The Road to Esgaroth

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Aragorn pulled his cloak tighter as he and his horse, Teriel, stumbled on. He had promised to return in a month--already it had been nearly half that, and he had yet to even reach his destination. He slumped forward on the horse, fighting to keep his head from tilting down. His right sleeve was sliced from elbow to wrist, the frayed edges framing a dark red line across his skin. Another slash, far more painful, was carved deep in his back.

He had known the road to Esgaroth would not be without dangers, indeed, he had prepared for them. Crossing through Mirkwood alone held enough danger to give even a Ranger of his skill pause. But he had only just reached the forest's edge the previous night, and already before that he had faced two patrols of orcs, and a flood that had carried away the last of his supplies.

A small, quiet, reasonable voice inside his mind whispered he should turn back. Should go back to the safety of Rivendell. But a larger, stronger, part of him would not allow it and so he carried on, pushed forward--he would simply have to make the trip back in less than half the time it would take to get to his destination so his promise would remain unbroken.

He would reach Esgaroth, find Armelian, and then ride back as fast as he could through the forest after he did what he rode to do. He regretted, now, not taking Elladan and Elrohir up on their offer to accompany him--he knew they had offered in part out of a need to protect him, but more than that Armelian was their friend as well and he realized now he should not have stopped them out of foolish pride.

He could have used their skill when the orcs had attacked. Killing twenty orcs at a time was trying even his limits, and he was not sure he could face another attack.

Teriel pulled suddenly to a halt, stepping back in warning to his rider. Aragorn's head shot up, and in the distance he could hear the sound of Mirkwood's giant spiders spinning webs around victims. He tensed, but urged Teriel forward regardless. It would take a day, if not longer, to cross the forest and reach the light on the other side. He did not relish the journey. Especially when traveling through it by night.

The sun had set some hours ago, and the forest around him was completely submersed in shadow. Eyes could be seen glowing distantly in the dark, yellow or green, blinkingly watching him as he passed--none had dared to challenge him yet, though their gazes did nothing to ease Teriel of his justified fears.

Mirkwood had once been grand, Arwen had told him. Green and peaceful, a paradise to those who dwelt there--a haven appropriately named Greenwood the Great. But time had brought shadows and dark creatures--strong trunks on magnificent trees had twisted, darkened somehow, and where there had been peace there was discontent. The forest was suffering, and fleetingly, Aragorn wondered why there were still elves here.

He had grown up in Rivendell, and he knew how sensitive to nature their race could be. How was it the wood-elves could stand to live in this shadow?

It was a question he had wondered about for sometime, and Elladan had been the one to try and help him answer it, wryly informing him that the choice to remain had not been made without a price. He said the wood-elves were still elves, still peaceful and caring with good hearts, but that those in Mirkwood had become untrusting--suspicious of anyone not of their realm.

Which was why his elven friends in Rivendell hated when he passed through the dark forest alone, always they feared he would not return.

Weary, Aragorn slid down from his horse and leaned tiredly against a tree. This was the first time he had shared in that fear. He led Teriel to a small stream, then dropped to his knees beside it. He had just finished rinsing his wounds and splashing water in his face when the soft voices reached him.

Faintly, he could hear haunting lyrics sung by elven voices. Wood-elves, he realized with a start. Elrohir had said to be as wary of them as the spiders they shared their realm with--Arwen had rolled her eyes at that, so Aragorn knew this had been an exaggeration, but he'd already put up with too much this trip to risk more trouble now.

He led Teriel behind an outcropping of rocks, and then lowered himself to the ground, sheltered from sight by a large green bush. Through the leaves he could see the group of elves, they were surrounded by an ethereal light that did not originate solely from the lanterns they carried, and he could make out their figures easily. There were seven of them--six figures surrounding a seventh, the only one whose features were hidden by the hood of a deep green cloak.

They grew closer and he froze, stilling himself completely while they passed. They walked lightly, their sweetly singing voices the only sound that could be heard as they moved along. The figure in the center caught his attention, and Aragorn thought he must be someone of some importance. In his curiosity he followed the elf's movements. The cloaked elf turned slightly, and Aragorn caught his breath. For a moment he was sure he had been seen, even though he could see only darkness within the rim of the elf's hood. But the progression continued forward, and none looked back.

Aragorn waited until their glow had faded into the distance before carefully rising to his feet. He walked back to Teriel, patted him affectionately on the side, and ran a hand down his mane. "That was close," he said to the horse in elvish. "I suppose we better rest here tonight so we don't risk running into them again."

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Legolas gave a long-suffering sigh. They were singing again. He tilted his head up, looking out from the rim of the cloak towards the stars in a state of weary resignation. They might as well be a group of dwarves for all the noise they were making. He didn't know why his father insisted he be escorted to the edge of the forest. He could make it there quicker on his own, not to mention quieter.

He knew the song they sang was a warning for the creatures in the forest to stay back, but if the spiders grew hungry enough words would not stop them. His bow alone was more protection than this escort.

Nairian, one of his father's Captains, walked in front of him. Legolas almost pointed out he need not be in the center, as he was a better shot than any of those who flanked him, but he held his tongue. His father insisted on this and he would humor him, for now--the King was already making a great compromise allowing his youngest son to go to a town of mortals at all.

Legolas was certain he would be able to convince Nairian to turn back before they reached the end of the trees, anyway. He always could. Nairian knew Legolas's abilities well, and trusted the young elf to take care of himself, even though his King did not.

Once they were safely past the spider's breeding grounds, he would ask them to turn back and would continue the rest of the way on his own.

They moved endlessly on, their pace slower than Legolas would have liked. The leisurely speed did allow him to scan better for trouble, however, he admitted to himself. Even if he would prefer to fly straight at it instead.

As his eyes strayed to the right he glimpsed a flicker of something behind a bush. He turned slightly, watching curiously as he caught sight of a pair of eyes--intelligent eyes--staring back at him.

A man. A Ranger, by the looks of him.

The elves continued on, and Legolas turned his gaze forward, not speaking a word. Nairian had orders to take any trespassers in their realm directly to his father, and, much as he loved his father, the King could be rash in his dealings with mortals. Legolas would have to find out who this man was himself.

When he was sure they had traveled far enough to be out of sight of their visitor, Legolas called his escort to a halt. Nairian turned quickly, already predicting what the prince would say. "King Thranduil asked us to escort you to the edge of Mirkwood, Prince Legolas," he said with a frown.

Legolas pulled down his hood and smiled, the same smile he always wore when he was about to charm someone into giving him what he wanted. "And when have I ever allowed an escort to continue long enough to reach the edge of our realm? I am fine on my own. You know this."

Nairian sighed. Legolas always did this. He was sure he would lose his rank as Captain if Thranduil ever found out he let him. At night, though, the request was more worrying. He did not want to be the reason something happened to the kingdom's youngest prince.

"Legolas," he said tiredly.

"Go back through the Hirin Pass, it's longer, but safer for traveling at night," Legolas told him, sure that would take them out of the way of Mirkwood's stranger.

"Legolas," Nairian snapped.

"I can make it an order, Nairian," Legolas said sweetly.

"Last I remember, the prince had no dominion over the king."

"Oh, Nairian, you are so dramatic. I am taking a small trip to Esgaroth. What could possibly happen?"

"With you? Much?"

Legolas smiled despite himself, and he could hear some badly disguised laughter behind him. "Go, I will be fine--and I will answer to the King if something should go wrong."

"Yes, that's all well and good--but that's only if you are alive to answer to him, Legolas. It is the alternative that has me rather worried."

Legolas moved past Nairian and turned to face him with a grin. "If you leave now, you will be back by morning."

"And what shall I tell the King when we return within in but one day?" Nairian demanded.

"Tell him we made good time, of course," Legolas told him pleasantly as he moved into the shadows.

Nairian watched him go and then sighed. "He's going to be the death of me."

Beside him, a member of the escort placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Don't say that, Nairian, I'm sure you're in far more danger from the King."

Nairian turned to glare at the speaker. "Liren, you are no longer allowed to speak."

"Yes, Captain. I'll do exactly as you say, Captain," Liren said swiftly, his sparkling eyes unusually bright even for an elf.

Nairian turned and led the way back to the King's halls. "I get no respect."

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Legolas jumped swiftly into the tree above him, and crouched down on a solid limb. He could not quite see the man from this distance, but it would not take long to reach him. He grabbed the clasp at his neck and released the cloak, pulling his bow from his back once it was out of the way. He quickly pushed the green cloak into a beige bag slung over his shoulder.

Silent and quick, he made his way back to where he had seen the stranger. Alternately moving through the bushes and moving along the limbs of trees, he blended into the quiet harmony of the forest. Many saw the forest as lost, but he could still feel the souls of the trees, hear their hope, and Legolas knew Mirkwood was not lost to the shadow yet.

Legolas jumped into another tree, and through the branches he caught sight of the man. He was beside a stream, apparently conversing with his horse. Legolas's mouth quirked upward. He decided he could not judge the man on that alone, considering how many secrets he had spoken only to his favorite mare.

More movement caught his attention, and he narrowed his eyes as he caught sight of a spider in the trees, slowly making its way towards the unsuspecting mortal. Without a moment of hesitation, Legolas leapt from the tree and increased his pace, no longer as concerned with stealth as speed.

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Aragorn had just relaxed down onto the ground when a faint sound set him on alert. He rose to his feet in an instant, and his eyes went immediately up to the trees.

What he saw froze him in place. An elf, young by their standards, stood easily on a thin branch above him. Cold calculating eyes bore straight through him and an arrow was aimed straight down at him. He would never move out of the way in time to avoid getting hit. Aragorn closed his eyes, hating that Elrohir would be right about the danger of wood-elves, and waited for the fatal blow to come.

He felt a quick, concentrated burst of air fly overhead, and for a moment he couldn't allow himself to believe the elf had missed. The intimidating figure had been nearly right above him, and his skill with the bow obvious even in the way he held it.

He opened his eyes in surprise, prepared to dart out of the way, only to find the elf looking down at him with a raised eyebrow, the bow at his side and his chin held slightly upwards. Aragorn opened his mouth to say something, but before he could find any words a large crash sent him spinning around.

The largest spider he had ever seen fell from the branches of an old tree, only feet away, an arrow embedded deeply between its eyes. For a moment Aragorn couldn't reconcile what had happened. The elf had been aiming for the spider?

"You're most welcome," a sweet, though mildly mocking, voice called from behind him.

Aragorn spun around once more, this time to find the elf leaning casually against the trunk of the tree, still balanced on a limb well above him. The elf was smiling down at him. Aragorn confusedly ran a hand through his hair. Maybe the wood-elves weren't the ones with the trust problems.

"Thank you," he said belatedly.

The elf nodded good-naturedly, then grinned. "You thought I was aiming for you," he said knowingly.

"I--" Aragorn faltered, then sighed. "Yes."

"You needn't have worried," the elf told him. "If it had been you I wanted dead, you would not have seen me."

Somehow, Aragorn did not find that at all reassuring.

"Were you with the party that passed?" Aragorn asked, trying to regain his lost composure.

Legolas tilted his head in acknowledgement. "I was. You hid yourself well, but you strained too close to watch us pass. You should have stayed behind the stones with your horse, I might not have seen you if you had."

Aragorn narrowed his eyes. "Why did you not stop me then?"

"I did not want to involve the others," Legolas replied honestly, dropping down from the limb. He landed silently and on his feet.

Aragorn backed up, his hand unconsciously moving to hover over his sword.

"What do you want?" Aragorn asked warily.

"I could ask the same of you, friend," Legolas said. "For this is not your realm that we walk in."

"I am only passing through the forest," Aragorn said. "I have no wish to cause trouble for the wood-elves."

Legolas grinned suddenly. "That's good enough for me."

Aragorn raised his eyebrows incredulously. When he returned to Rivendell, he would have to ask just what definition Elladan held for untrusting.

"Where are you going?" Legolas asked, smiling as Aragorn's horse took a step towards him and rubbed his head against his shoulder. Legolas smiled at the horse. In elvish, he said softly, "Hello, friend. What is your name?"

"His name is Teriel," Aragorn said, purposely stalling answering the young elf's first question.

Legolas looked up at Aragorn in surprise. "You speak elvish."

"Tancave," he responded with a nod.

Legolas broke out into a smile. "So no ordinary Ranger, then."

Aragorn tried not to let his surprise at being pegged as a Ranger show through. "If what I've heard of the elves of Mirkwood is true, then I would say you are far from ordinary as well."

"You said you were crossing the forest," Legolas said, giving Teriel one last fond pat before turning his attention back to Aragorn. "I am as well. We shall travel together."

Aragorn was caught somewhat off guard. "That is not necessary."

Legolas shook his head. "I'm afraid it is, nîn mellon. Any visitors to Mirkwood, by law, are to be brought before the King." Legolas gave a mischievous grin. "I sometimes take some liberties, however, and we could forgo the lengthy side trip to the King's halls if I were sure you did not plan to linger here."

Aragorn reluctantly nodded. "Very well, though I had not planned to travel further this night."

Legolas looked him over then, and saw the deep cut on the Ranger's arm. He frowned and secured his bow behind his back. He walked over to Aragorn, who watched his movement warily. "Sit," Legolas commanded. "Your wounds will become infected without attention."

Still wary, Aragorn did as he was told, keeping his hand safely beside the hilt of his sword. Legolas looked amused at his caution. "I will not hurt you. If I wished you harm I would have left you to the spiders. If anyone should be cautious it is me."

Privately, Aragorn agreed. "Why are you helping me?"

"This is my realm, it falls to me to protect those who wander here. And it is my duty also to make sure they cause no harm--and the best way to do that is to lead them out." Legolas looked at the large gash on Aragorn's back with sympathy. "That would be much harder to do if you were to collapse from infection."

"Still, caution in this place would not be unwarranted."

Legolas raised an eyebrow as he pulled a healing plant from a pouch around his waist, and placed it along the gash on the Ranger's back. "Are you trying to convince me I should change course and escort you to my King?" he asked amusedly, ripping off a strip of Aragorn's cloth cloak to bind the wound.

"Hey," Aragorn protested as his cloak was shredded.

"It needs to be bandaged," Legolas said without regret. "It is something you should have done already."

"Yes, well," he said somewhat snidely. "I was distracted by all the orcs trying to kill me."

Legolas smiled slightly, and then set to bandaging the Ranger's arm. "What is your name?" he asked.

Aragorn watched him for a moment, hesitating before telling him quietly, "Strider."

"Mae govannen, Strider. I am Legolas."

The name sounded somewhat familiar to him, but Aragorn could not place it. "Mae govannen," he said with a weary smile.

Legolas nodded and looked out to the darkness surrounding them. "Sleep, Strider. I will keep watch tonight. Tomorrow we shall set out. Are you headed east?"

Aragorn looked ready to protest the matter of him falling to sleep with a relative stranger standing guard, but answered the elf's question first. "Yes. I am headed to Esgaroth."

Legolas's eyes widened marginally. "Esgaroth?" he repeated. "This is where I go as well. We shall make our way there together," he said decisively. With a last grin he jumped, grabbing onto an outstretched bough and disappeared into the trees above.

Aragorn watched him go, and wondered just when he had lost control of his journey.

Legolas leant down from the tree directly above him, and Aragorn pushed himself back along the ground, startled at his sudden reappearance. Legolas didn't seem to notice his surprise, or if he did he simply brought no attention to it. "Sleep, Strider. You will be no use half dead. I will guard you and Teriel this night."

The whirlwind of an elf disappeared once more, leaving Aragorn staring at the tree in some bemusement. He leaned back against the ground, wincing as his back contacted the hard packed dirt. It did feel better since Legolas had seen to it, though, and he was very tired. He supposed he could sleep for a moment, if Legolas were to try anything, he was sure he would wake up . . .

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Aragorn woke slowly, not quite sure where he was or why he could hear the sound of hoofs on dirt--why, in fact, the sound seemed to reverberate through his entire being. Cautiously, he opened one eye, and found his vision was obstructed by a mat of brown hair. He pulled back, disoriented, and realized he was on his horse, then, belatedly, he realized the horse was moving.

He caught sight of a yellow blur in front of him. And it was whistling.

Aragorn groaned as full consciousness returned, and unsteadily he tried to pull himself into a sitting position.

Dimly, he heard someone say, "Teriel, halt." Far too cheerfully in his opinion.

He glared at the speaker, recognizing him as his savior from last night.

"You are awake," Legolas said. "Good. I had thought we would be to Esgaroth before you stirred. You are a very deep sleeper."

Aragorn bristled at the comment. Usually he woke at the faintest sound of possible danger. He was at a complete loss how Legolas had not only got him on Teriel without waking him, but had apparently been leading him along for some time.

"Do you have to be so cheerful?" he rasped resentfully.

Legolas seemed unfazed. "Yes, I'm sorry. It is a requirement for elves, you know."

"Obviously you're never been to Rivendell. They're not morning elves," Aragorn said, wincing as he recalled the time Elrond had sent him to wake up the twins.

Legolas laughed and shook his head. "I have not been to Rivendell, but I shall keep that in mind am I ever to visit."

Aragorn had pulled himself up fully now, and Legolas had started to lead them on again. He ran a hand down his face, forcing himself to wake up. He was surprised Legolas had not asked him why it was a Ranger, of all people, had been to Rivendell. But Legolas had never even asked him how it was he had come to know how to speak Elvish.

He was beginning to think he was far more curious about the mysterious elf than said mysterious elf was at all curious about him. "Your patrol last night," Aragorn said, trying to strike up a conversation. "Who were you guarding?"

"Now, that is a strange question," Legolas said, but gave no answer.

Aragorn frowned. "It is not because I wish to cause anyone harm that I ask. I am merely curious."

"I have a duty to my King," Legolas said wryly. "I can not talk of such things to a stranger. I would be in enough trouble if he knew I was aiding you through to the other edge of Mirkwood."

Aragorn frowned but didn't press the matter. Something about the way Legolas had answered that was strange--as though he found the whole question quite amusing.

"So tell me, Ranger Strider," Legolas said, flashing a quick grin in the man's direction. "How did you come to be in Rivendell and learn the language of the elves?"

Aragorn sighed. He had brought the question on himself, he knew. "Lovely weather today, is it not?" he asked, shamelessly turning the subject. "Mirkwood is not so very dark by day--hope lives in the morning hours."

"There is always hope," Legolas said firmly, the mischief in his eyes turning to quiet sorrow. "Whether it is morning or not."

Aragorn sighed. "Of course," he said. "I meant not--"

But Legolas had already thrown off the melancholy, and turned back again with a smile. "I have taken no offense, Ranger. You have to live with these trees to understand them. They would be imposing and dark, indeed, to a stranger of the realm."

Aragorn was slightly taken aback by Legolas's shifting moods, but he knew well from his dealings with Elladan and Elrohir how quickly an elf could throw back the darkness in their minds to again smile and enjoy the light.

"How long have we been traveling?" Aragorn asked.

"Since an hour before first light," Legolas told him, looking towards the sky. "Five hours now."

"Five hours?" Aragorn repeated disbelievingly.

Legolas smiled once more. "A very deep sleeper," he reiterated. "We shall be to the edge of Mirkwood in but another hour. Rest now, Aragorn, for the road to Esgaroth is not without its own brand of dangers."

"You have not slept at all," Aragorn said guiltily. "Perhaps you should--"

"I need no rest," Legolas said. At Aragorn's incredulous look, he continued, "Not yet. I can wait until we reach Esgaroth to sleep if I have need to, but you are injured, and you must allow your body to heal."

"I am fit enough to carry on. You need not worry yourself over me." Aragorn's voice held a touch of warning to it that Legolas did not miss.

"Indeed," Legolas nodded. "I doubt it not. Just as I do not doubt you would have slain that spider yourself had I not been there. But there I was, and here I am. You would do well to take advantage of it, Strider, and rest yourself now before you again find yourself alone."

Aragorn sighed, as Legolas again moved ahead of him, leading the horse ever closer to the end of Mirkwood forest. The speech had not been without logic, and Aragorn would admit, if only to himself, he tended to be a little self-conscious about how he appeared to immortals. He had grown up with elves--his first hunting trips had been with Elladan and Elrohir, and when they were injured, he had watched them recover and race back into danger within in hours or days, while he was bed ridden for weeks with an injury that would not have stopped them for a moment.

It was hard to live up to that, and though he did his best, Aragorn was only mortal after all. And no matter how hard he fought it, he had weaknesses he could not hide. Legolas had spoken with wisdom and not censure, he had not been arrogant or implied that Aragorn was weak.

He realized the elf was right. He was getting a chance to rest now for the first time in days, and he should not let his pride keep him from it the same way it had led him to this forest alone. He knew, somehow, that Legolas was one he could trust. So with another sigh, he lay his head down on Teriel's strong neck and slept.

Legolas smiled without turning and led them on.

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The next time Aragorn awoke, it was to the sound of softly running water and not hoofs--he was lying on his back in the grass, and for the second time that day he wondered just how Legolas had moved him without waking him.

Legolas walked over, and looked down at him with a grin. His blonde hair was spilling over his shoulders to frame his face, and he seemed entirely too pleased with himself. "I had been under the impression Rangers were always on their guard."

Aragorn closed his eyes, and reminded himself that hitting someone who had saved your life was not good manners. He was sure he must have been unconscious at least some of the time. Perhaps by loss of blood, or infection. There was no way Legolas could keep moving him around without his knowledge otherwise.

With a groan, he pushed himself into a sitting position. "Where are we?" he asked.

Legolas stepped back, and motioned with his arm at the view. "Forest River," he said. "We have reached the end of Mirkwood."

Aragorn nodded. "Good. It is not far now--I think I will perhaps make this trip in the time I have given myself after all."

Legolas smiled and knelt beside the river to fill his flask. "We should reach Esgaroth sometime before dusk," he said. "Though it would be faster if you were not so injured."

"I am fine," Aragorn contradicted.

Legolas raised an eyebrow. "Oh, well alright. I had thought your lack of vigilance was a sign that you were wounded worse than I had believed. Perhaps you are just not as skilled as I had assumed."

Aragorn's eyes narrowed. This elf sounded entirely too much like Elrohir for him to like him right off. "Should we not be going?"

Legolas rose gracefully to his feet and eyed him dubiously. "If you believe you are well enough."

Aragorn glared and got to his feet with less than half the grace of Legolas. He grabbed onto Teriel in what he hoped appeared to be a casual move, and not a desperate attempt to remain on his feet. He was beginning to believe he underestimated the severity of his wounds. "I should clean the wounds before we go," he said reluctantly.

Legolas had already started on the road to Esgaroth and turned to face him in amusement. "I have already done so," he said. Legolas's eyes sparkled with laughter. "You called me Arwen," he added with a sly grin, before spinning back around and continuing on his way.

Aragorn froze. "I what--? I called you--"

"Arwen," Legolas supplied cheerfully. He turned around again. "Are you having trouble getting on your horse?"

Aragorn shook his head, still somewhat stuck on the fact Legolas had changed his bandages and he had apparently, in turn, called him Arwen. "I--" he broke off then, deciding it would probably be best to just ignore this. He carefully pulled himself onto the horse.

"So, Aragorn," Legolas asked as the Ranger rode up beside him. "You and the Evenstar?" Legolas laughed at the look on his face. "Far from ordinary indeed."

Aragorn sighed in resignation. "You know Arwen?" he asked cautiously.

Legolas shook his head. "I have heard of her. My father thinks highly of her." Legolas's lips twisted upwards slightly. Thranduil thought very high of Arwen, but the same could not be said about his feelings of her father. Legolas had not met either, had, in fact, met very few elves that were not from Mirkwood, since he himself so rarely left the forest.

He had seen a few messengers, from Rivendell or Lorien, on their way to seek audience with his father. But that had been many, many, years ago, and he had been too young for them to notice.

"Your father?" Aragorn asked. "I have not heard of any wood-elves visiting Rivendell."

"The last time would have been long before your birth," Legolas said. Uncomfortable with the subject, Legolas pointed into the distance with a grin. "Esgaroth," he said.

Aragorn looked to where he was pointing, and could just make out the city's buildings against the horizon. With a small amount of regret he did not understand, Aragorn realized he would soon part ways with Legolas, and would most likely never encounter him again.

"What purpose do you have in Esgaroth?" Aragorn asked curiously, wanting to learn what he could before they went on their separate journeys. He knew that elves were not unheard of in the small lake town, but neither were they common.

"I am meeting someone," Legolas said simply--as cryptic as always. "And you? What business do you have in Esgaroth?"

"I too am meeting someone," Aragorn said with a slight grin.

The two fell silent then, Legolas leading the way on tireless feet while Aragorn rode weary behind him. It was hours later when the city came into full view, and the two travelers could see the smoke swirling up from chimneys, and the merchants littering the streets packing for the night.

Legolas stopped abruptly while they were still some distance away, and Aragorn pulled Teriel to a halt to look back at him. "What are you doing?" he asked.

Legolas pulled a cloak from the bag hanging at his waist, and flung it out behind him--clasping it at the neck. "I do not wish to have every eye in the city on me when I enter," he said wryly, as he pulled up the hood. "Not all men are so relaxed in the company of elves as you."

Aragorn nodded, and realized he was right. Legolas made sure his features were hidden, and then preceded him into the city. Aragorn slid carefully down from Teriel, and instructed him in quiet elvish to graze here until he returned. Then he turned to Legolas and watched his progress with narrowed eyes. He supposed it was possible all wood-elves wore such cloaks, but the one Legolas had on was the same as the figure he had seen the first night in Mirkwood--and he wondered, not for the first time, just who Legolas really was.

Legolas was walking slowly towards the entrance to the city, and Aragorn was able to catch up with him even though he was moving slower than usual. "Where will you stay?" he asked.

Legolas looked at him in surprise. "I will not stay. I will need to return on my way to Mirkwood tonight."

Aragorn frowned. "You have not rested for a day and night."

"Two nights and a day actually," Legolas said tiredly. "But it can not be helped. I must not be gone long." Then Legolas turned his eyes back to the dark forest in the distance, his gaze turning almost bleak. "And I have a feeling what I learn here will be news that cannot wait."

"I have not thanked you," Aragorn said softly.

Once again Legolas pushed the sorrow from his eyes, and gave a small grin. "That is because you have been too preoccupied with your own wounded pride."

Aragorn bristled at that, but the elf's tone had been teasing.

"You should not be so afraid to allow others to help you," Legolas continued.

"I am not. But neither am I so trusting I would put faith in a stranger--and you should not, either."

Legolas laced his fingers through his bag, and watched Aragorn with amusement. "I do not," he said.

"You turned your back on me far too many times," Aragorn reproached.

"You were weak, and half the time not even aware I was there," Legolas said in exasperation. "But had you made a move for your sword, you would not have reached it."

Aragorn grinned ruefully. He had a feeling that might be true. "Hannon le."

"You do not need to thank me, Strider. I was looking out for the interests of Mirkwood. I was only doing what I had to."

Aragorn had a feeling that this was in fact quite the opposite of true. Had Legolas been doing what he was supposed to, he was sure there was a possibility he would be locked in one of Thranduil's famous dungeons.

"Namárië," Aragorn said, some of his regret entering his voice as he reached out to clasp Legolas arm with his uninjured one.

Legolas smiled, and this time it seemed to light up his entire face. "Belain na le, Aragorn." The Valar be with you.

And then Legolas was gone, disappearing into the crowd as easily as he could into the trees.