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The Green Knight  by Le Rouret


            “Well, there you are at last!” cried Bandobras in delight when they entered.  “Finally, finally!  I have nearly gone mad with hunger.  The shin is done to a turn, Master, and the salad is finished; just let me finish putting the things upon the table while you change out of your wet and muddy things.”  The Halfling bustled about the large table, rushing in and out through the flap that led to the kitchen, while his master and the Dwarf silently divested themselves of their soiled outer clothing.  It had begun to grow colder, so Bandobras had lit the fire-pot in the center of the tent, its pipe winding up through the ceiling in a graceful spiral that looked more artistic than functional.  Gimli held out his hands to the warmth and regarded Legolas out of the corner of his eye.  His friend seemed restless and unhappy, pacing barefoot from sideboard to divans with an untouched goblet in his hand.  The rain had stopped during their walk back from eastern Osgiliath and Gimli could hear the wind outside, roaring and soughing about the pennants and poles of the tent and rippling the outer coverings like canvas sails, creating a soft thumping overhead that put the Dwarf in mind of their voyage up the Anduin from Pelargir.  There it was that Legolas had seen the gulls and heard their catlike calls; there it was that Gimli had seen in his friend’s eyes a longing so deep and desperate he felt his heart would break to watch it.  He hoped Legolas was not thinking of the boom of the sails when the wind whipped the tent cover, and that his agitated pacing to and fro was due to Aragorn and Faramir’s restrictions upon him, and not to sea longing.

            At last Bandobras called them to table, and they sat and fell to, their chill and weariness melting away with the warmth and goodness of the food.  The Hobbit chattered happily, indifferent to the puzzle of the letters, saying only he was sure Faramir and Aragorn would work it out, they looked to be such clever fellows.   Even Legolas brightened a little as he ate, and managed a short laugh when Gimli reported to Bandobras all that Aragorn and Faramir had said.

            “A goat!” exclaimed Bandobras indignantly, giving a mushroom a vicious stab with his fork.  “The nerve!  And I thought he was a gentleman.”  He did not seem put out by the constraints set upon his master, but instead heartily approved of them.  “I never liked you going about alone, Master, and that’s the truth,” he said as he gathered up the plates.  “You’re much too popular with the crowd for the tastes of some of these knights.  Why, I was speaking to Hador, who is Araval’s esquire, you know, and he told me there has been much muttering over on the west side of the camp – “ he waved his arm vaguely  “ – saying it’s not fair that you’ve got all the acclaim, as well as all the money.  Too lucky by half you are, to hear them talk; they’re even upset about that.”  He pointed with his free hand to the pile of tokens upon the floor of the tent, which had been kicked informally to the back wall and had begun to grow quite large.  “I told Hador you had no interest in courting, and he said he’d spread it around the other esquires, you know – just so the knights won’t think you’re trying to nick the best girls along with the grand prize.”  He backed out of the tent with the plates piled high in his arms, and Gimli turned to Legolas, who had leant his head on his hand, his elbow upon the table. 

            “You mustn’t take it so to heart, Legolas,” he said; “it is but for a little while, and then it shall be over.  We may even have the good fortune to draw out the hunting lion tomorrow, so that you need only be a goat for one day.”

            “I do not mind being the goat,” said Legolas, his eyes flashing.  “I mind being shut up in a cage, especially when the weather has broken and autumn comes beckoning at the door; now that the heat has lifted and the rains have come my desire is to explore my fiefdom, not to cower within my tent like a rabbit.”  He pushed his goblet away and sat back in his chair, looking about the tent with weary eyes.  “In less than five days’ time will my people arrive,” he said, “and then our settlement will begin in earnest – we shall build telain in the oak trees, and smooth paths in the forest, which I will enchant to protect the wanderer as the road through Eryn Lasgalen is enchanted; we shall hunt out the verbena and the aloe, the garlic and the bay, the horehound and marjoram and cultivate great gardens amid the meadows – “  He broke off with an impatient gesture.  “I have not yet set foot in my lands; I know not how the ground lies, or how the rocky areas fall away from the cataracts, or which valleys have evergreens or oaks – and I am trapped here, unable through my generosity to explore it!”

            “You have many years yet to find all those things,” said Gimli, slapping him roughly on the back.  “Hah!  I know how you feel, my friend; it was a wrench for me to leave Aglarond last year, just when I had discovered that new passage through Ered Nimrais!  And now when I return it will be with a great company of Dwarves, and I shall have to share my wonder with a crowd, which I had hoped to coddle to myself.”  He sighed, and Legolas in turn sighed, and Bandobras came back in, gave them each a look, and placed his fists upon his hips.

            “Well, if you’re going to get grumpy,” he said, “you’d best help me do the washing-up; if I try to do it myself I’ll be here till dawn.”

     After the dishes had been washed and dried and put away, Bandobras hustled them both indoors with an exclamation.  “I shouldn’t have let you outside, Master!” he said, pulling the entrance flap to sharply.  “Who knows who might be lurking about?  We shall have to be more careful in the future.”

     “Yes,” said Gimli dryly; “from now on you are absolved from kitchen-duty, Legolas.”

      They extinguished the lamps, it being quite late, and made ready for their beds.  They each had their own sleeping area, separated by canvas walls, though Bandobras had insisted Legolas get the largest of the three, and the softest of the beds.  It was a feather pallet, set upon rushes, and it had a magnificent coverlet of gold and silver damasked silk; the Halfling had even hung a great blue and gold cloth about it like a canopy, and tied it back with enormous tassels.  He assisted his unprotesting Master into his linen nightshirt and was just folding up Legolas’ doublet and putting it into the trunk when Gimli walked in, stretched his arms, and said, “It’s not so cold outside; the rain has stopped and the stars are out.”

     Legolas threw himself down upon his pallet and exclaimed, to the amazement of his two companions: “How I detest this tent!”  At the silence that followed, during which Gimli and Bandy exchanged worried and bewildered glances, Legolas looked up at them and sighed.  “I am sorry, my friends,” he said softly.  “You have both done so much to nurture and comfort me, and I am truly grateful for you – for your care and cooking, Bandobras,” he said, turning his flaxen head upon the pillow to smile wanly at his esquire.  “And you, Gimli, for your protection and counsel.”

            “But why do you hate our tent?” asked the Hobbit, bewildered.  “It’s the nicest one I could find, really it is.  It’s big and roomy – a little lofty for my tastes, I’ll admit, but I bought it with you in mind, Master, since you’re taller than Gimli and me.  And the embroidery is gorgeous, and so appropriate too; all gold and silver dragons on the green.  Why, I thought you liked it!  What is wrong with it?”

            “Peace, Bandy,” growled Gimli, but his eyes were gentle as he surveyed both the baffled Halfling and the restless Elf.  “It is not the fault of the tent; rather it is the fault of the Elf.  Not fault,” he amended quickly, seeing a flash of temper in his friend’s bright eyes.  “Say rather it is not in his nature to dwell underneath things, as it is in ours to find consolation beneath the earth.”

            “But isn’t Thranduil’s palace in a cavern?” asked Bandobras.

            “It is,” said Legolas, trying hard to speak pleasantly.  “But I do not willingly live underground, as do you.  My heart dwells outside, running upon the green grass beneath the shimmering stars.”

            “Well, your heart can stay there,” said Gimli firmly.  “Your flesh, however, must needs find its comfort in this fine tent that your servant has purchased for you.  You heard Aragorn and Faramir:  For your own safety, and to continue this charade, you must remain hidden.  You cannot walk safely in the open air, not even at night.”

            “Especially not at night,” agreed Bandobras.  “Haven’t you noticed, Gimli, that he glows a bit when he’s singing to the stars?  I saw you,” he said, answering Legolas’ surprised look.  “Glowing, you are, when you sing to Elbereth.  I saw it first when we’d just bought Hatchet.  Gimli and I were lying down by the fire, and you were traipsing off into the woods like you do, and you were singing; and I saw that you had a kind of white light around your head.”

            “Reflection from the moon upon his hair,” muttered Gimli, unnerved.

            “Perhaps,” said Legolas thoughtfully.  But he did not say anything else.

            “Well!” said Bandobras cheerfully, rubbing his hands together.  “If the tent seems to be closing close-like about you, Master, we’ll just open these flaps, shall we?  Windows they called them, when I was looking at the tents, but to my mind if these’re windows, then a bed sheet’s a warrior’s shield.”  He drew a stool over to one of the heavy flaps covering the smaller openings in the tent’s walls and began to untie its corners briskly.

            “Is that wise, do you think?” asked Gimli worriedly.  “Someone might chance to look in and see him.”  He looked down upon his friend, lying pale upon the pallet, his gray eyes glinting in the lamplight.  “No one would think to mistake him for a Man.”

            “Then perhaps they’ll mistake him for a maiden,” snapped Bandobras, opening the window flap.  A cooling breeze, carrying with it the scents of cook fires and horses, pushed into the tent and fluttered the papers on Legolas’ small desk.  The flame in the little lamp bowed and danced crazily, throwing shadows careening upon the walls.  “No one will look in, Gimli,” said the Hobbit, finishing tying the flap open and moving the stool to the other window to unfasten that one.  “Everyone’s eating, or asleep, and anyway I don’t think these Big People are the type to peek in windows.  They’re not quite that impolite.”

            “Speaking of maidens,” said Gimli, eyes narrowing, “I wouldn’t put it past one of them to try ‘peeking,’ as you call it, Bandobras.”

            Bandobras snorted.  “You don’t know much about maidens, then,” he retorted.  The second flap was tied open, and the breeze bent and sighed through the tent.  “They won’t dare walk the camp at night, alone and unattended.  Why, that’d be asking for trouble, that would, and in addition it isn’t something nice young girls do.”

            Gimli looked doubtful, but didn’t argue.  It was true; the breeze had lightened the close atmosphere inside the back bedroom of the tent considerably, though to his Dwarvish sensibilities it seemed most foolish to open to air that which ought to be hidden and protected.  But Legolas had turned upon the pallet, fixing his unblinking stare up through the window, where from that angle he could no doubt see the stars; the look on his fair face was pensive and withdrawn. 

            “Well, Master, and Gimli,” said Bandobras, bowing low.  “I shall bid you both a good night.  It’s been a busy day, I won’t deny it, and I think we’d all be in better spirits if we had a bit of a sleep.  Remember, Master,” he said before closing the curtain on Legolas’ room, beckoning for Gimli to follow him.  “You fight Malbeth at the barriers tomorrow.  You need to be as strong and alert as possible.”  When Legolas did not answer, nor even turn his head from his contemplation of the heavens to acknowledge them, Bandobras snorted and pulled the curtain to behind him with a clatter.

            Legolas lay still, eyes fixed upon the deep blue sky that was scattered with bright points of light.  The dark tops of pine trees waved across to him.  He could hear their voices, faint though they were, calling to one of the Firstborn as one child calls to another to come out and play.  The breeze filled his room with the smells of the camp, of Men and horses and armour and fires, only giving him a tantalizing whiff of the pine forest.  He listened for his companions’ voices, and heard Gimli’s deep “For the last time, good night, Bandy!” and the Hobbit’s answering voice, like a sandpiper:  “Good night to you then, Gimli!”  He could hear them settling into their separate pallets, rustling in the sheets and blankets trying to get comfortable – “Like deer trampling about in the grass before they sleep,” thought Legolas, smiling.  After some moments all was quiet in the next two bedrooms, and Gimli was snoring.

            Legolas couldn’t hear Bandobras’ breathing from behind the inner walls of the tent, so he waited five minutes before moving.  His companions’ rooms were on either side of his own, and they would surely hear the clatter of the door-curtains, so when he deemed the time was right he rolled off his pallet, pulled on a pair of breeches Bandobras had left folded on the trunk, and worked his hand under the outside wall of the tent until he found a peg.  The Man who had hammered in the peg had done so with great strength and vigor (aided, no doubt, by the promise of the superb compensation the perian esquire had given him), and it took Legolas a moment of worrying it with his long fingers before it came loose.  He slid the ring off the peg, listened to make sure no one was passing by, and rolled under the wall.

            He rose to his feet, resisting the urge to take a deep breath; he would breathe the sweeter air later.  Looking this way and that, testing the surroundings with eyes and nose and ears, he slipped down the rows of tents and enclosures to the western wall.  He avoided the back gate, knowing it to be guarded, but he had seen a small oak tree growing inside the wall to the north of the gate and it was for that he headed.  As he approached the tree he could already feel the shades that troubled his heart move away; the tree’s voice called out to him, and he answered it, laying his hands upon its bark and caressing the trunk.  Effortlessly he swarmed up into its branches and dropped over on the other side of the wall.

            There was no one about, and the moon shone in a thin crescent to the west, glowing over the hills and tops of trees and glinting upon the dimpled surface of the River.  The stars stretched their milky banner over his head, and the Hunter coursed through the heavens with his Hound at his heels.  Heedlessly Legolas laughed aloud, stretching his long arms above his head; then, turning, he started to walk east towards the pines on the other side of the river.  Avoiding the drowsing guard he crossed the white arc of the bridge, and cut northward through the green lawn that was thick with water.  Soon walking, he realized, was not getting him to them as fast as he liked, and he began to run, his white shirt rippling behind him, and he laughed again as the trees called to him, stretching out welcoming branches to the child of the Firstborn.  He didn’t hesitate when he reached the first pine, but threw himself up into its branches, and started springing from tree to tree like a large white squirrel.  He was far enough from the camp now; he laughed in right earnest, seeing the stars through the pine needles and feeling the rough bark and sticky sap on his fingers and feet.  He raced through the stand of pines with reckless exhilaration, filling his lungs with the pungent warm air.

            At last he reached the part of the woods where the pines dwindled, to be replaced by linden, and oak, and rowans hung with berries.  He skimmed along, greeting the trees delightedly, until he found the overhung branch of a particularly old oak that invited him to sit upon it, which he did, stretching his full length along it and folding his hands upon his breast.  He looked up at the stars, peeking through the gaps in the leaves, and smiled; then after a time he heard, worrying at the edges of his mind, a chattering, chuckling noise, and his nose caught the scent of fresh water.  He rose and followed the noise, and dropping to the ground beside the little tributary he rejoiced to feel his feet sink slightly into the mud.  He walked upon the cold rocks and put his feet into the water, which swelled around his ankles, glowing like silver in the faint starlight.  Legolas laughed and stretched, his fingers brushing the rosemary bushes to either side, and he gladly breathed in deep their fresh fragrance.  At his feet were large and tangled growths of herbs, and when he moved he could smell the sweet tarragon and basil wafting up to him.  He walked along the edge of the stream until he found a flat rock, upon which he sat, paddling his long feet and sending up glitters like white gems and silver beads into the cooling air.  At last the rocks and the water called to him, and he removed his clothing, hanging them carefully upon a branch (“Bandobras will be cross enough, even if I do not ruin my clothes,” he thought) and stood for a moment, still and white as a shaft of moonlight athwart a marble column; after listening to the night wind he stepped down and slipped into the cold, clear water.

            It was not yet deep enough for him to swim, but the rocks told him it got deeper the closer he went to the River, so he followed the stream down, stepping carefully upon the stones and mud, until he could sink himself completely into the tributary.  He ducked under and listened to the water roaring and surging about him, then broke the surface, head sleek as an otter’s, and broke the silence again with a laugh.  A nightingale perched on a boxwood brake cocked its head at him and began to sing. 

            Legolas pulled himself to the side of the stream, folding his arms upon a rock, and watched the nightingale while it sang adoringly to him; when it was finished, and waited for his approbation, Legolas lifted his hands, palm upward, and sang softly back.  His song was to Varda, and he sang longingly of Valinor, and had he noticed he would have seen the soft white light Bandobras had spoken of, diffuse about his shining head and laying like spun wool upon the palms of his hands.  But these things disturbed the nightingale not a bit, and it sat and listened to the Elf until he was finished.  Further into the brake another bird gave a chattering accolade, and again Legolas laughed for sheer joy and relief.

            The birds bid him continue on his way, and he thanked them and returned to the swiftly moving stream, letting it pull him further into the forest.  He was some miles from the Tent City, he guessed; his flight into the forest had taken him far to the north, and the tributary was drifting him slowly west to the Anduin; as he recalled from his previous forays into these woods, the trees grew thicker down by the joining.  He could hear them calling to him, asking him to join them, if but for a little while – a century, perhaps, maybe a little more, if he could spare the time and get to know them, learn their speech, watch them grow and nurse the little bushes of holly and boxwood and verbena beneath them.  For a fleeting moment Legolas agreed, but then he remembered his venture into the hectic mortal world, and he sighed.  Gimli and Bandobras could not wait a century for him, or even a decade.  Once again Legolas could hear his father’s voice, warning him and admonishing:  “My beloved son, do not seek after friendship with Man or Dwarf or Halfling, for they will die, and you shall not, and it will be an eternal sorrow to you.  So beware their hurried lives and hasty emotions, and keep yourself amongst your own kind, to protect your heart against such sharp grief.”  Yet, here he was, the son of Thranduil; he had heeded not his father’s warning, but instead followed the urgings of two mortals; he was bound up in their frenzied Tournament, and was the only Elf in these woods.  He felt his loneliness keenly, for although Arwen was nearby, and her presence soothed him, she was not a Wood Elf, and did not seek the forests for their own sake.  “But soon,” he thought, heart lifting, “I will bring with me a company of my people, and we will dwell in these woods, tending them and healing them, and I shall have joy here in Middle Earth, if but for a little while.” 

            For some time he swam downstream, having to climb up onto the banks and walk for a ways when he met some waterfall, but always returning to the water and diving and stroking westward.  The moon sank slowly behind the hills, and the stars became very bright.  All around him the trees murmured gently to him, and the fleeting lives of woodchuck and squirrel and bird spun about him.  He had fallen into a waking dream, blending the living wood with memories of his home far to the north, when the trees gave him a sudden warning, and hanging on to an outstretched root he stopped and listened.

            Over the noise of a close cascade he heard men’s voices.  They were cast low, no doubt thinking to cover their speech with the noises of the falling waters, but to the Elf’s ears he could all but descry the individual words they spoke.  He could tell they were but a little ways downstream, so cautiously he moved in the water, gliding from stone to root, concealing himself in the darkness, until he could hear them more clearly.  They were men, from the southern part of Gondor by their speech, though he could not see them; the thickness of the willows about them hid their forms from him.  The willow above Legolas warned him not to proceed any further or he would be noticed, so he ducked beneath the comforting knee of an outflung root and listened.

            “It must be the crossings of Erui, then,” said one man, his voice harsh.  “Where else are the roads that narrow?  Besides, the old fool won’t be expecting it there.”

            “You are thinking of the canyon to the west of the bridges, then?” asked another voice.

            “Of course!” answered the first, with a fierce eagerness.  “We can come at him from both sides, and cut him down before he even cries out.  The sounds of the rocks clattering down will drown out his screams, and the guards at the bridges will only think it is a rockslide – and we shall tell them that, of course,” he finished, with a laugh.

            “He will have men with him,” warned another voice.

            “Not as many as we,” said the first.  “I’m sure of that.  And those men of Lossarnach aren’t worth their weight in a fight, not if we come at him unawares.”

            “What shall we do with the bodies, then?” asked another.

            “Bury them in the rocks,” said a voice.

            “Nay!  We pick them over, and leave them, to make it seem as though thieves had come upon them,” said the first.  “If we hide the body, Hallas won’t know his sire is dead, and he won’t be able to inherit.”

            Legolas stiffened, his fingers curling about the root.  He attended more closely, not wanting to miss a word.

            “May we keep what we plunder?” asked another voice.

            “Surely,” said the first.  “We must have some extra compensation; after all, we are not paid overmuch.  But that shall change.  With Baldor dead, and Dirhael teasing his brat, our lord shall persuade Hallas easily.  Then the Ethir Anduin will be unguarded, the Haradrim on Tolfolas can break through, and Pelargir will fall to our allies.”

            “This is treason, friends,” said a voice, and it sounded worried.  A scuffle and a blow followed, and the first voice said angrily:

            “Treason!  I should have your head for that, you fool.  Is it treason to try to recoup our losses, since that stinking King cut off our resources?  If I had it my way, the Stewards would never have failed, and King Elessar would have stayed up north, where he belongs, anyway.  He’s no heir of Aníron; he’s the heir of Isildur, and has no right to rule us.  I know you cannot read, you fool, but you should at least know that!”

            There was some muttering, and then the trees whispered to Legolas that they were coming closer.  Soon he could hear them, tramping loudly through the undergrowth, crushing and slashing as they went; Legolas’ heart went out to the rosemary and hollies in their pain, but he knew he was too vulnerable to risk exposure.  The twinkle of torchlight proclaimed their coming, and Legolas closed his eyes so they would not reflect the fire and give away his position.  A great host of men went by, at least seventy, all laughing harshly and singing crude songs.  Legolas could hear their leader, still admonishing the sickly-hearted ones, cursing Elessar and his might and talking of the destruction of the forces of Pelargir, and the strength and wealth of the corsairs of the Haradrim.  When they had passed Legolas opened his eyes and saw them stumbling and ploughing through the woods, and a shadow of fear lay where they had passed.  Anxiously did the willows about him crowd their limbs, seeking to protect him, and lifted their twisted roots to hem him in.

            Legolas whispered to the tree above him, thanking it, and sank back into the water.  He swam upstream as quickly as he could, scrambling up the sides of the cataracts until he reached level ground; then he lifted himself up into an elm and began to fly with all speed through the tops of the trees.  He could see the men below him, slashing at the undergrowth with notched swords, the light of their torches glinting redly upon their battered helms.  Then they turned to the south and passed into the pinewoods.

            Legolas hesitated.  He could not follow them thus, naked and unarmed; he reluctantly retraced his steps back to the stream and found his clothes.  Pulling them on, he returned to the trees and raced along, but the men had changed their course, and he could not find him; the trees were too terrified to answer his inquiries, and he did not know where the men had gone.

            Legolas crouched on a branch, thinking for a moment.  He looked up at the sky.  Midnight had long passed, and though the sky to the east was still dark he could feel the quiet hush of the pre-dawn.  A stoat looked up at him from the ground, and Legolas contemplated it absently.  Then he was off like an arrow from a bow, leaping through the trees; when he reached the end of the pinewood he ran across the grass and up the hill to the bridge.

A.N.:  Happy Holidays to you all!  Strep and a busy beta have made this chapter a wee bit late; hopefully Christmas will pass painlessly and I'll be able to update more often.  And anyway, I've given you what I'm assuming about fifty percent of you will greatly enjoy -- a naked Wood-Elf!  Joyeux Noel!  --- L.R.


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