27. Old Friends, Older Enemies (I)
In the Dead Marshes…
It was all that Aragorn could do not to drag his feet as he slogged through the stinking quagmire, bound for home. His entire body ached with exhaustion from the arduous journey he had just undertaken, and now he returned, weighed down still more by the burden of failure.
Though he had searched high and low in the Ash Mountains, walking in sight of the Black Gate and treading the deadly flowers of Morgul Vale, braving the fires and choking smoke of Mordor, he had not found Gollum.
Gandalf had some years ago told him of a ring he had discovered, in the keeping of Bilbo Baggins, no less. It had been passed to Bilbo’s nephew Frodo, and for the moment at least seemed safe enough. But the wizard was worried that the Ring, which seemed at first to possess no power more extraordinary than turning people invisible, might actually be a far more significant trinket. Aragorn knew how Bilbo had come by it, but Bilbo had apparently not known how the Ring first came into Gollum’s possession. Thus, they had sought him out, to find the origins of Bilbo’s Ring, through the vales of Anduin, Mirkwood, and Rhovanion to the confines of Mordor.
Mordor was a fearsome place, and perils Aragorn had faced until at last he had despaired and turned away from its darkness. The journey had been a taxing one, and even as the light of the west had brought him hope, Aragorn fought such weariness that he wondered if he would not collapse on the spot. His food and water had run low, forcing him to ration himself carefully, but the dry, bitter tang in the air of Mordor, and now the heavy stench of the Marshes dried his throat until he was tormented by desperate thirst.
*It is not very much farther,* he told himself, plodding on as brackish mud sucked on his boots. *Soon I shall pass Emyn Muil, and there I shall find rest and fresh water.*
He came to another reasonably dry place, where the earth rose hard and dead above the clutch of the greasy, sullen waters. Weariness sang in his blood and bones, and so he chose that place to rest, allowing himself a sip of water and a morsel of elvish waybread, which he always carried with him. Although the waybread eased his hunger and restored some of his strength, it took all his willpower not to drain his waterskin dry. There was so little left; he would barely make it out of the marshes as it was with what he had. He dared not finish it. The festering stink of the marshland seemed to suck the moisture from his mouth with every breath. He closed his eyes; to open them was only to invite further temptation to drink from the acrid mere, and he dared not. That would invite sickness to befall him, and alone in this forsaken place, he would find no aid.
The night came and a slight breeze picked up, bringing more stench with it but at least lessening the muggy heat. It was only early spring, but heat came early to the southern lands of Middle Earth, and the Dead Marshes in particular seemed to hold it in. Aragorn rolled onto his back, letting the light wind dry the sweat on his face. Unfortunately, the moving air was making the water in the meres lap softly, and the sounds were a new torture to the parched Ranger. *Water, water.*
At last he could endure no more and pulled himself to his feet. *By the Valar, there must be a pool somewhere in these fens where water rises up safe to drink!* He staggered through the rotten, scummy mud, searching for any reasonably clean water. But the stagnant meres were so filled with slime and rot that he knew it would be the height of folly to drink of them. *Water…*
Feeling weak with despair and fatigue, he stumbled on, unwilling to tarry in this place any longer without finding water. He folded his arms across his chest to keep them from straying to his water skin, and those last precious mouthfuls it contained, though they called seductively to him. The stink of the place seemed permanently imprinted in his nose and mouth, though he gagged and wiped his face on his sleeve. Slime and sweat dripped from him.
All at once, the swamp seemed at last to recede, and he found himself upon a path easier to tread, where the mud did not attempt to suck him down. Feeling renewed now with the ability to put one foot before the other without great strain, Aragorn turned his attention again to the pools and mires, hoping to see some sign of spring or stream. Finally, as night became day once again, his diligence was rewarded. The wind had died, and the sun’s beams reflected off the standing water through the slough, but in one place, the pool continued to ripple. The Ranger stopped in his tracks, blinking wearily, uncertain of what he saw. Could it be?
It was. Fresh water bubbled up in a tiny spring that opened into a muddy pool, pouring out into the marshes where it would sit still and stagnant forever. Aragorn all but launched himself off the dry path, landing full-length in the mud before the small flow. With trembling hands, he dipped up the water and sipped experimentally. Not terribly sweet, but clean enough. Gasping with weary relief, the heir of Isildur splashed his face clean of sweat and dirt, then dropped over the spring and drank until he was completely sated.
His desperate thirst attended to, he sat up again and set about filling his water skin. He would rest here today, drink his fill again, then set off again tomorrow. Even as he sat back again with his skin full, his gaze fell upon the mud on the opposite side of the pool, indentations not caused by any flow of water.
Aragorn’s heart lurched in anticipation as he scrambled to the imprints, and sure enough, he had at last by fortune come upon what he sought: the marks of soft feet. After having lost Gollum so thoroughly, the trail was fresh again, and it led, to the Ranger’s surprise, not to Mordor but away. He wasted no time, but snatched up his full water skin and sought out the next set of prints. And the next, and the next. Along the skirts of the Dead Marshes he followed it, and as the dark evening fell yet again, Aragorn slowed. There by a stagnant mere, a dark figure lurked, barely visible in the faint light. The creature was peering into the water, muttering “Fisshhhh” to himself, and so Aragorn stealthily moved up behind him.
“Nice fissh, nice fissh. Many days without fisssh, Gollum, Gollum, poor Sméagol might starve. But now can find fissh, yes, nice fissh. Get stronger, my Precious. Go find Precious, get Precious back from nasty thief! But first fissh--”
Through those words, Aragorn had crept closer and closer. The creature he sought was shriveled and bony and covered in slime, trembling slightly. Gollum must be very hungry, for he peered on into the mere, muttering to himself, and not once did he sense that anything was amiss. Then he was but an arm’s length away, and Aragorn leapt out and seized him.
“Aaaagh! Evil! Nasty man! Loose us! Let go! Gollum, Gollum! Wicked man! Nasty mens, all wicked! Mustn’t hurt Sméagol! No! Loose us!”
Aragorn wrestled with his quarry, for Gollum was stronger than he looked, or at least more wily. The heir of Isildur found himself covered in slime and lurching off balance in every direction as Gollum bucked and kicked to get free. Managing to hook one arm around the creature’s torso, he wrenched a length of rope from his belt and attempted to loop it around Gollum‘s wrists. Gollum in turn seized the hand holding the rope and jerked it up past Aragorn’s other arm, sinking his white fangs into the Ranger’s flesh. Cursing furiously, Aragorn pulled free and smote Gollum a hard blow to one ear, dazing him long enough to get the rope instead around his neck.
“Gollum, Gollum! Evil, nasty man! Hurts us! Hits and chokes us! Come to take Sméagol back, yes, back--”
“Back where?” Aragorn demanded, examing his bleeding arm after fashioning the rope into a more suitable halter that Gollum would not escape from.
“Gollum, Gollum! Poor Sméagol, hurts Sméagol! Did nothing--”
Extremely cross with weariness and pain from the bite, Aragorn was not in any mood to be trifled with. He seized Gollum again and shook him vigorously. “Where have you been, Gollum? Why were you in Mordor?”
“Wicked man, nasty man! Gollum, Gollum!”
With another curse, Aragorn shoved the filthy, stinking creature away, fighting off nausea at the smell and feel of slime on his hands and clothes. Glaring at Gollum, he satisfied himself that the creature would not escape, and sat down, pondering what to do with him now. *Elbereth only knows where Gandalf is at this moment. I would not see this creature in the Shire, for certain.* He frowned to himself, thinking all the places he could take Gollum in the shortest length of time. *I shall be glad to wash my hands of him--literally, as the case may be. Perhaps…but would they receive him? I wonder…I am not known as a friend to the elves of Mirkwood, yet they have long memories. Perhaps my friendship to Legolas will still hold weight, even if it has been more than forty years since he left Rivendell.*
It would be a short trip at least, if he made for Mirkwood. At that point, Gollum began moaning and whining again, and Aragorn glared at him. “I shall gag you if you do not desist this noise.”
“Nasty mens, cruel mens, hurt poor Sméagol…”
Aragorn had only just returned from a nearly-fruitless journey through Mordor, slogged his way through the Dead Marshes, and now found himself covered with slime and nursing a rather nasty bite on his right arm. He was in no mood to be toyed with. Before Gollum even knew what was happening, the Ranger sprang to his feet, pulling a length of cloth from his pack, and stuffed part of it into his mouth, tying it behind his head. “I warned you,” he said coldly when Gollum grunted and whimpered at him. “Now be still or I shall bind you tighter.” With one final grumble, the creature crouched down and glared balefully back at him.
Aragorn sighed. It was going to be a very long walk to Mirkwood. He considered attempting to get some sleep with Gollum’s lead tied to a shrub nearby, but decided against it. He did not trust Gollum any further than Gollum could throw him. That in mind, with another sigh, he rose and took up the rope, gesturing imperiously for Gollum to walk ahead of him. The creature resisted at first, but a few snaps of the rope got him moving.
For all the misery that he had endured in Mordor, Aragorn considered the road back even worse. He watched Gollum day and night, getting precious little sleep as they moved up along the Anduin towards northern Mirkwood. He drove Gollum before him, not trusting the creature behind, and only after many days lacking drink and food did Gollum at last walk tamely ahead.
He had one reprieve as he passed between southern Mirkwood and Lothlórien. There along the banks of the Anduin he encountered a small scouting party of Lórien elves, watering their horses. Remembering Aragorn from his previous visit, two of them crossed the river to offer him additional food, and to discover what the strange creature was that Aragorn led with him.
“You are far from your traditional lands, Man of the West,” said the elf in the lead, bowing to Aragorn.
“As you see, Master Elf, I have an unusual errand,” the Ranger replied blandly, gesturing to his prisoner.
“Whither do you take him?” asked the other elf.
“I hope that the Elves of Mirkwood will agree to keep him safe,” said Aragorn. “For he is wanted by Mithrandir in a matter of some importance.”
The elves digested this, then apparently were placated by the mention of the wizard’s name. The first elf bowed. “I am Orthelian, a captain under Haldir of the warriors of Lórien. My companion is Maethor, also a captain of our guard. We have seen you and heard much of you, Lord Aragorn, though we have never been introduced.”
Aragorn bowed in return, “You do me an honor, Captains of Lórien.” His vision blurred slightly. He was very tired.
Maethor noticed it. “Do you mean to depart at once for Mirkwood?”
“I should like to see my prisoner there as soon as possible.”
“And have you none to keep watch upon him? When do you sleep?”
“When I can.”
Orthelian and Maethor exchanged a glance. “Then join us at camp here on the riverbank tonight,” offered Orthelian. “We shall keep watch upon your prisoner while you take some rest. For a weary watcher may prove little use to that which he is charged with watching.”
Smiling wryly, Aragorn conceded to their reasoning. The last three elves of the party swam themselves and the horses across the river with little difficulty, and they made camp upon the eastern bank. Aragorn accepted gratefully their food and wine, but soon felt weariness overcome him, and laid down to rest. Orthelian himself took a watch, and posted another elf specifically to guard Gollum. Earlier, apparently feeling more charitable toward the creature than Aragorn, Maethor had attempted to remove the gag in order to offer Gollum something to eat. Only his elven reflexes had prevented him from having a hand bitten. But the scruples of the party would not let Gollum go hungry while they ate, so they left bread and fruit near him before snatching the gag away. After considerable grumbling, he ate it and drank the water they left him, then the gag went back on.
When Aragorn awoke, the sun was well in the sky. Startled, he looked about but saw the elves still keeping watch over both him and Gollum. Orthelian grinned at him. “Why did you not awaken me sooner, Captain Orthelian? I did not mean to delay you.”
“We thought you needed your rest, being mortal and all,” said the elven captain with a twinkle in his gray eyes. After you have broken your fast, we will be on our way.”
Slightly chagrinned, Aragorn accepted their generosity, and thanked them. He parted with them saying, “If you should happen to see Mithrandir, you might tell him that I have found Gollum. He will wish to know.”
“We shall, Lord Aragorn. Farewell! And,” Orthelian looked back over his shoulder, “please give my regards to Legolas.”
Startled, Aragorn glanced back, but the elves were already swimming back across the river. *Elves. I was reared by them, raised among them, speak their language as naturally as my own, and still they puzzle me.*
Seven days later…
Gollum hissed and grumbled around his gag as Aragorn drove him along the edge of the forest. They were still at least three days out of the elven king’s halls, but the Ranger was beginning to fear he would collapse and lose his prisoner. He had had next to no sleep since parting ways with Orthelian and Maethor, and despite the endurance of his Numenorean blood, the strain was taking a heavy toll. Driving Gollum ahead of himself was the only way to ensure that the creature did not notice his growing weakness and attempt to take advantage of it.
*If I do not rest soon, I will be unable to prevent him from escaping.* The lembas of the elves granted him the strength to walk on, but even that no longer served as any substitute for sleep. *So tired…* Lack of food and drink had tamed Gollum, but Aragorn did not trust him for ten seconds if the creature should realize his captor’s growing vulnerability. Aragorn’s hands trembled as he held the lead rope, and he was stumbling more and more frequently as he walked.
*I must sleep,* the Ranger fell to his knees. That caught Gollum’s attention, and the creature looked back curiously. Seeing Aragorn’s weariness, his eyes widened slightly, and he immediately attempted to jerk the lead rope free of his captor’s hands.
But Aragorn still had some strength left in him, and he wrenched it back. Gollum hissed in protest, but became submissive again. Aragorn staggered to his feet and looked around. The dark edge of northwestern Mirkwood was not a hundred yards away, but his peril would only increase if he attempted to brave its depths in this state. He had thought at first to skirt the forest all the way around until he reached the wood elves’ territory. But now his list of plausible choices was shortening. He would not last much longer before his body forced him into unconsciousness, whether he was willing or no. And Gollum would escape then.
Resolutely, he drove Gollum straight toward the forbidding wood until they were just beneath its edge. Then he leaned against one of the dark trunks, closing his eyes against the haze that clouded his vision. *So tired…* Forcing his eyes open, he looked at his prisoner. He had to find some way of securing Gollum so that the creature would not escape while he slept. With that in mind, he began winding the rope around the tree until Gollum was forced up against it, his trussed hands pressed into the trunk. Using another coil he bound Gollum fast until the creature could barely move at all, let alone wriggle or chew himself free of the ropes.
“I am not going anywhere and neither are you,” he said curtly. Almost as soon as he had finished securing his prisoner, a wave of dizzy exhaustion brought him to his knees again. “Just as well,” he muttered to himself. “I fear I could not go any further if I wished.” With that, he cast himself onto the ground and fell instantly into an unnaturally heavy sleep.
The next day, on the edge of Mirkwood…
“Are you sure that shoulder is well, Caranaur?” Legolas asked his fellow warrior with a worried frown.
“It is fine, Legolas. There does not seem to be any infection,” Caranaur replied, eyeing his bandaged wound.
Legolas’s small hunting party was three days out of the elven king’s halls, nearly to the edge of the wood. They had been hunting spiders, but stumbled across a small company of orcs the day before. Caranaur had suffered the only injury, a shallow knife wound, but insisted it was not worth returning home.
“You simply do not duck fast enough,” said Thalatirn. Caranaur glared at him.
Grinning, Legolas turned his attention ahead to where the break in the trees revealed the plains to the west. “Let us find the sun, and then we shall turn for home.”
The three warriors walked out from beneath the cover of the trees, enjoying the warmth of the spring sun upon their faces. All at once, scuffling noises nearby caused them all to start and look about. “What was that?” muttered Thalatirn.
“Sounds like an animal,” murmured Caranaur.
Legolas said nothing, but quietly drew an arrow and cautiously followed the sounds, his comrades close behind him. The scratches and scuffs seemed not like an animal simply making its way through the grass or chasing prey, but rather like something trapped and trying to break free. So intent was he on seeking the source of the noises that he nearly did not see the large form upon the ground before him. Caranaur grabbed his arm then, pointing excitedly. The three elves froze.
It was a man, dressed in the worn, dark raiment of a Ranger, lying sprawled upon the grass just beneath the shade of the trees at the edge of the wood, dead to the world. Rangers were not ones to sleep unguarded in the wood, and under normal circumstances, this man would have been roused by the noises of the animal nearby. Thus he had to be either injured or ill. Legolas startled his friends by taking a few steps closer, and Thalatirn even grabbed his arm in protest, far less trusting of a strange mortal even if he were hurt. But Legolas motioned them back and walked to where he could see the man’s face, turned slightly away from him.
The bow slackened at once, and he dropped his arrow. “Ara--Strider!” he managed to catch himself as he remembered Caranaur and Thalatirn.
His comrades called out behind him, “Legolas, what--” but Legolas was already kneeling at his old friend’s side, checking the man’s pulse. The other two elves stared at each other in confusion, for none in Mirkwood knew of Legolas’s previous encounters with mortals, and over the past forty years, he had spent most of his time within the realm’s borders. “Legolas?”
“Strider?” Sighing with relief at finding a heartbeat, Legolas looked Aragorn over for other injuries. He could find none, but by the Valar, how fast mortals aged, even those of Númenórean blood. His friend’s dark hair was beginning to show hints of gray, and his face had acquired many lines and shadows. His eyes in particular were closed tight with exhaustion. Deeply worried, Legolas shook him gently, “Arise, my friend. What ails you?”
At last, the Ranger groaned and tossed his head. Legolas sat back a bit as Aragorn started, tensing at once as the elf’s voice pulled him from unconsciousness. Blinking weakly, Aragorn stared at the new arrivals. While the Ranger’s aged appearance came as a shock to Legolas, in more than forty years the Sindarin prince’s face had not changed at all. “Legolas?”
“The guard of the Rangers seems to have lessened, or why have I found you exposed deep in slumber upon these plains?” asked the elf with a small smile.
“Legolas?” pressed Caranaur from behind them, sounding faintly dismayed. Legolas ignored him.
Aragorn pulled his mouth to one side. “As it happens, I was on my way to see you.”
“Legolas!” exclaimed both his companions. Exasperated at the explanations that would now be demanded, Legolas turned to face them. Instead, both pointed to a tree just beyond where the man sat, and the creature tied to it.
The elf stared, then wrinkled his nose. “Who…or what…is that?”
Wryly, his old friend answered, “That is why I have come. I had a request to make of your father, King Thranduil, and his folk.”
Legolas grimaced harder, guessing Aragorn’s purpose. “You wish us to keep this…thing?”
Aragorn nodded. “Not the most pleasant favor, I know, but he has information that must not fall into the wrong hands. I am certain your people could keep him safe.”
“What is he?”
“He is called Gollum, though I am told his name was once Sméagol. I shall tell you more if you will permit me within your borders.”
Legolas laughed. “Consider yourself permitted, but first I would know what ails you. I could find no injuries, but you did not wake for several moments.”
With a shrug, Aragorn replied, “There has been precious little time for sleep guarding him. I searched for him all the way to Mordor and back.”
“Ai,” Legolas muttered appreciatively. He rose then, and Aragorn attempted to stand as well, only to find himself so unsteady on his feet that Legolas had to catch him. “Ooph! How long had you been asleep before we came?”
Aragorn sheepishly accepted the elf’s aid sitting down again, then looked at the sky. “A few hours.”
Legolas nodded. “Not enough to make up for the weeks you have gone with less. We shall go to my father’s halls when you have rested longer, but I will send word ahead…along with your friend there,” he added, causing Aragorn to pull a face. “Caranaur, Thalatirn, kindly guide our strange guest back to the elven king’s halls and ask that he be placed under guard. Say that I shall be returning in a day or two with Strider.” At his companions’ confused expressions, he elaborated, “We met on an occasion while I was abroad. He is my friend.”
The other two elves looked doubtfully at each other. Wood elves were not inclined to trust strangers easily, and certainly not mortals. But it was clear to them that Legolas considered this man a friend, and he was commanding the small hunt. So, with intense distaste for their newly-acquired companion, they untied Gollum’s lead from the tree and led the grumbling, hissing creature into the woods.
Watching them go, Legolas grinned. “Not the most pleasant duty I have ever given them.”
“Commanding your own now, are you?” asked Aragorn.
Legolas shrugged. “Yea, small hunts only, but I am content. There is enough darkness in Mirkwood to keep any warrior busy.”
“You’ve not changed at all.”
Pulling out some rations and sharing them with Aragorn, Legolas remarked bluntly, “You have changed much. The weight of the world seems to have grown greater since we last met. Is life so ill?”
“Nay, not ill, merely worrisome.” Aragorn glanced around, making sure that Thalatirn and Caranaur had walked out of earshot. “It is believed that Gollum was a previous possessor of the One Ring.”
Legolas choked on a mouthful of water and nearly dropped the skin. Aragorn grimaced in agreement. Feeling a cold knot of dread form in his throat and slowly travel through his chest to his stomach, the elf asked softly, “What proof have you of this?”
“Proof, I have none, but Gandalf believes it.”
Legolas swallowed hard. “That is proof enough for me.” He greatly desired to strike the ground, break something, anything to relieve the sense of awful tension that tightened every muscle in his body at the thought of the One Ring. Finding his voice again, he spoke in a near-whisper, “Previous possessor, you say? Where does Mithrandir think it is now?”
“Forgive me if I do not say,” Aragorn replied, nodding apologetically. “But I think the fewer who know the better. I will say only that I know, and Gandalf and I are among many doing all we can to keep it safe.”
“It is not safe so long as it exists,” Legolas murmured, feeling the urge to shudder in spite of the warm sun.
“I know, my friend. Believe me, the thought has occupied my mind every moment since Gandalf came to me with this news. There are other things yet to be done, and I have sent word to Gandalf that I am bringing Gollum here. Hopefully he shall come bearing better counsel than I.” The Ranger rubbed his eyes, trying to bring them back into focus.
Legolas noticed. “Forgive me, my friend, I fear I have kept you awake with my questions. Rest now, and recover your strength.” He grinned at the man’s slightly affronted expression. “Come, you are greatly weary if you slept through Gollum’s infernal noises and our arrival. Get some sleep, and I shall stand watch.” With a resigned grin, Aragorn did so.
Two days later…
Candrochon, son of Anunborn, returned from a short hunting excursion to meet his wife, Merilin, and several other elven warrioresses enjoying a day without duties. His wife greeted him with a delighted embrace. “You are late again.”
“Forgive me. Orcs and spiders do not share your respect for punctuality.”
“Do not believe him, Mer, he was merely swilling wine and bragging with Fimsigil and Fandoll!” teased Galithil. The other she-elves laughed and added taunts of their own.
Candrochon looked from his wife to pull a face at the warrioresses. “Unlike you ladies, I have more important tasks to occupy my time than gossiping about gowns and marriages when I am off-duty.” Then he ducked to escape a hail of thrown acorns.
“How do you put up with him, Merilin?” Tuilinn demanded.
“He has his moments.”
“Not many of them, I would wager!”
“Get thee a husband, Salma, then you may talk!”
“Shall we leave them alone, friends?” suggested Edlothia. The other she-elves giggled, but headed for the rope ladder down from the pavilion in the tree. “Ah, look! Someone comes!”
Candrochon and Merilin joined the others at the railing, peering down at the two walkers approaching through the trees. “I cannot see who just yet. But they walk openly.”
Tuilinn narrowed her eyes, “Which of the scouting parties are due back?”
“Only Narbeleth’s, but hers is a party of twelve,” said Merilin.
“There!” Gwilwileth pointed as the approaching pair came further out of the trees. “It is Legolas.”
“But who comes with him?”
Legolas and his as-yet-unidentified companion came further out of the trees until they were in plain view of the elves on the flet. Candrochon heard intakes of breath from all the she-elves at the sight of the stranger. “It…it…it is a man!” breathed Galithil.
A man it was, even taller than Legolas and much bigger, wearing the travel-worn raiment of a western Ranger. So unlike an elf, for his face looked as worn as his clothing, lined and shadowed with care and struggle. Yet there was a chiseled strength to his features, and a depth and perception within his light gray eyes that Candrochon had never seen in a mortal before. It was quite startling.
But evidently, his female comrades were startled for another reason entirely. Beside him, his wife sucked in a deep breath. “That is not a man,” she whispered. “That’s art!”
“Merilin!” Candrochon blurted, his shock breaking his inspection of the approaching mortal.
But every warrioress began to giggle in response and voice her agreement. “Ai, it has always been assumed that men were ill-favored compared to elves,” remarked Tuilinn. “But this one…”
Galithil sniggered, “Looks very strong, does he not?”
“Yea, he has seen much of Middle Earth, I imagine,” murmured Edlothia.
“And most of it on foot, judging by his legs.”
“Mmm, his legs…”
Turning her attention to Candrochon, Gwilwileth grinned, “I fear your husband is turning a peculiar shade of green, Merilin.”
Giggling still harder, Galithil remarked, “Poor thing, he cannot stand competition from mortals. And such a mortal,” she added with a sigh, looking back down at the two walkers. Disgusted and quite outnumbered, Candrochon climbed down to meet the newcomers.
Walking beside Legolas, Aragorn knew that his arrival with Gollum and news of the One Ring had thrown his friend into a pit of anxiety and melancholy. It sorrowed the Ranger to be the cause of dampening the young archer’s merry nature, and he sought to bring Legolas out of it. “Come, my elven friend, you have grilled me for news of my travels, without telling me aught of your doings these late years.”
With a little shake of his head as though coming out of a trance, Legolas replied, “Little compared to you. Orcs and spiders multiply so that much of our time is commanded by hunts. Many of the villages south of my father’s halls have been emptied of our people, and those that remain in the northern forest have been forced to become stockades.” There was sorrow in his bright eyes, and a trace of anger. “The Enemy’s hold here goes stronger with each passing year. When at last his forces are rallied I know not how we will be able to stop them.”
The admission startled Aragorn, who turned and looked thoughtfully at the elven warrior. Realization came to him with both sorrow and anger of his own. Legolas was frightened. *And he is but one of many among the free peoples of Middle Earth. Eldar, dwarves, men. They are all frightened.*
Here in the northern forest the sun still penetrated the green canopy, but looking south, Aragorn could see a murky darkness in the trees that was almost palpable in the distance. To elven senses, it must seem very close indeed. “Neither of our peoples will fall,” he told Legolas. “No shadow shall hold sway over Middle Earth so long as you or I or Gandalf, or any of our friends draw breath.” He smiled reassuringly, “And that is a heavy obstacle even for Sauron.” Legolas cracked a grin at last, and Aragorn changed the subject. “Tell me of your family. I met your sister’s husband on the banks of the Anduin, and he bade me give you his regards.”
“Orthelian?” Legolas asked in surprised pleasure. He smiled. “I’ve seen naught of him for nearly twenty years. He led the last company of warriors from Lórien across the plains, but since then few of their parties have journeyed beyond their borders. We hear the Galadhrim are deserting the Golden Wood in great numbers for the Havens. Soon there will be none left.” His eyes darkened again, but this time he shook himself out of it. “But Limloeth and Orthelian remain there still, in service to the Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn.”
Aragorn snickered; he always did when he thought of Celeborn and Legolas at the same time. Legolas mock-glared at him, and continued. “Life within my father’s halls remains very much as it ever was. I attend court often when I am not abroad with the hunting parties,” and his unspoken thought was clearly *far more than I should like.*
Aragorn quashed a grin and asked, “Is it true that Thranduil will permit no dealings with mortals for any reason?”
He would not have dared to ask if he had thought Legolas would be offended, and the son of Thranduil was not. “Nay, though I am not surprised that the rumors paint it that way. Our trade with Dale and Laketown remains the same, or it would if both parties had not been forced to reduce travel for fear of the Enemy’s marauders. But still we have a modest trade with men. Dwarves as always will have naught to do with us, nor my father with them.”
“And your relations with the kingdoms of men?”
Legolas furrowed his brow slightly. “Beyond trade, very little. My father’s distaste for dealing with mortals does lead him to deny permission for any dealings in which his people are the supplicants.”
“I don’t follow you.”
His bright eyes betraying faint frustration, Legolas explained, “There are few things for which we have a pressing need that we cannot make or find ourselves. But occasionally, such needs come up. Even less often men are in a position to meet our needs in some way, but it is those instances when my father refuses to approach them. Our manner of trade and the items we trade for remain just as they have for centuries even though our needs have changed, because my father seems to think that suggesting a change in routine will inherently suggest a weakness.” He shook his head, but then added hastily, “It does not happen frequently, but once or twice, we have been forced to do without when a simple delegation to Laketown could have procured what we required.”
“Your father is proud even by elven standards.”
“That he is,” Legolas laughed wryly. “But I fear our needs will soon be of a nature that will make it impossible for him to continue thus. For our need for weapons increases daily, and our supply of metals runs short. That we cannot obtain for ourselves, and even the king knows we cannot do without. He knows that day is coming when we must seek aid from men. He is merely determined to delay it as much as possible.”
Aragorn laughed in his turn, startling two squirrels out of the underbrush before them. They paused as the two little animals raced scolding off into the trees, and Aragorn heard something else move in the trees nearby. He put a hand on his sword, but Legolas’s hand stopped them, telling him plainly what the noisemaker was. “A friend of yours, I take it?”
“If he would be good enough to show himself, I would introduce you,” said Legolas. Moments later, a dark-haired Silvan elf, tall even by elven standards, dropped from a tree before them. “Is the company of the ladies too much for you, Candrochon?”
The sounds of feminine laughter reached Aragorn’s ears from the trees ahead, and the look that the newly-arrived elf shot him was slightly vexed. The elven warrior turned back to Legolas and jerked his head at the nearly-invisible flet in a tall tree. “It’s like a henhouse up there.”
Legolas looked confused at first, then cocked his head, listening to elven voices too soft for Aragorn’s mortal ears to distinguish. The prince then turned from Candrochon to Aragorn and slowly grinned. Aragorn was baffled by the talk, and it must have showed upon his face, for Legolas said, “It seems some of the ladies of Mirkwood have been admiring you, Man of the West.”
“What?” before he could stop himself, Aragorn looked at the flet and this time beheld half a dozen she-elves peering back at him, with that particular female look in their eyes that said all too clearly where their admirations lay. Blood rushed to his face, and Legolas burst into a peal of laughter.
“Come down, my ladies, and meet our guest.”
As they descended, some in gowns, others in the garb of guards, Aragorn suspected that the six were warrioresses. As interested as they were in the stranger, they briefly turned their attention to Legolas. “Welcome home, my lord,” said each in her turn, some bowing to him, others embracing him. “We had wondered what delayed you.”
Legolas grinned, turning to Aragorn, “Ladies, I present Strider of the Dúnedain. Strider, you have the honor of meeting six of the warrior maidens of Mirkwood. I present Gwilwileth and Salma, daughters of Ulban,” the eldest and youngest of the group bowed to him. “Tuilinn, daughter of Fimsigil,” an elven maid not much older than Legolas possessing remarkable red hair bowed next. “Edlothia, daughter of Soron,” a warrioress older than Legolas nodded to him. “Galithil, daughter of Eregdos, and Lady Merilin, daughter of Lord Heledir,” he finished as an auburn-haired she-elf bowed to Aragorn.
“My wife,” added Candrochon from behind Legolas, in a distinctly sour tone. The other elves tittered. To Aragorn, he asked, “Was it you then who brought that…creature…here to Mirkwood?”
“I fear so,” Aragorn replied apologetically, glancing quickly at Legolas.
His friend interceded quickly, “But the matter must first be brought before my father. Let us back to the palace.”
The walk was a pleasant one, though Aragorn suffered more than his share of consternation by the rather intense scrutiny of the elves--particularly the she-elves--as they drew closer to the palace. It was clear that the Mirkwood elves, like the elves of Lórien but unlike the elves of Imladris, seldom left their realm and saw little of men within it. But at the same time, Mirkwood’s people were not quite the same as the elves of Lórien. While the Galadhrim had viewed the foreigner in their realm with suspicion even after Lord Elrond had vouched for him, here in Mirkwood the friendship of Legolas was evidently enough for Thranduil’s folk, and their stares betrayed curiosity and fascination more than distrust.
Fascination…especially from the elven women.
From what Legolas had told Aragorn, the wood elf population close to Thranduil’s palace-fort had grown denser over the years as the outlying villages were abandoned in favor of greater protection by the elven king’s guard. After Legolas and his friends had led Aragorn past a number of heavily-armed guard posts, the Ranger noticed far more elves walking among the trees, going about their day’s work without fear of attack. While it was not crowded by any means, a sizeable stretch of land surrounding Thranduil’s halls had become a veritable elven city.
And as a result, news of the passage of the mortal Ranger through it soon gained the attention of a good number of the populace. Whispers, discreet nods toward him, stares, and the occasional eruption of giggling told Aragorn how few of the Silvan elves had seen a man close-up. He was quite relieved when at last they passed through one of the western gates of the palace, only to find that the scrutiny did not cease there.
No sooner had they passed through the gate than soft exclamations and whispers bespoke the surprise of Thranduil’s folk at seeing a man in the company of the king’s son. Aragorn wondered, had Legolas told no one of what had transpired while he was abroad in Middle Earth? The Ranger’s thoughts were interrupted by a cry of “Legolas!” from the palace steps.
Many years before, when Aragorn had first beheld Arwen Undomiel on the paths of Imladris, he had been certain she was Luthien returned to Middle Earth. Now, as he spied the elven lady running down the steps, again he thought that a figure of elven legend had appeared in the flesh.
Only this time Nimrodel.
Had the elven maid before him been human, she looked to be perhaps seventeen, but Aragorn suspected she was close in real years to his own age, judging by her youthful demeanor. Her hair, a mass of sun-colored curls, tumbled down her back with a luster as bright as the emerald-green gown that she wore. Even without the crown of Mirkwood upon her head, Aragorn would have known by the familiar manner that she was related to Legolas.
The Sindarin princess hardly spared a glance at Aragorn in her eagerness to greet her kinsman, and seized Legolas in an embrace. Laughing, Legolas returned her kisses and endured her playful scolding. “What did you mean, sending Caranaur and Thalatirn back here and remaining on the forest’s edge alone? You frightened the wits out of everyone!”
“Forgive me,” Legolas pleaded, bowing in mock-contrition. “Another matter arose. Look to your manners, I must introduce you to a friend.” At last, the girl took notice of the stranger among her friends, and fixed curious bright blue eyes upon Aragorn. “This is Strider, a Ranger of the West. I present my niece, Silivren, daughter of my eldest brother Berensul.”
*Glittering.* Amid the stares of the elves as they walked, the company had spoken hardly at all during their return. Now, Aragorn could feel the eyes of a good many elves upon him as they waited to see the foreigner’s response. Smiling inwardly, he performed an extravagantly deep bow (not that courtesy was not fitting for the daughter of a crown prince) and declared, “I am most honored, my lady.”
Her eyes twinkling, the princess bowed in return and announced, “I am most pleased to make your acquaintance, Strider of the Dúnedain. In the name of my grandfather, Thranduil of Mirkwood, welcome, for any friend of Legolas is a friend of ours.” Turning back to Legolas with a smile, she said, “The king wishes to see you both on your return.”
*I’ll wager he does,* thought the Ranger, noticing the slightest tensing of Legolas’s shoulders. Aloud, the son of Thranduil said, “Let us go, then.”
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.