Once again, the halls of Thranduil were in an unusual state of excitement. Elves are such remote beings to the younger children of the world that it is hardly possible for a Man to imagine the upheaval of an elvish court--such events belong to legends long forgotten, save by a few who wander the North, or the most learned among the dwellers in the South, or the tenacious elders of the Dwarves. And perhaps it would be unjust to describe Thranduil's court in such terms as upheaval, but surely no more serious gossip-mongering had been seen in the halls of the King of Mirkwood since a good twelve days prior. And as on that previous occasion, it was the youngest prince of the realm and his companions who stood at the center of elvish attention--a most uncomfortable position to assume. It was perhaps fortunate for Legolas that the presence of the wizard, Mithrandir, had distracted Thranduil somewhat when the reduced and bedraggled patrol presented itself before the king with its tale.
"We are always pleased to welcome you to our halls, my lord Mithrandir," the king said gravely, "And we thank you for your aid on our behalf. If it is not too much to ask, we would beseech you not to attend upon us, but rather to help our fallen warden however you may." And however polite, it was clear that this was a dismissal of sorts, and the wizard quirked a brow at that.
"I thank you for your welcome, King of Mirkwood. And I have left instructions concerning the warden's care already. Later, I shall see what may be done for him, and we may speak then of his fate. However, there are other matters that I must attend to, and one of them lies below in your dungeon. If you will excuse me, your majesty, I shall go to take care of that now, and speak with you by and by."
"I await your convenience," Thranduil replied.
"Good. Then if I may, I shall take Arathorn's son with me, for we began this business together and I have not yet heard how it ended." Surprised murmuring broke out at that, as the courtiers whispered amongst themselves. Dorothil and Hithras glanced sideways out of the corners of their eyes at their erstwhile companion, and Legolas turned slightly to look over his shoulder at him. "If I may, Thranduil? I have much to do ere the day is done!"
"Of course. As you wish, Mithrandir, he is not one of mine in any case," the elven king replied after a beat, his voice suspiciously mild. But no Elf would lightly gainsay the will of a wizard, and so he lifted a hand and gestured that the pair ought to leave. Mithrandir nodded politely enough, then turned and made his swift way towards the eastern door. Aragorn, though, made the king a full, if rather stiff, bow ere he returned the looks of his companions. Legolas' eyes he held an instant longer than those of the other two, but it was a brief moment nonetheless, and then he followed Mithrandir, excusing himself to those who moved aside for him.
The courtiers' ranks closed in his wake, swallowing him like the sea, and then attention focused once more upon the patrol. Thranduil's darkened eyes swept over them coolly, and the three Elves stood straight, awaiting his judgment. "Dorothil!"
"Sire?" Dorothil stood forward and then bowed.
"We thank you for your many years of service, and regret the injury done you in the doing of your duty."
"It is my pleasure to serve my king and my prince," he replied, and Thranduil nodded gravely.
"Well-spoken. And it is our desire that you should continue to do so, but not until you are healed. Go, Dorothil! See to your needs, and when you are well, then we shall summon you again to our service."
"My lord king, if I may--"
"Nay, you may not," Thranduil cut off the inevitable request firmly, with just a hint of thunder in his voice. "Go now and so do your duty to us!"
"Yes, sire." Manifestly, this was not to his liking, but Dorothil bowed once more, turned, saluted his prince and captain, and then made his way out.
"Aye, my king?" Hithras now moved forward in his turn, and Legolas stifled a sigh. It was clear what his father did, and he was grateful that his men would at least be spared any ordeal or blame. But the tactic was so obvious it was nearly painful, and such heavy-handed dealings did not bode well for the youngest prince of the realm.
"We are obliged to you for your loyalty and courage in this and many other endeavors. Take therefore this time and bear my thanks also to Nuilandar."
"As you wish, sire," Hithras replied, bowing. "My prince," he added, grey eyes sympathetic ere he, too, quit the hall.
"All you others," Thranduil said, gazing at the assembled court, "leave us for a time!" After a moment of shocked silence, the courtiers obeyed, speaking in whispers as they retreated, and many a doubtful glance was cast at the prince, who remained in his place, standing before the dais in silence. The king remained seated, elbows resting on the arms of his throne, fingers interlaced as he contemplated his youngest son. At length, the last of the assembly had retreated from the hall, the doors had closed behind them, and even the guards had withdrawn to posts outside. Still, the tableau remained frozen, father and son staring at each other, green eyes on grey, and the tension grew suffocating.
"What under the stars of Ilúvatar did you think to accomplish?!" Thranduil demanded at last in a clipped tone, his voice reverberating coldly off the fluted stone columns and walls. And when Legolas did not answer immediately, he lifted a finely arched brow and prompted, "Well? Speak! Explain this folly to me, Prince of Mirkwood!"
"I thought to discover the numbers of these werewolves, and to rid us of them, if possible, my king." So spoke Legolas, and braved his father's sharp stare, his voice low, almost subdued.
"Ah? And what think you of your success?" the king asked, rising and descending slowly from the dais, hands clasped tightly behind his back as he glared at his son. Legolas stood very still, watching his father approach, sensing that Thranduil was not finished yet. Sure enough, "For not only do there remain, by your own admission, at least three of them, we are now robbed of the services of one of our most experienced wardens, and are short three foresters! Nuilandar I cannot trust with a bow until it is certain his sanity is restored, Faladhros is dead, and Dorothil is injured! You and Hithras are the only two to emerge unscathed from that encounter. What say you to so dismal a tally?"
"That I am ashamed and aggrieved on behalf of my men; that I ought to have turned aside for aid ere I continued, sire. But," Legolas added, "it was my judgment--ill or proud or both--that we could not afford the time, for few patrols will go so far south. If the master of the tower dared to make a werewolf only miles from our campsite, then even with the support of another group of hunters, we might well have been overwhelmed. It seemed the better course at the time to seek them out ere their numbers were increased."
"And so you dared the valley of Dol Guldur! I have not forbidden our people from entering that place, but only because I thought none of them so foolish as to approach it! Clearly I must reconsider this policy!" came the scathing response.
"Such matters are, of course, the affair of the King of Mirkwood," Legolas replied, unwilling to say more, for truly, what defense could he offer? He had had plenty of time in the past two days to consider and reconsider every decision, every false step down the slippery slopes of the Valley of the Shadow. And although he still believed that once committed, he had done all that could reasonably have been expected, that did not change the fact that others might take issue with his decision to approach the valley in the first place.
"How kind of you to afford me your approval!" Thranduil snapped back sarcastically, and the prince cursed inwardly when he could not quite suppress the wince that arose at that tone. There followed a brief and uncomfortable silence, as father and son sought a measure of composure. At length, the king breathed out a slow sigh, then said, "You are young, my son, and your inexperience shows." To which, Legolas could but nod, and await his sentence. "But it is also true that the young are more easily led astray."
"Father?" Legolas' head jerked up in confused disbelief. What is this...?
Thranduil, unaware, apparently, of his son's thoughts, continued heavily, "Yes, I see clearly that it was a mistake to leave you so long under one man's tutelage. I should have moved you away from Aradhil earlier, or else forbidden that Ranger to go with you. I should have known that the day Aradhil agreed with a mortal, other forces in the world would align to correct for the error! The warden, at least, has paid the price, and paid it beyond all reckoning, but Aragorn has yet to answer for his part in all of this!"
"He has paid for it!" Legolas interjected, alarmed. And angered, for although he was not proud of his faults, to have his mistakes dismissed, consigned to the realm of inevitable childish errors, was an affront to his pride, not to mention the dignity of wounded and slain friends. But perhaps his father did not see the affair in that light, for Thanduil's eyes narrowed dangerously at his outburst. Nevertheless, the prince continued forcefully, "He apologized to me and submitted himself to my judgment. As it was my ban he broke, his fault was mine to forgive. And so I have, for he has suffered enough, at our hands and at the hands of our enemies."
"Moreover, my father," the prince continued, refusing to be silenced, "young though I be, I hold still the captaincy of a part of our forces, deferring only to my brothers and yourself! If I have been restrained--even remiss--in the exercise of my authority before, do not think to relieve me of its burden now! For have you not told me always that it is a captain's part to judge his followers, but also to stand for their actions before his superiors? So! Here stand I. Do not cheapen what my men have endured by dismissing this as naught but a young man's errors!"
"Indeed? And are you prepared then to face the consequences of actions undertaken by your men? Even by one not of your race?"
"It was the King of Mirkwood who gave me Aragorn's services, therefore he is mine, whatever his bloodlines. And if you regret involving him in our affairs, sire, I do not," Legolas answered proudly.
"So be it, then! Hear now my judgment, Legolas of Mirkwood, prince of the realm," Thranduil replied. "You are hereby stripped of command, and all rights and privileges thereof, saving only your royal title, which cannot be erased. For a year, you shall be no more than a simple messenger of my hall, to come and go as it pleases me to send you. Such additional tasks as I may find for you, these I will give to you personally, but you shall undertake to command no one again as captain until you learn obedience. Learn it well, for I expect you to teach it to your followers next time!" With that, the king pinned his son with a look, waiting for his reaction.
"As it pleases you, my king, I am yours to command," the prince replied, bowing, keeping an even tone. "May I go now, since I am lately accustomed to go to Aradhil at about this hour?"
"Go and see to him then. We shall speak more later," Thranduil assented. Legolas inclined his head gracefully, though there was still an aura of tension about him unsurprisingly. Then he pivoted precisely and strode swiftly away, shoulders squared. Thranduil watched him go with shrewd paternal eyes, and when his son had disappeared beyond the doors, he gave a soft snort and shook his head, a hint of a smile on his lips. So you would be a captain indeed, Legolas? We shall see!
Aragorn sighed softly, wishing that he could lean back against the wall while he waited, but his shoulders ached too badly to consider such action. Having given Gandalf the tale of Gollum's capture-- much abridged and leaving aside the more unpleasant aspects of his journey, as they shed no real light on the miserable creature's disposition--he and Gandalf had begun the task of questioning the wretched Sméagol. It was not a chore that Aragorn much enjoyed, particularly since at first it had been his task to act as the stick to the carrot that Gandalf proffered: Talk to me, Sméagol! Tell me where you have been, and what you have seen! Never mind Aragorn, he shan't harm you if only you will speak! Speak, and we shall leave you be! And so on, and so forth, until it was clear that that approach led but in circles. They had tried alternating, with Gandalf sending the Ranger out of the cell to listen and come in only at intervals. This had proved even less to Aragorn's liking, as the squeals of terror whenever he entered the room and the wizard left were nigh high enough to split his ear drums. And although he had done his share of interrogations, watching Gollum cringe from him, whether or not he threatened, was beyond frustrating--it was nauseating.
Never did I think to find in orcs aught of worth, but now I may say that at least they spare us long questioning, the Dúnadan mused darkly. It was rare that one of that foul brood would value information over its own miserable existence, but the few who did could almost always be counted upon to slit their own throats against a Ranger's blade, which did somewhat to ease one's conscience over slaying a helpless thing. And at least it is swift! For several reasons--not least a desire to avoid becoming their enemies--torture was not something the Dúnedain practiced habitually, although on very rare occasions, there simply was no other choice. But even in these desperate times, such situations did not often arise, and the nature of the Rangers' operations did much to mitigate the need for it. After all, it was rarely necessary to inquire as to the reasons that orcs might be abroad--it was only necessary to stop them. With such reflections running through his head, he lingered just outside the door to the cell and listened with half an ear to Gandalf and Gollum. The rest of his attention was devoted to battling his own weariness and his growing uneasiness. I would more gladly end the wretch and be rid of him--'tis not as if he does not deserve it!--but we must know his tale!
Personally, Aragorn faced the prospect of a confession with a certain ambivalence. On the one hand, they could not do without that knowledge, for if Gandalf were right, then they knew the Ring's location and could take steps to protect the bearer. But by that same token, if the wizard were correct, then Aragorn feared it was too late already, that they were behind their Enemy by a good ten steps. For surely Gollum would never willingly go so near to Mordor. Even if he is but one more ill-willed creature, why would he leave his lair beneath the mountains? Something called him out, and I can think of but one voice that might compel him! So close to Mordor he was... surely if he were called, delay would be intolerable to him. Surely he would continue east, yet he lingered, and his face was turned west when I found him. Has he been there already? And if so, then how came he to leave again? Naught breeds in Mordor but cruelty, and the plots of the Dark Lord are innumerable.... A sharp snarling and a round of vicious imprecations sounded just then, and Aragorn stiffened. "Sméagol! Let go!" Gandalf's voice cut harshly through the howls, and with a muttered curse of his own, the Ranger yanked the cell door open and peered inside, just as a burst of blinding white light lit the room. A frightened squeal greeted this, and Aragorn shut his eyes too late to avoid the after-image. Silence reigned, save for the sound of someone's noisy breathing, and after a few moments, the Ranger attempted to blink the bright spots from his vision and focus on the red-dark silhouette that could only be the wizard.
"Gandalf?" he asked, pressing a hand over his eyes and hoping that the colors would stop shifting shortly. Unfortunately, the flare of light had done nothing to damage anyone's hearing, and the sound of his voice provoked a fit of nerve-grating shrieking from Gollum's corner. Gandalf sighed loudly--Aragorn marveled he could hear it at all over the noise--and when the Ranger opened his eyes again, the wizard was brushing past him.
"Shut the door!" he ordered tersely, and Aragorn obeyed gladly enough. Still, Gollum continued to scream for no apparent reason, and man and wizard stood awhile, trying to ignore the noise while tempers wore thinner and thinner.... "Miserable wretch, cease your squalling, or I shall send him back in for you!" the wizard finally yelled through the narrow slit of a window, and Aragorn knew not whether to be gratified or appalled that the shrieks diminished instantly to gibbering moans. With a sigh that was more of a growl, Gandalf dug about in his belt pouch and drew out his pipe. "Are you certain," he asked as he tamped leaf into the bowl, "that there is not something more you would tell me of your journey?"
"What more would you hear?" Aragorn asked.
"How he came to fear you so!" came the somewhat testy reply.
"Tell me you trust me more than to abuse him on the road!" the Ranger retorted indignantly. When he got merely a set of raised brows, he continued, "Yes, it was a harsh journey for us both, but under the circumstances, I think I was uncommon kind to him! If he hates the feel of rope against his skin, I cannot help that! And if he hungered on the march, so also did I." Gandalf grunted at that, still glowering as he lit his pipe with a muttered word. With a sigh, Aragorn folded his arms across his chest, feeling the instant pull and ache of his wounds, and waited for his temper to subside somewhat. "I would say it were show," he said after a few moments spent watching smoke rings rise, "that he does it but to goad and divert us."
"Hmmph! Mayhap you are correct, for his terror acts almost as a screen--one that blinds both himself and us to what he may carry within him. Effective! Well," Gandalf sighed again, and quirked a bushy brow at the Dúnadan, "I need a few minutes to think, but there is no point in giving him a rest yet. See whether you can do better!"
"Better? Gandalf, you know that this... creature... is a destroyed thing! I could threaten him 'til the year's end and achieve nothing! However he slinks and cowers, he understands but one language, and I cannot speak it to him!" Aragorn replied, uncomfortably. "Not now."
The wizard eyed him at that, exhaling a smoke ring. "So, you think that he will respond only to suffering, then?"
"What else knows he but pain?"
"A destroyed creature you call him," the wizard said thoughtfully, drawing on his pipe deeply. "Yet I think that this is not wholly true. Even were it, however, there are other ways to make him fear us than lashes. You know this."
"I know it, but I think I have not the patience for it."
"Try, Aragorn. If nothing else, his fear of you--real or feigned--may make the next round easier."
"We have played that game for nigh upon two hours now, and with no success."
"That does not mean it has no effect. Such things are cumulative, as well you know. And you need do nothing to him."
"Even so, do not ask me to do this, Gandalf!" The low, fervent tone caught the wizard's attention unequivocally, and Aragorn felt the brush of a mind vastly more powerful than his own. He shivered as he continued, "I mean not to make this more difficult, but I cannot be left alone with him. Not again. Not today."
"Why?" the wizard asked softly.
"Because I do not know what I may do. I listened to his cries and moanings for fifty days ere this, and that was more than enough. I may have done nothing to him, but it was a nearer thing than I like to admit. And now... I cannot hear him shrieking without thinking of... of the... of Khamûl," he finally managed uncomfortably. "If you leave me alone with him, then--"
"I see," Gandalf replied, sparing him the need to continue. The wizard was silent a long while, staring at the Ranger as prodigious amounts of smoke rose to gather above him like a miniature storm cloud. "Well, if that is so, then you are right: we dare not leave you alone with Gollum. Tonight I shall manage this alone then. But, although I rarely feel the need to commend your honesty, as I expect it of you, I will say that I wish you had been more open earlier. If you had let Legolas help you yestereve, this might not be necessary." Aragorn swallowed that rebuke in silence, and for a brief time, the two stared at each other--Gandalf's dark eyes were hooded but measuring, whereas Aragorn seemed merely weary and quietly ashamed. "No matter," the wizard said at length. "Go now and rest, for you are right to remind me that you have had fifty days with Gollum that I have not. And if you will not seek out another's help, then you shall need your strength to deal with a Nazgûl's shadow."
"Go, Aragorn," the other said, emptying his pipe and replacing it in his belt pouch. Gripping his staff in his right hand, the wizard opened the door and disappeared back into the cell, leaving the Ranger to stare after him for several moments. At last, however, he turned away and retraced his steps back out of the dungeons, moving more swiftly after but a few moments, as if eager to put distance between himself and Gollum. Or perhaps it was the sudden assault of claustrophobia that quickened his steps and lengthened his strides, as the memory of Khamûl's corruption weighed heavily in his mind. A long and accomplished career as a player on a most dangerous stage let him hide it well enough, he thought, but as soon as he had the opportunity, he turned and followed a hall that seemed to him to lead outward. The doors at the end of the corridor yielded to a sharp push, and he was out. Thank the Valar! The Ranger let his momentum carry him to the railing, and he leaned over it, eyes closed, trying to control his breathing. This part of the palace was right over the river that led out to the Long Lake, where lived the men of Dale, and as he listened to the waters eddy noisily in their channel, he willed the vertigo to subside. The whole episode had been quite unexpected, despite his growing awareness that outside, the day was fast waning. But thus far, he had never been so affected by the wraith's mark. It has only been two days; 'never' is hardly something I should apply to so short a time! he admonished himself.
A soft noise, as of someone clearing his throat behind him, startled him, and he turned rather sharply. An Elf stood there by the doors, apparently having just come through them, and in the new-birthed twilight, he evinced that ethereal composure that comes naturally to all Elves. "Are you well?" he asked, sounding concerned, and the Ranger sighed softly.
"I believe so, yes," he replied as the other moved closer. The Elf studied him for several moments, eyes narrowing somewhat as he gazed at the Dúnadan.
"It takes one that way sometimes," he said finally. "One simply needs air. Of course, it does not help to be under the cloud of another's casting...."
"Who are you?" Aragorn asked, interrupting, unwilling to speak of such matters, though he knew well that no Elf could fail to notice his condition.
"My apologies. I am Nindarth, Thranduil's son and Legolas' brother," the Elf replied, inclining his head politely. "And I need no introduction, for I know who you are, Dúnadan." As Aragorn stared back, straining his eyes in the darkness, Nindarth said naught, only cocked his head slightly, as if to give him a better angle, and a slight smile played about his lips. Although color was impossible to discern under the cover of night, the Ranger thought that Nindarth little resembled Legolas, who apparently took after his Nandorin mother. Yet he also did not clearly resemble his sire, and Aragorn spent an idle moment wondering whose face and features Nindarth had inherited.
"I am honored to make your acquaintance, Lord Nindarth," he answered after a time, and that slight smile broadened further. "May I ask why you came here? Or have I intruded?"
"Nay, you have not. Stay awhile, for the voice of the river is restful, and I think me you have need of some peace, " Nindarth replied, joining him at the railing. The elven prince gazed out over the broad stream that issued forth from beneath the mountain, and Aragorn sensed that the other was swiftly lost in the play of mist and spray. Even had he not the memory of Legolas' words, he thought it evident enough that Nindarth was one called by the sea. Elves could delight in the smallest of things, but there was something in the other's devoted preoccupation that raised his hackles--perhaps the chill of yearning unsatisfied? Nevertheless, it was a less bitter cold than that under which he labored in his dreams, and so he, too, turned back towards the river and watched the starlight glitter on the water's surface.
How long the two of them stood there, leaning against the rail and watching the river, Aragorn knew not. But eventually, he heard a sigh at his side, and Nindarth shook his head sharply, regretfully, and proffered a slight, pained smile. "Well, mayhap 'tis not so restful for me! And you asked why I had come, did you not?"
"Yes, I did."
"Not to gaze at the water, although on any other night, I would have come for that reason," the Elf confessed. "I came to find you, in fact. Legolas asked me to see if I could not pry you away from Mithrandir for a time." Aragorn sighed heavily at that, having nearly forgotten his promise to speak with Legolas. That was not something that happened often, and he grimaced in the darkness.
"How long ago did he ask for me?"
"Not long," Nindarth replied. "Fear not, he has been with Aradhil since he and father finished their conversation. And with me, for I went in search of him. He said that if Mithrandir would not release you, then he would speak to you tomorrow."
"I see. But he has, so perhaps I ought to find him...."
"I can take you to him, if you wish it. But if you are too weary, then I shall tell him that you would rather speak on the morrow. And mayhap that would be best, for if I may say it, you seem quite unwell to me. Should I bring you to a healer?"
"No... not yet," Aragorn hastily replied, and then hesitated. On the one hand, a part of him wanted nothing more than to crawl under the blankets and shut out the world for some hours. But another part knew that therein waited the dreams, and he had no real desire to face them again. It would probably be wisest to accept Nindarth's offer to find a healer, but.... "Weary though I be, my lord, I think I would do better to speak with your brother now, rather than wait until tomorrow. I know not Mithrandir's plans, yet I doubt he shall wring anything from that wretched Gollum tonight!"
"Very well then. Come! This way!" And Nindarth led him back through the doors and down along the corridor. Aragorn felt his heart clench as he passed the threshold, and he sternly reminded himself that he had never been claustrophobic in his life, and this was no time to begin. Elves might delight in climbing to great heights, but they could be amazed by the proclivity of humans--particularly human children--to fit into small, cramped spaces. Aragorn had startled his brothers many a time with such antics, and since then, he had certainly seen the insides of much less comfortable spaces than the nooks and crannies of Elrond's house. There was no reason for him to fear Thranduil's high-vaulted palace, which did not in the least resemble Moria. Fortunately, however, Nindarth very adroitly picked a path that went mostly along the outer walkways, sparing him the struggle.
At length, the Elf turned up a quiet corridor that seemed given over to but one chamber, for there was but one door set in it, far up the hall. Before this door, Nindarth paused a moment, and said, "You should brace yourself a bit. I know not how Men perceive such things, but this is not a place for the faint at heart!" So warned, the Ranger followed him inside, and soon realized what the other meant. Although spacious and well lighted, with currents of air running through the place, he found himself growing quite uneasy as he followed Nindarth past inner rooms and curtained recesses. Elves drifted past here and there, silent and efficient, and they bowed to Nindarth as he cut swiftly down an inner hallway to a room that must, Aragorn realized, lie close to the outer walls of the palace. The room had no door of its own, but rather heavy curtains, intricately patterned, though Aragorn noted the artistry only in passing. The chamber beyond them was spare, but comfortable, and the windows were thrown wide to admit the night breezes. And there, sitting on a padded stool, was Legolas. The youngest prince of Mirkwood leaned his elbows on his knees, and stared silently at the face of the one laid before him on the bed: Aradhil. This is a sick ward, Aragorn realized in that instant, and wondered that he had not guessed earlier. It was rare that an Elf was badly injured, but when such things happened, Elrond tended to the victim, and he had sensed such troubled minds before. Yet never so many, nor in one place, for that was not Elrond's way. This was more like to Minas Tirith, with its Houses of Healing, save that the patients were elvish. And I think there are many of them... how many, I wonder? What is the price of peace in Thranduil's kingdom?
Legolas glanced up as they approached, and his face lightened somewhat at the sight of brother and friend. Nindarth came to stand behind his younger brother, and laid his hands firmly upon his shoulders, squeezing gently. "It seems Mithrandir could spare him after all," he said by way of greeting, eyes darting from Legolas to Aragorn again with a knowing gleam in them. "Why not take some air? Or go elsewhere for a time? This is no place for a conversation. I shall watch Aradhil for you, if you wish."
"Thank you, Nindarth," Legolas replied, rising. The older Elf traded places, reaching out to take one of Aradhil's hands in his, though a shiver rippled visibly through him.
"Thank you for taking care of my brother, Aragorn," Nindarth said just as they reached the curtains, and Aragorn paused, uncertain how to respond with Legolas standing before him. Thranduil's third son, though, only smiled faintly, and gestured for the pair to leave. "Good night to you both!"
Legolas led the way out of the Healers' Halls and was glad to leave them behind. Judging from what he could sense of Aragorn, the Dúnadan was also relieved to escape the painful atmosphere of the place. Given their starting point, the prince turned left until he reached a stairwell, then began climbing lithely up the winding way. Aragorn followed more slowly behind him, and after awhile, Legolas paused, frowning. The Ranger seemed to be some distance behind, and the prince realized of a sudden that the other's darkly troubled silence had but grown the deeper since leaving the Healers' Halls, which he would not have expected. "Aragorn?" he called back, descending a few paces.
"Yes?" came the somewhat taut response, and the Elf hurried back along the steps with such speed that he nearly collided with the Ranger coming up. A moment they stood there, gazing at each other, and Legolas hissed softly.
"The shadow returns... and it grows heavier!" he murmured.
"Just let us leave this stairwell, my prince, and I think it shall lighten somewhat!" the Ranger replied, with a queer note in his voice that Legolas had not heard before.
"This way then. Since my quarters are on a level with yours, but closer to the Halls, I thought to go there first. 'Tis not far," he assured the other, and continued on up the stairs, though at a somewhat slower pace.
And indeed, it was not far. At the next landing, Legolas left the stairs for a broad hall that wound its way between high pillars 'til it passed a smaller corridor. This the prince took, beckoning the Ranger after him until he reached the door to his chambers and ushered the other within. As it was a warm enough night, the hearth remained cool and dark, but Legolas lit a candle that stood near the door, then went about the room, illumination blooming in his wake. At last, he set down his candle upon a low table and turned to study his friend. The Ranger had sunk down on a couch and had his head bowed, and the prince grimaced at the darkness that seemed to cover him. "Why does this shadow grow, rather than diminish? I think it was not so bad even hours after the Nazgûl attacked you!" he asked, gliding over to seat himself at the other's side.
"I do not know why," Aragorn replied quietly, and it seemed to Legolas that the man's eyes were closed. "And it is not always thus, but with night comes terror, and I think these halls do but add to my anxiety."
"They ought not to, but... take this not ill, Legolas, but though they are furthest from them in form, your father's halls remind me of Moria."
"Moria?" Legolas asked sharply. "You have been there?"
"Once. Ask me not about it, for I have no desire to relive that journey in words as well!" the Ranger added ere the Elf could begin to inquire. "And... Gollum, too, stirs memories that I cannot control today. Or rather tonight--I thought I did well enough earlier!" The wry, resigned tone to the other's voice, at least, seemed promising to Legolas, who thought that perhaps that meant the other had regained a measure of control.
"Men are strange creatures!" the prince sighed softly, and smiled when Aragorn gave a soft bark of laughter at that and glanced up at him.
"I suppose that we are indeed. But no stranger than others who inhabit the earth."
"It is strange to me that this malaise should grow worse with time, for surely the further removed from Khamûl's touch, the better. But perhaps I simply know too little of your people to judge. Mayhap you were wise to reject my help yestereve, for I might have hurt you more than helped you!" Legolas replied, concernedly.
"Nay, my prince, 'twas not your wisdom but mine that failed! And perhaps my courage as well, for I cannot deny that I wished only to withdraw from what I felt of the others. Of all others," Aragorn admitted heavily, and his face grew very still in the flickering light. After several moments' silence, he continued on in a low murmur, "I do not envy your people, Legolas, this peculiar misery that comes of being elvish."
"I thought I was to learn envy from you!" Legolas said, striving for a certain levity, for something that would break the other's bleak mood. And it seemed that he succeeded in part, for Aragorn chuckled softly at that.
"You must needs make the acquaintance of other mortals, then, my prince, for I fear I cannot properly instruct you in that matter."
"When I am given the chance, then I shall be certain to ask them for lessons!"
"How went it with your father, if I may inquire?" the Ranger asked, quirking a brow at him.
"Better than it might have," the prince replied, careful to keep his voice level, and not to allow his embarrassment or disappointment to show. "You look now upon the newest royal messenger!" Aragorn, though, must have sensed the wince beneath Legolas' light tone, for he made a soft noise of understanding.
"I am sorry, Legolas, that my own actions contributed to this!"
"As you were at pains to try to teach me, it was my place to lead, and not to be led. I should thank you that you went to such trouble on my behalf! And truly, 'tis not so bad a sentence considering my losses. Mirkwood is vast, and I never tire of its beauty. And mayhap one day, my father shall need a message sent elsewhere: to Dale, perhaps, or even Imladris! That would not be so ill for me."
"Nay, I suppose it would not," Aragorn replied.
After that, they fell silent, neither having much else to say in that vein. There comes a point when it does the student little good to hear his own private conclusions voiced by his teachers, and it was to Aragorn's credit as a teacher that he said nothing further as to the necessity of enduring such occasional humiliations, nor of the lessons to be learned therefrom. Still, it might have been an awkward silence, but that Legolas was an Elf, with a fine ear for when words become superfluous. And so instead, it was an almost peaceful lull--but for the darkness that Aragorn continued to struggle against, they would have been quite content. Legolas darted a look at the Ranger out of the corners of his eyes, tracing the other's silhouette, noting his downcast eyes, and the way his hair hid his face in part, seeming to be of the shadow itself. The Elf pursed his lips, debating a moment, ere he asked, somewhat hesitantly, "Aragorn?"
"I am not a healer, not as Lord Elrond is, nor as those who care for Aradhil and Nuilandar are. But... would you wish my aid now? Mayhap between what abilities I have, and your own knowledge, we may find a way for you through the darkness."
There was a longish pause, as the Dúnadan turned that offer over in his mind, but Legolas, though young, had patience that even the most ancient of humans might envy indeed. And so he feared not the other's continued silence, and counted not the moments that ticked away, simply waited as only an Elf can. Finally, "If you are willing, then I would welcome your help."
"Then you shall have it. Is there aught I should know of your people's customs? For they must be different from mine. Perhaps even Elrond's are different...."
"Nay, there is nothing. Do as you would," the other replied, and seemed to brace himself somewhat as Legolas turned towards him, tucking one leg up under himself to accommodate his new position.
"Close your eyes then, and I shall do as I did before," the prince replied, waiting until Aragorn had obeyed ere he laid his left hand on the other's back, mindful of his shoulders. A slight shiver went through them both, and Legolas drew a deep breath, feeling the Ranger do the same. As he had the other night, he let his senses open to the other, braving the darkness that infected the other's soul and assailed his mind as well. But this time, rather than stretch his thought towards an unreceptive void, he felt the Man reach back. The touch of Aragorn's mind was like none other that he had ever experienced, and Legolas uttered a soft cry of astonishment, trying swiftly to orient himself. Dimly, he thought he heard the Ranger laugh softly, and certainly he felt his wry amusement. He had the distinct impression that this odd, somewhat awkward contact was not new to Aragorn, and as if to prove it, the Dúnadan did somewhat and something... changed, locking them together. Of a sudden, Legolas understood, and the laughter in his mind spilled across their bond unhindered. Whither now? he asked... and got his answer fair enough.
Legolas had succored injured friends before, and knew well enough the effort required of him to hold another steady. Yet because he was not a healer, he had never been asked to do more than be an anchor, a guide back to the waking world. But although he found Aragorn to have an oddly light sort of touch, he was in some ways the rougher for being so soft a touch. The sheer effort it needed for him to do what an Elf accomplished much more naturally was compounded by Legolas' uncertainty, and the two of them fumbled and groped their way down the darkened paths of a soul under shadow, clinging tenaciously to each other through the bond they had created, neither daring to release the other, lest he be left adrift in the caliginous tide of mortal terror. The prince did what he could to aid his friend, but soon had to abandon control to the Dúnadan's training. Yet even so, by the end of the ordeal, he was exhausted. So also was Aragorn, he realized, as the two of them floated together in a foggy haze of quiet between dreams and memory. Memory.... Thought of the Nazgûl's touch encroached upon his consciousness, and Legolas hastily thrust it back, hoping the other had not sensed it. Something akin to weary amusement rippled through their bond, and with it the assurance that the Dúnadan felt no threat from that fleeting remembrance. And entwined in that reassurance was regret.... Hush! Legolas roused himself enough to order. It was my offer! The other subsided, and for a time they drifted again, while Legolas marveled to feel the other's pulse keep time, Elf-like, with his own in their shared somnolence. Aragorn seemed to wish to say something, but Legolas hushed him again. Rest! The dawn comes soon enough! He half-expected resistance, but after a momentary hesitation, the Ranger acquiesced gratefully. The prince, contented, let his mind loose its hold on wakefulness, warmly enfolding his friend in an elven dream--guarding him just this once from the vagaries of the wayward human unconscious.
As the long, dark hours of the night spun out, Man and Elf dreamt together in the circle of each other's arms, collapsed against each other, and one by one, the candles guttered and went out.
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.