Easterling - Part Five - Istar
He had expected to wake up to find her in his arms, the place where she had been nestled comfortably after they had hours spent in the confines of her room, making love repeatedly through the course of the night. As he took a deep breath and took in the lingering scent of her against the sheet, he was filled the memories of their passion the night before. He was uncertain of what he had expected their first coupling would be like and he was pleasantly surprised that she was able to match him in stamina and desire. It had all been about exploration and they did so fully, with all reservations and fears about the unhappy tragedy of their future all but forgotten. Each time he heard her call his name in wild abandon, he became convinced that he could never have another woman again, without wanting it to be her.
At an hour that was too late for either to remember, Legolas had finally succumbed to a happy but exhausted sleep with Melia lying against him in a similar state of weariness. They were both spent after hours of passion and Legolas remembered thinking, as he drifted into his dreams, that there was nothing finer than having her in his embrace after such a sensuous exchange. When he opened his eyes and discovered that the warmth of her body was not against him, his mind snapped quickly out of its fog to full alertness. He sat up immediately and allowed his gaze to sweep across the room, searching for her even though his senses told him that he was alone.
It was only when his eyes caught sight of the necklace lying against the pillow beside him, did he understand that she was gone.
There was no message left with the chain of gold but then its presence beside him was explanation enough and Legolas found himself staring at it, his jaw clenching with anger and despair at the understanding of what she had done. Climbing out of the bed, there was no need for any further investigation because he knew what he would find even before he sought it out. However, his heart refused to believe what his mind knew to be a certainty and he found himself compelled to seek out any hope that would allow him to believe that she had not simply left him after all they had been to each other the night before.
Unfortunately, there was none to find. All that was left of her presence in this room was the memory of their passion and the necklace he clutched in his hands in something of a daze. Everything that belonged to her while she had occupied this room was absent and Legolas wondered how much of this she had planned before she had given herself to him last night. Was that why she had allowed him to make love to her, because she was leaving him in the morning? Legolas knew that nothing had been solved in their heated passion but he had hoped that her willingness to trust him with her body might smooth the way to trusting him with her heart. Now it appeared, that had been his dream, not hers.
He would have been crushed with heartache if he were not so furious with her.
His anger kept the pain of her departure at reasonable levels and using its momentum, he dressed quickly and stormed out of her room, with every intention of going after her because she was not going to arbitrarily decided that this was the way things would go between them. He had attempted to be a gentlemen about this with her, tried his hardest to be sympathetic to her feelings but the truth was; she had inspired him into a proper fury and he was not going to simply suffocate its expression. It was time she listened to what he had to say instead of making her mind up for both of them.
Getting dressed quickly, he was a walking thunderstorm when he emerged down the hallway, striding forcefully to his own suite of room in the palace so that he could make haste in his pursuit after Melia. It was not to be underestimated the anger he felt at her for what she had done, for elves took their affairs seriously and this departure like a thief in the night had incensed him more than he thought possible. He supposed there was a certain irony to it all. In his lifetime, he had recalled being the one to depart in the morning with some benefice left behind to the lover who had shared the night with him. This was the first time that he had been on the receiving end of such a farewell. He dare say he did not like it very much.
He was walking past the throne room when he heard Thranduil's voice calling out to him from the open doors. Legolas froze in his step, not wishing to explain to his father what his intentions were this morning especially when that intent would see him leaving court again. He had planned to slip away without notice, leaving word behind that he would be back once he had settled this matter with Melia. Taking a deep breath because there was no way he could avoid this confrontation now that his father had seen him, Legolas forced away the furious emotions running through him and returned himself to some semblance of calm.
"Father," he replied entering the room, his hand slipping the chain into the pocket of his tunic.
Thranduil was seated on top of his throne, his eyes studying some parchments that were no doubt reports of some kind pertaining to the business of his kingdom, appearing not all suspect that something might be wrong with his son. He did not raise his eyes to meet Legolas as his son approached, maintaining his gaze instead upon the papers before him.
"The housekeeper tells me that you did not sleep in your bed last night," Thranduil remarked casually.
Legolas flinched, feeling a little embarrassed that his activities last night had reached his father's ears. Personally, he preferred to keep his affairs private even though realistically, this was Thranduil's house and the king had a right to know what took place within it, no matter how personal the matter might be. It took a few seconds before he answered but when he did, Legolas decided that he owed his father an honest answer.
"No," he spoke finally. "I did not."
"I take it you were with that Ranger," Thranduil replied, his voice still indifferent and that only increased Legolas' discomfort.
"Yes," he nodded. "I am a man grown, I do not think I have to account myself to you."
Thranduil looked up at him, his eyes softening but a little. "Son, she is gone."
Legolas stared at his father. "You know?"
"I was told by Nanaur that she departed at first light. Judging from the direction, she was returning to the Anduin."
"Why did no one tell me?" Legolas demanded, trying to remember that while he was addressing his father, he was also addressing the King of the Woodland Realms.
"Because I saw no reason to have anyone tell you," Thranduil replied, trying to be kind even though it might not seem that way at this moment to his angry son. "She decided to leave without telling you for good reason. I thought it best to respect her wishes."
"Her wishes!" Legolas swore out loud. "Does no one care anything for how I feel about all this? " He ranted, not expecting an answer but feeling the need to vent his frustration nonetheless.
"I know you are in love with her but can you not see that what she did was for the best?" Thranduil replied, aware that the words would not make it any easier for Legolas to accept the situation but was compelled to try at the sight of his son's anguish.
"For the best?" Legolas glared at him in dismay, wondering how he could say that when suddenly he remembered the exchange between his father and Melia the night before. She had not told him what was said between them and now Legolas suspected that perhaps Thranduil might have said something to convince Melia even more that she should leave. "What did you say to her?" He accused.
Thranduil swallowed, realizing that the young woman had not betrayed him to Legolas. He tried to answer not as king but as a father and hoped that the boy would understand that what he had said to Melia was for the best. "I told her nothing that she did not already think, that anything between you two would ultimately end in tragedy."
Legolas did not say a word for a few seconds. The rage inside of him needed time to swell to uncontainable levels and when it did, he turned on his father viciously. "What gave you the right to decide that? My relationship with Melia is my personal affair! Not yours. You had no right to say anything to her! Do you know how difficult it was for her to even admit she felt anything for me? She has enough fears in her heart about what we could be to each other without you making things worse!"
"Do you have any idea what you are embarking upon by choosing a mortal, my son?" Thranduil defended himself with just as much determination. "Can you truly endure the pain of watching her grow older with each day, knowing that she will die and there is nothing you can do to prevent it? Do you know what it is like to lose someone you have been bound to? I lost your mother when you were a child and my heart has been cleaved in two ever since. I would spare you that pain. Your mother sailed to the Undying Lands so that we can be reunited some day, the same cannot be said for your Melia when she dies."
"Do you think I do not know that?" Legolas hissed in turn. "It breaks my heart to know that one day I will be without her but I can accept that if it means having her even for the scant span of her life. I know that I will not see her in the Undying Lands but when the world is done, perhaps we shall be reunited. No one can say for certain but I am not going to dwell on what cannot be or what may be for that matter, just on what is."
"It is not that simple," Thranduil protested wondering how Legolas could be so naïve even if he was three thousand years old. In truth, he knew that he was his mother's son who felt things passionately. If he had ever known his mother, he might have realized how much alike they were but unfortunately that had not been. She had fallen ill after his birth and never recovered, as she should have even with the advances of elvish medicine. The only way to save her life had been to hasten her journey to the Undying Lands and that was three millennia ago. Three millennia of loneliness for the husband left behind.
"You may delude yourself," the king insisted, "but you know it to be true."
Legolas did not have time to argue. Each moment he spent debating the point with his father, was precious seconds where she was widening the distance between them. Perhaps it would be for nothing, this pursuit and when they caught up with one another, they would find themselves locked in the same stalemate. However, Legolas would not rest until he tried. "I am going after her father," he said finally, drawing away from the king's presence. "I ask your leave to depart but know that if you refuse me, I shall go anyway."
"You think that I would hold you against your will?" Thranduil stared at him in shock.
"I think you would try to save me from myself," Legolas returned aware that he sounded unkind but he was angry that Thranduil had exacerbated Melia's fears and possibly incited her to leave.
"You just came home," the king said sadly, his eyes filled with hurt at his son's desire to leave.
It was at this that his heart softened a little towards his father. "I will return," he said sincerely meaning it. When he took permanent leave of his father and the Woodland Realm it would not be like this, where neither his father nor his kingdom would have time to accept what he was doing. "We have things to discuss father and I will do that face to face when the time comes but I must go after her."
"She will hurt you," Thranduil replied, trying to reach him one last time. "Think about what you are doing."
"I have thought about it," Legolas answered as he started to turn away. "But it is not my mind that controls my actions in this father, it is my heart and to its desires I am powerless."
"You have no inkling of what it truly feels like to be powerless, my son," the king stared after him sadly. "If you chose to make this woman your wife, you will understand all too well what it really means. What you feel now will be a splinter in comparison to the anguish you will endure when the times comes for her to pass out of this world."
Legolas paused briefly, absorbing what his father had said but if Thranduil thought he had not given the matter much consideration, then the king was greatly mistaken. He did know what he faced if Melia chose to be with him. He knew it from the moment he met her and while it had frightened him and still did, he knew he loved her and so there was no choice really.
"I love her father," he met his father's eyes briefly. "If suffering eternal sorrow is the price I must pay for having her then that is how it will be."
With that, the prince turned away from his father and left the king to weep silently in his heart for his son.
It was not difficult for Legolas to discern where Melia was going once he set out upon her trail She was easy to locate because he knew the terrain she was crossing so intimately. He also knew which tracks were hers because the elves travelling across Eryn Lasgalen did not leave markers of their presence. Woodland elves were more than adept at moving through their realm without anyone being aware of them. Legolas himself knew this art well and was one of its best practitioners. Although Melia had taken care to ensure her departure from Thranduil's court was as discreet as possible, not even a Ranger with her skill could remain hidden from the prince who was determined to find her.
While her tracks were easy enough to read in the woods she traveled, the reasons for her course was not easy to ascertain. All signs pointed to Melia returning to Dol Goldur, though Legolas for the life of him could not understand why. There was no reason for her to return to the place since it was clear that nothing remained there of her mother or of any clue that might lead to the whereabouts of the Istar who was the center of this entire mystery. Melia was no fool. She had understood this when they were at Dol Goldur together. Why would she return there when there was clearly nothing to find?
As it was, Legolas was greatly troubled by the possibility of the Istari being involved in this foul business. Melia had revealed that in her vision, she had seen an Istar at Dol Goldur in clear alliance with the Nazgul. While this was not unprecedented for Saruman was also an Istar who had cast his lot with Sauron, it made Legolas wondered why a wizard who was in service to the dark lord had not made his emergence during the War of the Ring. If an Istar was responsible for the disappearance of the River Women from Middle earth, then why had he remained silent when his master required him most? And why was he hidden still? Gandalf, possibly the greatest and the noblest of the Istari, had sailed across the western sea and Radagast was not far behind him. Saruman was dead at the hands of his own lackey and the whereabouts of the other remaining Istar was as much a secret as the one who had occupied Dol Guldur for so long.
Before leaving, Legolas inquired if Thranduil knew anything of an Istar that might have resided in Mirkwood at any time. The king had been able to offer him some scant information which was hundreds of years out of date and had little to do with the darkness that was emerging from the past of Dol Goldur. Two of the unaccounted Istari were said to have traveled to the far east of Middle earth upon arriving at Mithlond. These were called the Ithryn Luin, the "Blue Wizards". When Legolas was still a child, it seemed that one of these wizards, called Pallando, had journeyed through Mirkwood and had lingered at court for a brief time before continuing his journey southwards. Thranduil had no news of Pallando since then and assumed as many in Middle earth supposed, that the two had since taken the Straight Road back to the Undying Lands from where they had originated.
More than ever, Legolas wished Gandalf was still in Middle earth. The grey wizard would have been able to solve this mystery swiftly if he had been present. Unfortunately, Legolas sighed as he continued his pursuit of Melia, Gandalf was not here and he would have to solve this riddle himself. He had come to one conclusion since embarking upon this search with Melia, that she was possibly the key to everything, though he was uncertain where the lock was and how she was to be used to open anything. Goldberry, the daughter of the River Woman and wife to Iarwain Ben-adar in the Old Forest, would have been protected by her husband's supremacy over his realm and it was almost certain that Goldberry's father was not mortal as Melia's was. Melia's mind was human and perhaps its weakness allowed the visions to contaminate her thoughts with the terrible nightmares that had made little sense until she arrived at Dol Goldur.
It came to him so suddenly why she was returning to Dol Goldur that its effect upon him was almost like a sharp blow. With that one discovery, the urgency in reaching that desolate place became an imperative and Legolas drove his horse hard to reach Melia quickly. He had no idea whether or not what she was attempting to do could kill her but he had seen its effects the last time she had made the attempt and knew that there was every possibility it could. Melia was more than stubborn and determined enough to try so dangerous a method in order to learn her mother's fate at Dol Guldur, particularly since she had no other place to turn for the information.
Legolas cursed his foolishness as he forced his animal through the woods, trying to maintain a devastating pace he knew would not keep for too long. Melia was hours ahead of him and she was no fool. She knew how to maintain a brisk pace during travel and quite possibly, suspected that he might be in the mind to follow her. The Prince of Mirkwood wondered how a woman he loved with such untold abandon could be the cause of so much exasperation to one who had been alive for three millennia and had learnt the discipline of patience until he was in her company.
He was certain that not even the Valar had wisdom enough to answer that question.
Unfortunately, he had little choice but to press on and as his horse tore through the forests of Mirkwood, Legolas prayed that he would reach her in time or else he would learn what his father had warned him against, far sooner than he had possibly imagined.
This thing she intended to do was pure insanity. She knew that.
And yet here she was, standing before Dol Goldur, with a descending blanket of darkness behind it, preparing to step in the maw of evil the likes of which she had never known. Alone. More than anything, Melia wished Legolas was here. Despite all their troubles, he had the unfathomable ability to bring her strength when she needed it most. She certainly needed it now as she started over the barren space of land between her and the former citadel of Dol Goldur. If it had looked imposing by day, then by night it appeared positively sinister. Melia shuddered as she approached it and was revisited by all the same fears of the last time she was here.
Even though she knew there was no danger in the surrounding wood, Melia took no chances and crossed the piles of stones that made up the fortress walls with her crossbow in hand. Legolas had suggested that perhaps she carry a sword as well. She was not good with a blade though she knew how to use it. The construction of Middle earth blades tended to be broad swords, far too heavy for a woman to wield with any effectiveness. However, she had seen Eowyn's sword and knew that the shield maiden of Rohan's weapon was really a dagger fashioned with extra length in order to be used as a sword. She told herself that if she survive this, she would have to see about acquiring such a weapon.
As she stepped to the edge of the pit where the dungeons once were, Melia felt her entire being suffuse with mind numbing terror. The feeling of it was so intense that she was almost tempted to run away from this place and return to Thranduil's court and Legolas' arms. Thinking of him lessened the fear somewhat and she focussed on what had happened between them to distract her mind as she made her descent into the darkened pit. Above her, the moon was high and offered some light to guide her way but she could not ignore that it was still very dark down there. She thought of Legolas and found comfort in the memory of their joining during that hot and passionate night. Each time she thought of his lips against hers, the way his eyes clouded in desire when his body could endure no more sensation and succumbed to his release, she found herself needing him more than ever.
It ached inside her the moment she slipped out of his arms that morning and started riding towards Dol Goldur. She was not surprised that no one made any effort to stop her departure. They probably thought it was for the best, as well. Only Nunaur, the king's captain had confessed some sadness at seeing her go when she encountered him in the stables. It was easy to see that Nunaur was a true friend of Legolas because he told her unashamedly that the Prince had never been as happy as he was in her company. Melia wondered what Thranduil would have thought of his captain if he had learnt of the man's words. Melia had hoped the yearning for Legolas would cease when she put some distance between them but it had not. The yearning for him was beyond her ability to describe. Over the next two days of her journey, her mind kept wandering and when it did, it almost always found its way to the Prince.
Melia knew she was in love with him but until she left Legolas, she did not realize how much.
When Melia reached the floor of the pit, even thoughts of her lover could not assuage the cold naked fear she felt as she found herself surrounded by dungeons where great atrocities were committed. Sauron had walked this very floor and his evil had soaked into the earth. No amount of time would ever be able to cleanse this place fully, despite the elves' best efforts. It would always be a scar of darkness to remind those who came in the future of what evil once preyed upon this place. She took a deep breath as she saw the dungeon where the terrible vision had come upon her and knew that is where she had to go. She had been careful not to touch anything until now but if she wanted her answers that was going to have to change.
Closing her eyes as she reached the bars of the dungeon, Melia told herself that whatever the consequences of this, she was ready to accept it. She had lived a life where her destiny was hers to choose and if she were to die now, she knew that at least she had known love and shared one night with her prince. She only hoped that if the worst came to pass, he would understand why she had done this. Outstretching her fingers, Melia wrapped her hand around the bars and let what had to be, happen.
Its effect upon her was no less potent than before and immediately, that searing pain filled her mind and forced a scream from her. No one heard the silent cry that tore through the night and if anything stirred in the wood around Dol Goldur, it certainly did not care. Melia had been right about one thing when she embarked upon this course and that was that she was alone.
Utterly and truly alone.
There was no weeping.
Just screaming. Loud, anguished wails of pain and torture, tearing the night apart like the angry cry of a soul being ripped apart, a piece at a time. Its sound was like music to those who ruled the fortress of Dol Guldur and those not shrouded in darkness but forced to endure the proximity of such an evil place could only shudder in fear as they heard its assault upon their ears. There was struggle to the helpless screams and as it grew in pitch and intensity, the struggles weakened to almost nothingness.
The Nazgul watched the Istar work, using magic that was never intended for the purpose it was currently being employed. Even the Nazgul for all its allegiance to Sauron was not the same as the two beings presently in the cell with him. Both had been creations of the Valar in some way or another, Maiar as they were called by the First Born. Even Sauron had begun his existence as Maiar to the dark lord Melkor and in turn had gave life to the Nazgul and the other dark creatures of shadow that served him so loyally.
The Maiar female was chained to the wall, far from the source of her strength. The particular type that she was ensured that once away from her natural environment, she was very susceptible to manipulation. She and the others like her had been systematically hunted down, trapped and enslaved before being returned here in secret to Dol Goldur. The capture of the River Women had been a task as laborious as the continuing search for the One Ring but what Sauron demanded, his servants were compelled to do.
The Istar clearly did not have the stomach for what needed to be done which was why the Nazgul was required to look over his shoulder constantly, to ensure the work progressed despite his weakness. On this occasion particularly, his presence was needed to ensure the Istar did not falter in the execution of the intricate spell that was presently making the Maiar female scream with such agony. The Istar was trying not to be affected by the screams or the terrible effect his powers was having upon the female Maiar as the spell did its worst.
The Nazgul smiled beneath its hood in what it could almost consider pleasure at the Istar's attempt to hide his anguish. The Nazgul had selected this Maiar female as the first to be subjected to the transmogrification spell because she was the Istar's favorite. The Istar had protested bitterly but upon realizing that there was never a choice in the matter, had grimly obeyed without further protest. The spell was sending waves upon waves of power through the room and even Sauron's servant was impressed by how powerful these Maiar could be when properly motivated. If the Istar wanted, it was possible for him to leave Dol Goldur and none of them would be able to stop him but the wizard's fear of Sauron was growing. He knew that the dark lord was far from vanquished and within these walls, the potency of Sauron's power could be felt most overtly.
Even as she screamed fiercely, her struggles had begun to wane. Her flesh was beginning to boil under her skin. It bubbled like the dark sludge of a marsh bog and lifted muscle and sinew from her bones as the spell's purpose began to shape her body. The chains held her in place but the Nazgul doubted she was strong enough to stand, let alone break through them.
The Istar's spell was done; there was no turning back now.
The ring of power had been found.
The Nine were being recalled to Minas Morgul to be given instructions. It was said that they would be sent after the one who carried the One Ring. At Dol Goldur, an atmosphere of charged anticipation had come into being since the discovery of the One Ring. It seemed the culmination of everything they had been working towards these many years had finally reached fruition. Baradur was rebuilt and the Orcs had increased in numbers. Slowly but surely, they were retaking lands that had once belonged to Mordor while Sauron himself was gathering his forces from all corners of Middle Earth. He was making unlikely allies and those allies were telling him to turn his eyes to the lands of the Periannath, were the legendary halfings were known to reside.
The work had continued steadily for so many years but for the Istar, it had come too soon. The work, which should have been his crowning achievement, had become his bane and now he was trapped almost as helplessly as the pure souls he had used to make it possible. Things were moving far too swiftly for his liking for he knew that once Sauron reacquired the One Ring, he would launch his assault upon Middle earth, anticipating the presence of the warriors he had cultivated for this purpose.
It was not the Istar's desire to create a soldier but instead to fashion a creature possessing the singular beauty of the elves and the fiery passion of men. He wanted to create a new race that was capable of beauty and endurance and in his determination to do so, he never considered once how that work could be twisted into something so terrible that neither race would be able to withstand its assault. The Nazgul lord who oversaw his work had departed Dol Goldur at Sauron's call, leaving the Istar alone for the first time in too long.
The Istar stood within the cell of his favourite, favourite because she had been so strong while at the same time because of all the others, she had been the one who wept more bitterly at her incarceration. He knew only her name and there was talk of a lover and possibly a child, for in her torture, she would utter names that were unfamiliar to him because they were not the names of her sisters. The wreckage of her remained in the cell; something that was once beauty personified had now been completely recreated into a horrific parody of life. Within her cocoon of flesh she remained encased, only a faint outline of her body could be seen through the viscous environment.
He had one chance to end this before the nightmare became any worse than it already was. He had to take it now before she and the others emerged from the pods within which they were metamorphosing. The orcs who had remained here in place of the Nazgul knew what he was and feared him. He could do what was needed and disappear. Middle earth was on the brink of war; it was entirely possible that Sauron would be too busy with his plans of conquest to bother about one Istar and the twisted fruit of his misguided dreams. He would take them far away from Dol Goldur and hide in the belly of the earth, perhaps the Grey Mountains and be forgotten.
With enough time, he might be able to undo what he had wrought upon them. Perhaps he might even be able to save them. He did not know if this hope was possible, only that he had to try. He had to try before the process was complete, before they emerged from their cocoons.
Before they woke up.
The sound filled the world almost as completely as the overwhelming darkness. The darkness was the world, its sides pressed against her, wet sliminess against her skin. She pushed against it but it would not yield. It was like being trapped in amber that had hardened around her. She could move inside its hollow innards but she could not escape. Her nails raked the membrane around her but it would not tear, it simply stretched taunting her with the possibility of rupture. Fluid filled her ears, oozing into her terrified mind. She took a breath and it only followed the path into her lungs, making her cough. She opened her mouth and it flowed down her throat, blocking her scream.
The need to escape was overwhelming but she could not even see where she was because the darkness was everywhere. There was a faint memory that it was not always like this, that there was a time when there was light and sounds that was not this slow, turgid flow of liquid that filled her eardrums. There were memories buried in a place so deep that it was no longer possible for her to remember anything, except the disconcerting sensation when she tried to bring them into focus.
Sometimes, she could feel someone beyond her prison, someone close that whispered to her soft things. His voice was always filled with great sorrow and sometimes, she could almost remember him but the uneasy feeling would evolve into physical pain and she would be driven to abandon the effort. However, the overwhelming imperative of her existence was to escape the cage she found herself in and so she clawed again at the moist walls around her, praying that someday the strength would be given her to finally break through.
Someday, she would get out.
She woke up gasping.
Her first impulse had been to scream but somehow she had managed restraint in the dreamscape. Melia sat up struggling for breath as she tried to control the intense fear that coursed through her heart. Little about her surroundings effected her at first because the terror had more or less shunted aside such thoughts. What she had seen stayed in her mind. Vivid images of things she could not possibly know but was certain to be true because she knew they had taken place inside the cell where she had attempted her dangerous experiment. She had hoped to find some clue as to where her search should take her next and instead succeeded in opening a door inside her mind that revealed more than just a destination. She had never expected the potency of evil to invade her as it did and supposed that the darker things in the world were often the ones that endured the best.
It was certainly true of Dol Goldur whose walls and foundations still carried the stain of its sinister past. Every terrible act that had been committed within its boundaries, every tortured cry of pain and drop of blood spilled was as much apart of Dol Goldur as its bricks and stone. Melia did not know how she was able to see what she had and she was certain that sharing her mother's blood had something to do with her ability but there was no doubt in her mind that everything she saw was real. Everything she felt in that nightmarish place was the truth.
It was at this point that Melia realized that it was daylight. The sun shone above her head through the canopy of leaves and she saw that she was surrounded by forest. She was lying on her bedroll; a blanket draped over her where she had lain for who knew how long and the smell of something cooking was on the fire at the center of the campsite. Melia saw her horse and another waiting patiently under the shade of the tree they were tethered to, nickering at each other in their secret language. She recognized the steed next to her own and supposed she should not be surprised by its presence here. Her gaze swept across the campsite but saw no sign of its rider.
After a moment of contemplation of what would soon be upon her, Melia attempted to stand and found her legs rather shaky. She wondered just how long she had been unconscious. Her mind still felt drowsy from her slumber and it was a few seconds before she was able to brave a step forward. When she did however, her legs ached from the sudden demand for activity. She walked gingerly to the horses that raised their heads in interest at her approach and almost appeared as if they were glad to see a human amongst them. Melia stroked the brow of her horse gently before running her hand over the flank of the other.
"Where is your master?" she asked gently as she petted the horse.
The horse had no ability to answer other than to snap its head back in reaction to a change in environment. Melia turned around and found Legolas standing across the fire, staring at her. He was carrying his bow, indicating to Melia that he had just made a quick scout of the area to ensure they were safe. His first reaction upon seeing her was relief but then he did not speak and his blue eyes bore into her mercilessly. Under the scrutiny of that gaze, Melia had no defense and she was revisited by the memory of their last meeting.
"You came after me?" She asked after a few minutes of staring.
"You left." Legolas returned. "I had little choice but to follow."
"You found me?" She ventured a guess, imagining the fear he must have felt in coming to Dol Goldur and finding her in that cell. Melia immediately felt intensely guilty for making him endure such anxiety.
"Yes," he nodded slowly. "You were unconscious for almost a day. I thought your mind may have been lost forever."
"I am sorry to have made you endure such fear," Melia apologized and somehow guessed that it would not nearly be enough to soothe his anger, for despite the concern she could see in his eyes, Melia could also see his rage. Rage he was keeping under tight restraint. "It was the only way I could find him."
"Did you?" He asked tautly.
"Yes," she nodded, suddenly feeling as if she were a badly behaved child. "I think the Istar went to the Grey Mountains to hide. I am not certain of everything I saw but he did something to his prisoners, something that he did not wish."
"I see," Legolas nodded. "Then we will go there."
Melia raised her eyes to his. "We?"
"Yes," he nodded slowly, his jaw flinching in controlled rage. The tension between them was so thick that it could have been run through with a sword. "We will go there together and deal with what menace he has wrought upon your mother's people."
"I cannot ask you to do that..." she started to say
"It seems that there is very little that you can ask me." Legolas retorted as the last vestiges of his restraint finally snapped free. "How could you do that? How could you simply leave? Without even the decency of a word of farewell? After what we shared together, I thought I meant more than for you to simply depart as if I were a strumpet at an inn to be left when the sun arose!"
"I thought I did what was best," she struggled to explain but he was right in this. She had behaved badly. The more resolute she was to her decision to keep away from him, the more she had broken the rules of conduct between them.
"What was best?" He glared at her. "Do you know how sick to death I am of hearing what is best for us?" He roared and she jumped a little by the sharpness of his voice. It was quite something to hear the controlled elf suddenly lose his temper for it was like a storm had suddenly exploded into being in the midst of beautiful day. Legolas crossed the distance between them and was standing before her in seconds.
"I woke up that morning filled with hope," he replied softly. "I thought that perhaps we may find happiness together. You speak as if I have a choice in my decision to love you. I have no more ability to harden my heart against my love than you do. You wish to spare me but what you do not understand is that it is too late, I love you! I will love you until the end of time, whether or not you stay with me or leave now forever. I have done all that I can to convince you. If it were possible for me to become mortal such as the Evenstar has chosen, I would do so without thinking twice but that way is not open to me. I seek desperately to reconcile our lives so we can share what time we have together while we still can."
Melia did not know what to say. All she knew was that since she had left Thranduil's court, her heart had been a heavy stone inside her breast and each time she allowed her mind to drift, invariably it would drift to the Prince of Mirkwood. He was a part of her now, no matter how much she sought to deny it. Yet fear still lingered in her heart for she knew what was at the heart of her refusal. She had not wanted to say it because she had clung to it for so long but now was the time when the words they could not speak must be uttered if anything good was to come out of this.
"I am frightened," she replied simply and it was from the heart.
His gaze softened, understanding that at last the Ranger had stepped aside, it was the woman speaking now. "Of what are you frightened? That I will hurt you?"
"That you will leave me," she answered, her eyes glistening. "I do not wish to become like my father."
"Your father?" He stared at her in confusion. "I do not understand."
Melia exhaled deeply because it was so hard to speak of this. "My father met my mother on the banks of the Anduin where I was born. When I was but an infant, he chose to return home and he wished my mother to come with him. The morning we were to leave, she was nowhere to be found. He waited for her to come back but she never did and finally he left without her. It broke his heart to be abandoned by her; he never recovered from it. I swore that I would never spend my life pining for someone the way he did. He loved me dearly but each time he looked at me, he saw the love that he could never have again."
"Do you think I would leave you?" Legolas came to her, his hands on her shoulders as he looked into her eyes.
"I do not know," she started to weep and the tears he saw running down her cheeks were enough to break the back of his anger completely, until all he wished to do was bundle her in his arms and promise her that he would never walk away from her. Not while there was breath in his body.
"I only know that I fear someday you will tire of me when this woman you love grows old and withered. I cannot bear the thought that you would look at me and feel yourself bound to me out of obligation. I never want to know that pain."
Legolas drew her to him in a tender kiss and whispered in her ear as he held her close. "I promise you on all that I hold dear, that I will never leave you. I love you Melia and if it means that I can only be with you in a flicker of time that is your life, then I will accept it as long as I spend what years there are with you."
Melia could not see so far ahead but for the moment, she chose to believe him. Perhaps what love they held for one another would be enough to sustain them through the years and perhaps it would not. For now, Melia would not ponder too deeply that question because she did not know what her future held. Finding her mother had been the most important thing in her life for so long and until she fulfilled the quest, she could not think of anything else.
"Legolas," she took a deep breath and placed her hand gently against his cheek as she looked into his eyes. "I cannot think of my future until this quest is done. For now, please know that I love you but I need time to deal with all this. I am still afraid and I think that what we have is doomed to failure but I cannot deny how I feel or ignore it. Let us leave things as they are between us now and I swear to you when this is all done, I will know my mind. You said you would aid me in finding my answers, do you still hold to that?"
"You know I do," he answered, his arms still about her as he absorbed what she had to say. He did not agree with her words but he understood her need for time. As much as he wanted her in his life, he also had patience enough to know that her admitting the truth to him went a long way to aiding their cause. Melia had more or less succumb to their fate together, she was simply too stubborn to admit it. He was not so ignorant that he could not see what a tremendous step this was for her and he was willing to accommodate her the rest of the way.
"Help me find the truth, my love," she whispered as her lips sought his and they indulged in a searing kiss of deep, smoldering passion. "Help me understand who I am so I can chose my fate with you."
Legolas' response was to kiss her back with the same intensity, until their mouths were dueling each other with such demand that they lowered to the ground and reminded themselves why they were so perfectly made for each other under the warmth of the afternoon sun.
At dawn's break, they set out again, this time crossing Mirkwood in order to reach the Grey Mountains. Melia believed that the Istar was there and if he were there, so would her mother be. Legolas was grateful to see that she was slowly accepting the idea of his being a part of her life and knew with more confidence than he felt before that their future did lie together, despite her protestations of it being folly. Melia seemed more comfortable with having him at her side and Legolas could not deny that the day they had spent under the stars, adjusting to this new part of their relationship, exploring each other without the entire court of Mirkwood watching closely what they were doing, was very liberating. When they were alone, they were simply Legolas and Melia, two lovers caught in the same net, not the Prince of Mirkwood or the Ranger. Legolas almost wished it could be like this always.
The journey to the Grey Mountains or Ered Mithrin as it was known to the elves would require them crossing the length of Mirkwood. Legolas had traveled that far north in his time, though when he last visited it had been to settle a quarrel between the Woodland Realm and the dwarves who resided deep in the mountain. The issue had been one of passage and the dwarves resented it greatly that the fastest route from the Anduin to their domain required them crossing the Woodland Realm of the elves. The old prejudices were heavy in those days and Legolas remembered coming to a very uneasy alliance with Durin, the dwarf lord who spoke for his people. Of course, the city of Durin and his people were no more and though Legolas did not speak of their fate to Melia, it preyed heavily upon his mind what they would find when they arrived there.
As far as he knew the mountains were a nest to cold drakes who by nature were hoarders of wealth and had driven out the dwarves from their city and taken their city. Since that time however, little was heard of the drakes though it was believed they were no more for travelers who journeyed through the mountains to reach the city of Esgaroth, were not menaced by the fearsome creatures.
What concerned Legolas more than the drakes as they journeyed eastward was not the drakes however, but the goblins that were known to occupy the lands between Mirkwood and Ered Mithrin. In recent years, the goblins that had been driven from Dol Goldur were content to remain within the lonely lands in between the great forest and mountain, taking refuge in rock hills where the sunlight would not touch them. On occasion, they emerged far enough to bedevil the elves of the Woodland Realm and though Thranduil had yet to mount an expedition to destroy them completely, it was only a matter of time before the campaign to finish them once and for all was put into effect.
It was an easy enough business to cross Mirkwood in good time, Legolas chose to follow the Forest River, which would bring them to the mountains soon enough. However, once they reached the edge of the Woodland Realm and began moving towards the mountains, the prince's wariness grew. His senses began to feel an uneasiness encroaching upon them the instant they set their horses towards the mountains and though he could not understand what the danger was, he felt it in every fiber of his being. Even though it still remained in the distance ahead, Legolas could feel its soft whisper. It reminded him a little of the One Ring and its ability to coax the sanest mind into committing all kinds of atrocities to satiate avarice and ambition. Yet this was different, as if the land itself was crying out in despair from some place they had yet to reach.
"What is it?" Melia asked once they had left Mirkwood behind them and traveled through lands which were unfamiliar to most of Middle earth, save the few who had reason to wander this far from the north. Her feelings for him gave her some insight into his moods and as they crossed the field of tall grass into the trees that framed the range of mountains in the distance, she saw a dark expression marring his handsome face that prompted her question.
"Nothing," he said simply, having no wish to alarm her, feeling more conscious of the looming darkness of night and made a mental note that they should make camp soon.
"You do not have a face that says nothing," Melia retorted. "You have a face that tells me that something plagues your thoughts greatly but you do not wish to tell me for you fear causing me undue worry."
Legolas gave her a look with a brow raised, "I have a face that says all that?"
"Oh yes," she remarked with a teasing smile. "You cannot hide anything from me."
"I will remember that if we are ever married," Legolas muttered with a frown, uncertain whether or not he liked being read so well.
"You had better," she winked playfully but her tone soon became sober once again. "So what is it you do not wish to tell me?'
"A threat grows near," Legolas confessed after a moment. "I can feel its presence growing in my mind. It comes from the mountains."
Melia stiffened immediately, her eyes staring ahead at the irregular shape of the mountains in the distance. "I know of what you speak. I feel it too."
"You do?" He looked at her.
"Not in the way you do," she added quickly. "I do not need elven senses to see that there is danger here. Too much is an unknown about the lands before us and that is always dangerous."
"It is more than that," Legolas confessed. "Until Dol Goldur, I had not given much thought about these things but since you revealed to me that you believe the Istar may have traveled to Ered Mithrin, I have had time to consider what has happened in the region of late. Particularly, since the War of the Ring."
"Of what do you speak?" She stared at him hard, seeing that he was clearly troubled by this.
"Since the War, the goblins of Dol Goldur have fled beyond Mirkwood and remain trapped in the rocky terrain between the mountain and the forest. The mountain with its darkness is the perfect thriving ground for goblins but they do not go there. They stay clear of it. It was believed that perhaps the cold drakes that vanquished the dwarves of Durin's line still inhabited the mountain but they have not been heard of for many centuries. So why do the goblins not go there? What frightens a goblin away from the dark places of the world?"
Melia could understand his apprehension and began to fear it herself. Her thoughts lingered on the Istar who had used his magic on her mother and the other River women. What had he done exactly to them to fear his own spell that he needed to spirit them away like thieves in the night? She had fears that she dared not speak but she had to because he was risking his life to help her because of his love and she owed him the right to the truth but there were questions she needed answering.
"Legolas, what do you know of Saruman?"
Legolas looked at her sharply.
"A great deal," Legolas replied remembering the experiences the Fellowship had endured because Saruman the Wise had become Saruman the betrayer. "He was one of the Istari as you know, the head of the Order, Mithandir has said."
"Mithandir," Melia asked before realizing he meant Gandalf. "What happened to him? What made him become Sauron's servant?"
"I do not know, I do not think even Gandalf could comprehend it," Legolas said sadly. "They had come to Middle Earth in the second age, all five of them. Their purpose was to battle the evil of Sauron. I think there comes a time when one studies the enemy to such a degree that one can become consumed by it. I think Saruman's intention had been to learn Sauron's ways to defeat him and in the end, all he did was become him."
"They say that he made the Uruk Hai," Melia asked. "That he bred orcs and goblins is that true?"
"No," Legolas shook his head, "their creation was Sauron's work alone but Saruman created his own Uruk Hai and ensured they were loyal to him. By the time the War of the Ring had come to Middle earth, his intention was to take the ring for himself."
"That is something at least," Melia sighed deeply. "Prince, when I dreamed in Dol Goldur I saw something that I must tell you. I have always intended to find my mother but I expected that she would not be woman that bore me for the dreams I have grown up with prepared me for the worse. I knew something terrible had happened to her though I knew she was not dead. I never doubted that. What I saw at Dol Goldur explains some of it but not enough."
Legolas saw Melia's eyes had become full of emotion and understood how hard this was for her to admit, that her quest may be for naught but she was driven anyway because she had to know the truth. However, painful it might be. Astride his horse next to hers, Legolas reached for her hand and held it tight within his. He offered her a smile that told her that however this journey ended, she could be assured that he would be at her side to see it through.
"Tell me," he coaxed gently. "What does it explain?"
"The Istar wanted to create something, something better than elves and men. He wanted to be a creator of life as the Valar and Melkor sought to do. I think Sauron learned of what he intended and, under the guise of aid I suppose, he tricked the Istar into fashioning something new, something that has not walked the earth before. I think that whatever he sought to create, he did so using my mother and the other River women."
The enormity of what Melia was saying horrified Legolas intensely for it was more than just abomination, it was twisted and evil in a way that sent a cold chill through his entire being. He had thought being in the balrog's presence had been fearful enough but this was even more terrible. The River Women were Maiar spirits, intensely powerful though their power lay in the rivers that gave them life. How would they be when that power was twisted into something else?
"You think that the Istar has turned your mother and her kind into creatures of darkness?"
"Creatures yes," Melia nodded. "Darkness, I do not know. I only saw that it was against their will that they were made into whatever the Istar intended, that even he after a time became afraid of their power and was forced to take them from Dol Goldur before Sauron was able to unleash them upon his enemies."
"If that is so," Legolas looked at her, "where have they been all this time?"
Melia shook her head and was about to answer when suddenly a sound was heard and Legolas sprang towards her like a coiled serpent lunging from his saddle. He toppled her from her own horse and they both landed on the soft ground with a heavy thud. Melia was about to demand what he was about when she saw her horse standing on its hind quarters, braying in pain at the arrow that had struck its neck. Blood was spurting from the exposed flesh and another arrow soon joined its mate. Legolas' own steed, smelling the blood of its kindred began to stamp its feet in anxiety.
"Goblins!" Legolas cried out, recognizing the arrow well. The darkness around them ensured their enemy would soon be upon them.
As he made that exclamation, Melia's steed, which had been easy to shoot for its color of snow, had taken the worst of the goblins' marksmanship. The animal had dropped to its haunches and Legolas grabbed her hand and pulled her towards his horse, aware that their survival rested in putting as much distance between themselves and the goblins that would soon attack in greater numbers. Melia scrambled to her feet, allowing him to drag her forward. He climbed onto the horse just as an arrow swept past him and embedded its point into a nearby tree. Melia paused long enough to retrieve her crossbow but she agonized at leaving a wounded beast to the ministrations of the goblins. Unfortunately, there was little choice in the matter as she took Legolas' outstretched hand and climbed on behind him.
The horse bolted with arrows flying after them. One tore through the fabric of her leggings, cutting close enough for her skin to bleed. Melia winced in pain but knew the injury was minor. Her arms slid around Legolas' waist as he rode hard through the wood, intending to reach the river if possible. Suddenly another hail of arrows flew at them from a different direction, forcing the prince to veer the horse from the track they were taking, into an another direction. Melia looked over her shoulder and she could see them, the goblins moving in the darkness and the shadows and felt her heart freeze at just how many of them there were. They were like insects, scurrying out from underneath a rotting log when it was lifted and exposed to the sun.
Legolas could hear water rushing and knew that if they had to, they would ride into the river for goblins did not like water and were prone to stay away from anything so pure. More arrows came at them and Legolas knew that they could not avoid them forever and shifted his course again even though he started to suspect they were being herded like sheep. Realizing that to follow the path the goblins would have them take would lead to disaster, the prince forced the horse to turn back towards the path of the arrows, intending to break the blockade at all costs.
"Keep your head low!" He ordered and Melia took refuge in his shoulder as he himself lowered his head and prepared to break through their trap one way or another.
The horse thundered forward through the uphill track, past trees and rocks, a slave to its master's demands when suddenly it came to such an abrupt halt that it did not entirely stop even though the beast had ceased to gallop. Too late did Legolas see what it was that made the animal brake so sharply and could do nothing but come to the unhappy conclusion that perhaps goblins would not be the death of them after all.
The river would.
"What's going on...." Melia demanded when she felt herself being propelled forward by the combination of their great speed and the sudden stop that followed it. Her words turned into a scream as all three toppled over the edge of the cliff into the dark waters of the churning river below.