“My lady, would you care for some food?”
Lalaith looked up from the low log where she sat wearily between Merry and Pippin who were both slouched sleepily against her and into Gamling’s eyes where he sat across the fire from her beside his king Éomer whose head was bent in his hands in a brief moment of weariness. Aragorn sat some distance away running a soft cloth reverently over Andúril’s blade, lost in contemplative thought. His eye came up at Gamling’s soft words, but he merely smiled toward her briefly, and turned his eyes back to his blade, and the quiet thoughts she could see below the surface of his eyes. Beyond his shoulder, she could see Legolas standing, lean and strong as a young tree, his hand upon his bow as he gazed attentively outward, past the circle the many scattered fires made, into the darkness beyond. Gimli was nowhere to be seen, but Lalaith had heard his voice some moments before, chuckling loudly as he traded greetings with a group of young Gondorian soldiers at a nearby fire.
“My lady?” Gamling asked again, fishing in a fat pouch at his side, and withdrawing a fragment of waybread.
“It is not as fine as the lembas of your people,” the seasoned soldier from Rohan apologized. “But it will give you needed strength.”
“You cannot give me of your own rations,” Lalaith protested. “I have my own-,”
“Please,” Gamling pleaded, his eyes filled with such imploring, that Lalaith could not help but nod in agreement, and take the proffered bread. Her slight motion stirred Pippin beside her, who fell, with a sleepy snort, into her lap, though the movement did not waken him.
Lalaith smiled upon the sleeping Hobbit, unable to find it within her to awaken him. She simply patted Pippin’s shoulder gently, and let him lay, trading a bemused smile with Éomer who lifted his head at the soft noise as Pippin sighed softly and grinned in his sleep.
“Thank you, Lord Gamling,” she offered with a nod toward the bearded warrior who returned her thanks with a grin and a nod as she took a bite of the gifted meat.
“Gamling is a man who has made a life of giving without thought for himself,” Éomer offered with a grin, lifting a hand and clapping it upon Gamling’s shoulder. “It is not in him to find himself unable to offer service to such a great lady as you.”
Aragorn looked up at this from where he sat and grinned at her as he, his work finished, slid Andúril back into the sheath with a soft clap, and rested his elbows on his knees, content to watch the words between the Elven maid and the men of Rohan.
“I am not so great as you may think,” she smirked quietly.
“There is much talk among the men of you,” Gamling continued.
“I supposed as much,” Lalaith returned with a small smile. “One woman among nearly six thousand men is certain to be noticed.”
“It is said by some, that you are-,” Éomer furrowed his brow. “More than you seem to be.”
“I am now, no more than you see,” Lalaith answered gently. “A simple Elf maiden, and nothing more.”
“But were you not born beyond the sea?” Gamling cut in. “The daughter of the-,” Gamling furrowed his brow. “Of the gods?” he finished in a softened tone. Pippin stirred in her lap.
Lalaith sighed softly, and glanced downward. “Are we, in the end, not all children of Ilúvatar?” she murmured quietly. “Truly, if your soul is true and honest, then I am in truth, no greater than you.”
Gamling dropped his eyes in thoughtfulness at this, and fell silent as Éomer contemplated her in quiet wonder.
Lalaith lifted her eyes then, and found Legolas once more as he gazed out into the darkness beyond the light of the fires, undaunted by the things that prowled there, stalking beyond the sight of the Men, though Lalaith, if she peered at them, could see their eyes in the darkness as they crept and lumbered about the camp just beyond the reach of the light.
She shuddered, and glanced down into Pippin’s sleeping face, smiling upon the innocence she saw there as she ran her fingers softly through his thick, honey brown curls.
He stirred at her touch. “Porridge with honey and bannocks, for breakfast, Mum,” he muttered in his dreams.
Lalaith smiled. “Of course, darling,” she murmured softly, to which Pippin smiled contentedly, shifted softly, and continued dreaming.
“Ho there, I’m back, no need to worry,” Gimli’s voice interrupted the heavy quiet about them as the Dwarf’s boots came tromping near, and he entered the near firelight to plump himself down heavily upon the log beside Merry, jostling the seat enough to shake Merry awake, who sat with a small snort up from Lalaith’s shoulder where he had unwittingly left a small spot of drool against the arm of her jerkin.
“Mmm,” Merry muttered and rubbed his eyes as Pippin sighed and continued to dream, his head cradled in Lalaith’s lap.
“Good to see you getting some rest, young Hobbit,” Gimli greeted him companionably, slapping Merry on the shoulder as the Hobbit continued to rub his eyes and Lalaith and Aragorn traded a bemused look.
“We’ll be there, soon,” Gimli added, snatching a strip of dried meat from the pouch at his side, and gnawing at it with the fervor of a warg pup.
“Where?” Merry queried sleepily.
“The Black Gate,” Aragorn cut in, his voice soft, yet bearing power in it as well as all eyes turned upon him.
Gimli’s cleared his throat violently before he fell silent.
Lalaith lowered her head at this, and studied Pippin’s sleeping face, her fingers still woven through the curled honey colored hair.
“Indeed,” she murmured softly, and then fell silent as she sensed his approach her heart soothed as he neared, then felt the warm pressure of Legolas’ hand upon the back of her shoulder.
Lalaith drew her hand out of Pippin’s curls, and lifted it, finding Legolas’ hand where it rested upon her shoulder. Legolas made no sound, but lifted his hand, weaving his warm lean fingers through her own.
He said nothing, but she could sense from his simple touch, the quiet emotions he felt.
Across the fire, she met Aragorn’s eyes, and he smiled gently before he sighed and glanced away from her gaze, the weight of duty and of grim need, heavy in his eyes.
Elrohir’s heart seemed a hollow void pulsing with pain within his chest as he strode back and forth like a restless beast beneath the Mallorn where the healing chambers were perched. Nearby, Celeborn stood, his stance betraying his own inward pain as he leaned heavily upon his arm braced against a young sapling as if overcome by some crippling weakness.
Haldir sat upon a stone, a space away, his face resting wearily upon his fists as he stared at nothing, his eyes deepened with a sorrowing look.
Celebwen, and Niriel, Calassë’s friends, stood away some distance with Rumil and Orophin, their countenances grieved, their usually cheerful voices replaced with a heavy silence.
A footfall nearby, a boot upon the leaves of the narrow trail, sounded amplified in the heavy silence. Yet Elrohir could barely bring himself to turn his head toward the young warrior who drew near, his own face written with grim sadness.
“My lord,” the Elf murmured softly with a bow, his unshed armor smeared with spatterings of black blood. “This was found near the orcs you and-, our brave lady slew. It is of our people’s making.”
The young man held out a small pack, the one, Elrohir mutely recalled, that had fallen from Calassë’s shoulder in her surprise at seeing him in the forest.
“Yes,” he heard himself mutter, his voice a dry, empty whisper as he took the weight of it in his hands. “It is hers.”
“By your leave, my lord,” the young soldier bowed slightly, and turned away, leaving silence in his wake once again.
“What does it contain?” Celeborn asked wearily as Elrohir dropped heavily to the bottommost step of the twining staircase which led upward to the chambers above.
Elrohir drew in a ragged breath as he tugged the drawstring open,and peered at the contents of Calassë’s small pack. A few apples and pears lay atop the small star woven blanket she had been found with on her first day beneath the trees, the small blanket she would never be parted from. And Elrohir found himself beginning to tremble as he reached in, and drew the small silver square of cloth out.
“Her-,” he choked softly as he drew it out, and ran his fingers over the sparkling cloth.
“Her blanket,” Haldir murmured softly, his voice heavy and weighted with sudden emotion.
“The one she had with her, since her first coming beneath our trees,” Celebwen murmured, tears choking her words as Rumil drew near behind her, and caught the maiden’s shoulders comfortingly in his hands.
“She clung to it like a child in her first days-,” Niriel began before soft sobs drowned her words.
Orophin drew near to Niriel, catching his arm about her waist, and she turned to him, throwing her arms about his neck, and sobbing into his shoulder.
Elrohir dropped his eyes at the maidens’ grief. And though he did not outwardly weep as bitterly as they, his heart broken, and ragged, was sobbing in such pain as he had never before felt.
At Lothriel’s voice, Elrohir lunged to his feet, and spun, seeing the lady poised several steps above him, a great weariness in her own eyes as well.
“The healers have cleaned her wound, and bandaged her as well as they can-,”
“Then she is yet alive?” he begged.
Lothriel sighed, a low weary sigh. “Yes,” she murmured. “But she has not woken, and-, her-, appearance is unchanged.”
“I care nothing for that, let me see her!” Elrohir grated fiercely before he noted the look of hurt upon Lothriel’s face, and ducked his head.
“As you do, we all love her yet, my lord, Elrohir,” she breathed softly.
“Forgive me lady,” he choked softly. “I should not have spoken so sharply-,”
The touch of a gentle hand upon his shoulder brought his head up, and he studied Lothriel’s gentle eyes.
“Lord Elrohir, there is nothing to forgive.” Lothriel smiled sadly.
“Please, Lady Lothriel,” he murmured his eyes down, his eyelids crushed closed, his breath coming swiftly to his lungs. “I must see Calassë.”
Lothriel lifted her eyes and glanced briefly at her husband. Haldir straightened slightly at her gaze and offered her a soft smile which she returned.
“Come.” She breathed, and turned, beckoning Elrohir to follow her up the twining steps.
About the marching collumn, the land was empty and barren in the wane morning light, the earth blasted and desolate, broken as with a great troll’s hammer. The ancient vomit of the Black Mountain, Lalaith knew as she veered Hasufel’s head nearer toward Arod’s and turned to glance into Legolas’ eyes.
His gaze met her own, and a brief smile twitched upon his lips as he reached across the space between them, and took her hand in his own.
He did not speak, though his eyes were intense, yet tender, and Lalaith shivered at the quiet pain within them.
“I love you, Legolas,” she breathed.
“And I love you, Lalaith nin,” he returned, gulping softly as he did before he turned his eyes away, and glanced beyond her.
“We have reached it,” he said aloud, speaking now in the Common Tongue, and nodding.
She turned, and her heart drooped at the stark sight of the great black gate stabbing at the sky as the company passed a ragged shoulder of jutting stone.
“Morrannon,” she breathed softly, and Legolas’ fingers tightening within her own. “The Black Gate.”
A brisk wind from the north caught up the many banners of the host arrayed atop the low mounded hill before the great Black gate, snapping them about, the wane sunlight flashing off of them almost as if in defiance of the great power that dwelt beyond the gate, and Lalaith drew in a swift breath where she sat, tense upon Hasufel’s back.
Nearby, Aragorn sat upon Brego’s back, his own eyes fixed unmovingly upon the silent gate as the black and silver standard of Gondor, clutched within Beregond’s leather gauntleted fist, snapped and fluttered in the swift wind where he sat upon his own mount half a space behind the king.
Her heart was racing within her beneath the heavy silence that rested over the armies of Gondor and Rohan. Nothing could be seen upon the teeth of the battlements above the gate. Not even the briefest fragment of a standard fluttered there.
Beside her, so near that his leg brushed hers, Legolas sat upon Arod’s back, his face set and somber, his eyes deep in quiet thought. His gaze, as hers, was fixed upon the empty battlements, but Gimli’s glance, she could sense, was turned upon her, and she glanced toward the Dwarf who released a low breath at her glance, and offered her a terse nod, his eyes set with a worried look.
She could sense Éomer’s presence slightly behind her, his mount stuttering upon his hooves in growing impatience.
“Where are they?” Pippin wondered softly to himself where he sat before Gandalf upon the broad silver back of Shadowfax.
At the Hobbit’s soft voice, Aragorn turned a glance toward Pippin, his glance drawn over with a stern look of resolve. Then turning forward, he urged Brego into a sudden trot, Beregond, bearing the black and silver standard, riding beside him. Without spoken command, Lalaith dug her own heels gently into Hasufel’s side, and the horse obeyed, as Arod and Shadowfax, as well as Éomer’s mount, broke into a hurried trot as well, the wind whipping swiftly past her face as Hasufel galloped across the barren earth, the gate looming ever larger and more sinister above her as the small group drew near to it.
She drew in Hasufel’s head at last as the small group stuttered to a stop before a split cleave in the dark wrought iron work upon the face of the gate.
Ever silent the gate stood before them, imposing and stern as if so many thousands of cruel eyes watched from beyond the cold iron.
“Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth!” Aragorn cried aloud, his voice echoing strangely in the large, empty silence. “Let justice be done upon him!”
His words faded off, dying at last into silence once again, and Lalaith shot a brief glance toward Legolas who returned her look with a shrug, and a brief shake of his head.
But at last, a great creaking split the air, and Lalaith stiffened, Hasufel whinnied slightly, and drew back a step as the massive gate began slowly to creep open until the slate grey sky and the ragged black hills beyond peeked through, and a solitary mounted figure framed in the yellow light beyond, began unhurriedly to saunter through.
In robes of black he was clad, tall and fearsome. His mouth, pale and scarred, was all that was visible beneath his lofty helm, and Lalaith drew in a swift breath. For no orc nor Ringwraith was this, but a living man. His horse was a powerful creature, yet it moved as a beast beneath a hideous burden, and its face was covered with a frightful mask. Beregond’s horse, though it kept its place, sidestepped slightly, and uttered a muffled whinny of fear to which the black horse pricked its ears briefly and turned toward the sound, only to be jerked harshly away, by the silent figure upon its back. And on they came until the pale, black clad figure drew his mount to a halt before them, and the great gate boomed shut behind him.
“My master, Sauron the Great, bids thee welcome,” the masked figure grated. His voice was deep and harsh, his tortured lips, drawn back, revealed rows of cruel, long teeth, trails of blackened saliva seething from between them as he spoke, and smiled, a broad, mocking smile.
None spoke as Sauron’s lieutenant surveyed them, his wide mouth twisting into a smirk of disgust.
“Is there any in this rout with authority to treat with me?” he demanded.
“We do not come to treat with Sauron, faithless, and accursed,” Gandalf shot back.
Sauron’s lieutenant snarled at this, but Gandalf continued, undaunted, “Tell you master this: The armies of Mordor must disband. He is to depart these lands, never to return.”
“Ha, Old Greybeard,” Sauron’s lieutenant scoffed. “I have a token I was bidden to show thee.”
Reaching beneath his robe, he wrenched out a shining sheet of silver, and Lalaith started back, wondering how this small shirt of mithril seemed so familiar to her.
“Frodo!” Pippin hissed, and her memory sparked. She had been wounded then, and had not noted it well, but it had indeed been Frodo’s! The shirt that had saved his life from the spear of the cave troll in Moria! But why did this wretched creature have it?
With a low laugh and a shove, Sauron’s lieutenant tossed it roughly to Gandalf who caught it in his hands, a look of fearful grief upon his wise face.
“Frodo!” Pippin wailed louder, to which Sauron’s lieutenant scoffed aloud.
“Silence,” Gandalf demanded.
“No!” Merry cried.
“Silence!” Gandalf ordered again.
“The halfling was dear to thee, I see,” the creature’s deep voice scoffed. “Know that he suffered greatly at the hands of his host.”
Lalaith’s heart wrenched inside of her as beside her, Gimli growled softly beneath his breath, and Legolas, though he held himself staunchly, held a look of quiet rage within his eyes.
“Who would have thought one so small could endure so much pain?” Sauron’s lieutenant seethed. “And he did, Gandalf. He did.”
“What did you do to him, cursed monster?” Lalaith barked suddenly.
And at this, Sauron’s lieutenant twisted his head in her direction, an expression of cruel amusement twisting his mangled lips.
“My lady?” he growled, and unseen eyes raked over her. “Long has it been since my master has housed thee as his guest. He shall be pleased to know that thou hast returned to him. Far more fair now, than when thou abandoned his hospitality to dwell among this rabble. That he might find thee again, has been his wish these many long years.”
“He’ll not hurt her again,” Legolas seethed, and shouldered Arod’s way forward, though Gandalf held out a hand, staying the Elf’s fuming wrath.
“Indeed, my prince?” Sauron’s lieutenant scoffed. “I think not. Her ending, I deem, with be filled with more torment than thine.”
At this, Aragorn released a low growl of a breath, and urged Brego forward, a look of fire within his somber eyes.
“And who is this?” Sauron’s lieutenant demanded, tipping his head at the sound of Brego’s hooves upon the crumbled rocks beneath them. “Islidur’s heir? It takes more to make a king than a broken Elvish blade-,”
With a sudden growl, Aragorn whipped Anduril from its sheath, and with a whistling blow, severed the head of Sauron’s lieutenant cleanly from his shoulders.
The armored beast reared slightly at this as his master’s weight tumbled to the ground. Lalaith urged Hasufel forward then, catching the tormented horse’s reins in her hand before it could escape.
“I guess that concludes negotiations,” Gimli muttered behind her as the beast struggled against Lalaith’s hold, whinnying sharply in protest and shying away from her unfamiliar touch upon the smooth of its nose.
“I cannot believe it,” Aragorn seethed swiveling Brego about to face the others. “I will not. Frodo lives yet, and they shall never touch Lalaith, again. Sauron’s twisted words are no more than lies!!”
“Lalaith, let `im go, he’s as bad as his master-,” Gimli began, his words cutting short as the beast’s head suddenly sagged wearily at her touch. He grew still, making no movement as she leaned from the saddle, drew the heavy helm from the creature’s head, and flung it away.
The horse whickered softly, and nudged her hand affectionately, to which Gimli released a low whistle from his seat behind Legolas.
She glanced up, seeing the eyes of surprised admiration about her, and smiled briefly.
“Doubtless he was stolen as a foal from Rohan,” she offered glancing toward Éomer.
“Perhaps,” Rohan’s king offered with a lift of his brows. “Orcs have often raided herds for the black coated younglings.”
Lalaith turned Hasufel’s head, and offered the horse’s reins into Éomer’s hand which he took with a nod and a small smile.
Aragorn released a short breath, the fire in his eyes abating briefly as he agreed, “Then it is fitting that he should be returned to his kin-,”
A great echoing scrape of creaking metal cut his words off, and Lalaith swiveled once again to the gate, her eyes growing round and wide as the gates slowly began to peel open, revealing uncounted hordes of tramping orcs, their cruelly tipped spears like so many gnarled and dead trees, their black ragged banners shot through with a harsh yellow light, unnatural and piercing, which shone from behind them to the southeast.
“Pull back,” Aragorn cried as the echoing sound of tramping feet echoed through the widening gate. “Pull back!”
With the others, Lalaith wheeled Hasufel about as Aragorn urged Brego into a sudden gallop back toward the army of Men.
So meager now the armies of Rohan and Gondor seemed gathered beneath their banners catching in the swift wind upon the small knoll as they galloped swiftly back toward the mounded hill where the Men waited, their eyes unsure, and filled with fear as the gates drew ever wider, and the harsh, piercing light came streaming through.
“Hold your ground! Hold your ground!” Aragorn cried out to the men as the horses skidded to a stop before the shifting, frightened ranks of Rohirrim and Gondorians.
“Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers!” Aragorn cried as Brego totted to and fro along the line, his voice fierce and strong above the steady tramp of orcs as they spilled out the Black Gate, streaming, like a horde of so many angry ants toward the hill where the Men waited. “I see in your eyes, the same fear that would take the heart of me!”
The harsh, burning light grating on her very skin as the gates grew ever wider as if flames were licking out, straining to snare her in them, and she dared not look at the source of the glaring light, choosing instead to focus her gaze on Aragorn.
“A day may come,” Aragorn cried, his eyes filled with fire as he gazed over the men, “when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day.”
The tramp of marching orcs drew ever nearer. Lalaith shuddered slightly.
“An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of Men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight!” There was such power in his words, such surety-, despite the odds their small band faced, Aragorn’s voice was strong and filled with majesty. In spite of her pounding heart, she could not help but smile. Aragorn, Estel-, her trusted friend of so many years, dear as a brother to her, was indeed who he had been born to be. No longer the boy he was at their first meeting, nor simply the ranger he had been for so long. He was his father’s son, the heir of Isildur. He was as he had been born to be, a king of Men. And Lalaith’s heart swelled in pride at the thought.
“By all that you hold dear on this good earth,” he called out, drawing Brego to a halt before them, “I bid you stand, Men of the West!”
The grating rasp of blades begin drawn echoed over the army of Men, drowning for a brief moment the ever nearing tramp of the orcs as Aragorn, Anduril clenched high in his fist, turned Brego’s head to face the oncoming horde, his eyes shining with defiance of the black power that came at them. And Lalaith at last, lifted her eyes into the harsh, piercing light.
Far beyond the open gate, stood a tower. A tower, black and cruel as a jagged blade stabbing the sky in the distance. The harsh light emitted from a great, glaring eye, wreathed in flame enthroned at the top.
“We meet once again, fair Vala child-,” a voice, cruel and mocking reverberated in her mind. And a white shard of pain, crippling as a javelin of fire pierced her shoulder where she had been branded so many centuries before, lancing down through her body. Lalaith trembled upon Hasufel’s back, clencing her teeth willing herself not to cry out, or fall from the saddle. Now was the moment she had awaited. Now she faced Sauron himself as she had for so long known she must. And she could not give way beneath his strength.
A soft crunch of hooves upon earth sounded beside her, and Arod sidled near as Legolas’ hand, warm and soft, cupped her shoulder, and the pain ebbed and eased.
Drawing in a swift breath, Lalaith turned, meeting his eyes with a grateful look.
“That I could have persuaded you to stay behind,” he murmured softly, studying the oncoming mass with fire in his eyes as Gimli behind him, brandished his axe and growled softly at the nearing orcs.
She gulped softly and touched a hand to his where it rested upon her shoulder.
“I am here, now, where I must be,” she murmured softly, meeting his eyes.
“Indeed,” he murmured softly, and gently squeezed her hand. “And I am beside you.”