2. Old, New, Borrowed, True
The Halls of Thranduil were abuzz with rumor, and had been since the youngest prince of the realm had walked out of the woods with blood smeared in his hair and clothes, bringing with him an exhausted Ranger and a prisoner of unknown race. Aradhil, who had met the two perhaps four miles from the gates, had given his prince a long stare, and Aragorn an even longer one, clearly disapproving of the fact that Legolas had gone into battle with naught but a mortal Man to guard his back.
"Your highness, I trust you are both well?" he had asked, and the warden's eyes had strayed quickly to Aragorn's bandaged left hand. But it had been to Legolas that he spoke, despite that "both" and his concern and exasperation had hardly been aimed at Aragorn. As a curiosity or messenger, Aragorn would have such courtesy as was due him from the warden, but Aradhil would hardly accept such a one as a companion in arms—particularly not where his prince was concerned.
"Quite well," Legolas had replied in a deliberately light tone, irked and somewhat offended by the notion that Aradhil did not quite trust him to handle the matter properly, no matter who his companion might be. And Aragorn is hardly a liability in combat! But clearly, naught but the chance to observe the Ranger's virtues would change the warden's opinion, and Legolas rather doubted that Aragorn would live long enough to supply Aradhil with the necessary examples. It might take a century of study for the warden to accept the other's worth, and by then, time would have taken Aragorn on to his separate and final fate. In any case, the walk home had been more silent than usual, and once Gollum had been safely stowed in the dungeons and the necessary courtesies observed, the princes, mortal and elven alike, had retired in search of a bath and a change of clothes.
And sleep, Legolas thought, smiling as he sat upon the railing and gazed down at the slopes below. Although the city of the Elves of Mirkwood had been carved out below and within a mountain, the slopes were riddled throughout with balconies and walkways that went among the trees that grew there, for no Wood-Elf could live in a closed cave. Other than those labyrinthine outlets and the main gates, naught of the city was visible above ground, allowing the forest so beloved of the Elves to grow unhindered by their presence.
Legolas was intimately familiar with all the routes in and out of the city, of course, and he knew with precision which balcony led to the Ranger's guest quarters. Second to the left, just fifteen feet below. Aragorn had politely declined an invitation to supper that first day, and he had been so scarce ever since that rumor had it that the Ranger had slept two days straight, so tired was he. Legolas could well believe it at least, recalling how very weary the other had been. But sooner or later, the Dúnadan would emerge, and Legolas meant to catch him when he did. Thus far, three days had come and gone without the Man showing so much as his shadow. Still, the elven prince was not discouraged, although Aradhil naturally found this latest pursuit of his frivolous, and Thranduil had that air about him that told Legolas that his father was vastly amused by his preoccupation with a Man.
But Legolas paid neither any heed, for other than the Warg pack that he had destroyed with the Ranger, there were no traces of the Dark Lord's creatures within their borders. That meant that Legolas' time was his own to spend for awhile, and if father and mentor were amused or irritated with his chosen sport, he was also old enough to stand against their judgment. But as of yet, neither Aradhil nor Thranduil had said overmuch about this newest pastime, and so, as he waited, the prince, like any good hunter tracking worthy prey, had kept careful watch upon Aragorn's quarters.
And as he watched, Legolas patiently combed through his impressions of his twice-over quarry in the hopes of discerning some inclination or habit that might dictate the daily pattern of the Ranger's life. Given the vagabond ways of the Arnorian Dúnedain, the Elf had come early to watch for the other, and left after sunset, for even a Ranger might hesitate to explore an unknown landscape by night. Otherwise, there was naught to narrow the hours of watching, but an Elf cares little for fleeting days and Legolas used the time to his profit. For he could feel the shifting of his world, and he had much to gain through silent reflection upon what that might mean for him.
One never knows where the future shall lead, not with precision, but the time is nearly come for me to leave these woods. That much I do know, though I know not the hour. Legolas sighed softly, staring at the trees. Elvish eyes traced the most minute differences of light and shade upon their trunks, the different patterns of bark striation, the placement of knots and the new growth of leaves—details realized so fully in the Elf's mind that he could well nigh feel them. He knew these trees so well! Each was to him wholly different from its neighbors, an individual being that he greeted as a familiar, a companion. Such an attitude might be incomprehensible to a mortal, but to an elven prince, essentially peerless and with all the long ages of the world before him, trees were perhaps the only beings that he could rely upon to grow with him.
Certainly a mortal could not provide the sort of companionship that comes of centuries of association, and yet Legolas waited now for a Man to rouse himself to the new day. Folly indeed, I should say, the Prince of Mirkwood thought with a slight smile for his own seeming whimsy. Yet this is not any mortal, and whatever Aradhil might think, Aragorn has a place in the ending of this Age, and many destinies hang upon him. I think it is time that I learned the swift way of friendship, rather than relying upon the old and tried ways of the Elves.
For elvish ways had not sufficed to hold Tharinsal in Middle-earth, not though his brother had been a thousand years his senior, a thousand years deeper into the fabric of Middle-earth. To fade away or to set sail was the fate of the Elves, but those of the woodland realm knew little of Valinor, save the tales. Arda was their first love, and Legolas, like all of his brethren, looked ahead to the day of departure with heartache and a peculiar sense of dread. To hear the Noldor speak of it, the sea-longing was the natural end of an Elf, and naught to be feared: rather, it was to be embraced, for it would lead the Eldar—whether Sindarin or Noldorin—home. But to leave Arda behind, to leave the trees of his homeland behind forever...?
The promise of a new love could not soothe the fear of the loss of his first, and Legolas willed to remain in Middle-earth for awhile at least. For a long while, as long as possible, he thought, and knew not whether such words as 'long' had any meaning for one who looked upon the next five hundred years in the same way that an adult human might view the next five. The Age might end ere I do, taking with it all that I hold dear. And then where would I go? What would we do, who have dwelt here so long? Would enough of us remain to rebuild? Or would we have then only a choice between a faded existence and an exiled one?
Legolas knew not the answers to such questions, but for the moment, all inquiries were set to one side as the young prince tensed. For below him, a tall form had emerged and stood leaning against the railing, surveying the day. The Elf smiled, a mischievous, rather predatory smile laden with anticipation, and he stood upon the slender stone rail. He had gauged the distance two days ago, and knew with precision how far he must leap; he waited now only for Aragorn to move slightly to the left, so that he would not risk hitting him. The Dúnadan, however, seemed content to remain where he was, and Legolas pursed his lips, considering his next move. Perhaps it was childish to pursue the other thus, for it would be far simpler to knock on his door, but Legolas had invested two and a half days in this endeavor already and he intended to see it through.
And I suppose I need not land beside him... The Elf made his decision, took two steps and leapt, tucking into a smooth somersault. He made no sound as he landed, yet he could not control the ripple of air: Aragorn, feeling a sudden, slight draft, as of someone breathing lightly down the back of his neck, turned swiftly, laying a hand to the hilt of his dagger. At the sight of Legolas standing there, looking quite nonchalant about his unexpected arrival, the Ranger released his weapon, but his eyes narrowed. Glancing past the Elf, he quickly spotted several places whence the Elf might have come, and sighed softly.
"Will you tell me at least whether it was a balcony or a tree?" he asked, arching a brow at the prince.
"Two balconies to your right, and one above," Legolas admitted easily. "You seem much improved! Have you used the days to your advantage?"
"By which you mean to ask where I have been, do you not?" Aragorn responded wryly, and chuckled when the Elf nodded.
"There are those who hold that you have slept through a few days," Legolas prodded.
"'Days' is quite accurate," the Ranger admitted. "I have traveled by night since the first of February. Only when I reached Mirkwood's eaves did I press on by daylight as well as darkness, and only to hasten the journey. One needs time to accustom oneself to rise at dawn, rather than in the afternoon."
"What is this creature, Gollum, so desired by Mithrandir, that brings you hither with such speed?" Legolas asked, curious. But rather than answer, the Man folded his arms across his chest as he gazed considerately at the Elf, seeming to weigh some matter in his mind.
At last, Aragorn replied, "Without intending any disrespect, your highness, I know not what Mithrandir may have revealed to your father, and would count myself bound to silence for a time at least. One does not discuss the business of a wizard lightly, even with friends and allies of long standing." A pause, then, "Indeed, there are days when I wish I knew not as much as I do of Gandalf's affairs, and particularly this one!"
"Ah?" Legolas murmured, intrigued in spite of his disappointment at being left in the dark. "You have known Mithrandir long then?" he asked instead, willing to change the subject somewhat.
"Longer than have many, though in truth, I know not what such a word means in the mouth of an Elf." Aragorn chuckled again. "Some sixty years ago we met first as allies. Before that, he was a sometime guest of Elrond's, and so I knew a little of him as a child. But that is still a short while for one of the Eldar."
"Short indeed," Legolas replied. "But most Men do not think in such terms."
"I have been accused of an elvish affectation before," Aragorn said, though he seemed untroubled and even vaguely amused by that fact. "And what shall I think of you, Legolas, who would befriend a mortal so swiftly? In these late days, that is unusual in an Elf."
"Naught ill, I should hope!"
"I said not so, only that I, too, am curious, for I have known many Elves, and few will to invest in so short-lived a relationship. Not when they may hasten its end themselves by taking the seaward roads."
"You were raised in Imladris," Legolas replied. "There dwell still many of the Noldor, and strange are their ways. We who are Nandorin* are not so eager to leave this world, and would seek ways to remain in it for as long as we may. But doubtless you speak truly otherwise, for we, too, do not seek Men out. Ever we turn inward, seeking only to preserve what is ours, rather than extend our reach. It is perhaps a fault in the elvish temperament that we often love the land more than those creatures that go upon it!"
"But you would learn better?"
"I would learn, yes. Whether for better or for worse, though," the Elf added, with a bright gleam in his eyes, "that I know not!"
"Such insinuations tilt the balance in favor of 'worse,' young prince," Aragorn retorted.
"'Tis said that the instructor must take first blame for the fault of his students."
"Most instructors have not elvish pupils!"
"All of those here do!"
Aragorn shook his head and laughed softly. "Lesson the first: you must make allowances for the shortcomings of the merely mortal." The words were spoken in jest and utterly without rancor, but the Elf felt his mood shift instantly.
"So say many, and less kindly at that," Legolas admitted, feeling somewhat ashamed. The Ranger gave a minute shrug at that.
"I know. But it is not my place or purpose to change that, nor do I believe that I would be successful if I did try. The ties of friendship that once bound our races together are now nearly severed, and soon they shall be little more than a legend, I fear," Aragorn replied. Both were silent then, regretting already that inevitability, but soon Isildur's Heir shook himself and changed subjects with all the suddenness of an Elf. "But come, let us not speak of that! Rather, I would learn more of this place, for as I said before, it has been many long years since I entered Thranduil's realm. Tell me how fare the Elves of Mirkwood forest."
"As do many others, I suspect: we look anxiously east, and fight to hold our borders and folk secure against the incursions of the Dark Lord's minions," Legolas replied. "And between battles, we continue our lives. Trade with the Bardings is somewhat more bountiful this year, strangely enough. Though perhaps it is not so very difficult to understand, for they stand in good stead with both the Elves and the dwarven realm of Erebor. Against the shadow of the east, three such kingdoms would do well to make overtures of alliance among themselves... though I know not what to think of the prospect of having the Dwarves as allies! Let the Bardings deal with them, for they are already at the fulcrum in all such dealings."
"The King Under the Mountain would make a powerful ally, and a certain one," Aragorn mused, by way of counterpoint to the Elf's obvious dislike for the Children of Aulë. "Were it my decision, I would not so lightly consign them to a distant truce, whatever bad blood might remain between my people and theirs."
Legolas grunted, but he did not take up the other's gambit, preferring to continue the business of answering Aragorn's original question. "We must deal also with the Beornings. They are not numerous, but they are well-respected and fierce, and they at least keep a part of the road under watch, so it is not solely our duty to see hapless travelers through the forest."
"I see," Aragorn said, accepting the other's refusal to discuss the dwarvish situation as almost inevitable. "In such times as these, I would count that good fortune indeed!"
"What of the North, where your people wander?"
"Things are not so well there, I fear, though there are many who know naught of the troubles that plague their land. Out of the Misty Mountains come many fell creatures, and they are grown quite bold. Spies infest the region, and I have lost more men this year than in years prior. Already, we know of three places where our enemies have begun to gather in some strength, and each raid upon them loses more lives in a battle that does naught but buy both sides time to rebuild. We are too few, spread too thinly over too wide a land! And we have still our own to think of: women and children, the aged and the men who are warriors only at need. Few are they this year, for need ever beckons, it seems."
"I did not know that Eriador's plight was so evil," Legolas said softly, cocking his head at the Ranger as he gazed searchingly at the other. Aragorn gazed back unflinchingly, and the Elf made a decision. "I would show you a thing, though the way is not free of danger. Will you come?"
"If you wish it," Aragorn replied, intrigued though a part of him sighed wearily at the notion of challenging fate once again. One can dance at the edge of a fire only so many times ere one is burned. How many times shall I dare the flames? And as ever, the greater part of his mind and heart replied firmly: As often as need be, and unto death if I must! But if he did not precisely look forward to a perilous journey, he was glad to have Legolas with him. And whatever it is that he would have me see, it has some great significance to him, clearly. I wonder what it is?
"Come then!" the Elf said, and beckoned him once more into the underground halls. Between stone pillars carved to seem as pale trees, down the long and echoing corridors they went, until they reached a door. Legolas opened it and went in, and Aragorn followed, uncertain what to expect. Someone's private quarters opened before him—Legolas' chambers, he realized, and the Ranger glanced about, noting the various objects therein. An airy space, as one would expect, draped in various abstract tapestries that managed somehow to convincingly imitate sun upon the treetops. The Elf seemed to have a fondness for glass sculpture, which struck him as not out of place in a Wood Elf, and particularly in a younger one. There was something about the other's personality that glittered transparently, and as sunlight refracts through glass, so did conversation through the Elf's mind: a chance remark might elicit a number of different responses, until Legolas had exhausted the scope of the idea.
That, at least, was Aragorn's impression of the other, and he smiled slightly at his attempt to gain some insight into Legolas through the objects that the Elf possessed. Elves being quite particular about their surroundings, I may even be close to right in this case, he thought, waiting for him to emerge from the set of rooms that lay beyond the further door. Which was why he took care not to disturb anything by so much as an inch, for having grown up in an elvish household, he knew quite well how that would affect the prince's temper. For nothing was ever left to chance, and an Elf knew with precision the arrangement of his or her home; let anything fail to conform to the exacting standards of elvish memory, and it would be immediately corrected. And although Aragorn recognized in his own habits the stamp of that upbringing, the level of aesthetic perfection that characterized the elvish mind was beyond his aspirations, even had it not been beyond his reach.
Just then, Legolas returned, bearing with him a sheathed sword and his bow and quiver. The Elf tossed the scabbard to the Ranger, who caught it easily, and slid the blade a good ten inches out of its sheath for inspection. "That was Tharinsal's ere he departed for the havens, so you need not fear," Legolas told him. "Its edge has not dulled, and you are of a height with him so it should suit you well. Will a borrowed sword bother you?"
"Any sword I use is borrowed," Aragorn replied. Which did not mean he was not cursing Gollum for the loss of his most recent sword, lost to the river as he had struggled to ferry his prisoner and himself across it unnoticed.
"Understand, I do not slight your skill with a dagger after our skirmish, but one feels the need of something more than knives where we are going!" Legolas added quickly.
That did little to encourage the Ranger, but he only nodded ere he slung the baldric over one shoulder and across his chest, settling the sword comfortably at his side. "Then you have my thanks for the loan," he replied simply. "Lead the way!"
Three hours after Elf and Man had set out, Legolas paused at the base of a great tree. All that morning as they had journeyed, the southward path had grown narrower, gradually fading away entirely; and although the noon time sun shone bright, the trees grew so thick and close that beneath their eaves lay a perpetual twilight.
"Follow me carefully!" Legolas said, and began to climb swiftly up the tree. The Ranger for his part gazed up with some misgiving, doubting whether he would be able to follow the Elf. I think me he has already forgotten the first lesson! But with a soft sigh, Aragorn leapt and caught hold of the lowest branch, grimacing somewhat as the puncture wounds to his left hand ached under the strain, and he swung a leg over to pull himself up into the tree.
From there he very carefully rose and began to pick his way through the branches, doing his best to keep to the 'path' that Legolas had taken. At length, the Elf came to a halt, much to the Ranger's relief. Legolas caught his arm tightly and pointed below them, to the treetops that showed there. For Mirkwood lay in a basin, so that the trees grew at different heights, and from certain points, one willing to risk the upper branches could see clear to Erebor above the forest.
"Behold Mirkwood," Legolas said, gesturing to the trees. "And behold also the reason for its naming!" The Elf pointed across a valley of trees to a dark and terrible shape that rose up out of the forest.
"Dol Guldur," Aragorn murmured, recognizing the tower almost immediately. He had seen it before, though never so clearly as this. As a spike of black rock it seemed, but shading his eyes with his hand, the Ranger could discern carved walkways and crenels. The air about it seemed thick and hazy, as if a mist clung to it. Or as if it is but a mirage, as one sees in the deserts of Harad, he thought uneasily.
"Sometimes it stands clear against the sky, like a knife; at other times, it is scarce able to be seen. And it changes," Legolas said softly. "It has not one face but many, and all of them horrible! Since the year of the dragon, a new menace has dwelt there, one subservient, but the Dark Lord's aura is imbued in the very stones. There pulses sickly a concordance of evil will, and the shadow lies upon all our hearts. I fear that Rhovanion will never be free of the taint, even if, by some unforeseen grace, Mordor is cast down. And so that which we love best is maimed, and we bear the hurt within ourselves as a mirror image of the injury done our home." The Elf sighed, glancing at the Ranger at his side. "Is it thus with Men? Know they whereof I speak?"
Aragorn did not answer immediately, still absorbed by the dreadful view and with thoughts of Gollum preying upon his mind. That tower was many things to him: more evidence of the spread of the cancer of malice; a mocking reminder of the years that the Dark Lord had dwelt in their midst without their knowledge; but before all else, it was Sauron's—Barad-dûr as seen through a broken mirror, perhaps. And in spite of himself, the Ranger felt the pull of fascination—of desire to know more intimately his enemy's mind through his work.
Have I not seen enough examples of Sauron's 'craft'? Orcs and Wargs, trolls and ruined Men, carrion birds bent to his will and creatures more foul than they and older in evil! He shook himself and darted a glance at the Elf, who waited expectantly, watching him with something akin to worry. "Men are not insensitive to the land, but neither are we bound so very tightly to it. We suffer differently the same ills, Legolas, but our sorrow is no less true for being briefer, or less consistent."
"Then perhaps you are fortunate," the Elf replied. "No Elf is born without the knowledge of sorrow firmly enmeshed in blood and bone. To learn it, to remember a time without it—that must be a gift!"
"A dangerous one," Aragorn said in response, "as are all gifts. For we stray easily in our ignorance, and once stung by sorrow, we learn swiftly to fear it as well. Of more changeable stuff are we made, and so we are more susceptible to corruption, I fear. Perhaps that gives a certain nobility to those who resist such changes and their own nature, but often do Men long for the stability of the Eldar races. If you have not learned envy, then you soon shall, if you would truly learn the ways of mortal creatures." Legolas pursed his lips, seeming to consider all of Aragorn's words, and for awhile longer, Man and Elf stared out at the menace of the tower. "Do you come here often?" the Ranger asked after a time, and there was an edge of concern in his voice.
"More than I ought," Legolas admitted. "I know what you fear: that such fascination is the first step into the snare. But one must know what one fights, and however deep and permanent an Elf's grief, there is much that is beautiful that causes us to forget it for a time. Why else does the Forest River** send all creatures who touch it into oblivion? It is laden with our will to forget the pain of waning Arda!" He sighed softly, then, with a final, defiant look at the tower, said, "Let us go down now, for I at least have seen enough."
"Gladly," Aragorn replied, and let the Elf lead the way back down to the earth.
"You do not climb badly," Legolas observed, watching as the Ranger dropped from the last branch to land solidly on his feet. "I hope your hand does not trouble you unduly."
"I have had worse before," the other replied, adjusting the baldric to settle the sword more comfortably. That was not really an answer, but Legolas accepted it, unwilling to embarrass the Ranger. Instead, he turned once more to the matter of the wizard and Gollum.
"Think you that Mithrandir will come soon to see this... creature?"
"I know not, in truth. When last we spoke, he purposed to go to Minas Tirith, as I told you upon our meeting. Whether he remains there, or has already returned to Eriador by some other route, I know not. Messages I have left for him with bearers that I trust, but I cannot be certain of his movements."
"Would you stay until he came?"
"I may not," Aragorn replied, and not without regret. "If he comes not within two weeks, then I shall take my leave, for I have other tasks to see to, and I have been too long away from those whom I love."
"Your wife?" Legolas queried, guessing blindly. But the Ranger shook his head.
"Nay, no wife waits for me," the other said, and though he kept his gaze focused upon the ground, the Elf perceived an oddly tender note in his voice. "Cousins and friends have I in the North, and who knows now how many remain? Not every return is a glad one."
"I know that well," Legolas responded, deciding to let fall questions of marriage, for it seemed that the Dúnadan did not wish to speak of them. "Tharinsal is gone, and though I have two other brothers left now, Nindarth speaks now of departing, and he is but a few centuries older than I. Father and Thirisul urge him to consider carefully, but our sisters say naught, and have lately begun to look west as well!" The Elf shook his head and sighed, "I fear that he shall not remain here long. And who knows but that with his departure, our sisters may go as well! The shadow is everywhere, as I said, and I blame that tower for the fear and anguish that drive my brother and sisters from their native shores."
"The Dark Lord has much to answer for," Aragorn replied grimly, casting a sidelong glance at his companion, noting the taut expression of pain on the other's face. "Mourn not overmuch in advance, my friend, and take what comfort you can from the knowledge that the day of reckoning approaches. Too swiftly, I deem, but even if we fail, we may yet take our revenge. But since we left our perch to forget Dol Guldur and its master, let us leave such thoughts for now. Show me Mirkwood, if you will, for I would not learn only of the forest's pain."
"Gladly will I show you," Legolas said with a smile. "And perhaps afterward, you shall understand our pain better, and yet feel it as bittersweet rather than sour!"
*Nandorin: Thanks to Arynetrek for bringing this up. I originally thought Legolas was a Sindarin Elf, since that is what he speaks, and most Elves seem to be referred to as Sindarin in the Third Age. Two things made me waver and go with Nandorin: Legolas' and Thranduil's names just sound a lot different (to me) from other Sindarin names, i.e. Elrond, Galadriel, Haldir, Celeborn, even Aragorn. So I wandered over to Ardalambion again and looked up Nandorin just to see if there were any listings. Not much, but Mirkwood was described as being originally a linguisitc stronghold of Nandorin, though the language was eventually superseded and supplanted by Sindarin as refugees came out of Beleriand and other such places. That piqued my interest enough to try an experiment with Legolas' ancestry. It may change in subsequent tales, but for consistency's sake, I thought I'd tack on my motives behind this switch.
**Forest River: Thanks to all who have read the Sil thoroughly enough to tell me whence came the name "Esgalduin."
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