-Never Cold in your Shadow-
It was cool this time of day. Winter neared and the air held the faintest chill. Aragorn’s boot-heels tapped the cliff face in a soft, steady rhythm. The elf lying in the grass next to him seemed not to notice or mind.
This was Aragorn’s favorite place in all of Mirkwood. The small shale and quartz mountain rose meters above the tree line; at its highest point a flat, grass-topped knoll fell gently back into the forest behind them at a gradual slope. Here, one could nearly view the breadth and width of the great forest and remember why it had been called Greenwood the Great before it became Mirkwood. Situated at the northern-most point of the forests, it was here that Aragorn often retreated to when he needed a break from the busy life of the MirkwoodPalace.
It was a place he had discovered years ago on his first visit to Mirkwood. Back then, he had come here to escape the casual disapproval or mockery of Legolas’ friends. The years that stretched between those long-gone days and the present had changed many things. Aragorn was no longer an unwelcome guest in Mirkwood and most of the elves had accepted him readily. The palace, however, had not changed and was still as busy as ever. The constant activity was very different from the quiet peace of Rivendell and occasionally Aragorn still found the urge for some time to himself.
Legolas seemed generally unaffected by the active ebb and flow of his father’s court. He functioned as one used to its intricacies and quirks. Even so, Aragorn did not envy his friend the position that he held in Mirkwood as the King’s son. It was obvious that the Prince preferred the rigors of the sparring fields to the diplomacies of the council chambers, although he tried to navigate both. Ever and anon the elf too would escape the palace walls and seek out one of his favorite refuges.
Today the two friends had met here on the knoll by accident, both surprised to discover each other’s private retreat was also their own. Yet it was a happy chance that brought them together and Aragorn was not sorry to have had his solitude interrupted. After everything they had shared over the years, they did not need to fill the space between them with words and a comfortable silence hung over them for a long time.
Rolling over on his side after a while, Legolas glanced at the man. Aragorn’s eyes were closed. His head was tipped slightly back as the winds brushed the hair away from his face. A smile barely touched the edges of his lips as the ranger enjoyed the warmth of the afternoon sun.
A small grunt from the man served as answer.
“You let me win that sparring match this morning, didn’t you?” the elf pressed softly. “You could have had me twice. Did you think I wouldn’t realize what you were doing?”
The ranger fought the smile that threatened to break across his face. He failed miserably. Casting a sidelong glance at the elf watching him he gave up and let the smile form in full.
“Your woods have eyes and ears my friend,” he answered softly. When the elf didn’t respond right away, the human resumed his vigil, his boot-heels tapping out a rhythm only he could understand.
Their match had been in supposed privacy, but Legolas had known that some of the warriors from his contingent followed them nonetheless. Discreetly, the other elves had hidden in the branches of the surrounding trees and watched as their captain and prince practiced fighting techniques with his human friend. Legolas hadn’t thought that Aragorn had known.
“Why do you do that?” Legolas sat up and watched the human closely. He wasn’t curious only about the match today; the question went much deeper. For a long time he had noticed that Aragorn tended to hold back, to fade quietly to the outer edges. The ranger often withheld his true strength and abilities, allowing others to take the honors and the applause. The elf wasn’t sure if it was a habit the human had picked up from living with elves so many years his senior or simply a trait the ranger didn’t even know he exhibited. From time to time his friend’s hesitancy to claim the accolades that were his rightful due bothered the elf.
Now, secluded from anyone else, Legolas had the perfect opportunity to discuss the topic with the ranger.
Aragorn glanced sidelong at his friend once more. The steady rhythmic tapping stopped and he simply stared at the elf, trying to decide exactly how to answer. Stalling for time he countered with a question of his own.
“Why do I do what?”
“Why do you do things like allowing me to win when you know others are watching? Why do you deny your strength and abilities unless we are alone or with your family? Why does it take something drastic for the world to see who the real Aragorn truly is?” Legolas continued his questioning. “It’s not the only time I have witnessed your reticence in such matters. I have watched you with the rangers. You are their leader Aragorn, but you constantly allow the other men acclaim for things that are your due. I have seen you fade quietly to the background thinking no one is noticing when you should be in the middle of the festivities. You may *think* you’re invisible, mellon-nín, but I notice.”
When the elf sat up and moved next to the human, Aragorn glanced back over the woods below them. The winds caught his hair, blowing it out of his eyes and Legolas could see for the briefest instant the world-weariness that they carried.
“You are more than you let on. You should let others get to know you as you have let me,” Legolas whispered quietly.
Gently shaking his head, the ranger fixed his silver eyes on the elf. “No one knows me like you do other than my family,” Aragorn responded equally softly. “And I like it that way. You are royalty, Legolas, and everyone knows it. You bear it proudly and so you should. You *can*. I cannot. My lineage is hidden and to the knowledge of the world it is all but erased. No one can know who I really am...” Aragorn’s voice trailed off as he continued. He thought through his next words carefully and the elf let him have the time. “Not yet.”
“Legolas, I knew your troops were watching. It was not as important for me to win, as it was for them to see you win.” The truth was that Aragorn would not have humiliated Legolas in front of his warriors by making him lose to a human, but he would never say such a thing. Doubtlessly, Legolas could ascertain all of that on his own, but their friendship was such that he knew the prince would not take offense at his actions.
Legolas smiled faintly. “I would that you did not lessen yourself to save my pride, mellon-nín. You know that is not necessary. I am not as fragile as all that. Too often I feel you choose to stand in my shadow. I would see you take your rightful place and not allow yourself to be thought a lesser person.”
“I know you’re not, that wasn’t what I meant... Legolas, those that care about me know the truth,” the ranger replied. “The rest will just have to wait. I am content to be where I am. It is not cold here in your shadow my friend, I rather enjoy it. When I work with the Dúnedain, I am constantly thrust into a position of authority, and it is a position I do not want just yet. I set down the title of Captain when I left Gondor. The rangers are my kin. They look to me to lead them and I do, but I prefer to work on the fringes. I have seen what it does to the hearts of men when they seek acclaim. It corrupts and twists an honest desire to do good. I would not offer myself to that temptation. I enjoy the prospect of going unseen and protecting the innocent when the victim does not even know he is in need. It is the purpose of the rangers and it is *my* purpose. I realize to some it may appear weakness but I think not. It may be my heritage to be King someday as Lord Elrond tells me, but today is not that day. Today and tomorrow and next week, I will just be Estel, adopted son of Lord Elrond, brother to Elladan and Elrohir, friend of the Prince of Mirkwood and leader of the Dúnedain.”
Aragorn spoke true, but part of him had always wondered if he had not developed his reticence to be in the forefront as a protection for his heart as well. Perhaps it was a defense from the fears that haunted the edges of his thoughts when he delved into his past, or even as a first response to deflect those who might be overtly curious about the orphaned son whose father was an elven lord. He wasn’t sure he would ever know, since the heart had ways of its own and they were often inscrutable. But he did know one thing – he was comfortable with himself and he hoped his friend was as well.
Legolas nodded slowly. He could understand what his friend meant, although he still felt the human thought too little of himself. He gave his head a fond shake. “I would have you no other way. Yet whether you like it or not, you are more than that. As I believe I *almost* heard you admit, we are both of us royalty, my friend.”
Aragorn chuckled. “True, but you have grown up with the weight of a kingdom on your shoulders. You know the people you may be lord over someday. They would willingly and gladly accept you. If or when my time comes, I must unite a broken and ravaged people and pull them together as one. Should that time come, I trust I will be strong enough to do so, Ilúvatar willing, although I do not see it coming lightly or easily. But I am not unhappy to just be me for now or forever if that is my lot. *That* is why I do not have to beat you in sparring even though I know I could. The fact that I know I can, and that you know I can is enough.” Aragorn stopped speaking and shifted slightly facing his friend more fully.
“I think you have learned too well how to fade into your surroundings. The ranger in you takes over more often than you think,” Legolas answered with a rueful grin.
Aragorn gave the elf a gentle shove. “As does your lack of self preservation and diplomacy,” he taunted. “Did you really tell Lord Amelgaen that he could put his...”
“Do not! Do NOT repeat that story again!” Legolas shoved the human back playfully, silencing him. “It was not my fault. He completely misunderstood what I said and did not allow me to explain.”
With a chuckle and a sigh the human gazed back out over Mirkwood, letting his eyes rest languidly on the beauty of the green expanse. “We are who we are, my friend. Life shapes us and sometimes we do not fit the mold that those around us think we should, or wish we would have. It doesn’t bother me what others think of me, Legolas. I may appear to be less than those I have grown up with but I know in my heart we are equals. Is that not enough?”
Legolas’ upbringing had been so radically and drastically different than the human’s who sat next to him, that it took the elf a moment to answer. He had always known they were different from the moment he had met the young man, but today the differences stood out even more starkly. Legolas *was* royalty and no one doubted it or questioned his right. Aragorn was as well, but his fate was hidden and veiled, and he had learned to a certain extent to live his life that way, protecting his strengths and using his weaknesses to cloak his true identity. There were some things that the ranger had that Legolas envied: brothers, a father who openly displayed affection, a lifestyle where he could come and go at will, unhampered by servants or warrior contingents, and the ability to blend so perfectly into his surroundings that even his very presence was sometimes unnoticeable. Yet there were also portions of the man’s life that he was glad did not mark him: mortality, a darkened heritage, secrets that weighed deeply on his soul, and ultimately the survival or downfall of the entire human race.
Legolas realized that Aragorn was speaking again and he quickly focused on the man once more, listening intently while the ranger explained himself further.
“Let me be who I really am when I am with you. It has always been a relief to me that we are equals and neither of us must strive to be someone they are not in the other’s presence. So often I am pushed and pressed to be what I am not, or to do what does not suit me. My words are measured for the ears that they fall on. My attire must be presentable to the people I am serving that day, or who have come to the Last Homely House for whatever business. Every move I make or decision I hand down is watched by someone and judged on the merit or value of it, and the weight of it grows old quickly. I find myself wanting to go to ground and keep low until my presence is once more forgotten and yet I find that I cannot live that way either. The pressure of meeting other’s expectations is tiring. With you I do not feel that way and I do not resent it that some think you are my better. In fact I enjoy it. You are my friend and when you receive your due it gives me great joy,” Aragorn spoke quietly. He tracked the flight of an eagle as he was speaking, his fingers idly twirling a long blade of grass.
“Well, my friend,” Legolas replied, garnering the man’s undivided attention. “When it comes time for you to receive *your* due, let it be that I am there by your side. For I would see all men recognize you for who you really are.”
With a brilliant smile, the ranger nodded his agreement. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Besides, I think I shall need a few friendly faces there with me.”
Calmly, as though they had merely been discussing the weather, the ranger let his gaze fall once more to the woods below them. His boot-heels returned to gently tapping out their odd rhythm.
“Thank you,” Aragorn whispered softly as Legolas settled in next to him. The elf’s soft boots made no sound against the cliff face.
“For being my friend and letting me be me,” the man answered simply.
Legolas just nodded as he watched the sun start its descent on the far side of the forest. The light from the lowering orb painted the trees with brilliant highlights of red and yellow as the two friends sat side by side, simply content to be with each other away from the stresses of life for the time being.
It seems everyone knows who I should be
everyone knows, but no one agrees
When I run, let me run, if I fall, it’s my right
Respect my solitude if I fade from sight
I’ll be your hero if you need me to be
but even heroes need friends who accept me for me.
I’ll carry the standard, fight the good fight
Hold back the shadows, make way for the light
But when I lay my sword down will you still be by my side?
Can you stand the darkness when I want to hide?
When I fall behind, walk before me and know:
I’m here by my choice; it’s never cold in your shadow.