The ranger still
had gotten no sleep and the guards that came for him the next morning
found him in the chair Legolas had sat him in the night before.
He had gone with them compliantly and given them no trouble. Small talk was out of the question, and they had simply directed him to his seat in the front of the audience chamber of King Thranduil. Walking past the hall full of elves had been the hardest thing the young man had ever done as he was escorted to his place. He finally dropped his gaze to the floor and followed his guards to avoid the stares of the elves in attendance. There were no friendly faces in the hall that morning and he couldn’t find Legolas anywhere.
He knew he had only sat in the audience chamber for mere minutes, but it seemed like hours before the doors on the far side of the room opened and Thranduil stepped out, followed by his son. Aragorn hadn’t needed the prodding of the warrior's spear tip to know to rise; he had been brought up in elven halls and his respect was not dimmed by the seriousness of the situation.
The ranger bowed low as the King took his seat, joined by his son on his right hand side. When the hall of elves had reseated themselves, Aragorn chanced a look at Legolas. The elf prince was stoic and his bearing betrayed every bit the royalty he was but, when his eyes lighted on his human friend, there was a softness to them and a kindness there that reassured the young man.
Aragorn released the breath he hadn’t known he was holding and relaxed slightly as Thranduil addressed him.
"The Dùnadan will stand."
The human was dragged roughly to a standing position by the guards on either side of him.
"Do you know of the charges that have been stated against you?" The king asked without preamble.
"Yes, my lord," Aragorn replied, bowing his head slightly.
"Have you anything to say in your behalf?"
"No, my lord. I am innocent in the death of Sarcaulien. I wish only to place myself at your mercy and will accept your judgment." The man kept his eyes down. If it hadn’t been for the guards holding him in place he would have formally knelt.
There were whispers of surprise from the room behind him and Thranduil fought the urge to glance at his son. For his part Legolas appeared aloof and disinterested, but he held his breath as he waited for his father's next words.
When the room had quieted once more, the king continued. "Very well then. I have already heard the testimonies of all parties in witness. As you have chosen not to give your own, I will accept the one given for you."
Aragorn raised his gaze back up to meet that of the king’s.
"Because of the evidence presented, I do not find you at fault. The death of Sarcaulien in all respects appears to be nothing more than an accident. Your part in it is not in question before this court. The charges against you have been dropped." The king gazed out at the room full of elves. "If there are no more testimonies or objections, this session is complete and the Dùnadan known as Strider is free to go."
For a moment the room remained hung in silence at the edict. But the spell was broken by the shuffling sounds of several elves standing to their feet. An elven voice that Aragorn did not recognize spoke from the audience.
"My lord. I am Sarcayul, second son of Traycaul, brother of Sarcaulien. I speak for my brothers and our relatives when I request the right of familial retribution." The elf held the king’s gaze.
Legolas released his breath quietly beside his father and looked away from the warriors that stood in the audience. He had been worried of this very thing, but had not had time to warn Aragorn.
The king, however, did not drop his gaze from the brothers’. Sarcayul noted the displeasure of the royalty and continued. "My lords, we do not fault your findings. But they are, as you yourself stated, based on circumstantial evidence and we do not agree with them. It is our right by the old code to request retribution."
"You are correct in stating that it is your right; however, I do not agree with your choice. By law I grant you your request, with stipulations."
Thranduil turned to Aragorn who had been trying to follow the exchange. He could tell from Legolas’ reaction that something had gone wrong but the exact details eluded him. Never during his years in Rivendell had anything like this ever had the occasion of happening and the elven rights and rules associated with such an event were foreign to him.
"Strider, do you understand what has transpired?" The king asked the human.
"No, my lord, I do not." Aragorn shook his head.
Legolas would not meet his eyes, so the ranger focused on the king.
"Sarcaulien’s family has asked for the right of retribution. Because the evidence surrounding Sarcaulien’s death was circumstantial and not proving either fault or innocence, I cannot convict you of wrong-doing and, because you have not been proven innocent beyond any doubt, Sarcaulien’s surviving family can exact vengeance on you." He stopped to let his words sink in. "Do you understand now? They may seek your life and take it." When the ranger nodded the king continued, "However, I am allowed to put restrictions upon such a request. As is my right, I do so now."
Thranduil gazed back out at the assembled elves, "The family of Sarcaulien has requested the right of retribution as is our law. I grant them that right with the following restrictions. While in this house, the Dùnadan known as Strider is safe. Beyond any of Mirkwood’s boundaries the human may not be harmed. If you kill this man and so violate my restrictions his blood will be on your head and you will be accountable to me for his death. If Strider comes to an end by any elven hand in this wood, then his blood is on his own head. This rule stands until the last of Sarcaulien’s relatives leave for the Undying Lands. As my word it is law, and cannot be contested."
The elven king stood. "This meeting is completed." He looked again at Aragorn and addressed his guards. "Release the human and clear the hall." With that the king walked back out the door he had entered and Legolas left with him.
Aragorn’s guards stepped away from him and followed the others out of the audience chambers. No one spoke to the human and within moments the hall had emptied completely. Aragorn fell back down into his seat, dropping his head into his hands.
"How is it that you get into these messes?" He spoke softly to himself, mumbling towards the floor as he tried to sort through everything that had happened in the past few hours. "Maybe father was right; I should have stayed home and learned how to be a healer. Healers never end up in these situations." He groaned sarcastically, shaking his head. "Wait till Elladan hears about this."
"Is it common for humans to talk to themselves?"
The voice of the elf startled the ranger and he sat up quickly. When he caught sight of Legolas’ amused frown he smiled and leaned back with a sigh.
"Well it’s common when they are in situations that are over their heads." Aragorn ran his hand through his hair brushing the stray locks out of his eyes. "And I am my friend, I am."
Legolas’ smile was sad. "I shall have to remember that." He nodded towards the door. "Come I’ll see you safely on your way."
Aragorn stared at the elf in disbelief and questioned him, "What do you mean? Aren’t you going to help me?"
"Help you?" Legolas sat down next the ranger, a frown creasing his brow as he tried to understand, "Help you what?"
"Help me clear my name!" Aragorn’s voice rose as the fear inside him escalated once more.
"No." Legolas shook his head as if Aragorn were a little slow today. "You have to leave Mirkwood."
"You of all people know that I can not do that. Not now."
"No, Legolas. They think I killed Sarcaulien. Your people still believe that I am guilty. There is someone out there that knows the truth and I need to find him or the proof that I am innocent." He pled with the elf, "Will you help me clear my name?"
"Do you not understand that any of Sarcaulien’s relatives may take your life under the guise of familial retribution? Do you not realize that the only safe places for you are here in this building and outside Mirkwood’s borders?" Legolas’ own fear was heightened. The human didn’t realize the danger he was in.
"If I don’t clear my name, I will never be able to return. Have you not thought that through!" Aragorn stood from his seat and paced in front of the elf prince.
"They will kill you Aragorn!"
"What is it with your people that they hate humans so much?!" He rounded on the elf, his anger touched off by the helplessness he felt,. "I know the stories, they have been driven into my mind by the countless years of retelling, how the elves and the humans fought side by side and many elves died and..."
"And man allowed evil to flourish," Legolas finished the tale softly.
Aragorn turned towards him, his eyes were dark and fierce and the elf sat back slightly as the human approached him and knelt down in front of him, never dropping his gaze. When he spoke, his voice was hushed and dangerous. "Yes, and man fell, and their power was weakened. And the one man who continued the legacy of evil, that one is my ancestor. His blood runs in me, Legolas, you know that. I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, the very one who could have ended it all, cleared his name and that of man, but did not, and now I live with that shame. With that knowledge. And you are asking me to accept this, this death sentence on top of that?"
"Don’t be a fool, Aragorn!" Legolas stared intently into his friend’s eyes, a hint of helpless anguish in their silver-blue depths. "I can’t protect you, don’t you understand that? I can’t help you! Royalty is forbidden from interfering in these cases! Because I am prince, I cannot even aid you as a friend normally could! I would not see you die over a baseless charge. Go home, Strider. Please." Legolas’ voice dropped down to a soft, distressed whisper.
Aragorn rose and shook his head resolutely. "I appreciate your concern, but it’s all right, I don’t need your help. I can do this on my own." The young ranger’s tone had acquired a hint of frost. He did not really understand Legolas’ reluctance to assist him and it hurt more than he wanted to admit.
"Human! You cannot! And what do you expect to accomplish? Where will you start?" Legolas tried to get the young man to see the hopelessness of the situation. "Don’t you realize they will hunt you down?"
"Then they’ll have to catch me first." The ranger grabbed his overcoat and headed to the door.
"Strider!" Legolas called after him trying one more time to stop his friend, "Aragorn!"
The man stopped on the threshold, not turning back, he dropped his gaze to the floor, he would not let the elf see how truly upset he was. "What?" His voice, however, betrayed his emotions.
"Where will you start?" Legolas slowly approached his friend.
Aragorn shook his head slowly, thinking through the possibilities. "I can’t let it go. Don’t you see that?" Finally he turned back as Legolas gained his position. "I always thought that somehow I could fit in here, too. My father told me it wouldn’t work that way. But then I met you and Raniean and Trelan, hell even Sar. I know you are elven, I know I am human. I just thought..."
He turned back to leave, but Legolas stopped him and slowly closed the door, blocking his path. When the human turned around, Legolas sighed and dropped his gaze to the floor. "I have hated men for more centuries than you have been alive." When Aragorn did not speak he continued, "My people are good people, Strider, but they have become very wary in the last few millennia. Things have changed so much."
The prince turned and walked back to the front of the hall. "There have been times in the past that these halls were full of people from everywhere, celebrating our conjoined friendships. But those days have long since slipped from the memory of most and mistrust has displaced the joy of my people. You, my friend, have changed a lot of that."
He smiled at the ranger, "You are the first human that has been allowed under these woods without threat and with the freedom to come and go as he pleases for longer than I can recount."
"Until now." Aragorn said softly.
"Yes, until now." Legolas agreed sadly.
"Don’t you see then, why I must clear my name?" He grabbed the elf by the shoulders and forced his friend to look him in the eyes, "I want to be welcome here. I value our friendship."
Legolas broke free and moved away, shaking his head. "Why I ever saved you that night is beyond me." Aragorn couldn’t see the light in the elf's eyes or the smile on his fair face.
When he turned back, the human was staring at him wide-eyed, speechless. The elf couldn’t help himself and he started to laugh. Aragorn caught on a few minutes later and finally smiled as he watched the elf.
"So..." He held out his hand in question, "will you help me?"
Legolas had grown serious once more, but the smile still played about his lips as he consented, "Yes. But one does not just walk out the front door when he has a death sentence hanging over his head!" Rolling his eyes, he hooked his long graceful fingers in the cuff of the ranger's overcoat and drug the man behind him as he walked to the front of the hall.
"We will take the back door, my human friend, and it may be that you might live long enough to clear your name."
Aragorn started laughing as he was directed out of the hall by means of a private door that he had not seen before.
"So where do we start?"
"At the beginning." The elf answered cryptically.
"And which beginning would that be?" The ranger tried to remember the all the twists and turns they were taking deep inside the palace.
"Lets try the beginning of yesterday to start with, shall we?" Legolas pushed a side door open and they stepped out into the castle’s courtyard, well behind the hall they had just exited.
Legolas twirled an arrow idly between his fingers, lost deep in thought as he stood beside an open window, leaning slightly against the frame. He and Aragorn had tried to puzzle out what must have happened in the woods yesterday, re-creating the situation as best they could. Yet their efforts had not gotten them very far. They had only three solid facts to work from: Sarcaulien was dead, somebody shot him, and it was not Aragorn. That really wasn’t much to go on. The missing arrows held the key somehow, Legolas felt sure, but without them... he wasn’t exactly positive what their next step should be.
They had separated so Legolas
could do a little private investigating without drawing the kind of
attention he would garner with Aragorn hanging around. The prince had
turned up nothing useful and was not sure what to suggest to his friend
"Legolas." Thranduil’s voice made Legolas jerk slightly, so lost in thought had he been.
"Yes, Father?" Legolas looked up, pulling away from the window.
"Legolas, why is the human still here?" The king’s brow was knit in concern. "Elrynd tells me he has not left. For his own sake, sooner would be better than later. I thought you were going to see him on his way?"
Legolas fiddled with the arrow in his hands. "He... has decided not to leave. Strider wishes to stay and try to clear his name."
"What?" Thranduil replied incredulously, just as Legolas had known he would. "Has he lost his mind? Does he wish to die?" Suddenly the king stopped, fixing his son with a suspicious, hard gaze.
Legolas knew what was coming next.
"Legolas, tell me you are not encouraging this. Tell me you are not helping him," Thranduil demanded quietly.
Legolas did not look up to meet his father’s eyes. He said nothing and that was an answer in and of itself.
"Legolas, what are you thinking?!" Thranduil said somewhat harshly. "You know the law! Once the right of familial retribution has been passed down, it is out of the hands of the court and neither the king nor any of his household may interfere or offer aid to either side!"
"I know," Legolas interjected, holding up his hand for peace. "But I am not aiding him as a prince, I am aiding him as his friend. I would not use my position to-"
"The law does not differentiate," Thranduil cut his son off with a shake of his head. "It makes no difference. You are a prince first, Legolas, you cannot be less than you are. You cannot aid the Dùnadan in this or you make yourself guilty, and that I would not see happen. Strider chooses his own folly. Leave him to it."
"You don’t understand," Legolas shook his head. "Strider is not just another Dùnadan. He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, heir to the throne of Gondor! Surely he deserves more consideration than just anyone."
Thranduil was not moved by the information. "It matters not whose heir he is, and Isildur is not an ancestor to be proud of. The kingdom of men is lost, they are scattered and weak. Losing one more human will not hurt Middle-earth at all. Sarcayul’s request was within his rights and I granted it, end of story. If the Dùnadan is stubborn enough to not heed wisdom when he hears it, he calls down his own doom."
"He has done nothing deserving of death, yet that is what they intend. It will be no less than murder, you know that!" Legolas said with thinly veiled disgust.
"I know that it is not our place to interfere," Thranduil said firmly.
"If not me, then who?" Legolas reasoned, trying to remain respectful, but feeling his frustration mount. "He is my friend..."
"You are a prince," Thranduil cut his son off, raising his hand in a warning for the boy to halt. "You know what that means. We may not become involved."
"Do you not think that I feel as you?" the King shook his head sorrowfully, meaning what he said. "I do not think the boy guilty and I wish not his fate upon him, but if we do not stand behind our laws, Legolas, then we are nothing! Kings and princes may not change the laws of the land simply to suit their own feelings. I would think you were old enough to understand that, my son."
Legolas let his head sink to his breast at the rebuke, but his determination was not quelled and his father could see that.
"If the human
would just leave..." Thranduil said slowly.
Legolas looked up sharply. "You mean run away, like a frightened cur? Would you do that? Would you not be filled with shame if I were in his position and took that course? Nay. At first I counseled the same thing, but I think better of it now. He cannot-"
Thranduil gripped his son’s shoulders tightly, almost surprising Legolas by his vehemence. "Listen to me, Legolas! I do not care about him, I care about you! I fear what folly may take you away from me, my son. So I tell you, as your father and your king, stay away from him!"
Legolas’ brows knitted. "Is that a command, father?" he said somewhat coldly.
"Yes," Thranduil said firmly, releasing his child. "If that is the only thing you will understand. I forbid you to have anything more to do with that man until this situation is resolved, is that clear?"
Legolas’ mouth tightened and his eyes flashed, but he gave one, succinct nod. "You have made yourself very clear, am I dismissed now?" His voice was strained.
Thranduil sighed and shook his head. "You think me unreasonable, my son, but you must understand! We do not have the luxury that others have of acting only on our feelings, however noble they may be."
"I understand perfectly," Legolas said, still somewhat cold. "The law is more important than an innocent man’s life. What is there to not understand about that?"
"Legolas!" Thranduil’s eyes were filled with the anguish of his situation and his voice sharp from the conflict between law and loyalty inside him. "I understand how you feel, but your disrespect only shames you!"
Legolas looked down. In that at least, his father was right. "I’m sorry, Father," he murmured, and that was genuine. He was not sorry about what he felt, but he was sorry that he had spoken contemptuously to his father and his king.
Thranduil sighed, passing his hand wearily before his eyes. "Legolas... you know what I would be forced to do if you insist on getting involved in this! My son... don’t make me do what would break both our hearts!"
Legolas looked away. "Just because there is a law does not mean it is right, does it?" he asked quietly. "Cannot there be bad laws as well as good?"
"Maybe, but it is not our place to change them at our discretion alone," the king said earnestly.
Legolas met his father’s eyes. "Then whose place is it?"
Aragorn waited for Legolas for a
half an hour. When the prince did not show, the young man became
restless. He supposed Legolas had been detained following whatever
leads he had found, but he had no wish to sit around and wait for him
any longer. Inaction did not suit the young ranger.
Leaving the palace, he began crossing the gardens beyond. It did not occur to him that by leaving the walls of the palace, even if still on palace grounds, he made himself vulnerable.
That is, it did not occur to him until suddenly a dozen elves dropped from the trees around him with their weapons drawn. Sarcayul was among them, and the others Aragorn had seen with him at the hearing. Also several persons that Aragorn did not recognize. He was disappointed to see Morifwen there. Morifwen had been on good terms with him at one time and it brought home to Aragorn again how much had changed and how quickly.
Aragorn knew better than to try any sudden movements. Elven archers could drop a man before he had time to blink.
Sarcayul edged his way to the front, glaring at the young human. "You should have left, Strider. Now you’re mine. I could just kill you, but that would be too good for you," his voice was low and angry. "So you go ahead and fight us and, when you lose, I can savor your defeat before I take your head." Sarcayul pulled his sword.
Aragorn did not go for his weapon, but raised his hands in a petition for peace. He did not wish to spill Elven blood, especially since that was what he already stood under suspicion of. "Sarcayul, please, I do not wish to fight you. I did not kill your brother!"
"Then I call you a liar and a coward, human!" Sarcayul spat angrily. Reaching out he shoved Aragorn backward a few paces, advanced and shoved him again. "Are you afraid of us? I think you are. Well you have reason to be. You ended my brother’s life, you extinguished an immortal flame and for that we will have retribution on you!"
"I_didn’t_kill_anybody!" Aragorn ground out through his teeth, shoving Sarcayul’s hands away from him. That was all it took and the elf lunged at him. For a moment they grappled, but Aragorn refused to draw a weapon on the elf, even when Sarcayul’s sword grazed his right shoulder. The young ranger tried to pull away from the confrontation, but the others wouldn’t let him.
Aragorn was an excellent fighter, but he could not battle all of them at once, especially when he did not wish to kill anyone, and they did. Presently he was brought to the ground, landing hard on his back. Immediately, a long, elven dagger at his throat pinned him there.
Sarcayul straddled Aragorn’s chest, pinning his arms to the ground with his knees and pressing the knife down hard until it bit into the young man’s flesh. "And so my brother is avenged," he whispered coldly, his grip tightening on the knife as he prepared to take his opponent’s life.
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