“Oi, Lalaith?” Pippin’s chirpy little voice invaded the warm, half wakefulness of her sleep, and Lalaith stirred softly at his voice, becoming aware of the small confines of the boat where she was curled, trying to sleep fitfully, and how her braided hair, coiled beneath her head where it rested on a plank, made a very inadequate pillow. A small hand was gently shaking her shoulder. “Are you awake? Or asleep? I can’t tell.”
“She’s asleep. Both of `em are.” Answered Merry’s voice. “But leave off. Boromir said he’d take her watch.”
“Oooh.” Gurgled Pippin. “Gives me the shivers. How can elves sleep like that? Don’t they get dust in their eyes?”
Groaning softly, Lalaith lifted herself from sleep, blinked her eyes, and focused them on Pippin.
Pippin was leaning over into her boat, jostling her shoulder, while Merry sat a few paces away perched upon a low, twisted piece of log. His eyes were wide, his little pipe puffing away as he watched her sleeping as if it were the most entertaining thing he had ever seen.
“Lalaith! You’re awake!” Pippin grinned, as if he had just accomplished an amazing feat.
She glanced about herself, taking in their surroundings with a fresh perspective. Hours before, when they had moored their boats on this thin strip of rocky shoreline, the wane light of the new moon had shown little, even to her elven eyes, and she had been too exhausted and preoccupied to notice. The three boats rested side by side on this thin strip of rocky ground bordering the Anduin. The ordeal of the earlier night was but a memory now, and for that, Lalaith was glad.
She shivered as she sat up, thinking of jutting rocks and the rapids of Sarn Gebir that had come upon them unexpected in the darkness of the night, and had driven their boats nearly upon the shoals of the eastern bank. She remembered the dark, foreboding figures that had been running to and fro in the shadows along the eastern bank of the river, and the twang of orcish bows. And as if to serve as a chilling reminder that it had not been a frightening dream, a black feathered shaft even now, still protruded from the gunwale of Merry and Pippin’s boat. But thankfully, none of them had been hurt, and they had at last turned their boats to the western shore, and had taken a brief rest. But that had not been the last of their troubles.
What that dark winged shape in the sky had been, Lalaith still was not certain. It could not have boded well for them, for the very sight of it coming at them from the south, tar black against the night sky blotting out the moon and the stars, filled her heart with dread, and burned the scar in the back of her shoulder. But then the bow of Lorien had sang, Legolas’ arrow had flown from his bow, the one Galadriel had gifted to him, strung with Lalaith’s own hair, and a harsh, croaking scream had emitted from the black shadow before it had fallen into the darkness over the eastern bank. Lalaith shuddered again now to remember it, grateful it was now only a memory.
“Pippin. Merry.” She greeted the hobbits at last, forcing a grin and sitting up, causing the warm Lorien cloak that had been tucked snuggly about her, to tumble to her waist. She looked at it wonderingly, for her own was fastened about her shoulders. She heard Legolas release a soft breath in his sleep. Perhaps Legolas-, but when she turned and looked upon him, where he slept in the stern of the boat, beyond the ever snoring Dwarf, she could see the green leaf brooch still fastened at his throat, his own cloak shrouding him warmly.
So whose cloak was this? It was too long to belong to any of the hobbits. Besides, she could see that Pippin and Merry both wore theirs. It might be Aragorn’s. But she could see Aragorn sleeping lightly, in his boat, seated almost upright. Aside from his closed eyes, he looked awake. His cloak was wrapped about his shoulders, and fastened with the leaf brooch as well, so it was not his.
Lalaith felt her face flushing furiously, as she realized who had once again, so thoughtfully covered her with his own cloak, so that she might be warm.
“Do either of you know where Boromir is?”
“He’s watching for trouble.” Merry offered helpfully, pointed out path that led up through thick bramble, perhaps toward a higher place where a lookout could perch.
“I don’t think he’s slept.” Pippin added cheerily. “But he swears he’s not tired.”
“Or cold?” Lalaith queried, lifting Boromir’s cloak questioningly. As an elf, extremes in temperature did not affect her as easily as they would a mortal, but she still felt herself shivering from the chill in the air, and knew Boromir would feel the effects more than she.
The two hobbits shrugged helplessly in answer to her question as Lalaith scrambled up to her feet and hopped from the boat. “I’ll go return this to him.”
Pippin and Merry nodded agreeably, and turned their rapt attention onto Legolas, where he was sleeping, his eyes open and unblinking, gazing sightlessly up through the sparse branches of the scrubby trees that surrounded them, at the diamond stars set against the black velvet of the sky.
“When’s he going to blink?” Pippin complained beneath his breath. “It hurts just to watch!”
Lalaith turned away from the hobbits, hopping lightly over the rough stones that edged the river, and scrambled up the gnarled path. It wound steeply upward through thick growth, ending at last on a ledge partially concealed by vegetation, but clear enough that it gave one a fair view of the river, of the boats below where the others rested, and of possible coming trouble. Boromir was here, as the hobbits had promised, standing at the edge of the steep bank, one hand clutching a low hanging branch as he gazed intently out over the river, his other hand holding something small within it, his eyes occasionally dropping to whatever it was he held. He smiled softly, turning it over as if he wanted to admire it from all angles. And in spite of her being so close to him, he appeared to be oblivious to her. It was difficult to see, half concealed in his hand, but it looked like, Lalaith bit her lip hard, a ring. Her heart thundered suddenly within her, and she wondered if somehow he had gotten the One Ring from Frodo. But no. As she turned and glanced below her at Frodo where he slept, half propped up against the side of his boat, she could see the glimmer of the One Ring, still upon the chain that hung around his neck. So what was this, that Boromir held within his hands?
Lalaith took another silent step, straining forward to see what it was, when a twig cracked softly beneath her foot.
Boromir’s head jerked up, and the hand holding whatever he had been gazing at, darted into a leather pouch on his belt, and came out empty.
“Lalaith.” He said as he turned to face her. “What do you want?” His voice was a little abrupt and harsh, and Lalaith found herself frowning.
“That is-,” Boromir’s voice faltered, growing softer, and penitent. “I did not hear you coming.”
“Then it appears that Legolas is not the only one who allows himself to be distracted.” She returned, hearing the angry spite in her voice, surprised that she didn’t even care whether it hurt him or not. She had not spoken to Boromir since the night he had come barging with the grace of an angry bull, into the silence and the peace of the moon lit glade where she had danced with Legolas, where he was about to kiss her for the first time in days uncounted.
“Yes, I-, you are right.” He stammered, and his eyes shot downward. “I-, I am sorry.” After a short pause, he added, “For everything.”
Lalaith pursed her lips, and glanced away, trying to force herself to believe that Boromir was indeed truly sorry.
Everything had been perfect between her and Legolas before Boromir came. And after Boromir had left, though Legolas had held her, and soothed her back to calm, he had not tried to kiss her again. The quiet, almost hallowed serenity was, after all, gone, ruined by Boromir’s spoiled fit of temper.
Lalaith looked Boromir over, suddenly angry and annoyed. It took all her strength to keep herself from spouting more cutting words at him, informing him of how truly flawed and wretched he was, until she remembered the gray Lorien cloak folded over her arm.
She looked down at it, feeling foolish, for Boromir had given up on his own comfort for her sake. And with that thought, much of her anger melted away.
“Boromir, thank you.” She murmured, thrusting the cloak toward him. “It was not even needed. I was not ill or hurt, and yet once again, you gave me the loan of your cloak.”
“Do not think on it.” He returned with a small shake of his head. He took a step forward, but his hand did not extend to take the proffered cloak back. “It was my pleasure, Lalaith.”
His eyes probed into hers, and suddenly Lalaith felt terribly awkward.
“Thank you, again.” She muttered, and pressed the cloak against his chest and released it, so that he was forced to catch it in his hands.
She turned quickly away.
Boromir gulped and blurted, “I am worried about you, Lalaith.”
“Worried?” Lalaith asked, she stopped, turning her head halfway. “Why?”
Boromir released a soft laugh as if her question had humored him. “We are journeying into Mordor. We are passing through the hill country of the Emyn Muil. With all that has happened, especially this last night, why shouldn’t I be worried?”
“I know what our quest is about, Boromir.” Lalaith frowned, turning back to him. “I know where we are. But why did you say you were worried about me? You could as easily say `Lalaith, I am worried about Merry. I am worried about Pippin.’ By Arda, Boromir, why not worry about Frodo? He is the Ringbearer!”
Boromir’s face twisted. “I am sorry. I only-,” he gulped hard. “I care about you, Lalaith. You are a woman. I-, I know you have Lord Elrond’s blessing, but in truth, I wish you had not come with us. I was raised to be a warrior, and from my earliest memories, I have always been taught that women are not dragged along to battle, but to be protected-,”
“You mean cloistered away?” Lalaith shot back, a part of her regretting that she was being so unkind to him. But coupled with her anger that still was still smarting after what he had done, their first night on the river, his stammered attempt at expressing tender feelings for her, was inciting her to snap at him. She well remembered the curse that Sauron had spoken, and how Manwe had only the power to partially counter it. Any mortal who ever learned to love her deeply, would die because of that love. Eolyn had loved her as if Lalaith were her own child, and she had died. And if Boromir loved her with more than the love of a brother for a sister, then he too would die. Lalaith shuddered at the thought, and glanced hard at the ground.
“Lalaith,” Boromir asked softly, stepping forward, and touching her arm with gentle fingers. “Lalaith. What have I done to offend you?”
Her eyes shot to his face as she jerked her arm from his touch. “How can you dare to ask such a question, Boromir?” She fumed. “You know what you did! Must I remind you? You questioned the honor of my lover. How could you dare to speak thusly?”
Boromir’s face flinched as she said this. But unlike what she expected, his expression was not one of anger, but of deep, fathomless sorrow, and regret.
“Lalaith,” he breathed, his voice choking, “Lalaith. I was wrong. I am sorry.” Boromir gulped hard. “I should not have done what I did, but when I saw him with you in his arms-,” his voice seemed to go dry.
“Boromir,” Lalaith blurted suddenly, “you have heard of what I saw in the Lady Galadriel’s Mirror, have you not?”
“Yes, you spoke of it, while we were yet in Lorien.” Boromir’s voice was soft. He did not seem perturbed in the least that she had interrupted him. He even seemed a little relieved that she had.
“You know the story of Eolyn, then?”
“Eolyn, the wife of Anarion.” Boromir answered with a nod. “The mortal woman who saved you, who had lived for more than two thousand years in the tower of Barad-Dur. Hearing her story answered more than your own questions. No one had ever learned what happened to her after her husband’s death.”
“She died saving me, Boromir.” Lalaith answered, her voice catching slightly as she spoke.
“Yes, so you said.”
“Have I not told you of the curse Sauron spoke of me, when I was a baby?” She asked with pleading in her tone.
“That any mortal you ever learn to care for, would die.” Boromir said with a nod, his brow furrowed.
“It is more than that,” Lalaith murmured softly, “Eolyn died because she loved me. She did not simply care for me. She loved me as if I were her own daughter.”
Lalaith’s throat felt dry as her words continued to tumble from her mouth. “I do not fear for Aragorn, where the curse is concerned, for though he is one of my greatest, most trusted friends, he loves me only as a sister. No more than that. His heart belongs to my cousin, Arwen.”
Boromir was silent for a moment before he spoke. “You are saying that any mortal man who loves you as strongly as a lover,” he gulped and added, “as Legolas loves you, would be in danger of the fate that befell Eolyn.”
“Yes, Boromir.” Lalaith said with a slow nod.
“You have nothing to fear, then.” Boromir said slowly, struggling to offer a smile, though it was weak and thin. His voice was soft, and Lalaith doubted that she would have been able to hear it without her elven hearing. “Legolas is an Elf.”
Lalaith tried to find Boromir’s eyes in the darkness, to see if there was something he was hiding from her, but he would not look at her.
Below her, Lalaith could hear her companions stirring, and Sam and Frodo were awake, and Lalaith turned to see Sam glancing up at the moon above them as he began to speak.
“It’s very strange.” Muttered Sam in the quiet as the soft ripples of the river murmured eternally in the background. “The Moon’s the same in the Shire and in the Wilderland, or it oughter be. But either it’s out of its running, or I’m all wrong in my reckoning. You’ll remember, Mr. Frodo, the Moon was full as we lay on that flet up in that tree. And we come out of the woods, and the Moon’s still full. We’ve been a week on the way, and you can see how the moon’s waning, a week from the full, now, as if we had never stayed no time in the Elvish country.
“‘Course, I can remember three nights in there for certain, and I seem to remember several more, but I would take my oath it was never a whole month. You’d think that time did not count in there.”
“Perhaps that is the way of it.” Frodo answered his friend. “In that land, maybe, we were in a time that has elsewhere long gone by. It was not, I think, until Silverlode bore us back to Anduin that we returned to the time that flows through mortal lands to the Great Sea. And I don’t remember any moon in Caras Galadhon, only stars by night and sun by day.”
“No, time does not tarry, ever.” These words, warm in the cold and darkness, came from Legolas who had stirred and woken as the hobbits had been speaking. “But change and growth is not in all places alike. For the Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by. It is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. Yet beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last.”
“Your life is a-, what’d you say? Grief to you?” These sympathetic words were snorted out by a half woken Gimli. “Why’s that, my friend?”
“Mortal friends grow old and die before our eyes. That is why I spoke of grief, but-,” Lalaith could see Legolas smile through the darkness, “do not worry, Gimli. While Lalaith is in it, my life has enough joy to more than counter the sorrow that I may meet.”
Lalaith smiled at these words, and though she sensed Boromir watching her as Legolas spoke, he glanced quickly away when she turned to look at him.
“I think I will return to the boats now, Boromir.” Lalaith said finally, seeing Boromir’s attention focused studiously away from her as she turned toward the steep path. “Unless-,” she turned back, and lifted her eyes to his face. “Unless you wish to take some sleep for yourself. Pippin fears you have not slept at all since we moored the boats.”
“I am well enough off.” Boromir said, with a gentleness that warmed Lalaith’s blood. “Being alone is refreshing to my mind, Lalaith.”
“Very well, Boromir.” Lalaith said, her own tone softer than it had been.
She smiled, saddened that he did not return the smile, then turned and descended the path toward the river.
Boromir watched her go, feeling the loss of her near presence. But he admitted to himself, as he flung the cloak about his shoulders, and fastened the leaf brooch, that he was grateful for its added warmth, especially knowing that the warmth that lingered upon it, was from her. He reached into the pouch at his side, and felt the smooth, cool contours of her ring, but he did not take it out again. Instead he turned his eyes back on the river.
“Hrm.” Gimli grunted beneath his breath where he sat behind Lalaith as their boat floated placidly along the tide of the Anduin, bordered by gnarled cliffs of gray and white stone, scrubbed with sparse spots of thorn and sloe. “Boromir’s in a foul mood.”
Lalaith glanced over her shoulder at the dwarf, and he jerked his head in the direction of the boat where Boromir rowed, with Pippin and Merry in front of him, oblivious to their companion’s somber disposition. Boromir’s face did not lift to meet her gaze when she looked at him, and was furrowed and drawn down.
“He believes Minas Tirith is the safer route.” Legolas murmured from behind the dwarf. “Aragorn, though, does not want to take the ring anywhere near the cities of Men.” Legolas’ glance at her over the top of Gimli’s head spoke plainly enough that he too, knew there was more to Boromir’s melancholy, than that.
“Hrm hmm.” Gimli grunted, and nodded somberly, though he did not say more.
Lalaith turned her eyes away from Boromir, and faced forward, not wishing to see his wounded, tormented face any more.
The cliffs edging the Anduin had been rising higher, the river winding through narrow cataracts between the jutting cliff walls, their sight of the river ahead limited only to the next bend. And so, when the first towering statue came into view suddenly, towering above the white cliffs edging the Anduin, the effect was spectacular, especially with the light of the rising sun striking off it, and off of its companion that came into view a moment later.
“Frodo.” Lalaith heard Aragorn in the boat a few measures ahead of her, murmur as he touched Frodo’s shoulder and glanced upward. “The Argonath.”
A breath caught in her lungs and held as the river bent around a cliff, and the full height of the two ancient statues came into view. They stood, on either side of the river, higher than the cliffs surrounding them, their enduring stone faces somber and resolute, the left hand of each extended outward in warning.
“Isildur and Anarion.” Lalaith muttered to herself. She had never seen them before now, but Elrond had spoken to her of them. Men, in ancient days, had carved them out of the raw stone of the cliffs that bordered the river. The signs of the quarrying of stone were still visible where Men had cut them from the sides of the cliffs to fashion these two majestic monoliths that still stood, though they had endured for more than three thousand years.
“Long have I desired to look upon the kings of old. My kin.” Aragorn continued in a reverent tone.
The faces of all her companions lifted upward, awe and wonder written in their countenances. Even Boromir’s face took on a look of weary admiration as the three boats floated like light, quick leaves beneath the aged stone feet of the ancient giants.
Past the Argonath, the river rushed more quickly now, and the cliffs rose dark on either side. The high walled chasm through which their boats fairly flew, was filled with the roaring of wind and rushing water, and the noise echoed off of the sheer cliffs. It bent, at first, toward the west, so that Lalaith and the others had no clear view of what was ahead. But then a tall gap of light appeared at a bend in the cliffs, and grew ever brighter as they drew near. And then abruptly, they shot through, out into clear, golden light, a blue sky brushed with high, white clouds, and the calm, sparkling water of Nen Hithoel, the Lake of Mist.
Nen Hithoel was a fair, oval shaped lake, bordered by tree covered hills, while at the far southern end, an ever present mist rose into the air, from the eternally roaring falls of Rauros. The falls were split in the middle by the jutting peak of Tol Brandir, and were flanked on either side by the hills of Amon Lhaw, and Amon Hen. Lalaith remembered Elrond telling her that in the ancient days, long even, before her birth, there had been high seats upon those two hills, and watch had been kept there. But now, they were no longer used, the strength of Men no longer what it had once been.
This thought saddened Lalaith a little, especially as she glanced over at Boromir, and saw him gazing forward, his thoughts masked by a face as if made of stone. Perhaps his mind was still dwelling on the Argonath, the statues bordering the lands of Men, the symbols of great might and power, that no longer were. She caught him glance once or twice at Frodo, where the Hobbit sat with Sam and Aragorn, and Lalaith sensed something fearful when his eyes rested upon the Ringbearer.
They paddled their boats slowly along the western shore of the lake until they came upon a small bay carved by the natural wear of the water upon the land, and that had, at least in ancient times, been used. For there were carved stones, worn and ragged from the effects of time, jutting out into the water, helping the natural bay form what had once must have been an ancient docking place. The edge of water was bordered by a bend of land, curved down from the feet of Amon Hen.
It was impossible to see far beyond the strip of ground bordering the little inlet where their turned their boats, for the trees were thick, and shadowed. And ancient time worn, moss covered statues, more remnants of the ancient power of Men, now past, peered through the trees down upon their company, as if silently warning of foreboding danger.
As she looked upon them, a strange, intangible coldness seemed to grip her heart, and Lalaith sensed, though only mutely, a feeling of impending danger.
Silent, she hopped out, as the boat carrying her, Gimli and Legolas, crunched to a stop on the pebbles that lined the edge of the water. She strode to the edge of the trees to peer into the shadows as Gimli and Legolas dragged the boat to higher ground. Behind her, Merry and Pippin tumbled wearily out of their boat, and in Aragorn’s boat, Sam and Frodo also scrambled out, though Frodo’s movements were not so stumbling. He moved with caution as if he were a small animal, sensing an odd premonition of danger. His head was bent downward, and his troubled blue eyes flicked toward Boromir where the Man still sat, his hands gripping the edges of the boat, his head hanging, as if he were utterly weary, though, Lalaith shivered to see it, there was a tenseness in his eyes, as if he were thinking, calculating. He was planning something, she could see it, and she feared to discover what it was.
Pippin and Sam with muttered instructions from Gimli, had already begun laboring to kindle a small fire. Legolas was helping Aragorn drag the boats further away from the waterline, and Merry was busily hunting out dead wood amongst the nearest trees.
But Frodo, with large, worried eyes, was stumbling off into the shadows of the forest. No one else but her had noticed, Lalaith thought, until, with a chill that sent shards of razor edged ice down her spine, she saw Boromir lean his shield against a near tree, and move quietly into the forest shadows, his eyes fixed and determined, following the path Frodo had taken.
Sam sat huddled beneath a moss covered, overhanging rock half asleep, while Pippin and Gimli sat near the fire. Gimli was absently poking a stick into the flames, rousing sparks, as Pippin munched on a mouthful of lembas.
Legolas, however, noticed none of this, as he stood peering into the shadows of the trees, as if they held the answer to the impending sense of doom that would not leave his mind.
“We cross the lake at nightfall. Hide the boats, and continue on foot.” Aragorn’s voice came from behind him, only serving to drive home the shaft of fear that they should not delay leaving any longer. Nightfall would be too late to avoid whatever unwanted presence was approaching their company.
“We approach Mordor from the north.”
“Oh, yes?” Gimli’s voice asked, rough edged, and sarcastic. “Just a simple matter of finding our way through Emyn Muil, an impassable labyrinth of razor-sharp rocks. And after that, it gets even better. Festering, stinking marshland as far as the eye can see.”
“That is our road.” Answered Aragorn with a calmness that must have infuriated the Dwarf, and Legolas would have found amusing, if he were not preoccupied with the tense foreboding that filled his thoughts. “I suggest you take some rest and recover your strength Master Dwarf.”
“Recover my-?” Gimli huffed, affronted. “Pghrr!”
An icy fist gripped Legolas’ chest. They should be taking no time here. He spun away from the trees and strode quickly to Aragorn who glanced up as he approached.
“We should leave now.” Legolas said softly but insistently.
“No.” Aragorn shook his head lightly. “Orcs patrol the eastern shore. We must wait for cover of darkness.”
“It is not the eastern shore that worries me.” Legolas insisted glancing searchingly back at the trees. “A shadow and a threat has been growing in my mind.” He turned back to Aragorn, glad that his words were drawing up Aragorn’s own concern. “Something draws near. I can feel it.”
“Recover strength?” Huffed Gimli at the fire. “Pay no heed to that, young Hobbit.”
Merry approached the fire, and dumped an armful of deadwood beside it, and with a companionable slap to Gimli’s shoulder, straightened up, and glanced around, a questioning look growing on his small face.
“Where’s Frodo?” He asked innocently.
His question brought Sam out of his half sleeping state, and the others glanced sharply around.
The question caused a leap of anxiety in Legolas heart, though he did not show it until his eyes darted about, and he noticed that others were missing, as well.
“Boromir.” Aragorn said softly, though now there was an edge in his voice as he nodded toward the Gondor Lord’s abandoned shield.
“Lalaith!” Legolas almost choked on her name, cursing himself inwardly for not having noticed before. “Where is Lalaith?”
His eyes swept once, and then twice through the trees as if somehow he had missed her, and would see her again, but she did not appear. And the threatening sensation, that he had thought could not grow any darker, suddenly became a black weight in his chest.
Frodo and Boromir had disappeared, and Lalaith with them.