A/N: I apologize for the very long delay. I haven't had much time for writing so the updates will be far and few in-between. Of course, I don't blame anyone for dropping this story in the meantime. It's totally understandable. There are so many other stories and tales to be read!
To those who have kept reading, I can only offer my sincerest thanks and gratitude for sticking with me this long. To those who have emailed me- though I haven't replied (yet), please believe me when I say that I do read your comments. I'm sending out good vibes to everyone out there.
Chapter 5: The Hall of Mirrors
"He's dreaming now," said Tweedledee:
"And what do you think he's dreaming about?" Alice said "Nobody can guess that."
"Why, about YOU!' Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly.
"And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?"
-Alice Through the Looking Glass
"Are you a hobbit?"
The hobbit jerked his head up, startled out of his thoughts. His blue eyes widened and the large book he had been reading nearly fell off of his lap. He grabbed the edges of the cover before it could fall to the ground and clutched the book to his chest.
"I… I'm sorry," Karalynn said, backing away from him. Her cheeks grew pink and she wrung her hands, flustered. "I… I didn't mean t-to scare…"
The hobbit looked at her for a moment and the alarm in his eyes faded away. He smiled and put the book beside him on the stone bench. He stood up and bowed slightly.
"There's no need to apologize," he said in a soft voice. He glanced back at the book and smiled sheepishly. "I lost myself in the book I was reading."
Karalynn grinned back in relief.
"I was taking a walk and I saw you reading," she said happily. She took a step towards him, her gray eyes shining. "That looks like such a thick book! When my mother reads to me at bedtime, I get so excited sometimes that I can't sleep until she finishes the entire story! Of course now she no longer reads me adventure stories with dragons and fights and scary things… at least not at bedtime. But those are my favorite kind."
The hobbit stared at her for a moment, confusion filling his face. His gaze traveled from her eyes to her ears, taking in her beauty, her height and her human ears. He studied her finely made elven dress and her intricately braided hair before looking back at her face.
Karalynn noticed his scrutiny of her and she blushed, her cheeks turning a deep pink with embarrassment. She looked down at the ground, at the bright green grass and poked at a small flower with the tip of her slipper. Her hands curled and uncurled against her skirt
"I'm so sorry for bothering you," she said in a soft voice. She kept her eyes on the ground as she turned away. "You can keep reading now."
"Wait," the hobbit said, holding out his hand to her. "Please, don't go."
Karalynn stopped walking. She glanced back at him, wary and shy. The hobbit smiled and gestured for her to come closer.
"My name is Frodo Baggins," he said. Karalynn took a step back and smiled slightly. "And, yes, I am a hobbit."
A look of awe flitted across her face and she clapped her hands together in joy.
"I've never met a hobbit before!" she said. "I've seen you and your friends at the dining hall during meals. Oh, you all seem like such a merry bunch. I've met a lot of elves and a few of the humans and dwarves but not a hobbit yet!"
Frodo smiled. He sat on the bench and Karalynn sat down next to him.
"Well, now you can say you've met a hobbit as well," Frodo said. "I've met some of the elves and humans but I can't yet say I've met you. Not until I know your name, of course."
"My name is Karalynn," she said, sitting up straight and holding out her hand for him to shake. Frodo shook her hand dutifully.
"I am very pleased to meet you, Frodo," she said. She looked at his face. "You have very nice blue eyes. Almost nicer than Legolas', I think. Legolas is my friend, you know. "
Her eyes darted to the book on the other side of Frodo and she pointed at it.
"Does that have scary things in it?" she asked. "What kind of story are you reading?"
The hobbit nodded, his smile growing at the expression on her face.
"It's an adventure story. It has dragons and spiders in it," he said, leaning in close to her and lowering his voice as if he were telling her a secret. "And it also has dwarves and elves and one very brave hobbit."
"Dwarves?" she said, wrinkling her nose. "My father wouldn't like to hear that story then. He doesn't like dwarves much. They seem nice enough though. Yesterday after supper, one of the dwarves let me braid his hair and I put a flower in his beard but Legolas grew quite cross and made me sit with him while the other elves sang. He wasn't mad at me- he said that he didn't want me making the dwarves pretty. It was rather fun braiding someone else's hair. Someone is always braiding my hair and I thought it would be nice to return the favor and…"
Karalynn stopped and looked at Frodo in surprise. He was clutching his stomach and laughing, and Karalynn laughed along with him though it was clear she wasn't sure what they were laughing about.
"Well now," Frodo said, after a moment. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and looked thoughtfully up at Karalynn. "That was a very nice thing for you to do. It takes a very kind and patient person to braid someone else's hair and decorate it with flowers. I'm sure your dwarf friend appreciated your efforts."
"He seemed happy enough," Karalynn said. She lowered her head and looked shyly at Frodo.
"Actually, to be honest I don't have many friends here. I have friends in Mirkwood, where I live, but here I only have Legolas and the twins and Mithowen and sometimes they seem so busy that I..."
She trailed off and her eyes grew misty and wistful. Frodo watched as she touched her ear absentmindedly. Her fingers brushed over the soft curve of her ear where the tip would have been had she been an elf. His face softened and look of understanding crept into his eyes. His hand pressed against the small bulge underneath his shirt and he winced a little though Karalynn did not notice.
"You must get very lonely at times," Frodo said softly.
Karalynn looked at him and nodded, putting her hand back down on her lap. Frodo reached out and put his hand over hers.
They sat quietly for a moment longer, listening to the birds chirping and the wind blowing through the trees. Voices chattered, laughed and sang within the stone halls of Rivendell but out in the courtyard, amidst the flowers, all was peaceful and calm. Finally Frodo stirred and Karalynn looked at him curiously, watching as he picked up the book, opened it and set it on his lap.
"Would you like me to read to you for awhile, Karalynn?" Frodo said. "I've just gotten to the part about the three trolls and…"
"Trolls!" Karalynn exclaimed. She scooted closer to Frodo and he tilted the book up so that she could see the page he was on. "You didn't say anything about trolls! Oh, please, do read to me! Tell me about the trolls. Are they wicked creatures like the spiders we have in Mirkwood?"
"Well, I haven't yet seen a Mirkwood spider so I can't say," Frodo said. "But the trolls in this story did very wicked things. I'd like to read to you about them."
He paused and looked up at her face again.
"Do you know how to read, Karalynn?" he asked.
Karalynn's cheeks turned pink again. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I'm afraid I'm too young to learn how to read just yet. It's too hard, I think. Maybe when I'm older… but not now."
Frodo smiled kindly at her. "Perhaps when you're older then," he said. "In the meantime, would you like to know how one very brave hobbit named Bilbo, and his friends got away from the trolls?"
Karalynn smiled and nodded excitedly. She leaned against his side to get a better look at the letters in the book. Frodo waited patiently while she made herself comfortable and then he began to read, his soft voice floating through the air as he told Karalynn the tale of Bilbo and the three trolls.
Neither of them noticed that they were being watched by a tall, slender elf who stood at the trees, some distance away.
Legolas was roused out of the memory by the sound of laughter coming through door.
He looked down at the map on his lap and then turned his head towards the window. The sun was up high in the sky but it was a dreary day, gray and overcast. He stared outside, watching the branches of the trees shiver in the wind.
It was not snowing yet but Legolas knew that it would soon start again.
He suddenly remembered the feel of snow against his face- not the welcoming flakes that had greeted him when he first came home but the bitter chips of ice that had tried to tear at his face and prick his eyes. Snow on the mountain.
Then his focus changed.
He saw his face, his faint reflection, in the glass.
He raised his hand and the map slid down to the floor, jostled by the movement. His eyes were stern and almost cold and his lips were pressed tightly together, forming a thin line.
He frowned and then forced himself to relax, softening his features and closing his eyes briefly.
When Legolas opened them again, he saw that instead of anger, there was a sadness to his face. He was looking at his own reflection but it was no longer familiar to him. He touched his face, running his fingers lightly over his sharp cheekbones.
He sat up and lowered his hand when someone walked through the door.
"Staring at your face, again, brother?" Lohr said, closing the door behind him. He grinned. "Is this what you have been doing the past week? Gazing in awe at your reflection?"
Legolas shook his head, smiling slightly and stood up. He picked up the map and set it on the table beside him.
He had been in the library for the past few days, secluded and surrounded by books, trying to find out all he could on Ithilien.
He glanced at the pile of books and maps and frowned slightly at the mess he had made. Despite spending hours pouring over them, Legolas had found himself unable to concentrate. His mind was filled with bits and pieces of moments, old memories and dreams, that had suddenly resurfaced.
While he traveled with Gimli, there was no time to dwell on the past. Each day brought a new adventure, new surroundings and possible dangers. Only at night did he allow himself the luxury of thinking of his home and his family. But now that he had returned, there was nothing to see but the past.
Everything he saw, every face he passed brought up a new memory and it made Legolas uneasy. He felt as if he were in a hall of mirrors- surrounded by images of himself that weren't really him anymore. Too much had changed and too much had remained the same. The only thing that seemed real now was Ithilien. He sought a refuge among the books and old papers, staring at words and faded lines that had not changed for centuries.
In a way, they were comforting.
She has not changed- she could not change.
Kythe and Faran are wrong.
"Legolas?" Lohr said, frowning suddenly.
Legolas looked up and realized that Lohr had been waiting for him to respond.
"My eyes were tired," he said. "I needed to look at something other than words on parchment."
"You are in need of some fresh air, brother," Lohr said. He walked to where Legolas was standing and looked down at the map Legolas had picked up. "It has been days since your last meal outside of this room. It is not healthy for an elf to keep himself separated so."
Legolas managed to smile. "Is that the healer's official word?" he asked.
Lohr did not smile back.
"Actually, it is," Lohr said. "There will be a storm sometime later this week, as you probably know. The air has grown colder and the sun's light grows dim. Take this opportunity to spend some time outside, Legolas, while the wind is still mild. Otherwise, it will may weeks before you can venture out again."
"I suppose you are right," Legolas said. He rubbed his eyes and sighed deeply. "I just feel as if I have so much to do before…"
"Yes, I understand," Lohr said. "But there is no hurry, Legolas. You need to put your mind and body at ease before setting off for another adventure. Ithilien can wait. These books can wait."
Legolas nodded. "I suppose you are right," he said. He winced. "I am repeating myself. I do need to clear my head."
Lohr smiled brightly. "Of course I am right," he said. "Now, I have things to attend to but I trust that you will take my advice to heart and venture out before the storm. The kingdom has not seen its prince for years- the hearts of many a maiden have not fluttered in decades."
Legolas felt his cheeks burn and he shook his head, trying not to smile.
"Lohr, you know I have no thought of…" he began but Lohr cut him off with a laugh.
"It was only a jest," Lohr said. He turned towards the door and then paused. "But I do believe that there are sights you will want to see. One sight in particular may be of interest to you."
"And that would be?" Legolas asked, raising one eyebrow.
Lohr smiled slightly and Legolas could not help but notice the gleam in his brother's eye.
"Ah, that would ruin the pleasure of discovery, Legolas," Lohr said as he walked out of the room.
A short while later, Legolas found himself inhaling the crisp, sweet air of the season. He walked slowly down the open hallway, admiring the sights before him.
Gaily dressed elves walked passed him, nodding and smiling in acknowledgment and he smiled back, his heart uplifted by their happy chatter. A group of elf maidens from the court blushed shyly and giggled behind their hands when he greeted them and Legolas held back a grin. Was this what Lohr meant by his strange comment?
Pretty maidens in pretty dresses?
He chuckled to himself and turned away from the group. It was true that beauty stirred his heart but Legolas had stopped dreaming of such things. He found no difference between admiring a rose and appreciating the grace of an elf maiden. There was only one he had set apart, only one who he had given his heart to and she was, at the moment, tucked away in her room.
Legolas made his way around a turn, glancing back over his shoulder at the sound of music. A group of elves had started up a song and dance and for a moment he considered joining them.
But suddenly, he heard voices ahead of him.
"Put your hood back on, young one. The air is far too cold for you."
"Yes, Mirien. But I feel so much better now and my cloak is so heavy. It isn't even snowing."
One voice in particular caught his attention.
His smile faded as he slowly turned around.
Everything around him seemed to fade away. The snow and the trees and the other elves disappeared and for a moment, his entire world was her.
Karalynn stood only a few yards away from the hall. She was looking at someone else and smiling. Her lips were moving but Legolas could not hear anything but his own heartbeat.
She looked well, far better than she had the last time he saw her. Her cheeks were flushed and she was not coughing.
In the light of day, there were differences about her that the shadows of her bedroom had hidden from his eyes.
For one, she seemed slimmer. Of course, that was most likely due to the fever. The sharpness of her cheeks gave emphasis to her eyes and the change that lay shimmering beneath the surface. Was it his imagination or did her eyes seem darker now? Had they always been so dark? Perhaps. But clear in Legolas' mind was the image of her bright eyes; a gray so light that they seemed to reflect whatever other colors were around.
Her dress was rose colored, made of satin and lined with silver brocade. A burgundy cloak of heavy velvet was thrown over her shoulders and the hood lay unused and deflated against her back. The snow reached up to her ankles, or rather, where her ankles would have been if not for the black elven boots she wore to keep her legs warm.
Against the stark whiteness of the land, Karalynn was a striking figure. Her rich black hair and her dress set her apart from everything else around her. Legolas exhaled a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. Something in his chest twisted as he stared at her. He loved her then, moreso than he could remember at that moment.
She was beautiful. There was no other word for her. She was no elf, hiding her laughter behind her hands. She was not surrounded by mist or mystery. She was full of life, so vibrant that she was nearly…
He took a step forward and then stopped.
What would he say to her?
What should I say? What can I say? What if Kythe was wrong and she is angry at me? What if she cries?
Legolas closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, he looked up at the overcast sky.
Legolas took a step back and looked away. He could not face her today. No. Not yet. He was not strong enough yet, not able to hold up under the weight of his doubts and worries. Maybe in a few days he would be able to…
His entire body seemed to grow cold at the sound of her voice.
He forced himself to look at her.
Karalynn's eyes were round with shock and her mouth opened and then closed. She shifted her body so that she was facing him and for a moment, they stared at each other, unable to look away. The world stood still, tense and waiting for the moment to pass.
Time stopped altogether.
And then suddenly it spun forward with a flurry of activity. Legolas took a deep breath to steady himself as she came stumbling awkwardly towards him. Karalynn threw herself against his body and then held on with a ferocity he could not imagine coming from a figure so slight.
"You're here! I can't believe you're here! Legolas, you're back!"
He wrapped his arms around her and his fingers dug into the fabric of her clothing until he could feel her body underneath. He pressed his face against the side of her neck- smelling, tasting, feeling her skin. His senses were enveloped in a bubble that consisted only of her; of Karalynn. It was overwhelming; it was horrible and yet wonderful at the same time. Here she was finally, in his arms. This was no dream, no illusion nor fancy of his. She was real. His Karalynn and his alone.
He could feel her fingers clutching at his hair, tugging on the ends and he laughed because it was such a familiar feeling. Her cheeks were cold when he leaned forward to pass his mouth over them but her lips were warm as he laid one chaste kiss there. He could have wept for joy at that moment for she felt just as she had years ago.
His eyes stung with the promise of tears but they quickly retreated when he realized that she was already crying.
"You came back just like you said you would," she sobbed, burying her face in his hair. "You kept your promise! I waited so long and Lohr and mother and father… we waited so long and you're here! You're here! I told them you'd be back. Any day, I said, any day now Legolas will be back and you're here!"
Her words ran together, without a pause for breath and Legolas laughed. She still spoke as he remembered- like a child afraid to be interrupted.
It was all so wonderfully and comfortingly familiar. Kythe had been wrong- Karalynn had not changed. Not at all.
"Yes, I am here now," he whispered. He pulled back and smiled at her tear-streaked face. "I was gone for too long a time."
She looked at him and in her eyes he could see a small flicker of hesitance. She had been afraid then, just as he had been. But now there was no need for diffidence or uncertainties. He had returned and now they would never be parted again. Of that he was sure.
"Cold," he said, laying one hand over her cheek. "Come, let us go inside and sit by the fire. You have been ill and it would not do to have you lingering out here."
"Why didn't you come back sooner?" she asked. Each word she spoke came out in a puff of smoke. Legolas suddenly remembered that they were not alone in the hallway and that everyone was watching them curiously. Karalynn's minder, a golden-haired maiden with sharp blue eyes, looked at Karalynn and then at Legolas, a look of wonder crossing her features.
He loosened his grasp on her but she clung to him.
"Where did you go after the Ring was destroyed? And for so long?" she pressed on. "I dreamed about you, Legolas. I dreamt you were back. Why didn't you come back sooner?"
Legolas glanced at the other elves, who looked away at his gaze.
He had many answers and yet none would move past his throat. Excuses, really- not answers. How could he explain to her that he could not bear to be away from her which was why he stayed away for so long? He left with the Fellowship for her but he stayed away because of her. How could he tell her that he needed time to gain courage to once again face the creature he so loved, yet so damaged?
It was impossible. And even if it were possible, he did not want to explain himself before prying eyes.
He forced himself to smile and lifted one hand to stroke her brow. She stared into his eyes and he could find no trace of accusation or anger in them. There was only joy and love in her face.
"I have had many adventures, my love," he said softly. "They would be best be told in the warmth of a fire, with a thick blanket wrapped tightly around us. Do you still enjoy tales of brave men and frightening creatures?"
Karalynn's face lit up and she beamed at him, her questions forgotten in the light of his promise of stories. She glanced back at Mirien who smiled back and nodded- after all, who was she to deny the prince his time with Karalynn?
"You must tell me everything, Legolas!" Karalynn said, turning back to him. " And perhaps we could stop by the kitchens and Siria could make us a few snacks? She makes the best honey cakes, Legolas, and…"
She grabbed his hand eagerly and led him back to the main court and he laughed, feeling all his worries and burdens drift away as if they weighed nothing.