Easterling - Part One: Chains of Duty
The Chains of Duty
The message had come to him on the day of the elven new year.
Legolas Greenleaf had been anticipating its arrival for some time now, however now the day was finally here, he found himself consumed by a wave of disappointment that he could not dismiss no matter how much he tried. For months now, he expected the inevitable, hoping against hope that it would delay its appearance as much as possible for he did not relish the demand that would come with it. Without even being in the King's presence, Legolas knew what inspired his father, Thranduil, to summon him home. Thranduil most likely felt that it was inappropriate for a prince of Mirkwood to ignore the land of his rule by travelling across the length of Middle earth in the company of a dwarf and in service to a king that was not his father.
When Legolas had first come to Minas Tirith following the War of the Ring and the establishment of the Reunified Kingdom, it had been to aid Aragorn in the vanquishing of the orcs that had taken residence in the realm of Dagorland. Left largely unaffected by the War of the Ring, this once favorite battlefield of Sauron's had become a haven for orcs and the other undesirable creatures of Mordor that had fled to its treacherous empty plains and claimed it for their own. With the Lord of Ithilien, Legolas and a number of his father's men, loyal soldiers that were not ready for the Undying Lands, had lead the expedition to rid the borders of Gondor and Ithilien of this threat. Unfortunately, it was a malaise that lasted for some time and in between the campaigns, there were other adventures and dangers, most notably the recent difficulties with the ancient enemy Glaurung that had threatened Arwen's child.
During this time, Legolas relished in being able to remain close to his dear friends, the members of the Fellowship who still remained in Middle earth. Although it was difficult to think of King Elessar as once being the Ranger called Strider, Legolas could still see him as nothing else. The Evenstar, now five months pregnant was also eager to have him remain in the White City, mostly because she still pined for the father that had left for the Undying Lands less than a month ago. Gimli had returned to the Glittering Caves recently and Legolas had been given the happy duty of standing at his side when he wed a lovely dwarf woman who went by the name of Lorin Elfist.
However, it now appeared that he was required home by his father. While Legolas loved Thranduil for the rogue he could sometimes be, there was a part of the Prince that did not relish the idea of returning to the court of Eryn Lasgalen. When he was home in Mirkwood, he was the Crown Prince Legolas who was required to do little but lay in wait for his father's eventual demise or departure to the Undying Lands so that he could become king. In the meantime, the process of waiting could be endlessly tedious and while hunting the dark, foul things that roamed the greater Mirkwood could be distracting for a time, Legolas felt strangely rudderless. His friends had moved on. Aragorn was king with a wife and a child, not to mention a kingdom to consolidate and to strengthen; a thing that was more than on its way to being accomplished by the conception of an heir to the throne. The same could be said for Faramir, Gimli, even the halfings in the Shire had shaped themselves a future.
What had he done?
He had done nothing and if he returned to Mirkwood, he would continue to do nothing. As Legolas walked the sculpted gardens of the palace in the White City, he could not deny missing the forests of Mirkwood. He missed the smell of the trees in the morning when the warmth of the rising day had melted away the cool night and left its lush scent upon every leaf and flower. He missed its peace and its quiet but he knew if he returned home, it would satisfy this emptiness for a while, not forever. There had to be a benefit in being three thousand years old, to not have the uncertainty of a purposeless life plaguing one's every thought.
Yet he knew he could not disobey his father. He might be capable of delaying his return for a time but he certainly could not avoid it. Once there, another matter would plague him, one he detested almost as much as returning home and resigning himself to the boredom of life at court. His father had been urging him to deal with this particular issue for quite some time and Legolas had managed to avoid it because everything that had transpired since the discovery of the One Ring had ensured that he was rarely at home to give it any thought. However, Legolas suspected that once he returned to Mirkwood, his father would resume his insistence that he take care of this piece of business.
And that was the acquiring of a wife.
He did not know why this was so important to his father, considering that the man had no plans of vacating the throne of Woodland Realms and so an heir was not required the way Aragorn had needed to solidify his reign. Legolas had lived three thousand years as the Crowned Prince of Mirkwood and his title was unlikely to change in the near future. What need did he have of a wife? Elves did not mate frivolously and though they might engage in the sexual proclivities common to all races, marriage was another thing entirely. Once they bound themselves to another, it was forever. In the same manner that his father had not taken a wife when Legolas' mother had passed on or Celebrian had left Elrond for the Undying Lands year before, Legolas was not about to choose himself a soul mate simply because tradition demanded it of him.
He was still young by the standards of elves and with many of the elvish peoples departing Middle earth in droves, he knew that should he choose now, he would do so only out of need to satisfy the requirement of wife, not because he was in love. The only woman who had remotely sparked his interest in almost three thousand years of existence was human and that in itself posed a great deal of difficulties. It was folly for an elf and human to love. Luthien and Beren had endured all sorts of trials in order to be together and though it seemed ideal to watch the love of Aragorn and Arwen, Legolas felt sad to think that someday Arwen, the Evenstar would die a mortal death. If he loved a human, eventually he would lose her, he had no delusions of that. Legolas had no idea why he should even entertain such an idea.
Of course, he wondered from time to time how the Ranger Melia fared, though he confessed this to no one. Following their return from Nargothrond, she had returned to the wilds of Angmar, taking up her duties as Ranger. Their journey from the Blue Mountains to Mitholond had been fraught with contention because it was clear she did not appreciate his efforts on her behalf. He supposed in retrospect that much of their arguments had arisen out of his mischief making need to bait since her reactions amused him greatly. However, it was soon clear that she in turn had shown no feeling for him and he had to assume that the infatuation he acquired at the time of their meeting was his folly alone. Fortunately for him, it had since passed and he thought no more of her but in passing.
"Legolas," Aragorn's sudden call broke him free of his thoughts. "There you are."
Legolas looked up and saw the king before him, appearing as if he had made his presence known long before Legolas had actually heard his name from Aragorn's lips. The Prince of Mirkwood gazed briefly at the sky above and was somewhat surprised to see that the sun had crested overhead and was starting its evening descent. He had begun this walk shortly after he had received his father's message and that had been early afternoon. He was not one who often lost track of time but he supposed his father's news was reason enough for him to experience such a lapse.
"I am sorry," Legolas muttered, "I had not meant to be away for so long."
Aragorn nodded as they stood within a cul-de-sac in the path of the garden, where a fountain made of blue marble was situated. "There is nothing to be sorry for, I merely wondered where you were. I was told that there was a message from your father, King Thranduil."
"Yes," Legolas frowned, showing the king clearly that it was not good news.
"Is it what you feared?" Aragorn asked, having known Legolas long enough to discern why a summons home would upset the Prince to this extent.
"More or less," Legolas shrugged, not bothering to hide his discontent from his old friend. "He would like me home as soon as possible."
"And you mean to go," Aragorn replied with a heavy sigh for he would not be happy to see the back of Legolas. They had been constant companions since the formation of the Fellowship and the War of the Ring. If Aragorn had a best friend in the entire world, then Legolas would have surely been it and to lose another close friend after Gandalf and Frodo had left for the Undying Lands was more painful than the king would like to admit.
"I do not see that I have any other choice, he is the King after all," Legolas reminded.
"And you are his son, not his possession," Aragorn countered.
"I have responsibilities at home," Legolas replied but he knew that it was a false statement. Other than ensuring then he was at his father's beck and call, which was not often when one was a prince, he could be assured that most of his time would be spent trying to find something to do.
"You have responsibilities to yourself first," Aragorn declared, aware that Legolas could be too noble for his own good. "Do you know what your trouble is, elf?"
Legolas stiffened for Aragorn did not refer to him as such unless he was about to impart to him some uncomfortable insight that was probably for his own good, even if he did not wish to hear it.
"You are more like your father than you would admit," Aragorn declared firmly. "You do not wish to inherit your kingdom, you want to earn it. Perhaps you should think about that."
Legolas flinched uncomfortably because as always, Aragorn's observations had not only been astute but utterly correct. He did feel as if Mirkwood was merely his home, not a place that he wanted to rule as its master. He wanted to build something, just as Gimli was now doing in the Glittering Caves and Aragorn was doing with the Re-unified Kingdom. It was probably the first time he had ever confessed to himself even that he had held such desires and yet now that he had admitted it to himself, what was he to do about it? It seemed he had opened one door to find another one just as closed to him.
"Even if you are right," the elven prince replied, "one does not simply go out and win themselves a kingdom. It comes of fortune and opportunity."
"There are things that are set forth by destiny even before you are born and then there are moments when you must shape your own fate, despite the portents and omens that say you should act otherwise. Do not remain chained to duty Legolas, it can break the spirit if it is not what you desire." Aragorn said earnestly, squeezing the elf's shoulder in order to show him how serious he was of this. As much as he loathed Legolas returning to Mirkwood, he feared the elf resigning himself to an unhappy fate when it was clear what he needed to do.
"You are right," Legolas sighed heavily. "I will go back to Mirkwood but only to tell my father that I wish to build for myself. I think it is time."
"You have no idea where to begin do you?" The king gave him a wicked smile.
"Not in the slightest," the elf grinned, feeling a little better now that he had spoken to Aragorn and the two men laughed like boys indulging in mischief.
"Come on Legolas," Aragorn led him out of the garden. "We should join the others."
"Yes," Legolas replied, still somewhat surprised that he had forgotten the time so completely.
Arwen had chosen to celebrate the new year by inviting all her friends to the White City to partake in a small celebration that would be exclusive for those she considered her family. Now that Elrond and most of the elves were departing Middle earth, she had more need of such gatherings. Legolas suspected it was a way to keep her loved ones close and considering that it was difficult to leave the city, the more her child grew within her, he could understand her need to have them visit.
The Lord and Lady of Ithilien were in attendance as well as Gimli who had returned to the city to continue work on the gates of Minas Tirith, leaving Lorin behind. Dwarf women once settled, preferred to remain at home and leave the travelling to their husbands. The hobbits unfortunately had business to attend at home and had declined to attend because the journey from the Shire to the White City required almost two weeks of travelling. Although disappointed, Aragorn and Arwen understood the reasons for their absence and it had not been quite that long since they had all seen each other at the parting of Gandalf and Frodo to the Undying Lands.
"I must confess Legolas, I came seeking you for another reason other than your father's message," Aragorn replied as they took the familiar path to the palace walls.
"Really?" Legolas gazed at the king wondering what it was Aragorn had yet to tell him.
"I thought you would be interested in knowing that Melia has just arrived," Aragorn answered, trying to control the smile that was trying to escape his lips.
Gimli had given him and the rest of the Fellowship, word by word descriptions of Legolas' banter with the lovely Ranger during their journey to Mithlond following their trials in Nargothrond. The lady had departed shortly after arriving at Mithlond, eager to return to her duties in Angmar, giving none of them any inkling that she and Legolas had been anything more than travelling companions. It explained something of why the elf seemed more somber than usual when they had all journeyed home.
Legolas' expression was as stone.
"Melia is here?" He asked feigning casual interest.
"Yes," Aragorn nodded seriously even though his eyes were dancing with amusement at the elf's efforts to remain indifferent to the news. "Arwen wanted her to join the celebration after all, she considers Melia a true friend after aiding her in her quest."
"I suppose a Ranger has little choice but to accept an invitation given by the Queen," Legolas remarked trying to hide from Aragorn that the news was the best he could have received at this time, especially in light of his father's calls for his return home. Besides, how the Prince of Mirkwood felt towards any lady was his own business. There were some things he would share with no one, even a trusted friend such as Aragorn. After all, he did not recall Aragorn being any more forthcoming about his feelings before his marriage to Arwen.
"She looks well," Aragorn stated casually. "Though one wonders why a woman would chose such a life for herself."
"You chose it," Legolas shifted his gaze towards the king in accusation.
"I chose it for it was a means to an end but I sense it is not that way with her," Aragorn mused. He had little chance to know Melia before leaving their company all those months ago but she seemed to him, distant with thoughts behind her eyes that no one but she could comprehend.
"Yes," Legolas knew exactly of what he was speaking for he had seen it in her eyes and he understood all to well what she craved because he felt it lately as well.
The need to belong to something or someone.
Melia gazed at herself in the mirror of the suite of rooms she had been assigned in the palace and wondered how long it was since she stood gazing at her reflection and preparing herself for a celebration. With sadness, she realised that it was well before her father had died. Following his death on the battlefield, her life had been one hard turn after the other. She regretted none of it of course because as difficult as her life had been since she was forced to flee the Sunlands, it was still her life and she alone had the power to shape her destiny.
Still, staring at her reflection, seeing not the Ranger but the woman in the one dress that she had kept hidden beneath all the practical things in her saddle bags, Melia could not help but think there was a stranger gazing back at her. The dress was simple, a blue shift that clung too tightly at the bodice and seemed to drape over her hands in elvish fashion. She had bought it when she had been travelling near the valley where Rivendell was meant to be, from a peddler who had made his trade tailoring garments copied from the fashions he had seen worn by the elves. She had no idea why she bought it for it was such a frivolous thing but she liked its color that reminded her of the sea she had sailed to reach Gondor when she had first fled from home.
It had remained almost forgotten in her saddlebag, kept because of its colour and because she remembered fondly the days when news would reach the tribe of the battle won and she would dress in her best, awaiting the return of her father from the front. Those days seemed so far away that there were times when Melia wondered if they had happened to some other girl for who she was now could not imagine that she had ever been so young.
When the invitation to join this gathering had reached her, Melia wondered why she had been offered such a grand gesture from the Queen of Gondor. True, they had experienced some extraordinary things during their adventure in Nargothrond but as a Ranger it had been her duty to aid the Queen. It was fortunate that both the Lady of Ithilien and the Queen of the Reunified Lands were merely of noble stock but also of disposition, however, Melia was not so presumptuous as to believe that the friendship they had extended her would last beyond the quest. After leaving them at Grey Havens, Melia had honestly never expected to hear from either again.
Thus it was to her complete astonishment when the Captain of the Rangers in Angmar had sought her out and present to her the request for her attendance at the celebration of elvish New Year in Minas Tirith. What was even more astonishing to her was the fact that this was not a holiday celebrated by the Gondorians and the gathering she was invited to was for the Queen's personal companions. When she had arrived at the palace, she half expected to be told that it was a terrible mistake but then she was brought to the queen and greeted with open arms. Suddenly Melia was filled with more emotion than she had ever thought herself capable of feeling when she felt the warmth in that embrace.
They said that the Evenstar was the fairest maid of the day. Melia wondered if they knew her beauty was surpassed only by the kindness of her heart.
As Melia adjusted the gown upon her body, she pinned back her dark hair and hoped that she was suitable for the company she would be joining tonight. However, each time she glanced at the mirror, she was startled by who she saw there. The woman in the mirror did not look like a Ranger. When one wore breeches and spent most of one's time riding through the wilderness, becoming a non person with neither identity nor gender, it was disconcerting to be reminded that she was once Melia, daughter of Hezare, War Master to the Tribe of Bor, not simply Melia the Ranger.
It was almost to her relief when she heard the door behind her. The sound of knuckles rapping against the thick wooden door had the power to snatch her away from her anxious thoughts and sent her hurrying to answer it. She had no idea what customs and protocols she needed to adhere to whilst in the Royal Court of Gondor so she was not eager to be rude by leaving her visitor to languish outside her door.
"Melia!" Eowyn burst into the room as soon as Melia had opened the door wide enough and embraced the startled Ranger in a warm hug of joy and friendship.
"Eowyn," Melia replied, still rather overwhelmed by the warm reception she was receiving.
"My goodness," Eowyn exclaimed, staring at the Ranger wearing a dress. "Now I can see why so many were shocked when I discarded my breeches for a dress. You look most enchanting."
"I feel as if I should be better armed," Melia retorted, remembering that Eowyn had a dry wit and would appreciate the humor.
Eowyn laughed and took her hand, leading her to the chairs in the room so that they could talk. Like Arwen, Eowyn had not forgotten how Melia had risked her life to aid them in the quest to Nargothrond. Though she claimed she was duty bound to aid the Queen of Gondor, they knew better and had taken her to their hearts. The quest to fight Glaurung had bonded them in the way the Fellowship had been forged and though Melia seemed amazed by it all, Arwen and Eowyn had never considered it otherwise. Besides, there were not many women that Eowyn knew personally with whom she could speak of riding into battle and swordplay that did not think that such action was wholly inappropriate for the Lady of Ithilien.
"How have you been?" Eowyn asked as they nestled comfortably into the wing chairs.
"I have been well, though life does not vary much for a Ranger. We ride, we watch and we report what is important to those in authority," Melia explained.
"And how goes your search for your mother?" Eowyn inquired, remembering Melia had set aside her own quest in order to help them.
Melia let out a disappointed sigh before responding. "I am afraid that I have found little evidence of her. Wherever she and her people disappeared, they hid well for I have spoken to no one who has even heard of her."
"You will find her," Eowyn said firmly, with more confidence then Melia felt.
"I know," Melia smiled, grateful for the gesture. "Now, how about yourself? How have you and your husband been?"
"Faramir and I fare well. We have spent much of the past months in North Ithilien trying to establish a sizeable settlement there but I fear that we only have resources enough for the north of the land. Not many wish to live so close to Mordor and though I think the king would like to see Ithilien filled with decent folk, I do not think it is possible."
"I understand South Ithilien is just as fertile as the northlands," Melia remarked, knowing something about the local topography of the area.
"It is," Eowyn responded. "I am told that there are great tracks of forests, to rival even that of Fangborn and Mirkwood but forest living is not for men but rather elves."
"They seem to be leaving these shores in greater numbers," Melia pointed. "I have seen many travel through Angmar bound for the Grey Havens."
Both women recalled the great enterprise of shipbuilding that had been taking place in the land during their brief stay when they had been journeying northwards to the Blue Mountains. It had been a tremendous undertaking of the elven smiths, to mobilise themselves like an army to ready more ships then either of them could count, in preparation of First Born's departure from Middle earth. The time was fast drawing upon them when those who were left behind would begin to question if the Eldar had ever walked among them or were they merely figments of fanciful legend.
"Speaking of elves," Eowyn replied with a coy smile. "Legolas is here."
Melia's expression was as stone.
"The Prince of Mirkwood is here?" She mused, unwittingly feigning casual interest that was not at all unique in the palace today.
"Yes," Eowyn nodded, having also heard Gimli's description to the two's reaction to each other during the return trip from the Blue Mountains. "Though I fear not for long. I have been told that he has been summoned to Mirkwood by his father King Thranduil."
"Well that is hardly surprising," Melia replied. "If he were my son I would try to keep a tight rein on him as well."
Eowyn chuckled and remarked, "I see you remember him well then."
"He can be difficult to forget when the mood takes him," Melia replied sarcastically, recalling how she had almost taken her bow to him when they traveled together. He had taken the concept of being a gentleman beyond the parameters of its intended use, Melia was certain. She could not understand how he could see her as a Ranger and yet be completely unprepared to recognize that she was more than capable of fending for herself.
"Are we speaking of the same, polite elf?" Eowyn cocked a brow at the Ranger.
"Are we speaking of a polite elf?" Melia returned her gaze with an equally mischievous expression.
Eowyn laughed and Melia joined her before the conversation regarding the Prince of Mirkwood deteriorated even further.
"It is time we join the gathering," Eowyn prompted their departure. "Arwen thought you might prefer a friendly face to accompany you to the hall instead of a serving girl. We will talk more tonight."
"I am grateful for your company," Melia did not lie in admitting that Arwen was extremely correct about that assertion and she made a mental note to thank the queen when in her presence again and hoped the rest of the evening would transpire as smoothly.
"Melia," Eowyn remarked, seeing the anxiety in her eyes she was trying hard not to reveal. "Arwen asked you to this gathering because she wanted to see all her friends and that includes you. There is nothing to be afraid of."
Melia nodded but at this moment she was so nervous about the illustrious gathering she would be attending that she would rather be facing orcs.
"Did you miss me?" A familiar voice spoke so close to her ear that she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She and Eowyn had just entered the corridor leading towards the great hall when she felt the movement behind her.
Melia sucked in her breath and replied sweetly, perfectly aware of whom had asked the question. "Like the pox."
"Are you saying you will never be cured of me?" Legolas asked as he rounded the two women and stood before Melia, smirking.
Eowyn rolled her eyes and started to see what Gimli was talking about. "Prince Legolas, I take it you remember Melia?"
"Vaguely," Legolas shrugged, a little smile crossing lips as his eyes continued to stare at Melia. "Though I am certain that it was a scruffy Ranger I traveled with, not this woman," his eyes moved over her form, indicating the gown.
"I remember you," Melia retorted, feeling uncomfortable enough in these clothes without this elven aristocrat making her feel more self-conscious. "You were that annoying little puppy that kept tugging at my heels. I thought I had succeeded in leaving you alone in that glade in the hopes you would not find your way home."
"It is good to see that Gimli was not exaggerating," Eowyn retorted, shaking her head while she drew away from them both in order to keep from becoming caught in their sparring match. "I leave you to your verbal fencing. If you two can rest your bladed tongues for long enough, join us in the hall. I do believe the Queen is waiting."
Neither spoke until Eowyn had gone and despite his earlier calls to himself to keep from falling into old patterns when around her, that resolve had crumbled the instant Legolas had laid eyes upon her. She was just as he remembered but the dress had taken his breath away even though he hid it well. She had been a diamond in the rough when they had first encountered each other. He could see her loveliness but it was secondary to her will and her wit, which he found very similar to his own. However, this was the first time he had seen how truly female she was and it had robbed him of the sense to crush the feelings he knew could only be a mistake.
"Would you let me escort you?" He asked, offering her his arm.
"Now you are behaving like a gentlemen?" She stared at him, wondering what was to be done with this impossible elf.
"Well a moment ago I was pox," he pointed out. "It requires a few seconds for me to rise above that distinction."
"You are quite impossible," she broke into a smile and linked her arm through his before they started walking again. Despite herself, Melia found that he was good company, when he was not being quite so infuriating.
"I can assure you, I do not suffer that affliction alone," he grinned before his tone became more serious. "How have you been?"
"I think I preferred you impossible," Melia retorted and softened a little because his inquiry was sincere. "I have been well. I hear you are bound for home."
He stiffened only slightly but enough for Melia to know that he was not happy about that fact and she wondered why a Prince would dislike returning to his realm?
"Yes," he nodded slowly. "My father requires me home and I have been away for far too long. It is time."
"Does that not make you happy?" She asked pointedly. She knew not how to be subtle with him. Their relationship had never allowed them to endure the tentative steps of walking around each other's feelings. In some sense, it was good that they could be brutally honest with each other.
"No," he shook his head. "Not as much as I should be."
A pregnant pause followed as she debated what she should say to him. It was far simpler dealing with the Prince of Mirkwood when they were trading barbs and insults but seeing him visibly unhappy like this bothered her more than it should have.
"Perhaps you should go home only to visit," Melia suggested. "It would satisfy your father's desire to see you and then go on your way again."
"I have considered something else," Legolas admitted. "When I have thought it through, I will tell my father."
"Good," she smiled, genuinely pleased that he had some other course left to him. When her father had died, she had none and she never took for granted the right to choose one's destiny.
"What of you Melia?" Legolas looked at her, realising that he knew little about her. Obviously she had come from the lands of the Haradrim but the race was not known to depart its borders unless it was to make war on their enemies. "How does an Easterling find her way so far from the lands of her birth?"
"When she had even less choices than you," Melia replied without thinking.
His brow knotted, not at all liking the sound of that. Was she driven from her home for some reason? "What do you mean?"
Melia frowned, rebuking herself inwardly at her lapse but then deciding that she could tell him little for he would no doubt plague her until she revealed the meaning of her words. "In the Sunlands, a woman has no choice in who she is to wed. Marriage is arranged by family and so it was done with me. My father had died and his family believed that it was time that I was betrothed. The choice was not mine and I had no wish for marriage so I fled."
"Could you have not simply refused?" Legolas asked, finding the action of forcing a woman into marriage to some man she could not endure to be rather barbaric.
"In the Sunlands, a woman may not refuse a man or a proposal of marriage arranged by her family," Melia said with a sigh. "My father had spared me from such traditions because he did not wish a loveless marriage for me but once he died there was no stopping such an arrangement from being made by my relatives. Leaving was the only course left to me."
"That is a sad tale," Legolas replied as they continued to the great hall. "But I supposed you ought to be grateful," he remarked, casting her a sidelong glance as he spoke.
"Grateful?" she looked at him.
"If you did not find this suitor so terribly unacceptable, you would never have left to meet me and where would the joy have been in your world then?" That ***able smile on his face again.
"You are impossible," she shook her head.
"But you know I am right," he grinned.
"I do not have to admit that," Melia responded and yet found herself entwining her arm deeper into his.
Although the gathering took place in the great hall of the palace, the proceedings were surprisingly informal with only the handful of people in attendance, all of which Arwen and Aragorn considered their good friends. Chief among the attendants were the members of the Fellowship, the Lord and Lady of Ithilien and Melia herself. Until now, she had not realised how much of an honor it was to be considered a friend of the Queen for it appeared that she was in select company. It was the first time in too long that she had been a part of any celebration where she was welcomed at the table. For as long as she remembered, her lineage had made her an outcast even among her family who showed their anger at her mother's abandonment of her father on her.
"Melia, were your accommodations suitable?" Arwen, Queen of Gondor asked when she saw Melia and Legolas enter the room. Arwen was in her fifth month of pregnancy and the growing babe inside her could be seen by the swell of her body. Melia wondered if it was possible for the woman to appear lovelier than she had been. She was already a great beauty but she really did possess the glow of radiance common to women with child. It was no wonder that the king could only look upon his wife with eyes of adoration.
"Luxurious in comparison to what I am accustomed to," Melia confessed.
"Come now, Arwen," Aragorn joined them. "Melia is a Ranger. We spend most of our time in the wilderness, as long as it is dry and safe, we can sleep anywhere."
"And yet she manages to look less bedraggled than you," Arwen teased. "I remember your state when you returned to Imladris from the wilderness."
Aragorn gave his wife a wounded look, "it was because I was making haste to return to you Undomiel. If I stopped for even one moment to groom myself, it was one moment too long that I was kept away from you. I could not endure even that slightest delay." Aragorn flashed his wife a look of pure innocence that drew laughter from everyone present.
"Nicely done," Arwen stared at him, not believing him for a second but impressed by the sly weaving of words he had produced to extricate himself from embarrassment.
Appearing completely unrepentant, the king smiled proudly at his wife before responding, "diplomacy has taught me much."
"In any case I thank you for your hospitality," Melia remarked once husband and wife had completed their private joke. "My room will be a luxury I shall enjoy until I have to return to Angmar."
"How goes it there?" Aragorn asked, always interested in how things were transpiring in the rest of his kingdom. As a former Ranger, he knew perfectly well that a Ranger's duties involved being the eyes and ears to whatever king they served. He could be assured of accurate intelligence from her.
"It goes well. The orcs have decreased in numbers and their raiding parties are sporadic," she answered, remembering now that he was not Aragorn but King Elessar and behaved accordingly. "They are being driven further into Forodwaith by local militia as well as the Rangers. I do not think it will be that long before we are no longer troubled by them at all."
"That is good to know," Aragorn nodded. "Middle earth has been blighted long enough by their evil. I think there will be pockets of their race emerging from time to time but it pleases me that we are making some headway."
"Which is more than I can say of Ithilen," Faramir added his voice in the discussion. "There are orcs there in greater numbers."
"Its is unfortunate," Legolas replied. He knew that there had been border skirmishes with northern Ithilien and had taken part in some of the campaigns to eradicate them but they seem to withdraw into the southern lands. "The forests there are vast and there are many places for them to hide."
"What is needed there is settlement," Aragorn remarked. "If more people were willing to dwell there, the orcs could be driven away. However, those lands are too near Mordor for the comfort of most."
"It is a difficult choice," Eowyn commented. "To risk attack from orcs or whatever dangers may still lie in Mordor."
"I doubt there is anything left after we were done with it," Gimli said enthusiastically. "The War of the One Ring decided Sauron's fate once and for all."
"I would not be so quick to dismiss the dark powers that were once of that land," Arwen replied. "Evil of such power is extremely hard to kill. For all we know, our future progeny may suffer for something we did not finish."
No one could argue with her on that point after what they had experienced with Glaurung. If anything had reminded them that not all evils had been vanquished with Sauron, it was the presence of the dragon that had emerged straight from the pits of Angaband when Melkor still warred with the Valar. No doubt there were other threats, beyond orcs that were lying hidden, waiting for the right moment to wreak mischief upon them all. However, none of them were too eager to speak of such possibilities when the reason for their gathering was an occasion of celebration.
Despite this desire, however, Legolas found that their conversation about Ithilien and the vast southern forests being unoccupied inspiring something of an idea within him. Although he spoke nothing of that idea to his friends since there were numerous obstacles ahead of him, he could not help feeling the fire of excitement at what might be possible if he was able to surmount it. It bore further investigation before he could even consider it seriously but it was the first spark of hope he had felt since Thranduil's message had come from Mirkwood. Even though he was a great deal older than Aragorn, the elf had to begrudgingly admit that Aragorn had been correct about his situation.
Legolas did have to find his own way and seize the opportunity when it came to create something of his own.
It appeared that chance might come sooner than either of them believed.
The evening transpired with much merriment as the meal was served and Melia forgot that she was in the presence of King Elessar Telecontari and his lovely queen, Arwen Evenstar. It was hard to see him as the leader of the Reunified Kingdom when he had such a dry wit, a love of life and more intelligence than was usually customary for a man of his station. It also warmed her heart to see the adoration he held in his eyes for his wife for it had been clear to Melia when he had sought them out in Nargothrond, just how far he would travel for his beloved Undomiel. Arwen was equally smitten and the love they held for one another was like a bright beacon to all those in their presence. The King's love for his wife was almost equaled by his affection for his friends.
The others were equally relaxed even though they had been party to great events of their time. Faramir who had been a Ranger of Ithilien still bore the marks of that vocation just as Aragorn. He would always be a Ranger at heart, even though he was now Lord of the land that he had once sought to protect and defend. His manner though not as overpowering as Aragorn's, was a quiet kind of strength and in comparison to Eowyn's headstrong and often fiery disposition, he was the perfect foil to her heated temperament. They suited each other well.
Of the men, it was perhaps Gimli she knew the best. He was the first dwarf she had ever met and during the journey to Mithlond when the urge to strangle Legolas was so intense she needed to stay well away from the elf, there had been time to know the Lord of the Glittering Caves. She found that she liked Gimli a great deal for the dwarf was astonishingly practical and when he examined her crossbow, had come out with all sorts of interesting ideas on how she might hone the shape of the bolts she used in them, to perfect her aim. They spoke of the lands from which he came and the wonders to be found deep beneath the earth. He spoke something of the lady that he had waiting for him in the Glittering Caves and Melia was pleased to learn during the course of the evening that he had married Lorin when he returned home.
The only thing she did not understand was how he had managed to become such good friends with an elf. She knew from experience that the two races disliked each other intensely for reasons that were more than just sociological and cultural. The elves preferred to live with nature whereas the dwarves liked to shape it to suit, to make it better and profit from it at the same time. However, none of these differences seemed to come into play when Gimli and Legolas were concerned and she wondered how she could get along so well with one while the other seemed to vex her beyond reason.
When the party had disbanded, Melia found that she could not sleep. Being a Ranger ensured that she could exist on little sleep and so far, the day had not been so taxing that her energy was exhausted. The business of dining with friends in a great hall was far less work than roaming the wild, keeping watch for every sound and movement for to ignore it was to do so at one's own peril. Thus she found herself wandering the gardens, enjoying the sight of greenery under the pale moonlight of the twilight sky. She had become so accustomed to sleeping under the stars that too long within walls made her uncomfortable and surrounded by this freedom would settle her unease a little for her slumber this evening.
Still, in general her mood was good because for the first time in too long, she had found friends who were noble and true, who knew what she was and had no words of reproach for her manner. Not since her father's passing had she felt such acceptance and though she knew she would soon have to return to the wilds once more, it was good to know that for awhile at least, she would have them. Melia followed the path until she reached the marble fountain with its ornate sculptures. She stood there watching the reflection of the full moon upon its water and was lost in the beauty of the cascading water.
"You should not be wandering the grounds alone," his voice slipped out of the darkness almost like a shadow.
Melia let out an exasperated sigh, folding her arms in impatience as Legolas stood up from the stone bench where he had been seated and walked towards her. It appeared as if he had been there for some time and Melia wondered what reason he would have to sit in the darkness like this. During the night, he had shown none of the melancholy that she had seen when he had confessed his reluctance to return home. In fact, the seating arrangement at the table of the king saw them placed side by side and he had been surprisingly pleasant company.
"Please tell me you have not followed me," she asked knowing that he did not really but insults were the way they greeted each other and it was a comfortable icebreaker.
"Oh yes," Legolas gave her a sarcastic look. "I sat here in the vain hopes that you would happen to walk this way instead of a dozen different paths that crisscross these gardens.," he said with exaggerated dramatics when he reached her.
The Prince of Mirkwood ensured that he stood at arm's length from her. As much as she might think herself unlike other women, there were customs and conventions that Legolas had been raised with that he was not about to abuse, no matter who the lady in question.
"I deserve that," Melia threw up her hands in defeat, laughing as she did so. "Really, why are you out here?"
There was real concern in her voice, Legolas noticed.
"I could not sleep and I think better with the stars above me." He answered after a moment and glanced briefly at the myriad twinkling of stars in the indigo canvas before meeting her gaze again. "But always in my heart was the thought that maybe you were here as well." He added with a smile.
"I'm sure," Melia rolled her eyes. "How fortunate you are that I chose this path and decided to end your misery."
Legolas uttered a short laugh and stared at her, "what is it about you that brings a lilt to my heart?"
"Your enjoyment of rejection," she retorted. "And your misguided belief that I need protecting."
"Well it is hard to see you as a Ranger when you wear a dress," he returned. "I do not know what shocks me more, that you look lovely wearing a dress or that you have one at all."
Melia glared at him through narrowed eyes, "tell me Prince of Mirkwood, were you always blessed with a silver tongue or has it taken time to acquire the skill?"
"Three millennia of practice actually," he responded, enjoying their verbal sparring intensely. He sincerely had not expected to find her here when he had come here after the celebration had drawn to a close. He was true to his word when he explained that his thoughts about his future would come easier to him if he had the cloak of the stars above his head. However, he could not deny that he enjoyed this fencing match they seemed to participate in whenever they were together. "Am I not sweeping you off your feet?"
"You could not sweep me off my feet even if you had a broom," Melia declared.
He pretended to suck in his breath as if he had been gripped with pain, "you are harsh with me lady. Did I tell you that I enjoy that?"
"You have no shame," Melia turned away. "I will leave you to your thoughts before you say anything that will require me slapping you in feminine outrage."
"A lady should never wander about without an escort." He called out to her, unable to resist teasing her as she glided away from him towards the palace again.
"And when I find a suitable one, I will be sure to ask for him his assistance," she returned sweetly before disappearing into the darkness, leaving Legolas with a corresponding smile on his face.
When Melia returned to her room, she was rather surprised to find that Arwen was awaiting her. Melia found the queen seated on the same chair that she had greeted Eowyn in earlier.
"My queen, is there something wrong?" Melia asked, wondering what could warrant Arwen's presence in her room at so late an hour.
"Nothing is wrong," Arwen quickly assured her, aware of how self-conscious Melia felt at being in the palace. In the woods it had been simple, she, Eowyn and Melia had been on a quest, equal parts to an important triumvirate. Here in Minas Tirith, that dynamic was no more. She was Queen and no matter how much Melia or even Eowyn for that matter tried, they would never be able to forget that. "I came to your door and entered when I realized that you were not in your room."
"I am sorry," Melia apologized. "I have difficulty sleeping indoors and thought a walk might help my slumber this evening."
"As is your right as my guest," Arwen smiled beckoning her to sit down so that they could talk. "I did not mean to impose upon you Melia but I wanted to speak with you about an important matter."
"I am at your service as always, my queen." Melia replied sincerely and meant it. Arwen had extended a hand of friendship that she never dreamed possible and whatever the queen asked of her, it would never be enough.
"Then call me Arwen, as you did when we were fellow travelers," Arwen implored.
"As you wish," Melia nodded, trying to rise to the friendship this noble woman was offering her. "Arwen."
"Good," Arwen smiled, glad that formality was dispensed with. "Melia, I had reason other than this celebration for bringing you to the White City."
Melia's brow arched with interest. "You did?"
"Yes," Arwen nodded slowly. "For your consideration and your invaluable assistance to me and my babe, I wanted to do something for you when I returned to Minas Tirith."
"I do not require a reward," Melia started to say when Arwen cut her off.
"I know that," the queen replied. "However, I thought that I might aid you in your own quest since you were gracious enough to ensure that I survived mine."
"I do not understand," Melia looked at her in confusion.
"Let me ask you one thing first," Arwen stared back. "Who exactly was your mother?'
Melia swallowed, not anticipating having this conversation today, however, Arwen was asking her question for good reason and Melia felt bound to answer. After a lengthy pause, Melia finally spoke. "I am not sure. I know her name but little else. My father claimed she called herself a River Woman but since I have begun my search, I have made little headway in deciphering what that is exactly."
"I have heard the term before," Arwen met her gaze and replied.
"You have?" Melia's jaw dropped in shock. Finally, after all these years of searching, someone who had the answer she sought! It was almost too good to be true! "You know them?"
"No," Arwen shook her head. "I know of them. They were supposedly Maiar or sprites who served Ulmo, the Lord of the Waters."
"Maiar?" Melia's shock continued to grow. Was she some kind of a river daughter? Like the legendary Goldberry who was supposed to inhabit the Old Woods? "My mother was a Maiar?"
"It has never been truly discovered what they are though they are known to take lovers for a time. Men seem to suit their purposes best for they are not immortal and they are somewhat disposable," Arwen tried to explain it as kindly as possible but there were some truths that were simply unavoidable. "Before my grandmother, the Lady of the Lothlorien departed for the Western Shores, I asked if she knew anything about the River Women along the Anduin, particularly of one named Ninuie."
"And?" Melia asked, her voice hushed as is she dared not speak too loudly for fear of ruining the revelation.
"Galadriel knew nothing of Ninuie," Arwen replied and saw Melia's crestfallen expression before continuing. "However, prior to the War of the Ring, Dol Guldur was occupied by the Nazgul and they used that terrible place to commit all manner of atrocities against Lothlorien and Woodland Realm. It is believed that the Nazgul may have captured and killed the River Women in their dungeons."
Melia said nothing for a moment because her heart was turning into stone and threatening to shatter. She would have wept at the unfairness of it, the cruel trickery of fate that would allow her to come so far and search so long only to be met by this unhappy conclusion but she could not. She could not because she knew that Arwen was wrong. Perhaps some of the River Women were killed in Dol Guldur, she had no doubt of that intelligence especially when the source was Galadriel but she knew her mother was not among the dead.
"Not my mother," Melia whispered after a while. Her eyes closed when she answered, "my mother is not dead."
Arwen took her denial to be borne of frustration and grief and sought the right words to speak that would not cause Melia any more sorrow than she already felt. "Melia, you must face the possibility. I have come face to face with the Nazgul. They were beyond darkness. They existed in shadow and every waking thought of their existence was to serve Sauron in any way possible. The River Women were possibly Maiar or at the very least servants of Ulmo. The Nazgul would have been compelled to destroy them, lest they chose to aid the forces of light against their master."
"I do not doubt your words," Melia blinked and stared at Arwen again. "I believe you and the Lady of the Wood in the assertion that many of the River Women were killed but my mother was not one of the dead."
"How can you be so certain of this?" Arwen asked, starting to understand that her denial of what was almost certainly the truth, may have some foundation other than her stubborn refusal to believe.
"I simply know," Melia replied, reaching for Arwen's hands and holding them entwined in hers. For the first time, she really did feel like Arwen's friend and she loved the Evenstar dearly for the inquiries made on her behalf from the Lady of the Wood but she could not believe that Ninuie was dead.
"You must trust me in this. I know that she lives and thanks to you, I now have a place to begin my search, a place that is more than just words spoken by reports I cannot substantiate or arrived to me by mere rumor. I must go to Dol Goldur."
"Dol Goldur!" Arwen exclaimed, never intending to send Melia to that dark place when she had sought this audience. "There is nothing there! It has been cleansed of all evil since the death of Sauron and the end of the war."
"If the River Women were there once, then that is where I must go," Melia said firmly. "It is a place to start."
"How can you be so sure that she still lives?" Arwen asked.
Melia did not answer but inwardly, she responded to the queen in a wordless answer.
She knew because she could still hear her mother's torment in her dreams.