Before the End
Chapter 40: Before the End
The vanguard pulled through wide and sweeping meadows of unbroken grass and late summer flowers. The day was young and bright, and the morning mist curling round the distant foot hills soon burned away to yield a fair horizon. Far through the valleys and plains from Minas Tirith, the men had marched; now in great lines long and deep, they kept time to the curling of the grass against the wind in the field and their rippling black and silver pennants that beckoned them farther. Toward battle and onward, they traveled, breaking the wet stems under their feet, taking them one step closer to an uncertain fate.
Every now and then the leading chargers with their stamping hooves startled coveys in the grass, and the doves indignantly rose into the air cooing their displeasure before settling into lazy flight circles above the men traveling across their field. Surely to the birds as they lifted their wings to soar to greater heights, the lines seemed like an enormous river of men, with their silver helmets catching the light as easily as the bright tipped waves of the Anduin, pulled by unseen currents toward the sea.
And if the same birds flew farther down the line, they would have spotted something incredibly odd, for there toward the front of the procession, rode a pair of elves among the men, one on a white Rohirrim steed, and the other upon a light brown mare. The two elves were a fair sight for any eyes, man or beast, and the birds of the field were gladdened by their presence and their soothing voices comforted all.
"Tell me about Ithilien," one of the elves begged the other, and the other elf, riding proudly beside her, might have seemed terrible to some.
Certainly many of the soldiers feared even to look upon him and averted their eyes to their boots when he passed. None could hardly stand to bear his gaze, icy blue and piercing, as if he looked right through them. Yet when this elf turned to the lady at his side, the soldiers would have been confounded to see the way the elf prince's expression transformed in her presence. His eyes softened, and his look was one of pure adoration.
"You want to hear about Ithilien, Miredhel?" he asked, with a hint of surprise. He paused momentarily and pretended to frown. "Well…wouldn't you like to wait and be surprised?"
"Oh, no! Is it that bad? Should I have packed my gardening gloves?" Miredhel said with a wince.
The corners of Legolas' mouth curled into an almost smile. "I'll get you some for all the really heavy lifting and digging."
What exactly was wrong with this forest anyway? Miredhel cut her eyes to him. "Heavy lifting and digging?"
Legolas shrugged noncommittally. "I figured you would want to pitch in and help, Miredhel. You've never struck me as a bystander." He scratched his head thoughtfully. "Do you think you could learn some carpentry skills too? We'll have much to build."
Miredhel smiled uneasily. She trusted Legolas, mostly. If he saw something in this Ithilien, then it must not be so bad. Right?
This time Legolas returned her smile with a real one of his own and reached for her hand from his horse. They were riding very closely together so they could speak in confidence to each other. He leaned over to kiss her palm, and his lips lingered against her skin.
Sparks seemed to fly all the way through Miredhel's body, down from her wrist to her toes at this single gesture, and it wasn't as if they had never kissed before. In truth after last night they had done much more than kiss, and perhaps it was that knowledge that excited her. She knew what those lips were capable of.
Legolas smiled even more broadly at her the tinge of pink on her cheeks.
"Miredhel, I can't wait for you to see Ithilien, to be there by your side. I know you will love it. Yes, it needs some work, but it will be a joy to restore the beauty that once was. Its proximity to Mordor poisoned much of the land, but there are still places where the woods are deep and lovely, and that's where I'll take you. There's water and springs that run through the forest and ferns as large as elflings."
"Where will we live? Not in a cave, I hope," Miredhel said, returning the prince's teasing mood.
"Flets, of course. The trees are not so large and grand as the mallyrn in Lothlorien but are ample enough for us to live nestled among their branches."
"That is a relief, for I half-feared that you and your dwarf friends would have us hidden away in a great cave like your father's."
To that, Legolas only smiled, his cheek creased by a long-absent dimple, and his eyes took on a dreamy quality.
"Just wait, lovely one. I'll build you a flet so grand you'll never want to leave."
"Hmm… Will you be in the flet?" she asked with a flirty glance in his direction.
His eyes darkened, and she remembered exactly what hue they had taken the night before when he had held her in his arms.
"It could be arranged," he replied in a voice that was pure velvet with a perfect smile that made Miredhel's every nerve stand on edge, and despite herself, she blushed. Again! And at that point she wondered if she would ever be able to one-up him in terms of seduction.
"Honestly, Legolas," she said, changing the subject, "I had no idea that you were the craftsman-type. It doesn't sound like you, you know, being a prince and all."
"Are you questioning my ability to build your flet, my lady?" he asked wryly.
"Name something you've built, say in the past 500 years, then," Miredhel challenged him.
"Simple!" he answered immediately and then paused. "Well…" The prince rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I've constructed some really nice arrows…"
"Arrows aren't the same thing as a flet!" Miredhel arched her eyebrow disbelievingly. "I would hate to find myself in a heap at the bottom of the tree, Legolas."
"I made my mother a jewelry box once, but that was a long time ago."
"I see," she answered mirthfully.
"But I still claim the honor of designing and crafting your flet, Miredhel," he insisted and repeated her name softly as if savoring it, "my Miredhel."
"I can see it now," he continued, spanning his hand in front of him as they rode. "Your flet will have a wide porch that faces the west and overlooks the prettiest garden."
"A garden?" she asked hopefully. Miredhel was an easy mark when it came to flowers.
"Don't you remember? I already promised to make you one," he teased. "Besides, we have our best moments in gardens."
"I remember," she answered and cut her eyes to his with a knowing smile.
"And I'll meet you there in the evening, when I've finished with the duties of court, and we'll sit there together on a bench. Can you see it?"
"I think so," she said, shading her eyes.
To her delight, Legolas continued, "And we'll watch the stars come out and then …"
"And then Eledhel will come out and remind me that it's my bedtime," she finished with a laugh.
"He and I have always lived together, you know," Miredhel informed him. "I cannot see him wanting a place of his own."
It almost appeared as if the prince rolled his eyes, if indeed a prince would actually do such a thing.
Legolas adopted his best diplomatic facial expression. "Speaking of your brother, Miredhel, I'm going to appoint him as my deputy-in-command."
"You know, the second person in charge of Ithilien if something were to happen to me-- if I couldn't rule for some reason. Aragorn and I already discussed it."
"Legolas, what an honor! He'll be so pleased."
"And more importantly, he'll be plenty busy at it, so we'll have time together," Legolas said with a wink.
"What about you, though? I have a hard time believing that you will not be as every bit as occupied with affairs of state as my brother will be," she reminded him with a hint of regret creeping into her voice.
"You need not worry, my lady. I'll make time for you."
"If not, I'll come and hunt you down," she threatened, "and you've seen evidence of my skills with the bow…"
"I certainly would not dare risk it," the prince said agreeably, "for I treasure your friendship and your love. I had reached a point," he said, his voice becoming more tender, "where I thought that love would be no more real than a myth to me in this land, or that I missed my chance at it, that perhaps I was meant to suffer in unending loneliness…" Legolas' voice trailed away, and when he looked again at her, his eyes were bright. He had watched so many of his dearest friends in Mirkwood fall in love and marry. One by one, they had deserted him in bachelor-hood to become husbands and fathers, and he had always been genuinely glad for their happiness, genuinely glad.
"I'm glad to have found you," the prince said.
Miredhel's heart swelled, and certainly she felt as if it might burst at the way he looked at her. Now if only they could escape unscathed from this conflict with the dragon!
Even though neither elf mentioned it, both Legolas and Miredhel worried for their friends that they had left en route to Calenfen. Their careful avoidance of the subject hung between them, unspoken and weighty, for the rest of the afternoon. Neither wanted to put words to their deepest fear of what might happen; some things were better left unsaid.
Farther down the line, flanking the foot soldiers rode another elven warrior. This captain seldom looked east or west, for his eyes lingered instead northward; his gaze fixed upon the other pair of elves, Miredhel and Legolas, riding ahead of him. He watched the way they rode closely together, smiling occasionally when the maiden laughed, but when the prince kissed her hand, his countenance darkened to an obvious dissatisfaction with his current situation. When he finally tore himself away from studying the pair's interactions and moved his attention toward the line of men marching beside him, he realized he was not the only one paying rapt attention to the elven couple.
"You watch her," the captain observed to the soldier nearest him. His tone was not accusatory, but merely interested.
The man jerked out of his silent contemplations, startled that the elf had spoken at all—he had been silent the entire morning. "Captain Adrendil," the man said, not sure what to make of the elf's unexpected comment, "Yes, I've been watching her. Many of the men watch her."
"She is lovely, is she not?" the captain probed, as if he were testing the man's responses.
"Aye, she is. Lovely," the soldier agreed, appreciatively. Some of the other men who had been listening to the exchange smiled and nodded. A few grunted their enthusiasm. One whistled.
The soldier shot a look of warning to his fellow archers and hastily added. "Men may also watch and admire the stars, Captain, and they are completely beyond our reach… much like the Lady Miredhel."
Adrendil smiled benevolently at the man then, pacified by the soldier's answer, but he could not help correcting his statement. "…Beyond your reach, perhaps," he suggested smugly.
"And yours too!" One of the other soldiers called out, for they were feeling bolder by minute. "She rides with the prince, not you!"
Chuckles spread through the ranks. Where Prince Legolas naturally intimidated and awed the men without any intention of ever doing so, this other elven captain fell short of commanding their absolute respect.
Adrendil flashed a look of contempt toward those who would challenge his statement, and elven contempt is not to be handled lightly. The men quieted down.
"She may ride with him now, but that matters not. The important thing is who she's with at the end of the journey," he said to them with an air of finality and a knowing, supercilious smile. After that, his eyes did not leave her again, though they traveled many miles until darkness crept over the hills and the men stopped to make camp on the open plains.
As the procession slowed and then finally stopped, Legolas and Miredhel dismounted, each trying to impress the other that he or she was not the least bit sore from riding for so long. Legolas succeeded in this attempt only a little more than Miredhel, who was, in truth, quite painfully tired from riding all day. Of course, normally elves have great endurance in such endeavors, but Miredhel had slept hardly at all the night before, thanks to Legolas.
Despite their shared weariness, Legolas and Miredhel kept their conversation lively, and both found that they could hardly stop touching each other. Whether he was touching her hand, her hair, her smooth skin, or brushing up against her clothes, Legolas could not help himself, nor did he want to. To be near her was a comfort; and he knew that Aragorn had been secretly laughing at him all day. Later, Legolas knew that he would have to confess his utter and total preoccupation with her. She was all he could pretty much think of. Even now he could sense her fatigue and worked to keep her spirits up.
He elbowed her to get her attention. "Now…for the lady who thinks I know nothing of building things, I shall construct for you the best tent you've ever seen." With a roguish smile, he picked up a canvas roll and some rope from the supply wagon and carefully selected a spot away from the rest of the group.
Miredhel looked on disapprovingly as he unrolled the canvas on the ground. "Is the Lord of Ithilien going to sleep in a tent as well?"
Legolas looked at her as if her question had been absurd. "Of course not, I'm sleeping out in the open."
Miredhel's eyebrows inched together, and she crossed her arms. "Well, I think that's what I'm going to do as well, then."
Legolas paused in the middle of tying a perfectly executed knot. "No, I don't think so, Miredhel," he said and then continued on with his project.
"Look at the wind coming off those foothills, Legolas! I'm sure this tent will blow over with me in it!" she protested with an exaggerated amount of worry, pointing to some very small hills in the distant east.
The prince arched an eyebrow. "This thing will be completely sturdy, I assure you. Do you doubt my knot-tying abilities?"
"Please," Miredhel said and sighed painfully. "I did not want to say anything, but… hobbits could tie better knots than those."
Legolas looked up and flashed her a smile. "Nice try, beautiful, but you're sleeping in this tent tonight."
She tried pouting a bit. "I still don't see why I have to sleep in this contraption, and you get to sleep in the open air under the stars."
"Yes, but I am not the only elf maiden traveling among Aragorn's legions. You're a lamb among wolves tonight, Miredhel," Legolas said with a bit of a wolfish smile of his own. He pulled her over to the tent and knelt by the entrance. "See? It'll be nice AND you'll have some privacy. Look--we'll put my blanket down on the ground, and you'll be plenty comfortable."
Miredhel rubbed his shoulder appreciatively, his hair temporarily distracting her hands. "Won't you need your blanket, Legolas? I hope you're planning on resting tonight, because I know that you …ahem, did not get very much sleep last night."
The wolfish grin returned. "Oh, I fully intend on using that blanket, Miredhel."
Their eyes met, and both lovers smiled secretly to themselves.Much later in the evening, Miredhel sat alone outside her tent, enjoying the fresh air, the woodsy smell of the campfires, and the clearness of the evening sky above where she could see a great many stars. She had let Legolas go earlier, for she could tell that he wanted to visit with Aragorn and some of the other men that he had probably met in the War of the Ring. She glanced in the direction of the king's circle around a small fire. Undoubtedly, they wanted to plan strategies for battle if the circumstances should arrive. It seemed that much of the planning required passing around a small flask… and laughing…loudly.
Miredhel hoped at least that Legolas would not volunteer himself for anything too foolhardy.
She was in fact quite content in her present state of loneliness, reflecting on the day's events and the previous evening's events; so when Captain Adrendil approached her side, it must be said that Miredhel inwardly groaned.
"Lady Miredhel," he greeted her and promptly sat down by her side before she could make any excuses to leave.
"I am surprised to see you without company," he said smoothly, crossing his long legs in front of him. He pushed his sandy brown hair over his shoulders and looked at her expectantly with those dark brown eyes of his.
"Well, I was just thinking of joining the others over there," she said, pointing to Legolas and Aragorn.
"Don't go just yet," he implored her. "Talk with me for a moment, for I have scarcely spoken with you, save for this morning." He reached down and patted her hand.
He was just too close. Miredhel shifted uncomfortably.
"I cannot believe that Prince Legolas is not here with you, actually," he observed aloud, his dark eyes flicking over her face. "He should not leave you alone. I would not leave you, Lady Miredhel," he said, his smooth voice sinking into softer tones. He casually rested his fingers over her hand that rested on her leg.
Miredhel's pulse picked up, and she frowned. Very deliberately, she brushed his hand away and met his gaze, not coolly or in anger, but matter-of-factly.
"Captain, I would call you 'friend,' but that is all. You've asked me before about my relationship with the prince, and I avoided giving you a straightforward answer. I am sorry for that! Indeed, I hardly knew the answer to your questions myself! But now I know. I have already given my heart to Legolas Thranduillion."
"I love him. Please be happy for us."
Adrendil swallowed and cast his eyes down, before answering. "Of course, I am happy for you, Lady Miredhel. And for Prince Legolas too." He looked up and met her gaze questioningly. "I've known Legolas for a long time. He's almost like a brother to me, really," he said with a small smile.
"Thanks for understanding," Miredhel said. She could hardly believe how agreeable Adrendil was being. She had figured that they would eventually have this conversation, and she had always imagined him making much more of a fuss, or at least protesting a little!
Adrendil nodded sympathetically. "I care about you, Miredhel," he said, slipping into casual use of her name. "I don't want to see you hurt, that's all. What if there comes a time when Prince Legolas can't be there for you?"
Miredhel started to object, but Adrendil cut her off. "We are on our way to battle even now. As much as I understand your feelings for Legolas, I would hate to see you suffer… The orcs always target leaders, Miredhel. Always. What if he falls in battle?" Adrendil asked convincingly and reached to move a single curl away from her eyes.
She did not answer, and she did not look at Adrendil. Instead her eyes were focused across the field, on Legolas laughing from some joke, his cheeks rosy from the fire.
"Why do you say these things, Adrendil?" she said, keeping her voice low and controlled to hide the shakiness she felt inside.
His eyes gleamed. "Because I care for you, regardless of your feelings for me. I wouldn't want to see you stricken with grief, my lady."
"Grief, Adrendil?" Miredhel asked incredulously, running a hand through the top of her hair. He had worried her with this talk about Legolas dying in battle, but if his purpose was to scare her with talk about Grief… Well, he was going to be sadly mistaken.
"Yes, grief," he said melodramatically. I would never want to see your heart torn with grief, my lady. I've heard it's horribly painful."
"Yes, I've heard that too…" Miredhel agreed, now becoming amused.
"To linger on after Legolas' body is spent on the battlefield, until you finally succumb to pain like no other… Are you sure you want to risk that?"
Miredhel fought back a smile. "Tell me more about my lingering, painful death, Captain Adrendil," she said almost seriously.
Adrendil eyed her sharply. Was she laughing at him? "It's certainly nothing to laugh at, Miredhel! I'm being serious. Grief is a genuine threat to our people!"
"I, of all elves, wholeheartedly believe it," she said solemnly.
"If you and the Prince form a relationship now, his death on the battlefield would bring yours as well."
"It probably would kill me…" she agreed with relish. Certainly she knew this to be true.
This was conversation was NOT going the way he had planned. He was supposed to be consoling Lady Miredhel right now. She should be crying in his arms; instead, she seemed strangely close to laughter.
"Lady Miredhel, you should not take this so lightly," Adrendil protested, his voice gaining an edge to it.
"I just agreed with you, Adrendil!" she said, desperately trying to choke back a snort of laughter and failing.
"This isn't funny," he insisted darkly, folding his arms over his chest. He stood up and glared down at her.
"I should not have laughed, Adrendil. Grief is serious, but what you said was humorous to me because—"
"No—"he stopped her, and his handsome eyes were dark and angry as he looked down at her by the tent. "Something horrible is going to happen. With the dragon, or the orcs, I do not know, but I can feel it, Miredhel. It's waiting out there for us," he said, gesturing to the vague darkness. "And you will wish for death before the end," he added bitterly.
Shaking off the urge to shiver, Miredhel rose to her feet and faced him. She was not easily intimidated. Her eyes flickered angrily.
"You great big fool," she admonished him. "You almost had me believing that you were really sincere in your feelings for me."
"I do care for you," he insisted, leaning in toward her. "More, I can assure you, than Legolas does."
Miredhel dismissed his words with a wave of her hand. "Adrendil, you know nothing about me. Nothing! Because if you really knew me, then you would have known…" her voice trailed away, and she looked across at him questioningly.
"You would have known that I suffered from Grief. I have ever since my closest friend died in the siege of Dol Guldur during the war. You were right about it being horribly painful, though," she said simply.
For the first time in many years, Adrendil was momentarily speechless. She had Grief!
"I'm sorry, my lady. You are quite right. I am a great big fool," he said dumbly. "How did you survive it? Your grief, I mean."
"My brother pulled me through the worst. I know you and he do not really see eye to eye, but Eledhel saved me. He made me believe that I wasn't ready to go. He even brought Lady Galadriel to see me…" She did not finish her explanation. There were times when having a perfect memory was a curse. She could still feel the pain of those days like it was yesterday.
Miredhel stood there before him, seeming rather small and pale in the moonlight. As much as she pretended not to care, the captain's words had bothered her. She sighed and looked up at the captain.
She looked so sweet and forlorn that the captain decided to try his luck. He cupped her chin and gently kissed her on the lips…
Miredhel screeched away almost instantaneously and round-housed him hard. Adrendil took an unsteady step back after the unexpected blow, and it was then that Miredhel took the opportunity to plant both of her hands on his chest, giving him a hearty shove backwards onto her tent.
Adrendil faltered on his feet for a moment, his arms flailing as he tried to save his balance, but down he went in a swell of canvas and perfectly tied knots.
Miredhel grinned. He did look so ridiculous there. She leaned over the ruined tent and whispered laconically, "It's the Grief, Adrendil. It makes me do the craziest things. You'd be better off staying away from me."
Adrendil rolled over and blinked.
Miredhel and the captain had the attention of the entire campsite now. Legolas was on the scene first.
"What happened here?" he demanded, the corners of his lips curling at the sight of Adrendil laying flush against the billowing canvas.
"I think he had a dizzy spell… " Miredhel said loudly enough for the benefit of the onlookers. "The captain was admiring the handiwork of your tent, Prince Legolas, and then—plop! He just keeled over."
"Right," agreed the prince loudly. He leaned over to give his captain a hand up. "I'm sure you deserved that," he quietly said to Adrendil and slapped him on the back, none too gently.
Adrendil dusted himself off and stalked away. Normally, he would have fumed over being humiliated like that for days, but at the moment his mind was only fixed on one single truth. Miredhel had Grief. Grief! That simple fact explained away so many questions he had about her relationship with Legolas and her brother's over-protectiveness. Miredhel had Grief.
He traced his finger over his lips and then rubbed the sore spot on the back of his head. She had not been as receptive to his affections as he had hoped. That would change in time, he told himself. Adrendil was not a quitter. She may have rejected him tonight, but that was just one small hitch in his grand scheme. He sat down on the edge of camp and began to work out a revised plan. Miredhel's grief changed everything, of course. It made what he had to do so much easier! Actually his plan was fool-proof. And that was convenient, since in her words, he was a 'great big fool.'
Now, he only had to wait until the enemy struck and the battle begun…Thank you all for reading! Please let me know how you feel about the new chapter, latest developments, etc! I appreciate each and every one of your comments!