The sun had just crested the far mountains spilling light and warmth into the small bowl of the valley and painting the tall grass a golden green. The young man walking through woods spread his hands palm down and swept them across the tops of the tallest fronds catching the dew with his fingertips. The moisture wet his boots and his overcoat staining them a darker brown than they already were. His clothing enabled him to hide easily and become instantly invisible in the surrounding wilderness. Quick sharp eyes the color of the deepest woods shot through with silver looked cautiously around the seemingly empty expanse of the glade before him. His dark hair spilled down around tall shoulders and swept back slightly from his angular face. The sun painted streaks of golden and red through his unkempt locks and he turned his face into the soft morning breeze to keep it from spilling into his eyes.
He was a ranger, albeit a very young one. He walked cautiously but with a definite spring in his step. His thoughts were far from where he presently was. His name was Aragorn, son of Arathorn, direct descendant of Isilduir King of Gondor and raised by Elrond Lord of Rivendell, half elf, a lineage that he had only just recently been told of and one that he was not yet comfortable with. He still preferred his elven name, given by his elven father; Estel, it meant hope. However none of that mattered at the moment to the young man. He had given up his claim to the throne and chosen instead to become a Ranger, he would walk in the path of those who had gone before him and learn the ways of the land. Excitement radiated from him like the morning mists rising from the earthen bowl he walked as the sun warmed the cooled grass around him.
Motion to his right brought his attention back to his surroundings as a buck leapt into the path in front of him. Catching site of the man it shied back and bolted for the safety of the trees to his right. He slowly straightened his stance and laughed at himself as he removed his hand from the hilt of his sword. Shaking his head he chastised himself for being so easily caught off guard. He was a ranger now he would need to learn not to be caught unaware like that.
His path took him to the edge of the meadow and as he crested the lip of the depression he was given a slight glimpse of the lay of the land before him. Mountains and forest as far as a man could see stretched beneath the canopy of the morning sky. From where he stood he could just barely see the forests of Mirkwood. Indecision caught him and he slipped beneath the protective shielding of the forest trees that ringed the glade as he made up his mind. He had wanted to travel to Mirkwood and perhaps visit the elves that lived there. He knew that Thranduil, King of the Wood Elves was a friend of his adopted father, Elrond, Lord of Rivendell. Elrond had been the only father that the young man had ever known. He knew he had a human father but there were no memories of the man who held that position at one time. His human father had been killed when he was young and Elrond had taken him in and raised the boy. Elvish was his first language and common after that. Many were the stories that he had heard of the Elves who lived in Mirkwood.
With a smile he remembered the cautions of his elven father before he had set out on this his first foray as a ranger.
"Aragorn, there are many things in this world for which you are not yet prepared my son," Elrond walked the broad balcony overlooking the deep rift in which Rivendell had been built so many millennia ago.
Aragorn stepped up his pace, tearing his eyes away from the vista point they had just passed. He could never get enough of this place, his home. It always seemed new to him, more beautiful and peaceful than each day that had already passed.
"Yes father, I know but.."
"Do not interrupt me Estel." Elrond turned back toward his son, and stopped the youth, placing his large hands on the young shoulders and staring into the familiar dark eyes. "You only think you know. All the elves you have ever met in your young years have met you with kindness because I have taken you under my wing as my own. You are one of them. But they will not all view you that way. You must remember that some have had the displeasure of being subject to men who have no love for elves. You will meet men who will scorn you because of your lineage and because you were raised by elves. The world is not as kind as you have thus known. There are places that men have no business being. Do not think your link to my house or your heritage will save you. You must be wise young one."
"I’m just going out for a short time. It’s my first time on my own. I wont get into any trouble I promise." Aragorn said seriously, yet his eyes were still twinkling with the prospect of his first real adventure.
Elrond smiled and shook his head. "I know that look my son. Mind yourself. I have every knowledge of just what you are capable of getting into."
Aragorn rolled his eyes and looked out toward the far heights of Rivendell. With a sigh he looked back at the man who had raised him, "Father, don’t send any one out to trail me this time. I can do this on my own. How will I ever learn?"
More than just the usual youthful eagerness for independence, Aragorn was driven by an even deeper-seated desire. The desire to prove himself to himself. He did not forget the blood that flowed through his veins, blood that held a history of both high honor and deadly weakness. Some part of his heart was anxious to know which part would be his lot, and determined to do all he could to bear the virtues, and not the faults of his long and distinguished lineage.
"Yes, well I seem to remember the last time we had this conversation and Moranuen had to save you from that mine shaft." Elrond hid his smile by turning and continuing his walk along the pathway.
Behind him his adopted son groaned, "That does not count. It wasn’t my fault I was trying to loose Mora and he distracted me."
With a laugh Elrond turned, "You consider calling out a warning a distraction?"
Aragorn began to laugh as well as he closed the distance between himself and the elder elf, "Please just promise you’ll let me do this on my own. I’ll return to you in fortnight. Will that do?"
Elrond stared long and hard into the brightly twinkling, dark eyes that were fastened so hopefully upon him, but could not contain the smile that spread across his face. "So young and yet so old. Go then my son. Watch yourself and if you should decide to visit our relatives in Mirkwood go to the south of the wastelands and travel around them, not through them. There are rumors of wars there between the dwarves and the orcs and it is not safe."
"Yes father. I will be safe. I will come back." With a quick hug the young man was running back up the walkway already planning his path into the wilds.
"Be careful Estel, you do not realize how important you will be to the fate of men in Middle Earth." The elf lord quietly murmured to himself. From the shadows on his left the eldest of his twin sons, Elladan, silently stepped out next to him.
"Shall I have him trailed father?"
"No let him go. He must learn." Elrond sighed with heavy resignation.
"Is that wise?" Elladan questioned with concern.
"He is a man. He must learn the ways of the Dunèdain they will aide him in his life. We cannot always be there for him."
With a smile Elrond clasped his eldest sons shoulder and turned the elf away from the retreating form of Aragorn, "He has his own path Elladan. Men often learn best the hard way. If he is not back in a fortnight you and Elrohir may go after him."
"I will never understand them father." Elladan focused his attention ahead of them though in his heart he feared for his mortal brother.
"You will. Some day you will."
"Yes when I’m three million years old perhaps."
Elladan’s response elicited laughter from the elder elf, "Yes maybe by then."
Aragorn shook his head at the memory. His father worried too much about him. True he was mortal but still he was twenty-two it was high time he got out on his own. He glanced quietly around the area in which he stood. The sounds of the forest brought news to his ears; he could hear the buck he had spotted earlier running with a group of does a few yards ahead, the birds in the trees twittered undisturbed and at the base of the large pines a squirrel darted across the soft earthen floor. There were no intruders about; danger did not walk under these trees at the present. He tested the air. It was sweet and clean. It blew from the west and brought hints of the sea. There was rain on the fringes of the wings of the breeze that caressed his face, but the storm was well off and the direction of the wind meant to take it far north of the area he would be traveling. The scent of the warming valley swelled up around him as the heat from the sun caused small eddies of warm wind to sweep past him hidden beneath the canopy of the pine forest. All these things he had learned to detect from his elven brethren and yet he knew there was still more that escaped him.
He turned towards the Mirkwood forests. Elladan and Elrohir had told him tales of the elves that lived there. He had seen the Mirkwood elves on high holidays and rare occasions but the thought of spending time with them excited him. His brothers had said that their Silvan brethren were experts in warring and hunting. He longed for more experience in those arts. So, mind made up he headed out through the forest and made his way to the edges of the rocky wasteland that served as Mirkwoods western border.
For an hour the young ranger stood silently on the wooded ridge keeping watch. His sharp eyes scanned the horizon and the rocky buttes and plateaus for any sign of danger or life. His father’s words floated back to him, ‘take the southern route around the wasteland.’ But he had promised to be back in a fortnight. If he crossed the wastelands during the day he should be safe and if he left within the hour he would be nearly across by nightfall. Going southern would cost him time, days that he couldn’t not spare and he would have precious little left to spend with the elves once he reached their territory as it was.
Yes, his father worried too much. With a last glance around him he stepped out into the open and began to pick his way to the far side and the safety of the woods of Mirkwood.
Short scrub brush dotted the landscape, twisted and warped by the winds that shallowed out the plateaus and carved the rocks into smooth odd shapes. Remnants of large riverbeds trickled through eddies, grooves in the granite created by years of following the same paths. The going was easy and quick but daylight was fading fast as the young ranger jumped a deep gorge. The cut in the rock face was not more than three feet wide but he could hear the rush of water somewhere hundreds of feet far below. Steadily he made his way to the far side of the wasteland. He was determined to make it by nightfall.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * ** * * *
Night had fallen hours ago and Aragorn bit back a curse as he tripped on a rocky outcropping; the jagged rocks caught at his boot toes as he quickly moved across the boulders. He was frustrated with himself. He should have gained the wooded lands by now. He was close; he could smell the pines. How many times had he been out at night, this was no different he chided himself. But deep inside he knew it was. He caught himself glancing over his shoulder just waiting for Moranuen to step out from behind some large rock and chastise him for being out in the wastelands at night, just as his father had warned him not to be. And yet there was no one there.
Or was there? A skitter of rocks to his left caused him to pause midstep. Silently he drew his sword and froze in the quiet moonlight. It was cooling rapidly now, his breath gathered in a hazy white fog when he exhaled. He tried to still his breathing and listen but the pounding of his own heart was too loud in his ears. Carefully he continued moving, his every sense heightened. Someone was on the plateau with him, but they must have been downwind because he could not tell who they were or where. The growing sounds of shuffling feet on the rocks around him ricocheted back from the granite walls – he had company.
Glancing frantically around the ranger realized for the first time that he was vulnerable. There were no trees to hide in or behind. The rock shelf he was trapped on had no shallows or gullies. Fear froze him in place and he wondered oddly who it would be that he met first, the dwarves or the orcs.
He didn’t have to wait long to find out. A swiftly moving group of dark figures rose before him rushing up the gently sloping rock face towards his vantage point. Starlight glinted from the tips of cruelly twisted scimitars and the odd shaped blades of orc broadswords.
Widening his stance Aragorn raised his sword into a ready position. There was nowhere to run and the orcs had seen him by now. Their large luminous eyes suited for night travel had spotted him easily enough. Their howling banter caught on the winds that scoured the rocky expanse caused the hair on his neck to stand on end. He would never live this down if he lived through it at all, he thought darkly to himself. As the first orc gained his position he stepped forward prepared for battle and was surprised to find himself forcefully thrown backwards by a smaller moving heavy dark shape that had darted into the fray from his right. Dwarves! One of the powerful small cousin to men and elves had shoved the ranger out of the way and with a fierce battle cry slew the oncoming orc.
"Damn it!" Aragorn hissed under his breath, he was caught in the middle of an orc/dwarf battle. Swarms of dwarves clambered over the rocks and soon the plateau was a moving mass of chaos as the two enemies chased each other across the expanse engaging in battle; the sounds of clanging armor and death cries assaulted his ears.
He tried to gain the edge of the cliff he was on. If he could get into the forest he could loose them. Wading into the fray he made for the granite lip. An orc on his left took a swipe at him with a scimitar, the blade dripping with a liquid darker than the night. He didn’t even want to think what the weapon had sliced through before its attention was directed at him.
Bringing his sword up in a low arc he met the haft of the weapon and cleaved the blade from the shaft. Following the arc of his swing he spun around and stepped back into the orc thrusting his blade into the foul creatures chest, it fell with a howl to the stone floor. He danced over the prone body and barely kept from beheading a dwarf that had stumbled into him knocked senseless by an orc hammer. He lowered the small fighter to the rock, there was nothing he could do for him now, the ranger had to move as the wave of fighting flowed across the granite and cut off his way of escape. He stood from his kneeling position preparing to defend his location and was assailed by the sound of arrows whistling through the night air. One passed inches from his face, close enough to stir his hair with its passing. On instinct he ducked but without protection he was at the mercy of luck and she had long ago left the plateau for saner regions.
An arrow bit deeply into his right thigh and dropped him to his knees. He stifled a cry and rose to his feet once more. An orc loomed up before him and he staggered back narrowly avoiding the thick slashing blade. Thrusting his own sword before him he caught the enemy’s weapon with his and held the beast off. The orc’s strength surprised him as it pressed the human down with the steel edge. Two dwarves jumped on to the black creature attacking its crude armor and bearing the beast to the ground.
Aragorn attempted to rise once more but his balance was off and he was precariously close to the edge of the plateau. He wove unsteadily trying to force his injured leg to bear his weight. As he got his balance and began to move back into the battle the orc before him rose up, throwing off the dwarves as though they were nothing. One of the compact heavy bodies slammed the ranger full in the chest. The wind was forced from his body and he was thrown backwards by the impact. His feet lost contact with the rock face and he was free falling through the night air. He realized with calm clarity that the collision with the dwarf had pushed him off the plateau and he was falling from the heights.
Legolas had followed this pack of orcs since they had left the edges of Mirkwood. That they had ventured there at all was of great concern to the elven prince. His father was Thranduil, lord of Mirkwood and rumors of orcs venturing into the woods had drawn his concern. The elven king had sent several of his warriors to investigate the situation and his own son, Legolas, had volunteered to go. If orcs had dared to enter their realm even to escape the dwarves that hunted them, then drastic measures were needed. Northern Mirkwood was still a safe place and Thranduil would not see it desecrated by the evil that was overtaking the land.
Legolas, himself had no care for either orc or dwarf. If they chose to annihilate each other and themselves that was well him, but Mirkwood must be made off limits to their encroaching and so he had readily volunteered to find out what was happening in the wastelands. It had been some time since he had last ventured out past his fathers realm it would be good for him to go on this short foray.
The elf prince had reached the base of the rocky plateau were the battle had reached a fevered pitch. True they had chosen a site well away from Mirkwood but her borders were still too close in the elf’s estimation. Quietly and cat like he leapt into the branches of the pine tree above him. He wanted to get a better look at what was going on between the two warring parties. It would be advantageous if he could identify which clan of dwarves it was that had decided to take on the orcs during their nightly runs. He had started to climb higher when a shout drew his attention directly overhead. Someone had slipped from the rock and was hurtling towards him crashing through the branches of the tree above him on its fall from the heights.
Nimbly, the elf jumped from his vantage-point and quickly moved into the foliage at the base of the large tree. Drawing his bow, he crouched in his concealed position as the body fell to the forest floor with heavy thud.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Aragorn twisted in mid air. He needed to stop his descent. He had been thrown too far from the rock face to grab any of the roots or outcroppings that might have stopped him. A dark conical shape formed in sight below him; a pine tree. He had indeed gained the edges of the forest.
He curled in on himself as he hit the upper branches of the tree, trying to protect his face and chest from the pine needles and wood that caught at him, tearing at his clothes and leaving cuts on any exposed skin they came in contact with. The branches slowed him some, but as he fell closer to the ground they grew thicker and did not bend under his weight. A large branch caught his head and split his temple. Brilliant pinpricks of starlight shot through his sight and everything spun out of control. His body went limp as he began to loose consciousness, but it was not soon enough. The shaft of the arrow embedded in his thigh snagged on a branch and was torn from his leg. It opened a nasty gash as it was jerked from his body, but the head of the arrow broke off near the bone and remained embedded. He cried out but was silenced immediately as his body folded over a limb as thick as a man was wide and the air was again crushed from his lungs. Silently he slipped from where he had landed and dropped to the forest floor unconscious.
The elf crept out from his hiding place. His bow was strung and he advanced warily on the creature that had fallen from the tree. Cautiously he walked around the dark, still form. It didn’t smell like an orc and it was too large for a dwarf.
Legolas re-sheathed his arrow and slung his bow over his shoulder. He knelt besides the fallen ranger and gently turned the man over onto his back. The sounds of the battle above receded as the dwarves chased the orcs back to their hiding places. He regretted loosing their trail but he had enough information to verify the reports and let his father know what was happening on their western border.
The man on the ground moaned softly and Legolas returned his attention to him. He looked like a Ranger. But all the Rangers the elf knew would never be caught in the wastelands at night. Not with the orcs and dwarves at war with one another. He was tempted to leave the man where he lay; his arrogance had gotten him into this mess he deserved to be left to his own.
Legolas shook his head in disgust. He had learned enough of men to know that he wanted no more dealings with them, but his heart wouldn’t let him abandon the ranger in the state he was in. Gently he brushed long locks of hair away from the man’s face. His hand came away sticky and wet with blood from a wound that ran in a jagged line down the rangers temple. It was hard to see the damage the man had sustained in the limited starlight. Carefully he ran his hands over the ranger’s extremities checking for broken bones or open wounds. His fingers found the nasty gash that the arrow shaft had made when it was torn from Aragorn’s thigh and he assumed there were more bruises and contusions that he could not see. The man shifted in pain under the light touch and dark eyes opened to fastened on Legolas. The elf was surprised at how young the ranger actually was; he couldn’t have been more than twenty by the standards of men. He couldn’t remember the last time he had encountered a ranger of that age.
Aragorn was not fully conscious and the world refused to come into focus. He saw some shape or form over him, but he knew not what manner of thing or being it was. With almost impossible effort, his hand drifted to his throbbing temple, and then out towards the unknown shape above him, even as he felt consciousness beginning to slide from his grasp once more.
Legolas was bent close, examining the fallen ranger. Aragorn stirred groggily and the young man’s hand accidentally brushed the side of the elf prince’s face as it fell limply back to Aragorn’s side.
Legolas jerked back as if he’d been slapped, his lips forming into a tight line. He was both surprised and displeased at his own reaction. The contact was nothing that should have bothered him. True, he had not suffered himself to be touched by a mortal in a long, long time, but he had thought that all such feelings were far behind him now.
The sounds of fighting, though receding, still reverberated above their heads on the plateau and the need for urgency swept through the elf prince. Now was not the time nor place for memories of any kind, especially ones the elf had thought long dead.
Legolas crouched back down next to the wounded ranger and noted that the human had passed out again. Quickly taking advantage of his charge’s unconscious state he grabbed the man’s arm and lifted the young ranger onto his shoulders. Picking his way carefully through the darkened forest Legolas moved deeper into the wooded area looking for a sheltered place to stay for the night.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * **
The fire sparked brightly into the dark night and the warm glow lit the small area that Legolas had chosen to shelter in until the sun rose.
He set the wounded man down near the edge of the fire and tended to their small camp before seeing to the other’s needs. Warily’ the elf watched the unconscious man. He had no love for men, that had been beaten out of him long ago, but he also realized that this one had never done anything to warrant the elf simply letting him die.
With a sigh he rose from his place near the fire and knelt next to the young ranger. With great care he removed the man’s leather outer coat and more thoroughly inspected his wounds. As he had suspected, the ranger’s left temple had been split and a deep gash in his right thigh was staining the man’s breeches a darker brown than they already were. The cut was odd. It was clean and deep where it had penetrated the upper thigh and then jagged and superficial as though something had been ripped out of him by brute force. Legolas probed the cut for debris and found splinters of an arrow shaft embedded in the wound and the surrounding skin. He must have taken an arrow and his fall had torn it out. The elf prince winced at the thought. Bruising had already begun to show on the face of the young ranger and further examination revealed more bruises about his rib cage, although the elf could detect no broken bones. He was amazed the human had survived the fall at all.
Ripping strips of cloth from his own bedding, Legolas bound the man’s wounds as best he could and cleaned the ranger up. He packed the cut on his leg with healing herbs and then draped the leather overcoat over the still form.
It had been a long day and Legolas could feel sleep stealing up on him. He had traveled far and had had to deal with too many emotions that he had thought buried for centuries. He didn’t know why the memories were coming back to him now, after so long, but perhaps it had something to do with the season and the stars... they were aligned again as they had not been in generations, bringing back to his mind the last time he saw them like that, winking down at him as his only rays of hope through an ugly barred window...
Legolas quickly shook the thoughts away. They had no power, no meaning anymore... or at least, they shouldn’t have. After a cursory check of the perimeter and finding no one near, he stoked the fire one last time and lay down, curling in on himself, an elven blade in one hand and his bow in the other. He hoped the ranger would be awake in the morning they would need to move out at first light. He wanted to be relieved of his charge as soon as possible.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Consciousness returned slowly. Aragorn almost wished it hadn’t returned at all as he carefully opened his eyes and looked around. A fire crackled nearby, warming the area where he lay and causing him to shield his eyes from the minimal light it gave. A dark form on the opposite side of the fire rose and approached him. He tried not to flinch as the shape drew closer. His eyes weren’t focusing well and fear gripped his heart at the unknown prospect of who was here with him.
His companion must have seen the wariness in his face for a quiet voice spoke as the form of a man knelt beside his head. Aragorn couldn’t get his eyes to focus and he instinctually raised his arm to protect himself as the other reached towards him. A strong hand fastened on his forearm and gently pushed him back down.
"You are safe for now." He heard the words but it took him a few minutes to understand what had been said. "Although I am surprised. What were you thinking?"
Aragorn closed his eyes, and laid his head back against the cool earth. He was too tired to fight and he hurt too much to answer.
Thinking he had fallen asleep, the elf continued to see to the young man’s wounds, carefully checking the bandages on his head and leg. He continued speaking to himself now, assuming his charge had fallen unconscious yet again, "Of course you weren’t thinking, you are a man; act now, think later. That is why you got into this mess."
"That’s not fair."
The elf jumped slightly and sat back watching as the man stirred and opened his eyes. Legolas waited silently.
Aragorn turned slowly and tried to fix dilated, pain filled eyes on the elf. Legolas simply shook his head and leaned forward. He covered the man’s face with his hand causing the ranger to close his eyes.
"Just stay where you are. You will not be able to see much tonight. That wound to your head is bad. I have done all I can, tomorrow I will see what else I can do and I will take you to my father’s house. He will be able to heal you there. Now trouble yourself no more. Just lie there and rest."
Aragorn lay quietly for sometime, thinking over what his companion had said. He tried to see if he could place the sound of the accent. "Who are you?", he finally asked in frustration.
"It really does not matter. Go to sleep." The soft voice was close by and Aragorn was tempted to try to get a glimpse of the other. He thought better of it as he shifted slightly moving his wounded leg and eliciting an unwanted moan. He hadn’t meant to do that, he didn’t want show any weakness. The thought of the irony of not showing weakness and yet having to be saved brought a lopsided smile to his face in spite of a split lip and he laughed slightly.
"You think this is funny?"
"No. I was thinking how sorry I must look and how very much I hate being in this position."
"Oh and what position is that? Indebted to an elf?" The scorn in the others voice brought Aragorn up short. That wasn’t what he had meant at all. The realization hit him seconds later that his companion was, in fact, an elf. Obviously not one from his father’s realm. He switched his speech to elvish and started to apologize but was instantly cut off as the Elf rose, speaking with disdain.
"Do not continue. Spare me the small talk. I have learned enough of men and their ways to know how they are. I do not require your platitudes, nor your company. I will be near and I will keep watch over you tonight. If you need anything you have only to ask, I will hear you."
Aragorn heard the light steps of the elf as he passed into the surrounding forest. He tracked the other with his hearing, noting that the elf had moved just outside their camp area and was indeed standing nearby. He had wanted to speak again and try to explain himself but thought better of it. Perhaps this elf was of the ones that his father had warned him about. For a brief moment he honestly wished he were home in his own bed and that in the morning he would wake and be able to speak to Elrond over their breakfast. He loved talking with the elderly man. There was so much that he did not yet know and the Elf Lord was full of stories and wisdom from the millennia he had already lived. Thoughts of home flitted through his mind and in moments he had fallen back asleep once more.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The fire crackled and sputtered. Legolas looked back at the camp and the sleeping man. He couldn’t believe he had rescued the human. Feelings of guilt edged his thoughts as he remembered wanting to leave the young man and let him suffer the consequences of his foolishness. How they lived as old as they did he would never understand. He closed his eyes tightly against the images that flooded his memories – the harsh abuse and the cruelty he had suffered at the hands of Melèch and his men. All men couldn’t possibly be like the men of Dorolyn, he knew that. And this one was wounded, he reminded himself so he would be no threat. Still, the feelings of distrust and disdain would not easily be chased away. He had just turned his eyes back out into the quiet dark night when a sound touched his ears.
Quickly and quietly he crept back into the camp, rounding the fire he knelt down next to the young man. The ranger’s eyes were moving underneath his eyelids and his breathing was irregular and fast. Sweat beaded his forehead and as Legolas reached out to touch him he moved violently in his sleep, jerking back and reaching towards his empty scabbard. His eyes flew open, unseeing, caught in his dreams and in his native language he cried out for help, speaking quickly in elvish, begging his tormentors to leave him alone.
The abrupt response startled Legolas and he lost his balance, catching himself with one hand as he realized that this man was speaking in the grey tongue. And there was something about the young man’s eyes that Legolas hadn’t noticed before, something familiar. When he cried out again for help in elvish Legolas regained his balance and reached out towards him. He gently took the rangers shoulders in his hands and spoke softly to him, trying to press him back down and calm him. He had switched from speaking common and was speaking to the boy in the high tongue.
It had a calming effect on Aragorn and he stopped fighting. In his fever induced nightmare he heard the words his own father had spoken many times to him.
"It is all right. You are safe. Calm down now. It is okay. I am here."
"Elrond..." Aragorn whispered the name as he released his grip on Legolas’ arms and let the elf press him gently back down.
Legolas held the man for a few seconds more as his own shock wore off. His mind spun crazily as he tried to make sense of what had just happened. The ranger spoke elvish, that in itself was not uncommon among rangers, but this one spoke it as though he were born to it. And when Legolas had spoken to him, the words had calmed him immediately and he had called for Elrond. Had he thought that Legolas was Elrond? And why would a man speak the Lord of Rivendell’s name like this one had?
Legolas reached out a slender hand and brushed the ranger’s hair away from his face. He placed his palm on the man’s forehead, easily feeling the unnatural heat there. His wounds were infected; he was feverish. It was going to be a long night and if this one was going to make it, Legolas needed to work fast. Deep in his heart he feared losing the young man, a feeling that he found quite foreign. He laid aside his fears and thoughts for the moment, and, removing a small bag of herbs from his pack, he concentrated on the infection spreading through Aragorn’s body; he needed to stop the fever and soon.
Someone called his name. He tried to wake up but his body was weighted down and his eyes wouldn’t open.
"Father?" He moved anxiously trying to free himself from his bonds. Where was he? "Elrond?" He frowned as he fought his own body.
"No. Do not fight it."
Cool hands slid along his face and held him still. "It is Legolas. You are still here in the woods. Just listen to my voice and wake up slowly. I drugged you last night. You were feverish."
Aragorn swallowed hard. His throat was dry. Nothing this person said was making any sense. Unconsciously he switched to elvish. "Let me go."
Legolas sighed and tucked the edges of his cloak back around the ranger’s body. He had used it to cover the man last night after bringing his fever down. An arrow tip had wedged itself near the bone in his thigh and Legolas had missed it the first time when he had dressed the wound. During the night the tip had infected the wound and sent the man perilously close to death’s door. It had been a long night and a few times the elf had thought he was going to loose the young man. It had been during one of Aragorn’s feverish nightmares that Legolas had learned the ranger’s true identity. The man had called out for his father claiming the sons of Elrond were his brothers. He argued with some unknown assailant that his heritage was not in question and he was the elven king’s own. It had taken all of the elf’s strength to restrain the wounded man. At that point Legolas had opted to drug him in order to calm him down so that he could more easily see to his leg and remove the arrow tip.
"Who are you?" Aragorn’s words were slightly slurred as he settled down and concentrated on the voice that spoke to him.
Legolas continued to speak in elvish; it seemed to get through to the man easier in his current state of mind. Carefully, he moved aside the cloak and inspected the nasty gash running the length of Aragorn’s thigh. It looked somewhat better in the pre-dawn light but it was still red and hot to the touch.
"I am Legolas. I am the one who rescued you last night."
There was no response from the prone man and Legolas looked up from his task to watch the still face. "Aragorn?"
"You are the elf from last night?" Memory caught up with him slowly as the fog in his mind cleared.
"I did not mean to insult you. I vaguely remember that I seem to have." Dark brown eyes opened slowly and fixed on the elf’s grey ones. "I am sorry."
Legolas looked down to the bandage in his hands and gently reapplied it to the wound. "You did not. It is I who owe you the apology. I mistook you for simply another man."
"Any certain man?" Aragorn carefully tried to sit up, watching his companion intently.
Not meeting his gaze Legolas moved quickly to his side and helped him up, leaning him against a nearby tree. "No. No one in particular."
When his question brokered no response he continued pressing. "You have been mistreated by men then I assume."
"Your curiosity is misplaced." The elf moved silently to tend to the dwindling fire. "You should save your strength."
Aragorn smiled in spite of the situation, he loved a challenge and this elf held his interest. He was sure the lithe body was more than its’ seemingly twenty years. If he had his guess he would have measured this one to be well over a thousand years old. Something in the elf’s graceful quietness had tipped off the ranger. There was a depth to this ones soul that only came with age. Although it was always hard to guess the ages of elves, it had been a game he had readily played all his younger years with his elven brothers. He had gotten rather good at it. So he decided to play with this elf too.
"I’d say you were well over one thousand years old," his voice was soft and barely above a whisper but he knew his companion could hear him easily, "even though you look like you could be my age. Your eyes are grey but there is blue in them, you are not from Rivendell. I would guess Mirkwood by your clothing. You carry yourself like royalty. Although all elves have that haughty gait when they want to." The last statement was meant as a barb, a taunt that usually fell from the mouths of men and it struck its target well.
Legolas’ head shot up and his eyes were hard and fierce as he pinned Aragorn with a withering glance. But the glare only caused the man to laugh, much to Legolas’ surprise.
"Peace my friend. It was only in jest my lord." Aragorn’s response startled Legolas. Only elves spoke to each other like that, men never called an elf ‘lord’. And for the first time the elven prince realized that the ranger had been teasing him.
Aragorn saw the change in his companion and smiled. "So do you want me to keep guessing or will you tell me yourself who you are?" He waited for a heartbeat and then continued, "And why, my friend, you hate men so much?"
Legolas’ dropped his gaze back to the forest floor as memories haunted him and he warred within himself whether to trust this man.
"You don’t have to." Aragorn spoke softly, the words came out in common and he immediately switched to elvish, "I am sorry, I did not mean to press you. I am indebted to you. You saved me. I only wanted to know whom I owe my life to."
The elf swallowed hard, pretending to keep his hands busy with something as he tried to come to terms with the resurfacing emotions inside of him.
Aragorn let the silence hang, not wishing to press the other. He moved stiffly, trying to get more comfortable. The jarring to his leg sent a wave a pain through him and he drew his breath in sharply trying to deal with the sudden onslaught.
Legolas leapt to his feet and rounded the fire. He knelt next to the ranger and gently moved his leg to a more comfortable position making sure that the bandage was secure and the wound had not reopened. Aragorn let him have his way while he worked on dealing with the pain. When the elf was done he lay the cloak back down over the rangers leg. Aragorn reached out and touched prince’s hand. Legolas instinctively jerked away again, looking up into the questioning dark eyes that watched him.
"You said your name was Legolas?"
The elf watched him, almost not breathing.
"Legolas, Greenleaf? Are you Thranduil’s son?"
He nodded slightly.
"My father has told me of you. Now I understand a little better, I heard some about what happened to you in Dorolyn." The young ranger’s voice was quiet. Perhaps with more age and wisdom he would have found a little more tact in addressing the situation, but his intentions were good and his words earnest.
Legolas did not move. It was odd and uncomfortable for a moment, finding out that Aragorn knew something about what had happened to him. He did not like others knowing of his pain and his shame. How could this young human who, in the elf’s mind, had barely been weaned, possibly understand what he was talking about when he spoke of the evils of Dorolyn now gone for many centuries?
Aragorn watched as a shadow passed over the grey eyes that held his own. He could see the elf close in on himself. He had heard the stories of bravery about this son of Thranduil and had always wanted to meet him some day. For this to be that very person was exciting for him but he could tell that for the elf it must have caused him nothing but pain. The realization that they might never be friends because of man’s inhumanity to all that wasn’t man made him sick.
"Please. I meant no disrespect. You are greatly honored in the halls of Rivendell. It is my privilege to meet you, Prince of Mirkwood."
Legolas looked off into the woods behind them. He wasn’t sure what to say. He had thought the horrors of Dorolyn and his own fears were long laid to rest. For the most part he had not associated with men. Since his time in Dorolyn he stayed close to his father’s realm and honed his hunting and warring skills. His accuracy with a bow was now almost legendary. Aragorn was the first man he had encountered in a few centuries, and definitely the only one he’d had such close, prolonged contact with. It had not ever occurred to him that tales of his time in Dorolyn were ever spoken of outside his own kingdom – for rarely was it spoken of there.
Aragorn sighed. He had decided that Legolas’ silence was a rejection of himself as a man. He knew he should expect it from other men, especially those of Gondor and even from some of the elves themselves but he had hoped…
"I took no offense at your words, Aragorn son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur." The elf smiled sadly at the surprise on the rangers face. "Yes I have heard of you also. Your own legend precedes you."
Aragorn watched him questioningly, wondering how a strange elf came to know about him what he himself had only recently found out.
"You spoke in your dreams last night." Legolas explained his knowledge of the man’s origin, "Your wound became infected and you were feverish."
The ranger nodded in understanding, wondering what else he had said.
"I was however not aware that you had decided to follow in the footsteps of the Dunèdain." Legolas continued. Even if he had not known of Aragorn before hearing his delirious words last night, he had heard something about Estel, the young human that Lord Elrond had curiously decided to take under his wing some years ago.
"Well then I guess there is a lot that we both don’t know about the other." Aragorn laughed at the awkwardness the conversation had instilled. "Let me try this again." He smiled at the elf and cleared his throat. Then extending his hand he introduced himself, "Hello, my name is Aragorn, you may call me Estel. It’s nice to make your acquaintance. And thank you for saving my neck by the way."
Legolas took the offered hand in his own, laughing out loud at the introduction. "It is good to meet you Aragorn. I am indeed Legolas Greenleaf and it was my privilege to save your neck."
This only caused Aragorn to laugh even harder until he doubled over in pain from his bruised ribs. "Don’t make me laugh, it hurts." He ground out.
Legolas quieted down and let the ranger get his breath back before pressing him for more information. "What were you doing out here? Did you not know this is an area of war between the dwarves and the orcs?"
"Well, I was on my way to Mirkwood actually. And this seemed the quickest route."
"What? Is this your first time out on your own?" Legolas meant the barb as a jest but his mouth fell open in surprise when Aragorn took the taunt seriously and looked away.
When he finally found his tongue again, he blurted out, "It is!"
"So what of it?" Aragorn came back a little more defensively than he had meant to.
"I’m sorry, I meant no disrespect, but truly did not your father tell you to go south and around this area if you set out to visit us? This section of the wastelands has been in contention for some time, it is far from safe here."
Aragorn’s face reddened at being reminded of the lecture his father had given him before he left. When Legolas chuckled at the response, he shot him a withering glance.
"Then he did." Legolas nodded knowingly and continued lightly, "So very much like a man to think he can just go where ever he pleases." It was something that had come out of his mouth so many times he had never thought about it, and saying it to this ranger, who spoke elvish like a native born, it did not occur to him that it would be taken wrongly.
Aragorn switched to common and replied evenly, "And yet I am a man. Why is it that you hate us so much?"
Legolas was taken back. "I did not say I hated you."
"No. But it is obvious you hate men."
The silence grew uncomfortable.
"It is to our shame then that you do." Aragorn let the statement hang between them, deciding to drop the subject altogether. Legolas was lost in his own thoughts and did not answer right away.
So preoccupied was the elf that he did not hear the rustling behind him. Aragorn was aware of the intruder only seconds before Legolas was. He saw the fangs and the dark bulk leaping from the underbrush as if in slow motion. Lunging for the elf’s quiver he pulled one of the long silver bladed knives from its sheath and threw the blade at the airborne creature.
Legolas watched wide-eyed as the ranger grabbed for his knife and threw it towards him. He heard a snarling behind him and turned, instinctively throwing himself to the ground as he saw a dark shape hurling towards him.
The blade of his knife sunk deep into the wolf’s chest but the animals forward momentum was not stopped and the creature landed on top of the elf pining him beneath his bulk.
"Legolas!" Aragorn dragged himself to the elf’s side and helped push the animal off of his chest. He pulled his wounded leg in close and sat up, trying to help Legolas as he got his bearings back again.
He was, for the most part, unhurt, but two long gashes ran the length of his cheekbone where the wolf’s paw had grazed his face. Aragorn brushed his fingers lightly over the deep scratches, looking carefully to see if they needed to be cleansed. Legolas winced at his touch, breathing in sharply, but this time he did not pull away. Leaning over he pulled the knife from the still cooling body of the wolf.
His senses were on hyper alert and he easily leapt into a crouched position scanning the surrounding forest. The woodland sounds had cease around them and an eerie calm fell over the area. Bending back down he whispered softly in the ranger’s ear, "Wolves. They travel with orcs. They are near, we need to leave this place."
Aragorn nodded and quietly tried to move to a standing position. Legolas stepped behind him and helped him to stand. His thigh had started to bleed again and the depth of the wound would not allow him to put pressure on his leg. Soundlessly he collapsed trying to keep from crying out with the pain. Legolas caught him and lowered him slowly back down to the forest floor. His heart was racing; he could smell the orcs, they were near. There wasn’t much time left, the sky was almost fully lighted and they were probably on their way back to whatever hole in the ground they had crawled out of. Finding the elf and the ranger in their path would not sit well with a band of orcs. A wolf cry hung on the wind; it was nearby.
"Go." Aragorn whispered to his companion. "Get out of here, they can’t catch you. If I hide maybe they’ll miss me." He pushed Legolas’ hands away from him and tried to drag himself into the undergrowth but the elf would have nothing of it.
Wrapping his arms around the man’s waist he hauled the ranger to his feet. The elf’s strength surprised Aragorn as he was quickly righted. "We go together. What do you think Lord Elrond would do to me if he heard that I left his son to a band of orcs?" Legolas smiled wryly at the ranger, "Better they kill me with you than I return to him like that."
Aragorn chuckled at the judgment of his adopted father. He was about to respond when the forest around them erupted and a dozen orcs stepped from the trees encircling them and cutting off their hopes for an escape.
"Well I guess you get your wish then." Aragorn looked over his shoulder to Legolas and carefully eased himself back down to the ground. The elf slowly lowered the man in his arms and protectively shielded him. Crouching behind Aragorn, Legolas held the ranger against him and crossed his elven bladed knives over the man’s chest looking each orc in the eye as the enemy judged their latest prey.
Beyond the perimeter of the orcs surrounding the elf and the ranger, ran a circle of wolves, darting in between their master’s legs to get a look at what their next meal might be. As the orcs spoke to one another in their guttural speech, deciding what to do next, Aragorn’s fear mounted. He had heard stories, horror stories of what orcs did to the men and elves that they caught. His near escape the other night was as close as he had ever wanted to be to them and yet now he found himself surrounded by them. Wait till his father heard, he was going to be in trouble even if they did get out of this.
An orc to their left advanced, his scimitar held high. Legolas swiveled, turning towards the orc and readied himself to kill the creature. His whole body tensed and he gripped the knife in his left hand tightly balancing the perfect blade for a quick throw.
Before Legolas could attack, the air whistled around their heads and the elf forced Aragorn to the ground covering the ranger with his own body, his hands protectively holding the mans head down as arrows fell around them like deadly rain. "Elves", he whispered the one word into Aragorn’s ear as he laid his cheek against the ranger’s head. The sounds of battle ensued for mere minutes as orcs and wolves screamed in surprise felled to the ground dead from the wave of elven arrows that cut the air around them.
Silence fell in the small camp. Legolas shifted slightly, slowly raising his head. He gently held the ranger down beneath him as he looked up into the points of a dozen broad arrowheads aimed at he and Aragorn.
"Peace." He slowly straightened up as the elves around him eased off, recognizing the prince. "It is I Legolas." He addressed the warriors in their own tongue.
Aragorn hadn’t moved. He wasn’t sure he could anyway. His leg hurt too much and he was still dealing with the shock of the whole incident. He listened curiously to the conversation that ensued between the elves and Legolas and was glad for once that no one had noticed him.
"Who is that with you lord?" One of the elves finally noticed the man that the elf still held. The fact that the elven Prince was in the company of a man surprised the warriors.
Aragorn looked up cautiously at Legolas. The grey eyes were smiling at him with a slight twinkle in them.
"Just a man. A clumsy Dunedain who lost his way." He glanced down at the ranger, "His name is… Strider," he paused for a heartbeat, "because of his haughty gait." The inside joke was lost on the elves.
Aragorn chuckled at the taunt, causing Legolas to smile. It was all the prompting the ranger needed to send him into a fit of laughter. He pushed the elf off of him with a cuff of his hand, "Who was clumsy? I seem to remember being the first one who heard the wolf. Pretty sorry for an elf lord if you ask me."
Legolas tried hard to keep a straight face as he attempted to retain his dignity. With a very serious expression only belied by the laughter in his eyes he calmly replied, "I’m telling your father."
This only sent the young ranger into another fit of laughter. He doubled over, trying to keep his ribs from hurting and catch his breath. The band of elves that had just saved them looked from one to another in confusion, which only heightened Aragorn’s humor at the whole situation.
"Man humor." Legolas shrugged as he looked at the others, trying not to laugh at his new friend. He bent over the ranger and pretended to look to his wound, "We are going to have a lot of explaining to do."
"I’m just glad we’ll have the chance to do so." Aragorn sobered quickly and grabbed Legolas wrist. The elf prince locked eyes with the ranger, "Thank you, my friend."
Legolas nodded and simply smiled. "Thank *you*". He emphasized his response, "It is good to know all men are not as I have known them to be."
The sounds of horse’s hoofs on the forest floor caught their attention. In moments one of the steeds had been saddled with a makeshift stretcher.
With help from the hunting party, Legolas eased Aragorn onto the stretcher and the elves started their way back to Mirkwood. The elf prince walked alongside the bier that carried the ranger, keeping him company on their journey home.
"Strider?" Aragorn queried after a few moments
"Well, I could have come up with something else you know. Something worse." Legolas replied lightly.
"Oh, such as?"
"Striver, one who strives but never attains. Wanderer, one who never finds his destination. Or perhaps one of the richer elven words for arrogant, lost or boastful. You do know them, right?" He teased the wounded man.
"All right, very well. You can have your fun. Strider it is. Thank you for not telling them who I really am. Having you know and be able to hold it over my head is bad enough." He reached his hand out and found it quickly enveloped in the smaller hand of the elf.
"Worry not. Your secret is safe with me." Legolas laughed lightly, "Strider!"
And so it came to be that though named as such in jest, the young Ranger would eventually take up the alias of Strider throughout his older years, in fond memory of his friend and their many adventures together.