Chapter Ten: An Old Friend
Blackie held the trot for two leagues before Legolas finally conceded to allow him to walk. The horse went into the slower gait with a dab of resistance, but Legolas insisted on it, and the stallion grudgingly "slowed" into a fast, unsettled walk, chewing his bit and jerking his head forward as though already bored. Legolas simply dropped the reins in response, allowing Blackie to be as mischievous as he liked. The horse had done him a terrific service that night, one the Elf would never forget…
He had to wonder at his new horse. There was an aptitude to the animal he had never encountered before; the Mirkwood horses, their blood as pure as that of their Elven masters, were known as some of the most highly intelligent of their kind. But Blackie, he was clever. In such an unyielding situation as they had just emerged from, Legolas would never have thought that any horse would take it upon himself to think such a dire problem through and come to a solution, to carry it through despite the being on his back pulling hard on his mouth to make him cease.
'What is your blood, my friend?' Legolas asked of his horse quietly, smoothing the strong neck. 'From whence have you come?'
The Elf would wonder at that for the entire life of his new companion and beyond. The answer he never knew, but, had he ridden south to the land of the Horsemasters, they would have told him instantly. Blackie was a horse of Rohan. He was not of the Mearas, or of any exceptional breeding. He was foaled on the Plains in a wild heard, the son of an aggressive stallion turned free by the Rohirrim, and captured by them when he was still a colt. Though they were kind and eventually broke him in, there was nothing they could do to make the shadow of Blackie's father leave him. Mathor they called him, Hellraiser, and the stallion lived up to it with relish. He was eventually sold when none could ride him, and men who were not of Rohan became his masters.
An uncooperative temperament met with harsh impatience, and any man wishing to ride the then Mathor would be thrown without a glimmer of thought. Whips were used to dominate him, and the stallion grew to resent mankind deeply through the hurts they inflicted on his body, but still he would not be used.
From hand to hand he was passed over four years, his value dropping with every sale until he was finally swapped at his lowest point for an aged animal on the road that had little life left in it. That had been when Wren had taken him, and the man found himself unable to cope with such a furious and wronged animal. The pair never had a good relationship, and it came to the stage where Blackie, as he was renamed – black in coat, black in spirit – lived confined in the barn and was replaced by oxen. He had no purpose anymore. He had never been told what it was in the first place, nor ever allowed to discover it for himself.
Then Legolas had walked in.
From the instant the Prince entered the barn, Blackie had understood him to be different. He knew him not to be a Man, though man-shaped, which confused him, and he had rushed the other just as he would have any other human. But then the Elf had sung to him. The words were soothing to his angered spirit, and the Elf did not approach him as a beast, but as a creature of flesh and blood meriting respect. There was no force in his tones as he spoke to the horse, and Blackie knew that here was a spirit that would never beat him or try to bend him to his will, and as the bridle had been slipped over his head, Blackie had felt that this was what he was destined for. Everything that had happened to him lead in a twisted path to this new master.
That was why he had pushed himself so strenuously during the chase. His Elven companion felt fear that night beyond anything Blackie had ever sensed through a rider, and he took it upon himself to find a solution to the plight of the Elf. He would not lose the only true master he had ever found, not in one night, not on any.
Dawn snaked her grey fingers across the sky to the east. Legolas watched it over his shoulder in silent thought. The night had been evil, and it lifted his heavy heart to see the sun begin to raise her head to the world. The light would dispel the darkness and cleanse his hurting spirit, and he craved the moment when the tendrils of gold would sweep over the earth fully, the stretching wings of a caged bird…
So much had happened! How could one night alone be sopping with such outrageous fortune, both for him and the child? For the Rangers and Diyrenë? For Wren and Winnera? There was some higher hand at play here, he knew it in his blood.
He glanced down at Arathorn, about whom his arm was still, nestled close to his chest. He no longer screamed, but slept, peace caressing his smooth brow, the furs Winnera wrapped him up in proving to be a worthy shield against the cold. Legolas had never had any experience with babes of such small age, and to find one in his care for he did not yet know how long unnerved him. Babies had demands. They needed constant care and a mother's tenderness, and Legolas felt he could provide neither. But he could not shake from his mind the way Arathorn had stopped crying when Winnera had handed him to his arms. He had felt something then, a stirring deep in his chest, and he remembered the way his riled mind had found peace just through the warm weight he held. The feeling was alien to him, but it was not to be ignored, and the Elf smiled down at his charge, pride welling in his chest as he stared into the face with pure contentment.
Pride? Do not be a fool, Legolas! You offer your love too freely, and it will be your undoing!
He flinched at the thought, but had to acknowledge its wisdom. All he was doing was taking the baby to where he belonged. If they were further unhindered, Legolas could get them to the Dúnedain settlement in the Misty Mountains in eight days, maybe seven, and leave Arathorn in the hands of someone capable of his care. Then he would come for Gwareth…
They plodded on through the scrub, the land rolling in lazy hillocks before them. There was little to distinguish this earth, and Legolas found its vast openness unsettling. Towering trees were replaced by boulders of depressing grey, slumped into the snow-coated ground like frozen trolls. Mist hugged at the dips, coating the land like a thicket of pale cloud, yet to be dispelled by the sun's rays.
He slumped a little in the saddle, a sigh escaping his lips before he could counter it. The hurts administered to his left shoulder by both arrowhead and scimitar throbbed at him, demanding his attention as the limb began to stiffen. He would not grace it with such, not right now, but his weary mind nagged him like a nursemaid. He was tired and pained, the night's trials finally beginning to reflect upon him, and he came to realise that he was of little use to Arathorn in his current state. Legolas finally conceded to himself that enough was enough, and if anything Blackie needed rest as much as he did, if not more. The stallion had given much over the last hours, and though the horse – somewhat like his master – was loath to show it, he tired.
'We will find rest, my friend,' he told his horse, patting his neck. 'At the next village, we will stop for a time.'
Blackie's ears flickered at his master's voice, and he carried on with a little more vigour than before, as if the promise of rest was a fuel to him.
Day chased the night back into the abyss of its own creation, the shadows shying from its watery vibrancy. Legolas was glad of it, feeling the pale fingers stretching over his body and chasing his woes off a little from his soul. And in the shy dawn, they trudged on, Legolas feeling his unfamiliarity with the land at his disadvantage as his far-seeing eyes scoured the landscape for any sign of a settlement, or, indeed, for anything even vaguely familiar…
Arathorn began to stir. He shifted discontentedly, writhing with all the strength his small body had, it seemed. A whimpering cry started from the midst of the furs, and Legolas glanced down at his precious charge with concern. The reins were dropped in favour of cradling Arathorn in his arms, and though the Elf bobbed the baby as he had done previously, the action did not work, the diminutive lungs creating such a noise Legolas was momentarily stunned by their power. If there were any ill-favoured beings afoot at that time, they would surely hear.
'Hush! What ails you, little one? Stille nu, sssh! Saes, Arathorn!'
He could hardly hear his own words, and the wailing reached such a pitch his plea went completely unanswered. What could possibly be so wrong that he would make such an unforgiving noise? Legolas spurred Blackie into a trot with the vague hope that the pronounced rising action might serve to quieten the screaming cries. It did no such thing.
Legolas' riled mind tried to think of what he could possibly have not done right … Arathorn was warm, he had his full attention, Legolas was talking to him, he had even urged his wearied horse into an unnecessary trot. Perhaps babies just make a noise sometimes, he tried to reason with himself. There was another part of him that wished to contend with that thought. Nothing in this world happens without reason.
Reason… It struck him, a sharp blow of realisation him his head. He remembered, almost as if from another life, hearing pups simpering at their mother for milk. Arathorn's cause for grievance was simple: he was hungry.
Legolas found a pouch of milk in the saddlebag. It was cold to his touch, far too cold. He had no means of heating it in this barren land where there were no trees to provide him with wood. The need to find a human settlement was more pressing than he had ever thought…
Blackie was urged to canter across the land, and the horse responded to the command more than gladly, his powerful legs making short work of the distance. Even at this faster pace, it was still a lengthy time until Legolas finally spotted what he sought…
The village was a sprawled mess of small houses, probably little more than a trading outpost that looked as though everyone – including the traders – had forgotten its existence. Men milled around its streets with no true purpose, trudging through the sludge that had once been snow. They cast unfriendly glares in the direction of the stranger who rode through their midst on the large black stallion with a screaming baby in his arms.
The inn was little more than a large shack with a lean-to that offered the meagre potential to house horses. Legolas reined Blackie in just outside the sad-looking building, taking in its drab and unwelcoming exterior with a sceptical eye. It was not long before a young man emerged from within, dark hair hanging lank about his face as though he wished to hide behind it. Legolas watched the man get closer to him, suspicion settling in his chest: the Mirkwood Elves had long ago learnt to be cautious of anyone that deliberately hid themselves from their keen eyes. Sometimes it was uncalled for, like with the Dúnedain, for instance, with whom the Elves held a close alliance. Legolas considered himself slightly more tolerant of humans than other Elves, more often than not willing to accept the strange wont of some of them to hide their faces … but the night had been cruel to his perception of mankind, and the old mistrust warned him to be careful.
The young man flicked back his hair and stared at Legolas. The eyes were of a sloppy green, the face shadowed by a mess of untended stubble, the lipless mouth a thin line as he took in the appearance of his potential guest with the screaming child.
'You're an Elf,' he finally stated, non too politely.
Legolas peaked a brow at this, nonplussed by the apparent lack of hospitality. 'For some time now. Does that matter to you?'
'It'll matter to you,' the man replied, his dirty-coloured eyes glinting a little through their dimness. 'Extra charge for stabling the horse, extra for food and a bed for the night. And extra for mead.'
'I don't want a bed for the night.' The Elf heard the clipped tone in his voice as anger began to raise its head.
The man turned his eyes on Legolas' shoulder. He appeared to be thinking. 'Extra for hot water and a pan, then.'
'Fine.' He took himself from Blackie's back and handed the man the reins. 'Be sure to give this horse plenty of food and water,' he instructed stiffly. Legolas took himself to the door through the mud, not caring as it caked his boots. He was weary and in dire need of rest, and his shoulder awakened, pressing upon him its desire for his attention. As he laid a hand on the door, a voice called after him: 'Food and water for the horse is-'
'Extra! Yes, I know!' And he slammed the door behind him.
There was no-one inside save for an aged man sat at a grubby table with his boots resting on a neighbouring chair. His face was so wrinkled and grey he looked as though a thousand years had passed him by and each day had etched a line into his skin. The same murky eyes stared with rude frankness, and then switched to the still crying baby. 'That had better not carry on, or it'll be out in the slush.'
'He needs food, that is all.'
'Aye, it'd better be.'
He cast the Elf and baby another resentful glare, and eventually rose to his feet and moved towards the rooms at the rear of the bar, indicating to Legolas that he should follow. They passed into a dim corridor with five rooms, and the old man gestured to Legolas that the chamber at the very end was his. He took his leave without a word, turning on his heel and vacating the dark narrow space, not so much as a glance being exchanged between the two of them. Legolas felt no regret at this as he let himself into his chamber … if it could be called that. There was a bed, a chair, and a fire. Filth coloured the walls an interesting shade of grey-brown, the floorboards were tacky underfoot, and the bed sheets discoloured. An odour he could not quite identify hung heavily in the stale air, but as there was no window, he would have to put up with it. And there was a large dark stain in the corner that required no imagination to guess what it was, and its presence made the Elf shudder with revulsion.
The screams of the baby did not allow any time for him to mull over such things as the disgusting nature of their accommodation, however, and Legolas set to heating the child his milk, having laid Arathorn carefully on the bed amongst his furs, mindful to not allow the child to come into contact with the bed sheets.
Warming milk filled his nostrils with its sweet scent, and he forgot for a moment his plight and the events of the night before. His mind neglected where he was and what he was doing there fleetingly, savouring the smell and the memories it stirred within his tiring head. He was no longer in a filthy village, stagnant with neglect: he was home, a mere elfling, hot milk before him on that same kitchen worktable he had sat at not so long ago, a mug steaming comforting vapours into his face. The maids would make him such beverages, sometimes with honey for a treat (the very root of his love of the sweetness his father had often wondered about, as neither the King nor Queen had ever acquired such a taste), often secretly giving him fresh bread to go with it…
He poured the pan back into the water bottle carefully, frowning with concentration. Something inside him laughed at his care … he was an Elf, he could not possibly spill any, and he wondered briefly at the care he took. Once filled and corked with the customised stopper, he lifted the young human child gently to his embrace.
'Here, little one,' he toned softly, carefully watching Arathorn's face as he tilted the bottle to the tiny dark lips. He hardly dared breath as Arathorn stilled his cries and began to suckle. A silence descended upon them, peace finally reigning victorious in the grotty inn, and Legolas could not stop the relieved smile from gracing his features. He had to fight to keep the joyous laugh from escaping his lips and rendering the prevailing quiet beaten. He ensured the bottle remained tilted, care not to allow the baby to drink air making him frown again. Arathorn's face was no longer contorted and red from screaming, but rather complacent and contented with the food now gracing his stomach…
And opened his eyes.
Legolas felt his breath catch in his throat with shock. For a lengthy eclipse of seconds rendered immortal, he forgot himself. He forgot everything he had toiled through over the night … the only thing of any real importance was in his arms, staring up at him with soft, liquid grey eyes. They were watching him intently, steadily observing with a calm and gentle kind of knowledge. Ah, they seemed to be saying, so that is what you look like.
An uncertain smile flittered across his lips. It became surer of itself as the Elf came to believe what he saw … this was the most magnificent thing, wondrous and mystical to him. In all of his three-thousand-odd years on Arda, this was the first time he had ever borne witness to the opening of the eyes of a child. It was at once wonderful and daunting. A sadness touched his heart, though, when he thought of whom should really be witnessing this...
The juddering of the door handle as someone from the outside tried to gain access to his quarters ripped him violently from his reverie. Legolas' head snapped up in alarm, and he had Arathorn set down on the bed in an instant. He slipped behind the door, the comfort of his white knives pressing into his palms, his heart in his throat and trying to make an escape through his mouth. Panic swelled in his breast: surely Gwareth had not been so quick to discover their hiding place? If he had, if it was him, Legolas would see his blood soil the floorboards and create a stain to accompany the one in the corner.
The handle turned fully, the door finally giving up its secrets, and a foot set itself within the confines of the room. A tall figure entered. Legolas was not willing to allow them to orientate themselves. He moved soundlessly round the door's girth and pinned the impostor to the wall in one fluid movement, both knives pressed tightly against the neck of the intruder, which he found to be heavily swathed in – beard?
To the Elf's immense surprise, Gandalf the Grey – Mithrandir, as he was known to the Elves – gasped frantically under the pressure of the blades, his face reddening as he fought to keep his throat from being severed by the sharp plains of metal being pressed so keenly to his skin.
'Peace, Legolas!' he gasped, his bulging eyes finding Legolas' own stunned orbs. 'I am no enemy!'
Legolas seemed to realise exactly what he was doing to one of his father's oldest friends and immediately backed off, dropping the knives to his sides and staring at the Istari like an alarmed elfling.
'Mithrandir? How-? What are you doing here?'
'It may interest you to know,' the wizard replied, though a little hoarsely as he massaged his throat, 'that I was about to ask the very same question of your dear self.'
'I'm-' Running for my life. He considered lying to the wizard, but a quick glance at the other confirmed to his head that such a thing would prove fruitless: Legolas was considered "old" by human reckonings. If the Elf was classed as old, Gandalf was ancient, and there was next to no lie that could slip by him, not even if it was crafted by an Elf who had had a few millennia to practice in. And the need to talk to someone else, to a friend, was an overwhelming need he had not known he possessed. 'I am in trouble, Gandalf.'
The wizard smiled. It was a sad sort of smile, the kind that responds with sympathy to another's plight and offers aid, though it says that it has seen the person in question with troubles many times before. 'I did think as much when I overheard the landlord and his son conversing loudly about an Elf in their inn. I was intrigued to see whom this Elf could possibly be, and wondered if he was in some kind of plight; I know of no sane being who would venture to this place unless they had happened upon some form of mischief.'
Legolas – despite himself – grinned, a curiously dark brow cocked with amusement. 'That is interesting, Mithrandir, seeing as you yourself are here; am I to assume that you too are in trouble? Or simply that this madness you speak of has finally taken you?' He crossed to the bed and lifted Arathorn back into his arms, supporting him over his shoulder and rubbing the baby's back as Winnera had shown him.
'I shall select to ignore that,' Gandalf grumbled, 'and shall endeavour to ask the Prince of Mirkwood exactly why he has a human child in his possession.'
The smile left Legolas' face immediately, and he paced uneasily, still rubbing the child's back. Eventually he stilled. 'It is a long tale, Mithrandir, and one that I do not tell lightly.' He settled Arathorn back in his blankets of fur, content that the child was ready for sleep and stoked the fire. Gandalf seated himself on the grubby chair, observing the Elf quietly as he busied himself with tasks to make the child comfortable.
Legolas eventually seated himself on the bed opposite the wizard. He recounted his tale, starting with the worrying dreams and not missing a detail. He hardly made eye contact with Gandalf as he spoke, often flexing his wounded shoulder and checking the sleeping Arathorn. The Elf's narrative continued for well over an hour. Gandalf never interrupted, listening with a creased brow as he took in every word. The only indication of a reaction to the more horrific accounts was a deepening of the trenches in his aged skin above his eyes.
When Legolas eventually finished, he heaved a shuddering sigh and placed his head in his hands, rubbing his temples as though a headache troubled him – which, Gandalf had to concede, would not be so surprising were it the truth.
'I just don't know what to do, Mithrandir,' Legolas said as he scrubbed at his eyes and face. 'I have a child in my care, a mere babe, and he is hunted by an adversary with skills that match my own too well. I worry that I cannot protect him against a man so powered … and Winnera and Wren were proof that he will stop at nothing to kill a newborn.' The perplexity of his situation and the very great worry that it reflected upon him voiced itself clearly in his tone.
Gandalf observed him quietly from his chair opposite, pity creasing his brow slightly. The Elf looked so worn, he thought, as he took in the scratched face of the other and fatigued expression he doubted the Elf even knew was on his face. Legolas kept his eyes closed as he heaved another heavy, heart-felt sigh.
'You should rest, Legolas,' Gandalf advised levelly.
'I cannot rest,' Legolas replied. He rose from his seat, as though even that slightest amount of rest he had afforded himself already was beyond what should be allowed. 'Not while Arathorn is being hunted.' He secured himself a cup of water and began to pace again, his boots sounding dully on the tacky floorboards.
'I fear it is no longer the baby that he hunts, Legolas, but you.'
Legolas ceased his pacing, a light frown on his brow. 'What do you mean?'
'Legolas, I know of this Gwareth,' the wizard said, his eyes intense with the force of what he had to say. 'There are many tales of such a man throughout the Free Lands. His skills lie in his heritage: his mother was an Elf maiden … a lady of your kingdom, in fact, stollen not so long ago by his father, a cruel and heartless man of evil ambition. He has all the skill and grace of the Eldar, from his mother's side, but a black heart to power cruel ambitions, just like his father. Hunting Elves is a pastime for him, a sport. He hates Elves more than anything on this earth, and I fear that he knows who you are. If he kills you, it will be the greatest triumph of his life – the Prince of Mirkwood, the greatest warrior known to these lands-'
Legolas screwed up his nose at this. 'I hardly think so, Gandalf.'
'You may not like it, Legolas,' the wizard said levelly, 'but that is the reputation that surrounds you, and it is the reputation he will know of.'
Legolas frowned at Gandalf lightly, before continuing his repetitive walk. 'You said he is an assassin, a hired thug who kills for coin. He has been hired by someone to kill Arathorn. He chases me because I have the baby.'
'No,' Gandalf contradicted. 'He is after you, not Arathorn. Gwareth is from a wealthy family; he needs no coin for his kills. He has come across you during his endeavour to destroy the baby and seeks to slay you. You have managed to prove yourself a worthy adversary, Legolas. He is pursuing Arathorn. He hunts you.'
The Elf stood still and mulled Gandalf's words in his mind. He hunts Elves… that was nothing really new to Legolas; he had been hunted before, many times before, by both Orc and Man, but to be hunted by a half-Elven, that was a thing unheard of. Then again, he reasoned, I only know of one, and I am sure it is not in the mind of the Lord of Imladris to hunt his own kind-
A strange, hiccoughing noise started amidst the pelts to the top of the bed, and the odd noise swiftly became a cry. Legolas abandoned his thoughts in a heartbeat, taking himself to the baby's side quicker than Gandalf could blink. The wizard watched as the Elf took the now wailing child in his arms and bobbed him up and down, a slender hand rubbing the miniature back. Legolas closed his eyes and sang softly to his charge, and Gandalf smiled gently to himself as he observed…
Legolas was a strong and highly admired leader. Stoic and gifted, he held the love of all those who served under him, respected unquestioningly for his prowess in battle. To all close to his heart, he was loving and true … but the loss of his mother and brother at such an early age, Gandalf knew, had been a cruel blow to him, and his hardened and astute figure as the Prince of Mirkwood was often what people saw, not Legolas. He could be so guarded at times that even the other Elf lords would find it difficult to approach him comfortably … yet as Gandalf watched, the hardened warrior and Prince of Mirkwood changed into someone else, into an Elf who clutched a human child to his breast with great tenderness and what could very well have been a love he did not truly understand.
Arathorn quietened, contented to be bobbed gently in the embrace of his guardian. Legolas pressed his lips to the peach-like skin of the baby's forehead and rested his cheek lightly in the soft, downy hair of Arathorn's crown, his eyes still closed, the song still lighting his lips like the push of spring's warm breeze.
A knowing twinkle came to the wizard's eyes. 'There stands a father before me in the Elven Prince I thought I knew.'
The Elf opened his eyes and stilled his song. 'You really think that to be true of me, Mithrandir?' he asked quietly. Legolas' eyes, always so guarded, had finally let down their sentinel and betrayed him openly to the wizard. Legolas wanted to hear it, wanted with all his heart, Gandalf knew, to be told this was so … there was a strong bond already formed between child and protector, and it was clear even to the blindest that Legolas wished to carry the relationship of guardian through Arathorn's life.
'Yes, Legolas, I do,' the wizard replied softly.
Legolas said nothing. His eyes became unseeing, hazed, staring into the fire without really seeing it at all, his long fingers playing absentmindedly with the curly wisps on Arathorn's head. He had been loath to admit it to himself, but the prospect of actually taking Arathorn to the Dúnedain village in the mountains and handing him over to complete strangers was one he did not wish to contemplate. I swore an oath.
'I cannot do this on my own, Gandalf,' Legolas admitted quietly, speaking more to the fire than to the wizard behind him. 'Not with Gwareth at my back.' He turned, and was puzzled to see the wizard with a knowing smile in his bright eyes. Gandalf straightened his spine, wincing a little as it cracked. 'It just so happens, Legolas, that I know exactly where you may find just the right character to go with you.'