The Darkness of These Days
"Legolas," Ithildim hissed, pressing his knife harder against his friend's blade. He swept downward before dropping his own knife and catching up Legolas' wrist in his hand. With a simultaneous pinch and twist, Legolas' fingers dropped the knife; he scowled and pulled away.
Ithildim released his wrist and Legolas shook out his hands. "What, Ithildim?" He reached down and picked up both their knives, steel blades illuminated by the heavy rising moon. He slipped his own into his belt and handed Ithildim's to him by the tip.
Ithildim took it and sighed.
Legolas crossed his arms upon his chest and shifted his weight from foot to foot, before glancing around the clearing, eyes catching on the leaves that were stirred by the wind above them.
He stared, distracted, and Ithildim watched. Legolas did not move until an almost imperceptible flash lit the sky just above the treeline, and Ithildim glanced up in time to see a shooting star burn into the blackness.
Legolas gasped and turned to Ithildim with excitement. "Did you see that, my friend?"
His eyes burned with unquenchable joy, and Ithildim could not stop the smile he felt pull at the corners of his mouth to see Legolas' flushed cheeks, eyes that sparkled like blackwater in the moonlight.
"I did," Ithildim affirmed, and he nodded, slipping his knife into his own belt.
Legolas smiled at Ithildim once more and then looked again to the sky before breathing deeply of the night air and sinking fully onto the ground. He lay back and folded his arms behind his head.
"Come on, then," Legolas said after a few moments. "Join me." He turned his face to Ithildim though he could not see him from his place among the autumn grasses.
There was the scrape of leathery oak leaf underfoot as Ithildim closed the distance and lay down beside Legolas. The grass about them whispered like dried katydid wings. Ithildim crossed his legs and looked to the sky, and Legolas had turned his attention back, too, to the stars.
"Ithildim," Legolas said after another moment's silence. "What did you mean to say to me?"
There was a beat in which Ithildim did not look away from the sky-
"That I miss you, Legolas."
Legolas did not speak but continued to look at the stars. Ithildim heard the brush of fabric and crunch of leaves as Legolas pulled his arms from behind his head and folded them instead across his chest.
He rolled onto his side so that he could see Legolas' inert body, still as a young felled tree in the silence after the storm-his brow was furrowed and his jaw clenched and he did not waver from the stars.
"Legolas," Ithildim repeated gently.
Legolas shook his head in response, pursed his lips, and kept his silence; his fingers curled around his ribs.
Ithildim reached across the small gap between them and patted Legolas on the cheek firmly. "Speak to me, fool."
Legolas' nostrils flared and he closed his eyes once as if to steady himself, and when he opened them again, he turned his head toward Ithildim and rolled onto his side, too, so he also faced his friend. He curled the arm closest to the earth and propped his head on his fist to meet Ithildim's eyes levelly.
"And what would you have me say?" he asked.
Ithildim did not answer but held Legolas' gaze.
"That I miss you, too?" Legolas continued, and he raised his eyebrows.
Ithildim kept his silence. Legolas frowned at that, and then pushed himself up so that he sat with his legs in the shape of a diamond in front of him. He leaned forward and pressed his hands into the ground between his legs, arms locked and straight and straining at the joint.
"Because I do, Ithildim," he said, now insistent and frustrated. "Miss you, that is. I am with you every day in the field-we fight and plan and rage and practice and write and study, day in and day out-from dawn to dusk, from moonrise to moonset-and yet we are not so close as we have been..." he trailed off and tilted his head to the side as if scrutinizing Ithildim's face. "And, yes," he finished after a moment, "that burns my heart."
Ithildim picked a straw of dried grass and spun it between his fingers as he considered his friend's words.
"You know," Ithildim finally said, spinning the blade of grass so fast that it cracked down its length and showered flakes of straw into the air between them. He dropped his hand back to the ground and selected another piece of grass before continuing: "It was your choice. Your heart does not have to hurt so. It hurts me, too."
Legolas laughed softly, though there was no true humor in it. "We have been through this, Ithildim."
"Remind me," Ithildim said calmly, twisting the grass between two long fingers and looking up at Legolas with silver eyes deep with the night.
Legolas accepted the challenge and straightened his back.
"I am your second in command," he said, looking Ithildim full in the face.
"You are." Ithildim dropped the grass and plucked another.
Legolas narrowed his eyes and continued firmly: "Your family is like my own."
"Is that not the way of lives than intertwine?" Ithildim mused with a smile that tugged at one corner of his lips. He dropped the straw and sat up abruptly, dusting off his hands. "Go on, Legolas."
"The Elvenking is my father and I am his son."
"That is the way of the world, yes. He who sired you is your father, indeed."
Legolas huffed and exclaimed, "Ithildim, I am speaking to you earnestly!" He rocked back and forth impatiently in his seat.
"And so do I speak, too!" Ithildim laughed. Legolas' nostrils flared again and Ithildim immediately held up his hands in supplication. "Go on, then."
"This world is too dark, now, I guess." And he spoke as if this were the heart of it. "And we have no time for the type of care that most we want. I will not open myself up to such hurt should I lose you, nor hurt you myself should the darkness take me." He bit his lip and Ithildim shifted as Legolas barreled on. "And so it is better that we remain as now we are, to protect one another most truly in these sorrowful times."
Legolas propped his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands. Ithildim did not move but watched the wind catch at the hair at Legolas' crown, watched errant strands vibrate in the breeze and the tip of his braid brush against the leather of his jacket as it swung from his downturned head.
"Still you think us too dangerous in every way," Ithildim said calmly.
Legolas did not speak but Ithildim heard him breathe deeply from behind his hands and his shoulders tensed and then slowly released as he let out the breath in a long, quiet hiss. He inhaled deeply again and held it and did not move a muscle.
"I will continue to respect that, Legolas, though it would be an insult to you to pretend it does not still hurt," Ithildim finished; he wove his fingers together into a basket and placed them between his legs as he watched his friend's continued silence.
He watched for a minute more-a minute in which Legolas had taken only two more slow breaths and held them, whistling them out from between clenched teeth and barely parted lips-before scooting forward and closing the space between them. He folded his legs, too, in front of him and took Legolas' hands at the wrist to pull them away from his face.
Legolas did not immediately look up. They sat that way-knee to knee-one head tilted forward and concerned, the other down-turned with hands caught up like tired birds, lowered slowly to the ground by a kind and forgiving wind. Ithildim dropped Legolas' wrists and took up his hands before leaning forward and touching his forehead to Legolas' crown.
He murmured into that shallow inch of air between them: "Tell me what I can do to help you."
There was no response, but Legolas' body nearly thrummed with tension and energy; his hands trembled with anxiety and pain, loss and complication, and he did not say a word.
Ithildim tried again. "Tell me, Legolas, what it is you need."
There was silence, and then Legolas pulled back and looked up at Ithildim with eyes wide and dark and sparkling. Ithildim felt his breath catch in his chest and Legolas slipped his own hands beneath Ithildim's and grasped them at the wrist instead, so that Ithildim no longer cradled his like an injured thing.
"I need you to argue with me," Legolas said decisively.
Ithildim raised his eyebrows and stared for a moment into Legolas' upturned face before pulling one hand out of Legolas' grip, raising it to the back of his neck, and pulling them close enough together that they rested again forehead to forehead.
"Argue with me," Legolas repeated in a whisper. "Tell me why I am wrong."
Ithildim pulled the other hand out of Legolas' grasp and Legolas tried to catch it up again, but Ithildim had placed it at one side of Legolas' face, cupped against his cheek. His hand was rough from sword-work and he felt the air between them quiver as Legolas took in a short breath and furrowed his brow.
"Ithildim-" Legolas began, but he was interrupted.
"You want me to argue with you? You know I will win." Ithildim pulled away for a second to look at Legolas' face, but Legolas only smiled and said blithely: "I hardly think so."
And then Ithildim had tilted Legolas' chin and put gentle pressure on the back of his neck so that they were close-so close. He caught up his lips with his own; his breath caught in his throat and he felt Legolas' do the same, and then he leaned further forward, and Legolas pushed back, and it was a battle of tension, and of pressure. Hand against cheek, fingers clenching arm, hand on neck on chest on hand on lips-
Legolas pulled back with a gasp and slipped his hand over Ithildim's mouth for a moment before dropping it away, just one finger still pressed against his lips, to hush him.
He took a deep breath and Ithildim blinked but did not move.
With Ithildim still and silent before him, Legolas noted the flushed cheeks, and the way Ithildim's hair looked warmer-even under the cool blue of the moon-when his cheekbones were lit with the heat of the moment.
Legolas cleared his throat and dropped his finger from Ithildim's lips. He shook out his hands and folded his arms across his chest, tucked his hands into his armpits; he tilted his head to the right, and grinned.
"I did mean for you to tell me with words, you hopeless loon!" Legolas reprimanded without bite, though his eyes were wet and sad.
Ithildim shrugged and straightened the clasp at the neck of Legolas' jacket before responding. "Would you hear my argument in words, then?"
"I would," Legolas said sincerely, nodding, and glancing quickly to the sky before looking back to Ithildim's thoughtful face.
"I would say: ‘Among the tales of sorrow and ruin-among the darkness of these days-there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures.'"
Legolas burst into laughter and leaned forward challengingly. "And when have you taken to the library! For you have countered me with lore!"
"Or I counter you with truth," said Ithildim cheekily, "and I have always been more for tales than you, besides."
"I do not know if you will win that argument, but it is not a thing I want to quarrel on while my mind is otherwise distracted."
"If we did not have to quarrel anytime you were distracted, we would never have to quar-"
But he did not finish because Legolas was to his feet and moving, to Ithildim's surprise. Legolas held out his hand and Ithildim rose and took it. He immediately dropped it when Ithildim was stood, and he bounded to the clearing's edge. Jumping nimbly to grasp the lowest branch of a tree, Legolas swung himself up into it and called down:
"You have won this argument, tonight, Ithildim! Tomorrow, I do not know what my answer will be. But tonight: will you join me in the trees and run with me in the woods and sing with the wind of this place unto morning?"
Ithildim smiled and laughed and rolled his eyes as he strode to the tree and leapt too into its embrace. "Today, tomorrow, whenever-I will ask over and over until you say ‘no.'"
"And tonight I say ‘yes.'"
They set off together through the trees in a rush of air and leaf and rustling autumn foliage and did not stop until they came upon fresh pine.
Leaned against the bole of a fir, Ithildim watched Legolas walk the length of the branch until he was close enough that he could touch him. Ithildim stretched out his hand so his sap-sticky fingers brushed Legolas' temple.
"What?" Legolas asked.
"I am thinking, for future reference," said Ithildim evasively.
Legolas raised his eyebrows.
"It is the poetic talk of darkness that so enchanted you tonight," Ithildim explained.
"Do not think it will always be so simple."
"Oh, I know it will not be! There is nothing simple about you, Legolas."
Legolas laughed and began to slip down the tree until he stood below. "Well, you may be the only one who does not think me simple, and for that I am grateful, at least." He waved up at Ithildim. "Join me in the roots of this one?"
"So that it might tell us its song?" Ithildim asked, and he sat so his legs hung from the thick branch and he kicked them back and forth.
"Or make for us a new one, maybe."
"And watch our backs so that we might rest in peace!"
"Indeed," Legolas agreed with a nod as Ithildim slipped from the branch, landing with bent knees. "Rest."
"Rest," Ithildim affirmed, and he caught up Legolas' hands and then continued with false guilelessness: "And . . . such."
Legolas leaned back as he burst into laughter and tugged hard at Ithildim so they tumbled together into the roots.
"And such?" Legolas reprimanded through his merriment. "Oh, Ithildim, you shame me!" But then Ithildim caught him up against the roughness of the tree and-with a hand on his cheek and his own twisting in his friend's collar-Legolas laughed against Ithildim's lips and felt him smile also.
In the roots and beneath those boughs of mighty pine it was dark-so dark-for the moon could not reach through the hearty green needles, and there were sharp and brittle ones upon the ground that poked sometimes their hands, or caught at their hair, but it was pain and it was darkness that was different from what they knew. . . It did not overwhelm them or drown them, but instead sparked them, and drove.
And, so, one to the other-below starless, darkened bough; in those very darkest of nights-they made their own light.