A/N: Happy Birthday Ithilien! A belated bit of fluff to brighten your day.
Disclaimer: All characters and settings are the property of the Tolkien Estate. No disrespect or infringement is intended. Just a bit of fun.
The Best Laid Plans
"A surprise party?" Aragorn's voice was laced with skepticism.
"Yes," Gimli said firmly.
"I don't know, Gimli. It's an interesting idea, but . . ."
"It's perfect! You've got all those mucky-mucks coming next week for whatever reason,"
"The Unification Conference of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth."
"Right." Gimli waved one hand absently. "So Legolas will be coming with a few of his Elves from Ithilien, and Faramir and Éowyn will be there, and Merry and Pippin and Sam –"
"Sam can't come. Rosie is due soon."
"Again?" Gimli stared at him. "How many have they had now?"
"Four. This will be the fifth."
Gimli shook his head. "All right. The point is, this get-together –"
"Will be the first time we've all been gathered together since the end of the War. And Legolas' begetting day happens to fall right in the middle of it. There's no reason he'd suspect anything, since we're already here, and there'll be parties going on all over the place, so the preparations won't be noticed –"
"Gimli, that's part of the problem. We'll also have representatives from Dol Amroth and Rohan and your party from Aglarond, not to mention some dignitaries from Umbar and possibly even Harad." Aragorn sighed heavily. "I've had diplomats working out the details for months. It's an incredibly sensitive situation. The protocol alone is a nightmare. Just negotiating which tribal representative gets to sit next to me at the opening banquet –"
"That doesn't mean –"
"And then the Corsairs consider roast swan a delicacy, and that didn't go down well with the people from Dol Amroth –"
"But we –"
"So how I'm supposed to slip away for a private party in the middle of all of that –"
"Aragorn!" Gimli struck the king's laden desk with his hand, sending a cascade of parchments to the floor. "This is important!"
"And the Conference isn't?"
"No. I mean, yes, it is, but this is important too. You may not have noticed, but Legolas has been under a lot of stress lately. He takes the restoration of Ithilien far too seriously. And when he isn't staying up nights with those trees of his he's managing the details of his settlements, or negotiating between Gondor and Eryn Lasgalen –"
Aragorn rubbed his hands over his face. "I know, Gimli. I appreciate everything that he's done. It's just that right now may not be the best time."
Gimli sighed. "It's more than that. He's . . . he's getting twitchy."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "I had noticed that. I came up behind him in the library the other day and he threw a knife that missed my ear by half an inch." He paused. "You want to throw a surprise party for a twitchy Elf?"
Gimli waved a hand dismissively. "He can handle it."
"It was a very sharp knife."
"He missed you, didn't he? Then that was deliberate. But Aragorn, he spent a month at Dol Amroth last year."
Aragorn straightened. "What?"
"And what was he doing that you were able to sneak up behind him like that?"
"I wasn't sneaking. Kings don't sneak in their own palaces."
"He was staring out the window, wasn't he? More than that, he was staring at the river. At the gulls. Aragorn, he's getting worse."
Aragorn sighed. "Gimli, one day Legolas is going to sail over Sea. We have to accept that. We can't hold him here forever."
"That doesn't mean we have to sit back and let him go! He needs to be reminded of everything he has here. He needs to know that we care about him, and that we're here for him. Gathering all together on his begetting day will show how important he is to us. Plus it'll be a chance for our own celebration away from all the people. You know how much he hates big crowds."
Aragorn leaned back in his chair. He hated to admit it, but Gimli's idea was beginning to make some sense. Then a new thought occurred to him. "How do you even know when Legolas' begetting day is?"
Gimli smiled loftily. "I have my ways."
But Aragorn was frowning. "I'm not sure even he knows when it is. Mirkwood isn't like Rivendell. The Silvan Elves don't pay much attention to dates after the first couple hundred years or so."
"Never mind, Aragorn. You focus on your little gathering –"
"And leave the party to me. I'll take care of everything."
Legolas' collar itched. He stood absolutely still upon the dais at Aragorn's side with his hands folded behind him and smiled pleasantly at the various dignitaries that milled past, and concentrated hard on not ripping the maddening thing from his neck and throwing it to the ground.
The robe had been the cause of some contention between him and Irluin, his chief political advisor. Irluin had said that as the highest ranking Elf in attendance of the Unification Conference Legolas must dress in accordance to his station. Legolas had said that he preferred his usual hunting garb. Irluin had pointed out that Legolas would be representing all Elves in Middle-earth, and that this particular robe would bring out the blue of his eyes. Legolas had reminded him that he had represented all Elves in Middle-earth just fine in the Fellowship, when he had worn his regular tunic, and that the color of his eyes was absolutely irrelevant. Irluin had explained that he would be meeting Men who had never before seen an Elf, and that the silver edging of the robe's collar and sleeves would accent Legolas' circlet of office. Legolas had explained that he could not move in the robe and that he would vacation in Moria before he'd wear that accursed circlet again. Irluin had suggested that Legolas could write to Thranduil and give this reason for why he was attending the most important political gathering since the Council of Elrond in a travel-stained archer's tunic.
Legolas shifted his shoulders almost imperceptibly, trying to pull the intricately woven and extremely itchy silver collar away from his skin. He bowed to one of the minor dignitaries of the Corsairs' party and used the movement to conceal a quick tug at the fabric. Then he had to straighten quickly to keep the circlet from slipping down over his eyes. That does it. I'm melting this yrch-spawned thing in the fire when I get back to my room. Though doubtless Irluin would only produce another circlet or diadem or crown for him on the morrow. Legolas had contrived to lose or damage every device of office bestowed upon him since he had first taken his place in his father's court centuries ago, and Irluin had never failed to replace each one from a seemingly endless supply. Legolas scanned the great hall briefly. There was no sign of his hawk-like advisor. Perhaps, if he could just casually tip the circlet off and then kick it beneath Aragorn's chair . . .
"Aragorn!" Gimli's stentorian bellow sounded over the din of the massive crowd and interrupted the Elf's thoughts. Legolas exchanged a glance with the king as Gimli came forward through the forest of taller dignitaries to reach the dais. The Dwarf had his own peculiarly elaborate courtesies, but tended to ignore the customs of Men and Elves when it suited him. He had placed himself and his party formally at King Elessar's service at the beginning of the reception, but since then had fallen back into casual familiarity. And his usual jocularity had only increased as the evening wore on and the ale flowed freely.
Legolas had caught glimpses of him now and then, from his position on the dais, as Gimli moved through the crowd, drinking and laughing with his fellow Dwarves and with the Men from Rohan and Dol Amroth, and even once exchanging pleasantries with the chief ambassador from Umbar. As lord of Aglarond and ally to Éomer king of Rohan, Gimli was here as a guest on equal footing with the foreign diplomats and hence excused from standing in attendance at Aragorn's side with Legolas, Faramir, and Imrahil. He was also, Legolas noted with some envy, dressed in his usual leather tunic and leggings. Apparently the task of representing all Dwarves in Middle-earth did not require formal robes.
Gimli bowed graciously to Arwen, who inclined her head with a smile. Then the Dwarf straightened and grinned. "Aragorn, Legolas, look who I've found!" And with a gesture he drew forward two smaller figures from the crowd behind him.
"Merry! Pippin!" Aragorn laughed and stood, extending his hands toward the two Hobbits who bowed formally. They were resplendent in the livery of Rohan and Gondor, respectively, though they lacked the boots that would usually have completed their outfits.
"Where have you been?" the king asked. "I was expecting my esquire to attend me during the reception."
"I did present my service to the head of your guard, my lord," Pippin said defensively. "But he said that we could refresh ourselves before being formally introduced, and then with all the hustle and bustle of the banquet . . ."
"It's all a bit overwhelming," Merry put in. "We didn't want to put ourselves forward, with all these important people about . . ."
"Nonsense," Gimli rumbled. "They just got distracted by all the free food. They were in the far corner with the strawberry tarts when I found them."
The others laughed, and Merry blushed, but Pippin only grinned cheekily as he wiped a smudge of jam from his chin. "You have an excellent kitchen staff, Strider," he said.
Aragorn smiled. "We shall pass your compliments on to them," he said. "For now, though, you two must sit with me and tell me all about the happenings of the Shire. It has been far too long since last I visited."
Pippin hopped up easily to sit on the step of the dais. "Well," he began, "you know that Sam was elected Mayor, and Rosie is going to name the baby after me if it's a boy . . ."
"They already named the last one after me," Merry broke in.
A knot was forming in Legolas' stomach. These Hobbits were heroes of the War of the Ring, and as deserving of honor, to his mind, as Frodo or Samwise or Aragorn. It wasn't right that they should be sitting at the king's feet.
"Your pardon, King Elessar, Lady Undómiel" he murmured, moving toward the edge of the dais. "I will find some chairs for your guests."
"Oh, no, you needn't bother, Legolas," Merry said.
Legolas was negotiating the edge of the dais. Normally he would have leaped it easily. But the Morgoth-begotten robes were made for stately walks over smooth floors or for sitting regally upon carved thrones. They did not handle steps well. "It is no bother, Master Meriadoc," Legolas said when he had successfully made the awkward hop to the ground. Perhaps he could burn the robe as well.
Pippin looked around. "Legolas!" he said, as if noticing the Elf for the first time. "You look wonderful!"
"Thank you," Legolas replied. "As do you, Master Peregrin."
Pippin was scrutinizing him closely. "That robe really brings out the blue of your eyes."
Gimli snorted and covered his mouth with his hand. Legolas smiled thinly. "So I've been told," he said, and made his escape.
He had to lift the hem up to keep from tripping on it as he moved swiftly through the crowded hall to the side entrance. Both his father and Lord Elrond seemed able to glide about in these floor length robes with effortless grace, but Legolas had never mastered that trick.
He passed between the guards at the door and paused in the stone corridor beyond, gathering his thoughts. It was a relief to escape the packed heat and noise of the great hall. He walked silently along the dimly lit passage, holding his robes up with one hand and trailing the other along the cool stone of the wall. There should be some low chairs in the king's storage cellars. He would simply ask a servant to go down and find two for the Hobbits. No, he would do better to make that three, so as to have one more for Gimli. The Dwarf was not wearing his axes in deference to the law forbidding weapons in the presence of the king, but his habitual chain mail was heavy and made standing for long periods uncomfortable.
Legolas paused at the juncture with the large entrance hall. The vast double doors were standing open in welcome to the cool night air, and he could hear the lilting tones of Elven song drifting upon the mild breeze. He walked forward slowly past the guards to stand at the edge of the stone flagged entrance way. The king's courtyard was largely empty, as most of the guests were packed into the banquet hall, but the Elves of Ithilien had fled the noise and smoke of the mortals' celebration and were gathered here upon the verdant spring grass. A gentle radiance fell about them as they sat upon the lawn and their song lifted up to the star strewn heavens.
A strange sorrow filled Legolas as he watched them. He supposed he ought to be angry, for they were supposed to be mingling with the other guests and doing their part to foster understanding with the other races of Middle-earth. But in truth he could not blame them for seeking refuge from the constant press of mortals. It was only his own duty as their lord and as friend to Aragorn that kept him from joining them.
He was about to turn away, to go back inside, when his eye caught the glint of the distant Anduin and he stopped, stricken. It was folly, he knew, and a distant part of his mind urged him to turn away, to close his eyes, to do anything but what he did do, which was stand motionless and captive to the flash of water rippled silver in the moonlight.
The old ache closed vise-like over his heart, and he trembled in its power. He could not see the Sea from Minas Tirith, and for that he was grateful, for truly he could not have withstood it now. Even so the pulse of it thrummed through him, and he attended its call as though to the voice of a lover. The song of the Sea seemed clearer to him now than the ancient tone of the stars overhead; it was more real and more present than the voices of the Elves upon the lawn or the mortals in the hall. The world in which he stood seemed suddenly flat, empty and meaningless as a child's sketch upon a wall. The complexity of the Sea's call resonated within him until all his heart and mind was filled and he felt himself drowning in it.
Legolas clenched his hands suddenly and focused on the distant sensation of his nails digging into his palms, forcing his mind to pull back from that infinite longing. The wrench away from the Sea's call was physically painful, and he shuddered in its wake. But slowly he regained control. He heard again the sigh of the night breeze, the laughter of the Elves; he pulled his gaze away from the river's gleam and focused upon the dark stone wall of the courtyard. His heart beat in rhythm with the Sea: that would never change. But his mind was his own again.
He released a shaky breath and unclenched his fingers. "Not yet," he whispered aloud, though too softly for any to hear him. Not yet. Aragorn still lived, would live for many years to come. And the Hobbits, and Gimli, held him here as well. He had bound himself to them, and would not forsake that bond. But the pain of it threatened to tear him apart.
It was getting worse. In years past the mere glimpse of the river would not have affected him as it did now. But now he could not look upon it without seeing also what it meant, the endless flow of the current, rushing westward to the Sea. He felt the storm surge of the Valar's call in the very pulse of his heart, in the fiber of his soul. And it was getting harder and harder to resist.
It was then, as he gazed absently at the distant wall, gathering the strength to walk back inside, that he saw the shadow move. Legolas narrowed his eyes, half thinking it was a flicker of torchlight, or a new trick of the Sea longing. But no, it came again. His keen eyes saw clearly the slender figure, dressed in black, as it moved along the path by the outer wall toward the gate of the seventh circle.
Legolas immediately set out in pursuit, pausing only to lift the hem of his robe and draw the dagger from his right boot. Weapons were forbidden by law within the king's citadel, but that was no guarantee that the skulking figure was unarmed. And although Legolas himself might forgo his usual bow and knives for the sake of appearances, he had no qualms about the knife customarily concealed within his boot, nor the smaller blades he carried hidden in his vambraces. The habits of long centuries under the Shadow were not easily forgotten, and no Elf of Mirkwood ever went unarmed.
But the flowing robe hampered his movement, and though he finally hiked the thing up to his knees and ran lightly over the graveled path, by the time he reached the gate the figure had vanished. Legolas stopped at the gate and dropped the hem of his robe with a frustrated sigh. The seventh circle was packed with the caravans of merchants come to cater to the Conference guests. Servants and guards milled through the narrow street, and the stone flags were trampled with the mud of their passing. There was no sign at all of the figure in black.
"A surprise party! What a wonderful idea!" Pippin cried.
"Yes," Gimli said with pride, ignoring the way Aragorn was rolling his eyes – unbecoming a monarch, really.
"We'll make the cake!" Pippin continued excitedly.
"We will?" Merry said.
"Yes! Legolas has never had a proper birthday cake from the Shire. And you don't want the kitchen staff bothering with it – they've got enough to do, with the banquets and all, and besides they'd be talking about it and pretty soon Legolas would find out . . . when is the party?"
"Tomorrow night," Gimli said. "In the Council room."
"The Council room?" Aragorn began. "When did we –"
"And I've already made arrangements for the decorations," Gimli continued. "Imrahil is making the banners, and I'm providing the fireworks, and Éomer –"
"Wait a minute," Aragorn said, holding up a hand. "Fireworks? I thought this was going to be a small party! And Imrahil, banners?"
Imrahil flushed. "It was my daughter's idea, lord. Lothíriel seemed quite taken with Legolas when she met him at the coronation ceremony."
Faramir nodded. "Éowyn has been planning the design with her for months. A motif combining symbols from all the western sovereignties, I believe, on a green background . . ."
The others were looking at him. Faramir blushed. "Green, you know, for . . . green . . . leaf . . ." he trailed off.
"It's a lovely banner," Arwen said.
Aragorn looked at her. "You've seen it?"
"Of course. Lothíriel and Éowyn consulted me about it when we were planning the guest list."
"The Lady Undómiel is something of an expert in banner design, as you know, my lord." Imrahil said.
Aragorn rubbed his temples. "Has everyone known about this party but me?"
"Well, you've been planning the Conference," Gimli said bracingly. "And doing a fine job of it I might add. You can't be bothered with little things like this. You just show up when I tell you to, and let us handle the details. Everything will be fine."
Everything was completely wrong. Merry could see it going wrong, could see the catastrophe building before his eyes, but he was powerless to stop it. Though he did try.
"Pippin," he said as patiently as he could, "you cannot put raisins in a birthday cake."
"Of course you can," the Took said stubbornly. "You can't have a carrot cake without raisins."
"We aren't making a carrot cake! Whoever heard of carrot cake for a birthday?"
"And nuts. We'll need lots of nuts." Pippin was pulling the lid off another barrel. The storeroom floor was littered with bags of ingredients already selected from the rows of stacked bins and containers.
"No nuts! This is a white cake. It's going to be light and airy."
"Aha!" Pippin cried, digging into the barrel. "I found the flour."
"With spun sugar frosting," Merry continued, checking his list.
"Lemons! Merry, look! I didn't know Gondor had lemons, did you?"
Merry put down his list to stare at the small yellow fruit that Pippin held. "It must be a special import. Put it down, Pippin. They'll want it for the banquets."
Pippin was already transferring several of the lemons to a small sack. "They'll never miss them. We'll just need some more sugar to cut the sour taste, and then we're done."
Merry shook his head, but began gathering together the supplies. "I thought you wanted carrot cake," he said.
"Of course," Pippin said, tucking the lemons into a pocket of his jacket for safekeeping. "We'll have three layers. One white, one carrot, one lemon."
Merry stopped. "Pippin, just how big is this cake going to be?"
"Well," Pippin said thoughtfully, "it's got to be bigger than Bilbo's was."
"What?" Merry straightened in alarm. "Bilbo's was for the whole Shire! This is just a small party!"
"But it has to be big enough to hold all the candles."
"Bilbo's had one hundred and eleven. Legolas is going to need a lot more than that." Pippin paused. "Merry, just how old is Legolas anyway?"
"I don't know. You should ask Strider. Or Gimli."
Pippin shrugged. "In any case we'll need a lot. Better see if we can get into the porter's storeroom while the cake is –"
"Hsh!" Merry held up a hand. "What's that?"
Both Hobbits froze, listening intently. Someone was moving in the corridor outside. Merry could hear the click of boot heels over the stone flags growing louder. They were coming toward the door.
Merry was suddenly acutely aware of the wealth of plundered ingredients scattered over the floor about them, a theft that would be perfectly understandable to the king, he was sure, but perhaps more difficult to explain to the Head Kitchener. He looked at Pippin, who stared back with wide eyes.
"I thought you said it was safe," Merry whispered.
"It is! This is just a back-up storage room. No one comes in here!"
Merry swallowed. Pippin had been alone in Minas Tirith for several days during the War. The imminent threat of attack and almost certain death had given him ample opportunity to scope out the citadel kitchens. If he said that this was a safe place to make the cake, it was. Or it ought to be.
The footsteps stopped. The Hobbits held their breath. There was a clink of metal outside the door. Then Merry was moving. "Hide!" he hissed to Pippin, gesturing at the scattered sacks of flour, sugar, the basket of eggs, the carrots. And before he could think further his feet carried him in a jerky movement to the door. He had faced the Witch King of Angmar. He could handle one kitchen servant.
Merry slipped through the door and pulled it firmly closed behind him. He looked up, and fell back against it as the strength drained from his legs. An Easterling stood before him.
The Man towered over Merry, and the great swath of black silk that covered his head and hid his features made him all the more ominous. Merry looked up into grey eyes lined in kohl and swallowed hard. The Easterling was standing several paces from him, clearly having backed up when the door opened. Now he took a slow step forward. Merry opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
The Easterling took another step, and tripped on the hem of his long black robes. He staggered and caught himself on the doorframe with an inarticulate cry. "Eaah!" There was a sharp clink of metal as his keys fell to the floor.
Merry dodged the stumbling feet and backed into the corridor. He shot a quick glance to either side. It was empty. There was no one he could call for help. The Easterling was fumbling for the keys, but his groping fingers struck them too hard and sent them skittering across the smooth floor. "Oh to Mordor with it!" the Man cried, and pulled the black veil from his face. Merry found himself staring into a smooth young face with the beginnings of stubble about the chin, dark hair plastered with sweat to the forehead, grey eyes tearing with frustration and the effects of the smeared kohl . . . grey eyes?
The larder door opened and Pippin slipped out, pulling it sharply closed behind him. "Leave off!" he shouted fiercely. He was brandishing something long and metallic. "I'm a guard of the citadel, and you have no cause to be harassing me and my friend! I'll report you to King Elessar! I'll –"
He stopped. He stared at the unmasked Easterling. He looked at Merry. He looked back at the Easterling. "Bergil?" he said.
"Pippin?" the Man said. "What are you doing here? And what are you doing with that?"
Pippin looked at the implement he held. "First thing that came to hand," he said.
Merry's head was spinning. He had come forth to do battle with irate kitchen staff, only to be faced with a hidden agent of the Enemy, who was now revealed as a gawky boy hardly into his 'tweens. And Pippin was standing ready to defend him with an egg whisk.
"Why are you here?" Pippin asked.
"I was hungry. And the Easterlings in the tents only have toasted beetles for snack food."
Merry was now remembering the Witch King with a certain fondness. At least you knew where you stood with the force of ultimate evil in Middle-earth. You knew that you had to fight or die. You weren't asked to cope with egg whisks and toasted beetles.
"But why are you dressed like that? Why are you with the Easterlings at all?"
Bergil drew himself up. "I'm working in disguise."
Bergil nodded. "I've infiltrated the Easterlings' camp. There are so many different factions and tribes of them and the Haradrim that no one knows each other, and they usually wear scarves anyway, so I . . ."
Pippin was looking impressed. Merry frowned. It was time he took charge of the conversation. "King Elessar sent you to spy on them? During a peace conference?"
Bergil flushed and bent to retrieve his keys, avoiding Merry's gaze. "Erm…"
"That doesn't seem at all like him," Merry continued. "And it's rather inhospitable, isn't it? Spying on the guests?"
"Well . . ." Bergil trailed off. The youth's face had darkened to a near violet.
Merry folded his arms across his chest. "He didn't send you to spy on them, did he."
"No," Bergil admitted. "Not as such. But . . ."
"Not as such? You're dressed in their clothes, hiding in their camp, except now, when you're hiding in the king's kitchens, and you're not spying as such?"
"But it's for his own good!" Bergil burst out. Merry raised an eyebrow. "It is!" the young man insisted. "We have all these people, right in the city, who used to be with the Enemy! How do we know that they aren't plotting something? What if they try to attack from inside the gates? What if they try to assassinate Elessar?"
Merry exchanged a look with Pippin. "Most of the camps are outside the city wall," Pippin offered. "It's only during the conference meetings that they come inside."
"And the banquets, and the ceremonial cup sharing, and the breaks between meetings," Bergil said. "And it only takes one of them to get past the guard for just a moment and attack the king."
"But you're a guard of the city," Pippin said. "You're supposed to be protecting him."
"I am," Bergil insisted. "I'm right in the encampments. If something is being planned I'm much more likely to hear about it there than standing behind the throne. And if I get caught there won't be any harm to the conference, because no one knows what I'm doing. I'm on leave from the guard. King Elessar can't be held accountable."
Merry was wavering. It seemed reasonable, and yet . . . he looked again at Bergil , red-faced and stiff with resolve, his robes tangled about his feet. He rather wished that someone more adept at subterfuge were doing this.
At that moment a shadow moved in the flickering torchlight over the corridor wall. Someone was coming. Pippin gave Bergil a push. "Go!" he said. "You can't be seen like that!"
Bergil hesitated, struggling to wrap his veil again. "You won't tell –"
"No!" Pippin said. "Now go!"
Bergil fled, running with one hand holding up his robes and the other clutching at his headgear. At that moment a figure came around the bend of the corridor, and Merry's heart sank. No sound of footsteps had warned them of their danger, and now he saw why. Legolas was coming toward them.
A/N: A word about the cake. I wanted chocolate. My muses wanted chocolate. The Hobbits ESPECIALLY wanted chocolate. But Legolas muse said that chocolate was unknown in Europe before Hernán Cortés encountered the Aztec Empire in the year 1519 of the Sixth Age, approximately. So they didn't have it in Middle-earth. But if anyone can prove him wrong, please let me know. In the meantime, I for one like carrot cake.
Coming in 2013: The Gloaming, an original novel by Lamiel. In a world ruled by monsters, you have to be a monster to survive.