A/N: Stop! Once more, hold it right there! This is another uncensored, unadulterated chapter. Okay, truthfully, there isn’t anything really that explicit about this chapter, but if you haven’t read the full, uncensored version of chapter 7, then parts of this chapter probably won’t make a lot of sense.
If you would prefer to read the edited, censored version of this chapter, you can read it at fanfiction.net. As that site doesn’t allow adult content, it has to be edited of explicit material. So if you would prefer that version, go check it out, but be sure to leave me a review either there, or back here. Whichever you prefer.
Truthfully, this chapter isn’t that much longer or different, and it’s truly not that explicit, but depending on which version of chapter 7 you read, parts could be confusing.
Well, thanks again, it’s been a fun, wild ride.
I present to you: The Final Chapter!
Chapter 12: Beyond This Land of Parting (Uncensored)
Legolas jogged ahead of me, tugging on my hand to pull me along behind.
But my free hand ran searchingly over my hair and braid again as I asked, “Are you sure I got all the twigs and leaves out of my hair?”
He slowed and glanced back at me over his shoulder, a smile lighting his face as his pale blue eyes twinkled happily in the early light of dawn. “I am certain,” he assured me. “But come, the army shall move soon and we have yet to pack.”
I picked up my pace, passing him, and tugging on his hand as I chuckled, “You were the one who said we had time for one more.” He merely laughed in that tinkling, musical way of elves, so I told him, “Remind me to teach you the art of the quickie, not that I’m against your thorough methods, but sometimes haste is best.”
“‘Quickie?'” he repeated, his brows drawn together.
I paused as we came into sight of the army’s sentries. “Yeah, think of it as a race to the finish line. First one to cross wins,” I whispered suggestively.
His face tilted contemplatively and I laughed again, tugging him onward. “We definitely don’t have time now.”
The sentries looked startled as we jogged past, but made no comment as we sailed by and on to where our empty bedrolls still lay.
We were just kneeling by them to roll up our blankets when Gimli snorted one last time and woke.
“Mornin’, Lad, Lassie,” he greeted loudly through a yawn.
I was glad the other soldiers were already awake. Gimli seemed to do very little quietly.
We both answered his greeting, but kept packing.
“What’s that on yer neck, Lassie?” Gimli suddenly asked. “And on yer chest, Lad … oh. Oh!” he exclaimed, suddenly stuttering in a flustered manner. “I—ah—well, it’s really none of my business,” he groused, his cheeks under his beard brightening. “Maybe this dwarf does sleep too soundly,” he whispered to himself. Which meant that we still heard him clearly.
My head jerked down, but I couldn’t see my own neck; yet glancing over at Legolas, I saw that there were reddish teeth marks visible on his collarbone where his tunic hadn’t been tied all the way yet. He fingered the mark and looked up at me, his hand reaching out to finger whatever mark was on my neck.
“I did this?” he whispered, shame highlighting his expression.
The skin under his fingers felt smooth, so I could only assume what it was. “It’s only a hickey. My pale skin means I’m really susceptible to those marks, but they fade,” I assured him in a careful whisper. “Besides, I’m the one who bit you. Again,” I apologized back.
He shrugged. “Truly I had not noticed the mark until now; it does not pain me, and indeed at the time pain was far from my mind.”
I felt a blush creep in at his easy discussion of our intimacy, and turned back to Gimli.
“We, ah … went … for a walk, Gimli,” I tried to explain to the dwarf.
He cleared his throat. “Of course, of course, Lass. And were quite apparently attacked by some creature in the forest which was bent upon suckin’ the flesh from yer neck.”
I felt my cheeks heat more and my jaw drop. “I really regret breaking open this side of you, dwarf,” I grumbled. “If I wasn’t against picking on little people I’d do something about it.”
He picked up his blanket as he walked past us. His initial embarrassment apparently long gone. He paused behind me as he rumbled near my ear, “Ya have bits of twig an’ leaves at the bottom of yer braid, Lass.”
I yanked my braid over my shoulder to see that there were indeed bits of twig and leaves stuck to the ends of my hair, shooting Gimli and even a certain chuckling elf a dark look as I did so.
“I thought you said I got it all?” I sweetly asked my elf.
He wasn’t fooled by my tone, but still moved closer to pick the twigs and leaves out. “I thought you had,” he chuckled.
I stood with my bedroll in hand and saccharinely told him, “And I didn’t realize that you had grass and dirt stains on your ass.” As he looked himself over, trying to see the faint marks in his dark green leggings, I turned to go find my gelding.
“‘Ass?'” he repeated, still finding nothing.
I lowered my barriers and pictured his dirty derrière, looking over my shoulder and laughing as he caught my thoughts and stared back at me with a startled look before he twisted his torso to see the dirty streaks.
And I was still chuckling, despite the curious glances of the soldiers as I made my way to the horses.
In the days to come, we continued riding northward through the forests of North Ithilien. The grayish, ash covered peaks of the Ephel Dúath rose in a stark backdrop to the forest.
Legolas—and of course, Gimli—and the twins rode ahead of the vanguard in those days to scout the path of the army, and I chose to ride with Legolas as well, suddenly feeling loath to be parted from him for even a moment. I wasn’t sure if it was the simple fact that we were married now—though I’d certainly never felt that need with my first husband—or if it was some more pressing fear that kept me near him.
The warnings and threat of the Valar were nearly ever-present in my mind, and I didn’t know if—or more likely, when—they would try to force me back to my own world. So I knew that was part of my burning need to spend every moment I could with Legolas. But there was something more. A deep ache lit in my chest at the mere thought of parting from him. I wondered if perhaps it had to do with the newness our mating and would fade in time, but had no way of knowing for sure since two beings like we had never bonded before.
But whatever the reason, I found myself surprisingly happy with my decision to scout ahead with Legolas. With four horsemen scouting, the twins were often able to take one side of the road through Ithilien, and Legolas, Gimli, and I were able to take the other. Legolas had by far the best senses, but Gimli was surprisingly observant at reading a trail and observing even small changes in the surrounding forest. My skills didn’t match either elf or dwarf, but I lowered my barriers often to check the surrounding woods for Orcs or a trap.
I always felt more at ease when I had a purpose and a useful task to perform, but I had to admit that I loved the chance to enjoy Legolas and Gimli’s company when there weren’t some six-thousand soldiers watching our every move and always trailing behind us.
Even Legolas seemed more at ease in his element with a task to perform. More of his fears and worries about what lay at the end of this march seemed to fade from him as the three of us talked and joked with each other.
For a long time I had realized I felt a closeness to Gimli that I didn’t quite feel with the other members of the Fellowship. And I would be forever thankful for the solidarity and care he’d shown me in Rohan when I had thought Legolas lost, but I felt a closer friendship now with him, one that I’d never had before, not even in my former world.
And for his part, Gimli seemed completely at ease talking and bantering with both Legolas and I, though I knew from experience how awkward it could be as the third wheel to a married couple. A part of me almost ventured to think that Gimli could have been like a brother to me, but having never had siblings of my own, I wasn’t sure if what I felt for the dwarf was that kind of kinship, or merely strong friendship. Whatever it was, I counted myself just as blessed for it as I did for finding and having the love I shared with Legolas.
“I’ll admit this would be a fair forest,” Gimli was saying as we rode, “if not for the bitter ash the Orodruin covers the land with.”
Legolas seemed inclined to agree, but I shrugged.
“I’ll agree it’s not exactly a pretty sight, but that volcanic ash will make this forest and the surrounding area extremely fertile,” I told them.
“While that is true,” Legolas admitted, “I would not say that such proximity to any of those lands is a safe prospect. I should rather see the beauty of this forest not held in the shadow of those dark lands.”
“Well, I’ll grant that being so close to an active volcano isn’t exactly a safe endeavor. I never was one of those thrill-seekers who liked tempting fate and climbing around active volcanoes. I always thought a good rule of thumb was to only climb volcanoes and mountains that I knew were completely dormant. I’m not particularly fond of tempting fate.”
“‘Rule of thumb?'” Legolas repeated. “I have often found many of your turns of phrase to be odd to my ears, but some I am able to puzzle out. This I cannot. What does it mean, and how does one’s thumb apply to this discussion.”
I burst out laughing at his confusion, wiping a tear from my cheek as I pulled a dancing Lightfoot back under control underneath me. Even the poor gelding had been startled by my sudden laughter.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized to both Legolas and Gimli as they stared at me. “I just never stopped to think how that phrase would seem so strange, or I guess any of the words and phrases from my old world. Most of them are just phrases we use without thought and everyone knows what they mean in my world.”
I stroked Lightfoot’s mane to calm him as I stopped to think how best to explain things. “Well, rule of thumb basically just means a quick broad rule to apply to some situation.”
“But how does a thumb fit into this, Lass?”
My smile slipped some. “That’s actually a bit harder to explain—well, not harder, but more difficult for you guys to understand how it evolved, I think. It’s an old phrase in my world. It originally had to do with using the width of your thumb as a means of measuring wood and such.” Both dwarf and elf nodded at this, easily able to understand the practicality of it. “But it came to be used as a rule, supposedly; or I guess, common law, in a time when women in my world were seen as no more than the property of their husbands. And while it was perfectly acceptable to beat your wife, they did, I guess, frown on excessive beatings, so the common law said you should beat your wife with a stick no larger around than your thumb. And somehow the phrase evolved from that as well.”
Legolas and Gimli both looked dumbfounded at that.
“Surely you kin’na be sayin’ that the men of yer world were actually so beastly as to beat their wives,” Gimli gaped.
I nodded once. “Yep. Not all of course, even in those days, many were very honorable and wouldn’t actually beat their wives, but it was perfectly acceptable and quite commonplace to hit them or at least slap them. The women of my world, at least parts of my world, have made great strides to come from that time to being mostly equals to men.”
My husband continued staring at me, his shock and horror at such practices evident in his face. “Is this why you have made such efforts to not be seen as the other mortal women of this world, and have showed your disdain for the practice of mortals’ marriages in this land?”
“No, it’s not that I feel disdain for how marriage works in this world, but at the same time, having seen a lot of what I described in my own, I can’t help but feel leery about any culture where a woman can’t be the equal of a man. If she can’t be an equal, it’s too easy for her to be subjugated as little more than a slave, and certainly no more than a victim in many cases,” I argued.
“Ya think the men of this world would so abuse their womenfolk?” Gimli incredulously asked. “Kin ye imagine Aragorn or any of his Rangers treating their wives that’a way?”
I sighed. “No. I honestly can’t see them doing that. But you guys have to admit that there is still likely some of that kind of thing happening in this world, and that it’s probably ignored as not being anyone else’s business. And even if it’s not physical beatings, that a lot of males probably see their wives as little more than mothers for their children and cooks and maids for their homes. I bet a lot of males don’t see their wives as equals or give their words or opinions any actual consideration.”
Very deliberately, I’d said “males” instead of “men,” and surprisingly, both seemed to take my words seriously and consider them instead of outright dismissing them.
When neither spoke for some time, I finally said, “Puts a different perspective on the cultural disparities of this world and at least the country I came from, doesn’t it? I’m not saying mine was prefect, but I’d rather see the females of this world become equals to their counterparts, but I also know that kind of change isn’t something that happens overnight.”
Gimli finally nodded. “I kin understand yer words, Lass, though I’d never considered the differences in how we treat our own lasses. In truth, I think they demand a bit more equality from us than females of men do, but I kin see that ye are correct in that we don’na always put the same consideration into listening to what our female’s opinions might be. I kin’na think of a time when a dwarf would readily ask a dwarven lass what she thought about mining for a particular kind of gem or where to place a shaft for a mine. Our lasses don’na take to much cosseting, but truthfully, they mostly hold themselves apart from the rest of us, an’ we let ’em be.”
Legolas nodded. “I can see the truth in my own kindred as well. Ellith are not strictly forbidden from joining in the pursuits of ellyn, but rarely do they do so, and ellyn apparently act as dwarves in that they do not often seek the thoughts or advice of ellith in our own pursuits. Each deals nearly exclusively in their own realms and do not interfere or often share the scope of their own purview.”
“And that’s how my country used to be, and a lot of my world still is. Menfolk do their own thing and leave womenfolk to do theirs, and don’t share in each other’s struggles and burdens,” I added.
Legolas reached across Arod to grasp my hand. “It is well you feel such ease with discussing such things with me, for while I never have had any intention of you not being my very equal, I can see how I might have unintentionally done just as you say and treated you as such that you might have felt otherwise. Indeed, I see even more clearly how my decision for you to remain in the city was demeaning to the ideal that we are equals. Forgive me.”
I squeezed his hand. “I know this world is not the same as the one I left, and I’m trying to get used to the differences. I know it’s gonna take time for you adjust to my own differences, too, but this one thing is something that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to let go of. I’m a feminist at heart.”
“‘Feminist,'” Legolas slowly repeated. “An apt appellation I suppose, and fitting. Thank you for your telling. It explains much about your own world and culture.”
Laughing, I returned my hands to my reins and turned back to our task. “And to think this all started because of a simple phrase with an origin I haven’t thought about in years.”
And I ruefully wondered what conversations would be started from other common idioms from my world.
I slept little at night. Every time I did manage to fall asleep, I would have the same haunting dream that had plagued me after I had returned to Chicago from my imprisonment in North Korea. I would frantically wake up in my apartment, convinced none of it was real and that I hadn’t really escaped my cave. At times, I would sit for hours on the fire escape outside my bedroom window in the freezing cold and even snow, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t all a dream, that I had indeed escaped. But eventually I’d mostly stopped having the dream. At least with that kind of regularity.
So why had the dream returned? Why so regularly now?
And why did it feel so terrifyingly real?
So unable to sleep, I would walk beneath the trees of North Ithilien. And Legolas would walk at my side. I would simply listen as he talked and planned the home and colony he had promised me to build here.
He didn’t ask what my dreams had been about, and he didn’t try to coerce me into sleeping more than I was able, for which I was grateful. He intuitively sensed that sleep was the last thing I wanted, and pleasantly distracted me with talk and conversations about any and everything else. And it continued to amaze me how well he’d come to know me and what I needed.
As we walked one night near the bank of an icy stream, I paused to look at the scorched bark of a great beech tree. Higher on the tree, the bark was still a clear brownish gray, but the lower part of the tree was blackened and badly burned. I stepped closer, pressing a hand to the scorched and crisp bark of the trunk, stepping over the tall roots that spread across the top of the ground before digging deeply into the soil.
“The tree is badly damaged,” Legolas said, standing somewhere behind me, “but with much care could yet overcome such damage. With time and healing, it can yet live and thrive.”
I smiled faintly at his optimism, but didn’t turn to face him as I considered the tree, hoping that he was right and that the tree could still overcome what had been done to it.
“What are you humming?” Legolas asked.
I started, not realizing that I actually had been humming. I turned to face him again and answered, “Just a song from my world. I’ve thought about it a lot since I met you, but standing looking at this tree just brought it to mind again.”
He raised a curious brow and gestured for me to continue. “Please, share this song.”
Laughing I said, “I’m not a good singer, Legolas. I didn’t inherit that Celtic gift.”
Stepping closer, he took my hand and replied, “You sing better than you suppose. You have sung for me before, and you sang for the Fellowship upon the mountain pass.”
Knowing I wasn’t going to talk myself out of this now, I gave in. I’d always had a bit deeper voice for a woman and my singing voice was better suited to this song anyway, though it was intended to be belted out more than I would be able to in the silence of these woods.
“All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am.” *
I stepped forward a I sang more of the song, taking Legolas’s hand in mine and trying to show him with my eyes my own sincerity and beliefs in the words of the song, especially as I came to a latter verse of the song.
“You see the smile that’s on my mouth
It’s hiding the words that don’t come out
All of the friends who think that I’m blessed
They don’t know my head is a mess
No, they don’t know who I really am
And they don’t know what I’ve been through like you do
And I was made for you …” *
I sang the rest of the song quietly, not belting it out like Brandi Carlile had intended, but still trying to embed the same emotion into the song that she had managed, and feeling that no song, poem, verse, or sentiment could better have explained my feelings to Legolas.
When I has finished, we stood in silence for a moment, tears shining in Legolas’s eyes, and for one of the few times in my memory, shining in my own.
He lifted my hand and pressed it over his heart. “As you were made for me, I was made for you. Never had I thought to find such happiness nor find my match in a heart so kind, caring, and understanding of my heart and nature. I know not what I have done to be so blessed by the Valar.”
I ignored the mention of the loathsome Valar, but realized I’d been blessed nevertheless. I had found someone who understood me so well and who could inspire such happiness in me, even after such nagging nightmares.
Without another word, I stepped closer and lifted onto my toes to press a kiss to his lips, his hands steadying my waist and holding me closer. And soon our passion had risen as we fell to our knees between the tall roots of that great, unyielding, and uncompromising beech tree.
Though this was a dance still excitingly new between us, it was a dance whose steps we were well learning. I undid the clasp of my cloak, and with one hand, tossed it between the charred roots of the beech tree behind me, hoping it was somewhat spread out on the ground. Legolas’s hands skimmed up my sides, pulling my chainmail, jerkin, and tunic up together and over my head in one swift movement, my hands then copying his to bare his torso likewise.
Our lips frantically found each other again, tasting the need and urgency in each other’s kisses as Legolas wrapped an arm under my shoulders, grasping my neck as he twisted and started to lower himself onto his back, trying to pull me with him.
But I resisted. Standing from his arms as he sat back and looked up at me curiously. I’d already shed my boots, but now I untied the laces at my waist, and hooking my thumbs at my sides, slowly pushed my leggings down my hips and past my legs as I stepped out of them.
For a moment, I stood in front of Legolas, reveling in the near worshipful look in his eyes as they traveled up and down my uncovered skin. It was marred and far from perfect, but when he looked at me with those eyes, I could almost feel beautiful.
“You are beautiful,” he whispered.
I held my hand out to him, and he came to his knees, eagerly laving kisses to my stomach and across to one hip as my head fell back. I bit my cheek to contain my moans, threading my hands through Legolas’s loose hair and fingering the braids at his temples.
My hands finally released his hair as he traveled across my stomach to my other hip, and I quickly freed my own hair from its usual braid, shaking my head to loosen it.
Before Legolas could place the same attentions on my other hip, I stepped back again and lowered onto my knees, grasping Legolas’s hand as I lowered myself onto my back.
He followed my movement until I had lowered fully onto my back and was still pulling him closer. His hand braced beside my hip, he pulled back, looking worried. “Are you certain?” he almost fearfully asked.
I smiled and laughed happily, saying in a heartfelt tone, “Yeah. I’m sure.” And then reaching up to tug on his shoulder to pull him down closer.
He slid between the cradle of my legs, but held himself carefully away from pressing down against me. But panic was far from my mind. I pulled his ear down near my lips, carefully licking the outer shell.
“I know you won’t hurt me,” I whispered in his ear, and then lifted one leg to wrap around his waist, using the leverage to pull him closer.
He hissed at the contact, and I moaned at the feel of him, even through the fabric of his pants.
As he continued to balance himself on his elbow and one hand, I reached between us and pulled at the laces, then slid his trousers past his hips. He had to rise back up to kick them past his feet, but he again carefully slid between the cradle of my legs, his hips gently grazing mine.
Still, he held himself carefully away from pressing against my body, searching my face and waiting for something, perhaps for me to fall apart again.
Instead, I rocked my hips against his, further encouraging him to move and join me.
His eyes never left mine as he silently trailed a hand down my side, lightly touching my hip, and then carefully skimming across my stomach. The muscles of my abs clenched and quavered in the anticipation even so light a touch invoked. His hand finally slid lower, gently caressing my inner thigh before he slowly slid into me.
“Are you all right?’ he asked, his voice tight from the effort of holding himself back.
And I reached up to cup his face, bringing it down to mine while lightly kissing the tender skin of his neck. Even the muscles here seemed taut and strained as he held himself back. Leaning back against the cold ground, I smiled up at him, feeling that no physical place of wood or stone would ever feel as much a home as this did right now. A canopy of trees and stars could forever be my roof if it meant I was home within the circle of Legolas’s embrace.
“This is home,” I whispered to him, feeling the utter rightness of my words. “Here. Forever. If I’m never allowed anything else in life, I’ll hold onto this perfect moment forever and know I’ve had more than most people ever taste.”
And with that, I let my hips surge upwards against Legolas, teasing him into joining the dance. His movements quickly sped to match, his eyes locked down on mine.
“We will have many more perfect moments,” he promised in a lust-laden voice.
A part of me said it wouldn’t be so. That nothing would again be like this moment, and I knew I would have to ingrain every detail into my memory. But this one perfect moment would be enough. It would sustain me. It had to. Because it was indeed more than most people ever sampled.
“I wish the story could end here,” I gasped as Legolas captured one of my nipples in his mouth, teasingly tugging on it with his teeth as my fingers threaded through his hair. “I want it to be a happy ending.” I laughed and arched my back as Legolas laved the nipple he’d teased, glancing up at me from his work, his eyes curious and encouraging. “‘If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story,'” I quoted. “And I would stop it here so that we’re always happy.”
He released my nipple and rose up on his elbows to look down at me. “But the story never truly ends. It continues on. And all we can do is ensure that our happiness outweighs all else that shall accumulate on the scales.”
I grinned up at him, loving his complete surety that all would be right, and desperately needing to believe it.
“I love you,” I whispered to him, laughing lightly at the pleased and radiant smile that met my words, and I vowed to use them more often.
If only I could.
If only our story could have ended here.
As we rode the next day, Legolas, Gimli, and I again scouted ahead with the twins. We were beginning to find an easy rhythm to our scouting; Elladan and Elrohir again followed one side of the road, while Legolas, Gimli, and I canvassed the other.
We had yet to encounter any problems, but I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that something was going to happen. My memory of the smaller, less noteworthy details had begun to slip further and further from my memory. I knew the final great battle would take place at the gate, but I couldn’t recall if there had been any battles before that last one.
Worry overtaking me, I lowered my barriers completely, and let my awareness of the forest and surrounding area fill my mind. Stretching my telepathy first to the west and our side of the road, I found nothing. But then I bent my mind on the eastern side of the road, and was met by many dark and eager minds, both human, and what I’d come to recognize as the minds of Orcs, rudimentary though they were.
“What is it, Elaina?” Legolas asked, riding closer and gently grabbing my elbow to steady me as I swayed in the saddle.
I shook my head and carefully raised my barriers before I answered Legolas. “Trap. There’s a trap ahead. Orcs and Easterlings are laid out in the foothills to the east.”
“Are ye certain, Lass?” Gimli asked.
“Yeah. I can sense them waiting for the army to come along,” I answered with an assured nod.
Legolas rode closer and instructed Gimli to ride with me. “I shall ride in that direction and warn the sons of Elrond, as well as get a better look at where the trap is laid,” he urgently added.
I held my hand out to help Gimli uneasily scoot from the rump of Arod to the rump of my horse.
“Please be careful, Legolas. Don’t go any closer than necessary,” I warned him.
He smiled, saying with a look that he didn’t find my worry annoying or bothersome, but rather found it cute and endearing. I wasn’t sure which was worse.
“I shall ride with the sons of Elrond,” he again assured me. “Three elves shall not be caught unawares in simply scouting the area.”
I had no argument. We needed to know the layout of the ambush, and I didn’t speak the language of the Easterlings to get it by listening to their thoughts. I could get direction at best, but no details. Besides, he was right. The elves were better suited to the task than anyone else was.
“Be careful,” I again warned, and watched him ride quickly east through the trees on Arod.
“Come, Lass,” Gimli advised. “We must take warning back to Aragorn an’ the rest of the army.”
It didn’t take long to ride back to the army and deliver our discovery. And before long, the army had caught up to where the three elves waited.
The ambush was small. Not near a match for the numbers of the soldiers marching with our army, though it had been well laid out to take advantage of the land and sloping foothills to conceal their small number.
I barely had time to use my sword before the skirmish was over; even Gimli still riding behind me was bemoaning the fact that he’d barely swung his axe before the small force was dispatched.
“They could’na thought to do much damage with so small a number,” Gimli pondered behind me. “Even had they still kept the element of surprise, they would’na put a dent in this army.”
I somberly nodded once. “They’re playing the same games we are,” I replied to the dwarf. “Tying to lull us with their supposed weakness and draw us closer to where there’s a much bigger force waiting.”
“Shouldn’ya warn Aragorn, Lass?” Gimli hesitantly asked.
“No,” I quickly answered. “We’re trying to lead Sauron into that same trap. Get him to send that great army to face us, and hopefully give Frodo the time and space he needs.” I glanced to where Aragorn was conferring with the other lords as well as Gandalf and the three elves. “Besides, I’m pretty sure Aragorn realizes it anyway. Gandalf at the very least.”
“Maybe, Lass. Maybe,” Gimli slowly agreed. “But this dwarf will still feel better when it’s all said an’ done.”
“Me, too, Gimli. Me, too.”
From that night on, the Ringwraiths circled high overhead. I couldn’t see them, even with my improved vision—only Legolas could see so well against the black sky—but I could feel their oppressive weight as they harried our army, their shrieks ringing in the night.
A sense of overwhelming dread and despair was spread in their wake, the men feeling the terror and dark menace of those creatures and steadily losing heart. Truth was, I was losing heart as well, as well as the sense of dread in my heart growing until I gave up even trying to sleep, but my resolve remained unchanged despite my dread.
On the sixth day’s march from Gondor, the living lands came to an end. At the sight of the wasteland yet to march through, many of the men lost their resolve and could not continue on.
Aragorn offered to those men the chance to redeem their honor by marching south-west to Cair Andros, a ten-mile long, fortress river-island, to retake it from the enemy. It was a strategic defense along the Anduin and the only other crossing along the river for Gondor’s armies.
Many of those men seized their chance to redeem themselves in a manner they deemed possible, but some men again found the heart to continue with the main army into Mordor.
Legolas glanced wistfully at me, but by neither action nor deed, did he ask me to part from my path. And I offered no word of apology for facing this duty in the same head-on manner as him.
But Legolas and I didn’t slip away from the army to have time alone anymore as we had under the trees of North Ithilien, either, instead staying close to the safety of the main force.
The last night of our march was cold and dreadful. Wisps of smoke were rising from within the very ground and eerily filling the sky and clouding what little moonlight there was as howls called all around us, the sound setting hair on end. None of the army would find any sleep that night, instead gathering around what fires of dead wood and debris that could be found. No one said that this would be our last night before marching to the gate. No such words were needed.
Indeed, very little words were spoken by any. Men gathered around fires with friends and comrades that they had known from childhood and served with through the long war. Some men sat enjoying the last moments of new friendships that had been forged on the march. Friendship that even formed across the boundaries of country as men of Gondor and Rohan alike sat together.
But at another smaller fire, I sat with Legolas on one side of me, and Gimli on my other. Aragorn, Gandalf, Pippin, Beregond, Imrahil, Éomer, Halbarad, Elladan, Elrohir, and a few other rangers and Rohirrim rounded out our circle.
Some of the men—and a hobbit and dwarf—sat quietly smoking pipes as they stared into the flames. Others merely sat in silent contemplation.
I stared enviously at the pipes of the others, then withdrew my silver cigarillo case—one of my few remaining belongings from my world— and removed my very last honey-flavored cigarillo.
For a moment, I simply stared at the thing in my hand, briefly considering saving it for another time. But what if there wasn’t another opportunity?
“I guess it was meant to be,” I suddenly said to no one in particular, staring at that last thin, dark brown cigarillo. “Either a person can look at things and say that nothing is destined to happen in specific ways, and spend the rest of their lives fighting against the current trying to prove themselves right, or they can just give in to fate, and accept that some things turn out how they were meant to in the end, no matter what a person does. But I think it’s easier to place your trust in fate than not.”
I removed my Zippo and quickly lit my cigarillo, enjoying the smooth and slightly sweet taste of the slightly pungent smoke. When I looked up, I saw that the others around the fire were staring at me, some confused by my words, but some seeming contemplative.
“Is that your answer for us all, my lady?” Imrahil asked, and I decided to for once ignore the “lady” part of his words. “Should we all give in to fate and accept whatsoever should happen on the morrow?”
“No,” I thoughtfully answered, shaking my head slowly. “That’s not exactly what I’m saying. I’m not saying don’t fight for the things you want, instead letting the chips fall where they may. I’m saying fight like hell to make happen what you believe in. But also believe that fate is going to be on your side if it’s meant to be. And if it isn’t, at least you’ll know you went out fighting for what you believe in.”
Gandalf chuckled as he pulled his pipe away from his mouth to speak. “At times your simplicity of beliefs seems so very young and naïve, and yet you continue to astound me with your utter and vast sight of the world.”
I glanced at Legolas and then looked back to the wizard. “I can’t control what will happen tomorrow or any day after. I can only fight for what I want and trust that the Valar won’t screw us over in the end.”
Legolas gripped my hand tightly beside me, and I reached out to grasp Gimli’s hand with my other. For the first time, I had a family.
And I would fight like hell to keep it.
We stood before the Black Gates on the Morannon, staring at the closed steel of the doors with the desert wasteland stretching all around us. These lands felt utterly dead to me, and I briefly wondered how they seemed to the elves.
Only the Nazgûl were present to stare down at our army. Seeming like ravenous wolves, waiting for their prey to make an interesting move so that they could have the pleasure of the chase. But there was no other sign of the Enemy.
Our army remained as silent as they had through the night, but so too did the Enemy. I hated the silence and the waiting. I felt that it was scratching at my throat and choking me.
When the others rode forward to the gate, I too rode with them. Unable to remain in the backdrop this time. I had thrown all my chips in, as they say, and I would fight to the bitter end to fortify the hand I’d been dealt and try to win my pot.
The heralds stood before us and shouted up to the gates. “Come forth! Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth! Justice shall be done upon him. For wrongly he has made war upon Gondor and wrested its lands. Therefore the King of Gondor demands that he should atone for his evils, and depart then and for ever. Come forth!”
I stood beside Legolas, my hand clasped in his as the Mouth of Sauron came out and taunted and derided both Aragorn and Gandalf. It was a living man—or as close to one as it could still be—but the dark menace clung to him as it did to the Nazgûl, forcing me to drop my head and close my eyes, letting the hood of my cloak shield me as I concentrated on reinforcing my defenses against the strength of that dark evil. Flames seemed to dance and curl around his mouth and eyes, and everywhere putrid wounds festered and bled dark, old blood. Even his black horse was as he, seeming to be an ever-festering wound of pus and dead blood.
I hadn’t been wearing my bullet-proof vest on the march, only my chainmail, but Legolas had insisted I don it today, despite how it now seemed to be cutting off all my air supply as I tried to avoid letting my gaze linger on the grotesque figure, and feeling a slight panic at his menace.
I didn’t bother pointing out to Legolas that neither my vest, nor my chainmail would totally protect me from all wounds. We both knew.
I only listened with half an ear to the bantering, and though the Sauron’s servant offered terms of surrender, I knew there would be no surrender and no peace to be made with Sauron.
Guilt assailed me when the Mouth of Sauron brought out Frodo’s belongings, taunting the company with them, and I considered telling them that Frodo yet lived, but I feared the Enemy discovering that truth before its due time. The timing of events was too delicate to allow even the slightest change at this crucial moment.
After Gandalf had forcefully taken Frodo’s belongings back, sending Sauron’s servant scurrying away when he revealed himself as the White Wizard, we mounted our horses and returned to the waiting army.
If I had thought Sauron’s army would need a moment to gather their forces, I was quickly proven wrong. Drums immediately began sounding as the Black Gates swung open, hordes of Sauron’s forces spilling out as though only the gate itself had been holding the tide in.
From within the hills and mountains surrounding the Morannon, waiting armies of Easterlings poured out to encircle us and trap us against the Black Gates with the Ephel Dúath Mountains on the right side, and the Ered Lithui mountains on the left side of the gate.
Aragorn quickly split the army, leading the banner of the White Tree himself upon one hill with Gandalf at his side, the men of Gondor spread around the hill in a circle to fend off the coming force. Upon the other hill and closer to the other mountains, Rohan and Dol Amroth stood together under their banners, likewise forming a circle around the hill and facing the horde.
But in front of the great host issuing from the gate, the sons of Elrond stood beside Imrahil with all the Dúnedain and the best soldiers of Dol Amroth and the Tower Guard. So too did Legolas, Gimli, and I stand. We dismounted our horses, needing cleaner movement for fighting in such close quarters, and awaited that rolling tide that spilled out of the dark lands like water rushing over a lowered dam.
I glanced at Legolas, and he held my eyes for just a second. But in that second was a world of emotions, thoughts, wishes, regrets, and most of all: love. But we neither of us spoke a word, instead, saying with that one look all that we could express, and then turning to face the force of men, orcs, and great foul beasts the likes of which I had never before dreamed of, but knew would haunt them from now on.
Bows were useless in such close-quarter battle, just as fighting on horseback was, so blades were drawn as the battle was joined.
I’d never before seen or experienced such a heated battle. Hardly a step could be taken in any direction without running into either friend or foe.
The battle was so heated and so consuming, that I had to constantly spin and turn to meet the men and creatures attacking from every side. Not even a breath could be taken before another blow would narrowly miss landing somewhere against me.
I’d tried to keep Legolas and Gimli near me, wanting to fight close to them should they need aid, but the battle soon became so chaotic, I didn’t know where anyone else was.
After I had pulled my sword free of another Orc, quickly darting back and ducking from the massive hulk of some kind of mountain of a troll, I took a breath and looked around for Legolas and Gimli. Several Rangers were nearby struggling likewise, but I saw neither fair-haired elf nor ruddy dwarf.
Thunk. The troll’s spiked mace struck the ground to my right, spraying me with dirt as it narrowly missed me. Ducking again, I rolled away as it swung next for my head. The huge troll moved with surprising speed for his size. Almost as soon as he missed his swing at my head, he jerked his arm back, trying to swipe up at my legs and side in and underhand motion, but again, I spun away from it, simultaneously thrusting my sword through the torso of an advancing Orc who would have used the troll’s distraction against me.
“Ugghh!” I groaned, spinning to face the Easterling that had thrown a knife low into my side near my hip, just below my chainmail. I left the blade, then striking him with an overhand blow to dispatch him as he struggled to grasp another knife to throw. Yanking the knife out of the flesh of my hip and ignoring the pain, I turned to face the troll again, but wasn’t swift enough to turn and see the blow that landed with an exploding pain in my shoulder.
My vision suddenly blackened before coming back into hazy focus, still spinning slightly as pain and nausea battled within me. I shook my head, realizing I was somehow on my knees and my sword was gone. I pushed off the ground to stand again and look for it, but my sword arm gave way, unable to hold any weight.
I glanced down to see that even through my chainmail, the glancing blow of the troll’s mace had ruined my shoulder, the puncture wounds and torn flesh running brightly with blood and rendering my arm useless. My chainmail was torn and partially embedded in the flayed flesh of my shoulder as the viscous fluid trailed warmly down to my pained and quivering fingertips.
Lacking any other choices, and knowing the utter futileness of now facing the troll without so much as a sword, I nevertheless used my other hand to grab for the knife strapped at my waist, still determined to fight. I was just slipping it from its sheath as I looked up to see the curved Easterling blade angling unerringly down at my neck.
The blow that would kill me.
The ending of my story.
Cold dampness fills my nose and lungs. The smell and taste of it only too familiar. And heavy dread settles in my heart.
It wasn’t the end of my story.
My twisted tale is yet finished.
My shoulder is unmangled—or rather, no more flayed than what has become natural to my state of being.
My eyes do not open.
Why should they? I know where I am.
I never left this place.
It was all a dream.
Or perhaps the cruelest of tortures.
Far crueler than anything these North Koreans have devised so far. Nothing they’ve managed to this point has been able to break me. Not the starvation, beatings, whippings, electrocutions, rapes, isolation, or even the drugs they’ve pumped through me. Nothing they’ve devised has broken my spirit enough so that I would tell them what they want to know about my country and my military.
But I’m broken now.
And hewed down not by any machination of my captors and enemy.
But defeated by myself. By my own mind and yearnings.
Did they know? Is that why I’ve been left here alone and forgotten for so long?
Did they know if they waited long enough, my own torturous and tantalizing dreams would do what they could not?
The familiar weight and clammy hide and nails of a rat’s feet inch across my bare leg as it sniffs and licks at my skin. Sampling my taste.
I should open my eyes and catch it, little flesh though it shall likely have. My stomach is a hallowed pit. When did they last drop that rancid meat and moldy bread down here? Days? Weeks? More fresh protein would be welcomed. It is impossible to know how long before they decided to throw me more scraps or when I will catch another rat to devour.
But I do not open my eyes. It hardly seems worth the effort now.
The weight of the rat disappears as it scurries away. Perhaps it has decided there is not enough meat on my own bones to be worth the effort.
Or perhaps it, too, is waiting for me to die.
Is that all I have left? I once fought against my captors with every breath. Even when I was forgotten for weeks and months at a time, merely by living and drawing breath, I knew I was fighting their yoke. I wonder now why I ever had. My only reward was torturous dreams beyond my greatest yearnings. Friendship, belonging, home … love.
Had none of it existed?
Had none of them? Was he nothing but a dream?
Which is the dream? The fantasy of love I’d known. Or this Purgatory I reside in.
Dream or nightmare?
Is there no middle ground in my reality?
I let my eyes open to slits, the yearning to confirm what all my other senses tell me proving too strong. I need to know for sure where I am.
A strangled sound chokes past my vocal cords.
Truly, I am back here. I never left. I never escaped. I never returned to Chicago. It was all dream. My true torture.
I stare at the dark and humid-damp rocks in front of me; it is surprising to me that I do not rail and wail as I might have expected. But that would take anger. And strangely, I find no anger left inside me at this cruel torment and joke. Just cold acceptance. I should have known it was too good to be true.
Perhaps I had all along.
My hand splays out in front of my face on the rocky ground. The fingers and nails are stained by the dirt and old blood of the last meal I’d been quick enough to grab and tear into. My stomach growls, demanding I lick and suck at the flecks of old, dried blood clinging to my fingernails. But I ignore my hunger, rolling onto my back to stare up at the rocky ceiling above most of my hole.
Spider webs glisten as they catch small glimpses of residual light, twinkling almost like the stars I could once recall.
A laugh bubbles upward in my throat, growing and gurgling past my vocal chords. Until it finally erupts through my lips in great cackles.
“You were right, Mother,” I whisper to my twinkling stars through shuttering cackles, my throat croaking and hoarse from disuse. “You should never end a story with ‘And they lived Happily Ever After,’ ’cause those stories sure as hell never tell how it truly ends.”
But no tears touch my cheeks as my chest bounces with my dark laughter. No wetness mists my eyes. Because my mother had warned me that no Fairy Tale truly ended with Happily Ever After.
That was never the end.
There was always more to the story. It never truly ends. It always continues on.
And I had known better.
* The Story by Brandi Carlile Written by Phillip John Hanseroth
© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
Note: I actually envisioned and created the character of Lane one time while listening to this song, it very much inspired her and her story. I see her most clearly while listening to it, so in the last full chapter of the series, I decided to work it in. Actually, I’ve laid clues to this song and its lyrics throughout the series and have been surprised no one called me on it! If you’ve never listened to it, click on the link within the story to hear it. It’s one of my favorite songs to listen to.
A/N: Well, that’s the last actual chapter of this story. This trilogy went faster than I thought it would.
Now hold on! Don’t run off yet! There IS a short epilogue to follow this chapter. So stay tuned and check it out when it’s posted. You HAVE to read it.
And before I sign off, I will say this, I have laid clues to the ending of this story throughout its entirety. The clues to the ending of this story are there, if you pay attention to all the words.
And I like giving the readers the unexpected. I’m evil that way. 😉
But check out the epilogue for the wrap up. It is a DEFINITE, MUST READ!