1. Litte Estel
When winter first begins to bite
and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
'tis evil in the Wild to fare.
–The Fellowship of the Ring
Aragorn had observed Legolas ride into the inner courtyard of Rivendell shortly before the dinner hour. Clad in woodland greens and browns, the prince of Mirkwood had worn his hood up also, no doubt in order to hide his brilliant hair while traveling. Nonetheless, he was easy enough for Aragorn to recognize by the lithe athleticism unique to him. He dismounted from his dapple grey horse, with the energy of one who had returned from a short ride rather than endured an arduous trip of over a week at the very least.
Legolas immediately sequestered himself with Elrond and Gandalf; Aragorn did not see him again, even to greet him, before dinner. Looking at him from a short distance, across a half dozen other diners, Aragorn waited for Legolas' ever ready laugh that did not come. Hours later, full of the comfort food of Rivendell, and a little too much to drink, he set off in search of his old friend. He found him on an open porch adjacent to the Hall of Fire
Legolas, a bit wanly perhaps, finally smiled at him. "Little Estel," he said, smirking with affection, before he ducked his head down, chin against his chest, almost as though he were embarrassed. "It's been half your lifetime since we have had a moment to talk."
"'Little Estel?' Really? 'Little Estel?' If you ever say that in front of anyone, I might have to hurt you." Aragorn felt himself grinning so hard his face hurt.
"Oh I won't—at least not anyone who is not already privy to your darker past." The intimacy in his tone was thick as treacle, even for Legolas, to whom warmth came without a struggle. "Certainly not in front of the dwarf or that dour self-important Gondorian noble. It's simply that when I have not seen you in a while, I always think of what you were like the first time I met you. One of the prettiest, cheekiest lads I had ever encountered--indulged by a widowed mother and protected by Elrond, who is well known for spoiling children under any circumstances."
"You say that every time I see you also."
"I am fond of you, Estel of Imladris. Or should I call you Aragorn heir of the Sea Kings. What were the Hobbits calling you? Strider? Now there is a name. Who gave you that one? Sounds like an invention of Mithrandir. "
"You have a good ear."
It was better than good to finally see Legolas again. No point in exercising any extreme self-control in hiding that he admired what he saw. It wasn't worth the trouble, especially not when Aragorn had imbibed far too much wine with dinner to have followed it with the potent Miruvor of Imladris. The Elven capacity for strong drink had caused Aragorn to indulge beyond his own considerable tolerance all too often in the past. That night was no exception. Because of his inebriated state, when Arwen had left him alone, after counseling him to seek Legolas, he had been too foggy-headed to ask her reason.
"Where is the fair Arwen?" the Elf asked, as though reading his mind.
"She went to bed. Told me I might find you out here." Aragorn looked beyond the railing onto the line of tall, straight trees silhouetted against a sky of darkest mariner's blue dotted with stars. The air held a chill which threatened to grow worse until morning. Somewhat disingenuously he said, "She seemed to think we had something that we needed to discuss or perhaps she had another reason entirely. She knows you are fond of me."
"That I am and she does know it. Has she never heard the old saying, 'Give a man too much rope and he might hang himself?'" Legolas asked, laughing softly, reaching his hand out toward Aragorn before letting it drop, an unexpressed promise interrupted.
There was something about the bright prince of deepest Mirkwood that always reminded him of enchanted heroes of fantasy tales set in worlds long passed away. Legolas held himself with his usual grace, and, despite his jesting tone, a shadow of regret haunted his handsome face, creating an exquisite aura of remoteness. Or, more likely, the moonlight enhanced the pallor of his skin and the lightness of his flowing hair, still kinked from the recent unbraiding of his tight warrior plaits. Illuminated by a sconce sputtering near the open door, the bloody elf appeared to have no pores in his skin at all. Aragorn was indeed intoxicated. Should have gone upstairs with Arwen, he thought.
Never a man to turn his back on a challenge, Aragorn now faced two. He knew not whether Arwen acted in compassion, secure in her place in his heart, or if her actions and words were some sort of test of him, one that he could pass or fail. Perhaps he only invented problems and she knew more of her father's plans for them than she let on and wanted to give Legolas and him a chance to talk before the morning's council. And Legolas? What did he ask or offer?
"If I did not know better, I might think that you are flirting," Aragorn said.
Legolas chuckled and then bit his bottom lip. There was no mistaking his intent. "Don't be coy; you know I am. If anyone would know, you should."
"What am I supposed to do with that information?"
"Follow your heart? You already declined to follow your lady. My understanding is that she deliberately left you on your own tonight. Even she must have noticed you are not entirely sober. She could have guessed how tempting I might be to you and how hard it is for you to armor yourself against my wicked wiles."
"Yes," Aragorn answered, heart racing. "I suppose there is always that. But something else is bothering you."
"Still sharper than a serpent's tooth, even tipsy. I had hoped Elrond had spoken to you. I can only presume in that case that part of my punishment is to tell you myself."
"I think the aphorism means sharp in the sense of cruel not clever. You have information for me? No doubt of the vile little monster?" Aragorn's heart sank. Neither he nor Gandalf had gained any useful information from the creature, but Thranduil was of a mind that time and patience might win out, where direct and forceful questioning had failed. "What happened? Nothing good. I can read that much from your face. Did he hang himself in his cell?"
"Worse," Legolas replied with a mordant laugh.
"Maybe we need another drink? Well, you, I mean. I am not sure I can handle any more."
"I came prepared." Legolas raised his arm holding a jug. Aragorn recognized by its shape and color that it came from Elrond's cellar. "No more Miruvor for you tonight. Red wine. Watered. I cannot vouch for the variety, but Elrond is discerning."
"My room or the lower terrace?" Aragorn looked over the stone wall to see if the enclosed garden below was as deserted as he expected it to be. "There is no one on the terrace and a fire has been lit. I trust, if we finish that jug, you will make sure that I find my room tonight."
When they had settled down with wine goblets in hand, before the warming fire, Legolas spoke. "There is something I would tell you before Elrond's meeting tomorrow. As I said, I had hoped you knew already. My intention is to beg your forgiveness and offer a defense, feeble as it is."
"By all the Valar, Legolas. There is nothing you could ever do that warrants such anxiety. Surely you realize I would forgive you anything. I know you."
Legolas averted his eyes, allowing his shoulders to slump into a posture of defeat. "You should listen before you speak. I have disturbing news tonight, which you in particular will take hard." The golden elf's face flushed with shame and distress, all of his earlier attempts at maintaining some measure of composure abandoned. "I have disgraced myself, failed you, Mithrandir, and my father. He charged me with the supervision of the creature's warders. Through my negligence the little monster escaped and brave and conscientious guards were slain or captured."
Aragorn could scarce believe his ears. Legolas had never been casual in the fulfillment of any duty, however arduous. "Tell me what happened. Did not your father explain how critical he was to our cause?"
"Of course he did. But by the time I took upon myself the charge of overseeing his imprisonment, he appeared a pathetic, broken wretch. Refusing to eat anything except for raw fish and resting little, muttering to himself and even beating his head against the wall until it bled. We believed he pined for lack of sunlight and nourishment, that perhaps he could even die from his self-torture."
Aragorn released a scorn-filled huff. "He is as wily as he is corrupted by the evil that now threatens our world. Your dungeons are luxurious compared to the conditions he had long endured when I found him."
"I know that now. But all of my men suffered greatly by being forced to witness his pain. We began to take him out for brief periods of exercise and sunlight. They found a tree where he liked to sit—crawling up onto a lower branch and perching there like a squirrel. While he had scorned our meals, when he was free to sit in his tree, he ate grubs and insects and even an occasional bird, biting off its head and spitting out feathers and bones." Legolas shuddered. "Revolting to watch. But the guards surrounding the tree left him to his own resources, knowing he could not escape; they reported that he grew calmer day by day. We never had less than four or five guards looking after him and he returned to his cell each night with less and less protest. Until one night he refused to come down."
"And you left him in the tree?" Aragorn blurted out disbelieving.
"Hardly!" Legolas said, with a hint of his characteristic princely arrogance before his face again clouded with contrition. "I asked for volunteers to keep watch upon him overnight. Offered them my everlasting gratitude and an invitation to the King's table at an upcoming festival—laugh and I will hate you forever." Legolas fought in vain to restrain an astringent smile.
"I'd never laugh in the face of your obvious pain. Look around you. This is my childhood home. The absence of the trappings of royalty in no way diminishes the elegance of the setting and the comforts afforded its inhabitants. The Last Homely House may offer refuge and solace to the beleaguered or lost, but hardly fits the most common usage of the word homely."
"Thank the Belain for that. I hate myself enough for both of us. I was a vain fool. What I was trying to say is that they will never be able to collect their hard-earned prize. Do you remember Dolris the son of Durnen?"
"In all honesty I do not."
"Strapping fellow with dark hair and grey eyes. We grew up together. His body was not found among those of the slain. I cannot bear to think of his fate. I do not know if it is worse that he still might live or not."
Aragorn reached out to grab hold of Legolas' arm, but he jerked it away.
"I do not seek comfort. I need . . . I want to . . . feel bad." Legolas grimaced. "That sounded horribly self-indulgent."
"Your words," Aragorn responded. "I am sorry for your loss. There is little point for self-blame. I wish you had arrived before I left him with your father. Perhaps I could have impressed upon you how difficult he was to ensnare, how vicious he was. What is done is done."
Legolas moved to embrace him. "All right then. More wine? So, I notice you keep company with Arwen now, in front of her father and brothers. Are congratulations in order?"
"Nothing has changed. The original conditions set by Elrond remain in place." He had not intended to sigh so obviously. "The older I get the more I understand Elrond's logic. But I cannot but continue to hope."
Legolas gave a dismissive grunt. "I doubt that she would abide by her father's wishes if you insisted. But I did warn her myself of the trap she is walking into," he said. Aragorn could not determine if he was serious or teasing him again. "I told her that Mortal Men use women as brood mares. She will lose her figure permanently. And for what? The loss of her quasi-immortality? A short and brutal life, in Gondor of all places? Oh, I almost forgot you are a double threat to her comfort. Not simply a mortal man whose line has survived over more than an Age—which has meant a lot of child bearing for your female kin. Like your bride-to-be, among other noble forefathers, your line dates back to the House of Finwë; among the Eldar they are infamous for breeding like rabbits."
"Stop! You are a liar. You never said any such thing to her. And the way the world is turning now, it has never looked less likely that I might fulfill the requirements of taking her as my wife."
"What a sad story. Well, you can always have me without impossible requirements. Imagine Thranduil inventing tasks for you to win my hand?" That made them both laugh.
"He would spare no words in reminding both of us that it was not your hand I wanted," Aragorn grumbled. "But no matter. That is history now." Legolas' dimples had brought Aragorn to his knees before. In the future he would keep himself in sterner check.
"I'll never kiss and tell," Legolas said with a charming Nandorin lilt, another weapon from his arsenal that he saved for only the most difficult of battles.
"Why are you pressing me so hard tonight?" Aragorn asked. "This is hardly the place or the circumstances."
"Because, if my guess is right, you'll be leaving soon and I have no idea if I will ever see you again."
"Oh, you will be seeing me. Elrond is going to ask you to accompany the questing party he intends to organize."
"I'd follow you to the deepest pits of Utumo and back."
"Outrageous statements are a great part of your charm, Thranduilion. But likelihood of success or not, I need to keep my eye on my purpose."
"While you are keeping your eye fixed upon the end of your quest, you will need someone to watch your back. Who better than me?"
"None, my friend. Absolutely none." Aragorn extended his hand.
This time Legolas clasped it with purpose. "Shall I call you 'my Captain'?"
"Please don't. I am unlikely to be anyone's captain. We have no idea who our companions will be. Perhaps Glorfindel . . . or even Erestor . . . or both. Maybe Gildor. He would be perfect with his peerless knowledge of geography and the ever changing movements and alliances of the enemies of the free peoples of Middle-earth."
"I don't think any of them will be chosen. If I know your foster father and Mithrandir, they are playing a deeper game," Legolas said, with an enigmatic smile. "In any case, I am at your service, my lord."
"I am grateful your father cannot hear you say that."
"I am not my father and never will be."
Aragorn threw his head back laughing and slapped his knee at that. "No. You definitely are not!"
The longer they talked the less tipsy Aragorn felt and yet more subtly vulnerable to the unspoken demands being placed upon him.
Never again had he expected to see Legolas so lit up by his preternatural beauty as he did that first day they rode beyond the valley together. No one sat a horse quite like him, so easy and so casual. His pale golden hair, only plaited around his lustrous, high-cheek-boned face, had hung loose down his back, gently stirring in the late spring breeze. The sun beat hot upon their forearms and Legolas' dulcet voice raised in an ancient Nandorin air echoed back upon them from the craggy cliffs rising on all sides.
Aragorn had been a young and inexperienced lad then. Legolas, the same ageless flirt as now, as likely as not thought it would be a charitable act to drive the clueless Mortal youth crazy with longing and desire and then offer to soothe his agony. One could hardly complain that it had been anything less than a remarkable way to lose one's virginity.
But here Legolas was before him again, just as stunning, lit only by the gleam of the sconces, in the autumn chill and the dark of midnight of Estel's boyhood home. Legolas appeared determined to confess all his doubts and crimes to him, and to ask for forgiveness, as though his unnecessary abasement were part of some last desperate effort at yet another seduction.
Aragorn made his decision in an instant, before his vagrant will deserted him once more. "I'd best be going in now, my friend. We will learn more of our possible fate tomorrow in council. I expect that Arwen is reading, waiting up for me."
"She does that?" Legolas asked, taken aback, his earnest and shocked expression truly comical.
"Well, it is easy to see that you have had no serious relationship with a woman." Having made his decision to hold temptation at bay, it was easier and easier to laugh.
"Run along to your sweetheart then. We have all the time in the world. I predict we will be going on a long and challenging quest together. Not even the Belain know who may be our companions, but I can guarantee you that your fair lady will not be among them. There will be danger, and far more darkness before there is light. Every friend and every form of comfort will be welcomed." He smiled and winked. "Sweet dreams, little Estel."