Weeks passed, and although the dreams about Lithdal still haunted Aragorn, they were different from before. Now, Aragorn was able to fight Lithdal in his dreams, and they did not leave him sweaty and breathless anymore. Now, Aragorn woke from them with a feeling of unrest, but nothing more. Deep inside he knew that these dreams would probably hunt him until Lithdal had been found.
When the first red and orange leaves parted from the trees, the scars on Aragorn's face had faded so much, that only those who knew that they were there saw them. Elrond did not know whether they would ever fade completely, but for Aragorn it was not so important anymore. He knew that Legolas did not care, and that was all that mattered.
Aragorn's ankle and lungs had healed, and he, Legolas and his brothers helped the elves to restore the forest to its prior glory. Young saplings were brought into the burned forest, seeds of grass sown, and the river freed of dead branches and burned trunks. And when autumn knocked on the door of the valley, soft green and sparkling red could be seen between the black trees. The forest would survive, and the elves were glad.
But while Aragorn seemed to have come to terms with his demons, Legolas was still feeling his own haunting him. Whenever he was alone, his thoughts returned to the cave and what he had done that day. He had left his friend alone in the dark, and he had not even noticed that Aragorn was gone. They had not talked about the cave, but with every day that passed, Legolas meant to see the accusation in Aragorn's eyes. 'You left me.' His gaze seemed to say, and Legolas hated himself for his weakness.
With the arrival of autumn, the time for Legolas to return to Mirkwood neared, too. He had promised his father that he would return ere winter claimed the lands, and when the first autumn rain fell cold and wet, Aragorn and Legolas knew that he could delay his return no longer. The only positive aspect about Legolas's return to Mirkwood was that Aragorn would accompany him. They had talked about this with Elrond and Legolas had written to his father. Of course, the King of Mirkwood did not know yet of the bond between his son and the young ranger, and Legolas had not dared to write something like this in a letter. The King of Mirkwood was known for his dislike of most humans, and Legolas felt that he would need to speak with his father in person about this. To his relief, his father had agreed that Aragorn could spend the winter in Mirkwood, had even sounded slightly interested.
On a windy day only a few days before their departure, Aragorn found Legolas in the stables, brushing the coat of his horse and whispering soft words into its ears. Aragorn could put the finger on it, but he had the feeling that Legolas was avoiding him, and the strange look that flittered over the elf's face when he saw him only underlined this feeling. For long hours Aragorn had debated whether he would talk to Legolas about it, without coming to a decision. He did not know why Legolas avoided him, but more than once he thought that maybe Legolas regretted having offered that Aragorn joined him on his trip home. Maybe Legolas did not want him to come with him. Having a relationship in Imladris, where they were both well loved and respected, was one thing. Mirkwood was an entire story entirely. So, in the end, Aragorn had decided that he would simply ask Legolas. If the elf wanted him to come, fine, and if not, well, then he wanted to know now and not while they were over the mountains already.
Aragorn took a deep breath and made his way over to where Legolas was standing next to his horse. "Hello, Legolas." Aragorn said, stroking the horse's soft nose. The animal nicked softly. Legolas said nothing, simply nodded his head and resumed his ministrations. For a few moments silence reigned in the stable, but then Aragorn said timidly, "Legolas…I…I think we need to talk."
Legolas's hand stilled, but he did not turn around to face Aragorn. "Legolas, if…if you don't want me to come with you to Mirkwood, I understand. After all, it's your home and your friends are there, your warriors. If you don't want me there, I will stay here." Aragorn looked at the ground, unable to look Legolas in the face. To his surprise, gentle fingers brushed his cheeks and he felt Legolas stand in front of him.
"You don't want to come?" Legolas asked, hurt and shocked.
"Well, I thought, maybe you don't want me to…" Aragorn bit his bottom lip. It hurt to speak those words, for he wanted nothing more than to go with Legolas, to be with him, wherever the elf was.
"But, I want you to come with me, Estel!" Legolas said with such emotion in his voice that Aragorn looked up at him.
"But, you avoided me." Aragorn said timidly, his eyes large in his face. "I thought you did not want me to come."
"Oh, Estel." Legolas said, hugging the young man. "I did not mean to avoid you. I just…I couldn't.." Legolas voice broke, and he placed his head on Aragorn's dark locks. "I'm so sorry, Estel."
Feeling that Legolas spoke about something else than avoiding him in the last few days, Aragorn gently withdrew from Legolas's arms and gazed at him. "What are you sorry for, Legolas?"
Something flickered in the elf's gaze and he bit his bottom lip. Not able to look Aragorn in the eyes, Legolas gazed at the earthen ground of the stable. His voice was barely a whisper when he spoke, "I'm sorry I left you behind…in the cave."
Aragorn felt as if he had been punched. Since he had woken up in the healing wing, he had tried to forget the cave and everything that had happened. Legolas's words brought all the dark memories back. Memories he whished to forget. But his experience with his nightmares had shown him that ignoring those memories would only make them worse. Facing them was the only way to break their hold over them. So, he took hold of Legolas's hand.
"I was so afraid when you left me, Legolas." The elf flinched visibly and tried to withdraw his hand, but Aragorn would not let go. "You know, unconsciously I always saw you as the experienced warriors, the one who would protect me, always be there for me." Legolas began to tremble lightly. "But, the caves showed me that you are not infallible, Legolas, that you, too, have feelings that are sometimes stronger than the mind." Aragorn squeezed Legolas's hand. "You were afraid, Legolas, nothing more." Aragorn paused, then said softly, "I know what fear is, Legolas. And what it can make you do. How could I blame you for being afraid?"
Aragorn stepped closer and simply wrapped his arms around Legolas's shoulders, "I do not blame you, Legolas, for being afraid. Fear is what makes us who we are. And that you came back to me, although you were afraid, shows me how strong you truly are. Bravery does not mean being unafraid. It means going on despite your fear."
Aragorn felt Legolas shudder. It took a moment, but then the elf relaxed and hugged Aragorn back. "Thank you." Legolas said, nothing more, but Aragorn understood. And, the young man knew that while he had forgiven Legolas, Legolas would need more time to forgive himself. But the healing had begun, and that was good.
The next day, Aragorn and Legolas packed their belongings and readied their packs for the long journey to Mirkwood. And when the first timid frost glittered on the grass that surrounded the cobbled yard in front of the Last Homely House, they said farewell to Aragorn's family. With them, on the order of Lord Elrond, they took a group of elves, so as to protect them. And then they left the valley of Rivendell to make their journey towards the dark forest of Mirkwood.
If they every arrived in Mirkwood? That, is an entirely other story.
I want to thank all those readers that made it to this point! I hope you enjoyed this little story (well, obviously, otherwise you would have stopped reading long before now g). I have finished the next story An Autumn's Tale and will start posting that story next week. And to make matter more intresting, here a little teaser:
An Autumn's Tale
"Legolas!" Aragorn yelled, feeling the elf slip from the horse. He did not know what had happened, but he feared that one of the arrows had found its mark and hit the Prince in the back. Frantically, the young human reached out and grabbed one of Legolas's arms, trying to hold him on the back of the horse. For a moment he thought that he might succeed, but then his mare suddenly turned left to avoid a large tree. The movement caused Legolas to slide to the side. Aragorn tightened his hold, but it was useless. Legolas's unconscious body slid from the horse, and Aragorn, unwilling to let go, lost his own balance. With a shocked cry, Aragorn felt himself tumble off the horse. A second later, his body hit the hard ground with a dull thud, stunning him momentarily. He rolled down a small slope, thorns and stones pricked his skin, and when he came to rest he felt dizzy and disorientated. His chest hurt and for a moment, he heard nothing but his own blood that rushed in his ears.
And then, he heard the orcs."
"In but moments the orcs holding him had shoved him to the ground once more. Claws ripped his tunic and shirt from his shoulders, unheeding that his arms and hands were still bound behind his back. As soon as the cold air hit his skin, Aragorn began to shiver uncontrollably, and he told himself that it was just the cold and not fear. Rough orc hands forced him down on his stomach and straightened his legs and arms, until he lay flat on the ground. Then, they wrapped thick rope around his wrists and ankles, before they stepped back.
Confused, Aragorn looked around, but dared not to move. All around him, the orcs moved to stand in small groups, each of the four groups gathered at either one of his hands or feet. And then the orcs picked up the other end of the rope that was wrapped around his limbs, and Aragorn knew what they would do. He shuddered, trying to pull his arms and legs towards his body, but it was no use.
Upon a command of the leader, all four groups of orcs began to pull at the rope."
See you soon!