-Between Darkness and Dawn-
Aragorn bolted wide awake, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his hunting knife. His breath came in short, quick gasps. He was covered in perspiration and entangled in the blanket wrapped about him.
A cool hand gently grasped his fingers, which still clung tightly to the handle of his blade.
“Easy, Strider.” The words were elvish and cut through the last vestiges of foggy dreams that entwined him. “We are safe. The fighting is long over.”
There had been orcs and people everywhere... and the bear...
The human relinquished his grasp on the weapon and turned quickly to his left. The animal was watching them closely. Its large, dark eyes reflected the scant moonlight. It whuffled softly, acknowledging the ranger's glance. Its breath ghosted lightly on the cool night air. With a small smile, Aragorn nodded at the animal and allowed Legolas to press him back down against the long grasses that formed his bed tonight.
“Dreaming of it, were you?” Legolas’ voice was amused.
Aragorn rolled over and gazed up at the elf who had propped himself up on one elbow. Legolas smiled slightly as he glanced over the human's shoulder, watching the bear that lay behind them both.
It had only been a few hours since the chaos had ended and the plains had returned to their normally peaceful state. The events of the last few days coiled through Aragorn's thoughts, disturbing his waking moments and invading his sleep. His head ached - a reminder of the battle not long behind them.
Legolas’ soft fingers touched the human’s temple, and then drifted down to rest upon Aragorn’s hand again. The fingers of the ranger’s right hand were bruised and warm to the touch. “Does it still hurt?”
“Only when I’m conscious,” Aragorn replied dryly. “That’s what I get for being trodden upon by a hoard of orcs and a clumsy elf.” It was a joke and Legolas accepted it as such.
“Clumsy? I wasn’t the one on the ground,” the prince pointed out.
Aragorn smiled, but his eyes were beginning to glaze with weariness. This was not how their little trip was supposed to have worked out, but at least everyone was all right.
“Sleep, you'll need the rest.” Legolas' words cut through his thoughts; the very same words the elf had spoken to him weeks ago.
With a soft chuckle Aragorn closed his eyes. “I’ve heard that before.”
“And I was right, was I not?” Legolas teased gently. “Nothing will happen tonight. We are safe I think.” He placed Aragorn's hunting knife next to the ranger's head. Almost without thought, the ranger turned over onto his side and pulled the blade closer to his body, within easy reach. It was a habit he had never broken. By now he had finally accepted the realization that he never would.
He let the memories flood back through his mind, trying to accept them and own them, just like his adopted father Lord Elrond had taught him so many years ago.
//”When a memory is owned, the fear it holds you is broken and it no longer enslaves you...”//
Aragorn had thought them wise words then; he had had chance to practice them many times since.
He did so now.
As he drifted off to sleep, Legolas' voice echoed dimly in his mind, words of the past reflecting within...
“Sleep, you'll need the rest,” the elf prince insisted.
“Who knew one old man and his apprentice would have so much energy in them,” Aragorn growled grumpily. It had been two days since they parted from the main company of wood-elves. The pace they had kept since was even brisker than usual.
Beoma and the young man he had taken as his apprentice were both as spry as any elf Aragorn had ever known.
The baker was pushing the upper borders of middle age. His dark black hair and beard were almost completely frosted with grey, but the vitality in his large, powerful limbs had not waned. His apprentice, Pejor, was still a youth. He was not yet old enough to grow a proper beard, and only the scraggly beginnings of one clung to the side of face. The boy was slender and wiry, but very energetic. Until recently, he had talked to the ranger almost constantly.
The plan was for the elf and ranger to escort the two Beornings back to their homes. Under normal circumstances this would have caused the ranger no fatigue. Unfortunately, Aragorn had not counted on losing so much sleep between the elder baker’s snoring and Legolas’... family trouble. Aragorn glanced sidelong at his friend, but the elf was smiling now and teasing him, no hint of shadow in his playful gaze. Aragorn was glad.
“Master, master you’re snoring again,” Pejor’s soft voice drifted to them from across the darkened camp. Beoma grunted softly and a rustling sound suggested that he had rolled over. A few moments later the sonorous drone began again.
Aragorn had to chuckle and Legolas returned his grin. Those two... they were quite a handful in their own, unique way.
“Master Beoma...” Pejor’s voice almost bordered on whining.
Legolas started to rise, but Aragorn caught his friend’s wrist, bidding him stay. “No, let them be. For once, the kid has a point...”
Legolas shook his head and raised his eyebrow but settled down beside the ranger again.
Sometimes eager to the point of aggravation, Pejor was Beoma’s ‘latest project’ as the elder master baker had affectionately introduced him when he brought him to Rivendell several months ago. He said he needed someone to keep him young since Elladan and Elrohir weren’t able to visit as much as they used to anymore. Aragorn wasn’t sure if Pejor kept the older Beorning young or just kept him laughing, although perhaps they were one and the same.
Beoma and Pejor had been away from home some time now as they watched over their healing friends in Rivendell and they seemed anxious to get home. Only after some persuasion from Legolas, had the two finally agreed to halt for the night. The elf's argument - that dealing with Aragorn after a lack of sleep would drive any being to insanity - had won them over.
Rolling over, the ranger smacked the elf lightly as he remembered what Legolas had said. “And thanks for the vote of confidence back there, using me as your excuse to set up camp for the evening.”
“What excuse?” Legolas laughed, pushing the human back. “It’s true, you are insufferable. Now don’t make me say it again, go_to_sleep.” He over-enunciated the words as though dealing with a stubborn child.
With a snort of derision, Aragorn grabbed the edges of his blanket. He wrapped it more firmly around his frame as he rolled over, demonstratively putting his back to his friend.
“Fussy elf.” He muttered darkly, the easy taunt earning a light laugh from his companion.
Legolas smiled. Pulling his cloak around himself, he lay down near his friend, gazing up at the stars. Legolas had a blanket and bedroll with their supplies but he obviously did not care to use it tonight. The last time he had neglected his bedding, no less than five of his father’s servants had hurried to bring him more blankets than any being could possibly use. Despite Legolas’ protests, they had not gone away until Thranduil was satisfied that his son was comfortable.
Aragorn rolled onto his back again, casting a sidelong look at his friend. “If you think *I’m* going to pop up and get you your blanket...” he murmured in a somewhat sleepy, but wry tone.
“You do and I will probably kill you,” Legolas cut him off quickly.
Aragorn’s grin widened in the dark. It was as he suspected. “Enjoying your freedom?” he taunted lightly, closing his eyes as the soft night sounds enveloped them.
Legolas had loved being with his father in Rivendell, but the more Aragorn watched them together, the more he understood why Legolas liked to spend so much time by himself. The creator seemed to have placed two very strong willed spirits together in Legolas and Thranduil. They had the unique problem of being different enough to have their own conflicting points of view, and yet alike enough to lock horns over them. In Rivendell, all had been well, but once they were on their way home again...
“Yes. There is something very pleasant about being able to govern one’s own actions. Strange how that is, is it not?” the elf’s reply was obviously meant in jest, keeping in the light spirit of their conversation, but there was a slight tension under the words that the ranger did not miss.
Aragorn sighed. He hadn’t wanted to have this conversation now, when he felt ready to nod off at any moment, but he had to say something.
“He cares for you very much you know, no matter how he acts sometimes,” the human said quietly. There was no need to specify whom he was talking about. Aragorn knew how he would feel if his father had refused to say goodbye to him after everything they had just been through in the past few months. He was a bit surprised how easily Legolas seemed to be dealing with the entire situation. It seemed to be something to which the prince was unfortunately accustomed.
Legolas was still for a moment. “I know. He would trade his life for mine, but he doesn’t trust me to figure out how many pillows I can actually use.” He rolled onto his side so he could watch his friend. He could see the concern in the ranger’s tired eyes and smiled gently. “Don’t, mellon-nín, don’t try to figure us out. You will only give yourself a headache.”
“Which I already have, thank you very much,” Aragorn rubbed his temples. “Just because I *can* go night and day without rest doesn’t mean I enjoy it...”
Legolas exhaled with a half-chuckle. “I’m sorry about that. Beoma and Pejor are surprising for mortals, but then again, so are you. You should have said something earlier and I would have stopped everyone sooner.”
Aragorn shrugged. “You had things on your mind.”
Legolas was silent for a long moment, remembering how he and Thranduil had parted two days ago. It was not the kind of thing he would have wanted or expected after how peaceful their relationship had been in Rivendell. Legolas was actually a little surprised it had all turned out so badly.
Aragorn was not. He had seen the clouds gathering from the moment the Mirkwood contingent left Imladris. Thranduil was ready to go home. Legolas was not. The prince could not explain it rationally, because he *did* want to go home... but he did not want to leave Rivendell, not yet. Thranduil made the decisions however and when he said they were leaving, they were leaving. Legolas understood and accepted the decree.
Aragorn had softened the departure by accompanying Legolas on the journey for at least part of the way. The ranger was escorting Beoma and Pejor home now that Celboril was sufficiently recovered to resume the duties that he loved so well. Since the two Beornings’ village near the Carrock was roughly along the same path that would take the wood-elves home, they agreed to journey together, until such time as they would have to part ways after crossing the Anduin.
The trip over the Misty Mountains had been smooth enough, but traversing the paths that had led them all into so much trouble and pain months before, had not seemed to have a good effect on Thranduil and Legolas. Thranduil became increasingly protective of his son, undoubtedly still remembering how close he had come to losing him. Legolas appreciated the concern, but was now fully recovered. He found the pampering both smothering and occasionally humiliating. The prince said nothing and let his father have his way, but Aragorn could tell what Legolas thought whether he voiced it or not.
Thranduil was not an idiot: he could sense that his son was pulling away from him, but he did not understand why. The harder Thranduil tried to hold on and fix the perceived distance between them in his own way, the more Legolas tried to pull back from the constant pressure to get a little space of his own. Raniean and Trelan spent many evenings silently slapping their foreheads as they saw the pattern they both recognized far too well settling back into place between their King and Prince. Legolas and Thranduil had both grown much and their relationship benefited from that growth, but some things it seemed, would never change.
When Legolas quietly announced his intention to accompany Strider to the Beorning village rather than returning home immediately with the rest of the company, it sparked an unexpected firestorm.
Thranduil forbid the parting, barely even letting Legolas finish.
//”But father...” Legolas was surprised at the abrupt command.
“*No*, Legolas. It’s not safe and you’re not well yet. Besides, haven’t you been away enough? It’s time to go home. Strider is more than capable of seeing Beoma and Pejor back by himself.” Thranduil’s tone was final. He did not intend to discuss this situation further.
Legolas took several deep breaths and folded his arms as Thranduil turned away decisively. He had let Thranduil have his way on every single issue that came up thus far. Besides, he had already told Aragorn yes, so it was not his father’s decision to make. “I’m going,” he said quietly.
Thranduil turned back quickly. “What?”
“I’m going.” Legolas repeated quietly, almost respectfully. “I am not ill anymore father and I can take care of myself. I promise I will not be long.”
“Legolas...” Aragorn was shaking his head, for he didn’t want Legolas to clash with his father over this. He had invited the elf to come with him, but he hadn’t meant to cause an argument.
“No, Estel, I said I was going with you and I am. Nothing will happen father, you have my word.”
“Nothing?” Thranduil’s voice turned incredulous. “The same nothing that always happens to you when you leave me? Legolas be reasonable. The last time you went off on your own you ended up in – in Mordor! Have you no notion of how many times you’ve almost died since then? How many Legolas?”
The younger elf flinched slightly. How many? More than his father knew. “The Carrock is barely four days journey from here and Beoma’s village only a little farther. In all likelihood I will catch up with you before you even make it back to Lasgalen.” Legolas tried to keep a reasonable, persuasive tone and not give voice to his rankled temper.
Thranduil was not impressed. The Elvenking did not like being crossed and his quick-burn temper was winding along with his concern. “Not this time, Legolas. I have heard that before. And now you want me to trust you to...”
“To what? Make my own decisions?” Legolas shook his head. Pain flashed behind his eyes and a hard determination came over his features. This was exactly why he did not usually tell his father more than the King needed to know about where he had been and what had happened while he was there.
“Do you think I rush into danger because it excites me, or because I don’t know any better? Do you honestly think...” the prince’s voice dropped. “...That I have chosen anything that has happened to me these past few seasons?”
“I just want you safe. You used to be more careful than this Legolas. Don’t be a fool.”
Aragorn shifted uncomfortably. He wanted to speak up, but didn’t know what he could say that would help. It wasn’t his place to interfere between Legolas and his father, but his heart ached for his friend. Thranduil may have meant well, but he was stabbing at wounds he knew nothing about. The Elvenking was placing blame upon horrific situations that he had not witnessed and hence could not understand. Aragorn had witnessed them and he did understand. He could see Legolas stinging from the verbal blows and coiling into a position to retaliate. This was not going to go well.
“I cannot live my life in a self-made cage, either to keep the world out or to myself in... that’s not safety, it’s cowardice.” Legolas’ voice was barely above a whisper. “I did that once father, you know I did, and it almost turned my heart as cold as the stone walls I was hiding behind. Do you want me to go back to that?”
“At least then I knew where you were half the time. I could *do* something when there was a problem, not just sit there for years having nightmares about you and being absolutely helpless. All you have gained over the years is recklessness. How often have I almost lost you? Too often. And now you want to go running off again, without even coming home first? What have I done Legolas? Why are you punishing me? Is my company that repugnant to you?” there was hurt behind the accusing and angry tones creeping into Thranduil’s voice.
“Of course not, Father!” Legolas protested quickly, deeply hurt by that accusation. “That isn’t true...”
“Then you will come home,” Thranduil’s voice was quiet now.
Valar, Legolas could never fight his father’s logic. “Because you want me to?” Legolas’ question was guarded, but earnest. If it was really that important to his father that he came home now, he knew Aragorn would understand...
Thranduil perceived the question as a challenge to his authority and his tone frosted over. “Because I *tell* you to.”
It was the wrong thing to say. The worst thing he could have said.
Raniean, standing nearby but keeping respectfully out of the quarrel, resisted the urge to groan. He knew exactly how his friend would react, and he was right.
Legolas’ lips tightened. The prince turned away and started separating his gear from the royal pack horses.
Thranduil stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Legolas, what are you doing?”
“Preparing to leave with Strider,” Legolas answered evenly.
Thranduil’s hand tightened on Legolas’ arm, forcefully spinning the younger elf back around to face the older elf. “Legolas, have you heard nothing of what I am saying to you?”
Legolas faced his father calmly. “Yes, my lord, I’m listening. I have done nothing *but* listen since we left Rivendell. I mean you no disrespect, but I wish you would honor my decisions as I honor yours.”
“I do when your decisions are not foolhardy or ill advised.”
Legolas tried and failed to keep the small flash of anger from his eyes. “And who decides they are foolhardy and ill advised father? Are you truly the final judge on such matters?”
Thranduil’s jaw tightened. “Legolas...”
Legolas grabbed his pack and turned away, tugging his arm out of his father’s hands. “I promise I will return home to you by the time the new moon is full.”//
Aragorn shifted on his blanket and sighed at the memory as he tried to tune out Beoma’s disturbing snoring. In the end Thranduil accepted Legolas’ course of action only because he would have had to put him under arrest to make him stay. He had insisted that Legolas at least take Raniean, Trelan and some of the other guards with him, but Legolas refused. If the suggestion had been made before the issue became a battle of wills, Legolas would have gladly taken his friends along, but not now, not because his father ordered him to do so.
//”Legolas if they want to come, they are welcome,” Aragorn had tried to bring any measure of peace possible to the situation. “I always enjoy their company...”
“No,” Legolas was riled and hurt. He had too much of his father in him to give in an inch now. “You and I are perfectly capable on our own. I do not need nor desire an escort of wet nurses.” His tone was more biting than he intended.
Aragorn flinched slightly and glanced over Legolas’ shoulder. Legolas turned, following his friend’s gaze to find that Raniean was standing right behind him. It showed how upset Legolas was that he had not even noticed his friend’s approach.
Legolas froze slightly. He really hadn’t wanted Raniean to hear that last statement.
“Legolas,” Raniean shook his head, speaking quietly, just for his friend’s ears. “Trelan and I want to go with you. You’re our friend. Don’t reject us just because the King would have us act like nursemaids.”
Trelan stood behind Raniean quietly. He had obviously also heard Legolas’ outburst.
Legolas sighed and took Raniean by the shoulders, wishing to take back his hard words and remove the hurt behind his old friend’s eyes. He was upset and lashed out at the first person handy. It was a trait he knew he possessed, but hated. It was too similar to what he did not like about his father.
“Ran, Trey, I’m sorry, I did not intend that the way it sounded. You know I value your company. But... I need to do this on my own.” Legolas’ eyes pleaded for understanding.
“Because, if we go with you and you come back all right, it proves nothing to your father,” Trelan said quietly. He smiled dryly.
Raniean saw in Legolas’ eyes that Trelan had accurately assessed the situation and his consternation flared.
“Legolas, don’t be as pig-headed as he is. I don’t need two of him!” The taller elf tried to make a joke out of his frustration, although nothing about it was very funny.
“Please, Ran, I need you at least to trust me. I will be all right, I promise. Look after father. I will be home soon; perhaps I will even bring Strider with me if he is able.” Legolas smiled for them, trying to lift the dark cloud that had settled over the camp.
“You know I trust you, Legolas,” Raniean said quietly.
“You’re a stubborn elf, Legolas,” Trelan shook his head. “But you better be back in time to start practicing for the spring games. Raniean and I don’t have a trio for the competitions when you’re gone.”
The three childhood friends tried to smile.
“All right, I promise,” Legolas squeezed his friends’ arms.
Aragorn eased away while the three elves were talking. He felt bad about the way this situation had degenerated. He felt responsible for this latest rift between Thranduil and Legolas. Certainly there had been some tension on the journey, but he hadn’t expected to see it blow up quite this badly. He couldn’t understand. So much had seemed to have healed between Legolas and his father these past months, and now...
Thranduil was stalking about, overseeing the preparations to break camp. Harried servants hurried about trying to please their currently ill-tempered Lord.
“Your highness?” Aragorn tried to get the King’s attention.
The Elvenking had his back to the human and did not turn for a moment. When he did his face was cool and diplomatically set. “Yes?”
“Your highness...” there was so much Aragorn wanted to say, but so much he knew Thranduil wouldn’t hear. “I won’t let anything happen to Legolas. I would die to protect him, you know that.”
Thranduil nodded once, but did not speak. The King did know. Aragorn had proved his loyalty on more than one occasion. He did not blame the human for his son’s recklessness anymore, but he did not wish to discuss it with him either.
The ranger hesitated, not sure where to go from their quiet impasse.
“When I was young, I broke my brothers’ favorite hunting bows. I was upset because I could not go out with them. I meant to hide the bow, but ended up ruining it instead. It was an accident, but they were quite angry. They left on their trip. While they were in the mountains there was an accident. Elrohir broke his leg and they were trapped in a snare-pit they could not escape. Father sensed something was wrong and Moranuen found them, but it was almost too late. Until he brought them back I thought I had lost them, like I lost my parents, and there was no way I could take back what had happened between us.”
Thranduil looked away. “I’m sorry to hear it, but I assume there is a larger point you are trying to achieve here?”
Aragorn nodded. “We cannot always control what happens to our loved ones. Sometimes they are hurt. Sometimes they die. But if we part angry, and something *does* happen... it hurts that much more.”
Thranduil met Aragorn’s gaze firmly. “I held my son in my arms and believed he was dying. I sat there and heard the best healers in Arda say there was nothing they could do to save him. All I could do was hold his bleeding body. That is all I have EVER been able to do for him. I thought he was dead, Estel. I poured my heart out to him. Now he will not even return home with me. Nothing can hurt more. Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe we have our separate ways to go.”
Thranduil left Aragorn standing there, looking at the king’s retreat and wishing there was something else he could say.
“It’s not your fault you know,” Trelan’s hand on Aragorn’s back almost made the ranger jump. “Take it from someone who has known them longer than you. They’ll get over this eventually. It’s... it’s a kind of pattern with them. Believe me, things have improved. There was a time when Legolas would be on his way back to Mirkwood in irons right now.” The smaller elf was trying to be light, but Aragorn could tell he was only partly joking.
Aragorn shook his head and let his breath out slowly. He realized that Legolas was at his elbow.
“Come Estel, I have spoken to Beoma, he and Pejor are ready. Let us go.” Legolas gave no indication of whether or not he had heard what his father said about him.
“Legolas,” Aragorn hesitated. “Maybe you should stay. It’s not worth all this... I don’t even know what’s being fought about anymore.”
Legolas hesitated briefly, but then resolutely shook his head. “Nothing we have not disagreed on my whole life. I am not a child anymore. Someday father will have to understand that. If he could only trust a little less in the infallibility of his own wisdom...” the prince’s words trailed off. He hadn’t meant to go that far. “Forgive me. Únauth, mellon-nín. Forget it. Come.”
Thranduil ignored them when they left. He did not acknowledge Legolas’ farewell, although the younger elf tried twice.
Legolas did not seem to expect him to respond, and did not react to the rejection. But Aragorn knew his friend well enough to see that Thranduil’s actions hurt Legolas whether the prince cared to show it or not.
The morning sky spread out bright overhead as Beoma and Pejor quietly followed their escorts away from the main elf host. They could tell there had been trouble and kept to themselves for the moment, giving the two friends space.
“I’m sorry Legolas,” Aragorn said quietly when they crested a ridge and looked back to see the party of elves winding their way away towards the dark, distant shadow of the forest on the far horizon.
“I had hoped...” the ranger trailed off. What was he going to say? ‘I had hoped you both were past this?’ That did not sound at all like what he meant.
Legolas sighed. “Strider, father and I did a lot of talking in Rivendell. Real talking, not just him talking and I listening. I feel I understand him now as well as I ever will... not that this knowledge always helps.” He chuckled ruefully. “But nothing changes overnight. Trees that have grown for centuries take time to bend a new direction, even if the sun and winds that shape them shift. If I had a horse for every time my father and I have parted badly, Mirkwood’s stables would rival those of the Rohirrim. I have finally learned that it will pass, we will come to peace again and father will eventually forget he was ever angry. That is more than I could say ever before. And right now, I intend to enjoy my freedom while it lasts.”
Aragorn shook his head, unable to repress a small snort. “I may never understand your family, mellon-nín, but so long as we are not being exiled or chased by insane relatives, I suppose I can live with a few quirks.”
“Good, especially since you have no right to talk. I do not have two brothers who put water pitchers above other people’s doors...”
Aragorn groaned. “Legolas, for the hundredth time, they intended it for me...”
“Mmm,” Legolas nodded. “All very well, except that they got my father and me.”
“I would have liked to see that,” Pejor commented, now that the conversation seemed to be taking a lighter and less private turn.
“No, you wouldn’t,” Aragorn and Legolas said at the same time.
Beoma laughed. It was a distinctive, full-bellied whuffling sound that made you want to join him.//
Now, looking up at the night sky littered with stars, Aragorn chuckled again. He was glad Legolas was here with him, even if that was a selfish thought. They had been together daily for over three years now, it would be an adjustment when they finally had to say goodbye. Aragorn knew he had things he had to do, as did Legolas. Even so, any small amount of extra time they could delay the inevitable parting was welcome... even if Legolas, Beoma and Pejor had seemed content to walk almost all night last night and half of this one.
“What?” Legolas asked, having heard his friend laugh.
“Beoma and Pejor, I swear they like walking in starlight almost as much as you do.”
Legolas smiled in the dark and shook his head. He had to agree. The Beornings were unusual people, but then, he already knew that. “I thought you were going to sleep.”
“I am, I am,” Aragorn rolled his eyes. “Gladly.”