“Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.” — Stevie Wonder
As he paused by a river birch that guarded the brink of the clear and rushing stream, Legolas tallied the years in his head.
It had been centuries since he had last visited the shrine at Hâltund, here in the eastern foothills of the Misty Mountains. His part in the Great Music had carried him far away from this hallowed place, and like the twin trunks of the river birch taking separate paths toward the sky, the path of his life diverged while the shrine persisted. He wondered if it had changed again in the meantime. Would he recognize it after all these years?
In a single leap he crossed the stream and faced uphill. Behind him, the water babbled its way over the tumbled rocks, winding its way around the hill to disappear in the southeast on its way to the Rhimdath. The morning fog had not yet cleared away, but still the light of the rising sun created a backlight, coating the dawn in shimmery, misty color. Here and there a bit of dappled sunlight picked out a gnarled root or a moss-covered rock.
Humming a hymn to himself, he picked his way up the slope. His feet made no noise; only the seasonal songbirds could be heard, adding their portion to the Music.
Legolas paused when he reached the clearing marking the edges of the roughly-circular plateau. Above the hillcrest, there were no trees, only a carpet of lush grass. Four verdant half-moon embankments stood before him, guarding either side of the three entrances: three gateways for the three kingdoms of elves participating in the shrine. Paths approached each gateway, their cool limestone paving glimmered gray in the early light.
They beckoned him up and in.
He stooped to touch the limestone of the path. Each material symbolized some aspect of the creation of Arda, watched over by the Ainur: quarried from the ledges of the stream nearby, the limestone represented the waters of Arda, with the grassy hummocks representing her continents.
As a young elfling, Legolas had participated in the construction of the earthwork lines that demarcated the shrine’s oval perimeter. Every year at the spring equinox, elves from the Greenwood, Lorien, Imladris, and beyond gathered from their distant locations. The work parties had been convening here at Hâltund, central to all of them, for hundreds of years before his birth. Although they were from different kingdoms, the shrine was a liminal space, belonging to none of them and all of them. Working together, the adults had carried basket after basket up the slope, some bent over by the weight of tumplines, some teamed in pairs to carry baskets between them. There was singing always.
It had been his job with the other young elves to bring the empty baskets back down to the diggers where they toiled at their borrow pits on the plain. It was long and taxing work. For six days they would toil and then put down their tools to celebrate with feasts and dancing and more song. Exhausted by his circuits back and forth, Legolas could never stay awake until the end. He looked up at the misty morning sky, remembering how his mother tucked him underneath a blanket, nestled in the roots of a chestnut tree, with Kementari’s stars above glimpsed through the waving branches.
So many years had passed since then.
Legolas took a deep breath, and walked through the gateway, the refrains of the Music echoing in his head. Legolas was tall for an elf, but the embankments were taller still. They formed the tallest of Eru’s works on the plateau, which was clear of trees, for elves still visited at times throughout the year to reset stones and transplant any errant saplings that grew. No trees were allowed that might mar the lines of sight for astronomy and sun-watching.
Once inside, he found his favorite nook: a soft mossy patch in the northern end of the oval precinct. He took a seat on the springy green cushion, in the lee of the sharp early autumn winds blowing out of the Ered Mithrin. From his vantage point he could see the entire ceremonial area. In the center of the oval was the circular henge of rough-textured standing stones used to study astronomical alignments, giving the precise timing of turns of seasons and the heliacal rising of the portent stars. He remembered the placement of the central henge stone, signifying completion of the shrine, during his 25th spring.
He slid over and leaned forward on his elbows. Now it looked proportional to the memories of a younger (and shorter) elf! He could envision rituals carried out spring and fall; solemn songs by the elder ellith, bouncy elated songs sung by the young ellyn. Each group had their own portion to contribute; without everyone’s gifts, the rituals would not be complete. Legolas knew only of the secrets of the elves of Mirkwood, gradually unfolded to him as he grew. To speak of the rituals with an elf of Imladris or Lorien was taboo, just as he would be shocked if they revealed their rituals to him.
Some memories came back swiftly, no matter how much time had flowed past.
Legolas remembered his portion of the harmony of the Spring Hymn with ease, even though he had been absent for so long in the Northern Wastes, seeking out the Enemy’s servants.
The trees outside the precinct still hummed with energy, as they added their own strain to the Music. If he closed his eyes, he could just hear the faint echoes of the roots beneath his feet. Amongst the roots, he even felt the charred, buried trees that were relicts of the second phase of the shrine. When Legolas was 75, the yrch and other servants of the Dark pressed into the forest. In a flurry of activity, the elven folk transformed their hilltop from a place of ritual to a place of defense. In those days, the sacred Music was dampened by the sounds of shovels and picks as they dug an outer trench, and built a stockade on the rim of the earthworks.
Legolas glanced up at the blue sky. He could picture the posts looming against the clouds: made from venerable trees of the surrounding forests, they were twice the height of a grown elf, and near as wide. Along with the other young elves, he had gathered willow branches to weave between the posts until they made a wall six feet tall. After this, they had daubed over the willow framework to seal it.
The sides of his mouth curled upwards. Even amidst the tense bustle of hurried work, handfuls of mud quite “accidentally” missed their target and hit other young elves.
When the attack came, the elven community had been prepared. The siege lasted four nights. Legolas could still hear the echoes of the enemies’ cries in his mind. The Council assigned the younger elves to resupply the defenders on the ramparts. They ran from station to station, refilling empty quivers and bringing new canteens of water, ducking beneath the cover of the daub wall. Elves were known for their stamina, but even under such conditions, water and a bite of lembas were welcome. Black arrows with cruel twisted barbs flew over the walls, loosed by followers of the Dark outside hoping to hit unseen marks. Axes and hooks thudded against the wood of the fence, as the enemy furiously sought to tear a hole.
Each morning, the attackers fell back into the woods with the dawn. The yrch could not withstand the sunlight; they hid in the forest shadows while the elves inside stood watchfully behind the walls. A smaller company of reserves waited on the banquette while the community regrouped, guarding the walls in case of a surprise attack. Soberly, the healers tended to the wounded. There were mercifully few. Other elves dozed in the streaming sunbeams. Many sat in meditation. Legolas spent the time helping the bowyer repair salvageable arrows and craft new ones. At least they could make use of the branches stripped from the tree trunks forming the palisades. Each evening, when the sun sank in the west, the opposing force sallied forth from the forest edge to renew the attack.
On the fourth morning, the vermin fell back as usual. Again the elves watched and waited. As the day came to its close, they listened carefully for any sign of a renewed offensive. The only sounds were the crickets in the trees, and a few hesitant bird calls. At sundown, the elves moved to their stations to prepare for the evening’s assault. Legolas stood back from the front lines, ready to do his part. He was confident each quiver had its initial complement of arrows; he held still more at his side.
The elven company waited on in readiness all night, but the strike never came. Fearing a trick, they persisted another travel of the sun and moon across the sky. On the sixth morning, a scouting party issued forth from the heavy gates. Legolas waited in anticipation with the others as the scouts searched the thickets. They found nothing but smouldering campfires and trampled bracken.
The enemy was gone.
A bird flew by and broke Legolas’s reverie. He shifted in the grass to wake his foot, which had fallen asleep. Standing up and taking his pack, he left by the limestone causeway, retracing his former steps. He bowed his head in respect as he exited the sacred space and made his way down the path to the valley floor. Pausing once more at the boundary creek and the river birch marking the crossing, he turned and look back up for a last look.
From this viewpoint, he imagined the fort as it must have looked to their enemies. With the tall stockade, the hill must have seemed insurmountable. The natural rise of the hill was steep to begin, but the additions were formidable. What must they have thought as they saw the sun glinting back on them from the creamy tan daub, as they waited in the cedared depths of the forest? Only deep fury and blind loyalty must have propelled them up the slope over and over again. Legolas had no need of imagination to know how it had looked after the siege; he had stood in the valley for the cleansing of the shrine.
With the threat gone, the community agreed that the stockade must come down. Although the hilltop was a fort for a while, the persistence of the stockade was an affront to its higher, sacred purpose. One evening, carrying large torches, the eldest of the elves restored the shrine. The grandfathers with beards and grandmothers with their bordered silk shawls proceeded around the enclosure, lighting each post in turn, while the community watched from below.
After the circuit was complete, the elders joined them on the far side of the creek, and the fire rose. Even standing so far below on what should be a cool ferny nook, the heat of the blaze reached them.
Legolas found himself unwittingly stretching out his hand as if he could still feel the heat, and see the hill ablaze in a roaring bonfire, roiling sparks spiralling upward. Watching from the safety of the treeline, it had felt as if the fire almost sucked the air from their haven, stealing their breath, until the conflagration collapsed inward on itself, the stockade twisting in heaps inside the walls. The next day, work parties from each community buried the still-warm logs underneath dirt and rocks.
Legolas sighed at the thought of the silent and noble logs, which had been sacrificed to save the lives of the elves. He dropped his outstretched hand, instinctively touching the twin trunks of the river birch at his side. The harmonies it added to the Music grounded him to the shrine and the present moment. Legolas knew he needed to press onward, but he was loath to go just yet. His roots and the roots of the birch and other trees were intertwined with the history of Hâltund; this persistent place would always tie him to his people and his own history. His fingers traced a curl of bark, as an ellon or elleth would touch its lovey for comfort.
At length, he spoke:
I thank you, oh trees, for your succor, and you, oh shrine, for your melody in the Music.
Releasing the curl of bark, he pressed his fingers to his lips, and continued down the path of the creek on his journey.