Learning to Smile

Chapter 14

by Little Jewel-(T)
February 27, 2017
First > Previous > Next in progress

Three months later….

The Lord of Rivendell stood with his arms crossed over his chest, staring down with stern grey eyes at the small eight-year-old human child who stood grinning up at him. He was not pleased.

Aerinel was filthy. She was covered in mud from head to toe, leaves and grass stains dotting her clothes. Her hair was an utter mess, having fallen out from the braid it was in and now tumbled down over her face. All in all, the child looked a complete mess.

Elrond gazed flicked upwards to the two elves standing behind the child, desperately trying to hide the smirks that threatened to break out on their faces. The elf glared at his sons. “How?” he asked coolly. “How did you manage to get Aerinel so dirty in the space of one hour?” The tone of his voice did not bode well for the twins.

Elladan gulped. “Well, we didn't exactly set out to achieve…this.” he said, waving his hand at the small girl. “It just sort of...happened, I suppose?” He spread his hands out and smiled hopefully.

Elrond frowned darkly at him. “Elladan!” he snapped, pressing his fingers to his temples in an attempt to control his rising temper. “This is the third time in the last fortnight you have brought Aerinel back like this. Please explain why, for it is beginning to grow tiresome.”

The twins looked at one another. They did not want to tell their father the real reason for allowing Aerinel to do as she pleased whenever they took her out to play, but…

“Boys…” Elrond warned.

Elrohir sighed. “She misses Estel,” he said softly, lapsing into Sindarin so the child would not understand them. “We have tried to keep her occupied and let her play whatever she wants to. Today it was hide-and-seek, rolling down the hills, and splashing in mud puddles.”

“Estel?” Aerinel looked up eagerly at the mention of the ranger’s name.

Elrond sighed and knelt down to be at eye-level with the child, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “No, Aerinel. Estel is not back yet. I am sorry, penneth.”

Aerinel nodded and tilted her chin up bravely.

Elrond stood gracefully to his feet and glanced out the window, noticing how low the sun was getting in the sky. It was becoming late and soon it would be dark outside; it was time for Aerinel to go to bed. He shook his head fondly at the child. “You need a bath, Aerinel.”

Aerinel scowled, her normally cute face becoming rather unpleasant to look at.  

Elrond raised one eyebrow. “Do you plan on going to bed as filthy as you are now, my little goblin-faced child?”

Aerinel paused for a moment, considering the elf lord’s question. Then she shook her head.  

“I thought not,” Elrond said, a satisfied smirk pulling at the corner of his lips. He looked at his sons, who groaned loudly. “Since the pair of you allowed Aerinel to do as she pleased, you may now have the pleasure of bathing her.”

Ada,” Elrohir whined in protest as Aerinel smiled up at him sweetly, a mischievous glint twinkling in her eyes. “Why cannot Telwen bathe her?”

Elrond blinked slowly. “Because, ion-nín, Telwen is not always around to clean up your messes. She has said that she has had quite enough of bathing Aerinel when she is so dirty and insisted that you two be given the chance to have the experience. Perhaps then you will not be so quick to allow Aerinel to get so filthy the next time,” the elf suggested.

Elrohir sighed as his father turned away and made his way back towards his study. “Let’s get on with it, then.” He scooped the muddy child into his arms in one swift movement and made his way towards the stairs, followed by his twin.

Elrond’s voice reached their ears from below. “Give Aerinel’s clothing to Telwen when you are done. She will see if she can mend it.”

Elladan winced as he noticed the large holes in both the knees of Aerinel’s leggings and the several buttons missing from her tunic. “Oh dear,” he muttered under his breath. “Telwen is not going to be happy at all.”

Elrohir shook his head in agreement as he looked down at the child in his arms. “Nay, dear brother, she will not.”

He was startled when Aerinel’s soft hand touched his cheek. “I’m sorry, Elrohir.”

The elf was confused. “For what, penneth?”

Aerinel looked at him sadly. “For getting dirty and making Elrond order you to give me a bath.”

“Oh, tithen pen!” He gave the child a gentle squeeze. “We do not mind giving you a bath in the slightest. We love bathing you. Don’t mind Ada; he is just cross because he did not get to roll around in the mud.” Elrohir winked at the small girl as they walked into her bedroom.

Aerinel giggled and fiddled with one of the clasps on Elrohir’s tunic. The elf set her down on her feet in the middle of the room. He stared down at her with his hands on his hips., “Well little one, let’s get you clean and ready for bed, shall we?”

As Elrohir prepared the bath, Elladan hunted around for Aerinel’s nightgown. “Where have you put it, Aerinel?” he sighed crossly as he wriggled halfway underneath the bed, searching for the lost item of clothing. Aerinel giggled as she watched the elf. He looked very funny.

Elrohir stepped out of the bathing chamber and stopped short at seeing his brother’s backside waving around in the air. A sly smirk appeared on his face, and he gestured for the child to remain quiet. Then he approached the bed with caution.

“Aha!” Elladan cried in triumph. “I have it!”

Slowly Elrohir raised his hand…and brought it down with a resounding smack on Elladan’s posterior.

There was a high-pitched yelp from under the bed, followed by the dull thud of Elladan’s head colliding with the wooden frame of the bed. “Elrohir! When I get my hands on you, you will be sorry, brother!” the older twin growled.

Elrohir quickly picked up Aerinel, who was giggling madly, and hurried into the bathing chamber. Loud cursing followed from behind him and the elf knew Elladan had succeeded in extracting himself out from under the bed. He stumbled into the bathing chamber after his twin.

“Do you think you are funny?” Elladan questioned with a snarl, rubbing the back of his head as he flung the missing nightgown at Elrohir.

Elrohir blinked at him innocently.

Aerinel couldn’t keep the smile off her face. It was just too amusing to watch the two elves behave like children.

“Aerinel did it!” Elrohir blurted out.

The child turned and glared at the younger twin. “I did not!” she cried indignantly.

Elladan scowled at Elrohir. “You are a disgrace, trying to blame a child for your misbehavior! Poor little thing.” He stepped over Elrohir and picked Aerinel up, settling her on his hip. “What was he doing to you?”

“Me!” Elrohir exclaimed. “Excuse me, but I wasn’t doing anything. You were the one who left your backside in the air like an open invitation!”

There was a knock on the door and Elrond’s stern voice came into the chamber. “”Have you bathed Aerinel yet? It is past her bedtime.”

Elrohir gulped. “Almost finished, Ada!” he called out. Then, “Quick, get her into the tub!” he whispered. Elladan sat Aerinel down and efficiently unbuttoned the remaining two buttons on the child’s little tunic. “Was Estel ever this messy?” he asked his twin as he discarded the muddy clothes in a basket by the door.

Elrohir grinned. “Oh, much worse, brother. My, your mind must be going if you have forgotten so quickly. Estel hated baths more than anything and would do anything to get out of taking one. At least Aerinel seems to like them and doesn’t put up half as much fuss as our dear brother did!” The elf shook his head fondly at the memory.

Aerinel stuck out her tongue playfully as she was picked up and placed into the tub. Elrohir wetted her hair and began to lather soap into it. “Hey, Elrohir, that hurts!” Aerinel whimpered as some of the soap got into her eyes.

“I am sorry, penneth,” Elrohir apologized, using a soft cloth to carefully wipe her face. “I’ll be more careful.” Gently, he poured some of the warm water over her head to wash the remaining soap from her hair. Taking the washcloth from his twin, Elladan gently scrubbed the rest of the mud from Aerinel’s skin. His long fingers easily found the child’s ticklish spots, causing Aerinel to squirm with laughter as she played with the bubbles.

The twins smiled over her head. They enjoyed the evening ritual of bathtime. It brought back many bittersweet memories of Estel as a child.

~*~*~S~*~*~

A tall and lithe elf with blond hair, clad in the colours of the forest, sat idly poking at the small fire with a long stick while his thoughts wandered. Legolas’ fair face was clouded with a frown as he glanced over at his traveling companion.

The human sitting across from him was completely absorbed in watching the flames. Legolas sighed. He and Aragorn had stopped to camp for the night a few miles from the borders of Rivendell. He thought the ranger would be delighted to be so close to his home, but as of late, Aragorn had been acting rather strangely. He hadn’t even noticed the elf's eyes on him.

“Estel,” the elf called, this time successfully startling the man from his thoughts.

Aragorn looked sheepishly over at his friend. “Sorry,” the ranger apologized.

Legolas titled his head and pinned the man with a knowing look, his blue eyes seeing more than another would. “Thinking about your home again?” he asked softly.

Aragorn nodded. “Yes,” he agreed. “These last three months have been hard.”

Legolas nodded in understanding, his eyes kind. Silence surrounded the two friends once more, save for the crackling of the fire and the occasional screech of an owl.

The prince’s mind flashed back to the day Aragorn had stumbled upon the gates of the palace not two weeks ago, bruised, battered, and soaking wet. When brought before the Elvenking, the ranger had explained to Thranduil that he and the wizard, Mithrandir, had been tracking a creature by the name of Gollum. Aragorn had followed him into the Dead Marshes. Unfortunately, he had lost sight of the creature in the fog when a group of Orcs attacked, causing the ranger to flee for his life into Mirkwood and seek shelter with the elves.

Legolas had tried to convince Aragorn to remain in the palace until he was fully recovered, but the man had been rather anxious to return home. The elf shook his head fondly. The ranger had an obstinate, stubborn streak in him and when he decided to do something, very little, if anything, could convince him otherwise.

“What?” Aragorn asked, glancing up and noticing the smirk on the elf’s face in the light of the fire.

“Nothing,” Legolas replied with a hint of amusement in his voice. “Just….”

Aragorn raised an eyebrow. “Just what?”

“You know, Estel, you have mastered that look almost as well as Lord Elrond.” Legolas smiled. “You seem to have a knack of attracting trouble wherever you go, mellon-nín.”

“Me?” Aragorn spluttered. “You have attracted your own fair share, Thranduilion!”

Legolas raised his head, his eyes twinkling with unspilled mirth. “Not as much as you, human!”

Aragorn harrumphed and threw another pile of twigs onto the fire, watching as the flames devoured them hungrily.

“What is it, Aragorn?” Legolas asked more softly this time, his tone of voice encouraging the man to share whatever it was that was on his mind.

Aragorn looked up, confused.

“There has been something on your mind since you arrived at the palace. That, as well as your anxiousness to return home, leads me to believe that there is something troubling you,” Legolas pointed out gently.

Aragorn sighed and his shoulders sagged. “In truth, I miss my family, more this time than any other… I cannot explain it.”

Legolas looked at the ranger skeptically. He still did not completely believe Aragorn’s words. He felt there was something else the man wasn’t telling him. He asked as much: “Estel, what are you not telling me?”

  <>
“Nothing, I swear!” Aragorn spread his hands out wide. He was taken aback by the look of disbelief and hurt on the elf’s face. He sighed, relenting. “Legolas, there is something, but I cannot explain it now. But I will tell you everything once when reach Imladris and I can show you.”

Legolas didn’t seem to believe him, but he let the subject drop. He was a little hurt; he had thought he and Aragorn were close enough that there were no secrets between them, but apparently there were. He took another look at the ranger sitting across from him before turning around and needlessly rummaging through his pack.

Aragorn felt terrible as he watched the elf turn away. But what could he do? He had tried to persuade Legolas to remain in Mirkwood, but the prince would not hear of it and insisted on travelling back with him. An image of a dark-haired child appeared in his mind. Aragorn regretfully pushed it aside.

He knew how Thranduil felt about his son being friends with a human; it had taken a long time for the Elvenking to trust Aragorn. The ranger didn’t want to think about how Legolas’ father would react if he knew Aragorn had introduced his son to another human that would one day die.

He was thrown back in alarm as Legolas flung his pack into his arms.

“Come, on, get up.” The elf stood over him, his quiver strapped on his back and his bow in his hand.

Aragorn scrambled to his feet. “Where are we going?”

Legolas bent down to cover up the fire. “I am tired of you moping and sulking, human,” he said, with a playful smile tugging at his lips. “’Tis only a few hours to lmladris.”

Aragorn clasped Legolas’ forearm. “Hannon le, mellon-nín.”

 “You humans!” Legolas teased lightly, shaking his head fondly.

Aragorn snorted “And who's to say that elves do not sulk? I remember your father being in a rather sulky mood when you announced your decision to accompany me home.”

Legolas’ clear, bright laughter rang out. “Yes, my Ada possesses that ability and has perfected it to a fine art!” He began walking towards the direction of the Bruinen. “Come, the sun had not quite set. We shall make it to Imladris before dark if we tarry here no longer.” The elf started off at a quick pace, pulling the ranger along by the sleeve of his overcoat. Aragorn spluttered in protest, trying hard not to laugh.

It was twilight when Legolas’s sharp eyes first caught sight of the glow of the Last Homely House ahead of them. Aragorn sighed in both relief and delight. “This must be the first time we have arrived home unscattered and uninjured, my friend.”

The blond elf smiled gently in response. He too was pleased to have arrived without being involved in some sort of skirmish with Orcs, Wargs, spiders, or any other foul creature. The two friends passed through the gates into the main courtyard. Legolas glanced up sharply as movement in one of the windows on the second floor caught his attention.

“It seems we have been seen.” Legolas smiled warmly at Aragorn as one of the main doors eased open. However, the elf was surprised when rather than one of the twins or even Lord Elrond coming out through the door, a small child came running out from the house dressed in a long nightgown. The child’s dark hair flew loose around her face as she rushed down the stone steps so fast, Legolas feared she would tip over herself in haste.

Aragorn stepped forward quickly and the child flung herself into the ranger’s arms with a squeal of pure delight, giggling madly as Aragorn swung her around in the air before holding her close and kissing the top of her head.

Legolas stiffened slightly in surprise. What was going on? Estel had never mentioned a child before; where had the child come from? The elf’s sharp eyes did not miss the tender way Aragorn held her. Was she Aragorn’s? Or….Arwen’s, even? The child certainly bore a resemblance to Aragorn with her dark, wavy hair and pale skin.

“Oh, Aerinel,” Aragorn murmured as he hugged the child. “I have missed you, little one!”  The child shifted in his arms and the man looked over his shoulder to see Legolas approaching, his face stern. “What is it, Legolas?” Aragorn asked.

“Who is that?” the prince asked coolly, tilting his chin towards the child, whom he had determined was a little girl. His blue eyes were hard.

Aragorn smiled and turned around, allowing Legolas to see the child properly. “This is Aerinel.” He glanced at the little girl. “Say hello to Legolas, penneth.”

The child peeked out from her curtain of shoulder length hair and gazed at the blond haired elf uncertainly with a fear in her eyes that Legolas found unnerving for child of her young age.

Suilad, Aerinel,” Legolas spoke softly, extending a hand towards the little girl. However, the child ducked away, burying her face against Aragorn’s shoulder.

Legolas stopped in surprise. He hadn’t expected that reaction.

Aragorn chuckled and spoke to the child. “Aerinel, this is my friend, Legolas. There is no reason to fear him, penneth. Come, say hello.”

But Aerinel shook her head and turned her face away from Legolas, her small arms snaking around the ranger’s neck. “No,” she mumbled.

Aragorn frowned. “Aerinel, please don’t be so rude.” But again the child shook her head.

Legolas rested a hand on Aragorn’s arm. “Leave her, Estel,” he murmured in Sindarin. “She is shy and nervous. Let her be for now.”

The elf and the ranger glanced up as they heard raised voices coming from inside the house, Elladan’s head appearing through the open door. “Aerinel! Aerinel!” he called loudly. His eyes fell on the two figures at the bottom of the steps. “Estel!” he cried.

“Evening, Elladan!”  

The eldest twin bounded down the steps and embraced his little brother. “We had no word of you coming! When did you arrive?”

“Just now,” Aragorn replied with a laugh as he returned the hug with a bit of difficulty because of the child in his arms.

“Legolas!” Elladan exclaimed in delight, catching sight of the prince standing behind the ranger. “I certainly did not expect to see you! We were only talking about you and Estel the other day!”

Legolas made a face and clasped Elladan’s arm. “All good things, I hope?”

Elladan grinned. “Mostly!” He turned to Aragorn again and scowled at Aerinel. “You should not have run out here like that. It was rather naughty of you!”

Aerinel whimpered and buried her head against Aragorn’s shoulder again. Elladan shook his head fondly. “The little thing slipped out of her room when our backs were turned. She had obviously spotted you, the little rascal!”

Legolas realised now that it had been Aerinel he had seen in the window. Elladan took Aerinel from his brother and settled her on his hip, leading the others up the steps into the house. “Did you say hello to Legolas, penneth?”

Aerinel shook her head and hid her face in Elladan’s tunic.

“What’s wrong with Aerinel?” Elladan asked, puzzled over the child’s behaviour. He raised an eyebrow at Aragorn.

The ranger shrugged. He was just as puzzled at his brother.

“I believe it may be me.” Legolas stepped forward through the doors.  

Elladan blinked and glanced at down at Aerinel. “Why?”

Legolas shrugged. “I do not know. I think the child may fear me for some reason.”

Before Elladan could reassure the prince that it wasn’t him, his twin came down the elegant staircase. “Did you find her?” Elrohir asked anxiously, his face relaxing as his eyes fell on the child in his brother's arms.

“Yes.” Elladan nodded. “I also found two others that need a bed for the night.”

“Who?” Elrohir asked with a frown.

Elladan jerked his chin over his shoulder. “Them.”

Elrohir’s eyes lit up at the sight of Aragorn and Legolas standing in the doorway. “Estel! Legolas!” he cried, bounding over to them in delight. “This is wonderful!” He ran his eyes over both of them, scanning for injuries.

“Easy, Elrohir,” Estel said with a smile. “We are both uninjured – this time, at least.”

“You better enjoy it while you can!” Legolas added smirking. “It may be the last time!” He ducked as Elrohir cuffed him lightly on the back of his head.

Elladan smiled as he passed them by. “I am going to take Aerinel back up to bed. She is almost asleep.”

Elrohir nodded. “She was supposed to be hours ago.”

“Sleep well, Aerinel,” murmured Aragorn, kissing her forehead as Elladan stepped by, carrying the sleepy child. Legolas’ eyes followed the man’s tender movements. Who was this child to the elves? He would get to the bottom of the mystery sooner or later.

There was the sound of a door opening, and moments later Lord Elrond appeared in the hallway, a frown on his face. “Elrohir what is all this noise about? Please explain yourself at once.” He rubbed his temples tiredly.

“Estel is home, Ada!”

Elrond turned and looked, and his face broke out into a genuine smile as his eyes landed on Aragorn. “Ion-nín,” he said softly, opening his arms invitingly. Aragorn gladly went to his father, enjoying the feeling of the elf embracing him. “It is good to have you home again, Estel.”

Aragorn smiled into the elf lord’s shoulder. “It is good to be home, Ada.” He stepped aside to reveal Legolas. “Legolas accompanied me from Mirkwood.”

Mae govannen, young prince.” Elrond said, with the hint of amusement twinkling in his eyes.

Elrohir spoke up from the side, where he was leaning against the wall. “What were you doing in Mirkwood, Estel? I thought you were going hunting with Mithrandir, not visiting wood-elves. And how did you ‘lose’ Mithrandir in the process?”

Aragorn grinned. “Ah...perhaps a tale for another time?”

“I would dearly love to hear it,” Elrohir muttered under his breath.

“Enough for now.” Elrond turned them towards the stairs. “I am sure that Estel and Legolas wish to freshen up after their journey. Legolas, you may use the room that you normally stay in.”

Legolas smiled his thanks. “It would be most welcome.”

~*~*~S~*~*~

As the two friends began to climb the stairs, Legolas caught Aragorn by his shoulder. “So that is why you were so anxious to return home.” The elf’s voice sounded accusing.

“Hmm...what?” Aragorn glanced at the elf, trying to maintain a guiltless expression. It didn’t fool the prince.

Legolas rolled his eyes in frustration. “To see the child, of course!”

“Oh.” Aragorn stared ahead, not meeting the elf’s gaze. “Maybe.”

Legolas placed his hand on the handle to Aragorn’s room, stopping the ranger from entering. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He sounded hurt, betrayed.

 Aragorn sighed. “I didn’t know how you would react.”

Legolas crossed his arms over his chest and opened his mouth to ask another question when a high pitched shriek came from down the hallway.

“BUT-I-DON’T-WANT-TO-GO-TO-BED!”

Aragorn winced. It sounded like the the child was jumping up and down, most likely on her bed with an exasperated Elladan trying to calm her down. The ranger quickly pushed open his door and swiftly stepped into his room, followed by Legolas.

The elf fixed the human with a stern gaze. “Who is she to you? Why is she here in Rivendell.”

Aragorn sighed. “Saes, Legolas, I will explain everything later, I promise.” He was tired and wanted to wash and dress in fresh clothing.

Legolas relented, seeing the weary expression on the ranger’s face. “I’ll see that you do,” he murmured as he left the room.

Aragorn exhaled deeply as he plonked down onto the edge of the bed, kicking off his boots and throwing them in a corner. He was more tired that he realized. Grabbing a clean shirt and trousers along the way, he wandered into the bathing chamber and ran a bath for himself, taking delight in the feel of the water running over his hands.

He allowed himself to take his time washing and enjoying the the warmth of the water surrounding him as he felt his tired muscles relax. All but a few wounds were healed, and those were mainly small cuts and bruises. It was so calm and peaceful, he could have stayed there forever.

With a start, Aragorn realized he must have dozed off, for the water had cooled considerably. Grumbling to himself, he stood and reached for a towel. He came out of the bathing chamber while tying up the front of his shirt.

“So are you ready to explain to me why you would not tell me the real reason for rushing home?” said a voice. Aragorn jumped to see Legolas perched on the bed, dressed in clean clothes and with his hair damp and free of braids.

Aragorn scowled at the elf as he sat down in the nearest chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “Fine, what do you want to know?” He couldn't figure any way of avoiding the question.

Legolas settled himself further against the headboard. “Firstly, who is the child? What is she to you?”

“What is she to me?” Aragorn was puzzled by the question. “What do you mean?”  Then the realization dawned on him. “Valar, Legolas! Do you seriously think Aerinel is my daughter?”

Legolas looked taken aback. “She is not?”

“No!” Aragorn stood and started pacing the room. “There is no way Aerinel is my daughter.”

“She certainly bears a strong resemblance to you,” the elf prince pointed out.

Aragorn groaned and buried his face in his hands. Legolas was yet another person to see the resemblance between himself and Aerinel. He looked up at the elf’s touch on his shoulder. The prince had slipped off the bed and was now standing beside him.

“Why not tell me?” Legolas asked gently. “When I first saw the child, I couldn't help but think that, although I know Lord Elrond forbade it.”

“Just because she has dark hair, everyone sees this resemblance!” Aragorn sat down on the bed forcefully, Legolas joining him. “Aerinel is an orphan. I found her in a village destroyed by Orcs,” he began to explain.

Legolas’ frown deepened at the mention of the vile creatures.

“She was the only survivor,” Aragorn continued in a whisper. “It was the middle of the winter and she was so ill. I brought her here, but nobody believed that she would pull through. She was so sick and weak, she couldn’t even lift her own head.” He ran fingers through his hair in frustration. “For days, the fever attacked her; even Ada could do nothing for her. I thought for certain she was going to die.”  Then he smiled. “But she pulled through though in the end.”

“What of her family?” Legolas asked, feeling he already knew the answer.

Aragorn rested his arms on his knees. “She lived with her uncle.” The ranger spat out the word. “A man not worth living. He was cruel to Aerinel. There were pale scars running across her back – signs of beatings. It was clear she had been...mistreated. She…she expected us to hit her every time she did something wrong. It was pitiful to watch. She feared we would hit her, beat her. For awhile, she even feared the elves. She would not let Ada or the twins near her when I first brought her to Rivendell.”

Legolas eyes were clouded with sadness as he listened to the child’s story.

“Legolas?” Aragorn questioned, seeing the deep sadness within the prince’s blue eyes.

The elf blinked and shook his head. “I cannot understand how any living creature  could be so cruel towards other helpless and innocent beings. Especially one who has no way of defending themselves. What had become of this uncle of hers?”

“He was apparently killed in the attack on the village.” Aragorn rested his chin on his knuckles. “I did not have time to search for a body at that moment. My concern was for the child.”

Legolas smiled. “I can see now why she was so pleased to see you, Estel. As for the twins, I can just imagine what they were like when you were a child yourself!” The elf chuckled as the ranger scowled.

“Prissy elf!” he taunted, giving the elf a playful shove.

Legolas laughed. “Filthy human! Keep your dirt to yourself!”

“Ha!” Aragorn cried. “You cannot call me such, for I have bathed!”

“It is to my greatest relief that you did, Estel!” Legolas’ eyes glinted with mirth. He glanced up suddenly as he heard the door slowly creak open, his joviality softening. “I believe we have company,” he murmured quietly, giving Aragorn a nudge.

Aragorn looked up and saw the child peeking around the partially opened door. “Aerinel, penneth, what are you doing out of bed again? If Ada catches you, he will not be pleased,” the ranger scolded gently.
 

<>Aerinel said nothing but scurried across the room and launched herself into Aragorn’s arms, curling up against him contentedly.

“Aerinel,” Aragorn prompted firmly, holding her away from him. “I thought Elladan put you to bed.”

“I just wanted to see you. I missed you.” Aerinel mumbled, still clinging to the man’s tunic.

Aragorn hummed lightly. “Indeed.” He knew he should put the child back to bed, but he let it go. After all, Aerinel hadn’t seen him in over three months. One night wouldn’t hurt anything, save for that fact that she would be slightly irritable tomorrow from the lack of sleep.

Aerinel glanced over at Legolas. Instead of the stern, cold, and ancient eyes that had glanced at her down in the courtyard, it was like there was a veil hiding all of that grandeur now. In the forefront, there was kind blue, like the summer sky, and for a moment all she could feel was warm understanding. The anxiety she felt towards him halted an instant, then redoubled as she looked away. There was something about him. Something.

There was a knock on the door and Elladan appeared, followed by Elrohir, who was carrying a tray piled high with food. “We thought you might prefer eating up here rather than going down to the Hall of Fire,” he said as a way of explanation.

Elladan’s eyes fell on the child and he glared at her halfheartedly. “Aerinel,” he sighed in exasperation. “I put you to bed almost two hours ago!”

Aerinel ducked down against the ranger, but there was a grin on her face as she peeked up at the dark-haired elf. “I’m sorry.”

Elladan shook his head. “You are a devious little minx!” he scolded playfully. “You are not one bit sorry, young lady! In fact, I am beginning to think you are doing this on purpose!”

Aragorn raised his hand and let it fall lightly on Aerinel’s head, stroking the soft strands. “What have you been doing while I’ve been gone?” he asked as the twins arranged the food on the small table in the room.

Aerinel sat up and began to babble excitedly about the new kittens in the stable. Legolas couldn’t help the smile that drifted onto his face as he listened to the child’s sweet voice describing all her adventures.

“And I turned eight while you were away!” she added when she paused to take a breath.

“What?” Aragorn glanced down. “When did you turn eight, little one?” He looked up at Elrohir sharply.

The elf smiled and tickled Aerinel underneath her chin. “Clever Aerinel knew exactly when her day of birth was.” He straightened back up. “It seems there was an elderly woman in the village who had been a friend of Aerinel’s mother and remembered the little girl on her day of birth.”

“I see.” Aragorn nodded and tilted his head down to catch a glimpse of the child’s face. “And when is your birthday, penneth?”

“The twenty-first of March!” Aerinel recited happily.

“Thought that would interest you!” Elladan said slyly as he watched his little brother’s face take on a look of mildly surprised interest.  

“It does,” Aragorn murmured.

Aerinel slid down from Aragorn’s lap and danced around Elrohir, her nightgown trailing along the ground. Legolas stood up, reaching for some of the food. The moment Aerinel caught sight of the tall blond elf moving towards where she stood, she darted behind the chair, crouching down low.

Elrohir raised one eyebrow at his brother, but Aragorn just shrugged. The dark-haired elf turned to Legolas. “Are you alright, mellon-nín?”

Legolas glanced at him, a slight frown on his fair face. “Why is the child scared of me?” He sighed. “I have done nothing to make her fear me.”

Aragorn patted his shoulder. “It is not you, Legolas. I told you Aerinel was terrified of the elves when she first came here. She has only just gotten used to the twins, Ada, and Glorfindel. It will take time. I am sure she is just nervous of you.”

“I agree with Estel,” Elrohir piped up. “Still, you can be quite intimidating when you do your I am the Prince of Mirkwood impression.” He ducked the cushion that was thrown at his head by the furious blonde elf.

“I do not!” Legolas growled. “When have I ever done that?”

“Oh, let’s think. The time Falar decided to lock you in your rooms because you had overworked yourself again. Or the time when Bregolon saw fit to tell you that–!” Elrohir danced out of the reach of Legolas as he tried to pounce on the other elf.

Aragorn chuckled at Aerinel’s wide-eyed expression as she watched the elves banter about with each other. Elladan leaned over and took a plate off the tray containing warm honey cakes, Aerinel’s favourite treat.

As the elves and the ranger sat down around the fire, Elladan and Legolas in the two chairs, Elrohir and Aragorn on the floor, the eldest twin handed the plate to Legolas with a wink. “The child loves these treats,” he murmured softly in Elvish.

Legolas raised an eyebrow. Why was Elladan handing him the plate?

Aragorn chuckled. “Wait, mellon-nín. Wait and watch.”

The elves and the man returned to their conversation. Behind Elladan’s chair, Aerinel was torn. She wanted a cake, but she was afraid of the tall blond elf, whom Estel called Legolas. Her eyes fell on the plate again. Slowly, the child crawled out from behind the chair, her eyes fixed on the plate.

Out of the corner of his eye, Legolas saw the child approaching him. Aragorn motioned for the elf to keep silent as he watched Aerinel edge closer and closer to Legolas.

Standing up, Aerinel stepped over to the elf prince. Shyly, she pointed at the plate. “May I have a cake, please?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

Legolas smiled kindly. “Of course you may, penneth.” He lowered the plate, offering it to her. “Which one would you like?” Aerinel took a slice and scurried back across to where Elrohir was sitting. She curled up beside him, contentedly eating her cake as she gazed at Legolas.

The elf smiled at her. Aerinel’s eyes widened and she hid her face against Elrohir’s sleeve. Legolas couldn’t help but chuckle at her antics. Aragorn glanced at his friend. “What is it?”

“Aerinel keeps hiding from me,” Legolas explained.

Aragorn smiled and watched as Aerinel peeked at Legolas again, then promptly hid again when the elf winked at her. The ranger chuckled. Legolas leaned down and whispered in his ear, “The child has inquisitively bright eyes.”

Aragorn took a closer look at the small girl and realized that the elf was right. Aerinel’s eyes twinkled brightly in the light of the fire.

“Bright Eyes,” Legolas murmured, testing out the nickname. “It is a fitting name.”

Aragorn shook his head as Aerinel hid her face when Legolas smiled at her again. It was amusing to watch her antics. Elladan laughed. “Aerinel, he won’t bite, you know.”

Slowly, Aerinel peeked out at Legolas. The prince smiled and then returned to his conversation with Estel and the twins. Aerinel watched him curiously. Every so often Legolas would risk a glance at at the child, amused to see her staring back at him.

Finally, Aerinel’s eyes closed completely as she drifted off to sleep in Elrohir’s arms. The elf stood and silently took Aerinel to her room. Legolas eyes softened as he took in the sight of the tiny, sleeping child cradled in Elrohir’s arms.

The innocence of one so young.

~*~*~S~*~*~

Hours later, the twins and Aragorn were still talking, laughing over Aragorn’s recounting of how he abandoned Gandalf on the edge of Mirkwood as he set out alone to track Gollum through the darkness of the forest. The wizard had expressed a desire to keep away from Thranduil’s halls, but when asked why by the ranger, Gandalf had pressed his lips together tightly.

A frightened cry broke the silence, followed by the sound of sobbing. The twins and Aragorn glanced at one another, and immediately Elrohir was on his feet and out the door.

“What’s wrong?” Legolas asked, concerned. He too had risen to his feet at the sound of the cry.

Elladan sighed sadly. “Aerinel often has nightmares. She wakes up frightened and crying. It takes one of us to comfort her and stay with her until she falls asleep again. After that, she will normally sleep until morning. But it is taxing on her.”  

Moments later, Elrohir returned to the room, cradling a blanket-wrapped Aerinel in his arms. Tears ran freely down the child’s pale face, and Legolas felt his heart go out to the small girl. He knew how terrifying nightmares could be to one so small.

“She did not want to stay in her room,” Elrohir explained as he settled on the bed with Aerinel in his lap, tucking the blanket more securely around her.

Aragorn crossed over to the bed, reached out, and brushed the hair away from Aerinel’s face with his fingertips. “It’s alright, Aerinel, shhh. Now you’re safe,” he murmured over and over again, trying to calm the the child. Aerinel latched onto his fingers and held them tightly, gulping in air as she tried to stop crying.  

Legolas leaned over to Elladan and asked. “Is this a regular occurrence?”

Elladan nodded sadly. “Unfortunately, yes. The child has been having nightmares most nights. They were becoming less frequent about two months ago, but the more she missed Estel, they began to start again. Ada does not want Aerinel becoming too dependent emotionally on Estel or either of us, but it is hard to do that when she is so scared.”

“Mmmm,” Legolas replied. His attention was drawn again to the bed as Elrohir started to hum. The gentle elvish lullaby soothed the child; Legolas could see her relaxing against the elf that held her, the fear slowly leaving her. The elf brushed his thumb over her forehead, and moments later Aerinel’s eyes slid closed and she sighed deeply, her thumb coming to rest between her lips.

It was then Legolas stood and approached the bed, coming to stand beside Aragorn. He looked down into the small face. He was suddenly struck by how young the child actually was. “She is only a mere babe,” he murmured.

Aragorn smiled as he carefully removed his finger from Aerinel’s grasp. “She is eight years old, Legolas.”

Legolas shook his head. “Only eight years old. To an elf, that no more than infancy.” He stretched out his hand. “May I?” he asked.

“Of course,” Elrohir whispered.

Legolas leaned over and gently brushed Aerinel’s cheek with the back of his fingers – lightly, so as not to wake the sleeping child. “How can one so small survive such harshness?” he murmured, his mind recalling what Estel had told him that evening. His fingertips stroked Aerinel’s small hand, admiring the tiny, perfect fingers. “It is rare that I have seen one as young as this. She is so tiny.” He seated himself on the edge of the bed, his eyes tracing over the child’s face. “So helpless.”

Aragorn chuckled. “Aerinel is well able to tell us what she wants when she wants it.” Then he sobered. “But yes, against the cruelty of the world, she is helpless.”

Legolas reached out and touched her cheek with the back of his finger again, feeling the softness of the delicate skin. Aerinel didn’t stir, and eventually Elrohir lifted her up and carried her back to her own room.

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