Easterling - Part Two: Traveling Companions
She should have known this would happen.
The queen of Gondor cursed herself for being a fool for not anticipating this reaction when she gave Melia the news that her mother might have perished at Dol Goldur. The race of men could be notoriously stubborn when their mind was set upon a course. She should have suspected by Aragorn's fine example of this both irritating and admired trait of his race. Why should Melia be any different? The woman had spent years searching for her mother, years! Of course she would deny all that effort was for nothing by persisting in the belief that her mother still lived. Arwen could not begin to imagine what it must be like to find that the reason for one's purpose in life had suddenly disappeared before one's eyes. Everything that Melia was since arriving in Middle Earth from Far Harad was defined by her search for her mother. If that search was over, what was left for her?
Unfortunately, Arwen's understanding of the situation did not alter the unacceptable turn it had taken. Melia's determination to journey to Dol Goldur was folly. Even now, the woods of Mirkwood were not entirely safe. The Woodland Realm had been purged of many of its former evils but forests were enormous and in their shadows, ancient creatures most assuredly remained hidden as long as they were not provoked into emerging. As far as she knew, Melia knew little of Mirkwood other than its existence and for her to attempt to journey through its forests with little knowledge of what awaited her there was sheer recklessness. Arwen argued these points strenuously following Melia's declaration of her intent to leave for Dol Goldur, however the Ranger would not be swayed.
She retired from Melia's room, pondering what was to be done about this since she would feel herself responsible if any harm were to befall the Ranger should she insist on the trip to Dol Guldur. Save for asking Aragorn to order her not to go or imprison her in a dungeon which could only result in the Ranger becoming fugitive, since she was not likely to obey, Arwen could think of nothing else to prevent disaster from occurring. She thought long and hard what she ought to do, remaining awake most of the night, as she was certain Melia was as well, thinking of what was to be done. The Ranger had confessed her desire to leave right away so Arwen did not even have the benefit of time to ponder what was to be done. Aragorn noted her anxiety through the twilight hours and though he asked of her the reason for her restlessness, Arwen could not bring herself to betray her confidence.
The solution however, when it finally came to Arwen was painfully obvious.
Or it should have been if she were a more presumptuous person than she was. With the answer in her head, Arwen had arisen early that morning, having made Melia promise her the night before not to leave the White City without first informing her queen of her departure. Fortunately, the Ranger was still bound by duty to her queen to obey Arwen's request, despite their friendship. Thus was the reason that Arwen now found herself making her way to the stables, hoping to intercept the Prince of Mirkwood before he embarked upon his morning ride. She knew Legolas cared for the Ranger in some fashion but she did not make light of it as the rest of the company because she knew him long enough to know he was not prone to making attachments lightly.
Especially when the possible object of his affections was a human.
Because of her lineage, being hybrid of elf and man, Arwen had a choice in how she would live out her life. She had chosen a mortal life to be with Aragorn and it was not a decision she ever regretted, even in the face of the massive departures from these shores of the elves. However, Legolas was a full-blooded son of the First Born. There was no choice for him and like all elves; he would mate but once for all time. In the light of that kind of finality, it was no wonder that he had remained unmarried or unclaimed by any female, elven or human in nearly three thousand years of his life. There had been a time in her youth that her father Elrond had considered a match with the fair Prince of Mirkwood, but they saw each other too much like brother and sister to ever feel the passion of romantic love.
Ever since he had been visiting in Minas Tirith, Arwen knew it was Legolas' habit to ride out of the city for a few hours. He was, by his very nature, a Woodland elf and though he was reluctant to return home for reasons of his own, he still needed to feel the air of the forest around him as frequently as possible. The few hours where he was allowed to explore the wilds around the White City was more than enough to satisfy this need, though Arwen was certain that even he would pine for Mirkwood after too long a period away from it. She entered the stable and found him saddling his steed Arod, the horse that had been presented to him by the King of the Mark in the first days of the War of the Ring. Since then, Arod traveled with him everywhere.
"Legolas," Arwen called out to the Prince in elvish. When they were alone, they often reverted to their native language. He was gently brushing down Arod's flank and looked up at her at her call.
"You awaken early my lady," Legolas stopped what he was doing and bow gently at her in greeting. "I thought I was the only one who chooses to arise at this hour."
It was early but Arwen was elven like him and she too awoke with the dawn. It was a habit that she was unable to discard since leaving Imladris where everyone awoke with the sunrise. In Minas Tirith however, it was beneficial to Arwen to continue her early rising, for as queen, it allowed her to gain more from her day.
"It serves me to have more hours in my day," she responded with a smile.
"Will you join me this morning for a ride?" He asked politely. In their youth, they rode a great deal together and he knew her to be an even better horsewoman than Aragorn. There were not many maidens, elven or human who could out pace the Nazgul.
"I wish that I could," Arwen sighed, thinking that there was nothing nicer than a morning ride. "Unfortunately, I do not think I am allowed," she explained patting her swelling abdomen lightly. "He makes demands of me already."
"He is his father's son," Legolas gave her a warm smile, thinking how radiant she appeared with her babe's glow throughout her.
"True," Arwen nodded, giving him no argument on that particular statement. "I have reason for seeking you out this morning Legolas, I need your aid."
"Indeed?" The archer's brow crooked upwards. "I am at your service as always, Evenstar."
"You are a good friend," she reached for his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I fear I have done something foolish and now I have set events into motion I cannot stop."
"What do you mean?" His tone became serious and one could very well believe that he would one day be the future king of Mirkwood when he gazed upon her with such intent.
"I may have unwittingly given Melia reason to travel to Dol Goldur," Arwen explained somewhat embarrassed still, that she had not considered that her revelation to Melia would result in this.
"Dol Goldur?" Legolas exclaimed, his surprise was as evident as his horror. "Why in the name of Arda, would she wish to go there?"
Arwen hesitated, debating whether or not she should break Melia's confidence and knew even as the thought crossed her mind at revealing the truth to Legolas that she could not. "I cannot tell you Legolas, I promised her I would not."
Legolas opened his mouth to protest but Arwen continued speaking before he could utter a word.
"She has good reason Legolas, that is all you need to know and nothing will keep her from it, not an order from Aragorn to desist, nothing. I know her determination in this, she will go there or die trying."
Legolas could not imagine any reason to go to Dol Goldur, whatever the cause. However, Arwen's reluctance to tell him why brought to light how little he really knew about Melia to begin with. He recalled what she had said about fleeing from Far Harad, to escape a marriage that she did not wish. Had that only been part of the tale?
"Evenstar," he looked at her seriously. "The wilds of Mirkwood and Dol Guldur are not to be taken lightly. For those who have never wandered its paths, it can be deadly. I have lived there all my life, I know what roams those woods."
"That is why I have come to you," Arwen returned his gaze. "You intend on returning home to Mirkwood, do you not?"
"Yes," he said slowly, starting to see where she was going with this line of inquiry and deciding immediately that it was going to cause a great deal of trouble if he was correct about Arwen's intentions.
"Could you not travel with her to Dol Goldur?" Arwen implored. "If you went with her, you could see to it that she is safe. No one knows its lands as you do."
"Evenstar," he spoke hastily before she could continue further with this idea of hers. "Even if I agree to your request and at this time, I am not saying that I am, there is no way you will be able to convince Melia to accept my aid."
He knew Melia well enough to know that the lady would be extremely averse to his insisting that he join her on this ill-advised journey to Dol Goldur. As much as he teased her about not being able to fend for herself, requiring his constant companionship to keep her protected, he knew otherwise. She was extremely capable. One did not become a Ranger if one did not have one's wits about them. However, despite that, she was exceedingly stubborn in matters that required her asking for someone's aid, least of all his. He knew that this was his fault in part but it was a truth that was unchangeable.
"Legolas," she stared at him hard. "In the three millennia that I have known you, I know that you have not looked at a woman the way you look at her. You are like my brother, Prince of Mirkwood and I know your heart. If you care about this woman as much as I think you do, you will find a way to convince her. She cannot go there alone. You need to be with her when she reaches Dol Goldur and finds there what I know she will."
Legolas swallowed hard, turning his eyes away because Arwen could see through him. He was the only son of King Thranduil and he would have spent much of his childhood alone if it had not been for the bright spark that the Evenstar and her brothers had been to him with her friendship with their almost familial bond. He could not deny that he felt something for Melia, something that he did not understand, that frightened him greatly. Remaining on the outskirts of feeling for the Ranger had been harmless enough play but Arwen had brought to light what lay beneath the surface of the gentle mischief that seemed only to surface when Melia was near.
"Alright," he conceded with a nod, his eyes staring at the stable floor for it was easier than allowing the Evenstar to look into his soul with her sapphire gaze. "I will do as you ask. I will go with her but I tell you now that riding the dragon Smaug bareback would be a far easier task than convincing her."
"You can do it," Arwen offered him an encouraging smile. "I know you can."
"Well," Legolas frowned, not at all sharing her confidence in his ability to convince Melia to accept his help. "You had better let me tell her. In your condition, your skill in evading flying objects is less than mine."
Melia had not slept the night before.
Her thoughts were too filled with Arwen's news to be able to close her eyes and drift into slumber. She thought of all the years she had been searching, the clues that led nowhere, the whispers of possibility that ended with disappointment upon learning the search were for nothing. Now here was the first tangible proof she had that her mother existed as more than her father's memories. Melia had been too young to remember Ninuie and there were times when the goal before her was so far away, she wondered if perhaps she was on a fool's errand, that this quest she had driven herself to fulfill was an empty one with no end.
All that changed with Arwen's report that Galadriel herself had known of the River Women. Despite there being no news of her mother specifically, at least now Melia knew that the River Women were real and not some fanciful tale woven by a father wanting to explain to his daughter why her mother had left them both. She had promised Arwen she would not leave without telling the Queen of Gondor that she was departing Minas Tirith. After Arwen's aid and friendship, not even Melia's burning desire to fulfill her quest would have her slight the hospitality of so fine a lady. However, Melia did intend to leave the White City before the sun set upon this day.
She had risen early, packed her belongings and tried to discern from the maps she had found in the library of the palace which would be the best way to approach Dol Goldur. Although she had ridden her horse to Gondor, she had no wish to take the animal when it was possible that there would be terrain the mare could not traverse. From what she was able to discern from the parchments before her, the best route to Dol Goldur was by the way of the great Anduin River. By boat, she would be able to travel down its length, pausing only for a day to pass the rushing waters of Rauros Falls before resuming her journey again. If she approached Dol Goldur by the Eastern Shore, it would only take her a few days to reach the former Nazgul stronghold. Arwen had claimed that there was nothing in that dark place to find but Melia knew the queen was wrong. She could feel it in her bones.
Within the confines of her room, Melia gazed herself at herself in the mirror and found a more comforting reflection than that woman she had spied in a dress the night before. The Ranger before her feared little, was capable of handling herself in the company of all and never felt an ounce of self-doubt. The Ranger could face whatever terrible outcome her journey to Dol Goldur might yield, far better than that woman in the dress could ever manage. In her heart Melia knew that she hid behind the title. For so long, it protected her against everything, including the loneliness she would admit to no one.
Being the Ranger was far safer than being Melia.
She had come to the decision that there was no reason to delay and turned towards the door in order to find Arwen and thank her for her kindness when it knocked loudly before she could reach it. For an instant, Melia hoped that it was Arwen at her door so that she could carry out her farewells and depart the White City. In truth, a long and involved farewell with the others would simply make her uncomfortable and Melia was eager to begin her journey. She hastened her pace to cease the constant rapping against the wood that by the time she reached for the doorknob had become quite irritating and made her question who would be so impatient.
"Departing so soon?" The Prince of Mirkwood asked when she pulled the door open.
"Yes," Melia nodded; wondering what it was he wanted. Had Arwen told him that she was leaving? Of all the people at her door this morning, why did it have to be him? "A matter of some urgency has arisen, I have to leave immediately."
"What could possibly be so important that a Ranger would deny the hospitality of the queen?" Legolas asked innocently.
"I do not have time to spar with you elf," she retorted and turned on her heels, retreating into the room so that she could retrieve her belongings and continue on her way.
"It would seem so," Legolas nodded following her inside much to Melia's chagrin.
Melia paused, uncomfortable by his presence and somewhat bewildered as to what he wanted of her. Turning around after retrieving her saddlebags, she faced him once more. "What is it you wish of me, Prince?"
"Why do you not call me Legolas?" he asked suddenly, surprising her with the question.
"Because I would rather call you vexing!" She cried out in exasperation. "What is it you want?"
He straightened up and looked her straight in the eye as if what he wanted to say required him to brace himself for her reaction and Melia guessed immediately, that she was not going to like his words.
"I know you're going to Dol Goldur," he stated.
Melia let out a sigh of frustration, realizing why Arwen had made her wait and bristled with annoyance at the queen's subterfuge.
"Yes I am," she answered because he was waiting for her response and appeared as if he would not move from the spot unless she provided one. "Not that it is any of your concern."
"If you are going to Dol Goldur then it becomes very much a matter of my concern," Legolas declared firmly, refusing to yield anything to her on this point. "That is a dark, dismal place with nothing left to recommend it to anyone. It is a blight upon the land that should be avoided. You court great peril by going there alone."
"That is my choice," Melia replied with just as much determination. "Not yours."
"I am the Prince of Mirkwood, Dol Goldur is part of the Woodland Realm," Legolas stared at her and declared imperiously, "That makes it my sovereign concern. You will not step one foot into the wood of Mirkwood without encountering my father's men, that is if what lives there does not chose to make a meal out of your first."
"I will take my chances," she whispered, refusing to show that his words had shaken her as Melia attempted to brush past.
However Legolas was not about to let her abscond so easily. What in Eru's name was so important that she be so stubborn in her resolve to reach Dol Goldur? He could see the fear in her eyes at his warning but she was still determined to go, despite it. Why? As she attempted to slip past him, Legolas grabbed her arm and stayed her beside him in order to find out.
"I will go with you," he replied gently, hoping that would appease her slightly.
Her eyes flashed in understanding and she pulled away from him fiercely. "Absolutely not!"
"Melia," Legolas stiffened, coming to the conclusion that there would be no compromise with her on this point. "You need me."
"I need nothing from you!" Her eyes blazed at him. "This is not your concern. Arwen had no right to bring you into this!"
"She brought me into this because she cares about you," Legolas flared back in turn, rising to Arwen's defense. "The queen fears for your life although quite honestly, I cannot imagine why since you are so determine to squander it by this foolish desire of yours!"
He had no wish to be so harsh with her but she needed to understand what awaited her once she entered Dol Goldur and Mirkwood. Legolas had no difficulty in being cruel to be kind because Arwen was right, he cared too much about her to spare her feelings by not speaking the truth she refused to acknowledge. Melia stared back at him; her face wrought with indecision. He guessed that she might be seeing the sense of his words but the person she was made it difficult for her to admit that she might need his assistance.
"Melia," he said gently, "you are no fool and I will not treat you as one. Despite how I may jest that you are unable to fend for yourself, in your heart you know that I do not believe that for an instant but you must trust me in this, Mirkwood is dangerous. I have lived there all my life and I still know caution when I walk the paths that are familiar to me. You cannot enter the wood without permission of the Woodland Elves."
Melia closed her eyes, wanting to refute everything he said but she could not. However, her reasons for objecting so strenuously to him had little to do with her quest and had everything to do with him. For reasons she could not comprehend, this elf made her exceedingly aware of him. It was disquieting and she had no wish to be that way when she was about to embark upon such an important journey. Yet she knew he was right. She knew of Mirkwood by reputation and if she thought that she could enter its forests without arousing the notice of the Woodland Elves, the undisputed master of that realm, then she was foolish indeed.
As much as she loathed admitting it, she did need the Prince of Mirkwood to be her guide.
"Alright!" She hissed angrily. "We will travel together but you will not get in my way! I mean to go to Dol Guldur one way or another! I would prefer it without you but since that is obviously not meant to be, I will accept that I must have your assistance!"
"Such a gracious acceptance of my help," Legolas stared at her sarcastically. "Be still my beating heart, how can I refuse?"
"You are impossible!" She groaned in exasperation before storming out of the room, leaving Legolas with this intense feeling of dread that it was going to be a very long journey to Mirkwood.
Too often these days, Aragorn found himself forced to remain behind while friends left the shores upon which he was standing to go their own way. Being present while Legolas readied to leave for Mirkwood should not have been as sad an event as when Frodo and Gandalf departed for the Undying Lands because there he and Legolas would meet again. However, because the Prince of Mirkwood had chosen to depart earlier than anticipated from the White City, Legolas was forced to put in motion the plan that he had been considering so deeply in secret. The private audience with Aragorn ensured that even if Legolas were to return to Minas Tirith, it would never be in quite the same way again.
The days when Legolas would be a constant at his side, eager to face whatever lay before them was over. As much as he was pleased that Legolas had found direction, he was sad that direction would lead him further away from the way things had been with them. Aragorn did not berate Legolas for his decision because the elf could see that the world was evolving around him and if he was not yet ready to leave for the Undying Lands then it was necessary that he changed with it. Frodo had realized first that his life would never again be the same after the One Ring and had taken appropriate steps to change his course, hopefully finding some happiness after so terrible an ordeal.
Why should not Legolas desire the same?
"This is far sooner then I would have liked," Aragorn sighed, his heart heavy as he stood before Legolas at the edge of the river where the boat that the Prince and Melia would use for their journey down the Anduin was moored and waiting.
"The sooner I begin, the sooner I might be able to return," Legolas offered but it was hollow comfort for both of them. He could feel the shifting sand beneath them and knew that they were at a crossroads.
"Not in the same way," Aragorn swallowed thickly, emotion welling up inside of him. Legolas was his oldest and best friend. They had shared more than two beings could ever think to experience together and had ridden the turbulent waters of great events side by side, loyal and true.
"No," Legolas agreed with the same sadness. "Not in the same way."
The two men embraced warmly as brothers might do and knew that their friendship was perhaps even closer than blood. When they parted, both tried to hide the mist that appeared in their eyes. Legolas was glad that he had said his farewells to Eowyn and Faramir at the palace for he could not endure the heartache of any more tearful goodbyes.
Fortunately, Legolas knew what to expect when confronted with an abrasive dwarf like the Lord of the Glittering Caves. Gimli who stood beside Aragorn had seen him off many times before because as much as they were constant companions, they were also always going their separate ways to tend to other matters. Lately, Gimli had divided his time between the Glittering Caves and the construction of the mithrail gates in the White City. This departure was only the latest in a long line of partings they had made of late.
"I wish that you could come with me on this journey, Gimli," Legolas replied as he looked upon his friends. They had traveled together constantly during the years following the War of the Ring and it would be odd to look over his shoulder and not see the dwarf there at his side. Gimli had his own life as Legolas did and they would always find time to go off on some foolish crusade together, of this Legolas had no doubt. Still, Legolas could not deny that having Gimli along on this occasion to act as intermediary between himself and Melia would have been useful indeed for he did not envision the lady's disposition to be anything less than stormy at being forced to endure his presence during this journey.
"Surely you jest," Gimli retorted, raising a brow as he gazed past the elf at Melia who was speaking with Arwen. "Even I am not so foolish to be caught between the two of your for a journey of weeks." He teased, knowing Legolas' mind well enough. "Helm's Deep was less bloody then this is likely to be."
"You are a true friend," Legolas responded dryly.
Gimli patted the elf on the back and said in a more serious voice, "be careful, Legolas. You are still the only elf whose company I can endure."
"Why, thank you, Master Gimli," Arwen retorted sarcastically as she and Melia joined their gathering. "I am glad that my grandmother is not present to hear that."
As Gimli stammered to respond, Arwen turned to Legolas and embraced him warmly, grateful that he was accompanying Melia on her quest but also feeling guilty for hastening him on his way so soon. It was obvious that they needed more time then this to prepare for Legolas leaving them but she supposed no amount of time would make this farewell any less difficult.
"Safe journey, Greenleaf," she smiled at him warmly and he kissed her forehead.
"Take care of yourself and your babe, Evenstar," he replied with just as much sentiment. "I hope to see you both when I return."
Melia felt her heart sink with guilt as she watched the sad farewells being traded by Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli and Arwen. The sorrow etched upon his handsome face as he prepared to leave his friends disturbed Melia greatly because it was for her that he was departing so soon. It was obvious that none of them wanted him to leave and she wished that he were not so insistent on accompanying her on this journey because it was so uncertain when he would see them again.
"Be safe Melia," Aragorn's voice brought Melia's thoughts away from her regrets. "Dol Goldur is a dangerous place, even if it is claimed to be empty."
Although he did not know her well, Aragorn did not forget the invaluable aid she had provided Arwen during the confrontation with Glaurung. For that alone, she would always have his good wishes.
"I will," she replied grateful for his consideration and his advice. "I will rely on the Prince to see me out of trouble."
"He is good for that,' Aragorn grinned, sensing more than a little mischief in her tone.
"Try not to kill him," Gimli added with an equally mischievous smile following the embrace he received from Melia. "Though sometimes that princely arrogance might warrant it."
"I am perfectly aware of that," Melia gave the dwarf a wink, more than accustomed to Legolas as a traveling companion after their last journey together. "However I will try to heed your advice."
Gimli laughed and allowed Melia a moment alone with Arwen as the hour of their parting was finally upon them. The Ranger and the Queen exchanged a long stare before Melia broke the silence between them.
"I know you did what you thought was best so I do not feel anger towards you. You thought of my safety and no one has done that for a very long time. Thank you." Melia spoke with sincere appreciation for her efforts.
"I hope you find what you seek, Melia," Arwen's eyes softened with emotion and took Melia's hand in hers with affection. "But if you do not find it, I hope you will try to find happiness at least."
"I will try to do both," Melia replied, embracing the queen once more. "You are good friend, Queen of Gondor," she whispered. "I will be back soon enough for Lomelindi is here and I wish to see you and your son when he arrives."
"You will always be welcome," Arwen answered and with that watched with the rest of the company as Melia and Legolas began their journey towards Dol Goldur.
Neither had said a great deal to each other as the boat took them down the Anduin and away from the White City. Melia seemed deep in thought and had made no attempt to tell Legolas why they were journeying to Dol Goldur although he was burning with curiosity as to why she was so determined to visit that terrible place. This was much in part due to his realization that despite his feelings for the Ranger, he knew next to nothing about her past other than what she had deigned to impart to him. While he appreciated her need for privacy, he wanted to help her because the fear in her eyes he saw was nothing to dismiss lightly. Unfortunately, they had not reached a point where she could reveal that secret to him yet.
"Am I to assume that you intend to remain silent throughout our entire journey to Dol Goldur?" Legolas asked an hour after they had left Minas Tirith behind them.
Melia stiffened, aware that she was probably being a little unfair, not to mention childish in her behavior. Her silence was akin to a tantrum thrown by a willful child and she knew that he was here because he worried about her welfare and because Arwen had asked him. Letting out a heavy sigh that not only dispelled her annoyance at having his company thrust upon her but also her lingering resistance to his presence, she decided if this must be then she ought to at least try and make the best of it.
"No, of course not," she said softening her manner towards him considerably.
Legolas was genuinely surprised to hear her speak, he had anticipated her silence to last at least another few hours before she finally relented. Three thousand years had taught him one thing about the female gender and that was speech was not something they could be deprived of for very long.
"Will wonders never cease," he remarked, casting a glance over his shoulder at her and revealing a little smile as he paused in his rowing.
"Do not make me regret speaking to you, elf," Melia warned, her brow crooking up in mock anger.
"I doubt you would have been able to resist my charming conversation for very long," he smirked, glad that things were back to normal between them. Well, as normal as it could be between them, Legolas supposed.
Melia rolled her eyes but she too was pleased that they were on more familiar ground. "If I can resist Uruk Hai, I can resist you." She said sweetly.
"You never did tell how you devised your escape from their hands at Nargothrond," Legolas reminded, aware that she did not like discussing it since she had evaded the question every time he had broached the subject with her.
"It is not important," Melia grumbled, not about to tell him that her great plan for escaping the Uruk Hai Captain that she and Eowyn had been given to in Nargothrond was a false seduction designed to put him off his guard. She considered herself exceedingly fortunate that the gamble had worked even though at the time she had been terrified out of her wits. Melia was certain that was the only reason she had managed to go through with her plan; the horror of what would befall her and Eowyn if she had not succeeded.
"Oh come now," he balked at her attempt to deter him from finding out the truth. "It is a long journey to Dol Guldur, I must be entertained."
"If you want entertainment, you should have stayed in Minas Tirith," Melia retorted tautly. "I am not your court jester."
Legolas was not about to let the matter rest since her reluctance to tell him convinced the Prince that the tale must indeed be an interesting one. "It will pass the time," he insisted. "Besides, how awful could it be?"
"You have no idea," Melia muttered under her breath.
"I promise you," he replied, looking over his shoulder again so that she would see that he was completely sincere with what he was about to say. "Nay, I give you my word, as a Prince of Mirkwood that I will not breathe a word of it to anyone if you tell me."
Melia let out a groan, wishing that she could throttle him about the ears except if she did so, it would most likely capsize the boat and that was probably not the best thing to occur in the middle of the Anduin. The Prince of Mirkwood did not give his word lightly and it was not something to be refused when offered so earnestly. As much as they enjoyed trading insults, she knew it would be a real offence if she did not take him at his word. Even if he was not offended, which she very much doubted, Melia could foresee being asked this same question continuously throughout their entire journey. Since killing him was out of the question (because it was wrong, she reminded herself), Melia supposed it would not be so terrible to tell him the truth.
"Why is it?" Melia asked no one in particular, exasperation oozing from every word, "that of all the elves in Middle Earth that I could possibly find as a travelling companion, I have to be with the one who is the most infuriating?"
"Luck?" Legolas quipped, with a grin on his face she could not see because he was faced front and knew it would earn him a slap of frustration had she seen it.
"Oh alright!" She exclaimed, conceding defeat. "I will tell you only to satisfy your curiosity and to keep you from driving me to distraction by your insistence to know."
"Finally," he returned with just as much passion. "You have my undivided attention. How did you manage to free yourself from a room full of Uruk Hai? I have faced them in battle, that you escaped unscathed while in their power, astonishes me."
"Well it is not that difficult to escape when one is a woman," she replied, annoyed enough by him that the words came easily. "All I had to do was promise him the fruits of human pleasure and he was so eager to be alone with me that he acceded to my request to send his men away. Once alone, I caught him in a vulnerable position and freed myself."
She noticed he had stopped rowing and had turned around so that he could meet her gaze. "Pray tell what do you call a vulnerable position?"
At first it did not register upon her what he was alluding do to until she saw the dark frown upon his face.
"Not that vulnerable!" she slapped him on the arm, her jaw dropping open in outrage. "Do you think me capable of bedding a Uruk Hai! Even to escape! Are you completely without wits? What do you take me for?'
"I was mistaken!" Legolas started to recant. "You said vulnerable position! What was I supposed to think?"
"I meant vulnerable as in alone with me, distracted by the thought of pleasure with a human female, not the actual `pleasure'! You know, this is why I did not wish to answer this question or wish it known that I escaped in that manner! Small minds like yours instantly think the worst!" She ranted on furiously.
"I am sorry!" He apologized quickly though unable to keep the smirk from crossing his face. Despite himself, he could not help feeling some measure of pity for the poor deluded Uruk Hai who had actually believed a woman like Melia would lend herself to seducing him for any reason. "I must confess it is a very different way of securing your release."
"You think so?" Melia retorted. "I was never so terrified in my entire life. If I had failed in freeing myself, the consequences..." she shuddered visibly at what she could not say and he was able to guess well enough to spare her that indignity.
"Well you were fortunate indeed that it went as well as it did," Legolas replied. "However, I would prefer it if in the event that we do encounter any sort of peril that you do not resort to that same plan to secure our freedom." He concluded that request with a wide grin before turning his back upon her to resume rowing.
Melia glared at him and wondered if it was entirely a bad thing if she were to cast him overboard.
They traveled for the entire day, until the sun began to set in the western horizon, turning the blue sky into a vibrant shade of amber for a time. It would not be long before the blanket of stars were upon them and with night descending, Legolas and Melia decided that they would pull to shore in order to rest. Their limbs were aching from cramped confinement in the narrow boat for hours on end and the Ranger in particular, needed to feel the land beneath her feet. Of course, she would not admit such weakness to Legolas and he wondered what it was about him that inspired her to hide her vulnerabilities with such determination?
They made camp along the Eastern Shore which was supposedly devoid of Orc activity now that Sauron and the evil of Mordor were destroyed. Though there were reputed to be Orcs in Dagorland, it was three days journey from the banks of the Anduin to their vile sanctuary. But still Legolas had insisted that they camp near their boats should trouble arise and a hasty departure was needed. Melia agreed with his reasoning, aware of the dangers as well as he. For though she did not know this land as well as the Prince, she knew Orcs and knew that any precaution taken was a wise one when dealing with such foul creatures.
Legolas was glad to see the fire when he returned to their encampment, having scouted the area to ensure that all was safe. Although elves were able to endure the harshness of weather far better than men, he was still chilled, for the night was cold indeed. It also provoked a growl in his belly when he took a deep breath and scented the aroma of roasting fish. He had not asked her to cook because he assumed that expecting her to do so simply because she was a woman would have fired her contempt and he did not wish to seem chauvinistic. He had sense enough to know that Melia considered herself a warrior. The people of Far Harad seemed to define their worth by their ability to wage battle and if the restrictions placed on women were as bad as she claimed, then he would be poorly behaved indeed to expect her to do womanly duties because of her gender.
That did not mean he could not amuse himself.
"Now there is a sight to put order to my world," he remarked playfully when he returned to camp and saw her preparing their meal.
"What?" Melia mused, more focused on the sprinkling of a little spice over the meal to give it flavor than giving Legolas her full attention.
"Seeing you waiting for me with a meal cooked," Legolas smiled at her teasingly.
"Do not get too accustomed to it," Melia replied giving him a look. "Tomorrow it will be your turn and I hope your culinary skills extend to more than just carrying lembas in great quantities."
"Lady," he said with proud dignity as he sat down next to her. "The prince of Mirkwood does not cook."
"Then the Prince of Mirkwood is going to go hungry,"
"You are a hard woman," he pointed out as she removed the fish from its skewer over the fire.
"You have no idea," she arched one brow playfully as he handed him his meal on a plate. "Be careful it is hot."
"Thank you," he said graciously and they both relaxed away from the flames so that they could dine in comfort.
"You saw nothing out there?" Melia asked as they ate.
This part of Middle earth was unfamiliar to her. During her searches for her mother, she had mostly explored the north of the Anduin, in the lands nearest to Angmar. She did not wish to reveal to him that she was a little anxious because of this unfamiliarity since as a Ranger, her strength lay in knowing the land intimately and being able to anticipate all its dangers.
"No," he shook his head in answer. "It is relatively safe although these days it is difficult to say. Before Sauron was destroyed, we knew for certain the places of his minion's greatest power. However, since he is no more, they are scattered and hiding. Thus I do not know if we are any more protected than if we had camped on the Western Shore."
"They are finding new hiding places in lands that are not common for them to dwell," Melia nodded in understanding, having encountering a little of the same problem in Angmar.
The pattern of these foul creatures were no longer a constant now that they were leaderless and without direction. Their power in Middle earth was done but like the wounded animal about to die, they were perhaps more dangerous in their final hour then they had ever been when they were in strength because of their unpredictability.
"Fortunately, if danger nears, I should be able to sense it before it arrives," Legolas offered.
"That is good to know," Melia replied. "I do not wish to awaken with one of their poisoned blades to my throat."
"Fear not, I shall protect you from harm," he said bravely and full of levity.
"On the contrary, I shall protect you," Melia did not look up from her plate when she responded just as smoothly. "If they mean to harm us, I will simply have to promise to show them the limits of human pleasure in order to secure our freedom."
Legolas threw her a sharp look and retorted tersely, "do not even joke about such things." He shuddered in disgust.
"Who was joking?" She returned his gaze with a look of complete innocence.
"I would kill anything that attempted to take advantage of you in that way. After all, I have staked a claim upon you, if you show anyone human pleasure it will be me." His blue eyes gleamed with suggestion.
Melia actually laughed out loud, "only in your dreams."
"Not in yours too?" He gasped in mock hurt. "I thought that I would be your eternal obsession."
"You are my eternal consternation that is for certain," she drawled, enjoying their bantering as much as he did.
Suddenly, the boyish smile melted from his face and his blue eyes became hard like flint. His gaze shifted past her and he set down his meal and stood up immediately, his expression one of grave concern. Melia did not know him well enough to read all his moods with any clarity but she knew that like all elves, they had a good sense of danger approaching and thus, she too reached for her own weapon before rising up to take her place at his side.
"What is it?" She asked quietly.
"Something draws near," he replied, unslinging his bow from his shoulder and beginning to arm it in readiness to fire.
"Can you tell what?" Her eyes swept the wood before them but she saw nothing.
"I am not certain," he answered but she noticed that he had loaded two arrows into his bow instead of one.
"I do not hear anything," she remarked and knew that she was talking too much.
Legolas frowned and forced her silence with a sharp look. His elven hearing could sense the approach of two, their heavy feet pressing into the soft ground as they neared. He was impressed by their ability to move so silently for the space between each footstep indicated that the enemies were large in stature and yet it required the heightened sense of the fair folk to detect their approach. He doubted that a human would have heard them until it was too late. He had a fair idea of what was coming after them because he had heard rumors regarding the dark threats that lingered in some of the lands closest to Mordor following the destruction of Sauron.
"Take this," he ordered as he handed to her the long dagger he wore on his back just as they began to hear leaves parting too close for comfort.
"I have my own weapon," She insisted, wondering why he required her to use a dagger instead of her crossbow.
"Your bolts will not penetrate their hides," he said hastily. The ground started to quake now. "That requires weapons that are elven blessed, like this dagger and my arrows." Legolas also carried with him on his back in elven fashion, his long blade, but he hoped the arrows would ensure it would not come to that.
"What are they?" She demanded, her heart starting to pound because they were terribly close now, enough to hear everything being said.
He looked at her briefly and answered, "Olog Hai."
Melia looked at him sharply but had little time to argue because the creatures chose that moment to launch themselves through the shrubbery into the light of the campfire. She had never seen the Olag Hai in the flesh before, but she knew of them and their fearsome natures. Not quite as big as cave trolls, they were twice the size of normal men and craved human flesh for their meals. Their skins were scales of thick armor and they carried hammers and clutching claws, while bearing sharp fangs that would rip the flesh from bones if allowed the opportunity to use them. Since Sauron's destruction, the few remaining creatures that had not died with him wandered the hills aimlessly, scavenging food where they could.
There were two and Legolas let both arrows fly when they showed themselves. The shafts flew true and straight through the night, each embedding themselves into both their targets. The Olog Hai cried out in outrage and closed the distance between themselves and the archer. Legolas stood his ground as they approached, continuously firing arrow after arrow that met their mark with shocking accuracy. One of the Olog Hai flung their great hammers at the Prince and only then did he move, avoiding it effortlessly as they charged him. Melia had not earned their notice because she had not shot her crossbows at them. She allowed them to run past her before going to the fire where she picked up a burning log and threw it against their backs, hoping to draw one away so the elf only need to deal with the other alone.
At the time, the ploy had seemed like a good idea until the thing turned its yellow eyes upon her and Melia wondered what the hell she had been thinking, provoking a creature that she had never before in her life fought. She reminded herself that this was no different than fighting a cold drake or a dragon of Angband before realizing that she had *** near died on both those occasions. Unfortunately, there was little time to debate the point because the beast was coming straight for her. She ducked as he swung his hammer, the wide arch of its weight creating a whirl of sound before crashing on the ground where she had stood. Skidding to her knees, she swung the blade Legolas had given her and felt its edge sink into the Olog Hai's shin. The beast screamed in pain and swatted her away like a fly.
"Melia!" She heard Legolas shout in her ear just before she landed hard. For a few seconds, she was dazed but that did not last terribly long because when she opened her eyes, she saw that a clawed spike was coming towards her. She rolled over as it dug into the earth, sitting up just in time to see the Prince shoot an arrow that impaled the Olog Hai intending to kill her in the back. The creature arched in fury, trying to extract the painful object from his body.
In his efforts to save her, she saw Legolas distracting himself enough to allow the beast he had been battling, an opening to attack.
"LEGOLAS! BEHIND YOU!" She screamed in horror as the Olog Hai used its shield and slammed into the Prince.
Legolas dropped to his knees in pain and Melia watched in fear as the Olog Hai prepared to finish the battle. Without thinking until it was done, she flung the dagger he had given her through the air, hoping her aim was better than it was. Legolas hearing her cry had somehow rolled beyond the path of the beast's weapon, extracting the sword he had yet to use. As Melia's blade struck the Olog Hai in the chest, the foul creature screamed in pain. Taking advantage of its agony, Legolas slash the broadsword in a wide arch. Far sharper than any ever crafted by men, the elven blade tore through flesh and organs despite the thick hide that contained them. Melia flinched as she saw the spray of blood.
The Olog Hai bellowed in agony but the Prince was far from done. The second creature was still occupied with trying to remove the arrow in its back and Melia watched as Legolas walked towards it purposefully, eyes hard with intent, his blade still dripping with black blood. She stood by and watched because she was unarmed and her crossbow would do little to aid him. Besides, Legolas did not appear to need her aid. It was odd how fair he looked even in battle and when one saw him in a palace, it was difficult to believe that this handsome prince was such a cold, battle hardened warrior. When she saw him swing at the Olog Hai in one wide, powerful arc, she could very well believe that he had fought at Helm's Deep, Pelagir and Pelennor Fields and survived.
The Olog Hai's head came away from its body, its head spinning in mid air before landing in the fire and trailing embers as it rolled out of it again. Melia turned away from the grisly scene because no matter how much she thought she was strong enough to stomach all manner of atrocities, carnage still had the power to make her flinch. Legolas let out a deep breath when the body of the Olog Hai fell to the ground heavily, forcing leaves and dirt to become displaced when it landed. The elf seemed to falter a little and he dropped to his knees again, his sword falling from his hand.
Melia hobbled to him, not realizing until now that her hard landing had twisted her ankle badly and it ached as she tried to walk. She knew that she was probably sporting a large bruise on the side of her face but it seemed incidental to the fact that his face had contorted into a grimace of pain. She had seen how hard the Olog Hai had struck him with the shield and knew that it was possible that he had broken ribs after incurring such a blow. His manner certainly indicated it.
"You're hurt," she lowered herself next to him.
"Not badly," he lied through the pain.
"Fool!" she snapped at him. "You are in agony! I see can see it in that face of yours. Now move your arm and let me look."
Legolas reluctantly allowed her hands to pull open his tunic and he hissed as the cold night air touched his sensitive skin. He knew he was not severely injured but he was in pain. The Olog Hai shield was made to break bones, even elven ones and bearing the brunt of it had certainly earned him a few breaks. However, at the time, he could only think of the monster's other companion bearing down on Melia and all rational thought fled his mind as he attempted to save her. The idea of protecting his life mattered little in the face of hers being lost. Three thousand years was long enough for him to experience life's fullest pleasures but she was a child in comparison to him and he could not endure the thought that hers might end before it had even began.
Or more correctly, before they had even begun.
"You have broken something," Melia stated as she examined his side and saw the discoloration against his pale skin. She had never seen an elf so intimately before and had to marvel at the softness of their skin to the touch. Her fingertips grazed the swelling along his side and knew that he needed at least a day of rest before they could resume their journey for Dol Goldur again. Melia should have been annoyed by this delay but she was not. She knew exactly why he had allowed himself to be harmed this way and it was because of her.
He had been trying to protect her.
"I will manage," he replied bravely.
"You will manage nothing if you do not rest," she lowered the tunic down once more. "We will now move camp a little further downstream," she insisted. "No doubt the scent of blood will bring wolves and other predators to us."
"Perhaps I should have let you promise them the fruits of human pleasure after all," he grimaced when he tried to move.
Melia laughed softly and smiled at him warmly, taking his arm in hers to help him up. "Perhaps you should have. You would have been better for it."
"Well never let it be said that the Prince of Mirkwood does not suffer for a lady's virtue," Legolas grunted as Melia helped him to his feet.
"I am not a lady," Melia reminded as she led him toward the boat whose spine was pressed into the shale embankment. "I am a Ranger."
"You are a Ranger no doubt of that," Legolas agreed, wondering why she found it so necessary to hide behind the word. "But you are also a lady."
"Well this lady will have you remain here," she said firmly as she lowered him to the ground next to the boat. "Remain still please, while I gather our things?"
"I did not know that you cared so much," Legolas teased, needing to feel less ineffectual than he already did by placing them on familiar ground again, instead of this wholly unacceptable situation where she needed to tend to him like a little boy.
"I could not care at all," she said haughtily but wore a smile with just as much play as his. "But I need you to guide me to Dol Guldur so I should at least ensure that you are well enough to make the journey."
"And here I thought I was melting your heart," he winked at her, though it was difficult to remain quite so charming when the pain in his side ached so much. "Have I not suffered enough to prove myself?"
"Just stay where you are," she ordered with more than a hint of exasperation creeping into her voice as she walked back to the campfire. "I shall be back soon."
Legolas watched her go and found that in his pain, he tended to be wicked and called out of after her. "No farewell kiss?"
Melia's response was a string of words that made Legolas raised his brow in surprise.
Well she certainly knew how to curse like a Ranger.