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Eschewal

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Estel sat down with his venison jerky and a chunk of by now very stale bread, the bread having come from the village and nearly beyond edible. He did not hunger at all, but if he did not eat, he would not be able to keep up his strength to continue their task, and so began chewing the tough meat and even tougher bread with no enjoyment.

With a very un-Elf-like grunt, Kalin sat beside him. The sentry had taken to staying close to the Ranger whenever feasible over the last day – ever since the twins and Adan had nearly killed each other in an all-out brawl. Estel imagined the Silvan thought he was protecting the human, as his Prince had charged him to do when Legolas thought he was to die days upon days ago, but in truth, Aragorn felt the sentry was the only reason Estel had not fatally attacked one of the twins during their interminable, unwelcome rants about how this was all Aragorn’s fault.

The sun was shining. The woodland creatures not hiding from the cold were scurrying about the bushes around them, some bird was nattering in the boughs overhead, and their horses were rustling in the fallen leaves as they ate the oats provided to them. No breeze blew, thankfully, as the algidity of winter was upon them. A few scattered snowflakes fell on occasion, but it would be weeks before they would endure a true snowfall. Beside where he sat, Kalin sighed heavily and cleared his throat as if to speak. The sentry must have thought better of saying anything, likely out of fear of inciting those around him from commencing an argument, and instead, he silently passed Estel a waterskin holding the last of the wine they had. Gratefully, Aragorn took it and swigged from it deeply, knowing the artificial warmth from the liquor would soothe his aching and cold body, though it would not last long. When done, he passed it back to Kalin, who capped it and tied it back to his satchel.

Eventually, Aragorn stood, signaling the rest to follow suit. He would eat the last of his jerky while riding, if he could manage to force it down his gullet at all. Despite their arguments, the twins were wary of pushing Estel beyond his endurance, as the Edain were more susceptible to illness during the winter months. Seeing their human brother was ready to leave, the twins wordlessly stood, as well, followed by Reana and Kalin, with each of them mounting their horses, the extra horse meant for Legolas tied behind Arato, whom the sentry rode to keep pacified. Horses were more perceptive of their masters’ emotional states than they were often given credit for, and Arato was much more attuned than were most, as he was now as close to Kalin as he was to Legolas. The Silvan sentry’s worry and the other’s constant bickering put Arato on edge. Even now, though they were all quiet as they set about their way, the dappled stallion gnashed his teeth against the bit and tossed his head, aware of Kalin’s anxiety and unsettled, jerky tugs upon the lead.

Aragorn allowed the others to go ahead, knowing his twin brothers were just as adept as was he at tracking, and so he took his turn in riding last while depending upon them to find sign of Legolas having passed this way. He tore off a tiny chunk of the venison – the very same he and Legolas had cured weeks ago – and swallowed it without bothering to chew.

Where are you, Greenleaf? he asked for the umpteenth time, wishing above all else the Elf were here to answer for his absence. The greater part of the man was worried for his lover’s welfare, but some small, petty, and vindictive part of him was enraged with the Wood-Elf. Given what they knew and had found, it was hard to conclude little but that the Prince had willingly wandered away from the lake, and thus either put himself in danger or ran off without them. As he did each time the anger surfaced in his mind – anger he usually ended up giving outlet to by arguing with his Elven brothers – Estel tried to tamp it down so not to ruin this ephemerally peaceful moment for Kalin and Reana, who were utterly fed up with the brothers’ bickering. When we find you, he warned the laegel, refusing to consider the possibility they would not find the Elf, I will first kiss you senseless. Then I will throttle you for putting us all through this.

He went over it all again in his mind; when not actively tracking, thinking was all he could do to keep from going mad because of the inactivity.

A day and a half ago, or the night before last, Legolas had disappeared from beside the lake, where Aragorn had left him after speaking to the Wood-Elf. When last Estel had seen Legolas, he had been at the site where Kalin and the Ranger had dug the Prince’s grave. When last Estel had spoken to Legolas, they had just made plans to leave for Rivendell the next morning, rather than for Legolas and Kalin to leave for Mirkwood that night. The Ranger had thought the situation ameliorated. The Wood-Elf had not been carrying his bow and quiver, though ere the man had taken the Prince away from the others to talk to him in private, Legolas had luckily already strapped his long knife to his waist since he and Kalin had been about to depart, so the Prince was not entirely weaponless. Legolas had carried no provisions upon him that night, since he and Estel had only been out for a walk. Legolas had not carried his waterskin. He had not even been wearing his cloak, though the Elf would not truly need it even when the temperature began to drop.

The only clue they had as to where Legolas might have gone was a trail of footprints nearly imperceptible to all but the most trained trackers – Elven footprints – leading from the gravesite to the tree line of the nearby woods, but at the tree line, these disappeared, leaving the Ranger, Noldor, and Silvan to assume Legolas had taken to the trees. Had the Elf gone off to relieve himself or just been wandering around as he pondered, he would not have climbed into the trees, or so the Ranger constantly debated to himself. Had the Prince desired to leave them without their being able to find him, he would have done as it seemed he had by taking to climbing through the forest, where his feet would leave little to no trace upon the limbs of the trees through which he climbed. And Kalin had tried unsuccessfully to determine which way his Prince had gone once in the boughs of the trees. Other than discovering a bit of disturbed moss upon the very first tree, the one they assumed the Elf had leapt into from the forest’s floor, Kalin had been able to determine nothing – not even a general direction in which his charge had gone.

To Estel, their scant evidence spoke against Legolas taking off out of spite or anger, which was the twins’ favorite theory as to what had happened to the Prince. And for this, they blamed Estel, who blamed them in turn, while Kalin was at his wits end trying to keep the brothers from murdering each other. Only Reana seemed to be thinking clearly, and over these past couple days she had managed to ensure they all ate, drank, slept, and had also been instrumental in keeping the human and twins from slaughtering the other, while finding the temperament and time to comfort the Wood-Elf sentry’s worry, as well. Aragorn often thanked Eru that Reana was with them, in between ranting at the Maker as to why he would not grant him the providence of finding the Prince alive and well somewhere.

He cast aside the last bite of jerky he held when his stomach roiled in disgust and anxiety. He could not eat when he didn’t know if his lover was hungry. He could not rest easily while unsure if the Wood-Elf was injured or dying somewhere. He could not find pleasure in the beauty of the forest around them, stark and cold as it was, while not knowing if Legolas were alive to see it, too.

Thus far, their efforts in finding Legolas had been somewhat scattered. They did not have the numbers to comb the forest as the Imladrians had done while seeking Estel and Legolas months ago, when the two had been trying to make it back to Rivendell after slaying Mithfindl. Without even a logical guess as to what direction the Prince may have taken, they mostly bumbled about, looking for clues, though they did this as thoroughly as they could. They also stayed together, despite Aragorn’s attempt to break up their small group to cover more ground, for the twins were convinced that if they were wrong and Legolas not missing by his own choice, then some danger lurked about for which they had thus far not found any sign, and thus splitting up would endanger all of them more so than if they stayed together.

The first day, they had scoured the forest south of the lake the best they could. Now, they were nearing the northernmost reaches of what was in the Second Age the Noldorin settlement of Eregion. Should they travel too much farther south, they would need to cross the watercourse known as Sirannon, or the Gate Stream, which led from Moria and eventuated into the Nîn-in-Eilph, or Swanfleet marshes. Estel hoped to Ilúvatar they would not need to do this. If Legolas had strayed so far south it would be because the Elf was running recklessly both night and day, which meant the Prince was either keen to leave them or in dire straits.

Besides which, they would have no hope for finding the Elf unless by some miracle the Prince were looking for them or had intentionally left them some sign. No one had yet suggested aloud for them to give up their search, but Aragorn could see in his brothers’ faces how since they believed the Prince to have left on purpose, they were ready to concede to the Wood-Elf’s desire to be left alone while they returned to Rivendell without him. It would be a few more days before his brothers recommended this, Aragorn assumed. They would need to pretend to have searched for the Prince they expected did not want to be found. The night of Legolas’ disappearance, they had discussed in length the possibilities for what might have occurred, and come up with three possible explanations, each with varying circumstances.

The first option was that Legolas had left them; this was the possibility the twins espoused, and none had yet to talk them around to believing otherwise. Legolas had been angered at Elladan and Elrohir for their disparagement and blame for Estel in the Prince’s suffering over the last months. He had also been challenged by them, albeit offhandedly, over his abilities as a woodsman and warrior, when they had told the younger Elf he would not make it home without their help. Thus, the twins thought Legolas had left to be rid of the two who had angered him so greatly, or because he desired to prove to the brothers he could make his own way. Kalin and Aragorn disagreed with this entirely, for they believed Legolas would never have left them to worry over him in this way – unless, of course, the Elf left for somewhat different reasons. The night of his lover’s disappearance, Estel had seen Legolas massage his thigh – the thigh where the scar had once lain – and vexed then as he did now over whether the fell voice of Legolas’ sorrow had returned. If it had, then the opinion of the scar, which so often matched Thranduil’s opinion and that night would have concurred with the twins’ judgment, might have influenced the Wood-Elf into taking off alone, either to deal with his sorrow by himself or to avoid burdening his friends any longer. A much less favorable belief, but one over which Estel found himself brooding, was the possibility for Legolas to have left them to end his own life. The man fretted endlessly over whether the Prince having reached for his thigh indicated the return of the scar’s voice, for if this were true, then Legolas might have wanted to rend his faer from rhaw in the peace of the forest, without the bothersome twins and harried sentry and Ranger. Likewise, the Elf might have been prevaricating about the pain with which he had been afflicted upon the rejoining of his faer and rhaw, been unable to bear it for any longer, and thus, left them to end his ordeal without their interference.

Secondly, and in conjunction with many of the tenets of the first, Legolas might have simply died. He might not have willingly ended his life, but his sorrow still might have overcome his desire to live, and thus his faer and rhaw’s bond dissolved before he could make it back to their campsite from wherever he had gone. If he had strayed too far from the lake, Legolas might also have been attacked and killed by an animal, vagabond, or someone from the village seeking revenge, which normally they would not have thought tenable, had not the Elf been nearly weaponless and suffering from the strange physical ailment that had mostly left him unable to perform the simplest of tasks. Even walking with Estel to the gravesite had winded and tired the Wood-Elf that night. He could have proven an easy target. Given the Prince’s unsteadiness, it was even possible the laegel had fallen from the trees and been fatally injured by this, if he were not lying somewhere too wounded to return to the camp and hoping to be found by his friends.

Thirdly, Legolas might have been taken. Wherever he was when the Elf leapt back to the ground or was brought down from the trees by arrows or such, Legolas might have been abducted. Again, villagers seeking vengeance against the Rangers and Eldar over the deaths of their kith at the farm might have had some hand in this, or again, bandits might have taken the Elf, thinking they could ransom him. The thought of Legolas in the hands of more Edain rankled Aragorn’s already overwrought nerves.

After all this discussion, the twins concluded and often voiced even now how they believed Legolas merely to have left in an arrogant huff, though Kalin and Aragorn disagreed wholeheartedly and the Ranger argued against his brothers every time they brought this up, which had led to many shouting matches and a serious fight in the past day and a half. Estel did not believe his lover to be so callous as to allow him and his friends to suffer his absence, nor did he think the Prince arrogant, although he had to concede the chance Legolas’ sorrow might have influenced him into leaving. One thing the man felt he did know was this – Legolas was alive. He believed this with every ounce of his being and would not admit to himself or to the others that the Wood-Elf could be dead, although in truth, this might also be proven the case. No, Aragorn’s faer was intricately linked to the laegel’s faer, as had been shown when the Prince shared his soul’s energy with him to keep the Ranger alive. Besides, upon leaving Legolas alone that night, they had just reaffirmed their love for each other and made plans for the future. He did not think Legolas would have done so just to up and leave him without warning.

But the brothers argued over this without fail each time it was brought into question again. The twins blamed the Ranger, for he had told his brothers of what he and Legolas had spoken that night, of Elise and the villagers’ deaths, and the twins held Estel accountable for causing the Prince to relive this sorrow unnecessarily. Aragorn blamed Elladan and Elrohir for being the cause of the row between them all to begin, as had they kept their judgment to themselves, Legolas would never have overheard, and thus would not have become irate over his friends’ disavowal of his love for Estel.

Kalin suffered the most for this, though, as he would blame no one and take no sides. He wanted only for his Prince to be found. He cared not a whit who could be held accountable, so long as Legolas was alive and well.

“Stop!” Elladan called out from slightly ahead, which yanked Aragorn from his dismal contemplation of his thoughts and from where his hands were fisted around the pommel of his saddle in aggravated uselessness.

The Adan looked up, surprised to realize how far behind he had allowed his mount to fall, to find the elder twin was off his own horse and kneeling upon the ground with Elrohir beside him. The twins were looking at something Aragorn could not discern from this far away. He bounded down from his horse and stalked forward to where they were, as did Reana and Kalin, until the others were all crowded around behind the twins.

He did not need for his brothers to tell him what they had discovered. He could see it well for himself. The wide, flat prints upon the ground were many and the stride long, showing the ones who had made them had been running – and there were many of them, that was sure. Had these prints been from animals, they would have assumed them to be a herd of some sort, but these prints were of two-legged beings, who wore boots, though ill crafted ones. Interspersed through these were easily recognizable claw prints, the talons of the animals themselves creating deep gouges in the soil. All of these prints were heading northeast, towards the mountains, rather than away.

Orcs. Wargs.

His anxiety caused him to want to lash out wildly – at his brothers, Kalin, Reana, the trees, the squirrel running along the limb in a nearby oak, the sun in the vibrant blue sky shining down upon him.

For the first time since Legolas went missing, Elladan and Elrohir looked at Aragorn without the by now familiar disgruntled anger they had held for him and his differing opinions. He returned their worry with his own, asking of them, “What are the chances of Greenleaf having run across these beasts?”

Neither Elrohir nor Elladan had an answer for this, of course, being that they were only guessing which way the laegel had taken through the dense forest. But now, they had a destination, at least, for if there were even the slightest chance of the Wood-Elf being in the company of Orcs, they would hunt down the fell animals to ascertain whether it was true or not.

“These tracks were made today. Only hours ago,” the younger Noldo said. He picked up an errant stem from the debris littered ground and poked uselessly at the footprint in front of him.

“Even had Legolas run day and night since he disappeared,” the elder Noldo reasoned, “he would not have met them here. But they are running northeast. If Legolas was closer to the mountains on his way south, he might meet them yet, if he has not already.”

In other words, the Ranger concluded, scratching at his bearded face as he did so, if we hurry, we might catch up to the Orcs before they potentially intercept Legolas.

They would be backtracking northwards in doing so, and they still had no firm belief the Woodland Prince was heading south along the mountains, but none of them was willing to take the chance. Everyone reached this conclusion as had Aragorn done so. Beside the man, Kalin adjusted his quiver’s straps and took off at a trot back to Arato, not bothering to communicate with the rest of them as he spurred Arato into a gallop. The others did the same, hurrying to their own mounts so they could shadow the easily followable tracks leading towards the mountains.

Why on Arda did you stray from the lake? the Adan asked Legolas as he had numerous times in the last day. As they rode east, the noonday sun at their backs slowly descending to the west, Aragorn vacillated between hoping whom to find first – Greenleaf or the Orcs.

Chapter Text

For the first few moments of his wakening, the Wood-Elf merely laid there in such exquisite pain he did not even try to open his eyes or move. Had he any rational thought beyond the management of said agony, he would have likened his experience now to that of when he awoke days ago, when first gaining consciousness after his faer and rhaw were rejoined. He was aware of several things, none of which he could act upon, and none of which concerned him greatly. He could feel cold, damp leaves under him, the moisture having seeped into his clothing, and thus telling him he had likely been lying where he was for some time. He could feel the sun upon his lower legs, telling him it was daytime. He could hear the sounds of wildlife moving around him, of the creak of branches as they moved in the slight breeze he could feel wafting over his face. What ought to have concerned him most, however, was the tacky, warm feeling of blood that spilt from a wound in his scalp, covered the side of his forehead, down one cheek, and had plastered leaves and twigs to his face, and his forehead and hair to the rock under his head. Lying upon his side as he was, Legolas also felt numbness in the arm upon which his body rested, while the other laid uselessly out before him.

The sun upon his legs slowly began to rescind its band of warm light as Anor shifted position in the sky. Time passed, though he had no concept of how long.

It was finally his thirst to cause him to try to rouse. His mouth felt filled with sand. The Silvan tried to move the arm caught under him to push himself up from the ground, only to find it unable to respond. Instead, he rolled forward until he was on his stomach, the skin of his face and his hair peeling free of the rock to which they were glued. Now upon his belly, he stuck his good arm under him and pushed himself up, his body wavering as the arm just barely held his weight. Legolas quickly tried to draw his knees under him, scooting a mound of leaves and other debris along as he did so, until he was on his hand and knees. The shift in position, ache of his head, and the pain of his body caused the Prince promptly to vomit into the amassed leaves afore him. Deep and wracking heaves beset his chest, bringing nothing up but bile since he had not eaten in well over a day, though he had no idea for how long he had been lying there.

He fought the urge to lie back down, to wait – for either help or death. Legolas crawled away from the sick he had made so he wouldn’t fall into it if he failed in standing, and then pushed himself back to sit on his heels. Using his good arm, he massaged his numb but slowly wakening other arm, trying in vain to soothe the pins and needles shooting through the unused limb. His hair hung down over his eyes, tainted red by his own blood and filthy with leaves and dirt. He pushed this hair aside, wanting to see his surroundings, and found he was in the forest, the sun was setting, and he was injured badly, all as he had discerned before even opening his eyes.

The Prince found it hard to think properly. He knew who he was, where he was, and how he had come to be here, but beyond that, rational thought of what to do now and where to go eluded him. His only reckoning was this: Estel. Where is Estel?

Now that he had two usable arms, although one was still quite sore from lying motionless under him for many hours, the Wood-Elf used them to push himself into a careful crouch, and then into standing. He weaved on his feet for a moment, expecting to fall back to the ground, where he would not have the strength to stand again. But after a time, his dizziness abated. He eyed the area around him, a vague sense of dread filling his mind.

He stood in a ravine, in a mass of leaves so thick that the crevice was nearly level with the ground at the top of the steep slopes. In fact, from where he stood at the bottom of said ravine, the leaves almost came up to his waist, and as he stood there, the gentle wind blew more leaves his way, where they fell into and were caught in the gully. Having not fallen from the ground, but from the tree hanging over the ravine, he had apparently fallen into the leaves, while his head struck the rock of the side of the crevice. He looked at the tree from which he had dropped, then at the outcrop his head had hit. The rock was coated in his blood and more than a few of his hairs, which had pulled free and remained in the gory mess upon the protrusion.

He could have stood there for hours, as far as he knew. Time made no sense to him currently. But again, his thirst drew him away from his deliberate incognizance and to the present, where he again scanned his surroundings in hopes of finding his bearings, to find the lake from which he had come, and thus finding something to slake his thirst.

His first attempt to crawl out of the crevice resulted in his sliding back down it. It was not terribly deep, but the sides were steep, and he lacked his usual dexterity. Had his slide caused him to fall to the ground entirely, he would not have been able to get up, but being that he merely slid down on his belly and his feet hit the ground at the bottom of the ravine, Legolas was able to retain consciousness and the will to try again. His shirt was rucked up to his chest and he sported a few new injuries from where the rocky side of the ravine had scraped into his stomach, but the Elf hardly felt them. Compensating better this time for the weakness of his muscles, Legolas climbed out of the gully, over its side, and then rested on his hands and knees for a moment, ere he again pushed himself into standing. When he wavered on his feet this time, the Wood-Elf instinctively lurched forward, fearing he might fall backwards into the crevice, and hurt himself worse. His hands out before him, the Prince caught his balance by staggering into a tree.

Beneath his hands, the lifesong of the tree grew brighter, more melodic, and happier to have him near, as did most any tree when a Silvan Elf was nearby. He took comfort from the familiarity of the walnut tree’s lifesong, for although it was not a tree he had ever ‘met’ before, the lifesong itself was nearly always the same for any tree not tainted by the Dark. Legolas had the inclination to step forward and wrap his arms around the tree, but imagining how that might look should there be anyone nearby to see him, the Prince laughed aloud, his voice harsh and his chuckle sounding more like a dog coughing up a bit of bone lodged in its throat.

Estel. Where is Estel? he asked himself.

Even though he had only just awoken from either sleep or unconsciousness, the Silvan was exhausted from the simple act of climbing out of the ravine. He laid his forehead upon the tree’s trunk, the bark rough against his aching head. Aware of the injury the Elf suffered, the walnut’s lifesong changed slightly in commiseration for his agony, and he silently thanked it, even as he stained it further with his blood by twisting his forehead against it. When he accidentally hit upon the wound to his scalp, the laegel leant away from the trunk and hissed, but did not release his hold just yet.

Was it last night? Or the night before? How long have I been lying out here? he wondered, realizing he would have no answers to these queries – at least, not unless he found his companions. I bet they are worried sick over me, most especially Estel.

Whether the night before, the night before that, or a month’s worth of nights previous, Legolas tried to recall exactly what had happened to him. He had been speaking with Estel out by the filled in grave the Ranger and sentry had dug for him. When his oversensitivity to the man’s loving touch had aroused his ardor, and because he had wanted a few moments alone to gather his thoughts before facing the twins’ judgment again, the Wood-Elf had wandered to the forest running near to the lake. At that point, seeking greater privacy, just in case his sentry should come looking for him as he was wont to do when thinking his charge tarried too long, Legolas had taken to the trees and ambled through their limbs while looking for a good spot to sit.

The screams. There was screaming, he suddenly remembered.

While still not too far from the lake, Legolas had heard someone or something shrieking in agony or terror. Knowing he was without his bow and quiver and still not fully up to par, the Wood-Elf had nonetheless taken off running through the limbs in the direction from which the screaming had come. He had thought surely the twins and Kalin would have heard these shrieks and would be on their way to investigate, as well, but apparently, they had not heard them, as had he. Having told himself he would merely investigate unless he could be of aid without sacrificing his life unnecessarily, Legolas had continued for several more minutes. The weakness of his rhaw – still recuperating from its returning to his faer – had finally proven to be too much for the Wood-Elf, and he had begun to falter, until finally, dizziness had overwhelmed him and he had fallen from an old, sickly, friable branch of the very walnut tree against which he now leant. Branch and Elf had fallen into the ravine. After that, Legolas knew of nothing until he had awoken.

Working his raw and seemingly dust covered tongue in his mouth, Legolas determined what to do next. It has been hours, if not days, for whoever I heard screaming. If they were under attack, they are now likely dead, he deplored with regret. But if they are injured, perhaps I can still be of help.

He desperately wanted a drink of water. He could find his way back to the lake easily enough, though by now, no matter how much indeterminable time had passed, Estel, Kalin, Reana, Elrohir, and Elladan were more than likely out looking for him. They will not be at the lake, will they? They will have followed my tracks to the forest and be combing it right now in search of me.

Why they had not found the laegel yet he knew well, as it was his own fault, after all. He had leapt into the trees and left no tracks. If they had been riding by this way, they might not even have noticed the leaf-filled gulley in which he had lain, half-covered by the detritus of the forest. I can either find them, or find whoever or whatever was screaming.

The wiser decision, he knew, would be to return to the lake, to drink his fill, and wait. Perhaps even one of the others was waiting there, just in case he returned. However, valiant to a fault, the Elf could not abide the thought of leaving someone out there to death or torment if he could be of any use to them at all. But I am in no condition to help anyone. I can barely stand. He licked his lips, trying to wet the parched skin upon them, but of course, his tongue was as dry as was his mouth, and this did no good.

I am telling no one I fell from a tree, he teased himself ruthlessly. This was the second time in his adult life he had fallen from a tree, although the first time he had truly been pulled from it by one of the merchants, and as he had slipped down it, had earned the mar upon his leg in which was eventually housed the hatred, sorrow, and fear from which his faer had tried to distance itself. And this time, Legolas had been in poor condition and should not have been running through the limbs, anyway, but as a Wood-Elf, his pride was injured. I would rather tell them I slipped in the mud than fell from a tree.

The foreboding in his mind grew steadily with each of his labored, tired breaths. He attempted to ignore it. The poor Wood-Elf could not seem to gather his obscured, wayward thoughts long enough to make sense of his situation, much less to make any decisions about what to do next. But as he stood there, his head once more resting against the trunk and his hands gripping the rough bark tightly, Legolas heard something he had heard many times before – the steady thumping of running feet.

These were not Elven feet, for he could hear them too easily while they were still far away. They were not human feet, for they were much too loud, meaning the ones running were heavy. When the Prince heard the telltale snarl, the sound of a whip, and then the howl of a Warg, he knew he was in trouble. His eyes snapped open, he moved as quickly as he could to press himself against the walnut’s trunk, and listened more intently. As the boisterous band of runners grew closer, they grew louder, of course, and Legolas soon perceived the foul tongue the oncoming strangers were speaking.

Yrrch, he decided, his sullen heart beginning to thump wildly in his chest. His nose curled in revulsion, as if he could already smell the disgusting beasts, although he could barely smell anything more than his own blood upon his face.

He was alone in the woods, without his bow and quiver, injured, enervated, and barely able to see straight. With the stomping feet, cursing voices, and whines of the Wargs increasing with their nearness, Legolas froze in indecision, unable to decide what to do next.

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Elrohir stopped them to check the tracks upon the ground; the younger twin jumped off his horse and went straightaway to the footprints they were following, bending down to see them better, while the others waited with varying degrees of impatience. Before Aragorn, Kalin sat atop his horse while fidgeting with his bow, which he held ready in hand, despite there being no foes around just yet. As consummate a warrior as the twins or Kalin, though perhaps with slightly less experience since the twins and Kalin often hunted Orcs for sport and she spent most of her time guarding Imladris rather than actively seeking danger, Reana straightened her legs with her heels dug into the stirrups and stood up to look around them judiciously. Seeing nothing, the Elleth sat back down and looked to Kalin, hoping to catch his eye, perhaps, and give him some encouragement or a smile. Elladan sat tapping his mount’s reins upon his knee, the sound of his doing so a steady rhythm. Had Estel been making that impatient noise, one of the twins would have had some inane, incisive, smart-mouthed comment to make about adding lyrics to the beat he made.

Estel appeared the most calm of them all, though in truth, he thought he was likely the most nervous. The jerky and stale bread he had eaten a short while ago did not seem to be digesting in his belly; it felt as if he had swallowed rocks rather than food, and said rocks were crashing against each other in a painful roil. To calm his belly, he tried to untie his waterskin from his saddle for a drink. Seeing the Ranger’s shaking hands fumbling with the knot, Reana helpfully handed the man her own waterskin, which she had just taken back from Kalin after saying a few hopeful words to him – words Estel had heard but not even understood, so consumed was his mind with what might be happening to Legolas right now. He pulled a long drink and handed it back to the Elleth, nodding his thanks, and receiving a sympathetic smile in return.

“We are gaining on them,” the younger Noldorin twin said in little more than a whisper, his tone firm and decisive, but his excitement conveyed by it, as well. Ever had the twin brothers loved to take on fell beasts such as Orcs; this, combined with their hope of finding Legolas, even though they had no true cause to believe the laegel would be amongst the Orcs, had brightened the Noldorin brothers’ moods greatly. “These tracks cannot be more than an hour old,” Elrohir told their companions from where he was crouched while running his fingers over the signs of recent travel left in the wintry earth.

Although the wind was cold, the moisture in the ground was not frozen, so the prints upon which Elrohir pondered were easily made and just as easily discernable. Orcs were not usually ones to hide their tracks, and they did not walk softly as did the Eldar, so they left an obvious trail for the companions to follow. Holding with one hand his lower back as he rose, and then grunting as his spine popped loud enough for everyone to hear when he stretched his torso to relieve the discomfort there, Elrohir nodded to himself, to Elladan, and then at the ground. The twins had taken the vanguard of their small group, as it were, and since finding the Orcs’ prints, they had remained the ones to track; thus, Elrohir and Elladan had spent a lot of time hunched over their saddles to view the earth and several times had stopped to crouch down beside the footprints to ascertain what they could from the markings they found. Even the interminable fortitude of the Eldar was not enough to keep the twins from feeling the physical strain of craning their necks for so long, nor from feeling the emotional strain of worrying whether Legolas was caught by Orcs at this very moment.

“We should ride a bit farther, looking for some place to hide the horses while we advance upon them in quiet upon foot,” the elder twin suggested, earning himself silent complicity from the others.

It was a good idea, after all. They did not want to place their horses in danger of being killed; the two horses from the village were not accustomed to being in battle, either, so might react poorly when smelling the foul, black blood of the Orcs or when arrows began flying around them, and thus the drays might end up throwing one of them. Besides, and more importantly, being on foot would grant them the element of surprise, assuming they avoided any stragglers in the rear of the Yrrch party.

“Come, brother,” Elladan said to incite his twin into action.

Elrohir leapt from his knees into standing, took one step towards his horse, and then swung himself into sitting upon his saddle with one hand upon the pommel. Seeing his brother do this reminded Estel of the striking grace the Eldar possessed, for Elrohir had acted with easy, fluid motion. He had often seen Legolas do much the same when mounting Arato. Vaguely to himself, Aragorn wished he could see the Prince display such grace right now. Indeed, Estel felt as if he would do anything or promise any deity willing to listen to his prayers whatever said deity asked from him, if only he could see Legolas again.

Immediately, they set off, with each of them checking their surroundings, their belongings, their weapons, and themselves for danger, readiness, and of course, any signs of Legolas.

I do not look forward to this, he rued, the closer they grew to the Orcs making his anxiety increase.

His brothers took great delight in killing the disgusting beings – mostly because of what had been done to their mother, Celebrian, while in the custody of Orcs, but also because it was in their nature to abhor anything of the Dark, since Elves were essentially the purest creatures of the Light having been made. Kalin felt the same loathing, Aragorn was sure, but he had never shown the same glee for slaughtering Goblins as did Elladan and Elrohir. While Estel had slain his fair share of the creatures and other foul beings like them, the Adan didn’t particularly enjoy killing anything, truth be told – well, he had enjoyed slaying Kane, Sven, and Cort, and had vicariously enjoyed Mithfindl’s death – and so did not feel the same elation the twins were experiencing to be soon facing the horde of Orcs. Aragorn was a healer at heart. He did not shy away from battle, of course, but he did not enjoy it, either. Those who did, he had found in his experience, were usually those who had never waded through the carnage at the end of it, healing and mending and wrapping, and aiding to burn the dead, all tasks of which the Ranger had partaken after skirmishes and greater battles.

But there is no question we are hunting down these Goblins, he knew. If they have met Greenleaf in the woods… he began but could not force himself to finish.

The origin of the Orcs was a mystery. Some claimed they were once Elves, who had been tormented until the Light of their faers became Dark. Some claimed the beasts were just that – beasts bred into intelligent form. From wherever they had come, they were truly the bane of most any other race’s existence, for they loved chaos, murder, pillaging, and torturing, and they did not care against whom they committed this – including doing all of this to each other when they had no other foes against whom to take out their aggression and boredom. The imagining of Legolas in the hands of Orcs was beyond Aragorn’s realm of understanding. He could not fathom it.

Since they were in the forest and the Prince a natural Silvan Elf, Legolas could easily be lost in the trees – leafless though they were – and run from the Goblins should he encounter them. From the prints, the twins had already suggested there to be around ten or a dozen of the Goblins. Normally, Legolas could kill half that number with his bow before the first Orc fell to the ground to alert his brethren of the Silvan’s presence. Without his bow and quiver, though, the laegel would be unable to fight except in melee range with his long knife. But what worried Estel the most right now was this: when near Lake-town, while the Prince was caught in the maelstrom of grief and memory, he and Estel had been snuck upon by two common merchants. True, the Elf and Ranger had been distracted by their laughter and enjoyment of each other, but even that ought not to have kept Legolas from hearing the men’s approach. Elven sorrow dulled the exquisitely sharp senses of an Elf, such that as had happened that day near Lake-town, an Elf under the duress of grief may not hear or see or sense as well as she would normally. If his Greenleaf were caught in the sway of the return of the scar or even caught in the draught of his sorrow, then Legolas would be a much easier target than would he be normally. And since the Wood-Elf was still suffering from the complicated affliction of pain and discomfort caused by the rejoining of his rhaw and faer, his physical aptitude may be lacking during a fight, as well.

All this caused the fretful Estel to worry greatly. He found himself simultaneously wishing to find Legolas as they found the Orcs, and wishing the laegel to be nowhere near the fell creatures to ensure the Elf’s safety.

The sun was now descending into the west. They had been riding for only a couple of hours, but because of the dense and tall foliage and trees in this old section of forest, their progress was slowed and Anor’s light barely reached them anyway – much less so with each passing moment.

If we do find these Orcs, let us find them before nightfall.

When given the option, Orcs did not normally do much in the daylight. In Aragorn’s experience, the Goblins of the Misty Mountains hated and feared the sun and preferred to do most of their vile works under cover of dark skies, though of course, they required light by which to see, same as most all of Ilúvatar’s creatures. Thus, while it was not entirely surprising for this band of Orcs they followed to be running through the forest during the day, Estel thought it likely they were doing so under instruction from a leader, whose will they would obey nearly mindlessly, or they had been pressed from their hiding spot away from the mountains and forced to flee back to the Misty Mountains to avoid slaughter.

Whichever it was, the Ranger hoped the Yrrch would be caught unawares and thus easily dealt with, so they could get back to what was important – finding his Greenleaf.

Chapter Text

He stood with his hands curled into fists against the bark of the trunk. Indecision and fear clouded his mind. The tree before him empathized with the Wood-Elf, though even the walnut tree seemed to have a better sense of reason than he did at the moment, for it tried to spur him into action. The Silvan could sense this from its change in lifesong, with its anxiety for his welfare mounting along with his own. Had it given him an actual plan to use, rather than mere prodding, he might have done what it asked without thinking, for his own thinking was currently too muddled by injury and hunger to be of much use to him.

Move, Legolas, he ordered himself. Do not just stand here and wait to die, you fool.

The Prince wavered on his feet when he let go of the trunk. The wound to his head was making him dizzy and his vision was blurred; he could not fight like this, even were he not starving, thirsty, and his body still pained. Yet, Legolas pulled his long knife free from its sheath at his waist, his fingers gripping it painfully tight in his hand so not to lose it, and held himself tense and at ready. There was always the slim chance the Yrrch would pass him by without noticing him. He could try to hide behind this tree and hope this was so. Or, he could climb into the tree and chance falling from it, injuring himself further, and likely giving away his location. The footfalls were growing steadily closer, the snarls of the Wargs and laughter and arguing of the Orcs becoming brasher as they neared his location.

He heard a loud and vulgar voice call out to those others running beside him; thereafter, some of the running Yrrch stopped, Legolas sensed, but those farther ahead continued on, to the Elf’s good fortune, as they must have been too far ahead to hear their companion. Legolas knew little of the Black Speech of the Orcs, did not know what the one speaking had just said, but he recognized a single word the creature spoke when it called out to his brethren, for it said ‘golug,’ which the Prince believed to mean ‘Elf.’

They know I am here. They smell my blood, he realized. The Yrrch possessed an excellent sense of smell, like most animals, and though the Prince’s wound no longer bled profusely, it was likely as pungent a smell to the Elf-hating Orcs as their blood was to an Elf. I must do something, he demanded of himself again, trying to think quickly as would he usually do in such a situation, but unable to suss his way through his options with the haste necessary to avoid the Orcs.

If he moved right now, he would without doubt give away his location. The tree before him was leafless, as were all the deciduous trees growing rampant in this part of the forest, so he would have scarce cover if he took to running through them. Most importantly, though, with his body enervated and his vision lacking, he would be unable to move through the trees’ limbs with his normal speed and nimbleness. If he stayed on the ground to attempt to flee, the Orcs or maybe one of the Wargs would surely outrun him.

Then I must stand and fight, he decided. Legolas did not typically back down from a skirmish. Today would be no different. And if he were to die, then he would die with his weapon in hand. He sighed inaudibly against the walnut’s trunk, steeling himself for the inevitable. Right now would be a fine time for Estel and the others to find me, he bemoaned in dark humor, but knew this would be too much to ask for from the Creator.

The rustling of leaves and bushes to his left told the Wood-Elf the Yrrch were advancing upon him, possibly trying to catch him unawares. As noiselessly as possible, he shifted around the tree’s trunk, putting it between him and the Orcs, and waited. His every muscle was tensed in expectation. He closed his nearly useless eyes and listened to the lifesong of the walnut, wondering if this would be the last time he ever communed with any living thing before his own life was taken from him. After all this. After surviving through the humans from Lake-town, my father’s years of violence and hatred, and after enduring Mithfindl – I am to die alone in the forest by the hands of a few Yrrch, not even in defense of the Greenwood, but cowering behind a tree like an Elfling, he chastised himself, sounding so much like Thranduil that Thranduilion shamed himself into finding the courage to step out from behind the trunk, his long knife brandished, and his heart stout with both fright and valor.

He called out to the beasts, whom he could just barely discern traipsing in the bushes, searching for some sign of him, “Come then, you Maker damned animals, and find death!”

A few battle cries erupted from the forest in front of him, he heard the crash of a body running through a short, scrubby grouping of shadbush, and then there were Yrrch before him – four of them, perhaps, although the Wood-Elf’s eyes could not focus upon any one of them to be certain. The first ran straight at him, heedless of the Elf’s wielded weapon or of its own chances for survival. While they could smell his blood, yes, and see it upon his face and hair, they could not have known how truly injured he was, and so the Orc was imprudent to do this. With his crude axe lifted high, the beast did not have the opportunity to bring it down, because Legolas ran forward, lifted his long knife at the last second, and ran the foul being through the heart ere it knew its mistake. Another Orc replaced the first one and Legolas swung his blade wildly out before him, by chance catching this Orc in the throat, with the stinking, black blood spraying from its now cleaved neck, the torrent catching the Elf in the face and hindering with its causticity his already blurred vision. The next Orc came at him while the Wood-Elf was reeling back and away from the last one, blinking rapidly to try to clear his eyes of blood and the tears caused by the foul blood; this new Orc was more wary than the last, and darted at Legolas, feinting right and then left to catch the Prince off guard. Normally, Legolas would never have fallen for such a trick, but with everything before him doubled and sometimes even trebled, the Orc’s action made it seem as if there were five or six of the Yrrch gamboling in front of him. He only succeeded in dodging the beast’s swing of its heavy club because he tripped over the last Orc’s corpse when stumbling backwards out of the way. He fell heavily onto his side, unable to catch himself lest he was prepared to release his hold of his long knife – and this he would not do willingly until the last breath left his body.

If nothing else, Legolas would die as a Silvan warrior ought to die – fighting.

“The pretty Elf’s injured,” one of the Orc’s snarled in disdainful delight, speaking in the common tongue so Legolas could understand the taunt of his words.

The Yrrch he had just evaded, who smelled like rotting meat left in the sun and then eaten and shat out by a rabid Warg, again came at him while Legolas was trying to stand. He let the Orc get close before he lifted his long knife and stabbed it in the upper thigh, severing the artery there. The beast howled in pain and grabbed at its groin with one hand, though before it staggered away, the creature swung its club again, the end of it glancing off the wound already upon the Prince’s head, and taking with it a chunk of his hair and causing a freshet of blood to pour from the reopened injury. He heard one of the beasts laughing at the misfortune of his brethren; soon, the jovial Orc was running towards Legolas, as well, with a spear in his hand.

Using his forearm, Legolas deflected the spear by striking it just under the metallic, sharpened piece attached to its end, which bit into his tunic’s sleeve and tore his flesh with the barbed spike made into the metal. As the Orc regained its lost momentum, the Wood-Elf stabbed upwards, and then thanked Eru when he felt his long knife hit home, the honed blade piercing the beast just under its ribs, and the length of the weapon striking home into the Orc’s foul heart.

Four dead, Legolas. Up and see to it the rest die, he railed at himself. He could only guess as to how many Yrrch had followed the one’s call to stop upon smelling the Elf, but he hoped none of the ones who had carried on would come back to see why the others were no longer running behind them. Regardless, the Prince planned to take down as many as he could before they killed him.

He hurried to his knees, pushing himself up as fast as he was able, but one of the remaining beasts had circled around him without his seeing, and a club struck him on the back of the head, near to the wound already there, and Legolas dropped lifelessly to the ground, his long knife slithering out of his hand, and his vision now absent altogether. From where he fell to the forest’s floor, he blinked his eyes, held them wide open, and saw nothing but blackness. He was not unconscious, though, and this he counted lucky for the moment as he struggled to find his long knife. Soon, he felt as one of the beasts grabbed hold of his booted ankle, its hand encircling his lower limb, and then the other ankle, to begin to drag him or prepare to tie him. Unable to see anything but gloom, the Prince clawed the ground in search of his dropped long knife, but just as his fingers lit along the all too familiar shaft of the weapon given to him millennia ago, the wily Orc dragged him beyond his ability to seize its handle. Desperately, Legolas dug his fingers into the soft earth under him, hauling at his lower legs while kicking them, as well, to find his weapon and try to force the Orc to release its hold of him.

Another thud to the back of his injured head, another break in the skin and another bump upon his sore skull, and Legolas went limp. Once more, he did not fall into insentience, but remained awake, though his body would not respond and his mind teemed with the ill portent of shadows, just as did his vision. He felt another Orc’s hands upon him, this time catching him by the wrists, and between this one’s grasp and the other beast’s hold of his ankles, the two fell beings lifted him up like a sack of grain and carried him between them, both laughing while making some sort of jokes in the Black Speech. He heard another identifiably different voice, and assumed there were three Orcs left after the four he had killed, and he had yet to hear a Warg nearby, but this knowledge would do him little good. Weaponless, blind, his skull seemingly broken by their blows, his body not responding to any of his commands, and in their hands, Legolas knew he was as good as dead.

In fact, his harried, scrambled mind distractedly determined that if he had any luck left at all, he would die sooner rather than later.

One of the Orcs asked some question, which led to a short argument, and caused the three Yrrch to stop walking with Legolas still hanging between them in their unctuous, clawed hands like he was a deer carcass being carried back to camp for butchering. Unable to decipher their language, Legolas valiantly worked to regain control over his traitorous, abused body, but could not, no matter whether he tried to move his arms, legs, or even his head upon his sore neck. Not a single part of his body would respond with any strength. After a short-lived shouting match, whatever was being discussed must have been decided. He thought they might be arguing over whether to tie him, for they only quit their argument when another of the Orcs, whose voice had been loudest, struck Legolas again upon the head, ending entirely his feeble attempts to break free. With this final blow, he believed the beasts must have assumed him to be unconscious – and the Elf wished he were, especially knowing what happened to the Eldar when caught by Yrrch. His own mother had suffered at their hands until she had longed for death – even after her life was saved, her faer had fled her rhaw. The twins’ and Arwen’s mother, Celebrian, had suffered at Yrrch’s hands, and like the Queen, she had lived, but would have done as had Legolas’ mother done in choosing to release her life to Mandos had not Elrond carefully tended her into health good enough to send her on her way to Valinor. He did not wish to live to experience for himself any of the horrid tales he had heard of what others of his kith had experienced.

If I am to die, he beseeched Eru, knowing this might be his last chance to pray for anything, and so begged now what he had thought only a moment before, then let me be dead sooner rather than later. And please, take care of Estel, he asked the Maker of All.

As the Yrrch began again to run, their pounding footsteps kept the Prince awake, though his mind longed to give in to darkness. He could both feel and smell his own blood as it seeped from what were now multiple wounds to his head. Perhaps the Orc holding his wrists could smell it, too, for Legolas heard the being sniff hard several times, before it whispered to him in a poor attempt at the Common tongue, “Elf smell tasty, like dinner.”

His head lolling about uselessly and bobbing with each bounce of his body as the Orcs ran, and his only respite the belief he would die after fighting the best he could have done given his poor physical condition, Legolas again pled to any being listening for the boon of being dead ere they began to eat him for dinner; moreover, he asked for the Orcs to be too ravenous to want to torture him before they took their pleasure in consuming his flesh.

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The path of the Yrrch split in two, with a few of the beasts going one way, while the majority of them went on a separate way. While the twins argued about which to follow first or whether to split up to ascertain which way was most likely to lead to the main pack, Estel went on ahead, following the path of the few, and left his brothers to their discussion. A couple of moments later, Aragorn vaulted off his horse ere the others were even close to where he had galloped ahead of them. His panicked eagerness and impatience caused him to forgo his brothers’ calmer form of tracking in favor of his own, which presently relied mostly upon intuition and common sense, rather than stopping to check the trail of footprints for any further clues. He had no time for more information, did not care how many were in the Yrrch party, nor how many Wargs they had. And something told him to follow this path rather than the main group, though if someone had asked him why, the man could not have told them what caused this instinctual decision.

Legolas was in danger – and not in some ambiguous sense of the word. The Wood-Elf was on the verge of dying or at least suffering greatly; perhaps, even, Estel was too late to save him.

He knew his Elven lover was in dire straits as sure as he knew Anor now set in the west. He knew this as he had known something was amiss with the Wood-Elf when in Thranduil’s halls and the Prince was lying in his bathtub, bleeding to death from trying to remove with a sharp dagger the vociferous odium in the flesh of his thigh; as he had known Legolas was frightened and irate when the Elf made to slit Jakob’s throat merely for touching him to garner his attention; or as he had known they needed urgently to find the Wood-Elf the day they had all gathered to speak in Thranduil’s chambers, when Mithfindl had found the opportunity to attack Legolas and Galendil in the family’s pleasance, nearly killing both Silvan.

Kalin must have sensed this as acutely as did Estel – or perchance he sensed Aragorn’s desperation for Legolas’ welfare – for the sentry was off Arato and behind Aragorn only a moment later, until the Wood-Elf surpassed the Ranger’s sprinting and soon loped before the man as gracefully as an elk dashing through an open field. By now, they were close enough to the Orcs to want to be off their horses and on foot, anyway, but neither Estel nor Kalin had taken the time to tie or hide their own mounts, but left the twins and Reana behind to do it for them, none of whom were happy to be left to do this task, nor for the Ranger and sentry to be running off without them.

He must be alive. He cannot be dead. I will not allow it, the human demanded and then threatened Eru himself, I will not allow you to take him from me. Do not dare.

He caught up to Kalin when the Elf stopped abruptly. He heard Kalin suck in a wheezing breath, as if winded, though this was unlikely what with the endurance of the Eldar – it was also not the case, and Aragorn soon understood what had caused Kalin to stop and inhale so sharply when he grew close to where the sentry had halted. In the thick of the trees and brush, four Orcs were lying scattered around the area, dead and freshly so, which was evident in how though their dark blood no longer steamed in the cold air, it was not yet entirely congealed and their bodies not yet begun the process of decay. To the Ranger, this meant the Dark beasts had died very recently, perhaps within the last couple of hours or so.

“Greenleaf,” he murmured, his heart soaring to think his lover might have killed the beasts and thus be safe somewhere. “He has done this.”

“He has,” Kalin agreed as he moved away a bit and then knelt down amidst a pile of disintegrating, unshelled walnuts, twigs, winter withered foliage, and damp leaves. When the Wood-Elf stood back up, he turned to Estel to show him what he had found – Kalin held in his hand the white handled long knife his Prince carried. Black blood coated the blade. “Legolas killed them.”

The Noldorin Elves came up behind the man and Silvan, all three of them appearing understandably disgruntled to have been left behind by the man and Wood-Elf, but soon, all three looked aghast at the long knife Kalin reverently held in hand. The sentry stared at the blade fervently, as if he thought the answers to where his Prince was now might appear from the knife itself, or perhaps if he prayed hard enough, through this weapon he might conjure up his charge. Forgetting the knife and the Ranger and sentry, who were immobile with their fearful imaginings for Legolas and of what had happened here, the twins took to scouting the area as quickly as they could, while Reana kept watch of their surroundings. Dutifully, Kalin took out a scrap of cloth from a pocket of his tunic and wiped the blade of the long knife until it was spotless. The scabbard was nowhere to be seen, as it was likely belted to Legolas’ waist still; instead, Kalin slipped the weapon into his own belt once it was scoured of the blood staining its ancient blade.

“Here, brothers,” Elladan called out to them softly. They dashed the short distance to where the elder twin stood on the edge of what was a ravine, though it was filled nearly to its brim with fallen leaves, and when they had seen it from afar, had looked to them all as if it were even ground. Estel couldn’t recall this particular spot from their search the day before, but he was almost certain they had looked this part of the forest over then, if only with a glance.

Descending into the gulley by a careful slide down its side, Elladan pushed away some of the leaves he had stirred and bared to them what he had found, what had caused the elder Elf to beckon for them. A small outcropping of rock in this ravine jutted out from the steep incline; upon this projection was smirched dark red, dried blood, and from this blood, Elladan pulled free several golden hairs. He held them out for all to see, and then confirmed aloud what they could already surmise, “Legolas either fell down here, or they banged his head upon this rock. But given that this branch is freshly broken,” he said, pointing at a limb amongst the leaves which had broken from the walnut tree overhanging the ravine, “Greenleaf might have fallen from the tree and hit his head himself, ere the Orcs ever found him. By how dry and old this blood appears to be, he might have been here this whole time we searched for him.”

Aragorn’s mind held no doubt the hairs belonged to his Greenleaf. He was well acquainted with the buttery color of his lover’s hair and could have picked those strands out from amongst a dozen others of similar shade, knowing them to belong to Legolas. Kalin and Reana aided Elladan out of the gulley while Elrohir began pacing the ground around them in search of the path either Legolas or the Orcs had taken from here. He found it easily enough, being that the Yrrch were no more concerned with hiding their tracks than before, and Elrohir told the others just as they joined where he crouched down, “More blood here. Greenleaf is injured further, I fear. This blood is fresher than that upon the rock.”

As Elrohir stated, there was a spattering of red blood upon the leaves and ground, which of course meant it was the Wood-Elf’s, being that it was rubicund and not black. From this gore and the bodies they had found, Aragorn judged, He managed to kill a third to a half of the ones who were running, if Elrohir’s guess about the number of their party is right, but they overpowered Greenleaf nonetheless. Estel dropped to his knees beside this mess, moving leaves and twigs out of the way, and finding several furrows made into the soft soil through the forest’s debris. He knew just what had made these grooves. Had he not seen similar ones in the garden months before, when Mithfindl had hit Legolas upon the head and dragged him from the patio and into the bush to despoil and torment the Prince nearly unto death?

Following the furrows until they ended a short distance away, he found yet another spattering of blood, along with a discarded, crude club made of wood – and at its end, there was more red blood and more golden hairs. With the others standing behind him, they all saw the furrows’ end and the bloodied club, and all realized what this likely meant – either the remaining Orcs had killed the Wood-Elf outright or they had rendered him unconscious. Either way, there were no more signs of struggle and only the telltale prints of living Orcs leaving the area.

They have him. If his Greenleaf were dead, Aragorn would not let the Yrrch disrespect the Prince’s corpse; if his Greenleaf lived, then Aragorn would not let the Yrrch hold the Elf captive for a moment longer. Either way, the Orcs were damned to die at his or his friends’ hands. Hold on, Greenleaf. We are coming. Since discovering the Yrrch’s tracks, there had been no more talk or argument about why the Prince had taken off into the woods – no one cared why Legolas had disappeared anymore. They cared only about getting him back. The thought that they might have overlooked the Wood-Elf as he laid injured in the gulley broke the Adan’s heart, and the foul luck that had caused the Yrrch to happen upon the Prince while injured and missing only worsened it. As he looked around him, he saw upon each of the Elves’ faces the same determination he had upon his own visage. Just hold on, meleth nin. We are coming, I promise.

“Now,” Kalin ordered them, taking off without looking back to see if the others followed as he sprinted heedlessly in the general direction of where the Orcs’ tracks led. After a while of running, the prints of the few Orcs who had veered off from the others rejoined the larger group’s tracks, with all of them heading towards the mountains’ foothills.

His heart thrummed in rapid, painful lurches. Fear for Legolas rose above all other emotions in the man, though hate swelled second to this. He did not care if they found Legolas being tended to and drinking tea with the Orcs like a guest in their hovel – the Yrrch would die, each and every one of them, for having laid their hands upon the Prince. As they ran, a fine sheen of sweat broke out over the Adan’s face, but not from his exertion or the weather, which was cool, but from simple terror on behalf of his Silvan lover. It did not take them much longer to reach the end of their path.

The Eldar’s footfalls were silent, especially under the relatively louder sound of Estel’s feet as they hit the ground, but even had they been banging drums, waving torches, and screeching the lyrics to some bawdy tavern song, the Yrrch would not have heard them, so intent were the cheerful beasts upon their tasks and arguing. Not even the three Wargs, who were usually warier than most animals, took notice of the Elves and human’s approach, though they likely could not yet hear the Elves nor smell them over the foul stench of the Yrrch and the disgusting smell of roasting meat coming from the ledge above them. The Wargs were tied up a ways off from where the Orcs gathered to begin their climb, meaning the Elves and Ranger could bypass them for now and kill them later, if needed.

At the edge of the tree line, Estel could see the Orcs, who clambered up the sheer face of the craggy hill in the distance, their dark clothing and skin a stark contrast to the white wall of rock they climbed. At the top of the ledge, an argument was taking place between several of the beings, who were shouting in the Black Speech and hurling fists, while others watched and cheered on their brethren. He counted their foes as they ran towards them, out of cover of the forest and into the open area before the rockier ground and sparser brush began its ascent up the hillside. With those upon the ground preparing to climb to the top carrying bundles of firewood tied to their backs, the beasts were evidently preparing to settle in for the night, likely to enjoy their day’s catch for dinner. If he and the others were right about what had occurred to the Prince, their dinner would be Legolas – but only after they were done tormenting the Elf first, had they not done so already.

Five in the clear area on the ground, with two of them mid-climb. Eight on the ledge that I can see, at least, he determined. And three Wargs.

One of the Elves could have given a more accurate count due to their better vision, but Aragorn did not truly care how many there were, for even if a hundred of the Yrrch waited at the top of the wall and hid from sight by the obstruction of the high wall itself, Aragorn would not stop until each of the beasts were dead. Legolas was amongst them, the Adan was certain, and whether the Elf lived or not, the Orcs would pay for having taken his Wood-Elf – if it was his last action on Arda, he would ascertain this done.

Beside the man, Kalin halted abruptly, and in a flash of movement too quick for the Adan’s eyes to see, the Wood-Elf had his bow out with an arrow notched upon it. The vanes of the arrow were bright white, which was the only reason Aragorn could tell the arrow flew in the darkening sky. It struck a climbing Orc directly in the neck; the beast flopped forward over the brink of the cliff and stilled, ere it began to slide over the edge, until the momentum of its slide and the weight of it caused the beast to fall backwards, where it tumbled into an Orc climbing up just behind it, causing both to plummet with a crash into a tangle of barren thistles at the rock wall’s bottom, both of their bodies broken by the fall. On the cliff’s ledge and looking down at his comrades, another of the Orcs laughed at the now dead ones, perhaps thinking its fellow Orcs had merely fallen – there was little love or friendship between Yrrch, of course, and the one above chuckled heartily at its companion’s misfortune; that is, until Kalin’s next arrow caught it in the eye and halted its laughter at once, with this beast toppling forward and over the wall just as the ones before it.

By then, the three Orcs at the bottom who had yet to begin their climb realized something was amiss. The three turned to where the Ranger and the twins were rapidly advancing upon them. Estel’s fear for Legolas hurried his step so much that he beat his brothers to the group. He did not hesitate to leap at them, his broadsword outthrust and ravening for the beings’ black gore to quench his bloodthirst. The first he cut from navel to throat, its viscera spilling from the horrific wound in torrid, repulsive ropes of innards, which the baffled Orc uselessly tried to catch with his hands. The other Orc was no quicker to act than the first; with one swing of his broadsword, Aragorn cleaved the foul creature’s head from its shoulders.

Slightly behind the man, Kalin and now Reana both had their bows out, which they used to pick off some of the remaining of the visible Orcs upon the ledge. When the Wargs began to howl, Reana put an arrow through two of their eyes, with Kalin killing the last one with an arrow to its neck, causing it to gurgle its last in a bloody yelp. Already, between the Ranger’s sword and the Wood-Elf and Noldo’s arrows, the five Yrrch they had seen climbing the sheer crag or standing in wait to climb were dead, along with four atop the ledge, who had yet to react coherently to the threat. One either side of Estel, the twins bounded upon the cliff’s face, their hands finding purchase upon the small juts of rock thereon, and the two brothers scaled up its side with unerring ease. The Ranger quickly sheathed his broadsword to follow them; he was soon joined by Reana and Kalin, as well, until all five of them were upon the crag to scale it. The twins reached the top first, of course, and the sounds of metal hitting metal and the duller thud of metal hitting wood came to him; then, the distinct cries of even more Yrrch caused Aragorn to push himself into climbing more rapidly, ignoring the pain in his fingers as he cut them upon the sharp rocks of his handholds.

There must be more of them than what I counted earlier.

He worried for his brothers, who had dauntlessly taken on who knew how many of the Yrrch before Aragorn, Reana, and Kalin could reach them, but moreover, he worried for Legolas, since they had yet to see any sign of the Prince. Estel reached the edge of the cliff just as the more agile Reana and Kalin did, and the three of them crawled over its precipice as one. Again, his warrior’s mind tallied the enemies he could find in plain sight. From just outside and from within a cavern set back ten yards away from the precipice and into the side of the mountain, ten to twelve more of the Yrrch came running; with the four Orcs the twins were currently fighting, Estel counted sixteen of the beasts, not including the ones they had killed already.

Where are you, Greenleaf? he asked the Prince, hesitating only a moment to glance around the ledge for the Silvan before he joined the fray.

Although as adept as were any of the others with his sword, Kalin remained on the outskirts of the skirmish to intercept the Orcs before they could join their brethren in attacking Elladan and Elrohir, and now also Reana and Estel, who cut another head off one of the beasts who tried to attack Reana while her back was turned to face down a different Orc. And even as the Noldor and Ranger slaughtered the ones stupid enough to try to fight them with their wooden clubs and their clumsily made and even more clumsily wielded axes, a few more Yrrch poured from the mouth of the cave. None of these made it far, however, for Kalin was dead set upon finding his Prince, and the Wood-Elf sentry sunk an arrow into the heart, throat, or eye of seven of the new arrivals before they even cleared the mouth of the cave. Their bodies blocked the way of the last few who tried to come outside to fight the Elves and Ranger, slowing them down enough for Aragorn to begin picking them off as they tried to trudge over their fallen brethren to where the hated Elves were butchering the rest of their clan.

Reana shouted loudly, saying something the Adan did not fully understand, though he caught the warning in her tone of voice – he saw from the corner of his eye as someone approached him from the side. Intuitively, he swung his broadsword along with his body, his blade sinking deeply into the foul flesh of an Orc who tried to attack him from behind. Yet, his blade only struck the beast’s side, and while eventually the wound would be fatal, it did not seem to faze the enraged creature, who lifted his axe and brought it down at Estel’s head. The blow was set to split the Adan’s head in two – and it would have, had not a white-vaned arrow embedded itself in the hand holding the axe, and thus threw the Orc’s swing off and to the left. The dull edge of the axe cut the man’s forearm in a deep slash. He lost control of his broadsword, which clattered to the rocky ground at his feet. Stumbling back under the sudden onslaught of the Orc’s second attempt to kill him, Aragorn unfortunately was forced to move away from his weapon; and yet, once again, Kalin’s arrow found its mark and struck the beast again, though this time, it housed itself in the Orc’s grinning, gaping, and gap toothed maw, where it struck the Orc’s spine by entering through his mouth and coming out the opposite side.

Blazing pain immediately radiated from Aragorn’s arm and he knew at once, Poison. And a fast acting one, at that.

One of the twins appeared beside him. Elladan slid his arm under Aragorn’s arm and hauled him away from the mouth of the cave in case there were even more of the creatures within who were in hiding. The sounds of swordplay fell into a seemingly preternatural silence, which was made more keen because of the abruptness of the end of the battle and the noise they had made during it. He spared a glance at the ledge, finding nothing but dead Yrrch and his companions all safe and whole. Only he had been injured, it seemed, and for this, Aragorn felt a temporary relief, though it fled him when he realized he had still yet to find any evidence of Legolas amongst these Dark beings.

“Estel?” the younger twin prompted as he joined his brother in aiding to move Aragorn away from the mass of dead Yrrch blocking the cave’s entrance.

Without conversation, Kalin and Reana agreed to move forwards together, and they left Aragorn in the care of his brothers. The two lovers entered the cave, their Elven eyes seeing better in the dim than could Estel have done, and with their bows put away for the nonce and their swords now drawn, they crept along the cave’s walls to look for more Yrrch. No sounds of living beings came out of the shallow but wide cavern. A massive fire was lit within, lending its radiance to their task, and managing to illuminate the cavern from its opening to its end, where it tapered rapidly, becoming impassable by any but the smallest of animals because of its sudden narrowness.

“Estel. Come over here so we can see to this quickly,” the elder twin now urged, while shaking Aragorn’s good arm a bit to get his attention. His other arm was going numb and was dripping blood, which would at least clean out some of the poison, he hoped.

Aragorn did not listen and instead tried to pull out of his brothers’ hold of him. From the little bit he could see of Reana and Kalin’s movements in the cavern, they were no longer holding their swords at ready, but had sheathed them, and stared at something on the ground before the fire. A moment later, the she-Elf went to Kalin and laid a comforting hand upon his shoulder. The man’s already hammering heart began to shudder and seize at the sight of Reana’s attempt to console the sentry.

“Are you well, muindor? That axe looks to be coated in something,” Elrohir asked of the Ranger. He tried to stand in front of Aragorn to block his view so he would have Estel’s consideration, but still, Aragorn cared more to keep his eyes upon what Kalin and Reana were doing, and did not so much as look at Elrohir as he spoke again, beginning, “Estel, roll up your – ”

Elrohir had meant to ask Estel to roll up his torn, drenched sleeve so the Noldo could view the damage done to the man, but his request was forgotten – as were all of their other concerns and ponderings – when Kalin let loose a howl of despair the likes of which Aragorn had never before heard and would never again hear through the remainder of his life. He yanked his arms free of the twins’ grasp and began through the cave’s mouth, where he promptly stumbled over the dead bodies of the Yrrch at the entrance. He would have fallen sprawled out atop them had not the twins been quick to follow behind him to ensure his well-being. They caught him; rather than impede him, they aided the human into stepping around and over the dead creatures and into the cave, as they were just as impatient to find out the reason behind Kalin’s wail as Estel was.

He cannot be dead, the human declared, fully expecting to see Legolas’ body laid out on the ground before where Kalin now knelt, his hands clutching at something upon the cave’s floor. No, Ilúvatar, please. He cannot be dead.

Stumbling and staggering, Aragorn managed to get to where Kalin and Reana knelt side by side only because his twin brothers half carried him there, and once there, Estel wished he had not joined the sentry to see what he had found.

No, please. Do not let it be, he thought, then said this aloud, as well, begging, “It cannot be. Please, Eru.”

“Sweet Elbereth,” Elladan intoned in a shocked susurrus, while Elrohir added, except in a near scream and more anger, “Varda have mercy!”

He fell to his knees beside Kalin, opposite the side where Reana knelt. His hands wanted to reach out to touch what Kalin held, but he could not force himself to touch what the sentry had discovered. Blood was scattered everywhere, the heavy, coppery smell of it competing with the stench of hissing fat from the scorching meat over the fire and the smoke from burning wood. None of this was what caused the man’s eyes to scald with hot tears, however. 

On the ground before the sentry laid the ripped up tunic and pair of doeskin boots the laegel had been wearing when last they had seen him, the belt and empty scabbard Legolas wore on his waist, and a skull smashed so completely there was nothing identifiable of it except grey particles of the mind once held within and tatters of what was once pale skin. Bones – shorn of all meat – were piled haphazardly in the far end of the cave, where it dwindled in size. Over the fire, upon several different spits, and lying on rocks in wait for its turn to be cooked, were hunks of flesh of various sizes, all of them skinned and some of them burning in the open flames of the fire.

Kalin’s hands held a tangled mess of filthy, knotted, gory, buttery colored hair, and what they had found was what was left of Estel’s Greenleaf – nothing but scraps.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Estel climbed off his horse with a groan. The day before, the twins had woken the Ranger at dawn as promised and the four Elves and one Adan had ridden hard and quickly north towards Rivendell. They had been riding nonstop, even eating upon their mounts and pausing only twice – once to give the horses time to graze and drink from a brook, and another to give everyone a break for personal needs. It was now roughly the same time of night as when Aragorn had laid down by the lake to sleep for a few hours, meaning they had ridden for almost a full days’ worth of hours. And now, they would not set up a camp or build a fire, but halt their journey only as long as it would take to allow the horses a break, eat something else none of them desired, and allow Estel a few hours of sleep.

Personally, Estel would rather they rode straight through without pausing for him to sleep. The night before, Aragorn had suffered through terrible nightmares, even though he had only been in slumber a short while. In these dreams, his mind had concocted for him the possible torture to which his Silvan lover had been subjected before dying. Most of what he had witnessed was influenced by through the very torture Legolas had lived through already – scenes of degradation Aragorn had witnessed himself in the woods around Lake-town, or the details he had heard from Legolas of what the humans had done to him in the backroom of Kane’s shop and Mithfindl had put him through in the room under the stairs or the bush in the pleasance in Imladris – except Yrrch perpetrated these acts rather than merchants or a vile Noldo. His nightmare didn’t end with the humiliation of the Wood-Elf, but continued with the Orcs beating the Prince until his bones were broken, though not until he died. No, they left Legolas alive until they began to peel the skin from his flesh, then the flesh from his bones, and through it, Aragorn watched, helpless to stop it and unable to speak to the Wood-Elf. During all this, Legolas screamed, he shouted, and he called for Estel to help him. Had the twins not woken him when they did, the man might have seen his lover’s actual death, but even this small relief was denied him, for he would have taken some respite in the end of Legolas’ life in the nightmare, as it would have meant the end of the Elf’s torture.

But he had decided perhaps this was his penance. Perhaps he deserved to be tormented by these nightmares. It was the least he could suffer, if Legolas had actually endured even a tenth of what the Ranger’s nightmares showed him. And if the Wood-Elf had somehow not endured any torment at all, but merely been slain before being butchered, then the man’s imagined terrors were still not enough penance, he felt, for having not protected the Silvan Prince when Legolas had obviously been unwell in both mind and body. He should never have left the Elf alone that night, he knew, and if his brothers and everyone else blamed him for doing so, he would no longer argue against his culpability in this travesty. He would rather it have been him.

Even in his waking moments, the whole while they had been riding the Adan had contemplated endlessly what his lover had felt and thought during his last moments on Arda. The questions would never be answered, and again as he had thought the night previous, he realized now that having those answers would not succor his aching soul. Among the questions he asked himself repeatedly was why the Wood-Elf had left the lake, why he had left them, and had it been Estel’s fault for Legolas doing so. The most damning queries he sought answers to were whether his lover had died supposing he had been forsaken by his friends and Estel, whether the Wood-Elf had held hope until the end his companions would save him, or whether Legolas had thought they had left him to his own devices, and thus to his death, out of anger for the Prince. The notion of Legolas having died believing Estel to be angered with him was nearly as worse as the notion of Legolas dying at all. He had told Kalin how he trusted Legolas would never blame either the Ranger or sentry for the Prince’s death – now, he was not so sure.

Absentmindedly, the human saw to the mount he had claimed for himself. It was a good horse, though unaccustomed to hard riding and more accustomed to pulling carts or making short journeys around the village from where it had been taken, but it was strong and healthy, and it had not balked at wading the brook or a bog they had needed to cross to make better time, so Aragorn counted himself lucky to have it – especially since not having the extra horse would have meant the man would have needed to ride behind one of his brothers. Tomorrow, though, he would switch this horse out for the other one from the village, which so far had only been carrying their satchels. By doing so, he hoped not to wear out this mount. The Elves had Elven-bred horses, meaning their stamina and agility was greater than the horses from the village; Estel wanted for them to make the best time they could, so thought to switch horses each day until they reached home.

I suppose they are still angry with me, he thought as he glanced at his brothers after finishing his task. Tossing aside the handful of withered grass he had been using to rub down his horse, he watched Elrohir and Elladan do the same for their own mounts, while Kalin rubbed down Arato and Reana’s mare. The she-Elf was unloading the packhorse of their satchels so they could find repast amongst their dwindling supplies. Upon noticing his Adan brother looking at him, Elrohir scowled at the man before he turned away, causing Estel to think, I will need to speak to them soon before this divide between us becomes permanent. He had just lost his beloved Greenleaf; he would not lose his brothers to arguing.

For the journey thus far, Elrohir and Elladan had been unnaturally quiet, not speaking to the others but barely even to each other, which concerned the human greatly. He knew they blamed him for Legolas’ death. He knew they were angry with him for leaving the Wood-Elf alone at the side of the lake. And he knew they wished beyond all else to have been wrong about their portentous statement months ago, when they had told the human his relationship with Legolas would only end in grief. He also feared what effect Legolas’ death was having upon the twins, who hid their sorrow all too well. When they reached Imladris, though, Elrond would be better suited to softening the sharp edges of the twins’ grief, at least, though Aragorn would try his best to be a better brother to them, to grieve with them, in the hopes of dissolving the divide between them.

Pulling his bedroll from off his horse, he walked a bit away from the others and laid it out on the cold, hard ground. At the rate they were riding, he would be sleeping in his own bed soon enough, but the Ranger wished it were not so. Guilt seeped through his tired muscles, making them twitch and ache more than would they usually after a long, hard bout of riding. He did not like having left his Greenleaf behind at the lake, despite the necessity of doing so. It was not as if they could have carted the laegel’s remains with them the whole way to Imladris; and even if they had, what would have been the point? By then, the Prince’s half-cooked, half-raw flesh would have begun decomposing, which would have attracted predators and flies, and begun to reek of death. He might have received a more proper burial or cremation in Imladris, but it would have driven Estel mad to endure the journey with his lover’s pieces bundled and tied and brought with them; similarly, however, it was driving him mad to have left the Elf’s corpse behind, as it felt disloyal to him for he and his friends and brothers to be moving on when Legolas could not, when Legolas was forever stuck at the lake, under the beech tree, alone and without Estel.

He knelt upon the bedroll and looked off into the woods around them. His faer was connected with the Wood-Elf’s faer now in a way beyond that of mere lovers. Legolas had shared his soul’s vitality with Estel to keep the man alive; he had given of himself nearly unto death to ensure the man lived. Aragorn wondered, I thought with Greenleaf dead, some part of me would die, as well. When two Elven lovers are parted by death, the remaining one usually suffers greatly, as the union of two faers is sundered, and half of his or her soul is missing. But it doesn’t feel different, he mused sullenly. He was grieving, yes, and sorrowed more than ever he could recall, but it still didn’t feel to him as if Legolas’ faer was absent or rent from his own. Plopping back into sitting upon his rear, Estel idly played with the bandaging around his forearm, straightening it as he thought, But I am likely only kidding myself. He is gone, no matter if I feel his faer’s vim still.

Tears brimmed in the Ranger’s eyes, which they had been doing all throughout their journey, try though the man had to quell them. He had managed so far to keep from losing his composure entirely as he had in the cave the night before, but during their journey, Estel had nearly done so. His attempts to muffle his sobbing had been noticed by Reana and Kalin, which instigated the Silvan’s grief and made the sentry weep, which had caused Reana to weep on Estel and Kalin’s behalf. Since then, Aragorn had tried to remain careful in hiding his tears from everyone. Only the twins persisted as if unmoved by his and Kalin’s grief – or so they seemed. Of course, Aragorn knew better than to think Legolas’ untimely, grisly demise had not affected the two Noldor; and yet, it continued to perturb him how his Elven foster brothers hid their sorrow from everyone else. It made them appear bitter and angry. And perhaps they were both. Perhaps Estel deserved their blame. He no longer doubted this, no longer had the energy to fight against it or them, and truly, he now found himself wondering if his father would blame him, as well. He had no uncertainty Thranduil would blame him for Thranduilion’s death, as would the Silvan people, who would mourn their beloved Prince greatly. The Ranger did not look forward to the Elvenking finding out about Legolas’ death – especially the manner in which Legolas had died. In fact, he considered Kalin travelling to the Greenwood to tell his King, how Thranduil would react, and decided he would accompany Kalin. If Thranduil wanted to kill him for letting Legolas die, he would accept this.

Realizing he was sitting upon his bedroll, staring down at his hands, and lost in thought, Estel looked up to see what the others were doing. Having finished caring for their own mounts, the Elves were passing around the cured venison and the last of the hardtack Tomas and Jakob had acquired from the village’s stores before leaving. He did not hunger and did not intend to rise to be included in this meager repast, but upon taking the bag of jerky back from Elladan, who was the last of them to take his share, Reana rose from her seat and brought it to the human, giving him a sympathetic smile as she did so. Reluctantly, Aragorn took a chunk of the meat out and handed her the bag, trying in vain to smile back at the kind Elleth. When she returned to sit by the others – none of whom were likely to sleep while Estel did, as they did not need it as did he – Aragorn tore the tough meat into small pieces he would not need to chew, but could merely swallow. He did this as rapidly as possible, almost choking on a piece when he did not tear it small enough. A waterskin was thrown to him, landing just before his knees. Coughing into his hand, he looked up to see Elrohir had done this. The younger twin nodded without speaking to the Adan, and then went back to finishing his own meal. Using the water liberally to wash down each bite, Aragorn ended up eating what he had taken.

“Sleep, brother,” came Elladan’s voice from across the way. When the Ranger looked to the Noldo, the indifferent anger was curiously, temporarily absent from the Elf’s face. He frowned at the Adan, appearing concerned for Estel. Elrohir added in promise, “We will wake you with the sunrise.”

The Ranger laid his body down upon his bedroll and covered himself with its extra length, reluctant to face another few hours where he would dream of Legolas and what had happened to the Wood-Elf while in the hands of the Orcs. But he was exhausted, his mind was weary from a day of tormenting himself with thoughts of how and why and what if, and he soon found himself closing his eyes. Sleep claimed him – with it came the nightmares.

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His neck ached fiercely from having lolled lifelessly about while the Yrrch carried him. His head thrummed with each beat of his heart, for it ached even worse because of all the blows to it he had suffered. They took no care not to injure the Prince further, of course, and so did not mind a bit if they let him swing into the trunks of trees or drag through briars, or if they twisted the ankles and wrists by which they carried him – all of which happened time and time again during his being lugged off to wherever the foul beings intended to take him.

When they reached the bottom of a cliff, the Orcs carrying the laegel threw him to the ground unceremoniously, where he bounced a time or two upon the hard rocks underfoot, ere he came to a stop after rolling into a thicket of briars. The thorns missed his eyes by a hair’s breadth, though they dug into his cheeks. He could smell the rich earth in which the berry bushes were planted, but overpowering this familiar and comforting scent was the stench of the Wargs nearby and the mephitic smell of the Orcs themselves. A Wood-Elf was as attuned to the smaller of Eru’s creations as were they to the trees, and in that moment of his face being caught in thorns, Legolas could hear the faint song of the briars – dormant this time of year – as they recognized his Silvan soul. He could not see them, however, which frightened him more than did what might happen to him, for he wondered if he would even see his death as it occurred – or his torture, if the Orcs decided to play with their food before they ate it – and considered whether this was a bane or a blessing not to know what was coming.

He didn’t need to see what came to know what would happen to him, however, and his mind supplied him with every tale he had ever heard of the suffering through which his kind had endured at the hands of the Yrrch. His own mother had died from such torture; or at least, she had died after being saved from it, for not even her husband and child, nor her loving people, could repair the damage done to her faer, even after the destruction done to her rhaw was healed. He had been entirely too young to know all the details of what happened to his mother – not at the time – but he had learnt since of the agony she had experienced. Moreover, he knew of many other of the Eldar who did not survive the Yrrch’s handling. He prayed again for the Orcs to be too famished to want to use him for entertainment before they ate him. 

In their Dark tongue, the Yrrch discussed something, which naturally the Prince could not understand. They had yet to tie him, as the laegel was unable to move his limbs so had offered them no resistance since the last time he had been struck in the head. He could open his eyes but only just, so the Orcs likely thought him unconscious or dying, but even with his eyes opened as much as he could bear, Legolas could see nothing except vague shapes and shadows, with no color at all, but various shades of black and grey, with the scant light of the darkening evening appearing white to him. It did not matter to the Orcs if the Elf was unconscious or dying, or even if he woke and tried to fight them, as currently, the Wood-Elf they had captured was far outnumbered – especially now they had returned to their camp, where Legolas could hear their Warg mounts whining and snapping at each other, and even more Yrrch arguing, talking, and some of them cheering upon noticing what the others had brought back with them – Elf.

A rope was looped around his neck in a hangman’s noose; he had the momentary hope the Yrrch would string him up and kill him just then, rather than take their time in his death. The noose tightened about his throat as the rope was pulled upwards. Only half-aware of what was happening, the muddled laegel was soon surprised to find his body was being hauled out of the briars and up the side of the cliff – by the neck – to the ledge above, where more Orcs stood in wait. Despite his willingness to die in this way rather than by slow and excruciating torment, his rhaw finally saw fit to react to the rope cutting off his airflow, and his lethargic hands fumbled at the noose, seeking to loosen it so he could draw breath. It did not take long for the Orcs overhead to haul him up to the top, and once there, they grabbed his limbs to keep him from moving and tugged off the rope before the Wood-Elf’s mind went completely dark from being strangled.

Apparently, they did not want him dead just yet. This realization offered the laegel no relief.

More Orc-shaped umbrae moved around him, some of them poking at him with their fingers and prodding at his prone form with their booted feet, and one of them picking him up by the front of his tunic and spitting in his face. A general excitement had overtaken the Yrrch’s camp. Legolas could understand why they felt so enthusiastic – they had both dinner and amusement lying on the ground before them. He briefly considered letting his faer fade from his rhaw just then – to save himself the certain pain soon to come, but also to have one last victory over the Orcs by denying them the chance to have their fun. This idea held a grand appeal, but Legolas was not yet out of hope.

Estel and the others are out there. They may even be nearby, looking for me, he told himself when another of the Yrrch kicked him in the side, causing a distinctive snapping sound. The Yrrch had just rebroken one of the laegel’s barely healed ribs. Please, Estel, he pled as if the man might hear, curling in on his wounded torso. If any of you are out there, come quickly.

One of the Orcs shouted piercingly at the others, quieting them at once. Legolas assumed this one must be their leader, for the loud Orc’s shout stifled the arguing and bitching, and he then began barking orders to his underlings. He often caught the Dark word for “Elf” amidst this speech, and thought he caught the word for “fire” or “wood,” though he knew only a few words and so could not be certain. By the time the leader had given everyone orders, all the Yrrch upon the ledge were scampering down its side, off to do what was asked of them so their night of merriment and feasting could begin. By then, straining to see what he might, Legolas could perceive only three of the Orc-shaped shadows around him – two very small ones, and the large one he thought to be their leader. The rest were down on the ground below, their voices becoming distant as they carried on with their given tasks in finding firewood and securing their campsite.

Between them, the two smaller Dark beasts dragged him into a cave, in which a massive fire was already lit. The Wood-Elf immediately smelled the rank scent of charring flesh, and certainly not of animal kind. As he was dropped to the ground near to the flames, his nose picked out the distinctive smell of blood and cruor, and he realized the Yrrch were already cooking something – or someone – which is when he recalled the very reason he was in this position. He had left the lake upon hearing screaming, hoping to be of aid to whoever was doing so. Whoever it had been, no help had come, and it seemed the Orcs had found themselves someone to gorge upon already. He prayed, Sweet Nienna, guide his or her poor soul to Námo, and me as well, when it is my turn.

Laughing and making jokes at Legolas’ expense, which of course the Prince did not understand since they were not speaking the common tongue, the two beasts removed the immobile Elf’s boots and tunic. When they began to remove his belt, the Wood-Elf’s fear of being despoilt empowered his flagging muscles into obeying him – at least a little – and he tried to roll away from their slimy, clawed hands. He would not live much longer, anyway, but he would die doing his best to evade being the victim to the Yrrch’s base desires if he could. He landed a kick to one of the creature’s shins, knocking the Orc back and removing its hold upon him, but the other of the Yrrch trounced the Wood-Elf across the face with the hilt of the dagger he held – Legolas’ own dagger, removed from the sheathe inside his boot – and the Prince fell into a nearly insentient heap upon the floor.

This time, when the Orc spoke, he spoke in common so Legolas would understand, saying, “All this pretty hair on the pretty Elf.” Stroking his vile fingers through the Prince’s tangled mane, the beast then grabbed the bulk of Legolas’ hair at the roots, near to the crown of his head, and began slashing away at it with the dagger. “No more pretty!”

The other Orc had risen from the ground by then and began cackling along with his companion while watching the dagger-wielding one hack off Legolas’ hair in huge, uneven chunks, removing it as close to the scalp as possible. This was more than likely done to humiliate him, he knew, but the Silvan didn’t care about his hair. It was the least of his problems. Besides, if humiliating him like this distracted the two beasts from doing something more sinister, like trying to despoil him, then he would bear it gladly.

You are still not tied, he reminded himself, letting the Orc do as he would in chopping off his long, snarled, dirty hair, and remaining as passive as possible for the nonce in hopes of lulling the Orc into believing him pacified once again. Try to escape, you fool, he called himself, thinking of what his death would do to his father, to the twins, to Kalin, to Elrond, and most especially to Estel, who would never forgive himself if Legolas died here in this cave, no matter if it were Aragorn’s fault or not. Even if you do not succeed, force them into killing you to stop you, he advised himself, realizing that for now, this was his best option. If they did indeed kill him to keep him from fleeing, at least he would die before enduring any of their planned entertainment, or before they began cutting the meat from his body.

Legolas whimpered pathetically, playing along with the Orcs’ degradation, hoping to make them think he was beaten and submissive; it worked, at least long enough for Legolas to rouse the remainder of his strength. The Prince reached up with the deftness of his kind, grabbed the Orc’s wrist attached to the hand holding the dagger, and thrust it backward, praying the blade met its mark. It must have done so, for the hand around the blade’s hilt faltered and loosened, and soon, black, acidic blood began pouring down atop Legolas’ shorn head. The second Orc, who did not seem to notice how his companion was gurgling his last breath as the dagger once stuck in his throat was now pulled out, went about his task of turning spitted hunks of flesh over the fire; when he turned to speak to his friend, he turned only in time to see Legolas flying towards him. The Silvan Prince’s shoulder struck the Yrrch in the midsection, causing the beast to let out a muffled oomph as it fell onto its ass. Before the beast could react or call out for help from the leader outside the cavern, the Wood-Elf’s dagger was now buried in the second Orc’s eye socket. Under the Prince, the being shuddered and began to keen as it died. Quickly and unseeingly, Legolas clamped a hand over the Yrrch’s mouth, keeping the noise from travelling beyond the hissing fire and the crackling of the meat over it.

When the beast shuddered its last, Legolas sat back upon his haunches. Even with the fire illuminating the inside of the cave, the Silvan could see nothing but glooms. I will not make it past their leader outside, he rued, supposing, if he is even still alone. The others he sent on errands might have returned.

But the Prince would be damned if he didn’t try, even nearly blind. He cast about with his hands, seeking his long knife’s belt and the weapon itself, but he could find nothing except bloodied dirt and rock, which was when he recalled the knife itself had been left at the location from where he had been taken. He hunted then for anything else he might use as a weapon. During his search, his fingers found a crushed skull, the brain inside of it ruined to pulp and the bone of the skull slivered. It was at this point the Prince forced himself to forget about weapons and focus upon fleeing – the leader or some of the other beasts might return, and despite his belief he would never make it out of this situation alive, he was not reducing his chances by rummaging for a weapon he couldn’t even use since he couldn’t see. He would have liked to have his tunic, as well, or his boots, but time was short, and the Prince stood on shaky legs and began to walk away from the light of the fire, toward the mouth of the cavern.

This nightmare was truthful to the events through which the Elf had lived that night, but here it veered off course, causing him to panic where his true body laid – relatively safe in the soft bed of pine needles he had made for himself on the mountainside – and beginning to rouse his sleeping mind. In this nightmare, the Elf dreamt he padded softly to the mouth of the cavern, just as he had in reality, but rather than there being no one out there, the leader of the Yrrch stood in wait, the Elf’s own long knife in hand. Legolas hefted his pitiful dagger to prepare to defend himself against the dark shadow with the shimmering blade, but the massive beast swung the long knife once, and the Wood-Elf’s contused throat was slashed. He could feel his own blood pouring down from his neck, and succored himself by thinking, At least I will die before they can torment me.

But he did not die. This was a nightmare, after all, and although in reality the leader of the Orcs had not been outside the cave but at the bottom of the ledge with his brethren, thus giving the Wood-Elf the leeway to run, in this awful dream, he was not even given the reprieve of death. He fell onto his back with the Yrrch’s leader soon straddling his thighs. The warmth of his life’s essence seemed to incite the beast, who began licking the blood off Legolas’ bare chest and neck. The Wood-Elf could feel the revolting hardness of the Yrrch’s cock pressing against his thigh – he knew what would happen next. He tried to release his faer from rhaw before the animal could hurt him further, but in this nightmare, he could not find reprieve in this way, either, and when the Orc began ripping the Silvan’s trousers off him, he began telling Legolas what he would do to him. The Orc spoke in the Black speech; Legolas did not need to comprehend the words to know what the leader meant, what he would do next, for the Wood-Elf had endured this kind of degradation before. Through his slashed and bleeding throat, the Prince let loose a wail of regret and despair.

Legolas awoke with a start, attempting to rise in an instinctive attempt to defend himself. He kicked his feet out, pushing himself backward and away from his would-be attacker. It was just before dawn, the moon was absent from the sky but the sun had yet to rise, and Legolas was blinded by all the injuries to his swollen, shorn head, and so he could not see there was no one before him, no Orc crawling toward him to finish what he had started and rape the Prince where he laid, bleeding and helpless.

No, it is over, he told himself. Wrapping his arms around his bent legs, the Prince huddled over them, curling into a tight ball with his head pressed between his knees. It is over. They have not found me… yet.

The nightmare had been too close to the truth for his liking. He sat there rocking himself back and forth, the soft pine needles whispering under him as he did so, and the pines themselves singing a pleasing berceuse to the Wood-Elf, whom they knew was suffering. Upon realizing he held his dagger in hand, the Prince forced himself to let go of it, and he carefully laid it on the ground beside his hip so he would not lose it. He had nearly cut himself with the knife while trying to escape from the threat in his nightmare. The Prince certainly did not need any more injuries, as wounded as he was already.

It is dark again. Have I only slept for a few hours? Or have I been unconscious for days? he wondered.

Yes, the nightmare had played close to actual events until the end; in reality, upon exiting the cave, Legolas found himself alone on the ledge. He had heard the other Orcs arguing and laughing at the bottom, with the sounds of wood being chopped and such, but had not seen anyone else up there – not even the Orc’s leader, who in his nightmare had slashed his throat and attempted to despoil him. Unable to see but umbrae, Legolas had run heedlessly away from the ledge and to the mountain’s side, which he clambered up as rapidly as possible, pulling himself up the sheer face of the cliff, which sat above the ledge upon which the Orcs had made their camp. His bare feet digging into the rocks, his hands scraped and cut by the sharp stone, the laegel had not stopped moving. Ever upwards he went, until the sounds of the Yrrch were distant.

He had been fairly certain the Orcs would not be able to climb up after him, if they could even tell where he had gone, for it had only been luck and sheer willpower to have granted Legolas the ability to scale the cliff. And once he reached the first hint of level ground, the Prince had crawled on hands and knees, moving with the side of the mountain at his right, which he hoped meant he was crawling northwards. He never heard the Orcs again after that, did not know if they sought him, and did not backtrack to find out, of course, as his only objective then and only purpose now was to put as much distance between himself and his captors as possible. He had crawled until his knees were a bloody mess and his palms were numb from scrapes, with small pebbles stuck into the cuts. For how long he had crawled, Legolas could not have guessed then nor could he guess now. Since he could see very little, he had no sense of time. Indeed, being how he moved along the steep mountainside, it wasn’t until nearly noon of the next day he noticed the sun overhead, since he had been scuttling along the slope in the shadow of the mountain.

When he had felt Anor upon his fatigued, broken, and injured body, Legolas had forced himself to stop to listen. What he had heard caused him joy, for before him a short distance, the Wood-Elf had heard the lifesong of pine trees, whereas before, he had not heard or felt any living things but moss and the occasional clump of grass. The Silvan had pushed himself for a while longer until he reached the copse of trees, where weary, hungry, thirsty, and unable to continue, Legolas had lain himself down upon the soft needles fallen from the pines and collapsed into an exhausted sleep.

Now awake, he had no idea for how long he had been sleeping, which decided for the Elf, I need to move. If the Yrrch have found my trail, they may be close behind me.

And so, the Wood-Elf reluctantly pulled himself into standing, though he took a moment to allow his stiff, injured body to adjust to this change in position before he began the arduous task of finding his way. He followed the copse northward, his feet sliding in the pine needles and loose rock of the incline. If nothing else, he could stay amidst the trees, which would offer him some safety, and perchance also, they might give him some warning, for the lifesong of the trees would change when the Dark beasts came within, though they could not warn him of the lesser, natural predators such as bears or wildcats. Still, he would rather die mauled to death by a bear than raped and eaten by Yrrch, so even this possibility he counted as a blessing.

He took stock of his condition as he ambled forward, his hands ever out to find the next branch of a pine to guide him. The gash on his forearm from deflecting the Orc spear during the fight when he’d first been taken was deep but no longer bleeding. Had he the sight to do it, he would have tried to wipe it out, at least, since he had no water to wash it clean. His chest ached from his newly rebroken rib, but this was a minor injury, which would only hinder him if he were forced to run or fight, and hopefully, if he were cautious, he would not have to do either, since he would be sure to lose. He was covered in Yrrch blood from head to toe, with the dark, caustic substance making his head, neck, back, and chest itch, and layering his trousers as it dried into a sticky, stiff mess. He was bootless, shirtless, and weaponless save for said trousers and the small dagger he had taken back from the Orcs who were preparing him for the others. His hair was hacked away for the most part, causing it to stick out in strange, uneven clumps, but should he live long enough, his hair would grow back. He had no water or waterskin in which to store it, no food – truly nothing but his dagger and trousers.

Of the injuries to his person, most concerning to him were the wounds to his head. He tucked the blade of the dagger into his trousers’ waist and felt around his beaten scalp with both hands. Several puffed up, hard, and painful knots decorated his cropped scalp. The one caused by falling from the walnut tree had been struck several times over by the Orcs, thus causing this particular wound to be the most painful. It was likely also the reason he could barely see – or so he assumed, since his problems with his vision had begun from when first he awoke in the gulley.

Estel, Kalin, and the others will be looking for me, he guaranteed himself. He smiled, feeling hopeful at this thought. If he could manage to stay away from the Yrrch and out of harm’s way, he would be fine, he was certain, for his lover would never give up until he had found the Prince. He assured himself further, They would never leave the woods before they find me. Not even if they are irate with me for foolishly running off from the lake. It may take them a while, but they will find me.

Believing if he just continued north he would be discovered by his friends before too long, Legolas ambled onwards along the slope of the mountain, never once considering Estel, Kalin, Elladan, Elrohir, and Reana were much farther north than was he, and on their way to Imladris without him.

Chapter Text

Please, no, the man pled. Having woken just before the sun rose, Estel laid as if asleep still, with his quivering rhaw and sorrowful faer drifting between the dawn of awareness and the dusk of dreams. Gloomy, troubling, and tormenting, the nightmare from which he had stirred still held a grip upon the man’s mind; Estel could not shake the dreadful certainty of the feeling the dream had been reality – if only in part – and while his body was alert, he did not yet know actuality from the horrific events of his nightmare. I cannot bear it. Let it not have been so.

In this nightmare, Estel had been forced to be a passive observer to Legolas’ torment and demise. It had started with his standing off to the side while watching the death of the Orcs the laegel had killed before being taken – the ones who had attacked Legolas near the walnut tree from which he had fallen and hit his head. Next, Estel had seen Legolas being carried like a deer carcass to the ledge where the Yrrch had made their campsite; then, it progressed to his having to watch the immobile, injured Elf being poked, prodded, kicked, and spat upon by the group of beasts, ere two of them took him to the fire inside the cavern, where they began to unclothe the Prince. When Legolas fought against this, the Yrrch hit him again and chopped off his hair with the laegel’s own dagger.

In his heart had swelled a short-lived pride for the Silvan as Legolas killed the two beasts preparing him for the others’ entertainment and feasting; and yet, Estel was then promptly horrified when Legolas tried to sneak from the cavern only to come face to face with the Orcs’ leader. This much larger, stronger Orc had slit Legolas’ throat with a single swing, ere the laegel even had a chance to try to fight back. He saw his lover fall to the ground. To Aragorn’s mounting dismay, the foul being had ripped the Elf’s trousers off him with the intent to rape him. Even knowing it was merely a dream had not kept Estel from sharing his lover’s ostensible anguish and fear, but not being able to assist the Prince, to keep him from being despoilt, to try to staunch the blood pouring freely from the Elf’s slit neck, or merely to speak to him words of comfort, had not been enough to cause the man to wake. No, Aragorn had finally woken when in this dream, Legolas wailed through his slit throat in despairing terror, and at hearing this, Estel’s heart had desperately begun to pound and his eyes had flown open with his own frantic need to waken before seeing the end of his lover or before the Orc began his humiliation of the failing Prince.

As Aragorn laid there with various chimeras of the nightmare playing over and over again in his thoughts, the details became evermore hazy as his mind finally began to follow his body’s lead in wakening fully, until eventually, only the knowledge of Legolas screaming as he lay dying in the dream while being prepared to be despoilt, along with the appalling feeling of having failed his Greenleaf, remained with the Ranger.

The human rolled over in his bedroll while reaching out to seek the firm, warm flesh of his Elven lover in a vain attempt to appease himself with the Silvan’s presence. Despite having just dreamt of Legolas’ death, in his tangled thoughts, Aragorn fully expected for Legolas to be lying there beside him. When his hands met nothing but the coldness of the bedroll where the Prince ought to have been lying in slumber, it took the Adan a moment of wondering where his lover had gotten off to for Estel to recall the Prince was not there and would never be there again. There was no relief to be had after his disturbing nightmare. Legolas was dead.

How long will it take me to believe he is gone? he asked himself before promptly wishing he had not, since the answer was never, he knew. Aragorn would never be capable of accepting Legolas’ death. He breathed in deeply, the algid winter air stinging his lungs as he held it in to try to calm himself, and decided, If only I had seen his whole body. If I could have seen his face, even in death, I would be able to put him to rest… with time. But he had only seen pieces of the Elf, which was so much less than the whole of his Greenleaf – of the Prince’s courageous, valiant heart, quick mind, and generous faer. He knew he was lying to himself, anyway, for even had he seen the Prince whole and been given the chance to wash and prepare his lover’s corpse for burial, Aragorn would never get over his Greenleaf’s death.

He felt someone approaching, which caused Estel to try to stifle his silent, gentle weeping before it was noticed. Being it was dawn and they wanted to leave for home to ride with as much daylight as possible, Elladan came to wake up the Ranger as he had promised when Aragorn went to bed. The Noldo knelt down beside the prostrate man but stopped with his hand out to shake the human’s arm when he saw Aragorn was awake already, with tears upon his bearded face. After enduring the twins’ anger ever since the Prince went missing, Estel was surprised when Elladan’s adamantly unfailing ire for him fell from the Elf’s face, for seeing the human weeping first thing this morning was not what Elladan had expected and it caught the Noldo off his guard.

So instead of reaching out to him to shake him awake, Elladan laid his hand down upon Estel’s shoulder in brotherly comfort. Behind the Noldo, the others were preparing to leave, with none of them likely having slept this night. Perhaps before they arrived in Imladris, the Eldar would find some reverie in shifts, but even did they not, they would not suffer for it, as would Aragorn if they did not stop to give his injured, poisoned body time to rest. Estel’s Elven sibling squeezed his shoulder lightly, and then asked simply of the man, “Muindor?”

Forgetting the mendaciously insouciant antagonism his foster siblings had shown him over the last days, Estel shook his head, reached up, and with his sleeve, wiped his cheeks clean of the tears there. He then sat up, allowing Elladan to assist him, before he explained, “I had forgotten. When I awoke, I had forgotten Greenleaf was gone, only to reach for him here beside me and realize all over again he is dead.”

An aggrieved look crossed Elladan’s face. This was the most emotion the elder twin had shown over Legolas’ demise thus far. His eldest brother offered no false sentiments to try to ease his human sibling’s grief; instead, he lowered his head so not to look at Estel, removed his hand from the Adan, and whispered, “I am sorry, brother, for your losing him, and for us, for losing him, as well. Greenleaf will be missed by everyone.”

With that, Elladan rose and walked back to the others, leaving Aragorn alone with his sorrow and his questions about Elladan’s momentary kindliness. The human sat there on his bedroll for a few moments, ere he coerced his stiff body into standing. He moved away from the others to relieve himself, and then returned to find his friends and brothers were again eating more of the venison jerky, and again, none of them appeared to be enjoying it. They were long out of bread or any other fresh food, and had only jerky to sustain them until Rivendell, should they not hunt on their way to the valley. Aragorn did not care. He accepted his share of venison from Reana and perfunctorily ate it while he tied up his bedroll. When done, he drank from his waterskin and waited by his horse’s side until the others were ready. They saw him doing this and hurried their tasks, for they were just as keen to be off as was Estel. Little was said amongst the companions during this time, save for what they needed to speak of concerning the direction they were headed or where they would next stop to find water to refill their skins and sustain the horses.

He climbed atop his horse and settled in for another long day of riding. Since he was injured and still suffering from the poison, they would not let him take responsibility for keeping lookout, and so made him ride in the middle, while taking turns between them as to who rode vanguard and who rode in the rear. Currently, the twins were behind Estel, while Kalin and Reana rode in front of the man. He had nothing to occupy him save for thinking of the Prince, which he did despite his wishing he could trick his mind into focusing upon something else for a few moments. It was awful enough he tortured himself all day with thoughts of his failing the Elf, of through what the Elf had suffered ere he died, but now his dreams were filled with the same deliberations, and the human could find no respite from any of it.

For Estel, it all came down to this: unlike when Legolas’ faer had lingered while his rhaw lived, whilst the two were separated because of Elise’s curse and Estel was still able to dupe himself into believing there to be some chance of a miracle bringing the Elf back to him, there was now no hope for the Wood-Elf, of course. Legolas’ body was gone, cut up like butchered meat for sale at the market, half-cooked and almost eaten, and buried by the lake in Kalin’s cloak. He knew this. His rational mind had seen the Prince’s body, his hair, and his clothing, all of which were clear signs their knowledge was apt and the Silvan dead. 

And yet, to Estel, he still felt as if his lover lived. He grieved, yes, and his heart was broken, but his faer was coupled with Legolas’ faer. To Estel, this connection did not feel severed. He could not explain it.

He also could not share this feeling with the others; most especially, Kalin would become upset to hear Aragorn make such a claim, and since there was no hope for the sentry’s Prince to be alive, it would be cruel to mention it. In fact, however, it felt as if he were leaving the Wood-Elf, as if he were abandoning him – all of which the man attributed to having left the Silvan’s body at the lake, though in truth, it was his faer evincing the veracity of this sensation, for he was indeed forsaking Legolas without the man even realizing it. The rational part of his mind won out over the intuition of his heart and the human said nothing as they rode.

They travelled onwards, scarce words spoken between them, but a few hours later, they stopped at a brook to fill their waterskins and let the horses drink, and while waiting for Reana and Kalin to see to these errands, the twins tended to Estel’s wound. The gash upon his arm was healing but the poison still remained in the wound, which was evident in the black tendrils of sepsis branching out from the injury. Aragorn endured Elrohir’s hand upon his forehead as the younger twin felt for fever. Finding only a slight rise in the man’s temperature, Elrohir carefully cleaned the gash with fresh water from the brook before Elladan spread a weak unguent upon the wound, and then rewrapped it. The unguent was not meant for poisons, nor would it heal the toxin from his body, but was meant to ease pain and would keep out further infection, at least. They had good cause to hurry in their journey to Imladris – it was evident to both the twins and their human sibling how Aragorn needed the stores of herbs kept at the Last Homely House to aid his body in fending off the poison. Neither of his brothers spoke to him during all this; Estel barely took note, as he was lost in his thoughts about his Greenleaf.

When the horses were sufficiently watered and fed, they mounted and began off again. After a few hours, the Elves rotated places, with Elladan and Elrohir taking the lead to be on lookout, and Kalin and Reana riding at the rear, and Aragorn in the middle of the procession yet again. Having done this all the last day and already much of today, Aragorn longed for Legolas to be riding beside him so he could at least have someone to whom to talk, as the others all kept to themselves, as did he, and Estel wanted to relieve his mind of the torturous thoughts occupying it. He was startled out of his dire contemplations when Reana hurried her horse so that she rode beside him. The scar she carried, which ran from her temple in a twist to underneath her ear, stood out more than usual, as her face had paled greatly. While the she-Elf was not unpleasant to the Ranger, and in fact had shown him great sympathy and kindness, she had not gone out of her way to speak to him. Yet, she did so now, and Estel wondered if he would hear why she appeared so pale and concerned.

He soon found out when without preamble but only a glance backwards to where Kalin rode a short distance behind, Reana stated nervously, “Estel. I fear for Kalin.”

He knew of what she spoke and feared it himself. Aragorn was not the only one suffering because of Legolas’ death. Still, he asked for clarification, “Why is that?”

She again looked behind to ensure the Silvan of whom she spoke was not looking this way, and seeing he was turned in his saddle to look behind them, the Elleth elucidated, “I think he intends only to live long enough to take word to the Elvenking of what has happened to the Prince; after, I fear he will intentionally fade from sorrow. Had he not the task of telling Thranduil, I think he would have faded already.”

Had not Estel realized the same thing time and time again, when Legolas had been on the verge of death repeatedly over the course of the last year? He could not offer false or useless condolences to the she-Elf by telling her she was wrong and Kalin too strong to allow his grief to overwhelm him. Shifting in his saddle, the man tried to think of something to ease her mind, but could find nothing that didn’t sound like a platitude. So instead, he admitted with a sigh, “I worry about him, as well, Reana, but we will do whatever we can for him, I promise you. When we reach the Last Homely House, my father will palaver with all of us, and then or thereafter, I will make certain he knows Kalin blames himself for Greenleaf’s death. Your Lord will speak to Kalin, and by this, he will ease his guilt more than could you or I.”

She nodded at him but did not seem appeased. Reana ran a finger over the scar upon her face, which she often did while thinking, Estel had noticed. How she had obtained this mar, he did not know, but the fair she-Elf’s features were not ruined by it at all, and she was still beautiful. She was also a stalwart warrior and delightful person – unlike Faelthîr, who had been a healer and nothing but trouble, and would have been glad to see Legolas dead and Kalin suffering grief for his loss. Speaking as if she thought she ought not to be telling Aragorn this, the Elleth admitted, “Kalin and I have not been lovers for but a short while. Only a week after you and the Prince left, he asked me to walk with him in the woods one night,” she explained with a shy smile at the human. “But already, I care for him greatly. I want nothing more to happen to him. I want for him to be happy. Do you think the Elvenking will blame Kalin for the Prince’s death? Will he punish him?”

“Yes,” he said, finding he was not willing to lie to the woman. “King Thranduil will be livid. He may blame Kalin. But likely, he will blame me. And when Kalin goes to the Greenwood to give his King the news of the Prince’s death, I will be with him,” he vowed to the woman, whose whole body relaxed upon hearing this. “I will do my best to see to it Thranduil does not blame Kalin.”

For the first time since learning of Legolas’ disappearance, Estel truly smiled, for Reana was beaming at him with gratitude, and her relief over the welfare of her newfound lover was so familiar to him he could not help but empathize. As much time as he had spent worrying over Legolas, Estel knew how consuming such concern could be. Thinking to assuage her even more, but unsure of how Reana might take it to learn of the vow, he told her, “Kalin made an oath to his Prince. One which might keep him from giving in to sorrow. One which might give him purpose beyond that of his duty to Legolas. Do not assume the worst just yet.”

But of course, Reana’s curiosity was piqued and she asked after surreptitiously looking back at Kalin, who once again was paying more attention to their surroundings, “What oath is this?”

“To protect me as he protected Greenleaf. Legolas asked Kalin to promise to keep me safe, as he had done for Legolas as his sentry. And Kalin gave his word to his Prince he would do so.” When Reana looked askance at him, perchance thinking the Ranger was somehow taking advantage of Kalin, as if he were now indentured to his will, Estel was quick to amend, “I would never call upon this oath myself, you realize. I would never ask him to be my protector, to give his life for mine, but if it can keep him occupied – at least enough for the brunt of his grief to be dulled by time – then it may be worth it to remind him of it, I think,” he conjectured, hoping the Noldo would not think him callous or arrogant for assuming such a thing.

To his relief, Reana again smiled in respite. “You are right. The Prince was Kalin’s purpose. If making you his purpose in life for a bit alleviates his grief, it will be for the good. And then, after a while, perhaps he can find new purpose,” she told him vaguely, giving the Adan a smile of which only women were capable, in the Ranger’s experience, for such smiles signified a perceptive knowledge that men’s dull minds tended to lack. “I will speak to him of it when the time is right.”

He nodded, relieved to be able to pay back Reana’s good company and faithfulness by offering her a little hope. She slowed her horse to fall behind so she could ride beside Kalin once more, and once again, Aragorn was left to stew in his insufferable thoughts.

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The sun was at his left and the mountain at his right; or at least, the Elf hoped this was still true. His rational thought told him this must be so and even the slight bit he could see confirmed it, since the bright white of Anor was visible through the grey clouds to his left. And yet, his fear lingered. Legolas’ terror persisted of somehow becoming turned around and wasting time in walking the direction opposite of which he wished to tread. The connection between he and Estel – the connection forged by their sharing of their bodies and love, but more recently and more importantly of the sharing of their faers – bequeathed the Wood-Elf with a strange awareness of his lover’s presence, and from what he could sense, Legolas was growing farther away from the Adan rather than closer to Estel. However, he couldn’t tell exactly where the man was, and in fact, he worried he was imagining this entirely.

All his hopes for survival were pinned upon his being found by Aragorn and the others; if he did not find them or if he were not found by them, Legolas knew he would die of starvation, injury, or attack by the Yrrch. But this perception of Estel’s presence was vague and unfamiliar to the Wood-Elf, for his faer had never been joined with another faer in this way, and he could not decipher whether this intuition was merely his anxiety fretting his already fettered mind, or if the Ranger were truly travelling farther away. Because he could think of no better plan than to try to reach the old campsite, Legolas persisted on this course and pushed aside his unease for now.

Having walked through the morning and now well into the afternoon, Legolas was tired. His will to continue flagged the farther he went, but when the distinct smell of fresh water wafted upon the breeze towards him, he picked up his pace. In this part of the forest – or from what he could recall – laid the lake where he and Estel had taken their ease for weeks, where he and his companions had stayed to regroup while Legolas recovered, and where he might hope to find some trace of his friends, or his friends themselves, if Eru was merciful.

The lake. Thank Ilúvatar, he exclaimed to himself. A wide smile broke out over the Prince’s battered face at the realization he had at least reached this destination. He was in dire need of a drink and a bath to wash away the foul Orc blood.

Not certain which part of the lake he was approaching, the Prince stumbled down the incline, letting his nose lead him towards the water. It was some time before he reached the lake itself, for his nose had smelled the water long before it would have appeared in view – had he the ability to see it. But he followed the scent of fresh water until his bare feet stumbled into a rocky, rapidly flowing, but shallow stream. He knew this watercourse eventuated into the lake, for he had seen it upon his and Estel’s patrol when first they had stayed here and been looking for the unknown threat Legolas had perceived – the threat which had turned out to be Elise. So, he followed the decline of the brook, staying beside it and trying not to step back into it, lest he slip on a rock. When he heard the gentle lapping of the lake as it pushed against its sometimes grassy, sometimes rocky banks, the laegel took heart. At best, he was now in familiar territory.

He wracked his mind for some idea of the position where he now stood. As he remembered, this brook had been at the southernmost area, near to where a few nights ago he had ventured into the trees of the forest running along the mountain range. When he felt certain he was close to the lake itself, the Wood-Elf knelt down and felt around the banks of the brook to ascertain he was upon its northernmost side – just to be sure – before he crawled to the bank of the lake itself. The cool, clean water felt divine upon his hands. At once, he washed them thoroughly before he tried to wash some of the Orc blood from his face. A more thorough cleaning could wait; right now, he needed a drink desperately, and so, in hopes of avoiding the blood he’d just rinsed off, he moved a bit away from where he had washed up, cupped his hands to fill them with water, and brought them to his desiccated mouth. The liquid soothed his lips and tongue, and it felt glorious to relieve this simple need.

Long before he had his fill, worry overtook the Wood-Elf. While he was conversant with the area, he was also out in the open, as the shores of the lake were relatively clear of trees and larger bushes behind which he could take cover if needed. Besides, he felt a haste to find the campsite where he and the others had been staying. There, he would find his friends, if he found them at all. And so, Legolas carefully stood, maintaining his bearings by feeling for the lake’s shore and putting it at his left, before he began the slow process of following along the lake’s irregular edge. It wasn’t long before he saw the shadowy form of what he assumed to be a tree near to the lake; combined with where he thought himself to be, Legolas believed he recognized the landmark.

This must be the tree under which they dug my grave, the Prince guessed.

Had he any doubts this was true, they were quashed when he stumbled over to reach the nearest branch of the tree. He could sense it was the same one by his acquaintance with the lifesong of the birch tree by which days upon days ago his sentry and lover had dug the grave intended for the Wood-Elf. With his hands upon the birch’s leafless branches, Legolas followed the small tree’s circumference, hoping to find the filled in, unused grave so he could be confident of this and thus know for certain which direction he needed to walk to find the north side of the lake. His fear he might be turned around or even at some other watercourse was unfounded, but so dependent was he upon using his eyes to determine where he was, he found it hard to depend upon aught else – even the lifesong of the birch. And knowing this was his grave’s site would tell him how much farther he needed to go.

They had dug his grave upon the north side of the tree, as he recollected, and once this was found, he needed only to continue along the water’s edge to find the campsite where he and the others had stayed. It was a long shot for his friends to have remained there, he guessed, since more than likely, they were out looking for him, but he could eliminate this possibility, if nothing else, and perhaps find some evidence of how long they had been gone. Should they not be there, he didn’t know what he would do, but would decide when he knew for certain his friends had moved on from the site.

As he carefully followed the birch’s outer limbs to find the filled in hole, his bare foot struck a rock lying upon the ground, and not remembering this to be here before, the Elf stumbled over the unexpected obstacle, tried to grab hold of the birch’s branches to steady himself, but ended up falling anyway. He landed upon his hands and knees, with both striking a flat shale of rock, which shot pain up his arms and legs when the already lacerated flesh of his palms and knees were further injured.

What is this? he asked himself, dread welling in his empty belly as he fumbled across the freshly turned but packed dirt upon which he had fallen.

His heart sank when he realized what he had tripped over, for there had been no rocks lying upon the grave when last he had seen it. Lest he was indeed at some other birch tree, Legolas could think of only one reason for his friends to have placed rocks over this grave, and no reason at all for anyone else to have done it – in the time of Legolas’ disappearance, someone had been buried here.

By Elbereth, please no, the Wood-Elf lamented. Even with his eyes opened entirely to seek out any detail his blurred and obscured vision might allow him, Legolas could only discern the vaguely lighter shade of the rocks against the darker earth and the blurred trunk of the birch. He fumbled in the dirt, hoping for some sign or indication of who might be buried there, but found nothing. Who died? Which one of my friends is lying here under the dirt and rocks? he wondered, his useless eyes filling with tears at the question, for he never once considered it was his body buried there – or what his friends thought to be the Prince’s body, that is.

Guilt overwhelmed him; coupled with his exhaustion, injury, and fear, the remorse caused the Wood-Elf to begin weeping for whomever was interred in his grave. Without even knowing which of his friends it could be, Legolas blamed himself for the death. Did they die looking for me? Did they happen across the Orcs, same as did I?

That the body was buried told the laegel at least one if not more of his companions still lived, for someone had been left to see to the task of burying the one who had been felled. If he could see to do it, the Prince would have dug up the grave to find who lay here, but being that he could not, it would have done him no good, he knew. The lingering pain from his strange condition – borne from the rejoining of his faer and rhaw – had been forgotten because of the other, more acute agonies of his head, chest, and the bruising around his throat from being strangled, but the longer he sat there, the more he could feel them, for his sorrow began to cleave his body and soul yet again. They were not truly joined, as once they had been before ever enduring the torment in Lake-town and the subsequent torments after, and even upon being relieved of Elise’s curse, they had yet to adhere entirely.

He could feel this rending of his rhaw and faer, so told himself, I cannot sit here and mourn. What if the others are injured? What if they are in need of aid? Up, Legolas. Get up.

He would be little help to them while mostly blind and wounded, but Legolas would die to keep the rest of his friends safe, if he could, and bear their anger at him for being the cause of the death of whoever laid under the rocks upon which the Wood-Elf knelt. Legolas forced himself into rising. He was fatigued beyond measure, his throat ached from weeping and from the thirst he had whetted but not yet sated, and his belly moiled noisily from hunger and anxiety. But before he would try to take care of any of this, first the laegel would find the campsite in search of his friends. The Silvan put the grave – now used, with one of his beloved companions inside of it, he feared – at his right, which meant the lake was at his left and the north before him. He sidled down to the edge of the water without turning so he would not lose direction, for with the sun behind the wintery clouds at the moment, he could not even depend upon Anor for aid in this matter. Once his foot hit the water, the Wood-Elf began the slow and careful process of ambling along the water’s edge, trying as he did so to recall any impediment along the shore that might cause him to stumble.

His hands yet again out before him, the Prince walked slowly until he eventually felt briars in front of him, and knew then he had reached the outermost edge of what had been their campsite. Using his memory to guide him, Legolas trod around the briars, paced a short distance ahead by scooting his feet carefully out rather than picking them up and walking normally, and with his bare toes, he found the exposed roots of the tree under which Estel had taken to sitting, calling the indentation in the roots his “seat” when the two lovers had stayed there alone weeks prior. Of course, no one sat there now. He knew if his friends were anywhere close, they would have seen him and come running, but still, the Prince wandered around the abandoned campsite, dredging from the depths of his mind the general layout of the area. When he found the fire pit ringed with rocks, the laegel knelt down before it and laid his hands upon the ashes therein, finding them to be cold and lifeless.

If they were here, it has not been today.

Again, the Wood-Elf sat, bereft, while tears slid down his dirty face. He had known there was little chance to find his companions at the campsite, but apparently, his mind’s rational conclusion and his forever-hopeful heart had disagreed on the matter, and now thwarted, his chest ached with the sorrow of having this slim chance dashed.

I cannot sit here and wait for them to return, can I? he pled with himself. What if they have gone far south looking for me? What if they have returned to the village to ask for aid?

Some part of himself he did not wish to acknowledge considered his friends might have given up finding him and gone home. He tried not to listen to this reasonable voice. He had no idea how long he had been missing. From the moment he had woken in the gulley, Legolas had not known for how long he had been lying there. Likewise, although he could roughly account for the amount of time between his being caught by the Yrrch and escaping them, he could not measure for how long he had been wandering north to find the lake. I could have been missing for days. How long would they look before they gave up? Knowing Estel as he did, Legolas felt certain his human lover would never give up looking for the Wood-Elf, as would the Wood-Elf never have given up should his Adan lover have been missing. But what if it is Estel lying in that grave? he considered, his heart seizing sorely at the thought. What if they ran into the Yrrch as I did, and Estel died? Would the others keep looking for me, or would they return home, seeking the solace of the valley and to impart to Elrond the knowledge of Estel’s death? If they blame me for all of this, then they may have left me to my fate.

Even then, Legolas was certain his faithful sentry would not have left without knowing what had happened to his Prince, but he was forced to consider this, as well, What if Kalin was injured? Or what if Kalin is the one lying in that grave and Estel is injured? What if they are all injured? He knew his loyal guard loved him beyond reason, for even the Ranger had told the Silvan Prince he was certain Kalin would fade from sorrow should Legolas die. This made the Prince wonder now, If Estel has died and they believe me to be missing for good, Kalin may be in poor shape. They may have returned to the valley to allow Elrond to be of aid to Kalin. So many different things could have happened; Legolas’ mind reeled in trying to think out all of them. As they sped through his thoughts, the Prince found he was barely breathing, his already obscured vision was becoming black, and he knew then if he did not take hold of his anxiety, he would lose himself to it.

Scared to contemplate these thoughts any longer, Legolas pulled his knees to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and laid his aching head upon his bent legs. He hugged himself tightly into a ball, then rocked back and forth slightly to keep moving, to keep from giving in to the desire to pass out, or perhaps to fade by the dead fire pit.

I cannot wait here to be found. I must keep travelling north, he decided. I cannot go searching for the others while they potentially search for me, but if I can make it to Imladris, I can seek the help to find the others if they are not already there, or at least obtain word of them, should they have somehow contacted Elrond.

He did not even need to travel the whole way to the valley, but just close enough to be within Elrond’s protection of his realm, wherein his Minyatar would be able to sense his being there, if he had a mind to look for the laegel’s presence. Perchance, even, he might happen upon the border patrol who roamed the outlying area around Imladris, as there were permanent outposts settled in the land beyond Elrond’s realm, who kept vigilant lookout for approaching danger to give warning before the threat neared the valley itself. These guards were numerous and constantly on the move, save for the ones who remained stationed in the outposts themselves, so his chances were decent he might be found once close enough to the hidden valley.

Besides which, if I wait here, then I leave myself open to being found by the Yrrch again, or by bandits or villagers, who might still seek revenge.

He momentarily considered taking his chances in going to the village. He might be able to find his way there, if his memory served him properly. If he could locate Liandra before he was possibly killed by a villager or some wild beast, then she would help him to see again, so he would be able to travel to Imladris safely or perchance even look for his friends. Yet, the way there was not a straight shot, and if he met any villagers with a grudge, he would be no match for them – not with his pitiful dagger and no eyesight with which to see someone coming before they could take him down with an arrow or gang up on him in a fight. And moving south towards the village put him farther away from Rivendell, which is where he desperately wished to go to seek help in finding the others or finding word of them.

Then my decision is made. I go north, he resolved reluctantly. One thing is sure… I cannot wait around to find out who lies in the grave meant for me. I will go mad wondering who it is.

This decided, Legolas uncurled from the tight ball he had made of himself, stretched his aching body gingerly, and then wandered his way in the direction of the lake, before he went on hands and knees to crawl carefully down to the lake’s edge, doing so out of fear of losing his footing and falling upon any slick rocks littering the shore. His first undertaking was to clean himself of the Orc and Elf blood upon him. He did not need to attract predators with the scent; besides which, he longed to bathe the filthy Orc blood from off him, in addition to desiring to wash his wounds. He did not bother removing his trousers, as they were in need of a bath, as well, and so once he felt the water with his hands, Legolas merely slid into it as he was.

The lake was cold, being that it was winter, and though as an Elf it did not bother him as would it bother a human, the bite of the algid water made him shiver nonetheless. He waded until he was shoulder deep and began scrubbing himself with his hands, working slowly and thoroughly to remove as much of the Orcs’ blood as he might, along with his own blood. The abraded flesh of his elbows, hands, knees, and the soles of his feet protested this rough washing, but he wished to bathe these wounds free of the dirt and rocks stuck within, and so did not balk until they began to bleed. Once finished, he dunked his head under the water and scrubbed at his injured head. The knots thereon were slowly receding in size, save for the worst one, which was just as swollen as when first made by falling from the walnut tree and striking his head against the outcrop of rock in the ravine. This wound he paid careful attention to, ensuring the break in the scalp there was clean, while hoping the cool water might reduce the swelling.

It will take a couple of years to grow my hair back, he mused, pushing aside the very real likelihood that he would not live long enough to see this happen, but in the meantime, once I can see again, I will need to do something to even it out, I suppose. The Yrrch had cared little for chopping his hair off in an orderly manner, of course, and some part of what remained of his hair was longer and irregular in comparison to the sections where the dagger had cut very close to his scalp. There was even a particular area at his nape where the Orc had not cut at all, leaving a lock of hair the length of what the entirety had once been. At least I will not have to worry about braiding it for a while, he tried to joke to lift his spirits, while imagining what he must look like with his hair chopped as it was. If I do find the others, they will not even recognize me.

As clean as he could make himself without soap or a cloth with which to scrub, Legolas waded a distance away, back towards the shore, to avoid any of the dirt or blood he had washed into the water, and then once more dunked his head back under, opened his mouth, and began to drink. His dehydrated mouth and throat balked for a moment at the sudden influx of cold moisture, but he did not stop. He did not know when next he would find water, since he had no skin in which to carry it with him, and so decided it best to fill his belly until he felt sick from it. By the time he was done, he indeed felt sick from drinking so much. Forcing his gorge from rising and his belly from emptying itself of the much-needed liquid, the Elf finally splashed back out of the lake. Against his wet flesh, the slight breeze was even more chilly, and he began to tremble. Normally, it would take much more to make him cold; in fact, until being touched by Elise, whose fingers had felt like shafts of ice invading his chest, Legolas had never truly known cold. While not quite as chilled as he had been from the haunt’s touch, the Elf was surprised at how icy he felt, and wondered if it might not be some aftereffect of his injuries, loss of blood, or if his hunger was causing it.

Perhaps even, I am fading, he thought but tried to cast this aside before he latched onto the idea and could not let go of it.

Shaking his head violently to clear this idea, which caused drops of water to fly out around him, the Wood-Elf wrapped his arms around his bare middle to retain some warmth, and without thought, ambled back to the dead fire. Had he his satchel, he could have started a blaze by which to dry and warm himself. But then, had he his belongings, he would have had an extra change of clothing, a water skin, jerky, and other various items needed to survive. As it was, he had nothing but his dagger.

The Elf stopped dead in his tracks when thoughts of his blade made him question, Where is it? Where is the dagger?

Feeling about his waist, the Silvan could not find the hilt of the blade he had tried so carefully to keep track of during his descent of the mountainside to the lake. His anxiety renewed, the Wood-Elf scrabbled along the leg of his wet trousers, which clung to his body tightly, in the effort to find it. No, please, he pled, now dropping to his hands and knees to forage along the ground for the weapon. He crawled the distance from the lake to the fire pit and back, new tears forming and slithering from his unseeing eyes. He made two trips to the lake and then the fire pit, fearing the worst of having lost it in the water. Even if he hadn’t, the Elf didn’t know if he could safely backtrack along the edge of the lake to search for the weapon, or worse yet, he could have lost it hours ago while traversing the decline down the mountainside. He then began to crawl towards the oak tree under which Estel’s chair was located – and there, much to his utmost relief, his fingers ran along the blade. He sat back on his heels, clutching the dagger to his naked belly with both hands, and laughed in near hysterical respite.

“Thank you, sweet Varda,” he said aloud, startling himself with the lachrymose, gruff sound of his own voice, which sounded so unlike it did normally.

His bathing and frantic search for the weapon had drained the already exhausted Elf. Legolas scuttled upon his hands and knees until he was at the indentation of exposed roots making the naturally formed chair Aragorn had loved to sit in while camping here. He scooted until he was in the hollow of roots, laid his back against the bark of the oak, and sighed. His open eyes picked out little around him, which made it easier for him to imagine Aragorn being nearby – perchance cooking their supper or bathing in the lake – while Legolas rested. With his eyes closed, this visualization was even easier to create, and he welcomed the comfort it brought to his heart, counterfeit though it was. Unknowingly, the tired Elf fell into a light reverie, the hilt of the dagger still clutched in his hands, and his body shivering against the algid breeze upon his wet skin.

It seemed no time at all before he awoke to the sound of thunder; or at least, he at first thought it to be thunder. He was not as muddled upon wakening from this dreamless nap as he had been upon waking from his nightmare, and so knew immediately where he was and why he was there. He tilted his head toward the sky, as if by doing this it might give his ear a better vantage by which to hear, and waited for the sound of thunder. The wind was still mild and there was no rain, so he dismissed his having heard thunder until he heard the same sound again.

Regardless of his dire situation and the very real possibility of his death, the Wood-Elf laughed vigorously when he heard it, for it hadn’t been thunder in the sky to have awoken him, but his growling, empty belly. He reached for his angry stomach, only to drag the blade in his hand over his belly to create a shallow cut upon his flesh. Hissing in both aggravation and pain, the Wood-Elf darkly jested, though he meant every word of it when he thought, I would give up my trousers and walk naked into Imladris if only I had a loaf of bread. Or some of that hard jerky Estel and I smoked.

Just the thought of food made the Elf’s mouth water. If he were to make it to Imladris, he would need to eat. For now, his stomach was filled with lake water, which was fine for his thirst, but couldn’t trick his emptied belly into thinking he had eaten anything of sustenance. Intending to rise to get moving northwards, he placed his hands upon the ground to push himself out of the indentation of the roots. As he did so, his hands flitted across something quite common – acorns from the oak tree under which he sat.

Morgoth’s balls, he complained when his mouth began to slobber evermore at the thought of eating the acorns.

While certainly edible, acorns tended to be bitter and cause nausea if not prepared properly by soaking them in water first. He sat by a lake but had neither the pot to boil them in, the fire over which to boil water, or the patience to find a means of doing it; moreover, while not fond of the taste of acorns, he was starving – quite literally. Thus, the Wood-Elf crouched down and crawled around the ground to gather as many of the acorns he could find, cupping them against his belly with one hand. Once his hands were full, he made a pile of them by the oak’s trunk, and then continued to gather more until he had a nice mound. Smiling faintly with anticipation to end the thunderous growl of his belly, Legolas then searched the ground for rocks. When he found a flat rock upon which to work and a smaller rock to use as a hammer, he lugged them to his pile of nuts. Methodically, the Silvan broke up the acorns, creating a new pile out of the shelled nuts and discarding the shells against the base of the tree. When he had enough to make a mouthful, the Prince gathered them up and threw them into his mouth before he could change his mind.

They tasted awful, as he expected from past experience, but this did not stop the Silvan from scavenging each and every piece of nut from the shells scattered across the rock, finding more of the acorns, and busting them open, as well. In the end, he stopped after consuming only a few mouthfuls of the nuts, which while they were not enough to fill his belly, did quiet his hunger a bit. He only prayed he could keep them down long enough to derive some nutrition from them, since his water-filled belly and the foul taste were already making his stomach roil.

Had I a sack, I could carry some with me, I suppose, he wondered, wishing he could do this. It would likely not be hard to find more acorns as he travelled, though, so the Prince did not worry overly much about it. Besides, if he ate too many of the nuts, he would surely become debilitated with stomach cramps, and so wanted to eat them only if necessary.

To his delight, as he idly searched for more of the acorns to make a final mouthful, he happened upon a recognizable clump growing in an open area nearer to the woods running north of the lake. By the smell and feel of the plant, he knew at once it was chickweed. He pulled it out by the roots and stuffed it into the ever-loosening waist of his trousers. Once done with his final bout of smashing and eating acorns, the Prince chewed upon the chickweed, savoring the mild flavor as if he were eating a wonderful treat rather than a simple handful of greens. It would keep him from starving to death, for now, and provide him with a bit more nutrition than the acorns alone.

When done, the Elf sat back in the cradle of roots and used his fingernail to try to pick the bits of plant and acorn matter from his teeth, feeling better now he had eaten, but also, feeling a tad proud he had managed to find something to eat at all while unable to see. He thought to sleep a little more, as even the mere act of finding food had tired him out, but Legolas was also eager to be on his way north. He would not soon find out what had happened to his friends and which of them was buried in the grave by the beech if he did not leave the relative comfort of the campsite. Besides, afternoon was turning into evening as he sat there. Standing, he took up his dagger and thought carefully – he wanted to leave a note to Estel and the others of where he had gone, should they happen to come back to the lake.

Thus, after a moment of thought, the Elf stepped into the ‘seat’ of roots, put his dagger to the bark of the oak, and apologized aloud to it, “I am sorry, but I must leave them a note. Forgive me. I shan’t cut deep enough to wound.”

With that, he slowly, shallowly, and cautiously carved into the bark a single word – Imladris – which he did by feeling with his fingers to ensure it was done so legibly. He could only hope it was. The Silvan tucked the dagger’s blade into the lacings of his trousers in hopes of it being safe there; he also hoped he didn’t fall and cause the blade to cut into his navel, but it was the only place he could think of to ensconce the dagger so not to lose it. He had no pockets and had already lost the blade once from his trousers’ waist.

Stepping out of the roots, the Wood-Elf cast his gaze around the campsite; though unable to see any of it but blurs and shadows, he merely did so out of habit, as if to check for anything he might have left behind or to imprint upon his memory the sight of the place where he and Estel had spent so many lovely weeks. If his human lover were the one buried in the grave once meant for Legolas, then the Wood-Elf was sure he would see this lake again, for it would be to here he travelled in order to let his faer finally fade from rhaw, so he could lie down beside his lover to die.

The Wood-Elf put the lake to his back and began to walk north. As before, he depended upon the trees to guide him. Ever did he keep his hands out so he would not walk into anything, and each foot he gingerly placed in front of him to check for steady footing and to ensure he did not mistakenly tread into something out of which he could not walk. He knew the way to Imladris, of course, from having travelled from various points in Eriador, but doing so blind was an entirely different situation. The wounds to his knees, hands, elbows, and feet were no longer bleeding, at least, so he was assured he was not leaving a bloody trail for any predator to follow, though he was quite certain his gait itself was leaving a trail. Whereas an Elf’s normal prints were hard to find or follow, Legolas was forced to shuffle his feet, and thus left disturbed leaves and dirt as he went along.

Estel and I wandered our way down here, which took us weeks, but the twins, Kalin, and Reana rode straight from the valley to the village in a week, he ruminated, trying to suss out how long he would need to survive if he was to reach the vale. If I were riding, it might take me a week from the lake to Rivendell, but as I am – blind, walking, and likely not taking a direct path – it may take me two or three weeks, maybe four weeks. If Estel and the others are looking for me, they will certainly give up before I reach Rivendell, and might find me as they head home, he found himself hoping, though he squashed this optimism as quickly as it rose.

He could not depend upon anyone else to save him this time. He would need to save himself.

Chapter Text

On their third day of travel, or two days since Reana had spoken to the Ranger about Kalin’s state, Kalin fell from Arato. If not for Arato’s wild screech of alarm, they might not have noticed it at first, given how at present Kalin rode in the back behind everyone else. Upon hearing said screech from the Prince’s stallion, Aragorn turned around so swiftly in his saddle he nearly fell from it, for the last and only time he had ever heard Arato make such a noise was the night Legolas had risen from the dead – so to speak – by wakening when they had all been sure the Silvan’s faer and rhaw were permanently severed. In fact, this peculiar racket from the stallion caused a useless, unwelcome sprig of hope to sprout in the Adan’s chest, and his whirling so quickly to find the reason for Arato’s agitation came from Estel hoping that somehow Legolas had returned.

Of course, such a thought was impractical, Aragorn knew, and so, he cursed himself for the disappointment welling inside his chest upon finding no such miracle had occurred. But his swearing and disillusionment altered into concern for Kalin, instead, when Estel saw Arato tossing his head and gnashing his teeth as he stamped his feet beside Kalin, who lay inertly on his side. As soon as he could without breaking his neck, the Ranger bounded off his dray and ran back to the sentry, where Elrohir, who had been riding at the rear though somewhat in front of the lagging Wood-Elf, already knelt to check Kalin’s prone form.

“What is it?” he asked the younger twin, all enmity lingering between him and his brother forgotten in his alarm for Kalin. He joined his brother beside the Silvan, asking without giving Elrohir time to answer Aragorn’s first question, “What happened? Did Arato become spooked and throw him?”

As if in answer of such a silly query, Arato again tossed his head and neighed angrily at his courage and behavior being questioned. Unaware of his doing so and feeling as if he had rebuked the aptitude of a person rather than a horse, the Ranger spared the stallion an apologetic glance and dip of his head ere he turned his attention back to where Elrohir was cautiously palpating Kalin’s neck for breaks. The Adan instinctively moved to help his brother in checking the Wood-Elf for injury but he was tersely shoved from the way by Reana. Once she and Elladan had noticed the others were no longer following them, the Elleth had spurred her horse close to where her lover laid, jumped from her mount, and now knelt beside Kalin in the space the human once occupied. Estel forgave her rudeness; indeed, he would have done the same to get to Legolas, in a similar situation. Aragorn crouched down at the Wood-Elf’s feet, instead, to stay from the way in wait for Elrohir to respond.

“I do not know. I heard a thud, turned around to look to see if Kalin had heard it as well, and saw him lying on the ground. Then Arato screamed,” Elrohir finally explained when he had finished examining the Silvan. Apparently, the thud the Noldo heard had been Kalin falling from Arato, which had caused the stallion to react with distress for his rider’s welfare.

A moment later, Elladan came to stand on his twin and Reana’s opposite side, and thus knelt on the reverse side of Kalin’s immobile body. He took over the task Aragorn had been about to perform; that is, helping Elrohir in scrutinizing with his hands the Silvan’s form, seeking the signs of broken bones along Kalin’s spine and neck. Once this was done and they found nothing to keep them from doing so, the twins carefully rolled the sentry onto his back. He is far too pale, the human noticed at once. Dark smudges lay under Kalin’s closed eyes, his cheeks appeared gaunt and the skin of his face translucent, while his normally hale body seemed to be swallowed in his once well-fitting clothing. He looks like Greenleaf, the Adan decided, his belly clenching in remorse and misery at the thought. And indeed, the Prince’s sentry looked altogether too much like the Prince himself. With golden hair and blue eyes, for he was part Sindarin as Legolas had been, Kalin shared many of the same characteristics Legolas had held when alive. But what now made the sentry seem alike to Legolas was his sallow, thin, and lifeless visage, all of which caused Kalin to appear as his Prince had looked when Legolas had been suffering under the weight of sorrow from the torments he had endured over the last several months.

“It is his grief,” Reana whispered, her hands fisted in the cloth of the Wood-Elf’s trousers, over the closest of his muscular thighs. “Isn’t it?” she then tentatively asked her twin Lords, both of whom stopped their palpation of the Silvan’s torso to check for broken bones. In tandem, they regarded the Elleth, nodded silently, and then turned back to their task, moving on to the sentry’s arms now. Reana murmured nearly inaudibly, “I have tried to keep his mind occupied, but it is hard to do when so much more sorrow awaits him. He dwells on it.”

Confused by her words, Elrohir sat back upon his heels and asked the she-Elf, “What do you mean? What more sorrow awaits him?”

Lovingly, and with heart wrenching familiarity, Reana ran her hands up and down Kalin’s thigh, knee, shin, and then back up again, as she expounded, “Think of it. First, he must give account to Lord Elrond of Legolas’ death, bear witness to the valley grieving his Prince, who is loved there as if he were one of our own. Then, he must take news of Thranduilion’s death to Thranduil. Should the Elvenking not slay him on the spot for allowing the Prince to be taken and tormented to death by the Yrrch, by his own admission, Kalin will be stunned – and disappointed.” Once again, Reana’s voice dropped into a whisper and she would not look at any of the brothers when she disclosed to them something the sentry had likely intimated to her in private, “I think Kalin hopes his King will kill him, so he can atone for his Prince’s demise, for his failure, with his own death, and then join Legolas in the Halls of Awaiting.”

“It is not Kalin’s fault Greenleaf is dead,” the elder twin replied harshly. Acerbically, Elladan rebuked Reana as if she were the one responsible for moderating Kalin’s thoughts and soothing his anguish, telling the Elleth, “I hope you have not been fueling his grief by allowing him to speak so foolishly.”

Despite her great respect for Elladan and Elrohir and her duty to them as the sons of her Lord, Reana straightened her back, squared her shoulders, and cleared her face of the sorrowful expression it once held. She spoke adamantly, lowly, which made her sound as though she wished she were shouting, “I would never. I know it is not Kalin’s fault and I have done my best to convince him of it, as well.”

Estel scooted around Kalin’s feet so he knelt beside the she-Elf. Although Elladan grimaced at his idiocy in accusing the she-Elf – which had been done out of his own frustration and fear for the Silvan – it was not enough for Aragorn and he wished to ease Reana’s ire. He knew through what the Elleth suffered, as he had endured much the same while watching Legolas grieve and being unable to offer enough succor to the Prince to bring him out of it. And likewise, many had held him solely responsible for Legolas’ continued welfare, as if Estel alone were the one accountable for keeping Legolas’ faer and rhaw intact. He laid a hand upon her shoulder, which caused her body to wilt, her anger fleeing in a moment when she turned to the man and saw the sympathy upon his face.

“No, it is not Kalin’s fault our Greenleaf is dead, and it is not your fault Kalin believes Legolas’ death is his failure, Reana,” Estel told the woman softly. Perchance she had some inkling of how Estel could truly commiserate with her on the matter, for she willingly accepted his words as she would not have done one of the twins had they expressed the same contrition to her. “Elladan was merely worried,” he apologized on his sibling’s behalf, “as are we all, for Kalin’s well-being. You are doing the best you can to help him, we know.”

She bowed her head, let go of Kalin’s trousers with one hand – though only long enough to lay it over Estel’s hand upon her shoulder for a brief moment – and then once more gripped the cloth over the Silvan sentry’s thighs once again, holding it in her fisted fingers as she gazed upon the Wood-Elf’s lax face. “Of course,” she replied, forgiving Elladan easily.

To Aragorn’s surprise, Elladan caught the man’s eye and nodded to him his thanks for defusing Reana’s irritation, but the elder Noldo did not stop there. He apologized to the Elleth, “Estel is right. I am sorry, Reana, for speaking out of turn. I know you love Kalin, as do we all, and after Legolas…” the elder twin began but did not have the heart finish. They all knew what he meant, anyway – they did not want to lose the Silvan in addition to having lost Legolas, for although the three brothers were not as close to Kalin as had they been to their Greenleaf, they loved Kalin all the same, and for the sentry to die of grief over his Prince’s death would compound their own sorrow and shame.

“Are you sure he is not injured from falling?” Reana inquired of the twins, who had finished their inspection of Kalin’s body and found no damage to him whatsoever, although he was now covered in leaves and dirt from the damp forest floor.

“He is fine. He needs to eat more than jerky and water, and rest, which we will see that he does tonight,” Elrohir consoled the Elleth. “Kalin’s body is exhausted, both from the toils of the day and the effects of his sorrow, but he is in no danger of fading tonight, I promise you.”

As Elves, the Noldor could typically sense if one of their kith’s faer rent from its rhaw, though as a human Aragorn could not; thus, when Elrohir said Kalin was not likely to fade from grief tonight, it soothed the man just as much as it did Reana. It was the middle of the night, with dawn to come in a few hours, which was when they had made a point to stop the last few days so Aragorn could sleep. Consequently, the human suggested to the others, “We had planned to stop soon, anyway. Let us just make camp here, so we need not wake Kalin. It will give him more time to sleep.”

His plan was met with amiable silence and no argument. None of them moved for a while; they remained kneeling around the immobile Wood-Elf, and yet again, Aragorn was reminded of the many times he, or he and his brothers, had gathered around Legolas to watch over the Prince when Legolas had suffered from injury, grief, or both. He consoled himself as had Elrohir done, Kalin has pushed himself too much, considering the circumstances. He would not have passed out from mere fatigue had not his heartache compounded his exhaustion. Perhaps, even, he endured some sort of attack of panic, as Greenleaf often did when he dwelled overmuch on that which he could not control. When Legolas was still alive, the Elf had sometimes felt as though he could not breathe when his anxiety overwhelmed him, and when feeling such, he had often sought out Aragorn’s calming touch to ease his panic. But perhaps Kalin did not have the same indulgence of being calmed by Reana’s touch, or perhaps Kalin felt he deserved to endure the panic or was too disgraced in needing comfort to ask for it. The Elleth was certainly right of Kalin soon having more sorrow over which to worry, and thus more anxiety to come; Estel felt the same way, though currently, he was too bereaved to think so far ahead.

With a sigh, Elrohir broke the silence by telling his brothers and the she-Elf, “Then let us get him somewhere more comfortable than this cold, damp ground.”

Without waiting for their agreement, Elrohir went to slide his arms under Kalin, to pick him up so they could lay him upon a bedroll rather than the ground, but Reana firmly stopped him by grabbing the younger Noldo’s arm. She shook her head and slid her own arms under the sentry’s body. Easily enough, for she was just as strong as either of her twin Lords, Reana hefted Kalin’s body in her arms and stood. Quickly, Elrohir and Elladan also rose, with the former going to Arato to grab Kalin’s bedroll from off the now serene stallion, and the latter corralling the other horses before they wandered off to graze. Aragorn grabbed a blanket from his and Legolas’ belongings, intending to drape it over Kalin once they had him comfortable, but for now, he followed behind Reana as she carried her lover to where Elrohir was clearing fallen branches and such from the forest’s floor ere he laid out the bedroll.

They had ridden without halt since leaving the campsite – save for stopping to relieve themselves, feed the horses, or to let Aragorn sleep his few hours just before dawn. To Aragorn’s knowledge, the Eldar had not taken any rest for themselves, but tonight, at least Kalin would sleep. And being that they had halted their riding earlier tonight than the last two nights, it would give the sentry five or so hours of uninterrupted rest, assuming he remained in reverie. Aragorn was well acquainted with the toll grief took upon an Elven body. For Legolas, it had manifested in his losing weight, whether the Elf ate or not, such that the Prince had appeared emaciated and starved; Legolas had paled and his skin had become nearly transparent as the life literally seeped from his faer and thus ebbed from his rhaw, as well; the Woodland Prince had also needed more sleep to allow his mind and body reprieve. To see Kalin in this state, where he could have been Legolas’ twin with his loss of weight, pallor, and lifelessness, frightened the Ranger. He respected Kalin. He admired Kalin for his lifelong duty in the stalwart protection of his Prince. What’s more, he loved Kalin as he would a brother.

The bedroll now spread out with Kalin upon it, with the sentry not having woken during Reana’s carrying or placing him, Estel laid the spare blanket over the Wood-Elf, which earned him a meager but true smile of appreciation from Reana. The horses were currently loosely tied to trees nearby, with enough grass at their feet for them to graze, should they wish. Reana arranged Kalin’s limbs so he would be comfortable, after placing her folded cloak under the Silvan’s head for a pillow. She then straightened his tunic and hair, such that Kalin looked like he had lain himself down to sleep, rather than having fallen from Arato and carried here for it. And again, the three brothers and Elleth stood or knelt around Kalin’s prone form, watching the gentle rise and fall of Kalin’s chest as he breathed. Elladan had brought another blanket from the twins’ own belongings. He handed it to Elrohir.

“One of us should look for fresher food,” Elrohir mused as he spread the second blanket over the sentry’s body. They had not lit a fire the last two nights and Aragorn expected they would not tonight, either, and though the frigid air was not cold for an Elf, grief oftentimes made one of the Firstborn feel the algidity more keenly, so they used these blankets to try to keep Kalin contented. They could do little for him; this much, however, they could do. When finished, the younger twin stood and spoke pointedly to his elder brother, “He needs something other than jerky, as do we all.”

“I agree. We can hunt for something, though I fear we won’t have much luck in the night,” Elladan replied to Elrohir. The elder twin hunkered down beside the Silvan for a moment to tuck the blankets in around Kalin’s form, so they would better retain the heat of the sentry’s body. “But we can keep at it until we find something,” he told his twin, obviously intending for he and Elrohir to see to this.

“I will go,” the Noldorin she-Elf offered. After planting a gentle kiss to his cheek, Reana stood from her seat beside her lover’s fair head. She wiped a trail of tears from her face, the scar thereon as apparent as ever it had been due to her own pallor, and began off to her mare to obtain her bow, where she had left it upon running to Kalin earlier. “I will find something for us to eat, I promise you.”

“There is no need,” Aragorn tried to reason with the she-Elf. He did not say this because he doubted her abilities, but because he didn’t want for her to go off hunting, thinking she needed to do so out of respect for her Lords, when she might rather sit beside Kalin to be there for the Silvan when he awoke. He reasoned to her, “Stay here if you wish. Elladan and Elrohir can forage and hunt.”

She shook her head and tested the string of her bow, and of course found it suitable, for any warrior who did not keep her bowstring in good condition was no warrior at all. “I cannot sit here indolently and watch him sleep. I would feel better knowing I am aiding him – and you,” she told Estel in particular, since the human was also suffering from having too little to eat with nothing edible but jerky over the last few days. “Besides, Kalin will likely be embarrassed to wake with me hovering over him like a worried hen over her chicks,” she told the Ranger with a thin smile.

She offered no further argument but took off through the trees. Aragorn had the clear impression Reana would not soon return unless she found fresh meat and perhaps some greens for Kalin’s breakfast. Personally, he was looking forward to it. As a child, Estel had always loved meat, cheese, and bread, and forsaken the vegetables and fruit offered to him; as an adult, he knew he needed to eat more than mere jerky to give his body what it needed to heal from the toxin currently afflicting him. The three brothers watched until Reana was out of sight; and then, as if three crickets tied to the same string, they all moved concurrently by returning their gazes to Kalin, who was still oblivious to the world. But the twins could not be idle, either, and so Elladan went to Aragorn’s dray to remove the human’s bedroll, while Elrohir went to his horse to gather their paltry healing supplies.

“Come sit, Estel,” Elrohir prompted the man with a hand to his lower back, his other hand grasping the strap to a satchel in which resided the last of their clean linen bandaging. He guided the Ranger to sitting near Kalin, where Elladan finished spreading out the man’s bedroll near to the Silvan sentry. “Let us check your arm now, and then you can sleep, as well, and get more rest tonight than you have the last few days.”

He obeyed willingly enough, as he was exhausted and not eager to argue – especially since the twins were at present not casting angry looks his way as they had been doing since discovering the Prince was missing; their castigating glowers had only worsened upon finding Legolas dead. Now, though, they were subdued by Kalin’s grief, so were almost kind to Aragorn as Elrohir aided him into sitting and Elladan handed him a skin of water. He drank of it, wishing he had wine or whisky, or even some miruvor, though they had given all of the cordial to Legolas to aid him that week between his waking from the dead and his subsequent death.

Aragorn sat facing Kalin to keep watch over the sentry. The situation was altogether too familiar to the many times he had sat beside Legolas, keeping vigil over his Elven lover. The Adan felt the sting of tears in his red rimmed and bloodshot eyes. We cannot lose Kalin, as well, he reproved himself. If Reana has not already reminded Kalin of his promise to Greenleaf to be my protector, I will remind him myself, so that we may give Kalin reason to continue. The younger twin pulled back the last layer of linen covering the wound to Estel’s forearm. For a moment, he thought he saw Kalin’s eyelids flicker, but when Elrohir spoke, he turned his regard to of what the younger Noldo spoke.

Twisting Estel’s arm a bit so he could see the flesh upon the sides of it, Elrohir told his brothers, “It is deteriorating.”

As the Noldo had declared, the Ranger’s injury was indeed becoming worse. Whereas when made it had been merely a cut to his flesh, then become reddened with tendrils of black sepsis branching out from the wound, it was now seeping bloody pus and the same dusky toxin that was also blackening the skin around the injury. It had spread farther than when last they had checked it. After the elder twin had his chance to see the wound, they began to wash it clean, the identically grim sets of their mouths showing Aragorn the worry they had for him.

“For Estel,” Elladan said to his Elven brother, speaking as though the man were not sitting there between them, “we need to hurry home. For Kalin,” he began, but it was Elrohir who finished his brother’s thought, saying, “We need to dawdle to give his body time to recuperate.”

Truth be told, Estel was not particularly eager to go home to the valley. While he knew he had been correct in his comfort to Reana – that is, in telling the Elleth how Elrond would be able to convince Kalin his Prince’s death was not his fault, and thus offer the sentry reassurance none of them could – the man was not as sure of what his father would say to him in concerns to Legolas’ death. More than anything, he feared Elrond would find him at fault for all of it, as had the twins. He rubbed absently at the bruise to his chin, and licked the cut upon his lip to see if it was healing properly. These wounds had been made to his face in the altercation between the twins and he, in addition to the bruising to his belly from where he had been hit during their fight. He thought to argue with his brothers and risk another altercation, but someone else did it for him.

“No,” came a sabulous, soft voice belonging to none of the brothers, all three of whom turned or shifted to see Kalin’s attempt to sit as he argued, “We will not dawdle on my account. We must get Estel to your father for medicines.”

“Lay back, brother Wood-Elf,” Elladan soothed the sentry, leaping upon his knees to get close, to try to keep Kalin from rising. He managed to do so, but only because the Silvan was too weak to fight against Elladan’s hand holding him down into lying. “Rest.”

Kalin did as asked but did not stop making his argument. “I will not be the cause of Estel’s death by tarrying in our return to the valley. If need be, you will leave me behind to take Estel home.” As selfless as the sentry usually was, his morbid offer reeked of suicidal ambition, as if he hoped they would leave him alone, and thus perchance die when next his body gave out from exhaustion.

“We would never do such a thing!” the younger twin declared after a snort of disbelief. As Elrohir wished to join his elder brother in comforting Kalin, the Noldo made short work of rewrapping Estel’s forearm; he barely had the linen tucked in so not to come loose before he scrambled to be at Elladan’s side, and thus at Kalin’s side.

Intending to argue, Kalin again tried to rise, and again, the twins kept him from doing so. Thoroughly thwarted by the mothering twins, Kalin instead grunted in aggravation. “We will travel as quickly as have we been doing, and if I fall off my horse again, leave me where I lie.”

With more care than his twin brothers had shown, for he was woozy and drained and did not wish to fall over upon Kalin due to this, Estel also moved to be beside the Wood-Elf. He took up Kalin’s hand, which the sentry allowed, and held it between his own. For a brief moment, Aragorn felt some sense of relief from his acquaintance with the situation, for he could nearly fool himself into believing it was his Greenleaf lying there rather than Kalin. He released the Silvan’s hand out of fear he would begin to weep.

“We have already lost one brother in this ill-fated trip,” the Ranger told the sentry, echoing what the twins had said days ago while burying Legolas and haranguing the Ranger over his health, “we will not chance to lose another. Not you, not me. We can both hurry to Imladris and make time for you to rest, my friend.”

Upon hearing the Ranger say this, Kalin argued no more, for after all, the Adan was the only other one who the sentry knew to be suffering over Legolas’ death just as much as he suffered. Thus, the Silvan only nodded and kept his silence; at least, until he noted Reana was not there. When he could not find the Elleth in the immediate area, the Wood-Elf asked, “Where is Reana?”

“Off to find us something other to eat than the Maker-damned jerky we’ve been choking down for days,” Estel replied. He smiled at Kalin wistfully, his humor true even though it hurt his heart to find any comicality in saying, “As adept as Greenleaf was at smoking venison, I have grown tired of the taste.” With a laugh, he added, “And your Prince was never very good at seasoning jerky – or food in general. Many are the things our Greenleaf excelled at, but never let it be said was he a good cook.”

To his relief, for he had feared his unthought-out words would cause Kalin sorrow upon the reminder of his Prince’s death, Kalin first frowned and then smiled, before his smile grew and he chuckled softly. “You are right of that. Legolas could scorch boiling water.”

Even Elladan and Elrohir laughed at this banter between Ranger and Wood-Elf, and some of the tension between the brothers and the sorrow they all shared was alleviated. If together they could reminisce over Legolas’ life, then it would aid them to accept his death, the man knew.

Perhaps thinking this very thing, Elrohir laughed as he reminded his twin, his human foster brother, and the Wood-Elf whom they had taken into their family as another brother, telling them, “Do you remember the time Greenleaf made rabbit stew for us while hunting in the Greenwood?”

Aragorn had not been a part of this memory, for he had not even been alive when it was made, so he listened avidly when Kalin snickered along with the twins at Elrohir’s reminder, and then explained to the mystified human, “My Prince mistook a false rosemary plant for actual rosemary, and added its leaves to the stew. It was rather refreshing to eat, if one likes bitter, soapy rabbit.”

It was an easy mistake to make, of course, since there was a good reason the plant was called ‘false rosemary.’ Estel laughed along with the others, glad to have some reason to do so, and more glad to see his brothers and Silvan friend laughing. Their journey thus far had been gloomy and strained.

To his surprise, Elladan began building a fire; Aragorn quickly rose with the intent to help by finding kindling, while Elrohir took out the small metal pot in which they cooked and wiped it clean with a dampened cloth. Perhaps they were being too optimistic about Reana finding game for their breakfast, but it felt good to be active, to be working together, and to be speaking about Legolas with fondness, rather than with blame and regret. The fire now blazing, the four all moved to sit around it, enjoying themselves with talk about their memories of Legolas.

During one such story – where Elladan was retelling the narrative of Elrohir’s mud and berry soup, a tale they had all heard before and knew was being embellished by Elladan, who now claimed Legolas had asked for seconds – Reana returned with a brace of rabbit, dandelion roots, and some walnuts she had found while hunting. Most surprisingly, though, someone followed the she-Elf into the clearing, which caused the twins to leap to their feet in surprise, with Elrohir calling out in welcome to the newcomer, “Valnesse. By Ilúvatar it is good to see a new face.”

The Noldorin she-Elf came into the campsite with Reana, leading her horse by the reins, while smiling and glad to be greeted so warmly by her Lord’s sons. She let her horse wander over to the other mounts while she came to the fire. An underling of Reana, Valnesse was an accomplished and highly competent warrior, as was Reana. The woman grabbed Elrohir’s outstretched hand, clasping it firmly before accepting Elladan’s hand next in greeting.

“My Lords,” she said, bowing her head somewhat in belated obeisance. “Lord Elrond will be most pleased at your homecoming. I have only just returned to the borders, where I have been making the rounds to warn all the remote posts of your imminent arrival – or at least, of what Lord Elrond hoped to be your pending return. He has been very worried, I think, which is why he sent me along to have all the outlying guards prepared to be of aid to you upon your arrival.”

“Yes,” the elder twin stated, settling back into his seat at the fire along with Elrohir, while Valnesse insinuated herself between the two.

Estel knew the she-Elf well enough; though they had not spent much time together, he had danced with her at feasts and spoken to her often in his years growing up. He also knew she was quite flirtatious and was smitten with Elladan and Elrohir, as were many of the Ellith in Imladris. She brazenly smiled at the identical brothers in turn, awaiting more information.

“Our aid to the village took longer than we expected,” the younger twin added vaguely.

Not catching the sudden fall in good humor, Valnesse eyed the twins, then Estel, and then Kalin, who had stood and walked off a ways with Reana to help her in skinning and preparing the rabbits for their meal. While the two spoke quietly, he believed he could hear Reana chastising Kalin for being up and about instead of resting.

Apparently, Reana had not told the woman of Legolas’ fate, for she asked unknowingly, “And where is the Prince of Mirkwood, Estel? I can’t imagine you’ve let him out of your sight,” she teased, for much like everyone else in the valley, Valnesse knew of the Ranger and Prince’s love affair.

Uncomfortable silence met her question. This was answer enough for the Elleth, who realized her unintentional gaffe at once, and so apologized, “I’m sorry. Varda’s grace,” she rued softly, giving Aragorn a sympathetic grimace.

She had the good grace not to ask for details, at least. When the silence grew long, Aragorn finally broke it by asking her, “Is anyone with you or did you come alone? We have need for supplies.”

“It is only a day’s walk from the last outpost,” she told them, all flirtatiousness of before dampened under the shared sorrow of those around her. Elladan was poking at the fire with a long branch, and all who sat around it watched this as if it were the most interesting display they had ever seen. “It is the old post where the Mitheithal and Bruinen run near before joining together. The flet farther north was destroyed in a storm, so those stationed there moved south,” she blathered, trying vainly to fill the quiet. She cleared her throat, tossed her dark hair over her shoulders, and then went on, “Gwindor, Camthalion, and Aerandir are stationed there. They have healing supplies, stores of food, and whatever else you might need on your return journey.”

The mention of healing supplies brought the twins out of their muteness, at least, for they desperately wanted to find some means of tending the Ranger’s poisoned wound. Elrohir laid a hand upon the Elleth’s shoulder, causing her to turn to him, and told her, “Estel is wounded, the injury septic. It may take us out of our way a bit to travel to the outpost, but if they have the supplies we need, it will be well worth the delay in reaching home.”

Her smile returned, Valnesse could not decide which twin to beam at when Elladan laid his hand upon the other of her shoulders to say, “It is good fortune you have found us with this information.”

“Speaking of Estel – why do you not go sleep for a while,” Elrohir suggested to the Adan, rising from his seat and coming to the man. He held his hand out to aid the Ranger into standing, which Aragorn accepted. While exhausted, he was not sleepy, but he knew he would have to try, lest his brothers hound him over it. Elladan soon followed his twin’s actions in doing the same, and together, the two walked Aragorn the short distance to his bedroll, which lay close enough to the fire to feel the warmth without his being in the way of cooking. Elladan added as he had the last two nights, “We will wake you upon dawn.”

“By the time we wake you, we will have fresh food to fill your belly,” Kalin called from across the way. The Silvan sentry was once more smiling, which heartened Aragorn greatly to see. His hands bloodied from the raw chunks of rabbit held within them, Kalin walked to the fire, where already Reana had the pot filled with water to boil the meat along with some dried cooking herbs from the twins’ satchels. He told the Ranger, his words sounding portentous, though Aragorn could not imagine why he should see them as so, “Tomorrow we will be one day closer to the end of this journey.”

He crawled into and lay down upon his bedroll, then pulled the thick mattress over his head to block out the light and sound of the others.

When he closed his eyes, he could still see Kalin’s hands covered in blood, the red, raw chunks of flesh held in them, and to the harried Ranger, it might as well have been Legolas’ butchered body the sentry had carried to the fire for cooking. He feared to dream about Legolas again tonight. Two nights ago, he had a nightmare about the Elf’s torment and eventual demise. Last night, he had not been able to sleep out of fear of having another one. And tonight, he was certain if he slept, he would nightmare. After a relatively pleasant night with his companions and brothers, sharing memories about his Greenleaf, a dream of his lover’s excruciation and death would break his heart, his will, and his brief fair mood.

Now that he was left to himself, a sick sensation crept over him, for it felt disloyal to him to be feeling any better about Legolas’ death, even if it had only been a night of reminiscing about the Woodland Prince with his closest friends. I do not want to get over Greenleaf’s death, he argued with himself. I do not want to move on from him. In some strange way, he almost wished for the nightmare to come, for at least, he could see Legolas, remember the torment through which the Elf had surely suffered, and be reminded of his pain and grief to keep it close and wholly within himself, so not to lose it.

Chapter Text

His belly was so terribly empty; the Prince half-seriously considered eating the dirt under his hands just to fill his growling stomach with something to quiet it. Legolas knew he ought to make more of an effort in trying to forage for food as he travelled, but he also knew if he didn’t make good time during his journey north, he would likely die before nearing Imladris’ outlying borderlands, and thus, all his travails would be for naught.

He felt around the ground in front of him, crawling upon hands and knees to do so, and wondered, Have the others given up searching for me yet? Did they return to the lake, and perchance find my note of where I have gone? Have they found my trail leading north?

These were questions to which he held only optimistic answers; the Prince tried not to allow them to instill any hope within his flagging, ailing heart, for he could ill-afford the crash of disappointment when no one came to his aid. Still, the Elf believed with all his being that Estel would never give up on finding him, and so he did not even consider the possibility of the Ranger and his brothers, much less the Prince’s own sentry, abandoning Legolas to his fate in the forest.

Are they well? he asked himself, his thoughts turning to the mysterious grave beside the lake, wherein someone’s body had been laid to rest.

As much as he troubled the death might have been Estel’s, Legolas felt he would know if his lover were dead. Their faers were now connected in a manner similar to how two Eldar faers were connected, and in such cases, one Elf would typically be able to sense if his or her lover had died. But if it were not Aragorn in the unmarked grave, then one of the twins or Kalin might have died, and none of these possibilities were less unsettling than the prospect of Estel’s demise. He could not bear to lose any of his beloved friends, who would have likely died in trying to find the missing Prince, and therefore, in the Silvan’s mind, the death of any of his companions would be his fault.

In his slow scramble about the forest’s floor, the sole of the Elf’s foot brushed against the root of a nearby tree; Legolas hissed in pain and cursed in Dwarvish under his breath. He pushed himself into a crouch before flopping back onto his rear so he could grab his wounded foot in both hands. Having walked barefoot this whole time, Legolas’ feet were grimy with dried, encrusted mud and leaves, but this in itself did not bother the Wood-Elf. No, what had caused his reaction to the simple graze of flesh against root was that in doing so, he had rubbed open one of the many sores upon the sole of his foot. Both feet were in similar condition, for despite the hardened calluses upon them, both soles had been cut both shallowly and deeply in various places by the sharp rocks over which he had trod. Unable to see to avoid the dangers, Legolas’ poor feet had also been gouged by the sticks and jagged edges of broken branches he had stepped upon in his attempt to move ever northward.

At this rate, I will walk into the valley on stumps, he rued in a discomfited near-delirium borne from starvation and the interminable pain from his myriad wounds. But if I can manage to walk into Imladris at all, I will be glad of it, even if I walk my feet into a mangled mess.

Rubbing gingerly at his tormented foot to ease the sting of the newly reopened sore, he tried to breathe through the discomfort, which was augmented by Legolas’ continued oversensitization of his every sense. Yes, to make matters worse for the Elf, the effect of the rejoining of his faer and rhaw over a week earlier had yet to end, though it had abated and waned evermore each day. Thus, every small twinge or fleeting pang felt to be amplified tenfold, such that the whole of his awareness was ever tinged with excruciation from which he could find no relief. Indeed, his deep breathing to alleviate the pain of his foot caused a different pain to resurface, however, as his rebroken rib was agitated by the expansion of his chest. He could not wrap his ribs, lest he take off his trousers and walk nude through the forest, so the bone was not mending properly – or so he assumed from the constant agony of his chest. His hands were similarly filthy and had various cuts; the wound to his arm, made during his scuffle with the Yrrch, had scabbed over but still aggrieved him; and the many bumps and contusions to his head were receding in swelling, though his vision had yet to clear. All in all, Legolas was in a very abysmal condition, which only grew worse because he needed to eat, drink, and rest to heal.

I wish Estel were here, if only to speak to me. I would even give anything to have Minyatar here right now, or even the twins, fussing over me for not taking care of these wounds, the lonely Prince mused. He sighed and admitted, Right now, I would even settle for Elise to be here. At least she would have been some company. Having not heard another voice beyond his own for days now, the homesick Wood-Elf even considered with acute wistfulness, I wish Ada were here to yell at me right now, telling me what a fool I am to have been caught by the Orcs.

Were he in Mirkwood, safe and fed and his injuries tended, he would gladly listen to his King rant for hours over the events of the last month, wherein the Prince had done as Thranduil wished most Thranduilion would not do – that is, place his life in danger for the lives of Edain, whose lives the Elvenking respected in general, but did not find comparable in worth to the life of his son. While he wanted to reach Rivendell to ascertain the others’ safety and for his own survival, Legolas wanted desperately to go home to the Greenwood – more so than he had ever desired in his many years. Partly, this longing was due to his inability to see, for at home, he would not need vision to make his way through the Mirkwood forest. He knew his homeland as well as he knew every scar, blemish, hair, and freckle upon Estel’s handsome, tanned hide; if he were lost in Eryn Galen, Legolas could have found his way to his father’s stronghold with ease, as even had he not happened upon anyone around to aid him, he could have merely asked the trees, many of whom he was “acquainted” with personally.

Stop this, Legolas, he railed at himself when his anxiety began to mount with these childish musings of wishing he were home. Feeling the wound to his aching foot was opened but had not been made worse, he let it be, since he could not even wash it clean. He wiped blood from his dirty hands onto his already soiled trousers and inculcated within his mind as he had several times since beginning this ill-fated journey north, You will never make it home if you do not get moving.

Taking more care this time not to further injure his feet again, Legolas now crawled to his side, his hands once more hunting the ground for something edible. While he felt many different plants and grasses, he could not tell what any of them were by touch alone. Likely, he was passing over something he could have eaten, he realized, but he feared to take a chance. Elves were not as susceptible to poisonous plants or animals as were humans and others of Eru’s creations, but they were not entirely immune. While a plant which might kill a human could be eaten by an Elf without death, it could still make said Elf highly sick. It was this over which Legolas vexed as he combed the ground with his hands for something to consume.

I am already so weak, if I eat something toxic, it may kill me whereas it would not normally have done, he fretted. Even still, if he found something that would only sicken him a little – like thorn apple or wisteria – he would consume a little of it and hope for the best. His belly demanded it. When his hands found nothing feeling familiar to him, the laegel lamented, I would that I had paid more attention to the details of the lessons on herbs Minyatar tried to give me when younger. Perhaps if I had, I would be able to determine what some of these are.

While definitely no healer, Legolas was a consummate woodsman and could usually ascertain a plant easily enough, though by sight only. Feeling a plant to try to identify it was beyond his abilities, lest he was familiar with it enough to make an educated guess. In defeat, he sat back against the trunk of the nearest tree to rest for a few moments, and then laid his aching head upon its rough bark to sigh in frustration. As they now instinctually did of their own accord after his having nearly lost the weapon at the lake, his hands sought out the hilt of the dagger tied into the lacings of his trousers to ensure it was still there. Feeling its presence, he closed his nearly blind eyes and tried to calm his erratic breathing, for his ever-present unease constantly seemed to swell with each passing moment of rest he tried to obtain, meaning he could only find relief from it if he kept active.

And for his part, Legolas had managed to keep moving; indeed, for two days, the Elf had walked barefoot, unsighted, and at the brink of starvation, while always trying to keep his course to the north. Since he could barely see anyway, the Elf had not bothered to stop his shambling at night, for whether he had sunlight by which to see did not matter; besides, Legolas continuously lied by telling himself he might happen upon someone who could help him, or find something to eat or drink, if he walked just a little farther. Up to now, his lies had not become truth through happenstance. He had found no good source of water since filling his belly with the lake’s water, and so thirsted, as well; in fact, his dehydration consumed almost every idle thought, however, despite his belly’s insistence for it to be fed. He had found no one to help him. And he had found no food.

Nevertheless, Legolas was rather proud of himself thus far. He was a Silvan Elf, after all, and had been born and raised in the forest. The whole of the Wood-Elf’s culture was dependent upon the Mirkwood forest for food via foraging and hunting, medicines from scavenging, and shelter by living in the trees or in shanties made from them. If only he could see, Legolas was certain he would not have merely survived thus far, but thrived in doing so, for he knew more of living off the woods than did the vast majority of Noldorin or Sindarin Elves. He had made do, given his dire circumstances. Soon after he had left the lake, the laegel had picked up a long, curved branch from the ground – one which he had found by almost tripping over it – and since then, he had used it to help him feel his way along, though he always kept the other hand out, as well, to catch himself should he fall. He had fallen a few times, but never with serious injury – a boon for which he thanked Eru. Legolas was fairly sure he was still travelling in the right direction, also, despite not being able to gauge his bearings by the sun, moon, or stars. While his travel was painstakingly slow, his pace much more deliberate than he had hoped, and his exasperation propagated with each step he took since each step needed to be carefully planned out before it was made, none of these hindrances deterred him. However much his situation discouraged him, Legolas carried on the best he could.

The longer he sat inertly against the tree, the more the Wood-Elf’s nervousness mounted, until it finally coerced him into standing and giving up on trying to rest. His walking stick in hand, the Elf gazed up with his useless eyes at the sky, where the bright white of Anor shone nebulously to his left as it began its way west with the sunset. Satisfied he was still walking northward, Legolas began off again, his branch feeling the way first before he moved his feet. With each step, his nervousness declined, until he became satisfyingly mindless of the calamitous position in which he was mired. When he guessed to have been walking for another few hours, the Elf once more stopped for respite. With each step, his aching feet’s torment grew, and he wished to check them again to make sure he had no twig, leaf, or pebble lodged into the greatest of the cuts made to his soles, which was a gash upon the arch of his right foot from where he had gouged it open upon a jagged rock’s sharp point. He carefully laid down his stick as he knelt on the ground, and then felt his feet for new or worsened injury. Luckily, it seemed he had done no more damage to them and while they throbbed fiercely, the accumulating mud upon his skin seemed to have stopped the bleeding.

This task completed, the Prince searched the ground for anything he thought might be comestible. Legolas had keen hearing, like the rest of his kind, but his inability to see seemed to have sharpened this sense, for his awareness was focused less upon his eyes and more upon his hearing. Ever did his ears hunt for the sound of running water. He paused in his hands’ rustling of the leaves and plants to listen more closely, which was when he heard the distinctive song of a king rail, its peculiar grunting call telling him he was likely near water, since the king rail typically lived only around marshes, rivers, lakes, and ponds.

Please, Ulmo, he pled to the Lord of Water, if it is within Eru’s will and you have some mercy to spare, let me soon happen upon some part, no matter how small it may be, of your vast water realm.

The prospect of finding something to drink abruptly concluded his attempt to find something to eat. At once, Legolas rose quickly from the ground, all thoughts of searching for food having fled his consideration when the potential to slake his thirst pushed to the forefront of his mind. Stick in hand and his dagger once more checked and found where it ought to be, Legolas began off in the general direction from where he had heard the king rail’s call, which was luckily still northward, if a bit to the west. The Elf reduced his pace even more than his slow ambling of before, for the laegel stopped often to listen to any signs of a river or lake. After another half hour or so of shambling warily forward, Legolas stopped abruptly when his questing walking stick struck against no tree trunks before him and his outthrust hand found nothing around him. In vain, he sought confirmation with his eyes what his hand and walking stick already told him, and from what he could distinguish, the blurry, shadowy shapes of trees had disappeared to the north of him.

A meadow, perhaps, he speculated.

He had yet to encounter more than a small clearing here and there, where always he could loosely determine through the obscuration of his vision that there was more forest just a little farther ahead; and yet, this time, he discerned nothing. The thought of crossing the field frightened the Silvan badly. He knew he could cross this meadow and eventually find more trees on its opposite side, though how long it would take before he resumed ambling amidst the trees, he obviously could not determine. This was a heavily wooded area of Eriador, after all, and would remain mostly so until he got farther northeast, close to Rivendell, where the rockier ground supported fewer trees and more brush and bush. The Silvan backed up a few steps from the lea afore him, afraid to turn around unless he became disoriented in doing so, until his bare foot struck against the exposed root over which he had just managed to tread without stumbling. He grunted as a shockwave of pain spread from his tortured sole and up his leg. The Woodland Prince wavered in indecision and dread, though truly, he knew what his decision would be, as there was nothing for it – he did not dare to leave the protection and comfort of the forest, even to cross a meadow. Legolas opted instead to follow the edge of the clearing in hopes of finding more trees upon its northern side, and continue from there. The deteriorating Silvan was frantic to stay within the guidance and shelter of the trees, for right now – sightless, weak, and injured – Legolas had only the trees as security and companionship.

His free hand fumbled at his waist, seeking the hilt of the dagger, as he further debated a moment about whether to walk to the west or east of the clearing. Finding the hilt soothed him a bit, but the longer he stood there mulling over this dilemma, the more his heart’s rate increased. Had this been a smaller clearing, such a decision would not have been significant, but since he did not know for how far this treeless area stretched north, it potentially mattered quite a bit. Likewise, how far east and west the clearing extended were of great concern to him, as well. If the meadow went too far east, his following the edge in an easterly direction might lead him too close to the dangers associated with the mountainous range he was actively trying to avoid. Animals seeking a meal who might find him an easy target; Yrrch who he might happened across, who often took shelter in the foothills of the Misty Mountains; or perhaps even, the same Orcs from whom he had escaped might find him if he strayed too far to the east. On the other hand, if he went the opposite direction and the meadow went too far to the west, Legolas might happen upon other travellers – an idea of which wouldn’t normally bother him, if he could see to ascertain whether they were friend or foe. When unsure of their bearings in this area or when in Cardolan but too far north to travel along The Green Way without having to backtrack south, humans were wont to follow the Greyflood north to the Hoarwell, which when trailed upriver would lead them to the East Road. Following the Greyflood also tended to be the safer route rather than wandering the countryside, as bandits and harriers were prolific along The Green Way and the lesser-known paths branching out from the main roads, and these brigands preyed upon those who were not capable of fighting for themselves. He was on the east side of the Greyflood, of course, but if he strayed too close to the river, he might still be seen from the opposite shore, if not by someone travelling on his side of the river.

Legolas rubbed at his perpetually aching head as he stood there for a few more minutes, gauging which choice was the lesser of two evils, before he moaned in frustration and took off to the west, while hoping his decision was not a poor one. I will take my chances in happening upon humans, I suppose. At least some of them are kind, unlike the wildcats, bears, and Yrrch in the mountains. His time in Elise’s village had reminded the Prince of the general goodness of the Secondborn. Besides, if nothing else, if the meadow stretched towards the river, he would have plenty to drink for a while.

Thus, Legolas began trailing the tree line of the meadow, now facing the sun as it began the last section of its unwavering voyage across the sky and ultimately down into the horizon in the west. The Silvan continued to seek the sounds of the water he reckoned must be nearby, for as he walked, Legolas had heard several times the call of a rail. But it was hard to heed his surroundings when his belly growled so loudly and his mouth felt like the parched ground of Mordor’s wasteland, and after a while, the agony of his body – his rebroken rib, his battered, swollen skull, and his tired, aching legs and feet – turned his already slow walk into a feeble shuffle. At times, when his arm began to ache so much that lifting and feeling for his next safe step with the stick became too much effort, the Elf merely trusted to fate to guide him forward. Only the promise of a drink gave him the impetus to carry on, for on occasion, his nose picked up the scent of water on the algid breeze. From where this odor came, he could not tell, though it grew stronger as the day grew to its end. Three times since beginning west, the tired Elf walked into thickets of dormant briars, all of which seemed intent upon shredding his exposed skin; after the fourth time of doing so, the utterly fatigued and soul-weary Wood-Elf disentangled himself from the thorns, backed up a few steps, and dropped to his knees, his free hand yet again seeking out the hilt of his dagger to ensure it was there as he did so.

Sunset is coming soon, I reckon, he tried to reason. Maybe I should just try to escape into reverie. I can climb the nearest tree and sleep for a while. Elbereth knows I need it.

His constant, nagging fear caused a shudder to run along the ever increasingly pronounced bones of his spine. Above all his other fears, the Wood-Elf dreaded to become lost or turned around, and thus to begin travelling in the wrong direction. He had already lost all sense of time. He wasn’t even sure for how long he had been walking, though he believed it to be two days or so, and while he was right in thinking this, he also feared it had been much longer than two days. It certainly felt to Legolas as if he had been walking for an eternity. The Silvan had tried to sleep in the boughs of a tree during the dark of the night before, but slumber had proven elusive. As tired, famished, and thirsty as he was, he was troubled he might sleep for too long. If he fell into slumber and didn’t wake when he desired to, the Silvan feared he might lose direction, for if he fell into reverie at night and slept until the next afternoon, he could end up believing the sun was just then rising, and thus put it to his right instead of his left, and walk south. If this were to happen, Legolas figured he would realize his mistake eventually, but he could ill afford to lose time to retrace his steps, for at this rate, Legolas understood it was very likely he would die of starvation or dehydration ere he reached Rivendell, if he didn’t die of injury or attack before then. Even were he to leave himself some sign of which direction he ought to be travelling, such as marking a tree or whatnot, he did not know if he could endure the anxiety of trusting his life to such an easily mistakable effort. It was better to keep walking than to chase after sleep, when said sleep would likely not come at all, or if it did, potentially cause him to lose precious time.

Legolas’ only advocates right now were the trees. As a Silvan Elf, he had ever taken solace from the lifesong of any forest he was in, and this one was no different. Feeling blood running down his upper arm from where it had been scratched by the briars, the Elf absently licked it away, the coppery, sweet taste honing his lust for something to drink or eat. Sitting his walking stick to lay along his right shin, the kneeling Prince yet again began hopelessly scouring the ground for anything remotely comestible. It wasn’t but a few moments later when he once more heard the distinctive call of a king rail. He startled as if he had instead heard an oliphaunt trampling nearby, for this time, the bird’s call sounded to be only feet away.

Water, his shattered mind supplied, encouraging him with the promise the bird’s song portended of his finding something to drink soon. The scent of water was strong here, but as had been the case the whole time of his walking west along the tree line, Legolas could not determine from which direction the odor originated. There must be water nearby; please, Ulmo, let there be water nearby. Please, Ilúvatar, he implored, licking his chapped lips with his arid tongue at the delicious thought of having something to wet his dried out mouth and to fill his empty belly. Please, just a drink. Not even food, if it is your will, he bargained, rambling as he prayed, But please, just something to drink.

Thus, the laegel gave up on looking for edible plants and instead stumbled to his feet, his mind now locked upon quenching his thirst rather than filling his belly. Northwards still laid the vacant, relatively shadowless area where the unseeing Elf could ascertain little – or at least, he could see nothing large enough for his hindered eyes to pick out in the waning light of the evening. Again, the call of the king rail came, and Legolas knew then it was only a few feet in front of him, north in the meadow he was trying to avoid traversing.

Is there some lake or pond in this meadow? he wondered, his anxiety rousing concomitantly with his anticipation of a drink. Bending to pick up his walking stick and his free hand automatically checking his dagger was where it ought to be, Legolas shook his head and told himself aloud, “Stop being a foolish Elfling. If there is water in this meadow, then go find it. If you do it quickly, you can avoid walking the meadow in the dark, and perchance avoid losing your direction.”

Properly chastised, the Prince crept forward, his walking stick swinging out before him, and his hand out to catch himself – just as he had been doing for the last two days. No more than a quarter of an hour later, and though he saw no shadows in the way and his walking stick did not hit anything afore the Elf, when he made his next step, his left foot sloshed into water, causing Legolas to lose his balance and slide forward. Luckily, the Prince steadied himself by placing all his weight upon his right foot and avoided falling face first into the squelching mud into which he had stepped.

Water, was his immediate, joyous thought.

He smiled widely, uncaring of anything but the potential drink he might soon find. The Wood-Elf fell harshly to his knees, grunted in pain at the carelessness with which he did so, laid his walking stick to the side, stuck his hand in the liquid he had stepped into, and then brought a palm-full of the water to his nose. It smelled green and stale, like pond water, which was when he knew the king rail’s home was a marsh rather than a river or lake. Yet, Legolas did not care. In fact, Legolas didn’t care if this was the pond where Yrrch came to bathe or if a carcass of a Troll were rotting in the middle of this stagnant pool – he was thirsty, so dreadfully thirsty, and he would drink.

Again and again, the Silvan gulped the foul smelling water, unperturbed by the obvious algae coating his tongue and teeth and slipping over his now slimy hands. If it made him sick, so be it. His failing body’s aches and pains disappeared for a brief moment, for his elation was so immense he felt nothing but near orgasmic pleasure from relieving the burning desiccation of his mouth and throat. As he sat there, drinking handful after handful of the mucky water with little pause between each swallow so he would not allow himself too much time to think about what he might be drinking along with the liquid, Legolas dragged the dregs of his memory. After some thought, the Elf came up with some notion of where he was. A marshy area ran close to the Hoarwell, for sometimes the river flooded and swelled over its banks in this low-lying area, and in doing so, over the many years it had made a boggy mess of the forest close to it.

Then somehow I have come too far west, even before I started following the tree line to avoid the meadow, he realized, as this was the only marsh he could think of in the region, although admittedly, he did not know this part of the world as well as did Estel. The worst of his thirst sated, he sat on his arse upon the relatively dry patch of ground before the water and reflected upon what he had done and what he might now do. Out of more habit than hope, Legolas ran his hands over the ground immediately around him. To his astonishment, he felt something with which he was quite knowledgeable – when he felt the familiar leaves of a cattail plant growing along the water’s edge, he offered in gratitude, Thank you, Eru. And thank you, Ulmo, for both the water and the food.

While not as filling as would be a nice, fat slab of venison or as wholesome as a loaf of bread, Legolas had at least found something edible and entirely innocuous. His mouth watering in anticipation, the Prince pulled at the stalks, his fingers groping in finding the green shoots nearest the roots, which he then yanked free. He popped them into his mouth at once, savoring the simple act of eating more than the actual flavor of his foraged food. At this point, he didn’t much care what he ate, so long as it didn’t kill him.

Without even noticing the mud gathered at the bottom of the stalk, the Silvan gnawed upon the plant, his teeth sinking into the soft, white flesh of it with as much enthusiasm as one might enjoy a sweet treat. He made quick work of the other stalks of cattails growing nearby, and once done, he crawled upon hands and knees around the water’s edge, seeking out more. To his unending joy, Legolas found many of them. The cattails themselves were full of water – much cleaner than the water from which they grew – and so eating them helped to sate his thirst as well as appease his hunger. Legolas ate of the cattails until he felt as if his belly would burst, and all the while, he smiled in relief. He would not die of starvation today, at least. Later, he would gather as many of the cattails he could carry to take with him, for they would provide him with sustenance and hydration as he walked. Right now, though, since he had ate and drank, the aches of body pushed to the forefront of his awareness, while his exhaustion now deepened, much like how one might feel tired after consuming too much at a feast. Legolas’ eyelids drooped over his unseeing eyes.

Not here, he warned himself, realizing he might soon pass out from grogginess. At least make it back to the tree line.

Unbeknownst to the Prince, Anor declined in the sky until it was hidden behind the horizon in the far west. Night had fallen. To anyone who might have walked by, the Elf would have appeared to be in the act of standing, for he had one foot and one hand planted upon the ground as if to push against it to rise. For the first time since sleeping under the pine trees in the foothills, after fleeing the Yrrch who had captured him, Legolas slept.

Chapter Text

In his sleeping body, Estel rolled over, casting off his blanket as he did so. Being that his twin brothers were hovering over him, watching the restless man as he slept, the blanket was soon replaced over his body. It was nearing dawn and the twins would wake him soon to eat and then be about their way to the outpost where Valnesse claimed they could find herbs to tend the human’s fever. But for now, the man dreamt.

In his sleeping body, Legolas curled onto his side upon the soggy ground where he now laid, his body having fallen over at some point during the long night, the whole time of which he had slept peacefully unaware of having ever fallen asleep. He shoved one arm under his head for a pillow and sighed. It was just before dawn, with the sun yet to show even a hint of illumination in the east, and the marsh was quiet for the moment. The Elf dreamt.

He was walking in a bog, the Adan realized, while also understanding he was dreaming. Estel knew this marsh, for he had traversed it before in his waking life, and recognized where he was – the morass near the Greyflood, which the Noldor, Silvan, and Ranger had passed days ago. Why he would dream of this dull and dreary area, he did not know, but the man wandered aimlessly in the strange, monochromatic light – illumination that hovered between the vividness of day and the gloom of night, though it was not quite the diffuse light of the gloaming or twilight. Perhaps it was the obscuration of the dim light or perhaps it was merely because he dreamt, but Aragorn could not make out much of anything before him. The reeds, pools of stagnant water, and bushes dotting the small mounds of earth were vague and formless.

Not too far from him, Legolas sat upon his rear on the cold, wet ground, which seeped into the cloth of his trousers. He could feel his lover’s presence as if the Adan were standing beside him. Like Aragorn, Legolas knew this was a dream, but if Estel were in it, then he counted it a good dream, and so unable to see, he waited with hope for the Ranger to draw near to where he sat in wait.

How can I know this is the marsh near the Greyflood if I cannot even see it? And why can I not see it? the human asked himself.

To his surprise, there came an answer to this question. Somewhere before him, the melodious and welcomed voice of his Elven lover told the human, “Because I cannot see it, I think.”

The human startled, stopped dead in his tracks, and tried vainly to search the area before him, from where the answer had come. Greenleaf? he wondered, hoping to see the laegel, even though he knew this was only a delusion his slumbering mind had concocted. Where is he?

Again, in answer to the man’s unexpressed thoughts, Legolas called out to the Adan, “Here, Estel. Follow my voice. I am right here.”

And so he did, for Legolas began to sing a song the Adan knew well, as it was the same song the Prince had taught the Ranger when Aragorn was merely a child – the berceuse-like song of violence and bloodshed Estel had sung to Legolas when the two had walked the Bruinen towards Imladris after felling Mithfindl months ago. His heart soaring at the sound of his lover’s euphonious voice, which the man had never thought to hear again, Estel soon located the Wood-Elf. Legolas sat beside a pool of algae covered water, staring off into the distance with a vacant gaze. As the man had seen the Prince in his nightmare of days ago, when he had dreamt of Legolas’ torment and demise by the Yrrch, Legolas currently appeared similar. The Elf was shirtless and bootless, his hair shorn unevenly but close to his scalp in most places, his body bruised and dirty, with even the contusions he had seen upon Legolas seeming the same now as they had in the nightmare of before.

It is truly you, Legolas supposed, smiling at the man, although his regard never quite settled upon Estel’s own eyes.

Aragorn did not receive his lover’s words with his ears, but heard them in his mind, as if he were hearing the Prince’s very thoughts. Given how the Wood-Elf had moments ago answered questions the man had not said aloud but only asked inside his own head, Aragorn decided, This is a strange dream, and then added in reply to the Elf, wondering if Legolas would hear him again, Yes, it is me, Greenleaf. I am here.

It is strange, but it is no dream, I think, the laegel thought back to the human. Holding his hand out, which was covered in mud, blood, and the green of living plants, Legolas still did not look at the Adan, but spoke aloud to him now, questioning with sudden worry as he doubted his previous assurance to the human, “It is no dream, is it? You are truly here. I feel you. You must be here.”

The man fell to his knees beside the Elf, while taking the Silvan’s hand at the same time. Often before, the Ranger had detected his lover’s presence when near the Elf, and had perceived his absence when the Wood-Elf was away. He could only agree with the Prince, for he sincerely felt the Silvan’s presence as he would have had he been awake with Legolas beside him.

I feared it was you buried in the grave by the lake, the Prince fretted with a deep and shaking inhale. But you are well, he concluded, sounding ecstatic to realize it, ere he then asked aloud, “Elladan, Elrohir, Kalin, and Reana… are they all well?”

Confused by his lover’s words – both those said and those unsaid – Aragorn addressed the Elf’s question first, while trying to catch the Prince’s vacant gaze with his own, “Everyone is well. No one is injured, save for a small wound I obtained fighting the Orcs who caught you. It is nothing. I will be fine,” he guaranteed the Elf when he saw how Legolas’ joy soured somewhat with anxiety over the man’s welfare.

This prevarication over the human’s wound did not go unnoticed by the Elf, who of course could read the man’s mind as well as Estel could read the Wood-Elf’s mind. Thus, Legolas knew the wound was infected with toxin, but he did not press the issue, as he also knew Aragorn believed what he had said when he told Legolas he would be fine. The Ranger pressed the Elf’s hand to the side of his face with force, causing Legolas to sigh in pleasure from this simple contact, while wishing, I would that I could see you. I wish I could see your face, even if isn’t real, so I can memorize you in case I die before making it to the valley.

Shaking his head at the oddness of all this, Aragorn returned the Elf’s smile reflexively, for he was never able to keep from grinning back at his beautiful Elven lover. He brought the Silvan’s hand to his mouth, uncaring of the dirt and blood thereon, and kissed Legolas’ palm. When the brush of his beard tickled the sensitive skin of the inside of the Prince’s wrist, the Wood-Elf laughed as a shiver ran through him. The Elf closed his eyes in contentment, his smile widening, though Aragorn’s smile slipped from his face when he finally understood what the Prince had said about the grave at the lake.

Grief lanced across the human’s chest, which of course the laegel felt, for he fearfully asked the man, “What is wrong? And if you are all well, who is buried at the lake?”

“You are dead, Greenleaf,” the Ranger whispered. He clutched his lover’s hand evermore tightly in his own, now bringing it to the middle of his chest, above his pounding heart. “And you are buried at the lake. We found your body in the Orcs’ cavern – or what remained of it – and before we left for the valley, we interred you where we had intended to bury you when thinking you would die from Elise’s curse.”

The Wood-Elf sat there in utter confusion, unable to so much as fathom the reasoning behind the man’s saying this. And yet, Estel told him he and the others were alive and well, which lightened a heavy burden from the laegel’s encumbered shoulders. He again exhaled noisily, this time in relief, for if Estel, the twins, Reana, and his faithful sentry were all hale, then Legolas did not need to fear his own death, for although he would try his damnedest to reach Imladris, he need not worry his doing so was the only way to ensure his friends were safe. Nor did he need to suffer through the anxiety of fearing one of his companions had been injured or killed while searching for him. And yet, a different and unwelcome emotion began to well within the Prince when he realized, You left for the valley without me. You gave up searching for me. I had thought you would never give up on me.

As quickly as the Elf thought this, Aragorn knew it, and despite his belief this Legolas before him was a mere figment of his imagination, the man responded in an attempt to quell the distress he could feel coming off his lover in swelling waves of dejection and heartache. From the Elf’s strangely sightless eyes, tears were forming and falling, one right after the other, and Estel knew Legolas did not yet understand, so tried to soothe the laegel, “You are dead. We buried you.”

This is madness, the man told himself. I speak to him as if he were real. As much as I welcome this dream of Greenleaf, I cannot confuse this with reality. Greenleaf is dead.

“No. I am not dead,” the Prince said again, while shaking his head at the Ranger. Legolas could not understand what Aragorn meant with his unspoken thoughts. “I am real, Estel. I am here in this marsh,” he told the man, which Legolas meant to be his waking body, but to which Aragorn thought the Elf referred his dream form of now.

“I wish it were true. I wish you were alive, but we found your body and took it to the lake. We buried you,” the Adan again said, his desire to weep freshening at the sight of the Elf’s quiet crying.

Then I am truly alone out here. No help will come, the Prince comprehended, dropping his head to hide the shame he felt at feeling so desperate and alone; but certainly, Aragorn could feel his lover’s emotions and knew his lover’s thoughts, and Estel struggled to understand what Legolas meant by this, for to his knowledge, of course, Legolas was dead and needed no help. The Prince took his hateful ponderings a step further to ask of the man, Did you give up so easily because you were angry with me for leaving the lake? For being the cause of my own capture and torment because I took off without you?

“No,” the Ranger argued back in a near growling shout. He grabbed hold of the Silvan’s shoulders and shook them lightly to rouse the Prince from these awful thoughts. The very idea of Greenleaf believing the man would ever abandon him – even this dream Elf whom the Ranger did not believe to be real – was too much for the Adan to bear. “No, Greenleaf. No, we did not abandon you. Never. I would never have abandoned you if there had been any hope you were alive,” he said, interrupting the Silvan’s thoughts. “I am sorry. I am sorry we did not find you in time, meleth nin. I am sorry we did not save you. We killed every Orc there to avenge you, Greenleaf,” he added in hopes of ameliorating the pain upon his beloved’s tear-streaked face.

“I do not understand. What happened? Why do you think me dead?” the Elf asked his human lover, his sightless eyes searching the man’s face. Estel released the Prince’s shoulders and now took up both of Legolas’ hands, which he held between his own in a fierce grip. Legolas repeated, “I do not understand.”

Aragorn’s thoughts turned to the happenings surrounding their trying to save the Prince, of their slaughtering the Orcs, of his being wounded. He relived the memory of hearing Kalin’s despairing howl when the sentry had found the remnants of his Prince’s body either cooking or waiting to be cooked over the fire pit in the cavern. Aragorn let loose his own low, despairing sob at the very memory, of seeing the pile of his lover’s hair, his tunic and boots, and the unidentifiable remnants of the Wood-Elf’s smashed skull. For the rest of his life, no matter how long or short it might be, and even for his time in the afterlife, Aragorn knew he would be haunted by the sight of his beloved Greenleaf’s butchered body lying in wait to be cooked and consumed in the Orcs’ cave. He would not soon forget watching Kalin gather every scrap of his charge for burial, of the sight of the blood running from the remains of the Elf, having seeped through the sentry’s cloak to dribble down the sides of the dray upon which they had carted Legolas’ body to the grave at the lake. And he would never forget the despair he had endured as they settled stones upon his lover’s final resting place. Again, Aragorn allowed himself a brief but lachrymose lamentation.

As each of these memories flitted through the Adan’s mind, so too did they run through Legolas’ mind, such that the Silvan saw exactly what the human had witnessed. His unseeing eyes grew wide, his jaw fell slack, and the shock of it all left him thunderstruck in both words and thought. For the Wood-Elf, seeing the man’s memories made it so the Elf could hardly blame his companions for thinking him dead. Meanwhile, the vision of Kalin gathering the scraps of flesh, skin, and hair he thought to be his Prince, weeping all the while, was enough to send a bolt of pure and consuming grief through his chest.

This was a dream, Estel knew, but it didn’t feel like one; still, he welcomed the chance to see the Silvan, even if only like this, and the strangeness of this imagining and Legolas’ perfervid surety he was alive made the Adan doubt. While he knew the Elf was certainly dead, vague and half-formed thoughts of Elise and the curse she had placed upon the Elf ran haphazardly through his mind, making him worry, Am I speaking to Greenleaf’s faer? Has he not passed on to the afterlife? Does he linger on Arda, haunting these marshlands, unaware he is dead?

Legolas scooted to be closer to his human lover. To see Estel’s heartache would normally have hurt him, undeniably, for he hated for the man ever to suffer, but right now, he experienced the Ranger’s grief as clearly as if it were his own. But he also felt Aragorn’s love for him, his elation to see him, and most clearly, Legolas could intuit Estel’s confusion, which mirrored his own. But the laegel believed he was beginning to suss out what was transpiring, though he had yet to make sense of it entirely. Moreover, now he had seen Estel’s memory of finding the Yrrch’s camp, the laegel slowly began to comprehend why Aragorn thought him dead, why the man and their companions had abandoned their search for the Prince, and who was buried in the grave at the lake.

“I am not dead,” he said again to Estel in response to the Ranger’s deliberations about how he was speaking to Legolas, then went on to address the human’s questions about the possibility of the Prince’s faer being disembodied because of Elise, “And I am no ghost, meleth nin. I live. I am in this morass right now, apparently having fallen asleep, since I am dreaming of you.”

The Prince tried in vain to look into the man’s eyes. He wanted to see the grey of them, which often looked like glinting, silver starlight in the dim glow of the early morning sun or in the faint luminosity of a candle’s flame. He settled for pulling his hands free of the man’s hold and placing both of his palms against Aragorn’s bearded cheeks. The Elf corrected, not wishing to lie to Estel, and imprecisely aware that right now, Aragorn would know immediately if the Elf did try to lie, “Not yet, at least. I am not dead yet. But I am injured, nearly blind because of my injuries, weaponless, and starving. I try to travel north to Rivendell. I may not make it.”

But Estel had no conception of what was occurring, and since Legolas had yet to form a coherent thought about it or say anything aloud, his connection with the Elf could not enlighten him. Thus, the Ranger leant forward to press his forehead against Legolas’ forehead and brought his own hands up to do as Legolas was doing in holding the Silvan’s gaunt and bruised face between them. “But you are, meleth nin. You are a dream. I wish this were true. I would give anything for what you say to be true. I would give my own life in trade for yours.”

Yes, the Elf and Ranger could hear each other’s thoughts, sense each other’s emotions, and took comfort in the nearness of the other’s presence, but neither had utilized this intentionally; that is, each had learnt of the others’ thoughts and feelings through happenstance. Now, though, Legolas wrapped his arms around his Ranger’s neck to keep the man close, laid his head upon the Ranger’s chest, just at his collarbone, where most he loved to rest his head so he could feel the human’s heartbeat against his cheek and his nose could easily pick up the familiar, piquant aroma of the Ranger. With his face turned into the Adan’s throat, such that each of his belabored breaths blew across the human’s throat, he inhaled strongly, bringing the scent of the human deeply into his lungs.

“It is true,” he told the man, and knowing Aragorn would see in his own mind what the Elf dredged up in his, Legolas brought forth his memories of the last few days.

He began by thinking of sitting by the lake with Estel, speaking, and needing to be alone for a moment. He recalled wandering to the forest to walk a bit, hearing the tormented scream coming from nearby, and taking off to investigate in hopes of being of aid to someone. Through this recollection, he showed Aragorn what had happened, details of which the twins and Ranger had conjectured upon following Legolas’ trail, and some of which were proven correct by this speechless narration.

In his mind’s eyes, as if he were remembering it himself, Aragorn saw his lover fall from the walnut tree. He saw the laegel rise from the ground, unaware of how long he had been lying there injured. He felt the Elf’s distress at being unable to see clearly, of his soon realizing Yrrch were approaching, and of the desire to die with the dignity of a Prince and warrior, rather than hiding in the trees or being brought down while trying to flee. Aragorn experienced every blow to the head and body his lover endured during the altercation; he felt the Silvan’s fear and worry when the Orcs carted him off to the ledge upon which the cave set. Here, he experienced the Orcs taunting, spitting, and hitting his Greenleaf, while feeling each of these blows as if they were made to his own body. These memories were akin to the nightmare Aragorn had suffered a couple of nights ago. When the Yrrch all took off to complete the tasks appointed to them by their leader and the two smaller Yrrch dragged Legolas into the cave, Aragorn believed he would see the Prince being slaughtered for consumption, and his heart and mind railed at the coming imagining.

Instead, though, Legolas showed the man his playing along with the Orcs to lull them into thinking he was cowed by their violence and threats, how they cut off his hair and removed his clothing. He then thought of how he had killed the two Yrrch, which was when Legolas felt the Adan’s heartbeat begin to thrum in fearful anticipation. Estel’s nightmare of two nights ago had gone just as had this memory the Elf tried to show him, except it had ended with Legolas attempting escape only to be caught by the leader outside the cave’s mouth, which was when the large Orc had slashed Legolas’ throat, causing the Silvan to fall to the ground. Afterwards, the Yrrch had begun to yank the laegel’s trousers off him, intending to rape the dying Prince. Legolas perceived and instantly knew Estel’s expectation for the Wood-Elf to show the man this, and was surprised to realize Aragorn had nightmared the very same thing Legolas had nightmared – that is, of his throat being cut and with him soon to be raped by the Orc’s leader.

He felt as Estel tried to pull away – not with this body, but with his mind and faer. Legolas reasoned to the man, No, Estel. That is not what happened. That part was from a nightmare I had a few nights ago, one you had as well, it seems. That is not what happened, he reaffirmed to the Adan.

When Aragorn nodded his acquiescence to the Elf continuing, Legolas resumed. He recalled sneaking out of the cave and seeing the Orc’s leader had gone to the ground below the ledge, where all the others were gathering firewood, tending their Wargs, and going about other jobs their leader had given them before they settled in for their coming feast and night of torture they had planned for the captive Wood-Elf. He remembered clambering up the mountainside, how he fell asleep in the pines and nightmared the same as had Estel, how he had woken and moved on out of fear of the Yrrch following him, so had walked until he heard running water. He then followed the brook to the lake, which was where he found the grave in which the man thought Legolas to be buried, but Legolas thought one of his friends to be buried. He showed the Ranger his memories of searching the old campsite, bathing the blood and dirt from his sore and injured body, his feasting on acorns, carving ‘Imladris’ into the tree under where Aragorn had loved to sit whilst the two camped there, and finding his walking stick and beginning his trek northwards in hopes of reaching the valley so he could enlist the help of the Imladrians to find Elladan, Elrohir, Reana, Kalin, and Estel, since he assumed they were still out looking for him and perchance had been hurt during their efforts.

During his recollection of his hunger and thirst, of his despair in ever finding his way to Rivendell, Legolas heard Estel’s sharp intake of breath followed by a hushed groan, for the man felt the Elf’s misery now as clearly as had Legolas felt it at the time. Estel experienced the Silvan’s optimism upon hearing the king rail’s call; he could see in his mind what Legolas could barely discern when he happened upon the marsh, where he had gorged on cattails and swampy water until he had fallen into reverie with a full belly.

Having brought the man to his current location and having shown him all having happened to him whilst they were apart, the Elf did as he had earlier – Legolas reached up to feel for the man’s face. Tears stained the Ranger’s cheeks, whereon his unkempt whiskers were now a beard. Lovingly, the Silvan traced the man’s visage, his hands trying to imprint upon his mind the feel of Aragorn’s features since he could not use his eyes to do so. He longed to glimpse his lover’s kind and whiskered visage. Again, he thought, I would that I could see you one last time.

They sat in silence for a while, with Legolas’ hands ever moving upon Aragorn’s face and the man allowing it gladly, for he was happy just to have the Wood-Elf’s touch. But the Ranger’s awestruck silence ended when he realized the import of the Elf’s statement, One last time? If you truly live, Greenleaf, then I will find you. I promise you. Do not give up on me.

The Elf did not respond in thought or words, but Estel could feel the Prince’s desolation. He could feel how the Wood-Elf starved, thirsted, and felt with his own body the acute pains of the Prince’s body, some of which were the lingering effects of the end of Elise’s curse, but the majority of which were injuries made by the Yrrch. Most important to the man, Aragorn could sense Legolas’ joy and relief, though, and he knew why the Elf felt this way – since Estel, Kalin, Reana, Elrohir, and Elladan were all well, Legolas did not need to press hard to arrive at the valley to obtain help in finding them to ensure his friends’ safety. Since the Prince could not see, Legolas was certain he would die from injury, attack, starvation, or dehydration before reaching the vale.

No, the Adan thought, with neither of them bothering to speak aloud anymore, since both knew the other could hear his thoughts. Do not give up, meleth nin. We will find you, I swear it. If all this is true, if you no mere dream or figment of my imagination, then I will backtrack to the swamp. Stay where you are. I will come for you.

Legolas leant forward to press a gentle kiss upon the Adan’s lips. In this state, where their faers were joined entirely, such that there were no boundaries between the sensations and thoughts each felt, this simple buss was intoxicating. To each of them, it felt marvelous, for Ranger and Prince could both feel the other’s lips with their own, and feel their own lips with the other’s lips, in addition to sharing the immense love they held for each other. For several long moments, they remained this way, their lips touching, and their souls communing. It was during this expression of love that the man and Elf truly comprehended what was occurring, and each understood it simultaneously.

Greenleaf? the man tried to prompt the Wood-Elf, who had not replied in word or thought to his imploration to remain where he was so Aragorn could find him.

Suddenly, the two lovers heard the loud and distinctive call of a king rail. For Estel, this sound was merely in the joint dream he and Legolas were sharing, but for Legolas, the call came close to his body, which pulled the Elf out of slumber with the quickness of having been slapped in the face or having cold water thrown upon him. Just like that, the Wood-Elf was gone.

Greenleaf? he called out in his mind ere he called aloud, “Greenleaf?”

But where the Elf had sat before him was merely an empty mound of dirt, nestled amongst small pools of stagnant water. The Ranger looked around him in desperation to catch sight of the Prince again. He found nothing. The light was still a diffuse, confusing shade of grey; the plants and environment around the man were still vague shadows of their normal selves, which the man understood now was how his injured lover saw the world with his obscured vision. The only true difference, other than the Prince’s absence, was in that for the first time since entering this marsh in his dream, Aragorn knew he was alone. He could no longer feel the Wood-Elf’s presence.

Was it truly Legolas? he asked himself. Unlike before, there was now no Legolas to respond. In fact, the particulars of the dream began to dwindle as his own body began to waken from slumber.

As his mind grew closer to sentience, Aragorn discerned that he believed everything the Elf had said to be true. Moreover, during their sweet and much needed kiss, the man had been given proof of it: his and Legolas’ faers were connected so greatly that he and Legolas could share their thoughts and feelings from across the distance between their physical selves. And he believed the Elf to have a physical self, because he believed the Elf to be alive. Whether he would still believe all this when he awoke was a different matter, however. In one moment, the Ranger was staring at where the Prince had been sitting with every fiber of his being set upon the desire to remember this dream when he awoke, of telling the twins to try to suss it out, of acting upon it, if he could. The next moment, the marsh and all around him was gone, the importance of what he had learnt faded, and soon, the dream faded, as well.

Chapter Text

Somewhere close by, the king rail called out again to its mate, which with a violent start, woke the Wood-Elf completely. His waking came over him so quickly the Elf did not even notice at first that he had been asleep; instead, it felt to the Prince as if he had been momentarily distracted only for his attention to snap back to where it ought to be. Legolas blinked his eyes a few times in confusion ere he panicked straightaway, for a moment ago – or at least, what to him seemed to have been a moment ago – he had been able to see the light of the late evening, and now, there was nothing but darkness. Even during daylight, his injured skull and thus his poor sight made it so most of his vision consisted of murky blobs against the illumination of the sun, but without Anor, there was only gloom. And of course, not realizing just yet he had fallen into deep reverie, the Elf immediately thought he had now gone entirely blind. Panic raced along his every nerve, nausea roiled in his filled but now spasming belly, and he gasped for air. It wasn’t until he looked up that Legolas understood his failure. In the dark mantle of sky over his head was a vast array of stars, none of which the Elf could see, so small were they; and yet, a single sliver of luminosity from Ithil danced across his vision, but only when he concentrated and only when he turned his head a certain way. Had he not already noticed this very same peculiarity the night before, he would not have known what it was he saw – the waxing moon. His relief to see Ithil was short-lived, for while it soothed him to know he had not gone entirely blind, he then realized what had happened.

You fell asleep. You fool, he reprimanded. He would have struck himself across the face for his idiocy were he not afraid doing so would render him unconscious or further benight his vision. Now it is full dark. I have lost the sun. While the moon was in the sky and not overhead, and thus likely falling to the west as the night ended and the day set to begin, Ithil was not a reliable way for Legolas to determine his direction, as Tilion was notorious for steering Ithil as if drunk. He asked himself rancorously, Now what will you do, you stupid Elfling?

The Prince climbed to his feet, ensured his dagger was still safely ensconced in the leather thong of his trousers, took hold of his walking stick, and looked in the direction from which he thought he had wandered into the marsh. Of course, he saw nothing but the obfuscated, empty space of more open area; the enormity of his mistake again hit the Wood-Elf – hard. In his desperate desire to eat, he had wandered too far from the tree line, and now was in the middle of the marshlands, unable to see to find his way back to the forest. He realized he had few options – he could delay until sunrise to ascertain his direction, or he could choose a direction in which to continue walking and hope for the best. Neither sounded viable to him at the moment, but the former especially so. Given he was now wide-awake after his unwelcome nap, not able to sit still without anxiety, and too wound up to sleep again, Legolas believed he would go mad if he forced himself to dawdle until dawn to travel onwards. 

His heart hammering in his chest, the Silvan took deep breaths to calm himself, saying aloud in hopes hearing this would alleviate some of his fear, “Just stay awake. Just stay awake until the sun rises, and then you will know which way you travel. The marsh ends,” he reasoned, trying to fool himself by sounding calm when he felt anything but. “There is no cause for panic.”

Disheartened tears streamed down Legolas’ face. Earlier, all he had wanted was water and food, and he had forsaken all else to obtain it. With those basic needs satisfied, the Elf had fallen into slumber, which he had also urgently needed. His current state of panic granted him an unintended boon, however, for it burnt away his sleep-addled mind’s disorientation, and as his acuity returned to him, Legolas recalled something very important – during his slumber, he had dreamt of Estel.

And it had not been a normal dream.

Legolas’ faer had never been bonded to another’s faer before, of course, and so he had no previous experience upon which to rely, but the Wood-Elf had heard of the blessings granted to lovers whose faers were bound. Those lovers were usually Elves, yes, but then, Aragorn was of distant Elven heritage and Legolas and Estel’s union ran very deep. When the man’s soul had been waning due to Elise’s curse, Legolas had been able to sustain the light of Estel’s faer by giving to the human the light of his own faer, which ought not to have been possible between an Elf and an Adan. Knowing this for the proof it was of his and his Adan lover’s profound connection, it was easy for the Prince to accept how his and the Ranger’s souls were intertwined, and therefore, it was easy for him to accept how their dreams, thoughts, and emotions could be linked, as well.

Through the anxiety and fear he felt, Legolas smiled, for just musing about the human and their mutual dream eased some of the Wood-Elf’s panicked terror for his own situation, and the Prince bolstered himself by thinking, Estel is alive. I know it. It was no mere dream. I saw him and spoke to him while he slept, and it was no figment of my imagination, but Estel himself. I am sure of it. He lives.

His bruised visage further breaking into a wide and beatific grin, the Silvan took another great breath, which came easier this time, since the knowledge of his lover’s well-being was a better balm to the Prince’s injured body and wounded faer than could be any medicines or healing. Legolas forced himself to sit back down for the time being while he tried to determine the import of his dream about the Ranger and of what the man had told him. First and foremost, the Elf ruminated again now as he had during his talk with the Adan of the repercussions of what the Silvan had learnt – his friends thought him to be dead, so Legolas was utterly alone in the woods for the foreseeable future. They were not behind him, as he had yearned, and thus not soon to catch up to him on his journey northwards, but already far ahead of him on their own way to Imladris. Before discovering this, the Prince had convinced himself he could make this trek to the valley on his own, but in truth, he had really hoped either his companions would find his trail or see ‘Imladris’ carved into the tree at the lake’s campsite, and thus they would find and save him without his needing to journey in solitude to the valley. But the twins, his sentry, and his lover all supposed the Wood-Elf dead. They had buried him, in fact.

Legolas would likely be forced to journey north alone, should Aragorn not recall their shared dream, which is what the Elf thought of now, wondering, Did Estel understand it was not a typical dream? Does he now believe I am alive? Or does he think having me show up in his slumber, claiming to be alive and well, was just some cruel imagining? the laegel deliberated. He thought he had convinced the man; he thought by the end of their time together, Estel had believed Legolas to be alive but injured, hungry and thirsty, and trying desperately to reach Rivendell. But what if the man did not trust their dream and dismissed it as delusion? Or, what if Aragorn forgot their strange reverie, as so often happens when one awakens from a dream? Estel told me to wait. He said he would come looking for me, the Prince recollected, and repeated the Ranger’s promise in an attempt to pacify his tension, He begged me not to give up. He told me he would backtrack to the morass to find me. Estel would never give up on me, he told himself now as he had earlier, when still believing his friends searched for him. That had not proven true after all, given how his companions thought Legolas dead, but if Aragorn held true Legolas’ assertion of being alive, then nothing short of imminent death would stop the Ranger from trying to find the Silvan. The Prince greatly wanted to believe this.

Legolas drew his knees up to his chest, rested his elbows upon them, and buried his face in his hands while he sat contemplating what he ought to do now. Absently, he rubbed at his aching head and useless eyes, wishing he could scrub away the nebulous veil of umbrae seemingly obscuring his vision. While the cattails he had eaten the evening prior had filled his belly, Legolas was still enervated from malnutrition and he was injured seriously – especially the swollen lumps upon his head, though his whole body hurt fiercely, with his broken rib causing him much more pain than before, given how he had carelessly and unknowingly slept upon it. His head throbbed from his futile attempts to see with his unusable eyes, which he assumed could only be bettered if he could find a way to ameliorate the distension of his battered skull.

Supposing the human deemed Legolas to be alive and therefore tried to find the Silvan, the Wood-Elf now reflected, How long would it take Estel and the others to return here? They are horsed, at least, so could get here fast. But what if Estel forgets our shared dream? What if I sit here waiting for him and he does not come? How long could I wait before it is too late?

It would do the Prince no good to delay if he could not be assured of his lover’s aid, for doing so would only hasten his death, he figured, being that he would not long survive upon reed mace and stagnant water – not since his body needed proper food to heal. And how long could he go without having the injuries to his skull treated before they became worse? Even more terrifying to the Elf was this question: how long before the obfuscation of his vision became permanent because it was left untreated? He likely ought to worry more for his life than for his ability to see, but to Legolas, the two problems were one and the same right now. Without being able to see, he was an easy target alone in the wilds. And while he personally knew Elves who had been stricken blind in battle, who had adapted to their condition, and who had learnt to make themselves useful to their kin and kith regardless of being sightless, Legolas believed unequivocally that he would be of no help to his people without having his vision returned. What good would a blind warrior be to his fellow Silvan? Who would follow a blind Prince into battle, or even follow his commands, should he eventually become King in the footsteps of his father? Already, his kith questioned their Prince, for Legolas had lived through what few Elves had survived, and with their King’s constant belittling of their Prince, already some of the Silvan held a lower opinion of Legolas than was accurate or fair.

I must keep walking towards the valley. I cannot wait for help, he contended to himself and rested his head upon his folded arms. This was a fine argument, in his reasoning, since even now the Silvan felt he could sit still for no longer, lest he go mad from the inactivity. Perhaps even, he placated himself while rising from the ground yet again and once more reflexively ensuring he had both his dagger and walking stick as he did so, perhaps I may soon be able to sleep again and speak to Estel, to tell him I have moved northwards. It would decrease the time it takes for them to find me, should Estel be able to keep his promise. And if he awakes only to have forgotten our dream, or if his own injuries keep him from searching for me, then still I will be heading to Imladris and thus have a chance at surviving. And if we share another dream, I can try again to persuade him I live, and have another opportunity to turn him and the others around to find me in the south.

The Elf’s mind made up, he nodded his head at his conclusive acumen and began ambling, his anxiety decreasing with the simple forward movement, as it suited him better than sitting still. Without knowing the proper direction in which to travel, Legolas guessed the best he could based upon the location of the small pool of water by which he had sat to eat and drink the evening before. Originally, Legolas had intended to trek westward to avoid the openness of the meadow, so he stuck to this plan for now, as being out in the open without the comfort of trees around him was making the Wood-Elf more panicked and placed him in greater danger. While he couldn’t be sure he was now moving west, he was confident he was not moving east, at least, because of how Ithil sat in the sky. Moreover, when he faced opposite of Ithil, the Elf swore he could discern the slightest illumination coming from over high and dark shadows – what he assumed would be Anor rising over the Misty Mountains.

The worst he could do, he decided, was to backtrack accidentally, but if nothing else, even should he backtrack, he would still be returning to the protection of the forest. And so, with his stick ever out and tapping the ground before him, Legolas trod onward, managing to avoid most of the stagnant pools, though a time or two, his foot ended up sinking into the shallow, stagnant water – he did not hurt himself in doing this, though it was rather annoying to him being how it slowed him down and chanced his slipping and falling, and thereby risked him hurting himself further. As he went, he decided to obtain some more reed mace to fill his belly a bit more before he left the marsh entirely, and then tried to come up with a good way to carry some cattails with him so he could be certain to have something edible with him as he travelled. Who knew when he would next find something comestible along his journey?

Legolas paused to gather a few of the plants for breaking his fast, glad he had remembered to do so before he ended up leaving the marsh. When he glanced behind him to gauge the light he thought he had detected, with pleasure he saw the radiance was increasing in the distant sky. Relievedly, Legolas welcomed Anor with a brilliant smile. Surely I am headed west, then¸ since that must be the sun rising in the east.

He knelt down beside a pool of water he had just stepped into by accident and reached out to feel for plants, but his hand faltered before he found any. His thankful mind’s daze ended abruptly and of their own accord, his perceptive ears focused upon faint sounds from up ahead – voices came from the west, the direction in which he was headed. At once, the Woodland Prince’s hope escalated sharply at the notion of Aragorn having remembered their mutual dream and thus the man having led his brothers south to find the missing Prince. His hope turned to panic, instead, when Legolas realized such optimism was irrational, for the Noldor, Silvan, and Ranger could never have travelled so quickly south to find him. Standing as still and quiet as possible, he turned his head slightly to hear the voices better, which is when he noticed the people speaking used the common tongue and their voices were the deep, scratchy timbres of Adan-kind, rather than of Elven-kind.

Humans. There are humans somewhere in front of me. Men, in fact.

Dread flooded his mind; instinctively, Legolas reached for the dagger ensconced in the laces of his ever-loosening trousers, which barely hung upon his hips because of the weight he had lost over the last few days and during the previous week when he had still been recuperating from Elise’s curse. The fear of being captured again, of being abused and tormented as had been done to him before by men, caused the Elf to want to flee in the opposite direction. Running was a terrible idea, of course, for not only would it give away his location, being that he couldn’t move with any true grace, but he would also chance breaking his neck if he stepped into one of the deeper pools of water or tripped over a rock or tuft of grass.

Legolas knew he lacked the will and the strength, not to mention the weapons, to fight. If he wanted to survive, he would have to flee, but he would need to do so smartly – by moving surely and as swiftly as he could. As the Prince turned on heel to begin off the opposite direction, no longer caring if he backtracked or lost his way so long as he was away from the strangers growing ever closer to his location, Legolas heard a woman’s voice followed by the higher pitched laughter and banter of children, all of whom were much nearer than the men’s voices he had heard a moment ago.

Flee, he advised himself, his walking stick nearly forgotten as he began trying to move as precipitously as possible to evade the owners of the voices. But unable to see and not able to use his walking stick properly since it took too long to seek out firm ground for every step, Legolas trod right into a pool of the stagnant water and plunged knee deep into it, which caused him to lose his balance, fall forward, and make a loud and very noticeable splash as he flailed and twisted to keep from dropping facedown into the bog. Forgoing trying to be quiet, Legolas scrambled out of the pool upon hands and knees, lamenting fearfully, Which way did I fall? Am I now facing back towards them or away from them?

He tried in vain to find the illumination in the sky he thought to be Anor as she rose, but suddenly, the distinctive sound of rushing feet came towards the Elf and flight was no longer his best option. He hastened to stand while his hands simultaneously searched the ground for his walking stick, but the Silvan only fell back to his knees when dizziness caused by malnutrition and injury unbalanced him. The dashing feet stopped much too near to the Elf for his liking; a moment later, Legolas heard a soft exclamation and knew he had been seen. He fumbled at the laces to his trousers to find the dagger within, but during his fall into the marshy pool, the weapon had come free. He had neither his walking stick nor his dagger, he was found, and he could not see. Under his breath, Legolas pled to Ilúvatar to spare him from being despoilt and tortured again, praying, Please. I want only to see Estel again. Do not let me die at the hands of Edain today. I cannot live through such torment again.

“Sweet Maker,” a woman called out in surprise, her voice coming from behind the Elf.

Finally, he thought when his fumbling hands found and grasped his walking stick tightly. It would have to do as a weapon since he did not have the time to find his dagger. Even though the voice he had heard was a woman’s voice, there were still Edain men nearby, and no guarantee he would be safe from them even though the woman was there with children close. He clambered to his feet and cast his unseeing gaze around to try to find some sign of where the Adan stood.

“Master Elf?” a worried and kind voice inquired of the Prince, who at the genuine concern he could hear from the woman, paused his wild and frantic search for her. “Master Elf? Are you alright?”

She advanced with soft footsteps while Legolas struggled to decide how to handle this. In truth, he needed aid. He needed food, medicines, clothes, and directions. He also needed to ensure his own safety, though, and he had little trust for humans in general. With all this running through his harried mind, the Prince did not answer her just yet, but lifted his walking stick in wary indecision as to whether he would need it to forfend her approach.

The woman tsked at him when she saw him lift his stick, with her voice lowering into a murmur as she asked of him, “Just stay calm, Master Elf. I can see you are injured. And you look starved half to death. You need not fear me,” she told him, which rankled his nerves evermore, for if this woman could tell how frightened he was of her, then the men whom he could hear speaking some distance away would easily know he was terrified, as well, and could use that to their benefit in taking him captive, for they would not fear him at all and thus there would be no chance they might leave him alone.

The rapid, soft footfalls of several children soon grew close. They laughed happily as they ran, though the laughter and the footsteps ended simultaneously when they saw Legolas. He could not see them, of course, but because the marsh was lightening in the sunrise, he could vaguely tell their shapes from their surroundings. One of the children asked, “Momma! You found another Elf! Is he one of us?”

Another Elf? the laegel absently wondered. She is their mother. That is a good sign, at least.

The children were to his left, the woman in front of him, and soon, a voice came from his right, which startled the Prince, for he had not noticed the approach of another because of the racket the children had begun making while talking amongst themselves of Legolas. The new voice was that of a man, who sounded old and weary when he asked the woman, “Who’s your friend, Hannah?”

“I don’t know. I just found him stumbling in the marsh,” she replied in the ponderous manner of someone who was often asked silly questions and tried hard to keep her tolerance in answering them. When she spoke to Legolas, though, her voice sounded genuinely patient as she said, “We are allies, Master Elf. If you wish for us to leave you alone, we will go without bothering you, but please, do not run off lest you hurt yourself further. We will not chase you.”

He whirled around to try to locate the man, for in his experience with Edain, the men were always more dangerous than the women. Such was not true amidst the Eldar, but then, Elven bodies were similar whether male or female, unlike amidst the humans, where male bodies tended to be made stronger, though the women were made hardier. In his attempt to find the new voice’s owner, Legolas’ foot slipped in the muck under him and without his walking stick set upon the ground to aid in steadying him, the Elf once more lost his balance. He fell to his arse upon the damp ground, fully expecting for these humans to laugh at his misfortune, but other than a small squeak of surprise from one of the children, no laughter came at his expense.

“Are you hurt?” a small and timid voice asked the Elf, followed by another child’s voice making some cooing sound of sympathy for the Silvan, before it added, “I fell earlier and skinned my knee,” and then the children were again speaking amongst themselves, sharing stories of having injured themselves recently while foraging, from what the Prince could make of their overlaid voices rambling to each other.

His mind whirled in frenzied lightheadedness. Valiantly, he tried to rise, to avoid showing how weak his body was from injury and hunger. A hand upon his arm caused him to lurch with startlement, but the voice that followed eased his worry. To Legolas, this woman named Hannah sounded much like Liandra – the elderly healer from Elise’s village who had aided the Rangers and Elves, who in the end had chosen them rather than her fellow villagers when some of the menfolk tried to incinerate more than just the dead – in that Hannah sounded assertive, knowledgeable, and kind, just as Liandra did, though she also sounded younger than Liandra.

The woman held to Legolas’ arm tightly to keep him steady, then helped him by pulling at the Elf until he was standing out of the marshy water. “There, now, Master Elf. No need to be alarmed. We wish you no harm, I assure you.”

“Who are you?” he asked the woman, hating how vulnerable and fearful he sounded to his own ears. With little hope, he tried to take measure of her personality from what he could see of her, but being that he could only see the vague shape of a shadow in the morning sun’s mounting brilliance, he knew then he would have to determine her trustworthiness based on her voice and words alone. He asked, as well, “What do you want from me?”

“Want from you? We want nothing from you,” Hannah told the Silvan. “Except perhaps to help you, if you would let us, Master Elf. You appear to be in dire need of help.”

She tugged at the Prince’s walking stick, which he reluctantly allowed to be taken from his hand. He listened to the distinctive sound of it hitting the damp ground as she dropped it. With the Elf now unarmed, Hannah sighed in relief, for she had apparently been afraid Legolas would attack her rather than let her be of aid to him, but still, she had taken the chance, which to Legolas said much of her personality, for it showed she was brave and willing to take the risk to be of aid to him, even when she had no cause to help some strange Elf she had found wandering alone in the morass. Taking hold of his hand, the woman turned it over so it was palm up, ere she pressed into it the hilt of his dagger, which the Adan woman had found in the marsh while aiding him into standing. Gladly, he took the weapon, though he stuck it back in the laces of his trousers so not to make Hannah think he was of threat to her. That she had given him back his dagger was another sign of faith, he knew, and though it would be of little use should the menfolk try to attack him, it relieved some of the Prince’s terror, for again, her doing so showed she did not mean him harm.

When Legolas remained silent after her declaration of wanting nothing from him, Hannah answered the other of his questions, telling the Elf, “We are refugees. We are only in this marsh doing as you were likely doing – looking for food, gathering the cattails and such to add some greens to the venison we will soon have for breakfast. You are welcome to join us, Master Elf. You likely need a better meal than cattails, and you don’t appear to have any bags with you where you might be storing food. Unless you have a camp nearby here?”

Legolas shook his head that no, he did not have a camp, and Hannah gave some slight hum to show she heard him, commiserated with his hunger, and understood his wariness of her and the other Edain. She began to brush at the Prince’s bare chest, as if dusting him off, and while Legolas could not see his own flesh, he imagined her task was in vain, since he felt to be covered in dust, soil, muck, and whatever else he had picked up while walking and falling into the marsh water several times. Had the woman been a man, instead, Legolas could not have borne her unasked for touch, but she worked with the disinterested affectation of a healer – which reminded him of his Minyatar when Elrond dealt with someone who was troubled and resisted being touched. More likely, though, she cared for the laegel with the brusqueness of a mother aiding her child when said child had fallen down and gotten dirty.

Legolas vacillated. He desperately wished to go with the woman, to eat and be safe amongst other people. Perhaps it was unwise of him, but he trusted this woman from her voice alone, for she sounded like many other women he had heard in his life who had children and thus treated anyone they met as one of their own. In fact, his Minyatar was the same way and often spoke in the same manner – that is, as if speaking to one of his own children to put to ease a person’s mind.

Perhaps they could see the indecision and fear upon his face, for the elderly man added kindly, “We’ll not force you to come with us, mind you, but we have a camp near the river. And we have a healer there who can help you. She’s saved many of our lives, Master Elf. And there are other Elves there, as well, with a couple of Dwarves, too, so you will not be the only one there not human.”

When still the Elf did not reply, the woman told the children and man with her, “Go on. Go to the river and wait on me. We will be fine. Once we’ve spoken, I will return – hopefully with our friend here.”

Without arguing, the young ones and older man took off to do as told, none of them arguing against leaving the woman with the Elf. By Legolas’ reckoning, the man and children must’ve figured the Silvan was of no danger to the woman; else, the woman’s unassuming manner was a ploy and she could truly take care of herself, and perchance was armed. They stood in silence for a short while, with the Wood-Elf listening as the other Edain’s footfalls became softer and softer, until he could hear them no more and knew he and the woman were alone. His trousers – the only clothing he wore – were soaked through, his feet were stinging from the cuts thereon, which were aggravated by the algae-laden, stagnant water through which he had stumbled, and his aching head was becoming steadily worse.

He wished a drink of cool, clean water. He wanted desperately something to eat hardier than reed mace. He craved to sit by a fire. He longed for people around him who he need not fear. He desired to accept the woman’s offer and help.

“I am Hannah,” she spoke, breaking the silence. Legolas had heard her name earlier and she likely knew this, but she told him now in an attempt to prompt him into telling her his name, as well.

Around them, the marsh and environs grew lighter as Anor grew higher in the sky past the barrier of the Misty Mountains in the distant east. If Aragorn had woken and recalled their dream, the man would soon be on his way south. He would not reach the marsh before nightfall, however, so Legolas figured he might have the opportunity to dream again when Estel rested for the night, and thus could inform the man he had moved to the river, to the Edain’s camp. He also decided there was little reason not to tell Hannah his name, and so admitted to the woman politely, “I am Legolas. I am pleased to meet you.”

Once more, the Adan woman took the Elf’s arm. This simple, motherly touch again soothed the Prince, even though she was a stranger. Through the warmth of her flesh, the hard callouses upon her fingers and palms, which told him she did not shy away from hard work, and the friendly grip she had of him, Legolas felt all he needed to feel to know he could trust this woman. Whether he could trust the people with her, he would have to decide quickly, else take the chance upon being wrong, for he could also sense her urgency to be about her business. While she ostensibly wanted to bring him with her, she would not spend all morning trying to convince the Wood-Elf into coming along. As she had been doing before, Hannah once more began dusting the muck, leaves, and various other bits of forest he had stuck to him after days of wandering through the woods without a shirt. She started with the arm she held, and then moved to his shoulder. She then stopped, cleared her throat, and sighed.

“Well, Legolas, from the bruises you have on you, and the cut to your arm, along with the poor cut of your hair, lack of clothes and boots, and the fact you’ve no weapon save for that dagger and no supplies, I am guessing you have been held captive and tormented by someone. Was it humans or Orcs?” she asked him.

Legolas surprised himself by responding to her, as he would not normally divulge anything to a stranger when it could be used against him. But he answered her nonetheless, saying, “Orcs. I was travelling with a group of companions, of men and Elves, when I became separated and caught by Orcs. They took me back to their camp, but I escaped before they could torture me and eat me, as was their plan.”

The woman gasped lowly in shock while her hold upon his arm tightened in sympathetic response. “I thought as much. You are very lucky, or perhaps very skilled, to have escaped them. Many of our own people looked the same when we fled the mining camp, and some who have joined us since then have come to us looking the same, having been injured from run-ins with Orcs or brigands,” she elucidated. She stopped dusting him off and instead grabbed his other arm to inspect the gash thereon, telling him, “I am no true healer, although I have some experience in treating minor wounds. It seems you have a broken rib in addition to this gash, and those bumps on your head look very serious. What happened to your companions? Were they caught by the Orcs, as well?”

“No. They search for me even now,” he prevaricated, since he did not know if this were true or not, but he felt he needed to stretch the truth a bit – just to be sure the woman knew he had friends who might take exception to any ill-treatment to him if or when they found him.

He could not see her to know, but he sensed she was peering into his face, for he felt her gaze upon him. Of course, being that he could not truly see her, he could not return her regard. Likely, Hannah and the others had already noted this, but she asked him anyway, “I take it you cannot see? Or cannot see well? Which is why you haven’t yet found your companions, fashioned any weapons, and were stumbling around this marsh?”

He hesitated to admit the truth. The Wood-Elf was proud, but it was less that he wished to avoid her pity than he wished to avoid disclosing any more weakness, lest anyone take it as a sign he was easy prey. But again, he could find no reason not to tell her, especially since his inability to see was evident enough for her to have mentioned it. “I cannot, no. I can see only vague shapes.”

“Only vague shapes,” she repeated his answer in a murmur, as if speaking to herself. Patting his arm, she reassured him, “Don’t worry. If you come with me, you can see our healer, who also helps to lead us, who helped us to flee the mining camp. She has performed miracles for us, saving lives and aiding some of ours who seemingly had no chance, and she asks for nothing in return except for shelter and food, which we are glad to share with her. I am sure she will be more than happy to help you. Are you a refugee, as are we, Legolas? Or do you have a home to where you try to return?”

Hannah seemed to take for granted that Legolas was coming with her, for she looped her arm in his arm and began walking, leading the Elf away. With his limb pressed tightly against her meager chest, the laegel felt her scanty breasts under his forearm, could feel her too apparent ribs, and knew she was likely as hungry as was he. Refugees? From where or whom do they run? he wondered.

“I am not a refugee, no,” he clarified, allowing her to lead him in the direction the others had walked when bid by Hannah to leave her and Legolas alone. “I need to travel north, to Lord Elrond’s realm. It is not my home, but I have friends there who can assist me in going home.”

She again made some noncommittal sound, showing she was listening, but quickly changed the topic to something else, saying as she led him onwards, “As Abram said, there are other Elves amongst us. They were caught by the slavers, who forced them along with us humans to work in the mines, and it was with their aid and guidance we were able to escape that life of servitude. Perhaps you know some of them.”

This information piqued the Wood-Elf’s interest greatly, while also assuaging his fear of placing himself in a camp filled with unknown Edain. He paused in walking beside her, which caused her to stop, as well. “You’ve other Elves amongst these refugees? From who or what are you and your kith fleeing?”

Not releasing his arm, as if she thought he might bolt if she did, Hannah again patted it in absentminded maternal affection. “It is a very long story, my dear, but suffice to say for now, the Elves amongst us were treated no better than the humans, with all of us having good reason to have fled the south. We head north, ourselves, to seek the aid of the Rangers, who our healer tells us will help us to free the rest of our families and friends,” Hannah expounded, sounding both hopeful and distressed to admit this. “She says they are good folk, who help out any and all in need, and usually one is about in Bree, which is where we go in hopes of finding one to aid us.”

Bree? the laegel breathed out in a sigh of relief. And Rangers. Thank you, Eru, he gave his gratitude to the Maker. If this woman’s words are true, then I need not stumble my way north without assistance, and this healer may be able to aid me in regaining my sight. For the first time since he had found the abandoned campsite at the lake and knew he would need to travel to Rivendell using his own wits, Legolas no longer felt alone. In Bree, I can send word by raven or by Ranger to Imladris, if not find some way there myself, to tell them I am alive, he knew, which buoyed him, for he feared if Estel did not believe or remember their shared dream, then the human may still think Legolas dead, as would the twins and Kalin, the latter of whom might not live long while thinking his beloved Prince was dead and buried at the lake.

Worse yet a possibility was this: if he did not soon find a way to Imladris or at least send word to his second family, sentry, and human lover, either Kalin would travel on to Mirkwood to give the news to their King or Elrond would send a messenger or raven to the Greenwood. He did not want his father to hear the false news of his son’s death, did not want his father to grieve for him, nor for his people to throw the customary feast to celebrate his life upon hearing of his death. He knew his father would not succumb to grief upon hearing the news, but he did not want to cause his Ada any more distress. By the Thranduil’s own admission, he loved Thranduilion so much he hated him, for the King feared to lose the Prince and thus had spent millennia distancing himself from his progeny to avoid the fear and agony he underwent for the mere possibility of losing Legolas, just as he had lost his Queen.

“Let us find you something to eat at least,” Hannah suggested, leading him between the pools of water, away from the potential hazards of plants and fallen trunks to trip him, and closer to the sounds of other Edain. “And we can find you some clothes to wear, as well. My husband Nigel has a spare pair of boots that are likely about your size, so you needn’t walk around barefoot any longer. And you must at least let our healer look at you. After that, if you wish to travel on your way alone, then we will bid you go with the Maker’s grace and good will, and send you off with some supplies. Is that fine?”

To the Prince, no better a deal could he have found, for this woman offered help without asking for anything in return. They were already walking towards the other humans and to their camp, but she asked this now just to be sure Legolas would not cause any problems amongst her kith – something about which the laegel understood, for just as they were strangers to him, he was a stranger to them, as well. She no more wanted to lead danger into her camp than did Legolas want to be led into a dangerous camp.

“Yes. And thank you,” he replied in humble agreement. Once he had eaten and seen their healer, once he learnt whether he would regain his sight and if so, how long it would take, he would decide whether to travel north with these Edain and Elves. For now, though, the promise of food and company was enough for the distraught and tired Elf. “Thank you,” he repeated in a quieter tone, which to Hannah evinced the Silvan’s relief to be offered this aid.

“You’re most welcome, Legolas,” she responded. “Eru has given to all of us the bounty of his making, and it is our duty to see it reaches the neediest of his creations, yes? There but for fortune,” she added mysteriously, referencing some Adan phrase or some facet of the human ideology surrounding Ilúvatar that Legolas did not know about and thus could not place.

Before they could speak further, the laughter of children along with the boisterous talking of several young men grew closer and louder. He listened intently to of what the young Edain spoke, worried he might hear them making foul plans for him or speaking ill of him, which would change his mind about allowing Hannah to take him into the camp; however, what he heard the Edain saying was the same kind of banter he would expect from young men, the same kind of boasting and teasing he, Elladan, and Elrohir had been likely to give each other while younger. Thus far, none of what the humans had done or said seemed threatening, and if there were truly Eldar amongst the refugees, then the Prince could have the comfort of his own kind around him, as well, although from Mithfindl, he knew better than to believe another Elf would immediately have his best interests at heart merely because they were of like kind.

Beside him, Hannah was humming under her breath in between calling out to various other refugees who spoke to her of the tasks about which they were set. None of the others seemed to think it odd for Hannah to be leading a blind Elf by the arm, and from the bits of conversation he could glean out of the many going on around him, Legolas discerned nothing said about him to cause him to worry for his safety, but only comments about Hannah having found another stray, and how the healer would fix him right up, and even one man wondering to whomever he talked if this new Elf would be as good with a bow as was the ‘other one.’

Legolas’ most pressing concern right now was Aragorn, for in their mutual dream the Ranger had told the Elf to stay put so the man could find him. If Estel remembers our dream, if he thinks to look for me by coming south, the laegel reiterated to himself, then I will merely explain what has happened and why I have gone west. If I can sleep near to the same time as Estel sleeps, we may share another dream, when I can tell him of these people and where I have gone. This will be fine. I will be fine here. And by staying here, I will be alive for when Estel finds me.

Feeling optimistic about the potential of being cured of his blindness, hoping soon to be fed and sated with drink, and his fear for his companions’ well-being already soothed by his dream with Estel, Legolas allowed the kind woman to lead him towards the rushing sound of the river, where more of her people waited to cross in boats to the camp on the opposite side.

Chapter Text

Someone was shaking Estel. He tried to roll over to avoid whoever it was. He was tired, somnolent, and aching, and right now, since he was not yet awake and still capable of falling back into slumber, Aragorn did not want to give up the comforting lull of further sleep. But whoever it was, they did not give up, and eventually, Aragorn opened his eyes with a mordant remark straining to be said, but one which he bit back when he saw his twin brothers hovering above him, their identical faces showing identical concern for him. How many times have I woken to find my brothers looking down at me with worry? he asked himself with mirthless humor. The answer was – entirely too many times.

He opened his mouth to question why they were pestering him, but only a grunt escaped from the man’s dry, sore throat. Pulling his uninjured arm out from under the blanket, where it was tightly encased due to the twins’ diligence throughout the late night to ensure the Ranger remained tucked in to keep him warm, Estel ran a hand over his face to rub at the sleep in his eyes, only to realize he apparently had been crying. Moreover, his beard, neck, and chest were soaked with sweat. Was I dreaming? When younger, the Adan had been plagued with nightmares from which he had often woken in a pool of sweat and tears; in the last few months, nightmares had hounded the man, with their content always consisting of some replaying of the horrid events having occurred to Legolas, events for which the man had sometimes been present. I must have been nightmaring of Greenleaf again, he decided, his thoughts turning to two nights ago, when he had dreamt of his lover’s torment and death at the hands of the Yrrch’s leader.

“Brother,” Elladan murmured to the human, and with Elrohir, he tugged the blanket off their Adan sibling. The Ranger wished they hadn’t done so, for at once, the algidity of the wintry air made his sweaty, feverish body begin to tremble at the abrupt change in temperature. Elladan smiled fleetingly down at the man and said, “Thank Ilúvatar you are awake. We’ve been trying to rouse you for a while now.”

“You needed the sleep and could use more, we know, muindor, but it is dawn. You must eat and let us see to your injury. Then we will be off for the outpost,” Elrohir added, setting the blanket to the side for a moment, though he grimaced in sympathy at Aragorn’s shivering state and promised, “Let us help you to sit, and then we will cover you again.”

Both twins looked at the man with a strange sympathy behind which the Ranger could not fathom the cause. Despite their arguments over the last several days, the three brothers loved each other still, of course, and Aragorn knew his foster siblings worried for his health. And yet, their fright for him was off-putting, being he had grown somewhat accustomed to their latest affectation of indifference to both his well-being and his grief. It made him worry about his health, for if they were this kind to him regardless of their still being angry with him and their blaming him for all of Legolas’ recent woes eventuating in his death, then Aragorn thought it was likely he was in poor shape indeed.

The longer he stayed out from under the blankets, the more wicked chills ran through the man’s body, which caused his teeth to chatter noisily. To avoid delaying being able to cover the human back up, the twins hurriedly worked to aid the Ranger into sitting and quickly replaced the blankets. They are still warm, he sighed to himself, for the covers still held the heat of his own body from where he had slept within them, and this meager warmth was highly welcomed by the chilled Ranger. He still shook and his teeth kept chattering; Estel nearly asked for them to build the fire back up, but given how the twins had said they were leaving for the outpost soon, Aragorn instead pulled the blankets up to cover his head, making of them a thick cloak of sorts. Estel used to do this when younger, while sitting abed being read or told stories by his Elven siblings, and seeing the man do this now caused Elladan to grin at the Adan, then shake his head in amusement.

From the ground beside where he sat, Elrohir grabbed a bowl, wherein the last of the rabbit stew was slowly congealing, being that the others had eaten hours ago as Aragorn slept. He handed this bowl to the human, who took one look at it and felt his gorge rise in his throat. Quickly, he pushed it back at Elrohir; as he tried to cover his mouth with the hand upon his injured arm, Aragorn yelped in surprised discomfort, for moving that limb caused him more pain that he expected. It hurts worse today than it did yesterday. That is not a good omen, he sighed to himself. This abrupt agony also distracted him from the nausea he felt at seeing the whitish fat upon the top of the bowl and smelling the savory herbs and meat in the thick stew, though it wasn’t the stew itself to have caused this reaction, but the man’s sickness. Normally, he would have jumped at the chance to eat the stew, for rabbit was one of his favorite foods, and while his belly complained of being empty, Aragorn knew if he tried to eat, he would only bring it back up again.

Looking to the bowl and then to Estel, Elrohir opened his mouth to protest the man’s refusal to eat, but perhaps the younger Noldorin twin could see the revulsion upon his brother’s face, for he sat the bowl aside for the nonce. The sun was rising, the air was cold, but slowly warming with Anor’s bright rays, and the day was beautiful. Had not Aragorn felt queasy and had not the grief of Legolas’ death ran through his body with every beat of his heart, Estel would have been happy to eat, to tease his Elven brothers, to travel, or perhaps even to lie back down and sleep some more. But there was no enjoyment to be had for the man – not today, and not for many more days to come, he imagined, since his true joy was buried at the lake. Again, Elrohir’s lips moved as if to speak; whatever he meant to say was interrupted by his elder brother, who was ready to move on to tending to the Ranger’s wound.

“Here. Let us see if it has healed at all,” Elladan demanded, grabbing the man’s arm out from under the covers and pushing up Aragorn’s woolen sleeve so he could view the injury thereon. Elrohir forwent his effort in ensuring Aragorn ate and instead scooted closer to his twin so he could view the wound closely, as well, while Elladan unwound the bandaging from it.

Mere hours ago, the injury had been bad enough in how black tendrils branched out from the gash itself due to the toxin spreading throughout the surrounding flesh. Now, the whole of the slash wept even more blood, pus, and a foul smelling dark substance, while the tendrils of earlier had multiplied, swollen, and flourished such that the entirety of Estel’s forearm was dusky from the proliferation of poison. The flesh around the stitches the twins had made days ago was swollen tightly against the gut keeping the slash together, such that the stitches themselves were barely visible. Fright leapt into the human’s throat, his teeth quit their chattering when he clamped his mouth shut, his teeth ground together as he instantly fretted, It looks like gangrene after frostbite. If this arm needs to be removed…he began to worry, though he stopped this thought before he let his fear get out of hand. Now was not the time to think of it. The flesh was not dead but poisoned. If they acted swiftly by getting to the outpost as fast as possible, his arm could be saved. If nothing else, all they needed to do truly was to keep the sepsis from travelling farther in his body before they reached the valley, where Elrond could facilitate the wound’s healing by using the restorative powers of vilya. Stay calm, he chided, unable to wrench his gaze away from the awful state of his limb. For your brothers, at least, do not cause them more worry by falling to pieces over this. They have enough over which to be anxious.

“It will be fine, muindor. It looks much worse than it is, I think,” Elrohir encouraged the man with a feigned smile, for he could see plainly Aragorn’s well-founded terror over the state of his arm and understood the panic Aragorn felt at the possibility of losing said limb. Elladan patted the seeping wound free of pus and blood with the used bandaging, ere he held out his hand to Elrohir, who knew just what his twin wanted and so handed his brother a clean square of cloth already soaked in water. As Elladan began cleaning the gash, he also assured their human brother as had Elrohir, repeating both what Estel had thought and Elrohir had claimed in saying, “We will ride hard to the outpost and treat this immediately once there, and then we will ride straightaway for home. It will be fine.”

He watched the twins as they rewashed and fretted over the wound, ere they slathered it with ointment and then rewrapped his forearm. In some ways, Aragorn was lucky, for the slash had been made to his left arm rather than his right, so at least he could still use his dominant hand while recuperating – or should the worst happen and the arm need to be removed, Estel would still be able to write and wield a sword, though not as well as he could now. His Elven brothers gave no sign of whether they thought his wound was as bad as did he, for they worked with the same disinterested expertise as would their father work on a patient. It wasn’t until Elladan and Elrohir were finished, when the two looked at each other and had one of their wordless conversations, that the man saw the fear they held for him.

More importantly, viewing his brothers as they shared their thoughts without speaking caused something to awaken in the Ranger’s mind. I dreamt. I dreamt something most bizarre, he tried to recall, but was distracted when Kalin suddenly plopped down on the ground beside the man.

To Aragorn’s dismay, the sentry was weeping silently and had been for quite some time, given how ruddy and damp were his cheeks and how red were his eyes. The normally well-kempt Silvan’s hair was in disarray, mussed and coming free of its braids, his clothes were rumpled and covered in leaves and dirt, as though he hadn’t the will to brush himself off, and he had a line of dirt along one cheek. Even though it had only been a few days since losing his Prince, the sentry was thinner and his skin paler, for his grief was eating away at his rhaw just as it ate away at his faer. Seeing Kalin in such a state was heartbreaking to the Ranger, who was perpetually reminded of how Legolas had appeared the same during his own bouts with sorrow; but also, Aragorn did not want for Kalin to give in to grief – if only for Legolas, who would have wanted for his sentry to live on with new purpose in his life rather than join him in the Halls of Awaiting out of loyalty and love.

“What is wrong, Kalin?” he asked the Silvan, and then promptly felt the fool for asking. Clearly, Kalin was still suffering from having lost his Prince and the man’s question was thoughtlessly inane.

Aragorn scowled at his stupidity and made to apologize, but before he could, Kalin interrupted, bringing up just what Estel had been trying to call to mind before Kalin sat down beside him, “You were dreaming. Or nightmaring, perhaps. You wept and spoke while doing so, so loudly you woke me from my own slumber.”

This was a deficient explanation to Aragorn, who currently held only an elusive sense of what he had dreamt. Seeing Kalin’s tears, though, the man decided he must surely have been dreaming about Legolas, for what else could possibly have made Estel cry in his sleep and now be causing Kalin to weep? What did I dream? What did I say in my sleep to upset Kalin so much?

“I am sorry I woke you,” he told the sentry, who shrugged this off, for this was not the reason he had come to sit beside and question the man.

The sentry fiddled with the blanket spread over the human’s legs, smoothing it out in absentminded motions, before his red-rimmed, watery, cobalt gaze settled upon the Adan’s face in fervent interest. Kalin asked bluntly, “What was it? What did you dream of, Estel? You were speaking aloud in your sleep as if you spoke to Legolas in your dream. I would hear of it.”

The Adan inhaled a single, sharp breath before his chest seized tightly and he could find no more air to breathe. Greenleaf. I dreamt of Greenleaf in the morass along the river, the hazy thought came to him.

And then, the dream in its entirety engulfed his mind.

His walking in the marsh, his finding the Woodland Prince, his trying to convince Legolas the Silvan was dead, and Legolas trying to convince the man he was not – he recalled every moment of the dream, which had nearly dwindled from his memory completely and might have, as dreams were wont to do upon waking, had not Kalin asked the human of it before it was lost in the depths of his anguished mind. Absently, the human reached into his tunic to find the golden braid Kalin had given the Adan days ago. It was one of two – with Kalin having the other of his Prince’s plaits. Gingerly, he fondled the braid where it was safely ensconced in his pocket. He had thought this was the last bit of Legolas left, but as it turned out, it was not.

Greenleaf is alive. I dreamt of him. No, the man corrected himself, not merely dreamt. I spoke to him in the dream. He is alive.

Remembering this both relieved and worried Estel. The fears he had held over through what Legolas had suffered were now ameliorated. For days, Aragorn had tormented himself with thoughts of his Greenleaf being tortured, of being flogged and beaten, of the possibility of his having been abused and raped by the Yrrch prior to their killing and cooking his flesh. But little of that had happened to the Elf. From what Legolas had shown the man during their shared dream, the Wood-Elf had been knocked around a bit, yes, and had been humiliated a little when they cut off his hair and ridiculed him with their mocking, but it was nothing so serious as what the man had feared might have happened – it was nothing through which the Elf would have no hope to survive, as other than the terror Legolas had felt whilst it was happening, nothing had transpired which might aggravate the Silvan’s faer into fleeing his rhaw, as it had so often been on the precipice of doing because of the last months of his enduring terrible excruciation at the hands of the merchants and Mithfindl.

Seeing the bewildered and shocked Adan’s wide, staggered eyes, and hearing the sharp inhale the man made when finally his chest relaxed enough to allow him to pull in a wheezing breath, the twins and sentry looked to each other in wonder of what had caused Aragorn to react this way. If Estel had spoken aloud even a part of what he had said to Legolas in his dream, then it was no wonder Kalin wept such bitter tears, for the man had spoken to the Silvan of his being dead and buried, and argued with Legolas over this very thing. It must have sounded strange and perhaps even frightening for the Silvan sentry and Aragorn’s identical brothers, who could only assume the man had been dreaming, though once he told them the truth, they would think him mad or delusional. But he had to tell them. He wanted to know what his astute brothers thought of it once they heard the whole tale, and moreover, he wished to relieve Kalin’s grief. If the sentry believed the human, then Kalin would be ecstatic to learn his Prince lived still.

Kalin soon evinced of what Aragorn had spoken whilst dreaming, for he took to smoothing the blanket again, though his gaze remained upon Estel’s pale visage, as he inquired for a second time when Aragorn remained silent, “What was it? What did you dream? We all heard you speaking to my Prince. You sounded as if you were arguing with him. You seemed to be trying to convince him he was dead. And you apologized for our not arriving in time to save him.”

He nodded absently to all this, but when he opened his mouth to reply, he hesitated momentarily upon noting how his twin brothers were beseeching the human to remain quiet or to take care in his answer, their doing so not by words but by the fraught set of their features as they watched Aragorn. Neither Elladan nor Elrohir wanted for the Adan to upset Kalin further by the human’s speaking of Legolas in this dream, which of course, Aragorn must do to answer the sentry. That Kalin wished to hear of this, despite his not knowing the dream itself was linked to reality, showed how eager Kalin was for any remembrance or news or story of his Prince – even if it were merely from Estel’s dreams.

Aragorn could not do as his brothers desired. Even now, awake and mostly reasonable in spite of his fever and grogginess, Estel believed wholeheartedly in the veracity of the dream, of Legolas’ presence within it, and of his Elven lover being alive. At the beginning of his encounter with the Prince, he had not believed it to be real; by the end, the man had been convinced. He was sure he could win over Kalin, as well. Having just seen his wound to realize it was growing worse and as poor of health as was Aragorn right now, he knew he would not be able to travel south to search for the Prince alone if at all, and since he had promised Legolas he would find him while asking the Elf to stay where he was, Estel needed for someone to go. Kalin was the natural choice.

Thus, he ignored his brothers, looked only at Kalin, and told the Wood-Elf bluntly, “Greenleaf is alive.”

“Estel, hush!” one of the twins barked at him in annoyance, with the other saying nearly simultaneously, “Do not speak such nonsense!”

He continued to disregard his brothers, for he understood in that moment how they would never believe him, anyway, but Kalin – well, of all of the others, when Elise had rent the Prince’s soul and body with her curse, Kalin had been the only one to believe the man when he had told them he felt Legolas’ faer. If anyone would listen to Estel, it would be Kalin. And in fact, though he saw the dubiety in Kalin’s return regard, he also saw a faint glimmer of faith lurking in the depths of the sentry’s bottomless blue eyes. Hadn’t Estel been right about the Prince weeks ago? Hadn’t he known his lover was near and his faer lingering, when the others had claimed Legolas’ faer had departed to Námo’s realm? Aragorn thought to remind the sentry of this, but he did not need to, for from the hope fostering in Kalin, it was clear the sentry was willing to believe for this very reason.

“I dreamt, yes, but in my dream, Greenleaf was there. And I do not mean I dreamt of Greenleaf. No, he was there,” he tried to explain, though since this singular event was unlike anything Aragorn had ever before experienced, explaining it proved to be more difficult than he thought it might be. He would try, though. He had to try. He had to send Kalin to save Legolas. If the sentry wouldn’t go, then Aragorn would go himself, though he feared he would not make it and Legolas would end up dying while waiting for the Adan to show. Speaking only to Kalin, which enraged the twins evermore, Aragorn reached his injured arm out from under the blankets to lay his hand upon the Silvan’s knee. He told Kalin, “I was walking in the marsh near the river, the one we passed a few days ago. We avoided all but the easternmost end of it, which is also the narrowest part of it. Do you remember?”

While Kalin nodded, the twins again tried to dissuade Aragorn from speaking, with Elladan telling the man, “Damn you, brother. Do not do this,” and Elrohir adding almost before his twin finished, “Do not torment Kalin by getting his hopes up. What is the matter with you?”

Both sentry and Ranger continued to overlook the twins, much to the Noldorin brothers’ exponentially swelling ire. Estel went on, saying, “Legolas sat there in the marsh. A couple of nights ago, I had a nightmare where I saw what happened to him, where I saw him being taken by the Yrrch, how they hit and spit upon him, how they cut his hair to shame him, but I also saw him killing the two Orcs who were charged with preparing him for the others’ entertainment. I saw him try to escape. The bruises he had from the fight, from them hauling him up the ledge with a rope around his neck and where they beat him, his missing clothes, and his hair being cut – he looked exactly the same in my dream last night. And because of the blows to his head, both from falling out of the walnut tree and the thrashing he took, Legolas could not – no, cannot – see clearly. He is nearly blind from the injury.”

Kalin listened to all this with the raptness of a small child hearing a bedtime story. To their own chagrin, the twins were listening, too, with the same fascination, though ostensibly reluctant to be entertaining what they perceived to be the man’s madness. Even Valnesse and Reana, who had been off a ways preparing the horses for their departure, had wandered to where the four males sat so they could hear clearly the tale Estel spun, as well.

“I thought he was only a dream two nights ago, and at first, I thought he was merely a dream last night. As you say, I told Greenleaf I was sorry for our arriving too late to save him. When he told me he was not dead, I argued, telling him he was dead. I told him how we had buried him at the lake. But he told me he thought one of us had been buried there, instead, as he had returned to the lake and found the grave used. He asked if all of you were well, and I told him we were all fine, and again I tried to convince him he was the one dead and buried.” Aragorn paused, his thoughts running too fast for his mouth to catch up in telling his audience everything he wished for them to know. He was probably only confusing them with this rambling explication but if he did not say it all now, it might dissipate from his memory as it almost had upon his wakening.

The twins yet again took this lapse in the man’s talking as their chance to stop what they saw as Estel’s grief-borne madness finding zealous outlet in Kalin. “Muindor. You are feverish. Whatever you have dreamt, I am sure it seemed real,” the elder Noldo began to say, his tone falsely placating, with the younger Noldo finishing with similar patronization, “and we appreciate how hard it is to accept Greenleaf’s death, but you do him and Kalin a disservice with this drivel. Stop, brother, before you incite Kalin’s grief further.”

In an entirely uncharacteristic show of contempt for the twins, whom he had always respected due to their station but more importantly because of their friendship with his Prince, Kalin pried his attention away from Aragorn to hiss at the identical brothers, “Quiet, please. I wish to hear this and I am not a child needing protection from either of you. Please,” the Silvan said again, this time with less acrimony and more pleading.

Neither twin seemed happy about Kalin’s insistence, but neither argued, for they were too wary of upsetting the already grieving sentry any further. Nor did they seem to take offense at Kalin’s rudeness, though they once more turned their disdainful, verdigris eyes to their human sibling, instead, blaming Estel for the Silvan’s outburst and anguish – or so it seemed to Aragorn. He successfully stifled an amused smirk at the way in which Kalin had hushed the two Noldor, for the twins were not usually so easily dissuaded from speaking their minds, especially when it came to their young human sibling.

His amusement was short-lived, though, when his straggling thoughts returned to his dream. In the ochre light of the burgeoning day, the forest around him glistened with the icy dew of the morning, reminding the man of a similar algid morning when he and Legolas had encountered the two merchants Sven and Cort, who had happened upon the Elf and Ranger near to a trade route in the Mirkwood forest. He had thought Legolas would die that morning from being forced to sate the two Edain’s rapacious lust. Since then, Aragorn had repeatedly been confronted with the possibility of losing the Prince to grief or injury, which had been perpetrated against the Wood-Elf by other Edain, by his own kind from Mithfindl, by a young girl’s specter, and even the laegel’s own father. And now, after days of believing his lover to be dead, he knew Legolas to be alive, but still faced the possibility of his injured, nearly blind, weaponless, and famished lover perishing. Tears welled in his eyes – tears of shame and anger. He did not let them fall.

Through all the Prince’s suffering and misfortunes, Legolas had always held the latent fear of his loved ones thinking him to be a problem, and thus dreaded for his friends and lover to give up on him when his burdens became too troublesome for them to help the Wood-Elf to carry – and Estel now felt they had done just that in forsaking the laegel, even though they had all believed the Prince to be dead. His chest swelling evermore with shame, the human regretted, “He showed me his memories of what happened, and in them, while thinking the Yrrch would torment and kill him, Legolas never stopped hoping we would show up in time to save him. And when I told Greenleaf we were on our way to Imladris, I could feel his despair to hear it. He worried we had given up looking for him because we were angered he had left the lake without telling us where he was going. He thought we had left him to his fate. He feels we have abandoned him.”

Upon hearing this, Kalin let loose a subdued sob and his weeping renewed. Even the twins appeared on the verge of tears, though from the dour and determined set of their faces, neither was willing to concede any truth to Aragorn’s claims, nor were they about to evince if they held any stock in Estel’s dream – they would not allow themselves to lament over hearing about it. But even though Elrohir and Elladan did not believe Aragorn’s story, it broke the twins’ hearts even to consider the very notion of Legolas questioning whether they had searched for him or not – based upon the Prince’s belief how his foster brothers’ anger over something so simple as his leaving the lake without telling them might have caused the Noldor to desert him to this fate. And to hear how until the very end Legolas had held hope of their finding him before the Orcs took their enjoyment from him caused everyone who had been a part of the search to feel shame and regret for not having found the Prince in time, regardless of whether they believed Aragorn or not about Legolas being alive now.

“We could feel each other’s emotions. We could read other’s thoughts,” Aragorn continued. The human ceased paying attention to the people around him; instead, he spoke his musings aloud, “Our faers are truly connected. Perhaps not as strongly as would be two faers of the Eldar, but they are joined. I know it. And this whole time, I have known with my mind our Greenleaf was dead, but never once did my heart believe it, I swear to you. I have not once stopped feeling his presence, although I tried to convince myself otherwise.”

“Of course you are bonded. My Prince was able to give to you the light of his faer when your own faer’s light dimmed from Elise’s curse. You are bonded as closely as two of the Eldar,” Kalin reasoned out loud while plucking at the friable bits of leaves stuck to the outside of Aragorn’s outermost layer of blanket. Tears ran unheeded down the pale Silvan’s face, which he did not deign to wipe away. “I wish you had spoken of this before, Estel. I wish you had told me you did not feel as if Legolas were dead. I would never have stopped searching for him. I might have found him already,” the sentry expressed, though without blame for Aragorn, as he could no more fault Estel for thinking Legolas dead than he could himself. They had all been convinced of it, after all.

With Kalin saying this, Aragorn knew he had the sentry’s support. Yet, he further made his argument in hopes of garnering the twins’ backing, as well, for he very much wished to go south to look for Legolas, but knew he could not lest the twins were willing to go with him to tend to his wound. He pled his case, saying to his brothers, “What Greenleaf showed me is plausible with what evidence we found. It makes sense.” Shifting upon the cold, hard ground in discomfort of his being rather than of his body, Aragorn pled with the twins to understand, “Legolas showed me why he took off from the lake – he heard a scream and thought to be of help to someone. It is just like our Greenleaf to do so, to put himself in danger to help someone else. But from the aftereffects of Elise’s curse, his body failed him and he became lightheaded. While running through the limbs, he fell from the walnut tree during his attempt to find the screaming person; he was unconscious for a while but didn’t know for how long. When we searched for him, we surely passed him by, for his body was lying in the gulley of leaves, just where we found the bloodied rock. And I saw his memory of fighting the Yrrch, of their taking him after they rendered him nearly unconscious with repeated blows to the head. What he showed me aligns with what we found there, right down to the furrows in the ground from where he tried to pull free of their hold of him.”

Aragorn paused to take a breath, but also to check whether his brothers were listening and accepting his evidence of the plausibility of Legolas’ living. Elrohir and Elladan’s stoic faces gave nothing away, while Valnesse merely looked confused, for she had been given no details about what had transpired in concerns to the Prince’s supposed death. Reana, on the other hand, was glowering at Estel as if wishing she could wrap her hands around his throat to quiet him, to keep the man from distressing Kalin further. He understood Reana’s anger for him completely and did not hold it against her. If someone had been upsetting Legolas as Estel now upset Kalin, the Ranger would have been glowering at the perpetrator, as well, if not outright demanding for said person to cease distressing his Elven lover. However, Kalin’s head was nodding ever so slightly as the man talked, which Estel hoped showed the Silvan’s agreement to this rationale.

He persisted, huddling further under the blanket and crossing his arms around himself for warmth as he spoke directly to Kalin, since the twins were ostensibly unreceptive to the human’s claims, “And in the cave, the Yrrch began to take off your Prince’s clothes and they cut his hair to humiliate him, as I said. Legolas showed me what he saw while all this happened, and he saw the same as we found there – hunks of flesh spitted on the fire while other pieces were waiting to be cooked. He decided it was whoever had screamed for help, assuming he or she must have been caught. It was not him. It was not his skull or his flesh. Legolas let the two Yrrch think him cowed to their violence and degradation, biding his time and then killing the two Orcs who were trying to prepare him for their fellow beasts’ night of feasting and entertainment. Then he crept out of the cave.”

The twins looked between each other, sharing their thoughts tacitly. To Aragorn’s optimistic relief, he saw their uncertainty. Even if they did not have confidence in their human sibling’s story about his having dreamt of Legolas, of how the amalgamation of their faers had allowed the two lovers to share their memories in a way evidencing how the Prince still lived, the twins had to admit neither of them had considered the possibility of the cooking flesh in the Orcs’ cave potentially belonging to someone else – nor had Kalin considered this, and for that matter, not even Estel had done so until shown differently by Legolas. Besides, in Estel’s thinking, the twins would need to judge their brother lunatical for the Adan to have concocted this whole theory to explain away everything they had found. While his brothers might decide Estel delusional, his delusion had a logic to it his brothers could not deny.

Kalin ran a hand over his tearstained face. Reana knelt down behind the sentry and unselfconsciously wrapped her arms around the Silvan’s torso to hug him, to comfort him. With regret and shame, Kalin admitted, “I foolishly assumed it was my Prince. With his hair and clothing there… what else were we to think? How did he get away, Estel?” the sentry asked, his simple question further evincing his belief in the man’s story, for he did not question whether his Prince escaped, but asked how.

Pressing on, the frigid man tried to hide the clattering of his teeth as he explained, “The other Yrrch were at the bottom of the ledge, doing what their leader commanded of them. Meanwhile, Legolas scurried up the mountainside and crawled along it northwards. He made it back to the lake and happened upon the brook flowing into it. He found the grave,” the man informed them, aware he might be repeating himself and was likely speaking too quickly for anyone to question him, though he did not care. He needed to say all this aloud lest he forget it. “And he wondered which of us was buried there. He found his way to the campsite to look for us, but we were gone. He showed me his bathing the blood and dirt from off him in the lake then deciding to head north, to the valley, because he thought since one of us was buried in the grave, we could be seriously injured. Greenleaf wanted to seek out aid for us, when he was injured and sightless and without provisions. It is just what Greenleaf would do,” he told them, and no one could argue against this being just what Legolas would have done in the situation, for they all knew the Prince loved his friends and family more than he loved himself.

“He carved ‘Imladris’ in the trunk of the tree against which my root chair sat. Greenleaf didn’t think we would ever give up looking for him,” he persevered, not ceasing even when he heard Kalin’s noisy sniffle at this, as the sentry had given up looking for his Prince along with the rest of them, though not without ample cause. Reana’s embrace of the sentry grew tighter, while her scowl for Aragorn grew more fierce, promising bloodshed if he did not stop. “And when he and I dreamt together, Legolas had just fallen asleep in the marsh, which was just where I found him in my dream. He is injured, thirsty, hungry, and nearly blind, and he needs our help. He is terrified, I know, because I could feel his terror. He is so very frightened because he cannot see, because he is defenseless, and because he thinks we are not coming for him. But I pled with him to stay there, and I promised him we would come to get him.”

Whether true or not, the imagining of their beloved Greenleaf suffering alone in the woods while thinking his friends had abandoned him dismayed everyone. Even still, the Elves around him looked at Aragorn as if he had gone crazy; well, that is, all of the Elves but Kalin, who looked at Estel with the same fervidness Aragorn felt upon his own face. The sentry first questioned the Adan simply, “You are sure of this? My Prince lives?” At Estel’s nod, Kalin did not give the man enough time to respond verbally, for he declared, “Then I am going back. I am going back to look for him.”

“No, Kalin. No,” Elladan argued, holding his hand out as if to keep the Wood-Elf there, though Kalin had yet to move and Reana appeared as if she would never let the Silvan go to allow him to do as he avowed. “It was a dream. Estel is burning up with fever. He is sick and delirious.”

“You were the one who found Legolas,” Elrohir debated to the Silvan as he moved to a crouch in readiness to impede physically Kalin should he try to take off, as he seemed wont to do. “We all saw the same thing. We all saw Legolas’ body, his clothing, his hair. He is dead, my friend.”

“But Greenleaf’s memories explain all of that,” Aragorn tried to reason back. Despair clouded the human’s fevered mind. He did not have the energy to fight with his brothers, but it was imperative for him to ensure the twins did not convince Kalin to abandon his proclamation to seek out out his Prince. “It was the poor soul who Greenleaf heard shouting, or so he assumed. Legolas saw the cooking meat, same as did we, but it was not Legolas.”

“Your mind is playing tricks on you. That is all. Of course you would dream some logical explanation for what happened, Estel,” Reana now spoke for the first time since their conversation began. The she-Elf was trying not to belittle the man’s opinion, as Aragorn was the son of her Lord, but the Adan could tell the Elleth thought Estel was mad with grief and sickness. “You feel guilty for not having been able to save Legolas. We all do. We all feel sorrow over it, and none more than you and Kalin, I would wager. Of course you want for him to be alive, and of course your grieving mind would wish to find some way for it to be so,” she said, now including her lover in this, as well, for she moved to be beside Kalin rather than behind so she could take his arm to hold against her breast, while she directed her words at him, also. “But you both, and all of us, did what we could to save the Prince. We were too late, but we tried. There is no reason for you to feel guilty for his death. And there is no reason for us to go back to ascertain he is dead. We buried him.”

“But…” the Ranger began, ere Elrohir jumped to his feet, flung the blanket off the man’s body, and grabbed the human by the shoulder of his tunic.

With a mighty yank, the younger twin pulled Estel to his feet. He might have fallen since he was given no time to place his feet under him, but Elladan joined in and began pushing the human away, and between the twins, they kept him moving and upright. He did not question where they were going. Behind him, Reana spoke to Kalin, her tone soft and kind and understanding. I do not imagine my brothers will be as kindhearted to me as Reana is being to Kalin, he rued, knowing he had a lecture in store for him. But he was glad Reana was soothing the Wood-Elf’s guilty conscience, so long as she didn’t try to talk him out of leaving to find his Prince.

“Idiot,” Elladan called the human the moment they were out of immediate earshot of the others.

The twins ceased walking, and because they had been hauling Aragorn along with them, the man stopped, as well, though he nearly fell to his knees at the abruptness with which they halted. Had not Elrohir’s tight grip on his shoulder steadied him, the man would have been on the cold, hard ground for this lecture. And had he fallen, he was not so sure his irate brothers would have bothered to help him back into standing.

“What in Udûn are you thinking? How could you be so cruel to Kalin?” Elrohir ranted at the Ranger.

The two identical brothers crowded closely together before their human brother. When first the Prince had gone missing, he and the twins had fought hard and often over whose fault it was, with one argument coming to blows; when they had found what they thought to be Legolas’ body in the Orcs’ cavern, the three brothers again had a physical altercation. But the last time Estel had faced his foster siblings’ wrath like this, he, Elladan, Elrohir, and Glorfindel had been travelling from Mirkwood to Imladris, just after the Ranger had pulled an unwilling Legolas from his numbed shell and thus forced the Wood-Elf into facing his grief. Just as then, Aragorn felt bereft of the hope of explaining to his brothers his reasoning; and just as then, Legolas’ life hung in the balance, with Estel’s actions being the influence behind whether the Prince lived or died. When the twins took a threatening step closer because of Aragorn’s silence, he decided it best to answer them.

“Cruel? I am doing nothing to Kalin but telling him the truth. He asked me of what I dreamt. I told him,” he tried to argue back, but the Ranger was tired, hungry even though his belly flipped over at the thought of consuming food, and his teeth were once more chattering because of the discrepancy between his feverish flesh and the frigid air whipping through his sweat-dampened hair and thin clothing. “I am not delusional and I am not mad with grief. Greenleaf lives. We must find him.”

The twins took another menacing step forward, but abruptly, they stepped back in tandem, while neither looked at the Ranger any longer, which caused Aragorn to turn around to see at whom they looked. Kalin stood behind them, with Reana a few steps behind the sentry. The Wood-Elf walked right up to the twins, where he moved to insert himself between the human and the Noldor. It had only been minutes since Kalin had learnt of the possibility of his Prince being alive and awaiting their help, but already, the sentry appeared haler than he had earlier. Despite his thinness and pallor, the Wood-Elf now had a reason to persist, and this newfound determination glittered in the Silvan’s blue eyes with an engulfing perfervidness to have his life’s purpose renewed for him once again. 

“Estel is right. His faer is bound to Legolas’ faer. He proved this on the farm when he felt my Prince’s presence, when we all thought Legolas gone. This was proved also when my Prince shared his faer’s vitality with Estel to keep Estel’s faer from fading,” Kalin told them all. He adjusted his weapons strapped to his person, which he had not been wearing during their conversation a few moments ago so had since procured. Estel hoped Kalin had gathered his weapons in preparation to leave to find his Prince. Although for the last few days the Silvan had appeared grieving and on the verge of fading, he now looked as resolute and determined as ever they had seen him. “I believe Estel, whether you believe him or not, and if there is even the slightest chance my Prince still lives, then I will find him.”

Regardless of his tiredness, febricity, and injury, Aragorn felt a surge of hope and the diminishing of his sorrow. He sighed in utmost relief and then thought to speak, to offer to join Kalin, and to add his own voice to the sentry’s, for he wanted to go with Kalin in search of his Greenleaf. Elrohir and Elladan were staring at Kalin, gauging the veracity of the Wood-Elf’s surety, but also making up their minds about whether to continue to beleaguer what they saw as the truth – Estel was feverish, grieving, dreaming all this, and thus, knew not what he said. But the longer they stood there facing off against Estel and Kalin, both of whom did not turn away or avoid the Noldor’s incisive gazes, the less sure the twins looked and the more doubt crept into their minds. When after several long minutes had passed, Elrohir looked to Elladan and Elladan to Elrohir; they nodded at each other, appearing displeased by their agreement, and Estel knew even if his brothers did not believe him, the two were unwilling to take the chance on his being wrong, and thus chance leaving Legolas in the marsh, injured and soon to die without their aid.

Kalin must have perceived this from the Noldor, as well, for his body relaxed, he whirled around to face Estel, and told the man, “Come, let us hurry and leave. If my Prince is doing as poorly as you say, he needs us immediately.”

Fighting back the urge to smile his relief, Estel nodded and soon began to follow Kalin back to their small campsite; and yet, a hand seized his shoulder again, spinning him around to face his brothers once more. The elder twin warned the Ranger, “You are going nowhere. We are not allowing you to run off while fevered and poisoned, whether you are right about Legolas or not,” he said, and though he clearly believed Aragorn to be wrong about the Prince, he did not seem as assured of it as earlier.

“Someone needs to…” the human began but did not get far in arguing.

“We are not taking word back to Ada of how we let you roam the wilds with your arm about to rot off from toxin, based on a dream you had while delirious with fever!” the younger Noldo added to his elder’s argument. “Do not try us, Estel. We will tie you up or drug you with a soporific to ensure you do not try to scurry off in the night.”

He knew they did not lie. His Elven brothers would bind him up and lug him home tossed over the saddle of his horse if they needed to. Already at the campsite just ahead, Kalin was mounting Arato, while Reana stood at his stirrup, likely pleading with the sentry not to go on what she thought to be a fool’s errand. Aragorn could not hear what she said from where he stood and while his brothers scolded him, though, so he could again only hope she did not convince Kalin to reject this task. Leaning his side against the nearest tree trunk, Aragorn’s mind raced with fretful possibilities, which he soon spoke aloud.

“Kalin ought not to go alone. Someone should be with him. One of you,” he told his brothers, who stood on either side of him as if in guard of him, though more than likely, they were doing so to  keep him from leaping onto a horse and fleeing after Kalin. “Greenleaf is injured. He will need a healer. Kalin will not know what to do for him,” he argued to Elladan and Elrohir, who surprisingly did not appear to be against this idea. So, turning his face up to where Anor streamed down through the stark, leafless trees’ limbs overhead, Estel continued, “We should split up. One of you go with Kalin, and if she is willing, Reana can go, as well. If I am wrong,” he began, though because he did not want to open up the argument of his being delusional once more, he spoke quickly to avoid giving his brothers the chance to interject their opinion, “then she will best be able to soothe Kalin’s grief. When you find Greenleaf,” he said, not bothering to say ‘if’ but saying ‘when,’ for the possibility of their not finding the Prince after all this was unthinkable to the human, “then he will need all the help he can get. Meanwhile, the other of you, Valnesse, and myself can go the outpost.”

His neighing loud and boisterous with excitement, Arato began stamping his feet. More than likely, the stallion had overheard Kalin and Reana speaking of the sentry’s riding off to find Legolas, and loving his master beyond all measure, Arato was eager to do so. Had the horse been a bloodhound, they could have used Arato to find the Prince when first searching for the laegel upon Legolas’ disappearance from the lake. As he waited for the twins to finish coalescing their thoughts into a decision about the human’s proposal, he watched with mild amusement as Reana gave up quarrelling with Kalin, grabbed and strapped on her own weapons, and stopped only long enough to bark some order at Valnesse before she leapt atop her own mount.

She will not need convincing to go with Kalin, at least, he knew, for it seemed the Elleth was determined to accompany her Silvan lover to find his Prince.

Beside him, Elladan sighed, who then told the Ranger, “I will go with Kalin and Reana. Elrohir will see you safely to the valley.”

If Aragorn had his way, he would not be going to the valley, but leave south once obtaining herbs at the outpost. But for now, it was unwise to mention such a thing. He smiled at the twins upon turning back to them; his brothers were eyeing the man suspiciously.

“Are you sure of this?” the elder twin asked, soon to be followed by the younger one adding, “Are you sure it was truly Greenleaf and not some mere dream?”

Stepping to stand just in front of them, Estel swept one hand up to his chest, where he laid it across his heart and vowed, “Upon my honor, upon my life, short and valueless as you may think it to be. Legolas is alive and waiting for us to aid him. We cannot forsake him again.”

Neither twin was pleased with their brother’s vow, for it reminded the twins of their harsh criticism of the human days ago at the lake and upon Elise’s family farm, when they had impugned the mortal Ranger for his fault in Legolas’ suffering. As had they observed and judged Kalin a short while ago, the twins now stared at Estel, who while uncomfortable under their intense regard, did not back down nor look away from them. As one, the twins nodded. “Then I am off to find Greenleaf,” Elladan told his twin and human brother, shaking his head at the oddity of all this before he trotted to the campsite to prepare ere Kalin and Reana left without him.

“If anyone would dream of a dead loved one only to learn he is truly still alive,” Elrohir told the man, taking Aragorn’s arm to steady the febrile human while walking back to the others, “then it would be you dreaming of Greenleaf. No stranger love affair have I ever heard of than what the two of you share,” the Noldo rued, though he chuckled a time or two to show he was teasing and squeezed Aragorn’s bicep, quieting his voice to tell the Ranger privately on his and his twin’s behalf, “We may doubt your dream, but do not doubt this, muindor – we hope you are right. We want more than anything for you to be right and Greenleaf to be alive still.”

A tension he had not been aware of released inside the human. Having his brothers on his side was more than for what he had hoped, and although it was clear they still thought him delusional, if they were willing to help search for Greenleaf, then it was the most for which the Adan could ask. As quietly as had Elrohir spoken, the Ranger replied, “Thank you.”

The Silvan sentry, Noldorin guard, and Noldorin twin were all mounted and about to head out, for Kalin’s ferventness would not be denied now he had determination once more. And this purpose was his life’s purpose – the care and protection of his Prince, whom he had cause to believe lived. Aragorn hastened to where Arato was chomping at the bit – quite literally, at that – in eagerness to be off to find his master, for Estel wanted to speak to the sentry before they left. He called out to Kalin, “Wait!”

Impatient to leave, the sentry reluctantly dismounted and came to Aragorn, who walked too slowly the impatient Wood-Elf. With Elrohir and now Kalin’s help, Estel sat back upon his bedroll for the nonce. Kalin knelt down beside the Ranger once the human was seated, and before Aragorn could even plead with the Silvan to agree to the many promises he wished to extract from the sentry, Kalin oathed the only thing that mattered. He told the Ranger succinctly, “Estel – I believe you. I believe my Prince lives if you say it is so. And I will find Legolas. I promise you. I will find him and bring him home to you.”

Tears stung Estel’s eyes, but he smiled at the Wood-Elf, for he felt like weeping because of the immense gratitude he felt for Kalin. He needn’t ask for anything else. Aragorn’s smile widened into a grin, while his heart felt lightened for the first time since the night Legolas had gone missing, as the burden of his lover’s death was now removed and hope for the Elf’s return assured in Kalin’s stalwartness over the care and love he felt for his charge. Holding his hand out to the Silvan, he waited until Kalin grasped his forearm as did Aragorn do to the Elf’s forearm, and then merely asked of Kalin, “Bring him back to us as quickly as you can, Kalin. And be safe.”

With a nod, the Silvan took off at a run to Arato, who was now prancing and tossing his head because of the many mentions of his Prince’s name, who knew of what the Eldar and Adan around him spoke, and who wanted to find his master as much as Estel wished to find his lover. In a single graceful leap, the sentry was atop the stallion. He tapped his boots to the horse’s sides, pulled the reins to aim Arato south, and took off at a trot. A moment later, Reana did the same, giving no one any farewell save for a scowl she shared with Aragorn alone. Elladan lingered behind only long enough to remind his twin, “Get him to the outpost at once. And do not let him try to follow us. Keep him in Imladris until he is fully healed. By then, we will have returned, I hope, and with Greenleaf with us, if Estel is right, and if Ilúvatar wills it.”

Elrohir nodded his acquiescence to his twin’s orders, and with that, Elladan provoked his horse into trotting away. Valnesse, Elrohir, and Aragorn all watched their friends and family go, with Elrohir staring into the distance long after the others were gone from view. When finally Elrohir looked away, he turned to Estel as if to speak, but in the end, he said nothing and began kicking dirt over the embers of their fire.

If the she-Elf had any clue as to what was transpiring, she did not appear it, for Valnesse was wandering listlessly around the campsite with no purpose and a bewildered look upon her fair face. Taking pity upon her, Estel asked the woman, “Valnesse. Will you help me to stand? We should depart soon for the outpost.”

At once, the kind Noldo came to Aragorn and did as bid, even going so far as to lead him to his horse, which he climbed upon with Valnesse’s aid. He sat there to observe while the two Noldor finished preparations to leave, tapping the pommel of his saddle with the reins in eager anticipation.

The sooner we are at the outpost, he told himself, the sooner I can be treated, and the sooner I can head south to find you, Greenleaf. Until then, the Ranger could only look forward to sleeping this coming night, as with sleep might come dreams, and then, he might have the opportunity to speak to his Greenleaf once more. He stuck his hand in his pocket and wrapped his fingers around the silken braid of his lover’s hair. Carefully, so not to pull free the hairs from the knots tied at each end and thus ruin the perfection of the plait, Estel closed his eyes and focused his mind upon the Prince, wishing he could speak to the Elf through his thoughts as clearly as he and the Elf had done while in their shared dream.

Just stay safe, Greenleaf, he asked of the Prince. Stay where you are, lest you move closer to where Kalin might find you, for he is coming for you, I promise. And once this arm of mine is tended, I am coming to find you, also, meleth nin, he thought to the Silvan, but unlike in his dream, he felt no binding link between himself and the Prince, save for the familiar but faint connection he had felt constantly since he and the Prince had shared their bodies by a brook for the very first time. Judging himself silly for having hoped to hear Legolas reply to him inside his head, Aragorn began to fret. He did not doubt his dream nor his conclusion of the Prince being alive, but he wanted most to be with Kalin, Elladan, and Reana to find Legolas.

When finally Elrohir and Valnesse mounted up to continue north to the outpost, Aragorn released his fervent hold of Legolas’ plait and smiled through his anxiety. He was certain that in due time, he would be able to toss this memento aside, for soon, he would have Legolas in his arms instead of a braid in his hand.

Chapter Text

Hannah held the Elf’s arm tightly as she aided him onto a makeshift raft. From what he could tell, it was a poorly constructed thing, but likely served its only purpose, which was to ferry the Edain from one side of the river to the other. Their camp was upon the western side, but they used the raft and a few boats to forage and hunt upon the eastern side, it seemed. There were only a few other people upon the raft besides Hannah and himself, with two of them being children and the other being the man who pushed the craft across the water with a long pole. As the raft drifted in the lazily moving current, Hannah did not release the Prince – likely out of fear of him toppling over and into the water, should his weakness from hunger and injury cause him to lose his balance. But even if he had fallen into the river, Legolas could easily have swam to the opposite shore, for he was a consummate swimmer, and doubted his blindness had changed this. He did not argue or try to pull away from the kindly woman, though, and in fact, he welcomed the friendly touch of her hand upon his bare arm. Although it had only been about a week since last he had seen his lover and friends, Legolas felt starved for affable company.

“We don’t have much,” the Adan woman soon broke the silence to tell the laegel, “but you are welcome to you fair part of it. From what she told me this morning ere she left, our healer went off with the menfolk, foraging for herbs while the men hunted for food, but she said she would return as soon as possible. She has plenty of patients to tend to in our camp, I’m afraid; some of whom we brought with us and others of whom we’ve collected on our way north. In the meantime, why don’t we find you something to eat, and then I can help you to bathe and find some fitting clothing for you? We have one large tin tub amongst all of us, which we use to bathe the children, since it is too cold to have them bathe in the river with the rest of us, but I will see to it you have warm water for your ablutions. It will ease your aches and give you some privacy,” she promised the Elf, who was welcomingly surprised at the thought of it.

I haven’t had a warm bath in a tub since we left Imladris, he mused in anticipation.

Legolas nodded his willingness to this plan, although he wasn’t quite sure how he felt about the woman – or anyone else, for that matter – aiding him in washing. And yet, he sorely wished to have a proper bath, for he was covered in mud, algae, and whatever else his bare body had picked up during his journey northwards. When the raft bumped against the grassy side of the western shore, the human steering it threw a rope to a man standing in wait; he looped the rope around a hooked, iron stake hammered into the ground to keep the craft from drifting off. Hannah first saw to it that the children were safely on solid ground before she aided Legolas into stepping upon the bank, too. Her hand remaining firmly upon his arm, she began to lead him into a densely forested area running along the river, from where the sounds of more Edain drifted upon the cool morning’s breeze.

It is not yet too cold, but these Edain will need to find permanent shelter soon, he worried of the humans, who from the voices he could make out apparently counted amongst their number many women and children, all of whom would need homes when the bitter winter winds arrived in the weeks to come. I have yet to hear from where these people originate, or why they fled their previous homes, but if their cause is a good one, the Rangers will surely have some means of aiding these people to survive the winter. Hannah had promised to tell the laegel the story of her kith, should he wish to hear it, and Legolas wished very much to hear why these people were fleeing. Were he in better shape, he would offer to aid them in their cause, also, and so hoped for both the Edain and himself, If their healer is as good as Hannah claims, then perchance my sight will return soon, and with it, I can be of aid to these Edain along with the Rangers. His heart ever filled with compassion and goodness, Legolas did not once consider whether the folk here were worth helping, for in his mind, they were good until they proved otherwise; yet, this didn’t mean he wasn’t wary and suspicious of how they might treat him, and as they walked closer to the camp itself, his caution turned into outright anxiety.

The woman’s guiding hand was a welcome anchor to the laegel; as had Estel’s hand upon the Prince’s belly done for Legolas time and time again, Hannah’s motherly, steadfast grip mollified the Wood-Elf’s nervousness to a tolerable level. The merry sounds of children playing grew louder the farther into the woods they walked, with Hannah navigating Legolas by small tugs of his arm to help him to avoid any obstacles in his path.

“Hannah!” someone called out as he and the woman entered a large clearing, the other side of which the Elf could not determine in his nearly blind state. But inside this clearing he believed he could discern that tents were set up, along with small lean-tos made of wooden logs and branches from fir trees, and small fires were lit everywhere to stave off the chill in the air, with one great, bright fire in the very middle of all this, upon which roasting venison was being turned by several attentive, laughing young women.

“Nigel,” the woman replied with obvious affection in her voice. She drew Legolas’ arm to the left, inciting him into following her in that direction, and led the Elf towards from where the hail had come. “Nigel, my love,” she said again once they were facing the man who had said her name. “This is Legolas. He will be joining us for the time being. Legolas, this is Nigel, my husband.”

From what he could distinguish of Nigel, the man was of short stature – almost as short as was a Dwarf – with the muscled, stocky limbs of an Adan who was used to hard work. Vaguely, he could see the man’s teeth as he smiled at the Prince; and this he saw only because Nigel sported a massive, dark beard, from which his straight and white teeth contrasted brightly.

His voice just as kind as was Hannah’s voice, but gruff and boisterous, Nigel came forward and clapped Legolas upon the shoulder, which given his shortness, he managed only by reaching up high and standing nearly upon his tiptoes. “Welcome, Legolas,” the Adan told the Elf, his friendly thwack so solid it caused the unsteady Elf to reel forward a bit.

“Careful, now, husband, or I will wallop you one,” Hannah scolded the man with no true heat to her threat. “He’s injured and hungry, tired and sore, and he doesn’t need you knocking him over, you lout.”

The Adan man laughed heartily, which made the Elf smile in return. Nigel reached up to move what to Legolas appeared to be two ropes hanging over the man’s shoulders, which he adjusted. Legolas guessed these must be makeshift suspenders; they were slipping off Nigel’s shoulders and from how the human pulled them back in absentminded motions, it seemed they did this often. “Sorry, sorry. Why don’t you take him to our tent and I will fetch your shears and the tin tub?” the Adan offered in conciliation. “I imagine you’ll be wanting to wash him up like you do everyone else who wanders into your care,” the human guessed with accuracy, showing he knew his wife well.

“Yes, yes, you go do that,” Hannah told her husband.

Hannah pulled Legolas away from the stout man and towards the tallest tent the Elf could perceive, which sat in the middle of the camp and the great fire built there. Realizing the woman and her man lived in the best shelter to be had caused the Prince to speculate, Hannah and her husband have an actual tent while most of the others have mere lean-tos. They must be the leaders of these Edain. As they walked, no one else stopped Hannah or Legolas, and he heard no one speaking of the woman or Elf, as if Hannah leading a wounded stranger were a common occurrence to them – or at least, as if his appearance garnered no special interest. This was fine by Legolas, of course, who did not want to be the center of the camp’s attention, but it made him wonder, How many of these refugees came with Hannah from the south, and how many did she pick up along the way? I cannot count them, but I would guess there are at least forty humans around here, and no telling how many are out and about upon tasks needed to sustain a camp of this size.

From the flapping sound the cloth of the tent made in the breeze, Legolas conjectured it was constructed of oiled canvas, which would keep out the snow and rain when the weather turned fouler. By pushing through an untied panel of the fabric, Hannah ushered the Prince inside the pavilion. Though not terribly high, the roof was tall enough for it to be safe for the humans to have hung small oil lamps upon the poles scattered throughout the pavilion, which provided a pleasantly dim light throughout the otherwise shadowy shelter.

“Yes, that was Nigel, my husband,” she reiterated with obvious fondness, continuing by telling Legolas, “And this shelter is ours. We both sold our gold wedding rings to buy it from a man not far from where we fled. We stay in here along with all the children, anyone injured, the elderly, and our healer. It stays the warmest in here, which is why we fit in as many as we can at night. But most of the menfolk and their women have smaller tents or lean-tos outside, though they sometimes join us if it rains. At the moment, though, everyone is out doing their chores to keep us all fed and safe – even the children, if they are old enough – so you can have a little privacy in here to bathe, once Nigel returns with the tub.”

She led the Silvan around a variety of bedrolls and blankets laid out upon the ground, which evinced to the Elf how quite a few humans slept in this shelter. The situation reminded him of the schoolhouse in Elise’s village, in which the unmarried or widowed women and their children had slept at night by assembling cozily together around the hearth, with Halbarad and Jakob staying with them to ensure their safety. It is thoughtful of Hannah and her husband to share their tent with everyone who needs the extra protection from the elements, he pondered with growing regard and respect for the Adan woman. She and Nigel could have had the whole tent to themselves, but they cared enough for their friends to forsake their own privacy and comfort to share with whoever needed it.

Leading the quiet Prince to a battered, wooden trunk near the middle pole of the pavilion, Hannah gently but firmly pushed the Silvan into sitting upon it, and then wandered off a bit to search through another trunk, talking to herself as she did so, “I’m sure I can find something in here…”

He heard the flapping of the tent’s untied panel being pushed open, and in came Nigel carrying one end of a massive tin tub, with another man aiding him at the other end, while behind the two there walked a very young woman, who paused at the entry to call out to Hannah, “Do you need me to fetch him something to eat? The venison isn’t cooked yet but there is a little stew left over from last night,” she offered, obviously speaking of Legolas.

Not ceasing in her rifling in the clothing through which she searched, the elder woman told the younger, “Yes, dear. Bring whatever you can find. He hasn’t eaten for days, I should say. And thank you,” Hannah called back to the other woman, who disappeared at once to do as bid.

The tin tub was already filled shallowly with water – Legolas could tell this by the scintillations of the lamplight upon the surface of the liquid therein. Nigel and the other man placed it upon the ground near to where Legolas sat upon the trunk, with Nigel telling his wife, “I shall return with some warm water, my love. And here are your shears. I know you’ll be wanting to fix his hair.” To Legolas, the man said in a loud, conspiratorial mock whisper, “Don’t worry. She’s not the best at trimming hair, but given the state of yours, I doubt she could do much damage.”

Despite his uneasiness, the Wood-Elf was startled into laughing at the man’s jest, which pleased Nigel to no end, it seemed to Legolas, for the human’s white teeth were blatantly visible as he smiled widely through the long, unkempt beard he wore. Nigel’s friendly but teasing observation was so like something one of the twins would have said to the Prince that Legolas nearly returned a mischievous remark about Nigel’s disheveled beard, but he thought better of being so familiar with the Adan and instead settled for smiling at the man. He could already tell he would like Nigel, if he had the chance to get to know him better, for the Adan reminded him of Elladan, Elrohir, and Estel all amalgamated into one person.

Giving a very unladylike snort, Hannah made shooing motions with her hands, flapping them in the two Edain men’s general direction, “That’s enough of your foolery. Now off with you. And mind you don’t spill that warm water when you bring it back. We will need as much of it as we can to get all this filth off our new friend here.”

Nigel and the other man, who was not introduced, ambled unhurriedly back out of the tent, resuming a conversation between them concerning the hunters who were out of camp in hopes of obtaining game for their kith. Hannah came to stand in front of Legolas, a very sharp pair of shears in hand. At once, the Elf tensed. He had no reason to doubt this woman; in fact, he already found himself trusting her more than he ought to do so, but the sudden appearance of what could be used as a weapon against him roused his instincts, and he felt for the dagger ensconced in his trousers’ ties. But once his fingers lit upon the hilt of said dagger, Legolas immediately felt the fool and forced his hand away from the weapon.

“Now, now. I didn’t mean to startle you with the shears,” Hannah told him softly, reaching out with one hand to place it upon his shoulder. “Like Nigel said, I thought we might cut your hair to make it all the same length. You’ll feel better for it, and it will keep everyone from staring at you for looking strange, and also give them fewer reasons to question you about where you come from and what happened to you. Is that alright?” she inquired of him, not pushing this idea, but giving him the option to decline if it made him uncomfortable.

Since her logic made sense, and because he knew he would indeed feel better once he was less slovenly than was he currently, Legolas willed his heart to quit hammering in his chest, nodded at Hannah, and then agreed, “Yes, and thank you.”

She patted his shoulder in maternal comfort. “Move towards the end of the trunk a bit more so I can get all the way around you,” she asked of him, which the Prince did. She queried as she studied the task set before her, “Was all of your hair as long as this bit right here?”

Holding the section the Yrrch had missed entirely, the section that had been left the same length as all of his hair once had been, Hannah shortened this first while Legolas answered, “Yes. The Orcs did not do a very good job of cutting it, did they?” he joked drolly. “Nigel is right – I doubt there is much that can be done to make this appear any better, so have at it as you will.”

Laughing with honest mirthfulness, which the Prince decided must be the woman and her husband’s normal disposition, Hannah let the long tress fall to the grass and dirt floor before she picked up another uneven section. “No, they didn’t do a good job of it, and while my husband was right and I no barber, I will do what I can to even it up. What a shame to lose all this lovely hair. It’s just the shade of my mother’s hair, at least until it went gray in her old age. And she kept it long, just like yours once was. Now just mind you be still so I don’t cut you by accident,” she warned the Elf, “these shears are very sharp.”

Ever had Legolas enjoyed having someone play with his hair – this came from fond memories of his mother braiding, brushing, and running her fingers through her Elfling’s hair when the Prince was young. Although he had little length to his hair now, just having Hannah touch and comb through his hair with her fingers was soothing for Legolas. He found his eyes drooping with exhaustion as she diligently worked to do her best in making the Wood-Elf’s hair as orderly and even as feasible.

Indeed, he almost fell into reverie while she worked, and only realized she was done when she told the Prince, “There. I think that’s better. I’ve no mirror for you to look into,” she began before tsking at herself. “I guess you couldn’t see it anyway, could you? Silly me. But it is all of similar length now. As thick as it is, I’m betting your hair won’t take long to grow back out,” she told him while running her fingertips over his scalp, scratching it pleasantly, and sounding as if she thought the Elf might be upset at the loss of his long mane.

Truly, Legolas could not care less. His hair would grow back out in time. Still, when Hannah stepped back to admire her handiwork and to check she had not missed any strays, Legolas ran his own hands over his scalp, feeling the work she had finished, and finding Hannah had done a suitable job. He smiled in the woman’s general direction, not sure if she were looking at him or not, and told her, “Thank you, Hannah. I feel much better already.”

Again, she patted his shoulder before she walked away to lay her shears upon the other trunk, sitting them beside the clothing she had earlier pulled from it. “Now,” she brusquely wondered aloud, “where is my sluggardly husband with our warm water?”

No sooner had she spoken than Nigel came through the flapping doorway, the same man from before trailing behind him. Between the two, they carried four large buckets of steaming water, which they brought to the tub immediately, pouring them into the cool water already inside while continuing their discussion about hunting. The steamy, sloshing bathwater appealed to the Wood-Elf greatly. He wanted nothing more than to remove his clothes and sit inside the balmy bath as soon as possible; and yet, he would do no such thing while the two men lingered. Nigel and the other man were standing at the tub’s end, empty buckets swinging in their hands as they gesticulated to emphasize their debate, such that they were talking to each other without paying either the Elf or woman any attention; that is, until Hannah clacked the tin tub with the pewter crock of soap flakes she held. The sound startled both the men and Legolas.

“Take your nattering elsewhere, Nigel, love,” Hannah ordered her husband, amused at Nigel’s farcically affronted expression, which the Wood-Elf could not see but could sense from both Hannah’s laughter and the other man’s chuckles. “Go on, then. We’ve serious washing up to do in here.”

“Alright, alright, woman. No need to get bossy,” Nigel replied with warmhearted familiarity, as if he were often on the receiving end of Hannah’s bossiness and did not mind a whit for it to be so.

The loving fluency of Hannah and Nigel’s sentiments and the argotic conversancy of their badinage invoked a vast longing within Legolas’ faer – the immeasurably acute yearning to be with his own lover, to speak to him and share intimacy, though not necessarily carnal intimacy, but just to have again the easy banter he and Estel normally shared, to enjoy the man’s presence, and to feel Aragorn’s love for him while knowing the human could feel the Elf’s love in return. He suddenly found his eyes burning with tears, though he kept his smile upon his face and hoped Hannah would not take note so she would not question him.

If she did notice, Hannah chose to overlook the Prince’s fleeting fall in good humor, though yet again, she solaced him; this time, she did so by kneading the tense muscles of Legolas’ shoulders ere she called out after the two Edain men, “And tie that door behind you. Make sure no one comes barging in here, and tell Janey we will have that food once our friend here is clean, so for her not to come in, either.”

Perhaps Nigel nodded or gave some other sign he had heard his wife, but of course, Legolas did not see it. He was pleased and relieved, though, for Hannah to have asked for them not to be disturbed, as it meant no one would come within the tent while he bathed. Normally, the Prince was not bashful of his body; that is, not until the last half year or so, when his rhaw had been fondled, abused, and viewed as a thing by others to satisfy their hate-inspired lust. Now, he was placated to have only Hannah there with him, for he felt certain she would aid him in bathing with all the disinterest of a mother washing her child after a day of playing in the dirt or working the fields.

“Up, up. Let us hurry and get you clean while the water is still warm,” she instructed him congenially as she walked to be in front of him, and then hauled Legolas up by the hands into standing even as she demanded him to do so by adding, “Up now, and off with those filthy trousers.”

Undesirous to part with his dagger, pitiful a weapon though it was, Legolas laid it upon the trunk from which he had just risen, intending to see it replaced upon his person when he was clean, and removed his loose and filth encrusted trousers. The woman did not stare nor pay him much regard, save to make the same tsking sound in her throat it seemed to Legolas she often made, for she did so several times as she aided him into the tub, while evincing why she was so vexed, “You are bruised everywhere, Legolas. Every one of your fingernails is broken to the quick. The rope burns on your throat and the bumps on your head will likely sting when the soap hits them, as will your poor feet, I imagine. They are cut to pieces – from walking barefoot, I’d wager. We will need to wash them thoroughly so our healer can apply some unguent to them before we get you into some boots. Maybe wrap them first,” she rambled on, sounding more as if she were listing off all these duties to herself rather than actually speaking to the Silvan.

With a sigh of pure pleasure, the Wood-Elf sat down in the tub, the water shifting up to the middle of his chest once he was fully seated. He thought to ask for a cloth and the soap, as he did not want for Hannah to lower herself to so personal a task as washing the Elf’s body like a servant, but Hannah already had the soap flakes and washcloth in hand, the latter of which she dipped into the water to wet. Sprinkling the soap onto it, Hannah began to hum in a slightly off tune but agreeable manner. Quickly but thoroughly, the woman toiled, starting with Legolas’ shorn head first, where she took especial care to clean what remained of his hair while not disturbing the bumps and contusions thereon it, and with practiced ease, avoided allowing the soap to dribble into his eyes.

“I have three boys,” she told the Elf, ceasing her humming for a moment while she reached for a pitcher she had sat nearby, which she then filled with water from the bath to pour over his head. Rinsing his hair free of lather, she continued, “So do not worry for me to see something you would rather I not. I have seen it all before, Master Elf, and yours is no different.”

At this cheeky divulgence, the Silvan could not help but to snicker, and was soon joined by Hannah, who was pleased to have relieved the Elf of some of his nervousness and to have caused the forlorn Elf amusement, no matter how slight it might be.

“You are right, I am sure,” he replied, stopping only when she took up the cloth to begin cleaning his face. When she had finished this and carefully rinsed away the soap again, her hand shielding his eyes from the runoff, he added, “I apologize. I am not accustomed to having anyone help me to bathe, not even such a kind woman as yourself.”

When she laughed this time, it was with some disbelief. “Truly? As handsome as you are, I thought surely you would have a wife somewhere.”

Legolas almost responded truthfully in telling the woman he had no wife because he did not care for the amatory company of women; however, the Prince quieted his reply when he thought of Elise’s fellow villagers. Randric and his foul friends had used the Prince’s love for Estel against the Rangers and Elves, telling them how the disgusting predilections Legolas and Estel held for finding pleasure with males had brought a curse upon their village. I need these Edain’s help for now. I must not do anything to jeopardize that, he reminded himself. Thus, the Silvan only chuckled at her jibe and did not offer anything further.

Hannah seemed not to notice or mind his reticence, but continued to scrub the Elf clean. Her strong hands and the soft, lathered cloth made thorough work of washing Legolas’ neck, ears, shoulders, arms, and hands – even going so far as to clean the cuts and abrasions to his palms and the dirt from under what remained of his nails – before she moved on to his torso. She restarted her humming, which while not pleasing to the ear in the sense she had a voice for singing, was enjoyable nonetheless in its artlessness. Pushing against Legolas’ shoulder, she incited him into leaning forward so she could reach his back, and when her cloth scrubbed him from his nape down to his very rear, Legolas thought nothing of it, for it could have been his father or Minyatar doing so for him, so placid and familial did it feel.

After she did the same for his chest and sides, lifting his arms and moving him this way and that to reach every part of him, she rinsed the laegel thoroughly ere she instructed, “Let us see what we can do for your feet now, dear.”

No longer feeling any awkwardness or indignity, he stuck his legs out over the edge of one side of the tub, giving her access to them. She first washed his thighs nearly to his nether regions, moving under the water to do so, then progressed lower to burnish his knees and shins, before she actually began the process of caring for his feet. With the cloth moving gently to abrade thoroughly each cut until it was free of dirt and debris, Hannah tsked lowly but rapidly a few times, saying to herself, “Yes, I’ll have to wrap these in linen after she puts the unguent on you. Need to keep the dirt from getting back into these cuts.”

Unable to see the state of his feet, Legolas could only guess how bad they must look, but they felt cut to ribbons, as Hannah had earlier claimed. The soapy water was stinging each scratch and open abrasion to his body, but even this felt good to him, for Legolas always coveted cleanliness and he could abide these small pains if it meant his wounds would be washed. He listened to the Adan hum and he closed his eyes, his lids drooping once more with the peculiarly uncomplicated ease he felt in her presence. For a second time, Hannah gingerly bathed every cut and sore upon his aching soles and toes to be sure they were truly clean.

Once done, the human woman said the Elf’s name, perhaps thinking him to have fallen asleep since his chin was nearly resting upon his chest and his eyes were closed. “Legolas?”

He opened his almost useless eyes and lifted his head to show he was aware. The woman was nothing more than an indistinct shadow in the blurry light of the tent. “My apologies,” he began, thinking himself rude for having been such bad company when the woman was being so generous to him.

“Nonsense. You are tired and no doubt this warm bath is lulling your body into finding the rest you desperately need.” She reached into the tub, found his hand where it rested upon his empty and growling belly, and pressed into it the cloth, instructing, “I will leave you to finish up what you will while I find a fresh towel.”

Legolas gladly did as she asked by scrubbing clean his nether regions and any other area she had missed. His hand fumbled at the side of the tub for the pitcher, his intention to rinse off his aching head a final time, but Hannah stopped him with her hand upon his own, took up the pitcher for him, and instructed, “Up, dear. The water is nearly cold and it is time to get you dry and dressed.”

Feeling no shame or embarrassment any longer for being nude in front of this female stranger, Legolas stood to allow Hannah to rinse him off thoroughly before he got out of the tub. Several times over, the human filled the pitcher, and beginning with his head, she poured the cooling water over him until Legolas was entirely removed of the soap’s lather, which lacked the balms or citrus oils of the soap he preferred to use at home, but which held an aroma of pure and fresh cleanliness. Looping her arm in his, the woman aided the Elf into stepping out of the tub with one foot, instructing him to hold the other aloft over the tub. She rinsed off this foot, then rinsed off the other foot such that the smarting caused by the lather upon his wounds was eased with the soap’s removal. The cool, soft grass under his soles felt divine to him, for over the past few days, his feet had been so covered in sludge and blood that it had felt to Legolas as if he had been wearing boots made of sticks and mud.

Her disjointed humming never ceasing, Hannah rubbed the laegel dry from his head to his feet, skimming over rapidly but not avoiding entirely his rear and groin, before she wrapped the towel around his waist, telling him, “Sit down on the trunk for a moment while I fetch the clothes I found for you.”

Hannah’s hand ever guiding him, Legolas sat back where he had sat before his bath, feeling better than he had since the day of his disappearance from the lake. Just wait until I tell Estel all of this. I hope he sleeps and dreams tonight as we did last night, so I can speak to him again, the Prince wished. He had more reasons for wanting to see and converse with Estel than sharing this story, but amusedly, the laegel wondered, What will Estel think when I tell him I had a woman bathe and tend to me like a spoilt princeling?

Legolas wondered at himself, at how fraught he must truly be to have allowed a stranger to bathe him as if he were a child. He tried to convince himself it was because of how trustworthy Hannah sounded to him, but in truth, Legolas knew it was because of how desolate and desperate he was for aid and company in his sightless, wounded, and hungry state.

He unclearly viewed as Hannah knelt before him, and then felt as her hands worked to thread his feet through the legs of the trousers she had found for him to wear. When she had them to his thighs, he stood without needing her prompt, and allowed her to pull the clothing to his waist. She fastened the lacings, grabbed for the tunic she had found, and pulled it over his head. Just having clothing to wear that was not filthy and bloody, but smelled of soap and the sun in which it had dried bolstered the Elf’s mood, also, such that he found himself smiling with the guileless indulgence of being unsoiled in fresh attire.

“Whose clothing am I wearing?” he asked. The trousers and tunic fit him well enough, although both were looser than would he normally wear. “I shall have to thank them, whoever it is. Are you certain he won’t mind my borrowing them?”

“They are Nigel’s, dear, and he won’t mind a bit. The trousers are too long and he always has to roll up the cuffs, and the shirt is too tight against his big belly. And if he does mind your borrowing them, I will adjust his attitude,” she replied, causing Legolas to chuckle at the affectionate sternness with which she spoke. “Sit back down for a moment,” she told him, but when he made to do so, she stopped him and ordered, “No, no. Not there. You sat there before and got mud on the trunk. Sit on this end,” she said, tugging him to the other part of the trunk so he would not befoul his clean clothing.

He smiled at the woman, hoping she was looking at him to see his gratitude and amusement at her bossiness, while thinking, If I spend much time around Hannah, I think I will come to understand Nigel’s amusement at her constant orders; she does like to give out instructions, but at least she seems to do it with the other person’s best interest at heart. Suddenly, her oblique shadow stood directly in front of him. He looked up at her, his genuine smile still affixed to his face, while she looked down at him.

Unable to see the emotion upon her visage, he only knew what she was thinking because she said it aloud as if once more speaking to herself, “I’ve done a good job, if I do say so myself.” More to Legolas now, she added while placing a hand upon each of his shoulders and giving them a friendly squeeze, “Needn’t brush your hair, being that it is too short. These clothes are a bit big, but you look so much healthier now that you aren’t covered in mud and blood. Still too skinny, but all you Elves look too skinny to me. Still bruised, of course, and those cuts on your feet are seeping, but our healer will see those. Overall, dear, you are as kempt as you are likely to be while stuck with us exiles.”

His chest swelling with gratitude at her kindness and her words, Legolas reached up and took the woman’s hands in his own, which he then grasped. Unthinkingly trying to find a way to express his immense gratitude, he brought one of her hands to his mouth, where he pressed a courteous, chaste kiss to the back of it, while saying, “Thank you, Hannah. You are a thoughtful and gracious woman.”

To his enjoyment, the woman cleared her throat and tittered, sounding like a younger girl, rather than an older woman and mother. He had not meant to embarrass the human with this honest appreciation, but it seemed he had nonetheless. Of course, he had no idea what a striking specimen of masculinity he was to the woman, who despite being faithful to and loving her husband, was still appreciative of the allure of the Elf afore her. She cleared her throat again, gently pulled her hands from his, and then laughed at her own silliness. Having not had much experience with women, much less with human women, Legolas was befuddled by Hannah’s abruptness with him, but he mused, I think I discomfited her.

Striding to the tent’s door flap and bellowing out of it loudly, Hannah ordered, “Nigel, you and Henri get in here and get this tub of water out, and Janey, bring that food if it is ready, please.”

A moment later, Nigel and the other man, who apparently was named Henri, came within to fetch the tub, which they did all the while still speaking of hunting. From what Legolas could gather of their conversation, the Edain here were having problems feeding themselves, which made the laegel promise, If their healer manages to improve my eyesight, I will hunt for them the moment I am able. It is the least I can do to try to repay the kindness they have shown me.

“You look better already, my new friend!” Nigel exclaimed in unfeigned appreciation of his wife’s diligence in seeing to the welfare of the newest member of their camp. “Just wait until you get some of Janey’s stew into you, and then some sleep. You’ll be feeling right as rain, I promise.”

Before Legolas could respond, the men walked out with their conversation restarted and the tub sloshing over its rim between them, which was when the young woman named Janey walked inside the pavilion carrying a bowl of something smelling so deliciously fragrant that Legolas’ belly clenched in anticipation of eating it.

“Here, Mother,” the young Adan told her elder, handing Hannah the bowl and what smelled to be a bread made from acorn flour, fried in the fat of venison. “I’m off to do the washing, if you want for me to wash up these trousers,” she said, speaking of Legolas’ befouled clothing.

“No, I think fire is the only thing that could get those clean,” Hannah jested, causing both Janey and Legolas to chuckle at her joke. “But take this towel, and mind you don’t stray too far from the camp. We don’t need to lose anyone else,” she murmured to the young woman, her teasing of before upending into severe solemnity.

“Yes, Mother,” the young woman dutifully agreed, sounding to Legolas like she had heard this same admonishment time and time again.

Forthwith, Hannah handed Legolas the bowl of stew, and bringing the vessel up to his mouth, Legolas did not hesitate to begin sipping at the hearty broth within, when a few hours ago, he would have worried these people might drug or poison him. And it wasn’t merely his intense hunger causing this lack of hesitation, either, but his complete trust in Hannah. She had seen him naked, washed his body, dried him, clothed him, and not once had she treated him unkindly or hinted at any intent to take advantage of his current weakness – even unable to see her, the Elf could tell the Adan was a good woman and would let no harm come to him. It was odd to him to trust someone so completely upon having known the human for mere hours, but it also felt right, as if Eru himself had guided the Prince to this Adan, to this camp, and in doing so, saved Legolas’ life. He only hoped he could find a way to make recompense to the Edain here – and to Ilúvatar – for this providence.

When Janey had tied the door shut and the Adan woman and Legolas were alone yet again, he asked her curiously, “You said you have three boys, but how many daughters do you have?”

“Oh, none, dear. I haven’t a single daughter.” Hannah pulled another, smaller trunk near to the one upon which Legolas sat so she could watch over him while he ate, and plunked down upon it. Seeing Legolas’ confusion, Hannah realized the Elf had overheard Janey call her mother, and so explained, “Janey and most of the young ones call me Mother. They have all lost their own mothers, I fear, or do not know where they are any longer since we fled. Everyone here calls me Mother, actually, even some of those who are older than me, and you are welcome to do so, as well, although I would bet you are many years my senior.”

So she cares for all these people with the same kindness as would she treat one of her children. His interest to find out what had happened to these Edain was growing more acute.

Hannah handed Legolas the hunk of bread, telling him, “Here, eat this, as well. It isn’t much, I’m afraid. We’ve long since run out of coin to buy foodstuffs from the settlements we pass, and most of our people are accustomed to living off farms, rather than foraging in the woods, so we’ve not had the best of luck in keeping enough food to go around.”

By the feel of it, he had earlier been right, and the bread the flat sort which rather than being baked had been fried. He bit off a large piece of it and chewed in introspection, relishing the flavor of the acorn-flour bread, but moreover, enjoying the woman’s company while filling his empty belly. However, the Prince suddenly recalled Nigel and Henri’s conversation about how the Edain did not have enough food to go around and how their hunters were unable to find enough game, and in addition to Hannah’s explanation, all this evinced to the Prince how little these Edain had for their own people, much less to feed some stray Elf who they had taken in out of the benevolence in their hearts. Legolas abruptly stopped eating. Guilt overcame his hunger.

He handed the bread back to Hannah, who took it thinking the Elf needed his other hand free to eat his stew, but soon learnt otherwise when Legolas then tried to hand her back the bowl, while telling her, “You have children in your camp who no doubt need this more than do I. I cannot eat it while knowing your people go hungry.”

Upon hearing this, Hannah astutely realized what she had told the Elf had caused him to question whether he ought to be consuming any of the humans’ food when they could not even feed themselves. Lightly grabbing the hand in which Legolas held the bowl, she pushed the bowl back towards the laegel and then pressed the bread back into his other hand, all the while insisting, “Come now. You need to eat. Besides, maybe if our healer can get you well, and if you decide to stay with us for a short while, you can hunt with our menfolk and pay us back in kind. But even if you cannot, no one here would begrudge you it. No one here is starving today, and we trust Eru to provide.”

The Wood-Elf hesitated only for a moment, as Hannah’s firmness and his own hunger kept the Prince from trying again to insist upon Hannah reclaiming the food. Instead, he promised himself, I will be certain to do so. Even if I must borrow coin from Minyatar to buy foodstuffs for these Edain, I will repay their compassion when I am able. Thus, the Prince nodded and sated his hunger with another long swallow of the stew and another bite of bread, though he additionally swore to himself, I will try not to eat of their food again until I know I will have the ability to add to their supplies.  

“You said there are other Elves here,” he prompted in between bites of the stew, which was delicious to the Prince not because it was well seasoned or made of fine ingredients, but because it was wholesome, hot, and filling.

“There are. We used to have several amongst us, but one of them died during the revolt, another died from heartache, I think, for the first was his lover. They were both dear to us, as both of them helped us to plan and enact our escape from the mines. Now we’ve only the two left.” Sighing heavily, Hannah adjusted where she sat upon the hard trunk, her keen eyes watching over Legolas’ every move, as a mother would watch over her toddler when she firsts learn to feed herself. “Would you like to meet Hworin? He is our best hunter, though currently he is laid up with a wound. We were attacked by brigands a week back and one of them stuck an arrow through his thigh. I can only pray to the Maker my thanks that it was not his heart the arrow found.”

The name was not familiar, nor could Legolas tell from it the Elf’s origin, but in the end, it likely didn’t matter if he knew said Elda. Still, it would be nice to have another of the Eldar here, and so he agreed, “I would very much like to meet him.”

“He is off asleep in a tree somewhere, I’m sure. After you’ve had some rest and our healer has seen to you, I will introduce the two of you,” she promised the laegel.

For a short while, they sat in comfortable silence broken only by the nearly inaudible sounds of Legolas consuming the bread and stew. When he had turned up the bowl to drink from it the very last drop of the broth and then tucked into his mouth the last bit of bread, Hannah took the dish from him and sat it on the trunk off to her side. Legolas could hear the contentment in her voice – contentment she found to have been able to offer the hungry Wood-Elf something to eat, it seemed – when she sighed and said, “There. Now you’re clean, clothed, and fed. I think it is time for you to get some rest. You are more than welcome to come outside and sit with us women while we cook, but as you are healing and look like a strong breeze might knock you over to sleep where you fell, perhaps it is best if you stay in here and rest awhile?” she asked, though this query was truly a gently made command.

His Minyatar often spoke in the same manner – that is, offering advice or directing his family’s actions by softly spoken suggestions rather than outright demands. The thought of his Minyatar, of Imladris and the second family he had found there, of Estel and the twins, of his bed in the valley, led to Legolas thinking of Eryn Galen, of his rooms there, and of his father. All this caused a pang of sorrow to lance through his chest. He doubled over from the intensity of it, his hand flying up to the center of his torso to try to stifle the physical agony his emotional anguish caused him.

“Legolas?” Hannah questioned him with startled worry. The Adan caught Legolas by his upper arms and tried to sit him upright. “Are you well?”

Can Estel feel this? the Elf worried. If Aragorn were now sharing Legolas’ dreams and could read his mind while in them, how far did the connection of their faers extend? Did his Ranger have any notion of the abrupt sorrow his Elven lover felt? Pull yourself together, he chastised himself, lest Estel kill himself in riding at breakneck speeds to find you, thinking you are dying of grief.

Not wanting to admit to Hannah the cause of his odd behavior, he readily agreed with her suggestion, telling the woman, “As you say, I am fatigued, and after bathing and filling my empty belly, my tiredness has escalated, I think.” He smiled in the woman’s general direction, unable to meet her gaze, but as he felt her incisive regard upon him, he did his best to hide the melancholy tainting this otherwise pleasant moment. “Thank you for your aid in bathing, and for the delicious meal. And thank you for offering me a place to sleep. If you truly do not mind my doing so, then yes, I would very much like to rest for a while.”

Hannah did not doubt the Elf’s statement, for with the dark circles under his eyes and the several times Legolas had nearly fallen into reverie whilst she aided him in bathing and dressing, the woman knew already how the laegel was on the verge of collapse from exhaustion. “Of course I do not mind, dear. Come,” she said as she stood and held her hands out to Legolas.

Realizing the Elf could not see them, the Adan shook her head at her own folly and then picked up the Wood-Elf’s hands from off his knees where they rested to pull him into standing. She helped him a short distance away ere she aided him into lowering down to his knees, where with his hands he felt the ground before him to find a massive, soft mound of skins and blankets, which were laid out over a crude but comfortable mattress stuffed with grass. It was much too big to be a bed for one person or even a couple, given the limited space in this pavilion that housed so many of the refugees, and thus, the Elf wondered whose bed he would be borrowing for the nonce.

As though she heard his thoughts, Hannah explained, “This is where the young ones sleep all piled up like pups. But you can sleep here for now,” she told him. “We will find you something on which to sleep come nightfall.”

“Thank you,” he repeated, his body already beginning to unwind at the mere promise of being able to let his mind take rest while his body was somewhere safe, somewhere he could sleep without the fear of wakening without knowing where he was, and while having the reassurance of there being someone nearby to watch over him while he was unable to fend for himself, since he could not see to do so. Eager to lie down and rest, regardless of his prevarication upon the immediacy of his need for it, Legolas laid back upon the mound, while Hannah pulled some blankets towards his head, upon which she helped him to rest his aching skull, using the pile of covers as a pillow. She then obtained another one, which she spread out over top the Elf.

“Now, rest, Legolas. I will be just outside, helping the women to cook, so if you have need, holler. When the healer returns from foraging for herbs, I will be back with her and will see you then, lest you need something before she returns, yes?” she prompted the laegel, and awaited his response, watching his eyes as they drifted shut and then flew open, ere they drifted shut again.

“Yes,” he told her. The Elf’s throat felt tight and painful, his eyes began to burn with unshed tears as they had a short while ago, and his head swam with emotion. “Hannah,” he intoned quietly while reaching out to grab for her arm. He missed her arm by a handbreadth but the Adan saw his attempt and so took his hand in her own. Squeezing her fingers gently, Legolas cleared his throat of the burn of tears there and whispered to the woman, repeating now as he had said several times over this morning, “Thank you. Thank you for helping me.”

Even unable to see the woman’s face, he knew she was smiling at him. “You are welcome, dear. Now rest. You are safe.”

Giving his hand a final squeeze, Hannah crawled off the pallet and walked to the door to the tent, which she left forthwith, as the woman had other tasks to which to attend this morning. Now that she was gone, Legolas allowed the tears to fall down his face. His gratitude for this woman and her kith overwhelmed the Prince, and he oathed again as he had earlier, I will find some means to repay these people, whether by aid or by coin, or by my life, if it is needed. I will not let them suffer as refugees if there is a single thing I can do to be of service to them.

As he laid there, letting his rhaw relax so his mind would follow suit, Legolas found himself wondering if Estel were even now on his way south to search for him. It would not take much for the experienced hunter to find Legolas’ tracks as they led away out of the marsh and to the river. Assuming the Edain didn’t move camps in the next few days, it wouldn’t be hard for the man to find him – that is, if Aragorn came at all. Legolas still worried the Ranger may have forgotten the dream they had shared, and thus not even know his lover still lived. But at least these Edain are heading north in search of the Rangers. If Estel does not come, then perchance I can find a way to Bree. Hopefully, their healer is as good as Hannah claims.

Given that it was nearly noon, Legolas very much doubted Estel would be asleep right now, so he despaired of dreaming of his human lover, and thus did not expect he would be able to talk to the man again in the slumber he hoped to find right now. Legolas would have to wait until tonight, when hopefully he could take rest again and use the opportunity to reiterate to the Ranger how the Prince lived, where he was now, and where he would be headed.

Legolas adjusted how his tired, aching skull laid upon the improvised pillow and covered his entire head, including his face, with the blankets to block out the light and sound of the early winter’s morning. Surprisingly to the drained but wound up Wood-Elf, sleep came to him quickly and easily, just as it would have had he been in Imladris or in his rooms in Mirkwood, for the Prince felt safe and well. For the moment, this was enough.

A couple of hours later, the sound of laughter woke the Wood-Elf. One moment, he was lost in the normal dreams of Elven slumber; the next moment, he heard hilarity from outside the pavilion, where the young women who earlier had been cooking venison were now going about other chores around the fire, and having a grand time while doing it. Legolas had not slept long, but he had slept hard, and it pleased him when he sat up from the mound of blankets and skins feeling refreshed and aware. He held one arm to his chest in an attempt to keep from stretching the muscles along the side of his broken ribs, and slid to the edge of the mattress.

I need water. Should I call out for Hannah or try to find it on my own? His pride made him want to try to find water by himself, but the Prince worried his stubbornness might cause him to trip over one of the many bedrolls in the tent and hurt himself further.

Sighing, Legolas coughed a bit to clear his throat and then called out, “Hannah?”

The laugher outside halted. At the flap to the pavilion, a woman appeared. From her voice when she spoke, Legolas recognized her to be Janey, the one who had brought him food, when she asked of the Elf, “Legolas? Is all well?”

He had not been introduced to this Adan, but even she sounded just as concerned for his welfare and as kind as did her ‘Mother.’ “Is Hannah about?” he asked her, then realized he ought just to have asked for water rather than Hannah herself.

“She’s…” the younger woman began. Why she trailed off, Legolas could not see to understand, but the flap door to the tent wafted shut for a moment, blocking out the light from the midday outside the pavilion, ere Janey returned inside the entryway, which is when she told the Elf, “Actually, Hannah is bringing the healer right now. She will be here in just a moment.”

Janey did not give the Silvan time to respond, but popped back out of the tent and back to her tasks. Thus, Legolas sat at the edge of the mattress in anticipation of the return of Hannah’s kind company, the chance for something to drink, and of his meeting this healer, whom he hoped could aid him in regaining his sight. With the laughter of the younger women outside having stopped since his call out to them for Hannah, Legolas could easily hear as two female voices grew closer. He easily recognized one belonging to Hannah; and yet, to his surprise, the other voice sounded familiar, as well.

Trying to dredge up from his memories where he might have met an Adan woman healer besides Liandra, Legolas had the vague and unwelcome memory come to him of his lying on a dusty, hard floor in a small room behind a staircase in Imladris. His hands were tied to a post above his head. His trousers were pulled down and his shirt barely covered his groin. Mithfindl had been hovering above him, having plied the Wood-Elf with poppy and having used the periapt to make the Silvan amenable to the humiliation he had soon intended to force upon the laegel. Before Mithfindl chad begun his torment of the Prince, the locked knob to the small room had been jiggled, Mithfindl had jumped up, and he had allowed someone to come within the room.

Faelthîr, the Silvan’s harried mind supplied him.

The two female voices became louder and more clear as the women approached the pavilion. The Silvan heard Hannah telling the healer of having found an Elf in the marsh, hurt and hungry, and of having brought him back to the camp. When Hannah told the Edain’s healer said Elf’s name was Legolas, he heard a gasp from the woman with her. His memory recalled that gasp as well as it did the voice from whom the gasp came, for upon entering the small room where Mithfindl held the Wood-Elf Prince captive to his perverse attentions, Faelthîr had gasped similarly when discovering the Silvan lying half-naked and tied upon the floor – just as she did now upon hearing who Hannah had brought back with her to their camp.

The dagger. Where did I leave the dagger? he questioned himself, rising from his seat on the blankets and stumbling toward what he hoped to be the center of the tent, where sat the trunk upon which he had left his pitiful, inadequate weapon. But that dagger was all he had for protection, so he knew he must find it. As he tried to hurry to obtain the blade, the Silvan tripped over a mound of blankets upon the floor and fell to his knees just before reaching the trunk. Up, you stupid Elf, he ranted at himself, clambering upon his hands and knees the rest of the way to the trunk. In his haste, he ended up crawling right into the trunk, with its hard plank side striking the side of the Prince’s forehead and hitting him near to the already vicious wound upon his skull – they very one which caused his current inability to see. His poor vision went momentarily, completely black.

From the sudden influx of light into the tent’s dark interior, Legolas knew the door to the pavilion was now opened behind him. Upon seeing Legolas on his hands and knees and thus not where she had left him, Hannah called out to him, “Maker’s grace, Legolas. Are you alright? What happened?”

Fumbling across the top of the trunk, the Wood-Elf prayed no one had moved the weapon whilst he slept. His fingers – numb from the fear he felt – fumbled across the trunk’s lid in stuttering, careless attempts to seize his only means of salvation and defense. But by Eru’s grace, Legolas’ fingers flitted over the hilt, which he then managed to convince his fingers to grasp. Using his free hand and the trunk’s sturdy lid to push himself up into standing, Legolas turned around in as graceful a motion as was possible, while brandishing the knife out towards the oncoming Adan and Noldo.

“Legolas!” the human exclaimed, again asking the Wood-Elf, “What is the matter, dear? It is just Faelthîr, our healer, and I. You’ve no cause for worry,” the Adan woman tried to soothe the Wood-Elf, thinking Legolas was perhaps startled by his not knowing who approached him, or that perhaps the recently tormented Elf was caught in some dream or remembrance and did not know where and with whom he was. Hannah walked forward. He knew it to be her because she continued to talk to him as she did so, telling the Wood-Elf, “Calm, now, dear. Just be calm and put that away. I promise – no one in our camp wishes you any harm, much less Faelthîr. She has come to aid you, just as I promised she would.”

When the Silvan saw the Elleth’s shadowy figure moving closer, he stepped back away from Hannah and warned the Noldo, “Do not come near me or you will meet the same fate as did Mithfindl.”

Hannah turned to look at Faelthîr. Whatever she saw upon the Elf’s face must have convinced her that this was no mistake on Legolas’ part, for she called out in a shrill screech, “Nigel! Help!”

The fear in his wife’s voice brought the man forthwith, along with two other men. Upon entering the tent to find the Silvan holding a dagger out at Hannah and their healer, the three men pulled weapons, which the Elf could discern only because of the glittering of the metal blades in the light filtering in from the open doorway.

What do I do? Legolas asked himself, his heart and mind racing with fear.

Three armed men before him, a woman whom he had trusted completely but who was apparently in league with Faelthîr, and the very Elleth who had tendered him to Mithfindl’s hateful lust and perverse attentions for mere personal gain and ambition. He could not hope to defeat this whole camp of men and women while injured and blind, with only a dagger, but Legolas could not allow himself to be caught in Faelthîr’s web of deceit nor could he endure excruciation because of the malicious Elleth again.

Please, Ilúvatar. What do I do?

Chapter Text

The Wood-Elf stood there motionlessly, unable to decide what best to do. Hannah had not given up on trying to appease the fraught Silvan, despite her having called in reinforcements, and she crept ever closer to Legolas – to the aggravation of her husband. Nigel admonished her softly, “Hannah, stay back.”

Legolas did not see as the woman shook her head in response to her husband; she spoke to him rather than Nigel, “You won’t hurt me, will you, Legolas, dear?”

He shook his head no to agree he would not hurt Hannah, for he very much did not want to injure the woman; yet, he could not allow Faelthîr to come close, much less permit her deceitful presence to shroud him in its potential for more excruciation and humiliation. He would not allow it. He could not allow it, lest he end up rending his faer from rhaw in sorrow as he had nearly done when Faelthîr had conspired with Mithfindl to drive Legolas to the brink of insanity and diminished his will to live. When the Elleth had fled Imladris and he had thought never to see her again, Legolas had not once considered what he might do should he and Faelthîr cross paths, as it had seemed entirely unlikely. But given his poor luck as of the last year, he thought now he should have expected it.

“All is well, Legolas, my dear,” Hannah told the Prince, saying his name and the sobriquet of ‘dear’ repeatedly, which reminded the Elf of his Minyatar, who during the worst of the Prince’s grief often said Legolas’ common tongue nickname in repetition to remind the Wood-Elf he was amongst family. She did not sound as if she were speaking to a child, nor did she sound patronizing or worried; rather, Hannah assured Legolas with absolute surety, “You do not need that dagger. All is well. You have my word on it. You are in no danger here.”

“I told you bringing in strays would one day result in this,” Nigel complained in anxiety over his stalwart wife’s insistence upon trying to soothe the laegel. “One day you’d bring in a rabid one, I told you. Henri,” he ordered brusquely of the men with him, “go around that side, and you go around the other. We’ll catch him and tie him up like a wild dog until he’s tamed,” the stout, short man threatened.

At once, the laegel’s body assumed a defensive stance. He did not want to kill these men, but if they thought to bind him, he would do everything in his power to keep it from happening – and if he killed one of them in the process, then it could not be helped.

“No, you will not, you damned fool!” Hannah decried with such kingliness that Legolas thought the woman might have given even his father pause. “Both of you stay where you are! Do not test me.”

Neither Henri or the other man had yet had the chance to move, and neither would move now that Hannah had commanded them not to, which showed Legolas who was the true leader in this camp. When the kind Adan woman came closer, Legolas instinctively stepped back from Hannah’s approach, as he could not see the woman well, and did not want to cut her with his dagger by accident. Throughout all this clamor, Faelthîr remained strangely silent, whereas the Prince assumed the Elleth would argue for him to be tied and gagged, tormented and thrown in the river or something else similarly awful. He tried to gauge of her what she was doing or feeling, but unable to see naught but her vague, thin shape against the sunny radiance coming through the open flap of the tent, Legolas realized, I am well and truly caught. And right now, Hannah may be my only ally.

“Nothing is well with Faelthîr here,” he whispered to Hannah in a bid to explain to the woman his reasoning for his terror and ire, while wishing he could make everyone but the Adan woman leave so he could speak to her alone. For some reason he could not fathom, he trusted Hannah, and if anyone were to believe him about what the Edain’s beloved healer had done to him, it would be Hannah. “I will not let her hurt me again.”

Firmly and solemnly, the woman responded in a similar susurrus, saying, “And she will not hurt you. I promise you.”

“What in Udûn is going on? Do you know Faelthîr?” Nigel probed. The shadowy figures of the three men blocked a portion of the bright light from the world outside this small pavilion, which made it easier for Legolas to discern as they took a few steps forward together. This also made the Prince step back, while he tried to quell the shaking of his weapon-wielding arm. “Do you know her? What do you think she has done to you?” the man asked of Legolas again.

The Wood-Elf did not respond. While he wanted for the Elleth to leave, and then for him to be given leeway to leave so he could be safely away from her, he did not want to establish his freedom by having to admit to these Edain the foul deeds perpetrated against him because of Faelthîr’s cruelty. He did not want them to know how the Elleth had helped another Elf to drug, imprecate, and abuse him, to despoil and beat him repeatedly, to sever his connection to Estel and his second family through mistrust and suspicion by making him believe Estel was the one who committed his torture, and to ruin his mind with sorrow and fright. They had no right to know. If needed, he might disclose these things to Hannah, if it meant she would aid him in leaving the camp unscathed, but to the men he would say nothing.

To Legolas’ surprise, Faelthîr finally spoke; more astounding was when she said to the men with quiet resolution, “Go back outside, all of you. We will be fine in here.”

If the Elleth thought the Wood-Elf would not harm her, she was sorely mistaken, for despite his being outnumbered and unable to defend himself against all these humans, Legolas would rather die fighting than die from whatever plans Faelthîr might formulate to break his rhaw and faer again. And while the Elleth was foremost a healer rather than a warrior, with Legolas unable to see and armed with only a dagger, she likely thought him an easy target; the Prince would prove her wrong or die in the process.

“I am not leaving you two alone with him,” Nigel argued, his murky figure stepping closer to where his wife stood in front of the Silvan Elf. “We cannot – ”

But Faelthîr interrupted the man, telling him, “You remember what I told you about why I was cast out from my home, from my kith?” Perhaps Nigel nodded or gave some sign he remembered, for the she-Elf continued, “Legolas is the one. He is the one whom I harmed, the one whose life I tried to destroy for my personal gain. He and his friend, the human Ranger of which I told you. Legolas has every right not to trust me, to hold his dagger out against me. I tried to kill him in the most sinister way imaginable,” she alluded, though whether she had shared the actual details of her deeds with those in the tent with her, Legolas could not tell from her insinuation. “Leave us.”

Reeling to hear this unexpected admission from the Noldo about her role in his recent torment, Legolas quite missed Hannah’s silent advance. Brazenly, the Adan took hold of Legolas’ arm – the one in which he brandished the knife – and merely held it. Although her doing this startled Legolas, he luckily did not react as might he normally have done in trying to relieve himself of the impedimental grip she had upon him, for if he had tried to throw off her grasp and perchance knocked her down or cut her by accident, Nigel and the others would have raged across the tent to slay him. Hannah did not try to disarm him, nor was her grip tight.

The pavilion remained quiet for a few moments, with Nigel, Hannah, Henri, and the other man apparently thinking over what Faelthîr told them, until Hannah whispered to the Wood-Elf, “What Faelthîr has done has caused her to be ashamed. She spoke of little else but this disgrace and remorse when first I met her, when she was captured and forced into slavery with the rest of us here. She told me she thought her being held in slavery was her penance for her wrongs, and many were the times she told me she wished she could take it all back, or make amends to you and the Ranger, or if nothing else, to make amends to Eru on behalf of her blighted soul. You need not fear her,” Hannah swore to the laegel, giving his arm a tender press, “I will not let you come to harm, not from her, not from anyone here. You have my word. You are safe.”

Eru help him, Legolas believed Hannah. He could not explain it, but he did not doubt the Adan woman’s oath, and so let his arm fall; still, the woman did not try to take the dagger. She merely held the Elf’s forearm with her gentle but callus-roughened fingers, adding her other hand to the first to bring his arm to her side, where she hugged his limb against her meager flesh.

“If Legolas decides to kill me, it would be fair recompense for the ills I have enacted against him, and much less than what I deserve, besides,” Faelthîr told the humans. To Legolas, the Elleth sounded sincere when she said this, but she was an adept liar, as Kalin could attest from her having lured him into believing she was interested in him for more than the advancement of her position and the chance to gain knowledge of his Prince, which she had done by drugging the unwitting Silvan sentry with poppy tincture in his wine. Again, the Elleth told her listeners, “Leave us. And if Legolas demands my life in payment for what I have done to him, then I want your word no harm will come to him afterwards,” she solicited of the men. “Eru has granted me this chance to make amends, to make restitution for my crimes, and no one save for Eru himself has more right to judge me than does Legolas. He will not be harmed no matter what happens to me – promise me.”

Nigel and the two other Edain did not want to comply; this was clear even without the laegel being able to see their reactions. Further surprising the Wood-Elf, the Edain men did as asked, though they did so without offering their accord to Faelthîr’s asked promise. Their dark forms were removed from the illumination allowed within through the open flap to the tent, ere the flap itself fell back into place, darkening the pavilion and those within it. Legolas took in a deep, fortifying breath, while wondering what game Faelthîr was playing at; he felt certain she must have some ulterior motive for this.

Hannah did not so much as budge, however, but remained as she was in standing beside Legolas. She told both Faelthîr and Legolas, “I am staying right here to see my promise is kept. No offense meant to you, Faelthîr, love.”

“And no offense is taken,” the Elleth replied.

From her tone of voice, Legolas gleaned how Hannah did not believe for a moment that Faelthîr would harm the Wood-Elf, but rather, Hannah did not want to leave because she did not want for Legolas to deem himself abandoned to Faelthîr’s company while already feeling vulnerable because of his lack of sight. His arm still embraced against the woman’s side, Legolas reached out with his free hand and laid it over Hannah’s hands where they held onto him just above his elbow. Her intent to remain to soothe the Elf ought to have made him feel juvenile, but in truth, Legolas was relieved for the woman to remain.

When Faelthîr began towards him, Legolas tried to back away and his arm automatically tried to loosen itself from Hannah’s hold so he could bring his dagger up in defense, but Hannah’s hands clenched upon the Wood-Elf’s bicep and she neither let him lift his weapon nor step back, while telling the healer, “Right there is close enough for now, my love. Say what you need to say from there.”

The Elleth sighed and did as Hannah asked of her by standing still. “Very well. You are right, of course, Mother,” she called the Adan woman with fondness. They stood in peace for a few moments, with neither woman talking, moving, or even breathing loud enough for Legolas to hear, until again Faelthîr sighed while she thought of how best to approach the situation. Finally, she said, “I swear to you upon my very faer, Legolas – Eru has sent you here. He has sent you here so I can make reparations, I know it. When I tricked Thialid into letting me wander the gardens, I fled because I feared to go to Valinor with such a great debt to repay to save my soul from the Darkness consuming it. The thought of facing the Valar and my mother there in Valinor and admitting to them the awful acts I committed against you and Estel – well, I at first regretted your father did not get his way by asking for my life as recompense. But I could no more imagine going to the Halls of Awaiting and face being judged by Námo, by my father and ancestors. And so I fled, thinking I would find some means of making amends to the Maker and to my family for tarnishing their memory and our family’s legacy with the blackness I allowed to taint my faer.”

Despite his having had a much needed nap and some hearty food, Legolas was still in poor shape, and with the emotional turmoil of having to face one of his tormentors – even though Faelthîr herself did not commit the deeds – was causing the Prince’s balance to falter the longer he stood there. Noticing this, Hannah tugged at his arm to incite him into walking with her. Silently, she bid him to follow, which he did, and she led him to the trunk upon which he had sat when first she had shown him into the tent hours ago. He permitted this because it took him farther away from Faelthîr rather than closer, but also, he allowed it because he did not want to fall to his knees in front of the Elleth, thereby evincing any feebleness to her.

Pausing in her explanation only long enough for Hannah to get the Silvan settled upon the trunk, with Hannah soon seated right beside the Prince with his arm still encased within her hands and pressed to her side, Faelthîr continued, “I never thought to see you again, as I am likely you believed and hoped never to see me again. But Eru’s song is hidden from us, and its melodies are always shaping and guiding our lives into following his strange and sometimes cruel twists of fate. He sent you here, I know it,” Faelthîr avowed fervently. She took a step towards where Legolas and Hannah sat upon the trunk; this time, Legolas did not react, for his mind was too caught up in thinking about what the she-Elf told him.

She resumed, saying, “I know you saved my life. Thialid told me when he asked for me to be allowed to travel with him to Mithlond to sail, you risked your father’s wrath by asking the same, pleading for lenience on my behalf. Had you not, Thranduil would have had my head in retribution, and rightfully so. But you had the most cause to desire my death though you did not ask for it. And I also know you did not admit my true involvement in the plot against you and your father. You let Elrond and the others believe Mithfindl was the one to have concocted the scheme, allowing them to believe I was dragged along in his madness, when you knew the truth – that I pushed Mithfindl into acting upon our hateful plan, and did not argue against him when he told me what he intended to do to you, not even when I witnessed myself the debasement he planned for you.”

Again, the Elleth paused, as if giving Legolas time to absorb what the Noldo told him, ere she concluded her account with this, “For your kindness and for the wrongs I committed against you, I owe you my life. It is yours to take, if you wish. No one will seek retribution for your killing me, if you desire my death. Hannah will see this is so.”

Beside him, Hannah tensed in anticipation of Legolas asking for Faelthîr’s life in repayment. I do not want to kill her, the Prince admitted to himself. I do not want her blood upon my hands. Already I have Mithfindl’s blood upon them, though never will I regret killing him since it was to save Estel. To kill Faelthîr now would serve no purpose.

He had little choice, besides. If he killed the Elleth, it would not be in compensation of the misdeeds done against him, nor make his wounded faer feel any better, but it would be only a means of ensuring his safety now. If Faelthîr truly did not mean him harm any longer, then he had nothing to fear from the woman. Yet, even should he kill her to guarantee his protection, he had only her and Hannah’s assumed but unspoken guarantee that the other Edain would not seek to avenge her death, so he would be taking a great chance. Moreover, and more convincingly to the Wood-Elf, these Edain apparently depended upon Faelthîr greatly – for her acumen, survival skills, and her abilities as a healer. Ending the Elleth’s life would make these unfortunate Edain’s lives all the poorer for losing her, and this he could not do.

“I took Mithfindl’s life in payment for what was done to me, though truly, I did it to save Estel, as Mithfindl was on the verge of killing Estel when I slit his throat,” he told the she-Elf quietly. He could not look into Faelthîr’s eyes as he said this, but he tried to look into her face so she could see the honesty in his own. “If anyone needed to pay for what was done to me, my father, and Estel, then it was Mithfindl, and that debt has been settled. Do you vouch for her?” he asked Hannah. “Do you believe her?”

Without vacillation, the Adan woman replied, giving Legolas’ arm a mild hug by pressing it tightly against her breast as she said, “I will vouch for her. And I do believe her. Whoever she was before when you knew her, she is that woman no longer, my dear.”

The release of the built up tension in the tent was palpable to all three inside it. He closed his eyes, lowered his head, and then reached up with his free hand to rub at his aching skull. The calm gratitude, the hope he had felt to be found by Hannah and her camp of kind Edain, was tempered by Faelthîr’s presence here, but it need not be quashed completely, he realized, and so told himself, They head to Bree to find the Rangers. I need only to survive her presence until Bree. With a camp this size, few horses, and many supplies needing to be carted, the going would be slow, so he amended his hope in saying, Or until Estel finds me. He is coming, he tried to remind himself.

Seeing Legolas pester his wounds caused Faelthîr to tell the Prince, “I know in Imladris I was a healer of livestock, but I did train to heal Elves and Edain, as well. I can heal you, Legolas. I can ease the swelling in your head, which is causing your sightlessness, and in doing so, your vision will be restored. If you will let me, that is. If you will trust me enough to do it. And if it appeases you, I am sure Hannah will be glad to remain to watch all of it so you will not worry I am being devious.”

“Of course, I will,” Hannah inserted before Legolas could answer. “I insist upon it, in fact. I trust you, Faelthîr, love,” she told the Elleth, but added, “and yet, I have only known you for a short while, and know only what you have told us of your past. You have been nothing but a Maker-sent boon to us and I trust you with my life. But if Legolas has any cause to disbelieve you have his best interests at heart while he lacks the sight with which to measure your honesty for himself, then I will be his eyes for him. Supposing you have the confidence in me to do this,” she then inquired of Legolas.

Holding his hand over his unusable, stinging eyes and increasingly throbbing head, Legolas conjectured over what he had done to cause Ilúvatar to challenge his saneness so many times over the last months. I have no choice. If I do not allow Faelthîr to heal me, I risk allowing this blindness to become permanent, and moreover, if I am unable to see, I will not be capable of fending for myself if Faelthîr's motives end up being less than altruistic. He needed Faelthîr’s help to see to ensure Faelthîr’s help was honestly given – there was a circular logic to this bizarre situation, he appreciated.

“Legolas, dear?” the Adan woman prompted from beside him, towing his arm by her hold of it just enough to catch his attention.

“Yes. Yes, I will allow it,” he murmured, wishing he had some other viable option, but knowing he had none.

Again, Faelthîr sighed noisily in respite. Her vague form changed as she removed from her shoulder a bag she had looped thereon, which she then carried before her while approaching the trunk upon which Hannah and Legolas sat. He tried to tug free his arm from Hannah’s hold, but thinking Legolas was trying to wield his knife in reaction to Faelthîr’s approach, the woman did not release him – at least, not until he asked of her, “Allow me to put this away, Mother.”

Calling Hannah ‘Mother’ pleased the Adan to no end, it seemed, for she chuckled nearly noiselessly in apparent pleasure while liberating his arm. When Legolas tried to stick the dagger into his waistband, the Adan tsked and stopped him with a hand upon his own, while telling the Elf, “Here now, lest it cuts you. I will lay it on the ground right behind the trunk, ok? And once Faelthîr is done, you can put it wherever it pleases you.”

He nodded and let her take the dagger by its hilt, and then listened intently for the noise of her doing as she promised. He was relieved to hear the telltale sound of the dagger clacking against the back of the trunk when Hannah placed it upon the grass behind it.

“Legolas, I need to touch you to determine the extent of your injuries,” Faelthîr warned the Prince.

Again, he nodded, but mindlessly, Legolas reached out beside him for Hannah’s hand, which he fumbled along the woman’s thigh to find to take in his own; upon feeling her new Elven addition to her camp doing this, Hannah reached out and firmly held the Prince’s hand in both of hers. She told Faelthîr in the effort of reducing the amount of time and touching the healer would need to perform upon Legolas, “I helped him to bathe so can tell you just where he is injured. His feet are cut from walking barefoot; he has at least one broken rib and a few minor bruises that are already nearly healed. The worst of his injuries are to his head, as you can tell just from looking at him. But given how he was captured by Goblins, I should say he looks better than most would if in a similar situation.”

“You are right of that, Mother,” Faelthîr absentmindedly agreed before she knelt down upon the ground in front of Legolas. “I will start with your feet,” the Elleth informed the Prince, for she was wary to incite Legolas into violence by startling him.

As the Prince was barefoot, it didn’t take long or much effort for Faelthîr to determine the extent of the cuts and abrasions to the soles of his feet. Still, she gingerly lifted his feet by a light hold upon his ankles, inspecting each foot thoroughly. Reaching into her bag, the healer began rifling through jars and boxes and sachets, none of which Legolas could see, of course, but he could hear the sounds of her searching. Eventually, she must have found for what she looked, as she made some soft sound of triumph and began to unscrew the metal lid off a small jar.

“Unguent for the scrapes, to help them heal,” Hannah said from beside him, though Legolas could already smell the ointment and from its odor, he knew just what it was, for it had been used on him before for various other cuts and scrapes over the many years of his life.

Her hands gentle and capable, Faelthîr rubbed Legolas’ feet, massaging them lightly as she did so, until every scrape and scuff thereon was smeared in the cooling, analgesic unguent. Once done, she wrapped Legolas’ feet in clean linen to keep out the dirt and grass of the pavilion’s forest floor, and then removed another roll of stiffer, heavier linen while telling him, “I need to wrap your chest to ensure your broken rib heals properly.”

With Hannah’s aid in keeping Legolas’ borrowed tunic aloft, Faelthîr wound the linen about the Wood-Elf’s chest. Each time the Elleth’s hand came into contact with the Prince’s bare skin, he willed himself not to react to her touch. Stop being a frightened fool, he chastised himself. Mithfindl was the one who beat and raped you, not Faelthîr. She never laid her hands upon you, he tried to argue against his body, which wanted to shift away from the Elleth’s hands.

Soon enough, the adept healer was done with this, as well, which left only his head. Rising into standing upon her knees, Faelthîr stopped just short of touching the Prince’s scalp so she could warn him of her intent, but Legolas encouraged her, “I am ready.”

His hand tightened upon Hannah’s hands when Faelthîr began to palpate and prod the bumps and contusions to his scalp and forehead. The only true cut thereon was the one made to his forehead from having struck the stone when he fell from the walnut tree, but this injury had been further worsened by repeatedly being struck by the Orcs, such that it stuck out from the relative smoothness of the rest of his skull as if it were half an unshelled walnut sitting atop his temple. This particular area she took the most care in palpating, for the Elleth tried to find signs of the laegel’s skull actually being fractured rather than the flesh above it being merely contused and distended.

He did not realize how tightly he held onto the Adan woman’s hand until her fingers squirmed in his own as they sought to relieve some of the pressure he was placing upon them. Forcing himself to relax, Legolas closed his eyes and listened to Faelthîr’s calm, steady breathing. The Elleth was doing what she had most wanted to do – for what she had nearly killed Legolas and by extension Estel – by healing Edain and Eldar, and he wondered if doing so made all her own suffering worth it to her. And it was apparent that the Noldo had suffered while enslaved with the Edain, Dwarves, and Elves at the mining camp from which they had fled. What she had undergone, what these Edain had undergone, Legolas had yet to hear, but he would have his answers soon, he was determined.

Finally, Faelthîr removed her hands from him and sat back upon her heels. She began to rummage around in her bag again, the clinks and riffling of phials, sachets, and tin tubs somehow soothing to Legolas in their familiar sounds, for to the Wood-Elf, such sounds reminded him of Imladris and his Minyatar. Faelthîr told the Silvan, “It must be by Varda’s grace Hannah found you this morning. This swelling would eventually go down on its own, but the longer it remains, the less chance you would have of recovering your sight entirely, and had she not found you, another day or two and it might have been too late for anyone to reduce the distension enough for you to regain your vision fully. For how long have you had trouble seeing?”

Her voice was the same interested but professional tone of any other healer with whom Legolas had dealt, which appeased him greatly and allowed him to answer easily, “I am not entirely sure. Three days I know of, but perhaps as many as five or six. After I escaped the Yrrch, I may have passed out for some time in a copse of pine trees. And when I first hit my head, I also passed out and laid in a gulley for some time, of which I also do not know the amount.”

The Noldo hummed her approval of this answer, imprecise though it was, and told the Wood-Elf, “Good. That is good. It hasn’t been too long, then, and once we get this swelling to recede, your vision will return to normal.”

He listened to her search through her bag for a while longer until his eagerness to know the answer to his most worrisome question compelled him into asking, “How long will that take?”

First laying a hand upon his shoulder as a wordless notice of her intentions, Faelthîr then began to palpate the Prince’s head once again. She reminded the laegel of a horse trainer trying to pacify a frightened foal by first getting the foal accustomed to his touch. But then, Faelthîr used to be a livestock healer, who dealt primarily with the horses of the valley, so perhaps this was not entirely strange. Upon thinking this, Legolas was reminded of how she and Mithfindl had stood in the small room under the stairs in Imladris, how they had talked about Wood-Elves and humans and called them animals. Remembering his time with Mithfindl in that small, musty room caused him to pull away from her hands instinctively. She did not respond to this eschewal of her healer’s touch, but merely sat back upon her heels once more.

She also did not answer him for a short while, which caused Legolas to worry he had upset the healer, and thus that she might evade his question out of irritation for him. This then perturbed him, for he felt he should not have to care about whether he troubled her or not, and that he should have to depend upon Faelthîr – one of the beings responsible for his recent torture and woe – irked Legolas to the depths of his belabored heart. Yet, until Estel came or they arrived in Bree, he knew he must be companionable if he wanted to see again.

Faelthîr eventually answered, saying without rancor but thoughtfulness, “I can make you a tonic which will help reduce the swelling. You will need to take it twice a day for a full week. In just a few hours after taking it, you will be able to notice how your sight is improving, and with each dose, it will recover a bit more, until all will be as it once was,” she told the Prince.

He closed his useless eyes and nodded his head. A week seems like a long time, but if my vision improves little by little, as she says, then I won’t be blind the entire time. He ought to thank her, he knew, for her attention and her consolation, but the words were stuck in his throat and he could not force them out just yet.

As it was, Hannah took the opportunity to speak up for him, telling Faelthîr, “Thank you, love, for the good news.”

“Yes,” the healer offhandedly responded, her attention for the herbs through which she once more searched rather than upon Hannah or Legolas. “I am not certain I have enough of what I need to make a full week’s worth of the tonic, but I have enough for the next few days, at least.”

“Well, since we’ll be moving camp tomorrow morning and riding through for a few more days, perhaps you can find the herbs as we ride. Or perhaps we will come across a settlement where we can obtain these herbs. If nothing else, we can find them in Bree, of that I am sure,” Hannah assured Legolas more than Faelthîr, for the Prince was dismayed to think his vision’s restoration might be delayed by lack of the appropriate herbs. “We will need to stock up on food, besides, at a village. We’ve too many mouths to feed and not enough to go around as it is. And those of us not returning to the Overseer’s mine to free our kith – our women and children, the elderly, and injured – will need somewhere to settle for the winter, although I wish we could find somewhere to call our own.”

Legolas thought over this problem, seeking to find some way to help the Edain in their woes. I wonder how many humans are here in the camp, seeking some place to stay for the nonce. I know of nowhere they could live while remaining together, he worried, but unexpectedly, he discovered he knew the perfect place where some if not all of these people could go, assuming they did not have other homes to which to return. Elise’s village’s population was halved from her haunting it. They have empty homes and farms needing only people to fill them. I wonder if they would welcome these refugees to help repopulate their settlement, he speculated. I will have to ask Estel when he gets here. Liandra and Hannah are so much alike, I bet they would get along just fine, so long as they didn’t disagree about anything important. He would not mention this possibility until he could offer certainty, however, and so instead turned his attention to what the Edain would do until permanent arrangements could be made.

Minyatar would be willing to provide for these people food and clothing, herbs and coin, to help them to resettle. If I could send word to my father, he would likely send some coin, as well, if I asked it of him, he told himself, ignoring the small doubt in his mind over whether his King would truly wish to be of service to these humans. In their own region, Thranduil had aided the Edain there during times of need, but it was to maintain good relations with his neighbors. Estel and the other Rangers will certainly offer their blades and bows to help to free the refugee’s kith, he knew, but he did ponder how Aragorn would react when he learnt Faelthîr was amongst those seeking aid.

Despite all his contemplation, for now, all the Prince could offer was his own assistance.

“When I am able, I will hunt,” the laegel wanted for the two women to know, as it already burned his conscience to be eating of their insufficient stores when they had little to share with him.

Faelthîr took out a small, tin mortar and pestle and began pouring herbs into it for the tonic she would make, while Hannah brought Legolas’ hand up to her lap, where she seemed to be inspecting it, though why, the Elf could not understand. That is, not until she ran her fingertips over the calluses upon his fingers and palms to say, “You’ve not the hands of a swordsman, I think. Are you any good with a bow?”

Before Legolas could answer the Adan, Faelthîr chuckled loudly in surprised, true mirth at Hannah’s question. “You’re sitting next to one of the best archers I’ve ever seen, Mother, in his own realm and in Rivendell. With his sight restored, you can expect to have fresh meat enough for everyone, if there is any game to be found and if Legolas is willing to hunt.”

He had just said as much; that is, he had just promised to help the humans to provide for themselves as soon as he was able, and so he nodded his concurrence to Faelthîr’s inadvertent doubt of him, restating, “The moment I am able I will hunt.”

“Good! What wonderful news. Nigel will be most pleased. With Hworin injured we’ve had to make do with what we could find, since he was the only one amongst us with much skill in archery,” the Adan woman exclaimed, her voice evincing her relief. “Now, Legolas, are you fine to sit here for a moment while I run outside to get an ember for Faelthîr’s pot so she can steep the water for your tonic?”

Legolas did not want to be left alone with Faelthîr, despite her kindness to him thus far today. But he also did not want to appear weak, and so he nodded, saying, “I will be fine.”

With that, Hannah gave the Elf’s hand a final squeeze and then stood, her homespun skirts rustling as she threaded her way between Legolas’ knees and where Faelthîr knelt upon the ground before the Wood-Elf. “I shall return in just a moment.”

The tent door was opened, sunshine flooded the shadowy space briefly, and then the two Elves were cast back into the gloom. The moment the woman was outside, she was beset by her husband, who must have been waiting at the door to listen in case he was needed. For a while, Faelthîr ground her herbs in silence, the steady scrape and clank of her pestle hitting the interior walls of the mortar the only sounds inside the tent, though outside of it, an argument was occurring between Hannah and Nigel.

“Nigel wants you gone. He is highly protective of Hannah. Well, of all of us, for that matter,” the Elleth told him, though she surely knew he could hear this as well as could she, for the humans outside were not being quiet in their debate. Unthinkingly, or so the Prince assumed since Legolas could not imagine the healer would otherwise touch him and risk his potentially poor reaction had she thought first of what she did, Faelthîr patted Legolas on the knee while heartening him, “But Hannah will talk him around, do not worry. We all call her Mother, but it is not merely because of her kindness and affection; we all follow her rules and lead, including Nigel. She may sometimes let the menfolk think they are in charge, but no one doubts who truly leads us.”

He thought about this for a moment. I have certainly fallen under Hannah’s sway quickly enough. I would not have thought to trust a human so completely, woman or not, upon first meeting her, but already I have placed my life in Hannah’s hands, and I do not know why I have done so. It confused him as to why he found the Adan woman worth his faith, and he hoped it was not merely desperation on his part to cause him to do so. Usually, Legolas believed in respecting anyone he met until they proved themselves unworthy of it, but after his torment at the hands of humans, the Elf found himself less apt to do so easily.

As if reading the Prince’s thoughts, Faelthîr confided to him with what to Legolas sounded like puzzled amusement in her voice, “She reminds me of Lord Elrond. Hannah exudes benevolence and knowledge, just as does he, which makes everyone who meets her trust her at once, it seems… just as anyone who meets Elrond trusts him the moment first they meet him.” Her voice growing softer, the Elleth confessed, “I had thought for years that I wanted nothing more than to escape the cloying presence Elrond holds over the valley by leaving for Mirkwood, where I thought I might have a better chance at making my own way, but it seems in trying to find my own path rather than the path Elrond set before me, I have only found another benevolent familial figure to guide me.” Faelthîr gave a self-deprecating snigger at her words ere she realized she might sound to be criticizing Elrond, whom she well knew Legolas loved as a father, and so quieted before she said something else to which the Prince might take offense.

He didn’t take offense at her words about Elrond, nor could he argue against the Elleth’s estimation of Hannah. It seemed likely enough an explanation as to why he had placed his faith in the woman, just as he had placed his full confidence and trust in Elrond. They listened to the argument taking place outside, which ended rather quickly. As predicted, Hannah had her way and she set her husband to rights by demanding Legolas was staying with them, convincing Nigel the Silvan was of no danger to Faelthîr or anyone any longer now the two Elves had made their peace. This caused the Wood-Elf to smile, though it also caused him to worry, Will Nigel remain wary of me? Will the others be wary of me, as well? He had no desire to cause unrest amongst these people, nor did he want to be suspected and hounded by the Edain men, who might think him dangerous or fey. And if Nigel again had the idea to tie him up like one would a wild, untamed dog, then Legolas would end up proving the man right by acting violently in response. He could only hope Hannah’s conviction would ease Nigel’s mind.

He found himself telling Faelthîr, “I believe you are right. I’ve only known Hannah for a few hours now, but already she has me calling her Mother.”

“And she even bathed you, didn’t she? Like she would a child?” the Elleth asked. At first, Legolas rankled in thinking Faelthîr was mocking him, but when the Noldo laughed lightly, she admitted to him, “She did the same for me when first I arrived at the farm. My ankles and wrists were raw from the chains in which I’d been bound and the men who caught me and the other humans with me had not fed us for days. I was barely able to walk, filthy and exhausted. Hannah took each of us women one by one and washed us, fed us what she could scrounge up, and clothed us in what she could find. She was the reason I endured, and I am not the only one who has Hannah to thank for their survival.”

Hearing this piqued the Elf’s interest again in what was going on with the Edain here at the camp. Legolas could go no longer without learning why these kind people were refugees, and so leaning back upon the post holding the tent’s oilcloth roof aloft, he asked, “How did you end up with these Edain?”

The soft sounds of Faelthîr grinding herbs halted momentarily. After another sigh from the woman, the Elleth resumed her task and spoke as if Legolas had not asked anything. “I think Hannah misses her boys. She had three of them, her and Nigel did. But all three of them died when a mineshaft collapsed. She hadn’t seen them for weeks, nor Nigel, and only heard about it because one of the women who was responsible for taking the menfolk their supper was told to pass along the news. It happened just a week before I arrived, as I recall,” the Noldo explained in a whisper so no one outside would overhear her sharing this private information with Legolas.

While bathing him, Hannah told the Prince she had three boys, but she had said it as if they still lived. It surprised the laegel to hear they were dead. Faelthîr had told him something of great importance, but she had not answered what he had asked. Yet, Legolas knew all about how difficult it was to speak of topics upon which he’d rather not dwell, so judging Faelthîr did not wish to tell him of this painful subject right now, he did not ask again. Rather, he tried to satisfy a different curiosity. “When she convinced me to come here, Hannah told me the healer amongst them had advised her to travel north in search of the Rangers, who she was convinced would help her and her kith. You advised her to do it? You suggested for these Edain to find the Dúnedain for aid?”

Faelthîr began moving about the tent upon her knees. He could not exactly see what she was doing, but from the sounds she was making, Faelthîr was preparing a small area upon which she could place her tin pot over the ember or coal Hannah was soon to bring so the healer could heat water. “Yes, I did.”

“But you must have known that doing so would eventually lead to Elrond finding out your whereabouts.” In vain, Legolas tried to observe the Elleth’s every action. He might be having a civil conversation with the woman, but he did not – and perhaps would never – trust Faelthîr, so wanted to keep his attention upon her every move to ensure his own wellbeing. “Whichever Ranger Hannah found, word would get back to Estel,” he cautioned, for to be honest, Legolas had no idea as to how the man would react upon learning of the Noldo’s whereabouts, much less her current proximity to Legolas. “You likely realize Elrond called off any search for you, deciding it better to let you live out your life cast out of Elvendom than to hunt you down, but should you attempt to go back to the valley…”

He listened as Faelthîr dumped the ground up herbs into the pot, which now needed only heat and water for the tonic to steep. Just when he had decided she would not answer this, either, Faelthîr spoke up, “I did not lie to Hannah. The Rangers are good people. Even Estel,” she confessed somewhat grudgingly. “And I could think of no one else who would want to aid these Edain. If in leading them to Bree I lead myself into Elrond’s hands, and thus back into facing his judgment, then so be it.”

His appraisal of the Elleth rose the slightest bit; that is, it went from being borderline unbearable distrust to mere distrust. Legolas thought then to disclose to Faelthîr that Estel was coming – perhaps with the twins, Kalin, and Reana in tow, but then decided against it. He did not want to worry the healer over it just yet. If for some reason she gave him reason to doubt her, he would make mention of it to ensure she did not try to harm him, since needless to say, with the three sons of Elrond coming to find Legolas, they would not take well his being hurt by her should they arrive to find this the case.

“Legolas,” the Noldo suddenly implored, standing upon her knees and walking upon them closer to the Wood-Elf, which caused him to sit up straight again in response to her unexpected movement. “Legolas, you do not think Estel will keep the Rangers from aiding these people out of spite for me, do you? They are desperate, and they do not deserve to be abandoned because of my wrongdoings.”

That Faelthîr even considered Estel might not aid the refugees over the petty resentment he held for her showed the Elleth knew Aragorn not at all. He found himself now in the role of assuring Faelthîr, when thus far this afternoon it had been the other way around.

He told her, “Estel would never do that. He is not in Bree, but if he has not yet left, Halbarad is there, as are several other Rangers whom I know. When we arrive in Bree, I will go to speak with them along with whomever Hannah and Nigel choose to be their emissaries, to ensure their story is believed and all of you receive the help needed. And if for some reason Estel has reservations about helping your friends and their families back from where you ran, then I will set him aright.”

Faelthîr fell back into sitting upon her heels, and yet again, she exhaled noisily. Perhaps it was her normal disposition to sigh so often, but Legolas thought it likely the Elleth did so now because of the despair and exasperation she felt over her and the others current situation. As hard as her being here was for him, it was likely stressful for Faelthîr, too – especially if she truly sought forgiveness and absolution as she claimed.

Wishing he could see her face to judge her honesty, Legolas merely nodded when Faelthîr gave her gratitude, while thinking that at least her voice sounded genuine when she told him, “Thank you. Thank you, Legolas.”

Faelthîr went back to work upon her tonic and Legolas leant back upon the pole keeping the tent’s roof aloft. They sat in a peculiarly comfortable silence while waiting for Hannah to return, with Legolas’ thoughts abuzz with the new information he had gleaned from speaking with Faelthîr, and his mind awash with new questions. When Hannah returns, he told himself. I will have my answers then.

Chapter Text

When the bright light from tent’s door being opened hit the Wood-Elf’s aching eyes, he turned away instinctively, but knew just who had entered when Hannah bustled inside carrying a pitcher of water and a pair of tongs holding a smoking ember from the massive fire just outside the pavilion. “Now,” the Adan woman said, the illumination in the area dimming when the tent’s door flap fell back into place, “come on in, Hworin, and mind you don’t trip over these blankets, sweetheart. I will introduce you to our newest Elven addition. I’m told he’s an expert with a bow, just as are you.”

Apparently, the camp’s leader was not alone, and Legolas turned to the oncoming woman and new visitor upon hearing Hannah say the Elf’s name. All he knew of Hworin was his name, in fact, and so he wished to learn more. Hopefully, this Elf proves less malignant than Faelthîr. Perhaps, even, I can find another confidant in Hworin, assuming he doesn’t fawn over Faelthîr as do the Edain in the camp, the Silvan wished, though he refused to get his hopes up about it.

While he couldn’t see the visiting Elda, Legolas could hear the odd thump of a stick hitting the ground as Hworin trod carefully into the center of the tent, and again, Hannah admonished the Elf as he walked towards where his two fellow Elves were, for Hworin was leaning upon a makeshift cane to keep weight off his wounded leg, “Careful, careful. There’s a blanket just by your left foot. Take care not to get tangled up in it.”

For some reason, Hworin was moving as quickly as he possibly could to the middle of the tent, with caution for his injury cast aside, which only served to cause Legolas a bit of worry. That he knew of, Legolas had no enemies amongst his own kind – save for Mithfindl, who was dead, of course, and Faelthîr, who would have Legolas believe she had changed her ways for the better – so he could think of no reason why this wounded, unknown Elf might wish him harm, but Hworin’s hastening made Legolas sit up straighter and listen intently for any signs Hworin might suddenly confront him. Given his current series of misfortunes, the luckless Silvan thought it would not be entirely unlikely for Hworin suddenly to take his cane and begin beating Legolas in the head with it for some unfathomable reason.

As he threaded hastily around and between the blankets, mats, and other debris upon the floor so he could face where Legolas sat upon the trunk, the Ellon exclaimed hoarsely, “It is truly you. Baulgir’s balls!” the visitor added in breathless, murmuring disbelief. “I cannot believe it, but believe it I must, since you sit before me.”

Legolas settled his useless gaze in the direction from which the voice and shadowy figure of Hworin came, while wishing he could see Hworin, but as the Silvan could not, he thought to try to guess Hworin’s accent to determine from where he hailed. Legolas did not get much of a chance to do this before Hworin hobbled the last few steps to where Legolas sat on the trunk with Faelthîr crouched on her heels close by the laegel’s feet; the Ellon fell to his knees before the Wood-Elf.

A pained grunt escaped the Elf’s mouth when he twisted his injured leg in his attempt to fall gracefully, and then Hworin let loose a strange, nearly manic laugh while saying again in an awed whisper, “It is truly you. I cannot believe it.”

“Hworin, sweetheart! Are you alright?” Hannah asked upon hearing the Ellon’s groan and seeing he was now upon his knees before Legolas. In her rush to see to the other Elf, Hannah quickly dropped the ember she held in the tongs, the fiery piece of wood clanking as it fell into the small metal pan Faelthîr had ready for it, ere she rushed to where Hworin now stooped before Legolas. The Adan woman fussed, “You’ll open that injury by acting so carelessly. Did you trip over something?”

But the Ellon had not stumbled. Legolas could not see Hworin’s face, no, but he heard clearly the other man’s astonishment as he said, “I almost didn’t recognize you with your hair cut short and wearing Adan clothing, but it is truly you. Your Highness… sweet Elbereth, it is truly you. Over the past year, many were the times I wept in thinking I would never again see home, but just seeing you now is more welcome than would be walking into our King’s halls to a night of feasting and drinking! Never have I been so pleased to see another face, and your familiar face is a sight for sore eyes, it is,” the Silvan Elf chattered ebulliently, his tone somewhere between weeping with joy and shouting with excitement.

Legolas heard Hannah gasp softly. It took him a bewildered moment to realize two things: first, during her tale to Hannah about why she was cast out of Elvendom, Faelthîr had not mentioned to Hannah that Legolas was a Prince, though she now knew; and second, Hworin was not just any Elf, but a Silvan Elf of his own realm, one of his father’s subjects, and thus, one of his own. The Wood-Elf smiled widely, his dampened cheer upon finding Faelthîr in this camp now burning brightly again to discover himself with another prospective ally, and this one of his own kin. The muddled Prince could not find his voice just yet to reply to Hworin, but he found his gratitude a fine impetus to speak to his Maker, saying silently, Thank you, Eru. I could not have asked for a better boon than for Hworin to be a loyal subject of Mirkwood.

The shadowy figure Legolas recognized to be Hannah soon grabbed Hworin by under one arm, which she then tugged to try to get him to stand, chastising the Elf a bit churlishly, as if the sight of Hworin upon his knees before his Prince was upsetting her, “Up, now, or you’ll hurt yourself. Sit here beside Legolas if you wish to speak to him.”

But Hworin would not have it. He pulled away from the Adan’s hold and continued to kneel in veneration upon the ground before his King’s son and heir. “I do not expect for you to know me, your Highness,” Hworin went on to tell his Prince, “but of course I know you. I have worked for your father as one of his servants since first we moved into the underground halls. I have known you since first you were birthed. In fact, I scrubbed clean the very linens upon which our Queen birthed you, your Highness,” the Silvan rambled, his enthusiasm causing him such joviality that he laughed in delight with nearly every word he spoke. “And it was part of my job at the time to keep your nappies clean and stocked!”

To hear this caused the faintly abashed Prince in question to chuckle at the thought of this Elf having washed out the nappies he had worn while a mere Elfling in swaddling clothes. The other Silvan reached out and lightly took Legolas’ hand in his own; the laegel half expected for Hworin to kiss it and pledge his fealty, or something else that would embarrass the Prince further in its well-intentioned but overzealous devotion. Luckily, Hworin merely held his liege’s hand between his own worshipfully, acting as if the younger Elf’s hand were a finely made glass chalice rather than a sturdy, callused, and battle seasoned hand of flesh and blood.

“Yes, I am so very pleased to see you, your Highness; though I wish you were not here. Does our King know you are here? Are you hurt badly? Do you need anything?” the Silvan asked of his Prince in rapid procession, which gave Legolas the very clear notion Hworin would hobble off to obtain whatever his Prince asked of him, regardless of his own injury and poor welfare. “Say the word, and I will find it, whatever you require.”

Pulling his hand free of Hworin’s hold, Legolas grasped his fellow Wood-Elf’s forearms and pulled at them, trying to incite the kneeling servant into standing, while telling him, “Please, Hworin. Come sit beside me, as Hannah suggested. Your presence is very much welcome, my friend, but there is no need to kneel upon the ground before me.”

The elder Silvan was elated to be called friend and to be invited to sit beside his Prince, and taking Legolas’ words as a command rather than a request, Hworin did as asked as quickly as he could. He sat on the trunk beside Legolas, which required him to forgo trying to regain his grip of the laegel’s hand, though he soon found another reason to touch his liege, which he did by brushing off the younger Wood-Elf’s sleeve. So much did Hworin remind him of Kalin in the artless affection of his devotement that Legolas laughed cheerily, for his heart was lighter than it had been for weeks – perhaps even since the day when he and Estel had left the lake only to soon after see Elise’s specter.

“So. You are a Prince?” Hannah asked of Legolas, her tone curious but also hard and crisp, evincing to Legolas how hearing her newest addition to her camp was royalty was displeasing her greatly. Here in Eriador, the people considered themselves free of all nobility, they ruled themselves or they elected rulers who were given only as much power as was bequeathed to them by their constituency, and thus, the people here had little use for those who considered themselves of the upper echelon by their mere birth into particular or royal bloodlines. Hannah observed Legolas with her arms crossed over her chest, saying challengingly, “You do not much act like a Prince.”

Hannah’s unexpected, blunt remark left Legolas momentarily speechless and a bit indignant. All this morning and afternoon, Legolas had thought Hannah to be the only one upon whom he could depend for safety; from how she spoke, the alliance between them and the kindness she had shown him might now be lessened if not dissolved entirely. Before the laegel could respond, Hworin did it for him, for the elder Silvan took exception to the woman’s slight, and knowing Hannah better than did Legolas, he seemed also to comprehend why. “He is a Prince, yes. He is the Crown Prince of Mirkwood, King Thranduil’s only son and heir. And he is my Prince, Hannah. If he does not much act like one, as you say, it is because you have a poor expectation of royalty and Prince Legolas has always been a humble and munificent Elf, who does not assume arrogation over everyone and everything just because of his birthright! He is not like the Overseer, as I know you must be thinking. I will not have you insult him,” Hworin warned the woman with umbrage on his Prince’s behalf.

The Overseer? he wondered to himself, desiring to question who this was, but ere Legolas could try to respond to Hannah’s misrepresentation of him or break the tension by changing the subject, he was foiled again.

Faelthîr stirred her small pot of steeping herbs and told Hannah, “Hworin is right, Mother. Legolas is not like one would expect a Prince to be. He is not even like his father, the Elvenking, but more like Hworin in purpose and culture – seeking only to do good and enjoy the simple pleasures of life, without the desire for the machinations, wealth, and politics of most royalty. And as Hworin says, Legolas is nothing like the Overseer, do not doubt it.”

At first standing firm despite the two Elves’ defense of Legolas, Hannah then sighed heavily and conceded, “Alright now. Alright. I didn’t mean any offense.” Hannah moved to stand close to where Faelthîr was stirring the steeping herbs of the tonic she would soon give Legolas. She uncrossed her arms and held her hands out in appeasement while saying with halfhearted remorse, “I’ve never met a Prince before and never thought I would. Never lived under a King or a noble, just a mayor in our old village, and she was elected by us freefolk who lived there. I’m sorry if I’ve caused you offense,” the Adan repeated, although to Legolas, it sounded as if she were saying this to Hworin rather than him. Being that Hworin seemed to be the only one around who was any good with a bow, it would not suit Hannah for her kith to lose the only adept hunter they had, and so she did not want to upset Hworin – nor Faelthîr, for that matter, since the Elleth was the only healer they had. Whether she cared if she upset Legolas was unclear to the Prince.

I hope I have not lost her as an ally, he worried. But if I have, then at least I have Hworin here, he reminded himself.

As the other Silvan had assumed of his Prince, Legolas did not know Hworin personally. There were a hundred or more servants in his father’s halls, all of whom were always busily cleaning and cooking and such, and though Legolas knew quite a few of them by name, he knew the rest only by sight. Silvan who elected to work for Thranduil often did not last long in their occupation, for the Elvenking was by nature and by reputation very exacting and meticulous, while requiring the same traits in his servants. Legolas only ever managed to learn and recall the names of those retainers who stayed in his father’s employ for long periods of time. If he could see Hworin, Legolas thought for certain he might remember his face, at least, but he had faith that in a few days’ time, this might prove the case.

While he might doubt Faelthîr’s sudden good will, he did not doubt Hworin’s in the least, and having another Wood-Elf here was better than anything for which Legolas could have prayed. I think I will need to prove myself to Hannah now, to show I am not some conceited, pampered Prince, when before she accepted me easily when thinking I was just another poor refugee as are the Edain with her, the laegel rued.

Again finding some reason to touch his Prince, and perhaps doing so to ensure himself Legolas was indeed seated beside him, Hworin picked something off the laegel’s trousers’ leg – dirt or a leaf or something – and asked, “What has happened to you, your Highness? Why are you here? And what happened to your hair? Are you sure there is nothing you need?”

The reason Legolas had first called out for Hannah upon his awakening was because he had desired a drink of water and did not want to fumble about looking for one, but he dared not ask this of Hworin, lest Hannah believe he was ordering the other Silvan about; he did not want to give the Adan woman the impression he used his royalty for inane purpose, as it was unlike Legolas to do so even at home, and often, his sentries and servants had to force their Prince into accepting their assistance. And so, Legolas decided he would wait for Faelthîr’s tincture and hope it soothed his dry and aching throat, or afterwards ask the Elleth for water after drinking the medicines she brewed. From how Hworin’s umbral figure flitted about with the elder Silvan’s head moving around his own, Legolas realized Hworin was inspecting his Prince’s shorn scalp. Legolas became somewhat amused, as amongst the Eldar, it was highly uncommon for any to have such short hair and he knew he must be an odd sight.

“I am fine, my friend, or as fine as can be expected,” he assured Hworin. “Faelthîr has seen to my injuries and she is making me a tonic even now to aid my recuperation. As for how I came to be here, it is a long story – one I will gladly tell you later, if you do not mind to wait. Right now, I have my own questions, such as how you became part of this camp, Hworin, and who is this Overseer of whom you all speak?”

A gravid silence fell over the two women and man. Unable to see them, Legolas relied upon his hearing and his perception to determine how their reluctance to answer him was not because they did not wish for Legolas to know in particular, but because none of them wanted to be the one to explain it.

And yet, again taking his Prince’s question as a command for the relay of this knowledge rather than a request for it, Hworin took it upon himself to begin. “Just before the winter festival, it was, when I and about twenty others of us travelled from Eryn Galen to Lothlórien with your father’s advisor, Lord Nessiëre, on a diplomatic mission for our King. During our return home in early spring, we were beset by a group of mercenaries just outside the forest of Lorien, near the river, where some of us became separated from the rest. Two others and myself, in fact, were separated from our kith. Of the others’ fate, I know nothing, but myself, one of our sentries Lirion, and his lover Phresia were taken by the mercenaries. For weeks, we travelled with them, chained up with humans who were also taken by force during their travels or as the spoils of raids upon outlying farms beyond the protection of any patrols. South they took us, evading all villages and major thoroughfares to avoid being confronted about their abductions, and led us chained and on foot through the Gap of Rohan, avoiding Isengard and the North-South Road. We followed the Misty Mountains north once away from Isengard, not going quite north enough to be close to the old Dwarven mines of Moria, but not staying too close to Isengard, either, such that we were away from all civilization and amidst only scattered groups of Dunlendings who did not care for our plight.

“Lirion, Phresia, and myself soon found ourselves in a large encampment of other suffering, captive souls such as were we. A massive place it was, with a large tract of farmland upon which we saw women and children working. We later learnt all the men were in the mountains, where they mined for gems and ore. Our captors kept the three of us Eldar chained together, with locked, sturdy cuffs on each foot with stout chains linking each to the other, Phresia in the middle and myself and Lirion on either side. We were compelled into working in the mines, lifting the heavy objects, pushing carts filled with rocks and ore, and performed other tasks for which the Edain lacked the strength. We three slept chained together, ate while chained together, and when the rebellion happened, we three fought chained together – at least, until Phresia was killed. To free ourselves of her corpse, poor Lirion had to cut her feet off,” the Silvan servant told his Prince. As he spoke this awful tale, Hworin’s already soft voice grew ever quieter. “It wasn’t until we managed to encounter the others at the meeting place for the survivors of the rebellion that someone managed to break us out of the chains. By then, with Phresia’s blood on his hands, Lirion had little reason to continue, but he lived at least until he saw to it that all of us who made it out of the compound were safely in the woods. Still, he died of sorrow a few days later. Since then, we’ve been travelling north,” Hworin explained to his Prince, which succinctly told Legolas the elder Silvan’s own account of how he had become, endured, and overcome being a slave.

Sweet Elbereth. That is horrific, he thought but did not say aloud, as he didn’t want to offer Hworin any condolences that might sound like platitudes.

For a brief moment, Legolas’ traitorous mind strayed to asking himself what he would do if in the same situation – that is, if in an identical position, whether Legolas could cut Estel’s feet off to free himself of the man’s deadweight so he could fight. The laegel quickly turned his mind away from this unwelcome imagining without answering the question he put to himself, but not before an aching pang of sorrow lanced across his chest with the thought of suffering through what Phresia, Lirion, and Hworin had suffered.

The Prince recalled Lirion’s name, and though he could not currently come up with the face belonging to said name, he assumed he might have known or seen the guard in the stronghold. Since Lirion was one of his father’s sentries, though, it was unlikely Legolas had much if any interaction with the guard, for Thranduil’s sentries were standoffish to those outside their ranks and loyal to their King beyond reproach, usually forsaking family and friends other than their fellow guardsmen, so as not to have conflicting interests in the goal of protecting their liege.

He waited to hear more of the story from the two women, speculating, If what Hannah and Faelthîr tell me is even half as appalling as what Hworin just told me…

Lost in his thoughts for a few moments, Legolas roused himself by shaking his head to clear it of the lingering, horrible image of a dead Estel chained to him. Neither the Elleth or the Adan had yet to continue the conversation by relating their own tales, and so Legolas asked of Hannah to prompt her, “Were all of you captured and led to the mines as was Hworin?”

“No, some of us were duped into joining the Overseer’s scheme,” Hannah admitted. The elderly woman sat down upon the other trunk – the one she had earlier pulled close to Legolas while he ate so she could be of assistance should he need it. Hannah fell into sitting as if the effort to stand was too great because the heavy burden of bearing her story was too great; she took over the telling of the account, “Nigel, myself, and our three sons were once a part of a small village, having moved there when the last of Nigel’s sisters died. We went to start fresh, and though we did well the first few years, our farm failed for four years in a row – bad seeds, Nigel used to say, but I think it was bad soil. We did not have enough land to let our tracts run fallow, as we ought to have. And then these men came through the village, telling tales in the tavern of how they were coming back from Rohan after selling off ore and jewels mined in a great encampment and getting rich doing it. They were dressed in fine clothing, rode beautiful horses, and threw their coin around as if they could never possibly run out. Told everyone they were looking for families to come join them. Said they were starting a community there at the mining site, where the women could help on the farms and the men would mine, and we would all be rich. They said it would be a good place to raise children, with a school to be built with a teacher at ready for the young ones, and an apothecary already there, and they claimed it was safe, with a militia to roust out any raiders or dangerous sorts, and walls to keep out any threats. It sounded like just what Nigel and I needed – another fresh start somewhere else, where we could raise our boys and give them all the things we never had.”

Hannah paused and hung her head. Having finished brewing her tincture some time ago, Faelthîr climbed from where she sat on her heels upon the ground. She reached out to touch the Prince’s hands to get his attention, and once she had it, she handed Legolas the tin pot with the medicines she had made inside it. The laegel had nearly forgotten about the tincture, so engrossed was he in Hannah and Hworin’s turbulent tale. The Prince’s stomach was already roiling from the story he was hearing; just smelling the potent remedy added to his discomfort and made his gorge rise. Hannah was not in here to watch her make it, he suddenly realized as he held the small, warm metal pot in hand, peering down into it without truly being able to see it. Who knows what she has put into this.

If he wanted any hope of his vision returning, then he must take the chance, he knew. Without further vacillation and before anyone could doubt whether he intended to take it at all, Legolas tipped the bowl to his mouth and swallowed the bitter medicine in one long draught. Without speaking and after taking the pot back from Legolas, Faelthîr first patted the Prince upon his shoulder as she might a horse who had been good in accepting his treatments ere she then settled on the trunk beside Hannah. The Elleth wrapped her arm around the Adan woman’s slim waist to hug her.

With this comfort and encouragement, the taciturn human continued, “And Maker help us, we fell for their ruse. Nigel, myself, our sons, and a few other poor families took the bait. We packed up what we could, loaded our carts, and travelled with the men, stopping a few times in other villages to recruit more folks, all of whom were fed the same lies, just as were we fed. There were no chains amongst us to force us there – just a bunch of fools with more hope than common sense, I suppose. Had we seen any hint of chains or of the tragedies to come, me and Nigel would have taken our boys and fled long before we reached the compound.” Hannah looped her arm through the limb Faelthîr had wrapped around the Adan’s waist, hugging it to her as she spoke. “As soon as we got there, though, we could tell something wasn’t quite right about it all. Sure, we expected the going to be rough at first, since the men had told us there wasn’t housing built for everyone and it would be hard work in the mines, but Nigel and my sons were used to hard work, and I’ve been farming since I was a toddler, so I knew I could make my way on the farms with the rest of the women. They told us any who were willing to stick out the rough times would be rewarded tenfold in riches, so we were willing to endure the hardship at the chance for prosperity. But little did we know. So little did we know.

“The moment our little caravan of fools passed through the outer gates set in a log fence twice as tall as are you, Legolas, men with bows and swords came up to us and told us we’d have to hand over our possessions. There was fighting right then. None of us had much but what we had was dear – small tokens of family life, things handed down from generations past, and a few coins. We were forced to give it all up – our goods, food, bedding, dishes, carts, and horses. Those who didn’t want to or wanted to turn back, those who fought, ended up bloodied and bruised. A few ended up dead. Those brave souls were a warning to the rest of us, as it were, and those who hadn’t fought handed over everything we had, leaving us with nothing but the clothes on our backs. Right after, before we really knew what was happening, the mercenaries took Nigel and my boys away, along with all the other men and male children, while all the women and girls were herded off towards the fields.

“They had poorly built, doorless, and drafty shacks lined up along the edges of the fields. Thirty or forty women and girls in shacks that wouldn’t normally hold ten people comfortably. At night, when we slept on the bare ground without a blanket amongst us, there wasn’t room to walk between the tired, cold bodies of our fellow slaves, so tightly were we packed together. We women and girls worked on the farms from sunup to sunset. At night, they gave us a bowl of something that was edible, but was long past delicious. It kept us alive, I suppose, which was all they wanted from us – our lives and our work. The supervisors, as they called themselves, had whips, bows, swords, clubs, with sharp eyes and mean spirits. Any woman who wasn’t pulling her weight in the fields was laid into hard. And that was most of us on some day or another. A woman can’t survive on gruel and no sleep and still be expected to work the whole day through. Most every one of us took at least one beating or a lashing, myself included. If anyone spoke out or complained, or Maker forbid tried to escape, then they would be whipped right in front of everyone as an example of what would happen to the rest of us. Sometimes, the supervisors hobbled a woman so she couldn’t try to run again,” the Adan explained. Hannah’s voice reminded Legolas of his own voice when he had been asked to repeat the details of his torture at the hands of the merchants or Mithfindl – that is, detached and indifferent, as if she were distancing herself from the vileness through which she had lived.

Legolas’ mind boggled at this shocking account. He had heard before of the awfulness of slavery, of course, but never before had the Prince been witness to it or its aftereffects upon the slaves. Being he couldn’t see much except Hannah’s imprecise, shadowy outline, he depended upon his ears to tell him how the woman was weeping softly as she spoke her story. Had not Faelthîr already been sitting beside Hannah to offer her comfort, the Wood-Elf might have moved to be near Hannah, for hearing the strong woman weeping caused Legolas’ heart to ache on her behalf.

After a few moments pause, Hannah sniffled, wiped her nose upon a handkerchief she pulled from the front pocket in the skirt of her dress, and soldiered on, “I didn’t see Nigel or my boys for months. The whole time I wondered if any of them were even alive. But there was always that hope they were, and the supervisors used our hope against us women. If we stepped out of line, they would threaten to beat, maim, or kill our men or boys. I later learnt the men were kept in line the same, by telling them their women or girls would be beat, maimed, raped, or killed. And it happened often enough for all of us to know the supervisors were not making idle threats. I watched women die from exhaustion and starvation. Some of them fell over in the fields and were left there, or if the supervisors were particularly mean that day, they would have fun flogging their dying bodies until there was nothing but a bloody mess of skin and flesh. During the summer, when the sun burnt hot as a forge, we would lose two to three women a day. They kept bringing in more to replace the dead ones, though, so the supervisors never cared.

“Some of the women and girls – the young and pretty ones – were taken to the Overseer’s house. I can only imagine what horrors awaited them there, as we never saw or heard from any of them again. Ilúvatar help me, I thanked the Maker time and time again that he never saw fit to give me any girls, as I would have lost my mind had the supervisors taken one of my children to the Overseer’s house to endure whatever perverse pleasures the supervisors and Overseer took from them. And Maker help the poor souls who lived in that house with that vile bastard,” she spat, sounding as vindictive and hateful as ever the Prince had heard another being sound. Given why she seemed so upset, it was entirely worthy of her to call the Overseer this and to feel this way.

Hannah stopped speaking and stared off into the far corner of the pavilion, where there laid nothing but glooms – or at least, Legolas could see nothing but shadows. Legolas could only imagine through what these people had suffered, but he knew all about resigning oneself to pain and torment to keep loved ones safe. Hadn’t he done this very thing when handing his rhaw over to Cort and Sven in the forest, when they had Estel’s life in their cruel hands? Hoping he would not upset the Elves and Adan around him, he asked while trying to keep judgment from his voice, as it was not his intent to criticize them or belittle their efforts for liberty prior to the successful effort which had brought them this far, “And no one ever tried to form a rebellion before the one in which you escaped?”

“No. No, I don’t believe any did. Or at least, none tried a concerted endeavor for freedom during the time I was there, though many tried to escape alone or tried to free their loved ones, and then escape,” the woman answered resignedly. She rubbed at her face to wipe away tears, while beside her Faelthîr again hugged Hannah around her waist. The Adan seemed to take great comfort from Faelthîr’s presence, which made Legolas all the gladder he had not acted rashly earlier by demanding penance from the Elleth, even if not her life. Hannah explicated in way that evinced to Legolas she had thought about this many times over before this moment, in a way that told the Elf Hannah had tried to appease her husband, fellow refugees, and perhaps even her own conscience using this same tired excuse, “We were all farmers. Not a one of us was experienced in fighting, except for Hworin and his fellow Elves, and the couple of Dwarves they had captive. And as Hworin told you, the Elves – as well as the Dwarves – were always chained every moment of every day. We were all helpless, trapped, and because we feared for the family members from whom we were separated, we were cowed into obeying.”

He could understand this well enough. Had the Prince been in the same situation, he might have done the same, which was why he tried to take care not to sound as if he were censuring the Edain for accepting the slavery forced upon them. Yet, if it had only been Legolas caught in a slaver’s trap, he knew he would fight to the death to free himself, and so realized, The mercenaries were experienced in catching and keeping slaves, it seems. Had they merely taken individuals without families, they would have found themselves with a riotous group of solitary people with nothing to lose, but since they recruited and took families, they ensured they had leverage against their captives. It is a good way to ensure compliance, he decided, before promptly feeling contrite over how he had complimented the mercenaries in even this begrudgingly slight way.

“What changed? What made you rebel?” he asked when after a while no one spoke and it seemed no one would. As much as he did not want to dredge up ill feelings or memories for Hannah, Hworin, or even Faelthîr, Legolas wanted to know as much as possible about the situation so he could use this knowledge to the refugees’ advantage when it came time to recruit the Rangers into aiding them in rescuing the remaining slaves at the compound. “Something must have changed or worsened to make the risk worth it.”

Her laugh not at all mirthful but self-deprecating and harsh, Hannah turned back to Legolas and nodded. “Yes, you’re right of that, dear. Everything changed for me when my boys died. All three of them at the same time. A mineshaft collapsed on them, along with twenty other young men. I wouldn’t have heard about it at all, except one of the women who took the men their nightly meal of slop was told of the passing of the boys, told their names, and came back to the rest of us women and girls with the news. When I heard my boys were dead, I lost all fear of the supervisors and Overseer. I didn’t care what he might do to me. I wanted to be gone from there, one way or another, and I hoped to take as many of those despicable men with me when I went. Luckily, Lirion, Phresia, and Hworin here were already laying plans for their escape. I merely added to it and recruited others to join us, so we would have a chance. I had every woman and girl there ready for rebellion in a week’s time,” the Adan woman murmured. Legolas wished he could see Hannah’s face when she added in a voice little louder than the sough of the breeze outside, “I didn’t care about anything but making those men pay for what they did, and nothing stops me when I’ve set my mind to something.”

For some reason the Prince could not name, a shiver of dread ran down his spine to hear Hannah say this. It seems she no longer cared for her own life, and while I wouldn’t argue that the rebellion was a bad idea in and of itself, when she talked the other women and girls into joining her, it was not for their own good, but for her own revenge, the laegel understood, plucking out this one particularly gruesome insight from the entirety of the woman’s odd recollection. It disturbed him to think this about the woman, for thus far, Hannah had given him the impression of being entirely benevolent and trustworthy; however, from her own account, she had willingly risked and used the lives of her fellow slaves to suit her own purpose in finding revenge. I am making too much of this, he argued. The rebellion she helped to lead freed many of them. They might have died had she not done so, he aimed to convince himself, though this did not work to settle his mind.

Hworin took Hannah’s prolonged silence as his cue to pick up the thread of the tale again, since he was personally involved in the planning and implementation of the Elves’ plan to free themselves, which with Hannah’s involvement had been amended to free as many of the slaves as possible. Beside Legolas, Hworin shifted how he sat to stretch out his wounded leg. “Like I said, Lirion, Phresia, and I were always chained together. Until Faelthîr was captured and brought to the camp, we were the only three Elves there, as far as I know. The few Dwarves they had were consultants of a sort, for the supervisors to ask about the best way to mine, to gauge the quality of ore and gems, though they were treated no differently for having this knowledge and had to work as hard as the rest of us. But the three of us – well, Lirion was at his wit’s end, as was I, because every day the supervisors would taunt and torment Phresia, saying awful things of what they wanted to do to her. They never dared, though, because the Overseer forbade it done, as he knew enough of the Eldar to know it would kill her faer. The three of us were valuable possessions to him, being that we could do work the Edain could not. But Lirion always feared it happening anyway, and despite the brave façade Phresia kept up for Lirion, it began to eat away at her soul, until she was barely living. It ate away at me, as well, having to listen to all those vulgar, licentious threats they made to her. And poor Lirion, he couldn’t protect her from having to hear it.

“So between the two of them, they came up with a grand plan. Honestly, your Highness, I was merely along for the ride, being that I was chained up with them. But I wanted the same as did they, as did Mother here – to be gone from that place or die trying. When they decided to start a rebellion, I was game for it. Once Hannah sent word by one of the women who brought the food that they were looking to rebel, Lirion and Phresia came up with the strategy, which we spread word of to all the menfolk at the mines. Soon, everyone knew of what was to be done, and all we needed was a favorable time to see it completed,” his fellow Silvan told his Prince, though here he left off in his explanation and did not continue just yet.

Thinking perhaps Hworin and Hannah needed a moment to calm themselves, for the Prince could tell by the slight shaking of the trunk upon which he sat that Hworin was weeping, as well, Legolas instead turned his attention to Faelthîr, asking again now what he had asked earlier, “How did you end up amongst the slaves?”

The Elleth removed her arm from around Hannah’s waist, sat up straight, and began, “I was in a village in the south, trying to make coin from the Edain there by plying my trade of healing, when the village was attacked. It was a poor village, with no militia, no walls, and no one to protect them. But many of the men and women there died trying to protect themselves and their families. Everyone assumed the raiders were there for their goods, but while they took anything of value, as well, they truly wanted the people themselves, not their paltry possessions. They rounded up every able-bodied person in that small village who lived past the fight, myself included. We were chained together the whole way farther south to the encampment. When I arrived, it was just a week after Hannah’s boys died,” Faelthîr told the Prince. She had hinted at some of this earlier, but apparently not wanting Hannah to know she had spoken of this private matter with Legolas already, she said now as if she had not mentioned it before, “And when I got there, Hannah took each of us newly captive women and helped us to bathe, fed us food the women had managed to pilfer from the gardens, and put us in clean clothes. I was put to work in the fields the same as the other women for a while, but like Phresia, the supervisors kept at me, taunting and humiliating me. By the time Lirion, Phresia, and Hworin had their plan laid out, I was ready to go, and the potential of dying be damned,” the Elleth said with bitter conviction.

The flap of the tent suddenly opened, and from the doorway came a voice that spoke as if he had been a part of the conversation from the very beginning, “We needed a distraction,” Nigel said as he entered. “So my lovely and brave Hannah crept off in the night, risking being found out by the supervisors, and set fire to the Overseer’s manse,” Nigel explained with great pride for his wife while walking so he could be near to the rest of those in the middle of the pavilion. “Be damned if it didn’t work wonders, too. All the supervisors who were supposed to be guarding the shacks and huts at the farm and mines took off towards the house to put the fire out, to save the goods, coin, ore, and gems stored inside as their bounty.”

“I’d say a good quarter of us made it out of there alive, while probably a quarter of us died in the rebellion. When the supervisors saw us running for the gates, they gave chase, of course, but only because by then the fire was contained. As for the rest of the slaves, they are still there, if they weren’t all killed in punishment for the escape of the rest of us.” Hannah bent low at the waist with her hands upon her knees, her face turned down to the ground. “I think about that every day. I think about what the others are suffering while the rest of us are free.”

Nigel strode to stand beside his wife. He gently pushed her aside to make room for himself on the trunk upon which she and Faelthîr sat, and once beside her, he pulled the woman into his arms to hold her while she wept into his chest. The doubts Legolas had earlier held for Hannah were somewhat ameliorated to see her regret now, though they were not entirely eliminated. Hworin took the lapse in conversation to fret over his Prince again, which he did by brushing at Legolas’ borrowed clothing to remove dirt or leaves once more, though the laegel began to think there was nothing upon him needing to be brushed off, but rather that Hworin needed his own comfort and found it by caring for his liege. Faelthîr laid her head upon Hannah’s shoulder and wrapped her arms around the Adan woman, as well, such that Nigel, Hannah, and Faelthîr were a mishmash of arms embracing each other for the scant consolation this brought them.

Legolas remained quiet and let the others relieve their grief. He could find nothing to say that would not sound trite in its attempt to comfort, nor could he offer false promises of freeing the other slaves, when in the end, it would not be his decision to see it done, but would be up to Estel and the other Rangers to decide whether or not to aid these refugees. Still, it burned him to see Hannah, Nigel, Hworin, and even Faelthîr’s heartache, and he wanted more than ever to do something to ease their minds and sorrow. When finally Faelthîr rose back up, Nigel released his tight hold of his wife, and Hannah sat upright, as well. She brushed the tears from her face, turned to Faelthîr, and then used her handkerchief to wipe at the tears upon the Noldo’s face, as well, as one might do for her child. The last vestiges of hate he held for the Elleth vanished in this moment. It was hard to hold any loathing for Faelthîr when seeing her weep over the misfortunes of the Edain with whom she had cast her lot.

“Faelthîr told us about the good works of the Rangers,” the Adan woman eventually continued, her despairing tone turning suddenly into a hopeful one. “It has been a hard journey north. We’ve had to scrape and beg. When we fled, we managed to get back some of our possessions from one of the storehouses not connected to the Overseer’s mansion, from which we stole what we could of their coin and food, supplies, ore, and gems – call it wages, I suppose, that we were owed for the work we’d done – and we have sold everything we took or we used it up along our way. But onwards to Bree we go. I’m praying the Rangers have the heart and good will to aid us. There are still good people left on that compound, and I for one could not live with myself knowing we’ve left them to their fate.”

Hworin had been missing for quite some time; that is, he had been on his way to Lothlórien before Legolas’ first encounter with the merchants in Lake-town, knew not of the younger Silvan’s subsequent torture and exploitation, and had no inkling of the more than platonic relationship between Aragorn and his Prince. However, he knew of his Prince’s close friendship with Estel, and thus assured Hannah now, clapping his liege upon the shoulder as he said, “We will have no problems getting the Rangers to aid us, Mother. It is guaranteed.”

“And why is that, sweetheart?” she asked the elder Silvan, not sounding convinced of this at all, but exhausted and wary of what Hworin might say. “Faelthîr says she is not on good terms with one of the Rangers, named Estel,” the Adan alluded, giving Legolas the clear impression that Hworin did not know of Faelthîr’s misdeeds against Aragorn and himself. Of course, if the elder Silvan had known, he might have lopped off the Elleth’s head long before now on principal alone, so devout did he seem to his King and Prince. Hannah disputed to the elder Silvan, “She says they are good men, but fears they might not because of the one of them she wronged. We can’t be sure they will aid us.”

Showing that in fact he didn’t know anything of why Aragorn might refuse to aid the Edain because of Faelthîr, Hworin laughed and told the Adan, “It doesn’t matter what Faelthîr has done to upset any of the Rangers. We are blessed beyond your knowing, Mother, for you to have found my Prince in the bog this morning. The Chieftain of the Rangers, Aragorn – or Estel, as he called among our own kind – is my Prince’s closest friend.

Hannah now straightened up and turned her gaze to the Prince. He could not see her eyes upon him, but he felt them keenly. She repeated Hworin’s words, saying, “Your Prince’s closest friend? Estel and Aragorn are one and the same person?”

Not catching the undercurrent to the Adan’s question, Hworin assured the woman, “Oh yes. Whatever ill will exists between Faelthîr and Estel, I do not understand, but one word from my Prince, and the Rangers will be on our side, Mother, I assure you.”

This was true, of course, though not exactly for the reason Hworin insisted. The Rangers would be of aid because they were righteous, good men who would take up the refugees’ cause to free their kith and kin and dismantle the slavery occurring upon this encampment in the south; that Estel was Legolas’ closest friend only meant the Prince could ensure Aragorn would not dither about being of aid because of his mistrust of Faelthîr, though Legolas could not imagine his human lover would do this because of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary of all of this being some part of a scheme on Faelthîr’s part.

No, what had just occurred to Hannah was that the Estel she had learnt of from Faelthîr – the one whom the Elleth had admitted to hurting by hurting his Elven lover, Legolas, was also Aragorn, the Chieftain of the Dúnedain. Either Faelthîr had omitted this information or it had not been clear in her explanation, for Hannah only just now realized that since Estel and Aragorn were one and the same, the Chieftain of the Rangers was Legolas’ lover, and thus, staying on Legolas’ good side would be advantageous to the refugees, as it would ensure the Rangers’ compliance.

What followed was a short silence in which Legolas spent his time trying to discern the meaning behind the wordless exchange Faelthîr and Hannah held between them. He found to his amazement that the constant pain he had endured over the last several days was lessened greatly. His head no longer felt as if a hammer were walloping the inside of it with every beat of his heart. The telling of this story might have taken an hour or so, during which he’d had his medicine; in this time, and to Legolas’ amazement, his vision was already somewhat improved, such that the Wood-Elf could actually see more than mere shadows, and thus could tell how Faelthîr and Hannah were looking at each other, with the Adan giving the Elleth some rather pointed glares at having misled or misinformed Hannah. His ability to see even this much precluded the laegel’s interest in the actual content of the two women’s interchange, however, for his delight to be able to discern color astounded him.

Of Hannah he noticed, Her hair is silvery brown, in a single long plait. An hour ago, he would not have been able to distinguish this simple detail. While the people and tent around him were still mostly blobs, he was buoyed to see color once more. She has eyes that are green like the leaves. And Nigel’s hair is black as night and he has what Estel would call a beer-gut. Feeling like a child discovering the world for the first time, Legolas then turned to Hworin, who unsurprisingly was looking at his Prince with adulation. His hair is auburn, as are many of my kith in the Greenwood. Unable to view the finer details of his fellow Silvan’s face, though, the Prince still could not recognize the Elf just yet.

“I should see to it the rotations are made for the watch tonight,” Hannah told them, interrupting Legolas’ wondrous observation of the people around him. Whereas since finding out Legolas was a Prince the woman had been standoffish towards the Wood-Elf, she now no longer cared; or perhaps she saw his being a Prince as a boon, especially now that she knew Legolas’ lover Estel was in fact Aragorn, the Chieftain from whom they sought aid. Hannah stood and cleared the few steps to where Legolas sat on the trunk. She leant down to hold the Silvan’s face between her work-roughened hands, planted a motherly kiss upon his beaten brow, and told him, “Why do you not rest for a while longer, dear. When it is time for the evening meal, we will wake you.”

“I should go, as well. I’ve other patients to attend,” the Elleth made her excuse, seemingly eager to leave now that her purpose here had been served, but perhaps also to speak to Hannah, who seemed peeved at Faelthîr. “I will make you another dose to drink before sunset,” she promised Legolas, ere with Nigel, the two women left the tent in a hurry.

“Now,” Hworin said to Legolas, garnering the younger Wood-Elf’s attention, “what can I do for you, your Highness?”

He could not help but to smile at his fellow Elf’s indomitable desire to be of service to his Prince. Despite the awful tale he had been told this afternoon, Legolas felt better than he had in days, for his sight was already improving, he had another Wood-Elf with him, and he was certain he would soon see his Estel – both figuratively and literally.

“I think I will do as Hannah suggested and rest for a while more. If you could merely point me in the direction of a bed,” he asked of Hworin, then thinking he had not had the chance to ask Faelthîr or Hannah for a drink for his desiccated throat, added, “And perhaps, if you might, find for me a glass of water?”

“Of course, your Highness. Please,” he prompted, hopped to his feet, placed his cane under him, and then held his hand out for Legolas. The Prince took this aid gladly, allowed Hworin to lead him to the nearest bed – which happened to be the very one in which he’d earlier slept – and then plopped down upon it. “I will be right back with your water.”

“Thank you, my friend,” he told Hworin, feeling the Silvan’s smile of pleasure to be called friend by his Prince once again, ere Hworin hobbled off to do as asked.

An undefined fear skirted the edges of his conscious thinking, worrying at his current peacefulness, but he pushed it aside for now. Legolas sat upon the meager mat and blankets, his mind awash with all he had been told, and waited for Hworin to return.

Chapter Text

“You are sitting down, letting me see to your arm, eating, sleeping, and then when you wake, you are coming with me to let our father see to your wound, Estel, and I will not argue about it again!” Elrohir shouted at the Ranger.

He sat upon the floor of the flet, his back against the partial wall behind him. Before Estel stood Elrohir and Aerandir, and on the ground below the talan there sat around a fire three Eldar, all of whom were speaking quite loudly, with Valnesse telling the two Noldorin brothers Camthalion and Gwindor everything she knew of what had happened to Elladan, Elrohir, Kalin, Reana, and Estel. Aragorn had the clear impression they spoke so loudly to hide the fact they could easily overhear every grouchy thing Elrohir bellowed at his human sibling. Despite his maturity in comparison to his own kind, the Imladrians were wont to viewing Estel as a child still; however, they were not entirely comfortable with listening to Elrohir speak to the man as though he were a toddler. And to Aragorn, this was exactly what Elrohir was doing – talking down to the Adan as if he were a dimwitted child.

“I am sitting down, I will gladly let you see to this wound,” he agreed, shaking the very arm of which he spoke towards the twin to emphasize his words, “and I am ravenous for real food, so I will gladly eat, as you request. But I am not sleeping, nor am I going home with you,” he warned his Elven sibling. The human was in no mood for further dispute, truth be told. The two brothers had been quarrelling nearly the whole day’s ride to the outpost, which seemed to have driven the usually levelheaded, cheerful Valnesse to the point of wishing to be rid of Elrohir’s company, when usually the she-Elf was eager to spend time around the twin Lords of Imladris in the hopes of catching one – or both – of their attentions. Aragorn then amended when he noticed twilight was approaching, “No, I take it back. I may even sleep for a few hours in the hopes of seeing Greenleaf in our dreams. But whether I do or not, whether this arm rots off in the night or sprouts flowers and butterflies ere my waking, I am riding to catch up to Kalin, Elladan, and Reana; and if that is not possible, if I do not find them while they find Greenleaf, then I will meet them on their way back north with Legolas,” he told his brother as evenly and firmly as he could manage without shouting back at the Noldo.

The younger twin seethed silently for a moment, his lower lip caught between his teeth, which he gnashed upon so harshly it was a wonder to Estel how the Noldo didn’t break the skin. Elrohir’s usually fair face – made all the fairer because of the contrast of light skin with his jet-black hair and striking verdigris eyes – was tinged pink with the discoloration of his mounting rage. Surprisingly, Elrohir closed his eyes, shook his head, and then smirked a quick and dismal smile.

Aragorn’s confidence in his intentions to leave to find his Elven lover wavered in this moment of seeing his brother’s sneer. Something about it made Estel very, very worried. I will have to take care not to let him near me with rope, he told himself, and though it might have sounded like a joke had he said it aloud to anyone, Aragorn was not jesting. He would not put it past Elrohir to tie him up to ensure he stayed at the outpost and then rode to Rivendell come morning. Ever had his brothers sought to keep the Adan safe and healthy, and not just because they loved him and wanted for the man to live a salubrious and long life, but also, they mothered him because if they did not see to it the Adan was taken care of, Elrond would have their hides for doing anything less than everything in their power to see Aragorn was safe and well.

“I am not discussing this anymore.” Elrohir held his hand out towards Aerandir with expectation, saying nothing as he did so.

The Sindarin Elf, who had been in Elrond’s service even before the Last Homely House was built and who during the brothers’ argument had tried to persevere in his task of keeping watch through the open slats of the walls, startled at this sudden, demanding motion from Elrohir. Aerandir’s bright blue eyes stared at Elrohir’s hand as if it were a snake about to strike him. The deferent Sinda murmured worriedly in question to Elrohir, “My Lord? Do you require something?”

The younger of Elrond’s Elven sons startled in turn to hear Aerandir’s voice. He whirled to face the Sinda and said with a snort of disbelief and a brief smile, “My apologies. I am so used to having Elladan beside me that when he is not I forget others cannot anticipate my every move and thought, as can he. Will you please hand me the miruvor you said you keep here? I have need of it.”

“Of course,” the elder Elf replied, moved towards where Estel sat upon the flet’s floor, and reached above the Ranger’s head towards an oilcloth satchel hanging from a branch of the tree around which the talan was built.

Like most of the outposts around Elrond’s borders, this talan was intended as a temporary shelter for Imladrian travelers in need and as a place for the valley’s sentries to store their food and supplies while doing their rotations of guarding Imladris’ borders. The flet at which Estel had stayed – they one he had spent time at while injured and searching for Legolas in the woods whilst Legolas had been searching for Mithfindl to exact his vengeance – had apparently been destroyed in a storm. This newly built talan was similar to how the other one had looked in that the walls were a few roughhewn boards followed by a missing board, with this pattern repeating all the way around the square floor, into which a ladder was built through a whole therein, allowing the sentries to climb up from the forest below the flet. The ceiling was simple thatch and limbs to keep out the worst of the rain and snow, but these talans were mainly built for functionality, not comfort, and so the cold zephyr blowing in through the missing wallboards struck Estel in the face with a painfully algid sting.

Shivers wracked his febrile body. Throughout Aragorn’s life, he had suffered from injury and fever often enough before. Until experiencing the bitter cold of Elise’s curse, he had never known true gelid temperatures, he realized then and recalled now, but his fever of the moment was making it so his current state was coming in a close second place to the hostile iciness he’d felt when his faer and rhaw had been cleaving due to Elise’s fell touch. He wanted to go below and sit with the others around the fire. He wanted to drink some of the wine they were sharing, eat the freshly killed and cooked rabbit they were consuming, and then do as he had told Elrohir he would by sleeping for a few hours – but only a few. This acquiescence to the last task came mostly from his desire to speak to Legolas again before the Ranger headed south. He wanted to know if the Prince had remained where he was, as he had asked of Legolas, or if the laegel had been forced to leave the area for his safety or to find food. He needed to know his Greenleaf was well. If he had sent Kalin and the others to find Legolas but they arrived too late, and the Wood-Elf had died from predators, hunger, or injury, then the Ranger would never forgive himself, even though it was not his fault and his going with the others would not have helped them to find the Prince sooner.

A dark head popped up from the hole in the flet’s floor, and through this opening came Gwindor. In the Noldo’s hand was a tin cup of something steaming and fragrant, which he immediately handed to Elrohir, saying, “As you requested. I made a few doses at once, without the…” he began to say but halted as though about to admit too much, which instantly made Estel wary. Clearing his throat, the Elf went on, “The other doses will remain efficacious during your journey home…” the Elf told Elrohir, though he then looked at Estel, saw the irreverent stubbornness of the human’s face, and added, “or your journey south.” For a moment, it appeared to the Ranger that Gwindor wished to say something to him; in fact, the Noldo appeared rather guilty as he mulled over whether to speak, but one mordant, pointed glare from Elrohir ended Gwindor’s vacillation and he stifled himself.

Ignoring the guard’s insinuation of the Adan perchance getting his way and going off to find Legolas when Elrohir believed it best they go home, the twin took the cup and immediately poured some of the miruvor into it. The cordial cooled down the brewed medicines enough for Estel to swallow the contents in one gulp after Elrohir handed him the cup. He trusted his brother completely, of course, and so did not doubt what the twin had concocted for him to imbibe to facilitate his healing. When he handed the cup back to Elrohir, the twin again gave Estel the same mirthless smirk, and when Estel glanced at Gwindor, the Noldo turned away from Aragorn’s gaze with discomfort.

Something is going on, and I would know what it is, he told himself, although he was too tired, too hungry, and too feverish to think straight about what deviousness his brother might be planning.

“I will be below, should you need me,” Gwindor offered, not waiting for a response from anyone before he slid down the ladder and rejoined his friends awaiting his return around the fire.

What was that about? he again wondered of the guard’s odd behavior. Maybe Gwindor doesn’t discount the possibility of my having dreamt with Greenleaf, as has Elrohir disregarded it. It would be wonderful to have someone else on his side, for at the moment, with Kalin gone to look for his Prince, there was no one left amongst his companions who seemed willing to concede the Adan’s faer could truly be connected to the Silvan Prince’s faer. Maybe I can speak to him alone for a moment and solicit his help in waylaying Elrohir. It was a slim chance, he knew, for few of the Imladrians would ever be willing to go against one of Elrond’s Elven sons to aid Elrond’s human son – not when they would face Elladan or Elrohir’s wrath for being thwarted.

“I am going below, as well,” he told his Elven brother, who did not deign to reply or so much as look at the Ranger, but pretended to inspect the remaining contents of the skin of miruvor.

Aragorn scooted upon his arse the short distance to the hole in the floor, put his feet upon one of the ladder’s rungs, and stood. Promptly, the man felt his head swim and had he not still been able to plop down onto his arse at the edge of the opening in the floor, he would have fallen off the ladder and to the ground below him. The Ranger hoped to hide this mishap from Elrohir, as he wanted to give his brother no more reason to doubt him, and rousing the last vestiges of his willpower, he stood again and slowly, carefully descended the ladder to the forest’s floor. At least I didn’t fall and break my neck. It would be hard to find Greenleaf were I dead, he joked darkly.

The three Elves around the fire stopped their reminiscing and ribbing of each other as the Adan approached, with Camthalion jumping up and sprinting to Estel when the Noldo saw how Aragorn wavered upon his feet. Wordlessly, Camthalion offered his arm to the Ranger, who took it gladly, while hoping Elrohir was too busy simmering in ire in the flet above to notice the Adan’s need for assistance. “Thank you,” he muttered at Camthalion.

Once at the fire, the Noldorin guard helped the human to sit upon his bedroll, which was already spread out next to the fire, and once this was done, the bladder of wine was passed to him. He took a healthy swig of it and passed it on; a moment later, a trencher was placed in his hands, upon which sat half a well-cooked and seasoned rabbit. His hunger for good, real food made him tear into the meat with few manners. He had refused the rabbit stew Reana had made for all of them that morning because his belly had roiled at the smell and sight of it; however, his belly seemed not to care right now, for it was empty and angrily so. He licked clean the grease upon his fingers, wishing he had some cheese or bread to go with this simple repast, and would even settle for vegetables or fruit if he had to, so long as he could fill his empty belly.

Has Greenleaf found something to eat? he found himself questioning. Once he thought of this, his hunger waned and he found himself feeling sick yet again. It was hard to eat when he didn’t know if his lover was still starving as he had been the night before, whilst they shared their dream. With the deliciously cooked meat upon the rabbit’s bones only half-eaten, Aragorn set the trencher aside upon a stump the Imladrians were currently using as a table of sorts. No. I cannot eat while Legolas starves. If Greenleaf suffers, I will suffer right along with him.

The Eldar around the Adan had quit chattering when he joined them – most likely out of respect for the man, as none of them were certain whether they should believe Elrohir’s account and thus be mourning the human’s loss of his Silvan lover, or whether they should believe Estel’s account and thus be worried for Legolas’ wellbeing since he was alone and injured, blind and hungry in the bogs. Rubbing his aggrieved stomach and staring into the fire’s flames, the Ranger noted how all three of the guard’s eyes swept upwards to watch someone’s movements. Knowing Aerandir was on watch in the flet, Estel deducted it must be Elrohir moving about, and soon, he saw as his Elven brother climbed down the ladder and took off through the trees to relieve himself or to be alone for a short while.

When Aragorn moved his gaze back to the fire, the world spun around him. Instinctually, he thrust his hand out to grab onto something, for he felt to be freefalling into the sky itself. Beside him sat Valnesse; the Elleth reached out and took the man’s hand, while asking, “Estel? What is it? Are you well?”

Either the fever is getting decidedly worse, or I have been drugged, he determined, clutching onto Valnesse’s hand tightly, for she was the anchor keeping him from spinning out of control for the nonce. He shut his eyes, though this soon proved a bad idea when his stomach churned due to the blackness behind his closed lids – he could still feel the world spiraling around him even though he could not see it. After a few moments of trying to calm himself by breathing deeply, the human dared to open his eyes, and was relieved to find the earth and sky in their proper places once more.

“Estel?” Camthalion inquired. From across the fire, the two brothers sat side by side, with Gwindor playing with his fingernails and pointedly not looking at the human who stared at him.

I have been drugged, he thought again, this time without the humor of before, and instead, with true conviction, as he realized Gwindor and Elrohir’s peculiar behavior and the guard’s reluctance to speak or look at Estel was due to his shame in having tricked the man. Ilúvatar damn them both, he rued, considering whether it would be wise to force himself into vomiting to remove the medicines he had been given. Both Valnesse and Camthalion continued to observe the Adan with concern, and still, Gwindor plucked at the short ends of his fingernails as if they were the most interesting thing he had ever seen.

“What did you put in it?” he hissed at Gwindor, who finally found the courage to look at Estel and also the grace to appear ashamed, at least.

“A soporific, as Elrohir requested. I am sorry, Estel,” the guard told the Ranger quietly, but only after looking over his shoulder to where Elrohir had stalked off to see to nature’s call. “He was adamant that you rest this night. I could not refuse him. He is only concerned for you,” the Noldo tried to convince Aragorn, whose glare told the Elf his attempt was futile.

“Elrohir is adamant, yes. He is adamant that I go to Imladris and leave Greenleaf to die in the swamp,” the man shot back at the Noldorin guard. He yanked his hand free of Valnesse’s grip and pressed his fingers into his temples, hoping to quell the nausea-inducing vertigo caused by the soporific. “I fear Kalin and the others may not be able to find Legolas since they cannot speak to him, as can I in my dreams. I ought to be there to help find him. Or are all of you like my brothers and everyone else save Kalin, and think me mad with grief and Greenleaf truly dead?” he uncharitably rebuked in query at the Elves around him.

To his surprise, Camthalion and Gwindor were shaking their heads, although Valnesse wisely remained quiet. Camthalion looked to his brother and then off into the distance, checking to see if Elrohir approached. Finding the Noldorin Lord still off about his personal business or walking off his anger, Camthalion admitted softly, “Actually, Estel, we do not doubt you in the least,” he spoke on his and his brother’s behalf. “If you say your Greenleaf lives, if you share dreams with him, then we believe it to be true.”

“Our parents share dreams,” Gwindor added before a stunned Estel could reply to this unexpected agreement. The Noldo picked up a long, charred stick and began poking at the fire in idle aggravation. He gave the Adan another chagrined half-smile and told him, “Or at least they did before they sailed. I assume they still share dreams in the Undying Lands. We have heard of this kind of occurrence before.”

“It is rare but not unprecedented amongst bonded faers,” Valnesse spoke up in a soft susurrus, sounding slightly surprised she spoke at all. Indeed, the she-Elf looked around her and fidgeted a bit, opened her mouth as if to add something else to the conversation, and then promptly shut it with an audible snap, ere she pulled her bow to her from where it rested on the ground nearby, and then began to fiddle with the string as if inspecting it.

None of these Eldar wished to be the next recipient of Elrohir’s wrath. It wasn’t because Elrohir was violent or because he held some undue sway over them; no, it was because the Imladrians held high respect for Elrond’s twin sons, daughter, and even Estel, though to a lesser degree given how they saw him as young still, and none of them wanted to argue with Elrohir if they could avoid it. They would also choose to side with the Elven son over the human son of their Lord, Estel knew well. Any hope one of these Eldar would aid him in convincing or waylaying Elrohir so he could go off to search for Legolas was squashed in that moment, for if none of them could even talk amongst themselves in dissent of Elrohir’s claims against the bond between man and Elf, then they would not dare to do so in front of Elrohir.

Feeling as if he were gouging into his mind with his fingers, Aragorn forced himself to stop pressing his digits into his temples, though doing this had focused his thinking a bit and relieved some of his nausea. Fearing they would answer him negatively, Aragorn dared to ask, “Then you believe me when I say Greenleaf is alive?”

Again, Camthalion looked over his shoulder in the direction Elrohir had stalked off, ere he told the man, “Yes. We do. If you have dreamt of him, of his having explained away all that had led you to believe he was dead in the first place, and if you truly felt his presence as would you have were his physical body next to you, then why would we not believe the Prince lived?”

“Because he is dead. I saw what was left of him with my own eyes,” came a highly exasperated voice from afar.

The three Imladrians around the fire straightened their postures and cleared the sympathetic understanding from their faces as they faced Elrohir, who came prowling back into the circle of light from the fire just as quietly as he had prowled away from it a short while ago.

Elrohir walked closer until he stood right beside where Estel sat on the ground. “You had no trouble believing Greenleaf was dead when we found his remains in the cave, muindor,” his brother told him. The Noldo ran a hand over his face; he then shook his head and knelt down beside the human so he could look him in the eye when he spoke, saying, “I am sorry, Estel. I am sorry Elladan and I made you feel as if Legolas’ death is your fault,” he apologized to the Adan, placing a hand upon Aragorn’s shoulder as he showed his regret. “We were sorrowed, and angered. And despite our best intentions, neither of us could seem to accept your and Greenleaf’s love. I am sorry for it. I truly am. But it is not anger or sorrow convincing me that Legolas is dead. He is gone, brother. You must accept it. And now Kalin is off looking for Greenleaf, with Reana and Elladan in tow, and all three of them place themselves unnecessarily in harm’s way for this fool’s errand.”

Rather than the antagonism Estel expected from his sibling, he discovered Elrohir both pained and grieved, which made the man feel all the worse. Elrohir’s fury he could ignore or deal with, but his brother’s grief only shamed him at his insistence upon asserting Legolas lived. And yet, he knew the Prince lived, so what else could he do but argue against his sibling? To hear his Elven brother speak so freely in front of the other Eldar here was unsettling to the human, as well, since when around people whom the Noldo did not consider family or very close friends, Elrohir would normally pull the man aside to speak of private affairs such as making an apology.

“I fear Elladan and I have guilted you into deceiving yourself into believing Legolas lives, to appease the guilt we have forced upon you,” the twin continued, his voice growing fainter with each miserable admission he made. He squeezed Estel’s shoulder for a moment more ere he removed his hand and plopped down upon the ground next to the man, “I am ashamed of how we have treated you since learning of Legolas’ death. And because of our insistence upon blaming you, we drove you to this, to believing this falsity, and now that Kalin has been dragged into it, as well, I fear he likely will not survive the return journey home when Greenleaf is not found.”’

It was unfair for Elrohir to begin this conversation after having just intoxicated the human with a soporific, and thus treacherously forcing the man into what would soon be a deep sleep. His wits were leaving him as slumber began to overtake his mind, so he feared he would make no sense. But he would do the best he could. He turned in his seat upon the ground a little so he could face the Noldo fully, so that Elrohir would see the honesty of his belief when he spoke to the Elf.

“Greenleaf will be found, I swear it.” Estel’s eyes slid shut of their own accord. He pried them open and tried to find something upon which to settle his gaze, something upon which he could focus to try to stay awake. All he found was his brother’s startlingly green eyes, which to the man looked like fresh spring leaves, and made his heart yearn for his own Greenleaf. “On the morrow’s morning, I am taking my horse and leaving south to find him,” he swore to his brother, not with anger but plain obstinacy, “whether you believe me or not, whether you come with me or not. I am going to find him.”

Laying his hand upon Aragorn’s shoulder again, the Noldo gently pressed Estel backwards, until the unwitting man was lying upon the bedroll upon which he sat. With just as much stubbornness, Elrohir solemnly told the Adan, “No, you are not, brother. I will keep you drugged until we reach the House, if I must. Your arm will not heal without Ada’s help. Elladan and I told you already – we are not losing another brother – and with Kalin gone and most likely not to return alive, I am taking no chances. You are going home.”

Although Estel wanted greatly to argue against his sibling, to rail and rant at the twin for having slipped a sedative into his medicines, for not believing him when he said he could speak to and feel Legolas in their dreams, and for treating him like a child, Aragorn could not manage the willpower to speak. Mid-thought of how to respond to Elrohir, Estel’s eyes closed; the human fell into sleep within moments, never noticing as Elrohir spread a blanket out over the Adan and adjusted his brother’s arm so he would not sleep upon it and cause it further injury during the long hours of the night.

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He had not slept during his time of resting in the camp’s pavilion, but merely lain awake. Hworin had refused to leave his Prince, which again had reminded the Wood-Elf of Kalin in his stalwart protection of his Prince, and it had eased Legolas’ mind to have another Silvan there with him as he stretched out and closed his eyes. For hours, he had remained that way, refusing to open his eyes – not because they hurt any longer or because he could not see, but because his vision had improved slightly and did so more every moment. He had been in a good mood and wanted to surprise himself with how well he could see when he had given the tonic enough of a chance to reduce the swelling in his head as much as it might. Therefore, when Janey had come within the tent to tell Hworin – who had been crafting arrows as quietly as he could all the while his Prince rested – to waken Legolas, and then join them outside for the evening meal, the laegel had been welcomingly shocked to find how greatly his vision was improved.

Before, the Elf had only been able to see the world around him in light and dark, with objects other than illumination itself some varied monochromatic shade. But upon finally opening his eyes when Hworin had come to rouse him, Legolas had found the dim tent around him was once more full of natural color. He had been able to see the outlines of objects, rather than mere vague shadows of them, and although he could not yet discern details, his hope had been buoyed that he soon would.

And now he sat outside around the huge fire, surrounded by at least a hundred Edain, save for the few set around the perimeter as guards for the rest. Somewhere in the chaos, there were a few Dwarves, or so he had been told, but Legolas had yet to meet any of them. There were smaller fires blazing everywhere, such that families sat together in some cases, while others sat not at a fire but in small groups near to their lean-tos and makeshift tents. The majority of the people seemed to be gathered at the great bonfire by which Legolas himself sat, along with Hworin, Hannah, Nigel, and several other people the Prince thought he had met before earlier today. Although a massive pot sat nearby for making stews and such, they currently ate roasted venison. Having few bowls amongst them – and those shoddily carved from wood, as were the few spoons and forks, all of which had likely been made during the refugees’ journey northwards – there were no dishes for the people to eat from, so all ate their share with their hands. The deer themselves had been cooked by being sectioned and spitted, and from these chunks of meat, Janey carved the food for each who came up to her for their supper. Some of the more knowledgeable persons amongst the refugees had obtained greens and nuts to add to their meal, and these were also passed around with a willingness to share with all who needed the extra nourishment. All in all, meager though the meal was, it was enjoyed by the camp with enthusiasm, as if they were feasting upon a banquet of fine foods.

Janey did an excellent job of cooking this, at least, he admired as he tore another strip of the gamey, delicious venison from his own hunk of cooked meat and tossed it into his mouth. I wonder if she wasn’t one of the ones who cooked in the camp, since she seems so adept at cooking for all these refugees.

Despite it being well cooked and even with the additions of greens and nuts, the portion allotted to each was small and not particularly filling. Had not the laegel already eaten stew and bread that midday when first arriving and being tended by Hannah, and so was lucky to have had something to forfend his ravenous belly’s growling, he would have been unsatisfied with his share. He questioned whether the Edain around him were soon to waste away to nothing if his vision did not improve well enough to be able to hunt for them. It surprised him that amongst all of these humans, not a one was good enough with a bow to take down more than a couple of deer and a few rabbits and squirrels a day, which was not nearly enough to feed a hundred people three hearty meals from morning until night, and he wondered if they knew how lucky they were to have had Hworin amongst them to hunt prior to his being hurt by the raider’s arrow.

He paused in his chewing to make a greeting to another child who came up to him and said hello, ere he then chewed more quickly and swallowed when the girl’s mother followed her young one up to the fire to say hello to Legolas. With a smile upon his face, he allowed the girl to marvel at his ears, which seemed of the most interest to the children here in the camp, and he allowed this child – as he had several other boys and girls who had come to gawk at him – to trail her grubby fingers over the sensitive point of one ear as she admired the differentness of the Elf’s features in comparison to her own. Mother and child bid him a goodnight after a brief conversation consisting only of asking him his name and giving their own. The girl, who was called Kelse, ignored her mother and instead took off running towards the rest of the children, who had by now forsaken eating and conversation and were frolicking amongst themselves with a game of hide and seek.

Listening to the high-pitched laughter and screams of the children as they played, Legolas again smiled, thinking, Children are so very lucky. They do not even seem to know what evil they have escaped, nor what evil awaits them should this Overseer and his hired mercenaries come looking for the slaves they have lost. His smile faltered as he considered the possibility of any of these children being put back into slavery; he promised himself, Whatever it takes, I will do. I will not let these children, nor these women and men, to be placed back into chains.

Already this night, at least half of the humans had come up to the Prince to introduce themselves, ask of his welfare, tell parts of their own stories, or merely to get a glimpse of the newest member of their camp. Thus far, none of them had asked him of being a Prince, so Legolas could only assume – and hope – that no one had made the information known to everyone. Beside him sat Hworin, who refrained from doting upon his Prince as he so greatly desired, but instead offered his fellow Silvan help in the guise of doing it because of Legolas’ injuries and reduced vision.

Although Faelthîr’s medicines earlier had ended his headache, the noise, smoke, and bustling camp around him brought it slowly back, and he soon found himself thinking, I wish I could see well enough to go off to be alone for a while for some quiet. He rubbed at his once more aching head and pinched the bridge of his nose to stifle the growing pain within his skull.

Having been watching his liege and perceptive to the younger Elf’s mood, Hworin leant in close to his Prince and whispered so softly no one but another Elf could have heard, “Do you wish to sleep in the tent tonight, or would you rather sleep in the trees? Hannah threw a fit when I refused to sleep with them in the tent after I was injured, but I cannot stand to be surrounded by so many noisily breathing humans at night,” the elder Wood-Elf admitted. He glanced around briefly before he added in similar susurrus, “I have found a perfectly happy elm in which to sleep and it has enough room on a nearby branch for you.”

Legolas did not even bother to consider this but answered at once, “I would be happy to share your tree with you, Hworin. I am not certain I could find any rest with so many Edain surrounding me.”

Being that his fellow, elder Silvan was not aware of all the tragedies having befallen his Prince – for it had all happened during Hworin’s disappearance – Hworin could not have guessed the deeper reason behind the younger Elf’s desire not to be surrounded by humans. And yet, with Hworin’s own admission of not being comfortable encircled by a bunch of Edain, it made it much easier for Legolas not to have to come up with an excuse for desiring the same seclusion.

Hworin handed his liege a scrap of cloth, which he pulled from the front pocket of his trousers, ere he then gave Legolas the remnants of the water in his skin and told Legolas, “Here. To clean the grease from your hands. I will find Faelthîr to see if she has made your medicines already. If she has, I will bring it to you and then lead you to the tree. I can see your head is hurting,” the astute Wood-Elf said softly, obviously not wanting to overstep his place by assuming he knew what was best for his Prince, but also wanting to do for his liege whatever he could to ensure Legolas’ wellbeing. “Since you did not sleep earlier,” he told the laegel, showing Hworin had not been fooled by Legolas’ attempt to feign sleep just to have quiet this late afternoon, “perhaps you can sleep tonight and give the medicines the time and rest it needs to be of most aid to you.”

“Thank you,” he replied automatically, wetting the cloth and beginning to wipe his hands clean, ere he then reached out, took hold of Hworin’s arm, and thus stopped the elder Elf from getting up, only to say again with more conviction, “Truly, thank you, Hworin, for your generosity and kindness.”

The Silvan servant took hold of Legolas’ hand with both of his own, squeezed it gently, and replied in a nearly inaudible whisper so only the younger Elf would hear, “Think nothing of it. It is my duty, but moreover, it is my utmost pleasure to be of assistance to you, my Prince.”

With that, Hworin released Legolas’ hand, rose, and then went off to find Faelthîr. For the first time since coming into this boisterous camp, the Wood-Elf was alone with neither Hannah nor Hworin there to be his eyes for him. He drank the last drops of Hworin’s waterskin, laid the skin down before him with the square of cloth upon it, and looked into the licking, orange flames. Just to be able to see the color of the fire was a wonder to the laegel, and so he enjoyed this simple diversion for a moment – at least, he did so until three people came up to him.

Settling a smile upon his face, Legolas intended to greet whomever it was to have come to meet him as so many had done already tonight, only to find it was Hannah, Nigel, and Henri, who Legolas noted was always following Nigel around like the young man was Nigel’s shadow. Both men stood behind Hannah while Hannah crouched down before Legolas. She reached out and placed a hand upon each of the Elf’s shoulders, as if to garner his attention, though he thought Hannah might still think him nearly blind so might not be aware he could tell it was her. And in fact, she proved this the case when she told the laegel, “Legolas? It is Mother. Are you well this evening? Did you have enough to eat?”

She sounds just like Minyatar, he observed, amused yet again at the similarities between the woman and Elrond.

“Yes, I ate well, thank you, Mother,” he replied, calling Hannah Mother because he knew it pleased her, and not truly because he felt the same affection he did for her as did everyone else. “And I am fine. My vision is already improving.”

“Is it? That is excellent news, dear. Excellent.” The Adan woman shifted how she crouched so she sat upon her heels instead, causing the joints of her knees and ankles to pop, which then caused her to let out an oomph of discomfort. She complained good-naturedly, “Poor legs aren’t meant to sit like a young person anymore. Don’t ever get old, dear.”

“I will endeavor not to,” he replied, earning Legolas a chuckle from Hannah, a loud and boisterous laugh from Nigel, and solemn silence from Henri.

“Now, listen dear. I must ask you something, I need you to be honest with me,” the woman told the Wood-Elf. Legolas looked up to Nigel and Henri, watching as the merry smile fled Nigel’s face. Unable to see the finer details of the man’s visage, Legolas perceived Nigel’s’ urgency and worry in how he began chewing upon the untrimmed tuft of his mustache hanging over his mouth. To get Legolas’ attention back, Hannah lightly shook the Elf’s shoulders, causing him to return his gaze to the woman. “Legolas?” she prompted.

The Wood-Elf’s cheerful mood began to wane, his breathing began to shallow, and his heart began to quicken; he felt put on the spot, and he was reminded of how weeks ago Halbarad had blindsided him by asking him to be to the one to save Elise’s village from Elise herself. He assured the woman, “I am listening. What is it you must ask?”

Hannah again shifted where she sat. She remained silent for a moment and Legolas’ anxiety began to mount with each passing moment. Here is where she will ask me to leave the camp. She will tell me they have changed their mind, decided I am too dangerous, and must go my own way, he worried, but thereafter, a hundred other possibilities ran through his mind in the moments between his question and her answer, with each possibility evermore outlandish and evermore perilous to his welfare.

When the Adan woman finally spoke, she did so with perceivably great reluctance. “Faelthîr and I spoke more this afternoon of what happened in Rivendell, of what she did to cause you such grief.”

Immediately, Legolas straightened his shoulders, pulling them out of Hannah’s hands, and schooled his features into a fair facsimile of his father’s undaunted visage. Faelthîr told Hannah what? That she helped another Elf to despoil me repeatedly? That she laughed while speaking about how my kith are like animals, and myself just another animal to be used as they saw fit? Do they all now know what happened?

Aloud, though, he forced himself to speak so he could ask, “And what did she tell you?”

Before the Prince’s mind went afoul with rampant anxiety, which Hannah could see upon Legolas’ face despite his attempts to quell it, the woman replaced her hands upon the Elf’s shoulders and assured him, “Now, now, my dear. Faelthîr told me everything, but only me, and do not worry, your secrets are safe with me. I have not and will not tell another soul, nor will Faelthîr tell anyone.” Twitching her head towards her husband and Henri, both of whom still stood behind her, Hannah assured Legolas, “Not even Nigel. I won’t tell a soul. And I only asked so I could understand the rift between the Rangers’ Chieftain and her.”

She is worried Estel will refuse to allow the Rangers to be of aid because Faelthîr is with the refugees, Legolas realized with a great deal of relief. For some reason, he had feared Hannah might wish to use her newfound knowledge against him somehow – how she might have done this, the Elf did not know, except that Faelthîr had used the knowledge of Legolas’ suffering by the merchants, which she had gained by drugging Kalin, to aid Mithfindl in destroying Legolas’ trust in Estel and his faith in his own sanity. He relaxed under the steady, gentle palpation of her strong, callused fingers upon the tense muscles of his shoulders. She worries as did Faelthîr worry – that Aragorn will hold some grudge and let these poor souls die or their loved ones remain in slavery because of Faelthîr’s actions.

“Dear,” the Adan woman began again now she could feel Legolas’ anxiety was calming, “I didn’t know the Estel of whom she spoke of in concerns to you and the Aragorn she spoke of in concerns to the Rangers were one and the same. Had I known this weeks ago, I might have questioned whether it was wise to come north in search of the help of the Rangers. But I understand this now, and I must ask of you, since both Faelthîr and Hworin tell me you are closest to this man Aragorn and know him better than anyone – will he help us? Will you help us, Legolas?”

Hworin hobbled his way closer with Faelthîr trailing behind him; the Elleth had a tin cup with steaming liquid inside it. Upon seeing Hannah and the two human men speaking with his Prince, Hworin hurried along to be with his liege as he could see how aggrieved his liege appeared with the Edain hovering over and before him. Faelthîr slowed her pace, however, and lagged behind until she stopped a few strides away. Hannah noticed how Legolas’ attention was no longer upon her; she turned her head to see Hworin’s approach, and then turned back to the laegel, expecting his answer.

When Hworin moved to stand behind Legolas in silent but clear support of his Prince and of whatever his Prince was saying or doing – even not knowing of what Hannah was speaking to Legolas – the last of the younger Wood-Elf’s unease was dissolved. He smiled at the woman and nodded.

“Yes, I am sure. I promise you, Mother – Estel, or Aragorn, as some call him, will rally his Rangers and help to free your friends and loved ones from slavery. I promise you.” He then laid his hands upon where hers rested on his shoulders and added, “And I promise you my own help, as well, with as much help as I can muster from my own kith. The Overseer’s operation will be razed to the ground, the deaths of your friends and families avenged, and the remainder of them released. I give you my word.”

Before him, the Adan woman sighed, nodded, and then smiled. With the firelight behind her, Hannah’s face was in the dim, so the laegel could not see her reaction to his promise, but when she leant forward, slid her arms around Legolas’ neck, and then hugged him tightly, he knew he had assuaged her worries. He slid his own arms around her thin waist and hugged her back with as much vigor.

“Thank you, dear, for putting my mind at ease. Tomorrow we leave, and we will not stop our journey north until we have reached Bree,” she told the Prince before she released him and sat back upon her heels. Holding a hand out, Hannah was soon helped to her feet by both Nigel and Henri, and when she rose, she was smiling down at Legolas yet again, telling him, “Thank you. Now, you take your medicines and get some sleep. We’ve a hard journey ahead of us on the morrow and the days after.”

With that, the three Edain left, but not until Nigel paused to clap Legolas upon the back and Henri gave the Wood-Elf a grave nod. After they were away, mingling with the rest of the refugees and speaking now and again to those who hailed them as they passed, Hworin stooped down next to his Prince and Faelthîr finally walked the last few strides to come to Legolas. She handed him the tin cup and said succinctly, “I will have more for you in the morning. Good night.”

She said nothing more, nor did she wait around for Legolas to drink the medicines, but took off in the opposite direction of where Hannah, Nigel, and Henri had disappeared into the crowd of Edain.

“Is all well?” Hworin asked his Prince fretfully.

He inhaled the fragrant scent of the tincture, gulped it down in a few swallows, and then laid the cup aside before he answered. “All is well,” he told his father’s faithful servant. “Now, introduce me to this elm tree. I think it is time for bed.”

Chapter Text

Legolas thought today may be a balmy day, with the imminent autumn temporarily waylaid in its heralding of the oncoming, cooler weather of winter.

Clothed in nothing but the skin in which he’d been born, Legolas rolled over onto his back in his soft, wide bed, the sunlight of the early dawn streaming into his room in Imladris – the room in which he had stayed for ages whilst visiting the valley, the room which had once been his mother’s chambers, become his upon her passing, and then eventually had become his and Estel’s, once he and the man embarked upon their relationship. The familiar, soothing sound of the waterfall in the distance nearly lulled him back into his wayward musings, but with Anor rising and the crisp scent of the Bruinen’s water carried along the sweet breeze blowing in through the open balcony doors, Legolas’ mind roused completely from his contemplations with readiness to start a new day. He turned his head to check upon his human lover; beside him, Estel slept comfortably upon his side, facing the Elf, with his nude body bared in the morning’s freshening light, for the man had kicked off the thin blanket sometime during the night because of the humidity and heat.

The Prince, however, had always found it hard not to sleep without a blanket, whether it was hot or not – even though he had technically not been asleep at all this night – and thus, he laid under it still. He slid his arms out from under the cover to stretch them above his head, his back arching felinely and a wide smile gracing his face with appreciation of the simple pleasure of being alive for another day, and more so, in his exultation of having Estel with him. He felt certain he would never become habituated to the Adan’s constant, loving companionship, and hoped he would never do so. Their time together was short enough as it was without his taking a single moment for granted.

No, he had not slept this night. In fact, he had not slept since the day before his father’s morning departure from the valley. Yet, he was content to lie beside his lover through the dark hours of the night, sharing the man’s insentient company and listening to Estel’s soft breathing, happily losing himself in fond memories, inane ponderings, or by just watching the handsome human as Aragorn slept.

The Silvan’s sleeplessness was all because of a single thought – he had found himself constantly worrying at this thought, pushing and tugging at it like a rotten tooth he could not extirpate. The thought was this – in the Trollshaws, left by Mithfindl to die in the back of the cave in the mephitic water of the seemingly inescapable pit, what if he had not hallucinated Estel on the ledge above the cavern? Had he not done so, the Elf would not have made it to the river in time to see the Ranger fall into the swollen Bruinen, and thus not have been there to save his human lover from drowning. Over the past few weeks of recovering in the valley, while eating with his second family, swimming in the cool water of the Bruinen, laughing and joking with the twins, Kalin, and Aragorn, or lying quietly beside the Ranger as he did now, Legolas’ sorrow-stricken mind could not move beyond this particular contemplation.

I have not thought of Estel’s almost drowning or of my hallucination of him in the Troll’s cave in weeks. I suppose I have been too busy worrying over the present to waste much time worrying about the past, he recognized, which in itself was an odd thought, for hadn’t he just spent the whole night fighting against the anxiety he felt while unwillingly deliberating this exact possibility? The peculiarity of this new recognition then made the Elf realize with disappointment to understand that in truth, he was not safe beside Aragorn; This is merely a dream, not reality. I am only dreaming. He swiftly educed where he actually laid in sleep right now, felt the sting of frustration to discern how Aragorn was nowhere near, and recalled quickly all of what had happened in the weeks between the night depicted in this dream and the night through which he now slumbered.

Legolas wondered why his mind had brought him to this specific reminiscence, though of course, his recollection of this easy, relaxed dawn with Estel was welcomed nonetheless – especially in comparison to the nightmares he might potentially have dreamt, some of which were just as based in reality as this current reverie. The Prince startled from these thoughts when beside him, Aragorn stretched with a low and bearish groan, Anor’s emergent brilliance in their bedchamber having finally awoken the Ranger. Of course, unlike how the human had always tried to sleep late while a young Adan, the grown man of now was wont to stirring with the sunrise, since the Ranger was accustomed to doing so while about his tasks in the wilds.

The morning when this had truly happened, seeing his lover’s strong, sinewy muscles moving under Estel’s sun-kissed skin had caused the laegel’s mouth to water with an ardent need to taste his lover’s flesh. And he had. He and Estel had shared a relaxed sunrise of giving each other pleasure in many inventive ways, as they had done every chance they had found in those weeks of the Prince’s recuperation, ere they had left the valley to wander the wilderness – long before they arrived and camped at the lake, and then met Elise’s haunt thereafter. Content to watch the human, Legolas laid there facing Estel and let the recollection play out with eagerness to experience again in his dream the gratification he and the man had found that artless morning.

But to the Elf’s surprise, Estel eyes flew open suddenly to land unerringly upon Legolas, the human gasped sharply with all sleepiness fleeing his visage, and then, the man sat up hurriedly to whisper in what the Prince took to be anxious awe, “Greenleaf.”

This was different from what Legolas remembered. Instead of Aragorn rising and saying the Silvan’s name with such ostensible unease, Legolas had cuddled up next to the wakening Ranger to begin laving the man’s chest in appeasement of his desire to taste the human’s skin, which had eventually led to his tasting the entirety of the man’s body. No, this occurrence was not at all a part of his memory. Legolas remained as he was, observing interestedly to see where this dream might lead – at least, he did so until the anxious human peered down at the still sprawled out Wood-Elf. It took Legolas a moment more for him truly to notice Estel’s cogent presence, but when he did, the Silvan moved to sit up, as well, until each of them were upright with their backs against the headboard, their amazed and overjoyed gazes upon each other. Neither Elf nor Ranger was instantly aware of what was taking place, as their dreaming minds were slow to allow them to realize they once more shared another reverie.

Yet, the laegel soon comprehended what was happening, and happily thought to himself while giving the man the smile Aragorn often thought of as his alone, Estel is really here with me. We are sharing another dream.

Yes, meleth nin, the human replied in thought, while grinning at the Wood-Elf in excitement. I had hoped to dream of you tonight. I had hoped to have another chance to speak to you before I head south to find you. Elladan, Kalin, and Reana are already riding south to search for you, even as we dream, I swear. I would have come myself, but my brothers would not allow it. I am sorry, Greenleaf. I promised to come get you, but Elrohir has literally drugged me into sleep to ensure I rest before we go to Imladris for me to be treated by my father. Though Elrohir has treated my wound here at the outpost where we currently camp, he is stubborn and wants for me to go home to have Ada treat it with vilya. I am sorry, the man again told the Elf, his happiness waning into ruefulness with this apologetic admission. Aragorn waited for the Silvan’s discontent to hear this and was relieved when he did not see or sense it.

Good, the Elf replied while laughing aloud, his merry, vibrantly cerulean eyes showing every bit of the love he felt for the human sitting next to him. That is good. I am glad you are going to the valley if you are sick enough to need to do so. Do not apologize for it. Listen to Elrohir. He is only doing what he thinks is best for you. I am protected and I am well right now, Estel. Go to Imladris and let your father see to your arm. I will still be safe when you feel better enough to join me.

Without another moment of hesitation, Legolas scooted towards the man and clambered to his knees until he was astride Aragorn’s thighs, then swathed his arms around Estel’s neck and his legs around the Adan’s waist to embrace the Ranger as tightly as he could in sitting upon the man’s lap and wrapping himself about the human. Legolas clung to the man as tightly as ivy to a tree, while Aragorn returned this hug with equal fervor. The only thing that could have made this tender and desired moment any better for either of them was if they were truly in their shared chamber in Imladris, securely in bed, and tangled up in each other’s limbs. In their last shared dream, their environs had been cast in blurred shadows, which by their reckoning had been because of the Elf’s near blindness, but right now, this was absent for both of them, though neither noticed the improvement just yet. To the Ranger’s observant, healer’s gaze, the Wood-Elf appeared healthier and better kempt, as if in his wakeful state the Elf had bathed, eaten, and perchance had his wounds treated, such that this newfound wellness reflected upon the dreaming Legolas’ state of being. To the Wood-Elf’s vexed scrutiny, though, the Ranger appeared pale, feverish, exhausted, and pained.

Are you sure your arm will be fine? I thought you said your wound was nothing of import, Legolas inquired of his human lover while pushing his nose into the scruff upon the Adan’s neck. Having gone so long without shaving, Estel’s whiskers were almost an outright beard rather than mere stubble; it mattered not a whit to the Elf, though, who twisted his cheek against the man in contentment to feel his lover’s bearded skin.

Leaning back to give the Prince an aggrieved grimace, the Adan admitted, I had thought it would not be troublesome, but I was wrong. It has festered with poison. As I said, with the help of Gwindor, Elrohir has made for me medicines to facilitate the wound’s healing, with a poultice upon the injury to help draw out the toxin, also. But what of you, Greenleaf? You appear better, but is this improvement merely in our dream or do you truly feel better? Have you eaten? Can you now see more clearly than when last we spoke? he asked in swift succession to learn of the laegel’s welfare.

Clearly not pleased by the Ranger’s attempt to change the topic from his own health, the Silvan answered nevertheless, still communicating by their shared thoughts rather than speaking aloud, I have eaten. And though my vision is not entirely restored, I too am taking medicines to ameliorate the swelling in my head, which I am told is the cause for my near blindness. I am much better, meleth nin.

Placing a palm upon either side of his Elven lover’s cheeks, Estel smiled in utmost relief to hear this, but his smile faded when he realized the significance of what Legolas told him. Among other minor skills for soothing injuries, the Prince was capable of making rudimentary remedies and could sew a wound or bandage an injury relatively well; and yet, he was not truly trained as a healer, for the Elf had never had the desire to learn this craft. Thus, Aragorn knew Legolas could not have made for himself any medicines to cure the contusions and inflammation to his head. Besides which, ere taking the medicines, Legolas would not have been able to see to obtain the herbs with which to make said remedy. Reana, Elladan, and Kalin had not found the laegel, so none of them could be helping Legolas, either. The Ranger’s heart skipped a beat before it began pounding with dread.

Who has made you medicines? he asked, while cognizant from the perspicacious perception of each other’s emotions – as well as their thoughts – how the Wood-Elf detected Estel’s agitation. Moreover, because of their faers’ connection whilst dreaming, Aragorn felt clearly his lover’s sudden hesitancy to reply, which made the man desire the answer all the more. Greenleaf, he persisted, who has made you medicines?

Legolas laid his head upon the Adan’s shoulder and increased the tightness of his arms’ embrace around the man’s sturdy body, ephemeral though it ought to have felt in what was truly only a dream. Aloud this time, he sighed to say, “I encountered a group of humans. I am among them even now.”

The Wood-Elf could feel the man’s heart as it raced under where his bare chest was pressed against the human’s equally naked torso, but more telling was how through the intense connection they shared in their dream, Legolas perceived Aragorn’s exponentially escalating panic to find out his Elven lover was amidst a group of unknown Edain. Having been starving and injured, the man worried the Prince was entirely at the humans’ mercy – if they had any compassion for Legolas at all, that is.

Without delay, Estel asked while naturally following the laegel’s lead in speaking out loud, “Who are these humans? What have they done to you? What have they given you? You are there willingly? Are you safe with them?”

As when last they had shared reverie, Legolas assumed correctly how Estel would know if he lied – not that the Prince wanted to lie to his Ranger, though he wished it possible for him to dissemble a bit to quell the Adan’s flourishing fear. He pulled back to smile at the man in what he hoped to be a soothing manner, ere he returned to embracing Aragorn as tightly as he could manage, with his nose once more buried in the wavy, chestnut colored hair lying against the side of the man’s neck.

“I believe I am safe with them, yes. They have offered me nothing but help thus far,” he told the human with unfeigned honesty, since he supposed his assertion to be true. “The woman who found me – Hannah – leads a group of refugees. She and her people have been travelling north in the hopes of obtaining the help of your Dúnedain, in fact. She found me in the bog, just a short while after I woke from our last dream together. Hannah led me to their camp and fed me. She has been nothing but kind,” he explained, hoping to appease the Ranger’s concern by showing how generous Hannah had been to him. “And she has promised me I am safe amongst her group. I believe her. She took her shears and evened out my hair, so no one would pester me about looking so strange with it half-shorn. She even helped me to bathe, knowing I could not see well enough to do it for myself, and then found clean clothing for me and helped me dress. I felt like a spoilt princeling all the while, having her scrub my back and wash my face for me,” he teased, again lifting his head from the human’s shoulder to look his lover in the eye, hoping Aragorn would see the humor in the situation, even while knowing the Adan would be too fearful to do so. When he saw nothing but Aragorn’s intensifying apprehension, Legolas once more settled his face into the crook of the human’s neck and exhaled in both gratification to be so near the man and consternation to have upset him. “I am fine, Estel. I promise you. I believe she is trustworthy.”

Yes, Legolas knew Estel was uneasy to hear all of this, despite the Prince’s avowal of Hannah’s kindliness. Estel knew that despite his assurances, Legolas was perturbed by his current predicament of being dependent upon a group of strangers, and thus, the man wished to find out as much as possible of these Edain because he suspected there to be something the Wood-Elf had not yet told him – something of significance. Instinctively, Aragorn took to running his hands up and down the Prince’s nude back, from the nape of his neck – where he used to have to sweep the laegel’s hair aside to be able to feel the flesh underneath, and now needed to do so no longer since Legolas’ hair was cropped close to his scalp – down to the swell of his equally exposed rear, then back up again.

“Estel,” the Silvan murmured into the side of the man’s neck. In a dream, Estel thought he ought not to be able to feel Legolas’ humid, warm breath blowing against his throat. But feel it he did, and it roused his ever-present lust for the Elf. His desire soon perished quickly when finally, Legolas admitted to Aragorn what he had been hesitant to tell the man, saying quietly, “Faelthîr is here with me.”

At once, Aragorn pushed the laegel back and away from him a bit too roughly, which startled the Prince, though it did not cause his dream-self any pain. Estel grabbed onto his lover’s upper arms and queried quickly and harshly, “What did you say?”

Taking in a deep breath, he tried to rest his forehead against the man’s forehead out of the craving to quiet the human’s apprehension with this simple affection, but he was pushed back again so Aragorn could look into the laegel’s face while awaiting his answer. Even though their bodies were not real, the pain of Aragorn’s powerful hold upon his arms caused the Prince to wince, which in turn caused the human to release him instantaneously, for Estel had felt Legolas’ discomfort as if it were his own arms being cinched too tightly. Legolas repeated to his Adan lover, though he knew well Estel had heard him the first time and could likely read this information through their shared thoughts, as well, “Faelthîr is here. She is with the humans as their healer. Faelthîr is the one making me medicines for the swelling obscuring my vision.”

Another time, Aragorn pressed the Elf back, though this time, he pushed the Silvan off his lap so that the Prince was forced into sitting upon the bed, instead, and the man took greater care not to cause his Elven lover any further discomfort in doing so. All relief to be sharing a dream with the Wood-Elf fled the man, and Estel stood from the down mattress to look at the Prince. After a moment of staring disbelievingly at Legolas, the horrified Adan began to pace back and forth across the ancient carpet upon the bedchamber’s stone floor. Estel could not wrap his mind around it – Faelthîr was near his Greenleaf. Quite forgetting for a moment how Legolas could hear his thoughts as if they were his own, Estel wondered, He is injured, nearly blind, and dependent upon the sympathy of Faelthîr. I cannot go back home now. I must get to Greenleaf.

It is not like that, Legolas tried to appease the human. He stood from the bed, also, and intercepted the pacing Adan by stepping directly into Estel’s path. Faelthîr is changed. She was caught by the same people who lured, coerced, and abducted the others in the camp. Like them, she was enslaved into working in their mines, fields, and homes. Besides, Hannah remained beside me while Faelthîr made the medicines the first time. And they worked. I can see more clearly. And Hannah knows what Faelthîr did to me, to you and my father, because in her shame for her actions, Faelthîr admitted it to Hannah long before they rebelled in the camp and came north, and told her even more of it this afternoon. Faelthîr wishes to make amends for her vile deeds, to compel the Darkness from her soul – the very Darkness she allowed to rankle there with Mithfindl’s help – by doing good work for the humans. And by aiding me. She is changed, he told Aragorn, and while Estel could sense how Legolas truly believed this, it did not cause the Ranger to believe it, as well.

“This is madness.” Estel slipped around the Wood-Elf to stride to the balcony, turned on heel, and strode back to the Silvan. “You cannot trust her. Please, tell me you do not genuinely trust her. Exactly how hard did you hit your head, Greenleaf?”

Had they not been in a dream where Legolas could literally feel the lack of sarcasm or accusation in Aragorn’s question, the Elf might have taken offense to the man’s last question. He had not hit his head so hard he had lost all reason, as the Ranger intimated. But Estel asked this without rancor and with only concern, for he feared the Silvan might truly be so muddled he had disremembered Faelthîr’s role in his subjugation and near death by beating and despoilment. Or, perhaps Aragorn thought the Elf so desperate for relief from his ailment that he was willing to trust an enemy for aid. Thus, the Prince ignored the man’s latter question and settled for responding to the rest of the Ranger’s fears.

“I do not trust her, no; or at least, not entirely. But from nearly the moment I met Hannah, I have trusted her; else, I would never have come to the camp with her, much less allowed her to help me bathe and dress. Indeed, Hannah reminds me of your father, and also, of Liandra from Elise’s village. She is not a healer, but she is kind and caring, to both me and the rest of her kith who follow her because of their own trust in her. And Estel,” he began to the man, grabbing Aragorn’s hands to keep him from marching away when it seemed the human would resume his restless walking of the floor, “there is another Elf with the refugees. His name is Hworin, and he is Silvan, one of my own people. He was one of my father’s servants, ere he was taken for enslavement, also. Hworin is honorable, I am certain of it. Already he hounds me in worry for my health and safety, and offers to do whatever he can, whether I bid it of him or not, just as he would do if we were at home, and despite his being injured. If it came down to it, Hworin would stand with me against the entire Edain camp, regardless of the bond he shares with them over their mutual tragedy. I swear to you, I will be fine.”

Legolas sighed in respite when he felt Estel’s respite to hear about this fellow Silvan Elf, for although the Elvenking’s kith might not always agree with their King’s actions and rulings, they were unflaggingly devoted to Thranduil and Thranduilion because they were staunchly loyal to their homeland and its preservation. If anyone could ensure Legolas’ safety until Kalin, Elladan, and Reana arrived, then Estel hoped it would be Hworin. Legolas hoped the same, of course.

“I do not understand. Who are these Edain? What are they doing? And how many of them are there? Why do they seek out the Rangers?” the human probed. With his hands till encased in the Prince’s hands, he brought their tangled fingers up to his mouth, where he held the Elf’s knuckles against the underside of his chin. His curiosity was piqued, as well as his fear, and the little Legolas had thus far told him of the people with whom he travelled only evinced to Estel that his Wood-Elf might be in danger from outside sources, if not from the people within the camp itself.

“Most of them are refugees, having rebelled and fled from a settlement in the Misty Mountains, between the entrance to Moria and the wooded foothills near Isengard, though where exactly, I do not know. Some were plied with promises of honest work for good pay, while others were outright taken from their homes or set upon while travelling, as was Hworin and two other Silvan who did not live beyond the revolt that freed them. All were forced into working for the profit of their subjugators. They were sorely mistreated, Estel, by being starved, beaten, and separated from their loved ones to maintain their compliance through violence and threats. As I said, those who escaped, whom I would estimate to be about a hundred, travel north to seek help to free the others who are still enslaved at the settlement,” Legolas explained to the man. He could have merely presented to the human the memory of being told all this by Hannah, Faelthîr, and Hworin – doing as the laegel had done the night before by disclosing his memories and thus showing Aragorn the events leading up to his being lost and blind in the bog – but without conscious thought, the Wood-Elf intuitively sought to avoid allowing Estel to know how frightened and suspicious he had been of Faelthîr at the time of the telling of this story, lest it incite the Ranger into forgoing ensuring his own health in favor of ascertaining Legolas’ good health. “Faelthîr told Hannah and the others of the Rangers, suggesting they all travel to Bree, where she believed at least one of the Dúnedain could be found, or where word could be sent to Imladris to reach you. In the morning, we will all begin to move camp northwards towards Bree yet again, as they had only stopped to seek out game and herbs to supplement their dwindling supplies.”

Then I must surely head towards Bree come morning, the Ranger decided to himself, which of course Legolas heard as if the man spoke it aloud. Estel let the laegel’s hands fall from his chin, encased Legolas in his arms again and pulled the Prince into his own body, while wishing to feel the laegel’s firmly muscled, lithe, nude body pressed to his own more desperately than ever he had felt this desire before now. Even knowing neither of their dream bodies was real could diminish the comfort this undemanding affection brought them both. Wriggling his arms out from under the Adan’s hold so he could return this fierce embrace, Legolas settled the side of his head upon Estel’s collarbone and listened internally as the human contemplated, Assuming Elrohir does not keep slipping soporifics into my medicines or tie me to the saddle, as he has threatened to do, then I will reach Bree in two or three days. How long before these refugees make it to the village?

To Aragorn’s dismay, Legolas began shaking his head in negation of the Ranger’s declaration. No, Estel. It will take us a week – possibly more – to reach Bree. We are likely to move very slowly with as many women, children, and elderly as they have, not to mention most will be on foot, with supply wagons and wounded to cart, as well. You have time enough to go home and be treated by Minyatar first, he reassured the human, though before the Adan could argue, Legolas then thought to ask, Why did Elrohir drug you?

Because he did not believe me when I told him and the others how you and I are sharing dreams. Nor did Elladan or Reana believe it. Only Kalin gave my story any credit, and his adamancy to go south to find you based upon this belief in me caused Elladan and Reana to go with him to assure his return when they do not find you – or so the twins believe, thinking Kalin will give in to grief when you are unfound. Although the Prince kept his arms tightly around the human’s waist, Estel took to rubbing the Elf’s back in long strokes, as he was wont to do, moving his callused palms from Legolas’ shoulders, over the muscled curvature of his torso, and finally down over the pert swell of the Elf’s arse each time, until finally he stopped with his hands cupping Legolas’ bare rear with the acquaintance of which only a lover is capable. I told Elrohir of how once he had treated my arm at the outpost, I intended to travel south so I could catch up to Kalin, Elladan, and Reana so I could be with you. My wily brother had Gwindor drug the remedy he brewed, all to ensure I slept through the night. And he threatened to sedate me until he had me in Imladris, if I refused to cooperate. Still, now you are headed towards Bree, I need to convince Elrohir to travel there. Or if nothing else, I need to evade him so I can travel there myself, the human yet again tried to convince the Elf.

Legolas nuzzled with his forehead against the human’s chin, wanting for Aragorn to lift it so he could rest his cheek more securely upon the Adan’s collarbone, which the man did willingly enough. Kalin, Elladan, and Reana are coming to find me, but to where do they go, Estel? I would not have them wander the swamps looking for signs of me, nor can I go back to the marsh to wait for them. I was an easy target whilst there, weaponless and starving, unable to see. Had someone other than Hannah and her kith found me, he began but did not finish, as neither Elf nor Ranger needed it explained as to what might have happened to Legolas should it have been the case. While I can see more clearly now, I do not want to forgo Faelthîr’s medicines. She told me had Hannah not found me when she did, the damage may not have been reversible, and missing these treatments might make the malady less likely to be cured. Although I could ask Hworin to accompany me back to the bog to wait for Kalin and the others, I gave my word to Hannah I would help her in her cause. I would not abandon the refugees, nor ask Hworin to abandon his friends in their fight. I must go to Bree with them, he told the Adan, who nodded slightly throughout the entirety of the Silvan’s explanation, for he understood his lover’s assessment.

Giving the Elf’s arse a gentle squeeze in the need to feel beneath his hands the Prince’s flesh, ephemeral though they both were right now, Aragorn rested his chin atop Legolas’ head where it reclined upon the man’s chest. He let his hands travel up the Elf’s back and then down to his rear once more. I did not have time to plan with Kalin how they would set about searching for you. I do not know how they will go about it. As soon as I told Kalin you lived, he and Elladan and Reana were off to find you. But do not despair they will give up or be unable to reach you. And I will be on my way to you as soon as I can, the human alluded, not wishing to press the issue of his travelling to Bree rather than home any more than necessary, but of course, Legolas knew the man was still intent upon skipping out on going to Imladris – all in the effort of reaching the Prince promptly, to offer Legolas the anticipation of having a familiar, trusted companion with him.

Kalin will never give up, now that he has the slightest glimmer of hope. The Silvan snorted amusedly against the Adan’s chest.

Even were their faers not connected and their thoughts unaligned, Legolas knew his Estel all too well. He needed to obtain the man’s promise to go home so Aragorn would do so, as he did not want for the Ranger to risk his health or his life, and the Elf knew the human would keep his word if he gave it. And of course, Estel was aware of Legolas’ intentions, for he could feel the laegel’s purpose to persevere in the matter until he obtained said promise. The man huffed in aggravated amusement, with the moist feel of Aragorn’s breath blowing across Legolas’ head to hit his shoulder.  

Just as Legolas could feel the man’s tenacious desire to go against the Elf’s wishes and consequently travel straight to Bree come morning, Estel could feel the Elf’s fear to lose him from the septic injury to his arm. Yes, undoubtedly, each fathomed what the other wanted and no words needed to be said about it – neither aloud or in thoughts. And yet, Legolas would have his promise from the human, so he ruminated to the Ranger, Do not push yourself into travelling to Bree before you are better Estel. I would not lose you to this poison just because you are too stubborn to see reason. Promise me you will go home first for Minyatar’s aid. Promise me you will stay there until Elrond deems you fit to travel.

In the end, the Adan was the one to give in – since his brother, Kalin, and Reana were on their way to find Legolas, with Hworin there to look after his Prince, and being how the laegel seemed to trust this Hannah woman, Aragorn could find no viable reason to tempt fate. He had no desire to lose his arm – much less his life – and it would be purposeless to endanger it when Legolas was as safe as could be for now.

“I will go to the valley first,” he promised verbally to the Wood-Elf, as he knew Legolas would be satisfied with nothing less than this oath spoken aloud. “But the moment I am able, the moment Ada deems me well enough, I will head to Bree to meet you, meleth nin.”

Contentment welled within the laegel; in turn, relief flooded through the man. The contentious conversation was over, at least, which allowed the two to forget for the moment their worries and thus allowed them to enjoy the other’s presence more thoroughly. Estel leant down to kiss the Prince upon his forehead, but predicting this attempt and moving quickly, Legolas shifted expertly so the man’s buss landed upon the Silvan’s mouth, instead. As had happened during their previous dream together when they had also shared a kiss, Elf and Adan experienced dual sensations, for each could both feel the pleasure of kissing and the other’s sensation of being kissed. It was a heady experience, which neither of them was eager to see end, despite the simplicity of this pressing of lips.

The man’s hands upon the Elf’s rear tightened, his fingertips finding their way to the cleft between its two halves, and as their modest kiss deepened and the Prince teasingly took Aragorn’s lower lip between his own to suckle it lightly, Estel’s hands began to clutch and separate the laegel’s arse in a rhythm pleasing to both man and Elf. It took little to make either want the other, and less so right now in this extraordinary, coupled state of being, so neither was startled to feel the other’s thickening shaft hardening between where their bodies were firmly compelled together at their navels. When finally the man leant away from the Silvan, thus pulling his lower lip from Legolas’ loving attention and pausing only a moment to give Legolas’ now lust-flushed mouth a final, gentle buss, he groaned at the painful need he felt – a need augmented by experiencing the Wood-Elf’s need alongside his own.

“Where are you right now?” the Ranger breathlessly asked the Silvan with his forehead resting upon the Elf’s forehead. Their eyes were closed, but each knew the other smiled. “Where are you sleeping?”

“In an elm tree, with Hworin on the branch below me so none can climb the tree to get to me without waking him first,” the equally winded Silvan replied. He moved his head for a moment so his cheek was aligned with the man’s cheek, and in doing so, pleasantly scratched at his face with the beard upon Aragorn’s whiskered visage, ere he leant back to ask in return, “And where are you sleeping, meleth nin?”

“By the fire, with Elrohir and Valnesse nearby, at the least, and Gwindor and Camthalion nearby also, at the most.” Aragorn tilted his head just enough to chafe his mouth over the Elf’s mouth for a moment.

They stood there with their nude bodies pressed together, sharing the same muggy, scant air between their nearly touching lips. Each knew what the other intended in asking these questions – that is, if it was safe to explore the pleasure they felt. Even knowing they were only dreaming, both Legolas and Estel’s lust for their mate was heightened beyond anything they had known in their waking. Their prurience grew wantonly as it fed from the other’s desire, until the two lovers could hardly think coherently just from the mere pleasure of standing with his naked body steadfastly pushed against his lover’s form. The Ranger’s hands again took to roving the laegel’s shoulders, back, and arse, chafing and fondling the Silvan’s smooth skin, caressing the Elf’s well-made rear, and travelling upward until he eventually, playfully skimmed his hands over the Prince’s shorn head.

“Have you seen yourself in a mirror? Is this how you truly look or is this how you imagine you look?” he questioned the laegel. Laughing lightly, Estel tried to tug at the Wood-Elf’s short locks, but to no avail. He told Legolas, “It will take me some time to get used to not being able to run my hands through your hair. I will miss it until it grows back.”

“Do you want me less without it? I suppose I am no longer desirable now,” the laegel asked facetiously, for he well knew the answer. The man’s turgid shaft rubbing along his own was proof enough of how Aragorn cared not at all whether the Silvan’s hair was sheared.

“Nothing could make me desire you less, meleth nin,” the man said solemnly. As he trailed his fingers along the delicate points of the Wood-Elf’s ears, his tone changed from serious to playful, and suddenly grinning, Aragorn amended, “In fact, I rather like having such a good view of your beautiful face and ears without your hair hiding them. Maybe you should keep it cut short.”

“Yes, and I can just imagine my father’s wrath upon seeing it so,” Legolas replied while chuckling back at the man.

Legolas walked forward while herding Aragorn back with his hands upon the Adan’s chest, until Estel’s legs struck the side of the bed. Once the human stopped, Legolas pushed at the human yet again, inciting Estel into sitting, though the Elf soon followed suit and sat upon the Adan’s lap as he had been seated earlier – that is, with his legs wrapped around Aragorn’s waist, his arms coiled around the human’s neck, and his body pushed as urgently into the human’s body as he could achieve. When the Adan moaned at the sensation of having the Prince’s weight upon his lap, the Wood-Elf could feel the rumble of Aragorn’s deep voice coming from the man’s chest upon his own chest, and for some reason he could not name, this aroused him more than any kiss or touch they had yet to give. And as the human shared the Elf’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, Legolas’ increased craving became Estel’s surging hunger, such that the human’s hands flew to the now spread and exposed crevice to the Prince’s rear. While the Wood-Elf kneaded the man’s upper arms and shoulders, his neck and his face, the human ran his digits in feather light touches between the parted halves of the laegel’s arse.

They became intoxicated further with each soft, gentle, small stroke the other gave. Estel could feel Legolas’ pleasure; Legolas could feel Estel’s pleasure. There was truly no division between the human and Elf’s faers, and in their dream, there seemed to be no boundary between their bodies, either. Completely lost in the sensuality of what they were doing, neither tried to speak any longer; they didn’t need the words, anyway, as their bodies expressed all needing to be said. Legolas pulled away only long enough to reach for the nightstand, whereon even in reverie laid the ever-present phial of oil they kept there to ease the man’s entrance into the Elf’s body. Wordlessly, he uncapped it and took up the hand of the equally enthralled, silent human, upon whose fingers he poured a generous amount of oil. Aragorn straightaway began to spread it along the silken, sensitive flesh creating a ring around the Silvan’s entrance.

As Aragorn’s finger circled his opening, Legolas slathered his own fingers in the lubricant and tossed the empty phial aside, then slithered an arm between his and the man’s bodies to take Estel’s shaft in his oiled hand. He worked the human’s cock skillfully, deliberately, his own touches just as gentle and provoking as were Aragorn’s caresses, but when Estel slid his first finger inside of the Prince’s body, Legolas wrapped his digits around the human’s shaft to caress it more adequately, to give the man the same pleasure as that which he gave the Elf. When the second of Aragorn’s digits entered the Prince, Estel crooked his fingers slightly to manipulate the soft swell inside the Silvan, bringing a blindingly silver, carnal cascade of concupiscence to fall over the Prince’s illusory body, causing the Silvan to shudder and his hand to quit its work upon Aragorn’s cock, for he had to grip the human’s shoulders with both hands just to keep from falling off the Adan’s lap. Already, Estel could feel the Elf’s seed as it seeped from his lover’s shaft, but knowing Legolas wanted to find his climax with the human inside him – as was his preferred way to find release – Aragorn removed his fingers, lifted the Prince by the waist slightly, aligned his slicked shaft with the opening to the Elf’s body, and then guided the laegel into sitting back down upon his lap. Legolas did so slowly, savoring the sensation of his entrance being spread and filled by Estel’s cock, but to Aragorn, more enchanting than his shaft’s gratification to be welcomed inside the Prince’s aperture was the sight of Legolas’ face as the Elf sensually welcomed Aragorn inside his body. For what seemed an eternity to man and Elf, Legolas sunk downwards, until finally, his opening was fully glutted by the Ranger’s shaft, the flesh of his broadened rear rested upon the man’s thighs, and Estel was fully inside the Prince.

Greenleaf, he thought to the Elf, his jaw dropping open and his eyes snapping shut as his mind focused upon the incredible, strange sensation he was experiencing. In response, the Elf thought back, Estel, and twitched his hips just enough to cause the man’s shaft to shift inside of him the slightest bit, though just this minute movement caused both to lose their collective thoughts of all else but the pleasure shared between them.

Never had either felt anything as glorious or as wholesome as what they experienced now. Legolas reveled in the experience of having his Ranger’s shaft immersed in his body, distending his repleted opening with its length and girth so fully it was nearly painful in its bliss; and yet, he was keenly aware of Aragorn’s pleasure, as well, and could feel his own tight, welcoming heat upon the man’s cock as if his own shaft were inside the man. Estel shivered at the lascivious impression of Legolas’ aperture engulfing his cock in the by now familiar sensation of his lover’s body gladly receiving the Ranger’s shaft, but as could Legolas, Aragorn could also feel what the Elf felt, and so experienced the enjoyment of having his own body opened, overwhelmed, and stretched.

Without needing to tell the other of this, nor needing to speak aloud or think their intentions, Aragorn wound his arms under the Elf’s legs to lift them so he could move their joined bodies. He scooted backward upon the bed to give the Silvan the room to put his knees down; Legolas did so while simultaneously driving the man into lying fully upon his back, which allowed the laegel the ability to sit astride the human and set the pace of their movements. Leisurely, in no hurry except that which their bodies required of them, the Elf lifted his hips and let them fall, moving Estel’s cock inside of him deliberately, firmly, while the human met each downward movement Legolas made with his own heave upwards, such that each thrust caused his shaft to strike against the inner swell within Legolas.

It did not take long before the two lost themselves entirely to this union of their sensual, albeit incorporeal bodies, until the Elf and Ranger moved entirely as one, never faltering or hesitating in meeting the demands of their mounting desire for completion or of the other’s needs, but instinctively and consummately aware of how best to bring the most gratification for the other, since each could feel his lover’s pleasure and their mutual, oncoming peak. It was because of this connection of mind and duality of their bodily sensations that Estel knew the exact moment to take his lover’s thus far neglected shaft in hand, to begin to stroke it in time with the Elf’s swelling delectation. In doing so, and with the sudden intensification of his enjoyment, Legolas’ opening constricted around Aragorn’s shaft – this caused both Elf and Adan to come undone in just a few more felicitous, penetrating thrusts.

When their coinciding climax overcame them, all barriers separating the Elf and Adan’s selves were utterly demolished. As far as each was concerned in that moment of bliss, there was no Legolas or Estel, but one whole – as they felt they were meant to be. Joy inundated their hearts and minds, their separate faers were indeed coalesced into a single faer, and neither had felt as loved and complete as they did in this singular moment. Neither was willing to let this wonderful sensation abate; and so, when the Elf collapsed forward onto the Ranger’s chest, their mouths meeting briefly to share a kiss of gratitude, they afterwards again moved as one to allow the Silvan to turn around so his back was to the Adan, while also turning upon their sides so they laid upon the bed in the morning sunshine of this strange but unforgettable dream, with Aragorn’s shaft still contained by Legolas’ aperture. The man curled up behind the laegel, just as they had in the schoolhouse weeks ago, with their faers communing then as they were now.

For how long they remained that way, neither could have said, as in their reverie there was no true passage of time. Even the dawn’s light was the same as it had been when first this dream started, for the sun had yet to rise fully as it ought to have done already had this been reality. It might have been an eon they laid there together, as far as either was concerned, but even had it been an eternity they felt it was still too short a time. There was no need for communication between the two lovers. After what they had just shared, there was nothing left either needed to express.

That is, not until the human groaned growlingly to the Elf, Elrohir is trying to wake me, I think.

Legolas twitched his hips another time, shifting how Estel’s softening shaft was housed inside his body, which caused the man to rumble again, though this time, he did it out of sheer pleasure. I hope you were not moaning in your sleep… nor I, the Silvan teased. I’m not sure I would like to explain to Hworin why I was doing so.

Behind the Wood-Elf, the human’s body wobbled as if someone were shaking the man to wake him, which was in fact exactly what Elrohir was doing in that moment. Nor do I want to explain to Elrohir why I was shuddering and moaning, if I did so, the Ranger thought back to the Elf with laughter.

They remained as they were for a few moments more until again the human’s body shook. Aragorn sighed into the back of the laegel’s neck, upon his nape, where he so loved to burrow his nose to inhale the scent of the Elf. Even in this dream and despite the lack of the Silvan’s hair in which to do so, he imagined still he could catch the scent of pines and citrus. Both knowing they could remain this way no longer, Aragorn constricted his arms around the laegel to hug him closer while Legolas embraced the man’s arms more securely, as well.

I love you, Greenleaf. I will see you as soon as I am able – this coming night, I hope, but if not, then I will look for you each time I dream until we are together again, he told the Elf, his consciousness slowly returning to the real world, and thus his connection to Legolas slowly fading.

I love you, Estel. Be well, he replied to his human lover, his mind suddenly supplying him with a thousand things he ought to have told the Adan during their dream before it was over and the chance lost. By the time any one of these thoughts surfaced to the forefront of his thinking, the body behind Legolas’ form was gone, with Estel having evaporated from the dream as if he had never been there at all. It took only a moment more for the Prince’s consciousness to falter from this shared dream. Sunlight streamed through his shut eyelids, drawing the Wood-Elf from the vestiges of sleep, while a great distance away, Estel experienced much the same.

Chapter Text

“Estel,” his Elven brother intonated as he shook the man’s uninjured arm yet again to try to rouse him from sleep.

“I am awake, I am awake,” the Ranger murmured hoarsely to Elrohir to get the Elf to stop shaking him. Although he was awake, he was groggy and aching, feverish and tired despite his sleep, and his habit of grumpiness while sick nearly caused him to snap at Elrohir – that is, at least until the thought of the dream he had just enjoyed caused the man to smile sleepily at the twin hovering above him. “I am awake, muindor. Just let me come to my senses.”

“Chance will be a fine thing,” Elrohir muttered as if to himself, but of course, everyone heard this accusation about the unlikelihood of the man’s senses ever returning.

The bitterness of Elrohir’s jest ought to have riled the human, but much to the Noldo’s surprise, Aragorn laughed blearily at his brother. Of his uninjured arm, he held out the hand attached thereon, which Elrohir grasped to aid the Adan into sitting upright. “Fair enough. But let us argue about my dull wits later. Right now, I am too thirsty to think straight.”

Around the human sat the other Eldar – Gwindor, Valnesse, and Camthalion, though Aerandir was still in the talan on watch. They viewed this interplay between Elrohir and Estel with unfeigned interest to see who would win the battle of arguments they believed was destined to occur, now that Aragorn was awake and likely to be set upon the task of leaving to find his missing Elven lover. He smiled slightly at each of them in acknowledgement, receiving various nods and flits of return smiles to his anomalous optimism, but when Estel turned his cheer back to Elrohir, the Noldo glared at the Adan. He must believe I will now argue about whether we are to go home or not, he decided, ere he cleared his throat to ask aloud, “Is there water about?”

“A moment, brother, and I will get you something to drink.”

Elrohir hopped up from his kneeling position and went to where his and the Ranger’s satchels were already gathered and tidied for them to leave – all save the blanket and bedroll Aragorn currently sat upon – and hunted through a pocket. As the Noldo did this, Estel secretively checked the front of his trousers under the folds of the blanket still spread over his legs. Thank Eru. It seems I did not find release in physical form as I did in my dream, like I were some juvenile having his first carnal dream, he told himself, his smile growing at the thought, for it reminded the man of the first time he had awoken to sticky bed sheets, when he was barely a man.

The dream had been of Legolas, of course, and had been fairly tame in how his fantasy had not gone beyond his and Legolas kissing and touching, considering Estel had known little of sex between males at the time. Having never had such a carnal dream nor having ever thought of his Silvan friend in anything but platonic terms before that night, the young Adan had felt very confused and guilty over the whole affair. He tucked the recollection away, thinking he would try to remember to tell Legolas of it when next they spoke. The Prince would be highly amused to learn of it, Estel was sure. That night was the first time he had dreamt of the Wood-Elf, yes, but it had not been the only one Estel had enjoyed when he was a young man – those dreams had only grown more explicit as they continued with the passing of years.

Turning his face up to the brightening sky, Aragorn chuckled soundlessly, his chest vibrating with his laughter. Who would have thought I would see the fruition of those dreams in my real life? he mulled as he removed the blanket and began to roll it for tying to his satchel. In fact, he mused with a loud snort of amusement, I have my Greenleaf in and out of dreams these days.

“Are you alright, Estel?” Gwindor asked the man, which is when Aragorn noted how the two brothers, Valnesse, and his own foster brother were staring at him strangely. Gwindor still appeared properly ashamed of himself for his part in having tricked Aragorn into drinking the altered medicines, but the Ranger held no grudge. “You slept like the dead,” Gwindor continued, then flinched at his own phrasing, thinking someone might take offense to his words at the reminder of Legolas’ demise or Estel’s potential demise should he not have proper care soon. Quickly, Gwindor went on to explain his meaning, “You hardly moved at all. Not long before Lord Elrohir woke you, Valnesse insisted on checking just to be certain you were still breathing, so quiet were you.”

“I was well under the effects of your brew,” he told the guilty-looking Gwindor. When the Noldo grimaced and shifted in his seat upon the ground, chastened by what he thought to be accusation, Aragorn changed his playful tone to serious when he told the Elf, “I slept well, thank you, Gwindor. As much as I didn’t want to slumber through the night, I am glad I did. I needed it greatly, and I would not have done so without your medicines.”

As he hoped, his words appeased the Noldo’s conscience. Without the blanket upon him now, the Adan was already shivering from the chilly dawn air and the fever of his infected wound. Clearing his throat again, for it was sorely dry and it hurt to speak, Estel looked about for Elrohir to see where his promised drink had gone, but found his brother climbing the ladder up to the talan. If I slept like the dead, as Gwindor says, then I didn’t give any signs of making love to Legolas. None of the Elves around him seemed at all aware the human had just enjoyed himself with the Wood-Elf in their shared dream, which was reassuring. So great has his need been in the dream, Estel had not cared at the time of it happening, but now awake, he was glad he had not been moaning, moving, or found physical climax in his real body, as had his dream-self.

“I suppose I shall travel back to the valley with you two.” Valnesse sighed and stood from where she sat beside Camthalion, grabbed her water skin from the ground, and brought it to Estel. He took it with thanks and drank from it deeply, ere he handed it back to the waiting she-Elf. She began off to prepare her horse for the journey, saying, “My task was to take news to the border patrols about our twin Lords’ tardiness in returning from their undertaking at the village, but now there is no use in continuing being that Lord Elrohir goes home and Lord Elladan will not return for a while yet.”

“You could always stay here with us,” Camthalion offered to Valnesse, flirting with the Elleth unabashedly when he added, “You always make life so much more interesting. You certainly made last night interesting, anyway.”

“For both of us,” Gwindor added, standing and aiding his brother into doing so, as well. They walked to where Valnesse was bent over and stopped to wait on either side; the moment she rose into standing again, the two pressed themselves against the she-Elf, one to her front and the other to her back. Immediately, Valnesse responded by grinning charmingly and wrapping her arms around the neck of the Ellon in front of her – Camthalion – while Gwindor wrapped his arms around her waist from behind.

Sweet Eru. What did those three get up to while I was sleeping last night? he wondered, though in truth, he could imagine the answer. Having never made love to anyone except Legolas, he knew only in theory how men and women did so, for he had no experience in it himself, and he knew much less about how two men and a single woman might find pleasure together. I suppose the better question is, how did they avoid Elrohir while doing it? Or perhaps he knows. Valnesse was always after the twins, which made the Ranger wonder briefly if his brothers had ever shared the Elleth, as had the two brothers Gwindor and Camthalion. The thought was not a pleasant one, for while he knew his brothers were not chaste, he did not like to think of them having sex, of course, just as they did not care to be reminded of the Ranger and Prince doing so.

Valnesse had a reputation for sharing her body freely to those of her choosing, as was her right. Estel saw nothing wrong with it, naturally; her body was hers to share. However, he was not accustomed to hearing Eldar discuss sex so plainly in front of him. While not typically embarrassed by talk of fleshly pleasure or ashamed of their bodies and the natural functions thereof, the Noldor were more staid than men and other Elves, such as the Silvan, and were wont to discussing such topics in private. They certainly did not typically chat about such topics around Estel, for the Elves of the valley tended to treat the man as a child still. Indeed, when he saw Gwindor’s hand slide down to cup one side of Valnesse’s rear – an act which caused the pleased Elleth to laugh throatily – Aragorn found himself blushing at the sight. He turned his attention to the dying fire before him lest he be caught observing them and thus be deemed a lecherous voyeur.

All flirting between the three ended at once when they heard Elrohir leap down from the talan to the forest floor, the skin of miruvor in hand. Ah, that is where he went with my drink. Once he strode back to the fire pit, the Noldo took up a silver flask and poured into a cup a measure of the medicines Gwindor had made last night, then add a dash of the miruvor. When Aragorn turned to observe the other three Eldar again, the two brothers were aiding Valnesse in saddling the horses, with all of them speaking lowly of the Elleth’s journey back to the valley. Their nearly being caught in their indiscretion caused Aragorn once more to chuckle inaudibly. It seems I am not the only one who found pleasure during the night.

His brother came to him with cup in hand. Ere Aragorn could even ask, a plaintive Elrohir told the man, “There is no sedative in it, if you are wondering. Just be reasonable, drink it, and let us be on our way home.”

Even more jovial than when first he awoke, Aragorn sniggered merrily at his brother’s cantankerous suggestion, which disconcerted Elrohir; in turn, this caused Estel to laugh some more at his sibling’s disgruntled disposition. He tilted the cup back and drank the tincture without complaint, startling Elrohir for a second time, though now it was because of the human’s easy obedience.

“Have you truly seen reason, then? I will not need to tie you to your saddle?” the younger twin groused to his human brother. Elves could go for long periods without sleep, and Elrohir was accustomed to doing so, but the flesh under the Noldo’s verdigris eyes was dark with fatigue, worry, and irritation. This was the only indication of his being tired, for the Elf’s travelling clothes were relatively clean, his face and hands recently washed, and his long, dark hair braided and combed into near perfection. “If this is some new method to earn my agreement into going off to find Legolas, if you think pretending to have gone mad will earn you any sympathy from me, you are sorely mistaken, Estel.”

When Aragorn chortled at the Noldo’s cross mockery, he did so with such liveliness he caused the birds in the boughs above to fly off at the disturbance in the otherwise placid forest. Knowing he was only giving Elrohir more reason to think he had lost his mind, the human explained, “No more mad than usual. Besides, I promised Greenleaf I would go to the valley to let Ada see to my wound, so yes, I suppose I have seen reason.” He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his tunic, handed his brother the now empty cup, and explained further, “There is no need for your rope or for you to drug me, muindor. I will go to the valley since I am assured by Legolas how he is safe for the time being.”

Exasperated but curious in spite of his disbelief in the man’s assurances, Elrohir stalked to their bags and shoved the tin mug into one of their satchels, walked back to Aragorn with his arms crossed over his chest, and replied flatly, “You spoke to Greenleaf again in your dreams.”

It did not sound like a question to the Ranger but a denunciation. He answered Elrohir nonetheless, saying as he stretched cautiously to relieve the aches to his muscles brought about by sleeping on the cold, hard ground, “I spoke to him in my dreams, yes. He told me he is well, safe, and – ” the Adan began before he recalled the only worry he truly held for the Prince right now, and soon said this aloud, much to Elrohir’s confusion, “Legolas told me Faelthîr is there. She made him medicines to ease the swelling in his head. Already his vision improves. But I do not like her being there with Greenleaf. He seems to trust her kindness, which only makes me worry more for him,” the Ranger said, his bright merriment fading to dusky gloom at the reminder.

Elrohir crouched down beside his human brother and monotonously parroted back to the man his own words, “Faelthîr is there. There where? How in Arda…” Realizing his questions made him sound as if he believed the man, the Noldo huffed in aggravation and rubbed at his forehead to repeat incredulously, “Faelthîr is there. Of course she is.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

He turned to watch Valnesse and the two Noldorin brothers as they continued to prepare the horses for departure, though the three had stopped talking and were clearly listening to every word their Lord and the Adan spoke. Aragorn had not lied to Elrohir about his compliance; he would go back to the valley, let his father see to his injury, and then be off for Bree once Elrond deemed him well enough. Aragorn did not doubt how once in Imladris, Elrohir and likely their father would try to talk him out of travelling to Bree to await Legolas’ arrival, but he would cross that bridge when he came to it. Aragorn moved to a crouch, as well, and pulled the bedroll out from under himself so he could roll it up for storage. Ignoring Elrohir, as he did not want his mood to be ruined further by his brother’s skepticism, he instead looked only upon the task at hand, while also ignoring the deep and insistent ache of his wounded arm.

The man clarified, “As I told you already, Legolas was in the bogs we passed on our way here, which is where he was found by a group of refugees travelling north to seek help from the Rangers. The refugees said they escaped enslavement from a mine and farm far to the south, and having learnt from Faelthîr that Bree was the best place to find a Ranger, they travel north to seek help in freeing the remainder of their families and friends.”

Before his Elven sibling could respond to this new and befuddlingly detailed information, Valnesse interrupted Elrohir by gasping loudly. Her unfastened saddle slid from her horse and fell with a thud to the forest floor, causing leaves and twigs to fly up, while the Elleth whirled on heel to face Estel and Elrohir. The two brothers became instantly wary some evil approached them in the forest, so distraught did the Elleth look at them just then. Indeed, the two brothers near the Elleth – Camthalion and Gwindor – forwent their own tasks of preparing Elrohir and Aragorn’s horses and went to the Elleth for insight as to her reaction, their hands upon their swords’ hilts in preparation for an attack.

“Valnesse? What is the matter?” came a voice from behind the two brothers, for Aerandir had left his post to speak to Elrohir before they left, and thus, he saw the she-Elf’s abnormal behavior along with the rest of them.

Valnesse paid no one but Estel any attention and seemed not to hear or notice their concern. Forgetting her saddle, her alarmed, stamping horse, and ignoring unintentionally the two Noldorin brothers who tried to halt her with hands to her arms, and with her fair face cast in rising Anor’s orange glow to give the Elleth an otherworldly appearance, Valnesse lurched ungracefully to where Aragorn knelt by the dying embers of the night’s fire. She almost appeared soused, so unsteady did she move. “Refugees from the south? In your dream, the Prince told you of refugees from the south? Who claim to have been enslaved at a mine?”

Giving Elrohir a quick glimpse to ascertain if his brother knew of what ailed the Elleth, the Adan saw his own confusion mirrored upon his sibling’s face. Puzzled by the she-Elf’s reaction, Aragorn’s tired, shivering form tightened instinctively into readiness because of the woman’s demeanor. The Ranger told Valnesse, “Yes. Greenleaf said a woman named Hannah leads them. As I said, he was found and taken in by them, cared for by Hannah and her people. They fed, clothed, and bathed him, and Hannah and Faelthîr treated his wounds. Legolas told me there is even a Silvan Elf with them, a few Dwarves, as well, and a hundred or so Edain.”

Had Valnesse’s jaw dropped anymore, the Elleth would have tripped over it as she stumbled the last few steps to drop down into kneeling before Aragorn. She nearly plummeted into the fire’s embers, so distracted was the woman. “Estel. How do you know of Hannah and her people?”

His aggravation growing with the Elleth’s disbelief of Aragorn having learnt of all of this through a dream, the man scowled at Valnesse. “I told you,” he griped at her, “Greenleaf explained it to me last night while we shared reverie. And while you may not believe me,” the peeved human began before the import of Valnesse’s words hit him. His own jaw dropped in astonishment, ere he then asked her the same question she asked of him, “Wait. How do you know of Hannah and her people?”

Wrapping her arms around her middle in a loose facsimile of a hug, the Elleth replied, “Just before I left the valley a week or so ago, Lord Erestor and Lord Elrond were speaking about a missive from Halbarad – a missive asking for you, saying a woman named Hannah led a group of Edain north. However, Halbarad’s letter claimed that the woman and her people were not refugees, but thieves, who stole from their employers a great deal of goods and coin, killed many of the guards stationed around the area for everyone’s protection, and were heading to Bree to sell off the gems and ingots of their ill-gotten gains. One of the supervisors of the mining operation was there in Bree with a group of mercenaries, asking for the Rangers’ help to capture these thieves and retrieve their goods, to find justice for the deaths of their guards,” Valnesse elucidated in a breathless, murmuring rush of words. Inhaling sharply, Valnesse’s already insipid face grew evermore, deathly pallid. She added, “Halbarad told Lord Elrond in this letter how the thieves were claiming to be the ones wronged in hopes of obtaining the aid of the Rangers, as well, to hide their foul deeds and avoid punishment.”

While in shock Elrohir looked between the Elleth and his human brother, Aragorn soon became lost in his own tumultuous contemplations. He flopped back upon his heels, letting the trundled up bedroll tumble from his hands, which allowed it to unroll nearly into the embers of the fire. Thieves? Legolas said nothing of them having stolen from their captors whilst fleeing, did he? But if enslaved and trying to free themselves, it would seem entirely likely they would need to obtain some food, goods, and coin to sustain their group as they fled. Unless, the Ranger cogitated haltingly, not noticing how all the Eldar were staring at him as if he had grown a second head, unless they lied to Legolas. Unless they are truly thieves, have killed and taken from their employers, and have only fabricated this story to maintain their alibi.

If this were the case, then Legolas was not as safe as he thought himself to be, regardless of whether he had a fellow Silvan there to be of aid to him, for said Silvan would have had to be a part of the plot to kill and steal from their employers. His mind awhirl, Aragorn shook his head to free it from the vestiges of sleep, sedative, and confusion. But then how would Hworin have joined these people? Did not Legolas say Hworin was captured while travelling? the man asked himself, though the particulars of this part of the conversation between he and the Silvan were ambiguous to him.

The Wood-Elf had convinced the Adan last night during their dream that all would be well and he was safe and protected – it seemed none of this was certain whatsoever.

A hand grabbing his uninjured arm roughly roused Estel from his deliberations, and he looked to his brother to find Elrohir’s gaze sharp upon him. The twin asked with the same cynicism of before, “Estel. Greenleaf told you of this in a dream? He told you of Hannah and these thieves?”

“Yes, though he says they are refugees, having fled due to mistreatment,” he reiterated, taking a deep breath to maintain some patience. It made him weary to be forced to reaffirm to his brother the possibility of his and Legolas’ faers being connected profoundly, and of course, to deny constantly the Elf’s death to the Noldo. “Legolas lives,” he demanded for his brother to believe, and then said none too kindly, “He is with these refugees, but whether they are truly slaves who have escaped the shackles or thieves who are escaping justice, I do not know. All I know now is our Greenleaf is amongst them, with Faelthîr there, as well, and he at their mercy. Either way, I do not like it one bit – not now I have heard this,” he added, turning his attention back to Valnesse. “What else do you know?” he asked the Elleth. “What more did Halbarad say?”

The Elleth frowned in frustrated sympathy for the harried human. “I know nothing more. I only heard this much in passing, for I was waiting for Lord Elrond to finish his conversation with Lord Erestor so he could give me instruction on my circuit along the borders to tell the patrols of Lord Elladan, Elrohir, and Kalin’s late homecoming. I left shortly thereafter to do as told.”

Having thus far stood back in utter mystification, Camthalion and Gwindor now came to sit on either side of the she-Elf, with the first laying a hand upon her shoulder and the other laying one upon her back, and in doing so, offering the Elleth comfort, for she was clearly highly upset both by bearing this news and having no more information to share. Aerandir walked to stand near the fire, as well, such that they were all gathered about the pit in uncomfortable silence. Valnesse took hold of Camthalion’s hand and held it between her own hands, which she then pressed just under her breasts, against her upper belly. This caused Gwindor to slide his hand from her back into embracing the Elleth around her waist, instead, to give the she-Elf greater comfort.

“Then it is true,” she whispered after a while of staring into the cinders before them, ere speaking up to add to Estel, “I am sorry I doubted you. The Prince must surely be alive. He must surely be sharing your dreams. There is no other way for you to have known about the refugees.”

For a few moments more, they sat, crouched, or stood about the fire pit, until with a huff, Elrohir picked up the branch the sentries used to stir the embers and threw it into the ring of stones around the dying coals of wood.

“No. This is ridiculous. Estel must have overhead you speaking of these thieves while you traveled with us the last few days,” Elrohir argued. Apparently needing to move, to act, to do something other than sit and stew, the Noldo took up the human’s forgotten sleeping mat and rerolled it with angry, distracted, forceful motions. “Valnesse, surely at some point you spoke of these supposed refugees to Reana, or Kalin or Elladan, and Estel overheard it.”

Angered at his brother’s insistence – especially since it purported Aragorn was being devious in using this acquired information to deceive the others into believing his claims – Estel climbed to his knees to turn upon them so he could face Elrohir, to argue against his brother’s allegations, but the twin staved off this oncoming argument with his hand held up. The Noldorin lord knew just what his foster sibling would say, so forefended Aragorn venting his ire by amending half-heartedly, “I do not say you do this on purpose. You might not even recall Valnesse speaking of this, muindor. You overheard it while sleeping, perhaps, and with your guilt, sorrow, and your hope for Legolas’ impractical survival, hearing her story gave rise to these fantastical conversations you believe to have had in a mere dream of Greenleaf.”

“No, my Lord,” the Elleth argued vehemently, giving Aragorn no chance to rail at his brother for his argumentative, distrustful assertions. As disinclined to argue with Elrohir as she had been last night, Valnesse had no trouble arguing now with the twin, for she held no doubt of what she said when averring, “I have spoken to no one of this. Truthfully, I had not even recalled the conversation between your father and Lord Erestor until just now. I had no reason to recall it, for while it was not a secret conversation, it did not include me. And I have said nothing of it to anyone, I swear upon Elbereth’s grace.”

Valnesse’s certainty quieted Elrohir. Once more, the Eldar watched the Adan, though again, Aragorn was too caught up in his own thoughts to pay them any mind. I need to get to Greenleaf as soon as I can. I must ensure he is safe, he decided.

As it had in his dream last night after hearing from Legolas the Elf was in the midst of unknown Edain and the treacherous Faelthîr, Aragorn’s heart pounded painfully, and in addition to the feverish shuddering his body could not quell, his whole body trembled with the force of his worry and sickness. For a while longer, no one spoke, but eventually needing something to occupy his hands and mind, Elrohir took Aragorn’s injured arm, shoved his sleeve up, and began unwrapping the bandaging covering the gruesome wound. The Ranger hardly noticed this until his brother pulled free the linen off the gash, for the cloth had become stuck to the wound because of the poultice and sticky, darkly contaminated blood seeping from the wound. Aragorn grunted softly at the unexpected pain and automatically made to yank his arm away, but Elrohir held fast to the man’s wrist and did not allow it.

“It is worse than last night,” Elrohir commented portentously.

Looking down upon his wounded flesh, Estel saw his brother did not prevaricate. The lines of murky infection were indeed spreading; they were more pronounced as the poison travelled farther under his skin. Cool water from Elrohir’s waterskin soothed the wound somewhat when the Noldo began to wash the injury clean of blood and the remnants of the poultice. How long will I need to remain in Imladris to see to it this is healed? I cannot wait idly in the valley while Legolas is endangered.

Whatever had caused Aerandir to leave his post, whatever he had meant to speak about to Elrohir was long since forgotten by the Sinda. He informed Camthalion, “It is your turn for watch.”

With a nod, the Noldo rose reluctantly, as he did not want to miss out on hearing what transpired. Before he left, Camthalion paused and tugged a braid of Valnesse’s hair in a playful, familiar manner, causing the Elleth to scowl up at him in mendacious anger, which soon gave way to a smile for Camthalion as the Elf walked off to take his turn in keeping watch in the talan. Meanwhile, Gwindor rose and took from Elrohir’s satchel a carefully folded sleeve of parchment, where was stored the leftovers of the mixture he had prepared for the poultice last night, such that this mixture now needed only a bit of water to be ready for application to Aragorn’s wound. Without being asked, he pulled out the same tin cup from which the Ranger had drank his medicines and set about moistening the herbs so he could be of service to Elrohir. The twin carefully cleaned the medicines, blood, and pus from the Ranger’s injury with a square of clean linen, then rinsed the gash with water a second time.

I promised Greenleaf I would go home. I cannot go to Bree now, he argued to himself. Besides, Elladan, Kalin, and Reana are on their way to find him.

While the Noldorin Camthalion, Gwindor, and Valnesse were of similar age to Elrohir and also somewhat cowed by Elrohir’s position as son of their Lord, the Sindarin Aerandir was much, much older than was Elrohir and although he held no high position in Elrond’s household, it wasn’t because he was unfit or disloyal, but because he felt his services to his Lord were best applied where he was now – that is, out in the woods, keeping his Lord’s people safe. Moreover, Aerandir wasn’t intimidated in the least by Elrohir’s status. Consequently, Aerandir did not hesitate to speak of all this as had the others the night before, and thus prompted the human, breaking again the silence having fallen upon the sullen, thoughtful group of Elves and lone Adan by querying of Aragorn, “Estel. Explain this to me – you had a dream of your Greenleaf last night, and from it, you learnt information you had no reason to know, since Valnesse says she did not speak of it, and we all can agree Valnesse’s word is honorable.”

Gwindor handed Elrohir the cup of dampened herbs, but nearly dropped it in surprise, while Valnesse’s gaze shot up from the embers to watch what she thought might be an argument between Aerandir and Elrohir. The Noldorin Lord glanced up from his task of applying Gwindor’s mixture to the human’s arm, a frown of disapproval upon his face for Aerandir, but the stoic Sinda remained unaffected by the twin’s anger at his conclusions being questioned. Estel knew just what Aerandir intended; that is, the elder Elf was doing what none of the others could by pointing out to Elrohir the obvious, thereby forcing his Lord to consider the possibility of the seemingly impossible. Nodding to Aerandir, the Ranger took comfort from the lightening sky, while hoping Legolas was waking to it, as well, and safe and sound while doing so, just as the Silvan had assured the man he was in their dream the night before.

“Yes. You have the right of it,” he responded. “Legolas is alive. He shares his dreams with me. He gave of his faer to me, when in the village where I almost died. We are joined, the same as any other two who love each other as do we, so I do not understand why it is so difficult for everyone to believe our faers are connected,” the churlish Adan complained, but conceded, “although I realize how strange it must sound for a man and Elf to share such a bond. Still, I swear to you,” he told Aerandir, as if it were the Sinda he must convince rather than Elrohir, “Greenleaf told me of these refugees in our dream last night. And I must get to him. If any of the missive Halbarad sent my father is correct, and as you say, Valnesse is honorable and has no reason to lie about the matter, then I must see to it Legolas remains safe.”

“I believe you,” Aerandir told the man genuinely. Gracefully, the Sinda dropped to his rear before the fire pit, near to where Valnesse sat. The she-Elf was taking their conversation about her charitably, which she might not have done, since they were speaking of the Elleth as if she were not there. “It would be foolish not to believe you,” the Sinda continued pleasantly, undermining Elrohir’s incredulity with this simple statement. “And when your father hears of it, he will believe you, as well, knowing Elrond as I do.”

In different circumstances and had not his worry for Legolas grown immeasurably upon hearing Valnesse’s news, Aragorn might have taken some puerile pleasure in Aerandir standing up to Elrohir on his behalf. As it was, Estel only hoped Aerandir’s words might work upon his stubborn Elven sibling. Affixing urgently the tail end of the linen bandage into the wraps to keep it tight, Elrohir began shoving his belongings back into his bag, but from the unusual wrinkles adorning his forehead, it appeared to the Ranger that Elrohir was no longer as convinced of his mistrust in the human’s assertions. The Noldorin lord said nothing of Aerandir’s declaration, but he was clearly affected by it nonetheless. In fact, he soon proved this to be the case.

“Come. We need to ride home quickly. I want to speak to our father of all this,” the Noldo insisted suddenly. He jumped up, gathered his and Estel’s satchels, and stalked off to his horse to tie the bag thereon, though he soon turned back and nearly shouted at Aragorn, “Up! Come on. I cannot believe I am saying this,” the twin admitted with a shake of his dark head, “but Aerandir is right. I can find no cause for you to know any of this about Hannah except for if what you say of Greenleaf is true. And if Legolas is alive and with these people, as you claim, then you are right, and he is in danger. Elladan, Kalin, and Reana may be walking into it, as well, if they manage to follow Greenleaf’s tracks to the Edain,” the Noldo continued, turning back to finish securing their chattel in hurried movements.

The burden of his brother’s disbelief was lifted from Estel’s shoulders in that moment. With a smiling Gwindor’s help, the Ranger did as asked and stood, forgoing breakfast or relieving himself, so great was his need to be in Rivendell to learn more of the missive Halbarad had sent to the vale. Swiftly, Valnesse leapt up and ran to her own horse, where she picked up her fallen saddle and with Gwindor’s aid, readied her own mount.

Aerandir walked with the Ranger to his dray. The poor horse was not accustomed to long journeys, but it had spent its life pulling a plow, so the man hoped it had the stamina to get him home, at least. The Sinda gave the man a smile while he helped Aragorn to heave his febrile, weary, and thrumming body into the saddle. Returning the Elf’s smile, and giving him a nod of thanks, as well, Estel grabbed the reins and settled in for what would likely be a strained, long journey home. His brother barely waited for Valnesse and Aragorn to incite their horses into motion before he was headed off in the general direction of the valley.

He waved at Aerandir and Gwindor, who returned his wave, while Gwindor called to the man in farewell, “We will see you soon, Estel, and with Legolas beside you, Eru willing.”

These words drove another spike of excitement into the man’s chest. It will take most of the day to reach home, he told himself, his unease and enthusiasm working in equal measures to keep his already overworked heart flittering.

Chapter Text

Legolas rode on the bench seat of a cart, Hannah seated beside him, reins in hand, with Nigel and Henri standing on either side of the two drays pulling the overloaded wagon. Unsurprisingly to Legolas, Hworin had insisted upon staying right beside his Prince, and thus rode in the cart itself upon the mound of oilcloth which when erected constructed the large tent many of the refugees slept under at night. Since Hworin was still recuperating from his injury, his place on the soft cloth and in the cart was a fair enough seat; no one had yet to insist the elder Wood-Elf give up his spot to allow someone else to ride for a while, and nor had anyone asked for Legolas’ seat, being that all believed him to be nearly blind still. Besides, Hannah was as insistent upon staying at the Prince’s side as Hworin.

The going was slower than Legolas expected. The camp of Edain, Eldar, and the few Dwarves – whom Legolas had still not met, though he had caught sight of them this morning and they seemed entirely uninterested in meeting him – were mostly unhorsed, so those with the fortune of having mounts or carts upon which to ride were still forced to move at a snail’s pace so as not to leave the rest of their group behind. For now, they could still make use of the rafts so long as they followed the river north; a few of the Edain were tugging these crafts by their ropes, moving against the southward current while they ambled along the water’s side, with a couple others using long poles to direct the rafts away from the grassy bank of the watercourse. Wisely, the humans had packed the most vital of their chattel upon the carts, just in case one of the rickety rafts pulled free of its rope, such that nothing of import would be lost. Of those who had horses or carts upon which to ride, turns were taken to allow everyone a break from walking, with the elderly, injured, women, and children naturally being given precedence over the young, healthy men, who were also tasked with protecting the others, and thus were required to walk on the fringes of their moseying mass of people so they could be on the outlook for danger.

To the Prince’s glad surprise and despite the procession’s sluggish pace and the tiring endeavor of walking while both keeping constant lookout for potential attackers and watch over the naturally boisterous children, Legolas heard very few complaints from the many Edain in their group. Even the youngsters remained optimistic and lively, though they were clearly tired, hungry, and cold. Indeed, although he heard a few good-natured grumbles about various gripes such as sore feet or the length of someone’s time spent riding when it was felt to be someone else’s turn to do so, the only true grievance he heard was from a toddler who whined when her father – who hobbled along on crutches – would not carry her. A man beside the two offered to carry the youngster, which made the Wood-Elf smile and the toddling Adan girl giddy with joy when her father agreed to allow the other man to appease his youngster. The child tittered joyfully when the Adan hauled her to sit on his shoulders, and then began to gallop as if he were a pony. This didn’t last long, though, for the man was more malnourished than most of the others, and from what Legolas could recall from the many introductions made to him the night before, this Adan in particular hadn’t been a refugee, but was merely a straggler who had joined the others for his own safety while travelling north.

There are so few men amongst us, the Wood-Elf reflected with worry as he tried to count how many males were in their group, and then decided, Of the men here, most are likely to be of little use should we face true peril, although I would wager all will fight to their deaths to protect their friends.

While the able-bodied males carried weapons, most of the people were entirely without any means of defending themselves. A few of the women had shoddily fashioned arrows and scrawny bows, as did some of the elderly Edain, but from what the laegel had been told, few of them knew how to use these arms with any proficiency.

I would that I had my own bow and quiver, he thought longingly of his weapons, suddenly wishing he had asked Aragorn if he and the twins, or Kalin or Reana, had found his long knife amongst the Orcs.

The bow he supposed he could replace easily enough, but the long knife had sentimental value to him, being that it had been a gift from his Naneth millennia ago and he did not like the possibility of his having lost it. More disturbing to the Prince was his feeling of being dependent upon others for his protection, much less a bunch of Edain whom he did not know, and even less so in that it seemed these people were such poor archers they apparently couldn’t fell sufficient game to fill the many hungry bellies of their kith. Legolas could forgive their inability to hunt, however, as most of these Edain were farmers who were accustomed to having fields of grain and barns of livestock upon which to depend for their meals, with guards around their settlements or villages. Still, their clumsiness in hunting worried Legolas, for while helping the refugees pack up the camp at dawn, the Silvan had seen for himself the stores of food they had remaining and thus knew their supplies would be gone long before they reached Bree.

Perhaps when next we stop for a while, I can borrow a bow to hunt, he decided, harkening back to his promise to Hannah and Faelthîr to do so. They cannot complain about my lack of sight hindering my hunting, for surely I will do better than have they, he told himself with a lighthearted grouse. Hannah especially was intent upon looking after Legolas, as had she promised to do, and reminded the Wood-Elf evermore of Elrond with her paternal instincts. It might take some convincing before she gave her blessing for him to hunt.

Earlier this morning, there had been some debate about whether to continue along the Greyflood until it became the Hoarwell, and thus they were far enough north to travel through the woods and wilds westward towards Bree, thereby bypassing the South Downs on its eastern side, following the path of the East Road above the Downs without truly travelling upon the road; or, whether to chance the swamps around the abandoned area of Tharbad to find the Greenway, which they could then follow in its northwesterly direction before heading directly north between the South Downs and Barrow Downs, which would lead them to Bree. The reasoning behind some of the Edain wishing to follow the Greyflood and then the Hoarwell for a while longer was because they did not wish to lose the readily available source of fresh water and fish from the river, nor have to abandon their rafts for conveyance of their goods. Others wanted to avoid such a long and convoluted path.

In the end, though, and to his amazement, Hannah had asked for Legolas’ opinion, deferring to him because she believed from what he and Faelthîr had told her that Legolas was more familiar with the area than were any of the humans – most of whom hailed from the far south or from the other side of the Misty Mountains entirely. Consequently, Legolas suggested they follow the Greenway. It would cut days off their travel by allowing them to move along a more direct path, and by doing so, it would allow them to traverse several settlements and villages established near the road, from where they might obtain supplies or aid. Anything on the rafts they could not carry would simply have to be left behind, with the faith it could be replaced. The sooner they reached safety, the better, to the laegel’s thinking. It was for this very reason they had not stopped today, save for long enough to allow the children to eat the leftover venison and for the horses to be allowed to graze and drink along the river’s shore for a short while.

A nearly full day of riding was taking its toll upon the Elf. The jouncing and jolting of the cart caused the Prince to bounce upon the hard bench seat; already, Legolas’ rear was sore from it. His head hurt. His eyes hurt. They had chosen to save their meal for later, so other than the children, no one had eaten this morning – including Legolas. All in all, he was in better health than a day ago, though not entirely well, and were he in Imladris or at home, the Prince would likely be in bed with a twin, Elrond, Kalin, or Estel hovering over him to ascertain the Silvan had everything he needed. But in the woods with a group of traumatized humans whom Legolas began to suspect needed him more than he needed them, the Wood-Elf refused to let any of his aches or pains diminish his good mood. He had taken two doses of Faelthîr’s tincture yesterday – one when first she made it and one before bed, and another upon his wakening this morning – and each dose incited within Legolas a greater hope he would regain his vision entirely, which kept his cheerfulness buoyed. He could now see more details and a greater range of color, such that the Silvan could distinguish individual leaves still clinging to nearby trees and could note the difference of the autumnal colors of each, for the leaves blew everywhere around the sluggishly moving group of refugees; yesterday, all of this would have been a dull, greyish blur. Faelthîr had surely saved the Silvan’s sight.

I wonder where she is amongst all these people, he questioned when his wandering thoughts turned to the she-Elf. He would have guessed the Noldorin Elleth would be seated beside Hannah to share her company and guidance, rather than Legolas, since yesterday it had seemed to the Prince the two women were close friends and shared counsel freely. And yet, Legolas discerned Hannah was troubled by Faelthîr having not having explained to the Adan woman how Aragorn, Chieftain of the Rangers, and Estel, one of those whom the Elleth had wronged, were one and the same. As much as he still distrusted Faelthîr, he nearly felt sorry for her over the she-Elf’s apparent fall from Hannah’s favor.

Glancing beside him at Hannah as he deliberated whether to broach the topic of Faelthîr, to try to mend the rift between the two women, Legolas became distracted by his vision yet again. Having only gone a few days without seeing well, his being able to see more clearly was a wondrous thing, and he could not get enough of taking in every sight around him. And now, he could truly see what the people around him looked like, whereas before he had based his judgment of them upon their voices and actions. For example, Legolas had pictured Hannah to be an older woman, hard-worn by work and life; seeing her clearly currently, the Elf knew his conclusion was right. The woman wore plaited, long hair the color of darkly brewed tea, though it was streaked with hoary strands. She was taller than were most of the other women among them, with eyes the same shade as the underside of a maple leaf in spring. Hannah’s gaunt frame was hidden by her simply made, grey linen dress, though under it she also wore trousers, with her feet clad in sturdy boots usually preferred by farmers who spent their days trudging through the mud of fields. Her astute visage was heavily lined with wrinkles, especially so around her eyes and mouth, which was perpetually set in a brooding frown, as if the Adan spent most of her time in deep thought.

Her husband Nigel, on the other hand, had a drooping belly hanging over his trousers’ waist. Even the starvation and hard living of the refugees’ ordeal both on the compound and on the run had not thinned him. To keep his pants up, the man had ropes tied to loops at the waist in both back and front, which ran over his shoulders to connect in the semblance of improvised suspenders. He was nearly as short as a dwarf. His unkempt, stark black hair curled wildly around his head, tangling in his equally disheveled beard, which reached all the way to the middle of his stout chest. Even his eyes were black as coal.

They say opposites attract, and never have I seen two who look and act more unalike than Hannah and Nigel, the Silvan told himself, hiding his chuckle at this thought behind a feigned cough. Even their demeanors were dissimilar, for while Hannah was always thinking and most often quiet and serious, Nigel was boisterous, talkative, and humorous.

He had yet to place many of the other faces he saw, for he had yet to speak to them to match the visages with the voices. Henri was one of the few whose identities he was sure of, and the man also aligned with what the Elf had assumed of him prior to being able to see the Adan. The young man was about Estel’s age, with skin like sunned, weathered leather, dark blond hair, and pale golden eyes – of course, none of this could the Prince have guessed from his voice. No, it was the Adan’s demeanor that aligned with Legolas’ perception of him. He had thought Henri to be quiet, submissive, and glued to Nigel’s’ side. And this was the case, for wherever Nigel went, Henri followed, absorbing every word the older man said, helping him with every task, and seemingly looking up to Nigel as if the stout human were a father figure.

I would say many of these poor Edain have lost their families or have not seen them in months. Perhaps Nigel has become to Henri the father he has lost or is missing. Legolas was perpetually amazed at the good will and wholesomeness of which people were capable; never more so than now did he feel joy and wonder at this, for these refugees had suffered together, fought together, and now fled together, taking care of each other when it would have been easier for many of them to part and find their own way to safety, rather than to remain amongst the others who were less capable of surviving alone. These are surely good people, he assured himself.

Beside him, Hannah sighed in a contented, pleased way, which pulled the Prince from his musings, ere she quietly told the Elf, “I am glad you are with us, Legolas. I thank the Maker we found you, dear.”

He did not know how to respond to this random comment except to say, “I am very grateful for your having taken me in and glad to be with you, also, Mother.”

As she did every time he called her Mother, Hannah smiled at him. The trust he felt for her was as strong as it had been since first he had met her, and odd though he found it to hold such absolute faith in a woman he barely knew, upon seeing the honesty in her smile, Legolas beamed back at her in pleasure to have thrilled her with this simple appellation. The odd thought of what his father might say to hear him call this Adan woman mother crossed his mind, ere he promptly cast it aside. He called Elrond “second father,” after all, and meant no disloyalty to his own father by saying it.

Hannah returned to watching the world around them for a moment, her acute gaze searching the woods for hidden peril and her kith for secreted injury or dire need, until Legolas thought to ask, “It seems most of the people with you are women and children, or are elderly. What caused this disparity in your flight from the slave compound?”

Again, Hannah sighed, though this time she did it out of frustration. The late day’s fading sunlight brightened the white in her hair, causing the otherwise drab brown of it to glimmer as if it were glistening with dew. The Adan woman spared him a brief glance before she answered, “Our menfolk were much harder to free during our rebellion. Many of them were too broken down or ill to run, though all of them fought to allow the rest of us the chance to flee. And a number of them died during the fight. But we were forced to leave them behind, for they fought to keep the supervisors occupied, giving their women and children the chance to escape. What has happened to those of them who survived, I fear to speculate. And few of us know who lived and who died during the fight. Many of the women and children here pray every night their husband or father is amongst the survivors.”

Having heard of what his Prince and Hannah spoke, Hworin piped up from behind them, “Those men who did manage to escape with us were those who were assigned to the farms with the women and children, as they were older and incapable of the harder work in the mines; or, like me and Nigel, Henri, and some of the other younger or hardier ones, we were amongst those who were guarding the women and children during their escape.”

Shifting in his seat to look upon his fellow Silvan, Legolas reached out and laid his hand upon Hworin’s shoulder, for he could hear the regret in the Wood-Elf’s voice before he saw it plainly upon Hworin’s face, and he wished to comfort him. Laying his own hand over his Prince’s for a moment, the Silvan servant nodded at Legolas to show he was fine. The younger Elf knew of his elder, He rues not being able to save Phresia and Lirion, the former of whom died fighting and the latter of whom had died from the sorrow of his lover’s death. He could find nothing comforting to say to Hworin, though from how the elder Elf smiled at his beloved Prince, this simple touch from Legolas had done enough.

Thus, Legolas removed his hand and settled back into facing front once more. He again viewed the world around him with simple awe, each detail of every face appearing beautiful to him, for these people appeared authentic, hardworking, and loving of each other, which made them more beautiful than if held to the standards of beauty by which people were normally judged. Of all the faces he could now perceive with his improved vision, Legolas was happiest to see Hworin’s benevolent and familiar countenance. Upon first learning of and meeting his fellow Wood-Elf in the tent the day prior, the laegel had thought that although he did not immediately recognize Hworin’s name or voice, if he could but see his fellow Elf he might know him – and this had turned out to be true.

Upon the coming of dawn this morning, Hworin had stood upon his bed – the branch of the elm beneath the one upon which Legolas slept, that is – to shake gently his Prince to wake him. And after sleeping with another bellyful of Faelthîr’s medicines to aid in reducing the swelling in his head, Legolas had been able to see Hworin clearly for the first time in the orange light of Anor’s grace. He had nearly wept at the sight, for as he had thought, Legolas did in fact recognize Hworin. Over the many years and many servants who had served in his father’s halls, some of whom cycled through various jobs in the stronghold or worked for a while before eventually seeking livelihoods in other ways, there were few who had remained in Thranduil’s household for as long as had Hworin. Off the top of his head, Legolas could only think of Faidnil having served the Elvenking for as long as Hworin; and upon realizing this, the Prince felt ashamed for not having known Hworin’s name, although to be fair to Legolas, Hworin had been the King and Queen’s servant ere the Queen died, and then been relegated to the kitchens as a personal cook for the King, with the kitchens being one of the few places in the palace the Prince never visited, and thus he could not recall ever having spoken to the Silvan servant. Moreover, while Hworin was his given name, absolutely everyone – including the King – called him by the sobriquet ‘Rin,’ and Legolas then realized he had never known the other Elf’s true name was actually Hworin. Had Hworin thought to introduce himself yesterday by his nickname rather than his actual name, Legolas would have known who he was immediately.

In fact, this morning when he had merely stared at the elder Elf with pleased awe to find he recognized him, Hworin had inquired worriedly if Legolas was all right, to which the Prince had replied by calling Hworin ‘Rin,’ grinned in welcome at the other Silvan, and laughed heartily with ease and joy. Legolas’ delight had been mirrored by Hworin, who was reassured to find his Prince was well and likewise, pleased to learn his Prince remembered him. When his father found out about all of this – if Legolas ever scrounged up the bravery to tell him, that is – Thranduil might find some glimmer of humor in hearing of this, at least.

At least I did not wake Rin by moaning or calling out Estel’s name in my sleep. I would never be able to look him in the eye again, he teased himself, smiling widely at the taunt, though he turned this grin towards the river so neither Hannah nor Hworin would see it and wonder what he found so amusing after their morbid topic of just a moment ago.

With this in mind, Legolas’ thoughts naturally strayed to his shared dream with Aragorn. It pleased the Elf greatly to think he need never be parted from his lover while both of them lived, even should distance separate them – they could always convene in their dreams. Even when it came time for him to go home to the Greenwood, should Aragorn not accompany him as the Ranger said he would, Legolas could be appeased by knowing he could speak to the man during their sleeping hours. While the Prince’s faer was no longer as rent by sorrow as it had been over the last year, he need not fear said sorrow’s return or growth due to the absence of his Adan lover – not if he could merely sleep and see his beloved again, speak to him, and perchance even enjoy himself with Estel as had they done last night.

Having never been interested or inclined to bond his faer with another’s faer prior to Estel, Legolas had never once considered what doing so might entail. I would never have guessed our joining would bring such joy, he reflected, his faint smile growing until unknowingly, the Silvan was grinning at everything around him. From where Aragorn had said he was sleeping the night before, Legolas believed his lover would very soon be home in the valley, be tended to by his father, and thus, the Ranger was soon to be safe and cared for. He was relieved Estel had not argued with him but promised to go to Imladris for healing, but also, he was relieved Kalin, Reana, and Elladan were on their way to find him, although he did worry whether they would be able to do so now the refugee camp was on the move.

As it had each time he thought of his and Estel’s dream thus far today, the Wood-Elf’s mind strayed to replaying the events of said dream, in which he and the human had enjoyed the other’s company in an inexplicable, incorporeal intimacy of their faers, which had been demonstrated in their dream-bodies to bring each an ecstasy surpassing any the Prince had ever felt from his physical body alone. I would never have thought we could make love whilst sharing a dream. We will have to try doing so again very soon – especially if it takes Estel a while to heal and he cannot come to Bree soon. Just the recollection incited his imagination to meander into new acts he should like to perform with the man while they slept; more importantly, though, Legolas wanted Aragorn with him in reality. Sharing and sensing his lover’s feelings and faer during a dream was wonderful, but the Prince wanted more to feel the man’s whiskered cheeks under his hands, to recline his slender form against the human’s broader one, and to enjoy the press of Aragorn’s lips against his own. He shifted where he sat, his shaft thickening slightly with his prurient thoughts, while his grin grew until he laughingly chastised himself, Smile any harder and all around you will assume you a bumbling fool!

“A coin for your thoughts,” Hannah offered, bumping her bony shoulder against his upper arm to catch his attention away from his idle contemplation of the fiercely, starkly beautiful grey sky overhead, the straggling clouds looking like long strands of drawn out cotton stretching from the mountains to Anor in the west. The sun was long past its zenith and slowly moving to fall behind the horizon in the distant west: the days were growing ever shorter with winter’s approach. When he turned to look at Hannah, he was entertained by how the crow’s feet around her eyes crinkled as she smiled at him. It made her appear less somber and brooding, and much more motherly. “You are in a very chipper mood, dear.”

Chortling in amusement and with a bit of embarrassment, as he could not imagine explaining to the woman why he was so happy, Legolas demurred, “Yes. I have much over which to be cheerful today.”

Hannah did not press further, though from the peculiar smile she gave him in return, Legolas could tell she wanted to ask more questions. And she might have, had not someone chosen this very moment to attack the group of refugees.

The telltale hiss of an arrow flying through the air alerted the Prince to the danger long before he heard the first scream of the Edain reacting to injury, or calling out in confusion or fear. Without thinking and before the first arrow even met its mark in the mass of people around them, Legolas launched himself at Hannah, knocking her to the side and covering her with his body, while behind him, Hworin cursed loudly – the elder Wood-Elf had heard the sing of the arrow just as had his Prince, and Hworin had thought to do the same for his Prince by throwing his body over Legolas to protect him. The elder Elf cussed because Legolas was trying to save Hannah rather than save himself.

And then came the first scream from the Edain. It was a woman who screamed, though why she did so the Prince could not discern, except that she sounded not in physical pain but emotional anguish. An arrow hissed by Legolas’ ear, landing with a thud as it hit the rail of the bench seat on Hannah’s side, not but a few inches from where his own head was pressing down against the woman’s head to keep her out of harm’s way. With Hannah still under him, he rolled both of their bodies off the bench seat and to the scant protection of the floor boards, keeping his form ever upon the Adan’s to shield her. Once both of them were hidden as well as he could manage, the Elf rose upon his elbows to peer out over the rails.

Chaos erupted.

Hannah’s cart was in the interior of the grouped procession of refugees, such that behind and before and on either side of Legolas, people were running to the cart instinctively, as if huddling together in the middle might offer them protection. Horses and wagons were abandoned. Parents were gathering up their offspring, who did not understand what was occurring, and with their children under their arms like sacks of grain or clutched to their chests, they ran towards each other, making a cluster of now screaming Edain, but also making a large, easy target of themselves should their attackers wish to strike the people down one by one with their bolts and arrows. The able-bodied who had been surrounding the group for protection had their swords and bows drawn, as they backed in towards what was now a writhing mass of nearly a hundred refugees surrounding Hannah’s cart. With wide, fear stricken eyes, they peered out into the dimming environs of the approaching nightfall to try to find from where the danger came, but whoever had been shooting at the refugees did not continue just yet. Nigel and Henri were crouching upon either side of the drays leading the cart, using the horses as buffers. The Dwarves were clambering down from their own cart to hide under it, though they held axes at ready. Along the river, those who had been pulling the rafts were hunkered down in the tall grasses and reeds. One such raft floated away in the southbound current, its rope trailing snakelike behind it. He could not see Hworin over the backrest of the cart’s seat, but Legolas figured this meant the elder Elf was hunched low enough to be safe.

Of the several shots made by the marauders, most had not hit anyone fatally save for an elderly man who now laid dead upon the ground with the fletching of an arrow visible just before his ruined eye, the shaft and head of it sticking out of the other side of his head. The woman whose scream had come first could be heard no longer. Her keening was now indistinguishable amongst the frenzied screeches and petrified exclamations. Legolas saw her knelt on the ground, holding her child where the girl had fallen – said youth had an arrow lodged in her belly. She did not cry herself, but stared uncomprehendingly at her mother as if in question of her mother’s tormented shrieks, all the while a blossom of bright red blood began to bloom across the midsection of the girl’s dress. She could not have been more than ten, by Legolas’ distracted assessment.

A voice rang out, sounding authoritative and deadly, and quieting most of the clamor as it demanded of the menfolk and handful of women who held their swords and bows at ready to fight, “You are hemmed in on all sides. Lay down your weapons or my men will start firing upon your women and children! Now!”

This threat alone caused a sudden uproar of screams from mothers and fathers in fear for their loved ones and progeny. Being that none of the folks creating a ring of feeble protection around their large group could see the man from whom the voice came – much less any of the other men the voice claimed to have surrounding them – the refugee menfolk turned on heel in circles, their weapons still drawn and at ready to kill.

“Put them down, now!” the same voice shouted. “We’ve no use in killing you.”

Under the Wood-Elf with her thin, long fingers gripping tightly the cloth of the arms of the Prince’s tunic, Hannah whispered, “It’s them. The supervisors,” she muttered in a high-pitched, near whimper, her fear blatant in her voice as she continued, “They’ve come to take us back. We can’t go back. We can’t.”

“And you won’t,” he murmured to try to calm her, though in truth, he could not and ought not to promise such a thing.

Peeping up to check the cart behind him, Legolas finally caught sight of Hworin. The cart was not very well made. It was missing several boards on the backing between the bench and the cart itself, and it was through one of these gaps that the Prince saw how Hworin was flattened on the oilcloth tent. In his hand, he held his bow while his quiver lay beside him, but the Silvan was unable to use it just yet – not without knowing how many men there were surrounding them and not while the others were in danger of being caught in the crossfire. Under the laegel, Hannah’s scrawny frame quaked with terror and another small whine erupted from low in her throat, reminding the Prince of a wounded, frightened dog. He could feel every one of the Adan’s too prominent ribs, so tightly was he pressing her down to the floorboards.

There was no time for rational thought. Legolas acted on instinct alone, and his instinct told him he needed for Hannah to be strong and assertive as was she normally, else the others would not follow her lead.

“I will not let them take a single one of you back if I can help it,” he vowed to Hannah, all the while looking at Hworin to communicate to his fellow Elf his intentions. Hworin understood his Prince just fine, it appeared, but judging by the mounting terror in his brown eyes, he did not like it one bit. Quickly, lest the harriers make good on their own promise and start firing into the refugees, Legolas instructed the woman, “But we must draw them out. We must make them think we are surrendering. I need you to be strong, Hannah. I need you to lead your people as you have been doing these past weeks.”

Hannah didn’t respond verbally, but he could feel her head shaking in negation under his own.

“Tell the men to lay down their weapons,” Legolas insisted to the woman.

Legolas held a hand out to the gap in the boards, where Hworin peered back at him. His fellow Wood-Elf regarded his Prince and saw the determination in the laegel’s face. Without needing to be asked, the Silvan deftly, surreptitiously slid his quiver through the gap, followed by his bow. Hworin did not once consider whether his Prince would be the better shot, for the elder Elf knew this was the case – except, neither truly considered how a day prior, Legolas had not been able to see anything but distortions and shadows. No, what Hworin feared was not handing his weapon over to his Prince, but that in doing so, he was allowing his Prince to take the chance he thought should be his to take to protect his liege.

“Tell them, Hannah, for fuck’s sake,” he swore at the woman, uncaring of his vulgarity and unnoticing of how much he sounded like his father just then in ordering her rather than requesting. This was not the time for pleasantness. “They will listen to you. Tell your people to lay down their weapons,” he hissed at her.

A single arrow – a warning shot – came whistling through the air; this time, the projectile flew into the outer ring of the thronged together group of women and children, where it struck another young and innocent girl, hitting this one in the neck. Glimpsing over the handrail just above his and Hannah’s heads, Legolas had a clear view of the child’s eyes when they went wide, ere she toppled over lifelessly in her mother’s arms. The mother, meanwhile, screeched hellishly, and forewent any concerns for her own safety. She stumbled out of the group of her kith, took her lifeless bairn in her arms, and wailed while dropping to her knees, clutching her girl against her breast.

“This is your last warning!” came the disembodied voice.

Legolas could hear amusement in the man’s tone, his enjoyment of the refugees’ fear sparking the dormant ember of righteous wrath inside the Elf, which was ever present, ever waiting for outlet, though rarely did he turn this upon anyone or anything except those of the Darkness. For harming innocent women and children, these assailants would incinerate in his comburent rage, or he would die trying to see it so.

“Trust me,” he asked of Hannah, raising his head again only enough to look her in the eyes. “Trust me and I promise that until my last breath I will work to ensure all of those men lie dead and as many of you survive as possibly I can. But you must trust me.”

Whether it was his words or the grieving mother’s cries of heartache, Hannah’s indecision finally broke. The fear seeped from her vapid, emerald eyes, and the strength of her returned. She took in as deep a breath as she could with Legolas’ weight upon her thin chest and shouted out to the others whom she led, “Lay them down, my friends! Put your weapons down! Do as he says!”

To Legolas’ relief – but also to his slight amazement, for despite his having believed the Edain would listen to Hannah he was still shocked to see them do it so readily – their protectors began to lay down their bows, swords, knives, and crudely made spears. The group of refugees had been travelling relatively closely together, such that all hundred or so of them were visible to the Elf, with none of them seemingly having strayed too far north or straggled too far south on the mostly treeless stretch of riverbank upon which they travelled, and since the refugees had run to each other for safety, he hoped he could focus the harriers’ attention away from the bulk of the Edain, if nothing else.

There cannot be enough men to have surrounded us on all sides, the experienced Silvan reasoned quickly, his warrior’s mind rapidly supplying him with a myriad assortment of such calculations, all of which came second nature to the well trained and battle seasoned Wood-Elf. They are surely not on the other side of the river, he ruminated, for the refugees had been traversing close to the bank so if there were men on that side of them, they would have to be across the Greyflood, and if they are, they cannot swim across before my arrows find them. If they were north of us, we would surely have been alerted by those travelling at the head of the group. And if they were behind the stragglers of our group, Hworin would surely have noticed their approach, he debated with himself, for his fellow Silvan had been riding facing backwards so would have noticed being followed. They must want the refugees alive; else, they would just begin picking them off without asking for surrender. This works in our favor. They would not waste good slaves if they can help it. Most of his cogitations were based upon hope, Legolas realized, but there was little else he could suss out in such short time, and sometimes, hope was all one had upon which to rely.  

“That’s right,” the man’s voice shouted in victory. “Now step back, with the women and children,” he told the menfolk, who obeyed, leaving their weapons on the ground as they backed in towards the fearful huddle of their kith and kin. “Go on now,” the man prodded, sounding like he were shooing cattle into the pen, which was exactly what these Edain were to the man speaking – no more than livestock.

Legolas peeked out over the rail to check if their ruse was working. With the Edain’s protectors disarmed, the harriers came out of the woods along their left side. As he had discerned, the refugees were not truly surrounded, for no attackers appeared from the east on the other side of the wide river, from the south behind the caravan, nor from the north where they had been headed. Counting them the best he could without giving away his intent or his location, Legolas noted there to be about fifteen attackers, though he knew there might still be some hidden in the tree line.

“Ah, ah, ah,” the same voice chastised someone. “I see that dagger on your belt. Throw it down or I will put you down.”

Legolas finally saw the man speaking as he approached the group of Edain from the side. The man was just a man – that is, he had pleasant enough features, with dark hair pulled into a tail at his nape and watery blue eyes. He did not appear evil or tainted by the Dark. He was relatively clean and kempt, wearing clothing suitable for travel but nothing terribly fancy. The sword on his belt was the kind made by any smith in any village, and in his hands, he held just a simple long bow, a poorly fashioned arrow attached at the string, ready to be fired at the young Adan to whom he spoke. Said Adan did as requested, pulled his forgotten dagger from his waist, which was little more than a paring knife, and tossed it away. This caused the harriers’ leader to smile in triumph.

“Legolas?” the woman under him susurrated in question.

Not looking down, the Elf shook his head at her, hoping she would quiet. He wanted to give their attackers a few more moments of feeling in control in hopes for any lingering in the woods to come out with the others.

The leader allowed his bowstring to fall lax, removed the arrow from it, and then hooked his weapon upon the latch upon his back with one hand while sliding the arrow into a quiver belted on the hip opposite his sword. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? None of this has to be hard. You know why we are here, don’t you?” he asked, and then continued, answering his own question, “Of course you do. You stole from us. We gave you jobs, houses, food to put in your bellies, in your kids’ bellies, and how do you repay us? By burning down the Overseer’s house, nearly killing the kind man who took you in, and then stealing food, horses, and most importantly, the ore and jewels, the very wealth we’d gathered to provide for you, to house and feed you, to protect you. And how many of us did you kill to get that wealth, hmm? How many of your own did you murder during the chaos of your robbery?”

The laegel hazily wondered if any of what this man said was true. He tried to recall the conversation from the afternoon before, when Hworin, Faelthîr, Nigel, and Hannah had related to him all the events of what had transpired concerning their imprisonment and eventual escape from this Overseer’s compound. In the end, he found it didn’t matter. The two children who had been struck with arrows, one of whom was dead and the other likely dying, had done nothing to deserve being shot down like rabid dogs, and he would not lie here and wait for these Edain, Dwarves, and Hworin – or himself – to be taken as slaves as recompense for whatever the Edain had stolen to get away from the harsh conditions under which they had been suffering, at the mercy of this supposedly benevolent Overseer.

Perhaps Hannah saw the momentary vacillation upon the Wood-Elf’s face. Perhaps she thought his lack of action meant he would not act at all. Or, perhaps Hannah wanted for Legolas to end the man ere he revealed any more damning information about the refugees and their actions. She again grabbed the sleeves of the Elf’s tunic – the very tunic she had helped dress him in after aiding him in bathing, the one she had taken from her own husband’s clothes, ere she then fed Legolas and tended his wounds.

“Please,” Hannah whispered to the Prince in a voice harsh with anger but on the verge of tears. Her undernourished face was pallid save for two bright spots of rubicund anger high upon her pronounced cheekbones. “Save as many as you can. And kill those bastards.”

He glanced down at her, saw the hope she held that he would keep his word and aid her people, and knew he had to do this as efficiently and expertly as possible so he would not be wasting his life, for should he only take down a few of the attackers before they brought him down, the refugees would pay for his mistake with their lives. With the practiced motion of a natural archer, he ran his fingertips over the arrows in Hworin’s quiver, counting them in doing so.

Twenty. And there are fifteen of the Overseer’s men, if I counted correctly.

He knew Hworin had crafted these, so they were well made – he only hoped his improved but not yet mended eyesight and fortified but not yet restored body would not hinder him in letting each arrow find its mark.

As he crawled to his knees in preparation, trying his best not to crush Hannah in doing so, Legolas grasped Hworin’s bow in one hand and several arrows in the other, with the quiver on the bench seat beside him for easy access.

Legolas notched his first arrow, leapt to his feet to stand up, thereby drawing the men’s attention to him with his sudden movement and appearance, and prayed, Eru, please guide my hands and eyes so my aim is true.

Chapter Text

Legolas did not spare a moment before letting his first arrow fly. The familiar feeling of feather fletching flitting past his fingers, the conversant whistle of the arrow as it rushed through the air, and the satisfying thump of the projectile finding its intended target – all of this eased the Wood-Elf’s initial anxiety entirely, for with this first, well-placed shot, the Prince became dispassionately calm. In his long life, Legolas had spent countless hours of countless days preparing for this very kind of situation, and he had already fought through countless battles much worse than this one.

This was for what the Prince had been trained. This was for what he had been born. This was Legolas’ craft.

It took no longer than had the flight of his first arrow taken to meet its mark for Legolas to establish his strategy; emotionlessly, his mind rapidly deliberated the best tactic for removing as many of his targets as he could, as quickly as possible, while also choosing the most dangerous marks first. In that split second of planning, ere the first man the Prince dispatched even realized he was doomed to die, Legolas decided this: the harriers who held arrows upon their bowstrings would be pursued first, as a single fired arrow from any of them might eventuate in another child’s death. Next, Legolas would take down anyone else who had a bow in hand or in their possession, as they could cause carnage without needing to draw near. And then, there would only be left those of their attackers who now stood with swords and knives drawn, who would need to run closer to be of much danger to the innocent children and womenfolk, and thus, those whom the Elf deemed currently to be the least dangerous. Should Legolas not already have been shot down himself by the time he eliminated all the bowmen, the Prince would take out the rest of the harriers as they tried to run into melee range – hopefully, he could kill as many of them as possible before they reached the main throng of women and children surrounding the cart upon which Legolas stood, as he did not currently trust his aim to fire among the refugees.

Although his eyesight was not perfect as had it been before the injury to his head, Legolas had been studying and practicing archery since he was a child, and he had spent years perfecting his craft not merely on straw targets, but moving, screaming, fighting Yrrch and spiders. Thus, even unable to see quite as clearly now as before, he was able to rely upon millennia of battle-borne instinct and the mind clearing rush of adrenaline to aid him.

By the time his first target fell dead upon the ground, Legolas knew the position of every attacker and knew which of them to strike down first. By the time the other slavers took notice of the first man’s death, the Silvan released two more arrows, causing two more deaths. And finally, they seemed to realize what was happening; in a dazed confusion, the men looked to where Legolas stood upon the cart. They had noticed him when first he had leapt up from his hiding spot atop Hannah’s prone form, but apparently, they had not appreciated the Elf as a threat. Yet, as the fourth of the harriers’ marksmen – the last who held his bow at ready rather than at his side – fell dead with an arrow to his chest, chaos erupted amongst them, with the remaining few with bows reaching for them now. They were Legolas’ next set of targets.

In motions too fast for the surprised harriers to discern, the laegel reached for Hworin’s well-crafted arrows, releasing each in rapid succession, and each finding its mark with murderous ease. Had the Elf even looked down, he would have noticed he grabbed the shafts not from the quiver he had lain on the bench seat of the cart, but directly from Hworin’s grasp, as his elder Silvan had slithered the upper half of his body through the missing boards between the wagon’s rear and its front, and was handing his liege each arrow so his Prince would not fumble to find a single one. Three times he was handed an arrow by Hworin, and three times said arrow struck a harrier in the heart. Those three now dead were amongst those Legolas had determined would die in his second wave of volleys, for they were the ones with bows who – once over the initial shock of the Prince’s attack and thus once Legolas’ advantage of surprise was gone – might have tried to take Legolas down or perchance threaten the group of refugees in an attempt to halt him.

Wait, he told himself. His hands sought another arrow to begin the final round of his strategy by killing next the men who held swords and were even now running towards the refugees to get into range of Legolas, to halt his slaughter of their group. There was another one with a bow, he believed, though obviously he could not take the moment to stop and search for the missing man. Instead, he aimed at a harrier who was first to near the outer fringes of the amassed refugees, while hoping to take this slaver down before he might try to carve his way through the women, elderly, and children to try to get to the Prince.

A sharp tug at the waist of his trousers caused the Wood-Elf to stumble and sent his arrow flying off into the sky, far above its intended target; however, Hworin’s interference to shift his Prince’s stance was intentional and well-timed, for by his actions, Hworin moved Legolas from the way of a dagger thrown at him by one of the men, who had reacted more quickly than his stunned brethren. Said blade struck the bench seat beside him, where it clanged against the side of the wooden planks and fell to the floorboards underneath without having found its way into the Prince’s flesh.

The man who had thrown the dagger – along with three others – ran towards the huddled group of refugees in a poor attempt to reach Legolas with their melee weapons. Although the Silvan stood higher than the rest of his companions and thus made an easier target, he stood on the cart in the middle of a hundred or so crowding people through whom the Overseer’s men would need to wade, for these harriers were without bows and had not thought to stop to pick up their fallen brethren’s weapons to take aim from afar.

One arrow wasted, he told himself, not sparing the time to thank or so much as look at Hworin in gratitude. If he lived through this, he would thank his fellow Silvan later. Twelve arrows left, he counted in his head rather than with his eyes. Since he was left with twelve of twenty arrows and one had been lost, this meant seven men were already dead from Legolas’ righteous violence. Eight or so of them left, if none of them are hiding in the trees. And all those with bows are brought down, except the one… he reflected.

Even as his mind sussed through this information, his hands were still at work, and he reached down for another arrow, which Hworin handed him. Legolas intuitively notched and let fly the projectile, which burst through the heart of the man who had thrown the dagger. The now dead man was knocked backwards and his drawn sword fell to the ground. Another slaver leapt over his dead friend’s body and continued to sprint towards the refugees, his homicidal gaze upon Legolas. The wailing woman whose daughter had earlier been hit by an arrow to her belly knelt holding her now dead daughter in her arms. She cried out as this man ran near her and then reached out and caught hold of one of his feet, which tripped him and caused him to stumble into the group of refugees, his broadsword tumbling out of his hands. Weaponless and surrounded, the man tried to gain his feet in a hurry, with flabbergasted refugees standing there vacillating as to whether to attack.

And so, knowing the Edain must stand up and fight for themselves, lest any more of them die in the slavers’ attempt to get to him, Legolas called out in hope of uniting them, “To arms! Take them down! Their archers are dead and you now outnumber them!”

No less shocked than were the harriers with the sudden change of fortune from being overrun to having a chance at victory, the refugees were slow to listen to the Prince. A few scattered from the group to find the weapons they had dropped earlier at Hannah’s insistence, but the rest – farmers and merchants, untrained in battle as they were, and beaten down from their time as slaves on the Overseer’s farm – did not move until from the floorboards at Legolas’ feet, Hannah screamed shrilly, “Take them down!”

With Mother’s rallying cry, all the Edain’s hesitation disappeared. The last of the men and women who had lain down their arms at Hannah’s orders leapt up and ran to recover their cast aside arms. So far, of the fifteen or so of the Overseer’s men Legolas had previously counted, the Prince himself had eradicated eight. Except the missing bowman, the remaining slavers were immediately engaged by refugees bearing their shoddy weapons, but being that the former slaves were in groups battling single harriers, Legolas hoped that even should they not be able to take them down, they might be able to keep them at bay until he could get a clear shot. As for the man who had been tripped by the grieving mother, he suddenly found himself surrounded by a swarm of weaponless refugees – mostly women with their children pushed to stand behind them – all of whom vengefully dragged the now screaming man back to the ground, where they took to stomping upon him as he tried to struggle away. With too many people around the shrieking, panicked man, Legolas could not put him out of his misery, and so with little regret, the Elf left him to die painfully and slowly from being beaten to death.

Legolas scanned the writhing, confused, and chaotic mass of people around him in search for another target, and found one – the last remaining archer, who was smarter than the rest, it seemed, for he ran towards the tree line for cover. From there, if the man did not intend to run for his life but chose to fight, he could potentially kill as many refugees as he had arrows – if Legolas could not take him down quickly, that is. With every other slaver now surrounded by the camp’s defenders, Legolas quickly turned to hand his bow to Hworin, only to find the elder Silvan was leaping over the partition between the front and back of the wagon, his hand already out to take the weapon from his Prince. He did not need to ask Hworin for what he wanted; that is, for the elder Silvan to cover Legolas and the other refugees should the archer reappear to make trouble or should unforeseen reinforcements arrive from the woods to their west.

He leapt down from the wagon with the grace of his kind, but his speed was amplified by the adrenaline coursing through his body. This was not a true battle – not the likes of which Legolas had participated in before, with waves upon waves of Orcs or spiders to replace each one felled – but it was also more harrowing than a normal battle, as usually, Legolas was surrounded by his fellow Wood-Elves, all of whom were capable of fighting. This group of refugees, however, could barely evade the lunges from the harriers’ swords, and their own thrusts were parried easily by the Overseer’s men’s shields and greater expertise at swordsmanship.

Legolas pushed through the tangle of refugees and moved towards the edge of the cluster of people. He bypassed where Nigel and Henri were fighting together to eliminate the group’s leader – the one who had barked his orders and made his threats to the former slaves – and instead made a beeline for where two refugees, both of whom were no more than boys, were clumsily attempting to take down a huge, burly man wielding a massive broadsword. Luckily, the boys were quicker and evaded their attacker’s deadly, forceful, but slow swings of the heavy broadsword – but they did so only barely. Legolas stopped briefly, reached down to the corpse of one of the archers he had shot down only moments ago, and from the corpse retrieved a short sword of relative length and weight as his beloved long knife. Now armed for close combat, the Wood-Elf jumped into the fray between the mountainous man and the two boys. The burly man stood no chance against Legolas, for while this attacker’s swings were powerful, the laegel was too quick, and after the harrier’s first swing and Legolas’ first dodge, he could not recuperate in time to evade the Prince’s upward thrust. The blade slid through the man’s chest as easily as a finger parts water.

He pulled free his claimed weapon from the now dead man’s torso and scanned the woods for the missing archer, who had yet to reappear for Hworin to attempt to take him down. Left now were only the Overseer’s representative, whom Nigel and Henri still struggled to take down, a tall and ghoulish looking slaver who was soon felled by three of the refugees’ defenders, and two harriers who were nearly back-to-back, fending off all comers. While none who approached the duo had yet to be wounded seriously, several refugees had attempted to engage the two, only to be forced to fall back after being injured. As Nigel and Henri seemed the better swordsmen than those who were trying to bring down the two slavers working in tandem, Legolas again left Nigel and Henri to their skirmish and moved to aid the others against the back-to-back harriers.

However, the sing of an arrow distracted the Prince. He stopped in his tracks and instead turned to Hworin, hoping his fellow Silvan had fired this arrow. And yet, the shrieks of fear piercing the darkening night’s cool air a moment later told Legolas the missing archer had not run for his life, but had instead doubled back and was attacking the women, children, elderly, and injured refugees. Without hesitation, the Wood-Elf ran towards the rear of the group, near to where the arrow had struck and closest to the woods wherein the archer had run for cover. Again, he looked up at Hworin, but though the elder Silvan was observing the tree line intently with his arrow notched and at ready, he could not find the final archer amidst the thicket, it seemed.

Please, do not let it be another child, the Prince prayed to Varda.

Already, two little girls were dead this evening, at least. These poor Edain had been through enough without losing their children. To his guilty relief, this time it was not a child who was hit. Even as Legolas’ mind remained blank with the calm precision of millennia of experience in warcraft, he nonetheless came to the dire realization that the now dead man was the one he had seen earlier walking on crutches – the one whose daughter had complained about being tired and wanting to be carried, and who had been so gratefully happy when another refugee allowed the girl to ride upon his shoulders. So while it was not another child dead, a child now did not have a father. He stopped at the periphery at the rear of the group; the refugees were pressing northwards, nearly trampling each other in their attempt to flee from the range of the archer’s arrows, though he had yet to fire again.

A flash of silver hair caught the Elf’s eye and he called out to his fellow Silvan in Elvish, “The briars, Hworin!”

The Wood-Elf did not turn to look at his Prince, but kept his eyes upon the edge of the woods to their southwest, from where the arrow had come and where could be found the thicket of briars of which his Prince spoke. Trusting in Hworin’s abilities as an archer, the laegel considered whether to try to flush out the final bowman by rousting him from the woods somehow. Since he was taking aim at the defenseless of their group, this final archer was the most important target to the Wood-Elf. With the familiar twang of a bowstring being released followed by the hissing song of a flying arrow, an elderly man crumpled to the ground soundlessly, though the people around him screeched in fear and began pushing against each other in their attempt to flee in the opposite direction from where the arrows flew. Working entirely on instinct, Legolas did not form a coherent plan – all he knew was innocent people were being hurt and killed and he needed to end this immediately. Thus, when he ran against the throng of people, he had a vague notion of trying to distract the man’s attention away from the women and children and towards him, instead.

Another glimpse of the bowman’s grey hair amidst the foliage drew Legolas’ attention, which then caught upon the fletching of an arrow – white feathered – for it stood out in contrast to the darkening sky and the forest in the background. Legolas forwent trying to track the man behind the loosing of said projectile and instead followed the projectile itself, and thus was able to see it just when it began to fly from the bowstring. He quickly tried to predict its trajectory. While unable to tell at exactly whom the arrow was aimed, Legolas could see it was not aimed at him but at the tail end of the mass  of refugees to his right, where somewhat away from the others stood a woman and two children. Said woman was quivering in fear, her eyes wide but unseeing, and unlike the others, she was not trying to flee north away from the hidden danger of the bowman. She had her children gathered against her legs, her long skirts wrapped around them as if this might hide them or offer them some shelter from the violence occurring, but it would not protect any of them from the death hurtling at them right now.

In that split second of ascertaining the projectile’s flight path and seeing to where the arrow was headed, the Woodland Prince merely leapt towards the small family, turned his back to where the archer had walked out from behind a tree to make his shot, threw his arms out to catch the three Edain, and bowled over the woman and her children. He thought that if he could only knock the woman and children down in time, none of them would be hit, and as there stood no one behind the three Edain, the arrow might fly past everyone harmlessly. And then, perhaps, in the meantime Hworin could take the damned bowman down before he could let loose another shot into the throng of refugees.

Legolas did not have time to pray to Ilúvatar for the speed or strength to see this task done. He did not even have time to think through this hasty action. And indeed, the Prince nearly did not make it in time – and yet, he knew he had succeeded in saving the lives of the woman and her children when a sharp and debilitating agony speared through his left shoulder, beginning in his upper back and tunneling through his flesh to the front of his chest. The screams of the woman whom the Elf had knocked over, the shouts of Hworin from the cart where he stood, and the sounds of clanging metal as the Edain tried to bring down the last few of their attackers all faded to silence when the Prince hit the ground and his mind went black.

Chapter Text

He did not fall into unconsciousness, though for a few moments seeming longer than were they truly, Legolas laid on his side upon the cold ground, unable to hear, see, or feel anything but the agony from the arrow jutting out from his chest. And then, he took a deep breath, for in his fall to the earth, the laegel had knocked the wind from his lungs and thus, he had nearly knocked himself out.

The archer. I must rise to see he is felled, the Prince told himself in the effort of forcing his body to rouse. While he felt certain he had taken the arrow meant for the woman or her children, he needed to know they were safe – that all the refugees were safe – by rising up and standing his ground, rather than lying here when there was still murderous work to be done. With another deep breath, the vacancy of his mind began to clear, and he heard a familiar voice call out to him, “Legolas!”

And with this single heard word, all the rest of the commotion from the chaos of the refugees and the end of their fight against the slavers came crashing into the Elf’s mind. He blinked; when he opened his eyes again, he could see Hworin dropping to his knees to check on him. At once, the stricken, panicked servant tried to roll the motionless, unresponsive laegel to his back so he could see the younger Elda’s face, to know if his beloved Prince still lived, but in doing so, the fletched end of the arrow inside Legolas’ flesh struck the ground and caused the laegel to gasp at the added pain.

“Oh, Elbereth’s grace, shine upon my Prince, please,” Hworin whispered anxiously as he readjusted the younger Elda into lying upon his side again. “I’m sorry, your Highness. Did I hurt you? I did not see the arrow, Legolas, I am sorry. Eru have mercy. Do not move, please. Let me call for Faelthîr or Hannah or someone,” the Silvan rattled off, terror tingeing his every word, for seeing Legolas injured made Hworin – who had been stalwart in the face of battle moments ago – now tremble in terror for his Prince’s welfare. “Legolas?” he prompted when the younger Silvan did not meet his gaze but stared off into the distance, towards the woods. “Your Highness!” he called out urgently, softly, as though to draw his liege back into awareness.

Not having actually given Legolas the chance to answer, Hworin now feared his Prince was not speaking because he was incapable, and drew the worst conclusion that the younger Elda was dying before his very eyes. Unable to check the tree line from his place upon the ground, Legolas could not assuage his fear for the refugees by ascertaining the last bowman’s death, and so looked to the elder Elf with the intent to question him. At this slight sign of responsiveness from his fellow Silvan, Hworin sighed gutturally and bowed his head, and then mouthed some kind of prayer of gratitude without saying the words aloud. He then began looking over Legolas’ body for further injury. Regarding again the arrow sticking out of his liege’s flesh, Hworin’s thankful smile crumpled into a worried grimace, for Hworin saw more clearly the extent of the damage done to his Prince by this wound upon his shoulder – the very part of his trunk wherein his heart lay – and troubled that his relief had come too soon and Legolas would be sure to die.   

He hoped Hworin would not have forsaken his task of striking down the bowman just to come check upon his wounded Prince, but then, Hworin was a house servant, not a warrior, without the same experience and training as a sentry or guard, and besides, Hworin’s love for his King and Prince likely outweighed his own instinct for survival. In a voice breaking with pain, he asked of the Wood-Elf while ignoring Hworin’s vexed and worrisome rambling for now, “The last archer. Hworin, did you take him down?”

“I did, your Highness,” Hworin told Legolas, “and gladly so. The Edain just slew the last two of the slavers, save for the supervisor who led them.” He held tight to Legolas’ arm with both hands, ensuring the laegel neither sat up nor by accident rolled over, such that hopefully the Prince was kept from harming himself further by jarring the projectile lodged inside his chest. “And that one Nigel and Henri have disarmed and on his knees right now. We are safe for now, I think.”

Legolas closed his eyes and rested the side of his head against the cold, wet, and boot trodden ground. Thank you, Ilúvatar. These poor Edain could have been massacred, had not you been watching out for their welfare this night.

“No, your Highness. Stay awake, please,” Hworin begged of Legolas while patting gently the side of the younger Elf’s face. “Hannah!” he called out, “Faelthîr!”

Although the Wood-Elf opened his eyes again to appease Hworin’s fear, he knew he was in no danger of falling into unconsciousness for the moment. Indeed, Legolas thought his wound not as bad as it likely appeared to his fellow Silvan, for while it had pierced his left shoulder and thus looked like it might have come close to piercing his heart, the Prince believed it had only passed through the muscle. He breathed deeply merely to see if he could without hindrance, and though it pained him when stretching the muscles of his upper torso, he was able to do so just fine.

“Oh, Maker’s mercy,” he heard Hannah say before he saw the woman. As had Hworin, Hannah fell to her knees next to Legolas, though she did so in front of the prone Wood-Elf rather than behind him. In the darkening night’s cold breeze, the silver threaded through Hannah’s brown hair shone like mithril, while her wide, green eyes were filled with tears as she looked down upon Legolas. “This looks bad, my dear. Very bad.”

A bit uncharitably, Legolas wondered, Is she truly upset I am hurt? And if she is, is it because she fears Estel will refuse to allow the Dúnedain to aid them if I have been injured, or if I am dead? Or does she actually care for my wellbeing?

He soon felt he had his answer when Hannah placed a hand on either side of his face and leant in towards him; she kissed his forehead and whispered tearfully, “Thank the Creator you are alive, my dear, and thank you, as well, Legolas. You saved us.”

“He saved us,” someone echoed quietly from behind Hannah. The Adan woman shifted to look behind her, where stood the mother and her two children, all of whom were alive and unhurt, although the mother appeared wild-eyed and in shock. “Mother,” she told Hannah, dragging her two children along with her as she walked forward to tell the older woman, “He pushed us from the way and took the arrow meant for us. He saved my bairns.”

Although Hannah had seen most of Legolas’ actions in firing arrow after arrow to dispense with most of the group of slavers, she had not seen this particular heroism, it seemed, for when she turned back to Legolas, the tears once welling in her eyes were now flowing freely down her face. She beamed at the Prince. In that smile, Legolas saw the young, beautiful woman she had been before her years of hard work tilling fields, before the joyous hardship of bearing three boys, and before the recent loss of her freedom, children, and friends from the Overseer. This single smile uncluttered years of worry from her face, cleared every line from it save for the crow’s feet around her eyes, and made her eyes twinkle like emeralds in low candlelight.

“Did he?” she whispered not to the woman who had spoken to her, but as if to herself, adding, “Of course, he did.”

Just as suddenly as it had appeared, her smile dissipated when someone nearby wailed loudly in unchecked grief, a sound which startled Hworin and Legolas, also, and caused all three of them to look off in the direction from where the bawling came. I may have saved the one woman and her children, but the mother keening now has lost her daughter, he rued, and at least one more little girl is dead, while another one has no father to whom to turn for comfort this cheerless night. He knew he had done all he could to save as many of the refugees as he could – this was exactly what Hannah had asked of him the moment before he stood to face the slavers. And yet, listening to the woman wail in agony over the untimely demise of her innocent, young daughter made the laegel’s heart ache for her loss. Lying upon his side with an arrow sticking from his chest, Legolas felt useless and low, as if he were feigning being hurt when there were people suffering greatly around him. He placed a hand under him and tried to shift into sitting only to be thwarted gently by Hworin.

“I am sorry,” he felt compelled to say. When a confused Hannah whirled her gaze back to him, Legolas said again, “I am sorry. I should not have waited so long before I engaged them. Perhaps the two girls, at least, would have survived.”

“Your Highness,” Hworin began, thinking to relieve his Prince’s guilt, though he was soon interrupted by Hannah.

She held her hand out, silencing Hworin and simultaneously warning Legolas with this single gesture. The strong willed, gentle, and maternal Adan woman reminded him so much of his Minyatar in that moment that affectionate fondness welled inside his chest, while concomitant homesickness for the valley and his second family there moiled in his empty belly.

Succinctly, she replied, “We would all be dead or in chains if not for your bravery, my dear, so I shan’t listen to your apology. Now come, sit up for now,” she told him, nodding to Hworin as she instructed, “You get that side of him and I will get this one, and together we will aid him.”

Although Hworin did as he was bid and together the Wood-Elf and Adan helped Legolas upright, the elder Silvan implored of Hannah, “We need to get this arrow out of him.”

Now that the Prince sat between them, he could see better the confusion of the people around them. True to Hworin’s description, all the harriers were lying dead, with the sword wielding Nigel, Henri, and a couple other Edain surrounding the now unarmed, kneeling supervisor a short distance away. Hannah followed Legolas’ gaze and joined in for his scrutiny of their ragged band of refugees. Parents were offering succor to their children; children without parents were being held and comforted by other adults; an elderly man was weeping unabashedly while looking down upon the dead body of another aged refugee; and many of the Edain were milling about in stunned silence, having no task set before them, no idea as to what they might now do, and no leader to guide them, for their ‘Mother’ had yet to take charge.

Hannah needs to get them going, Legolas decided as he gingerly shifted how he sat. We need to move from here as soon as feasible. In his moving, he pulled the muscles of his upper chest, which wrenched a hiss of pain from the Wood-Elf. In response, Hannah reached out to hold her hand to Legolas’ cheek in comfort, as it was all she knew to do for him.

“Where is Faelthîr?” Hworin asked the strangely quiescent woman.

“I haven’t seen her. I just meant to find her to help with our injured when I saw you with Legolas and came to see what ailed him. Indeed,” Hannah thought aloud, her thumb caressing Legolas’ cheekbone in absentminded, maternal affection, “I’ve not seen her for hours. I assumed she was walking with the young ones as is her wont but she’s not with them now. Perhaps she’s hid somewhere. Or I hope she’s hiding and not hurt and yet to be found.”

As the true leader of the refugees, Hannah had established and upheld several rules to ensure the safety of her kith and kin, such as no fighting amongst themselves, no taking more than one’s fair share, and holding everyone responsible for the watching and safekeeping of the many children in the group. Likewise, Hannah had instituted a very simple rule during traveling – if one needed to leave the group to answer nature’s call or the like, one had to inform those around them and were encouraged to take a companion. With a crowd this large – even a group where everyone knew almost everyone – it was difficult to keep track of each person’s whereabouts, as a person might go missing and their absence unnoticed unless others were made aware to watch for their return.

Knowing this already, Legolas understood Hworin’s concern when he asked, “She wouldn’t have gone off alone without telling someone she was leaving. Perhaps we should search the forest.”

Unwelcome suspicion coiled in the Prince’s belly. An attack upon the Edain and Faelthîr is nowhere near the danger and fighting? What are the odds of her leaving to answer nature’s call the very moment we are set upon by slavers? he asked himself, then promptly felt petty and mean for doing so. I should not be so mistrustful. Were it not for Faelthîr, I would not have been able to see to aid these Edain against the slavers. Perhaps, with Hannah angered with her for misleading her about Estel, he wondered of how Faelthîr had not mentioned to Hannah how the man whose lover she had helped to torment was also the leader of the Rangers from whom they sought aid, she thought to go her own way in hopes of avoiding conflict, or to avoid being sent to Imladris once Elrond learns of her location.

“I hope she is not hurt,” Hannah worried aloud again, her hand never leaving Legolas’ cheek, where it swept along his cheek with forthright fondness for this Elf whom she had taken under her wing in hopes of saving, but who today had saved her – and her people. She gave Hworin a meaningful, perspicacious look behind which the Prince could not fathom the meaning until Hannah told the elder Wood-Elf, “You know firsthand how the Overseer’s men behaved around Phresia. If one of them found her in the woods off on her own before he came this way with the others…”

No matter the role Faelthîr had played in Legolas’ own defilement and torment, he would never wish it upon her in return, and so, hearing this possibility, the Prince felt the need to yank the arrow from his shoulder and stand, to take up his sword and begin his search, for if there were any chance the Elleth was suffering under the lust of some foul slaver, Legolas would put a violent end to it. And again, he felt ashamed for doubting her and questioning the convenience of her missing the fight.

To add to his ignominy, someone answered Hannah’s question. The elderly man who had been crying next to the corpse of another elderly Adan, who Legolas remembered to have been there when first he was found by Hannah and to be called Abrahm, hobbled over to where Hworin and Hannah knelt beside the prone Prince and said, “Faelthîr? She was in the woods, looking for herbs for this one’s head,” he explained, nodding towards Legolas before he continued, “or so she told us. She went with Brandt and Janey, who was looking for greens to feed the young ones at dinnertime. Been gone for an hour or so. Said they’d be back by dark.”

It was dark now and Faelthîr had not returned – nor had Janey or Brandt, it seemed – which he felt could only mean they had met with trouble. It seemed Hworin and Hannah drew similar conclusions, for Hannah first thanked Abrahm for the information before she conjectured worriedly, “You are right, Hworin, sweetheart. We need to search the forest. Let us go talk to Nigel about it,” she told the two Eldar, asking of Legolas, “Can you walk, dear? Only as far as the cart, mind you. We can sit you upon it for now while I think of what to do,” the harried woman asked, her hands now flitting about her without purpose or direction, which reflected her distraught mind. That Hannah was flustered showed the depths of her distress and anxiety, for prior to the arrival of the slavers, Legolas had never seen the Adan appear anything but levelheaded.

“Yes, I can walk,” he told them. He searched the ground around him for the weapon he had dropped just before tackling the woman and children to the ground, and then held the confiscated short sword tightly in his hand. He did not intend to relinquish it until he had his own long knife back upon his person. He could no longer assume the refugees were capable of defending themselves, so would not remain without arms any longer.

“No, no,” Hworin told Hannah when she tried to aid the Silvan servant in this task, “I can lift him myself. You just stand in front and make sure he doesn’t stumble, Mother.”

With that, Hworin crouched behind Legolas, grabbed him under the arms, and raised his Prince from the ground like a father might lift his Elfling into the air. His feet now under him, he accepted Hworin and Hannah’s assistance in walking. Truly, he did not need them to keep him steady, for while painful and gruesome, the arrow wound thus far showed no signs of being lethal or damaging; and yet, he knew it made them feel better to aid him, so let the two guide him to the cart, which was also closer to where the supervisor knelt upon the ground surrounded by swords.  Luckily, it seemed none of the horses had been hit by arrows or an errant swing of a blade, which would be fortuitous in that there were now many more injured refugees than were there before the harriers attacked them.

Why is this one still alive? he asked himself upon reaching the wagon. Although Hworin and Hannah seemed intent upon placing Legolas into the cart itself, likely having him lie down upon the folded up mess of oilcloth which constructed the pavilion under which many of the refugees slept, Legolas would not have it – not while there was still one more slaver with which to contend. So instead of stopping with Hannah and Hworin’s pause at the wagon’s bed, he walked on alone towards the front until his two self-appointed caretakers took hold of his arms again and aided him a few more strides. Surely they do not mean to keep him prisoner, he wondered. He must have surrendered once he saw all his fellow slavers fall.

Nigel looked to his approaching wife and the two Wood-Elves. The short, stout man had a cut upon his brow, which bled freely but did not appear to be life threatening. Henri was unharmed but sweating profusely, while his eyes were wide and his normally tanned skin very pale.

“I can’t kill him in cold blood,” Nigel said without prompt to his wife, shaking his head in negation of the very thought of taking the supervisor’s life. Legolas realized then he had guessed right: the supervisor had yielded.

He sat upon the small step on the side of the cart, meant to aid the driver into climbing to the bench seat, to watch unfold the fate of the supervisor. From where he knelt on the ground, his weaponless hands up, the supervisor laughed heartily in amusement at Nigel’s admission. The sound of it sent a chill down the Silvan’s spine, for it was heartless, cruel, and uncaring of his own fate.

“Ah, go on. You can’t tie me up and drag me to Bree, can you? I’ll get loose, and I’ll slit the throat of every child I can get my hands on,” he boasted, sneering at the people around him. Perhaps the Adan thought these refugees cowardly for not wanting to kill an unarmed man, but in truth, they had all reasons to do so; thus, to Legolas, it showed the refugees’ kindheartedness in abstaining. “Come on, you backwater fool. Or do you need your wife to come do it for you, coward?”

The man was right. They could not take him with them, and thus take the chance of his getting free. No one would be willing to torture the supervisor by letting him die slowly of starvation, nor would they want to take food from their kith’s mouths to feed someone who had been responsible for their situation in the first place. I would do it for them gladly, the laegel rued, but I think one of them needs to do it. Just listening to the sounds of the refugees mourning their dead – two little girls who were the epitome of innocence, two elderly men who had nearly been unable to walk, let alone fight, a young man who had died trying to protect his friends, and a father who left his daughter alone in the world now – was enough to incite within the Silvan the need to exact righteous vengeance. But despite his willingness to aid these Edain, he knew he had to be careful not to usurp Hannah and Nigel’s governance. While he was willing to aid them, he did not wish to arrogate leadership.

If Hannah heard what the supervisor said about her and her man, she seemed not to care. In fact, nor did Nigel seem upset at the man’s intimation that he was a coward and needed his wife to come see to this task for him. No, Nigel only stood there with his sword held out upon the supervisor, as did Henri and a man and woman Legolas did not know, though again, Nigel shook his head, looked around him to the others observing the situation, with his gaze lighting upon each in search of someone who might take this task away from him.

No one will do it. No one will execute this man for his crimes, the laegel determined upon seeing how each person turned away from Nigel’s inquisitive, hopeful hunt for a volunteer.

In delight at the refugees’ apparent cowardice, the supervisor brayed more laughter ere he claimed, “More are on their way. Did you think the Overseer would let your crimes go unpunished? You’ll all be back in chains – if you’re lucky. Some of you will end up in the house, though,” he claimed, alluding to some punishment by this statement that the Prince did not quite understand, although it made the refugees who heard it shift uncomfortably where they stood. “Don’t worry. I will make sure to point out everyone who had a hand in murdering his soldiers.”

Then it will have to be me, he decided. If for no other reason, Legolas would see the man dead for the two little girls who had been murdered today, even though this man had not fired the arrows himself. The Elda put his arm out to stand, to do the deed no one else seemed able to do, and yet, in doing so, he bumped the back of the arrow lodged in his chest, the once white but now bloodied feathers of the fletching collided with the plank wood behind him, and thereby caused the Wood-Elf to grunt before he could stifle this sound. While no one else took notice of this, Hworin heard his Prince’s pained moan. He looked down to Legolas, as he stood right beside his sitting liege. Hworin’s worry as he gazed upon the younger Silvan – his shirt now rubicund with blood and the arrow still sticking out from his liege’s chest – evaporated under a gloom passing over Hworin’s face, only to be replaced by pure rage. Hworin held his hand out to his Prince, who in his confusion about what the elder Elf wanted only stared back at the servant. But Hworin leant down, took the hilt of the short sword from Legolas’ hand, and then strode the few steps to where Nigel stood.

“I can’t. I can’t kill him like this,” Nigel told the Wood-Elf, not realizing Hworin’s purpose.

“No, but I can,” the Silvan replied to Nigel.

Ere anyone had the chance to react to this and just as the grinning supervisor meant to give some cocky or incisive commentary about the approaching Elf, Hworin thrust the crude but sharp point of the short sword up through the underside of the Adan’s throat. With a mighty thrust and a sound similar to a walnut’s shell being cracked, the blade broke through the back of the man’s skull.

With that task completed, Hworin let the haft of the sword fall from his hands, which allowed the supervisor’s body to topple over. The man shook in the throes of death, while from his throat came gurgling sounds. Hworin did not notice as the Edain around him looked upon him in shock to have seen this done, for the whole time they had known him, none had ever though Hworin to be dangerous, but a gentle and kind person. Of course, they could never have guessed his primal reaction to seeing his Prince’s life in danger, nor his rage and vengeance for his Prince’s pain. As fast as he could upon his mending but still pained leg, Hworin staggered back to where his Prince sat near to Hannah, who stood dumbfounded by the older Wood-Elf’s uncharacteristic, violent anger.

Had not the circumstances been so dire, had not there been Edain weeping over the dead, and had not all of said people been looking in his direction – for they watched Hworin as if the Elf had gone mad with fury – Legolas might have smiled at his fellow Silvan or given him thanks for his action. The slaver had deserved his fate and Legolas was glad to have seen it accomplished.

“Faelthîr,” Hworin reminded Hannah. When the shocked woman did not respond immediately, Hworin grabbed her arm and shook her none too gently, though not with malicious intent, while repeating, “We need to find Faelthîr, Mother, for Legolas’ wounds to be tended.”

Hannah shook her head, appearing confused and overwhelmed. And yet, just as before, when she had been frightened to death and Legolas had needed her aid in making her people put their weapons down to lull the harriers into false security, Hannah pulled herself together. Quite literally, Legolas could see as the determination and strength of her will bolstered her body, for her trembling ended, her shoulders straightened, and the slackness of her features became discerning and hard.

“Nigel,” Hannah spoke to her husband before moving off to seek counsel with him, to speak to him in private rather than with all the gathered refugees listening in to their every word.

Hworin paid the woman no more mind, now that he had set her upon a task of imminent importance, and instead turned his attention fully to his Prince. And yet, his hands fluttered about Legolas just as had Hannah’s hands done a while ago, for Hworin was not a healer and knew no more than did Hannah about how to treat the younger Silvan’s wounds.

“Elbereth have mercy upon me, your Highness. I am sorry,” the servant lachrymosely lamented. Now that his wrath was spent – rage he had amassed from the death of his friends and the wounding of his Prince – Hworin appeared much as Legolas remembered him to appear in his father’s halls; that is, helpful, obeisant, and somewhat nervous. He groaned lightly in aggravation before gripping his hands together at his waist to stop their waving uselessly in the air in front of Legolas. “I should not have let you have my bow. I should have done as you did, instead. I should not have let you put yourself in danger,” Hworin regretted.

“Although it hurts,” he admitted readily, since it would obviously do no good for him to lie about it, “I think the arrow hit only muscle,” he told his fellow Silvan in an attempt to appease Hworin’s fear for him. He gave his elder a reassuring smile and jested darkly, “I can still breathe and my heart beats still. I think I may live.”

At this morbid joke, Hworin only grimaced. Behind the Elf, Nigel appeared with Henri naturally a step behind the older man, and Hannah followed in behind the two. Having heard what Legolas just told Hworin and appreciating the Prince’s attempt at levity even if Hworin did not, Nigel told Legolas, “We will be begging the Maker that you will, since we need you too much for you to die on us now.” Giving a snort of saturnine hilarity, Nigel added as he came forward and laid a hand upon Legolas’ shoulder, “Truly, my friend, I have never seen such skill with a bow before. Had you not taken out over half of them – and thought to take down the archers first, at that – we would have stood no chance.”

Even Henri, who thus far had yet to say a single word or display any emotion of any kind while in Legolas’ presence, stared at the Prince in awe, as if he stood before someone of great renown or reputation.

“Nigel has sent some off to find Faelthîr, Janey, and Brandt,” Hannah assured both Wood-Elves. “In the meantime, we need to decide what must be done. We can camp here for the night, I suppose. I know we had intended to stop only long enough to eat and then to travel onwards, but our people need time to rest, to mourn our dead,” she thought aloud, while looking at the sky above her. Currently, Ithil was waxing crescent, so offered little illumination during the gloaming.

“No, I think we need to move. We need to get away from here, in case others are coming along behind these ones,” Nigel tried to reason against his wife’s suggestion, though his hesitancy made the stout man’s arguments sound more like suggestions. And indeed, he turned to Legolas, apparently seeking the Elf’s approval for this plan.

Nigel was right, and they needed to leave this area as soon as possible. But Hannah was also right, and Legolas felt they needed to find somewhere to camp down – he personally could not imagine being capable of travelling onwards, not with an arrow lodged in his chest. And he did not want to hold the refugees back from fleeing to safety just for him. “You are both right, I think. It is not wise to stay here, but you needn’t travel too far. In fact, I think it might be best to cross the river for the night. I doubt it will throw them off your trail, but it will hinder their ability to attack the camp so easily, as with sufficient guards posted along the watercourse, any movement in the river will be easily visible should they try to swim it. Hide the wagons and anything else that cannot be ferried to the other side.” Legolas watched his listeners, saw as they all nodded at his acumen, and then added, “You should go on without me,” he told Nigel, Henri, Hannah, and Hworin, all of whom looked back at Legolas, aghast at his suggestion. “I cannot travel as I am, but your people cannot stay. Go on without me.”

“Not a chance in Udûn,” Hworin replied caustically, and then, recalling he spoke to his Prince, flushed in chagrin to have spoken thusly, only to take a deep breath and persist, “I am not leaving you behind. I will stay with you.”

Before the Prince could argue, Janey came running towards them with Faelthîr in tow and an astonished Brandt walking much farther back, though both women soon stopped running and looked around them at the chaos of their once peaceful group. The she-Elf had hooked upon her arm a basket in which various plants laid. Paler than was she normally, Faelthîr came to a dead stop, her face blank and her jaw slightly agape as she saw the carnage of the fight – one she had apparently missed. Upon seeing the Elleth’s arrival, Hannah muttered some expletive under her breath and hurried towards Faelthîr to take the Elda’s arm in hand roughly, and by it, began to pull her towards the wagon.

As they neared where Legolas sat, Hannah took it upon herself to answer the Elleth’s unasked questions, saying, “None else are seriously harmed, but we’ve six dead. I suppose it is a good thing you were off gathering herbs,” she told the Elleth, all but shoving her before Legolas, “since you will need them to save our protector.”

“What happened?” Faelthîr asked breathlessly. She merely paused there in front of the two Wood-Elves, clearly confused and distraught, but Hannah was having none of the Elleth’s hesitancy.

The elderly woman explained concisely, “They came back for us. Had it not been for Legolas, we would all be lost. He halved the slavers numbers and gave our people a chance to fight back. And he saved Yvannah and her children from death, taking this arrow meant for them.” Hannah took hold of Faelthîr’s forearm hard, which she then shook to try to rouse the Elleth from her befuddled stupor, “Now, stop gawking, child, and do something for him!”

This drew the Elleth from her vacillation, at least, and her training as a healer – even if she had spent most of her time practicing her art upon horses – took precedence. Nigel, Henri, and Hworin moved back a way to let Faelthîr work, which the she-Elf performed with Hannah’s help and under the woman’s hawkish gaze, though Hworin kept his own eyes upon his Prince. At first, Faelthîr only prodded the area around the wound, watching Legolas’ face, listening to his breathing, and trying to gauge in this way the extent of his injury. To distract himself from the all-consuming pain of her palpation, the Silvan observed the group of refugees around him and listened to Nigel and the others talk of what to do now.

Being that Faelthîr was now here and Legolas could be attended to, they would not be setting out immediately, and so, for this, at least, Nigel needed no instruction from his wife, and he instructed Henri, “Tell those who can stomach it to search the slavers. Take whatever food, weapons, and coin they have. Give the best weapons to those who can fight, and have them give their shoddy weapons to others who may be able to fight. Bring the coin to Hannah. We will use it to buy supplies when next we find a settlement. Any food they might have, take to Janey, and have her ration out enough food for the children. The rest of us may eat once we are camped in a few hours. There is no time for mourning – not until we are away from here and across the river – but have some of the able-bodied to dig graves, or perhaps one large enough for all our dead. The slavers can rot where they lie.”

Henri nodded and took off, and for the first time, Legolas heard the man speak as he began issuing orders to the people around him. No one hesitated to do as they were bid, fortunately, and the milling group of refugees, even those who were bereaving the dead or were tending to small wounds, began to move with purpose yet again.

“Nigel,” he said to garner the man’s attention. When he had it, Legolas told him, “These men likely had horses. If there are any among you who are good at tracking, who might be able to follow the slavers’ tracks from where they came, you may find they have stashed their mounts to keep them away from the fighting, and on them, you may find more supplies.”

The man flicked his makeshift suspenders in agitation, nodding his head all the while the Prince spoke, and once the Elf was done, he agreed wholeheartedly, “Good man. And good idea. I can track fair enough. Me and Henri will see it done.”

He turned on heel to do this but was stopped by Hannah, who only called out to her man, “Be careful, my love. And don’t go too far. I’d rather you come back than have a few more horses.”

Flicking his rope suspenders yet again, Nigel’s bearded face broke out into a sunny smile for his woman. He told her as he walked off, “We will, wife,” ere he called out to Henri to fashion a torch and come along.

“I will be right back,” Faelthîr told them, explaining when it seemed Hannah would castigate her for leaving, “I need my satchel for bandaging. When I remove this arrow, it will begin to bleed more than it has thus far, as the arrow itself is plugging the wound, as a cork does a drain,” she explained, and while her analogy was apt, it was not very heartening to hear.

Faelthîr’s departure took only moments, but in that time, of the hundred or so refugees in the camp, nearly half of them found some reason to walk near the two Wood-Elves. Had not Hannah been there with a glower of warning upon her face for them to leave Legolas be for now, they might have come up to speak to him. He felt he knew what they would say, what they would do, and how they would act around him for the duration of his stay with their motley, myriad group – all of which he could tell from the frank reverence in their faces. Why do they look at me as such? he asked himself confusedly. He expected some to view his agony with disinterest – as they had their own suffering with which to deal, albeit of the emotional sort – or sympathy to what likely looked as painful a wound as it truly was, but no, the humans looked at Legolas with absolute veneration. I am not their savior, he thought, harkening back to Hannah’s use of the word a short while ago in description of the Prince.

 “Legolas?”

He opened his eyes, having not realized he had shut them against the overwhelming sight of the refugees looking upon him as their protector, and gave his regard to Faelthîr. She appeared concerned but gave him an encouraging smile, telling the Silvan, “From how high it sits, I think it has missed hitting any organs, and has passed through the muscle of your shoulder. You have no difficulties breathing?”

He shook his head at her. Blood loss and hunger, along with the ebbing of the natural adrenaline of battle, was making it hard for Legolas to stay alert. The sun was set, the light of day gone, and along with it, the laegel’s consciousness was diminished, as well.

“Good. Good. Hworin, I need your help,” she asked of the other Wood-Elf, who was at his Prince’s side already to be of aid. “I need you to hold him. Once I cut off this arrowhead, I will pull the shaft out slowly, and I’m sorry, Legolas,” she now said to the laegel, “but this will likely hurt immensely.”

This time, he nodded at her. This was not the first time he had been shot with an arrow, so he knew what she would do. He also knew how much it hurt and was determined not to scream at the agony.

From just the small jolt the shaft made when she snapped off the arrowhead, Legolas gasped loudly enough to cause some of the surrounding Edain to turn his way. He laid his forehead upon Hworin’s shoulder, let his fellow Wood-Elf hold him by the arms so he would not instinctively lash out at Faelthîr as she performed her task, and to keep from screaming, he bit into the thick cloth of Hworin’s tunic. While Legolas managed not to cry out from the pain, when the last bit of the wooden shaft exited the flesh of his shoulder, a torrent of blood followed it, and the Wood-Elf found relief in unconsciousness without being any the wiser for doing so.

Chapter Text

He woke from the none too gentle bouncing of the wagon under his torpid form. Immediately, Legolas tried to rise. Many were the times in his long life he had woken from falling unconscious due to injury or blood loss, and many were the times he had woken unsure of what had just happened; yet, right now, the Prince knew exactly why his shoulder ached fiercely. He soon recognized he lay upon the pavilion’s oilcloth, rode in the back of Hannah’s wagon, and from the position of the waxing moon overhead, knew he had been unconscious for at least an hour. He also knew the face hovering over him, looking down upon him in worry.

“Prince Legolas?” Faelthîr whispered quietly. “Are you thirsty? Are you in pain? I’ve nothing strong to ease your pain, but we can try some willow bark.”

He shook his head in negation at first, and then amended by speaking aloud in a dry, rasping, soft voice, “The pain is not unbearable. I have endured worse. But I am thirsty, yes, if there is water to be had.”

His allusion to having suffered great agony caused a momentary, guilt-ridden grimace to pass over the Elleth’s face, ere she cleared it to give the laegel an encouraging smile. She rummaged around in the folds of the oilcloth to the side of her gathered legs to find a waterskin, which she uncapped and held out to him. Gamely, Legolas grabbed it and tried to lift his head to drink, but doing so stretched the muscles of his upper chest, and he fell back into lying on the oilcloth with a grunt.

“Oh, Eru’s arse,” Faelthîr complained, taking herself to task by saying, “Foolish me, letting you try to drink that on your own. Here, let me help you.”

Although not entirely comfortable around the Elleth, Legolas was thirsty, miserable, and the woman before him was the reason he was still alive, he knew, so he smiled gratefully and allowed her to lift his upper body with one arm while aiding him to drink with the other. He emptied the waterskin and still felt thirsty – blood loss often had this effect on a person, he knew, from personal experience. But the water moiled in his otherwise empty belly and while he was certain Faelthîr could have found more for him, he did not ask for it at the moment and would not until he knew he would not retch up what water he had just drank.

He adjusted where he laid upon the cloth, wishing he could sit up without the Elleth’s help, as he did not want to ask for it. “How long have we been travelling? We had spoken of crossing the river for the night for safety.”

“We will be soon cross it, actually. Hworin, Nigel, and Henri scouted ahead. I believe we are close to where the Hoarwell meets the Loudwater. Near The Angle. There is an old stone bridge around here, and we’ve been travelling on in hopes of finding it to avoid having to leave the horses and wagons this side of the river. Do you know of the bridge?” she asked, then gave him no chance to answer as she went on, speaking mutedly so whoever was sitting on the bench of the wagon would not overhear, “I never thought I would be so close to Imladris again. I fear to travel too close to any routes of the border patrol, lest I be killed on sight. I will be no use to Hannah and her people dead,” she finished, not sounding to Legolas as though she were upset at the thought of dying, but truly worried she might die before her purpose was accomplished in helping the Edain.

Of course, she doesn’t know, the Prince realized upon Faelthîr saying she believed one of her own people would kill her upon seeing her return to the valley, without even giving her the chance to be taken before their Lord.

In the same quiet tone to avoid anyone eavesdropping, he set about explaining to the Elleth, “When Lord Elrond learnt you had fled, he told Glorfindel you were only to be detained if it could be done without harming you. He decided to let you leave. While my father was not pleased you would not be paying for your deeds with your life, he acquiesced to Lord Elrond’s decree.”

Faelthîr sighed. “I have thanked you once, but I should thank you again,” she replied, repeating now what she had said the day before when first the two had met again. “You risked your father’s wrath by asking for lenience on my behalf. Had you disavowed Lord Elrond or the Elvenking – or anyone else, I assume – of their belief I was swept along in Mithfindl’s madness, then I would be dead now, I am sure of it.” She fiddled with the strap of her bag of healing supplies, her shame making her avoid his gaze when the Elleth admitted, “I know of your King’s anger towards you. I hope you did not incur his violence on my behalf.”

She learnt this from Kalin, as well, then, Legolas assumed of her allusion to knowing how Thranduil treated Thranduilion when the Prince showed any signs of perceived disrespect. Her words, though well meant, were like a steady breath blown upon a cinder, which caused his hatred and anger for her to ignite. In fact, after pleading for Faelthîr’s life the day she had fled from the valley, Legolas had his head beaten against a wall by his King. He did not tell the Elleth of it, though, and he took in a deep breath to calm his rage. It does not matter. Mithfindl is dead and I am no longer under some imprecation.

With her eyes still upon the villagers walking to the side of the cart, she went on in her meek, discreet voice, “You seem to inspire great loyalty in those around you. I was not there when Hworin took the supervisor’s life, but from what he told me earlier, while we moved you to the cart to lie down, Hworin wanted to kill him to appease the rage he felt to see you injured. Already, the Edain look at you as if you were their liberator, which while true enough after tonight’s events, is strange in how they have known you for little more than a day.”

Finally, Faelthîr looked to Legolas. In the dark of night, with her black hair pulled away from her features into a simple plait and the ambient, soft moonlight highlighting her fair skin, she looked every bit her namesake; her tears belied her calm smile, however, as she wondered of him, “I should also thank you for this: you have not told Hworin. He has been missing, either in travel to or living on the Overseer’s compound, or since our revolt, travelling with us, so he knows nothing of your hardships,” she said vaguely, as if the word ‘hardships’ could ever encompass the expanse of suffering through which the Prince had lived in the last year. “And he knew nothing of what I have done, as I had only told Hannah and Nigel any details of it, while telling everyone else only how I was cast out by my kin. At least, I assume you have told him nothing.”

He wondered why she brought this up. It worried him – Faelthîr was crafty and manipulative. Still, like Faelthîr, he wanted no one to overhear their private conversation, so whispered so softly none but another Elf could have heard, lest they were sitting beside the two Eldar as they spoke, “No, I have said nothing to him of any of it. Not of what transpired in Lake-town or after, nor anything of you or Mithfindl.”

“I guessed as much, because if Hworin knew anything of my part in your sorrows, I would be dead by his hand already,” she deadpanned to the Prince with an acrimonious smile, though this bitterness was aimed at herself and not at him. Acerbically, she brought up something he had heard her and Mithfindl speak of that night in the room under the stairs, which she likely realized he now remembered, “I always thought your people – the Silvan, that is – were like animals. They have always seemed wild, dangerous, and foolish. But after living on the compound, after Phresia died fighting and Lirion died soon after from a struggle to free not just themselves but all of these Edain whom they had no cause to care for, after seeing Hworin struggle to hunt enough meat to feed all of us when he could have long since left to make his own way and been better off for it, and after tonight, after hearing what you did to save the lives of all of these people who I admire for their constancy, generosity, and goodwill – I see how wrong I have been. How sheltered I have been. I see now the strength, bravery, and loyalty of your kin. And I am ashamed I have not told Hworin myself of the wrongs I committed against you, even after learning he was of your father’s household. But he was of some comfort to me when Phresia and Lirion were gone, to have another of the Eldar amongst us, and while I do not fear death, I fear to lose his friendship and respect.”

Legolas looked not at Faelthîr any longer, but at the gloomy sky overhead. The straggling clouds of before were now murkier and fuller, and from them, intermittent, random snowflakes fell. Soon, the true weather of winter would be upon them, and the humans around him would not last through it without proper shelter, adequate food, and better clothing. For now, though, the snow was beautiful to him as it drifted lazily down from the sky, for it looked like bits of starlight gifted to them from the celestial beings above their heads.

When the Wood-Elf did not respond, Faelthîr placed a friendly hand upon his forearm to gain his attention. Once she had it, she took to inspecting the bandaging upon his upper chest. At some point since he had passed out, someone had removed his shirt and not bothered to replace it with a new one, so he laid there in only trousers and boots. The Elleth sighed heavily, wiped the tears from her face, and shook her head at him, though still, she smiled her odd smile. While Legolas had never been interested in courting any Elleth – or any Ellon for that matter – and had only ever desired Estel, he could see in this moment why Kalin had taken to the Noldo, for while she was surely beautiful, she also had a serene, poignancy about her, which made her all the more lovely. Evil might be lurking under her outward, mendaciously obliging façade, he feared, as it had during her facilitation of Mithfindl’s torment of him, but upon observing the snowflakes falling into her dark hair and lashes, seeing her melancholy, and hearing her gratitude and apologies for him, Legolas could almost forgive her role in his torture – though he would certainly never forget it.

“I will not tell him. But you must know he will find out eventually,” he both promised and warned the she-Elf. He shifted how he laid again. It was impossible to be comfortable with the pain of his shoulder, and the cloth upon which he reclined was thick, scratchy, and smelled of the linseed oil used to waterproof it; in other words, it did not make a very cozy bed. “If Hworin is as loyal as you say, as I believe him to be, then if he does find out before our work to free the Edain’s families is completed, he will follow my command to hold his tongue and sword in check. These humans need your guidance and your skills as a healer, and I would not have them suffer without it just for Hworin to mollify some need for retaliation he might wrongly feel on my behalf,” he offered to her. “As I said yesterday, Mithfindl paid the price I required in recompense. I ask nothing of you and would not have you punished further, but as Elrond decreed, allow you to make your own way to do as you wish – to make amends to Ilúvatar through your actions in doing good deeds.”

In truth, he did not worry as much about Hworin as he did about Kalin, Estel, or the twins taking vengeance against Faelthîr, even if it was merely demanding she return to Imladris for justice. But Faelthîr smiled at him in relief and appreciation, though not in thanks for the promise he made for her life to be spared if he could help it, but for his acknowledgement of her attempt to save her very faer from the Darkness tainting it. She searched the folds of cloth around her legs again, her head bobbing slightly as the wagon wheeled over a rough section of the otherwise relatively flat meadowland, before she pulled out another waterskin. This time, she did not hand it to Legolas to watch him flounder in trying to drink it on his own, but straightaway carefully slid her arm under his shoulders, hefted him up a bit, and then let the laegel drink his fill.

They sat in companionable silence for a while, which was strange in itself, given how the Silvan had all reasons to hate Faelthîr but currently could not find the willpower or revulsion to do so. Together, they watched the snow as it fell, sharing this simple pleasure wordlessly. Indeed, their conversation had been so lowly spoken that the driver of the wagon had not even known Legolas was awake, which was evinced when Hannah suddenly broke the silence by asking over her shoulder from where she sat on the bench seat at the cart’s front, “Faelthîr, love. How does our savior fare?”

“He is well, Mother, and awake, also, if you’d like to ask him yourself,” the Elleth responded with a sincere, affectionate grin towards the Adan woman. Small signs such as this simple smile – which in Legolas’ thinking were hard to feign genuinely – bolstered the Prince’s belief in Faelthîr’s attempts to convince him she had changed for the better.

While Legolas wondered earlier this morning if the two women were on the outs from the misunderstanding over Faelthîr’s misinformation about Estel also being Aragorn, he now saw their spat had been cast aside – helped along no doubt by Legolas’ constant assurance the Rangers would not hesitate to help their enslaved people, and also, this convalescence of their friendship had likely been facilitated by Faelthîr’s timely arrival and hard work to ensure Legolas’ health this evening.

“Maker’s mercy! Thank Eru! Even though Faelthîr assured us you were only unconscious from the sudden blood loss, pain, and enervation, and that you would wake and recover in due time, I still worried we would lose you,” Hannah whispered emphatically in relief to hear this. He could picture the woman’s maternal smile as she spoke, asking, “How are you, dear? Do you need water? We are nearly to this bridge Hworin found for us, so soon enough, we will get you by a warm fire, and get some food into you,” she promised. “And although we lost some of our blankets and clothes on the raft that went down the river during the attack upon us, I am sure I can scrounge up another shirt for you to wear,” she rambled, apparently making a list of things she needed to see done for the Prince.

Since he was lying down with the top of his head towards the front of the wagon, he could not see Hannah lest he craned his neck and chanced pulling at the wound to his upper chest, so only hoped his words to the Adan woman alleviated her worry, “I will recover, Mother, yes. I promise. And Faelthîr is taking fine care of me,” he relayed honestly, since without the Noldorin Elleth, Legolas knew he would likely still be blind from the injuries to his head or perhaps also dying from the arrow wound.

Hannah gave a pleased, contented exhalation. She then laughed lightly, as out of place as it sounded after the skirmish through which most of them they had barely lived, and through which some had not survived. “Hworin and Faelthîr tell us we are nearing an area called The Angle, and thereby is the bridge. Do you know it?” she asked, though whether she meant the bridge or the area, Legolas was unsure.

But he did in fact know of both, and so answered, “I do. And I think it would be wise for us to cross the bridge and remain upon the eastern side until we reach the East Road, upon which we can travel west over the Last Bridge and be on our way to Bree. Within the Angle, we will be close to the furthermost outposts of Lord Elrond’s border patrol. We are less likely to run into Yrrch and bandits travelling the eastern side of the Hoarwell,” he told her.

She made some inquisitive, wordless hum, as if thinking over this information. A cold sensation upon his nose drew his attention away from his conversation with Hannah. Overhead, the flurries of before were becoming thicker, such that the snowflakes began to obscure the clouds and moon. He could feel them lighting upon his bared chest and face in a most pleasing fashion. Tonight we may see the first true snowfall, he thought with some delight, before he reminded himself, The humans are not prepared for winter. I doubt they will see its beauty when they begin to freeze, especially since it seems they have fewer blankets and clothing after losing one of the rafts.

Having thought over Legolas’ suggestion, Hannah rued, “It is a good plan, dear. We will have to put it before Nigel and Henri and come to a consensus. From Orcs and bandits we may be safe, but I daresay the Overseer’s supervisors would not hesitate to tread near to Lord Elrond’s realm to attack us, to bring us back or hunt us down. It is too bad we cannot merely ride to the nearest Elven outpost and ask for aid, or make straight for Rivendell itself, since if the Elves there are anything like you, Faelthîr, and Hworin, then surely they would help us – at least until we have the chance to speak to the Rangers.”

A hand upon his knee startled Legolas. He shifted his head to look at Faelthîr, who looked not at him, but at Hannah. The Elleth’s eyes were wide and distant looking, while she chewed upon her lower lip with worry. They had intended to travel to the Greenway, and following said road, make their way to Bree. Indeed, Legolas had been asked about this and concurred it was likely the best course, as it would be the shortest route. The thought had never occurred to Legolas to travel anywhere but to Bree, as that was where the refugees had been headed prior to his joining them. The Prince had only been happy to be going somewhere he could potentially make contact with Estel and his second family in Rivendell.

Now, however, he suddenly considered, And why should we not merely travel to Rivendell, or at least within the protection of Minyatar’s influence along the outermost lands of his realm? I cannot protect all of these people until Bree. I couldn’t keep them safe before, and much less so now I am injured. Perhaps it would be wisest to lead them towards Rivendell. Once within Imladrian borders, we might find a patrol to help us, and even if I don’t lead the Edain to the Last Homely House itself, I could enlist Lord Glorfindel’s aid by asking for warriors to escort the Edain to Bree. Besides, Minyatar would be glad to give the refugees shelter and food for a while until a permanent solution is found. If needed, if Estel isn’t healed enough to travel to do so himself, then myself, Hworin, Hannah, Nigel, and Henri could journey on to Bree to find Halbarad, if he is there, to seek the Rangers’ aid in freeing the rest of these Edain’s families from the Overseer’s grasp. Lost in his deliberations, the Wood-Elf did not realize how apparent his thoughts were to the Elleth hovering beside him.

“Legolas?” Faelthîr inquired quietly. Yes, the Noldo noticed his abstracted pondering and from the look upon her beautiful face, she could easily glean some inkling of his thoughts.

But Legolas did not want to offer this suggestion just yet – not until he could speak to Hannah and Nigel of it privately. With the betterment of Legolas’ condition currently dependent upon Faelthîr’s kindness and without Nigel here to hear the conversation, it was not the opportune time to debate the matter. Faelthîr might acquiesce easily to the Prince’s suggestion to head to Rivendell, or she might try to disrupt this proposition before the laegel could convince the Edain’s leaders of the merits of the idea. Perhaps Faelthîr was not so selfish she would potentially place all these people in danger just to ensure her own hide was safe from her fellow Noldor’s judgment in Imladris, but Legolas did not yet have enough faith in her to believe this was so. Thus, for now, he merely smiled at the Elleth, shook his head, and looked back up at the falling snow.

Having received no response to her wishful thinking for assistance from the Elves of Imladris, Hannah began humming in her off-key but pleasant voice, and for a while longer, they traveled in a companionable calm. Few of the Edain around the wagon were conversing, either, save for the occasional question or remark. Legolas could hear the soft sobs of a young girl; he thought it might very well be the little girl who had lost her father today, and he wondered who comforted her, and whether he or she would continue to offer solace to the poor child over the coming days, months, and years until she grew old enough to care for herself. Even after the ordeal in the settlement with Elise – even after Estel nearly died from the greedy child’s touch; even after Legolas had died from her touch; even after getting to know the Adan child in her incorporeal form; and even after the exquisite pain of both his faer and rhaw once the two were recoupled upon his miraculous return from the dead – even after all this tragedy from one little Adan girl, Legolas still found his heart breaking upon hearing this newly orphaned child’s crying for her daddy. It reminded him of why Elise had been so sad and desperate that she had been willing to kill her own kith – because she had been alone.

I hope someone takes her in and treats her like their own, he worried for the child.

When the wagon came to a sudden stop, the Wood-Elf immediately sought to sit up out of instant fear they were halting their course for some dire reason. Faelthîr held her hands out to stop him from doing so, much to his aggravation, though she then said, “Let me help you so you don’t stretch your wound open. I’m running low on gut for stitches, so can’t promise I have enough to replace the ones I sewed in while you were unconscious,” she explained in the slightly cranky manner of which only healers were capable, or so it seemed to Legolas. “And there’s no point in having to do it again, not now that you are awake and will feel it, right?” she criticized mildly.

Hearing this crossness reminded him so much of his Minyatar, of the twins, and of Estel that the Wood-Elf stifled a laugh, as well as a pang of homesickness for his second family and his Adan lover. With the Elleth’s help, the laegel sat up, looked out over the mass of Edain refugees, and was relieved to see they were at the bridge and nothing was amiss. I do remember this bridge, he thought with a smile. We won’t be forced to leave the wagons and horses across the river, at least, to ferry everyone else over.

Anything familiar was a wonderful sight to see, in his thinking, for he wanted more than anything to go home – either to Imladris or the Greenwood, it did not matter. Because the bridge was narrow, made centuries ago from a civilization long since gone, and some of the rocks from which it was constructed had crumbled into the river it crossed, Nigel had apparently decided they would not stress the bridge nor hurry across it with the added weight of wagons and horses. It seemed he first intended to send some of the group’s protectors, followed slowly then by those upon foot to ensure the bulk of the group stayed together should the bridge suddenly fail. Legolas was certain it would not, but he appreciated Nigel’s caution. He watched this slow progression of people for a while, and then decided to relax back into the relative softness of his makeshift sickbed, for sitting upon the lumpy mess of cloth with nothing to support his back was causing his shoulder to hurt from the strain of merely balancing himself. Even as he tried to scoot his way into reclining back once more, Faelthîr was there again to stop him. This time, she did not speak, though she offered her aid in silence, ere she turned her attention back to their surroundings.

From the front of the wagon, Hannah climbed down from the bench seat and began speaking to the three men who were pulling the raft in the river, and from what he overheard, they spoke in detail of what had been lost upon the other raft during the altercation earlier and whether what they ferried upriver now was necessary, or if it could be left ashore on this side rather than having to pull it across and risk someone falling into the water doing so. Her voice wandered off, as did many of the men, women, and children upon foot, with those upon horses – all of whom were injured, as they were given the privilege of riding rather than walking this night – waiting patiently at the bridge for their turn to cross. Thus, Legolas and Faelthîr were left somewhat behind, without Hannah to incite the horses into moving closer to the bridge.

I wonder where Hworin is, he thought, having not seen the elder Wood-Elf since awakening. Likely, he is off scouting the other side of the bridge to ensure the woods are safe for the Edain to camp in tonight.

While not distressed to have the Noldo here beside him and while she had been friendly and helpful, Legolas had not thought his fellow Silvan would be willing to leave his Prince while his Prince was injured, and so asked Faelthîr, “Where is Hworin? I have not seen nor heard him since awakening.”

“He’s in a bit of a fit currently,” she replied with a fond smile and a shake of her head, and upon seeing the laegel’s confusion, explained, “When I took out the arrow, you passed out, as you well know. From that moment on, Hworin has been beside himself with worry. He’s convinced he alone can counter any further attacks, and while I know he would expend as much effort in protecting all of us, he is feeling guilty he let you be the one to begin the offensive against the slavers, and so thinks he alone is now charged with protecting you. You certainly inspire loyalty in your people,” she commented offhandedly with a soft laugh, repeating what she had told him earlier when speaking of Hworin’s devotion to his Prince’s welfare.

Since she sounded sincere rather than spiteful, Legolas chuckled in amusement at the thought of the normally staid albeit perpetually anxious Hworin limping around in a tantrum because he now had his wounded Prince over whom to fret. Unthinkingly, for he had intended to avoid telling the Elleth of any of this so not to cause her worry or to make her flee in fear, the Prince alluded, “Kalin will be here soon enough, so Hworin may go back to brushing imaginary dirt from my clothing as he did all yesterday and this morning. That is, lest he and Kalin intend to fight over who will guard me day and night, though Kalin would win that battle of wills.”

He realized he had said more than intended when Faelthîr physically startled upon hearing his comment. Not bothering to hide her worry, she began wringing her hands in her lap, her mouth hung slightly ajar, and she swallowed back whatever questions she thought to ask before the words left her lips. Finally, though, she had to know of what the Silvan meant, so asked, “What do you mean? Kalin is coming? Hannah only said you were caught by Orcs, and that you said your friends searched for you. Or do you only assume Kalin will be here soon?”

“At the moment, Kalin, Elladan, and Reana are searching for me. Estel and Elrohir went onwards to Imladris to tend to a wound Estel gained while fighting the Yrrch who captured me,” he explained, hoping this would be enough to satisfy her curiosity without whetting it. He really had no wish to explain to the woman how he knew Kalin was coming, for he had learnt this from a dream shared with Aragorn. If he told her just a little, he would have to tell her everything, he was sure of it, and though he might trust Faelthîr enough not to kill him right now, he did not trust her with his secrets. Thus, he averred, “My tracks were easy to follow. They will realize I have joined in with this group and follow to ensure I am not held here amongst the Edain against my will. Either way, they will be here soon, I am sure of it. Kalin would never give up looking for me when there is any sliver of hope to find me.”

And for reasons he did not care to explain to her, he sounded very sure of all this, which convinced the Elleth without his needing to offer her more information. Apparently, the Noldo had not given much thought to whether Legolas’ ‘friends’ would be able to find him, it seemed, for she now appeared beyond shocked to realize one or more of the people who wanted her dead would be on the Prince’s trail. To hear that Kalin – the very Elf whom she had plied with wine and flirtatious behavior ere she drugged him, from whom she had elicited private information to use against his beloved Prince – and Elladan – the son of her Lord, an Elf who considered Legolas and Estel as brothers and would not hesitate to dispense with the Elleth should she prove less than honorable in her intentions for the Prince now – were on their way and expected by Legolas to arrive very soon was enough to cause Faelthîr to panic. He could see it in her eyes. He could smell the fear upon her.

“Faelthîr,” he prompted to get her attention. When Legolas felt such anxiety, he sought out Estel’s touch, for the man quelled it for him in a way no one else save his Minyatar could do. The Prince could not offer the same for the Noldo; instead, once she turned her wide, fearful eyes to him, he offered her this, “I am not the only one who asked for lenience on your behalf. Kalin wished you no ill will, and wanted you to come to no harm. As you have said, I did not dissuade anyone from their beliefs Mithfindl was the instigator of the plot against me and my father, so while Kalin was enraged on my behalf, he will not act without my approval, while Reana will follow Elladan’s lead, as she has no claim to revenge anyway, and will do her duty as Elladan requests of her.”

To his relief – and to her relief, as well – his words soothed the Elleth a bit. He truly did not wish for Faelthîr to take off on her own out of some fear she would be murdered upon sight by Kalin or Elladan, especially knowing the slavers were hunting their missing slaves and knowing Faelthîr was not trained in combat whatsoever. Unlike in Mirkwood, where every Silvan learnt the basics of warcraft no matter their profession, in Imladris, those who chose to be healers or scholars or bakers or vintners were not expected to take up arms, as were they in the tainted Greenwood.

Legolas wiped at the moisture upon his face from where the heavy, fat snowflakes melted upon his warm skin. He admitted to the Noldo, “I can command Kalin’s actions, but Elladan’s are his own, though you need not fear violence from him. Once he discerns what you have done to help me and what you have done for these refugees out of your good will and desire to be of service, then perhaps you can speak to him to ameliorate the situation. And I will be glad to be there, to speak on your behalf, so that you may continue to travel with and aid the Edain without interference,” he offered congenially.

From her earlier inspection of the Prince whilst he thought of heading for the valley rather than Bree, and from her discerning some inference from what Legolas said just now, Faelthîr came to a rather accurate conclusion and asked, “You want for us to change course and travel to Imladris, don’t you?” Faelthîr clasped her hands, which were chafed bright pink from her wringing them, and held them under her chin. “We are closer to Imladris than to Bree, we could seek Lord Elrond’s assistance and advice there, and if Estel is in Imladris, as you say, then it would be there we could ask for the Rangers’ aid in freeing the slaves remaining in the south.”

His first instinct was to avoid answering somehow or to try to lie. Legolas was a poor liar and knew it. Besides, he told himself, If she wishes to flee to avoid being punished for her crimes against my father, Kalin, and myself, then perhaps it is best. I truly do not know if I can influence Elladan’s actions against her, not can I promise her clemency from Elrond if she were to return to the valley.

With this in mind, he admitted, “Yes. I do. It will be what is best for the people here. Elrond will not turn them away in their time of need.”

Of course, Faelthîr knew her Lord and his benevolent nature – as did most of Middle Earth, for his reputation for this kindliness was known far and wide – so she could not argue against Legolas’ suggestion. Her panic was growing, it seemed to the laegel, who knew such anxiety well enough to see it in the mere set of her body and features of her pale face. Faelthîr only nodded absently. Unsurprisingly, she soon found some reason to leave his presence – perhaps to think or calm herself, or perhaps she might actually flee – and so picked up the two waterskins Legolas had emptied in his thirst. She held them out as if in evidence of her claim when she told him, “I might as well fill these while we wait. You will be fine here alone for a few moments, won’t you?”

He nodded and watched her climb off the back of the wagon to see to her task. Too late did he think he would rather be sitting up to keep watch out over their surroundings rather than lying down without even knowing if there was anyone left this side of the river, and thus, too late was he in thinking to ask for her help in sitting. As it was, by the time he thought to try to sit on his own, Hannah had returned.

“Where’s Faelthîr gotten off to?” she asked him as she climbed into seat at the front and picked up the reins.

“To fill her waterskins, she said. She has only just left,” he replied aloud, though he thought to himself, If Hannah didn’t see her when she approached the cart, then Faelthîr was in a great hurry to be away. If she intends to flee, then at least let her have the good sense to take some supplies with her so she doesn’t starve.

The Adan woman gave some noncommittal hum in answer; with a clucking noise and a snap of her reins, the rickety wagon began rolling along again. They were soon joined by Nigel, who walked beside the horses and spoke lowly to his wife of their meager supplies. By the time Hannah drove her wagon over the bridge, everyone else had traversed it already, which meant Hannah, Legolas, and Nigel were the last to cross. It was a short distance to the area where they would take their ease for the night. Once there, Nigel climbed up into the cart and aided Legolas to the edge, where Hannah waited impatiently to help him down. Once standing upon his own two feet, he assured Nigel and Hannah he was fine to walk and that in fact he needed to walk, and having much to do for their kith to keep them all safe and well through the rest of the snowy night, the man and woman reluctantly left Legolas to his own devices. He was surrounded by refugees, anyway, and any one of them would come to his aid if he had need of it, they all knew.

For a short while, Legolas paced around the cart slowly to ensure he would not become dizzy, and while doing so, he watched the refugees. Already, the Edain were becoming listless and distracted from exhaustion and grief. He thought then to speak to Nigel about setting up a perimeter of able-bodied persons to keep watch, with particular attention paid to the river and the bridge in case more harriers should come that way. As it turned out, though, and as Faelthîr had claimed to Legolas whilst they rode in the wagon, Hworin was indeed in a fit of pique and had taken it upon himself to advise Nigel and Henri how best to do this. Not yet healed from his own injury to his thigh from the arrow he had taken days ago, before Legolas joined the refugees, Hworin once more used his crutches as he had been doing – earlier, because of the adrenaline of battle and his worry for his Prince, Hworin had forsaken him. From how he limped now, the Wood-Elf clearly needed them still and had likely hurt himself further by not using them. Surreptitiously, Legolas avoided Hworin’s notice; the elder Silvan probably thought his Prince was still in Faelthîr’s care, and thus being tended. Should he see Legolas hobbling around on his own, Hworin would begin to fret over his Prince instead of the refugees, which said Prince very much intended to avoid for the nonce.

Once certain he could walk without toppling over from dizziness from his blood loss, Legolas set about trying to be of aid. And yet, they would not let him help with setting up the camp. Any task to which Legolas tried to apply himself was swiftly taken over by someone else; in fact, a couple of the other injured refugees gently but firmly refused to let the Prince see to rubbing down the horses, which he had tried to do to be of some use. Eventually, he walked back to the cart to rest for a moment at the wagon’s end, irritated to be pampered, despite knowing they did it because they were being kind and not because he was a Prince, for as far as he knew, none but a select few had learnt of his royalty.

As it was, none of the tents or shelters would be erected tonight, much less the massive pavilion. It was assumed they would be leaving on the morrow, so they had no intention of spending much time in this clearing Hworin and Nigel had found for the group, save to let the children sleep, the grieving to mourn, and for everyone to calm themselves after what had happened a few hours earlier. Fires were built, however, as the humans were shivering and their teeth were chattering. The snow was fattening and accumulating upon leaves and brush, though luckily it melted upon the ground. As he sat there watching the bustling, Legolas’ empty belly growled loudly, and he wondered, Most of us have not eaten since last night’s venison, except for the leftovers the children had this morning. Will we wait until tomorrow to eat again? With his newly made injury, his intention to hunt for the refugees was postponed for now, and he found himself feeling guilty about being hungry when he had yet to supplement the group’s stores of food from which he had eaten gladly because he thought he might restock meat to it when able.

At some point while he was unconscious, Nigel and Henri had done as Legolas suggested by backtracking the slavers’ paths and finding their mounts, upon which some supplies had been stored. He did not know if they had found much coin upon the men, but they had found fifteen finely bred horses, much-needed blankets and bedrolls, skins of wine and whisky, and foodstuffs – hard and plain rolls of bread, salted pork, and fruit from late harvesting apple trees. Upon noticing these new items being unloaded, Legolas walked over and tried to help Janey sort through the food to find enough for all to eat; she smiled adoringly at him and shooed him away, telling him he needed to rest. He made it no more than a few steps before she said his name, walked to him, and handed him a small bread roll with a grateful, sweet smile. Shirtless, bandaged, and bloodied, Legolas felt more like a beggar than a Prince or a hero, but that was exactly how she looked upon him – as a savior. He stuck the roll in the pocket of his too loose trousers and walked away, suddenly wishing he could go down to the river and wash the blood and dirt from off his body. His absence would be noticed, he was sure, and Hworin would panic, if not everyone, and he did not want to cause alarm amidst these humans who had suffered enough for one night. Nor, however, did he want company while he bathed, so gave up on this desire easily enough.

The laegel eventually gave in to this collective mothering and sat at the biggest of the fires, near to where quite a few of the women and children were gathered. He sat watching the flames with an ease the Wood-Elf would not have expected to feel amongst so many Edain. They accepted him as one of their own with little staring or questions, save for the occasional smile of reverence; but then, these humans had their own problems and there were Elves amongst them already, and the Wood-Elf had proved beyond any doubt how he was committed to their cause and to keeping them safe. As far as they were concerned, Legolas was either just another refugee as were they, or the reason they were alive tonight rather than left behind, buried in a mass grave across the river with those who had not made it through the skirmish with the slavers.

In silent contemplation, he watched the bustle of the camp as it dwindled down, with appointed tasks being completed and children finally falling asleep near the warmth of the fires, their bodies covered in mounds of blankets. Legolas was pleased when he saw Faelthîr making the rounds with her satchel, tending to every wound she could find. He had feared she might have fled; he now felt he should have known better than to think the reformed Noldo would abandon her people. With nothing but a smile for him, she handed him a tin cup, as the Elleth had already made for Legolas his nightly dose of medicines. Once this was drunk, she changed the bandaging on his shoulder and bid him to rest.

Now that the camp was settling down, Hworin soon slowed his own rampant staggering on his crutches, and having seen his Prince beside the fire, he often looked to where Legolas sat to ensure his liege’s continued wellbeing; however, he did not hound the laegel’s steps as had been his wont since first learning Legolas had been taken in by their group, though Legolas knew Hworin would if the laegel showed any signs of pain or need. For now, Hworin had too many self-appointed tasks to complete, all of which were in the effort of keeping his Prince and his friends safe. Legolas watched as Nigel and Henri walked off with some of the other uninjured and armed protectors to add their own eyes for keeping watch. Hannah made rounds of the refugees just as did Faelthîr, though the succor she offered was not for physical ailments, but for emotional torment. She spoke kind words of bereavement to those who had lost someone, hugged and wept with those joyous to have lived through their newest ordeal, and gave encouragement to anyone needing it this cold, long, dark night.

When a flask was passed to him, the surprised Prince first sniffed the opening of the container to gauge what was inside before realizing it held a potent, fragrant whiskey. While not usually one to partake of liquor - and less so any hard liquor due to the many painful memories he had of his father’s penchant for violence whilst drunk – Legolas decided he needed the warmth, relaxation, and painkilling benefits the whiskey might offer, and so took a healthy swig before passing it onwards. Like he had swallowed an ember of the blazing fire before him, the whiskey slithered a warm path down his throat and to his belly, and then slowly began to ease the tension in his shoulders and arms. Soon, this ease spread through the rest of the Wood-Elf until the Prince sighed in relief. Beside Legolas, a pretty, young blonde woman sat with a toddler on her lap. She had taken her own small sip of the whiskey before passing it on, and now done, she coughed at the fiery sensation ere she turned to the Elf.

“Never have liked whiskey,” she said to him in a conspiratorial whisper. “But it helps to stave off a hungry belly. Too bad we can’t give it to the young ones. My brother is wasting away to nothing with the small portions we’ve had to make do with over the last week or so.” She must have worried it sounded as if she were complaining, because the Adan’s face blushed a charming pink and she quickly amended before Legolas could respond, “Though the hunters are doing the best they can, I am sure. Just too many mouths and not enough to go around.”

Her brother. I thought she looked too young to be a mother, but then, Adan women always look too young to me until they look incredibly old, he thought, and then smiled at the absurdity of his thoughts. He turned this smile to the Adan woman and looked down to the child sitting in her lap. “This is your brother?”

Perhaps the woman had not thought Legolas would actually want to speak to her, for she appeared pleasantly surprised when the Elf did not ignore her; she also appeared thrilled to have someone with whom to converse. “Yes. His name is Derrick, and I am Zalia. And you are Legolas. Our savior.”

“Hello, Derrick,” he intoned to the boy, ignoring the woman’s adulation and instead attempting to garner the child’s attention, but the young boy looked preoccupied and his gaze was dull.

Seeing how her brother would not react to Legolas, Zalia explained, “I’m sorry. He is tired and hungry. Usually he has better manners than this. Derrick has some illness where if he doesn’t eat frequently, he gets like this – shaky, sweaty, and befuddled. Faelthîr says she’s heard of it, but Elves don’t get it, so she’s not quite sure how to treat it, except to give him food regularly, but like I said, that’s been hard these past few days especially,” the young Adan explained ramblingly, hugging her young brother to her with obvious love and affection, and immense worry.

He should be eating now, then, the Wood-Elf wondered. He looked to where Janey was packing way the foodstuffs, only then realizing the woman had not made rounds to hand out portions to any of the children, women, elderly, or injured who remained in the camp. With some irritated accusation he knew was unfair since it was likely Nigel or Hannah’s idea, he thought of the woman, She fed those protecting us, though, didn’t she? It was fair enough for the guards to be fed, for they needed the energy to fight, but doing so while leaving the children to starve would not be allowed if Legolas had his way, even if he had to go out and hunt with an arrow wound to his shoulder.

Zalia perceived the confused anger in Legolas’ incisive regard, which caused her to answer his unasked question, saying in another whisper, “Hannah and the menfolk decided that tonight the camp’s guards should get a meal, since they need their strength to protect us.” Looking down into the despondent face of her younger brother, the women sniffled a time or two to quell her worried tears, hugged her shivering, miserable brother more tightly to her, and told the Prince, “I thought I might try to find some nuts or chickweed to feed Derrick, but after what happened earlier, I’m afraid to wander too far.”

Feeling somewhat abashed by having received any food tonight when there were people going hungry – especially a toddler who had an illness where he needed food in consistent intervals – Legolas reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled from it the bread roll Janey had provided him to eat tonight. Had he been given anything else, Legolas would have given the young one that food, as well, but as it was, all he had to offer was the bread. Hoping her pride would not keep her from accepting this small token, Legolas held the roll out in his palm and told the Adan woman, “Take this. It isn’t much but perhaps it will tide your brother over for a while. And I will personally see to it Derrick has something substantial to eat for breaking his fast come dawn, even if it is my own share. He won’t suffer going hungry,” he promised her.

Taking the roll reverently, as if Legolas had handed her gold instead of hard bread, Zalia smiled at the Elf with innocent sweetness the likes of which the Prince was sure had never before been directed at him. “Thank you,” she murmured, her dark brown eyes welling with tears. “Thank you. Maker bless you.”

She broke the bread in half and offered it to her brother, who at first did not seem to notice the food afore him – at least, not until the yeasty smell of it caused his pert, freckled nose to twitch in the direction of the roll. Helpless but to smile at the child’s adorable actions, Legolas watched as Derrick grabbed his half of the roll and shoved it in his mouth with famished abandon. He likely doesn’t even taste it, the Prince decided as he watched Derrick’s small mouth make quick work of the food ere he swallowed the bread nearly whole, having barely chewed it, so eager was he to put something in his belly. The second half of the roll Zalia took a single bite from for herself, but the rest she broke into smaller pieces to give to Derrick, for after seeing his ravenous eating of the first half, she thought to keep him from choking by trying to ingest the second half of the roll in one bite again. The young Adan held each piece in his tiny fingers for no more than a few seconds; the bits of bread were within his gap-toothed maw and down his throat even as he reached out for another.

I must hunt, this wound to my shoulder be damned. If the Edain are not adept at hunting, I am sure I can fare better, even hindered by this new wound, he determined. This time of year was when the bucks were on the move, seeking does for propagation. Hunting should be easy enough, if one had the patience and aim for it. The Wood-Elf looked around him, wondering where Hworin was, as he would ask his fellow Silvan to accompany him come morning to find game so the elder would not go mad with worry for Legolas.

Zalia interrupted his thoughts when she spoke again, “I know you didn’t come from the farm like the rest of us, and I have heard you know Hworin, so you must also be from Mirkwood. How did you end up with us?” she asked innocently enough, though the answer to this was anything but simple or harmless.

Legolas did not wish to be impolite, so thought of how to answer without having to give any details, but ere he thought of a way to deflect the young woman’s curiosity, someone hailed him from behind where he sat. The anxiety in the man’s voice caused Legolas to react at once and he was on his feet. In doing so, he wrenched the muscles of his upper shoulder and grunted in pain. Casting his once more sharp gaze around him, Legolas sought the person who had called his name.

It was Nigel. The stout, short, boisterous man sprinted forward with surprising grace, having caught sight of Legolas upon the Prince’s standing. As he approached, Nigel explained hurriedly, “Legolas, my wonderful new friend, you have visitors.”

Visitors? he marveled.

Aragon had told the Prince how Kalin, Elladan, and Reana were heading south to the marsh to look for him. If they had found his tracks, they would have had to follow them across the river and then northward again, then across the river once more. He thought it unlikely they had done so this quickly, but he hoped it to be the case. Besides, he could not think of who else it could possibly be.

Aloud to Nigel, the Wood-Elf asked, “Who? Where are they?”

Nigel twitched his head to the side, turned, and began walking off from where he had come, expecting Legolas to follow. The Silvan paused only long enough to turn back to Zalia, who grinned at him, which confused the Elf until he realized she was returning his own grin of relieved hope. She nodded at him, showing she understood his perceived rudeness in leaving without either answering her or giving an apology or farewell, and the Prince took off in a pained sprint to follow Nigel. Despite his short legs, the man was as fast as a trotting pony, and the Wood-Elf had to increase his pace to keep up.

Now that they were away from the bulk of the camp, Nigel paused, held his hand out to cause Legolas to do the same, and told him, “Listen, Legolas. Two men have approached the camp. They came on horseback and carry weapons. One of the younger of us nearly shot at them in fright. Luckily, he didn’t, for they called out to us, knowing we were here, and asked to be allowed to speak to our leaders. They claim to be Rangers.”

Inside his aching chest, Legolas’ heart began to pound. His first thought was of Estel, but this he discarded quickly. There was no way Aragorn could have made it here from Imladris so quickly, especially since Estel did not now know exactly where the Prince was, and he would not have come from the opposite side of the river, anyway, for Nigel was leading the Prince towards the bridge they had crossed to get to their new campsite. Even still and despite the twinge of disappointment his unfeasible hope caused upon being dashed, he thought, If they are truly Rangers, then it will be good to have more allies amongst us.

He had not asked why Nigel wanted him to come along to meet these supposed Rangers, but the man gave his reasoning anyway, which once heard, was sound in Legolas opinion. “None of us have ever met any Rangers, and even if any of us had, I doubt it would be these two in particular, although they certainly stand out as odd a pair as they are. But since you know the Chieftain so well, I thought you might also know some of his people…”

Legolas only nodded and motioned for Nigel to continue, which the Adan did after sighing in relief to be assured his assumption was a fair one. No, the Prince did not now every single Ranger in Aragorn’s retinue, but there were other ways he could suss out if these two men were actually Rangers or if they were imposters. They would have to know pertinent facts about Aragorn, for instance, or details of events and battles in which the Rangers had been involved. If they were not recognizable, then they would be put to question. Either way, the Wood-Elf was heartened immensely to have two Dúnedain upon whom to rely.

They grew close to the informal patrol of men who comprised the camp’s security, several of whom were surrounding two men, both of whom had weapons but held their empty hands up in submission. One was pale, gangly, freckled, with shockingly red hair he wore in a plait down his back, while his fiery beard was braided, as well. One of these plaits he tugged upon gently as he spoke quietly to one of the refugees beside him, smiling all the while. The other man was very tall, very muscular, and very good-looking. His dark hair was woven into ropes that hung around his face from underneath a leather cap. He smiled at whatever jest his fellow Ranger was telling, showing blindingly white teeth – or so they seemed in comparison to his handsomely dark complexion.

Sweet Eru, the Prince exclaimed to himself, his smile widening until he laughed aloud, catching the attention of the two Rangers who had come seeking to palaver with the leaders of the refugee camp.

Had not Legolas already been smiling and laughing in joy, he would have done so at the look of utter and comical shock upon Jakob and Wendt’s faces when they saw Legolas was not dead – as upon leaving the lake weeks ago, they had thought was sure to happen – but alive and standing before them.

Chapter Text

The moonlight shone in through the terrace and into his foster father’s lamplit study. Estel and Elrohir had arrived in Imladris a few hours ago. Upon their appearance in the courtyard of the Last Homely House, the two brothers had found their Ada waiting with barely concealed, apprehensive impatience. Normally, the Imladrian guards might have forewarned their Lord of his sons’ imminent arrival, but tonight it had not taken the sentinels to do so for their father to know of their coming, for Elrond had been actively using the power of vilya to look for his sons’ entrance within the protected borders of Rivendell. Despite not knowing for how long Elrohir, Elladan, and Kalin would be absent for their mission to aid Halbarad and the other Rangers in the small settlement where Elise had reigned in terror, the fairly vatic Peredhel seemed to have known his sons were returning, though only two had come home – and not the two whom he had expected. Of course, this had only amplified Elrond’s worry, for he had not thought to see Aragorn until spring, and Elladan, Kalin, and Legolas had not come home with Elrohir and Estel. In fact, days ago, Elrond had sent Valnesse with word to the border patrol to warn the guards there to be on the lookout for the twins and sentry, as if he had known or feared his progeny were in danger or in poor shape. Aragorn’s only explanation for this prescient behavior was to think his Ada must have felt his sons’ grief, confusion, and heartache – of which there had been plenty over the last two weeks – and thus, Elrond had been awaiting their homecoming with a father’s anxiety for his offspring’s welfare.

Elrohir and Estel had barely dismounted before the Imladrian Lord had swept both his sons into hugs; he then had asked succinctly where his other sons were, and if they were well. Estel had appeased his father’s worry with the barest of details by telling him that yes, Elladan, Legolas, and Kalin were alive and well, to the best of his knowledge. But Elrohir’s odd demeanor upon Estel’s reply evinced to Elrond how his Elven son did not hold this account true in the same way as did his human son, and the Imladrian Lord’s questions would need to be answered and his dread pacified.

Thus, Elrond had straightaway led them to his study, which was where Aragorn now sat upon one of the cushioned, ancient chairs, wishing he were in his bed, instead. He was tired, to say the least, and bordering upon complete exhaustion. Having known of their presence before their actual arrival to the Last Homely House, Elrond had sent to the kitchens for a meal to be prepared once he had felt his sons’ presence close enough to home for it to be ready and still be hot upon their entering their father’s study. The remains of this repast sat on the stone table afore them, having been consumed gladly, hungrily, by both Elrohir and Estel. After giving her respects to her Lord, Valnesse had left for the kitchen herself, as well, for she and the two brothers had not stopped their breakneck pace to reach Imladris since leaving the outpost the morning previous, which meant they had traveled for almost a full day without halt, save for when Elrohir called for a break to change Aragorn’s bandaging and pressed upon the man more of Gwindor’s premade tincture in hopes of combatting the effects of the poison in Estel’s festering wound.

His belly full, the human now wanted most to bathe and sleep. Already, Elrond had used the restorative powers of vilya to extirpate the worst of the poison from the man’s injury. As was his way, Elrond had not healed the wound entirely, though now it no longer pained the Adan nor wept blood and pus, and the many murky lines of toxin once branching out from the gash were no more. Aragorn flexed the aching muscles of his injured arm carefully under the watchful gaze of Elrohir, while waiting for their father to speak. Having been the recipient of his father’s healing expertise before, it ought not to have astounded the Adan so greatly to see the rapid change in a wound’s condition; nonetheless, it seemed to amaze him every time, and this instance was no different.

Estel relaxed his arm upon his thigh and considered as he watched his foster father, Even for Ada, our story has been too much to comprehend so quickly,

With his elbows upon the slab of stone comprising the table’s top, Elrond sat across from the two brothers with his head in his hands as he thought. Standing at the table’s end, as he had been doing for the whole time it had taken them to relate the entirety of events in detail, Glorfindel was watching Elrond, as well, though what he thought of Estel and Elrohir’s tale, Aragorn could not discern from the commander’s stoic face. Erestor, who sat at the opposite end of the table from where Glorfindel stood, was gazing off into the dark, snow cloud filled sky with a studious, flummoxed appearance. The Ranger looked to Elrohir, who upon feeling his human brother’s regard looked back at him while shaking his head ever so slightly. Not knowing if Elrohir were telling him to hold off on asking their father for his judgment of their story, or if the twin were telling him he no more knew what their father was doing or thinking than did Estel, the man now began fidgeting with the bread crumbs upon his plate. He pushed them around in absentminded, worried restlessness.

Assuredly, this wound is healed enough for me to travel to Bree. A bath, a short spell of rest, and then I can pack provisions, saddle my mare, and be on my way.

Estel hoped his father believed him when he told the Noldo how Legolas was alive. Unlike Elrohir and Elladan, Elrond had never seemed to doubt the depth of love or the profound connection between the Prince and Ranger. Aragorn thought it more likely Elrond’s silence was evidence of his being astounded by the many events having taken place during the short time of his sons’ absence from the valley. However, through his tired and guilty mind writhed worries that his father might blame him for Legolas’ suffering. He had often blamed himself for through what the laegel had undergone over the last months, but never would he have thought his brothers might blame him; and yet, they did, it seemed, and so now Aragorn dreaded his father might do so, as well. The longer his Elrond’s silence continued, the more Estel’s fretful trepidation grew, until the human felt the need to stand up and move about, though he settled for bouncing his long legs upon the balls of his feet.

Beside him, Elrohir was fiddling with the stem of his wine glass. His Elven brother was no more able to withstand this unusual silence than was Aragorn. The Ranger was filled with questions for his father – he wanted to know more of the missive Halbarad had sent to Imladris for his Chieftain’s advice, thinking Aragorn in the valley. He wanted to know if any new word had come from either Halbarad or any other Ranger in Bree or elsewhere. He wanted to know what Elrond surmised from Halbarad’s missive, and thus wanted to know if his father believed Legolas in safe company for now, or amidst a group of murderous thieves. Highest upon this long list of questions was a simple one – he wanted to know if Elrond believed him when he said Legolas still lived.

Picking up his nearly emptied glass, Elrohir drained the dregs of his wine with unneeded flourish, set it down upon the stone table with a distractingly loud clunk, and then sighed softly, though his irritation was clear in this mild reproval of Elrond’s muteness. The younger twin shifted in his chair in agitation, crossed his legs at the knee, and then sighed more loudly. “Ada,” he began with obvious exasperation. It took Elrond a moment to lift his head from its resting place in his hands; Elrohir waited until his elder looked at him, but upon seeing his father’s despondent visage, the twin hesitated in asking what he intended or decided to temper his vexation. Elrohir took a deep breath, uncrossed his legs, and leant forward over the expanse of stone table separating his father and himself, saying, “Is it possible for Greenleaf to be alive? Could we have left him behind? You do not believe Estel and Legolas share dreams, as if they were truly bonded, do you? It is inconceivable.”

Unwittingly holding his breath in anticipation of hearing the answer to Elrohir’s question, Aragorn’s head swam for the long moments it took until Elrond answered; when finally his father spoke, it relieved the Adan immensely to hear Elrond reply with surprise, “Of course Legolas is alive. Estel says it is so.” The Imladrian Lord sat back, thus pulling his elbows from off the table. He straightened his slumped shoulders. “Besides, I think I would know if one of my sons had died. Although I must admit, I feared it to be happening. I had no knowledge of Estel and Legolas being with you and Elladan, of course, but I felt your and Elladan’s grief quite clearly, Estel’s to a lesser extent, though I could only tell you were besorrowed, not why. I suppose I should have guessed it to be Legolas when I did not feel his grief along with yours.”

Then I was right, and Ada could tell we were distressed, which is why he had the border patrol on the lookout for Elladan and Elrohir’s return and looked for our presence with vilya.

“But Ada,” Elrohir replied in dissatisfaction, his whole body now leant upon the stone slab of the table to look directly into his father’s face as he argued, “I want for Legolas to be alive as much as anyone, you know this. And yet, there is no way Estel and Greenleaf are bonded as would be two Elven faers. There is no way for Estel to have shared dreams with Legolas!”

No, the Ranger disputed to himself rather than aloud, as he did not want to incite a quarrel about it right now, there is a way, you just would rather it not be so. You would rather Greenleaf and I go our separate ways all because you believe I do not deserve him.

Elrond did not answer this claim. He first looked down to where his hands were folded in his lap, then looked to Glorfindel, who returned his Lord and friend’s gaze without having spoken a word over the last several hours, ere he then looked to Erestor, who gazed out at the moon. Following the advisor’s line of sight, Elrond also looked towards the beclouded mantle of sky, where Tilion steered Ithil far above the snow drifting down upon the valley. Vilya granted Elrond the ability to deflect much of the harshness of inclement weather should he desire, but the Imladrian rarely chose to do so unless said weather threatened the lives of his people in the valley. Right now, with winter approaching quickly and the flurries falling now portending a heavier snowstorm to come, Estel found himself wondering if Legolas had shelter under which to rest tonight, food to fill his belly, a blanket under which to sleep, and most importantly, he fretted over whether his lover was safe. These thoughts fomented his desire to learn what he could of Hannah and her people, but before he could ask his father of what he knew, Elrond turned his sagacious, verdigris eyes to Elrohir’s similar ones. Yet again, he waited impatiently for their father to speak, since it was clear Elrond had something to say to the twin.

Much like how the twins often shared wordless conversations between them through simple stares or sometimes by their mere proximity, Elrond and Elrohir looked at each other, neither speaking, until Elrohir became flustered and dropped his gaze to the table. He picked up the emptied wine glass and began twiddling it again. Aragorn had no idea what perspicacious, veiled exchange just occurred between father and son, but the Ranger imagined their perceptive father likely already knew of the twins’ disapproval of Aragorn and Legolas’ love and had known long before the human had learnt of it, and thus, Elrond likely perceived just why Elrohir found it very hard to accept the idea of the human and Silvan’s bonding.

He slid his hand into his pocket, searching out the familiar feel of the braid of his lover’s hair ensconced within it. For the most part, Aragorn had done the explaining tonight. Elrond was never mollified with merely hearing the pressing matter, but wanted to hearken as much as possible so he knew all there was relevant to any given situation. Tonight had been no different. Thus, once Glorfindel and Erestor had arrived and the two brothers’ food was laid out, Estel had begun by telling their Ada how he and Legolas had travelled southward in a meandering, leisurely fashion upon leaving Rivendell weeks ago. Leaving out as little pertinent information as possible, he had explained Legolas’ inability to sleep and how he had aided the Wood-Elf in doing so by holding him so the Prince would not nightmare, and potentially give in to sorrow over his dreams of losing Estel because of his failure to escape the pit in the back of the Troll cave. He had told Elrond of their arrival at the lake, explaining how he and the laegel had spent several wonderful weeks in peace and relaxation, while camping in the open air, fishing and hunting, and even alluded to the physical pleasure the two had found often and joyfully, as it evinced the Wood-Elf’s faer had been whole, healthy, and combating of Legolas’ sorrow. But he had also explained the Prince’s constant vigilance because of the feeling the two were being watched and how this inexplicable foreboding eventually caused the two lovers to leave.

When it had come time for him to tell his Ada about Legolas seeing Elise for the first time, Aragorn had seen in his father’s face the same fear the Ranger had felt at the time – that is, that the Silvan had been hallucinating – and in fact, Aragorn had admitted with some shame how he had believed this to be the case, though he had agreed to flee the area with Legolas to appease his Elven lover. While he left out much of the minutiae of how worried he had been for the Prince, Elrond did not need to be told this to know how harrowing it had been for Estel to be alone in the woods with Legolas while fearing the Elf was hallucinating. Estel had told Elrond of how he and Legolas agreed to find the settlement once Aragorn recalled it being nearby, and he then told of how upon their nearing the human community, they had found the corpse of a young girl along a fence line, who matched the description Legolas had provided for the haunt he had seen earlier.

While the Peredhel had remained quiet and not asked questions, thereby allowing Aragorn to relay the tale without interruption, Estel could tell during his telling of this part of the story how shocked his father had been to learn of this. Aragorn had never seen a specter before in his life, though Elrond had seen many strange things in his long years; and yet, for Legolas to have seen the girl’s ghost and then for them to find the child’s body was beyond what their Ada had expected to be told. Especially disturbing to Elrond was the description of the haunt, for while Aragorn had not seen it, Legolas had described it in detail, and upon telling his father of what Legolas said – how the light bent away from the child’s pellucid, pallid form, how she seemed to pull the life and goodness of the world around her into her Dark being, and how the only color of her was her eyes, which glowed like burning coals, Elrond had turned to Glorfindel and Erestor in silent question. Both had shaken their heads in awed confusion, for apparently none of them had ever seen or heard of such a form for a disembodied being.

Aragorn had explained to his foster father of what he had learnt from Legolas later of what happened during that event – how Legolas saw what Elise wanted for him to see in showing him her grandfather Emler swinging her around, how she did not react to the Elf pulling his sword, and how she held her hands out to him. When he told Elrond that Legolas had reached for the haunt, causing Estel to yank the Prince from the way and off his feet, which then caused Elise to disappear, the Peredhel had opened his mouth to ask or say something, but then promptly shut it with a morose frown. Here, the human had left out the telling of his having been touched for now and instead told of how he and the Prince paused for Estel to rest, how they had gone on to the farm with Elise’s body to take to her people. Upon explaining the farm and the condition of the occupants thereon, Aragorn had earned his first response from his Ada when Elrond had sighed, shook his head, and said a short, whispered prayer for little Galeb – Elise’s infant brother – after hearing how he had died along with his family.

Already, his father had gleaned and guessed the two lovers had headed to the very village where Halbarad and Jakob stayed, which was to where the twins, Kalin, and Reana had been traveling to be of aid upon Tomas’ request for it, so Elrond was not surprised to learn Legolas and Estel had met up with the Dúnedain later that day and learnt of all the happenings in the settlement. Forced then to explain the dire circumstance of his having been touched by Elise, Aragorn had considered downplaying the algid spots upon his back, though Elrond was not pleased to hear this, nor did he seem to buy Estel’s attempt to defocus his story upon this fact. Briefly, quickly, Aragorn had relayed what Halbarad had said of the Rangers’ attempts to aid the villagers. When he told his father of Halbarad learning Legolas could see the haunt, Aragorn saw in Elrond’s face the same horror he had felt upon this happening, because Elrond knew now just as Estel had known then that the brave, selfless Prince would have done whatever it took to save the villagers. Moreover, when Aragorn had explained how he admitted to Legolas and Halbarad he thought he had been touched by Elise, and thus how she was stealing the very light of his soul, the Ranger had also seen upon his father’s face Elrond’s keen understanding of Legolas’ desperation to do anything to save Estel’s life.

Thus, neither Elrond, Erestor, nor Glorfindel had seemed at all surprised to learn of how Legolas risked his life with Jakob to try to find the haunt, nor were they shocked to hear how the Prince was touched the same as had been Aragorn. However, when the Ranger took to trying to explain how he had learnt Legolas used the light of his own faer to bolster Estel’s flagging soul without explicitly stating he and the Prince had made love during Legolas’ successful attempts to do so, all three of the ancient Eldar were stunned. Indeed, this was the first time any of them spoke to interrupt Aragorn’s storytelling, though Elrond had only asked if Aragorn was sure Legolas had done this. Only because Elrohir had piped up to tell the elders of his, Elladan, Reana, and Kalin’s arrival that next morning, and in doing so, confirmed for Elrond how Legolas had truly performed this frightening, seemingly impossible act of love, did their father, Glorfindel, and Erestor believe it, since none of them would have thought such a thing possible between an Adan and an Elf – lovers though they are. Besides, regardless of his having been the recipient of said light from Legolas faer, Aragorn was not an Elf and thus was not able to discern such an act as it happened, so Elrohir’s confirmation carried great weight for Elrond, Glorfindel, and Erestor.

Elrohir had then used this opportunity to take over the telling of their story; he did this to give Aragorn the chance to eat, being he had been unable to through all his talking, but also, Estel felt his brother did this so he might try to evade detailing some of the conflict between the brothers. Therefore, the younger twin told Elrond of Wendt, of Elise and of learning her name and background, of Emler and his past, of the ‘treasures’ he kept in the basement, and how they connected this to the Barrow-downs, to wights, and to Elise’s condition. He told of Liandra, the village’s healer. And he explained to their father how they learnt of Legolas’ selfless if rash attempt to save Aragorn, of what Elladan surmised of the situation because of this, how they made plans to burn all the treasures, and how they found Wendt walking towards the farm, and consequently, how Legolas again spoke to Elise there in the road, ere he had lost consciousness when his faer’s vim faltered. When Elrohir told the three elders of leaving the Prince in Kalin’s care to keep Elise occupied while the rest of them searched for the tether binding the girl’s spirit to the physical realm, the Peredhel had scowled at his Elven son, some rebuke lingering behind his pursed lips, for even though Elrond had not been there, their father knew Legolas well enough to guess what might occur if the Prince was given the opportunity to save Estel’s life at the expense of his own, and was not pleased they had allowed the Prince this chance. Though he had remained quiet and not let loose his castigation, his scowl only grew fiercer when Elrohir relayed how this was exactly what had happened.

Not wanting to hear his father’s lecture for either him or Elrohir, Aragorn had merely taken the opportunity to eat and left the twin to explain the occurrences on the farm without inserting any information about the accusations the twins had made for Estel’s culpability in Legolas’ suffering and impending death. As far as Aragorn was concerned, this divide between his brothers and himself was not one for their father to bridge. Estel was not even sure it could be fixed.

As succinctly as possible, Elrohir had explained how they burnt everything they could find, including the box in which Elise kept bits of her own treasure, and though the box itself had emitted some strange noise and a concussive force upon its destruction, there had been no change in Estel or Legolas’ state. Even with Estel’s assurance that the Wood-Elf was alive and well now, the younger twin began to weep upon explaining Legolas’ death as his faer left his body, leaving only his rhaw. By then, Estel had finished eating, and so, he had taken over speaking once more to allow Elrohir to compose himself.

He had explained how the villagers formed a mob, came to the farm, and then burnt the house and barn; and then, how they had forced Wendt into agreeing to burn his family’s bodies. Again, when Estel related how next the villagers decided they needed to burn Legolas’ living but soulless body, the three elders did not seem surprised by this, for they had fathomed this was where their story was headed. Even still, the Peredhel, his commander, and his advisor had seemed somewhat taken aback at learning how Estel – and to some extent Kalin – had felt Legolas’ presence, despite his being dead, by Elven measures. Since Aragorn and the others had not asked Legolas for details of his time as a haunt out of fear of arousing the Elf’s sorrow, Estel knew only what the Prince had told him that last night before the laegel’s disappearance – that is, how he had seen and spoken to Elise, learnt that she could not reverse the imprecation upon Aragorn, and then, how she had killed the villagers in protection of the laegel’s friends from the need to keep her new friend from joining the fray. All of this had caused the remaining villagers to flee. Elise had killed herself, in a way, to keep Legolas from the sorrow of seeing Aragorn’s slow and painful demise, and through this, broken the curse upon the Adan. All this had allowed the Rangers and Elves to leave the farm for their own safety, with the assumption made that Elise was now gone and could not be a threat any longer.

Since at the first Elrohir and Aragorn had told their father Legolas was alive and well, Elrond knew how this story must end, but during this point in their telling, Estel had been astonished to see the utter confusion upon his father’s face, for never before had he seen Elrond appear so confounded. Elrohir had again taken up the thread of their tale, had explained their going to the lake, the Rangers leaving for Bree with Wendt, and their waiting for Legolas’ rhaw to die before they moved on to go home to the valley. With the telling of the Prince’s miraculous return to his rhaw, Estel had been even more incredulous when he saw how Elrond, Erestor, and Glorfindel were utterly flabbergasted by this news, for by their own knowledge, only Eru himself or one of the Valar could rehouse a faer within its rhaw – and even then, it was through re-embodiment after death, and not a return to the same body. The two brothers had explained Legolas’ strange condition, his overactive senses, and the immense, intractable, inexplicable pain he had felt. At this point, Elrond had turned to Glorfindel in unvoiced question, perchance to see if the commander had any information about this, but Glorfindel had apparently suffered no such condition upon his own re-embodiment, and so had only shaken his head ever so slightly.

When it had come time to tell of the night of the Prince’s disappearance, Aragorn had skipped over why Legolas had been alone and away from the camp, preferring to avoid Elrond and the others giving their opinions on the twins’ castigating estimations of Aragorn’s fault in the Prince’s continual suffering, and instead, the Ranger focused upon relating their search for the Elf, their finding of the Yrrch tracks and later where Legolas had fought and killed some of them, and their eventual skirmish with the beasts in hopes of saving the captive Prince from torment or death.

Again, though they had already told the elders Legolas was alive and well, they had to explain how they found the Prince’s butchered body, his shorn hair, how they had assumed the Elf was dead, picked up his corpse’s pieces, and buried them by the lake. Aragorn explained to his father how he had felt – as if he had abandoned Legolas, as if his lover were still alive. Already having heard how Legolas shared his faer’s light with the man, which evinced his true bonding to Aragorn’s soul, it had been easy for the elders to understand when Estel then told them of his dreams. He had related to them not his nightmare, in which he dreamt of what happened to the Prince, but of his shared, lucid dream with Greenleaf, of learning the Prince was still alive, injured and unable to see, and trying to head north because he had not been able to find his friends at the lake, assumed one of them dead because of the grave thereby, and sought help for them rather than for himself by trying to get to the valley.

Aragorn had told them what Legolas showed him – that is, exactly what had occurred in the Orcs’ cave, how he had escaped and thus far managed to survive. Without accusation but showing more sympathy for his brothers’ disbelief than he had at the time, Aragorn had explicated telling Kalin of this, of the sentry’s decision to go south in search for his Prince, with Elladan and Reana accompanying him, even though no one but Kalin had believed the Adan. He had told them of his second dream at the outpost, of what Legolas had told him of being found by a group of refugees who fled to Bree to find help from the Dúnedain, of Hannah and her story. And when he had told Elrond, Glorfindel, and Erestor of Legolas admitting to Aragorn how Faelthîr resided amidst this group of humans, the three elders shared more indecipherable glances between them, with only Elrond evincing any emotion over this news – and what he showed his two sons sitting before him was unconcealed fear for Legolas.

At that point in their tale, Elrohir had taken over the telling once more by explaining Valnesse and her corroboration of Aragorn’s dream by the information she had gleaned from an overheard conversation between Erestor and Elrond. From there, the two brothers had only their uneventful journey to the valley to relay. Once this long and arduous telling of events had finally concluded, Elrond’s silent brooding had commenced.

And now, Elrond’s reticent pondering resumed after his rebuff of Elrohir’s attempts to argue against Aragorn’s claims of knowing Legolas lived. If Estel had told his father his and the laegel’s faers were merged without having told Elrond the entirety of his and the Prince’s tale, Elrond may have held reservations about believing this assertion; however, after listening to Aragorn’s story, Elrond could not doubt any of it was true, and especially so the veracity of the Ranger and Prince’s bond. Besides, Aragorn’s patience was entirely worn out; if his father had some lecture for him for being the cause of the Wood-Elf’s death and near deaths, then he would gladly endure it now in the hopes they could move on to discussing how to aid the Silvan.

At the thought of his Elven lover, Estel once more reached into his pocket. This time, he pulled out the long, soft, braided lock of his lover’s shorn hair, for he desired to hold it to his face. As the elders in the room – which was everyone but Aragorn, compared to the man’s relatively short years – deliberated upon all Elrohir and Aragorn had told them, Estel held his Wood-Elf’s braid up to his nose. While he wished it smelled of citrus and pines, the plait smelled only of smoke from the fires in the cavern where it was found and the slightly musty smell of the inside of Aragorn’s fever-sweat stained travelling tunic. It will be dawn soon. I should like to try to sleep tonight, to dream with Legolas, to know he is still well and to find out where he is now. He smiled at the recollection of their last dream together and the carnality they had shared in it. As much as he might like to partake in this delectable diversion again, he and the Prince had too much to discuss when next they spoke. Pleasure would have to wait.

“Estel?” his father prompted him softly, breaking his long silence.

Drawn from his prurient memories, Aragorn looked to his father, only to find Elrond’s incisive, dismayed regard was upon the braid in his foster son’s hand. He and Elrohir had told them of how the Yrrch had cut off Legolas’ hair to humiliate him, but seeing the remnants of this in Aragorn’s hand now caused Elrond some distress Aragorn did not quite understand at first.

At least, he did not understand it until Elrohir spoke to his father, saying quietly but firmly, “If you believe Estel can speak to Greenleaf in his dreams, then you may believe him when he says Legolas is well. He says the Orcs cut Legolas’ hair, spit upon him, and beat him a bit, but Legolas did not suffer their lust or any lasting torment. Sadly, in his life, our Greenleaf already endured and survived torture much worse than what the Yrrch put him through a week or so ago.”

Celebrian, the Ranger reminded himself. He had never heard the details of Lady Celebrian’s time spent in the company of the Orcs who took her captive and tortured her, nor had he ever wanted to learn of it, for he did not know the Elleth and had no right to such information, nor did he wish for his brothers or father to reminisce of those traumatic memories. Truly, said events were most harrowing for Celebrian herself, which was why she had left for Valinor, just as were Legolas’ memories of his torment most upsetting for Legolas himself – and yet, just as had Elrond, Elrohir, Arwen, and Elladan agonized while watching their beloved wife and mother suffer, so, too, had Estel agonized while watching his cherished Greenleaf suffer. He thought of Elrond, I know what fears haunt him, as I have feared them, as well, for Legolas.

Not wishing to dwell upon his sorrowful memories when there was a task at hand – one upon which Legolas’ wellbeing or life depended – Elrond nodded at Elrohir, ignored the continued disbelief his Elven son expressed of Aragorn’s knowledge of the Prince’s welfare, and then shuddered his head and the upper half of his torso quickly, roughly, to dispel said remembrances. Elrond had many questions lingering in his ancient, benevolent visage, queries to be made for his curiosity, scholarly purposes, and for his knowledge to best help Legolas upon his return to the valley, but for right now, Elrond was only concerned with one topic – getting the Prince home safely.

“Kalin, Reana, and Elladan are looking for our Greenleaf even now,” he told his father, knowing what Elrond wanted to hear and seeking to appease his worry. “They are surely well and should catch up to Greenleaf.”

“That is, if Kalin survives not finding his Prince alive. Or unless you have convinced them to follow your fool’s errand and they have walked into danger because of it,” Elrohir interrupted, intending to try to reason with their father, to make Elrond see the folly of any belief in Estel’s madness. “Ada – ”

But their father would not have it. Before Elrohir could continue, Elrond held a hand up to halt Elrohir’s words and reasoned, “I have heard the entire story, ion nin. You said yourself you believe Legolas gave of his faer’s light to keep Estel’s faer from fading because of the haunt’s curse. If Estel and Legolas were not bonded, Legolas would not have been able to do so. And while I know it is unusual enough for two Elven lovers to share dreams, it is not unheard of.” The elder Noldo again gave his young Elven son a knowing look – the same he had given Elrohir earlier without explaining the significance behind it – though he now evinced of what this meant by continuing, “I know you and Elladan are set against Greenleaf and Estel being lovers. You have been opposed to it from the start. But do not let this aversion shadow your reason. All the evidence is laid before you and points to an obvious conclusion – one you refuse to accept because you refuse to accept Estel and Legolas.”

Aragorn turned away from his father and brother upon hearing this. It hurt his heart – quite literally at that, for he felt a pang of anxious disappointment spread quickly across his chest, causing tears to spring to his eyes – to be reminded of how his brothers thought him unworthy of Legolas, believed him to be the root cause of all of the Prince’s suffering, and how they believed his life insignificant in comparison to the laegel’s life. In looking away from Elrond and Elrohir, however, the Adan by happenstance met Erestor’s unmistakably sympathetic regard, his eyes the dark, foggy silver of a pipe’s smoke. In the advisor’s gaze there laid an understanding Estel wished he knew the meaning behind, but for now, he hurriedly looked away from the advisor, as well, lest the kind empathy he saw there were to cause the Ranger to lose track of his purpose or to start weeping in his frustration over the rift now lying between his brothers and himself.

But Ada has faith in me, he succored himself. Elrond’s belief was the most important outcome of this conversation, to Estel’s thinking, and he tried to draw hope from this.

Appearing chastised but belligerent, Elrohir again fiddled with his glass as he silently formed arguments against Elrond’s statement, though their father outright ignored his young Elven son’s discontent for the nonce and instead worried aloud, "My heart desires most for us to bring Legolas home to the valley. I want to see for myself he is truly well. But I know he will not abandon these refugees in their time of need, since he is sure they are just that – refugees – and not the murderers and thieves the so called supervisors from this Overseer’s compound claim them to be.” Elrond pinched at the bridge of his elegant nose for a moment, lost in his thoughts yet again, ere he asked Aragorn, "Do you know where Greenleaf is now, Estel?"

Days ago, upon burying the body they had all thought to be Legolas, Aragorn had felt as if he were leaving the Prince behind. As it had turned out, they had done this very thing, though not without good reason to think Legolas dead. Thus, even then he had felt as the distance between the laegel and him had grown. And now, he could tell his lover's presence grew nearer. Where exactly the Wood-Elf was, though, he could not begin to guess, except to say he travelled north, and so he told Elrond, “I am not certain. As I said, he told me the refugees were trying to reach Bree to seek out the aid of the Rangers, and thus he travels in this general direction. I am not sure of what route they intended to take, but I can feel him growing nearer, as if he were coming close to Imladris.”

Throughout all this, the Peredhel nodded his head, and then gave Estel a short-lived smile. “Good. I hope he travels near to our borders, perhaps seeking to take the Edain towards the East Road and thus to Bree. Perhaps we can intercept him. I should most like to see him,” Elrond said again in earnest fervency, his verdigris eyes piercing the human’s gaze as a thorn does flesh. “If you speak to him again, my son,” he instructed the Ranger, “tell him to come home. Bring the refugees to the valley, or at least within our borders, where I can provide for them what they need to sustain them. Their leaders – this Hannah and whoever else might wish to partake of council – he can bring to the House itself. The others we will find some shelter for until I have spoken with them. But of all importance, tell Legolas he needs to come home,” he said a third time.

Elrond’s adamancy to have the Silvan whom he loved as a son to return to the Last Homely House would not be swayed by the Prince’s own desire to be of service to the Edain who had taken him in and aided him during his dire time of need. Elrond did not speak this as a demand, but once told to Legolas, it would be as if the laegel’s own King decreed it, for the Silvan would not disobey his Minyatar, nor prolong Elrond’s worry for him if he could appease it by his mere presence.

“I shall,” he promised his father gladly enough. He was just as eager to have Legolas return to the valley for a while, even if only long enough to have Elrond confirm Legolas was truly well, his faer and rhaw rejoined with no lingering ill effects, and his eyesight fully restored. Upon thinking of the Wood-Elf’s near blindness, it occurred to him to ask of the Elleth upon whom the Prince had relied to tend to his wounded head, and so he inquired of his foster father, “What of Faelthîr? She is one of the leaders of this band of humans, and she will not wish to return to Imladris knowing she will be taken into custody and held to account for her actions against Thranduil, Legolas, and Kalin.”

Elrond sought out Glorfindel and Erestor’s regard in turn, pursuing their opinion on what to do about the Elleth. Erestor spoke first, saying without prompt from his Lord, “Even should she wish to return to the valley, her stay here would not be welcomed – not now nearly all of Imladris has heard of her role in Mithfindl’s schemes, though none know all of what occurred.”

“No, and we cannot guarantee her safety,” Glorfindel added. The lean but powerfully strong commander flicked an errant thread from off the front of his tunic, gave his lover a nod, and then spoke as if he and Erestor had deliberated this before, despite their only just finding out Faelthîr was amongst the refugees, “You were right. But I suppose she has what she wanted, now.”

“I would rather I had not been right. I would not wish ill upon her, especially since Elrond sought only to exile her,” Erestor commented. The advisor stood from his chair, his sable robe swishing softly with his fluid movements when he walked around the table to stand before Glorfindel. With the familiarity of lovers, Erestor smoothed out the front of Glorfindel’s finely stitched, black wool and gold embroidered tunic, before he adjusted the collar of the pure white undershirt the aureate Elf wore and turned back to Elrond to say, “We would suggest she stays with the Edain, wherever you might seek to place them. They have need of her art in healing, I assume, and she would be safer and more comfortable there. When a permanent solution is found as to where the humans can settle, should they not have homes to which to return, we suggest she can be given leave to choose to accompany the Aftercomers to their settlement or accept her punishment by leaving for Aman, if this suits you, Elrond,” the advisor suggested.

Elrond nodded his acquiescence to this advice, for it was sound and fair, and did not infringe upon the promises made to Legolas and Thranduil concerning the Elleth’s punishment. And yet, the Peredhel’s immense worry was not at all alleviated. “Of all people upon whom Greenleaf must rely, Eru gave to Legolas the one who aided in his defilement and torment. I hope his sorrow has not resurfaced because of her presence. I can only beg for Elbereth’s mercy to see Legolas is not harmed by Faelthîr again under some notion of revenge for his killing of Mithfindl.”

“He seemed to trust her. Or at least,” the human amended, shifting in his chair in agitation to be off and going about the business he needed to conclude before he could sleep and hope to speak to the very Elf of whom they spoke, “he trusts Hannah enough to ensure Faelthîr does not mistreat him. He now sees well enough to fend for himself, also, so is not entirely dependent upon any of them, Ada,” he soothed his father. “Besides, Legolas was adamant of Hworin’s fealty to Thranduil, to the Greenwood, and thus to him. And Elladan and Kalin cannot be too far behind, assuming they found Legolas’ path in the bog. The human caravan ought not to be hard to follow, and it moves slowly, so they will have no problem catching up to him.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, each thinking of this and of all Elrohir and Estel had told them. Under Elrond’s vigilant notice, Aragorn returned his lover’s braid to his pocket. Soon, he would have Legolas here, he was sure of it, as he knew the Wood-Elf would not deny Elrond’s edict for him to travel to Imladris, so long as the Prince could convince the humans to accompany him. Little did any of them know that Legolas had already decided this was the best course of action, and thus, the Silvan desired to convince Hannah and Nigel to travel into Imladris’ borders in search of Elrond’s aid and council.

Beside Aragorn, Elrohir was once more fiddling with the stem of his wine glass. His quarrel was not yet over, Estel could tell, but he was determined not to be there for it, should the twin wish to fight with their father over the legitimacy of Aragorn’s assertions. While Estel could speak to Legolas in their shared dreams, he wished suddenly he could speak to Elladan or Kalin as he could his Greenleaf, to tell them of what was happening, of where Legolas was going, so that they would not wrongfully assume the Prince had been taken captive by the humans with whom he now travelled.

I hope you are right, Greenleaf, he spoke as if to the Elf himself. I hope these humans are truly the wronged party in this situation. Either way, Ada will suss it out upon your homecoming.

To bring their conversation closer to its end – or his own part in it, if nothing else – Aragorn asked the elders around him before Elrohir’s dour mood spilled over and he began to inveigh their conclusions, “What more do you know of Hannah and her people? Valnesse could tell us little, since she said she only overheard and paid little attention to what was not meant for her to know.”

Seeing Estel’s distress, knowing the cause for it, and wishing he had more information to lessen it, Erestor absentmindedly slid his arm through Glorfindel’s arm, took the commander’s hand in both of his own, and answered readily, “Nothing more than what she told you on your way here, and indeed, you know more of these refugees from having spoken to Legolas than we knew from Halbarad’s missive.”

As he had just told himself of his father’s ability to suss out the truth in most matters, Aragorn listened as Elrond promised, “I will determine whether these humans are honest or not, do not worry, Estel. And then,” he said, turning his gaze upon and speaking to Erestor and Glorfindel, “we will need to decide whether to aid them in rescuing their captive kith, or whether to leave them to their fate, while you,” he went on, now directing his attention and his words to Estel and referencing the Dúnedain over whom Aragorn was Chieftain, “you must decide whether to risk the lives of your own people. All of that can wait, however.”

Elrond shifted in his seat as if to stand, thought better of it, and resettled in his chair with ostensible discomfort to be here in his study in conversation when he would rather be doing something constructive. So strangely was his father acting, when normally the Noldo was nearly always composed and calm, that Aragorn almost rose to try to comfort his foster father. Erestor beat him to it, however. Removing one hand from his hold of Glorfindel’s hand, the advisor had only to reach out to lay it upon Elrond’s shoulder, for he stood near to Elrond now. This small comfort bolstered the Noldo while simultaneously calming him, it seemed to Estel; and yet, Elrond appeared no less worried, just less frenzied in his restlessness.

“I do not intend to seem uncaring,” the Peredhel warned his audience, none of whom would ever accuse the kindly Elrond of being such, “but the refugees’ fate is of lesser concern to me than Legolas’ wellbeing – for the moment, I mean. I can consider little else until I know Legolas is with the refugees willingly, not under Faelthîr’s sway and out of her reach, and to see for myself he is hale in body, mind, and soul. Our Greenleaf has endured enough torment,” his father said, with his voice growing gruff and quieter the longer he spoke, until it sounded to those around him as if he were merely voicing his thoughts aloud. “To have nearly lost Estel, to have seen this horrid haunt and nearly died in the human settlement because of her, to have been taken captive by Yrrch, to have wandered the land almost blind with nothing to eat or drink, nor a benevolent hand to guide him, and now to be alone with these humans and Faelthîr, and a single Wood-Elf whom he does not even know…” Elrond fretted ramblingly. The Peredhel once more clutched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb, as one might do if her head hurt, or more than likely in this case, to forefend the coming of tears. Having not removed his gentle hand from Elrond’s shoulder, Erestor gave his friend and Lord’s upper back a friendly squeeze.

Estel nodded in response, as he felt the same need to ascertain his lover’s welfare, also. He was moved by his father’s melancholy but could not seem to find the appropriate words to say aloud to offer the comfort Elrond was always free to give to his human son when it was needed. Eventually, though, he began to speak, but only then because beside him, Elrohir scowled fiercely at the human, as though this were now Estel’s fault, as well – as if the human had caused their father this new burdensome fear, rather than brought to Elrond the good news of Legolas being alive instead of the news they might have wrongly conveyed of Legolas having been tortured and eaten by the Yrrch.

Consequently, at seeing his Elven brother’s hatefulness for him, the Ranger again tried to hearten their father, “Greenleaf is truly well, Ada. I promise you. As much as none of us trusts Faelthîr, she seems to have taken good care of Legolas, and his vision is now restored nearly unto normal. And as I said, Legolas says this Hworin, the Silvan Elf amongst the refugees, follows him around just as Kalin does in protection of his Prince. And he is travelling near to us and growing ever nearer. In the morning, I will be off to find him, hopefully aided by dreaming with him tonight to learn of his exact location. I will tell him to camp where he is without moving, if need be, to ensure he does not travel away from us,” with quiet desperation, the human pled to the only father he had ever known. Again, the worry Elrond would find some way to blame him for all of this was roused in Aragorn’s mind, brought to a head because of Elrohir’s unrestrained and unwarranted wrath for the man; and thus, the Ranger beseeched his father to believe him, to understand him, while fighting the urge to weep, “I will bring him home to the valley, Ada, I promise, just as I said I would when we left weeks ago. I will bring our Greenleaf back home.”

Elrond listened to all this with a growing fury upon his face – a fury Estel naturally assumed for him. However, the Peredhel had seen Elrohir’s unjustified spite for the human, heard Estel’s lachrymose pleas to him, and he comprehended the undercurrent to the human’s desperate attempts for absolution. “I know you will, ion nin. We all know you would do whatever it takes to keep Legolas safe and well, just as would he do for you,” the Noldo assured his human son.

Unaware of how tense he had become, Aragorn sat back in his chair and forced his fisted hands to unclench, his jaw to loosen, and he breathed deeply to try to calm his hammering heart. And I will. I swear I will, he promised to himself. He had no reason to think the Elf was in danger at present, did not feel it to be so as he had done on occasions before now, but Aragorn felt keenly the need to prove to his brother, to their father, that his love for Legolas was true. But even if I convince him to return to Imladris with Hannah for council, he will still want to go south to aid the slaves left behind, the Adan knew. Aragorn would gather the Rangers he could find and lead them south to this compound, to set aright the wrongs committed by the Overseer, if the cause proved true. Until he saw and spoke to Legolas, though – in the real world and not in their shared dreams – then he would reserve all judgment of these Edain. He loved Greenleaf more than he had ever loved and would ever love another being for the rest of his years; however, he knew his lover well, and thus, he knew Legolas was wont to seeing the best of people, even when they showed him their worst. The Prince was not naïve or foolish; Legolas was ever hopeful, though, and because of this, he might have chosen the wrong side in the whole matter, with his discernment skewed by how the Edain found and aided him when most Legolas was in need. And if these humans have made a fool of Greenleaf, I will personally deliver them to this Overseer.

“If Estel had truly been interested in keeping Legolas safe and well, he would never have – ” his Elven brother broke the silence with snide combativeness, but was interrupted by their father before he could finish voicing his disparagement of the human.

“Quiet, Elrohir!” Elrond hissed quickly and none too kindly, while banging his fist upon the stone table with vehement, teeth rattling force. Glorfindel, Erestor, Estel, and Elrohir all startled at this rapid and noisome interruption, with Erestor removing his hand from Elrond’s shoulder in his surprise. All of them further flinched when the Peredhel exclaimed in a near shout, “I will not hear it!”

For a moment, no one in the room spoke nor moved, nor did anyone seem to breathe loud enough to be heard. Rarely did Elrond lose his temper and much less so with his children. His having done this now revealed to all of them the depths of his desperation to have all of his sons returned home safely and soundly, including his newly ‘adopted’ son Kalin, and evinced to those around him of Elrond’s dearth of patience to deal with Elrohir’s misgivings for Estel in regards to his love for Legolas. For his part, Elrohir seemed shamefaced and chastised to have earned their father’s scolding, slight though it was, for Elrond’s children could not bear to disappoint their Ada in the slightest.

After taking several deep breaths to calm himself, Elrond sighed heavily while speaking only to the Ranger, “Estel – find out all you can from Greenleaf, as soon as possible. I suppose it is unfeasible to hope you can control whether you may share your dreams with him tonight, but you should find rest to try. If the story these refugees claim is true, then they are in dire need of assistance, and depending on where they are now and what route they travel, we may be able to provide it before they begin to suffer from the winter weather and malnutrition. And as we have said, we cannot assume Elladan, Reana, and Kalin will be able to find Greenleaf’s tracks in the bogs to be on his trail, though I hope it is so. Kalin is likely suffering in grief over wondering if his Prince is truly dead, and Legolas is in need of allies in addition to this single Silvan in the camp, for should Hannah and her people’s story be false, or should Faelthîr again try to harm or manipulate Greenleaf for her personal gain, Kalin and Elladan would be there to be of aid to him, with Reana there to protect all of them.”

Elrond once more put his elbows upon the table and rested his head in his hands. Where they stood side-by-side, Glorfindel and Erestor watched Elrond with the sagacity of longtime friends, knowing Elrond was in need of more advice or comfort, which they would likely seek to provide once the three were alone without audience. Elrohir, on the other hand, now sat back in his chair, his arms across his chest; he glared out at the dark sky, the snow falling down from the thick clouds therein, and his face set in an unreasonable frown.

Even after rushing here, after having Aerandir side with me, telling Elrohir he knew Elrond, and thus knew Ada would believe my claims for Legolas to be alive and speaking to me in our dreams, Elrohir has still held onto his disbelief in all this; else, he is merely upset at being called out for his disavowal and disapproval of my and Greenleaf’s love.

When Elrohir felt Estel watching him, he turned his anger towards the Ranger, instead. Perchance Elrohir saw the hurt, blatant confusion upon his human brother’s face, for his own visage softened from its pugnaciousness, and he opened his mouth to speak. Whatever the twin meant to say was once again forefended, though this time, it was Erestor who – thinking Elrohir might inveigh the human again – prevented Elrohir from doing so by asking, “Who knows of Legolas’ supposed return from the dead, Estel?”

Lifting his head from where it was held up by his hand, Elrond parroted the advisor’s query, saying, “Yes, my son. Who have you told of it?”

“No one. No one who was not there knows of it. Elladan, Elrohir, Kalin, Reana, myself and Legolas,” he replied, unsure of why this mattered. “Halbarad, Jakob, Tomas, and Wendt left the lake before Legolas awoke, and they all believed Greenleaf would soon die, as did we all.” Of course, unbeknownst to Estel, Wendt and Jakob now knew the Prince lived. As he did not understand why this was important, he asked, “Does it matter who knows?”

“Yes, it matters. Tell no one. And if you speak to Greenleaf tonight, ask him to tell no one, either – especially none of the humans with whom he travels, though I doubt he yet trusts any of them to share such a  secret so readily. But tell him not to share this even with Hworin, despite his being a Silvan.” Elrond finally stood from his chair. He straightened his robes, drew back his shoulders, and for the first time since Elrohir and Estel began their long story, he appeared self-assured and wise, as ever he was. With a smile for the human, he walked around the table, took up Aragorn’s uninjured arm, and prompted him into rising from his chair. “Go, Estel. Bathe, as I know you wish to do, and then take rest. I wish to speak to Elrohir,” he told the human, “and then discuss this with Erestor and Glorfindel for a while. Elrohir will be along in an hour or so to bandage your arm with fresh linen before you go to sleep. In the morning, once Erestor, Glorfindel, and I have spoken, and once you have had the chance to speak to Greenleaf if possible, we will talk of what to do next. Rest, Estel, go,” he instructed again, giving Aragorn a gentle push away from the table and in the general direction of the door.

Chapter Text

“Do you know these men?” Nigel asked of Legolas. The stout, short man was smiling at the Prince, who was joyously laughing at the surprise upon Wendt and Jakob’s faces, but Nigel wanted to be certain the two Edain were of no harm to his friends and kith at the campsite ere he ordered the protectors of their band of refugees to put away their drawn and ready weapons. “Are they Dúnedain, as they claim?”

To Legolas’ knowledge and by the man’s account, Jakob was not technically of Númenórean descent, though he had been accepted into the ranks of the Watchers on the pledge of their Chieftain that Jakob was an honorable and trustworthy man; Wendt, on the other hand, was neither of Númenórean descent nor an actual Ranger – or at least, not unless Halbarad had allowed the blacksmith to join their ranks without Aragorn’s approval, though Legolas was certain Estel would give it should Wendt truly wish to join the Watchers in an official capacity.

He said none of this to Nigel and the other Edain standing about Jakob and Wendt, as he did not wish to muddy the waters, so to speak, and thus confuse the refugees. So instead, he merely clapped Nigel upon the back in companionable elation and told him, “They are Rangers, yes, and well known to me. They are trustworthy. Please, have your kith put away their weapons.”

The camp’s protectors did not need to be told by Nigel to do so, for Legolas’ promise was enough for them, and so they sheathed their swords and knives, latched their bows, and moved back from Jakob and Wendt. Any doubt the two had of whether it was actually Legolas standing before them vanished upon hearing Nigel say the laegel’s name. The Prince did look a bit different, after all, with his hair shorn off, bruised and bloodied, and in his borrowed, too large trousers, while bare-chested, and in ill-fitting boots, and of course and most importantly, the two humans had thought the Wood-Elf dead. Yes, hearing this was truly Legolas was all the blacksmith needed to know. The moment the refugees put away their weapons and it was safe to do so, Wendt approached the laegel. Striding forward with his long, strong legs, Wendt advanced upon Legolas as if they were longtime friends. Expecting the blacksmith to clasp his arm in greeting, the Silvan lifted it in offering, but Wendt grabbed Legolas’ arm and by it pulled the unsuspecting Wood-Elf to him and into his embrace.

“By Ilúvatar’s grace!” Wendt exhaled in a rush of genuine sentiment, enfolding the Elf into his colossally muscled arms with all the ease of an adult hugging a toddler – Legolas was only slightly shorter, but he was much leaner. “We thought you dead, my friend. But here you stand, alive and well!”

He meant to answer the man, but in his exuberance, Wendt hugged the Prince to his taller form so hard he lifted Legolas off his feet. He also unintentionally compressed the injury to the Silvan’s shoulder and stole the breath from his chest, and his arms were pinned under Wendt’s arms in this bear hug such that he could not even return the friendly affection. Inhaling sharply, despite his attempt to hide this acute pain, he drew the attention of Nigel.

“Hey, careful now!” Nigel chastised the blacksmith, sounding much like Hannah when he gave this order. The blacksmith released Legolas suddenly upon hearing this rebuke and the gasp of pain from the laegel, while Nigel went on to say good-naturedly, “His shoulder is wounded. Our healer will have your head if you pull those stitches out.”

“Legolas?” someone asked from behind them.

He turned to find Hworin sprinting toward them, his crutches held in hands but forgotten, so great was his haste. Wendt still had his hands upon the Prince’s shoulders, and though the Wood-Elf turned to see who called to him, he did not manage to pull free from Wendt’s grasp entirely, as the blacksmith merely adjusted his hold so one of his long fingered hands remained upon the uninjured of the Elf’s shoulders. Seeing this seemed to cause Hworin great alarm. Each time the Silvan placed his weight upon his injured leg, he grimaced; neither pain nor his lack of support from his crutches would stop the Wood-Elf servant from reaching his liege in this moment. Having been about his many tasks in the clearing with the refugees, Hworin had noticed his Prince’s departure with Nigel and followed to ensure Legolas was well and in need of nothing; upon finding his liege, he saw what to Hworin looked like Legolas being manhandled by this broad and brawny stranger in a way too familiar for the elder Elf’s liking. In fact, despite Legolas’ joyful smile and everyone’s ease, Hworin was not at all appeased his Prince was safe, and as he drew near, he had his hand upon the hilt of the very sword Legolas had claimed during the skirmish earlier that night, the one Hworin had used to kill the supervisor in retribution for the harming of his Prince.

“Pr – Legolas,” Hworin said again, having stopped himself before saying Prince, as he did not want to give away the younger Elf’s royalty. “Who are these men?”

He held a hand out, which Hworin walked right into, as if he might push past Legolas to insinuate himself between Legolas and the new arrivals. But Hworin would never disrespect his Prince as he had ostensibly seen Wendt do, and he stopped once Legolas’ hand met the cloth of his tunic. To soften the sharp edges of his fellow Wood-Elf’s worry, the younger Elda was quick to explain to Hworin, “They are Rangers. And they are friends of mine.”

At this news, Hworin’s face lit up with a smile similar to those worn upon all who stood there, including Legolas. He stepped back away from his Prince’s staying hand, while his own hand dropped from the hilt of his sword. “Rangers! Elbereth’s mercy shines down upon us for her to have sent you to us!” he said to Jakob and Wendt, all enmity now forgotten upon hearing they were friends of his Prince and Watchers, no less.

“I’m not sure about Elbereth sending us,” Jakob argued back wryly. He walked forward to stand beside Wendt. The fiery haired Ranger was more wary of greeting Legolas familiarly as had the blacksmith done in greeting the Elf; for in fact, Jakob had not forgotten and would not soon forget how the Prince had held his long knife to the man’s neck and threatened to cut off Jakob’s hands when the Ranger surprised him in the schoolhouse weeks ago by laying said hand upon Legolas’ shoulder to get his attention. So, instead of embracing the Wood-Elf as he might otherwise have done, Jakob settled for taking the laegel’s forearm in a tight, sociable grasp, which the Prince returned gladly. “Wasn’t Varda who sent us, Master Elf, but Halbarad, from Bree. If the Lady of the Stars showed anyone mercy, it was Legolas here, who lives when we thought him dead!” the Ranger said with his never-ending cheerfulness, his smile wide and true with pleasure to see the Prince well.

Hworin and the others watching this exchange naturally assumed Jakob spoke somehow of the Wood-Elf’s being lost in the forest, blind and starving, rather than of events occurring prior to this, and Legolas did not disavow them of this belief. Instead, he only chuckled at Jakob’s hesitance to greet him as had Wendt done in hugging him, and in his joy to have the two men show up unexpectedly. He rejoindered with as much merriment as Jakob, “Varda perhaps, but here in the camp, many brave and kind women and men, among whom I count Nigel and Hworin here,” he said, nodding first towards the short, stout man, then to his fellow Silvan, “are all to thank for my being alive and well right now.”

Both Nigel and Hworin stood a little straighter at this praise, for it meant quite a lot to both, coming from Legolas, who all held accountable for their being alive and safe right now, rather than dead or in chains. Recalling the reason for his being chastised a moment ago, the blacksmith peered down at the linen wound around the laegel’s otherwise bare chest, looking for fresh blood. “I’m sorry, Legolas. I didn’t even notice you were wearing that bandage. Did I hurt you?” Wendt inquired nervously.

He waved off this concern, saying, “I’m well. And all will be well, now that the two of you are here.”

“Aren’t you cold, wearing nothing but the skin in which you were born? Fine though that skin is,” the blacksmith asked with a roguish grin. Having little interaction with the Elves outside of recent events, Wendt likely did not realize Legolas was not as bothered by the cold, as were humans. Even now, fat, wet snowflakes fell onto the Silvan’s bare skin and melted, making trails of iridescent moisture, which ran over his alabaster flesh. “If you’ve no extra shirt to wear, I have one you can borrow.”

Jakob interjected before Legolas could answer, first poking Wendt in one muscled arm before he teased, “One of your shirts would fit Legolas likely as well as would a tent.” Again, the group of men and Elves laughed, their good cheer borne of the hope of having the two Rangers here, and sustained by Wendt and Jakob’s indomitable friendliness. “I have a shirt more your size, on my horse, in my pack. I assume we are welcome here and we can go back to fetch our mounts?” the red-haired Ranger inquired mildly.

“Of course you are! Any friends of Legolas are friends of ours.” Nigel waved a hand towards the gathered guards, instructing them, “Back to your lookouts, my friends. We’ve no need for protection here.”

Nigel and Jakob will get along well, the laegel thought with joy evident upon his face, since they are both painfully affable and cheerful.

“Come,” he told the two Edain, “let us go get your mounts.” To Nigel he suggested, “Why do you not go tell Hannah of our guests. She will want to meet them first thing, I presume.”

“Oh, you are right of that. I will go find her,” Nigel agreed. He began off in his spritely sprint, moving much quicker than one would assume for a man with such short legs or so many years lived.

Legolas could tell from the expressions of Jakob and Wendt that they had many questions for him. He did not wish to begin their inquisition right now, and besides, he could think of no way to remove Hworin from their presence without ordering about the elder Elf, and this Legolas would not do unless absolutely necessary. Thus, the Wood-Elf told himself as he fell into step beside Wendt, who followed Jakob, with Hworin behind them, I will have to avoid their curiosity for now. They were there in the village, helped us to fight, and without them, Elise would still be a threat, so I owe them whatever answers I may give. But not with Hworin here. He did not want for the elder Silvan to fuss ever more over him, as he might after learning of through what his Prince had suffered recently.

In truth, Legolas barely knew these two men. The very day he met Wendt, Legolas had fallen into unconsciousness and near death – if not actual death – and so, he had little interaction with the man. But he knew what Wendt had done. He knew the blacksmith had stood with Elladan, Elrohir, Kalin, Reana, and Estel, along with the Rangers Tomas, Jakob, and Halbarad, to fight his fellow villagers in safeguard of Legolas’ faer-less body and for the safety of the Elves and Rangers, as well. Wendt had alienated himself from his home, from his kith, and from his established profession there in the village because he had chosen to do what he thought was right, rather than what was convenient or profitable. Also, Jakob travelled with the blacksmith now, so the Ranger must have some faith in Wendt. As for Jakob, Legolas knew him little better than Wendt, but what the Prince knew was this – Estel trusted Jakob, and Legolas trusted Estel’s appraisal of the fiery haired man.

Before they had walked but a few steps, Jakob turned to ask of the laegel, “You are here, which surprised me greatly, I must admit, though why, I do not know, since you seem always to be in the thick of trouble.” Jakob flashed one of his beguiling smiles, tugged a copper plait of his beard, and then began ambling backwards so he could look at Legolas when he went on to ask, “But what of Aragorn? He is here with you? And Lords Elladan and Elrohir? And Reana and Kalin? Are they here, as well?” Jakob asked in excited, rapid succession.

“And what happened to all that glorious golden hair?” Wendt asked.

At this last question, the Prince laughed heartily once more. I imagine I will be asked about my hair from everyone I know until it grows back.

“No, Aragorn and Elrohir are in Rivendell. Aragorn sustained a wound whilst fighting Yrrch, the very group by whom I was held captive, which is where I received this cruel haircut,” he explained, answering both men’s questions succinctly and hoping they would be appeased without the whole story. “As for the others, Elladan, Kalin, and Reana were out looking for me, and I have faith they will soon arrive, for they will follow the trail of these refugees in search of me. Once Aragorn’s wound is treated by Lord Elrond, he will be on his way to Bree, which is to where these good people travel,” he explained, though to himself, he thought, Unless I can dream of Estel, and lead him to meeting me sooner, to tell him I plan to convince Hannah and her people to enter Imladrian lands. The very idea of soon seeing his lover again made his elation swell.

Though disappointed the others were not there, Jakob was never downtrodden for long. He nodded, grinned, and began walking facing frontward again.

Yes, he knew these two valiant, kind men wanted answers from him. Foremost, they wanted to know how on Arda he was alive when Estel, Elladan, Elrohir, and Kalin had been so sure of the Prince’s imminent death. Moreover, they wanted to know why he was with this band of refugees. Legolas’ answer only raised more questions for them. However, having not spoken with Estel since the Ranger learnt of Halbarad having sent a missive to Imladris, and thus wondering at the happenstance of Wendt and Jakob finding these refugees in the forest, he halted along with the rest of them when the pair of men stopped at their tethered horses, only just now realizing the incredible odds of having the Edain arrive when most their presence was needed.

“You said Halbarad sent you,” he began, trying to suss out this new information even as he spoke. “We travel north, seeking aid from the Rangers, but how did you know already these refugees are in search of it?”

For a moment, the exuberance fell from Jakob’s face and a dour grimace graced his freckled features. “You are not the only ones looking for the Rangers’ advice and intervention in this matter. Someone who calls himself the Overseer sent men to Bree in search of our help to roust out a group of thieves and murderers – I assume the very group with whom you travel,” Jakob replied. The Ranger had no problems saying this in front of Legolas, as he knew the Prince was not to be counted amongst the potential evildoers, but Hworin might be, and so Jakob plastered a slightly farcical version of his characteristic smile upon his visage and amended his statement on the other Silvan’s behalf, “Or so we have been led to believe, though we will learn the truth of these matters with you at hand to enlighten us, I am sure. Let us go back and meet this Hannah to hear the story, shall we?”

He nodded his acceptance of this and turned to see how Hworin looked utterly aghast to hear Jakob’s news of the Overseer’s premeditative actions to poison the Dúnedain against the refugees ere they had even reached out to the Rangers for aid. Legolas felt horrified to hear it, as well, and as he began back towards the camp, with Hworin now walking beside him and the two men leading their horses behind, the Prince wondered in mystification, The Overseer was a step ahead of Hannah and the others, then, to have beaten them to Bree. How did they know the refugees were looking for the Rangers’ aid? Either this Overseer is smarter than Hannah and her kith credited, or there is a spy amongst us. This thought did not sit well with the Wood-Elf.

The walk back to the camp was done in quiet. The snow upon the ground was less than that blanketing the trees’ bare limbs and the brush they passed. The light of the moon reflected off the pure whiteness of it, causing the night to be brighter than it might normally have been. This unfriendly weather made Legolas wonder, Is it still best to go to Imladris, then? I suppose, even should there be a sheep in wolf’s clothing here with the other refugees, he or she will not be able to give the supervisors any further information, and the supervisors and their mercenaries would not dare to challenge Elrond’s sentries and armies in his own lands, would they? Perhaps, even, someone who did not manage to escape the compound was forced into telling the Overseer of Hannah’s plans; that is, if they had already planned to seek out the Rangers ere beginning their revolt. What had already seemed a complex situation had just grown increasingly so.

Upon arrival in the camp itself, Legolas noticed a buzz of happy excitement amongst the humans. Being that they had been in search of Rangers and the Rangers had instead found them, the refugees hoped their prayers were now answered. He could not see Nigel or Hannah anywhere about, but thinking to speak to Jakob and Wendt without either present – and without Hworin, for that matter – he asked of the elder Silvan, “Hworin, could you please find Faelthîr? She should be a part of this meeting.”

Glad to be of any use to his Prince, Hworin nodded and began away, this time using his makeshift crutches, only to turn back to ask, “Will you still be here at the fire?”

He thought a moment before he answered to tell Hworin, “No, bring her, and Hannah and Nigel if you see them, to the northeast of camp. We will wander a bit away from there for this council.”

With another nod, Hworin took off in search of the Elleth, while Legolas spoke quietly to Jakob and Wendt, telling them, “Follow me. Let us be away from camp.” He did not give his reasons for this out loud, but given how the Prince believed there might be an infiltrator amongst the group, he did not wish for anyone to overhear whatever was said. He was certain Nigel, Hannah, Faelthîr, and Hworin were trustworthy, however, so along with Jakob and Wendt, they would palaver where no one might know of what they spoke.

The two men did as bid, still leading their horses, and stopped once they were a short distance away, towards the northeast of camp, a hint closer to Imladris, and thus, just a little bit closer to Estel, whom Legolas could feel acutely. I hope you are sleeping in our bed, safe and healed.

“So,” he asked Wendt, who still smiled and gazed at Legolas as if the Elf’s being alive were the most miraculous, welcomed sight he had ever seen, “I take it all of you made it to Bree in one piece. And what of you, Wendt? Are you now a Ranger?”

Even in the gloom of night, where the sliver of Ithil was hidden behind the snow clouds, Legolas could tell as Wendt’s dark complexion became tinged by pink. His smile growing, the blacksmith shook his head at the Prince and laughed. “Hardly. I’m just helping out. I found work almost immediately at one of the smithies in Bree. Only had to shoe one horse before the smith, one Master Griswalt, let me take over the bulk of his work. He’s getting on in years and planned to retire, but neither of his sons wanted to take up the family business, so he’s letting me do all the work he can’t do any longer. He pays fair, though, and he said when he retires, he will gladly leave me the forge and anvil, since his own kin have no use for it,” Wendt explained. Absently, the man began stroking the neck of his horse. It was a finer, sturdier mount than the one the blacksmith had ridden from the village, luckily, as the one Wendt had ridden to Bree had barely been able to carry the man. “But no,” he told Legolas. “Not a Ranger. Halbarad, Tomas, and Jakob were staying in Bree, waiting for Aragorn to arrive or send word, as promised, when this whole business with the Overseer and his people came up, so when Halbarad needed someone to go with Jakob, I volunteered. Master Griswalt said I’d still have a place at his smith when I returned, if I wanted it, and I couldn’t let Jakob ride out into danger alone.”

“Don’t let him fool you,” the fiery haired Adan inserted. During all this, Jakob had been searching through his saddlebags for something. Whatever it was, he had yet to find it. He paused in his searching to tell the laegel, “Halbarad and I have been trying to convince this ornery lout to join us, in the same manner as I did,” he said with a fond smile for Wendt, “I mean, as more an honorary Ranger than one outright, being neither of us have any claims to Númenórean ancestry.”

“I think you would make a fine Ranger,” he told Wendt honestly, “and I think Aragorn would agree, if you ever change your mind about it. And even if you do not, at least the Watchers know they have someone upon whom to rely in Bree, should they have need for an extra hand.”

This compliment from Legolas pleased Wendt to no end. The man was rather ingenuous in schooling his emotions. Legolas had been unconscious or unaware during most of what happened upon Elise’s farm, but in the schoolhouse and shortly thereafter, the Prince had been well aware of Wendt’s fascination with him. Nothing was changed now, either, and the blacksmith could not seem to quit staring at Legolas, nor stop beaming at the Elf. Weeks earlier, the laegel would have been discomfited by the blatant, innocent desire upon the man’s face. With time, his chariness of other men had lessened, but more importantly, the Prince respected and trusted Wendt not to act as had the human merchants Sven, Cort, and Kane. Legolas found he did not much mind the blacksmith’s unhidden gawping. He was only glad Aragorn was not here to see it, lest the jealous Ranger cause a fuss.

Legolas was not the only one aware of Wendt’s ogling, though, and the Prince soon learnt for what Jakob hunted in his satchels. With a soft murmur of triumph, the Ranger went, “Aha!” and pulled out fabric the azure color of a summer sky, which was rolled up tightly. Unfurling it with flourish, Jakob shook the cloth out, evincing to the Prince it was likely the tunic the Ranger had promised to find for him. “Never even been worn,” he told the Wood-Elf, inspecting the plain but clean and well-made tunic. He handed it over to Legolas, telling him, “It isn’t wool, unfortunately, but perhaps it will keep you from getting too cold. Besides,” he teased both Elf and blacksmith with a wry smile for both, “it will keep Wendt from getting too distracted looking at you.”

Had Wendt been a lesser man, he might have sputtered and been embarrassed by Jakob pointing out his penchant for mooning over Legolas, but Wendt was too far gone in his appreciation of the Silvan to care. Besides which, he likely knew how obvious his interest in the Wood-Elf was to all around him. Thus, he laughed right along with Legolas and Jakob until he complained good-naturedly, “It matches your eyes, Master Elf, and will suit you well, but it will be a shame to cover up such a beautiful sight.”

Again, the three laughed in amicability. Eru help me, if Aragorn were here right now to listen to Wendt’s flirtation, Wendt might be picking himself up off the ground, the Silvan thought, his laughter restarting at the idea. Legolas took the tunic and held it up to his chest, and seeing it would fit him fine, he thanked Jakob, “This will do nicely. I will repay you once I am able,” he promised, though the Ranger shook his head against this promise.

He made to pull the shirt on at once, but because he was covered in blood and dirt, decided to wait a while – at least until he could clean up a bit, even if not have an outright bath. A moment later, he heard the telltale sounds of someone walking through the friable leaves upon the ground, some of which crunched underfoot because they were dry, and others of which squelched underfoot because the snow had dampened them. And then, he heard Nigel as he spoke to Hannah, telling her what he knew of their guests, which was very little.

He told Jakob and Wendt, “They are coming,” before he called out, “Over here, Mother,” so they would know exactly where the trio were, for while they had not strayed too far from camp, they were not in a clearing or otherwise distinguishable area and he wanted for Hannah and the others to find them quickly. The night was nearly over but the Prince still had hopes of sleeping to dream with Estel.

Legolas missed the odd looks he received from Jakob and Wendt to hear him call Hannah ‘Mother.’ He walked towards the sounds of the approaching people until he saw them, then waved them towards where Wendt and Jakob awaited. Nigel, Hannah, Henri, Faelthîr, and Hworin had all come to greet and speak to the Rangers, and though the men of this group appeared very pleased to have Wendt and Jakob there, both Faelthîr and Hannah were abnormally nervous. It is likely Hannah and Faelthîr still fear the Rangers will not wish to aid them because of Faelthîr’s hand in Mithfindl’s schemes, he reasoned to himself.

Quickly, he made the rounds of introductions, as he was the only one who knew all present, beginning with Hannah and her kith, then ending with the Jakob and Wendt. Once this was done, all looked at each other, waiting for someone to begin talking, to explain the situation and initiate what Hannah and her kith hoped would be the means to the end of enlisting the Rangers’ aid for her cause. After a moment, Jakob took charge and began.

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Glad to be done with their conversation and glad to be free of Elrohir’s company for a while, the Ranger left the study without offering much in the way of farewell to anyone in the room, save for nods in Erestor and Glorfindel’s general direction. As he walked through the open air corridor leading away from the library, he saw his father’s personal servant, who had been about some business for Elrond, and asked her to have hot water sent to his chambers. The Elleth smiled at him and nodded, perchance thinking the Prince was there with him, for bathing was always foremost on Legolas’ mind when he returned to the valley after a long journey. But tonight, there was no laegel with whom to share his bath and Aragorn did not refute the Elleth or her gentle, knowing smile for him. Instead, he rounded the corner to walk down the steps to the family’s hall. Being that Elrohir was still in the study with their father, Elladan and Kalin were traipsing the bogs in search of Legolas, and Arwen was in Lothlórien, where she spent most of her time, Aragorn had the floor of the house to himself for the moment.

He walked into the bedchambers he now shared with Legolas. Without the Prince there, the rooms seemed emptier, colder, and less hospitable. Although kept clean by the household servants, this spotlessness had also removed all traces of their day-to-day rituals inside the rooms, and thus made them appear unlived-in and sterile. To remedy this, Estel started a fire in the hearth, where the wood was already stacked in the fireplace in wait for this, and then lit the lamp on the mantel and the candelabra upon the bedside table. Taking one of the candles from its holder, he walked it into the bathing room, lit all the candles and the lamp there, and then replaced the first candle. For a moment, he stood there, watching the licking flames as the tallow melted and ran down the side of the brass holder, absently scratching at the beard upon his face, and remembering how Legolas had told him it was time to trim or shave his whiskers.

He smiled. It would be a pleasant surprise for the Elf to see the Ranger well kempt in their next shared dream, should he have the pleasure of sharing one with the Silvan before dawn came. And he had time to kill before the servants brought the warm bathwater. Quickly, the Ranger went back to the bathing chambers, took up the ceramic jar with his shaving soap and brush in it, his honed razor blade, the washbasin, and the polished mirror from where it sat upon the table upon which the soaps and towels were kept. All this in his arms, he took his load to the mantel, which was where it seemed everything ended up sitting before any given day was done, and spread it out in preparation for his task. Using the fresh jar of water upon the mantel, he mixed it with his soap, adjusted his mirror to see his face clearly, and shaved.

I truly have let it grow out until it was a beard. A little longer, and I could have braided it as does Jakob braid his, he teased himself, rinsing his blade in the washbasin to make another careful swipe at the long hair upon his cheeks. As he performed this mindless chore – one he had performed time and time again since first growing dark hairs upon his chin – the Ranger hummed to himself. Despite the harrowing tale he had told his father, Glorfindel, and Erestor; despite Elrohir’s constant disbelief; and despite not having Greenleaf beside him again for another night, Aragorn felt well. Some of this was merely because his arm was now tended to properly, his fever absent, and his fear for losing said arm vanished, but mostly this relief and good cheer was for a single, very important reason – his father believed him. Unlike Elrohir, who did not believe Estel and also actively railed against his and Legolas’ joining, Elrond believed the Ranger without qualm, accepted the Prince and human’s love and bonding, and apparently did not share his twin sons’ views about everything having happened being all Aragorn’s fault.

It took him some time to see it completed, but once his face was shaved, he felt better for having done it. No sooner had he wiped the last traces of soap from his now smooth chin did a knock come at the door. He called out to enter, and within came three servants, each carrying four buckets of water each. Estel sat upon the bed to remove his boots, but also to stay out of their way. As were they normally, and despite having known Estel his whole life, the Noldo showed him the deference of his being Elrond’s fostered son, but not in a cowering, subservient way. No, they merely went about their business of filling up the bathtub and left in quiet, only pausing long enough to wish him goodnight after he thanked them for their service.

Just as the last servant made to walk out and close the door behind her, a hand stopped the portal from shutting. Elrohir did not bother to knock but merely walked inside the room. Aragorn spared his brother a glance before he began sorting through the wardrobe for clothing. Said wardrobe once resided in his bedroom across the hall, but along with several other items of furniture and the Adan’s personal things, had a new home here in what were now his and Legolas’ chambers.

“You’ve shaved.” This was not a question but a comment, and so Aragorn did not answer. Seeing the human was not terribly interested in speaking to him, Elrohir suggested, “I would have thought you would go straight to bed to speak to Greenleaf before dawn comes, since Legolas will likely be awake come sunrise.”

It took the Ranger a moment to comprehend the concealed connotation to the Noldo’s comment, but once he did, he could only wonder, He speaks as if he now believes Legolas and I are joined and sharing dreams. Does he say this to pacify me, because Ada shamed him into accepting it, or does he truly believe it?

“I stink of sweat, horse, and fever,” he told his Elven brother. “Besides, my arm is healed of poison and well enough not to hinder me, so as I promised Legolas, tomorrow I will head out, which is also what I promised Legolas. I intend to be ready to depart come morning. If I have no chance to speak to Greenleaf tonight, then I will speak to him tomorrow night, when I rest somewhere along the way.”

Rather than the argument he expected about his leaving or his dreams with Legolas, Estel received only a nod from Elrohir. Truly not interested in speaking to the twin about any of this right now, Aragorn took his bundle of clean clothing and padded barefoot into the bathing room. Steam rose up from the inset tub. The fire in the bedroom had cleared the chill from the air, but here the temperature was humid and hot from the torrid bathwater. He laid his clean clothing down upon the nearby table, grabbed the first jar of soap oil his hand found, and set it upon the dais into which the tub was set. Estel reverently removed the braid of his lover’s hair from his pocket and for safekeeping laid it upon the table where the bath oils were kept, before he began to strip off his stained clothing. All of this he tossed into a pile in the corner, throwing atop it the fouled linen bandage from his injury, before he slid into the pleasant, sweltering bath with a pleased sigh.

The telltale squeak of the wooden leg of a chair dragging across the stone floor in the bedroom grabbed the man’s attention. He rued, Not that I truly mind if Elrohir intends to sit here and watch me scrub the smell away, but if he wants to have some meaningful conversation, could he not wait until tomorrow? And it seemed the Noldo intended for this very thing, as he soon had the chair in the bathing room, settled at the end of the dais in which the tub was set, and thus faced Estel where he reclined in the bathwater.

“I’m not certain I am awake enough to have this conversation, whatever it is you think to say,” he warned his brother.

“Too bad.” Elrohir crossed his legs at the knees and then folded his arms over his chest, assuming the same belligerent appearance as that which he had worn in the study a short time ago. “Our father insisted I speak to you concerning this matter, and I would have it done tonight.”

“Of what matter?” he asked. Aragorn went about his business of bathing, doing so quickly but thoroughly, while waiting for Elrohir to say whatever he had needed to say, though he did warn the Noldo, “I do not wish to argue with you, muindor. Can we not let this rest for now?”

Elrohir did not respond, and for a while, the younger twin said nothing at all, but merely watched the human. Eventually, though, Elrohir asked, “Have you always been attracted to men? Neither I nor Elladan ever knew of you to court one before Legolas.”

Why does he ask this? he wondered. Surely this is not of what Ada wanted for him to speak to me.

Nonetheless, the human would answer truthfully if it would appease Elrohir’s anger for him in the slightest. He and the twins had fought before – both with words and with fists – but it was usually over quickly and without longstanding rancor. Since taking Legolas as his lover, though, Estel had fought with Elladan and Elrohir more than ever he had before, and he wished it not to be so. He loved his brothers, of course, and knew they loved him. He wanted no rift between them, not only because of his love for them, but because he knew should the twins never accept his and Legolas’ love, then it would create a chasm between the Wood-Elf and the two Noldorin brothers, as well. Moreover, Aragorn had no doubt his Greenleaf would chose him over the twins – perhaps, also, this was part of their anger for Estel.

And so, he bathed and spoke, explaining to his Elven brother, “Not men. Besides, what you speak of is lust. I have not lusted after men – or after women, for that matter. Only Legolas.”

“But you have had lovers before Greenleaf?” the Noldo asked in true confusion. Elrohir uncrossed his arms and his legs and leant forward, placing his forearms upon his knees as he continued curiously, “Even if you did not love them, you have enjoyed fleshly pleasures with someone else?”

“No,” he answered straightaway. Estel grabbed the pitcher on the dais beside him and dunked it into the wonderfully warm bath to fill it. He used it to rinse off the soap upon his shoulders and arms, all the while careful to avoid allowing his wounded forearm to soak in the water. “I have never desired any carnal pleasure with anyone except Legolas, and no, I have never enjoyed it with anyone else.”

“Since when?” the twin asked. He now leant so far forward on his chair he appeared on the verge of falling off the seat, lest he stood from it. “I mean, for how long have you desired Greenleaf?”

Again, the Noldo spoke of lust, when to Aragorn, his physical desire for Legolas came second to his desire for the Prince’s love. He said as much with some resentment, rectifying the twin’s statement by saying, “For years, Elrohir, I have loved him. Since the day I met him, I have been smitten with him, though not as I grew to be when also I grew to be a man. Since before I knew what it meant to love another in such a way, I have loved Legolas. As for my want for him, yes, I have long desired him, as well, but do not mistake me when I tell you this: I covet most for Legolas to return my love and affection. Should he not have wanted to return my physical desire for him, I would have been and even now would be satisfied with his love.”

For his part, Elrohir seemed startled to hear this. Perhaps he thought Legolas was merely another of Aragorn’s conquests – another notch in his belt, so to speak. To see his Elven brother’s opinion of him written so clearly in the Noldo’s face exacerbated Estel’s anger. He filled his pitcher again and dumped the water over his head, grabbed the pot of soap flakes, and began scrubbing at his tangled hair much too roughly. All his irritation he focused into his bathing, however, and to his brother he spoke calmly, “I have always feared to lose his friendship. Legolas’ company I hold dearer than I do anyone else’s company, Elrohir. For years, I loved him silently, not wishing to speak of it to him, out of fear he would rebuff me and I would lose his companionship entirely. I would scarcely admit to myself my love for him. By Legolas’ own account, he felt similarly for me, but while I knew I loved him and desired him, long though I denied it even to myself, Greenleaf did not understand what he felt for me.

“That night by the brook,” he explained warily, for he was well aware he was reminding Elrohir of the very moment the twins believed to be the catalyst and cause for many of Legolas’ problems, and evidence of the Prince’s inability to choose for himself since he grieved while making the decision, “Legolas showed his interest in me for the first time. Whatever you think happened that night, you are wrong of it, I am sure. I walked upon Greenleaf as he tried to bathe. He cried out in despair, I went to him. To soothe his faer, I helped him to bathe, which he delighted in, as it broke his numbness. But Greenleaf began our joining that night. He instigated it. Never did I think it possible for him to desire me in any way but as a friend; yet, he wanted me. I knew nothing of the scar then. And yes, perhaps I was overcome with my own desire for him, and should not have assented to our joining that night, knowing now what heartache it brought to Greenleaf later. Always, I had felt guilty over desiring pleasure with him; when he wanted me, and I him, there was no guilt, no fear of losing his friendship. But before we even shared our bodies, I told him I loved him, so he would know my desire for him came from love and not lust.”

He rinsed his hair clean of the suds quickly, for he did not want to give Elrohir a chance to begin his rebuttal ere he finished. Casting his sopping hair out of his face and setting the pitcher aside, Estel went on, “What is done is done. Had he and I not shared our bodies that night, I do not know if ever we would have, and I will not regret being given the chance to be with Legolas, nor would he regret it, despite the complications it has caused for him. Even after the scar’s awakening and torment of him, after his further torment by both Kane and Mithfindl, had Legolas told me he never again wished to enjoy our love physically, I would not begrudge him it. I love him too much to allow mere physical pleasure to come between us.”

Having said all this, Estel took up his cloth again, sprinkled it with more soap flakes, and finished his scrubbing. He waited with wary anticipation for the twin to argue, to bring up now all the arguments he and Elladan had made time and time again for how Estel and Legolas’ joining was a mistake, one which would cost the Elf his life in the end, and mar the Silvan’s faer with sorrow until the Unmaking. But Elrohir remained silent. He had listened to Aragorn, however, which was more than the Ranger thought the Noldo would do, for ever had the twins believed their own opinion of greater wisdom and clarity than that of their fostered human brother.

Suddenly, Elrohir sighed and closed his eyes. “Elladan and I have always disbelieved your love for Legolas was true.”

Upon seeing Aragorn’s intent to rise from the bath, the Noldo stood, walked to the table on which bathing sundries were kept, and selected from it a towel. He walked to Estel, handed it to the man, and then went back to the table. Meanwhile, Aragorn stood and wrapped the towel around his waist, only to be handed his bathrobe upon Elrohir’s return to him. Wrapping the robe around himself, now, he slid the towel out from under the folds of the robe and began drying his hair, all the while giving Elrohir the same patient attention the Noldo had given him while the Ranger had spoken. But he was once more growing enraged at Elrohir’s doubt of him.

“Would you like to know what Ada told me after you left?” Elrohir asked Estel with a humorless smile. Not waiting for the man to answer, the twin told Aragorn, “Well, he said many things, not all of which I will repeat, and not all of which were especially kind,” he said with another wry smile, ere he told the human, “Ada reminded me of Faidnil’s advice, the advice he gave to you and Thranduil. Ada said Elladan and I have been treating Greenleaf like a child, like he is incapable of making decisions for himself, all because he has suffered, and we have been trying to make those decisions for him, just as Thranduil does, to try to protect him – or so we tell ourselves, when in truth, we do it out of selfishness, as we fear to lose Greenleaf. Or so Ada says,” Elrohir ended with another sigh, one which told the human the Noldo didn’t quite yet believe their Ada was accurate in regards to this observation.

But this sounded true enough to Aragorn. In fact, the Ranger was just as guilty of doing this, at times, though he made the effort to refrain from this ill behavior when he noticed himself treating Legolas as Thranduil might. He did not wish to beleaguer his brother by agreeing to Elrond’s admonishment, for it clearly upset Elrohir to be told this by their father, and so, Aragorn remained quiet.

“I do not know,” the younger twin brother admitted with finality, though Estel was sure this was not the last he would hear about this. From the pocket of his trousers, Elrohir pulled a roll of fresh linen. “Come, let us rewrap your arm so you can sleep.”

Elrohir walked out of the bathing chambers and into the bedroom. Quickly, Aragorn donned the clean trousers and loose shirt he had brought to wear to bed, the sleeve of which he rolled up on his injured forearm, and then joined his Elven brother in sitting upon the edge of the bed. I should likely leave well enough alone, he warned himself, but his anger for the Elf and his worry for Legolas made his curiosity unbearable, and so while Elrohir wound the injury with the bandage, he asked, “So you believe me now? You believe Greenleaf alive and he and I are sharing dreams?”

Giving a dour snort of laughter, Elrohir acknowledged, “Ada believes it is so, and who am I to doubt him? I can count upon one hand the number of times our father was ever wrong about something, and even when he was wrong, it was because of misinformation or deceit. And he says he is adamant he would know if Greenleaf had died and is sure he has not.”

Elrohir did not say he did not doubt Estel, but that he did not doubt Elrond. While this seemed unfair, it was the most Estel was likely to get from Elrohir tonight, so the Ranger thought not to press the issue. Again, though, his inquisitiveness bested him, and he inquired, “You asked me all those questions about my love for Legolas to what end? To appease your worry that I actually love him, and do not merely lust after him? Do you truly think so little of me to believe I would risk our Greenleaf’s sanity, wellbeing, and his very life just for a few moments of carnal satisfaction?”

The Noldo did not look up from his task, and in this was Aragorn’s answer. His Elven brothers truly did think so little of him, and it hurt the man’s heart to realize how poorly they judged him. But this he tried to push from his mind. The only opinions for which he cared right now were his lover’s and his father’s opinions – and Legolas knew better, judged the man worthy, and did not regret having cast his lot with the Ranger, while Elrond believed the human about Estel and Legolas’ bonding of faers.

Tucking in the last bit of linen so the bandage would not come off, Elrohir leant back and looked upon his work, ere he finally looked up to the Adan. “Sleep well,” he told Estel succinctly. And then, appearing somewhat ashamed of himself for acceding to the Ranger and their father’s certainty in what to Elrohir seemed madness he could not himself accept, he told Aragorn, “If you do speak to Greenleaf tonight, tell him – ” Elrohir paused, shook his head, and then finished, “Tell him to stay safe.”

Aragorn was quite sure this was not what Elrohir had meant to say at first, but he did not care at the moment to examine further his brother’s thoughts or motives. The divide between Elrohir and himself – and thus between Elladan and Estel, as well, since the twins were usually always of the same mind – would not be so easily remedied. However, for now, this concord would have to suffice, and Estel had more important matters pressing upon his wary and worried mind. “I will tell him,” he promised.

With that, Elrohir again shook his head, looked towards the balcony doors to gauge the time, and then bid his brother goodnight, saying again, “Sleep well, Estel. And sleep soon, if you hope to give Greenleaf the instruction our father wanted passed to him.”

Once the Noldo was out the door, Aragorn stood and made his rounds of his and Legolas’ chambers, dousing the lamps and candles as he went, until the room was dark save for the light of Ithil coming in through the balcony doors. He reached into his pocket to find the braid there, only to recall he had left it in the bathing chambers. Hurriedly, he padded barefoot into the room, secured the plait from the table, and then trod back to stand beside the bed, where he once more looked out the panes of glass in the closed balcony doors. He stood before them for a moment with the braid up to his nose, wondering if his Greenleaf were staring up at the same night sky at this very second, and then, he climbed quickly into bed, laid the braid upon the nightstand where he could see it from where he laid, and decided he would merely ask the Elf.

Chapter Text

Although Legolas had only just introduced everyone, Jakob gave a more formal introduction of himself and Wendt, explaining what earlier the Prince had avoided mentioning by saying, “We are pleased to meet you. This is Wendt, who hails from a farming settlement to the south, which has no name, as it is small and off the beaten path. He is not sworn in as a Ranger, but he is trusted by myself and the other Rangers, and is known and trusted by our Chieftain, Aragorn. He is a blacksmith by trade, though he is just as capable with a mace as he is with his hammer, and is committed to finding out the truth of this matter and seeing wrongs put to right.” The fiery haired Watcher paused a moment to let Wendt speak if he desired, but the blacksmith only nodded his head at the people before him. “I am Jakob,” he continued, “not born from the ancient race of the Númenóreans, as are the rest of the Dúnedain, but hail from the south, as well, though I was a wanderer by nature – and also a thief, eventually caught and set to hang for the wrongs I had done. By the Maker’s grace, my life was saved and I was given new purpose when I joined the ranks of the Rangers, where I have served the people of Eriador following the code of the Dúnedain and carrying out the orders of their Chieftain – who is also the very friend who saved my beautiful bearded neck from the hangman’s noose,” he explained with his gregarious smile.

Knowing all this already, Legolas watched the reactions of those around him to Jakob’s whimsical introductions. Henri, Nigel, and Hworin all smiled sociably at the two men, as had they been doing since joining Legolas, Wendt, and Jakob here for their council, while Faelthîr and Hannah continued to appear uneasy, with the former wringing her hands and the latter chewing her lower lip in agitation. Legolas felt a little troubled, as well, for he had not had the chance to tell Wendt and Jakob to refrain from mentioning the happenings in Wendt’s village concerning Elise and the laegel’s near death. He supposed there to be little harm in any of the refugees knowing, especially those standing here, all of whom he trusted well enough, but as it bore no relevance to their current situation and might only cause them to treat him differently, he would rather it remain private for now.

Luckily, Jakob stuck only to the pertinent facts, and gathering the braids of his beard in hand to smooth them together, the Ranger’s smile faded as he said, “Wendt and I were in Bree, along with other Rangers, waiting for word from our Chieftain, when a group of men approached us. The leader of these men, who called himself Mikkel, said he came with a request for help from the Rangers on behalf of a man they called the Overseer. Said on a farming and mining settlement in the south, a large group of residents employed on the farms and mines murdered and stole their way through this Overseer’s house and the common stores, taking not only goods, coin, gems, and ingots not belonging to them, but unjustly slaying a fair number of the guards hired to protect the settlement, and also killing quite a few other residents who tried to thwart their attempts to make off with the efforts of everyone’s hard work.”

Throughout this explanation, Hannah shook her head in denial, her eyes wide and horrified to hear how not only had the Overseer anticipated their attempt to gain the Rangers’ help, but also he had tried to turn the Rangers against her allies. In the scant light of the moon, with the only sounds close by the natural noise of the forest at night and the soft chewing of Jakob’s horse grazing on a clump of grass at his feet, the group of refugees all shared the same perplexed countenance – save for Hworin, who had heard this already during his and Legolas’ escort of the two Rangers to the camp. From how her mouth worked to form words she had yet to say, Hannah clearly wanted to argue against the story Jakob told, but he held his hand out to stave off her argument so he could finish.

“Halbarad, one of our most experienced and wisest Rangers, and Aragorn’s closest advisor, I suppose you could call him, was with us in Bree, and heard this tale from the supervisors of the Overseer’s settlement. He refused to act upon their claims without advice from Aragorn himself, as Halbarad did not trust the men who brought this story to him, but nor did he wish to dismiss their account outright just yet. And so, Halbarad sent a missive to Imladris, seeking out our Chieftain in hopes he might have arrived there after his delay in the south from business we had only just concluded,” Jakob alluded without mentioning any particulars, much to Legolas’ relief. “Eventually, we received word back that Aragorn had yet to return, which apparently was due to some additional trouble with some Yrrch, according to Legolas here,” he said with a jovial smile for the Elf, and by this wordlessly evincing to the Prince how the Ranger still believed trouble to follow Legolas around, which was a fair assessment given the events of the last year or so. “As we could not consult Aragorn, Halbarad thought to wait it out a while longer, and in secret, he sent one of ours, Tomas, to keep an eye on the group of men travelling with these supervisors. Tomas came back to tell us part of the men had splintered off in a great big hurry. Suspicious as to what they were about, Halbarad asked me to trail them, and Wendt volunteered to travel with me.”

If Estel is in Imladris, as I hope he now is, he must have already spoken to Elrond about the missive sent to the valley. I told him what I knew of Hannah and her kith, but I had no idea the other Rangers knew of them already. Does Estel now believe I am amongst a group of killers and thieves? he questioned. Knowing his human lover as he did, Legolas thought it entirely likely Aragorn was going mad with worry over this very thing – and of this, he was right.

Jakob rocked back and forth on his heels a few times. He looked towards the waxing moon, gathering his thoughts, until the silence grew long and Hannah could take it no more and made again to speak. However, just then, Jakob restarted his explanation without looking to the refugees to whom he directed this, “The group of men we followed rode direct and hard, like they knew just where they were going. Turns out, they did know, apparently, since they intercepted your group easily enough. From their path, they had no need to search for you until they were nearly upon you, as they just tracked your movements from where last you camped. But as I say, they seemed to know exactly where you had camped prior to encountering you this night, which gave them the starting point they needed to find you.”

Again, the Ranger began rocking back and forth on his heels. Jakob was a natural talker. Legolas had learnt this quickly in Elise’s village. Right now, though, while he was eloquent and concise in what he told them, Jakob seemed also to be piecing together the events as he spoke, as though he had not yet had time to think through what these events intimated. With another yank upon the ends of his braided beard, he finally looked away from Ithil and to Nigel and Hannah, who stood directly in front of him, to say, “You see, Wendt and I were a bit behind them, what with the delay in Tomas having to come tell us of their departure, and how the men rode like the Dark Lord himself was on their heels. So, we never quite caught up to them; at least, not until we caught up to what was left of them – a bunch of corpses left to rot where they’d been struck down, including one who looked like he’d been executed while kneeling, weaponless. We also found a freshly dug grave, big enough to hold several bodies, though we did not disinter the bodies there to find out who laid within it.”

This time, when Jakob paused, it was with the intent of having the refugees clarify this occurrence. While the Ranger had said all this without accusation, it was clear to Legolas how Jakob needed some explanation for what happened and why they had seemingly executed an unarmed man. And so, the Prince shifted how he stood from beside Jakob to face him so he could look directly at the Ranger, wanting to give the Adan no reason to doubt his word when he told him, “Most of those corpses were my doing, though not all. As I told you a short while ago, we travel northwards to Bree in search of help from the Watchers; we were waylaid by the supervisor and his mercenaries, who attacked our group without provocation, firing arrows into the throng ere we knew they were there. In their first foray, they killed two little girls, two elderly men, and an injured man – leaving his daughter without her father – while another young man, one of those who fought after I had struck down enough to even the odds for us, died valiantly trying to defend his friends. And even while the rest of us fought with swords and knives, one of their archers aimed for the women and children, just to terrorize us. Those men’s deaths were brought about by their own deeds, Jakob, and not through any provocation from the people in this group.”

“Had it not been for Legolas, we would all be in chains or dead,” Nigel interrupted to repeat to the two Rangers, saying as had he and others said already many times this night since the skirmish occurred. “And had he not jumped in the way of an arrow meant for Yvannah and her children, knocking her from its path and being struck by it instead, we would have needed to dig a bigger grave.”

Giving neither Jakob nor Wendt time to respond to all this, Hannah spoke up to plead their case. She stepped toward Jakob, took hold of his upper arm, and told him, “The Overseer did not lie entirely. We stole from the stores of goods and valuables he held near his manse there on his Maker forsaken compound. But do not mistake me when I tell you this – we were owed what we took and much, much more for the suffering we endured whilst there. Some of us went there willingly, yes, believing lies told to us about how we might make our living working upon the farms and in the mines, but some, like Hworin and Faelthîr and Henri here, were snatched from their homes or as they travelled, taken in chains. Once on the compound, we were all only slaves to the Overseer and his vulgar men, whether we came by choice or not.”

“Slaves.” Wendt repeated in surprise. The smith took off his leather cap and held it in his hands, turning it around and around in mimicry of his tumultuous thoughts. He and Jakob shared a confused frown between them. Whatever excuse they had anticipated from Hannah and her kith, they had not expected to be told this, it seemed. After a few moments of fidgeting, the Adan ran a hand over his head and replaced the cap to keep his thickly roped shock of hair out of his face. “You were slaves?”

“Yes, slaves. We were kept in hovels, fed only enough to keep us from starving. The women on the farms, the men in the mines. And we were all kept in line by whips, chains, and threats to our families, as most of us had husbands, wives, or children from whom we were separated. I saw women drop dead from exhaustion and hunger while tending the fields. My own sons died in the collapse of a mineshaft.” Hannah released Jakob’s arm, stepped back, and instead embraced her man’s arm, an embrace he gladly returned to offer his woman some comfort. On the other side of Hannah, though standing slightly behind the Adan woman, Faelthîr laid a hand upon Hannah’s upper back to offer whatever ease the woman might derive from it. With tears in her mossy green eyes, Hannah concluded firmly to Jakob and Wendt, “I won’t be judged for any of those foul men’s deaths, nor will I let any of my people be judged for it. I saw them beat women and men to death for having the gall to faint from thirst in the heat. I saw them drag young, pretty woman to the Overseer’s house to endure rape and who knows what other torment, never to be seen again. And Hworin here, one of Legolas’ own people,” she said, as if this might support her veracity by the association of the two Silvan Eldar, “was kept chained together with a couple other Elves. One died fighting, the other had to cut her feet off to free himself and Hworin so they could continue to fight to free themselves and us. Lirion and Phresia, they were named. Lirion died after seeing us to safety, from a broken heart, I believe.”

Standing tall, her eyes glinting with the moonlight in her unshed tears, Hannah seemed to be looking down upon the taller men before her when she warned them, “With or without the Rangers’ help and once the women and children are safe somewhere, those of us who are able will return to free our people still kept as slaves, and those who had since been brought in as slaves, for the Overseer never stopped replenishing his supplies of bodies. However,” she amended, tempering her righteousness, “I beg of you and your fellow good men to aid us, for we sorely need the help.”

Jakob did not answer this honest supplication. It would take more than a heartfelt plea for Jakob to swear his help, as he did not speak for all the Rangers and would not do so. Moreover, the man was not yet convinced, Legolas could tell. He merely asked, again without judgment, “And the unarmed man slain at the place where they attacked you? What of him?”

“I killed him,” Hworin spoke up just then. Although typically Hworin was a nervous, quiet sort, there was nothing hesitant about the Silvan when he told Jakob and Wendt, “That bastard may not have been the one to have killed those little girls or the good men who gave their lives trying to protect the rest of us, nor was he the one to have shot my Prince with an arrow – that one I also killed, by the by – but he gave the orders, he was their leader, and we would not hold him in captivity nor waste a morsel of our food keeping him alive when the rest of us have barely enough to fill our bellies. So yes, he was executed, and by my hand. If nothing else, he deserved no less for his men’s attempt upon my Prince’s life.”

Hworin did not hide his liege’s royalty now, for he assumed Wendt and Jakob knew of it since Legolas claimed them to be friends of his. Indeed, everyone who stood there already knew of Legolas’ royalty save for Henri, apparently, and the young man now looked at the Wood-Elf with wide eyes to hear it, though he said nothing, which he rarely did anyway. Finding the elder Silvan’s explanation feasible and sound, Jakob nodded at Hworin in appeasement, for Hworin was obviously ready to argue with the Ranger over whether the supervisor deserved his fate, though Jakob ostensibly agreed with Hworin even without saying so.

“So you fought on behalf of these people? You are injured because you took an arrow meant for a woman and her kids?” Wendt wondered of Legolas with awe of the Prince’s selflessness, though to Legolas himself, his actions were not so worthy of the approbation he saw in the infatuated blacksmith. Wendt startled a bit as a thought occurred to him, causing him to take a step towards the Wood-Elf and then to lay his hand upon Legolas’ bare shoulder. “Wait – does that mean you were also caught up in the Overseer’s compound, held there as a slave as these people were?”

Considering how the Prince might have suffered under the whips and harsh conditions as had the others caused Wendt great concern, it seemed, and also great anger. He rose to his full height and Legolas was fairly sure the besotted Adan would ride out to the Overseer’s compound and attack him and his mercenaries just for this potential affront alone. The thought of Wendt doing this nearly made him smile, but Legolas kept himself from doing so, as it might be taken wrongly by those around him right now.

“No.” He struggled a moment to try to explain how he had come to be with Hannah and her people without referencing all having happened before then so not to bring up Elise or what transpired in Wendt’s village. Finally, he shook his head and said again, “No, I was not with them. Near the lake, where we were camped before you, Halbarad, Tomas, and Jakob left for Bree,” he answered Wendt, hoping to inspire their reticence to speak on the subject with his own obviously vague allusions to those events, “I became separated from the others, was taken captive by Orcs, and Aragorn and the others, thinking me dead with good reason, travelled north to Imladris. But I was alive, wounded and nearly blind, and travelling north, as well, intending to reach Rivendell, when Hannah found me. She took me in, fed me, bathed and clothed me, and treated me as one of her own people. I have only been amongst them for a couple of days.”

It amused Legol