When next he awoke, Legolas' many injuries were well on their way to healing, and he began to feel more like himself again. He turned his head to find Estel still sitting beside him, though his book was forgotten on his lap as he stared pensively into the distance. Legolas asked him softly, "Why so thoughtful, little one?"
Estel jumped and turned to the elf, smiling happily. "Ah, you are awake! Would you like something to drink? I have some water for you - clean water!"
"That would be delightful, Estel."
Estel carefully poured water into a cup from a large pitcher on a side-table and handed it to Legolas, making sure he was strong enough to hold it. "Ada said you must not drink too much too fast, so you must sip it. There will also be a tray from the kitchen soon with some food."
"May I sit on the bed?"
"Of course you may."
Estel wiggled onto the high bed and took up his position by the elf's feet. "What would you like to do?"
"Do? I do not imagine your healers will let me do very much at all, Estel. Would you rather go out and play? You have taken care of me very well, but now you should go outside and enjoy yourself. It looks like a beautiful day."
Estel shrugged. "I will stay here for a little while longer."
"Then, if you are going to stay, I have something to say to you, Estel."
The boy's mouth twisted, and he plucked the bedcover restlessly with his fingers. "When people say that it usually means I am in trouble or there is sad news."
"You are not in trouble, and there is no sad news that I know of. Will you come up here and sit closer to me?"
Estel crawled on hands and knees along the edge of the bed and sat at the level of Legolas' ribs, looking expectantly at the Prince.
"Estel, there is no way that I can ever thank you for what you have done."
Estel looked with his serious, grey eyes into Legolas' blue ones for several moments and then glanced away. "I do not think you should thank me any more. Ada is right; you are a friend to my family—I am glad I was able to help you. And you saved me first, after all."
Legolas looked closely at Estel's face, seeing something there that troubled him. "Estel, have I said something to make you unhappy? I wish that you would tell me if I have."
Estel began to pull off pieces of fuzz from the well-worn wool blanket. He watched his fingers carefully, as though the operation required his full attention. After a few minutes he asked, "What is it like, being a Prince?"
"What is it like being - ?" Legolas took a moment to catch up with the subject change. "Not very different from the lives of your brothers, I imagine. I am in charge of much of our defenses and most days I take out a patrol. When I am not doing that, I discuss kingdom affairs with my father or attend him while he negotiates treaties and such."
"So you have many people with you all day."
Unsure where Estel was headed, Legolas answered slowly, "I suppose I do, most of the time. I still find time to enjoy the woods of my home alone, though, as often as I can. Why do you ask, Estel?"
"No reason, 'specially." Estel slid his legs off the bed and landed with a thump. "I think I will go outside after all, if you do not need anything."
"No, little man, I need nothing right now." Legolas hesitated. "Are you sure there is not something wrong?" But as he spoke the boy's back disappeared through the doorway.
Elrohir brought Legolas his breakfast tray the next morning, as well as the welcome information that the Prince could shortly return to his guest quarters for the rest of his convalescence. As he tucked into a large and delicious breakfast, Legolas spoke around a mouthful of omelet. "That is wonderful news, my friend. You have few patients at the moment, and if your healers do not have enough to go around, they take turns poking and prodding the few they do have."
Elrohir shoved the leg in the cast over to the side, and sat in its place. "It is because you are a prince, and the Prince of Mirkwood, no less. They want no lack of care to ignite a war with Thranduil."
"Very amusing." Legolas buttered a scone and looked up consideringly at his friend. "Elrohir, something is bothering Estel. Something about or concerning me. Do you know what it may be?"
"No...He was desperately worried about you when you were in the stream. Perhaps he is having difficulty dealing with how close you both came to death."
"Perhaps…Did you know he calls you and Elladan his brothers?"
Elrohir became very still. "That is because we are."
Legolas dropped his fork to his plate with a clatter. "I do not understand this! He is human! Certainly he is a kind, brave child, but he will be gone before you can turn around. I do not understand how you can – "
"Can love him? It was not a matter of choice, Legolas. Love is. It may not be summoned or sent forth. I know well of your kind and generous heart; I had thought that you would also…how is it that you were in his company the way you were without coming to…or is that it?"
"Is what it?"
"You are afraid of him. You felt his hands—he is very gentle, is he not? You saw his tears—cried for your sake—saw his love, and you fear it."
"Do not be melodramatic. I do not fear him, nor do I love him. I am sorry if that angers you."
Elrohir rose slowly to his feet. "It is all right, mellon nin, not everyone in Imladris loves him. We try to protect him from those who do not as well as we can, for they can be quite cruel. I know you would never deliberately cause him pain, but I will ensure he does not pester you. I think that must be what is troubling Estel. He can sense that you do not return the affection he wishes to give you."
Legolas shoved at the tray on his lap, no longer hungry. "You are making too much of this. Of course I like the boy—he just saved my life! He could be a dwarf and I would like him! And everything you have said of him is true. He is kind, compassionate, very courageous, extremely intelligent, and can be quite charming. But if I care for him – " He broke off in confusion, then continued softly as though to himself, "I came here expecting something—I hardly know what—I knew he must be a child, yet he surprised me completely. Perhaps I thought he would be a miniature Huor, carrying a broadsword and a shield." Legolas chuckled at himself. "What I found was a little boy."
Elrohir sat back down. "Legolas, I have no idea what you are talking about. At all. You thought he would be a little Huor? You are surprised he is a little boy? What wild rumors did you hear in the gloom of Mirkwood, and why should it matter to you how old he was before you even saw him?"
Legolas debated within himself a moment and then said, "There is more, Elrohir. I cannot tell you everything, but it may be that Estel has a great destiny before him. It may be that he will save Middle-earth."
Elrohir jumped to his feet, fists clenched. "If you are jesting, you must forgive me for not laughing. And if you are not—then beware, for such words endanger his very life." He shot a glance at the doorway. "We do not speak of it except in my father's own chambers, and only a handful of us know. How do you know and how many besides yourself!"
Elladan chose that moment to enter the room and saw an amazing sight. His twin stood at the bedside, pale as death and breathing heavily. The object of his ire—their best friend—sat staring at him, a tray beginning to slide off his lap. Elladan darted forward and caught the tray as the dishes began to slip along its smooth surface. "What is going on here?"
Without taking his eyes from Legolas, Elrohir ground out, "He knows about Estel. If he knows, half of Middle-earth must know. We must tell Ada at once."
"He knows -?" Again a sharp glance to the open doorway. Elladan spun around, saying quietly, "I will inform him." Still carrying the tray, Elladan left the room and started toward Lord Elrond's study.
Two hours later, a tired Elrond rose from the chair that he had occupied while he, his sons, and Legolas had spoken of a little human boy and his destiny. The fingers of one hand kneaded the skin between his brows, and his mouth was set in a grim line, though it was much relaxed from the tight clench it had shown an hour ago. "I think we are all now satisfied that Estel's identity has not been compromised. You tell quite the tale, Legolas, one I have never heard in all my years in Middle-earth. However, I know you too well to doubt your word. I will speak with Mithrandir about this when next I see him, you may rest assured. Meddling old fool!"
The three younger elves flinched to hear the wizard they revered referred to in such terms. The twins exchanged cautious glances since they were well aware their father would never speak that way before others unless he was still very disturbed.
"As I have said –" The fatigue in the Prince's voice made it clear that what he was about to say had already been said many times. "– the rite is known only to the oldest among my kin. And even they do not actually use it. There is no reason you would know of it. As for what you have told me about who he is, I promise that there is no force that could make me speak a word to anyone but the three of you. No, Elrond, not even my father. I will willingly swear blood oath if you require it."
The elf lord's mouth twitched ever so slightly. "I am confident that you will keep this secret without requiring dramatic rituals and general messiness." The twins breathed sighs of relief to see his humor return. "Now, I am afraid that my sons and I must leave you alone yet again. Yesterday was the last day of the conference and our guests will be leaving for home. A few left immediately following breakfast and the rest will leave after luncheon. After they have eaten we will be bidding them blessed journey as they depart." He sighed and rubbed his forehead a little harder. "For hour upon hour."
"Do not fret, Elrond, there are at least three bored healers within the sound of my voice. I expect that I will survive until your guests have gone."
The elf lord smiled and turned to go to his chambers for yet another wardrobe change. Elladan followed him, but Elrohir remained behind. He sat again on Legolas' bed and took one slender hand in his. "I am sorry for some of the things I said before, mellon nin. I know you would never harm my brother—in any way—because it is not in you to hurt any child. Estel has many people to love him; do not be aggrieved if you cannot be one of them. You will return to Mirkwood in a few months, and may not even see him above another time or two before he has left us to make his way. I do not wish this to cause a troubling between us."
Legolas squeezed the hand holding his and replied warmly, "I am ever your friend and a friend to Imladris. And it is good to know such a sad young one has a loving family. I am just sorry I cannot offer him as much as you would like me to. I came prepared to offer my protection and even allegiance to the one who will save our world, but I did not come to give my heart. Now go before your father accuses you of trying to avoid more ceremonials!"
At just that moment a messenger put his head around the doorframe. "Lord Elrohir, your father asks that you attend him at once."
Legolas and Elrohir laughed as Elrohir hurried from the room, waving his farewell behind him.
Legolas shifted down in his pillows and tried to find a comfortable position. The cast kept him on his back, and he dearly wanted to roll over. He flung one forearm over his eyes to dim the bright light of a sunny day and tried to fall into reverie. Again and again he nearly slipped into the trance-like state, yet each time it eluded him. Each time, as his eyes began to glaze, he heard a voice which pulled him back to awareness.
/ I did not come to vex you! I was worried about you/ Legolas swore and reached back to adjust a pillow with impatience. He cleared his mind with determination.
/ I do not want to see a fancier prince. You are a good enough prince for me./ Legolas smiled in spite of himself, remembering the admission in its gruff little voice, then shifted his cast a few inches to relieve the strain on his hip.
At last he began to slip away, relieved that he would spend an hour or two in peace. Then the voice came for one last time. /Are you ever afraid you will forget?...I try so hard to remember…/ The elf whispered pleadingly, "Stop plaguing me…I do not want to care for you. Please…release your hold upon my heart."
When reverie claimed him at last, he wandered in a mist where a young voice called his name faintly and despairingly.
When Legolas returned to awareness, a small body was once again ensconced at the end of his bed. He sighed heavily, afraid he would have to use cruelty to keep himself from the quicksand of involvement with Estel. The dratted boy was like a cocklebur; every time you thought you had pulled him loose, you found him clinging somewhere else.
Estel watched him with those serious eyes of his for some time before he spoke. "You have egg on your chin."
Legolas rolled his eyes in annoyance and took the handkerchief Estel held toward him. After removing the offending substance, he stared back at Estel. They locked eyes for long minutes but Legolas was not well-versed in the staring game and flinched first. "Well, have you some reason for visiting me, or did you just come to look?"
"There is no one to take care of you this afternoon. They are all outside, making speeches. Lots of speeches. I got bored and came to see how you are feeling."
"I am feeling very much better today, thank you for asking. Your – your father says I may go to my own room tonight and within a week this cast will be removed." He smiled apologetically. "Then I will not be so cross; I hate having to stay in bed."
Estel nodded his head vigorously, "I hate it, too! And it makes me cross as well." He continued to sit, just watching Legolas, although after a time the elf became convinced there was something on the child's mind.
"Estel, is there something you want to say to me? Or ask me?"
Once again small fingers began to pull at the loose threads on the blanket. Legolas by now recognized it for a signal the boy was having difficulty saying something that was important to him. He spoke very gently, "Estel? You may say whatever you wish to me."
The strange eyes, now silver, looked up from the covers and met with the elf's. "You have good eyes," Estel said. "I do not understand. Everyone that I know that has eyes like yours is very kind to me. I have tried to say I am sorry for not liking you when we first met, but you do not seem to…" He trailed off and his eyes dropped to watch both hands tear bits from the blanket.
Legolas swallowed. Now was the time to end this. A few words, spoken kindly but firmly, and the boy would leave him be. He would go from this room, find one of his family and cry a little, then he would stay away from the prince except for meals and other public occasions. It would be for the best in the long run; there was no point in letting the boy drag out his expectations this way. It would be cruel to do so when Legolas knew he could not give him what he desired. The elf drew a deep breath and opened his mouth.
But Estel had already begun to speak. "I would have liked to have a friend…"
Confound the child! "You have many people who love you: Elrond, the twins, and even Erestor, which surprised me very much! And many more, I am sure."
Estel once again met his eyes. "Oh yes, I know that! And I love them with all my heart. But they are my family: my father, my brothers, my tutors – I do not have any friends. There are not many elflings here, and the ones that are here do not seem to want…and Ada says I must not be with other men children, for their parents may begin to ask too many questions. I am not sure about what, except I must never tell anyone about what happened to my human parents. I hardly ever see any children of men anyway, so it does not really matter…" Suddenly he spoke intensely, tears glistening in those maddening eyes. "Legolas, why? Is it because I am human?"
Legolas snatched at the statement; any reason would do to put an end to this intolerable situation. He said harshly, "Yes!" and gasped as he felt a sudden pain. He would call a healer—they must have missed an injury for something twisted in his chest.
Estel looked away again and started to slide from the bed. He was obviously choking back sobs as he whispered, "Then there is nothing else I can say, is there? No matter how I much I would like to be, I cannot be an elf. I know because I have tried to be many times."
It was too much. Legolas could not see a bird with a broken wing without feeling great pity, let alone this heart-broken child. "Estel, come back. Please, come back!"
Estel hesitated on his way to the door but did not turn around. "It is all right, Legolas. I will not bother you any more." Then he added softly, "Thank you again for saving my life and explaining about your mother."
Legolas groaned. Apparently the healers had not only missed a wound but the dagger that had created it, for he felt it twist again, harder this time.
Estel turned at the sound, his eyes wide and worried. "Are you sick?" He took two steps toward the bed. "Does your leg hurt you? I am sorry I sat on it yesterday."
Legolas beckoned with his hand, "No, I am fine, but I would really like you to come here since I cannot chase you all over the house. Please, Estel."
The boy slowly walked forward until Legolas could wrap a hand around his waist. Then the elf leaned over and gently pulled Estel up and over the side of the bed. He tucked him against his side, although Estel was stiff in his hold. He remembered the confiding warmth that had settled against him under the old willow and marveled at his blindness. And fear. Elrohir was right; it was not that he could not love this child, but that he feared to. He put aside his own worries and concentrated on Estel. "We have had a terrible time, have we not? First, I was not what you expected, and you were not what I expected, and then before we could get to know one another and clear up our misunderstandings, we were in a situation that would terrify even Glorfindel. May I start again, Estel? I truly never meant to hurt you, as I see now I have."
One small hand tentatively reached for a larger, callused one and Legolas entwined their fingers together. With his other hand he stroked back the dark hair that hung over the tear-stained cheeks. "You must try not to mind that you are human, little one. I have known many elves and I have never known an elfling to be as clever and brave as you are. We are as Iluvatar has made us, and his reasons for making me an elf and you a human are wise and deep and far beyond our small understanding. I am glad that I met you, Estel, and not only because you saved my life."
Estel tightened his grip on the hand that held his and said softly, "If Iluvatar had a reason to make me a man, even though I have prayed to be changed to an elf, then I will try to stop wanting to be one. And I feel better since you say you will not hold it against me. But…"
Legolas braced himself. He knew what was coming, and he must make a decision and make it now, this moment. He would rather have a few yen to think about it, but it was not to be.
Estel continued. "But…I…I like you very much now. I would like…" He drew a deep breath, hesitant after his previous rebuffs. "I would like you to be my friend and I would like to be yours."
Time seemed to stand still for Legolas, and many scenes flashed before his eyes as the magic from the Five Words acted one last time. He saw himself in Valinor, where many joyous elves gathered at some celebration or other. But he walked alone beside the shore and wept. He saw himself bent over a man whose face he could not see, holding him tightly as blood seeped from beneath his hand where it was clamped to the man's side. He felt the cold terror of death, but it was not his death he feared. There were other scenes as well, though. He saw himself at a coronation, his heart so full of happiness it could not be contained. He saw himself lying by a fire, shivering from the effects of spider venom. He saw a man's hand come into his vision with a cool cloth and heard a gentle command from a voice so trusted that he willingly yielded his stubborn spirit to a healing sleep. He saw a hand wearing a curious ring clasping his warmly. There would be pain, yes, but there would be joy as well.
Estel asked in a small, resigned voice, "Legolas?"
Legolas turned his head and met the glistening eyes of the little human beside him. He drew a shuddering breath and cast caution and fear to the wind. His voice was deeply serious as he said, "It is a hard thing for an elf to be friends with a man, Estel, but I will be your friend."
Two arms flew around the elf's neck and strangled him as Estel whispered, "Thank you, thank you!" over and over into his neck. Legolas rubbed soothing circles on the boy's back and said while laughter bubbled inside him, "Nay, thank you, my friend Estel, for not giving up on a stubborn elf who nearly refused a wondrous gift."
Elladan and Elrohir stopped dead in the doorway of Legolas' room. Tears stung their eyes as they took in the sight of Legolas lost in reverie with his arm firmly clasped around Estel. The boy slept with one hand curled possessively around the elf's neck. Elladan said in a soft whisper, "I knew they would come to this, eventually. It is not possible that one as warm-hearted as Legolas could resist our Estel."
Elrohir gave him a jaundiced look. "He seemed to be doing fairly well to me. I wonder what broke through his resistance?"
"Does it matter? Hush - we should go, or we will wake them."
But the twins hesitated, still gazing on the two with relief and gladness. Legolas turned his head and his eyes focused on them slowly. Still half lost to the land of dreams he whispered somewhat defiantly, "He is not the least bit sticky."
Muskrats are real animals that live throughout the Midwestern United States. They are cute but a bane to farmers because they cause ditch banks to collapse, often taking trees with them.