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An Important Note to Our Readers:

Siobhan and I want to thank everyone for sharing over three years of fun and adventure with us.  Writing the Mellon Chronicles series has probably been one of the best things that ever happened to us.  But all good things do eventually come to an end.  To paraphrase Bilbo slightly, we need a holiday. A very long holiday. And we don't expect we shall return. In fact, we mean not to.

We’re not entirely disappearing off the face of the planet mind you, but we won’t be writing anymore stories for a while.  Inspiration is a fickle creature, and once it has fled, there is no recapturing it, it’s best to just move on.

This story will be the last Mellon Chronicles tale that we tell.  Therefore, we’ve tried to include as many little ‘stories with in the story’ as we could without becoming wearisome.  We had difficulty getting this story done and were very close to deciding not to keep trying to finish it at all, but we stuck it out so it could be our farewell gift to all of you.  In many ways, the theme of the story is an appropriate one.  One of remembering, and looking back on all the good times shared.  One of endings and beginnings.  One that shows us that all things change, but some things are eternal.  And now, before I totally get off sounding like an annoying poetically philosophical elf or a wizard, I shall shut up and just leave you with Sio’s and my very warmest regards.  I hope you all enjoy the story.  Thank you for a marvelous couple of years.

 

--Cassia & Siobhan

 

~*PART ONE*~
~Homeward Bound~

 

~~~~~~~~~
I hear the wind across the plain
A sound so strong - that calls my name
It's wild like the river - it's warm like the sun
It's here - this is where I belong.

Under the starry skies - where eagles have flown
This place is paradise - it's the place I call home
The moon on the mountains
The whisper through the trees
The waves on the water
Let nothing come between this and me...

’Cause everything I want - is everything that's here
And when we're all together - there's nothing to fear
And wherever I wander - the one thing I've learned
It's to here - I will always.... always return

--Brian Adams
~~~~~~~~~

 

 

The mornings were crisp and cool now that autumn was settling across the mid-northern regions of Middle Earth.  The trees on the west side of the MistyMountains were aflame with the wild colors of the seasonal change.  The riotous colors cascaded in rivers of red and yellow down the slopes leading to the Bruinen, which ran its course far below.

 

Rivendell lay nestled on the far side of the valley, cloaked in the warm tones of afternoon light.  The small party that traveled to the Last Homely House began their descent down the western face of the mountains following a nearly overgrown, rarely used trail that led to Imladris.  The trail was too steep for their horses to safely make the passage while bearing riders, so the company dismounted and lead their horses down on foot. 

 

Legolas glanced at Aragorn out of the corner of his eyes.  The King had withdrawn, becoming quiet and distant the last few leagues.

 

The elf stumbled slightly, pulling Aragorn from his reverie.  Quickly he stepped nearer the prince and wrapped his right arm around Legolas’ waist, ignoring the elf’s protest. 

 

When Legolas had quieted, the king spoke softly, “We are nearly there, and I can’t have you tearing those stitches so close to home.  You really do need to walk in under your power you know,” he chided quietly.  The small smile that touched his lips was not mirrored in his eyes.

 

The fact that Legolas was healing so slowly troubled the man.  He hoped Rivendell would hold the answers they both sought. He feared what would befall them if it didn’t.

 

With a shout, Eldarion brushed past both adults and ran ahead, followed closely by Draecyn who had been given charge of the child.

 

“Well, at least someone is happy.” Legolas laughed.  He watched as the Gondorian soldier gave chase to the small boy.  His serious attempts at capturing the child turned quickly into a game as Dari did his best to avoid being caught.

 

It had taken them longer than normal to the reach the valley of Imladris.  Aragorn had insisted on frequent stops and rests as Legolas’ injuries tired the elf out more quickly than usual.  Draecyn had caught up with them near the gap of Rohan, having ridden hard the whole way.  He reported that Trelan and Raniean had indeed been awaiting word in Minas Tirith along with Arwen.  They had very nearly gone out looking for Legolas and Aragorn both after Arwen had recounted the tragedy of losing Eldarion.  However, Draecyn had gotten to Minas Tirith first.  Now, they were journeying with the queen, also headed for Rivendell, as per Aragorn’s request, but moving slower than Draecyn’s hectic pace had carried him.  They were probably not very far behind at all now.  Secretly, Aragorn wished to reach Rivendell before they did.  It was going to be different, seeing the house empty... and he wanted to be able to confront that alone, before he had to confront it in Arwen’s eyes as well as his own heart.   

 

The years had done little to dim Rivendell’s light.  Although the gardens and pathways reflected the lack of attention they had once received, the house stood as it had for years, a haven of quiet and peace, a place of rest and tranquility.  It was as Legolas had said; the valley was not dead, it merely slept.

 

The flagstone steps rang underneath the King’s boot heels just as they had when he had returned home so many times, then only a ranger.  A strong feeling of familiarity tugged at Aragorn’s heart and for a moment it was easy to forget that this homecoming was different than any other time.  It was easy for the years to slip away in an instant... before the quiet, stillness of reality intruded once more.  No one waited for them on the porch and the doors were not thrown open at their arrival.  The deep voice that Aragorn longed to hear did not welcome him home and his steps faltered.

 

“Estel?” Legolas whispered softly.  He glanced at his friend, following the path of the human’s gaze. 

 

Aragorn was staring at the empty servants’ quarters.  The home Celboril had occupied for centuries stood dark and quiet.  The door was slightly ajar and cobwebs decorated the eaves.  Swallowing hard, Aragorn tried to calm his emotions and force them down.  He knew that the staff had left with his father years ago when the elf lord had sailed to the undying lands.  It had been hard to let them go then, but the emotions had been easier to repress.  There was a fractioned kingdom to reunite, he had a family to look after, affairs of state crowded his desk and his council was constantly being demanded.  There had been little time given to grieving and he had been glad then for the distractions.  But now...

 

When Aragorn finally turned and met his friend’s gaze, Legolas was startled by how very young and vulnerable the human looked at that moment.  Despite all his years and his position, the King of Gondor did not stand in Rivendell’s courtyard.  Here, it was Estel, the adopted son of an elven lord who had returned home.  Regret tugged at the elf’s heart for a moment.  He had known this might not be easy for Aragorn, but the look in the King’s eyes was all too familiar.  

 

“He is not here,” Aragorn whispered, his voice thick with emotions.

 

“I know.”  Legolas read the man’s thoughts easily; they mirrored so much of his own grief.  “You knew he would not be, Estel.”  Legolas stepped closer as Aragorn broke the contact and glanced out across the untended gardens.

 

“I may have known it...” Silver eyes locked onto the blue ones, watching him closely as his own sense of loss betrayed him. “But I was unprepared for it.”

 

“The door is open, my lord.”  Jonath called down to his liege.  The palm of his right rested against the ornate wood.  Barely pressing, he waited for orders. 

 

Dari, under no such constraints, leaned against the heavy wooden portals and squeezed into the darkened house, racing inside ahead of everyone else and squealing delightedly as Draecyn called after him to wait.

 

“It was rarely locked.”  Aragorn replied.  He glanced quickly at his second in command before dropping his gaze and walking slowly around the house and into the gardens.

 

“Legolas?”  Jonath questioned the elf, unsure of what to do now. 

 

The elf gave the soldier a wan smile and a shrug.  He nodded at the doorway. “Go on in and see if Elrond’s sons are about.  Look after Dari.  We will follow in a moment.”

 

With a nod that was part salute, Jonath opened the doors and led the small party into the interior.  Rivendell itself seemed to lighten as the sounds of life returned to its halls and the squeals of childish laughter rang from the stairwells.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~
I'm walking down your street again and past your door
But you don't live there any more
It's years since you've been there
But now you've disappeared somewhere... like outer space
You've found some better place.


And I miss you - like the deserts miss the rain...
And I miss you - like the deserts miss the rain...

--Missing
~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Aragorn walked slowly through the overgrown gardens, assaulted by memories of the past.  Leaves fell like colored snow through the boughs of the thick canopy, coating the pathways in a fiery brilliance of chaotic colors.  The archways and benches were covered in creeping mosses and greenery as the wilds began to reclaim what was theirs.  The elves had built their homes for permanence and yet with the realization in mind that they would not be in Middle Earth forever.  And so it was with great artistry and skill that elvish residences had been created to one day be reclaimed by nature and so eventually disappear completely from the world of men.  It seemed that Rivendell had come to the conclusion that that time was drawing nigh.  Now that the power of the elves no longer hid and maintained the dwellings, nature had begun to take over its role.

 

Brushing the dirt and vines away from the bench before him, Aragorn ran his fingers gently over the face of the cool granite archway that overshadowed the small niche.  “It was here that I stood with father when the earth shook and nearly destroyed Rivendell.”  He spoke quietly as Legolas stopped next to him, explaining why this certain arbor held such cherished memories.

 

“Father and I rebuilt this archway, the very one that had fallen on him.  We built it together just the two of us...” His voice faltered, “And we talked...a lot.”

 

Legolas didn’t answer; there was nothing to say.  He joined his friend on the stone bench when the human sat down.  He knew what Aragorn was feeling.  It echoed like the ache in his own heart. 

 

“I tried not to think about it.”  Aragorn spoke softly.

 

The elf glanced at his hands in his lap, not pushing, not commenting.  Aragorn needed this time...no he corrected himself, *Estel* needed this time.

 

“It hurt so badly when he left and there was no time to even think about what that meant.  Arwen was distraught enough for us both and the pressures of the new kingdom were intense.  As soon as we returned there were the mountain men to deal with in the north and uprisings to the south and the council demanded so much of my energy that I pushed it out of my mind.”  Aragorn stopped and swiped at the tears that traced down his cheeks.  He didn’t meet Legolas’ gaze when the elf turned to watch him, he couldn’t.  The man kept his eyes riveted straight ahead fixed on the corner of the grand house, willing his father to turn that corner any minute and ease the ache that crushed his chest.  “I always knew the time would come when he would go.  I never wanted to accept it though and I suppose until I now I never really have.”

 

Dropping his gaze, Aragorn swallowed hard and glanced at the elf.  He had brought Legolas here in the desire to help the elf rediscover joy in life.  He had not expected to be confronted with so much hidden pain of his own.  He felt guilty for even bringing it up, but Legolas’ compassionate gaze was encouraging. 

 

“Go on, Estel,” the elf whispered softly.  “The world... it moves us so quickly sometimes and entire lifetimes change at a moment’s notice.  Everyone must find their time to grieve.”

 

Aragorn looked down at his hands.  Maybe Legolas was right.  How could he try to help his friend if he could not acknowledge his own heartaches and sorrows? 

 

“Arwen and I did not go with him to the Havens.  It would have been too hard... especially for her, to see the other elves sailing where she has chosen never to go.  We said goodbye here, in Rivendell and left for Gondor the same day he left for Mithlond.  I could almost pretend that I was just going away again, on another journey, and that nothing had changed, that home would always be the same, always waiting the way I remembered it... I never returned after that.  I don’t think I allowed myself to fully believe that he was never coming back again until today.”  He sniffed softly, trying not to let the embarrassing tears fall. “I miss him, Legolas.”

 

“I know.”  Legolas answered softly, resting his hand on the man’s shoulder.  “I remember the first time I returned home to Mirkwood after Ada left... I never went back again.”

 

A small nod was all the answer the prince received.  Aragorn sighed deeply and buried his face in his hands.

 

Legolas watched him quietly.  He did not apologize for asking to come here, even though for the moment it seemed to cause his friend heartache.  He knew it was something they all had to face one day.  Time held still for no one and even elves were bound to its inexorable tide eventually.  It was sad, to see Rivendell and know that it was not as it had always been, yet it did not strike Legolas’ heart the same, painful way that Mirkwood had struck him.  There was still a lingering peace in the valley that seemed to blanket the grief they brought here.  It covered their sorrow with beauty like snow covered battle-torn earth, hiding, if not erasing, the scars.  Being here seemed to have the therapeutic effect of shedding a river of tears.  They might ache, but the peace and release that followed was strangely comforting. 

 

The sounds of soft footfalls alerted the prince that they were not alone.  Aragorn glanced up when Legolas’ hand left his shoulder and he turned, looking behind them as the elf stood to his feet. 

 

The intruder, surprised to find others in the normally vacant garden, stopped up short and stared back at the elf and the human.

 

“Legolas?  Estel?”  The newcomer asked hesitantly as he stared hard at the tear-stained face of the man that stood slowly next to the elf.

 

“Mora?” Aragorn whispered disbelievingly.  He shook his head and frowned. “How can this be, I saw you leave with Ada.”  His voice was rough and his breathing hitched as he questioned the elf that approached them.

 

“Estel, it is you, isn’t it?” The elf questioned further a wide smile breaking across his face.  ”What are you doing here?”

 

Before he could process what was happening Aragorn found himself crushed against the dark haired elf and held tightly in the other’s arms.  “By the Valar, Estel, I have missed you.  I went to the WhiteCity looking for you, but the first time you were not there and the second time I was told you were not available.”

 

“What?  You were there, and I wasn’t told?!” Aragorn could not believe his ears. 

 

Mora seemed slightly puzzled at Aragorn’s reaction.  “They said you were told, but made it very clear to me that you could not be bothered.  I did not wish to trouble you.”

 

“WHAT?!” the King repeated, nearly exploding this time.  “I was NEVER told that you were there, I swear it, my friend.  I would never have brushed you aside like that.  Who told you such a thing?!” Aragorn’s ire rose faster than he could register as he grasped the elf’s arms tightly.  “I thought you were gone.  All these years I thought you were gone.  Mora, I swear I saw you leave with Ada.  I did not know... I...I would have visited sooner, I...”

 

The King was silenced as the dark haired elf simply shook his head.  He stepped back slightly but did not release the man as though fearful that Estel would disappear. “I had begun to fear that such might be the case.  I’m sorry, Estel, I should have known better and returned again.  But it matters little now that you are here now!”  Moranuen pulled the man back against him and hugged him once more before releasing the King and greeting Legolas warmly, talking all the while.

 

“I did in fact leave with your father.”  The elf laughed softly as he recounted the tale.  “I had not wanted to, my heart desired nothing more than to stay with Elrond’s sons but...well your brothers worried so for your father when they informed him they would remain behind with you.  So I went at their behest but my heart was not in it.”  Moranuen pushed Aragorn back down on the bench and sat across from the elf and the man on an adjacent seat enjoying the cool of the approaching evening.  “I did leave.  I even started to sail, although I could not find the joy in it that everyone else was experiencing.  One of Gwaihir’s children accompanied us for a time, seeing us off.  We were two days out when I knew I had made a serious mistake I could not now call back.  I did not know what to do.  Elrond knew that my heart was sick, for although the sea called to me, I felt as if my time in Middle Earth was not completed.  Your father asked the great eagle to bring me back and he complied before returning to escort the ship.”  Moranuen laughed at the incredulous look on Aragorn’s face. “So, I have been tending the gardens and keeping the grounds ever since, although I admit that I am not as good at it as Celboril was.”

 

“I still can’t believe I was never even told.” Aragorn’s ire had mostly bled away in the face of his happiness at this totally unexpected reunion.  He leaned forward, mirroring the elf’s smile.

 

“I meant to make the long journey to see you again, once the Kingdom was stable.  I had assumed that your brothers at least would have told you, but I suppose Elladan and Elrohir probably thought I had told you myself when I went out there.  I didn’t tell them that your councilors turned me away.  I was afraid they would do something rash and make more trouble for you.  I am sorry, Estel.  Given the state of affairs at the time, ‘twas easy to believe you were busy.  With the kingdom weighing so heavily on your shoulders I didn’t want to bother you.”  He responded quietly.  The man before him had changed much and the piercing gaze the former ranger laid on him was so filled with emotion and intensity that he shifted nervously.  It had been a long time in human years since the young man named Estel had been home.

 

Seeing the hesitancy, Aragorn dropped to his knees in front of the elf and took his long time friend’s hands in his own. “Moranuen, you must believe me.  I was never informed that you came to Minas Tirith.  I did not know that you had returned.  I would never have turned you away so coldly, or refused you time, my friend.  My brothers have been in and out of the WhiteCity and so I never would have thought that not all who came to see me would be admitted.  It is a situation I shall rectify at once upon my return to Minas Tirith.  Please, forgive me.”

 

The silver eyes that glanced up at the elf held none of the distance they had moments before and Moranuen recognized the young man he had known hidden inside in the King that was now before him.  The smile brightened on Moranuen’s face, mingled with relief.  Estel had not change so much as he had feared.  Leaning forward he kissed Aragorn gently on the forehead. “I’m so glad you are here, Estel.” 

 

It suddenly occurred to the Noldo that the presence of the King in Rivendell was not just an unplanned event.  “Wait a minute...” Suspicion crept into Moranuen’s voice. “Why *are* you here, you two?”  He eyed the friends over carefully.  “You are both walking, but I sense there is more to this visit, you did not expect to find anyone home did you?  What’s going on?”

 

It was Legolas’ turn to drop his gaze and fight the urge to fidget.  He glanced at Aragorn who was staring at him.  The ranger’s gaze asked an unspoken question.  Just how much did Legolas want Moranuen to know? 

 

“That would be my doing,” Legolas whispered quietly.

 

Aragorn returned to his seat by the prince and gently laid his hand on the elf’s shoulder.  “We came to rest.”  He answered the question softly.

 

“Then you have come to the right place.” Mora was on his feet in an instant.  It had not been so long to his elven perception of time that he did not remember the look that passed between the two friends.  Whether the wounds were physical or merely emotional, they did need rest.  “Let us go into the house.  The fire still burns in the Great Hall and your rooms are as you left them.”

 

A soft smile spread across Legolas face as Mora easily changed the subject and led them back towards the house.

 

“Tell me, Mora, how did you enjoy your ride on the great eagle?”  Aragorn grinned conspiratorially at Legolas, recalling their own ride years ago when both had been flown to Imladris by Gwaihir and one of his kin. 

 

“It was something I will never forget, that is certain!”  Mora glanced over his shoulder as he walked up the stone steps to the doors.  “Oh, and, Estel, you will be glad to know that the eagles have started their great migrations just as was foretold.  They are wintering in the Grey Havens and will return in the spring.  They too are preparing to go over the sea.  Your brothers have sent letters to your father and mother via some that have already left.  Tomorrow Gwinhain, grandchild of Gwaihir will be the last one to make the journey.  He is stopping by the valley on his way.  If you would like to pen your father a letter I am sure he would take it for you. 

 

Aragorn smiled and nodded.  He would like that very much. 

 

Moranuen stepped into the house before them, holding the door open.  Aragorn brought up the rear, walking slowly inside and glancing around the entryway.  He stopped on the threshold.  Closing his eyes, he breathed in deeply.  It was a small gesture, a simple act he had grown accustomed to doing when he had been away from home for long periods of time.  The scents that wafted to him through the house still carried the smells he associated so closely with his father – the lingering sweetness of athelas, the musky scents of herbs and the heady smell of burning wood from the Hall of Fire.

 

Moranuen, unaware that his guests had lingered, walked further in to the house, talking quietly to the two.  Sounds of laughter and tiny running feet could be heard in the guest quarters on the lower levels.  Jonath’s deep voice interrupted the mild melee, calling out for Draecyn’s position.  If it weren’t for the fact that he could feel Elrond’s absence - that quiet dark void that should be filled with light - Estel knew he was home.

 

“Your brothers should be back later today.  They went out hunting, trying to fill the cellar for the winter.  There are fewer hunters now, but fewer of us to eat it as well.  However, with guests we may need to...” Mora stopped and turned back a wide smile spreading on his face as he watched Aragorn open his eyes. 

 

“Welcome home, Estel,” he spoke softly as the man’s gaze lighted on him.

 

“It’s good to be back.”  Aragorn nodded his acceptance.  “Did you say my brothers were returning?”

 

“Yes, they said they would return today.”  Mora watched as Legolas slowly began to make his way up the steps.  Aragorn was by his side in an instant, helping him climb the flight of stairs.  He knew the thought of an empty Rivendell was distressing to the former ranger. 

 

“Don’t worry Estel, the house does not stand empty at all times.  Taradin and Garith’s kin still visit often and they bring with them the townsfolk in need of healing.  Your brothers have taken up where your father left off.  Not to mention that Beoma’s grandchildren are always making trips through the pass, keeping the twins stocked in honeycakes.  They love to stay and dote on your brothers now that the household staff is gone and often we have a few of them wintering with us.”

 

Aragorn stopped on the first landing and smiled down at his friend.  “It does sound just like home.  Father would be happy that the townsfolk come here still.”

 

“He would be.”  Legolas agreed quietly.

 

“My Lord?” Jonath’s voice boomed down the hallway.

 

“Here, Jonath.”  Aragorn called.

 

“Have you need of anything, my King?”  The tall warrior stepped into the hallway surprised to see a strange elf in the entry.

 

“No, we are well.  We are going to see to the rooms and will be down shortly.”  Aragorn watched as Legolas cautiously resumed climbing the stairs.  The elf’s body still ached and he was more tired than he wanted to admit.  His only desire now was to find a bed in one piece and fall into it.

 

“Jonath, meet my very good friend, Moranuen.”  Aragorn turned back to the two beings. “Moranuen, my second in command of the troops, Jonath.”

 

“Have we met?” Jonath asked cautiously.

 

“Perhaps you were in Minas Tirith when I came through.”  Mora answered, accepting the outstretched hand and bowing slightly.

 

“Jonath?” Aragorn questioned, his countenance turning suddenly dark. “Where you there when Mora requested to see me?  Did you tell him I could not see him?”

 

“No, my liege, I would not do that unless you bid me.  But I vaguely recall seeing an elf at the gates bearing his resemblance, though it was years ago.  I was called away and assumed he had been admitted.”

 

“He was not.”  Aragorn’s answer was curt.  “I would not see that happen again.”

 

“My apologies, my lords, it will not.  When we return I will inform the gate keepers as well.” Jonath glanced between the elf and his king.

 

A smile replaced the King’s frown.  His personal guard was a good man.  “Thank you Jonath, we’ll be down shortly.”

 

Mora easily accepted the humans and led the warrior into main hall, striking up a conversation with the man and setting him instantly at ease.  The peace of Rivendell took over and soon all beneath the rafters were contentedly gathered in the Hall of Fire, save for Aragorn and Legolas.

 

Legolas had made his way into the room that had always been reserved for him.  It was the one closest to Estel’s and to his surprise it still held an extra set of his clothing.  Carefully he pulled the dust cloths from the furniture, wadding them up and shifting the coverings into a corner of the room.  Wood was stacked in the hearth and he quickly kindled a small fire.  Sitting gingerly down on the bed he laid back on the soft mattress and sighed deeply, closing his eyes.  Yes, this place was comfortably familiar.  A place he was used to coming back to when the world outside had been too harsh and life had taken its toll on him.  He supposed it was strange really, that he should feel more at home here in this place than in Mirkwood, even now when the shadow was finally lifted... but it didn’t *feel* strange, so Legolas decided he did not care.

 

Aragorn followed the elf into the room and stood in the doorway, leaning against the door frame.  “This was a good idea, mellon-nín.”  He said softly smiling as the elf opened one eye to gaze at him.

 

“It was.”  Legolas stated simply letting his head fall back against the pillows.

 

Aragorn pushed away from the door and headed to his own room, his voice calling back down the hallway and setting the elf to laughing. “Don’t you dare fall asleep with your boots on, Celboril would come all the way back over the sea just to have your head if he found out you were disrespecting the furniture.”

 

Gently, Estel pushed the door to his room open and glanced inside.  Night had fallen and the chambers were dark.  Blindly, he groped for the small table that sat next to his bed.  Behind him, down the hallway, Mora was lighting the glow globes.  With the twins gone, he hadn’t been prepared for company.  Aragorn’s fingers fumbled across the tabletop and wrapped around the small shell night light that sat like a sentinel next to the bed.  He deftly struck the tiny flat of flint and lit the lamp, his hands remembering as if by rote what his nightly routine had been so many years ago.

 

The soft glow of the light illuminated the room.  It was just as he had left it, save for the dust cloths that Celboril had carefully draped over everything.  Those were quickly wadded up and discarded as the man walked around the room, reacquainting himself with his surroundings.

 

Pulling the dusty sheets from the bed, Aragorn threw them atop the pile in the corner.  His gaze landed lastly on the night table and his old wooden oliphaunt carved by another man he once called father, a man whose descendants now carried on his name and memory.

 

“Cabed.”  He was surprised he had spoken the name out loud and he jumped slightly when a voice behind him interrupted his reverie.

 

“Ah yes, I remember that old Haradrim.”

 

Legolas eased down onto Estel’s bed, tucking his feet underneath him.  Aragorn noticed with a smile that the elf wore no shoes.

 

“This place holds many memories and all of them are good.” Legolas continued quietly.  “I believe this may be the only place in Arda I can say that about.  Thank you, mellon-nín, for returning here with me.”

 

Aragorn started to answer his friend when a tiny shout interrupted them and Eldarion burst through the partially open door.

 

“Ada! Ada!!”  The little boy flung himself at the man.  He wrapped his arms around Aragorn’s neck and excitedly began talking to his father as Aragorn stooped to pick him up.

 

“Elladan and El’hir are back! They said I could sleep in El’hir’s bed tonight! Can I? Can I please?”

 

Legolas stifled his laughter as Estel pulled his face slightly away from the eager boy who was inches from him and pressing closer.  Dari was such a different child now that he was back with the people he knew and loved.  The little boy was far less quiet and reserved then he had been when Legolas met him in the slave cages, and the elf was glad.  For the most part, Dari was also no longer shadowed by the pain and fear he had carried far too long.  The young bounced back so fast sometimes.  It was wonderful to see. 

 

“Please, Ada?”  Eldarion gently touched Aragorn’s face; pushing the king’s hair out of his eyes like his father was so fond of doing with him.  His tiny fingers traced down the strong chin and played over the Evenstar where it lay glittering in the hollow of Aragorn’s throat.  “Please?” He begged one last time.

 

“Estel?  Estel!” The twins’ voices could be heard as the elves pounded up the stairwell.

 

“El’hir! In here!!”  Dari called back.

 

With a kiss, Aragorn set the little boy down and pushed him towards the door.  “Yes, you can stay in El’s room tonight as long as he has agreed.” He consented easily to the child’s wishes.

 

The door to the room was thrown wide, ricocheting off the wall behind it as the two brothers outside vied to enter first.

 

With a shout of joy the King was enveloped by the two elves that were talking and laughing all at once.  It had only been a matter of months since they had last seen each other, but this was different, being together in Rivendell once more.

 

Extricating himself enough to turn and face Legolas, Estel found the elf still sitting contentedly on his bed, watching the family reunion.

 

“Legolas! It’s good to see you again!  How goes the rebuilding of Ithilien?”  Elladan questioned cheerfully as he released his younger brother.  “We have heard good things, but news the past few months has been sparse.”

 

The shadow that chased through the prince’s eyes was not lost on the elves nor the king and the twins quickly sobered.  “Do things not go well?” Elrohir asked quietly.

 

“Things have gone well with the rebuilding,” Aragorn answered for his friend, seating himself next to the golden haired elf.  “There were raiders in Ithilien a few months ago and Legolas had an undesirable run in with them.  We have come here to recover and spend time healing.”  Estel spoke for them both.

 

“That is not all, is it?  You are not telling us everything, are you?” Elrohir pressed for more as he watched his younger brother.  The human evaded his gaze. 

 

Eldarion who had been watching quietly from the doorway spoke up softly; he was holding Aragorn’s wooden oliphaunt, turning the toy over and over in his small hands.  “Het’spa was mean to us both.”

 

“Aragorn?” Elladan questioned softly, but his tone held an underlying intensity.  They were used to Aragorn and Legolas getting themselves into trouble, but Dari?  What could possibly have befallen their little nephew? 

 

Stooping over, the human scooped his son up in his arms and reseated himself, holding the little boy closely.  “There is more, but we should discuss it later.”  He held his brothers’ gaze asking for leniency and warning them that now was not the time.  He tried to avoid talking about Dari’s kidnapping in front of the child.  It was best to let the young mind forget and not dwell on the horrors he had witnessed. 

 

“Leg’las was hurt bad.”  Dari reached out and petted the elf gently with one hand, showing much more concern for his former guardian’s state of being than his own.  “But he’s better now!” The little boy brightened, the dark memories quickly given up for the questions that their new situation placed in his young mind. 

 

“Look, Ada, it’s like the big Mum-mums in the South!  Can I have it?”  Dari turned his attention to his father and held up the wooden toy.  The child could not say ‘Mûmaskil’ yet, but had been enormously fascinated with the giant beasts when he visited the peace talks in Harad. 

 

Aragorn touched the oliphaunt fondly and nodded. “That was mine when I was younger.  I think Kidrin would want you to have it.”

 

“Kid’in?” Eldarion mimicked.  “Who’s that?”

 

“*That* is a tale for another time.”  Aragorn smiled widely and put the child down, “Now go on with you, find Draecyn.  I need to talk to Elrohir and Elladan, and Legolas needs to accompany me to the apothecary.”

 

“Oh no, I don’t.” The Silvan elf balked as the ranger eased him off the bed and steered him out of the room.  The sounds of Eldarion’s swiftly padding feet could be heard as he raced down the steps, happily clutching his new toy and searching out the soldiers.

 

“I believe your men are in the kitchen with Mora trying to make something for dinner.”  Elladan commented wryly as the foursome made their way to the apothecary.  They all pointedly ignored Legolas’ protests, so he presently gave up protesting and let them have their way.

 

“Jonath wasn’t in there was he?” Aragorn stopped and glanced sharply at the twins, “He can’t cook to save his life.  His food is terrible, we have to stop him!”

 

With a laugh Elladan pushed his brother forward, walking with them down the stairwell and into their father’s pantry.

 

“Not to worry, Mora is a horrible cook as well.  But we have gotten used to what he throws together and calls food.”  Elladan laughed at the grimace on his human brother’s face.  “He has picked up some of Beoma’s children’s habits when cooking and it’s not wise to meddle.”

 

“As long as it’s hot and we don’t have to cook it, we don’t complain!” Elrohir added cheerfully.  He cleaned off a spot on the long wooden table that took up the center of the small room.

 

With a pained sigh, Legolas eased gingerly up onto the waist high counter and sat facing Estel.  He knew what his friend wanted of him; he didn’t even have to be asked after all these years.  The truth was that he didn’t really mind that much either.  He trusted Aragorn’s care and as much as he would have liked to deny it, he probably needed it.  He was far too weary lately, tiring easily and given to a listless restlessness.  The prince did not like it at all.

 

Aragorn smiled gently up at the exhausted elf.  The healer ignored his brothers for the moment as they moved about the room, teasing one another and the two friends.

 

“You are tired and you did not let me know,” he accused the wood-elf quietly, but without any serious reproach. 

 

Legolas returned his friend’s smile.  There was no denying it, he was sleepy, but he was not about to retire for the evening now.  Rivendell was bringing some unknown part of him back to life.  For the first time in many days some sense of peace had returned to his soul.  A peace that had been slipping away from him for some time now, but had been utterly missing since Rahzon.

 

“I am fine.”  The elf answered with a small laugh at the look of frank disbelief that Aragorn laid on him.  “No, honestly I am, Estel.  It is this place and the company.”  Legolas rested his hand on Aragorn’s shoulder. 

 

“I imagine you want to look at the stitches again?”  When Estel nodded, the prince began slowly unfastening his tunic.  “Then, I will need help, because I really am tired,” he admitted.  The elf’s fingers tugged somewhat wearily and ineffectually at the intricate fastenings of his tunic for a moment without much real effort.  Sometimes it was just so hard to move it hardly seemed worth the effort.  Most of the time this was a cause of consternation, but he had almost gotten used to it over the past few weeks.  Anyway, he wasn’t going to let it disturb him right now when everything else was so nice.  The elf’s smile mirrored the one on the King’s face as Aragorn gently brushed his friend’s hands aside and worked the fasteners open for him as Legolas had known he would. 

 

Easing the shirt off the elf’s shoulders, Aragorn exposed the still healing wound.  Legolas pulled his breath in with a sharp hiss as the man gently moved his arm up and out of the way.  Seeing his friend’s discomfort, Estel stepped closer to the table.  Leaning in near, he allowed the elf to rest his arm atop the King’s head as he worked.

 

The twins returned with supplies and Elladan started a small, contained flame licking the bottom of a fresh pot of athelas.  The sweet smell flooded the room, calming the prince’s labored breathing.  It had been weeks since they rescued the elf from Rahzon, and still the deep wound had not quite healed.  That was not at all usual and it worried Aragorn.

 

Leaning across the table from behind Legolas, Elrohir gently inspected the stitches, gingerly prodding the cut.  The elf prince closed his eyes and swallowed hard, allowing the two healers to have their way with him.  The injury was still painfully tender.

 

“It does not look as if it is healing properly, Estel.  How long has it been like this?”  Elrohir whispered, his voice soft, not to hide the situation but because of the proximity of those around them.  His little brother had become a renowned healer.  If the injury was not healing promptly under his care, then there was more to this wound than met the eye.

 

“Several weeks,” Aragorn hedged slightly.  “Perhaps a month.”  His voice was a little tense.  He knew what kind of reaction that would garner. 

 

“A *month*...” Elladan checked himself sharply, not allowing any further outward display of the shock he felt at such information.  He and Elrohir exchanged a look. 

 

Elrohir seemed to be trying to think of some non-alarming way to respond to that revelation.  “That’s... that’s a bit unusual, isn’t it?” he said at last, knowing perfectly well how unusual it was. 

 

“I know it is.  I do not know why this is happening.  I didn’t have the herbs I needed in Rhazon, but Legolas usually heals much better than this even on his own.”  Carefully the man washed the wound with warmed water.  He slowed his ministrations when Legolas’ free hand grasped his shoulder and tightened painfully on his collarbone.  “Easy, mellon-nín, we will numb it again, give me a moment.” He spoke softly in the grey tongue as Elrohir turned and began rifling through a cupboard behind him.  He knew Legolas hated the regular ritual of having his wound cleaned and redressed. 

 

Elrohir did not let his brother see the worried frown that creased his face.  He didn’t think Aragorn quite realized what he might be dealing with here, but did not yet know enough about the situation to feel comfortable saying anything.

 

Sounds of loud crashing and raised voices could be heard coming from the kitchen, startling the three elves and their human companion.

 

With a quiet laugh Elladan eased around Elrohir and headed for the door.  “I’ll go see what they’ve done now.  There are days I miss Celboril.”  He heard his human brother call out to him as he walked away down the hall.

 

“If Dari is in the way send him on back here!”  Aragorn leaned out, trying to see down the hall as much as his position would allow.

 

“Eldarion is sleeping in the great hall, my lord.”  Jonath answered, walking into the pantry.  He was wiping his hands on a towel tucked into the strings that tied a full-length apron about his waist.  The warrior’s face flushed as Aragorn appraised his attire with a raised eyebrow. 

 

“Moranuen insisted I wear this,” the soldier defended himself.  He dropped the rag to his side and crossed his arms, glaring at the King.  He was far too polite and respectful to point out how many times he had seen his liege wearing things he considered to be far more disreputable or ridiculous.  The King’s favorite overcoat was an excellent example. 

 

Stifling his laughter, Aragorn tried to replace his skeptical look with something akin to seriousness.  He failed miserably.  Legolas made no such attempt; the elf’s musical laughter caught at the king and lifted his spirits.  Legolas hadn’t laughed in days.

 

“My dear Jonath, did you say Eldarion has fallen asleep in the Hall of Fire?”  Aragorn finally composed himself enough to ask. 

 

“I did, my lord.” The warrior scowled. 

 

“He still has nightmares and this house is yet foreign to him...” Aragorn worried aloud.

 

“I will bring him in here.  He may sleep in the corner while we finish.” Elrohir quieted his brother’s anxiety.  He handed the King a small jar of lotion and stepped around the Gondorian that blocked his path.

 

“That color suits you,” the younger twin commented, looking the man up and down before darting into the hallway.  The laughter from the king and prince chased after him.

 

With a shake of his head, Jonath turned and stalked back to the kitchen muttering under his breath about elves and their strange sense of humor. 

 

Legolas’ soft laughter was disrupted as a sharp pain lanced through his side.  With Aragorn’s head holding his arm up he was unable to curl in on himself.  Estel quickly turned his attention back to the injured elf.  Talking quietly to Legolas in his native tongue, he hurriedly unscrewed the lid to the jar Elrohir had given him.

 

“Just a minute, give me a minute, the pain will lessen.”  Dipping his fingers into the thick ointment, Aragorn lathed the healing lotion over the stitches and the slightly inflamed edges of the ragged cut they sutured.  The concoction was something his father had created.  The oils of the plants numbed the pain on contact and began to draw any infection out of the wound, countering it with its natural healing powers.  In seconds Aragorn was rewarded with a soft sigh from Legolas.

 

“It is better.” The elf whispered.  His breathing eased and he relaxed, leaning more heavily against his friend.

 

Elrohir re-entered, carrying Eldarion wrapped in a blanket.  The child was asleep and clutching the small wooden toy he had acquired earlier.  Aragorn glanced up quickly and smiled as he watched his older brother with his son.

 

The elf laid the little boy down, whispering quietly to him in elvish before joining Aragorn and helping to tend to Legolas.

 

“You used that horrible sleeping trick on him didn’t you?” Estel half accused, half questioned. “The one Ada used to use on me all the time?”

 

“Works wonders once you perfect it.”  Elrohir smiled. “He will not wake now until morning, I assure you.”  The elf took the jar from his little brother’s hand and attended to a slowly healing cut across Legolas’ back. 

 

“You took quite a beating.”  The Noldo commented softly, gently rubbing the lotion across the Silvan elf’s lower back as Aragorn continued carefully prodding Legolas’ ribs, testing the bones that were nearly healed.  Elrohir wondered if all these injures were as old as Aragorn had indicated before.  He decided they probably were, although if he had not known he would have thought them much more recent.  Skilled fingers lathed the ointment over the cuts and bruises on the prince’s back a second time.  Elrohir was more disturbed than he wanted to admit.  These marks did not have the look of old wounds, yet neither did they appear to be fresh.  To the first-time observer it looked as if the prince’s body had simply wearied of trying to repair the damage and was trying to accept the injuries as part of its natural state of being.  There was no apparent infection, but they were obviously still painful.   

 

With a weary sigh, Legolas laid his head down on the arm that rested on Aragorn’s head.  He was so tired of this particular ritual and longed to be whole again.  He couldn’t understand why his body simply refused to heal, why he had to keep enduring this pain.  Closing his eyes he rested against his friend.  Beneath him, Estel stilled his movements and gave the elf a bit of respite.

 

“He did at that.  I thought he was not long for this world when I found him in Rahzon.  They were forcing him to participate in the pit fights.  That he lived as long as he did in that captivity says a lot for his spirit.”  The man explained simply, knowing his brother was curious.  Slowly Aragorn picked his ministrations back up again as he quietly told the entire tale to Elrohir.  He did not like keeping secrets from his family and Legolas gave no indication that he was uncomfortable with the telling.

 

When they had finally finished dressing and re-bandaging his wounds and the tale had been told, Aragorn tried to stand up, thinking to help Legolas back into his tunic.  He found however that the elf was not complying.

 

Elrohir’s hand on his arm stopped the man’s movements.  “Estel, he sleeps.”

 

Aragorn stilled and glanced up at the elf that rested against him.  Legolas’ breathing was deep and slow, his weariness had finally gotten the better of him.  Slowly, Estel wrapped his arms around the elf’s waist and braced the prince against him.

 

“Elrohir, clear a space and help me ease him down.  He should rest while he can.  We can wake him later.” The human whispered softly as Legolas settled in his arms.  He knew that Legolas found sleeping difficult lately.  If he was actually resting without aid, that was a good sign. 

 

Quickly, the Noldo elf complied, spreading out Legolas’ tunic and wading up a towel for a makeshift pillow.  He cradled Legolas’ head in his hands as Aragorn laid the prince down.

 

Removing his own outer tunic, the King laid it over the sleeping elf, tucking it in around him, forgetting for the moment that Legolas would not feel the cold as he might.  The prince shifted slightly and Estel lay his hand on the elf’s chest, speaking softly to him.

 

“Rest, mellon-nín, sleep... just sleep,” he whispered, invoking the elvish command as best he could.  Legolas stilled beneath his touch as his sleep deepened.

 

A soft smile spread across the king’s face as he watched his friend, “I nearly lost him, Elrohir, and I wouldn’t even have known.  None of us might ever have known what happened to him... or Dari.”

 

“But you didn’t lose either of them.”  Elrohir pointed out reassuringly, pushing Aragorn towards the door. “You will all be better after some rest.”  He glanced to where Eldarion lay sleeping contentedly. “They can both stay in here for now.  No one will disturb them.”

 

Reluctantly, Aragorn followed his older brother into the hallway.

 

Once they were out of the room, Elrohir pulled his brother aside.  His grey eyes were deeply concerned, although he had hidden his feelings from Legolas.  “Estel, what else is wrong with Legolas, truthfully?  It’s the sea-longing, isn’t it?”

 

The human sighed and nodded.  He was surprised his brother had picked up on it so swiftly.  “It is, but he doesn’t want to go.  I – I don’t’ really understand it, but apparently it’s leaving him no peace.  And after everything else that’s happened...” the human shrugged helplessly.  Did it all connect somehow?  He didn’t know.  “I’m really worried El, he’s so tired all the time and that wound... even on a human it should have healed weeks ago!”

 

Elrohir closed his eyes tightly for a moment, before opening them again with a sigh.  “I feared as much.  It... it was like that for Nana when the sea longing took her.  She didn’t want to leave us, but she could not bear to stay.  There was a cut on her back from the orc attack that never healed.  It did not become infected or fester, it simply did not mend.  Ada said it was because her body had lost the will to live on this side of the sea and that only in Valinor could she be whole again...” the twin’s voice was wistful and sad.  He could see his pain mirrored in his younger brother’s eyes and desperately hoped that this would not be the way of things with Legolas as well, for Estel’s sake if nothing else. 

 

“Are you saying there is no hope that he can truly recover now?” Aragorn’s voice was hoarse with sudden disbelief and anguish.  He had not considered this.  He supposed he had been hoping, however foolishly, that if they could only get Legolas to Rivendell, then somehow everything would work out all right one way or another.  Yet if even Elrond had not been able to heal this kind of malady, what hope did he have?  His heart ached fiercely.  Had he brought Legolas here only to say goodbye?

 

“I did not say that,” Elrohir said quickly, trying to ease his brother’s fear a little.  “Legolas’ spirit is strong, it always has been.  He has already survived things in his life that many elves would have crumbled under.  Their fates do not have to be the same.  But we must help him, Estel.  We must help him find a balance between his sea longing and his desire to remain.  I feel in my heart that only then will his spirit be able to find peace, and his body be able to mend.”

 

Aragorn sighed.  “I know.  But how do we do that?  I wish father were here, I am so inadequate in these matters.”

 

“That is not true.  Ada would be proud of you.  You have become quite a healer, Estel.”  Elrohir smiled proudly at the human. 

 

“I still wish he were here, I would not worry so over Legolas and Eldarion with him near.  He always had such a calming effect on those in his care.”

 

“I do not think you realize that you have that same aura about you as well, Estel...” Elrohir’s words were cut short as the two rounded the corner leading into the kitchen. 

 

Draecyn was seated on the countertop, wearing one of Celboril’s aprons and laughing uproariously.  Jonath standing in front of a large pot, spun on his heels and pointed the spoon he was stirring with at the soldier, threatening the underling with the severest of punishments.  Red sauce dripped from the ladle and nearly spilled onto the floor before Mora noticed and caught the wayward sauce with his fingers tasting the consistency of the paste.

 

Ignoring the two humans’ banter, he encouraged the older soldier. “That’s perfect!  No, quickly over, keep stirring it or it will burn.  Don’t listen to him, you are good at this.”

 

“I am *not* good at this.” Jonath muttered darkly, “I am good at the handling of arms and commanding soldiers and keeping watch over my wayward liege, but I am *not* good at this, nor do I enjoy it.”

 

“But you look nice in that apron.” Elladan commented from the far side of the kitchen where he was busy cutting a loaf of warm bread.

 

The argument sent Draecyn further into half-stifled hysterics, much to Elladan’s amusement and Jonath’s displeasure.  To his credit, the young soldier really was trying very hard to reign himself in, but it seemed too monumental a task for him to manage.  Draecyn wiped a few strands of curly dark hair out of his face.  Elrohir silently gauged the young soldier’s age to be somewhere around twenty years, or perhaps a little younger, but he wasn’t too good with human ages. 

 

“So help me, when we get out of this place and are headed back to Gondor, do not think I will let this go forgotten, Draecyn.  If you think your life is hard now, chasing after Eldarion, just wait until you have to do it with my...” The angry tirade was cut off as Aragorn cleared his throat causing both men to stumble to attention.  In his haste the younger soldier nearly tripped over himself as he jumped to the floor, giving a hasty salute.

 

The antics of his men caused Aragorn to loose all control and he joined the elves, laughing deeply.

 

Seeing his lord at ease and enjoying himself took the edge off of Jonath’s anger.  He smiled at Draecyn before commenting darkly, “I’m glad you find this amusing, my king.”

 

Draecyn quickly took the hint and sobered up as much as was possible.  Jonath was a remarkably understanding commanding officer most of the time.  But you absolutely did not cross him or disrespect him in the presence of the King.

 

“I think Elrohir and I will retire to the dinning room and stay out of your way, call us if you have need of help.  Elladan when you are free would you join us please?” Aragorn requested quietly, hoping for a private moment alone with his brothers.  Had it been any other night than his first night back, Mora would have insisted on making them all help.  It was the way things were now and although he did the majority of the cooking, the times they spent in the kitchen preparing food together were some of Mora’s favorites. 

 

He nodded at Elladan and smiled warmly, “Go.  The three of us will be fine here.”

 

They had barely reached the study when the doors to Imladris were thrown wide and a commotion of colors and sounds burst through the entry.  Arwen and her entourage swarmed into the Last Homely House, calling for her husband and child.

 

“Estel!”  She hurried to her husband as her maids filed in behind her, followed closely by Raniean, Trelan and a small company of soldiers.

 

Aragorn looked up with delighted surprise.  He had not expected them to arrive so soon.  They must have either made incredibly good time or pushed themselves rather hard.

 

The instant Arwen turned the corner and saw him, Aragorn realized it must have been the latter.  The Queen of Gondor was as beautiful as ever, but her riding cloak was stained with dust and her face was lined with worry.  The look she fixed on him was half joy, half irritation. 

 

“Where is he?  Where is Eldarion?  The messenger only said that he was well and you had found him.  Where has he been, what happened?  Why didn’t you come home, why didn’t you wait for me?”  The worried questions fell from her lips in a torrent as Aragorn pulled her close and held her against him, shushing her urgent inquiries.

 

Arwen allowed her husband to hold her, although she was not about to let him out of answering each and every one of her questions.  Still, his presence calmed her and she felt her frenzied rush of emotions slowly bleeding away to something more manageable.  Turning against his chest so she could look up at him with concern in her lovely, ageless eyes, she fixed her husband with a searching gaze.  She had been surprised when the messenger reported where Aragorn was going and more than a little puzzled and hurt at the mysterious actions.  He knew how much she worried about Dari, why had he not waited for her?  Now, she wondered suddenly if there was more going on here than she knew.

 

“Estel...are *you* all right?”

 

“Dari is fine my love.  He is sleeping.”  Aragorn tried to sort out and answer her questions one at a time as he stepped back, holding her face in his hands and giving her a small kiss on the forehead.  “Don’t worry.  He is all right and so am I.”  Taking her trembling hands in his own he pressed them gently to his lips.  “I’m sorry we didn’t wait for you, my love.  I... I will explain later, all right?” his eyes begged her forgiveness and patience.  He wanted to talk to her about his concern over Legolas’ condition and his sluggish healing, but not here, not in front of everyone else. 

 

Arwen squeezed his hands.  She did forgive him and she trusted him, she would wait and hear his reasons when they could talk privately.  *After* she had seen for herself that Eldarion was all right and held the child in her own arms again. 

 

Raniean and Trelan had made their way around the women and intercepted Elladan and the Gondorians who had come to find out the source of the disturbance. 

 

All around him, people were talking and asking questions at once. Aragorn stepped back out of the way, leaning against an intersecting corner as he watched the melee. 

 

Elrohir entered carrying a sleeping Eldarion and quickly garnered the Queen’s undivided attention.  The younger twin had heard Arwen’s frantic questions and desired to put his sister at ease.  Arwen rushed to his side, taking the child from his arms and kissing the little boy.  Dari woke slowly, his face eagerly mirroring his mother’s delight as soon as he registered who was now holding him.

 

“Nana!” he hugged her neck tightly.  “Nana, look what I found.  Ada says I may keep it.”  He held up the small wooden oliphaunt excitedly, explaining all that had happened in his own simple terms. 

 

Elladan was talking with Trelan and Raniean, settling their anxieties about Legolas. 

 

Draecyn led the Queen’s entourage off towards the guest quarters while Jonath, who had abandoned Mora for the moment, redirected Lady Arwen’s body guards out to Celboril’s old quarters where he and Draecyn were staying.  Drawn by the commotion, Mora exited the kitchen moments later.

 

Laughter, tears and greetings were exchanged as everyone talked at once.  In the excitement of all that was happening, the ranger in Aragorn took over and he quietly removed himself, simply watching from the corner, a soft smile decorating his face.

 

The gentle touch on his back startled the King and he turned, glancing into the blue eyes of the elf that had crept up behind him.

 

“It is still the same, is it not?”  Legolas asked, his eyes taking in the scene before them.  He was fiddling with the catches on his tunic, slowly buttoning them up.

 

Aragorn didn’t answer right away.  He glanced back out on the unfolding scene.  He could feel Legolas behind him as the elf leaned tiredly against him. The warm scents of the evening meal seeped into the entry hall beckoning the guests to stay, inviting them in further.  It seemed as though the very house its self breathed deeply of the joy of its inhabitants lulling the visitors into a peace and calmness that could be felt nowhere else on Middle Earth.  Aragorn almost thought he could hear his father’s laughter amidst the talking of the others as he let his senses be assaulted by the familiarity of his home.

 

“Yes.”

 

The simple word startled the elf and he stepped back as Aragorn turned towards him, giving the prince his full attention.

 

“Yes, it is still the same.  I would swear I even heard my father’s laughter.” Aragorn repeated his answer.

 

“As did I.” Legolas smiled back at his friend knowingly.  Rivendell had begun working its spell on them all.  Elrond may be gone, but the magic of Rivendell lived on in their hearts.  It always would.

 

The soft conversation broke into the orchestrated chaos and in moments the small family had joined the two friends, joyfully pushing one another down the hallway toward the dining hall and the meal Mora had prepared.

 

Chapter Text

~*PART TWO*~
~Consequences of a Drinking Game~

 

 

The dinner dishes had been cleaned and the dinging room emptied for hours now.  The guests that were still awake had retired to the Hall of Fire and were lounging in a semi-circle near the great fireplace.

 

Leaning back against a stack of pillows, Aragorn was lazily blowing smoke rings towards the ceiling, his head tipped at an awkward angle against the cushions.  Legolas rested to his left, sprawled on the floor, his shirt unbuttoned to ease the discomfort caused by the stitches in his side constantly rubbing against the silk.  One of the large throw blankets was partly wrapped around him upon Aragorn’s insistence. 

 

The Prince gazed into the fire, watching the flames play along the ridges of wood that Elladan had just stacked on the nearly dying embers. He absently fingered the small milky stone that hung against his chest, remembering how many nights he had lain on a very different floor, watching stars flicker between bars and thinking he would never see this place and these people again.  He smiled softly and his fingers drifted down to brush the soft downy head that lay against his chest.  Dari had fallen asleep a long time ago. 

 

Arwen stooped in front of Legolas, gently scooping the little sleeping prince up into her arms.  She looked greatly improved now that she had bathed and changed out of her road-worn clothing, but she still appeared a bit tired from her long journey.  The only thing visible on her face when she gazed at her son, however, was pure contentment and joy. 

 

Dari stirred sleepily and refused to let go the small hand that was tangled in the open edge of Legolas’ tunic for a moment until he realized it was his mother picking him up.

 

“We’re here, Leg’las,” Dari murmured in a sleepy, contented voice as he finally allowed his mother to lift him out of the blond elf’s arms.  “Just like you said.  My new favorite place,” he murmured contentedly before drifting back to sleep as Arwen carried him out, her handmaids in tow. 

 

Legolas smiled after their retreating backs. 

 

It was getting late.  Jonath, Draecyn and the other soldiers excused themselves as well, leaving the elves, who needed little sleep, and the Numenorean who had grown up among them, alone as night crept more deeply across the valley.

 

Peaceful silence hung over them for sometime as the stars winked in through the windows.  The fire popped and shifted, the logs settling more firmly on themselves as they burned down.  Aragorn blew one of his smoke rings so that it fell down to crown Legolas’ head before it dissipated. 

 

Legolas wrinkled his nose and batted his hand in front of his face, his glare telling his human friend to keep his smelly habits to himself. 

 

Aragorn smiled.

 

“We need some music.”  Mora lamented quietly after a time.

 

“No one here is a bard and I would *not* have Raniean try again, thank you.”  Trelan muttered darkly.  His comments earned him a playful smack from the insulted elf.

 

“Well, how about a story?” Elrohir encouraged glancing around the group.  He was seated near Elladan, propped up on a stack of cushions.  His twin lay on his side, playing with the last bit of wine that swirled in the bottom of his cup.  A full flagon rested within reach, ready to refill at a moments notice.

 

“Surely, amongst us all there should be a few tales left untold?” Elladan finished his brothers’ thought.

 

“And *not* the one about how I shot my father in the foot trellep hunting when I was *THREE*!” Legolas glared at Trelan, cutting off the Silvan elf before he could speak.  He knew exactly what the look on his friend’s face had meant. 

 

The smaller elf began to laugh helplessly.  “But it’s a good one...”

 

“...that we’ve all heard, Trelan.”  Aragorn replied listlessly, watching the two Silvan elves laugh amongst themselves.

 

“Yes, we have.” Raniean agreed trying to get his breathing under control.  “But my prince, I do believe you were more around the age of seventy-five at the time.”

 

“Seventy-five?!?!” Aragorn choked on the lungful of smoke he had just inhaled.

 

“It’s not that old for an elf Strider.”  Legolas defended himself.  He glared at his friend in mock indignation. Leaning over Legolas pounded the man a little harder than necessary on the back.  Aragorn had curled into himself trying to catch his breath as he alternated between coughing and laughing.

 

“Yes, but it’s certainly not that young either.  Oh very well,” Trelan relented. “No trellep stories, even if they are hilarious.”

 

“What about the two of you?”  Elladan questioned, rolling over and glancing at Aragorn and Legolas, “We *know* you’ve got stories you’ve never told.  Come on, part with some of them.”

 

“I remember eons ago, when you returned from Harad, Legolas said something about mûmaskil.  Seeing Dari play with that toy all evening has reminded me.  We never could get that story out of you...”  Elrohir encouraged.

 

“Or the blackmail you have on Legolas from the celebration at Edoras!” Elladan continued. “His face turns ten shades of red whenever you mention it.”

 

“Or no!  Better yet, whatever secret you have between the two of you that you did at Council the first year of your reign that *neither* of you will admit to.  You never would tell us what fully happened!” Elrohir and Elladan kept up the banter, recalling snatches of stories that they could never pry out of the two friends.

 

“How about whatever it was that they did to Glorfindel so that he would never turn his back on them again or leave them alone in his room?” At this point the two twins were giggling helplessly. “I don’t think Ada ever did find that one out.  And I know there are more!!  Like why Thranduil wouldn’t allow you into the throne room in Mirkwood unattended even at your ages?”

 

“What?!” Aragorn glanced at Legolas, his gaze questioning the prince who turned an innocent surprised look on the man. “I can’t believe you told them that!”

 

“Me?!” the prince pointed at himself. “Why, in heaven’s name, would *I* tell them about that?”

 

Both friends turned towards the twins who were now guiltily glancing back and forth at each other.

 

“Who told you?” Aragorn demanded, leaning forward.

 

“Well actually, it was Gimli.  But he wouldn’t tell us anything save that you were banned from the throne room and that only after we got him drunk.”  Elladan admitted sheepishly. “Although I would love to know more!”

 

“That dwarf.” Legolas cursed softly. “I knew telling him too much would come back to haunt me.”

 

“You told *him*?!” Aragorn stared incredulously at the elf.  That he really couldn’t believe. 

 

Legolas shrugged innocently. “It seemed a good idea at the time.  I didn’t think he would repeat it to anyone I actually knew.”

 

“Well obviously he did!”

 

“Oh come on, part with them, you have a lifetime of tales.  Entertain us in our old age.” Elladan teased gently.

 

“Well...” Aragorn stalled, glancing at Legolas to make sure the elf approved.  “I suppose I could tell you what happened at Edoras, if Legolas doesn’t mind.”

 

“Oh, go ahead.”  The prince relented.  “Tell them.  It’s not as if everyone else there didn’t know what happened.”  He shook his head, but his reticence was sabotaged by the smile he could not quite repress.

 

Aragorn pressed himself back against the cushions once more, setting his pipe aside and watching his friend as he began to remember a night very long ago when he was still a ranger and had not quite taken up his heritage yet.

 

“I remember that day, that night.”  He smiled softly at the elf. “We had finally reached Edoras after the battle at Helm’s Deep.  Everyone was weary but the excitement from having won that single conflict was contagious and the women had prepared this victory feast.” Aragorn’s voice drew in his listeners and as he recounted the story it was as if they were there in the very room he described, seeing what he saw and hearing what he heard...

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

The air in the crowded room was filled with loud sounds of laughter and song.  Everyone was celebrating and they had good reason to do so.  Rohan had only barely escaped complete obliteration at the hands of Saruman’s Uruk-Hai armies.  Their victory against all odds at Helms Deep was one to be cherished, especially since even darker days were still ahead. 

 

Merry and Pippin were completely at home.  Up on a table they danced and sang their favorite drinking songs.  The Rohirrim warriors urged them on, accepting the hobbits much easier than many big people did.

 

Legolas was another matter.  He simply did not fit in with the humans around him.  Even so, he was surprisingly not particularly ill at ease.  He had been in the middle of such goings on before and at least this party felt a whole lot safer than some of the nasty little backwater pubs that Aragorn had dragged him into in their younger days together.  However, that was not to say that some of the customs being practiced by these people were not a little strange and unfamiliar to him. 

 

“So, it’s called a drinking game,” he looked to the dwarf at his side for clarification.  Gimli seemed to be right at home here and had been involved in some kind of sport with one of the Rohirrim, and was now trying to get the elf to join him.  Legolas had begun to like the irritating little dwarf more than he wanted to admit.  But he rarely passed up the opportunity of a challenge in the face of their never-ending elves vs. dwarves debate.  He would later wish this were one contest he had skipped.

 

“And what, exactly, is the point?” the elf looked skeptical. 

 

Gimli grinned widely.  “Last one standing wins!” he said cheerfully.

 

Legolas accepted this information, looking down at the mug Éomer placed before him.  Well that didn’t sound too hard.  His father was a connoisseur of fine wines and the young prince had been raised on vintages far stronger than most humans could handle... Legolas had found that out when he was still getting to know Strider.  The young human had erroneously thought that the wine at Thranduil’s table would be no different than what he was accustomed to drinking with his family in Rivendell.  Two large goblets put the twenty-year-old mortal under the table with amazing speed, much to the amusement of all the elves present. 

 

Raising the mug to his lips Legolas wondered for a moment what he was getting himself into as he accepted the challenge, taking a cautious swill of the heavy amber liquid.  The Rohirrim’s grog was heady and unfamiliar, different from the ales and meads he had come across in Bree or other human cities.  It was even more vastly different from what his people called mead.  The elven prince was not sure he really liked the deep, woody flavor and almost made a face.  But he dare not show any hint of squeamishness with Gimli looking on, so he took another deep swallow before lowering the cup again.  The smiling gaze he fixed on his dwarven companion said that the challenge had been accepted. 

 

Gimli laughed at the dainty way Legolas sampled his drink.  The dwarf threw his mug back and emptied it in several swallows.  He wiped his mouth on his sleeve as he slammed his mug back on the table and demanded another.

 

Gimli grinned at the elf.  “Better hurry up laddie, I’m two ahead of you already.”

 

With a resolute expression, Legolas drained his mug and set it down, accepting the next one the Rohirrim handed him.  The prince’s competitive spirit was up and rankled after having somehow managed to lose their impromptu numbers game on the walls of Helms Deep.  If the dwarf wanted a contest, he would get one. 

 

In another corner of the room, Aragorn stood by Gandalf.  They were only half-watching Merry and Pippin dance and sing.  Most of their attention had turned inward to their own conversation which had wandered down darker and more uncertain paths than was entirely fit for the festive air of the party. 

 

Gandalf was worried... no, maybe not worried, perhaps just hurting.  Hurting for what he knew he had sent Frodo into.  Hurting because it was the only way and yet he feared that it would claim not only his dear little friend’s life but also his soul.

 

Aragorn didn’t know how to try to offer comfort or hope in the face of something like that. He believed Frodo was stronger than they gave him credit for sometimes and he knew that Gandalf would be the first to tell that to anyone who might doubt. 

 

“What does your heart tell you?” the ranger asked quietly. 

 

“That he is alive...” Gandalf’s eyes were strangely hopeful and yet filled with rending sorrow at the same time.  He turned away from Aragorn, looking out at nothing with that heartbreakingly fond and mournful look on his face.

 

Gandalf turned back with a still sad, yet hopeful smile.  “Yes, Frodo is alive.”  //but under what circumstances... who can tell?//

 

Aragorn ached for the weight of the world that seemed to be hanging on the wizard’s shoulders, but he sensed that Gandalf had said all he was going to say.  The wizard gave the ranger’s shoulder a squeeze and moved away, heading away from the festivities.  Aragorn let him go.  He could see the signs of someone who wanted to be alone.

 

The human’s roving gaze flitted across the room, taking stock of where his other friends were.  When he found Legolas and Gimli his eyebrows quirked up. 

 

The tall elf and short dwarf were standing near a row of kegs and had apparently just refilled their mugs.  At more or less the same time, they both tipped their heads back, draining the tumblers completely in one long draught before being handed fresh mugs.  A few of the Rohirrim gathered round, cheering the contestants on jovially. 

 

Aragorn would have more than expected a scene like this involving Gimli from what he had come to know of the stout-hearted dwarf over the months since they started out as a fellowship.  What surprised him about the current situation was Legolas.  The man knew the elf could very probably drink him under the table, but he also knew that Legolas strongly favored wine and was not much enamored by the liquors and ales of the human world. 

 

All the explanation Aragorn needed, however, was that the elf and dwarf were involved in the activity together.  The ranger smiled and shook his head.  He had had to put up with the constant bickering between those two since they left Rivendell.  Although to be fair, it had changed from true mistrust to a friendlier sort of rivalry after their time in Lothlórien.  Still, those two could be almost as bad as Elladan and Elrohir when they got into it, and that was saying a lot.

 

Aragorn watched with unbridled amusement as Legolas tossed back another glass, the dancing look in his eyes daring Gimli to keep up with him.  The dwarf was slowing, but would not be outdone.  The ranger chuckled.  Their pride was going to be the death of them both. 

 

The Rohirrim gathered around the contest were all several glasses over their limits themselves, and having a grand time.  They cheered and chanted and kept the grog flowing freely for the two friends as the elf and the dwarf stubbornly kept head-to-head in the game. 

 

“Hey, bring another barrel, this one’s almost empty!” came the call and one of the humans hurried over with another large tankard. 

 

The men could not believe either contestant was still on their feet.  No human could have hoped to imbibe a quarter as much as the elf and dwarf had already downed and remain awake. 

 

Legolas’ body had warned him some time ago that now would be a good time to stop, but he was not about to concede another contest to the dwarf.  His pride kept him going, and presently the warm, buzzing haze that enveloped his senses helped drown out any rational objections.  The thick drink did not even taste bad anymore... in fact he really wasn’t tasting it at all.  He felt more than a little giddy and everything became extremely amusing, including the way part of Gimli’s drink would inevitably roll down his facial hair. 

 

“It’s not fair you know,” he remarked when he and Gimli took a mutual momentary break to breathe.  “You lose half of everything down your beard, you should be drinking double.”

 

“Oh?  Well in that case you’re so big you’ve got more place to put it so *you* should be taking double.”  Gimli shot right back, although his brogue was slurring a bit more than usual. 

 

They both laughed and refilled their mugs.  It wasn’t actually very funny, but at the moment it seemed hilariously so to them.

 

“I feel something in my fingers,” Legolas commented distractedly.  He rubbed the fingers of his left hand together wondering at the odd sensation.  He looked at them with a slightly puzzled expression.  “I think it’s affecting me.”  The statement was part observation, part taunt because Gimli was obviously wavering on his feet. 

 

Éomer glanced up at the elf, amazed.  The amount of alcohol the elf had consumed would have put any of his men under the table.  But it had just barely begun to affect the prince.  He questioned the stories he had heard about the fair race as he handed both the dwarf and Legolas new mugs.  Perhaps the tales of old were true!

 

Gimli was deteriorating quickly now, but he was no more ready to concede the contest than the elf.  He kept up a steady stream of conversation, most of which was incoherent.  And what Eomer could make out he wished he hadn’t.  This was the strangest drinking game he had ever officiated.

 

He shuddered involuntarily as the dwarf, merrily intoxicated, bounced in seat, muttering something about hairy little females.  Dwarves were odd. 

 

With a laugh at his own musings Gimli drained his mug.  He remarked that elves obviously couldn’t hold their liquor... and then fell backward to the floor. 

 

Legolas glanced at his friend and set his mug back down with an air of finality.

 

“I think the game is finished,” he informed Éomer, before stooping to check on the dwarf.  The Rohirrim captain stared dumbfounded at the elf for a few seconds.  He shook his head in disbelief and filled a mug that was shoved his way by another soldier.  Life never ceased to amaze him.

 

“Gimli?  Gimli?”  Legolas was concerned at first, and knelt quickly by his short friend’s side, checking the dwarf’s vitals.  The elf’s fingers fumbled over the task with far less grace than usual and Legolas couldn’t figure out why his hands weren’t working right. 

 

Gimli was perfectly fine.  Merely sleeping deep and soundly, and not likely to wake for some time.  Once Legolas assured himself of this fact, he straightened up.  Giving a laughing, mock-bow to the Rohirrim who were cheering for him, the elf made his way out of the hall and away from the celebrating.

 

The Rohirrim were shocked that someone could walk away from a competition like that so steady and collected, but Aragorn, having caught this final scene from across the room, knew the truth.  Legolas seemed to be steady, but anyone who *really* knew the elf could see that he was off-balance.  The elf was weaving slightly and had to stop for a moment, holding onto the doorpost before he launched himself on into the dark embrace of night beyond. 

 

With a small, sympathetic smile, Aragorn graciously excused himself from the conversation he had been engaged in with Gamling.  He first checked Gimli, and then made his way towards the exit where Legolas had disappeared. 

 

“You are worried about the elf?” Éomer inquired with a wry grin, guessing Aragorn’s true intentions when he saw the other man’s actions.  He was still at his post filling mugs full of the heady mead.  It was his place of preference.  Drinking did not mix well with the duties of a captain.  He knew the painful after affects of having spent a night with his men celebrating.  Once had been enough.  So he remained at the tap watching over his soldiers.

 

“Not worried,” the ranger answered, shaking his head.  Legolas was certainly capable of taking care of himself.  “But... he is my friend.”

 

The Third Marshal of the Riddemark nodded in understanding.  “Aye, and he’s had a drop more than is good for anyone I think, even folk as curious as you three.” 

 

Aragorn smiled and shrugged slightly at Éomer’s somewhat backward compliment. 

 

The horse lord turned and gave some orders to the men standing near.  “Do not worry about Gimli, we will see he is taken back to his lodgings,” he assured Aragorn.

 

Aragorn gave a thankful nod to Éomer before taking his leave.  He did not search Legolas out at once, but stopped first by his own sleeping quarters to gather up a few things.  Passing through what he thought was an empty hall, he halted upon seeing a lone figure lying on a low couch, attempting to get some sleep.  It was the Lady Éowyn who must have taken her leave from the festivities earlier.  Aragorn hadn’t noticed when she left, but she looked chilled and a little drawn.  His caretaker nature drew him forward to adjust her slipping blanket for her. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

When Legolas left the celebration it took him a few moments to realize he didn’t really know where he was going.  He supposed he should go to his quarters and rest until he felt more like himself, but that was across the compound through a throng of milling people and he didn’t want to have to talk to anyone at the moment.  He felt oddly and did not want to shame himself.  Besides, his sleeping pallet was right next to Gimli’s and he didn’t want to run into the dwarf again until he had better control of himself. 

 

Wandering away from the main lodges a bit, the wood-elf was drawn with uncanny direction to one of the few knots of trees in the grassy, windswept landscape of the Mark.  He felt better here, under the low branches of the elms than he did in the crowded city or even in the open, rolling plains. 

 

Legolas unbuttoned the first few catches on his silver tunic, leaning against the tree.  He was hot and dizzy.  The pleasant buzz he had had earlier was wearing away and being replaced by a building nausea as his body began to rebel at what he had done to it tonight.  His temples throbbed.  His hands were slow to respond to his commands and starting to tremble. 

 

With his back against the tree, he slid slowly down to the ground until he was sitting, holding his head in his hands and wondering what in Arda was wrong with him.

 

The elf moaned inwardly when he felt his stomach start heaving and he had to scramble quickly to his hands and knees to oblige his body’s need to purge some of the copious amounts of alcohol he had so rashly forced it to consume. 

 

Legolas’ insides were churning and he knew it wasn’t over yet, so he stayed on his hands and knees, retching miserably.  He had been sick like this before once or twice when he was poisoned.  The feeling was not foreign, but definitely unwelcome. 

 

The prince’s golden hair hung down around his face, clinging to the perspiration on his cheeks.  His arms trembled slightly under him as he panted for air around his heaving stomach and diaphragm.  The elf was dimly aware of what a disgraceful sight he must be and felt his cheeks flush even more hotly. 

 

When his keen hearing picked up someone approaching, his first reaction was to flee rather than be seen like this, even though every inch of his woozy body protested against taking any sudden actions.  A moment later however Legolas’ somewhat sluggish mind registered that he recognized the tread of the human drawing near and he gave up thoughts of flight.  He felt his whole body burn with shame, but he did not run.  Aragorn was probably the only being he would grudgingly suffer to see him at a moment like this.  In fact, as odd as it seemed, he was a little glad he had come. 

 

Legolas felt Aragorn’s cool, gentle hands on his heaving shoulders, soothing him as they always did when the prince was injured or ill.  The human gently brushed the elf’s limp golden hair away from Legolas’ face, pulling it back over the prince’s shoulders. 

 

Legolas felt another convulsion seize him and heaved painfully.  His stomach was already empty however and nothing came up.  Aragorn’s hands tightened reassuringly on his shoulders, massaging his back in small, soothing circles.  Rubbing gently on either side of the elf’s spine right where Legolas’ shoulder blades ended, Aragorn loosened the knotted muscles that had been tensed up by Legolas’ spasms and were now contributing to making them worse. 

 

Legolas relaxed slightly into his friend’s healing hands.  He still felt worse than miserable, but somehow Estel’s touch always helped. 

 

The elf started retching again, and nearly cried at his own weakness and helplessness to control his body.  His arms were shaking so bad he couldn’t hold himself up anymore and he crumpled to his elbows.  Aragorn caught him in one fluid motion.  Sliding around behind the prince and wrapping one arm around his friend’s chest, Aragorn hugged Legolas’ back to his own chest; supporting the very ill elf prince as he suffered through the after-effects of his little competition.

 

“Aragorn...” Legolas murmured around convulsions.  “S-something is wrong.  I-I think I’ve been poisoned.”

 

Aragorn smiled with sympathetic amusement.  “No mellon-nín, you’re not poisoned.  Trust me.  This will pass and leave no lasting harm.  You, my dear friend, are merely facing the consequences of having had too much to drink too quickly.” 

 

“I am not drunk,” Legolas’ voice was indignant.  But the very way his usually precise speech slurred slightly when he said it belayed his own argument.  The elf moaned in despair as he felt another spasm seize him, leaving him breathless again with a churning stomach.  “Oh Valar, I am, aren’t I?”

 

Aragorn patiently smoothed Legolas’ hair back again and settled the miserable elf more comfortably in his arms. 

 

“Yes Legolas, I’m afraid you are.  That’s what you get for drinking like a dwarf.”  He couldn’t help chuckling.  He was sorry that his friend was in pain and would do anything to help, but really, it was just a little amusing.  Legolas had certainly brought this one upon himself. 

 

“Wood-elves do not *get* drunk,” Legolas lamented in self recrimination, glad no one from his home could see him right now.

 

Aragorn chuckled again, wiping his friend’s face gently with a damp cloth.  “Legolas, please, spare me the invulnerable elf line.  Wood-elves can get drunk just like anyone else given the right circumstances.  That was *not* your father’s Dorwinionyou were drinking in there.  I daresay that your body does not particularly care for the Rohirrim’s favored brew.”

 

Legolas had to agree as his empty stomach continued to heave at random intervals, although under Aragorn’s calming ministrations it was starting to slow a little.  

 

“Here,” Aragorn placed a water skin to Legolas’ lips.  “Drink this, it will help.”

 

Legolas accepted without question and drank some of the herbal water that Aragorn had mixed up before coming to find him.  At first the elf’s stomach could not hold even that down and it came right back up again much to Legolas’ chagrin.  But Aragorn was a patient physician and coaxed Legolas to try again.  The elf did and managed to keep it down a little longer this time, before his stomach revolted again and he was quickly doubled over his knees once more, violently ill.

 

Aragorn’s heart ached for his friend.  Even if this were hardly a life threatening situation, Legolas was still in pain and Aragorn knew all to well exactly how the prince was feeling. 

 

“Sorry,” Legolas murmured, ashamed of himself. 

 

“Shh, it’s all right, it’s not your fault,” Aragorn shook his head, his short beard brushing Legolas’ tangled gold hair where it lay rumpled against him.  “Just keep trying, eventually you will have gotten enough down to help.  It just takes time, trust me.”

 

“H-happened to you before?” Legolas asked softly and Aragorn knew the elf wanted to know he wasn’t alone.  The ranger smiled with painful fondness.  Legolas always supposed any normal, fallible weakness in himself to be some horrendous flaw borne by him alone.  He was far too exacting with himself, he always had been. 

 

“Yes, mellon-nín, oh yes.  It has happened to me, more than once,” Aragorn chuckled.  “My brothers also... or Elrohir anyway.  Do not think you are the first person to have suffered through the effects of a drinking game.  The twins were... very creative and not very considerate of the different tolerances held by humans and elves.  I of course found a way to turn the tables the next time, but...” Aragorn shook his head with a wry grin. “That is enough about that.  Suffice it to say that you are definitely not alone Legolas, and there is nothing wrong with you.” 

 

A memory from long ago came back to Aragorn and he chuckled yet again.  “I seem to remember being dog sick after a certain new moon festival in Mirkwood during which NO ONE thought to warn me that your father did not serve normal wine.”

 

Legolas smiled at the memory, but then his face clouded.  “You were sick?  I know you passed out, but I did not know you were ill afterwards, Aragorn.”

 

The human laughed.  “Legolas, you don’t think I stayed in my room the whole next day just because I was bored of your company do you?”

 

Legolas turned in Aragorn’s arms so he could see his friend’s face.  “I’m sorry,” the elf said quietly.  “I did not know.  There was so much about humans... about life even, that I did not understand then.” 

 

The elf’s eyes reflected remorse as he remembered how mercilessly he and his friends had tormented the human about that incident.  Aragorn had borne their friendly ridicule with patience and good humor, but Legolas realized now how it must have made the ranger feel.  Especially when Sarcaulien and Sarcayul’s taunts had *not* been delivered with friendly intent. 

 

“I teased you about it because I did not understand our differences, but even then I would not have if I had known it hurt you like this.  I’m sorry, mellon-nín.  I should have been there for you,” Legolas whispered quietly. 

 

Aragorn smiled gently.  Legolas’ honestly caring and remorseful heart touched him, even though it surprised him that he prince should be so worried about something that happened so very many years ago.  Then he remembered that for Legolas those years were not so long and it was not such ancient history as it was for the human. 

 

“Legolas, I never held you any ill will over that.  ‘twas my own fault for not being more careful in the first place.  You did not know because I did not *want* you to know.  Legolas... we were almost different people then, not close then as we are now.  I was unsure of my place in your regard and would not risk showing any kind of weakness that might make you think me unworthy.”

 

Aragorn gently slipped the neck of the water skin to Legolas’ lips and the elf reluctantly, but obediently tried again to drink.

 

Legolas pondered what Aragorn had said for a moment while he struggled to keep his stomach calm.  In some ways that did seem a very long time ago to him, even though by elven standards it was but a small season of his life.  Yet he could not now really remember the time before Aragorn had been as close to him as a brother.  It was so hard to imagine how they had ever *not* felt that way or how they had gotten through that rough, uncertain time at the beginning of their relationship. 

 

The elf prince’s stomach was calming down and to his relief he was able to keep the medicine down.  He relaxed a little against Aragorn’s grasp.  “I’m glad we are where we are now, mellon-nín,” he murmured quietly wrapping his hand over Aragorn’s where the human was holding his shoulder. 

 

Aragorn nodded in the dark.  “So am I Legolas.  So am I.”

 

Legolas’ breathing slowly returned to normal and his body stopped trembling so much.  He let out a small, relieved sigh as the nausea finally retreated to tolerable levels. 

 

Helping the elf lean back up into an almost sitting position, Aragorn passed him the water skin and Legolas rinsed his mouth out wearily.  The prince’s eyes locked with those of the ranger. 

 

“Don’t tell the dwarf,” Legolas’ plea was both commanding and imploring. 

 

Aragorn tried very hard not to smile, but failed.  “Not a word,” he shook his head solemnly.  He reflected with no small amusement that he seemed to be accumulating enough blackmail on both the elf and the dwarf to keep them in his debt for quite a long time. 

 

Both of them heard the approaching footsteps at the same time.  With speed that showed his reflexes weren’t suffering too badly, Legolas was up the nearest tree in a flash, disappearing into the darkened branches. 

 

Several very drunk Rohirrim staggered past, nodding good night to Aragorn, who returned the courtesy.  The ranger waited until they were gone, then stood and walked to the base of the tree Legolas had disappeared into. 

 

“They’re gone.  Legolas, you can come down.”

 

A soft, muffled moan from overhead was his only answer.

 

Aragorn waited a few more moments before grabbing a low-hanging branch and following his friend up the tree with a sigh.  “Legolas, you and your pride, I swear it will be the death of us both...” he muttered as he picked his way up the tree with less ease than the elf had exhibited even dead drunk. 

 

Aragorn found the prince high up, sitting in the V between two intersecting branches.  Legolas’ arms were wrapped tightly around the branch near his chest as if seeking strength from the tree. 

 

Slightly irritated with his friend a moment before, Aragorn’s heart melted again when he saw the lost, bewildered look on his Legolas’ fair face.  The human settled down carefully near his friend.  “Is everything all right?”

 

Legolas shook his head, still holding the branch tightly.  “No,” he murmured, looking almost frightened.  “The tree... it’s moving, but I know it’s not.  It’s trying to comfort me, but I-I don’t feel safe... I always feel safe in the trees Estel...” 

 

Aragorn pried the elf’s arms free carefully and pulled him back against him once more.  “Your balance is off my friend, your equilibrium disturbed.  Give it a little time, it will come back.  I know it must feel like it, but Legolas, trust me, this truly is not the end of the world.”  His smiling voice was gentle.

 

“I know,” Legolas sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose and rubbing his temples.  “I’m sorry.  I do not mean to act like such a child.  You must be sick of me.  Go, enjoy the rest of your evening Aragorn.  I will be fine, honestly.”

 

Aragorn could tell that the elf truly did wish to be alone now.  “All right, but let’s get you back to your quarters first...”

 

“No!” Legolas protested quickly, resisting Aragorn’s attempts to move him. “I... I would rather stay here.  I will be all right.”

 

Aragorn guessed immediately why Legolas did not want to go back into the city. 

 

“Legolas, no one is going to notice anything, half the men are already much too far gone themselves to be paying attention to anyone else and Gimli is not going to wake up for a very long time, not ‘til morning probably.  See if you can’t bend that elvish pride a little so you can get some good rest, hm?”  There was a dancing, mirthful light in the ranger’s eyes that the elf did not appreciate just at the moment. 

 

Legolas gave Aragorn a disgruntled, yet slightly playful shove away from him.  “I can get good rest right here human.  This land is so flat and open; it is good to be in the trees again.”

 

Aragorn shook his head, but held up his hands in defeat.  He was not going to argue the point.  “As long as you don’t fall out of it.  *That* I think would be something you would not live down mellon-nín.

 

Legolas snorted in derision at the very idea, casting a wry glare in the human’s direction.  “Not this day my friend.  Now go away and let me rest, I’m certain you can find someone else to pester.  Like that pretty maiden who follows you around with hero worship in her every glance... Éowyn isn’t it?” 

 

It was Aragorn’s turn to glare.  Éowyn’s feelings for him were becoming increasingly apparent and he didn’t know what to do about the situation.  He liked her; she was noble, she was brave and of the highest quality.  The kind of person he would treasure as a friend... but he did not love her.  His heart had been given away long ago and he knew that although it meant he would probably be alone for the rest of his life, he could give it to no other no matter how worthy.

 

“It’s not me you know,” he shook his head, trying to explain it away and chagrined that the elf had already seen so clearly what it had taken him this long to begin figuring out.  “She’s young, and in love with an idea, a legend of great deeds and the promise of an exciting future.”

 

“Mmm,” Legolas nodded, leaning his aching head sideways against the tree, feeling the cool bark suck some of the annoying heat out of his body as he began slipping towards a healing trance.  “*I* know that mellon-nín, but I think she may have a harder time separating the idea from the dashing and charismatic package it comes bound up with.”  His tired grin was wicked.  Aragorn was having fun at his expense, turnabout was fair play.

 

Aragorn would have whacked the elf if he was not afraid that in Legolas’ current state he might actually fall out of the tree if suddenly unbalanced.  It wasn’t a far distance, but Aragorn knew if he caused a wood elf to fall out of a tree, he had better be sure that he was nowhere near that said wood elf for the next few days... or possibly months...

 

Instead, the human settled for an irritated growl.  “Legolas, you hallucinate when you’re drunk.”

 

Legolas closed his eyes with a placid smile.  “I’m not drunk.”

 

Aragorn rolled his eyes.  “Nooo, of course you’re not.  Perish the thought.  Well then I will just leave you to sleep off the affliction you *don’t* have.  But I will not be held responsible if you wake up at the bottom of this tree instead of the top.”

 

Legolas just smiled, his consciousness already fading.  

 

Aragorn hesitated before climbing down, gently touching his friend’s temple.  “Legolas... you really will be all right up here?”

 

The elf nodded slightly and murmured yes.  Aragorn could tell that Legolas was letting himself be pulled into a sort of healing trance.  Given elves’ accelerated rates of regeneration and recovery the prince would likely be completely back to normal in a few hours. 

 

Satisfied, Aragorn climbed down the tree as carefully as he could, trying not to shake it too much for his friend’s sake.  When he had almost reached the ground he heard Legolas’ soft voice float down to him on the cool night air.  “Thank you... for coming after me.”

 

Aragorn grinned in the darkness.  “Always mellon-nín.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Everyone was at rest now as the hours marched on from the late watches of the night to the early watches of the morning.  Festivities had long ago died down and now it seemed that only the sentries were awake. 

 

This was proved not entirely true when a lone, dark figure stepped out onto the roof of the long hall that was currently acting as resting place of many of the soldiers and guests.

 

Most were sleeping quietly below; even Gandalf had finally retired for the night.  But Aragorn was still wakeful.  He wasn’t sure why, but a vague unease was gnawing at him so he had come up here for a view of the stars.  The ranger smiled slightly as he lit his pipe.  He supposed that was the elvish touch that had been reared into him, his fondness for starlit nights. 

 

Speaking of elves... Aragorn quickly realized he was not alone on the roof.  A hooded figure stood on the very edge of the roof, staring off into the east.  Although the figure had his back to the ranger, Aragorn knew at once who it was.  He knew Legolas well enough to recognize his stance anywhere. 

 

The human made his way to the elf’s side, not really surprised that Legolas was already up and about again.  Elrohir had recovered nearly as fast, although he had made a much larger fuss about it. 

 

Legolas’ gaze was intent and his attention seemingly far away so Aragorn was silent for a few moments until the elf turned and acknowledged his presence. 

 

“The stars are veiled. Something stirs in the east. A sleepless malice,” Legolas warned quietly.  It was obvious to the human that the elf was sensing something that he could not.

 

Aragorn could see Legolas’ eyes now, shaded by the hood he wore.  The elf was worried.  Something was happening; forces were at work of which the man was unaware.

 

“The Eye of the enemy is moving,” Legolas continued.  The evil in the air around him was palatable to his every sense.  The light of the stars dimmed.  The winds held the touches of evil voices on their way up the hill.  Even the night air seemed fouled about them as the Dark Lord’s attention stirred their way.

 

The words that the prince spoke chilled Aragorn to the bone.  What did it mean?  Did Sauron know that he was here?  Had he given himself away at Helm’s Deep, or was there a spy among them now?  Had Frodo been captured and the Ring of Power retaken?  Were their plans foiled already?

 

Aragorn didn’t interrupt or question the elf.  He knew better by now.  When Legolas was reading the very earth around them as he was tonight it was in their best interest to let him concentrate.

 

A sudden blank look of horror crossed Legolas’ fair features, before solidifying into terrible recognition. 

 

“He is here!” the elf gasped in alarm.  He turned sharply as though he thought to find the enemy standing right behind them.

 

Only the dark of night and the shadows from the building met their gaze.

 

But it seemed even to Aragorn’s untrained eyes as though the shadows deepened and drew all light out of the sky.  A dark fist enclosed them. 

 

A panicked shouting from below grabbed their attention.  Coming at the moment it did, neither of them thought to put it down to mere chance.  The two friends sprinted for the rooftop hatch.  Pelting down the stairway Aragorn wondered what could have happened.  There was no reason to believe anything had happened, save Legolas’ premonition, but he had come to trust in the elf too much to shrug it off.

 

Bursting through the doorway, Aragorn quickly looked around the sleeping chambers.  His heart was pounding, but he didn’t know what he expected.  Orcs, Nazgûl, something worse?  Legolas had been so sure that Sauron was aware of their location.  The elf was rarely wrong.

 

The room was in a state of chaos, but no enemies seemed to be in evidence.  Gandalf, sleeping in the corner, had just woken and was throwing off his blankets.

 

In the middle of the room Pippin was writhing on the floor, his mouth frozen open in a silent scream of agony.  He was obviously in pain and locked in an internal struggle with the flaming palantir in his grasp. 

 

And the palantir was winning.  Or rather the force behind it was.

 

How Pippin had gotten his hands on the palantir barely brushed through Aragorn’s mind as he took in the situation.  How didn’t matter.  The important thing here was that Pippin’s mind was being savaged and that had to be stopped before it killed him.  Without a second thought for what might happen to him, Strider grabbed the stone from Pippin’s hands, ripping away the connection that Sauron had on the hobbit’s mind.

 

Pippin slumped to the floor as though dead, frightening his kinsman.  His eyes stared blankly at the ceiling while Merry desperately called his name.

 

Sauron was incensed.  He was not finished with the hobbit.  He was sure this was the one he was looking for.  It had to be, why else would he be looking into Saruman’s seeing-stone if the wizard had not forced him to do so for his torment and Sauron’s pleasure?  If he only had a few seconds longer he could have pried the young being’s mind open and secured all the information he wanted.  Saruman should know better than to trifle with the Dark Lord’s fancies like this.  If he had made the hobbit look into the stone, then he should have waited until his Lord gave permission for him to be released.  Of course, if Saruman had the Halfling, and the Ring, in his possession now, it could be that the wizard was getting unhealthy ideas in his head.  That would have to be stopped.

 

Angrily, he lashed out, sweeping the mind of the one who now held the palantir with a storm fire of electricity.  His intent was to harm or even destroy this one that interrupted him.  Saruman wouldn’t be stupid enough to do it himself, but a dead servant could be a very valuable object lesson on the Dark Lord’s displeasure.  What Sauron didn’t expect was the severe rebound of his mental energies when his attack was rebuffed by the well-shielded mind he had seized upon.

 

Unprepared for the onslaught, all conscious thought was stolen from Aragorn the moment his hands clasped the coldly flaming stone ball.  He sucked in his breath in a sharp gasp as Sauron struck at him.  It felt like every thought in his mind had misfired and he was no longer capable of controlling his body.  His vision wavered and hazed out of focus until only the great eye ringed by fire consumed his sight.

 

With sheer will alone, Aragorn closed off every part of his mind, blanking out all thought and simply focused on breathing as the force of Sauron tried to tear his mind apart.  It was not a new sensation.  This was something he recognized, albeit it in a fairly diminished capacity.

 

It was the same thing the Nazgûl had tried on him many years ago when he and Legolas were prisoners in Angmar.  That memory alone ripped a black thread of fear through his thoughts.

 

He felt Legolas’ hands grabbing his shoulders and trying to hold him up.  He couldn’t help as all the strength in his body fled and his knees buckled limply.  All his strength turned inward, concentrating on shielding his mind from the fierce onslaught.

 

It felt like fingers of fire wrapped around his brain, searching for that weak spot - prying to find anyway in.

 

This new mind intrigued the Dark Lord.  There was a feel to it, a touch in it that he knew he should remember.  A sense of something long ago forgotten, or someone from the far distant past that had ‘felt’ the same way. 

 

Familiar...

 

But who?  Before he could get inside the well constructed shields of the new mind the connection was cut once more.   The Dark Lord growled in frustration.  His voiceless anger was easily heard by all in the room as Aragorn dropped the palantir from his unresponsive fingers and crashed to the floor of the room.  It rolled with mock innocence across the floorboards. 

 

It seemed to the ranger that he had held the stone for ages, fighting back that disembodied voice for days as it demanded entrance to his thoughts.  Time had ceased when his mind had been grasped by the Dark Lord.  The entire world had faded down to mere seconds and the simple act of breathing – survival.

 

Legolas felt the immense struggle, the evil, as soon as he had touched his friend’s body.  He drew his breath in sharply and gripped the man’s shoulders tighter, trying to support his friend in more ways than just physically.  It took mere seconds for Aragorn to slump limply to the floor in his arms, but those moments seemed to pass very slowly.  When the Palantir rolled out of reach, it was like an electric connection being severed.  Aragorn’s limp body jerked and shuddered once in his grasp and the elf’s realized his heart was pounding hard in his throat.  Fear for his friend made the area between the elf’s temples throb in a way that told him he hadn’t quite left all reminders of his earlier misadventure completely behind him yet.

 

A blackness descended over the palantir and Sauron withdrew.  Gandalf’s blanket fell on top of the rolling orb stopping its path and preventing anyone else from touching the device.

 

Ignoring the human after briefly noting that Legolas was seeing to him, the Istari raced to the hobbit’s side.  Aragorn was resilient and he could see at a glance that the man would be all right.  He had no such assurances about Pippin, however.  The hobbit was shrouded in shadow and completely catatonic. 

 

Behind the wizard, Legolas was holding Aragorn’s limp body.  It took the man a few seconds before anything but the burning aftereffects of the rampage registered on his senses.

 

The elf knelt behind him and slowly eased Aragorn up into a sitting position.  Legolas’ soft voice in the ranger’s ear could be heard by no one else save the man.

 

Nausea roiled through Aragorn’s senses, threatening to overthrow him.  He was dizzy and finding it difficult to stay upright.  The man leaned heavily against the elf for support.  He glanced over the Istari’s shoulder to make sure Pippin was coherent.

 

“I need to...”  Aragorn tried to form words as he regained control of his senses.

 

“What is it?” Legolas bent nearer trying to hear what his friend was saying.

 

“Outside,” Aragorn ground out between ragged breaths.

 

Quickly, Legolas pulled the human to his feet and led him outside.  Aragorn was slowly regaining his ability to walk but leaned heavily against the elf.  It was all he could do to concentrate on keeping the contents of his dinner.

 

Once outside, Legolas walked them both to the back of the building and lowered the man to the ground.  Aragorn knelt in the dirt and rested his hands on the grass, collecting himself.  The nausea passed slowly and he was able to fight it back.  Taking deep breaths, he calmed the roiling inside his body and sat up slowly.  Legolas was kneeling next to him worriedly, watching the man.

 

“Are you all right?” Legolas queried.

 

Aragorn didn’t answer for a moment.  The truth was he wasn’t all right, and it wasn’t just because he was still hovering on the brink of wanting to throw up. 

 

“It was the same,” the man whispered.  “It felt like when the Nazgûl tried to pry into my mind, only worse.  Legolas, it was as if a firestorm had set off inside my head.  It... it was the same.”

 

The elf said nothing, simply seating himself in the long grasses next to his friend.  There was nothing he could say.  Gently he rubbed Aragorn’s back as the man’s breathing calmed.

 

“There you two are,” A voice behind spoke, startling them both.

 

The sudden movement cause Aragorn’s head to spin and he groaned softly as he focused on Gandalf.

 

“How do you feel?” the wizard questioned as he crouched down in front of the man.

 

“Like I lost the drinking game tonight and not Gimli,” Aragorn whispered.  Sounds were exaggerated to his hearing and his words were slightly slurred.

 

“Did he learn anything from you?” Gandalf pressed.

 

“No, nothing.  I did not let him in,” the ranger answered wearily.

 

Touching the man’s forehead with his hand the Istari judged the human’s state of being for himself.  He nodded slowly and stood to his feet.

 

“Good.  We cannot risk him knowing you are so close to him just yet,” Gandalf spoke softly.  He knew the effects of attempting communication with a palantir for the first time... especially considering who was on the other end.  And Aragorn’s first experience had come suddenly without any preparation.  He was surprised the human had handled it so well.

 

“How is Pippin?” Legolas queried.

 

“He will be fine.  He is suffering from the contact but he divulged nothing of our plans,” Gandalf’s answered.  His scowl deepened when Aragorn took a slow breath and closed his eyes.  “We were lucky this time.  You should probably come in, Aragorn, it is warmer inside.”

 

“I would stay out here for a bit, Mithrandir, if you don’t mind.  The cool is helping to clear my head and I do not feel well just yet,” Aragorn responded softly.  He slowly directed his gaze at the wizard, fearful of moving too fast just yet.

 

“As you wish.  I am just inside should you need me.”  The last statement was directed at Legolas who simply nodded in compliance.

 

Legolas wrapped his arm around Aragorn’s shoulders and let the man lean on him.

 

“It wasn’t him,” The elf whispered softly.  It was understood by both of them just what ‘him’ Legolas was referring to - the Witch King.  Admittedly, it had actually been someone far worse, but as twisted as it was the unfamiliar evil was in a way better than the all too familiar. 

 

“I know...”

 

With a nod the prince let the subject drop until Aragorn wished to talk about it further.

 

A small laugh from the human surprised the elf and he glanced at the man.

 

“I think I can fully sympathize with how you felt earlier,” Aragorn answered the unasked question.  “This is definitely how it feels to wake up after having too much to drink.”  Gingerly he held his head in hands and waited for the feelings to pass.  They would.  He knew from experience.

 

For now, he was content to sit outside, away from the others and enjoy the quiet peacefulness of the night.  Slowly the ringing in his ears abated and the odd buzzing in his head quieted.  Turning to his friend he quietly asked how the elf fared.

 

The soft conversation of the two friends was the only sound that could be heard as the stars were unveiled and the grip of evil fled from the hills of Edoras.

Chapter Text

~*PART THREE*~
~Nursemaid to a Mûmaskil~

 

 

“I remember that night like it was yesterday.  That was awful *and* it was the last time I was ever that sick from drinking again!  I think everyone was sick that night.” Legolas commented, pushing himself up on his elbows.  “That little hobbit though, nearly got us in more trouble than even you are capable of, my dear Estel.”

 

“Whatever happened to him?” Elrohir questioned.  They were fond of the Hobbits, but had little contact with the Shire now that Bilbo, Frodo and their father had gone over the sea. 

 

“I heard he is Thain of Hobbiton now.”  Aragorn shook his head, trying to remember, “We haven’t received word from the Shire of late, I’ll have to look into that when we get back and make sure they are well.”

 

“Let it go for now,” Legolas warned the king off of his pondering, “This is not the time for work.  Here you are not King.” He taunted the human lightly.  He shifted and something poked him in the ribs.  He fished around in the blankets to discover what it was. 

 

“Certainly not!” Elladan exclaimed with a derisive snort.  “Here are you are simply Estel, human, Dùnadan, brother, little brother at that!”

 

Legolas found out that the hard item he had rolled on was the wooden Oliphant that Dari must have accidentally left behind in the blankets when he fell asleep. 

 

“You forgot nursemaid to Mûmaskil!”  The prince put in, brandishing the little carving and laughing at the scowl the man laid on him.  “Elrohir did beg for that tale you know.”

 

“Oh, do tell, dear friend, but don’t think for a moment that I will leave out *your* part of the tale.” Aragorn threatened, much to his companions’ amusement.

 

Legolas’ eyes went wide at the threat as he burst out laughing.  “Now that had nothing to do with your side of it!  In fact it wouldn’t have happened at all if it weren’t for you!”

 

“Tell us! Enough of the cryptic twin-talk between the two of you.”  Elrohir reprimanded. “I have been waiting years to hear this story.”

 

“Well, perhaps we should make you wait a few more!  I thought elves didn’t measure time like we humans do.” Aragorn teased.  He laughed as the twin’s frustration peaked.   The man was stalling and Legolas knew it.  It wasn’t a story that he or the prince recounted often.  Their time in Harad had been difficult and the extended separation from his family was still painful for Aragorn to remember.

 

Legolas eyed the human carefully.  He could tell that Aragorn was weighing whether or not he actually wanted the story retold.

 

“Come on, Strider,” Raniean prodded quietly, using the human’s old nickname.  “Save us from Trelan telling more stories of trelleps.”  The elf smiled softly when both Legolas and Aragorn glanced his way.

 

“There’s so much of that tale that we never heard,” Trelan continued the argument.  “Legolas was distinctly tight-lipped about the whole affair.”

 

With a small nod, Aragorn relented to the cheers of the elves sitting about him.  Glasses were quickly refilled with wine and Moranuen hurried to stoke the fire before they all settled down once more.

 

“I can’t quite remember how it was that it came to be,” Aragorn spoke quietly, trying to recall how the exact events had taken place.  His frown deepened as he sifted through memories.

 

“I remember,” Legolas’ voice broke into his thoughts. “Rhuddryn had purchased extra stock that day and the herd he had cut from was wild and mistreated.  Some of the older mûmaks were hostile and a few were cowed.  The new oliphaunts were not mixing well with the common herd and there was an orphan.”

 

The elf smiled impishly at the man that reclined next to him.

 

“That’s right.  The orphan.  That’s what happened.  The wild mûmaks were keeping the herd from settling down.”  Aragorn’s voice was soft as he picked up the retelling.  “Rhuddryn had wanted to increase his wealth and status and so he had acquired more stock.  But the new animals were unsettled and fearful and the scent of the taergs kept them restless.”

 

“I think that was the longest day we ever worked out in the fields,” Legolas added.  “Wasn’t it nearing the first watch of night before we headed back to camp?”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

“I don’t think we’ve worked a longer day since I’ve been here,” Aragorn whispered quietly to the Haradrim slave that walked next to him.  He wiped the sweat out of his eyes and tucked the edges of his bandana back in on themselves, holding the white swatch of fabric in place.

 

“It was the longest, and the hardest as well,” Sircyn answered softly.  He was the son of the tribal head that had adopted Aragorn into their family.

 

The ranger’s gaze was riveted to the ground, trying to watch out for any pitfalls that may trip him up.  The sun had set long ago and only the moon lighted the path of the weary slaves.  The soft glow of his other companion helped steady the man’s feet as they trudged wearily homeward.

 

The ranger and the Haradrim were accompanied by a third slave.  The elf’s blonde hair and fair features made him stand out starkly against the dark skinned peoples of the southern regions.  Even Aragorn’s skin had tanned a deeper brown and his dark hair had lightened by shades after the months of labor on the oliphaunt farm.  The Olybryn.  That was what the mûmak herders were called.  Now, willing or no, both the elf and the ranger had become part of them.  The elf walked in silence next to the ranger.  His body still ached from the severe beating he had taken earlier last week when his true identity had been discovered.  In all his immortal years Legolas could not remember being so tired.  He was recovering well.  Miraculously, as far as the other Olybryn were concerned, who had never seen someone that injured survive before.  It frightened them a little and their natural instinct was to avoid the elf and give him a wide-berth.  Fortunately, Aragorn was able to help dispel some of their apprehension. 

 

“I am not sure that they will bed down very well tonight,” Sircyn commented.  “Their surroundings are new and the younger ones aren’t adapting well.”

 

The slaves’ quiet conversation was interrupted when Talft waded into the group, shoving the elf out of the way much more roughly than was necessary and smacking Sircyn hard with his spine of his bow. “Silence!” the guard roared. “Your slowness has cost us dinner.  We are late because of the lot of you.  Now walk faster and keep your tongues.”

 

Talft and Lur were the two guards that had been assigned to protect the Olybryn.  Half the time however, the Olybryn needed more protection from their guards than they did from the wild beasts.  Talft and Lur weren’t the brightest of Rhuddryn’s men, nor were they the best.  The only thing the two thugs were good at was harassing the slaves, which they did with exceptional joy.  Keeping the taergs from stalking the herd during the daylight hours was only their only truly useful purpose.  Beyond that the two were worthless as far as the Olybryn were concerned.

 

It did no one any good to cross them, however, especially when their moods were dark.  Doing so would only invite unnecessary pain.

 

Stepping back near Lur, Talft reached out and smacked Legolas hard on the back of his head just out of spite.  The blow caused the elf to stumble forward into the slave in front of him.  Reacting quickly, Aragorn grabbed his friend around the waist and righted the prince carefully before he could fall.

 

The two soldiers thought this was incredibly funny and began to take turns shoving any of the Olybryn within reach as they vented their frustration.

 

“Some elf you are, Tyndel.  Has to have the help of the half-wit just to walk!” Talft taunted. 

 

Legolas bit back his frustration and anger and focused his emotions instead on the darkly humorous fact that these two imbeciles acted as if they knew anything at all about elves. 

 

The teasing had nearly provoked Aragorn too far when the sleeping tents mercifully came into view.  Ignoring their escorts, the slaves broke away from the guards and quickly filed into the canvas shelters that served as home.  Mambre, Syna and several other women had returned earlier to prepare the evening meal and light the fires that warmed the sleeping quarters.  The sight of the gently glowing tents brought a sense of peace and safety to Aragorn’s heart.  He shrugged off the senseless cruelty of the guards and found himself smiling as he followed Legolas in through the tent flap.

 

The meal was simple and hot.  The familial closeness was warm and satisfying.  It was a routine the human had fallen into easily.  Moments after laying his head down on his pallet, Aragorn was fast asleep.

 

The workers were so exhausted no one noticed at first when, hours later, the tent flap was thrown back and Talft and Lur barged in on the sleeping occupants.

 

It seemed like only moments before that he had lain down when Aragorn was roughly woken.  Strong hands were pulling him up out of his slumber and dragging him to the tent opening.  People were yelling and Cabed was asking for an explanation.  Legolas leapt to his feet, but Sircyn pulled him back and held the elf fast to the ground, trying to keep the prince safe from the melee.

 

Aragorn stumbled and pitched forward, unable to gain his footing.  He slammed hard into Talft.  The guard grabbed him by the hair and jerked him upright.

 

Behind him, he barely registered the sounds of scuffing as it took all of Sicryn’s power to physically restrain Legolas, weakened though the elf still was.  The prince was obviously alarmed that his friend had been singled out in this unexpected, brusque manner.  It was all the Haradrim could do to keep the prince from gaining the ranger’s side.  If he quarreled with the guards, it would bring pain not only to the elf, but to the whole group with which he was associated.   The Simbani clan did not wish to be placed on punishment duty if it could be helped.

 

Dropping to his knees, Aragorn lowered his head and sat still at Lur’s feet.  He had learned quickly how to diffuse the two guards’ tempers.  The last thing he wanted was to endanger his adoptive family through his actions. 

 

“What have I done wrong?” he asked simply.  Keeping his voice soft and his eyes lowered, the ranger played the part of the simpleton they believed he was.

 

Silence fell in the tent.

 

Aragorn was rocked sideways as the guard slapped at his head.  “You haven’t done anything wrong, half wit,” Lur spat at the northerner.  “The boss is unhappy because he can’t sleep.  That means we can’t sleep, so neither can you.  That orphaned mûmak won’t keep quiet and Rhuddryn says if you can’t get it to stop making noise he’ll put it down.  He wants you to see what you can do since the brutes seem to listen to you.  Now get up.”  Lur growled at the ranger.

 

Hauling Aragorn to his feet, the guards shoved him out the tent flap.  The ranger glanced back over his shoulder into the sleeping quarters before Talft dragged him away towards the open fields where the oliphaunts were kept.

 

No one ventured to the fields at night.  It meant sure death.  The mûmaks were safe in the nighttime hours.  They had been dealing with the threat of the predators in the wild for long before the humans domesticated them.  The huge beasts slept in a tight circle, their young kept inside the protective ring.  Their massive size and numbers created a protective barrier that even the taergs knew better than to cross.  But it did not mean that the taergs didn’t hunt in the dark hours.  Other creatures were susceptible to the carnivores at night and more than once they had killed slaves who were out too late.  It was understood that the night was the predator’s time, and the slaves wisely stayed well within their own protected encampments... usually.  Tonight, obviously, things were different. 

 

Cabed pulled the tent flap back and watched as the guards manhandled Aragorn down the path past the great house.  The ranger didn’t fight back and didn’t resist.  The soldiers had not yet caught on to the fact that the man’s mind was whole once more and Aragorn wanted to keep it that way.

 

“You must let me go,” Legolas struggled against Sircyn and the other Olybryn who held him back.  He broke the hold the Haradrim had on him and rushed to the doorway.  Cabed casually drew the tent flap closed and stood in front of the portal.  The elf could have pushed past the elder slave, but he restrained himself.  Cabed had been good to him, allowing him to stay with Aragorn when he could have just as easily disposed of the elf.  And more than that the elderly Haradrim had been good to Aragorn and for that Legolas respected him.

 

“Wait,” Cabed commanded simply.  He took the elf’s arm and led Legolas back to the dying fire ring.  “Wait for a few moments.  Talft and Lur will not stay to guard Adrar.  They will set him to his tasks and leave.  They are cowards and think only of themselves,” Cabed’s weathered eyes were dark with contempt.  “Give them a few moments and then you may go.  I cannot risk having you discovered outside the tent.  If you are caught out at night the whole clan will have to pay.”

 

“I will not be caught,” Legolas defended his actions fiercely.  He greatly feared Aragorn being left in the fields alone.  This was not a safe place.  He had guarded the Olybryn with Talft and Lur until his secret was discovered and he knew the dangers that lurked here. 

 

“No, of course not.  You will do as I say and wait,” Cabed’s gentle rebuke was softened by his smile.  “Sit,” he commanded, seating himself next to Mambre who was stoking the fire back to life.

 

“Adrar will be fine,” Sircyn added as he sat down cross-legged by the elf and threw bits of wood and kindling into the fledgling flames.  “Lur was right about one thing, Adrar is good with the animals.”

 

Legolas frowned slightly as he allowed himself to be detained.  They had all been so tired from the work of the day that none of them had heard the crying of the lonely mûmak.  Now that he was awake, the elf could hear the oliphant’s bawling, grating on his sensitive hearing like a flock of crebain permanently caught and wailing in a whirl-wind.  He wondered how Rhuddryn had tolerated the constant mewling so long.

 

Aragorn stumbled out into the pasture, falling hard to his knees.  Talft was laughing as the simple-minded slave slowly picked himself up.  He kicked the northerner hard, just for good measure, dropping the slave back down onto the hard packed dirt.

 

“Now quiet it up before we do!” he hollered at the slave.

 

Schooling his face free of the anger he felt, Aragorn slowly rose to his feet.  The baby mûmaskil had silenced its forlorn crying when the men had come in sight.  It was fearful of the humans and shied away from the loud guards.  The weapons they carried brought back bad memories for the little creature and it trembled slightly as Aragorn walked closer to it.

 

There was little feed left over from the day.  The troughs were nearly empty as Aragorn walked next to them.  He grabbed what bits of straw and hay lay at the bottom of the stone bins until he had a good handful of the feed.  Glancing out of the corner of his eyes at the oliphaunt he judged the small pack animal to be no more than six or seven months old.  The mûmak was old enough to be eating on its own but still young enough to be attached to its mother.

 

“What happened to its parent?”  Aragorn questioned softly as he slowly approached the forlorn creature.

 

“Its mother wouldn’t cooperate when the herd was culled and she was killed,” Lur responded dispassionately.  “Can you keep it quiet or not?”

 

Aragorn sighed deeply; it was no wonder the little beast was so upset.  Now the creature’s crying made sense, as well as the fearful agitation it was exhibiting towards Talft and Lur.  Just the sight of them seemed to be enough to upset it so much that Aragorn wasn’t having any luck even getting close.  He had initially wondered why the poor creature hadn’t followed the herd out to safer pastures and stayed with the other adults.  Now he understood, it was waiting for its mother to return.

 

Turning back towards the guards, Aragorn stopped and addressed them more harshly than he had intended. “If you will lower your weapons and leave I might have better chance.”

 

The two overseers glared for a moment, but were too tired and fearful of the night to fuss much at the moment.  They wanted to get out of here as soon as possible.  The half-wit could fend for himself. 

 

“Whatever you want, Adrar.  Have fun with the taergs,” Lur taunted as he pulled Talft with him and walked away towards the safety of the guard’s bunkhouse.

 

“What if the taergs do find them?” Talft questioned as he followed his friend back to the safety of their hut.

 

“Well then the master will sleep very well,” Lur laughed at his own joke.  “Who cares?  It’s only an orphan calf and a half-wit.  There isn’t anyone who would miss either of them, let alone the master.”  The guard’s coarse laughter floated out across the plains.

 

Sighing once more, Aragorn wiped the sleep out of his eyes and took in a deep breath.  The cool air helped clear his head and wake him fully.  He realized that his lip had split in the ruckus at the tent and he swiped at the blood with his free hand.  He glanced about the fields, sizing up the surrounding area and scanning the hillocks for signs of taergs.

 

So far he and the distraught mûmak seemed safe.

 

Looking back up, he noted that the young oliphaunt was shifting its weight from one foot to the other, nervously eyeing him.  He was just glad that it had stopped bawling for the moment.  Licking his split lip, Aragorn thought back to his training with the horses that his father kept.  His brothers were excellent with the animals that were brought to their stables.  Often if an injured ranger was brought to the house his horse was kept in the elven stables.  Aragorn had found that the horses sometimes needed as much attention as their riders did.  So, he had found himself in the stables often, helping with the frightened stallions that were brought to them. 

 

The baby mûmak wasn’t much taller than a horse and right now it was acting just like some of the steeds he had dealt with at home.  He tried to remember all that his brothers had taught him.  Lowering his eyes he walked slowly towards the oliphaunt.  He stretched out his hand that held the fistful of hay and spoke softly in elvish.

 

“Easy,” he whispered.  “You’re fine.  They are gone and I’m here now.  We are safe.”  He held the hay closer to the creature so the mûmak could smell it.  He couldn’t remember seeing the youngster eating earlier.  The oliphaunt shied sideways, stopping when the human stood still.

 

“That’s it,” Aragorn continued talking.   Reaching out he stroked the young animal’s rough hide, constantly moving slowly closer.  “You’ll like it here.  The food is good; the people are nice, well except for Talft and Lur.  They are idiots, although they think I am.  Just don’t believe anything they say.”  He kept his voice low and soft as he moved closer and closer.  The fingers of his right hand strayed to the oliphaunt’s ear, rubbing gently behind it as he offered the feed with his left hand.

 

The baby mûmak watched him closely.  The youth’s trunk slowly snaked up and touched the man’s hand, smelling the hay and passing it up as he explored the human that stood next to him.

 

The warm breath of the animal brushed through his hair as Aragorn allowed the youngster to explore the way he smelled.  He stayed calm when the strong trunk wrapped around his arm and pulled him closer to the animal’s head.  The oliphaunt eyed him for several minutes as the human softly spoke to it, continually offering the hay.  A soft, plaintive cry shook the small mûmak and Aragorn was momentarily afraid it would begin calling for its mother again.  Without thinking about it the human pushed the hay into the gaping mouth and gently pressed it shut.

 

With a start the oliphaunt jerked back, surprised at the sudden movement.  A second later the youngster realized just how hungry it truly was.  After the first mouthful it was all Aragorn could do to find enough leftovers to feed the hungry oliphaunt.

 

It took him several more attempts to fetch the beast water.  As quickly as he filled the water trough the mûmak emptied it out again.

 

Leaning against the low fence, Aragorn gazed at the young oliphaunt.  It contentedly slurped up the last of the water he had just poured into the trough.   He realized how tired he was after the long day he had put in with no chance for rest.  The baby hadn’t made a noise the whole time he had been with it and now that it seemed to be settling down he intended to lead the mûmak out to the herd and leave it there for the night. 

 

Before he could formulate how exactly he was going to get out there and back safely, he was startled by the touch of a hand on his arm.

 

Aragorn jumped back from the touch, stumbling out into the field and scaring the oliphaunt with his fast movement.  The mûmak trumpeted and jumped backwards as well.

 

Legolas stifled his laughter when he saw the weary, frightened look Aragorn laid on him.

 

“Don’t *DO* that!” Aragorn practically yelled at his friend, “Do you want to make my heart fail?  You nearly did!  I’m not that awake right now.”

 

“Forgive me, my friend,” Legolas apologized with a smile.  “I merely meant to check on you.  I feared for you being out here by yourself.”  The elf held out his hand towards the orphaned mûmak and beckoned it to come closer in elvish. 

 

“How are things with your new friend?”  Legolas questioned.  He couldn’t help laughing when the mûmak stepped behind Aragorn, grabbing the man around the waist with its trunk and pulling the human back against the side of his face as though for protection.

 

Aragorn gently patted the animal, glancing up into the small, black eye that watched him so closely.

 

“I think we are doing better.  He’s eaten and had his fill of water.  I was going to walk him out to the herd and then head back to the tents.  You want to come with us?” Aragorn asked as he started to turn the animal out toward the open pasture.  “I’d love the company and need the help.”  The man’s soft laughter caused the oliphaunt to jump slightly, so Aragorn wrapped his arms around the mûmak’s trunk as he began to walk slowly away from the feed troughs.

 

Reluctantly at first, the youngster followed.  As the two friends walked and talked between themselves, the creature settled down and loosened his grip on Aragorn, allowing the man to walk freely beside him.  The ranger gently grabbed the animal’s large ear, knowing the youngster needed the touch.

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” Legolas apologized.  “I wanted to, but Talft and Lur came back to make sure that none of us would.  They didn’t want to get in trouble for letting any of the other slaves possibly be lost to the taergs.  They didn’t seem to care about what happened to you and the young one.  Cabed would not risk the clan and asked me to wait until we were sure they were truly gone.”

 

“That was wise,” Aragorn replied with a soft laugh.  “The funny thing is there haven’t been any taergs.”  He glanced skyward watching the full moon that tracked over head.  “I don’t know why.  The night is well lit, they should be out.”

 

“They are,” Legolas responded softly, pointing to the cresting hills on their left.  Long, sleek bodies stalked them, pacing their progress and hiding in the tall grasses.  “We have been noticed, my friend.”

 

“We are close enough to the herd that they won’t attack,” Aragorn assured, hoping he was correct.  He picked up their pace, not wanting to tempt fate.

 

“How did you get it to quiet down?” Legolas asked, switching the subject.  He glanced back at Aragorn before returning his gaze to the bracketing knolls.  The moonlight painted the grasses in silver tones that changed colors as the wind swept through the fields.  Ahead of them the hills were dark and mottled and they shifted from time to time – the herd slept tightly packed together.

 

“My brothers,” Aragorn answered simply.

 

When Legolas looked back at him, the ranger was smiling softly.  The baby mûmak’s trunk was draped over his head and the youngster had a fistful of hair grasped in the end of its appendage breathing in the ranger’s scent.  It seemed not to bother the human at all.

 

“They taught me how to work with the wounded horses that are brought to Rivendell,” Aragorn continued knowing that Legolas was confused by his cryptic answer.  “And sometimes they played practical jokes at my expense as well.”  He laughed as he remembered a certain prank his brother’s had pulled.

 

“Father had this one horse.  It was a magnificent beast, but the most ill-tempered, unruly creature Ilúvatar ever deigned to create.”  Aragorn stumbled slightly as they walked.  He brushed against the oliphaunt, righting himself quickly.  The creature compensated for the man’s clumsiness and moved its trunk from his head to his shoulders.

 

Legolas couldn’t help laughing as the baby mûmak fondly pulled the human closer.

 

“I think you have become its mother,” Legolas teased.

 

“Not a chance,” Aragorn growled softly.  “I fully intend to sleep tonight.  There are plenty of mothers for it in the herd.”

 

A long, low growl trembled the still night air.  Man, elf, and mûmak all tensed and rechecked their immediate surroundings.  Aragorn could see the dark shadows of the taergs pacing them, slightly closer now.  Legolas could clearly see the creatures themselves, with their fur rippling silently and their dark eyes reflecting the moonlight hungrily.  The mûmak couldn’t see them at all, but he could smell them and was obviously getting nervous.  If it panicked, the taergs would see the fear as a weakness to exploit and most certainly attack them.  Just a little further.  They just had to make it a little further. 

 

Aragorn patted the creature’s head and haunches reassuringly, still eyeing the shadows on the ridge warily himself.

 

“So, tell me of this horse,” Legolas prompted with a carefully calm voice.  He was counting on the mûmak to take its cue from its two companions.

 

Aragorn understood and tried to release the tension from his body as much as he could.  He nodded.  “Oh yes... the horse.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

“Wait a minute!  Just one minute!” Elladan interrupted the retelling of the story.  He leaned forward and pierced his little brother with a hard stare.  “You didn’t tell us you were going to include *that* story.”

 

“Yes, that’s not fair,” Elrohir continued the protest.  “No stories inside stories!”

 

“Do you want to hear the tale of the mûmak or not?!” Aragorn chuckled.  He knew the response his elder brothers would have when they discovered he had told Legolas about one of their most badly failed pranks.

 

“Oooh, I remember this,” Moranuen spoke up helpfully.  His memory dredged up the time the twins had ventured to ‘teach’ Estel how to work with horses.  “That was nasty, but do tell it.  They deserve it.”  The elf laughed and scooted away from the twins as they protested loudly.

 

“If you’re going to insist on it being told then I should tell it,” Elladan shouted down all the others.

 

“Nay, dear brother,” Aragorn disagreed with a laugh, “If anyone should tell it, it must certainly be me for I was the one that it happened to.”

 

“Let him tell the story!” Trelan begged.  “I want to hear more about the mûmaks.  Did the taerg get to you before you made it to the herd?  Did it stay with the others?  Finish already!!!”

 

Raniean smacked the smaller elf upside the head as he nearly fell over laughing.  “You nift!  If the taergs had gotten them they wouldn’t be here to tell the story!”

 

“You don’t know that!” Trelan argued.

 

Legolas stood to his feet and called for silence.  Spreading his hands out away from his sides he slowly turned in a circle, shushing the elves that were talking all at one time.

 

“This is Estel’s story,” Legolas commented glancing at the human out of the corner of his eyes.  “And you two asked for it.  Therefore you must be silent and listen.  Everything he has told you so far has happened including the retelling of your horrid attempt to trick him,” Legolas continued turning his attention to the twins.  “Now sit there and do not interrupt again!”  His reprimand was softened by the smile that spread across his face. 

 

Legolas knew full well how to command an audience.  He also had deftly learned from his father how to put just the right inflection in his voice to silence any arguments.  So it was with great surprise and satisfaction that Aragorn watched his twin brothers stop speaking and rest back against their cushions in sullen silence.  When the room had quieted, the Silvan elf turned the man behind him and bowed slightly.

 

“Now, please, dear friend, continue,” he instructed as he sat down next to Aragorn.

 

Leaning back, Estel stalled for a few minutes, re-collecting his thoughts.  “Legolas wanted to know how I had learned how to work with horses.  So, needing a distraction from our situation, I told him of the time that my two *dear* brothers introduced me to father’s favorite steed, Brêgalos.  It means Wildwind and he lived up to his name.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

“So, tell me of this horse,” Legolas prompted with a carefully calm voice.  He was uneasy with their pace.  The taergs that hunted them were completely silent even to his ears.  They had ducked down where the deeper grasses hid them completely and it was difficult to keep their positions tracked.

 

“His name was Brêgalos - Wildwind. My father thought it suited him and it really did.  That horse could run for leagues and not tire.  Not to mention that he had a temper that could go off at the slightest upset,” Aragorn readily spilled the tale for his friend.  “The only one that had ever ridden Brêgalos was my father.  That horse seemed to hate everyone else, well except for me in the end.”  He smiled softly as recollections of his childhood flooded back into his mind.  It felt good to remember so much after so long of having nothing to remember. 

 

The memories held a touch of sorrow though that he could not escape.  He feared the fondness between he and his adoptive family had been ruined forever and that left a deep dread in heart.  Choosing to ignore that fruitless train of thought for the moment, he concentrated on retelling the story.

 

“Well, one day I was in the stables pestering the twins,” Aragorn continued, laughing at the recollection.  “I think that Elladan got tired of all the questions and whining about when would I be able to work with the horses more than they were letting me.”

 

“I can only imagine you as a child. You were probably most annoying,” Legolas teased.

 

“I’m sure the twins would agree!”  Aragorn laughed and gave the young oliphaunt beside him a gentle pat.  They could see the herd more clearly now and he was glad.

 

“Anyhow, they finally relented and told me that I could brush down father’s horse.  I had no clue which one it was. I wasn’t very good at distinguishing between them just yet.  One brown horse looked much like the next to me,” He shook his head as he recalled the events.  “I was never sure that the twins had actually intended for me to be with Brêgalos or if they had meant for me to work with a different horse but I ended up with that whirlwind of a steed.”

 

Aragorn stepped closer to Legolas, pulling the mûmak with him when some night predator off to their right broke the stillness of the night with a keening cry.

 

Trying to ignore the oliphaunt’s nervousness and discount his own, Aragorn continued the tale.  “Brêgalos didn’t move when I first entered his stall.  In fact I bet that dratted horse was just waiting for someone to come close enough. I had a brush in one hand and a little footstool in the other so I could reach his shoulders and hindquarters.  The moment I set the step down, Brêgalos reared up and started such a racket that even Celboril came running.  By the time by brothers got me out of there and Ada had entered the scene the horse had kicked me into a corner of the stall and I was curled into a ball, unconscious.  I don’t even remember what happened.  The only thing I could recall was trying to get away from him and then waking in my room.  Elladan and Elrohir were getting the worst lecture I can remember Ada giving anyone.  It almost made it worthwhile, almost - except for the fact that I broke my wrist somehow and had this nasty knot on the back of my head.”

 

Legolas was laughing helplessly at the images that his friend’s tale invoked.

 

“I can only imagine the looks on your brothers’ faces.  I missed so much not having siblings.”

 

“Oh right, like getting kicked in the head by a cantankerous horse, or dropped in the pond in the middle of winter or locked in the supply house overnight,” Aragorn agreed sarcastically.  “Yes, you really missed a lot.”

 

They had reached the herd and the adult animals shifted restlessly.  Their eyesight was at its worst at night.  Aragorn held out his hands, speaking in the Haradrim language as they drew closer.  The large bull mûmak that had taken a liking to the northerner moved forward, trumpeting inquiringly.

 

Softly, the ranger addressed the upset oliphaunt.  He walked towards the creature until the mûmak recognized him and settled down.  Swinging its head back and forth in agitation it approached the olybryn.  The herders were never with the animals at night and so this new development disturbed them.  The scent of taergs drifted to the pack on the slight winds and the outer ring of oliphaunts stirred, grumbling sleepily amongst themselves.

 

Aragorn pressed the bull mûmak aside and entered the inside ring pulling the orphaned oliphaunt with him.  It took some coaxing for the juvenile to accept the fact that he was part of this herd.  The newer animals were skitterish, still shying from the olybryn and breaking the outer ring as the three newcomers entered their domain.

 

It took a few moments for the pack animals to settle down and relax.  Legolas and Aragorn walked slowly around the interior of the ring, speaking to the younger mûmaks and getting them to rest once more.  Their own young charge collapsed in an open patch near the large bull.  Its trunk snaked around Aragorn’s ankle when the ranger passed by.  Bending down the human stroked the soft skin around the baby’s eyes and forehead, calming it with soothing words.

 

“Aragorn,” Legolas called softly to his friend, garnering the ranger’s attention.

 

When the man glanced up he noted that the ring of oliphaunts had reformed.  His first thought was that this was good, the creatures were settling down again and all would be well.  As he followed Legolas’ line of sight he saw the old bull mûmak wriggle its way into formation and sink back to the ground, sealing off the circle from any avenue of entry or escape.  As one, the oliphaunts settled back to the ground and proceeded to go back to sleep. 

 

Hela!  No!” Aragorn commanded in Haradrim.  He jumped to his feet, only to trip forward because his leg was still held fast by the baby mûmak.  “Legolas, we have to get one of them up and out of the way or we’re stuck here all night!”  Aragorn pried at the trunk wrapped around his ankle but the result only made the youngster cry out and tighten his grip on the man.

 

Satahe,” Aragorn called out to the bull oliphaunt.  He reached out and smacked the creature’s rump, commanding it again to move while still trying to detach himself from the orphan.  “Satahe eha!  Come on, move!”  He rose only to have his footing yanked out from under him again.  This was getting old fast. 

 

Ignoring the Olybryn much as they would one of their own restless calves, the big animals forming the outer circle simply shifted slumbered on.  It seemed the adults had decided that their caretakers were safer inside the ring than out because none of them obeyed or acknowledged the elf and the ranger at all.

 

Glancing up at his friend, Aragorn found Legolas doubled over, laughing as quietly as he possibly could.

 

“This is not funny!” Aragorn shouted at him.  He was completely irritated with the entire situation and extremely tired – a dangerous combination for the human.

 

Legolas realized immediately that his friend had been pushed too far beyond his ability to cope with the situation or see any hilarity in it at all.  Sobering quickly, the elf seated himself next to his friend and helped the human sit up.

 

One of the adult mûmaks shifted agitatedly and the distinct sounds of taergs growling beyond the protective wall of animals could be heard.  The old bull grunted warningly and dug furrows into the ground with his tusks warning the predators off.

 

“Estel, I don’t believe this is necessarily a bad situation.  The taergs have our scent now.  To go back out there, unarmed as we are, would be folly.  It’s too far and too dangerous to make it back to the tents.  It seems the herd has seen to our safety as we have seen to theirs.  I believe we are sleeping with the oliphaunts tonight.  Besides your orphan is not letting you go that easily,” Legolas soothed his companion’s frayed nerves.  “The night is not so cold and the mûmaks shelter us from the winds.  We can sleep here.  We’ll join the other olybryn in the morning when they call the oliphaunts to feed.”

 

Aragorn slumped back against the side of the orphan behind him.  Slowly the baby’s trunk released its death grip on the ranger.  The young animal was watching the human carefully, its small black eye tracking every move.

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” he assured the creature grumpily.  “I don’t seem to have a choice.”  Scooting down, he made himself comfortable against the mûmak’s belly and rested his head on the tough hide.

 

“Seeing as we are going nowhere, how about finishing that story?” Legolas encouraged.  He smiled gently when the human turned a scowl in his direction.  “Come on, Strider, entertain me.”

 

With a snort of derision the man relaxed and shook his head.  There was no use fighting.  They could not get out of the circle of mûmaskil and the orphan was not content to release his shepherd.

 

“Very well,” Aragorn sighed.  “Where was I?”

 

“You never did explain how you learned to work with animals.  Certainly it wasn’t from your brothers’ first teachings, but how did Brêgalos fit into your training?  I’m assuming he did, am I correct?”

 

Aragorn nodded slowly.  “It was he and my father actually.  You see Ada realized what had happened and he knew that I would just be underfoot again as soon as I was well.” 

 

The ranger was interrupted by the elf once more.  “You can be very stubborn when you set your mind to it,” Legolas taunted.  The fact that the elf was actually smiling and laughing in the middle of an oliphaunt field, forgetting for the moment that they were slaves, warmed Aragorn’s heart.

 

He pulled up a clump of grass and threw it at the laughing elf.  “Do you want to hear this story or not?!”

 

“I do, I do!  Please continue,” Legolas deferred, trying to stifle his mirth.  Something about the sheer ludicrousness of their situation here seemed to put him in a humorous mood. 

 

“Well as soon as I healed, Ada came one night and took me out to the stables – just he and I.”  Aragorn’s voice dropped slowly as he retold what had happened. His thoughts searched back to that day, remembering an older elf that was pleased with his adopted son, remembering a time when strife and estrangement did not mar the family.  “He said that he wanted to teach me how to heal not only people, but animals as well.  I remember him saying that the line between the two was not as dissimilar as I thought.  He believed I would be good at it one day.”

 

The ranger plucked at the coarse grass beneath them.

 

“You are,” Legolas whispered softly.  When the human glanced up at him perplexed, he smiled and explained himself further.  “You are good at it, healing people and animals.  Look at the oliphaunts.  The difficult ones no one can touch or console, you can.  Look at the olybryn even now you heal their souls and unite them.  Your father was right.”

 

Aragorn was watching the elf closely, weighing what his friend was saying against the contrary voices in his heart.

 

“He taught me how to soften my voice, how to sense what the animal was feeling, how to move slowly yet with enough confidence to assure the horse that it was safe.  He was right about it being not so different with people.  They also need to know they are safe, that someone is there to take care of them and they need that person to be calm and calming.  Those are things he taught me that night.  The next morning when I went out to the stables and begged my brothers to let me brush the horses again I strode right into Brêgalos stall.  I think I gave my brothers heart failure for a moment.”

 

Aragorn glanced back up to meet his friend’s gaze once more.  “Do you know, that horse didn’t move the entire time I was in there with it?  In fact after that night Brêgalos let two people ride him and touch him, Ada and myself.”

 

The smile that touched the elf’s face reflected on his Aragorn’s.

 

“I suggest you get some sleep,” Legolas commented with a soft sigh.  “Morning is not coming so soon that you cannot rest.  You are insufferable when you are tired.”  He ducked as the ranger threw another wad of grass at his head.

 

With a snort of derision, the man lay back against the animal behind him and closed his eyes.  “You aren’t that swift when you’ve been up too long yourself,” the man retorted, much to the elf’s amusement.

 

A soft snuffling sound was the only warning the ranger had before the mûmak’s trunk wrapped around his waist and held him fast.  Smiling to himself, Aragorn let the animal content itself with his nearness and was asleep in minutes.

 

When the sun finally touched the grasses of the plains of Harad, it found the two friends asleep against the belly of the orphaned mûmak.  Aragorn lay nestled in the crook of the animal’s trunk, slumbering soundly.

 

Legolas heard the rustle of the adults as they anticipated the olybryn’s presence.  It wasn’t long before he heard Sircyn calling the herd.  The larger mammals responded slowly, heaving their bodies up from the grass and shaking off the nights slumber.

 

Startled by the movements, the orphan mûmak rolled up onto its stubby legs, dislodging Aragorn and dumping the ranger unceremoniously onto the ground.

 

With a grunt the man picked himself up off the floor and glanced sleepily around them.  He squinted in the early morning light, watching the older oliphaunts begin to lumber off in response to Sicryn’s call.  The human stumbled back slightly as the baby mûmak took hold of his leg and pulled Aragorn along with them.  The confused, half-awake look on the ranger’s face caused the elf to break out laughing.

 

It took Aragorn a few attempts before he could remove his leg from the orphan’s death grip so he could walk properly without being half dragged by the animal. 

 

“Cabed and his family have called the oliphaunts.  I suggest we accompany them,” Legolas informed his sleepy companion.  In the distance they could hear Sircyn calling for them, his deep voice reverberating across the open plains.

 

“Adrar!  Tyndel!”

 

“He sounds worried,” Aragorn observed.  He brushed himself off and ran his fingers quickly through his hair to dislodge the pieces of grass that had wedged in there overnight.

 

“Wouldn’t you be?” Legolas quipped sarcastically as the walked alongside the animals, accompanying the herd back to the feed troughs.  The elf’s sharp eyes noted the tracks of the large predators that had stalked the outskirts of the herd the night before.  Elbowing the ranger, he quietly pointed them out.

 

Aragorn’s eyes widened slightly as he stepped past the large paw print.  The imprint was nearly as long as his own boot print.  He decided that spending the night with the herd hadn’t been such a bad idea after all. 

 

The animals in front of them gave way as the olybryn pushed them aside, looking fearfully for their adopted kinsmen.

 

The ranger’s attention was quickly redirected as Sircyn wrapped him in a tight hug.  Pushing the man back just as quickly the slave glared at the northerner.

 

“You did not return, either of you,” Sircyn accused, glancing between Aragorn and Legolas.  “We feared you had not survived the night.”

 

The baby mûmak pushed its way into the reunion, shoving the ranger aside in its exuberance to find out what was happening.

 

“No, Adrar was playing nursemaid to your youngest mûmaskil,” Legolas laughed lightly.

 

“Ah, I see!  Well you *all* survived the night!  This is good.”  The haradrim turned a huge smile on Legolas as the elf helped Aragorn keep his feet.

 

The northerner patted the mûmak fondly, scratching the baggy skin around the infant’s eyes.

 

“I am *no* nursemaid and, yes, we all survived.  Even Talft and Lur,” Aragorn laughed.

 

“Unfortunately,” Legolas muttered in response to his friends observations.  He smiled broadly as Cabed approached them. The old weathered haradrim was nodding sagely.

 

“I see you have helped the young one to accept the herd,” Cabed observed.  He watched as the orphan raced to the feeding troughs ahead of the men.

 

“I’m hoping so,” Aragorn answered as he walked slowly alongside Legolas.  His ribs were aching from where he had been kicked the night before and he was moving more slowly than normal.

 

“You are hurt,” his adoptive father noted after a moment.  “What else did they do to you?”

 

Grabbing a pail and heading for the well Aragorn cast a small smile at the older slave, “Nothing.  They just thought it sport to kick me around a bit.”

 

“I see you survived, Adrar,” Talft called out tauntingly, “Too bad for you but good for us.  We’d miss not having your simple mind around to entertain us.”

 

Aragorn, his back still to the guards, grimaced and rolled his eyes as Legolas came alongside him.

 

“The Valar spared no intelligence on them did they?” the elf commented dryly in elvish.

 

The comment earned him a soft chuckle from the ranger who was doing his best to appear innocent and busy.

 

When no retorts were forthcoming and it was apparent that the olybryn where simply concentrating on their jobs, Talft and Lur quickly lost interest and set off to find shade.

 

As soon as the animals were sufficiently fed the men began to lead the mûmaskil off to the watering hole.  It was a routine to which they were accustomed and took little thought on the olybryn’s parts.  Ointment was handed out and rake-like brushes were collected from storage bins and passed among the slaves who trailed the oliphaunts across the fields to the north. 

 

This time of year the watering hole was little more than a mud hole, but the mûmaks enjoyed it all the same.  It gave the large creatures great pleasure to roll in the cool mud and coat their hides with the wet earth.  As the watering hole dried up the olybryn changed their methods of cleaning and washing the animals.  They allowed the great beasts to wallow in the dirt and then lie on the edges of the pond until the sun baked the mud dry.  With their brushes they cleaned the animals of the fine layer of dirt and spread ointment on the soft skin around their eyes and ears.

 

The larger animals waded out into the middle of the dying pond, stirring up the dirt on the bottom and effectively creating a muddy mess.  The younger oliphaunts kept to the edges, content to wallow in the shallow waves their elders kicked up.

 

Aragorn watched as the orphan ran towards the mud hole with the rest of the herd.  Content that the little one would be fine, he turned back to talk with Sircyn and Legolas.  A loud trumpeting startled them all and before he realized what was happening the ranger was lifted off his feet.  The sickening feeling of weightlessness and falling nearly caused Aragorn to panic.  He only had seconds to comprehend that a strong trunk was wrapped around his waist before he was submerged under the muddy water.

 

Sputtering and gasping for air, Aragorn fought to sit upright in the shallow water.  A heavy weight lay across his lap restricting him from standing to his feet – an oliphaunt’s trunk.

 

Laughter from the edges of the pond reached his ears.  Glancing back at his friends, the ranger realized that the orphan mûmak had picked him up and pulled him into the pond.  He half turned to his left to find the juvenile lying on its side.  One black eye watched him hesitantly.  To Aragorn it seemed even the mûmak was smiling.

 

“You couldn’t bathe by yourself?” he reprimanded the smaller creature, flinging a fistful of mud at the mûmak.  Delighted by the human’s response, the oliphaunt released the man and rolled onto its back trumpeting happily.

 

Aragorn was a mess.  His clothes were filthy.  His hair was matted and dripping with dirty water.  It stuck out at odd angles around the edges.  He stood from the water and tried to shake as much of the mud off of him as possible.  The scene was so ridiculously funny that most of the olybryn were laughing at the northerner. 

 

“You think this is funny?” Aragorn asked.  His voice was dark and low.  Legolas could not mistake that edge to it.  It was the same tone the human took with his brother’s right before he exacted retribution.  “You think it’s funny.” It was a statement not a question the second time he spoke.

 

Holding up his hands in a placating gesture, Legolas tried to calm his friend.  “Now, Estel, it’s not personal.  But you have to admit...” The elf pointed at the man’s attire.  “You look every inch a ranger of the north,” he continued barely containing his mirth.

 

With a nod and a step toward the shore, Aragorn grabbed the ear of the large bull mûmak that was making its way out of the watering hole.

 

Hanta se,” the northerner commanded the animal. “Hanta se.  Banar tu.  Fetch that. Bring here.”

 

Sircyn knew exactly what the ranger had said and quickly ran back from the edge of the pond.  Retreating with the rest of the slaves out of reach of the mûmak, the olybryn left the elf standing on the shore alone.  Legolas on the other hand did not understand the haradrim language.  The few seconds that it took the elf to catch on, were just enough to put him at risk.

 

The cantankerous mûmak easily snatched the elf up before the prince realized what had been said.  Turning around with greater speed than one would think possible for a creature of its wide girth, the mûmak tossed the elf behind Aragorn into the deeper part of the mud hole. 

 

When Legolas surfaced, his look was nothing less than lethal.  He stalked ungracefully towards his friend.  The muddy water and the milling oliphaunts impeded his speed but not his progress.

 

“You...” he sputtered the word with as much venom as he could.  The prince’s golden hair had turned entirely brown from the dirty water and was plastered to his face and shoulders with mud.

 

Aragorn, for his part, was swiftly backing up, trying to escape his friend.

 

“What?! Now you look like a ranger of the north yourself, Prince of Mirkwood. Oh for Ran and Trey to see you now,” Aragorn laughed as he backed into the bull mûmak. 

 

The oliphaunts had shifted from the interior of the pond to the edges, soaking their feet in the soft sandy shoals.  As a result Aragorn was trapped inside with a highly infuriated elf.

 

Legolas grabbed the ranger by the sodden collar of his tunic and jerked the man forward.  His piercing blue eyes were aflame with a temper Aragorn had rarely seen and never endured.

 

“You, human, will never live to tell them about this.  I’m going to bury you in this water hole with these insufferable creatures,” Legolas growled.  He shook his head, flinging dirt and water everywhere. 

 

Aragorn’s eyes were huge as he watched his friend but he couldn’t help the smile that tugged at the edges of his lips.  Slowly, he reached up and brushed mud from the dirty braid that hung against Legolas’ chest.

 

The action only caused the elf to growl dangerously.  The words forming in the prince’s mind were unacceptable and he bit his tongue, closing his eyes and breathing deeply.

 

“Legolas?” Aragorn whispered.  It occurred to him that perhaps he had pushed his friend too far.

 

One blue eye opened and glared at the human.

 

“I’m sorry,” the ranger offered tentatively.

 

The smile that gently turned the prince’s lips up at the corner could not be denied, although the elf fought it. 

 

“I’m forgiven?” Aragorn asked sheepishly.  When Legolas looked away for a moment the man pulled the elf against him and hugged him fiercely.  “We can be nursemaids together,” he taunted.

 

Legolas shoved the ranger back against the mûmak behind him, causing the old oliphaunt to stir and move out of the mud hole.

 

“I will never be a nursemaid to these creatures,” Legolas countered.  In moments however the elf was laughing as much as the olybryn at the edges of the pond.  He and Aragorn were hauled out of the muddy water and sent aside to shed their outer clothes and dry off.

 

Sitting on the small knoll, the two friends watched the olybryn work with the mûmaks.  Legolas reached out and smacked the ranger on the back of the head for good measure, eliciting a snicker from the human.

 

“You are forbidden to tell anyone about this, especially Ran and Trey,” the elf warned the man.  The smile on his face overrode any hostility that might have bled through.  “You filthy human,” he teased.  “I cannot believe you did that.”  He nudged the ranger with his shoulder before lying back in the long grasses.

 

With a laugh Aragorn laid back next to his friend.  “You should have seen your face, Legolas,” he commented with a chuckle before closing his eyes and relaxing.

Chapter Text

~*PART FOUR*~
~The Trouble with Ketrals~

 

 

“The look on your face *was* priceless Legolas.  I don’t think I have ever seen you that mad, well except for maybe Moria...”  Aragorn flinched as Legolas lunged at him. 

 

“Do not speak another word on that, mellon-nín.  Stitches or not I will not allow you to finish *that* particular story.”  He smiled wickedly at the human as Estel inched farther back.  Their stay in Rivendell was already having the desired effect on the wounded elf and Legolas’ smile was enough to rest Aragorn’s heart at ease.

 

“Very well, I did promise to take that one to the grave with me, did I not?  But you can bet I will tell every soul in Mandos!”  Aragorn moved back next to his friend, smiling widely at the elf.

 

“Then I suppose I shall simply have to follow you there as well.”  Legolas smirked, glancing at the man out of the corner of his eye.  It was a running joke between the two friends and if it were up to Legolas, it would simply remain that way.

 

“You know, Legolas, that was a pretty good imitation of your father there you just pulled,” Raniean murmured.  He drained his wine glass and glanced at his friend.  He lay stretched out on his left side amidst a pile of pillows and throws.  Elladan leaned over and refilled the crystal flute with a knowing smile.

 

Nodding in agreement, Trelan laughed, flicking the stem from his cherries at the elf prince.  “Oh, I don’t know, I think the worst time I ever saw Thranduil lose his temper was when he banned you and Strider from re-entering the throne room unattended for the rest of your lives.”

 

Elladan and Elrohir leaned in at the mention of the infamous tale.  They had been waiting years now for the right time to pry it out of one of the two friends.

 

Raniean sputtered, nearly choking on the mouthful of liquid he had just sipped and causing Trelan to break out laughing.  “You agree then, I take it?”

 

“Oh! I had nearly forgotten all about that until the twins brought it up earlier,” Raniean gasped.  He tried to find an easy balance between coughing and swallowing. 

 

“You were *both* supposed to have forgotten that one,” Legolas muttered darkly, casting a glare at the man on his right who could hardly stop laughing.

 

“I thought we were going to end up in the dungeon,” Aragorn blurted out, much to his brothers’ shock and amusement.

 

“Tell us!”

 

“You must tell!” Elladan and Elrohir spoke at nearly the same time, leaning in and encouraging the Silvan elves to speak up.

 

“No!  NO!”  Legolas threw the pit from his nectarine squarely at Trelan, hitting the smaller elf in the chest.  “You cannot tell that one, it’s embarrassing!  It’s bad enough the dwarf knows.  I can’t believe I actually told him.”

 

“You?  It was embarrassing for *me*!” Aragorn muttered, not willing to meet the twins’ inquisitive gaze.

 

“Oh come on,” begged Elrohir.  “Except for us, everyone else involved is probably gone over the sea already.  What’s left to be embarrassed about?  You know all our best stories.  We never get to hear what went on in the great Mirkwood.”

 

“Do tell, you must or I shall withhold the wine from you,” Elladan taunted Raniean with the half full carafe he held.

 

Trelan gazed questioningly at his liege.  Legolas was his friend but he was first and foremost his leader and the King of the Silvan elves since Thranduil’s departure.  Legolas may shun the formal title, preferring to remain forever a prince in name, but that did not change his station.  Neither Trelan nor Raniean would ever tell a confidence if Legolas bade them to be silent.

 

It crossed the prince’s mind to actually deny his friend’s request, but his heart felt lighter than it had in months and the warmth of friendship eased his mind and worries.  Elrohir was right, who was left to worry about, really?  It was like sitting at the end of time and obsessing over childhood secrets.  What was the point?  Why not let everyone continue to enjoy themselves?  Even if it was partly at his expense, he didn’t care.  Turning a brilliant smile on Aragorn, he nodded slowly before answering.  “Go ahead, Trelan you can tell this one, but I have to start it because you weren’t there in the beginning, you only saw the end result.”

 

Mock bowing as best he could from his prone position, the short elf chuckled and glanced around the room as everyone scooted in closer to hear.

 

Once started, it was hard for Legolas to tell the story without laughing.  Tiring of his friend’s attempts at re-telling the debacle, Aragorn elbowed the elf prince and interrupted.

 

“It began when I decide to take Legolas’ pets, Trasta and Lalaith out for a walk in the palace. I didn’t know that the ketrals had been banned from practically everywhere except Legolas’ room.”  Aragorn shrugged and continued when his brother nodded enthusiastically, settling in for another story.

 

“It was the year after Legolas and I had been prisoners of the Witch King up in Angmar.  You remember, I didn’t really want to leave Rivendell for a long time after that.”  Aragorn’s eyes momentarily clouded in memory, before quickly clearing again.  “Until I got an invitation from King Thranduil to attend a Cuil celebration for Legolas.  I have to admit I didn’t even know what that was until I asked Ada.”  Aragorn chuckled.  “But then elves don’t often mark the passing of time or celebrate it, so my ignorance could perhaps be forgiven.”

 

Legolas shrugged.  “It was an old custom in Mirkwood, since before my father and grandfather came there,” he explained quickly for the benefit of the twins just in case they did not already know.  “It comes up every millennia or so,” he said vaguely, not really sure how to relate the event to human years at all.  It wasn’t necessary, the twins were perfectly aware what they were talking about and nodded their understanding quickly. 

 

“Good,” Legolas was glad their audience was with them.  “Well, we hadn’t really kept with the tradition much in my family, but I think father was feeling a bit sentimental after everything that had happened over the previous few years or some such thing,” the elf said dismissively. 

 

Aragorn snorted.  “Well I, for one, was not really surprised.  Remember, this was after you’d been taken for a traitor in Gondor, sold as a slave in Mordor, nearly died in his arms after the wargs got through with you and then disappeared for almost a year only to return having played guest to a Nazgûl most of that time.”

 

“Thank you for reminding me of all that, I’d almost forgotten,” Legolas muttered dryly, but his eyes were smiling.

 

The former ranger chuckled.  “Well, given the circumstances I’d say your father had a right to be celebrating the fact that you were alive right about then.” 

 

“I suppose,” the elf conceded with a grin.  “At any rate, he decided he wanted to make a huge deal over it.”  The prince chuckled wryly.  “He didn’t tell me he had invited Aragorn to come stay with us.  That was probably the best surprise in the whole matter.”  The elf nodded his head towards Estel, indicating that he wanted his friend to pick the thread of the story back up again. 

 

“Ah yes... so, my dear father and brothers finally kicked me out of the house and wisely let me make the familiar journey to Mirkwood alone so I would start getting over my hesitations.  The trip was uneventful... but I can’t say the same about the visit!” Aragorn smiled softly as he recalled those long ago days.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Morning light edged through the arched windows of Mirkwood.  Here the trees and the elves sounded differently than they did in Rivendell and Aragorn lay contentedly in the huge bed, simply listening.  He rested with his eyes only half open.  He had arrived in Mirkwood late last night, a surprise Lord Thranduil had masterminded for Legolas as part of his celebration gift.

 

It had been a year since the elf and ranger had been together and they had spent most of that first night simply catching up on the goings on of each others lives.  Aragorn occupied the large guest room that adjoined Legolas’ quarters.  The door that joined their accommodations had been left open through the night when the ranger retired to his own room.  Legolas had missed the human’s soft snoring and although Aragorn would never admit to it, he had grown used to sleeping next to a living night light for the three and one half years they had been traveling together since Gondor.

 

Tilting his head slightly, Aragorn could tell that Legolas no longer occupied his room.  The sheets were thrown aside and spilled off the bed as though the prince had woken in a hurry and left without notice.  The rumpled blankets moved oddly, shifting in erratic patterns where they lay in discarded mounds on the floor.

 

Squinting away the sleep, Aragorn pushed himself up on his elbows and watched the strange movements.  He wondered idly if he had had too little sleep.

 

A tiny black nose adorned with long white whiskers poked out from under the soft sheets and twin black eyes blinked in surprise at the ranger.  A soft bark alerted the second twisting mound beneath the blanket and soon another small furry face was intently watching the human being.

 

The two creatures talked quietly to one another through a series of soft whistles and clicks.  Short, sharp barks interrupted their conversations as though they were deciding on whether or not the large being in the other room needed investigating.

 

Aragorn raised one eyebrow as the sleek animals darted forward, heading straight for his room in an erratic, crisscross pattern.  Their long, soft fur rippled as they raced quickly towards the bed.  Their tiny feet pattered softly on the thick carpet.  Slightly startled, the ranger jumped as one of the creatures pressed underneath the coverlet and climbed up onto the bed inside the sheets.  The small animal’s claws tickled his leg as it crept up his body.  Aragorn barely resisted the urge to shrug the creature off.  It padded slowly up his midriff and glanced out at him inches from his face, balanced on his chest.  The second feline launched itself from the foot of the bed.  Landing squarely on the covers atop of the ranger’s stomach, it caused the man to grimace and catch his breath. 

 

When he opened his eyes and focused on the small mammals again, he was surprised to not only hear, but also feel them purring as their long bodies rested against his chest and abdomen.

 

“You are Trasta and Lalaith, are you not?” He asked softly, his voice still deep from sleep.  The ketrals flinched skitterishly, as though considering fleeing.  Keeping very still, the ranger continued to speak, switching deftly to the elvish tongue.

 

“It’s all right.  I didn’t mean to scare you.  Legolas has told me all about the two of you.”  He smiled slightly as the ketral under the covers stretched out across his tunic, scooting its silky body around until it was comfortable.  The thrumming of their purring caused him to relax back against the sheets.  He could understand why Legolas favored the creatures.  There was a certain sense of affection that exuded from the ketrals’ close contact.  A kind of easy acceptance and love that Legolas seemed to have found so difficult to find in other areas of his life at times. 

 

Legolas had told the ranger about his ketrals on many occasions.  In fact, the man had even been in the palace when the ancestors of these small creatures had broken one of Thranduil’s huge, intricately painted, decorative platters that had been on display in the foyer downstairs.  But the prince’s pets were generally very wary of anyone other than the prince himself and had never openly approached Aragorn or made their whereabouts known to him until now.  They were also extremely protective of their young.  The human knew that these two had a litter of young kits around somewhere, but had yet to catch a glimpse of them. 

 

For the moment at least, the two adult creature’s curiosity seemed to have won out over caution.  Lalaith and Trasta were, in fact, much bolder than any of Legolas’ other ketrals had ever been. 

 

The ketral that stood on Aragorn’s abdomen moved forward, its nose twitching as it inched closer and closer to his face.  He was half afraid the animal would bite him and closed his eyes as the ketrals’ long whiskers brushed into his beard and mustache.  They were quite similar to the domesticated cats that several of the families living with Taradin kept, although in the end their differences were greater than their similarities.

 

The ketrals were long and sleek.  Their small, powerful legs were half the height of a normal feline’s, giving them the uncanny ability to squeeze into the smallest possible places.  Their faces were slender and pointed.  Tufts of hair extended from their ears at the tips.  Their whiskers were twice the length of any cat Aragorn had ever seen and their fur felt like silk under his fingers.  He gently reached up to pet the inquisitive creature that was exploring his face with tiny paws.  Long tails balanced out their thin bodies and complimented their acrobatic tendencies. 

 

He had seen cats in all sorts of varieties and colors, but never the shade of brown that these two creatures sported.  It seemed that their fur caught and held the light, almost changing color as the sun played over their bodies.  At first glanced they looked to be a dark velvety brown but as they moved their fur rippled, shifting through the spectrum, undulating from deep brown to a golden tan.  As he paid closer attention, the ranger could see that they also sported markings.  Faint bands of darker hues wrapped their small dainty feet and spiraled upward, disappearing into their underbellies where they became hidden by longer hair.  Their faces were intricately striped masks of shades of color from deep red to umber, not unlike the colors of the fall leaves outside.

 

He smiled as the ketral who had been so interested in his beard and mustache dropped back onto all fours and barked quietly at him.  The small animal seemed puzzled by facial hair and appeared to be trying to figure out what new bread of creature this being was.

 

“You must be Lalaith.”  Aragorn whispered softly, causing the small creature to tilt its head as though trying to understand his words.  “Lalaith?”  The repeated name was rewarded with a nudge.  “Yes, I thought so.  Legolas said you were the inquisitive one.”  Aragorn glanced down at the ketral curled up on his chest, “So that would make you Trasta, right?”

 

Twisting lazily where he lay, the second animal glanced up at the human and yawned, exposing a mouthful of tiny, sharp teeth.  With a soft laugh the ranger ran his fingers over the long bodied creatures, eliciting contented purrs from his friend’s pets.

 

The sun had crept higher into the sky, shifting the shadows that fell off his bed and onto the floor.  With a deep sigh, Aragorn displaced the two mammals who had decided he made a perfect mattress.

 

“I should be up.  Legolas will wonder where I am.”

 

Trasta rolled off his chest, stretching out upside down.  He closed his eyes and relaxed as the ranger rubbed his belly.  Lalaith had had enough of resting and jumped off the bed, rummaging about in the human’s knapsack that lay on the floor. 

 

“Hey!”  Aragorn leaned over, grasping the bag by its handle and pulling it away from the ketral who was intent on playing with the paper wrapped around his last package of athelas.  “That is *not* for you.”  He stashed the pack safely away in the wardrobe, making sure the door was firmly closed before shrugging out of his nightclothes.

 

They dropped unceremoniously on top of Trasta who had slid slowly off the bed to join his mate.  His startled squeak set the human to laughing as he laced up his tunic. “You two get into everything, don’t you?” 

 

Aragorn shivered sharply.  Winter was settling across the land and the palace, although heated by the thermal vents below, was quite chilly.  The elves, relatively unaffected by temperature, seemed to have not yet noticed that it was high time to start letting more of the trapped heat into the living areas.  The ranger rubbed his hands together and repressed a shiver.  The truth was it might not have been as terribly cold as it felt to him and he knew that.  He chilled easily ever since his time in Angmar, as if it was hard to keep warmth inside his body.  It was an irritating malady that was slowly fading, but he didn’t like to trouble anyone with his problems and oddities, so he had as of yet, said nothing to Legolas about the temperature of his rooms. 

 

Aragorn snatched his overcoat from where it lay on the overstuffed chair, glancing about him for the whereabouts of the second ketral.  She was nowhere to be seen. 

 

Shrugging into the coat he stuffed his hand into the right pocket to retrieve his family brooch and jumped when he touched a ball of fur.  Lalaith sat up in the handy hiding place, the ornate pin held between her two paws.  The glittering thing she held was too much for her curiosity to resist.  Aragorn quickly snatched the brooch away before she could damage it, pinning it to his tunic.  He pressed Lalaith back into the pocket when she decided to pursue the shiny bright object.

 

A light impact on his left side warned the ranger that Trasta had joined the party.  The ketral’s tail was all that could be seen of the furry creature as he burrowed into Aragorn’s left pocket.  Seeing that her mate had joined them, Lalaith leaned out and chattered at the other.  His soft clicks could barely be heard as he righted himself.

 

Frowning slightly and not sure what to do now, Aragorn tried to remove Legolas’ pets from his pockets.  Thinking it was a new game, the ketrals ducked into the dark expanses, curling their agile bodies in on themselves.  Aragorn no sooner pulled them out than they scrambled right back in, their sharp claws catching and hooking in the leather surface of his coat and refusing to be dislodged.  Lalaith nipped the ranger’s fingers in a playful warning.

 

“Ouch!”  Aragorn jumped slightly.  Holding his arms out to the sides, he glanced into the now bulging pockets he spoke to the two creatures. “All right then, fine! You’re just going to have to come where I go and I’ll let your master take you out of there!”  With that, the human headed for the door, intending to find Legolas and enlist his help with the unruly creatures.

 

It was quite a sight as Aragorn walked down the hallway, his coat bulging and moving in odd ways as he sought out his friend.  His running tirade to the two stowaways brought sidelong glances and confused looks from the elves that passed him.  They were used to the human being in their midst by now, and even used to his sometimes odd ways, but his mannerisms that morning were more unusual than normal.  Word slipped to Raniean that he might want come check out the ranger and make sure the Dùnadan was safe to be wandering the halls alone.

 

“Strider?”  Raniean’s voice broke through Aragorn’s one-sided conversation.  “What on earth are you doing?”  He asked as the man stepped sideways, looking into his pocket and talking.

 

A small black face poked out from the fold of leather and whistled at the warrior before ducking back down. 

 

“Aragorn!  You brought the ketrals out here with you?”  Raniean whispered fiercely as he dragged the man aside, out of the main path.  “They are not to be in the palace anywhere where Thranduil can see them!  They are not supposed to leave Legolas’ chambers.”  A sharp bark from the left hand pocket of the man’s coat answered him.

 

“Well, you get them out then, because they won’t let me!”  Aragorn laughed as Trasta nipped at the warrior when he tried to pry the animal out.  Raniean got a sharp warning scratch on the back of his hand for the trouble and scowled. 

 

“See!” The ranger defended himself, throwing his hands up in defeat.  “Tell me where Legolas is and maybe we can get them out before Thranduil finds us.” He glanced into the right pocket, smiling at the tiny face that stared up at him.  “Besides they should be able to get out once in a while.”

 

“Do not get caught.  You have no idea how much Lord Thranduil despises those ketrals.”  Raniean released the man and motioned up the hallway towards the staircase. “You can find Legolas in the throne room, but I’d hurry if I were you.”

 

“And stop talking to them,” Raniean called out as Aragorn hurried towards the stairs.  “People are beginning to wonder about you!”

 

With a small laugh Aragorn nodded and raced down the steps, searching out his friend.

 

The throne room was empty save for the prince.  Legolas walked around the expanse of the hall.  A small smile curled the edges of his lips upward as he gazed at the banners and pennants that draped the hall.  His fingers gently brushed the silk that trailed down, edging the frame of the great doors.  His father had spared no expense to decorate for his only son’s celebration.  The life celebration was a gathering of peoples, usually family, but in this case the entire kingdom, to commemorate the existence of one person.  According to local custom, the date of said celebration usually coincided with the conception of the individual in question.  Elves did not put much store in concrete dates to measure their limitless ages so Legolas was only vaguely aware of how many elvish years he had passed on Middle Earth and even less certain how they measured up to human years.  He was told he had been conceived in late summer, but it was already almost winter, so actual timing seemed to have importance on the festivities being planned.  To be honest, Legolas had never celebrated this event before, but it was obviously important to Thranduil to celebrate family a little right now, and the excuse hardly mattered.  Although Legolas did not like being the center of a lot of fuss, he was more touched by the gesture than he let on.  Besides, the celebration was shaping up to be very enjoyable.  Certainly, Thranduil could get irascible when he was in full planning mode for some event, but Legolas knew it was just because his father wanted everything to be perfect.

 

And so did Legolas, for his father if for nothing else.  Yet he had his own reasons as well. 

 

The years away from home had somehow seemed longer this time than at any other.  He supposed it was all that he had gone through... that he and Aragorn had both gone through.  His smile widened as he thought of his friend, here under the rafters of Mirkwood’s palace for a change.  It was good to have Strider back nearby again.  After the last few years he had gotten used to being around the human and missed him of late.  His father could not have surprised him more than he had when he secretly invited Aragorn to join them for Legolas’ celebration. 

 

The festive atmosphere had been going on for weeks now, but tomorrow night would be the actual commencement of the month-long gala.  It would be a night to remember and Legolas found he was actually looking forward to it.

 

The door opened on the far side of the hall to the left of the throne, allowing a lone figure into the room.  Legolas stood perfectly still, watching silently.  He already knew the person who had entered was Strider, but something was different about the man.  His sharp hearing picked up a nearly silent one-sided conversation from the ranger.

 

Nearly one-sided.

 

A quick sharp chitter reached his ears and he darted forward.

 

“Strider!”  Legolas raced from the shadows, dodging the wooden seats, heading for his friend.  “You didn’t bring...”

 

The elf never had the chance to finish his sentence.

 

The ranger glanced up with a look of relief and a warm smile.  His attention drawn away from the two creatures burrowed into his coat pockets.  He had been talking to Lalaith, gingerly holding the right pocket between his thumb and forefinger.  At the sound of Legolas’ voice the ketral zipped out of her hiding place and raced up the man’s coat sleeve to chatter a cheery greeting.

 

The silk decorations shifted slightly in the gentle breezes that fell down into the room from the high windows above.  It gave the impression that the cloth was alive, seeming to have a life of its own as it breathed in rhythm with the wind.  The colors fascinated the ketral, whose immediate response was to investigate further, her master forgotten in the colorful melee around her. 

 

Before Aragorn knew what was happening, Lalaith had used the human as a ladder.  Scurrying up his arm and crawling through his hair the ketral launched herself from the ranger’s head and landed squarely in the swag of the nearest draping.

 

“NO!” Legolas skidded to a stop near Aragorn, trying to reach up and retrieve his wayward pet.  “Lalaith, come.  Come.  Good girl, come now... Lalaith!”

 

The band of fabric she was twisting in was connected to another and another, each one weaving and moving hypnotically, each one begging to be played with.  Twisting around, the ketral began climbing higher up into the decorations, stressing the points where the fabric had been delicately attached to the wall.

 

“Strider!” Legolas ground out through gritted teeth.  “Why in Arda did you bring them in here?!  You know my father hates them,” the elf prince growled as the ketral in question leapt to a higher point, her actions tearing the fabric she had just been walking on.  It floated to the floor of the hall, hanging limply from where it connected to the other banners.  “We have to get them out of here before they do more damage, or my father returns...” Legolas leapt onto the nearest bench and swiped at the retreating feline.  “...which would be worse.”

 

“It wasn’t my fault!” Aragorn defended distractedly as Trasta, hearing all the noise, decided to investigate.  The male ketral slid out of the leather pocket and raced across the floor to the far wall, dodging underneath the benches and chairs that littered the hall floor.  With less grace than the small animal, the human gave chase, trying to corral the ketral.  He stumbled over the leg of a sturdy bench and fell flat on his face with a groan.  The tipped chair knocked backwards, creating a domino effect in the closely set up seating area.

 

“What are you talking about?”  Legolas yelled across the room at him once the noise died down.  “You simply leave them in my room!”  He grabbed for Lalaith as she skittered down an ornate banner, leaving the elf prince holding a handful of silky hair.  “The arrangement has worked for thousands of years, trust me!” The elf’s voice was dry. 

 

“They got in my coat pockets and I couldn’t get them out!”  Aragorn muttered as he slowly pushed himself up on his hands.  He peered under the seats, looking for Trasta.  A small furry face watched him curiously from the corner of the hall.  Seeing that it had been spotted, the ketral turned and raced up the nearest banner, joining its mate in leaping from swag to swag and basically reducing the bright celebratory bands to shreds of tattered cloth.

 

His boots slid on the polished flooring as Aragorn tried to gain his feet and take up pursuit.

 

“Then why didn’t you just leave your coat in the room?”  Legolas fell back to the floor of the hall with a soft whump.  His graceless drop had landed him squarely on the king’s cushioned throne.  It was a frustrating fact that ketrals were probably some of the few creatures on Arda that could out-maneuver an elf. 

 

Aragorn scrambled over some of the downed chairs, trying to find a way to get up high enough to reach the romping critters.  He clambered up onto a stone buttress, but only succeeded in getting scraped hands and badly banging his knees when he was forced to jump down or fall down.  With mounting frustration at himself and the whole absurd situation, Aragorn turned and answered the question much louder than was necessary. “Because I am a human all right?  It’s freezing in your mound-hill of a palace and no one but me seems to notice!  Fire up the thermal vents once in a blue moon, will you?  AND because I didn’t know any better!  No one told ME they weren’t allowed out of your rooms until it was too late!” 

 

The main doors clanged shut, emphasizing the end of the ranger’s tirade.  Slowly Aragorn turned and glanced fearfully behind him.

 

Trelan and Raniean stood beneath the archway, mouths open in disbelief.  Across the room Lalaith stopped her antics and chirped a greeting before tearing off towards the front of the hall.

 

“Ai! Elbereth!  Strider, did I not warn you?”  Raniean asked finally finding his voice. 

 

In utter disgust, the ranger dropped his hands to his sides and looked down, slowly shaking his head.

 

“Should we help them?” Trelan whispered, moving farther into the room.  But his attempts were cut short as Raniean grabbed the smaller elf and pushed him to the opposite side of the door way.

 

“Legolas, I came to tell you that...” Ran had wanted to warn his friend but the door opened once more cutting off his attempts.

 

Thranduil stepped into the hall and stopped on the threshold.

 

“...that your father was coming,” the warrior whispered swiftly, uselessly stating the obvious now.

 

Legolas turned quickly towards the door, his eyes huge, his mouth open, attempting an explanation... but none was forthcoming as the king strode forward to stand in front of the ranger.

 

Aragorn was frozen in place, one hand stretched upward in an attempt to grasp the ketral that had just escaped.  A soft green banner floated gently down and draped itself across his face, hiding his grimace.

 

“What is going on here?!” The Sinda elf lord roared.  Everywhere he looked the benches were overturned and the beautiful banners that had decorated the hall lay in piles and tatters on the edges of the floor.  He turned his glare on the human that stood paralyzed only a few feet from him.  “I demand an answer!”

 

At the sound of the king’s voice both ketrals loosed squeals of terror and headed for respective places of safety.  For Trasta, who was closest to Aragorn, that meant the ranger’s pockets.  The creature flung itself towards the human; slamming into his chest and knocking the man back a step.  It was just enough to unbalance the totally surprised ranger. 

 

Aragorn tried to right himself quickly, one hand flung out in a failing attempt to grasp anything and the other trying to keep hold of Trasta.  His boot heel scraped backwards, catching the edge of an upturned bench and the ranger went down.  Banging the backs of his knees solidly against the bench’s seat there was no way for him to prevent his backward sprawl.  The edge of the seat caught him squarely in the small of his back and his head impacted the hard marble floor with a sickening thud.  For a moment Aragorn could feel nothing but pain and simply lay still, forcing himself to breathe.

 

Thranduil’s footfalls could barely be heard as the king came to stand over the ranger.  The tip of his boot brushed the man’s hair.  When Aragorn opened his eyes and glanced up, he met the elf lord’s hard gaze.  Never in all his years in Rivendell had the human ever garnered such a look as the one that was laid on him now.  Trasta squeaked in surprise and darted down the front of Aragorn’s vest, squirming his way under the man’s belt.

 

The ranger twitched violently, grimacing as the tiny creature tried valiantly to get away from the elf that it was smart enough to fear.  Aragorn grabbed his midriff, stopping the ketral’s motions and pinning the furry body against his navel.  He smiled weakly up at the elf lord as he slowly sat up and scooted farther away from Thranduil.

 

In the doorway it was all the two onlookers could do to prevent themselves from bursting out laughing.  Trelan had never been so glad in his life that Raniean had stopped him.  Usually he resented it that he could be so easily moved around by his taller kin, but not today.  He was perfectly happy to have been kept out of this mess.  He shifted his gaze to the wooden doors and closed his eyes to block out the sight of the sheepish grin that crept up onto Aragorn’s face.  He actually felt pity for the human.

 

The doors parted slightly as an attendant tried to come to his liege’s aid.  Raniean’s hand on the entry stopped the elf and he simply shook his head, warning the assistant off.  Carefully, he shut the door and slipped the locking pin in place.  This was not something the rest of the castle should be witness to.  It would only make Thranduil more upset and make matters worse. 

 

“Father, I can explain...” Legolas attempted weakly from his position across the hall.  He was still sprawled awkwardly across the throne, his eyes glued to his friend who was trying with great difficulty to scuttle backwards away from the irate king.

 

Thranduil’s gaze shifted to his son.  Slowly he crossed his arms over his chest and waited the elfling out.  

 

Suddenly, Legolas realized that he couldn’t explain at all actually and ended up opening and shutting his mouth rather uselessly a few times. 

 

Tiny scuttling sounds alerted Legolas that Lalaith was making her way swiftly back to his position.  He glanced up just as the ketral leapt from a bright banner and landed on the edge of the family crest.  It was a large ornate carving that hung behind the throne.  Carved of a single piece of wood from the golden trees of Lothlórien, it had been there as long as Legolas could remember and was far older than the prince. 

 

The crest teetered under the small creature’s weight.  Had she been given the time and not frightened by the emotions and tones that filled the room, the ketral probably would have made the jump from the carving to Legolas’ outstretched hands easily and with no problems.

 

However, when Thranduil’s voice rang out and he stepped towards the front of the hall, Lalaith panicked and launched her slim body at the prince in a terrified flurry of unchecked trajectory.

 

Legolas leapt up onto the arm of the royal chair his fingers just barely touching the crest trying to right it as it was twisted off its mooring by abrupt shift of the ketral’s weight.  The wood carving slipped from his fingertips and fell to the floor behind the throne at the same instance that Lalaith hit the prince full in the chest, tipping him backwards. 

 

His booted foot caught under the arm of the throne and tipped the ornate chair backwards with him, bringing the whole lot of them down in a piled jumble.  Lalaith wasted no time hiding within the folds of his tunic as Legolas nimbly leapt to his feet.  He would have righted the chair and seen to the crest but for his father’s ire.

 

“LEGOLAS!!!!!!!!!!  Get those *things* out of my hall!  And take your human with you.  They may never come back in here ever again! Do you hear me?!”  Thranduil bellowed.  It would take hours to fix the carnage his son, two ketrals and one human had produced in only a matter of moments.  It was a nightmare.  “I don’t want to see you OR him,” he pointed at Aragorn “In this room unattended again for the rest of your natural lives!  And if I ever see those creatures of yours anywhere but your rooms again, they are going *back* to the forest where they belong.  Am I understood?!  Now get out!”

 

Aragorn had found his feet and raced to the door that Legolas held open for him.  He quickly followed the prince as they ran through the palace, and pounded back up the stairwell.  They could clearly hear the elf lord shouting out orders in the celebration hall below.

 

“Raniean! Trelan!”  Thranduil snapped, seeing them skulking around the doorway.  “See to it that my son and his friend remain in their rooms until sent for.  If I so much as see either of them the rest of this day I may throw them in a cell!  Maybe then we could actually get something done.  How many times must I tell that boy that his pets are not to have free reign in the castle?  Perhaps I should just outlaw ketrals from being in Mirkwood, period.  Nasty creatures...”  The king muttered the last statement under his breath before turning back to the two elves still in attendance. “And get the decorators back in here, we have less than a day left and there WILL be a celebration in this room tomorrow night!”

 

The tirade was cut off as Legolas slammed the door to his room shut and leaned against it from the inside, breathing heavily.  Aragorn dropped down on the prince’s bed on his back, his arms flung out to the sides.

 

“That was not fun.”  He whispered breathlessly.  “I thought your father was going to kill me.”

 

“I thought he was going to kill you too.” Legolas commented softly before smiling at his friend.  He threw the lock on the inside of the door before seating himself on the edge of the bed with a sigh.  “At least we didn’t have to see the inside of a cell.”

 

“Would your father really do that?” Aragorn raised his head to glance at his friend.

 

“I think he was certainly mad enough... to lock you up anyway.  If we had been anyone else, yes, we would definitely be there right now.” Smiling, he reached into his vest and retrieved a trembling ball of fur.  Two small dark eyes opened and blinked slowly, watching him for his response.  “You, however, are his guest – at his invitation for once I might add, and I am his son.”  Legolas laughed lightly.  “‘Twould be unseemly to lock up the guest of honor for ruining their own party,” he said ironically.  “Besides, father knows how I feel about... those kind of places.” 

 

The elf seemed to be taking everything rather well, all things considered.  He petted the tiny creature in his hands. “Oh, Lalaith, you know you aren’t allowed in the castle proper.  You shouldn’t have given Strider any trouble.  He doesn’t know all the rules yet.”  Legolas chided softly, rubbing his nose against the soft wet black one.  Gently he laid the ketral on the bed.  As though understanding she had been a bad and needed to offer a little contrition, the creature stretched out next to Legolas’ leg, pressing hard against him and settling down immediately.

 

“Where is Trasta?” Legolas asked, redirecting Aragorn’s attention.

 

The ranger patted his chest, then his abdomen and thighs.  The coat pockets were next, but with no trace of the ketral.  Aragorn sat up in alarm and glanced at the locked door.

 

The noise of shouting and commotion from the lower levels drifted through the door.  Legolas jumped up from his seated position and cracked the door open just as the sounds of breaking glass reached their ears accompanied by Thranduil’s shout.  A small dark object streaked through the open door and darted under the bed before Legolas slammed the door shut and locked it once more.  He grimaced as his father ranted on about banning ketrals from Mirkwood. 

 

The whole castle would know what had happened now.  

 

Kneeling down on the floor, Legolas peered under the bed to find two black eyes peeking back out at him.  After some gentle coaxing he retrieved the male ketral from its hiding place and set it on the bed.

 

Aragorn still lay on the bed where he had dropped, Legolas’ pets curled up in the nook of his arm.  He smiled wearily up at his friend who hovered over all three of them.

 

“Fine mess you got me into, all of you.”  Legolas shook his head. 

 

“I’m sorry.” Aragorn apologized, and the remorse was genuine.  “I never wanted to ruin things for you like this...”

 

“Oh, don’t fuss,” Legolas dismissed it wearily.  “What’s done is done.  You haven’t ruined anything.  Don’t listen to father; they’ve got plenty of time to redecorate the throne room.  Father always gets pulled tight as a new bow string before festivals of any kind.  Just as well to let him release and get it over with... although I must admit that was a singularly spectacular way to do it,” the prince said with a rueful sigh. 

 

Aragorn groaned as Legolas shoved him over, making room for himself on the large sleeping couch.  His friends pained movements caught Legolas’ attention and he forced the human to sit up.  A quick examination of the ranger proved that nothing was broken, just as the man had argued, but a nasty knot on the back of his head was forming.  Aragorn winced when Legolas touched it gently.

 

“You’re going to have quite a headache.”  Legolas smiled down at his friend.

 

“Going to?  How about already have,” Aragorn muttered darkly.  He explored the knot tenderly with his own fingers.  “I thought I was going to lose consciousness there for a minute, but I was more afraid of where I would wake up!” He laughed softly, wincing as the dull throbbing in his head turned to a mild hammering.

 

“*Why* didn’t you just leave your coat here?” Legolas questioned quietly as he poured water into a cup, passing it to the ranger.  He still wanted a real answer to that question. 

 

“I told you.  I was cold.”  Aragorn answered honestly.  He took a small sip and sat on the edge of the bed forlornly.  “They bit me every time I tried to take them out, even Raniean couldn’t help me.  I’m sorry Legolas.  I simply never imagined they could cause so much trouble.”

 

When he glanced up, Aragorn was surprised to see the elf smiling down at him.  “You should have seen the look on your face when Trasta tried to get into your pants and you were trying to get away from my father.  Believe me Estel, when he calms down my father will have a good laugh over this.”

 

“Great.”  The ranger muttered.  He rubbed the back of his head gently. “Glad I could entertain the family.”

 

“Don’t forget Ran and Trey.”  Legolas smiled wickedly at the man.  Aragorn just rolled his eyes and flopped back against the bed with a moan.

 

A soft knock on the door stopped further conversation as Legolas went to investigate.

 

True to his father’s request, Trelan and Raniean were standing guard outside the prince’s room.  Elrynd stood just behind the two soldiers peering around them and smiling genuinely at Legolas.

 

“Are you both all right?”  Raniean asked quietly.

 

“Yes, thanks, Ran.”  Legolas stepped out into the hall, leaving the door cracked.  He glanced up and down the hallway to make sure they were alone.  Most of the staff was in the throne room fixing what had been demolished in the ketral’s escapade.

 

Ran glanced in at Aragorn who hadn’t bothered moving from his prone position on the bed.  “Is Strider all right?”

 

Legolas glanced back inside.  Aragorn raised his hand without looking up and waved in the general direction of the door before letting his arm drop back down. With a soft chuckle, Legolas pulled the door a little more shut, blocking the view from the inquisitive elves.

 

“He will be fine.  He hit his head rather hard.  I don’t think he’s eaten anything this morning either, so he’s liable to have a rather upset stomach in a few minutes.”  Legolas tried to keep the mirth from his answer but it was impossible.  “Elrynd, would you please be so kind as to bring us some food and drink and perhaps a roll of bandages as well?  I think it wouldn’t hurt to tend to that bump, it is swelling and it has to be painful.”

 

With a small nod, the servant moved quickly to bring the items requested.  Before he had gone too far, Legolas’ voice called him back.

 

“Oh, and Elrynd,” Legolas called.  He smiled at the elf, feeling slightly silly as he made his last request.  “Can you please have someone go down and release the vents for my room.  We could use a bit more heat up here.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

The Hall of Fire erupted in laughter and good natured taunting.  Aragorn’s face turned red under the teasing onslaught that the elves dished out.

 

Elladan quickly poured Trelan another glass of wine as the elf tried to catch his breath in between laughing and choking.

 

“You should have seen his face,” The small elf sputtered.

 

“All right, all right!  That’s enough,” Aragorn shouted down the merry elves around him.  “You’ve had enough fun at my expense. I take my leave of you.  Some of us actually have wives to entertain.”  He smirked as he stood and bowed much to the renewed laughter of those nearest.

 

“Little brother, you are pathetic, you know that don’t you?”  Elladan quipped.  “You never could stand the cold that well.”  He kicked a booted foot at the human when Aragorn stepped over him.

 

“Yes, well, you try freezing to death a few times and I daresay you won’t do as well either, elf or no,” the man retorted only half joking.  Kneeling next to Legolas he peered into the elf’s face. 

 

The prince was completely relaxed, his left arm held gently across his midsection.  His breathing was slowed and even.  His eyes were half lidded in sleep.

 

“Legolas?”  Aragorn called to his friend.  The room quieted around them.  No one had noticed when the prince drifted off to sleep during Trelan’s part of the retelling. 

 

“Is he well?” Raniean sat up quickly and leaned forward.

 

Gently brushing the hair out of his friend’s face, Aragorn smiled softly.

 

“He sleeps.  He pushed himself too hard and too long I am afraid.”  Leaning down, Aragorn carefully moved the elf and shifted Legolas into his arms.  “I should have paid more attention.  He is worn out,” he whispered.

 

Moving slowly and balancing the elf’s weight, Aragorn stood.  He stepped around the occupants of the room as he made for the stairwell.  Trelan pulled his feet out of the way as the man passed by carrying his prince.

 

“Do you need help, little brother?” Elrohir called after him.

 

“Nay,” Aragorn turned and smiled back at the warmly lit room.  Elves were always unnaturally light to carry, but Legolas was even lighter than usual at the moment and it was no great hardship for the human to manage.  “If your teasing and laughter did not wake him, I doubt anything will rouse him now.  We’ll be fine.”

 

As Aragorn reached the stairwell he could hear his brothers begin begging Ran and Trey for the trellep stories that they were not allowed to tell earlier.  They could be so much like children sometimes.  Trelan’s laughter rang through the halls as the ranger made the first landing.

 

“Nifts,” he whispered as he glanced over his shoulder once more.

 

“What are you doing?”  A soft voice startled the human as Legolas’ arms tightened around his neck.  The prince blinked, momentarily disorientated and a bit frightened.  Legolas was usually a very light sleeper and for a moment he couldn’t justify the last thing he remembered with his present location. 

 

“Putting you to bed, your highness, like I would Eldarion,” Aragorn replied, teasing softly as he laid the elf down on the soft sleeping couch.  He didn’t like the insubstantial way Legolas felt in his arms.  He didn’t like that the elf hadn’t immediately demanded to be put down the instant he was awake. 

 

Legolas tried to focus on the human as Estel moved about the room stoking the fire and shifting the blankets away from the elf’s booted feet.  His friend’s shape insisted on blurring and smearing into colors and shadows however and the elf had to give up.  He was a bit embarrassed by all this, but didn’t seem to have the strength or desire to fight or even argue when Aragorn unlaced his boots and set them quietly on the floor.

 

The prince had wanted to stay up and enjoy the company of friends and family so much that Legolas had ignored his body’s clamoring demands for rest.  He couldn’t remember at what point he had even fallen asleep.  The last he knew Aragorn... or was it Trelan?  Was telling of the time Thranduil found them all in the throne room with his ketrals.  Right now he missed his father greatly.  His heart tightened at the thought of his own family so far away from him... across the sea.  He missed his ketrals too.  His last pets had not sired any litters before they passed away and ketrals, always an illusive and rare creature to begin with, could not be found in Mirkwood any more after the great destruction of the last war with Dol Guldur.  The prince had sought any trace of their burrows or nests, but to no avail.  They might still exist somewhere, but if so they had hidden well, as only ketrals could, and it was likely that future generations of Arda would forget entirely that they had even existed.  It seemed to Legolas that the entire world had changed around him and he hadn’t quite found a way to keep up.

 

Estel turned back and watched as a frown creased the fair face of his friend.  He promised silently to be more careful in the future and not allow Legolas to push himself so hard.

 

“Sleep.  Just sleep,” Aragorn whispered as gazed down at his friend.  The elf shouldn’t have been cold, but he shivered slightly as the human drew the thick blankets up over his chest.

 

“And you think that will work on me, Adan?” Legolas teased softly.  He wasn’t fully awake and his words were softly slurred.

 

“Right now, I’d wager on it,” Aragorn answered.  Brushing his fingertips lightly over his friend’s face, he caused the elf to blink and close his eyes.  In that moment Aragorn’s deep soft voice filled the prince’s mind once more bidding him to rest and, to his surprise, Legolas found himself complying.

 

Stepping back towards the door, Aragorn watched his friend sleeping.  Pulling the door partway shut, he headed quietly up the hall.  He stopped to check in on Dari long enough to ensure the child was also sleeping soundly before going to his own room.  The lamps set in the wall were starting to burn down and the house had quieted for the night.  Intending to sneak in unnoticed, Aragorn was surprised to find the fire burning brightly and the bed empty.

 

Arwen stood in front of the large picture window.  The drapes were pulled back and she was gazing out into the starlit expanse above them.

 

“Why are you still awake, my love?”  Aragorn asked softly as he approached his wife.  He shrugged easily out of his outer tunic and threw the clothing on a nearby chair.  Arwen had not acknowledged him.  Stepping closer he moved the long tresses of dark hair away from her right ear and kissed her neck gently.

 

With a small smile she turned and then pierced with him a serious gaze. 

 

“Why? How could I sleep?” She answered by way of her own question.  Her fingers brushed the man’s brow smoothing the lines of worry from his face.  Dropping her hand to her side she turned towards the fireplace, watching the flames distractedly as she sought to express herself.

 

“I keep creeping into Eldarion’s room.  I feel as if... as if I go to sleep he will disappear and it will all have been a dream,” she said, somewhat hollowly.  “I still can’t believe we really got him back.  And... I worry about at what cost.  It took Dari hours to be able to sleep.  The darkness scares him and he tells me tales of people I do not know.  He says things about himself, about Legolas... things children shouldn’t think, shouldn’t know.  How can I sleep?  Even though you are both here, before my eyes, part of me fears that this nightmare is not truly over yet.  Is it?  Please, tell me it is and I will believe you.” Hesitant, shimmering eyes glanced back at her husband, asking his indulgence and assurance.

 

“Oh, my love,” Aragorn was beside her in a moment taking her slender hands in his.  He led her back to the bed and bade her sit.  Mentally, he kicked himself sharply.  He had been so worried about Legolas and Dari that he felt he had missed Arwen’s mental anguish and turmoil.  Valar, he didn’t want to fail her.  He never wanted to fail her. 

 

“It is over and the men Dari speaks of are no more.”  With a sigh Aragorn turned and paced the length of the room.  Words failed him and he realized that his own heart was not yet nearly as settled as he had believed.  “It’s late, meleth-nín, let us rest and I will tell you the whole tale in the morning.”  He had thought this conversation could wait until tomorrow, until after Arwen had rested from her long journey and until he had figured out what exactly he was going to say, but it seemed that would not be the case. 

 

Arwen shook her head.  “No, Estel.  If we continue this silence, it will devour us.  Talk to me,” his wife entreated him softly.  Arwen’s eyes were filled with pain. 

 

“Since Dari disappeared, you’ve shut me out,” she whispered.  “You’ve avoided me.  I thought at first maybe you blamed me, because I couldn’t keep him safe.  Then I knew you blamed yourself because you couldn’t keep him safe.  But now, if he really is safe and the Valar have returned him to us... talk to me.  Let me back into your heart, because it is cold out here on the outside, Estel,” her voice choked off and she looked away, hiding her tears.

 

Turning around to face her Aragorn started to speak but faltered.  He was shocked by her words.  Shut her out?  He would never do that!  He needed her like the very air he breathed, he loved her... how could she not know that?  Yet the pain in her eyes was so real and he couldn’t bear to think he had caused it somehow. 

 

“Arwen... I... I’m sorry if I... I never meant...” He gave up on useless words and pulled her into his arms, embracing her tightly.  “You have always been in my heart, since the day I met you.  Without you I would lose all the best parts of who I am,” he whispered into her hair.  He didn’t know what to do, what to say.  He had lived so much of his life alone; he didn’t always know the best way to incorporate another soul into his method of doing things.  He knew how to be a good friend, but being a good husband was something that he desperately feared still eluded him. 

 

Arwen would disagree with that assessment.  She knew Estel loved her, but the past few months had been very trying for them both.  He was a good man and a loving husband, but she didn’t know if he realized how much she needed him.  She had forsaken everything in her life and made Aragorn her world.  She knew that was not a fair burden for anyone to have to shoulder, but it was a matter beyond either of their individual control.  She needed to be close to him, to know what he was thinking and feeling.  And right now, she really needed to know what had happened since he left her in Minas Tirith, and what had happened to her son.  Dari’s muddled picture of events was frightening and horrible to say the least.  She needed some truth, and she needed it from Aragorn.

 

Aragorn sighed, seeming to sense that she needed answers.  She needed peace.  But it seemed the words he sought were not there.  He had no idea where to begin.  There was so much that had happened in such a short time that he wasn’t even sure if he was clear on it all himself.  So many fears and emotions were heaped upon one another.  Now finally they were in a place of safety and peace and he was at a loss.  He decided he understood his wife’s nameless anxiety.  Perhaps that was why he had wished to put off discussing the recent past.  It felt like he was standing in the eye of a storm just waiting for the second wave of chaos to hit.  He couldn’t give her peace.  He couldn’t give Legolas peace.  He couldn’t give anyone peace because he had none himself and he hated himself for his failings. 

 

“I-I don’t even know where to start,” he admitted finally, looking away again.

 

Arwen could see the confusion and the burden that her husband was carrying around inside of him.  She knew he needed to get it all out in the open as much as she needed to hear it.

 

“One thing at a time,” she prompted softly, touching his face, his hand, grounding him in the one certain reality of their love. “Just tell me the first thing on your heart.”

 

The apology...

 

The apology was first and it broke his heart.

 

“I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry I left without you, that I didn’t wait for you to join us first.  I’m sorry I did not find Dari sooner.  If I had listened to my heart in the first place, if I had questioned Legolas’ silent response to my messages, I might have found out what happened and been able to find Dari and Legolas months ago.  They could both have been spared so much.” Aragorn’s voice grew quieter as he continued.  His guilt was a heavy burden to carry alone.  It was a pity being a King didn’t automatically bestow you with instant wisdom.  He dropped down into the chair adjacent to the bed and buried his face in his hands.  Taking a deep breath he ran fingers back through his hair and stared straight into his wife’s deep blue eyes.  “I found them in Rahzon...”

 

The tale spilled from his lips like water from a flooded dam.  He told her everything.  He spared no details.  He answered every one of her questions.  She would find out anyway and she obviously needed to know.  They had no intentional secrets between them and he did not intend to start now.  Even when her eyes clouded with tears and her breathing hitched with repressed sobs, he kept going.  In the end he found himself seated next to her holding her in his arms.  They sat that way for sometime, both lost in their own world of questions with no answers.

 

Why...?  Why had this happened to them?  Through what chance tricks of fate had their child, the Prince of Gondor, supposedly the safest child on Arda, been taken away and shown such horrors?  Why?  And why Legolas?  Who had decided that he hadn’t suffered enough in his life already and that he should be saddled now with this strange affliction for which even Aragorn could find no cure? 

 

Yes, why?  That was the foremost question on Aragorn’s mind.

He had learned long ago that ‘why’ could often not be sufficiently answered.  Only the Valar knew sometimes.  His father had taught him that.  It was a lesson he would never forget and one he treasured.  Through it he had learned more about his elven father than he had in his younger years.  And he had witnessed the depths of Elrond’s healing touch.

 

Someday he would pass what he had learned on to his son as well, though he hoped the circumstances would be more pleasant.  Arwen rested heavily against him and they just breathed together, quietly, drawing and giving strength between them.  The gentle reminder tugged at Aragorn’s heart that with time all wounds healed and that was the way of the world.  In the soft, peaceful moment, the human’s thoughts turned back to that time in his life when he believed his own hurts could never be healed.  Back before the incident in Mirkwood they had laughed about earlier.  Back when Aragorn was quietly terrified of leaving the valley and broke into a cold sweat in dark, cold rooms.  Gazing off into the fire he remembered how Elrond’s unusual lesson had begun.  It had been in the same Hall of Fire he had so recently left, but many years before...

 

Chapter Text

~*PART FIVE*~
~Face your Fears~

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

Dark and nameless demons scream

And I can’t awaken from this dream

Help me up, hold me tight

Let me wake to find the light

 

Fear the darkness, don’t fear the fear

Don’t fear the darkness, there’s nothing there

 

I will follow where I’m led

But I cannot see the path ahead

Face my fears down, one by one

Will they vanish in the sun?

 

If I close my eyes I might see the light

And put to rest at last the night.

 

--Cassia

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

Bare feet padded silently down the stairwell and crept unnoticed into the Hall of Fire.

 

Or nearly unnoticed.

 

Aragorn glanced around him as he pulled a stack of cushions nearer the fireplace and stretched out on them.  He smoothed out the blanket he had brought with him and draped it over his legs and waist.  Turning towards the fire, he watched the flames dancing on the wood sparkling and shifting across the logs.  His own fireplace had been lit early in the evening but as always it would die out sometime during the night and he would wake to the pitch black quiet of his empty room.  And it would be cold.  It didn’t matter if it was the hottest night of the summer, when he awoke in the dark he was always cold. 

 

It had been months since they had returned from Angmar, since they had escaped the Witch King’s castle and their imprisonment there.  His physical wounds had all but healed.  The scars on his heart and soul, however, remained deeply etched and painful.

 

The first few weeks after Legolas had returned to Mirkwood it was hard for Aragorn.  Elrond had found his youngest asleep in Elrohir’s room, curled up in the over large chair or sharing the twin’s huge bed.  But Estel had begun to feel self conscious about waking his brothers.  Now he simply slipped down into the Hall of Fire when he thought everyone was asleep.  The fires never went out in the Great Hall and he didn’t have to worry about waking up in the dark.

 

The dark.

 

He hated it.  It still bothered him.  And that it bothered him at all was a point of distress to the man.  By human standards he was an adult.  Had he been a normal human and not Numenorean he would have been more than middle aged.  The point was, he was no child and to his mind, grown men were not afraid of the dark, even if they had been confined to it for months on end.  Even if it had once hidden horrors that still made him shudder at the mere memory.

 

He dreaded the quiet, stillness of night.  There were so many things now, normal things, that he couldn’t quite deal with properly.  Night times were just one of them.  Leaving Imladris for extended periods of time was another.

 

Aragorn was incredibly fearful of leaving the safe boundaries of home.  Too much had happened too far from his family or any type of help.  He had feared for so long that ‘home’ was something lost to him, that he now no longer desired to leave the valley.  It was a cowardly thought he supposed, but he felt safe here. 

 

In the silence of the night the Witch King’s voice would come back to him, pointing out the very fears that now ruled him and denouncing his weakness.  Oh yes, he was weak, that had always been true, hadn’t it?  Valar... Aragorn buried his head in his pillows and tried to still the voices in his mind. 

 

He started with a gasp, pulling back as a shadow passed across him, momentarily blocking out the light of the fire.  His thoughts had been so dark that the shifting shadow had frightened him.

 

“I’m sorry, Estel, did I wake you?” Celboril crouched down near the human, gazing into the silver eyes that flew suddenly open.  The servant had come in to stoke the fires and keep them burning.  He knew the human had been sleeping here of late and had been very careful not to wake him in the past.

 

Suddenly at a loss for a decent explanation, Aragorn simply laid back down with a sigh.  Placing his arm across his face he attempted to prevent the older elf from seeing through him.

 

“I wasn’t sleeping yet, Celboril,” he answered hesitantly.  “Don’t tell Ada,” he asked, gazing back at the elf once more.

 

“Estel...” Celboril faltered for words.  There was nothing in the house that he kept from the elf lord and Aragorn’s obvious distress of late was something he felt unwise for the young man to continue to keep secret.

 

“Please,” Aragorn begged softly.  “Just for a few more nights and it will be better.”  A lie and he knew it, but if wishing could make it so...

 

“Very well,” the seneschal acquiesced.  He still wasn’t sure that the information should be kept from Elrond, but he would honor Estel’s wishes for the time being.  Something in the human’s eyes said he had been through hell and was still trying to pull his soul back together.  Celboril knew many things, but he did not know how to deal with that.  “If you need anything, you know where I am.”  The old elf offered as he left.

 

Estel smiled softly and nodded before laying his head back down.  He hadn’t wanted anyone to find out that he had been staying in the Great Hall.  He had always been able to wake before the house and sneak back to his room before being discovered.  With a sigh he closed his eyes.  Surely Celboril would keep his secret until he was better.  It had to be soon.  He needed to be better soon.

 

The claustrophobic, suffocating dreams had only increased since Legolas’ departure.  Every night he closed his eyes, the Nazgûl returned to him, searing his mind with lies and taunts.  Every night he had woken in a panic trying to breathe, trying to remember how to make his lungs inhale.  He couldn’t move when he awakened.  There was nothing physically wrong with him, but for some reason there were always the long, horrible moments right after waking when he had no control over his body and the helplessness was overwhelming and terrifying.  Afterwards it was hard to get back to sleep.  He found that when he stayed in the Hall of Fire he hadn’t had that problem and his sleep had been deep and dreamless.  It couldn’t go on forever though, he knew that.   

 

Celboril walked down the hall, shaking his head.  He hated the fact that the young human wasn’t sleeping well.  He knew little of the abuses he had endured at the hands of the Úlairë, but the servant had seen this type of reaction years ago, in the elf lord that occupied this house and more recently in both of his two sons when they were younger.  It had taken unusual steps then for them to overcome their fears.  He had no doubt that it would require such now...if only Elrond knew.

 

The soft deep sound of the elf lord calling his name stopped Celboril in his tracks.  He grimaced slightly and turned back.

 

Stepping into the study Celboril approached Elrond, trying to keep his face impassive. “Yes, my lord?”

 

Without looking up from the tome he was reading Elrond questioned the servant.  “Is Estel sleeping in the Hall of Fire again tonight?”

 

Wincing slightly, the elf hesitated.  When Elrond glanced up at him it was painfully obvious that Celboril had been asked not to answer just such a question.

 

Nodding thoughtfully, Elrond closed the book and walked to the far side of the study room.  He gazed out into the darkened sky, his hands clasped behind him.  The moon was just beginning its descent; the night was only half over.

 

“The darkness still haunts him.  I though perhaps if he was given time... but he will never be free this way.”  Elrond turned back to the elf that waited behind him. “Will you be so kind as to prepare a horse for Estel and myself?” 

 

“Are you sure, my lord?”  Celboril knew what the elf had in mind but wasn’t convinced that the human was up to it so soon.  “He may not be ready just yet.”

 

With a smile, Elrond approached the servant and pressed him out into the hallway before him.  “I am not sure one ever is, but it will do him good.  He is human, he has not the years to wait this out like we do.  Please,” Elrond entreated once more, “Saddle up a horse for Estel.  We will be out shortly.”

 

With a small nod of compliance, Celboril left for the stables.  He did not see the items that the elf packed away in his bag before heading to the Hall of Fire.

 

Aragorn had easily fallen back asleep.  His rest was deep and dreamless and he simply lost himself in the peace.  Here it was never dark and he could breathe easy.

 

Elrond knelt next to the human and gazed at the sleeping man.  He hated waking him, but it had been several months since Aragorn and Legolas had returned and still the darkness haunted his youngest son.  He remembered a time in the far distant past when it haunted him as well.  He had been helped by an elf older and wiser than he at the time.  It was something he had taught his own sons when the opportunity arose and now he would take his youngest through this lesson as well.  With a sigh he gently shook the ranger, waking Estel.

 

Silver eyes opened slowly and latched onto the blue ones that gazed down at him.  Elrond was dressed in his riding gear and held a saddlebag in one hand.

 

“Where are you going, Ada?”  The human asked him sleepily.  “Is something wrong?” Not quite awake, he hadn’t yet realized that his secret was out.

 

“*We* are going,” Elrond answered, hooking his hands underneath Aragorn’s arms and pulling the man upright.  “Quickly, fetch your coat and boots and come back at once.  You won’t need anything else.  I will wait for you in the stables.”

 

The ranger was puzzled to no end, but obeyed the elf lord without question.  When Aragorn entered the large, open stable Celboril moved away from Elrond and proffered the reigns of a saddled horse towards the human.

 

Taking the reigns cautiously, the ranger glanced between the two elves.  Celboril would not return his gaze but simply bowed and turned to leave.  Elrond swung up onto the back of his horse.  The dark stallion had not been saddled or bridled.  Normally for such a trip, Aragorn’s horse would not have been saddled either but Elrond had felt it best as they would be riding in the dark through terrain with which the human was not familiar.

 

“Come, Estel, let us be off.  We have a bit of a ride ahead of us,” Elrond called to his son as his steed trotted out of the stable.  There was no further explanation and the human knew he would get none until his father was ready.

 

With a deep sigh, Aragorn swung up onto the back of the chestnut horse that waited him and quickly followed the elf lord.  They rode in silence through the forest.  It was easy for the ranger to follow the gently glowing form of the elf in front of him and he kept his eyes riveted to Elrond’s back. 

 

This passage that they were using was unfamiliar to him and he was grateful that Celboril had saddled his steed.  He ducked underneath a low hanging branch, barely avoiding being knocked off.

 

“Ada, where are we going?”  Aragorn finally asked, unable to stand not knowing.

 

“You will see,” was the elf’s cryptic answer, “We are nearly there.”

 

Aragorn contented himself with just following.  He trusted the elf lord implicitly.

 

When they stopped before the gaping maw of a darkened cave his heart dropped.  Elrond dismounted and gently pushed his mount away.  The horse walked a short distance off and began to eat the sweet grasses that grew in the woods.

 

Aragorn hesitated.  He watched as Elrond carried his saddlebag to the threshold of the cave and waited at the entrance.  The elf lord knew that his son had not dismounted and he called back to him.

 

“Estel, come with me.”  His voice was soft but commanding.

 

Swallowing the dread that threatened him, Aragorn dropped lightly to the ground and followed his adopted father into the cavern.  The light disappeared, swallowing them in darkness as he trailed the elf.  Aragorn’s heart raced wildly.  Of all the places he did not want to be surely his father understood that this was one of them.  The ranger suddenly felt a deep, brief surge of understanding compassion for what he had always considered to be Legolas’ rather silly but strong aversion to caves.  For the ranger, however, it was not the cave that made him hesitate, but the complete blackness flowing from it. 

 

Elrond’s insistence was the only reason strong enough to make Aragorn trail him reluctantly into the inky dark.  The elf lord continued walking down the winding path, deeper and deeper underground.  His natural glow was all they had to guide them and Aragorn stayed very close.  The elf lord could sense his son’s growing aprehension but he pressed onward.  The cavern walls tilted inwards, pinching the passage tightly.  Claustrophobia clung to the walls like spider-webs. 

 

Turning sideways, Elrond squeezed through the small opening.  The other side of the walkway angled sharply around a bend and the elf lord stepped behind it, allowing his light to be blocked.  He heard the small gasp that escaped Aragorn’s lips, as the man was plunged into darkness, but forced himself to remain hidden.

 

The ranger had turned sideways, following his father through the constricted passageway when all the light went out.  The wall behind pressed against his back and the stone in front of him pinned his chest painfully.  The darkness crushed in about him and he panicked.  Feelings of claustrophobia compressed his rational thought and froze him in place.

 

“Ada?” He whispered softly.

 

Elrond stepped around the corner, increasing his glow somewhat and took hold of the human’s arm, pulling him gently through.  He patted the man on the shoulder and resumed walking. The slope of the path tipped radically.  They were nearly at the bottom.

 

“Ada, please,” Aragorn barely spoke, “Why are we here?” 

 

The passage leveled out into a huge domed cavern.  Stalagmites rose from the ground, reaching to touch the tips of stalactites that hung from the ceiling.  The far reaches of the cavern were hidden from view in the all encasing darkness.  Only the immediate area around Elrond was visible.

 

Seating himself on the ground, Elrond motioned his son to do the same.  Once the ranger had obeyed, he began to speak softly.

 

“What do you see?” Elrond asked as he dimmed his glow until it was barely perceptible to human’s eyes.

 

Aragorn stifled a gasp and tensed.  He despised his reactions and how this was affecting him.  The very last thing he wanted was for Elrond to see in him what the Witch King had.  He closed his eyes and opened them trying to adjust to the lack of light.  He could not.

 

“What do you see?” The question was repeated.

 

“Nothing,” the human forced out with more calm than he felt.

 

“Darkness?”

 

“Yes,” Aragorn whispered.  He waited for Elrond to speak, strained to hear, strained to see, but it was as though his senses were cut off.  He had the odd, seemingly irrational thought that Elrond was in fact, amplifying this effect somehow. 

 

“You are alone,” the voice of the Nazgûl floated to him, conjured by his mind’s response to the darkness.  It had been ingrained into his thinking over those months of torment.  It had broken him down until he unwittingly still believed the lie.  Panic constricted his throat and he fought to breathe calmly.  It was like waking up from one of his panicked nightmares, but worse because he was already awake and knew he was not dreaming. 

 

Hearing his son’s distress Elrond reached out and gently touched the mithril brooch that Estel wore.  The metal suddenly sparkled and shown brilliantly under his fingers, reflecting the light of the elf’s natural glow that was now focused upon it. 

 

Surprised, Aragorn moved back and glanced down.  Elrond followed him and touched the intricate pin again.  The fire in the metal left after-traces of light dancing in the human’s eyes.

 

“Do you remember the words with which this brooch was given to you?” Elrond questioned as he sat back, allowing his glow to illuminate the two of them once more.

 

“That I would never be alone,” Aragorn answered, touching the brooch experimentally.

 

“And what did the Nazgûl tell you?” Elrond pressed further.

 

“He said I belonged to him and I was alone.  He said I was like him, darkness, weakness...failure.” The words were a guilty whisper.  Before Elrond could respond Aragorn glanced at the elf and asked him the one question he had been thinking on lately.

 

“Why, Ada?  Why did it happen?  Legolas and I weren’t looking for trouble, yet so much has always found us, whether alone or together.  And this...” his fingers rubbed idly at the scar in his palm.  “Why?”

 

Elrond considered the human for a few moments before responding, trying to gauge what the man was really asking him.  “Do you mean to ask me why Ilúvatar would allow it?”

 

When Aragorn nodded, the elf lord smiled sadly.  “I do not know, my son.  We do not always know his ways or his thoughts.  Sometimes it seems there is so much pain and evil in the world that it must be stronger than any good.  Sometimes we cannot imagine why we are here or if there is a reason to our lives.  I do not pretend to know the greater answers.  None of us can, for now.  If there are answers to be found, it will not be in this life.”

 

Elrond sat quietly for a moment, thinking.  He had had much the same questions when he was younger.  “Why?” never got any easier to answer.  He tackled the query from a different point of view.

 

“Sometimes things have a reason you can see, sometimes they do not.  Did anything good come from what happened to you and Legolas in Angmar?  Perhaps, from a certain point of view, there was good.  You rescued those enslaved by the Nazgûl; you helped them win their freedom.  That is a very good and very noble thing.  I do know that Sauron now believes for certain that there is no heir of Isildur alive.  He is under the impression that even the rumors are false because the Wraith was unable to pry anything from your mind.  You have been given many years free from the threat of them searching for you.  So perhaps there was purpose in it.”

 

“How do you know that?” Aragorn questioned leaning forward and listening to all his father had to say.

 

With a laugh Elrond brushed the question off lightly. “There are many things I know and many ways I have of finding them out.  That is not the subject of this discussion.”

 

Aragorn dropped his father’s gaze. “You do not know what it was like.  You do not know what he made me do and say.  You have no idea what it is to be cut off from everything and think you are dying.  To be forced to betray yourself.”

 

“I don’t?” Elrond asked the question softly, a small smile on his face.  “My dear child, I believe I do.”  While he talked he emptied out the contents of his saddlebag, allowing them to fall between them.

 

Aragorn swallowed hard as he saw what his father had brought and he shifted uneasily.

 

Sîdh, ion-nín,” Elrond reassured. “Let me tell you about the first time I can to this very place, and why it was necessary for me to be brought here as you are now.”

 

As he started speaking, he picked up a length of elven rope and gently coiled it around his son’s wrists, binding the man’s hands together.  Estel did not move or resist his father.  When Elrond released the ranger, Aragorn tested the binds, trying to squirm out from them.  The rope tightened about him, holding him pinned when he fought it.  When he relaxed it released its grip and lay gently against his wrists.  Laying his hands in his lap he returned his focus to the elf before him.

 

Elrond waited until the man stopped fidgeting before he continued.

 

“Your grandfather, Celeborn, has lived longer than I have.  He is a very wise elf and when a headstrong young elf came asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he saw through the pride and pretense and recognized the fear.  He was a good friend of mine already; we had fought together in many battles.  He respected me, but he also knew me too well.  He knew my past and knew there were things I had never faced, never conquered.  He would not allow me to take his daughter until he was sure I could face them, and win.”

 

Elrond picked up a length of black cloth and held it in his hands.

 

“You see, Estel, the Eldar have the years to heal or hide should they choose to, like Legolas did for so many years.  You, my dear son, do not.  Your life is much shorter and so your healing must happen more quickly or your scars will own you and in the end cripple you.  Celeborn brought me here years ago and taught me the truth about fear.  Fear is a bully; it is the little death for rational thought.  Its main purpose is to immobilize you so that that which cannot overcome you otherwise is given an advantage.  You can learn to resist it, if you know the truth.”

 

Leaning forward, Elrond wrapped the dark cloth around Aragorn’s eyes, blocking all sight and sending him into a world of complete darkness. The cloth fell down over his face, slightly impeding his breathing but not enough to actually impair it.  The human tensed and fought to remain calm.  Elrond continued speaking, giving the man something to focus on for the present.

 

“You are right in saying that I do not understand how it was with the Nazgûl.  I cannot begin to comprehend what you went through, Estel, and I would not cheapen your pain by pretending to do so.  However, I do understand fear.  Fear of the darkness, of abandonment and pain.  I have never really told you the tale of what happened to Elros and me when our mother was forced to leave us to save the Silmaril.  We were still almost children at the time.  We never saw her or our father again.” Elrond continued speaking as Aragorn calmed down and listened to his father’s tale of enslavement and mistreatment.

 

As he described the abuse and neglect at the hands of fellow elves, Aragorn could see the similarities in his own fears and his father’s circumstances.  The young twins had been imprisoned, beaten frequently, and denied food and water for days at a time.  Kept in a small room barely large enough for the two of them they were not allowed sunlight or moonlight and lived in the darkness.  Silent tears coursed down Aragorn’s face as he listened in horror to the tale.  He had not realized that his father had been treated so badly.  He wondered idly how he had ever been able to get over such memories, such horrors, especially when they occurred at such an early, impressionable age.  His father had always seemed so courageous and fearless.

 

The human easily sympathized with the fear of dark spaces and being bound.  He tested his bonds again experimentally.  The elven rope twined tighter as he fought it so he tried to relax.

 

When Elrond described his terror at the sounds of Fandril’s footstep Aragorn shuddered visibly.  He could still hear the way it sounded when the Nazgûl came for him.

 

“Ada, I’m sorry,” Estel whispered softly when Elrond stopped speaking.  “I didn’t realize...”

 

With a smile, Elrond shook his head.  Knowing that his son could not see him, he spoke aloud. “It was many years ago, and through the patient wisdom of my elders and time, it no longer troubles me.  I can own the memories, and they do not own me.  That is the way true healing eventually comes, Aragorn, but it does take time.  First though, you have to know the truth about fear.”

 

The small sounds of night animals returning to the cave caused Aragorn to jump.  He turned blindly in the direction of the sounds.  Rocks skittered oddly in darkened corners, creating disturbing echoes.  Elrond knew that morning was coming soon and it was time for Aragorn to face his own fears.  Picking up a length of silk, the elf walked behind the human and leaned down.  He hesitated.  It was hard for him to go through with all this, but he knew it was for the best.

 

“Ada, what are you doing?” Aragorn asked, trying to keep a worried edge out of his voice.  His heart raced and his breathing accelerated as Elrond gently slipped the silk over his mouth and tied it behind his head, effectively gagging the human.

 

Elrond had skillfully chosen to recreate the fears that gripped his son the most.  His gentle restrictions on the human ripped memories and terrors from the man’s heart and brought them flooding to the surface.  He did not intend to torment his son, only cause him to face his fears.  It had worked with Elladan and Elrohir years ago after they had been trapped with him in a cave-in.  It had worked when Celeborn had brought him down here and done to the elf lord much the same as Elrond had to Estel.  He only hoped it would help the human as much as it had the elves before him.  Fear had a tendency to become bigger than the thing being feared.  The first step was facing it and bringing it back down into proportion.  He felt sure that despite what Aragorn might think, the ranger was ready to do that.  Elrond knew that Aragorn was much stronger than he gave himself credit for.   

 

Aragorn could have ripped the gag from his face, he was not restricted from moving in this way at all, but fear froze him in place and the memories of his time with the Nazgûl flooded his thoughts.  He knew full well what the punishment was for resisting – the Wraith had not tolerated disobedience.  For Aragorn submission had become survival, but it was not the trait of a future king and Elrond knew this far too well.  The hopeless submission that had been so torturously beaten into him warred with Aragorn’s nature and kept him unbalanced.  It had to be broken.

 

“Now you must face your fears, Estel.”  Elrond placed his hand gently against his son’s chest. The man was trembling, trying unsuccessfully to calm down.  “Listen to the darkness and what it tells you.  You must face the things that hold you captive.  When you face your fears, move through them.  Look back at them and you will see that there is nothing there.  It is but a vapor.”  His voice trailed off softly as he reseated himself a few feet away from the human and watched his son carefully.

 

Aragorn tried to do as he was told.  He tried to still his breathing and calm his racing heart.  His breath hitched in his throat as he fought the darkness that tried to envelope him.

 

The voice of the Nazgûl crowded his thoughts.  He saw the gag and the bridle held before him.  He felt the bonds wrap around him before he was placed in the box.  The darkness hedged his rational thought and fogged through his mind stifling his ability to relax.  Legolas’ muted cries fought for attention around the Úlairë claims over him.

 

 

 

His father’s words cut through the chaos as he recalled them.  Face your fear and walk through it.

 

He tasted the gag in his mouth and slowly reached up to remove it.  Pulling the silk away from his face he breathed in deeply, calmly.  The Nazgûl used fear like a weapon, like a tool.  But in the end he was no different than any captor; he was a bully.  He could have killed Aragorn, but he would have never owned him.  Even if he had followed through on his worst threats and pierced the human’s heart with a Morgul blade, Aragorn would have died, but never been enslaved, the human felt suddenly sure of that. 

 

In his mind, Aragorn walked back through the laboratory and placed the gag on the table.  Turning, he walked away from it and the Nazgûl’s lab, back through the darkening mists and into the light. 

 

Tentatively he reached for the blindfold, but a strong, gentle hand stopped him.

 

“Not yet.  Leave that on until I remove it,” Elrond whispered softly, pressing the human’s hand down.  He was pleased that Aragorn had pulled the gag from his face, knowing that it was a simple but important hurdle for the human.

 

Nodding slowly, Aragorn relaxed and continued thinking through the fears and darkness in his heart.  Silently, hope began to weave through his thinking as he reached the end of the bitter trail of torment he had lived through.  Yes, the Nazgûl could take away his ability to talk but he could not take his spirit.  He could bind him, but not capture his will.  Aragorn could be confined, but his soul was ever free.  He could be blinded but he was never alone.  He fingered the brooch with bound hands.

 

He had been hurt and broken and it *did* matter but it wasn’t his identity.  Sitting here in the dark, surrounded by everything he feared, but in no actual danger, it felt as if he watched the panic inside him shrink.  Like a child who looks at the shadows in the corner of his room until he can finally see the shape of his dresser in them, rather than the nameless terror he supposed to be lurking there. 

 

“I fear being abandoned,” he whispered.  He was surprised when he spoke aloud.

 

“Is that your greatest fear?” Elrond questioned softly.

 

“Yes,” Aragorn answered, “You, my brothers, Arwen, Legolas - I fear loosing you, because of death or my own failings.  To be alone with no one around and all I love lost to me, that is my greatest fear.”

 

“My son, if all the earth should fade and all with it die and you should be left in the darkness of its passing you would still never be alone,” The elf explained gently.  He touched the brooch the man wore once more.  The spark and fire of the mithril was visible even through the blind that Aragorn wore and he smiled slightly.

 

“You see, you were created by Ilúvatar and for him.  No matter who should not be with you, he ever is.  There is no where you can go to escape him or his watchful eye.  Not even the dungeons of a Nazgûl can hide you.  Do you understand?  His love reaches you no matter where you are.  And so does mine.  You just must listen for it.  I can’t walk your path with you, Estel, and I won’t be with you forever, but my love will, that I can promise.”

 

Elrond let Aragorn sit in silence as the man thought through what he had been told.

 

“What did the Nazgûl tell you, Estel?” The elf lord asked after some time.

 

“He told me I belonged to him.  He said that I was alone and that no one could hear me or help me.  He kept saying that I would be owned by him and that my torment would never end,” Aragorn answered, softly recounting the words.

 

“They are lies,” his father stated simply.  “Now tell me the truth.  What do *you* believe?”

 

Aragorn did not answer right away.  He listened to the voice of the Nazgûl, and then forced himself beyond it sorting out his own quiet thoughts that lay below the clamor of the falsehoods.

 

“I do not belong to him and I never shall.  I am the adopted son of Elrond, lord of Rivendell, heir to the throne of Gondor by my sire Arathorn descendant of Isildur.  I am brother to Elladan and Elrohir and friend to Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood.  No matter where I am, Ilúvatar can hear me and I am never hopeless.  I am owned by no creature on Middle Earth.  I am one of the free peoples and I *am* free,” the ranger countered softly.  He was thinking through it slowly and speaking the truths, one for every lie he had been told. “That is what I believe.  I will never be alone.”

 

Elrond could see the human visibly grown stronger and more confident as he faced his fears and walked through them.

 

“And the dark, my son?  What of it?” Elrond pressed him further.

 

“The dark holds no trace of him any longer.  He did not create it.  He can manipulate it but it does not belong to him either.  The dark is simply that which I cannot see through, but it is not evil in itself and does not mean I am alone.”  He reached out and touched Elrond’s hands gently with his bound ones, no longer remembering that they were bound.

 

“Never doubt in the darkness, what you know to be true in the light, Estel,” the elf lord gently instructed.  “The brooch you wear is simply a symbol of the truth you carry in here.”  Elrond touched his hands to the man’s chest causing, Aragorn to smile gently.

 

“Yes, Ada,” he answered softly.

 

Carefully, Elrond removed the blindfold from Aragorn’s face. The man blinked several times, allowing his eyes to adjust to the level of light in the cavern.  He was surprised to see a shaft of sunlight falling from high overhead.  A vent in the rock face allowed the light to spill in turning the frightening cavern into a softly glowing work of art.  The floor and ceilings were covered in glittering bits of crystal and ore.  It held no fear now at all.

 

Unbinding Aragorn’s wrists, Elrond continued speaking.  “This does not mean your nightmares will end today.  Nor does it mean you will never have moments of fear or doubt.  It is simply another step in the journey of healing.  You are well on your way, my son.”

 

“Thank you, Ada,” Aragorn whispered.  He leaned forward and wrapped his arms around the elven lord.  Elrond returned the embrace, relieved that the simple exercise had worked with the human so well.

 

“You said you did this with Elladan and Elrohir?”  Estel questioned as Elrond stood to his feet and helped the ranger back up. 

 

“Yes, I did,” his father answered conversationally as he collected the rope and strips of cloth stuffing them back in his pack.  “It was slightly different with them, however, for they feared different things.  It was many years ago now, after we were trapped in a cave-in.  The twins had been severely brutalized by orcs in a ploy to capture me.  They had many fears to confront after that encounter.  I brought them down here like their grandfather did with me and we stepped through those fears together.  It helped them as well.”

 

Aragorn glanced back once more into the cavern before taking the lead as they walked out.  He remembered the passageway and led them easily up the winding walkway, aided by his father’s bright glow.  Everything seemed lighter to him as though the shadows had fled the world.  He knew that the nightmares were bound to return, he knew that it would take time but he also realized he was not alone.  When the terrors came he would seek out his father or Elrohir.  He no longer had to fear the darkness; he could walk through it now. 

 

As they passed the claustrophobic section of the path he had a momentary flare of fear but it quickly receded.  Elrond spoke true.  The fear reactions were not going to vanish overnight, but he could hold onto the memory of the cave, and the way those apprehensions shrunk and vanished when placed under careful scrutiny.  That would help him eventually put them behind him. 

 

Once outside, the ranger breathed in deeply and looked around the forests.  It was painted with splashes of the early morning sun where it peaked through the trees at a low angle.  Their horses were waiting for them lower in the pasture and they quickly mounted up and turned for home.

 

Celboril awaited them in the courtyard, a pensive look on his face.  He had worried on them over the long night but his fears were forgotten when Aragorn greeted him warmly.  The servant smiled widely at the father and son, welcoming them home heartily.  With a small nod Elrond acknowledged that they were indeed well and things had gone just fine.  Smiling to himself, Celboril followed the horses as they made their way slowly back to the stables.  He would see to the animals before returning to the house.

 

Once inside Imladris, Aragorn realized just how weary he was.  He turned to the right and headed for the stairwell.  His father’s voice stopped him on the first landing.

 

“Estel, would you like something to eat?  Celboril has food waiting for us.  Your brothers have gone out already and won’t be home until later,” Elrond walked up the staircase behind the ranger.

 

“I think I should like to sleep for a few hours,” Aragorn answered around a yawn.  “I am very tired.” He laughed softly as the elf lord followed him up to the second level.

 

Elrond stepped around his son and entered the human’s room.  Walking to the large picture window he pulled the curtains closed, sending the room into a mid-morning darkness.  He glanced back at the man to see his reaction but Aragorn simply dropped onto the bed, kicking off his boots lazily and letting them lay where they fell.  He yawned again and smiled up at his father when the elf walked over next to his bed.  Pulling the blankets over him he sleepily gazed at Elrond.

 

“I’m glad you took me to the cave, Ada.  I think it really will help.  I’m just going to sleep for a few hours and I’ll be up.”

 

Elrond gently touched his son’s face, brushing the hair out of his eyes, “It is understandable that you would be tired.  It is not easy to let go of ones fears.  Sleep well, Estel.”  He smiled as the man pulled him into an awkward hug.

 

Rolling over, Aragorn stretched out and was instantly asleep, worn out from the night’s lessons.  And as he slept, his dreams were peaceful and nothing dark troubled his sleep.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Aragorn was pulled from his reverie when Arwen shifted in his arms.  He set his thoughts aside as she sat up and gazed into his eyes.

 

Breaking the silence that had descended on them he finished all that was left to tell of his explanation.

 

“When we left Rahzon we headed straight here.  Legolas requested it and I could not refuse.  I am sorry how our haste must have seemed to you, I... I did not know what else to do.  There is something wrong with him, Arwen, something very wrong and whatever it is seems beyond my skills to diagnose or treat.  I had hoped coming here might be good for Dari, too - to have some new experiences to replace what he has been through.  And... I had hoped it might be good for you and me as well.  Every time I closed my eyes, the visions were there again - death, cruelty and the dying.  That Dari was there in that terrible place...  I still cannot forgive myself for that.  I failed him, and I failed Legolas and I fear... I really fear that I am not going to be able to help Legolas through this time.  His wounds won’t even heal, and if what Elrohir tells me is true, not even Ada could do anything in cases like this.”

 

Standing to his feet, Aragorn paced the carpet once more, his gaze thrown unseeing out into the dark night.  Arwen walked to the fireplace and stoked the fire.  She leaned against the mantle and watched her husband carefully.  So many cares and woes creased his brow and harried his heart.  She crossed her arms and tucked her hands up under the overlong sleeves of her robe.  She did not question the wisdom of coming here, and she could at least begin to forgive him his haste now that she saw the devastated worry and guilt in his eyes. 

 

“Estel.”  Her voice stopped the man in his tracks.  “You are a great healer.  Ada foresaw that in you and he was right.  But perhaps Legolas does not need a healer.  Perhaps he needs time and a friend.  There are wounds that cannot be mended until the wounded is ready.  Legolas is an Eldar, he has time, give him time.”  She would not let him interrupt her but held up her hand and continued.

 

“Dari is safe and Legolas is alive because of what you did.  Coming here was the right thing to do.  Don’t second guess yourself and don’t allow those condemning thoughts to rule your heart.”  Arwen consoled him. 

 

Aragorn shook his head mutely, he had wanted to console her, but somehow the tables had flipped and she was comforting him now.  He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes for a moment.  When he removed them, he met his wife’s gaze.  “Forgive me, then?  For everything?  You know I never want to hurt you.”

 

Arwen leaned forward and kissed him, lightly.  “I will forgive you, if you will forgive me.  I know I place a great deal of weight on your shoulders, my love.  We all need time to heal, even you do.” 

 

Aragorn kissed her back, relieved and yet still troubled at heart.  After a minute he broke away and sighed.  “I know that.  I do.  I just... how much time do you think we have?  I want to stay here forever, but I am constantly reminded that we can’t,” the man said disconsolately.  “If there was just something I could do...”

 

Arwen watched her husband carefully.  Aragorn was fretting again, she knew this expression well.  Her own sadness and anxiety was beginning to fade a bit as their conversation eased the strain of estrangement she had felt or at least feared between herself and her husband over the past few months.  She was actually able to give a somewhat wry smile.  “Estel, Legolas will heal on his own time table, not ours.  Give it time... but be prepared to give it a lot of time.  Elves do not solve everything so quickly as you impetuous humans do.”  Her eyebrows tipped up in slight amusement. 

 

“And I want nothing more than that, but I don’t know how to manage it,” Aragorn admitted with a bit of frustration.  “How long do you think we can shun the duties of Gondor?  There are council meetings, affairs of state and the Winter Fest draws nigh.  We cannot miss it.  Jonath reminds me of that frequently.  What if...” a finger on his lips stopped him. 

 

Moving to stand in front of her husband, Arwen wrapped her arms around the man’s waist and stared up into his eyes.

 

“Yes, Minas Tirith will surely crumble into ruin and all of Gondor will fall into decay without her king,” she teased slightly.  The smile that played at the edge of her lips belayed the man’s frustration as he watched her out of slitted eyes. 

 

“Darling, do not push Legolas as he tries to find his peace again. And do not rush Dari from his nightmares.  They will both heal in their time.”  Her smiled widened and her tone turned coy as she continued.  “As for the kingdom, I discussed everything with Faramir and Éowyn before our departure.  The council is at ease with their steward in your absence.  Remember meleth-nín, that Gondor somehow survived in the hands of the Stewards for countless generations.  Before we left word was received that the Southern Treaty had been fully ratified and accepted in all nine tribes.  Word reached them of the attack.  Those responsible were hunted down by their own people and punished.  The trade routes are open and the waterways have been secured.  We are at peace.  And I dare say that Faramir and Éowyn will be just as able to preside over the Winter Fest as we would be.”

 

Aragorn stared open mouthed at his wife as he processed all she had just said.  She had, apparently, thought of everything.  It was very, *very* good to have a wife who knew so much about running a kingdom, he decided.  He had had no time at all to make arrangements of any kind before he left and the responsibility had been wearing on him considerably. 

 

“Then I suppose I should enjoy our time here?”  He questioned.  A small smile began to wrap itself around the corners of his mouth until his heart found its voice again.

 

“And yet you are not.  Why?”

 

Aragorn stalled for an explanation.  He knew why but his heart still warred within him over so many things.  

 

“Why?”  Arwen repeated.  The gentle touch of her fingertips on his cheek redirected Estel’s attention.

 

“Because *he* is not here,” Aragorn whispered.

 

The answer startled Arwen.  It was the last thing she had expected to hear and yet in her heart she knew she should have thought of it first.

 

Dropping her gaze she answered her husband softly, “I know, my love.  He is not.  But his love is, I can feel it.”

 

Lifting her chin with his fingertips Aragorn gazed down at his wife.  “I’m sorry, I know you must miss him as much, or more than I,” he said softly.

 

“I do,” Arwen admitted slowly.  She didn’t really like to talk about it.  “More so now that we are here, I suppose.  And now that there is Dari.”

 

Perplexed, Aragorn pressed her for an explanation of the last statement. “What do you mean?”

 

Seating herself back on the bed, Arwen waited as Aragorn pulled the armchair closer and sat across from her.

 

“When you left with Frodo for Mordor, my father had a talk with me one night.  I had decided to tell Ada of my decision to choose a mortal life but he was one step ahead of me.  He, of course, tried to dissuade me,” She spoke softly.  Her eyes were riveted to her fingers as she played idly with Aragorn’s hand, caressing the silver ring, Barahir. 

 

“It wasn’t that he was against my marrying you, in that sense.  He simply didn’t want to lose me or leave me behind.  At the time I thought he was being selfish and I didn’t understand his heart in the matter.  He asked me if he had my love and I told him yes.  And it was true, he did.  I loved you both, and one love did not negate the other... I could never choose between the two of you.  In the end, when he finally understood, he did not make me choose.  But now, so many years after he has gone, I wonder if he ever truly believed me when I told him I loved him.”

 

“Of course he believed you,” Aragorn whispered.  He had not heard of any of this and the revelation was new to him.  “Why would you doubt?”

 

“Until Dari came along I did not understand how much a parent could love a child.  Nor did I ever fathom the depths of pain that the loss or separation from that child could bring.  No one tells you these kinds of things.  And now I realize how much I hurt him, unwillingly so, but still...”  When Arwen raised her eyes to meet her husband’s they were filled with tears again.  “Now I know, in part, why it was so hard for him to leave us here – why he wanted so terribly for me to come with him.  If you had not been born human he would have entreated you the same.  Instead we have stayed behind – all of us.  How our choices must have hurt him I am only beginning to understand.”

 

Aragorn swallowed hard, unable to find words to express himself.  He rose from his seat and sat next to Arwen, pulling her head gently to his shoulder.  He listened to the thoughts tearing through his own heart.  He remembered the severe rage that had burned in him, bereft of rationale when he had learned what had befallen his son.  If the slavers had not lain dead in Rahzon he would have killed them all with his bare hands for the injuries they had inflicted on Eldarion.  The fire of possessive love flared in heart at the thought once more and for the first time he understood Elrond more than he thought possible.  Some things you truly could not understand until you had experienced them yourself.  Being a parent was one of them.

 

“Ada knows we love him.  He has to know.  He has our love, he always has.”  Aragorn answered.  “When I returned from Harad after being gone so long and under the circumstances that I left, I was sure that Ada could not love me anymore, not like he did, not like before.  And it came out in our conversation late that night.  I told him my fears and I fully expected him to tell me I was right.  But he didn’t.”  Aragorn looked up and smiled at the memory. 

 

“In fact, when I finally got the courage to ask him, Ada got up out of his chair and strode right over to where I was sitting. I knew I was done for then,” Aragorn continued.  He laughed lightly as he spoke.  “But instead of being angry he pulled me up out of the chair and just hugged me.  I will never forget what he said next.  He told me that I have his love and I always would no matter what happened.  He made me promise to never forget that.  He has told me that many times since, actually.”

 

“And you have kept that promise,” Arwen whispered.  She smiled up at her husband.  She was bone weary.  The trip had been long and the pent up emotions released this evening were almost too much.  Yet, for the first time in the past few months she finally felt safe and at peace.  “I’m glad you and Dari are both back with me again.  Everything else will work itself out in time, I am certain.”

 

Quiet fell gently in the small room and Estel glanced at the dying fire.

 

“Sleepy?” He asked softly, nuzzling her cheek softly and breaking the easy silence.

 

Arwen was, but leaning against her husband, whom she had not seen in far too long, was putting other thoughts in her mind.  “Mmm, are you?” she let the slightly taunting question fell between them.

 

With a laugh Aragorn rose.  He walked to the window, drawing the curtains and blowing out the small shell night light.  As the fire dimmed he returned to the bed and gently kissed his wife’s lips, whispering softly to her and eliciting quiet laughter from the beautiful elf maiden.

Chapter Text

~*PART SIX*~
~Ghosts, Memories and Visitors~

 

 

Early morning light filtered gently through the window as the semi-sheer fabric of the curtains fluttered slightly.  Wakefulness tugged feebly at Aragorn’s consciousness, but he ignored its call.  Instead he rested in the comfortable, glowing peace of Rivendell at dawn.  Somewhere, birds twittered faintly in the trees.  Arwen, curled up against his chest with her head pillowed on his arm, did not even stir.  Almost two weeks had passed since they had returned to Rivendell and they had finally settled into the comfortable reality of being back here in this place, which held so many memories, both painful and pleasant. 

 

Content to drift comfortably and let his warrior’s instincts relax for once, Aragorn did not hear the closed door slide noiselessly open, nor the swift footsteps that entered the room.

 

He awoke with a jolt and a start.  For a moment he didn’t know why he had awoken and his hand grasped automatically under his pillow.  It found only Arwen’s arm, which brought him quickly back to reality.  The world was shaking... no, just the bed.  The bed was shaking.  It was shaking because something, or rather *someone*, very small, but very full of energy was bouncing up and down on it with great enthusiasm. 

 

“Na-na!  Ad-a!  Wake up.  Waaake up!” Dari sing-songed as he bounced on the bed.  His dark, unruly curls spun around his small head as he jounced up and down, his long white nightshirt fluttering about him like angel wings.  Another bounce landed him atop his mother and father, but he continued to hop up and down anyway, even though it did not engender as much springy motion.  

 

Aragorn caught his son’s wrist in his free hand and pulled the boy down into a sitting position, trying to quell the shaking and avoid unnecessary bruising.  That quickly turned into a hug.

 

“Peace, peace, easy there,” he said with a smile and a yawn. 

 

Dari hugged back before squiggling free and bouncing with only slightly less vigor in the little nitch he created for himself between the bodies of his mother and father.

 

“Elladan an’ Elr’hir gonna take me hunting!  Elladan an’ Elr’hir gonna take me hunting!” the child chanted happily.  “We’re goin’ to go all the places they took you when you were big like me!”

 

Arwen was blinking sleep out of her eyes and smiled up at her son through a graceful tangle of dark brown tresses.  Then she closed her eyes again and burrowed down against Aragorn’s arm.  “Dear, your son is awake,” she murmured.

 

Dari was still going on about all the things he was going to do today with his uncles.  He didn’t really seem to care if his parents were paying attention or not.

 

Aragorn snorted softly.  “Why is he my son when he’s awake, and your son when he’s sleeping?” he murmured. 

 

Arwen gave a muffled sound that was no kind of answer at all and remained right where she was. 

 

Dari was standing up and bouncing again, obviously having decided that his Nana and Ada were not near awake enough yet. 

 

Aragorn caught his leg.  “We’re awake, we’re awake, Dari, all right?” he said fondly.  “But I bet Legolas isn’t... don’t you think you’d better go check?”

 

Dari latched onto the idea immediately and scrambled off the bed on hands and knees.  Dropping to his feet on the floor, he scampered out of the room, leaving the door hanging partially open behind him.

 

Aragorn immediately lay his head back down on the pillow again and nuzzled his face into Arwen’s hair.

 

“You’re horrible,” Arwen murmured contentedly. 

 

“I know,” Aragorn responded with equal apathy. 

 

There was silence for a few moments.  Then Arwen’s brows furrowed.  “Hunting?” she questioned with concern as Dari’s words finally got through her sleepy mind.

 

Aragorn chuckled.  “Don’t worry.  If they intend to take him everywhere they took me, the most dangerous thing they’ll run into is ferocious squirrels.”

 

Arwen seemed content with this answer and relaxed for a few more moments of stolen rest. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Legolas turned over, trying to find a cool place on his pillow.  A thin sheen of cold sweat made his bare face and arms glisten slightly in the early light flowing in from the window.  The growing radiance touched his closed eyelids and he stirred restlessly, a frown creasing his face.  Rolling over again and pulling the covers over his head, he tried to block out the brightness that was further disturbing his already troubled sleep. 

 

He wasn’t really dreaming because he wasn’t sleeping deep enough to dream, but nameless feelings of sorrow and dread chased themselves around his consciousness as he moved restlessly under the covers.

 

Dari banged the door open, entering the room with far less stealth this time.  His bare feet pattered across the polished wood floor, giving the half-aware elf’s senses a clear warning of his approach. 

 

Yet it still took Legolas several long moments to try to drag his mind to alertness and make sense of what he was hearing.  His eyes snapped open and he shot up onto his elbows when Dari started bouncing on the bed next to him.   He realized he was breathing hard.  It had been a bad night. 

 

Every night lately, was a bad night.

 

Legolas almost dreaded going to bed now because he never really slept, no matter how tired he felt.  Or perhaps more accurately, he slept, but he did not rest.  It was ironic and it was stupid.  He had slept better in the slave cages of Rahzon than he was sleeping now.  What in Arda was wrong with him?!

 

Frozen on his elbows and staring into space with a distressed look on his face, Legolas was momentarily lost in his own thoughts and oblivious to whatever Dari was doing and saying.  The next thing he was aware of was Dari’s small hand pressed against his cheek.  His eyes focused and he found that Dari was staring into his face with a puzzled, almost concerned look on his small features. 

 

“Leg’las?” the boy asked hesitantly, kneeling on the elf’s lap as he looked up at him questioningly.  The white, drawn look on the prince’s face frightened the child.  Dari had seen too many men look like that in the cages.  Sometimes, even though their eyes were open, they couldn’t see him.  They wouldn’t wake up and take the water he brought.  When that happened he was supposed to go tell Hetsupa.  There was always someone new in their cage the next day.  He hadn’t understood at first, but after a while his young mind had gotten a very thorough education in the understanding of death. 

 

“Leg’las!” Dari’s voice was insistent and had lost the bubbly tone of a few moments before.  Unshed tears sparkled in the boy’s eyes.  It was all too close still.  Dari could forget and move on as sometimes only children could, but that didn’t mean it was gone. 

 

Legolas’ gaze darted around the room for a moment as if assuring himself of his real surroundings.  He yanked himself out of his own troubles and wrapped his arms quickly around Eldarion.  He hugged the boy for a moment, before setting him back down in his lap and treating him to a warm smile. 

 

“You’re up bright and early this morning, young one,” the elf prince said cheerfully, trying to make up for his momentary lapse. 

 

Dari seemed hesitant to trust the change in the elf’s mood.  He saw the way the prince’s eyes continued to dart almost automatically around the room.  It was a reaction Dari understood... at least in his own, limited way.

 

“He’s dead, Leg’las,” the boy said quietly and completely out of the blue.  “Ada says so.  He’s not under the bed or in the closet and he’s not goin’ to hurt either of us anymore.  Ada promised.”

 

Legolas blinked in shock.  “You mean Hetsupa, Dari?” he asked softly.  The cage manager was not the worst thing that haunted Legolas’ heart and mind, but obviously for Dari he embodied the whole hellish nightmare the child had endured. 

 

Dari simply nodded.  If he had learned one thing in the cages it was the finality of death.  If you were dead, you didn’t come back.  So when Aragorn told him that Hetsupa was dead, he could take peace in the fact that the big, scary man would never come back for him. 

 

Legolas’ smile widened.  Ah for the simple, trusting mind of a child.  He squeezed Eldarion’s shoulder.  “Well your Ada’s right,” he concurred.  “Besides,” he whispered conspiratorially.  “They seem to have been using these chambers as a storage place the past few years... there is no *room* in the closet for anything larger than a mouse to hide in there.”

 

Dari laughed and quickly forgot all pain and sorrow as he remembered why he had come here in the first place.  “Elladan and Elr’hir are taking me hunting today!” he bubbled. 

 

“Well!” Legolas exclaimed appreciatively.  “That *will* be quite an adventure.  Does your Ada know?”

 

Dari nodded as he flopped stomach down onto the bed, rolling and unrolling himself in the quilt and getting the covers increasingly tangled. 

 

“Uh-huh.  He said I should go tell you, make sure you were awake.”  Eldarion rolled too close to the edge of the bed and tumbled off, taking the quilts with him.  He was so padded and the ground so close there was almost no impact at all and he giggled as he threw off the encumbering mounds of bed-clothes that swathed him. 

 

Legolas smiled wryly.  “Oh, he did, did he?  Perhaps we better go make sure they are really up and moving as well, shall we?” he asked with a wicked glint in his eye.  Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he straightened the ties of his un-dyed sleep shirt, smoothing the wrinkled twists out of the off-white fabric. 

 

He opened and closed his left hand slowly.  It tingled numbly as if he had lain upon it too long.  Rising somewhat stiffly to his feet, Legolas tried to ignore the ache in his side.  Mornings were difficult.  For some reason everything ached more in the morning, making him regret ever having had to go to bed.  Pushing through the discomfort, Legolas plucked Dari out of his nest of rumpled bed-clothes on the floor. 

 

Dari reached his arms up, eager to be lifted.  “Look, I’m an eagle in a nest!” he said, spreading his arms and pretending to fly as he was scooped into the elf’s arms. 

 

Legolas chuckled and spun Dari around in a small circle, giving him the impression of flight.  “Why so you are,” the elf agreed as he settled the boy on his hip, ruffling Eldarion’s downy curls.  “What say we fly over and give your parents a surprise, hm?”

 

Dari nodded enthusiastically at the idea as they passed out into the hall. 

 

Legolas pressed a finger to his smiling lips as they padded soundlessly down the long hall towards Aragorn and Arwen’s chambers.  Dari clapped his hands to his mouth to hide a giggle.

 

The door to the King and Queen of Gondor’s bedchambers was still slightly ajar.  From partway down the hall, Legolas’ keen ears could pick up the sound of conversation from within. 

 

He froze. 

 

“I don’t know,” Aragorn was saying, weary frustration evident in his voice.  “I thought... I thought this would help more than it is.”

 

“We’ve already talked about this.  You must be patient, meleth-nín,” Arwen said softly.  “Legolas is strong, he will overcome this as he has so many other things.”

 

“I hope so,” Aragorn agreed.  “I just... I worry about him, Arwen.  I’ve seen him through many recoveries, from injuries far worse than this, but I’ve never seen this... this sadness in his eyes.  I know Elrohir thinks it is all the sea-longing, but I do not know what to think.  I fear that more happened to him in Rahzon than he will tell me.  When we first arrived, he seemed to be improving and I thought all would be well.  But we’ve been here almost two weeks now, and it seems to be getting worse again rather than better.  It’s like he’s going through the motions of life without living in it and he thinks I can’t see that.”  His friend’s silent distress was obviously tearing at the human’s heart.  Aragorn was silent for a moment.  He hadn’t meant for them to end up having this conversation on such a beautiful morning, but it had simply ended up happening as such things were wont to do. 

 

Aragorn sighed softly as he slowly confessed the rest of his problem.  “Some of the rangers that came by yesterday told me that there is disturbing news about the condition of the fragile new peace accord with Harad.  There have been at least two border skirmishes with rebel factions since the last time he had word, and it takes a while for news to get this far out.”

 

Arwen drew her breath in somewhat sharply.  “You didn’t tell me,” she said quietly. 

 

“I didn’t have a chance.  I didn’t want the others to know.  Jonath knows and has been ‘respectfully’ pressing me to set a date for when we expect to return to Gondor.  I understand his concerns.  I have full confidence in Faramir, but I hate leaving him in this situation alone.  It is one thing to be the Steward when it can be safely presumed that the King is never coming back, but another when he is only away and the people you are trying to govern know that you are not the final authority.  I was the one who made the accords with the tribes in Harad... will they accept the words dealings of someone else, even in my name?  I don’t know.  I feel like I should return, but there’s no way I can leave with Legolas still in this condition.  I... I don’t know what to do, Arwen.”

 

Legolas backed away slowly, retracing his path down the hall.  He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop on words not meant for his ears, but what he had heard stayed with him.  It hurt to think that he was causing Aragorn frustration and pain.  He had not realized what a burden his condition must be.  It wasn’t like the old days.  Neither Aragorn nor Legolas had the freedom to indulge in either leisure, or healing as they once had.  They were both of them Kings now, even if Legolas refused the title.  Aragorn had all of Gondor to be worrying about, and Legolas had been very selfish to take him away from it.  Perhaps just as bad, the prince realized he hadn’t even stopped to give a thought to how his people in Ithilien were fairing in his absence.  Since Raniean was here with him, it meant that Brenyf was acting leader in his absence.  That did not trouble him, because Brenyf was perfectly capable.  Ithilien was in no danger and well protected by Gondor in any case.  But still, they were his people, his responsibility.  Shouldn’t he be worried about them?  He closed his eyes.  He would never be the ruler his father was, he knew that now.  He was, as Thranduil had sometimes told him, too flighty, too concerned with a million things that had nothing to do with his realm or his royal responsibilities.  He would not admit it, but in a twisted way he was glad that most of Thranduil’s court and a good portion of Mirkwood’s population had all sailed with his father.  He never expected or desired to be a king and found he liked it not a bit.  A prince he knew how to be, but kingship too often seemed to escape him.  Aragorn, he felt, did a much better job of taking his role and his burden more seriously. 

 

Silently, Legolas resolved that he would not be yet another burden for Aragorn to carry.  His friend already had quite enough.  The elf resolved that he *would* smile and put all this foolishness behind him as he had done with so many other things in the past.   It couldn’t be that much more difficult than any other thing he had over come – or so he desperately hoped.  He would not make Aragorn try to choose between his duty and his friend.  That was too unspeakably cruel. 

 

Dari looked up at Legolas questioningly as they left the hall and made their way down the stairs. 

 

“Let’s let your parents rest some more, all right?” the elf said with carefully practiced cheerfulness.  “How about we find your Uncles instead, since I believe they seem to have promised you an adventure today, did they not?”

 

Dari bounced excitedly on Legolas’ hip, obviously agreeing whole-heartedly with this new plan. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Pale light filtered into the silent hall.  It was midday, the light that caressed the stone and marble balustrades was tinted a soft faded blue as it passed through hidden glasswork crafted by some ancient elven artisan thousands of years before Aragorn was born. 

 

Idly, the human wondered about that elf, about all the elves that had contributed to the building of Rivendell.  His calloused fingers ran lightly over the many, painted murals on the wall beside him.  He lingered briefly on the one that captured the frozen moment before Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand before moving on again.  Who had painted these pictures?  This history?  Had he ever even asked?  Had he known them and simply never put the two together?  Had they sailed over the sea, or had their immortal life been ended prematurely by death as had happened to far too many?

 

Aragorn didn’t know why he wondered these things after so many years.  He supposed it was because for the first time he was seeing Rivendell as a piece of history from a bygone era, rather than just his home.  Yet it would always be his home.  Not... like this.  Not empty and silent.  Not perhaps these bricks and this land which, dear as he loved them, would someday be reclaimed by the nature from which they had been formed.  But all that Rivendell was and had been... that would live forever in his heart. 

 

The hall was completely silent except for his breathing.  Dari had disappeared with Elladan and Elrohir after breakfast.  Arwen and Legolas were together in the gardens and he didn’t really know where everyone else was at the moment.  The solitude here at least, felt right.  This place had always been one of hushed peacefulness, as if out of respect for all the history it depicted.  Often in his life, Aragorn would come here to read or to think, or just to be alone.  It was thinking that drew him here today, but he found his mind drifting a hundred different ways.  He could not focus his thoughts and so became lost in memories instead.  

 

He paused when his wandering steps drew him to the slightly raised dais where a serene elven figure carved of marble looked out across the silent hall, seemingly oblivious to the fact that its hands were empty.  The shards of Narsil, now the re-forged blade of Anduril, rested in Aragorn’s bedchamber with his other gear, rather than on display here in the hall as it had for so long. 

 

Aragorn felt no call to wear weapons here in Rivendell.  It was nice, in fact, to be able to leave them completely for a time.  So much of his life had been lived fighting one battle or another, and he suspected that in many ways it would remain thus until the end of his days.  Would he even know what to do with complete peace should it come?  He wondered. 

 

At least he had a chance to see peace.  So many... too many, had not lived long enough to see the fruition of their long labors.  Halbarad, Théoden, Haldir, Boromir... and so many others.  Yet Aragorn was reconciled with their passing.  They had all lived and died for the right reasons, and wherever they were now, they had found a peace more full than that which could be hoped for in this life. 

 

A faint smile ghosted over Aragorn’s lips.  He remembered the evening Boromir found him withdrawn here, attempting and failing to read a book on which he could not concentrate.  Oh, he doubted very much that Boromir realized he had intruded upon the other man’s brooding.  He doubted that Boromir could ever have known how much his first words to him that evening had felt like a slap in the face. 

 

“You are no elf.”

 

~*~

 

“You are no elf.”  Boromir seemed honestly surprised to find another man in this strange, elf-realm. 

 

Aragorn met his questioning glaze steadily.  Internally, his mind and emotions were still reeling from what he had accidentally overheard earlier, but none of that showed on his face.  He was far too experienced and too cautious. 

 

“Men of the south are welcome here,” he said simply.  Welcome, yes, Rivendell welcomed everyone who was an ally... was that all his place here was now?  An ally in the fight against the ever encroaching darkness?  If it was, he could live with that, he told himself... yet his heart knew he wanted, nay, *needed* it to be more than that. 

 

“Who are you?” Boromir’s curiosity was not yet satisfied, nor was he put off by Aragorn’s lack of desire for conversation. 

 

Who was he?  Aragorn could have chuckled mirthlessly, but he refrained.  There was the question, wasn’t it?  Who was he?  It seemed everyone had an answer for that but himself. 

 

“I am a friend to Gandalf the Grey,” was the only answer he chose to give for the time being.  Was Gandalf the only friend he truly had in this place at the moment?  He wondered.  Once he would have been sure.  Now he was sure of nothing. 

 

~*~

 

“Aragorn?” Legolas’ voice broke Aragorn’s reverie.  The human blinked and turned slowly towards his friend.  It seemed he was losing himself to his memories often lately, he supposed it was the effect that Rivendell had on him now as it slowly seemed to be turning into a memory before his eyes. 

 

Legolas paused at the slightly haunted look on the human’s countenance.  Aragorn looked distant and lost in thought, before his dark grey eyes slowly came to focus upon the prince. 

 

“Arwen sent me to look for you.  What’s wrong?” the elf asked quietly.  The look on his friend’s face was familiar. 

 

Aragorn smiled ruefully and sighed.  “Nothing is wrong.  I was simply... lost in some memories.”

 

Legolas leaned back against one of the balustrades behind him, eyeing the human.  “Well they do not appear to be good ones.  What troubles you?”

 

Aragorn just shook his head and turned away.  He had never told anyone what he had heard that day, not even Arwen.  He had peace about it all now, but it still was not a pleasant memory. 

 

“Oh, I see,” Legolas’ voice held a slightly sarcastic twang.  “I am apparently the only one to whom the advice ‘talking about it helps’ applies?” he gently prodded his friend with the human’s own counsel.   

 

Aragorn sighed again and grimaced.  “If you really must know...”

 

Legolas settled back more comfortably upon the balustrade.  “Yes, I must,” he assured parenthetically, earning him another look that was part grin and part scowl. 

 

“Very well,” Aragorn conceded.  “After Frodo was injured by the wraith and brought to Rivendell, but before you arrived from Mirkwood with the tidings about Gollum for the Council, I... I overheard a conversation between Gandalf and my father.  Part of it was more like an argument really...”  

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Aragorn paused before the door, about to knock, when Elrond’s voice halted him.  The elf lord was talking to someone and Aragorn could tell from his tone that his foster-father was disturbed.  He hesitated, not meaning to eavesdrop, but waiting to see if this were a conversation he should intrude upon or not.

 

“...my people are leaving these shores, and when we are gone, who then will you turn to?  The dwarves?  They hide in their mountains, thinking only of treasure and caring nothing for the troubles of this world.”  That kind of apathy towards the bigger picture of the world in which they all lived was something that irritated the elf lord beyond words, whether it was being exhibited by dwarves, or by his own more isolationist-minded kinsmen. 

 

“It is in men that we must place our hope,” the second voice, which Aragorn recognized instantly as Gandalf’s, replied. 

 

“Men,” Elrond rolled his eyes slightly.  “Men are weak.  It is because of men that the Ring survived.”  His eyes turned distant in memory.  “I was there Gandalf.  I was there 3,000 years ago... I was there the day the strength of men failed.  It should have ended that day!  But evil was allowed to endure.”  His voice held a deep, deep sorrow and a hint of bitterness that was not usual for the elf lord. 

 

Without realizing it, Aragorn had pressed himself back flat against the wall by the door, his head resting against the cool stone.  He had never heard Elrond speak in that manner.  The elf lord had *never* told his foster son that he was weak and had done everything in his power to dissuade the ranger of that notion over the years... but there it was.  What he had just told Gandalf was only too clear.  Was that what his father really thought?  Was that what he had *always* thought and was simply far too kind and loving to tell Estel to his face?

 

Aragorn had heard that sentiment before of course... but never from Elrond.  The words didn’t sting, the source did. 

 

“The blood of Númenor is all but spent, there’s no strength left in the race of men, they’re scattered, divided, leaderless.”  The elf lord shook his head.  It was hard sometimes, so hard... to see what had happened to the descendents of his beloved brother, to see how he had failed his promise to watch over them.  To be forced to observe helplessly as the younger race stumbled and fell, again, and again... to want so much to help them and be unable to do so because they simply wouldn’t listen!  Like Isildur wouldn’t listen...

 

Pain filtered through the ageless windows of the elf’s soul.  What made good men fall so hard?  Isildur *was* a good man, or at least he had been.  Why could he have not withstood the final test?  What might Elrond and Celeborn have tried to say to him that they had not?  Why had they not been able to make him see?  And when he did not, why had they simply let the matter go?  So many failings, and not just those of men, led to this moment.  And now that cursed... *thing* was in his house.  It burned in Elrond’s consciousness like a festering wound, mocking him, tempting him, taunting him.  Frodo would only too gladly give him the Ring if asked, but Elrond would never ask.  He was wiser than that.  He had already seen the lives it destroyed. 

 

All throughout the long and dangerous campaign that led up to the Last Alliance, Elrond had hidden and protected Isildur’s wife and his youngest son, Valandil, right here, in Rivendell.  He had... Valar help him, he had come to love them like family.  They had been so happy at the thought of finally seeing the rest of their family again... they had been preparing such a welcome for Isildur and his three elder sons.  Even Elrond had been glad because Isildur finally seemed ready to listen to him about the potential danger of the Ring he had claimed.  Then disaster struck.  Elrond had had to be the one to tell Aldaara and Valendil that Isildur, Elendur, Aratan, and Ciryon were all dead.  It had broken his heart.  He could still remember when the messenger came to him, bearing the shards of Narsil and the grievous tidings.  Even now, many ages later, it was a painful memory to recall, although he had tried to comfort the grieving woman and child as best he could. 

 

Elrond’s eyes were sad and distant.  He had seen so much in his life... maybe too much.  He had promised his beloved twin when they chose different races, that if he were able, he would always look after Elros’ children and his children’s children.  Yet so often there seemed so little he could do.  Even when he would help them, they would not let him.  Why could they not all be like Aragorn?  There was a man who could unite them all, if only he would accept that he was worthy to do so... and it wasn’t just Elrond’s fatherly pride that made him think that either.  In Aragorn alone of this era did Elrond see the true blood of Númenor, the reflection of his own departed brother.  Indeed, unless he consciously reminded himself, the elf lord barely remembered to count his foster son as a human at all. 

 

Despite his irritated words, he did not truly think less of men in general, but sometimes they frustrated him so badly because they could not see the larger wisdom that would save them!  And the elf lord hated having to watch the humans’ suffering, year after year after year. Eventually they always died and could forget their pain as new generations shouldered the burdens left to them by their forefathers... but the elf was still here and he remembered it, all of it.  It was hard. 

 

“There is one who could unite them.  One who could reclaim the empty throne of Gondor,” Gandalf echoed the elf lord’s own thoughts with uncanny precision.  It was not the first time this topic had been discussed between them.

 

By the door, Aragorn stiffened.  He knew he should leave, this conversation was not meant for his ears, but he could not tear himself away.

 

Elrond sighed, his face turning even sadder.  Ai... yes, Aragorn, he loved the boy and his father’s heart did not want him pushed out into the forefront of the rising conflict that sought to engulf all of middle earth.  The seer in him however, knew that only if Aragorn took up the mantle that was rightfully his could the conflict ever be truly resolved.  He knew Estel would rather count himself among the elves, yet the fact remained that his foster son’s future lay with men, whether Aragorn accepted that or not. 

 

“He turned from that path a long time ago,” the elf said softly.  Aragorn’s choices were Aragorn’s to make, but they did have repercussions larger than just his foster-son’s own life.  “He has chosen exile.”

 

Aragorn turned away swiftly, not wanting to hear anymore, wishing he had not heard that much.  He did not allow the lump in his throat to form as it desired to do, but strode quickly out into the garden to lose himself in the trees.  He was not a young man anymore.  He was far past what any human could consider young.  Life had toughened and sobered him, and, he told himself, a man of his age and maturity should *not* be affected by what he had just heard.   But sometimes the heart does not always want to listen to the head, no matter how wise the counsel.

 

Evening fell, but Aragorn did not join the main company for dinner.  Legolas, newly arrived from Mirkwood, looked for him, but in vain. 

 

Elrond was troubled by his son’s absence, but not overly worried.  Aragorn often had much on his mind lately, and if he desired to be alone, his father would respect his wishes. 

 

Aragorn, for his part, spent the better half of the day trying to forget what he had heard, and discovering that he could not.  Elrond’s opinion meant more to him than he could safely admit.  He knew he was not meant to hear the words that had passed between the elf lord and the wizard... but that just made it all the harder to put aside.  If Elrond voiced those thoughts in private, what else might he think and feel that he was too kind to let the poor, weak, stupid human know? 

 

Aragorn knew those thoughts weren’t fair, he should trust his father more than that after all these years, and trust Elrond he did.  But that didn’t make the hurt go away. 

 

The ranger took refuge in the quiet halls of history.  Finding a book from the library and taking his repose, he was all but hidden behind one of the pillars in the hall.  He didn’t know why he lingered here, when it was so near the reminders of the heritage he was unsure he could accept.  Yet it was the only spot at the moment he felt peace.

 

He had not expected anyone else to be there, and was a little surprised when another man entered his quiet, little sanctuary.  For half an instant Aragorn thought his eyes betrayed him because the image of Denethor seemed to have walked out of his memories and into the pale moonlight to stand before the statue holding the shards of Narsil. 

 

Then of course, he realized that the frame of the newcomer was too broad and the eyes to open and inquiring.  It must be Boromir, Lord Denethor’s son.  He had heard he was here, but had not yet met the younger man.  Ah, but Aragorn felt old for a moment.  He clearly remembered when the grown warrior he saw before him was a wee babe whom he could lift into his father’s lap.  Was that how the elves felt when they thought of him?  The ranger wondered. 

 

Then Boromir had spoken those words that had meant nothing to him, and too much to Aragorn. 

 

“You are no elf.”

 

A thin thread of tension wound an undercurrent that made their initially friendly greeting become somewhat uncomfortable, for Boromir at least.  When the younger man finally left, Aragorn sighed and laid his book aside.  He didn’t want to judge Boromir by memories of his father.  Such a thing would be totally unfair to the younger man, in whom he could see a good heart.  But Aragorn’s own heart was troubled right now.  Remembering Denethor made him remember all the myriads of reasons he had chosen that ‘exile’ that Elrond spoke of earlier.  Denethor had seen him as a threat, if he took up his title now and went back to Gondor as he knew some felt he should, he would only be seen as a bigger threat... he would bring war, not peace.  Those people did not need anymore war.  What then, was he supposed to do?

 

Standing in front of the statue bearing the shards, Aragorn reverently picked up the broken hilt that Boromir had dropped and placed it back on the stand.  Was that symbolic?  Was something trying to tell him it was his duty to pick up the pieces of the broken human world?  How?  How could he ever be worthy of such a calling?  How could he know that he would not fall like so many had before him?  If even Elrond agreed that men were a weak, broken people... what kind of hope was he supposed to be?

 

“Why do you fear the past?  You are Isildur’s heir, not Isildur himself.”  Aragorn did not start at the quite voice that spoke behind him.  He recognized Arwen’s presence instantly.  He couldn’t bring himself to turn, to face her.  Elrond had told him, he said he would allow Arwen to renounce her immortality for no one less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor.  He had almost gotten to the point where that felt perhaps part-way obtainable... had almost believed maybe there was a greater calling for him in his life.  But after what he had just heard... did Elrond believe he really could be those things?  Or was it his way of trying to say no without breaking his children’s hearts?  Aragorn didn’t know anymore.  He didn’t know and his doubts were tearing him apart. 

 

“The same blood flows through my veins...” Aragorn answered softly, staring up at the statue and the sword, the conversation he had heard earlier rang through his ears again and again, making his eyes sting despite himself.  “The same *weakness*.”  He turned shimmering eyes on Arwen.

 

Weakness... that was what the Witch King had told him once.  That he was weak, that he would fall to the ruin of all he loved.  He had conquered those fears years ago for the most part, but this one remained.  Hearing Elrond voice a permutation of it had deeply shaken him and made him question too many things that should not have been questioned.  He was called hope, but was not the flipside of hope despair?  What then if he failed in this illusive and ill-defined goal laid out before him?  Could he not as easily be the doom of men as the Witch King had so maliciously foretold?  Could history not repeat itself all too effortlessly?  Might he not be Isildur all over again?

 

Arwen’s heart twisted at the pain on her beloved’s face.  She could not know what had happened to cause this reoccurrence of his fears, but she knew they were unfounded.  She could see in him that which he could not see in himself.  Perhaps such were the eyes of love.

 

“Your time will come,” she said softly, catching the ranger’s eyes.  “You will face the same evil, but you will overcome it.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

A deep compassion marked Legolas’ face as he listened to Aragorn recount the memory.  He had not actually had a chance to speak with his friend prior to the Council.  Afterwards, he could tell the ranger was troubled, but thought it due to the quest. 

 

“Ahh, is that the *real* reason you nearly bit my head off at the Council when I told of Gollum’s escape?” Legolas said with an amused smile. 

 

Aragorn blinked, hard pressed to remember what the elf was talking about for a moment. 

 

//“Escaped?” cried Aragorn. “That is ill news indeed. We shall all rue it bitterly, I fear. How came the folk of Thranduil to fail in their trust?”  The news had honestly taken him by surprise.  It had taken him years to track Gollum down and far more trouble than he cared to remember to get him to Mirkwood.  He knew the wood-elves well and could not imagine how they could have lost him. 

 

Legolas had not expected that particular recrimination from his friend. But he was prepared for it from the others, so he was not greatly put off.  It was, indeed, an almost unforgivable failure on the part of his people in his mind, but he would at least have them blamed for the correct set of faults. 

 

“Not through lack of watchfulness,” Legolas said evenly; “but perhaps through over-kindliness. And we fear that the prisoner had aid from others, and that more is known of our doings than we could wish...”//

 

Aragorn shook his head when he finally dug up the memory in question.  He smiled faintly as well.  “Probably.  You’ll have to forgive me, Legolas, I was not entirely myself.” 

 

Legolas gave a little tilt of his head that told Aragorn not even to consider it any further.  There had never been any hurt there between the two of them.  Yet he could still see other hurt behind Aragorn’s eyes, even from so many years ago.  Apparently that overheard conversation had done a lot of damage.  The elf closed his eyes for a moment, remembering an eerily similar circumstance from only this morning.  He was uniquely suited at this moment to know just how much words not intended for those who heard them could hurt. 

 

“Did you never speak with him about it?” the elf asked quietly, although the question seemed hypocritical somehow.  Was he about to speak with Estel concerning what he had heard?  No.

 

Aragorn shook his head, looking down at his hands as he leaned against the railing beside Legolas.  “No.  I never knew what to say.  We weren’t exactly... talking a lot at that time.  We made our peace after Arwen and I married and things were right between us again.  But now that he’s gone... sometimes... I just wonder,” the man finished softly, realizing he suddenly sounded surprisingly like Arwen had a few weeks ago.  He supposed they all had things they would wonder about forever. 

 

“I can’t tell you why he said what he said that day, Estel,” Legolas said slowly.  “But I don’t think you should let it weigh too heavily against everything else we have both heard him say throughout your life.  He may have sometimes been frustrated at the shortsightedness that human-kind perpetuates, but he loved you Estel.   And as far as I know he never once thought you weak or unworthy.”  Legolas tapped his finger on the side of his forehead, reminding Aragorn of how deeply Elrond and Legolas’ minds had once blended.  “Trust me, I would know.”

 

A quiet, somber mood had settled upon them and Aragorn saw pain flickering behind Legolas’ eyes.  He could have kicked himself.  Certainly, this was a grand way to keep Legolas’ spirits up, wasn’t it?  A little voice in his head mocked him. 

 

The human shook off the past with an apologetic smile.  “I’m sorry, mellon-nín, I didn’t mean to burden you with all this.  I have no idea why it should come back to me now, after so many years.”

 

Legolas reached out and laid his hand on Aragorn’s shoulder, stopping his friend’s apology.  “Estel, it is no burden.  Such feelings and memories are to be expected.  The world has changed,” the elf prince’s voice was naught but a whisper, yet it carried clearly in the silent hall.  “Homecomings, after so much change, can be painful as well as pleasant.  Do not think harshly of yourself because this is true.  After all, I have been home to Mirkwood only a handful of times after the War of the Ring, and not at all since father left and it has emptied.  Do you think I live in Ithilien only to be near you?” the thin attempt at humor masked a very real undercurrent of strong emotion. 

 

Aragorn realized with a bit of surprise that this was true.  Legolas had spent a lot of time traveling with Gimli over the last few years, and had reorganized all of the wood-elves who yet remained on Middle Earth into his new realm in Ithilien.  He and his elves, along with Gimli and his dwarves had remade the partially ruined city of Minas Tirith into one of the most beautiful places on earth before the elves turned their healing power on the lands south of Gondor.  Yet in all that time, he had never once spoken to Aragorn of how things faired in Mirkwood, or Eyrn Lasgalen, as it was now more properly called. 

 

“The time of the elves is over,” Legolas whispered, somewhat lost in his own thoughts.  “Those of us who stay are but the last fading leaves that winter has not yet blown away... but winter is not evil, Estel.  The autumn of the elves gives way to the spring of men, blossoming full in the promise of hope that you have helped to give them... I do not regret the change of seasons, but sometimes things change too much and are best left as memories, untouched by the reality of time.  Be happy, Estel, for although Rivendell has changed, it has not suffered as much as you think.  At least you may still recognize it.”  The last was spoken so softly, Aragorn almost didn’t hear the words. 

 

“Has Mirkwood changed so much since Thranduil departed?” Aragorn asked, his quiet tone matching that of his friend. 

 

Legolas’ smile was slightly pained, as if Aragorn obviously didn’t even begin to grasp what he meant.  “If it weren’t for Father, I would not have gone back again at all after that first time,” he admitted.  “It was not the same...” he stopped.  This line of conversation was not going to go anywhere good.  The elf’s fragile emotional balance did not need to relive those memories right now.  It would only ruin his resolve to not appear melancholy around his friend.  

 

“But then, change is the way of life, is it not?” Legolas’ demeanor shifted almost abruptly as he distanced himself from the emotions he could not deal with at this moment.  “Speaking of which, Arwen has decided to have lunch served in the gardens instead of on the veranda.  It’s a lovely day.  That’s actually why I’m supposed to be here.  She wanted me to fetch you.”

 

Aragorn struggled to keep up with the new turn in their conversation.  He was not entirely willing to let the other thread drop just yet.  There was obviously something there that caused the prince pain.  “Legolas, we’ve never talked about what happened when you went home after the War.  I know the fighting in Mirkwood was intense, but you never told me...”

 

“Let it remain so,” Legolas said quickly, swallowing hard. 

 

Aragorn raised an eyebrow.  “Now what happened to ‘talking about it helps’?” he tossed the semi-taunt back at his friend once more.

 

Legolas smiled, but shook his head.  “And I am sure it will.  Someday.  Not right now, Estel, please.  Arwen is waiting.”

 

Legolas was almost physically pulling away from him now, so Aragorn reluctantly let the matter drop.  He knew his friend well enough to recognize when he honestly wasn’t ready to talk about something, versus when he was simply unwilling to talk about something.  Right now, the elf was not ready.  Aragorn could wait.  The last thing he wanted to do was add to the weight of the unknown burden he could see pressing down upon his friend’s shoulders. 

 

Aragorn wrapped an arm around Legolas’ shoulders and swept his free arm out before him in a gesture of compliance.  “All right then, we should go.  Mustn’t keep her Highness waiting!”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

The garden that Arwen had chosen was to the north of the main house.  A winding pathway ran back to the lower entrance of Imladris and made for easy access to the kitchens.  Two of the garden tables had been pulled side by side to create an extended tabletop. The large trees that framed the tiny courtyard filtered the noonday sun.

 

Aragorn sat between Arwen and Legolas.  He reached across the table to pour more juice for Raniean and Trelan who sat opposite them.  The empty chair to Trelan’s right was for Moranuen who had gone back in for more bread.

 

The table was filled with fruits of all kind and the remnants of a fresh loaf of bread that had just been consumed.  Pitchers of milk and juice were carefully guarded from the insects that had come out to investigate the new smells.  The twins had recently grown found of a buttery spread that Beoma’s grandchildren had perfected.  Small white bowls of the cream sat in the middle of the tables where they could not be fought over.

 

Aragorn cut another slice of cheese from the dark orange brick in front of him.  He pulled the cheese off the knife with his teeth before Arwen could reprimand him.  The afternoon outside was perfect.  Mora had promised a delicious dessert to top it all off but had yet to return with either it or the bread.

 

Conversation around the table came to an abrupt halt as the sound of raised voices cut through the peace of the afternoon.

 

“Is that...?” Aragorn’s question was cut short by another loud outburst.  He glanced meaningfully at Legolas.  The elf raised his eyebrows, reflecting his own surprise.

 

“Where is he?  Move out of my way, elf.  I know he’s here I was told by a good source.  Can you go no faster?”  The voice was gruff with the accent marking the speaker as no native to the area.

 

In seconds Mora rounded the bend.  Or rather was shoved around the bend in the pathway as he led a smaller being out into the courtyard. 

 

“Out of the way! Out_of_the_way!”

 

Moranuen stumbled slightly off the pathway as the new arrival brushed past him storming onto the porch with a huff.

 

“Gimli?” Legolas questioned as the dwarf stepped into view.  “What are you doing here?!  Is all well?”

 

“Is all well?” The dwarf repeated incredulously.  “Obviously NOT!”

 

Stomping up to the table, Gimli grabbed the empty seat and plopped down in it.  Trelan scooted a little closer to Raniean.  They had all met the dwarf who had befriended their prince but they had not yet had many personal dealings with the being.  When Legolas brought Gimli to Mirkwood after the war, they had all had... other things on their mind.  The two warriors tolerated the dwarf for Legolas’ sake, but the Silvan elves’ thoughts on that race were still not pleasantly disposed and it was going to take a lot to change that.

 

The short elf openly glared at the dwarf; a dark look that was mirrored on Moranuen’s face.

 

“He was in the house!” Mora objected.  “I found him in the Hall of Fire, yelling.  He did not wait to be let in.  He insisted on seeing you, Prince Legolas, but will say nothing of his name or his errand here.  Do you want me to have him removed?”  Moranuen did not know Gimli and did not know what the intruder’s intensions were.  Gimli was not helping himself by being irritated and unconscionably rude towards the strange elf. 

 

Moranuen was deeply disturbed by their new guest, but not for the same reason as Silvan elves.  Dwarven visitors were not common in Rivendell anymore these days but the elves of the vale were used to the strange race and bore them no ill-will.  It was this particular dwarf’s manners, or seeming lack thereof, that disturbed Moranuen.

 

“Removed!? Well I can see that the hospitality of the elves has not improved over the years,” the dwarf gruffly responded to Mora.

 

“Legolas?” Raniean queried his liege at the same time that Aragorn shouted the dwarf’s name in cheerful greeting.

 

“Gimli!”

 

“Hush all of you.  This is a meal we are sharing not an argument,” Arwen chided softly.  “Forgive us, Master Gimli.  I am afraid your presence here has taken us by surprise.”

 

Her voice soothed the ruffled feathers of her companions, bringing the conversation back down to normal tones.  She placed a hand on Aragorn’s forearm bidding him to sit back down.  Mora pulled another chair over to the end of the table and seated himself between Arwen and Raniean.  His face was still creased in a displeased frown but he kept his tongue.

 

“Well, I didn’t mean to startle you, Lady Arwen,” Gimli addressed the Queen with a knowing smile.  “But I had heard that this young one was injured and as no one ever informs me of these things, I had to come find out for myself!”  The dwarf was staring hard at Legolas, sizing up the elf for himself, judging his physical appearance by his own standards.

 

“And, who, pray tell informed you thusly?” Aragorn asked.  His curiosity was peaked.  “The last we had heard, the Lord of the GlitteringCaves was still happily ensconced in Rohan.”

 

“Well, you heard rightly,” Gimli confirmed.  He speared a pear with the dinner knife and took a bite before answering. “I was on my way to visit some of my kin in the Blue Mountains.  I haven’t been back in ages you know.  There’s been no word from the clan in a few years and I wanted to see with my own eyes that they fared well.  We passed through Moria and were on our way down to the Shire when we met up with your messenger boy.”  The dwarf nodded at Aragorn indicating the runner was Gondorian.  He shoved a piece of bread in his mouth and resumed talking around the food he was eating.

 

“The lad told us he was on his way back to Minas Tirith with word that the King and Queen had made it safely to Rivendell.  When I asked why you’d be staying in a place like that he told me that the Elf Lord was with them and wounded.  Wounded!  Were you even going to tell me?!”  Gimli’s voice raised a notch in concern.  The dwarf’s eyes narrowed as he pierced the elf with a stern glare.  “I sent my company on without me when we passed the valley.  I can catch up to them later.

 

“How were ye wounded *this time*?”  Gimli asked gruffly, directing the question to Legolas.  “And how many did you kill?”  His full-bodied laughter resounded in the tiny glen.

 

Legolas’ face reddened and he gazed downward quickly.

 

“It wasn’t like that, my friend,” he answered softly trying to deflect the dwarf’s curiosity.

 

The sudden tension at the table was palpable and the elves shifted nervously as an uncomfortable silence descended.

 

“It wasn’t like what?” Gimli repeated quietly.  Realization hit him suddenly that he might have stepped in over his head again.  It was something he was always doing, nosing around in situations and assuming one thing when really it was another.  Sometimes he honestly did try to curb his overtly boisterous personality, but change was always slow in showing up when a person wanted her around.

 

“What happened, laddie?  Can you talk about it?” he pressed earnestly. 

 

“Perhaps later,” Legolas offered with a small smile.  He glanced up at the dwarf and Gimli could see the weariness in the fair eyes.

 

“Well, has anything been done about the ones that hurt you?”  His love for the elf often showed through more in his gruffness than else wise.

 

“They are all dead, Gimli.  They won’t be hurting anyone anymore,” Aragorn intervened, shifting the conversation away from the prince.

 

“Good,” Gimli affirmed.  He pounded on the table with his gloved hand and stood to his feet.  “Good!! People like that have no business sharing this earth with the rest of us.”

 

“Gimli,” Aragorn’s tone warned the dwarf off of his tirade.  “How go things in the glittering caves?”

 

“Right.”  The dwarf reseated himself.  “I’m just saying...” he shrugged and allowed the subject to be shifted.  “That was the find of a lifetime, those caves.  They extend nearly all the way through the mountain range behind Helm’s Deep.  Amazing!  You haven’t seen our most recent excavations!  You’ll have to come back and visit us soon, Aragorn.  My people have taken a keen liking to your folk out there in Minas Tirith.  Not that we’d ever want to live in that tower of yours, although its got some very fine rock work.  Have you seen the halls on level...”

 

The dwarf’s discourse on stonework was cut short several long minutes later when Aragorn interrupted their new guest.  In the human’s opinion there were few things more dull than listening to Gimli drone about the beauty of cut rocks.

 

“My dear Gimli, it appears that you are still in your travel wear,” The King observed.  “Did you perhaps bring other clothing with you?  I am sure we have a room where you are more than welcome to stay and freshen up a bit.  We would love to have your company if you can stay on with us.  Moranuen can you show the way to your room, if you like.  Mora?”

 

Moranuen stammered, caught off guard by the request.  He was still scowling when Aragorn turned toward him.  The elf was spared however when Gimli drew the conversation back to himself.

 

“That would be good! I would love to stay!  I was hoping you would be agreeable to my being around for a few days.  I’d like to spend some time with Legolas.  But I’m a bit starved around the mid-waist if you catch my meaning.  May I remain with you out here and have a bite while you talk?” Gimli requested.  His tone had calmed and his voice quieted.  He was happy being around the people he had spent so much time with.  Pulling off his gloves he set them next to his plate and grabbed the nearest fork.  The utensil just happened to be Trelan’s, but the elf made no comment.  Glancing up at Aragorn the dwarf waited patiently for a response.

 

“Of course, my friend.  You must be famished.  Mora can see to your rooms while you eat.  Would you mind, Mora?” Aragorn requested of his long time friend once more.  He smiled as the elf glanced from the dwarf to the human. 

 

Simply relieved that he wouldn’t have to be near the small being alone, Moranuen readily agreed.  He promised to bring more food on his way back out. 

 

Quietly, Trelan stood.  He needed a break from their exuberant companion as well.  He usually made himself scarce when Legolas’ dwarven friend came around.  He didn’t *truly* dislike the dwarf, but Gimli tended to get on his nerves fairly quickly.  The dwarf was very aware of this and not at all bothered by that fact.  He actually seemed to rather enjoy it and would go out of his way to provoke such reactions, much to the Silvan elves’ chagrin.

 

“I think I shall go help him.  I was really looking forward to more of that bread,” he excused himself much to Raniean’s amusement.  As he walked past the taller elf Trelan reached out and smacked him upside the head for good measure.

 

“So very like the twins,” Aragorn laughed.

 

Mention of the brothers caught Arwen’s attention and she turned to her husband, a question on her mind.

 

“Darling, where in Arda *are* your brothers and our son?” She asked softly.

 

“My brother?!” Aragorn quipped with a laugh.  “Why are they always *my* brothers.”

 

“And with good reason,” Arwen warned him.  Her eyebrows raised in question as she awaited his response.

 

“Knowing *my* brothers, it’s probably best not to know!” Aragorn answered.  He laughed and moved away from the Queen when she glared at him.  That had not been the answer she was looking for.

 

“Actually, knowing *your* brothers they are probably off teaching him essential lessons for his future life.  Like perhaps how to deal with orcs, wargs, trolls and political leeches...” Legolas spoke up from the other side of Aragorn.  He made a chopping motion across his neck to demonstrate the best way to deal with all the beings he had just listed.  His commentary elicited laughter from the small company.

 

“Well, you, dear friend, have the corner on that kind of diplomacy as I recall,” Aragorn countered lightly.  “Who was it that helped sneak me out of the citadel?  Leaving a wake of unconscious council members...”

 

“What is this you speak of?” Arwen teased.  “I do believe I have not heard this story.  Just where was I when this took place?”

 

“No! No!!” Legolas was trying to interrupt the conversation.  “It wasn’t like that at all!  It was your brothers!”

 

“Oh sure, blame them while they aren’t here to defend themselves!” Aragorn laughed.  “Nice try.”

 

“What happened?” Raniean asked, his curiosity piqued.

 

Mora and Trelan returned to find the table in chaos as Aragorn and Legolas tried to talk over the top of one another.  Gimli was simply content to finish off the fruit tray and was working on the brick of cheese.  His attention turned to Mora as the elf set out freshly baked loaves of bread.  Raniean and Arwen were trying to keep up with the shouted laughing conversation the two friends were having.

 

“One at a time!” Trelan reprimanded lightly.  “What are you discussing so?”

 

“The time that your liege got me out of a terrible, boring council meeting,” Aragorn answered.

 

“With the help of his brothers might I add,” Legolas defended himself.  “If you are going to tell them the story you had better tell them the *whole* story, Estel Elrondion!” Legolas warned his friend. 

 

Aragorn laughed heartily at the use of his full title from childhood.  It was the name that was most used on him when he was in trouble.

 

“Very well then, from the beginning,” Aragorn consented.  “It was absolutely the most boring, ill-contrived, drawn-out, frustrating council meeting I have ever had the displeasure to attend...”

Chapter Text

~*PART SEVEN*~
~Council Meetings and Mud Puddles~

 

 

The man at the end of the table was droning on and on about whatever it was that had him upset this time.   He stalked back and forth across the front of the room, repeating himself and emphasizing his points with expressive motions.  Aragorn reflected that the man must think this made him look more sincere or impressive or... something. 

 

The marble room echoed the large man’s voice oddly.  He had but to talk normally to project his deep, bass voice throughout the entire chamber.  One side of the room was decorated with large picture windows.  Artisans had carved the edges of the glass in patterns of leaves and flowers, mimicking the natural beauty of the interior court the windows overlooked. 

 

These were the council chambers of Minas Tirith.  Situated on the inner yards of the upper level, none but the king and the regents were allowed inside. 

 

King Elessar sat in a large chair at the head of the assembly, listening to the man that droned endlessly at the far end of the room.  They had been over this council member’s grievances before and the King was doing all he could to remedy the situation.  The council had convened four days ago to recognize problems in the outer regions with the remnants of orcs and mountain men that had teemed up to harass the more remote villages.

 

 

“Council Member Atrius Carlda, from the western lowlands, that was the man’s name.”  Aragorn reminded himself idly as the man continued speaking.  He was still trying to memorize all the faces and names he with which he was constantly confronted.  The spokesman barely stopped to breathe during his tirades.  It fascinated the former ranger how the man could speak so much and never pass out from lack of oxygen.  “Actually *that* would be interesting.” The king thought with dark humor.

 

Drumming the fingers of his right hand idly, Elessar rested his chin in the palm of left hand and concentrated on staying awake.  He had spent almost a month on a long, whirlwind inspection of the state of Gondor’s out-most defenses, but had not found that half as exhausting as the subsequent weeks of council meetings and negotiations. 

 

Gondor was still reeling from its losses in the final war with Mordor and the mismanagement of Denethor’s last years.  It was recovering well, but would take quite some time before it could begin to achieve its former level of abundance.  The resources King Elessar had to disperse for the rebuilding and strengthening of the ravaged outer regions had to be carefully rationed.  Every Regent was, of course, of the opinion that his area needed those resources more than anyone else. 

 

After hearing everyone’s pleas, Aragorn had made his decisions, but he was quickly finding that was not the end of the matter.  This latest round of meetings seemed to have become little more than an excuse for some of the Regents who were displeased with his previous decisions to vent their concerns and try to change his mind. 

 

King Elessar frankly saw little benefit in sitting around and talking about marauding orcs when he would just as soon be out there getting rid of them.  He knew, however, that that was his job no longer.  Yet it was not as easy for Aragorn to adjust to his new responsibilities as he had imagined.  There seemed to be so little accomplished by all this endless talking and political maneuvering.  What did they hope to do?  Talk the orcs to death?

 

Aragorn smiled wryly.  Regent Carlda might just be able to do that... maybe they could find a use for the man after all.  It was quite amusing really, to imagine the man walking up to a big ugly brute of an orc, unrolling a very long scroll and pretentiously informing the creature that he had a list of complaints to take up with it.  Aragorn could almost feel sorry for the orc in his mind’s eye as it ran screaming from this new and terrible threat.  The King’s fingers continued to drum lightly on the edge of the table.

 

The cool, gentle touch of weathered fingers stopped his nervous habit and Aragorn smiled dryly at the old man that sat on his right. 

 

Nalthon had to be the oldest man alive in Gondor, of that the king was nearly convinced.  The warm smile that he laid on his liege was kindly and reminded Aragorn of tales of grandfathers that he had heard other humans tell.  The man’s skin was weathered and worn and his thick white hair framed wise blue eyes that watched the younger man carefully.

 

The elderly representative had been attached to the king to help familiarize him with the layout of Minas Tirith and the requirements the King’s position held.  Elessar was grateful for the man’s counsel, but there were times he wished he could escape the ever watchful eyes of his appointed mentor.  The man was as fastidious as Celboril and hovered more than Elladan ever had.  He was, however, a good man. 

 

Nalthon instructed Aragorn in how Denethor had held court and to what the peoples had become accustomed. He lamented the pitfalls and vices that the former steward had fallen into and encouraged the positive growth he could see in Aragorn.  He also schooled the new King in his civil duties and governmental appointees, reminding Aragorn of different peoples’ names and positions many days after they were introduced to him.  Council member Carlda had been one of Denethor’s favorites, a confidante. 

 

Estel was familiar with the expectations of royalty.  His adoptive father had seen to his schooling that area.  Dealing with humans however was a far cry from the elven run kingdoms and the differences were many.  That was where his advisor came into play.

 

Nalthon had warned him about Carlda’s penchant for hearing his own voice.  However, the regent still held the hearts of many Gondorians and he never missed the chance to remind the king of that fact.

 

Winning the population over was a slow uphill battle.  The evil that had invaded Gondor through the steward was still waning and there were yet many pockets of resistance.  Denethor’s reign had failed badly at its end and left a lot of unrest in its wake.  It grieved Aragorn to remember the younger man he had once known and hoped would grow up to become a great leader.  Perhaps Tarcil had been correct in his assessment of the man Denethor truly was.  Although Aragorn wondered if he would have fared any better living through the hard and tumultuous times that the former steward had seen.  He remembered hearing of Finduilas’ death.  The loss of his young wife had changed Denethor greatly, or so he had heard.  He looked in his heart, but could find only sorrow for the former steward.  He hoped he was happier now, wherever he was. 

 

Aragorn flattened his hands calmly on the table top, trying to set aside the nervous habit at his seneschal’s gentle remonstration.  Barahir clinked loudly against the marble table and he cringed slightly when Carlda glanced his way.  The king tried to concentrate on the repetitive points Carlda was making – for the fifth time.

 

A barely perceptible tap on the large picture window nearest Aragorn’s seat drew the man’s attention away.  With a broad smile he noted the blonde haired elf that stood outside in the courtyard.

 

Legolas smiled back.  He had come to Minas Tirith last week.  They were supposed to go out hunting and spend some time together alone.  For the past two years Aragorn had been kept busy either in Minas Tirith itself or out in the battlefield subduing the last of the enemy’s strongholds and they had not seen one another. 

 

The two friends’ plans had been made months in advance...until Council Member Carlda had called this emergency session of the board.  Aragorn fought the grimace that memory called up.

 

Outside, Legolas raised his hands and shrugged looking skyward.  It was getting late in the day again, were they going to go?  He hoped that today they would be able to break away and spend some time together.  He missed his friend of late.

 

The prince understood the privileges and responsibilities of running a kingdom better than most.  Of all the people around the king, Legolas had been his biggest supporter and the most understanding.  Though Elrond had schooled the human well in the areas of politics and running a kingdom, the more practical points of sovereignty, Aragorn had picked up from Legolas.  After all, the wood elf had been helping his father run the kingdom of Mirkwood for millennia.  Legolas was now a leader in his own right over his people that had remained behind to rebuild the destroyed forests of Ithilien.  Despite the elf’s own doubts to the contrary, he took his leadership seriously, easily accepting the role of King of the Wood Elves, even if he formally refused to accept his father’s title.  The elves within the realm of Gondor were autonomous.  Aragorn did not impose his rule on them and had actually encouraged Legolas to take Thranduil’s abandoned title of Elvenking when he granted his friend’s request to resettle the remainder of his people in Ithilien.  Legolas refused, saying that only one person should claim the title of King in these lands and that right he reserved for Aragorn.  The elf was content to remain a Prince and a Lord of his people in name, even though he fulfilled all the functions of their king. 

 

Legolas was glad for all the things he had learned serving under Thranduil so many years but he was also painfully aware of what happened when a ruler never took time for himself.  The memories of his father were no longer painful and he recalled the hours his father had spent entangled in endless meetings and affairs of state.  The wear on his spirit had lent Thranduil a hard edge that sometimes cut those he loved.  Legolas did not wish the same fate on his friend.

 

It was past time for the king to take a break, perhaps a long one if the elf had anything to say about it.  He had left Raniean in charge and commissioned the elf to work with Faramir as they helped to drive out the evil and the pain inflicted on the once fair lands.  Under the expert care of the elves, Emyn Arnen would flourish once again.

 

Casually glancing out the window, Aragorn rolled his eyes and slipped his hand up mimicking a talking mouth with his fingers.

 

Nalthon reached over and simply placed a piece of parchment in the king’s hands, surreptitiously hiding his liege’s irreverent motions.  Barely containing his smile, Aragorn nodded to his servant and pretended to read the paper.  He glanced sidelong out the window at the elf.  He could see that Legolas was laughing.

 

The king wasn’t the only one who was watching Legolas.  Nalthon shot the elf a reprimanding look.  When those two got together he had his work cut out for him.  The king and his elvish friends were apt to act remarkably like overgrown children. 

 

Throwing up his hands, Legolas turned and sat down on a bench beneath the window, his back gently resting against the glass pane.  It seemed like today was going to be a repeat of the past few days.

 

Legolas had been here for a week now and had only seen Aragorn for all of about an hour uninterrupted.  His friend had been highly irritated with the cabinet members when the council had convened without asking him first.  He was still fighting an uphill battle with some of the older representatives who were used to the way things were done ‘in the old days.  Aragorn’s diplomatic skills and his easy demeanor with people were slowly winning them over.  The former ranger was convinced that by the end of this year things would be running more smoothly in the courts.

 

Legolas had been looking forward to seeing Aragorn again and reporting on the progress near Mordor.  However, Nalthon never left the king’s side the entire time that Legolas had been with him.  It seemed the elderly man had appointed himself the king’s permanent shadow.  He even went so far as to remind Elessar that Carlda had his good qualities when Aragorn had told Legolas just what he thought of the pompous councilman.  Legolas just wished the other human would keep out of their conversation. 

 

Trying to sneak away from Nalthon became a favorite sport for Aragorn.  He found the old Gondorian harder to give the slip to than his new Captain of the Guard, Jonath, who was also becoming distressingly adept at second-guessing his liege.  Aragorn had never known that being a king had so much in common with being a prisoner. 

 

An hour or more passed as Aragorn mediated the discussions and arguments that arose from Carlda’s discourse.  Not all the other regents were in agreement with their fellow councilmember and Aragorn had mediated more than one outburst caused by the man’s out-spoken opinions.  With a sigh he glanced back out at his friend.  Legolas was pacing in front of the window, obviously distracted.  Something stopped him in his tracks and he looked off to the left, watching intently.  After a few moments Legolas turned back to the window and held up one hand asking his friend silently to give him a moment.  When Aragorn nodded almost imperceptibly, the elf ran off and did not return.

 

Aragorn watched the gardens, leaning around to see past the post that divided the large window but the prince was nowhere to be seen.  A small cough from Nalthon redirected Aragorn’s attention.  The council members were watching him closely as though waiting for something, an answer perhaps.

 

Oops. 

 

Trying to regain his composure, Aragorn cleared his throat and asked if the question could be repeated.  With an exaggerated sigh, Carlda launched back into his lengthy discourse, assuming the king had not clearly heard his preamble.  It took every ounce of strength Aragorn had to not sigh and roll his eyes.  He had only asked for the question, not the five hundred yards of rhetoric leading up to it!  He had the strongest desire to lay his head down on the table and surrender in defeat.

 

Finally the king could take no more.  He had just started to interrupt Carlda when there was a slight tapping on the door to the chamber.

 

Glancing up, Aragorn indicated that the doors should be opened.  Upon his request the servants unlocked the portals and accepted a small envelope from a messenger.  Quiet whispers were exchanged between the runner and the palace servants as the meeting was momentarily suspended.

 

Nalthon readily accepted the note and the whispered message from the doorkeeper and passed it on to Aragorn.

 

“My lord, the messenger said only that it was important,” the seneschal commented quietly as he passed the sealed parchment to Elessar.

 

Turning the note over Aragorn barely repressed a small laugh when he glimpsed the seal.  It was Legolas’ signet ring, the edsiria of Mirkwood, passed down by his father just before Thranduil had left for the undying lands.  The seal had been applied hastily and was crooked.

 

Breaking the red wax, Aragorn opened the letter and immediately fell into a coughing fit in order to cover up his mirth.  He scowled over the top of the scrawled message, trying to look serious and important as his eyes roved back over the two sentences once more.

 

      “The king is needed urgently outside.  Tell the wind bag you require a recess and meet me in the garden.”

 

Thankfully, the contents were written in elvish so there was no hope of the note being read or understood by anyone else in the room.

 

“My lord?” Nalthon asked softly, “Is everything well?”

 

Aragorn looked up innocently at the man, stalling for time.  Folding the parchment back up he took a deep breath and rose to his feet to address the council.  The chambers were silent, every eye fixed on the King.

 

“I need to call a short recess.  A matter has come up that requires my attention,” Elessar addressed his regents.

 

“I must protest this interruption!” Council member Carlda jumped to his feet.

 

“And it cannot wait,” Aragorn concluded holding up his hand and silencing Carlda.  “Please, help yourself to refreshments while I’m away.  We’ll reconvene when I return.”  The king nodded to the servants by the door who immediately left to bring food and drink.

 

The regent fumed, shutting his mouth and frowning at the king.  His face nearly turned red from holding his tongue and his breath.  Aragorn had to fight the laughter that the sight invoked; it was not often that Carlda lost his temper.

 

Aragorn had no idea what Legolas had in mind but he hoped it would be worth the politely vicious tongue-lashing the regent would give them all when they reconvened.

 

Brushing past the confused regents, the king made his way to the door.  Aragorn laughed softly to himself as he stalked down the hallway towards the garden entrance.  He knew he was going to pay for the slight he had dealt his cabinet but there truly was a limited amount of time he could tolerate these people.  Maybe he would let Faramir deal with the obstinate man while he was gone... but that wasn’t fair to Faramir he supposed. 

 

The gate to the gardens was open this time of day and Aragorn strode out into the immaculately pruned yard.  The smells of a thousand different flowering plants and herbs assaulted his senses and he breathed in deeply.  The immediate area was empty and Aragorn took the winding path that would lead into the heart of the small plot of land. 

 

In the center of the garden a fountain rose from the ground itself.  The water basin was sunken below the level of the grass and housed a colorful array of ornamental fish.  Their dorsal and tail fins cut through the top of the pond as they chased water bugs across the glassy surface.

 

Walking slower now, Aragorn allowed himself to actually enjoy the peace and solitude that the trees and privacy here evoked.

 

“My Lord?”

 

Nalthon’s voice caused Aragorn to jump.  He spun on his boot heels and turned to face the direction of the sound.

 

The king had come to such an abrupt stop that the old servant barely avoided colliding with his liege.

 

“Nalthon?  What are you doing here?” Aragorn asked, glancing around them to see if anyone else had followed.

 

Before he could speak another gave the answer for him, in elvish no less.

 

“He comes because he is your shadow!”  Legolas dropped from the trees on Aragorn’s left and approached the human.  A broad, warm smile split his face as he embraced the man briefly.

 

“I got your note,” Aragorn quipped holding up the parchment and eyeing his friend with barely contained mirth.  “Pray tell, what is so important?”

 

The elf answered in the high tongue, continuing to hide their conversation. 

 

“Your sanity my friend and your freedom!”  Legolas stepped lightly around the king, looking for any others who might have followed their liege out.  “That man Carlda is an idiot.  Did he not already go over every point yesterday?  Must he repeat himself that way and speak to you as though you were a child?”

 

Aragorn’s full laugh filled the glade they stood in, startling the fish.  Their bright colors flashed in the sunlight as they sought the shade for shelter.

 

“Legolas!  *Your* people consider me child!”  The elvish words were full of laughter and indiscernible to all but the two friends.

 

“Yes, but we have a reason to do so and you are not our leader.  Even so, none of us would deign to speak to you the way he does.  You know father had a way of dealing with elves just like that belligerent old...”

 

Legolas’ tirade was cut short as Aragorn lunged at him and covered his mouth.

 

“Have you forgotten my shadow?” The man whispered, motioning with his head to the elderly gentleman that stood behind him.

 

Prying Aragorn’s fingers from his face, Legolas leaned in closer and asked softly. “Does he speak elvish?”

 

Aragorn glanced sidelong at Nalthon.  The man stood a pace away watching intently, his arms crossed as though biding his time.

 

“I think not.  Although he has lived in the palace many years,” Aragorn replied

 

“Well he may read Quenya then, but I doubt he is as fluent in Sindarin as are you.” Legolas continued, one eyebrow quirked up in question.  It was true.  The Gondorians were more familiar with elvish languages because of their heritage, but only the nobility was taught the distinctions and finer linguistics of the high tongues.

 

The king laughed quietly before moving back and continuing their conversation.

 

With a sigh, Aragorn glanced back towards the council chambers.  “Well I am grateful for the break my friend but I need to get back.  There truly is no emergency and I’ll never hear the end of it if we don’t settle these problems today.  I do not wish to extend this council meeting any longer than necessary.”

 

“You aren’t going back today, or tomorrow or the next day,” Legolas stated firmly.  He stared hard at the king.  “Trust me, my friend.  Your time in that chamber is done for the week.  I have been your guest for the past five days and seen you one hour in that time.  Do not turn into my father on me.  There are ways to run a kingdom and ways for it to run you.  You must learn the difference.  You have already told Carlda that everything is being done to stop the raids.  You ordered Jonath to send his finest men out to put an end to it, did you not?  If that answer does not suffice, then Council member Carlda must learn to trust his new king.  Your word is as good as having the deed done.  There is none higher in the land.  You are not a Steward you are the High King.  Let him think on that for a while.”

 

“What do you suggest I do?” Aragorn asked, shrugging his shoulders in defeat. “I hold their allegiance, but not yet all their hearts.”

 

“You will,” Legolas encouraged.  He rested his hand Aragorn’s shoulder and squeezed gently.  “Give them time.  Look at the leadership that has ruled them so long.  The times they have prayed for are finally here and it will take patience while they realize that fact.”

 

“And my shadow?”  Aragorn turned towards Nalthon who had moved forward and was questioning the king.

 

“He works hard, perhaps too hard sometimes.  I believe he also needs a rest.  I’ll take care of him,” Legolas whispered as he walked around the king and stepped lightly past the servant.

 

“My Lord, with all due respect, you must return to the chambers.  The issues brought up by Council Member Carlda must be dealt with.  As the king it falls to...”  The older man’s words were cut off as Legolas grabbed the servant from behind, placing a square of cloth over Nalthon’s face and forcing him to breathe through it.

 

The fabric was laced with a potent drug that quickly subdued the seneschal, sending him into a deep, restful sleep.  Legolas picked up the limp body, allowing the cloth to drop to the ground so he wouldn’t overdose the human.

 

“Legolas!  What in Arda are you doing!”  Aragorn stooped to retrieve the drug-laden square, carefully sniffing the fumes it radiated.  He jerked quickly back when he recognized the scent.  “Where did you get this!? Is this how your father dealt with problems in his court?”

 

The elf laughed lightly as he dragged the servant to a nearby bench and laid him carefully down on it.  “My father?  Certainly not.  I’m certain he’s throwing a fit in Valinor right now.  This idea came from a different source altogether,” the prince answered cryptically.  “Do not fear, no harm has been done.  Dear Nalthon will awaken feeling more rested than he has in years.  You could have ordered him away, but he would only worry and fret and follow you anyway.  Trust me; this is a favor to both of you.”  He brushed his hands off and started to walk out of the garden, leading the king away in the opposite direction.

 

Dumbfounded by the turn of events, Aragorn simply followed.  He cast a look over his shoulder at Nalthon and rolled his eyes.  How would he ever explain this to him?  This was shaping up to be a diplomatic nightmare, but it was so hard to care.  Running down the path he caught up with the retreating elf.

 

In his time in Minas Tirith, Legolas had easily memorized the passageways and adjoining halls.  It wasn’t so different than Thranduil’s palace really.  Expertly he led them towards the king’s personal chambers by the back routes.  They had nearly reached the private quarters when Carlda stepped out of a passage just behind the king.  He had been trying to talk the kitchen staff out of more food when he saw Elessar walk swiftly by.

 

“King Elessar!” Regent Carlda called down the hall, stopping the king in his tracks.

 

Aragorn cringed, grimacing as though in pain before regaining his composure.  Turning slowly around he faced the councilman. 

 

“Yes, Councilman Carlda?”  Elessar drew himself up to his full height and pierced the man with a glare that would have made Elrond proud.  “If it can wait, I need to finish my business.  Now please if you will excuse me.” Aragorn tried to disentangle himself gently but Atrius Carlda was not used to being shrugged off. 

 

The council member had spent hours simply bandying about the affairs of state with Denethor.  The Steward, though firm in his will about all that he ruled, had genuinely enjoyed the man’s company and dry sarcastic humor.  It was Atrius’ every intention to wedge himself into the new King’s immediate company as well.  Elessar’s reticence to the councilman’s point of view on most matters annoyed the regent.

 

Now he was faced with the opportune moment to get into the King’s good graces.

 

Or so he thought.

 

“Really, my Lord, I do not think this can wait,” Carlda fell into step with the tall Númenor.  Denethor had been much shorter, or so the man thought.

 

Turning on his heel Aragorn resumed his swift pace up the hallway, hoping to catch up with Legolas.  The elf was nowhere to be seen.

 

Glancing at the man that walked beside him, Aragorn addressed the councilman in a manner he hoped would please Nalthon.

 

“Councilman Carlda, I am afraid that the recess from the proceedings is still in effect.  I have some personal business that really cannot wait.  If you would please go back, partake of the refreshments and the gardens, either I or a messenger will bring you word,” Aragorn tried to gently dissuade the man from following him.  Beyond the next turn the man would be blocked from continuing into the private parts of the palace anyway.

 

They passed by an alcove shrouded in darkness.  For a moment Aragorn was almost positive he had seen a shimmer in the deepest corner.  A faint, familiar presence resonated like a spark of recognition before they moved by the wall recess.

 

Before Carlda could respond to his liege, he was grabbed from behind and quickly subdued.  Consciousness fled as an acidic smell filled his nostrils and breathing became difficult.  Darkness replaced the panic as Councilman Carlda went limp in Legolas’ arms.

 

“Legolas!”  Aragorn hissed fiercely as he helped the elf ease the unconscious man down onto a small bench at the back of the alcove where Legolas had been hiding.  Grabbing the cloth away from his friend he shoved it into his pocket and glared at the elf.

 

“I cannot believe you just did that!  This has got to stop!  You are going to get me into so much trouble!  How many of those do you have?” he asked as the two crept back to the hallway glancing furtively up and down its length.  All Aragorn needed was to be caught in such a compromising position.

 

The elf laughed softly as he headed up the passage towards Elessar’s rooms.  Nodding slightly to the palace guards he walked into the king’s chambers unrestricted and quickly began pulling out Aragorn’s old ranger clothing.

 

Softly closing the doors behind him, the king stalked after the elf.  “Legolas, I have just walked out on the affairs of state and drugged a cabinet member and my own seneschal.  At least one of whom is probably never going to forget it or forgive me for the rest of his entire life.  Have you any idea how on earth I am going to get out of this mess?” He whispered to the wood elf.  A scowl crossed his face as he watched Legolas shove extra clothing into his old knapsack.  The elf tossed Aragorn’s well worn ranger outfit at the man.

 

“Quickly, we haven’t a moment to spare.  Someone will find that old windbag or Nalthon and our ruse will be up!  Did you or did you not intend to sneak out this week and spend some time in the woods hunting?  Was it not your idea to lose your guards and entourage and spend sometime alone?  Or did I misunderstand you?”  Legolas countered just as quietly.  He closed the curtains discreetly while the king shrugged out of his formal wear and slipped quickly into his old leather trousers and tunic.

 

Aragorn watched the elf with a certain amount of disbelief.  He was still a little surprised by everything that had happened.  “Yes, of course I want that, I just hadn’t thought I would be leaving a trail of senseless council members behind me,” he said wryly.

 

“Elessar, do not forget you are still Estel,” Legolas warned quietly.  “Your advisors mean well, but if you let them take over your life you will never get it back, trust me on this.  Any pressing issues have already been settled.  This whole debate has turned into a power struggle with all of them scrabbling to establish themselves in your eyes and your graces.  They’re driving themselves to a frenzy and banging uselessly against one another.  Everyone will benefit from letting it drop for a little while.”

 

Smiling, Legolas handed his friend the much mended overcoat he had always favored.  Aragorn no longer looked the part of the king.  He simply reflected the quiet, young ranger Legolas had always known.

 

“Something is not quite right,” the elf muttered appraising the man.

 

“What?” Aragorn turned in a full circle, looking himself up and down in the long mirror that stood at the far wall.  Bending over he laced his tall leather boots a bit tighter, cinching the ties around his calves.  As he did so, Legolas realized what had troubled him and quickly held the man down.

 

“Don’t move,” the elf ordered as he took one of his long bladed hunting knives and easily cut the band that held Elessar’s hair back from his face.

 

When Legolas released him, Aragorn stood up, his hair fell into his eyes and framed his face in a haphazard manner.

 

“Yes! That was it!” Legolas laughed softly as his friend pushed the wayward strands out of his eyes.  “Now let us go quickly before we are found out.”

 

“Right,” Aragorn growled playfully, “we can’t exactly walk back out the front now can we?”

 

“My friend,” Legolas replied patiently, “why do you think it is that palaces come equipped with windows bracketed by lovely overgrowth?”  The elf smirked as he re-opened the curtains and pushed the windows outward.

 

True enough, just below the bedroom window grew a tree, not quite as old as the others in Aragorn’s private garden.  Its highest branches reached up to the edge of the sill as though inviting the King to test them out.

 

Nimbly, the elf leapt out into the waiting canopy.  He turned back and held out a hand, motioning silently for the human to follow.  Aragorn tossed his knapsack out at the elf, slung his old bow and quiver over his shoulder and without a second thought followed his friend down the tree to the garden floor.  Legolas was right.  He needed some time away.  He was no use to anyone in his current, restless state.  Perhaps a little time away from the palace would clear his mind and help him not be so edgy and irritated with the council members.  He was glad Arwen was away visiting Celeborn.  He wouldn’t have thought of leaving without a word to her if she were here.

 

Aragorn reached the ground a few moments after Legolas.  Here, for the most part, they should have been safe from prying eyes.  The king’s gardens were for the royal family alone and not shared or accessible to any other part of the palace except through the private rooms.

 

However, the day was turning out to be anything but normal.

 

Jonath swept into the garden on the far side with a small contingent following close on his heels.

 

“Fan out, search every corner.  Find the king or the intruder and quickly!” The guard ordered as he stalked down the path in front of him.

 

Legolas backed slowly into the foliage at the base of the palace wall, pressing Aragorn against the cool stone and out of sight.  The man’s dark clothing blended well with the shadows as the elf stood in front of him.

 

“Do NOT drug him Legolas!” Aragorn whispered fiercely at his friend.

 

With a slight movement of his hand, the elf shushed the king and glanced at the advancing royal guardsman.

 

“Legolas! Thank the Valar you are safe.  The King would never forgive me if you came to harm.”  Jonath smiled worriedly at the elf.  He watched as his men scoured the garden, closing in on their position.  “Have you seen the King?  I must find him immediately.  There is an intruder in the castle.  He overcame Nalthon and Regent Carlda.  Neither one is able to help much as they are still unconscious, but one of the kitchen servants reported that Regent Carlda was last seen with Lord Elessar.  And I know Nalthon would never willingly be separated from the King.  If anything were to happen... I would not be able to forgive myself.  When I left him with the council this morning, I did not think that with Atrius Carlda as the speaker they would be able to recess for quite sometime.” Jonath’s worried report tumbled out urgently.  He should have been more attentive.

 

Aragorn had become very fond the man who had become his personal guard and could not stand to hear him fretting so.  Before Legolas could form a response, the king stepped out from the foliage, revealing his whereabouts.

 

“My lord!” Jonath rushed forward surprised, stopping himself just short of hugging the man he thought he had lost.

 

His moment of astonishment was short lived however when he took in the kings attire.  Glowering at the two friends he glanced from the human to the elf and back. 

 

“My lord?” Jonath questioned darkly, “There is no intruder per say is there?” 

 

The guard’s glance settled lastly on Legolas who returned the stare innocently.  Years of living with Thranduil and growing up with Raniean and Trelan had taught him how to school his looks perfectly when caught in the act.

 

“Send the men away, Jonath,” Aragorn whispered quietly. “I would have a word with you alone.  Please,” He entreated the soldier.

 

With a nod, Jonath turned back to the contingent that had followed him.  He ordered them into the personal areas and told them to scour the grounds near the council chambers once more.  When the garden had emptied of all but himself, the elf, and king he turned back to the two friends.

 

Crossing him arms over his chest Jonath set his gaze hard on the man before waiting for an explanation.  The King had no obligation to explain himself to his chief guard or anyone else, but whether there was or was not a threat to the King’s safety was definitely the guard’s business. 

 

Legolas was impressed and nudged Aragorn as the man moved out from his hiding place. “I do believe he learned that one from your father.”

 

“This is not funny, my lords.  I feared you had been abducted.  I found your personal seneschal and a council member unconscious, both having last been seen in your company.  What was I supposed to believe?”  Jonath wanted an answer.

 

“You are right, Jonath.  I should have let you know at the very least.”  Aragorn ran a hand through his hair brushing it out of his eyes.  “I have been at council for the past five days.  I have heard Atrius Carlda’s complaints until my ears are ready to fall off.  That man will not listen to reason.  I am certain he wishes that Denethor was still in power.  There is nothing more that can be done that we are not already doing.  He will accept nothing that I offer.”  Aragorn sighed deeply and walked toward the center of the garden. 

 

“Talking with him is wasting our time and his.  The last three days that man has done nothing but argue with the others and myself, trying to divide the cabinet. Have you not sent your best men out to curb the attacks in the outer regions?” Aragorn asked in frustration. 

 

When the soldier nodded to the affirmative, the king countered with another question.  “And are you not pleased with the outcome of those offensives?”

 

Another nod to the affirmative answered him again.

 

“Then if you are happy, and I am pleased and things are settling down, why is it that he is not?  Must I continually fight the ghost of a man long dead who cared more for his own comforts than for his people?  The affections of Denethor’s more loyal subjects are harder to win than that of a warg, and I would know, Jonath. I’ve done that before!” The king’s tone was heated as he walked around the guard and the elf.  He glanced back at Legolas quickly amending his last statement. “Well actually it was Legolas that she was taken with for some reason and did not kill us but it was still easier than with that stubborn malcontent.”

 

Jonath stood quietly, enduring his king’s tirade.  He had no answer, nothing that would quickly fix the problems that lay before Elessar.  He did not envy the king his position but as his personal guard it was his responsibility to see to the king’s well being.

 

Aragorn stood facing the interior of the garden, his eyes averted from the two who stood behind him.  With a sigh of defeat he spoke quietly, knowing he could be easily heard.

 

“Legolas, I am sorry, my friend,” he sighed softly. “I would that things were different, but I believe I must remain here and work this out.  I do not know how I will explain this, but I need to.”  His words were quiet and held the slightest hint of sorrow.

 

Jonath glanced back and forth between his liege and the elf.  Legolas’ eyes were fixed on Aragorn’s back.  The guilt in his gaze was obvious as he turned and glanced at the soldier.  He hadn’t meant to make so much trouble for his friend, he had wanted only to help.  Perhaps he had chosen a poor way to accomplish that end. 

 

“My lord, I think you should return to your chambers,” Jonath spoke quietly into the uncomfortable silence that had fallen.

 

Aragorn turned and looked at his personal guard a slight smile on his face.  “Are you sending me to my room Jonath?” He laughed softly.

 

“Yes, my lord, I am.”  Jonath smiled conspiratorially at the king.  “I believe you should spend the next three days at least confined to your quarters whilst we find this one who has overcome your seneschal and Councilman Carlda.  It is vitally important that this intruder be found before the king comes to harm.” 

 

Aragorn stared at the man in front of him, a smile forming slowly on his face as he listened to his personal guard.

 

“I will place my men at your door and bring you your meals myself,” Jonath continued.  “Since we don’t know who the intruder is or what his purpose may be, no one else can be trusted near you.  Arwen is away visiting her relatives.  You will simply be kept busy and under guard.  And Carlda will have plenty of time to regale everyone within hearing of his near death experience. I would say this might even take his mind off those raids, what with his life in danger.”  He shrugged as though it were the simplest thing in the world.

 

“When I deem it safe, you’ll be free to roam about Minas Tirith once more.  Three days ought to be enough time to drive any intruder from the city, wouldn’t you agree?” Jonath asked in a surprisingly business-like voice.

 

The soldier was caught off guard as his king wrapped the man in a fierce hug, pounding the soldier on the back as he laughed.

 

“I would agree, my dear Jonath,” Aragorn replied.  He stepped back and clasped the man’s arms in his hands.  “I will return in three days,” The king reassured his commander. 

 

“Next time, ask me,” Jonath implored.  “I can be of help when you need to escape your own countrymen, as well as any other foe, for a moment of peace.  That too is why I have been attached to you as your personal guard.  Escape anyone else, my lord, and I will help you.  But please, I pray you, do not attempt to escape me without word, because it *is* my job to find and protect you and I can do no other.”

 

He turned to the elf who had remained quietly in the background, “ And you had better see to it that the king returns unharmed, in one piece and in NO need of any medical attention,” Jonath warned Legolas.  “I have heard the tales of what happens when the two of you get together.”

 

“They are highly over-exaggerated,” Legolas laughed as he grabbed his friend’s coat sleeve and tugged the ranger king towards the outer gates.

 

“Not that way, all of Gondor will see you!”  Jonath pulled Aragorn with him to a wall on the far side of the garden.  A hatch opened beneath the man’s touch leading out of the city proper.  Steps led down away out of sight spiraling into depths of the mountain.  “If you follow them all the way down the passage opens up on the north side of the mountain.  It is a long walk but none will stop you or find you.  There are rooms and provisions stocked and accessible along the way should you grow tired.  You can access every level from this tunnel if you should choose to.  If you keep to it, and do not stop you should reach the valley floor before sunset.”

 

With a grateful smile, Legolas began the descent leading the way by the light of his natural glow.

 

Aragorn turned back just inside the passage.  “Hannon le,” he spoke softly, smiling as the guard nodded.  “I will return at this time by this passage in three days.”

 

“In one piece,” Jonath warned.

 

“One piece,” Aragorn echoed.

 

“We promise, we promise.  No scratches, no cuts, whips, spider bites or warg encounters,” Legolas’ voice echoed up from the first bend.  “Come, Estel!”

 

“Why is it I find no comfort in his assurances?  My lord, let us not make a habit of this, please,” Jonath requested softly, “I will have my hands full with Carlda when he awakens and I do not look forward to his ire.  How Denethor ever stood the company of that man is beyond me.”

 

“I promise, Jonath.  This will never happen again,” Aragorn reassured his Captain.  “From now on I’ll let you in on it first.  You are very good at this.”  The king laughed when the soldier just smiled.

 

“Estel!” Legolas’ voice reverberated up the stairway, “Are you coming?”

 

With an impish smile the Dùnadan bounded after his friend and disappeared into the darkness.

 

Jonath easily pushed the access panel close and walked back through the gardens.  He prayed that Ilúvatar would send his king home in one piece as he walked back towards the council chambers forming what he would say to the regents when he got there.  He smiled softly to himself as he remembered the gratefulness in the king’s eyes.  He had known for several days now that Elessar needed some time away but had been unsure about how to approach his liege on the subject.  Fate had known just how to remedy that for him.

 

The door at the bottom of the steps hadn’t been used in years and it took both Legolas and Aragorn to open the ancient portal.  The sun was setting in the west, painting the fields before them in warm pastel tones by the time they exited the mountain passage.  Heading out south around the base of the city they made it to the edge of Lossarnach just as the sun set behind the mountain ridge.

 

The freedom of simply walking beneath the wooded canopy once more lightened the heart of not only the king but his elven friend.  For Aragorn, the time spent in Legolas’ company was as though he had stepped back through a portal, no longer carrying the worries of the world on his shoulders.  He raced through the trees after the elf, dodging roots and ducking branches while his tracking skills slowly resurfaced.

 

In the near distance the glow of a fire caught his attention and he veered in the direction following closely on Legolas’ heels.  Sprinting into the meadow, Aragorn skidded to a stop in surprise.  Two identical elves stood slowly to their feet as shocked by the intrusion as the King.

 

All pretenses were abandoned as the twins recognized their guests and in moments Aragorn was enveloped by his brothers.  Their questions barraged him for answers, their laughter ringing through the vale. 

 

Aragorn had not expected his brothers to be visiting anytime soon and the surprise alone was worth sneaking out of the palace.

 

As the welcome slowly died down and the four seated themselves around the fire, Aragorn beset the twins with his own questions.

 

“Which one of you gave this to Legolas?” the human asked.  Mirth belied the serious tone of the query as he tossed a soiled square of cloth at Elladan.

 

Elrohir snickered softly as his twin gingerly picked up the fabric and flicked it into the fire.

 

“I do not know of what you speak, dear brother,” Elladan answered innocently.  “You are not suggesting...”

 

His words were cut off as Aragorn’s pack hit him full in the chest, knocking him off the log he was seated upon.  “You nearly got me into so much trouble!  Did you even measure it correctly?”

 

“Of course!” Elrohir exclaimed, pulling his twin back up and pushing Aragorn’s pack away from them.  “You think we would trust a Silvan elf with herbs that potent?”

 

“I beg your pardon!” Legolas defended himself only half-heartedly.  He was simply glad that they had this time together.  Aragorn was relaxing before his very eyes.  The tensions of the last few days leeched away in the laughter of the elves around him. 

 

The council would reconvene next week, the troubles of today would still need attention and the kingdom would survive three days with her king in ‘seclusion’.

 

Legolas leaned back against the trunk of a large oak tree and listened contentedly to the brothers laughing.  If he had to do it again, he would have drugged the entire council. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

“You didn’t?!” Arwen questioned disbelievingly.  She laughed and shook her head when Aragorn’s face flushed. 

 

“I am afraid we did!”  He consented, to the laughter of those at the table.

 

“Now *that* is what I call diplomacy!” Gimli commented appreciatively.  “I wish I could have been there to see that!” He brushed crumbs out of his beard and stretched. 

 

“You two...” Arwen shook her head, glancing from Aragorn to Legolas.  He gaze caught slightly on Legolas.  For a moment he looked distant and drawn, but half an instant later he either sensed or saw that she was looking at him and a bright smile reappeared on his face. 

 

Arwen looked away, but continued glancing at Legolas out of the corner of her eyes.  She had watched the Silvan elf off and on during the retelling of the story.  Legolas had seemed to be engaged and listening as Aragorn had started off but part way through it was obvious that the prince’s thoughts were far away.  He laughed in all the right places and watched Aragorn as the man regaled them but it was easy for her to see that Legolas was not with them in spirit.  When Aragorn looked to him for confirmation he responded, but only when the human was watching him.

 

Legolas smiled pleasantly at the end of the story and laughed with the others.  It was what was expected of him and it felt good to go through the motions, but his heart and mind felt a million miles away.  He had tired through the morning and not kept up with the rest of them.  In his soul he was still weary and the joy that he forced on his face did not reach his heart nor did it originate there like it should have.  Legolas was trying to keep his cheerful front up and was not aware that anyone had seen through his charade.  He was inexplicably worn, tired in more ways than just physically.  But he had far too much practice repressing what he felt in favor of what was expected of him, and so he carried on as if nothing were the matter.  What good would it have done?  It was better to sit with laughing friends and pretend to feel the same, than to bring them down into whatever he was feeling.  Misery may love company, but Legolas did not, not like that. 

 

This time, however, unbeknownst to him, he had been caught in the act.  Arwen reminded herself to speak with her husband about it as soon as they had a quiet moment to themselves.

 

All such thoughts were momentarily forgotten when Elladan, Elrohir and Eldarion arrived unannounced on the scene. 

 

Dari looked tired but extremely happy as he bounded across the lawn to his parents side.  The small boy was dripping wet.  His leggings were caked with mud almost all the way up his thighs and dead leaves clung to him at odd angles.  His grubby face was beaming. 

 

“Good gracious!  Dari!  What in Arda happened to you?” Arwen asked in surprise as Dari scrambled happily up into her lap, blissfully unmindful of his current state. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir were only a few steps behind him, but their appearance was little better.  The three of them were quite a sight.  They looked as if they had been swimming with their clothes on and then went for a long roll in the fallen leaves. 

 

Aragorn quirked an eyebrow in amusement.  That could very well be exactly what they had done.  He seldom put anything past his brothers.

 

Elrohir dropped down into an unused seat with a bright smile.  Elladan helped himself to some of the leftovers on the table that Gimli hadn’t finished, proving that dwarves did not hold a complete monopoly on diminished manners among friends.

 

Legolas watched them with a suppressed smile.  They had obviously had a wonderful time.  He felt sure that he was witnessing a scene that could have come out of Estel’s childhood.  It was clear how much the twins had missed having a child around since Estel grew up. 

 

Arwen held her dripping, muddy child carefully.  She plucked part of a maple leaf out of his widely tangled curls and fixed her brothers with an only partially amused glare. 

 

“We were tracking trolls!” Dari bubbled exuberantly.  “I fell in one of their footprints!”  He pointed to the mud smeared across the front of his knees and elbows as proof of the adventure. 

 

“Trolls?!” Trelan asked in alarm. 

 

Aragorn waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, letting him know there was nothing to fear.  He knew exactly where those ‘troll’ footprints were and if they had indeed been made by trolls at some point it must have been ages and ages ago. 

 

Arwen smiled at Dari and kissed his forehead gently in approval.  The look she turned on her brothers was slightly less approving.  “Really, you two... did father let you run this wild with Estel?” 

 

Elrohir was trying to comb the leaves out of his own wet, tangled ebony locks.  “Wild?  This wasn’t wild.  Wait until we show him where the bears hide!”

 

Dari squealed with delight at this idea, bouncing on his mothers lap.  He squirmed his head away when she attempted to wipe some of the mud from his face.  “Can we go now?!”

 

Elladan had pulled off and wadded up his wet outer tunic and was using it to wipe his own face clean.  He glanced from Dari to Arwen and back to Dari again.  “Um... no.  I don’t think that’s a good idea.  But maybe tomorrow, all right?”

 

Dari seemed to like that idea very much, but Arwen rolled her eyes.  “We’ll see about that,” she muttered, then squeaked in a very undignified manner when Elladan threw his wet jacket at her.  The heavy, dripping article of clothing caught her on the shoulder and the sleeve lazily smacked the side of her face. 

 

“Oh come on, Sis,” Elladan said with a roguish smile.  “Don’t tell me you don’t remember ever coming home covered in mud and having the time of your life.”

 

Arwen lobed the sodden jacket back at her older brother who ducked only just in time.  “Yes, and I also remember Ada and Nana having a fit!”

 

“*Nana* had a fit.  Ada only disapproved because Nana was there,” Elrohir offered his opinion without being invited to do so.  “He never cared near so much about us bringing Estel back a little dirty.”

 

“Oh, no, he had to reserve his ire for more important things, like when you brought me back sick, bleeding or with a broken ankle...” Aragorn remarked with helpful sarcasm. 

 

“Arwen, you remember the time after the rainy season ended and we went down to the bubbling springs and found them all silted in?” Elrohir asked, intentionally changing the subject.  “And Ada had been reading you those books about the wild people down in Harad who didn’t wear anything but tattoos and mud painting, and you decided to-” Elrohir was cut off as he had to duck a flying bread roll. 

 

“I don’t think we need to talk about this right now!” Arwen said quickly, glaring daggers at her errant brother. 

 

“Hey!  No throwing food,” Elrohir protested, laughing merrily at the dangerous look in his sister’s eyes. 

 

Aragorn’s eyebrows were raised so high they were trying to escape his forehead.  “No, no, I want to hear this.”  It was revelatory to realize that Arwen had been the twins’ first baby sibling.  They would already have been young adults by the time she was born and Aragorn suddenly realized that he and his wife probably had more in common than even they realized yet. 

 

“No you don’t, *dear*,” Arwen said with heavily accented mock-sweetness. 

 

Aragorn wisely took the hint.  “On second thought, maybe I better go give Dari his bath so he can have some lunch and his nap, right?” he said with a smile. 

 

“Better idea,” Arwen concurred with twinkling grin.  Aragorn rose and took Dari out of her arms.  Arwen leaned up and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.  Aragorn smiled and turned his head to give her one on the lips before he carried their son towards the house. 

 

“Now why doesn’t that work for me?” Elrohir groused. 

 

“Well, I don’t think Aragorn wants to be kissed by you, laddie,” Gimli put in pragmatically.  He winked at Legolas, the only indication that he knew he was making a joke. 

 

Legolas and the others dissolved into laughter at the surprised and flustered look that crossed Elrohir’s face. 

 

“That is NOT what I meant.  I meant that he never shuts up when *I* tell him to!”

 

“What can I say?  He’s a wise man,” Arwen said, rising to her feet and straightening her now disheveled clothing.  Her laughing smile belied her regal tone. 

 

Elladan snorted.  “He’s a married one.”

 

“That’s what I said,” Arwen said sweetly, still not having totally forgiven her brother for lobbing wet clothing articles at her.  “Not that *you* would know anything about that...”

 

Arwen laughed and was forced to flee quickly towards the house with Elladan in pursuit. 

Chapter Text

~*PART EIGHT*~
~Mirkwood Misadventures~

 

 

Dari’s nap was longer than usual, but his hair was still damp when he awoke.  Aragorn carried the somewhat sleepy child down to the Hall of Fire wrapped in a blanket.  The boy had taken a bit of a chill and he didn’t want Dari getting sick. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir were also in the hall of fire, lying on the cushions near the fireplace with their own long tresses spread around them to dry.  They had been talking quietly to Raniean and Trelan but looked up when Aragorn and Dari entered. 

 

Eldarion quickly wriggled out of his Ada’s arms and scampered over to join his uncles, dragging his blanket along the floor behind him. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir greeted their nephew affectionately and made space for him on their cushions, but Dari diverted instead to Legolas’ side.  The prince was sitting cross-legged and quiet near the fire, listening to, but not participating in, the other elves’ conversation.  Sliding easily into a very familiar position in the Legolas’ lap, Dari leaned his damp head back against archer’s chest. 

 

Legolas smiled and gave the boy a quick squeeze.  It still felt natural to have Dari in his arms and it seemed that Dari felt the same.  On several occasions, Dari had come running to Legolas’ room, rather than that of his parents, when he awakened with nightmares.  Legolas understood why, given what the nightmares were about, but he wondered hesitantly what Aragorn thought of that.  After so much time being Dari’s only protector it was a little awkward trying to switch into a more removed role.  He was glad that Aragorn had turned out to be Dari’s father.  It would have been difficult to relinquish the child back to the care of anyone else.  Legolas glanced uncertainly up at Aragorn to read his expression, but Aragorn was just smiling.  He looked quite pleased at the rapport between his son and his best friend and not in the least put out by it as he sank down onto a cushion beside them. 

 

Dari’s arm snaked out and caught his father’s larger, calloused hand in his.  He dragged it into Legolas’ lap where he was sitting.  The child seemed to like playing with the ring on Aragorn’s forefinger and twirled Barahir around a couple of times. 

 

“Did the stickers come off?” the boy asked in Elladan and Elrohir’s general direction after a few moments. 

 

Elrohir grimaced.  “Uh... yes, they did.”

 

Aragorn cocked his head inquiringly.  “Stickers?”

 

Dari nodded.  “We were tracking the trolls through the downlands,” he said, eager to relate his adventure.  “There were hungry mountain lions trailing us!”

 

“They were in the southern part of the valley and there were squirrels,” Aragorn translated under his breath with quiet amusement for Legolas’ benefit. 

 

Legolas’ face lit with a barely contained smile. 

 

“We rolled down the hill to escape them, but there were brambles at the bottom.  They didn’t get me, but Uncle Dan and Uncle Ro landed in them and we had to battle the thorn monsters to get them out!”

 

Aragorn laughed, imagining what a sight that must have been. 

 

“SO,” Elrohir said pointedly.  “How did your afternoon go?”  It was a poor attempt to change the topic and did not work at all. 

 

“Then, Uncle Dan stepped in a wasp nest and all the bees came out like a big cloud,” Dari continued to prattle. 

 

“I think we could talk about something else now,” Elladan put in, but it worked about as well as his brother’s attempt had. 

 

“See?  I told you he never listens to us,” Elrohir muttered. 

 

“So we had to brave the mountain lions and run back up the hill and we all jumped in the lake!” Dari obviously thought this was the most entertaining day he had had in a long time. 

 

“Oh really?” Aragorn said with an appreciative tone of voice.  THAT explained how they got so wet at least. 

 

“Find any three ringed water snakes in that lake?” Legolas asked mildly.  The question was directed to Dari, but he was looking at Elladan and Elrohir as he said it and the smile twitching at the corners of his mouth said there was more going on here than met the eye. 

 

To Aragorn’s surprise, both his brothers suddenly blushed profusely and said nothing. 

 

“Ohhh, yes!  I had almost forgotten about those,” Trelan put in helpfully. 

 

“Forgotten about what?” Draecyn asked as he and Jonath followed Arwen into the room. 

 

“Nothing!” Elladan and Elrohir said almost in unison. 

 

“Well this sounds like the kind of *nothing* I wish to hear about,” Mora said from the doorway. 

 

“No, you don’t.  You already know this one, or part of it,” Elrohir mumbled, glancing towards Legolas and the other two wood elves who knew even more of the full story. 

 

Moranuen did not miss the look and his smile widened.  “Oh, I see, this is about that summer when you two miscreants somehow convinced me to lie for you and then went and got into all that trouble in Mirkwood, isn’t it?”

 

“I don’t think I’ve heard this story,” Arwen commented as she took a seat near her husband and son. 

 

“I do not believe you would have been born yet,” Legolas said thoughtfully, trying to work out the dates in his head.  It had been quite a long time ago. 

 

“You know, I never did hear what happened the first time you two visited Mirkwood, although you obviously knew Legolas before I did.  Do tell, mellon-nín,” Aragorn agreed, looking expectantly to Legolas. 

 

Legolas smiled.  “Well, first off, I must say that it seems that no one in your family except your father seems to have ever been able to make a normal entrance into our realm the first time you appear.  We always have to save your sorry necks.  Is that not true, my friends?”  He turned his smile upon Raniean and Trelan who nodded in agreement. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir made a face, but didn’t bother protesting, which meant this was going to be a very interesting story indeed.    

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

The sun shone down brightly in a valiant attempt to penetrate the ardent canopy of the dense forest. 

 

Two young elves toiled between the mighty tree-trunks, trying to pick their way swiftly down the old forest road.  If one looked at them quickly, they would think they were seeing double, for elven twins were a rarity.  Yet twins they were.  Their bodies were slim and their fair faces still held the soft-edged traces of youth.  Save for the graceful point of their ears, hidden among their tangled black tresses, it would have been easy to mistake them for 16-year-old human boys, for there was a certain set about their features and build that reminded one of their human as well as elven heritage.  Yet, although they had seen more seasons than many middle-aged men, the estimation of their youth would not have been entirely misplaced, for they were by no means yet considered adults among their own people. 

 

Elrohir bit his lower lips hard, his face pale with the effort to not voice his pain as his twin brother helped him limp swiftly down the forest path.  The road was dotted with rolling hummocks and brambles that made their going tedious.  Normally the slight variations in the pathway would not have hindered the elves in the least, but Elrohir could barely walk as it was. 

 

“I don’t think, this was such a good idea, brother,” Elrohir grit out quietly between his teeth as he clung tightly to Elladan’s neck, stoically forcing himself to keep moving.  Elladan leaned his right temple against his brother’s left, tightening his grip on Elrohir’s body as he tried in vain to take more weight off his twin’s injured leg.  Their raven hair mixed together, by now loose of all bindings and nearly free of the braids they had been wearing as well. 

 

“Unless it helps you feel better, yell at me later, El,” Elladan whispered, his voice rueful but encouraging.  “Right now save your strength.  We’ve got to get you somewhere safer before nightfall.”  His words came in short gasps.  The exertion of the past few days was catching up with him. 

 

“Safe?  We’re alone in the middle of the forest, where exactly can we go that is safer than we are now?” Elrohir retorted tautly.  Pain was stealing his normally jocular nature.  He couldn’t remember hurting this bad in a long time.  They stumbled swiftly down the path, grace completely forgotten in the urgent need for speed and stealth. 

 

Elladan glanced at the never-ending trees that surrounded them.  Unfortunately, his brother was right.  They were not going to make it out of Mirkwood tonight, or any time in the near future for that matter.  Right now, the young elf desperately wanted to be home.  Unfortunately, hundreds of miles, half the forest, the MistyMountains and some very irate and dangerous humans lay between the half-elven twins and their home.  It seemed an impossible distance. 

 

It was Elladan’s turn to bite his lip.  He had splinted his brother’s broken ankle and torn knee as best he could, but he wished he could have taken him to their father.  Their father... Valar, Elrond was going to kill them!  That was, if the men tracking them did not finish the job before he could.  To make matters worse they weren’t even heading in the right direction to be going back to Rivendell.  Their hunters blocked any thought of retreat westward and as they scrambled to stay ahead of the riders they were steadily driven further and further east, into the heart of the forest. 

 

“I remember the maps in Ada’s study.  They show that the road we are on is kept by the wood-elves who live around here somewhere,” Elladan panted quietly by way of feeble encouragement.  “If we keep going long enough, we’ve got to come across *someone*!”

 

Elrohir thought that all they were likely to come across was certain death from the woodland beasts or their pursuers, but he held his tongue, knowing his injuries were making him more pessimistic than usual.  Elladan did not need any more stress than he was already under.   

 

“Do you think they’ll help us?  They’re a strange folk, or so everyone says,” Elrohir voiced the lesser of his concerns.  They had never actually been this far east before and had never met their distant woodland kin. 

 

“Of course they will,” Elladan said with more confidence than he felt.  “They let Ada stay with them a few seasons ago.  Remember?  He told us when he came home from Dorolyn that he had been here and helped heal their prince.”

 

Elrohir grunted in acknowledgement.  He didn’t really suppose that the wood-elves would turn away anyone in as dire straights as they were, but finding them in a forest this big was still a major concern. 

 

The two young elves nearly tripped because of a sudden dip in the path and Elrohir cried out involuntarily.  Elladan clapped his hand over his brother’s mouth, stifling further outcry.  He held the younger twin tightly against his chest with one arm, gently, but firmly muffling him with the other.  His heart thudding hard in his chest, Elladan held perfectly still for a moment, straining to hear any sound from their pursuers, any indication that Elrohir’s outcry had given away their location.

 

All he could hear was Elrohir’s breath sobbing behind his hand.  Elrohir had frozen as his brother did, knowing that discovery would mean death.  He hadn’t meant to cry out; he had simply been unable to help himself.  Silent tears of pain slid down his cheeks, wetting Elladan’s hand on his face.  The younger twin’s body sagged back against the elder as he tried to relieve the weight he was constantly being forced to place upon his injuries.

 

Elladan felt the warm wetness and eased up on his hold gently as he became sure that Elrohir was not going to cry out again.  He hugged his brother tight against him, burying his face against Elrohir’s neck in mute apology.  He was shaking too.  He was trying to be strong, to keep them both alive, but he was becoming frightened that he was going to fail.  Looking down he could see that Elrohir’s ankle and knee had swollen to twice their normal size inside his carefully constructed sprints and braces.  They had not been able to rest for more than a few hours since he was injured, and that was two days ago.  Both elves were wearing thin. 

 

“Valar, El, I am so sorry... I never wanted this to happen, I’m so sorry...” The elder twin’s mind begged forgiveness, but he couldn’t get the words out of his trembling lips.

 

Everything was eerily quiet.  For the past four hours it had sounded as if their pursuers were nipping at their heels.  Then, about a quarter of an hour ago they had fallen silent.  Elladan did not take this as a good sign.  He and Elrohir were leaving far too wide of a trail to be missed, and since Elrohir’s injury forced them to stay on the path rather than trying to lose themselves in the woods, there was no reason for the men to take a wrong turn.  He feared their enemies were up to something. 

 

Elrohir gripped the arms around his waist tightly, drawing strength from his twin’s presence.  In silent agreement they both moved forward again, knowing they could not halt long. 

 

A mile later, Elrohir fell again.  He did not cry out this time, but when Elladan helped him back to his feet he was as white as a sheet.  His skin was clammy to the touch and his grey eyes glazed.  Elladan urged him on, but Elrohir could go no further.  He leaned against his brother helplessly.

 

“El, come on, we’ve got to keep moving, I can hear them behind us!” Elladan pleaded.  He hadn’t wanted to say anything before for fear of alarming his twin, but the quiet sounds of other sentient life approaching swiftly from behind had reappeared and been growing again for the past few minutes.  They sounded very, very close now. 

 

“I can’t... no, honestly, I really can’t,” Elrohir choked out quietly between sobbing breaths.  “I’m sorry, El, I am.  Go, please!  Go!” he tried to push his brother away from him, but even as he did, he knew his twin would never leave him. 

 

Elladan ignored the ridiculous suggestion.  “I’ll carry you!” he said, trying to hoist his brother onto his back, but Elrohir resisted. 

 

“You’ll never outrun them that way!” he protested. 

 

Much as he hated it, Elladan knew Elrohir was right.  Elladan’s mind raced for an option that could save them without sacrificing his brother.  He bet that his father and Glorfindel could take on the entire party chasing them by themselves.  Unfortunately, he and Elrohir were still young and not yet as skilled as they would be later in life.  They were strong and they were fast, but they were painfully aware that they were no match for their hunters’ numbers. 

 

“Come on!” Dragging Elrohir off the path, Elladan stopped at the base of a towering tree.  The tree’s numerous branches were heavy laden with whispering leaves and when you looked up you could see no more than a few feet through them towards the sky. 

 

Hoisting his brother up by the waist, Elladan boosted him towards the lower branches.  “Climb up as high as you can and hide,” he urged.  “I’ll try to lead them away and come back for you.”

 

Elrohir dragged himself painfully up into the branches, but hesitated, fixing anxious eyes upon his twin.  “Be careful, El, please.”

 

Elladan flashed a quicksilver smile.  “Aren’t I always?”

 

“You don’t want me to answer that,” Elrohir muttered as he clambered higher into the tree with some difficulty. 

 

Elladan smiled grimly and darted quickly back towards the path.  He could hear the hunting party very close behind him now.  They were moving unnervingly swiftly and quietly.  He sprinted loudly down the path, intentionally leaving a trail that even a blind troll could have followed.  His heart was pounding loudly in his ears as he rounded a sharp bend around some fallen logs... and nearly ran straight into another being. 

 

Jumping and scrambling backward as swiftly as he could, Elladan drew his sword.  He could sense other beings behind him and his heart left his ears to thump painfully in his throat.  The surprise threw him badly, but he scowled with a fierceness born of the desire to protect his brother at all costs.  Half a moment later however, he realized that his fear and defiance were both misplaced.  The person he had nearly run over, who was now regarding him with a somewhat bemused expression, was no man at all, but an elf. 

 

The elder being was dressed in muted browns and greens that blended into the woods around him.  The cut of his clothes was sleek and close-fitting, different than the styles of Elladan’s homeland.  Quickly, the young Noldo elf found himself surrounded by a small host of the strange elves.  Most of the warriors possessed hair in varying shades of russet and midnight, but the one in front of Elladan was lighter in hue, almost a tawny, earthen gold. 

 

Relief filled the young elf’s body instantly as he realized that his desperate gamble had paid off and they had indeed drawn the attention of the wood-elves.  Now that he had found them, he was a little nervous.  They did not look unfriendly exactly, but the fact that several of them had bows drawn and trained on him did not exactly make him feel welcome.  He then remembered that he himself was standing there like an idiot with his sword in hand.  He sheathed his weapon quickly and raised his hands to show that he was not a threat. 

 

At a word from the one with the tawny hair, who seemed to be the leader, the archers stood down.  The tension in the air lessened enough that Elladan finally found his voice. 

 

“I am Elladan Elrondion, of Imladris,” he declared himself formally, but in an obvious rush.  “Please, I pray your help!  My brother is wounded and we are being pursued...”

 

“Your pursers will trouble you no longer.”  A voice behind Elladan made the young elf turn around swiftly.  He found that the rest of the rear-guard party of wood-elves had arrived from behind him.  They must have been what he mistook for pursuers.  Among them were two more blond warriors, and it was one of these who had spoken to him.  The warrior looked only a little older than Elladan himself.  But there was something old, or closed, about his clear blue eyes that made Elladan second-guess his first impression of the elf’s age.

 

“They made the mistake of crossing the borders of our realm a half hour past and did not turn back at our warning,” the young warrior continued.  Elladan could see by his choice of weaponry and bearing that he was an archer.  “We found your brother in the tree; he is being borne to back to Lasgalen.  Our healers there will care for him.  I sent Trelan ahead as a runner to inform the guard what has happened.”  The flinty tone that had dominated the young elf’s voice faded to something gentler and more compassionate as he assured Elladan of his brother’s wellbeing.  Elladan also did not miss the fact that the archer’s report was quietly pending the approval of his older commander. 

 

The elder elf, whom Elladan had met first, nodded thoughtfully.  “It was well done, Legolas.  Raniean,” he turned his attention to the second blond elf in the party, now standing behind Legolas.  “Take Brenyf, Marsdel and Eryn and make sure that the survivors of the hunting party leave the woods immediately and without further incident.”

 

Raniean saluted, but glanced sideways at his friend next to him.  The warrior named Legolas cleared his throat slightly.  “Sir, there were no survivors.”

 

Randomir’s eyebrows went up ever so slightly.  The reports he had heard said there were almost twenty men who had been pursuing the two Noldo.  He had not expected all of them to be slain – usually some had enough sense to run or surrender when the odds turned against them so drastically.  “Explain,” he commanded. 

 

“We told them to halt and they refused.  They said they were chasing ‘two little birdies that needed plucking’ and we should get out of their way.  A fight ensued and we had no choice but to destroy them all,” Legolas reported evenly, without much emotion.  Raniean seemed suddenly uncomfortable, but did not contradict his liege. 

 

Randomir felt there was more that had transpired than he was being told, but he had to believe that Legolas would not have taken such action unwarranted.  The prince was nothing if not conscientious about his duties.

 

“I do not question your judgment because I was not there to know the situation.  However, when not dealing with orcs, your father’s policy is to take prisoners if possible, your highness.  I assume this was not possible?”

 

Legolas hesitated for a fraction of a second, but he would not lie to his mentor, especially since he was also his commander.  “I cannot be certain.  I made no attempt to do so, sir,” he said quietly, but without remorse. 

 

Randomir was not pleased with the answer.  “Aside from known enemies, one should always try to take prisoners before taking lives, Legolas.”

 

“They *were* known enemies, sir,” Legolas defended his actions respectfully, but with the slightest hint of disdain. 

 

Randomir considered the younger elf carefully.  Legolas was not the open-hearted child he had once been.  He was changing and not all of it was for the best.  The elder elf’s voice took on a slight edge.  “Known to whom?  How can you be so sure, Legolas?”

 

The prince looked honestly confused.  “They were men.”  He faltered slightly, as if realizing that leaving it at that would not be an acceptable explanation.  “They were chasing two injured elves with intent to harm them.  What else did I need to know?” he added quickly. 

 

Randomir abruptly halted this line of questioning.  There was more he felt he would need to say, but not here in front of everyone else.  They would talk later.  He nodded once.  “If you say it was necessary, Legolas, then I trust you, but remember to exercise more calculated decisions in the future.  Please escort Elladan Elrondion back to Lasgalen and inform the King of what has happened.  I will make sure there are no other threats in this area and follow you shortly.  Dismissed.”

 

Legolas saluted crisply and turned to call out some orders to the warriors under him.  As soon as they fell into place, the prince turned his attention back to his new charge. 

 

Elladan felt slightly lost in the whole exchange that had taken place.  He wasn’t sure what to think when the young blond warrior turned towards him, but the smile the archer laid on him was welcoming. 

 

“Welcome to Mirkwood, Elladan of Rivendell.  You are son to Lord Elrond?  Then you are welcome here indeed.” Legolas inclined his head forward and swept his hand out from his heart in formal greeting.  “Come, my father will want to see you at once and hear what has happened to you.”

 

Elladan nodded and returned the prince’s greeting as he fell into step beside the other elf.  Now that Legolas was talking and smiling, he looked younger again and Elladan decided he was probably less than a century older than himself.  The prince was an adult, but just barely. 

 

“I thank you for your welcome... Legolas, is it not?  Is it safe to assume then that you are the Prince Legolas?”

 

“I am, forgive me for not introducing myself properly,” Legolas apologized.  Even beyond the fact that these were Elrond’s sons, they were also visiting lords from another realm, even if they were young ones.  The prince had more than enough diplomatic training to know how to represent his kingdom in a positive fashion.  “I know not what brings you to our land, but you are our guests while you are here.  If we can help you in anyway, just ask.”

 

“Can I see Elrohir?” Elladan asked politely, but it was impossible to hide his deep concern. 

 

“That is your brother’s name?” Legolas guessed accurately.  “You will see him when we reach Lasgalen.  I had my warriors take him on ahead for care, although he would not leave until we promised to find you as well.  Of a truth, I thought my eyes were deceiving me when I saw you with Captain Randomir.  You and your brother are... very alike.  I have never seen that before.”

 

Elladan chuckled.  “We’re twins.  El and I are twins.  Not too common among elves we’re told, but humans have them all the time.”

 

Legolas shrugged.  “I would not know about that.  What is a twin?”

 

Elladan laughed in earnest.  He’d never met anyone who didn’t know what twins were.  “*Twins*,” he said, as if emphasizing the word would somehow make it clearer.  “You know, our mother carried us at the same time, we were born on the same day, we look alike... *twins*.

 

Legolas did not appreciate being laughed at, especially since he did not think it was ignorant of him to not know something of which he had never seen nor heard before.  He decided however, that the idea of twins was more interesting than being offended.  He wondered how a woman could be pregnant with two babies at the same time.  It seemed an incredible thing to him and he said so, which sent Elladan into a paroxysm of embarrassed coughing in a desperate attempt to cover his laughter.

 

Randomir watched the Prince’s party move away with worried eyes.  “Raniean, wait a moment,” he bid his son stay.  Reluctantly, Raniean turned back and let the others move ahead without him, returning to join his father and the warriors that remained.  Randomir pulled him aside where they could talk privately. 

 

“Raniean, what happened with the human hunters?” he asked quietly. 

 

Raniean shifted uneasily.  “Legolas told you...”

 

“I know what Legolas said, and I am asking you what happened,” Randomir clarified quietly. 

 

“Are you asking as my captain, my father, or Legolas’ Saelon?” the younger elf asked cautiously, obviously not entirely sure what was the right thing for him to say in this situation.

 

Randomir’s brows furrowed.  “All of the above, Raniean.”

 

Raniean sighed.  “Then as a soldier, I would have to tell you that I will not dispute the word of my sworn liege, even should it lead to my own dismissal.  As your son, I would beg you not to ask me to betray a friend, and as one who knows how much you mean to Legolas... I would ask you to talk to him.  Soon.  If there is something to tell, he needs to be the one to do it.  I... I can say nothing.”  Raniean’s eyes begged his father for understanding. 

 

Randomir did understand.  His son had always been close to the prince, but they were not children anymore and Raniean could not always cover for Legolas, even if he was the prince.  Royalty or not, Legolas was also a warrior under his command and Randomir held him to the same standards as everyone else.  “I understand your loyalty, Raniean, but I release you from your obligation to honor the choices of your superior officer in this instance.  I want you to tell me what it is no one is telling me.  And that, my son, is an order.”  Randomir was very worried now.  The fact that Raniean felt there was something he could not say was worrisome in and of itself.

 

Raniean seemed torn.  “I... I really feel I shouldn’t, father.  I am sorry.”

 

Randomir blinked.  Raniean was never insubordinate.  His son was a brilliant and reliable warrior who was rising quickly through the ranks, while still maintaining a part time position as royal sentinel to Legolas, Thranduil and Elvéwen.  Randomir expected as much from him as any of his other warriors - maybe more. 

 

“I said that was an order, lieutenant,” he said with a hint of warning.

 

“I know,” Raniean said quietly, keeping his gaze downcast.  “I am sorry, sir.  I will report to the guardhouse immediately.”  He assessed his own punishment without a flinch.  He knew that willfully refusing to obey a direct command warranted confinement. 

 

Frustration and anger flashed over the older elf’s face for a moment before it quickly faded away again.  Raniean’s problem was that he was too blamed noble for his own good.  It made Randomir both horribly proud and terribly irritated with his son sometimes.  When Randomir had confided this to his wife, she had poked him knowingly and said that she wondered where the boy got it from. 

 

Randomir might not have actually sent Raniean to the guardhouse for refusing him in this instance, but he was trying to train his son to become a good soldier and an even better leader.  If the young warrior, using those skills, passed judgment on himself, then Randomir would not contradict him.    

 

“All right,” Randomir nodded slowly, with a sigh.  “Do that.”

 

Raniean saluted and turned to go, obviously down-cast.  Randomir could not let him leave that way.  “Raniean?”

 

The younger elf turned back when he heard his name.  “Yes, sir?”

 

“I will speak to Legolas,” Randomir promised.  “I may not agree with your choice, but I respect you for being willing to sacrifice for what you believe is right,” he said quietly, for Raniean’s ears only. 

 

The younger elf’s face perked up a little and he smiled.  “Thank you, Adar,” he said, before walking away with a much lighter step. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Elladan bowed respectfully when Legolas presented him to King Thranduil.  Elladan was at home among elven lords, counting his own father, mother and grandparents among them, but falling under Thranduil’s scrutinizing gaze made him feel distinctly awkward and self-conscious. 

 

Legolas saw the Peredhel shifting nervously and resisted a smile.  His father had that effect on people who didn’t know him... and many who did. 

 

“You are welcome in my house, son of Elrond,” Thranduil received the young lord courteously.  “Your brother is with my personal healer, they say he shall recover well,” the King forestalled the question written all over the young elf’s face. 

 

Elladan looked relieved.  However, he became instantly uncomfortable again when the King continued speaking.

 

“I would hear what happened and how you came to be alone in our realm in such a state.”  Thranduil re-seated himself on his large throne, gesturing for Legolas to come to him.  The prince took his familiar place on his father’s right side, standing slightly behind the older elf, beside the throne and looking over the shoulder of the seated King.  He clasped his hands behind his back and fell into a relaxed ready position. 

 

Elladan felt more alone than ever now that he was standing by himself, but he tried to clear his mind and figure out where to begin.  It was not a tale he wanted to tell.  Somehow relating it to Thranduil was almost as difficult as knowing he was going to have to tell it to his own father sooner or later. “It’s a long story, your highness,” he stalled slightly.

 

Thranduil looked around the otherwise empty room.  “I see nothing else pressing that requires our attention,” he said seriously, but with a faint hint of a smile. 

 

Legolas tried hard not to smile himself.  Elladan had no idea what he was up against.  There was no way out of explaining oneself to his father when Thranduil had his mind set.

 

Elladan seemed to accept this fate as well.  The young elf swallowed once and began.  “Elrohir and I were supposed to spend the summer with our Grandparents in Lothlórien.  There has been some trouble at home.  The valley is disturbed by pockets of marauding goblins left over from the last war.  ‘Tis nothing serious, but El and I have had some... undesirable encounters with orcs in the past, so father and mother desired to send us somewhere safer for a time, until the latest threat was past.”  Elladan could not keep a small note of anger mingled with anguish out of his voice.  He still felt ashamed at having been sent away like a child... and there was more to this part of the story than he felt the need to relate to the King of Mirkwood.  It was true that Elrond and Celebrìan worried about them because of the time they were taken captive and abused by orcs not too very long ago, but that was not the only reason they had been sent away.  Or even the main reason.  Elladan swallowed painfully. 

 

There was a long silence that Thranduil finally broke.  “I take it you did not make it to Lórien,” he prompted, hoping he was not going to have to drag this story out of the boy inch by inch. 

 

Elladan was compelled to lick his dry lips.  He was sorely tempted to create a tale for the King of Mirkwood that would not sound as bad as the truth, but he knew that would only come back to bite him later. 

 

“Actually, we did go to Lórien, but we didn’t stay long.  We didn’t go looking for trouble... exactly... it just... happened.  You see, the three of us got permission to go on a hunting trip outside the forest-”

 

“Three?” Thranduil interrupted, trying to keep this story straight. 

 

Elladan nodded.  He was a little flustered and not telling as cohesive a tale as he might have otherwise.  “Yes, your highness.  Our friend Moranuen made the journey from Rivendell as well and stayed with us in Lórien.  You can’t do anything there that Grandmother doesn’t know about, and the march-wardens are extremely over-protective, so we begged permission to go out on our own for a little bit.  It was granted, so long as we did not stray too far away and stayed along the banks of the GreatRiver.  We had only been gone a few days when we encountered another party of hunters.  They were having trouble with some wolves and we aided them.  They were friendly folk and we learned they were on their way to a competition taking place in a nearby town.  It was a challenge of skill for hunters and swordsmen.  Brahm, their leader, encouraged us to join them.”  The dark-haired elf sighed.  It had all seemed so innocent at first.  “The town they were bound for was three days journey further to the north-east, across the Anduin.  Mora was against the idea because it was further than we were supposed to venture, but... Elrohir and I overruled him.  It sounded like fun and the hunters were very friendly.  Moranuen was concerned that the others would come looking for us if we were gone so long, and really did not want to go, so we agreed that he would go back to Caras Galadhon so that no one would worry and request indulgence for a longer absence for my brother and I.”

 

“Presumably not based on the actual facts of the situation,” Thranduil put in parenthetically, with a small, wry grin that said he knew the way a young elf’s mind worked. 

 

Elladan flushed a little.  “Well... we... You see, we thought that... we...” he was obviously having a hard time with this.  He and Elrohir could be accused of being trouble-seekers and mischief-makers at times, but they were not dishonest and usually were not prone to telling untruths to their parents or grandparents, both of whom they loved dearly.  Why had they done it in the first place?  He wondered idly.  Had it really been the lure of adventure, or had they been trying to prove their parents wrong?  Prove that they could handle themselves just fine on their own?  Either way, it had been a sadly foolish and completely counter-productive move. 

 

Thranduil shook his head.  “I am not your father, nor your guardian, Elladan Elrondion, it is not my place to hold you accountable for deeds that happened outside my realm.  You may spare me the details.  It is enough to know that your companion returned and you went.  What happened then?”

 

Elladan was grateful to be spared any portion of this story and forged ahead quickly.  “The competition was much bigger than we had anticipated.  There were scores of other contestants and the whole town was in a state of festival and revelry.  We feared they would be put off by our race, so we concealed our identities with the help of the friends we had made amongst the hunters.  All went well and it was very enjoyable.  The actual competition was quite challenging, but El and I did all right.  We... we won.  We honestly weren’t sure what to do.  I mean, we *wanted* to win of course, but then we thought that maybe it wasn’t fair because we had a natural advantage over the other contestants.  There was a considerable purse as the prize, but we didn’t need it and it didn’t really feel right to take it, so we gave it to Brahm and his men, the ones who brought us to the competition.  They came in second and would have won had we not been present, so it seemed only fair.  He was an awfully good sport about it all and refused the money at first.  But we insisted and finally he took it for his companion’s sakes, some of whom were counting on the money to help their families through the winter.  It should have ended there, we should have gone back to Lórien then and all would have been well,” Elladan admitted quietly. 

 

“But we stayed one more night.  Some members of another party of hunters who had not done so well in the games approached us.  It did not sit well with them that they had been bested by what they mistakenly thought were two children.  There were heated words exchanged and in the resulting scuffle our identities were given away.  The humans were furious.  They said we should never have competed and our friends should never have let us.  They threatened to tell everyone and get us all in trouble.  I swear, El and I didn’t realize the others would have a problem with us joining in their games, neither did the men who invited us!  It was all for fun, but many of the other contestants took it deadly serious.  We... we feared what would happen if they followed through on their threats and tried to dissuade them.  We did not want trouble, either for our kind hosts or ourselves.  They wanted the prize money, but we had given it to Brahm and were not about to take it back.  We told them we didn’t have it and they did not deserve it because they had not even placed in the top five winners.  That did not go over well and things almost went badly.  But eventually, they agreed to keep their peace if we left with them and consented to a rematch of the contest under their terms.  El and I saw little choice, and little fear of losing, so we agreed.  It seemed their pride had been hurt more than their purse.  Brahm was alarmed when he heard of this and begged us not to go, to let him give them the money if that’s what they wanted, but El and I said we could take care of ourselves... Valar forgive us, we wanted to show them up at their own game for these other men they had been very insulting.  It was a bad decision, and one for which I will take full responsibility,” the young elf shouldered the blame dutifully.  Elrohir had agreed with him, but he knew the younger twin had done just that - agree with *him*.  It still smote him that it was Elrohir who had paid dearest for their folly.  It didn’t seem fair.

 

“We thought we could handle the men... but we were wrong.  We were prepared for them to attempt to rig the contest in their favor to humiliate or harm us... we were not prepared that they did not want a contest at all.  They took us two day’s journey away from town, to the very eaves of the forest.  When we were far enough away for there to be no help, they showed their true intentions.” 

 

Legolas stiffened almost imperceptibly.  The thin line of his lips turned downward slightly in anger. 

 

“They set upon us without warning and disarmed us.  They...” Elladan steadied his rapid breathing.  “They beat and taunted us.  We had underestimated them, but they underestimated us as well. They meant to kill us when their sport was done, but we escaped before they had the chance.  We were able to take one of their horses, but they shot it to stop us.”  Elladan looked sad.  He couldn’t understand how anyone could have hurt an innocent creature like that.  “We took a hard tumble and that’s how Elrohir’s leg became injured.  We made it into the forest hoping to lose them, but they followed with much more tenacity than we expected.  Their leader had been injured slightly in our escape and I fear he took it personally.  I truly cannot tell you how many days and nights we spent trying to lose them in your woods until your warriors and Prince Legolas came to our aid.  We are both in your debt.”  Elladan bowed formally, tucking his hands into the arms of his sleeves and unintentionally mimicking his father. 

 

Thranduil nodded slowly.  He wondered if this elfling realized how grave was the danger in which he and his brother had too easily placed themselves.  If this had been Legolas, he would have told him exactly what he thought, but Elladan was a visitor, so he held his peace for the time being.  He turned his gaze to his son. 

 

“What of the humans?  Were any taken into custody?” The King inquired of the Prince.  He needed to know if he was going to have to sit in judgment on this case. 

 

Legolas shook his head to indicate the negative.  “No, Father.  They fought us when we bid them turn back and were all slain.”

 

Thranduil inclined his head slightly.  “Good,” he said quietly.  The fewer the threats in the forest right now, the better.  Besides, he did not like the idea of hostile humans anywhere near his son. 

 

Legolas hesitated.  “I’m sorry, father.  Randomir reminded me that it is our duty to take prisoners before we take lives... it just did not seem an option at the time.”

 

Thranduil dismissed the concern with a wave of his hand.  “I’m sure you did what was best.  They were obviously hostile and I would rather not have that kind of threat on our borders.” 

 

Legolas inclined his head respectfully, relieved at his father’s easy absolution.

 

Thranduil turned back to their guest.  “Elladan, you and your brother are honored guests in my house.  I am sure however, that there are many who worry for you.  I shall send messenger birds to Lórien and Imladris to alert them of your presence.”  Thranduil would have liked to send the twins back himself with an escort, but Mirkwood was still rebuilding after its costly and draining civil war and there were precious few elves that could be spared from their assigned patrols.  If Thranduil could not send the sons of Elrond back with an escort worthy of their position and his kingdom, then it was better for their relatives to come and claim them for themselves, it was a matter of custom and pride as much as diplomacy and safety. 

 

“Messenger birds?” Elladan cocked his head to the side, questioningly.  He had never seen such method used at home or in Lórien. 

 

Thranduil smiled slightly.  Necessity was the mother of invention or so it was said.  The Mirkwood elves had little resource to spare on sending messengers hither and thither, so they had turned to the aide of trained birds who willingly bore messages for them at need.  It actually proved to be a much swifter method of communication, so long as the information being conveyed was not too sensitive.  After all, anything could happen to the bird between here and there. 

 

“Yes, Elladan.  We have a number of birds willing to help us in this manner.  I’m sure Prince Legolas would be glad to show them to you if you wish.  It is very expedient for sending messages.  I shall send the birds off this very hour and we should receive answers soon.”

 

Elladan nodded and bowed again, murmuring his thanks.  He wasn’t at all anxious to see his parents again after this disaster, and yet strangely enough, part of him was. 

 

“Very good then, you are both dismissed,” Thranduil released Legolas and Elladan.  Elladan started to leave until he saw Legolas bowing a formal parting to his father and quickly followed suit so as not to be considered rude.  Father and son exchanged a small, amused look at their young guest’s actions before Legolas turned and left with Elladan in tow. 

 

“Legolas, wh-” Elladan started to speak, but Legolas put his fingers to his lips and motioned for silence.  Once they were out of the throne room, he smiled at the younger elf. 

 

“All right, you may speak now.  I’m sorry, but once the King has dismissed someone it is disrespectful to speak until out of his presence,” the prince explained.  He was sure Elladan simply hadn’t known. 

 

Elladan blinked.  “He’s your Ada, Legolas.”

 

Legolas nodded, obviously not understanding why Elladan thought this odd.  “Of course, and he is also my King.”

 

Elladan shrugged.  “Can I see Elrohir now?”

 

“Of course,” Legolas answered pleasantly.  “Follow me.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Legolas was in the armory, making sure all was in order.  Evening was approaching and it would soon be time for supper, but he wanted to get a little more of his work done first.  He heard someone enter behind him but did not need to turn to recognize the familiar tread.

 

“Are you busy, Highness?”

 

“Just checking to be sure the new weapons were stowed correctly, Randomir,” he greeted his Captain and tutor with a smile in his voice, although his attention was still intent on the arrows in his hands.  “Is there something you require?”

 

Randomir did not answer at once, which was odd enough to make Legolas stop what he was doing and turn. 

 

Legolas wasn’t sure how to read what he saw in his Saelon’s eyes and he frowned slightly.  

 

“The arrow barrels have been placed too far back in the room.  They will be prone to dampness and warping,” Randomir observed. 

 

Legolas nodded.  “Yes, I noted that.  I have already sent for some of the servants to move them further forward.  Also, some of the blades were not properly oiled for storage; I will have to speak to someone about that.  I’m surprised.  Raniean usually oversees the weapon distribution and re-shelving.  He has never allowed anyone to be so careless.”  The prince shook his head. 

 

“Raniean did not see to the weapons today,” Randomir informed quietly.

 

“Well, that explains it then,” Legolas said with forced cheerfulness.  Randomir’s somberness was catching and he didn’t understand what the matter was.  “Where is Raniean?”

 

“He’s in the guardhouse,” Randomir answered calmly.  “He is to stay there until I order him released.”

 

Legolas stopped what he was doing and nearly dropped the sheathed knife he was turning over in his hands.  “What?!  I was not told!  When did this happen?  I was with him but a few hours ago.  For what is he being punished?”

 

“For refusing to obey a direct command,” Randomir said, watching Legolas carefully.  “I asked him about what happened with those men earlier and he refused to tell me.”

 

Legolas paled visibly.  Apparently, Randomir wasn’t quite as willing as his father was to let the whole matter drop.  He hadn’t wanted Raniean to get into trouble for him.  He straightened his shoulders.

 

“Please let him go, Randomir,” he said quietly.  “If anyone should be in there it is I.  I was his superior officer on that mission.  I request the right of substitution, that I may take his place.”

 

Randomir’s eyes bored intently into the young elf.  “A very noble offer.  But I would rather you told me the truth, Legolas.  So would Raniean, he refused to say anything that he considered a betrayal, but he begged me to talk to you.  Legolas... what happened?”

 

“I told my father of my actions, he agreed they were warranted,” Legolas said hesitantly.  He didn’t mean it to sound quite as childish as it came across. 

 

“Highness, you know I do not question you or the King.  You are my prince, but you are also my student and my Lieutenant, positions and power given me by your father.  Yet I don’t ask you as either of those right now, Legolas.  I ask you as a friend.  What happened?”

 

There was silence for several moments and Randomir sighed sadly.  “You used to trust me, Legolas,” he said softly, the hurt evident in his voice. 

 

Legolas swallowed hard, then dropped his gaze.  He did trust Randomir... he just couldn’t stand to always make the older elf think less of him. 

 

“We saw the sons of Elrond go by, I did not know who they were then, only that they were young elves and in distress.  The humans were close behind them and it was obvious they held them no good will.  We allowed Elladan and Elrohir to enter our lands unchallenged, but when the humans came to the border we made ourselves known and told them to be off.  I commanded them to withdraw from our lands and promised that no harm would befall them if they did.  They... they laughed at that.  They said that a couple of boys like us could not stop them.  They were chasing two little birdies that needed plucking, their leader told me.  Told me that they needed to be brought down and taught their place.”  The young elf’s voice was quivering slightly.  “Rub them in the dirt until they know how little they’re worth, were his exact words I believe.  He said that we were to get out of his way or he would do the same to us.”

 

“And that’s when they attacked you?” Randomir asked quietly, beginning at last to understand.  Obviously, the threats had hit too close to home where the prince was concerned. 

 

Legolas bit his lip.  “I... I honestly don’t know.  It all happened rather fast.  I...” he took a deep breath.  “I shot the man who spoke.  I just... shot him.  His hand was on his sword, but he hadn’t pulled it yet.  I’d like to say I hadn’t noticed that, but some part of me did.”  The confession was brutally honest.  The prince looked up hesitantly, his eyes filled with a gut-wrenching fear that surprised Randomir. 

 

“Does that make me a killer?” Legolas asked softly.  His eyes finished his real question.  “Does that make me a killer... on top of everything else?” 

 

“Because... because I can’t feel sorry for it.  I’m trying!  I’m trying to... but I just don’t.  I’m sure you’ve heard by now what Elladan told father and I.  I’m glad we killed them before they had a chance to hurt anyone else.”  Legolas took a deep breath, trying to calm his emotions.  “Is that so wrong?”

 

Randomir wasn’t sure what to say.  He knew why Legolas felt this way.  He vividly remembered the injured, empty-eyed young elf that Lord Elrond had carried back from Dorolyn less than fifty years ago.  One look and Randomir had been certain that Legolas was bound for Mandos’ Halls.  He still admired the fact that the prince’s spirit had not faded, but fought its way back to light and life... or to life at least.  But the silent, protective scars Legolas was growing around his heart troubled the older elf greatly.  He grieved over the growing distance between them, over the cold, confused chill that Legolas had begun to gather around himself like a cloak to keep anyone from getting too close.  Randomir was beginning to wonder if anyone or anything would ever be able to break through and bring the light back into the blue eyes that begged him for an answer.

 

“Maybe it’s not wrong, Legolas, but it’s not right either.  In your heart you know this.  No, your highness, you aren’t a killer,” he assured quietly.  “I am certain those men would have attacked you provoked or not and the outcome may have been the same.  But if you had stayed your hand and waited, you would not have the uncertainty that eats at you now.  And you would not have placed those who follow you and love you in a position where they must compromise themselves to be true to you.” 

 

Legolas looked away.  It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but he never doubted Randomir’s wisdom. 

 

“Legolas,” Randomir’s voice was gentler now.  “Not all humans mean harm.  You were right in this case, but I bid you to caution.  A day may come when the man you are facing is your ally, not your enemy, and you need to know the difference.  The distinction between friend and foe is not always a clear line, and should never be divided upon race alone.”

 

Legolas’ heart thrummed slightly in his ears as repressed memories tried hard to surface – beckoned as they always were at the slightest provocation.  Randomir didn’t understand.  Legolas had survived, but he could never forgive, or forget.  In lieu of either, a small corner of his heart had closed off, as he thought, forever.

 

“I will never be friends with one of *them*,” he choked out, his voice trembling.  “And if you ask such a thing of me, you do not understand me at all!”  Legolas checked his own outburst, immediately ashamed.  His pale cheeks colored slightly. 

 

Randomir was just looking at him.  Legolas wished Randomir were more like Thranduil at the moment.  Thranduil would have been angry and lectured him for being so impudent, but that was better than this sudden, awkward silence.

 

“Forgive me, Randomir,” he murmured, bowing.  “I should not have spoken to you so.  I accept your judgment on my actions and my disrespectful words.”  He held himself stiffly. 

 

Randomir regarded the young prince with sorrow.  He loved this boy like a second son, but he knew not how to reach him anymore.  He hoped that someday, something would happen that would allow the prince’s hurting heart to open again, it would be a shame to lose something so beautiful forever. 

 

“I’m not going to punish you, Legolas.  I told you, we are speaking as friends here.”  Randomir reached out and cupped Legolas’ cheek gently.  “However it may seem to you, I only ever have your best interests at heart, your Highness.”

 

Legolas nodded slowly.  “I know, Randomir,” he said softly.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“Prince Legolas?” A servant appeared at the doorway.  “The Queen wishes me to inform you that supper will be served momentarily.”

 

Legolas left Randomir and mounted the armory stairs.  “Thank you,” he acknowledged the message.  “But could you please inform my parents that I will not be present this evening?  I... I’m not very hungry right now.”  The truth was he felt too sick to eat.  His stomach had tied into knots during the conversation with Randomir and it showed no signs of relaxing. 

 

“Of course, Highness,” the servant nodded and took his leave. 

 

Legolas turned back to Randomir.  “I believe the weapons are in order and I wish to retire to my rooms.  Am I excused, Captain?” he inquired. 

 

“Are you all right, Legolas?” Randomir asked quietly. 

 

Legolas forced a smile.  “Yes, thank you.  May I go?”

 

Randomir was not convinced, but nodded anyway.  “Of course, your Highness,” he released the youth.

Chapter Text

~*PART NINE*~
~Friends and Enemies~

 

 

 

Bright rays of sunlight filtered down through the spreading limbs of the malorn trees deep in the heart of the Golden Wood.

 

Lord Celeborn stood in one of the broad open spaces of his talon, intent on something in his hand.  He read the note before passing it to his wife.  Galadriel’s clear blue eyes scanned the small parchment. 

 

-----

“To Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel, From King Thranduil and Queen Elvéwen of Greenwood .  Greetings and blessings upon your house.

Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond, are safe in the Greenwood as our honored guests.  They are welcome to remain until such time as it is convenient to arrange their return.  We welcome any envoys you care to send and will extend to them all courtesy when in our realm.  This message is also being borne to Rivendell, to Lord Elrond and Lady Celebrìan.

 

Yours in peace,

 

King Thranduil and Queen Elvéwen”

-----

 

Galadriel looked relieved, as did her husband. 

 

“It seems we can call off the search, meleth-nín,” Celeborn said when Galadriel handed the message back to him. 

 

“Yes,” the elf woman nodded.  “And tell poor Moranuen he can rest at ease, his friends are safe.  Although... they will have much for which to answer.”

 

“Should we send some of the Galadhrim to retrieve them?” Celeborn pondered the question, but his wife shook her head. 

 

“No... I think this is a situation for our son and daughter to handle.  The reasons behind Elladan and Elrohir’s actions lies rooted in Rivendell and it is there their problems must be solved,” she reasoned wisely. 

 

Celeborn concurred.  “Very well, then we will inform King Thranduil of such.  I am certain that Elrond and Celebrìan have already received the same message and will send for their children at once.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

“What is it, Celboril?” Lindar looked up from where he was busily cleaning tack in the stables. 

 

“I was looking for Lord Glorfindel,” the servant replied.  He indicated a small piece of parchment in his hand.  “He is riding to find Lord Elrond’s party, is he not?  I have important news I wish him to bear with him.”

 

Lindar tossed his dark hair over his shoulder and straightened to his feet.  “I’m sorry, Celboril.  He’s already gone.  He said he did not know when he would be back, but estimated a few weeks at the least.  Our last word said that Lord Elrond’s party was running into stiff resistance in the hills.  Glorfindel took all the remaining available warriors with him to their aid.”

 

Celboril sighed in frustration.  He knew Elrond would want this information immediately, but they seemed to have no recourse but to wait for his return.  Lady Celebrìan had also left several days ago with another party of warriors as escort, heading for Lórien to be with her children.  Unfortunately, Celboril now knew that her children were not there.  The servant sighed as he returned to the house.  At least this same message had been sent to Celeborn and Galadriel.  The news would be waiting for Celebrìan when she arrived.   

 

“Calas?” he called out for the young elf that had brought the message to him.  He would need to send a missive back to Mirkwood explaining the situation.

 

“Yes, sir?” Calas pelted around the corner and skidded to a stop quickly in front of the older elf. 

 

“Calas, where is the bird who brought the message?”

 

“Halfway home?” Calas asked, somewhat confused. 

 

“What?” Celboril demanded sharply and the child flinched, suddenly realizing he may have made a mistake.  “Calas, what did you do with the bird?”

 

“I-I sent him back?” The answer sounded like a question.  “I’m sorry, should I not have?  He delivered the message so I told him he could go home.”

 

Celboril sighed heavily.  Being upset with Calas would not fix the error, so he reined in his frustration.  “No, Calas, you should have waited to see if there was a reply.  In case you have not noticed we do not have any courier birds of our own.  Now we have no way of contacting Mirkwood short of sending a messenger on foot which will take far longer even if we had one to spare, which at the moment we do not.  Unless you would like to go?”

 

“M-me, sir?” Calas squeaked.  He wasn’t quite as old as Elladan and Elrohir yet and not nearly as adventurous as they.  “Go over the mountains alone?  Oh please don’t make me, sir!  I’m sorry I sent the bird back without waiting, I’ll never do it again,” he begged.

 

“Peace, peace, Calas,” Celboril shook his head.  Did the child seriously think he would send him to his death out there?  The old elf smiled slightly.  “Fear not, I have no intention of sending you on any such mission.  We shall simply have to bide our time until some of the warriors come back and there’s someone to spare.  I am certain that the Lord and Lady of the Goldenwood will be able to see to things until then.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Sun sparkled on the water in the pond as Elladan and Elrohir romped in the water with Trelan and Sarcaulien.  Legolas smiled as he watched them from the shore.  The prince sat on a rock by the water, dangling his bare feet in the cool water and enjoying the warm morning sunshine.  Since they had the morning free, the three warriors had taken their young guests out for a little fun.  Elladan and Elrohir had been cooped up in the palace for several days now and they were obviously getting restless. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir thought it odd that the prince did not wish to join them, but Sarcaulien and Trelan knew better than to try to get Legolas undressed and into the water with people he did not fully know.  It was as if Legolas did not want people to see his scars.  Yet the prince’s friends knew that he carried none... at least not physically.  Legolas seemed to be enjoying himself anyway, so no one gave it much thought. 

 

Legolas leaned back on the rock, the wind tugging lightly at his tunic.  He wished Raniean could be here, but his friend had not yet been released.  He felt very guilty about that still.  A few days confinement wasn’t a horribly harsh punishment, but Legolas knew it would have driven him to near insanity.  He could *not* stand being under lock and key.  Even being in dark, stuffy rooms or seeing barred windows made him feel dizzy sometimes.  He wondered if that’s why both Raniean and Randomir had refused him the right of substitution in this matter.  That thought made his heart sink because it was yet another sign that they were trying to protect him.  He did not want to be protected!  He just wanted everything to be normal.  Legolas sighed, it was no use letting these thoughts torment him.  He should stop focusing on them.

 

“Don’t swim in there,” Trelan warned as the twins paddled over to investigate a shallower area of the pond where massive tree roots created large pillars descending down in to the water.  “That’s where the three ringed water snakes live,” the smaller, but older warrior said knowledgeably.

 

Sarcaulien and Legolas both shot their friend a confused look until they saw the way the twins quickly backtracked into the deeper water with wide-eyed, questioning looks.

 

“What are they?” Elrohir inquired, attempting nonchalance.  They had already been briefed on many of Mirkwood’s more dangerous inhabitants and had quickly come to understand that this land was not as safe as the one to which they were accustomed.

 

Sarcaulien smiled wickedly.  “Long, evil things, longer than an elf’s leg.  You can’t see them when they’re in the water, they’re practically invisible.  You’ll only know they’re there when they brush by you and by that time it’s too late.”

 

Legolas tried very hard not to laugh at the look on the Twins’ faces as they suddenly regarded the water around them with unease.  There was no such thing as three ringed water snakes here or anywhere else to his knowledge. 

 

“Very dangerous creatures,” the prince added helpfully.  “Their venom can immobilize a full grown deer in moments.  It’ll kill you... eventually.  But usually they don’t wait that long.”

 

“No indeed!” Trelan picked up the tale again, enjoying himself greatly.  He was good at this game – creating scary monsters where none existed.  It was something that the younger elves did around the campfires trying to scare one another and Trelan was the best at it.  He was known to spin the most outrageous tales without even flinching.  It was hard to tell sometimes when he wasn’t being serious. “They wrap themselves around your neck and pull you under the water, holding you there until you drown.  Then they call all the other snakes to come and feed...”

 

Legolas went into a coughing fit to cover his laughter.  The look on the twins’ faces was incredible.  The younger elves actually believed them! 

 

“Should we even be in here?” Elrohir asked seriously.  Elladan glared at his brother for voicing the nervousness they both felt in front of the older elves. 

 

“Oh, don’t worry, they usually stick to the shallows, although there was that one time... but don’t worry about that, it was unusual behavior for them and has never happened again.  Almost all the elves survived,” Sarcaulien assured.  “Besides, they don’t like certain types of vibrations, so all you have to do is every now and then slap the water like this, and give a little trill.”  Sarcaulien demonstrated what he meant, slapping the surface of the water a few times and making a shrill, trilling sound in the back of his throat. 

 

Trelan had to duck under water and come back up again to maintain his composure.  “Oh yes, always a good precaution if one isn’t used to keeping an eye out for them.”

 

To Legolas’ great amusement the twins did as they were told, mimicking the motion and sound just to be sure that they were safe. 

 

“That’s the way,” the prince encouraged with a smile.

 

After a time, Elrohir retreated from the water and clambered up onto the bank near Legolas.  Elladan and the other two Mirkwood elves were not ready to give up their sport yet.  The younger twin was still limping slightly once he was on land and he rubbed his sore knee with a wince as he sat dripping on the edge of the pond.  He was healing swiftly, but his leg was still stiff and easily wearied. 

 

Legolas guessed at once that this was the reason Elrohir had given up the water earlier than the others.  “Are you all right?” the prince asked with genuine concern.

 

Elrohir nodded quickly.  “It’s just a little stiff.”  He pushed his dripping black hair out of his eyes, tucking it behind gracefully pointing ears.  “What about you?”

 

“Me?” Legolas queried with a confused smile.  “I’m fine.”

 

“Then why didn’t you join us in the water?” Elrohir wanted to know as he leaned back, letting the sun begin to dry the beads of water from his body. The thin, sleeveless, knee-length tunic Elrohir was wearing clung to him and he adjusted it a couple times.  Legolas and his friends usually did not swim clothed, and Legolas found it slightly odd that both Elladan and Elrohir did, but he supposed it might just be a different set of customs.  Rivendell elves were bound to do some things differently than they did after all. 

 

Legolas shrugged.  “I did not feel like it today.  Perhaps another time.”

 

“Ah,” Elrohir nodded.  “I thought perhaps you were avoiding the water snakes,” the younger, dark haired elf said seriously. 

 

Legolas coughed into his hand for a moment.  “Uh... no, they don’t worry me,” he assured.  “I’m... used to watching out for them.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

It was afternoon and Elladan and Elrohir had just finished changing their clothes and drying their hair when there was a knock on the door of their chambers. 

 

“The King and Queen request your presence,” the young page informed them, instructing the two Noldo to follow him to the throne room.  The twins did as they were told.  It was a bit different, being in a realm with an actual monarchy rather than Lordship.  It was like, and yet unlike home. 

 

Thranduil was seated in his throne and Elvéwen sat beside him, holding the King’s hand and leaning lightly on his arm. Thranduil beckoned the two young elves to him. 

 

“We have word that the messenger birds have returned.  I thought you should be here to hear what the courier has to say when he arrives,” the King explained.  He expected some return missives with an arrival date for the party or parties sent to collect Elladan and Elrohir.

 

Elladan slipped his hand into Elrohir’s as they waited.  They were in no hurry to have to face their family’s disappointment with their behavior, but at the same time they wanted to get it over with... they needed to know they could be forgiven. 

 

The courier entered a few moments later and bowed low to the King and Queen.  “The messenger birds have returned from Rivendell and Lothlórien, Highnesses,” he reported what they already knew. 

 

Thranduil nodded.  The journey too and from had taken only a few days, which was very quick for the distance covered.  The birds must not have been detained at their destinations at all.  It wasn’t surprising however.  He knew he would be very worried if it were Legolas gone missing this long and would have replied as promptly as possible. 

 

“What was the reply?” he inquired.  Elladan and Elrohir were welcome to remain his guests for as long as necessary, but he expected their family would be anxious to collect them.

 

“Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel send their greetings and thanks for your hospitality.  They bid us await word from Rivendell.”

 

“And what does Rivendell say?” Thranduil asked the next logical question.

 

The courier looked puzzled.  “Nothing, Highness.  There was no reply from Lord Elrond and Lady Celebrìan.” 

 

Thranduil’s brow creased in confusion. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir looked at one another in surprise.  No word at all?  Didn’t anyone intend to come get them?  Or at least send for them to come back on their own?  Had they truly made that big of a mess that they weren’t welcome home anymore? 

 

“Could the reply have been lost on the way?” Elvéwen wanted to know.

 

The courier shook his head.  “No, Highness.  My birds have never lost a message, and they assure me there was no reply given them to carry from Rivendell.”

 

Thranduil wasn’t sure what to do.  He hadn’t exactly expected to be saddled with Elrond’s children indefinitely, although of course they were welcome as long as there was need.  However, neither did he want to send a second message and give the impression that he was anxious to be rid of the elflings.  He still considered himself somewhat in Elrond’s debt for the way he had saved Legolas’ life some years ago and had no wish to offend the other Lord. 

 

“Very well,” he said after an awkward moment of silence.  “Then it seems it shall be our pleasure to welcome you as guests a while longer,” he said to Elladan and Elrohir. 

 

Elvéwen took pity on the downfallen faces of the two young elves.  “I am sure your parents will send for you when they are ready and able,” she assured gently.

 

“We can return by ourselves,” Elladan finally found his voice.  “We do not wish to burden you.”

 

“Out of the question,” Thranduil said firmly.  “It is a long and perilous journey.  As my guests you are under my protection and your safety is my responsibility.  I could never send you on it alone, and have not the ability to send you with a proper guard.  You are more than welcome to remain until other arrangements can be made.”

 

“Thank you, your Majesties,” the twins responded numbly.  “We appreciate your hospitality.  May we be excused?”

 

Thranduil released them with a nod.  He turned his questioning gaze upon his wife as the twins fled the room.  “No answer from Rivendell?  What does it mean?”

 

Elvéwen shook her head.  “I don’t know.  I’m certain there is an explanation.  We will simply have to wait for it.”  She looked at where the door was still swinging slightly on its hinges in the twins’ wake.  “For their sake, I hope it comes soon.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Elladan followed Elrohir as they left the palace gardens behind them.  They wanted to be out and away.  They needed some time alone.  A little distance into the woods, Elrohir stopped and swung up into the branches of a nearby tree.  He climbed up a little ways to the top and leaned against the trunk of the tree.  Elladan joined him a few moments later and they sat there in silence.  Elladan tried hard to pretend he didn’t notice the tears in Elrohir’s eyes.  He tried to pretend he didn’t feel tears in his own heart. 

 

“We really did it this time, didn’t we?” Elrohir said softly after a moment.  “They don’t even want us back, do they?”

 

“Of course they do,” Elladan assured, although he did not believe it himself.  “Don’t be silly.”

 

Elrohir sighed.  It didn’t feel very silly at the moment.  He opened his mouth to say something else, but Elladan pressed his fingers to his lips.  Someone was approaching.  Neither of the young elves wanted to see anyone else right now, so they scrambled a little higher up the tree to keep from being spotted.  Two golden heads and two dark bobbed into view.  One of the golden heads was significantly shorter than the others and one of the dark haired elves looked to be some years older than his companions. 

 

As the newcomers approached, Elladan and Elrohir recognized the sound of Legolas’ voice.  He seemed to be talking with several of his friends.  Elladan and Elrohir recognized Trelan and Sarcaulien, both of whom were still sporting damp hair from that morning.  They thought that the other, older looking, dark haired elf might have been Sarcaulien’s elder brother Sarcayul.  He had been briefly introduced to them a few days before. 

 

The four wood elves did not continue on their way, but stopped only a stone throw away from the twins’ tree.  Elladan and Elrohir did not mean to eavesdrop, but they could not help hearing the ensuing conversation.

 

“I asked the guards again, I think they tire of seeing me.  They said he might be released today,” Legolas was saying.  He sounded a little sad.  “I hadn’t thought he’d be kept this long.”

 

“I can’t believe Randomir put Raniean in the guardhouse in the first place!” Sarcaulien fumed.  “His own son!  Our father would never have done that to Sarc or I.”

 

Trelan wasn’t so sure that was a good thing.  From what he had seen, he felt that Traycaul could show a little less favoritism to his sons when administering his contingent, but he kept his tongue.  

 

“I know, and it was my fault.  I tried to do a right of substitution, but Randomir wouldn’t allow it,” Legolas said dispiritedly.  “I wish they’d let me see him, just for a moment.  I fear he shall think I got him into trouble and then forgot all about him.”

 

Trelan squeezed Legolas’ arm.  “Raniean would never think that Legolas, he knows you better than that.  He knows he’s not allowed any visitors until his time is served, but I’ll wager he’s heard you arguing with the guards every single day.”  The smaller elf chuckled.  “It can’t be much longer now.”

 

Legolas smiled faintly, Trelan was right, but that didn’t make him feel much better. 

 

Sarcayul fell into pace beside Legolas and hung lightly on the younger elf’s shoulders.  Although Legolas had been one of his favorite victims to taunt when they were younger, he had long ago realized the prudence of not building up enmity with the heir to the throne.  He now rather fancied himself something of a role model for this group of younger elves, although Legolas might have taken exception to that notion.  “Did Randomir lay into you when you told him what happened?”

 

Legolas sighed.  “Not much, maybe a little.  In a way I wish he would have,” he admitted.  “It feels wrong getting off with only a lecture when Ran’s in the guardhouse.  Especially since *I* was the one who started shooting at unwary opponents.”  The prince’s voice showed that despite what he had told Randomir, he did regret that action, or at least, he wanted to regret it. 

 

“But you didn’t do anything wrong!” Sarcayul scoffed.  “Who *cares* if the edain had drawn their swords yet or not?  I mean, we all know they would have.  Don’t give them the chance I say.  Would you give an orc that chance?  Of course not, and what’s the difference?  I only wish I could have been there.  Stars, you should have gotten a commendation for ridding the world of those creatures.”

 

Legolas shrugged in a non-committal manner.  “Maybe.  Randomir doesn’t think so.  He says they might be friendly someday.”

 

“Sure,” Sarcaulien said sarcastically.  “And maybe one day an orc is going to ask us to tea.  Please, we can never trust any of the lesser races.”

 

Trelan kept his hands in his pockets and his opinions out of the conversation.  He hated the people who had hurt Legolas, but couldn’t quite bring himself to condemn all men as the sons of Traycaul and now sometimes even Legolas seemed to do.  “The ones from Esgaroth seem to be all right,” he ventured quietly. 

 

“Oh they’re *all right*,” Sarcayul agreed with mild disdain.  “All right for growing things and fixing barrels - anything that doesn’t require too much intellect.  I’m not saying they don’t have their uses.  I hear that some of the better bred ones can even think,” he chuckled. 

 

Sarcaulien laughed at his brother’s joke and Legolas smiled slightly. 

 

“Well you can tell which are which!” Sarcaulien chimed in.  “Have you ever SEEN that crusty old Delflor who used to come with the trade envoys?  I would swear that man was ten thousand years old if I didn’t know their life spans were so dreadfully short.  You remember the one, Legolas?  He was always drooling in his beard and he’d say: “EH?” every time you said anything to him!”

 

Legolas did remember and tried hard not to laugh.  The old man had been harmless, but almost stone deaf and very comical to observe. 

 

“Oh, don’t forget the head tics, that was the best part!” Sarcayul said, twitching his head violently and letting his tongue hang out as he launched into an animated, exaggerated imitation of the man in question that soon had all the elves in stitches, even Trelan. 

 

“Perhaps we can understand why Ilúvatar gave them such short lives,” Sarcayul gasped out around his own laughter.  “For their own sakes as well as ours!”

 

Legolas wiped his eyes as he caught his breath, shaking his head at the other elf’s antics.  He had not liked Sarcayul at all when he was young, although Sarcaulien had always been more or less a friend - at least when his older brother wasn’t around.  As the prince grew into adulthood however, Sarcayul’s biting humor had no longer been directed towards the prince, but rather at more common targets such as orcs and humans.  Both Sarcayul and Sarcaulien shared a deep distrust and distaste for all races not elven, they always had.  Ever since Dorolyn that was a view Legolas was slowly starting to share.  As a result, the prince sometimes felt more accepted by them than by Raniean and Trelan, although he would always be closest to the latter two. 

 

“Well I regret it, but I must take my leave,” Sarcayul said after a few minutes more.  “I promised father I would see to the changing of the guard.”  He smiled fondly at Sarcaulien.  “Ah, I envy you the carelessness of youth,” he said in parting.  “But if you can tear yourself away from your companions, don’t forget you owe me a hand.”

 

Sarcaulien chuckled.  “Oh, I won’t forget and I doubt you’ll let me.  I’ll be along in a while.”

 

After Sarcayul left, the three friends dallied a few moments longer in the glade before deciding to head back.  Suddenly, Legolas laid a finger to his lips, calling for silence.  With his eyes he signaled Sarcaulien and Trelan to look up, into the tree above them.  After a moment they saw what he saw - the unmistakable shadow of figures hidden high up in the branches.  Legolas had a good idea who it was and winked at his friends. 

 

“Say, would you care for some archery practice?” he asked, speaking loudly for the benefit of the eavesdroppers.

 

Trelan tried to contain the wide smile that spread across his face.  “Why, yes, your Highness.  ‘Tis a perfect place for it.  Shall we try seeing how high we can shoot?  Perhaps in this fine tree here?”

 

“Aye!” Sarcaulien played along.  “I think I spotted movement up there.  A prize to the first one to bring down a pair of pigeons!”

 

Their words had the desired effect and the tree rustled quickly with movement.  A moment later two younger elves dropped down out of the branches. 

 

Legolas smiled a warm greeting to the twins.  “Well, what do we have here?! ‘Tis not a pair of pigeons after all, Sar,” he chuckled.  “Rather, a couple of eavesdroppers, am I right?”  The prince held Elladan and Elrohir no ill will for spying on him and his friends.  He doubted they had even done it intentionally.  He would have asked the twins to join them if he had been aware of their presence earlier.

 

The identical scowls on the two younger elves’ faces however, were neither amused nor jovial and Legolas’ smile faltered a little.  What cause did they have to look so sour?  Did they think he was serious?  Stars, they were the ones who had been rude enough to not make their presence known, not he. 

 

“Why ask us?” Elladan said somewhat sharply.  “We might not be well-bred enough to think.”

 

Legolas was stunned by their sudden hostility.  He did not grasp its cause.  “What are you talking about?”

 

“Thinking,” Elrohir said with no less accusation than his brother.  “You know, that activity in which our ancestors and our relatives among the Dunèdain are apparently too stupid to engage.”

 

Legolas wasn’t sure what to say.  He had almost forgotten that the twins, and indeed, Lord Elrond himself, whom the young prince respected highly, had human blood in their veins.  In any case he hadn’t expected them to claim any kinship there or be very proud or defensive of that fact. 

 

“No one here meant you any offense,” Legolas said somewhat stiffly.  “If you are going to take such, perhaps you should not listen to conversations not meant for you.”

 

Elladan’s eyes were angry, but Elrohir’s were hurt, he would never have taken the friendly prince for a bigot.  “I wish we hadn’t,” he said softly, but bluntly.  “I would have expected better from you.”

 

Legolas was at a loss.  He had never intended to insult the twins or vex them in this way, but he did not appreciate their accusations either.  They were too young and too sheltered to understand the evils the world held.  He knew - he had been the same once.  “I apologize if our speech offered offense.  Nothing said here was meant to include you.” 

 

“But it does,” Elrohir said icily.  “And our father too.”

 

“You’re hardly human,” Legolas protested, trying to extricate himself from this awkward position without insulting anyone further.  As far as the twins were concerned, he was failing.  “I didn’t think that-”

 

“Obviously you didn’t think,” Elladan said harshly.  The twins were already emotionally disturbed and the wood-elves’ overheard conversation had upset them greatly.  Elladan’s temper had been provoked and he was not about to let the issue drop now.  He scowled at Legolas.  “I had no idea wood-elves were so unforgivably ignorant.”

 

Legolas’ own temper flared.  They had no right to stand there and call him and his people ignorant!  He felt he knew far more about men than he hoped they ever would. 

 

“Ignorant?!” Legolas snapped hotly.  “I do not believe *I* was the one stupid enough to go to a strange town with strange people and then waltz off alone with men who obviously bore you ill will and almost get yourselves killed!”

 

“No, you already did that from what I hear and our Ada had to save your sorry neck!” Elladan flung back.  “Don’t blame men for your own stupidity!”

 

Legolas’ face was lined with fury, but he felt physically unable to speak.  His stupidity?  It had been a trap!  They had had no indications of trouble... should he have known?  Should he?  The question tormented him and made him feel ill.  He already battled the deep-seated belief that what happened to him had been his fault, he didn’t need Elladan to grind his face in that fact.  It made the prince suddenly nauseous to think that the twins knew too much about Dorolyn.  Valar, what all had Elrond told them? 

 

Unfortunately, the opposite was the case.  Elladan and Elrohir knew too little about Dorolyn - else they would never have said something so carelessly hurtful, even in anger. 

 

Trelan’s eyes flashed and he was in front of Legolas in an instant.  He shoved the taller elf backward, barely restraining himself from punching the Noldo in the face.  “Shut up!” he snapped harshly.  “You have no idea what you’re talking about!”

 

Elladan stumbled, but kept his balance.  He shoved Trelan back.  “This isn’t your business!” the younger, dark-haired elf said with irritation.  “Let Legolas fight his own battles.”

 

“You say one more insulting word to my Liege and I will *make* it my business!” Trelan threatened darkly, his hand dropping to the fighting daggers on his belt. 

 

Elrohir immediately moved protectively to his brother’s side while Sarcaulien moved to Trelan’s and the air began to crackle with tension.

 

“Stop it!” Legolas’ soft, firm voice broke the moment as he shoved his way between his friends, standing between the Noldo and Silvan elves.  There was fire and well-hidden pain snapping in his cold blue eyes, but he could not allow this to come to blows. 

 

“Children will act like children,” the prince spat.  The cold disdain in his words was directed towards the two young Noldo.  “But I refuse to be brought to that level of puerility.  Come on, let’s go,” he said to his two companions, turning to leave.

 

Elladan saw red.  He hated being called a child.  That was what Elrond had called them, that was what the well-meaning but condescending Galadhrim Marchwardens had called them, that was why they had been sent away and why no one wanted them back... Pain and rage clouded his vision.  To hear that from the lips of one only a little older than himself was too much.  Legolas did not necessarily deserve the full brunt of the young elf’s hurt and anger, but he was the recipient nonetheless. 

 

“Coward!” the elder twin shot after them.  “You call yourselves warriors?  You’re nothing but idle words!  Or do you only shoot people when they’re defenseless and less skilled than you?!”  It was an inflammatory and not very accurate barb that Elladan partway regretted as soon as it was out of his mouth, but he wouldn’t take it back once said.

 

Elrohir had a restraining hand on his brother’s arm.  He was angry too, but he agreed with Legolas on this one - it was best to let it go before they were all in trouble.  The younger twin winced when Legolas froze mid-step, his shoulders tightening visibly.  Trelan spun sharply around on his heel and strode back towards them.  If it came to a fight Elrohir would back his brother a hundred percent... but he wished Elladan would let it drop.  He was almost certain that fighting with the Prince of Mirkwood while they were guests of his father and mother would be a very stupid move on their part. 

 

“You little ingrates, those men wanted to kill you!  We saved your worthless hides!” Sarcaulien hissed angrily. 

 

Quick as a flash, Legolas caught Trelan’s arm and shot Sarcaulien a warning look, stopping them short of getting back into the conflict.   

 

“Enough!” the prince’s voice trembled slightly with his own constrained rage.  “Trey, Sar, come on, it’s not worth it.”  His friends were defending his honor, he knew, but they would be fighting elves younger and less trained then themselves.  It wouldn’t be fair and someone was bound to wind up hurt.  Just at the moment it was hard for him to care whether the twins were hurt or not since he very much wanted to contribute to the effort, but he knew that it was his friends who would have to pay for it in the end.  Legolas would probably receive a reprimand from his father, but he knew that if either Trelan or Sarcaulien harmed the two visiting Noldo nobles, as warriors in the Royal Guard, they would be flogged for the breach of conduct no matter who was to blame.  The prince would not see any more of his friends suffer because of him. 

 

“But, Legolas-!” Sarcaulien seethed. 

 

“I said let it go!” Legolas snapped tensely.  Faster than Elladan could react, Legolas stepped forward and grabbed the younger elf by the front of his tunic.  It was all the prince could do to not strike the Noldo himself, but he kept his temper in check.  “Do not meddle nor pass judgment on the affairs of my realm and I’ll not meddle in the affairs of yours!” he hissed between his teeth.  He released the Noldo stiffly and stalked away, taking Sarcaulien and Trelan with him. 

 

Elladan seemed like he might say something else, so Elrohir clapped his hand over his brother’s mouth, just in case. 

 

“ARE YOU BRAIN DEAD?!” the younger twin hissed loudly in his brother’s ear as soon as the three Silvan elves were out of earshot.  “Are you TRYING to get us killed?!”

 

Elladan shrugged his brother off sharply, still in a decidedly foul mood.  “What?  You don’t think we couldn’t have taken them?” he scoffed.

 

Elrohir cuffed his twin sharply on the back of the head.  “Grow up!  There were three of them and two of us and in case you haven’t NOTICED we are in *their* realm!  And since no one else seems to want us at the moment, do you *really* want to get us thrown out of here too?”

 

Elladan stung from the rebuke.  Elrohir rarely ever disagreed with or crossed him and it hurt.  “You heard what he said...”

 

“And it was wrong, I agree.  Look, I’m no more fond of a bigot than the next elf, but use your brain, El!  You’re going to get us in trouble again!” Elrohir said tensely. 

 

That was too much.  Elladan’s overburdened sense of guilt over their last misadventure bubbled viciously to the surface and condemned him.  Angry, hurt tears sprung up into his eyes.  “You mean like I did the last time?  Or how I got us sent away in the first place?” the older twin was nearly shouting and nearly in tears.  “FINE!  Then just stay away from me!  I’m sure you’d be much safer somewhere else!”  His voice choked off and Elladan turned and fled into the trees.  If even Elrohir was against him, life wasn’t much worth living at the moment.

 

Elrohir’s heart clenched.  He hated it on the rare occasions that he and Elladan fought and didn’t understand how this had turned into one of them.  “That’s not what I meant, El!  Come back!” he called after his twin anxiously.  Limping slightly, as he chased after his brother when the other elf did not do as requested.  “Come on... EL!”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Legolas fumed all the way back to the palace.  He regretted not punching Elladan.  Nausea still had a firm root in his stomach and as he mounted the palace stairs he had a renewed urge to throw up.  He just barely felt that he had begun to gain back the respect of his elders and fellow warriors.  He had only just started to believe that when they looked at him they weren’t thinking: “poor Legolas, such a shame what happened, isn’t it nice how they let him pretend to be normal?  His poor parents, what a pity he’s their only child...” 

 

Legolas ran his hand through his hair, nearly retching.  His close friends and family understood his pain, but it was not common knowledge.  Most people only knew the surface truth of what he had endured at the hands of King Meléch, and that was the way Legolas preferred it to remain.  Thinking, mistakenly, that the twins had heard the whole story from their father, he was terrified what Elladan and Elrohir might say, especially now that they were angry with him.  He nearly missed one of the stairs, his hands trembling as he caught himself.  Valar, please don’t let them be that spiteful, he would never be able to look anyone in the face again!

 

Trelan caught his arm.  “Legolas, are you all right?” he asked with deep concern.

 

Legolas steadied himself and nodded.  “Mad as a hornet, but I’ll live,” he joked with a thin smile, trying to calm his mind and put away the dangerous emotions once more.  “You don’t think... they’ll say anything, do you?” he asked uncertainly.  “I mean, anything their father might have told them...” he let the question trail off into anguished silence.

 

Sarcaulien snorted.  “They better not if they have any sense at all.  You should have let us beat the pulp out of them.”

 

Legolas sighed, making the top of the stairs and slowing to a more normal pace.  “Perhaps, but I wouldn’t see you pay the price for that, my friend.”  His troubled eyes filled with another concern as his thoughts returned to someone else who had already gotten into trouble for him.  “I need to go see if they’ll release Raniean yet.  Do you want to come?”

 

Trelan agreed quickly.  Sarcaulien declined, saying he had to go help his brother now, but sent with them the sincere hope that Raniean’s punishment would not last much longer. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

When Elrohir finally found his brother, Elladan was sitting on a log, violently chucking pebbles at a large boulder.  The smooth surface of the bolder was dotted with white flecks from the force of the impacts.  Elladan didn’t look up when his twin approached. 

 

“El, I’m sorry,” Elrohir apologized, even though he didn’t really believe he was at fault.  Still, he had hurt his twin and for that he *was* sorry. 

 

Elladan still didn’t look up.  “No, *I’m* sorry,” he said tensely, flinging another pebble.  “I’m sorry for getting us into this mess, I’m sorry for getting us stuck here and you hurt...” the stone struck sparks against the larger rock.  “And I’m sorry I made Ada so mad he sent us away and doesn’t want us back!” the last statement was muffled held more anguish than anger. 

 

“Oh, El, that was my fault too.”  Elrohir sighed and sat down next to his brother, wrapping his arm around his twin.  He laid his head on Elladan’s shoulder and watched him throw rocks for a little while. 

 

Elrond’s worried and livid face rose in their mind’s eye.

 

// “You could have been killed!” The elf lord’s normally gentle blue eyes blazed with terrified concern that was congealing into anger. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir stood in the clearing, surrounded by dead orcs and found they had nothing to say.  They should not have left camp, they should not have disobeyed and ended up in this situation.  They should not have forced their father and the warriors to come after them.  Maybe two immortal elves would not have died today if they had not.  But they had, and they could not change it now.

 

Their eyes strayed guiltily to the blood still oozing between their father’s fingers where he held his arm.  The cut was deep, but not serious.  Still, they knew that too was their fault.

 

“I told you to stay in camp and wait for us!  Why can I not trust you to listen to me?” Elrond’s voice was anguished. //

 

“You don’t really think he sent us away because he was mad, do you?” the younger twin asked sadly after a few minutes.  He hadn’t considered that possibility before.  He knew that Elrond was angry and disappointed with them, but he thought it was because they failed to show proper caution and sense that they had been sent away for their own safety.  That’s what Elrond had told them, and Elrohir believed him, even if he was not happy about the situation.  But now he wondered.  Could Elrond really have been so angry he didn’t want to see them anymore? 

 

Elladan tensed.  He hadn’t meant to share that fear with his more sensitive twin, but it was too great a burden to carry alone.  “El, you heard him when they found us; he was furious.  Have you ever heard Ada yell like that before?  Even Nana was mad at us.  And then we’re leaving for Lórien the day after we get home?  What do you think?”

 

Elrohir burrowed his head harder against his brother’s shoulder.  “I-I never thought they’d send us away to punish us.  I thought they were just worried.  You know, like they said - because they thought they couldn’t trust us to stay out of trouble.”

 

Elladan swallowed hard.  He wanted to believe that too, but... “Then why haven’t they come after us?” he asked hoarsely.  “They haven’t even sent word.  And why should they?  Valar, El, they were right and we *couldn’t* stay out of trouble.  I mean, what did we do as soon as we got to Lórien?  We went out and did the same bloody thing again!  To Grandma and Grandpa no less.  No wonder they all hate us, do you blame them?”

 

Wetness on his shoulder told Elladan that his brother was crying.  “Do... do you think they’ll ever want us back?” the younger Noldo asked quietly, with heart-aching grief in his voice. 

 

Elladan fired off another stone, battling his own emotions.  “I wouldn’t want me back,” he said quietly. 

 

Elrohir wrapped his arms tighter around his brother.  “I want you, El,” he whispered.

 

Elladan gave up on the stones and wrapped his arm around his brother’s shoulder, laying his head atop Elrohir’s.  “I’ll always want you too, El,” he promised quietly. 

 

They sat thus for some time, lost in their own thoughts.  So lost, that they did not sense the presence of those creeping up slowly and soundlessly upon them until it was too late. 

 

The first they knew, Elladan’s head had been yanked back by the hair and a sharp, cool blade was pressed against his throat.  

Chapter Text

~*PART TEN*~
~Fallout~

 

 

Elrohir started violently and jumped to his feet, but froze when he saw the arrow leveled at his heart.  The wood-elf that had the weapon trained on him was watching him with dark, serious eyes that made the younger elf shiver. 

 

“S-Sarcaulien?” he said uncertainly, fearful of what was going on. 

 

Elrohir kept his hands up and turned to see the other elf holding Elladan.  He vaguely recognized Sarcaulien’s older brother Sarcayul.   Elladan was still seated on the log, but Sarcayul had him arched painfully back at an angle over the older elf’s knee, pinned in place by a tight grip in his raven hair and a sharp knife to his throat. 

 

Elladan gasped and grimaced as Sarcayul tugged painfully on his hair, stretching him further back as he glared down into the younger elf’s shocked face. 

 

Elrohir was terrified and about two inches away from diving for his brother, despite the danger to himself.  “Please, don’t hurt him,” he begged, deciding that their current predicament must have something to do with the angry words they had traded with Legolas and his friends earlier. 

 

“We aren’t in the habit of hurting babies,” Sarcaulien said scornfully.  “We just want you to listen and know that we’re serious.  Legolas is a good elf and my prince, and I’m not going to let you or anybody go about spreading vicious stories about him, do you understand?”

 

Elrohir felt a bubble of panic in his chest.  He didn’t understand.  He didn’t understand at all.  What stories?  Surely Legolas would be in no trouble over the words they had had earlier!  Or perhaps they meant the anti-human sentiment that had gotten them into the fight in the first place?  Somehow, he had gotten the feeling that the King actually shared those feelings to some extent, so he really didn’t see how they could get Legolas in any trouble, but at this moment he wasn’t about to quibble. 

 

“We won’t say anything, I swear,” Elrohir promised nervously. 

 

Elladan was too choked to speak.  He could barely breathe. 

 

Elrohir shifted, shooting his brother a worried look.  “You have our word!  Please let him go.”

 

Sarcayul smiled darkly.  He jerked Elladan off the log and turned him around so that the younger elf’s back was pressed against the fallen trunk, the knife still at his throat.  “Not until this little half-breed has learned a lesson.”  He struck Elladan full across the face, snapping the Noldo’s head to the side. 

 

Elladan gave a strangled cry of surprise and pain that was brutally checked by the harsh pressure of the blade at his throat. 

 

“No!” Sarcaulien hissed in protest.  He had taken his fears about Legolas’ safety to his older brother and agreed with the plan Sarcayul came up with, but they had already had this discussion.  Sarcayul wanted to play with the half-human elves, but Sarcaulien had been very firm that they should frighten them only since they were guests of the King.  He winced and fidgeted nervously with his bowstring when his older brother slapped the captive Noldo again. 

 

Elrohir’s frightened face clouded with anger when they started hurting his twin.  “Stop it!  Stop hitting him!” he demanded, but it was still half plea.

 

“Come on, Sarc, stop!” Sarcaulien agreed with their adversaries on this issue.  “We made our point, let’s go!”

 

Sarcayul scowled, staring into Elladan’s frightened, but blazing eyes.  “Did we?  I’m not sure they understand us.”

 

“You did, please, I swear you did,” Elrohir was still trying to make peace.  He could see the fury in his brother’s eyes and was afraid Elladan was going to say something stupid and truly get them both killed this time. 

 

Sarcayul did not like the look on Elladan’s face and slapped him again.  The younger elf’s cheeks were beginning to flush red from the abuse. 

 

“Enough!  You bruise and him someone’s going to find out!” Sarcaulien hissed through his teeth.  He was adequately convinced that the twins would not speak anything they knew about Legolas’ past and that was enough, it was all that had concerned him.  He did not want to stick his neck out just so his brother could play at his favorite sport.  The twins may have been half-breeds, but Sarcaulien leaned towards Legolas’ view on this.  If they were even part elven, they were elves.

 

Sarcayul had to grudgingly admit his brother had a point.  They couldn’t afford for this to become known or they were both headed for the guardhouse and a serious reprimand.  Not even their father could get them out of it if they were found guilty of accosting royal guests.  “All right, but if either of you half-breeds breathe a WORD of this to anyone we’ll finish the job we started.  Is that clear?”

 

Sarcayul ground his thumb hard into Elladan’s throat, just below the knife until he brought tears to the younger elf’s eyes and Elladan was forced to nod stiffly if he wished to be allowed breath again. 

 

“It’s clear, all right?  We’re not going to cause any trouble,” Elrohir’s hurting gaze was locked onto his brother’s pained face. 

 

“I want your oath,” Sarcayul pressed.  “Both of you.”

 

“You have it!” Elrohir implored as Elladan began struggling weakly with the older, bigger elf who was cutting off his air supply.  “On our word and honor!”

 

Finally satisfied, Sarcayul released Elladan with disdain and jumped lightly back to his feet.  With a nod to his brother he simply vanished into the trees.  Sarcaulien removed the arrow from his bowstring and made to follow.  He hesitated for a moment first, glancing at Elladan to be sure he was all right. 

 

“Look, I didn’t mean for you to get hurt.  But you remember what we said, all right?  Not a word about the prince, or us.”  Then Sarcaulien too was gone.

 

Elrohir stared after them for a suspended moment before he dropped to his brother’s side.  Elladan was pulling himself back up onto the log, holding his aching throat in one hand and his burning cheek in another. 

 

Fuiagwaur,” Elladan spat, licking blood from the inside of his lip.  “I’m fine,” he warded off his twin’s next obvious question.  “Although I’d like to get my hands on that precious prince of theirs.  What kind of elf sends someone else to do their dirty work for them like that?  Couldn’t get his own hands soiled with us half-breeds I suppose,” the peredhel said bitterly.  The truth was, he liked Legolas and had thought they were becoming friends.  This morning had been so much fun, and now this... it left his head spinning.  The betrayal and outright prejudice stung. 

 

Elrohir shook his head.  He couldn’t believe Legolas had done this to them either.  It hadn’t seemed in the prince’s nature, but then, he supposed they really didn’t know him at all, did they?  “I think we may have worn out our welcome here, brother,” he said sadly. 

 

Elladan closed his eyes and let his head fall into his hands.  “That makes everywhere then, doesn’t it?” he said softly.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Legolas and the twins cordially avoided each other at dinner that evening and did not speak more than was required. 

 

Thranduil was not able to be present, but Elvéwen watched the three, silent young elves and knew something was wrong.  Legolas ate very little and excused himself early.  The twins played with their food for a while longer before also asking to be excused.  Elvéwen let them go, but not before calling Elladan to her.  She touched the small bruise forming on his cheekbone.  She said nothing, but her eyes asked the question.  Elrohir thought she reminded him a bit of his own mother, only quieter and more reserved. 

 

Elladan forced a smile.  “Tree branch accident.  El let go too early.  I’m fine.”

 

Elvéwen wasn’t entirely convinced, but until she had any actual evidence that her son and their guests had been in a fight she would not jump immediately to the worst conclusion.  She didn’t know the twins and their somber moods might not mean anything at all.  And Legolas... Legolas was given to acting moody at times.  She knew it was usually because something had stirred painful memories, but she had learned that letting them settle back down again and be forgotten, rather than trying to address them, was usually the best course.

 

Elladan and Elrohir left hurriedly once released and Elvéwen found that she wasn’t very hungry anymore either.  Instead she made her way to her son’s chambers.  The door was open so she let herself in.  Legolas was in his sleeping clothes, curled up on his bed with a book.  He quickly laid it aside and sat up when he saw his mother.  He smiled at her – that bright, little boy smile that he had only for her. 

 

Elvéwen smiled back and sat down next to him, running her fingers gently through his silky hair.  Legolas leaned into her touch without embarrassment.  Elvéwen’s smile grew.  She loved her son so very much.  Childhood had completely left the strong lines of his young face.  He was an adult, a leader and capable warrior, yet she could still see her golden haired dreamer child in his eyes, even if he only pealed back the layers of protective walls for her. 

 

“Did they release Raniean today, Tyndolhen?” she asked, knowing that had been weighing heavily on her son’s mind. 

 

Legolas nodded.  “He has the day off tomorrow and then he’ll be back on duty.”

 

“I’m glad to hear it.  Legolas... did you have a fight with Elladan and Elrohir?” she got straight to the point.  She knew Legolas would tell her the truth and he knew that whatever he said was safe with her. 

 

Legolas sighed.  “Fight?  No.  Argument?  Yes.  It was nothing really, just something stupid.  I tried to apologize, Nana.  I don’t know why they got so upset.”

 

Elvéwen smiled softly.  “They received some difficult news from home today, Tyndolhen,” she tried to offer insight.  “I fear that might have affected their mood.”

 

Legolas nodded slowly.  That made sense.  “Then I am sorry I made them more upset, I honestly did not intend for it to happen.”

 

“I know, ion-nín,” Elvéwen drew his head to her shoulder.  Legolas was tense for a few minutes, but then slowly started to relax. 

 

“Maybe you should rest tomorrow.  You and Raniean should go for a ride or spend some time at the ranges,” she suggested after a few minutes. 

 

“I was off today, tomorrow I’m on guard duty in the Throne room,” Legolas reminded her.  “I’m supposed to attend father.”

 

“He’s already released you,” Elvéwen replied, hoping Legolas wouldn’t ask why.  Of course, Legolas did. 

 

“Why would he do that?” he asked, lifting his head enough to give her a questioning gaze.  Then he seemed to figure it out for himself.  “Oh.  The envoys from Esgaroth are coming tomorrow, aren’t they?” he said quietly. 

 

Elvéwen could feel the tension spreading throughout the lithe body leaning against hers once more. 

 

Elvéwen wanted to pretend that wasn’t the reason, but they both knew better.  “Yes,” she said quietly. 

 

Legolas turned his face against her shoulder in shame.  In a way he was grateful that his father understood his feelings, but he hated the fact that Thranduil knew he didn’t want to be around the visiting humans - knew that he was that weak.  In so many little ways, everyone treated him differently now, even his own parents.  Part of Legolas despaired of things ever being able to go back to what he had once considered normal. 

 

“Then I will spend the day with Ran, if he still wants to be around me,” Legolas said finally. 

 

“Of course he will, Legolas,” Elvéwen assured, glad to turn to some other subject.  That matter settled, they fell into comfortable silence.  Elvéwen didn’t ask what had happened today that the memories had come back to trouble him.  It was enough that she knew they had.  She did not let him know that she knew.  She just offered her love to cover the hurt if Legolas was willing to accept such. 

 

Legolas allowed his mother to hold him and slowly released the nauseous tension in the pit of his stomach.  Maybe everything would be all right. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Elladan and Elrohir rose late the next day and stayed in their rooms for a while.  They really didn’t know what to do or where to go, but eventually sheer boredom and unease drove them out into the rest of the palace.  They passed Legolas’ chambers and nearly ran into a servant carrying an armload of towels.  The servant was attempting to open Legolas’ door with over-full hands, so the twins assisted him. 

 

“Are those for the prince?” they inquired. 

 

The servant nodded busily.  “Yes, he requested some brought up.” 

 

Elladan and Elrohir watched as the older elf quickly opened a door in the far wall that apparently let into a bath chamber. 

 

“Your towels, highness,” the servant announced, placing the folded cloths into a wicker hamper just inside the door.  Legolas, apparently already in his bath, thanked the elf and the servant took his leave.  Elladan and Elrohir found themselves standing alone in Legolas’ chambers.  They looked at one another and knew they were thinking the same thing. 

 

Creeping silently to the door they had just seen the servant open they cracked it open noiselessly.  The room was filled with steam.  They were afraid that Legolas would be able to see them, but they were in luck.  Legolas was obviously in the room, but nowhere in view.  The back half of the chamber was divided by a curtain that probably concealed the prince’s bath.  Quickly and quietly the twins removed the towels from the hamper beside the entryway and closed the door again. 

 

Legolas was relaxing in a tub of hot water that had been recently filled for him.  He intended to follow his mother’s advice and spend some time with Raniean later, but he was still a little tense, knowing that men were going to be in the palace today, so he was attempting to relax first.  He heard the servant announce his towels and then he thought he heard the door open again, but when he pulled aside the curtain and looked out there was no one there, so he pulled it back again and decided it must have been nothing.

 

Elladan and Elrohir hid the towels in the prince’s bedroom.  It was not a terribly interesting or clever joke really, they had to admit that.     It was more of a spur of the moment idea and right now they felt they had a right to give the prince a little grief after how he had treated them. 

 

They slipped quietly out of the room and hurried down the passage.  They were heading for the out-of-doors when Elrohir skidded to a stop.  He backtracked several paces and looked in the open doorway to one of the rooms they had just passed.  It was a large, formal waiting hall.  Inside the foyer, six or seven humans sat, presumably awaiting an audience with the King.  Their manner of dress was unfamiliar to the twins, but they guessed that they were some of the men from Esgaroth at whose expense Legolas and his friends had been having fun the day before. 

 

Elrohir looked at Elladan.  “Are you thinking, what I’m thinking?” he asked with a small, wicked smile. 

 

Elladan smiled back.  “I believe I am.”

 

The twins entered the room in their most regal manner. 

 

“Good sirs, are you the men from Esgaroth who await the King?” Elladan asked with a carefully practiced air of authority. 

 

One of the humans rose to his feet and bowed in greeting.  “Yes, we are, my name is Brandl, son of Trayma.  We were told to wait here for his Highness, King Thranduil.”

 

“Yes, well, he has requested we move you to another room,” Elrohir said politely.  “If you would be so kind as to follow us?”

 

As the twins suspected, the men complied without question, following the two young elves down the passageway through several twists and turns until they reached Legolas’ chambers. 

 

“You may wait in here, but we ask that you observe a strict silence until someone comes for you, if you would be so kind,” Elrohir said sweetly while they were still out in the hall. 

 

If the men thought the instructions odd, they would never have admitted such to their hosts.  They knew the elves could be a little... eccentric sometimes and graciously did as they were bid. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir led the small troupe of men quietly into Legolas’ common room, and seated them just outside the door to his bath chamber.  Begging their leave before the grins tugging at the corners of their mouths could give them away, the twins exited into Legolas’ bedchambers.  They pulled the curtains across the door almost closed so that they could stand behind them unseen and observe all that happened. 

 

Now *this* was a much more clever joke.  They felt that turn about was fair play after how cruel the prince and his friends had been yesterday.  They couldn’t wait to see the look on Legolas’ face. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Legolas ended his bath when the water began to cool.  He felt better and more ready to face the day.  Dipping his head under the water one more time, he came up and rung as much water as he could out of his hair.  Rubbing water out of his eyes, he climbed out of the tub and reached blindly into the hamper for a towel, but his searching fingers found only air.  He opened his eyes, looked around and discovered that his towels were not in the bin where they should have been.  In fact, they were nowhere to be found.  He knew the servant said he brought them, so someone had to have taken them afterwards.  Probably that sound he had dismissed as nothing.  The wood-elf grimaced ruefully and pushed his wet hair out of his eyes.  It was most likely Elladan and Elrohir’s doing. 

 

Raniean and Trelan might have been suspects had he not known that Trelan was working and Raniean was waiting for him on the archery ranges.  Besides, they had almost outgrown these kinds of pranks. 

 

Almost.  

 

Legolas hoped this meant that the two Noldo were willing to put aside their unfortunate disagreement of the previous day and be friendly again. 

 

The prince shook his head.  He was not entirely uninventive himself.  He would have to find a suitable way to show the Rivendell twins that he could give as well as he got.  His smile turned wicked.  He would get Raniean and Trelan to help him, he knew from experience that his friends could be very devious when they wanted to be. 

 

Legolas crossed to the door and paused.  He could sense that his chambers were not empty and guessed that the twins were waiting for him to come out.  Probably with something propped over the door or spread on the floor, the prince thought wryly.  He rolled his eyes.  A little juvenile perhaps, but in the interest of putting their differences aside, he would ignore the obviousness of the situation and play along.  His reflexes were good and if they did intend to spring something on him he felt confident he could deflect it and it would be worth it to see their faces if that happened. 

 

Turning the knob and stepping out quickly, the amused look on Legolas’ face instantly faded as he found himself staring at the now very shocked and embarrassed room full of humans.

 

Elladan and Elrohir, hidden behind the drapes in the doorway, had expected the prince to blush and quickly duck back into his bathing chambers, but that was not what happened.  Instead, Legolas’ face turned white as a sheet and for half a moment it looked as if he might pass out.  Sheer terror flared in the prince’s wide blue eyes. 

 

Legolas felt his heart thrum in his ears like the taunting laugh of a dozen harsh voices.  It pounded wildly in his chest as he felt the humans’ eyes on him.  What were they doing in his rooms?!  His mind screamed the question, but he was too panicked to find a reasonable answer.  All he could think was that they had come for him, that they wanted to take him back to the way life had been in that painful eternity he tried ever to block from his mind.  For a few heartbeats he couldn’t move, fear and shock pushing him into an almost catatonic state.  With none of his usual grace, Legolas tore himself free of his paralyzed stupor and scrambled backward.  The tiles under his feet were slick with the trail of water he was leaving.  He slipped and skidded.  He bumped hard into the dresser next to the door, sending the mirror sitting atop it crashing to the ground.  The looking-glass shattered, spreading a broken spray of silver glass slivers across the intricate tiles.  Legolas did not register the sound, or the sting, although several of the flying glass shards cut him. 

 

Brandl did not understand what was going on, but was deeply mortified that either they or this young elf seemed to be in completely the wrong place at the wrong time.  The last thing he wished to do was cause an incident, but when the mirror shattered he moved forward in concern. 

 

“Are you all right?” he asked with a worried frown. 

 

The young elf seemed terribly unbalanced so Brandl put his hand on the youth’s arm to steady him.  It was the wrong thing to do, although it had been done with the best of intentions.

 

Legolas went wild.  He yanked his arm free and shoved Brandl away from him.  The young elf was surprisingly strong and the human was knocked sprawling halfway across the room.  Backpedaling hard on the slippery floor, the prince slammed into the partially open door, causing it to bang closed.  The knob dug painfully into his low back as he impacted.  Wrenching the door open again behind him in a clumsy attempt to not turn his back on the humans who had violated the safety of his chambers, the prince fled through the portal and slammed it shut behind him. 

 

Legolas’ whole body was trembling as he hastily threw the bolt on the inside of the door and shoved the heavy marble pedestal of his hand-washing basin up against the portal for added protection.  His breath was coming in such fast, ragged gulps he was hyperventilating.  Bright yellow splotches danced before his eyes.    

 

What were they doing here?  Why had they come after him?!  How had they gotten to him in the only place he felt safe?!  Legolas couldn’t think rationally, he was in too much shock to do that.  He wanted to run away, but he was trapped in the bath chamber.  Scrambling to the back of the room, Legolas sank down between the tub and the far wall, curling into a tight ball and rocking back and forth.  He flinched at the feel of the cold marble under him.  It felt like a cell floor.  He could still feel Brandl’s hand on his arm and he rubbed the spot vigorously with his other hand, as if he could make it go away, as if he could make it all go away...

 

He balled his hands on either side of his head, trying to stop the pain, trying not to remember that which he could never forget.  A quiet sob shook his shoulders. 

 

~*~

 

 

Elladan and Elrohir were horrified at Legolas’ reaction.  The raw fear in his eyes before he fled both haunted and shocked them.  Legolas seemed so strong and unshakable; they would never have thought that something which to them seemed only mildly embarrassing could have ever affected him so badly.  They might have expected anger, outrage even, since they knew how disdainful the prince was of men, but they had never anticipated terror. 

 

Elladan looked at his brother and saw that there were tears in Elrohir’s eyes.  Elrohir swallowed hard, his tender heart smote deeply by the pain they had apparently caused. 

 

“We should never have done this, El,” the younger twin whispered hoarsely. 

 

Elladan had to agree.  Somehow, the situation had gone terribly wrong and now he had no idea how to fix them.  They had made a horrendous mess of things – again.  He wished he were dead or at least very far way from here. 

 

“Your highness?  Prince Legolas, is everything all right?” a voice called from the outer door as Brandl pulled himself back to his feet.  The humans all looked at one another uncertainly.  What had just happened? 

 

Elrynd was passing by Legolas’ chambers when he heard a loud crash of something breaking from within.  When he got no response to his worried inquiry, the servant let himself in to be sure that Legolas was all right.  What he found both surprised and dismayed the older elf.  It appeared he had found the missing envoys from Esgaroth, but what in the name of Manwë were they doing here?!

 

“Gentlemen, are you aware that you are in his Royal Highness Prince Legolas’ private chambers?” Elrynd inquired with a polite, but steely tone, fully prepared to call the guards if this was not an honest mistake. 

 

Every face in the room paled.  The *Prince*?  “Good sir, I fear there has been a terrible mistake,” Brandl tried desperately to salvage this unfortunate situation.  “We were told to wait here, we had no idea...”

 

“Told?  By whom?” Elrynd was still wary.  Visitors were not allowed nor admitted to any of the private royal chambers, everyone knew that. 

 

“Two elves,” Brandl explained.  “They had dark hair and I believe they were twins, they must be around here somewhere.”  The man was a little desperate, beginning to think that he and his men may be in very deep trouble.  “I swear to you we meant no disrespect or intrusion.”

 

“Twins, you say?” Elrynd relaxed a little, beginning to understand what had probably happened. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir, still hidden in the curtained doorway, wondered if it were physically possible to sink through the floor. 

 

“I fear, gentlemen that you have been mislead.  No, worry not.  I do not fault you, nor, I think, will their highnesses when the truth be known,” Elrynd assured the uneasy envoys.  He stepped out in the hall for a moment and could be heard calling to someone.  Another elf joined him quickly. 

 

“Maybren, please show these gentlemen to the audience chambers, the King is awaiting them,” Elrynd requested of his subordinate.  “If you will follow Maybren you may continue with your business here.  I am sure I speak for everyone when I apologize for this... misunderstanding.” The servant graciously but firmly escorted the men out of the prince’s chambers as he spoke.

 

“Nay, the apology is all ours.  Please tell the prince that we are very sorry to have disturbed him and he has my sincere apology for any distress our presence caused,” Brandl replied earnestly as they followed Maybren towards the correct location for their meeting with Thranduil.

 

“I shall indeed,” Elrynd assured, although he doubted it would do much good.  With a sigh he went back into Legolas’ chambers and shut the outer door behind him.  He had hoped Legolas had not been here since he was nowhere to be seen, but from what Brandl said they must have had some kind of run-in with the prince. 

 

He did not seem at all surprised to see a very guilty looking Elladan and Elrohir standing in the center of the room, even though they had not appeared to be there moments before.  He spared them only a passing glare. 

 

“Where is Legolas?” he asked quietly. 

 

Elrohir pointed at the bathroom door.  “Elrynd, we’re sorry, we didn’t mean...”

 

Elrynd silenced the younger elf with a gesture.  “I’m not the one you need to talk to.  I believe you have done enough here.”

 

The twins flinched, but Elrynd was not paying attention to them anymore.   He crossed the room.  Carefully stepping over the shattered glass on the floor, he knocked lightly on the door to the bath chamber.  He tried the handle, but found it locked. 

 

“Prince Legolas, your highness?  Are you all right, can you hear me?  ‘Tis Elrynd, Legolas.  Please open the door.”

 

There was no response from inside, so Elrynd made a decision.  Pulling a large ring of keys from his pocket he fitted one into the lock in the door and turned it, sliding back the bolts.  As Thranduil’s personal servant and seneschal, he had a master key to almost every lock in the palace. 

 

Elrynd tried to open the door, but found that it gave no more than a few inches.  This turned out to be due to the marble pedestal that had been placed against it and he gently eased it back a little, until he could squeeze through the narrow opening. 

 

“Your highness?” he called, looking around the room.  A soft sound from the back of the room drew him thither. 

 

What Elrynd found broke his heart.  Legolas was curled up on the floor, still dripping wet with a small puddle of water forming around him.  The prince was leaning forward with his arms on the side of the bathing tub before him.  His head was buried against his arms and his shoulders shook.  He was weeping. 

 

Hurrying back into the outer chamber, Elrynd grabbed the comforter off of the prince’s bed and made his way back to his distressed liege.  He ignored Elladan and Elrohir who were still standing uncertainly in the center of the room. 

 

Elrynd wrapped the down-filled quilt around Legolas’ shoulders.  Legolas started and looked up as if just noticing the servant’s presence.  He appeared relieved to see a friendly face and hugged the covering tightly around himself. 

 

“A-are they gone?” he asked shakily, quickly trying to dry his face and pretend that all the water there was coming from his wet hair. 

 

Elrynd crouched down next to the young prince’s side, keeping a comforting hand on his shoulder.  “Yes, they are gone, my Lord.  They asked me to apologize... they meant no harm, Legolas, they were just in the wrong place.”

 

Legolas did not look like he believed that for a moment, but he did not contradict the older elf.  “Could you ask Amil-Garil to put a guard outside my door, please?” the prince asked softly, hating how weak and frightened that made him sound.

 

“Of course, it is prudent after such a mix-up as this,” Elrynd tried to sooth the young elf’s shame at his own fears. 

 

Gently, Elrynd guided Legolas to his feet and into the other room.  Elladan and Elrohir were still standing there.  When Legolas saw them a look of vague understanding came over his face as he began to comprehend what had happened.  The twins fully expected the prince to be angry, to yell at them to get out of his rooms.  Once again, they were surprised.  Legolas merely looked at them, his pale face flushing a painful shade before he turned away and hurried past them into his bedroom.  He didn’t understand how they could have hurt him this way.  He didn’t understand how anyone could have hated him enough to know what they knew and intentionally put him in that kind of situation. 

 

The raw hurt in Legolas’ eyes made the twins feel ill.  This was not something they had ever wanted or intended to cause.  “Legolas... we’re sorry... please, we didn’t mean...”

 

“Leave,” it was Elrynd who answered them, standing protectively in the doorway to Legolas’ bedroom.  His voice was quiet but cold as he tried to contain the small flame of anger kindled in his breast.  He knew their young guests had meant no harm, but they had no idea what they had done.  Right now however, his only concern was for his young lord.  Elvéwen should be sent for, she was one of the few people who could get through to Legolas when he was in this kind of state. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir needed no prompting.  They fled the room, hurrying back to their own guest chambers.  Closing the door behind them they sat on the bed and looked at one another.  What had they done?  Apparently something far worse than they understood.  There was no call for Legolas to react that way; it had only been a joke...

 

“That’s it, we *are* dead,” Elrohir said quietly, twisting the end of his tunic in his fingers.  He wasn’t joking.  His grey eyes were frightened as well as remorseful.

 

Elladan flopped belly down on the bed, burying his face in the quilt.  “How do we manage to get into these situations?!” he moaned quietly, agreeing with his brother’s assessment.

 

“Do you really want an answer to that?” Elrohir asked dryly.  He stood to his feet, still favoring his injured leg a bit.  “We’ve got to get out of here,” he said quietly, his eyes going to the window.  “El... those elves weren’t joking, they’ll come back for us, if the King and Queen don’t kill us first.”

 

Elrohir opened the shutters and leaned out the sill, sizing up how hard it would be to make it to the ground from here. 

 

“No,” Elladan’s quiet voice made his brother turn away.  Elladan was now sitting cross-legged on the bed with a pillow clutched to his chest.  “We can’t run, El.  We’ve made a big enough mess already by doing that kind of thing.  Besides... where would we go?” he asked softly.  “We’ve got to stay and stick it out this time.”

 

Elrohir sagged dejectedly into a chair.  He knew his brother was right, but this wasn’t going to be good.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Legolas refused to leave his rooms.  For a long time he refused to see anyone but Elvéwen, until Raniean resorted to standing outside the door and pleading until he was admitted.  Elvéwen let Raniean in, hoping he could do some good by her hurting, troubled son. 

 

Raniean found Legolas lying on his bed, staring blankly out the window.  The emotions that had gripped him earlier were gone, leaving only empty, numb depression and shame in their wake.  The prince was fully dressed, but his hair was still damp and tangled as if he had never dried or combed it after his bath. 

 

“Legolas?” Raniean said softly, sitting on the edge of the bed and watching Legolas’ quiet back. 

 

“Go away, Ran,” the prince murmured.  “I want to be alone.”

 

“Well that’s nice,” Raniean said with gentle mock indignation.  “You make a pest of yourself to the guards every day and then when you finally can see me, you don’t want to.  I could be offended,” he said in a voice that suggested there was no real danger of such a thing.

 

Legolas rolled over quickly.  His eyes were red-rimmed and the sight made Raniean’s throat constrict.  He hadn’t seen Legolas this bad in a long time. 

 

“I-I didn’t mean it that way, Ran...” he shook his head earnestly. 

 

Raniean held up his hands, gesturing for peace.  “I know you didn’t,” he assured. 

 

“I just don’t want to talk right now,” Legolas admitted, his gaze wandering up to the ceiling. 

 

“Then we won’t,” Raniean transferred to a chair beside the prince’s bed.  Leaning back he stared up at the ceiling as well.  “But that doesn’t mean you have to be alone.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

As soon as his business with the delegation from Esgaroth was completed, Thranduil sent for his two young guests. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir had rarely felt so apprehensive as when they had to make the long trek from their rooms to the throne room.  The fury concealed behind the Elvenking’s cold blue eyes did nothing to reassure them. 

 

Thranduil was not sitting, he was too disturbed to sit.  Instead he paced in front of his throne, hands clasped tightly behind his back. 

 

“Do you want to explain to me what happened today?” Thranduil demanded quietly.  Too quietly. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir felt suddenly dry-mouthed and speechless. 

 

“I... we... we’re sorry, your highness, we didn’t mean to hurt Legolas,” Elladan said finally, when it was obvious that not speaking was only going to irritate Thranduil further. 

 

Thranduil held his hand up, silencing them abruptly.  “I did not ask you what you intended, I asked you what happened.”

 

The tale came out very haltingly, but Thranduil already knew the end result.  His glare bored smoldering holes in the twins as they weakly finished their explanation and hung their heads. 

 

Thranduil was livid.  “If any of my subjects had done to you what you have done to my son, they would be flogged for it,” he said his voice taut. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir’s faces paled, but they said nothing. 

 

“You have no idea what you have done, do you?” Thranduil continued.  “Does your father allow this kind of behavior in your realm?”  He was barely holding his anger in check as he questioned the young elves.

 

The twins glanced at each other unsure if they should venture an answer or not.

 

“Answer me!” Thranduil’s voice boomed through the throne room.

 

“No, we don’t understand,” Elrohir spoke up quickly answering the first question.

 

“And yes, we do these sorts of the things at home...,” Elladan stammered, picking up where his brother left off.

 

“...all the time, my lord,” Elrohir finished for his brother.  Nervously he reached for his twins’ hand as much for support as out of fear.  They would get scolded for their pranks of course, but usually if no one got hurt then no one was seriously angry with them. 

 

The back and forth answering that the two identical elves gave him confused Thranduil and he found himself glancing from one to the other as they stammered out an apology and tried to explain.  He was unused to the way twins would automatically speak for and with each other in this manner.

 

Finally having had enough and unable to keep up, he stopped them.

 

“Enough! One of you speak at a time,” Thranduil growled darkly.

 

Elrohir was visibly shaking at this point and Elladan stepped closer to his brother.

 

“We are very sorry.  We never meant to hurt Legolas.  In our house we do play pranks on one another, frequently sometimes.  Even Glorfindel gets good ones over on us from time to time,” Elladan explained quietly.  “He’s very good at it.”

 

Thranduil was surprised to hear about such a well-spoken of elf encouraging this type of behavior but he said nothing as the youngster before him continued speaking.

 

Elladan squared his shoulders.  They truly hadn’t meant any real harm, but they had apparently crossed some invisible line they did not understand.  It was possibly the final nail in the coffin they had put together rather nicely for themselves these past few weeks, he though glumly.  If Thranduil threw them out... what would they do then?

 

“El and I take full responsibility for our actions.  If by your laws, we must be punished, then we accept that consequence.  Just... don’t send us away.  We’ll accept any punishment you give, but please let us stay.  I... we... we have nowhere to go; even our Ada doesn’t want us back.”  Elladan was trying to carry himself like the young lord he was, but the boy inside him was hard pressed to deny the tears starting to sting his eyes as he pleaded for leniency on this one point.  He had begun to believe that they had indeed been abandoned by their family because of their behavior and now they had effectively burned their bridges here as well. 

 

The words took Thranduil by surprise and he found his anger waning slightly in the face of the distraught elflings before him.

 

Leaning forward he lowered his voice a notch and questioned the one twin that was still speaking for them both.  “Why would you say such a thing?”

 

“My lord?” Elladan questioned.  He was unsure what exactly Thranduil was asking.

 

“Why do you think your Adar does not want you anymore?”

 

“He sent us away to our relatives and now he has not asked to have us returned or sent word that he is coming for us.  He was angry when we left.  Why would he want us back now?”  Elladan whispered. 

 

Elrohir began to cry softly.  He didn’t want to show his feelings like this in front of the King, but he seemed to have no control over the matter.  Desperately he wiped his eyes with clenched fists, turning his head away slightly as if in hopes that no one would notice. 

 

“I think, young ones, that perhaps the answer is not what you fear at all.  Your father may simply not be available to answer the message I sent.  Although after the stunt you pulled today it wouldn’t surprise me if he did leave you here awhile.  That however, is only my opinion at the moment; do not be so certain that he no longer wants you.  You young ones often think that of us.  And it is not true.” Thranduil stared hard at the two elves in front of him.  His voice had softened slightly, his initial red-hot rage beginning to abate.  He saw in the depths of the twins’ eyes the same fear he had seen so many times in his own son.  He felt compassion on their situation and their fears, but he was still very displeased and intended to see the twins punished, although nothing quite as drastic as they were fearing, he was sure.  He would not suffer his son to such shame after Legolas had come so far to heal.

 

“He will come for you, worry not,” Thranduil assured once more.  “Because I owe your father a debt of gratitude I could never begin to repay, I will not subject you to the punishment you deserve.  However you will remain confined to your room for the rest of the fortnight.  I do not wish to see either of you at all for the next four days.  When your confinement is over you will help in the Kitchens as you seem to have more energy than you know what to do with.  I will decide later when I am not so angry, just how long that will last.  Am I understood?”

 

Both of the dark heads nodded mutely.

 

“Randomir, escort Elrond’s children to their room and see to it that they remain there,” Thranduil ordered.  The head of his guard had just entered and only heard the last of the King’s conversation with the twins.

 

Randomir stepped forward and escorted the twins out, taking the children a little more roughly by the shoulders than he had intended.  He had not yet heard the full tale of what had happened, but Elrynd had filled him in on the details that mattered – Legolas had retreated again.  And it was the fault of these two elflings.

 

Elrohir had barely stopped crying and shied away from the tall elf when the guard grabbed his tunic and shoved him out of the throne room.

 

Seeing the fear in the young ones eyes, Randomir relented slightly.  Releasing them, he pushed the twins more gently in front of him, allowing them to walk side by side.

 

Elladan glanced warily over his shoulder at the elf who was guiding them.  He recognized this one from before when they had been rescued.  The elf did not smile or speak to them but he had seemed kind enough at the time so Elladan relaxed slightly.

 

“Do you really think Ada will come for us?” Elrohir asked softly.

 

“I do not know.  I hope so but ... I just don’t know El.  After this?” Elladan whispered his response.

 

Randomir had heard this conversation before.  Not from these two but from other young elves in his charge and he had overheard Thranduil’s answer to them as well.

 

“He will come,” Randomir answered, startling even himself.  He forced a smile when Elrohir flinched.

 

As they walked by Legolas’ room the door opened and Elvéwen stepped out into the hallway.  Elrohir hazarded a quick glance into the chambers and saw Legolas sitting on his bed with the elf they had come to know as Raniean.

 

Quickly making up his mind, Elrohir stopped in front of the queen.  He was a peace-maker by nature and did not like having this shroud of enmity hanging around them.  It had always been something unique about the youngest of the twins.  He liked to seek out those he had hurt or offended and ask forgiveness, unwilling to live with himself if he could not make amends.  It hurt his heart too much.  And so it was that without a second thought he found himself before the queen of Mirkwood begging her to be let in to talk to Legolas.

 

Stepping away from Randomir, Elrohir blocked the queen’s path.

 

“Please your highness; may I go speak with Legolas?  I need to.  I cannot stay in my room for four days seeing no one and unable to apologize.  Please,” he asked forlornly.  “We meant no harm.  We did not know it would affect him so.”

 

“Elrohir!” Elladan hissed pulling his twin back against him. “We have already done enough. Let it go.”

 

“I can not let it go,” Elrohir answered just as softly.

 

“I am not sure that is such a good idea right now,” Elvéwen replied at the exact same time that Raniean, who had heard them from inside the room, barked out a stern ‘no’.  The queen looked down into the tear stained, upturned face.  Her son had been hurt, again, and this time it had been by the hands of these two small guests.  She wanted to shield Legolas from further pain. She wanted her son back, the one that smiled and laughed, whose heart was trusting and carefree.  But it seemed that that elfling was long gone.  Gazing down at the two dark haired elves she warred with herself as she thought over the request.  Deep in her heart she knew that somewhere across the mountains another mother worried over her children, the two that were now in Elvéwen’s care.

 

“I must tell him I’m sorry. Ada says it is good for the heart, both the one that has been offended and the one that has done the offending.” Elrohir’s gaze never the left the eyes of the queen.  “Ada is always right,” He whispered.  “I promise not to hurt him anymore.”

 

With a small sigh Elvéwen glanced at Randomir.  The guard stoically returned her gaze.  He wanted nothing more than to shield Legolas from further pain as well and was not predisposed to let these two anywhere near his prince.  Randomir discreetly shook his head no.

 

Making up her own mind about the matter, Elvéwen crouched down in front of the younger elves that huddled next to one another.  “Your father is a wise man.  I know you did not *mean* to hurt my son and would expect you to never do so again.”

 

Elladan nodded soberly.  Everyone kept asking if they knew what they had done, but no one told them what exactly had made it so wrong.  Yet he was beginning to understand that Legolas must have been hurt pretty badly in Dorolyn.  That was the only thing that could account for the raw terror they had seen on his face earlier.  “We would not have acted as we did if we knew it would cause so much grief.”

 

“We have human blood in us...” Elrohir whispered as though the admission was a secret.

 

“...and we have always had good relations with the towns around our home.  We didn’t know... didn’t think it would be so different here,” Elladan finished their combined thought.

 

“We did the same thing once to Glorfindel,” Elrohir admitted.

 

“After he got over being angry at first, he thought it was funny,” Elladan confessed.

 

Elvéwen suppressed a small smile.  She found their ability to finish one another’s sentences endearing.

 

“You must remember that when you visit someone you are not free to act as you would at home,” the queen instructed them gently, “You never know what has gone on before you came to stay nor the way that house is run.  I would dare to say that the way things are run here in the palace are not at all like your home over the mountains.  And it is not polite to pull pranks on people whom you have only recently been introduced to.”

 

“I know,” Elrohir said softly, “Naneth says that too.  We just... we were upset because Legolas and his friends were making fun of humans.”

 

“And well, we took it personally,” Elladan offered.  “We shouldn’t have.”

 

“They were, were they?” Elvéwen questioned.  She turned her gaze on Randomir.

 

“But...but we don’t want them to get in trouble, please,” Elladan quickly interjected, seeing the glance that passed between the adults.  He hoped they had not already said too much, he did *not* want to anger Sarcayul and Sarcaulien.  He gently reached out and touched the queen’s arm.  “Please, we won’t trouble you any more, just let us apologize.”

 

Elvéwen stood to her feet and regarded the two elves solemnly for a moment.

 

“I think it would do Legolas good.  And you do owe him an apology,” she agreed.  She hoped she was doing the right thing as she slowly opened the door, making sure her son was fit for visitors and preceded the two elflings back into the prince’s room.

 

“Legolas, you have someone who wants to speak with you,” Elvéwen warned him softly.

 

Elrohir moved out from behind the queen’s profile allowing the prince to see him.

 

Legolas turned away from the Noldo elf and glanced out the window, shaking his head slowly.  Raniean stood to his feet defiantly but was warned quickly off by his father who had followed the queen.

 

Grabbing Elladan by the sleeve, Elrohir tugged his twin forward.

 

“Legolas?” the Noldo twin ventured quietly, “I needed to apologize, please, if you’ll let me.”

 

With a sigh the blonde haired elf turned back towards his guests.  Part of him wanted nothing to do with them and part of him knew that it was his responsibility as royalty to be more gracious.

 

The prince looked like he had been crying as much as Elrohir had.  It startled Legolas to see that there were still tears in the younger elf’s eyes.

 

Elrohir didn’t speak when the Silvan prince looked his way; instead he did something more surprising.  He took off his outer tunic, passed it to his brother, and turned around slowly so Legolas could see his exposed skin.  His back, shoulders and stomach were crisscrossed with thin whip lines that were just now starting to disappear.  Holding his palms up towards the prince, it was easy to see new pink skin on his wrists were ugly, vicious rope burns had once been.  His heritage caused him to heal more slowly than his full blooded kinsmen.  In time the scars would fade completely.  But it would be a while yet before the healed marks would completely absorb back into his body without a trace.

 

“Not too long ago, Elladan and I were caught by orcs and beaten.  They... they were very cruel to us,” Elrohir whispered.  “It’s partly why Ada sent us away.  The orcs are back near our home again.  It has been several seasons at least since then, but we... we do not like to show the scars because they heal so much slower on us than they do on our other kindred.  But...but I show them to you now because the way you looked earlier was the way I feel when we run across orc trails near our home.”  Elrohir swallowed hard, his voice dropping softly.  Elladan’s warm hand on his shoulder helped steady him and he backed up against his brother.  “I don’t know what happened to you, but I recognized the look on your face.  And I know how I’d have felt if someone put me in that situation with orcs.  I’m really sorry.  You probably won’t believe me, but we honestly never meant to truly cause you harm.”

 

The look of horror that passed across Legolas’ features betrayed his silence.  The light pink stripes on the younger elf were similar to the ones he had borne not so long ago.  He understood now why the twins wore those light under-tunics when they were swimming together.  It may not be a Rivendell custom after all.  It was probably just a choice of the twins, who hadn’t wanted to show their scars anymore than he wanted to bare his. 

 

“You don’t... but... You mean you don’t know what happened in Dorolyn?” Legolas asked softly.

 

“No,” Elladan answered for the both of them. “Well, not exactly.  Ada only said that you had been captured.  He helped you get out and brought you home, here.  He said he helped heal you from some injuries you had taken, but I guess I didn’t stop to think how you might have gotten those injuries.  I assumed maybe you were hurt in the fight.  I guess now that you were probably intentionally hurt and beaten, like El and I were by the orcs.  I... I’m sorry.  What I said to you before... I should not have said.  I should not have spoken carelessly about events I was not privy to understand.”

 

“I thought you knew, I...”  Legolas faltered.  He glanced at Ran who breathed a sigh of relief and smiled back at him.  The prince could live with the twins thinking the worst thing that happened to him in Dorolyn was being beaten and ill treated. 

 

“Please forgive us,” Elrohir entreated once more, “I can’t stay confined in my room for four days knowing you hate us.”

 

“I don’t hate you,” Legolas answered softly, “I did misunderstand you though and I do forgive you.”

 

“Then you won’t tell... any of your other friends, will you?”  Elrohir blurted out before Elladan could stop him.  His twin’s hand covered his mouth a second after the words had left.  Elladan jabbed his brother sharply in the ribs.  Oh that had been a brilliant move!

 

“Don’t get them suspicious.  He’ll kill us,” Elladan whispered harshly to his brother.  He kept his voice low enough so that Legolas and the others before them could not hear, but had forgotten that the captain of the guard stood directly behind them.

 

Randomir, who had been waiting quietly, stepped forward and questioned the twins.

 

“Who said they would kill you?” His voice was stern and the twins flinched as they spun around.

 

“Uh... no one,” Elrohir attempted, but it fell very flat.  No one believed that. 

 

“I’m sure it was all a misunderstanding too.  He said we couldn’t tell.  We gave our word, and we won’t,” Elladan began to explain.  He was interrupted by Raniean.

 

“It was Sarcayul and his brother, wasn’t it?”  Raniean walked around the bed and stood beside his father.  “Trelan said there was an argument and Sarcaulien was involved.  It was about humans and some harsh words were exchanged.”  Raniean was not clear on the specifics, knowing only what he had heard from his friend, but he knew enough of Sarcayul and Sarcaulien to know that they could be dangerous people to cross when their tempers were aggravated.

 

“Is this true, was it them?” Randomir asked. 

 

“What did they say to you?” Legolas asked, almost at the same time.  He glanced from his mother to the twins. 

 

Elvéwen sat on the edge of the bed and encouraged the Noldo elves, “No one will hurt you in this house and no one has the right to threaten the guests of the King either.”

 

The twins looked a bit confused.  They still thought the other elves had acted on Legolas’ behest, but the honestly confused look in the prince’s eyes suddenly made them think otherwise. 

 

“Please, I’d really rather not say who it was or wasn’t.  We gave our oath and we don’t want anymore trouble,” Elrohir said quietly.  “We have caused enough already.  We just don’t want to get killed for what we’ve done either.”

 

Legolas laughed softly, a sound that caused the other elves in the room to smile and brighten.  It usually took the prince a bit to recover from something as traumatic as what he had endured earlier.

 

“Well if it *was* Sar and Sarc, they won’t *really* kill you, I promise,” Legolas reassured.  He of course, had no way of knowing that the threats had been much more violent than just words.  “Was it them?”

 

Elladan and Elrohir shook their heads mutely, indicating that they were unwilling to speak. 

 

“I’d like to tell you,” Elladan said softly.  “Believe me, I would, but Ada taught us to take oaths we swore on our honor seriously, no matter how they came to be given.”

 

No one there could argue with that, despite how they might have felt. 

 

Legolas sighed and let the matter drop.  “It probably was them, but please don’t mention it to them Randomir.  If Elladan and Elrohir don’t want to confirm it for sure, then it will only stir up more bad blood with them, and between you and Traycaul.  I am sure they thought they were protecting me,” Legolas said finally.  “I’ll talk to them about it, I promise.”  Legolas realized that Sarcaulien had probably taken to heart the prince’s fear that the twins would say something and resorted to fool-hardy measures.  He didn’t want Sarcaulien to get in trouble for it, but he didn’t want them threatening the twins anymore either.  He could see they were sorry, and now that he knew they did not know his secrets he felt a great deal better.  He desperately hoped this whole, painful situation would just be allowed to fade away.  He was still badly shaken by his experience earlier, but he hated the way everyone was crowding around and worrying over him.  He had to move on and push the demons back again, and swiftly before he lost ground in the eyes of those he loved.  The demons of the past wouldn’t go away.  They never went away, but he could pretend they did not exist and life would eventually return to normal once more.

 

Fixing a firm smile on his face that he knew he would eventually be genuine if he kept it in place long enough, Legolas hoped everyone else was ready to move on as well. 

 

“Thank you,” Elladan breathed softly, “We never meant to cause so much trouble.”

 

“We do this all the time at home,” Elrohir confessed.  “In fact last month when Glorfindel returned, we...”  The twin’s story was interrupted when Elladan leapt at his brother and covered his mouth once more pulling his twin with him from the room.

 

“I’m sure you don’t want to hear that story.  We’ll just go to our room now and we’ll be good we promise.” He tried to reassure with a smile.  Releasing Elrohir he smacked his brother on the back of his head and passed his twin back his shirt.

 

“Would that be Glorfindel the Balrog Slayer that I have heard tales of?” Legolas questioned.

 

Raniean looked horrified that the twins would pull pranks on such a highly renowned elf.

 

“Yes, the very one!” Elrohir answered.  “He tells the best stories!”

 

“Well stay and tell me some,” Legolas entreated.  “Please.”

 

But his request was met with downcast glances.

 

“We have to stay in our rooms for the next four days and we aren’t to be seen,” Elladan answered softly, “I’m sorry, maybe later.”

 

“Well just because you are confined to your room doesn’t mean I’m confined to mine,” Legolas offered with a small smile.  “If I come with you, will you finish that story?”

 

“Can he come?” Elrohir asked, glancing up at the tall guard that stood behind them.  Randomir was trying to steer the two to their own rooms.  He had been gone long enough; the King would begin to wonder what had taken so long.

 

“I don’t see why not,” Elvéwen answered for the Saleon.  “Go on, you were already given the day off.  Go enjoy yourself, my love.” She kissed Legolas on the top of the head and pulled the covers out of his way as he swung his legs off the side of the bed.

 

“Father?” Raniean questioned the older elf.

 

“Yes, you may go as well,” Randomir consented.  Actually he wouldn’t have had it any other way.  He wasn’t quite at ease yet with Legolas being alone with the twins.  Legolas had recovered a bit too quick for his liking.  He knew the prince was acting again, putting on the smile he thought everyone wanted to see.  The truth was, they did want to see it... and even if it was an act, it was better for Legolas to smile than to mourn.  So he said nothing, just giving Legolas’ shoulder a squeeze before they parted. 

 

“You know, you’re not so bad either,” Elladan commented over his shoulder as Ran walked into the guest room.  “Sorry we misjudged you.”  His voice could be heard through the door as it swung shut.

 

“I’ll have a guard brought up.  To make sure the room is secure and to keep those two in for the next few days,” Randomir answered his queen’s unspoken request.  “I pity Elrond and Celebrìan.”

 

“They do have their hands full,” Elvéwen agreed with a small laugh. “But they seem to be good for Legolas.  He recovered much quicker than I thought he would.”

 

Their conversation was cut short as a commotion drew attention down the hall.  Thranduil mounted the stairs and stalked towards his wife and captain.

 

Peals of laughter rang out from behind the closed door of the twins’ room causing the King to quirk an eyebrow and glance at his wife.

 

“I thought I banished them to their room.  Do I hear other voices in there?” Thranduil questioned darkly.

 

Taking her husband by the arm, Elvéwen gently turned the King around and proceeded to lead him away from the door. 

 

“You do indeed, my dear,” she affirmed his suspensions. “And you will not disturb them as Legolas is in there and apparently enjoying himself.  I will not suffer you to interrupt.  They are not so unalike you know - our son and Elrond’s children.  Besides the youngest was so endearing I think he won our son over.”

 

“The youngest?”  Thranduil glanced at his wife in confusion.  He was still trying to grasp the whole concept of identical elves.  “I thought they were twins!”

 

Elvéwen laughter followed them down the stairs as she explained what had transpired to her husband.  Things were settling down once more in the palace and she was glad for that.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Legolas floated on his back in the water, looking up at the tree-filled sky.  The sun shining through the leaves above turned them golden-green.  The water lapped gently at his ears as his hair spread around him like pale seaweed, undulating softly on the waves and ripples generated by his companions.  He sensed a presence near and righted himself before Raniean could get close enough to think about dunking him.  They were back at the lake again today, and after some urging Legolas had consented to join them today.  After all, they were all friends here. 

 

Raniean nudged Legolas and jerked his head towards the shallower water where Elladan and Elrohir were amusing themselves.  The twins stopped every few minutes to slap the surface of the water and trill, obviously still trying to keep away the alleged snakes. 

 

“WHAT is all that about?” Raniean asked, perplexed by their behavior. 

 

Legolas couldn’t help laughing as he answered, “Oh Ran, that’s quite a story...”

 

Raniean rolled his eyes.  “Wait, do not tell me... three ringed water snakes, right?”

 

Legolas nodded, treading water languidly.  “That’s the one.”

 

Before their conversation could go much further, a loud cry from the shallows yanked their attention back to where the twins had been playing. 

 

At a distance, Legolas honestly couldn’t tell which one was Elladan and which was Elrohir, but one of the dark haired elves was thrashing around and the other was calling out urgently for help. 

 

Legolas, Raniean and Trelan knifed swiftly through the water, reaching the panicking younger elves a few moments after the alarm went up. 

 

Elrohir was holding Elladan, trying to pull him towards shore.  Elladan’s eyes were closed. 

 

“Help him!” Elrohir was pleading urgently, almost incoherently.  “Something bit him, I think it was one of those snakes!”

 

Legolas immediately looked around them in alarm.  There were no such thing as the snakes they feared, but that didn’t mean there might not be something else nasty in the water.  Unfortunately the shallows had already been churned up into a muddy brown color from the twins’ frantic movements and even the sharp eyes of the Mirkwood elves could see nothing below the surface. 

 

Legolas grabbed Elladan from his brother.  Holding the younger elf under the armpits he towed him quickly to the bank and carried him up onto the shore.  Raniean swiftly escorted Elrohir out while Trelan jumped out and quickly dragged his tunic on, preparing to run for help. 

 

Legolas’ dripping fingers instantly sought a pulse at the base of Elladan’s neck.  He was relieved to find it, but the twin’s chest did not rise or fall.  Elladan wasn’t breathing. 

Chapter Text

~*PART ELEVEN*~
~Mending Bridges~

 

 

Urgently, the prince scanned the other elf’s body for signs of a bite wound, trying to figure out what manner of injury or possible venom it was with which they dealt.  He didn’t see anything, and Elladan’s symptoms did not make sense.  Quickly turning his attention back to the younger elf’s lack of breathing, the prince tipped the dark haired elf’s head back, trying to open his airway.  What was wrong?  The water was shallow and Elladan had not been submerged, he couldn’t be drowning!  Was something swelling his throat shut?  Legolas’ mind raced frantically.  There were just too many possibilities and he’d never seen anything like this before.

 

Suddenly Elladan choked... no, he wasn’t choking, he was... laughing?  Legolas pulled back, slightly stunned for a moment as the formerly comatose elf sat up, laughing merrily at the shock on the prince’s face. 

 

Elrohir, now standing on the bank nearby, was also laughing while Raniean and Trelan goggled at them as if they had lost their minds or grown a second head.

 

Suddenly, the truth dawned upon the Mirkwood elves and Legolas scowled, giving Elladan a shove as he rose to his feet.  “There wasn’t anything wrong with you at all!” he accused.  “You nearly scared me to death!”

 

Elladan struggled to his feet, his efforts impaired by the laughter he did not seem to be able to control. 

 

“No, and there’s no such thing as three ringed water snakes, is there?” he tossed back with a large, wicked grin.  He thoroughly enjoyed the fact that his retort left the three older elves speechless and looking slightly embarrassed. 

 

“You should have SEEN the look on your face, Legolas!” Elrohir added helpfully. “Valar, your eyes were *this* big!” he demonstrated the size with his hands.

 

The laughter was infectious, and Legolas and his friends were soon joining in, even if it was at their expense. 

 

“Well that’s not as big as yours were when you were busily slapping the water and trilling like a crazy loon,” Trelan retorted with a chuckle.  “When did you figure it out?”

 

Elladan and Elrohir laughed along at themselves as well as the other elves.  “Well father is always after us to be prepared for emergencies.  So before we left today we asked Elrynd if there were any herbs or medicines we ought to be taking along in case of snake bites since we were going swimming...”

 

Raniean nodded his head as he splashed back into the water.  “And of course he told you there was no such thing.”

 

Elladan and Elrohir concurred.  “Sorry for worrying you, but we just couldn’t pass it up...” their grins said they were not the least bit sorry.

 

Legolas smiled wickedly.  “Oh, I forgive you... or I will... after you’ve swallowed half the lake!” he threatened, chasing after the two younger elves who shouted in merry alarm as they dove back into the water to escape the playful onslaught of their Silvan companions. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Two horses picked their way swiftly along the twisting forest path.  One a deep charcoal black, the other a glossy, dappled grey that was light enough to border upon white. 

 

Their riders were as different as the horses themselves.  Both were elves and both bore an air of nobility.  One was crowned with a mane of dark sepia tresses, intricately braided where they fell around his face.  The other was crowned with golden tresses that at the moment were not braided at all, but allowed to fall freely about his face and shoulders. 

 

They were making good time, but it was obvious that the slow caution needed to navigate the often uneven path was grating on the nerves of the dark haired elf. 

 

“They are safe, my lord.  Worrying will not get us to Lasgalen a moment faster,” the golden haired one remarked after several long hours of watching his companion glare at his mount’s neck as if he could probably dismount and walk faster than they were currently traveling.  “And no, I do not think it would help if you got down to show the horses the way.”

 

Elrond pressed his eyes closed and sighed.  He gave Glorfindel a sideways glance.  “Am I that obvious?”

 

A small smile tugged at the corner of the golden haired elf’s mouth.  “Yes, my lord.”

 

Elrond turned his attention back to the path they were traversing.  He had set out from Rivendell the instant he returned and Celboril had given him the message.  He had been alarmed and unable to fathom how his sons had gotten from Lórien all the way to Mirkwood, apparently alone.  They had no warriors to spare, so Elrond and Glorfindel came alone.  Near the Anduin, they had met up with the party of Galadhrim, Celeborn had sent to collect the twins after Celebrían arrived and they had discovered that there would have been no one in Rivendell to receive the message sent thither.  The Galadhrim were not mounted, so Elrond and Glorfindel rode on ahead, bidding them to follow and meet them at their destination.  Elrond’s conscious mind knew his sons were safe, but he still wished to see such for himself before his heart could be at ease. 

 

Then he was going to kill them.

 

What in ARDA had they been thinking?  Ah well, time enough for that later, he supposed. 

 

When at last their destination came in sight, it felt like not a moment too soon.  They rode swiftly and unchallenged to the sealed gates of the palace.  Both elves knew that their presence had been known and tracked for a long time now, no doubt ever since they had entered the invisible borders of the wood-elf’s realm.  However, Elrond had been here before no great matter of years before, so he was recognized as a friend and their journey had not been impeded in anyway. 

 

Elrond and Glorfindel swung swiftly and gracefully off their horses.  Elrond bowed his head in gracious greeting to the gate guards, but the strain of haste was visible upon his smooth features. 

 

He began to explain his presence, but the gates were already being opened.  Everyone knew why the Lord of Imladris had come, although it surprised them that he had arrived virtually alone.

 

“Come,” the guard bowed respectfully.  “King Thranduil has long been awaiting your arrival.”

 

Elrond flinched inwardly at the unintended implication of the words.  With Glorfindel following, he walked quickly into the courtyard. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Dripping and exhausted, Legolas, Elladan and Elrohir walked back through the palace gates.  They had parted with Raniean and Trelan where the path split between the village and the palace, each going their own way towards home. 

 

The three young elves were in good spirits after their day of leisure and smiled despite being tired.  Legolas had taken the time to dry and redress himself, so that only his damp, tousled hair gave away his recent preoccupation.  The twins, however, had only bothered with their leggings and boots, carrying, rather than wearing the majority of their now damp clothes.  

 

The instant they entered the courtyard, they knew something was different.  Two figures were hastily making their way up the stairs towards the main doors of the palace.  Figures Elladan and Elrohir knew well. 

 

“Ada?” the almost whispered word from behind him made Elrond freeze on the top step.  Turning swiftly, he saw his sons standing in the gateway, looking like wet street urchins, but obviously very much alive and well. 

 

Retracing his steps, he hurried back down the path and gathered his missing children into a welcoming, relieved embrace.  He didn’t care that they were wet, or that he was now wet.  He was just so relieved to see them. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir were stunned for a moment.  They had not expected to see their father here and they were torn between joy and terror.  Joy won out and they dropped their damp belongings, returning their father’s embrace. 

 

“You did come for us!” Elrohir whispered happily as they pulled apart once more. 

 

“We were afraid you didn’t want us back,” Elladan admitted.  “You do... don’t you?”

 

Legolas was surprised they were so easily forthcoming, but Elrond did not seem shocked by their candor, only squeezed their arms tighter. 

 

“Of course we want you back!” Elrond actually chuckled at such a ridiculous notion.  His eyes turned sober for a moment.  “Do not mistake me, we *will* talk about your behavior later.  But for right now...” His eyes gentled again.  “I’m just glad to see you are all right.”

 

“We’re glad to see you too, Ada,” Elrohir said softly.  “And we’re sorry, really we are.  We were wrong and foolish, but... you still love us?” the question desperately begged an answer.

 

Elrond ran a gentle hand through his son’s wet, tangled hair.  “Of course I do, ion-nín.  More than life.  Come now, we will talk later.  You need to change.”  Elrond glanced down at his own now damp and water-stained clothing.  “And now so do I before I meet with King Thranduil,” he remarked ruefully, glad for the change of clothing in his pack. 

 

“You can come change in our room, Ada,” the twins agreed, beginning to lead him away towards the palace. 

 

Elrond paused as he felt eyes watching him.  He turned to find Legolas still standing quietly to the side, watching the elf lord interact with his sons.  Elrond paused for a moment.  There were many emotions swirling behind the young elf’s eyes, but Elrond could barely catch a glimpse of them before they receded back into the depths of the prince’s soul. 

 

Legolas smiled quietly, pleased to see Elrond again, even if he suspected the elf lord would not be staying long.

 

“Greetings, Lord Elrond,” he bowed respectfully.  “You are welcome in our realm.”  He was momentarily a little unsure of himself.  He knew the last time they had parted Elrond had still been worried for him.  It was a little awkward to run into him again like this, without a chance to mentally prepare himself, but perhaps it was the best way really. 

 

Elrond smiled and returned the prince’s bow.  “Thank you, Legolas.  You look well.”

 

Legolas hesitated a moment, then inclined his head slightly in ascent.  “I am well.”

 

Elrond nodded, his smile kind.  “So I can see.”  He knew that some scars could take a lifetime to heal.  He suspected this would be the case with Legolas, but from what he could see, the prince was learning how to live again, and for now, that was enough. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Aragorn shook his head, trying hard to contain his laughter.  “I had no idea you two had made such hellions of yourself in Thranduil’s court. No wonder some people were not anxious to host another member of this family!” he teased his brothers. 

 

Elrohir rolled his eyes.  “That was a long, long time ago, brother.  Many things change with time.”

 

Legolas chuckled.  These memories held no sting for him anymore and he could laugh now at the convoluted beginnings of his acquaintance with these people whom he now counted dear, dear friends.  “Yes, as well they should, else Estel might not have lived long enough to become my friend.” 

 

“You have no idea how frightened El and I were for you when we heard you might have ended up in Thranduil’s realm alone on your first time out on your own, Estel,” Elladan admitted with a grin.  “You don’t think we rode all the way out there to find you just to pass the time of day, did you?  When you told me you had used that knock-out trick on Legolas I almost skipped a heart-beat for a moment, except that Legolas seemed to be taking it with good humor.”

 

“Several thousand years can temper one’s reactions,” Legolas said with a smile.  “Besides, I daresay your brother has a much more winning way about him than you two do.”  The prince’s grin was devilish. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir protested loudly, which only made everyone laugh. 

 

“I’m hungry,” Dari’s proclamation reminded everyone that the evening was growing late. 

 

“That sounds like your cue, El,” Elladan said with a smug grin, nudging his twin as he lounged back in his chair. 

 

Elrohir grumbled as he rose to his feet, muttering something the others could not understand. 

 

“Elrohir is going to cook dinner for us tonight, all by himself, aren’t you El?” Elladan said with a self-satisfied gleam in his eyes that made his twin want to throttle him.  “He lost our wager,” Elladan explained for the benefit of everyone else in the room.

 

“If Elrohir is cooking, I fear we are all lost!” Trelan teased.  They knew it was a joke; the twins were fine cooks when the situation required. 

 

Aragorn raised his eyebrows.  “Dare I ask what kind of wager that was?”

 

“No!” Elrohir said quickly, shooting his twin a glare.  “I promised to make dinner, but only if you keep your mouth shut.”

 

Elladan gestured magnanimously as he settled further back into his comfy seat.  “My lips are sealed.”

 

Of course this exchange only piqued everyone’s interest and Elladan was bombarded with questions as Elrohir stalked out of the room.  The elder twin wisely kept whatever he knew to himself however, giving only vague hints and clues to keep the others going. 

 

Aragorn for once did not pursue the questioning with the others.  Pulling back from the center of attention slightly, he seated himself next to Legolas who was watching the clamor with a soft, amused smile. 

 

Aragorn quietly called Draecyn to him and asked him to go help Elrohir.  The main contingent of Gondorian soldiers were housed in the outer buildings of Rivendell and had their meals taken care of apart from the rest, but even so, just the main group that stayed here in the house itself was a sizable lot and Aragorn wanted to see dinner sometime in the next century.  Draecyn complied very willingly, being of much the same mind. 

 

After a time, Aragorn turned to his friend. 

 

“You know, hearing that story made me wonder... what did I ever do to earn your trust?” the human asked, honestly puzzled.  “In the beginning I mean.  Nothing remarkable happened to us in Mirkwood in those first tenuous weeks.  There was no drastic chance for me to prove that I meant you no harm... yet by the time Sarcaulien was killed you were ready to face banishment to save my life.  Why?” 

 

Aragorn realized there was so much he had taken for granted back then, so much he, like his brothers before him, had not known about Legolas and the depth of the pain he had had to overcome.  Looking back now, with all he knew and had learned since then, he truly was shocked that Legolas hadn’t simply left him to die when the ranger found himself wounded and helpless on the borders of the woods.  Even more shocking was that the prince had ever been able to consider him a friend, much less defend him from his other friends whom the elf had known centuries longer. 

 

Legolas watched the man with a fond smile.  Aragorn really didn’t know, did he? 

 

“Do?  You didn’t have to do anything, Estel.  You were yourself.  You were kind, loyal, trustworthy, intelligent, understanding and had a good sense of humor - everything I thought humans could not posses.  You didn’t strike back; you didn’t hate me when I hated you.  You didn’t retaliate when I ridiculed you or treated you like an inferior child.  You didn’t get angry when my friends tormented you.  All you did was try harder to be understanding and to reach out to me no matter how many times I pushed you away and returned kindness with coldness.  You didn’t have to do something drastic to show me... it was all the little things that opened my eyes and drew me to you.  And actually, you did risk your life to help me that day when I was poisoned by the trap in the woods.  Understand, Estel, that if I had died under your care that day, even if it was not in anyway your fault, it still would have been perceived as your doing and your end would have been very slow and horrible.  My friends and my father would have seen to that.”

 

Aragorn shuddered slightly, but smiled.  “Then I am very glad you lived!” he teased.  “But I never thought of that at the time, Legolas.  I just wanted to help you.”

 

“I know.” The elf smiled softly.  “And *that* is how you won me over.  There was no duplicity in you, no hidden motive for me to doubt and fear.  You didn’t respect me for my royalty or fear me for my skills.  You wanted to be with me because for some unfathomable reason, you liked *me*.  And that was ultimately precious to me.”

 

Aragorn laughed.  “Unfathomable?  Nay, what was unfathomable was that someone as well respected as you, with a kingdom of friends to choose from, allowed a stray human pup to follow him around and were actually kind enough to call him friend.”

 

Legolas embraced his friend, giving him a warm hug.  “You undervalue yourself as usual.  But Estel, sometimes when a heart has been hurt, it needs the innocence of a puppy to teach it to trust again.”

 

Aragorn laughed.  “So that’s why you liked me?  Was I something akin to bringing home another ketral?”  He found the idea hilarious.

 

Legolas laughed and cuffed him lightly.  “That wasn’t what I meant!  But now that you mention it, you do remind me of them in many ways...”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Draecyn followed Elrohir to the kitchens, offering his assistance.  The elf quickly accepted the help and tossed the guard a patterned apron.

 

Quirking an eyebrow in the twin’s direction, Draecyn silently questioned the elf’s sanity.

 

“It’s that one, or one of Arwen’s, leftover from when she was a child - and they are pink.  Take your pick,” the elf offered with a wicked grin.  “We haven’t had time to clean the others.”

 

Quickly, the soldier tied the flowered apron around his waist and walked to the wash basin, inquiring what they were cooking.

 

“I think there is more roast in the cellars but not enough.  So I thought to make a stew with some of the smaller left over pieces of meat that we have.  Venison, boar, quail they will do nicely together I believe.  There are still fresh greens that will make for a decent enough salad but we are out of bread.  The dough has been rising throughout the day so we will need to cook that as well.  And of course sweet nuts, and the best I have been saving!” Elrohir’s voice turned conspiratorial as he walked to the far wall of the kitchen. 

 

Shouldering the tall cabinet that held most of the baking supplies he pushed the wooden structure a few feet to the right, exposing a tiny hole in the wall.  Using the opening he popped the wooden slat out of the stone wall revealing a cache of food hidden in the house structure.  The elf pulled out a bundle of cloth and unwrapped it, laying the contents on the table.

 

There, hidden away from everyone else was a stash of sweet honey cakes. 

 

“There was a delivery from Beorning two days ago and my dear brother was out with some of your men.  He doesn’t we know we have them,” Elrohir whispered.  He set the cakes down on the long work table that stood like an island in the middle of the kitchen. 

 

“After his little bet and his conniving ways I ought to eat them all myself,” Elrohir muttered.  He turned back to the cabinet and pushed it back over his hidey-hole.  “But I just can’t.  He loves them too much.”

 

The elf’s smile as he thought about his brother caused the human to stop his work.  He had been meaning to talk to the elves about some of the old myths he had heard as a child.  Leaning across the table, he questioned the twin.

 

“What is it like to have someone who looks the same as you?  I have only heard tales of twins and the ones surrounding elves are...” Draecyn fumbled for the correct words, “...well the things I have heard are mostly fables and, well, myths really.  Mystical stuff I find hard to believe.  Until Elessar became King, not much was spoken about the elven races.  We’ve been so busy with the orcs for so many years that the formal teachings were given up in lieu of the art of war.  Only the aristocracy was taught the finer languages and cultures.”

 

Elrohir set down the vegetable he was peeling and laid the knife aside.  It struck him as odd that the men of Gondor were not more familiar with the elves.  They had always been friends of the Noldor race.  He hadn’t given it much thought what the constant state of war had done to the people in the region.  He considered Draecyn for a moment.  He placed the young man at somewhere around 18, although he could have been mistaken.  Draecyn had already fought in wars, but had never heard true tales of elves or Gondor’s own history.  It was a pity when times created such a disparity. 

 

“Well, if you are asking me if there is anything mystical or magical about being an elven twin, the answer is no,” Elrohir replied kindly.  His smile put the young human instantly at ease.  “I would imagine that it would be quite like being a human twin.  We are two different people who look the same.  Yet, I suppose we do share a deeper connection to one another than we do with most others.  I don’t know if that’s because we are twins, or because we have basically been around one another all our lives since the moment we were born.”  The elf shrugged.  “I... I can’t really say much of the differences between elves and humans in this regard as I have only my own experiences to draw upon.  I know when Elladan is troubled or hurting.  I share his joys and happiness probably more deeply than another family member would.  We often take very different viewpoints, but do like a lot of the same things and make many decisions the same.  For instance, staying here in Middle Earth instead of following our father to the Undying Lands,” Elrohir explained.  He picked up his utensils and began peeling the vegetable again motioning for Draecyn to do likewise.  “It was hard to let father go alone.  But either El or I leaving without the other was unthinkable, and neither of us is ready to abandon Estel.  Oh, El and I squabble often enough, but really he is probably my best friend and I could not imagine life without him.  I would not want to.  Is that what you are asking?”

 

“I think so,” Draecyn answered slowly.  “You seem to be able to speak each others minds though, as if you were of one thought.”

 

Elrohir laughed, much to the guard’s amusement.

 

“That we can,” he verified.  “It annoys some people to death, but most get used to it after they’ve known us a while.”

 

“And you like humans?”

 

The question took the elf by surprise and he glanced up questioningly.

 

“Of course.  Half our line of ancestors is human.  We rode with the Dúnadan so long they almost considered us one of them.  Our brother is human.  We have never had a problem with men,” Elrohir clarified.  “Why do you ask?”

 

“I overheard...” Draecyn stopped speaking as Raniean and Trelan entered the kitchen arguing loudly with one another.

 

They were silenced by Elrohir.

 

“If you are going to be in here you will help prepare food or get out!” The twin laughed.  He held up the only two clean aprons left – both were pink.

 

Trelan burst out laughing but was restrained from leaving by Raniean who pulled the smaller elf along with him. 

 

“We would love to help because we *want* to eat sometime in the near future,” Raniean quipped teasingly.  He snatched the aprons from Elrohir and tossed one to Trelan.  “Put that on.  These two need to be taught the correct way to prepare wild boar.” 

 

Laughing so hard he was nearly crying, Trelan put the pink apron on and approached Draecyn.  He jokingly shoved the human as he picked up a ball of dough and began kneading it.

 

“I think Noldor elves should be taught basically everything by Silvan elves, don’t you?” He taunted, throwing Elrohir a wicked grin.  “It was a good thing Legolas found Estel young and was able to correct the poor child’s training in hunting or who knows what would have happened to the race of men!”

 

The guard did not laugh at the jest but moved slightly away from the shorter Silvan elf.  The change in his mood was instantly noticed by the more observant elves that surrounded him.

 

Trelan, to his credit, easily shrugged off the slight, but Elrohir was bothered by the man’s sudden reticence.

 

“Draecyn, what troubles you?” he asked as the human discreetly sidled around the island to the twin’s side.

 

Startled to find himself the center of attention the guard stammered for an answer.  He had not meant to be obvious or cause any trouble.

 

“I...well...it’s just that.  Nothing.”

 

“Are you bothered by our presence?” Raniean asked softly, suddenly sober.

 

“No!  No... I just... well, maybe,” the soldier admitted reluctantly.  His face was starting to flame.  If Jonath, or worse still, the King, found out about this he was in so much trouble.

 

“Why?” Elrohir asked in shock.  Draecyn had not been like this with him a few minutes ago.  His brother’s soldiers had never acted oddly around the twins nor had they ever been mistreated by any elves as far as Elrohir knew.  He certainly hadn’t been avoiding Raniean and Trelan like this previously. 

 

With a sigh, the young guard glanced down at his hands as he scrubbed the potato he held.  His movements slowed as he thought through his answer.

 

“Well, I suppose the question more is if you’re bothered by my presence?” he asked quietly.  “I heard the story earlier.  Do you still feel that way about humans?”  He kept his eyes glued to his work.  He felt he should have kept his big mouth shut. 

 

Trelan regarded the soldier carefully.  The young man was probably no older than Strider had been when Legolas had dragged him back to the palace beat up and in need of help.  His eyes held an honesty in them that begged to be proven wrong.  It was painfully obvious that the human had grown up in Gondor and never known a moment of peace or a helpful ally from the surrounding peoples.  From what Trelan had heard it had taken Strider’s intervention to unite the humans that survived at the time of the War of the Ring.  The kingdom was stable but the scars of life before this era of peace marked the people and this child was living proof.

 

“That story we told happened a millennia ago.  Have you never heard the tales of your liege and Legolas’ life before the War?”  Trelan asked softly.  “Has no one ever told you how Mirkwood was reconciled to Imladris and the elven kinds reunited?  Or for that matter why it is a dwarf would meddle in the affairs of men and elves and even care about them?”

 

Draecyn simply shook his head no.  Under the scrutiny of the Mirkwood elves he found himself subconsciously edging closer to the Noldo twin.  Elrohir smiled gently and place his hand on the man’s shoulder.

 

“Peel the potatoes while they talk or we shall never have dinner and it will all be their fault,” He instructed gently.

 

Draecyn was grateful for the distraction and quickly accepted the knife that Elrohir proffered.

 

“Your liege is the reason we can all stand in this house as friends,” Raniean picked up the story.  “I remember the day that Legolas brought Strider to the palace.  The young fool had traveled the wastelands alone and been caught in a skirmish after dark.  He was wounded and ill from morgul poisoning.” 

 

Picking up a heavy-handled blade, the tall blonde warrior began dicing the meat that Elrohir brought up from the cellar.

 

“We all thought he was insane and some of the warriors were for taking him to the edge of the forest and leaving him for the men of Esgaroth to find.  But Legolas would have none of it,” Raniean continued.

 

“But why?” Draecyn interrupted. “I had always heard that elves were fair and wise beings.  Why did you hate men so much?  Why was there division amongst the elves?”

 

“That is a very long tale and one I would not fully retell without permission.  Much of it came to be after the Last Alliance.  As for why the elven kind were separated for many years... well, that is an even longer and incredibly boring story that we only tell now when we’ve had too much wine,” Raniean tried to explain with a laugh.  He did not want to go into much detail. 

 

“But, Draecyn, we did not all hate men.  I, personally, never have.  I did not always trust them, but I do not trust all elves either.  It is true there are some who did hate, but there are also some men who hate the elves.  It’s a sad, but true fact that some people will always hate or fear that which is different from themselves.  Sometimes, however, there is a reason for it, however faulty.  For Legolas... there was a reason.  The fact that it was our prince who eventually brought home a human was no small matter.  The king wanted nothing to do with the ranger and we all wondered if Legolas had lost his mind,” Trelan picked up the story and continued softly.  “I remember taking Legolas out one night while Strider was still in the healer’s hall and arguing with him about the dangers of keeping a human in the palace.  I thought that the prince saw this man as another lost stray he had brought home to try to save and that worried me.  I didn’t know Strider then, and I was mortally afraid that he was going to hurt Legolas.  Our conversation was heated.  I even offered to take the ranger off his hands and dispose of him if he wished it.  I promised to be swift and merciful.  At the time I thought I was being helpful.  Legolas was adamant though that he not be harmed.  It sounds harsh and strange to speak of such things now, but if you had known how things stood at that time, you would understand why we could not believe that our liege was protecting a human.”

 

Trelan laughed lightly at himself as he remembered back on that time.  “Its funny now, but we never let Legolas out of our sight the whole time Strider was there until they were exiled.  Even then we tracked them south into the darker regions.  We were so afraid of what might happen to the prince.”

 

“Exile!?” Draecyn interrupted the elves.

 

“Oh yes! Another long story that one.  But the thing was, was that Strider was like no man we had ever met,” Raniean butted in. “He never complained when he was treated poorly.  Even our healers were not kind with him when he was recovering.  At the time we did not realize that he came from the Last Homely House and knew more about the arts than all our healers combined.  But he never said a word.  He simply thanked us no matter how we treated him.  And although I am ashamed to admit it, he was not treated kindly by most in our realm, I’ll have you know.  It took a lot of convincing for our contingent to accept it when Trelan and I wanted to help Strider after he was accused of murder.  It was still years later that the rest were won over.  We were not an open people at the time that Strider came to us.  Trust takes a long time to rebuild when it has been stifled.”

 

Draecyn listened intently to the stories the elves told.  A frown marred his features as he heard them talk about his king in such a familiar and easy manner.  It soon became apparent however that the Silvan elves trusted Aragorn greatly and counted him as a friend.

 

The Gondorian guard slowly forgot his misgivings and became entranced by the tales.

 

“He even saved the prince from death once when he was poisoned by a dwarvish trap.  I think that helped a lot.” Trelan chimed in, interrupting the soldier’s thoughts.

 

“Now *that* was amazing,” Raniean agreed.  “I stayed up all that night making sure he wasn’t harming Legolas.  I feared both for the prince and Strider.  He was treading thinly that night but he had no clue.  He only ever wanted to help.  That was his biggest downfall and his most endearing quality.”

 

“No, no that wasn’t his most endearing quality,” Trelan argued.  “His most endearing quality was the fact that he was almost too eager to please and fit in.  My goodness he would have followed us anywhere in the beginning if he thought it would help us see humans in a better light.”

 

Raniean laughed softly under his breath.  He knew where this was going. Trelan loved telling that old story to whomever he could and Draecyn was far too willing a recipient.

 

“Trelan...” Raniean warned with a laugh, “Spare us.”

 

“Draecyn has never heard and it’s a good story! How many more times do you think I’ll be able to find a willing listener who isn’t intoxicated?” The smaller elf begged off of being restricted.

 

With a shake of his head, the elven warrior gave up.  He glanced at Elrohir and rolled his eyes by way of apology.

 

Kneading the dough into long ovals Trelan kept at his task while he launched into his tale.

 

“It happened when Prince Legolas and Strider were exiled by King Thranduil.  We had followed them deep into the southern woods where they had fled.  It was our intention to help them prove that Strider was innocent of the murder charge that he was convicted of, but our pursuit frightened them and they ran.  The prince was bitten by a spider when they were boxed in by the nasty creatures.  When we found them, he was unconscious and so we were forced to bed down and camp for the night.”

 

The short elf glanced up swiftly for confirmation from his friend. When Raniean nodded, Trelan continued.

 

“It was Strider’s first time at an elven fire ring and it was our first time to have a human in our camp with us in such a manner.  He wasn’t really sure of us at first; it took Raniean a bit to convince him we meant him no harm.”

 

“Yes it did!” The tall elven warrior agreed heartily.  “And then you had to go and nearly spoil it.”

 

“I’m telling the story!” Trelan retorted, talking over the top of his friend.  He continued when the room had quieted sufficiently.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

At first Aragorn had been reluctant to join the Mirkwood elves round the bright fire where they sat.  Their mirthful laughter echoed through the woods like music and he couldn’t help smiling.  The ranger stayed a bit away from the others, near Legolas where he lay on a bed built of pines and his friends’ cloaks.  The prince had yet to awaken.  Raniean and Trelan had assured him it was normal, but still...  He himself had no experience with the large predatory spiders and it made him uneasy.

 

Absently, the ranger shifted, his hand drifting to rest gently on Legolas’ chest, checking the rise and fall.  The man smiled in spite of himself as one of the elves teased Raniean about something that had happened earlier in the day.

 

“You think that’s funny?”  Raniean turned towards the human when he heard the soft chuckle.  “You should have seen your face when Trelan told you what the spider venom does to a person.”

 

Immediately Aragorn sobered, unsure if the elf had taken offense or was teasing him.

 

Noting the ranger’s discomfort, the warrior softened, realizing he had set the human on edge. 

 

“Strider, come, sit by the fire.  Its warmer here and there is plenty of mead and meat to go round.”  The tall elf scooted over slightly, making space by himself for the man to join them.

 

In seconds the elves had all shifted, parting enough to give the human room at their fire.  Trelan poured heated mead into an earthen mug and held the cup up over his head.

 

“Yes, come, Strider.  I bet you could tell us some great stories about the elves in Rivendell.  Come on,” The smaller elf invited warmly.

 

Aragorn glanced hesitantly at Legolas, he knew these were the prince’s kin and they should be safe, but his heart balked.

 

“Strider,” Raniean’s soft voice redirected the ranger’s gaze. “He’ll be all right.  He would want you to eat and keep your strength up.  I promise you, it will be fine.”  The elf touched the ground next to him, indicating the place they had made for the human.

 

The elf sounded so very much like his brothers at that moment that Aragorn could not refuse.  Slowly he rose to his feet and rounded the fire, accepting the proffered mug from Trelan and a skewer of meat from another elf.

 

“So?” Trelan asked as the ranger seated himself between the smaller elf and his companion. “What of Rivendell, surely there are things there that we have not here?  How do you deal with the great spiders?”

 

“We have none,” Aragorn answered between bites.  “Rivendell is a haven.  There are no enemies near.  Except every once in a while there may be an orc raid on one of the towns nearby and then we go and lend aid if we can.”

 

“You have contact with the humans that live around you?”  An elf across the fire questioned.  It seemed for the moment they had forgotten that the ranger was not one of their own kind.

 

“Well, yes.”  Aragorn frowned as he answered.  “But so do you, with the men of LakeTown that is.”  He pointed out what he thought was the obvious.

 

“We don’t associate with them,” Another remarked.  “Well, not most of us anyway.  Some do.  We trade with them a great deal, but I have never been to their city.  Never wanted to either.”  The elf hadn’t meant to be rude or caustic he was simply telling the truth.

 

Strider had stopped eating and glanced around the group, quietly watching the dozen sets of eyes that were fixed on him.  His gaze flicked quickly to Legolas.  His friend would want him to get along with these elves.  It was easy for him to see how the Mirkwood elves had cut themselves off and become nearly isolated with the goings on in Middle Earth.  The woods were a natural barrier and it seemed they were rarely visited but by other elves and then infrequently.  He wondered how long their isolation had been and ventured a question.

 

“How long have you been here with such limited communication with those outside your woods?” 

 

The elves bristled slightly at the unintended implication that there was something wrong with the way they did things and Aragorn wanted to kick himself. 

 

“It has always been thus,” Raniean said quietly, silencing the others with a gesture and trying to take the question matter-of-factly.  He suddenly realized how out of place the man in their midst truly was.  “Or nearly always.  Understand, Strider, that I was not alive in the long days before the Last Alliance, so I cannot speak to how things stood at that time.  But it is true that in my youth we retained a greater amount of contact with the folk of Esgaroth and the other human realms of the time.  Unfortunately our trust was too often met with betrayal and things began to change,” he hedged around the subject of Dorolyn skillfully.  Glancing at Trelan he shook his head slightly asking the smaller elf to validate his answer. “I suppose in human years then that would make it something like two or three thousand years?” 

 

“Give or take,” Trelan affirmed with a slight shrug.  Human time was a difficult concept to match.

 

“Thousand?”  Aragorn choked on the mouthful of mead he had just swallowed.  “Two or three *thousand*.” He repeated as the elves around him laughed.  “Well that *is* a few years.”

 

His mind quickly raced through what little knowledge he had of Legolas, figuring the prince’s age and subtracting it from roughly the time that the elf was captured in Dorolyn – the numbers added up and he glanced at his friend once more a deep look of sorrow etching his face.

 

“Yes.”  Raniean followed his gaze.  “It was about that time.”

 

Startled, Aragorn looked back up at the warrior, surprised that the elf had figured out what he was thinking. 

 

“Actually, I don’t think I have ever eaten at a fire ring with a human,” Trelan noted aloud. The smile he was barely holding back lit up his blue eyes as he glanced at Raniean.  “You, Ran?”  The small elf tried to lighten the mood and deftly change the subject.

 

“No, Trey, I do believe you are right.”  A brilliant smiled crossed Raniean’s face as he answered his friend, “This is a first!”

 

“To firsts!”  Trelan raised his mug in a toast, his mirth contagious.  In minutes they were toasting everyone and everything like a bunch of drunken hobbits.

 

“So what do you hunt in Rivendell?” an elf across the fire asked curiously.

 

“Yes,” another chimed in forgetting the awkwardness of the previous conversation. “Do you hunt the deer and the wild boar?”

 

Aragorn nodded swallowing the gulp of mead he had taken for the last toast to some elf he had never heard of.  “We hunt both.  The white deer run freely in the vale near my home.”

 

“The white deer?!”  Trelan became suddenly interested.  “Have you ever brought one down? ”

 

“Well, yes,” Aragorn answered simply finishing off the bit of meat he had been given.  He and both his brothers had had the opportunity to take down a white deer.  They only killed what they needed to survive, never more and never less.  It wasn’t something they boasted of it, it had just happened on various hunts.

 

“Trelan asks because he has never been able to himself,” Raniean taunted his smaller companion.

 

“Very funny.” Trelan frowned at the warrior.  “But I’ll bet Strider has never caught a Trellep before.”  The small elf turned a raised eyebrow on the human, his mock frown suddenly brightening. “Have you?”

 

“Trelan...” Raniean warned quietly, he knew where this was going.  A few quiet snickers across the fire echoed his thoughts.

 

“Trelleps?”  Aragorn thought for a moment.  “No, we don’t have those near Imladris.  What are they?”

 

“You have to see them for yourself,” Trelan cautioned.  “They only come out at night but they make for good eating.”  The elf pretended to pause for a moment as though thinking.  “You wouldn’t want to go hunting tonight would you?  We could use more meat for the return trip home.”

 

“Trelan.” Raniean’s voice took on a slightly harder edge.  He was almost certain that the prince would not mind his friend being teased, but what Trelan was suggesting was not wise this far south.

 

“Well, if you need the help, I’d be more than glad to go hunting with you,” Aragorn answered rising slowly to his feet as Trelan rounded the fire and collected his pack. 

 

He was more than eager to join the elves and truly wanted them to like him.  He felt if he just had the opportunity, they would see that not all humans lived up to their preconceived notions.  If it took going hunting in the dark with one of them, then so be it, he had done more foolish things with his brothers and lived to tell about it.

 

Trelan had retrieved a length of rope and was walking back around the fire coiling the cord on his belt.

 

“Trelan!” Raniean was exasperated now.  He could not let his friend take the human out knowing what he knew.  When the ranger started to walk away from the fire, Raniean grabbed the man’s ankle and held him firmly in place.

 

Surprised, Aragorn stood perfectly still, watching the silent exchange of wills between the two elves.  Raniean glared at the smaller elf, trying to contain his mirth and be firm in his response.  Personally, under different circumstances, and were Legolas awake to approve, he would have allowed the excursion.  But as leader of the group he felt responsible for everyone beneath him, including the man.  Besides he really did like Strider and was not at all sure how the human would respond to the prank.

 

“Oh, come on, Ran.” Trelan finally relented.

 

Tugging firmly on Aragorn’s overcoat, Raniean pulled the man back down next to him at the fire ring and stared into the large questioning gaze that the ranger laid on him.  Tinges of fear edged the open stare and Raniean had to look away for a minute.  The human was too willing to do whatever it took to earn their respect; he would have to be more careful with him until this was all over.

 

“Trey, sit,” He ordered, glancing up at his friend, his smile taking the sting out of the command.

 

“What’s wrong, Raniean?” Aragorn asked softly.  He had a sinking suspicion deep in the pit of his stomach that something was not right and it frightened him a little bit.

 

Raniean turned his full attention on the ranger and blocked out the quiet ghosts of laughter that skittered around the fire ring. 

 

“Strider, if I let Trelan take you out Trellep hunting tonight, I think the Prince would demote me.” He leaned closer to the man and laid his hand on Strider’s back.  “You have brothers do you not?”

 

Aragorn nodded quietly, intently watching the elf.

 

“Have they never dragged you out somewhere and left you alone in the forest as a joke?”  When awareness finally crossed the ranger’s face Raniean smiled softly. “They have.” 

 

Strider turned a puzzled gaze on Trelan as he realized what the smaller elf had intended.  He was not sure if he should be offended or feel like he had finally been accepted.

 

The ranger’s attention was drawn away from Trelan as Raniean spoke his name.

 

“Strider, there is no such thing as a Trellep.” He answered the human’s confused look, speaking slowly and quietly, letting the ranger in on the joke.

 

The elves round the campfire erupted in laughter.

 

For the fraction of a second Aragorn was upset.  The wood elves mirth was too infectious and in moments he began to laugh at himself and his over eagerness.

 

“You see fathers or older brothers...” Raniean started to explain.

 

“...Or your best friend,” Trelan interjected.  The smaller elf leaned around the ranger and fixed his commander with a knowing glare.  Raniean pressed his companion back with a good natured shove and continued.

 

“Or your best friend takes you out one night promising to teach you how to hunt Trellep.  They tie you up to a tree and leave you there until morning or until your father or brothers or friends come looking for you.”  Raniean’s smile banished the last vestiges of Aragorn’s fears.  “Its something they do as a joke.  It’s supposed to be funny.” 

 

Ran watched as Strider glanced down, his face reddening slightly.

 

The noise around the campfire had died as the elves intently watched the human’s response.  Aragorn’s hunched shoulders began to shake and he covered his mouth with his hand.  Raniean turned a hard glare on Trelan who immediately became worried. 

 

“Strider?”  He knelt next to the man, his hand hesitantly resting on Aragorn’s back. “I...I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything...”

 

Unable to hold back his mirth any longer the ranger burst out laughing.  He pounded the small elf on the back, congratulating him on being able to fool him better than his brothers ever had.  Those around the campfire erupted in laughter once more and began talking all at once, trading stories about the time each of them had been taken Trellep hunting.

 

“The best story though belongs to Legolas,” Raniean interrupted much to his companion’s glee.  They loved this particular tale and it seemed everyone in Mirkwood told it repeatedly, much to the prince’s eternal chagrin.

 

“When he was younger Trelan and I took him out Trellep hunting,” Raniean explained through fits of laughter.

 

“We tied him up good too!” Trelan interjected.  “He couldn’t get away.”

 

“And then they left him all night out there in the woods!” Another elf added.

 

“Anyway, anyway,” Raniean tried unsuccessfully to calm them all down as he shouted over the top of the giggling elves.  “Thranduil heard about it and went out to find him.  By this time Legolas was so frightened that when his father approached him he fired off a shot at him, thinking he was a trellep and hit the king right in the foot!”

 

By the time he was done telling the story Aragorn could barely breathe, he was laughing so hard.

 

“Really though, you shouldn’t have told him that there is no such thing as Trellep hunting, Raniean,” Trelan laughed glaring at the warrior.  “I almost had him there.”

 

“I couldn’t let you take him out there and tie him up.” Raniean glanced around into the darkness feigning fear. “We are in southern forest you nift! The spiders would have gotten him!”

 

“That is *not* funny!” Aragorn’s eyes widen much to the amusement of his companions.

 

“Ah,” Trelan waved the danger off.  “I wouldn’t have left him out there *that* long.  I think I’d be more afraid of what Legolas would do to me after he found out.”

 

Aragorn gaped at the elf, finally having caught his breath, “Oh thank you so much. Your thoughtfulness is overwhelming.”

 

This only sent the elves into another fit of laughter.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

“That was so funny,” Raniean laughed as Trelan wrapped up his story.  “You really did almost get away with that!  But Legolas would have had our heads for it!!  The look on Strider’s face was priceless - almost nearly as panicked as when you explained just what the spiders do to their victims!”

 

Draecyn was still a bit surprised to her the two elves joke so easily about his king, but he couldn’t help laughing along with them at the story. He was finally beginning to relax more in their company and realize that for them these stories were ancient history.

 

“Oh, Legolas, probably wouldn’t mind so much now.  In fact I bet he’d take Strider out trellep hunting himself if he could,” Trelan snickered lightly. “Still even after all that, it took him rescuing half the population of Mirkwood from the she-spider before we truly trusted him,” Trelan continued.  He transferred the dough to a stoneware tray as he spoke.  “Even then King Thranduil was hard to win over. I think the fact that Strider saved his son and returned him to us helped turn the king’s heart.  But he was a stubborn one.  Not sure he really decided Strider was trustworthy until after the whole Doriflen incident.  But Strider was like that, he just grew on you.  He even granted his enemies grace when he could have called for their deaths.  I think that was the moment when he won me over.”

 

“For me it was when he forgave Morifwen and actually wanted to be friends again with him that turned my heart,” Raniean added quietly.  He pushed the cubes of meat off the cutting board and into a large pot of broth.  “That was more than I felt ready to do at the time.”

 

“For me,” a soft voice spoke from the doorway drawing their attention, “I think it started when he apologized for what had been done to me in Dorolyn when he hadn’t a clue of my history there.  He simply apologized for all humankind, including himself fully in that lot.  I think he said it was to the shame of all men that I hated mankind.  And I could tell that he meant what he said.  My lack of friendship hurt him deeply and he wanted it restored even though we had only just met.  I still didn’t trust him, but that was the beginning.  Until that moment I hadn’t me a human who wasn’t arrogant and full of himself.”  Legolas stepped into the kitchen.  He had been simply passing by hoping to not get caught and dragged in to help when he overheard the conversation.

 

Elrohir had been quietly listening to the whole conversation from the back of the room.  Most of this he had never heard. He had Estel’s version but had never quite realized the opposition his younger brother had faced.

 

“And I owe it to your father, Ran that I didn’t simply leave Strider out there to die.  His words have stuck in my mind ever since that day he lectured me.  ‘A day may come when the man you are facing is your ally, not your enemy, and you need to know the difference.  The distinction between friend and foe is not always a clear line, and should never be divided upon race alone.’” Legolas quoted the older elf perfectly.  “I didn’t want to hear them and didn’t believe them at the time, but I have never been able to forget those words.  He was right – that day did come.  And when Aragorn put his trust in me so fully, so easily, I could not suffer him to harm, not even by your hands my friends.”  Legolas smiled at the two Silvan elves.

 

“It sounds like it would take a hundred minstrels to record your lives and tales,” Draecyn responded quietly.  He quickly rounded the kitchen island and helped Trelan as the elf fumbled with the tray of dough he was transferring to the open oven.  “I didn’t mean to say anything... I didn’t know.” He offered by way of awkward apology for his behavior earlier.

 

“It’s alright,” Trelan answered, “sometimes it takes a long time to heal – even nations.”

 

Legolas smiled softly, listening to his friends.  Things were so different now.  His people had been down this road of reconciliation and reunion.  It was now the time of the Adain and with Aragorn leading them he had no doubts they would indeed survive and be better for all that they had suffered.

 

“We aren’t so bad,” The short elf continued, “Once you get to know us.”

 

“I just never heard the tales. I mean I know what little Jonath has told me, but I don’t believe even he knows,” Draecyn admitted.

 

“Then do we *ever* have stories to tell you!” Raniean laughed.  He was stirring a large kettle that sat on the stovetop.  “Where to start?”

 

“Start with finishing dinner!” Legolas instructed, “You have a houseful of hungry people!”

 

“Then help us or get out of our way!” Elrohir called out, repeating his admonition.  He smiled genuinely at the prince when Legolas glanced in his direction. 

 

“Leaving now!” Legolas answered glibly as stepped back out the door.

 

“There you are! I wondered where you had gotten off to.” Aragorn’s voice could be heard in the hallway.

 

In a moment the man peeked in through the doorway and glanced about the kitchen, curious to see how things were going.

 

All work had stopped and every eye was focused on the human.

 

Glancing back over his shoulder at Legolas, the king quirked an eyebrow in question.

 

“What?” He asked oddly, shifting his gaze to those in the kitchen.  “I was just looking for Legolas.”  He offered by way of explanation.  Slowly he backed up and grabbed the elf intending to sneak away before he could be conscripted.

 

“My liege,” Draecyn’s voice stopped his escape.

 

Hesitantly Aragorn stepped back into sight.

 

“Thank you,” The guard said cryptically.  He smiled warmly at the confused man.  Knowing better than to ask any questions, Aragorn simply nodded.

 

“Now leave or help us.  You two are interrupting far too much! Go on!” Elrohir shooed the two friends away.

 

Before he left, Aragorn pointed at the soldier and raised his eyebrows in warning, “We will speak later.” And with that the man departed accompanying Legolas to Elrond’s pantry.

 

“What was that all about?  Do I even want to know?”  He could be heard asking the prince as they walked away.

 

In the kitchen, the bustle to prepare dinner resumed as the three elves competed with each other to tell their human companion stories about the man he called king.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

“Elladan, stop chewing on the furniture!”  Arwen swatted her older brother on the head with a cushion from the chair she was sitting upon.  “Somewhere in Valinor Celboril is tossing and turning this very moment.”

 

Elladan, reclining on the floor by his sister’s feet, feigned losing interest in the chair leg he had been pretending to gnaw upon.  “Ah, but he’s not here and I’m hungry!”

 

Arwen rolled her eyes.  Her brothers enjoyed being big children.  “Honestly, you’re worse than Dari.  I often wonder which of you is the child.”

 

Dari was playing quietly on a rug next to Aragorn.  He looked up questioningly upon hearing his name. 

 

“Hear that Dari?  Your Nana thinks I might be the little boy,” Elladan said as he crawled over to his nephew.  “Maybe she’s right,” he whispered in a conspiratorial tone before pouncing on the child. 

 

Dari squealed in delight and struggled as Elladan tickled his stomach.  Rolling onto his back with the child atop him, Elladan tossed Dari up into the air and caught him, making the boy laugh hysterically. 

 

Aragorn chuckled as he watched Elladan with Dari.  He could clearly remember being on the little boy side of that equation.  His brothers hadn’t changed. 

 

Legolas smiled.  He loved hearing Dari laugh.  It helped ease away all the bitter memories of their time together in Rahzon.  The elf’s gaze traveled over the other smiling and laughing occupants of the room.  He loved watching all his friends so happy.  At moments like this he found he could forget everything and be happy with them. 

 

Elladan held Dari up in the air on his knees, holding the boy’s hands in his and bouncing him lightly.  “We should never have let El handle the food tonight, should we Dari?”

 

“Let him?” Arwen protested.  “I believe it was your idea, wasn’t it?  So don’t complain.”

 

“Ah, but he lost the wager to me fair and square, so he had to do it.”  Elladan seemed to consider that quite enough reason.  He rolled onto his stomach, letting Dari pin him and bounce gleefully on his back.  “Besides, Estel was a spoil-sport and sent Draecyn to help him, so it really shouldn’t be taking this long.”

 

Legolas massaged his right hand absently as he watched his friends bicker.  The tingling numbness of his fingers that had been his constant companion lately had grown worse.  At first it had affected only his pinky, second finger and part of his palm.  Now it was beginning to affect his middle finger as well.  The fingers felt as if he had lain upon them and caused them to go to sleep.  But feeling did not return no matter how he moved them. 

 

The elf caught Aragorn looking at him and dropped his hand back into his lap as if nothing were wrong.  He knew his friend was already sick with worry over him; he didn’t want to give him one more reason to fret.  Unfortunately Aragorn knew Legolas too well and the elf felt a pang of guilt as he saw the carefree expression slip from his friend’s face to be replaced with concern. 

 

Legolas rose to his feet.  It hurt him that since they came here he always seemed an interruption to his friend’s happiness, rather than a contributor to it.  He was tired of being the object of everyone’s concern.  Sick of this nameless depression that stole his nights and his days from him.  He wanted only for it all to go away.  He wasn’t troubled about Rahzon anymore, those wounds had healed.  So why wouldn’t the rest of him heal?  Why did the sea still fill his waking and sleeping dreams?  It was his body, why didn’t he seem to have any control?  He had never had trouble before when he ignored his pain or emotions.  Why wasn’t it working now?

 

“I think I will see if the food is ready yet,” Legolas excused himself.  He smiled for Aragorn’s sake and was relieved when the ranger smiled back. 

 

“Tell Elrohir and Draecyn if they take any longer we’re going to replace them!” Aragorn called after him.

 

“Isn’t that more of a reward than a threat?” Legolas called back over his shoulder with a laugh. 

 

The wood-elf found his way to the kitchen and stuck his head in the door. 

 

Elrohir was bending over something on the stove, a long wooden spoon in one hand.  Draecyn was nowhere to be seen.  Neither were Raniean and Trelan. 

 

Legolas wrinkled his nose.  “Is that something burning?” he inquired innocently. 

 

Elrohir straightened up and wiped his free hand on the towel he had tied around his waist.  “That is something cooking.  And if you want to give this a try I don’t see anyone stopping you...” the younger twin remarked, blowing a wayward strand of hair out of his face.  He seemed a bit peeved that all his help had momentarily deserted him. 

 

Legolas held his hands up for peace.  “How can I help?”

 

“Stir that one,” Elrohir pointed the spoon in his hand towards one of the large kettles that was beginning to bubble merrily on the heated surface of the stove. 

 

Legolas did as he was bid; taking the spoon from Elrohir and stirring what looked like some kind of thick soup. 

 

“Smells good, what is it?” he inquired as Elrohir crossed the kitchen and quickly began pulling the warm rolls out of the hot stones and smoldering coals that had been toasting their crusts.   

 

“Some kind of stew with tomatoes.  Apparently a Gondorian favorite.  Draecyn was working on it before he abandoned me,” Elrohir said with a laugh.  The bread was a little more toasted than he had intended, but not by too much.  

 

“Abandoned?” Legolas raised an eyebrow as he sampled some of the broth on the spoon.  “A Gondorian soldier abandoning his post?  You should talk to your brother about his men.  Not a bad cook however, this is good.”

 

“Actually, for more wood for the stove,” Elrohir admitted.  “I don’t think we have it stoked quite enough.  Raniean and Trelan said they were going to go help him, but I think they just wanted an excuse to disappear.”  He scowled. 

 

“Is that why it’s taking forever for dinner?” Legolas inquired, putting the lid back on the simmering stew.  “Aragorn and Elladan are almost ready to eat the furniture!”   

 

“Well they are more than welcome to do so!” Elrohir shook his head.  He wrapped the hot rolls in a clean cloth. “I’m sure Elladan needs to sharpen his teeth again.  Oh, Legolas, can you stir that other pan too, the small one?”

 

Legolas obliged.  This pan was full of nuts and a thick syrup that was just starting to steam.  The prince almost laughed.  Sweet-Nuts were one of the few things that Elladan and Elrohir knew how to cook exquisitely.  As a result they had been served almost every day since he got here. 

 

“Watch the pans, will you, Legolas?  Everything’s almost done.  I’m going to find Draecyn and those Silvan elves of yours.  They must have gotten lost, it shouldn’t be taking them this long!  I’ll be right back,” Elrohir excused himself quickly. 

 

“But...” Legolas was left alone in the kitchen with his unfinished objection.  He shrugged to himself with a wry smile and turned back to the stove.  Everything seemed to be doing fine on its own, so he laid down the stirring spoon.  He clenched and unclenched his hands a few times, trying unsuccessfully to drive feeling back into his fingers.  He rolled up his sleeves. 

 

Several pitchers of cool water sat on the table waiting to be served.  Borrowing one, Legolas filled an empty basin and carefully rolled a few of the hot stones Elrohir had used on the bread into the water.  The liquid hissed slightly at the contact and the water heated immediately. 

 

Slowly immersing his arms almost to the elbows, Legolas held his hands in the basin of warm water, letting them linger there for several moments.  Both his hands were slowly losing feeling, but the warm water eased the uncomfortable tingling that accompanied the numbness.  He sighed softly, flexing his fingers in the water.

 

The elf heard a gurgling sizzle behind him.  Turning around quickly he saw that the pan of sweet nuts was hissing and bubbling over.  The sweet, sticky sauce was dripping down the sides of the pan into the open flames below and causing them to spark and flare. 

 

Legolas swore quietly at himself for ignoring it so long.  Without thinking, he grabbed the metal handle of the pan, pulling it quickly away from the heat and looking for some place to set it down where it would not burn whatever it touched. 

 

“Legolas!” Aragorn’s alarmed voice made the elf look up in confusion.  The human had come to see what was keeping dinner and his friend, but now stood in the doorway with an alarmed expression on his face. 

 

The elf did not understand why Aragorn was hurrying towards him or looking at him like that... until his body slowly registered a strange, dull, throbbing pain radiating through his numb right hand where it clutched the pan handle.  The metal tong had been sitting over the fire and was searing hot to the touch. 

 

Legolas quickly set the pan down on the work table, jerking his hand away from the scorching metal.  To his dismay, the prince found that the inside of his palm, thumb and all four fingers were red and already blistering angrily from the contact. 

 

The elf winced in pain as the agony of the burn finally pierced his dulled senses.  It still didn’t hurt nearly as badly as it should have, but the dull, aching heat piled atop his tingling numbness was very painful.

 

“Legolas, what were you thinking?” Aragorn remonstrated with consternated concern as he grabbed hold of the elf’s wrist.  Pulling Legolas quickly across the kitchen with him he plunged the wounded hand into a pitcher of cold water to stop the burn from becoming worse. 

 

Legolas flinched as his aching hand was submerged in the chilly water.  He should not have picked up that pan without padding.  He should have been able to tell at the briefest contact that it was too hot to be handled without protection.  But he had not. 

 

“Obviously, I wasn’t,” Legolas replied dryly as Aragorn added more cold water to the pitcher, trying to keep the burn chilled. 

 

“Obviously you weren’t feeling either,” Aragorn said, eyeing the elf.  “Couldn’t you tell how hot that was?”

 

Legolas sighed.  What was the point of concealing it?  “No, Aragorn, I couldn’t.  My hands have been a little numb lately.  It’s nothing to worry about.”

 

Aragorn pulled the elf’s blistered hand out of the pitcher, his gaze leveled upon his friend.  “This is not nothing, Legolas, and you know it.”  He gently but firmly plunged the prince’s hand back into the water again.

 

Legolas shrugged and accepted defeat too easily for Aragorn’s liking.  “All right then, it isn’t.  It’s irritating, painful and disturbing.  What do you want me to do about it?” the elf’s voice was slightly strained.  He did not like what he was becoming.  Was this a sign?  Were the Valar punishing him for resisting the call of sea? 

 

“Everything all right?  What’s burning?!” Elrohir’s voice interrupted them.  The dark-haired elf hurried back into the kitchen with Draecyn in tow.  They deposited their armloads of wood in the corner before rushing back to the stovetop.

 

Trelan and Raniean had gone to the outer houses to check on the other soldiers that had accompanied the guests and be sure all was well with them. 

 

“Everything’s fine,” Aragorn assured, for which Legolas was grateful.  “Just a little mishap with a hot pan.  I believe the food is done.”

 

Elrohir and Draecyn concurred.  They quickly began removing the pots from the flames and filling the serving dishes. 

 

At Legolas’ insistence, Aragorn let go of his injured arm and let the elf remove it from the water.  The prince held it somewhat gingerly. 

 

“I’ll go get something to bind it with, just give me a moment,” Aragorn bid his friend. 

 

Legolas nodded.  He was feeling a little dizzy and was glad to see his friend go so he could lean against the table without anyone taking note of the action.  His vision blurred slightly and he had to resist the strong urge to sit down or fall down.  These faint spells weren’t frequent, but Legolas hated them when they came.  They were, however, another thing about which the elf did not feel his friend needed to know.

 

“What?  Can’t you even go near a kitchen without getting hurt Legolas?” Elrohir teased lightly after scooping the un-burnt portions of the sweet-nuts into a dish.  He poked his head over Legolas’ shoulder to see his burn and winced, his face turning slightly more serious.  “That looks painful.  Estel burned his hands once when he was young, only he cold burned them and that was entirely his own fault.”

 

“It was not,” the human in question countered as he returned with clean wrappings and some aloe shoots he had just culled.  “Aren’t you supposed to be getting dinner out?”

 

Elrohir unwrapped the towel from around his waist and tossed it lightly onto the table.  “My wager with Elladan said I would cook dinner.  I never said anything about serving it.  That lazy bones can come back and get it himself,” the younger twin huffed good-naturedly. 

 

“I’ll put it out, my Lord,” Draecyn quickly offered. 

 

Elrohir watched the Gondorian start putting the steaming dishes onto several huge serving trays and sighed.  “Oh all right, I’ll help too.  I suppose ‘twould be rude to make guests do all the work in my own house,” he conceded with a dramatic sigh.

 

Aragorn chuckled as his brother and guardsman made their way out with a few of the serving trays.  It was going to take several trips.  He split the succulent green stem of the plant he had brought and spread the cool gel over Legolas’ burn. 

 

Legolas didn’t flinch although it hurt.  “What was this about you burning your hands?  What is a cold burn?” he inquired as Aragorn carefully wound some protective bandages around the palm and fingers of the elf’s injured hand. 

 

“Oh, that.”  The human shook his head with a small smile.  “It was nothing really.  One winter when I was twelve or thirteen, my brothers and I were out hunting.  During the night there was a hard, snap-freeze.  The next morning I made the mistake of washing my face and then trying to pull up the metal tent-spikes.  My wet fingers froze instantly to the icy metal and when we finally got them off they were blistered from the cold.  So my brothers told me I was the only person they knew who could burn themselves on ice.”  Aragorn chuckled at the memory. 

 

“How does that feel, better?” Aragorn asked, holding Legolas’ bandaged hand gently.  He was still concerned about what Legolas had said about his loss of feeling, but unfortunately he had begun to realize that whatever ailed the elf was not physical.  It was not something he could cure with herbs and teas. 

 

Legolas nodded, pulling his hand away and holding it cupped lightly in his other hand.  “Yes, thank you.  We had better help them carry some of this out.”  He nodded towards the food.  “Before Elladan eats everything in front of him and leaves nothing for us!”

Chapter Text

~*PART TWELVE*~
~Behind Those Eyes You Hide~

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

There’s something I can’t see
There's something different in the way you smile
Behind those eyes you lie.
And there’s nothing I can say
Cause I’m never gonna change your mind
Behind those eyes you hide.

 

--3 Doors Down

~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Aragorn lit his pipe.  The soft, red glow of firelight momentarily illuminated his face before the shadows of the moonlit garden took over once more.  Dinner had been very good, but Legolas had seemed more tired than usual afterwards and excused himself almost immediately. 

 

The stars winked down at the former ranger as he picked his way down the familiar paths with no particular destination in mind.  It would be some time yet before everyone else in the house went to bed, but he wanted to be alone for a few moments so he could think.  The revelation of Legolas’ mysterious and worsening problems weighed heavily on his mind.  Could Legolas possibly have been poisoned?  Could there have been some contaminate on the blades that cut in back in Rahzon that Aragorn had missed that might explain what was happening?  If so, he could not begin to think what kind of toxin it would be.  He was a healer; he ought to know what was wrong.  He ought to know what to do.  But he did not. 

 

“Ada, I wish you were here,” he whispered quietly into the stillness of the night. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

The door to Elrond’s pantry was open.  In and of itself, that was not unusual.  With so many people in the house these days and Aragorn’s frequent trips into the small room, it was more something to be expected.  But the one-way conversation inside was what drew Elladan closer to inspect.

 

“Oh come on.  Where is it?”  The soft voice chided itself. “I know its here.  It was right *here* just yesterday.  What was the name again...oh come on, Legolas, think.”

 

Elladan stepped into the doorway to find the Silvan elf rifling through the cabinets on the far wall and talking quietly to himself.  A small pile of herbs had been placed into the hand mill and was already fairly ground up.  It was easy for the practiced eye to see that the prince was making himself a mixture for tea.

 

“I know this. I know what the name is.  Why am I forgetting these things now?  Now when I actually need the memories?  Think,” Legolas growled to himself.  He banged his head softly against the open cabinet door as though that would jar his memory.  It would have been humorous, if the elf’s agitated state was not so disturbingly unusual.

 

“Perhaps I can help?” Elladan offered quietly.  He was a little surprised to find the prince here.  Legolas had said he was going to bed almost a half hour ago. 

 

Startled, Legolas spun around towards the sound of the voice.  The twin tried hard not to smile at the guilty look that passed across the prince’s face.

 

“It’s alright.  I just thought maybe you could use some help.  You seem to be looking for something?”

 

Legolas glanced back up to the cupboard behind, stalling for time.  He hadn’t meant for anyone to find out what he was doing.  He didn’t want them worrying.  Resting was difficult for him lately.  He knew how to help that problem, but wasn’t exactly sure how the twins would feel about what he was doing. 

 

“Legolas?”  Elladan stepped farther into the pantry.  Picking up the bowl full of crushed herbs the elf inspected the mixture, smelling it deeply to make sure he was correct.

 

Just as he surmised – Legolas was making some of Elrond’s special tea as they all had taken to calling it.

 

“You were trying to recreate Ada’s tea?” Elladan questioned.  He walked up next to the Silvan elf and opened the cabinet to Legolas’ right.

 

Legolas still said nothing.  He had been creeping in here and making the drink every night for some time now.  Aragorn had given it to him initially, but they never administered the potion for more than a few days in a row.  Legolas said nothing because he did not wish Aragorn to know the trouble he had resting.  So he simply used his own knowledge with a little aid from Elrond’s old memories to make the tea himself.  It was easy enough when everything was in its proper place, but someone had rearranged the pantry.  Legolas didn’t really know what all the herbs he was using were, and now that they weren’t where he had learned to find them, he was having trouble remembering the actual name of the one he was missing. 

 

“I think you are missing this,” the twin offered.  He pulled a square tin down from the third shelf and popped the top of it off.  A mild musty smell filled the room.  “Lebellyia.  It makes it work better, helps you to sleep more soundly and it’s easier on the stomach.”  He held the canister out to the prince.

 

“Yes,” Legolas agreed with a smile.  “That is it.  I just couldn’t make the memory surface.  And I would swear it was in this cabinet just yesterday.  Thank you for your help, it is much appreciated.”

 

“It was, Elrohir and I restocked the pantry earlier this morning and shifted some things around to make more room.”  Elladan admitted.  He turned around and leaned against the counter behind him as Legolas stepped back to his task.  The Silvan elf measured the correct amount of the herb out and crushed it up with the rest of the concoction.

 

“I did not realize that Ada had taught you how to dry mix his teas.  I always thought they were a family secret of sorts.  When did you learn?”  Elladan asked.  His curiosity had been peaked.  “Or was it Estel who taught you?”

 

“No, it was your father,” Legolas offered a partial explanation.  The twins didn’t know that the Silvan elf had at one time shared their father’s memories and the prince was content to leave it that way.  Having finished with the mixture he poured it into a small clay bowl and headed for the door.

 

“Thank you again for your help,” the prince said just before he gained the hallway.  “If you don’t mind I think I will retire tonight and see if I can’t get some rest.”  He smiled and held up the mixture as a means of explanation.

 

The Noldo elf was left standing in the pantry room, a frown creasing his face.  Turning back to the shelves and cabinets behind him he pulled out the containers of herbs that Legolas had just used to mix up the tea base.  His frown deepened when he saw how much was missing.  This was not good.  If Legolas was the only one who had been using this...

 

Worrying his lower lip thoughtfully with his teeth, Elladan set off to find Estel.  They needed to talk.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Aragorn neared the end of one of the stone pathways that wound through the garden and halted.  His distracted senses were pulled back to center as he sensed that he was not alone.  Well honed instinct quickly assessed the information and just as quickly let him know he could relax again. 

 

A few moments later he could make out the figure of Gimli sitting on a stone bench, drawing thoughtfully on his pipe and blowing smoke rings in the moonlit air. 

 

Gimli looked up when he sensed Aragorn approach and patted the bench beside him, scooting over to give the man room.  Aragorn accepted the invitation to sit and for a few moments they smoked together in companionable silence. 

 

“So, should I ask you what’s bothering you, or should I as you how the elf is doing?” Gimli asked after a few minutes.  He was of the opinion those two questions were probably one and the same.  He was right. 

 

Aragorn wasn’t sure what to say.  He opted for answering the second question since it got more to heart of the matter.  “Tired, I think.  He excused himself to go to bed shortly after you left.”

 

“Seems he’s tired a lot lately,” Gimli muttered disapprovingly.  That was not like the incessantly energetic elf he had come to know. 

 

“I know,” Aragorn confirmed his worries.  “That’s part of what worries me.  I don’t know if there’s something physically wrong with him or if it’s all in his mind...” there was a tone of defeat in Aragorn’s voice.  He hated to see someone hurting and not be able to help them. 

 

“Gimli... can I ask you something?” he hesitated slightly before pushing ahead. 

 

“Anything,” Gimli replied easily, blowing another smoke ring towards the glowing orb of the moon overhead. 

 

“You and Legolas, you traveled together quite a bit after the war, true?”

 

“Aye, the blasted elf dragged me on a tour of every blessed tree in Fangorn forest.  Then we went to the GlitteringCaves and were there are sights to truly be seen!” Gimli’s eyes glinted brightly in the dim light.  “Of course... I would never have known that I was with the same elf that followed you so fearlessly into the Paths of the Dead!  You should have heard the fuss he put up over going into a few blasted little caves...” The dwarf shook his head with a smile.  Those were good memories. 

 

“Of course, we also went to each other’s homes and that was... interesting. Our fathers haven’t ever been on friendly terms exactly.”  Gimli’s smile turned rueful.

 

Aragorn chuckled.  “Yes, I did get the impression that neither Gloin nor Thranduil would think very highly of each other should they meet again.  Please tell me you did not endeavor such a meeting?!” 

 

“No, indeed!” Gimli laughed at the thought.  “Bringing Thranduil’s son home with me was quite difficult enough! 

 

“What of your visit to Mirkwood?  You were with Legolas the first time he went back, were you not?”  Aragorn prodded, hoping to get a little closer to whatever truth Legolas had been hiding from him earlier.

 

Gimli’s smile faded slightly and he looked away again.  “Aye.  I was there.  I can’t say I was given a warm welcome, but... given the circumstances I’ll not fault them for that.”

 

Aragorn’s brows crinkled.  If Gimli was giving elves the benefit of the doubt, something seriously wrong must have been going on in Mirkwood.

 

“What happened, Gimli?  Legolas would not speak to me of it when I asked him earlier.  I have not been to Mirkwood since I left Gollum in Thranduil’s care many years ago now.  I heard that the woods were hard hit by the fighting with Dol Guldur.  What was it like?”

 

Gimli blew out a large puff of smoke and watched it disappear into the darkness before answering.  “What was it like?  It was like walking into Balin’s tomb.  Finding that which you thought of in life and light suddenly gone; its memory desecrated.  It... it was bad, Laddie.  I’ve passed through that forest before and thought it a singularly gloomy place.  I’ll admit I once thought a nice fire might do some good there... but you can’t think that way around an elf. 

 

“As you know, war came to the north of Middle Earth as surely as it did to the south where we were.  Somewhere about the time we were fighting in Minas Tirith and riding to the Black Gates, the LonelyMountain, LakeTown, Las Galen and Lothlóren all came under attack from different sources.”

 

“I know,” Aragorn nodded.  “I heard that Lord Dain and King Brand were both slain, I’m sorry.” 

 

Gimli nodded slowly.  “A great many of our people fell in that battle, but they made a good account for themselves.  It was the kind of death that any warrior of Dain’s years might hope for.  Legolas’ people also did themselves proud even though the whole might of Dol Guldur loosed upon them.  Did you know that Lady Galadriel herself led the Galadhrim in to clean out what was left of that festering orc hole?  I wish I could have seen that!” A somewhat dreamy smile mingled with fierce admiration lit the dwarf’s face and Aragorn tried hard not to chuckle.  Yes, he knew that too, but he let Gimli tell the story in his own way and did not interrupt. 

 

Gimli shook his head and brought his mind back to the topic at hand.  “Now, the thing about having your stronghold in a nice, sensible place like under a mountain is that it gives your enemy precious few angles to attack you from.  Legolas’ folk have more sense than some in that regard.  I was pleased to note that despite what he says, most of his father’s halls were, in fact underground and perfectly defensible.  Unfortunately, the woods themselves were another matter.”  The dwarf sighed. 

 

“The attacking orcs set all the northern woods aflame.  It must have been a powerful big fire at its zenith.  It didn’t get *everything* of course... but it did a lot of damage.  A lot of damage...”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Legolas walked numbly through the charred woods.  He knew he was on the path towards home that he had walked a hundred times, but he did not recognize it anymore.  His heart cringed inwardly.  He didn’t realize it would be this bad.  He knew the forest had taken harm... but he thought he would still recognize his home under the tangle of burnt and broken bows.  The painful truth he was discovering now was that he could not.   

 

Gimli was utterly silent as he trudged along beside his friend.  Legolas had almost not let the dwarf accompany him.  If Thranduil had had trouble with his son befriending a human in the beginning, he shuddered to think what his father was going to think about Gimli.  Legolas wasn’t sure this was the best time to introduce his dwarven friend to the Elvenking that had once imprisoned Gimli’s father, but now Legolas was glad he was not making this journey alone. 

 

Gimli glanced up at the pale face of the elf walking beside him.  He didn’t have to comprehend Legolas’ affinity with nature to understand the devastation on his friend’s face as they passed mournfully through the ruined woods that had once been the elf’s home.

 

Lightly, reverently, Legolas touched his fingertips to the charred trunks of the trees that bordered the path like mournful sentinels.  Many were dead, their song silenced.  The elf felt only empty coldness when he touched them.  Some yet survived.  Legolas felt tears sting his eyes.  The trees mourned their losses.  Yet when he touched the ones that were trying valiantly to bloom around scarred trunks and missing limbs, they were not sorry for themselves.  Instead, they reached out in a weak attempt to sooth the hurting spirit of the wood-elf.  That was what finally crushed the elf’s defenses and made silent tears spill down his cheeks. 

 

Legolas turned his head away swiftly.  He quickened his pace, leaving Gimli behind.  He did not want the dwarf to see him cry. 

 

Gimli resisted the urge to speed up and rejoin Legolas.  He understood the elf needed space and let the prince walk alone until he had his emotions under control once more.

 

Legolas appreciated the fact that Gimli was simply being silent and letting him deal with the pain of this in his own way.  It was hard.  This wasn’t the kind of homecoming he had imagined.  Thranduil had spoken little of home when they were together at Aragorn’s coronation.  From what he had said, Legolas had been prepared for some damage when he finally did make it home... but he had not been prepared for anything like this.  Now he understood his father’s subdued mood in Minas Tirith, and why he had surprised Legolas by not trying to talk him into returning home right away with the rest of the Mirkwood delegation.  Thranduil hadn’t known how to warn his son about what had happened while he was gone.  Perhaps he had not been prepared to deal with Legolas’ grief and horror atop his own.

 

Legolas stopped short when he saw the familiar outline of the palace gates come into view ahead of him.  His feet felt rooted to the spot.  He should have been glad to finally see something he recognized, but he was not.  Instead, horror flooded his being as he realized where he was.  Somehow he had still imagined that his home itself was spared and it was only the woods around that had been decimated, but before him stood the stark proof that the fires and fighting had come right to the doorstep of the palace.  The graceful trees arching over the lane leading to his father’s magic gates were blackened and silent.  Beyond the walls, Legolas could just see that the palace grounds themselves were thankfully untouched, a small, sea of green in the brown-black tangle of the woods.  He thanked the Valar for that small mercy.

 

The prince stopped, unable to bring himself to utter the command that would open those doors.  He was home, but it didn’t feel like home. The woods had changed; he had changed.  The wind rustling in the bare branches sounded like the roll of the sea in his ears.  He had never more understood the cursed call of the sea than at this moment. 

 

Legolas stared mutely at the gate.  Now that he saw the devastation of the woods, he began to fear what cost the war may have taken upon his people as well.  His home was mostly underground and seemed to have been spared the worst of the conflagration... but what about all the others who lived in the woods around the palace?  What about Raniean, Trelan, Morifwen, Brenyf... were his friends all right?  He realized with a chill that none of them had accompanied Thranduil to Minas Tirith and the Elvenking had not spoken of how they fared.    

 

The massive trees on either side of the gate were still alive, although badly scarred by the fire that had claimed their kin.  Legolas touched them with trembling fingers.  They were saplings when he was learning to walk.  His mother had planted them and every time she entered or left the palace she would touch them.  Elvéwen standing in the open gate, her pale hands sadly touching first one tree, and then the other in a final farewell was the last memory he had of his mother.  After she left, Legolas had adopted her ritual.  How many times had he touched these trees in the long centuries he had lived?  So many memories...

 

Unexpectedly, Legolas dropped to his knees before the gates and buried his face in his hands.  Maybe for the first time in his life he finally understood why his mother had left.  Perhaps also for the first time he could finally forgive his father for not letting him accompany Elvéwen all the way to the havens to say goodbye.  He realized numbly that his father had feared letting him see the sea.  Thranduil had feared losing him too. 

 

Gimli’s thick, weathered hand came to rest comfortingly on Legolas’ shoulder, reminding the wood elf that he was not alone.

 

Legolas started, but did not rise.  He hated letting Gimli see him like this but his aching heart took precedent over his pride.

 

“All the battles we have fought... did they mean nothing?  How can I face those that have spent their blood for my home when I...?  I-I should have been here, Gimli,” Legolas whispered sadly. 

 

“You couldn’t have changed it, Laddie,” Gimli said quietly.  “You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”

 

“When my people needed me I was thousands of miles away, fighting someone else’s war.”  Legolas’ words weren’t bitter, he knew he had done what he needed to do, but that didn’t change his feelings of guilt. 

 

“We had a job to do and we did it,” Gimli countered with gruff wisdom.  “If the Ring didn’t go into the fire, none of us would have a people left to worry about.  Don’t give yourself a big head.  You’re quite a fighter, for an elf, but even you couldn’t have turned the tide of whatever happened here,” the dwarf pointed out with his usual mix of sarcasm and sincerity. 

 

Legolas nodded numbly.  He knew it was true, but it didn’t make this any easier.  He gave Gimli’s hand a grateful squeeze before rising back to his feet and bidding the gates to open. 

 

“I knew there was some reason I brought you along,” the prince murmured with a small smile.

 

“Aye, that was rare good sense on your part,” Gimli added perfectly straight-faced, but his eyes twinkled.

 

Inside the palace grounds the abundance of thriving plant-life was like a welcome breath of fresh air.  Legolas was slightly surprised by the number of people milling about the courtyard.  Usually one found only the guards out here.  Now however, the courtyard was alive with a host of elves that seemed to have no relation to the palace or palace staff at all. 

 

Refugees, Legolas realized with a start.  Obviously, many elves had lost their homes to the fire and Thranduil had given them sanctuary in the palace until the woods could be rebuilt. 

 

That did not explain the startling presence of the two soldiers near the far wall dressed in the unmistakable armor of the Galadhrim.  The prince couldn’t remember ever seeing the folk of the Goldenwood in his home before. 

 

Part of Legolas’ greatest fear was laid to rest several paces into the courtyard. 

 

“Legolas!  Your highness!” 

 

The prince turned at the sound of his name and saw Trelan hurrying towards him with a large smile on his face.  The small elf was leaning slightly on a gracefully carved wooden crutch, but he moved so easily that it looked like he almost didn’t need it. 

 

“Trey!” Legolas greeted as they embraced.  “What happened to you?”  The prince’s smile was still slightly marred by everything he had seen. 

 

Trelan understood.  The state of the forest had to come as quite a shock.  He had been here to see the devastation as it happened, and somehow that had made it easier to deal with.  He knew how close to total disaster they had come and how much worse it could have been. 

 

“Nothing to worry about, a little broken leg is all.  Some troll-creature got in a luck swing.  It’s mending beautifully.  I don’t really need this wretched thing anymore.” He gestured to the crutch in his hand.  “But the healers got to your father and so now I have orders.  If I don’t use it I’m not allowed to work.  Talk to him about that, would you?”

 

Legolas chuckled.  “As if that would do any good?  Besides, you probably should be using it.”

 

Trelan rolled his eyes dramatically.  “Oh very well, since you’re all against me.  It’s not as if I am about to stress myself overseeing food distribution,” he snorted.  “I’ve been put in charge of the detail caring for the refugees until the healers say I may rejoin my contingent.”  The small elf made a face.  “I hope that day comes soon!  But what about you?  Where have you been?  Off having fun without us again no doubt.  Ho!  Wait a minute, who’s this?” Trelan noticed Gimli for the first time. 

 

Legolas could not help smiling at Trelan’s mile-a-minute speech.  “Trelan, this is Gimli, son of Gloin.  Gimli, this is Trelan, son of Telrayn.  Gimli’s a friend of mine Trey, and yes, I *will* tell you everything that’s happened, but first...” his eyes filled with worry once more. 

 

Trelan sobered slightly as well.  “Raniean’s all right.  He’s out with the others on the rebuilding projects.”

 

“What about Morifwen?  Brenyf?”  Legolas was almost afraid to ask. 

 

“They’re fine too,” Trelan assured.  “We lost most of the second company and a good number of the others, but there will be time for you to see records of the fallen later,” the small elf said quietly.  “First you should refresh yourself, you’ve had a long journey.  Your rooms are ready for you.  The palace is a little... full at the moment, but I’ll have someone make some arrangements for your friend.”  Trelan turned in a slow circle, looking for someone he could commandeer. 

 

“Gimli can stay with me,” Legolas volunteered. 

 

Trelan raised an eyebrow, glancing at the dwarf askance.  He gave Legolas a look that said he had better get the full story on how all this came to be as soon as they had time.  “Dwarves now, Legolas?  Humans weren’t enough?”  He laughed.  “As you wish.” 

 

Gimli grumbled dangerously and Legolas shot him an imploring look.  They knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but Legolas didn’t want trouble to start already. 

 

Trelan waved a hand towards the two Galadhrim warriors that Legolas had spotted earlier.  “Could you find Elrynd or somebody on the serving staff and tell them Prince Legolas is on his way to his rooms?  Ask them to draw a bath for him and prepare another bed in his guest chamber.”

 

The Lórien elves acquiesced to the request with a nod and left.  Trelan grinned somewhat wickedly.  “Have to find some use for them from time to time.  Lord Celeborn left us with a troop of his warriors to help with the rebuilding.  But they’re a lot more useful to Raniean who is actually DOING the rebuilding than they are here, where they’re just more people underfoot.” 

 

Legolas reflected that there were indeed already quite enough people underfoot as they threaded their way through the crowded courtyard.  Legolas did not seem ready to settle in his rooms right away and lingered there only briefly.  After Trelan left them, he made his way out into the gardens, seeking some area that was not occupied by the visible, homeless evidence of what had become of his home.  Gimli tagged along after him, keeping up a steady, one-sided conversation to which the prince was not even bothering to listen.   

 

Legolas finally found a small, secluded glen near the south wall and stopped, trying to breathe in the scent of the trees and flowers.  But even here the air was tainted with the tang of scorched wood and ash.  Gimli sensed his friend’s quite distress and finally fell silent. 

 

The dwarf felt he should say something, but he did not know what, and Legolas had seemed extremely disinterested in conversation.  So he kept his peace and seated himself on a large stone. 

 

“Legolas?” Thranduil’s familiar voice drew Legolas around slowly.  The prince had been aware of his father’s approach for several moments, but hadn’t been sure how to greet him. 

 

Gimli, however, was surprised by the older elf’s silent approach and shifted around swiftly to gaze at the Elvenking.  He had never met Thranduil personally, and knew him only from his father’s stories.  Yet he recognized instantly who the newcomer was.  The regal bearing was unmistakable, even without the silver crown of leaves upon his brow.  Besides, the resemblance between father and son was unmistakable.  It startled Gimli a little.  Elven age was always a difficult thing for outsiders to judge, but it was surprising to the dwarf that the Elvenking really didn’t look old enough to be Legolas’ father.  His older brother maybe... but then, he remembered Galadriel, older than the sun, and still so radiantly beautiful.  Yes, elves were a queer folk, but he would grudgingly admit that they were a blessed one as well.

 

“I was told you had returned, but I knew I would not find you in your rooms,” the Elvenking said softly.

 

Legolas could see in Thranduil’s eyes the echoes of the same pain that was in his own heart.  It made own eyes sting afresh.  For once he didn’t try to hide his feelings from his father.  He had finally accepted that Thranduil would not see it as weakness.

 

“I wanted to hear the trees... but they do not speak to me anymore,” he said sorrowfully. 

 

Thranduil moved forward and embraced his son.  He did not release him at once, but held him a little longer than a simple greeting required.  Legolas buried his hands in the silk of his father’s robes and held fast as well.  Their woods had changed forever.  Middle Earth had changed forever, and they both knew it. 

 

The king could feel the shock in his son’s body.  He regretted that the state of the woods had come as such a surprise.  He wished he could have cushioned the blow somehow. 

 

“Forgive me,” Thranduil whispered quietly in Legolas’ ear.  “I did not know how to tell you.”    

 

Legolas had no trouble believing that.  If the positions were reversed, he doubted he would have known what to say.  He didn’t know what to say now either.  He nodded wordlessly against Thranduil’s shoulder. 

 

After a moment, Thranduil pulled back and held Legolas at arms length, studying him.  The shock and ache were still clear in the prince’s blue eyes. 

 

“Much has been lost.  Much has changed.  But the sacrifices have not been without cause,” Thranduil said softly.  “The forest mourns, but it will re-grow.  As much as it mourns, it rejoices.  It still sings.  Do you not feel it, Legolas?  It’s free.  It’s finally free.”

 

Legolas shook his head, momentarily at a loss.  He could not hear that of which his father spoke.  His connection with the trees seemed dimmed somehow – remote.  It felt as if the forest had been silenced. 

 

Thranduil frowned slightly and reached out his hand, lightly touching the side of Legolas’ face. 

 

“Look past the pain, ion-nín.  Listen...” he bade softly. 

 

Legolas did as he was bid, pushing through his own hurt and despair to try and understand his father’s words.  He was surprised that after a few moments he could indeed feel the difference.  The trauma of the ruined woods had blinded him to it at first, but now he could sense that not all the change in the air was ill.  There was a lightness, and an absence of evil that he had not felt in many, many years.  The forest grieved, but it was well aware of its own cycle of death and rebirth.  It trembled now with hopeful anticipation of a future free from shadow.  Legolas was surprised he had not sensed this before.  He wondered with a start if the fact that the trees did not seem to sing to his heart the way they had once actually had anything to do with the woods at all.  Perhaps it was he, and not the forest, who had changed the most.

 

The prince allowed a small smile to wipe some of the grief from his face.  “You’re right.  It is free, Ada.  Middle Earth is free, just as we have always desired.  The woods will be safe now for our people to live in peace.”

 

Thranduil gave a ghost of a smile as he let his hand drop from his son’s face.  His response was unanticipated.  “Free, yes.  But for us...?  I am not so sure.  In a way, this has been my life’s labor.  I am glad to see it completed.  I do not think this will be our world much longer.  My heart is glad to be able to leave it thus.” 

 

Legolas blinked several times.  Yet, perhaps the most shocking thing was that he was not surprised.  Thranduil’s words were not as unexpected as they might seem.  There was a feeling of completion here. 

 

“You speak of leaving?” the younger elf asked.  The garden seemed suddenly very quiet. 

 

“It is the fate of all our kind eventually,” Thranduil said somewhat vaguely.  “Our ancestors never made the first journey, so we shall be pioneers, yes?” he smiled gently.  “Do not mistake me, I have much yet to do here and I would see Eryn Lasgalen, our new Greenwood, restored to full health before I even think of departing.  But... I am ready.  I am ready to see your Nana again.  Soon, Greenleaf, I think you will be too.”

 

Legolas returned his father’s smile and gripped the other elf’s arm.  He was already more ready than his father knew.  Yet his desire to stay was still much stronger than his desire to leave.  He too, had much yet to do here on Middle Earth before his time came. 

 

These thoughts led his mind quickly back to Gimli, who had been quite forgotten for the moment. 

 

The dwarf loudly cleared his throat, causing both elves to look at him. 

 

“Forgive me!” Legolas smiled ruefully at his own lack of manners.  “Father, may I present Gimli, son of Gloin?”

 

“It is good to see you, Master Gimli.  What brings you to our woods?”  Thranduil nodded politely at the dwarf in greeting.  Legolas had briefly named all the member of the fellowship for this father when they were in Minis Tirith and the reintroduction was more of a formality for the sake of the dwarf.  Still, Legolas knew they had not said more than three words to one another in their previous acquaintance and he wondered again how this visit was going to fair.  He wasn’t even sure Gimli had realized at the time that Thranduil was Legolas’ father.

 

Gimli had the good manners to rise and bow to the Elvenking, if only very stiffly. 

 

“I invited him to stay for a while,” Legolas explained.  “Then, if I can be spared, I had promised to accompany him to his home in the LonelyMountain.”  Legolas put a qualifier on the last part of his plan because now that he saw the state Mirkwood was in he realized he might be needed here. 

 

Thranduil nodded, obviously trying to keep his eyebrows from creeping up to join his hairline.  “I see.  Well I’m sure if you really wished it, you could be spared.”  He looked at his son as if trying to judge whether he was mentally stable or not.  He was talking about voluntarily going off to visit dwarves after all - inside a mountain no less. 

 

Legolas actually chuckled at the disbelief on his father’s face.  On impulse, he gave Thranduil another quick hug.  The elven king was slightly surprised, but smiled and hugged him back. 

 

“I don’t wish to be rude,” Gimli said finally.  “But some of us have had a rather long journey.  While the hospitality of these halls has never been renowned among my people, I wonder if there’s somewhere a body might get a bite to eat.”

 

Legolas almost choked.  He shot Gimli a withering glare, but the dwarf, unfortunately, did not seem to realize he’d said anything very insulting at all.  Valar help them, this was going to be a very interesting visit.

 

Thranduil glared at the dwarf, but seemed caught somewhere between being annoyed at Gimli and amused at his son’s reaction.  “There is a meal awaiting you both in Legolas’ chambers, if you would care to return there.”

 

“Thank you, father,” Legolas said quickly, his gaze sending an embarrassed apology for his friend’s behavior.  “Perhaps we should go refresh ourselves.”

 

Thranduil repressed a smile, which was all the indication Legolas needed that the King had not, in fact, taken offense.  “Yes, I think you’d better,” he said seriously, but with a twinkle in his eyes.  “The dwarf smells worse than the ranger.”

 

Gimli sputtered and began protesting loudly, but Legolas didn’t give him the chance. 

 

“COME, Gimli,” he said firmly, grabbing the dwarf’s arm and practically dragging him away with him.   

 

Thranduil’s amused look followed them both out of the garden. 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Aragorn laughed while Gimli muttered about the hospitality of elves. 

 

“At least they didn’t accuse you of murder,” Aragorn told him. 

 

Gimli did a double-take on that statement and eyed the former ranger.  “Say what, laddie?”

 

Aragorn shook his head.  “Another story for another time,” he said dismissively.  “I had no idea Mirkwood... I mean Eryn Lasgalen, was so hard hit.  Legolas should have told me.”

 

“Aye, but that one’s quite the clam sometimes,” Gimli remarked.  “You have to pry everything out of him!”  The dwarf made a motion with his hands to demonstrate his point and smiled. 

 

Aragorn smiled slightly.  “Very true.  Speaking of our dear, stubborn elvish friend, I think I’d better go look in on him and make sure he’s resting all right.”  Tamping out his pipe, he excused himself. 

 

“Legolas is right, you are a mother hen,” Gimli called after him, amusement obvious in his voice. 

 

“Oh he said that, did he?” Aragorn asked as he took his leave. 

 

“Oh, aye, that and a number of other things,” the dwarf said with a slowly growing grin.

 

Aragorn shook his head.  He chuckled.  “You and I shall have to talk more!”

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Legolas was indeed resting well when Aragorn found him, and the King was glad.  He did not enter the prince’s room, but remained on the threshold.  The house was quite now.  The veil of slumber was slowly descending upon its other occupants. 

 

It was here that Elladan finally found his human brother. 

 

Aragorn was leaning in the doorway to Legolas’ room watching the elf slumber peacefully.  A small smile crept onto the human’s face.

 

“He finally sleeps,” the man whispered as Elladan stepped next to him and glanced into the darkened room.

 

“I would wonder if he didn’t,” the twin responded darkly.  Aragorn glanced at him with a questioning frown.  Instead of answering his brother’s unspoken question, Elladan quietly slipped into Legolas’ room.  Aragorn was afraid his brother would disturb the prince, but Legolas slept on, completely unaware.

 

Stepping out into the hallway Elladan passed Aragorn the mug he had retrieved from the bed stand.

 

Aragorn felt the fired clay cup.  It was barely warm.  He smelled the lip and ran his index finger around the edges of the mug.  Tasting the contents he glanced up quickly at Elladan a look of recognition on his face.

 

It was his father’s special tea mix and a potent portion of it at that.

 

“How ever did you get him to take this?” Aragorn asked quietly not wanting to waken the prince.  Legolas was always very resistant to taking the medication.  Although, come to think of it, he hadn’t made much of a protest when Aragorn had given it to him the first few nights they were here. 

 

“I didn’t,” Elladan answered simply.  His tone was flat and serious and Estel could tell that there was more.

 

Elrohir slipped up beside his twin and leaned against the wall, quietly listening to the conversation.  He had no knowledge of what had transpired, he had just been looking for his brothers.

 

“What aren’t you telling me?” Aragorn asked suspiciously.  “If you didn’t give this to him how did he get it?”

 

“I found him in the pantry *making* it himself.  He was begging his memories not to fail him.  Estel, how does Legolas know how to make Ada’s tea?  He said father told him how, but when?  I do not remember him teaching anyone but us three how to make it.  It could be dangerous if made improperly.”  Elladan was concerned.  His consternation had grown throughout the evening and he was looking for answers.

 

“Oh, right,” Aragorn muttered, closing his eyes and tipping his head back as memory slammed back into him.  “Legolas does know.  And I will tell you how, but not here.  It is... it is a tender subject.  I don’t want him to wake.  He needs to sleep.  Let us go down the Study and I’ll tell you everything.” 

 

The human led the twins back down the hallway, stopping off quickly at his room on the way.  He retrieved a small leather bag of longbottom leaf to refill his pipe, much to the twins’ annoyance.

 

“You aren’t going to smoke that thing in the house are you?” Elrohir questioned him as they walked down the stairwell.

 

“I am.” Aragorn announced.  He turned right at the bottom of the steps and headed for the study.

 

“It’s a foul habit, Estel.  Why Ada couldn’t break you of it I will never know,” Elladan complained.  Of course Elrond had never even attempted such a thing, being much more tolerant of the smell of pipeweed than the twins. 

 

“Who taught you how to smoke a pipe anyway?” Elrohir continued his barrage of questions.  He slumped down on the couch, making room for Elladan.  The oldest twin sat on the arm of the large divan and leaned back.  He allowed his body to slip from its position until he was lying on the sofa with his head on Elrohir’s thigh and his legs dangling over the arm.

 

“I’ll have you know that Gandalf smokes...” Aragorn tried to defend himself only to be interrupted by Elladan.

 

“And he is an Istari and they have a myriad of oddities about them.  So you cannot compare yourself to him,” The oldest twin countered.

 

“...and all the hobbits smoke,” Aragorn continued as though he hadn’t heard a word that had been said.

 

“There is no accounting for hobbit tastes.  They are a strange folk, Estel, and you know that,” Elrohir taunted with a wide smile.

 

“*And* it was Halbarad who introduced to me to the art of smoking!” Aragorn finished his explanation.

 

“If that old ranger weren’t already occupying the Halls of Mandos I would send him there for teaching you that despicable habit,” Elladan chimed in drolly.

 

“So it is a practice handed down from wise men, sturdy long lived people and the valiant who have gone before us.  Hence it is necessary for me to continue the tradition and pass it on to all who desire to learn,” Aragorn defended himself.  He laughed as the twins ridiculed him and gwaffed at his explanations. 

 

Seating himself in a large overstuffed chair he removed the long wooden pipe that he had acquired years ago.  It was one of the finest made in the Shire.  The small pouch contained a mixture of Longbottom Leaf.  The most popular and widely sought tobacco was grown by the Brandybuck clan now that the King had put in orders for it. 

 

Taking out a heaping pinch of the broken, dried leaves Aragorn stuffed them into the bowl of the pipe.  He struck a flint igniting a long thin reed which he touched to the leaves and drew in a breath holding it deeply in his lungs before breathing the sweet, heady smell of the plant back out.

 

The twins could not deny the scent was pleasant but they had never acquired a taste for tobacco or smoking of any type.  And they never missed a chance to tease their youngest brother about it either.

 

It took Aragorn three tries before he blew a perfect smoke ring.  His second ring drifted close to Elrohir.  The elven twin batted at the ghosted circle and scrunched his face up.

 

“Estel,” Elladan growled darkly.  His tone was belayed by the smile on his face.  “Stop tormenting Elrohir or I’ll make you take that thing outside.”

 

“You do and I’ll never tell you how it is that Legolas knows the ingredients to make Ada’s special tea,” Aragorn warned. Two could play at that game.

 

He smiled wickedly when the elven twins rolled their eyes and waited him out patiently as he breathed in the sweet thick smoke of the weed once more.  Blowing another perfect smoke ring he contented himself and set the pipe aside.

 

“Legolas probably retains many of Ada’s memories,” The human stated simply.

 

His remark caught the elven twins completely off guard.  Whatever they might have expected, neither of them were prepared for Estel’s explanation.  Elladan quickly sat up and leaned forward intently. Both twins were speaking at the same time wanting to know more. 

 

“Peace, peace.  Let me explain,” Aragorn calmed them.  “It is not his fault.”

 

Elrohir stopped his twin’s tirade with a gentle touch to Elladan’s shoulder.  He pulled his brother back against him and silenced the other with a glance.

 

“Let us hear him out.  I would know how this came about,” Elrohir spoke softly.

 

With a nod Elladan quieted and rested fully back against Elrohir.  Both elves turned their undivided attention to the human and quietly waited.

 

“Do you remember that summer when the orcs invaded Imladris and we destroyed Daradwayn?” When both his listeners nodded in agreement the man continued.  “So then you remember when father brought Legolas back from the steps of Mandos’ Halls?”

 

Again a simple nod of affirmation.

 

“Legolas said that in the instant that he returned, when he awoke, he did not know who he was for all the memories and lives that were inside his mind.  He and Ada were joined in a way that I do not understand nor can I explain any better than what Legolas has told me.  Ada’s memories impressed themselves on Legolas’ mind.  Likewise Ada carries many of Legolas’ with him as well,” Aragorn explained as best as he could.

 

“He has *all* his memories?” Elladan repeated questioningly.

 

“Even the ones about us?” Elrohir asked.

 

With a laugh Aragorn nodded his head.  “I don’t know how much of his recollections were actually made conscious, and Legolas has long sought to suppress them entirely, but I’m afraid that on some level he probably knows most of those as well. Or rather he did know them.”

 

When the identical faces of the elves across from him scrunched up in confusion Aragorn continued explaining.

 

“Most of the memories are repressed, forgotten or faded.  When we were in Angmar it was necessary for Legolas to force them to the forefront and recall Adar’s work in the healing arts.  It was what saved us all.  If Legolas had not had Ada’s memories I would have died and so would all the peoples enslaved to the Witch King,” Aragorn confessed.  “We never told anyone, not even you two.  It was very distressing for Legolas at first.  He thought he was going insane until we figured out what had happened.  Then he had to tell Ada.  That was very difficult and very embarrassing for them both.  When Legolas finally came clean with father, Ada taught him how to sift the memories and reject the ones that were specifically not his own,” Aragorn paused in his tale and sighed deeply.

 

“It seems he has called back certain ones now in order to create Ada’s special tea.  I had thought that he was simply doing better but I was wrong.  I didn’t see the signs.  He’s very good at covering up injuries and pretending that things are well when they are not.  I haven’t been watching him closely enough,” the healer confessed.  “I should have caught him at his game sooner.”

 

“How could you know if he didn’t want you to?  Legolas learned long before you entered the world how to conceal his pain,” Elladan tried to console his younger brother.

 

“Yes, but if weren’t so preoccupied with my own troubles then I would have noticed sooner.  I know it.  He can’t hide things from me if I’m paying attention.”  Aragorn couldn’t accept the release so easily, he felt too responsible as the resident healer.  “And its not just that.  Last week Arwen told me that she thought Legolas was doing poorly and that I should watch for the signs of his weariness.  I dismissed it as just his being tired from the journey and healing.  But I was wrong.”

 

No one spoke for a few minutes.  There was nothing the twins could say to pacify the healer in Aragorn.

 

With a sigh Estel broke the silence.

 

“Well I suppose a couple of nights will be alright, that can’t hurt him,” he said finally.

 

“It hasn’t been just a couple of nights, Estel,” Elladan admitted quietly.  He returned the questioning gaze that Elrohir gave him with a small shrug.  “I checked the contents of the other herbs that the tea is made with.  The canisters are half full, we’ll need to go out and get more before winter sets in or we won’t have enough.”

 

“Half full!”  Aragorn leaned forward, suddenly very upset.  “Elladan are you sure that Legolas used that much?  Are you sure you weren’t low to begin with?”

 

“It’s not possible, Estel,” Elrohir concurred.  “We filled those coffers ourselves.  There isn’t much call for the tea anymore.  The tins were full before you came.”

 

“Then he has been using it practically since we got here.” Aragorn figured up the amounts quickly in his head.  “But even so, to be down to half...”

 

“He’s been taking doses a lot more potent than we would normally give, I know.  Those were my thoughts exactly,” Elladan agreed.  “You’ll have to talk to him.  Prolonged use is dangerous.  If he keeps it up he’ll have a hard time sleeping without it.  It’s only meant for use in moderation.”

 

“I know,” Estel agreed, nodding slowly.  He slumped back into the chair and reached for his pipe.  No one protested as he drew in a slow deep breath.

 

Silence filled the room and Elladan lay back down on the divan.  Stretching out as much as possible he used his twin for a pillow and fixed his gaze on the ornamented ceiling.

 

“I’ll talk to him,” Aragorn spoke up softly after several minutes.  “I’ll ask him to ease up slowly on his use of the tea.  If he’s been taking it regularly it would be worse for him to simply stop.  I wish he’d talked to me first.”

 

“Sometimes it’s too hard to talk,” Elrohir answered quietly. “Sometimes what you are dealing with is painful enough and you just can’t speak about it.  It would make it worse.”

 

“Well not talking isn’t helping either,” Aragorn countered.  “But please don’t ask him about father’s memories.  It was so hard the last time for him to put them aside.  I’d rather not drag him through that again when he obviously has enough else going on inside him.”

 

“You have our word, Estel,” Elladan promised.  He watched his brother take another deep breath through the pipe.  “Can I ask you something?”

 

“Of course. Anything, you know that,” Aragorn responded quickly.

 

“The first time you picked up that nasty thing...” Elladan let the question hang in the air.

 

To the elves amusement Aragorn burst out laughing. 

 

“The first time I was introduced to smoking, Halbarad allowed me to use his pipe,” Aragorn started the tale with a smile.  He shook his head and closed his eyes as he remembered far back into his youth.  “I swear that old ranger did so just to get a laugh.  I had been watching him and he made it look so easy.  So when he handed me his pipe, of course, I was over eager.  I mimicked him exactly, right up to the point where I held the smoke in my chest for the count of three just like he did. I think I counted to one before I started hacking and coughing and I couldn’t catch my breath.  All the old timers thought it was tremendously funny.”  Aragorn was laughing now as he told the tale.

 

“I couldn’t breathe.  I thought I was going to die.  My eyes were watering and my nose got all runny.  I swear I coughed all night long after that.  Halbarad was beating on my back and laughing so hard he was crying.  After that I was convinced that I would learn just so they would never have the opportunity to laugh at me again,” Aragorn continued the tale much to his brother’s glee.

 

“Then a few months later, I met an old hobbit in Bree one day who happened to be passing through on his way to the Shire.  He had a bag of pipes with him and barrel of Longbottom leaf out on his pony.  When he noticed my interest, he sold me this pipe,” the human explained, holding up the polished pipe.  The stem was a burnt brown color that faded to nearly black at the bowl from use.  It was one of his most treasured possessions from his earlier days. 

 

“Anyway, he took me out to where his pony had been bedded and gave me a huge satchel of tobacco.  When I confessed that I was new to smoking he got so excited I thought he was going to burst.  He took me out behind the barn there at Bree.  We sat out in the field under the trees with the horses and that old timer taught me the finer points of smoking.  I think he enjoyed himself almost as much as I did.  The next day we left the town and I couldn’t find him.  They said he had taken off earlier than we had, which was surprising.  But the best part of it all was that night at camp...”

 

Aragorn’s laughter interrupted his own story as he remembered what had transpired.

 

“That night around the campfire I pulled out this pipe and started smoking just like I’d been doing it forever.  Halbarad was so impressed and a few of them even wanted to barter for my pipe.  They never got it and I never found that old Hobbit ever again.  Drogo Halfast, was his name if my memory serves me well,” Aragorn finished his story with a smile.  He took a breath and released the smoke slowly. 

 

“I really did it just to impress Halbarad,” the man confessed.

 

“You always did want to ‘grow up’ to be just like him,” Elladan retorted quietly.

 

“No,” Aragorn corrected his brother softly. “I wanted to grow up to be just like you – both of you.”

 

His admission surprised the oldest elf.  Elladan rolled off the couch and stood to his feet. Leaning over, he kissed his younger brother on the forehead.

 

“You, dear brother, have far surpassed us,” he whispered softly.  “You have become all that you were born to be and more.”

 

Aragorn wrapped his arms around the elf’s neck and hugged him tightly.

 

“Thank you,” the man responded.  He smiled softly when the elf stepped back towards his twin.

 

“And now I think I shall take Elrohir upstairs as he is very tired and we will both call it a night,” Elladan joked.

 

“Me?!” Elrohir laughed. “I wasn’t the one who was falling asleep while Estel was talking.  I do believe that was you!”

 

“Nay, dear brother, you are just too tired to remember correctly,” Elladan countered with a giggle.

 

“Quiet the two of you or you will wake the house!” Aragorn shushed them both.  “Let us all retire for the evening.  The day has been long and I know that *I* truly am tired.”

 

Standing from his seat Aragorn moved to the doorway. Glancing over his shoulder he smiled wickedly at the slow moving twins.

 

“Race you to the top!” He called out at them as he tore off for the staircase.

 

The shouts and cries of ‘unfair’ could be heard behind him as he pelted down the hallway.  Aragorn had nearly reached the stairwell when the two elves overtook him and pushed their way up the steps first.  In seconds they had gained the top leaving the man trailing behind on the second level.

 

The twins waited for their brother to catch up to them, taunting him on his slowness until he cautioned them to silence.

 

“You will wake the house! Heavens forbid Mora should have to come out and send you to your rooms, now quiet down,” He berated them good-naturedly. 

 

Elladan grabbed him in headlock and dragged him halfway down the hall glibly reminding him who was the oldest.  When they reached their rooms they parted ways, their wishes of goodnight echoed softly in the hallway welcoming the oncoming night.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Legolas tossed fitfully in his bed.  Turning on his side he glanced with weary eyes at the mug that rested on his nightstand.  The cup held no tea tonight although a small pouch containing the herbs lay next to a clay pot that Moranuen had brought.  The container was full of steaming water if Legolas found he needed the sleeping aid after all.  It was really too early for him to retire for the evening but being amongst the bustle of the house sometimes wearied him far more easily than he cared to admit.

 

Politely excusing himself from the conversations in the Hall of Fire the prince had sought out the solitude and peace of his room thinking to loose himself to sleep.  Rest however eluded him completely.

 

It had been three days since Aragorn had gently asked him to ease up on using the herbal tea to aid his sleep.  The healer was worried that the tea might actually have negative effects on the elf if he used it for long periods of time.  Legolas, a bit ashamed at being caught had not argued the point.  So he had cut it back the past two nights and was trying to sleep normally tonight, but it just wasn’t working.

 

The soft glow of the stars above Rivendell shown down into his room doing their best to comfort the distressed elf, but he was miserable.  His hands ached dully and no position was comfortable.  His mind wouldn’t stop thinking and he couldn’t shut off the voices that begged for attention at the back of his thoughts.  Anxiety warred with longings that he could not curb.  It seemed everything conspired against him to keep him from getting better.

 

His soul could not rest.

 

With a heavy sigh the elf sat up and threw the covers off of him.  For a while he simply sat there unsure of what to do next.  The sounds of the occupants of the house drifted up the stairwell.  He padded quietly down the steps and approached the Hall of Fire.  Laughter erupted from the room and several voices started speaking at once, shouting one another down to be heard as some point was argued.

 

He smiled softly as he listened to the good natured taunting. Part of him wanted to return to the hall and be amongst his friends.  His heart was lonely, but it was a loneliness that not even the company of others ever seemed to touch.  He knew, should he return to the great room, he would still feel as distant and lost to everyone as he did out here in the darkened hall in which he stood.

 

Indecision gripped him.

 

He stood for several moments on the threshold of light that spilled into the corridor.  Warring again within himself he stayed rooted in place.  He was worn from the energy it took to pretend that everything was fine.  Looking off to his right, Legolas noticed the open door leading to Elrond’s library.  The study hall was a huge room full of books and open to the exterior of Rivendell through several large windows and doors.  The darkness of the room beckoned him.  The call of tales wondrous and forgotten bid him enter and look upon their pages.  Perhaps in the lives of those who had gone before him he could find the answers that he sought.

 

Entering Elrond’s study he was at once aware of a slight easing of the panic that had gripped his heart.  He needed to spend some time alone tonight.  This had been the right choice. 

 

Lighting the glowglobes on the walls and the desk, he brightened the interior of the room with enough light with which to read.  His fingers lingered on the edges of the well kept books and tomes brushing the gold edged bindings, searching them for just the right one.  Stopping near a particularly old volume he stepped nearer tipping his head to read the inscription better.  Yes... this book, this one had some of the tales he had heard of though not in detail.

 

Reverently removing the manuscript he flipped through the pages as he walked slowly to a huge chair that sat in the corner.  Easing down on the seat he pulled his feet up underneath him.  Leaning back against the cool leather Legolas rested his head, loosing himself in the tales of his forefathers.  The troubling thoughts soon released their hold on his attention as the elf forgot the present for the past.

 

Time passed slowly.  The library was quiet.  Usually no one occupied it this late at night – at least not now that Lord Elrond had left.  Several lamps cast a warm, welcoming glow across the desks, chairs and polished walls of bookshelves.  The sounds from the Hall of Fire had died down as some tale was recounted for the curious listeners.

 

Legolas sat curled up in the huge, leather chair, time all but forgotten.  The same book he had retrieved earlier still lay propped in his lap and he absently turned the pages with the fingers of his un-bandaged hand as he read the ancient words. 

 

The pitter-patter of small, shoeless feet made him smile and lift his head. 

 

Dari had entered the room.  The little boy was barefoot and dressed in his nightclothes.  Upon seeing Legolas he quickly adjusted his course.  Climbing up onto the elf’s lap and sliding easily into Legolas’ arms, Dari studied the book the prince was holding. 

 

“What’re you reading?”  Eldarion inquired, frowning and flipping through the disappointing pages that contained only words. 

 

“It’s a history of your ancestors, Dari.  About the early days of Númenor,” Legolas explained. 

 

“Looks boring,” Dari said with a sigh. 

 

Legolas knew this was because there were no pictures so he flipped through the book, looking for any stray illustrations.  “Actually it’s quite interesting.  Here it is talking about when Tar-Minastir sailed into the Grey Havens and drove Sauron out of Eriador.  He came only just in time to help save your grandfather, Elrond, and the other elves who were being hard pressed at that time.”

 

Dari seemed to decide that maybe this book wasn’t so bad after all.  He put his small hand over Legolas’, stopping the elf when the prince finally came across an illustration.  It was a picture of a fleet of ships in the background and a woman standing with her back to the sea in the foreground.  It looked as if the lady had tears in her eyes. 

 

“What’s this ‘bout?” Dari wanted to know, pointing to the picture.  “Why’s she sad?”

 

Legolas glanced at the text running beside the picture.  “This is the story of Erendis and Tar-Aldarion the Mariner,” he explained, trying to decide how to put a fairly complicated story into terms Dari could understand.  “She’s sad because her husband loved both her and the sea and could not choose between them.  ‘Tis a sorrowful tale, because Aldarion could never bring himself to choose her over his love of the sea and Erendis could never learn to share him.  He promised he would be with her, but could not keep that promise.  Eventually it destroyed their love and made them both very unhappy.”

 

Dari made a face.  “I don’t like that story,” he said with the tactless honesty of youth.  “Why couldn’t Ald-aldrean just stay so she didn’t cry?”

 

Legolas ran his fingers lightly over the pictures of the ships, almost feeling the waves roll under his fingertips.  “I don’t know, Dari,” he whispered softly.  “Maybe he just didn’t love her enough to endure the sacrifice.”  The prince leaned forward, resting his chin on the top of Dari’s curly little head. 

 

There was silence for a few minutes before Legolas shook off whatever dark thoughts were flittering through his mind.  “So, what are you doing up anyway?” the elf asked, setting the book aside and glancing down at Eldarion.  “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

 

Dari wiggled down off of Legolas’ lap and scampered over to the nearest bookshelf.  “I’m picking out a book for Nana to read me before bed.”  The little boy stood on tip-toe, trying to see above the second shelf.  He wasn’t tall enough and resorted to bouncing up and down in an attempt to get higher.

 

“Ah,” Legolas rose out of his chair.  “A worthy endeavor.  May I help?”

 

Dari nodded, raising his arms in a wordless plea to be lifted.   

 

Legolas hoisted Dari up into his arms and held the boy where he could see and reach the many, colorful books on the higher shelves.  Dari pulled out a few, only to discard them.  Legolas caught the books and put them back on the shelf before Dari could drop them to the floor. 

 

Eldarion stretched up in the elf’s arms, reaching for the top shelves by the ceiling, convinced that the perfect book must still be just out of reach. 

 

Legolas chuckled and pulled a chair over with his free arm.  Hopping lightly up onto the stool he lifted Dari up over his head slightly so the child could satisfy his curiosity about the topmost shelf. Dari seemed very pleased by this and immediately began sifting through the new row of books. 

 

One minute everything was normal.  The next, Legolas felt the world beginning to spin as the dreaded, familiar faintness stole over him.  He didn’t even have time to realize what was happening as balance and consciousness simply winked out like a sputtering candle.  Legolas did not remember hitting the floor.  To him it simply seemed that one instant he was standing on the chair with Dari in his arms and the next he was laying on the polished, hard-wood floor of the library with his legs resting on the up-ended chair.  His back throbbed as he rolled stiffly onto his side... and found himself looking at a small lump of rumpled nightgown and curly hair.  Dari lay like a discarded rag doll on the hard floor.  The child wasn’t moving.  

 

Terror jolted through Legolas’ being as he dragged himself quickly to his knees. 

 

“Dari?  Dari?  Tolo, Dari.  Come on, wake,” he called the child’s name, patting the boy’s pale cheek.  Dari’s eyes were closed.  He was breathing all right, but he wasn’t responding.  He must have hit the floor pretty hard.  Legolas eased the child’s head up slightly and then froze.  There was blood on the floor and the elf’s fingers came way stained red. 

Chapter Text

~*PART TWELVE*~
~ ~

 

 

“Aragorn!  ARAGORN!” Legolas shouted urgently.  He was afraid to move Dari any further without a healer.  The elf prince’s hands trembled fiercely.  What had he done?  Valar, what had he done?!  He should have known better.  He knew he was prone to dizzy spells lately, he should have thought of that before he placed Dari in danger. 

 

The pounding of many sets of feet could be heard in the hall.  Several people had already been drawn by the crashing sound of the chair falling.  Legolas hoped that either Aragorn or the Twins would be one of those people. 

 

“Hold on, Dari, it will be all right,” he whispered quietly in elvish, sincerely hoping he was telling the truth.

 

Elladan entered the room first, with his twin close on his heels.  Raniean was behind them. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir’s eyes instantly questioned Legolas’ distraught features, but all they had to do was follow his gaze down to the floor to know what was wrong.  Dari’s twin uncles dropped immediately to the child’s side.  Elrohir checked the boy’s pulse while Elladan carefully inspected his head. 

 

Raniean had stopped in the doorway, unsure what to do, but quickly moved out of the way when Aragorn finally entered the room. 

 

“Dari...” Aragorn’s horrified whisper made Legolas look up.  The elf thought his heart would break.  He hadn’t meant to hurt his friend’s son, but that didn’t excuse the fact that he had. 

 

Aragorn was kneeling by his brothers’ side in an instant.  “What’s happened?”  He saw blood on the floor and felt inexplicably ill.  It couldn’t be Eldarion’s, it couldn’t...

 

“I had him in my arms.  He wanted to reach the top shelf.  We... we fell,” Legolas said, still somewhat dazed.  “I’m sorry, Estel.  I’m so sorry.”

 

“He’s got a concussion, Estel, and a nasty cut on his head.  We’re going to need to see it better before we know how bad this is,” Elladan informed his brother quietly. 

 

“I don’t think anything is broken.  It should be all right to move him,” Elrohir added. 

 

Aragorn was trying to absorb all this information but his mind had partially frozen somewhere along the way... the moment he had seen his baby on the floor.

 

“All right, let’s take him upstairs,” Aragorn kept his voice strong and steady although he did not feel either of those things.  He gathered Dari carefully into his arms.  In the doorway he paused and looked back over his shoulder.  Legolas was still sitting on the floor, looking dazed and lost.  The fact that Legolas had actually *fallen* off a chair of all things was not lost on him, but Dari was the center of his immediate concern. 

 

“El...?” he turned a pleading gaze upon Elladan.  The dark-haired elf nodded quickly in understanding. 

 

“Go, I’ll make sure Legolas is all right,” Elladan assured, squeezing his brother’s shoulder before Aragorn hurried off with Dari and Elrohir. 

 

Raniean knelt by Legolas’ side, trying to get his friend to talk to him.  Legolas seemed a bit disoriented.  He glanced up when Elladan joined them. 

 

Legolas tried to shrug off Elladan’s help.  “Go with Aragorn, make sure Dari is all right,” the prince attempted to send the other elf away.

 

“I’ll go when I’m done with you, so don’t make this difficult.  I just want to be sure you really are all right,” Elladan coaxed.  He was surprised when Legolas suddenly met his gaze.  The elf’s blue eyes were troubled and stormy. 

 

“El, do you think anything about me is ‘all right’?” he whispered hauntedly.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

~~~~~~~~~
The stars will cry
Their blackest tears tonight
And this is the moment that I live for
I can smell the ocean air...
And here I am,
Pouring my heart onto these rooftops
Just a ghost to the world
That's exactly...
Exactly what I need.

From up here the city lights burn
Like a thousand miles of fire
And I'm here to sing this anthem
Of our dying day

For a second I wish the tide
Would swallow every inch of this city
As you gasp for air tonight...


--Story of the Year
~~~~~~~~~

 

 

The moon was only a quarter full, making the night an even darker shade of black than usual.  The stars winked down overhead, but they looked sad and distant, as if sensing their failure to cheer the heart of the elf that sat on the edge of the roof.

 

Legolas sighed as he stared out over the darkened valley.  He knew that Raniean and Trelan were worried about him, but he wanted to be alone for a while.  Everything had been going so well, he had almost convinced himself that he was going to be fine, despite his strangely failing body.  But now it felt as if everything had shattered into a million pieces around him and he had to face the truth that there was something *wrong* with him.  Something that seemed to be beyond the power of elves and humans to cure. 

 

He told Aragorn that he was getting better.  He had convinced the twins that the herbs and liniments were working but he knew deep down that they were not.  This was not something that anyone could help him with.  Legolas was finally admitting it to himself and that was what scared him the most.  All of a sudden he truly was alone.

 

He wouldn’t be as faithless as he felt Aldarion had been.  He wouldn’t hurt those he cared for by making promises and then breaking them, but some part of his heart was beginning to despair over those pledges that bound him here. 

 

Would you sail if you had the chance?  A small voice in the back of Legolas’ mind asked him again and again.

 

Legolas refused to answer that question, refused to truly look at the thought.  He had promised.  He wasn’t going anywhere.  He might as well be locked in the heart of a mountain – the sea could not have him. Unfortunately, his self-made prison was slowly becoming darker and more desolate.

 

Legolas heard footsteps on the roof, but did not move.  He easily recognized the heavy, stumping tread of the only dwarf in their party.  Gimli did not favor any kind of height so it was doubtful he had come up here for a breath of night air.  Doubtless, he was looking for the elf.  Legolas supposed Raniean or Trelan must have told Gimli where he was and he scowled slightly.  They knew he wanted to be alone.  Then again, he knew that his dwarven friend could be very... persistent. 

 

Gimli did not see Legolas on the roof at first.  However, as his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw that the elf had hopped over the railing that hedged in the flat, roof-top observatory and settled himself on the curled lip of the roof itself.  The prince glimmered faintly in the dim moonlight as he sat alone on the edge of the gently sloping eaves.  The elf had a light blanket wrapped around his shoulders and sat with his legs dangling idly off the edge of the building.  For half an instant Gimli wondered if his friend *wanted* to fall, but then he knew better.  He had seen Legolas in the trees and knew the prince’s strange preference for lofty and seemingly perilous perches. 

 

“Legolas?” Gimli said softly, remaining safely behind the railing.  The dwarf was not at all comfortable with being this high off the ground. 

 

Gimli knew the elf had to have heard him, but Legolas did not look up or give any sign. 

 

“Legolas, those pointy ears of yours are good for something other than looks.  I know you can hear me,” the dwarf tried again.

 

“Please, leave me alone, Gimli,” Legolas said quietly, without looking up. 

 

Gimli grumbled as he ducked under the railing. “Dratted elves, you’re really going to make me come out there, aren’t you...?” the dwarf muttered as he edged carefully and cautiously out onto the sloping roof-tiles towards his friend’s position.

 

Legolas did not look up until the dwarf was quite close.  Gimli never listened to him... but maybe he secretly loved the dwarf for that.  He knew how Gimli felt about places like this, and under his irritation he silently appreciated that his short friend would actually come out here for him.

 

Gimli’s thick boots grated and slid uneasily upon the slanting roof tiles and Legolas was fully prepared to catch the dwarf if he fell, but Gimli was more sure-footed than he looked.  He sat down next to Legolas where the slant of the roof leveled out before rolling to the curled rim and dropping away completely.  The dwarf did not let his feet anywhere near the edge, but sat cross-legged beside the elf.  From here they could see the roof tops of the out-buildings and other houses falling away below them into the lower parts of the valley. 

 

“Legolas, he’s not upset with you,” Gimli said after a moment.  They both knew he was talking about Aragorn.

 

Legolas gave a wry smile at the dwarf’s characteristic bluntness.  He pulled the blanket a little tighter around his shoulders.  Drawing his legs up to his chest so that his feet rested on the very edge of the roof, the prince let his chin rest atop his knees.  “I know,” he said quietly. 

 

“Then what did ye drag me all the way out here for?” the dwarf asked incredulously.  “Risking life and limb...”

 

Legolas regarded his friend with a raised eyebrow.  “Drag you?  I asked you to leave me alone.”

 

“Exactly, meaning that’s precisely what you didn’t need,” Gimli’s odd logic was inexplicably firm.  “Now if you’re not moping about Aragorn’s being upset with ye, what are you sulking about?”

 

Legolas grimaced and fixed his gaze on some distant, invisible point in the west.  “I’m not sulking,” he murmured absently, but the defense was half-hearted at best.  “I’m trying to be alone.

 

Gimli folded his arms and eyed the elf.  He wasn’t getting the hint... or more likely he was simply ignoring it.  “Well you failed at that, so now what?”

 

Legolas growled between his teeth in frustration.  Gimli meant well, but he really didn’t want to talk right now.  He rose to his feet on the roof edge. 

 

*Now*, I am going for a walk,” Legolas said with a small, mock bow.  Turning away he intentionally walked along the narrow lip of the roof edge, unfazed by the breathtaking drop off into the valley below.  He smiled slightly when he heard Gimli grumbling loudly behind him.  Something about ‘show-off’

 

The cool night wind fluttered in under the blanket Legolas still held like a cloak around his shoulders.  He turned his face to the breeze and closed his eyes for a moment, his feet finding their way perfectly well on their own. 

 

Suddenly, the inexplicable happened.  Legolas felt the by now familiar sensation of dizziness sweeping over him with a small thrill of alarm.  He halted and wavered, trying to keep his balance as his body seemed to forget which way was up.  Not now, not here! 

 

It all happened so quickly Legolas only had time for a small burst of panic as he stumbled and lost his footing on the narrow ledge.  “Idiot!” the thought shot through his head.  “Didn’t you learn anything from what just happened in the library?”

 

For a few moments the world was a whirl of disjointed shapes, colors, sounds and flickering lights.  Legolas had fully expected to fall, but the impact was not nearly as bad as anticipated. 

 

Half a moment later Legolas realized he had *not* fallen off the roof after all, but lay on the cool, smooth tiles by the edge with something warm and scratchy pinning him in place. 

 

Gimli.

 

The dwarf was shaking the elf’s shoulders roughly.  “Legolas?  Legolas are you all right?  Can you hear me, laddie?!”

 

Legolas wondered if maybe he had actually passed out briefly, because he didn’t seem to have a very clear recollection of getting to this point or when exactly Gimli had started shaking him. 

 

“Stop, stop, I’m all right!  A stone-deaf troll could hear you...” Legolas moaned softly, rolling onto his side.  He did not rise or try to sit yet.  He didn’t know if that was wise.  Gimli had saved him from falling once, he wasn’t about to test fate again until he knew he was in control of himself once more. 

 

Gimli still held his friend’s slender body pinned carefully against the roof lest he slid again.  The dwarf frowned.  Legolas was trembling lightly under his hands. 

 

The elf pulled away presently and sat up carefully.  He looked down at his numb hands and shook his head.  He should have known better than to be out here, just as he should have known better than to be lifting Dari around.  His body was a traitor to him and could not be trusted.  No, Aragorn wasn’t upset with him, but...

 

“He should be,” Legolas murmured.

 

Gimli cocked his head to the side, confused.  “Who should be what?”

 

“Aragorn,” Legolas returned the dwarf’s previous candor.  “He should be upset with me.  I was careless and Dari paid for it.”  The elf sank his head into his hands.  “All those months... I struggled to keep Dari safe from behind a wall of bars and now, *now* that we’re in the safest place on Arda, *I’m* the one who injures him.”

 

“It was an accident...” Gimli started to say, but Legolas cut him off sharply. 

 

“Maybe so, but that’s just it.  I’m nothing but a walking accident now.  Look at me, Gimli.  LOOK at me!”  The elf’s voice was intense.  He pushed his hands forward.  One was still swathed in bandages.  “Every day I feel them less.  I couldn’t draw a bowstring if I wanted to.  I’m no use to anyone, least of all Aragorn.  I’ve become his burden, his responsibility...” the elf’s voice faded into quieter, sadder tones as his frustration spent itself.  “And I fear I shall fail him.”

 

Gimli shook his head. “You’re wrong.  No one thinks of you like that but you.  All Aragorn wants is to see your heart whole again.  He’d do anything for you, you know.”

 

“I know,” Legolas whispered softly.  “And that’s exactly the problem.  He has so much to worry about now, he doesn’t need me on top of it, doesn’t need... this.  He does so much for me... he does too much.  He doesn’t think I know what he’s doing, but I do.  He’s trying so hard... I want to give him what he desires, Gimli.”

 

Gimli closed his eyes for a moment as he understood everything the elf wasn’t telling him.  “So you think if you pretend you’re happy, that will make everything all right?”

 

“Why can’t it?” Legolas’ quite tone begged some kind of answer that would help.  “Why can’t believing make it so?  Why won’t this all go away?  What have I done that I should be punished like this?  Do the Valar hate me for refusing the call to Valinor?  Can they not understand what would happen if I left now?”

 

“Oh, the world would go to pieces, mountains would crumble to dust, the stars would fall from the sky...” Gimli’s tone was jesting, but kind.

 

Legolas chuckled mirthlessly.  “Are you saying you would *like* me to leave, master Gimli?”

 

“Well it certainly might make the world a *safer* place...” the dwarf said with a glint in his eye.  “But not a more interesting one.  Of course I want you to stay, but tell me honestly, Legolas.  What do *you* want?”

 

Legolas blinked at the question.  He wanted to stay, didn’t he?  Wasn’t that what this was all about?  “I have to stay, Gimli, there’s never been any question about that.”

 

“Maybe there should have been,” Gimli said quietly. 

 

To his immense surprise, Legolas found himself agreeing.  “Maybe.  But it’s not really an option.  I’ve made too many promises to break them... I *can’t* leave, even if I wanted to, which I don’t.”

 

Gimli turned an intent gaze upon the prince.  It was unusual for Legolas to be quite so defensive.  “Be frank with me, laddie, and with yourself.  You know I don’t hold you to your promise if you can’t keep it.  You know I’d be all right if you had to go.  Your friends in Ithilien would get along without you until their time came.  Your father, all your kin has already gone.  Why do you feel you don’t have a choice?”

 

Legolas turned his gaze back out over the darkened valley, hugging his knees to his chest again.  “Not all my kin,” he whispered softly, rubbing the faint scar almost completely hidden in the lines of his left palm.  Because of the human blood and the poison that had transferred into his system at the time it was made, the scar had never quite faded.  It an unusual mark for an elf, but Legolas treasured it.

 

“Legolas, do you really think Aragorn would want you to keep your promise to him at the expense of yourself?” Gimli asked quietly.

 

“Of course not.  You don’t understand,” Legolas shook his head.  “I know if he thought it were best for me he would want me to go.  But I can’t leave him.  If you had seen the look in his eyes at the mere thought... I won’t hurt him that way.  I won’t!”

 

“Give Aragorn *some* credit, Legolas,” Gimli argued.  “He’s not so fragile as all that.  You really think his world will end if you leave?  Isn’t that a big conceited, even for an elf?”

 

Legolas was not amused.  Gimli didn’t understand.  Very few people could ever understand what he and Aragorn meant to each other.  “Mine would, if he did,” the prince whispered quietly.  “So perhaps you give me too much credit, master Gimli.  Maybe this seems foolish to you, but I am in earnest about my concern.  I... I almost died once, some years ago,” Legolas tried to explain. 

 

“Only once?” Gimli snorted skeptically, but Legolas ignored him and kept speaking.

 

“At that time, Lord Elrond had a vision of what the results of my death might be.”  Legolas swallowed hard.  “Due to... some events that transpired, I became privy to that vision and a number of other things I should not have known.”  Legolas had never told anyone that he could recall Elrond’s memories of those final moments on the mountain and the vision that had prompted the elven lord to attempt to give his own life to save Legolas’.  Elrond had never spoken of the vision, so Legolas certainly wasn’t about to do so.  Forgotten for years, that particularly grim glimpse of the possible future had been weighing very heavily on the elf prince’s mind lately. 

 

“Gimli, he saw everything I hold dear fall to pieces, including Aragorn.  I know the situation is different now, I know this is different, but...” Legolas didn’t know what to say.  How could he explain to Gimli what he could not explain to himself?  “I’m immortal, Gimli.  I have forever, what are a few more years here in Middle Earth that I cannot spare them to be with my friends in the time they have?”

 

Gimli could hear the war in his friend’s hoarse voice. 

 

There was silence for several minutes before the dwarf finally shook his head.  “I heard it said once that even the right thing can be the wrong thing if you do it for the wrong reasons,” he muttered.  “Maybe I finally understand that.”

 

Legolas raised an eyebrow.  His friend had been around elves too long, he was starting to think like one.  There was truth in that statement, but the prince wasn’t sure he was ready to find it yet.  “Gimli, that statement was worthy of an elf.”

 

“No need to get insulting,” the dwarf huffed, but his smile softened his tone.

 

Legolas chuckled.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

The room was dark except for the flickering of a solitary flame.  Aragorn’s old shell nightlight sat on the dresser by Eldarion’s bed, casting a soft, comforting glow over the sleeping child. 

 

Aragorn sat on the edge of the bed in the semi-dark, his hand resting on his little boy’s curly head.  The cut on the back of the child’s scalp was bandaged carefully, the white cloths partially hidden by the boy’s hair. 

 

Sitting here like this, Aragorn could not help remembering how many nights Elrond had sat by his bedside when he was injured or ill.  Some part of him had always feared he was a burden to his adopted father, but sitting here looking at Dari, that concern finally evaporated.  The love in his heart for this child, for his child, was so strong it ached.  Eldarion would never be a burden to him, and maybe he could now in retrospect believe his own father’s assurances that he had not been one either.

 

Soft, slender hands came to rest upon Aragorn’s shoulders from behind.  One brushed his cheek gently.  Reaching up, the King captured the hand and brought it lightly to his lips for a kiss before looking up to see his Queen. 

 

“Is it all right for him to be sleeping now?” Arwen asked softly, sitting down on the bed beside her husband.  She had only been gone a few minutes and Dari had been awake when she left.

 

Aragorn nodded, still holding her hand as they sat beside one another.  “The danger is past.  He’ll be all right,” he assured. 

 

Arwen rested her free hand gently on her son’s side.  She smiled in relief.  “Trelan wanted to see you, I told him it was all right.”  She inclined her head towards the doorway.

 

Aragorn turned around, realizing he had been so absorbed with Dari he hadn’t even noticed Trelan’s quiet presence in the doorway behind him.

 

The human quickly gestured the elf into the room.  “Trelan, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.  Please, come in.” 

 

Trelan nodded and complied.  He glanced towards Eldarion questioningly, but a nod from Aragorn told him it was all right. Now that he was finally allowed to sleep, Dari was resting too soundly to be wakened by the quite voices of the other occupants of the room.

 

Aragorn offered Trelan a chair, but the small elf preferred to stand.  “No, I won’t take too much of your time, your highness,” Trelan assured. 

 

Aragorn’s brows knit slightly.  Raniean and Trelan were used to addressing royalty by title, even someone they were as close to as Legolas, but there was something else in Trelan’s tone or manner that concerned the former ranger. 

 

“Is... is Eldarion going to be all right?” the wood-elf inquired, his gaze once more straying to the small figure under the covers.

 

“Yes, he will be just fine,” Aragorn replied.  “Although he’s going to have to take it easy for a little while.  Is something wrong?”

 

“No, but...” Trelan sighed.  “I wish you’d talk to Legolas.  He feels terrible about what happened you know.  He didn’t mean to hurt Dari.”

 

Aragorn’s brows knit in earnest.  He had been so worried about Eldarion he hadn’t had time to check up on his friend yet.  Elladan had told him Legolas was no more injured than he had already been, but until now Aragorn had been too preoccupied to consider his friend’s mental state.  He didn’t blame Legolas for what happened, so the thought that the elf blamed himself came as a momentary surprise.

 

“Of course, I’ll talk to him right away,” Aragorn promised, rising to his feet. 

 

Trelan looked relieved.  “Thank you.”  He gave a quick bow and left the room quietly. 

 

Aragorn started to follow, but Arwen gripped his hand tightly, holding him back for a moment.  “Wait.”

 

Aragorn looked down at her with a puzzled expression.  “Why?”

 

Arwen’s beautiful dark eyes were fixed on her husband.  She patted the bed next to her, asking him to sit once more.  “Before you go to him, I want to talk to you, Estel.”

 

Aragorn slowly re-seated himself, trying to decipher what his wife was thinking.  “All right.”

 

“Estel... you were right.  Legolas is very troubled right now.  He has found a balm for his soul here in Rivendell that helps him deal with the pain.  Here he can laugh and love and forget his troubles awhile... but none of us can remain here forever.  It’s helping, but not curing him, meleth-nín.”

 

“But he’s getting better...” Aragorn found his throat a little tight. 

 

“Is he?” Arwen’s eyes were full of love and heart-ache as they watched her husband.  She knew how hard this was for him.  “Or is he trying desperately to show you what he thinks you want to see?”

 

Aragorn looked down at his hands.  “What are you saying?” he asked quietly. 

 

Arwen brushed her fingers gently down Aragorn’s weathered cheek.  Her fingers slid under his chin and tipped her husband’s head up once more.  “I’m saying that he needs to know his best friend will be all right no matter what happens.”

 

Aragorn blinked against the unwanted moisture in his eyes.  “And if that’s not true?” he whispered hoarsely.

 

Arwen felt her own eyes fill with tears.  “Oh, Estel... I know you love him, but you have to set him free.  If he truly wants it, he has to stay for himself, not for you.” 

 

Aragorn dropped his head into his hands.  “She stays for *you*, she belongs with her people...” Elrond’s voice echoed through his mind.  Those words had cut like a knife.  He had long ago reconciled with his elven father over the strain in their relationship that his feelings for Arwen had caused, but the horrible irony of his current situation was not lost on the former ranger.  Would he always be a source of pain for the elves in his life?

 

“Like you did?” Aragorn’s voice was barely audible.  “Do you regret that choice, Arwen?”  His hurting eyes begged an honest answer.

 

Arwen blinked in surprise.  “No, never!” she ran her long, graceful fingers down Dari’s arm.  “I would not trade what I have for a million life-ages.  I would not trade *you* for anything.  But my choice is not the same as the one Legolas faces.  In some ways his is easier, in some ways harder.  I have felt the call of the sea... but it did bind me.  Perhaps you might say that it was not fated for me, or perhaps rather that I simply found another call much more irresistible.  I did stay for you, my love, but I also stayed for myself.  You told me to leave, you set me free, but I chose to come back to you.  I begin to believe that Legolas doesn’t feel he has that choice.  He fears you will be desolate if he leaves, and he would never hurt you.” 

 

“I don’t want him to be torn like this, Arwen.  I told him I’d take him to the havens,” Aragorn said quietly.  “I told him I’d be happy for him.  What more can I do?”

 

Arwen’s eyes were sad.  “Mean it, meleth-nín,” she said gently. 

 

Aragorn closed his eyes tightly and let his forehead rest against hers.  “What if I can’t?”

 

Chapter Text

~*PART THIRTEEN*~
~When My Weakness Shows~

 

 

  ~~~~~~~~~
I am lying awake, swallowing my fear.

There's something I must say, you need to hear...

 

Will you be here

When my weakness shows?

If I really expose what is under the surface

that no one else knows?

Will you be here?

Will you still be here?

 

Should be easier now wrapped in the dark

Still there's some courage required

And I'm missing the mark

Weary and worn, torn at the seams.

My insecurities rise and devour my dreams

 

I'm sorry to see you sharing this burden of mine.

But I cannot relieve you by telling you

Everything's fine.

Maybe you see.

Maybe I'm blind.

 

Now the torture must end.

The secrets I hide

Can't be denied anymore

God knows I've tried.

So I breathe my confession

With nowhere to run

And wonder if I'll see your face

In the light of the sun.

 

--Michael Gleason
~~~~~~~~~

 

 

“Legolas?” Aragorn’s soft voice interrupted the quite of the night. 

 

Legolas was still sitting on the edge of the roof with Gimli.  He looked up when he heard his friend’s voice, but did not answer.  What was this, the town square?  The elf pulled back into the shadows.  He glanced at Gimli and pressed his finger to his lips, asking for silence. 

 

Gimli snorted softly.  He had his own ideas.  The dwarf pushed himself carefully to his feet.  “Down here, Aragorn.”

 

“Gimli!” Legolas hissed through his teeth.  He had been trying to avoid the human until his thoughts and emotions were a little clearer. 

 

“Talk to him,” the dwarf said firmly. 

 

Aragorn peered over the railing, bemused at the sight that met him.  It was not at all surprising to find Legolas here, but he would *never* have expected to find Gimli anywhere near so precarious.

 

The King swung his legs easily over the roof-rail and picked his way down the slope towards his two friends. 

 

“I see you still favor... unusual places, mellon-nín,” Aragorn said with a smile when he reached them.

 

“Aye, a death wish, that’s what he has,” Gimli grumbled good-naturedly.  “Well I’ve had my fill of needless peril for one night,” he said as he began an ultra cautious journey back up towards the safer parts of the rooftop.  “Dwarves weren’t made to be holding elves up on rooftops.  Don’t let him fall again.”

 

“What?” Aragorn raised his eyebrows, his gaze turning upon Legolas who was beginning to flush. 

 

“GIMLI!” the elf growled in dismay. 

 

Gimli, already a safe distance away, chuckled as he ducked under the railing and out of sight. 

 

“He seems to be the one with the death wish...” Legolas muttered under his breath. 

 

Aragorn chuckled as he sat down next to Legolas, letting his legs dangle off the edge of the roof beside his friend.  “What is all this about falling?” 

 

“Nothing,” Legolas replied with a scowl.  “Gimli is imagining things again.”

 

Aragorn doubted that, but let the matter rest.  “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to talk to you, Legolas.”

 

Legolas’ gaze had shifted back out to the western horizon once more.  He shrugged slightly, as if indicating that was fine. 

 

“Are you feeling all right?” Aragorn asked quietly.

 

Legolas sighed.  Why did Aragorn always ask him that?  “If I tell you I’m fine you won’t believe me,” the elf said with a hint of wryness in his tone.  “How is Dari?”

 

“He’ll be just fine.  Legolas, I want you to know, I don’t blame you in any way for-”

 

Legolas held up his hands.  “I know, I know.  I believe Gimli and I just had this conversation.  It was an accident, everyone’s going to be all right, no one’s upset.  So let’s just let it go, all right?”

 

Aragorn was a little startled at his friend’s uncharacteristic brusqueness.  “No, it’s not all right,” he countered quietly. 

 

Legolas looked up sharply.  A soft flare of fear passed through his eyes as he considered the fact that perhaps Aragorn was angry with him after all. 

 

“It’s not all right because *you’re* not all right, Legolas.”  Aragorn made his tone gentler when he saw the uncertainty written across his friend’s face. 

 

Legolas smiled, but it did not reach his eyes.  He shrugged and looked away.  “I’m fine, Estel.  Just tired.  I’m sorry I was short with you.  I did not mean that to come out the way it sounded.  Please forgive me.”

 

Aragorn pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Legolas, please,” he whispered softly.  “Don’t shut me out.  You don’t have to pretend for me.  We’ve been friends almost all my life... you used to trust me.  You used to trust that I could still be your friend even when you weren’t fine.  I know a lot of things have changed, Legolas, but I haven’t changed towards you.  It’s all right to not be all right,” he said earnestly, taking Legolas gently by the shoulders and turning the elf towards him.  “You don’t have to pretend you’re happy to make me happy.  Can’t you trust me as you once did?”

 

In the starlight, Aragorn was surprised to see Legolas’ eyes well up with tears.  The prince quickly turned his head away to hide them. 

 

“I do trust you, Estel,” he whispered hoarsely.  “I didn’t mean to lie to you.  I just... I *want* to be all right.  I need to be.  I can’t stand wallowing in this abominable weakness!  I could never stand it, in the old tales, when people would just go to pieces from despair and lose sight of all the beauty and wonder that life had yet to offer.  Sometimes it seemed like they must enjoy being stuck in their misery as they dragged it on and on... I couldn’t understand why they did not just pull themselves together and get on with their lives.  I don’t want to be one of those people, Estel!  What’s wrong with me?!”

 

Aragorn pulled the elf close, hugging him tightly.  “There’s nothing wrong with you, Legolas.  The call of the sea is a powerful force... and it’s not a bad thing.”

 

Legolas gave a slightly choked laugh.  “It certainly feels like it!”

 

Aragorn smiled.  “I know, it does.  But the Valar put it in your heart, let us not despise them for that.  Perhaps they know better than we do.”  The human pulled back a little.  He met the elf’s eyes earnestly.  “Legolas, I think we’ve been approaching this all wrong.  You and I... we’re trying to fight something we’ll never win.  You *will* sail someday, Legolas, because you are meant to do so.  It’s a gift, a wonderful one.  When you get to Valinor... I can’t even imagine what it will be like.  We know the peace and joy that lingers here, in Rivendell, even now as she slowly gives herself back to Arda... how much more will it be there?”

 

Legolas’ shoulders were shaking slightly.  He was trying not to cry, and failing.  “Aragorn... please... please stop... I can’t imagine it, not without you.”

 

There were tears in Aragorn’s eyes as well, but he smiled through them at his friend.  “No... Legolas, don’t cry for me.  Ilúvatar is not so cruel as to separate us forever; I believe that, Legolas, I do.”  

 

Legolas could read the burning conviction in his friend’s eyes and it comforted him.  Aragorn had always been his light of hope when he could see only darkness. 

 

“Dari says that you told him the tale of Aldarion and Erendis.  You know, I always thought that their problem was that Erendis did not truly love Aldarion enough to let him go if that was what he needed to do.  I won’t make that kind of mistake.  I love you, Legolas.  You’re my brother in everything but name.  I want you to be happy.  I can’t pretend that it would not hurt to part from you now, but I promise you, mellon-nín, that it would hurt me far less than knowing that you were living every day in despair simply to remain near me.”

 

“Aragorn...” Legolas was shaking his head, but his friend stopped him.

 

“No, please, Legolas, listen.  This isn’t easy for me to say, but I want you to know I mean it, from the bottom of my heart: Don’t stay here for me.  I can’t bear that kind of responsibility... don’t make me, please.”

 

“But I promised...” the elf’s voice was hoarse.

 

“You promised to always be with me, and you will be, Legolas.”  Aragorn touched his heart.  “Just as Elrond is always with me.  I will carry you in my heart for the rest of my days.  Now tell me truthfully, my friend.  Do you want to sail?  Please, Legolas, if you value our friendship, be honest.”

 

Legolas searched his friend’s eyes.  He could see Aragorn was telling him the complete truth.  Slowly, he nodded his head.  “I do,” the elf whispered.

 

Aragorn smiled gently.  That was what he had both feared, and expected.  He did not try to hide the bitter-sweet sorrow in his eyes, but he also let Legolas see the joy that he did feel when he thought about where his friend would be going.  The King enveloped his dearest friend in another large hug. 

 

“Then I rejoice for you,” Aragorn whispered, his voice rough with emotion. 

 

Legolas pressed his face against his friend’s shoulder.  He could feel in the strong, encouraging embrace around him that Aragorn was at peace.  Oh yes, the human grieved, but Legolas did not sense the deep, devastating anguish he had so feared.  He let out the breath he did not realize he had been holding.  It felt as if a great weight had lifted off his chest.  Aragorn would be all right.  He wouldn’t unintentionally destroy his best friend.

 

The elf’s fingers tightened in his friend’s velvety tunic and he finally let himself cry.

 

They remained thus for a long time until peace settled upon both of them.  The night winds dried their tears and they lay back against the roof tiles to watch the stars.  They didn’t speak again, but Legolas seemed exhausted.  Aragorn was tempted to say they should retire inside, but he hated to break the quiet peacefulness.  When he realized that Legolas was now sleeping on his shoulder, the human decided not to wake him.  It was rare lately for the elf to be able to sleep without the aid of any teas or medicines, and Aragorn would not disrupt him for the world.  He didn’t want to think about the future right now, about saying goodbye.  He just wanted to live in the moment and watch his friend sleep naturally for a change. 

 

When dawn slowly began to paint the edges of the horizon behind them, Aragorn was surprised to realize that so much time had passed.  Legolas stirred as the sky began to lighten over them and his clear blue eyes focused slowly, showing he was waking up. 

 

Legolas stretched and smiled at Aragorn.  “It’s been a long time since we slept in a tree together, mellon-nín,” he teased. 

 

“This is hardly a tree,” Aragorn pointed out as he stretched his own aching muscles. 

 

“True,” Legolas conceded.  “But in any case, you have improved.”

 

Aragorn chuckled.  “If I have it’s all your fault.  We should go back in now though, the others must be wondering where we are.”

 

“I’m sure Gimli fulfilled their curiosity,” Legolas remarked as he rose to his feet.  “That dwarf seems incapable of holding his tongue.”

 

Aragorn laughed and rubbed his back.  He was getting too old for these kinds of unusual beds.

 

They climbed back up to the flat part of the roof but lingered a moment longer in the cool morning air.  Aragorn was gratified to see more color in Legolas’ pale cheeks and more twinkle in his eyes than he had in some time.  As much as he didn’t want to let him go, he was glad that Legolas’ decision last night was already having a positive effect on the elf.

 

“When do you want to leave?” Aragorn asked quietly. 

 

Legolas considered the question a moment.  “Perhaps a few more weeks.  I think we have that long before Faramir and Brenyf are both chaffing to get us back to our rightful places.”

 

Aragorn blinked in confusion.  “But, I thought... you said you wanted to sail.”

 

Legolas nodded slowly.  “I do.  Someday.  Not right now.”  It had not been an easy decision to make, but last night, watching the stars, he had finally been able to consider without fear or shame the voice that asked him if he would sail right now if he had the chance.  He found he could answer them.  And to his surprise he discovered the answer to be no.

 

No, not now.

 

The warring within his soul was quieting now that he had simply been honest with himself and faced down the fears that had griped him so tightly.  It was a relief to be rid of the constant nagging doubt that had weighted his soul.  When he had answered the question within himself it had stilled that part of him.  The sea longing was not gone but perhaps he could learn to live with it.

 

“Are you sure?” Aragorn was hesitant to know what to believe. 

 

Legolas smiled and gave another nod.  “Yes, Estel, I’m sure.  I’m not ready yet, my friend.  Truly I’m not.  It... it’s not going to be easy, I know that, but I want to try.  *I* want to.  Will you help me, Estel?”

 

Aragorn smiled and clasped Legolas’ elbow firmly.  “With all my heart.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

Still you are here

Though my weakness shows

Did I really suppose you did not know

Already the things I disclosed?

Still you are here...

Still you are here...

 

--Michael Gleason
~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

Aragorn gently held Legolas’ hand as he examined the healing burn.  Carefully probing the elf’s unburned fingers he questioned the prince.

 

“Can you feel that?  Does it hurt?” Aragorn asked softly as he continued his examination.

 

The two friends were at the far end of the pantry that also served as an impromptu medical room when necessary.  They spoke quietly to one another keeping their conversation to themselves.  Arwen, who worked at the opposite end, easily overheard their hushed conversation. She smiled to herself as she listened to her husband in his healer role.  He spoke softly and calmly, always concentrating on the person with whom he was dealing.  It was one of Estel’s gentler sides that she loved so much.  She was busy grinding tea leaves for Eldarion’s last water call.  The little boy had been sleeping fitfully and the cut to his head, though healing, still gave him headaches.  She wanted a good night’s rest herself tonight and had ventured in to her father’s pantry only to find Aragorn and Legolas intently studying the elven prince’s hand.

 

“Yes I can feel it, a little.  It’s not much improved but the tingling sensation has gone,” Legolas answered the questions Estel directed at him.

 

“That’s good.  That’s something.”  Aragorn was encouraged by the elf’s admission and smiled up at his friend as he washed the burns.  Legolas nodded slightly before returning the smile. His heart was much lighter but he still feared the injuries that his body seemed to have inflicted upon itself.  The hesitation was not lost on Aragorn.  He gently squeezed the elf’s shoulder and began digging through the supplies for bandages.

 

A quick searching of the pantry turned up nothing with which to rebind the wound.

 

“Wait here, I’ll be right back.  I know where there are more,” Estel ordered as he headed out the door.  Stopping just on the threshold the man turned and leaned back in giving his wife a quick kiss on the cheek before disappearing once more.

 

Arwen waited until she could no longer hear her husbands light tread in the hallway before she turned to the Silvan elf.  Legolas was massaging his numb hand, trying desperately to get the feeling to return.  He did not realize that Arwen had stepped near him until she gently reached for his hand and took up the gentle ministrations.

 

“He worries over you,” She said simply.

 

“I wish that he would not,” Legolas replied.  He glanced to the floor, unable to meet her piercing gaze.

 

“And that would work as well as wishing the sun to never rise again.  You cannot stop what the heart begins.  He cares for you deeply.  To ask him to stop caring would be like asking him to throw his heart away and that is something he can never do.  His heart is too big for him to deny his feelings.  Let him care for you, you will find healing in his hands if you allow it.” Arwen smiled as Legolas gasped softly.  He had felt her touch, if for only a moment.  “See?  Even now you are getting better.  He has his part to do and you, dear prince, have yours.”

 

She stopped and cupped the prince’s face in her hand, forcing him to look at her as she continued.  “I know what you fear.”

 

“Then you know why I fear it also,” he countered.  When she nodded, Legolas moved back and leaned against the counter behind him.  “I found the story of Aldarion and Erendis in your father’s library the other night.  Are you familiar with it?” he asked watching her carefully for her response.

 

Wrinkling her nose Arwen smiled at the blonde haired elf.  “I always hated that story.  It’s a terrible one,” she commented dryly nearly sounding just as disparaging as her son had when Legolas had told him of it.

 

Legolas laughed softly at her remark.  “You know, Eldarion said nearly the same thing when he asked me to tell him about it.”

 

Having found bandages in another supply closet, Aragorn was on his way back to the pantry when the sounds of elvish laughter met his ears.  His steps faltered and slowed as he reached the doorway.  He leaned back against the wall of the corridor and listened to the conversation inside.  There were times he had found that Arwen had a healing touch of her own and he did not want to interrupt.

 

“You hate it because you can relate to it?” Legolas pressed hesitantly.  He needed to know.  He had to talk this out with someone else who had faced and made, in his opinion, a much more difficult choice.

 

“Relate to it?  Goodness no!” Arwen’s gentle laugh flowed out into the hallway again.

 

“Have you never felt that way?  Don’t you wonder why he didn’t stay?”  Legolas tipped his head and gazed perplexedly at the female elf.

 

“Are you asking me if I have ever felt the call of the sea?  Or do you ask if there has ever been a call deeper that can override its siren song?” Arwen questioned sincerely.  She wanted to understand what exactly Legolas was driving at.

 

“No! I mean... yes.  Actually, both,” the Silvan elf stammered.  He realized he had just ventured into an area he had never meant to trespass upon.

 

“Yes, I have heard the call of the gull and it is a strong one.  I felt it strongest upon the shores of Mithlond the day my Mother left for Valinor, perhaps that is why I did not make the second journey with Father.  One who has not felt it could never understand its pull.  And no, I don’t wonder why Aldarion never stayed.  I think the answer is simple.  He had not found his heart’s true love in Erendis, although she had found hers in him,” Arwen answered softly her gaze never leaving the other elf.  “The call of a million gulls could never drown out the desire of my heart, and since the day I first laid eyes upon him, that has always been to be with Estel.  My love for him bade the sea longing to silence and I could have never left Middle Earth without him.  As I understand it, your reasons for staying are the same and yet different, but you must decide for yourself.”

 

Legolas dropped his gaze, studying the floor beneath his feet while he thought through Arwen’s words.  They were nearly the same as Aragorn’s a few nights ago on the rooftop.

 

“I have made my choice and I chose to stay for myself and not out of obligation.  I love Estel as the brother of my heart and I will not leave now before him.  I have peace with that decision, but how do I live with it?” he whispered softly.

 

The despair in the elf’s question touched Arwen and she took a moment to think through her answer.

 

Out in the hallway Aragorn held his breath and listened harder.

 

The soft sounds of rain on the roof reached Arwen’s conscious thought and she smiled to herself. 

 

“Legolas, do you hear the rain?” she asked the Silvan elf.

 

The question startled the prince.  He frowned and glanced about them, shifting his perception to beyond their immediate proximity.  There, yes, he did hear the soft patter of rain on the eaves.  The sound was soothing and low and he realized that it had been in the background for the better part of the day.

 

“The rain is your answer,” Arwen continued.  “You know the rain is falling.  You can hear it if you concentrate on it.  It is always there, but you don’t always pay attention to it, do you?  That is how you treat the sea-longing.”

 

“But...” Legolas’ question was cut off as the queen continued.

 

“It will not happen overnight, Legolas Greenleaf, you must give your heart as much time to heal as your body requires and then even more.  You cannot start to count time like humans do.  Let the sea-longing have its way.  In time your soul will accept it as simply part of the rhythm of your heart.  It’s a gift from Ilúvatar.  We may not always appreciate it, but it is his way of telling us that he misses us and wants us home.  He knows your desire is to stay here with Estel and Gimli and all your kin that have remained with you.  And I cannot believe he would fault you for that.  Do not despise the fact that your heart yearns for the place that has been made for you ere you and I were born.  Let it simply become a part of you.  Own that longing, look forward with joy to the day when it can be fulfilled, and do not despise the time between.  If you accept it, eventually you will feel it fade,” Arwen explained gently.

 

“And this?”  Legolas held up his injured hand.

 

Aragorn answered for his wife as he walked quietly into the room.  Taking Legolas’ hands in his own he rubbed them gently as he spoke, “That, dear friend, will heal when you stop fighting yourself.  Your body is weary from the turmoil of your heart.  When you release the warring and accept your decisions and future then your body can rest and recover fully and you will find yourself the same old prissy elf you always have been.”  The king smiled fondly into the blue eyes that held his gaze.

 

With a small laugh, the elf pulled away and wrapped his arms around the man enveloping Estel in a strong hug.  Arwen stepped quietly away, taking her tea mixture out of the room and giving the two friends a moment alone.  She had every suspicion that her husband had heard the whole conversation, but she would pry the truth out of him later.

 

Before Legolas released Aragorn, he pressed his lips near the man’s ear and whispered fiercely, “How long were you out there?”

 

“Out where?” Aragorn feigned innocence poorly.  He started to laugh when Legolas released him and leaned back against the cabinets once more.

 

“You were eavesdropping, admit it!” Legolas accused with a smile.

 

“I dropped no eaves,” Aragorn laughed, “In fact I don’t think eaves even came into the picture. I simply went in search of bandages in the supply closet where there were no eaves and then returned here.”

 

Legolas glared at the human but couldn’t resist the impish smile that tugged at the corners of the man’s mouth.  In moments both were laughing.

 

“She is wise you know,” Legolas commented quietly as Aragorn bound his burned hand.  “I can see why you married her.”

 

“Pretty too,” Estel grinned evilly, egging the prince on.

 

Legolas snickered as Aragorn tucked the edges of the bandage in on itself and turned the elf’s hand over, inspecting the cloth.

 

“I actually felt with my fingers when Arwen was massaging them,” Legolas spoke quietly into the easy silence that had fallen.

 

Aragorn glanced up quickly at the elf, questioning him with his gaze.

 

“I did,” Legolas reassured.

 

“That’s excellent my friend. See I told you, you are improving.  You have to listen to your healer when he tells you things,” Aragorn bragged trying to lighten the mood once more.

 

“Or at least listen to his wife,” Legolas smirked.

 

“She’s wise,” Aragorn threw back the elf’s own words as he cleaned up the items he had been using.

 

“Pretty too,” Legolas murmured as he leaned on his friend’s shoulder and raised his eyebrows.

 

“Hey! Now that’s my wife you’re talking about.  Only I’m allowed to say such things,” Aragorn defended playfully.  Gently he shoved the elf out into the hallway before him and pretended to call Elladan or Elrohir for help. 

 

Legolas grabbed the man from behind, covering his mouth and pulling him backwards.  They both tumbled off balance and hit the wall behind them falling into a pile on the floor and laughing so hard they could not breathe.

 

This was how Jonath and Raniean came upon them, acting like two overgrown children. Wrestling on the floor, each tried to gain his feet while holding the other down.  It wasn’t working. It was however rather amusing and no one stopped them until Elladan waded in and moved them apart, chastising them both.

 

“You both act younger than Eldarion!” Elladan reprimanded.  “One would think you still a fledgling headstrong ranger,” he commented glaring at the human who was bent over trying to catch his breath, before glancing at the blonde-haired elf, “And you, king of the Silvan elves acting like an elfling.  For shame... both of you.”

 

Aragorn glanced up at Legolas through the strands of hair that fell into his eyes and obscured Elladan’s view of his face.  He smiled wickedly at the elf across from him and raised an eyebrow in question.

 

Before he knew what hit him, Elladan found himself on the floor beneath the two he had been reprimanding.  Laughter echoed through the rafters and in moments the hallway was thick with friends and family breaking up the impromptu scuffle and dragging the participants off to the Hall of Fire.

 

Aragorn turned and glanced back at Legolas.  The human was firmly pinned in the strong grip of the youngest of the twins, while Raniean gently man-handled his liege behind them.  A genuine smile broke across the elven face and Aragorn felt himself mirroring it as the two were seated side by side near the burning hearth and told to behave or Jonath would sit between them.

 

Moranuen brought flagons of wine and fluted cups and began pouring the sweet drink and dispensing it round the room.  The Hall was alive with chatter and music and laughter, soothing sounds that mixed with the rain outside.

 

Legolas listened to the gentle patter of the storm against the windows and thought he could hear for just a moment the swell and rhythm of the sea.  He let the sounds dim about him and recede to the background, focusing instead on the lives around him and his heart seemed to ease up just the slightest bit.  With a sigh he leaned back against the pillows stacked behind him.

 

Aragorn passed him a cup and leaned over closer, noting the expression on his friend’s face.

 

“Are you well?  Do you need to rest?” He asked worriedly.  They had been rough-housing and he feared they might have accidentally pushed the Silvan elf too hard.

 

“I am,” Legolas answered cryptically.  He continued when Aragorn raised an eyebrow in a perfect imitation of Elrond, bidding the elf to explain further.  “I am resting.  And it feels good.”  He smiled glancing down at his hand.  The fingers of his wounded hand were wet with sweat from the glass.

 

“I feel the water Estel.  On my fingers, it feels cold,” he whispered, slightly surprised that he could feel anything at all.

 

“To healing,” Aragorn toasted as he clinked his fluted glass against Legolas’.  His smile echoed the elf’s.

 

“To life,” Legolas countered throwing back his head and draining his cup in one gulp.

 

Elrohir noted the quiet conversation and approached the two friends with a full flagon of wine.

 

“Did you not promise us a story tonight?” he asked with a laugh as he filled both glasses once more.

 

Aragorn glanced at Legolas out of the corner of his eyes.  The blonde haired elf shifted his gaze into the center of the room that was quieting under the expectation of entertainment.

 

“That we did good Elrohir.  What would you hear of?” He prompted lightly.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

 

The arrow missed the target by a wide berth, burying itself in the woods beyond.  Draecyn sighed, disgusted with himself.  He had been feeling off lately and it was showing in his accuracy.

 

The sounds of soft laughter caused the soldier to roll his eyes and glance at Jonath with a look that begged to be released from being diplomatic.

 

“If you *think* you can do better why don’t you get out here and prove it,” the younger soldier commented darkly.  His barb was thrown to the woods behind them as their watchers had not made a point to disclose their positions.

 

The two men had known they were being watched for some time and the quiet musical laughter only confirmed their suspicions.

 

Jonath and Draecyn had left after the morning meal to spend some time alone practicing their bowmanship.  They intended to spar when they had tired of archery.  It was good to be where there was no war or threat or immediacy but Jonath wanted to make sure that they did not grow lax.  They were still the King’s guard and as such their skills needed to remain sharpened.  By his counting they had been in Imladris nearly a month now and neither of them had had any battle practice the entire time.

 

The meadow to the north of Rivendell had been a perfect place to quietly work on their skills.  It was bracketed on all sides by thick woods and was easily a hundred yards in diameter.  The two humans had only been practicing a short while when their easy banter had been surprisingly interrupted by quiet laughter.

 

“*Think* I can do better?” The retort came from their left.  “Human, I could do better blindfolded and with a broken arm.”

 

Trelan emerged from the woods with Raniean trailing him.  The taller of the two elves was trying hard to contain his laughter.

 

In the past few weeks Draecyn and Trelan had developed an easy friendship.  The two were nearly the same height and from all outward appearances, had one not know that Trelan was an elf, they looked as if they were the same age.  Perhaps mentally they were sometimes, more than Trelan wanted to admit.

 

Stepping up next to his new friend the Silvan elf pulled an arrow from his quiver, sighted the tree across the way that was serving as the target, and without any effort let the projectile fly.

 

It struck the small sapling square in the trunk.

 

With a satisfied smile the small elf turned to the man and raised his eyebrows in a smirking question.

 

“And how many years have you been practicing?” Draecyn quipped drolly.  “Probably only a thousand, eh?”

 

“Well maybe a bit more than that,” Raniean answered for his friend.

 

“We were raised to be bowmen.  It’s in our blood,” Trelan explained.  “Ran and I work with the new archers.  Would you like some tips?”

 

His offer was genuine.  It took Draecyn a few moments to decide whether the elf was teasing him or not.  Glancing at Jonath, the guard frowned not sure at all if he wanted to admit inadequacy.

 

Jonath shrugged and glanced back at Raniean.

 

“I think I’ll watch for a few minutes.  Go ahead.  It can’t hurt.”  He softened the rebuke with a smile.

 

Sighing deeply the Gondorian glanced back at the elf, his eyes mere slits as he conceded his need.

 

“Only if you stop laughing,” Draecyn growled.

 

“Agreed!” Trelan acquiesced.  He was instantly excited.  He loved archery and he loved teaching those younger than him.  In actuality he was one of the better teachers that had remained in Middle Earth.  His height made him perfect, putting him at the right eye level for most elven sights and his patience in teaching was renowned.  He could as easily stop an argument or calm an upset elf as he could start a major fight.  When he had a mind to, his temper could get away with him, but never in the teaching arena.

 

Time was something that elves had on their side.  So learning slowly or difficulty was not viewed as a problem, simply something to overcome.  Patience was the gift of the older elves and they passed it down through their dealings with those younger than themselves.

 

The elf began quietly instructing the human while their elders watched.

 

The days had grown colder over the passage of the week and Jonath drew his overcoat more tightly about him.  Raniean glanced at the man before looking skyward.

 

“The weather has turned,” Raniean commented.  “Winter will soon be upon us.”

 

“It is said that elves do not suffer cold nor heat,” Jonath observed.  “Is that true?”  He took in the light clothing that the elves favored.  The wood elves especially seemed more disposed to leggings and a comfortable tunic overlaid with a vest that was fitted for easy movement.  He himself was layered with an inner and outer tunic and a heavy duster to stave off the chill.

 

“For the most part it is,” Raniean agreed.  He had meant to explain further when their conversation was interrupted by boisterous laughter behind them startling the group.

 

“Oh my, this looks familiar,” Aragorn commented.  He stepped out into the glade and glanced back and forth between his men and the Silvan warriors.

 

“I do believe we had this lesson years ago,” Legolas agreed.  He stood next to the King, his hands on his hips surveying the field before them.

 

“Just like teaching the young ones!” They both chimed in at the same time.  Their private recollections caused the two lords to break out laughing once more.

 

Draecyn’s face blushed as he stepped away slightly from Trelan.  The elf had been trying to teach him the proper stance and had his hands on the human’s shoulders.  He was suddenly very self conscious about what his liege would think having caught him in the act of requesting help.  The Gondorian soldiers prided themselves in being highly skilled in the art of war.

 

Shaking his head in disgust the small elf addressed the newcomers.

 

“If you can’t help, then leave!” Trelan threatened.  “Teasing isn’t allowed on the range.”

 

“Well you’re doing it wrong.  You’re teaching a human Trelan not an elf and it’s a bit different with them,” Legolas answered with a wise smile.  “You need to *show* him how to stand by doing it *with* him.  Like this...”

 

The prince grabbed Raniean’s bow and pulled Aragorn along behind him.  Reluctantly the king followed, knowing where this was leading.

 

Dragging Aragorn to stand next to Draecyn, Legolas handed the human the elven bow and passed him an arrow offered by Trelan.  The King glanced at Draecyn and rolled his eyes as he accepted the weapons.

 

“Take your stance,” Legolas commanded his friend.

 

Trying not to laugh, Aragorn notched the arrow and pulled back on the string sighting in on the tree across the glade.  He didn’t flinch as the elf stepped in behind him and took hold of his shoulders.

 

“Like this, Trelan,” Legolas instructed.  The prince placed his chin on the man’s shoulder, his face nearly touching the side of Aragorn’s.  Knowing how his friend stood he kicked the man’s right leg back with the tip of his boot widening the human’s stance.

 

Aragorn simply let himself be positioned by the Silvan elf.  His shoulders shook from silent laughter prompting the prince to gently smack his head.

 

“Pay attention! You never did learn this the first time,” He whispered to the man as he lined his sight back up with Aragorn’s.

 

Trying to be serious, the man quieted and concentrated.  The king felt the gentle touch of Legolas’ fingertips against his temple pushing his head back into a straight position.

 

“Don’t tip your head,” Legolas commented.  “How long has it been since you fired a bow, anyway?”

 

“Legolas...” Aragorn growled out his friend’s name.  He didn’t mind being used as a demonstration but he wasn’t about to let the elf make fun of him in front of his men.

 

The king felt more than heard the prince’s soft snicker.

 

“As you wish, my friend.  Now breathe in,” Legolas commanded, falling easily back into instructing.  “Hold it.  Sight in on the tree.”

 

The elf’s soft words could barely be heard by anyone other than the man.  The barest of touch to the human’s forearm readjusted the tip of the arrow.

 

“Breathe out... and... release.”

 

Aragorn barely moved.  Only the fingers of his right hand straightened as he let go of the bowstring.

 

The arrow flew on an arcing trajectory and embedded itself into the tree right next to Trelan’s.

 

“That is how you teach a human how to shoot,” Legolas commented with a laugh.  He stepped away from Aragorn allowing the man to drop the bow to his side.

 

Draecyn stared wide eyed at Aragorn.

 

“Did he really teach you just like that?” the soldier questioned.

 

“Just like that,” Aragorn answered with a smile, “many, many years ago now.  The wood elves are renowned for their skills with the bow.  You should be honored to learn from them.  But it still takes practice!”

 

“Something you rarely do,” Legolas retorted quietly as he walked back to the edge of the wood.

 

Following his friend, Aragorn passed the bow back to Raniean and gained the prince’s side.

 

“I’ll have you know I practice all the time when they let me!” The man replied in feigned disgust.

 

“Don’t you mean as often as Arwen will let you?”

 

The new voice came from their right and the speaker was revealed as Elladan and Elrohir joined the small company.  The twins had been out earlier in the morning making their daily circuit of the grounds.  It was a habit that they had developed from earlier years and never quite broken themselves of.  When they had heard the conversations and laughter coming from the far glen they had taken it upon themselves to investigate.

 

“I’ll tell her you said that!” Aragorn threatened wryly.

 

With the coming of the twins the banter and taunting had only increased.  In moments a mini-tournament had started with the men on one team and the elves on the other.  It was a highly unfair competition as the elves excelled in the art of archery and outnumbered the men.  But the humans gave it their best much to the pleasure of their elven companions.

 

It dawned on the company slowly that their vision was being obscured by a soft slow downfall of snow.  Seconds later the contest came to an abrupt halt as everyone stopped to gaze skyward.

 

“No...” Aragorn growled.  He dropped his gaze to the dirt beneath him and slowly shook his head.  The King’s disappointed comment was nearly drowned out by Legolas’ shout of joy.

 

“Yes! Yes! I was correct!” The elven prince said smugly, pointing in emphasis at the frowning man.  “Therefore it will be *you* in the kitchen tonight and not I!”

 

The smile that brightened the twins’ faces only added to Aragorn’s chagrin.

 

“What is he speaking of, Estel?” Elrohir called.  He shook his head causing a spray of snow to drop around him as he walked closer to his younger brother.  Slinging his bow over his shoulder he couldn’t resist the smirking smile that slowly spread across his face.

 

“Did you loose a bet?” Elladan continued to prod.

 

“I did,” the man relented with disgust.  “I told Legolas I knew Rivendell better than he and that he was incorrect about first snow coming so soon.  He bet me it would be today and I took that bet.”

 

“Foolish,” Legolas commented quietly.  The soft jab reached the King’s ears and he glared at the prince.  The elf was calmly packing his things readying to set off for the house.  He knew very well that it was not smart to keep the humans out in the snow especially as Aragorn had not heeded his word nor dressed appropriately.

 

Picking up his cloak he walked over to Aragorn and draped it over the man’s shoulders, pulling the hood up over the human’s head.  Aragorn did not fight the attention nor did he resent it.  The elf and the man knew each other too well.  Legolas’ intentions had been pure and they were accepted as such.

 

“We should head back my friend,” Legolas taunted with a smile, “It wouldn’t do to have you catching your death of a cold before I get my dinner.”

 

“I hate wild berry potatoes,” Aragorn groused as he fell in step with the elf.

 

“Well that was part of the bargain and you are not getting out of it,” Legolas shouldered the man.  “I hate panjacakes.”

 

“Hey!  I like panjacakes!” Draecyn piped up from where he still stood next to Trelan.  The smaller elf and Raniean were continuing to practice, firing their bows in the midst of the snow flurries.

 

“Has to be a human thing then,” Elladan remarked sarcastically.

 

“Although we hate wild berry potatoes,” Elrohir chimed in.

 

“Has to be a Silvan elf thing,” Aragorn muttered as he turned around to watch the men behind him.

 

He stumbled sideways when Legolas gave him a good shove.

 

“Come on, men,” Aragorn called, “we need to get back.  No sense catching a cold out here in the snow.”  He knew from experience how susceptible they were to illness when the weather changed as abruptly as it had this year.

 

Draecyn watched the elves beside him effortlessly shooting as though they had not even realized it was snowing.  The temperature had dropped fairly quickly over the last hour.  It just hadn’t been noticeable from the exertion of the games.

 

“May I stay and practice more?” the young Gondorian soldier asked.  He wasn’t ready to concede defeat.  The fact that it was the weather that was now threatening to show him up and not just the elves, seemed humiliating to the man.  He hadn’t spent enough time around the fair beings to realize what he perceived as human weakness was simply a difference between the races.

 

“Just like the one young ones!” Aragorn and Legolas laughed, remembering the exuberance of another young human so many years ago.  They had moved beneath the shelter of the thick woods out of the snow flurries and were waiting for the others to join them.

 

“I wouldn’t advise it,” Elladan kindly answered the guard’s question.

 

“You’ll catch your death of a cold,” Elrohir continued.

 

“It happened to Estel a few times when he was younger,” Elladan resumed the explanation.  He followed his twin as they jogged back to the safety of the trees.  The storm was slowly increasing.

 

“And once when he was older!” Legolas added.

 

“Don’t elves get sick when they get cold and wet?” Draecyn asked.  He was curious now. 

 

“Elves don’t get sick,” Raniean answered.

 

“You don’t!?” The look of surprise on the Gondorian’s face made the older elves laugh. 

 

“No, we don’t get sick and we rarely get cold.” Raniean stated simply.  He began to pack up his belongings hoping to encourage the young man by example.  Jonath had already left the open meadow and joined the others beneath the canopy of trees.

 

Trelan was ignoring them, intent on the target across the meadow.  It was getting increasingly difficult to keep his shot true as the snow began to fall faster.  That only made it more fun for the elf to practice, in his way of thinking.

 

Jonath recognized the look in his guard’s eyes as Draecyn watched the Silvan elf.  The soldier didn’t want to give in so easily and be thought less of by their companions.  Under normal circumstances Jonath would have allowed Draecyn to stay till darkness fell but the young guard was his responsibility.  He needed his men at their best even during this time of rest.

 

“Draecyn, lets pack it in.  I won’t have you sick and I don’t’ want to have to put up with you if you come down with something,” Jonath directed his underling.

 

With a nod of compliance the human wordlessly packed up and jogged towards the woods where the majority of the company now stood.  There was no arguing when his captain took that tone with him.

 

“Trelan, stop showing off, let’s go as well.  I know what its like to have sick humans around and I do not relish the thought.” Raniean called back to Trey as he slowly joined the others. 

 

Reluctantly the small elf retrieved his arrows and caught up with the others.  Aragorn had turned towards Rivendell and was leading them back to the house.  The walk was not a long one but it would take them a quarter of an hour at best, with a storm on their heels it might take longer.

 

“Its miserable having a sick human on your hands,” Legolas taunted.  He smiled widely when Aragorn protested.  “Oh please, you know it’s true.  You’re grumpy and irrational.  Nothing helps but time and sleep and you even fight those things plus anyone who tries to give you aid.  The last time you were sick and we were stuck near the gap of Rohan it was miserable.  I thought you were going to die and you thought you were going to die.  It was awful. I never want to do that again.  Do you know I actually started carrying herbs that your father gave me for just such an occasion should it happen again?  You scared the life out of me!”

 

Aragorn chuckled lightly as they all headed back to the house.  He adjusted their course slightly easterly as they wound their way through the trees.

 

“That was miserable.  But I wasn’t that bad of a patient!” He protested lightly.

 

“No, you were worse!”

 

Legolas walked closer to him as the air about them dropped a couple more degrees.  Their breath ghosted on the air and Aragorn had tucked his hands up inside his sleeves to keep warm.  The woods thinned about them and the snow was falling heavier now.  The small group picked up their pace.

 

“No one could ever be a worse patient than an elf!” The king countered throwing the taunt over his shoulder at his brothers.

 

“I beg to differ. I have been around you on more than one occasion when you were ill and you were horrible company to keep,” Elladan concurred.

 

Legolas saw the wicked smile that crept across his friend’s lips and wisely remained quiet.  He glanced at the human out of the corner of his eyes awaiting the man’s retort with glee.

 

“You should never speak on such things dear brother,” Aragorn warned.  “I seem to remember one elf in particular who was a horrible patient, thought he was going to die and complained bitterly throughout his recovery!”

 

They picked their way back through the woods, sheltered from the worst of the storm as they entered another thick grove of trees.  The sound of the human’s footfalls could easily be heard over that of their elven companions.

 

“What!?” Elladan rounded on his brother.  The look of confusion on his face belied the fact that he had not followed Aragorn’s train of thought.

 

Elrohir however knew exactly what Estel was referring to.  Before he could warn Elladan off and get him to drop the subject his twin repeated himself.

 

“What is this you speak of?” Elladan asked.

 

“Only the time you shot yourself in the foot!”

 

The twins’ mouth dropped open in protest but no words came out as a bright blush crept up onto his cheeks.  Legolas burst out laughing. This story he had heard.  Aragorn had regaled he and Gandalf with it years ago on their way back to Rivendell from Strayton.

 

“Actually if I recall correctly,” Aragorn continued.  “It was all your fault.”  He laughed as his brothers objected vehemently and simply talked over their protesting.

 

“I was in my early teens at the time.  I had been late getting up and we were supposed to go out hunting.  The coffers were low and we needed the food.  I had been up the night before helping in the pantries to sort things out and didn’t awaken on time. So they left without me, thinking to teach me a lesson.”  Aragorn smirked in Elladan’s direction.

 

The Silvan elves moved in closer to hear better, followed by the Gondorians.  Jonath kept a pace back from his liege allowing the King time with his family and friends.  He could hear perfectly well from where he walked and had heard part of this story already.  Draecyn, ever curious, had not and eagerly pressed in closer.  The stories of his King’s life fascinated him and he was thoroughly enjoying his stay amongst the elves.  The tales they told were the best he had ever heard in his young life.

 

“We were supposed to have headed south but they changed their mind sometime during the day and headed west instead. I picked up their trail on the high ridge behind the house...”

 

 

Chapter Text

~*PART FOURTEEN*~
~Life Goes On~

 

 

The signs were easy for Estel to read.  The barely crushed snow and the nearly imperceptible footprints of the elves he tracked were enough for him to follow his brother’s path.  The twin’s footfalls were slightly heavier than their full blooded elven kin but the light path they tread would not have been traceable by any other human.  Estel had been raised with them, he knew by now what to look for as he tracked their steps.

 

All those games of ‘ditch the little brother’ had paid off.  It was something the twins had taken to doing with their younger human brother.  When the youth wasn’t paying good attention to their whereabouts the elves would simply disappear, forcing Estel to track them to their hiding places.  It had served to teach the man how to be observant, to never lose touch with his surroundings and to use all of his senses to their fullest.

 

And he had learned well.

 

Quietly the human gained the position of the elves he followed.  His steps were placed so as to dampen the sound of his footfalls.  He was nearly impossible to hear as he approached them.  He remembered from past experiences that it was not wise to surprise hunters when they were tracking prey and he had no clue what the situation might be when he came upon the twins.

 

Elrohir was ten feet away from him when the elf felt the man’s presence and turned toward his younger brother.

 

“There you are,” Estel barely whispered as Elrohir pressed a forefinger to his lips cautioning the man to silence.

 

A good pace away from them Elladan stood completely still, his bow drawn and sighted in.  If Elrohir hadn’t pointed him out Estel might have missed him standing in the tall foliage as he was.  There was no clue as to what the prey was and the man dare not ask for frightening it away.

 

This far up the hillside the undergrowth was thicker and the tree groves were thinned.  Smaller animals could easily hide in the tall foliage and avoid being seen.

 

Shifting closer to the youngest twin, Aragorn had only meant to move out of the way.  However he wasn’t paying as much attention to his steps now that he had found whom he had been tracking.  His soft leather boots pressed down on a dry branch.  The twig snapped under his full weight before he could stop and move aside.

 

The snap resounded in the quiet woods around them like a shot fired from one of Gandalf’s fireworks.

 

The brush in front of Elladan shook and a loud squealing growl alerted the young man as to their quarry.

 

A wild boar, a male one at that, parted the shrubs with his long curling tusks.  The herds of boar in the hills surrounding Rivendell were a territorial, cantankerous and completely unpredictable stock of wild pig.  Shaggy coarse fur fell from their shoulders like mane and covered their stocky short bodies.  Their tusks curled back from ugly huge mouths framing the sides of their heads in magnificent semi-curls.  When startled the beasts were incredibly quick tempered and fast.

 

The boar surprised by the voices and the stranger’s proximity to its territory, charged at the closest offender.

 

Elrohir grabbed Estel and jumped aside, dropping down into the brush out of sight.  Rolling over in the long grasses, the twin shielded the young human from any harm.

 

Elladan was closer to the creature and had not the warning that his brothers did.  The boar seized upon the sight of the elf and swerved towards him.

 

The speed of the animal surprised the elf and he had no time to move out of the way.  His bow was still taught but Elladan only registered the immediate threat.  Jumping backwards the boar barely brushed his leg sending him sprawling off balance and gashing a deep cut across his calf.  His bow hit the trunk of the tree behind him forcing his aim down and causing him to lose his hold on the string.  The sickening sound of an arrow penetrating flesh resounded seconds after the creature had charged out of the meadow heading for safety in the thick woods around them.

 

Elladan dropped to the ground with a cry, folding in a heap over his left foot.

 

The whole scene had played out in the span of a heartbeat.

 

Elrohir rolled off of Estel and sat up looking around for his brother.  The close ground coverage obscured Elladan from view.

 

“Here,” the wounded elf called brokenly.  He was rocking back and forth trying to get the pain under control.

 

Scrambling quickly to their feet Elrohir and Estel gained their brother’s side.  It took both of them to pull Elladan back so they could get a good look at his wound.

 

The shaft of the arrow protruded from the soft suede boot at an angle.  With a groan Elladan leaned against the tree behind him and let his brother’s work with his foot.

 

Elrohir gently dug the arrow out of the dirt below Elladan’s boot.  The sharp arrowhead had no barbs on it unlike the tips they used to hunt deer and so it had pierced straight through the elf’s foot and shoe.

 

Aragorn’s fingers expertly felt the bones around the shaft.

 

“I don’t think it hit any bones,” he assessed quietly.  “It seems to have pierced through between his big toe and the one right next to it.  Its struck flesh only.”

 

“That was a stroke of luck,” Elrohir replied absently.  He had finally worked the arrow free of the ground and pulled Elladan’s foot into his lap for a better look.

 

“Luck?” Elladan growled darkly.  “There was no luck involve in this mishap at all. Only the blundering of our younger brother.  Can’t you get that thing out?” His grumbling turned to whining as they inspected the wound.

 

“Stop squirming!  You are not going to die,” Elrohir commanded. “You know the boar are temperamental, it was only accident.  If the hog had missed you, you wouldn’t have fallen against the tree and this would not have happened.  Now be still.  This is going to hurt a bit.”

 

Estel for his part was simply ignoring the elder twin.  Under different circumstances, were their roles reversed, he would probably be in no better mood.

 

Elrohir unsheathed his hunting knife and began scoring the shaft of the projectile just above the arrow head.  A few moments later he glanced up at Estel who was holding the shaft steady above Elladan’s boot.

 

“I’m going to snap the head off when I do you’ll need to pull the arrow out as quickly and as straight as you can,” He instructed staring evenly at his younger brother.  This was the first time Estel had dealt with such a wound and had never before had to perform such a task.  “If you don’t, it will increase his pain.  I know you can do this Estel.  Are you ready?”

 

The young human’s eyes were wide with worry and he simply nodded in understanding.  He was already beginning to feel guilty for startling the pig into bolting.

 

“Elladan, this will hurt.  I need you to relax as much as possible,” Elrohir spoke up as he glanced around Estel.

 

Elladan nodded but it was obvious that he was not complying.  He was trembling slightly from the adrenaline run off and shock was setting in.  He mumbled darkly under his breath something about their father finding out.

 

“Wait,” Elrohir whispered.  He moved away to find his pack easing Elladan’s foot into Aragorn’s hands.

 

Rifling through the bag he found a small vial of tiny crystals - mentasis.  His brother was in too much pain for him and Elrohir was loathe to cause him more.  Returning to his twin he held out his hand, a small clear crystal that looked like sap from a tree lay in the palm.

 

Elladan knew immediately what he held and with a nod of understanding placed the medicine beneath his tongue.  The crystals were a potent herb that when ingested slowed down a person’s system and dulled the pain.  After a few moments the elder twin relaxed once more against the tree trunk and closed his eyes.

 

Scooting back down by Estel, Elrohir positioned himself holding his twin’s booted foot once more.

 

“We need to move quickly now. I gave Elladan a very small dosage, it will wear off soon.”  He spoke softly fixing his gaze on Estel.  “I’ll count to three.  As soon as I snap the head off pull the shaft out.”

 

Not waiting for confirmation, Elrohir began his count.

 

Estel heard the distinct sound of the arrow being snapped in two and jerked the shaft from Elladan’s booted foot.

 

A soft cry from Elladan caused Estel to wince as he threw the arrow into the woods behind him.

 

Elrohir moved back towards Elladan talking softly to him as Aragorn pulled the elf’s boot off.   He cleaned the wound, top and bottom, packing it with numbing herbs that would keep it from getting infected.  Taking a strip of cloth he bandaged it up as bet he could and glanced back at his brothers.

 

“I don’t think he’ll be able to walk,” Estel observed.

 

“I can walk,” Elladan stated simply, his stubbornness showing through as the drug began to wear off.

 

Elrohir rolled his eyes and hooked his hands under his brother’s arms, hauling his twin into a standing position.

 

“No you cannot.  You’ll have to let us carry you,” the younger twin countered.  “Now if you do not comply I will force more mentasis into your system until you are senseless and we’ll simply drag you home.  Understand?”

 

At the soft rebuke Elladan relented.  He glared at both his brothers as they made they way slowly back down the hill towards Rivendell.

 

~*~

“And I’ll have you know he complained the entire time on the way home.  We were too slow, too rough.  It hurt too much and on and on.  Honestly that was my first experience with such a severe arrow wound.  It took us the better part of an hour just to get off the hill carrying his heavy carcass,” Aragorn finished his story laughing along with everyone else.  “I was actually for drugging him and dragging him home by the time we reached the valley.”

 

“Actually just gagging him would have been nice,” Elrohir added cheerfully.  He smiled at the glare the comment evoked.

 

“It was weeks before he could walk and by that time we were all glad he could!”  Aragorn continued.  “You were a horrible patient even with Father!” He glanced around at his older brother.

 

Elladan, trying to retain his dignity simply shook his head and continued walking.

 

“There was nothing funny about the whole thing at all,” He muttered under his breath.

 

“Actually after the fact it was terribly funny,” Elrohir corrected him.  “The look on your face when that boar charged and your bumbling reaction to get out of his way were incredibly comical.  If you had simply dropped your bow or better yet fired off that shot and hit the ugly beast it would have been different.  It was not all Estel’s fault on that one!”  He softened the jesting by placing his arm around his brother’s shoulder.

 

“Although no one would ever admit to that until now!  He used that against me for years,” Aragorn chimed in.  “And that story has been told so many times as an example of what *not* to do when hunting that I was sure everyone had heard of it. Or maybe it was just that Glorfindel loved to tell it over and over again because it made him laugh so hard.”

 

A clod of snow hit Aragorn square in the back of the head causing him to step off balance.  Surprised the man turned and glanced behind him.

 

Elladan stood there a glare on his face barely hiding his mirth.

 

“It is NOT funny! And I hate that story!  If it had been you who had been wounded and not I, father would have had a fit.  I don’t want to hear that story repeated anymore! I’m sick of it!  I had thought that finally being rid of the Balrog Slayer I would never have to hear it again!”

 

Everyone quieted at the tirade.  Only Trelan’s soft laughter as he tried to be serious could be heard in the ensuing silence.

 

Quietly Elrohir approached his twin.

 

“Brother, we love to tell that story because we love you.  All of us have stories that we can entertain one another with,” Elrohir tried to soften his brothers ire.

 

“Yes Gandalf found it very entertaining when Estel told him,” Legolas added.  “I have never seen him laugh so hard.”

 

Aragorn gave the elf a good shove and coughed repeatedly trying to cover up what the prince was saying.

 

“You told Mithrandir!?” Elladan fairly shouted.

 

The whole group was laughing now as Elrohir gently restrained his twin.

 

“Don’t worry Elladan, we’ll get him back later.  We have a few choice stories no one has heard about you, dear brother,” He tossed the threat at the King.  “I am sure we can entertain everyone most well tonight in the Hall of fire.”

 

“I fail to see what is so upsetting.  Mithrandir is in Valinor now, there is no threat to your reputation,” Aragorn smirked as they began walking again.

 

“True Estel but, there are all those who live in the Undying Lands to entertain,” Legolas whispered.  His observation caused Aragorn to wince and laugh.

 

“Thank you Legolas for pointing that out.  Well still, there are no tales you can tell that can embarrass me anymore.  The worst have already been told,” the King deflected hoping desperately that he was correct.  He knew how this form of sibling blackmail worked.  If he could make them believe he didn’t care or that it wouldn’t matter he might be able to stall them.

 

The darkened silhouette of Rivendell loomed in the near distance and they picked up their pace.

 

“We’ll see about that,” Elladan retorted.  “There’s still the story of why Glorfindel put a lock on his door and would never allow you in his room again.”

 

“You wouldn’t...” The mention of that particular tale caused the human to blush and break out laughing.

 

Elladan just shrugged and opened the back door of the lower access to the house.  The storm had picked up strength and flurries of snow now beat against the stone building.

 

Hustling everyone inside, they bolted the wooden double doors shut behind them.  The room was nothing more than a small alcove that led into the various parts of the interior of the house by three different doors. 

 

Elrohir lit a glow lamp in the corner of the room shedding light over the occupants.  He opened a set of vents located in the walls and warm air flooded the recess quickly heating the air around them.

 

The room was large enough for the whole company to stand in and remove their outer wear.  The door to the left led to the storage rooms where the supplies and weapons were cached.  Elladan took the packs and quivers from his quests and lined them up along a shelf in the storage area next to racks that held their bows.  He quickly resealed the door as that particular room was not heated.  Snow from the companions clothing and shoes shortly littered the stone floor turning into tiny puddles as boots and cloaks were removed and replaced with more comfortable clothing. 

 

The door in the middle led into the house proper and it was this portal that Elrohir ushered the elves and men through.  To the far right the last door opened into a hallway that angled up to a flight of stairs emptying into the kitchen.

 

By this door Legolas and Aragorn stood huddled, helping one another out of their sodden clothing.

 

Aragorn leaned against Legolas as he removed his wet boots.  The elf helped steady the man as he stood on one foot unlacing his left shoe.

 

“I wish you had brought your coat,” Legolas whispered softly as Aragorn handed him back his cloak. The elf placed the wet article of clothing on a peg near a heating vent to dry it out.  The man was shivering slightly.  “The air chilled quickly today.  Faster than even I expected it to.”

 

The elf shook his head prompting a cloud of snow to fall from his shoulders.  He untied his own boots and handed them to Aragorn who placed them on a shelf next to the old ranger’s ones he had been wearing earlier.

 

“I wish I had too.  Next time I promise I will listen to you better,” Aragorn consented smiling warmly.  The years had made him more compliant to the caring criticism of his elven friends.  “You know when Ada was here and had the power of Vilya we never had storms like this – ever.  I cannot remember severe weather at anytime while I was growing up.  I never imagined it would be so different in all respects without his presence.  You were right my friend, your sense of nature is still perfect.”

 

Legolas returned the smile and grasped his friend’s shoulder pulling the man close.  He remembered all too clearly what it was like to see his home bereft of the power of his elven father’s presence.

 

“I will help you prepare dinner if you would like,” Legolas offered.

 

Aragorn actually thought over the offer for a few minutes before coming to a conclusion.  Behind them the others were dusting themselves off and stowing the weapons for later use.  The two friends had moved away a bit stepping back into the warmer recesses of the house.

 

“I’ll make you a deal.  You come in and entertain me with conversation and I will make the best wild berry potatoes you have ever had,” Estel offered.

 

“Deal.” Legolas readily agreed.  “We’ll see you all in a few hours.”  He called back to the others as he and Aragorn headed in the opposite direction going to the kitchen.

 

Elrohir watched them walk out of sight.  He would give them some time alone and then take Draecyn and anyone else he could coerce into accompanying him to help out.  Making dinner for the horde that was now staying in Rivendell was no small thing; his brother would definitely need help. 

 

His brother...

 

It felt good somehow to have his brother back for first snow after so many years gone.  The king of Gondor did not walk the halls here.  Estel, little brother of the elven twins did.  He had missed the banter and the laughter and the embarrassing stories.  He had missed the kinship.  And his heart found a peace in the fact that for whatever small amount of time they may have, Estel was home.  The first storm of the season had always been a celebration in the Last Homely House.  With the family back again under one roof it was the perfect excuse for another celebration.  Grabbing his twin and pulling him towards the wine cellar he told Elladan of his intentions for the evening.

 

It took a few minutes to get the kitchen heated and the glowglobes lit so they could start working on dinner plans.  Aragorn stoked the fires of the stoves hotter, warming the stone cooking vents so they could bake the evening’s supply of bread.  Legolas had gone for water and not yet returned so the king slipped quickly down to the cellars.  The twins had gone hunting earlier in the week and a side of venison still hung from the rafters. This time of year there was no worry that meat would rot quickly.  The cellars were below the ground and the special vents in the ceiling allowed the cold winter air to circulate.

 

When he returned to the kitchen Aragorn found Legolas pulling out a small stack of herbs and spices.  Vegetables of all kinds surrounded the water basin and he had begun to work over the abundance, culling just what he needed.

 

“How are your hands feeling?”  Aragorn asked absently as he set the meat on the cutting board.  He stepped nearer the oven to warm himself.

 

“They are better,” Legolas informed him.  The elf felt his fingertips gingerly.  The tingling was barely perceptible but still a reminder that his body was working towards healing.  “It will just take time I fear.  More time than I would like!”  Legolas laughed lightly.

 

“Oh! That reminds me.  I almost forgot!” Aragorn muttered cryptically.  Setting down the knife he was holding he untied his apron laying it on the counter.  “There is something I found that you need to see.  I’ll go get it and bring it back.  I’ll only be a moment.”

 

The human hurried for the door but halted on the threshold and turned back towards the elf.

 

“You can keep from burning yourself or dropping hot things on your hands or falling over for no good reason until I return correct?”  He taunted laughingly.  The king barely dodged the sodden towel that was thrown at his head.

 

“Get out of here you filthy human.  I do not require your baby sitting,” the elf retorted fiercely.

 

Aragorn’s laughter rang down the hallway as he ran towards the Library.  He skidded to a halt before the tall bookcases that spanned the width and height of his father’s study on the far wall.

 

Absently his fingers brushed over the spines of the books as he quickly searched for the specific one he had in mind.  Slowly a frown creased his face.  This wasn’t right.  There were quite a few books missing, including the one he was seeking.  Glancing about the room he spied a blocky lopsided structure in the corner of the study, constructed solely by his father’s books. 

 

Aragorn quickly recognized the crudely made structure. 

 

“Eldarion!” the man growled softly as he knelt by the odd shaped stack. 

 

The largest tomes fortified the base of the child’s ‘fort’ supporting the thinner books that perfectly recreated the roof of Dari’s construction.  It was something he and his father did often in the library at Minas Tirith.  Aragorn had not taken his son down to the lower levels to where the scrolls were kept.  He dreaded just what the boy’s imagination would think to create out of those and shuddered at the thought of the scribes finding their precious rolls stacked in the shape of a child’s play house.

 

Kneeling on the ground Aragorn searched for the book he was looking for. It was larger than most that Elrond kept but not the massive tomes that the elf had collected over the years.  Instead this one he had used to pour his wealth of knowledge into.  A blue leather bound book with simple black elvish on the edges, it was one of Elrond’s personal journals.

 

He found it supporting a corner of the ‘fort’ and quickly pulled it out of the stack causing the structure to fall in on itself.  Dari would be disappointed but Aragorn made a mental note to come back later and help his son build a new one.

 

Sitting down cross-legged on the ground Aragorn flipped through the pages of the book.  There two-thirds of the way through, pressed between the pages, was an old letter.  It was yellowed from age and worn from use but still perfectly preserved.  Gently pulling it out of its’ protective casing, Aragorn gained his feet and rushed back to the kitchen.

 

Legolas was stirring a pot on the stove.  The contents were bubbling and filling the room with a spicy smell that made Aragorn’s mouth water.

 

“What are you making?” The king inquired as he walked up behind his friend.

 

Legolas threw a dash of herbs into the simmering concoction and turned towards the man.

 

“Only the best gravy that was ever created for venison,” the elf answered merrily.  He stirred the liquid as he explained.  “My father’s cooks used to make it after the great hunts and I would sneak down into the kitchens for a taste of it.  They caught me one time and kept me down there with them, teaching me how to make the gravy myself.  I think you will find it much to your liking.”

 

The elf took a wooden spoon and ladled out a small portion.  He held it toward the human one hand beneath the spoon’s cup to keep it from dripping on the floor.  Aragorn took a sip of the dark liquid, breathing through his mouth to cool off the contents.

 

Hints of foreign spices and sweetness of fruits mingled with the heady flavor of Dorwinion.  The balance was perfect and he could not deny that the flavor was nearly intoxicating.

 

“Very good!” the king exclaimed.  “But, where did you get the Dorwinion from?” Aragorn asked in surprise.

 

“I found a case of it in your cellars.  I think your brothers were hiding it all along,” Legolas confided with a smile.  “I say we keep their secret until the right moment or the proper story!”

 

“Agreed!  Those fiends, they know full well they have that down there.  They were hiding it.  I’ll bet you they weren’t going to share,” Aragorn concurred.  He moved closer to Legolas and picked up another spoon attempting to get more of the gravy.

 

“But where did you go?” The elf questioned.  He playfully batted at the man’s hand when Aragorn tried to dip his spoon into the pot.

 

“Oh, right!”  Aragorn set the ladle down and pulled out the letter he had retrieved.  Without an explanation he handed it over to the prince.

 

Legolas took the worn piece of parchment in his hands.  The edges of the letter were torn from time and repeated readings.  It had been all but pressed flat from being secured inside the tome that Elrond had placed in it and the wrinkles were flattened into the paper itself.

 

Aragorn took the ladle from Legolas’ hand using the elf’s distracted state to sneak another taste of the gravy.

 

Legolas studied the letter curiously.  The writing was an odd mix of elvish and the scrawling handprint of the hobbits.  Certain words that the writer had found were best described by the fair folk’s tongue, had replaced the common word.

 

As he read a smile spread slowly across the prince’s face.

 

__________________________

 

 

Dear Elrond,

 

My uncle has repeatedly told me you are the wisest person he knows.  Now I understand for myself how true it is.

 

You were correct when you told me there is no way to pick up the threads of an old life.  When I originally asked you, how I was supposed to go on, when in my heart I began to understand, there was no going back for me, your reply came:

‘There are some things that time cannot mend, some hurts that go too deep…that have taken hold.’

 

I thought at first perhaps it was an elvish riddle again.

 

Forgive me.

 

I have found that statement to be true over the ensuing years.  There are some wounds we take in living that cannot be healed in this life.  Gandalf has spoken to me regarding the elves’ gracious offer and I do believe I am ready to accept it.  Thank you for making a way for me to live at peace.

 

I will have the hardest time explaining all this to Sam.  He will understand later when the mark of the ring has weighed his heart down.  But it will take longer for him.  Right now he exists for two lives when he should be living one.  He is divided in his love and loyalty (between myself and his family) and he cannot always be torn in two.  He will have to be one and whole for many years.  He has so much to enjoy and to be and to do.  His part in this story will go on.  I intend to help him believe such as well.

 

My part is taking a different path, as Bilbo would say.  But it is only around the bend in the road that I precede Sam.  I know I will see him again.  That is why I am accepting your offer.  I will make all the necessary arrangements and meet up with Gandalf at the set time.

 

It will be a pleasure to see you again my friend.

Sincerely,

Frodo Baggins

 

__________________________

 

 

The signature was slightly smeared where the little hobbit had accidentally placed his palm on it too soon after signing it.

 

“I think my friend that there are many ways that the sea calls to many different peoples.  For hobbits, or specifically Sam and Frodo, it was love of friendship.  I think Sam could understand your plight very well,” Aragorn spoke up with a small shrug, when Legolas glanced at him.  “I found it the other night when I was going through Ada’s journals.  There is a lot to be learned from what he left behind.  I think he would want you to keep that, as a reminder that it’s easy for the soul to be divided and only time can heal it.  It is also a reminder that nothing can severe friendship.”

 

“Gandalf once told me that the path to humility lay in having hobbits as your companions.  I think that old wizard was right,” Legolas laughed softly as he folded the letter and placed it inside his breast pocket.  “Thank you.  Your father was speaking the truth you know.  There are some wounds that can’t be healed.  But I also have much to do and be here in Middle Earth.  I will be one and whole again soon Estel.  I can already feel it happening.”

 

“I know mellon nín.  That was why I thought you should be the one to keep that.  The path to healing isn’t always swift or easy and it will serve as a good reminder should you fall into doubt,” Aragorn commented softly.  He was busy cutting the venison into cubes with a large knife and hadn’t looked up.

 

When he felt Legolas’ arm around his shoulder and the weight of the elf’s presence behind him, he slowed his movements.  He smiled back into the fair face.

 

“Should I ever forget or find myself in need of a reminder I would only have but to look at you and know the truth.” Legolas whispered.

 

Before Aragorn could respond Elladan stopped in the doorway and leaned against the door frame.

 

“Slacking off are we?  Have you no care for those in your house that go hungry?” He feigned indignation.  “Even your own son is starving to death and you two simply stand around bandying words?”

 

Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at Legolas.

 

“Do you think if I throw this knife at him I can hit him?” He asked the prince offhandedly.  He flipped the carving blade in his hand so that he held the edge in his fingers.

 

“I’d just wing him though,” Legolas offered his viewpoint on the subject.

 

“Maybe a leg wound only?” Aragorn questioned.  He tested the weight of the blade in his hand.

 

“Yes good thinking, that way he can still cook breakfast in the morning,” Legolas agreed.

 

“Without complaining...” Aragorn kept up the steady stream of banter.

 

“I doubt seriously that there would be no complaining.  But at least he would have full use of his hands,” Legolas quietly concurred.

 

“Leg it is then,” Aragorn announced, “That is unless you would like to help or leave.”

 

“You two are horrible!” Elrohir informed his brother and the prince.  He poked his head around the door frame. “I overheard what you were saying.  You will not lay a hand on Elladan.  I’m the only one who gets to pick on him.”  The youngest smirked with a laugh. 

 

He dodged the playful smack from his older brother.

 

“I say we help them.  We’ll never get dinner tonight with the two of them cooking.  We might as well wait for a hurricane in Valinor!” Elladan taunted.

 

Their teasing offer was accepted when Aragorn threw them a couple of aprons and stepped aside to make way for them at the cutting table.

 

Elladan joined Estel helping him with the meats while Elrohir went about seeing to the bread.  Before he stepped back near the stove, Legolas patted his chest pocket barely making the letter crinkle beneath his fingers.

 

“Thank you,” He whispered to Aragorn.

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Legolas was healing quickly now that he was no longer divided in his spirit by the call of the gulls.  His body was able to rest and begin rejuvenating.  The fact remained, however, that he was not yet completely well.

 

Aragorn was convinced this was true.  He had followed his friend out onto the rooftop and concealed himself in the shadows without so much as a twitch of acknowledgement from the elf.  This alone verified the healer’s suspicions.  And so the King contented himself with watching Legolas.

 

At the moment he was finding it incredibly difficult not to give away his covert position.  The two beings seated in front of him, not a stones throw away, were in a heated conversation.  And the results were more than amusing.

 

Legolas was perched on the edge of the rooftop of Imladris, his feet dangling over the ornamental parapet.  His lithe form was silhouetted by the rising moon as it breached the mountains.  It seemed his hair shimmered in the soft glow.  To his left a squatter, smaller figure made a distinct dark outline. 

 

Gimli’s booted feet rested just at the edge of the roof.  He had shifted farther back from the steep drop off than his companion.  His proximity to the edge and his fear of heights had done nothing to counter his temper however.

 

“And I say again that you are wrong!  You do not know the comfort that a dwarven wife can give.  Why if you had one...”

 

“Stop right there!” Legolas fairly shouted his friend down.  “I do not want to hear another word about your bearded lifemates.  It is enough that I must endure the tales of how you meet them and your courting practices.  Please!  Do you want me to jump off this roof? Do you?”

 

The small shape next to him harrumphed loudly.  Crossing his arms and glancing away the dwarf muttered something under his breath that Aragorn could not quite hear.

 

Legolas however had heard the remark clearly.  Glancing sharply at his smaller friend the elf leapt gracefully to his feet and glared down at the dwarf.

 

“You would know nothing of the union between an elf and his lifemate so it would do you well not to speak, master dwarf.  You should be glad that I enjoy your company for the most part even when you are being cantankerous and disparaging,” Legolas retorted.  His smile widened when the smaller being tipped his head back and glared at the elf.

 

“And I suppose your comments earlier could not be misconstrued as discourteous, elf?” Gimli demanded.  He squinted his eyes trying hard to glower and not smile.

 

Regally, Legolas bowed down and whispered in the dwarf’s ear. 

 

What he said Aragorn would never be able to pry out of either of them.  But it set the dwarf off into another tangent of sputtering and stammering as he tried to find a good comeback.

 

Without waiting to hear another word the elf balanced perfectly on the edge of the roof and began to walk its length.  Aragorn started slightly and moved forward.

 

He acutely remembered what happened last time Legolas had been showing off on the thin ledge.  The elf wavered slightly, imperceptibly to all but the healer who watched him so carefully.

 

“You!  You get back here right now! I am not through with you... you Silvan elf!” Gimli shouted as he clambered to his feet.  It was more difficult for the stout being to follow his nimble friend and he resorted to yelling at the prince.

 

With a flourish the elf turned on his heel and faced Gimli.  He was a good fifty feet away from the dwarf and a large smile decorated his features.

 

“My dear dwarf I do believe my patience has found its end and it is time for me to retire for the night.  Therefore, I must take my leave of you before this conversation goes any further,” Legolas laughed.  After bowing deeply to Gimli the prince simply stepped off the ledge of the roof.

 

For the fraction of a second it seemed to Aragorn that Legolas hung there suspended over nothingness before he dropped from sight. 

 

With a shout Gimli raced forward as fast as his legs would carry him.  Crouching down on his hands and knees he inched towards the edge of the parapet.  A hand on his shoulder startled him and he lost his grip, trying to glance behind him.

 

Aragorn swiftly grabbed the small rotund body and pulled Gimli back from the edge.  He was laughing so hard tears were streaming down his face and he found it difficult to speak clearly.

 

“Is that you, my friend?”  A lilting voice called up from below.

 

“He’s alive?! He survived?” Gimli pushed away from the human.  Gripping the edge of the roof the dwarf peeked over the side.

 

Aragorn knew full well what Gimli would see.  He knew this roof by heart and this place here by the broken tiles was just above the balcony that bracketed his rooms.  Leaning over he smiled down at the elf that was standing below him. 

 

Legolas was seated on the bench, reclining against the pillows Arwen had left there earlier in the day.  Crossing his arms behind his head he stretched out languidly and returned the human’s smile.

 

“Legolas,” Aragorn spoke by way of salutation.  “Enjoying the veranda are we?”

 

“Why don’t you join me?  The night is young and it is pleasant out, now that the winds have died down.”  The last was spoken as a slight and a taunt.  Legolas shifted his gaze to the dwarf who was watching him and smiled wickedly at the bearded being.  “Its so peaceful down here.”

 

Without giving a warning Aragorn swung himself off the building’s lip.  He caught the edge of the gutters that ran the length of the roof and balanced on his tiptoes on the top of the balcony’s balustrade.  Letting go of his handhold he stepped down onto the planter next to the railing and jumped to the floor of the veranda, finishing his escapade with a deep bow while the elf applauded.

 

Straightening up once more, Aragorn eased into a standing position with a slight grimace.  His hand moved to the small of his back as he walked slowly over to where Legolas sat.

 

“I used to do that all the time,” He commented glancing back up to the roof’s edge.  “But I am definitely feeling my age tonight.  I am no youngster anymore my elven friend.”

 

Aragorn seated himself on the bench as Legolas scooted over.  The elf regarded him with a wide smile.

 

“You are still younger and more able than our dwarven friend,” Legolas teased.  He followed Aragorn’s gaze up towards the parapet.  The top of the dwarf’s head and his eyes were all that could be seen as he held on for dear life to the edge of the roof.

 

“Well, someone is feeling better I would wager,” Aragorn acknowledged softly. Ignoring Gimli’s shouted comments about elven humor he turned his attention to Legolas.

 

The prince didn’t answer right away; he had known all along that Estel’s balcony was directly below him and had every intention of escaping his small companion in just such a manner.  He really had wanted a nice quiet evening.  But things never quite turned out how he planned. 

 

And while it was true Legolas felt better, he wasn’t sure he was back to normal.  He wouldn’t have dared to pull that stunt anywhere other than here.  And if the truth be known he had for the slightest moment felt a bit more unsteady on his feet than he was comfortable with.

 

Without complaint he held his hands palm up.  The right one was still bandaged but they both had more feeling in them than they had in my nights.

 

Aragorn squeezed them gently, running his thumbs across the elf’s palms.  He glanced up questioningly, watching Legolas’ face for any feeling.

 

The elf nodded slowly in response.

 

“You can feel that?”

 

They both were ignoring the increasingly loud one-sided conversation coming from above them.

 

“Yes, I can,” Legolas answered.  “Its still not like it should be.  It’s more like they are just waking up.  But I can feel your fingers touching mine.”

 

“Good.  That’s all I wanted to hear,” Aragorn confirmed.  He winced as Gimli got a notch louder.

 

Letting go of the elf’s hands the human glanced back up at the dwarf.

 

“Gimli!” He out shouted the red-faced being.  “Stop yelling, Dari is supposed to be sleeping. You are going to wake the entire house!”

 

“Well, if you would pay attention to me I wouldn’t have to be so loud,” came the grumpy retort.

 

The dwarf was still peeking over the ledge unwilling to chance leaning out any farther.

 

“You are always loud, master dwarf.  Your kind is just that way,” Legolas teased.

 

“Legolas, you aren’t helping.  Stop getting him so riled up,” Aragorn growled.

 

“Why...” Gimli’s stammered response was cut short as the man stood up.

 

“Get down from there and stop shouting, right now,” Aragorn ordered in his commanding tone.  He pointed at the elf in warning to stave off any remarks the fair being might have been thinking.

 

Raising his hands innocently Legolas remained seated and mutely watched the exchange.

 

“And how do you expect me to get down from here, I should like to know,” Gimli whispered, his voice still loud on the quiet night air.

 

“Well, how did you get up there?” Aragorn asked.  He stepped forward, hands on his hips and glared up at the eyes looking down on him.

 

“Well, how do you think?” The grumpy retort only caused his companions to begin laughing.  “I walked up the stairs and out onto the roof to make sure that fool of an elf did not fall off – again.”

 

Legolas stood to his feet and jumped on the bench ignoring Aragorn as the man tried to warn him off.

 

“I didn’t fall off the first time, you bearded rock dweller!” The elf called up.

 

“Only because *I* prevented you from doing so!  You clumsy excuse for an elf!  Who goes prancing on roofs in the middle of the night? No one with common sense I’ll tell you that!”

 

With a sigh Aragorn threw up his hands and walked into his rooms. 

 

“I’d leave him there if I were you. If Arwen hears you two you’ll be in bigger trouble. Now get in here,” He called back over his shoulder to Legolas.  “It’ll irk him more if you simply shut up and walk away.  Trust me.” His friend’s voice faded softer as the man walked deeper into the room.

 

There were so many things the elf prince could think to retort back to the dwarf.  He even knew a few good curses in dwarvish that he had learned from his father and they were right on the tip of his tongue.  However Aragorn’s caution brought him up short.

 

To the outsider it would seem that the elf and dwarf were constantly at odds.  But behind the back forth banter and the taunted name-calling was a deep unbreakable friendship built on mutual trust that had been fired in the heart of adversity.  That an elf and a dwarf could be such close friends was a completely unfathomable thing – before the war of the Ring that was.  And Aragorn knew this better than anyone else.  He also knew the heart of the elf better than even the dwarf and so he had given Legolas the only advice that would stop their good natured bickering and give the house some peace.

 

And it worked.

 

With a wicked smile the elf glanced up at his small friend and quietly followed the king into the interior rooms.

 

The dwarf’s tone of voice changed immediately from demanding to pleading.

 

“What...wait!  Help me down! Legolas!  Get me down! Oh, blasted elf!”

 

The heavy thumping of the dwarven boots could be heard as Gimli shuffled back to the roof hatch.

 

Inside Aragorn’s quarters both the human and the elf were giggling helplessly.

 

“We better get back downstairs before we get caught by...” Aragorn’s statement came to an abrupt halt as the two friends turned towards the hallway and caught sight of the figure framed in the doorway.  They both froze mid-step.

 

“Get caught by whom, my love?” Arwen asked coldly.  Her arms were crossed in front of her and her head was tipped to the side in that stance she would take when irked.

 

Aragorn glanced sheepishly at Legolas trying to quickly formulate a reply.

 

“Spare me,” Aragorn’s wife stopped him from explaining.  She grabbed a hold of Legolas as the elf tried to squeeze past intending to leave the two some privacy.  “Dari is awake and afraid of the ‘monster’ walking on the ceiling.  I suggest that the two of you get in there and explain to him *why* his Uncle Gimli was on the roof and that there are NO monsters in Imladris.”

 

Her icy gaze took in both the human and elf that stood inside her rooms.  With a glare at Aragorn she released Legolas who quickly stepped outside and waited for his friend.

 

“Sorry, love,” Aragorn whispered as he pressed out the door after Legolas.

 

Arwen simply watched him squeeze past, her eyes conveying enough without her having to say a word.

 

“You’re in trouble,” Legolas whispered as they padded down the hallway towards Dari’s room.

 

“I’m always in trouble,” Aragorn whispered back.  He picked up his pace as Dari’s tiny voice could now be heard calling for him.  “You better come up with a good story because I’m fresh out and I need an explanation that will sit well with Arwen.”

 

He pushed open the door to his son’s sleeping quarters and entered followed by Legolas.

 

“It’s alright Dari, Uncle Legolas and I are here now.  What’s wrong little one?” He soothed as he walked to his son’s bed.

 

Dari was partially hidden under the bedclothes peering up anxiously at Aragorn and Legolas.  “There’s a dragon on the roof,” he whispered.  “I heard him, right up there!” he pointed. 

 

Aragorn sat down on one side of the bed and Legolas folded his legs under him and sat on the other. 

 

“There’s no dragons up there, Dari,” Aragorn assured, attempting not to smile too much.  “That’s just Uncle Gimli.  He and Uncle Legolas were... playing.”

 

Legolas shot Aragorn a look that seemed to say: “That was the best you could do?” 

 

Aragorn shrugged.  “I didn’t see you coming up with anything,” his silent gaze replied.

 

“Playing?  On the roof?” Dari seemed a bit intrigued by this and cautiously let his head slip back out from under the covers.  “Can I play on the roof?”

 

“No!” Aragorn and Legolas said at nearly the same time, and then laughed. 

 

“Maybe when you’re older,” Aragorn said more gently, ruffling his son’s hair.  “Much, much older,” he muttered under his breath. 

 

Dari did not seem entirely comforted yet and regarded his father with large eyes when the King started to rise.  Clambering out from under the covers he curled up in his father’s lap, twining his hands in the loose ties of the older man’s shirt. 

 

“Don’t go.  Stay.  Tell me a story,” he pleaded.  “Uncle Leg’las always used to tell me stories before bed when we were in the bad place.”  Dari craned his neck out around his father’s arm to assure himself that Legolas was still there too.

 

Aragorn gently folded his little boy into his arms and settled back against the headboard of the bed, pulling the covers partially up over both of them.  His gaze brushed Legolas’ for a moment.  He smiled. 

 

“Like the one about the plant that nearly ate you!” Dari said contentedly when Legolas moved up to sit next to Aragorn so he could see them both. 

 

The prince flushed slightly and shook his head with a smile.  Well, he hadn’t expected *that* to come back and bite him.

 

Aragorn chuckled.  “Oh he did, did he?  Well let’s see if I can’t think of some equally good story for tonight...”

 

Legolas saw the glint in his friend’s eyes and moaned softly, resting his head resignedly back against the headboard. 

 

Aragorn smiled as he began the tale.  “Once upon a time, there was an elf prince who was having a very bad day.  See, some traders from LakeTown had arrived very early and the guards had to get him up to open the gates, and *then*...”

 

Chapter Text

~*PART FIFTEEN*~
~Every Ending is a Beginning~

 

 

“Elrohir told me I would find you here,” a voice interrupted Aragorn’s peace.

 

He had not heard the intruder approaching, but he knew the voice all the same and didn’t turn towards the questioner.

 

“I’ll have to remember to thank him later,” Aragorn replied sarcastically.  He kept his eyes trained across the valley below.  His gaze was unfocused and directed at nothing in particular.  This was one of his favorite spots near Rivendell, particularly at this time of year.  The early snowfall from the first storm of the season had melted leaving the valley clean and fresh, waiting for the next blanket of winter to shower it in white.

 

The human sat perched on a rock in the middle of the river at the waters head of the Bruinen.  His unique position would not have been possible a few months ago when the stream was still swollen with the winter’s run-off.  Now, though, the receding waters had exposed the large granite rocks that comprised the lip of the falls and Aragorn was able to easily sit on one of the largest outcroppings.  His feet dangled over the edge of the drop off and he kicked his boot heels against the stone wall behind them.  It was a habit he had picked up as a child and one he had never quite out grown.

 

He was wearing his old ranger’s outfit and let his hair down from the braids that usually held it back.  Strands of grey streaked from his temples back into the darker tresses.  Aragorn closed his eyes as the wind fingered through the wayward strands of hair near his face, brushing it away from his cheeks.  It felt good to be away from the house for a bit.

 

They had been in Imladris for nearly two months now and he knew his time in Rivendell was coming to an end.  The closer the prospect of leaving loomed the heavier his heart became.

 

Legolas leapt lightly out onto the naturally formed bridge and approached his friend.

 

“Would you rather then that I left you alone?” the elf asked softly as he seated himself next to the human.

 

“No, please,” Aragorn responded quickly.  He scooted over so the elf had more room to sit. 

 

“How are you feeling?” Legolas asked the human, quirking an eyebrow as he turned his full attention on his friend.

 

“*I* should be asking you that!” The man laughed lightly.  “Is the feeling returning?”  He took one of the elf’s hands in his own, turning it palm up and traced across it with his index finger looking for any response.

 

“Every day it improves,” Legolas answered.  He twitched as the sensation tingled and tried to pull his hand away.

 

“Pray tell me, Aragorn why you are here?” Trying to divert the healer’s attention the prince gazed out over the vista below.

 

“Why?”  The king laughed softly.  The diversion worked as he released the elf’s hand.  Breathing in the afternoon breezes the man visibly relaxed as he turned his attention back to the valley below them.

 

“This is my most favorite place in all of Rivendell – in the valley that is.  I mean just look,” he explained pointing off to their left, “The Misty Mountains rise there and over that way is the shire though you cannot see it.  From here you can trace the Bruinen all the way back to the house.  And Rivendell... Rivendell is most beautiful from here.  It looks like a jewel in the evening sun.  I love this spot.”

 

When he turned to look at the elf next to him Legolas’ face was scrunched up in a quizzical expression of disbelief.

 

“What!? Do you disagree?” The man questioned, surprised by his friend’s reaction.

 

“Well, it is true Estel that the valley is beautiful from here but...” Legolas faltered for words glancing about them into the forests that bracketed the stream.  “Well... it’s just that honestly I hate this place and I always have, ever since we lost you here.  There is no beauty from this vista for me.”

 

“Lost me?”  Aragorn was having a hard time following the elf’s train of thought.  Turning full towards his friend he pulled his right leg up to his chest.  Wrapping his arms around his boot the man rested his chin on his knee.  “What are you talking about Legolas?”

 

“Aragorn, forget you already what happened here?”  Exasperated Legolas recounted exactly why he hated the woods in this area.  “This is the exact spot where you fell over the falls when the orcs attacked us that summer that I was with you, before the Witch King took me.”

 

“That was years ago, Legolas!”  Aragorn shook his head in disbelief as he caught up with his friends thinking.  “And you accuse me of remembering the most inane bits of information.”

 

“It’s not inane!” Legolas retorted a bit harshly.  “After all your years amongst the elves have you never learned that for us every memory is as fresh in our minds as though it happened yesterday?  Whenever a recollection is made the emotions and sensations that accompanied it are vividly recalled.  That my dear friend is why we sometimes take so long to heal and why our mistakes are ever with us.”

 

The king stared wide-eyed at his friend, wondering at what the elf had just said. 

 

“Did you never wonder why I never spoke of Dorolyn for so many years?  Or why your brothers never returned with you to this place when you asked them to repeatedly?” Legolas continued.

 

“No,” Aragorn answered softly, thinking through his response.  “For humans, memories are not like that at all.  In fact the older I get the more I cannot conjure up the exact details of certain events.  Time has a way of erasing them from the heart and mind and leaving only the things behind that we want to remember.  It’s easy to put away the things one does not want to recall.  My memories are more indistinct than yours are I am afraid.  In fact, I had forgotten all about that year.”

 

Silence fell between them as they both walked through lost memories.

 

“That was an awful year,” the human spoke up again after several minutes.

 

His opinion of that time so long ago caused the elf to start laughing.

 

“It really was,” Legolas agreed.  “Sometimes I am very surprised that we survived our youths, or rather your youth.”  He moved quickly sideways as the human elbowed him.

 

“Hey, now I happen to remember that some of it was your doing!”

 

“And what exactly would that be?” Legolas asked, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at the man.

 

“It was *not* my idea to go treasure hunting for a lost seeing stone and nearly loose our lives! NOR was it my idea to sleep in that madman’s turret of a castle for nearly a month.  I don’t care what Gimli says about the architecture, it’s the creepiest place I’ve ever been in.  I told you I heard orcs in Isengard, but noooo I was being paranoid.  Me!” Aragorn smirked as he watched the elf’s mouth drop open.  “I do believe an ‘I told you so,’ is highly over due.”

 

“You can remember all that and not remember falling from this very spot?!” Legolas fairly shouted.  “And by the way, I’ll have you know that staying with Saruman was Gandalf’s idea and not mine.”

 

“Gandalf’s not here to blame and that does not change the fact that there_*were*_orcs!”  Aragorn exaggerated his words as he repeated his statement.

 

Legolas sighed deeply and admitted defeat.  “Yes, Estel, you were correct there were orcs.”

 

“Nor was it my idea to be exiled,” Aragorn muttered quietly.  He was unsuccessful at hiding the smirk that decorated his face.

 

He yelped in surprise when the elf smacked him upside the head.

 

“No, but it was your fault!”

 

“No, wrong again, dear prince.  It was your conniving kinsmen!” the man pointed out in good natured banter.

 

“About as much as it was the fault of your kind that we ended up in Mordor nearly dying at the hands of your infamous orcs,” Legolas smiled wickedly turning the argument back on his friend.

 

“Oooh ouch.  Got me there,” Aragorn conceded.  “I had forgotten that one too.  It’s so much easier to forget the bad things.”

 

“When you’re a human,” Legolas spoke up softly after the laughter had died down. “I sometimes feel cursed that we can not.”

 

“There are some things I wish to forget for the pain but yet I hope I never forget because of the pain,” Aragorn replied cryptically.  He rubbed his hand against his chest as though willing the heaviness in his heart to abate simply from the touch.

 

“What do you speak of, Estel?” Legolas sobered, realizing that his friend was hurting more than he had realized.

 

“Legolas, can I ask you something?”  The evening was approaching and the rock they sat on had begun to cool as the sun dropped away in the west.  Aragorn pulled both his feet up and crossed them beneath him as he faced his friend.

 

“Always, you know that,” the elf reassured.

 

“Well, you never speak of it, or rarely, but I need to know...when you returned to Mirkwood without your father there...” Aragorn did not finish asking.

 

He had no need to.  Legolas understood exactly what he was asking.

 

“In all my years in Middle Earth there have only been only a handful of times that I have dreaded returning home.  Once, when I was young and did something foolish.  After we had been banished and father was dying.  After the War of the Ring,” Legolas ticked the memories off on his fingers, but then halted.  “And after father left.  Of those, only the last two lived up to my expectations of dread.”  The elf sighed almost imperceptibly. 

 

“I thought that the shock of returning to the desolation that occurred in the last days of the War of the Ring was the worst homecoming possible, but it was not.  The last time I returned home it was unbearable.  The forests are still there and they flourish once more, more so now that the evil that so long dwelt in the south has been totally obliterated from their midst.  Mirkwood truly is the Great Greenwood that it once was, and for that I rejoice.  However, it still mourns the loss of my father and our folk, all those who died there, and all those who sailed.  The grief that lingers there is like the mists that shroud the woods in the morning.  It clings to all that is near and chills one to the bone.  It speaks of the losses that forest has endured and naught but the rising sun can drive them from the heart.  Though the woods flourish they seem as if they are in disrepair and decay.  To the world they seem beauteous, but... without the brightness and power of my father in their midst, to me they are but a pale shadow of what they were in his presence.  For these reasons, I do not return.  He is not there and everything reminds me of his absence.  Times have changed too much.  The change is not for ill really, but after a thousand years I find myself unable to grow in a new direction so easily.  I would rather hold dear the memory of what was then have to reconcile it with what is.  I will see my father and my mother again, I know this.  That day is not even very far away now by the way we reckon time... but I will not see Adar *there*, in Greenwood.  I will never see him there again and that fact makes it unbearable for me to return.”

 

“Yes.”  Aragorn agreed simply.  His voice was soft, barely audible as the weight of his own losses ached in his heart.  “It is like that.”

 

“It leaves a hole in your heart, where you know something or rather someone should have been.”  Legolas agreed.

 

The man next to him simply nodded and dropped his gaze from the piercing stare of the elf’s.

 

“Nothing will ever fill that emptiness will it?” Aragorn whispered.

 

“Is the great healer asking this poor ailing elf for advice on the heart?”  Legolas half teased his friend, trying to lighten the king’s disposition.

 

With a small laugh Aragorn glanced up through wayward strands of hair that fell into his eyes.  If not for the gray streaks and the marks left from laughter throughout the years, Legolas could have sworn that he was looking at a young Estel.

 

“I suppose that is exactly what I am asking.  I want the pain to go away,” the man admitted forlornly.  “Or I want him back.”

 

“He can’t come back,” Legolas whispered.  He could feel his own heart tighten up in response to the desires that had plagued him not so long ago.  “And the pain won’t go away for awhile.”  Legolas flexed his hand experimentally offering it to the healer as proof.

 

The burn mark was nearly healed, only a scar marked its presence.

 

“I am living proof that healing takes time,” Legolas continued.  He laughed softly at the self-depreciating remark.  “You yourself told me that I must give my heart time to heal and now I’m telling you the same thing.”  He clasped his hand on Aragorn’s shoulder.  “You cannot expect yourself to acknowledge what you have only just accepted.  The hurt will be there for a long time, but you can help the healing begin by letting him go.”

 

Glancing away from the elf, Aragorn tried to hide his feelings.  It was impossible.  His friend knew him too well.

 

“He would want you to live and go on.  Take some advice from an old friend, get away by yourself and tell him goodbye like you would have had you accompanied him to the harbor,” Legolas softly instructed his friend.  “I did the same months after Adar had left.  It really will help.  Trust me.”

 

Aragorn only nodded, trying hard to collect himself.

 

“And here I thought all along that you were just worrying over me!” Legolas teased.  Deep down he was immensely relieved that Estel wasn’t just fretting over his condition.  This was something he could help his friend with, something he understood.

 

The taunting evoked a choked laugh and a playful shove that the elf did nothing to avoid.

 

“I’m sorry you know what it feels like to have to let your Adar go.  But I’m so glad you understand and have been where I am,” Aragorn admitted selfishly.  “It’s good to talk to someone other than family.  I just haven’t felt it was ever the right moment to really talk to Elrohir or Elladan about it.  I didn’t want to be a burden to them.”

 

Legolas smirked and glanced at the man out of the corner of his eyes.  “Hmm...those words sound oddly familiar.  Where have I heard them before?”

 

The elf’s tone was mocking and Aragorn knew exactly what he was driving at.

 

Shaking his head, he gazed into the eyes fixed on his face.  Legolas was barely containing his laughter behind the huge smile that lit his countenance.

 

“Well, one thing is for sure my friend,” Aragorn observed, “Since we have returned to Imladris, it seems you have remembered how to smile.”

 

Legolas’ grin widened until he was laughing. 

 

“‘Tis true,” he countered.  “And it feels good to be alive again.  I have you to thank for that.”

 

“Nay, dear friend, you did the healing.  I could only help.  In the end you decided to remain among the living here and I am so glad.”  Estel’s heart lightened even as he spoke.  He was no where near being freed of his sorrow, but that time was coming.  Right now he was content that the elf next to him seemed to be whole, body and spirit.

 

He enveloped the prince in a fierce hug before turning back once more to watch the sun dip below the topmost reaches of the mountains.

 

“I’m glad we’ve had this time,” Aragorn murmured after a moment.  “I’m glad you wanted to come here, Legolas.  I have treasured this time, the sharing of stories and memories... We’ve lived a full life together, have we not, mellon-nín?”

 

“We have indeed,” Legolas agreed with a small smile.  “We have shared so many things, my friend.  Perhaps that makes change all the harder to deal with in its own way.  Yet it cannot be denied.  The very world itself is changing; I feel it in the air around me everyday.  Do you think our story is ending, mellon-nín?”

 

Aragorn smiled gently.  “Much has changed.  But some things will always remain the same.”  He placed his hand lightly on Legolas’ shoulder, giving it a fond squeeze.  “Life is the tale we all play out every day.  The stories never end, Legolas.  We merely pass them on for others to carry out.”

 

Legolas smiled crookedly, amusement lighting his eyes.  “I swear you were just about to tell me that in every ending there is a new beginning, Estel.”

 

Aragorn grinned broadly and shrugged.  “And risk sounding like somebody’s grandfather?  No, thank you, I have some time yet before Eldarion is old enough to make one of those out of me,” he chuckled.  “Still... no matter how well-worn or trite the phrase may seem... there is truth there, is there not?”

 

Legolas clasped his hand over Aragorn’s and nodded.  “There is indeed my friend.  There is indeed.”

 

“Then let us head back shall we?” the human asked.  Standing to his feet he offered his hand and pulled the elf up with him.  “Because I’ll wager one thing that *hasn’t* changed is that my dear brothers and guards will send out search parties soon if we don’t show up.  And I do believe it is our turn to help in the kitchen tonight.”

 

With a groan the elf dusted himself off and followed the man across the rock bridge and down the path that clung to the cliff face.

 

“How long do you think we can tarry before they will simply find their own food and cook it?”  Legolas questioned with a laugh. 

 

Although the falls had lessened the roar was still deafening and the elf had to shout to be heard by the human.

 

“You don’t know how they can be!  In all likelihood they would starve first and never let me live it down.  And before that happens they will send out search parties to drag us back,” Aragorn yelled over his shoulder.

 

“I do believe Arwen has more sense than that!”  Legolas responded.  He grabbed the king’s arm as the man slipped on the wet rocks.

 

Aragorn turned back and glanced at Legolas drawing him closer so he wouldn’t have to shout.  “I was talking about Elladan and Elrohir!”

 

As if on cue a shout reverberated from below.  Glancing down they could see the twins accompanied by Jonath, Raniean and Trelan.

 

“You’re late my lord!” Jonath called.  He flashed his liege a quirky smile.

 

“And you’re both cooking don’t forget!” Elladan shouted.

 

Turning back to the prince, Aragorn smiled and shook his head.  “Told you so.”

 

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Elladan had gone for more wine from the cellars and the conversations had broken up for the moment.  Everyone had moved into the Hall of Fire after dinner to relax and talk about the day.

 

Slipping quietly out of the great hall Aragorn made his way to the northernmost balcony.  It was where his father had always retreated.  It was the same one that Elrohir favored so in memory of his mother.  The day had been full; the night was rich in the company of friends and family.  Yet that familiar sense of something lacking crept back into his awareness.  It begged at the back of Estel’s heart for release, for attention... for the one person who was not there and would not be coming.  He had shoved it away for long enough, he needed healing. 

 

It was time he took care of the heaviness of his heart, it was time to move on and to say goodbye like Legolas had suggested.  He just needed to do it alone.  He felt silly at first but as the quiet of the evening wrapped around him and the sounds of the house faded away his heart found its voice.

 

The months had passed swiftly and those beneath the rafters of Imladris were well on their way to normalcy - all except for their healer.  Ever since they arrived, Aragorn’s focus had been fixed on helping others heal in one way or another.  Legolas, Arwen, Dari... he had taken little or no time for the empty ache in his own heart.  No quiet moments away from others to make amends that had gone unmade.  No safety for the hurt places in his heart to open up and voice their tears.  It had taken Legolas’ gentle prying for Aragorn to realize that he had been neglecting his own healing.

 

His thoughts turned outward again back to the source of the pain that ached deeply inside.  The one who could release him was the one he missed so much.

 

 

He wanted to pretend that Rivendell was unchanged, but that was not entirely true.  The gardens were proof of their master’s absence.  The snow storms that had coated the valley in its first flurry of winter attested to the fact that the power of the elves who had flourished here had passed.

 

And yet at the same time, there was still a lingering eternal feeling here.  The trees whispered that although some things changed, some always remained the same.  The magic spell of peace that held Rivendell together had lessened but not waned.  The human had seen it working in Legolas as the elf had smiled and laughed so hard at times that he nearly cried.  It was good to hear the sound of elvish mirth once more and even more contenting to hear it from Legolas.

 

Seating himself on the bench, Aragorn leaned forward and rested his forehead on the stone balustrade.  He closed his eyes and sighed deeply.  Slowly he began to think through the weariness in his heart allowing words to express what he was feeling, saying the things he had never said when he had had the time.  His thoughts were so heavy and loud as he worked through them that he didn’t notice he was actually speaking them aloud until they were answered.

 

“I am sure he misses you as well, Estel,” Elrohir’s soft voice carried to the human, startling him.

 

Aragorn jerked upright and spun around as the elf moved towards the bench and sat next to the man.

 

“You were telling Ada how much you miss him.  How you wish you had taken the time to speak with him more while he was here,” Elrohir answered the unspoken question in his younger brother’s eyes.  With a sigh the elven twin glanced out across the darkened vale.  “I miss him too.  His laughter.  That scowl he would give us when we pulled a prank or brought you home wounded once more.  We never really talk about him anymore.  It hurts too much most often.” 

 

The soft smile barely touched Elrohir’s eyes as he lost himself in memories for a brief moment.

 

Pulling back from the edge of recollection, the elf gazed at the man and continued.  “The valley is not the same with out him here.  Do you know we actually had winter storms last year?  They culled the smaller trees and broke branches out of the taller ones.  The Bruinen even jumped its banks when the spring thaw commenced.  And the gardens...” Elrohir glanced past Estel into the garden beyond them.  “They have fallen and grow wild now.  Moranuen tries to help us in tending them but there are not nearly enough elves here anymore and the power of Vilya has faded and left.”

 

“I wish he had stayed,” Elrohir whispered after a few moments of silence.

 

“So do I,” Aragorn agreed.  He dropped his gaze to the stone floor beneath him.  “There are days I would give anything for his counsel, for his encouragement and strength.  There are nights I have wished for his touch, just to ease my sleep.  To remind me there is someone near who is wiser and more experienced than I.  To let me know that I am not alone,” The human’s voice trailed off softly.  “It’s like being an orphan all over again, having Ada gone.  I hate that feeling.”

 

When Elrohir didn’t speak Aragorn glanced over at his brother.  The elf had hidden his face in the palms of his hands and his shoulders shook with silent sobs.

 

“Oh, Elrohir, no,” Aragorn shushed his older brother.  Shifting on the bench he drew the elf against him, holding the twin’s head against his chest and gently rocking him.  It was an automatic response he had gotten used to doing with Eldarion, much like his father had with him.  He didn’t even give it a second thought. 

 

Elrohir felt his brother’s soft kisses in his hair.  He felt the weight of Estel’s cheek on the top of his head and the human’s arms tighten about him.  He and Elladan had talked frequently of their father’s leaving but having his youngest brother home had somehow broken open the deepest parts of his heart where the hurt still lingered.

 

“El?” A soft worried voice interrupted the quiet.  Aragorn released his brother as they both turned towards the balcony behind them.  Elladan stood just inside the doorway watching.  His eyes were huge in the dark night and Aragorn could just barely see the tracks of tears that traced the curves of his cheeks.  His twin’s grief had touched him deeply.  He wasn’t sure what was wrong but he had felt his brother’s sorrows.

 

“Elladan,” Aragorn softly spoke his eldest brother’s name.  Beside him Elrohir was unsuccessfully trying to pull himself together.  The sound of his name seemed to break the spell that held the elvish twin rooted in place and he stumbled forward, kneeling next to the bench beside Elrohir.

 

“What is it?” Elladan asked although he began to guess.  He needed to hear it himself.  He needed healing as badly as his brothers did.

 

“We miss Ada,” Elrohir whispered.

 

Aragorn nodded mutely when Elladan glanced at him.  He scooted over and made room for the eldest twin.  The silence was awkward for a few minutes.  Long had it been since the small family had gathered out here and the last time any of them could remember it happening, Elrond had sat in their midst.

 

“Elrohir says the gardens are more than you can handle,” Estel commented softly when he could stand the silence no longer.  He avoided the main topic of conversation.  “I think I can help there.”

 

Both twins glanced at the man, quietly waiting for him to continue.

 

“Many of the wood elves have remained behind to help Legolas rebuild Ithilien.  The work goes well and the reconstruction has been amazing.  I am sure that some of them would love to come to Imladris and help you here for a while.  I also have several master gardeners who are craftsmen in their own right.  Let me send you a couple of them.  Many Gondorians have a deep affinity for the elves and would love to assist you.  Let me help you,” He offered softly. 

 

“It would be good to have more help.  The Beornings are pitiful when it comes to gardening,” Elrohir responded, laughing softly.

 

“Beoma’s great grandchildren only excel at baking I’m afraid,” Elladan added.

 

“Even Pejor’s grandchildren are horrible with all things that grow,” Elrohir continued the conversation, “Although they all have their grandfather’s obnoxious trait of constantly speaking, Valar bless them!  I had no idea such things could be hereditary!”

 

The three brothers laughed at the memories that evoked.

 

“I think he even drove Ada to distraction when he visited,” Estel commented with a small laugh.  He glanced quickly out into the dark night avoiding the piercing gazes of his brothers.  The mention of his father brought back to the surface the painful subject that had gathered them on the quiet balcony in the first place.

 

“Estel, he loved you so much,” Elladan whispered softly, picking back up on their original conversation.  He reached out and touched the human.

 

“I never really told him goodbye,” Aragorn choked the words out.  “I couldn’t bear to go with him to the Grey Havens and watch him sail away.  Arwen begged not to and it was so easy to deny the truth.  I’ve never let it go either that I didn’t follow him there.”

 

“You must,” Elrohir insisted quietly.  “Ada would not have you grieve that he is in Valinor.  He and Naneth are together now and they are very happy.  He would want you to live and enjoy life as well.  You can pen him a letter telling him how you feel and we will see to it that the great eagles take it with them on their next migration.  He would love to hear from you I am sure.”

 

“Estel, Ada is very proud of you.  He told us himself when we accompanied him to the Havens,” Elladan continued reassuring their youngest brother.  He stood and walked to the balustrade leaning the small of his back against the cool stone.  “Don’t regret your decisions, Ada doesn’t.  Accompanying him to the harbor was the hardest thing we have ever had to do.  I actually heard the call of the gull that day.  It was all I could do to return here.  But I knew our time in Middle Earth had not yet come to pass.  You are here still as is Arwen.  We could not leave you both alone.  I always felt guilty for causing Ada grief about our decision.”

 

Aragorn was fighting a loosing battle with hiding his emotions.   Elrohir gently wrapped his arms around the human and pulled him close.

 

“I am glad that you have stayed.  It has been difficult the past few years.  They have been good but hard and busy and I have not let myself take time to grieve.  I could not, there were always too many responsibilities,” Aragorn sniffed softly, pouring out his heart, “I repressed the hurt. I always knew in my mind that he was safe, free from pain and horror and with Naneth.  I *know* he is happy but my heart never accepted the loss.  I still hardly can.  What kind of a world is it where you are separated from those you love?” Aragorn’s pained whisper tore at the hearts of his brothers.  He had told Legolas he was sure they would not be parted by death but truthfully he doubted he would see his family and friends beyond the grave.  It was not the lot of men or so he had always been taught.

 

His brothers at least would have the opportunity to go and live with their father, but they would lose their sister and human brother in the process.  They had no answers and they wondered if there even was a valid one.

 

“Why would Ilúvatar do that?”  Aragorn questioned further, burying his head against Elrohir’s shoulder. “Why do we have to love people only to loose them in the end?”

 

“I do not know Estel,” Elrohir answered softly, “He has his reasons.  They must be good although, I cannot fathom them just now.  Perhaps things truly are not as we see them.”

 

“I just want him back. For one day, one hour, one more minute just to tell him again that I love him and I miss him.  That’s all.”  Aragorn barely spoke as Elrohir rocked the man gently. “I miss his voice and his laughter.  I keep looking for him around every corner and yet he’ll never be here again.”

 

Elladan knelt once more in front of his brothers and gently pushed Elrohir back.  Placing his hands on either side of Aragorn’s face he forced the man to look at him.

 

“Look at me, Estel,” he demanded gently. “Ada is not here and he never will be again but he is not gone.  I heard you tell Legolas yourself that.  He is here,” Elladan spoke softly as he pressed his hand against the human’s heart.  “He will never leave here no matter where you are on Arda.  Many have been the nights El and I have both spoken the same words that you have, but we allowed the grief to come and we accepted it.  You little brother have pushed it way and bottled it up and you cannot live that way.”  Elladan’s soft smile eased Aragorn’s heart.  “It will tear you in two as surely as the call of the gull breaks an elf.”

 

“Ada taught you better than that,” Elrohir chided playfully, ruffling Aragorn’s hair. 

 

“Yes he did,” Aragorn laughed softly.  “And yes I told Legolas that exact same thing not so long ago.”

 

“He obviously believes you.  Why won’t you believe?” Elladan asked as he sat back on his heels, his blue eyes pierced straight to Aragorn’s heart.  For a moment the human was positive he had heard his father’s voice ask the question and was gazing into Elrond’s eyes.

 

“Ada,” Aragorn barely whispered.  His thoughts and memories spiraled out of control as his mind wove back through his past.  Snatches of his father’s lectures resounded in his soul and his heart relaxed as memory upon memory cascaded through his mind.  His father was gone.  He would in all likelihood, as far as he knew, never see the elf again.  But Elrond lived.  As long as Aragorn lived, Elrond lived.  As long as the twins were this side of the Grey Haven’s their father existed here in Middle Earth with them.  The pain didn’t lessen.  In fact for a brief moment it was more overwhelming and achingly lonely than it had been ever since Aragorn had returned to Rivendell.  He found himself holding his breath against the deep sorrow.

 

When the grief subsided and the human’s thoughts stopped clamoring for attention, Aragorn found himself once more gazing into Elladan’s worried eyes.

 

“Estel?”  Elrohir’s voice was tense.

 

The human let out the breath he had been holding and smiled slowly.

 

“You’re right.  He is here.  I know it now, he told me so,” Aragorn answered as he hugged Elladan to him.

 

The elf breathed a sigh of relief and let his younger brother rest against him for a moment.  “Do not do that again,” He cautioned, “You scared the life out of me.”

 

“It’s just that I could have sworn I heard Ada just now telling me he was here,” Aragorn commented.  He moved back from his brother and looked once more deeply into the twin’s eyes but all he saw was Elladan.  His smile mirrored the confused one on the elven face.

 

The peace of the moment was broken as a quiet voice inquired of the trio, “Excuse me Elladan?”

 

The voice belonged to Moranuen.  “A runner has just arrived with a message from Lothlórien.  He says that he precedes a great company.”

 

Moranuen stood just inside the doorway, holding a parchment roll in his hand.  When Elladan turned towards him and approached him, the elf handed over the message.

 

“Did you recognize this elf?”  Elrohir questioned.  Standing from the bench he walked up behind his twin and glanced over his shoulder.  Moranuen shook his head no in answer to the Elrohir’s question.

 

Elladan broke the seal and both elves read the contents, their eyes skimming quickly over the elegant letters.

 

Elladan let out a loud whoop embracing his twin.  Both were talking at the same time, completely excited.

 

“What!? What is it?”  Aragorn asked as he eagerly caught the letter Elladan was waving at him.  Elrohir was giving Moranuen instructions and everyone was suddenly talking and happy at once.

 

Stepping back near the glowglobe on the balustrade Aragorn read the letter.

 

__________________________

 

     

My dear Grandchildren,

 

As you know, Galadriel sailed with your father to Valinor some years ago now.  I and a large contingent of elves remained behind as our time in Middle Earth has not yet come to fruition.  The gulls do not call my name, but the nearness of my kinsmen tugs at my heart.  I know that Rivendell has fallen into slight disrepair.  With my beloved gone, the woods of Lothlórien no longer hold my passion as they once did.  I was hoping that you would honor me, by allowing myself and those who have remained with me to live in Rivendell and occupy its outer buildings until our time comes to leave.  We may be of some service in tending to the grounds and helping restore the Last Homely House.  I have sent Elurid on ahead of us to inform you of our intentions.  Please accept him on my behalf.

 

If the weather fares us well we will reach you a few days after you receive this letter.

 

I look forward to being with you both once again.  It has been too long since last you visited.

 

            Yours,

                  Celeborn

 

__________________________

 

 

“Lord Celeborn is coming?!” Aragorn asked incredulously.  He hadn’t seen the elder elf in ages and the prospect greatly cheered him.

 

“Will you stay on?” Elladan turned to the human, begging him to remain.

 

“Please, you must!”  Elrohir grabbed Aragorn’s forearms and shook him excitedly, “Grandfather would love to see you again!  Can you not be spared another week?”

 

“Legolas could use the rest,” Elladan prodded, smiling when the human frowned at him, “And so you could you.”

 

It only took a second for Estel to make up his mind.

 

“Well...” Aragorn stalled causing the elves around him to groan, “I suppose Faramir and Éowyn will be able to run things in my absence for a bit longer.”  A wide smile broke across his face as the elves excitedly resumed talking all at once.

 

The twins followed Moranuen into the house, but Aragorn remained on the balcony.  Turning back to wide-open veranda he walked to the stone railing and leaned hard against it.  The wind from the river below swept up the cliff face and blew the hair gently back from his face.

 

“I still you miss you, Ada,” he whispered silently into the night.  “I’m not sure I will ever not miss you.  But I know now that you are here and that you are happy and I will live life and enjoy it.  I promise.”  The man rested his head on his hands for a moment.

 

Elrohir had noticed Estel’s absence first and ran back to the balcony.  He stopped Elladan from making their presence known as the twin walked up beside him.  They heard their youngest brother’s confession and strained to hear what he said next.

 

“May the Valar keep you, Ada.  And may they someday let me see you again if only once for a brief moment, for I would tell you one more time that I love you and I always will.”  Aragorn’s words were swept away by the night breezes.  They were barely audible to the two elves that watched him closely.  “You have my love.”

 

Elrohir stepped silently out onto the balcony and approached the man.  His footsteps made no sound but the feel of another close by alerted Aragorn to the other’s presence.  Turing his head slightly he gazed sidelong at the elf that stopped next to him. 

 

Elrohir didn’t say a word.  Placing his hand on the man’s back he gently kissed the human’s temple.

 

“And may they hear you little brother,” Elladan answered for the both of them.  “Valinor would be boring indeed without you there.” 

 

Aragorn returned the impish smile the older elf laid on him.

 

“Come, we have much to prepare!” Elladan laughed.  “And Grandfather cannot see you looking like this!”  The elf grabbed the edges of the wayward locks that fell into Aragorn’s eyes and flipped them back out of his face.

 

“I look fine!” the human protested.  This time when the elves left the balcony he was with them arguing about the state of his attire and whether or not a king should look like he did at the moment.

 

The pain was still there but it was receding, healing from the touch of an elf half a world away.  He still had a lot to work through, but Aragorn no longer felt so alone.  Rivendell and his life had just gotten a lot more crowded.  Eagerly he chased the twins down the stairs jostling to tell Legolas first as they burst back into the Hall of Fire.

 

Rivendell would not sit empty, not yet.  And even if they must leave and go back to the life and duties that awaited them in the south, Aragorn knew that as long as he knew this place was filled with warmth, love and light, some corner of his heart would always be filled as well. 

 

 

 

The End

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 

~*Epilogue*~

 

 

The shores were quiet this time of the evening.  All the living occupants of the nearby city had gone back to celebrate the day with one another and enjoy each other’s company.  It was something they did every evening.  A tradition that oddly enough never got boring or droll.  Sometimes even the same stories were told repeatedly but each night it was a time of joy and rejoicing.

 

One lone figure stood on a rocky outcropping overlooking the sandy beaches.  His deep blue eyes were fixed on the far horizon, watching as the light of the sun faded slowly from the sky, fleeing the encroaching night.  It was as if he waited for something or someone to appear at any moment and he wanted to be there to see it, to catch the first glimpse.  If he could have willed it into appearance with the force of his stare he would have.

 

The gentle breezes of the ocean stirred his long dark hair, whipping strands of braided locks into his face.  Yet he never moved, transfixed in his vigil.  It seemed the empty sea mocked his longing as the deep black of night painted the horizon an inseparable entity from the watery expanse.  The stars blinked into existence waking up to their nightly vigil and set to watching the lone sentinel that stared so bleakly in their direction.

 

“There you are,” a soft voice interrupted the silence.  A slender hand slipped around the sentinel’s arm redirecting his rigid attention. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

 

Elrond turned and looked into his wife’s eyes.  With a small smile he shifted his gaze back toward the sea.

 

“You should be with the others,” He answered by way of deflection.  He did not move when the female elf rested her head on his shoulder.

 

“What is wrong my love?” Celebrìan questioned him.  She thought she already knew the answer, but needed him to speak it aloud.

 

“Something... my heart is troubled.  It’s odd you know,” he mused quietly trying to explain what was going on inside his thoughts.  “I have not had feelings like this since... well not since before I left Mithlond.”  He sighed deeply and cast his gaze back out to the dark expanse before him.  The water lapped at the shoals below the rocks as the tide began to creep back in.  “I should not have these feelings here, now.”

 

Celebrìan followed his gaze, allowing her eyes to rest on the farthest point she could see.  The stars were brilliant and seemed to dance in the night sky.  The future, the past, the present, none of it held the brooding for her that it did for her husband.  He still had not quite settled into life here in Valinor. 

 

“The celebration is nearly ready.  Come back and rest,” the female elf prompted.  Gently she tugged on his arm attempting to turn him from his vigil.

 

Elrond smiled but resisted slightly, unwilling to leave just yet. 

 

“I miss them sometimes,” he whispered softly.

 

“No, my love, you miss them always,” She corrected him gently.  She knew exactly of whom it was that her husband was speaking.  She herself no longer missed those who hadn’t yet crossed over the sea.  She knew they would come.  Deep in her heart she was at peace with the passing of time and the ways of the world in which they lived.  “But this separation will not last forever.  You know what Mithrandir said.”

 

Elrond nodded.  He would have appreciated that information a little earlier in his life, before he thought he had had to say goodbye to his daughter and his son for the rest of his immortal life, but better late than never truly applied in this instance and it completed his joy at being here. 

 

He rested his head atop his wife’s, wrapping his arm around her shoulders, content in her love.  “I know, but they do not.  I wish them not the pain that I experienced... I wish them here.”

 

Celebrìan rested her hand on her husband’s chest.  “We are not meant to know everything at once.  Sometimes the struggles and choices we make when facing the unknown are what most shape our strength and our character.  Trust them to stand that test as well as they have stood all the others you have seen them through.  Worry not, for they will follow soon.”

 

"Soon?"  Elrond questioned her laughingly, one eyebrow raised in suspicion of her statement.

 

Smiling up into her husband’s gaze, Celebrìan gently turned the elf around and started them walking slowly back.

 

“You, dear one, have lived in the world of men for far too long.  You have learned to measure time as they have,” she chided laughingly.

 

“I have not,” Elrond interrupted her indignantly.

 

His wife wisely chose to ignore her husband and continued, “One day you will stand here and see them coming to us, but not tonight, my love.”

 

Celebrìan led them back from the shore on a small path that cut into the forests bracketing the beach.  Before the trees could obscure the shore from view, Elrond glanced back over his shoulder in the direction of Middle Earth and softly whispered to his children before allowing himself to be led off.

 

“You have my love.” His words were echoed quietly in the lapping of the waves and the song of the stars high above.


Farther down the beach, out of sight of the elven couple, another lone figure stood. His arms were crossed over his chest.  His hands shoved up into the overlarge sleeves to stave off the chill of the evening winds.  The breezes whipped his long white hair across his face, combing it back from a high proud forehead.  His brow was creased in a frown and his eyes were riveted to the far horizon, fixed upon a tiny black dot that grew ever smaller in the darkening sky.  Gwaihir’s grandchild had just left on its’ final migration over the sea.  When the great bird had finally receded from all sight a smile softened the ages old face of the wizard.  

 

The eagle had consented to do him one more favor, deliver one more message.  But this message was different, for Gandalf knew that the words inside the parchment would greatly lighten a certain elven heart.  Even if the young one it was intended for had to keep the contents to himself for a long time yet.  

 

It would help.

 

Yes he thought, nodding to himself, it would help.  The youthful twinkle of merriment lit up the wizened old face and Gandalf turned back to the forests.  He would need to return before his absence was noticed.  His mission had been a secret, even from his fellow maia, although he was certain they wouldn’t mind...

 

...just this once that is.

 

“See you later, dear friends,” he whispered.  And gathering his robes about him he faded back into the woods, content to wait until that day.

 

 

~FIN~

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

This is the road

This is the journey

The life that we’ve lived

The path that we’ve tread

 

It spools out behind us

It runs on before us

Like a traveler making his way

Back to home, house and bed

 

We’ve walked it as best

As we knew how

Not always the straight path

But we arrived in the end

 

Now I’m standing here

Looking back at this life

With no more regrets

And just one message to send

 

The story may end but love never dies

Wrapped up inside a hundred hearts

Emotions and memories immortal

Glitter thick like evening dew on the lawn

 

And in the fading twilight

One sees the first promise of new dawn

I’ll sing ‘till I die

Because I know we’ll live on.

 

--Cassia