The True Face of Courage
Disclaimer: The major characters in this story and the world they live in aren't mine…they are all the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien. I'm just giving them a few more adventures for fun, not profit.
Summary: A young Aragorn learns a lesson on the real meaning of courage during a journey underground to find his missing brother. Main characters: Estel (Aragorn), Elladan, Elrohir, and Legolas.
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Chapter 1, A Fallen Hero
He hated caves. He hated the feeling of being trapped underground in the dark. He hated the damp cold that seemed to seep into his bones. He hated the cloying smell of rot and mildew that reminded him of death and decay. And most of all, he hated the nasty creatures that skulked in the darkness. Well, to be fair, that wasn't entirely true. He could tolerate bats and many of the other little cave dwellers, and truthfully didn't even hate cave trolls, although he did his level best to avoid them. No, what he really hated were the hoards of rats that swarmed about the nether world. The little creatures were the source of nightmares and he despised how they made him feel. Even now, after centuries of proving himself as a warrior who would fearlessly fight in the face of overwhelming odds, the horrible little rodents could still bring back those haunting feelings of being abandoned, lost, and left to die in the dark. Very little could make him feel fear, but these small creatures held the key to an irrational terror, and he hated them for it.
"Valar, Elladan will owe me for this," Elrohir muttered as he forced unwilling feet to take him deeper into the realm where he was certain the little beasts would be found in droves.
A sound of someone stumbling behind him made the young elven lord abruptly stop and look down the dark passage he'd just come through. A quick glance told him that his two companions were well—probably Estel was getting tired and had tripped over something in the dark. With that thought, Elrohir gave a mental sigh and then motioned for the others stop for a break. He was already worried sick about one brother—no need to let something happen to the other due to his impatience.
As the three quietly sat down and made themselves as comfortable as possible on the stone floor of the tunnel, Elrohir leaned his head against the rocky wall and tried to force his tense shoulders to relax while he reflected on what had brought him to this place. What a disaster! Had it only been a week ago that they had all been having such fun? It had started out so innocently. His father, Lord Elrond of Rivendell, had asked him and his twin, Elladan, to take a message to a group of traders in Norwall. It was to be an easy trip, so the twins had asked if they could bring along their young human foster brother, Estel, and turn it into a hunting trip as well. Their father had readily agreed since the 16-year-old had been pestering him for months to allow him to go hunting with the twins, and the three brothers had been making their way to Norwall when they'd run across Prince Legolas of Mirkwood. By chance, Legolas had been journeying to Rivendell for a long overdue visit to see his old friends and to meet their brother, so of course he'd joined their little adventure and the four had been having a wonderful time until they had reached the bustling town nestled amongst the looming cliffs that gave it its name.
The town itself had been pleasant enough, but the simple delivery of Elrond's message had turned out to be anything but simple. The traders hadn't liked Elrond's terms and an unsuspecting Elladan had been taken as a bargaining chip by the men, who informed Elrohir they would keep Elrond's eldest son as a hostage until the elf lord agreed to provide them with goods for a fraction of their normal cost. Anyone could have told the men that they would never get away with their plan—only a fool would think that they could threaten any of Elrond's kin and still come out ahead. But these men were fools, refusing to even discuss Elladan's release with Elrohir. Instead, they let him know in no uncertain terms that he'd best take a message home quickly or they would start sending Elladan back one piece at a time.
Elrohir and his companions had no intention of leaving Elladan in the hands of these barbarians, so after making a show of leaving, they had secretly tracked the men to the maze of caverns and tunnels that lie beneath the cliffs of Norwall. That had been days ago, however, and ever since they had been searching the depths for Elladan. Without the sun to properly mark the days, it was hard to tell exactly how long it had been, but Elrohir knew it had been at least three, possibly four days that they had been underground. It might as well have been an eternity. Under the best of circumstances he despised caves, and with his twin missing, it was far from the best of circumstances. Add in those skittering noises and glimpses of something moving in the dark, and it made for one tense, unhappy elf who had been on edge since he had stepped foot in the caves.
Now, despite growing exhaustion, Elrohir just wanted to keep moving—to find his brother and get out. The need was almost overwhelming and he had to force himself to sit still, knowing that Estel, not yet a man really, needed his rest and it wasn't fair to push him past his endurance. So he sat quietly while the others settled down, watching and listening in the darkness.
Elrohir wasn't the only one not sleeping, however. Legolas, too, needed less sleep than the young human and so he also kept a silent vigil over their little group. He would never tell his friend, but he was becoming far more worried about Elrohir than about his twin. He had faith that they'd find Elladan and rescue him from whatever mess he'd ended up in, but he wasn't sure about how this quest would affect Elrohir. The longer they were underground, the more tense and haunted Elrohir appeared—it actually hurt to see how the strain was affecting his friend. Despite a pretense, he knew that Elrohir hadn't slept a moment since they'd left behind the open sky and was concerned about how prepared Elrohir would be for whatever awaited them.
When he saw Elrohir drop his head and press his thumbs into his forehead in a clear attempt to try to smooth away pain, he decided to finally say something and whispered, "Elrohir, you should also rest while Estel sleeps. I can keep watch."
Elrohir's head shot up and he looked almost guiltily at Legolas. "Nay, you sleep. I…I am not tired."
"Ro," Legolas answered with concern, "I know for a fact you have not slept since Elladan was taken and you cannot hide how your head aches. Sleep while you have the chance, so you will be well rested when we find him."
Glancing over to make sure that they were not waking Estel, who had dropped to sleep almost immediately, Elrohir hissed, "I cannot." He paused for a long moment before continuing wearily, "Legolas, I could be half dead with fatigue and still could not sleep in this wretched place. The very thought of being unaware in this despicable darkness makes my skin crawl. There are just too many…memories. Please understand."
Legolas looked over at his friend, the flickering torchlight once more showing the dark-haired elf rubbing his forehead. Legolas did understand, but it didn't make it any easier to accept. He opened his mouth to say something else, but then shut it and nodded instead. The best thing he could do for all of his friends would be to rest himself so at least he would be ready for whatever faced them when they found Elladan. He scooted back and leaned his head against the wall of the cave, willing his body to rest as well. The last clear thought he had before he slipped into sleep was, Just don't let there be any rats.
For at least another day, the three companions searched silently in the increasingly hazardous maze of tunnels. When they had first entered the caves, the tunnels had been well marked and wide, with bridges built by the men of Norwall over the deep crevices and streams that cut across the path. But they had long since left those easy trails and now traveled more dangerous, hidden pathways.
They had just finished making their way up a particularly treacherous wall and onto a wide ledge when Elrohir stopped so suddenly that Legolas, who was directly behind him, nearly ran into him.
"What is it?" Legolas whispered as his friend stared ahead into the darkness of a deep tunnel.
When Elrohir didn't answer, the prince tapped his arm lightly in order to get his attention, but the dark-haired elf didn't move or say anything.
"Elrohir?" Legolas asked in a sharp whisper, but the other still remained frozen.
"What did you find?" asked Estel in a normal voice, as he came up to the two.
The sound seemed to finally break through to Elrohir, who visibly flinched at the loud noise and answered in a barely audible voice, "Elladan is just ahead. Through that tunnel. I do not know if he is alone, however, so we must make no noise."
Excited that their seemingly eternal search might suddenly be at an end, Estel dropped his voice to a whisper and asked, "Are you sure he's there?"
The expression that Elrohir shot back at Estel was one of exasperation, irritation, and amusement. Summed up, it seemed to say "are you kidding" and Estel grinned to see it. The very normalness of it after days of seeing Elrohir acting tense and distracted lightened the mood and the teenager snickered quietly. He knew the twins had some sort of inexplicable bond that allowed them, under certain circumstances, to sense each other and from Elrohir's look, this was clearly one of those times. "Sorry," he whispered with a grin.
Elrohir answered with the ghost of a grin himself, which faded as he turned back to the tunnel. He really didn't want to enter the inky darkness, something at the edge of his senses causing him to fear what he might find. But he would make himself. Elladan was on the other side, and he would walk weaponless through the depths of Mordor itself to save his twin. He could do this for him, even if the thought of entering the pitch dark hole filled him with dread.
When he looked back at his companions, however, only his determination and none of the apprehension showed in his face—he was, after all, an elven warrior, so he appeared calm as he whispered, "I will take the torch and search the tunnel, then call for you when I am ready."
"Shouldn't we stay together, in case there are men guarding Elladan?" asked Estel.
Elrohir shook his head and answered, "Nay, I will be careful, and this way if they have laid a trap, there will still be two of you should I be taken as well."
"See to it that you are careful. You know Elladan would never forgive us if you found yourself in trouble while he was not around to rescue you," said Legolas, only half in jest.
The dark-haired elf twisted his mouth in wry agreement. His twin was known for being annoyingly protective of him at times, but then again, he was just as protective of Elladan, although he liked to think he was more subtle about it. And while he was thinking of protective streaks…he shone the torch onto Estel and added an admonishment of his own, "Listen to Legolas while I am gone and do not come until I call, understood?" The last thing he wanted was for his little brother to attempt any foolish heroics—he really had no desire to be searching for yet another brother in this nightmare of a cave.
As he might have predicted, however, Estel rolled his eyes in annoyance and didn't answer. The young man had reached an age where he thought he was able to care for himself and for the past several months had been rather touchy about his brothers "treating him like a child." The look he shot back spoke volumes and only made Elrohir more determined.
Not willing to leave until he was certain that Estel wouldn't follow, Elrohir stared at his brother until the teenager finally started to squirm. With a small huff, Estel reluctantly nodded his agreement and muttered quietly, "Understood." Satisfied with the promise though not so pleased with the delivery, Elrohir nonetheless accepted Estel's word and with a grim nod, turned back to the tunnel entrance. Then the elven lord drew himself up, called upon a reservoir of inner strength he kept for such times, and stepped into the tunnel.
At first, it was bearable. The tunnel was narrow and low and there was an unpleasant chill to it made worse by thin streams of water that dripped down its walls. However, other than having to carefully watch his feet to avoid falling over the many rocks that littered the uneven path, there weren't any dangers that Elrohir could detect.
But as he got further down the passage, the dread he had felt before grew ten-fold and Elrohir felt a tightness in his chest as something invaded his subconscious. He didn't know just what it was, but something was warning him—something that his senses had recognized but his mind had not yet placed. Then his conscious mind put the pieces together and he had to force himself to bite back a moan. Oh why now?
'Keep going. Keep going,' Elrohir said to himself over and over as he inched forward. He knew they were nearby. Their unforgettable scent grew stronger with each passing moment. The odor tried to draw him back to a time of helpless terror and each step became harder than the last. But he did keep moving forward. He wouldn't let his fears get the better of him. He couldn't. He was strong enough to defeat them. He knew that. Then he swallowed hard as a scratching sound triggered more memories and almost dragged him into the past. Oh Valar! He was so close…he couldn't lose control. Not now. 'Just ignore it. Keep going...'
He thought he'd make it. He really thought he could hold his fear at bay long enough to get through the tunnel and reach his twin. But he hadn't counted on coming face-to-face, literally, with his nightmare. Hidden amongst the rocks was a large nest of rats that had made their home within a small niche, and as the light from Elrohir's torch illuminated their tiny alcove, the entire group of them swarmed out and began to race about madly. An elf is typically quite graceful and light on his feet, but even an elf has limits and Elrohir had finally reached his. Too many days without sleep and too many days of tense worry had drained him, so when one of the creatures ran between his feet, he backed up in alarm and couldn't keep his balance as he tripped over another one that had run behind him.
He fell backwards onto the ground, first his back and then his head smashing down hard against the rocks that lay strewn about the narrow passage. A blinding flash of pain left him dazed, but any thoughts of injuries he may have sustained from the fall disappeared almost instantly. Disturbed by the large creature that had invaded their home, the rats attacked Elrohir as he fell amongst them, running over top of the elf and sinking their sharp teeth into him wherever they could. As a particularly large one ran across his chest and onto his face, he lost his last hold on conscious thought and yelled, "NO!" as he frantically tried to get away from his nightmare brought to life. Crawling and tripping over rocks and rats, his mind instantly took him back to a time of helplessness when other groups of these horrid creatures had tormented him and he was desperate to escape.
Not pausing to think about which direction he was heading—not really conscious of anything except an overpowering need to flee, Elrohir scrambled backwards, still trying to get to his feet, but stumbling and tripping in the darkness. He was so disoriented that he didn't even realize when he finally did make it out of the tunnel. Stumbling blindly in the darkness, for he had lost the torch when he'd fallen, Elrohir cried out when he felt something reach out of the darkness and grab him and he started to fight wildly.
He tried to pull away, but the grip only grew stronger and he soon found his arms pinned to his sides. Elrohir refused to give in, near-panic setting in as he tried to free himself. Then, as he continued to struggle, as if from a distance he finally heard quiet, reassuring sounds and realized that the strong arms trapping him were actually holding him in a comforting embrace. It was at that point that his senses started to return and he realized that he had run into Legolas, who was now trying to calm down the frightened elf.
"Shh…it is alright. I have you. It is I, Legolas. It is alright. You are fine…." When the string of words penetrated Elrohir's fright, he stopped fighting altogether and at last slumped into his friend's arms.
For awhile, no one moved as the prince held his shaking friend tight, steadying him as Elrohir's gulping breaths filled the cavern. Legolas murmured soft words of comfort and then in a slightly louder voice, called over and asked calmly, "Estel, please light another torch."
The young man did so as quickly as he could, his own hands shaking slightly with the shock of the sudden turn of events. What had happened? What horrible beast had attacked Elrohir? After several tries, he finally lit the torch and then stared at the sight now illuminated in front of him. Legolas was kneeling on the ground, holding Elrohir, who was wide eyed and shivering, but Estel knew it wasn't from the cold. He could see from the way Elrohir's eyes followed the rats that were now running about the cave that he feared them. That was it? Rats? He was afraid of…of little rodents?
Estel didn't move as he tried to comprehend the ugly truth that his eyes were showing him. With gut-twisting disappointment, he saw that his brother…his big, strong, brave brother, had not run from a fearsome beast, but from some small furry animals! It was a shock to the young man, who had not-so-secretly viewed his brothers as his idols from the moment he had met them. As he stared at Elrohir and Legolas, he simply didn't know what to say or do. He was sick with disappointment. Elrohir was a coward! Unwilling to share his stunning disillusionment, he lowered his head before anyone could read in his face what he was thinking—he would have to decide later what this would mean to his relationship with the younger twin.
Unaware of his brother's distress and not in any shape to deal with even if he had seen it, when the light flared in his eyes, Elrohir turned away and buried his head in Legolas' chest, grateful for the protective hold of the other. Exhausted and overwrought, it was a relief to simply rest for a moment, knowing Legolas would keep him safe.
Within moments, however, the shaken elf knew he would have to leave the haven of his friend's arms in order to find his twin, so Elrohir collected himself and lifted his head. He pulled away from Legolas, his movements awkward as he tripped while trying to get up. His bruised back was finally making is presence known and it robbed him of his usual surefootedness, but he finally managed to stagger to his feet and stood there for a moment as he attempted to regain his composure. It didn't help that he saw the sharp drop behind him, only now realizing that Legolas had saved him from a nasty, if not deadly fall. It sobered him to realize how close he had come to ruining Elladan's rescue mission. If the others had to take care of an injured companion, they would not have been able to continue their hunt for Elladan. All because of his stupidity!
He drew a deep breath and dragged his hands across his face. "Valar," he whispered huskily, "that was…" His voice choked away to nothingness as a lump in his throat threatened to choke him. Swallowing, he continued in a tight voice, "…that was...I…I was…" The still shaky elf covered his face with his hands and whispered shamefully, "I am so sorry."
Legolas also stood up and squeezed Elrohir's shoulder sympathetically. He said nothing, knowing there were no words that could comfort his friend now, but his silence spoke volumes as he tried to convey his understanding with a warm touch.
For long moments, the two stood there, until Elrohir finally raised his head and looked at his friend. Elrohir's eyes were still haunted, but he managed a small smile of thanks for Legolas' quiet support. But then he shook his head, his face twisting into self-directed anger. How he loathed himself! Grimacing, he whispered in disgust, "I am such a fool."
"Elrohir, don't," said Legolas quietly. He had seen this before and knew that Elrohir would be mentally beating himself for his involuntary reaction—the younger elf despised losing control and had never been able to accept his dread of dark caves and rats. Legolas wished he could tell Elrohir to wait here—that he would go forward alone though the rat-infested tunnel and find Elladan, but he knew he could never get his friend to stay behind. He understood the reason behind Elrohir's deep hatred of rats, but also knew that even their presence could never stop him from going after his twin—to even suggest it would be an insult.
Looking solemnly at Elrohir, he finally said, "We should continue…but would you allow me to take the lead? There is no need for you to go first," he offered, hoping at least that Elrohir could be spared any more unwanted surprises.
But true to his nature, Elrohir wasn't about to agree. Rats or no rats, it was his place to go for Elladan. He shook his head and reached over with an unsteady hand to take Estel's torch, still too shaken to notice his brother's expression.
"Thank you, Legolas," whispered Elrohir, "but no. You wait here and I will scout ahead." He concluded in a voice still full of disgust for himself, "In fact, I should hurry. If there is anyone through that tunnel other than Elladan, they are surely aware of us now so I must move fast."
He walked purposely back to the entrance of the tunnel and then stood there for a moment, desperately trying to maintain an air of calm as he listened to the sounds of little skittering feet ahead in the narrow passageway. He closed his eyes as he tried to gather the strength to once again face his nightmare. He conjured up an image of his twin's face, knowing that Elladan was on the other side of the rats. If he could stay focused on that image, he knew he could do it.
The too-tense elf jerked in surprise and his eyes flew open when he suddenly heard a voice from over his shoulder, "Elrohir, we are coming with you. As you say, there is no chance of surprise now, so there is no need for us to wait."
Elrohir turned to argue with Legolas—they could all be walking into a trap—but when he saw the other's determined face, he paused. He had known the blond prince since they had been elflings and he recognized Legolas' stubborn expression—it was highly unlikely that he would be able to change his mind and arguing would only delay finding Elladan, so with a resigned sigh, he nodded his acceptance and turned back to the tunnel entrance. Now he just had to make it past the rats.
The first step was the hardest, but after he started, Elrohir moved without hesitation. As he carefully made his way into the narrow passage, he admitted to himself that he was comforted by the sounds of his companions behind him even though he knew that it would have been a better strategy for them to wait. He was determined that this time he would not react outwardly to presence of the rats, but it was still good to know that whatever happened he wouldn't face it alone.
Perhaps it was the added comfort knowing Legolas and Estel were right behind him, but when Elrohir came across the first rats, he didn't even pause. The rats he had disturbed earlier were still filling up the narrow passage, blocking the way in several places so with a tightening of his jaw, he nudged them aside with his boot, forcing aside the revulsion he felt at the thought of touching them. He also made himself ignore the involuntary fear that made his stomach churn as he made his way further down the tunnel and once again smelled the nest. It had been many centuries since he'd last faced this particular nightmare and it angered him to know that these small animals still could have such an effect on him. Showing no sign of his inner turmoil, Elrohir strode forward with purpose. Aye, he thought grimly as he brushed past more of the rats, Elladan will really owe me this time.
As Elrohir fought against his inner demons and Legolas followed his friend closely, ready to act if the need arose, Estel brought up the rear, lost in his own, grim thoughts. If he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, he would never have believed what had just happened. He had grown up listening to stories of the twins' adventures and had conjured up a mental image of his brothers as the ultimate warriors—strong and courageous, able to face the most terrifying foes. But that image had been shattered in the short moments when he'd heard Elrohir rush out of the tunnel and then seen him shivering in Legolas' arms. He didn't even consider the fact that Elrohir was now wading through those same creatures that had such a devastating effect on the elf. All he could see was that his hero had turned out to be afraid of some silly little rodents. His disappointment turned to anger as he followed the two elves through the dimly lit passage. How dare Elrohir pretend to be a brave warrior when he was scared of some stupid little rats? He scowled as he stalked behind the others, his lip curling in disgust as he readjusted his opinion of his brother—the coward!
A/N: Hi all…after a rather lengthy absence, I'm back and have a new story to share. It's one I mentioned before that I'd like to write—the backstory to how Estel learns a lesson in courage from his elven brother (mentioned in my previous story, "Lost.") I had hoped to write the whole story while I was gone, but didn't really have time—sigh. SO, the updates won't come as quickly as I'd hoped...sorry. Well, I've really missed hearing from you (except Lalaith, who continued to write even though I wasn't posting—thanks so much—you're a dear!) and I'm so glad to be back. I hope you enjoy the story. FirstMate