The battle was won, and a treaty drawn up for elves and dwarves and humans. Bilbo Baggins was eager to return to his home, a place called The Shire, in the West. Mithrandir was going with him. But before they left, the wizard found time to speak with Legolas and me privately.
"I know you were hoping I might cast light on the mystery of your childhood," he told me, "but I knew only that you were coming; from whom and from where and how are mysteries to me as well." He took a long puff on his pipe. "The truth is, even I do not know what is within you. You are indeed human, through and through. This power you possess, however you came by it, is desired by the Dark Lord, and we knew," he glanced at the prince, "that the best way to hide this power was to make sure you were not aware of it yourself. But somehow you have awakened it, and now you will be easy to track."
Legolas placed an arm around my shoulders, protectively. "What is to become of her?" he asked, clearly worried.
"We of the White Council have driven the Necromancer from Dol Guldur, and so she is not in the immediate danger she would have otherwise been in. Still, Dol Guldur remains an evil place; probably it will always be so. And the Dark Lord is not defeated. He has fled to the South. Now we must be ever vigilant."
We followed Mithrandir as he went to collect Mr. Baggins. As we bid him farewell, he told us he would send word to us from Rivendell if he had discovered any more answers.
Through the winter I kept silent about what had happened, speaking of it not even to Nefrűniel, and certainly not to Legolas, who became wary and tense all the time. Worst of all, more than he feared for my safety, he seemed to fear me.
In spring came riders from Rivendell. One handed a letter to Legolas, and bowed. The prince read the letter over at least thrice, shaking his head. He hurried from the Halls, leaving everyone puzzled.
"What is going on?" I asked the riders.
"We do not know. We were told only to deliver the letter and await Prince Legolas' orders."
I followed Legolas into the woods. I knew where I would find him.
He was slumped against Our Tree, the vast hollow trunk of what had once been the greatest beech in the wood, not far from the edge of the city. I was quite alarmed to find him doing something I had never seen an elf do before – he was weeping. There he sat, knees drawn up, tears spilling from his large eyes, his lips quivering.
I sat close beside him. "What is the news from Rivendell?" I asked, trying to remain calm.
"A letter from Mithrandir," he said, still clutching the paper tight in his hands. "He says the Dark Lord can now sense your presence, and will soon send his agents from Dol Guldur to fetch you. He says you are not safe in Mirkwood, and Mirkwood is not safe with you in it."
"Then … I must leave? I have never, within my memory, been further from Mirkwood than the Lonely Mountain. Where will I go?"
Legolas had calmed, though fresh tears continued to spill from between his long lashes. "In Rivendell, the elven spells are stronger. Elrond has agreed to take you in. But Mithrandir forbids me from coming with you."
"He does not say. But he always has a reason."
The next morning, I was dressed again in my riding gear. My books and some other belongings, along with my bow, were packed up and already slung over the back of my horse – the only friend who would be accompanying me on this journey.
Few were there to see me off – my two dearest friends, of course, and, somewhat to my surprise, the king. Thranduil looked uncomfortable. "Safe journey to you, child. I am sure you will find Elrond's home agreeable," was all he said.
Nefrűniel did not weep, but she seemed unable to lift her eyes from the ground. "I shall watch over your garden for you," she promised. Still not lifting her head, she embraced me long and tightly.
When she at last released me, Legolas stepped close enough to whisper. "How can I let you go, my Avarfanawen?" he asked, raising his slender fingers to touch the place where the arrow had pierced his chest, where my hands had healed him. "You are inside me. I feel as though a part of my soul were being ripped away."
Unlike the elves, I could not control my crying. "You are all that I have ever had. I do not know what I shall do without you."
He held me gently in his comfortable arms, his clothes smelling of the forest. The forest … which I was never to look upon again. That thought brought forth more tears, and I sobbed into his shoulder until I shook. "Do not let them take me from here, my only home!" I begged.
He kissed my hair, and I felt a tear that had at last escaped his eye fall upon me. "I have no choice." His arms loosened, and he leaned back to look me in the face. "Elrond will take good care of you. I will never forget you, my sweet Avarfanawen."
Every grain of willpower I had it took to make me mount that horse and follow the messengers of Rivendell. As we neared the place where the trees became thick, I turned back. Legolas was watching, and waved. He tried to smile. I nodded to my prince, and returned to the ride.
The world outside Mirkwood was bright and vast. I had never imagined land spreading out in all directions, unobstructed so that one could gaze for miles into the horizon. It made me feel very small.
The journey to Rivendell was uneventful. But when we reached that fair elven city, I gasped at its delicate beauty. Thranduil's Halls did not begin to match its elegance!
Elrond was waiting to receive me. "Welcome, Avarfanawen! I trust your ride has been safe? I do hope you will be comfortable in my home." He smiled.
I forced myself to smile back, despite the sickness in my heart. Lord Elrond was, after all, immeasurably kind to take me in, danger though I was.
There the elves did all they could to make my life pleasant, but good to me as Elrond and his sons were, none of them were Legolas. My prince had told me he felt his soul was ripped – I felt as though my soul had died.
I was not the only human living in Rivendell. There was a woman, not a great deal older than me, named Gilraen, and she and I became good friends. She had a son who was about 11 years old, whom they called Estel, but I learned by listening that he was in fact Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor. They too dwelled in the house of Elrond to shelter from the Dark Lord.
Seasons passed into years, seven or ten or twelve, and though I was surrounded by beauty and kind faces, I was never happy. My heart longed for Mirkwood – and for my prince. The boy Estel – now a grown man, was at last told of his true ancestry, and his true name, Aragorn. He left Rivendell. I had no such luck, either to be told the truth or my past or be free to go where I wished.
I could not sleep. I took to wandering the gardens at night. The plants I cultivated there never matched the vigor of those I once grew in Mirkwood.
One evening, as I took this walk, I heard someone approaching. That someone called my name, softly, in a long-familiar voice. "My prince!" I cried.
"Hush," he whispered hastily. "I am not supposed to be here. Come here where I may see you better."
I stepped into the moonlight, where he seized my arms and clasped me to him before taking a good look at me. Though he did his best not to show it, I knew he was surprised at my appearance. I had changed over the years.
But what he said was: "You are as beautiful as ever."
"You are the same as the day I left … the same as the day you took me in. There are lines under my eyes and grey strands in my hair, and I know you see them."
"Beauty is not in youth alone," he said.
"That is easy to say when you live forever and never change."
"The only thing that never changes about me is my heart," he countered.
I smiled. "Where is my mind? I am so happy to see you."
He kissed my forehead and withdrew. He removed something his belt. It was an autumn whisper, like the ones I had grown in my garden in Mirkwood.
"This is the last flower you ever cut before you left. It has not dried or faded in all this time. I keep it with me always, for I know there are things about you that never change."
"My heart," I said, laughing, so delirious was I with joy.
"I cannot bear to be away from you. Things have grown … complicated … at home, else I would have come to visit you sooner."
"You are here now. That is all that matters."
He kissed me upon the lips. I had received ten thousand kisses from him in my life, but none like this. An energy passed between us, like lightning. I leaned into him, needing his affection like I needed air, and he was generous in sharing it. I grew warm, as though from too much wine, and my heart pounded until I was sure it would burst.
At last he pulled away with a gasp. Looking away off into the star- sprinkled sky, he said, "I have overstepped my bounds."
I frowned. "If you had taken a liberty I did not approve, my lord, I would have let you know."
He shook his head. "You do not understand. Mithrandir had good reason when he wrote that I should not see you again. You are in me." He clapped his palm over the old wound.
"You are here. You have already defied his counsel."
"Yes," he said, looking into my eyes. I had been wrong – something had changed about my prince. There was something wild in his eyes. Something brash and loud. Something … that was me. But as quickly as I noticed it, it was gone.
"It destroys me to leave you," Legolas said, his eyes once again his own. "But I cannot stay." He kissed me once more, gently, briefly. "We cannot be together, and it is nobody's fault. Understand that. And I love you. Always know that."
"I love you, my prince."
He was gone.
It was then I knew that I could no longer live among the elves. In fact, I was not sure I could live among any people. Before dawn, I had gathered my belongings and left Rivendell. I had written a letter to Lord Elrond, thanking him for his years of hospitality, but could not bear goodbyes again.
In the years that followed, I rode through much of this land, and saw many sights, and had many adventures. By my bow and my sword I made my living well enough.
But look at me now – tired, grey. He, I am sure, remains unchanged from the day he took me in. For the lifetime of a human is but a season to an elf. I understand now, King Thranduil meant to be kind when he told his son that humans do not live among elves.
I cannot be angry with my prince for taking pity on a child, and I cannot hate myself for being what I am. I am too old to nurse such bitterness, though one regret I bear still: I wish I might see him – just once more – that I might thank him. But alas! I do not think I shall make it to back Mirkwood again.
The old woman, Avarfanawen, left the common room of the inn and with heavy steps climbed the stairs to her rented room, where she dreamt of old songs, and willowy bows, and summer days spent under trees, running through the dappled sunlight with her prince. At the dawn, she did not wake.
Miles away, Legolas sat, knees drawn to his chest, at the edge of a camp, silently watching the gray sky turn to pink as the sun rose. He was guarding the sleep of several friends, four of whom were small and innocent and vulnerable, like the human child he had once welcomed to Mirkwood. It did not seem like that long ago, for though he was centuries old, he was not a great deal more than a child himself, among his people. But there was a message for him in the chilly wind this morning, unhappy tidings in the dew. The old wound began to throb as it never had before. His ever-sad eyes grew more forlorn as he became aware in his heart that despite his hopes, he would never see that child again. Soundlessly he wept for the mortality of humankind – or perhaps, for the immortality of the elves.
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