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Eschewal

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Aragorn sat upon a rock outside the cavern’s mouth, watching the forest, which was still and quiet now the sun was set. Elladan and Reana were out there somewhere but were due back any moment, having left to gather the horses, upon which their supplies were tied. Elrohir paced the ledge, often going to the verge to peer down over it, though he could see well enough into the tree-less wedge of land between the forest and the bottom of the cliff to tell Elladan and Reana were not yet back from their task. Perhaps the younger twin thought some stray Orcs might show up, or his twin and Reana might appear with enemies at their backs; either way, nothing moved in the wooded area beyond for now.

A throbbing, overwhelming despair had settled upon Estel’s shoulders. His head ached, his body ached, and the wound to his arm ached, as well, but he would bear them all gladly if only he could ameliorate the ache of his heart. No matter his knowledge of Legolas’ death, his tears would not fall. They welled inside him like acid, where they ate away his rational thought, sorrow, and care for his own survival.

Elrohir paused in his pacing for a moment, strode to Estel, and picked up the man’s lax arm, the one upon which the Orc’s axe had made its slice into his flesh, and looked it over before letting it loose. The wound itself was not terribly deep, nor was it life threatening in and of itself, but it would leave a scar. More importantly, though, as he had thought upon its being made, the wound was poisoned by some noxious substance the Orc had applied to his axe’s blade, which now made the injury fester and burn. Even this was more a nuisance than a danger to him, as the twins had already cleaned it out thoroughly using the water from their skins. The two Noldorin healers had used most of their and Estel’s supply of herbs to fabricate tinctures and teas for Legolas – to ease the pain of his rhaw and faer when first he had awoken from the edge of death – and so now would have little left with which to work. But once Elladan returned, the brothers would confer and make what they could to stave off the poison’s effects and ensure the wound did not become infected.

For his part, the Ranger did not care if they healed him or if the wound brought him the relief of death. In days, weeks, months, or years, he might regain the will to persist, but right now, he wished he had died right along with Legolas. Never would Estel take his own life; it was not in him to do so. Yet, death held a certain allure for him at the moment. Even knowing he would never again see his Greenleaf – not on Arda but not even in the Halls of Awaiting – Aragorn could not imagine living the remainder of his years without the Silvan Prince. He did not want to.

He had tried to lie to himself, to tell himself Legolas could not possibly be dead. The tunic, belt, and boots they had found certainly belonged to the Wood-Elf, but finding these did not mean his lover had died. However, there was no mistaking the butter-colored, tangled, bloody mass of hair to belong to anyone but Legolas. Estel knew his lover’s tresses too well to mistake them for anyone else’s hair. Besides which, the hair had been cut off close to the Elf’s skull, which had left several of the braids from Legolas’ hair as they had been. Of these, Kalin had selected one of the smaller ones, which had lain near to his Prince’s ear, tied off the loose end where it had been cut near to his Prince’s scalp, and tucked it in his pocket – perhaps to take to the King, or perhaps for his own safekeeping. The other of these braids, which had lain on the other side of the Prince’s face at the other ear, Kalin had done the same to in tying it off to keep it whole and braided, and then handed to Estel. The Ranger currently held this plait in hand, his fingers affectionately fondling the braid as he had done so many times to this section of hair when it had still been attached to his lover’s head. The feel of it was like silken threads, and the smell of it was like citrus and pine, though also of smoke now, and the color of it like the golden cast of the sun in the early morning on a cool spring day. All these sensations left no room for argument whether the braid might belong to someone else. It was Legolas’ hair.

Inside the cave, Kalin wept quietly while performing his own self-appointed task. The sentry was adamant about burying what was left of his beloved Prince, no matter if what remained were merely scattered pieces. And so, the Silvan had taken off his cloak and begun the slow, painstaking process of gathering up each and every scrap of Legolas’ butchered body. Kalin had first taken the spits from the fire to ensure no more of his Prince was roasted, for the smell of his charge’s body cooking was enough to drive all of them to the breaking point of their sanity. Once this had been accomplished, Kalin had gathered all the bones in the corner and piled them in his cloak, before he laid the charred remnants of Legolas’ flesh on top. When Estel had walked outside, as he was unable to withstand the sight of Kalin’s weeping while he performed this awful job and he was similarly unable to aid the sentry since his stomach heaved with both the smell and sight of his beloved Elf’s body in this state, Kalin had been carefully picking up each shard and sliver of Legolas’ smashed skull scattered on the rock upon which it had been broken, and using his bare fingers, plucking from the dirt and stone of the cave’s floor each fragment of the grey matter having once been his Prince’s merry albeit tormented mind. Aragorn had no doubt Kalin would scour the cave to ensure every piece of his Prince was removed from it and settled in his cloak. If Kalin could do so, he would likely have gathered every drop of blood, as well, but so besmirched was the cavern with Legolas’ blood and the black blood of the Orcs, the task would have been impossible.

We will have a use for the grave we dug, after all, he forlornly decided, hunching forward to place his whiskered face in his hands.

He soon raised his head when he sensed his brother’s movement. Elrohir purposefully strode to the ledge’s precipice and stared out at the woods. A moment later, Reana and Elladan emerged leading the horses. They rode swiftly to the bottom of the cliff, where they stopped and tied the leads to the brush there, before climbing the precipice with some of their chattel strapped to their persons. Once at the top, Reana dropped her baggage and looked around for Kalin; not seeing him, she went into the cave in search of the Wood-Elf. Elladan and Elrohir immediately began looking over what remained of their provisions for something to give the silent Ranger.

His brothers went about their task with a purpose Aragorn envied. They were all sorrowed by Legolas’ demise, certainly, but while Kalin had the task of collecting his Prince’s fragments for burial, Reana had the task of keeping watch over her grieving Silvan lover, and the twins had their human brother over whom to worry, Aragorn could find nothing upon which to grasp to distract his mind. Thus, he found himself wondering through what Legolas had suffered before the Yrrch cut him into portions.

Had they beaten the Elf? Had they despoilt him? Had Legolas been awake when they began to peel his flesh from his skin to be cooked? Had he been conscious when they sawed his limbs from his torso? How much had his Greenleaf endured before the relief of death kept him from suffering any longer? Aragorn yearned to have the answers to these questions just as much as he prayed never to find out any of it, for if Legolas had endured torture at the Orcs’ hands, it would drive Estel into further madness, he knew, and he was already hovering at the edge of losing himself to the gloriously careless pull of lunacy.

Even if Legolas had been unconscious from the place where they had found the Orcs’ bodies in the woods, and thus never woken for any of the profane excruciation of being butchered to be eaten by the Dark beasts, Legolas must have known what would happen to him. How afraid his lover must have been. He had managed to kill four of the Yrrch before they captured him, at least, so Estel was succored somewhat by the notion of pride in Legolas’ being responsible for their deaths and knowing he had fought his hardest to the end of his life, but this was poor comfort.

The human felt a strange mixture of rage and purposelessness. The Yrrch accountable for his lover’s death were already dead. They had slaughtered the fell beasts too quickly and too benevolently, Estel considered now, for the beasts surely had not paid Legolas the same consideration. He had no one upon whom to take out his aggression, unfortunately, and so did not know what to do with himself. Even as the twins went about their work in once again cleaning out and now stitching the wound to his arm, they were oddly aloof in their demeanor. Elrohir, who was usually the more emotional one of the two, did not appear upset at Legolas’ death, despite the Ranger’s knowing both twins were devastated by their Greenleaf’s demise.

I wonder if they blame me for Legolas’ death, as well. From the beginning, they told me this would all end terribly, and it has, even if not in the way they imagined.

When the twins finished this, they went back to their search of their supplies, speaking little as they consulted the other. After a while of watching them do this, Estel’s futile anger mounted until he felt he might explode from it, and without anyone to kill or make pay for what had happened to Legolas, and unable to so much as weep over his lover’s demise, Aragorn began to shake with the potency of his ire. All it took was a few words from Elladan, and Estel began to do the worst possible thing he could have done – take out his anger upon his brothers.

In the effort to do something useful, Aragorn began cleaning and sharpening his broadsword in noisy, long swipes of his whetstone against the blade’s edge, which incited Elladan into reproving him, “Stop. That racket is distracting, and you ought not to be stretching the injured muscles of your arm.”

Before he knew it, the incensed Ranger was standing, his broadsword in hand but forgotten as he turned to face the elder twin. “Stop? Had I the chance, I would use this sword upon more Yrrch, rather than sit here thinking of what Greenleaf suffered before he was slaughtered and cooked to be eaten like a pig,” he railed at Elladan, his wrath boiling over the confines of his common sense, causing him to continue when the twins only glanced at him indifferently, “And what is worse is to sit here with you two, both of whom stare at me as if I am the one who is the cause of this.”

To be fair, the twins tried to ignore the Adan’s rant, for neither was in the mood to argue with the human, nor did they feel this was the time to bring up how they agreed with Aragorn’s statement. Elrohir shook his head, his hands fisted at his sides, and stood up to walk away, while Elladan only returned to his task of sorting through the paltry amount of herbs they had left, intending to make some form of medicine for the man who now provoked him.

“Do neither of you care?” he inquired loudly, knowing he should lower his voice so not to attract any of the multitude of natural predators likely to be roaming the mountainside – predators such as mountain cats, bears, and feral Wargs – or the attention of any bandits or another group of Yrrch who might be nearby, but he could not stop himself now. It was too late. His voice rising along with his irritation, Aragorn asked again when neither twin answered his question, “Do neither of you care our Greenleaf is cut to pieces, his head smashed into paste, and his body cooked?”

He should not have said this. He knew it as soon as the words left his mouth. No matter how they had tried to quell their anger to his first affront, neither twin could ignore this newest one. Elrohir strode back from where he had wandered to the cliff’s precipice, while Elladan carelessly tossed to the ground the sachets of herbs he’d been holding, letting some of the open ones spill onto the dirt. Both brothers stalked to where Estel stood, their identical faces showing identical wrath.

And still, Aragorn could not stop. He stepped forward to meet them. He let his broadsword fall from his hand and to the ground, where it clattered noisily by his feet, so both of his hands would be free for the brawl about to occur. “Or is your anger for him having left the lake so great you feel he deserved this fate? Does it please you to be right? To be able to tell me now how I am finally the cause of Greenleaf’s death, as you said would happen from the start?”

Elrohir’s fist shot out and hit Aragorn squarely in the chin, causing the man to stumble as his body followed his head’s backwards momentum. Before he could right himself, Elladan’s fist connected with the human’s belly, making Aragorn hunch over with the sudden pain and abrupt loss of air from his lungs. He wheezed in an agonizing breath but charged forward, his arms out to tackle the twins. Perchance because they expected their blows to quiet him or render him unable to fight back, neither of his brothers were prepared for his sudden lunge, and he knocked them both over, his weight causing Elrohir and Elladan to fall to their backs while he fell with them, landing half on each and once more, all the wind was knocked from his chest.

He hastily tried to crawl to his knees, intending to begin raining blows down upon his two brothers, his desire to avenge Greenleaf’s horrific death the imperative behind his actions, but his anger obviously misplaced. Knowing this did not stop him. Having millennia of experience over the man, besides being Eldar with superior strength and agility, Elrohir and Elladan were able to slide out from under Aragorn before his first intended blow landed, and the twins were upon their knees, and then their feet, just as the Ranger hurriedly gained his own.

Whatever might have happened next was stalled and Aragorn nearly struck Reana when she stepped between the three fighting brothers; he was too late to pull his swing and might have hit the undeserving she-Elf in the side had not a hand fisted in the hem of his tunic and pulled him back hard and fast. The hand he had out to strike was soon waving in the air along with his other, seeking to balance himself, though Kalin caught the man he had pulled, keeping him upright while also holding him from leaping toward his brothers again.

“Enough of this foolery!” the Silvan sentry shouted, his voice echoing along the mountainside and within the cave behind him.

Never had he heard Kalin shout this way; never had he heard Kalin sound so authoritative and angry, either. For that matter, the twins had never experienced Kalin’s anger, either, and the Wood-Elf’s glowering, tear-streaked face ended the brothers’ anger for each other immediately, as the three of them realized what they were doing, here before the cave where their Silvan friend had been cut up like roast, where Kalin had been collecting the pieces of his Prince. By his hold of Estel, Kalin pushed the man towards the mouth of the cave, while Reana remained in front of her twin Lords, where she held her hands out to stave off any attempt to follow the human, had they a mind to continue their assault upon him. Not with the intent to argue or fight, but to comfort Kalin, whom the twins were sorry to have aggrieved with their inane antics, Elrohir stepped forward, a hand held out, but thinking the Noldo was trying to reach Estel again, Kalin unsheathed his long sword in a deft blur of practiced motion. The honed end of this he pointed at the advancing twin, who stopped at once, his face slack in surprise to have the sentry’s weapon pointed at him.

“I said enough,” Kalin intoned sharply, his voice wavering – unlike his sword, which he held steady. “If you think I will sit by while you kill each other, you have gone mad. My Prince is dead, his body desecrated and scattered in yonder cave, and you three stand out here and squabble like children fighting over the same toy!” he screamed. “I will not have you disrespect him further with your foolishness!”

When Kalin took a step toward Elrohir, Reana’s instinct to protect her Lords made her forgo her own self-preservation. She pushed Elrohir back even as she stepped in the space the younger Noldo vacated, meaning Kalin’s sword now pointed at her, instead. In response to be holding his weapon upon the she-Elf whom he had taken as his lover, Kalin let his sword falter until it hung from his hand at his side. Reana did not stop there, as she did not fear the sentry and wanted to calm him, and so came to him, taking Kalin’s shoulders in hand. She pressed her forehead against the Silvan’s forehead, brought her hands up to cup the Wood-Elf’s cheeks on either side, and said nothing.

We are fools, just as Kalin says, the Ranger rued to himself. Over Kalin and Reana’s shoulders, he could see Elladan and Elrohir deciding this for themselves. I started this altercation. I ought to apologize, he told himself. But he could not. He could not find it in himself to apologize when he knew he was right. His brothers blamed him for all of this.

“Let us finish,” he murmured to Kalin. “I am sorry. You are right,” the man admitted to the sentry. “Legolas would not want for us to be behaving like this. Let us finish gathering his body so we can bury him.”

Without waiting for anyone’s answer, as he was eager to be free of his brothers’ presence, Aragorn walked into the cavern, where the fire still burnt bright, though there was no longer any of his lover’s flesh charring upon the spits over it. He walked to the back of the cave, where the space narrowed into a passage so tiny a mouse would have trouble squeezing within, and glanced warily at the Wood-Elf’s cloak. Upon this swatch of fabric laid the desecrated corpse of his Elven lover. Some of Legolas’ bones had been scraped down so much that knife marks laid upon the white surface of them, while a few were cracked for the Yrrch to scrape out the marrow within them. It was easy to pretend this was not his Greenleaf, for none of it looked like the Wood-Elf, of course, since even the skin had been removed and the Elf’s skull was nothing but a gory mess. The laegel’s bloodied and torn tunic was with his bones and flesh, but the Prince’s belt and long knife’s scabbard were now around Kalin’s waist, with the weapon itself sheathed therein; Estel thought it likely the sentry would take these to Thranduil when the time came, to give to the King as mementos of his son. Not even Legolas’ ears could they find, though Estel had the horrible feeling one of the Yrrch may have eaten them raw, for they were known to do such nauseating things.

It would have been easy to pretend this was some animal or other unfortunate’s remains, but the golden hair topping the bloodied pile brought home the reality of the situation.

He is dead. My Greenleaf is truly dead, the Ranger told himself.

The past few hours, he had known this, but some part of him refused to believe it. Faced now with this cruor, he could refuse to believe it no longer. Tears sprang to the man’s eyes. His chin was cut and bleeding from Elrohir’s punch, while his stomach churned both from Elladan’s attack and from the acceptance of the truth of his lover’s demise. Falling to his knees before the cloak and its contents, Aragorn took the braid from his pocket that Kalin had given to him, pressed it to his nose to try to inhale the scent of his lover from it, and began to sob.

At some point, Kalin and Reana came within the cave. They left Aragorn be, though, allowing him to grieve in peace, which he appreciated greatly. He sobbed in anguish, his tears falling freely, and his nose running down his face without his care. The Silvan and Noldo scoured the cave for any other items belonging to or of Legolas, finding nothing but a few more tangles of hair. Kalin and Reana tied the cloak together, making it into a bundle the best they could, and when the two began to lug it out of the cave so they could take it away to the lake, Aragorn wiped his face upon his tunic and rose, intending to help.

“No, Estel,” the Wood-Elf told him kindly but firmly. “We will do this. Why do you not go ahead and climb down to the horses. Someone will need to be at the bottom to guide Legolas so this cloak does not come undone when we lower it down.”

Eager to be of some help, since thus far he had left this messy business to Kalin, Aragorn nodded and walked ahead of them. He did not so much as glance at the twins where they sat together, looking through their herbs and whispering to each other. He secured his broadsword back to his waist, checked his person to ascertain he had all of his possessions upon him, and then began the slow descent to the bottom. In the dark and without the adrenaline he had used to climb to the top of the cliff while the sun was still out, Aragorn descended with much less haste and much more caution. The last thing he needed was to fall and break his neck, since it would only give Kalin and his brothers another grave to dig.

At the bottom, he went to the horses and took turns petting each one, giving Arato especial attention. If the stallion had any inkling of his master’s fate, he did not show it, but preened in pleasure at Aragorn’s attention, until a call from atop the cliff drew Estel away from the Prince’s horse. Kalin called down to him, “We are ready, Estel. Do not try to catch him,” he said, speaking as if his charge’s body were whole rather than in pieces, “Just guide him away from the briars so the cloak does not catch and cause the ties to come undone.”

Reana and Kalin slipped the cloak over the precipice. They had used rope to secure the cloth about the remnants of the Prince, and then tied two ropes to this bundle to lower it. With the end of a rope in each of their hands, the Silvan and Noldo began to lower the bundle down the cliff, which was luckily sheer enough for the fabric not to become caught upon anything jutting out from the side. When it was low enough for Aragorn to reach, he did as bid and guided it away from the briars until it was upon the ground. With that done, the ropes were cast down and Reana and Kalin soon climbed down the cliff. The twins remained atop for some time, leaving the task of securing Legolas’ corpse to one of the dray horses from the village. Already, blood seeped through the fabric of the sentry’s cloak, and this blood soon began to trickle down the sides of the dray.

“We will need to hurry,” he told the sentry and she-Elf. “The smell of blood will attract predators. And I would rather not leave a trail of blood leading to Legolas’ grave, so that no predators will try to dig him up for a meal.”

It was good advice, of course, but Reana looked up to the cliff’s edge, seeking out her twin Lords in hopes of their joining them soon. She did not want to leave them here while they carried on, as it would mean leaving her charges to fend for themselves when it was her job to keep them safe. Of course, the twins were more than capable of doing this themselves, but that mattered little to Reana. She shook her head, looked at the Ranger and Silvan, and then told them, “Let us go on to the lake. I think Lords Elladan and Elrohir may need a moment to themselves.”

Personally, right now Estel didn’t care if the twins lived the remainder of their lives on the ledge. He secured the twins’ horses to the briar so they would not follow he and the others as they left, and then climbed atop his own borrowed horse, which had also come from the village.

As they rode, Reana leading the dray and staying just behind where Kalin and Aragorn rode up front to lookout for danger, the Adan wondered of the Silvan, “What of you, Kalin? Do you blame me as my brothers do? Do you believe Greenleaf’s death is my fault, as well?”

He found it hard to look the sentry in the eye, but he did so nonetheless, as he hoped to be able to gauge whether Kalin was prevaricating in his answer. To his shock, Kalin looked back at him with utter surprise. Since finding his Prince, the sentry had not stopped weeping. Now was no different, with trails of tears coursing down the Wood-Elf’s pale face and from his dazed, wide eyes.

“Why would I blame you?” he asked. Closing his eyes tightly for a moment, the Silvan shook his head vehemently, and such a disgraced, disgusted look came over Kalin’s face that Aragorn at first considered the Elf would now sarcastically reply by pointing out all the reasons this was exactly Aragorn’s fault. However, instead, Kalin now astounded Estel by saying, “This is my fault, not yours. It is my duty, my calling, and my responsibility to protect my Prince. And I failed in doing so.”

He wished he could find something to say to make Kalin understand this was not his doing, but given how he couldn’t even convince himself it was not his own fault, Aragorn only told the Wood-Elf, “Greenleaf would not blame either of us. And he would not want for us to blame ourselves.”

As this was true, Kalin did not argue, though as expected, he did not appear appeased. He nodded unenthusiastically, his pallid face turned down rather than out to look for danger.

“I dreamt of this,” Aragorn suddenly remembered and said aloud to the Silvan sentry, who faced him again with disbelief. He reached up and rubbed at his forehead, trying to recall the minutiae of the nightmare from which he had woken the very night of Legolas’ disappearance. “A few nights ago, when you came over to ask if I were well, and we spoke of having nightmares about Legolas dying or suffering – I dreamt I was searching for Greenleaf in the woods, who screamed in agony, for help, and I could not find him. I woke before I knew what happened.”

Dreams were often seen as portents to the Eldar. Somehow, what the Ranger had told the sentry caused Kalin’s shoulders to drop, the lines of anxious worry upon his face ease, and a sigh to escape the Elf’s thinned lips and tightly clenched jaw. Kalin sounded just like Elrond when he suggested, “Perhaps it was merely my Prince’s time. I would have rather he died in battle, as any Silvan Elf hopes to die, but we cannot work against Ilúvatar’s song, can we?” the Silvan asked rhetorically.

The answer was no, of course. Had Eru the need to take Legolas away from them, for whatever reasons the Creator saw fit, then there would have been nothing either sentry or Ranger could have done to prevent it. Aragorn was no more relieved to think this a valid reason; in fact, he now found his anger directed at Ilúvatar himself, who had seemingly gifted the Prince and Adan with a profound love to share between them, only to take it away before either was ready to relinquish the other. Thus, with nothing to say lest he border on blasphemy by questioning Eru’s good will, Aragorn let the Silvan sentry have this cold comfort, if he wanted it, and they rode without further conversation. Just before they returned to the lake, the twins caught up to Estel, Kalin, and Reana, although the Noldorin brothers were quiet and did not speak to each other or the rest of their companions. Nor did anyone else speak. Their task was a solemn one, after all.

At the gravesite, Kalin and Reana bounded down from their horses, with the former taking the shovel from where it was tied to the packhorse so they could dig out the grave they had days ago filled in, thinking it was not needed, and the latter working to release the knots keeping Legolas’ dismembered remains on the dray. Aragorn slid off his horse to aid Reana, but was hampered by Elrohir, who said nothing to the man, though he stepped in front of the Ranger and began to untie the ropes before Estel could begin. Not wishing to instigate another argument, Estel moved away, intending to aid Kalin, instead, but Elladan grabbed the pot they used for cooking and began scooping out the loose dirt to speed up the process before the Ranger could do so. Thus, the Adan was left with nothing to do to help for now. He stood back, watching the Elves work, and remembered. A few days ago, the very night the Prince had gone missing, Legolas had made some joke to the man about being sorry Kalin and Aragorn had put in the work to dig this grave and his not giving them the chance to put their hard work to use. It had been a poorly timed joke, though as it had turned out, a fateful one, just as had been Estel’s dream.

Seeking to stay busy, he went to the dray horse to have carried Legolas’ corpse; taking up a rag from one of the satchels, the Ranger wetted it with his waterskin and wiped away blood until the mount’s hide was clean. As he stood by the horses, he watched as Arato wandered over to where the bundle of Kalin’s cloak sat upon the ground, his muzzle close to the bloodied cloth, which he sniffed daintily. Estel was certain then that the stallion would realize the contents of the bundle contained his beloved master and the horse would go mad with grief, realizing Legolas was dead. Yet, Arato only huffed a time or two before wandering now towards the lake, where he helped himself to a drink without reacting at all to the dead body of his master. Being how the corpse was little more than charred pieces of flesh and exposed bones, smelling nothing like the Elf usually smelled, it was not surprising for Arato not to recognize the contents of the bundle, though it still surprised the man, for Arato was preternaturally sensitive to everything having to do with Legolas.

Good, he told himself, idly fondling the braid in his pocket as he watched the stallion. If he doesn’t realize it is Greenleaf, he won’t become upset, and we won’t be forced to put him down for acting as he did days ago when Legolas was dying. I would hate for us to have to kill Arato just to ensure our own safety. Greenleaf would never forgive us for it.

He walked back to the others and stood with his arms huddled across his belly, the finality of what they were doing striking him fully when Kalin, Elladan, and Elrohir picked up by the ropes the bundle of cloth in which Legolas rested. The grave was once more emptied of dirt, though it would not remain so for very long.

My brothers are surely suffering more than they let on, he decided, and promptly felt horrible for his misdirected anger when he recalled, I am a fool for forgetting that Elladan and Elrohir found the Lady Celebrian in a cave much like the one in which we found Greenleaf, in the hands of the Yrrch. Though she was tormented and lived, the circumstances are similar and must not be lost on them. The twins were likely remembering this very horrific memory of having found their mother beleaguered by the Orcs. They were acting strangely, yes, but Estel realized it was not his place to judge their strange behavior, when truly, he did not understand what it was like for them to be in a analogous situation now – one where they had not been in time to save their loved one from excruciation and death. He would speak to them of it later, if they would listen.

When it came time to fill in the grave, everyone helped, using the pot, the shovel, or their hands to push the dirt into the hole. With all of them working, this took no time at all, and soon enough, the Ranger’s lover was buried in the ground. He knelt on the dirt beside the grave, bereft once more of what to do. But while Legolas was dead and needed nothing more, the rest of them lived and had needs to which to see. In the scant light of the sour winter moon, each of their party contemplated on what came next. As usual, it was the twins who decided for them.

“The herbs we require for Estel’s wound cannot be found in the forest this time of year,” Elladan said to all, speaking without looking at Estel but at everyone else in turn.

“We must make haste to the valley,” Elrohir added, not bothering to look at the Adan, either. Elrohir dusted his hands off and observed Kalin patting the dirt down to make it level over Legolas’ corpse.

He nodded, though neither twin saw this, and so replied to ease their worry, had they any for him amidst their anger, “I feel fine, anyway.”

“Feeling fine does not mean you are well. We will make haste,” the elder twin began, his tone hard and final, while the younger twin finished in similar voice, “and ensure we do not lose another brother to these Yrrch.”

Had he not already felt sorry for his poor actions this night, this would have cemented his regret. However, because his brothers were still angered with him, Aragorn did not try to apologize just yet. They would not listen to him now. He would wait a few days, when the brunt of their grief and wrath was dulled by time, and try to make amends.

Having not been allowed to aid in digging out the grave or placing his Greenleaf’s body inside it, Estel ensured he was able to do something more to be a part of his lover’s burial than just fill in the grave with dirt, and so joined Kalin and Reana in searching for rocks to lay over the overturned earth. The coppery smell of blood and half-cooked flesh was seared into Aragorn’s nose, making him wonder if it was just his imagination or if he could truly smell Legolas’ body even through the several feet of dirt packed atop his corpse. Either way, he would not let animals dig up the Elf’s body to finish eating what the Orcs had started. There were few rocks in this area, but the ones they found were large, and together, they moved enough over the grave to make it impossible for a scavenger to dig it back up.

They could have returned to the campsite where the Prince and Ranger had stayed for weeks, where their group had stayed for a while after; instead, they stayed right where they were, with none of them speaking aloud a desire to remain here, but none of them suggesting they move, either. No fire was built. The sun would rise in a few hours, anyway, and being how the twins were eager to be off to leave for home, they did not set up camp. Instead, Elladan pulled the human’s bedroll from his horse, carried it to Estel, and roughly told the Adan, “Sleep for a few hours.”

“But first, drink this,” Elrohir told him, pressing into the man’s hand a flask of something still slightly warm. Apparently, the twins had made this while at the Orcs’ den and brought it with them.

“It is the last of anything we have useful, so drink every drop,” the elder Noldo instructed, finally glancing at Estel, though he did so only to ascertain the man complied, which Aragorn did willingly enough.

Taking the bedroll from his twin, Elrohir spread it out upon the ground under the very tree by which they had dug the grave and buried their Greenleaf, though on the opposite side of the beech. He waited by the bedroll until Aragorn came over, and then stood there silently as the Ranger obediently knelt down upon it to stretch out, ere he told the Ranger, “We will wake you when the sun rises.”

Estel was exhausted both physically and mentally, though he doubted he could sleep. He would try, however, as he knew they would ride hard and without break until they reached Imladris. Wrapping the bedroll around himself, he listened for a moment as Kalin, Reana, Elrohir, and Elladan discussed in whispers the route they would take to return to Rivendell. The twins, Reana, Tomas, and the villagers who had accompanied Tomas to the valley when seeking Elrond’s aid had ridden a route that had shaved off a day from the normal week it might have taken them to reach the village. Given that they were already closer to Rivendell as they were north of the village, their travel time was shorter, but moreover, Elrohir was explaining to the rest how he thought they might make it to the valley in five days if they stopped at dusk and began again at dawn, or three days if they stopped only a few hours each night to allow Estel time to rest.

After a while, he stopped listening to them, for they spoke of nothing important to him.

He would never be able to let go of the questions he had over what Legolas had suffered before his death. Had the Wood-Elf wondered where Estel and the others were? Had he desired his death at the end? Had he let his faer fade before his rhaw was killed?

Had he called out for Estel, hoping for his human lover to find him, help him, save him, as he had done in the nightmare the man had dreamt nights previous?

In his mind, he knew Legolas was dead. He had seen enough to know this was true. The blood, flesh, skin, skull, clothing, boots, and scabbard, but most importantly the pile of Legolas’ hair, all proved this to Estel without doubt. His traitorous heart, however, insisted Legolas still lived, but the man knew this was wrong. He knew his heart would not accept his lover’s death because of how Legolas had died and because of the condition in which they had found the Prince’s body. Without seeing the laegel’s actual corpse – his whole body, that is, which he could have recognized, which he could have held and washed and prepared for burial, which he could have said goodbye to – Aragorn knew he would never be able to accept his Greenleaf’s death.

He pulled the edge of his bedroll over his head to block out the quiet murmurs of the Elves talking about their journey. Having shared this bedroll with Legolas for weeks, it smelled of his Silvan lover, the scent of the Prince’s soap – bergamot and pine – and the fainter scent of the Elf himself – the musky aroma of his flesh. Fumbling beneath the blanket, he sought out the braid in his pocket and brought it to his face, laying the plait upon his mouth, where he pressed his lips against it in a facsimile of a kiss. Soon, the tears began to stream down his face, and with each one that fell from his eyes, another stab of pain shot through his chest.