It hadn't really occurred to Arwen that she would one day die. Not until her hand slipped while composing a letter, and the edge of the parchment sliced a fine line across her palm. She stared at the paper cut with a kind of detached terror.
"Ouch," she murmured.
Her handmaid knocked on the door. "M'lady," she said, smirking, "it is time for you to meet the king in his private chambers."
"I have not finished my letter," Arwen said weakly.
"But it is your wedding night, my lady," the woman protested. "You're meant to--" She made a sort of in-and-out motion with her hands.
Arwen's mind boggled. She had to-- with-- Oh. Right. Humans were very fond of fornication; it was only natural they had some sort of silly custom to accompany marriage vows. Barbarians, the whole lot of them. No wonder they all died so young. An Elf would never think to demand sex after only one night of marriage.
The handmaid watched her eagerly. For the first time in her life, Arwen felt truly helpless.
She was going to make love to Aragorn. And then she was going to die.
Arwen packed up her inks and quills, and she put her parchment aside for later. She smoothed her hand over her gown, and, meeting her handmaid's eyes solemnly, she commanded, "Take me to my husband."
Although he would late deny it, Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, the champion of the war for Middle Earth, and the present king of Gondor, had only a vague idea of what to expect on his wedding night. The years fighting Sauron's people had been long and lonely, and he had remained chaste. Practically. Ever since he had fallen in love with Arwen he had pictured their first time beautiful. A union of two souls, coming together after years of forced separation, like a gentle, wonderful--
"Sweet mother of Valann!" Arwen cried.
However, he did understand that her look of utter horror was an inappropriate response to his body.
She gaped at him for a long moment before her expression smoothed over. "Do you have to be so... naked?"
"Actually, yes, this act requires at least partial nudity," he replied. He glanced down at himself. Everything appeared to be in order, but when he pushed himself into a seating position Arwen looked away pointedly. He clutched the bed sheets awkwardly. "What? Is something wrong, my love?"
She took a few deep breaths. "Er," she began. "Oh dear. I don't suppose my father told you. We cannot do this."
He goggled. "Arwen--"
She moved forward and covered his mouth with one hand. "Elves only consummate their relationship for one purpose: for the gift of children. Since our kinds are incompatible, there is no need."
"That doesn't make any sense," he said suspiciously. "Isn't Lord Elrond half-Elf? That's the whole reason you're here, you go to choose--"
"Don't be silly," she replied sharply. "That's just a myth. Our two species cannot mate."
Her calm demeanor nearly sent him into a panic. "But tonight is our wedding night!" he exclaimed. "We should be together!"
"I am sorry," she said, although she didn't sound like she meant it.
Bitterly, he growled, "If I had known we could not have sex I would have married Éowyn! Hell, I would have married Frodo!"
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Get out of my bed," she threatened. When he didn't immediately move she shoved him, hard, and his head hit the stone floor roughly. That was what he got for marrying a woman as strong as himself.
The next thing he knew a blond Elf was leaning over him, skin practically glowing in the pale light. Aragorn ran his fingers through the long hair.
"What magic has turned my dark Arwen so fair?" he whispered.
"Hey," Legolas said, "it's me."
Disappointed, Aragorn pushed himself up. Several of his servants stood round the room in silence. Some looked worried; others seemed amused, and it was then he remembered he was naked and on a cold floor. His wife, however, was nowhere to be seen. Anger outweighed any embarrassment he had, and he snatched the sheets off the bed and wrapped them round his naked form.
"There was a rat nibbling on you," Legolas said blandly, standing, "but I dare not say where."
"Why are you here?" Aragorn asked. "Not that I'm unhappy to see you, old friend." With a wave of his hand his servants filed out one by one.
Legolas frowned. "I was sailing round the world with Gimli. He propositioned me after a few days at sea. I couldn't be comfortable after that."
"The Dwarf?" Aragorn asked.
"I believe he thought I was a she-Elf," Legolas said. "That bastard."
"I came here immediately after we docked. I wanted to see my friend." At Aragorn's raised eyebrow he confessed: "Fine, I was hungry."
There was a pause as Aragorn let this sink in. Of course he was going to allow Legolas, his friend from the Fellowship and beyond, to stay in Gondor. Perhaps the prince would know what to do about his new problem; after all, his wife was repulsed by him, and Legolas was an Elf. Elves understood each other.
"You're not going to ask why I was naked and unconscious?"
Legolas looked at the sheets bunched round Aragorn's hips. "I didn't think it was any of my business."
When Aragorn bent to pick his trousers up off the floor, an idea occurred to him. A horrible, clever idea. He fingered the cloth thoughtfully. "We need to catch up on old times, friend," he said, and Legolas smiled at him. "How do you feel about Hobbits?"
It wasn't often that Aragorn ventured into his castle's kitchens. His advisors had warned him repeatedly that anyone could easily slip poison into his food, and taking anything from there would put him at risk.
"Here, eat this," he told Legolas, setting down a large platter of roasted boar on a plain table near the door. Aragorn found out quickly that eating was the only thing Legolas did not do prettily. He tore into the boar like he hadn't eaten in weeks. He was halfway through the creature when Aragorn was struck with an idea.
"I need your help," he said quietly.
Legolas swallowed. "Of course, Aragorn. What would you ask of me?"
"I'm not a woman," Legolas said harshly. "Sometimes I really hate you people."
"What?" Aragorn demanded. "I'm not asking you for an heir; I'm asking you to--" He broke off, frustrated. "Arwen will not lie with me," he whispered.
"That does not surprise me," Legolas replied. He stabbed a piece of boar with his fork.
"Unlike the Elves, I grow closer to death with each passing day," Aragorn said. Legolas bowed his head sadly, and Aragorn knew the Elf's resolve was weakening. He always saw Aragorn's side of things eventually. "If I die without an heir Gondor will crumble."
"What would you have me do?" Legolas asked.
"Kidnap a Hobbit and dress him up as my son."
Legolas stared. "What?"
Normally, he would never resort to such things. But desperate times called for desperate measures. "A Hobbit would allow me to placate my people while giving me time to woo Arwen."
"They're going to realise it's a Hobbit," Legolas insisted.
"Most of the Men here have never even seen one."
"Trust me," Legolas said. He raised one smooth eyebrow. "They are going to notice."
It was his loyalty to Aragorn that drove Legolas to ride out to the Shire at the next dawn. The rolling hills were a welcome sight after the dry plains of Gondor. Despite the beauty of Minas Tirith he never felt truly comfortable; the city felt too spacious. He missed the forests. In retrospect, he would have been better off going to Mirkwood or Lothlórien rather than Gondor -- none of the Elves had ever asked him to kidnap a Hobbit, after all -- but when one goes adventuring with Dwarves the neighbours tend to talk.
"I'll await your return," Aragorn had told him warmly.
Which is how Legolas found himself stalking the filthy alleys of the Shire a few weeks later. His infiltration had not gone unnoticed by the Hobbits. Sometimes they stopped to glare, but other than that none had approached. It wasn't like he was wearing a sign that said, 'Will work for Hobbit,' but he hadn't expected complete avoidance from them.
At long last a young Hobbit came sniffing about. His dark hair and fine face could pass as a Human child, if someone squinted and tilted his head just so. Legolas leaned out of the shadows and drew back his hood.
"Psst," he hissed. The Hobbit looked up quickly. "Yes, you, little one. How would you like to be the prince of Gondor?"
"Would I!" the Hobbit exclaimed.
Arwen avoided Aragorn for a week before she suddenly reappeared at breakfast. His servants had alerted him that she had padded her chambers. He reckoned she had realised she was no longer immortal, which must have been difficult for an Elf to cope with. He had no idea how to comfort her, if she even wanted him to. What would soothe the pain of an Elf who knew she was going to die?
Besides, she thought he was ugly.
She sat down at the table silently. He lowered his pipe and said, "You need not worry about consummating our relationship. Legolas is handling of it."
"Legolas?" she repeated, frowning. "This isn't one of those Fellowship 'male-bonding exercises,' is it?" He didn't see how kidnapping a Hobbit had anything to do with the Fellowship. When he didn't respond, her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Legolas is very pretty."
He puffed on his pipe thoughtfully. "Yes."
"I knew it," she hissed. She stormed off, slamming the doors behind her.
The servants looked at him questioningly.
"She's just upset because she's slowly dying," Aragorn told them.
Just then the doors to the hall were thrown open. Legolas marched in proudly. In his arms was a short, Man-like creature -- the Hobbit Aragorn had requested. Aragorn's heart swelled. "I've returned to you, sire," Legolas called. He put the Hobbit down and brushed dust off his riding gear.
"Legolas," Aragorn acknowledged. He walked over to them. The Hobbit looked round the large room in awe, and, finally, turned his eyes towards the king. "What's your name, Halfling?"
"Fern," the Hobbit quipped.
Aragorn frowned. "Like the plant? No, you need a noble name. Such as..."
"Ëarcelumessenaranwë," Legolas supplied. Aragorn and Fern exchanged glances. "It means 'kingly,'" he added snidely.
"I was thinking more along the lines of Aeldarn," Aragorn said.
"You can call me Snappy the Happy Clown if it'll get me room and board," said Fern.
Aragorn considered it. But before he could make a decision Arwen strode back into the chamber, her dark hair sweeping behind her. "My love, I apologise--" She stopped. "Is that a Hobbit?"
"He is my friend," Legolas said quickly. He put a protective hand on Fern's head.
"Isn't Legolas queer?" Aragorn joked. "He makes friends with Dwarves and Hobbits."
"I'm not a fool," Arwen said. "What is this trickery?"
Aragorn sighed. "I'm using this Hobbit as a substitute for a child in hopes the people will be deceived until I can produce a real heir."
She blinked. "Oh."
"Are you my mommy?" Fern asked.
Arwen looked up at the ceiling. "I gave up immortality for this."
"I'm merely doing what's best for our people," Aragorn snapped. "You didn't exactly leave me with a lot of options."
"Aragorn," Legolas warned.
"No, it's fine," she said coldly. "This is not the life I expected either."
His heart sunk as Arwen fled the chamber. Everything had been simpler back in the day of Elrond's court, when he had been Estel, the ranger, and she had been the beautiful princess with the scary father. Perhaps she was taking her desperation out on him. Legolas squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. At least he had one Elf who still cared about him.
"I'm here for you, friend," Legolas whispered, gazing at Aragorn in a way that made him uncomfortable, although he couldn't put his finger on why.
"Right," he said, smiling thinly.
Fern tugged on Aragorn's sleeve. "Can I call you daddy?"
Aragorn eyed him warily. "Of course not."
Dinner that evening was particularly awkward. Arwen made a grand gesture of sitting on the opposite end of the table.
"I do not understand why you're so upset," Aragorn said to her, frustrated. Something brushed his leg, and he frowned. "Legolas, get your hand off my thigh."
"I was adjusting my breeches," Legolas protested.
"That's nowhere near my thigh," he pointed out.
Arwen slammed her goblet on the table. "This is why I'm upset. Don't think I don't know why you invited Legolas to stay," she warned.
"I have no idea what you're on about," Aragorn said truthfully.
"Just because I don't want to-- I mean, can't be with you intimately does not mean you can just run to another Elf. I always knew you preferred him over me. Daddy said you two were just 'special friends,' but I knew better!"
"Are you mad?" Aragorn shouted.
"You brought a Hobbit here and are pretending he's your son!" she cried shrilly.
"I need an heir! It's not like I can get Legolas with child!"
"Hey, don't bring me into this," Legolas said.
"What are you going to do about it?" Aragorn retorted. "Sing?"
"No one's going to believe this creature is our child, Aragorn," Arwen scoffed. "Go ahead and present him to the court; I will bet you anything someone will point out he's a Hobbit."
Of course, she ended up being right. The next morning the first thing Aragorn did was bring out Fern, dressed in typical princely garb. The Hobbit's curls were brushed out until they shone. His face was scrubbed freshly pink. He looked almost like a Human, if one squinted properly.
"This is my son, Aeldarn," he declared. "Your new prince."
The hall stirred. The court looked at the Hobbit, some in awe, most in suspicion.
"Hullo, all," Fern said. Aragorn smacked him. "Ow! I mean, ooooh, pwetty, Daddy! I'm a pwince!"
Aragorn smiled so hard he thought his face would break. "Ha, ha. That's my boy."
"Sire," began a member of his court, "your son is a full-grown man, only half the size of-- Oh dear Lord, he is a Hobbit!"
"You are hence forth banished from this land," Aragorn commanded.
Legolas stepped forward. Softly, he said, "Aragorn, you cannot continue to rid yourself of anyone who notices something is wrong."
"Quiet, or the Hobbit gets your quarters," he retorted.
The Hobbit's face brightened. "I get a room?"
"Go get Daddy some ale, Aeldarn."
"This isn't going to work," Aragorn muttered to himself. Fern had been in Gondor for three weeks, and already Aragorn had fired four servants and two royal guards for speaking out. The question, "Isn't he a Hobbit?" was becoming commonplace. His cabinet had been silent thus far, but Aragorn knew they suspected something, especially since the court's last gift to "Aeldarn" had been a bushel of smoking weed. The Hobbit hadn't helped matters much either; he hadn't listened to Aragorn's and Legolas' commands to keep to their private chambers. Aragorn was pretty sure Fern had slept with at least one of the kitchen girls.
Arwen was still behaving coldly towards him. The novelty of her anger had worn off, and instead of resentment he was filled with a lingering ache.
Legolas drew an arrow back. He frowned at Aragorn. "What are you going to do?"
The three of them stood in the royal archery range. Across the room Fern idly played with a miniature bow Legolas had constructed for him, smoking his pipe furiously. The little bugger used more weed in a single day than Aragorn used in a week.
"Get rid of him, for one," Aragorn muttered. "I cannot believe Aeldarn didn't fool anyone."
"Yes," Legolas said sarcastically, shooting an arrow into a target five hundred metres away, "all children come into this world fully grown and smoking like chimneys, especially when their mothers were never pregnant."
"You're rather cheeky for someone who doesn't have a home."
Legolas muttered something in Elvish about Humans and inbreeding.
Aragorn lowered his bow thoughtfully. "That actually gives me an idea," he said.
Faramir clasped Aragorn's shoulder in a manly fashion. "My lord," he cried cheerfully, "to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"
"I come with a heavy burden, Lord Faramir. One that only you can help me with. My wife, Arwen Undómiel, is unable to provide me with an heir." It was the partial truth. A lie was far less embarrassing than the whole story. No one would respect a king with a wife who hated him, especially not Faramir, whose love for Éowyn knew no bounds. Unless he was drunk, and then it was every man for himself. "I have a request to ask of you."
"You want a woman of my court?" Faramir questioned, frowning.
"Not quite," he confessed. "Can I have one of your children?"
Faramir stared. "Absolutely not."
"But you have so many. Éowyn won't miss just one."
Needless to say, Faramir had the guards toss him out of the court. Aragorn returned home to his Hobbit man-child, his estranged wife, and his uncomfortably friendly companion. Things were not looking up.
He was pacing the hall when Arwen entered, her riding pack slung across her back. She wore her riding outfit. The expression on her face dared anyone to cross her. Aragorn filled with dread.
"I'm going to my father's," she announced.
He put his pipe down. "For how long?"
"I do not know when I shall return," she said. "You're not the man I married!"
"Is it because I shower now?"
"I can deal with death lurking round every corner, naked humans, and short hair. But I cannot abide the Hobbits and the kidnapping and the sexual exploration." She glared at Legolas at the latter remark. "Aragorn, I love you," she continued, and her voice softened. "But I can't stay here. I made the wrong choice. You understand, right?"
"No," he wanted to say, but instead a choked, "Yes," came out.
Arwen pressed her lips to his, but the kiss was gentle, completely lacking their former passion. He closed his eyes and grasped her hand warmly. "I have one last request," he whispered. "Don't tell your father I could not please you. Tell him I hit you."
Legolas made a strangled noise.
They followed her out to the gates of the city. Aragorn waved away the guards the wanted to accompany them. After one final embrace, Arwen marched out of Minas Tirith.
"I'll miss her," Aragorn said.
"Lord Elrond is in the Undying Lands," Legolas said, as if it was an afterthought.
They watched Arwen's retreating form until it disappeared from their sight.
"I don't think she's coming back," Legolas added.
"Bloody hell," Aragorn said.
All Aragorn wanted was a good night's sleep. Arwen was gone, Fern wouldn't leave, and he still didn't have an heir that the court would believe. He briefly considered giving up entirely and letting the kingdom fall to chaos, but he couldn't let that happen. The people of Gondor relied on him.
He closed the door to his private chambers behind him, stripping off his robes. He let his belt and shoes tumble to the floor, knowing someone would pick them up tomorrow. Reaching for the buttons on his trousers, he heard a deep voice.
"What the hell?" He turned quickly. Legolas was sitting on his bed, amused. "What are you doing here?"
Legolas cocked his head. "Your people are beginning to notice their queen is gone."
"And you thought you'd help by sneaking into my chambers? Very clever, Legolas."
Someone knocked on the door. Legolas stiffened and looked at Aragorn sharply. "Yes?" Aragorn called.
"Your Highness, we've received word that someone may have entered your private chambers without permission this night."
"It's just my wife," Aragorn replied.
"Even so, I believe it would be safer if we could come in and search for intruders."
The last thing Aragorn needed was rumours to be spread about him and Legolas. The Elf must have sensed his distress. "I am indecent!" he called in a falsetto.
The guard outside was silent for a long moment. "That sounds nothing like the queen."
"Off with his head!" Legolas shouted.
Sounds of struggle erupted from the corridor -- "Unhand me! I tell you, that is not the queen!" -- and then nothing.
"That was my best guard," Aragorn said darkly.
"Rubbish, you don't even know his name," Legolas snapped.
"I repeat my earlier question: what are you doing here?" he said coolly. "You have fine chambers of your own."
"I know you're upset because Arwen went to the Undying Lands. But she's not dead; we Elves do not mourn when someone passes into that realm. She'll live forever there, with her kin."
"I'm not an Elf," he retorted. "We do things differently in the world of Men."
Legolas looked down at the floor. Aragorn reckoned he still didn't understand.
"Would you give up immortality for me, Legolas?" he asked quietly.
There was a long pause. Legolas looked more scared than Aragorn had ever seen him. "Yes?"
Aragorn didn't believe him. "Listen, I'll be fine. But if you're still concerned for my well-being you can stay in here tonight." Legolas looked startled. "We'll pretend we're back on the quest."
He sat on the floor. Legolas just sat on the bed and stared at him. It was going to be a long evening.
He awoke the next morning oddly refreshed -- and with a new plan. He knew now what he needed was either an Elf or a Human child. One with no past connections or odd habits. Or libido, in Fern's case. Instead of dressing in his robes and crown, Aragorn slipped into his old ranger gear. Breathing in the familiar scent of leather, he felt more like himself than ever.
"Put on your woodsman clothing," he instructed Legolas, sliding his sword and knives into place. "Let's hunt some children."
"Let's what?" Legolas sputtered.
But he followed Aragorn's request. Soon after, they avoided the servants and exited through a side door in the kitchen. "Last night I realised that we have plenty of parentless children roaming the streets right here in Minas Tirith," he said, leading Legolas along a rocky alleyway to the city. "Instead of persuading Hobbits to pose as Human children I should just take a Human child.
Indeed, there were heaps of children lingering in the back streets. As the two adults walked past they looked up at Aragorn with big, wet eyes.
"This is horrible," Legolas whispered.
"I know," Aragorn said. "They all have parents. We'll never find a child in this!"
Legolas whipped round abruptly. He snatched up a young, dark-haired child who couldn't have been more than five. "Were you reaching into my pockets?" he demanded. "To rob me?"
The kid's eyes were huge. "N-no."
"Liar!" But the child kicked Legolas in the shin, hard. The Elf yelped and dropped him. He took off running down the alley at breakneck speed. "That little brat!" Legolas shouted.
"I like him," Aragorn said. "He has spunk." He gave Legolas a pat on the back and followed the boy, his boots striking the cobblestone road loudly. He passed dozens of workers loading and unloading goods into the backs of shops. The smell of mud and rotting food permeated the entire area; he had nearly forgotten these in his brief stint as king. Legolas followed quickly at his heels.
He stopped at a dead end, breathing hard.
"We've lost him," Legolas said.
The way a piece of cloth folded over a crate caught Aragorn's attention. He reached in and felt something warm -- a body. Quickly, he pulled the kid out. The boy swung his arms and legs wildly, but to no avail.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Aragorn said. "Where are your parents?"
"I don't have any parents!" the kid shouted.
"Perfect. What's your name?"
"Eldarion," he whispered.
"That's very kingly," Aragorn mused. He felt a rush of excitement; perhaps they had finally found their answer. "How would you like to live in the castle and be my son?"
Eldarion stopped struggling. "You'll feed me?" he asked hopefully. His blinked his dark eyes in an impossibly cute manner. Then he turned their power onto the Elf. "Are you my mommy?"
"Bloody Humans!" Legolas growled.
"Another son?" his advisor asked incredulously. "But your last, er, child is--"
"I had this one with another woman," Aragorn lied smoothly. The court ooh-ed and aww-ed. "Now that Lady Arwen has rejoined her kin I feel it is safe to bring him out of hiding. This is Eldarion, the heir to the throne."
The boy had been dressed in the finest robes for a prince. He looked a bit shell-shocked.
Aragorn found Legolas lingering near the exit, nearly hidden in shadows. His dress reminded Aragorn of the days of Elrond's court. Strangely, he found himself feeling more content than he could remember; the last few weeks had been filled with enough insanity to last him the rest of his life, however short that was.
"I should leave soon," the Elf said quietly.
But Aragorn couldn't imagine Legolas not being at his side. Impulsively, he grabbed Legolas' hands and whispered, "Stay here. Forever. Or until I die, whichever comes first."
Legolas' eyes widened. "What?"
"I want you to stay with me here," he said honestly. "Eldarion needs--"
"If you say he needs a mother I am never speaking to you again."
He laughed. "No! He needs his father to be happy. We have had a few rough weeks, friend."
Legolas cocked his head, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "Did it ever occur to you to find another woman and impregnate her?"
Actually, it hadn't.
"Of course," he said briskly. "But I could not do that to my lady. What kind of man do you take me for?"
"You have your hand on my arse," Legolas pointed out.
"I've made my choice," he said.
Legolas kissed him, hard. His throat went dry, and he pulled Legolas closer. That was completely unexpected, but it was-- nice. "Want to take this elsewhere?" Legolas whispered in his ear.
"But I thought Elves could only have sex to produce children."
Legolas raised one fine blond brow. "Who told you that nonsense?"
Aragorn goggled. "Arwen said--" Then it hit him like a punch in the stomach. He stared at Legolas in horror. "That bitch!"