Arod's step was smooth yet gentle as the quick-footed horse surged beneath Legolas. Behind him, Gimli perched precariously upon the horse's back as Arod surged up the slope of the hill toward the smoking remains of the orcs. The smoking mass was still sending up tendrils of dark smoke into the sky that hung above the shadowed eaves of Fangorn. Arod reminded Legolas very much of Rána, his own steed he had left behind in Imladris. Probably making himself fat with too much grain, and not enough activity. A momentary smirk softened his otherwise taut face. He had chosen to leave his faithful friend in the protected vale of Imladris, rather than having him return with his companions to Mirkwood. For Legolas had planned himself to return to Imladris with Lalaith once the quest was complete. Perhaps even wed her there, if he were to be given leave by his father, and Lord Elrond.
Thinking of Lalaith brought the wave of reality crashing back upon him with merciless suddenness. And a wafting cloud of thick stinking smoke washing into his face did not help to ease the sharp pain.
They topped a hill, and there it was there before them, a black fetid hill of burnt orc corpses, still smoldering. The land about the grotesque mound was bristling with arrows. Black blood splattered the grass, and broken, abandoned weapons and helms lay scattered everywhere. Beside the putrid mound, a spear had been planted, similar to the spears wielded by Éomer and his men, and, as a gruesome trophy of their victory, had been thrust the bloody head of an uruk, its tongue lolling thick and swollen out of its sagging mouth.
"Lalaith!" He shouted, leaping to the ground before Arod had even halted. Aragorn jumped from Hasufel as well, nearly as quickly as the Elf while Gimli followed slowly, clambering clumsily down only after Arod had cantered to a stop.
"Lalaith!" Legolas cried again, darting around the charred, smoking remains, his eyes scanning the bristled battlefield wildly, almost as if he expected to see some trace of her, some proof that she was still alive. His eyes darted this way and that, following the long green edge of Fangorn before it disappeared even from his sight into the distance in both directions, seeking vainly for something of her, anything that would tell him of her fate, before he closed his eyes tightly, lowered his weary head and turned his reluctant eyes at last upon the blackened remains of their enemies.
Gimli had already set himself to the grisly chore of picking through the charred pile of the dead with his ax, nudging aside the blackened petrified remains of orcish innards in the grim hope that they might find any sign or remain of Lalaith or either of the Hobbits. Legolas stood back, unwilling to watch Gimli at his unenvied task. What would he do if the Dwarf discovered her? Legolas wondered numbly to himself. He knew now, that without evidence, he could never admit to himself that she was gone. That she had left him. But if she was found in the midst of these smoldering bodies, her once beautiful, perfect body blackened and twisted, mangled as these orcs were, what would he do? What would his recourse be if he could no longer afford the numb denial that he allowed himself now? Take his vengeance upon her captors? But they were already dead, burning in a blackened heap. They had claimed their deserved punishment. Seek retribution from the Men of Rohan? It would not be just. What they had done, had been done in innocent ignorance, defending their lands and people. No, there would be nothing for him to do. Nothing. Even his duty to the ringbearer was fulfilled. Frodo with the One Ring in his keeping, was somewhere in the wilderness beyond the Emyn Muil, each step of his feet taking him closer to Mount Doom deep within Mordor. He had Sam at his side, and Sam's ever faithful, indomitable will to strengthen him. The two Hobbits were no longer in need of his aid. Without Lalaith to live for, without the hope of life with her, the center of his dreams and his heart, his life would be utterly directionless.
Gimli paused in his work, and let out a short huff of air. Legolas stiffened, but did not look. Gimli had found something. Leaning upon his ax, and reaching down, the Dwarf sifted through a mound of black powder until his gloved fingers lay upon something black and stiff, and lifted it up, thick black flakes of ash falling away as he held it out for Aragorn's inspection.
"It's her quiver." Gimli said in a soft, somber tone.
"Legolas." Aragorn said softly, the one word speaking enough for him to understand that Gimli was not mistaken.
He turned then, slowly, and focused upon a black and fire scoured oblong thing, in the Dwarf's hand. His heart drew inward upon itself as his eyes rested upon it, denying to himself still, that what he saw could not be. But it was hers. He knew it anywhere. He could remember the day she had first shown it to him, centuries before. He come to Imladris to see her, and had barely lighted off his horse when she had come dancing to him, a maiden in the full flush of young womanhood, to show him what Elrond had gifted it to her, its once warm leather was finely embossed with plated vines trailing upward, and the figure of a songbird in flight. It had been brimming then with fresh arrows, and her new bow, as well as two knives almost identical to his own.
"Now, you shall have to teach me all you know, my friend." She had announced proudly, her eyes dancing with excitement. "Even my uncle admits that I am no longer a child. I am a woman now, and no longer can you deny it, Legolas."
"I cannot deny it." He had agreed readily, his heart beating hard and fast as he had gazed upon her fair form, fearful that his feelings for her might be guessed at before the time to speak them came. His eyes met hers, and he had forced a playful grin upon his face. "Never have I been able to deny you anything, Lalaith. You know this."
She had laughed then, her bright, silvery laugh he had always loved. And his grin had widened in return as she had come forward to embrace him.
Now, though, he had no smile upon his face as he reached out and gingerly took the quiver into his hands. The once supple leather was cracked and charred, the belt straps completely burnt away.
His legs felt suddenly weak, and he reached out to catch Gimli's shoulder, misjudged, and fell heavily onto his knees as the burnt quiver fell from his trembling hands.
Gimli watched his friend mutely, and though the Elf's grief was silent and subdued, still it was a terrible thing to see. "Lalaith nin." Legolas murmured, lifting his eyes to gaze into the far distance. "Mas na le?" His eyes studied the far blue edge of the sky as if seeking for something, but he could not see for the tears suddenly washing his eyes. He closed his eyes tightly, and bowed his head, suddenly weary beyond reckoning.
Aragorn looked with bitter sympathy upon the defeated Elf before he jerked away from the sight, and sent an orc helmet plummeting away with a fierce kick before he too dropped to his knees with a wild cry of rage and pain that rang out against the wall of trees bordering Fangorn, and echoed mockingly back at them, before it trailed out over the plain at their backs, and faded.
"We failed them." Gimli muttered, his voice a strangled croak.
Legolas shook his head, hardly able to hear anything, his mind and heart turned inward as he sought to retrieve his memories of her. The last time he had kissed her had been when they were in the Naith of Lórien, nearing Caras Galadhon. It seemed now as if it had been ages before. Since then, he had done nothing but behave like a fool. A miserable fool he had been, treating her as he had, when he learned her true origin. Why could he not have put aside the knowledge of who she was, instead of claiming that their love could never find fulfillment because she was a daughter of Valar, and not Elf-born?
He had tried once to apologize to her, that night they had camped at the edge of the river, when he had taken her to that moonlit glade of flowers and they had danced. He had wanted to kiss her then, and he would have, if Boromir had not come when he did, breaking them apart.
Boromir, the son of Denethor, Lord of Gondor, weak though he had been, had died defending her. He was gone, claiming the gift of all Men. Whatever rewards Ilúvatar sought right to bestow upon him, were now his. He had loved her too, Legolas knew now, and had told her as much. She knew Boromir's feelings for her, but did she know Legolas' feelings? She knew he loved her still, did she not? She knew he had repented of all his foolishness, didn't she? And would he ever be able to hold her once again, as he used to, to feel her quick intake of breath against him as he whispered the truth of his love into her ear? Would he ever again experience the joy of kissing her sweet, responsive mouth, knowing that the ecstasy they shared in such an embrace was only a foretaste of something yet to come, and far more beautiful?
He drew in a deep ragged sigh, unwilling to open his weary eyes yet, and face again the starkness of reality.
"A Hobbit lay here." The softly toned words finally forced his eyes open, and he glanced at Aragorn who had spoken. The human was gazing over a spot of earth where the grass had been indented, touching it softly. "And the other," he murmured, moving slightly to another patch of pressed ground. Aragorn touched another patch of ground beside it, "And here, a woman."
He sat back on his heels studying the scuffed and tattered ground, struggling to read the silent message that had been written there.
"They crawled." He continued, as he rose to his feet, and moved on, stooping low to the ground as he went. "This way."
Legolas rose now, and followed behind him, struggling to see upon the ground what Aragorn could.
"Their hands were bound." He continued as he moved on, Legolas trailing behind.
"They were separated. The Hobbits rolled over that way. The woman, crawled this way."
He moved slowly on, and paused over a spot of churned earth, and lifted from the dust a length of severed rope.
"Her bonds were cut." He exclaimed, a touch of urgency filling his voice.
"The Hobbits' too." Gimli announced paces away where he lifted a piece of the same sliced rope from out of the mashed earth.
"She was rejoined by the Hobbits here." Aragorn continued, moving further, his eyes dashing back and forth over the silent writing upon the ground. "They ran over here." He moved on, pausing only a moment to announce, "They were followed." He broke into a run toward the shadowed eaves of the forest. "Tracks lead away from the battle-," he drew to a stop at the edge of the forest and stared up into the twisted gnarled branches of trees old beyond time, "into Fangorn Forest."
"Fangorn?" Gimli breathed as beside him, Legolas peered into the shadowed gloom that smelt of green things and cool shadows, and age. "What madness drove them in there?"
"Then she is alive then? Safe?" Legolas asked breathlessly. He did not fear Fangorn as Gimli did.
"It would be my hope." Aragorn answered soberly. "But here," he indicated back at the ground, "are the tracks of two orcs. They are being followed."
"Then we shall follow them!" Boomed Gimli fiercely, brandishing his ax.
Brave words, Legolas thought, from a Dwarf who had no great love of dark forests any more than he had, for the caves of Moria. But Gimli was willing to brave the deeps of Fangorn for Lalaith's sake, and for the Hobbits.
Turning, he clapped a hand on the Dwarf's shoulder, and grinned. "Thank you, my friend."
"Pagh," Gimli grumbled gruffly, suddenly embarrassed. "Don't mention it." But he could not hide the slim grin that flashed momentarily beneath his beard. "I told you we'd find `er. And we will."
Lalaith slowed and stopped, letting her two companions run on ahead. Beyond the crooked narrow tunnel of trees they had been scampering through, she could see an open place, where a little light was piercing the branches above, and lighting, but faintly, a little ground. They could stop and rest there for a while, but she needed to pause, at least for a moment, now.
As a prisoner of the orcs, they had kept her running for days, the pace blistering even if she had not had this infernal arrow sticking out of her. And now, free at last of the orcs, she still had to run. Had she not been wounded, perhaps she would have been able to keep up with Merry and Pippin. But her strength was completely taxed. She could not go on any more. She bent low, her hands pressing hard against her knees as she struggled to breath. She did not bother wasting breath to call out to the Hobbits, for she knew they would discover her missing soon enough, and come back for her.
Glancing down at the broken shaft of the arrow, still sticking out of her, she grumbled in frustration. She could feel it inside her every time she moved. And she would have to try to take it out sooner or later, but she was not sure if she dared. Uglúk had said she would bleed to death if it was pulled out. And the orc had probably been right, at least if they had not bandages to halt the bleeding. And they did not have anything but the clothes on their backs, and their elven cloaks. No food or weapons, and even her quiver was gone now.
Her momentary rest having restored some of her strength, she straightened, and started in a walk after the Hobbits. A rustle of leaves behind her though, made her pause. The back of her shoulder twinged, but she paid it no heed. She could no longer see the Hobbits ahead of her. Had they come full circle, and end up behind her somehow?
Silly Hobbits, she thought with a smile. They had no sense of direction in these trees, the poor things had completely turned themselves around! And she began to turn to tell them so, just as a scrawny hand, all bones and green mottled skin, gripped her suddenly around the throat so tightly, that she could not even hope to scream. She was thrown roughly back into a tree, her head striking hard, and her vision dancing for a moment before her eyes came again into focus, and Gratbag's face, with Grishnákh's just behind his, came swimming into view against the gnarled twisted branches of the trees behind them. She struggled hard, scratching at Gratbag's hands, and twisting from side to side, but she had been pinned into an indented curve of the tree, giving her nowhere to go. And Gratbag had shoved her against the tree in such a way that her legs were bent under her, and she couldn't even manage a hard kick at him.
"Where are your filthy little friends?" Grishnákh demanded from over Gratbag's shoulder. The spear that had struck him back at the edge of the trees still poked through his shoulder, forcing him to favor his weight on one side.
A gurgle from her throat that would have become an angry scream if they had allowed it, was crushed into silence as Gratbag's fist gave her throat another squeeze.
"I'll go after them." Grishnákh piped. "They couldn't have strayed far." He started to shuffle away. The wooden spear that thrust clean through him, dragged along behind as he went. "Save some of her for me." He ordered as his back disappeared through the thick brush, leaving Gratbag alone with her.
"'Ello, pretty elfff." Gratbag seethed into her face once his companion was gone. "Did you misss me?"
Lalaith refused to answer, clawing fiercely against the orc's hand. Her nails were drawing blood, thick, black oily blood from the scratches on his green skin, but Gratbag hardly noticed.
"It'sss too bad I wasss wounded." He wheezed, nodding at the arrows protruding from his body where his left arm hung limp, and his leg where an arrow still poked through. "Then it would'a been easssier to have a little sssport with you before I atecha."
Knowing what he alluded too, Lalaith struggled harder, though she knew his grip was too strong, even with only one good hand. Gratbag grinned, thin green lips peeling back to show his crooked slime covered fangs as his face oozing rancid breath, drew closer to hers.
She pressed her head back against the tree as far as she could go, scratching harder at his hand. But-, as Gratbag drew closer, his wounded leg dragged along with him, and a desperate idea formed in her mind. She couldn't manage a hard kick, the way he had twisted her, but a small kick, she might managed, and if she aimed her foot just right-, she lifted one foot, and brought it down with a paltry thump onto the arrow still protruding from the orc's leg. And though weak and pathetic, when it would have been otherwise useless, it wrenched a hideous scream of pain from the orc, and he stumbled backward, cursing her in the black speech.
At this, Lalaith thrust herself away from the tree, and sprinted into the shadows of the forest. She wasn't sure where she was going, though she hoped it was toward Merry and Pippin. How were they faring with Grishnákh? Had they managed to hide from him, or better yet, had they managed to kill him somehow? Oh, she hoped so. But she could not spare any more thought for them, because she could hear Gratbag crashing noisily through the trees behind her, and drawing closer. If only she were not so weary. If only she had not been wounded, perhaps she could escape. But he was drawing closer by the second, even with his wounded leg. And then suddenly, she tripped over a moss covered stone, and fell heavily upon a bed of putrid, molding moss. Gratbag was coming, a hoot of victory upon his lips. He wouldn't waste time now teasing her with torture and death. He'd simply kill her, and she had nothing-,
Time seemed to pause as she suddenly remembered the small, finger length knife Galadriel had gifted to her in Lórien. She had forgotten all about it after she had tucked it into her boot, for her favored gift had been the medallion Galadriel had given her, as well as the necklace she had given Legolas, with the instructions that they were to be kept for each other in anticipation for their wedding day. The knife was so small and its sheath so smooth, that after she had tucked it away, she had forgotten all about it. Even now, she was not sure if it was still there. Had the orcs discovered it, or had it remained hidden from them? She would not be sure until she reached for it.
She rolled to her back to face Gratbag as the orc came, scampering swiftly toward her, with a wild light in his eyes. He leaped in the air at her, his lips curled back from his teeth in a furious snarl as she snatched a hand down into the boot she had tucked her knife in, felt something metallic and cool, and drew it forth, shoving it at Gratbag's belly as his weight came crashing down on her, knocking the air out of her, his teeth straining for the exposed flesh of her throat.
And then suddenly he stiffened, a grumble of surprise faded into silence, and he lay still. With a fierce shove, Lalaith rolled his rancid, twitching body off of her, and scrambled to her feet to gaze down at the delicately carved handle of the tiny knife protruding from the orc's belly. Galadriel's foresight had just saved her life. The weight of that thought settled slowly upon her and she bent, retrieving the knife from the now dead orc's belly with a quiet reverence. She cleaned it on her breeches, then tucked it away again, back safely into her boot.
Rising, she glanced about herself. The forest was dark, and other than herself and the twisted gnarled trees about her, she could see nothing alive. Which direction had she come from? Where should she go to find the Hobbits? All she wanted now, was to get away from the wretched sight of the dead orc, and so she turned and stumbled away blindly, recriminating herself for the desire she had had minutes before, to tease Merry and Pippin for their inability to find their way through the maze of trees. The forest was faded and dark, and in this place, naught but scant green light filtered through to the ground.
"Merry, Pippin?" She called out weakly, and her voice echoed off through the trees. She paused, as her legs trembled beneath her, and put her hand against a tree, as her other hand rose to her mouth, stifling a yawn. She blinked her eyes fiercely, remembering again how utterly tired she was. Oh, she wanted so much to simply lie down and sleep! But no, she would find the Hobbits first. "Merry, Pippin, hello? Where are you? Have you escaped the orc? Hello?"
"Good gracious me, if there are orcs wandering about these trees, perhaps it would be best for you to keep your voice down." The voice at her back drew her up stiffly, and she froze. It was decidedly masculine and aged, and somehow, though she could not place why, it seemed familiar. Spinning quickly, she had to throw an arm up against the blinding light issuing from the brilliant form. A wizard, she realized, as Gandalf had been, but this one was clad all in white.
Saruman! She realized with a sudden grip of fright. And without knowing what other recourse she had, she balled a fist and swung wildly at him, only to have her wrist caught, mid swing, in a grip that was at the same time both gentle, and hard as steel. She could not move. Though she felt a strange sense of peace ease over her at his touch.
"You poor child, you've been injured." The White Wizard clucked in a grandfatherly tone as he noted the wooden shaft of the arrow poking through her jerkin. "It isn't a wonder that your swing was so wild. Come here, my dear. Let me help you. I will see what I can do about that wound." The wizard eased her forward, and she had no choice but to obey him as he gathered her up and lifted her easily, like a child. Her wound and her fright and the days of forced running had finally caught up to her.
"That's right." The wizard murmured warmly as her head sagged against his shoulder. "I must say, Lalaith, you have been through more than your share." The wizard spoke this and shifted her weight in his arms as if he were trying to balance her in his arms, and carry something else as well as he walked along through the forest. Oh, she noted, her brain fogging from the warmth of sleep, he was holding a staff, too. A tall white staff, its knob carved to imitate trailing, plated vines.
Her eyes were fading away to a peaceful dreamscape, but before she let herself fade completely, she looked up at the wizard, trying to distinguish his face in the bright light he gave off. She felt herself lowering, felt a bed of soft leaves beneath her, and his face at last, came into her view.
"Oh," she murmured, and sighed long. "It's you." And then her dreams, soft and warm, enveloped her, and sleep at last, claimed her.