"Stay. Estel, please. You can´t go, Estel, not yet. Stay."
"You know I cannot."
"Just a little while more. Just a day."
If only they got down from the mountainside, Legolas fancied, they would be safe.
The slope from the cliff where they hid to the tree-covered ground was steep and unsheltered. The rain had made it slippery. No matter how quickly and soundlessly they moved, no matter how dark it was now that clouds hid the moon, they wouldn´t be able to hide out there. The problem was they couldn´t hide for long here either. As soon as night truly came, goblins and wargs would come searching, sneaking, along the only passable path nearby; they would find their smell and their tracks in the mud, and then they would find their hideout.
But if they ran down the mountainside – ran fast – they could reach the trees and hide in the woods. At least Legolas would feel safer there.
"What do you think?" he asked. His voice almost drowned in the heavy rain.
"We can´t stay here, that´s for sure", Aragorn said. "Maybe we can find better shelter for the rain."
"Wait here. I´ll look around a bit."
Pressing his back to the cliff, Legolas crept forward. He didn´t see much of the slope from their hideout, and he wanted to make sure nothing was waiting for them. They had seen signs of trolls earlier, and they knew there were goblins in these mountains, even though Legolas didn´t know exactly where they were. He didn´t know the Misty Mountains as well as Aragorn did, and he suspected the ranger didn´t recognize much in this rain and darkness. The paths had changed since last time they were here.
Huddling on the crest of the slope, only a shadow in his soaked, dripping cloak, Legolas looked around. The rain was like a massive wall. Grey rain, grey stone, grey clouds. He saw nothing that moved, but he didn´t trust his sight in this weather.
"It´s no use", he said as he returned to Aragorn. "Either we stay here or we chance and hope nothing sees us."
"I vote for chancing. I´ll die from the cold if we stay here all night."
"Then we run for the trees and find a better hideout."
"Then we do so", Aragorn said and grinned at him trough the rain.
They crept slowly around the cliff the same way Legolas had taken, until they stood on the crest of the mountainside again. The slope really was steep. And slippery. The first thing Legolas did as as they begun climbing down was to lose his footing, and it didn´t exactly get better after that.
Then the wargs begun to howl. They came dashing down the mountainside, ragged and hungry and mad; a sudden flood of wet fur and claws and fangs.
"The trees", Legolas hissed. "We can´t fight them here."
In the darkness they began to run: half run, half climb. When Legolas looked over his shoulder he saw shapes – great grey shapes in the rain, moving too swift for arrows. He swore beneath his breath and ran faster.
"This way!" Aragorn called, aiming for a somewhat flatter part of the mountainside. Legolas turned, but he turned too quickly – he slipped – he stumbled – he fell forward, and when he staggered to his feet the first warg prepared to leap onto him. But it underestimated him. Legolas got an arrow from his quiver before the warg was over him; he aimed, released the arrow, and ran again, not stopping to see where it hit.
Behind him the warg stumbled and whimpered, and the others hesitated long enough for their prey to almost reach the trees. Almost. The moment Legolas thought he would make it there was a movement behind him, and by reflex he swirled around. Claws dug into his right arm. They had been meant for his neck.
There was not enough space to draw his bow. The warg backed, preparing for another leap – one he wouldn´be able to avoid – and Legolas fumbled desperately after his knife. The warg was onto him; he ducked from it´s claws – he was beneath it – and taking the knife in his left hand, putting all his strength behind it, he thrust it deep into the warg´s belly. It writhed once, blood bubbling up in it´s mouth. Legolas managed to shake it off before all it´s weight was over him.
He didn´t watch it fall. Aragorn had turned with his sword drawn and Legolas yelled at him to keep running. They reached the trees. They kept running. He didn´t feel any pain – yet. They kept running.
And then he stopped. He hadn´t really intended to do so, but his body must have realised before his head that he couldn´t run more. His tunic was soaked with more than rain. Behind him Aragorn came to a halt, looked around, then drew his sword.
"Are they coming?"
"I don´t hear anything", Aragorn answered, "but in case they do, I´ll be ready."
"I don´t think I´ll be able to run."
"Then we won´t."
"We have to find shelter."
Aragorn nodded. "We will. But you need to rest, and most of all you need to stop the blood from that wound. Sit down and take care of it. I´ll keep watch."
"And then another, and then another. Don´t you understand, Las? I have to go now. A single day will change nothing."
"But I don´t want you to go."
"We´ll go on for a while", Aragorn said, and it was lucky he could think clearly, for pain had begun to dim Legolas´s thoughts.
He still had his knife in his left hand. They walked through the rain – it wasn´t so heavy here, beneath the canopies – and the trees whispered encouragingly to him. Legolas knew, from the experience of a thousand wounds, that the pain would grow fainter in a few minutes and then he would be able to think clearly again; but it had already bled through his provisional bandage. He would be able to walk for some time, but the constant loss of blood would wear him down. They must find shelter soon.
"I recognize this place", Aragorn mumbled beside him.
Legolas lifted his eyes from the ground.
He didn´t know exactly for how long they had been walking, but Aragorn was right. The voices of these trees were familiar. He looked around – that path – those boulders – the gentle slope of the ground, that opening in the trees...
"Elbereth", he whispered. "I thought we were far from..."
"It must have been that path we took", Aragorn said. "We walked much farther north..."
"Much of the nature has changed, of course..."
"It might have been a newer path..."
They stopped, looking at each other.
"I thought we were in the middle of the wilderness", Legolas said, "and all the time we were here."
"It is the wilderness now", Aragorn said.
"Do you think we can find it?"
"That depends on what we want to find. It must be in ruins by now."
"We may find shelter."
Legolas bit his lip. It was hard to say how it would feel to return to that place. If it was in ruins – and it should be – than maybe it would be painful to see. But it was hidden, and it was safe, and there was a chance some parts of it would be whole enough to provide shelter for rain and wind.
"I say we go", he said. "It´s not far from here, is it?"
"The road must be just behind those trees."
They walked again, somewhat quicker now that they had a direction. The closer they came the more Legolas recognized the place. They found the road and it looked just like it had done every rainy autumn night he had seen it: muddy and narrow and strewn with dead leaves. How was it possible it wasn´t overgrown? And how was it possible he remembered every tree; how could no new tree had grown since last time he was here? Everything – the way the trees sung softly in the rain, their never-surprised, ever-gentle welcomes, the little water drops gathered on every leaf on every branch – was as it always had been.
It was comforting. He was so weary with things that always changed.
Maybe it was the magic of this place, or maybe it was just being here, that made him feel better. He was still weary and still in pain, but walking along this road, wounded, was something he had done so many times the feeling was almost nostalgic. He would manage the last bends of the road; he had done that a thousand of times.
Suddenly it made him laugh.
"What is it?" Aragorn asked, as if unable to understand how someone could laugh in this weather.
Legolas gave him a wry smile. "I just thought it was funny, that after all these years we still manage to stumble upon some old ruins in the last minute. One could have thought we´d be a bit rusty after so many years out of danger."
Aragorn smiled. "It´s not that many years. And it will be more like us if we can´t find a single place where the roof isn´t leaking."
"That wouldn´t surprise me. And I suppose the wargs will find us in the middle of the night, too?"
"Yeah, and you´ll have fever."
Legolas looked at the man sideways. Water was dripping from his hood, and from the dark strains of hair that was visible beneath it, and from his nose, and his chin; his cloak was muddy to his knees, his fingers were blue from the cold; but his eyes were glowing. Instead of looking stern and wise, like a king, he looked strong and happy and pleased and alive. Legolas had missed this part of him more than he had ever known. However much he loved Elessar, he had missed Estel.
"I won´t make it. I can´t live without you. I will die, Estel."
"You will not. I know you will not."
"I can´t lose you."
The trees ended. They looked down a deep valley, the rain drops shimmering in some evening light like white dots in the dark. Water ran down the white stone of high buildings; down arches and statues and open galleries. Far below the river rushed through the valley, skittering down the mountains. Legolas took a deep breath and smiled.
They were really here.
And it looked just like he remembered it. The high trees, the towers and the windows, the mountains, the road – it was as if no time had passed at all. He looked at Aragorn and the man gave him a broad smile that said everything.
"It was worth running, wasn´t it?"
"It was worth every rainy day on the whole journey."
There it was, before them – Imladris. When they planned this journey they hadn´t got a single thought of coming here; but they had come, and they were here. Beneath the dark sky it looked even whiter; in the rain it looked even warmer; after all the years that had passed it looked even more familiar. It was as if those years had never been. As if they had been on a long journey and come home at last.
"We don´t know how the buildings look inside", Aragorn said. "They might be in ruins, only we can´t see it from here."
"Would you be disappointed if they were?"
"I wouldn´t be surprised."
"I don´t think they´re in ruins", Legolas said. "I feel like they aren´t."
Walking down the valley was a hard task, as it always was when it rained. The path clung to the mountainside and they had to do the same – it was narrow and slippery – but they knew exactly where to put their feet even when they couldn´t see clearly; they had done it so many times before. Their progress was slow but determined. There would be no warm fire waiting for them down there, but there would be no angry Elrond and no teasing twins either. Not that Legolas would have minded it. Not at all.
But somehow, it felt good to share Imladris with only Estel.
Finally they reached flatter ground. It wasn´t far now – over the bridge, up the slope, and then they would be there – but even this close the buildings didn´t look very damaged. The bridge still looked safe, the river narrow and quick beneath it. Walking over the bridge Legolas realised every stone in it was familiar to him: on that one he always stumbled, that one was loose, beneath that one he had hidden secret messages to the twins.
But it was the first time, he thought, he stumbled on that one.
"Are you tired?" Aragorn asked.
"I would help you, you know, if only..."
"I know. Never mind."
On the other side of the bridge the road was paved, and it was easier to walk. They walked beneath the great arch with it´s intricate stonework, and then the buildings on the cliffs above their heads surrounded them. They fell silent. There was so much to see, so much to think of – Legolas wished he had felt better so he could take a look on everything now.
The path winded upwards, surrounded by the airy houses with their galleries and balconies; the stables, the smithy, Erestor´s library with it´s giant windows. In the darkness, he knew they were there more than he saw them, but he fancied they looked just as usual; white and clean and smooth. Rain poured down on everything. He shivered. Don´t care about the houses now; take care of yourself first.
The path led to the open area before the broad stairs that led to front port, with the well in the middle and the high buildings in a protective circle. Here they came to a halt, suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of memories and emotions the place evoke. Where they stood – two small figures before the high buildings, with the rain pouring down on their heads – Legolas had´t been able to tell if it was real or a dream. He had stood there so many times it could as well be a memory.
But there was no light in the windows, no sentinels in the watch tower; and the front doors were closed. That, more than anything else, made it clear it wasn´t a memory. Legolas couldn´t remember he had ever seen the doors closed – not even when the valley was closed to ward of enemies or when chilly winter winds howled in the mountains.
Not that it mattered that they were. All he had to do was open them again.
"Come", he said, because Aragorn was hesitating. Carefully he walked up the wet stairs and put his hands to the ornamented doors and pushed. They swung open. Rain fell on the doorstep and on the marble floor of the entrance hall.
"You will make it, Las."
"Yes, you will. I know you will. I know you."
The hall was different and yet not. It was different because it was empty. It was different because the candles weren´t lit, because there were no voices, no footsteps, no music; because it felt cold and all too big, and because the floor was strewn with dead leaves. But it wasn´different, because the rows of ornamented pillars hadn´t changed, the walls were still white and clean, and the tapestries were only slightly bleached by the sun. The hall was the same; it simply didn´t use to be empty.
"I can´t believe we´re really here", Legolas said, and his voice echoed. "I thought we´d never see it again. But it´s really happening, Estel."
"All those years I thought we´d never have the time to ever make this journey – and we end up here!"
"Maybe it was meant to be like this."
"If it was, I only wish the Valar wouldn´t have caused us so much trouble to come here."
Aragorn smiled. When he became King his smile had become much more controlled than before, and Legolas was glad he could still smile in that unchecked way.
"So were do we go?" Aragorn asked. "We should light a fire, and you have to take care of your arm."
"How about the Hall of Fire? Maybe there´s some wood left somewhere."
"The Hall of Fire it is", Aragorn said.
"I don´t want you to die, Estel. Don´t die. Please don´t die."
"That wound looks bad", Aragorn said. "It´s bled through your tunic."
Legolas sighed and sunk down on the cold marble floor in the middle of the Hall of Fire. He unclasped his wet cloak and let it fall, then twisted his arm to see better. It was hard to see and would be even harder to clean and bandage it with only one hand.
The Hall hadn´t changed more than the entrance hall, or than the rest of the halls and corridors they had passed. The leaves on the floor, the emptiness, and the white sheets covering the furniture were the only things that were different. The furniture hadn´t even been moved.
"Will you help me?" he asked, very carefully taking his wet and bloody tunic off. "Can´t you see if there are some blankets left somewhere?"
"Are you cold?"
"Yes. Can you get me one?"
He got no answer. Looking up from his inspection of the wound he gave the man a quick glance; but Aragorn was staring at the drops on the windows as if he didn´t notice him.
"Estel", he said, a bit louder, "can you fetch a blanket for me?"
Stubbornly looking away, Aragorn still gave no answer. Legolas frowned but said nothing more. It had been stupid of him to ask. So stupid. It must be because he was so weary. He couldn´t think clearly.
"You´re strong. You will be fine. I know you´re strong, Las. I know you will be strong."
In the darkness he didn´t see very well, and they had no dry wood to make a fire, but the wound looked rather clean – the blood and the rain had washed away most of the dirt. If he bandaged it with a clean piece of cloth it would probably not get infected, and he would be able to clean it more properly tomorrow in daylight.
"The rain´s ceasing", Aragorn said while Legolas searched his small pack after bandages. Legolas looked up. Outside the sky was completely dark, but the rain didn´t drum so hard on the windows any longer.
"I wish we could make a fire", he said. "It´s cold."
"Do you have fever?"
"Maybe a little."
Aragorn looked at him sadly. "I wish I could help you."
"Please don´t die."
Finding a roll of bandage Legolas begun wrapping it around his arm, but it was difficult; with only one hand he couldn´t prevent it from slipping of his arm all the time. Swearing beneath his breath he tried again and again. The white fabric was soon soaked with blood, and blood dripped from his arm into his lap. Pressing the bandage between his shoulder and the side of his head he managed to keep it in place, but it hurt to twist his arm like that and as soon as he moved his head a little the bandage slipped off again.
Frustrated he tried again. And again. He shivered from the cold, he was hungry and weary and in pain, and all the time Aragorn watched him.
Finally he threw the bandage aside. "I can´t do this."
Aragorn frowned. "You have to."
"I cannot. It´s impossible. You´ve got to help me."
"You have to take care of that wound, Legolas."
"You´ve got to help me!"
Aragorn looked at him blankly. No, not blankly, he fancied – coolly, as if Legolas had made him very disappointed.
"Pick that bandage up, Las."
"It´s no use."
"Legolas, if you don´t stop the blood you will bleed to death."
"Then help me!" he snapped, more desperate than angry, and Aragorn gave a deep sigh.
"You have to do it yourself, Las."
"It´s no use."
"You have to try."
"I´ve tried for half an hour! Don´t you see it´s no use? You´ve got to help me!"
Anger flared up in Aragorn´s eyes. "I cannot help you! Either you do it yourself, or it won´t get done at all. It´s your choice, Las. I can´t do anything."
Legolas bit his lip. He picked up the bloody bandage, but his fingers were trembling and he couldn´t hold it steady. He looked at Aragorn again and couldn´t prevent himself from pleading. "Can´t you just help me?"
"You can make it."
"Estel, it´s easier if you do it. Please. Please help me, Estel."
"You can make it."
"Stop saying that. Stop saying that!" He threw the bandage away again, not knowing what to do or what to say. "Estel, it hurts, I´m tired and feverish, and I can´t..."
Aragorn slipped off the chair and sank down in front of him, and this time his gaze was soft, his voice mild. "You can make it, Las."
"Yes, you will. I know you will. I know you."
Legolas looked at him, that lined face framed with grey locks of hair. He recognized this. That expression, those words. This had already happened.
"You´re strong", Aragorn said. "You will be fine. I know you´re strong, Las."
"You´ve already said that", Legolas whispered.
"You´ve already said that. You´re repeating yourself."
"What are you talking about?"
Legolas kept looking at him, his eyes wide. "You´ve been looking at me exactly like that and said exactly those words. Don´t you think I remember? Did you think I had forgotten?"
"You´ve got fever", Aragorn said, stretching out a hand to touch his forehead. Legolas didn´t feel his touch. He had known he wouldn´t.
"Go away from me", he whispered.
"Go away. Don´t touch me. I´ll tend my arm."
Aragorn backed away from him, confused and hurt – but what did it matter how Aragorn felt? It couldn´t possibly matter any more. Not looking at him, Legolas resolutely found a fresh bandage and fought with it for some time until he had wrapped it properly around his arm; now that he knew he was alone, that there was no one to help him, the task wasn´t so difficult.
"Aragorn", he said when it was finally done, "aren´t you hungry?"
The man raised an eyebrow. "No?"
"Why not? We haven´t eaten since breakfast. You didn´t even eat any breakfast. Why aren´t you hungry?"
Aragorn looked at him frowning.
"Why is there no water beneath you?" Legolas asked, his voice rising. "Your clothes are as wet as mine, and just look at the floor around me. Your clothes aren´t even dripping. Why is it so?"
"That´s enough, Las", Aragorn said, and now he looked anxious; but Legolas wasn´t going to let that stop him.
"I know why", he said, and he knew what he was saying would cause him the pain he had tried to avoid; but sometime, somehow he had decided to speak. "I know why you don´t eat, and why there´s no water on the floor from your clothes, and why your voice doesn´t echo. I know why you can´t fetch me a blanket and why you can´t help me tend my arm. You can´t do anything. You couldn´t even kill those wargs. You just stood there with your sword drawn."
Aragorn silently shook his head, as if knowing what would come and already denying it.
"It´because you´re not here", Legolas said. He didn´t know how he could say it without breaking inside, but in that moment he wasn´t sad: he was angry. "You´re not real. I created you. You´re my imagination."
Aragorn kept shaking his head.
"You are here because I wanted you to be here. I pretended it was real, I pretended it was happening, but it is a lie and I can´t pretend any more."
"You wanted it to be like this!"
"Yes, because I thought it would be better. I thought that if I pretended I was happy I would be happy. But it´s a lie. It´s my imagination. It was supposed to be like this – we decided it would be like this – but we never had the time to, and then it was too late." Absently plucking with the bandage he looked at Aragorn, and he felt so empty. These were the words that hurt most, and he had to say them loud. "We wanted to do this journey together, but I am here alone. Because you´re dead, Estel. You died. You died before we could do it. And I am imagining you because it´s so damned hard to believe you are gone."
"Stay", Legolas begged. "Estel, please. You can´t go, Estel, not yet. Stay."
Aragorn lifted a hand and stroke a strand of hair out of his face. "You know I cannot."
"Just a little while more. Just a day."
"And then another", Aragorn said mildly, "and then another. Don´t you understand, Las? I have to go now. A single day will change nothing."
"But I don´t want you to go."
Aragorn sighed and put his arms around Legolas, holding him very close. Legolas could hear his heart beat beneath the dark velvet robe. He tried not to think that it wouldn´t beat much longer.
"If I could decide", Aragorn whispered down on him, "I would decide this wasn´t the end of our friendship. But the choice is not mine. If this is the end, then I can do nothing to change it. And if it isn´t... I don´t think it´s the end, Las. I don´t think so."
"I don´t believe you."
Aragorn lifted his gaze and watched the sun set outside the window. In the golden light the lines in his face looked softer, and the grey in his hair was like silver. He looked strong and weary, old and alive. In that moment he looked as old and eternal as the White City around him.
But Legolas had already lost him. He was already gone.
"I won´t make it", he whispered. His voice wasn´t strong enough for him to speak louder. "I can´t live without you. I will die, Estel."
"You will not", Aragorn said firmly. "I know you will not."
"I can´t lose you."
"You will make it, Las."
"Yes, you will." Aragorn looked at him again, and that fire in his eyes seemed to burn stronger than it had ever burnt before. "I know you will. I know you."
"I´ve lost so many already. My mother – my father – and Elladan and Elrohir - "
"You will see them again. You´ll see them on the other side of the Sea."
"I don´t want to go over the Sea. I don´t want to leave Middle Earth."
"I don´t want you to die, Estel. Don´t die. Please don´t die."
Aragorn stroke his hair.
"You´re strong", he whispered, his voice so soft Legolas almost only heard it in his heart. "You will be fine. I know you´re strong, Las. I know you will be strong."
There was not longer the drizzle of rain or the slow movement of the clouds on the sky. There were drops falling from the leaves of the trees, there were shreds of clouds slowly vanishing behind the mountains. There was the moon, cold and ancient: it shone through the great windows of Imladris, lightening the naked stone walls, the dead leaves strewn on the floor, the dust dancing in the still air, the chairs and cabinets and chests covered in white sheets like death shrouds. The moon was the only light.
When Legolas left the Hall of Fire, it was with a sense of triumph; but he had accomplished nothing and won over nothing. The only thing he had done was realising he was mad – and he hadn´t even got the strength to get out of that madness and banish the imagination of Estel. The man was still there, in the Hall. Legolas couldn´t bear to lose him.
He stood in the corridor outside the Hall with his arms folded on the lower frame of one of the great windows. This side of the corridor was half open to a garden with a dry fountain, and the moon was shining through the windows from a dark sky, creating white squares on the marble floor and the opposite wall. Outside trees were dancing in a faint breeze. He wondered how the hedges could be so well tended when no one tended them any longer.
Imladris was still and silent. He scraped with his feet on the floor just to hear it echo through the corridor. It made him feel alone, because he couldn´t remember he had ever heard echoes in Imladris before.
And he was alone.
The corridors and galleries and halls and little rooms of Imladris were empty. There was no Estel. The only things that remained were the dust and the spider webs and the white sheets, the moonlight, the echo, the dead leaves on the floor. Legolas was the only thing alive. The only living leaf among the dead, he thought.
And he didn´t really have the strength to live.
It was so hard... not only because it hurt. He could live with the pain. What he couldn´t live with – what really consumed him – was the loss. The knowledge that he had lost something, something so essential, something that was just as much Legolas as it was Estel, something that was such a great part of him he didn´t know what he was without it, and he would never get it back. It was the bond, their bond. When Estel died, so did a part of Legolas. And maybe that part was so great, the part that was left was too small to live.
That was the reason he had kept Estel alive in his head: an echo of him that lingered and didn´t die. He should have known it wouldn´t work. He should have known it would be worse, because by denying Estel´s death he had denied so much more – the comfort Gimli had offered, the words he would have liked to say to Arwen – and those things would never come back either. He had lost them. He was losing the whole world. And now he had lost not only Estel, but the echo of Estel too.
Imladris was the only thing that was left.
Imladris, with it´s silent halls and moonlit corridors. Imladris, unchanged, untouched: a ruin like himself, but a ruin that looked like a memory. It was a tomb. Not a tomb of dead, but of echoes. A tomb of dust and dead leaves.
They were so many, the memories. When he breathed, he breathed air full of long gone voices. When he walked, he knew that thousands of feet had walked there before him. Imladris wouldn´t make him whole, because it was broken too; but somehow the emptiness of the halls made the emptiness of his heart less heavy. They filled each others hearts with their own loss: two broken hearts with nothing in them.
Maybe he could stay here.
The thought was frightening.
To stay here, here, in a ruin, would be like almost dying. He would go mad here. He would lose every idea of the world outside; every memory of it would fade. He would fade. He would fall into oblivion and madness and then die.
And Gimli would never know what had happened to him. Would he believe Legolas has killed himself, or that he had died in an accident? Or would he think he was still alive, aimlessly roaming the world like Arwen, restless in his grief? But maybe it didn´t matter, because maybe Legolas would never make it back to the White City where Gimli was waiting. Maybe he would never make it over the mountains. Maybe he would never make it out of here.
It was such a relief to be here. He left the window where he had been standing and began walking through the corridors. The silence was soft to his ears. The only sound was the barely audible echo of his own feet on the floor, and the rustle of the dead leaves when the breeze of an opened door sent them skittering across the floor. Here he could think, but the stillness made his thoughts less painful: it made the sorrow feel as soft as summer rain, like an undertone that coloured everything but didn´t tear him in pieces.
Or maybe he was already going mad.
And what did it matter, really? If he didn´t have the strength to leave, he would stay here; and if staying here meant he would go mad, then he could as well go mad already. This was a good place to be mad, he thought. It was a good place to die.
Moonlit halls, shaded corridors; moonlit corridors, shaded halls. Legolas could feel their breathing, the mourning consciousness of the whole House: a sort of life. Somehow Imladris was alive. It was the same sort of life that makes the trees whisper and the mountains moan: ancient and powerful. It must be so that some of the magic of Vilya was left here and that it hadn´t worn away. He didn´t understand, but it was the only possibility he could think of.
Maybe that was why Imladris seemed so strangely untouched by the years. He hadn´t given it much thought earlier, with Aragorn, but it was more than strange; it was a miracle the buildings were so much preserved. They looked almost as usual when they should be half in ruins. True they were built by elves, and with great magic involved in the building; but he couldn´t imagine they would have looked like this if some of that magic hadn´t been left here.
The next corridor was dark because there were no windows, only doors. He shuddered. Somehow this corridor was important.
His feet echoed on the floor. He passed Elladans and Elrohir´s room. They had always slept in the same room, even when they were angry with each other and refused to speak. He passed Estels´, in the opposite side of the corridor, and wondered if the elves had tidied it or simply thrown a sheet over the mess on the floor. Then finally he stood outside his own room.
He hesitated. Somehow he knew he was making a choice. Entering that room would be definite. There would be no returning.
He opened the door.
The moon, again. The carvings on the window-frame, the little lamp and the figurine on the night-stand; all half lit and half shaded. The sheets, like the white wings on a sleeping fairy; so thin and light they looked ready to fly – or like treasures that had been hidden, ancient treasures – an ancient bed, an ancient chest. Such a little room and so many memories.
For a long while he stood on the doorstep, barely daring to breath. So many nights he had slept in this room. Some years he had spent more time here than in Eryn Lasgalen. How could it not be changed?
He could lie down on the bed... he could lie down on the bed and sleep. He was so weary. He truly would have liked to sleep.
The wind lifted strands of his hair and let them dance. In the moonlight his hair looked like spider threads. A leaf came floating through the window and he held out his hands and let it land in his palm. A dead leaf. Another dead leaf.
He let it fall and watched it settle in the dust on the floor. Settle in the dust. Settle in the moonlight and become another dead leaf. Settle in the silence and you never have to wake again.
And you never have to wake again.
It wasn´t the House of Elrond, not longer. It was the House that was Once Elrond´s and it only meant well.
It had begun to get used to the presence of a warm, breathing being after so many years of cold. Until the elf came, it had almost forgotten how footsteps felt on it´s marble floors, because it was such a long time since someone walked there; now it delighted in the light touch of elven feet. It hadn´t known how much it had missed it. It hadn´t known, either, how it had missed the way the warm breathing of living creatures stirs the air, or how the shadow of a slender body falls on a wall, or how moonlight is reflected deep in ancient eyes. So after all these years – these long years after the elves left – it felt good to have someone here.
They hadn´t left all at the same time, the elves. For some time the House had hoped, foolishly, childishly hoped, that some of them would stay forever. But they hadn´t. One cold autumn day when the wind blew from the west, it had watched the last ones go. You were a good home, they said, the very best; and then the bang of the heavy doors sent a tremble throughout the whole House. For the first time, the very first time since it was built by magic and love and slender hands, the House had been entirely empty.
At first it had despaired. Then slowly it got used to it – the silence, the stillness – and eventually, after a very long time, it began to like it. Enjoy it, even. And it decided never to change. Alone, empty and proud, it would stand like it was built; stand there firm and eternal, and neither weather nor time nor hands would be allowed to change it. It had almost succeeded. There were those leaves on the floor and that dust; but apart from that, the House that was Once Elrond´s – that was what it called itself – looked just like when Elrond lived here.
For that reason it hadn´t allowed anyone to enter the valley, fearing that something would be changed – that someone would light fires again, and move the furniture and maybe steal things.
It had let this one in because he was different. Mad was too strong a word, but his grief bordered on madness. It was the sort of grief that is like a burden in your chest; the sort of grief that is like a hole; the sort of grief that makes you want to scream but you don´t because you haven´t got the strength; the sort of grief that makes you heavy, and when the elf first put his feet on the floor there went a shiver through the very foundations of the House. It had let him in because it felt this elf wouldn´t change anything, and because he needed rest more than anything else in the world. And, maybe, because just like the House, this elf had lost something essential to him. They were alike. The world was unbearable to them, so they turned away from the world, and this was were they ended up. In a memory.
The House had told the elf to sleep – no so it would die, but so it wouldn´t be so sad. Now they were two in their sorrow.
But not much later – the moon had moved only little across the sky – something inside the elf stirred.
Something like life.
He woke with a start, heart pounding madly. He sat up in the bed. The moon was still shining outside the window, in the garden he knew so well; he couldn´t have slept many hours. But he felt as thought he had been falling. He had been falling and falling until he was so low down he could´t fall any longer, and then he wondered: what am I doing?
He had been sleeping beneath the white sheet that had covered the bed. No blanket, but a sheet: a death shroud. Like a dead he had covered himself in a white shroud, like a dead he had been sleeping unmoving, unchanging. He had been alive, but he had been dying. Settle in the silence and you never have to wake again.
Those words – the words that had threatened to kill him – were they even his? Suddenly he felt they were something he had heard rather than something he had been thinking. He looked at the strangely fresh ceiling and wondered how alive Imladris really was. Was it Vilya who had done all this – or was it Imladris itself?
He shook his head violently, trying to shake off his sleep. At last he realised what was happening. He was fading. He was becoming a memory. Maybe he wasn´t dying, but he was becoming a memory. He was becoming Imladris: an echo of times past.
It terrified him.
He rose quickly, struggling to get out of the sheet, and threw the door open. The corridor was as dark as before and as still as before. A tomb. A tomb and he was the buried one.
Breathing hard he closed the door and leaned his back to it, shocked. That he had gone so far. That he had actually almost killed himself. That he had actually been mad – if he wasn´t that still.
What was he going to do now? What in the world was he going to do? He couldn´t stay here. He didn´t know if there was anything for him in the future, but the thought of staying here made him cold inside.
But if he was going to live, he would have to find a way to make life bearable again; and he din´t know if there was any such way.
He closed his eyes. He saw Estel: Estel in the last rays of sun, his gaze distant, his heart already prepared to die. He opened his eyes. That was a memory he wasn´t ready for.
Before him, Imladris had changed.
There were fissures in the floor. He hadn´t noticed them before. There were fissures in the floor and spider webs in the corners of the corridor, because Imladris fought a losing battle just like himself. Imladris was a ruin. Imladris was a ruin and maybe he was a ruin too. He and Imladris were alike. They were both trying to keep what was slipping through their fingers and they were both losing themselves.
They were both pretending everything was as it used to be, but it was a lie. Imladris wasn´t only empty, it was falling apart. And Legolas wasn´t only tired.
Get out of here or you will die.
Get out of here and then what?
Frightened he sank to the floor, his back to the smooth wooden door. He had no idea... no idea what to do. You will die, he told himself. You have no one. You will die.
He didn´t want to die.
And he got to his feet again. He walked back through the corridors in a dream: wishing to hide from the cold moonlight, hurrying through the shadows as if there were creatures there who would try to stop him. He wanted to tear the candles from their holders and the sheets from the furniture. He wanted to open all the doors. He wanted to scream. He wanted to sink to the floor and never rise again.
He came to the entrance hall; it lay before him like a vast winter forest, cold and sterile, with perfect rows of straight trees stretching to the white roof. He hadn´t closed the door when he arrived and moonlight was flooding in. He walked across the floor, his heart pounding. The rustling of the trees was growing stronger. He heard the wind. He saw the sky and the buildings surrounding the courtyard. He wasn´t going to make it. The outside world frightened him. There was nothing left there for him.
On the highest stair outside the front port he stumbled, and he didn´t rise again. That was it. He hadn´t made it. He would never be able to go further.
The moon was sharp in his eyes, the whispering of the trees foreign. He didn´t know their voices, didn´t understand their words. And Estel was gone. Estel... Estel can´t be gone. It´s not possible.
Legolas didn´t know for how long he sat there, but suddenly he looked up. He didn´t know why. He´d never know why. But he looked up – and he saw himself.
He saw himself riding beneath the archway, shaking his hair out of his eyes and looking up. He saw himself look at the stair, where the twins stood... the memory begun to build itself up around him.
It became summer – a sunny summer day. The buildings and the courtyard became filled with elves dressed in their best clothes, all eager and filled with expectation. He felt the smell of newly baked bread. Imladris was prepared for a feast.
Legolas – a slightly younger Legolas – came riding at the head of a large company of mounted warriors from Eryn Lasgalen. No – Eryn Galen. This was some years ago. Rising from the stairs he saw himself wearing a quiver Orthelian had made to him; it was broken some years before – some years before he became a member of the fellowship.
Legolas didn´t know from when the memory was, but it was real. In the memory he was dressed as was fitting for a prince of Eryn Galen, and his hair was very neatly braided; but as soon as he saw the twins he burst into laughter. Standing on top of the stair, looking rather uncomfortable in their formal robes, the twins grinned at him, already planning mischief.
Then something caught Legolas attention. Beside the twins, holding lord Elrond´s hand, stood a small boy. For a swift moment Legolas could have thought it was a new Elrondion, but that was impossible, and soon he saw it wasn´t an elfling. The boy´s name was Estel, he was later told, and he was lord Elrond´s foster-son.
They looked at each other, boy and elf with equal curiosity.
Lord Elrond´s foster-son meant Elladan´s and Elrohir´s foster-brother and that meant Legolas foster-brother – because the twins were Legolas brothers in soul and heart if not in blood, and their kin was his kin. Legolas knew it wouldn´t be for long, because Men doesn´t live long, and his first thought could have been there was no reason to attach himself to the boy – but he was already caught. There was something about those grey eyes. Legolas knew, the way he sometimes just knew things, that the boy would live long in his heart.
He didn´t fully understand, and how could he? When he stood there on the courtyard, young and merry, with the sun in his hair and all the world before his eyes – how could he have known? How could he have imagined those miserable rainy journeys when they laughed at everything that went wrong, how could he have imagined those nights by the camp-fire when they talked until they fell asleep in the middle of a sentence? How could he have imagined thinking of something funny and looking at Estel and realising he is thinking of the same thing – or seeing each other after years of separation and smiling because there are no need for words – or feeling his back to one´s own in the middle of a fight – or his heartbeat beneath one´s hand when he is wounded and there is nothing you can do but wait – or when he opens his eyes and you know he will survive? He didn´t know anything about that then. He just knew there was a place in his heart where Estel was supposed to be.
And Estel was still there. Legolas had been wrong all the time. Estel was there, only he hadn´t seen it.
He had known, when he met Estel, that the man would die one day. He couldn´t have known how it would feel; it was impossible to imagine that. But he had known it would be worth it. Legolas was certain of it: he had known that whatever happened their friendship would be worth this pain. It would be stronger than the pain. It would be stronger than anything. They would be stronger. The bond they shared – it would be strong enough to survive death. The bond would always be there.
Estel would always be there.
Maybe they would never meet again – and maybe they would, just like Aragorn had said, just like Sam – Legolas remembered that now – had said so many years ago. And even if they didn´t, there would be a part of Estel in Legolas´ heart, and a part of Legolas in Estel´s heart. You cannot be so close to someone and not leave any tracks. If the world lived on for millions and millions of years, there would still be a place in his heart that was Estel.
And there was only one thing he had to do if it was to become like that.
He had to live.
Maybe it was the gentle touch of wind on its walls, and maybe it was the first morning light, and maybe it was it was the way the elf seemed to live , but suddenly the House understood.
It hurt at first, when the elf stormed through all the empty halls and tore the white sheets from the furniture and the candles from their holders and the books from their shelves, ripped tapestries from the walls, threw figurines on the floor, flung open all the doors and the windows and let in the night. You are a ruin, he said, and it hurt. But then the House knew that the elf was right, and the House had been wrong, all the time.
What did it matter if it looked like before, when it wasn´t? Not more than it matters if you can see a beloved friend when you can´t touch him. Truth was, what was really important, what really mattered, was exactly what the House had tried to push away: life.
It had let in the elf because his life had been faltering; but now – when he was alive again, his spirit strong, his eyes shining the way only elven eyes does – now it realised it wasn´t enough. The elf would leave, but others had to come, because the House saw what it had been missing: the warmth of a living creature.
It couldn´t hope for hearing the voices of elves again. At least not many. Maybe a few, now and then. But there were others – men and dwarves crossing the mountains – that would need a safe place to rest; a place of peace, of comfort. That meant it had to fell apart, for Men are afraid of things they don´t understand, and if the House become a place of ghosts no one would dare to go near. But if it fell apart, and let trees grow in the ruins of its white walls, and flowers bloom through the floors and Elrond´s telescope be covered in ivy, then it would become a place of rest for tired warriors – a refuge for those seeking shelter, just like it became the refuge for fleeing elves all those years ago.
And I will, the House thought.
Many years later, a passing traveller would find this a valley just like all others – very beautiful and very safe, but untouched. If they looked closer, maybe they would find a broken statue or a part of an ornamented pillar; but Men are impatient and seldom look that close. The House that was Once Elrond´s would be forgotten.
But not Imladris.
It was spring when he saw the shore.
They had been sailing for such a long time, and he was impatient. He had grown tired of the Sea. While building the ship he had capitulated and decided that he loved it, but it didn´t speak to him like the trees and when the shore emerged from the morning mist, he could have jumped up and down with impatience. Finally, finally, finally.
Sun glittered on the surface of the water. Wind filled the sails. He leaned to the railing and closed his eyes and felt the splashes of water on his face.
"We´re here, Gimli", he said. "We´ve arrived."
"Aye", Gimli said beside him. "So how do you feel?"
Legolas tilted his head to one side, thinking. It was hard to tell. He wasn´t entirely happy, but he wasn´t sad either. There was still the undertone of sadness in his heart, but it was soft, like the touch of gentle fingers; or maybe it was age. Finally he said: "I feel whole."
"Well, that´s not bad", Gimli said.
Legolas shook his head. "It´s not."
And across the water came the voices of elms and beeches, and the sun shone, and the wind blew to the West; and it wasn´t.
It wasn´t bad.
Thank you for reading! What did you think? Please review, every comment is welcome :)