The Gift of Death, Part 9
“Buffy, it feels… wrong… in here,” Dawn whispered after they’d walked a few hours through Fangorn Forest. “There are some things I can just smell. It’s like a sixth sense.” As their horses had refused to accompany them into the dense thicket of woods, instead choosing to ignore even Legolas’ soft encouragements and bolting away across the plains, it wasn’t exactly a difficult conclusion to reach.
“Um, that would be one of the original five, I think,” Buffy said, poking her sister in the shoulder. “But I do have a sixth sense, and I can tell that there’s something out there. So can he.” She nodded toward Legolas, who had frozen and was staring through the woods.
“The White Wizard approaches,” Legolas said at last.
“Do not let him speak. He will put a spell on us,” Aragorn warned, and all drew their weapons while Legolas nocked an arrow. Their finely tuned warrior senses directed them to spin to the right, and Gimli chucked his axe with deadly accuracy while Legolas let fly his missile.
But to their shock, arrow and axe were deflected, and the swords that Boromir, Aragorn, and Buffy held became so hot they burned their hands. Dropping them to the ground, they squinted and shielded their eyes against the fierce glow emanating from the White Wizard.
“You track two Hobbits,” the wizard said, his voice slow and deep.
“Where are they?” Aragorn demanded, glancing with longing at his fallen sword as he flexed his hand.
“They passed this way the day before yesterday. They met someone they did not expect. Does that comfort you?”
Buffy could almost hear Aragorn grinding his teeth with impatience. “Who are you? Show yourself!”
The bright light dimmed, and Buffy blinked, then blinked again when the White Wizard revealed himself to be none other than Gandalf.
“Mithrandir!” exclaimed Legolas in shock.
“Well met, Legolas,” replied the wizard, eyes bright beneath his bushy brows as he smiled faintly at them.
“Beyond all hope,” murmured Aragorn, “you return to us in our need, Gandalf.”
“Gandalf,” the old man repeated, his voice slow and deep, as if surfacing from a dream. “Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.”
“What’s going on?” Dawn demanded. “He was Gandalf? I thought you said he died. Can he come back to life, too? Doesn’t anyone stay dead in this world?” She looked distinctly grumpy.
“I know as much as you do, Dawn,” Buffy snapped, trying to listen to the exchange between the others over her sister’s questions. Then she heard Gandalf spouting off about passing through fire and deep water, about forgetting and remembering and then her head began to hurt and she wished she hadn’t bothered to listen in the first place. It was with much relief when he stopped waxing philosophical and entreated the men to describe what had happened since his fall back in Moria.
“He was dead,” she said, more to herself than to Dawn as she surveyed Gandalf’s sparkly white garb and new hairdo. “But it seems he’s not. Definitely not like he was before, that’s for damned sure.”
Dawn peered at her sister. “You don’t trust him, do you?”
Buffy frowned. “It’s not that I don’t trust him, exactly…” She didn’t know how to express her unease. Sure, she knew she could return from the dead, but she knew how that worked. As a general rule, people generally didn’t return from bottomless pits all transformed into glowing celestial beings. That was just… weird. “I just think we should be careful, until he proves that he’s not… warped somehow.” She grinned at her sister. “I haven’t stayed alive this long by being naïve.”
Dawn snorted. “You’ve died, what? Twenty times? ‘Stayed alive this long’, my ass.” Buffy glared at her, and she relented. “But you have a point.” Buffy beamed. “For once,” Dawn added, ducking away from Buffy’s attempted slap to the arm with a squeal.
Gandalf turned toward where Boromir sat, plainly still uncomfortable with how close he had come to committing evil to obtain the ring. “I see you have resisted your temptation, son of Gondor. It fills me with joy, to know you could keep your heart pure.” He turned a canny glance toward Dawn, sitting close to the man. “And it looks as if you have been well rewarded for your bravery.”
Boromir flushed and Dawn frowned. “Hey, I’m no prize,” she snapped at Gandalf.
“You are not wrong,” Gimli muttered, and the others couldn’t quite hide their laughter.
Dawn retorted, “You know what I mean!”
“Indeed we do, Lady,” Gandalf said gallantly. “You are better than a prize, after all.” Dawn looked at him curiously. “You are the Key, are you not?”
“Um, yeah. Kinda,” Dawn admitted. “But I don’t know what to do with my Key-ness. I can’t use it on my own.”
Gandalf patted her kindly on the arm. “That is where I will help you. Fear not.”
Dawn beamed up at him, and they chatted amiably as they continued their walk from the woods, but Buffy merely watched them.
“What are you thinking?” Legolas asked, coming to her side.
“Who, me?” she said, flashing him what she hoped was a genuine-looking smile. His raised eyebrow told her he wasn’t buying it. “Why do you think I’m thinking anything special? I could be thinking about… about washing my hair, or what we’ll have for breakfast tomorrow, or—
“I know you better than that, Dagnir,” Legolas interrupted. “I know that look on your face. It means you are thinking hard, and about something that is important.”
“You don’t know me that well, Legolas,” she snapped, stomping away, trying to outdistance him, but his longer legs caught her up easily. She shot him a glance from the corner of her eye and saw he was smiling. “You don’t! I’m very enigmatic.”
He smiled wider. “I used to think so.”
Buffy stopped right there and folded her arms across her chest. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means, I used to think so. But I have figured you out, and now you are as an open book to me.” He tilted his head to one side. “Does this bother you? I would not betray you.”
Buffy tried to frown at him, but felt her anger melting away in spite of herself at the sight of his guileless blue eyes fixed so intently on her. “I know that,” she said grudgingly. “I just…” She fell silent.
“Tell me,” he urged, placing his hands on her shoulders and rubbing gently. His eyes were so calm, so deep, so blue… Buffy felt like she was falling into them, as she’d fallen into Galadriel’s mirror. Like she could learn the secrets of the universe within them.
“When Angel… went bad,” she began haltingly. “He knew everything about me, used it to hurt me, to kill my friends. He made it so Drusilla could kill Kendra, he killed Jenny, tortured Giles…” She lowered her head and stared at Legolas’ boots, watching her tears splatter onto their dusty toes. “I’m afraid,” she whispered, so low that only an elf could hear her. “I’m afraid that my weakness will get people hurt.”
“Weakness? What weakness do you speak of? For the Dagnir I know has none.” She looked at him quickly, to see if he were teasing her, but his beautiful face was serious.
She laughed shakily. “That shows how little you know me, Legolas. I’m full of weakness. I’m so scared, most of the time. Being in Middle-Earth these seventeen years has been both the hardest and easiest time of my life… I’ve had no one, I’ve been so lonely…”
She scrubbed at her eyes with her fists like a small child. “But at the same time, it’s been wonderful. There’s been no one to get hurt because of me. There’s been no guilt, no worry. The worst that could happen to a person is dying, and even that is denied to me by the Valar.”
“I know of the sorrow of which you speak,” Legolas said at last. “It is what comes of being an elf with mortal friends.” He looked toward their companions, who had continued walking and were now barely visible through the trees. “Deeply it pains me to think of their passing, knowing that I will go on long after they have departed. It is how I feel also for those of my kind who have departed Middle-Earth for Valinor. We have faith that their journey is safe, but no sure knowledge of their arrival.”
“It is for this reason that elves tend to refrain from friendships with mortals. We are a passionate people, we feel deeply. Our grief bites deep, just as our joy shines bright. It is easier to keep to ourselves, knowing that our dear ones will not grow old and sicken and die while we remain young forever. That is our limitation.”
He slid his hands from her shoulders down her arms, to grasp her hands. Lifting them to his mouth, he dropped a kiss in each palm. “Weakness shared is weakness halved. We are stronger now than we were before.”
Buffy blinked back tears. “You’re a really great guy, you know that, Legolas?”
He smiled serenely at her. “I have heard that before. But usually not from a weeping person. Could you tell me again, in a more convincing way? Because the tears make me doubt your sincerity.”
She punched his arm and sniffled. “You’re a good friend,” she told him with a fierce glare.
“Much better,” he gasped, rubbing his bruised flesh. “Thank you.”
“I aim to please,” she smirked, and jogged to catch up to the others, Legolas close on her heels.
~ * ~
They made camp that night in a small clearing, Gandalf insisting they were safer in Fangorn than out of it, and sat long around the fire, exchanging tales of what had happened to them since their parting in Moria. “It is time for us to rest,” Gandalf declared when the fire had burned low, “for there is much to accomplish on the morrow. But before we seek our sleep, the Lady Galadriel bade me give you these messages.” To Aragorn, he recited a cryptic message about his people, the Dúnedain, and the road that leads to the sea. As for Legolas…
Legolas Greenleaf long under tree
In joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy shall then rest in the forest no more.
The elf’s back seemed to stiffen with each line until it was ramrod-straight, Buffy noted with concern, and then watched in amazement as Gimli pouted he had not received a message from Galadriel, and Legolas snapped at him.
“Would you have her speak openly to you of your death?” he demanded, eyes glittering in the firelight.
“Yes,” the dwarf replied stubbornly. “If she had naught else to say.”
Legolas opened his mouth to speak once more, but Gandalf interrupted. “Your pardon, Gimli! Indeed, she sent words to you, and neither dark nor sad.”
Legolas stood and stomped off, as well as an elf might, into the trees. Buffy hesitated only a moment before she acquiesced to Dawn’s bony elbow in her ribs, and followed him. She found him a few hundred paces away from the campsite, crouched beside a trickle of a stream, dangling his long white fingers in the water and staring fixedly at the wavering reflection of the moon in its uneven surface. She knew he’d heard her walk through the woods, silent though she’d been, and waited for him to speak.
“I suppose,” he began slowly, his voice vibrating with emotion, “that it was naïve of me to think the sea-longing would never come.”
Buffy edged closer. “It’s normal for your people to want to head to Valinor eventually,” she ventured. “Why are you upset by it?”
He kept his gaze fixed on the water. “I would not have been, a year ago,” Legolas said at last. “But this journey of mine has brought me friends, mortal friends, dear to me as my own life. I… find myself pained at the knowledge that they cannot come to Valinor as well. That we will part one day, and it shall be forever.”
“Elves aren’t big with the parted forever,” Buffy commented in sympathy, and dropped to sit beside him on the mossy forest floor. “Even after elves die, you can go visit them in the Halls of Mandos. It’s never forever.” She reached out and dipped her fingertips in the cool stream, tracing the shimmering outline of the moon. “Doesn’t it make you feel weird? Everything has a cycle, after all… everything is born, lives, then dies. Animals, trees, flowers, everything. Except you.” She turned her face up to him. “And except me, now.” She sighed. “I can’t find it in me to like it, this living forever business. I wasn’t built for it.”
“There is no choice, but to accept what the Valar have chosen for our destinies,” Legolas murmured. “I must accept that my friends will decline and pass while I remain, and you must learn that immortality must not be the burden you conceive it to be.”
Buffy snorted skeptically. “Yeah, really feeling the immortality love, what with you almost crying at the thought of surviving everyone you like.”
He looked at her then, eyes glowing with some indefinable emotion. “Then I will teach you to embrace your immortality,” he told her. “I will teach you. And you will teach me how to accept loss.”
A tumult of memories flashed through Buffy. Angel’s face, shocked and betrayed and so, so loving as she thrust the sword through him, sending him to hell. And then, a year later, his determination to give her as normal a life as possible by leaving after her catastrophic graduation. Parker’s use of her for sex. Riley’s abandonment when she needed him so desperately. Her mother’s death. Her father.
“Yeah,” she said. “I know how to accept loss. I’m the world’s grand-master-Olympic-winner-of-all-time on loss.”
Legolas blinked in surprise, then tilted his head to the side, surveying her a long moment. Buffy took advantage of his silence to admire the spill of champagne-gold hair as it coursed, like a liquid stream itself, down his shoulder almost to his waist. “Perhaps I will also teach you how to avoid bitterness.”
Buffy was of the opinion that she was completely entitled to her bitterness. It was all she had to keep her warm at night, after all. She got nimbly to her feet and glared down at him, retreating behind a shield of hostility. “And maybe I’ll teach you how it feels when the Slayer socks you in the mouth.”
He stood as well, his movement a mere whisper in the dark. “Is there not a preferable action you can think of for my mouth, Dagnir?” he murmured, and lowered his lips to hers.
Buffy stood stock-still for a moment, in shock not only that he was kissing her, but also that it felt so amazingly, blessedly good. Opening her mouth on a gasp, she felt the tip of his tongue caress her bottom lip briefly before entering to seek out her own. Desire, fluid and molten, surged upward from her belly and made her heart race. When Legolas lifted his head to stare wonderingly at her, she realized her body was pressed flush against his, and her arms were wound around his neck, fingers driven deeply into his hair to clasp his head.
She felt as surprised as he looked. Never had she experienced such a vivid scalding of lust, not with Haldir, not with Riley, not even with Angel. A little frightened by its intensity, and the implications of it, she slid from his embrace and, turning, ran lightly back to camp.
Her arrival was met with inquiring glances from all but Dawn, who ran a shrewd eye over her sister’s clinch-disheveled appearance and kiss-swollen lips and grinned so hugely that she seemed to turn into one immense smirk. “Oh, shut up,” Buffy told her sister crossly, stomping over to her bedroll and flinging herself into it.
~ * ~
They resumed their trek out of the forest early the next morning, reaching the open grasslands by midday. Gandalf intoned, “One stage of the journey is over, another begins. War has come to Rohan. We must ride to Edoras with all speed.” And then he gave a piercing whistle. Soon an answering neigh could be heard and a horse galloped over the crest of a hill toward them, Arod, Timon, and Hasufel not far behind.
“Speaking of glowing celestial beings…” Buffy said, gaping. For the animal was not merely white, but a pearlescent, silvery white, the colour of the moon on a clear night, and his mane and tail flowed like milk.
“That is one of the Mearas, unless my eyes are cheated by some spell,” Legolas murmured, his gaze roaming eagerly over the vision before them.
“Shadowfax,” Gandalf introduced the creature. “He’s the lord of all horses, and my friend through many dangers.”
“I want a friend like that,” Dawn said, hesitantly coming forward to stroke Shadowfax’s neck.
“You have me,” Boromir reminded her. “You may pet me like that any time you wish.” He stepped back, however, abashed when Buffy leveled a cold look at him. “Or perhaps not,” he amended hastily, and Gimli chuckled.
“Mount up, lad,” the dwarf advised. “You can’t win.”