“ ‘E’s dead. ‘E took a little tumble off the cliff!” The orc’s harsh voice stopped Legolas in his tracks. He turned and went back to the orc’s side, kneeling by it in distaste.
“You lie.” he said softly, coldly, making no move to ease the orc’s torment.
“See for yourself!” The words were gleeful, filled with malice. Then it gave a hoarse gasp, shuddered, and was still.
As Legolas was about to stand, a glint of silver in the orc’s paw caught his eye. Gingerly, trying not to touch the foul creature, he freed the object from the death grip. It was Arwen’s pendant, that she had given to Aragorn before they left Rivendell.
Aragorn had never removed it since then.
It was stained with blood now, black orc blood, and something else. Human blood.
Still clutching the necklace, he stood, searching again, among the living, the wounded - and the dead. Then, very slowly, he made his way to the top of the escarpment.
Legolas stood at the top of the cliff, gazing down in despair at the water churning far below. He could see the body of the warg, lying broken on the rocks at the water’s edge, but Aragorn was gone.
No. No. This isn’t possible.
There had been times when he had really believed they could achieve this quest, despite the tragedies that had beset them. Gollum’s escape, the horrific deaths of his guards, Gandalf’s fall in Moria, Boromir’s death.
But now ... this.
Gandalf may have been returned to them; he could not hope for a second miracle.
He became aware of a sharp pain in his hand, and realised he was still holding the pendant in his clenched fist, gripping it so tightly that the edges had dug in and left a clear imprint on his palm.
Somehow, he would return it to Arwen, though he dreaded the task. He had promised her that he would keep Aragorn safe, and suspected Aragorn had made a similar vow. But he had failed both of them.
That last afternoon in Imladris, Legolas had sought Arwen out, finding her on the terrace, watching the preparations for their departure. He had known Arwen since they were both children, and loved her dearly. She was like the sister he had never known. As he made his farewell, he saw the shadow of sadness in her eyes.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’ll keep him safe for you. I promise.”
She had smiled at that. “And how will you manage that? I don’t think Aragorn will appreciate you looking after him. No, your job is to protect Frodo. Aragorn can look after himself.”
“Maybe. But my promise holds.” He hesitated then, and broached a more delicate subject. “ I know you’ve given him the Evenstar. Does your father know? What does he say?”
“He thinks I am wrong. You know he loves Aragorn like a son. But he fears for me. One day Aragorn will - will die. I know that. Father thinks I should not commit myself to a mortal life. He wants me to retain my immortality, and go over the sea, where I will never forget Aragorn. But that would be only a memory.”
“Then I hope both of you fulfill your dreams. You have my blessing, you know that. Be happy.”
Tenderly, he reached out and touched her face with his fingertips. She returned the gesture, and whispered: “Be careful. May you all return safely. We all depend on this quest. It is our only hope.”
What he felt now was more than his own sorrow at Aragorn’s death, more than the effect the news would have on Arwen. It was the death of hope.
Legolas looked up in surprise as he felt a hand touch his shoulder. Théoden stood there, his own grief still stark in his eyes.
“Come. Leave the dead. We must continue to Helm’s Deep.”
Legolas looked at him in disbelief, about to retort angrily, but then he stopped and sighed, nodding. There was nothing he could do now. And he would not abandon these people. There was still a battle to fight.
He could go on where there was no hope, if he had to. He had learned to live without hope once before. He could do it again.
Tearing himself away from the cliff edge, he tucked the pendant away safely, and went to find Arod.
They finally arrived at Helm’s Deep after a long, weary ride, but without further incident. The women and children, led by Éowyn, had arrived and were safely settled in the caverns.
Legolas’ first sight of the fortress was astounding. Built across the valley, the formidable outer wall was high, looking unbreachable, totally impregnable. Behind the outer defences was an inner ring of stone, and behind that, the citadel. The Hornburg. It was tall, imposing - and depressing. There was too much stone here, and too little greenery.
As he and Gimli rode through the gates into the courtyard, Éowyn was waiting. She looked at them both, relieved to see them safe, but then her gaze went immediately past him, looking in vain for one who was not there.
“So few. There are so few who have returned.” She sounded bewildered. Then, although from her face she already knew the answer, she asked softly: “Where is the Lord Aragorn?”
Legolas could not answer her, and just shook his head. It was left to Gimli to explain that he was gone.
“He fell, defending the retreat. We were outnumbered. I’m sorry, Lady.”
Legolas’ despair intensified as he inspected the defences. There were so few warriors here. Most of the young fighting men were missing, exiled with Éomer, and there were precious few of them, anyway. All that was left here were women and children and old men. But they would fight, because they must. There was no one to come to their aid. Rohan stood alone, abandoned by the other realms of men - and by the elves.
His despair began to turn to anger. Too many of his own people were leaving Middle-earth, turning their backs on the world of men. Did they think they would be safe, across the sea? The shadow would reach even there, if it were not stopped. He felt shamed by their selfishness and blindness. The old alliances were dead, it seemed.
In the distance, he could see a single horseman riding hard for Helm’s Deep. He turned away, incurious, uncaring. What possible difference could one more make? But by the time the rider reached the fortress, there were cries going up, cheers, a name being shouted out. Incredulous, he went swiftly to the courtyard and waited.
Exhausted, wounded, but very much alive, Aragorn made his way up the steps and stopped only feet away. Legolas regarded him expressionlessly.
“You’re late,” was all he said. Then he allowed a smile of relief to light his face, and embraced his friend warmly. “You look terrible.”
Aragorn gave a short laugh. “It’s a long story. But I had to come back. I told Arwen I’d stop you getting yourself killed.”
“And what did she say to that?”
“That you could look after yourself!”
Legolas smiled at that comment. He should have known.
“That reminds me. I have something for you.” He reached into a pocket, retrieving the Evenstar, and tipped it into Aragorn’s hand. “I think this is yours.”
As Aragorn took it, he realised the symbolism went deeper than Arwen’s token of her love. Legolas was giving the union his seal of approval. Elrond and Thranduil had wanted them betrothed as children, although both Arwen and Legolas had had other ideas. Legolas had reassured him that there was nothing in it, but not before he had had much fun at Aragorn’s expense. Now ... he took the pendant, refastening the chain around his neck.
“Thank you.” The words meant so much more than their face value.