it together as it unfolded in the sky light veils, his head cradled in my lap, his hand in mine.
Many words were spoken that night, many things done; but of this I shall leave no account here. Mingled joy and sorrow of ages past they appear to me now, and in the deepest fibres of my being they are woven.
The morning that saw our departure grew sullen as we left, blighted with low clouds, black shapes heavy with rain. A sharp wind seized our hair, made it whips against our skin. Our cloaks were useless, they cracked in the wind like sails.
Only once did I turn back. I guessed, more than seeing it, his shape among the leaves.