Concerning Barrels, Potatoes and an
Unusual Setting for a Heart to Heart
(Write Sister #1)
Timeframe: Pre-FOTR, Aragorn is in his thirties
Disclaimer: The recognizable characters and places in this story are the property of JRR Tolkien, borrowed without permission and used without pay.
Summary: Legolas finds trouble, and Aragorn finds Legolas.
Written for the Teitho contest 'Friends in Small Spaces'
Legolas could feel the dampness soaking into his torn leggings. Through the musty smell surrounding him he could faintly detect the scents that told him night had fallen outside. Inside everything was pitch black. He tried to shift his position against the wall behind him, but, lithe as he was, there wasn't much room in which to move. The stonework prodded him sharply, provoking a sudden inhale and blinding pain.
The trapdoor through which he'd entered — little larger than the serving hatch into Mirkwood's buttery, as he'd had cause to know in his boyhood — was shut fast against any awkward attempts to break it down by force. The ceiling hung low… the walls were mere inches beyond his elbows… the floor unyielding… the ceiling impenetrable… like being buried alive. Clenching his teeth, he tried to force away the fear. The bile rising in his throat was almost choking him. He had been trapped in places thousands of times worse; now was not the time to succumb to claustrophobia. But with his weapons gone and his head throbbing too hard to think clearly, he was quite literally out of options. The shadows were clawing at him, spiking his fear ever higher. There was no way out.
Except, perhaps, one.
"How do you get yourself into these messes?" a voice muttered, muffled through the door, but easily heard by the elf's keen ears. There began to come a faint rasping sound from the latch.
Legolas exhaled slowly and managed a rueful smile, in spite of the circumstances. His heart lifted as the darkness was pressed back and held at bay.
The voice continued, apparently not caring whether or not Legolas answered. "By rights it is my job to be walked on by orcs, fall out of trees, or get pitched into cellars. And here of all places… If you wanted to see me that badly, you could have sent my brothers to find me; there was no reason for you to go blazing your own trails all over Arnor just to greet some filthy human, swap lively stories about how many injuries we've sustained since last meeting, and enjoy a non-existent cup of mead in a wolf-infested woodland.
"But what am I saying? Isn't that exactly what I would have done? Oh, yes, and gotten just as lost, and just as side-tracked, and wound up in exactly the same position, I'd imagine. Though most likely at the hands of assailants a good deal larger than I. Honestly, mellon-nin, you could have won out against the entire lot of them, both hands tied, suspended upside-down in a pond of molasses! How am I going to explain this to your father, hm? The son of Thranduil, Heir to the Throne of Mirkwood, bested by a dozen pitchfork-wielding hobbits and thrown into pint-sized cellar. Are you that badly hurt, or did you let them capture you?" The last pair of questions were quite serious.
The elf eased his bent knees closer to his chest, trying to brace his aching ribs without sparking further pain. "No, I'm fine, I just didn't want to hurt them."
The rasping sound broke off and Legolas could picture his friend's expression. "Hurt them?" the human demanded. "Hurt them?"
"What part of that is confusing, Strider?"
"Farmer Barrel wasn't spat out by a dozen wolves and then pitched head-first into his own cellar, as you'll recall. The only thing keeping me from wringing his foolish neck is that I've spent a lot of late nights keeping the afore-mentioned wolves from eating his blasted cows. That, and I rather like his son."
Legolas squinted at the low ceiling, trying to recall which of the hobbits that he'd seen might have been Barrel's son. After a few seconds he gave up; he'd been completely disoriented when he'd stumbled through the Barrels' gate, explaining why he'd collided with Mrs. Barrel in the first place. He still felt badly about that; he'd almost flattened the poor little woman, and hadn't had breath enough to lift himself off her. Once the farmer and all his field hands had started moving in, things had escalated too quickly to catch much of his surroundings before he'd been firmly marched around back and tipped into the empty potato cellar. Certainly he wouldn't have recognized the hobbits' faces.
"So you'd been here before. Did you'd met his son then?"
"No, not until today," Aragorn confessed, the scraping sound continuing steadily, "but he knows some amusing riddles and was all too eager to hide me in the barn when Barrel ordered me off his property. An offer I accepted gladly, under the circumstances, but it was foolish of the lad. I could have been just as much a ruffian as his father thought I was."
"Laugh away. The file that is currently engaged in getting you out of here is also compliments of Master Fosco. Resourceful, don't you agree? I gathered he is motivated by a grudge against his father."
"Grudge?" Legolas queried, shifting again and then wishing he hadn't. A feeling of nausea filled him for a moment as his chest constricted and his ribs grated against each other.
"Legolas?" Aragorn's voice was full of concern as he paused in his filing again.
"I'm fine," the elf returned, lying through gritted teeth. "What grudge?"
Aragorn apparently decided to let it go. "Farmer Barrel has refused permission for Fosco to marry the lass he loves, one Apple Hardbottle by name, who lives south of here, near Bree."
"What was the objection?" Breathe, he thought, trying to distract himself.
"You mean besides the fact that, should they wed, the unfortunate girl would be saddled with the name 'Apple Barrel'?"
Some distractions could be too good. Legolas laughed, and just as suddenly choked back a groan.
"Legolas!" The human vented several interesting dwarvish words. "I knew it. Don't you dare tell me you're fine again, you stubborn elf."
"I've been better," he admitted, wheezing a little. "But I will be well enough when I'm out. Please, just keep talking." So long as the human talked, there was a life-line out of the tomb. Legolas' slender arms circled his rib cage and he rested his forehead on his knees, wishing there was a spot in the darkness to focus on and stop the dizziness. "Why did Barrel object?"
"I believe her father and his father are enjoying a long-standing argument over who was at fault during a cart collision about a year ago."
"I thought hobbits were more forgiving than that."
"This is Archet, not the Shire, and not that I've ever gone very far into the region, but even in the Shire you'll meet your share of suspicious ones, petty ones, or downright bull-headed ones." The file began rubbing harder with momentary antipathy.
"Strider, he thought I was attacking his wife."
"And the fact that you were bleeding all over the path at the time?"
"I wasn't bleeding all over the path. I was twice the size of Mrs. Barrel, a stranger, and looking like I'd just come from a tavern brawl and lost — you can't blame the farmer for watching over his family."
"I can do as I— shhh!" Aragorn suddenly cautioned, going silent, and Legolas held his breath. It wasn't from actual fear of the hobbits, but he couldn't stand the thought of staying trapped all night, and knew it would be simpler if he and Aragorn could escape quietly. For a long moment Legolas' sharp ears caught the sound of a hobbit stirring sleepily in the house above them, and then all was silent. After a while, Aragorn's file started rasping again.
"False alarm. In any case, I can't believe we're having this argument! Who's the one locked in the cellar on false charges here?"
"I am. I was only saying I could see his point of view, that's all."
Aragorn sighed grimly. "I appreciate that, my friend, I really do. At the moment, though, I've just finished discovering seven dead wolves, tracking your blood trail (don't contradict me), finding you locked in a potato cellar, and getting into a long debate with a fat farmer over local law and whether or not your honor was unimpeachable, followed by a less than productive secondary debate concerning my own honor, followed by a threat of the stout-hearted hobbit's fists if I didn't move my ruffian self away from his wife and daughters and off his farm by the nearest stile. If, once I have successfully sawn through this latch, pulled you out of there, determined that you are far from fine, bandaged your head, your left thigh, and apparently your ribs, and we have stolen away from under the collective noses of the Barrels, I may be willing to again see reason and not smite the little brutes for eating too much and thinking too little."
Since he could not physically, Legolas mentally shook his head in disbelief. His friend had jokingly and good-naturedly grumbled about the hobbits in the past, but these words were tinged with a bitter seriousness. "Aragorn, what in Arda has you talking this way? I've never heard you say such things before. What you do to protect these people is a good and honorable thing, and not made less by their fear of you; better to say it is magnified. If you and I are the most dreadful things they can imagine entering their farm, you have done your work well. Please, don't let me be the cause for you to doubt that."
The rasping continued alone for several seconds before Aragorn answered, and when he did he sounded tired. "I don't doubt it. And with these hills so full of evil, I wouldn't change it — Barrel can call me anything he likes, he is still an honest man, in his own way. But I would change this, if I could. It is impossible, I know, but I would change the very suspicions they harbor, and the decay of this land from what it was. I would change you, hurting and locked in a hole in the ground. I'm sorry I didn't come sooner—"
"Hush," Legolas cut him off. "It isn't your fault, Strider. You came for me sooner than I dared hope for help — you have nothing for which to apologize." He stared hard at the door, trying to meet Aragorn's eyes through the barrier. "One day this land will be yours, Aragorn son of Arathorn."
"Why must you bring that up?" he demanded, but the humor was strained.
"It is true, my friend. You cannot hide from it."
"Which isn't to say I haven't tried, is that it?" Now Legolas could not read the man's tone at all. He wished he could see his face.
"No, you're right. I have tried. I cannot seem to find a calm place to sort my thoughts — the task is too great for a mortal man, the expectations too strong, and the minute I try to take it in, I'm thrust into the river and I'm going under."
"You think we expect too much?" he asked, including the absent Lord Elrond and Mithrandir in the group.
Another sigh whispered amidst the rasping. "No. There is no one else to take this responsibility. But I've had nightmares ever since I was old enough to be told… Thousands of people, hailing me, wanting a rescuer and a ruler. They want me to prove I am able. I'm locked in a narrow cage, and I know it's a test, and I also know I cannot break free alone. There is always this thought…" He paused, hesitating. "With the Ring I could escape. They always find it and offer it to me. Some nights I take it and escape, and then all goes black. Other nights I say no, and I remain caged. I wake up clawing to get out. But what can I do? No other kings to choose from, no other savior to be found, no strength to do what I must. It's like being buried alive."
"Aragorn, stop it. Have you ever told your father this?"
"Not really. It doesn't even make sense—"
"Tell him. You'll believe this better coming from him. For my part, I agree: you are right. You cannot escape the cage alone." He reached across the blackness, pressing his palm against the wood of the door. "But there are alternatives to rings. I promise you, mellon-nin, by the very soul in my body, I shall be there to break you out. You will be king, and the darkness will be defeated, and one day you and I will return here. It will be cleansed at last, free of fear, and such suspicions will be a distant memory. Remember that before you sleep; and if you forget, I'll remind you again and again until the day it comes to pass."
"I did not know you dealt in prophecy," Aragorn said strangely.
"Of this prediction I am certain." The elf smiled. "Just imagine what Farmer Barrel will say when he finds out."
He was rewarded by a soft laugh, and then came the jarring sound of chinking metal as the file wore its way through at last. The bar on the cellar door was cast aside and then the door itself swung back, revealing a sky of stars and an anxious Ranger.
Legolas accepted the hand that reached down to him and pulled himself up, stepping onto the grass again and leaving the cramped hole behind. The minute he stood he staggered and Aragorn caught him in a quick embrace to keep his legs from buckling under him. Too tired to protest the help, he leaned against his friend for a moment, looping his arms under Aragorn's and gripping the back of the human's shoulders to hold himself up. Most of all, he needed to breathe — the air had gotten close and difficult to inhale over his long hours in the cellar, something he was sure a small hobbit would not have considered a problem. His legs had fallen asleep, and as the blood rushed through them again fresh pain broke out in the gouges across his thigh.
When he had regathered his strength, he carefully shifted his weight to his own two feet and took a half step back from Aragorn. The man's arm was still partly extended, to catch him if he stumbled again. Aragorn's blue eyes were indigo in the darkness as the elf's gaze met them. The human looked travel-streaked and tired, as if he'd just come from a long journey and been forced to run the last mile home. But perhaps… There was a subtle change in his usual posture, as if the load he carried was not quite so heavy anymore.
"There, see?" Legolas murmured. "I'm fine."
"It's not polite to assume a falsehood."
"What does the etiquette manual say about telling one? You shouldn't be this exhausted after a day in a cellar, meaning those wolf bites are probably infected. We are going home to Rivendell so Ada can check you himself. And if you're about to protest, don't. You don't have the breath to spare for it."
To his annoyance, Legolas found his friend was right. "I don't like feeling like this."
"I don't like you feeling like this either. Your attitude takes a turn for the worse." Aragorn grinned and checked the house to make sure all was still silent. He stooped to lift and shoulder a bundle, which seemed to include an elven bow and quiver and a pair of knives. Then he looked at his friend carefully. "Do you think you can walk for any distance?"
"I'll manage." Legolas ghosted him a smile. "Anything to be out in clean air, free of that potato smell. Thank you for saving my life, by the way."
"You think it was that serious?" the ranger asked lightly, but his sidelong glance was a concerned one.
"More serious than you know." He shivered a little as he slipped over Farmer Barrel's gate. "I dislike being trapped."