Summary: A series of moments and myths—childhood to post-Quest—that culminate in Legolas’ eventual abandonment of oaths.
Dedicated to my father and to my beta for always expecting more of me, and for always following through.
1. When I was very young, I heard the reminder of an oath whispered, and it made my sister cry.
It was morning, and I hurried to the dining hall for breakfast before my lessons, and, as I ran, I braided my hair with the clumsy fingers of a child, knotting it poorly back. I checked each hallway I passed for friends or for tutors, but I did not find those... I found, instead, my sister and her Captain. A lock of hair slipped out and fell between my eyes when I halted at the sight—I remember how it felt when I caught all the weight on my toes and quivered, like a boat too small for the lake in a mighty storm. I sunk like a rock in the sand as I came back on my heels, nestled and secure in my body, but mired and stuck to the floor, as if I could not move. It was my sister with my mentor, after all, so of course I listened. And my sister was crying, which she did not ever do.
My vision was cut through with that strand of honey-gold, and I watched the Captain on one side of it and my sister on the other, and then the Captain’s hand reached into the divide and came out the other side—her long fingers wiped tears from my sister’s face, and she disappeared again into the gold before both hands emerged once more, pressed to my sister’s temples, her lips on my sister’s forehead. “You promised,” the Captain whispered, and she drew back, back through the gold to her own side of my sight. My sister nodded and straightened her back, and she wiped her face on her uniform and was herself again; the Captain flattened the tails of her undershirt as if embarrassed—or now, I think, very sad—and my sister turned away and rushed down the hall, toward me.
I bounced my little self up and down once to imitate a grinding stop— as if I had just arrived and heard nothing at all—and then I cleared the golden divide from my eyes. I called out to my sister gleefully and threw my arms about her waist. She ruffled my hair, and then sunk to her knees to undo my messy braids and plait them herself—like a warrior, she always said; I will make you the fiercest, kindest warrior the Wood has ever known—and then she pressed her lips to my forehead and took me by the hand.
The next week, I passed my exams to start my training, and I swore my life to the Elvenking. My sister became engaged to her childhood best friend and pledged her life to a man she did not love—but I think eventually came to love—and so quickly—too quickly— when I was barely grown—she was gone.
2. The Bard says there was once a spirit that lived deep in the forest, who protected the insects of the Wood. The spirit pledged to provide for them, to raise their voices in song to the trees and in prayer to the Valar, projecting their appeals unto their ears. The spirit trailed the insect-folk’s children and distracted predatory birds; he returned the dried bodies of the grandfathers to their colonies, when they had wandered too far for food and so met their ends. The spirit tended and loved and grew them and gave them each a voice.
But then the spiders came, and the spirit’s voice was sucked from him into Ungoliant’s darkness, and the insects lost their voices, too. The spiders stole their words, and the spirit’s insect-folk were perverted and demonized, and lost to the Valar and each other, and to us.
There is not a window of hope in the tale, for the spirit so wholly lost his voice that the Bard cannot know the end.
3. Sometimes I measure my life in the cycle of cicadas.
Wood-elves tell the tale of the cicada singing at the beginning of the world—chords and drones like pipes underscore the Music of Ainur: they are always the same, always constant, always quiet and knowing, predictable. Cicadas come back after their sleep, we say, and in the silence and blackness of their song, they grow and reflect and learn, for they have time to stop, and time to breathe.
Men say the cicada has the gift of immortality for they come back year after year, with deep silent stretches of reprieve between, like a Man’s sleep at night. With the sun, or something like it, they are reborn.
My first summer of cicadas was hot and wet, the air impossible to breathe under the darkening trees. I often sat in the canopy with Ithildim and my peers, and we closed our eyes, and wrote our own songs—the insects joined us and swelled and were so loud, all around us (in my heart and my ears and my mind and my soul): we swelled. The breeze freed us, and we danced with the cicadas in the tops of the trees, and we promised we would sing them into their next dawn.
But wood-elves, I have learned—unlike Men and cicadas—we do not have time to breathe. For all the time we have in this life, my people wait desperately for sleep, to slip away into darkness for a moment, to forget.
Immortality, sometimes, is not a gift.
4. A mother’s breath on my chest when I woke in terror; my captain’s hand on my shoulder; my best friend fighting the heat, beating a brute, making a sacrifice.
A dog licking water out of my hand; children painting swirls with their fingers, in the open woods.
I close the eyes of a friend—
Telling a family, telling a soldier, telling a father, telling a tale, a promise. A promise you cannot keep, a promise that was not meant to be made, a million things I should not have said, but cannot take back…
When did I take my first oath, or have I made a million, exactly the same?
5. Gimli makes me think of chestnuts.
This spring, I found him crouched on a boulder in a glacial field outside Ithilien. We were camping and I had left him to hunt for eggs for our breakfast and to relieve myself and to tidy, and I came back to him like that: still as stone, eyes closed and head bowed—the sun lit him bronze and he glowed the way a creature does when it is holding the world inside itself.
I stilled, too, and felt the grass against my ankles, and I asked him of the rock: “What does it say to you?”
He did not look up: “It does not say, Legolas—it sings. I can hear its song pulsing through the roiling core of this world.”
“Oh,” I answered. “Elves have not walked upon it; I cannot hear it at all.”
“I wish I could show you,” he said.
“Show me.” I shifted from foot to foot. “Sing me its song.”
And so I crouched beside him, and he took the eggs and my dirtied tunic from my hands and nestled them in a tussock, and then he took both my hands in his and planted the tips of them in a crack in the rock—he began to hum. The rock rose above me in a chorus of ever-heightening walls, and all around was bronze and chestnut and silver swirls of energy that I never knew, deeper and more solid than I had ever felt, and I saw Gimli then as he is, saw the world as it had always been, and I felt alive for the first time in years.
Later I ask him what happened, and he told me he had done nothing but sing me a Dwarven song, and that the song of the stone must have been always within me, waiting, and asleep—desperately desperately waiting for someone like Gimli to awaken it.
6. After the War of the Ring, the maps were redrawn. Aragorn hired many people to draw maps, but I did not want to draw any. I told him so. I could not bear to work so closely on those parts of the forests that fell to the darkness—the things I could not save, those stands of trees that I had sat in the tops of as a child to escape the oppressive heat of my home when it was too black and too green and too crawling with life to breathe through—so many of those stands were gone. Whole creeks disappeared in the poisoning of my Wood. I wrote Aragorn histories and built him gardens and even nannied his son, but I could not draw the maps—I delegated that to Ithildim when he arrived, and he bore it much more gracefully than I ever could.
7. What I have learned is this: I am not made for promises and oaths. I have not sworn an oath of fealty to Gondor, nor have I asked my people to swear an oath to me in Ithilien, nor to King Elessar in Minas Tirith, nor Faramir, nor Éowyn… We do not take oaths here, for Wood-elves know all too well that they can be too easily broken.
So I ask more of my folks: I ask them to give their whole selves to things, and breathe deeply of this land—and into it—to feel its song in their souls and treasure the briefness of their moment in this place, for we are not long for Arda. For many of us, Ithilien is just a step toward the Sea and toward the Undying Lands, and we will never know again the sweet hum of a cicada, nor the bawdy songs of Man, nor the ting of chisel on stone, born by hands sturdier than we could ever hope to be, shaping life from a silent rock, from coldness. I tell my friends: Everything ends, and we all must do things we do not wish to—the very length of our lives breaks one promise or another, mortal and immortal both.
They do not think I am funny when I say this.
But I have told them: without oaths, I feel the song of the world in my bones, and it is as if I am a child again, before I saw my strong sister’s tears, before I lost so much of my life to the darkening Wood. I have told them: I will sing the life I want into existence, here, with as much of myself as I can muster, and I will not—I will not—let it go.