Author's Notes: Thank you once again to all those of you who reviewed the last chapter! ((huggles)) Calril, I'm very glad you keep enjoying the story! ;-) Sorry for being a bit late with posting this chapter – Real Life and rabid plot bunnies demanded my complete attention for a while. (g)
Beta: the wonderful Imbecamiel ((hugs))
Disclaimer: Nope, I'm not Tolkien, they are not mine, and I'll give them all back once I'm done playing with them. (cries)
- Destiny -
Chapter Three: An Elf's Destiny
"A good friend remembers what we were
and sees what we can be."
"You are not crippled," Aragorn replied more harshly than he intended to, "nor will I ever see you that way! You are much more than just a warrior."
"Shall I plant vegetables? Or perhaps take up healing? Or become a bard?" the elf demanded, and then shook his head. "I am sorry, Aragorn, but that is something I cannot do. I am not even sure if a one-armed farmer, healer, or bard would be of much use, and a warrior is what I am, at least for as long as evil still exists in this world. I cannot imagine an existence where I would not be able to defend myself and what I hold dear anymore, would not be able to practice archery, or even to climb trees without assistance! What kind of life would that be?"
His voice failed him, and Aragorn could feel a slight tremor run through the body under his hand. In an almost unconscious response, his fingers once again tightened their grip on the elf's shoulder. "Is that what you have been thinking about all this time?"
"How could I not think about it?" Legolas replied, meeting his gaze with desperate intensity. "I do not know how or when you will fulfill your destiny, but one thing I know is that there will a battle before the end, or more likely, several. If this wound does not heal… it would mean that my place is not at your side anymore. I would become a risk and a burden for you, and nothing more."
"So that is why you did not want to tell me about your injury?" the ranger wanted to know.
"I intended to wait… until I knew if the worst would come true. I do not want to become a stumbling block in your path, Estel. I meant what I said. You do have enough concerns already. Whether you and I like it or not, they are far more important than my fate, whatever it will be."
"I disagree," objected Aragorn, who had been barely able to keep himself from interrupting the elf. "Your fate is very important to me, and to your father, and to Nestadren, and to Elladan and Elrohir, and to Elrond and Glorfindel, and to Bregir, and to countless others I could name. You are no stumbling block – you are my friend, and no orc axe will ever be able to change anything about that. Even if you were not able to stand beside me in battle anymore, your support would still be invaluable to me."
He gave the shoulder under his hand a gentle shake. Legolas turned his head away and Aragorn knew his friend was fighting to regain control of his emotions. He stayed silent, waiting patiently until the elf was ready to face him again. Finally, Legolas took a deep, shaky breath and raised his head. The bitterness was gone from his face, but the despair was still there. "That may be true," he said. "But perhaps it is not enough for me."
Aragorn caught his friend's gaze and held it, not willing to allow Legolas to withdraw into himself again. "Do you know there are one-armed soldiers in Gondor?" he asked, as if in passing. "I have met several of them. As you know, humans are much more prone to losing a limb after a severe injury than elves are."
"I doubt any of them was an archer," Legolas commented dismally.
The ranger very much felt like giving him another shake. "There are other weapons to fight with," he answered, dismissing the objection. "Even if you lose most of the mobility in your arm, you will still be a more dangerous fighter than most humans."
Legolas made no comment this time, but simply listened quietly.
Deciding to take that as a sign of encouragement, Aragorn went on, "You are almost as deadly with one knife as you are with two of them. You will still be able to fight."
"Aragorn, I am an archer," Legolas said, speaking slowly and firmly as if to a slow-witted child.
"You could learn to handle a crossbow," the ranger suggested. He could feel the elf stiffen even before he saw the disbelief flare up in his friend's eyes.
"You want me to learn to shoot like an orc?" he asked. "Perhaps I should start training with dwarves, too. Who knows, an axe might be a suitable weapon for a disabled elf!"
"I do not really think so," Aragorn answered calmly, "but if you want to try it, why not?"
Legolas' eyes narrowed. "I did not get where I am now because someone pressed a bow and twin knives in my hands and told me to go and kill orcs with them. I needed centuries of training to become the warrior I am. Even if I wanted to exchange my knives for something else now, I doubt you could afford to wait several centuries before you challenge Sauron!"
"I do not ask you to become an accomplished one-armed fighter by tomorrow," the ranger retorted. "But I think it would not be that much of an adjustment for you to use one long knife instead of your twin knives. I want you to at least consider that there may be no need to give up on what you are and what you want to be, even if the worst happens."
"Without being able to use a bow or at least twin knives, it would never be the same," the elf replied tonelessly. "I would not really be a warrior anymore. I would not even feel like a true wood elf anymore – how could I, if I am not able to even climb a tree?"
"As far as I have seen, most trees are perfectly willing and able to help you climb them," Aragorn asked him to consider.
Legolas said nothing and the ranger pressed his lips together tightly, wishing he knew how to get through to his stubborn friend. The elf was suffering, that much was clear, but for the first time since they had met each other Aragorn did not seem to be able to offer comfort to his friend in a way Legolas was willing to accept. He had known that this would not be easy, but he had hoped that his friendship and presence would help the elf, even if his words proved to be inadequate.
Aragorn leaned against the backrest of the bench, reluctantly taking his hand from Legolas' tense shoulder. It felt wrong somehow, as if he were cutting off the last connection he had to his friend right now. Suddenly he felt very tired and more than a little bit worried. Perhaps he really was unable to understand what Legolas was going through and what he needed. He could try to imagine how he would feel if he were in the elf's place, but the truth was, he would never know how he would react to such a cruel stroke of fate until he had lived through it.
Still, there was no way he could bring himself to simply leave it at that. Legolas needed him, even if he did not know what to do or to say. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if Nestadren had been right. Maybe he should have rested before he came here. His journey had been long and exhausting. Perhaps he would be able to find the right words if he could think a bit more clearly. He dismissed the thought almost as soon as it had come. Any delay in seeing Legolas would have made him more worried, but certainly not more rested.
He let his gaze wander over the oak trees and the clearing in front of them as if looking for inspiration, consciously becoming aware of the beauty of the sight for the first time since he had joined Legolas on the bench. There was something peaceful about the scenery, in spite of the situation. Here, where elves still lived, the forest did not really deserve to be called "Mirkwood". Birds were still singing high up in the branches of the trees, and sunlight filtered through the foliage, making the leaves glow. Bellflowers and columbines were growing at the edge of the clearing, adding delicate touches of blue and violet to the varied shades of green all around.
Aragorn noticed that the foliage seemed to rustle softly all around them, though there was no wind, as if the trees were constantly murmuring to each other. Also, the branches of the oak next to the bench on Legolas' side seemed to hang lower and be closer to the bench than Aragorn remembered ever seing them before. Not for the first time, the ranger wished he was able to understand the voices of the trees. He wondered if they were expressing their worry, or trying to offer comfort, or perhaps both.
He cast a look at the elf at his side. Legolas had not made a sound, nor moved since their conversation had broken off, but he seemed thoughtful rather than angry and the silence between them felt less tense. Aragorn decided that he had perhaps tried all of this the wrong way. "Legolas," he began tentatively, "I do know how much being an archer means to you. I probably cannot even begin to understand how hard this must be for you. I just hope you know… that I did not want to hurt you with anything I said."
"I know," Legolas replied softly. "I am sorry, Estel. I should not have snapped at you for trying to help me. I just… do not know how to deal with this. It may sound arrogant now, but I never thought something like this could happen to me."
"It does not sound arrogant," Aragorn said. "There is no way to be prepared for something like this. I do not know how to deal with it any better than you do, nor how I would react if it had happened to me."
"It would not happen to you," the elf said, and the quiet conviction in his voice surprised the ranger.
"Just let us assume for a moment that it would," Aragorn asked. "Would you truly see me as a useless cripple then, or want me to accept such a fate?"
"Of course not," Legolas replied indignantly, without thinking. "But that is different."
"Because of your destiny," Legolas said, as if the answer to Aragorn's question should have been obvious. "You know I am not gifted with foresight. But even if I did not know you the way I do, I would still trust the judgement of beings as wise and experienced as Lord Elrond and Mithrandir, who both believe you will be the one who will reclaim the throne of Gondor and lead your people into battle against the Dark Lord. I do not think it possible you could end up as a useless cripple. It is not your fate."
"Then why do you think it could be your fate?"
"I do not have any kind of predetermined destiny, Estel. Whatever happens to me will not change the fate of Middle-earth. It will only change the course of my own life."
"I believe your father and every elf in this kingdom might see that a bit differently," Aragorn remarked.
Legolas shrugged, but he did not meet his friend's eyes. "My death would change things for them," he said, "but I am not dead and I see no reason why I should die anytime soon, especially if I do not follow your advice and take up axe training with dwarves."
"Sometimes, my friend, you can be rather foolish," the ranger told him, unable to completely suppress a smile.
Legolas raised an eyebrow. "It was not me who came up with plans like that, and frankly, I fail to see what is so amusing about it."
"I am not talking about dwarves and axes," Aragorn clarified. "I am talking about your destiny. Do you still recall what you told me about our first meeting?"
"I am an elf, Aragorn. I am not likely to forget something that happened not even a century ago."
"You said you were my friend from the moment we first met," the ranger said, ignoring his friend's interjection, "but I was only a two-year-old child then. How did you know you even wanted to be the friend of the man I was to become, or that I would want to befriend you once I was old enough to think for myself?"
Legolas was silent for a moment, his face turning thoughtful. "It was just something I knew," he finally said. "I cannot say why or how."
Aragorn nodded. "Unlike you, I do possess the gift of foresight," he said, "and one thing I have always known is that you would be at my side, whatever happened and wherever my path would lead me. You know my destiny has ever been more a burden than a blessing for me, but it has always comforted me to know that I would not have to carry that burden alone. Halbarad, my brothers, and Gandalf will be part of whatever fate awaits me; but my fate and yours are interwoven so closely that I believe you will walk with me until the very end. I do not know what your destiny is, Legolas; but I know it is inseparable from mine."
He met his friend's gaze, allowing the elf to see the sincerity in his eyes when he added, "I will need you at my side. Even if you insist on calling yourself a cripple, useless is something you will never be. Not to me."
"Estel, you cannot allow yourself to believe that," the elf whispered, barely hidden pain in his eyes. "You will need a warrior at your side and not-" His voice trailed off and he made a vague gesture in the direction of his useless arm.
"I will need you," Aragorn contradicted, "whatever you will or will not be at that point. For all I know, we could both end up as cripples and still not have a better or worse chance of defeating the Dark Lord than we have now, especially since I do not have the slightest idea how to defeat him."
"If that is your way of motivating someone, I have to tell you that you need to work on your people skills," Legolas said. He still did not look entirely convinced, and his eyes were suspiciously bright, but a hint of a smile was playing at the corners of his mouth.
"See?" Aragorn said, smiling back at him. "I told you I need you! In case you have decided to become a bard by the time the last battle is upon us, perhaps you could write my motivating speeches for me. Or compose a inspiring marching song, or sing at the campfire and keep us all from falling into despair with the sweetness of your voice. And in case you turn out to be a poor bard, your singing will hopefully at least drive the orcs away."
Legolas looked as if he could not decide whether to swat his friend, protest, or laugh. Finally, he turned away, but the ranger had already seen the grin he was trying to hide. Aragorn could feel his own smile broadening, but, unlike his friend, he did not see any reason to hide it. Feeling that Legolas needed some time to think about what he had said, the ranger did not speak again, content to wait until his friend was ready to share his thoughts with him.
In the ensuing silence, Aragorn noticed that the rustling and murmuring of the trees had calmed down. It almost seemed to him as if they were watching, or perhaps rather listening. To his surprise, the feeling was not unpleasant. The oak trees here in the Queen's Garden felt friendlier than any other trees Aragorn had ever "met" and right now they seemed to radiate approval and encouragement in their own silent way.
Eying the trunks of the oak trees around them thoughtfully, the ranger wondered idly if Gondor would accept a king who had the strange habit of listening to trees – and actually cared about what they had to say. Spotting some sudden movement out of the corner of his eye, Aragorn turned his head to look closer at one of the trunks and saw a familiar-looking figure withdrawing soundlessly into the shadows beneath the low, overhanging branches. The figure paused, perhaps sensing it was being watched.
For a moment, the ranger caught a glimpse of golden hair and his eyes met the green, ageless ones of a stately elf, who would have looked very much like Legolas, had it not been for his broader shoulders and chiselled features. King Thranduil smiled and nodded at him, allowing him to see the grateful relief in his eyes, and then he was gone, melting into the shadows. Aragorn blinked. He would have been tempted to believe he had just had some kind of strange vision, if he had not been so used to seeing elves appear and disappear in and from the strangest places from one moment to the next while he was staying in this particular forest.
Besides, some of the leaves close to the place where Thranduil had been a moment ago trembled slightly, indicating that something or someone had just passed between them. Aragorn shook his head with a smile. He should have expected Thranduil to show up sooner or later. It made him wonder how long the king had been standing there and how much of their conversation he had heard.
He cast a glance at Legolas, but the elf was looking in the opposite direction and did not seem to have noticed his father's presence. Aragorn suppressed a sigh. He could only hope that the trust both the trees and the king seemed to place in him was justified. The ranger was not sure if he had been able to convince his friend. The one thing he knew for certain was that he had no intention to allow Legolas to give up on himself or to simply vanish from his life, so he would not stand in the way of his glorious destiny.
However, he was also aware that Legolas could be exceedingly stubborn, especially if he believed himself to be doing something not for his own, but for a friend's sake. What made things even more difficult was that this situation would not just go away, at least if Legolas' arm did not heal the way it should. It was something Legolas would have to learn to live with – something they both would have to learn to live with. Aragorn was not under the illusion that this would be easy, but it would still be far better than losing his friend, either to death or to the misguided notion that Aragorn would be better off without him.
"You are impossible," the elf in question suddenly said, interrupting his thoughts. "You know that, don't you?"
Taken by surprise, Aragorn looked at his friend questioningly. The elf was not smiling anymore, but there was amusement in his eyes. "Why?" he wanted to know. Relieved that his friend's good mood did not seem to have changed, he suddenly could not resist teasing the elf. "Because I like your singing? I cannot really picture you as a bard, but I believe you would do well as one."
Legolas grimaced. "Could we talk about something else for a moment?"
The ranger nodded, quickly turning serious again. "You know I meant what I said before, don't you?" he enquired. "I was not just trying to comfort you."
"I know that, Estel. All that talk about crossbows and dwarves and bards was not particularly comforting, anyway." It was a feeble joke, and Legolas did not even attempt a smile. "Aragorn, I… I do not know if I can do this. I have always admired Nestadren for his courage. I cannot imagine what it must have cost him to choose to stay, instead of sail and be whole again."
"I believe the cost was not as high as you think," Aragorn remarked, thinking of the warmth and pride he had seen in Nestadren's eyes when he was looking at Legolas, or even Thranduil, and believed himself to be unobserved. As far as he knew, most of the ancient elf's family and relatives were in the Halls of Mandos now and would not be waiting for him at the shores of Valinor. It had always seemed to him Nestadren had found another family that needed him right where he was.
Legolas just looked at him, and Aragorn read in the elf's eyes what his friend did not want or could not bring himself to say. He was scared. The ranger could not blame him. He would have been scared, too. This was a foe you could not fight. You could only wait and hope and, if all hope failed, learn to live with what seemed unacceptable. Instinctively, he put one hand on the elf's arm, a silent promise that they were in this together.
"Let us walk this path step by step," he said. "It is too early to worry about things that may not even happen. But if the worst comes to pass, I do not want you to lose hope. There will always be a place for you here, and there will always be a place for you at my side. I have always treasured your abilities, Legolas, but you are not my friend because you are one of the best archers in Middle-earth. It would not have made any difference to me if you had been a shoemaker."
The elf could not stifle a laugh at that, though Aragorn did not miss the fact that it was slightly shaky. A bit more softly, he added, "And if all of that is not enough, there is also a place for you beyond the sea." The last was something he did not even want to think about, but he wanted Legolas to feel free to make that choice, if it became necessary. Anything else would not have been fair towards his friend.
Legolas looked at him intently for a long moment, as if trying to see straight into his soul. Aragorn did not look away, though the intensity of the gaze made him feel like squirming under the close scrutiny. Growing up in an elven household had made him able to withstand such a gaze, but he doubted he would ever be able to get used to it completely. Finally, the elf lowered his gaze, seemingly having found whatever he had been searching for, and the ranger had to suppress a sigh of relief.
"It seems to me," Legolas said, his voice gentle, "that I am not the only one who can be rather foolish sometimes." Leaving Aragorn no chance to say anything to that, he went on, "I think it would be a good idea if I learned how to use a crossbow. Just in case."
Aragorn stared at him, not sure he had heard right. "Are you sure?"
"There may be other places that would welcome me," the elf answered with a soft smile, looking directly into his friend's eyes, "but there is only one place where I want to be."
Feeling as if a heavy weight had just been taken from his heart, Aragorn felt an answering smile spreading on his face. For once, he found himself unable to think of any words to say, but he knew the elf would read the silent gratitude in his eyes.
"Besides, it would be interesting to beat the orcs with their own weapons for a change," Legolas added thoughtfully, a mischievous glint in his eyes.
"I have no doubt you will prove to be very efficient at it," the ranger said, his smile widening into a smirk. Perhaps the battle might not be won yet, but he was beginning to think they had won the first fight. Suddenly, he became very aware of how tired, hungry, and dirty he felt. "Now that we have settled that question, I think I could really do with a bath, something to eat, and a bed – not necessarily in that sequence."
This time Legolas did laugh. "That you could," he affirmed, smirking at the ranger, "and I believe the sequence is just right!"
Aragorn would have liked to elbow him, but did not dare jar the elf's injured arm, so he settled for a glower. He made to stand, but found one of his hands seized before he was able to rise from the bench. He looked at Legolas questioningly. The elf squeezed his fingers tightly. "Thank you," he said softly.
"Life would be entirely too boring without you at my side," Aragorn stated, turning his fingers in the elf's grip to be able to return the pressure. "I am beginning to think the Valar must have sent you to annoy me."
Legolas grinned. "It is good to know I have a destiny after all!" With these words, he let go of the ranger's hand and stood, smiling down at his friend. "I thought you wanted to get a bath?"
Shaking his head, the ranger arose. "I can find my way without you, Elf."
"I am not so sure of that, Ranger. It seems you do not find your way to a bath too often. You seem to be quite good at finding dust, though. And mud."
Following his friend back to the same path he had come from a while ago, Aragorn was beginning to wonder why he had ever thought having Legolas back to being his usual annoying self would be something good. "They find me," he countered. "Besides, it is perfectly natural to be dusty after a long journey!"
"It is," the elf agreed, "for a ranger."
Having just walked right into the low-hanging branch of a tree, because he had been paying more attention to impertinent elves than to his surroundings, Aragorn was momentarily unable to come up with any kind of intelligible answer. When he had freed himself from the tree's clutches, he saw that Legolas was already several steps ahead. Of course the same branch that had ensnared the ranger had caused no problems for the wood elf. Brushing two leaves from his shoulders and pulling a small twig out of his hair, Aragorn looked back at the clearing and the ring of oak trees behind them.
The clearing lay now bathed in sunlight streaming in through a gap in the foliage above. Some of the leaves were moving lazily in a light breeze, but otherwise there was no suspicious movement and no sound. If the trees had ever murmured, they were silent now. Aragorn started to turn away when a deep feeling of contentment that was not his own washed over him and he felt the branch he had just freed himself from nudge him from behind, tousling his hair.
Spinning around and hastily stepping aside, the ranger stared first at the branch and then at the oak it belonged to unbelievingly. Both looked quite ordinary and innocent. Deciding – or rather, hoping –that he was imagining things, Aragorn still gave the branch a wide berth and stepped back onto the path he had been following, moving backwards for a couple of steps to avoid letting the branch out of his sight.
"The baths are this way," a merry voice called from somewhere in front of him, "if you do not prefer to go all the way back to the caverns, that is."
Deciding that being teased by a wood elf was still preferrable to being hugged by a tree, Aragorn hastily quickened his steps to catch up to his friend. Behind him, the low-hanging branch shuddered slightly and then moved leisurely back into its previous position a good bit higher above the ground, without even so much as a creaking of wood or a rustling of leaves.
- The End -
As some of you may have guessed from the dedication, this story was inspired by Real Life events, which were a lot more tragic and sad than I wanted this story to be, but also gave me the chance to witness an amazing friendship between two women, one of which lost both of her legs due to an accident. Their story ended this year, with the death of one of them, but their friendship still lives on.
Where Aragorn and Legolas' story is concerned, I wanted it to have an open ending. The way things are, you can feel free to imagine the ending you want to have (though, if you want to see the story canon-verse, there is only one ending it could have).
Feedback is, as always, very welcome. :)