Disclaimer: I do not own Lord of the Rings.
I can only offer my sincerest apologies to anyone who has been waiting for me to update this story. I only hope the wait was worth it! :)
Hide and Seek
"Well?" Meriadoc Brandybuck demanded, looking expectantly at his sandy-headed cousin. "Anything?"
Peregrin Took shook his head, his short curls falling into his eyes and causing him to nearly topple down the craggy mountainside as he navigated a particularly icy bit of ground before falling in step with the other hobbit once again. "No, Merry, not a thing."
Merry frowned. "I just don't understand it," he muttered as he trudged along, hands hidden in the folds of his coat pockets from the cool bite of the air. "We've been trying for over a week now, and, if anything, we know less than when we first started! "
Pippin nodded in obliging agreement as he listened to his cousin grumble about the secrecy of the elves. Soon, however, the other hobbit's voice began to blend with the rhythmic footfalls of the rest of the fellowship as the small company made their way down the precarious slopes of Caradhras. Within minutes, Pippin had drifted into a pleasant daydream about first breakfast in the Great Smials, with the rest of his family and extended relatives gathered round the table alongside him, all of them sniffing at the cheering aromas floating in from the kitchen as they chattered excitedly about Cook's latest recipe. He had just begun to breathe in the heavenly scent of still-warm scones dripping with butter when a sharp nudge to his ribs brought him abruptly back to cold-footed reality.
Merry was looking at him impatiently. "Pippin? What do you think?"
Deciding it was probably in his best interests to at least pretend he had been listening, Pippin gave a hesitant nod, then another firmer one when Merry looked mollified. "I think that's the best yet," he ventured tentatively, doing his best not to think about the scrambled eggs with the lightest lashings of salt and pepper that were sure to have followed the scones had he been at home.
"It's settled then," said Merry determinedly. "We'll ask Strider tonight, when he's on watch."
Pippin nodded and, seeing that Merry appeared satisfied for the time being, let himself drift back into his daydream of fried potatoes, ripe tomatoes and nice crispy bacon.
Boromir, son of Denethor, shifted impatiently under his heavy cloak as he waited for his companions to settle down to sleep around the small fire that was the centre of that night's camp. Though a seemingly simple task, it was taking longer than usual as most of the members of the fellowship were otherwise engaged.
The hobbit cousins, Merry and Pippin, both of whom Boromir had warmed to as early as their first meeting, kept exchanging surreptitious glances and ducking off to the edges of the camp to hold a hurried discussion, only to be shepherded back by Aragorn, who was scheduled to take first watch that night. As soon as the ranger had turned his back, however, the cousins were off again, curly heads together as they debated between themselves.
The elven prince, Legolas, and the dwarf, Gimli, were also exchanging words in what was surely their umpteenth argument of the day. Muscular arms, both short and slender, were moving in wild gesticulations, but the two warriors kept their voices hushed, each knowing well how voices carried under the cover of night. Finally, the sharp tones of the wizard, Gandalf, brought a quick end to the quarrel, and both elf and dwarf settled down to sleep, as far away from each other as they could get without leaving the protective ring of the flickering firelight.
Boromir heaved a sigh of relief as Aragorn finally managed to marshal Merry and Pippin to bed. There was only Gandalf to go now, for Frodo and Sam had both retreated early that evening, and were currently burrowed among a hoard of cloaks and blankets that Sam had begged and borrowed from various members of the fellowship.
It took a good while for the wizard to retire, and Boromir found himself shifting impatiently under his cloak as he watched the old man stomp back and forth around the camp, peering into every nook and cranny. Soon after they had stopped for the night, Gandalf had discovered his favourite clay pipe was missing and had spent the rest of the dying day searching for it, snapping at anyone who dared approach him as he searched through every pack and under every rock, tree and hobbit in a fierce hunt. He had so far been unsuccessful, with the result that his temper had shortened even further than was usual. Most of the company had made a conscious effort to avoid him during supper, with the exception of Aragorn and Legolas, both of whom had joined Gandalf in his search, though unfortunately to no avail.
At long last, Gandalf scrounged down under his blanket, still muttering about his pipe. Scanning the rest of the dark shapes covering the ground and seeing them all silent and still in sleep, Boromir hefted a sigh of relief. Finally he could put his plan into action.
Searching out the shadow that was the ranger on watch, Boromir shed the warmth of his covers and climbed to his feet. Though he tried hard to soften his steps, he was not yet in a dozen feet of the other man when Aragorn turned his head, watching his approach with eyes that were hidden under the low hood of his dark cloak.
"Aragorn." Boromir fell into stride beside the ranger. "May I join you?" he asked, though he had no intention of being turned away.
He could feel the man's gaze on him for some seconds before he was awarded a nod. They continued on around the campfire in silence until finally the ranger spoke.
"If you wish to further discuss our route, Master Boromir, I would suggest you talk to the wizard, or to Master Baggins. I hold no sway in this matter."
Boromir pushed down his displeasure at his intended purpose of the night's meeting being guessed so quickly. "You mistake my intentions, Aragorn," he said, feeling the false words slip through his teeth with foreign ease. "I simply sought some company, for it seems that sleep is reluctant to be my friend this night. Besides," he added, unable to stop himself, "the ring-bearer's choice is his own. Who am I to disagree?"
Boromir was certain, even in the flickering half-light of the campfire, that the ranger's eyes hinted towards a scepticism at his words that belied his considered response. "My apologies," Aragorn murmured. "I was of the belief that you were fully against us taking any route but that of the Gap of Rohan."
"I sought only the safest path for our fellowship, and for the burden we carry," Boromir bit back. Feeling the weight of the ranger's sharp gaze deepen suddenly, Boromir took a deep breath, fighting to keep his temper in check, reminding himself that antagonism had not been his plan this night. "But we must all abide by the Ring-bearer's decision…no matter how ill-informed it is."
Aragorn did not say anything to this, and the two men fell into an uneasy silence as they continued to circle the camp. Letting his eyes rove over the other members of the fellowship, Boromir found his gaze coming to rest on the dark shape of Frodo before he forced it away, aware of the ranger beside him. Casting his companion a guarded glance, the Gondorian's attention was caught by something half-hidden in the dark folds of the ranger's cloak. "Excuse me if I am mistaken, Aragorn," he started, "but is that not Gandalf's pipe you are carrying?"
For the slightest of moments, Boromir thought he saw guilt flicker across the ranger's face, yet it disappeared quickly, replaced by the same flint-like expression as always.
"Nay, it is my own," Aragorn replied shortly. "Gandalf's is missing, did you not hear?"
"My apologies." Boromir let silence fall once again. However, as he circled the camp one last time with Aragorn, his eyes kept straying to the familiar long-stemmed pipe sticking out of the ranger's pocket, until at last it was nudged further into the depths of the cloak and out of sight with a casual brush of the ranger's arm.
It was only after the Gondorian had retired to bed for a second time that night that a dark figure dropped lightly from the boughs of the trees above, landing next to the ranger on silent feet.
"Do you think he knows?"
Silence lingered for some time before Aragorn shook his head. "Nay, he could not."
The new figure nodded, yet his melodic voice was wary when he next spoke. "Still, it is best we are cautious, mellon nin. He sees much for a human."
"And his eyes linger on one thing in particular," Aragorn murmured, half to himself, as he watched the solid bulk of the son of Denethor shift restlessly under the blankets that covered him.
Legolas did not reply, yet he remained by the ranger's side as the man moved to circle the camp yet again, both watching for threats from outside the flickering light of the campfire, even whilst their thoughts swirled on those far nearer.
"Well, that didn't work."
His arms full of broken bits of wood, eachl of which seemed to be doing their best to poke him in the ribs, Pippin hurried to catch with his cousin. "What didn't work?" he asked curiously.
Merry frowned as he bent over to pick up a rather sizeable log. "Our plan, Pippin, that's what!"
"Oh." Pippin cocked his head to the side. "And what plan was that, exactly?"
Merry glared at him. "Do you not listen to a word I say?" he demanded. Pippin did not have a chance to reply before Merry dumped his most recent acquisition into his arms and continued. "With Boromir wandering around like that, we didn't even have a chance to ask Aragorn!"
"Ask Aragorn what?"
Merry stared at him, his face a mixture of annoyance and incredulity. "Why, how old Legolas is, of course!"
"I knew that," Pippin affirmed hastily, adjusting his armful of firewood as it tipped precariously to the side. "I was just testing you."
"Testing me?" Merry repeated, his voice dubious.
"Well, we need to keep our minds sharp on a quest like this, don't we?"
"There you go then."
Merry frowned, but his attention was soon back on the matter at hand. "I just don't know what to do, Pippin," he exclaimed in frustration, kicking a stone on the ground so it barrelled towards a nearby tree before rebounding off the solid trunk. "I must have asked Legolas a dozen times in the last week, and he hasn't given me a straight answer yet! And you haven't fared any better!"
Bending down to pick up what looked to him like a particularly burnable bit of wood, Pippin winced as a stick poked him in the soft bit of his stomach. "Why don't we just ask Gandalf then?" he wondered aloud. "He knows everything."
Merry looked up, his eyes alight. "That's not a bad idea, Pippin. Come on, we've got enough wood for the fire. Let's ask him now."
Their cunning plan, however, was brought to an abrupt halt as they walked into camp to see Frodo and Sam already talking to the wizard.
"Mr. Gandalf, sir!" Sam was saying. "I heard you found your pipe!"
Gandalf nodded distractedly, busy digging around in one of the many folds of his cloak. "I did, Master Gamgee."
"Where was it?" Pippin asked curiously, depositing his branches on the ground beside the gardener.
"It was in his pack," Frodo cut in when the wizard did not answer, preoccupied with his searching. "Right where you suggested he look, Sam."
"'Look once and it'll be gone, look twice and it'll never have moved,' Sam recited as he carefully arranged the new kindling to give it the best chance of catching alight and reached into his shirt pocket to pull out his flint. "That's what my Gaffer always said."
"It seems he was right, as usual, Sam," Frodo said with a smile as he watched the flames creep swiftly up the kindling.
"I declare," said Pippin, settling down on the ground before the now merrily burning fire. "I don't think the Gaffer's ever been wrong!"
"I wouldn't say that, Pip," Merry retorted. "What about when he thought Sam had eaten those tarts Rosie had baked, and it was actually you and me?"
Their conversation was interrupted as Gandalf cleared his throat. "Might I trouble you to borrow your flint now you're done with that fire, Master Gamgee?" he requested of gardener, who was glaring at an unperturbed Merry and Pippin even as he continued to stoke the fire. "I seem to have misplaced mine."
Aragorn only just caught the soft, barely-there whistle over the stony lower slopes of Caradhras, bent as he was over the carcass of the bird he was skinning, a couple of dozen feet from Gandalf, who was half-buried in his pack in a last-ditch effort to find his still-missing flint. Around him, Merry and Pippin had their own packs spread out, and were digging through them in a vain attempt to prove to Gandalf that they had not taken the object of his search as a "foolish prank." Not pausing in his task, Aragorn spoke under his breath, relying on the sharp ears of his hidden cohort to hear him.
"Do you have it?"
"Aye. Though I think the bearded one might have seen me."
Aragorn threw a quick sidelong glance at the patch of sparse bushes to his left. "His name is Gimli, mellon nin. It would do you well to use it."
There was a pause. "You think he would turn us in?"
"I think he would turn you in. I am not the one who used his helmet as a water flask."
"I merely sought to get some use out of it, for there is nothing in his head for it to protect."
"Do not tell me that you informed him of that."
"I am no fool, ranger."
"Contrary to all appearances and actions," Aragorn muttered.
A mere second later, a sharp pain shot through his ear, and Aragorn only just managed to stifle his hiss as a small pebble dropped to the ground beside him. "What was that for?" he demanded angrily.
"Guess," was the dry response.
Aragorn glared at the bush. "I am not the one you should be attacking, mellon nin. We have another, far more deserving, target at this moment."
There was a pause. A second later, Aragorn heard Gandalf curse loudly, and saw the wizard jump to his feet, one hand clutching his ear. "Peregrin Took!" he bellowed, then stopped abruptly, seeing the hobbit in question sitting by his feet, his hands full with the contents of his pack.
Subsiding, Gandalf sent a suspicious glance towards Aragorn, but the ranger merely held up his feather-coated hands with a shrug. "Never you mind," Aragorn heard the wizard grumble to the young hobbit as he went back to searching for his flint.
Deciding it was in his best interests to pretend not to hear the muffled laughter from the sparse shrub beside him, Aragorn instead focused on his bird. A whispered conversation between the two hobbit cousins drew his attention however, and he glanced up to see Merry clear his throat nervously and address the wizard.
"Excuse me, Gandalf," Merry began "but we were wondering if you might be able to answer a question for us..."
"I give up."
Gimli, son of Gloin, glanced from underneath his brows at the curly-headed hobbit who had just flopped to the ground next to where he was sitting on a broken tree stump sharpening his axe.
"So do I," another voice echoed, and Peregrin Took joined his cousin on the soft ground.
Pausing in his work, Gimli looked at them. "Something seems to be troubling you, master hobbits," he observed.
"It's Legolas," Merry grumbled.
Gimli's eyebrows rose. "Aye? And what has that fool elf done now?"
"He's keeping secrets from us," Pippin complained.
Gimli snorted. "Typical." Shifting his grip on his whetstone, he resumed his work, pressing more heavily upon the blade this time.
"We want to know how old he is, and he's avoided telling us for over a week now," Merry confided, leaning towards the dwarf, who tested the blade of his weapon on his roughened finger before returning to his task, unsatisfied.
"We just asked Gandalf and he was no help at all," Pippin continued.
"And we didn't even get a chance to ask Aragorn," Merry added.
"Boromir would have no idea, even if we did ask him."
"Nor would Sam."
"Frodo might know-"
"But we don't really want to bother him at the moment, because of the whole Ring business."
Again, Gimli ran his finger along the edge of the blade, a grim smile forming on his face as a fine line of red appeared on his calloused skin. "I don't suppose you hobbits would want the help of a dwarf," he commented offhandedly.
Pippin and Merry looked at him, open-mouthed.
"You don't mean that you know, do you?" exclaimed Merry.
"We didn't even think to ask, seeing as how you and Legolas don't exactly get on very well," chimed in Pippin.
Gimli cleared his throat. "Well, Master Hobbits, even if I am lacking in that knowledge now, there's nothing to stop me from finding out, is there?" As the hobbits stared at him, wide-eyed, Gimli rose to his feet, axe in his hand. "Now, how about you point me in the direction of that pointy-eared tree-climber, and I'll see what I can do for you."
As one, Merry and Pippin pointed in the direction of a swiftly running stream that Aragorn had scouted out that morning.
With his newly sharpened axe clenched tightly in his hands, Gimli marched off.
Samwise Gamgee blanched at the sound of raised voices coming from the direction of the swift-flowing stream. "Sounds like Mister Legolas and Mister Gimli are at it again," he murmured to himself, wincing as a particularly barbarous exchange echoed over the plains that preceded the early slopes of Caradharas.
"For the last time, dwarf," exclaimed the melodious tones of the elf prince. "I have given you my answer!"
"Answer?" the dwarf's rough voice blustered. "If what you gave me was an answer, then I am an- an elf!"
"Do not be foolish. You are far too short."
"I can bring you down to my level with one blow of my axe if I so wish it!" Gimli retorted. "Now tell me what I want to know!"
"You told me that you are as old as the youngest tree in that dank forest you elves call a home!"
"You wished to know how old I am, did you not? So I gave you your answer."
"That is not an answer!"
"It is to me!"
There was a moment's silence. Then Gimli's voice growled through the sparse scrub.
"Do not think this is over, Elf."
Sam pressed himself back into a handy bush as the dwarf stomped past, muttering furiously under his breath. He waited until he could no longer make out the red-hair of the son of Gloin through the trees, and then gathered his courage and stepped forward.
The elf prince looked up from where he was bent over the rushing stream formed by snow melting off the mountain that stretching high above them. "Master Samwise! Have you come to join me?"
There was no sign of the animosity the elf had exhibited towards the dwarf, and Sam breathed a sigh of relief even as his already rosy cheeks reddened. He shifted on his feet, twisting the saucepan he was holding between his fingers. "Yes, sir, and it's Sam, if you don't mind, sir," he responded, still more than a little bit nervous about conversing with an elf, and a prince, what was more.
"Then it is Legolas, also," was the simple reply.
With a shy nod and a final sideways glance, Sam hurried the few steps left towards the bank of the stream which meandered a hundred yards or so from the fellowship's current campsite. Crouching low, he dipped the large saucepan into the water and waited for it to fill up.
"Did you hear that Gandalf found his flint?" he asked, feeling as though he should say something to break the silence, and half-hoping to keep the elf prince from dwelling on his argument with Gimli.
The elf prince nodded. "I did indeed, Sam. It is good news, is it not?"
Sam nodded eagerly. "And it was right where he said he'd left it, too, just like his pipe." He chuckled. "If I didn't have their solemn oath, I would think that it was Merry and Pippin, playing tricks like they do back home in the Shire."
"I would like to visit your Shire, one day, Sam," Legolas commented. "It sounds a beautiful place."
"Oh, it is, Mister Legolas. Why, in springtime you can hardly see the world for all the flowers popping up, if you know what I mean."
Legolas nodded. "My home was once like that," he said softly. "And hopefully, it shall be again."
They fell into silence again, but it was more comfortable this time. Sam found himself watching the elf prince as he waited for the water to reach the brim of his saucepan.
"Did you want something, Sam?" the elf prince questioned politely, noticing the hobbit watching him.
Sam jumped, startled, then met the other's questioning gaze. "Well, come to think on it," he said hesitantly, "I was wondering about something."
"And what was that?"
"What are you doing with Gandalf's hat?"
The elf glanced down at the grey wizard's hat he was holding between his long fingers, just above the level of the water, then met Sam's gaze once more. "It had gathered some dirt from yesterday's climb, so I thought to clean it."
"Is something the matter?"
"What? Oh, no, Mister Legolas. It just seems like a rather odd thing for you to do, that's all. Especially considering what happened the other day, with you and Aragorn, and Gandalf tipping that water on you."
"What's past is past, Sam," Legolas stated. "I am not one to hold a grudge."
Sam nodded, withdrawing the now-full saucepan from the stream. "Do you want me to tell Gandalf that you have his hat, just in case he's wonderin' where it is?"
The elf prince shook his head. "Nay, Samwise, I shall do that myself, but thank you for the offer."
With one last thoughtful look at the grey hat the elf was holding, which, now he came to think of it, seemed no dirtier than usual, Sam returned to the camp, his mind returning once more to the journey through the mines ahead.
"Those cotton-headed fools!" Gandalf exclaimed angrily, straightening from his examination of the packs that the pony, Bill, usually carried.
"Whatever's wrong, Gandalf?" Frodo asked in concern, his blue eyes questioning as he turned to look at the wizard.
A few feet away, Boromir started awake and struggled to a sitting-position, one hand groping for his sword whilst the other rubbed at his sleep-worn eyes.
Yet the wizard ignored them both, instead turning in a small circle where he stood, his eyes roaming the clearing.
Frodo looked at Boromir, but the man merely shrugged, and, seeing that there was no apparent threat other than that of an annoyed wizard, returned to his nap.
Realising that there was no help to be gotten from that particular member of the fellowship, Frodo stood up and joined the wizard at his side. "Gandalf? What is wrong?"
"Those fools stole my hat!"
"Your hat?" Frodo looked upwards, and sure enough, the wizard's grizzled head was bare. He shook his head, fighting back a growing smile. "Do not worry, Gandalf. I shall go talk to my cousins. You shall soon have your hat back."
"Your cousins?" Gandalf repeated, bristling. "Nay, Frodo, it is that ridiculous excuse of a ranger and his elf friend that I am after."
Frodo blinked, surprised. "Surely you cannot think that Aragorn and Legolas would have taken it?"
"I do not think it, Frodo, I know it. Their behaviour has been far too sensible this part fortnight for them not to have been up to some mischief or other." Squaring his shoulders, the wizard rose to his full height. "Mark my words, young Master Baggins, I'll get my hat back if it's the last thing I do."
Frodo watched, nonplussed, as Gandalf strode off towards the edge of the camp, his grey robe billowing behind him.
With a sigh, Frodo rose to his feet and followed him, grabbing Sam along the way.
Legolas looked over to where his friend lay in the crook of a tree branch, one leg hooked over the other at the knee and his arms behind his head, and smiled. It had taken him many years to teach the human to feel even half as comfortable in a tree as he was on the ground, and it was even rarer to see the ranger so relaxed in these dark times. "Aye?"
"Just how old are you exactly?"
Legolas' smile deepened at the familiar question. "I have told you this, Estel, many years ago."
"Like Gimli said, 'as old as the youngest tree in the forest' is not answer if the questioner does not know how old the tree is."
"Perhaps you should try asking Gandalf."
"I have," the ranger replied flatly. "He is about as vocal on this matter as is Lord Elrond."
"I know only that you have them sworn to secrecy on the matter."
"I have asked everyone, Legolas, as you well know, and have received no answer."
Surprised, the ranger shifted until he was sitting up. "You will tell me?"
"By my king and father, I shall tell you this very minute or never."
When the elf fell into silence after this declaration, Aragorn raised his eyebrows expectantly. "Well?"
Slowly, the elf prince met his gaze, his eyes grave. "Alright, mellon nin," he said. "I shall tell you. Though I must ask you never to repeat this information to anyone. Not even to your dearest friend."
"You are my dearest friend."
The ranger nodded. "You have my oath."
"On everything that I am."
"Very well. I shall do it. I shall tell you how many years I have lived in this world." The elf paused, waiting, until finally opening his mouth to complete his sentence. "I am-"
Aragorn nearly fell off his tree branch at the bellow that echoed through the wood. "The wizard!" he hissed, only just managing to regain his balance by grabbing at a handy limb.
"He sounds somewhat displeased," Legolas murmured.
"We stole his hat, Legolas, of course he is displeased!"
"Not to mention his flint," Legolas added.
"And his pipe," Aragorn finished. He looked at the elf prince, his face grim. "It seems our crimes have come due, mellon nin."
"He started it."
"True enough, but I do not think that matters at the moment."
"Aye. What do you suggest we do?"
Legolas frowned, displeased. "Warriors of Mirkwood do not hide."
"Do you wish to face him for the both of us then?"
"Do I look like a fool?"
"Aye, but I see no other way. We must hide."
Considering this, Legolas nodded. "Come then," he whispered, rising to his feet, still balanced on the narrow tree branch. Bending his knees slightly, he sprang upwards, grasping the limb above him with long fingers before pulling himself higher among the leaves. With a little more difficulty, the ranger followed.
"Aragorn?" Legolas asked, as he lightly pulled himself onto the next branch, and disappeared higher amongst the foliage. "Do you think that wizards know how to climb trees?"
Aragorn grimaced. "For our sakes, mellon nin, I hope not."
Night fell quickly at the bottom of the Misty Mountains, sending the wide plains and sparse forests into darkness from one moment to the next.
High in the branches of the same tree they had retreated to earlier that day, a ranger and an elf could just be seen through the shadows, one resting securely in the crook of a juncture, the other perched on a limb so slim he looked set to plummet to the ground at any time. Yet the tree held the wood elf safe, much to the annoyance of the bushy-browed wizard waiting far below on the solid ground.
Secure in their tree, the two friends waited in comfortable silence, each occupied with his own thoughts, until finally, the voice of the ranger broke the quiet.
"You have yet to keep your promise, mellon nin."
Legolas twisted nimbly in order to look at the ranger. "What promise?" he asked curiously.
"You swore to tell me how many years you have lived in Middle-Earth."
Legolas shook his head, causing the limb he was twined around to sway precariously, and the wizard below him to raise his head in hopeful anticipation. "You heard my oath, mellon nin. I swore to tell you my age then or never."
Silence reigned in the tree for some minutes, until finally, the ranger spoke once more. "You tricked me."
"You heard Gandalf coming."
"You were simply wasting time by gaining my oath to keep your secret."
Aragorn growled. "And what of Merry and Pippin?" he demanded. "Do they now know what I do not?"
"Nay. I managed to distract them, early this morning, in fact."
Aragorn's eyebrows rose despite himself. "How in Valar's name did you manage to achieve that?"
Legolas smiled, his teeth gleaming white in the dark. "I asked them how old they thought Gandalf was."
From below them came a muffled curse and some grumblings which neither man nor elf prince cared to decipher.
Aragorn could not help the smile that came to his face in response, even as he despaired of his friend. "You are far too clever for your own good," he stated. "But I swear by all that I am, mellon nin, I will find out someday."
Legolas just grinned, and, moving to a perch even nearer to the stars, was soon lost to the realm of elvish dreams.
Thanks for reading everyone, and I'd love to hear what you thought of it!