Summary: Gandalf and Pippin have left for Minas Tirith, King Théoden is preparing to gather all strength of Rohan and offer Gondor his aid, and Aragorn is about to decide what path he should take himself. At the same time, Legolas debates his own path, and where it will take him.
Disclaimer: I do not own any recognizable characters, places, or events. All text in italics is copied from the book (some words, phrases and sentences are omitted).
Gandalf had left, taking Pippin with him. Merry stood and listened until the sound of Shadowfax's hoofs, tapping on the hard ground, faded away into the dark night. At last he turned back and returned to his friends, his heart heavy. Aragorn patted Hasufel's neck and looked up as the Hobbit approached. Legolas stood nearby with Arod, and Gimli was next to him, eyeing the horse with a small amount of distrust. On accord the four lifted their gazes and their eyes met.
Only four of the Nine remained. They had lost Boromir to the cruel arrows, Frodo and Sam had chosen their own path, and now Gandalf and Pippin were gone. They were all that was left of the Company, but would they stay together much longer, or would their roads separate? Grey, blue, and brown eyes sparkled with the same wish. They wanted to stay together. Until the end of this War, and beyond. But would fate be so kind?
"So four of the Company still remain," said Aragorn. "We will ride on together. But we shall not go alone, as I thought. The king is now determined to set out at once. Since the coming of the winged shadow, he desires to return to the hills under cover of night. And there, I think, he will hear tidings of war, and the Riders of Rohan will go down to Minas Tirith. But for myself, and any that will go with me . . ."
"I for one!" cried Legolas, as if on instinct. He did not need to hear what Aragorn was planning to do, or what road he meant to take. Whatever it was, he would follow. He had made this decision long ago and had sworn an oath to himself, which he did not mean to break. Yes, he would follow Aragorn to Mordor and beyond if need be.
"And Gimli with him!" said the Dwarf. Legolas smiled. Only a few months ago he would have laughed at anyone who claimed that one day that he would be glad to travel in the company of a Dwarf. But now, as it was, he could not imagine the journey without his shorter friend.
Aragorn's heart felt lighter at those words. As long as the Three Hunters were together, they could face anything... or so he hoped. Still, the days were short and the decisive hour was coming fast. They would have to face it, whether they were together or not. "Well, for myself," he continued, "it is dark before me. I must go down also to Minas Tirith, but I do not yet see the road. An hour long prepared approaches."
"Don't leave me behind!" said Merry, and Aragorn felt his heart clench painfully at the thought of the brave Hobbit. If he was to decide, they would all stay together, but what if the path he was about to take was not meant for Hobbits? But, then again, would it be meant of Dwarves or for Elves, or for Men for that matter?
It was too early to consider their options yet for the path ahead was still dark and unclear. Aragorn mounted Hasufel and pulled Merry in front of him. Twenty-four horses set forth, and twenty-six riders – Merry shared a horse with Aragorn and Gimli with Legolas. The company rode swiftly and in silence, only a blur of movement in the darkness of the night. They had not yet reached the Fords of Isen when the sound of a galloping horse made them stop. The messenger approached King Théoden.
"My lord," he said, "there are horsemen behind us. They are overtaking us, riding hard."
The Riders halted and dismounted swiftly. Each held a sword or a spear in hand and held their breath in anticipation. They were only twenty-six against... how many? If Saruman had decided to strike again now, while the king had not summoned all forces yet, the odds were against them.
Fortunately, the king's time had not yet come for the Riders were no enemies. They were Rangers of the North, led by Halbarad Dúnadan, who have come in search for Aragorn, their Chieftain. King Théoden was overjoyed to have the Dúnedain by their side and all Riders continued on together.
"Did you notice, Gimli?" Legolas whispered, turning back on the horse so that his companion could hear him. "Not all of the newcomers are Dúnedain. Those two are the brothers Elladan and Elrohir, sons of Lord Elrond of Rivendell."
"I saw them in Rivendell," the Dwarf replied, looking at them in wonder. Two warriors, tall, dark-haired and grey-eyed. So much alike they were that he could not tell them apart. For a moment he wondered if Legolas could. "Yet the time was short and I could not talk to them."
"And you were not too keen on conversing with Elves back then," Legolas added with a knowing smile. "But come now!" He said before his friend could protest. "The brothers and I are old friends. I wish to speak to them!"
The Elf urged Arod faster so that they now rode closer to the Dúnedain, but slowed down as he heard that Elrohir and Aragorn were talking softly. It seemed as if their conversation was too dark and not meant for other's ears, but Legolas was too close already and could not help overhearing the words.
"I bring word to you from my father," The raven-haired Elf was saying, "The days are short. If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead."
The Paths of the Dead? Legolas frowned. He had heard the Rohirrim talk of those Paths with fear and awe. He did not fear the Dead, and yet the mention of that road filled his heart with a dark foreboding that he could not yet explain.
Why? Where had this strange fear, these dark doubts and hesitations come from? It was only a road, like any other. True, it was the realm of the shadows, but the ghosts of Men could not frighten him. Then what was wrong? Nothing. Yes, it was a road like any other, nothing more. It started at Dunharrow and went beneath the White Mountains to exit further south. And what then? Aragorn would have to reach Minas Tirith. So he would have to travel east, and then north. They would likely reach the River Anduin, perhaps at Pelargir, and if possible would travel by water to reach their destination more swiftly.
South. The River Anduin. And then all pieces of the riddle seemed to come together, to paint a picture so dark and sinister that it made Legolas gasp.
It was only now that the Lady's prophecy, which Gandalf had brought, started to mean something to him. The words were clear in his mind, as clear as they had been when he had heard them for the first time. And how could he forget them? It was a prophecy that spoke of a fate worse than death.
Legolas Greenleaf long under tree
In joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.
The forest was his life. Each tree brought him peace and joy… Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more. This was not something he could imagine or comprehend, and his heart filled with dread at the thought.
What could it mean? It was speaking of the Sea-longing, that much was clear. Once the longing was awoken in an Elven heart, the unfortunate soul could find no happiness and peace until he followed the call and sailed.
Yet, why would Lady Galadriel warn him of the Sea-longing? If it had not been awoken until that day, what could awake it now? The cry of the gulls on the shore, the Lady had said. But he was not about to be near any shore… or so he had thought.
Gimli and Aragorn had questioned him about the meaning of the message numerous times. He had been unable to give them the answers they sought, and the three had stayed for long hours debating what the warning could mean and how they could avoid the consequences. Legolas felt that his friends suspected he knew the answer but refused to share it. They were wrong. The Elf had no idea what the words could mean. Not until now at least.
Legolas shook his head with a soft sigh. Perhaps it was too early to worry. Perhaps even if they went through the Paths of the Dead, they would reach Minas Tirith by the old road and would not follow the river. Perhaps he would never hear the cry of the gulls. And then he remembered what the Lady's message to Aragorn had been.
Near is the hour when the Lost should come forth,
And the Grey Company ride from the North.
So far it had all come to pass. And then the prophecy went on,
But dark is the path appointed for thee:
The Dead watch the road that leads to the Sea.
This was the Paths of the Dead, no doubt. No other road would be watched by the Dead. So it was true then. The Paths indeed led to the Sea, and they would be his doom.
No, he could not follow that road! He had spoken hastily when he had said that he would follow Aragorn anywhere. Never, never had he thought that 'anywhere' could mean the Sea! Legolas feared neither Orcs nor Men, neither battle nor pain, but the Sea… the Sea was a danger that terrified him. He did not wish to hear the Call, he did not wish to leave! Middle-earth was his home; the trees, the birds, the stars – they all spoke to him. He needed to stay more, see more, feel more! And the Call… that Call would rob him of all the joy he could feel here, of all the love he held to those places. He would not hear the soft and comforting voices of the trees anymore, only the deafening roar of the Sea. He would not hear the beautiful songs of the birds anymore, only the screeches of the gulls! Legolas felt his chest tighten. No, he could not live like that!
But if he refused to go, then what was left for him? King Théoden was planning to gather an army and march to Minas Tirith. Perhaps he could join him and avoid going south? Or perhaps he could even ride to Minas Tirith by himself and not wait for the army? He would join Gandalf and Pippin and aid the White City in any way that he could.
Legolas clenched his fists angrily and felt his heartbeat accelerate. And what if Aragorn chose to follow the Paths of the Dead? Who knew what terror and peril awaited there! Would he let his friend go there alone? No, Legolas could not do that. And yet, he could not follow that road either.
The Elf felt warm tears sting his eyes and blinked to keep them from falling. 'Do not do this to me,' he thought desperately as he gazed at Aragorn's back. 'Do not force me to make this choice. Please.'
No, he would not do that. He would not share his fears with Aragorn. His friend had to choose the right path himself, and not be influenced by any doubts. Legolas patted Arod's back, which seemed to calm him. Perhaps it was too early to worry. Why would Aragorn choose the Paths of the Dead? What awaited him there?
The sound of Aragorn's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Always my days have seemed to me too short to achieve my desire," the Ranger said. "But great indeed will be my haste ere I take that road."
Legolas breathed a silent sigh of relief. Of course Aragorn would not choose that road. It made no sense. His fears were in vain. Or were they? And if it was so indeed, then why did the darkness in his heart remain?
"That will soon be seen," said Elrohir. "But let us speak no more of these things upon the open road!"
Yes, let us speak no more of this upon the open road, Legolas silently agreed. Let us not speak of it at all.
Gimli's grip around his friend's waist tightened. "Are you well, laddie?" He asked softly. "You seem tense."
"I am well, my friend," Legolas replied, gazing at the distance. The stars had grown paler and the darkness was fading, making way for the new dawn. "I am well." Yet, dark images still troubled his mind. Why did Lord Elrond send that message? Why were the Paths of the Dead mentioned in Galadriel's prophecy? What purpose could that road serve? Would Aragorn choose it? And, most important of all, what would he do if Aragorn chose that path? Would he ride to Minas Tirith by himself, would he join Théoden and the Rohirrim, or would he ride to his doom?
'I would not be forced to make such a decision,' the Elf kept thinking. 'Aragorn will not choose that road. He cannot.' He swallowed hard and let his eyes rest on the Man's back. 'Does he know?' He wondered. 'Did he remember the words of the Lady? Had he seen what I can see?' Legolas sighed. No, Aragorn did not know what choosing that path would mean to his Elven friend. He had too much on his mind, too many cares and troubles, too many choices to make. Choices, which could decide the fate of Middle-earth, but which had to be made by a single Man. Aragorn did not know that these choices would decide not only the fate of the world that they knew and loved, but the fate of one Elf as well. And Legolas was not about to tell him.
The company rode in silence until they reached the Hornburg, and everyone retired for a brief rest. Legolas woke up early. His mind could find no peace that night. The Elf walked out and breathed the fresh night air, and suddenly tensed as he heard heavy footsteps behind him. Then he quickly relaxed as he recognized who was coming.
"You are up early." A somewhat sleepy voice stated.
"I am always up early, Master Dwarf," Legolas replied in a deceptively cheerful voice. "Or have you forgotten that I can sleep twice as little as you do and still be faster and more alert on the next day."
"Faster?" Gimli snorted. "The last battle proved which of us was faster."
"You won by only a single Orc," the Elf said with a shrug. "Besides, the Orcs you killed were skinnier. Mine were stronger."
"Next time we should collect the bodies and weight them after the battle," Gimli suggested. "But you will not distract me with petty banter, Legolas. Tell me, what happened yesterday?"
The Elf took a sharp breath, but easily hid his discomfort under a mask of calm. "Yesterday? If I remember correctly, we met Halbarad and the Rangers. Is your Dwarven memory failing you already?"
Gimli frowned. "That I know already. Tell me what it is that I do not know. You know of what I speak." Legolas was silent and the Dwarf's frown deepened. "Tell me, my friend. Tell me, or I will have a talk with Aragorn."
Legolas raised his face, suddenly pale. "A talk about what?"
"About you, you fool!" The Dwarf said harshly. "I can see it, Legolas," he added in a softer voice. He sounded tired. "Something is troubling you. And I feel that I need to learn it now, or else it will be too late."
"You will not talk to Aragorn." The Elf said.
"I will not, if you talk to me now," Gimli replied. "But if I have to, I will. Perhaps the two of us together will do better in dragging this secret out of you."
"Have you any idea what he is facing as we speak!" Legolas hissed, eyes blazing. "Can you imagine what burden he carries? It is a burden that was not meant for any mortal, or an immortal even, and yet he has no choice but carry it. And now you want to add to it by making him worry about me!"
The Dwarf sighed wearily. "All I know is that Aragorn will sooner or later learn that something is wrong with you. I fear that he will see it too late and you will be beyond our help. And I know that this will not make his burden any lighter."
Legolas raised his gaze and looked at his Dwarven friend. His eyes were moist. "Do not tell Aragorn anything," he said. "Please. This is not about me, or him even. The fate of Middle-earth is at stake. If Aragorn knew what was troubling me, he could make a wrong choice which could decide the outcome of the War."
Gimli was at a loss. He leaned his back against the stone fence, shielding his eyes against the rising Sun. What did the fate of Middle-earth matter if his friend was in danger? He suppressed a bitter laugh. Had he ever thought that the life of an Elf would one day mean so much to him? "As you wish," he finally said. "I will not speak to Aragorn. But, tell me, my friend, will you not share your troubles with me?"
Legolas slowly shook his head. "You will not understand," he said softly.
"Perhaps you underestimate me," Gimli said, but there was no rebuke in his voice, only sad acceptance.
"Perhaps I do," Legolas said thoughtfully. "Yes, perhaps I do." His face suddenly brightened, or at least so it seemed to a casual observer. "But come now, Master Dwarf! The Sun is up already, and our Hobbit friend is still sleeping. He would not want to miss this day!" He rushed back towards the building, and Gimli had no choice but follow.
Legolas approached Merry, who was still sleeping as if he did not have a care in this world, and shook him gently. "Sun is high," he said. "All others are up and doing. Come, Master Sluggard, and look at this place while you may!"
Merry got up and yawned. His few hours' sleep had not been nearly enough; he was tired and rather dismal. "Where is Aragorn?" he asked.
"In a high chamber of the Burg," said Legolas. "He has neither rested nor slept, I think. He went thither some hours ago, saying that he must take thought, and only his kinsman, Halbarad, went with him; but some dark doubt or care sits on him."
Legolas did not wish to say more. He had a good idea why Aragorn had gone and what task the Man had taken upon himself. The Elf did not desire anything more than to be by his side and help him, but he knew that there was nothing he could do. This was a battle that Aragorn needed to fight and win alone. All Legolas could do was wait and hope that his friend's strength would be enough. It would be! It had to be, there was no other option, and he refused to think of any other possible outcomes. Still, this could not stop him from worrying, and he doubted that even his talk with Gimli and Merry could dispel his dark doubts.
The three companions stood together for a while, talking of home, of the future and where it would lead them, of friends lost and friendships gained, and of the light and hope that always remained to stand against the darkness. Hours passed and when time for the midday meal came, they walked back and entered the hall of the Burg.
King Théoden was there already, seated at the far end of the table. Éomer was at his right, but the seat on the king's left was empty and Théoden invited Merry to take it. Merry's face brightened and he gladly accepted the generous offer.
Legolas's eyes passed over the large table. This hardly looked like a feast fit for a king. The meals were hastily prepared, and the Elf wondered briefly if many of the royal cooks still lived after the massacre three nights ago. They had been no soldiers. Cooks and blacksmiths, bakers and tailors, boys and old men alike had each taken a sword and a shield and had turned into warriors for a night. How much more horror would this War bring?
No, Legolas was not surprised at the simple meals. There was no time for a feast; they had to finish quickly and ride hard, to battle, or to death perhaps. As for himself, probably to something worse.
The Elf closed his eyes and sighed. Aragorn was not at the table, and although this hardly surprised him, it did little to dissipate his worries. How had that horrifying battle of wills ended? Or was it still going on? And what would the consequences be? Standing up to the Eye was no small matter, and a Maia against mortal Man was hardly an even battle.
Legolas sat down and ate silently, the conversations drifting past him. Suddenly Éomer cleared his throat and as the Elf looked up, he noticed that the king's nephew's face was set in a grim expression. "It is near the hour that we set for our going, lord," Éomer said. "Shall I bid men sound the horns? But where is Aragorn? His place is empty and he has not eaten."
"We will make ready to ride," said Théoden; "but let word be sent to the Lord Aragorn that the hour is nigh."
"I shall go," Legolas said immediately. He was eager to find out if his guess what Aragorn had done was correct, and how that horror had ended. The Elf rose from his seat and quickly left the hall, aware that Gimli's gaze followed him closely.
As he walked down the dark corridor, he heard a clear voice call out his name and turned around. Elrohir – or was it Elladan? It was hard to tell in the dim light, but as the dark-haired Elf approached, Legolas saw that it was indeed the younger twin. "We need to talk to you, my friend," Elrohir said, and as he spoke his brother appeared from one of the rooms. Legolas frowned. Were they ambushing him? He desired to speak to his friends since their meeting, and had not had the chance to do so yet. Still, the current circumstances worried him.
"I have to find Aragorn," he said and realized that it sounded like an excuse to leave them. Did he need an excuse? And why did he fear talking to his friends?
"He is in a chamber on the upper floor," Elladan said. "We shall come with you and talk on the way."
Legolas felt some unfamiliar fear grip his heart. Surprised, he realized that he was feeling uncomfortable in the other Elves' presence. This was a strange feeling. The twins were his friends and never before had he felt the need to hide something from them. This time, however, it was different. He had a secret that he wished to keep and under the twins' piercing eyes he felt strangely exposed.
"As you wish," said Legolas briefly, trying to hide his unusual discomfort. "What is it that you wish to speak of?"
"You overheard my message to Estel," Elrohir said as they were climbing up the stairs. It was not a question.
Legolas felt a huge lump form in his throat. "I did," he said. He sounded composed and it was hard to tell what the message had meant for him.
"Do you know what might happen to you if you walk that road?" Elladan asked.
"I do," Legolas replied simply. The twins exchanged a glance.
"Does Estel know?" Elrohir asked softly.
The golden-haired Elf shook his head. "Unless he has guessed it himself, I believe no, he does not."
The brothers exchanged another glance. "Legolas, you must tell him," Elrohir said firmly. "He has to know."
"And what difference would this make?" Legolas snapped. "If he chooses another road, then it matters not. If he chooses the Paths of the Dead, then this is the road he is meant to take. Knowing what could happen to me will cause him further doubts. I would not have this."
"He would ask you to stay behind," Elladan said.
"And this is something I would never do," Legolas said. "Whether he knows it or not, what is meant to happen will happen. If I tell him, I will only add to his worries, and they are more than enough already. And where is he?" He added, looking around. They had reached the upper floor. "He looked into the Seeing Stone, did he not?"
There was a short, uncomfortable pause. "He might have," Elrohir finally said. "If he did, he told us nothing." Legolas frowned and his eyes met his friend's. Then he realized that the twins knew as much as he did – they had been told nothing, and yet in their hearts they already knew that Aragorn had used the palantír.
"Tell me something, my friend," Elladan said. "If you go with Estel, and you indeed hear the Call of the Sea, would you sail after this War is over?"
Legolas closed his eyes and held his breath. He knew what the Call was. And he knew that if he heard it, nothing would be the same again. He would not feel joy, he would not feel at peace, he would not feel at home. He would always feel that his place is somewhere else and he does not belong here. His love for Middle-earth, for his family and friends, for the trees and the flowers would be distorted by his pain. He wished to say no; no, he would not sail. Yet – did he know for sure? Could he imagine the pain that the longing would bring? "No," he said with more confidence than he felt. "No, I will not sail. I will stay."
Elladan sighed. "Do not do this to yourself, Legolas, I beg you. The pain of denying the Sea-longing is too strong to be borne for a long time."
"I have to go with Aragorn," Legolas said. His voice held a hard edge and his eyes were shining with steely fire. "Can you not understand? This is what the Fellowship was about. We started Nine against the powers of Mordor. What hope did we have? The bonds of friendship were our only strength, our only weapon that Sauron could neither possess not understand. If we break these bonds, then we have no hope left."
"Forget the beautiful words, Legolas," said Elrohir. "They will not help you face the pain that awaits you. Tell me the true reason, why do you wish to go?"
Legolas sighed tiredly. He lifted his hands and lightly massaged his temples. "I do not wish to go," he admitted. The confidence in his voice was gone and only fear and uncertainty were left. "I do not wish to go and hear the Call, and lose the happiness and home that I have in Middle-earth. But I cannot leave Aragorn walk the Paths of the Dead alone."
"He will not be alone," Elladan said. "Elrohir and I are going with him."
Legolas allowed a mischievous grin to spread across his face. "Well, my dear friend, this is hardly any comfort." He laughed at the twins' expressions and shrugged. "Perhaps we should not worry about this yet. We do not know for sure that Aragorn would choose this path. And why would he? I see no reason."
"Father spoke of that path," Elrohir said. "We cannot ignore his word. And from what I have been told, Galadriel speaks of it as well. Perhaps there is a reason to choose that road, but we cannot see it. Do as you wish, walk that path if you believe it is necessary. But you must tell Estel. We shall not tell him for we believe the choice is yours. But I beg you, my friend, listen to reason! He has to know what the road might do to you before you take it."
"I know what you want to tell me. You believe that if I hide this from him, he will never forgive me. And maybe you are right," Legolas said sadly. "Yet, this is something I can live with. But to add to his burden and perhaps cause him to make the wrong choice for my sake – this is something I cannot live with."
Elladan sadly shook his head. "You are wrong, Legolas. He will forgive you. In a minute or in a year, he will forgive you. What we meant to tell you is that he will never forgive himself. Is that something you can live with?"
"Forgive himself?" Legolas frowned in confusion. "What do you mean? He has done nothing wrong."
"He was raised in the House of Elrond," Elrohir said. "His knowledge of Elves exceeds that of any mortal. He knows what the Sea-longing is, how it can be awoken, and the pain it can cause. He has heard the same messages as you have, but he has failed to interpret them. He will lead you along the Paths of the Dead, unaware of the hurt it will cause you. And then, if we survive the War, he will be crowned king and all of his dreams will come to pass, while you will remain in Middle-earth, dwelling in darkness and heartache. This is something he can never forgive himself."
"Are you mad?" Legolas hissed. "How can you expect him to guess? Can you imagine what burden he carries? The hour he has waited for his whole life is drawing near, the outcome of the War rests in his hands, and if he takes one wrong step, it could mean the doom of Middle-earth! And you expect him to solve riddles and try to figure out what each possible road might bring to each member of our company! No one could do that!"
"I know, Legolas," Elrohir said, smiling sadly. "I know. But try telling him this. You say you do not wish to add to his cares, and yet, as soon as you hear the Call, he will know it. You might try to hide it, but he will know it soon enough. He will know it before the end of this War, and then the burden would only be heavier. Grief and guilt would be added to his troubles, and he will still have battles to face."
Legolas stopped walking and leaned against the stone wall. His eyes were closed, and his breathing was fast as if he was leading a silent battle with himself. "He needs me," he said softly.
"He does," Elladan agreed. "He will need you before this is over. He will need you to stand beside him after he had walked the Paths. This is when he will need your strength and support the most. Do you think that you will be able to give it if you have heard the Call?"
Legolas was silent. His fists clenched and unclenched, and then clenched again, his heart beating faster. Perhaps the twins were right. "What must I do?" He asked at length, and his voice sounded small and lost.
"Do not walk the Paths of the Dead," Elladan said. "Take your own way to Minas Tirith and meet him there. He will need you then."
Legolas was about to reply when the dark silhouette of a Man appeared at the far end of the hallway. He was tall and approached in fast and long strides.
"It is good to see you," Halbarad said and his eyes paused briefly on each of them in turn. There was relief in his voice. "Come. He is here."
The three Elves stood in front of a small wooden door. Legolas held the knob and turned it slightly. He did not knock. The door opened with an unpleasant screeching sound and Legolas's booted feet stepped soundlessly on the stony floor. The chamber was narrow and only a small rectangular window allowed some light to enter inside. The Elf needed a heartbeat to adjust to the darkness and his keen eyes quickly took in the scene.
Aragorn was sitting, or rather lying, on the floor, his head and upper back rested against the cold wall. The changes in the Man's appearance were frightening. There were new lines on his face, lines that Legolas had never seen before. His skin was deathly pale and had taken a sinister greyish hue. The face looked as if he had lost weight and there were dark circles under his eyes. His eyes were closed. If the palantír had been in the room, it was now hidden.
For a moment Legolas stood frozen still, but then the eyes opened. They looked tired and unfocused, but the Elf knew that his friend could see him. He walked forward and knelt in front of the Ranger, vaguely aware that someone behind him screamed 'Estel!', but whether it was Elladan or Elrohir, he could not tell. The ghost of a smile appeared on the Man's weary face.
"Legolas... I am well," he spoke softly, as if he could read his friend's thoughts. "I am... only tired. I need... to rest." He paused to take a few deep breaths. "I will be well... in a minute."
Aragorn reached forward and grasped the Elf's forearm in a strong grip, as if seeking support. It seemed as if he needed something to lean on, so that he would not fall down when he tried to rise. Aragorn, however, made no move to stand up. Yet, Legolas knew that his friend was indeed seeking support. But it was support of a different kind, and he tried to give it as much as he could.
"It is over," the Elf said softly. "I am here. Rest now, and you will tell me what happened later."
"I must... talk to the king," Aragorn said and pulled himself forward, so that he now rested against Legolas's shoulder instead of the cold and hard wall. His voice was barely above a whisper.
"You will," Legolas said. "You will talk to him later. Rest now. Gather your strength." The Elf smiled sadly. His errant was to tell Aragorn that it was time to go and the king wished to speak to him, and now he was advising his friend against it. But at that moment he did not care. The king would have to wait. Some things were more important.
He looked back and noticed that Elladan and Elrohir were still standing at the door, their pale faces contrasting sharply with the darkness of the corridor. Legolas could see their worry, but the twins knew that their foster brother had sustained wounds that only time would heal. "Elrohir, please bring me some water," the Mirkwood Elf said softly, and his friend left, happy to obey. Elrohir's mind was frozen, as if he had no will of his own, and it appeared that the Elf was hoping to hear a command, to hear someone tell him what to do. To tell him how to help his little brother.
Legolas helped the Man drink, slowly, sip by sip. Some colour seemed to have returned to Aragorn's face, but still he looked far from healthy. "Do you wish me to bring you something to eat, mellon nín?" He asked, but Aragorn shook his head.
"Later. I need to speak to the king first. I feel stronger already." He smiled. "Sometimes I wonder, Legolas, what would I do without you?"
The twins froze. The words were spoken lightly, but they feared that they might be enough to turn the tide in Legolas's soul. And they were right.
'I do not know,' Legolas thought. 'But today I swear this – if I can help it, you will never have the need to find out.'
Elladan and Elrohir gazed at their friend, taking in his determined expression. Then they looked at each other and sighed sadly. Legolas had made his decision.
A sound was heard from the corridor, and the twins turned around. Halbarad wanted to enter the room, and they moved aside to make way. The Ranger stopped in his tracks and looked at Aragorn critically. "You look better," he said, satisfied. "But this does not say much, I fear, as an hour ago you looked as if you have crawled out of your grave."
"And I feel better too," Aragorn said as he stood on his feet, supported by Legolas. "I believe I can walk by myself. Come, my friends, there will be time to rest, but it is not now. Now we have work to do."
"If you push yourself too far, you might not live to the time to rest," Legolas said sternly. Yet, he released him and the Man was able to walk unsupported. The three Elves and the two Rangers walked down the corridor, but before they reached the stairs, they were met by Gimli and Éomer.
"I am glad that we found you, Aragorn," Éomer said. "The hour draws near and we must depart soon."
"Yes," the Ranger agreed. "We must depart. But to where each of us will ride, we shall know soon enough."
Éomer frowned. Would they not ride together? "The king wishes to speak with you," he said.
"I wish to speak with him as well," Aragorn replied. "Come, let us go!"
Meanwhile, Théoden, Merry and the royal guards had passed down from the gate of the Burg and had joined the Riders. Some of them were already mounted. The king mounted his horse, Snowmane, and Merry sat beside him on his pony. Presently Éomer came out from the gate, and with him was Aragorn, and Halbarad, and two tall men, neither young nor old. So much alike were they, the sons of Elrond, that few could tell them apart. Behind them walked Legolas and Gimli. But Merry had eyes only for Aragorn, so startling was the change that he saw in him, as if in one night many years had fallen on his head. Grim was his face, grey-hued and weary.
"I am troubled in mind, lord," he said, standing by the king's horse. "I have heard strange words, and I see new perils far off. I have laboured long in thought, and now I fear that I must change my purpose. Tell me, Théoden, you ride now to Dunharrow, how long will it be ere you come there?"
"It is now a full hour past noon," said Éomer. "Before the night of the third day from now we should come to the Hold. The Moon will then be one night past his full, and the muster that the king commanded will be held the day after."
Aragorn was silent for a moment. "Three days," he murmured, "and the muster of Rohan will only be begun." He looked up, and it seemed that he had made some decision; his face was less troubled. "Then, by your leave, lord, I must take new counsel for myself and my kindred. We must ride our own road, and no longer in secret. For me the time of stealth has passed. I will ride east by the swiftest way, and I will take the Paths of the Dead."
Legolas realized that he had stopped breathing. The Paths of the Dead! It was decided then. Until now he had foolishly hoped that Aragorn would choose another road. He had heard the words of Elrond and Galadriel, but had chosen not to listen. And he had hoped that it would not happen, that he would not be forced to make such a choice. Yet, he had to make it now, and make it with the full knowledge of all consequences. Yes, he knew what was waiting for him if he passed through the Paths, and it was a sacrifice that he was willing to make for only one Man.
Did he have a choice? No, the choice was made long ago, and he had kept making and remaking it ever since. And never, not for a single moment, had he regretted his decision.
"The Paths of the Dead!" said Théoden, and trembled. "If there be in truth such paths, their gate is in Dunharrow; but no living man may pass it."
"That road I will take, nonetheless," said Aragorn.
"You will do as you will, my lord Aragorn," said Théoden. "It is your doom, maybe, to tread strange paths that others dare not. Farewell!"
"Farewell, lord!" said Aragorn. "Ride unto great renown! Farewell, Merry! I leave you in good hands. Legolas and Gimli will still hunt with me, I hope; but we shall not forget you."
Aragorn looked at the Hobbit, and his heart was heavy. No one had expected that Merry could do heroic deeds, and yet he had proven that he possessed a brave and a loyal heart and had faced the hardships of the road as well as any warrior. The parting grieved the Ranger; their Fellowship had separated too many times already. If only they could all walk together until the end! But it could not be. The Paths of the Dead were no place for a Hobbit. And if they were a place for Men, Elves, or Dwarves, they would know soon enough.
Théoden lifted his hand and cried, signalling to the Riders to follow. They rode over the Dike and then down, and then turned eastwards and slowly disappeared from view, taking Merry with them.
"A little people, but of great worth are the Shire-folk," said Halbarad. "Little do they know of our long labour for the safekeeping of their borders, and yet I grudge it not."
"And now our fates are woven together," said Aragorn. "And yet, alas! here we must part. Well, I must eat a little, and then we also must hasten away. Come, Legolas and Gimli! I must speak with you as I eat."
Together they went back into the Burg; yet for some time Aragorn sat silent at the table in the hall, and the others waited for him to speak. "Come!" said Legolas at last. "Speak and be comforted, and shake off the shadow! What has happened since we came back to this grim place in the grey morning?"
"A struggle somewhat grimmer for my part than the battle of the Hornburg," answered Aragorn. "I have looked in the Stone of Orthanc, my friends."
Legolas closed his eyes and held his breath. It was true then. He had suspected this, but now as Aragorn said it aloud and confirmed his suspicious, the true horror of what must have transpired hit him full force. Aragorn had faced Sauron! The thought was so dark that he did not wish to dwell on it, and yet he had to accept it and offer what support he could.
"You have looked in that accursed stone of wizardry!" exclaimed Gimli with fear and astonishment in his face. "Did you say aught to – him? Even Gandalf feared that encounter."
"You forget to whom you speak," said Aragorn sternly, and his eyes glinted. "Did I not openly proclaim my title before the doors of Edoras? What do you fear that I should say to him? Nay, Gimli," he said in a softer voice, and the grimness left his face, and he looked like one who has laboured in sleepless pain for many nights. "Nay, my friends, I am the lawful master of the Stone, and I had both the right and the strength to use it, or so I judged. The right cannot be doubted. The strength was enough – barely."
'Yes, barely,' Legolas thought grimly. 'That I can see.' He did not wish to imagine what would have happened had Aragorn's judgement been wrong and had the strength not been enough. No, he would not think of that now. It was over. Or was it over indeed? Would Sauron leave Isildur's heir alone, now that he had seen him?
Aragorn continued. "It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass. I spoke no word to him, and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure. And he beheld me. Yes, Master Gimli, he saw me, but in other guise than you see me here. If that will aid him, then I have done ill. But I do not think so. To know that I lived and walked the earth was a blow to his heart, I deem; for he knew it not till now. The eyes in Orthanc did not see through the armour of Théoden; but Sauron has not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil. Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and the Sword are revealed; for I showed the blade re-forged to him. He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him."
Legolas understood very well what Aragorn had done. He had revealed himself, so that Sauron would perceive him as the greatest threat to his power and the Eye would be focused only on him. Sauron would send his troops in a desperate war against mankind, and would forget to guard his own land. This would give Frodo a greater chance to go unnoticed.
Yet, as wise as this seemed, the Elf could not help thinking that now Sauron would focus all of his strength on one single purpose – destroy Isildur's Heir. And even though his mind told him that his friend had made the right choice and had done the only thing that would keep their hopes alive, his heart disagreed.
"But he wields great dominion, nonetheless," said Gimli; "and now he will strike more swiftly."
"The hasty stroke goes oft astray," said Aragorn. "We must press our Enemy, and no longer wait upon him for the move. See my friends, when I had mastered the Stone, I learned many things. A grave peril I saw coming unlooked-for upon Gondor from the South that will draw off great strength from the defence of Minas Tirith. If it is not countered swiftly, I deem that the City will be lost ere ten days be gone."
"Then lost it must be," said Gimli. "For what help is there to send thither, and how could it come there in time?"
"I have no help to send, therefore I must go myself," said Aragorn. "But there is only one way through the mountains that will bring me to the coastlands before all is lost. That is the Paths of the Dead."
The Paths of the Dead. Now it all made sense to Legolas. Until that point he had dared keep some hope that all had been a terrible mistake. As unlikely as it seemed that both Elrond and Galadriel would be wrong, he had kept hoping. Then Aragorn had told Théoden that he would walk the Paths of the Dead, and yet Legolas had allowed a grain of hope to remain in his heart. He hoped because he could see no meaning in this. Why would Aragorn choose that road for no reason? And now he saw that there was a reason. Only the Paths of the Dead would take them far south swiftly enough to counter the threat that Aragorn had seen in the palantír. There was no hope then. This was his friend's road, and if he wished to remain by the Ranger's side, it was his own road as well.
Then Aragorn told them of the words of Malbeth the Seer, who spoke about the oathbreakers and the heir of the one, to whom they had given their oath, who would one day come to summon them, driven by need. And then Legolas knew it for sure – yes, this was Aragorn's road. It was decided long ago and the choice did not belong to any of them.
"Dark ways doubtless", said Gimli, "but no darker than these staves are to me."
"If you would understand them better, then I bid you come with me," said Aragorn; "for that way I now shall take. But I do not go gladly; only need drives me. Therefore, only of your free will would I have you come, for you will find both toil and great fear, and maybe worse."
And maybe worse... Legolas tried to calm down his racing heart. Toil – he had suffered worse. Fear – he did not fear the ghosts of Men. And maybe worse – it was this 'worse' that he feared. Yes, it was indeed worse. Worse than anything he had suffered.
"I will go with you even on the Paths of the Dead, and to whatever end they may lead," said Gimli, and Legolas felt his heart fill with pride. Pride for his Dwarven friend, for he had overcome his fears and proven his loyalty, and pride for himself for he had overcome his doubts and false beliefs and had allowed such an expected, and yet true friendship, into his heart.
The road would be hard for Gimli. He would face dark fears, and Legolas doubted that the Dwarf knew what was in store for him. But even if he knew, the Elf was sure that he would not turn back. And what of himself?
Suddenly Legolas felt that he had delayed his answer for too long, and his friends' gazes were fixed on him in mixed surprise and worry.
"I also will come," he said, but felt how small and indecisive his voice sounded. His friends' gazes did not leave him, and he added, to reassure both them and himself, "for I do not fear the Dead." It was the truth, he did not fear the Dead. What he feared was much worse.
Aragorn looked at him for another long moment, and in his gaze there was something the Elf could not read. Finally, the Man nodded as if accepting his friend's words. He stood up. "Come!" he cried, and drew his sword, and it flashed in the twilit hall of the Burg. "To the Stone of Erech! I seek the Paths of the Dead. Come with me who will!"
Legolas and Gimli made no answer, but they rose and followed Aragorn from the hall. It had begun. They had made the first steps on that road already, and now there was no turning back. As Legolas walked across the green, his eyes met Elrohir's, but he swiftly looked away. The Three Hunters, the Dúnedain, and the sons of Elrond mounted their horses, and as the sound of Halbarad's horn echoed through Helm's Deep, they rode away, leaving the Rohirrim staring in amaze.
And while Théoden went by slow paths in the hills, the Grey Company passed swiftly over the plain, and on the next day in the afternoon they came to Edoras. There they halted for a brief rest for both horses and riders needed their strength for the hard road ahead.
The company gathered in the hall for a brief meal, but Legolas felt no need for food and did not join them. He walked into an empty chamber and easily jumped on the window sill. There he sat on the sill and let his long legs dangle outside. A small smile graces his face – many times had Aragorn begged him not to sit in this manner for it made him nervous, but now the Man was in the hall, so he was free to do as he pleased. A soft breeze caressed his face, and it smelled of horses and fresh grass. Legolas gazed outside in amazement. Edoras had a breathtaking location. The city was built on a small hill in the middle of a wide and flat plain, surrounded by magnificent mountains. And even though the plain was green, the highest peaks were sparkling white. For a moment the Elf wondered at the wisdom of building a city here, where the open plain offered no protection against enemies, which had made the Rohirrim seek refuge in Helm's Deep. Yes, the wisdom could be questioned, but the beauty could not.
Was this the last time he would sit like that, in peace and calm, enjoying the beauty around him? After they left Edoras, they would take dark roads and will not have the time to stop and enjoy the world around them. And after it was over, even if that terrible war was over and he was still alive, he would not enjoy the beauty of Middle-earth as he now did. Until now he had taken for granted the peace he felt among the trees and hills, flowers and butterflies, but now he realized that it was a blessed gift that he would soon lose.
Soft footsteps were heard behind him, but he did not turn around. "Legolas, how many times have I asked you not to sit like that?" A voice said in exasperation. "An Elf you may be, but my human heart cannot take views such as this one."
"I shall not fall," Legolas said, but still he turned back and jumped easily on the solid floor. "I did not expect you here. I thought you would be eating with the rest."
"Some things are more important than food," said Aragorn.
The Elf frowned. "Not when you are not fully recovered from the encounter with Sauron and there is a long and a hard road ahead of you."
"Still," the Man said firmly, "there are things more important than food."
Legolas nodded slowly. It was obvious that there was no use of arguing. "You wish to speak with me."
"I have wished to speak with you since yesterday, before we left Helm's Deep. Something has been troubling you since then. Or, I fear, it might have started earlier." Aragorn sighed regretfully. "I have been too preoccupied with other troubles of late and have failed to notice this. Forgive me."
Legolas was silent for a moment. "You had other cares, and you still do. There is no need to worry about me."
"If there is need to worry or not is for me to decide," the Ranger said. "Tell me, my friend, what is wrong?"
"It is nothing," the Elf replied with a shrug. "Or at least nothing you can do something about."
"So there is something that I cannot do anything about," Aragorn remarked. "Will you not tell me what it is? Perhaps you are right and I cannot help you, but speaking will make your heart lighter."
'And then it will make your heart heavier,' Legolas thought. 'Which, in turn, will make my own heart heavy too.' He took a deep breath. "There is nothing to speak of," he said aloud.
The Elf turned around and leapt on the window sill, sitting as he had done before. Aragorn sighed tiredly. "If you think you will make me leave because I will not bear watching you sit in that precarious position, you are wrong," he said.
"Stay then," the Elf murmured. "For whether you stay or go, there is a little difference. There is nothing I have to tell you."
Aragorn walked closer to the window, and the familiar sound of his soft footsteps calmed the Elf's racing heart. It brought a sense of normalcy into that world, which was now going completely wrong, and Legolas had to admit to himself that he did not want Aragorn to leave. A part of him even wanted to tell Aragorn everything, to speak and take off this burden and receive comfort. Yet, he could not do that to his friend. Aragorn would want him to turn back, and when he refused, he would start doubting his own road too. No, that would not do. The Man had to go along that hard road free of any doubt and determined that he had taken the only right path. He needed his will to be strong so that both he and the company could pass through that realm of shadow.
"My friend, I only want to help you," Aragorn said softly. "And if you keep quiet because you do not wish to worry me, you have chosen poorly. For you do make me worry now. A lot."
Legolas turned back, and there was regret in his eyes. "I am sorry," he said, "but I have nothing to tell you."
The Man closed his eyes and felt a wave of despair wash over him. Something was terribly wrong, and yet he could not place it. "Legolas," he said, and his voice was soft and uncertain, "are you sure that you wish to come with me?"
"Yes," the Elf replied, and this time the answer was quick and there was no doubt in his voice. "Yes, I wish to come with you." And it was the truth.
Aragorn looked at him for a longer time, as if trying to judge the truth in the answer. "Good," he said. "A long road is ahead of us, and we shall speak of this again once we reach the great river and the Corsairs are taken care of. Come then, my friend, I fear it is time to leave."
Legolas nodded, satisfied that the danger was gone for the time being. Yet, as he jumped down, he felt Aragorn's light touch on his shoulder. "I am here," the Man whispered, "and you can tell me anything, at any time. Never forget that."
The Elf felt treacherous tears prick at his eyes, and at that moment he wanted nothing more than simply rest his head against his friend's shoulder and tell him everything. Tell him how afraid he was and how he did not want to go to the shore, but how he did not want to part from him either. He wanted Aragorn to tell him what to do, to make the choice instead of him, for he had no strength to make it himself and face the consequences.
Still, Legolas knew that this was wrong. Aragorn had made much harder choices already, and he could spare his friend at least that. He knew that if he allowed the weakness to take hold of him now, he would always regret it.
And he was silent. Aragorn held his gaze for a while and turned back, exiting the door and disappearing into the dark corridor. Legolas fought against his urge to call him back, and instead hastened to catch up with the Man. The two walked side by side, but neither spoke.
As they entered the hall, the rest of the company had finished their meals and were ready to depart. The riders quickly mounted their steeds and set forth, reaching Dunharrow as darkness fell.
Lady Éowyn greeted them and was glad to see such mighty warriors and to hear news of the battle at Helm's Deep. But as soon as Aragorn spoke of their path, she was horrified and begged him to turn back and fight with her brother and uncle. Aragorn and his companions had expected this for the Paths of the Dead seemed to awaken deep fears in the hearts of Men.
After the meal everyone thanked the Lady for her care and retired to rest for the night. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli walked to the booth which was appointed to them, but as the Elf and the Dwarf walked in, Aragorn heard the Lady Éowyn call out his name, and remained outside to speak to her.
Legolas took off his boots and quickly changed into his night tunic and lay on the bed. He could clearly hear Aragorn and Éowyn talking, but did his best to tune out their conversation. It was not hard to notice that the talk was not meant for his ears, and yet his hearing was sharp and he could not help picking up words and phrases.
Éowyn wanted to join the Grey Company and walk the Paths of the Dead even thought she believed that nothing but death awaited her there. At first Legolas thought it was madness, but then he realized that she was not much different from him. For he also wanted to walk the Paths even though he knew for sure that a fate worse than death awaited him.
Aragorn was trying to dissuade her, and Legolas felt a strange pain in his heart. For the briefest moment he wished that his friend would try to dissuade him as well, would order him to stay back and give him no choice but obey. But the moment was quickly gone. He knew that staying behind would be a torture, and he could not bear the thought of Aragorn walking into that world of shadows without him.
Aragorn was now telling Éowyn that she had no errand in the south, and Legolas desperately pressed his palms against his ears, after making sure that Gimli was not looking at him. This was not meant for him to hear! Éowyn was baring her soul, and the Elf was certain that the proud lady did not wish him to witness any of this.
Yet, he still heard her next words, and they shook him deeply.
"Neither have those others who go with thee," Éowyn was saying. "They go only because they would not be parted from thee – because they love thee."
And then, for the first time, Legolas knew that Éowyn's pain was greater than his own. Yes, now he knew that if the Sea-longing was a fate worse than death, then there was a fate worse than the Sea-longing.
Éowyn wanted to go with Aragorn despite the dangers because her heart told her so. Yet, she was forbidden to go. And Legolas knew that if he had been forbidden to go with his friend, he would have been unable to bear it. The pain of being forced to stay behind, while knowing that his friend was facing the shadows alone, was worse than the pain any Sea-longing could cause.
Legolas's heart felt lighter than it had been in the past days. His choice was made, and now he knew that it was the only right one. He would go through the Paths of the Dead and meet his doom. Why? He smiled, remembering Éowyn's last words. The Lady had known him for such a short time, and yet she had already seen the true reason behind what he was doing.
Many paths have been decided in the past few days. Gandalf's path was to ride to Minas Tirith and warn the Steward. Théoden's path was to gather his men and aid Gondor. Aragorn's path was to reach the River Anduin and defeat the Corsairs. And his own path... His path was with Aragorn, wherever it would take him.
~*~ The End ~*~