Lalaith sighed in her half-conscious sleep. She shifted her weight where she lay upon a tumbled pile of rough stones within a ragged gouge that the Ents had torn from the wall surrounding the shallow swamp that was all that remained within the ring of Isengard. Her hands were folded beneath her head where she rested, and she frowned softly to herself, feeling a sudden cold tremor, accompanied by a slight twinge in the back of her right shoulder. Something evil was nearby. Shaking her head, she brought her focus back to the waking world, and glanced toward the black tower of Orthanc that rose above the muck of the quagmire like a towering island of black stone while Treebeard and the other Ents waded about beneath it. That was it of course, she answered herself. Saruman was near. He was still alive, and entrenched inside Orthanc. Tipping her head back upon her hands, she sighed, and returned to the warmth of her dreams.
And as had happened before several times in the past days since the Fellowship had been broken, she found her mind's sight flying low over the ground, beyond the ring of Isengard, over the forest, and the plain, and once again to the great fortress against the cliff that she had seen before. Little had changed, except for a row of newly turned mounds aligned along the foot of one of the high, sheer cliffs.
Graves. Lalaith realized somberly. Of Men, and also of Elves, perhaps. For Lothirien would not have been the only Elf to come from Lothlórien to aid the Men of Rohan. She wondered as a distant coldness touched her heart, if there were any beneath these mounds she had known. The sight of her mind came to rest on a space between two graves, where yet another mound should have been, and she wondered. For the earth looked as if it had been raised at one time in a mound. But recently, perhaps in only hours past, it had been turned aside. For the newly disturbed earth appeared still moist. Some great force, as if the very hand of one of the Valar, had pushed the mound upward from the inside out, turning the earth to one side and the other, and leaving a shallow pit the length of a grown Man, or Elf. But the pit was empty. Lalaith wondered at what this could mean, and marveled even more that two bright dots of color, a pair of small golden flowers growing at the edge of the shallow cavity had not been torn up and cast aside. Instead, they remained rooted firmly in the soft ground, waving serenely and undisturbed in a gentle breeze. And though she did not know why, the sight of the brave little flowers brought a wave of comforting warmth to Lalaith's heart.
"I wish for Haldir to go back as well, my lord." A voice that was as her own sounded within her dreams, as from a distant memory. But she could not place where she had spoken it, and a vague image of faces, dearly loved and forgotten, filtered through her sleeping mind.
"It is a heavy thing you ask, young one. Even for you." A voice answered, unknown to her, yet still familiar.
"But it can be done, if it is Ilúvatar's will. Lord Glorfindel is a living witness of that."
"But even so, such a thing cannot come without a heavy price."
"Haldir is my friend, and he bears an honorable heart. Whatever the cost, I will pay it."
"Young one," the man's voice became grave and heavy, "were you to return now, you would go with all your memories of this land. You would return trailing the glory of the Valar in your wake, with the powers of your father, and your mother, and of all your kin. But if you wish for this son of Ilúvatar's firstborn to return as well, you must sacrifice all that. You will return as you were, forgetting all that happened here, and bearing no more power than what you bear in the strength of your arm."
Lalaith frowned, sensing that in a time forgotten, she had felt a moment of hesitation, realizing what such power could do for the war against Sauron. But-, Haldir was her friend. Even in his greatest foolishness, he had always been honorable, and well-intentioned. And Lothirien, no matter the depth of the pain she must have suffered, had never grown bitter or unkind. Lalaith owed this to them both. Especially now, as she remembered that day upon Amon Hen, when she held the One Ring within her hand, when she had come so close to succumbing to its temptation. How would she wield such Valaric power within her frail, untried hands upon Arda, so far from the light and grace of Valinor? Would she be as her parents and her kin, or would she be as Melkor? Would such power do more harm than good? The risk that she could fall, as weak and untested as she yet was, was too great for her liking.
"I am not ready for such power yet." She had said at last, her voice firm. "I will gladly pay the price that you exact of me, to return Haldir to Lothirien. And who knows, but that he is needed there, still?"
A long moment passed, and upon the faces that floated within her half forgotten memories, she saw smiles of pride. "You are a wise one for you age, young Elerrina. As we knew you would be." The man's voice said at last. "I will do as you have bidden. Do not despair, for one day you will be ready-,"
"Oi, Lalaith, sleepy head!" A voice bright and near called out to her, as several bulbous objects tumbled down upon her stomach.
Shaking her head and jerking upright, Lalaith glared at Pippin as his rosy face came into focus. His little pipe was clenched firmly between his teeth, trailing a cloud of smoke upward as he grinned down at her.
"Silly Hobbit." She scowled, though she laughed as she spoke. "What are you doing, attacking a defenseless maiden while she is sleeping?"
"Apples!" He chirped, emitting bursts of smoke from his lips like a smithy's chimney. "Merry and I found `em. Thought you might be hungry."
"Famished." She admitted as she snatched up an apple in her hands, and bit furiously through its tender peel, not realizing until now, how empty her stomach had become. Ent draught had been nourishing, but not as filling as solid food, and she devoured the apple greedily.
"And we found some Longbottom leaf, too." Merry grinned from behind Pippin, somewhat breathless as he struggled up the rocky gouge in the wall to the level place where Lalaith sat. He offered her a self-satisfied grin as he puffed away on his own little pipe. "The finest weed in the South Farthing."
"Mm," Lalaith muttered, tossing away her stripped apple core, and snatching up another of the round red fruits as she rose to her feet. She arched her back with a soft groan, still feeling the points of the hard stones she had been resting against. "Aragorn is quite fond of it as well."
"Ah, our young Valië." A resonant voice boomed from nearby as Treebeard strode near, his gangly wooden legs sloshing through the tepid bog. "We had wondered," he breathed sonorously, "when you would waken. Quickbeam was becoming somewhat anxious."
Lalaith shaded her eyes, and glanced out at the forest of Ents that strode about through the murky lake. She found the hasty young Ent easily, for he moved more quickly than the others, and gave him a wave of her arm. An Entish smile split the smooth bark of Bregalad's features as the young Ent raised a long, leafy limb and waved back, to which Lalaith smiled.
But a moment later her smile grew into a somber line as she peered past the youthful Ent's knobby shoulder to a spot of clear silvery color upon the slick black stone steps of Orthanc. Laying against the steps only a few paces down from Saruman's forbidding doorway, lay the little star-woven blanket from Valinor. Dropped by Pippin when he had fallen into the flood, and laying in a tumbled mass now where it had been washed up upon the ragged steps, a smudge of color against the black stone of the cold, dark tower.
"Pippin, are you all right?" Lalaith whispered fiercely as the Hobbit beside her stumbled over a submerged log, creating a soft splash and ripples in the tepid murk that reached his waist as the Elf and Hobbit waded closer to the black blot against the night sky, that was Orthanc.
"I'm fine." The young Hobbit muttered, pausing a moment as he gained his balance once again.
Still, Lalaith gazed worriedly over the half drenched Hobbit. This was not the first time he had stumbled since they had left Merry sleeping upon the broken wall, and set out beneath the bright stars overhead that lit their way across the treacherous quagmire. Pippin's footing was far from graceful as he struggled over the submerged flotsam, the remnants of Saruman's great machines that protruded like grotesque skeletons upward out of the muddy water, some sinisterly half submerged, which even Lalaith had difficulty detecting.
"You didn't have to come with me, Pippin." Lalaith offered, catching him gently by the arm, and half lifting him over the ragged slats of splintered wood that had once been scaffolding for one of Saruman's great wooden wheels. "It was hardly your fault that it was dropped. You were falling into a raging flood, after all! You shouldn't feel responsible. I have no wish for you or Merry, or any of the Ents to trouble yourselves with this."
"But I should help to get it back. It's only right." Pippin insisted.
"But this could be dangerous." Lalaith returned. "This swamp is treacherous enough, without giving thought to what creatures might yet linger about in the tower. Who knows what could be watching us from up there-," She lifted her gaze upward, her eyes trailing over the harsh, sharp lines of the great tower of Orthanc that seemed to have been carved from one vast shard of basalt. Her eyes came to rest upon the shadowed balcony that stood over the doorway at the crest of the high stone steps, and a shadow, half unseen, flitted back into the darker shadows as Lalaith's eyes came to rest upon it. She shuddered as at a cold chill. But perhaps it had only been her imagination, she assured herself. And Saruman would not dare anything, not with the Ents so nearby.
"All the more reason for me to go with you." Pippin grinned, thrusting his shoulders stoutly back, and lifting his chin in what was meant to be a manly, protective posture, but only made Lalaith duck her head in order to stifle a laugh.
His sentiments were well meant, she assured herself, and it would not do to hurt his feelings.
"Well, here we are," Lalaith sighed, stopping where the water lapped at the carven steps that let upward out of the swampy mire.
"There it is, I'll fetch it for you." Pippin chirped as he sloshed out of the water, and began up the steps toward the little blanket that lay almost forlornly out of place against the cruel stone, only a few steps beneath Saruman's door.
"Be careful, Pip." Lalaith quipped, starting after him, her softer steps silent in comparison to his wet, flopping feet, the water dripping off his clothes, and tumbling in small cascades down the steps behind him.
Upward Lalaith crept, wincing at Pippin's every squelching step. But she smiled in tentative relief when Pippin at last reached the rumpled sliver cloth and picked it up. He turned with a beaming smile, and proudly lifted the little square of cloth like a trophy before he started back down.
But Lalaith's relieved smile swiftly turned to a gasp of despair as the door behind him swung open upon silent hinges emitting a hissing wind, cold and sharp as if it were the breath of an undead thing.
Pippin had felt the eruption of frigid air as well, and he paused in his descent, his own expression growing to a flinch of fear as he turned and saw, as Lalaith did, two shadowed figures emerge into the starlight as it streamed from above. One was a woman, a mortal she appeared to be, long dark hair cascading to a slender waist. Her gown was of dark rich linen, and her eyes, even in this darkness, were filled with a clear, cold light.
"Stop that little creature, Burza. I want to see what it is." She said in a voice that was at once both musical and icy. And at her command, the shadow at her side, a half hunched thing, with ragged black hair, its narrow frame dressed in tattered dirty rags, galloped down the steps toward Pippin.
Lalaith's heart jumped into her throat. The creature was an orc, she realized, and at that realization, she leapt into motion, flying up the steps, hoping to reach the Hobbit before the orc did.
But it was too near him. It snatched Pippin beneath his arms and seized him up, eliciting a terrified cry from the young Hobbit, who struggled and kicked to no avail.
"Stop, Elf." The woman ordered calmly, coming sedately down the steps, pausing only a step above the orc that still held Pippin as he whined and struggled. "If you come closer, I'll have my servant kill him."
This threat stopped Lalaith mid-leap, and she slowed and stopped, gasping from her steep sprint, still several steps beneath the orc who held Pippin as he kicked and cursed, biting now at the orc's arms that held him.
"Let him go." Lalaith demanded. A burning pain throbbed in her shoulder, but she barely noticed it in her fear for Pippin. "He's of no use to you. He's but a harmless Hobbit."
"A Hobbit is he? One of the little folk from the West?" The woman asked, her words light and trivial. She glided nearer to Pippin, and ran her fingers lightly over his face and through his hair.
"Don't you touch me!" Pippin barked, snapping at her hand.
"Mm. Feisty little creatures, Hobbits." She murmured, snatching her hand back from the reach of Pippin's teeth. "What is it that you have there? Ah, a little blanket?" She laughed lightly, her voice as the tinkling of small bells. "Let me see it, Burza."
At this order, the orc wrenched the blanket from Pippin's grasp, and held it out to her mistress.
"Ah, how very-," the woman's expression changed, the moment her hands touched the cloth.
"Aya!" She snapped, flinging it back so that it struck the orc in the face before it tumbled down upon the steps at her feet. "What did you weave into its fibers? Metal splinters?" She demanded, glancing at her fine, smooth hands as if she expected to see them bleeding.
"Let him go." Lalaith demanded through clenched teeth. "He is of no use to you."
"But why are you here?" The woman said with a gentled tone, though she was still clearly shaken by the painful touch of the cloth against her hands. She floated down the steps toward Lalaith, the train of her gown trailing smoothly behind her as she came, reminding Lalaith of a spider gliding smoothly over its web, toward its ensnared prey. "You are the second Elf I have met in but a few days, and I am curious, especially seeing how you are a woman, yet dressed in a man's garb." She laughed lightly. "What is your quest?"
"I owe you no answer." Lalaith spouted, glancing past her shoulder at the orc, a female, who had hefted Pippin over her shoulder, his furry feet still flailing as energetic curses continued to spout forth from his mouth.
"You owe me an answer if you want your dear Hobbit to live." The woman said in tones of light triviality.
"Don't tell her anything, Lalaith!" Pippin shouted as he flailed upon the orc's shoulder.
At Pippin's words, a slow look of sinister satisfaction claimed the mortal's face, and she drew a few steps closer, hissing in quiet tones, "Lalaith is your name? I have heard it spoken before." Her eyes narrowed coldly as a fierce, deadly light entered her gaze, "You are the one Legolas told me about?"
She smiled all the more harshly at the maiden's baffled expression.
Lalaith began, "How do you know-,"
"I met him. In Rohan." The woman sighed, smiling lightly. "He came with some other companions. A ranger from the North, a Dwarf, and-," the woman shuddered before she rallied herself, and smiled again. "Were you companions perhaps, before misfortune separated you?"
Her last words were spoken as if meant to sound sympathetic. But her eyes held no trace of compassion.
"He is a remarkable man, Legolas." She continued as her grin grew sickeningly sweet. "Gentle in one moment, yet passionate in the next." She smirked, and drew yet another step closer, reminding Lalaith of a warg moving upon its prey for the final death blow as she whispered, "Your lives are endless, yet you can give your hearts so swiftly."
At this Lalaith glanced away, a look of confusion furrowing her smooth brow as a twinge of unease plucked at her heart.
"We knew each other for only one day, yet his voice when he sang to me," the woman smiled softly and closed her eyes as at a fond memory, "he made it seem as if we had known each other for eternity. And the night that we spent together-,"
"You are a liar." Lalaith growled, not realizing until she heard her own voice, how violently she was trembling.
"Am I?" The woman asked, her words viciously sweet. "Or is it naught but that you are jealous, for I bedded him first?"
"You did not bed him!" Lalaith cried, a heavy weight writhing like a worm in her stomach at the woman's flippant words. "Legolas would not give himself to someone as vile as you!" Her voice shook, and she feared she would break into tears. But she dared not, sensing that this woman would see tears only as weakness, and attack all the more ferociously. "He would never do anything so unholy, not with such a- a harlot as you, banished from Rohan, no doubt, to come crawling to Saruman, a betrayer of your own people!" She started up a step before she stopped at the woman's threatening glance back at Pippin, who was wailing incessantly now as he struggled to free himself.
"Unholy you say?" The mortal scoffed turning back to sneer at Lalaith. "Do you think so highly of your own race? Do you truly think your people so above vices?" She smirked. "Do forgive me, then. For perhaps the bloody kinslayings of history are no more than hideous rumors. Fëanor could have been nothing but loyal to his kinsmen. And Ëol was kindly and virtuous, one who would never take a defenseless maiden by force!"
The mortal woman's eyes narrowed cruelly as she spat, "And do you truly wish for me to think you a maiden? Untouched for all the countless years you have known Legolas, wanting him so badly that your very flesh ached for him?"
"We agreed to wait until we were wed." Lalaith murmured quietly, glancing away as a soft sob broke past her lips. The pain that throbbed upon her shoulder now, was nothing to what she felt upon her aching heart.
The mortal sneered with satisfaction as she watched a single tear, touched by the light of the stars, trail a silver line down Lalaith's cheek.
"Burza," she muttered in a low hiss, her eyes studying Lalaith's with an unreadable expression, "snap his neck."
"No!" Lalaith shrieked suddenly. The heaviness that weighted her limbs was overcome by a wave of fear for Pippin that crashed over her, and she darted up the steps, shoving roughly past the mortal woman, who watched her go, smiling. The female orc was holding Pippin by his shoulders, studying his small round Hobbit face with what seemed to be an expression of hesitation as he swore at her, thrashing his legs out at the orc in an attempt to kick his way free.
"Vile spawn of Morgoth!" Lalaith cried. "Get away from him!"
She shoved the orc backward pulling Pippin to herself before she felt a fist seize the unbound tresses of her hair and rip backward, flinging her roughly upon the unforgiving stone steps. Pippin fell from her arms, tumbling noisily down the steps to land with a splash in the water as the mortal woman threw herself at the maiden. Her cold hands encircled Lalaith's slender throat, crushing it beneath the vice of her fingers. Beneath Lalaith, the sharp points of the steps dug cruelly into her back as she struggled. And above her, the mortal's face was twisted horribly with abject hatred; her eyes had turned to raging flame. Lalaith's hands clutching at her wrists could do nothing to pry the mortal's hands from her throat, and she did not doubt but that the mortal meant to squeeze all the life from her. Her lungs burned, starved for the air that was crushed away, and a wild, raw panic threatened to force thought from her mind. The woman sneered, sensing Lalaith's fear, and squeezed ever tighter. Sparks danced in front of her vision, and Lalaith had to force herself to think. Her first instinct was to continue clutching desperately at the mortal's wrists. But the woman's grip was like steel. Desperately, Lalaith pulled one hand away, and though the crushing pressure upon her throat only increased, Lalaith forced calm into her mind, twisted herself almost double as she snatched for her boot, and before her adversary realized what she was doing, used what remained of her strength to snatch her tiny knife from its sheath, and slash it across the woman's forearm, eliciting a cry of pain and rage as she flung herself away.
A wild breath tore into her lungs as the pressure on Lalaith's throat vanished, and she scrambled dizzily to her feet, gulping in draughts of burning ice with every hungry gasp. With fierce effort, she fixed her gaze upon the mortal woman who cradled her bleeding arm against herself, trembling with fury, though she hesitated to attack now, fear in her eyes as her gaze darted from Lalaith's face, to the knife in her hand, and back again.
"You rotten wench!" Pippin, shouted as he came scampering up the steps fully drenched, his face furrowed with determination. "Get away from her!"
The mortal glanced down at Pippin as he came, an almost humored expression on her face as she glanced back at Lalaith and sneered.
"We will meet again, you and I." She said softly for only Lalaith to hear. And with these words, she turned away with a soft whisper of her skirts and moved with unhurried calm up the steps, and through the door as her orcish servant Burza, shuffled in behind her.
"It's alright, Pip." Lalaith gasped, snatching the determined Hobbit by the shoulders when he reached her. She gently pulled him back before he could fling himself through the doorway as it closed with a shudder. "Let's go back."
Greta scowled from the shadows of Saruman's balcony as she watched the Elf and Hobbit pick their way across the swampy morass of Isengard as the stars watched silently overhead. She frowned at the stars. Greta had never liked the sight of the night sky. Too high and lofty the stars had always seemed. Never swayed from their course, never something Greta could twist into what she wanted. And now she despised them all the more. For the eerie sense that their light seemed to follow the Elf maiden as she went, settled over Greta like a heavy pall.
Behind her, with her focus upon the Elf and Hobbit, Greta did not see Burza as the orc cast a wary glance at her mistress then tucked a hand into a fold of her ragged garmet, and drew out, for a moment, a folded square of silvery cloth, before swiftly tucking it back in again.
"Burza." Greta clipped darkly, turning at last from the sight of the despised Elf maid and her little consort, snatching the orc's stringy dark hair. "You were useless to me." She shoved the orc onto the cold floor, and kicked her cruelly in the side. "You should have killed them both when you had the chance."
"He was little." Burza croaked, flinching as she struggled to rise. "Like a baby. And she-, her eyes were-, pretty."
Greta stared at the simpering orc with an expression of momentary shock on her face before she uttered a harsh laugh.
"Now I understand why Saruman gave you to me, worthless little worm. What a fool you are! Have you naught but flowers in your blood? You should have drowned with the others of your kind."
"I rather drown too." Burza answered lamely, as she regained her feet, to which she received a lashing hand across her face. The orc remained silent, accustomed to beatings.
"Foolish orc." Greta snapped harshly. "No go fetch me a drink, worthless filth, before I hit you again!"
With that, Burza bobbed her head and wordlessly scurried away.
Greta glared after the orc's retreat, then turned to cast her eyes about the room, seeking some way to vent the hatred she felt upon the fair maiden who truly held Legolas' affection. Her eyes came to rest upon the dais in the center of the room, and the round black stone that sat within its center. A maddened sneer peeled across her lips, and she strode to it, seized up the great stone in both hands, lunged out upon the balcony, and lobbed it over the balustrade.
It arched through the night air, sparks of red light flashing from beneath its glassy surface as it plummeted downward, smacking the surface of the watery bog, with a loud splash. It sunk quickly into the murk far beneath the balcony where Greta stood, and well short of her target.
At the sound, the Elf turned slightly. Her shadowed, saddened eyes lifted to Greta's for a moment before she turned away again, and continued to pick her way carefully across the wet bog.
With a wild groan of fury, Greta threw her arms up, and stormed back into the shadows.