When Melia awoke, she did so with some measure of alarm.
As a Ranger, she was accustomed to knowing where she was at all times. To open her eyes and find herself in a place she neither knew nor recognised immediately sent waves of fear through her heart. Her first impulse upon regaining consciousness was to seek out her weapon for only when it was in her hand was she capable of facing the dangers before her. When she clutched the space beside her and found that it was gone, it drove into her a greater sense of panic. Her first impulse was to jump to her feet but the pain that coursed through her at that attempt, forced a cry from her lips and had a sobering effect on her state of mind.
“Let that be a lesson to you to not do that again,” a voice spoke to her through the amber glow of flame around her.
Melia faced the one who had addressed her even as she was hissing in pain with her hand clutching, not a weapon as she had wished, but rather the bandage around her wounded thigh. Dimulmaion was staring at her thoughtfully from across the cavern Melia had now noticed they were in. She did not answer him for a few seconds as her eyes moved over the ceiling of their shelter because she was more interested in learning all she could about it. Judging by its size, it was not a very large cave for from where she was lying, she could see its mouth. Beyond it, the stars twinkled in the night sky and Melia was suddenly filled with the panic of not knowing just how long she had been unconscious.
“How long have I been asleep?” She muttered, searching his reflective expression for any inkling before he spoke.
“Almost a day,” the older man replied. “The pain was too much for you after I removed the arrow. You fainted.”
Melia balked at the suggestion. Fainting was the work of genteel females accustomed to soft living, not a Ranger of Angamar.
“I do not faint,” she said stubbornly.
“Considering the agony that must have been caused by removing that arrow from your leg, there is no shame in it,” he pointed out.
“I do not faint,” she repeated herself, immovable on this point.
Dimulmaion let out a heavy sigh that indicated he was not going to argue continuously on this issue. “In that case, you selected an opportune moment to fall asleep.”
Melia frowned and said nothing, deciding to choose the safer option of studying her immediate surroundings instead of fencing with him on her state of unconsciousness. The cave was small but was littered with enough belongings and evidence of past fires, beyond the one that burned in the center of its confines, giving good indication of its occupancy before tonight. It was upon realizing that she was alone with Dimulmaion that Melia discovered that their company was missing one of its number.
“Where is Legolas?” She demanded her concern for the prince overriding her fear of incurring more pain by movement as she tried to stand up in order to seek him out.
“Still yourself,” Dimulmaion responded quickly but his tone was laced with sympathy for her feelings. “He is merely ensuring that my spell of protection is doing its work. For some reason, he is unable to take me at my word that we are safe from goblins.”
“He is vexing that way,” Melia remarked, easing into her sleeping place once more, glad to hear Legolas was well although she wished he were here.
According to Dimulmaion, she had been unconscious (not fainted) for almost a day and yet it felt as if she had been away from her love for much longer. While the desire to see him was intense, Melia could not help feeling a little embarrassed that she was longing for the Prince like a lovesick maiden.
“He has scarcely left your side,” Dimulmaion revealed. “Not even to sleep. The only time he did leave is to ensure that my spell would protect us from the goblins because he will risk no more harm to you.”
“It is pointless to convince him otherwise,” Melia shrugged, intensely uncomfortable about discussing her feelings about Legolas with this stranger. Despite the fact that he had saved her life and seemed trustworthy, her private emotions were her own and she had no desire to discuss them. “He forgets that I am a Ranger of the North and am quite capable of fending for myself, though at this moment it may not appear that way.”
“He loves you beyond measure,” Dimulmaion reminded. “It is hard to be impartial when one’s heart is as lost as his.”
Melia swallowed thickly and allowed herself to make one small confession to that remark. “His feelings are not unique though I think he does not fully appreciate what it is to love a mortal.”
“He is three thousand years old,” the wizard responded with an edge to his voice that could possibly be reproach. “I think he is perfectly aware of what he risks by giving you his heart. The question remains – do you know what it is to love an elf?”
Melia stared at him hard. “My hesitation is for his sake.”
“Is it really?” He asked her softly.
“What do you mean?” Suspicion crept into her voice as she made that demand. Of course it was for his sake, what other could there be?
“Perhaps a little of it is for yourself,” he replied as he continued to smoke his pipe. “After all, it cannot be easy to love someone who will never age, who will remain as beautiful as the first time you beheld him while you yourself, grow old and withered. There is no shame in admitting that you fear your feelings for him might deteriorate into envy, that the love you were willing to endure for his sake might twist into hatred and jealousy because he does not decay as you do.”
Melia opened her mouth to protest but she could not. She could not because a small kernel of truth had surfaced in his words. Amongst all her reservations about Legolas, was the hint of that ugliness in the mix as well and though she might think herself a better person than to feel such things about an elf who made her heart soar each time she saw him, Melia could not deny its existence. It was one of so many things that made her fear a future together with the Prince of Mirkwood. She loved him deeply, there was no denying that but she did not know if she was strong enough to be his wife and yet equally, Melia did not know if she was strong enough to give him up either.
“You do not answer,” Dimulmaion replied, understanding all too well her silence “It is none of my concern however.”
Melia wanted to respond. Hearing her fears put so starkly made her realize how petty it was, how paltry the doubts seemed in the face of how she felt. For the first time, she felt the uneasiness drain from her because hearing a stranger’s unbiased opinion was liberating and having it presented to her so bluntly, made her understand that love was not meant to be easy, not between a human and elf or between a human and human. Whatever the combination, there would always be difficulties attached.
“For someone whose business none of this is, your arrows fly accurately,” Melia remarked with a hint of mischief.
“Thank you,” Dimulmaion remarked as he stirred the meal that had been simmering on the fire and had filled the cave with a pleasant aroma. “It is difficult being so astute in one’s indifference.”
His eyes met hers playfully and Melia could not help but smile. “You do it well.”
“Now then,” he stared at her as he filled the small bowl in his hand with some warm broth. “Tell me about your dreams.”
“My dreams?” Melia declared, cursing herself that she was unable to remain silent in her slumber. He had probably overheard her cries while she was tormented by the usual demons in her sleep. “Why?”
“They seemed to be plaguing you while you slept,” he pointed out. “Your Prince did not tell me a great deal but I sensed they were connected to what brings you to Ered Mithrin.”
“Who are you really?” She asked instead, certain that he was not merely some wizard who happened upon them so fortuitously.
“I will give you an answer only if you tell me what you saw at Dol Guldur and in your dreams,” he returned instead.
“How do you know that we were at Dol Guldur?” Melia questioned suspiciously.
“Answer my question and I will tell you what I can,” he insisted.
Melia drew a deep breath, not wishing to speak about her dreams to anyone. It had been difficult enough taking Legolas into her confidence without her having to reveal something so personal to a stranger she had met only hours before. However, owing the fact that this stranger had saved her life gave Melia some measure of latitude in allowing him to hear her innermost secrets. There was also a sense of belief within her that his presence here was not coincidental, that he might have some part to play in the search for her mother and the Istar who had Ninuie in his power.
“Ever since I was a child, I have dreamt about my mother,” Melia revealed reluctantly and captured Dimulmaion’s undivided attention as she explained her unique heritage and the effects upon her nightly slumbers. Melia spared nothing, explaining her visions at Dol Guldur and the terrible images that had brought her to the edge of the world with Legolas at her side. Dimulmaion listened without comment. The only movement he made during her narrative was to present her with the bowl of broth he had poured earlier and indicating that she should nourish herself with its contents.
“Now it is your turn,” Melia declared once she had finished speaking, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from her chest by her revelations. “It is time for you to keep your promise.”
“Then it appears that I have returned just in time,” Legolas announced himself as he appeared at the mouth of the cave.
“As always elf, your timing is impeccable,” Melia retorted playfully, unable to hide her happiness at seeing him.
In response, Legolas felt himself filled with relief to see Melia awake and appearing on the mend from the effects of the goblin’s poisoned arrow. He had spent the last hour patrolling the area, ensuring that the wizard’s enchantment, however it worked, did indeed keep away the goblins that had injured her earlier. Fortunately, whatever the magic was at work here, was more than capable of seeing to it that they would be left alone by the vile goblins living in the dark shadows of the wood they had left behind them.
“I am glad to see you are well,” he replied warmly as he dropped to his knees beside her and met her lips with a gentle kiss while brushing her cheek gently with his fingertip. “How do you feel?”
“Like I have been set upon by a goblin’s arrow,” she said wryly but then added because she could see the concern in his eyes, “but I am better then I was.”
“You must be,” he said sitting down next to her and facing Dimulmaion, “if you were able to make our wizard reveal some truth about himself.”
“She is a shrewd woman,” Dimulmaion chuckled. “She gave me no choice but to comply if I wished to hear her tale.”
“And now that you have,” Melia raised a brow in his direction. “Will you tell us who you are?’
“A promise is a promise,” Dimulmaion sighed loudly, displaying some reluctance of his own at the telling of his origins. “I know something of this Istar that you speak. I know his reputation and it was the wish of one of his order that I find him, for the others not carried away by destruction or death have departed to the Undying Lands.”
“You are speaking of Gandalf?” Legolas asked, wondering if Dimulmaion’s words were the truth. Why did Mithrandir not ask any of the Fellowship to make this journey instead of a wizard none of them had heard of? Prior to his departure, Legolas was aware that Mithrandir had passed some of the Istari’s teachings onto acolyte wizards who would carry on the work of guarding Middle earth against the forces of darkness when he and the elves had departed for the Undying lands. Was Dimulmaion one of these? Legolas wished he could be certain because Dimulmaion was extremely powerful for an acolyte.
“No,” he shook his head. “There are Istari other than Mithrandir.”
“I know of Radagast who dwells in the wood and Saruman who is dead. I believe that the Istar that is here is Pallando.”
“Pallando?” Dimulmaion arched his brow. “What makes you say that, Prince?”
“Pallando visited my father’s court many years ago,” Legolas explained. “I believe that when he left the Woodland Realm, he fell into the service of Sauron the Deceiver.”
The wizard absorbed this for a time before he finally spoke in answer, “that is possible. However, my task is to escort the Istar that resides in Ered Mithrin to the Undying Lands, to save him if I can.”
“I do not think it is possible,” Melia stated for the first time. “He has done something unthinkable. He has twisted the River Women into some terrible parody of themselves. He has become a monster.”
Dimulmaion’s voice became somber when he spoke again; “I am told that it was not his intention to be a monster. He was always something of a dreamer, believing that the way to fight Sauron was to eliminate the seed of evil entirely.”
“That is impossible,” Legolas declared. “As long as we have free will, we will always be swayed by good and evil. It is the choices that give our soul substance.”
“I do not argue with you on that point,” Dimulmaion replied. “But to him, it was a dream he was determined to fulfil. He believed that perfection came from an amalgamation of the best of both men and elf, to create a form of life that was beyond corruption.”
“I cannot believe that one who would be party to the kidnap and despoilment of Lord Ulmo’s River Women could be anything but evil,” Legolas retorted. “It takes a great deal of free will to twist a thing of beauty into a creature of absolute darkness.”
“You may think so but sometimes the small compromises made with the best of intentions can quickly evolve into something immensely dark,” Dimulmaion responded, his voice shrinking into a sad whisper. “Perhaps he thought he was acting for the greater good at the time, blinding himself with arrogance and devotion to his cause from the true nature of the beast he had chosen to ally himself with. The Istar were given men’s forms when they arrived on Middle earth to keep their ambitions from outstripping their calling. No one ever considered that the failings of men could also taint their thoughts.”
“I do not think that the race of men has failed or has failings,” Legolas added his voice to Dimulmaion’s sad soliloquy. “Elves often consider themselves better because of our longevity, claiming that we are superior because we live longer and have more civilized sensibilities. Yet we forget that it is because of our immortality that we have this sense of balance. For us, we do not fear that we have only a finite time on this earth and so we are not constrained by it to fulfil our goals. Men have no time to seek perfection because their lives are so short.”
“Did you know we would be coming?” Melia suddenly cut in abruptly because the wizard had explained a little bit about himself but not enough to satisfy her curiosity. From the appearances of this cave, it seemed as if he had been here for some time. Had he been awaiting their arrival? If so, how did he know of it?
“That is a question I would like answered as well,” Legolas retorted. “I do not sense that you are a danger to us Dimulmaion but I feel that your presence here is not merely serendipity.”
“Then you would be correct,” he declared without hesitation. “I did not know that it would be you two that would arrive specifically but I had a sense of premonition that I should wait, that the last part of my quest would appear soon enough if I held my ground. Sometimes wizards are forced to rely upon our instincts as elves do and mine told me that I could not complete my journey because I was not to walk the path alone.”
“Then you know where we must go,” Melia looked at him.
“Yes, I do.” Dimulmaion nodded. “However, I will not lead you there without having your word that you will not move to strike the Istar until I have a chance to plead my case.”
Both Melia and Legolas stiffened simultaneously at the suggestion but it was the Prince who voiced his displeasure at the request first, “that is an exceedingly difficult promise to make. You said yourself, the Istar has been led to commit some heinous acts, are you certain that he is capable of being reasoned with?”
“I have to try,” the wizard said earnestly.
Legolas did not answer for a moment and Melia wondered what was running through his mind. For herself, she thought it would be extremely dangerous to grant the wizard his request for the fortunes of battle, especially with a powerful Istar may not allow them the opportunity to hold back without costing them greatly. However, she knew her elf and she knew that in him, compassion ran rivers that were far longer and more powerful than the great Anduin itself. It was in his nature to see the good in everyone, no matter how much he had seen in his lifetime that might indicate that not every person could be saved. She loved him for this but it was uniquely an elven luxury to be so yielding in matters such as this.
“We will do as you ask,” Legolas finally answered and gave Melia a sharp look, demanding her adherence to his wishes to this matter. “But I will risk none of our lives if the situation calls for us to fight. I would do the same if it was your life as well or Melia’s and my own. Your Istar is no longer the person he once was. Good intentions aside, he may seek to kill us all to conceal the magnitude of what he has done.”
Dimulmaion nodded slowly, deciding that he could not expect any more than was offered. Despite his reluctance to believe that the Istar was beyond redemption, wisdom demanded that he faced the possibility. The prince had agreed to Dimulmaion’s request while his own demands were not unreasonable. Considering what awaited them when they finally reached Ered Mithrin, Legolas was taking a sensible approach in trying to honour his word but at the same time, risking none of their lives if the Istar was truly beyond all help.
Dimulmaion met Legolas’ eyes and answered softly; “if it comes to that then I will stand by you and fight.”
Melia’s injury saw to it that the company could not leave their cavernous sanctuary for at least two days despite her protestations that she was well enough to travel as soon as she had regained consciousness. Neither Legolas nor Dimulmaion would give in to her claims that she was able to continue their journey to Ered Mithrin despite her most passionate entreaties to them that she was healed. Finally, the Ranger was forced to surrender to her situation and though she did not complain as much that they were not yet on their way, she could not deny the impatience that gnawed at her while she languished on a sick bed. Legolas remained at her side, ensuring that she wanted for nothing during this time, showing infinite patience not only with her stormy disposition but also at being held in place when they were so close to their goal. The wizard was more or less the same and seemed content to wait out her recovery even though this matter was as close to his heart as it was to hers.
As for the spell that protected them from the clutches of the goblins that seemed to roam these lands in such great numbers, Melia saw little of it even though its effects could not be denied. Legolas who was more than accustomed to seeing powerful magic performed in his lifetime was impressed by the effectiveness of it since they were troubled by nothing during the two days of their sojourn. When he questioned the wizard about the spell, Dimulmaion would only reveal that it was a glamour that made those who feared light see it in great quantities. Considering how much goblins detested the light, Legolas had to assume that the enchantment was working splendidly.
After two days of rest, the companions set out once again for the Grey Mountains whose presence was no longer on the horizon but surprisingly close. The journey there would not take more than a day on foot even with Melia’s injuries giving them reason to pause frequently. They set out at the break of dawn, hoping to take shelter in the foothills of the mountain by the time the sun had set that evening. While it was good to know that Dimulmaion’s enchantment would protect them from any goblins, Legolas was still filled with a deep sense of uneasiness. There was danger all around them but none more potent or powerful then the emanations he sensed from the mountain. Not since being in the presence of the One Ring with Sauron’s influence saturated into its gold, did Legolas feel such emptying blackness.
“Prince,” Melia noted as she walked along side of him, seeing the subtle shift in his body as they neared the looming mountain. He was shuddering, Melia thought to herself wondering what could make someone so brave and unswerving in his determination to be shaken.
“Aye Mia,” he glanced at her briefly before his gaze returned beneath his furrowed brow as he stared hard at the uneven line of the mountain before them.
Melia smiled, finding that she liked his little nickname for her and asked gently, “are you alright?”
“Yes, yes,” he nodded still distracted. “Danger draws close to us. I feel it against my skin like a cold hand.”
“Then let a warm one give you strength,” she replied gently and took his hand in hers and clutched it tight.
Legolas felt her touch and whatever loomed in the distance was forgotten as he cast his eye upon her again, looking first at the hand that held his with such affection and then at the eyes of the one who loved him with as much intensity that he loved her.
“When we are done here,” he said quietly, revealing to her the secret he had told only one other person since it was conceived in his mind. “Assuming that we survive, I will be returning to Mirkwood.”
He had hoped to tell his father when he returned to Mirkwood but what passed between himself and Melia whilst there had made it impossible. However, it felt right that he should tell her since he hoped that she would be apart of what he intended to do with his future.
“I thought you did not wish to return home,” Melia stared at him.
“I have unfinished business there which requires me to make my appearance in my father’s court. I owe it to Thranduil to say what must be said, face to face,” Legolas replied after a moment. “There had not been time when we were last in each other’s company and I must finish what I went there to do.”
Melia did not ask him to explain because she knew that the reason he had departed the Woodland Realm so prematurely was because of her.
“What must you tell him?” She asked, sensing that it was terribly important and something that Thranduil was not going to be happy to hear.
“That I am leaving his court permanently,” Legolas answered and it felt as if he had been holding his breath forever when the words finally left him. It was strangely liberating to say it even though he had kept it close to his heart like some dark secret he dared not reveal to anyone for fears he could not even begin to imagine. However, hearing it spoken made Legolas realize the world had not ended with its revelation. In fact, the world seemed quite oblivious to it and to him.
“Where will you go?” She asked, not surprised by his statement but unable to imagine him as anything else but the Prince of Mirkwood.
“I spoke to Aragorn before we departed the White City,” Legolas explained. “I told him that if Faramir did not wish the responsibility of South Ithilien then I would accept it. I understand that the woods there are vast and beautiful and I know many of my people are unhappy about leaving these shores just yet. Elladan and Elrohir tell me that the elves who linger still in Imladris now that Elrond has left are restless. They wish to settle somewhere because Imladris without its Lord is not the same for them. I think if I offered them a place in Ithilien they might come with me.”
“South Ithilien is terribly close to Mordor,” Melia pointed out. “Will that not be dangerous?”
“No more dangerous than it was growing up in Mirkwood,” Legolas pointed out, remembering the terrible creatures that inhabited the woods for so many centuries before the destruction of Sauron. The worst of Middle earth had for a time taken refuge in its darkened glens and shaded clearings. Legolas knew this because he had spent the better part of three millennia hunting down these beasts and destroying them to hone his skill and to amuse himself. “The forests of South Ithilien, I am told, is very beautiful despite their proximity to Mordor. The orcs who have taken refuge there will not linger for long if my people were to establish a sizeable colony in its wood.”
“So instead of the Prince of Mirkwood, you will be the Elven Lord of Ithilien,” she said playfully. “I do not think I shall ever become accustomed to that.”
“It might be easier if you were called the Lady of Ithilien.” He returned swiftly, catching her off guard with the question.
Melia’s eyes flew open and she stared at him in shock, “was that a proposal?”
“Yes,” he nodded with a smile. “Marry me and be at my side. I know it will be hard toil but I swear it will be worth it. We can built something together, something that will outlast us. Melia I love you, I will never stop loving you and what time there is for you in the world, I want to spend it at your side.”
“Prince,” she swallowed thickly, uncertain of what to say in response to his entreaty. “I cannot give you an answer now. There is too much that is uncertain. Please, let us wait until this quest is done. I do love you but my heart is torn at this moment. I must know who I am before I can pledge my future to you, do you understand?”
He did not but Legolas was not about to force her to make a choice when she was unprepared for it. “I will not speak of this again until we are finished here,” he said quietly, unable to hide the disappointment in his voice as he pulled his hand out of her reach and strode some paces ahead.
Melia watched his back retreat further ahead, cursing herself at being unable to make a decision. She knew she had hurt him especially after he had opened his heart to her and revealed his innermost dreams and desires for his future. She knew he did not make such revelations lightly and she rebuked herself for not being more sensitive to his feelings.
Dimulmaion who walked behind the two lovers remained silent and watched.
They were coming.
He had known they were coming for some time now but until their presence stirred the goblins in the wood like a nest of insects catching the scent of prey, he had not realized how close they truly were. In reality, his miscalculation was due to the fact that much of his power was fixated on one purpose and very little of it could be spared for other uses. His prescience was limited to his immediate surroundings though in the beginning, he was able to watch a far wider field then he was now allowed. They were coming and yet there was little he could do to stop them.
The fear that they would discover what he had done was no longer a consideration. For so many years he had rebuked himself for what he had done at Dol Guldur, enough to know that nothing an outsider could say to him would equal the venom of his own self loathing. His life’s work had been twisted into an abomination of horror and his victims, a sob escaped his throat when he thought of the creatures they had been and what he had made them, his victims had avenged themselves by his enslavement to them. All that he had been was now trapped in a singular existence of ensuring that they never leave the mountain in which he had hidden them and it drained his strength like a leech drawing blood from a man.
There was no escape for him or for his charges.
That is why he did not fear his visitors for he had not the strength to even discern who they were, aware only that he was their purpose for coming. What was left of his powers was waning because his charges were becoming stronger. He had worked tirelessly to reverse what he had done but it was not possible and in his frustration and with their continued incubation, the balance of power between them had shifted from the jailer to his captors. Soon he would be drained of all strength and they would finally be allowed to see the world beyond this dark cave where he had secreted them for so many years.
And when they did, it would not matter who found them or whether or not he was alive, because very soon, everything in Middle earth would perish.
The foothills of the Grey Mountains were very much like the rest of the landscape, appearing as if it had been abandoned. Other than the smaller wildlife that lived in the long bladed fields of grass leading to the mountains, there was no other trace of larger game. Dimulmaion claimed that not even the goblins dared traverse this terrain and remained at a respectful distance even though they saw no evidence as to what would frighten them so. However, all this changed when they reached the mountains and followed Dimulmaion through its cracks. After encountering nothing but barren land it was forgiven if Melia and Legolas lapsed into some measure of complacency. The terrible danger that Legolas had sense emanating from the mountain had become almost common place now but until they descended into the dark caverns beneath the great range of rock, neither had been able to appreciate how sinister a realm they were entering.
Dimulmaion led them through twisting passages in the dark, lighting their way by illuminating the tip of his Noldereth wood staff in much the same way Gandalf had once led the Fellowship through the mines of Moria. They moved deep into the mountain in steep descent, passing the ground level Legolas was sure until they were so far into the earth that Legolas felt his connection to the land above thin. The lack of sun made the elf uncomfortable but he hid it well, his senses seeking out danger even though at present the walls of their surroundings were saturated with it.
He had not spoken to Melia other than making a few obligatory remarks about their situation, her welfare during the journey and the path they were taking to the mountain. It required no clairvoyance for her to guess that he was still angry with her. She could not blame him for his anger and envied his certainty that their lives together would not result in tragedy. Melia wished she had his faith but her world was not as gracious as his. Her life had been full of hard realities which she had been forced to face alone. Melia doubted that Legolas had ever faced a moment alone during almost three thousand years of existence where he was truly alone. Yet even as she thought this, she knew that it was an excuse to justify her fear of giving her soul to him, even though she had already shared her heart and body with him.
Legolas seethed silently but he knew that it was not Melia’s fault that she could not give him the answer he desired so much. She had not his years of experience to draw from to tell her that whatever happened; their love would overcome any hardship. Her world was far different from his, as was her life. She was frightened; even he knew that much and though he was angry with her, he also understood her hesitation and that drew the bite from his ire somewhat.
His thoughts slipped away from Melia when they entered the mouth of a new cavern and the gleam of light from Dimulmaion’s staff illuminated it with such brilliance that for an instant, Legolas had to turn away from the sharpness of it. It took a few seconds to accustom himself to the overpowering brightness after being forced to travel in near pitch-black darkness. Once the glare had faded from his vision, Legolas found himself staring in wonder at the scene before him.
Durin’s city lay before them, an expression of majesty carved out of the rock and inlaid with marble. Not since the great dwarf city of Moria had Legolas seen such crafted splendor and like it was in Moria, found himself marveling at the skill of the race. It made him wish that Gimli was here because his old friend would have no doubt loved to have taken in the wonder of the construction before him. Great columns rose into the ceilings so high that it was something of a marvel when one considered the diminutive race that had carved them. Polished marble covered the floor and it seemed to stretch across the space of the mountain.
However, what had caused the astonishing glow was not at all from the impressive construct of the dwarf city but rather the reason they had chosen to settle in Ered Mithrin in the first place. The radiant light that had almost blinded the company of travelers entering the city was the result of what appeared to be millions of gemstones gathered in one place. A fortune beyond the dreams of avarice stood before them, unclaimed by any and forgotten with time. Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, objects fashioned of gold and silver lay sprawled before them like a wanton mistress tempting them with her lusty gleam. The dwarves’ lusty appetite for such treasure was well known and it was one of the reasons why elves and dwarves seldom agreed on anything. Unfortunately, their desire for such treasure was greater in only one other race in Middle earth.
“What happened here?” Melia whispered, wonder had turned quickly into horror as they stepped further into the city and discovered among the beauty of the dwarf city and the gemstone littering its confines, something whose only power was to strike fear into all their hearts.
Legolas shook his head because he had been in this city once long ago. He had mediated some business for his father with Durin’s folk but those negotiations had come to naught because it was not long after that a nest of cold drakes had decided to lay claim to the city and horde the treasure for themselves. It was common knowledge that the dwarves residing in the city were killed by the creatures and the mountain was since known as a haven for cold drakes. When he and Melia had first journeyed here, Legolas had thought that perhaps it was the drakes that frightened the goblins into keeping clear of the mountain. However as he stared before him now, Legolas knew that it was not drakes that they feared.
It could not be when those drakes lying on the floor before himself; Melia and Dimulmaion were dead.
Their bones bleached through time and forces that Legolas could not begin to understand, lay intermingled with the jewels these drakes had attempted to horde for themselves through destruction and death. Complete skeletons were lying in scattered collections throughout the cavern as if some great force had swept through the enormous city and smote the drakes where they stood. What had killed them had done it fast and utterly, giving the creatures neither time to escape nor fight back. It was like moving through a menagerie of bones and seeing such mighty creatures, killed with such ease, shot fear through everyone who saw it.
“What power did this?” Legolas turned to Dimulmaion expecting the wizard to have some answers for him.
Dimulmaion did not speak but his eyes revealed much. Legolas saw that he was just as horrified by what they had found though not necessarily surprised. His expression shifted subtlety from horror to sorrow, possibly at the realization that it was the Istar he was trying to redeem that had caused this destruction. It was quite something to see death on such a scale, even if it was of creatures that had no value and were inherently evil. Still, seeing beasts as powerful as cold drakes reduced to piles of bones lying in the belly of a mountain would chill even the steeliest of hearts in spite of their inclination to fear such creatures.
“The Istar,” the wizard whispered softly.
Legolas stared at him sharply. When Gandalf fought the Balrog in Moria, the battle had claimed his life. If it were not for the fact that the wizard was a Maiar spirit, he would have remained permanently in Mandos’ realm and not been resurrected some days later. Mithrandir’s power was great but even Legolas did not think him capable of single handedly vanquishing a nest full of cold drakes with such complete destruction that their bones now lay in piles like an uncovered graveyard. It was beyond Legolas’ comprehension that what he was seeing before him was the work of one man and if it was the work of one man, how in Eru’s name could they hope to stop him?
“Do the Istari have this kind of power?” Melia asked the question that Legolas could not.
“Not usually,” Dimulmaion answered, shaking his head as if he were in a daze. “However, he has been dabbling in forces that should not be abused and who knows how it may have affected him.”
“I for one am grateful that we did not have to face these creatures in the flesh,” Melia remarked, her gaze sweeping across the skeletal remains of the cold drakes and shuddered a little. Even in death, they looked fearsome. She recalled the creature that she had battled at Arwen and Eowyn’s side at the Blue Mountains, thinking how difficult it was to kill one drake. She could not even begin to imagine their chances if they were called on to fight the number that made up this nest within the dwarf city. “Still, I do not know if I wish to face what has vanquished all of them either.”
“Do you really think you can convince him to make the journey to the Undying Lands?” Legolas asked Dimulmaion who did not answer immediately. His mind seemed to be trapped in something of a fog and Legolas guessed that he was more shocked than he cared to admit by what he was seeing here.
“Dimulmaion, do you think he can be reasoned with?” Legolas repeated himself.
For the first time, the wizard’s certainty of this was absent from his eyes. Legolas saw a man who was stunned by what he had seen and was certain of nothing anymore. Perhaps in some corner of his mind, he clung to the hope that the Istar might come to his senses but the evidence of what lay before them had destroyed that belief and now he was as rudderless as the companions who relied upon him to be their guide.
“I do not know,” Dimulmaion answered honestly.
Legolas let out a deep breath, trying to decide what he wished to do. It was no longer about simply finding Melia’s mother but rather keeping this menace from leaving these boundaries to wreak havoc upon the rest of Middle earth. A force that could destroy an entire cavern full of cold drakes could do much damage beyond this mountain. Middle earth was just beginning to recover from the ravages of the War of the Ring; it was too soon to find themselves pitted against the forces of an Istar gone mad.
“I would prefer that we were not alone in this endeavor,” Legolas spoke after awhile. “Unfortunately this is not to be. This menace must be stopped here and now. It cannot be allowed to leave this mountain and plague the rest of Middle earth. Do you understand?” He stared at Dimulmaion hard.
“Yes,” the wizard nodded in grim agreement. “I do.”
Legolas turned to Melia, his expression softening as his gaze met hers once more. Forgotten was their earlier quarrel. It seemed trivial when their time together was dwindling fast since it was very likely that neither of them would survive the battle with the Istar. Yet, they still had to try. He looked into her eyes and saw that she understood what was being asked of her and in response, she raised her head high with courage and reminded him all over again why it was he loved her so.
“This was not my plan,” he whispered softly as his hand reached for her cheek. “I wanted a lifetime with you.”
She held it against her face, savoring the feel of his upturned palm against her skin. She shifted her head slightly and planted a small kiss on his hand. “I know.”
“It must end here,” Legolas explained. “You know that.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Whatever we must do, I will be by your side however it comes to pass.”
Legolas smiled at her lovingly and whispered, “I love you more than my life. You would have made a wonderful lady for my kingdom in Ithilien.”
“You would have made me happy,” she answered in turn.
They kissed each other gently, taking a moment to themselves because it was all that they had left to them. Neither expected to survive the battle with an Istar who could do this but dying was permissible if they could take him with them. When they parted, it was with complete acceptance of the dying to come if that was what was required. They were both at heart, idealists who believed in sacrificing themselves for the greater good, no matter how jaded each might sometimes profess to be.
“It is time. Wizard,” Legolas said firmly as he and Melia left behind their tender moment and returned to the business at hand. “Take us to the Istar and let us finish this.”
The Istar chose not to run.
It would have been so easy if flight would solve this but escape was an option that no longer existed for him. He saw their determination in his mind’s eye to end the threat of him because they believed him responsible for the destruction of the drake nest in this mountain. A part of him wished he had the power to wreak such havoc because it would have made things a great deal simpler if he had it at his disposal. So much could have been changed if he had the strength to devote to its cause. Unfortunately, what power he had when he arrived in Mithlond with the rest of his brothers was depleted considerably in his undertakings since departing from Dol Guldur. He had been siphoned off slowly and surely, feeling it draining from his body until nothing but a husk would remain behind one day. He would have died long before that.
And despite his doom, it was still not enough.
His creation was too powerful for him. All he had managed to do since bringing them here was to prevent their awakening into the world and that had taken almost every ounce of strength within him to maintain. He could not stop their ravenous hunger and they craved constantly. When they had first arrived, the feeding had been good. He had more than enough power at his disposal to ensure that he and his charges were able to slip past the drakes to find sanctuary in one of the forgotten rooms in Durin’s abandoned city. Mistakenly he had believed that the drakes would never allow intrusion into their domain so he would be safe from Sauron’s forces should they chose to pursue him. How terrible a mistake that had been.
All he succeeded in doing was to ensure that his creations fed well.
Slowly but surely they drained the cold drakes that had no inkling of what was happening to them and thus had no way to combat it until it was too late. They ambled along in their enclaves filled with treasure, hoarding as usual the gold and precious jewels they never used to buy luxuries or comfort, puzzled by their lack of energy but unable to reason out what was happening to them beyond that one realization. They continued this way until one day they simply did not even have the strength to walk or to leave their confines to nourish themselves. They died where they laid down in fatigue, aware that some malaise had overtaken them but not possessing sense enough to understand what that might be.
With the passing of the drakes, the tendrils of hunger stretched forth beyond the mountain, seeking life in any shape or form. For a time, his creations were satiated by the goblins that dwelt on the foothills until the vile creatures understanding that something darker than themselves was hungry enough to see them as a meal. The goblins sensibly fled the area and retreated beyond the reach of the creatures that were slowly killing them. Since their departure, the feeding had been poor and with each day, the Istar sensed the intense hunger that drove his creations to struggle more violently than they had ever done before, to be born finally into the world.
He had struggled for so many years to keep this from happening and now he was finally beaten.
He had lingered and waited because he sensed one amongst them who had the strength to take his place, to restrain the evil that was struggling for freedom in a battle he could not longer continue to fight. If he could hold on for just a little longer until they arrived, then all would not be lost. There was a chance that the world would never discover what evil he had spawned in Dol Guldur that was now about to awaken unless he was replaced.
He just needed to hold on for a little longer….
Even before Dimulmaion told them that they were nearing their destination, Legolas Greenleaf felt it most acutely. They had crossed the graveyard of gems and cold drakes, leaving behind the splendor of the main hall and moving deeper into the city. From cavernous passages, they now traveled within corridors of white marble polished and smooth despite the years of neglect. It felt strangely disorientating and Legolas was reminded why he disliked enclosed spaces so much. Elves thrived in the sunlight and the open air. This confinement took them away from the light of the world in which the elves thrived the best. The threat that loomed all around him was so palpable now that Legolas was in danger of choking on it. He tried to dispel it from his senses because it could only cause harm but it refused to go away, clinging to him like stink to the skin.
“Prince?” Melia took his arm as she saw him falter a little. “What is it?”
“We are close,” his gaze fixated on the doorway at the end of the corridor.
“He is right,” Dimulmaion agreed staring at the doors whose wood had started to rot from age. “The Istar we seek is there. I can feel him.”
“Can he feel you?” Melia asked as she unsheathed the dagger that Legolas had given her in place of her crossbow. She would have preferred her own weapon but it was useless without a fresh supply of bolts and Melia wanted to be capable of defending herself.
“Yes,” the wizard nodded grimly; not about to hide this fact since it would become apparent the moment they crossed the threshold of the door. “He has been awaiting us.”
“Well,” Legolas sighed heavily as he unslung his bow from across his back and prepared himself to engage the enemy, “we should not disappoint him.”
Fearlessly, the elf strode forward, leaving Melia and Dimulmaion behind briefly before they hastened their pace to match his. Melia found herself walking alongside her prince; ready to face whatever dangers awaited her. He offered her a little smile as they reached the door but no words were spoken for all they needed to say to each other had been done before this. Whatever lay behind that door, they would face together and as Legolas stared into Melia’s eyes all too briefly, he knew that whatever happened, she would be at his side. The wizard stared at them both, offering them his own silent pledge to fight with them, whatever took place once they crossed the doorway.
Legolas pushed the door open, allowing it to creak loudly as fragments of wood crumbled underneath his palm. Legolas had seen trees in Mirkwood that were diseased that had the same appearance and he wondered if the Istar was responsible for this too. Unfortunately, there was little time to ponder the question when the door swung open in a wide arch once Legolas had propelled it forward with enough strength to ensure that its own weight swept it the rest of the way.
The sight within was enough to freeze the blood in their veins.
For a few seconds, no one dared speak. They could only stared in astonished horror. It was thought that the skeletons of so many drakes were a horrifying enough sight to behold but they were wrong. This before them was far worse. It was a scene of evil not seen since Angband during the First Age of the Sun when Melkor had created a host of terrible demons to fight his war against the Valar, if any of them were alive to remember it. The large room was filled with gelatinous globules of viscous material encasing the vague form of a woman within its cocoon-like prison. Through the slime inside it, they could see movement; fingers attempting to breach its wall, desperate clawing that made those who witness it sick with disgust.
In the center of this vile hatchery sat the man who was the creator of this terrible vision before them. His eye stared at them from hollow sockets and his cheeks were sunken so much that his face appeared almost skeletal. His hair was gray and long, pooling around him where he sat cross-legged. His robes of blue were darkened almost to black and his arms stretched out reverently towards the cocoons surrounding him were spindly with skin hanging from his bones. He gazed at them through watery blue eyes, fixating on their faces as if he needed a point of reference or else he would lose them completely. The Istar turned his uncertain gaze upon Dimulmaion and exclaimed with great relief.
“Pallando, you have come.”