Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters of J. R. R. Tolkien, nor any of the various dramatic incarnations thereof. No profit is being made from this work.
Greetings! Welcome to this story. It came about mostly because I felt that this period of time needed exploring. Legolas turns up at the Council of Elrond with a very bare-bones account of what happened between Gollum and the Wood-elves. I find this account fascinating both for what he says and what he does not say. That Legolas's errand to deliver this message ultimately leads to his being included in the Nine Walkers only makes the message and its circumstances more interesting. And the little part of me that really ought to have gone into forensics just took over.
There will be a few fairly bloody scenes. I'm just saying. Other than that, there's not much else to note here. You will probably recognize some characters from my previous stories. Enjoy this one, and I'll see you at the end.
1. Needful Duty
Thranduil heaved a great sigh and leaned back against the carved wood of his throne. The two slender Elves standing beside him regarded their guests coolly, with impassive expressions. Aragorn returned their gaze as best he could while keeping a firm grip on Gollum's leash. The wretched creature writhed and tried to shield himself from the eyes of the Elves, muttering to himself monotonously. Beside him, Gandalf leaned on his staff and smiled disarmingly at Thranduil. At the moment, Aragorn sympathized with the Elvenking, for what Gandalf had asked of him was a great burden indeed.
Thranduil straightened and put on a pleasant expression. "Will you at least tell me why you wish me to keep this creature, Mithrandir?" he asked. "My people are not known for their skill at imprisoning others. Or perhaps you have forgotten the incident with the Dwarves?"
"I have most certainly not forgotten it, King Thranduil," Gandalf said. "Indeed, I recall it quite well. You took them in when they were starving in the forest and sheltered them and gave them food and drink. And plenty of both, as they were generous enough to recall."
Gandalf shrugged. "They did. And it turned out to be for the best in the end. Smaug was destroyed, and a good portion of the Orcs in the Misty Mountains along with him."
"At the cost of far too many of my people," Thranduil countered. "And the Orcs have recently begun to multiply again. They are making trading difficult and dangerous. I fear that we will face a lean winter, Mithrandir. I do not know that I can afford to keep this creature for you."
"You will find him easier to board than you think," Gandalf said. "He is accustomed to the meanest fare, and little enough of that. He will eat no more than the smallest of the children in your delvings."
"And I will not have that smallest of children go hungry on account of this creature."
Aragorn gave the Elvenking a wry smile. "He will no doubt supply much of his own food," he said. "He is adept at catching and eating creatures that your people would never touch."
Thranduil made a gesture, and the two Elves at his side knelt before him, their backs to their guests. A ferocious whispering came from the huddle, too soft for Aragorn to make out any words. He and Gandalf and Gollum watched the debate patiently. At last, the two Elves stood, and Thranduil regarded Gollum silently for a while.
"What does he eat?" he asked at last.
Aragorn glanced at Gandalf, and the wizard winked at him. They had won Thranduil over. "Fisheses," Aragorn chuckled. "Among other things."
One of the Elves at Thranduil's side looked interested. "Fisheses?"
Aragorn nodded. "Raw, for preference. He catches them himself."
The Elf glanced at Thranduil. Thranduil nodded to him, and the Elf moved swiftly to kneel in front of Gollum, examining him with bright, curious eyes.
"Take care, Legolas," Thranduil said. "He looks tame enough, but I do not trust that creature."
Legolas nodded and continued to inspect Gollum. "We have plenty of fish," he said. "What else does he eat?"
"Worms," Aragorn said. "Small insects and grubs. Rats." He held out his hand and showed Legolas a half-healed bite mark. "He has also developed a taste for Ranger, it would seem."
"Does that pain you? Perhaps you should visit our healer."
"No," Aragorn said. "It is healing on its own. If the bite were poisoned, it would have showed by now."
Legolas cautiously extended his own hand to Gollum. Gollum looked at it curiously, then leaned forward. For a moment, Aragorn feared that Legolas was about to lose a finger, but Gollum simply sniffed the Elf's hand, then recoiled in fear.
"Ach!" he spat. "Nassty Elvses! Smells like the Yellow Face, they does. Ssssss, gollum!" He scuttled behind Aragorn and crouched down, hissing and muttering. Aragorn disentangled himself from Gollum's leash as Legolas returned to Thranduil's side.
"There you see it," Gandalf said to Thranduil. "He fears your folk much more than you need fear him."
"I do not fear him," Thranduil said. "Rather, I find him a nuisance. Someone will have to guard him, taking time away from hunting and our increased defenses. We will have to feed him something, no matter how much he may catch on his own. And he will have to sleep somewhere, most likely taking up a storeroom that could be put to other uses. And you have not yet told me how long I may expect to endure his presence."
Aragorn glanced at Gandalf. This was a valid question, and one that he and the wizard had not discussed while they hunted the creature. Gandalf furrowed his brow briefly, but did not seem overly concerned with the issue.
"I do not know," he said. "I cannot say that you will keep him until this or that day of the year and no longer. But something is stirring in the East. Great changes are afoot, and my heart tells me that you will not keep the creature as long as you fear. But when and how he will leave your custody, I cannot say."
Thranduil gave a pained smile. "Will you at least tell me why you have chosen my people to guard him?" he asked.
Gandalf brightened. "Because you and your people are kind and brave of heart, King Thranduil," he said. "What you have you share willingly with your guests, and the growing things of the forest look kindly on you. Though Mirkwood is shadowed, still there is light and joy where the Wood-elves dwell, and that speaks to me of powerful magic. I do not believe that the creature Gollum is wholly evil, and I hold out hope that he may be cured. I trust that you will treat him kindly, and perhaps he will benefit from your care."
Thranduil rolled his eyes. "You are a flatterer, Mithrandir," he said. "But I will take the creature. You have aided us before, and I will do this for you in memory of your past aid to us. Shall I have chambers prepared for you and your companion?"
Gandalf looked at Aragorn. Aragorn considered the offer. He knew that he ought to return to his people and his duties to the West, but he felt that he deserved some recompense for the time he had spent hunting Gollum down. After the stench of the marshland where the chase had ended and the long days spent driving Gollum before him, the thought of sleeping in a real bed held a powerful appeal. "I accept your hospitality, my Lord," he said, "and I am grateful for the offer. I will depart in the morning."
Gandalf nodded. "I accept as well, King Thranduil," he said, "though I fear that I will impose upon you for longer than my companion. I would have time to speak with Gollum, to learn who and what he is."
"Far be it from me to dictate your amusement," Thranduil said wryly. He turned to the two Elves at his side. "Luindil, please take the creature Gollum to the storage chambers and prepare a cell for him there. Then summon Menellir to my presence. Legolas, please escort our guests to the kitchens, see that they are fed, and send someone to make up chambers for them."
Both Elves nodded. Luindil, who had stood silently at his King's side during the whole debate, came before Aragorn and eyed him warily as Aragorn disentangled his legs from Gollum's leash. Luindil took the leash with an expression of mild distaste, then turned his attention back to Aragorn. He regarded the Ranger coolly for a moment, and Aragorn had the disconcerting feeling that this Elf had looked directly into his heart and judged what he had found there. The Elf's expression softened a little, and he bowed politely to Aragorn and then to Gandalf before leading Gollum away.
"Come." Legolas indicated one of the doors, and Aragorn and Gandalf followed him out of the Great Hall. Aragorn relaxed as they walked through the twisting corridors. Though Legolas maintained the same wary distance as Luindil had, there was something about him that was slightly more open, and Aragorn had the impression that Legolas was curious about him.
"It is just past the noon meal, so I do not know if there are any prepared dishes left in the kitchens," Legolas said, "but if you do not mind waiting a few minutes, I am sure that Galion will be able to find something for you to eat. We will not have you go hungry."
"Your folk are as generous as ever, Legolas," Gandalf said. "I have great faith in the skills of your cooks."
When they arrived at the kitchens, Legolas slipped inside and went to speak in a low voice with one of the Elves working there. Aragorn moved to follow him in, but Gandalf laid a restraining hand on his arm. The Elf to whom Legolas had spoken turned to look at them, and after a moment gave a nod of invitation. Aragorn followed Gandalf into the kitchens, aware that all work had ceased and that the Elves there were watching him with reservation.
Gandalf seemed not to notice. He removed his large hat and bowed to the Elf with a smile. "Well met once more, Galion," he said. "It is good to see you so well."
Galion inclined his head stiffly. "You are always welcome in these halls, Mithrandir," he said. "Your companion as well," he added generously. He indicated a table in the corner. "Please, sit. Legolas says that you are hungry. If you do not mind cold meat, I will fill plates for you."
"Thank you. Cold meat will do quite nicely." Gandalf seated himself at the table, and Aragorn sat down beside him. Legolas stood near Galion and watched them.
Galion carved bits and pieces off of the remains of a roasted haunch of venison and divided them between two plates. He thought for a moment, then added a handful of mushrooms and raspberries to each plate. Setting the two plates down before his guests, he said something to Legolas that was too soft for Aragorn to make out, but which made Legolas laugh a little. Galion plucked an apple from a bin and gave it to Legolas. Legolas sat down at the table and bit into the apple.
Aragorn and Gandalf took their cue and started in on their own meals. The venison was delicious, and Aragorn made a conscious decision to focus his attention on the food rather than on the Elves he knew were watching him. He glanced at Gandalf; the wizard was eating unconcernedly. Legolas finished his apple in a series of small, neat bites and got up to place the core in a basket full of them. He returned to the table and looked directly at Aragorn and Gandalf for the first time. There was something familiar about his face, but Aragorn could not quite place it.
"Tell me of your journey here," Legolas said. "Where did you come from, and what did you see?"
Gandalf nodded at Aragorn. "We have been hunting the creature Gollum for eight years now," Aragorn said. "Some weeks ago, I came upon him in the Dead Marshes and captured him there. I drove him before me until I reached Lake Town. Gandalf was waiting for us there, and together we brought him to your delvings."
Legolas frowned a little. "You did not travel through the southern part of the forest?"
"No. We skirted the eastern edge."
Legolas nodded. "That was well done. The Shadow lies heavy in the South, and it is a perilous region. We do not go there."
"I guessed as much," Aragorn said. "When I turned my face northwards from the Dead Marshes, I saw a column of black smoke rising from the trees into the sky."
"That is ill news." Legolas sucked in a sharp breath. "But it is important to know such things. Thank you for telling me. I will share it with my father after I have shown you to your rooms."
"Your father?" Aragorn asked.
It was by sheer will power alone that Aragorn managed to keep his jaw from dropping open. "The King?" he said. "You are the son of the Elvenking?" Legolas nodded, and suddenly Aragorn realized why his face looked so familiar. "I should have guessed," he said. "You resemble him greatly. I must apologize; I had guessed that Galion was your father. He seemed quite friendly with you."
Some of the Elves in the kitchen laughed a little. Gandalf smiled and winked at Legolas. "No," he said to Aragorn. "This one is the son of the King, although when he was small, he was the pet of the kitchens."
Legolas gave a shy half-smile and dropped his gaze. "Galion has been my friend for as long as I can remember," he said. "He used to give me good advice and let me nibble at scraps if I was hungry."
Aragorn chuckled, remembering a similar childhood friend in the kitchens of Imladris. "Kitchens are marvelous places," he said. "I have always pitied those sons of great lords who did not ever find their way into a kitchen as children." Evidently, this was the correct remark to make, as Galion and the others nodded in agreement and finally resumed the work that the strangers' entrance had interrupted.
"Come." Legolas rose from the table. "I will show you to your rooms now. Perhaps you are weary from your journey and wish to sleep."
Legolas led Aragorn and Gandalf through the corridors, finally stopping before two doors. He opened one and turned to his guests. "Here are your quarters," he said. "Both of these rooms are similar, and you may choose which one you like the best. Should you wish not to be disturbed, pull in the latch-string. If you are in need of anything, you may call out; someone will hear you."
"Thank you, Legolas," Gandalf said. "These rooms will do very nicely. I believe that I will freshen myself, and then I must go and speak with Gollum."
"I am sorry. There are many more pleasant things to do in the forest."
"Indeed. But I have spent eight years searching for the creature, and I will not delay any longer in asking him what I need to know."
Legolas shrugged. "If you are determined, then I will not hinder you. I must go and speak with my father, and then I will find out where Luindil has housed Gollum. If you do not need anything more, then I will return in an hour to take you there." He dipped his head, then turned and left.
Aragorn watched him go, then turned back to Gandalf. "So that is Thranduil's son. He is not at all what I expected."
Gandalf smiled. "And you are not what people would expect when contemplating the Heir of Elendil."
Aragorn laughed and conceded the point. "You are correct as usual, my friend. And Thranduil's son was also correct. I am glad to be free of that miserable creature, and I feel as though I could sleep for a month. By your leave."
He pushed open one of the doors and entered a small guest chamber. The furnishings were simple, but elegantly carved and of good quality. The pieces that interested Aragorn the most were the washstand in the corner and the low bed pushed up against one wall, draped with soft furs and sheets. He scrubbed the dirt from his face and hands, removed his muddy boots, then flopped down on the bed. The straw tick rustled beneath him, and he smelled the comforting scent of the clean, dry grass that filled it. In minutes, he was asleep.
He awoke some time later, hearing Gandalf's voice out in the corridor. Curious, he hauled himself up from the comfortable bed and went out to investigate. Legolas had returned and was speaking to Gandalf in a low voice. When the door opened and Aragorn appeared, smoothing his tousled hair with one hand, Legolas looked stricken and ducked his head.
"I am sorry," he said. "I did not mean to wake you."
"You did not," Aragorn said. "It was not your voice I heard. I did not know that you had returned."
Gandalf raised his bushy white eyebrows. "It appears that I am the culprit," he said lightly. "My apologies. I will go and speak with Gollum now, Legolas, if you feel that he has had sufficient time to accustom himself to his new surroundings."
Legolas shrugged. "He did not seem particularly accustomed, but Luindil said that he had at least stopped howling. That is progress, I suppose. When I looked in, he was huddled in a corner of the storeroom, muttering to himself."
"That is normal," Gandalf said. "He seems to have settled as well as may be expected. I shall go and see what I may learn from him."
"Very well. Shall I escort you to the storage rooms?"
"No," Gandalf said. "I believe I can find my own way, thank you. There is no need to keep you from your duties, Legolas." He gave a short bow and walked off down the corridor.
Legolas watched him go, then turned to Aragorn. "We disturbed your rest," he said. "Forgive me. I will leave you in peace now." He turned to leave.
"Wait," Aragorn said. Legolas turned and gave him a curious glance. Aragorn put on what he hoped was a disarming smile. "I believe I have rested enough. Your voices were not unduly loud. Had I truly been in need of more rest, I would not have woken."
"Do you wish to be entertained? I will escort you to our library if you would like, or to the herb gardens."
Aragorn shook his head. "It would be enough for you to tell me the way; I do not wish to detain you from your duty. Or, if there is any way that I might make myself useful and repay you for your hospitality. . . "
Legolas considered the offer. "I am going to check the fish traps in the Forest River and collect our evening meal. If you are willing, you could come along and help to carry the basket."
"I would like that." Aragorn went back to retrieve his boots. Legolas stood just outside the doorway and watched him.
"I do not know your name," he said after a moment. "Mithrandir did not mention it."
Aragorn paused, one boot off and one boot on. "I am called Strider," he offered.
"But that is not your real name."
Aragorn looked up at Legolas. Thranduil's son was as perceptive as any Elf, but he did not seem inclined to press the issue. His tone had been one of simple observation. "No," Aragorn said. "That is not my real name."
Legolas nodded, as if it were a perfectly normal event for strange Men with no proper names to turn up in his home without explanation. "Come, Strider." he said. "It is a warm day, and the air indoors is too close. We will breathe easier by the river."
Aragorn followed Legolas to a storage chamber near the kitchens, where Legolas collected a tightly woven basket. They left the delvings and walked to the river along trails that were barely visible to the Man's eye. Legolas knew the way and slipped easily through the underbrush, pausing now and then so that Aragorn could catch up to him. After a few minutes, Aragorn heard the sound of running water, and they emerged into the relatively open air of the riverbank. Legolas plucked broad maple leaves and lined the basket with them, then moved to a particular spot where the river flowed over some rocks. He lifted the wooden fish trap from the water, and Aragorn helped him sort the catch, releasing those fish that were too small and putting the others flopping into the basket.
There were several fish traps at different points in the river, and Legolas and Aragorn both became very wet as they collected fish. "Now I understand why you were so eager to do this chore," Aragorn laughed as Legolas waded into the river and blissfully plunged his arms into the water in search of a trap. "It is hot out here, and the water feels lovely."
Legolas smiled, his reserve giving way as he stood dripping in the stream. "I like collecting fish almost as much as berrying," he said. "It is certainly much more pleasant than sitting in the storerooms with that Gollum creature you have brought here. I do not envy Mithrandir today."
"Nor do I," Aragorn said. Legolas splashed ashore with a full fish trap in his arms, and Aragorn began to sort through the fish in it. "This is not something I had expected to do with the son of the King," he commented. Legolas shrugged.
"Everyone must help to find food," he said, "for everyone wishes to eat. And that includes the son of the King."
Aragorn considered his own life spent roaming in the Wild while preparing to meet the high doom laid out for him. "That is a good philosophy," he said. "I shall have to remember it for the next time I am at Imladris. There are several residents of that House who would be horrified to hear it."
That idea startled Legolas, and he laughed a little. Aragorn grinned at his new friend and tossed a little silver trout into the stream, where it swam away through the sparkling water.