No Turning Back Now
In the previous chapter:
Legolas, Miredhel, and Aragorn and Co. are on their way to rescue the fort at Calenfen which is surrounded and soon to be under siege by orcs led by a dragon, Ancalagon the Black. At night on the Gondorian plains, Legolas is captured by a host of orcs and tortured. He is rescued just at the right time by Eledhel, who has been trailing the orcs, hoping to meet up with Legolas and Aragorn, so he could warn them about the dragon's ambush. Now Eledhel is bringing the much-battered Legolas back to their campsite, and Miredhel hasn't heard what has happened…
Chapter 42: No Turning Back Now
She could hardly believe her eyes when she first saw her brother at the edge of camp. There had been soldiers blocking her view, but now she knew that in fact she had not been merely dreaming, and that Eledhel was actually there. He looked horrible, really, and Miredhel feared that he had been injured. Blood, both fresh and dried, streaked his tunic irregularly, and his face was weary. He did not look at all pleased to see her.
"Eledhel," she greeted him concernedly, her arms outstretched. "How did you ever manage to find us? What brings you here?"
Her face was flushed, her eyes bright and skin luminescent, and from her appearance, her brother knew that she had not seen him come in with the prince. She looked remarkably well and apparently knew nothing of what had happened to Legolas, and Eledhel dreaded being the one to have to tell her. From different conversations with his sister and Legolas in the Brown Lands, Eledhel had concluded that the two were both a short piece from either desperately hating each other or loving each other with an equally strong passion.
And he had warned them both of the risks to her heart and her Grief, if they recklessly fell in love. Now Legolas lay in the next tent dying, for all Eledhel knew. How could he bear this news to her?
Eledhel draped his arm around his sister's shoulders and faltered, pushing back his revulsion of the words he must say to his sister, words he knew would surely hurt her.
"Miredhel…" he softly began, and the ache in his eyes was unmistakable, especially to one so versed in Grief as his sister.
"What has happened?" she whispered and instinctively turned her head to search about the camp for her prince. From the dark fields, she saw Adrendil returning to the camp with several soldiers. He held Legolas' bow next to his own in his hand and his quiver and knives under his other arm.
Miredhel's face drained white. The whole camp shrunk around her. All she could see or care about was the sight of those weapons in the Captain's arms. Legolas' bow! She could hardly hear her brother's words above the sound of her own panicked breathing. Then her strength wilted away, and she groped for her brother's shoulder before she wordlessly crumpled to the ground.
Meanwhile inside Aragorn's tent, the king's face was grim as he surveyed the damage done to his dearest friend. There were some superficial wounds across his face. A deep gash scored one of his cheekbones. Bruises and swelling already marred his fine features.
Aragorn's anger flared beyond measure. These injuries were so different from any received in battle. There was no honor in what his friend had been forced to suffer. A mortal man might have succumbed to such wounds, but Legolas was strong, even by elven standards. He would live. Aragorn would see to that.
And Legolas had suffered, greatly. There was no doubt in the king's mind. The orcs had divested him of his tunic, and the evidence of their cruelty was plain to see, exquisite hate spelled through blood. The elf had been tortured, carefully so, in order to prolong his misery.
The prince's neck was raw and chafed, mottled with yellow bruising, as though he had been nearly strangled with some type of rope. Lacerations crisscrossed the once smooth skin of his chest and all the way down his torso. The orcs must have dragged some sort of serrated knife down his chest. Aragorn applied some salve on the wounds and vainly wished that those injuries were the worst. Yet he knew more grievous injuries scored the elf's back. Gently he rolled Legolas onto his stomach and propped his head to one side with a rolled blanket.
Legolas' lips parted slightly, and he softly moaned.
"Fear not. You are with friends now, Legolas," Aragorn assured him.
"Miredhel?" Legolas murmured without opening his eyes.
"She is safe," Aragorn said and moved his lantern beside him where he could better examine the elf's back.
Sadly, the view before him reminded the king much of Farothin. From above Legolas' shoulder blades to his waist, the orcs had torn his back until it was a mangled mess of blood-soaked skin and flesh. Aragorn did what he could to stanch the bleeding and to clean the wounds, sometimes pushing the loose tatters of skin together to give the elf some chance of healing properly.
He pulled an ointment from his satchel and fresh athelas. Crushing the leaves in his palm, Aragorn finely mixed the herb into a pasty concoction before spreading it on the elf's exposed back.
Legolas moaned, and one of his eyelids cracked open to reveal a listless gray-blue orb.
Aragorn stopped working briefly to pull Legolas' hair away from his face so the elf could see better. The king continued his treatment, but the elf said nothing, save an occasional hiss through clenched teeth as he warily watched Aragorn from the corner of a pale eye.
When Aragorn had finally finished applying the herbs, and the tent was thick with their heady scent, Legolas closed his eyes and grimaced as the pain of his wounds took over.
"I hurt, Aragorn," he said brokenly, squeezing his eyes shut.
Now the king was really worried. He had seen his friend overcome many injuries that were ghastly by human standards-- arrows, sword and knife wounds, horrendous blows—and on many occasions, Legolas had either pretended it was nothing or had protested against Aragorn even looking at it. The Legolas Aragorn knew would certainly never admit to pain; the prince Thranduillion would see that as an inherent sign of weakness.
Yet there was no mistaking the anguish in Legolas' eyes when he opened them again. He did not even try to conceal it.
"Legolas?" Aragorn asked carefully. "Do you remember what happened to you?"
The elf frowned and swallowed. "Yes," he said shortly, lowering his eyes. "I wish I could forget."
"Then do not think of it," the king advised, his eyes filling with concern. "I would rather you rest instead." He hardly knew what to say to this vulnerable version of his friend.
Legolas shook his head dully. "I want you to bind my wounds, Aragorn, and help me with a tunic."
Now it was Aragorn's turn to shake his head, adamantly so, but he had to admit to himself that the elf's last comment was more in tune with the Legolas he knew. "It does me good to hear you say that, Legolas, but for now, I want you to sleep."
The prince stubbornly moved his arm to push himself up off his stomach. Much to his dissatisfaction, he lacked the strength to do so, and Aragorn made no effort to help him. "They beat me, Aragorn," he said quietly as he lay his head back down on the rolled blanket, "for information about you… I heard all their plans. They didn't care, because they planned on killing me in the end. And I've been wrong about everything." He gingerly traced the gash across his cheek. "Everything," he repeated in a whisper. "This whole time, I never understood what the dragon wanted with me—it's not like I'm some lord he could treat with. I'm no king and not even in line to be king," he rambled.
The prince raised his head just enough that he could see the king's eyes clearly. "Aragorn, it's you they want, not me…" he insisted, his voice growing agitated.
Aragorn knelt by his side and brushed the clumped blonde strands of hair away from his wounds. "Legolas, do not think of it right now. You'll only upset yourself. Rest your mind, friend."
Legolas held Aragorn's gaze. "If you're my friend, then do as I ask, Aragorn. Bind my wounds."
"We have to leave. I must get up, and I cannot let Miredhel see me looking like this."
"This request is about Miredhel?" Aragorn was incredulous. Vanity thy name is Legolas.
The elf narrowed his eyes at the king's obviously erroneous conclusion. "She has Grief, Aragorn," Legolas protested weakly, "and it makes her that much more vulnerable to her emotions. And since I've bonded with her, the last thing I want is for her to fear losing another loved one or to cause her extra anxiety.
"You've bonded with her?" Aragorn asked, his eyes crinkling as his mouth curved into an almost smile.
Legolas looked past the remark. He was simply too weary in both body and spirit to enjoy the moment. He tried again to push himself up off the floor and said, "Help me, Aragorn. There are bigger things at stake here than one elf resting."
"And I remember an elf once saying to me at Helm's Deep, 'Aragorn, you must rest. You're no use to us half-alive…'" the king pointed out firmly
"I don't care what I said then, and you didn't listen to my advice regardless. Bind my wounds, Aragorn. I must get dressed, and when we will ride to Calenfen, I will fight."
"Legolas, you're being foolish."
"You say that because you did not hear what the orcs said," Legolas retorted. "I have."
Aragorn looked doubtful, but then a muffled sound from outside the tent drew both the elf and man's attentions. They could plainly hear Eledhel on the other side. He was speaking with his sister. Miredhel.
Legolas' ears perked at the sound of her voice, and even in the dim lantern light, Aragorn could see how the elf's eyes brightened, merely to hear her.
"You win for now, Legolas," the king said against his better judgment. "Let's get you sitting up, so we can make you look somewhat presentable. And as for you fighting, we can discuss that NOT happening later."Eledhel cursed Adrendil's untimely appearance under his breath as he watched his sister pale at the sight of the prince's things in his hand. He caught Miredhel's arm to steady her and then ended up carrying her to the side of Aragorn's tent.
He patted her cheek and called for a soldier to bring her water. When her eyes eventually fluttered open, he carefully said, "Legolas is hurt, Miredhel. He apparently left the camp and ran into some orcs. Aragorn is with him now, tending to his injuries."
"Can I see him?" Miredhel asked shortly between unsteady breaths. All the men's hushed tones and murmuring around her pounded at her ears, and even with her brother sitting right there beside her, she suddenly felt very alone.
"Of course you can see him," Eledhel assured her, "but let us give Aragorn some space to work right now."
"Are his injuries that serious?" she asked, her eyes darting over to the king's tent behind her, where Adrendil had just brought Legolas' equipment.
"No, my sister. He just needs time," Eledhel said, bringing his arm around her again to guide her away from the king's tent.
"Why do you lie to her?" Adrendil asked sharply, coming up behind them.
Miredhel pushed away from her brother and stared at Adrendil.
"What does he mean, El?" Miredhel asked, her eyes darkening.
"Adrendil, don't—" Eledhel warned the captain.
"Don't you think she deserves to hear the truth about her own lover?" the captain insisted, coming to Miredhel's side.
"I don't know what your aim is, Captain," Eledhel said witheringly. "But kindly stay away from my sister."
"What my aim is?" exclaimed Adrendil. "You are the one lying. I speak the truth." He looked frankly at Miredhel. "I am truly sorry, lovely one, for what has happened to Legolas."
Miredhel caught Adrendil's arm before he could turn away and leave, shooting a backward glance toward her brother. "Tell me then, Captain. What has happened? I must know."
Adrendil's lips momentarily curled into a half-smile as he cut his eyes to her brother and then back to Miredhel who waited for his answer. "The orcs caught the prince and tort—" the captain began, but was silenced as Eledhel lunged past Miredhel and punched him squarely across the jaw.
Adrendil reeled back from the blow, and his hand drifted to his jaw where he had been struck, as if he could not believe he had actually been hit. His eyes burned with unmitigated fury and for a moment, all the camp drew silent breaths together, wondering if the elf would fight back. "I am sorry, Miredhel," he said, wiping a thin line of blood from the corner of his mouth. "Your brother does not want you to know the truth."
"You had better be prepared to back up those words," Eledhel snapped, pulling a long knife from his belt with relish. "If we want to talk about the truth, then how about the fact that you sat by and did NOTHING while the enemy beat Legolas to within a second of his life?" He gave his sister a pained look. "I am sorry, Miredhel, for you to hear it this way. I only wanted to protect you."
Miredhel unsteadily rose and stepped between her brother and the captain.
"Eledhel, stop it," she begged. "Just stop." Her eyes pleaded with him, weary and unsure, but angry as well. "Maybe he's right," she said bitterly, tilting her head toward Adrendil. "All I wanted was the truth. Either way, I'm going to see Legolas now." She pushed past both of them and quietly entered the king's tent.
"One of these days, Eledhel of Lothlorien," Adrendil promised him in a dark whisper, sheathing his knife, "and then we'll both know the truth, won't we?"
Eledhel elbowed his way past the captain and followed his sister into the tent, deciding at the last moment to hang back at the entrance. The prince was propped up and even had been dressed, hiding the worst of his injuries. He and the king had been softly talking, or arguing; Eledhel could not be sure of which. In any case, Aragorn quietly quitted the space, gently bowing his head to Miredhel when she entered. Eledhel felt too that he should perhaps leave as well, but Adrendil's accusation of Legolas being her lover resurfaced in his mind and was not easily forgotten. So Eledhel remained, keenly aware of the shifting mood in the tent as Miredhel knelt at Legolas' side.
Her eyes softened as she folded her hand in his, though she inwardly winced at the cuts and gashes marring the skin there.
She very much looked as though she wanted to cry, but bravely blinked the welling tears away. "Legolas," she breathed and then bit her lip, glancing away briefly and squeezing her eyes shut, to steady herself.
Just to see him and be able to touch the warmth of his skin was enough for the moment for her. It is easier for elven kind to discern each others' feelings when they do not choose to shield them, and the current moment was no exception. Warmth and concern, mixed with an equally fair share of pain, permeated the tent. Miredhel and Legolas shared in these emotions and were humbled by them, as was their unobserved watcher at the door.
They searched each other's eyes anxiously, both feeling too much to convey their thoughts into words.
"Let it go," she urged him at last in a whisper. "You do not have to be so brave all the time."
His eyes were already liquid as he returned her gaze and allowed himself the luxury of unabashedly roaming his eyes over her face and form—her loopy curls, those dark, wet lashes resting against cheek as she lowered her eyes, the sweetness of her curves, and the earnest way she tenderly clasped his hand in her own. Valar, how he loved her! He had lived, he realized, for her. Even now, the strength of the bond he had forged with Miredhel pressed heavily into his heart, solid and comforting, much like the feeling of some beloved's head resting against his shoulder or the tug of a child's hand against his own. It was the feeling of being wanted, of being needed and depended upon, and Legolas realized that this too was part of loving. Now Miredhel knelt before him, asking to share his pain, to lighten his burden, and Legolas loved her all the more for it.
The prince knew what darkness lurked in his heart, the evils of this one night in the orcs' captivity notwithstanding; there were also dark memories of the War that he feared sharing with anyone, memories of the slime and death in Helm's Deep, his unfathomable despair in Moria, and overriding hopelessness at the Black Gate. Even though she asked it of him, he could not subject her to those things. Perhaps some secrets were better off not shared between lovers. Legolas did not trust his ability to control his thoughts at a time like this, especially when he was already feeling, at best, vulnerable. He hated feeling vulnerable. If she asked him, and he shared with Miredhel about his capture, would he be able to stop there? Or would more follow? The torture, the cruelty, or even worse-- would those dark dreams of the War escape? No, he could not risk exposing Miredhel to those horrors.
So, dreading her discovery, the prince turned his eyes away from his beloved.
He had forgotten how persistent she could be.
She guided his chin back to face her and softly covered his lips with her own, as if his cuts and bruises across his cheeks and eyes did not exist for her.
"I feared you'd been killed," she said at last and hung her head. She omitted any mention of her grief and locked eyes with her lover.
"They were planning on it," the prince admitted, "but their plans for my death was nothing compared to what I felt later. They threatened you… I nearly lost my control…I did lose it."
"The last thing I want is to be a liability to you. "
"Miredhel, love, no. Do not ever call yourself such." The prince watched her intently. "The whole time all I could think of was you: your eyes, your voice, your lips, and the hope that I could see you just one more time."
"Then let me help you, Legolas. Let me share your pain. You don't have to face this alone," Miredhel pleaded with him.
His eyes cut to hers quickly. "No, Miredhel. Your grief—it's too much of a risk—" he said softly, his eyes defeated.
"So was loving you in the first place, Legolas," she countered.
"Miredhel—" Legolas snapped and then lowered his eyes. "I cannot do what you would ask of me. I have not the strength to do it," he confessed and leaned back defeatedly.
Silently, Eledhel slipped away from the king's tent unnoticed. At first he felt justified watching his sister and the prince as part of his brotherly duty like an unseen chaperone, but now guilt gnawed his stomach. He intruded on something very private and rare. His sister and the Prince of Mirkwood were lovers. His mouth settled into a frown as he walked away from the scene. His good deed in saving his friend from the orcs' torment that night had also saved his sister; for there was no doubt in Eledhel's mind that if Legolas should perish so would Miredhel. He saw the way she looked at him, touched him, and in the same manner, he returned her affection. Although it seemed completely unreasonable and far-fetched, there was no doubt in Eledhel's mind that Miredhel and Legolas had bonded in love.
Now the former Captain of Lothlorien scoured the Gondorian campsite for the one person who could put his mind at ease…Aragorn. The king would know for sure. Aragorn and Legolas were thicker than thieves and as good as brothers. When Eledhel finally spied the old Ranger smoking on the outer ring of the makeshift camp, the elf silently slipped to the ground beside him.
"I knew you would come sooner or later," Aragorn said in a low voice, lowering his pipe, not bothering to glance at whom had joined him. He guessed it was Eledhel.
"Miredhel and Legolas, are they—" Eledhel began questioningly.
"Lovers?" supplied Aragorn with a wry smile, now checking Eledhel's reaction from the corner of his eye.
"Well, if you insist on using that word, are they?" Eledhel hissed.
"What do you think?"
Eledhel stretched his long legs out leisurely before him, mimicking the Ranger's sitting position. "Yes," he said shortly. "Yes, I think that they are involved. I think," he paused to get a good sidelong glance at Aragorn, "that Legolas and MY sister have bound themselves to one another."
Aragorn's face remained expressionless.
"You know something that you're not telling me," Eledhel accused. "As her guardian, I feel that I have a right to know."
"Do you not know too much already?" the king countered quietly. "It is their business, not ours."
Eledhel sighed. "I just want to protect her… and him, as well. Legolas is one of my good friends, too and not to mention, my lord. What they're doing seems rash and inappropriate at a time like this, especially if you consider her condition and his status."
Aragorn nodded thoughtfully, carefully weighing the words of Eledhel's last comment. "Legolas informed me of her Grief, Eledhel. 'Tis rare for elves to overcome an affliction like that, and yet your sister has. She's quite the survivor…but so is Legolas. They have much in common"
"You would have me think that the two were made for each other," scoffed Eledhel.
Aragorn shrugged ever so slightly. "Perhaps they are, Eledhel. I will tell you one thing for certain, and that is that I am glad for Legolas' sake. I have never seen him happier than he was in Minas Tirith with your sister. He acted like…" the king's voice trailed away as he became lost in his own thoughts
"He acted like what?" inquired the elf.
The man rubbed his forehead, his eyes suddenly made weary by the realization that had come to him. "Like he had before the War of the Ring. The war changed him, Eledhel, in so many ways. It changed all of us, I realize. Through all the battles and hardship that we faced together, I depended on him. It wasn't until weeks after Pelargir that I realized Legolas had been facing a quiet battle of his own all along…" Aragorn stopped and twisted his pipe in his hands. "The prince has sea-longing."
"But he's never mentioned it—not even once!" Eledhel protested. "Are you sure?" One look in Aragorn's steady grey eyes was enough to confirm the king's certainty.
"Legolas despises weakness in himself. He would not like the fact that I have told you about his sea-longing, but as his captain, you should know."
Eledhel slowly shook his head as he digested this new unlooked-for detail about his friend, and all he could feel was sorrow for Legolas. He had heard of sea-longing and the discontent and even madness it could bring to an elf, but such a condition was rare among the Galadhrim. "Does it pain him much, do you think?" he asked Aragorn.
"Like I said, Legolas is not one to talk about his ills…" Aragorn cleared his throat, remembering the prince's own quiet admittance to being in pain that very evening. It was so very unlike Legolas to say something like that, and Aragorn felt the full thrust of his words' significance. The prince must have been in agony. As for the sea-longing, Aragorn could not begin to speculate. Legolas was as close-mouthed on that matter as he was on everything else. What Aragorn did know for certain was this, and he told it to the elf beside him.
"Sindarin blood runs thick in his veins, Eledhel, and I think Legolas feels the pull of the sea more keenly than he lets on."
"But if Legolas suffers by staying on these shores, then why does he not leave!" Eledhel exclaimed. "Why would he make himself stay in Middle Earth, knowing his choice can only bring him pain?"
Aragorn did not answer right away. Instead he lifted his pipe to his lips in stony silence. He blew a thin stream of smoke into the night air and turned his head toward the elf. "For the same reasons your sister stayed, Eledhel. Friendship, loyalty, love..."
Eledhel locked eyes with the king, and the elf's eyes were bright as he mulled over the kings' words.
"Miredhel and I never even discussed the possibility of her leaving," the elf confessed. "We didn't have to discuss it. She knew I wanted to stay… and I let her make that sacrifice." Ashamed, he bowed his head. For all his talk of being his sister's guardian, he had let his own interests rule her fate. Then he had poured himself into being protective of her to assuage his own guilt.
Aragorn placed a comforting hand on Eledhel's shoulder, and the elf's eyes shifted up to meet the man's.
"Both Miredhel and Legolas have sacrificed part of themselves for their loved ones," Aragorn said to his friend. "Do not belittle what your sister has done, by blaming yourself for her actions, Eledhel." The man knew what Eledhel was going through. Of Legolas' many varied reasons for staying in Middle Earth, the king was fairly certain of at least one of them, and the fact that it was the elf's own choice to stay did not lessen the guilt that Aragorn felt.
Eledhel's mouth bent into a tiny crack of a smile. "So Miredhel and Legolas are lovers, and probably bound to one another. They're apparently perfect for each other, and there is nothing I can do about it."
"You can accept it," offered Aragorn slightly.
"Yes, and I can do more than that. I'm going to make sure that both of them survive this ordeal together. I fear both of them will want to fight when we get to Calenfen. Legolas lost much of his strength tonight. He's in no shape to do anything, and in the morning, we ride toward battle."
"He already told me that he wants to help lead the charge, Eledhel. He may be on death's door, but Legolas won't pull himself out of the fight, no matter how injured he is," Aragorn pointed out.
"Then let us work out a strategy to protect him and win this battle at the same time," Eledhel said.
Then the Captain and the King began to plan, there on the edge of the camp, of how they could possibly take on the dragon's ambush, protect their loved ones, and come out victorious. With Eledhel's thoughts on Miredhel and Aragorn's, on Legolas, both knew that their scheme could have no margin of error. The king's tent, no more than a few yards away, was a constant reminder that this plan of theirs must succeed, for within its walls, Miredhel and Legolas rested quietly, desperately. No one knew what the morning would bring.
There was no turning back now.