This is the end. This story has taken years to write and I can never thank you enough for joining me on the long journey. It means a lot to me.
Today it turns five years since the day I took on this penname and posted my very first story. I thought that posting this last chapter would be a nice way to celebrate :-) Enjoy!
Chapter 21: A Long-expected Party
His voice was shaking now, and he barely felt the gentle hand on his back. "Please, come back, my friend! Come back! You have saved me so many times. Save me one more time. Save me from myself."
"Saving you from yourself, Aragorn, is no doubt harder than saving you from shadows and dragons. But I shall do my best."
Aragorn froze, at first unsure if he had gone mad and had started to hallucinate. And then, he became aware for the first time that the hand on his back did not belong to Arwen. He turned slowly, shaking, afraid to blink, afraid that the vision before his eyes would dissolve and never come back again.
The elf frowned in worry as all blood drained from his friend's face and knelt in front of the man, placing his hands on Aragorn's shoulders. "Legolas?" the man whispered, his eyes wide.
Legolas smiled gently, one of those rare smiles reserved only for his friend, and his grip on the man's shoulders tightened. "Yes, I am here. I have not sailed, and since I am now free of this ridiculous promise, I have no intentions of doing it any time soon."
Aragorn mutely raised his hand, reverently touching the vision in front of him, the face, the hair, trying to convince himself that what he was seeing was real. Legolas patiently waited for him to finish, but his smile broadened.
"Satisfied?" the elf asked, eyebrow raised.
Aragorn tried to reply, but his breath hitched in his throat. Quickly, Legolas pulled him forward into a tight embrace. "How?" the man breathed against his friend's shoulder.
The elf held his friend for a while longer and then gently pulled back, looking him in the eyes. "I am so sorry, Estel. This was cruel, and I wished to end it much earlier, but you needed to learn your lesson."
"My… lesson?" Aragorn stared at him, uncomprehending.
Legolas sighed and there was a look of guilt upon his face. "After last time we talked, I had almost given up. I thought that you could not be dissuaded and I had decided to stop trying and sail. But then I learned how Faramir had found you, and-"
"He promised not to tell!" Aragorn muttered in shock, and the elf grinned.
"He promised not to tell me. He said nothing about not telling Gimli. And Gimli had made no promises about not telling me. And so I learned everything, and Faramir kept his word. This is how I learned that you had began to have doubts about your decision… and that you were not taking this well. My first wish was to go and talk to you again, but Arwen stopped me."
"Arwen? She was a part of this as well?"
"Yes," the elf replied cheerfully. "Arwen, Faramir, Gimli, and I held a council and decided that it would do no good to try to talk sense into you. We had already stated all of our arguments, but you had stubbornly refused to listen. This is why we decided that we would stop arguing with you and should leave you time to think, while making subtle hints about how bad your idea is."
"Yes. Such as Eldarion's drawing of our big family," Legolas said happily.
Aragorn was stunned. "Eldarion…"
"…was a part of the conspiracy," finished the elf with a smirk. "As were the hobbits, and they played their parts very well. But here comes the cruel part." He sighed. "We could not leave you ponder over the idea for a year. It would have done you no good. This is why Arwen suggested that you needed a little pressure."
Aragorn leaned tiredly against the railing and stared at his friend in shock. "This was her idea?"
"Initially yes, but then we discussed it and agreed that it was for the best. If you thought that I was sailing, you would be forced to make your choice fast. Moreover, if you believed that I have already sailed, you would have seen that this was not what you wanted. You would have seen how bad this idea has always been."
Legolas stared at his friend worriedly. The man had turned away, his face a mixture of shock and confusion. "I am sorry, my friend. I know that this hurt you, and it was hard for me to see this through and not reveal myself earlier. But you must understand – if we had allowed you to force me to sail forever, you would have been hurt much worse."
The man was silent, breathing hard, and his gaze was fixed on the shore. The elf sighed and tried again. "This was for your own good… and mine, and everyone else's. Aragorn, please say something!"
"You," the king muttered shakily, "and Arwen. And Gimli and Faramir. And the hobbits, and Eldarion, and even Hirvegil and the rest of the elves on the shore… you all conspired against me… you all manipulated me into making my choice soon?" There was no anger in Aragorn's voice, only sadness, and this disturbed the elf even more.
Legolas swallowed hard. "Estel I… we never… we did not mean it like this. We only…"
Suddenly, the man started laughing. Legolas stared confused, not sure what to believe. Aragorn's laughter quickly subsided as it put stress on his still healing wounds and he gave his friend an apologetic glance.
"I am sorry, mellon nín, it is just that… what a fool I must be if everyone else saw the truth, and I could not!"
The elf smiled gently, placed his hands on the back of his friend's head and pulled him forward, until their foreheads touched. "Yes, you were a fool," he admitted. "I know you did it only to protect me, but you must learn, Aragorn, that you cannot protect us all. And you cannot decide instead of us what is best for us."
"Yes, I know it now," said the man as he pulled back. "But there is still much that I do not understand. Was there an elven ship sailing at all? And how-?"
"Let us start from the beginning, then," said Legolas. "We were still in Shapkar, still discussing our best course of action. I was strictly forbidden to speak to you or to show any interest in talking to you at all. We decided that no more words could change your mind now, and if we talked again, it had to be started by you. And we already knew from what Faramir told Gimli that you would not call for me, unless you had made your decision to release me from the oath. We doubted that you would do it so quickly and easily, but I never stopped hoping. I never wanted to come to this and to cause you more pain."
The elf sighed. "But it was hard, Estel. And it was especially hard on the journey home. I knew that you were alone in the cart, in pain and probably heartache, and I wanted nothing more than to join you and travel with you, but we had decided that I should not speak to you. I could not even look at you to see if you were faring well; or at least not while you were awake."
"I spotted you in the crowd once," Aragorn remembered. "Gimli noticed me and said something to you, but you did not look back."
The elf smiled. "Ah yes, he told me that you were looking our way and I should take care not to look back. You see, I had been stealing glances at your cart way more often than what our small council deemed safe."
Aragorn was stunned by the revelation. In the past days everything had been the opposite of what it had seemed!
"Yes, there was an elven ship leaving these shores, and this is how I got the idea. The elves had been planning to leave for months now, and I had already said my goodbyes to them. Only, they left two days ago and not today. Hirvegil and the rest were not there to see them off, but to meet you. I fear, my friend, that this was indeed a conspiracy of unseen proportions," he added with a smile. "And, as you might have guessed, I did not ride here this morning, as the hobbits claimed. I never left Minas Tirith until you did, and I was on this ship throughout the journey."
"Gimli is still in Minas Tirith, safely hidden from your view."
Aragorn needed a moment to process it all. "Tell me something, my friend," he said at length. "What would have happened if I had not passed the test? If I had been told of your departure and had remained in Minas Tirith, never trying to stop you? Would you have sailed on the next ship?"
The elf smiled gently. "Never. I would not have given up so easily, Estel. I almost did for a moment, but it quickly passed. I would have stayed and fought and come up with other plans, until you finally released me from that oath. But the truth is," he admitted softly, "that I was sure you would follow me."
Aragorn smiled. "Thank you. But as I have released you from one promise, I would ask you to make another one. I would be very grateful if you could built your ship, the one you will sail with when… when the time has come, and show it to me. It would greatly ease my heart."
"If this is your wish, I will do it," said the elf. "Any other promises you are hoping to extract from me?" As the man shook his head, he smiled broadly. "This nightmare is over then. We faced such horrors, my friend. We faced an ancient dragon, the shadows of my mind, and your own selfless stubbornness, the greatest foe of all! And we triumphed over them all." Legolas's eyes glistened and his voice shook. "We made it, Aragorn. It is truly over."
"Where is the cake?"
Arwen sighed. The finest dishes were laid out before them – chicken stuffed with chestnuts and onions, beef baked with carrots and leeks, lamb in garlic-herb crust, stewed rabbit, mushrooms stuffed with cheese, meat pies, baked stuffed potatoes, vegetable soup, various kinds of fish brought all the way from Dol Amroth… but her son had hardly touched anything, eagerly waiting for the dessert to be served.
The great hall was full, honoured guest from all over the land coming together to celebrate the Prince's tenth birthday. "Sweet things come at the end, after you are done with your dinner," the Queen said patiently, but the child did not look appeased.
"Is the cake big?" Pippin chimed in. He was seated at the King's table, together with the Steward and the chief councilors, their families, and the remaining members of the Fellowship.
Arwen glared at him. "You are not helping," she whispered, but the hobbit only shrugged and resumed his eating.
"At least the boy has appetite for something," he muttered under his breath. "No danger of losing weight, like his father!"
"Exactly!" Merry agreed immediately. "I still cannot see how Strider lost so much weight with all the good food around!"
At his words, Legolas was assaulted by a sudden bout of laughter that nearly made him spit out his food, but thankfully managed to regain control over himself in time. As he calmed down, the elf noticed that Sam was glaring at him.
"If you pardon me saying so, Mr. Legolas, but this is partially your fault. Mr. Strider was always well-fed while he was in our company, but now we cannot be with him often, and you can, and-"
"Peace, my good Samwise!" Legolas raised his palm, laughing, and then pressed his hand against his heart. "I give you my solemn oath that from today on I will make sure that the King is always well-fed. Satisfied?"
Sam gave him a dubious glance, but then nodded. Legolas turned to his left to share his mirth with Gimli, only to discover that the dwarf was giving him a curious look. "What is it, my friend?"
Gimli hesitated. "Well, Legolas I have wanted to tell you something for a long time, but little details like dragons and shadows kept getting in my way. Perhaps it is time to speak now."
The elf frowned. Admittedly, he was curious, but there was something disturbingly smug in his friend's expression. "I am listening," he prompted.
Gimli's dark eyes sparkled with mischievous light. "I know not if you have already guessed how Aragorn learned that you were going to become dragon food and knew to follow you, but-"
"Oh, but I know," interrupted the elf. "When he found me in the cave, I asked him, and Aragorn mentioned something about an angel sent by the Valar telling him."
"An angel!" Gimli cried incredulously. All smugness was gone from his face, replaced by anger. "What angel! It was me! I was the one who told Aragorn, and not some-" he suddenly stopped up short, seeing the laughter in Legolas's eyes, and understanding suddenly lit his features. "Oh. I was the angel? Aragorn meant that I was the angel?" The look on the dwarf's face was priceless, as well as the deep red shade of his cheeks. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Well, that man must have surely been delirious from the heavy air in the cave. Good thing we got him out of there before he had spoken any more madness! I need to have a talk to him!"
"So do I," said Legolas suddenly, but then his mind went back to the matter at hand. "But you had started telling me something."
"Ah, yes!" The smugness returned and the elf briefly wondered if it had been indeed a good idea to remind Gimli of his initial train of thought. "And do you know how I knew what you were up to?" The dwarf asked, voice sweet as honey.
"I have a feeling you are going to tell me soon," Legolas murmured resignedly.
Gimli beamed. "I know because I followed you! I followed you when you left with that guard, and I was just outside the room while you were speaking to Dolen. And you never sensed me! You never heard me!"
The elf was stunned. He must have been indeed distraught to fail to hear the dwarf's approach. But as much as he was unwilling to admit his failure, the pure joy and triumph on his friend's face warmed his heart. "I admit my defeat," he said softly, and the smile on Gimli's face was a balm to his badly stung pride.
To his shock, the dwarf's eyes suddenly filled with tears. "What is it?" he asked. "Are there many flies here in Minas Tirith too? This late in autumn?"
Gimli shook his head. "No, laddie… it is only that-" he reached for his goblet of wine but seemed to have a hard time swallowing around the lump in his throat. "When I managed to spy on you, I could not wait to tell you. And then- then I believed I would never have the chance to tell you this. I believed I would never speak to you again."
Legolas smiled gently and grasped his friend's forearm. "I know, Gimli," he said, tears stinging his own eyes. "I know. But I am here now, thanks to you."
"Hmmpf!" The dwarf stared hard at his friend. "We all know that you could never survive long without me watching your every step. Now stop with that teary-eyed elvish nonsense and enjoy your feast!"
Legolas laughed, a strange sense of relief enveloping him in a warm embrace. Some things would never change.
The feast was over and Legolas had gone to the gardens to enjoy some peace and fresh air. For a moment he considered going to see to the horses, but quickly gave up the idea. He was in no mood to endure Arod's I-told-you-so stare, and he hated to admit it, but the horse had been right all along – his trip to Minas Tirith had indeed turned into a disaster although it had been neither his fault, nor Aragorn's.
The thought of his friend made him look up, to the window which he knew led to the royal chambers. A candle was still flickering, which meant that the man had not yet gone to bed. Good. There was one more thing to do this night. Something he had postponed for far too long.
On his way he stopped by the kitchens and peeked inside. Immediately he spied a large cauldron of warm stew, prepared from the leftovers of the feast, and poured a bowl.
The food was still warm as he reached his destination, much to his delight. His knock was answered immediately and he entered the cozy living room, which led to the royal bedchamber. Aragorn was seated in an armchair in front of the fireplace and the Queen was nowhere in sight. The man's face brightened up as he saw his visitor, and Legolas hesitated at the joy and trust he saw in his friend's eyes. Ah, he hated to break the peace, but what had to be done, had to be done.
He pulled a chair and seated himself in front of Aragorn. "Hungry?" he asked, gesturing at the bowl. "I gave Sam an oath that I would keep you well fed."
Aragorn laughed. "You have been giving too many oaths lately, Legolas. More than what I would consider healthy. Thank you, but I fear that after this feast my stomach will burst if I eat anything else."
"You would not even do this simple thing to help me fulfill my oath and keep my honour!" Legolas placed the bowl on a low table with an overdramatic sigh, but then his eyes turned serious once again. "And yet, you barely ate anything at the feast. I saw you. Your road to recovery is only beginning."
The King smiled. "This may be so, but I am traveling fast. And I have to admit, my choice to free you of this promise has helped a lot. I feel much better already."
"I am glad to hear that." The elf's gentle smile slowly widened, suddenly turning into an almost malicious grin. "Yes, very, very glad." Ah, in a moment his friend would wish he had left him sail!
"Legolas?" There was worry in the man's eyes now, but he was not worried far enough.
"Since you are feeling better," said the elf cheerfully, "I believe it is time for us to have our talk." He watched with a mixture of guilt and grim satisfaction as his friend's face turned white as a sheet.
"Do not try to play the innocent, my friend," Legolas said, still grinning. "It suits you poorly. You know well of what I speak. I speak of your harebrained idea to kill a dragon by making her bite you, while leaving me alone and worried sick, with no hint of what you are about to do, with only your pipe for solace and company. We should have had this talk right away, but I agreed to postpone it until you felt better. Well, you just claimed you felt better now."
Aragorn's eyes turned to his hands, folded in his lap. "I hoped you had forgotten."
"Elves never forget, Estel."
"But they forgive I hope?"
"How can I forgive you, mellon nín?" Legolas's triumphant grin faded away, replaced by a gentle smile, as he echoed the words he had spoken in the land of shadows. "When I have never been angry with you."
-:- The End -:-