Arms enfolded him, soft and near, warm and comforting. The scent of lavender filled him as he relaxed. Small once more, no longer the fierce warrior he had been a moment ago, he nestled into her sweet embrace, noting with the pleasure he always felt that the colour of her hair exactly matched his own. Soft and shining like the finest strands of silk, it slipped over her shoulders and cascaded over him.
He reached up a small hand, grabbing a fistful of liquid gold and holding it up next to his own, comparing.
"See, Nana? Your hair is just like mine."
"Yes, my little Greenleaf," the warm voice laughed, and her arms tightened their grip around him, squeezing gently. "Just like yours."
"I like that," he stated firmly.
"As do I."
She began humming, and he snuggled closer, closing his eyes as she gently rocked him. It was nice here in the garden, quiet and cozy, but it also was a very busy place, if one paid attention. How many different things could he hear today? He concentrated. The low droning of the big fuzzy bumblebees as they ponderously made their way from blossom to blossom. The soft chatter of the little birds hopping around on their tiny stick legs, investigating the seeds he had scattered for them with his own hands. Would one perch on his finger this time, if he extended his arm and held very still? He cracked an eye open, looking to see if any of the feathered creatures were close enough to notice his gesture, but they were too busy right now.
The sweet notes of a harp drifted to his ears from beyond the garden wall, and his mother hummed the same melody.
"He is angry with me again," he said abruptly, sitting up and bringing her hair to his face, brushing the ends of it across the tip of his nose to tickle it. Sometimes, if he did this just right, he sneezed. He liked sneezing.
"Only impatient," she murmured, gently prying his fingers from her hair and holding them, pressing them between the cool softness of her own hands. "Your father wishes you would concentrate more when he gives you instruction."
He frowned. "It's boring."
"But it is what you must learn. You are a prince of Mirkwood."
He pulled away, scowling, and rolled over, resting on his abdomen, chin cupped in his hands. He watched an ant crawl determinedly up one side of a blade of grass and down the other. How infuriatingly slow! Why, he could cross the whole lawn with the speed of an eagle!
He jumped quickly to his feet and darted away. "Watch me, Nana! I am faster than I was yesterday!"
Three circuits of the vast garden he made, with such incredible speed that the blue of her dress and the gold of her hair was a blur as he flashed past her, and the colors of the flowers streamed like a rainbow! He was that much faster today.
She cheered him on, laughing and clapping her hands, then called him back to her.
"Did you see?" he panted, dropping to the grass beside her.
"You are much faster today," she praised. "The swiftest warrior in Mirkwood."
Yes," he boasted, proud of himself. "I run like the wind."
She reached for him again, and, after glancing quickly right and left, he permitted the embrace. He loved this, secretly, though he thought it most unseemly for a great Warrior Prince to admit it, and there were times he would withdraw and stand apart from her, tall and strong, his golden head held high, and she would bow her head and turn away in deference. That she did so in order to hide her maternal smile of amusement he never realized.
"I have no one to play with," he sighed, studying his fingers as they entwined with hers; small, slender, and none-too-clean compared to the flawless white hands that brushed his hair every morning and brushed his tears away when Father was short with him.
"I know. You are the youngest. You came long after your brothers and the other children of Mirkwood."
"But that makes me special. You said that."
"Yes," she said, smiling down at him, and the love in that gaze overflowed to fill his happy heart. "You are our future, and our joy. The sound of your laughter within the walls of our home brings summer even on the coldest day. You are my greatest gift."
"Why does Ada get angry?"
"You do not share his interests, and when he desires your attention you usually cannot be found, until we find you up a tree somewhere."
"I never go far! I am either here in the garden, or in the grove of beech trees just past there," he pointed, waving his hand around vigorously. "I'm not permitted anywhere else," he added grumpily.
"You will be, in time. But first you must grow a bit more."
"I want to go to Lake-town. I want to see the Men. My brothers go with Father sometimes. I could-"
"I think your father would not permit it. You have already demonstrated more than enough curiosity about the world outside our borders, little one. He desires to keep you here, in safety."
"It's boring," he said again, pressing his hands into the lacy sleeves of her gown, idly tracing the patterns with a broken fingernail.
"You know little of the outside world, Legolas. He wishes to protect you, both from danger and from your own curiosity."
He raised his head, lively ocean-colored eyes locked onto the sky above him. "I will be an explorer, Mama. Over the Grey Mountains I will go."
"It is cold there, and full of Orcs."
"They do not frighten me! I can outrun them all!" he declared boldly. He stopped suddenly to think, a small frown drawing his dark little brows together. "Why should I not go up into the trees? I am an elf, after all. They sing to me. And you go up trees sometimes."
Her soft laugh caressed him. "Yes, sometimes I do."
"He does not."
"Well, now, would that be appropriate behavior for the king? Do you think his subjects should see him behaving in such a fashion?"
He tilted his head, as he always did when he thought hard about something. "Then I am glad I will never have to be the king. Nana, does he not hear their song any more?"
She shifted slightly, a soft sigh escaping her lips as she pressed them against his furrowed forehead. "He does still hear them. He does. But he is burdened. Sometimes it is hard to be a king. It would be better, perhaps, if he would remember to pause sometimes and listen to the songs. He is so busy that he often forgets to do so." Her blue eyes slid toward his, and they twinkled with mirth. "I will tell you a secret. But you must promise never to tell anyone else."
His orbs widened with excitement and he nodded solemnly. He uttered no word, and he made no oath, but he did not need to. For little Legolas Greenleaf, Prince of Mirkwood, a promise made was a promise kept.
She leaned closer, whispering conspiratorially into his tiny curved ear. "He does go up trees sometimes. I have seen him do it."
The bright eyes grew round as the moon at these words, and his mouth formed the same shape. "He does?" he finally managed to stammer once he had recovered from his astonishment.
She nodded, pressing her fingers to his lips as they split into a delighted grin. "Remember, not a word," she laughed as she drew him closer. Her arms were around him, and within their embrace he floated in safety and comfort.
Lavender and warm sunlight filled him as he rested. He burrowed his face into her breast, feeling the humming within her body as she began to sing again. He loved being in her arms. It was his favorite place… when he wasn't sitting in a tree.
"Do not let go, Nana."
"I will never let go, Legolas. That is my promise to you."
* * * *
The waves of song drew him on, and he relaxed into them, moving quietly away from all that he had known before. The tiny voice of each leaf, barely perceptible individually, blended together to form a melody of overwhelming beauty. The song of the trees and the song of his mother had become the same, and to touch it somehow was suddenly his heart's desire.
Mesmerized, he reached out, but then a new sound came to him, discordant, clashing abruptly with the tranquility. Confused, he hesitated, unsure what part of the song this broken fragment belonged to. Pausing, he waited, listening, and in another moment he understood. It was not part of the song. It was the sound of weeping.
It was the sound of a strong man brought to his knees by grief.
As powerful as the pull of the song had been but a moment before, now an onslaught of emotions and memories suddenly burst upon him, and the force of their impact was staggering. Love. Loyalty. Friendship. Plans. Promises.
And for Legolas Greenleaf, Prince of Mirkwood, a promise made was a promise kept.
No! I will not leave here!
Without warning, the song changed. The trees quivered and thrummed as if readying themselves for battle, and their tones lowered, diving deeply into the earth, pulling their power now from the great roots rather than the cheerful little leaves.
And, above it all, sweet and clear, a voice: Go, my little explorer.
The soft arms bolstered him, adding their strength to his own. In tears, yet without hesitation, he retreated, turning back and walking into a wall of fire.
* * * *
There was a pause of dead stillness before he was struck down, scarlet whips of flame lashing his eyes and sunbursts erupting in his head. His heart surged painfully, the beat pounding in his temples, throbbing with a savage heat that choked him. He yearned to scream his torment, but there was no breath in his body. No air. Heaving lungs strained, the muscles between his ribs quivering in impotent striving as sharp talons of terror swept down upon him, closing on his faltering resolve and shredding it.
I cannot breathe!
Pinioned between his agony and his desperate desire to reclaim his life, he struggled against the choking closeness of his paralysis. Gathering the tattered remnants of his strength, somehow he moved. Just a twitch of his head, a clenching of his fist, but it was enough. A thunderbolt of pain lanced through him and the first breath came automatically in reaction to it, searing him, a blazing torrent of suffocation rushing into his chest. He felt himself drowning in a churning ocean of thick throbbing blood.
He cried out, his voice smothered and weak. Thrashing over, he lunged forward, gagging as a crimson inferno threatened to spill from him. Arms were suddenly around him again.
The second breath came as their strong grasp enveloped him, and he retched, coughing as he threw himself backward. He spat something disgusting from his mouth, crying out more strongly this time. The blazing whip scorched his eyes again, leaving in its wake a terrifying firebrand that arced across his brain.
Ai, the pain!
The third breath tore into him almost immediately, and he fell into the arms again, arms that felt hard and powerful, smelling decidedly more like sweat than lavender, arms that held him as fiercely as hers ever had, silently promising never to let go.
* * * *
On the floor of the little cottage, Aragorn sat silently beside the bed, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them. His eyes, already wide, had grown even larger as dusk encroached. He had sat thus, in stunned disbelief, for hours now, staring without blinking at the elf lying before him on the bed.
Legolas had been dying. Of that, he had been certain. And Aragorn had wept bitterly, clinging to the archer's hands and draping his living body over the dying one.
A slight tremor at first had brought him up, recoiling in shock, and then by some grace of power beyond his comprehension, by the hands of the Valar, perhaps, the elf had suddenly and violently fought his way back, sitting bolt upright and coughing up a terrifying gout of blood. He had cried out for his mother, and gasped something about the pain of knives piercing his eyes. He fell then with a wail into Aragorn's arms, and the astonished ranger had caught him as he collapsed into unconsciousness.
Now the elf lay quietly, finally cocooned in the merciful swaddling of insensibility, unaware that a very shaky man had been watching him for the remainder of the day without moving. Aragorn would not move, so convinced was he that if he so much as twitched a muscle, Legolas would stir. And if Legolas stirred, Aragorn knew full well that he himself would shatter into a thousand pieces.
Squinting as the grey shadows of evening filtered into the cottage, the ranger's eyes finally shifted, resting on the wooded scene outside the window. Inhaling deeply, he shot one more fear-laden glance at the elf, assessing him before rising quietly to his feet. He stooped over the still form. Legolas breathed with more ease. He swallowed. His head turned slightly and Aragorn froze, but to his relief a soft sigh was all that transpired.
The man crept to the door and made his unsteady way to the little barn. He numbly fended off the horse's excited greeting and saw to her needs, bringing down more food for her and replenishing her water before returning to the loft. Tossing down two bales of straw, he dragged them, each hand wrapped around the binding twine, across the lawn and into the house. Pushing them against the bed, he spread his cloak over them and lay down. Straw would serve well enough for his rest this night.
Exhausted, he stretched out onto his side, draping his right arm across the faintly glowing outline of his friend's body, feeling the slow, even rise and fall of his chest. If Legolas stopped breathing again, he would know it. But for now it seemed the danger had passed, and Aragorn's eyes were closed almost before he had finished pulling his jacket over himself.
If that soft breathy rhythm ceased, he would wake in an instant. But nothing else, not even an eruption of Mount Doom were it just outside the window, would make an impact. Aragorn was asleep.
* * * *
Hours later, in the deepest part of the night, white fingers twitched and stretched. Feeling their way weakly across the rough, nubby texture of the blanket, they crept slowly until they found what they sought. Legolas' hand had located the ranger's, and as his pale fingers entwined with Aragorn's darker ones the elf listened to the deep, even breathing of his friend, and then, with a sigh, he pulled back from hurting awareness, falling once more into silence and healing.
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