Lalaith restrained a shudder as she glanced up at the cold black blade that was Orthanc, violating the otherwise pristine blue of the sky. Even now in the light of day, and with Aragorn, she felt a shudder of cold fear. Above the doorway reached by many steps where she had almost met her end the night before, stood a window that led out onto a balcony, hedged with a balustrade of iron bars. Cold and sharp were the angles of the tower, like Saruman and his ilk who dwelt within. Why were they here, beneath his window? Why could they not leave?
“Well?” The gentle voice repeated. “Why must you disturb my rest? Will you give me no peace at all by night or day?”
Lalaith recognized Saruman’s tones, though he sounded oddly as Gandalf. His voice seemed smoother, spoken from a kindly heart, wounded by undeserved injuries.
As he spoke, he appeared, coming with a smooth gate, out onto the balcony, and resting his hands upon the rail. An old man he appeared, swathed in a cloak, now white, now grey, its color changing as he moved. His eyes as they had always been, were deep and dark, hard to fathom, though a hard coldness rested deep within them, and made Lalaith shudder. His hair and beard were white, as Gandalf’s, though strands of black showed about his lips and ears.
“Like Gandalf, but unlike.” A gravelly voice muttered from near her, and Lalaith glanced toward Gimli who had spoken, where he sat behind Legolas. And as her eyes flashed over the sturdy Dwarf, inadvertently, her gaze caught Legolas’ eyes.
Lalaith dropped her eyes, shuddering at the look of quiet pain and pleading upon his face. What had she done? That vile mortal had fairly reeked of evil and deceit. But then why had Legolas’ eyes grown so cold when she had asked him? Why had he turned left her standing alone upon the wall?
Scouring her memory, Lalaith sought for what she had said, perhaps anything that might have spouted forth inadvertently, that could have borne a meaning other than that which she intended, but she could not remember her words. She only remembered her desperate fear, and her almost overwhelming longing to drop to her knees, and beg him to deny it all. But she had not dared to do so foolish a thing, so instead she had stammered and stuttered her way through a maze of emotions, hardly hearing her own words. She had prayed he would understand. But instead, she had seen a distant agonized look come over his eyes before he dropped his face to the stone beneath their feet, and a moment later, turned and stormed away without another word.
“But come now.” Saruman continued, his voice smooth, and enchanting, seeming to be full of wisdom and reason. “Some of you at least, I know by name. Gandalf I know too well to have much hope that he seeks help or counsel here. But you, Théoden Lord of the Mark of Rohan! Why have you not come before, and as a friend? Much have I desired to see you, so that I might save you from the unwise and evil counsels that beset you! Surely it is not yet too late. Despite the injuries that have been done to me, in which the men of Rohan have sadly, had some part, still yet I would save you if I could, from this ruin that draws nigh. In truth, only I can save you now.”
As the echo of the words faded in her ears, Lalaith shook her head, and glanced downward, shutting her eyes tightly. How melodic Saruman’s words sounded, how just and gentle he seemed. Her eyes lifted seeking Théoden, the seasoned King of the lands of the Horse Men, to see what his reaction would be to Saruman’s words.
The grey, somber eyes of the King of Rohan were fixed upon Gandalf, hesitant, as if seeking some wise counsel. But Gandalf made no sign. He sat unmoving upon the back of Shadowfax, horse and rider as still as stone, as if both waited patiently for some call that had not yet come. Pippin shifted about anxiously, the only spot of movement there.
“The words of this wizard stand on their heads.” Gimli grumped from nearby, shaking her out of her near trance, and she drew in a quick gasp of cold air, as if for the time Saruman spoke, her breath had been stilled. Gimli brandished his axe, shaking it defiantly up at the figure who stood watching them from above. “In the language of Orthanc, help means ruin, and saving means slaying. That is plain.”
“Peace!” Saruman cried, and for a fleeting moment, a wild light gleamed in his eyes and was gone. “I do not speak to you yet, Gimli, Glóin’s son.” His voice once again held its melodic tone, gentle and sympathetic as it had been. “Small concern of yours are the troubles of Men, and hardly by your design that you have become embroiled in them. I cannot blame you your part in them, a valiant one, I do not doubt. But pray, allow me first to speak with the King of Rohan, my neighbor, and once friend.”
Gentle eyes that hid blackness in their depths turned again to Théoden. “What say you, my friend, son of the noble House of Eorl? Will you have peace with me? Shall we make our counsels together, and repair our injuries?”
Still Théoden did not answer, though his jaw tightened beneath his skin, his eyes embroiled with a troubled thought.
“Lord, hear me!” Éomer said, drawing near his uncle. “Now we feel the peril that we were warned of. Have we ridden forth to victory, only to stand at last amazed by an old liar with honey on his forked tongue?”
“If we speak of forked tongues, what shall we say of yours, young serpent?” Saruman shot back, and now his anger was clear to see.
“We will have peace.” Théoden said at last, and with a great effort, lifting his eyes again to the figure upon the balcony. A look of disbelief came upon Éomer’s face, and Lalaith started, a part of her begging her to cry out in protest. But Théoden held up a hand, stopping them both. “Yes, we will have peace,” his voice rose, clearer, “we will have peace when you and all your works have perished. And the works of your dark master, to whom you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a deceiver of the hearts of Men and Elves, also, it seems.” Lalaith glanced up, to see the eyes of Théoden upon her, gentle and kindly they seemed, warm, like Aragorn’s eyes before he turned back to gaze up at Saruman, his gaze growing hard. “The fruit of your work is misery. You and your servants gain joy in wounding the hearts of innocents. You hold out a hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor. Cruel and cold. What will you say of the torches in Westfold, and of the children that lie dead there? What of faithful Háma, crushed in the jaws of a warg? What of my own son? When you hang from a gibbet at your window, I will have peace with you and Orthanc.”
Lalaith gazed with startled eyes upon the king, seeing within him the greatness that his sires of old had passed down to him. Kind to her, his eyes had been, yet flashing with fearless vengeance, when he spoke to Saruman. Were all his people as he was, then the Rohirrim were indeed a noble people.
“Gibbets and crows!” Saruman hissed, and Lalaith’s eyes shot upward. She shuddered at the hideous change that had come over his once peaceful countenance as he leaned over the rail as if he meant to smite Théoden with his staff. “Dotard! What is the House of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs? The noose comes when it will, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!” Now his voice changed as he slowly mastered himself. “I know not why I have had the patience to speak to you. For I need you not, nor you little band of gallopers, Théoden, Horsemaster. I have offered you a state beyond your merit and your wit. You give me abuse as thanks. So be it. Go back to your huts.
“But you, my dear child, Lalaith!” Lalaith shuddered as her name dripped sweetly from Saruman’s lips. His cold eyes, veiled with a tender look of fatherly care came to bear upon her. “For you, I feel the most, for it has come to my ear that the sweet innocence of your trust has been betrayed, most aggrievedly. For you, I am the most greatly pained. How is it that you are here with those who called themselves your friends and your kin before your face, yet no sooner do your gentle eyes turn from their doings, but they show themselves to be what they truly are? Liars, deceivers, faithless rogues, the lot of them, undeserving of your favor, and your gentle graces!”
As Saruman spoke, Lalaith’s head dropped. She drew her arms away from Aragorn, clutching them closely to herself, her eyes closing tightly as the melodic tones of Saruman’s words washed over her. How compassionate he seemed, how understanding of the wretched pain she felt. It was as if he was the only other who knew of her pain and her fear that Legolas might have cast her aside, thinking her too holy for him. Aragorn was a cold and unfeeling kinsman, Saruman’s words seemed to say, unworthy of her trust. Gandalf, brash and rude in comparison to Saruman’s wisdom. Gimli was uncouth and loud, and the Hobbits were only silly children. Her mind felt as if drowned in a fog, as it had seemed, the night before when the woman spoke.
Oh, what is the truth any more? She cried desperately in her mind.
Beware my dear one. A woman’s voice echoed faintly within her ears as if from a distant place, muffled by the words of Saruman that still lingered in her thoughts. Beware the treacherous nets of Saruman and his kind. Believe not their lies, for the love of the Elvenprince is unshakable even now, though his heart has been gravely wounded by thy misgivings and by thy words, misspoken as they were. The faint, distant words contained the tones of a gentle reprimand, and Lalaith thought of the pained questions Legolas’ eyes had borne. She felt herself draw in a ragged sigh. Darkness seeks to claim thee, dear one, and will try all manner of ways to bring thee to grief and ruin. Yet thou hast the power to defy it, if thou wilt but remember thyself. And remember those who are truly thy allies. Do not doubt his love, or the faithfulness of thy friends, for their hearts are unfailing.
“Come, dear child,” Saruman’s soothing voice called down to her, washing away the soft voice, as a feather upon a flood. “There is in you, I sense, a greater power than that which you show. Surely you are greater than these black hearted infidels which surround you. Will you not leave them, and come up?”
Saruman’s eyes gazed down upon her, filled with what seemed to be compassion, and gentle persuasion. But her mind rang with a warning. Something hard and cold existed beyond the soft compassion in his eyes, black and treacherous, a serpent hidden, and ready to strike.
“Steady, Lalaith.” Aragorn murmured over his shoulder, his voice near, yet strangely far away, harsh and ragged, compared to the soothing tones of Saruman’s voice.
Another voice spoke, and she gazed at its source as if through a thick fog. It was Legolas who spoke, guiding the head of his mount toward Lalaith. She lifted her face to his, seeing eyes that pled with her, loving her, though pain still lay within them. “Lalaith, do not heed him. Please. Even without your love, I do not want to be without you. He would see you come to harm. Do you not understand that?”
Lalaith’s heart quavered, her eyes upon his. Within the blue pools that were his eyes, she saw herself reflected back, fair, yet troubled, and in his eyes she saw tenderness, and love yet lingering there. And suddenly, the flesh fell away from Saruman’s reasoning, exposing the rotting skeleton of his lies, and she shuddered, seeing the horror for what it truly was.
“Do not heed that faithless fool, young Lalaith.” Saruman’s gentle voice called down again. “He cares nothing for you. After all he has done to betray you-,”
“You are the betrayer, Saruman!” Lalaith cried, turning her eyes from Legolas, and lifting up her face, her eyes hardening as they gazed into the treacherous pits that were Saruman’s eyes. “You and your grovelers, betrayers of their own people, who come crawling here to your door, seeking after their own faithless kind. What would I find, were I to come up, as you ask me to? Would you be as hospitable as your serving woman was, she who left me with this gift?” With that, Lalaith gathered the unbound weight of her hair into her fist, and drew it away from her throat, so that the fading purple bruises, the nearly faultless outline of slender fingers, could be seen about her throat. Saruman’s eyes widened as he stared at the bruises, then turned, casting a poisonous glance over his shoulder at someone inside, who remained unseen. About her, her companions gaped at the bruising upon her throat with amazement, Aragorn turning nearly full around in the saddle, to look at it as Legolas’ eyes grew wide with shock, then darkened as he lifted his eyes and shot a dangerous look at Saruman upon his balcony.
“You are a deceiver, and a murderer, Saruman.” Lalaith continued, her voice growing in strength as she spoke. “I yet bear many faults, but I will not bow to you.” She gulped hard. “Your voice has lost its charm.”
At her words, Saruman’s eyes flashed with angry fire, as he drew himself up, his smile growing to a hardened line upon his face.
“Pah, Gandalf.” Saruman spat turning now from her, as if from a thing of no consequence. “I am grieved for your shame. How have you come to endure such company? Such a noble one as you among rabble as this? Even now will you not listen to my counsel?”
“What have you to say that you did not say at our last meeting?” Gandalf called back as he stirred and looked up. “Or perhaps you have things to unsay?”
“Unsay?” Saruman asked, the smooth tones of his voice coming back, though now the power they had once held over Lalaith had faded, as the memory of an unhappy dream. “I merely endeavored to advise you for your own good. And I still strive to do so. Are we not both of a high and ancient order? Our friendship will profit us both alike Let us understand one another, and dismiss these lesser folk! Will you not consult with me? Will you not come up?”
A long pause followed these words, and Lalaith glanced to Gandalf, waiting with mounting trepidation, for his reply. Was his mind as lost in fog as hers had been? Would he ascend as Saruman wished? Would he betray them?
Then Gandalf laughed, a merry bright laugh, and the fear growing in her heart melted, as wax before a cheerful fire.
“Saruman, Saruman,” laughed Gandalf, barely able to contain his mirth, “You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread mimicking his counselors. Ah, me!” Gandalf paused, gaining a hold at last over his laughter. “When last I visited you, you were the jailor of Mordor, and there I was to be sent. No, the guest who escaped from the roof will think twice before he comes back in by the door. But come now, Saruman. Will it not be well to leave Isengard for a while? To turn to new things, perhaps? Think well, Saruman. Your servants are destroyed and scattered, your neighbors you have made your enemies, and you have cheated your new master. You may go free if you wish. To go where you will, even to Mordor, if you desire. But you will first surrender to me the Key of Orthanc, and your staff. They shall be pledges of your conduct, to be returned later, if you merit them.”
“Later?” Saruman asked, his voice a wild laugh, as all pretence at calm was dashed aside. “Later, perhaps, when you have the keys of Barad-Dûr itself, perhaps? Ha! I have other things to do. If you wish to treat with me, go away and come back when you are sober! And leave behind this behind this band of cut throats, and small rag-tag, and that mindless strumpet that you have dangling on your tail! Good day.”
Saruman pushed himself away from the balcony, and turned to stride back into the shadows when a shaft, long and sleek, flew up in a sharp arch, and struck, quivering, into the hard wood of the open door, less than a hand’s span from his face.
“Come back, Saruman!” Legolas’ voice was fraught with bridled fury as he glared with fire in his eyes up at the figure half immersed in the shadow of his window. And to the amazement of the others, Saruman obeyed, resting his hands again, upon the balustrade.
“Ah, but my young Prince, Thranduilion?” He murmured, though now his voice trembled slightly. “Is your aim faltering?”
“I did not miss. Such a quick death would be too merciful for you.” Legolas hissed, drawing another arrow from his quiver, and setting it once again to the string. The string of the bow, Lalaith realized, with a lift of her brows, was the one he had gifted to her in Lothlorien, and the one which she dropped, upon Amon Hen before she and the Hobbits had been taken by the orcs. His own still rested within its place upon his back, beside his arrows. His left hand clutching the haft of the bow, was lifted, his second arrow aimed, unwavering, at Saruman’s chest. And upon the smallest finger of his hand, rested a ring, a golden sapphire ring. Her own, that she had thought lost in Lothlórien.
A breath choked her at this realization, and she had to bring a hand to her mouth to stifle a sudden gasp.
“Take back the vile words you spoke, concerning the lady else you wish to be carrion for your own crows!” Legolas continued, his teeth crushed together, his eyes livid with an inner fire.
“You poor, misled boy.” Saruman tisked, though his voice still trembled, and his eyes showed fear. “Why do you strive to honor one so fickle, who teases you with licentious hopes, only to betray you to grief and despair in the end?”
“You blithering simpleton!” Gimli shouted suddenly from behind Legolas, raising his axe, and brandishing it up at the robed figure that stood upon the balcony. “First you tell her that he betrayed her, then you tell him that she betrayed him? If you mean for your lies to be believed, at the very least, keep them straight!” He grumbled low beneath his breath before grunting, “Oh, just shoot him now, Legolas.”
“Oh, come now.” Gandalf said sternly, his gaze directed at the Elf and Dwarf upon their cream coated mount. “He will not take back his words, for it is not in him to do so. But I don’t want you killing him yet. I am not finished with him.”
Gandalf turned his eyes back toward Saruman, lifting his voice. “You have become a fool, Saruman. Stay, as you have chosen, and gnaw upon your old plots. But I warn you, you shall not come out again easily. Not unless the dark hands of the East stretch out to take you.” His voice grew in power and authority as he continued, “Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no color now, and I cast you from the order, and from the Council.”
Lifting his hand, his face became grave, his voice deep as he spoke. “Saruman, your staff is broken.”
There was a crack, and the staff split in Saruman’s hand. The head of it fell down, clattering upon the steps, and skittering downward, to fall with a soft plop, into the water that lapped at the steps. With a cry, Saruman fell back, and crawled away, ignored by those below. For as it rolled into the water, a gleam, ignored until now, found many of their eyes.
“Oi, what’s that?” Pippin cried, leaping down from before Gandalf, and scrambling through the water toward the thing. Hefting it up, as if its weight was great, he lifted a great black globe, smooth as glass, though beneath its surface, a light seemed to dance and flicker as of a clouded flame.
“Here my lad, I’ll take that.” Gandalf cried, and at his order Pippin lifted the great stone, though with obvious reluctance, and handed it to the wizard who quickly wrapped it in the folds of his cloak. “I will take care of this. It is not a thing, I guess, that Saruman would have chosen to cast away.”
“Well, if that’s the end of that,” Gimli grunted, with his usual Dwarfish forthrightness that brought a smile creeping to Lalaith’s face, “shall we be going?”
“It is the end.” Said Gandalf. “Let us go.”
At this, Aragorn turned the head of the steed that bore them. Lalaith caught her arms about his waist again, turning her eyes toward Legolas as he wheeled the head of his cream white mount around, and as their eyes met, her heart caught upon a beat. For within his eyes, a look of tender devotion gazed out at her, and a gentle smile twitched at the corners of his mouth.