The army of Gondor marched for three days more before making their final camp before the Black Gates of Mordor. It was a strange time for Alathiel. By day, Legolas rode beside her. He made no mention of their kiss and did not attempt it again, but often she could feel the heat of his eyes upon her. He was a merry companion and almost she could imagine that they rode together on a pleasant outing through Ithilien, rather than to a terrible battle. As they rode, he told her stories of his home in far Mirkwood and sang her the songs of his people. He also drew from her stories of her own childhood and people, for stories of humans and their ways fascinated him.
By night she treated soldiers in her surgery. As they rode further towards Mordor and encountered more enemies, these became greater in number. She often fell into bed exhausted well into the night. Once more, as in Minas Tirith, Legolas was her strength. More a warrior than a healer, still he had some knowledge of elvish medicine and his steady, comforting hands were beyond value. The dwarf, Gimli, sometimes joined them and although he had no skill at medicine, he was of great help in keeping the spirits of the soldiers high with tales and jests.
Finally, the last morning dawned. The company had camped on the Morannon, a desolate, reeking plain of rubble and sand where nothing lived. Alathiel rose and armed herself once again, for she had put aside the garb of a soldier while they rode. Her hands trembled as she fastened the stiffened leather strap of her helm, but she resolved to be firm and impassive no matter what came to pass. A boy brought her horse around and helped her mount the great beast, one of Boromir's favorites.
"Would you fancy a race, my lady?" Boromir cantered up to Alathiel on his black destrier. She rode a demure dappled palfrey, not being an experienced rider. He had taken much trouble since her arrival in Minas Tirith to teach her to ride.
"Certainly not, my lord. That great beast of yours would have me choking on dust all the day long," Alathiel scoffed playfully.
"Well, then, perhaps you would fancy riding before me for awhile? Then we could go as fast as we wished, with no dust to trouble my sweet lady wife," he offered. "Come, love," he coaxed as she looked unsure. "I ride away tomorrow and who knows when I shall return." He motioned for a stable boy to help her dismount the palfrey.
When she was settled before him, he wondered how far he would be able to go before flinging her to the ground and having his way with her. She was nestled most intimately against him, a sweet armful indeed. He urged the horse to a gallop and then to an all out run across the fields towards the river. She shrieked with delight and urged him to go faster still. Much had she changed in the brief time since their marriage. It seemed to agree well with her.
Finally, he reined the stallion to a stop beside the river at a place he had favored since boyhood. A half-circle of willows spread their lacy curtains around a grassy hollow on the riverbank creating a private enclave most suitable for a boy's fortress or a lover's tryst. He drew Alathiel into its shade, kissing her sweetly in unspoken invitation.
"Ah, now I know what sort of ride my lord fancies," she laughed huskily, drawing him down upon the grass.
He willed himself to be gentle as he kissed her face and throat. He knew that he was not the most delicate of lovers and always he worried that he would hurt her unknowing. But the taste of her, her scent, the feel of her slender body intoxicated him and drove him to a passion he never seemed able to control. But not a word of complaint did he ever hear from his lady. Indeed, she seemed to relish his enthusiasm and responded to even the roughest caress most eagerly.
Afterwards, as they lay in each other's arms in the shadow of the great willows, he spoke to her of something that had lain heavily on his heart. "Sweetheart, I love you, you know that don't you?"
She chuckled, "Well I know it my lord, most especially at moments like these."
"I have something serious to say to you, love." She stopped laughing instantly and looked into his great gray eyes fearfully. "No, it is nothing that presses right now. It is only that I ride on a dangerous errand. It could be that I might not return."
"No, my love, please don't speak of this. I beg you," she laid her hand on his lips to silence him.
He removed it gently, kissing her palm. "I must. There could be a son born of our union, Alathiel. He would be my heir, and heir to the Stewardship. I would have him properly trained and raised by a good man. Promise me that if I fall on this quest, you will seek out the Prince of Dol Amroth, for I have spoken to him and he has promised to care for you, and any child you should bear."
"So you would pass me like chattel into the arms of another?" Her gray eyes flashed angrily. Never had he seen her lose her temper before this. "Let me tell you this, my lord: I will never lie with anyone but you. I will never live with anyone but you. I will never love anyone but you. So you had better not be slain on this quest, or I will be forced to kill you myself."
"Well, since you put it that way, I suppose I shall have to return and see to raising our child myself."
But there was to be no child. Alathiel discovered this almost as soon as Boromir had ridden away. There would never be a child. There would be no need for the Prince of Dol Amroth to take her under his wing. She would live out her days alone, working in the Houses of Healing, and that would be enough. But as she rode in search of Aragorn, her mind went again and again to Legolas' kiss and she couldn't help but wonder if it really would.
In the dim light before dawn, Aragorn called all his commanders together to give them their last instructions. It was a mighty council indeed. The Prince of Dol Amroth was there, gray-eyed and fair beyond the measure of men. So too were the sons of Elrond present, Elladan and Elrohir, as alike as two leaves from the same mallorn tree. …omer, the horse-king, stood by Aragon's side, proud and bold in his golden armor. Legolas and Gimli stood side-by-side as usual, fair and homely, sunlight and shadow, yet in the end the fastest of friends. Peregrine, the halfling, stood with his friends, for once unwilling to lighten the mood with a jest. Gandalf stood beside Shadowfax--younger-seeming since his battle with the shadow, but with ageless wisdom in his eyes.
Standing beside Hasufel with Anduril shining in his hand, Aragorn gave the orders. "My lords...my friends, you know what we try to achieve here. The odds are very great against us, but it is all that is left to us. We must use what strategy we may to draw out the battle long enough for Frodo to succeed. …omer, Gimli, Legolas, you will be with me on the left. Prince Imrahil, Peregrine, Elladan, Elrohir, on my right."
"And me, my lord?" asked a quiet voice. Alathiel rode up to Aragorn and dismounted, saluting him formally. Aragorn saw that Legolas' eyes were locked on the girl, full of pain and passion. It was enough to make his decision simple.
"Alathiel, your surgery will be behind the lines on my side of the field. All units have instructions that they are to run those most seriously wounded to you. Legolas and Gimli are all the guard I can spare. I cannot promise that you will not have to fight, should it come to it."
"I am ready, my lord," she responded, but her eyes were caught in the dark gaze of the elf. "And I am thankful that you have seen fit to see me so well guarded."
"Very well then. My lords, my lady, good fortune to you. May we all meet again under better circumstances."
Alathiel worked quickly to set up the surgical tent before the main battle would be joined. She snapped out orders to the few warriors who were under her command. These had been chosen for their knowledge of field medicine and would rove the battlefield offering treatment and bringing the most seriously wounded to the surgery. With brief words of thanks she sent them to their duties when all was in order.
Then it seemed to her that she had made a mistake, for she had nothing left to do but sit and wait. She was so far back from the front lines that she could hear no sounds of battle at all. For many long minutes she sat, tense and waiting. All she could hear was some faint shouting, far distant. Then, all at once, the sounds of fierce battle rang in her ears, like waves crashing on the shore of an angry sea.
She jumped up and paced the perimeter of the tent, knowing that within moments she would be overwhelmed with injured and dying men. Nervously, she sat back down, wanting to conserve her strength. For long minutes, no one came into the tent. Then at last, the flaps parted. But it was not a wounded solider who entered.
Legolas came into the tent with an expression on his face that she had never seen before and did not recognize. He came straight to where she sat and knelt before her, laying his fair head in her lap. She knew then that the expression was hopelessness. "So this is how it ends," she whispered.
He did not speak, drawing her down from her chair onto her knees before him. He wrapped his strong arms around her and pressed his lips to hers in a fierce, demanding kiss. His long fingers tangled in her hair, pulling her closer to him, holding her to his heart. She realized that he was murmuring under his breath.
"Melethen." He kissed her again and again. "My love, before the end of all things I must tell you. I love you, cuanen. Whether it be right or wrong, I love you." He gently laid her down on the ground and lay beside her, murmuring elvish endearments. One hand stroked her hair and the other crept towards his knife and she knew instantly what he had come to do.
Tears streaked Alathiel's face as she clung to him. In a shining moment of clarity, she knew that she could have loved the elf and she wept for the chance denied. Her hands tore frantically at his clothes and she whispered brokenly, "Let us be joined in death as we could not be in life, fair one. Forgive me. Oh, please forgive me that I did not see it sooner."
"Hush, melethen...hush. Do not speak of forgiveness. You shall have your wish, tithen cuanen, in token of everything I would have given you, if we had but lived in brighter times." Gently, he adjusted his clothing, then hers so that he could consummate their doomed union. "Forgive me, my love, for acting in such haste. There is little time left. Oh, how different this should have been..."
She laid her fingers over his lips. "Do not speak of it. Love me, for whatever time is left to us." Then she gasped, feeling the hard length of him suddenly within her. The elven knife pricked her throat and she knew then that her death would follow instantly upon her release and his would be but a breath behind. As she spiraled closer and closer to the height of passion, she felt his tears upon her face and heard his hoarse cries of pleasure and sorrow. In one more moment, they would cease to exist. "Oh," she cried softly. "Oh, how I could have loved you."
And then she heard it...
"The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!"
melethen = my love
cuanen = my dove
tithen cuanen = my little dove