On the fifth morning after the king’s death, the sky is the lifeless dark grey of deep mountain stone. Hallas squints up at it as he leads his horse out of the stables. Here, beyond the hay and the other animals, he takes a deep breath of storm air. It stings with the cold of a dying year, and warms with smoke from fireplaces, and chills with the cool tang of rain. It is a smell as cold as the white, quiet walls around him.
He walks his horse down the cobbled roads, inlaid sporadically with marble, as if they didn’t quite have enough to pave it all. His father had told him the upper levels shone with it; why it was not so here, he did not know. Neither did he know why the branches of the trees hung so low, with no richness of colour in their branches and leaves. What he did know, was that he could hardly stand it.
The people were in mourning, and it seemed the very buildings mourned with them. It was oppressive. Hallas didn’t understand it; didn’t understand why his grandfather had wept so openly, the day the Steward solemnly announced that King Elessar had given up his life. The man was old, his reign had been long. In his eighteen years of life, Hallas had had no reason to dislike him; but he could not fathom what greatness was held in the king that every elderly soul in Minas Tirith had chosen to make a procession towards the citadel every single day since it happened, bleary eyed, arms around each other and handkerchiefs pressed to their noses. He’d never seen the King; never even heard his voice. All he’d heard were his grandfather’s stories, like every other child of Gondor with relatives as old as the white stone walls. A shadow and a war and a ring, or something like that. The old yarns of yesteryear.
Hallas passes through the southeastern gate, nodding to the guards on duty. Once he’s descended the slope to the first level, he mounts his horse. The streets are wider here; there’s more marble in them. There’s more room to see the troubled sky. He hopes he will make it to Ithilien before it comes down; if it comes down. He nears the main gate, shining white with the strange dwarvish metal it is made of. Apparently it had once been made of wood. The gate on the second level still was.
He puts up his hood and fastens his cloak more securely around him. His fingers brush the wooden necklace around his neck - a good luck charm given to him at birth - and he feels a stab of guilt. Shouldn’t have left mother all alone to comfort grandfather; shouldn’t have left father to be sad in his own, strong way. But Hallas simply couldn’t bear it. If he was unhappy enough to be callous, he’d have told anyone his own age that he simply did not care - and they’d have understood perfectly.
It takes him the better part of an hour to ride to Osgiliath. The roads across the Pelennor Fields and into the city are busy, with people coming to and going from Minas Tirith. Five days already, but still there are people arriving, even from other lands. He passes through unhindered, recognised by his own kinsmen. It is when he reaches the borders of Ithilien that he slows. The road is open, and travellers are not unwelcome; but one red-haired and one black-haired guard stand beside it, and raise a hand for him to halt.
He’d seen Wood Elves before, once or twice, passing through the city. Their leader was a friend of the King, he knew that much, and he governed these forests. The older people were always happy to see the elves, and sad when they left. Fewer and fewer were passing through the city these days; the last time he’d seen one himself was when he was nine years old.
As he approaches the guards, he dips his head in greeting. “Good day.”
“You ride from Minas Tirith,” observes the red-headed elf briskly; Hallas has no idea how he deduced that. “What is your purpose?”
“I simply wish to spend a day or two walking among the trees here.” He shifts uncomfortably.
The black-haired elf raises one eyebrow. “Should you not be comforting your kinsmen, at a time like this?” he asks.
Hallas hesitates. What can he say? He does not know what they think of him, his people, the king.
“The mood in the city is tragic, to the point of being unbearable,” he tries, carefully choosing his words. “I fear I’ll be no use to my neighbours, if I’m bent over in grief. I would appreciate a respite.”
The elf studies him for a moment, and then, to his utter incredulity, he snorts and steps aside. “You may pass.”
Hallas is so bewildered, so confused, he simply thanks the two guards and carries on. As he traverses the road, he hears soft words from the elves behind him, in a speech he does not understand. The disappointment and sadness in their voices, however, is unmistakeable.
The fragrance of Ithilien, sweet with lilies and irises and pungent asphodel, is a welcome respite from the heavy, cold scents wrapping Minas Tirith. Hallas breathes the cool breeze in gratefully, watching the birds flit between the fair branches of the lebethron shooting up tall and graceful on either side of the path. The yellow blossoms of the culumalda hang low about him, trailing through his hair as he passes beneath them. He closes his eyes, relishing the relief from his sad old city. Time becomes irrelevant. His horse seeks out the paths instinctively, walking steadily and peacefully. He holds onto his horse, breathing in the warm, animal smell, and dozes on the creatures strong neck, cushioned by the mane.
It is only when his stomach begins to protest that he rouses himself. In the same moment that he realises he is awake, he realises that dusk is slowly descending. His horse is no longer walking steadily; it picks his way among the darkening trees and the strangely tangled bushes, whinnying quietly now and then. Hallas curses slightly, knowing he’s gone several hours too far east, past all the elvish encampments, far from the fires he could surely share and the food they would most likely offer him.
His horse stops. Hallas gently kicks the animal’s sides, but it refuses to move. It shifts on its feet, whinnying, trying to go backward. He tuts, annoyed, kicks it again more firmly, but it will not budge. He peers into the woods ahead. Above the trees, perhaps ten or more miles from where they stand, the dark mountains of the old kingdom beyond loom, quietly seething against the sky. The clouds above are the same steely grey as it is over the Pelennor, and the rain has only just begun to mist the peaks.
It is when he is looking in this direction that he sees the movement. A subtle twitch in the undergrowth; an conscious shuffling that could not be made by any tree or flower. A thrill steals up his neck, and he puts a hand on the dagger he carries on his belt. His horse whinnies again. Wisdom begs him to turn back.
He grimaces. Perhaps wisdom is simply fear.
He dismounts and walks the horse back a little ways, glancing periodically over his shoulder. Every few seconds, there is that shift, away in the trees. Small, non-threatening. He ties up his horse, fully aware that he is likely being very foolish, and proceeds towards it.
The dead leaves of autumn crackle under his feet, as he walks beneath the bare branches. Why do they drop so much more quickly and heavily than the trees in the western part of the forest? He glances side to side, but never removes his focus from the thing moving ahead of him. The land begins to slope upward. He nears a clearing, levelled into the side of the rise. At the end of it is a dark, narrow cleft in the hill. The ground is hard packed, littered with detritus and dark, mossy stone. The shuffling grows louder. He pulls his dagger from its sheath as he rounds the last bush before the rocky clearing.
“There’s no need for that, you know.”
Hallas jumps a mile in the air. He can’t hear the shuffling anymore; his heart is pounding too loudly in his ears. He drops into an instinctive, unpracticed crouch, his dagger up, his face hot.
“Relax,” purrs the same voice. “I cannot harm you.”
He strains his ears to follow the sound. Squinting, he realises he can make out a figure sitting inside the cleft, cloaked in shadow. The only thing fully visible are its boots - dark leather, inlaid with simple elvish designs. Hallas relaxes, mentally kicking himself for his reaction. It was just another elf; perhaps a border guard, taking a rest.
“Why don’t you show your face?” Hallas calls.
“Because I have no desire to,” the voice replies, smoothly. “Come closer, it’s not polite to shout.”
“It’s not polite to hide yourself from those you speak to,” Hallas counters.
The figure laughs, mirthlessly, and a shiver steals up Hallas’ spine.
“You certainly have some nerve, to challenge someone you know nothing about,” it rasps. “That is very admirable.”
Hallas blinks at the unexpected compliment - if that is what it is. He glances down self-consciously at the knife in his hands. Blushing, he lowers it, but does not sheath it. He tucks his hands behind his back and kicks at the slush of leaves on the ground.
“What is your name?”
“It’s unimportant.” Its tone is bitter. “I am forgotten.”
“If you tell me, I shan’t forget it.”
“The nature of man is such that he will always relinquish his past; lose his faculties; understand, in the end, only the mud on his shoes and not the trail of prints he left behind him.”
Hallas doesn’t know how to reply. There is a truth in the elf’s words that enters his heart without leaving room for a doubt. He thinks about the old folk in their solemn processions up to the citadel, and lowers his gaze to the floor.
“Nor could he name the old chill that remains held in the walls of the city,” it whispers.
Hallas’ head whips up. “Excuse me?” It was as if the thing had read his mind.
“You come from Minas Tirith, do you not?”
“How do you elves know such things?”
There is silence for a moment. Hallas is tempted to step forward, but he recalls the weight of the knife in his hand, the excess of autumn’s slow death in this part of the forest. He stays in his place.
“You are afraid,” it observes.
“Like you said, I know nothing about you. Not your name, not your deeds.”
“And you are wise to be sincere about it. Feigning knowledge is dangerous and dim-witted, especially when speaking to clever men.”
A minor flush of annoyance begins to heat up Hallas’ collar. So many words and so little said. “Do you regularly lecture travellers that stumble upon your cleverness?” he scowls.
“My, am I getting on your nerves?” it says, sounding almost devastated. “That should be my last intention. I simply saw the tree etched into the pommel of your saddle, and was so very eager to speak to a Gondorian.”
The voice doesn’t reply for a minute; then, its voice soft, it asks,“Did your grandfather, or great-grandfather, ever tell you any stories about the old war?”
“Just fireplace tales,” Hallas shrugs.
“Old wives tales,” the voice mutters bitterly. “Groundless deifying of old, departed heroes; worship of deeds so inconsequential that they are retired to myth only.”
Hallas doesn’t like the elf, doesn’t like his tone or his strange ways or the odd thoughts he relates. And yet it kindles a little animal inside him that he had long been trying to a quell; a little voice bouncing around with its fist in the air, quietly cheering, He’s right! He’s right!
“Many of the old folk saw the King as a living icon of the war,” he says, matter-of-fact.
“They’re as old and cold as the walls, what do they truly know?” the voice says. “Elessar was not the only vestige of that time, and certainly not the one they ought to elevate to a pedestal.”
Had anybody else heard such words, even another elf, Hallas was sure they would have been dragged before the steward for treason and defamation. The harshness of the words mutes the incessant pining of that angry voice inside him; and yet he simply cannot silence it.
“I fought in that old war, you know,” whispers the voice, almost unintelligible. “Like your King Elessar.”
“Oh.” Hallas’ heart sinks slightly. And so with his bitterness and his history, the King’s death probably meant more to this old warrior than it did to Hallas, who himself had been the King’s subject, of the same city, of the same race.
“I heard it whispered among the trees that he is dead,” says the voice. “Is it true?”
“Yes,” Hallas mumbles. “Five days ago.”
“Did you fight with him?” Hallas asks politely.
The voice lets out a sudden mirth-filled cackle and Hallas jumps; the sound grates against his nerves.
“If I had, I would certainly not be here now,” it says, gasping for air. “No, little boy, I did not.”
Hallas shifts nervously. “But then who did you fight with?”
“I did not fight as a nameless piece of flesh in armour, child,” it says, the aggression of pride and willpower seeping into its tone. “I did not fight for any kings or armies. I led them.”