Remember How to Smile

Chapter 4: The Trouble with Ketrals

by Cassia and Siobhan

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“The look on your face was priceless, Legolas.  I don’t think I have ever seen you that mad, well except for maybe Moria...”  Aragorn flinched as Legolas lunged at him.

“Do not speak another word on that, mellon-nín.  Stitches or not I will not allow you to finish that particular story.”  He smiled wickedly at the human as Estel inched farther back.  Their stay in Rivendell was already having the desired effect on the wounded elf and Legolas’ smile was enough to rest Aragorn’s heart at ease.

“Very well, I did promise to take that one to the grave with me, did I not?  But you can bet I will tell every soul in Mandos!”  Aragorn moved back next to his friend, smiling widely at the elf.

“Then I suppose I shall simply have to follow you there as well.”  Legolas smirked, glancing at the man out of the corner of his eye.  It was a running joke between the two friends and, if it were up to Legolas, it would simply remain that way.

“You know, Legolas, that was a pretty good imitation of your father there you just pulled,” Raniean murmured.  He drained his wine glass and glanced at his friend.  He lay stretched out on his left side amidst a pile of pillows and throws.  Elladan leaned over and refilled the crystal flute with a knowing smile.

Nodding in agreement, Trelan laughed, flicking the stem from his cherries at the elf prince.  “Oh, I don’t know, I think the worst time I ever saw Thranduil lose his temper was when he banned you and Strider from re-entering the throne room unattended for the rest of your lives.”

Elladan and Elrohir leaned in at the mention of the infamous tale.  They had been waiting years now for the right time to pry it out of one of the two friends.

Raniean sputtered, nearly choking on the mouthful of liquid he had just sipped and causing Trelan to break out laughing.  “You agree then, I take it?”

“Oh! I had nearly forgotten all about that until the twins brought it up earlier,” Raniean gasped.  He tried to find an easy balance between coughing and swallowing.

“You were both supposed to have forgotten that one,” Legolas muttered darkly, casting a glare at the man on his right who could hardly stop laughing.

“I thought we were going to end up in the dungeon,” Aragorn blurted out, much to his brothers’ shock and amusement.

“Tell us!”

“You must tell!” Elladan and Elrohir spoke at nearly the same time, leaning in and encouraging the Silvan elves to speak up.

“No!  NO!”  Legolas threw the pit from his nectarine squarely at Trelan, hitting the smaller elf in the chest.  “You cannot tell that one, it’s embarrassing!  It’s bad enough the dwarf knows.  I can’t believe I actually told him.”

“You?  It was embarrassing for me!” Aragorn muttered, not willing to meet the twins’ inquisitive gaze.

“Oh come on,” begged Elrohir.  “Except for us, everyone else involved is probably gone over the sea already.  What’s left to be embarrassed about?  You know all our best stories.  We never get to hear what went on in the great Mirkwood.”

“Do tell, you must or I shall withhold the wine from you,” Elladan taunted Raniean with the half full carafe he held.

Trelan gazed questioningly at his liege.  Legolas was his friend but he was first and foremost his leader and the King of the Silvan elves since Thranduil’s departure.  Legolas might shun the formal title, preferring to remain forever a prince in name, but that did not change his station.  Neither Trelan nor Raniean would ever tell a confidence if Legolas bade them to be silent.

It crossed the prince’s mind to actually deny his friend’s request, but his heart felt lighter than it had in months and the warmth of friendship eased his mind and worries.  Elrohir was right, who was left to worry about, really?  It was like sitting at the end of time and obsessing over childhood secrets.  What was the point?  Why not let everyone continue to enjoy themselves?  Even if it was partly at his expense, he didn’t care.  Turning a brilliant smile on Aragorn, he nodded slowly before answering.  “Go ahead, Trelan, you can tell this one, but I have to start it because you weren’t there in the beginning, you only saw the end result.”

Mock bowing as best he could from his prone position, the short elf chuckled and glanced around the room as everyone scooted in closer to hear.

Once started, it was hard for Legolas to tell the story without laughing.  Tiring of his friend’s attempts at re-telling the debacle, Aragorn elbowed the elf prince and interrupted.

“It began when I decide to take Legolas’ pets, Trasta and Lalaith, out for a walk in the palace. I didn’t know that the ketrals had been banned from practically everywhere except Legolas’ room.”  Aragorn shrugged and continued when his brother nodded enthusiastically, settling in for another story.

“It was the year after Legolas and I had been prisoners of the Witch-king up in Angmar.  You remember, I didn’t really want to leave Rivendell for a long time after that.”  Aragorn’s eyes momentarily clouded in memory, before quickly clearing again.  “Until I got an invitation from King Thranduil to attend a Cuil celebration for Legolas.  I have to admit I didn’t even know what that was until I asked Ada.”  Aragorn chuckled.  “But then elves don’t often mark the passing of time or celebrate it, so my ignorance could perhaps be forgiven.”

Legolas shrugged.  “It was an old custom in Mirkwood, since before my father and grandfather came there,” he explained quickly for the benefit of the twins just in case they did not already know.  “It comes up every millennia or so,” he said vaguely, not really sure how to relate the event to human years at all.  It wasn’t necessary, the twins were perfectly aware what they were talking about and nodded their understanding quickly.

“Good,” Legolas was glad their audience was with them.  “Well, we hadn’t really kept with the tradition much in my family, but I think father was feeling a bit sentimental after everything that had happened over the previous few years or some such thing,” the elf said dismissively.

Aragorn snorted.  “Well I, for one, was not really surprised.  Remember, this was after you’d been taken for a traitor in Gondor, sold as a slave in Mordor, nearly died in his arms after the wargs got through with you, and then disappeared for almost a year only to return having played guest to a Nazgûl most of that time.”

“Thank you for reminding me of all that, I’d almost forgotten,” Legolas muttered dryly, but his eyes were smiling.

The former ranger chuckled.  “Well, given the circumstances, I’d say your father had a right to be celebrating the fact that you were alive right about then.”

“I suppose,” the elf conceded with a grin.  “At any rate, he decided he wanted to make a huge deal over it.”  The prince chuckled wryly.  “He didn’t tell me he had invited Aragorn to come stay with us.  That was probably the best surprise in the whole matter.”  The elf nodded his head towards Estel, indicating that he wanted his friend to pick the thread of the story back up again.

“Ah yes... so, my dear father and brothers finally kicked me out of the house and wisely let me make the familiar journey to Mirkwood alone so I would start getting over my hesitations.  The trip was uneventful... but I can’t say the same about the visit!” Aragorn smiled softly as he recalled those long ago days.


Morning light edged through the arched windows of Mirkwood.  Here the trees and the elves sounded differently than they did in Rivendell and Aragorn lay contentedly in the huge bed, simply listening.  He rested with his eyes only half open.  He had arrived in Mirkwood late last night, a surprise Lord Thranduil had masterminded for Legolas as part of his celebration gift.

It had been a year since the elf and ranger had been together and they had spent most of that first night simply catching up on the goings on of each other's lives.  Aragorn occupied the large guest room that adjoined Legolas’ quarters.  The door that joined their accommodations had been left open through the night when the ranger retired to his own room.  Legolas had missed the human’s soft snoring and, although Aragorn would never admit to it, he had grown used to sleeping next to a living night light for the three and one half years they had been traveling together since Gondor.

Tilting his head slightly, Aragorn could tell that Legolas no longer occupied his room.  The sheets were thrown aside and spilled off the bed as though the prince had woken in a hurry and left without notice.  The rumpled blankets moved oddly, shifting in erratic patterns where they lay in discarded mounds on the floor.

Squinting away the sleep, Aragorn pushed himself up on his elbows and watched the strange movements.  He wondered idly if he had had too little sleep.

A tiny black nose adorned with long white whiskers poked out from under the soft sheets and twin black eyes blinked in surprise at the ranger.  A soft bark alerted the second twisting mound beneath the blanket and soon another small furry face was intently watching the human being.

The two creatures talked quietly to one another through a series of soft whistles and clicks.  Short, sharp barks interrupted their conversations as though they were deciding on whether or not the large being in the other room needed investigating.

Aragorn raised one eyebrow as the sleek animals darted forward, heading straight for his room in an erratic, crisscross pattern.  Their long, soft fur rippled as they raced quickly towards the bed.  Their tiny feet pattered softly on the thick carpet.  Slightly startled, the ranger jumped as one of the creatures pressed underneath the coverlet and climbed up onto the bed inside the sheets.  The small animal’s claws tickled his leg as it crept up his body.  Aragorn barely resisted the urge to shrug the creature off.  It padded slowly up his midriff and glanced out at him inches from his face, balanced on his chest.  The second feline launched itself from the foot of the bed.  Landing squarely on the covers atop of the ranger’s stomach, it caused the man to grimace and catch his breath.

When he opened his eyes and focused on the small mammals again, he was surprised to not only hear, but also feel them purring as their long bodies rested against his chest and abdomen.

“You are Trasta and Lalaith, are you not?” he asked softly, his voice still deep from sleep.  The ketrals flinched skitterishly, as though considering fleeing.  Keeping very still, the ranger continued to speak, switching deftly to the elvish tongue.

“It’s all right.  I didn’t mean to scare you.  Legolas has told me all about the two of you.”  He smiled slightly as the ketral under the covers stretched out across his tunic, scooting its silky body around until it was comfortable.  The thrumming of their purring caused him to relax back against the sheets.  He could understand why Legolas favored the creatures.  There was a certain sense of affection that exuded from the ketrals’ close contact.  A kind of easy acceptance and love that Legolas seemed to have found so difficult to find in other areas of his life at times.

Legolas had told the ranger about his ketrals on many occasions.  In fact, the man had even been in the palace when the ancestors of these small creatures had broken one of Thranduil’s huge, intricately painted, decorative platters that had been on display in the foyer downstairs.  But the prince’s pets were generally very wary of anyone other than the prince himself and had never openly approached Aragorn or made their whereabouts known to him until now.  They were also extremely protective of their young.  The human knew that these two had a litter of young kits around somewhere, but had yet to catch a glimpse of them.

For the moment at least, the two adult creatures' curiosity seemed to have won out over caution.  Lalaith and Trasta were, in fact, much bolder than any of Legolas’ other ketrals had ever been.

The ketral that stood on Aragorn’s abdomen moved forward, its nose twitching as it inched closer and closer to his face.  He was half afraid the animal would bite him and closed his eyes as the ketrals’ long whiskers brushed into his beard and mustache.  They were quite similar to the domesticated cats that several of the families living with Taradin kept, although in the end their differences were greater than their similarities.

The ketrals were long and sleek.  Their small, powerful legs were half the height of a normal feline’s, giving them the uncanny ability to squeeze into the smallest possible places.  Their faces were slender and pointed.  Tufts of hair extended from their ears at the tips.  Their whiskers were twice the length of any cat Aragorn had ever seen and their fur felt like silk under his fingers.  He gently reached up to pet the inquisitive creature that was exploring his face with tiny paws.  Long tails balanced out their thin bodies and complemented their acrobatic tendencies.

He had seen cats in all sorts of varieties and colors, but never the shade of brown that these two creatures sported.  It seemed that their fur caught and held the light, almost changing color as the sun played over their bodies.  At first glance they looked to be a dark, velvety brown but, as they moved, their fur rippled, shifting through the spectrum, undulating from deep brown to a golden tan.  As he paid closer attention, the ranger could see that they also sported markings.  Faint bands of darker hues wrapped their small dainty feet and spiraled upward, disappearing into their underbellies where they became hidden by longer hair.  Their faces were intricately striped masks of shades of color from deep red to umber, not unlike the colors of the fall leaves outside.

He smiled as the ketral who had been so interested in his beard and mustache dropped back onto all fours and barked quietly at him.  The small animal seemed puzzled by facial hair and appeared to be trying to figure out what new breed of creature this being was.

“You must be Lalaith.”  Aragorn whispered softly, causing the small creature to tilt its head as though trying to understand his words.  “Lalaith?”  The repeated name was rewarded with a nudge.  “Yes, I thought so.  Legolas said you were the inquisitive one.”  Aragorn glanced down at the ketral curled up on his chest, “So that would make you Trasta, right?”

Twisting lazily where he lay, the second animal glanced up at the human and yawned, exposing a mouthful of tiny, sharp teeth.  With a soft laugh the ranger ran his fingers over the long-bodied creatures, eliciting contented purrs from his friend’s pets.

The sun had crept higher into the sky, shifting the shadows that fell off his bed and onto the floor.  With a deep sigh, Aragorn displaced the two mammals who had decided he made a perfect mattress.

“I should be up.  Legolas will wonder where I am.”

Trasta rolled off his chest, stretching out upside down.  He closed his eyes and relaxed as the ranger rubbed his belly.  Lalaith had had enough of resting and jumped off the bed, rummaging about in the human’s knapsack that lay on the floor.

“Hey!”  Aragorn leaned over, grasping the bag by its handle and pulling it away from the ketral who was intent on playing with the paper wrapped around his last package of athelas.  “That is not for you.”  He stashed the pack safely away in the wardrobe, making sure the door was firmly closed before shrugging out of his nightclothes.

They dropped unceremoniously on top of Trasta who had slid slowly off the bed to join his mate.  His startled squeak set the human to laughing as he laced up his tunic. “You two get into everything, don’t you?”

Aragorn shivered sharply.  Winter was settling across the land and the palace, although heated by the thermal vents below, was quite chilly.  The elves, relatively unaffected by temperature, seemed to have not yet noticed that it was high time to start letting more of the trapped heat into the living areas.  The ranger rubbed his hands together and repressed a shiver.  The truth was it might not have been as terribly cold as it felt to him and he knew that.  He chilled easily ever since his time in Angmar, as if it was hard to keep warmth inside his body.  It was an irritating malady that was slowly fading, but he didn’t like to trouble anyone with his problems and oddities, so he had as of yet, said nothing to Legolas about the temperature of his rooms.

Aragorn snatched his overcoat from where it lay on the overstuffed chair, glancing about him for the whereabouts of the second ketral.  She was nowhere to be seen.

Shrugging into the coat, he stuffed his hand into the right pocket to retrieve his family brooch and jumped when he touched a ball of fur.  Lalaith sat up in the handy hiding place, the ornate pin held between her two paws.  The glittering thing she held was too much for her curiosity to resist.  Aragorn quickly snatched the brooch away before she could damage it, pinning it to his tunic.  He pressed Lalaith back into the pocket when she decided to pursue the shiny bright object.

A light impact on his left side warned the ranger that Trasta had joined the party.  The ketral’s tail was all that could be seen of the furry creature as he burrowed into Aragorn’s left pocket.  Seeing that her mate had joined them, Lalaith leaned out and chattered at the other.  His soft clicks could barely be heard as he righted himself.

Frowning slightly and not sure what to do now, Aragorn tried to remove Legolas’ pets from his pockets.  Thinking it was a new game, the ketrals ducked into the dark expanses, curling their agile bodies in on themselves.  Aragorn no sooner pulled them out than they scrambled right back in, their sharp claws catching and hooking in the leather surface of his coat and refusing to be dislodged.  Lalaith nipped the ranger’s fingers in a playful warning.

“Ouch!”  Aragorn jumped slightly.  Holding his arms out to the sides, he glanced into the now bulging pockets he spoke to the two creatures. “All right then, fine! You’re just going to have to come where I go and I’ll let your master take you out of there!”  With that, the human headed for the door, intending to find Legolas and enlist his help with the unruly creatures.

It was quite a sight as Aragorn walked down the hallway, his coat bulging and moving in odd ways as he sought out his friend.  His running tirade to the two stowaways brought sidelong glances and confused looks from the elves that passed him.  They were used to the human being in their midst by now, and even used to his sometimes odd ways, but his mannerisms that morning were more unusual than normal.  Word slipped to Raniean that he might want to come check out the ranger and make sure the Dùnadan was safe to be wandering the halls alone.

“Strider?”  Raniean’s voice broke through Aragorn’s one-sided conversation.  “What on earth are you doing?” he asked as the man stepped sideways, looking into his pocket and talking.

A small black face poked out from the fold of leather and whistled at the warrior before ducking back down.

“Aragorn!  You brought the ketrals out here with you?” Raniean whispered fiercely as he dragged the man aside, out of the main path.  “They are not to be in the palace anywhere that Thranduil can see them!  They are not supposed to leave Legolas’ chambers.”  A sharp bark from the left hand pocket of the man’s coat answered him.

“Well, you get them out then, because they won’t let me!”  Aragorn laughed as Trasta nipped at the warrior when he tried to pry the animal out.  Raniean got a sharp warning scratch on the back of his hand for the trouble and scowled.

“See!” The ranger defended himself, throwing his hands up in defeat.  “Tell me where Legolas is and maybe we can get them out before Thranduil finds us.” He glanced into the right pocket, smiling at the tiny face that stared up at him.  “Besides, they should be able to get out once in a while.”

“Do not get caught.  You have no idea how much King Thranduil despises those ketrals.”  Raniean released the man and motioned up the hallway towards the staircase. “You can find Legolas in the throne room, but I’d hurry if I were you.”

“And stop talking to them,” Raniean called out as Aragorn hurried towards the stairs.  “People are beginning to wonder about you!”

With a small laugh Aragorn nodded and raced down the steps, searching out his friend.

The throne room was empty save for the prince.  Legolas walked around the expanse of the hall.  A small smile curled the edges of his lips upward as he gazed at the banners and pennants that draped the hall.  His fingers gently brushed the silk that trailed down, edging the frame of the great doors.  His father had spared no expense to decorate for his only son’s celebration.  The life celebration was a gathering of peoples, usually family, but in this case the entire kingdom, to commemorate the existence of one person.  According to local custom, the date of said celebration usually coincided with the conception of the individual in question.  Elves did not put much store in concrete dates to measure their limitless ages so Legolas was only vaguely aware of how many elvish years he had passed on Middle-earth and even less certain how they measured up to human years.  He was told he had been conceived in late summer, but it was already almost winter, so actual timing seemed to have importance on the festivities being planned.  To be honest, Legolas had never celebrated this event before, but it was obviously important to Thranduil to celebrate family a little right now, and the excuse hardly mattered.  Although Legolas did not like being the center of a lot of fuss, he was more touched by the gesture than he let on.  Besides, the celebration was shaping up to be very enjoyable.  Certainly, Thranduil could get irascible when he was in full planning mode for some event, but Legolas knew it was just because his father wanted everything to be perfect.

And so did Legolas, for his father if for nothing else.  Yet he had his own reasons as well.

The years away from home had somehow seemed longer this time than at any other.  He supposed it was all that he had gone through... that he and Aragorn had both gone through.  His smile widened as he thought of his friend, here under the rafters of Mirkwood’s palace for a change.  It was good to have Strider back nearby again.  After the last few years he had gotten used to being around the human and missed him of late.  His father could not have surprised him more than he had when he secretly invited Aragorn to join them for Legolas’ celebration.

The festive atmosphere had been going on for weeks now, but tomorrow night would be the actual commencement of the month-long gala.  It would be a night to remember and Legolas found he was actually looking forward to it.

The door opened on the far side of the hall to the left of the throne, allowing a lone figure into the room.  Legolas stood perfectly still, watching silently.  He already knew the person who had entered was Strider, but something was different about the man.  His sharp hearing picked up a nearly silent one-sided conversation from the ranger.

Nearly one-sided.

A quick sharp chitter reached his ears and he darted forward.

“Strider!”  Legolas raced from the shadows, dodging the wooden seats, heading for his friend.  “You didn’t bring...”

The elf never had the chance to finish his sentence.

The ranger glanced up with a look of relief and a warm smile, his attention drawn away from the two creatures burrowed into his coat pockets.  He had been talking to Lalaith, gingerly holding the right pocket between his thumb and forefinger.  At the sound of Legolas’ voice, the ketral zipped out of her hiding place and raced up the man’s coat sleeve to chatter a cheery greeting. 

The silk decorations shifted slightly in the gentle breezes that fell down into the room from the high windows above.  It gave the impression that the cloth was alive, seeming to have a life of its own as it breathed in rhythm with the wind.  The colors fascinated the ketral, whose immediate response was to investigate further, her master forgotten in the colorful melee around her.

Before Aragorn knew what was happening, Lalaith had used the human as a ladder.  Scurrying up his arm and crawling through his hair, the ketral launched herself from the ranger’s head and landed squarely in the swag of the nearest draping.

“NO!” Legolas skidded to a stop near Aragorn, trying to reach up and retrieve his wayward pet.  “Lalaith, come.  Come.  Good girl, come now... Lalaith!”

The band of fabric she was twisting in was connected to another and another, each one weaving and moving hypnotically, each one begging to be played with.  Twisting around, the ketral began climbing higher up into the decorations, stressing the points where the fabric had been delicately attached to the wall.

“Strider!” Legolas ground out through gritted teeth.  “Why in Arda did you bring them in here?!  You know my father hates them,” the elf prince growled as the ketral in question leapt to a higher point, her actions tearing the fabric she had just been walking on.  It floated to the floor of the hall, hanging limply from where it connected to the other banners.  “We have to get them out of here before they do more damage, or my father returns...” Legolas leapt onto the nearest bench and swiped at the retreating feline.  “...which would be worse.”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Aragorn defended distractedly as Trasta, hearing all the noise, decided to investigate.  The male ketral slid out of the leather pocket and raced across the floor to the far wall, dodging underneath the benches and chairs that littered the hall floor.  With less grace than the small animal, the human gave chase, trying to corral the ketral.  He stumbled over the leg of a sturdy bench and fell flat on his face with a groan.  The tipped chair knocked backwards, creating a domino effect in the closely set up seating area.

“What are you talking about?”  Legolas yelled across the room at him once the noise died down.  “You simply leave them in my room!”  He grabbed for Lalaith as she skittered down an ornate banner, leaving the elf prince holding a handful of silky hair.  “The arrangement has worked for thousands of years, trust me!” The elf’s voice was dry.

“They got in my coat pockets and I couldn’t get them out!”  Aragorn muttered as he slowly pushed himself up on his hands.  He peered under the seats, looking for Trasta.  A small furry face watched him curiously from the corner of the hall.  Seeing that it had been spotted, the ketral turned and raced up the nearest banner, joining its mate in leaping from swag to swag and basically reducing the bright celebratory bands to shreds of tattered cloth.

His boots slid on the polished flooring as Aragorn tried to gain his feet and take up pursuit.

“Then why didn’t you just leave your coat in the room?”  Legolas fell back to the floor of the hall with a soft whump.  His graceless drop had landed him squarely on the king’s cushioned throne.  It was a frustrating fact that ketrals were probably some of the few creatures on Arda that could out-maneuver an elf.

Aragorn scrambled over some of the downed chairs, trying to find a way to get up high enough to reach the romping critters.  He clambered up onto a stone buttress, but only succeeded in getting scraped hands and badly banging his knees when he was forced to jump down or fall down.  With mounting frustration at himself and the whole absurd situation, Aragorn turned and answered the question much louder than was necessary. “Because I am a human, all right?  It’s freezing in your mound-hill of a palace and no one but me seems to notice!  Fire up the thermal vents once in a blue moon, will you?  AND because I didn’t know any better!  No one told ME they weren’t allowed out of your rooms until it was too late!”

The main doors clanged shut, emphasizing the end of the ranger’s tirade.  Slowly Aragorn turned and glanced fearfully behind him.

Trelan and Raniean stood beneath the archway, mouths open in disbelief.  Across the room Lalaith, stopped her antics and chirped a greeting before tearing off towards the front of the hall.

“Ai! Elbereth!  Strider, did I not warn you?”  Raniean asked, finally finding his voice.

In utter disgust, the ranger dropped his hands to his sides and looked down, slowly shaking his head.

“Should we help them?” Trelan whispered, moving farther into the room.  But his attempts were cut short as Raniean grabbed the smaller elf and pushed him to the opposite side of the door way.

“Legolas, I came to tell you that...” Ran had wanted to warn his friend but the door opened once more cutting off his attempts.

Thranduil stepped into the hall and stopped on the threshold.

“...that your father was coming,” the warrior whispered swiftly, uselessly stating the obvious now.

Legolas turned quickly towards the door, his eyes huge, his mouth open, attempting an explanation... but none was forthcoming as the king strode forward to stand in front of the ranger.

Aragorn was frozen in place, one hand stretched upward in an attempt to grasp the ketral that had just escaped.  A soft green banner floated gently down and draped itself across his face, hiding his grimace.

“What is going on here?!” The Sinda Elvenking roared.  Everywhere he looked the benches were overturned and the beautiful banners that had decorated the hall lay in piles and tatters on the edges of the floor.  He turned his glare on the human that stood paralyzed only a few feet from him.  “I demand an answer!”

At the sound of the king’s voice, both ketrals loosed squeals of terror and headed for respective places of safety.  For Trasta, who was closest to Aragorn, that meant the ranger’s pockets.  The creature flung itself towards the human; slamming into his chest and knocking the man back a step.  It was just enough to unbalance the totally surprised ranger.

Aragorn tried to right himself quickly, one hand flung out in a failing attempt to grasp anything and the other trying to keep hold of Trasta.  His boot heel scraped backwards, catching the edge of an upturned bench and the ranger went down.  Banging the backs of his knees solidly against the bench’s seat there was no way for him to prevent his backward sprawl.  The edge of the seat caught him squarely in the small of his back and his head impacted the hard marble floor with a sickening thud.  For a moment Aragorn could feel nothing but pain and simply lay still, forcing himself to breathe.

Thranduil’s footfalls could barely be heard as the king came to stand over the ranger.  The tip of his boot brushed the man’s hair.  When Aragorn opened his eyes and glanced up, he met the Elvenking’s hard gaze.  Never in all his years in Rivendell had the human ever garnered such a look as the one that was laid on him now.  Trasta squeaked in surprise and darted down the front of Aragorn’s vest, squirming his way under the man’s belt.

The ranger twitched violently, grimacing as the tiny creature tried valiantly to get away from the elf that it was smart enough to fear.  Aragorn grabbed his midriff, stopping the ketral’s motions and pinning the furry body against his navel.  He smiled weakly up at the Elf-king as he slowly sat up and scooted farther away from Thranduil.

In the doorway it was all the two onlookers could do to prevent themselves from bursting out laughing.  Trelan had never been so glad in his life that Raniean had stopped him.  Usually he resented it that he could be so easily moved around by his taller kin, but not today.  He was perfectly happy to have been kept out of this mess.  He shifted his gaze to the wooden doors and closed his eyes to block out the sight of the sheepish grin that crept up onto Aragorn’s face.  He actually felt pity for the human.

The doors parted slightly as an attendant tried to come to his liege’s aid.  Raniean’s hand on the entry stopped the elf and he simply shook his head, warning the assistant off.  Carefully, he shut the door and slipped the locking pin in place.  This was not something the rest of the castle should be witness to.  It would only make Thranduil more upset and make matters worse.

“Father, I can explain...” Legolas attempted weakly from his position across the hall.  He was still sprawled awkwardly across the throne, his eyes glued to his friend who was trying with great difficulty to scuttle backwards away from the irate king.

Thranduil’s gaze shifted to his son.  Slowly he crossed his arms over his chest and waited the elfling out. 

Suddenly, Legolas realized that he couldn’t explain at all actually and ended up opening and shutting his mouth rather uselessly a few times.

Tiny scuttling sounds alerted Legolas that Lalaith was making her way swiftly back to his position.  He glanced up just as the ketral leapt from a bright banner and landed on the edge of the family crest.  It was a large ornate carving that hung behind the throne.  Carved of a single piece of wood from the golden trees of Lothlórien, it had been there as long as Legolas could remember and was far older than the prince.

The crest teetered under the small creature’s weight.  Had she been given the time and not frightened by the emotions and tones that filled the room, the ketral probably would have made the jump from the carving to Legolas’ outstretched hands easily and with no problems.

However, when Thranduil’s voice rang out and he stepped towards the front of the hall, Lalaith panicked and launched her slim body at the prince in a terrified flurry of unchecked trajectory.

Legolas leapt up onto the arm of the royal chair, his fingers just barely touching the crest, trying to right it as it was twisted off its mooring by the abrupt shift of the ketral’s weight.  The wood carving slipped from his fingertips and fell to the floor behind the throne at the same instant that Lalaith hit the prince full in the chest, tipping him backwards.

His booted foot caught under the arm of the throne and tipped the ornate chair backwards with him, bringing the whole lot of them down in a piled jumble.  Lalaith wasted no time hiding within the folds of his tunic as Legolas nimbly leapt to his feet.  He would have righted the chair and seen to the crest but for his father’s ire.

“LEGOLAS!!!!!!!!!!  Get those things out of my hall!  And take your human with you.  They may never come back in here ever again! Do you hear me?!”  Thranduil bellowed.  It would take hours to fix the carnage his son, two ketrals and one human had produced in only a matter of moments.  It was a nightmare.  “I don’t want to see you OR him,” he pointed at Aragorn “In this room unattended again for the rest of your natural lives!  And if I ever see those creatures of yours anywhere but your rooms again, they are going back to the forest where they belong.  Am I understood?!  Now get out!”

Aragorn had found his feet and raced to the door that Legolas held open for him.  He quickly followed the prince as they ran through the palace, and pounded back up the stairwell.  They could clearly hear the Elvenking shouting out orders in the celebration hall below.

“Raniean! Trelan!”  Thranduil snapped, seeing them skulking around the doorway.  “See to it that my son and his friend remain in their rooms until sent for.  If I so much as see either of them the rest of this day I may throw them in a cell!  Maybe then we could actually get something done.  How many times must I tell that boy that his pets are not to have free reign in the castle?  Perhaps I should just outlaw ketrals from being in Mirkwood, period.  Nasty creatures...”  The king muttered the last statement under his breath before turning back to the two elves still in attendance. “And get the decorators back in here. We have less than a day left and there WILL be a celebration in this room tomorrow night!”

The tirade was cut off as Legolas slammed the door to his room shut and leaned against it from the inside, breathing heavily.  Aragorn dropped down on the prince’s bed on his back, his arms flung out to the sides.

“That was not fun,” he whispered breathlessly.  “I thought your father was going to kill me.”

“I thought he was going to kill you too,” Legolas commented softly before smiling at his friend.  He threw the lock on the inside of the door before seating himself on the edge of the bed with a sigh.  “At least we didn’t have to see the inside of a cell.”

“Would your father really do that?” Aragorn raised his head to glance at his friend.

“I think he was certainly mad enough... to lock you up anyway.  If we had been anyone else, yes, we would definitely be there right now.” Smiling, he reached into his vest and retrieved a trembling ball of fur.  Two small, dark eyes opened and blinked slowly, watching him for his response.  “You, however, are his guest – at his invitation for once I might add, and I am his son.”  Legolas laughed lightly.  “‘Twould be unseemly to lock up the guest of honor for ruining his own party,” he said ironically.  “Besides, father knows how I feel about... those kinds of places.”

The elf seemed to be taking everything rather well, all things considered.  He petted the tiny creature in his hands. “Oh, Lalaith, you know you aren’t allowed in the castle proper.  You shouldn’t have given Strider any trouble.  He doesn’t know all the rules yet,” Legolas chided softly, rubbing his nose against the soft, wet, black one.  Gently he laid the ketral on the bed.  As though understanding she had been bad and needed to offer a little contrition, the creature stretched out next to Legolas’ leg, pressing hard against him and settling down immediately.

“Where is Trasta?” Legolas asked, redirecting Aragorn’s attention.

The ranger patted his chest, then his abdomen and thighs.  The coat pockets were next, but with no trace of the ketral.  Aragorn sat up in alarm and glanced at the locked door.

The noise of shouting and commotion from the lower levels drifted through the door.  Legolas jumped up from his seated position and cracked the door open just as the sounds of breaking glass reached their ears accompanied by Thranduil’s shout.  A small, dark object streaked through the open door and darted under the bed before Legolas slammed the door shut and locked it once more.  He grimaced as his father ranted on about banning ketrals from Mirkwood.

The whole castle would know what had happened now. 

Kneeling down on the floor, Legolas peered under the bed to find two black eyes peeking back out at him.  After some gentle coaxing, he retrieved the male ketral from its hiding place and set it on the bed.

Aragorn still lay on the bed where he had dropped, Legolas’ pets curled up in the nook of his arm.  He smiled wearily up at his friend who hovered over all three of them.

“Fine mess you got me into, all of you.”  Legolas shook his head.

“I’m sorry.” Aragorn apologized, and the remorse was genuine.  “I never wanted to ruin things for you like this...”

“Oh, don’t fuss,” Legolas dismissed it wearily.  “What’s done is done.  You haven’t ruined anything.  Don’t listen to father; they’ve got plenty of time to redecorate the throne room.  Father always gets pulled tight as a new bowstring before festivals of any kind.  Just as well to let him release and get it over with... although I must admit that that was a singularly spectacular way to do it,” the prince said with a rueful sigh.

Aragorn groaned as Legolas shoved him over, making room for himself on the large sleeping couch.  His friends pained movements caught Legolas’ attention and he forced the human to sit up.  A quick examination of the ranger proved that nothing was broken, just as the man had argued, but a nasty knot on the back of his head was forming.  Aragorn winced when Legolas touched it gently.

“You’re going to have quite a headache.”  Legolas smiled down at his friend.

“Going to?  How about already have?” Aragorn muttered darkly.  He explored the knot tenderly with his own fingers.  “I thought I was going to lose consciousness there for a minute, but I was more afraid of where I would wake up!” He laughed softly, wincing as the dull throbbing in his head turned to a mild hammering.

Why didn’t you just leave your coat here?” Legolas questioned quietly as he poured water into a cup, passing it to the ranger.  He still wanted a real answer to that question.

“I told you.  I was cold,” Aragorn answered honestly.  He took a small sip and sat on the edge of the bed forlornly.  “They bit me every time I tried to take them out; even Raniean couldn’t help me.  I’m sorry, Legolas.  I simply never imagined they could cause so much trouble.”

When he glanced up, Aragorn was surprised to see the elf smiling down at him.  “You should have seen the look on your face when Trasta tried to get into your pants and you were trying to get away from my father.  Believe me, Estel, when he calms down my father will have a good laugh over this.”

“Great,” the ranger muttered.  He rubbed the back of his head gently. “Glad I could entertain the family.”

“Don’t forget Ran and Trey.”  Legolas smiled wickedly at the man.  Aragorn just rolled his eyes and flopped back against the bed with a moan.

A soft knock on the door stopped further conversation as Legolas went to investigate.

True to his father’s request, Trelan and Raniean were standing guard outside the prince’s room.  Elrynd stood just behind the two soldiers peering around them and smiling genuinely at Legolas.

“Are you both all right?”  Raniean asked quietly.

“Yes, thanks, Ran.”  Legolas stepped out into the hall, leaving the door cracked.  He glanced up and down the hallway to make sure they were alone.  Most of the staff was in the throne room fixing what had been demolished in the ketral’s escapade.

Ran glanced in at Aragorn who hadn’t bothered moving from his prone position on the bed.  “Is Strider all right?”

Legolas glanced back inside.  Aragorn raised his hand without looking up and waved in the general direction of the door before letting his arm drop back down. With a soft chuckle, Legolas pulled the door a little more shut, blocking the view from the inquisitive elves.

“He will be fine.  He hit his head rather hard.  I don’t think he’s eaten anything this morning either, so he’s liable to have a rather upset stomach in a few minutes.”  Legolas tried to keep the mirth from his answer but it was impossible.  “Elrynd, would you please be so kind as to bring us some food and drink and perhaps a roll of bandages as well?  I think it wouldn’t hurt to tend to that bump, it is swelling and it has to be painful.”

With a small nod, the servant moved quickly to bring the items requested.  Before he had gone too far, Legolas’ voice called him back.

“Oh, and Elrynd,” Legolas called.  He smiled at the elf, feeling slightly silly as he made his last request.  “Can you please have someone go down and release the vents for my room.  We could use a bit more heat up here.”


The Hall of Fire erupted in laughter and good natured taunting.  Aragorn’s face turned red under the teasing onslaught that the elves dished out.

Elladan quickly poured Trelan another glass of wine as the elf tried to catch his breath in between laughing and choking.

“You should have seen his face,” the small elf sputtered.

“All right, all right!  That’s enough,” Aragorn shouted down the merry elves around him.  “You’ve had enough fun at my expense. I take my leave of you.  Some of us actually have wives to entertain.”  He smirked as he stood and bowed much to the renewed laughter of those nearest.

“Little brother, you are pathetic, you know that don’t you?” Elladan quipped.  “You never could stand the cold that well.”  He kicked a booted foot at the human when Aragorn stepped over him.

“Yes, well, you try freezing to death a few times and I daresay you won’t do as well either, elf or no,” the man retorted only half joking.  Kneeling next to Legolas, he peered into the elf’s face.

The prince was completely relaxed, his left arm held gently across his midsection.  His breathing was slowed and even.  His eyes were half-lidded in sleep.

“Legolas?”  Aragorn called to his friend.  The room quieted around them.  No one had noticed when the prince drifted off to sleep during Trelan’s part of the retelling.

“Is he well?” Raniean sat up quickly and leaned forward.

Gently brushing the hair out of his friend’s face, Aragorn smiled softly.

“He sleeps.  He pushed himself too hard and too long I am afraid.”  Leaning down, Aragorn carefully moved the elf and shifted Legolas into his arms.  “I should have paid more attention.  He is worn out,” he whispered.

Moving slowly and balancing the elf’s weight, Aragorn stood.  He stepped around the occupants of the room as he made for the stairwell.  Trelan pulled his feet out of the way as the man passed by carrying his prince.

“Do you need help, little brother?” Elrohir called after him.

“Nay,” Aragorn turned and smiled back at the warmly lit room.  Elves were always unnaturally light to carry, but Legolas was even lighter than usual at the moment and it was no great hardship for the human to manage.  “If your teasing and laughter did not wake him, I doubt anything will rouse him now.  We’ll be fine.”

As Aragorn reached the stairwell, he could hear his brothers begin begging Ran and Trey for the trellep stories that they were not allowed to tell earlier.  They could be so much like children sometimes.  Trelan’s laughter rang through the halls as the ranger made the first landing.

“Nifts,” he whispered as he glanced over his shoulder once more.

“What are you doing?”  A soft voice startled the human as Legolas’ arms tightened around his neck.  The prince blinked, momentarily disorientated and a bit frightened.  Legolas was usually a very light sleeper and for a moment he couldn’t justify the last thing he remembered with his present location.

“Putting you to bed, your highness, like I would Eldarion,” Aragorn replied, teasing gently as he laid the elf down on the soft sleeping couch.  He didn’t like the insubstantial way Legolas felt in his arms.  He didn’t like that the elf hadn’t immediately demanded to be put down the instant he was awake.

Legolas tried to focus on the human as Estel moved about the room stoking the fire and shifting the blankets away from the elf’s booted feet.  His friend’s shape insisted on blurring and smearing into colors and shadows, however, and the elf had to give up.  He was a bit embarrassed by all this, but didn’t seem to have the strength or desire to fight or even argue when Aragorn unlaced his boots and set them quietly on the floor.

The prince had wanted to stay up and enjoy the company of friends and family so much that Legolas had ignored his body’s clamoring demands for rest.  He couldn’t remember at what point he had even fallen asleep.  The last he knew Aragorn... or was it Trelan?  Was telling of the time Thranduil found them all in the throne room with his ketrals.  Right now he missed his father greatly.  His heart tightened at the thought of his own family so far away from him... across the sea.  He missed his ketrals too.  His last pets had not sired any litters before they passed away and ketrals, always an elusive and rare creature to begin with, could not be found in Mirkwood any more after the great destruction of the last war with Dol Guldur.  The prince had sought any trace of their burrows or nests, but to no avail.  They might still exist somewhere but, if so, they had hidden well, as only ketrals could, and it was likely that future generations of Arda would forget entirely that they had even existed.  It seemed to Legolas that the entire world had changed around him and he hadn’t quite found a way to keep up.

Estel turned back and watched as a frown creased the fair face of his friend.  He promised silently to be more careful in the future and not allow Legolas to push himself so hard.

“Sleep.  Just sleep,” Aragorn whispered as he gazed down at his friend.  The elf shouldn’t have been cold, but he shivered slightly as the human drew the thick blankets up over his chest.

“And you think that will work on me, Adan?” Legolas teased softly.  He wasn’t fully awake and his words were softly slurred.

“Right now, I’d wager on it,” Aragorn answered.  Brushing his fingertips lightly over his friend’s face, he caused the elf to blink and close his eyes.  In that moment Aragorn’s deep soft voice filled the prince’s mind once more bidding him to rest and, to his surprise, Legolas found himself complying.

Stepping back towards the door, Aragorn watched his friend sleeping.  Pulling the door partway shut, he headed quietly up the hall.  He stopped to check in on Dari long enough to ensure the child was also sleeping soundly before going to his own room.  The lamps set in the wall were starting to burn down and the house had quieted for the night.  Intending to sneak in unnoticed, Aragorn was surprised to find the fire burning brightly and the bed empty.

Arwen stood in front of the large picture window.  The drapes were pulled back and she was gazing out into the starlit expanse above them.

“Why are you still awake, my love?” Aragorn asked softly as he approached his wife.  He shrugged easily out of his outer tunic and threw the clothing on a nearby chair.  Arwen had not acknowledged him.  Stepping closer he moved the long tresses of dark hair away from her right ear and kissed her neck gently.

With a small smile she turned and then pierced with him a serious gaze.

“Why? How could I sleep?” she answered by way of her own question.  Her fingers brushed the man’s brow, smoothing the lines of worry from his face.  Dropping her hand to her side she turned towards the fireplace, watching the flames distractedly as she sought to express herself.

“I keep creeping into Eldarion’s room.  I feel as if... as if I go to sleep he will disappear and it will all have been a dream,” she said, somewhat hollowly.  “I still can’t believe we really got him back.  And... I worry about at what cost.  It took Dari hours to be able to sleep.  The darkness scares him and he tells me tales of people I do not know.  He says things about himself, about Legolas... things children shouldn’t think, shouldn’t know.  How can I sleep?  Even though you are both here, before my eyes, part of me fears that this nightmare is not truly over yet.  Is it?  Please, tell me it is and I will believe you.” Hesitant, shimmering eyes glanced back at her husband, asking his indulgence and assurance.

“Oh, my love,” Aragorn was beside her in a moment taking her slender hands in his.  He led her back to the bed and bade her sit.  Mentally, he kicked himself sharply.  He had been so worried about Legolas and Dari that he felt he had missed Arwen’s mental anguish and turmoil.  Valar, he didn’t want to fail her.  He never wanted to fail her.

“It is over and the men Dari speaks of are no more.”  With a sigh Aragorn turned and paced the length of the room.  Words failed him and he realized that his own heart was not yet nearly as settled as he had believed.  “It’s late, meleth-nín, let us rest and I will tell you the whole tale in the morning.”  He had thought this conversation could wait until tomorrow, until after Arwen had rested from her long journey and until he had figured out what exactly he was going to say, but it seemed that would not be the case.

Arwen shook her head.  “No, Estel.  If we continue this silence, it will devour us.  Talk to me,” his wife entreated him softly.  Arwen’s eyes were filled with pain.

“Since Dari disappeared, you’ve shut me out,” she whispered.  “You’ve avoided me.  I thought at first maybe you blamed me, because I couldn’t keep him safe.  Then I knew you blamed yourself because you couldn’t keep him safe.  But now, if he really is safe and the Valar have returned him to us... talk to me.  Let me back into your heart, because it is cold out here on the outside, Estel,” her voice choked off and she looked away, hiding her tears.

Turning around to face her Aragorn started to speak but faltered.  He was shocked by her words.  Shut her out?  He would never do that!  He needed her like the very air he breathed, he loved her... how could she not know that?  Yet the pain in her eyes was so real and he couldn’t bear to think he had caused it somehow.

“Arwen... I... I’m sorry if I... I never meant...” He gave up on useless words and pulled her into his arms, embracing her tightly.  “You have always been in my heart, since the day I met you.  Without you I would lose all the best parts of who I am,” he whispered into her hair.  He didn’t know what to do, what to say.  He had lived so much of his life alone; he didn’t always know the best way to incorporate another soul into his method of doing things.  He knew how to be a good friend, but being a good husband was something that he desperately feared still eluded him.

Arwen would disagree with that assessment.  She knew Estel loved her, but the past few months had been very trying for them both.  He was a good man and a loving husband, but she didn’t know if he realized how much she needed him.  She had forsaken everything in her life and made Aragorn her world.  She knew that was not a fair burden for anyone to have to shoulder, but it was a matter beyond either of their individual control.  She needed to be close to him, to know what he was thinking and feeling.  And right now, she really needed to know what had happened since he left her in Minas Tirith, and what had happened to her son.  Dari’s muddled picture of events was frightening and horrible to say the least.  She needed some truth, and she needed it from Aragorn.

Aragorn sighed, seeming to sense that she needed answers.  She needed peace.  But it seemed the words he sought were not there.  He had no idea where to begin.  There was so much that had happened in such a short time that he wasn’t even sure if he was clear on it all himself.  So many fears and emotions were heaped upon one another.  Now finally they were in a place of safety and peace and he was at a loss.  He decided he understood his wife’s nameless anxiety.  Perhaps that was why he had wished to put off discussing the recent past.  It felt like he was standing in the eye of a storm just waiting for the second wave of chaos to hit.  He couldn’t give her peace.  He couldn’t give Legolas peace.  He couldn’t give anyone peace because he had none himself and he hated himself for his failings.

“I-I don’t even know where to start,” he admitted finally, looking away again.

Arwen could see the confusion and the burden that her husband was carrying around inside of him.  She knew he needed to get it all out in the open as much as she needed to hear it.

“One thing at a time,” she prompted softly, touching his face, his hand, grounding him in the one certain reality of their love. “Just tell me the first thing on your heart.”

The apology...

The apology was first and it broke his heart.

“I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry I left without you, that I didn’t wait for you to join us first.  I’m sorry I did not find Dari sooner.  If I had listened to my heart in the first place, if I had questioned Legolas’ silent response to my messages, I might have found out what happened and been able to find Dari and Legolas months ago.  They could both have been spared so much.” Aragorn’s voice grew quieter as he continued.  His guilt was a heavy burden to carry alone.  It was a pity being a King didn’t automatically bestow you with instant wisdom.  He dropped down into the chair adjacent to the bed and buried his face in his hands.  Taking a deep breath, he ran fingers back through his hair and stared straight into his wife’s deep blue eyes.  “I found them in Rahzon...”

The tale spilled from his lips like water from a flooded dam.  He told her everything.  He spared no details.  He answered every one of her questions.  She would find out anyway and she obviously needed to know.  They had no intentional secrets between them and he did not intend to start now.  Even when her eyes clouded with tears and her breathing hitched with repressed sobs, he kept going.  In the end he found himself seated next to her holding her in his arms.  They sat that way for sometime, both lost in their own world of questions with no answers.

Why...?  Why had this happened to them?  Through what chance tricks of fate had their child, the Prince of Gondor, supposedly the safest child on Arda, been taken away and shown such horrors?  Why?  And why Legolas?  Who had decided that he hadn’t suffered enough in his life already and that he should be saddled now with this strange affliction for which even Aragorn could find no cure?

Yes, why?  That was the foremost question on Aragorn’s mind.

He had learned long ago that ‘why’ could often not be sufficiently answered.  Only the Valar knew sometimes.  His father had taught him that.  It was a lesson he would never forget and one he treasured.  Through it he had learned more about his elven father than he had in his younger years.  And he had witnessed the depths of Elrond’s healing touch.

Someday he would pass what he had learned on to his son as well, though he hoped the circumstances would be more pleasant.  Arwen rested heavily against him and they just breathed together, quietly, drawing and giving strength between them.  The gentle reminder tugged at Aragorn’s heart that with time all wounds healed and that was the way of the world.  In the soft, peaceful moment, the human’s thoughts turned back to that time in his life when he believed his own hurts could never be healed.  Back before the incident in Mirkwood they had laughed about earlier.  Back when Aragorn was quietly terrified of leaving the valley and broke into a cold sweat in dark, cold rooms.  Gazing off into the fire he remembered how Elrond’s unusual lesson had begun.  It had been in the same Hall of Fire he had so recently left, but many years before...