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15
From the Grey Twilight

Legolas moved silently away from the stables and into the quiet of the valley, unconsciously noting every stirring branch and movement of cloud. Where would she go? She is angry, wounded, afraid... Close to the stableyard, the earth was churned up with too many passages of Elves and beasts to begin to track; he must needs choose a starting point further out. If I were in such a mood, I would be up the tallest tree I could find.

But she is no Wood-elf, he argued with himself. When the Song's harmonies seem to falter around you and the world feels fractured, you seek the trees, to breathe as they breathe, to return to that which you hold most dear. What would she do?

Into his mind came Rowanna's passionate account of her homeland: league upon league of endless green rolling clear to the horizon, rippling in great waves under the wind... He stopped a moment, breathing deeply, stilling his mind and letting it reach out into the chill winter afternoon. Then he turned and headed for the Bruinen's narrow bridge, across to the valley's southern side.

He knew he had angered her, although he was only dimly beginning to understand why, and that he might well be the last person in the world she would want to see. But he could not rest. He had seen her face in the instant when she froze before Caradhras' flying hooves, and in the tackroom afterwards; and at the back of her huge dark eyes had lurked a shadow which Legolas had seen many times before. He had seen it in the eyes of comrades who had survived their first skirmishes with orc-bands and sat exhausted with their blades dripping with black blood; he had felt it in his own dreams and in the depths of his being after sorties into the southern fastnesses of Mirkwood when they had ventured as far towards Dol Guldur as they dared, and further than was wise.

But why would Rowanna.. how... Then understanding broke in upon him in an icy wave, and he stopped dead as he recalled Elladan's account. Her injury; the black steed that reared, and felled her, and sent her into the darkness so far for so long that it took all of Master Elrond's healing skills to draw her back to the light.

He saw her again in the yard, freezing as the hooves flailed around her. She remembered. She has remembered her fall, and when her anger cools she may recall all that came after - and then... He broke into a run through the damp grass of the river-meadow. I have to find her.

***

She leaves a trail a Dwarf could follow in the dark, he observed wryly, as soon as he came across her track. Clearly she had made no attempt to slip away; rather she had stormed up the slope at a punishing pace, boots churning up the mud, with no pause to rest. Here she had come upon a thicket of brambles; and rather than turn the few yards aside to go around them, she had pushed herself straight through them, leaving strands of hair here and there. Legolas winced. She was so angry. Yet better that than what her anger holds at bay!

Finally, he reached the crest of the rise, emerging above the line of slowly thinning pine-trees, and glanced swiftly about. There - yes, it was as he remembered, a great outcrop of bare rock which jutted out from the hillside. He had been struck by it as he and Taurlaegel drew towards the valley on their arrival; it dominated the eastern approaches to Imladris, a stone sentinel. As he had thought, from that vantage the pine-forests of the further slopes showed as one endless, unbroken sea of dark green, until the mountains rose to bar the way to the South. Gazing that way from the very tip of the rock sat a miserably huddled figure. Taking a deep breath, deliberately scuffing up needles and treading heavily on a few twigs, Legolas stepped forward.

She must have heard the movement behind her, but did not turn. He could only guess how long she had sat hunched into a ball on the freezing stone, arms wrapped tightly about her knees as though to take up as little space as she could. Hesitantly, he spoke her name. At first there was no response; then she half-turned, slowly, and encouraged by this he went cautiously to join her, curling himself down cross-legged on the rock - not too near, giving her the choice to draw closer or not, as he might have approached a fearful deer or a wary bird. Even in profile, he saw her face was very pale, and marked with dried streaks of tears and dirt; marred, too, with smears of blood from long, reddened bramble-scratches, already swelling angrily.

"Rowanna, I am sorry." Another long pause; then she turned fully to face him, a stiff tired movement, and in her face he saw all that he had feared. Listlessly she said,

"What for?..."

"For angering you, to begin with. And if I understand aright - for acting as though I deemed you a child, or a weakling, or a fool, when I know you to be none of those."

"Do you?" A weary, half-disbelieving challenge. He held her gaze and said simply,

"I do."

She shrugged, looking away towards the great sweep of pines and the distant mountains. "It does not matter." Her voice was flat and dull in his ears, with none of its usual rich music.

"It does, I think. Rowanna, there in the stableyard, when Caradhras reared - what did you see?"

"I.." She choked into silence, and he reached out a cautious hand and gently turned her back towards him. "Legolas, I can't, I.." Her voice rose sharply into panic.

"You can; you must." How can I make it safe to speak of it? He was silent for a long moment, and then said slowly: "Do you remember what they call my homeland, Rowanna?" Seeming puzzled by the apparent change of subject, she said slowly,

"Mirkwood! But..."

"Mirkwood, Taur-nu-fuin; or no better, Taur e-Ndaedelos, the Forest of Great Fear." He felt himself grimace as he spoke the hated names. "And you know why it is so called?"

"Not - not wholly. Bilbo spoke of it - of giant spiders, and of darkness under its boughs - "

"Darkness indeed." He held her gaze as he went on. "A shadow that lurks deep in our southern fastness, a shadow sprung from Evil itself; taken root in the fortress of Dol Guldur." She might never have heard the name before, but he saw her shiver at the way he spat it out. "More than half my lifetime ago that shade first appeared in our land - Greenwood the Great, Men called the forest then! - and ever since, I have fought with my people to drive it back from our borders. Often we have had small successes, brief respites; and yet always the shadow waxes again. I have seen its heavy hand in my comrades, in my friends, felt its dead weight even over my own heart. I know what it can do, Rowanna, how dark it is, and how it saps all hope..."

Her shoulders heaved in a sudden, pent-up sob, and he knew he had been right. When Caradhras reared, she had seen it all again, just as Elladan had described it to him; the black steed screaming and striking, the fallen man dead on the ground at her feet, and the darkness descending. But the story was not his... "Tell me. You can, I promise you."

Slowly, in shuddering fits and starts, she did so. A sudden flood of memory, released as the dam deep in her mind cracked and burst. At last, bleakly, she finished:

"It - it was dark, dark, and so cold. But worse than all, the great weight of shadow; pressing down as though my body was full of lead... there seems no point to anything; why try, since all my toil will come to nothing in the end and the darkness cover all?"

Her eyes had slipped from him again, staring blindly out over the valley; but he knew she saw neither forest nor sky, he heard her voice trailing off into hopelessness, and a chill ran through him. Cautious no longer, he grabbed her bodily by the shoulders and swung her round to face him.

"Rowanna, look at me. Look at me!" He had shocked her into complying, and he would not let her drop her gaze, holding her until he saw a tiny spark of recognition, of herself, kindling in the darkness that filled her eyes. "Do you hear me? That's good, stay with me now. Listen..." Elbereth, aid me! I may have but one chance at this! "Do you remember how you came back from the darkness, before?"

She frowned. "Master Elrond brought me - "

"No. Elladan told me: Elrond called to you, yes, but you came. For Dirgon's and Béodred's and above all your mother's sake, you found the strength to come back. Loyalty, and friendship, and love can be stronger even than the Shadow, if only we do not lose hope..." So let us hope our Hope proves true! came the wry unbidden thought, as he waited on tenterhooks for her response.

For a moment he heard only the wind whipping through the tops of the pines, but the light lingered in her dark eyes, and he held to it fiercely. At last she asked hesitantly:

"How then do you keep hope, Legolas? When you have fought back the darkness for so long and always it has returned?" This he could answer without puzzling, so long had he known it in his very bones.

"I think of how dearly I love Arda; the green earth, the trees, all that lives and would be free from trouble and pain were there no Shadow in the world..." Now he twisted around in his turn; looking not south but into the west, where the mountains glowed deep rose and gold with the last traces of the sunset. "And I trust that the Powers know how the Song will end at last, whatever the part I play in making it so; even if sometimes I seem so ill-fitted to my part that I wonder if I can ever fill it." Or whether it is the part I would choose! he admitted to himself alone.

For a long moment they sat silent, and he heard her breathing slow and deepen and saw her hunched shoulders drop. Somewhere below in the valley he heard the chatter of roosting birds. Eventually, very quietly, she said: "I.. am glad you came to find me. Thank you." And then: "Legolas?"

"What is it?"

"If you thought me neither child, nor weakling, nor fool... why the haste to snatch Caradhras from me? Why did you not let be?..."

The question caught him off guard: he had given it no thought, and when it came his reply was halting.

"I.. I have seen Mortals in peril, even seen them die, before now, Rowanna: I fought alongside Men at the Battle of Five Armies, I have seen Men who live in the Greenwood's marches fall to orc or poison. Yet in that moment in the stableyard, I thought I saw how fragile and how precious is a Mortal life; a piece of gossamer, one moment sparkling in the dawn and the next - swept away to nothing..."

She turned to look him fully in the face, and he thought her great dark eyes posed a challenge; but he could not read, much less answer it. "Gossamer, are we? Well, the spider's web may vanish, but do not underestimate its strength while it lasts!"

Suddenly she shivered. Looking at her, he noticed that fine golden hairs stood up on the skin of her arms - I never saw before that even the women of Mortal folk had downy skin, he thought - and he frowned, realising that she must be cold. "We should go down; darkness will soon fall, and Pippin will be worrying for you, and all eaten up with guilt at his foolishness!"

Rowanna actually laughed, though a little shakily. "Then we should not keep him waiting! In truth I have no great desire to be out on this cliff all night - it looks set to be cold!" She shifted in her place and grimaced. "Though the Hobbits will think I have been rolling in mud..." She looked ruefully at her clodded boots and stained breeches.

"Worse than that, they will know you have been wading through brambles!" Legolas pointed out. "In fact, they might say you appear to have been dragged through a hedge backwards!" Rowanna chuckled and swiped at him, but he insisted: "I mean it - there are scratches all across your face, and some of them look ready to fester."

She pulled a face. "So I look a fright as well as a mess? That is all I need, to draw more attention to myself!"

"Would - " He was hesitant, wary of repeating his earlier offence. "Would you let me clean them? I have willowbark that would soothe them, and make them less visible, I think."

When she nodded, he was on his feet at once; several nearby hollows in the rock held rainwater, and trying some on his tongue he found it clean and sweet enough for his purpose. Pulling a rag and small flask from the scrip that hung at his belt, he dropped into a crouch at her side and turned her chin towards him. "Hold still," he instructed.

She closed her eyes, and he worked his way carefully over her face, wiping the streaked blood gently from her temples and cheekbones and meticulously anointing the cuts. Despite his best intentions, she hissed at the sting, but he was firm. "It hurts for a moment, but you will see, by the time we reach the House even Elven eyes will barely see the scratches. Which is worth a little stinging, is it not?"

"I am not so vain!" Rowanna protested.

"You do not like the world to see your wounds. I would not call that vanity." He tucked away salve and rag in his pouch once more, and was about to rise when he noticed the burrs and bramble fragments caught in her hair. Tentatively, he began to disentangle them, noticing how smooth the weight of dark hair felt on his fingers against the rough prickling of the thorns. She let him be until he started loosening the disintegrating fragments of her plait; when she hastily put her own hands up to reweave the coil at her neck he did not demur, squatting on his heels to watch her finish. Tucking the end of her braid into its leather thong, she began scrambling to her feet; as he swiftly rose and extended a hand to her, she grimaced again. "What is it? The cold?..."

Unexpectedly the scowl became a sidelong grin. "No; I was just wondering how it is that an Elf cannot even get off the floor ungracefully." His puzzlement must have shown on his face, for she laughed outright and took his outstretched hand with exaggerated courtesy. "It does not matter..." He felt a great wave of relief as he heard the warmth returning to her voice. Elbereth, my thanks!

"Let us go down to dinner, then - " he hesitated, then risked it - "mellonen." And friendship was restored, it seemed; for Rowanna only grinned and turned to lead the way confidently down the slope towards the lights of the House which glowed in the gathering twilight.

As they descended they talked easily of inconsequential things; only after the sharp scent of pine-resin had given way to the mustier smell of oak and beech did Rowanna, scuffling her boots through the deep drifts of leaves, change the subject. "Legolas... when you spoke just now of fitting ill your part in the Song, it was no idle comment, was it? What troubles you?..."

"I spoke with Master Elrond last night," he admitted, "and he gave me a decision for which I have waited long. I shall be leaving Imladris ere long, even as the winter draws to its deepest..."

"You go with Frodo," Rowanna said with certainty. "With the Company."

With a sudden crunch of leaves underfoot Legolas stopped. I had not thought that she would know! But of course, she is a good friend to Bilbo, and of the Evenstar, and kin to Aragorn called Estel... He felt a brief pang of regret for his ignorance. Had I realised, I could have spoken to her of it long since, when I thought none but the trees could know of my endless pacing and chafing! "Aye. With Frodo; perhaps all the way to Mount Doom, and how that part of the Song ends even the wisest, I think, cannot yet tell." Or whether it will be the end of the Song altogether! came the thin voice from the darkness, so that he was glad when Rowanna's warmer tones overrode it:

"But are you not glad rather to know, than to wait any longer on Elrond's choice?"

"Glad indeed," he agreed, "and 'tis not the journey that troubles me; to aid Frodo in his quest I would walk into Mordor and beyond. But to find I am the only one of my people to go! - "

She turned surprised eyes on him. "You mean - the only Elf? But - Glorfindel? Elladan and Elrohir?"

He wondered too late if he gave away secrets: but all in Imladris will know before the six-day is out, he reasoned. "I know; I too had thought they were bound to be among Frodo's companions, or if not they then some other of the warriors of Imladris, but it is not so. 'You, Legolas, shall be for the Elves,' Master Elrond said. The Company is made up of all the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, for all share in its peril, and all shall be free of the Shadow only if the Quest succeeds..."

"But - " she was counting on her fingers, as though reckoning up, "Men, and Hobbits of course; Legolas for the Elves - " Suddenly, even in the growing darkness beneath the trees, he could not mistake her smile. "And for the Dwarves?"

"Gimli son of Glóin." He bit the words off. There, 'tis said.

Rowanna threw back her head, and laughed and laughed. For a moment he was dumbfounded; but the delight in that throaty sound disarmed him as it always did, until he could not suppress a smile. "Oh, Legolas, if you could see your face..." She wiped water from the corner of one eye. "I wish I had been there when Master Elrond told you you must walk to Mordor in company with a Dwarf!"

"You like the Stunted Ones no more than I do!" he protested. "Grim and discourteous, you called them!"

"True, I did," she agreed, her cheeks reddening a little as though she were too warm, "but with hindsight I came too quickly to the judgement. Gimli is warm-hearted enough, once he has a little time to unbend. A few weeks on the road, given the benefit of the doubt, and you may be better friends than you think..."

"All things are possible, I suppose," he admitted, disliking the ill grace he could not keep from his voice. "At any rate, we shall find out soon enough how well Elf and Dwarf may rub along together; poor Erestor will be hard put to it for the next few days calling for food and clothing and baggage for nine. Wind and weather willing, mellonen, we leave Imladris before the week is out."

"Rivendell will be a much duller place with fewer Hobbits in it," said Rowanna ruefully. "We... I shall miss you. All of you. Yes," as he raised an eyebrow at her, "even Gimli!" and he found he had to laugh, as they emerged from the woods towards the House.

~~~



Author's Note:

According to Unfinished Tales Mirkwood was known both as Taur-nu-fuin (a more or less literal translation, "forest under night"), and as Taur e-Ndaedelos, the Forest of Great Fear [footnote 14 to Disaster of the Gladden Fields].


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