Aragorn was enjoying himself. His brothers had
left a few days ago,
after spending the remainder of the week with him here at Lord
Thranduil’s estate. They had set out for home to return to their father
with word of Aragorn. He had wished them well and sent a letter back to
Elrond with them. The ranger had decided to remain in Mirkwood for a
few more weeks. It had been agreed between Legolas, the twins and
himself that Aragorn’s true identity would not be made known to the
other elves at this time, but would remain a secret between the prince
and the ranger. The others would continue to know the Dunèdain
His leg was feeling almost normal again and he had decided to go for a walk in the immediate area surrounding Thranduil’s castle. The prince had accompanied his father on business to the north of the woods and had promised the young ranger he would be back in the early afternoon. The castle and grounds were spacious and it had taken the better part of the morning to explore them.
But the woodlands beckoned him now, and Aragorn was ready to be outdoors. He walked idly through the woods listening to the sounds, pinpointing groups of elves as they walked and talked nearby. He heard the shuffle of the horses as they grazed in the broad plains to the east of the king’s mansion. The songs of birds lifted on the heavy, warm air and the safety and peace of the free woods settled like a blanket on the young human. His attention was dulled and he simply enjoyed himself as he walked, blocking out all else but his own thoughts.
Without warning an arrow shot by his face, startling him with its proximity as it slammed into the tree on his left, burying its head in the thick trunk. He ducked involuntarily, almost losing his balance.
Whirling on his heels, Aragorn turned back towards the path the arrow had taken and was faced with a dozen elves, bows raised and arrows notched. He recognized Sarcaulien in their midst, but the elf’s smile was anything but kind. Legolas had introduced Aragorn to Sarcaulien some time ago, but the other elf did not seem over-fond of the young human and they had not had much to do with one another.
Slowly Aragorn stood from his crouched position.
"Oh, so sorry," called out an unfamiliar elf standing next to Sarcaulien. "I did not see you there." The elves near him snickered quietly at the condescending tone of the bowman.
A thrill of fear ran down Aragorn’s spine but he ignored it. He wouldn’t let these elves know they had startled him. He remembered the warnings of Elrond before he had left, ‘not all elves will look upon you kindly’. This must have been the response his adopted father had foreseen from the residents of Mirkwood. The young ranger decided to respond kindly and only nodded in answer, his half smile belying the fact that he had been taken off guard and was more than a little unsettled by the welcome he was receiving.
"Could you be so good as to grab that arrow for me…" the elf asked.
His courage returned some; perhaps it truly had been an accident and they hadn’t seen him. Inside he knew it wasn’t true but he wanted to believe it and so he complied. The ranger turned back to the tree and placing one hand against the trunk, pulled the arrow from where it had become embedded.
"…like a good boy." The elf continued.
Aragorn froze, one hand on the tree, one hand on the arrow shaft, his face turned away from the laughing elves. For a moment he seriously considered stringing the arrow on his own bow and sending it back to its owner. He knew better than to react in kind. Instead, closing his eyes tightly against the sneering and jests, Aragorn took a deep breath and simply turned around, walking the arrow back to the elf and placing it carefully in the upturned palm.
"Now run along," another elf taunted him. "We cant have the prince’s pet getting hurt in bow practice, now can we?"
Aragorn had continued to casually walk past the group when the jest had been thrown at him. His anger got the best of him and he spun back towards his tormenter. Sarcaulien jumped forward and slammed the young ranger against the nearest tree, pinning him in place with his forearm. Aragorn’s head impacted hard with the trunk and he stifled a cry as he glared up into the tall elf’s grey eyes. "Let it go...human." Sarcaulien spoke the word like the slur he had meant it to be. He grabbed Aragorn by his coat, pulling him away from the tree, and shoved the ranger back towards the palace. The man stumbled, catching himself on one hand before he fell.
The fear shown in his eyes and the sense of betrayal that beat at his heart and mind was a foreign emotion. His father had been right. Secretly in his heart he had believed that all elves were his brothers; he couldn’t have been more wrong and the ones standing over him were eager to prove his doubts right.
The sound of horses' hooves on the dirt path caught the elves' attention and they turned back towards the path that cut through the woods.
The prince, passing through on his way back home, had recognized the elves and seen Aragorn in their midst. He reined in his mount and let his gaze fall over the silent group. Legolas locked eyes with Aragorn who looked away quickly, shame burning like a fire in their dark depths. The exchange was not lost on the elf warriors and they looked down in discomfort as the prince pierced each one with a knowing glance.
"What is going on here?" More mounted elves joined the prince as the king’s entourage caught up with the young elf lord.
It was Aragorn who answered Legolas. "Nothing, my lord." His words fell fast and tumbled out a little too quickly. "We were simply having a conversation." The ranger’s eyes were cast down to avoid the stares of the elves around him. Aragorn’s gaze flicked quickly onto the prince before dropping back to the forest floor. Without another word the human turned and walked off into the woods.
When he was out of sight of the elves, the young ranger ran through the forest heading away from the palace and away from his first encounter with a people he thought he had belonged to. He was too proud to admit his heart was broken and he wished to be near no one for a while. He had to think, he had to be alone.
Legolas pinned Sarcaulien with an even stare as Thranduil rode past and called the prince to join him, "We will talk later." With that caution the elf spurred his horse after the retreating royals.
Legolas stood on the edge of the woods near his
home. He hadn’t been
able to find the young ranger and the sun was beginning to dip low on
the horizon. He had sent some of his most trusted companions out to
find the young human, but Aragorn had hidden himself well.
"Where would I go if I were a human in a wood full of elves and I had just found out that some of them were not kind to my presence?" The prince spoke the words out loud, idly thinking to himself, trying to remember all the places he had shown the young man over the past month of his stay.
"I hope he did not return home, my lord."
Legolas turned and smiled at the elf who walked up next to him. "No luck, Trelan?"
"None. He was not near the ford and I tracked back all the way to the river’s head." The smaller elf followed the prince’s gaze into the woods. "Shall I continue searching?"
Legolas returned his attention to his friend. "No, but thank you. Worry not, Trelan, I will find him. There are a few others I need to find also." The elf frowned as he thought about the warriors he would need to speak with.
With a sigh, he headed out into the woods, his senses alert for any lead on the whereabouts of his friend.
Aragorn sat cross-legged on the rocky outcropping
the deep valley of Mirkwood. He had found this place purely by
accident. From his vantage point he could keep track of all the elves
as they came and went. Those he didn’t know, he simply hid from when
they got too close to his hiding place. He had become better at melting
into his surroundings and being invisible when he wanted to. And today
he had wanted to.
His thoughts strayed back to his encounter with Sarcaulien and his friends. He frowned at the memory. Perhaps it was time to go home. It had been much longer than a fortnight, like he had promised his father, and he was beginning to miss his own family, especially after the visit from Elladan and Elrohir. And maybe, just maybe, he had worn out his welcome here in the fair woods.
He swung his legs over the edge of his rocky perch and tapped his boot heels against the shale rock face, kicking small pebbles loose, that cascaded down the cliff landing far below him. The sun had warmed the blackened rocks and he closed his eyes, letting his head fall back as he soaked up the last of the warm rays before they slipped below the canopy of the trees.
The winds shifted slightly and the quiet sounds of the forest rose up to his vantage point. He heard the pines rustling in the breeze and the sounds of a group of elves walking beneath the trees and talking. He recognized Sarcaulien’s voice among them and glanced quickly down into the valley. Slipping out of sight, he silently slid down the back of the rock and curiously trailed the small group, staying far enough behind to not be detected. He was utterly surprised when he heard the elves hail Legolas and begin talking to the elven prince.
Aragorn sidled up to large pine downwind from the group of elves and within earshot. The conversation he overheard gripped his heart and he found himself barely breathing as he tried to catch every word.
"He’s dangerous, Legolas." Sarcaulien turned
towards the elf prince.
"He has knowledge of us and our people that a mortal should not have.
He bested you with ancient techniques and warfare that is denied even
to us and we are your brothers." The warrior paused before continuing,
"I am going to approach Thranduil and request that he be sequestered,
here in the woods."
Legolas began to protest but Sarcaulien cut him off, "I saw your last sparring match and found nothing humorous in it, unlike Raniean. He could live a good long life here in these woods. You said yourself: he is a young, arrogant Dunèdain. He’ll probably just get himself killed. Here at least he would be safe and so would we."
"He’s not dangerous. You do not know him, Sar." The young elf lord used his friend’s nickname trying to calm the warrior.
"What business does a prince of Mirkwood have with a mortal anyway?" Sarcaulien’s anger was barely restrained. "Especially you. You hate Men do you not? Or have you forgotten Dorolyn? This… this Dunèdain is a Man, Legolas!"
Legolas’ shoulder's tightened and his lips compressed into a tight line.
The small band of elves that accompanied the warrior quietly voiced their agreement with Sarcaulien’s statement.
Aragorn pressed himself back against the trunk of the tree that concealed him from the group of elves. He closed his eyes and held his breath. He had dreaded this moment since he had stepped foot in Mirkwood. He half feared the words that would next come out of the elf prince’s mouth but he couldn’t tear himself away. Swallowing hard, he resigned himself to betrayal and waited.
Legolas riveted his grey eyes on the elf in front of him and spoke slowly as though talking with a young child; his tone was even and hard and the words that fell from his lips were clipped in anger. "You know not of what you speak, Sarcaulien. That Dunèdain is no ordinary mortal. That one is my friend and I will not suffer him to your persecutions nor your ill-placed fears. Any of you." The elf prince stepped closer to the warrior, daring the others to contradict him. "You will not contain him in any way. Beneath these woods he will come to no harm. Do you understand the things that I am saying to you?"
When the others nodded and lowered their gazes, Legolas continued, his voice low so only those near could make out the words. Aragorn leaned slightly out around the tree base straining to hear the conversation. "If you speak any of this folly to my father, you will find more than me against your position. Leave Strider alone." He turned back to the small band of elves that had gathered. "Let no elf touch that Dunèdain with any intent to harm him or you will answer to me. Am I understood?"
The assent of the elves was enough to satisfy the prince. His presence softened and he nodded at the warriors gathered around him. "Go now. We will not speak of this again. It will not be held against you." With muttered thanks the small group disbanded. Legolas gently laid his hand on Sarcaulien’s back and evenly met the other’s gaze. "I thank you for your concern, although it is misplaced. Give him time, you will see him as I do. You are a good friend, Sar." The warrior looked to the forest floor momentarily before smiling and accepting the compliment. Within moments only Legolas stood in the small glade.
He turned towards the stand of trees to his right and smiled. "You can come out now."
Aragorn froze. Surprise stole all thought from his mind. He really had thought he had been quiet enough to be undetected. As the realization sunk in that Legolas had known of his hiding place the whole time he wondered if the elf had meant the things he had said at all or had only said them because of Aragorn’s presence. Was he in danger?
So preoccupied was the young ranger with deciding what to do next that he never noticed when the elf stepped up next to him and leaned quietly against the tree. "You heard it all?"
Aragorn jumped and stepped back warily.
With a sigh Legolas pushed away from the tree trunk. "Then you did." He looked down to the ground considering his next words but the ranger spoke quietly.
"Did you mean any of it?"
Legolas’ eyes snapped up and fixed on the human’s.
He continued before the elf could answer, "If you didn’t, I’ll understand. But you know full well you cannot keep me here. I will leave tonight if you wish. I never meant to cause you any trouble."
"Aragorn." Legolas whispered his name, loud enough for the human to hear. "I thought I had your trust."
"So did I."
"Do you still think I hold against you the fact that you were born a Man?" Legolas shook his head slowly, almost sadly.
Aragorn did not answer.
"Then I guess I have a lot to prove to you." Legolas circled the human, speaking softly, "I meant every word I said. You are my friend. You know my secrets and I know yours. Our lives our bound together. I would no sooner betray you than I would my own heart." He stopped in front of the ranger and pierced him with a knowing gaze. "Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, you have my loyalty and while under these trees you have all the privileges and safety of any of my father’s people. You have nothing to fear."
Aragorn was speechless. Reaching out swiftly he clasped the elf’s forearm with his hand and gripped it tightly. "Thank you." His voice was soft and he searched the grey eyes that stared openly back into his. "As I live, you will always be welcomed in the house of Rivendell. I am honored by your friendship."
Legolas pulled the man into a warm embrace and pounded the human on the back. "Besides, it would do me no good to make enemies with one who has been taught in the forbidden knowledge of elven warring," he teased as pulled lightly away.
A brilliant smile spread across the ranger’s face and he fell easily into step next to his friend as they walked back down the overgrown path. "You know I was thinking about that," Aragorn watched Legolas out of the corner of his eye. "Do you think I could practice that move with you some more? I think I am still rather rusty on that one."
Legolas danced swiftly out of reach. "Not with me you don’t! Perhaps I can find you some poor unwitting soul, but it will not be me again!"
"I’ll go easy on you," Aragorn prodded with a grin.
"No." Legolas rolled his eyes.
"Well can we practice if I just..."
"No." The elven prince cut him off.
"Will you let me at least...," the ranger persisted but was again cut off mid-sentence.
"Strider!" Legolas turned to Aragorn and pointing at the man to silence him, cutting him off before he could continue further. "No! Do not speak another word!"
Aragorn’s laughter caught at the elf and soon they were both laughing at the human’s impudence.