Miriel: Princess of Rohan - 14: TALES IN THE CITADEL

TALES IN THE CITADEL

"I'm so glad you're here," said Legolas as they walked along the lowest tier of Minas Tirith together.

"I couldn't wait to see you," answered Miriel, looking up at him. "I wanted to know if you were safe. I worried about you every moment of every day and night. I prayed so hard for your protection. What has happened since we parted? You must tell me everything!"

Legolas smiled.

"I will, hiril nin," he promised. "Come with me. I will take you around the White City first, and then I want to take you to the top of Minas Tirith, and we can sit at the fountain of the Citadel and have a chance to talk."

"What does `hiril nin' mean?" asked Miriel.

"Oh! I forget sometimes that you're not an Elf," Legolas replied. "I find it so easy to slip into my tongue when I'm around you! `Hiril nin' translates to `my lady'."

"Speaking of translations," interjected Miriel. "There is a song that I learned during the battle of Helm's Deep, when I was injured and saw the Elven forest and heard the voice of Elbereth. I do not know what the words mean. Perhaps you can tell me."

"I will do my best," Legolas answered.

They paused by a wall overlooking Gondor, and Legolas listened intently as Miriel began to sing. She remembered each word as if it were forever etched in her memory:

A Elbereth Gilthoniel!
Dûr i venel a delu i ven.
Nallon le, sî di-nguruthos!
Lasto beth nin a tolo thaed nin!

Cuio annan, gwend vara,
No thalion, annui maethor!
Tolo dan na galad,
Na i rammas! Na i dhagor!

"Do you understand any of it, or is it just a collection of nonsense?" asked Miriel a little anxiously when she finished.

Legolas laughed merrily.

"Do I understand it!" he exclaimed. "Do I ever! Your Elvish is beautiful, Miriel. It's like you've always spoken the language. As for your song, give me a moment and I will translate it into the Westron tongue as best I can."

Legolas was quiet for a moment, and then he burst out in a deep, rich voice:

O Elbereth Starkindler!
The sky is darkening and the road is too dangerous.
To thee I cry, here under the shadow of death!
Hear my voice and come to help me!

Live long, fiery maiden,
Be brave, western warrior!
Come back to the light,
To the Great Wall! To the fight!

The clear song of the Elven lord breaking over the white towers of Minas Tirith brought all who heard it to a standstill as if they had been cast under a sudden spell. Work ceased as the people strained as one to catch Legolas's every word. Silence reigned when he finished. Miriel was just as affected by Legolas's voice as the strangers around her. She cleared her throat and swallowed, and blinked away an unbidden tear.

"Wow," she managed to say.

"They are indeed powerful words," replied Legolas, mistaking Miriel's meaning.

Miriel nodded and did not respond. They spell passed, and they continued walking. The activity slowly resumed behind them as the Elf and the maiden moved on.

Miriel and Legolas talked and laughed as they took the curving pathway to the top of Minas Tirith, rejoicing in one another's company and quickly healing from the inner pain of being apart for so long.

Legolas gave her a quick tour of the famous White City and pointed out the special buildings as they passed. But he seemed eager to get it over with.

At last they reached the white-paved courtyard surrounded by a bright sward of green. A fountain stood in the center of the path that led to the White Tower, merrily tossing forth sprays of water that shimmered and sparkled as they rose and fell in the sunlight.

Miriel gave a little cry and ran to the fountain, for standing beside the shining waters in the marble basin was a white tree that must have been beautiful once but now stood withered and dead. Miriel gently laid a hand upon the dry trunk and felt oddly sorry for it. Crystal droplets fell from its barren white branches, dripping slowly like tears back into the clear water of the pool.

"What is this?" Miriel wondered aloud as Legolas came up behind her. "Everywhere we are surrounded by lovely green and growing things, but this great tree is dead."

"This tree was grown from a seed that Elendil himself bore out of the land of Númenor," replied Legolas as they sat down together beside the fountain. "It withered long ago, but being a relic from Westernesse nobody removed it. It has remained here before the Citadel, as a sort of reminder of the promise that the king will one day return."

Miriel nodded and turned from the tree, stirred by the mention of Westernesse.

"Do you still have my ring?" asked Miriel softly.

Legolas nodded and showed her. "Many an arrow was deflected by its power alone," he said with no little wonder in his voice. "It took awhile to get accustomed to it, but then it became commonplace, and I no longer thought about it."

Miriel choked. Legolas held out his hand to her, and Miriel stroked the silver circlet lovingly.

"Tell me now everything that has befallen," she whispered.

They sat down on the cool marble edge of the fountain, and a light spray of water would now and then fall upon them like morning mist as Legolas told the tale. Legolas had had a very long and dangerous journey which he recounted in full to Miriel, who listened eagerly but half in terror of what might have happened.

"After we left Helm's Deep, we traveled to Isengard through Fangorn Forest, a very old wood full of dark legends. But I found it intriguing! It was indeed ancient, and it has many secrets. I wished I could have lingered longer and learned something of its trees. Gimli was very uncomfortable in Fangorn," Legolas said with a slightly mischievous smile. "He fretted about missing a tour of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond, which he had only had time to glimpse briefly. And just as I, being of Elven-kind, am most at home among the familiar green forests of trees and growing things, Gimli of the Dwarves loves rock and cave and the deep, dark places of the underworld. So we promised one another that if we manage to return in times of peace, we will visit both wood and cave together. I agreed to it, not for myself, but mainly for his comfort."

Miriel grinned and raised her eyebrows at him. She knew the Elf would take a kind of delight in dragging a jumpy, nervous Gimli through Fangorn Forest against his will once more. It was a golden opportunity that could not be passed up at any cost. It was even worth venturing into the mysterious caverns of the dark caves for! Legolas ignored Miriel's knowing look and continued his story.

"When we arrived in Isengard, we found the black tower of Orthanc, once a powerful and menacing presence, standing like a lonely island amid deep waters. The dam had been broken and the river released by the Ents, who are great treelike creatures and keepers of the forest, and good friends of my fair kindred. The dark smithies of Isengard were flooded and the places under the earth were Saruman had once bred his armies of Orcs and forged black weapons and armor were destroyed. The Ents remained at Isengard, so Saruman was trapped in the tower and well guarded and no longer a threat to anyone.

"While we were there, we were reunited with two members of the Nine Walkers that had set out from Rivendell. Both were Halflings, Hobbits of the Shire, who were captured and were taken prisoner by Orcs sent by Saruman. Aragorn, Gimli and I had pursued them both night and day just before we arrived in Edoras and began the journey to Helm's Deep. The Hobbits were named Meriadoc Brandybuck, or Merry for short, and Peregrin Took, called Pippin. They had been rescued by the Ents and brought to Isengard among friends, and I was surprised and relieved that they had suffered no hurt from their adventure."

"I see Isengard was causing trouble all over the place," muttered Miriel darkly.

Legolas nodded in wordless agreement.

"While Gandalf spoke with one of the Ents who was the guardian of Fangorn Forest, Pippin noticed a strange glow in the water," said Legolas. "He was drawn to it. He waded into the flood and groped at it until he pulled up a dark heavy ball that had an orange light burning deep inside its heart. Gandalf immediately took it from the Hobbit and covered it with his cloak, but none of us knew that it was too late for Pippin. One glance was enough to be not enough for the ever-inquisitive Halfling.

"The stone that Pippin picked up was actually a Palantir, a Seeing Stone, one of the seven Seeing Stones of Gondor brought to Middle-earth from the destroyed land of Numenor by King Elendil. Sauron managed to capture one Palantir in the tower of Minas Ithil, which became Minas Morgul, the lair of the Nazgul. Saruman possessed a Palantir also, and back when he was Saruman the White, he used his Stone and gain knowledge of the world. But when the wizard looked into his Palantir and his restless gaze strayed toward Mordor, Sauron laid a trap for him and Saruman was caught. That was one of the reasons Saruman turned to the dark side and became a traitor.

"And now young Pippin had held the Palantir controlled by the Enemy, and besides the pull Sauron exuded upon the Stone, Pippin's unquenchable curiosity was stirred. The Hobbit would have no peace until he had looked into the Palantir once more and probed its black depths.

"Then the company led by Gandalf and King Theoden returned to Edoras where we found rest for a while. There was a feast to celebrate the victory at Helm's Deep. Everyone seemed jubilant, and I was happy for them, but I had no peace in my spirit. I got up and went out on the wall to look toward the East. Aragorn soon joined me, and I learned he felt the same nameless fear and concern as I.

"Aragorn asked me to tell him what I saw, for I can see far beyond the sight of mortal Men. Mordor was a boiling cauldron of turmoil. Fire and smoke erupted from Mount Doom, and the thickest storm clouds you've ever seen choked the dark skies and blotted out the stars. I perceived that the great Eye of the Barad-dur was moving restlessly in its sleepless malice.

"Suddenly the hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and I felt a terrible blackness descend upon Edoras that filled my very bones with dread. I could feel the presence of Sauron, and let me tell you, Lady Miriel, there is nothing I have ever encountered in this world so horrible.

" `He is here!' I cried to Aragorn in alarm, and at once we went running into the lodging, where everyone had been sleeping. We burst in the door and found Pippin gripping the dark round stone from Isengard tightly, locked in some terrible battle of the mind with the Enemy. Flames burned at his hands, and the Hobbit shrieked in horror and pain and struggled with all his might to free himself, but he could not let go.

"Aragorn sprang and knocked the ball away from Pippin, but the evil thing then latched onto Aragorn. Aragorn held it rigidly and he could not wrench his sight from it as the fire burned him also. I put forth all my strength and pulled hard at Aragorn. We were thrown across the room as the heavy globe fell and rolled around on the floor. I caught Aragorn as he fell into a momentary faint. Gandalf immediately pounced on the Palantir and threw a cloth over it. At once peace and quiet settled upon us as the darkness of Sauron was covered over and departed.

"Gandalf questioned Pippin hard about what he had seen in the stone. Fortunately the Dark Lord had learned little about the company, but Pippin had been shown, presumably for his torture, a part of Sauron's plan. Sauron judged that the defenses of Middle-earth were far from strong enough to hold him off and resist for long, so his next move was to invade Gondor and destroy Minas Tirith."

Miriel shivered as she looked around her at the White Tower and the people bustling in the city below.

"Why did he want to attack Minas Tirith first?" she asked. "What is so special about the capitol of Gondor?"

"Because it is the greatest stronghold of free Men in Middle-earth," Legolas answered. "If Sauron had succeeded in taking it, the rest of the world probably would have swiftly fallen to his rule. And of all cities, this was the one the Enemy most feared. Yes, even Sauron feared it, for good reason. Many prophecies of old proclaimed that One would come and claim the kingship, and that this One would be the downfall of the Dark Lord. Sauron did not want to see these things foretold come to pass, so he wanted to strike quickly before any of it took place. He nearly accomplished his goal."

"So... there is no king of Gondor then?" wondered Miriel.

"No. Stewards there are only. They have taken care of this great city since the last king in the line of Elendil, Isildur, went away to war and did not return, leaving no heir to the throne. The Stewards have kept the city and none have claimed the kingship, which has remained empty... until now."

"So there is a new king in Minas Tirith?" Miriel cried in excitement, glancing back at the tower as if she expected the King himself to come forth from its great doors at any moment, swathed in a blaze of glorious light and heralded by loud trumpets.

Legolas hesitated before answering. "No, no, not yet," he finally ventured. "But that may change soon enough. Isildur's heir has come at last, and much that has been foretold will shortly come to pass. But we will not speak of that just yet. I must first tell you more of what happened after we knew that Minas Tirith stood on the brink of great danger."

Miriel nodded and leaned forward intently as Legolas continued.

"Having learned that the doom of the White City was close at hand, Gandalf took Pippin and left Edoras on a swift white horse named Shadowfax, one of the Mearas, who could outrun the wind and leave ordinary horses breathless in his wake. I remained in Edoras with Aragorn, Gimli and Merry, and we took council with King Theoden and Eomer while we waited.

"King Theoden was loathe to ride to the aid of Gondor, for Denethor, the current Steward of Gondor, was never forthcoming with aid when Rohan was threatened and cried for help. But several days later the beacons of Gondor that were set upon the mountaintops to be lit only in great need suddenly blazed forth with fire. Aragorn at last prevailed upon Theoden King, so the King gathered the Rohirrim and we set out at once for Minas Tirith. The Lady Eowyn came with us also to see us off."

Miriel gasped. "Eowyn!" she cried. "I'd almost forgotten! Legolas, you must tell me. Is she all right?"

"Yes, she is recovering in the Houses of Healing," Legolas answered.

"Oh! Good! That is wonderful!" breathed Miriel in relief. "When will I see her?"

"I shall take you myself shortly, if that is your wish," Legolas replied.

"Thank you! It is!" gushed Miriel. "This news lightens my heart greatly. Last I heard, she had been wounded terribly in battle and death was near."

"It was," Legolas confirmed soberly. "I will tell you how that all came about in time.

"We were not the only ones who responded to Gondor's call for aid," Legolas continued. "We camped at Dunharrow, and from all corners of Middle-earth steady streams of Men were arriving all through the day in large numbers.

"That evening, a visitor came late at night and met with Aragorn. I saw this take place and roused Gimli, sensing a change in our plans; for although the stranger was well hooded and cloaked, I recognized the Lord Elrond of Rivendell.

"Aragorn emerged a while later leading his saddled horse, Brego, who had long been his friend and companion through many dangers. Gimli was sitting near one of the tents and calmly smoking a pipe.

"`Just where do you think you're off to?' Gimli demanded.

"`Not this time, Gimli,' Aragorn replied firmly without breaking stride or even a glance in Gimli's direction. He was stern and resolute as he continued walking by.

"But at that moment I came up leading our horse, Arod, already saddled and prepared for the journey.

"`Have you learned nothing of the stubbornness of Dwarves?" I asked Aragorn."

Miriel burst out laughing.

"Not to mention the stubbornness of the Elves!" declared Miriel.

"Gimli did play his part to perfection," said Legolas with an unmistakable tone of pride in his voice and a smile bright enough to light the sky. "That was fun!

"Aragorn had no choice but to accept our offer, of course. So we joined Aragorn and left Dunharrow under the cover of night. On the way, Aragorn explained to us everything that Lord Elrond had told him. Elrond gave him the sword that had been called Narsil, which was the very sword that Isildur used to cut the Ring from the hand of Sauron in the first war. Narsil had been broken into many pieces, and the shards were guarded as relics in Rivendell. But now the Blade that was Broken was reforged. It was renamed Anduril, which means `Flame of the West', and given to its rightful owner, Isildur's own heir."

Legolas paused and gave her a significant glance. Slowly light dawned on Miriel.

"You mean to tell me," Miriel exclaimed in a tone infused with deep shock, "That the Lord Aragorn is actually of the line of Elendil? The heir to the throne of Gondor?"

Legolas nodded happily.

"Yes, and I had long known this. But the odds were stacked mightily against him ever coming here to claim the kingship. It did seem impossible, especially since one of the things Elrond told Aragorn was that a secret army of Corsair ships sailed the River Anduin from the south. If we traveled with the Rohirrim, we would arrive in Gondor too late to save anyone. We had to take a shortcut. There was only one option: We needed to take the Dimholt Road through the Paths of the Dead."

Miriel's jaw fell open, and she shivered.

"Even I have heard of that accursed place!" she cried. "Any that travel that way are never heard from again! What madness possessed Lord Elrond to send you on that haunted road?"

Legolas stiffened and his eyes glinted.

"Do not speak of Lord Elrond that way, my lady," he said sternly, but he softened as he continued. "I understand that it would seem foolish. But Lord Elrond has the gift of foresight, and it is wise to trust his judgment in all things. Time was running out, and we had to overtake the Corsairs and reach Gondor ahead of the Rohirrim if we had any hope of saving Middle-earth from falling. Elrond told Aragorn this, and Elrond also hinted that Aragorn would gather an army along the way. If Elrond said to take the Paths of the Dead, then to the Paths of the Dead we would go."

"What kind of army would linger in such a place?" wondered Miriel.

"Gimli asked me the very same question," Legolas replied. "I will give you the same answer I gave the Dwarf.

"Long ago, at the beginning of the establishment of Gondor, the King of the Mountains swore an oath to serve Isildur and to fight for him. But when Sauron grew in might, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfill that oath and fight against the Dark Lord. But they would not, for they had been servants of Sauron in the Dark Years, and because of their former allegiance they ran away out of fear of their one-time master.

"So Isildur cursed them, declaring that the Men of the Mountains could not rest until their oath was fulfilled. They fled before Isildur's wrath and hid in the mountains. They dared not fight for either side, neither Gondor nor Mordor. There in the mountains they long remained, unable to pass away from this world.

"The ghosts of Men hold no terror for the Elves, and yet even I found it hard to endure walking under those black trees. When we came to the Dark Door, our noble horses became frightened and bolted away. Arod was the first to run, but not even loyal Brego gave heed when Aragorn called his name. We stood staring after our fleeing steeds, and we could feel fear seeping from the Dark Door like a thin gray vapor that could chill a man to his very bones.

"`The way is shut,' I declared. `It was made by those that are dead, and they do not suffer the living to pass.'

"But Aragorn faced the yawning black hole at the base of the Haunted Mountain and boldly lifted his sword Anduril before him.

"`I do not fear death,' he said to the darkness, and with that he stepped over the threshold and vanished in the gloom. I clutched my bow in readiness and plunged in after him. Gimli did not follow at once. I heard him muttering and stomping about at the entrance, sorely wroth with himself for being afraid. At last he too came and marched nervously behind me, and I was forced to endure his Dwarfly jitters of fear all during that long walk.

"As we walked and glanced in every direction, we could hear voiceless whispers and see ghostlike shapes in the caverns about us that melted away whenever we looked upon them. Gimli quaked in his boots, but Aragorn seemed endowed with a fell bravery, almost a recklessness that I had never before seen in him, and he led us without faltering.

"Suddenly, as we came to a narrow part of the cave path, a lone figure materialized and blocked our way. He was as white as transparent flour, and he wore a pale crown on his head. His eyes were empty black holes in his sickly face. He gave us a menacing grin.

"`Who enters my domain?' the King demanded.

"`One who will have your allegiance,' answered Aragorn firmly.

"`The Dead do not suffer the living to pass,' was the pale King's cold reply.

"`You will suffer me,' Aragorn boldly commanded, and he moved forward as if to defy the King of the Dead.

"But his statement only seemed to amuse the King as a boast that carried no weight. He threw back his head and gave an evil laugh that echoed off the gray walls. His laughter was joined by other voices, and at once the very air wavered as an army of the Dead all became quite visible. They were hideous to look upon, like shadows of white skeletons. They surrounded us, a ring of hundreds of smoky gray ghosts closing in upon three outsiders. There was no way out.

"`The way is shut,' the King said in a threatening tone. `It was made by those who are dead and the Dead keep it. The way is shut. Now you must die.'

"I didn't like the way he spoke to Aragorn, so I loosed an arrow at him. It hit him in the forehead and passed right through him and the men behind him as if they were made of mist, causing them no hurt. But Aragorn boldly addressed the King.

"`I summon you to fulfill your oath,' proclaimed Aragorn.

"`None but the King of Gondor may command me,' the dead King sneered back. He brought a sword crashing down on Aragorn.

"But Aragorn raised Anduril, and the leader's weapon bounced harmlessly off Aragorn's sword, Anduril. Aragorn grabbed the King by the throat.

"The effect it had on The Dead was astounding. They stopped silent and backed away in awe. No living man had thus withstood them since the day they had come and haunted those dreaded paths deep in the mountain.

"Now that he had their attention, Aragorn released the sputtering King and stepped forward to address the Dead. He seemed to have grown before our very eyes, and his voice held great power.

"`I am Isildur's heir!' Aragorn cried. `Fight for me, and I will hold your oaths fulfilled. What say you?'

"The Dead were loathe to agree, but they were weary of skulking in the mountain passages, unable to escape by means of death. Aragorn offered an undeniably good bargain. So they followed us as we went out of the Paths of the Dead. It is no longer haunted, so from this time forward it will be called simply `The Dimholt Road' once more."

Miriel had to work to stifle a laugh. Even though his words conjured up images of terrible dangers and she was upset that she could have lost him at any time, he was here with her, and that took some of the sting out of his account. She was thoroughly enjoying his animated account, and her appreciation for his storytelling was not lost on Legolas.

"As we emerged from the mountain, I caught my breath as I took a look about me. A great body of water stretched on as far as the eye could see, without horizon. Gulls swooped and wailed and spoke of the great ocean, and I knew that it was indeed the Sea that lay before me."

Legolas stopped and sighed, staring into the West.

"Alas! The beautiful endless waters, the cries of the gulls, and the sun sinking low upon the ocean, setting both sky and Sea alight with blinding golden flame, have stolen my heart away. The West calls to me, and someday I must answer."

Miriel saw a look in the Elf's eyes that she had never seen before. Inner turmoil reflected in his drawn, thoughtful face.

"Legolas, is everything all right?" Miriel asked, perceiving that there was more to the Elf's trouble then she understood. She thought Legolas looked a little sad.

Legolas turned and looked back at her, but his mind seemed far away.

"Yes, Lady Miriel," he answered absently.

Miriel laid a gentle hand on his arm. "What happened next?" she asked.

Legolas pulled himself together with an effort. Light returned to his eyes as he looked at Miriel and slowly smiled.

"I am nearing only the middle of the tale," he continued. "We traveled swiftly to Pelargir where a great fleet of dark ships stood waiting in the waters: Black Corsairs from Mordor, which would bring reinforcements to Sauron's minions in the siege of Gondor. The Dead fell upon our enemies. The Orcs fled in terror, most drowning in their madness, others stampeding away to the South. We went aboard the Corsairs and sailed to Minas Tirith. We arrived at the Pelennor Fields in the midst of the great battle, and Aragorn and Gimli and I cowered low in the bottom of our boat and lie in wait as we drew up to the shores.

"We heard welcoming insults from the Orcs, since that is how Orcs greet their friends, but when we leapt onto solid ground their faces changed. At first they could only see the three of us, and they closed in to do away with us quickly. But as they charged upon us, the Dead suddenly appeared before them and struck terror into their black hearts.

"The hosts of white mist and shadow fell upon the forces of Mordor, slaying where they would, but their main weapon was fear and they wielded it well. The battle was swiftly ended, and Aragorn released the Dead from their oath. With a rush of wind and a sigh that sounded like great relief from countless years of waiting, the Dead blew away and vanished like thin wisps of smoke into the pale skies.

"We entered Minas Tirith victorious, but the losses were great and the city had taken heavy damage, which we have yet to repair." Legolas waved his hand in the direction of some ruined towers. "Thus that part of the tale was ended."

Miriel breathed her own sigh of relief. Legolas had the Elven gift of storytelling, and it held her spellbound. She felt as if she had been there herself, traveling beside Legolas, enduring all the trials, braving the terrible dangers, and beholding for the first time the Sea in all its glory. She sat enraptured in fair thoughts for a while. Then she turned to Legolas at last to beg him to tell the rest of the story, but the words froze before they left her lips. Legolas was still as a stone, staring into the West, his face full of great torment, anxiety and sorrow that grieved Miriel to behold.

"What is it, Legolas?" Miriel cried.

Legolas snapped around, and instantly the expression of distress vanished. As the Elf looked at her, a slow smile lit his sapphire blue eyes.

"Nothing, my lady," he replied, and indeed it seemed to Miriel as if that brief moment was gone beyond recall. Sympathy filled Miriel's heart, and she reached out and took Legolas's hand.

"You have passed through much fire and death," she murmured quietly. "You have traversed dark valleys in the blackened lands of Shadow. Experiences like that do not pass without leaving a mark, not even for the Elves."

Legolas smiled and took Miriel's hand softly into both of his.

"Already that mark has faded since you arrived, Lady Miriel," said Legolas quietly. "In time, I will be completely healed. I'm so glad you're here!"

"Me too," returned Miriel with feeling.

They were silent as the music of the fountain twinkled merrily beside them, and time seemed to stand still even as the sun rose high in cloudless skies overhead. Miriel said no more and soon forgot about it.

"I will now tell you the end of the story, my lady," Legolas declared at length, and Miriel drew nearer to his side to listen.

"Aragorn gathered all who were still able to fight after the battle of the Pelennor Fields," Legolas continued. "The war was not over, and it was still likely that we could not win. But we had one small beacon of hope.

"We were not alone. We had a secret mission that I was a part of. The company of the Nine Walkers that set out from Rivendell contained four young Halflings, Hobbits of the Shire, all very small and innocent creatures, but they are uncommonly brave. One of these carried a Ring, the One Ring that was cut from the hand of Sauron himself by Isildur in the first war."

Miriel gasped.

"I know of this! I heard that story!" she cried. "It was told to my mother while she dwelt in Edoras. But I thought it was only a legend."

"So did most inhabitants of Middle-earth, those who had not forgotten it entirely," said Legolas. "But it was true. And the Ring, by chance and fate, came to Frodo Baggins in the quiet green hills of the Shire. And we set out on a quest to destroy it, for the Ring was not only made by Sauron, it was Sauron. His life force was bound to the Ring. As long as the One Ring existed, we could never destroy Sauron. And the only way to destroy the Ring was to cast it into the fires of Mount Doom, deep in the heart of Mordor. The Ring was created in those dark caverns, and that terrible mountain was the only place where it could be unmade."

Miriel shivered. "To undertake such a quest would seem like madness," she muttered.

"Yes, but it had to be done," replied Legolas. "Frodo agreed to take the Ring on the hopeless journey, though he knew he was likely marching to his death. These Hobbits are uncommonly brave. I was one of eight others chosen by Lord Elrond to travel with him and protect him. But the fellowship was broken when we were attacked by the Orcs that captured Pippin and Merry.

"Frodo and another Halfling, Sam, continued on to Mordor, while Aragorn and Gimli and I pursued the Orcs of Saruman across Rohan. Two members of our company were lost along our way. Boromir, a strong Man and a valiant captain of Gondor, was killed while trying to protect the Hobbits, and Gandalf fell in the darkness of Moria, the great hall of the Dwarves under the Caradhras Mountains. We thought him dead also, but he was sent back to fulfill his mission in the cause against Sauron, and we were reunited in Fangorn Forest while tracking the Hobbits.

"By the time the battle of the Pelennor Fields was over, we knew that Frodo and Sam had successfully entered Mordor. Faramir, a captain from Gondor and Boromir's brother, had seen them both before they crossed into the land of Shadow. Mordor was full of Orcs and other evil creatures under the dominion of the Dark Lord. We feared greatly for their safety.

"Aragorn had given thought to this. We needed to strike Mordor hard and swiftly. It would be a doomed battle, for we were outnumbered far worse than we were at Helm's Deep, and the soldiers we did have were tired and many were already wounded. But Aragorn said that we had to fight. We needed to distract Sauron, draw his forces away from Mordor and give the Hobbits a chance to throw the Ring into the fire.

"Whether or not we attacked Sauron, we were dead anyway. We were the last remaining defense of Middle-earth. Sauron was strong, and he would soon invade and conquer everything. Our only hope lay with Frodo and Sam, who were toiling somewhere across the barren landscape of Mordor, assuming they were still alive.

"We rode to the Black Gate, and Aragorn shouted a challenge to Sauron, ordering him to come forth that justice might be done upon him. For a long time there was no answer, and I thought perhaps there would be none.

"But suddenly the heavy gate swung open, and all of Sauron's armies poured forth. As far as the eye could see, there were Orcs, Goblins, the eight Nazgul on huge fell birds, giant Mumakil, Trolls and innumerable others covering the scorched hills of Mordor, all marching upon us. They were guided by the terrible Eye of Sauron, sitting at the crown of the Barad-dur, which was clearly visible now that we were so close. Aragorn raced back to the head of the Men of the West and gave one last rousing speech to salvage the remnants of their courage. I myself rallied to his bold words, but I thought surely this was the end.

"Gimli stood beside me, perhaps thinking these same things.

"`Never thought I'd die fighting side by side with an Elf,' I heard him mutter.

"I turned and looked down at him. I had never dreamed that I would die beside a Dwarf, either.

"But all the things I had ever disliked and even hated about Dwarves, and all the bad blood and evil history between our two races, were, for me, wiped away in a single instant as I stood beside him in the moments before we met our doom on the Field of Cormallen. Gimli was a true heart, a bold fighter and a good friend. We had seen each other through everything. Suddenly it seemed as if a mask had fallen away, and I saw Gimli through new eyes. He was no longer a Dwarf, or a Longbeard, or a Cavedweller. He wasn't even shorter than me. I saw him as my own kinsman, like my brother. I was filled with love for Gimli right then.

"`What about side by side with a friend?' I asked.

"Gimli eyed me, his face alight with surprise, and the Dwarf's gaze grew warm.

"`Aye, I could do that,' he answered. And then we charged into our last battle together."

Legolas glanced up at Miriel and stopped abruptly. Miriel had covered her face with her hands and was weeping profusely. Her shining tears slid softly through her fingers and fell like glistening silver raindrops into the clear fountain waters of Minas Tirith.

"Lady Miriel," whispered Legolas, and he gathered her in his arms and pulled her close.

"I cannot bear to think of how close I came to losing you!" exclaimed Miriel brokenly as she cried blindly into his shoulder. "How many times can one Elf brush with death and still live? I wish I could have been there beside you, even if I had to ride into battle in disguise, like Eowyn. If you had fallen, I wouldn't even have known. How far away from here is the land of Rohan! If I had seen that messenger come riding into camp and heard that you had been killed, I would have collapsed to the earth and died myself!"

"No, my lady," said Legolas comfortingly, stroking her dark hair. "You would have lived. You are too strong to fall so easily."

"But I have already fallen to another force far greater," returned Miriel. "Love is both a blessing and a curse, striking whom it will, and most of all the unwary. Love causes great pain, and yet you cannot live without it. It wounds deeply and then makes you feel honored to welcome the hurt. It has a way of binding itself around your heart, and no matter who you are or how strong, it can bring you to your knees in an instant."

"You speak rashly," Legolas reproached her gently. "But your words are true. Love is very powerful." He sighed and looked longingly into the West. "Have I too not felt it? Have I not been stricken with the terrible arrow? It rends far more than flesh, and pierces deeper than marrow. It is sheer agony of the soul, and there are indeed none who can withstand it."

Miriel gripped Legolas's arm. "I have to know what happened," she cried, suddenly desperate. "I can wait no longer. You must tell me the rest of the story, and quickly!"

Legolas swallowed hard at the lump that had suddenly risen unbidden to his throat.

"As you wish, my lady," he answered, and taking a deep breath he kept his arms around her while he continued his tale.

"The forces of Mordor surrounded us. We were too few to hold them off, and they knew it as well as we did. We drew together into a tight circle, our weapons facing outward as our enemies prowled around us like hyenas with a murderous gleam in their eyes. The end was indeed upon us. There was nothing more we could do to resist them.

"Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion from Mount Doom. The Eye of Sauron gave a dreadful cry and turned its awful glance away from the battle, and the armies of Mordor stopped, suddenly bereft of direction and will, like a horse whose rider ceases to command it. The eight Nazgul suddenly careened crazily through the air as several great Eagles attacked them. We watched as the Nazgul wheeled over our heads and flew away shrieking into the dark sky toward the Mountain of Fire.

"The evil Eye of Sauron flashed and went out. The Barad-dur broke and crashed into smoldering black ruin in the dust. Mount Doom erupted with flame and molten rock shooting into the air and flowing down its sides. All the hosts of the East ran for their lives. Great cracks opened up all throughout the Black Land, and the armies of Mordor tumbled into the canyons and were swallowed up by the very earth.

"The end had indeed come, but not in the hopeless way I thought it would. We were not going to die. The Hobbits had succeeded. The Ring of Power was destroyed, and the terrible reign of Mordor was over."

Miriel stopped crying and looked up at him in wonder. The Elf's eyes were shining as brightly as the blue skies overhead as he returned her gaze, and he spoke the rest in a tone sweet and melodious and poetic.

"Then the wind blew, and the clouds rolled away, and the sun shined down on lands that had long lain under darkness and Shadow. Joy streamed in floods from the heavens. Weariness and sorrow fled with the night, and all our limbs were light, and how the men of the West sang and danced in that hour of victory!"

Suddenly merry laughter gushed forth like a rushing river from Legolas, and he leapt to his feet. He swept Miriel off the fountain and whirled her in a circle. Miriel was astonished, but she caught his excitement and shrieked as she was swung through the air.

"Now that you're here, my happiness is complete!" exclaimed Legolas, setting her on the ground again near the wall and pulling her gently to his side.

"Look!" he cried, extending his hand in the direction of Mordor. "There is nothing more to fear from the East. The Shadow has passed. It is gone forever. Middle-earth is free!"

Miriel laid her head on his shoulder and gave vent to her deep well of emotions. She laughed with Legolas, and then she burst into tears.

*********
If you're in a great hurry to know what happens next, you don't have to wait. The entire 30-chapter ebook entitled Miriel: Princess of Rohan can be downloaded at www(dot)talesofmiddleearth(dot)com.
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Chapter One: A QUIET EVENING
http://www.theonering.com/docs/18584.html
Chapter Two: RED SUNSET
http://www.theonering.com/docs/18601.html
Chapter Three: THE GLITTERING CAVES OF AGLAROND
http://www.theonering.com/docs/18627.html
Chapter Four: THE BATTLE OF HELM'S DEEP
http://www.theonering.com/docs/18662.html
Chapter Five: FATE'S ARROW
http://www.theonering.com/docs/18729.html
Chapter Six: LEGOLAS
http://www.theonering.com/docs/19023.html
Chapter Seven: ON THE CAUSEWAY
http://www.theonering.com/docs/19066.html
Chapter Eight: A RING AND A PROMISE
http://www.theonering.com/docs/19114.html
Chapter Nine: ROLANDE
http://www.theonering.com/docs/19229.html
Chapter Ten: TROUBLED HEARTS
http://www.theonering.com/docs/19299.html
Chapter Eleven: THE PELENNOR FIELDS
http://www.theonering.com/docs/19399.html
Chapter Twelve: THREE DAYS OF DARKNESS
http://www.theonering.com/docs/19439.html
Chapter Thirteen: THE ROAD TO MINAS TIRITH
http://www.theonering.com/docs/19483.html
*************

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