Chapter Summary: Helm's Deep, March 3019 of the Third Age. Legolas has known a world without Aragorn, and he will know it again.
Leaves of Gold
Chapter 3 - Beside the Walls
By Lady E
How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn't touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn't resonate when your depths resound.
Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Love Song’
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
I have known a world without him, and I will know it again.
As sharp morning light cuts the night open and shadows in the Deep take on a dark red colour, he is living and breathing by my side. I should not sing of us, of this moment. The mortal and immortal kind have been separated at the beginning of all time, and that separation is to last beyond the end of days. But what else would I sing of in a world where the ground beneath us and time around us have been torn apart, where the stars in the sky are quivering and no new summer growth will follow the fading?
I have seen death before. I have seen it take warriors and hunters ferociously and without warning, I have seen it slowly wrap its cloak around those whose heart sorrow has gripped too tightly. But never before have I seen it pour heavily upon earth and flood in swallowing whirls that capture all living things in their maelstrom. And never before have I known how to feel fear for the inevitable, the finite. Death is a stranger among my people, it walks beside us and sometimes brings sorrow by taking someone away; but for us death is no unknown step into the dark, and not the last of steps. We have been granted a way back to life from the Halls of Mandos, and our eternity is as long as all times of Arda.
For Men death is different.
When the battle swarmed around us black, slick and glistening with rain, my eyes followed Aragorn among its ever-moving avalanches. The glow of thunder framed him against the dark sky. Tall and fearless he stood upon the wall, even as the enemy rushed in gusts towards him from all directions. And as flashes of lightning broke the landscape into a thousand sharp splinters, white light blazed around him, the sword struck and cut. His raw, bloodstained fingers squeezed the hilt, and even there, in the core of madness, I suddenly felt in myself the marks they had left. They had trailed my body insatiably and writhed on my skin oblivious of everything else.
I was not the same as before, and neither was he.
Every time I lost sight of Aragorn, my heart was strange and new in my chest. As I was guarding the gate of Hornburg on the stairs with no other weapon left than a single arrow, as I prompted him to run for safety, saw him turn towards me and stumble under the eyes of the enemy – I knew for the first time the urgency, the unrestrained, frantic haste of Ilúvatar's younger children as they rush through their lives. I could see death surging towards us, dark and foreign as night, terrible as day that reveals all: things done and undone and sadness born of them.
The corrupted and the cursed reached out for him. I had one chance to kill, and I killed so he would live. But it was not enough, one arrow against a thousand Orcs. I was but an insect caught in a web, beating its wings in vain. I had no power over his life and death before mightier forces. Only a boulder cast upon the enemy from the high wall saved him. Aragorn grasped my hand and I dragged him up the last steps, inside the stronghold. We cast ourselves at the door and it closed with a clang. We were breathing heavily and his chest was rising against mine. Our bodies were pressed together. Our eyes were locked together. Our hands were clasped together.
We were both alive, yet in the face of this battle we were both mortal.
At dawn the rescue finally came. The deadly forest of spears, swords, arrows and flashing flames withered away slowly, and another one sprang up to replace it. It stood ominous and silent before our eyes, emanating soundless menace and dark intentions long grown in cold shadows. This strange forest evoked restlessness in me. Just as I had been flung upon an unknown shore by the unpredictable winds of the world, so had this forest furtively grown its boles in a place they did not belong. The stems and branches only resembled those of my home from afar and on the surface, and the whispering of the leaves in the wind did not invite, but rejected and blamed. I wanted to ride into the bewildering halls of the trees and shout my defence at ears that refused to listen, to plead for understanding of ancient creatures whose hearts had in the course of time lost all but a fading trace of the sheen of the sun, the vastness of the skies and the echo of words spoken in secret.
I felt an invisible toil tighten around me and tried to shrug it away, but it lingered upon me relentlessly, gentle, yet unbreakable. I had knowingly walked into it in the golden twilight of Lothlórien, and there was no longer a way out. The Lady spins her webs out of light and wisdom, and therefore they hold stronger than any entrapments of the enemy. She weaves into them the strings of the heart that cannot be severed. Carefully she sets her words, not counselling one way or the other, and therefore they guide more clearly than any map.
My path had been drawn at my feet, and the way of it was to find, then lose.
When I saw birds above the forest grown out of nowhere, I recognised the Lady's warnings in the beats of their wings and expected to hear cries that would bestir sea-longing in me. For if a forest could move from its roots and come to a place that had been a home but for green grass, could not the sea climb along the earth far from its old shores and lure me to go with it, even if my task was not yet fulfilled? But the birds were black and grey and brown, and their voices told of nothing but wind and creatures crawling the earth below. Of water and light beyond the sea they did not sing, not of havens of no return, where the only open route was towards the sea.
I avoided the gaze of Aragorn, who was riding beside me only a few arm-lengths away, but my heart was relieved.
This morning the halls of the stronghold are burial chambers and sick rooms, where the fume of death lingers. Aragorn walks among the wounded, pale with exhaustion but his hands and eyes still steady, cleansing and tending injuries with herbs and bandages. He is coming from the kitchen quarters, carrying a cauldron of steaming water and a bundle of clean clothes. I see him lay the cauldron on the floor and sit on a long wooden bench beside the wall of the large room. He fumbles for something in the folds of his cloak and takes out his pipe. His fingers are slow and rigid as he begins to fill it. The pipe slips out of his hand and breaks in two on the stone floor.
Aragorn closes his eyes, sighs deeply and bends down to pick up the pieces of the pipe. He places them carefully in a leather sachet, which he hangs from his belt. When he raises his eyes, I am standing before him. I place my hand on his shoulder. He looks at me, his face stone-grey and serious, eyes still bright and alert. The lines on his skin seem deeper than the day before; they are light and discernible furrows under the dark dirt of the battle. Dribbled blood from a long, reddish scrape has dried in a brown stripe on his neck. I let one of my hands brush his face quickly and his gaze wanders restlessly in the room, marking if anyone has seen my gesture. The wounded are sleeping or wailing, the healthy are walking among them, bringing water, tending the wounds or talking in a soothing manner. No one pays attention to us, and Aragorn relaxes.
"Would you not grant yourself some rest?" I ask quietly.
"There is so much to do." He leans his arms onto his knees, resting his head in his hands and rubbing his temples. "I wish I had the gift of the Elf-kindred to sleep in waking."
"That gift is not needed now. By Gandalf's advice and the order of Théoden King I am here to take you to the chamber that has been prepared for the Three Hunters." I lower myself down, bringing my face to the level of his. "Your only task today is to take rest until afternoon comes and it is time to ride on once more."
A smile spills on Aragorn's face and brightens it for a moment through the weariness.
"I will always heed the advice of an old friend," he replies, "and I will bow to the King's orders inside the borders of his realm."
I pick up the cauldron and smell a faint savour of healing herbs arising from it. Aragorn follows me through corridors and stairways into a humble chamber of stone. Daylight is wedging onto the floor through the small window-hole veiled with thin fabric. There are three narrow alcoves in the stone walls where beds have been prepared. They are covered by thick, untouched bedding. Aragorn frowns.
"Is master Gimli not here? I thought I had sent him to sleep his wound better."
"He said he would rather rest in the sick room near the kitchen, where wine and bread are closer at hand."
Neither one of us says out loud what we are both thinking. Since we left the Golden Wood, we have been careful not to show the world anything but the bond of friendship that has long been evident between us. But while the words of the Dwarves in matters of the heart are few, spare and graceless as unpolished rock in the pits of the mountains, their eyes are keen for the truth. Even in the lurid dusk of their mines they can tell a precious metal from another, less worthy one. How faint light refracts from the surfaces of different crystals discloses to them all they need to understand of the quality of the stone. Who knows what revealed us to Gimli – perhaps one word or look sufficed, a hand that lingered on a shoulder for a moment longer than necessary. But he has seen what binds us together, and wants to step aside to give us this short moment hidden from others.
Friendship is not measured in words, but deeds.
Aragorn sits down on the edge of an alcove and takes off his boots. His movements are stiff, painful. He had ridded himself of the leather armour and heavy mail shirt forthwith after the battle, but even without them his back seems tender and sore. I suspect he has taken worse blows than he is willing to admit.
"Let me cleanse your wounds."
"They are but scratches," he replies. "Nothing that water and rest will not heal."
"Yet you have been avoiding the pitcher and the bed since the sunrise almost as skilfully as the arrows of the Orcs last night."
He glances at me, surprised. I smile and raise my eyebrow. The fine lines in the corners of his eyes fold into clusters and a low laughter visits his lips.
"After all these years Elves still amaze me. In a moment like this, should you not be singing sorrowful hymns of the souls that left the circles of the world last night, instead of jesting with me?"
I feel my smile diminish under his look.
"There is too much sorrow in the world these days. Joy should be found where it may, even in unexpected moments."
I lay the cauldron down, sit next to him and take one of the clothes he has brought. I dip it in the hot water and wring it. The cloth is made of a light-coloured, tight-woven fabric of Men I have not seen before. It feels coarse and strange in my fingers.
Aragorn takes off his leather cuffs and opens the laces of his tunic. I wait patiently as he pulls the garment over his shoulders, but I note he shudders as the fabric scratches his back. The pungent tang of sweat, salt and blood pours on my face from his bare upper body, so strong I can all but taste it. Behind their mixture I can feel his own scent surrounding me like a familiar landscape.
He turns his back on me and an uncomfortable knot tightens inside me as I see an enormous purple bruise that reaches from the edge of his left shoulder blade over the muscles far towards the right side. It looks like a strike of sword, only stopped from sinking into his fragile mortal body by the worn metal rings of the mail shirt, a mere thin layer of leather and fabric. Had the blade struck further up, his unprotected neck, he would not be here, but among the dead that were being carried away from the battlefield in the bone-pale morning light. Only one well-aimed stab, and blood would have escaped his veins, his emptying heart would have slowed down and finally given up beating. No one would touch him again, but to carry the body aside from the way of the living; he would be laid to a rest from which no morning could wake him. His body would crumble into earth, his spirit would travel far to unnamed lands, known to but One in place and purpose.
I remember his words in Mirkwood, the colour of his eyes in the translucent twilight of the dying night, the inevitable in his voice.
On some paths you cannot follow.
I do not let my hands tremble as I press the damp cloth carefully on his skin and begin to wipe away the traces of the battle. I let the cloth travel along his broad back, I touch his wounds, fresh blood-red cuts and puckered scars of old. I feel their embossments and engravings under my fingertips, writings that tell the story of his life. Aragorn quivers, when I brush the bruise. I dip the cloth in the water again and foment the dark spot, where the web of broken veins reaches out under the skin. His breathing sounds heavy and ragged. He changes his posture, turns towards me and closes his eyes.
I follow the lines on his brow and in the corners of his mouth as I cleanse the dark dirt off his face and neck. Slowly I let my hands wander downwards, over his bare chest, back to the shoulders and along his arms. Aragorn sighs, his fingers stir on the bed nearly unnoticeably. The glow in my groin thickens and radiates into my limbs. We have walked many long days and nights without privacy, without as much as a chance for quick, secret touches, the constraint of moving on having fenced our road. Every thought and wish has been left to prowl between us, ferocious and heavy. I lift his hand and place his fingers on my lips.
Aragorn opens his eyes, withdraws from me restlessly and looks at me.
"I latched the door behind me," I say quietly.
"Should somebody try to come in, they will wonder," he replies in a low voice.
I brush a stray lock of hair off his face. "They will think we wish to sleep off our weariness undisturbed."
We look at each other as we did in Lothlórien, and as we have since only looked when all other eyes are turned away.
The air stirs between us and then we are merging into one another, kissing fiercely, breathlessly. Desire sparkles in us and the flames of his hands are dancing on my skin, catching my hair, their white fire blazing all over my body, until I writhe and shrivel in their ring like a burning tree. I crush him to me tightly and he winces, whimpering painfully into my mouth. I realise I have pressed hard his wounds and bruises, the tender and sore spots of his body, broken from the battle.
"Did I hurt you?"
He smiles a nearly invisible smile.
"At least I know I am alive."
I let my forehead lean against his. I place my hand upon his heart and he places his on my chest. We listen to each other without saying anything: the beat of each other's hearts against our fingertips, the breathing that lives between us in waves cradling to and fro, the movements in the darkness of our bodies, the growing fire within each other.
Place your fingers upon my bones and I marvel at how the hollows of your hands fit in with the mounds of my face; place your lips upon my mouth and I am in awe of how everything finds its place, as if there had never been other hollows and mounds, other hands, other lips. As water flows over stone without altering its course and gives it a new shape, as leaves grow always the same, yet anew – we move as bodies in search of each other have always moved, yet unlike anyone else ever.
Aragorn's look is fixed upon my face as he kneels down on the stone floor, pushing the hem of my tunic up and opening my trousers. His hand lingers upon my hip, languid as an animal gathering its strength on a stone left hot by the sun. I intend to say something, but he frees me from inside the fabric and takes me in his mouth, sliding his tongue against my flesh.
My fingers tug at his hair as I thrust deep seeking a rhythm, and he is more than any words I know to speak, more than the flavour of metal and earth on my tongue, more than the fire in my loin and the scent I am breathing in. He is the skin around my flesh and bones, a rune branded into my heart with a white-hot iron that no time in the world will heal away. When my body has dissolved into dust, when the letters of my name have been weathered unrecognisable and the places where I have touched him have been swept off the face of the earth, it will still glow brightly.
Strength escapes me and I spend into his mouth. My whole body trembles as I collapse against him, my eyes closed. I pull him up to straddle my lap and he presses onto me.
"You cried out," he whispers into my neck.
I quiver and hold onto him too tight. Aragorn does not move, he merely holds me, the only familiar thing in this unfamiliar world of Men.
"Worry not," he says, and his hand curls up to rest in the hollow of my neck. "At least I know you are alive."
We lie down on the narrow bed, our bodies entwined, and I push my hand under the waistband of his trousers. His breathing ghosts on my face as he arches against me. His lips are moving on mine and his figure draws a luminous image of desire in the grave-like bleak dusk of the alcove.
"Legolas," he says, and I feel the word on my skin as clearly as I hear it. "Legolas."
Afterwards I wipe my hand with the cloth and settle next to him. We are two leaves shrivelled together on winter-crusted grass, where wind has thrown us: without shelter. The man-made walls around us are but a delusion. There are eyes that see through them, and there are forces that will make them waver and fall.
I keep the Lady's message hidden inside me, for it is not yet time for it to see daylight. I know Aragorn is carrying a secret of his own. A day may come when we mend the story for each other and bring together the halves, making the image complete. Or I may carry my own part alone through years to come, seeing colour dissolve from it like green withdraws from autumn leaves and watching it burn to ashes like a far-away home one has left behind and can never return.
Maybe days will crumble into the soil of earth everywhere, and there will be no years to come.
Light is climbing the cold walls of the room. We are lying in each other's arms exhausted and raw from the battle, inside this unmerciful time that has been torn apart around us. He is living and breathing by my side, and I should not sing of this moment. Wherever his path may lead, it winds away from me.
I have known a world without him, and I will know it again; but it will no longer be the same world.
(1) (...) for us death is no unknown step into the dark, and not the last of steps. We have been granted a way back to life from the Halls of Mandos, and our eternity is as long as all times of Arda.
Elves can die in battle or from grief. This is based on a passage from The Silmarillion: 'For the Elves die not till the world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief (and to both these seeming deaths they are subject); neither does age subdue their strength, unless one grow weary of ten thousand centuries; and dying they are gathered to the halls of Mandos in Valinor, whence they may in time return. But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world...' (The Silmarillion, ch.1: 'Of the Beginning of Days'.)
This passage also hints at the somewhat vague concept present in Tolkien's unfinished work that suggests Elves can be re-born and their spirit (fëa) may return to the world in a new bodily form after a time spent in the Halls of Waiting, a place in Valinor where a Vala known as Mandos summons the dead. The Valar are powerful spirits that helped shape Middle-earth and reside in the Undying Lands in the West.
For a further explanation on the concepts of Elven death and re-birth see 'Laws and Customs among the Eldar' and 'Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth' (both in Morgoth's Ring, History of Middle-earth vol. 10).
(2) Ilúvatar: The 'Lord of the World', creator of everything in Tolkien's mythology. Equivalent of 'God' in monotheistic religions. Also referred to as 'Eru' or 'the One'. 'Ilúvatar's younger children' refers to the mortal race of Men, as opposed to the immortal Elves, who came into the world before them.
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