Disclaimer: I do not own the genius that is Lord of the Rings.

Summary: When it is darkest, a man helps an elf prince see the stars.

Rated: K

A/N: This is my first post in over a year in the Lord of the Rings fandom, so I hope that everyone enjoys the story which managed to spark my long-absent muse. For anyone waiting on the next chapter of my story 'Games People Play,' I haven't forgotten about it and am hoping to post in the next few weeks. Sorry for the (very long) delay!

Of Rocks and Hard Places

As night threw her cloak over the fields and forests of Middle Earth, the waning light of a sickle moon broke upon the regal rock walls of the Mines of Moria, sending shadows racing like quicksilver across the still expanse of water that dwelt at the foot of the cavernous, weather-beaten cliffs. Wild roots gleamed white as bone as they twisted round the ancient rock, and trickles of dirt shifted restlessly on gnarled ledges, struggling to avoid the long fall to the valley floor below, where sharp stones and rough boulders together made for a pitiless landing.

On the small crack of land which separated the vast lake from the foot of the towering cliffs stood eight figures of varying builds, hidden from searching eyes by the great drop that stretched above them, making each all but invisible to the keen eyes of the night owl which soared above them, searching for his next meal under the hoary cast of the moon.

In front of the small company, seemingly etched into the cliff itself, was a large archway of interlaced silver veins which glowed whenever the light of the moon or stars flickered over them. To either side of the arch rose two great trees; their leaves, so a dark a green as to be almost black, contrasting sharply with the bright red berries that decorated several branches, their vast roots delving deep into the gravelly earth at their feet.

It was under the southernmost of these trees that a ninth figure could be seen, an elf, whose slender form blended seamlessly with his surrounds as he balanced with precarious ease on the wide roots stemming from the tree's thick trunk. He sat alone, separate from the milling bodies of his companions as they waited restively for the wizard, Gandalf, to seek out the secrets of the hidden door which protected the mines from intruders, and so allow them passage to the next stage of their arduous journey.

The elf's face was porcelain in the eerie glow which fell from the night sky as the moon struggled to shed her light into the dark places beneath the surface of Middle Earth. Strangely, where it was coated in shadows, an odd gleam seemed to echo from the pale skin itself, casting its own shimmer that permeated some way at least through the blanketing dark. The sheet of hair which trailed down the elf's back shone silver also, imbuing the elf with an appearance even less human than usual, and revealing him to all as one of the Firstborn, a race who had lived in Middle-earth for centuries that stretched far beyond those of Man.

To the majority of his companions, the elf seemed distant that night, more so than ever before, his thoughts focused on matters as deep as the very valley in which they lingered. To a certain dark-haired ranger, however, who could read the elf prince as easily as a piece of parchment, it was clear that the thoughts plaguing the sharp elven mind were not as strange as one might think, though that did not make them any less a cause for concern.

Aragorn, son of Arathorn, had watched his friend carefully since the decision had first been made to take the path that led underneath the mountains, well aware of the distaste shared by many of the Firstborn for those places where sunlight and starlight did not stray, and plants could not grow. For Legolas especially, the dark places of Middle Earth were a source of fear.

With footsteps that were quiet despite the gravel-strewn sand beneath them, Aragorn closed the short distance separating him from his friend, leaving the hobbits and Boromir gathered around Gandalf and Gimli. Reaching the roots of the holly tree that housed the elf, he leant back, his shoulders level with the elf's soft boots, and let the knotted wood sink into the crooks of his back, kneading the tired muscles there. Still silent, he let his gaze travel across his companion, and found himself almost able to feel the uneasiness that reached all the way down through the elf's slender body to his booted feet. Beneath the elf's calm visage, the pale features were drawn tight.

Knowing all to well that the elf would refuse to speak of his troubles, Aragorn deliberately let his head tilt back so he was looking at the strip of night sky that was just visible above the soaring grey walls of the mines.

"En," he murmured, slipping into the language of Legolas' people. At the soft sound of the Grey tongue, the encroaching shadows seemed to pull back ever so slightly, letting a ray of moonlight stream down onto the lake before them, breaking the dark surface for the first time that night before merging with the stagnant water.

Beside him, the elf mirrored his movements until two pairs of eyes, one a curious silver-grey, the other a blue which gleamed in the moonlight, were focused on a tiny golden speck that shone brightly in the velvet-black sky, surrounded by a soft, misty glow.

To Aragorn's disappointment, however, it was not long before the elf dropped his head so he was once more looking at the stone walls that surrounded them like a cavernous cage. With a veiled sigh, Aragorn dropped his gaze as well, yet rather than allowing himself to dwell on the imposing cliffs, he focused instead on the other members of the fellowship who were standing grouped in a loose half-circle a few feet away.

The wizard, Gandalf, stood at the front of the small crowd, murmuring low under his breath in tongues too numerous to name, occasionally reaching forward with his wooden staff to rap against the solid rock. The dwarf, Gimli, stood at the Istar's elbow, offering grunted words of advice that became more and more abrupt the longer the walls denied them entry to his cousin's realm. Every so often, he too took a step forward and pressed the rough palm of his hand against the cool surface of the rock, his ear to the wall as though listening for an answer from the silent stone.

The Gondorian, Boromir, stood to one side of the company, his back to the rest of the fellowship as he surveyed the still waters which stretched away from the cliffs, eventually disappearing into inky blackness. He had relinquished his round shield for once, and it rested on the ground against his left leg, making for easy access if required. The Man's fine shoulder-length hair swayed in the occasional stray breeze which had crept down into the deep valley sometime during the early hours of the evening, casting gentle ripples across the tranquil lake and brushing the warrior's hair past his carven face as he stared at the stagnant lake, focused on what lay either beyond or beneath it, Aragorn could not tell. Every so often, however, the warrior's gaze would creep to where the four hobbits stood gathered in a small huddle not far away.

A faint smile crept about Aragorn's lips as he watched the undersized creatures as they bustled about. Frodo and the two curly-headed cousins had surrounded Sam, and were no doubt comforting the disconsolate gardener about the loss of the pony, Bill. The ranger did not need to make much of an effort to hear their high voices, hushed though they were, and Aragorn's smile grew as Merry and Pippin together wove a tale of the pony's triumphant return to Rivendell, a journey which, whilst fraught with danger, made the small pony a hero amongst his kind.

Restless movement from the elf next to him abruptly brought Aragorn's mind back to the problem at hand. The elf had shifted so that he was looking up at the night sky once more, his eyes shining with a strange blue sheen when they caught the light of the moon.

Deciding that drastic measures had to be taken if he wished to distract the elf from the impending journey into the dark of Moria, Aragorn reached into his pocket and drew out his pipe, and a handful of pipeweed he had spent the past few days gathering from the hobbits and Gimli. He himself had run out some days ago. Each of his fellows alone had been reluctant to give up more than the slightest portion of their carefully preserved pipeweed, so he had been forced to collect a tiny bit from each of them in order to accumulate enough for one good smoke. And now, he thought, was as good a time as any to use his painstakingly-collected store.

Aragorn kept one eye on the elf as he packed the low wooden bowl, watching for the reaction that usually came within minutes of him withdrawing the pipe from his pocket. Sure enough, Legolas' mouth twisted as he turned his head to watch the ranger, his curiously dark brows drawing together over narrowed eyes that, for the first time in a long time, were not focused on the surrounding stone walls.

Aragorn made sure not to pay any attention to the elf as he reached into one of his many pockets and drew out the small piece of flint he always kept handy for this task. One swift spark of light later, he took his first pull on the pipe, appreciating the warm, homely scent which always served to remind him of long nights spent in the company of other Rangers of the North like himself, loners bound together by a common heritage.

Beside him, Legolas let out a small cough, now fully focused on the wafts of smoke drifting upwards from the wooden pipe, which mingled with the dark shadows of the valley before drifting up into the starlit sky. "That truly is the foulest of habits," he muttered.

Pleased to hear the lilting voice of his friend, Aragorn merely tilted his head in the direction of the other members of the fellowship. "They do not think so," he commented simply.

Indeed, the curly heads of the hobbits had risen as one as the hazy scent of the blackened leaves curling in Aragorn's pipe floated over to them. Seconds later, all four of them had gathered around the man and elf, watching in appreciation as Aragorn curled his lips and blew a skilful series of smoke rings.

Sensing that Legolas was about to open his mouth again, Aragorn spoke instead, interrupting the elf before he could begin one of his diatribes on the foulness of pipeweed.

"Gil-Amdir burns bright tonight," he murmured, nodding to the small speck of light in the night sky that he and the elf had been watching.

The blonde-haired prince stilled minutely, then looked at Aragorn, meeting the ranger's level gaze with one of his own. "It reminds me of the first time we journeyed into those caves near Imladris," he replied, as Aragorn had known he would.

Aragorn huffed a chuckle, his warm breath misting in the cool air as he watched the clouds in their lazy dance across the sky. "Aye," he murmured. "Gil-Amdir shone bright that night also."

"It was what saved us."

"Nay," Aragorn corrected easily, taking another draw on his pipe. "That was I."

"It was because of you that we were trapped in that Valar-forsaken cave to begin with, Estel," Legolas returned, cocking his head to look at the ranger beside him more easily.

Aragorn shook his head, fighting back a smile at the accusing look his friend was sending him. "I simply suggested that we explored what lay behind the waterfall."

"What lay beyond it was caves, you knew that before you dragged me in there."

"You did not have to come."

"You asked me to," the elf prince replied simply.

Four sets of bright hobbits eyes darted from the ranger to the elf, as they had been switching back and forth between the two friends since the conversation had started.

"What happened?"

"When?"

"How did you escape?"

Aragorn shared a quick glance with Legolas before raising his eyebrows at the barrage of questions. "Why do you assume, Merry, that there was something to escape from?"

The older of the two cousins stuck his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "You and Legolas always seem to be escaping from something or other."

Legolas sent the ranger a dirty glance. "Aye, it is a bad habit I have developed since first meeting this one." He reached out to give the ranger a shove, nearly toppling Aragorn where he leant against the holly tree.

"What happened though?" Pippin pressed, eager as always for more stories.

"The cave collapsed," Legolas stated, as though it were a matter of course.

All four hobbits gasped as one.

"The cave did not collapse," Aragorn retorted, pausing in between blowing smoke rings. "Only one tunnel collapsed."

"Aye, the tunnel we needed to get out," Legolas replied. He tilted his head back even further in order to see the stars more easily.

Merry and Pippin's eyes widened, and Sam's mouth dropped open a little way. Frodo merely smiled.

"But what did you do?" Pippin asked in a hushed voice, as though his very words would make the rock that stretched above come crumbling down upon them all. "How did you get out?"

Twisting his body around, Aragorn glanced up at Legolas before turning back to the waiting hobbit and his friends. "We dug," he said simply.

Legolas nodded, his eyes never leaving the tiny, glinting lights up high. "For time beyond what I can remember…" he murmured softly, drifting into the memory which remained as clear to him as the very day it had happened.

"Until we finally saw the sky," Aragorn finished, his mind, too, going back to the endless, dark days spent under the earth. Even for one such as him, used to living in shadows and out of sight, it had struck into him a terror he had never forgotten.

No light-hearted banter put on for the benefit of the hobbits would ever take away the terror both of them had felt when they had realised there was no way out, that they were trapped in the silent darkness, where every movement they made, every sound, was muffled by the earth that imprisoned them. There had been no light, no relief to the black void, but for the faint gleam of Legolas' skin, and even that had faded as hour upon hour passed with no sign of rescue, with only their increasingly shallow breaths and the muted sounds of their digging to accompany them.

Every time that one of them had moved just that inch too far as they tried to clear away the rocks blocking the tunnel, that bit too suddenly, a scatter of stones and dirt had fallen, coating both of them in a fine dust that soon entered their lungs, making them cough and choke, which had brought down even more debris in turn. Every so often, a tremor had rippled through the collapsed cave, and each time they had frozen where they were, terrified that they rest of the rock would come crashing down upon them, burying them both without offering even the chance to fight.

They had both been close to death when Legolas had finally broken through the rockfall and dragged himself and Aragorn to the safety of the Last Homely House, with the human having faded from consciousness as the air thinned in their stone prison. Aragorn had never asked the elf prince how he had managed to clear a large enough gap in the rockfall for them both to fit through, how long he had spent alone in the dark, knowing that he was their only chance for life. Legolas had never offered to tell him, saying only that it was the last rock Aragorn had shifted that had allowed him to catch sight of the faint glow of starlight through the otherwise unyielding darkness, and so given him enough hope to persevere.

It had been many seasons before Legolas had returned to his father's underground palace after that, the elf instead preferring the freedom and freshness of the open corridors of Imladris. Aragorn had done his best to help his friend, blaming himself for the days they had spent under the earth. During the following months, he had spent many nights sleeping under the open sky at the prince's side, from the wide valleys of Imladris to the vast plains of Rohan, until Legolas had at last returned to his father's halls, filled with enough light, fresh air and memories of laughter that he could once again face the weight of the earth above him that he felt even in the cavernous caves of Mirkwood.

Lost to his memories, Aragorn suddenly caught sight of the scared faces of the hobbits surrounding him and Legolas, all of whom had paled during the telling of the story. Shaking off the dark memories, Aragorn leaned over to nudge the soft boot that still hung next to his shoulder, making sure that he had the elf prince's attention before he spoke.

"You need not be fearful, Master Hobbits," he said quietly. "The mines of Moria have stood for hundreds of years. There is no reason that they will fall on our fellowship." He looked up at the elf. "Am I not right, Legolas?"

Sharp blue eyes met his own grey ones, the elf prince all too aware of what he was attempting to do. Finally, Legolas tilted his head in a nod towards the ranger, conceding his point. "Cuamin linduva yassen megrille, mellon nin," he said softly. "No matter where we go."

Aragorn smiled, and watched the elf as he slipped smoothly off the long, gnarled roots to the ground before stepping soundlessly forward to where Gandalf stood before the solid rock wall. Without a word, Merry, Pippin and Sam followed him, gathered close about the archer as though to offer both comfort and courage.

Aragorn looked after them for a moment before dropping his gaze to the blue-eyed hobbit who remained next to him.

"It seems that thanks are in order, Frodo," he said softly.

"For what?" Frodo responded, in just as quiet a voice.

"I am certain, Master Baggins, that the memory of a hobbit is not such that he would forget a story told to him only hours earlier so completely that it needed to be repeated that same night."

Frodo smiled, a soft, sad expression. "Legolas seems troubled."

Aragorn did not respond at first, yet the feeling of the hobbit's eyes on him did not cease. Finally, he looked down and met the other's clear gaze. "He does not like being unable to see the sky," he said softly.

Frodo nodded, his own eyes rising to the high stone walls surrounding them. "He is not alone in that," was his reply.

"Ah!"

At the sharp exclamation from Gandalf, both ranger and hobbit turned to where Merry, Legolas, Gimli and the wizard himself stood before the silver archway etched into the craggy grey cliffs.

"Mellon," the wizard enunciated slowly.

With a gravelly rasp of stone against stone, the walls of the mines slid apart, revealing a gaping hole which disappeared into the blackness beyond. After gathering their belongings, the fellowship of the One Ring together took their first steps into the dark that was Moria, unaware of the small ripples in the water behind them until it was almost too late.

END

en - look

Cuamin linduva yassen megrille, mellon nin –my bow will sing with your sword, my friend

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