Title: One Evening in Imladris

Author: Pentangle

Rating: K

Characters: Many!

Setting: A year or so before the Council of Elrond

Summary: Friends. Just friends.

Sindarin

corvath nel: three rings

corvath leben: five rings

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The sun had just begun to set on a late spring evening in Imladris. Sunset came early to the valley since the cliffs cut off the light long before it began to darken on the plateau above the hidden refuge. The evening meal was nearly over, and as elves began to leave the tables it became evident that this would be one of those times when few would remain in the Hall of Fire. Some left as individuals, wanting to enjoy the warm weather and the mystical hour of twilight alone. Others sought out favored companions and drifted away to private chambers, walks along the river, casual competition at the butts, or other pastimes.

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Elrond and Lolindir

The Lord of Imladris, walking serenely and with his usual measured step, left the Hall and started for his own suite. But once he turned a corner and ascertained he was alone in the corridor stretching before him, he grasped his robes in both hands and began to run lightly. A figure stood in Elrond's doorway and gestured him within, then closed the door quickly behind them both.

"Did you bring them?"

Elrond's question was directed at an elf that was not quite the norm for the kingdom of Imladris. He was a little, well, short, and almost, almost ugly. He had a rather large nose, and bushy eyebrows that nearly met together. He was half as old as Elrond and most considered him as foolish as they considered the elven lord wise.

"Yes, everything is on the balcony, we may leave when we wish. Have you escaped?"

"Anyone who wanted to speak with me received the Eyebrow of Doom."

Lolindir laughed aloud. "You know about that?"

"Of course I do. I know every name I am called. What sort of All-Knowing, Mysterious Wielder of Elven Power would I be if I did not?"

"Point taken. Now hurry and get out of those fusty things, and into something that will not shriek 'here comes the ruler of Imladris' as soon as anyone lays eyes on you!"

As Elrond disrobed in his sleeping chamber he called out through the open door, "How are we going to get out of the House?"

"Over the balcony; how else?"

An outraged shout: "I have not climbed over a balcony since I escaped from Celeborn when I was courting Celebrian!"

"All the more reason to do it now. You are becoming entirely too old, Elrond, and I am not taking about your age!"

An almost unrecognizable figure strode out of the bedroom. Instead of heavy, formal robes in luxurious, colorful fabrics, there were tight leggings and a simple tunic of drab grey-brown suede. Instead of elaborate braids adorned with jeweled clips, there was a single plait tied off with a scrap of leather. Elrond strode up to Lolindir and placed his hands on his hips. "Well?"

"You look like Elladan when he was 69 and sneaking out of the House!"

"I am a long way from 69, but I am sneaking out of the House, so I must be properly dressed."

"Let's go. I will take the poles, and you can bring the bait."

It was with great difficulty that Lolindir kept a straight face as the distinguished Lord Elrond—ruler of Imladris and sometime Herald to King Gil-galad—slipped furtively over the balcony railing. Looking like he was born to it, too! He grasped a vine here and there, and then dropped lightly to the ground. Lolindir quickly followed, and the two disappeared down a little used path, carrying their unwieldy gear. Within a short time, they were sitting on the banks of the Bruinen, their feet bare, their hands holding fishing rods. The peace of the scene was all pervading, composed of the occasional gurgle from a rising fish, the barest trace of a spring breeze, and the friends' soft murmurs of conversation about nothing at all. Even so, it was not until the fireflies began to flash in their meandering dance that Elrond suddenly gave a sigh so long and deep that it seemed he breathed out all the troubles of the world. Lolindir said nothing but reached out his hand and fleetingly grasped the wrist of the dark haired elf. Elrond patted the shoulder nearest him, and then flicked his line farther into the gentle current.

Much later, when the moon was high, Lolindir drew in his pole for the last time, laid it on the bank beside him, and pulled on the string secured to one slim foot. It slid out of the water until the stringer appeared with four large fish attached. "I am so looking forward to breakfast tomorrow. All the luck came my way tonight!"

Elrond stood slowly, stretching out his back as he gained his feet. He looked at the river, the fireflies, and the moon. Then he smiled with great affection at the elf beside him. "Not all." He sighed deeply again, but this time with ease and contentment. "Thank you."

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Elrohir and Morgil

Elrohir, raising a fork that held the last bite of succulent asparagus, saw his quarry leaving the Hall. He dropped his fork, slammed his linen square down on the table, and scraped his chair back roughly. Elladan's head turned to his brother and he demanded, "Where are you going in such a hurry?"

Elrohir said grimly, "I need to resolve a small…situation."

"Sounds like you might need someone at your back."

Elrohir made a sharp gesture with his hand as he started to stride away. "Not this time, 'Dan."

The younger twin son of Elrond walked swiftly through the halls and out of the House, his prey always just ahead of him, turning a corner or heading down a flight of stairs. Eventually Elrohir overtook him on the now deserted path to the training ground, and put a hand roughly on his shoulder, yanking the elf around. The startled look on the face of his prize changed into a smirk when he saw who accosted him. "Ah, Lord Elrohir, is there something I can do for you?"

The elf facing Elrohir was a typical Noldo, tall and slim, with the ethereal features of the old blood. He was dark haired and grey-eyed as was Elrohir, but the son of the Peredhil had a sweet upward curve to his lips, and a light bronze tint to his skin, whereas Morgil's pale countenance frowned at the best of times, and his mouth was usually drawn down at one side in a sulky sneer.

Elrohir said between clenched teeth, "I have had enough. You defy me; you encourage dissension in the ranks –"

The warrior facing him spoke with a voice of silk, "I have never disobeyed any order given me by a superior officer. You can bring no witness that I have done so."

"No, you have not. But you take every opportunity to disparage me before my command. You constantly whisper, and drag your feet at every turn. It is obvious you have some problem with me as your commander, and I want to know what it is!"

The silk roughened a bit as suppressed anger took hold of Morgil. "It is not commonly considered wise to speak too frankly to those in authority. If I speak the truth, you will see to it I pay for it."

"Speak freely and without prejudice. I will not charge you at a later time for your words."

"Then I will tell you, fortunate son. Son of the ruler of Imladris. Who is five hundred years younger than I. I have more experience, more kills, more training - I should be commander in your stead!"

"My father did not give me my commission; it was Glorfindel, and I doubt even my father could force him to accept an officer against his wishes! My father leaves all such decisions in his hands."

The other elf was hissing now, spittle flecking the corners of his lips in his rage. "Yesssss! And he is ssso impartial iss he not? The mighty champion who dandled you on his knee! The sons he never had – that is what all say about you and your cursed brother! Glorfindel would give you the moon if you asked for it! He wants his precious favorites riding by his side, not some nobody like me!"

The harsh accusations angered Elrohir for many reasons. Glorfindel was his hero, his mentor, and, ever since he became an adult, his friend. He would stand for no slander against him. Even more, though, the accusations stung for another reason. In the mind of every ruler's son, be he man, elf, or dwarf, lingers the fear that perhaps he does not deserve all he has been given—all that is his simply because of who his father is.

Elrohir felt an unaccustomed fury sweep over him. When he was new to his first command, he had dealt with these accusations many times. But those days were long ago; it had been so many years since he had become confidant and comfortable with his abilities and position that this new challenge seemed outrageous. Morgil had come from an outlying settlement at the far reaches of the Valley and had detested Elrohir on sight, for no reason as far as Elrohir could see. He had tried in every way he could think of to bring this troublesome warrior around, but nothing had worked. Now the ripples of contention were spreading and Elrohir would not have it. As the blood pounded in Elrohir's ears, he decided he had had enough of being always in control of his emotions. Enough of being the twin who mediated, who counseled, who was the peacemaker. More than enough!

There was no way to tell who sprang first, for suddenly both were moving with arms outstretched and teeth bared. It was not a pretty fight. No careful holds, or throws requiring finesse and control. None of the respect and admiration for a telling blow that was normally accorded between those sparring as fellow warriors. It was gouge and snarl and thrash and roll and dig-with-elbows and thrust-fingers-toward-eyes and knees-to-groins and gasp-for-breath and spit-blood and intending-to-hurt.

Morgil was a fine warrior with much experience, but he had not sparred from an elfling with Glorfindel of Gondolin. Elrohir rolled the other elf beneath him yet again, and this time kept the upper hand. He pinned Morgil's hands and got to his knees, keeping one firmly planted in the defeated elf's abdomen. Both heaved air into starved lungs and Elrohir spat twice to the side, clearing his mouth of blood and dirt. His rage began to cool and he realized with dread the heinous crime he had committed, though he was careful not to let it show on his face. His gaze bore fiercely into Morgil's and he first lifted, then slammed the other elf's wrists into the ground, bruising his own bleeding knuckles further in the process. "Now listen, Morgil, and listen well! I did not choose my father any more than you did. Do you think I am privileged? Why, so I am! My robes are silk while yours are coarsely woven, and my bed is softer than you have ever dreamt of. My daily companions are heroes of all the Ages; elves that are no more than legend to most of our kind. But in my service to Imladris, I have fought for every promotion. Lord Elrond and my mentors are so fearful lest they be seen to prefer me over others, that I must do thrice as well to gain advancement! Corvath nel got you your place as an archer, but Glorfindel would not let me out of the training yard until I hit corvath leben five times out of six! In every position I have held, from the lowest to my rank as your commander, I have been examined like no other warrior in Imladris, save only my brother."

Elrohir's voice cracked with frustration, and Morgil's eyes widened in surprise and grudging sympathy. Elrohir continued, "Do you remember when you were careless on your scout, and we ended up fighting five score yrch instead of the three score you reported? We lost seven elves that need not have died, and I could see the cost to your pride—I could see the grief and guilt you bore, and how it tore at you. I stood you down, yes, and you hated it, but you were back to your rank in only two years, and we have never mentioned your failure again. I made a much lesser mistake when I was half the age you were, and I was stood down for fifty years!" Elrohir sat back on his heels, still straddling Morgil, but releasing his hands. His head bent and he looked exhausted and grim. "And once again I have made a mistake and will suffer for it."

Morgil, not moving, asked quietly, "What mistake have you made today, son of Lord Elrond?"

"I have attacked one under my command; under my protection. You will be pleased, Morgil, for although it is not likely you will be given my place, at least you will have the satisfaction of seeing me lose it."

Morgil was silent for a long time, then he said gruffly, "That will not happen. Unless you are such a fool that you go running to Lord Glorfindel with the tale yourself. You gave me leave to speak my mind without fear of reprisal. That we took it far beyond words does not mean you do not have the same assurance."

Elrohir stared in blank surprise and Morgil said bitterly, "I may not be the son of the Lord of Imladris, but I am not dishonorable! I have not taken my quarrel with you to others behind your back, however much you may think it, and I will not now."

"And what of the whispers? I have seen you –"

"Yes! You have seen! I have always acted openly before you!"

Elrohir smirked in disbelief. "You mean you only knife me in the back to my face?" Then he chuckled at how ridiculous his words sounded.

Morgil could not help a small grin. "Yes, damn you!" He then sobered quickly, meeting Elrohir's eyes unflinchingly. "I have never thought that there might be disadvantages to your position. I saw only assemblies, promotions, luxury, and ease. I am…I am sorry, Lord Elrohir. I will not cause further difficulties for your command."

Elrohir clambered shakily to his feet. He looked down at Morgil and said sadly. "Do you know how many people call me simply Elrohir? No? Perhaps a dozen. And of those, other than my brothers and sister, most are my elders by years unnumbered." He stretched out his hand to help Morgil to stand.

"So you are saying you have subjects, but few friends."

"My father has subjects, but I certainly have few friends among those near to me in age."

The two stood facing each other, bloodied, bruised, and filthy. Elrohir said nothing, waiting to see how his tentative overture had been received. Morgil kept his gaze fixed on the ground. He could not believe he was even contemplating friendship with this elf he had despised for so long. But he was not overly supplied with friends himself, for his sour nature hardly attracted them. Of course, all knew of the warm heart and noble spirit of the elf still standing before him. What would it be like to have such a one for a friend? He slowly raised his head. "That could be changed. We could change it, you and I. I would like to…I would like to try."

Elrohir smiled, but then cautioned, "Unless Glorfindel removes you from my troop, you will still be under my command and must comport yourself accordingly."

"Understood. When before the warriors and on duty, I shall call you Lord Elrohir and show you the respect you deserve….But what am I to call you at other times, son of Lord Elrond? Lord or friend?"

"Elrohir. Call me Elrohir."

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Elladan and Lindir

In a suite of rooms in a quiet part of the House, one of the twin sons of Elrond and the elf lord's chief musician stood tensely, facing each other and oblivious of the beautiful night beyond the balcony. They were in Lindir's study, which was unusually large to accommodate a standing harp and racks of other instruments. The maestro, the only elf with snow-white hair in Imladris, kept his green eyes fixed on the grey ones of the dark-haired warrior before him.

"Please, Elladan."

"No. Absolutely not."

"Just once. Or maybe twice. Or three times, but that is all!"

"NO! Must we have this discussion every time we get together? It is rare enough that you have no duties after dinner. Let us enjoy the time this evening as we have always done. Do not pine for what cannot be."

"But it could be, if you were not so stubborn! No one need know a thing about it!"

"And I suppose no one will have questions when you cannot walk without groaning tomorrow?"

"I will say I fell down the stairs."

"You cannot lie to save yourself, or, more importantly, you cannot lie well enough to save me. I will not have everyone in Imladris looking at me like some despoiler of the Valar's gifts. Elbereth alone knows what my father would do to me, and Glorfindel – I cannot bear to think of it!" Elladan gave a heart-felt shudder.

Lindir sniffed. "It is not like I would have no say in the proceedings. I am no blushing youth, afraid to speak up for myself! I will tell Elrond it was my idea."

"My dear Lindir, how long have you known my father? He will listen politely to your dissuasion, then kill me anyway. In fact, while he is listening he will be thinking of a creative approach for my execution. No thank you!"

Lindir laughed but quickly sobered and said softly, "Do you know when I first manifested my gift? I was not yet three. From that moment I was trained and honed and polished. Do not mistake me—I am grateful for all I was given, and I would not change my life for anything on Arda. But sometimes I want…I… need…to step away from the role all elvendom expects of me. Just for a short while. Look at you, Elladan! You are one of the finest warriors ever seen, yet there is more to you than that. Your counsel is well-regarded and you are a scholar—though you try to hide it. Please, Elladan."

"Let me see your hand." The warrior took the musician's hand in his own and turned it palm up. He stroked over the smooth skin until he reached the small calluses on the fingertips. "Valar! It is as soft as a child's. Feel mine and then ask me again."

Lindir took his friend's hand and made his own explorations. Elladan's hand was tanned and sharply defined with taught tendons standing like cables. It was scarred with faint pale lines and from palm to finger ends was heavily callused. He said gently, "You could not play with this hand; not the harp, nor flute, nor rebec. We each have our calling, and many are the warriors who have been brought peace through your gift."

Lindir sharply tapped the hand he held. "You are being deliberately obtuse. You did not get this hand by playing at being a warrior a few times! If you train me but a little, my hands will not be ruined. Can you not see? Our world slips into Darkness ever faster, and everyone must be prepared to help in the fight."

"There are ways and ways of fighting. What are we warriors fighting for, if not a world where beauty can flourish unmolested? You show us why we fight and you give us respite from the bitterness that would overtake those who make killing their livelihood. Can there be a finer contribution than that?"

"I do make a contribution, that I know, but I want to be able to do as all the other elves of Imladris can, if worst come to worst. Tinker, clothier, smith, or gardener: all have been trained to fight. I have never held a sword other than as an object of curiosity. Please, Elladan."

Elladan said reluctantly, "Very well. I will train you in the barest rudiments of swordplay. Every fiber of my being says that it is an abomination for you to do this, but…you are one of the truest friends I have, and I cannot deny you." Having made his decision, Elladan became brisk and purposeful. "Now first, we need to find you a –"

Lindir spun, graceful, almost dancing, and dropped to the floor by his bed. He scooted underneath for a few inches and then scrabbled backward, jumping lightly to his feet and grinning like an excited elfling. In his hands was a rusty training sword, dull of edge and plain hilted. He presented it on his palms to Elladan. "I am ready!"

Elladan threw back his head and laughed, looking much more like his normal self. "How long have you kept that disgusting thing under there?"

"Seven yen."

Elladan looked appalled. "So long?" He stared at Lindir, his smile fading. Then he nodded abruptly. He finally understood, not only the strength of Lindir's desire, but the blindness of all those who worshiped at the shrine of his exquisite talent. "Then we should delay no further. Here—give me your hand again. Now, you wrap your fingers around like this, and your thumb goes like so…"

Lindir's gazed at his hand on the hilt, the lines of hand and sword blurring as his eyes stung. "Thank you, my friend."

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Glorfindel and Erestor

Glorfindel and Erestor sat across a chess board from each other. Though both were very busy with their respective duties, they tried to play together at least once a month. They took turns playing in each other's chambers, and tonight they were in Erestor's rooms. It was hard to imagine two friends more different from each other. The way they played chess demonstrated these differences very well. Sun-kissed Glorfindel played with dash, instinct, and the raw power of his considerable intellect. His beautiful hands gestured flamboyantly and his 'captures' were performed with zest. Erestor, dark-haired and pale, played a canny game of strategy that included much misdirection. His hands flowed gracefully, the motions controlled and precise. Even after an Age as friend to Glorfindel, he could still sometimes feint the reborn warrior into venturing forth too boldly. Erestor, on the other hand, was still occasionally caught napping by brilliant, unconventional tactics played at lightning speed. Though Erestor was somewhat the better player, Glorfindel made him fight hard for his victories. And when Glorfindel won, Erestor was pleased for him and was generous with his compliments.

On this fine spring evening they played with Erestor's finest chess set. It was one he reserved to use when playing with his dearest friend or Elrond. Made of enameled pewter and inset with gemstones, the pieces were between three and six inches tall, and were so delicately made that Erestor had despaired of their surviving the rearing of Elrond's children. As it turned out, both the twins and Arwen grew to their majorities without causing a single scratch. It was a human foster child that left a castle without its pennons.

Glorfindel thrust another pawn into jeopardy. His laughing eyes met Erestor's, sure he would snort at the foolish move, but the councilor simply made his return move without a sign that he deplored his opponent's rashness. Glorfindel asked with concern, "Is there something wrong? We do not have to play tonight."

Erestor did not lift his eyes from the board. "Wrong? What could be wrong?" He lifted one hand from his lap and picked up one of his knights. His fingers curled around it, feeling the spikiness of the horse and rider.

"I only returned from patrolling the far reaches two days ago. I have heard the most important news, of course, but am hardly caught up on everything that has been happening. So out with it."

"There is nothing." The hand tightened on the knight just a little. "We had another boring conference with some men from the villages. Elrond chose to interpret their increasing restiveness differently than I do, but we often have differing opinions. One assumes that is part of my importance to him." A thumb and forefinger extended themselves from the curled grip and delicately grasped the emerald plume on the knight's helmet.

"Elrond did not heed you? I can see how that would be annoying, but it is hardly unprecedented."

"No, he did not!" The plume bent slightly, then snapped.

"Erestor! What on Arda –"

"It is nothing. Nothing at all, Glorfindel! The fact that I sometimes find our liege difficult is nothing new. After all, I am only the finest researcher in Middle-earth! We would not want to confuse his high-flying notions with FACTS, now would we! Far be it from me to be a voice of reason and restraint! He is demanding, arrogant, stubborn, temperamental –" As the list went on, Erestor's voice rose in pitch, volume, and hyperbole. " – impossible to reason with! Crazy as a skitter beetle! A first class bastard! –"

Glorfindel attempted to look sympathetic, but it was difficult with short snorts of laughter escaping with each new insult. At the last item on the list he tried to gain some self-control and chided his friend. "Oh, now, I hardly think – Elrond is part human, but he was not born the wrong side of the blanket!"

Erestor gave the warrior a look that could melt a sword blade. He stepped over to his bookshelves—which also contained many decorative items—and started his list of epithets over again. This time he emphasized each one by hurling a small object across the room. Glorfindel, normally the sort to look on such a display with unfeigned delight, suddenly remembered whose rooms they were in. "Erestor! NO!" He sprang across the room and caught, on the fly, a small silver sculpture made by Celebrimbor himself.

The next half an hour gave Glorfindel quite a nice bit of exercise. He danced around the room, ducking beneath or leaping over furniture, as he tried to save the priceless artifacts that Erestor surrounded himself with. When he could, he yanked one object from the mad elf's hand only to calmly replace it with another, less valuable item. When he was not able to find a replacement in time, he had to intercept the artworks in the air. Still, Glorfindel being Glorfindel, he did not actually try to stop Erestor.

Finally the councilor's suppressed frustration was exhausted and he stood absolutely still, gazing around his sitting room. Which looked as though a few hundred yrch had attacked it en masse. Glass shards, wood splinters, and metal chunks lay on every available surface. A picture frame hung drunkenly over a broken chair back. Several pointed objects were embedded in the walls like arrows. Glorfindel gave him an 'E' for effort, even if some of the larger pieces of furniture were still usable. He looked around with the eye of a connoisseur and whistled softly. "Not bad for a beginner."

"Yes. Well." Erestor was completely at a loss. He looked at the row of precious things Glorfindel had lined up against the wall, well behind the 'launch area'. He paled as he realized what he might have done. He vaguely remembered Glorfindel removing a Second Age decanter from his hand and replacing it with a modern wine goblet. He turned his gaze to Glorfindel and said very seriously, "You are a good friend."

Glorfindel smirked but asked, "Are you feeling better now?"

Erestor was suddenly swept by exhaustion. "Could we speak of it tomorrow? I am…I do not know what I am, at the moment, except ashamed."

"Never mind me, you need to speak to Elrond."

"I have spoken to him. And this is the result…" He gestured to indicate the devastation around them.

Glorfindel stood directly before the councilor and fixed him with a weighty glare. "You. Will. Speak. To. Elrond. Not about politics, or the rust that threatens the wheat! You will talk with him about the pressures you have been under, and how the two of you can resolve the situation. He is not only your lord, but your friend. Promise me you will talk to him."

Erestor said with great dignity, "I have a headache."

Glorfindel growled, low and menacing. "Promise me."

"Oh, very well! I promise. Satisfied?"

Glorfindel nodded and quietly left, pulling the door shut behind him. Erestor slowly rotated and took in the wreckage in its entirety. He nearly whimpered. It would be long before he could seek his bed this night. Suddenly the door opened again, hitting the wall lightly and bouncing off. In the opening stood a smiling Balrog Slayer who carried two brooms and a pan to catch the debris. He handed one broom to Erestor, and then began to sweep briskly with his own.

Erestor said fervently, "You are a very good friend, Glorfindel."

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Aragorn and Legolas

Aragorn finished his meal and let his eyes travel one more time over the place—one of honor, next to Elrond—that should have been occupied by his friend, the Prince of Mirkwood. The elf was not, as some who knew him well might guess, in the healing wing, nor was he eating in his chambers. Aragorn sighed, staring at his plate. He did not want to have to search for the elf tonight; did not want to have the conversation they would be having. He sighed again and scraped his chair back. He nodded gracious thanks to the servers that silently attended the High Table, walked from the Hall, and eventually out into the grey twilight that had encompassed the valley.

Aragorn and Legolas had spent little time together in the last ten years. Legolas had spent a few months with the rangers and Aragorn had made a side trip to Mirkwood when he and his men swept around through Arnor and then up and over to the Grey Mountains. Their earlier years of adventuring together now seemed a happy dream, one that in fond retrospect seemed all camaraderie and camp fires and laughing escape from danger. The present was darker for both of them. Aragorn was now engaged in fully coming into his heritage. His foster father had recently told him the time would be soon. For what, Elrond did not so clearly state, but anticipation was a constant frisson running along Aragorn's nerves. For decades he had told himself that 'it' was in the future. The far future. He now felt his destiny directly before him and suddenly felt a desire, not to push it away, but rather to embrace it.

Since the night was so warm and he did not anticipate going far from the house, Aragorn did not arm himself with anything other than the knives in boot and belt that he always wore. His midnight blue tunic and leggings, both in a soft, dull material with only self-embroidery for decoration, made him one with the shadows once he left the courtyard of the house. He strode along, watching the branches above the paths he chose, for the elf usually took to the trees when troubled. Did he know his behavior was so predictable? Did he want to be found? It was an hour before Aragorn's keen eyes detected, not a body, but the slightest deepening of shadow in a large beech tree that grew beside the river. He stood on the ground looking up and said in a soft voice that nonetheless was easily heard by elven ears, "I know you are there. Will you come down, or must I go up?"

He heard rather than saw the elf clamber down, jumping lightly the last ten feet. Legolas started walking along the river bank, hands swiping at the tall grass heads. Aragorn moved up next to him, and they traveled on together for some distance before Aragorn spoke.

"When?"

At first it seemed Legolas would not answer, but after a vicious swipe at an innocent firefly he said in a whisper, "Two days."

Aragorn's voice rose a little in spite of his determination to remain calm. "That soon? Were you going to say good-bye at all, or would I just find your room empty and your horse gone?"

"Why do you do this? I am the Prince of Mirkwood, and you are Chieftain of the Dunedain. We take these little interludes of peace here in your home as we can, and then we return to our responsibilities."

"But each time it is harder for you to leave. It is not so with me. When I am rested, I am eager to return, but your spirit is more shadowed with every farewell.

"As long as I have known you, you have had nightmares. Do you remember how you used to climb into my lap and hold on like a limpet when you were small?"

Aragorn said softly, "I remember." He then chuckled a little. "If you were in Imladris, you were the one I went to when I had bad dreams. Elladan was quite jealous for a time." He watched Legolas carefully, knowing the subject change was just the elven way of coming at a subject obliquely. "Are you having nightmares, Legolas?"

"No. Just the opposite. When I am in Mirkwood, I dream of Imladris and those I care for here. It is when I awake that I am engulfed in nightmare. Aragorn! My home is named Mirk Wood! It was once Greenwood the Great! I cannot….I…" He heaved a great breath and then whispered. "I do not want to go home. Do you understand now? I do not want to go home."

"Legolas, anyone would be –"

The elf broke in bitterly, "I am not anyone. I am the son of the king. Mirkwood is more than where I live—it is my kingdom. Mine to cherish, mine to protect. My people! And I hide out here, in peace and comfort. My father has never been pleased that I come here so often, or that I stay so long. Now I begin to understand why."

"Peace and comfort? Does your memory not go beyond last week? What about the cave?"

"That is beside the –"

"And the trolls?" Aragorn mused thoughtfully. "Twice. There were trolls twice."

"But –"

"What about Haradwaith? What a time we had getting out of there alive!"

"Aragorn, I do not see what this has to do with –"

"Or that time you were caught by slavers?"

"That was not very enjoyable, but –"

Aragorn took is friend by both shoulders and looked him directly in the eye. "Surely you have enjoyed the well deserved interludes of peace and rest you have found here. But most of our association has involved danger every bit as harrowing as anything that you will find at home. We have not been fighting pretend enemies or playing elves-and-orcs all this while. The fight is the same, regardless of where the field of combat may be. Not only that, but our time together has been necessary. We have needed to fight, plan, eat, sleep, and be wounded—together!"

"What are you saying? Be plain with me."

"That is amusing coming from you! Very well, then. You have felt for some time that the Enemy moves, pressing Mirkwood harder as each year passes. This is true, but not only for Mirkwood. The time we have waited for is coming, Legolas. Not fifty, thirty, or even ten years from now. Soon! Adar is so abstracted that one can hardly hold a conversation with him. He has not smiled in months. Surely you have noticed his gravity. He does not tell me details, but I can tell—I can feel it, like a bowstring strung too tightly."

Legolas said tightly, "I too, have felt it! Like a lute string—so taut I am about to snap. I had thought it was just me; that I feel so because I cravenly do not want to return…"

"It is not just you. And if I ever hear you couple yourself and the word 'craven' again, I will not be held accountable for the consequences! You are the most courageous person I know."

Legolas flushed and brushed the approbation away. "Do not speak foolishness. Why do you say our time roving together was necessary?"

"You and I, together, have been forged by the Valar into a weapon stronger than each of us alone. When the time comes, we must be together."

"When what time comes?"

Aragorn balled his fists in frustration. "I do not know, but I think it will be obvious to us all when it arrives. Legolas, you must return home for this while. But be ready! If any dispatch comes from Imladris for any reason, be sure you are sent as the representative for Mirkwood. If any errand occurs in your home to bring an elf from Mirkwood to Imladris, be certain it is you who is chosen to come."

Legolas looked solemnly at his friend. "I will, if you believe it so important. You think it will begin here, then? But how? How will you become – " He broke off and glanced around. Though he knew Aragorn's destiny, he never spoke of it aloud as such things can fly upon the wind itself to dangerous ears. "- how will all of that begin in Imladris?"

"I know no more than you how it will begin, but I will tell you this: I mean to stay much closer to home these next months. Gandalf has suggested I make a commemorative journey to Fornost, with Glorfindel."

Legolas said thoughtfully, "That takes you along the Great Eastern Road and close to the Shire. But what evil could come from that direction? What did he say?"

Aragorn shrugged. "You know him; he prompts more questions than he provides answers."

Legolas drew a deep breath and his shoulders squared a little. "So. Something—we do not know what—will happen. It will be soon—but we do not know exactly when. And I am to be ready to fly my home at the slightest word, and to put my trust in an impetuous, headstrong human."

"Exactly so!"

Legolas laughed and suddenly the weight of sorrow and foreboding he had been carrying fell from him as he gazed at this man that he so loved and trusted. He suddenly felt full of energy and hope. Estel. It always came down to that, in the end. His hope, and the hope of Mirkwood, stood before him in the shape of a tall ranger of the north. He threw his arms around Aragorn and enclosed him in the sort of exuberant hug that came more commonly from the man than his elven friend. "Very well, Estel! I will abide your word, as I always do. In two days time I return home, but this time I go with a lighter heart. I will see you again soon, and together we will end the reign of darkness in our world."

He released Aragorn as swiftly as he had embraced him and suddenly began to strip off his clothing. Aragorn stared as the elf, now bare and shining in the moonlight, ran for the river's edge. "What – You complete lunatic! The water is freezing! It will not be warm enough to swim in for weeks!"

Poised to spring into the current, the elf looked back and the joy on his face took Aragorn's breath away. He had not even realized that his friend had not looked so happy for a very long time. Once again their roles were reversed as Legolas cajoled in a sweet, singing lilt. "Come with me! We will only go in for a few minutes! Come on! You love to swim under the moon!"

Grimacing as if he already felt the icy water, Aragorn pulled off his boots and leggings. "Gandalf will not be pleased if he shows up to send me forth to my destiny, and finds I have died of consumption of the lungs!"

Legolas laughed but waited no longer and dived into the river. The elf surfaced several feet out and shook his head, spluttering and gasping. "It is a little cold, perhaps!"

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An hour later an elf hoisted and dragged a man into the man's rooms by way of the balcony. The man, normally quite agile, was shaking too hard to be of much help. The elf got him into a chair, started the fire in the hearth, and ran for blankets and brandy. When he returned he felt a little trepidation since the man's complexion was white as milk, his lips were blue, and his teeth were chattering. He wrapped the man in several wool layers and asked if he could do anything for his friend.

"C-c-c-come c-c-c-closer."

The elf bent down in concern. A hand flashed from under the blankets and grabbed and twisted a sensitive ear tip, pulling the fair face down so that worried blue met blazing silver. "If I die I will haunt you. That is a promise. With blood curdling shrieks and water-logged gurglings. As long as you live—and I will petition Namo personally on your behalf, so that you live a long, long time—you will never, ever have a peaceful night!"

"I am sorry, Estel! I had forgotten it would affect you so. I am truly sorry. Please let go of my ear!" The elf winced but did not pull away. He felt he deserved the pain.

Aragorn released him and huddled into the blankets. In spite of his gloomy grumblings, in a surprisingly short time the combination of fire, blankets, and brandy brought the ranger back to the point where he thought it possible he might live. One at a time the blankets came off, until at last he was relaxed, warm, and forgiving.

They conversed quietly until Legolas smiled at a jaw-cracking yawn. "It is past time I left you to your rest. May I say once more, that I am sorry? Especially after you had helped me, once again, to come to terms with my doubts."

"I am sorry I did not understand how heavily such thoughts weighed upon you. Your visit is almost over, and you have not been refreshed as well as you should have been."

"I was ashamed to admit I did not want to go home. I did not want to darken your fleeting time with your family."

"How long have we been friends? And how many times have I had to drag your troubles out of you, piecemeal? You should know by now that I always find out eventually."

"Some day I shall surprise you by saying, 'Good morning, Estel! Would you pass the plum preserves, please? And by-the-by, I am terribly depressed because…'"

"Ah, yes! That will be the same morning Sauron gives over wanting to rule Arda, and takes up knitting sweaters for indigent hobbits!"

Legolas laughed but then looked down at his hands. When Aragorn asked, "Legolas?" he looked up, his eyes intent and somber. "Estel….." He tried again. "Estel….I…I have not the words to tell you….what knowing you has meant to me…how often you have helped me beyond simply keeping life in my body."

Aragorn smiled the smile that only his family and Legolas ever saw. The one free of a shadow of wryness, or any hint of reservation. The one that was open and unguarded and spoke of heart's warmth, freely given. "I thought we stopped keeping score decades ago. Sometimes I save you, and sometimes you save me. There is no limit on numbers, and no scale that must be balanced. Between kin there can be no tally kept, and you are the brother of my heart."

"As you are mine, Aragorn."

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The moon began to sink in the west as friends bid each other good-night. Some of the friendships were newly made; green and tender yet, requiring care and time to flourish. Others were well-worn and comfortable as old clothes, needing few words spoken where all was long understood. Others were old—yet newly appreciated—as boundaries shifted and desires long held were expressed to perhaps the only one who might be able to accept freely. Warmth had been shared this night, comfort had been given. The peace that pervaded the valley was due in part to the skill of its leaders, and in part to its hidden location. But perhaps some of its abiding serenity was due to the quiet, kindly bonds of friendship.

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Fin