A giggling, dark-haired child of about three raced across the grass towards her mother. She was hotly pursued by an older boy who slowed his steps to allow his sister to win the race. She was unable to control her feet well at this speed and fell in a breathless heap at the feet of a short figure standing beside her mother. Gnarled hands with short, stubby fingers gently picked the girl up and set her on her feet. “Carefully, Lady Ithilia!”
She wobbled again and grabbed at the dwarf’s beard for support. He growled at her in mock ferociousness and she laughed again. Her laughter was echoed by another.
“Well, Gimli! It seems you have at last found a companion to match your stature!”
All four tuned to look at the newcomer who crossed the lawn towards them. Ithilia gave a squeal and ran towards the tall figure, who swung her high in the air. Gimli snorted and called “Be careful, my friend. There is one who will soon challenge your beauty!”
At this, Ithilia’s mother, Arwen rose to her feet, turning her face away from the others to hide her smile. She greeted the new arrival with a smile that deepened to a warm embrace. “Legolas - it is wonderful to see you again! Why do you not come here more often?”
The Elf returned her embrace, a little clumsily as he still had Ithilia perched on his hip, and added a kiss to her brow. “My Lady Arwen, you of all people should know that I prefer the company of the trees and forests to dead stone, even in your glorious city! I come as often as I ……” Here he broke off, looking down. The child was tugging at his tunic in a successful attempt to gain his attention. “Leg’as! Leg’as!”
Legolas looked at Arwen ruefully. Dropping his earlier formality, as she had not reacted, he continued “….. can bear. By the Valar, Arwen, did you have to teach both your brats that name? I thought I lived it down when you and your brothers outgrew it!” He glared over her shoulder at Gimli, who looked at if he was storing the name away for future use.
Before Arwen could respond, he stepped away from her and glanced around. They were in the highest circle of Minas Tirith, on a smooth green lawn that lay before the tower where King Elessar dwelt. The state rooms, where all formal business and government were dealt with, lay on the far side of this tier of the city. That was known as the King’s Tower, but all who knew him well knew that this smaller tower, surrounded by gardens, and overflowing with children (his own and their friends), animals, and just a handful of trusted servants, was the true heart of the city.
“It is good to be back. It has been too long since I saw you and Aragorn. My work in Ithilien….”
“Does not keep you THAT busy. Even Gimli is a more frequent visitor,” Arwen protested.
“The Dwarf has nothing more important to occupy him than a few caves!” Legolas pointed out.
Arwen stopped listening and glanced at her children. Ithilia was just delighted to see her friends again, while Eldarion looked bemused at the banter. He had once tried to top one of Legolas’ jibes about Gimli’s height by pointing out that he was now two inches taller than the Dwarf, when they had both smoothly changed pace and berated his father about ill-mannered offspring. He had apologised, but later confided to his father that he found it hard to understand the pair. He clearly remembered his father’s answer – “I have known them both for many years now, and they always bicker. But threaten one, and you will find yourself facing both.” Aragorn had paused, then added confidingly, “I don’t understand them either.”
Now Arwen shivered as a cloud passed over the sun. Raising her head to the sky, she watched as dark clouds massed above the surrounding hills. One of the vicious storms that sometimes lashed the city was gathering.
Later that afternoon Aragorn, Arwen, Legolas and Gimli exchanged news. Outside the sky darkened. At the far end of the room Eldarion had been watching from a window. He turned to Aragorn. “Father, can I go up to the tower to watch? I’ll be careful. And I told Mihal I’d see him later.”
Aragorn studied the clouds. The storm was still distant. “Very well. But only five minutes. And be back from Mihal’s before supper. Faramir and Éowyn will be joining us.”
After the boy had left, Legolas resumed his tale of Gimli’s last visit to Ithilien. It seemed he had finally persuaded the Dwarf to try riding a pony of his own. It had not been a success. The beast’s saddle had slipped, though Legolas swore he had tightened it, and Gimli had been dumped unceremoniously on the ground. Legolas, helpless with laughter, had not been able to help him to his feet for some time.
“I know that fool Elf hadn’t checked it properly! He had no idea what he was doing – he never uses the things himself anyway!” Gimli continued to mutter darkly about the shortcomings of both Elves and ponies. Then he brightened, describing the time he had given Legolas a tour of Aglarond and the Glittering Caves, and managed to get them both lost. The Elf was decidedly edgy before Gimli finally found the right passage after several wrong turns – especially when Gimli dropped the torch, plunging them into darkness for the latter part of their journey. The memory was still sweet.
Outside, rain lashed against the windows. Lightning flared distantly. Servants moved silently about the room, lighting candles and torches against the night. Legolas was remote, only half listening. He had laughed with the others at Gimli’s tale, but a distant memory of crushing pain and darkness hovered at the edges of his mind. He shook his head to clear the images, but could still feel a tension. Suddenly he turned his head, as if listening to something only he could hear.
“Something is wrong. I think … Aragorn, where is Eldarion?”
“He went to see a friend. He’ll be here later.”
But now Arwen too was on her feet. Her perceptions were no longer as keen as Legolas’ but Eldarion was her son. “I can find him.”
She and Gimli went towards the guards’ barracks where Mihal lived with his father. At her instructions servants spread out to search the grounds. Legolas, following some unheard prompting, moved to the stairs that wound upwards, spiralling towards the roof.
“He can’t still be up there! He knows only too well the dangers of these storms. And look at the rain – he’d be drenched!” Aragorn followed Legolas up the stairs. He spoke more to reassure himself than to convince the Elf, for he too felt deeply uneasy.
After climbing many flights they came to the door that led onto the battlements. It was firmly closed, the latch down. Aragorn breathed a sigh of relief. The door was always wedged open when anyone was on the roof. The relief was short lived. It turned to sharp anxiety when a faint pounding could be heard from the other side of the door, above the roar of the storm.
Legolas pulled at the handle, but Aragorn reached out a hand to stop him. “It opens outwards.” Raising his voice to be heard through the thick wood he told Eldarion to move away from the door. He and Legolas pushed hard, but the door was still jammed fast. They both threw their whole weight against it and suddenly it flew open, sending Aragorn sprawling on the rain-soaked flagstones. Legolas caught his balance and moved across to where Eldarion crouched in the meagre shelter of the wall. He was soaked to the skin and shivering.
Out here the storm raged full force. A vicious wind howled around the stonework and driving rain puddled underfoot. Already a thin rivulet of water was running down the stairs. Overhead dark clouds loomed, close enough to touch, it seemed, while the mutter and rumble of thunder could be heard.
The Elf bent down to the boy’s level and extended his hand. “Come. Shall we get you dry?”
As they stood, Aragorn enveloped his son in a hard embrace. Eldarion was shaking with cold and fright, and trying not to cry with relief. “Father, I’m sorry. The door – I can’t have wedged it open properly. It slammed shut, and I couldn’t open it, it was jammed!”
Legolas, his hair plastered to his head, raised his face to the sky, letting the rain wash over it, revelling in the feel of the wind and rain. But then there was a sharp metallic taste in the air and he suddenly stiffened in alarm. “We must leave here, now!”
They had taken only two steps when Legolas pushed Eldarion, hard, towards the open stairwell. As he fell against his father there was a searing flash of light and an ear-splitting crash. The sharp taste in the air intensified, but for a while neither Aragorn nor Eldarion could see or hear anything. Deafened and blinded, they crouched in the shelter of the stairwell, until finally with a deep sense of foreboding Aragorn turned back to the roof. He could still barely see, but could make out a dark shape against the stones. With a sharp command to Eldarion to stay where he was, Aragorn was at his friend’s side in two long strides. Then: “Eldarion. Get help.”
He already feared the boy’s errand was pointless, but it was the only way to get him safely away from the danger that still flickered above.
It also gave Aragorn a precious moment alone.
He did not hear the terrified boy’s footsteps clatter down the stairs, did not hear the thunder that still cracked overhead, as he knelt beside Legolas, heedless of the teeming rain.
“No. No. This isn’t possible. It can’t be,” he whispered to himself.
The Elf lay staring sightlessly at the skies, one arm still outstretched where he had pushed Eldarion. He was open-eyed, but this was subtly, chillingly different from his uncanny habit of sleeping. Terrifyingly different. Trying to deny what he already knew, Aragorn touched Legolas at his throat and wrist, trying to find any faint flicker of life. There was nothing, nor the slightest intake of breath.
Head bowed, Aragorn knelt in silence, tears mingling with the bitter rain still streaming down from the starless, darkling sky.Next chapter