The story: This is the sixth part in the Mithrin series, following "Those Whose Names Change". It's yet another long one-shot set in Rivendell around seventy years before the War. Having learnt Estel's true identity from Thranduil, Legolas has set off to find him. It's necessary to have read the other parts in this series to properly understand this one.
Timeline: This takes place in the Third Age (III) 2951, in the same year as the rebuilding of Barad-dûr (The Dark Tower) commences on the plateau of Gorgoroth in Mordor. Now Aragorn has turned 20 and come of age. Only a few weeks have passed since Legolas left Mirkwood.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Warning: This is an Aragorn/Legolas pairing, which means slash. OBSERVE: This part contains a scene that some people might find disturbing, hence the rating. Better safe than sorry, I figure.
A/N: Thank you for coming all this way with me. Some of you I know well, others less – some of you not at all. No matter your name, may happiness be yours. To all of you who review: thank you. If no one did, I would not be writing. This is for you.
Special thanks to Michelle for calming me down ;)
The hidden valley of Imladris, Tuilë, III 2951
They have followed us since we left. At a distance at first, now they ride closer. I do not speak with them.
At night, they stay near enough to guard me should danger crawl in the shadows, but they are respectful. I do not know what I have done to deserve it.
Êl's hooves meet the ground numbly. He must be exhausted by now but he will not complain. He senses my worries – my distraught… my fear.
The terrible fears that ripple through my body, that tear at my soul. I will myself to stay calm enough to ride, but I find no solace anywhere.
And I wonder: will I find solace in your arms?
When I do not even know who you are.
The afternoon light is cold, it pierces my lungs and filters through the air to create a feeling of uncaring and remoteness – within and without.
We ride fast and yonder lies your home.
I cannot believe you have lied to me. I will not believe that.
I choose to think that you did not know yourself. But how is that possible?
Must I let you go now? Must you seek out some future that leads you far, far away from me?
What do I do if you cannot answer my questions?
There is no snow left on the road, nor beneath the trees. The lands are barren and dry. Greys and dirty browns mingle until one cannot tell a stone from the dead grass. Marshes, fields and roads, they all look the same. Êl knows this way by now and I suppose it could be said that it is he who carries me – not I who ride him.
Somewhere behind an unmoving, compact wall of white-grey clouds hides Anor. She will not show me her glorious face but I do not see why she should; this world is dull, lifeless and unresponsive. The faint thuds of Êl's hooves are swallowed up by nothingness.
We ride past the field preceding Imladris and guards approach us. My identity is no longer a secret, nor has it been for many years.
"Mae Govannen! You are most welcome to the valley, Prince Legolas."
"Le hannon," I answer automatically, my voice detached. "My kinsmen are behind me. I speak for them also when I ask permission to enter the valley."
"Of course," the Head of Guard nods. He curiously surveys the small group of approaching Mirkwood-elves, but he speaks amiably. "Your company is not very large."
"No," I say. "We wished to ride swiftly."
This is not the entire truth and had not my father ordered them to follow me, I would have come alone. The guard seems happy to chat but I look past him, into the dreary daylight that slips between the trees.
"I am eager to reach the House."
He gives a quick bow and steps aside. His gaze lingers on me however, and stays there, as I kick Êl into motion and speed down the remaining lanes to your home.
My eyes roam the woods as I ride – so close to the place where all riddles, by the mercy of the Valar, might be answered. I see no hooded form, no shape of any living creature amongst the trees. You have not come to greet me.
But someone else has.
Lord Elrond is waiting in the courtyard, haggard and drawn. He has swept a heavy cloak around his proud shoulders but no amount of fabric can hide the anxiousness that seeps from his form. Creases of worry line his forehead and there is no smile upon his lips when he sees me. Êl slows his pace and we finally come to a stop, next to your father.
He is grim, standing tall but silent, and for a moment I think he will not even speak. Then he reaches up and takes the reins from my gloved hands. His voice is low, with exhaustion hovering on its edges.
"Down by the flower beds in the gardens, where the herbs grow, there is a small path that leads into the woods. Take it and walk as far as you can. He is there."
Wordless, I flee the courtyard.
It is not even a path. It is a narrow trail, hidden among brambles that claw at me and sharp thorns that slow my pace by grasping my clothes and tugging me backwards. I, who thought I could never curse any life form, hear my own frustration building within, urging me to scream and thrash. I fight the bushes and shove aside the inquisitive branches that scratch my face. My hair tangles in the twigs leaping forward and I pull at it in desperation.
Most of the daylight is leaving this place. It is in a hurry to reach the gardens where it can properly mirror itself in the shiny, evergreen leaves of the holly and the laurel. In here it cannot conquer the shadows and I wonder why Elrond has chosen not to tend to these parts of Imladris.
Roots spring up and test my feet as I struggle on. I have no idea for how long I have stumbled and staggered, and I do not know where I am going. I sense nothing except the hostility of these woods that seem to lead into a different realm entirely.
My breathing is heavy but quick and I am both warm and cold. Fervently I wish for an end to this or I fear I shall be lost; I do not dare to look back in case I cannot see the trail behind me. These trees will not speak to me and no amount of pleading would make them change their minds.
And then, just like that, I am forced to stop. Interwoven branches cut off the track, building a wall of dried stems and withering leaves that winter has not torn apart. My first reaction is to throw myself at them, forcing a way through, but angering this place will not help me. Stunned, and with despair washing over me I realise I am ready to give up.
I do not understand.
Minutes pass. I stand staring at the branches. They mock me not – they are simply there.
The tiniest of movements in the corner of my eye catches all of my attention. I cannot see what has shifted, but I can see the way the undergrowth has been assaulted by heavier boots than mine. To my left, someone has left the narrow trail and made their way around the barrier of entwined branches. Swallowing hard, I follow.
Only after a few paces the woods open up before me. They form no clearing, but they stand further apart, growing by themselves rather than around each other. All is quiet.
Then I see what I have come looking for.
And something stabs my heart.
Swathed in a dark cloak, huddled against the roots of a gnarled blackthorn, there you are. All of your beautiful energy has left you empty; your head is resting on your knees I think, and you are staring unseeingly into the cold air.
With my breath stuck in my throat, perhaps I mean to approach you but I stop. I see my own outstretched hand falling numbly towards the ground and I have no strength to try again.
But you know I am here for slowly, so very slowly, you turn your head around to face me.
The void within you hurts me more than a blade ever could. Gone is the sparkle in the grey, and missing are all the hopes and dreams I know were there before.
For an eternity you sit staring at me.
I am not sure I have found you after all.
I break the silence at last. I must, or I shall go mad.
"Estel?" I whisper.
It is painful to look at you, and yet I could not avoid you for anything.
You move not, you do not even blink.
What more can I do?
There is one thing – one dreadful thing. I could call you by another name, one that has no meaning and no connection to you whatsoever.
A reaction was all I sought, but as soon as the word has left my lips I know it is a mistake.
Your eyes flash dangerously, suddenly, as if lightning flares through your body. Still, you do not move even the slightest. Your hiss pierces the compact air.
"Never! Never, call me that again."
I take it back! Please, Estel, I take it back!
"I am sorry." There is no strength in my voice and I am pleading.
"Never use that name!"
I will not.
Oh, I promise you I will not!
Before my eyes you abruptly stagger to your feet, your hair wild and tousled. "Never, Legolas! Do you hear me?"
You are accusing me of something that has no name. Your eyes are now shimmering with an anger that threatens to capture your soul. I can see it, but I know not how to handle it. I have never seen you like this before. You take a step closer, shoving aside the thick grass that seems to shrink away at your ire. Another step and now you are shaking.
"Do you hear me?!"
"I do… I do, please…"
Afraid, I step backwards but you are too fast for me. With a force I could never imagine you possessing, you lunge yourself at me and tear at my clothes. Your strong hands, your human hands, grab my shoulders and you savagely push me up against a tree, growling like a wild beast.
I fall at your feet, if not physically, then mentally. Fear born out of haunting memories takes hold of me and rips me apart. Your hands and his mingle and the anger in your eyes becomes the hatred in his. When you snort, his grim laughter rings in my ears and my stomach turns over.
"Never!" you spit as the bark cuts into my back and the breath is forced out of my lungs.
I struggle to break free but you are too strong, pushing your own body against mine and then your hard mouth crashes against mine.
I writhe under the pressure, unable to throw you off me. Your teeth scrape against my lips and I taste blood and dirt. My own blood trickling from tiny wounds caused by you. I cannot breathe, but you do not care as you force my mouth open and thrusts your tongue inside. I begin thrashing, trying to push you away, forcing my head aside.
Small silver sparks are invading my vision as your hands begin to roam over my upper body. I feel them fighting many layers of clothing but awareness is slowly slipping away as the world spins faster and faster around me. Greedily your mouth covers my own and the pressure causes a wave of nausea to crash over me. The sparks are being defeated by darkness and I desperately need air. In a last attempt, driven by great fear, I try a twisted kick that hits you hard somewhere. I know not where, only that my boot has met soft flesh for you wrench away, releasing me at last.
Gasping I crash to the ground, clutching at my throat as evil cries cuts through me and dark, bloodstained images invade my mind. My throat is burning with every raspy breath I draw and I cringe in the dead grass.
I am too lost to hear you properly, but I sense it when you cast yourself to the ground and throw your arms around me.
"Look at me! Legolas!"
You are screaming, rocking me, urging me to breathe and I do as you will. Slowly, my vision clears and air fills my lungs easier. It rushes inside and I cough violently, but I do breathe.
"Legolas… Legolas…" You are sobbing, wetting my neck, my hair, my throat.
No, it is not so. You are not merely sobbing – you are crying. You are pouring out your soul in the form of salty tears.
"Saes, meleth nin… Thuio! Thuio…"
Your words soften, but they continue to flow, repeating over and over again the message. The rocking is gentler now and I close my eyes, gathering my own energy together. And all the while I do as you beg:
And I cry. I join you in the mourning of a world that has shattered and been reborn. That has formed into something unknown and undesired. Yes, I join you, for I can never leave you.
Time passes slowly in this strange place. I lie on the ground, on my side with knees to my chest and arms securing them – unwillingly perhaps, for I think I would much rather hold you. But acutely I know: I do not do so.
Behind me, you are edging closer, unseen by my eyes that have closed in an attempt to transform reality. It is a fruitless endeavour of course for what hope is left to us?
The very essence of your being is lost to me and if you will not try, then what good can I do?
But the forces in these woods will not let me drift off; no matter how much I let go, something keeps bringing me back to the present: a chill gust of air, the eerie call of a lonely bird, or an occasional sob that racks your frame.
Thus afternoon melts into early evening and the shadows begin to stretch; they creep towards us, soundlessly but steadily. Your crying has stopped and all around us now is silence. Already my body seems to have forgotten what an extraordinary gift life is – it is breathing on its own, my shoulder rising and falling automatically, by instinct rather than will.
"Legolas?" So softly.
Slowly I turn my head to look at you and I am surprised at what I see. Yes, your eyes are rimmed with red, and deep down in the grey there is a flicker of worry, but your expression is calm and gentle. A few twigs have tangled in your hair and... your chin and cheeks are stubbly. I had not noticed before.
And so in this moment I fully realise you are not the boy of whom my father spoke with such distaste: you are truly grown now.
You must see my eyes stray from yours, but you do not call them back. You let me watch you as if you know how badly I need to adapt, to grow accustomed to this new version of you – even though you cannot know yourself who you really are.
You. You. You.
A man without a name – or with many.
I wonder if it matters, but immediately I know the answer.
Yes it does.
To me, to you, to everyone. To this world that we live in. To Eä itself.
I turn to face you wholly, shifting to lie against you face to face. But even as I lift a hand to feel the bristly cheek before me, your expression does not change. It is still calm, still gentle.
I move from your cheek to your temple, to your hair. I know your hair. It is long, as long as it was only a few months ago. I run my fingers through it and take comfort in the familiarity of the sensation. Silently, you let me have my way with it and I twine the locks, release them and capture them once more. Finally, I let my hand come to a rest somewhere near your neck.
It is then that you speak.
"I wish to give you back what I took from you." Your voice is low but steady. It holds no urgency, but you are serious. "Please, Legolas..." Your eyes do not leave mine.
I watch intently as you draw a long breath and lean in closer. Automatically I open up to you and I understand what you wish to do. As you exhale I inhale, drinking down the air that you offer in return for the breath that you stole from my body. I fill my lungs completely until I think I will burst – and then I let go. When I do, you do not breathe.
Then I kiss you.
You wrap your arms around me and I am more aware of them holding me than your lips brushing mine. I nestle closer, craving more contact to convince myself that I am safe. Instantly, you slow down as if afraid to see history repeated and your mouth barely touches my lips, and so I become the one who deepens the kiss. My hand in your hair is encouraging you but you are still not sure and I must show you. How this is done I hardly know, but my mouth opens of its own accord and if I had any thoughts to spare I would wonder at the courage of my tongue as it sneaks forward to taste your lower lip. A tiny gasp escapes you but your arms strengthen their hold and your energy seems to finally awaken. When you let me inside your mouth, at last the surrounding world and reality dissipates.
Willingly we drift. Your tongue slides against mine and I taste you time and again, determined to remember every moment. Our bodies unmoving, we spiral together in this realm where we have never been before but where I could stay until the end of time.
But eventually we are lowered back to the ground upon which we rest. We end the kiss and there is regret within you, even though you hope it was not the last one we shared, I see it in the way your eyes are shining and the dazed and almost embarrassed smile that touches your reddened lips. But light is a fickle gift and it dwindles and dies. As do smiles, even the rarest ones.
"Do you know what scares me the most?" Reality is once more upon us and your gaze falls to the grass that stubbornly lies pressed between our bodies. "That you will not accept me."
I know. And I know also my own weakness.
I too am afraid I might not accept you.
Your voice is only a whisper now. Insecure and unsure. "I am sorry."
There is your apology, floating in the air before us – it is the result of your need to word your distress.
You open your mouth to speak but this time I stop you by placing a finger on your lips. "Wait, I will not talk here." It is so, but my own words appear alien to me.
Night is falling swiftly around us and when we rise the shadows immediately weave around our feet. For a moment you stand as if lost, as if you have forgotten the way back to the house and the warmth. Your cloak is falling around you and effectively hides you in the growing darkness. I shudder at the chill which is unusual, but this captures your attention and life returns to your eyes. You give me a weak smile that bears no resemblance to the smile I like to see in your face.
For yet another moment you hesitate but then you reach out to take my hand.
I give it to you and we begin walking. This time the trees allow us safe passage. I know not if this is because I am with you now and if you have reached an agreement of some sorts with them, or if they are silently watching and waiting. Whatever the reason, I am grateful.
The gardens are deserted and not much sound seeps out from behind doors and drapes. Small lanterns and candle flames challenge the night but they will not defeat it. We make for the small garden door, meaning to slip inside unnoticed – even if none of us have said so, this is our intention. I do not know what has passed between you and your family and I have no wish to see anyone other than you tonight.
However, as it is, not every wish is granted. We have not walked far when the sound of light footfall reaches us and there is no other warning before Glorfindel rounds a corner and stops dead in his tracks.
Undoubtedly he sees the state we are in: the dirt clinging to us both, hair tousled and in disarray. But his eyes come to rest upon something else and it is clear that he had not expected this.
He had not expected to see you holding my hand and the lack of distance between us.
Nothing happens for long moments and I begin to think I have strayed into a dream. Riding here at a heedless speed, finding you in the woods and slipping into some nameless world... And now meeting Glorfindel like this – openly displaying that which we have not spoken of ourselves. You do not move, but your hand reaffirms its grip and almost unconsciously I lean closer to you.
Glorfindel's eyes rise to your face and alarm is painted across his golden features. "Estel?"
He reaches out to you but you flinch and evade the touch.
"No." More despair than determination flows from you. You shake your head vigorously and like a frightened animal you dash forward, dragging you with me as you will not let me go. I stumble after you as another of Glorfindel's anguished pleas sting the air.
You round the corner and I throw a hurried glance back, silently seeking some kind of explanation. But all I have time to see is the desperate appeal to me to take care of things when no one else can.
Your room lies in darkness and it is as if everything but contours and corners have been swallowed up by the night. Only once before have I been here – the night of the May celebration when I placed the blooming athelas on your pillow. It is now almost five years ago and this time you are right behind me.
The door closes noiselessly and so does nothing to break the silence that encases us. Without words you ushered me inside, with gestures that made it so clear that you desire to be sheltered and secure.
But what now?
What happens now that you lean heavily against the wood, covering your face with your hands?
What happens now that you slowly sink to the floor?
Still silent, still alone.
And within me stirs an unwelcome knowledge that twists and turns into an awful truth: in some ways you will always be alone.
You know this too; I can sense it the way you sit and in the way you so desperately cling to your own form – the only part of your reality that you know is truly yours. If this hurts me, it must be a hundred times more painful for you.
But somehow I cannot go to you. How can I help you when all I feel is fear?
And then I know something else: you can offer me no answers for you too have nothing but questions.
Thus we are separated and yet connected, and it is this bond that I must rely on when I finally force my feet to move. There is room beside you and I drop to the floor, feeling exhaustion overtaking me. I close my eyes but your face still dances before me as it always will, no matter if we know joy or sorrow, or if we are together.
"He told me he loves me." A broken whisper.
Drained of every proper emotion, I open my eyes but you are not looking at me. You are hugging your knees and staring into the darkness with unfocused eyes.
"Who loves you?" I try to sound gentle but there is no melody in my voice.
"Lord Elrond." You swallow. "He told me he loves me like he does Elladan and Elrohir... like a son." Tears are filling your grey gaze and you let them fall freely. "Why did I not know?" Suddenly you straighten up and fix me with a desperate stare. "Why did he not tell me, Legolas?!"
You are crying openly and your shoulders are shaking. For the second time this day I see you breaking down in front of me, but this is also what finally awakens me. Decisively I wrap my arms around you and bring you close, allowing your fists to pound my upper arms in frenzy.
Your voice is muffled, seeping out from underneath your hair, but you repeat the words as if they were part of a chant. "He never told me... Why did he not tell me?"
There is no possibility to rock you and soothe you, for you do not listen and right now you are too strong, or the power of frustration and anger is. Instead I fight to keep us upright and run my hands down your back to at least show you I listen.
Yes, meleth nin, this time I hold you and even though I cannot promise you anything, this night I am here.
Gradually you calm down and lose your words to the surrounding shadows. The flow of tears stop and you exhale slowly and deeply. When you disentangle yourself from me I let you pull back slightly. You look utterly worn out and even in here I can see the dark circles under your eyes.
"I do not know, Estel. I am sorry."
You nod, once, twice, and maybe in some other time you would bite your lip and examine me closely as if I possessed all wisdom in Arda.
"I just thought... I thought he... was, well, indifferent. I guess."
"Why would you think that?" I ask you, but deep down I know there is no need.
This you know also so you say nothing.
I brush my fingertips over your forehead and your gaze drops. You lean into the touch and breathe slowly.
"Glorfindel saw us."
"Yes," you say simply. "He and... adar, Elrond, ran after me when I fled."
I frown and comb my fingers through your tangled hair. "'Fled?'"
"From the house..."
"Estel," I am serious now, worried. "For how long were you in the woods?"
You shrug and dive into my embrace once more. "A few hours."
I hold you willingly but I am not sure I believe you. "Elrond knew where you were..."
Your arms hesitantly encircle my waist even though the position must be awkward. "I said I wanted to be alone."
I do not answer at once and then the moment seems to have passed. I much desire to clear this up, but there are other matters that are far more important, and I would need to speak with Elrond too... Tired, I let my head drop to your shoulder.
After some time, when I have nearly fallen asleep twice, I gently shake you.
"Estel, we cannot stay on the floor like this... Please?"
You stir and slowly release me. I do not know how you did it, but somehow you must have drifted off because you blink several times before you suddenly stiffen visibly.
"Are you leaving?"
For the first time in many, many days I manage to smile. "No, not if you want me to?"
"I want you to stay..."
"Not on the floor."
My words cause you to give me a small smile in return. Unsteadily we rise to our feet with straining muscles and disapproving backs and necks. You stretch reflexively and then shrug off your long coat and drop it unceremoniously on a chair. I loosen my belt and toe off my boots while you light a couple of candles by the bed. You pull back the covers and remove the rest of your clothes, leaving only leggings and a thin tunic on. I copy you and walk over to where you are standing.
You turn to me and I see you have changed, as if these mundane tasks have balanced your energy. You are calm again, standing tall by my side, gazing at me in the humble candlelight.
"How come you are here, Legolas?"
"I needed to see you," I answer you truthfully. "When I learned of your true identity I needed to see you." There is much more I could say but this is enough for now.
You tilt your head to the side and your eyes remain fixed on my face. "So you too ran?"
"No," I smile weakly. "I rode."
A grin crosses your features and it carries the radiance of the Sun. "I am glad you did."
I nod, unable to speak.
And you have one more question to ask me this never-ending night.
"Legolas..." You step up closer, trailing a finger down my cheek with such grace that I must hold my breath. "May I kiss you?"
I wait, just for a second or two. I wish to have this moment to remember when the paths once more are cut off by brambles and thorns, when there are more shadows than light, and when no Moon is seen in the sky. In the future I wish to know that at least I shared something with someone.
"Let me hold you."
I pull you into my arms. You mould against my body and wait until I am ready. It takes time for me to adapt, I know, but I try, and when I hold you close enough I breathe in the earthy scent of your skin. You wait a little longer but soon your lips blindly seek out my mouth and cover them gently. For another moment, we remain unmoving. Then, tentatively, you begin.
When we lie in bed sometime later and my arms encircle you, I can feel your lips still on mine. Or maybe the kiss has not ended and we are sharing the same dream? For asleep I must be, because I have not known a calm like this for many weeks.
But as the night deepens further, my dreams change and into them slips – unchecked and unhindered – other images whose shadows are long and deftly finger my soul.
Translations, all Sindarin:
Anor – the Sun
Mae Govannen – well met
Le hannon – thank you
Saes – please
meleth nin – my love
Thuio – breathe
adar - father
Eä - the Universe
Arda - the World
Athelas is a healing herb brought to Middle-earth by the Númenóreans, also known as Kingsfoil. You will remember that Legolas left a blooming athelas in Estel's bedroom before he left for Mirkwood in 'Seeing You'.