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Roots: 1. Meeting in Mirkwood
As for the other, the stooped, crawling figure on a halter seemed more beast than being, and Legolas grimaced in distaste, wondering what it was. The boundaries of Thranduil's realm lay still some miles north of this point, and it was sheer chance that had brought him to this place, for he had been tracking Wargs all the night before without success. Today's hunt had been equally profitless, until now.
Instead of Wargs, I find a pair of vagabonds! But what are they and whence come they? Now, he lifted his gaze to the stern figure crouched at his side and asked softly, "What make you of these two, Aradhil?"
Aradhil, a Warden of Mirkwood experienced in the hunt and for many years now Legolas's teacher and chief advisor, frowned and raised a hand, palm upward. "I know not, my prince. And after the appearance of thirteen Dwarves and one hobbit nigh upon eighty years ago, I thought I had seen all that the forest had to offer by way of oddity!" The other paused, considering the apparitions, and then added, "Do they think to hide from us, by risking the trees rather than taking the road?"
"Nay," Legolas replied, turning his attention back to the wanderers. "Nay, I think not. See, the one knows well how to move in a forest, but he makes no effort to keep to cover. And so for all that he goes quietly, it seems to me clear that he does not mean to conceal himself. You are certain you have not seen him before?"
"He is no Lakeman, and certainly no hobbit!" the other responded. "And though I cannot be certain from here, I think he is not an Elf, either. As for the other, I cannot hazard a guess, my prince."
"Well, we shall soon discover the truth," Legolas said, feeling automatically for the knife at his belt as he gave Aradhil a mischievous smile. "Hold your place here, and I shall flush our quarry, as it were!"
"Carefully, your highness! I would not want to explain myself to your father should anything happen to you," Aradhil cautioned. But he obeyed, and even gave a slight smile as he watched the younger Elf drop silently to the earth and disappear amid the trees, for after so many centuries' association, he knew well that the other could never resist a mystery. Fortunately, Thranduil's youngest son was also handy with a blade and well-able to take care of himself.
And if it should prove otherwise this time, still he will be safe enough, for I have not missed a shot since the fall of Eregion! Aradhil thought with a predator's complacent confidence as he bent his bow and took aim.
Waiting in the deep shadows for which Mirkwood was justly famous, Legolas held himself perfectly still. For though he was now nearly certain that the other was not an Elf, the very fact that he could doubt his own judgment in such a matter argued for the utmost respect for the other's abilities. It would not do, after all, for a Wood-Elf and a prince to betray himself through sheer carelessness, particularly not against an unwitting opponent.
So he crouched and waited eagerly for the other's approach to bring him near enough for Legolas to judge better with what and whom he dealt. Already, his sharp ears had detected a low, steady stream of whimpering, interspersed with muttered, thickly-accented words, and an occasional sound that seemed to him as a sick frog croaking. As for the other, over that mumbling litany, even Legolas could hear nothing of his soft-footed movements, which was on the one hand frustrating but on the other quite intriguing.
The pair drew nearer, almost even with Legolas, and the prince grimaced. Cautiously, he began to creep along a parallel track, following by sound alone. Not that that is any great feat! he thought, wrinkling his nose at the disgusting and pervasive noises. What is that creature? I would stop them here and prevent this stranger from bringing that… thing… into my father's realm, but that I know naught of his motives. And, the Elf admitted silently, with a slight smile, I enjoy this too much! 'Tis a change, and a novelty, and that is saying much, even for one so young as I! Of course, at some point, pleasure would have to submit to necessity, and he and Aradhil would reveal themselves, but for the moment, Legolas was more than willing to be entertained.
Through the clinging brush and the concealing trees, he slipped in secret, unremarked by his quarry, and he knew that Aradhil followed circumspectly through the branches of the trees. Once in a while, he would even catch a stray glimpse of the warden, but Aradhil had many more years on the hunt than had he, and could elude even a prince if he so desired. In any case, Legolas paid him little heed, still intent upon guessing the other's identity. And it seemed to him that though the other was certainly a stranger, he seemed to have some idea of his path, for at intervals, he would pause a moment, take his bearings, and then continue on in a more or less north-westerly direction, heading straight for the heart of Thranduil's realm.
So he must know someone who has been here before, for his path cannot be an accident. But whom? Though not unacquainted with some of the Men of Laketown and Dale, Legolas yet knew that the Bardings would not dare the woods. If their business brought them into the forest to deal with Elves, they went ever to the Signpost that Thranduil's folk had built nigh upon eighty years ago, after the dragon had been slain. It was no more than a simple, rune-etched stone around which grew plants not native to the forest but blessed by the Elves to flourish nonetheless… and it gave no information as to the location of the halls of the king of Mirkwood. Legolas could think of no others outside of hidden Imladris who would know the way through the perilous woods, yet this wanderer did not carry himself like a herald, and there was still the question of his race.
Just then, a bird chirped in the west, and Legolas froze, recognizing that call. Not Aradhil, but another group of hunters sweeping eastward. The coded message contained in that bit of mimicry alerted other members of the hunting party of something unusual in the woods, and Legolas grimaced, for clearly the newcomers knew nothing of their comrades' intentions.
Aradhil had obviously reached the same conclusion, for from behind and above the prince came a second call as the forest warden warned the others off. Legolas, meanwhile, realized that the stranger had ceased to move upon hearing the signals, and as the Elf cautiously peered up through the brush, he saw that the other was staring up towards Aradhil's last position. Slowly, he turned westward again, towards the first set of calls, and then made a complete circuit of the area, turning in place, grey eyes seeking intently after the source of the false voices. Thranduil's youngest son narrowed his eyes at that, surprised to have been given away by signals that regularly fooled orcs. Or perhaps he truly is an Elf, to be able to tell the difference. But then would he not —?
He had no time even to complete the question in his own mind, for at that moment, his quarry spoke, sounding weary beyond measure but amused nonetheless: "Greetings from Mithrandir, who assured me of the good will of the Elves of Mirkwood!"
Mithrandir! Legolas turned to where he knew Aradhil remained hidden, but short of revealing themselves, neither could ask the question that burned now in their minds. And Aradhil would not come forth until Legolas did, for the decision was properly his to make.
After a moment's further consideration, curiosity won over caution, and Legolas unfolded from his hiding place and stepped lightly into the open. And since the stranger had at least a courteous tongue in his head, the prince spread his arms and bowed slightly, in a manner that bespoke politeness while expressing also uncertainty as to the other's station.
Certainly, the other looked the part of the vagabond: his clothes were quite travel-stained, his beard unkempt, and he had pulled his hair back into a queue simply to keep it out of his face. Mud caked his boots, a blood-stained bandage was wrapped about one hand, and he evinced a profound weariness such as comes only to those who have journeyed far and hard. And yet despite his rather rough and bedraggled appearance, there was in his eyes and manner an aura that whispered of nobility, and of a shrewd heart. And there is something… familiar… about him, Legolas thought, eyeing the stranger shrewdly, though he could not place him either.
Aloud, he said, "'Tis a rare stranger who speaks the tongue of the Elves. And he who speaks the name of Mithrandir with reverence is always welcome in the kingdom of Thranduil." Legolas spoke casually, with a hint of amusement in his voice, but his gaze rested intently upon the other, who endured his stare with an equanimity that the Elf found quite astonishing. No Man had ever willingly met his eyes for more than a few brief moments, and the prince wondered at that poise. For now that he had heard the other speak, it was certain that he was mortal, though his was a voice that had many more layers to it than an Elf would expect of a Man. "Tell me, what are these greetings? For we had not expected any messengers."
"And I had not expected to be one," the Man replied with a slight smile. "Nevertheless, if you have not heard, Mithrandir has gone away upon some errand in the south, to Minas Tirith in Gondor, I believe. In coming here, I do but fulfill our agreement in the matter of one Gollum," at which name, the creature hissed menacingly, and Legolas grimaced slightly, "and I was told King Thranduil had no objections to my presence or his."
"Who are you?" Legolas asked, scrutinizing the other's face. "The king did indeed send word to all who protect this forest that one might come bearing a prisoner to be held in our dungeons, but that was eight years ago and I was given no name."
"Aragorn, son of Arathorn and Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North am I," replied the Man, and tired grey eyes flicked over Legolas' person with quiet intensity. "No name were you given, for Mithrandir and I had not planned to make our separate ways here when we began our hunt. And since then, neither of us has had the time to journey north to Mirkwood when business called southwards or westwards. But that is a tale that may wait for a time. For the moment, I ask only your leave to pass through this realm to Thranduil's halls."
"That at least I may grant you," Legolas responded, raising a hand to beckon Aradhil from the trees. A moment later, the warden appeared at their side, having dropped easily from the branches above. "Go ahead of us, and take the message to the king. Return as swiftly as you may, and I shall accompany our… guests." The prince glanced down at Gollum with some distaste ere he raised his eyes once more to Aragorn's exhausted face.
"As you wish, my prince." Sketching a bow, the other hurried away, though not without a backwards glance at the Man.
"'My prince?'" Aragorn echoed, raising a dark brow and clearing his throat when his voice cracked hoarsely from exhaustion.
"I am Legolas, Thranduil's son," said the Elf. "Forgive me, I forget myself sometimes, for guests are uncommon and the day has been full of surprises, which has not happened for some time." He felt compelled to explain the lapse in his manners, then motioned that they should continue walking. At his invitation, the Ranger fell in at his side, dragging the muttering Gollum along with them.
"Granted, of course, if you will excuse me as well, for I knew not with whom I spoke, and the road has been difficult such that I did not think to ask," said the other, shaking his head in mild self-reproval. "But come, tell me, if you will, what brings you so far? Admittedly, it has been some years—more than I care to acknowledge!—since last I heard of the dealings of the Elves of Mirkwood, but if I am not mistaken, we have not yet crossed the southern borders of Thranduil's realm."
"You are correct," Legolas informed him. "We have some miles ere we come to the edge of my father's kingdom. Aradhil and I came hunting a small pack of Wargs some two days ago. Alas, we have thus far met with no success, though at least our enemies are once more beyond the pale, as it were."
Aragorn gave a soft grunt at that, and murmured, "As are many others who deserve them not. Ah well! 'Tis ever so, and we all have our limits."
"And you seem to have reached yours, son of Arathorn," Legolas said, steadying the other as he stumbled a bit.
"Truly, I have!" the Ranger replied, pressing a hand over his eyes for a moment ere he shook his head and proffered a weary smile at the Elf. "And I relish the notion that for a time it matters not." At that moment, Gollum hissed softly and gave a rather skittish hop to one side and then crouched there, staring as he sniffed suspiciously. That caused Aragorn to scowl at him an instant ere he turned his attention to the surrounding trees. "Did you hear aught?" he asked after a moment.
"Nay, nothing," Legolas replied, pausing to listen more carefully. All about, the woods were silent, and there were no other creatures to be seen…. As one, Elf and Man drew their blades, suspicious of the preternatural stillness that had fallen.
"You said you hunted Wargs?" the Ranger inquired, and in an instant he seemed to have left exhaustion behind. His voice hardened and grew sharper, but with that edge of polite inquiry that bespoke a man unaccustomed to panic.
"We did. Is this Gollum friendly with such creatures?"
"I think he is friendly with nothing, but he may take the opportunity to run," the Man replied, resheathing his dagger. In a sudden and unexpected move, the Ranger lunged, grabbed the miserable prisoner by the scruff of the neck and fell upon him. But Sméagol writhed like a snake, squirming out of the other's grasp more than once, and the elven prince danced aside as their flailing battle rolled his way.
Were it not for the sheer ferocity of the fight, it might have been comic, but Legolas found himself amazed by Gollum's slithering resistance. It was almost two minutes ere Aragorn was finally able to bind his legs, and by then both he and Gollum were thoroughly mussed and dusty, and the Ranger had a new set of scratches along his left temple. Despite the danger, Legolas could not quite suppress his vast amusement at the sight of the other's dishevelment, but under Aragorn's disgruntled glare, he gave a slight shrug and offered a hand up by way of apology.
"Will that hold him?" the Elf queried, returning his attention to the forest.
"It had better!" Aragorn muttered threateningly, and the dagger reappeared in his hand.
Minutes passed in a wholly unnatural silence, and Elf and Man stood back to back with Gollum huddled pathetically between them for safe-keeping. And slowly, the feeling of another, malign presence grew upon them as they waited.
Eyes ranging over the greenery in careful search, Legolas said in a low voice, "They are all around us."
"I feel it," the other replied grimly.
"Then good luck, son of Arathorn, for I have never before hunted Wargs with a Man," the prince replied, wishing suddenly that he had. For scarcely had he ended his thought than the trees exploded in snarling, bristling fury and the shadows disgorged large wolf-shapes that rushed in unerringly for the trio. Gollum gave a high-pitched squeal of terror, which neither of his captors heeded having no time to spare from their desperate fight to survive.
Legolas met the first Warg head on, for he dared not duck lest its trajectory carry it straight into Aragorn from behind. A quick slash took the creature's eyes out, and he thrust it aside in time to turn to the next pair of opponents who rushed in, one from the side, the other head on. The Elf ducked low, sweeping his blade outward to force the one to swerve and then thrust upward, catching the second in the belly in mid-leap. The Warg's momentum did the rest, and the Elf grimaced as hot blood and entrails splashed him.
A second shadow passed over him and then another Warg tumbled to the earth to lie motionless. A howl caught his attention, and as the Elf rolled out of his crouch, he reached unerringly for bow and arrow, pressed, aimed, and released all in a heartbeat. Something glittered in the air, and the last Warg gave a choking, gargling roar as it fell, the impact dislodging the blade that had sunk into its throat a good inch, though the barbed arrowhead remained embedded in its chest.
Legolas turned in a half-circle, scanning the trees, seeking to make certain that the danger had passed ere he lowered his bow. Pulling his blade from the earth where he had left it, he wiped it on a wolf's pelt and sheathed it. Then he raised his eyes to the Ranger who was retrieving his dagger from the last Warg's throat, and the Elf raised a pale brow as Aragorn drew first one dagger and then another along the hem of his already stained cloak.
"Whence came that?" the Elf asked, motioning to the second blade, whose intricate metalwork bore the distinctive signature of elvish handiwork.
"A gift from my brothers," the Ranger replied, tucking the etched dagger away into a sheath at the small of his back. Then, with a sigh, he sat heavily upon the ground, slumping back against a convenient tree trunk, and he gave Legolas a slight smile. "Fortunately for us both, I have hunted with Elves before and know somewhat of their style of combat." He surveyed the carnage, counting the bodies, and asked, "Seven. Is that all of them?"
"Indeed, I believe so," Legolas affirmed, making his own count as he wiped blood from his face. Gore-smeared strands of golden hair clung still to his cheeks and brow, and the prince sighed softly. "Aradhil will not be best pleased, I fear, to learn of this incident!" A pause, then: "Does your wound give you pain?"
For the Ranger was cradling his left wrist and flexing the fingers of his injured hand as if in some discomfort. But at Legolas' frowning inquiry, he shook his head and the Elf got the impression that the other was somewhat embarrassed. "It is not serious, only troublesome."
"How came you by that?" the Elf asked, gliding over to see for himself.
"Sheer carelessness!" Aragorn responded disgustedly, and arched a severe brow at Gollum. "I thought him tame enough to take the gag off, and he promptly bit me! For a creature so decrepit and nearly toothless, he uses what he has to great advantage." Legolas, gazing at the deeply stained bandage, was quite willing to believe it.
"You were fortunate, then, that he did not sever the tendons or break any bones."
"Well do I know it, though for a moment, I thought he had," the Ranger replied. Then, letting fall his arm, he took one last look at the crumpled forms that littered the clearing, and murmured, "They grow bolder with the years. An attack in full daylight on the edge of a land guarded by Elves—who in former times would have believed such audacity?"
"Ah, but 'tis never full day beneath these trees, not since Dol Guldûr rose. Not since the Dark Lord reclaimed his title," the prince replied regretfully. Then he shook himself, throwing off the mood as only an Elf could, and said, "But come, if you are now rested! We have still many miles to walk, and then you may rest for as long as you like. In the meanwhile, I shall see to Gollum for a time, if you will."
"May he well become you!" Aragorn snorted, though he was only too glad to let another have the care of the foul creature for a time. And as he spoke, he climbed wearily to his feet once more though his back and legs ached. But he refused to complain, recognizing in Legolas that peculiar charm that comes of elvish youthful irrepressibility which knows little indeed of mortal limitations. "Fifty days have I borne his company, and glad would I be if I never set eyes on him again." At which Gollum gave a threatening hiss and resumed his muttering. And Legolas, eyeing the wretch warily, said:
"I think he feels likewise." Stooping, he untied the other enough so that he could walk. "This way, then!" With that, he plunged into the forest, and the three of them began the long walk back to the halls of the king. The Dúnadan followed, and for a time they walked without speaking, though Legolas kept a careful if circumspect watch on him, noting the way the other moved. Very like to an Elf indeed, and yet at the same time quite different, now that I have a clearer view. Who taught him his forest craft, I wonder ? If Aragorn noticed the Elf's discreet observation, he said nothing, seeming lost in his own thoughts, and the Elf did not disturb him.
At length, though, as they passed the unmarked southern border of his father's kingdom, Legolas said casually, "You said that dagger was a gift from your brothers." And when Aragorn gave a curt nod, he continued, "I fear that I know few of those who call Elrond 'lord', and most of them but by reputation for there is little traffic among our peoples these days. Yet perhaps I know of them. What are their names?"
"You may indeed know of them," the other replied with a slight smile. "For they are Elrond's sons, Elrohir and Elladan. We came here once when I was still quite young, though it was but a brief visit and I spoke very little."
But Legolas, upon hearing that, uttered a low oath of astonishment. Turning bright, intense eyes on the other, he stared, recalling that visit, and the very young lad who had remained quietly in the background. "You were Estel of Imladris!"
Aragorn, for his part, turned a bemused look upon the Elf, and said, "You have a better memory than I, for I fear I do not recall you at all."
"You would have had little reason to remember me, for a fourth son has little standing when his brothers are present. I stood with the Wardens of the Forest that day, rather than at my father's side." Legolas shook his head, amazed and delighted by the coincidence. "I knew not then that you were aught else but an Elf, for you said not a word before the court proper, and I went away late that night, to return only after you and the others had left. Nevertheless, I recall the name, for Tharinsal found it unusual and mentioned it later."
"And is Tharinsal still your father's heir?" Aragorn inquired cautiously, hearing in the other's voice a certain melancholy note that he had learned quite young to respect.
"Nay, for he forsook Middle-earth some sixty-five years ago, shortly after the Battle of Erebor, which the Bardings call the Battle of Five Armies," Legolas said softly, and not without chagrin. "It needed not even the sea to call him: the sight of Esgaroth was enough!"
"A pity indeed," Aragorn replied, risking a brief, comforting touch upon the other's shoulder, knowing too well himself the sense of loss that came of being left ever behind. For each year in Imladris, there were fewer Elves, and there were days when he could not remember all of those who had left for the havens even within the relatively short span of his own life. Yet those of Imladris are mostly Noldor, by descent at the least, and many recall the waves upon the shores. For a Wood-Elf to be lured away from the forest by a lake bespeaks a strong desire indeed, or else a particularly weak attachment to Middle-earth.
And since Legolas seemed still mournful, he added, "For long, I feared that one day I would wake to find that Elladan and Elrohir had left. For a child who lost his father ere ever he knew him, and who grew up away from other children, that was a terrifying thought. But there are some friendships and ties that may not be abandoned while they last, not for any sea-longing, however powerful."
"Alas, I fear then that Tharinsal had no such ties!"
"Perhaps not, but that is not a measure of your heart, and you have still time to forge such for yourself," Aragorn replied, which earned him that peculiarly elvish scrutiny that seemed likely to strip a man to the bones. But he did not flinch, having learned to endure such looks early on, and after a long, silent moment, Legolas gave a soft grunt and said:
"I have never known a mortal who knew aught of an Elf's desire for the sea. Or who would dare to mention it, even." A pause, and then the Elf asked, in a tone that bespoke at once youthful hesitancy and a genuine curiosity, "Are all of your people so wise?"
"Most are wise enough not to speak of such things," Aragorn replied with a slight smile, and Legolas laughed softly.
"Well answered! You could have been an Elf indeed." Legolas paused. "And what of you, Aragorn? Does a Ranger grow weary of Middle-earth?"
"Weary of fighting, yes. But weary of Arda," Aragorn considered that for a few moments ere he said slowly, "All mortal creatures tire of her, if what I have been taught is true. But the sea cures nothing, for in the end, it is still of Arda, and it shall never take us beyond her."
After that, they fell silent, and for a long while, the only sound to be heard, other than the noises of the daytime forest, were the muttered imprecations of Gollum, who wandered, lost, in the miserable world of his own crafting. But Man and Elf alike ignored him, preoccupied with their own concerns and thoughts.
The measure of my heart, Legolas thought, feeling the notion resonate within him. It seems odd to say that I know it not, but in truth, I do not. I would not have expected such a revelation to come at the hands of a Man, but then, I would not have expected today to be so fruitful in terms of surprises either! Five hundred and seventeen years weighed suddenly heavy on the soul of a young Elf—a feeling of age that jarred him, as if he had suddenly been torn from the slow cycle of elvish growth and made forcibly aware of the swift wearing of the years by Aragorn's presence and words.
For an Elf, such disruptions are never without cost, but then, maturity, too, must be paid for and comes not without pain. Legolas let his eyes drift almost shut, 'til the world assumed a golden cast as he gazed out from beneath his lashes and let settle the stirred sediments of his soul. As the shifting of the earth, that feeling seemed to him, and though he knew not yet whither it would lead, he welcomed the bone-deep certainty that something new had begun within him.
Yes… there will be time for such friendships as he speaks of, for how shall I leave when I have been just now reborn? "Will you stay in Mirkwood long?" he asked hopefully of a sudden, and Aragorn shrugged slightly.
"With your father's permission, I would stay for awhile, for the journey has been a hard one. And I hope that perhaps Mithrandir shall hear of my passage and come hither," Aragorn replied, somewhat surprised by how quickly the other seemed to have taken to him, for it might take many years for an Elf so young to begin to take an interest in a Man. Perhaps it was simply an intimation of the climax towards which the Third Age rushed—an ending that would destroy the slow-lived dream time of the Elves—that let Legolas mature more swiftly than was elvish wont. For the young of all our races grow up swiftly in the face of troubled times, the Ranger thought with a certain regret. But then again, there is about Legolas something that hints of the unexpected… of the extraordinary, even!
"Good," Legolas replied softly just then. "For I would learn more of you, ere you leave again for the wide lands beyond." For of a sudden, Mirkwood feels constricted, bounded, and though I love this forest, I would learn to see beyond it!
And Aragorn, sensing the other's thoughts, smiled and chuckled softly. "The world is wide indeed, my friend, and if you would learn of me, then you may have to go far beyond your father's halls." He met the Elf's bright green eyes once again, but this time it was he whose gaze was measuring, and Legolas cocked his head, as if uncertain what to make of the other's weighty stare. But he did not look away, and when Aragorn asked, "What say you?" the Elf replied:
"That when the time comes, I shall go."
"Are you certain of that? Time effaces the ties that we have to Middle-earth, and one who has not roots deep within his native soil will swiftly be lost!"
"Fear not for me, then," Legolas replied with a slight, yet serious, smile. Aragorn was silent awhile, once more considering the Elf, but finally, he, too, grinned and shook his head.
"Then may the road be long, my friend. May it be long and profitable indeed!"
As, indeed, it was, for it was not the sea that separated at last Elessar of Gondor from Legolas of Ithilien, but the tides of time alone defined the long and wandering path of their friendship.
A/N: The oft-asked question: Is there a canonical basis for Legolas's age?
The answer: No. Only that we know he must have seen at least five hundred years according to his words in TTT, "The King of the Golden Hall" and that Fangorn makes him feel young as he has not felt since he joined the Fellowship. I'm taking that very broadly in conjunction with an intriguing notion suggested by Michael Martinez that Legolas might represent the last of elvish 'youth.'
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