"Now hold on, old lady," Aragorn laughed, staggering as he fought to keep his footing on the slippery turf. The horse had brought her head round and nudged him with enough force to knock him back a step, and now she came in again, shoving his arm as he was forced to clutch at her mane. He chuckled, raising his hand again and resting the stiff-bristled brush further up on her shoulder, moving it more briskly. "Is this more to your liking, Your Highness?" he inquired, looking into her soft brown eyes.
He was ignored as she dropped her muzzle to the earth, continuing to tear and grind the rain-soaked grass between her broad teeth. The man worked quickly, running the brush over her sleek brown coat, switching to a softer one for her legs, and picking through her mane and tail with a metal comb. There was not much time, but he took pleasure in giving the mare extra attention when he found a spare moment, picketing her on a line in the clearing before the doorway of the house so that she could graze, and chatting while he worked on her, bringing a bright sheen to her hair.
Aragorn inhaled deeply, his eyes moving up to roam slowly over his surroundings. After the night's rain, the sky had lightened to a clear blue, cloudless, and the darkness of the evergreens played against it, waving high in the wind like the brushes of an artist stroking the lighter background. It was a fine autumn afternoon, with the good rich smells of horse and pine filling his nostrils, and the cat, still deeply suspicious but at least willing to be spotted now and then, lurked beneath some low shrubs, watching him.
The weight of the brushes felt good in his hands. From the time he was a young boy Aragorn had loved horses, and caring for this one was a welcome respite, affording him a few precious moments of real relaxation before he had to return to the house. He curried and brushed quickly, and picked out her hooves with the hook, patting her and murmuring as he moved around to her other side. He faced the cottage now, and he gazed a long moment upon it as he rested his hands lightly on the mare's withers.
Old, but sturdily built of stone, with a well-thatched roof that did not leak even during the strongest downpour, the place had been a true gift to him and the elf who lay within. Ten days had passed since their desperate arrival in time of great need, and the owner of the place, whoever he was, had not returned. It troubled the ranger, who harbored an ill feeling about the disappearance, but he could not deny that this place, however it came to him, was precisely what he and his friend needed. All he could want of medicines and comfort was available to him for Legolas' needs, and for his own as well. There was a small but fine garden just to the right as he exited the door, filled with vegetables ready for harvest, the tomatoes plump and ripe and the squashes coming along. The stream wended its way through the trees along the edge of the sward, providing him with a close source of cold clear water. In the house itself were other foods to be found; not a great deal to be sure, but Aragorn had discovered bread and honey, fruit and a bit of dried meat, and even a modest supply of wine, which he had found to be surprisingly good upon tasting.
Should the owner return, he would make restitution as best he could for what had been taken, and had already begun to do so by taking care of the odd task or repair that he noticed needed doing around the place. He had mended some of the furniture, and kept the garden clear and the horse tended. When the owner finally returned they would have to move on, perhaps to the city which lay some six miles off in the valley below, but for now they must stay. Legolas could not yet be disturbed, and Aragorn was thankful that there was such a place as this to aid in his friend's recovery.
Ten days since their arrival, and eight days since Legolas had struggled back to this world, and though Aragorn no longer feared that the archer would fail again, the convalescence was slow. Particularly for an elf, the recovery was so slow as to be almost imperceptible. Aragorn had expected he would be up and about long before this, and he grew increasingly concerned when Legolas continued much the same day by day, surrounded by pain and sickness and nightmare.
Healer and patient had quickly moved into a fairly predictable routine, and for this Aragorn was grateful. The sedative usually lasted several hours, unless the elf was shaken by nightmares, and while he slept the ranger was able to take his ease or put his attention on other matters. He would go out briefly to tend the horse or work for a time in the garden, or sit quietly on the step before the door of the cottage and smoke his pipe. Amused, he would watch the small grey cat rather elaborately hide from him, crossing his line of vision several times as she sought to put distance between herself and the stranger while also keeping an eye on him. Filled with hostility but curious all the same, her green eyes would glow from the darkness of the foliage before she disappeared.
But ever Aragorn's attention was on the cottage's other occupant, and he was always back inside well before Legolas woke, preparing for the next time the elf clawed his way out of the potion-induced twilight and came gasping to painful awareness. When the moans began and the hands reached out, the healer was ready, seated beside the bed, all he needed of medicines, teas, water and linens at hand, murmuring quietly to soothe and reassure the one who was ill and in pain.
The elf's suffering and fever continued, though not at the same horrifying level as before, and Aragorn kept him drugged and sleeping as often as was possible. This was unfortunately not as consistent as either party would have liked, but Legolas had to be somewhat awake and aware for the times he was required to swallow water and medicines, and he could not do so when completely insensible. It was asking much of the elf to face the pain during these moments, but to Aragorn it seemed that Legolas understood why he had to be brought back to partial awareness, and that he responded and cooperated as best he could.
Legolas could not eat, but he received fluids almost frantically, drinking water and teas with the desperation of one who had been found abandoned in the desert. Aragorn was encouraged by this, for what goes in must come out, and eventually the poison would be purged.
The elf also could not speak, at least not voluntarily, though it seemed to Aragorn that he tried, his lips moving soundlessly when the drug had worn off and the pain returned and the strong grip of the archer found his own hands and crushed them. After drinking whatever was given him by his caretaker Legolas would last be given the poppy extract, mixed with some of the good wine, and together they would wait for the pain to ebb again, the ranger speaking quietly, reassuring his friend that each day was an improvement. The elf's grip would tighten, his pale face turned toward Aragorn, his dark brows knotted and tensed above closed eyes.
"Rest, Legolas," Aragorn would murmur as the orbs gradually roamed more slowly beneath their shutters and the hands relaxed and slid away. "Whatever it is you need to tell me, you will be able to do so soon."
Now the horse's head came up, ears turning inquiringly toward the cottage, and Aragorn paused in his work as a soft moan drifted from the open window nearest the bed. Then he was moving. Tossing the brushes aside, he quickly returned the horse to her enclosure. Steeling himself for what lay ahead, he hastened across the clearing and into the dwelling in time to catch the elf by the shoulders and push him back against the pillow. Aragorn sighed, pressing back his weariness as Legolas began to fight his way through another nightmare.
This was expected, and had also become part of the routine. The dreams usually came in late afternoon and in the dead of night when the fever was at its highest, and Aragorn had quickly learned to be ready for them as well, prepared with cool cloths for the burning brow and calm speech for the fear, grief and rage that boiled up from the depths of that inner heat.
It was less easy for the ranger to prepare himself for the nature of his friend's nightmares, and as he rested his weight against the thrashing elf to hold him down, he closed his eyes in pain as a sudden torrent of Sindarin burst from Legolas' lips. These were the times the elf spoke, and if Aragorn could have, he would have been a mile off in the forest, unable to hear a word of what was said. Legolas' blond head rolled back and forth, the strangled words, often difficult to make out, rushing forth on waves of harshly drawn breath, and Aragorn flinched visibly as their meaning pierced him with the sharpness of barbs wrought to penetrate and wound deeply.
The elf, of course, did not intend this, and certainly would have stopped himself were he capable of doing so. But his anguish over the event that had broken his heart four years ago… the anguish that he had kept ruthlessly in check with incredible self-control… was now released without his consent by the fevered brain and the weakened body, when his defenses were at their lowest. Aragorn gritted his teeth and bowed his head as the words struck him again. He did not wish to hear them, and he knew Legolas wished the same.
The elf, with each nightmare, was reliving the death of his mother. Reliving the circumstances of her murder at the hands of orcs. That event, of which he never spoke, never, not even to his dearest friend, poured from him with all the force of a waterfall. The fever, the poison, the drug and the pain all conspired to wrest from him that which he desired to keep most private, and giving an unwilling Aragorn a look into the innermost thoughts and emotions of one who had desired to hold that privacy dear.
Legolas screamed and cursed, lashing out in desperate fury, and more than once his fists connected strongly with some part of his friend's body as he struggled. A great deal of what was said was difficult to make out, garbled, coming as it did on breaths half choked, but Aragorn understood most of it, and indeed already knew most of it. The elf spoke of orcs in strange garb, attempts made to track them, and he cried out the names of the other elves that had joined Thranduil's queen on that fateful hunt. They had been his friends.
Then came the tears, the pleading, and this was what drove the ranger to close his eyes and wish for a way to also close his ears. These were the things he did not know of, and should not know of… images of a young elf standing outside his father's door, begging to enter and being answered with silence. Apologies to a dead mother, asking forgiveness for being elsewhere when she was attacked. Arguments with an older brother about responsibility, and where loyalty should lie, and how a friendship, already disapproved of, might have contributed to the tragedy. And Aragorn's own name finally coming to his ears, spoken by his best friend, coated in sorrow and accompanied by angry words of defense.
"I chose to go with him, my brother, so if blame must be placed, put it on me, and me alone! I will not see Aragorn hurt by this! He could not have foreseen what would happen. You will say nothing to him."
Aragorn raised his head, resting his eyes on the scene outside the window and watching the horse contentedly cropping the grass, her tail swishing busily to keep the flies off her flanks. The elf had quieted, and the ranger sat back against the chair he kept by the bedside, gazing out at the changing colors of the leaves. Four years ago… exactly four years ago, as it was in the autumn that Legolas' mother had ridden out from the palace of Thranduil one crisp morning and not returned. He remembered that day well, for four years is not a terribly long span of time even for a mortal. He glanced at the Prince of Mirkwood, watching him breathe evenly again, the fair face streaked with tears. To an elf, four years must seem no more than a snap of the fingers. It must seem as only yesterday.
Yes, Aragorn remembered that day well, the day Legolas learned his mother had died, for he also had been there.
* * * *
He was in Mirkwood at his friend's invitation, arriving in the midst of preparations for the fall hunts and the harvest celebration. It was always a grand time to be there. Spirits were high and a constant thrum of activity kept the elves happily occupied, and able to forget, for a time, the evil that pressed in on their homeland from the darkness of the southern reaches of the great forest.
It was a never-ending source of interest and amusement for Aragorn to observe the many differences between the elven community of King Thranduil and that of his foster-father, Lord Elrond of Imladris. In the hidden valley of waterfalls things were more orderly and sedate, the elves quieter. They were no less eager to sing and make merry, but they were calmer somehow, and went about their business with a strong sense of purpose. A balm of peace always seemed to rest over the place called Rivendell.
To Aragorn's eyes, Legolas' people were rather… for lack of a better word… wild. They celebrated their lives and their loves with a ferocity that was matched only by the deep hatred they held for the foul beasts that corrupted and maimed their beloved forest. Quick to laugh and quick to anger, they were simply a more emotional lot than the regal elves of Imladris, and Aragorn was immediately greeted with an example of just how great the contrast was when he came to the gates of the palace of King Thranduil and reined in his horse, pausing to glance over the tableau before him on that fine fall day when he had arrived to join the elves of Mirkwood in their revelry.
The youngest prince of the realm, usually considered one of the quieter elves, was anything but at this moment. Engaged in a violent shouting match with his eldest brother, he was waving his arms about vigorously as if the motion would somehow help to drive home the point he was trying to make. The brother was yelling back, and Aragorn quickly realized that neither was hearing a word of what the other was saying.
"You young fool!" thundered the older elf. "Can you not see that if we follow your suggestion, we will be doomed to failure? All will be lost! Your methods…"
"It will not fail! Anyone with an ounce of common sense could see that my idea will work!"
"Do not presume to speak above your station, Legolas! I am eldest son, and as such my word is…"
With a roar, Legolas was suddenly airborne, and he tackled his brother, wrapping his arms around his waist as the momentum of his charge sent both of them tumbling to the ground. Several nearby elves inexplicably joined the fray, and for a brief time a ridiculous struggling knot of flailing limbs and golden hair was all that the ranger could see. Aragorn could not have been more astonished if they had begun to levitate, and he watched in amazement, holding his frightened horse in check and striving, without success, to make some sense of the absurd scene. Then from the midst of the snarl of bodies there emerged an enraged elven face that suddenly broke into a delighted grin as intense blue eyes settled on him.
"Aragorn! Well met, my friend! A year is too long to be parted. But I was not expecting to see you for two days yet." Aragorn dismounted, and Legolas extracted himself from the tangle with a surprising amount of speed and bounded toward him. The man was enveloped in a bear hug, the prince's joy only slightly diminished when he was obliged to wipe at his bleeding nose with his sleeve, emitting a small yelp of pain.
"By the Valar, Legolas, what the devil is going on here?" Aragorn whispered, mystified, watching as the pile of elves sorted itself out and Legolas' brother escaped the confusion and strode towards them. The man quickly composed himself, bowing respectfully.
"It is good to see you, Prince Thendras. I thank you for inviting me to your celebration."
Legolas' brother bowed in return, managing to look coldly regal despite his disheveled appearance. "We are pleased you could come, son of Arathorn," he said formally. "You are early. I trust your journey was uneventful?"
"Yes. I encountered no difficulty on the paths, and came quickly."
"It is good. We have heard rumours of trouble, but I think the greatest difficulty will be encountered right here, and involve young whelps who have nothing better to do than plague the life out of their elders." This statement was accompanied by a savage glare and a cuff aimed at his brother's head, but Legolas leapt lightly aside, chortling wickedly.
"My idea is superior, O haughty one. Grant me the opportunity to prove myself."
"Do as you think best, child. As usual, you will have nothing but your own way. I will inform our parents of Aragorn's arrival."
With that, the heir to the kingdom of Mirkwood turned on his heel and walked away with all the dignity he could muster. The back of his cloak was covered with mud, and Legolas collapsed with a howl of laughter as his brother flung a hand out, offering a parting gesture with his finger, something which no one born of royal blood should ever have learned.
"What was that all about?" Aragorn asked as he helped his staggering friend steady himself. "It sounded serious. Is there need to go after more spiders? Do orcs threaten you?"
"No, no, nothing like that," Legolas wheezed, dabbing at his eyes with his sleeve. "We were merely discussing where we ought to hang one of the banners."
Aragorn gazed at the elf in disbelief and shook his head. Insane elves. This should be an interesting week.
"Ah, I must present you to my parents now. Come." Legolas grabbed Aragorn's arm and began steering him toward the great door and into the caves of his father's palace as a servant led the ranger's horse to the stables.
"You look a right mess, Legolas," Aragorn said as he panted alongside, the elf rapidly leading him deeper into the large airy passageways. "Your father-"
"Will have my head if I appear before him like this," the young prince finished for him, dodging around a corner. "Yes, he will, so do not tarry!"
Several twists and turns, down a flight or so, and Legolas dragged Aragorn into what the man knew must be a storage room. Dusty boxes and barrels littered the floor. Dimly lit and musty, Aragorn could scarcely make anything out in the gloom, but the elf prince obviously knew what he was about, striding directly to one of the boxes and yanking the lid off. Standing on tiptoe he drove his arm in, muttering to himself as he rummaged around. Eventually he extracted a comb, a clean shirt and a cloak, and in less than a minute he was changed and splashing water over his face from a jar that had also emerged from the box. Toweling himself off, he quickly raked the snarls from his hair.
"Will I pass?" the elf inquired, turning to his friend with a grin and a bowing with a flourish.
"You will," the ranger said, unable to keep the admiration from his voice. Legolas was quite resourceful. "I have no doubt that you have more than one of these boxes hidden about the place."
"Hundreds," Legolas laughed. "My brothers each have two or three."
"But you require hundreds?"
"It would appear so," the elf nodded. "They were my mother's idea, years ago, and I still find them useful at times. I kept catching the very devil from my father, or my tutors would spot me in the wrong place at the wrong time, and usually looking altogether wrong as well. She saved my life. Come!"
Five minutes later Aragorn was bowing low before the king and queen of Mirkwood, feeling distinctly uncomfortable, but well acquainted with the niceties of formal speech and behaviour that court etiquette demanded. He spoke the words of greeting that Lord Elrond had bade him make, giving the monarch the latest news, and told of his journey, when he was asked. Legolas stood beside him, cool and composed, every inch the respectful young son and prince, but the ranger caught an undercurrent of mirth whenever his friend glanced at his eldest brother, who had obviously made a similar attempt to pull himself together before joining his parents, but had been unable to entirely disguise a blossoming black eye.
The man did not show it, but he sweated under the scrutiny of the great king. Thranduil was always courteous when Aragorn visited, politely inquiring as to his health and of news from Rivendell, but there was a coldness, an arrogance that could not be ignored. That the elven-lord did not like him was something Aragorn knew, and understood, but it pained him nevertheless, knowing that it came not for any valid reason, but only from long years of prejudice and misunderstandings between elves and men. He was not liked because he was a man, he was not entirely trusted, and that was the end of it. Legolas' two brothers were much the same, welcoming him gravely and formally, but they kept their distance, and he was unable to establish friendships with them. He was tolerated only because he was Legolas' friend, and he could not push past the barriers.
But the face of the elf prince who always stood beside him at these times, clear-eyed, young and strong, greatly eased his discomfort. Legolas always introduced his friend with pride, and the ranger was deeply grateful for the confidence the elf had in him. And he continued to hope that some day the king and the older princes would come to believe in the value of his friendship as Legolas did.
And there was one other whose presence reassured him when he was in Mirkwood. Whenever he raised his gaze and his eyes met those of Thranduil's queen, sparkling laughter could be detected bubbling out from the steady blue orbs, so much like her son's, though her face, smooth and beautiful, was schooled to an expression more in keeping with the formality of the occasion. She sat tall beside her powerful husband, remaining silent as he spoke, but in no way was she dwarfed by his imposing personality. It was said that she could hold her own in both argument and intellectual discussion with the king, and through what Legolas had told him, Aragorn knew that there was no one else who could so skillfully deflate the monarch's more pompous outbursts, with a wry and gentle humour that could even set the stern elven-lord laughing at himself.
Thranduil had other matters that demanded his attention, and the interview came to a close fairly quickly, much to the relief of Aragorn, and also apparently of Legolas, who relaxed visibly after his parents had exited the room, followed by the two eldest sons. The young elf blew his breath out slowly, smiling at his friend. "Well, that is over. It is always a dreadful span of time for you, is it not?"
Aragorn nodded. "Now we need say little to each other for the remainder of my stay. He will be busy with the hunts and arrangements for the feasts."
"Too busy to be of much bother to me as well. But you handled yourself well, as always. We should be able to get away for our own little trip before joining up with the others for the big hunt. But now my mother would like us to join her in the garden. Will you come?"
They found the queen waiting for them, seated at a small table. She rose as Legolas and Aragorn entered the enclosed space, and Aragorn went to her, bending one knee and kissing her proffered hand. "My lady," he murmured.
"You look well, son of Arathorn. This last year sits easily on you."
Aragorn rose, feeling, as he always did, that he was in the presence of a sort of beauty that was almost beyond what was possible in the world. Physically, she was fair, her head poised gracefully on a slender neck, the golden hair falling unbound over her shoulders, but there was more than that. It was as if in Legolas' mother there was a gathering of all that was beautiful and kind. But there was also a restlessness that he sometimes sensed, visible in the quick way she moved and in the flash of her eyes, and the ranger often wondered if she did not grow bored with the sheltered life she lived within the palace walls.
She swept out her hand, gesturing to the seats and inviting them to join her at table. There a small repast was laid, cakes and cheese, and both wine and tea had been poured. She leaned forward eagerly. "Now Aragorn, tell me of your adventures. I wish to hear all about them, and I am sure Legolas does as well. He has not gotten out much this year," she added with a smile at her youngest.
And so the ranger spoke, telling mother and son of his activities over the past year, and the day passed pleasantly. In the presence of the queen he did not have to choose his words, as she encouraged a relaxed atmosphere away from her husband and the formal doings of court, and the three of them talked openly of many things, as old friends will. The beauty of the garden was undimmed by the approaching winter, the colors as they waned seeming to work together to give one last burst of color before they knew they must fade. The day was warm and dragonflies darted about, gleaming blue and green in the sunlight.
It had been Legolas' intention to accompany his mother on the brief hunting excursion. It was only to last a day or two, but because Aragorn had unexpectedly arrived early, the prince asked to be excused. He and Aragorn would go off on a short trip of their own and return in plenty of time for the larger hunt planned for later in the week. It would include all three brothers and the king as well, among others.
The queen granted her son's request, and shortly thereafter they concluded their talk in the garden and adjourned to take care of matters that needed attending before morning. Legolas embraced his mother happily and went off to make other arrangements for her escort.
"Take a turn with me in the garden, Aragorn, and then I will see you to your quarters," the queen said, and he offered his arm to her.
The queen's face often turned in the direction her son had taken, but she said nothing for several minutes. When they reached the doorway she halted and looked at her companion. There was no need for her to raise her head. She was every inch as tall as he, and her direct gaze held his eyes.
"I am glad you are here, Aragorn. Legolas has needed the presence of a true friend. His father has required much of him this past year." Her voice lowered, and a shadow of sadness filtered into the tone. "He is very different from his brothers. While they willingly take in everything that they can of what their father has to offer, Legolas retreats, listening instead to all that calls to him from beyond these walls. He struggles with it, for he knows his ways do not entirely please his father. But he cannot change who he is."
The ranger smiled. "I have noticed that he makes a somewhat unconventional prince," he said. "And I have noticed that it gets him into trouble on occasion."
She laughed. "Once or twice. Thranduil expected a family of obedient ducklings, willing to follow where he leads. In Legolas, what he got was a hawk who darts in every direction at once. And the king finds himself alternating between irritation and pride in his youngest child. There is great love between them, but little understanding."
The queen bowed her head for a moment, and when she raised it again her eyes were clouded. "I do not have the gift of foresight, Aragorn. But I do know that Legolas' path will lead him from here. And I fear for him, because I cannot see what lies ahead. The only thing I feel certain about is that his path and yours are the same. He and I have talked much of late about what the future may hold, and the dangers that lie ahead for the people of Middle-earth. And we have talked of you, Aragorn… of your destiny. He has told me all that he knows of you, certain that I will keep such information to myself. Not even to my husband will I speak of it." She paused, her eyes roaming over the flowers, small lines of worry etched into her brow.
"You are troubled. What do you need of me, Lady?" Aragorn asked softly.
She disengaged her arm from his and stepped back, turning away, and her head lifted as if she struggled for air. Her voice came with a slight quiver. "I want you to promise me that he will never be alone, Aragorn."
Her words cut him off, coming in a rush. "He will not leave Middle-earth. His heart is bound to this land more strongly than I have ever seen in an elf, and he cares so deeply about its future. He loves you, Aragorn, and because of that love he risks more than just his life. If he follows you, his heart will be laid open. And for all his solitary ways, an elf cannot be alone for long, particularly if he is cut off from his own kind. Can a Man understand this?"
He moved, stepping around to face her, and he took her hands in his, kneeling before her. "I do understand," he told her, his voice thick with emotion. "Do not forget that I was raised among the elves of Imladris. In a friendship between a man and an elf there may be great sadness to be faced, but there is also much joy to be had while both yet live. I do not know what the future holds for either of us, Lady, but I do know this. I love your son as dearly as he loves me, and I swear to you that it is a friendship without end. If it is within my power to keep him from hurt I will do so. He will never be alone."
She closed her eyes with a sigh as Aragorn rose to his feet, and when they opened the happiness was within them again. "My heart is content, son of Arathorn. The Valar indeed were smiling on my child the day he met you." Her blue orbs observed the lengthening shadows, and the breeze was cooler as it blew softly over them. "Tomorrow we have out respective adventures, and it is time we were making ready."
They entered the palace, the queen leading Aragorn along the vast labyrinth of corridors to his room. "I will leave you now, and I expect we will not meet again until the big hunt. We ride out at dawn."
"Sleep well, my lady. Enjoy your hunt, and we will see you in two days time."
* * * *
They were returning at an easy pace, walking along together under the great canopy of green, gold and red. Carrying little but their packs, they had not really intended to hunt, but rather just enjoy spending time together once more. It was late afternoon, and Thranduil's palace lay not more than two hours ahead.
When Legolas stopped suddenly, his head snapping around, the ranger nearly collided with him. "Someone approaches, at a gallop," the elf murmured, his keen eyes raking the paths. Aragorn listened and soon caught the sound of pounding hoofs. His hand reached for his knife.
"No, put up. It is one of our own horses," Legolas said quietly, "but why is it being ridden at such a pace? Something is amiss."
They stood together, waiting anxiously, and a moment later a bay horse came plunging down the trail, an elf clinging to its back. The animal skidded to a stop, nearly sinking onto its haunches as Legolas' eldest brother threw himself down and raced toward them. Legolas, with a gasp, rushed to meet him. "Thendras! What is it? What has happened?"
The elf was pale, panting, an expression of horror on his face. "Legolas, I have been sent to find you…" His eyes flickered toward Aragorn, and he grabbed Legolas' arm and pulled him some distance off. The man could not hear the urgently whispered words. He stood, heart thundering, watching in fear as his friend's face drained of all color and he staggered back, a cry of dismay breaking from his lips. Then Aragorn was running, catching hold of the young elf as he collapsed to his knees with a wail of anguish.
"No, no, no! Ai, how can this be?"
Aragorn looked wildly at Thendras, who met his eyes, tears streaming down his face. The elder elf's lips moved, but he choked on his breath. Coughing violently, he inhaled, shaking his head, and the words came in painful, constricted gasps. "Our mother… attacked by orcs… slain… all dead. They are all dead."
"No…" Aragorn's body reeled in shock and his arms lost their strength, sliding uselessly from his friend's shoulders. He stared pleadingly into the watery depths of Thendras' eyes. "It cannot be true!" Thendras turned away, clutching at his younger brother, his fair face contorted with sorrow.
"I have seen them," he whispered.
The ranger's heart caved in. No!
Legolas threw his head back and screamed, and the sound of it drove all breath from Aragorn's body. Weeping, he reached again for his friend.
"Help me get him up," Thendras rasped, pulling at his brother's jacket. "I must get him home."
Numbly, Aragorn dragged Legolas to his feet and aided his brother in getting him seated on the horse. Thendras scrambled up behind him, wrapping his arms around Legolas' waist, and then they were gone, racing down the trail as a stunned Aragorn stumbled against a tree and sank to the earth, burying his face in his hands.
* * * *
It was dark when he crept silently into Thranduil's palace. The place was a boiling chaos of activity. Cries of grief rent the air and choked voices were raised in song, but they broke down into weeping before getting very far. Servants scurried about as if in desperate hope that carrying out their usual activities would somehow make things right again. Aragorn pressed his way past a knot of warriors holding a hushed council in the corridor, their low voices shocked and angry, and they parted to let him by. He entered his room and gathered his gear.
There was nothing he could do. He could not help. Legolas' room was empty, and to try to approach him now would be impossible. And unwise. The elf was sequestered with his family, and there was no place for Aragorn there. He was an outsider. And so he had left a note, telling the archer where he could be found, and a few minutes later he was outside again, sadly making his way along the deeper trails leading away from the palace of Thranduil and the devastated elves of Mirkwood.
He camped in a small clearing some miles off, in a place that he and Legolas frequented, and three nights later his friend found him there, walking soundlessly into the ring of light thrown out by the campfire and sitting beside him. The young elf did not speak, nor did he look at the ranger. He sat silently, and for hours he gazed with unseeing eyes at the dance of the fire, the exhausted planes of his face standing out sharply in the red glow and heat of the flames, and Aragorn sat beside him.
Then the elf raised his grief-ravaged face to the dark sky and began to sing. And he did not stop. All that night, and all the next day, and all the following night he sang, and the tears ran from his eyes. Aragorn kept the fire going, and he draped his cloak over the elf's shoulders when the night air grew cold, and he brewed tea and offered it, but Legolas did not drink, nor did he move his gaze from the stars. His voice continued to pour like a river, hoarse and without hope.
At the coming of the second dawn he faltered at last, and the singing stopped. The dull blue eyes met Aragorn's. "You must go," the elf whispered.
"I do not want to go."
"Today we hunt them. Our warriors have been being tracking the orcs northward." Legolas cleared his throat and coughed, wincing. "My brothers and I, and our father, will ride with them."
"Let me come with you. Let me help."
The elf put a hand up to push back a lock of tangled hair. He shook his head. "Thank you, Aragorn. But this is our business. You cannot stay here." He rose slowly to his feet, and Aragorn wept to see the bleak emptiness in Legolas' tormented eyes. He bowed his head, his body trembling with sorrow as his friend embraced him.
"Ai, Legolas… I am so sorry. What can I do?"
"Come back to me in the spring Aragorn, when the flowers return. Help me with her garden."
"I will, my friend."
He watched as the elf retreated and vanished into the shadows of the trees, slowly making his way back to a home where love had died and arms of terrible loneliness were the only things that waited to embrace him now.
* * * *
Aragorn shifted wearily, his eyes cloudy and blurred with memory. Legolas slept again, but his sleep was restless, punctuated with soft whimpers, and his eyes roamed back and forth constantly beneath closed lids. Dark night had fallen, and the ranger rose stiffly. He crouched before the dying fire, reaching to poke it back to life. As he did so a soft sound came to him, and he turned his head, suddenly alert and wary. A quiet step was heard outside the door, and a quiet rustling noise accompanied it.
The ranger rose silently to his full height and slid to the window, pressing his back against the wall at the foot of the elf's bed, all his attention directed toward the darkness outside. He thought he caught a glimpse of a slight shadow moving away, retreating quickly into the trees, and he spun and yanked open the door. He leaped out, but the shadow was gone.
A vague, lumpy shape lay at his feet, and he bent down to examine it. With an exclamation of amazement he picked it up and carried it inside. Placing the bundle on the table, he unwrapped it. The folded piece of cloth, tattered but clean, fell away from its contents, and he extracted a loaf of bread and several apples. He raised them in his hands, gazing at them in perplexed wonder. Stepping to the door he put his head out again, frowning as his eyes scanned the black forest, but he could see nothing.
This was the second time. Three mornings ago had been the first, when he had awakened and stepped outside to stumble over a carefully wrapped package that had been left on the doorstep during the night. Within it had been several small honey cakes and a wedge of cheese.
Mystified, he shook his head. Who was doing this? And why? The gifts were most welcome, but he very much wanted to know the identity of the giver. And though he did not sense danger, he wanted to know the reason.
But he was weary, and it would not do to drive himself further into exhaustion by pondering on things he did not understand. Perhaps tomorrow would bring answers. Legolas' latest nightmare had been a hard one for both of them, and the ranger recognized his need for sleep. He moved quietly about the cottage, readying himself for bed and putting out the lamp. Lying on his pallet of straw, which he had arranged permanently on the other side of the hearth, he closed his eyes.First > Previous > Next