Lalaith turned, glancing over her shoulder as the trees passed slowly above their heads, the warm wind beneath the trees catching at her unbound hair, and her skirts of soft sky blue, overlain with a riding cloak of silver. Her hand rested briefly upon her pack bound across the back of her saddle, her quiver gifted to her from Théoden, tied across the top of the pack with her bow tucked beside it. Even the small knife Galadriel had gifted to her months before in the Golden Wood, was bundled away beside her larger knives. Strange it seemed to her, that after so many months of uncertainty and fear, they were not ready for her use, and she wished, briefly, that they were. For in spite of Legolas’ assurances, and the peace that even now rested over her like a soft mantle, Lalaith could not yet shake the distant feeling that there was yet something that wished harm upon them, distant and elusive, though it was.
But surely it was only unfounded fears, now that Sauron’s power was destroy, Lalaith assured herself. And even so, the men of the company were armed, with full quivers of arrows and bows across their backs for hunting as they traveled. Even the small Hobbits beside her, Merry and Pippin, had been gifted bows and small quivers of arrows when they had paused for a time in Edoras. She was safe, she promised herself. With a sigh, she pressed the quiet trepidation away into a corner of her mind, and focused her thoughts now on the Dwarf behind her.
“Gimli!” she called out, her voice one of playful banter.
“Eh?” the Dwarf called out from the saddle where he rode alone upon Arod’s back. He had become quite a skilled horseman, though he would not dare to admit it.
“How do these woods compare to the beauty of the Glittering Caves you bid me and Legolas to visit with you, when we paused at the fortress of Helm’s Deep?”
Lalaith cast a grin beside her toward Legolas where he rode alongside her, Rana’s reins loose in his hands.
A long silence passed behind her, until, in merry impatience Lalaith swiveled in the saddle where she rode upon Hasufel’s back, to look directly at the Dwarf.
“Have you no words?” she inquired teasingly. “This is just the brief tip of the forest of Fangorn. And as I remember, you promised to ride with us into the deep places of the Entwood on our journey to Eryn Lasgalen.”
The Dwarf grumbled softly at this. “And had you words for the caves when you saw them? When you and your doting suitor there saw the Glittering Caves, to which I had to more or less drag the both of you, you had no words to speak of them. As I recall, you both stared with not a word of note coming from either of your mouths.”
“Indeed, Gimli, my friend,” Legolas called out warmly, glancing back at his Dwarven comrade before casting a warm glance toward Lalaith. “You claimed the victory on that day! But never again will a Dwarf claim victory over an Elf in a contest of words. And you must see to your end of the bargain, and pass with us through the deeper parts of Fangorn, that we may set the score right.”
“Ha!” Gimli laughed aloud, his voice echoing through the thickness of the shadowed trees amid the soft clop of horse’s hooves, and the creak of leather. “But you forget, when we journey eastward again, the two of you will be newly wedded! And what noteworthy words will be coming from either of your mouths, then? I’ll wager your horses will be more talkative than you, then! You’ll be as dumbstruck as Faramir was, when Lady Éowyn’s hand was given to him in marriage while we were stopped in Edoras.”
Aragorn, clad in fine, kingly robes, cast a glance at his new bride beside him, and Arwen returned his teasing look, though no words passed between them.
“As I remember,” Gandalf called from near the fore of the column, casting an affectionate glance at Aragorn and his fair queen who rode beside him, “his new kinsman Éomer King was no better when he asked Prince Imrahil permission to plight his troth to the lady Lothiriel, and was granted it.”
“Augh, indeed!” Gimli crowed in agreement. “The poor man could not put so much as two words together when he realized that he had the blessing of the lady’s father! As if he thought he wouldn’t get it!”
“He could talk to her, well enough,” Pippin chirped brightly from where he rode near Lalaith, upon his spirited little pony. “I saw them kissing on the veranda of the Golden Hall, at sunset.”
To this, soft laughter echoed up and down the line of traveling Elves, and three of the four Hobbits mounted on their small ponies, chuckled brightly.
“It was a happy ending to a sad farewell,” Merry agreed, a small, somber smile upon his face.
“It was, indeed,” Lalaith returned softly, remembering the somber tone of the funeral party when Théoden’s body had at last been buried under the white flowered mounds beside where his son lay.
With a distant look in his eyes, Merry sighed, and glanced away.
Lalaith smiled upon the dejected Hobbit, and lifting her voice softly she sang, so that few, even among the Elves about him, heard her words,
“Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising
he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended;
over death, over dread, over doom lifted
out of loss, out of life, unto long glory.“
Merry turned and glanced to here where he rode upon his sturdy little pony, Stybba, a gift from Théoden, and the Hobbit and Elf maiden traded a small smile.
“Master Dwarf!” Calassë chirped brightly.
“Eh?” Gimli called out, turning and glancing toward the golden haired maiden where she rode near to the Dwarf upon a bright silver mare, Elrohir riding a darker steed beside her.
“Do you think perhaps, that unlike other men, you will be brimming with clever, sparkling words when you find a Dwarf lady of your own to wed?” queried the maiden cheerfully.
To this Gimli frowned, though not without a spark of merriment lighting in his eyes as quiet laughter again echoed over the column of Elves.
“Well, my lady,” he replied, “there’s little danger of that, since I probably won’t ever find-,” his quick retort was cut suddenly off at the sight of Calassë’s face as her expression changed to a look of trepidation as the trees suddenly broke.
“Elrohir!” Calassë whimpered suddenly, and her betrothed eased his horse closer to hers, and caught her hand in his as Gimli whirled forward, snatching for his axe, expecting to be assailed by a host of orcs, but none were to be seen.
Nothing moved in the wide circle before them where two tall trees stood, like sentinels before a ruined gate where the wall circling Isengard had once been. The land was green and lush, far different from the quagmire it had once been, for it was filled now with orchards of flowering trees, and the sweet scent of growing things wafted upon the air as Ents strode tall among the smaller trees. A silver glittering stream ran through the vast circle, and into a clear lake, clean and sweet, where the black tower of Orthanc rose up, upon a rock in the midst of the water.
“Hrm,” Gimli mumbled softly to himself, slipping his axe back in its place though he said no more.
“I remember this place!” Calassë moaned softly as Glorfindel’s horse clipped near to her own, moving alongside her mount.
Lalaith turned about in the saddle at the frightened maiden’s features, and met Elrohir’s worried eyes. She smiled sadly as Elrohir turned away and leaned closer to Calassë, cupping her shivering face in his hand, and whispering quietly to her as Glorfindel hovered on the other side of his sister, his hand cupping her shoulder in worried attentiveness.
Swallowing softly, Lalaith turned forward. The sonorous tromping of Treebeard’s feet and of Quickbeam’s rumbled nearer as the two Ents strode toward them through the orchard about their legs.
“Hoom, haroom,” Treebeard sighed as the two Ents drew to a stop before them, his golden eyes glancing over the group of mounted Elves and Hobbits, with Aragorn, clad in kingly robes at the head, and Gandalf sitting astride Shadowfax beside him. “Welcome to the Treegarth of Orthanc! I thought you were coming, but I was at work up the valley; there is much still to be done. But you have not been idle either away down in the south and the east, I hear. And all that I hear is good. Very good.”
He smiled warmly upon them, his eyes traveling over the group, pausing now and again upon the different faces.
“Young Master Elrond, it is good indeed,” Treebeard sighed, looking upon the Lord of Imladris with a familiar smile, “to see you again. And you young Lady Galadriel, and your goodly lord, Celeborn.”
He smiled toward Galadriel and Celeborn and bowed low, to which the Lord and Lady of Lórien returned his bow.
“And young Master Gandalf, and the new king.” He bowed toward the wizard, then toward Aragorn like a tree bending in the wind.
“You have come into your own at last,” Treebeared breathed, his gaze focused upon the king of Gondor, “as you were meant to, from the beginning.”
Aragorn smiled to this, and returned Treebeard’s bow with a grateful nod of his head.
“And this is your lady queen?” Treebeard offered, bowing again to Arwen, lower now, than when he had bowed to her husband. “The daughter of Master Elrond. You are as fair as the tales tell, my lady. I am honored.”
Arwen smiled, and returned a grateful nod at this.
“And our young Valië!” Treebeard sighed, the sound like wind passing through many leaves as he turned toward her. “And your prince. You seem,” he sighed again, smiling as he did, his eyes glancing between them, “to have mended the differences that were between you when you were last here.”
Lalaith and Legolas grinned at him as Treebeard turned upon the Hobbits, his eyes twinkling as he took in the four of them. “Ah, and my dear little friends, Meriadoc, and Peregrin. Well indeed it is, to see you,” he breathed in his warm, sonorous voice. “And Masters Frodo Baggins, and Samwise Gamgee, if I am not mistaken.”
A small a noise like a muffled mouse’s squeak came from Sam’s throat, and Lalaith glanced at him to see the stout little Hobbit gaping up at Treebeard, his jaw hanging slack as his wide eyes took in the two Ents.
“Yes, my-,” Frodo answered, hesitantly before he smirked and finished, “my lord.”
“Aaaaah,” Treebeard soothed at last, his voice growing even warmer as his gaze came to rest upon Calassë who sat upon her mount, her eyes large and timid. “And who is this fair creature before me?” He smiled broadly, his golden eyes sparkling with recognition. “I see something in your eyes. Something I saw once before.”
A broad smile drew itself across the bark of Treebeard’s face as his eyes sparked with recognition. “Ah, my lady,” he rumbled, placing branching hands upon his knotted knees as he bent down low to look more closely at her.
“My little friend,” he gasped in his warm sonorous voice. “I remember you.” His golden eyes glanced over her, his expression one of gentle, pleasant surprise. “You have done well.”
He glanced toward Elrohir who sat at her side, his hand upon the maiden’s. And Treebeard smiled the more deeply. “Very, very well,” he added warmly.
“Thank you-, Treebeard.” Calassë murmured softly, before she grinned broadly, to which Treebeard blinked, and nodded, his smile one of affectionate understanding.
“Thank you, indeed,” Gandalf cut in. “For we have much to thank you for your aide in all that has been achieved.”
“Haroom,” breathed Treebeard, trading a slow, wise glance with Quickbeam. “What part we played was small to yours. Ridding this corner of the world of those evileyed-blackhanded-bowlegged-flinthearted-clawfingered-foulbellied-bloodthirsty, hoom, since their name is long as years of torment, those vermin orcs.”
“Which was a great deed in all truth,” Aragorn insisted. “And never shall be forgotten in Minas Tirith and Edoras.”
“Never is too long a word for me,” sighed Treebeard. “Not while your kingdoms last, you mean. But they will have to last long to seem long to Ents.”
“The New Age begins,” called out Gandalf. “And in this age it may well prove that the kingdoms of Men shall outlast you, Fangorn my friend. But now come tell me. How is Saruman, and those with him? Are they not weary of Orthanc yet?”
“Weary?” sighed Treebeard. “Yes, they were. Weary indeed. But not so weary that they could not listen to the news I brought them, much as they hated it as they dwelt here in Orthanc. That pale shadow of a woman always wished to hear news of the Elves, our fair Valië, and her prince. All I would tell her, was that they were not yet slain in the fighting. Neither of them. And she was very displeased by that.” Treebeard smiled, proudly upon Lalaith. “I added a great many things to my tales that were good for all of them to hear, and they all grew very weary of the telling, for none of it was as they wished. Saruman was hasty. Too hasty, all of them. That was their ruin.”
“I observe, my good Fangorn,” called out Gandalf, “that with great care you say dwelt, wished, was. What about is? Are they dead?”
“No, not dead, so far as I know,” said Treebeard. “But they are gone. Yes, they are gone these seven days past. I let them go. There was so little of Saruman when he crawled out, and that worm creature of his, and that woman, like a pale, wasted shadow.”
“My friend, Fangorn,” Gandalf called out as Lalaith, at Treebeard’s calmly breathed words, had felt a shard of alarm shoot through her own heart as well. “I charged you to keep them safe.”
“And safe is where I kept them,” agreed Treebeard easily. “Safe from doing any harm. But times have changed. You know how well I hate the caging of even such creatures as they, beyond great need. A snake without fangs may crawl to where he will.”
“You may be right,” Gandalf agreed, “but Saruman is a snake with one tooth left. And Greta is a little spider whose venom is not yet spent. Saruman had the poison of his voice left, and I guess that one or both of them persuaded you, they knowing of the soft spot that is in you,” Gandalf sat back with a sigh, and dropped his hands to his thighs with a shake of his head. “Well, Saruman is gone, with the worm and the spider, and there is no more to be said. But the Tower of Orthanc now goes back to the king, to whom it belongs. Though maybe he will not need it.”
“That will be seen later,” said Aragorn. “But I will give to the Ents this valley to do with as they will, so long as they keep a watch on Orthanc and see that none enter it without my leave.”
“It is locked,” sighed Treebeard. “I made Saruman lock it, and give me the keys. Quickbeam has them.”
With a bow, as a tree in the wind, Quickbeam bent low, and handed to Aragorn two black keys in a ring of steel.
“I thank you,” said Aragorn with a smile. “And I bid you farewell. May your forest grow again in peace.”
Treebeard bowed again at this, smiling again over the assemblage before him. “Well goodbye, and take care. And if I have done wrong to let them go,” he sighed, shrugging his wooden shoulders. “I offer you my regret.”
“And forgiveness is readily given, old friend. For all that you have done, has been done with courage and good intent.” Gandalf replied with an easy smile.
“If we ever hear of any Entwives, we’ll let you know!” called out Pippin jovially, to which Treebeard grinned and nodded before he turned and strode off with Quickbeam beside him, into the trees of the green valley.
But Lalaith sat astride Hasufel’s back, and contemplated the heavy weight of foreboding that simmered in the depths of her heart. Glancing at Calassë’s face, she noted the trepidation that had crept across the maiden’s countenance even as Elrohir gently caressed her face and spoke softly to her. And this only served to stir the heaviness in Lalaith’s breast all the more.
High mountains rose to the east of their company, and a warm, sweetly scented wind wafted down from the high, cold Misty Mountains as their company slowly wended its way northward, following a path through the trees that arched about the curve of the mountains.
Lalaith smiled up into the bright sky, at the high white clouds that scraped across the blue expanse as she walked, leading Hasufel by the reins that rested lightly in one hand. Her heart was light and merry as she glanced briefly over her shoulder at Gimli riding upon Arod’s back, who had taken up a conversation with Miriel and Calassë who were laughing merrily as he recalled some humorous tale to them, his gloved hands waving boisterously about. Lalaith glanced forward again, drinking in the sweet wind, grateful for the chance to stretch her legs, but most especially that she could walk side by side with Legolas. In one hand, he held Rana’s reins, while his other held Lalaith’s hand in his warm, comfortable grip, their fingers interwoven together as they made their way northward, drawing ever nearer to Imladris.
Home, Lalaith thought with a touch of excitement. Homeward at last to Imladris, to all that was dear and familiar-, But then she caught herself with a smile, and turned to glance at Legolas beside her.
He caught her eye, and smiled back at her, a brief curve of his lips as his eyes glowed, warm with adoration.
Home it was indeed, and would ever be in her heart, the haven where she was raised in safety, nurtured by those who loved her, from her first faint memories in infanthood. But she would soon make a new home in Eryn Lasgalen, with Legolas as her husband. And the thought sent a warm rush of blood through her at the thought.
And as her face colored, Legolas grinned all the more, easing slightly nearer. Speaking not at all, he released her hand, and slipped his arm about her waist, leaning near to plant a quick kiss upon the corner of her smiling mouth.
His eyes, deep and warm, and blue as the ocean, spoke volumes before he opened his mouth and softly breathed, “My parents have spoken of sailing into the West soon.”
“So your mother has confided to me,” she returned, smiling at the memory of their camp the night before, when Queen Aseaiel, ever the dutiful chaperone, had come blithely up behind the two of them as they strayed on the edge of camp beyond the firelight. She had slipped between them as if she belonged, and shooing her suddenly unhappy son back to camp she had linked arms with Lalaith, continuing to stroll along with her as if nothing were out of place.
“Is that what she told you, last night?” Legolas pleaded quietly, his lips twitching with good natured chagrin.
“Yes,” Lalaith smiled, lowering her eyes. “And that if we are willing, you and I will remain as king and queen until after the last of our people sail.”
Legolas’ eyes grew deep and thoughtful at these words as he nodded somberly. “What do you wish?”
Lalaith smiled at his words, at the warmth in his voice as she studied the crumbled path of earth and pebbles passing slowly beneath their feet.
“To stay by your side, wherever you are. That is my greatest wish,” she returned. “Though my heart longs also, to remain in this land, until our mortal friends have passed from it. I could not bear to bid farewell to Pippin while he still lives.”
Legolas drew in a long sigh at this, and pressed a brief kiss to her brow. She could feel him smiling gently. Slowly, she lifted her eyes and met his.
Legolas’ face, at once both youthful and manly, bore a timid smile, his eyes soft, and unguarded. “That is my wish as well,” he admitted softly. “We will remain then. And sail together, at the last, into the West.”
Lalaith’s mouth parted softly at the look in his eyes, and drew up in a slow, gentle smile.
But her eyes turned forward of a sudden as Legolas’ did, when the column ahead of them came around a sharp bend in the trail and stopped unexpectedly.
With an expression of muted alarm, Legolas dropped Rana’s reins, and strode swiftly toward the head of the column. With furrowed brow, Lalaith softly patted the horses’ necks to reassure them, then catching up her skirts, glided swiftly after her betrothed, her eyes growing wide with curiosity as she reached the head of the column where Aragorn stood, softly reassuring Brego who was pawing at the earth as if suddenly nervous. Shadowfax seemed unmoved, but Arwen’s mount, a lithe, white mare, snorted softly, tossing her head briefly though the gentle words of the Elven woman as Arwen bent over her back and stroked her slim neck, soothed the frightened creature.
Lalaith traded a worried glance with Aragorn before they turned their eyes forward and studied the two beggars who were trundling along the road before them, the cause of the horses’ agitation. One was bent over a broken staff, rags of dirty white hanging about his bent frame, ragged grey hair blocking what seemed to be a bearded face and at his heels crept another beggar, clad in ragged black garments, slouching and whining, dark locks hiding his own features. So familiar they seemed! And it was but a moment later, when she realized why as Gandalf spoke.
“Well, Saruman!” the wizard cried. “Where are you going?”
At Gandalf’s greeting, the bent figure paused in the midst of his hobbling, and lifted his head. Saruman’s dark eyes came into view, and Lalaith felt her heart grow chill.
“What is that to you?” Saruman demanded, his voice harsh and clear. “Are you here to make a mock of me? Are you not content with my ruin?”
“You know the answers,” Gandalf returned with a deep sigh. “No and no. Were I to choose, I would not be your enemy. But it appears that our paths have gone different ways, and so we are at odds. Though it is no pleasure to me. I feel nothing but sorrow for you, Saruman, and pity.”
For a moment, Saruman’s eyes kindled at this, and he barked, coughing as he did, “I do not wish for your pity, and your sad smiles! I prefer your frowns.”
“So it seems,” returned Gandalf with a low sigh. “Yet still I mourn for you, Saruman, and for what you could have been. As I mourn for you, Gríma Wormtongue, and your sister. You need not stay with him, surely you know this?”
The other beggar, who had sat down upon the ground, lifted a pale face at this, and eyed Gandalf without speaking.
“Where is she?” Gandalf asked, his voice low, and almost gentle. “Where is Greta?”
“Dead, I do not doubt!” wailed Saruman before Gríma could speak, and the dark haired beggar glared at him where he sat, dejected and weary, in the middle of the trail.
“She said we were shameful and weak,” mumbled Gríma, where he sat upon the ground, his eyes down. “She said that we slowed her, and she wished no longer to journey with us. She went on ahead, along this path, northward.”
“And last night,” cut in Saruman, a cruel gleam in his eye, “I heard wolves howling in the dark, in the foothills. Doubtless they have slain her. Fitting end, to a worthless handmaid.”
Saruman cackled, and his voice was as the dry rasping of clattering bones as his narrowed eyes scanning the mounted Elves beyond Gandalf. His dark gaze trailed across Galadriel and Celeborn, and past Aragorn and Arwen. His glare grated over Lalaith, and she shuddered inwardly at the chill glance of his eye, though she met his dark gaze boldly before his glare moved on to Legolas beside her. Saruman sneered as his gaze traveled past them, though when his eyes came to rest upon Calassë tall and shining upon her mount, his eyes stopped. The sneer fell from his face, and his already wane flesh grew all the more pale. Darkness bitter than before, drew itself across his countenance.
“You,” he hissed darkly. “I know you! Cravenly slave, Burza! Do these fine people you ride among know who you truly are?”
“We know who she is, Saruman!” Gimli crowed loudly. “The question is, do you know?”
The Dwarf brandished his axe menacingly, but at a look from Calassë’s pleading eyes, lowered the blade again, grumbling his discontent at Saruman beneath his breath.
“This is Calassë, of Gondolin,” Elrohir called out, his voice strong and undaunted as he eased his mount forward, his eyes sparking suddenly with challenge as he gazed levelly upon the broken wizard. “A pure and noble maiden of the House of the Golden Flower. And she has risen above the darkness. It is not a part of her.”
“Burza is naught but a filthy orc slave,” Saruman seethed.
“My name is not Burza,” Calassë called out, her voice clear and keen as she turned her mount beside Elrohir’s so that she might look upon the angry beggar. Her gaze was unwavering. “My name is Calassë. And you have no power over me.”
Saruman glared at this, though he seemed no longer to have anything to say. And he spun away, kicking at Gríma upon the ground.
“Get up, you idiot!” he shouted. “Turn about! If these fine folk are going our way, we shall take another. Get on, or I shall leave you behind, to die upon the teeth of the wargs, like that worthless strumpet!”
A look of wild hatred seized Wormtongue’s eyes as these words. “My sister was a child, once!” he wailed pitifully at Saruman’s back even as he slouched after the shuffling wizard.
“Paugh, just as you once were, indolent fool. Yet you are both fallen. Had I not taken your service, your own foolishness still would have broken the both of you!” Saruman scoffed without turning about as he drew past Lalaith where she sat high upon Hasufel’s back. “Now do as I say, and follow me.”
A darkness deep and poisonous broiled within Gríma’s eyes then, and Lalaith began slowly to shrink away from the ragged dark clad beggar as his eyes flitted from her to the fallen wizard, and back again. And with speed borne of mindless rage, he snatched a blade from within the folds of one of his ragged sleeves, hidden before now, and with a cry, leapt toward Saruman.
“Gríma!” Gandalf shouted in alarm as Shadowfax wheeled about, but the ragged creature did not heed him, plunging the blade deep into Saruman’s back, once and then again.
Saruman stiffened and jerked erect as he let out a wild cry, garbled with blood in his throat before he fell, crumpled upon the ground.
With a yell of fury, Gríma spun blindly toward the Elves, his eyes darkened with rage, the knife, still dripping blood, raised in his angry fist. The twang of bowstrings sounded and he staggered suddenly, his angry expression turning into one of pained shock. The blade dropped harmlessly from his fingers and his mouth fell open as his gaze fell to the several arrows that quivered in his body. A thin line of bloody drool trailed down from his mouth before he groaned softly, and tipped backward. His body struck the earth heavily near where Saruman lay. Upon their ponies, Merry and Pippin, their faces written with indignation and sorrow as well, lowered their small bows as did the Elves about them.
Gríma stirred once, moaned softly, pitifully, and then lay still, his eyes open to the sky.
In silence, Lalaith staggered against Legolas who had come to her side and grasped her arm in his warm, sturdy grip. She clung to him tightly, her heart heavy, staring in dismay over the two fallen bodies as the Elves about them released a collective breath. Above the body of Saruman, a grey mist seemed to gather and rise, forming above the dead wizard like a pale, shrouded figure. For a moment, it wavered, looking to the West, but, as if in despair, the shrouded mist bent away, and with a sigh, dissolved into nothing.