This story was originally written for the September 2006 Teitho Contest under a different pen name.

It had been a good trip, Legolas mused. The Dúnedain were now well provisioned for the coming winter — which had been the original purpose of this sojourn — and not a few orcs had met their demise along the way — which was a favorable outcome for the inevitabilities that came with traveling in Estel's company. The elf wanted to shake his head at that. Somehow his human friend always managed to drag him into — and occasionally out of — the most precarious predicaments imaginable. A trait, he surmised, which definitely ran in the man's adoptive family.

With that thought, the urge to shake his head deflated down into the urge to sigh, which was not so easily stifled. They were still a good day's ride from the marches of Rivendell where the twins were currently occupied with the defense of their homeland, and Legolas sorely missed their presence now.

It had been a good trip, most assuredly. A month spent in Estel's company was worth any given year without him — Legolas had endured enough of each that he could honestly attest to such — and the Dúnedain were not so bad for companionship, come to that, or to have your back in a fight. That and the earnest friendship and loyalty they showed Estel, a man who did not make friends easily, made them worth their weight in methril in the Prince's eye. Another sigh was barely suppressed as Legolas lamented that they should not have allowed their chieftain to refuse an escort. If they hadn't, this good trip might not have so rapidly deteriorated.

"Either your purses or your persons will be going no further."

A large, lumbering brute of a man stood in the center of the road, not twenty paces ahead, one hand resting on the hilt of an enormous broadsword that hung loosely from a ratty leather baldric. The other hand was firmly and arrogantly planted on his hip as he stared down at the two weary travelers with a condescending sneer.

There had been no overt warnings of danger. Or at least, not the kind associated with a waiting ambush. But then, these men did not carry the pervasive miasma of evil associated with true servants of the Enemy and the spot they chose to lie in wait was ironically ideal for their purposes. By the time his Elven senses alerted him to the dangers ahead — only a hair's breadth ahead of Estel's own uncanny abilities — or uncanny for a human, at least — Legolas had little time to do more than hiss a Gray-tongued warning to his friend whilst readying his bow. The tension of the taut bowstring had the arrow thrumming in the Prince's steady hands, and his keen sight had already spotted numerous targets to choose from.

Therein, of course, lay the danger. The brigands had chosen their positions well. Four of them had awkward but effective perches in the trees ahead, far enough apart that by focusing on one Legolas could easily lose track of the others; and even if the Prince managed to fell one opponent before said human could loose his own bow, that still left three enemy arrows to whistle on their deadly paths from converging points that could make dodging difficult, even for an elf. Oh, he could always scramble for cover behind the horses, but the thought of using their faithful companions so rather turned his stomach. He would much rather they flee to safety.

And then there was Estel to consider.

The two friends had been walking, leisurely leading their horses in efforts to stretch their legs a bit (and to delay the inevitable return to Rivendell and their subsequent separation as long as possible), and so Estel had been caught sadly out of reach of his own bow. It was currently keeping good company with the ranger's quiver, safely secured to his saddle.

Legolas chanced a glance at his human friend and noted with some surprise that, while Estel had loosened the sword at his hip, he'd made no move to bring it to bear. In fact, he didn't even have a hand resting on its hilt, which very nearly caused the Prince's eyebrows to shoot to his hairline. Estel's hand would often drift to his sword hilt in times of tension or unease, an unconscious gesture and the only physical representation of emotions his friend had otherwise carefully schooled away. Legolas knew the ranger to be a pragmatist in the face of danger and this seemingly lackadaisical display had him both confused and worried.

Of course, while five-on-two odds were far from favorable, together he and Estel had beaten worse. Yet Estel was hardly prone to bouts of arrogance, and he never downplayed the severity of their trademark precarious predicaments — excepting of course during the inevitable explanations to their respective fathers. Why then had his friend chosen restraint? Surely he knew — and better than most — that five men were far more dangerous than five orcs or even ten. That's not to say that an orc was anything less than a deadly foe, but a man turned to evil ways was his own master. Far more intelligent than true servants of the Enemy and possessed of desire's subtleties rather than the single-mindedness of evil, Legolas had learned with painful alacrity not to underestimate the race of men — especially not across drawn swords.

Yet to the Prince's dismay, Estel did not seem inclined to heed the considerable danger he knew the man knew they were facing. Rather the ranger simply stood there, his relaxed posture counterpoint to his companion's tense readiness, his inscrutable expression a mere shadow of the hardened mask he typically wore into battle — the mask Legolas had expected to find him wearing now.

Far from comforted by his split-second survey of Estel, Legolas returned his attention to the man in front of him, his fingers itching to release his arrow and better their odds. His hatred for the evils to which the race of men could aspire normally stayed locked in the deepest dungeons of his heart, but now he felt the old flames kindling anew. Not even Estel's friendship, blinding beacon that it was, had managed to assuage those old hurts completely; but then, as the silmaril that bore his namesake lent hope to night time's darkness rather than conquering it, Estel was a promise for the future and not a cure for the past. Some wounds never healed whilst the scars of them remained.

Legolas's grip on the notched arrow tightened. The longer the moment stretched the more he feared that it would outlast his patience. In dealing with the race of men he'd always defaulted to Estel's lead, but his emotions were simmering beneath the mounting tension and when they boiled over he knew that they would carry the coppery crimson of edain blood. While he would readily kill them all to safeguard Estel's life, he knew the pleasure he would take from doing so would not be for Estel's sake — nay, not even for Aragorn's — and that path paved the way to a dangerous road, one that he was intimately familiar with.

One that Estel had saved him from.

His grip on the arrow tightened. He would not place his friend's life in jeopardy by taking the initiative.

Just as Legolas felt the calmness of purpose settling on his shoulders Estel answered the challenge. With sure, deliberate movements he reached up with his left hand and tore his purse from his belt. While Elven — and ergo Dúnedain — society centered around barter and trade, only silver bought a room at an inn in a human village and so Estel always carried a little money on him when he traveled the wilds. Legolas watched with barely restrained amazement as Estel tossed his purse to the brigand rather nonchalantly, another startling surprise. It was far from his friend's nature to willingly toe a line set by his enemies, and doubly so if Estel was truly suffering from overconfidence. Confusion outpaced the Prince's worry for the moment — Estel's actions didn't make sense.

The brigand seemed just as surprised to find his quarry so cooperative because his eyes widened considerably as he bobbled his catch. Nevertheless, he swiftly loosened the drawstring, allowing the meager contents of the purse to spill onto his large palm.

"Is this it?" he asked incredulously. "Three silver pieces and five coppers?"

Legolas's gaze flicked back to Estel, who brought his hands up slowly in a warding gesture. While he would have much rather seen the man bring up his sword, the Prince had to admit there was wisdom in deliberately appearing as non-threatening as possible in a parley — and then suddenly the tumblers clicked.

So that was the plan, then.

The odds that Estel could talk their way out of the impending skirmish were dubious at best, but at least the Prince was assured that his friend hadn't taken complete leave of his senses.

"That is all I have," Estel assured the brigand in an honest, placating tone.

"And what about your pretty friend there?" the man sneered, his head jerking roughly towards Legolas.

"Elves have no use for coinage," Estel explained with perfect patience. "All our money is in your hands already."

The brigand seemed to smile then, or at least he bared his teeth. "'Ts not what I heard. Everyone knows how those pointy-ears of the dark wood covet their gold."

"But they do not carry it with them," Estel pointed out, quite reasonably in fact. Then the corners of his mouth turned up to flirt with a condescending smirk. "All their gold is locked inside King Thranduil's stone fortress. We could give you directions if you like, but I doubt you'd have much success."

Under any other circumstances Legolas might have laughed. When he was of the mind to use it, Estel had a tongue that could flay even a dwarf to ribbons. Yet the laugher was stemmed by mental whiplash as his friend suddenly switched from gentle supplications to outright taunts. Granted the man's moods leaned towards the mercurial, but it took a special breed of fool to show a flippant disregard for your enemy when they held all the cards. Though perhaps, Legolas reflected, that was the point. But then, what was Estel playing at?

The brigand sneered again, as though it was the only expression he was truly capable of. "Well that's a right shame then," he insinuated, the words dripping from his tongue. "Three and five won't buy one life, and there you are trying for two."

Legolas likened the subtle shift in Estel's posture to a tree that stiffens before a gale, with branches ready to bend but roots that had reasserted themselves and would not budge. He watched as his friend's hands slowly came together to steeple before his chest. Estel's expression could have been considered thoughtful but this new tension undercut it, though only those who knew his friend best would have been able to spot it — and the Prince was grateful. Whatever the game had been, Estel had just abandoned it. Words were about to be replaced by actions and the Prince's muscles were as taut as his bowstring in anticipation.

"You have our money," Estel informed the man, his conversational tone betrayed by the hard glint Legolas saw shining behind his friend's eyes. "By your own words, now let us pass."

"Didn't you hear me?" the brigand balked, condescendingly incredulous. "I said you don't have the proper coin to bargain for your lives."

"And our deaths won't change that," Estel countered evenly, and Legolas felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Even though Estel's hands had remained in their relaxed, non-threatening position, the Prince's emotional weather-sense was screaming that a storm was brewing, and that death would swiftly follow in its wake. His friend's patience was wearing thin. Legolas barely suppressed a wolfish grin.

"Your horses might," the brigand retorted with a feral gleam in his eye.

Legolas's anger ratcheted up a notch even as a sly smile slid across Estel's face. One cue from their masters and the horses would bolt. Already they hung back in agitation. They may even flee before the word was given — so much the better. Hence Estel was not impressed, and truly neither was Legolas, even though the Prince decidedly did not share in his friend's amusement. Never, in all his considerable years, had he wished so fervently for a battle to begin.

"Indeed." Estel bowed his head slightly, conceding the point. Yet the grin remained and that alone was warning enough for Legolas — the sidelong glance his friend shot him was more courtesy than anything else. "If you can catch them." The ranger punctuated the barb with a shrill whistle through his teeth and with that the horses panicked, crying out as they turned and fled.

This was the moment Legolas had been waiting for. The brigands had been lucky to catch Estel in a strangely agreeable mood, considering, but in refusing to grant quarter they had sealed their doom. The horses' panicked flight provided the diversion and by the time the leader had shouted orders for his men to kill the two travelers Legolas had already loosed his bow. The first man to die this day tumbled out of his tree as the arrow cleanly pierced his heart. In that same instant, the Prince ducked and dove forward, pulling a somersault with the grace only an elf could manage, easily dodging the arrow meant to fell him. Then he quickly recovered to his knees.

A cursory check on Estel revealed two arrows sticking out of the ground not far from where the man had been standing not a moment before. Good. Legolas had expected those shots to miss but relief coursed through him just the same.

From where he knelt, Legolas swiftly replaced an arrow on his bowstring, wrenching his body around as he did so in order to take aim in the same motion. When the bowstring sang another man fell from the trees in a shower of crimson, an Elven arrow having ripped through his throat.

Legolas pulled another arrow from his quiver as he shot to his feet, ignoring the unnatural breeze that lofted his hair as an arrow flew precariously close to his ear. The one who fired it fell a moment later with a muted cry, but Legolas paid it no heed. He was too busy noting — with grim satisfaction — that Estel had reached the leader, and the only sound that mattered then was the grating clash of steel on steel.

Thusly reassured, Legolas pulled yet another arrow from his quiver, notched it to his bowstring, turned, aimed, and fired all in the space between slash and parry. The last of the enemy archers fell from his perch, twitched once on the ground, and then lay permanently still. The Prince allowed himself a small, satisfactory nod before returning his attentions to Estel's fight.

A cruel smile twisted the Prince's fair features as he surveyed the scene before him. The brigand was obviously no match for Estel. He was slow and clumsy in bringing the giant broadsword to bear, and it was obvious that he'd chosen the weapon more for its intimidating size than to suit any strategic preference or skill. Estel was practically dancing circles around him, darting into and out of range long enough to score minor hits while keeping his opponent on the defensive. The bleeding brigand was already panting heavily. It would all be over soon.

Actually, Legolas realized with bemusement, it should have been over already. His friend outclassed the brigand in every way such that the disparity between them likened Estel to a cat toying with a mouse. The bloodthirsty grin slipped from the Prince's face as a feeling that wasn't quite pity began to knot in his stomach. That it would go ill for the brigand was a foregone conclusion, but Legolas had to wonder what had angered his friend so, that his enemy should suffer such an ugly defeat in his last act. Perhaps the threat to their horses?

Just then, as Estel slipped behind his opponent with a graceful twist — which caused the brigand to stumble heavily in efforts to keep pace — he caught sight of Legolas standing there, bow held laxly in one hand and a curios expression on his face. The Prince arched an eyebrow at his friend, as if to ask him 'are you quite through?'

His answer came with startling swiftness. In a flurry of motion and flashing steel Estel forced the brigand to overextend his reach. The tip of the broadsword struck the ground and Estel stepped forcibly on the flat of the blade, tearing it out of his opponent's hands and pinning it to the dirt. The brigand stumbled back, and before he could recover Estel stepped forward, thrusting a foot between the man's ankles. With a strangled cry the brigand toppled backwards, a victim of his own inertia. He landed hard on his back, arms splayed, legs twisted at the ranger's feet. When Estel brought the point of his own sword up to hover just under his opponent's chin his expression was inscrutable.

"Yield." Legolas heard more than a hint of command in his friend's voice.

"Don't you have the courage to kill me, ranger?" The fear in the brigand's eyes failed to register in his voice at the taunt, and the last was spat as a curse.

Legolas's brow furrowed, however. He knew firsthand that Estel had courage enough to kill a man. The better question was, why hadn't he?

Estel answered the question with one of his own. "Do you truly wish to die?"

The man sneered (again), and growled low in his throat, his pride warring with his sense of self-preservation.

"You are beaten," Estel continued. "And your men are dead. Submit and I'll see you get a fair hearing in Bree."

The brigand's growl collapsed into a groan and he closed his eyes, his body falling limp in resignation. Meanwhile Legolas's eyes widened to aquamarine saucers. Surely Estel couldn't possibly — but no. He'd been the man's friend for long enough to know when Estel was joking — and also to know which things Estel would never joke about. So they would be escorting a prisoner to Rivendell — that being closest friendly destination — so that he could be escorted in turn to the Dúnedain camp — under heavy guard, most likely — so that the rangers could see him safely to Bree and lawman Biddle's gaol. Aldus Biddle was a grim, humorless man, but he was even-handed with his job and shrewd enough to realize that the rangers policed the outlands beyond his jurisdiction. The brigand would get his fair hearing.

Satisfied, Estel withdrew his sword. He backed up enough to give the man room to regain his feet, though he was still standing squarely over the fallen broadsword. He slipped a toe beneath the hilt and deftly kicked it up to meet his hand.

Seeing that his friend had the situation well in hand, Legolas turned from the scene before him and faced back down the road they had just traveled. He brought two slender fingers to his lips and whistled sharply. A few seconds later and the thunder of approaching hooves met their ears.

"We should bind his hands and leash him to your saddle," the Prince suggested, resigned to how exceedingly unpleasant the last day's march was about to become. That would of course leave the brigand quite helpless should they run into any more trouble, but it was the safest choice for his captors.

Judging from his friend's face, Estel cared about as much for the idea as the brigand himself, who clamped his jaw down on an epithet hard enough to gnash his teeth. He seethed in silence while Estel frowned.

"I suppose that's for the best," Estel admitted over a sigh, his own flavor of resignation unfathomable to the Prince.

At that moment the horses trotted into view, no worse for wear. Legolas smiled openly in relief as he went to greet them, trusting that Estel could handle one unarmed man. He ignored the interrogation that began behind him as he went rummaging through their packs to find something suitable with which to secure their prisoner, despairing that they didn't have any rope and vowing to have a few serious words with his friend on both the absurdity and the danger of this new venture. Wouldn't it have been far easier to just kill the brigand and have done with it? The man had chosen a path of evil and his actions spoke against him far better than anything he could offer for his defense, and death in equal combat was a far more dignified end than he would find in Bree when the hearing inevitably went ill.

Apparently the brigand thought so, too. "I'll not swing from no gallows!"

Legolas gasped and turned in time to see the man reach to his belt for a hidden knife and then lunge desperately at Estel. The Prince cried out a warning and dashed across the meager distance that kept him from his friend's side. In those few short seconds while he sprinted, Estel met the attack head on, and when the knife swung in he used two strong hands to grip the brigand's wrist and guide the blade safely past his body. Stunned, the man stopped short and tried to wrench his hand around again. Alas, this only caused him to lose his balance, and when he fell he took Estel down with him just as Legolas reached them. Now both men lay still, Estel splayed across the brigand's torso, four arms pinned between their bodies and four legs sprawled every which way.

Legolas had stopped short, his heart in his throat, when the knife disappeared between them.

For a few agonizing moments the Prince stood frozen, rooted by the horror of his friend's unnatural stillness and the sight of the growing crimson puddle that took shape beneath the Mannish pile. Then suddenly Estel coughed and Legolas remembered how to breathe again.

"Estel!" Instantly he knelt beside them, and his hand found his friend's shoulder just as Estel violently shoved off of the man beneath him. That hand flinched away as Estel landed with an awkward plop on his backside, pale-faced and panting. A bright rusty stain had blossomed across his pale gray tunic, but miraculously it was not his flesh that swallowed the blade. The knife was buried to the hilt in the brigand's chest.

"Estel?" Legolas repeated, his voice hesitant and heavy with concern. He reached out to brush delicate fingertips against the deep wet stain on his friend's chest, as though only through touch could he confirm that the blood was not Estel's.

Estel's eyes followed the Prince's hand, but his gaze was vacant as he studied the gruesome sight. After a moment Legolas removed his touch, though his fingertips come away bloodied.

"None of it's mine." The man's voice was rough and swiftly commandeered the Prince's attention.

"I can see that," Legolas snapped, his eyes hardened by the memory of what could have been. He saw Estel recoil a bit from his tone and he sighed heavily, forcing the tension to drain away with that ragged breath. "Are you at all injured?" he asked, his voice much gentler this time.

Estel shook his head. "Just had the wind knocked out of me is all." With that his gaze drifted, down to the dead man lying supine within arm's reach and then up to the dark eyes that shone like slips of dull glass, deep set in a face forever frozen in the lines of shock and horror. The Prince's brow furrowed in concern; his friend was frowning at the man as though the deceased were a lock for which he didn't have the key.


"Such a waste," the man said at length, his face twisting over the words like he'd swallowed something bitter.

Legolas, who had learned long ago that no child of Ilúvatar — or even of Aulë — had been born evil, privately agreed with Estel. For a moment he allowed himself the familiarity of an abstract, world-weary sadness. The brigand was not unlike the southernmost trees of his homeland; good and strong they were until the darkness of Dol Guldur invaded their hearts and turned their thoughts to evil.

Then as swiftly as it descended, the moment passed. Unlike the trees, this man had chosen his own path and took to evil of his own volition, and while the Prince could muster the shades of sorrow for this perversion of the beauty of Ilúvatar's creation he could find no wellspring of pity for this man, nor did he wish to. A pack of marauders had met their end this day, making this road safe once again for travelers without Elven skill or ranger training. There was more victory than tragedy in this tableau, a fact that Legolas readily and happily took to heart.

"But come," said Estel, forcing the Prince's wandering mind to snap to attention. "We owe these men a proper burial." Then he climbed to his feet and gave Legolas his back as he walked away — walked back to the copse of trees where the archers had breathed their last. From where he stopped, he could see all four of them. The falls had not been kind to their bodies.

Legolas sighed and moved to join his friend. Estel was right of course, these men did not deserve to be left untended for the carrion animals to pick their bones. He would have preferred burning them however, as they did not have anything in their possession with which to tear up the ground to make a grave, and finding rocks enough to make five cairns would be work that most likely would outlast the day. Already the shadows were lengthening into late afternoon.

"We will lay them side by side," Estel informed him. "But the tress alone will have to serve as their memorial."

For a moment it seemed to Legolas that his friend's eyes were inward-seeking, but before the Prince could ask Estel shook himself out of it with a slightly distracted headshake, as though the motion alone would dispel thoughts that were obviously not good company.

"Arrange them as you would, then," Legolas directed, sensing that his friend would have insisted anyway. "Whilst I grope for suitable stones."

Estel nodded and wordlessly the two friends began the arduous task of bestowing a final dignity on those who most likely would not have granted them the same. Fortunately this road wound through the foothills of the Misty Mountains and thus there were rocks aplenty for Legolas to gather. His Elven endurance helped him to amass a sizeable pile in fairly short order. Yet all the while he kept a watchful eye on Estel as the man saw to the admittedly morbid task of preparing the dead for burial. Some intangible instinct was whispering that not all was well with his human friend, but he was at a loss as to explain what it was.

Through furtive glances over armfuls of stones Legolas saw the four archers laid side by side. More than once his Elven hearing caught the wet tearing sounds of arrows being pulled from flesh, and the oddly poignant sight of Estel wiping his bloodied hands before reaching out to shut dead eyelids caused something to tighten in the Prince's own throat. He looked away after that, feeling as though he'd intruded on something private, as though his casual observances had suddenly become shamefully voyeuristic. He did not look back until he heard Estel leave the four archers to return for their leader.

Legolas frowned pensively as Estel knelt beside the brigand. Once again his friend seemed to be studying the man with inward-seeking eyes, an inscrutable expression on his face. Then suddenly his gaze sharpened as his mind returned from wherever it had wandered. He sat back on his heels then and sighed tiredly, and for the first time Legolas was made aware of how exhausted his friend truly seemed. Mindful of Estel's tendency to hide any perceived weaknesses, Legolas felt his growing concern outweigh his sense of propriety. Ignoring the feelings of trespass, he approached his friend and came to kneel across from him.

"Are you well?" he asked quite plainly.

Estel's shoulders slumped as he sighed again, but he did not look up. His eyes remained fixed on the brigand's still face. "I wonder what his name was."

Estel was obviously troubled by this question, and Legolas found himself just as troubled that he had no answers to offer him. Instead he remained respectfully silent and was rewarded when Estel seemed to get a handle on whatever it was that had been plaguing his thoughts. The worried lines of his face hardened into grim determination as he reached out and, with one solid tug, pulled the knife out of the brigand's chest. A stomach-churning scrape preceded the slick sucking sound as the blade cut back across rib bone as it passed. Then Estel tossed the weapon aside.

"Come," directed the ranger as he regained his feet. "Let's put him with the others."

The Prince's concern was placated by his friend's apparent restoration of equilibrium, but he was far from comforted. Nevertheless, he grabbed a hold of the brigand's ankles while Estel slipped two strong hands under the man's armpits. Together they carried him back to the copse of trees that was to be his final resting place. Then, falsely believing there was nothing else, Legolas began to pile stones around the deceased. He was shocked when Estel interrupted him a moment later, as his friend insisted on laying the brigand's broadsword at his side. Legolas realized he hadn't considered what was to be done with the blade, but he wasn't all that surprised at Estel's choice. It was a convenience for them if nothing else.

Just as predicted, raising the cairn above those five bodies was indeed work that outlasted the day. It wasn't until the dusky grey of the evening sky bled into the somber indigos and violets of twilight that they finished.

"I'll gather the horses," Legolas offered, sensing that Estel was perhaps not quite ready to leave. He was staring down at the cairn, a neat, oblong swath of piled stone, even though the Prince was certain that not even a ranger's eyes could well pierce the shadowy gloom. Though, he reflected, it probably didn't matter as he seriously doubted that the man was actually surveying what was literally before his eyes. Estel had an air of distance about him again, and the Prince was rapidly growing as accustomed to that as he was to the man himself. Legolas mused that it fit the ranger about as well as an age-worn cloak of an unflattering color.

"We should go," he said at length, finally bringing himself to approach Estel. "We cannot make camp here."

Estel nodded, the only outward sign that he was even aware that the Prince had come to stand beside him. "Malta ja alka hila val súli," he murmured, so softly that only an elf would have heard him. Then he sighed and, frowning, turned away. He walked back to the horses without pause or backwards glance.

Taken aback, Legolas could only stare after him as his mind struggled to make sense of the words Estel had left him with. "What was that?" he asked his friend after he'd returned to his senses enough to return to their horses as well.

Estel, who was making ready to mount, paused to glance at the Prince over the top of his weather-beaten saddle. "Hmm?"

"Those words you spoke," Legolas clarified. "I did not recognize them."

For a moment Estel looked as though the question made him uncomfortable. "It's the corsairs' creed," he eventually explained, though he did not meet the Prince's eye. Instead he turned his attention to the cinch on his saddle, and the subdued snap of worn strapping drifted to Legolas's ear. "It means 'gold and glory follow fair winds.'" The sound of groaning leather interrupted them for a moment, but finally Estel's hands stilled. Indeed, everything about his friend seemed to stop in that moment. Then, as though he didn't have the strength to endure the Prince's expectant silence: "it was the best epitaph I could think to offer them."

Legolas nodded even as Estel swung himself up into his saddle. The Prince had heard somewhat of his friend's travels in the southern lands of men. It was not a hard thing to imagine Estel learning the ways and customs of Gondor's enemies. No child of Elrond could escape becoming something of a scholar, not even his foster son. Of course, having Glorfindel to teach him about tactics and strategy was no small asset, either.

"I am sure that in life, they would have appreciated the proverb," Legolas offered, though probable truth that it was it still felt an inadequate consolation, especially considering that he couldn't quite grasp why consolation was imperative just now.

"Perhaps," Estel conceded, shrugging off such sentiments almost visibly. Then the inscrutable mask slipped back into place like a curtain being drawn, effectively portioning the man's emotions from the outside world. Legolas felt a sudden stab of heartache in that moment. How like a statue his friend seemed to him now — how many times during this terrible day Estel had appeared to be made of stone. This was not the man he had come to love as the brother of his heart.

Estel. For the first time in decades the word sat strangely on his tongue, and he could not speak it. For too long, that's all it had been; a simple word with little meaning. Then it had become a name, and from a name a personification, one that had grown to mean not only hope and promise, but light and laughter, friendship and love. As Legolas watched Estel blend into the silver-kissed shadows of moonrise he saw how his friend did not part the darkness as he once did. Now he seemed to move in step with it, a mere shadow of himself and the man he once had been. Legolas felt his own heart constrict painfully at the realization that it was not Estel who led his horse away from the aftermath of battle here today.

Aragorn. The name carried a bitter taste. For many years it had been a word only, as insignificant in his mind's eye as Estel had been ere he met the man. But Estel had lived up to his name, embodying the word itself, an ideal long dead suddenly reborn in flesh and blood. Now it seemed the tides had turned. Estel had receded, settling back into a simple word again, leaving Aragorn to take his place. Legolas felt a wave of irrational hatred for the man who had quietly claimed his friend's place at his side, but he swiftly mastered it. Aragorn was not his enemy. He was simply a stranger, and that's what cut so deeply.

World-weary in a way he had not been in a long time, Legolas urged his horse ahead in efforts to catch up to a man who had not deigned to wait for him.

Aragorn led them nearly a mile up the road before he finally stopped. "We can make camp here tonight," he announced as he dismounted.

Legolas's keen hearing caught the sound of water tripping over stone. "There is a stream yonder," he said, his gaze fixed through the trees off to his right.

Aragorn smiled, and for a moment he was Estel again. "I am surprised you do not recognize this place," he said as he began leading his horse in the direction of the stream. "We have used this glade before."

"This is your home wood, not mine," Legolas countered as he followed, grasping the opportunity to banter with his friend as though it were a lifeline, the one friendly face in a room of hard-eyed strangers. "Your trees are friendly and they sing a pleasant song, but none of their voices are familiar."

"I should hope they are friendly," Aragorn replied. "Glorfindel's patrols still scout this area, as do my own."

Legolas, who had been leading his horse in step behind Aragorn, suddenly stopped in his tracks. Aragorn managed a few more paces before he became aware that his friend was no longer following him, but when he stopped Legolas easily noted how the man's back had grown rigid with tension, as though he could feel the piercing stare that had been leveled in his direction and had braced against it. To be the subject of an elf's close scrutiny was never pleasant for a mortal, but Estel had always borne it better than most. That it set his friend so squarely on his guard just now forcibly returned the Prince to the firm grasp of reality.

"How could a band of outlaws entrench themselves along a road patrolled by both elves and rangers?" The question seemed to materialize on his tongue, formed of condensation leeched from air suddenly laced with undercurrents and spoken on behest of his eyes, which were not articulate enough.

The rigid set of Aragorn's shoulders slowly gave way under the echo of the question. He sighed, allowing the tension to drain from him as water drips from rooftops. "The dispatches I read before we left camp stated that the road was clear," he explained, still showing Legolas his back. "Glorfindel's scouts will sweep through at the next full moon." Here finally he turned, and in the dappled shadows of the moonlit glade he seemed to the Prince quite the elf he had always secretly wished to be. No man's eyes were that fathomless; no mortal could weave a shroud out of the threads of time to stand untouched by an age that clearly showed in the corners of such eyes.

"Those men could not have been there for more than four days, and they would have enjoyed only another three before they would have been discovered." There was a subtle bitterness in Aragorn's voice now. "There were no other signs of battle, no other gravesites — and you would have sensed it if the trees were in mourning." He turned again, his body wrenching with the fierceness of unfocused anger, severing the gossamer threads of Legolas's waking vision with violence enough to cause the Prince to blink.

"The floods last spring returned a poor harvest," he continued as he marched his horse away, forcing Legolas to scramble to follow him. "I recognized two of those archers — now there's a farm outside of Combe with no male heirs. Though I do suppose that with two fewer mouths to feed their threat of starvation this winter will have eased a bit."

The edge to Estel's tone was sharp enough to bleed, and Legolas reeled beneath the onslaught of his friend's envenomed words — though for his own reasons. The men he had killed had been in position to threaten his life — and more importantly, to threaten Estel's life. That they had apparently been laborers instead of warriors mattered little to the Prince. Their choice to take up arms and present themselves as something they were not had been dangerous folly, and while Legolas pitied them for both for their ignorance and for the plight that forced their hands, he did not regret his use of lethal force in safeguarding Estel. The tragedy of this day was not of their making — though apparently Estel was of a mind to think so.


The Prince felt an odd sort of relief wash over him at finally being able to pin down that which had been troubling his friend — that which had sent gentle, kind-hearted Estel into hiding and left grim, inscrutable Aragorn to keep the watch.

"That is why you stayed your hand," Legolas realized aloud. By now they had reached where the trees fell away to scrubland and underbrush before the banks of the stream, one of the many unnamed tributaries of the Bruinen. "The Bree-landers would not have hung those whose only crime had been poor attempts at brigandage."

Aragorn, who had already begun to relieve his mare of her tack, turned to Legolas with something akin to surprise lightening his features before it was quickly schooled away. "No, they would not have," he agreed soberly. For a moment it looked as though he was about to say more, but then he bowed his head over an inaudible sigh. When he looked up again any lingering traces of the unfinished thought had vanished. "Let's make camp," he entreated instead. "The night is certainly not growing any younger."

Practicality ended their discussion for the moment. As Legolas was naturally the first to finish tending to his horse, he found himself once again on the hunt for suitable stones, this time to build an enclosure for their campfire. Fortunately the streambed was filled with them and the Prince made short work of this task. Afterwards, he went scouting for firewood and returned with his first armful in time to see Aragorn finally turn his mare loose to graze.

"Which would you like to oversee," Legolas asked him. "The fire or the firewood?"

"The fire," Aragorn answered readily, the ghost of a smile teasing his lips, teasing the Prince with the ghost of Estel. "For all your other skills my friend, you are a terrible cook."

"What have we to cook?" Legolas asked amusedly. "Unless you wish to make toast and jam from our lembas and dried fruit."

"No, but at least this way I can be assured that you cannot try such a thing." This was spoken through a genuine smile, one that finally reached the man's quicksilver eyes and lit them from within.

"You wound me Estel," the Prince remonstrated, his hand covering his heart in an exaggerated mockery of hurt, his own eyes shimmering in mirth tinged with relief that his friend's name was his own again.

"Melodramatic elf," the ranger retorted through an amused snort.

Legolas merely laughed, and Aragorn seemed to take a measure of comfort from the sound. Then with a headshake the elf departed, seeking the requested firewood. When Legolas returned with an armful of kindling and his heart considerably lightened, he found their water skins replenished and their campfire crackling merrily, but there was no ranger in sight. Frowning slightly, he dropped the firewood on top of what remained of his previous pile, his eyes scanning the surrounding glade with apprehensive curiosity. Where had Estel disappeared to?

Much to his relief he spied the man a moment later, crouched shirtless at the bank of the stream. Estel was no doubt trying to salvage his tunic. Legolas feared that it was a lost cause and tried to suppress an amused chuckle. The ranger went through more clothes now as an adult than he had as a growing boy, a fact that never escaped the twins' teasing. The Prince had of course learned that it was the better part of valor to hold his tongue in such situations, especially if he did not wish to wake to find all his inseams hiked up to perilous lengths. Estel could be as canny with a needle and thread as a scorned elleth, especially since necessity bade all rangers to learn the craft while the privileged stations of certain bachelor elves did not.

"Something amuse you?"

Legolas looked up sharply at the playful warning in Estel's voice. Apparently he was not as successful at reining in his mirth as he had thought. Indeed, the pleasant memories of the childish antics grown men (and elves) could play at had occupied enough of his mind that he hadn't even heard his friend approach.

Yet as his gaze traveled up to meet Estel's eyes, all traces of amusement washed out of his expression. Shock melted into horror in the Prince's wide-eyed stare and the light drained from his fair features, leaving his face waxen.

Aragorn's unguarded humor faltered at the sight, stolen first by confusion and then concern. "Legolas?" His voice was hesitant.

Legolas opened his mouth as if to speak, but no sound could make it past the knot in his throat and so, foundering, he closed it again. Then he scrambled awkwardly to his feet, his consummate Elven grace abandoning him.

Estel, at a loss as to what had so disturbed his friend, reached out a worried hand to steady him. "What is it mellonin? Are you well?"

The shock that choked out Legolas's voice slid down his throat like shards of glass, scraping over his heart on their way into the pit of his stomach. His mind refused to believe what his eyes were telling him, but that disbelief could not stop reality from penetrating his senses any better than flesh could stop an arrow. He managed to pull the frayed ends of his wits back together only through sheer strength of will. When at last he had recovered his voice, his mind coughed up an articulation of the thought that had undone him.

"So many scars…"

Confusion played across Estel's concerned features in the half moment before realization struck. Then his eyes fell from the Prince's face, drawn down by his friend's gaze where they settled like an anchor on his torso. What Estel truly saw there Legolas could only guess, for the man's sight had turned inward again. Yet the Prince could not see beyond what had been plainly written there, the tales carved into his friend's very flesh and written in his blood. In that latticework of horror scars were overlapping scars, tracing ghastly patterns through Estel's chest down to his abdomen, some snaking along his sides towards his back and a few sitting on his shoulders.

Hesitantly, as thought it moved of its own volition, Legolas reached out a hand and probed gently at what had been an arrow wound high in his friend's chest. His gently inquiring fingers did not linger long before they were drawn to that wound's twin, sitting a hand's breadth lower and to the left. Both scars carried the faint discoloration orcish poisons could leave in flesh. Either wound could have killed him.

Legolas's fingers trembled as he withdrew his hand, as though he was afraid to touch the rest. Aragorn, for his part, looked stricken at his friend's distress — and it was Aragorn again, some distant corner of the Prince's mind abjectly pointed out to him.

"A ranger walks a dangerous road," the man reminded him, though not unkindly.

Yet Legolas did not heed him. At first glance his friend's scars were a horrific sight. At second glance though, once the shock had abated some, a terrifying realization took up roots in its place. While many enemies had left their mark on Estel's flesh, it was the contrast of the healers' touch that stole the Prince's breath away and chilled him to the marrow of his bones.

While only the most grievous of wounds or the deadliest poisons could leave their marks behind in Elven flesh, long ago Lord Elrond had devised a method for treating scars. An ointment would cause them to soften and fade, greatly reducing their appearance such that hardly a trace of them remained. Naturally elves rarely required this treatment (though the Prince's own body bore a few lines that only a lover or a healer could detect), but men? As mortal flesh was not nearly as resilient, the rangers made good use of Elrond's skill. It was no surprise that Estel's arrow wounds had been thusly treated, and many other scars besides.

Yet for every pale stripe and sunken circle, there was a jagged line or puckered knot of scar tissue. Another arrow had left its mark at Estel's right hip, but that wound had been left to its own devices. They were blended half and half, blades and arrowheads and burns brushed and blotted the canvas of his flesh in contrasting colors, painting a picture of devastating truth — that Estel himself had been the artist. The enemy may have held the brush but if Estel could not stop the stroke, he had reserved the right to choose the colors.

It was not a question of time. Some of treated scars were not as faded, their color attesting to their youth, while some of the untreated were among the oldest and had faded somewhat on their own over the march of years. Legolas did not understand, and his eyes were pleading as he tried and failed again to voice the questions swarming his mind and clenching his heart.

"Has Lord Elrond seen these," he finally managed to ask, not realizing in the urgency of the moment the absurdity of his question. After all, just whom did he think had treated most those injuries?

That seemed to catch the man off guard. By now his concern had cooled into apprehension, but even that stilled at the Prince's question. "He has," he hedged, unsure of what his friend was driving at. Then he smiled slyly, a crooked smirk which slid across his teeth and bled irony into his quicksilver eyes. "Don't fret, Legolas. They haven't managed to kill me yet." Dismissal covered cynicism in the man's voice, a scabbard for a sword.

Estel's cavalier attitude horrified the Prince, but anger rose swiftly in its place and Legolas eagerly accepted its warm embrace. It galvanized him. "Not for lack of trying," he retorted, his voice harsh enough to match the steel that flashed through his eyes. "You take too many chances with your life, Estel." That last was a remonstration, as a parent might give a child. Or, more accurately, as an older brother would give the younger.

Yet the so-called youth did not appreciate the gesture. He stiffened, withdrawing slightly to regard his friend with a hard, critical eye. "That's a bit pot and kettle, don't you think?" That sly smile was back again, yet now the laughter was gone. There was a sharp edge to his friend's voice now. "Just because your Elven skin does well to hide the truth that does not mean that I've forgotten just how many times I've sat watch o'er your death throes."

"That's a feeble argument considering how many times I've had to outrace Fate to deliver your corpse to your father's surgery. Would you like me to point to the ones I've had to bind with my own hands?" Incredulousness covered the pain of memory in the Prince's voice as anger covered the fear shining in his eyes. "But at least I was never nearly gutted as a reward for undeserved mercy."

Estel, who had opened his mouth to answer the question, went suddenly still when the Prince denied him the chance to do so. "Undeserved mercy?" he repeated, frowning, as though the words had been spoken in an unfamiliar tongue.

"Manwë's breath, Estel!" Legolas exclaimed, his patience gone. "You nearly died! When I saw you fall on the knife—" he bit off the end of the memory. Now the words hung useless in the air between them. In the awkward silence that descended, Estel's expression softened as the light of understanding slowly crept into his eyes at last.

"Would you have killed him, Legolas?" he asked, the question laden with far too much honesty to be truly rhetoric.

The sudden vulnerability the Prince's sensed in Estel had defused much of his anger, but the memories were not so easily placated. "He would have killed us," he reminded his friend quite plainly. The answer seemed to satisfy Estel — or at least, it seemed to answer some other, unspoken question.

"Indeed," Estel admitted, bitter irony bubbling to the surface of his voice. "And now we are no better." With that he turned and stalked back to the other side of the campsite, headed for their packs.

Legolas blinked, stunned by Estel's abruptness — by how abruptly his argument was just turned on its head. But before he could think of a suitable retort his breath caught at the sight of his friend's retreating back. A labyrinth of faded welts branched down Estel's back like angry lighting. The untreated scars snaked across his spine and licked at his shoulder blades. Mingled in like contrasting brushstrokes, the somber lines of treated scars sat like shadows, etched more in memory than flesh.

Whatever remained of the Prince's resolve crumbled in that instant. Estel obviously did not need anyone to remind him that death was stalking close at his heels — a looking glass held proof enough of that. There was nothing he could say, no argument he could make, that would change the truth of Estel's mortality. By trial or by time itself, at some point the man's life would end. Just as Legolas had been unable to prevent one brother's death, so would history repeat itself and Estel too would be taken from him, and no battle he could fight or bargain he could make would ever change that. Men were fragile — easy to kill and quick to die — and once Legolas had taken great comfort in that fact. Now it was the source of his greatest pain.

"We still live," Legolas said finally, his voice a withered remnant of its old melody. "And tomorrow's choices have not been made."

Legolas's words halted Estel in his tracks, and from where he stood the Prince could easily read the sudden tension in the muscles of Estel's scarred back as his words struck true, but as the meaning behind those words began to take root in his friend's heart he saw that tension drain away, replaced by a weary resignation. Then, like a bowstring that had been pulled too tightly for too long, something snapped in the man's resolve. Legolas saw him bow his head as a ragged breath escaped his lips, wrenching a shudder through those scarred shoulders. He abandoned his quest for their packs and instead sank to the ground right where he stood with a lopsided grace, pivoting as he went so that he now faced the campfire. There he drew his knees up and stared between them into the dancing flames, his arms loosely clasped around his shins.

Aragorn sat staring into the fire, but its soft crackling merging with the murmur of the river and the songs of distant crickets only served to deepen the silence that had fallen on the glade, and in that silence he still heard the echo of his friend's voice. We still live, Legolas had said, and aye, they did, but it had been the tone that caught him far more than the actual words, for he'd heard in Legolas then the wisdom of the Eldar. It was rare that the Prince truly showed his age, but when he chose to do so the reminder that his friend had lived, loved, and bled upon this land for many centuries always hung thick in the air between them, an almost tangible presence. For as often as Aragorn had chafed at being seen as so much younger, in times like these he felt ashamed. What pains had Legolas endured — what scars did his heart carry that could make his bright eyes suddenly darken, that could strip the music from his voice? Estel could only guess and even then, he could not possibly hope to understand.

Such was the burden of his mortality; that he should be woefully inefficient at times to be of any comfort to his friend. Even now Aragorn could feel Legolas watching him intently, but he had no words to answer the elf. In that moment he seemed wholly separate from his friend, a vast expanse of years having grown like a physical wedge between them. And through it all he couldn't help but wonder what would have happened today if those brigands had been elves instead of men. Would Legolas have been so quick to dismiss their deaths then, self-defense or no? Would he have been so quick to kill them, even? And would he find the brand of kinslayer searing through even the darkest corners of his mind? The questions grew into knots in his stomach, but in that moment Aragorn's could not give voice to them. His heart was not equal to the asking, perhaps for fearing to be answered.

The inaudible sound of Elven footfalls reached his ears as his friend slowly approached him. With a whisper of noise Legolas claimed a seat beside him and mirrored his posture. The Prince stared serenely into the depths of the fire, his expression open and unguarded yet still revealing nothing. Only years of practice enabled Aragorn to spy the slight crinkling at the corners of the elf's eyes that belied the darker thoughts lurking beneath that visage of calm, yet before he could ask what was troubling his friend the Prince beat him to it.

"Why have you left so many scars untreated?"

Legolas turned to face him then, and Aragorn saw nothing of that timeless weariness now, or even the earlier anger — and Aragorn could write treatises on all the ways to tell when Legolas was angry. No, this seemed for all the world to be simple Elven curiosity, undercut by the acres of compassionate concern he'd heard in the Prince's tone when he'd voiced it.

Aragorn closed his eyes against such earnest entreaty, and for a long moment he counted phantom pains from many of those old injuries. As he sat, crowned in a halo of firelight, flickering shadows danced across his bare skin, highlighting the memories of battles long past and blending into the shadows in his eyes when he opened them again.

"I have earned them," he answered at last, a guarded confession to the campfire.

"Earned them?" Legolas echoed, his voice the picture of disbelief.

Aragorn nodded, though he did not take his eyes from the fire.

"What could you possibly have done," Legolas entreated, incredulousness leaking through the fractures in his voice, "to earn this?"

Aragorn stiffened as he felt the light brush delicate fingers, ghosting across the remnants of what had once been a garish burn high on the ranger's bicep. Though through his answering grimace, Aragorn conceded that his friend was a brilliant marksman with more than just his bow. He reflected that perhaps he deserved to tell this story, if only to atone for being the reason the years had presented themselves before the Prince tonight, for reminding them both of the burden of mortality.

"That," he said, his voice low and distant to even his own ears, "is a souvenir from my very first war."

He felt Legolas's eyes regarding him intently, waiting for an explanation of his explanation. As the memories wafted forward on the smoke of their campfire Aragorn strove to give voice to them.

"I hadn't been long in Rohan when a great army came up out of Dunland, pillaging and burning its way through the Westfold. To the Rohirrim I was as yet an outsider — they did not expect me to be willing to ride to war against their ancestral enemy. I could have stayed behind in Edoras without question or shame. But what few friends I had made were riding to war, and I would not be left behind." Aragorn remembered the look on Thengel King's face when the Northland Stranger had begged permission to join his éored, how the shock had been quickly schooled behind a coolly assessing gaze before finally warming into something frightfully close to respect as Aragorn had plead his case. He hadn't known, then, the cost for earning a King's respect, but he'd learned it soon enough, and now the memory of that lesson colored his words as he spoke of it.

"We caught up with our enemy in the middle of the night in the middle of a stretch of farmland. The Dunlandings had torched the farms of course, and the fires were still burning, backlighting our battle." The smoke from their campfire began to take shape in Aragorn's mind, tormenting him with images from the past. The wall of flame that snaked its way into the west, bright enough to blot out the stars, the smoke that burned his lungs and made his eyes water as he fought, leaving winding trails down his cheeks through the soot on his face like the shadows of tears.

"I killed my first man in that war, Legolas," Aragorn explained, a soot-blackened face younger than his own appearing in his mind's eye. He remembered how the light had faded from shocked brown eyes that never left his own shocked grey ones, and the sudden hot slickness that rushed over his hands, so shockingly red. "This?" Aragorn lazily shrugged his shoulder to indicate the burn Legolas had ask about. "One of the Dunlandings made a torch of his spear. I felled him, but not before he left me with something to remember him by." Yet for all of that Aragorn recalled little else of his first adan kill, save for the surprising ease with which Elven steel had penetrated human flesh, so unlike the thick hide of an orc. So easy to take a man's life.

So impossible to give it back.

Aragorn's eyes were rooted to the dancing flames. The memories of that epic battle had seared themselves on the insides of his eyelids just as surely as the brand upon his arm. It had taken him a long time before he could see anything more than memory in the fire in his hearth in Edoras, and even longer for the nightmares to fade.

"I killed… many men that night, over the course of our victory," he went on, the echoes of those nightmares surely showing in his voice, though he did not heed them. "When dawn came, and a red sun rose over the red-stained field, in the ash and the soot and the carpet of fallen soldiers… we could not distinguish among the dead. They were all men, Legolas. All the differences that had come to drawn swords and bloodshed amounted to naught but a single grave. I kept this," his hand lazily gestured to indicate the faded burn, "so that I would never forget the cost of a war between men. Each time Dunland and Rohan redraw their maps it is the same while the one true victor laughs on his throne in Barad-dûr."

Aragorn fell silent then, his eyes drawn like moths back to the flames of their fragile campfire and the ghosts of his past that drifted on the smoke. Legolas had the ability to draw the truth from him like poison regardless of intentions. Yet the pain of its telling exhausted him, and he would speak no more.

"And, the other scars?" Legolas hedged after the silence had settled thickly around them. His voice was soft, almost pleading, as his need to know outpaced his fear of the answers. "Are they also souvenirs?"

It seemed that Estel would not answer him, but then finally he spoke. "It is not an easy thing, killing your own kind," he said at last, his tone so matter-of-fact that it set Legolas reeling, but — heedless — Estel spoke on. "Orcs do it to settle their disputes and feel no remorse at the deed." And only then did Estel turn to face him, and the Prince stifled a gasp at the pained desperation he saw in the ranger's eyes.

"I would not be an orc, Legolas. I will not dismiss the men's lives I've taken. I will not forget that my hands spilled their blood. These scars, they remind me that I am human still — that I have not become that which we fight so hard against."

Legolas was rendered speechless for the second time that night. As an elf of the third age, he had no scale with which to measure himself against his friend's anguish. For so long he had seen Estel unable to match the measure of an elf, and now, for the first time, the Prince found that he could not match the measure of a man. A terrible weight seemed to have settled on Estel's shoulders, as though his spirit had bowed low under the punishing weight of all those scars. Completely at a loss, the Prince simply reached out and laid a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder.

"You are my brother," Legolas said at last, his voice soft with emotion. "Nothing will ever change that." The memories behind those scars was a burden on Estel's soul that he could not change. All he had to offer was himself, and he counted no cost.

Legolas watched the oddly poignant sight that was his heart's brother tentatively reaching out and finding comfort in those words. As the declaration settled Estel's features slowly softened into a weak smile, his hand reaching up to grasp the one that still sat atop his shoulder.

"And you are mine," he returned, paying truth for truth.

Legolas withdrew his hand from his friend's grasp and draped that arm across the man's shoulders. Estel shifted to lean into the embrace and Legolas, moved by an impetus he could not name, let his sense of self stretch out in the manner of one elf towards another, until his fëa found Estel's own adan spirit, felt the disbelieving awe and humbled reverence with which his friend accepted such a gift — for indeed, a gift it was. Never before had Legolas offered himself so.

"Sleep, Estel," Legolas directed, and once again his voice carried the weight of years and the authority of the older brother, though this time he knew that Estel did not mind. "I will keep the watch this night."

The Prince did not need to speak more; his meaning was clearly felt. Here, by the glow of a forgotten fire, Legolas had placed himself as sentry over Estel's dreams. The nightmares which would have returned on the thundering heels of memory would not reach Estel tonight.

"Hannon le," he murmured, the lure of untroubled rest already drooping his eyelids.

Legolas merely smiled softly, and as he shifted his grip on the man to offer his friend as much comfort as possible his eyes drifted heavenwards. The Gil-Estel burned brightly overhead — brighter than it had ever been in recent memory — and the smile broadened.

"Hannon le," he echoed, his words meant for Eärendil himself, for the man in his arms was the scion of the Mariner and of them both, it had been the mortal that first gave Legolas the gift of hope. He would cherish it always.

The Gil-Estel twinkled brilliantly for a moment before continuing it journey. Legolas's smile bubbled briefly into a laugh before he dropped his gaze and returned his attention to the night. He had a watch to keep.

Translations and such:

Malta ja alka hila val súli: As Umbar had been sundered from Gondor for something like 1280 years at the time of Thorongil's travels, it is reasonable to assume then that their language followed suit. Hence I've given them something of a pidgin Quenya, with words borrowed from Finnish (one of Tolkien's inspiration languages) to fill the gaps and preserve the syntax. The translation follows: Malta (Q: gold) ja (F: and) alka (from 'alkar' Q: glory) hila (Q: follow) val (from 'vaalea' F: fair) súli (Q: winds).

Elleth: female elf.

Mellonin: a compound word formed from 'mellon' (friend) and 'nin' (mine/of me). This formulation is pure fanon.

Adan: man

Fëa: the Elven soul

Hannon le: thank you

Manwë's breath: As Manwë is said to be the 'Lord of the Breath of Arda' I thought a variant would fit as an Elven curse, akin to 'God's teeth,' or something of that ilk.