Disclaimer:  I borrow characters and situations from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine.  I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

As always, thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

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9. The Decision (November 15 to December 24, 3018 TA)

They remained at the same campsite for the rest of that day and all of the next, giving Sadoc's wound some time to begin to knit. On the morning of November 16, they set out eastward again.  The skies were grayer now than they had been when they set out on this trip, for autumn was turning gradually to winter. The wind had turned chill and pushed icy fingers through the folds of their cloaks.  They saw no sign of the Nazgûl, however, and were beginning to be cautiously hopeful that the Riders had gone.  On the evening of November 19, they rode into the ruined streets of Tharbad.

As they rode into the ruined town, Legolas looked around him curiously.  Tharbad had once been a thriving river port city of Men, but as the population of Eriador dwindled, battered by plague and war, the city had gradually shrunk and had finally been deserted a little over a hundred years before when floods devastated it after the Fell Winter. Still, its bridge was one of the few ways across the River Gwathlo and from it, the Old South Road led on into Dunland and toward the Gap of Rohan.

To Legolas the town seemed haunted.  The deserted streets were eerie in the gathering dusk as they rode between piles of stones that represented the wrecked and silent buildings where once Men had bustled busily about.  He could hear whispers of their presence from the trees and the grass that now pushed their way through the pavings and the building foundations.

Aragorn had been here before and he led them through piles of rocks to a grassy area near the river.  Here they could shelter inside some remnants of wall. The Men were beginning to feel the cold especially at night, and the walls would provide welcome protection from the wind.

They divided the tasks of setting up camp as they had been doing for weeks now.  They had been late getting here and dark had come early.  Even the Elves welcomed the warmth of the campfire.  Legolas sat quietly flipping the dagger he had drawn from his boot and catching it again by the handle.  He was trying to draw comfort from the spindly trees that grew here and there, but he found himself wishing for the forests of home.

Annael too sang softly of Mirkwood as the Men smoked their pipes, conscientiously downwind of the Elves.  He sighed. "The fall festival will be over by now," he said wistfully.

Amdir poked moodily at the fire with a long stick. "I for one will be glad to get home," he said.  "Our bows will be needed when the Evil One turns his eye on Mirkwood."

Aragorn regarded him.  "I believe that what you are doing now is a greater service to Mirkwood than your bows could provide at home," he said.

Beliond snorted.  Legolas knew that Beliond's attitude toward Aragorn had softened somewhat, but the older Elf still believed that their duty lay elsewhere than with the Dúnadan.  "Are you certain that you do not mean a greater service to you in your quest to regain a kingdom?" Beliond asked bluntly.

"That is enough, Beliond," Legolas snapped, but Aragorn raised his hand.

"Peace," he said and turned to Beliond.  "I understand your doubt, Beliond," he said. "But you know as well as I that unless Frodo is successful, the rest of us are doomed to slavery.  I believe that I can help the hobbit and that is far more important than who is king afterwards.  A kingdom may come to me. It would be my right by birth.  But if I seek it, I do so because I believe that my leadership could help to draw together the people of Middle-Earth to fight Sauron and to build a world in which we would wish our children to live."

Legolas stared at him, his heart pounding with a sense of the importance of what Aragorn was saying.  Amdir and Annael too seemed impressed and even Beliond's attention was held, albeit against his will.

"The people of Middle-Earth are scattered and divided," Aragorn went on.  "We cannot continue so and hope to triumph." He sighed. "Still, I know that your own land and people are closest to your heart. We should not quarrel over this."  He knocked the ashes out of his pipe.  "Let us set the watches," he said.  They divided the watches and slept.

The next morning, they began the last, long leg of their trip. They turned north and east, intending to ride up the eastern side of the Gwathlo, but needing first to skirt the Swanfleet marshes.  The Misty Mountains appeared again far in the distance to the east and swans soared overhead.  Legolas had never seen one before and was struck by the graceful beauty of these creatures of Ulmo.

The second night out of Tharbad, they camped near the ford that would take them across the Gladuin river the next day.  As they sat around the campfire, eating the stew that Amdir had managed to concoct from the meager supplies they had left, Legolas found that he felt uneasy.  He glanced around the camp.  The Men were leaning wearily against the rocks that ringed their campsite, but Annael was pacing restlessly along the edge and Beliond looked troubled.  Even Amdir, whose temper was normally sunny when he was cooking, seemed melancholy.

Teoran's eyes were on the pacing Annael.  When Amdir stopped what he was doing and stood staring off into the distance, he could contain himself no longer.  "What is the matter with you all?" he asked in exasperation.

Legolas hesitated and then said, "It's the stones.  They are lamenting the passage of Elves long ago."

Teoran, Sadoc, and Caroran all looked at him sidelong.  They were used to the presence of Elves but still found them unfathomable at times. "What Elves?" asked Sadoc.

"We are near where the ancient city of the Elven smiths stood when they forged the rings of power," Legolas answered.  His words fell into an answering silence.  The significance of the site was not lost on anyone in this party, who had sought the Nazgûl, holders of the nine rings, for over a month.

Caroran's eyes slid toward Beliond.  They had become friends over the last few weeks, but the young man had still heard more than he wished about the weakness of Men. "It seems that Elves too make mistakes," he murmured.

Beliond frowned. "Celebrimbor saw the truth in the end," he said, his tone subdued.

"There is error enough to go around for all the races," Aragorn said grimly, and Legolas remembered that he was, after all, the heir of Isildur.

The weather turned foul on their trip north and it took them a full two weeks to slog their way north toward Rivendell. Rain turned the track they were following to deep mud, and swelled the streams that crossed it, running down from the mountains to the river.  Their scouting excursions left them all soaked and even the normally even-tempered Legolas was ill-tempered.  At last, they were far enough along that they anticipated reaching the Ford of the Bruinen the next day. The rain had finally stopped and they were camped in reasonable comfort near a stream that was deep and fast with runoff.

Aragorn and Legolas had drawn the second watch and had passed most of it in silence, walking the perimeters of the camps both to be more alert to danger and to keep themselves warm.  Near the end of their watch, they sat together on a rocky ledge overlooking the campsite.

"I have a matter I wish to discuss with you, Legolas," Aragorn began.

Legolas turned toward him with an eyebrow raised inquiringly.

"I have already told Elrond that I wish to go with Frodo when he takes the ring to Mordor," said Aragorn.

Legolas nodded. "I thought as much," he said.  He would have expected no less from this Man he had come to admire for his willingness to serve the needs of others.

"He will be choosing the other companions for the Ringbearer," said Aragorn, "and he intends to try to send representatives of several races, although he wants the party to be small, for their chance of success lies in stealth.  I wish to ask him to send you as a representative of the Elves."

Legolas was startled.  He felt a quick stab of the longing for home that has assailed him in the last few days. Then it slipped away and his heart leapt at the chance to be part of this quest.  "Why?" he blurted out. "Why me?"

Aragorn smiled slightly.  "You are uncannily good with a bow," he said, "and your sensitivity to the presence of the Nazgûl should also prove useful. But more than that, I value your sense of honor and loyalty and your willingness to adapt to the ways of other people and serve their needs. Elves are not always patient with the second born," he finished wryly.  For a brief moment, Legolas wondered what it must have been like for Aragorn to grow up as a Man among Elves.  "The final choice is Elrond's," Aragorn went on, "but I believe that he will listen to me."

"If Elrond asks me, I will go," Legolas said simply.  Aragorn nodded.  A slight sound from the campsite made them look up.  Amdir had risen from his bedroll and was looking at them.  He said nothing and after a moment, he prodded Teoran awake.

"All right," groaned the older Man.  He was always slow to awaken for watches although he was instantly awake when danger threatened. Teoran rose, shaking the sleep from him and the two of them took the watch, leaving Aragorn and Legolas to go to their beds.  But it was long before Legolas slept.  He wanted to go on this quest even as he dreaded its dangers.  He believed he had been right in telling Aragorn that he would go, and yet he was shamefully grateful that his father was far away and would not know what he had agreed to do until it was too late to interfere. Elrond may not agree, he reminded himself, not absolutely certain whether that would be good or bad.

Toward dawn, he slipped into an uneasy doze, but he was awake early.  Aside from Annael and Sadoc, who were standing the last watch, he was the only one up.  He searched through his pack, found soap, and was setting off to bathe in the chilly stream, when he found Annael standing in front of him.  "Amdir told me that he overheard you and Aragorn talking last night," he said, his face very serious. "Do you really intend to go with the Ringbearer?"

"If Elrond asks me, I do," Legolas answered.

Annael looked anguished.  He seemed to struggle and then to come to terms with something.  "Then I will come too," he said simply.

Legolas was aghast. He and Annael had been friends since they were elflings.  "No!" he exclaimed.  At Annael's startled look, he softened his tone. "The party will be small," he said in excuse, "and Elrond wants people from all the races.  Only one Elf will go."  He hoped that that was true. He did not want to have to explain to Annael that he could not bear the thought of his friend doing something so dangerous.  For one thing, he thought wryly, the explanation would make him look ridiculous.  He patted Annael's arm.  "Thank you," he said simply, and walked away to the stream

He was just pulling his clothes on after an icy dip in the stream when Amdir appeared. The young Elf looked shaken and wasted no time in making his feelings known. "I heard what you and Aragorn were talking about last night, Legolas," he said.

Legolas sighed.  "Did your mother never teach you that it was polite to ignore what you could not help overhearing?" he asked.

Amdir shrugged off the lesson in Elven manner and pressed on.  "Do not do this. It is far too dangerous. Let someone else walk into Mordor."

Legolas was touched by his concern.  "I cannot just let someone else do it, Amdir.  There are skills that only I can contribute. Besides, I want to do it." Amdir looked at him unbelievingly.  Legolas laughed and slapped him on the shoulder.  He walked back toward the campfire where everyone else was also stirring.  He kept expecting Beliond too to speak to him, but the older Elf held his peace.

The party got under way in good spirits.  They had ridden for perhaps two hours when two of Elrond's guards stepped out of the trees on either side of the track they were following.  "Mae govannen, Estel," called one of them. "Welcome home."

"Mae govannen," Aragorn responded.  "It is good to be home. Have the other scouting parties returned yet?"

"The eastern party returned yesterday," said the guard, "and the southern one the day before that.  With your return, we await only the northern party and Elladan and Elrohir."

Aragorn nodded.  "We will go to Elrond, then."  The guards stepped aside and they rode on.

As they neared the Ford of the Bruinen, the group slowed. Here the three Rangers would cross the river and then continue north into the Coldfells. They had tasks to do that they had put aside when Aragorn summoned them and they would pick those tasks up again now.  Legolas found himself reluctant to be parted from these valiant, serious Men whose lives were spent defending others.

"Take care," Aragorn told them and the Elves echoed the sentiment.

"May the stars shine upon your path," added Legolas.

"You take care too," said Teoran, "especially you and Legolas, Aragorn.  I know that you are counting on stealth, not strength, but if you need us, you must send, and we will come.  Halbarad will know where to find us."  Then they exchanged warrior handclasps and the Rangers went on across the ford. The others watched them until they disappeared. Then they remounted and rode toward the house of Elrond.

They descended the steep path into the valley, leading their horses for the last bit of the journey.  Imladris looked much as they had left it. While winter was wrapping around the world outside the valley, the weather here was milder and the waterfalls tumbled unchecked to the river below.

"You and Aragorn go on to the house, Legolas," said Beliond. "Annael and I will take care of the horses. I believe that Amdir is still banned from the stables, though.  He can carry our packs to the barracks." He grinned and piled the packs into Amdir's arms.  The three of them set off with the horses.

"I will report to Elrond now and speak to you later," said Aragorn, and he too was gone.

Legolas made his way to the room he had used before and found his belongings still there. His formal clothes hung in the wardrobe, he noted, cleaned and ready for wear.  A fire burned in the grate.  It surprised him that this room, which had felt so alien when he first entered it in October, now felt comfortably familiar.  Without bothering to draw the curtains, he stripped off his travel-stained clothes and made his way into the bathing chamber, where he sank gratefully into a tub that was as full of hot water as he could make it.

He found a clean tunic and leggings in a chest and pulled them on. Then he sat before the fire to dry and comb out his tangled wet hair.  He had just finished rebraiding it when there was a knock at his door and, at his bidding, Aragorn entered the room. "Elrond wishes to speak with you," the Man said.

"Does he mean to ask me to go with Frodo?" Legolas asked.

"I do not know," said Aragorn, "but I think he is inclined to do so."

Legolas followed Aragorn to the library, knocked, and entered when Elrond's voice bid him to do so, leaving Aragorn in the hallway.  Elrond sat at the desk near the balcony with papers spread out before him.   "Come and sit, Legolas," he invited, indicating a chair across from him.  He poured out wine for both of them and then sat back in this chair.

"Aragorn tells me that he would welcome your company in the party going with Frodo," he said.

"Yes, my lord," Legolas said eagerly. "And I would welcome the chance to go."

"Why?" asked Lord Elrond. "Why not go home to Mirkwood?"

Legolas hesitated.  "The fate of Middle-Earth balances on an arrow point," he said.  "I want to help shape the future for all of us, not just for my own people."

Elrond fingered his cup thoughtfully and then smiled wryly. "Mithrandir told me that you were here so perhaps here was where you were meant to be," he said.  He looked at Legolas.  "Very well," he said.  "I will count you as one of the party to go with Frodo."

Legolas let out the breath he had not known he was holding.  "Thank you, my lord," he said exuberantly.

Elrond sighed.  "I am not sure that this is something that you should thank me for," he said rather sadly.  "I am sure that your adar will not.  And that reminds me," he pulled a sealed letter out from the pile of papers on his desk.  "Glorfindel brought this back for you," he said.

Legolas took the letter and recognized his father's handwriting.  "Thank you, my lord," he said, as Elrond rose.  "You will not regret this decision."

"I trust not," said Elrond, smiling kindly, although his eyes were sorrowful.  Legolas bowed and then left the room.

He was not entirely sure what the letter would contain, so he took it back to his room to read it in privacy.  With a certain amount of foreboding, he opened it and began to read:

My beloved son,

I trust that this letter finds you well.  I have worried for your welfare since you set out on this journey and your letter brought me no comfort.  You write that your sense of honor led you to accede to Lord Elrond's request that you go on one of these scouting missions.  While I value your concern for your own honor and that of Mirkwood, I regret that you appear to have placed yourself and your companions in needless danger.  I remind you of my charge to you that you return to Mirkwood as soon as possible after delivering our message to Lord Elrond. I require you to obey that charge now.

Beliond writes to me of his fears that you will allow your love of adventure and admiration for the heir of Isildur to cloud your judgment about where your duty lies. He says that you have not listened to him as he advised you about this matter.  I ask that you think of him as my representative and that you heed him, acknowledging his greater experience in the wider world.

You and the other skilled warriors with you are needed here, Legolas, nor will my father's heart allow me to part with you for long without pain.  I look forward to seeing you in my Hall again.

Your loving Adar

Legolas felt himself grow hot and then cold.  This was the end then. His anger boiled over and he whirled and left the room and then the house, heading down the path to the barracks.

He flung open the door and entered the barracks, clutching his father's letter in his hand.  One look at his white face told his companions that something was wrong, and they spoke in alarm.  "What is the matter?" cried Annael.

Legolas's gaze was locked with that of Beliond, who glanced at the letter and knew immediately what must have happened.  "Leave us," Legolas said in a low voice, without looking away from the older Elf.  Annael and Amdir hesitated only briefly before sliding silently out the door, closing it behind them. There was a moment's silence.

"You wrote to Adar without telling me," Legolas said flatly.

Beliond grimaced.  "I did," he acknowledged.

"You will be happy to know that he has written back admonishing me to heed you," said Legolas bitterly, throwing the letter into Beliond's chest.  Taking this as an invitation, Beliond smoothed the letter out and read it.  He looked up at Legolas.

"I am sorry, Legolas," he sighed.  "When I wrote, I did not understand the need for all of us to unite in this quest.  I did not even understand the possibility of that happening."

"You wrote of me as if I were a youngling," Legolas said angrily, "longing for adventure and hero-worshipping Aragorn."

"I do think that you are acting partly out of a longing for adventure," Beliond said.  "You have seen the world outside Mirkwood, and home suddenly looks very small."  Legolas looked as if he would protest, but Beliond went on, allowing him no opening. "And I think that you are also acting partly out of admiration for Aragorn. He is a natural leader whom warriors of all races will want to follow. It is what he was born for."  He looked at Legolas with some compassion. "Most of us have more than one reason for what we do," he said, "and are prouder of some of our reasons than others."  He sighed again. "But I also think that this quest is one that is worth joining, one that is as vital for Mirkwood as it is for all of Middle-Earth. And I think that you should go."

Legolas blinked and tried for a moment to be sure that Beliond had said what Legolas thought he had said.  "You think that I should go?" he said stupidly.

"Yes, I do," Beliond answered.

Legolas gave a strangled laugh and gestured at the letter. "My adar and king has admonished me to return home as soon as possible," he cried.

"I believe that Mithrandir told you that 'as soon as possible' can mean many things," said Beliond wryly.  Then he grimaced. "In truth, I know that the meaning I am encouraging you to give the words is not the one that your adar intended, so I suppose that I am being dishonest. But I will answer to Thranduil for this, Legolas.  He bids you heed me.  I tell you that you should go with the Ringbearer if you judge it best to do so."

Legolas looked at him doubtfully, and Beliond made a further effort to explain.

"You have served in Mirkwood's southern patrol, and you know that they are far from home.  Thranduil sends them few instructions because he knows that your brother, the field commander, knows more than he does of what is at hand."  Legolas nodded impatiently and Beliond went on. "When he does send instructions, he expects that they will not always be followed to the letter because he does not have all the information.  This situation is like that, Legolas. Thranduil has less information than you do. You need to decide your course of action for yourself."

Legolas hesitated.  "Adar will be very angry," he said.

Beliond shrugged.  "I have known Thranduil a long time.  I am willing to bear the brunt of his anger," he said. "You must decide if you are."

Legolas considered.  Was he willing to brave his father's anger?  There had been a time when he was a youngling when he had delighted in testing the limits his father set for him, provoking his anger and then regretting the consequences. As Aragorn had told the hobbits, he had once wandered off on a forbidden adventure.  He could still hear Thranduil's voice, harsh with relief at his safe return, admonishing him, "Never do such a thing again."  And he still remembered the sharper words and punishment that followed. But he was no longer a youngling. He would not willingly break with Thranduil, but the importance of this quest could not be denied.  Surely his father would understand.

Legolas's heart sped up as the opportunity he had thought lost opened up before him again.  "I will promise Lord Elrond only that I will go as far as the pass over the Misty Mountains," he said, seeking to make his disobedience somehow more acceptable to himself and to his father. "After that I can decide to go home if the time seems right."

"Yes, you should do that," Beliond agreed, although he privately thought that such a decision was unlikely.  If Legolas wanted to comfort himself with this small fiction, Beliond was not going to interfere.

Legolas looked at him. "Thank you, Beliond," he said softly.

Beliond shrugged.  "Amdir, Annael, and I will be leaving in the morning then."

In the gray light of the following dawn, the three Mirkwood Elves prepared to ride out of Imladris for the last time.  Legolas was there to bid them good bye and Lord Elrond too stood ready to take leave of them. They mounted and Legolas approached them one last time. "Tell Adar that I am sorry," he told Beliond, and the older Elf's heart went out to him, for he looked far too miserable to be a young Elf starting an adventure.

Beliond nodded and rested his hand for a moment on Legolas's shoulder. Then the three Elves dug their heels into their horses' sides and were soon lost to sight.  Legolas felt as alone as he had ever felt in his life.  Then he turned and saw Aragorn standing in the doorway and, oddly enough, standing next to him was the dwarf who had returned with Glorfindel, the one whom Amdir had knocked down in the stableyard.  The dwarf glared at him and then withdrew into the house. Legolas grimaced and then went to meet Aragorn, determined to look for companions in the world outside Mirkwood.

Several days later, the northern scouting party returned.  Of all the parties, they were the only one to have seen unusual activity in the form of wolves gathering.  Last of all, Elladan and Elrohir returned from their mission down the Silverlode, although only Elrond heard what they had to tell.  On December 17, Lord Elrond announced the names of those who would accompany Frodo on the quest to destroy the One Ring. Legolas would be for the Elves.

A week later, the Fellowship walked out of Imladris and into the history of Middle-Earth. For each of them, the reasons for going were slightly different, and for some, the decision had been easier to make than for others. But their willingness to go changed not only their own lives but also those of all the ones they loved at home and those they never knew across the wider world. 

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Thanks to all reviewers.  I'm sad because this story is ended.

Fan81981: Thank you for your steady feedback.  I will keep watching to see what you do with "Moriquendi."

Bryn:  The Bad Guys were very bad indeed.  I'm glad you liked the images.  To be truthful, the two little points you picked out were almost the last thing I added to the chapter, and I did it at Nilmandra's urging.  She's still helping me work on showing rather than telling in a story. She picked out that spot as one that needed more showing and the lines you liked were what I added.

Nilmandra:  I'm waiting for your new story to appear now. :-)

Puxinette:  I can't believe you reviewed every single chapter.  That's above and beyond any reasonable expectation!  I'm glad you like the story.  I worked on staying within canon, or at least trying to.

None:  Well, you went right to the heart of the matter in asking how the other elves would react.  It seemed to me they might all react differently, so that's what you have here.

Dragon-of-the-north:  Glad to see you here.  I really enjoyed writing about how Legolas encountered a world he wasn't familiar with, so I'm glad you enjoyed reading it too.

Nikki:  It's hard to imagine Legolas and Aragorn not knowing one another once you see them in the Fellowship, but as you say, they must have had to get to know one another some time.  Hope you liked this chapter too.

Kay:  I appreciate knowing that you're reading!  Barrels of pipeweed would have had to elicit a groan, don't you think?

Polgara-5:  I'm so glad that you think the character interaction went okay.  At one point, I was staggering along trying to figure out what to do with this whole boatload of characters I'd brought along on this trip. But they eventually sorted themselves out.

Jambaby1963:  You got it. They all needed one another.  It's a "together we stand" kind of situation if there ever was one.

Feanen:  Not much pipeweed in this chapter, but lots to work out anyway.  I hope you liked it.

TreeHugger:  Sorry about Sadoc. Nilmandra actually threatened me when she reminded me of the moratorium. And as you know "Honor Thy Beta" may not be the first fanfic commandment (I think that one is "Read the Flipping Books"), but it's right up there.  Really liked seeing the "Jade King" updated.