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Roots: 3. Conflicted
The old moon lay cradled in the new, riding high above the trees as dawn drew nearer, and Aragorn breathed in the scent of wet earth and pine as he gazed up at the night sky. He stood once more upon the balcony outside of his chambers, leaning against the railing and indulging in the luxury of having naught to do but star-watch and let his thoughts flow freely. Two days he had been in Mirkwood—well, four, if one counted the two days that he had slept through—and both had been passed in Legolas' company. Indeed, after their viewing of Dol Guldur, Legolas had acceded to Aragorn's request to see Mirkwood with such enthusiasm that the pair had not returned to the palace that evening.
"Mirkwood by night is not to be missed!" Legolas had replied when Aragorn had hinted that perhaps they ought to return. "And I have no duty for a time, so there is no need to hurry. We could not see all of Mirkwood even in a month, but a winter's eve in the forest is worth the time. Tomorrow we shall return." And Aragorn, having likewise no duty, had bowed to the other's high spirits—not to mention his own whim—and spent the night following Legolas about eastern Mirkwood. "I prefer the north, myself," the elven prince had confided, "But perhaps you would prefer it here."
He had said nothing more on the subject, and the Ranger had had to smother a laugh at the implied reasoning: Legolas, concerned to keep his guest in good spirits, thought he might feel safer in a more or less familiar region of the forest. And that is true enough, but I have spent many a night in unfamiliar surroundings and learned to appreciate their beauty anyway! But Aragorn had not commented upon the other's unspoken rationale, for that consideration bespoke a sensitivity to another's limitations that would serve him well when he eventually left Mirkwood.
If only he learns to be somewhat less clumsy in the attempt, that is, Arathorn's son smiled slightly, thinking of Imladris and his brothers. Elladan and Elrohir had seen thirteen generations of his ancestors through their earliest and most vulnerable years, and they went often with the Rangers upon forays into orc dens and upon other, more hazardous missions. They had each of them more experience with humans than almost any other Elf born in the Third Age, and yet Aragorn clearly remembered a number of instances in which the inborn confidence of the Elves in their own strength (and the corresponding lack of faith in the strength of others) had strained their relationship. Of course, many of those times occurred after I developed into a head-strong thirteen year-old! the Ranger conceded with a slight smile for the eager child he had been.
But though he readily admitted that he bore a measure of responsibility for those relatively few periods of real resentment, he knew that the twins were not blameless. For there were other Elves in Rivendell who, despite millennia of existence, had never learned to see Men as anything but a weaker race, which in their minds meant that humans were less worthwhile. That attitude was not meant to be insulting, but that singularly elvish arrogance was the more difficult to overcome precisely because it was in many ways justified.
For we are weaker, and more prone to lose our way in times of difficulty, Aragorn thought, tearing his eyes from the sky to gaze out into the dark depths of the forest. And confronted with an Elf, there are few men who know enough now to treat with them without either fear or worship. Ah well! At least I seem to have made an impression on Legolas, and that is something.
It was more than 'something' in fact, for while Aragorn knew a few of the younger Elves of Imladris, he had never had much opportunity to interact with them.
For although he had been drawn to them when he had been a boy, feeling often out of his depth among Elrond's intimate associates, they were not concerned with a human child; and by the time he had reached his majority at twenty, Aragorn had been somewhat too worldly to be overly eager to join those who seemed utterly disinterested in the lands that lay outside of Imladris. I remember watching them after my first campaign, Aragorn thought. I was fifteen, and still in shock, I think, over the fact of my survival. As we crossed Bruinen, one of them—Lindir, I believe it was—called down to us from the trees and laughed at how weary and downcast we seemed. And in that moment, he was so utterly alien to me that I was disgusted. How could anyone laugh after what I had seen and done?
It had taken decades of pain and struggle for him to begin to appreciate anew the ability to be wholly content with but one patch of land, or a passing season, or even a single leaf. Thus Legolas was not the only one who found their relationship novel, for the Ranger had never managed to befriend so young an Elf before; and it woke in him an oddly paternal tenderness to watch the prince go through the slow process of waking to the world that he had gone through more than three score years ago.
Of course, being elvish, Legolas's wakening did not follow the same course that Aragorn's had, but that very difference was part of what made their burgeoning friendship satisfying to the Ranger. Among his own people, Aragorn could easily sit for hours in silence if only because the Dúnedain, and the Rangers in particular, were accustomed to value it, knowing that their lives depended upon remaining hidden. Conversation tended to be sparse in the wild, and much was conveyed by gesture, expression, and the other myriad clues of body language and sympathetic reaction.
But although camaraderie and even good humor were hardly foreign to such wordless interaction, he had never had a companion who could, without moving a muscle or smiling overtly, evince such a profound joy in the simple act of sitting together in silence. Nor have I spent so much time in a tree since I was ten! He and Legolas had climbed up an ancient fir whose broad branches were ideal for star-gazers; and while the still hour after midnight had trickled slowly away, they had sat there, alternately watching the sky, the forest, or each other. Not a word, no audible hint of their feelings had passed between them, and yet Aragorn had rarely been so content as an adult.
As Legolas had shifted his gaze from stars to trees to the Ranger, the moonlight would occasionally flash in those green eyes, or touch upon his hair, and Aragorn had wondered how he seemed to the other. As an anomaly, doubtless— or rather, an enigma. He has not yet the gravity of other Elves, and I can endure his long looks more easily, but his curiosity is the more aggressive for that. His gaze is interested and disinterested at once, a combination of passion and science that I have never felt before in an Elf.
To be the sole object of such active attention, even if only for a little while, was at once wearing and strangely exhilarating, and Aragorn gave a soft sigh as he watched an owl glide gracefully amid the branches of the trees, calling out its mournful cry as it went. We all of us search for another to trust in this night!
So deep was he in his own thoughts that instinct was somewhat slow to make itself felt, but at length it came to him that he was not alone. And though Legolas was his first suspect, something spoke against the obvious conclusion. Whoever it was made no effort to alert Aragorn to his or her presence, though upon second thought, the Ranger dismissed the possibility of a female visitor. This might be a common balcony, but so far as he could tell, he was the only guest housed near it, and it seemed to be a lesser walkway, dead-ending rather than curving around to burrow back into the mountainside again.
After waiting some moments longer to give the other a more than reasonable chance to declare himself, the Ranger straightened up and turned very deliberately, letting his visitor know that he was quite well aware of his existence. Before him stood an Elf, and after a moment's scrutiny in the dim light of the lanterns, Aragorn bowed gracefully. "Your majesty," he said respectfully, and watched as Thranduil acknowledged his salute with a slight smile and an inclination of his head.
"Aragorn of Arnor," the other replied, watching him closely. The king of the Elves of Mirkwood glided forward, placing his hands lightly upon the thin stone rail as he gazed out into the forest-clad slopes. "It has been many years since your last visit to my halls."
"It has indeed," the Ranger said, uncertain of the other's purpose.
"They have wrought many changes in the boy that I recall, if I may say so," Thranduil said, and if there were a touch of amusement in his voice, there was also an edge as of foreboding disapproval and melancholy that Aragorn's sharp ears did not miss.
"The world flows swiftly by outside of Mirkwood and Imladris," Aragorn replied neutrally. "And I am not an Elf, to resist the current of time for even a decade, your majesty."
"True enough, and I fear that nothing that is remains untouched by the waning of the Third Age, Mirkwood least of all, alas!" Thranduil said, and the melancholy grew stronger in his voice. "Your coming shall not be without effect upon this realm, for sooner or later, all that moves in this forest is known to the watcher in Dol Guldur."
"Mithrandir warned me of that, and I would expect no less. How much time have we, your majesty?" Aragorn asked, welcoming the chance to turn to business rather than continue along a half-guessed path, though he would still need to keep his guard up. For if it comes to the matter of Gollum, I may not speak of it!
"I cannot say with certainty. It may be that your coming is already known to those of the tower. Or it may be that your own actions have bought us all some time, for the destruction of the Wargs has silenced at least some of the enemy's spies. And once you crossed our borders, the power of Dol Guldur to discern your purpose and dealings was greatly reduced. I hope only for a period of respite and that Mithrandir shall arrive soon and during that lull."
"As do I, but I fear I cannot hazard a guess as to when he may come. I know his errand, but whether it will be successful is another matter," Aragorn admitted, thinking to himself that Thranduil's words notwithstanding, Dol Guldur knew of his presence. Or rather of Gollum's. The presence of the Elves might now hamper their enemy's ability to sense the miserable wretch, but then again, it might not.
Though the King of Mirkwood stood still gazing outward at the night, the Dúnadan could feel the quality of the other's attention and knew that Thranduil listened now to his silences, seeking to discern, perhaps, the state of Aragorn's knowledge and whether it was greater than his own. But Aragorn could say nothing of such matters, and continued to speak of Gandalf as if blithely ignorant of Thranduil's attentiveness. "I fear I know not even what would constitute a success or failure."
"A pity," Thranduil responded, turning from the forest to face the Man again. And this time the contest was more pointed, as each strove to evaluate how much had been left unsaid. At length, though, the elven king continued softly, "With the loss of the latest wolf-packs—you found but one, and many other hunting bands reported kills—the master of Dol Guldur is wroth. I can feel his hatred pulse through the earth and surge against our borders. The very trees are bowed before it! He will strike again soon, and as his attacks grow more frequent, the risk of discovery grows."
"Has anyone yet unmasked the commander of the tower, your majesty?"
"We still know not what sort of being governs there, but we think that it must be a Man of some sort," Thranduil sighed, and then raised a brow at Aragorn, "No offense to you, Dúnadan, but what we can discern of him through the rumor of the forest feels more human than aught else."
"But we have no name? Nothing to indicate his origins?"
"Nay, but that whatever this evil is, it resists our attempts to discern its true nature. Perhaps Dol Guldur itself acts as a barrier, for Sauron hid within sight of our realm without rousing suspicion." Thranduil shook his head, disgusted and regretful, then said, "Assuming a messenger was sent immediately to Mordor, I would guess that we have some few weeks, perhaps a month at best, ere the news reaches the Dark Lord. Pray, then, that Mithrandir comes swiftly, for else you shall not get this creature, Gollum, out of the forest at all, I should think."
"I do pray," Aragorn said softly, and with such quiet fervor, that Thranduil gave a soft laugh.
"Indeed, you do. And so do I! For alas, we can do no more, I fear," the elven king sighed, seeming to accept that he would learn nothing new from the Ranger. Then he fell silent, and Aragorn watched him in the darkness, trying to read the other's purpose.
For although their speech together had not been without merit, now that the Elf had apparently let fall the matter of Gollum, it seemed clear to him that Mirkwood's king had other reasons to come alone to speak with a mortal Man. Aragorn hesitated a moment, then quickly decided that the direct approach was in order.
"I thank you for the warning, and if I may be of any service at all during my time here, I would gladly lend my aid wheresoever you deemed it needed," he said, and then paused a split second as Thranduil nodded ere he continued, "But if you will permit, your majesty, I cannot believe that you would come at so late an hour only to speak to me of such matters as may be easily discussed in council or at other times during the day." Thranduil cocked his head at him, and Aragorn felt the probing regard like a brand, but he said nothing, waiting for the king to state his purpose.
"And I perceive from your voice that you know well whereof I would speak," Thranduil said at length and wryly. "Very well! Let us then speak of Legolas." The Elf paused a moment, considering Aragorn in silence, and then he asked, "Know you of Tharinsal?"
"Legolas told me he had departed for Tol Eressëa shortly after my last visit," the Ranger replied.
"Then doubtless he also told you that others of my children also look west. Before their time, I should say, but that all such words begin to lose meaning. The days run short, and our departure draws nearer. But for the moment that concerns me less than does Legolas's grief. For he does grieve, and more than that, he is afraid. Can you understand that?"
There was a certain sharpness to the other's question, an edge to his voice, that made Aragorn stiffen slightly. Legolas is not the only one who grieves or fears! he thought, and so chose his words with great care. "Not as an Elf could, for the sea-longing is not in me. But I suffer its consequences as well, for many whom I love and account as friends are subject to the call of the ocean. And I fear to lose them, though I know well that I must in the end."
"Then you know more than most Men, and that I say is good, for I would not see Legolas suffer from mortal ignorance as well!" Thranduil shook his head and grimaced. "Through his mother, he has much Nandorin blood in him, as do many of my people, though we are now all accounted Sindarin, so mixed are we become. But of all of my children, he was ever the most bound to this forest, and I doubt not that he shall be the last to leave these shores. He has his mother's heart, and I would not see him suffer as she did!" the elven king said in a low tone, his voice taut and grim.
For his part, Aragorn did not miss the significance of the simple past, and his lips tightened in a thin line, for he had not known the fate of Mirkwood's queen. He still could not be certain whether she had departed Middle-earth or life itself, and discretion being the better part of valor, he did not ask. Clearly, Thranduil had yet to recover from their sundering, and a stranger would have to be very foolish indeed to intrude upon his mourning.
After a time, Thranduil looked up, and he caught Aragorn's eyes with his as he continued, in a low, intense voice, "Middle-earth is in Nandorin blood so deeply that the call of the sea is as a tearing pain until it is drowned. I know not what Legolas intends in his pursuit of you, but if he bonds to you, it will sink but another hook into his soul, and make the prospect of his departure the harder to endure. More, he will be tainted with the fear of mortality, and that I would not see. I think it therefore very ill to continue this."
Aragorn had spent many years learning the fine art of dissembling, and six decades of practice came into play in an instant to cover the anger that flared in him. Of the three elvish strongholds in Middle-earth, Thranduil's was the only one with regular contacts with humans. As such, and in spite of Legolas's words earlier, logic would conclude that such obvious prejudice ought to be less deep-rooted here than elsewhere. That one of Thranduil's standing apparently felt no shame in bluntly ordering a mortal to leave off a friendship already begun was in some sense deeply incomprehensible to Aragorn, and the Ranger fought his disappointment but also his indignant anger for the slur.
Calmly, Aragorn! You did not come here to change the hearts of fading Elves—did you not say just that? Drawing a deep breath, the Ranger cast about for some harmless response—something innocuous and reassuring. But whatever Thranduil's opinion of mortals in general and Men in particular, he was still an Elf, and though Aragorn was quite tempted, he could not lie while snared still by the other's gaze.
And perhaps I do not wish to in any case. Mortal ignorance, is it? Then let us at least do without elvish blindness! "Your son's heart is not mine to order, your majesty. If he would hold with me for a season of his life, then I shall not hinder him, for only a fool would lightly refuse such companionship as he offers. And though a father seeks always to protect his children, you cannot spare him this pain: for he has already chosen, and any rebuff that I might make would wound him. If he must suffer hurt for my sake, I would rather he suffer from a friendship lost to time than from one refused."
Thranduil was silent for a long while, and his displeasure was evident in his tight expression and posture. Finally: "Bold words, son of Arathorn!"
"True words, your majesty: the only kind worthy of a king," Aragorn replied softly, arching a dark brow at the other, daring him to recognize the double-meaning there. Two pairs of elven-grey eyes met in a contest of wills, and the Ranger gazed back steadily, refusing to retreat before the other's pained anger. It was hard, though, for in that moment, he was reminded quite strongly of Elrond, when Imladris's lord had learned of his daughter's decision.
I seem to have a talent for coming between fathers and their children. But even forty years ago, Aragorn had refused to bear alone Elrond's blame for another's choice. And though a dangerous gleam flared in Thranduil's eyes, Aragorn remained steadfast in that refusal, for to accept such responsibility deprived Legolas of his dignity no less than it would have deprived Arwen. Still, the silent match wore on, and the air seemed to grow thick between them as Thranduil's pain waxed with the recognition of inevitability. For even were Aragorn to leave that very night, Legolas would follow him; that much was clear to both father and friend, and though the former might delay the hour, eventually, Mirkwood's youngest prince would leave the forest behind.
And so in the end, Thranduil withdrew, looking away quite suddenly, and Aragorn for a moment suffered a peculiar disorientation, as if the world had for an instant ceased to exist and then begun again. It was the mental equivalent of the stagger of an overbalanced swordsman, but he knew well what he felt, and so did not let it affect him noticeably.
The elven king turned his face up to the stars, and to the moon that was now beginning to touch upon the tree tops, as if seeking comfort in the sight. Perhaps the stars did speak to him, for though his voice remained flat and hard, there was yet none of the contempt or raw anger that one might have expected after such a confrontation. "Wisdom comes slowly, and even to the Elves it is not granted once and forever, but must be sought!" he murmured, then lowered his eyes to recapture the Ranger's gaze. "Have you children, Aragorn?" he asked with pointed emphasis on the word.
"No, my lord." That elicited a grunt from the other, who then gave a slight, thin smile as he shook his head.
"A pity, as I said before. Learn from this, then, young one: when your time comes, and your own children choose another path, do not let your love for them bind you to folly!" Thranduil's smile broadened somewhat in the moonlight, sensing Aragorn's surprise at the sudden reversal of his mood and manner. "Have a care with Legolas, for though you have a wisdom that I do not often find in Men, still, he is centuries your senior and head-strong at that, as Aradhil would tell you." If Aradhil would deign to speak with you! The unspoken qualifier was clearly communicated nonetheless, and Aragorn gave a slight shrug for the Warden's contempt.
"I hear and obey, your majesty."
"Good." The king paused, seeming to consider some further matter, and to the Ranger's trained eye, the Elf seemed suddenly and wickedly amused by something. Which might give a wary mortal cause for fear, but in Aragorn the king's shrewd consideration woke only a certain well-placed caution and curiosity. Thranduil cocked his head at him, and nodded, as if the Ranger's equanimity pleased him, and he said briskly, "Tomorrow, Legolas returns to his duties. He shall learn of this in the morning, and I would have you go with him since you have offered your service. If my son would befriend a human, well that he learns your measure in all things. And it will keep him focused," the other admitted wryly. "Will you accept this chore?"
"If you wish it, then gladly."
"I do wish it. Aradhil shall also go, for he has been my son's keeper for longer than Rohan has had a king. I fear he has little use for Men, but you need not fear, for he would not dare to fail in his duty to a comrade, whatever his bloodlines."
"I doubt it not. I know somewhat of elvish pride… and human," Aragorn added pointedly, and Thranduil now held up his hands in a gesture of appeasement.
"Then I need not keep you. Good night, Dúnadan." And with that, the King of Mirkwood strode regally away, disappearing quickly into the darkness of the halls. Aragorn watched him go, turning over that tense conversation in his mind, and at length he gave a soft bark of laughter for the unexpected way that things had turned out. Elves! I shall never cease to be amazed by how changeable an immortal can be. With that, he stretched and offered a silent good night to Varda's skies. And to you, Prince of Mirkwood: sleep well, or sing well— I know not which! But I shall see you on the morrow once more. After a final glance at the moon-lit forest, Aragorn went to bed.
Legolas walked lightly out onto a slender branch, emerging from cover only enough to survey his surroundings without obstruction. To his left, Aradhil perched, bow at the ready should aught threaten his prince, and the other four members of their patrol were spread at staggered intervals and heights behind them. There was nothing unusual in such a deployment, but the group felt tense nonetheless, and the reason was obvious.
"Seven," Aradhil had muttered when the Dúnadan was out of earshot, voicing one of several latent concerns. The number seemed an inauspicious mark that hovered over the patrol, for six, being half of twelve,* was accounted a balanced number, whereas seven was considered in many ways to be the first truly "odd" number: the number of imbalance, of extraneousness, of superfluity. It was a standing excuse for elvish skepticism of the Dwarves that the members of that strange race were of seven houses, descended from seven fathers, and many Elves still shook their heads over the fact that Celebrimbor had made seven dwarven rings. An unlucky number, and one that might have ill consequences for the band indeed!
And of course that Aragorn is mortal has nothing to do with Aradhil's displeasure at all, Legolas thought sarcastically, with a slight smile for the warden's mood. The fact that I have been at the Dúnadan's side all the long hours of the day has done naught to ease him either. For as skilled as the Ranger might be, it was impossible for a mortal to track an Elf through the trees who did not wish to be traced, which had given rise to some discussion ere their departure.
Legolas had at first held forth that the patrol would simply have to show itself from time to time so as not to lose the Ranger. "'Tis an unwarranted risk, my prince," Aradhil had flatly refused to entertain the notion.
"Then one of us must remain at his side as a guide," Legolas had replied cheerfully, though privately he had been irritated by the amount of reluctance that the Warden displayed over the prospect of having Aragorn along with them. Thranduil it was who asked him to come, and if for no other reason than loyalty, he ought not to make so heavy a burden of his duty!
But Aradhil was set in his ways, and Legolas was willing to take advantage of the other's prejudice to suit his own purposes. "I know your reservations well, my friend, and as I would not put you in a setting of which you are not certain, I shall play the part of pathfinder." And so he had. All that day, he had led the Ranger on the ground, ascending to the heights only at intervals to check their position and to get a better look at the land. Aradhil was not well pleased with the solution, and he evinced an obvious dissatisfaction whenever his prince joined them in the trees. But he could scarcely have it both ways; and as Legolas was the most skilled of the group (saving only for the warden himself) and a mortal would obviously need all the help that they could spare, Aradhil could not argue with Legolas' self-appointed role. And if he had, I have still authority over him, the prince thought with a certain grim satisfaction. Besides, even Aradhil should have little to complain of, for Aragorn has not slowed us.
Now, as the prince gazed out at the forest, he nodded sharply to himself, finding the way clear. He signaled Aradhil to stand easy, and gazed about to find Aragorn once more. After a moment, he spotted the other, and using the branches of other trees almost as a staircase, he nimbly made his way back to the earth. Aragorn did not startle at his appearance, intent upon his own observations. Apparently, the Ranger, too, found nothing to alarm him, for he glanced at his companion and quirked a brow as if to ask Shall we continue? Legolas nodded and led the way forward once more.
They were moving swiftly south, having left behind the Forest Road that marked the formal border between Thranduil's realm and the dominion of Dol Guldur. In reality, the Road was merely a convenient way of measuring the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the Elves, for at times, their influence held even south of that pathway; at others, Dol Guldur's shadow lay heavily far north of it. At the moment, even a human could not possibly be insensitive to the feeling of malaise that pulsed, beating against them and radiating outward with steady insistence. What that might mean, none could say with certainty, though all were on edge, expecting attack.
And in spite of the Ranger's obvious skill and ability to adapt to the methods of others, Legolas worried about the prospect of a large skirmish. The others were Elves, and they would adapt quickly enough, but there was always room for error: if Aragorn misjudged the space in which he could safely maneuver, even elvish acumen could not snatch an arrow back once it had been released. Not to think of that, Legolas reminded himself sternly. Thus far, we have found naught. And should that change, I shall still be here to insure that mistakes do not occur.
The land sloped gently but noticeably the further south one went, and now it began to fall away sharply about them. The trees on the incline grew at awkward angles, pressed up against each other for support but also in fierce struggle to reach the light that their dark-leafed branches blocked. Beneath their tangled canopy, the land lay as if in perpetual crepuscular slumber. But the dreams are never pleasant, and one feels something creeping in the darkness that even elvish eyes pierce but with difficulty, Legolas thought, pausing a moment to let his eyes adjust to the gloom.
The gnarled shapes of the trees seemed to float in the distance, their roots lost in the shadowy, clinging underbrush that blended well with the shadows. Nightshade and dull moss, mold and dust populated the spaces between the trees, and some bushes gleamed with blood-red berries so sour that few could endure them. And we must be wary of the cobwebs. The elven prince grimaced fastidiously as he grasped a sticky strand of spider silk and yanked, clearing the stuff from his path. It was not the same sort of web that signaled the presence of the monstrous creatures that would hunt even Elves, but it was best to be cautious for they migrated throughout the forest.
By the time night fell at last, the patrol's spirits were low, and though Aradhil and the others joined their companions on the ground at Legolas's insistence, the Warden was quick to station himself as far from Aragorn as he could manage. The rest of the company was not so obvious about its disaffection, but there was a tension in the air that did not come solely from their surroundings. With a soft sigh, Legolas considered the problem, wondering if there was aught he could do to encourage some sort of resolution, but even an Elf may falter before more than a millennium's worth of accumulated grievance.
Flicking a glance at the lone human in their midst, he noted that Arathorn's son had very quietly settled with his back to a tree and seemed not to notice his isolation. Except that Legolas would sooner believe that the Man could sprout wings, for a Ranger did not live so long as Aragorn without having mastered the art of minutely detailed observation. He knows perfectly well what the others think. I wonder whether he grew accustomed to such prejudice in Imladris? Legolas shook his fair head and dismissed such ponderings. In the end, they mattered less than the reality that confronted him for the first time: that the divide between Elves and Men was deeper and uglier than he had realized.
Were it not for Aradhil's clear rejection of the Ranger, he suspected that the others would have been content to more or less ignore him, and to return courtesy for courtesy, though without ever allowing themselves to grow attached to him in any way. But the warden had great authority, and was older than the prince whom he served, and in this matter at least, the weight of that prominence pulled the rest of the patrol towards a more clearly hostile position with respect to Aragorn. Legolas could do little to offset that prejudice except to make his own views clear by sitting down amiably beside the Ranger. I cannot even speak to Aradhil until Aragorn sleeps tonight, for he would understand us. There are some things I would not have him hear. It would hurt to strain the bond of trust that existed between Warden and prince, but Legolas could not let the matter lie. Not, and call myself my father's son! he thought, staring at Aradhil's back as the other stood and gazed out at the darkness.
Just at that moment, he felt a nudge against his arm, and the prince blinked and glanced at the Ranger. Aragorn's eyes flicked to the Warden, and he gave the barest hint of a smile as he shook his head minutely. Leave off! he seemed to say.
I cannot! Legolas thought back, wondering if the other would understand that mute appeal. Aragorn met his gaze, and those sea-grey eyes gleamed as if with an inner radiance that owed nothing to their small camp fire. No, he mouthed the word and at Legolas's raised brow, added, Wait. The Elf's brow knit with perplexity, but after a moment's hesitation, the prince bowed to the other's will in the matter. If only because I am curious to see how he reacts. It is his honor, after all, Legolas thought.
And Aragorn, reading the prince's confused impatience with the situation, smiled to himself. There was little point in pressing the issue at this time, but he did not doubt that the opportunity would arise to address it, and soon. Aradhil could hardly take a stronger stance, which may help me in the end. For if he is shown to be mistaken about a human's worth in one case, it will cast much doubt on his judgment in other areas as well. In the mean time, I can wait. He is no worse than Denethor in many ways, though I doubt not that the Steward of Gondor would be appalled by the comparison! the Ranger thought. And now that he was sure that Legolas would say nothing on the subject of elvish arrogance, he let his attention drift back to the forest. Mirkwood felt threatening tonight, and he wondered what hunted them.
Wargs? Orcs? Or something more fell than they? What is this malice that lies over the land and troubles our hearts? Whatever the source of the malign power, it was only a matter of time ere it showed itself more clearly in the creatures that it sent against them. And we shall be waiting for them, Aragorn vowed with a certain grim satisfaction.
Legolas rose then and assigned the watch, and Aragorn listened without surprise to the announcement that he would take his shift with the prince at midnight. That left him four hours in which to rest, and as those not on duty spread their blankets and cloaks, he nestled down as comfortably as he could, drawing his cloak close about his body. Soon enough, he felt Legolas join him, settling back to back for protection as well as warmth. As the patrol had been quiet all evening, one could not say that silence fell, but a sense of stillness pervaded their fire-lit circle as one by one, the members of the group fell asleep.
But the night is not still, and there is a menace in this darkness that I have not felt before, Aragorn thought drowsily. And even as he told himself to stop thinking and go to sleep, his mind fixed upon the feeling of anticipation that grew within him, crystallizing in a final warning:
Sleep now, for as it stands, trouble shall come before the dawn!
*In Appendix D of RotK, pp. 440-441, Tolkien noted that the Eldar preferred to reckon in sixes and twelves, and that their basic unit of (useful) time measurement was 144 mortal years, or twelve squared. I'm just playing around with that idea a bit. Elves may be immortal, but every race has its numerical superstitions.
** "Now let us cry a plague on the stiff necks of the Elves!"-- Aragorn, FOTR as they try to get through Lórien. Chapter content clearly inspired by this, and also just because a) I think the story needs it, and b) Thranduil was a major a$$hole the first time he let me write him, and I haven't forgiven him, even if I did manage to get him to play nice(-r) in the end.
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