Disclaimer: If you recognize them, they belong to Tolkien and his heirs, of which, to my lasing regret, I am not one.

Summary: A curious elf and a roving ranger meet and decide to travel together. They could not know that such a decision would not only change their lives but also alter Middle-earth forever.

A/N: This story was written for the Teitho Contest theme: Choices. It won second place.


by White Wolf

King Thranduil sat in his study and looked across the large, finely crafted oak desk at his youngest son. He tried not to let show on the outside what he was feeling on the inside. The elven king had known that this day would eventually come. He had dreaded it, yet gradually he had come to accept it. It did no good to dwell negatively on what would be. However, that didn't make it any easier on his heart.

"You do not look surprised," Legolas said, noting his father's unruffled expression, though he could see the sadness in the gray eyes that regarded him.

"No, Legolas, I am not surprised. I have suspected there would be a time when you would wish to explore the world outside of our borders. You were always too curious about what was out there for me not to believe it would one day claim your heart."

The young prince shook his head. "A small claim only, father. Until I sail to Valinor, my true heart will remain here. But for now, I do wish to see for myself the places and the peoples I have read and been told about." The young elf gave his elder a wry smile. "Was it not you, father, who wanted me to study and learn about the whole of Arda? And is going to other places and meeting other peoples not the best way to learn?"

The irony was not lost on the king. The truth forced him to agree. "Aye, it is by far the best way."

Legolas smiled more broadly now. "I am simply putting into practice what you have taught me."

"Perhaps I taught you too well," Thranduil replied ruefully. "As much as I would wish to keep you here with us and keep the rest of Middle-earth from touching us, what is beyond our forest will not allow that. Middle-earth is changing whether we would wish it to or not. You must go where your heart takes you, Legolas, as long as it brings you home again."

"Do not worry, father. It always will."

Thranduil stood up then, also bringing the younger elf to his feet out of respect for both his father and his king.

When Thranduil came around the desk and embraced his son, Legolas returned the hug, holding on a little tighter than he normally did. Even though he had no children, he understood how his father felt.

When the pair finally parted, the king held his son out at arms length, not willing to let go entirely. "When do you plan to leave?"

Legolas hesitated to give the answer he knew his father did not want to hear. "Tomorrow morning."

"So soon?" The words came out before Thranduil could stop them.

"I have only a few belongings to pack, and that will not take long." He smiled. "Look at it this way; the sooner I leave, the sooner I will return."

The king sighed. "That is so," he had to admit. "At least I will have you for the rest of this day and the morning meal, as well, if you can delay your journey that long."

"Of course, father. I would like nothing better."

x x x x x

The young prince bid his family a heartfelt farewell and in return received their many well-wishes. He had to blink several times, as he turned his horse away, so his family wouldn't see the mist that had formed in his eyes. This was something that he had wanted for a long time, so he hadn't expected that leaving would be quite so hard.

Waving one last time, Legolas rode away from the elves he had grown up with and the palace he had grown up in.

Legolas expected to be gone a year, at the very least, though putting a time limit on what he was about to do was a vain endeavor. Besides, a year in the life of an immortal was not even worth thinking about.

Once his journey was finished, Legolas expected to return and spend the rest of his time in Arda here in his forest home. Then he would sail to Valinor and spend eternity with those he had just finished saying goodbye to.

The expectations of earthly beings, however, don't always work out the way they are planned, and that certainly includes elves.

Even though the road ahead was filled with uncertainties, Legolas's heart was light and filled with the joy and excitement of an impending adventure.

The blond prince felt sure that when he returned, he would be wiser and more experienced, which could only be a benefit to his people.

x x x x x

During the journey through the forest, the elven warrior paid particular attention to the trees that surrounded him. He knew them well, and thus he couldn't help but sense the sadness his departure was causing them. He attempted to impart to them his feelings and asked that they be happy for him. They did their best.

Not being in a hurry, Legolas let his big, red stallion choose his own path and his own pace. Thus it took several days for Legolas to traverse the width of northern Mirkwood.

Legolas had not seen any of the warrior patrols that covered the woodland realm on this side of the Old Forest Road, but he had certainly felt their presence.

His father may have been willing to let Legolas go on this adventure, but he wasn't going to let his son travel alone through the Shadow-touched forest. It was beyond the realm's borders that the king's concerns would truly begin.

No matter how knowledgeable or prepared the young prince might be, there was too much out in the world that could go wrong for Thranduil to be completely comfortable. In the end, he had no choice but to trust in Legolas's training, his abilities. and his intelligence. He also prayed that the Valar would watch over his son and bring him back safely.

It wasn't until Legolas left the trees and reached the banks of the Anduin that the young archer felt a kind of freedom he had never experienced before. It was even more thrilling than the first time he had left the palace to take his place on patrol among the realm's warriors. That had also been the first time he felt that he was truly a prince, who could do more for his people than just the tasks he was involved in at his father's court.

He had also traveled outside of Mirkwood on missions with his father and his brothers before, but never alone. Even on patrol, he was surrounded by other, more seasoned warriors. He was truly on his own now, and it felt liberating.

Freedom made him more anxious to meet people of other races and other cultures. He had no way of knowing that he would get his chance far sooner than he could ever have anticipated.

x x x x x

Legolas stopped and made camp near the edge of the forest not far from the Anduin. He was just about to eat his evening meal, when he heard a horse moving through the forest in his direction.

The animal stopped just out of sight, and someone began to move forward on foot. It was immediately apparent that whoever approached was no elf. Still the person was trying to be stealthy, possibly indicating that an ambush was forthcoming.

By the time the newcomer, a human, reached the small camp, it was deserted. The man scanned the area with a practiced eye, noting the blanket rolled up near the fire and the abandoned plate of food sitting on the ground by a fallen log.

Not even raising his voice, he said to the seemingly empty air, "I mean you no harm." He held his hands out to the side, palms up, showing that he held no weapon.

"What do you want here?" came a disembodied voice.

The man smiled. He felt sure the voice belonged to an elf and that the elf was above him, though he couldn't be sure in which tree the fair being was located. "I'm a traveler. I saw the fire and thought perhaps we could share it for the night." His arms remained outstretched.

"Why should I share anything with a strange human?"

The man laughed. "I may be a stranger, but I assure you I'm not strange." Barely above a whisper, he added, "Although my family would probably disagree."

With his keen elven ears, Legolas heard the soft words and couldn't help but smile. This man must have older brothers, he mused. He himself was often teased and called unflattering names by his older brothers. It went with being the youngest.

"Will you come down so we can talk face to face?" The man started to ask the question in Sindarin to put the elf at ease but decided to wait and reveal the fact he knew the elven language fluently for a later time. If indeed there was a later time. He certainly wasn't expecting he and the elf would do more than share a camp this one night, and even that wasn't a given, at this point.

It took a few moments before Legolas made the decision to give this man a chance to prove or disprove his trustworthiness. He had come on this journey to meet new people, so why not start here and now?

The man was beginning to think the elf wasn't going to respond and that perhaps it would be best if he just moved on. "I should leave," he finally said and turned to go back the way he had come, when the elf dropped down right in front of him. He shouldn't have been surprised, but he was, barely able to avoid taking a step backward.

The two stood a few feet apart and looked each other up and down. There was a touch of suspicion, especially on the elf's part, but mostly it was curiosity.

Finally the man said, "By your clothing, I'd say you're from Mirkwood."

The elf inclined his head but did not verbally answer. Noting the man's appearance, Legolas said, "You travel a great deal, do you not?" He was too polite to say the man was more than a little road-worn.

Laughing, the human looked down at his dirty clothing. He knew what he must look like to the obviously fastidious elf. By way of an explanation for his appearance, he shrugged and said, "I'm a ranger." When no comment was forthcoming from the golden-haired being, he added, "They call me Strider."

"And what do you call yourself?"

The ranger was a bit taken aback by the question. He started to answer, but he was reluctant to tell a stranger the name his family had given him as a young child. "Strider will do," he replied with a grin. "And what do you call yourself?"

"The same as everyone else calls me. My name is Legolas."

The elf's humor struck the ranger favorably, and despite their slightly tense beginning, he was starting to like this elf. Strider waited to see what Legolas would do next. This was his camp after all.

Legolas regarded Strider for a moment, turning his inner intuition on the man, trying to discern if he should invite him to share his camp for the night.

The ranger waited patiently. He was pleased when the elf said, "You are welcome to stay at my camp, Strider."

Resisting the urge to rub his hands together at the prospect of food that was already cooked and a fire that was already built, he simply said, "Thank you, Legolas. I believe I will."

"Do you have a plate in your pack? I have only one." The man had no such pack with him, but Legolas knew that as a traveler and most certainly as a ranger, Strider would have supplies on his horse.

"I'll be right back." Strider hurried off and returned shortly with his horse following behind.

Opening the pack he had just untied from his saddle, Strider pulled out a plate and handed it to the elf.

"Take care of your horse, Strider, and I will fill your plate," the elf stated, as he stirred the contents of the small pot suspended over the crackling fire.

"I'll put him with yours." Where is he?" Strider had not seen the elven horse anywhere near the camp, but he didn't believe the elf was on foot.

"By the river." The elf nodded to his left, though he was sure the man knew exactly where the river lay. Even a human could hear the swift-flowing river from here.

When Strider returned, he had a pack on each shoulder and his saddle in his hands. He set them all down on the ground and walked over to Legolas. "That's a fine stallion you have there."

Legolas smiled with pride. "Thank you. My father gave him to me, when he was just a colt."

Strider wanted to laugh and ask if it was the horse or the elf's father who had been a colt. It would have been totally made in jest, but he wasn't sure how this elf would feel about such a remark aimed at his father. Not everyone liked having their relatives the subject of a humorous play on words.

When Legolas held the plate out to the man, Strider's eyes went wide. The metal disk was heaped so high with food that there was barely a space left to hold the rim of it. He couldn't help but ask, "Do I look that starved?"

At first, Legolas didn't understand what the man meant by that statement. "Are you not hungry?"

"Very," Strider replied, "but I could never eat all of that. It's enough for three men my size."

Legolas looked almost sheepish. "I have heard that men have big appetites, but I do not know how much food it might take to end one's hunger. I did not want to insult you by giving you too small an amount, making you think I did not wish to share what I have with you. But I have insulted you anyway."

"Not at all. You didn't know."

After Legolas scraped half of the plate's contents back in the pot, handed it back to the ranger and then took up his own plate, Strider commented, "You did not give yourself near as much."

"We elves do not need a lot of food to sustain us, though we are quite capable of eating a great deal, when we are inclined."

"How well I know," Strider laughed.

Legolas furrowed his brow slightly. "You know elves well?" Before the man could answer, he added, "I suppose as a ranger you have met all kinds of people, including elves."

"Yes, that's certainly true. However, my remark was in reference to my brothers. They are both elves, and they both love food."

Now it was Legolas's eyes that widened. "Your brothers are elves?" This was going to be an interesting story, he was sure. It turned out to be just that.

x x x x x

The two, elven prince and human ranger, ended up staying awake most of the night, telling each other about themselves. Still virtually strangers, they each held back many personal details, including the one that Legolas was a prince, and concentrated mostly on their lives as warrior and ranger.

Legolas never imagined that he would be so comfortable with a human, much less find himself eager to hear whatever the man had to tell him.

He was so fascinated that he didn't notice, at first, when the ranger lapsed into elvish midway through the evening. Strider didn't seem to be aware of it, either, until much later.

Finally, when Legolas saw that clouds had moved over the moon and a deep darkness had settled over the little camp, he said, "I think that you had better try and get some sleep. It will be dawn in a few hours. I will take the watch for what remains of the night."

Strider frowned. He was sure that the elf felt some suspicion still, so he would not feel totally comfortable sleeping in the human's presence. Yet Strider still felt the need to offer to share in keeping guard. "I'll take half of it."

"No need. I do not require the sleep that humans do." The statement could have been condescending, but it was obvious by his tone that Legolas didn't mean it that way. It was simply a fact.

Nodding, Strider stood up and walked to where he had left his gear. He took his blanket out of one of his packs and shook it out on the other side of the fire from where Legolas had put his blanket. He had a pang of guilt that the elf would not be using it this night. 'Ah well,' the ranger thought, 'It was his decision, not mine.'

"Thank you for sharing your stories with me, Strider. I had no idea that humans were so...adventuresome."

"That's a polite way of expressing the fact that some of us get into a lot of trouble from time to time."

"I would say so, if you are an example of those you are referring to."

"Unfortunately, I am. Peaceful watch, Legolas."

Strider watched as the elf began to move stealthily through the trees. However, he fell into a sound sleep before Legolas made even one complete circuit around the perimeter of the camp.

After making sure the area was secure, Legolas climbed up into a tree directly above the sleeping ranger. He sighed, as he began to ponder. This was the first human he had spent any personal time with. All of the others he had met had been during formal occasions.

Perhaps not all humans were as disreputable as he'd been led to believe. This one's eyes held no deceit or malicious intent. He was friendly and certainly more than a little entertaining. Too bad he wouldn't get the chance to know him better.

x x x x x

When Strider woke up, the sun had already risen. He groaned and rolled over onto his back. The first thing he saw was Legolas squatting down beside the fire and feeding it several small sticks. The elf blew on the embers until he had coaxed the flames up to a respectable height. The man yawned.

"I thought that rangers would be up with the sunrise," Legolas commented without looking up.

"Not when elves talk their ears off so that they don't get to sleep until it's almost time for the sun to rise," Strider replied, not cracking the smile he felt inside.

"Ah yes. Blame the elf."

"Of course." The ranger had been blaming his brothers for one thing or another as long as he could remember, whether it was their fault or not. "It works for me."

Legolas put a few more pieces of wood on the fire and then stood up. His unused blanket had already been put back in his pack. He looked to be ready to leave at a moment's notice. "I have taken care of the horses, so we can share our morning meal together, and then we can each go our separate ways."

The ranger sat up and looked at Legolas with a twinkle in his eyes. "Why don't we travel together for a while?" he asked, amused to think that the idea would be the last thing the elf would be expecting.

As Strider expected, Legolas's face took on a shocked expression. He stared at the man for several long moments before a smile finally broke out on his fair features.

Thinking of all the misadventures this man had told him about the night before, he said, "So you want company when you find yourself in trouble. Is that it?"

"No," Strider said earnestly. "I want you to get me out of it."

Shaking his head and rolling his eyes, Legolas remarked, "Well, how can I refuse an offer like that?"

Strider grinned and nodded. He really did like this elf and was glad that the two would be traveling companions for a time.

Once they had eaten, broken camp and mounted their horses, Legolas asked, "Do you have a destination in mind, or do you just intend on wandering around until trouble finds us?"

The ranger chose to ignore that impertinent question. "I was heading north in hopes of meeting up with other rangers to find out if there is anything going on that needs tending to up there." He waited to see if Legolas was interested in sharing in that endeavor. He wasn't sure if the elf would want to meet any more humans just yet.

It sounded to the elf like an idea that had potential. "I have never met any rangers, other than you. It should prove...interesting." Cocking his head to the side, Legolas asked, "Do they also get into a lot of trouble?"

Strider just grinned mischievously and urged his horse forward. Legolas would just have to find out for himself.

"By the way," the ranger said, as Legolas caught up to him, "my family calls me Estel."

x x x x x

Over the next several weeks, the elf and the ranger went from being casual companions to being fast friends. The more they learned about each other, the more they came to respect and care for each other.

Legolas was impressed by the ranger's knowledge and experience in the world, despite his young age, though for a human, he was clearly a mature adult. The elf never tired of hearing about his new friend's adventures. They seemed endless.

It hadn't taken Strider long to realize that while Legolas was well-educated and possessed a great deal of knowledge about the races and cultures of Middle-earth, he had grown up basically sheltered and had very little actual experience dealing with anyone outside of Mirkwood. Not wanting to insult the elven warrior nor make him feel inferior, if that was even possible when referring to an elf, the ranger was careful when he related the finer details of the other inhabitants of Arda.

The wood-elf was perceptive and knew exactly what Strider was doing, and though he didn't express it, he was grateful.

The friendship that was to become legendary in the annals of Middle-earth had taken root, and neither Legolas nor Aragorn could know the adventure that would become their lives.

An elf had chosen to explore the world and had then chosen to share his campfire with a stranger. A human had chosen to approach an unknown camp in the forest and had then chosen to ask an elf to be his traveling companion.

How many times in its history has the course of Middle-earth's future turned on such seemingly inconsequential choices?

The End, or perhaps I should say And So the Adventure Begins

A sequel is not planned at this time, but you never know what choices the future may hold.