Legolas' mind reeled with all he had seen that night, as he with several others, walked through the camp beneath the frosty light of the midnight stars. The little Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, whom they were escorting to the foot of the mountain, trudged soberly along in their midst. Small and frightened he appeared, his coat hanging off of his slender, half starved frame now that the Arkenstone had been surrendered to Bard.
Legolas looked with pity on the somber little creature as his mind traveled back to the moment when the little Hobbit standing before Thranduil and Bard, had drawn the great round jewel from beneath his coat. Until that point, Legolas had been standing nearby, only paying half of his attention to what the little Hobbit, was saying to his father and to Bard, as the three sat near each other upon the ground before a flickering fire. But when Bilbo drew forth the thing he had held beneath his coat and threw away the little rag he had wrapped around it, Legolas' every sense was drawn suddenly to the shining treasure, and he took an involuntary step forward as his father leapt to his feet in amazement. It was as if the Hobbit had suddenly unveiled a Silmaril in their midst. But not even the light of the Silmarils could outshine this magnificent jewel.
It was as if liquid moonlight pure and cold, had been poured into a crystal globe. From its many facets silver light spilled forth, clear and chill in many sundry beams of silver, as the light of many bright stars. Yet in spite of its breathtaking beauty, Legolas found himself warmly imagining how it paled at the memory of the light within Lalaith's eyes, which outshone the brightness of any cold, unfeeling gem.
"This is the Arkenstone of Thrain," the little Hobbit Bilbo had said, making no effort to hide the wistfulness in his voice. "The Heart of the Mountain; and it is also the heart of Thorin. He values it above a river of gold."
Legolas had drawn in a low breath then, understanding the grim Dwarf's longing for the great jewel.
"I give it to you. It will aid you in your bargaining," the young Hobbit had finished. Then Bilbo, with a shudder, and a reluctant expression, had reached his hand slowly forward, and surrendered the marvelous stone to Bard who had extended his hand in silent amazement.
Legolas retreated from the memory and turned his gaze now upon the little Hobbit, and watched him as he clutched his ragged coat all the more tightly to him, and tried in vain to repress a shudder.
"There is no real need for you to return to them," Legolas offered in a gentle voice as he imagined what awaited the poor Hobbit when the Dwarves learned of his betrayal.
"Oh, yes indeed, I must return," Bilbo countered, barely looking up. "I ought not to leave my friends like this after all we have gone through together. And I promised to wake Bombur at midnight."
Legolas smiled admiring the small Hobbit's resolve.
"Why did you do it?" he gently asked of the Hobbit, who now lifted his head to fully observe the Elf who spoke to him. "Why did you give us the Arkenstone?"
"Well, now," Bilbo sighed, and his arms flopped in a weary shrug, "I am dreadfully tired of all this treasure business. Thorin has let the lust for dragon's treasure get to his heart, and it's not good for him. He'd starve on his gold before giving even a portion to Bard and his folk from the Long Lake, and he'd make the rest of us starve with him. And Dain with five hundred Dwarves from the Iron Hills, is coming, as I've already told your father-," Legolas nodded at this, and drew in a low breath at the thought, "and I would like everyone involved to avoid such a messy business as that could become if I can help it."
Bilbo drew out a long sigh, "If there's anything Thorin will be willing to trade for, so that you and the Men can get on your way," he sighed again and finished, "and I can get back to my home, it's the Arkenstone."
"Well done, Master Baggins!" a voice from ahead called out, and Legolas, Bilbo and the company stopped as they both looked up to see an old man wrapped in a dark cloak rise from where he had been sitting before a tent door and came towards them. A hand appeared from beneath the dark cloak, marked and furrowed as with age, yet it was strong and sure as it clapped Bilbo upon the back. "There is always more about you than anyone expects."
His eyes now, turned upon Legolas, and he threw back his hood, smiling warmly, his familiar eyes sparkling brightly beneath the stars' wane light.
"And how is Legolas, the son of the king?" his kindly voice asked gentle and warm as he had always been.
"I am well, Mithrandir," Legolas returned with a slow smile, and a low, deferential bow of his head.
Lalaith stood upon the veranda that edged her chambers, her arms folded tightly across her as she stared out into the shadows of the night, feeling her jaw clenching and unclenching in her ire and nervousness. Beside her, though many paces away, Haldir stood, his hands resting lightly on the railing as if he were entirely oblivious to her discomfort as he uttered a low sigh.
"The nights in Lórien are far less forbidding than the nights are here. "He nodded with an almost arrogant sniff toward the river of dark water that they could both see from her railing as it flowed beneath the bridge and on below the arching limbs of the beeches as it made its clattering way toward the edge of the forest. "I need not gaze out from my window, and wonder what manner of unholy creatures might be peering hungrily out at me from their nets of webbing, wishing they could ensnare me in them." He uttered a short bark of a laugh, and added, "I much prefer the wholesomeness of the Golden Wood, and the Mallyrn to these woods, don't you, Lalaith?"
Barely glancing at him, she made a low sound in her throat, which he seemed to take as agreement, and he smiled.
"I could take you back there, if you wish." His voice was soft as he slowly edged toward her. She could feel the heat of his eyes fixed unmovingly upon her.
Lalaith said nothing, but only clutched her arms all the tighter her breath nervously choking her. Oh, why had Queen Aseaiel insisted that she walk with Haldir after the evening meal had finished? Of course she owed him something, after he had come all this way from the Golden Wood just to ensure himself that she was safe. But why was he still here? She had taken him on a long winding path through the trees, past her nurse's tomb, and back here again, and the night was late, yet still he would not leave and make his way to the tree borne rooms that had been set aside for him.
"You would have returned to Lórien long ago, if such business as has occurred over this dead dragon Smaug had not arisen." Haldir continued, reaching her side. "So taking you back would be a small matter. You could be back in the Golden Wood before Elrohir and-," he drew in a quick breath, "Thranduil's people have returned."
Lalaith gulped involuntarily as a warm hand gently squeezed the curve of her shoulder. "You could leave a message that you are in my care, so your cousin would have no need to worry for you. He could follow after in good time."
"No," she snipped rapidly. "I will not leave until I know that they are returned safely."
A low sound, one that unmistakably spoke his disappointment, echoed out of his throat.
"How is Lothirien, Haldir?" she asked as she gently, though firmly, edged away from his touch upon her shoulder.
Haldir's eyes dropped as his brows furrowed silently. "She is well, as always," he said with a low nod. "Since you left, she has been growing somewhat happier than she has been of late." He smiled and glanced away, an almost wistful look crossing his eyes. "Which brings me much relief."
"That makes me glad." Lalaith sighed sincerely, turning to look up into Haldir's eyes. "She deserves to be happy."
"She does deserve happiness," Haldir agreed, smiling. But the smile Lalaith meant to return to him fell quickly away as she felt the warmth of his hand upon her back. "As do you-,"
"She deserves a good man who loves only her, and would wish for nothing else but to make her happy," she found herself spouting, her words following one another in rapid succession.
"True enough." Haldir said with a smile, though his words sounded sad. "But that is nothing for you or I to concern ourselves over. Lothirien is very beautiful, and she has several suitors."
"I doubt she notices any of them." Lalaith sighed, turning to gaze over the darkening forest. Lights within many of the near houses that were set within the boughs of the high trees were winking in the darkness, and she focused her gaze on these, willing her limbs to relax. Unfolding her arms, she rested her finger tips lightly against the railing as she said, "I would think, Haldir, that there is only one she notices, and whose affection she craves."
"And what of you, Lalaith?" Haldir asked.
Lalaith gulped. She could feel his words against her hair. He had drawn so close, that she could feel the movement of his breath against her back as he placed his hands one on either side of her against the railing, as his chin rested atop her hair.
"Do you notice any of your suitors? Is there one whose affection you long for, whom you dream of unceasingly, whose very name stirs within you a longing that cannot be ignored?"
Lalaith opened her mouth to respond to this, but found she could not. Could she dare to break his heart? To speak the truth would be to confess that her answer was indeed yes, but that her ever increasing longing was for Legolas, not Haldir. What would that do to him? Haldir was her friend, and she did not wish to hurt him, but neither did she want to allow him upon paths were she did not wish for him to tread.
"Lalaith?" The tender tones in Haldir's voice quavered through her, and she found herself trembling as she felt his hands large and warm, move to cover her own. Without breaking contact with her, his fingertips slid up her arms until his hands covered her shoulders and he firmly, yet gently turned her slowly to face him.
His eyes were alight in the dark as he murmured, "Do you understand of what I am speaking?"
"Yes, Haldir." She whispered in answer to his query. But as a wane smile began its way across his face, at her answer, Lalaith's heart sank. He had misunderstood her. She had said yes, meaning that she understood his question. But he had taken her answer to mean that she both understood his question, and answered it. In the way he had hoped.
Her world seemed to freeze as his sturdy arms slipped about her, and his head began to lower, ever so slowly, toward her own. Panic rose in her, but she fought it desperately down.
"Yes, Haldir, I know of what you speak." She blurted, edging out of the circle his arms had created about her, uttering a soft laugh. "But I doubt I could gather as many suitors to me as Lothirien doubtlessly is plagued with. As her greatest friend, surely you have noticed how her beauty is beyond compare."
"Lalaith?" he asked softly, and her eyes crushed closed at his plaintive, confused tones edged with a thread of pain.
"Haldir, please. The night has grown late, and I am weary." She knew she was stammering shamelessly, but she did not care. "Surely you must be more than ready to rest, after your long ride today."
"Yes," he muttered, the disappointment in his voice adding a gravely undertone to his words. "Suddenly I am very tired, Lalaith." His arms slipped away from her to fall helplessly to his sides. He turned away from her, and moved slowly away from her along the portico as it bent around the curve of the beech, toward the twining staircase that wove its way away from her door, and downward around the tree's massive trunk.
Lalaith followed him silently, wringing her hands and cursing herself for hurting him.
He dropped down the first steps that entwined the great beech, and paused turning back his eyes and seeking hers where she stood behind him, watching him with sorrowful, timid eyes.
"Lalaith-," he muttered with a voice that quavered softly as he spoke.
"Yes?" She returned, hearing her own voice equally unsure as his.
"Your beauty, like Lothirien's, is beyond compare."
She stiffened as his hand came up, the bare tips of his fingers brushing her cheek.
"The Valiër themselves must envy you."
She stood unmoving a long moment, not knowing how to respond to this, before she uttered a broken sigh and murmured, "Goodnight, Haldir. Sleep well."
At this, Haldir smiled, a weak, sad smile as if mildly humored by something she had said. "Goodnight, Lalaith." He murmured, then turned away.
Lalaith watched his back, straight and strong, though his head was slightly bent in an attitude of weariness as he descended her steps away from her, until he had moved round the great trunk, and had passed beyond her sight.
Turning back, she moved into the shadows of her room until she stood at the foot of her bed.
"Oh, Legolas. Come back," she murmured, hearing her voice thickened with tears she did not wish to fall, and her arms ached with an emptiness she didn't understand. "Things would be so much simpler with you here."
Biting back tears, and not bothering herself to change into her night gown, she flung herself onto her bed, and buried her face in her pillow, though she knew sleep would be long in coming.