Author Notes: This is mostly book-verse, which means that Aragorn and Legolas do not know each other very well, probably only having met in Mirkwood when Aragorn took Gollum there.
Written for the Naked Yule challenge issued by NiRi and Fiondil. The challenge stories have to include the following: Aragorn, Legolas, Glorfindel, snow, a horse, a naked elf, a confession, and at least one Christmas symbol that can be adapted to Middle-earth. Other characters can also be included as necessary.
"Pippin, come back," called Merry as he watched his cousin darting away through the woods behind the stables. "It's almost time for tea!" he added, knowing food might bring Pippin back more quickly from wherever he was running off to. He shivered, running his hands briskly up and down his arms before pulling his cloak tighter around himself. Bilbo had mentioned that the snow wouldn't last long, that Rivendell seldom had harsh weather of any kind. At least it looked pretty, Merry decided with a small sigh as he trotted after his wayward cousin. The freshly fallen snow lightly blanketed the gardens and the trees of Rivendell with a pretty white coat that reminded him of the frosting on the special cakes his mother made for Yule. Not that he was likely to have those any time soon, he thought glumly as he entered the woods.
"Excuse me, Mr. Legolas, sir; may I speak with you, sir?"
Legolas blinked, still unused to the way Sam insisted on addressing him. But then he knew very little about hobbits. "Of course, Master Samwise," he answered politely. "How may I help you?" he asked, looking down at the hobbit who was not looking at him but was looking around the wide hallway of Lord Elrond's house that they were standing in.
"Have you seen Merry and Pippin? It's time for tea. I can't find them and Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo are waiting." He wrung his hands as he peered up the elf.
"I see." Legolas hid his amusement. All of the hobbits ate an incredible amount of food for such small people and he wondered how the hobbits would fare on their journey. "Did they have plans this afternoon? Are they practicing with Lord Boromir?"
Sam shook his head. "I asked him and he hasn't seen them either… not since right after lunch. And Mr. Gandalf hasn't seen them. And I've looked in all of the usual places in here." He waved his hand around. "They wouldn't miss tea, Mr. Legolas, sir."
"No, they would not," he agreed with a small smile gracing his lips. "I will search for them outside. Do they have a favorite place they enjoy visiting?"
"The gardens nearest the stables, I think," Sam said after a moment. "Pippin likes one of the statues there," he said, shrugging.
Legolas laid his hand briefly on the hobbit's shoulder. "You go and have your tea while I find your friends, Master Samwise. There is no reason for yours to get cold even if theirs is a bit late."
"Well, I don't know… I'll have to ask Mr. Bilbo about that, sir. Thank you, Mr. Legolas," Sam said, with sort of a half bow before turning and hurrying away.
Legolas watched the hobbit for a moment before making his way to the side door that was nearest the stables, pausing only to grab a spare cloak that was hanging on a hook near the entryway.
Aragorn absently patted Roheryn's neck as the horse trotted down and then up the shallow dip in the almost invisible trail. His many years of traveling to and from the hidden refuge of Imladris allowed him to quickly make his way through the woods. Another couple of hours should see him home and getting warm by the fire he thought as he adjusted his cloak against the cold. He glanced up at the sky, what he could see of it through the tall fir trees that towered above him, and frowned at the dark grey clouds. Aragorn hoped he would arrive before more snow began falling.
He tried to remember the last time he had been in Imladris for Yule but was unable to think of a time since he had returned to his own people when he was a young man. He had not even spent Yule in Dolomar with his Dúnedain kinsmen or with Halbarad for seven or eight years. Yule was usually spent out in the wilderness huddled around a small fire, though once or twice he had been in Bree.
Still, Aragorn mused as he listened closely to the birds and the sounds of the forest, there was the possibility that he might not be celebrating Yule indoors this year either, but on the journey south to destroy the Ring. It depended on whether or not the other scouts had returned and what news they bore. He could only hope that none of them had found any sign of the Ring-wraiths. Neither he nor his Rangers had found any signs that pointed to their presence and so he could only hope that… he pulled sharply on the reins at the sound of a rapidly approaching horse.
Even though the horse, for it was clearly only one horse, was coming from the direction of home, Aragorn drew his sword halfway out of its sheath. Even within the bounds of Imladris he was cautious, especially so after recent events. But the sound of the horse seemed odd to him and it wasn't until the horse burst into sight that he realized what it was. The horse was riderless and wearing no tack, so there were none of the sounds he normally heard with a horse and rider – the faint creaking of leather and the jingling of bridles and straps. But that is not what made his mouth drop open. It was the beautiful white horse itself as it came to a full stop in front of him, breathing out puffs of white steam into the cold air and its wide, brown eyes that seemed to be looking him over appraisingly.
"Asfaloth! What are you doing here? Where is Glorfindel?" asked Aragorn, looking around for the elf.
Asfaloth shook his head, snorting, and Aragorn could swear there was a mischievous gleam in the stallion's eyes as it shook its head before turning and trotting into the woods, heading down the steep slope of a ravine toward one of the many small streams that fed into the Bruinen River. Aragorn sat for a moment trying to decide whether he should follow the horse or go and look for Glorfindel. It was the look in the intelligent horse's eyes that decided it for him. Somehow Asfaloth had escaped from the stables and was enjoying an afternoon in the woods without Glorfindel's knowledge. While the horse would probably return to Imladris as soon as it was done 'playing', Aragorn did not want to leave Asfaloth with the snowstorm coming. Scowling and mumbling under his breath he pulled Roheryn off the trail and followed the white stallion.
Pippin leaned against the tall fir tree breathing hard. He ran his fingers around inside the collar of his cloak, pulling it away from his neck and trying to cool down. But his hands were icy and he quickly stuck them inside his cloak and under his arm to warm them up. He'd been running as long and as fast as he could and he still hadn't caught sight of Glorfindel's horse. The hobbit looked up as a few snowflakes began drifting down and he gave a low moan. Fresh snow would cover the tracks he was following. Pushing himself away from the tree, Pippin began to trot on. A loud shout from behind made him stop and look back.
"Wait, Pippin!" Merry cried.
Pippin flinched. What was his cousin doing in the woods; had he been following him? More importantly, had Merry seen what he'd done? With a small inward sigh he turned and walked back to meet him.
Finding the garden empty of hobbits, Legolas strolled over to the stables certain he would find Merry and Pippin. What he found, however, was a building in an uproar. At least as much as these Noldor elves ever showed any sort of panic, he thought to himself; enough that they did not notice him as he stood watching from the shadows near the door as the stable hands spoke animatedly to one another, some waving their hands about. He glanced up at the tall, golden-haired elf that stopped beside him.
"Do you know what this is all about, Lord Glorfindel?" Legolas asked in a low voice.
Glorfindel's bright blue eyes were twinkling as he answered. "It appears Asfaloth has gone missing. Again. The grooms are most concerned that I will be upset with them."
"Are you?" asked Legolas even as he considered whether or not the hobbits might have anything to do with the missing horse.
"No," Glorfindel said with a soft laugh, "but do not tell them that. This is the second time this year he has escaped and I do expect the grooms to watch our horses more carefully. However, Asfaloth is a very intelligent and somewhat mischievous horse and that he found a way to leave is not surprising."
"I wonder if he had help," murmured Legolas, even though he did not believe it possible.
Glorfindel turned his head sharply and looked at him. "What do you mean? Help from whom?"
"Merry and Pippin are missing. Master Samwise asked me to look for them and they were not in the garden where he thought they might be. But I do not think…" Glorfindel interrupted him.
"That explains much," said the Elf-lord, shaking his head. "I do hope they did not try to ride him. But, no, Asfaloth would not allow that," he said.
"Pippin and Merry are too small to have let him out," Legolas protested. "And there are too many elves here; someone would have seen them."
Glorfindel made a low sound that might have been a laugh, but Legolas was uncertain. "You do not yet know what a hobbit is capable of doing, young Thranduilion. Do not let their looks deceive you. Come," he said, walking out from the shadows and approaching the stable hands who quieted at his appearance. With a small frown furrowing his brow, Legolas followed.
"Lord Glorfindel," a stable hand exclaimed, his eyes widening in surprise.
"Rochthros," the elf-lord acknowledged, inclining his head. "It appears Asfaloth has once again escaped from the stables. Did someone leave his stall door unlatched?" he inquired pleasantly. Legolas could not tell if Glorfindel was jesting with the stable hands or not. The elves certainly did not think so.
"No, my lord, it was tightly secured after I filled his manger and gave him fresh water right after noon."
"I spoke to him a few hours ago," said another elf, "and the latch seemed secure then. Although," he admitted, "I did not check it."
Glorfindel glanced at Legolas. "Merry and Pippin then." Legolas gave a reluctant nod and followed the older elf out the rear door where a light snow was beginning to fall. Several stables hands followed along murmuring amongst themselves. There were too many tracks of horses near the door so they walked some distance away toward the woods before Glorfindel paused and crouched down, studying something. Legolas joined him.
"Asfaloth's tracks," Glorfindel said, pointing to the large horse prints in the snow. He pointed to the other tracks. "Hobbit tracks… about two hours old."
"It appears you were right," admitted Legolas, wondering how the hobbits had managed to free the horse.
"Yes, of course," said the Elf-lord with smiling eyes before turning back to the tracks. "Now…" he was interrupted by one of the other elves.
"Hobbits, my lord?"
"We believe young Merry and Pippin have freed Asfaloth. We will discuss how they were able to do that at another time." The stable hands nodded, looking miserably at each other from the corners of their eyes. "What I need you to do, Rochthros, is to go up to the house to get my sword and a warmer cloak since it appears I am going to have to go and retrieve my horse… and two hobbits. Do you require anything, Legolas?"
"My bow and my own cloak, this one is borrowed. Perhaps blankets, my lord? I doubt the hobbits actually planned for your horse to run off and with this weather…" Legolas's voice trailed off. Glorfindel nodded and turned back to Rochthros.
"Bring a bag with enough supplies for several days and inform Lord Elrond of my plans."
Rochthros nodded and sprinted away toward the house while Glorfindel and Legolas studied the tracks further and discussed whether they should follow on foot or horseback.
"Well, I understand why you went to see Asfaloth," Merry said to his cousin after listening to his explanation. "But, you're going to be in a lot of trouble when we get back."
Pippin nodded. "I know, that's why I have to find him and take him back before they notice he's gone."
"I'm sure they already know he's gone. He's Lord Glorfindel's horse, Pippin! Well, there's no use standing here, it's getting colder."
"And the snow is covering the tracks," Pippin pointed out. Even in the short time they'd been talking the snow had steadily increased to where it was getting hard to see too far into the woods. "Come on." The two hobbits tightened cloak strings and set off after the missing horse once again.
Aragorn leaned back in his saddle, balancing himself against the steep slope Roheryn was slowly making his way down. He wondered if it would be better to dismount and lead the horse, but the gelding had not stumbled nor even hesitated and so he continued to ride, letting his horse find its own way. The sound of the stream was growing louder and he knew he had to be close to the bottom of the ravine. There had been no sign of Asfaloth except for the tracks that stood out quite clearly in the snow, something Aragorn was grateful for as he had no desire to dismount and search for tracks or to spend even longer searching for the horse. Especially as he was almost certain the horse was already on its way home and his search would be in vain.
The valley at the bottom of the ravine was as wide as Aragorn remembered; he should be able to ride along the stream without too much trouble. He paused briefly, studying Asfaloth's tracks and let out a small sigh of relief when it became obvious the horse had indeed headed upstream. While it was a meandering stream and would take far longer than using the trail above, eventually he would arrive at Imladris. A snowflake landed on his gloved hand and quickly melted even as more of the soft, white flakes began floating down around him. He grimaced. It appeared he would not be arriving home before the snowstorm after all. At least Arwen would be waiting. That thought brought a soft smile to his lips as he pulled the hood of his cloak up before urging Roheryn into a slow trot.
Aragorn had not traveled more than a mile when he had to rein his horse to a walk. The snow was falling thickly now, almost obscuring the tracks he was following. Soon the tracks would be completely covered and he could only hope that Asfaloth had stayed true to his current heading. He suddenly pulled Roheryn to a complete halt and for almost a full minute he simply stared at the tracks unable to believe what he was seeing. Glorfindel's horse had turned and gone back up the side of the ravine toward the trail above.
Frowning, Aragorn slipped from his horse and studied the tracks more closely to make sure he was reading them correctly. It made no sense. Why would Asfaloth leave the relative ease of the stream valley for a difficult climb up the ravine? Something was very wrong here. Asfaloth was too smart a horse to simply go wandering away when he was within five miles of home. The horse did not appear frightened. From what Aragorn read in the snow, the horse had stopped and moved around briefly before heading directly for the steep slope. Perhaps Glorfindel had called for him and the horse had simply decided to join his master. But Aragorn dismissed that idea almost immediately. He would have heard such a call; it was deathly quiet except for the burbling of the nearby stream. No, something else had caught Asfaloth's attention and turned him from his course. Aragorn called Roheryn to his side.
"I think this is too steep for me to ride," he murmured as he tied the reins up around the pommel of his saddle. The horse turned its head and nudged at him as if to say that of course he could carry him. Aragorn scratched his horse around the ears and under his forelock while he studied the hillside. He wondered if he should ride up the stream another half mile or so to where the slope was not as steep, but he decided it would take too long and he might lose the trail. He would just have to follow Asfaloth. The horse would have chosen the easiest way and his eyes narrowed as he tried to track the trail through the falling snow. He gave up after a moment. He'd just have to do as best he could and hope he reached the top before the snow completely covered the tracks. And, before it grew too dark Aragorn thought as he realized the light was quickly fading on this late December afternoon. With a quiet word to Roheryn to follow, he started up the steep slope.
Legolas and Glorfindel had not been on the trail long when they discovered that the two hobbits were not together as they had assumed. One was clearly following the other and was slowly overtaking him, though they had no idea which hobbit was which. The hobbits were still on the trail of Asfaloth, but the elves knew they would never overtake the horse that was more than likely making his way home now by some other route. The thick, falling snow and fading light made it difficult to see the tracks that were almost hidden now. The two were careful to keep the hobbits' tracks between them as they swiftly ran through the trees, having decided that horses would be more of a hindrance than a help during their search.
"Here," Legolas said, coming to a stop in a small clearing. He crouched down and waited for Glorfindel to join him. "The two of them met here." Glorfindel nodded his agreement and then looked around, a furrow creasing his brow.
"We must find them quickly, Legolas. I cannot believe they were prepared for weather like this."
"Would they not find a place to keep warm and wait out the storm?" he asked. It is what he would do if he were caught far from home in a snowstorm like this. But then he would never have let a horse loose from the stables, nor chased after it into the forest with such a storm coming.
"I know not," replied Glorfindel, shaking his head. He readjusted his hood and settled the pack more firmly on his back. "But if Pippin is behind this he will not easily be turned aside from his purpose."
"I fear I do not know them well enough, my lord, to predict what either of them will do."
"Neither do I," the older elf admitted, "but standing here will do neither of them much good. Come." He started off again with Legolas close at his side.
"I'm c-cold, Merry," Pippin said as they struggled over another snow covered fallen tree. He stopped on the other side, turning his back towards the wind and blowing on his hands to try to warm them.
"Me too, but we've got to keep moving, Pippin," said Merry, casting an anxious look at his cousin. "We have to find some sort of shelter; someplace we can make a fire." Wind whipped around him, pulling his hood back and blowing snow into his eyes. He swore softly as he brushed at his eyes and fixed his cloak, his hands trembling. He hoped he'd be able to make a fire even if they found a good place for one.
"Where are we going to go?" Pippin asked. He'd left all decisions up to Merry since the light snowfall had grown into a storm.
"This way," Merry said, simply picking a direction. He had no idea where they were and it was as good a guess as any. They had only gone a few feet when a sudden, sharp noise made them freeze in place, looking around warily to try to find the source of the sound. Out of the darkness in front of them appeared a large shape, whiter even than the snow that surrounded them and the hobbits cowered in fear. But a low whinny and snort from Asfaloth had them straightening up and staring in shock. Merry recovered first.
"W-where did you come from?" he asked quietly, easing toward the large horse. Perhaps they could ride him back to Rivendell. Asfaloth evidently had other ideas as he pawed at the snow and began turning around.
"Wait!" cried Pippin. "Please, take us back to Rivendell with you."
Asfaloth looked over his shoulder at them and snorted before taking two steps forward and stopping again.
"He wants us to follow him," said Merry, finally realizing what the horse was doing. He hesitated only a moment before grabbing Pippin's sleeve and pulling him along. Asfaloth was an elven trained horse and knew the woods far better than they did; he'd have to trust the horse to lead them to safety – just as it had taken Frodo to safety weeks earlier. The horse did not lead them far; thirty or forty yards from where they'd been standing was a snow covered mound that Merry quickly realized was a boulder. Asfaloth stopped beside it and looked back at the two hobbits, again pawing at the snow.
"D-do you think there's a cave here?" Pippin asked. The horse snorted and shook his head, his white mane swirling around him looking much like the snow.
"I think he wants us to ride him," whispered Merry. But his low voice carried to Asfaloth whose head bobbed up and down. "Come on, Pip." Merry helped his cousin climb up the snow covered rock and then onto the wide back of the horse. The older hobbit scrambled onto the horse behind Pippin, wrapping his arms around his cousin and pulling him close as Asfaloth immediately set off. Merry could only trust that the horse was taking them to Rivendell.
Panting, and blowing out puffs of white steam into the cold air, Aragorn scrambled up the last few yards of the snow covered slope. He found Roheryn waiting for him and the horse nudged and sniffed him; the horse had moved past him about halfway up the hill. Aragorn gave him a reassuring pat and turned to look for the trail before it got too dark to see and before the snow covered the tracks. Asfaloth's tracks were easily spotted even in the dim light.
The horse had set off at a brisk trot when he'd gotten on the trail. At least it was still headed in the right direction. Aragorn brushed his saddle clear of snow before mounting and setting off. Not twenty minutes later the faint sound of voices reached his ears and he drew to a halt, peering around in the darkness to try to discover where they were coming from. Who would be out in such weather? Besides a Ranger, he thought wryly. The voices were clearly not elven and he pushed aside his cloak, resting his hand on his sword.
Roheryn's ears perked up, flicking back and forth as his head turned to the right and Aragorn urged him slowly in that direction. There was no hesitation on his horse's part and he breathed a bit easier. Whoever was there was not a stranger to Roheryn. It was probably Asfaloth, but who the people were Aragorn could not imagine. He let the horse make its own way and he frowned when he realized they were leaving the trail. The voices quickly became loud enough to make out clearly and with a shock he recognized they were hobbits – Merry and Pippin to be precise – and he called out to them.
Aragorn recognized Merry's voice and he urged Roheryn, who had stopped when he called out, toward the hobbits. "Keep talking, Merry."
"Pippin, it's Strider!"
"I hear him, don't shake me! I'll fall off."
Aragorn heard the fear in Pippin's voice and wondered what the two were doing alone and so far from home. But those thoughts were pushed aside when he caught a glimpse of them sitting astride Asfaloth, shivering. The white horse walked right up to Roheryn whickering softly and staring hard at Aragorn.
"Well done, Asfaloth," murmured Aragorn, patting the horse briefly before turning his full attention to the hobbits. While both of them were wearing cloaks they were the ones they'd worn from the Shire and he knew they were not made for a winter storm. He quickly pulled off his own cloak and, ignoring Merry's protests, reached over and wrapped it around the two hobbits. It just fit.
"Tie it tightly, it will warm you enough until we can reach shelter." Aragorn knew it would take too long to ride to Imladris in the dark and with the snow still coming down hard. They needed to find shelter nearby and they needed to find it quickly. But there were no windbreaks of any kind nearby, no large rocks or thick stands of trees that would work in this situation. The only place that might work was… Aragorn nearly groaned aloud. Down along the stream there were large boulders and several places where the bank was undercut enough that it would make a rough shelter. But the thought of going down the ravine again and with the hobbits… well, it had to be done. At least they were further upstream and the incline was not as steep here; at least from what he remembered. It had been a long time since he had been down that ravine and to that stream.
"Hold tight to Asfaloth, he will not let you fall." The horse let out a soft snort. "Asfaloth," Aragorn addressed the horse directly, "we need to go to the stream where you were before." He hesitated, glancing around in the darkness at the swirling snow and then looked back at Glorfindel's well-trained horse. "I am not your master, Asfaloth, but I ask that you lead us there. You can see much better than I can in this weather." If a horse could give a withering look, then the look Asfaloth gave Aragorn was such a look. In spite of the circumstances, Aragorn had to choke back a laugh as the horse moved past him and Roheryn without another sound, leading the way back down to the stream.
"Lord Glorfindel," Legolas called over to the elf running a short distance away. The Elf-lord was barely visible in the darkness and falling snow. Glorfindel turned and came to him. "We should have found them by now. They could not have traveled this far; we have missed them, my lord." He brushed the snow off his cloak and squinted into the woods around them as he strained to hear any sounds that might be hobbits. But it was quiet except for the faint sound of snow landing on the trees. Even the wind had died down for the moment.
"Call me Glorfindel," the older elf said, placing a hand on Legolas's shoulder. "Titles are for the Halls of Imladris. Or, the Courts of Thranduil," he added with a small smile. Legolas nodded. "In any case, you are correct, we should have found some sign of them by now even with the snow. I can only suppose they have found shelter of some sort."
"A shelter that we cannot find?" Legolas asked, dubiously.
"Hobbits are remarkably clever at such things. Even in the short time I traveled with them I noted their woodcraft. Still, we must find them; they do not have the ability to withstand the cold that you and I do."
"Should we separate?"
Glorfindel paused, thinking. "No, I think not," he replied after a moment. "You do not know the land as I do and for now we should stay within calling distance of one another. There is a ravine just north of here and I suggest we work our way in that direction; perhaps the hobbits sought shelter amongst the rocks or in the ravine itself."
Legolas nodded; it was as good a plan as any and without tracks or other signs of the hobbits they really had no choice. After tucking a few stray strands of his long blond hair inside his hood, he started off, keeping well to the right of Glorfindel as he ran lightly on the snow and occasionally called out the hobbits' names as he searched.
Roheryn mostly slid down the last ten yards of the snow covered slope. The horse took one little jump and a couple of hops sideways at the valley floor before coming to a stop where it promptly shook himself from head to tail, blowing and snorting. Aragorn just hung on as the horse descended and then patted Roheryn's neck and spoke low, encouraging words to him before looking around for Asfaloth. He spotted the white horse standing a little way upstream and he urged Roheryn in that direction.
"W-where are we going now, Strider?" Merry asked, his teeth chattering, before Aragorn even drew to a halt.
"Is the snow stopping?" Pippin asked, his head peeking out of Aragorn's cloak. Aragorn shook his head and then spoke when he realized that the hobbits might not be able to see him clearly in the dark. Although, the whiteness of the snow did give them a bit more light than was usual for the time of evening.
"No, it is just more protected here, but it will only grow colder as the night draws on. We need to find a place for the night."
"The night? We're spending the night out here?" Merry and Pippin asked at almost the same time.
"We can't, Frodo will be worried," said Merry, shaking his head.
It occurred to Aragorn that he did not even know why the hobbits were in the woods. He had not taken the time to ask for it mattered little at this point; what mattered was finding shelter.
"It is too far to travel at night in this storm," Aragorn replied. "Not without great need. I am sure others are out searching for you, but we must see to our own needs right now." He was sure that elves were scouring the woods for Merry and Pippin, and that Frodo, Sam, and Bilbo were frantic with worry and trying to convince Lord Elrond to allow them to join any sort of search. Aragorn was suddenly glad that he did not have to deal with those three hobbits; dealing with the cold and snow would be easier.
With a quiet word of thanks to Asfaloth, who bobbed his head and snorted, Aragorn took the lead as he searched for someplace that would give them some sort of protection for the night. Blocking the wind so they could have a fire was the most important feature of the shelter he was looking for. After a short time he dismounted and walked closer to the wall of the ravine where large boulders were scattered. Evidently the rocks had slipped down the hillside at some point in the distant past because each rock seemed to be covered with soil as small trees and bushes were growing from the tops of several of the boulders. It was a strange, almost eerie, sight. But it might also help keep the wind at bay, Aragorn thought as he looked it over.
Finding several of the large boulders grouped together near the ravine wall, Aragorn decided that it was the best shelter he was going to find under the circumstances. He had certainly used far worse during his lifetime. He whistled for Roheryn, hoping Asfaloth would follow as well. While he was not sure what Glorfindel's horse would do, it did seem to have accepted that Aragorn was leading their party. Aragorn chuckled inwardly wondering what the horse would do if it thought he was making a mistake. He turned to the hobbits as the horses arrived.
"We will use this as our shelter." Aragorn saw their eyes widen but neither hobbit said anything as he helped them off Asfaloth. "Clear a space in the corner," he pointed to the area he meant, "while I gather some wood for a fire."
"I'll help you," said Merry, shrugging out from underneath the cloak he'd been sharing with Pippin.
"Me, too," Pippin offered. Though Aragorn thought his offer was more from pride than from a real desire to look for wood.
"You stay and clear the space for the fire, Pippin. Merry, stay close to the ravine wall, that is where we will most likely find downed tree limbs." Merry nodded and headed downstream while Aragorn headed upstream in search of a few precious pieces of wood that were not too damp.
Pippin watched anxiously as Strider and Merry disappeared into the darkness beyond the boulders. With a slight shudder he turned then to clean an area for the fire but first he took off the cloak Strider had lent him; it was much too long and would only hinder him. He folded it and set it carefully in a crevice between two of the rocks. It was so good to be out of the worst of the wind and the snow, he thought as he looked for the best place to put the firepit. Though snow still fell into the sheltered area, the lack of wind made it seem much warmer.
There! That was the best place. It was not as far back as Pippin would have liked, but there was a slight cleft in the rock that would give additional protection from the wind. Glancing around for something to help him move aside the snow he found nothing and with a grimace he first kicked it aside with wide sweeping motions. It was dry and powdery and it flew wildly about and up into his face. Sighing, he crouched down and used his hands. It took longer but he was able to control it better and send it shooting away leaving a large circle behind for the fire and enough space for them to sit.
As Pippin worked he tried not to think about the horrible day and the worry he was causing Bilbo and Frodo… and Sam. But it didn't work. It was all he could think about. Going into the stables had made so much sense at the time; but now he wondered why he'd done it. Well, he knew why. If only he hadn't opened Asfaloth's stall. If only he had gotten help when the horse had snuck out. If only he hadn't chased after him. If only he had turned back. If only… That was too many 'if only's' he thought with an inward sigh, staring at the ground.
"This is a good choice."
Startled, Pippin jumped as Strider's voice came out of the darkness and interrupted him from his musings.
"O-oh, good," he stammered and not from the cold this time. He cleared his throat. "Do you think you can start a fire?" Pippin looked dubiously at the large load of wood Strider dropped near the rocks. It seemed awfully damp. Chuckling softly, Strider nodded.
"Yes. I keep dry tinder in my pack against such need," he replied, whistling for his horse. Both his horse and Asfaloth came closer and Strider spoke softly to them as he rummaged through his… saddlebag or pack. Pippin couldn't see what he was doing in the dark. Strider came back carrying a small bundle in one hand and what appeared to be a well wrapped bedroll in the other. It reminded Pippin of the cloak and he ran over to retrieve it. The man shook his head when Pippin tried to hand it back.
"Keep it for now and hold onto this." He handed him the bedroll and crouched down and carefully unwrapped the smaller bundle. Strider twisted slightly and looked into the darkness beyond the horses. "Merry is returning."
Pippin heard the faint footsteps and, after setting the bedroll and cloak aside, ran to help his cousin carry the wood. The branches weren't large but they were long, making it awkward for Merry who willingly handed Pippin half his load. The two hobbits dumped the wood near Strider's and watched as he coaxed the spark he'd struck into a tiny flame by adding small twigs he'd carried in his pack. Soon Strider had a small blaze going that reflected light off the rock, if not yet warmth.
As soon as the fire was burning steadily, Strider went and stripped the tack off his horse and set it near Merry, asking the hobbit to find the small pot he carried in his pack and set some water boiling while he tended to the horses. Pippin sat with the borrowed cloak around his shoulders and his hands clasped around his pulled up knees staring into the fire simply waiting for the questions that Strider was sure to ask as soon as he sat down. His explanation would just sound foolish to a man like Strider… and to the elves when they returned to Rivendell.
"I only have a little bit of dried meat left," said Strider as he rejoined the hobbits at the fire. "I was looking forward to a nice hot supper at home this evening and did not ration my food as wisely as I should have the last few days." He pulled a pouch from his pack and dug through it.
"I'm sorry," whispered Pippin.
"No need to apologize, Pippin," Strider said as he continued his search. "I have leaves for tea and that will warm us up. It is not as if…" he paused and looked up, giving the young hobbit a searching look. "I have forgotten to ask. What are the two of you doing out here all alone?"
Pippin glanced at Merry who gave him a reassuring smile. After taking a deep breath and then another, he began to explain.
Legolas ignored the blowing snow as he ran along the edge of the ravine. He could quite clearly hear the sound of the stream in the valley below but there had been no sign of the hobbits since the faint traces of their tracks in the clearing more than an hour ago. With a corner of his mind he thought of the three hobbits waiting in Imladris for news and he frowned. He could not imagine how Frodo would fare if they had to inform him of the death of his two young cousins.
The Ring-bearer was so burdened and the loss of Merry and Pippin would devastate him. Legolas wondered if Frodo would even be able to leave on the quest if they could not find the two missing hobbits. Perhaps someone else would have to take the Ring, though whom they could trust with such a treacherous object he did not know. He shuddered at the very idea of it. A bird chirp made him look up and Legolas realized he had slowed without noticing. He sprinted swiftly and lightly across the top of the snow to join Glorfindel hoping that the call indicated the older elf had found some sign and not that he thought they should turn back.
"Here," Glorfindel gestured at the ground showing the tracks of two horses that were only lightly covered with snow. The horses had been there less than thirty minutes before.
Glorfindel grinned, his whole face lighting up. "These are Roheryn's hoofprints. Estel's horse," he explained at Legolas's questioning look.
"Estel is… Aragorn?" Legolas asked. "I think I heard Elrohir call him Estel during breakfast one morning."
"Yes," Glorfindel laughed. "Aragorn son of Arathorn has many, many names. He has returned from scouting and only just in time it appears. He met Asfaloth here," he pointed to their separate trails, "and then they went on together toward the ravine."
"And you think he has the hobbits with him? There are no signs of the hobbits here. Perhaps Aragorn only seeks shelter for himself and the horses."
Glorfindel stared at Legolas for a moment with a look that Legolas could not interpret before slowly shaking his head. "You have much to learn of Aragorn, young Thranduilion. If Aragorn was alone he would even now be in Imladris enjoying the comforts of home. No, he seeks refuge because he must; to protect someone else from the storm."
Legolas hid his irritation. It was the second time today Glorfindel had called him young and while he was much younger than the other elf he had nearly reached his first millennium. It was true that he did not know Aragorn well. He had spent some time with him in Mirkwood when the man had brought Gollum there for safekeeping, but the two had barely spoken since they had met again in Imladris. Aragorn had departed soon after the Council meeting to scout for the Nazgul, which had left little time for idle conversation.
Having been raised in Imladris it was likely that Aragorn was different than the Men of Esgaroth and Dale that Legolas had met on his occasional visits to those towns. Certainly Elrohir and Elladan and now Glorfindel spoke highly of him. With a small nod at Glorfindel, Legolas gestured for the other elf to lead the way, deciding that until or unless events proved otherwise he would trust the older elf's opinion of Aragorn.
Smiling, but otherwise not responding to Legolas's silence, Glorfindel rose and ran through the woods, following the tracks toward the ravine. As they drew near the edge of the slope leading down to the stream they paused, listening.
"I hear voices," said Legolas, almost whispering as he looked down into the darkness.
"It is Aragorn and two hobbits," Glorfindel confirmed. "They are singing," he added with a grin.
"Singing? Yes, singing," Legolas answered his own question when he listened more closely and heard the music wrapped around the words. "What song is it? I do not recognize it." Though he knew few songs sung by mortals.
"I believe it is a Yule song. Come." Glorfindel led the way down the slope; slower now for even an elf might slip on a steep, snow covered slope in the dark. Once the reached the bottom of the ravine they made their way upstream following the sound of the singing. The snorting of Asfaloth announced their arrival to Aragorn and the two hobbits as they came around the edge of the boulder. Legolas noticed that while Merry and Pippin looked startled, Aragorn merely smiled at him and Glorfindel.
Except for a quick nod at those gathered around the fire, Glorfindel ignored them and went straight to his horse scolding it for running away and causing all this trouble. Asfaloth snorted, blowing, and shaking his head, but Legolas did not think the horse sounded the least repentant for what he had done. Legolas joined Aragorn and the hobbits at the fire.
"Well met, Legolas," Aragorn said as the elf joined him and the hobbits at the fire. "I wondered how long it would be before someone found us here. I am somewhat surprised to see you though." He took a long draw on his pipe, glancing at Merry and Pippin who were watching the elf nervously, especially Pippin.
"Why does that surprise you?" asked Legolas.
Aragorn shrugged. "You do not know Imladris well and there are others who would gladly go to track down two wayward hobbits," he replied with a fond smile at Pippin and Merry. Pippin ducked his head down, while Merry gave him a hard stare.
"Master Samwise sent me out looking for them," Legolas explained. Pippin's head shot up and his face paled. "When they were not in the garden where he sent me I went to the stables where I discovered Asfaloth was missing. Lord Glorfindel and I set out after you two when we found tracks leading into the woods." He looked closely at the two hobbits.
"We have blankets and food." Legolas took the pack from his back.
"Oh, good," Merry spoke up, "we haven't had much to eat since lunch."
"Here, Strider," Pippin stood and unwrapped the cloak from around his shoulders. "Take your cloak now. I'll take one of Mr. Legolas's blankets." He looked up then and shrank back into the shadows near the rocks as Glorfindel neared.
"Well met, Dúnadan!" Glorfindel said, with a smile.
Aragorn stood and embraced his long time friend. "Well met, indeed. It is good to be home… well, almost home," he said with a small smile. The ancient elf nodded before turning his bright blue eyes on the two hobbits.
"Master Meriadoc and Master Peregrin. You have led us on a merry chase this afternoon and I would like to know why. You are fortunate that Estel was returning and found you when he did for I am not certain that Legolas and I would have found you in time to rescue you from this cold and snow. Certainly you would have suffered quite badly from it."
Merry stirred uncomfortably in his place and glanced at Pippin from the corner of his eye. The younger hobbit was slowly wrapping the blanket Legolas had given him around his shoulders and he did not look up from what he was doing for some time. Glorfindel glanced at Aragorn but the man gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and the elf turned his gaze back to Pippin who suddenly took a deep breath. He looked up at Glorfindel.
"Well, I just was… that is I wanted…" Pippin stopped and swallowed hard. "This is going to s-sound foolish to a great elf-lord like you," he whispered.
"Master Peregrin, one thing I have learned over the long years of my life is not to judge the hearts and motives of people as either wise or foolish. It is not my place to do so. Speak freely."
Pippin studied Glorfindel for a moment and then gave him a little half bow, which looked awkward because he was still sitting on the ground.
"Well, Yule is coming and hobbits give gifts to each other. Did you know that?" Glorfindel nodded. "Usually we give them to family and close friends and there will be parties…" Pippin kept explaining the Hobbit Yule customs for quite some time.
Finally, Aragorn cleared his throat though he kept his gaze out into the darkness toward the nearby stream. He knew Pippin's story and he also knew when someone was avoiding speaking about something that was difficult.
Pippin faltered. "Oh, well, anyway. We also sometimes give gifts to thank people who've done something nice or something special for us during the year. T-that's why I went to see Asfaloth. I-I wanted to thank him for saving Frodo and I brought him some carrots and an apple." He reached inside his blanket, then dug under his cloak and finally in a pocket of his tunic he found the carrots and an apple. Several things happened then.
Asfaloth moved closer, sniffing hungrily.
Merry's eyes widened as he spoke, "You had carrots and an apple when all we had to eat was Strider's dried meat?"
Legolas blinked in surprise. "You let Asfaloth loose and chased after him into the forest so that you could thank him?" he sounded shocked at that revelation which surprised Aragorn who shared an amused glance with Glorfindel.
Asfaloth, however, was not amused and he snorted angrily. Glaring menacingly the large white horse stepped the few feet over toward the Mirkwood Prince who scrambled to his feet and backed away with his hands held up in a placating gesture. But it did no good and the horse charged at him forcing Legolas to dart around the fire and out between the rocks toward the stream. The other four at the fire were forced to their feet and back against the rocks as Asfaloth jumped the fire in his pursuit of the elf.
"Asfaloth, stop!" Glorfindel called, but there was more amusement than command in his voice.
"Why is he chasing Legolas?" asked Merry, sounding worried.
"I believe Asfaloth did not take kindly to Legolas sounding surprised that Pippin was trying to thank him," Aragorn replied, smiling. He knew the horse would not hurt Legolas even if he caught him.
"He will not hurt Legolas," Glorfindel said with a reassuring smile at the hobbit. Merry did not appear convinced and he took several steps in the direction Legolas and Asfaloth had gone. Aragorn put his hand on the hobbit's shoulder.
"Stay here, Merry," said Aragorn without looking down at the hobbit, but instead squinting into the falling snow to try and see what was happening. The glow from the fire gave just enough light for him to make out shadowy figures against the darker night. Asfaloth had slowed once they had left the fire and appeared to be stalking the elf. Legolas was slowly backing away and softly pleading with the horse.
Aragorn hid a grin. When he was nine or ten he had seen another horse of Glorfindel's do something similar to Elladan. It had impressed him so much that he had always treated every one of Glorfindel's horses with utmost respect. He shook his head and winced on behalf of Legolas when he realized what Asfaloth was doing.
Every time Legolas tried to make his escape – either left or right - Asfaloth was faster and cut him off. And every time Legolas was cut off he was driven backwards… closer to the stream. A yelp escaped from the harried elf when he stepped back into the cold water. That was what Glorfindel's horse was waiting for. The great white horse lunged forward, snorting, and butted Legolas's chest hard enough to push him off balance on the slippery rocks, and he fell backwards, his flailing arms outstretched as he tried desperately to re-gain his balance. He landed hard on his rear, sitting chest deep in the icy water. Asfaloth bobbed his head up and down, gave a loud snort, and turned and trotted back toward the fire where he joined Roheryn.
After a glance at Glorfindel, who shrugged, Aragorn picked up a blanket before trotting down to the stream where Legolas was rising from the water muttering to himself. He did not know the elf well but Aragorn imagined Legolas's reaction would be much the same as Elladan's had been – first embarrassed and then angry.
"Do you want a blanket to dry yourself?" he asked cautiously, holding out one of the blankets that Legolas himself had been carrying around all day. Snow was still coming down but Aragorn thought it might have slowed somewhat from when they had started the fire. "I will take your cloak," Aragorn added as Legolas stared at the blanket as if he had never seen such a thing before.
"Are you all right?"
Merry and Pippin ran up and grabbed the elf by the hand and began pulling him back toward the fire. It seemed to startle Legolas from his daze and he gently, but firmly pulled his hands free of the hobbits.
"Thank you," Legolas said with a slight bow toward the hobbits, "but I am quite fine. Only wet." He grimaced as he walked to the fire, his light shoes making a squishing sound with every step. Aragorn and the hobbits followed him, the hobbits with looks of concern and Aragorn smiling. But the smile quickly faded if anyone looked in his direction.
At the fire Legolas nodded in Glorfindel's general direction – the Elf-lord had resumed his seat – and then removed his cloak, folding it neatly and setting it down. He stood there, with drops of water falling from his clothes and striking the rocks closest to the fire with a soft hiss, and frowned down at himself. Aragorn stepped forward, once again holding out the blanket.
Legolas was appalled. Not only had Asfaloth charged him, it had forced him into the stream for simply speaking his thoughts aloud. He was now thoroughly miserable. His leggings, shirt, and tunic clung to him and water rolled down his body in little rivulets. But he was not particularly cold. Though their little camp was somewhat protected from the elements, the blowing wind and falling snow would last most of the night and so even with the fire he was not likely to be dry anytime soon. Sighing inwardly, he removed his cloak and set it down. Legolas frowned as he looked down at his clothes wishing he had a spare set in his pack. A blanket was thrust into view.
"Dry yourself off, Legolas," said Aragorn.
"Thank you," Legolas said as he took the blanket and began wiping his face and his long hair. He was only half aware of the hobbits as they sat down opposite him across the fire and as Glorfindel handed them some of the food from Imladris. After brushing futilely at his clothes to try and whisk some of the worst of the water away Legolas gave up and decided it was best to keep the blanket as dry as possible. Merry or Pippin might need it later. He looked at Aragorn when the man spoke to him in a low voice, almost a whisper. Certainly the hobbits did not appear to have heard Aragorn speaking.
"Legolas. Legolas, I have a spare set of clothing that you are welcome to wear." Aragorn cleared his throat and shifted on his feet and Legolas eyed him thoughtfully for he seemed uncomfortable. "The leggings would be a little long for you," he continued, "but you would not have to wear them for long." The elf looked him up and down. It was true that Aragorn was several inches taller than him, but he was also much more muscular and Legolas knew any clothes he borrowed would hang off him. Still, dry clothes would make for a much more comfortable night and he opened his mouth to accept the kind offer. It seemed Glorfindel and the Sons of Elrond were right, Aragorn was a man worth knowing. Aragorn put up a hand and Legolas blinked in surprise, almost biting his tongue as he stopped himself from speaking.
"However," Aragorn said, shifting on his feet again and running his hand through his long, dark hair, "I must tell you that these clothes are… well, I have worn them and they have not yet been cleaned. Not since I left here. But you would at least be dry," he said, taking a small step back and shrugging at the same time.
Legolas blinked again. He tried not to show the revulsion he felt at the very idea of wearing what he could only imagine were filthy, stinking clothes. Much like the ones Aragorn was wearing now, he thought to himself. But he wondered how he could refuse without offending the man who was destined to be a king. A quiet chuckle reached his ears and he looked at Aragorn and saw both amusement and understanding in his grey eyes and Legolas remembered where the man had been raised.
"You will not offend me by not accepting my offer, Prince of Mirkwood. I have elven brothers and I doubt they would accept such an offer from me, but I felt I must in all honor make it. I would not have you wet and miserable when I have the means to relieve it."
"I… well, thank you," said Legolas, studying the man for a long moment. Glancing down at his wet tunic, he pulled it out away from his stomach and he grimaced at the slurping sound it made. Perhaps being dry outweighed the horror of wearing Aragorn's clothes. It would only be for a few hours and he could endure anything for that long. He looked around for some place to change that would give him some semblance of privacy but there was nothing nearby and he did not want to stray too far from the fire. Edging between the rocks would have to suffice.
"Thank you," Legolas said again, "I would like to borrow your clothes." He smiled briefly. "Being dry outweighs any other… considerations."
Aragorn snorted softly and turned to get his saddlebags. He pulled out a pair of well worn leggings and tossed them to Legolas. A dark green tunic and lighter green shirt quickly appeared from the depths of the saddlebag and Aragorn shook those items out before handing them to the elf.
The three items were as dirty as Legolas had feared but he said nothing, simply inclined his head with a quiet word of thanks before moving toward the large boulders. The elf removed his clothing as quickly as possible and with a grimace he pulled on the borrowed clothing. He rolled up the leggings a couple of inches on each leg and also the sleeves. He had to adjust his belt several times to make sure the leggings stayed up but eventually he fixed it to his liking and he returned to the fire where Aragorn had joined the others and was now eating.
"You should speak to Asfaloth before you sit down," said Glorfindel as Legolas returned to the fire.
"He might hurt Legolas again," Merry immediately protested.
"I'm going with him," said Pippin, shrugging out from under his blanket and shooting to his feet. "I still have these to give him." He held out the apple and carrots.
Aragorn glanced over at the horses. Asfaloth was looking downstream but his tail was flicking side to side rather vigorously and he thought that Glorfindel was probably right. The horse that Elladan had offended had never forgiven him and Elladan had had to be wary whenever he entered the stables from that point until the horse died many years later. Asfaloth seemed smarter and larger than the one Aragorn remembered from his childhood and he would not want the horse angry with him. Legolas apparently agreed as he and Pippin walked over to the horse.
Asfaloth turned his great head and stared hard at Legolas who spoke soft words that Aragorn could not hear with the wind still swirling around them. He turned at Glorfindel's touch on his arm.
"Get some sleep, Estel. Legolas and I will keep watch tonight." The Elf-Lord looked Aragorn over with concern.
"In a moment. I want to make sure that Merry and Pippin are asleep first." He glanced at Merry from the corner of his eye but the hobbit was watching Legolas and Pippin.
"Do you not trust me with them?" asked Glorfindel, his eyebrow rising questioningly. Aragorn just looked at him and the elf smiled. There was a brief pause and then Glorfindel lowered his voice and asked,
"Did you see anything of the Nine?"
Aragorn shook his head. "No, not a trace. Have any of the other scouts returned?"
"Yes, but none have seen any sign of them. Elladan and Elrohir are the only ones still searching now that you have returned."
"They had a long journey," said Aragorn and turned his attention back to Legolas, Pippin, and Asfaloth. He did not want to discuss the Nazgul and his journey in front of Merry and Pippin. He would keep some things from them. At least for now.
Whatever Legolas had said to Asfaloth was successful because he and Pippin soon rejoined them at the fire. Pippin launched into an explanation for Merry's sake and Aragorn listened to him with a half smile on his face.
"Come, Master Peregrin, Master Meriadoc, it is time for you to get at least a few hours sleep now," Glorfindel said. He glanced briefly at Aragorn who gave a small, resigned sigh. He would ever be a child in the eyes of the ancient elf… to all elves, he amended wryly. Aragorn bid the others good night as he pulled his cloak more closely around his shoulders; he then laid down right where he was sitting and fell almost immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Legolas set another few pieces of wood on the small pile near the fire. There should be enough now to last the remaining few hours of darkness. The snow and wind had stopped. However, with the clouds clearing off the temperature had dropped. He poked at the fire and added another log before sitting down next to Glorfindel. The Elf-lord was staring up at the stars and had been for some time.
"Eärendil shines bright this morning," said Glorfindel, breaking the stillness that had fallen. The ship that Eärendil sailed across the night skies seemed to almost be touching the earth.
"Yes." Legolas stared intently at the bright star that hung low in the eastern sky but he hesitated for a moment before speaking. There were questions he had pondered during the long watches of the night as he sat, night after night, in the trees of Mirkwood waiting for orcs to appear. "You knew Eärendil?" he finally asked.
Glorfindel smiled, his eyes reflecting both joy and remembered pain. "Yes. As an elfling in Gondolin and then I met him again in Aman after I was reborn."
"It…it is hard for me to imagine," Legolas confessed.
"Which part?" the older elf asked with a slight smile.
"Both. That you lived in Gondolin and that you died and have been reborn." He looked away, embarrassed by how that sounded. Something about Glorfindel made him act like an elfling himself, he thought with an inward sigh.
"Being reborn was not something I ever imagined either," Glorfindel said with a quiet laugh. "I do not recommend it. Although, I learned many things and made friendships that I treasure deeply that would not have occurred had I not spent time in the Halls of Mandos with Lord Námo." Again Glorfindel's eyes reflected something that Legolas could not fathom and he was not sure he wanted to know about that particular time of the Elf-lord's… life. He asked a slightly different question instead.
"Will you tell me what Gondolin was like?"
Glorfindel nodded and for the next few hours - until Aragorn and the hobbits awoke a little before the sun rose, he shared his memories of the once glorious city of Gondolin.
Aragorn tied the last strap and then tugged on the saddle to make sure it was secure. After a sweeping glance around the camp to make sure he had left nothing behind, he mounted Roheryn in one easy motion. He held his hand down for Merry and, letting the hobbit use his stirrup for leverage, he pulled the hobbit up behind him.
"Are you comfortable?" Aragorn asked the hobbit after he seemed to have settled.
"I'm all right," he replied. "I don't think I'll ever be comfortable on a horse," he added in a whisper.
"Perhaps not," Aragorn replied, not bothering to hide his smile since the hobbit could not see it.
"How long will it take to get back?"
"A couple of hours; longer if there are snowdrifts on the trail."
"Oh. I thought it would be quicker with the horses. Frodo and Bilbo will be so worried."
"As will the rest of Lord Elrond's household," Aragorn said as he pulled Roheryn around and rode over to join their three companions. He heard Merry sigh. Pippin was riding on Asfaloth in front of Glorfindel while Legolas would walk. Pippin looked as subdued as Aragorn had ever seen him and he could only guess that the hobbit was concerned about the upcoming reunion with his older cousins.
"We will follow you and Asfaloth," Aragorn said to Glorfindel. "He seems to know his way around here very well," he continued, gesturing to the white horse.
Asfaloth preened, arching his long neck and pawing at the ground. Glorfindel shook his head and looked at Aragorn, his eyes filled with dismay. Aragorn shrugged. It was the truth whether it added to the horse's proud demeanor or not.
"Very well," Glorfindel said with a note of resignation in his voice as he urged Asfaloth forward. Aragorn exchanged a grin with Legolas before following the Elf-lord.
The journey to Imladris did not take as long as Aragorn had feared. They had been traveling a little less than two hours when they drew within sight of the outer buildings. Merry and Pippin ceased their quiet chatter. He felt a twinge of sympathy for the two young hobbits and the scolding they were likely to receive. But, at the same time, Aragorn hoped they would never again run off as they had. A loud cry from the stables announced to Imladris that the lost ones had been found.
The small party entered the stable yard where grooms met them and eagerly took charge of Roheryn, promising Aragorn to clean him thoroughly and to feed him the very best grains. The elves were a little more hesitant to take Asfaloth from Glorfindel, but Rochthros finally approached and the white horse allowed himself to be led away. By that time, people from the main house were arriving and Aragorn stood with Legolas off to one side and watched the reunions.
"Merry! Pippin!" Frodo called as he raced into the stable yard with Sam on his heels. Bilbo hobbled along much more slowly behind them, leaning heavily on his cane. Frodo caught Pippin up in a crushing embrace and then pulled Merry into his arms as well. Sam stood beside the three hobbits occasionally glancing back to check on Bilbo.
"Are you all right?" asked Frodo, fear evident in his voice. He pushed aside the blankets Merry and Pippin had wrapped around themselves and looked them over.
"We're fine," said Merry, patting Frodo on his shoulder and smiling brightly. "No need to worry."
Sam snorted and Frodo narrowed his eyes but before he could say anything, Bilbo arrived.
"Where have you two young rascals been?" Bilbo demanded, his eyes flashing angrily and one clenched hand on his hip. "You can't just leave without telling someone where you're going. You could've been hurt… you could've died. And worse, others could've been hurt while out looking for you." It was quiet for a very brief moment and then he again demanded. "Well, speak up lads; where were you and why did you run off?"
"Well," Pippin began, fidgeting from side to side. "We camped last night with Strider and Legolas and…"
"With me," Glorfindel interrupted smoothly and with a half bow to Bilbo. "Master Meriadoc and Master Peregrin found Asfaloth before Legolas and I were able to find them. Really, I believe it was their quick thinking that saved his life," he explained. "And I am deeply grateful to them," the Elf-lord continued, smiling.
Aragorn glanced at Legolas from the corner of his eye and it was all he could do to keep from laughing out loud upon seeing the expression of confusion on the elf's face. Bilbo and the rest of the hobbits had very similar expressions but Glorfindel continued his tale.
"They gave Asfaloth food they carried with them and a nearby stream provided water."
"Why were you in the woods in the first place?" Frodo asked after a moment.
"I saw Asfaloth run into the woods and I didn't think he was supposed to be there… so I chased him. I shouldn't have," Pippin said, "but I-I just had to."
Frodo turned to Merry who had a somewhat dazed expression. "And, you? Why were you in the woods?"
"Me? I was chasing Pippin. I saw him run into the woods and I couldn't let him go alone, not after…" his voice trailed off and all the hobbits and several elves nodded.
"Mr. Frodo, sir?" Sam spoke up then. "Hadn't we better go inside and get them warmed up? They look awfully cold, Mr. Frodo."
Frodo and Bilbo both nodded.
"Sam's right," Frodo said. "Come in and get warm. We'll have something hot to drink and lunch isn't too far away now so maybe we can get you something hot to eat…"
"It is even now being sent to your chambers, Master Frodo," said Elrond who had arrived while Glorfindel was speaking. Arwen was with him, her hand resting on his arm. "I have also arranged for hot baths to be drawn for you," Elrond continued with a sidelong glance at Merry and Pippin. Wide smiles appeared on the faces of the youngest hobbits as they thanked Elrond. They began slowly edging away from the others and finally Elrond reminded them that hot water cooled quickly and all five hobbits made for the house. Elrond looked inquiringly at Glorfindel.
"The young hobbits saved Asfaloth's life?" Elrond asked. "I would like to hear the full story behind their remarkably brave feat." Glorfindel shrugged and a smile briefly appeared on Elrond's lips before he turned to Aragorn.
"Welcome home, my son," he said, releasing Arwen and embracing Aragorn.
"It is good to be home, Adar," Aragorn replied before turning to Arwen. He took his betrothed's hand, bringing it to his lips and kissing it. "My lady," he murmured as he gently squeezed her hand before stepping back, though his eyes never left hers. Oh, how he wished they were in a less public place right now. Perhaps they would have a chance to speak later in the day. The sound of a throat being cleared caught his attention and he shifted his gaze back to Elrond who was watching him, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
"Forgive me, Adar, I was… thinking of my… well, thinking of other things," he explained. A soft snort came from both Glorfindel and Legolas and Aragorn glared at them.
"Yes… other things," said Elrond, glancing at Arwen. "I was asking about your journey but perhaps you should also have a chance to clean up." He looked the man up and down and then looked at Legolas. "And you as well, Prince Legolas," he said shaking his head. "Go," he said, gesturing toward the house. "Glorfindel is going to tell me and Arwen the true story of the last day."
After a quiet word with Arwen to make arrangements to meet later, Aragorn headed to the house with Legolas at his side. He waited until they were well out of hearing range of Elrond and Glorfindel before speaking.
"Legolas, I have lived a long life for a man. I am Chieftain of the Dúnedain and Heir to the throne of Gondor. Yet, my father can have me feeling like a child in a matter of minutes," he said with a wry smile.
"It is the same with my father," replied Legolas with a smile of his own. "And my mother can bring me or any one of my brothers or sisters to the same state even faster than my father can," the elf continued. Aragorn chuckled.
Crossing the courtyard that fronted the house, Aragorn noticed it was in the process of being decorated for Yule. Branches with bright red berries were being hung by elves and large logs were being placed in the firepit that was off to one side of the courtyard. A flood of childhood memories came rushing into his mind and he sighed softly,
"It is good to be home."