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2nd place at Teitho Contest, Joker-Challenge 'Garden'- Thank you to all who voted for it!
AN: I included the quotation of a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien 'The Lord of the Rings - Book One - Flight to the Ford' here in italics, and borrowed a few words*.
Many, many thanks to Ruiniel for beta-reading! (And if there are any mistakes they are all mine, because as so often when I read my texts again, I can't leave it to polish here and there, it is stronger than me :))
Imladris, the evening before the Ring goes South.
Behind the Curtain of Ivy
Gentle ripples blurred the glistening image of the stars mirrored in the water's surface. Frodo stared at the shifting light, the tips of his fingers dipped into the chilly pool of the fountain, again and again encouraging the playful twinkle.
Somewhere deep inside him, a weight lingered, hidden away by the peace of this almost otherworldly place. He quietly watched the glimmering water that soothed and washed away his constantly surging unease. Every tiny wave caressing his soul and softly smoothing his ever-rising fears.
He had never entered this part of the house in all the days he had spent in the elven dwelling. Never had he discovered its existence. It was a place concealed behind tangling ivy falling from a high arched opening in the smoothly carved wall.
Tonight, he had been following the green stream of leaves slithering along the finely crafted carvings in the stone - as so often lately; deep in thought. His fingers had brushed the dark, cool leaves, and then, caught by a suddenly risen curiosity, he had slipped through the curtain of straggling evergreen. An astounding sight had greeted him; while the entire house was a delicately designed, organic beauty, where swooping arches carefully entwined with both young plants and ancient, gnarled wood, this place appeared wild and disorganized.
The ivy grew seemingly unrestrained, covering part of the wall and the floor, and half of the fountain. From gently curved arches hung both twisted and young vines, now bereft of leaves in the wintertime. Beside the fountain stood a tall, thick pine tree whose mighty branches reached out wide and cast long, faint shades on the ground in the night. Hazel and other bushes grew all around. And at the walls, free from ivy, shrubs with small thorns on their twigs promised of wild roses blossoming in spring. A young birch stood tall in the middle of it all, its bark shining silver in the light of the stars. It was a wild garden, partially asleep in these colder days. Frodo imagined the liveliness sprouting as soon as the warm season began; gleaming colours unfurling within a swirl of fresh greens, bathing in the bright rays of a sunny day. And even now, as it all seemed to slumber under the silent vigil of the giant conifer, Frodo was enchanted by the gracious flowerbeds spread here and there, seemingly in no particular order, amid the grass or encircled by apparently casually arranged stones. Even on the balustrade, they grew from soil-filled cavities; tiny snowdrops intermingled with delicate winter roses; tender white blossoms glowing in the night with borrowed starlight.
During daytime, from this garden, one might oversee the entire valley and the Bruinen below. But it was night, and the valley lay dark, the horizon rimmed by the mountains all around.
Frodo stood still, his fingers sensing the chill of clear fountain water, his gaze wandering the simple wonders surrounding him. And right between him and the sky on the other side of the marble railing, there was a great, ancient tree, sturdily rooted into the mountain ground below, towering over the garden. Leafless in this season, its boughs were silhouetted black and strong against the night.
Frodo inhaled the crisp air and released it in a deep, thoughtful sigh. He reminisced about the events of the last months, like so many nights before, but even more now that the time of leaving was creeping closer…
'I will take it!' he had said.
The words had tumbled from his lips before he had even realized. 'I will take the Ring to Mordor!'
And he had been stunned at how loud and meaningful, even threatening, those few words resounded in his own ears as perfect silence fell all around him. Until this night, he still struggled to grasp the way they would change everything in his life. It was difficult to bring to reason what he had spoken with his heart. And yet, he could not have remained silent. His heart ruled over him then, and the words had spilled from his lips naturally.
He had stood there, eyes wide and blinking at the shocked and awestruck faces watching him.
'Though, I know not the way…' his mind had reasoned, and he had felt afraid.
As the days carried on in the peaceful valley, those words, his own, sounded muffled and dazed somewhere at the back of his awareness.
The joy to be close to Bilbo once more did well to his heart. And he enjoyed the time with his friends and cousins; his good old Sam, and Merry and Pippin always up for chatter and laughter. They had run through small meadows and danced light-minded under beautiful elven arches. They had stood close to astounding falls where water sprayed their faces, leaving a fresh sheen on their cheeks. They had rushed through spacious corridors opening to the sky, illuminated by the stars…
Frodo lifted his fingers from the fountain and allowed tiny droplets to spill back into the water. He watched the circles slowly expanding on the silvery surface.
… The elves of Rivendell… how excited had he been to admire them once in his life. Dreamlike images they seemed, and yet they stood tall and strong, immortal and real in this place called Imladris in their tongue - a name so simple and yet ringing softly in his ears when he heard it flowing from their lips. They seemed to glide through the airy corridors, flawless and radiating near perfection so that he felt slightly awkward pattering on his big, hairy feet, small as he was and utterly simple. And he was astonished at the respect the elves offered him from their deep, ancient eyes whenever they regarded him.
The first elf he had seen… he had come upon them after Frodo had been injured by the wraith. And he remembered clearly how suddenly into view below came a white horse, gleaming in the shadows, running swiftly. In the dusk its headstall flickered and flashed, as if it were studded with gems like living stars. The rider's cloak streamed behind him, and his hood was thrown back; his golden hair flowed shimmering in the wind of his speed. To Frodo it appeared that white light was shining through the form and raiment of the rider, as if though through a thin veil.
That had been their first encounter with one of the Eldar, and all four hobbits had gaped.
And then, when Frodo slid into a precarious state of deep pain, he had felt the elf's fingers on the wound, a strong and warm pressure. Through shreds of chill that held his awareness, he had seen the elf's face glow above him, formidably breaking through the darkness. Melted gold, flowing over broad, strong shoulders. His voice, deep, powerful and yet strangely musical, had called him, and had lessened the creeping, engulfing darkness…
He remembered as though through a fog the bright, fearless figure on the bank of the river, chasing the black riders into the flood of wild and flaming white water-horses. Then his vision darkened, and he fell.
Like in a dream he had felt the fluid movements of the horse under him, but even as it bore him with the utmost care, any motion inevitably jarred the pain, piercing his shoulder and draining his entire body and soul. But arms hard as steel and yet warm like the summer sun had been firmly encircling him, easing the jarring, and keeping the creeping cold at bay. Frodo had sensed the deep and silent breathing at his back, the mighty body shielding him from the threatening darkness before he knew no more.
Lord Glorfindel was his rescuer's name. And every time he met the imposing Lord in the house or in the gardens, he awoke endless awe in the hobbit. Frodo found himself always holding his breath at the magnificence of this ancient warrior. Although Glorfindel tried his best to make the little being feel at ease, ever approaching him with gentleness and so often graced him with a light, joyful smile. In the end, he apparently succeeded, and Frodo began to talk, jest and laugh, although shyly, even with him…
Frodo plunged his hand into the water, cupping with his fingers the form of a tiny vessel and then lifting it, breaking through the shimmering surface and letting the water slowly trickle back into the fountain.
… He thought of Lord Elrond, who had saved his life from the darkness. The calm and steadiness in those age-old eyes had made him feel secure and well-guarded in this house. But when Frodo looked closer, he found in their bright grey, deep pools of unfathomable experiences and knowledge, of joy, love and suffering. His gaze was often stern, yet the Lord of Rivendell knew how to make the hobbits feel at ease offering them friendliness and care.
There were the twin sons of Elrond; when they had first returned from one of their orc-hunts with the rangers of the north, they had appeared to him solemn and distant, melancholy and sometimes a darkness marring their finely chiselled features. But when he had seen them interacting with Strider, the smiles that appeared on their lips then were refreshingly genuine. Those smiles reached their eyes, conjuring sparkling silver mirth. They had jested and laughed with the man and eventually, Frodo and his fellow hobbits had lost their initial shyness in their presence. The three of them used to even fondly include the hobbits into their games. Anytime Elladan and Elrohir met the small creatures in their home, the sadness on their handsome faces faded and instead a tender light glowed.
Their sister Arwen... - Undómiel she was called; the Evenstar of her people. Never before had Frodo seen fairness alike in living thing*. A star she was indeed; her eyes shone and spoke of many things, and she was lovely and gentle.
They were no more those distant elves; mystical and unapproachable. They had become persons. Aye, beautiful they were, and tall and graceful - and strange indeed - but they had grown more and more familiar in their own way.
And then there was this other elf, who had been chosen to be part of their fellowship. He appeared different from the inhabitants of Rivendell. Frodo remembered him as he had arrived with his companions; all slender riders garbed in browns and greens, straight and proud warriors. Great bows slung on their backs, leathery quivers filled with fine arrows, long knives in their sheds, daggers adorning their belts; armed to the teeth. Even on their horses, they had tread almost soundless, barely recognizable from far, one with the earth and the trees. He had stood out from their company, the fairest of all, with his light-golden hair streaming down his shoulders, and the fierce gleam in his eyes. His eyes were a story all by themselves. They seemed to change colours; from pooling blue when he smiled at Strider or laughed lightly with the twin sons of Elrond, melting to silvery grey in his long silences - his gaze then often distant and caught in thought - or dark blue as a stormy sea when he raised his warm, throaty voice, or hissed harsh words.
The son of Thranduil, the Elvenking and mighty ruler in the deep forest of Mirkwood.
Secretive he seemed, often retired into the trees, moving with feline grace, balancing on balustrades or leisurely perched on the railing of a balcony. Other times Frodo saw him laughing and jesting with the twins and Strider in comfortable company. Light and joyful he then appeared.
With all the awed distance the hobbit perceived towards him, Frodo felt strangely protected at the thought that this oddly wild being would accompany him.
The hobbit then let his thoughts flow towards Gandalf. The old grey wizard he had known since childhood. His visits had always brought the marvels of the world, of adventures and action into the shire. The youths of Hobbiton laughed and screamed in merry excitement at his colourful magic fires. And the old, wise wizard had always taken part with merriment at their joyful feasts. But now, far from home in the midst of the wonders and threats of the world, and the looming uncertainty of his burden, the wizard was familiarity, care and protection. And Frodo's heart warmed at the thought.
There was Strider, the ranger. That time when he had sought them out at the Prancing Pony, they had seen him as secretive, a man of few words. He had watched over them, serious and stern. He had proven courage, strength and honour protecting them. And as time went on, he had shared many a laugh and fond smiles with Frodo and his friends. His eyes often lit with silent understanding and care for the hobbits. The silver sparks in their grey reminded Frodo of those elven eyes of his foster father and brothers.
The other man, who would travel with them, seemed more reserved in this home of elves. He was an experienced and fierce captain of Gondor, a great realm somewhere to the south, the son of the Steward himself. The man had always been polite and friendly to Frodo. He would be a pleasant and capable companion on a long, perilous journey.
There was Gimli, the dwarf, son of Gloin who had travelled with Bilbo at the times of Thorin Oakenshield. A stout, sturdy fellow, seemingly sceptic of his surroundings. Frodo had caught him glaring at the son of the Elvenking many a time. The elf had glared back, and then he had lifted his chin and ignored the shorter being. The hobbit wondered how this would develop on a journey together.
Frodo thought of his friends again, and he was endlessly glad they would all be with him. Lord Elrond had known what this meant to him, he had given him this knowing look when speaking their names. He knew so much, the ancient Lord. Frodo felt like he could see his very thoughts and into his heart…
The hobbit then heard a slight rustling behind him, and as he glanced at the source of the sound, he made out Sam's familiar chubby shape. Sam's face looked fleetingly surprised and then turned to welcome cheer at the sight of his friend. He reached Frodo where he was standing by the fountain and lay an arm amicably around his shoulders, squeezing slightly. Frodo smiled. He felt a surge of happiness at the closeness of his dear friend. They stood together in silence, finding comfort and a certain measure of peace in each other's presence.
Only a few minutes passed before they heard hushed, excited voices, barely suppressed giggling, and hasty pit-patting steps intruding on the quiet. They exchanged a look of bewilderment, frowning, and then curiously eyed the direction of the commotion. Two small figures came tumbling through the curtain of ivy, landing flat on the ground, one beside the other. A small basket flopped forth between them, its contents plummeting out in the process.
Frodo and Sam exchanged a bemused glance and then ran to reach their friends. Their soft laughter replaced their companionable silence of before.
"You clumsy Took," Merry hissed, "tripping me up like this!"
Frodo extended an arm to him, and Merry took it, allowing the other hobbit to help him get on his feet.
Pippin complained, "It was not me, it was the vines! They caught my foot! These mischievous things." He glanced up innocently at his three fellow hobbits and then glared at the winding plant.
Merry picked up the basket, not minding Pippin's protest, and carefully recollected the small cakes that lay scattered on the ground.
Sam was still trying to free Pippin's foot from the ivy. How the young hobbit had managed to get entangled in such a manner was beyond him.
"Will you keep still! If you wish me to free you." Sam chuckled.
And as Pippin finally scrambled to his feet, all three pairs of eyes were on him. Frodo and Sam regarded him questioningly.
"What-?" Pippin said, blinking innocently. "Ask him!" he pointed to Merry beside him, "He is the one with the basket."
Merry's eyes widened, and then he squinted down to the basket in his hands, and back to his friends' expectant gazes. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but then shut it again, and Frodo could have sworn he blushed, even if it was difficult to discern in the darkness.
"Why are you standing there like fish swallowing water," Sam broke the other's awkwardness goodheartedly, "Will you not offer us some of your pastries?"
"Of course, that was the purpose. - To eat them, I mean… the two of us originally… but now that you happen to be here, we will share, of course. It is a pleasure to us!" Merry said sincerely, happy and relieved, his face brightening in the darkness. That had been the prodding for the four of them, to sit down in the middle of the garden under the beech, in chatter and laughter, while enjoying their sweet midnight meal, in pleasant company.
And it was good, thought Frodo. The closeness of his friends was such a steadying harbour in the vast sea of uncertainties raging within him. He smiled slightly at the good-hearted nature of the two younger hobbits who were revelling in their tale-telling and bickering between mouthfuls of cake. But he felt it was different than usual. The tension lay on them as well. Although they seemed to try and outplay it with their usual joviality.
As Frodo sat there in affectionate company for a while now already, he suddenly felt like they had been watched all this time in the garden. There was a mild glow cradled into the tree silhouetting over the sight of the valley. Frodo blinked in wonder as a long agile figure melted out of the tree and dropped from the branches, landing silently on the railing.
The voices of his friends silenced and Merry and Pippin's eyes widened as they all stared in the same direction.
The being who now fluidly descended from the railing towards them struck as a mercurial appearance, armed as he was with his bow and a quiver full of perfect, fletched arrows on his back, two white handles of sheathed knives reflecting the starlight, and finely crafted daggers stuck in his belt.
Only Sam seemed unsurprised, as he smiled.
"Good evening Legolas," he said in a relaxed tone as if the sudden presence of the elf before him was a completely usual occurrence.
"Mae govannen, Samwise Gamgee," the elf replied, "And good evening to you all; Meriadoc, Peregrin, Frodo," the elf bowed his head, touching a hand to his heart, his voice calm and warm, filling the silence, "I wished not to startle you, but if I did, may you forgive me."
The two younger hobbits shortly glanced at each other before turning their gazes back to the elf, now barely restraining their awe and curiosity. They seemed to recover from their surprise, and Frodo could bet by the gasps they had uttered, that they had been startled.
Frodo was not startled, rather puzzled and maybe a little irritated. "You have been watching us all the while we were here? And even before, when I was alone?"
But before the elf could answer, Pippin's tongue loosened already, "But… you are the prince of the woodland realm, the son of the Elvenking, are you not? You will depart with us in the morrow…"
Frodo was even more puzzled and struck with amazement at the disarming, almost innocent smile and the merry tone in the voice of the elf as he answered, and it was to him as if he saw an indistinct sparkle in his eyes he knew from Pippin. "Aye, the King of the Greenwood is my father. And regarding the first question; 'watching you' might be the wrong word. I was here before you came, and you merely failed to notice me."
"But…" Frodo stammered and frowned, suddenly realizing, "Sam, you have been here before…?"
"Aye many times," Sam replied, "yet I considered it not for me to speak of it, because I felt like it is Legolas' place, and I am grateful he did share it with me."
"You have met many times in this secret garden…" Frodo said in wonder, wide eyes blinking from hobbit to elf. He had not guessed...
"Hidden, but not secret," the elf said softly, his voice enhancing the peace and the silence with its warm tone, "This is my favourite spot in the valley. I helped slightly for it to grow more wildly, and this is the way I like it." He graced them with another smile. "And aye, the elves of this place do their best to keep it ever growing in its natural way, all the time I am far away. Your friend Sam, he understands so well the spirit and ways of growing green, and it has been a joy to share time here with him."
The elf then lifted a delicate eyebrow at Merry and Pippin, "And there are two more who came tumbling in here before. Only they did not know there was someone in the tree enjoying their cheery visits. I do not think there is a spot in this house they did not explore, am I right?" His laughter rang brightly.
As the young hobbits blushed, smiling sheepishly, the elf indicated the basket between them. "And this time, I really would wish to partake in your midnight meal of pastries. Will you offer me some?"
"O-… Of course!" Merry held out the basket, and the elf reached a long slender hand to take one of the cakes.
"Thank you!" he said then, offering them a wide smile. The fine contours of his face were gently enhanced by the glow the moon cast on him.
"You are welcome!" Merry and Pippin answered as one.
"Would you sit and share more company and sweets with us, Lord Legolas?" Pippin asked excitedly.
"Only Legolas, please. And aye, with pleasure."
The awkwardness of the situation was definitively broken by the obviously charming nature of the elf. And many questions that seemed to have only been waiting, now bubbled up within Pippin unrestrained. He wanted to know everything about the elf's home, the great forest, about his father the King and his halls, and about the time Bilbo was there, about the dwarfs, the wine, the feasts and the barrels, about diamonds and starlight…
When Pippin paused to draw breath and the young hobbit's eyes gleamed with expectation, Legolas's first answer was another bright laughter.
"It will take long to speak of it all. Lucky that we are embarking on a journey together. It will provide us more time."
But then Legolas told of his home, taking them on a journey into a place unknown to them. And they saw and felt, through the words of the elf, green leaves, warmed by the golden rays of the sun, forest glades at night sprinkled with starlight, and great, airy halls, whose stone was both wildly and delicately carved in the untamed form of growing life.
Pippin's eyes were wide with marvel, and Merry's mouth had fallen open. More questions brimmed to the fore, and the young hobbits became all jittery to ask them. Pippin, always the fastest to speak, asked about adventures and battles and wished to view and touch the elf's weapons. The elf grew quiet then and pensive. He allowed the hobbits to hold his bow and one of his knives, but he evaded most of the questions. He described the giant spiders because Pippin would not give in, and at Merry's insistence, he admitted that he had killed quite a number over the years, and also many an orc in stealthy ambushes from the trees.
But Frodo felt that there were things that Legolas would not speak of this night. He read them in the silences when the elf took his time to think. Then, a strange hardness flitted over his features, very subtly, only recognizable for the careful observer, because right after, it was replaced by a soft, gentle smile. Frodo felt as if Legolas wanted to preserve their innocence, for one more night, until the journey began. And he felt as if the elf himself needed that reprieve, revelling in fair memories.
And so, when Merry or Pippin asked questions about every detail that fascinated them; about the woods and the halls and the elves in them, he was eager to elaborate and quick to laugh. The bright, awed eyes of the hobbits encouraging him, and obviously bringing him joy.
And then he turned the stick around, and urged them to tell of the Shire; of green sappy hills, of cosy hobbit homes, and feasts and dancing, quiet afternoon teas, and rich cheery meals, of friendship and family. All the four hobbits eagerly participated in those fond tales, and for a short time they forgot of all else but their beloved home.
Taking Frodo's hand in his, Sam whispered into the first long silence, "This might be the last time in this garden, surely, for a long time, and I am so glad we are all here together, tonight, before we leave…"
"… as am I," said the elf, his fair features glowing like the stars in the sky.
As they were basking in the tales and memories, the hours grew late, and the hobbits slowly tired and quieted. Pippin had been yawning more and more frequently, and the two elder hobbits thought it would be wise to finally get some sleep. The elf nodded to them in approval.
"I wish you good rest, my friends. You have brightened this night with your company, and I am grateful for that…"
"I am so excited, I feel I can't close an eye," said Pippin, blinking around at all his companions.
"You better do close them both, believe me, and rest in a soft bed here in Rivendell, as long as you can." Legolas friendly reprimanded the young hobbit.
But it was to Frodo as if despite the elf's fond smile, a veil of sadness passed over his eyes, and their blue sparkle turned a shade darker.
They bid a good night to Legolas, who then silently watched them leave.
Frodo followed at a small distance as his friends strove along before him. He heard their familiar, light chatter, while they slid through the curtain of ivy.
Frodo faltered, looking back to the elf who now stood under the birch, glowing even brighter than its white trunk in the light of the stars. The hobbit longed to stay, just one moment longer.
He made to speak but then hesitated as the elf stood tall and still, watching him, with dark glistening eyes reflecting the stars and the sky. For a moment the strange gleam in them appeared almost feral.
"There is no need to carry your weapons along in this house, and you never did before..." Frodo brought forth, giving voice to his growing anxiety.
He saw the elf's chest and shoulders slowly rise and fall as he inhaled and released a long breath. And yet, he was completely silent; he briefly shut his eyes and offered a slight nod.
"I was not used to laying them down, years ago, the first time I came into this house. But I've learned that they are not needed in a place where peace shimmers in the particles of the very air we breathe." He turned away from Frodo, whispering, as if to himself, "On the journey's eve, I need to relish in the feeling of power and protection they offer, polishing them to perfection, and return to what I know best."
But when he looked at Frodo again he smiled, "I did not expect you here tonight, Mister Frodo. But I am so glad you came. – All of you." The elf's voice was unexpectedly light then. The contrast of that softness to the fully armed image and lethal grace of the warrior standing before him struck the hobbit thoroughly.
Frodo felt that Arda was on the brink of a new Age. And the burden was becoming heavier to carry. The day to leave was relentlessly nearing and not even this timeless place could stop it, or keep away the burden from him. He had shouldered it willingly. He would have to leave, take the burden with him, take it to a place of pure evil, ease Rivendell of this weight, that belonged not here in this peaceful place, nor anywhere on the free lands of Middle-earth.
As Frodo looked straight into the elf's eyes that were observing him all the while, they were suddenly darkened to the colour of the night, revealing all he carried within. But then his gaze softened to an encouraging smile, and it was to Frodo as if the radiance of the stars washed over his handsome features.
What fiery light burned so clear and bright within him, tangling firmly around the darkness, dispelling it. The elf looked timeless, like this place. And Frodo felt a fierce steadiness and endurance in his lithe image that leant him faith. He was so glad this being had been chosen to come with him.
"If I can help to carry this burden, I will. I will do everything to keep you safe, at the cost of my own life. - The strength lies in all of us together." Legolas said as if he was reading the hobbit's thoughts.
And while Frodo stared into those eyes, he wondered; how many deaths had they seen, how many parents grieve, how many friends had he buried; how many times had he killed… how many?
And his heart hurt.
Frodo heard Merry and Pippin call him, and then even Sam joined in.
The elf nodded to him, "Go, Frodo," he said, his warm, deep voice enveloping him. "Join your friends. - And tell these mischievous young ones to rest," he smiled fondly, "we need you all in good shape on the morrow."
Frodo nodded and made haste to reach his dear companions. The twinkling lights from above shone into him, and the thought that they, too, would accompany them on their journey somehow soothed him.
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