The War of Light and Shadow
Disclaimer: I own nothing Tolkien created.
A/N: Thank you for all the reviews. Much appreciated.
Chapter 73 – All Turns To Darkness
Legolas forced his eyes open with effort. They felt too heavy and he too weak for something so strenuous he considered wearily but he persevered, refusing to be beaten by so small a task. It was quiet all around him. Peaceful almost. He felt relaxed. It was an odd feeling because he also felt like he should not be so. He felt like he should be lost in panic and grief. He felt as if all around him there should be the hustle and bustle of urgency. And yet, blissful silence filled him and soothed him.
The sunlight that filtered into the room was the typically unimpressive light struggling through thick, unnatural grey clouds but it still stung his sensitive eyes and he blinked against the unpleasantness of the glare. The bed he was laid on was soft and comfortable, unlike anything he had felt in years but even that felt as though it should not be. He should be laid on the cold ground covered in nothing but the thin blanket he shared with his Human charge. His limbs felt flaccid, all but useless after the recent exhausting strains of fighting. Each breath he took rattled painfully in his chest, the effort to force oxygen into his tortured lungs almost too great for him to bear.
It was quiet in the room, but not completely silent as he had first thought, he realised. Someone was breathing close to him, slow and deep as if in slumber. Turning his head carefully on the pillow, Legolas strained to see who it was. It might have been light but his vision was veiled as though the fog common on the Pelennor had leached through the sturdy white walls and into the room in which he now rested. He could have guessed who was with him though without ever having to look.
Aragorn was sat awkwardly on an upturned crate by the side of his bed, head bowed low, nearly touching his knees. He was breathing heavily, almost as if he was asleep. But Legolas could tell that he was not. His shoulders were hunched and tense, not relaxed as one who slept; he looked downtrodden.
Opening his mouth a little, Legolas tried to speak, to attract the attention of his ward, but his throat was too dry to form any words. Nothing would come out. So he laid still, letting the pain – both his own and Aragorn's – wash over him, hoping that soon he would acclimatise. He stared at the cracked ceiling, bathed in dull light, trying to distract himself by tracing with his eyes the tears in the ceiling and the spider webs that hung low, grey with dust and long neglected.
He knew now what was happening, remembered all that had happened to him out on the Pelennor. He remembered being cold, colder than ever before and feeling the hopelessness stripping away any promise for a future that might have existed in his mind prior to his encounter with the Witchking. He recalled, somewhere at the back of his mind, being carried away from the site of his failure in someone's arms, followed by terrible pain. He had wanted to cry out for the pain to stop but he had been trapped within his own mind until finally darkness had fallen. And then he had heard Aragorn's shameless pleas for him to return and he had felt so completely helpless, being supposedly aided by the healers but being unable to do as his ward begged. And then he was fully awake with Valon telling him with a mere glance that it would soon all end.
He remembered clearer than anything the touch of the Witchking and the unearthly pain of that encounter suddenly crashed over him again, making him cry out loud without even realising what he was doing. Even his vocalisation of this pain came out as little more than a strained groan; inadequate, he thought as he strained to rein in his agony.
Aragorn was instantly up at the slight sound, perfectly straight and alert and looking to his guardian, concern clouding his watery grey eyes. He looked ready to get up and run to find a healer to help but seemed torn between leaving to search for aid and staying to soothe his disturbed guardian.
Despair anew had washed over Aragorn as his thoughts were broken by the sound of his guardian waking. It was so very easy to convince himself that this was all a terrible nightmare sent to him by the Shadow to torment him when he closed his eyes. But when they were open and looking upon the one who was forced to suffer for his allegiance there was no denying the truth. This was not how it was supposed to be. He was never meant to be in this position. Watching his mentor die. He had never before seen Legolas look like this before and he would never get used to seeing it. His face was pale, lined with pain and exhaustion, pitted here and there with cuts sustained in battle. Bruises, stark against his sickly, white skin darkened his neck and face, all the more evident now that he had been cleaned up by the healers. He had also been bandaged and the coarse cloth covered almost all of his torso, concealing the hideous, fatal wound from sight. Great swathes of off-white material, already spotted with dark red blood that grew more evident with each passing hour. He was still bleeding, slowly but surely leaking more and more of his life blood. Soon there would not be enough left for him to survive. And there was absolutely nothing anyone could do about it. So they had patched him up and made him as comfortable as possible but it was not enough for Aragorn.
Never before had Aragorn felt so utterly and completely helpless. It was agony, sitting here doing nothing whilst his guardian suffered a slow and no doubt painful end. It was never meant to be this way. He was the king. It was he whom Sauron wanted more than any other. Legolas was nothing but collateral damage. In the wrong place at the wrong time and now suffering for a promise made many years ago.
"Legolas?" Aragorn tried again when his guardian did not reply.
After a moment, the pain that had swamped him ebbed again and Legolas relaxed, exhausted, back on the bed. The potent venom of the Wraiths still flowed through him, crept slowly through his veins on his polluted blood, draining his life force as much as the wounds seeking to steal away that very blood. He was besieged from all angles, growing steadily weaker with every laborious beat his heart undertook and he was just too weak to fight it. His own body was the weapon that was killing him. Ironic, he thought; all the strength he had lived on, the promise of absolution when the time was right, and it was all worth nothing now. His eyes closed on the world, blocking Aragorn from his sight for the time being. He needed strength to deal with the man that he didn't have yet.
Panicked, Aragorn's voice drifted over Legolas' haze of exhaustion. "I'm going to get a healer!"
The Elf's hand darted out to snag his ward's wrist, keeping him from leaving. The thought of being alone in this darkness was too much to bear right then. Aragorn paused, legs still bent ready to take off in search of Valon. How could he deny the wishes of his guardian when he was so gravely injured? So he slowly seated himself back down, prying Legolas' weak fingers from where they encircled his wrist to reposition them so that their hands were entwined. He recalled, many years ago, finding it strange when after a nightmare Legolas had embraced him. The contact had been unusual and somewhat uncomfortable, as though the Elf was a stranger to him. But now it felt so natural to have Legolas' hand wrapped in his own. It felt like…family.
Tears blurred his vision but he ruthlessly blinked them aside. Legolas might not be able to see them but surely if he could the he would admonish him for his foolishness. For long moments they sat in silence, Aragorn trying to compose his emotions before his guardian was made aware of them, and Legolas waiting for the effects of the poison to roll over him and grant him some momentary peace to face what must be done.
Finally, blue eyes opened again. Although bleary and unfocused, they immediately sought out Aragorn and a smile tugged at horribly pale lips.
"Aragorn," whispered the Elven prince, his voice so soft that it was only just audible.
"Are you with me now?" Such a ridiculous question but it was all the man could think of to say. His voice trembled tellingly and upon hearing it Legolas almost cracked another smile.
"I am here."
It should have been a comfort, those words that Legolas had spoken so many times before when the king doubted himself so greatly, those words that offered peace and strength all in one, but now Aragorn found no comfort in them and they possessed no sense of strength on the Elf's part. Perhaps it was because he feared that they were, for the first time in his life, false.
Clearing his throat so that he could at least make a decent attempt to sound strong, Aragorn asked, "Do you want some water?"
His stomach churned at the mere idea of having to ingest anything, but his throat was almost painfully dry, so Legolas nodded. The cool, stale water dribbled through his dry lips was perhaps the most delicious thing Legolas had ever tasted but he nevertheless restrained himself. He wanted to drain the entire canteen and then some but didn't particularly like the idea of bringing it all back up again if he splurged, so he restricted himself to small, delicate sips.
"Better?" Legolas nodded so Aragorn replaced the canteen and took up his post at the bedside again. "Do-Do you remember what happened?"
"Yes, I remember." In all too vivid detail, Legolas thought to himself. "The Nazgul came."
"Eowyn fought it. She killed it."
"Eowyn." The memory of the woman had been a little hazy but upon mention it came back into sharp focus. Yes, he recalled brave Eowyn throwing herself into the path of the Wraith, defending him. "Was she-? Is she…alive?"
"So far. Eomer sits with her. She is strong though. Valon thinks she has a chance of pulling through. Although he still cannot quite get around to what is causing this illness. She was mostly uninjured and yet she sickens."
Legolas heaved a sigh, and in the same instant regretted it as the fiery pain overcame him again. Once the flare-up had passed and his breathing had levelled out once again, he whispered, "The Black Breath."
"The Black Breath? What is that?"
"The Nazgul's greatest defence. Punishment for attempting to rid the world of them. Dark spells taught by the Witchking."
"You've heard of this?"
"Will she be all right? Eowyn?"
"I hope so."
It was hardly the confident answer that Aragorn had been hoping for but it was all Legolas could manage, that much was clear. His breathing had become laboured since waking and his face paler than ever. Just as Valon had said would happen. He was weakening. The thought was too much and just as quickly as it came, Aragorn mercilessly shoved it aside. Legolas was not going to die. So long as he clung to that assertion, everything could be well again. In his mind's eye, he saw Legolas as he had always been: strong, unyielding. Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood, had survived worse things than this during his long life. He would not be taken down by the Shadow. There was still so much for him to do at the side of the king.
"What of you?" asked the Elf breathlessly, startling Aragorn with the question. "Were you hurt?"
"No," Aragorn was quick to reassure. It brought him sadness and no small amount of guilt to say, "No, barely a scratch."
Hearing the mournful tone, Legolas at last opened his eyes and glanced sideways at his ward. "Why so sad when you say this? I am relieved beyond all words to hear it." His free hand came up and he laid it palm down against Aragorn's rough cheek, only to find his face wet with tears. His ward was crying for him. Yes, he knew the truth about his end, but until now he wasn't sure that Aragorn was truly aware of it. He sighed again, mindful of the pain and more carefully this time, and forced a smile. "It is all right, Aragorn."
"It's not all right!" snapped the man suddenly, although he made no attempt to remove his guardian's hand or to get away. "It's not. You-This should not have happened. Not like this."
Legolas chuckled humourlessly, a strange sound so strangled did it emerge from his chest. "Then what way would you have it?"
"I would have it not happen at all!"
"That was never an option. You know this."
Aragorn nodded, no longer able to hold back his tears and no longer caring what Legolas thought of him. Let the Elf think him weak. He was weak without his guardian, that could not be denied and he was tired of pretending that all was well. He choked on a cry and clutched at Legolas' hand tighter than ever, squeezing long fingers between his own. "I saw this," he cried, bowing his head with the weight of his grief. "I saw this happen to you." Legolas' brow wrinkled in confusion and he struggled to focus on what his charge was saying. "In a dream, I saw the Wraith take you away from me because of the choices I had made. I made this happen."
"I knew something like this would-I should never have ordered-"
"Stop!" Legolas commanded, sounding suddenly so very much like his old self that Aragorn obediently ceased speaking what had been at the forefront of his mind ever since he had realised that Legolas was missing out on the Plains. "I will not hear this. You could not have known this was going to happen and my undoing was not brought about by your hand. Do not torture yourself over what I caused to happen. It was my doing. I baited them. I failed to beat them. This is my failing. Not yours."
"Aragorn, no. You must not blame yourself, I will not allow it. I do not place any blame on you or on any other of our allies. You did the right thing in coming here. Your attack on Minas Tirith could not have been better planned and was, regardless of what was lost, a success. You have done what we set out to do. We are in Minas Tirith. You are King of Gondor now. This is a great triumph. Be glad for it."
"How can I when so much has been-? There are so many dead, killed because of my orders."
"Such is the burden of being King."
"Then I do not want it," the man snarled bitterly. "It's not worth it. For a title."
"You speak out of grief."
"Yes, I do! Because that is all that has come of this! How much better off are we now? So we have a city in our possession. So what? It is meaningless compared to what has been sacrificed."
Legolas shook his head against the pillow. "Do not say such things. If you do then you are dishonouring the memories of all the good men and women who died for your cause. Be proud of what they have done and do all that you can to make it a price worth paying."
"There is nothing now that could make it worth it."
"Yes, there is. One final thing." Aragorn's eyes met his guardian's for the very first time and he found them filled with pride and meaning. Slowly, the bleary blue gaze drifted downwards and paused at Aragorn's pocket. "You know of what I speak. Your greatest victory lies at hand. Complete it and make everything that has been lost worth it. If you do nothing, if you sit and wallow in your misery then it would all have been for nothing. And that I cannot abide."
Aragorn's hand moved down to where the golden band still rested in his pocket, so nearly stolen from him in battle. He realised that sitting here with Legolas he had forgotten all about the powerful object belonging to Sauron himself, the first time in a long time that he had been unaware of its thrumming presence against him. It was the representation of the purest Evil and it was what had driven him onwards, ever since it had nearly been taken from him by a clueless cannibalistic Wildman many years ago in his youth. If the Ring perished he knew, somehow, so would Sauron. The Dark Lord's potent magic ever oozed from the gold, at times threatening to corrupt him, at others promising to help him. He had never yet fallen into its trap though. He had ever been strengthened by the knowledge that it provided him with a power that the Dark Lord of Mordor feared above anything else.
Legolas detested the Ring. He had made that clear on the rare occasions that they had spoken of it. Its evil was like a living, breathing menace that drowned out the good in a person and smothered it in Darkness. Or perhaps, Aragorn idly mused, his guardian was simply afraid of it. Arathorn had known what he had carried but he had not feared it so. His father must have carried it with him for decades and Aragorn had been none the wiser. He had sought out the protection of the Rangers, had hidden away, avoided confrontation with the Shadow whenever possible, seeking to preserve the line of Kings and keep safe their greatest treasure.
And to Aragorn, what had he gifted? Legolas. How had his father thought that one Elf would be strong enough to bear this burden alongside him? He had gotten himself an entire shield of Rangers, he had the luxury of being idle, too afraid to do what he knew in his heart had to be done. He had hidden away, pathetic, waiting for another to take up the burden and do the right thing. Aragorn was angry at his father for this poor, cowardly decision. No matter how much he admired Legolas, he had always known that one person would not be enough. And Legolas had known it too. He had gone out of his way to surround them with people. First Kinnale and the Rangers, then the Rohirrim and the Men of Gondor with who Aragorn's destiny laid. He had even let Jecha and his questionable band into the fold even when he thought it was a bad idea to make allies of such unpredictable people. Legolas had spent years forging his own shield around them almost without Aragorn noticing what he was attempting. And it was a good shield, stronger than his father's had ever been. The Rangers were like brothers to him, as the Rangers of his youth had been like family.
But now it was all coming apart. The lines of defence were broken. His family had fallen to pieces. And now, he was losing the closest thing he had to a father. He could have used the Ring to help him. He was sure that he could master the magic if he poured all his concentration into it. He could heal Legolas. After all, the Ring was of the same magic as the Wraiths, wasn't it? If anything could bring his mentor back from the Shadow it was the One Ring.
But it was futile. Legolas would not suffer it. Aragorn knew that he would rather fall to darkness than be touched by the black magic of the Shadow. And who could blame him really? Legolas was convinced that the Ring was evil pure and could not be safely mastered by Man. Indeed, Aragorn thought that the Elf would slay him on the spot for even suggesting such a cure.
It was hopeless.
With this terrible reality in his mind, Aragorn laid down at the side of his guardian and cried. He knew he should be strong but he could not bear it any longer. He'd have given the Ring to Sauron now if it meant he could get Legolas back. But that was not an option. Not only could he not trust in the Shadow to make such a bargain and uphold it, but Legolas would never allow such a deal to take place in the first place. He would declare unequivocally that he would rather die a thousand deaths than be beholden to the Darkness and Aragorn knew that he would have been right.
How unfair life had been. He had been stripped of his mother before he was even old enough to know her and then his father had been taken from him. In the wake of his grief he had found himself with Legolas, his unwanted guardian. And the moment he had taken to trusting Legolas, he too was taken from him. How much more did he have to suffer? Was this really what it meant to be king? To rule over Men, did one have to be alone?
The day dragged onwards and Legolas spent most of it dozing. With no pain relief available, he focused his mind on ignoring the pain. Such meditation was vital to the survival of any warrior in Mirkwood and Legolas had had his fair share of practice over his years beneath the Great Forest's high canopies. It was a draining and for the most part fruitless task but it had to be done otherwise he might have lost his mind in the fog of his agony and that could not be allowed. He was not so weak as to lose himself entirely.
Aragorn remained at his side. Sometimes he cried, most of the time he sat silently, staring intently at his guardian as if every moment were the last he would look at him. Legolas said nothing of it, assuming that his ward needed the time to come to terms with what would soon come to pass. Who was he to deny the King of Gondor anything?
The poison of the Wraiths was still battling with his grievous injuries for supremacy. Which would kill him first? He could feel the war raging inside of him, ripping him apart. He didn't know which was worse. The agony of the open wound marring his torso or the deeply embedded spells of the Nazgul, burning his body and pressing his soul ever further down. Combined they were powerful and he knew that he could not beat them nor how long he could keep them at bay as he was currently doing. He would have known that he was failing even if Valon had not stated it to be so when first he had opened his eyes.
"Do you need anything?" Aragorn asked quietly after a long time in silence. The words broke Legolas' meditation and he startled a little on the bed at the sound. "Is there anything I can do?"
"No, Aragorn," the Elf mumbled, more tired than he ever remembered feeling. "There is nothing."
Nothing. Nothing at all he could do. Never before had the Son of Arathorn felt so utterly helpless. He just sat there, doing nothing, watching his guardian die. It was torturous. Every spasm of pain that wracked the Elf's slight frame sent a pang of pain and guilt rushing through him in turn. Legolas was keeping stoically under control by sheer force of will, Aragorn knew, and the effort it took was costing him greatly. Better warriors Aragorn had seen down in the healing halls crying out their agonies to the helpless healers in an attempt to make themselves feel better. But not Legolas. Never would Legolas be reduced to that. Legolas remained composed and silent as he ever was. And Aragorn wanted to tell him that it was all right to cry out if it would help ease his suffering even minutely but he did not know how to broach the subject and he feared that Legolas would laugh at him or just get upset at the suggestion so he held his tongue and simply watched in respectful silence as his guardian fought.
Valon came by at noon but did not linger with them long. He shot Aragorn a poignant look as he left, perhaps fearing that the end was coming. Aragorn stubbornly ignored him. With his determination cemented into his mind, his mantra of 'Legolas will be fine' was back in his head and he clung to it as tightly as he clung to the hand of his mentor.
Little more than an hour after the healer's departure, Legolas went to struggle up into a sitting position, gasping at the effort it took. Startled by the sudden and unexpected movement, Aragorn got to his feet, ready to run for help if needed.
"Legolas?" Seeing that his guardian's glazed eyes were fixed upon the cracked ceiling as though seeing something that his mortal eyes could not, Aragorn glanced upwards in concern and asked, "What is it? Legolas, what's wrong?" He feared that Legolas was beginning to hallucinate, such was the look of joy on his face. There was no joy to be found within this room so Aragorn knew it must be some evil.
Propped up on his elbows, Legolas craned his neck further. Then he sighed a deep sigh of pleasure and momentarily let his eyes drift closed. "Thank you," he whispered, seemingly to no one in particular.
"Legolas?" Aragorn was growing more concerned.
Slowly, Legolas opened his eyes and turned with a smile to look at his ward. "I never thought I would gaze upon them again," he said, still in a rather dreamy fashion. "What a great blessing that I have been proven wrong."
Thinking that perhaps he had missed something with the first glance, Aragorn looked upwards again but saw nothing but a plain white ceiling, slightly water-stained and cracked with age and neglect. He saw nothing that would incite the kind of wonder now openly displayed on Legolas' face.
"Gaze upon what?" the man asked softly, not wanting to break the bubble of wonder that Legolas was currently enjoying if it brought him some peace.
Legolas shot him a gaze that suggested that he thought the man must have gone quite mad and then sighed again and threw back his head as though basking. "The stars," he breathed deeply in relief. "Never after the blanketing of the skies by the Shadow did I think I would have a chance to look again upon their splendour."
"The stars?" This time, Aragorn's glance at the ceiling was unnecessary but he did it anyway, perhaps because he wished that he saw what Legolas was seeing. "We're indoors, Legolas. And it is daytime," he told his guardian gently.
The Elf frowned at this, as though not understanding the truth that was being told him. He squinted up at the ceiling, seeming to want to prove Aragorn wrong. He could not though for he was being told the truth. Sweat trickled down his temple and he went to wipe it away before he realised that he couldn't hold up his body with just one arm. Indeed, above him now he only saw the white stone from which the city was constructed. It crashed down on him, this truth that there was no peace, not even from above. Nothing had changed. The stars remained veiled to him and his chest ached with the realisation.
"I-I could have sworn-" he uttered somewhat forlornly to himself.
Aragorn reached out to him and aided him in lying back down. "It's all right. Just rest. You have to rest."
"Yes," the Elf sighed, shutting his eyes in exhaustion as his ward tucked the blankets around him to preserve the warmth. "Yes. Ah, Aragorn, to rest beneath the stars-What I wouldn't give. Just like in times gone by." He looked then to his ward, who was staring at him with a curious mix of sympathy and terrible fear. Forcing a smile in the hope that it might calm the man a little, Legolas laid his head back. "I am sorry that you have never had the joy of sleeping under the stars."
"So am I."
"There is nothing better. To watch those tiny specks of shimmering light adorning the heavens as you sit in good company on cool, fresh grass, comforted by the certain knowledge that no one can ever be alone in the presence of such ancient splendour. So often we used to pass the time in Mirkwood doing thusly and we rejoiced in the luxury and mourned for it when we were forced to reside beneath the thick canopies in protection of our home. I have told you before of this, yes?"
Legolas chuckled softly, considering himself remiss for overlooking such an important part of his ward's tuition. He had busied himself with the history of Men, what little of it he had bothered to learn, and of weapons' training and geography. All along he had missed a vital part that no self-respecting Elven tutor would ignore. Everyone should know of the stars and he found himself wondering why he had ever been reluctant to speak of pleasures past when they could have brought both him and the boy he had been charged with raising some modicum of peace.
"Their beauty was unsurpassed by anything else in this world, Aragorn. There was nothing more spectacular to behold. Even Men looked to the heavens and gave nightly thanks for their beauty. To bask in the starlight whilst whiling away the time-" He sighed again, remembering the good moments of his past, long since veiled by the shadow of deeds of a warrior cast into bloody exile. "How I wish you could see."
"Maybe I will one day."
"Hey," Aragorn grinned falsely, the action feeling so strained as to be positively hideous to behold, brutally shoving back the tears that stung his eyes and threatened to betray him, "don't lose faith in me now. One day, the world will be set right again and I will have all the chances you had to experience Arda for what it is. Is that not what you have always said?"
"Yes." Legolas smiled again, a more genuine smile than Aragorn could have hoped to conjure. Looking up into watery grey eyes, filled with such misery, he said, "There is a word in the language of the Elves, suits you very well indeed: 'Estel'."
"Oh? And what does Estel mean?"
Legolas thought upon it for a moment then smiled again, closed his eyes and murmured, "Hope. That is what you are. Estel. For so many people. And now, for me."
Aragorn didn't know what to say to this. Never had he been called anything other than 'Aragorn' by his guardian; Legolas had never adorned him with any affectionate title like his father had used: 'son', 'my dear boy'. The very best he got were sharp calls to attention. And yet all these years it seemed that had Legolas been harbouring a secret pet name for him. Estel. 'Hope'. Such a loving gesture Aragorn couldn't have learned of at a worse time. He was about to lose his guardian forever and only now was Legolas revealing himself and the depth of his parental affections towards him. It wasn't fair.
Realising that Legolas was looking at him, waiting for a reaction, Aragorn once again forced a smile, this one quivering pathetically, and said, "Estel. I like that."
"Good. My Estel." He drifted off then, only half asleep and even now very much aware that time was fast slipping away from him. He wanted to remain alert, to offer words of comfort and wisdom to his ward but he could not find the strength within himself to do so. Thwarted once again by his treacherous body. So he allowed his mind to fall away from him. He did not fear that darkness that waited to swallow him - he never had - but he regretted that he was drawn towards it. He regretted his decisions on the field of battle for it was his insistence on taking revenge upon the Mouth of Sauron for his previous taunting words that had wounded so deeply that had in the end drawn the Nazgul down on him and been his ruin. Ever had his tutors in Mirkwood cautioned that his pride would be his end. And so it was to be. Although, it was some small comfort to him that the cursed slaves of the Shadow had spent themselves chasing him rather than going after Aragorn. Had the king been struck down it would have been unbearable, far more so than his own demise.
Before falling asleep, he reminded himself of all the things he had to say to Aragorn, advice that he had been holding off on until he considered the man ready to hear it. Now he was out of time and he regretted having never addressed the important issues before. It had only been his own fear, after all, that had stayed him.
He prayed that he would yet have the opportunity to speak them.
"NO! No! No! How can this be?!"
All of Mordor was quiet it seemed, stunned into silence by defeat followed by terrible fear at their lord's reaction.
"How did this happen?" demanded the Dark Lord in an almost inhuman scream ripped from the throat of his Elven host. The eight silent figures before him remained unchanged. They would not be drawn into this anger for they grieved yet for their loss. Sauron had no time for grief. He had been defeated. What he could not understand was how.
"Speak!" he commanded them sharply.
They did not. They could not. They were incomplete. Their greatest fear – their only fear – had come true and they did not know what to do with themselves. After their leader had fallen, they had fled Gondor in terrible pain and come swiftly back to Mordor, the Dark Lands where they were safe from the evil of the Light. They had fallen to the feet of their lord and master, not to beg for forgiveness for that, they knew, would never be given, but to lick their wounds and regroup in the presence of something safe and unyielding as the darkness.
"Speak to me! Tell me what happened."
"We were vanquished in battle," spoke one Wraith. He was not the leader. They had no leader now. They were broken, disoriented by the change of order.
So plain but it was the truth. They had met their match on the Pelennor and they had not expected it. Such an unlikelihood could never have been anticipated. Gondor should have been easily taken back from the bold but foolish forces of Light and yet now, somehow, it stood in the hands of Men and they were no longer Nine.
Even more painful than his defeat over Gondor was that Sauron knew precisely where he had gone wrong, although he hated to admit it to himself. He had underestimated the king yet again; a foolish and unforgivable error on his part. He had not taken into account the man's friends; still his most powerful advantage in Sauron's mind. And he had not even once considered that Aragorn would look to the supernatural for help. How could he not have considered the Dead of Dunharrow? True, it had always been an outside chance, an alliance almost too unlikely to even entertain, but Aragorn had been guided to the Dead and Sauron had paid the price. Never in a hundred Ages would Sauron have thought that the Human traitors who had helped him, however indirectly through their cowardice, win his previous war would have been brave enough to stand up for that which they had once turned their backs on. That took courage and despite his fury at the failure of his latest campaign against the King of Men, he had to respect that.
Still, he was disgusted with himself. He had thought it would be an easy victory. Aragorn had been at a tactical disadvantage right from the beginning; he should not have won. He had only rudimentary and limited weaponry and few truly experienced soldiers. And the Shadow had a mighty army undaunted by war and death.
And he had failed because he had grown complacent. It was a lesson hard learnt. But it was a mistake that he would not make again.
Whilst the Dark Lord was annoyed with himself for this most critical oversight, he was absolutely infuriated that his most important and loyal servants had failed him and now stood before him entirely unrepentant. Yes, they grieved for the one lost but the war was not over yet. In fact, it was just beginning. He would not be beaten again and he would make no further mistakes.
"The death of your kin shall not go un-avenged," the Dark Lord promised his waiting subjects, his hissing voice sounding impossibly loud through the thick silence. They stood in a uniformed line, still and ever-patient. "We will kill these usurpers who have broken up your ranks and win back what is ours. And Darkness shall have its reign."
They did not respond to this passionate vow of victory but Sauron felt a new calmness come over them, their passion dimming ever so slightly at the assurance. They were in agreement with him, as he had known they would be. Such creatures, impassive though they may have seemed, longed for vengeance for the death of their leader. They would crush their enemy for what had been taken from them and the Allies of Light would rue the day they ever sought to usurp the reign of the Shadow.
"Come now. We will go and rid this earth of this foul interloper once and for all."
The Dark Lord would not be scared off by the false king even though he had undeniably proven himself a greater opponent than originally thought. He would walk his lands freely and without fear, for what did the Lord Sauron have to fear? He was not going to be beaten. Not again.
"Listen to me," insisted Legolas firmly despite hardly having the energy to force out the words from his constricted throat, nor the breath to make them understandable. "Listen now."
"I am listening." Aragorn opened his eyes and leaned closer to prove his attentiveness. He did not want to have to hear what Legolas had to say because he knew what this conversation would entail. Darkness had come again and the city had fallen quiet but Aragorn could find no rest knowing what lay at the end of this night. Legolas knew too; hence him forcing the conversation that Aragorn feared to have. The king's philosophy of ignoring the truth and hoping it would simply go away seemed to have worked up until now, so why force a change? As if sensing this reticence in his ward, blue eyes had fixed Aragorn with a determined stare and the man said with more honesty, "I'm listening to you, I promise."
"Good," Legolas sighed and relaxed a little at the reassurance. This would be hard enough as it was without having to contend with the man's inattention. He reached out to take Aragorn's hand and held on tightly, pleased to find that his ward gripped back just as firmly.
But now that he had Aragorn's attention, he found that he was at a loss as to what to say. The words that had formed earlier in his mind and vowed to share with his charge had now vanished. Empty platitudes would not suffice. It was advice and reassurance that Aragorn would need to face this latest trial. But what could he say? What words would make this easier to bear? Was there anything at all? No doubt Aragorn would say no. There was nothing to be said. Legolas could not leave it as it was though. His conscience would not allow it. He wanted Aragorn to have something useful – to make up for all those years of dismissive tutoring Legolas had provided in the past. It had been so easy to work out what he wanted to say as he lay half-sleeping earlier, fully aware of what awaited him on the other side of dusk which at the time had seemed sufficiently far away to return order to his mind. Now, when he actually had to come out with the words though, it seemed all but impossible; he did not want to speak them.
Legolas was no coward when it came to death; even his own. He would conquer this fear and give his entrusted companion all he needed to be a good king and a good man. That was his last lesson.
So, clearing his throat, Legolas forced a smile and said, "I am so very proud of you. Arathorn would have been so proud also. He would have loved you, would have loved the person you have become."
Aragorn shook his head, eyes already glistening with tears. The mention of his father angered him for some inexplicable reason. He didn't want to hear about the man who had abandoned him – willingly or otherwise – in his youth, not from his guardian who now suffered because of Arathorn's selfishness.
"Listen to me, Aragorn, please," pressed Legolas upon seeing his ward's wavering strength. "Trust yourself always. Never doubt your instincts, they will always lead you true. Trust in what your heart says and lead your life according to its will. Gondor's people's faith in the Crown has been shaken, but not irreparably broken. They will be reticent to follow you as king at first, especially in the wake of Denethor's misguided rule over them. But be persistent. Do you understand? Treat them well. Treat all as equal. Love, protect and respect them and they will reward you with their trust in turn. Once they learn to love and honour their king, their respect for the Crown will follow. Do all you can to unify them. Forgive the deeds done by some in times of desperation, even though many will seem impossible to forgive. Under the banner of the king…you…will-"
Legolas' eyes fell shut and he ceased briefly in his advice, his strength waning as he rode through a fresh assault of pain. Aragorn lifted their joined hands higher and pressed them against his own chest, as though the feel of his own strong heart beating would inspire strength in his guardian.
It took a while for the Elf to recover himself. He lay panting for breath for a few minutes then his breathing slowed to a more normal level and his eyes opened, struggling this time to focus on the man next to him. Nevertheless, he smiled weakly and gave Aragorn's hand a quick squeeze of reassurance.
"It's all right," he soothed breathlessly, attempting and failing to reach out to touch his ward's face. He wanted so much to soothe away that awful frown of grief. He could not bear to think that he was the cause of such sorrow.
"You will have much-"
"Don't," Aragorn pleaded sadly, shifting slightly closer. He swiped at the tears falling down his cheeks and tried again, "Don't speak right now. You don't have to-"
"Yes. I do. I do." Again Legolas struggled against the combined efforts of the pain and the poison but he was determined. More now than ever before. "You will have much to contend with in the first few years. Your strength will be tested every way imaginable. There will be enemies all around you – without and within. First, you must establish who among them can be trusted. Surround yourself with the knowing, not just the eager to please, such people will only lead you astray and destroy the public faith in you. Take counsel wherever you can. Do not sniff at the opinions of others even if they are at odds with your own. Advice from those around you will be invaluable to you, never dismiss it out of hand or it will be your undoing."
Once more, Legolas halted, taking a moment to gather his breath and his thoughts. Aragorn took the time to divest his face of tears once more. This was harder than he could ever have imagined. He knew he should be grateful for all Legolas was doing for him in his final hours. This advice was important. But he could not find it within himself to take it all in and be appreciative. It was too hard.
"All of this- This is-" Legolas shook his head against the pillow. He was finding it hard to string sentences together now. His mind was growing sluggish. So he gave up on common sense and smiled grimly. "I am sorry, Aragorn."
"For what?" sniffed the man.
"This. I- I know I promised-"
"Don't. Don't say that. I know this is not your will. You would have kept your word were you able," smiled Aragorn weakly. It was a pathetic attempt at levity but Legolas humoured him with a small, fleeting smile. "Just…stay with me. Don't give up."
Legolas choked out a laugh at this. "That promise I cannot…make."
"Yes, you can. Whatever happened to 'Elves are immortal'?"
"Invulnerable to the passage of time, yes, but not exempt from this Darkness. Even with the best physicians of the past- I know you are sad…angry…but please, do not blame me."
"Why should I blame you?"
"I have failed in my word, I know. You have to promise me something."
"If I can."
"Do not give in. Fight this Evil with everything you have. But do it smartly. Do not seek revenge for this unfortunate act against me. It would be your end if you succumb to fury. Be smart about the Dark Lord. Show him what the Light is capable of. Do not fear him. You are better than he, you know it. Face him and destroy him," Legolas told him firmly, although these words he feared more than any to utter. He had always been torn over Aragorn's duty, ever since Elrond's prophetic warning in Rivendell. The wise Elven Lord had been convinced that in the battle with Sauron, Aragorn would meet his end and Darkness would rule Arda forevermore with his falling. The Lord of Imladris had spoken at the time of Aragorn as naught but a necessary sacrifice for the greater good and Legolas could never bear to think of Aragorn that way. He had become fond of the man. All that unease about having someone in his care had melted away years ago and given way to a respect and affection he had never anticipated feeling again. He remembered well the feelings he had had for his own children, long since lost to him. His love for Aragorn was perhaps not quite so potent but it was a close thing. And love was a strong force to contend with.
"I will do all I can, I swear it," Aragorn promised fervently.
"I know you will."
Before Legolas could continue a soft knock came from the door. The call went unanswered but the door creaked open all the same.
"May we come in for a moment?" asked Eomer, who peered into the room anxiously.
For a long moment, Aragorn simply stared at his guardian, unable to think of the answer. But finally he silently nodded his consent and the door opened fully and Eomer entered, followed by Janor, Ciaran, Kalub, Jecha and Faramir, who came in single-file, each taking a glimpse at the bed as they passed and then bowing their heads in sorrow.
"What do you want?" Aragorn asked wearily of them. He did not particularly want intruders upon his peace. He wanted this final time alone with Legolas.
Legolas, however, was somewhat more diplomatic. He finally found the strength to raise his hand and touched it to Aragorn's hair with a smile. In a whisper, he assured, "It's all right."
It was Jecha who answered the king's question with false cheer. "We just came to see how you are, Legolas." It was a lie. They knew how the Elf was because Valon had informed them before they all came here. To prepare them. But at least the lie was something to break the ice.
No one commented upon that. Aragorn bowed his head even lower, eyes on his guardian, as if not wanting to look away for even a moment in case the Elf simply faded away before his eyes. He did not care for the others in the room. They were meaningless to him now.
The Elf's slightly unfocused blue gaze drifted almost idly across them and when he reached the end of the ragged line, a small smile graced his lips. There stood Eomer, looking saddened at the duty he had come here to perform. Whatever fractures had existed between their tenuous friendship seemed not to matter now. This was the end and there was a degree of sadness to that terrible finality despite all that had come before. After all, Eomer still felt he owed Legolas much. He had restored Eowyn to Rohan's people and that was no small deed. Sitting with his ailing sister after her liberation from Helm's Deep, Eomer had made a silent promise to himself that he would ever seek to honour the debt he owed the Elven prince. Now, he felt as if he had failed. Failed not just Legolas but his sister also, for now both lay at death's door and there was nothing the man could do to change either fact. How cruel the fates were, that they messed with the lives of great warriors so and took from the world those who deserved to live.
"Thank you for coming," Legolas said, although Aragorn noticed that his voice was quieter, less steady than it had been before. He was tiring. The healer had said that it was likely that Legolas would slip away as he slept. It seemed like the best possible way for a warrior to leave the land of the living, and a mercy that such warriors were seldom granted. But now Aragorn feared it. Every blink of the familiar, comforting blue eyes could be the last and he could barely stand that knowledge. It was too much to endure.
"Of course we came," Janor told him with a smile that almost looked genuine. "How could we not? You are our friend after all."
"Friend?" Again Legolas smiled, a bigger gesture this time and filled with something akin to relief. "That is well."
"Is there nothing we can do for you, Legolas?"
"No. I fear not." Legolas looked up when the sudden sound of bitter sobbing filled the air. His features softened in sympathy and he closed his eyes for a long moment, hurt that he was causing these people who dubbed themselves his friends such pain. "Do not cry, Ciaran," he murmured but upon opening his eyes found that his words had little effect. The young Ranger was being comforted by Janor. No doubt this reminded him too much of the demise of his father. It made Legolas' heart plummet. Such memories would never leave the young man. He looked up at Aragorn to find crystal tears working their way down his face. He felt the same pain as Ciaran, just as acutely, no doubt, although he had not displayed it quite as blatantly as the young Ranger felt comfortable doing. Feeling sorry beyond words that Aragorn had to endure this, Legolas recaptured his hand and squeezed in reassurance. A simple nod of the head was all he received in turn from Aragorn. Then, he turned back to the others and held out his free hand. "Come, Ciaran."
It was with great reluctance, and a gentle little shove from Janor, that Ciaran finally came forward. Halting footsteps bore him towards the bed where Legolas lay.
Truthfully, Ciaran did not know what he was expecting. He imagined that he would be frightened, being so close to someone he knew dying. Nerves fluttered in his stomach but they disappeared the moment Legolas' cool hand stretched out and touched his arm. He was drawn to the bed and sat down opposite Aragorn, who raised his head only briefly to see what was going on around him but made no attempt to acknowledge the young Ranger. Legolas smiled at him and it didn't appear the same ghastly smile he had forced when they had first come in. It was softer, more sincere and almost…apologetic.
"Do not be afraid," the Elf said softly, although Ciaran wasn't sure whether the quiet tones were to soothe him or whether Legolas just didn't have the strength to talk louder. "You will be fine. Look to Janor. He will take care of you, I have no doubt."
Ciaran nodded shortly, his eyes blurring with fresh tears. Legolas had never been his official guardian. Technically, that honour belonged to Janor as Kinnale's second in command of the Rangers. And yet, he had looked up to Legolas, had been close to him, mostly because of his friendship with Aragorn, but also because of Legolas' friendship with Kinnale. His father had always spoken very highly of the Elven prince, even when others had not. Ciaran had always trusted and valued his father's opinion above all others, so he was naturally drawn to Legolas. And Legolas had fought hard for Kinnale's life and for Ciaran's sanity. He had been the one who pulled him back from his grief and rage, when he was intent on revenge and unwilling to listen to reason. He owed Legolas much. To lose him now was painful more so than he could ever have imagined.
"I need you to do something for me," Legolas said now, his voice falling even quieter.
Legolas' eyes flitted in Aragorn's direction. "Take care of him for me." He smiled again, in emphasis, daring Ciaran to challenge him now.
"I will. I promise."
"Good." His hand dropped back onto the blankets. His strength was waning, he knew. The poison had all but consumed him by now. It would not be long.
"I promise." Ciaran leaned forward and rested his forehead against Legolas' chest, feeling the soft rising and falling of stuttering breaths. "I'm sorry," he cried, tears slipping from his eyes and dampening the Elf's shirt.
"Do not be sorry."
"Ciaran, come on." Janor stepped forward and laid his undamaged hand on Ciaran's shaking shoulder. He was a little concerned about the young man hurting Legolas further, although the Elf showed no outward signs of increased pain at the hug. "Come." He eased the young Ranger up to his feet, careful not to jostle his injured arm, still secured in a sling against his body, nodded to Legolas in appreciation for his words of comfort and led the younger man away towards the door. He did not want Ciaran to be present when the inevitable finally happened. It did not seem right after all the man had suffered through already. He didn't dare look back at Legolas for tears glistened in his own eyes. Secretly, he was pleased that he had been spared from saying his own goodbye.
Silence fell upon the room and Legolas did not like it. It gave him space to think upon his injuries and all that he was leaving behind and that only increased the pain. He wanted those with him to speak again, to offer false platitudes even, but he couldn't find voice to ask this of them. He was so dreadfully weary; it plucked and tugged at him, willing him to fall into sleep. But he did not want to. He feared to.
"We should leave you to rest," Jecha finally, mercifully, broke the hush although they were not the words Legolas wanted to hear.
No forced joviality any more. There was nothing to be joyful about and there was no use in pretending amongst those who remained. Legolas simply nodded in return. He was tired and growing more weary with each passing moment. He couldn't keep this up much longer. He wanted now to fall asleep and remain that way until the pain had gone away regardless of the price of peace. How quickly things could change, he thought. He had always thought himself at peace with what might happen to him in the end. At times, he had even longed for it. Now that that feeling of longing had returned within his chest, he felt right again, like he always had. It was a relief. He was not afraid anymore.
One by one they came up to his bedside, like a procession, and wished him a good rest. They all looked so sad, on the brink of tears. Only Faramir did not approach him. He stayed a respectful distance away and left first. Not only did he barely know the Elven prince, but he even now blamed Legolas for his father's death. He had only come for Aragorn, out of respect for the king.
Legolas smiled at each in turn, trying to be grateful for what they said. It was hard to bear, listening to their final words. But he did bear it, as stoically as he could, for their sake.
Aragorn was not as strong though. He could not stand to hear the words, or see the pitying looks on their faces as they passed. He just couldn't. So, he stood up in disgust and walked away to the other side of the room where he was somewhat sheltered from it all. He faced the wall, head bowed to hide his tears. As his friends filed out of the room past him, they each touched his shoulder, as if it would covey comfort, but it had very little effect on him. He let all their words wash over him. Stubbornly, he refused to be comforted by anyone. He wanted to be miserable. He had every right, after all.
"Do something for me," Legolas whispered weakly to Eomer when he approached the bed.
"If I can, my friend."
The man leaned down close, almost sitting on the edge of the bed so that Legolas would not have to waste too much of his precious energy. He snagged the Elf's hand when it came up imploringly in search of his.
"Take care of him." Eomer didn't need an explanation as to who 'him' was. He glanced back in Aragorn's direction, taking in the stooped demeanour of his grieving ward. "He will need you. All of you. Do not leave him by himself. He needs…guidance."
"I understand," smiled the Rohan man kindly, tightening his hold on Legolas' hand. "I will do all I can. You have my word." Legolas laid his head back down, sighing in sheer relief. "Rest now, my friend. I will see you again soon."
"Not too soon, I hope," Legolas warned with a weak smile. "Thank you. Friend?"
Eomer squeezed Legolas' shoulder carefully, blinking back the blurriness that sprung, unwanted, into his eyes. "You are welcome, friend." He got up then, carefully laying Legolas' hand back down on the bed. For a moment, he could not take his eyes off the Elf. It didn't seem right that Legolas should be here now, taken down just as his plan was coming together and when Aragorn would need him the most to face the coming dark. Finally, he stepped away and paused behind Aragorn. "If you need anything, I'll be waiting nearby," he said softly.
Aragorn did not reply, not even a nod of acknowledgement. Understandingly, Eomer stepped away and left them to it, closing the door behind him.
And suddenly, Aragorn was left alone with Legolas again. Silence, deep and horrible, filled the room. Only Legolas' strained breathing broke the hush. For a long moment, Aragorn stayed where he was, finding solace in his corner, detached from what was happening behind him. Legolas did not summon him, seeming to understand that his ward needed time. Eventually, the man came around in his own time, as he always did. Slowly, he turned to face Legolas and dipped his head, as though only now realising that he really could not escape the truth. He could not hide from what was happening.
Legolas smiled at him weakly and stretched out his arm to his young ward. Just the two of them.
Aragorn came to him with reluctance. He sat on the bed again and took his guardian's hand without being asked.
"It's all right," whispered Legolas, tugging gently at the man's arm until he came down into a hug. "It's all right."
Aragorn pressed his face into Legolas' chest and cried again. "I can't-Don't do this. Don't leave me."
"Shh," Legolas soothed, stroking at the man's dark hair kindly. "You are going to be fine."
"No. I won't do this. Not without you."
"Yes, you will. Just as you must."
"I can't." His words were muffled by the fabric of Legolas' shirt but they broke the Elf's heart to hear. "I will do nothing without you. Let him come for me! Let him take me! I care not. I welcome it!"
"Do not speak this way. Do not…let him win."
Aragorn cried. He could do nothing else. This could not be happening. The Shadow was winning already. It was inevitable now that he should lose to it.
"I am…here." Each breath was becoming torturous now. How desperately he wanted to let go, to give into the exhaustion, to sleep. But not yet. Aragorn was not ready. "My son."
The word broke Aragorn's heart all over again. Never once had Legolas addressed him thusly, although he realised now as the word was spoken that he had felt like the Elf's son for years now. But he could never have imagined that Legolas would think of himself as the man's father. He had never given any such indication. And now, when he finally revealed his heart, it was too late. It wasn't fair. Anger welled in his heart, almost drowning him in its intensity.
"Why?" the young man cried despairingly. His hands clutched at Legolas' shirt, not willing to let go. Beneath his cheek he could feel every heaving breath, growing further and further apart, harder and harder to force through struggling lungs. His guardian was dying. It was almost the end. The realisation hit him with such immense force that it knocked the breath from his body. Legolas was dying and there would be no steadfast mentor to guide him through the difficult times ahead. How he had wasted the time. His mind went back to all the times he had dismissed his guardian, the times he had been so furious as to ostracise him. So many hours apart when he should have been making the most of every moment. And now there was nothing he could do to make it right. Legolas was dying because of him, because of who he was and what he had been charged to do.
"It's…going to be…all right," Legolas forced out. "You…will be…all right. Be…strong. My…son."
"Don't you dare leave me," Aragorn warned, sitting up quickly. "You once told me that you would follow me no matter where I led, into the very fires of Mordor itself. Well, as king, I command that you stay with me. Understand me? I command you. Legolas? I command you!"
"As you…command…" Legolas smiled weakly up at him, his eyes glistening with unshed tears, "so shall I…obey."
To Be Continued…