This story was written for the Estel Angst Central Contest "The Meaning of Friendship"
Thank to Kali for beta-ing this, and, most of all, for the inspirational prompt!
Adar – father
Ada – dad, daddy
Mellon nín – my friend
Mae govannen – well met
Elrondion – son of Elrond
Peredhel – half-elf
Tinúviel – nightingale
Eldar - elves
Tests of Friendship
Rivendell, 2935 T. A.
Light hoofs taped rhythmically on the soft ground and all horses neighed in joyous anticipation. It was a rare occasion that someone visited the stables before sunrise and perhaps whoever was coming was bringing treats. Those horses who had spent a longer time in Lord Elrond's home knew the hurried footsteps very well, and this only made their hearts race faster. Yes, a treat was surely coming.
Wethrin, however, had only spent a few months in these stables and had not yet recognized the early visitor's identity. This was why the silver-white stallion jumped in pleasant surprise when a small face, framed by disheveled dark hair, appear at the door. The horse had taken a liking to the little boy. An elven horse, he had rarely seen humans before, and this little mortal had piqued his curiosity.
"Good mo'ning, Wetin!" The four-year-old said softly and looked around, as if making sure no one had followed him. "You must come with me!" Estel added and held the wooden door wide open. "Come! Please!"
Wethrin was not restrained and was free to go, and yet he stayed. The horse obeyed his master and no one else. No, he would not leave, and the little boy knew that well. And this knowledge caused him a far greater pain than he had expected.
Estel looked around and spotted a high pile of hay. That would work! He took a fresh red apple out of his pocket and held it in front of the horse. "Come, Wetin! Vewy good apple!" The little boy mumbled and walked backwards. Wethrin's hazel eyes widened and focused on the tasty temptation. The edges of Estel's month turned upwards in a triumphant grin. Perhaps that would do.
Wethrin walked until he was hidden completely behind the hay. This was when he finally received his promised award, and his teeth sunk greedily into the juicy fruit. Estel took out a few more apples and left them on the floor. This would keep the horse here for a while.
The boy turned back and walked towards the door, nearly colliding with the newcomer. Estel gave a cry of surprise and jumped back. When he looked up, big grey eyes widened in a picture of pure innocence. "Good mo'ning, Lelas!"
"Good morning, Estel," the elf replied, carefully scrutinizing the boy. "You are up early."
"I know you aw leavin' today," the boy mumbled. "Wanted to say goobye."
Legolas sighed heavily. "I would have stayed longer, Estel, but my King has summoned me." Suddenly he raised his face, frowning in confusion. "Where is my horse?"
"Wetin?" Estel looked around, seeming very surprised. "Oh no! He must have wun way!" He cried.
The elf raised an eyebrow. "Wethrin run away? I would be less surprised to see a troll plant a flower!"
"But he is not hewe!" The boy said, worriedly looking around. "Pewhaps he wun way! You must stay hewe till we find him!"
Legolas looked at the boy, as if reading through him, and what he saw made his heart clench painfully. The elf sighed sadly and whistled. In a few moments the white stallion appeared from behind the hay, still munching on an apple.
"Ah, hewe he is," Estel said surprised. "Stwange."
Legolas's gaze did not move. "Tell me, Estel," he said, and his voice was gentle and kind, "why did you try to hide Wethrin from me?"
He had expected Estel to deny the accusation, and was prepared for a careful interrogation. What he had not expected, however, was that the boy's lower lip would start trembling, and those innocent grey eyes would fill up with tears in mere seconds.
"Because, because – you must not leave, Lelas!" A pair of short but strong arms wrapped themselves around the elf's leg, holding tight. The tiny face was buried in the soft fabric, reaching not much higher above the knee, and soon Legolas's leggings were soaked with tears. "You must stay with me!"
The elf gently pulled the little arms away and knelt in front of the weeping boy. A frown of worry marred his fair face. "I must go, Estel. My home is not here and my duties lie with my people. You must understand and be brave, and wait for my next visit. Or perhaps you can join your brothers when they come to visit my home next time."
"Take me with you, Lelas!" The little one wept. "And Eldan and Elohiw will come too!"
Legolas shook his head. "Your brothers belong here, as do you. But do not cry, Estel, this is not our final parting. Come!" He held the boy's hand and walked outside. The white stallion followed.
The elf reached upwards, towards the lowly hanging branches of a young oak, and picked two identical leaves. "This is for you," he said and handed one to Estel. "Keep it and think of me whenever you look at it. I will keep the other one."
"But the leaves will wither and fall apawt!" The boy protested, tears still streaming down his cheeks.
"Yes, they will," the elf agreed. "The leaves will fade, but the memories will not."
"I will not foget you," the child said with a sniff. "But what if you foget me?"
Legolas smiled. "I will not forget you, Estel. We are friends, are we not?" He mounted Wethrin with a quick jump and looked back one last time. "I must leave now, Estel, but you will see me soon. I promise."
The boy watched silently the golden figure disappear into the distance, the words still ringing in his mind. We are friends, are we not? As soon as the horse and the rider could no longer be seen, Estel turned back and ran towards the house. He rushed down corridors and climbed up stairs, until he stopped out of breath in front of Lord Elrond's study.
Estel hesitated only for a moment before knocking on the heavy, wooden door. He heard a muffled invitation to come inside, and stood on tiptoes to reach the knob. The Elven Lord turned around and nodded when he saw his little guest.
"You are up early, Estel," he said. There was no surprise in his voice. The elf had a good idea why his foster son would get up before sunrise.
"Lelas left," the child replied simply, confirming Elrond's fears. The elf sighed. The boy had grown attached to their guest, the way only children could grow attached to someone in such a short time.
"Sit down, Estel," he said and the boy did. "Do you wish to talk to me?"
"Yes, ada," Estel said hesitantly, trying to find the right words. "I wanted to ask you something."
"I am listening," Lord Elrond said. "Ask your question and I will answer to the best of my knowledge."
The child blinked indecisively, and his gaze traveled down to the floor, and then back to his foster father's face. "Ada, what does it mean to be a fend?"
"A friend?" The Elf Lord sighed tiredly. "This is a hard question that you ask, my son, and I will try to answer. But tell me first, what do you think it means? What would you say 'a friend' means?"
"A fend is someone you can play with," Estel replied immediately. It was obvious he had given the matter some thought. "He is someone who is kind to you and tells you stowies and answers your questions. A fend is someone you like to be with, and who lets you climb twees and pwomises not to tell your ada."
"A friend is all that," Elrond agreed. "Although I am not sure about the last part," he added with a smile. "And yet, a friend is so much more."
"What mowe?" Estel asked.
"A friend is someone you can share anything with," the elf explained. "You can tell him about all your fears and doubts, all your secret thoughts or hard choices. With a true friend you can speak freely, without fear that he will use that knowledge to hurt you, or that he will betray your secret, or that he will judge you for what you have thought or done. And the true friend will listen to you patiently and will not mock you or reproach you, but will understand you and offer helpful advice."
Mirkwood, King Thranduil's Halls, 2951 T. A.
"Come in!" Legolas called, looking up from the book he had been reading. The door cracked open and a young, dark-haired elf peeked in.
"Forgive me the disturbance, my Lord," the messenger said. "You father wishes to speak with you."
Legolas nodded and stood up. "Tell the King that I am coming," he replied and walked to the wardrobe to find an appropriate tunic. It was not uncommon that his father summoned him unexpectedly. Perhaps a trade party from Esgaroth had arrived, and the King wanted his son to be present at the negotiations.
As the elf walked down the long corridor, his pace quickened. Even though Thranduil possessed unending patience, like any elf blessed with eternal youth, the young prince did not want to make his father wait. But as he walked into the hall, he saw that there was no trading party waiting for him. Instead, a single hooded figure stood in front of the King. The visitor looked much like a ranger, with a long, travel-worn coat covering him almost entirely, still letting Legolas see the tall leather boots. A heavy-looking pack, a small bow and a quiver were strapped around the broad shoulders. The man turned around and Legolas gasped.
For the first time he was seeing his friend clad in anything but the fine clothes elves in Imladris always wore. For the first time he was seeing his friend's hair not newly washed and braided in a warrior style, but sweaty and haphazardly falling around the tired face. For the first time he was seeing worries and doubts mar the usually carefree features. And he did not yet know that as the years passed he would grow used to seeing this boy – no – this man – always like this.
And what was Estel doing here? Legolas had seen him only a few months ago. This was not a long parting, even for a human. Not that the elf was not delighted to see his friend, on the contrary, his heart was inwardly jumping with joy. Yet this unexpected visit, or rather the possible reasons behind it, worried him. What disturbed him even more was his friend's appearance – the man had changed so much in such a short time! No, it was not the clothes. It was the man's face, or rather the eyes. Those eyes were filled with so much confusion and questions and – yes, at last Legolas had found the right word. Older. His friend looked older.
"You have a guest, my son." The King's voice was kind, and yet Legolas could sense some urgency and strange worries – perhaps a reflection of the same worries that he felt himself.
"Mae govannen, Estel!" Legolas greeted cheerfully, momentarily forgetting all questions and uncertainties. He walked forward and grasped the young man's forearm in greeting. "You know that you are always welcome here, my friend, but why did you send no word of your visit?"
"I was not planning to come here," Estel admitted and Legolas's heart skipped a beat. The man's voice was different too. The way it sounded – it was tired, and – and afraid. "I was merely passing by and decided to pay you a visit."
"Then I am glad you made this decision," Legolas said, forcing a smile. "Father, if I may-"
"You may take your leave," Thranduil said hurriedly. "Show Estel to the guest quarters." It was an unnecessary request since the young man knew well where the guest chambers were. And yet, the hidden message behind the king's words was clear. Go with him. Talk to him. Something has happened and he needs to talk to you.
The way to the guest chamber was walked in silence. At first Legolas what determined to wait for his friend to speak first, but as they entered and Estel silently started unpacking his belongings, it was apparent that the young man would not start talking without prompting.
"When I left you, all was well in Lord Elrond's home," the elf started softly. "What troubles you, my friend? Has some ill befallen the Lord Elrond, or perhaps your mother? Are your brothers well?"
"They are all well," the young man muttered, taking clothes, bags with herbs, cooking utensils and other items out of his pack to keep himself occupied. Every time he had imagined this moment, he had been filled with so much hope. As soon as he had approached Mirkwood and the idea to visit the prince had come to his mind, his heart had felt much lighter. He would meet Legolas and would tell him everything. Everything. The words would simply flow out of his month, washing away all the pain. He had imagined this clearly, how he would arrive, how Legolas would meet him, and they would talk, and how he would say everything. And now – now it was so hard to start speaking.
"Then what is it that troubles you?" Legolas asked patiently. "Has something happened?"
"Many things happened," the ranger replied with a sigh. "Too many. Some of them were necessary, but some – some I wish had never come to pass. And yet, yet I cannot bring myself to regret that they happened."
Legolas suppressed a groan of frustration and forced a smile. "You have had the pleasure of meeting Gandalf the Grey only a few times, and still you have picked his habit of talking in riddles. I beg you, Estel, speak plainly!"
"Then I suppose I should start from the beginning," the man said indecisively, still unpacking his belongings, his gaze fixed on the pack. "I was away from home with Elladan and Elrohir. When I returned, Adar said he wished to speak with me. I-" Suddenly he stopped talking, staring as if in disbelief at the item he had just taken out of his pack.
Legolas followed his gaze and frowned in confusion. This was a sword, but Estel carried one sword already, why did he need a second one? Even more peculiar was that there was no space for a long sword in that pack. Which meant that either the sword was unusually short, or… Understanding suddenly hit him and he gasped. "This… this is…"
"This is Narsil's handle," the man finished his thought. "And a part of the blade."
Legolas needed some time to collect his thoughts. This could mean only one thing – something he had feared and anticipated for years. "So Lord Elrond told you. He told you who you are."
"He did." The man nodded. "He told me of my past, and of my future. Or at least what it could be."
"You had to learn it sooner or later," Legolas said with regret. "I hope you were ready. This is a heavy burden."
"It was indeed a severe blow," Aragorn admitted. "Yet, I cannot say that I had never expected it. I felt that there was something – something waiting for me. Something that was meant to happen. And then I felt joyous. I have fought against this darkness since I learned how to hold a blade. And on that day for the first time I felt that I could do something bigger. I could fight the Enemy not simply as a single warrior who would destroy a few orcs today, while much more would spawn tomorrow. I could make the Enemy fear me."
"That you could," the elf said. "But you do not seem joyful now."
"I do not know, Legolas. The more I think about it, the more impossible this seems. Lord Elrond said that I would either rise above all Men, or would fall into shadow with what is left of my kin. It all depends on my strength and the choices I make. But would I know which choices are right when the time comes?"
"I cannot say," Legolas admitted. "You will surely face many battles against strong opponents. Whether you will win or lose is not for me to say for I possess no gift of foresight. The only thing I can tell you is that no matter what you fight against, you will not be alone."
The man smiled and his eyes glistened. "Thank you, my friend. The future does not seem so dark now."
Legolas nodded with a smile, acknowledging the gratitude. "What do you mean to do now?" He asked.
"I will not return to Rivendell for a while. Perhaps I will stay with the Rangers; Halbarad said he could easily find work for me. Gandalf also said he had some tasks for me in mind. Then I would travel to Gondor and Rohan. If I am to be a king of Men, I have to know my people. I have lived among Elves all my life, and I fear that there is still much I need to learn about Men – customs, beliefs, ways of thinking."
Legolas was looking at his friend critically, his eyes slightly narrowed. "Correct me if I am wrong, mellon nín, but the news you learned, life-changing as it might be, would not make you leave your home immediately. Nor would it cause such turmoil in your heart. Something else happened."
Although the elf's words left some room for denial, his voice clearly said that he already knew the answer. And the man's silence was an answer enough.
"Would you not tell me?" Legolas asked softly. "Perhaps I cannot help you, but speaking can make the burden go away."
"I cannot," the man said.
"Why?" The prince asked patiently.
"Because I could not bear your accusations. My own are bad enough."
Legolas frowned. "You are ashamed. What have you done, my friend, to cause you such shame? I cannot believe you have done something so terrible. You have never lied or left a friend in need, you have never killed anyone unless it had been necessary to save a life, you have never –"
"No," the man interrupted him. "I have not killed anyone. Not yet."
The elf's frown deepened. "You mean that you might cause someone's death in the future?"
Aragorn was silent. At last he took a deep breath and looked his friend in the eyes. "Perhaps. If what I dream of comes to pass."
Legolas was at a loss. The man's words had bothered him greatly, and his friend still refused to talk to him. He only gave short, cryptic answers, pieces of a picture the elf could not put together. But what he could understand from the scattered pieces confused him and frightened him.
"Who, mellon nín?" He asked. "Who is going to die if your dreams come to pass?"
Silence. Aragorn sat on the bed, staring through the window. Outside an eagle flew, clutching a little bird in his sharp talons. A nightingale. They were such fragile creatures, nightingales. So beautiful, so gentle, so ethereal. And yet so easy to kill. So easy to destroy them and to leave this sad world deprived of their beautiful songs. Bitter hatred towards the eagle filled his heart. How could anyone wish to do this to a nightingale? How could anyone wish to take away this beauty, that was made to last? How could Beren do this to his nightingale, his Tinúviel? And now he wanted to do the same himself.
"Who is it, Estel?" The elf's heart was pounding widely in his chest. The silence was unnerving and he wondered how much longer he would be able to bear this. "Aragorn, answer me!" This was the first time he called his friend by his rightful name. "Who is going to die?"
The man averted his gaze from the window. Was he much unlike this eagle, which now caused his anger? He desired a beauty that was not mean to be his. Claiming it would be to destroy it. He could feel Legolas's gaze piercing his back, but he could not speak. His throat felt so tight that he was surprised he could still breathe. When he finally spoke, the words were so soft that the elf was not sure if he had heard correctly. He hoped he had not. "Lord Elrond's daughter."
Legolas took a sharp breath. "Arwen? Estel, I do not understand. Please, tell me. Tell me everything."
And Aragorn talked. It was hard at first, and the words were coming slowly and hesitantly. Then he gradually started to relax, and then, at the end, the words were flowing freely, like a fast mountain spring, and there was no way to stop them.
And then he told everything. He spoke of the day after he had learned the news of his heritage. He told Legolas how he had walked through the gardens of Imladris, singing a song. A song of Lúthien, the fairest elven maiden to have lived in Middle-earth. And then he had seen her standing there, among the flowers, a vision from the tales of old times. And he had called her – Tinúviel! But it had been no Tinúviel. It had been Lord Elrond's daughter, Arwen, an Evenstar of her people.
He was a Man, and she was an Elf. No, worse. She was a peredhel, a Half-elf. She still had a choice to make. Soon, by Elven standards at least, the Elves would leave Middle-earth. If she stayed after Lord Elrond had sailed and the power of the Eldar had left those shores, she would turn mortal. And yet, this was what the man was hoping for deep inside his heart. Lord Elrond had raised him as a son, and now he was expressing his gratitude by desiring his greatest treasure.
Legolas listened. He did not interrupt, not once, except for a few encouraging nods. If he was surprised, or shocked, or angry, he did not show it. Not the softest gasp, not the slightest widening if the eyes. And when the man finished, his face was sad.
"I will not say that everything will be well, my friend," the elf said softly. "Because it will not be. Whatever happens, either yours, or Lord Elrond's heart will be broken. But do not despair! This is Arwen's choice to make, and not yours. If she chooses to sail, then you will lose her and she will be with her people, and you will be able to do nothing to change that. If she chooses to stay, then it will be for her happiness, and not only for your own, and it will not be selfish of you to wish it. But her decision is out of your power, and worrying about it now will do you no good. Do not worry about the things you cannot control, worry only about those that you can."
"Perhaps I can control it," Aragorn said. "Perhaps if she chooses to stay, I can make her go. She will stay for her happiness, you say, but what about Lord Elrond's happiness? I love him like a father, Legolas! I do not wish to do this to him."
The elf smiled. "If Arwen chooses to stay, I would wish to see you try to make her leave. Besides," he added, turning serious once again, "I doubt that Lord Elrond's happiness lies with his daughter's grief. Or with his son's."
Aragorn looked up at that, a new hope burning in his heart. Whether his friend's words were right or not, he did not know. But at that moment he could not remember why he had hesitated telling Legolas everything.
Rivendell, 2935 T. A.
"I don't know if I have any fends I can tell evything to," the child admitted.
"You are still too young, Estel," Lord Elrond said. "The true friends are still to come."
"Is it hawd to have twue fends, ada?"
"Yes," the elven lord replied thoughtfully. "To have a friend like that requires a lot of effort, love and dedication. You have to give a lot, and not only take. But the reward is worth everything you give."
"Do you have any such fends? Maybe Findel?"
"Yes, Estel, Glorfindel and Erestor too are such friends for me. And I am sure you will find one too one day. Still, you must know that a true friend is not only this."
"Not only this?" The child was becoming worried. If a real friend was so much, would he ever be able to find one? "What else?"
"A true friend is someone you can always rely on when in need. He will help you through the bad times until you see the light again. If you have a true friend you should be able to leave your life in his hands and know without a trace of a doubt that he will do everything to keep you well."
Mirkwood, 2954 T. A.
"Aragorn!" Once again the elf shook his irresponsive friend, and once again the man did not move. Legolas tried to stifle a sob of despair. "Mellon nín, please answer me!" A slender hand instinctively went to the man's feverish brow and the elf's heart twisted when he felt the unnatural heat. It was rising. Legolas closed his eyes, refusing to let the tears roll down his cheeks. He could not afford being afraid. He had to be strong now if he wanted his friend to have any chance of survival.
Legolas sighed and slowly wiped away the moisture from the man's flushed face. He was tired, so tired. For how long he had half-dragged, half-carried the ill human through the snow, he could no longer remember. And the pain in his leg was only growing stronger.
But it mattered little, for the time being at least. What mattered was that Aragorn had to be brought to his father's Halls. And then? What then? Then everything would be so easy. The King's healers would take good care of the ill man and all would be well. Or would it?
Legolas was no fool. He knew painfully well that his father's healers had little to no experience with human ailments. Elves never suffered from sickness the way Men did, and there was no need to train the healers how to treat even the most trivial illnesses. All they could do was treat wounds received in battle, perhaps poison, but that was all. They did not even have the slightest idea how to fight a common cold.
And this was no common cold. No, there was nothing common about it. It was that little girl, he knew it.
Legolas had gone to Esgaroth to discuss a new trade agreement and had asked his friend to join. In the past three years he had had very few chances to see the man, and their meetings had always been brief. Therefore, after he learned that Aragorn was in the area, he had sent his friend a message immediately, asking him to join the trip.
Aragorn had readily agreed to accompany his friend, but now Legolas wished he had never asked this. The negotiations had gone well and had finished quickly, but on the way out of the town, tragedy had struck. A woman had appeared running towards them so fast and unexpectedly that she had almost collided with Legolas. She was crying and calling for help. And for a healer.
Aragorn was a skilled healer and had immediately agreed to help. The woman had taken them to her home and showed them their daughter – a ten- or perhaps eleven-year-old girl, lying on the bed with high fever. The child seemed to be lost in another world and had been unable to hear them or respond to any questions. Aragorn had stayed with the girl, examined her, and had made her drink a tea he had prepared with the herbs he carried. Then he had left all of his herbs with the woman and instructed her how to prepare the tea and when to feed it to the child. Whether the girl would get better or not, Legolas did not know.
And now his friend was showing the same symptoms. Lord Elrond had told him once that humans could pass an illness from one to another, and very often those illnesses were severe, sometimes even deadly. Legolas vaguely remembered how his friend had felt the coming sickness. They had both first thought that it was a mere cold, but then it had turned worse and worse until the man was no longer able to walk, to speak, to understand. He was lost in a world of feverish dreams, of nightmares, and only the unconsciously whispered words gave Legolas some idea of the terror going through in his friend's mind.
Then Legolas had dragged the man, had carried him, and had walked on and on, his mind so fixed on his friend that he had never noticed the iron trap before he had stepped into it. But he had not stopped for long. As if in a dream, he had freed his foot and continued on, without taking much care of the wound. And it hurt, and the pain only grew worse. And although Legolas could not feel the cold the way humans did, it slowed down the healing process and he knew it.
When he could walk no more, he had sat down, back rested against a tall pine-tree, the semi-conscious man held tightly in his arms. And he had stood there, doing nothing but fighting sleep. And this was becoming harder.
"No… please don't…" The unconscious man mumbled. His head was moving from side to side and he was speaking fast and incomprehensively, so that the elf could make out only a few words. "Legolas… don't… he… hurt… no… blood…"
The elf could feel warm tears flow down his cheeks, leaving salty tracks. Again and again he repeated that he was here, and that they were safe, and gently stroked his friend's face, which was now twisted in fear and pain. But it seemed the man could not hear the comforting words, could not feel the caring touch. And then something inside Legolas seemed to break. He gave up the useless fight against himself and let the violent sobs shake his body and the tears flow down like a stream.
"Please, mellon nín, hear my voice! Tell me what to do!" A sob interrupted his words. "Open your eyes, Aragorn, and tell me that you are still with me. Please… Estel, please…"
How long he had stood like that, begging and crying, Legolas did not know. But at last he found the strength to angrily wipe away his tears and look up. "Forgive me, my friend, I should be strong now. I need to be strong for both of us." He looked wildly around and his heart sunk. He knew those trees. If Aragorn had been awake, he would probably say that all trees looked the same and that it would be hard to figure out in what part of Mirkwood they were and how far from King Thranduil's Halls. But to a Wood-elf all trees were different. Each of them had a face, had a voice, just like a person. Yes, Legolas knew those trees and knew exactly how far away from his home they were. And he knew that they would not make it. At least, not if he had to carry the man.
Yet, the idea of leaving his friend did not even briefly pass through the elf's mind. He walked, and dragged the man, and carried him, and the pain in his leg grew with every step. And when at last darkness took him, his heart wept because he knew that he had failed them both.
"Welcome back to the world of living, young Elrondion!"
Aragorn slowly opened his eyes and gazed at the concerned face of Miras, one of King Thranduil's most capable healers. "What… happened?" He asked and immediately regretted speaking. His throat felt as if it had been scratched repeatedly by a wild cat's sharp claws.
Miras shook his head sadly. "I thought you would remember nothing. Three days ago a border patrol found you and the Prince. Both of you were in poor health and were immediately brought to the healers. You opened your eyes a few times, but spoke of strange visions and I doubt you ever saw us or knew what was happening. We were gravely concerned about you, but at the end it seemed your body was strong enough to defeat the illness, and all your needed was warmth, food, and rest. Estel?"
Aragorn had stopped listening long ago – he needed all of his strength and concentration to fight off the panic threatening to overtake him after Miras's first words. "Legolas?" was all he could say.
"Do not worry," the elf replied, "he is taken care of. Although his condition seems to have been worse than yours, he is in good hands and there is no need to concern yourself. There was a wound on his leg that had not been tended properly and had developed an infection."
The man's hand suddenly grabbed Miras's sleeve and pulled him closer. "Where? Where is he? I need to see him!"
The elf sat on the bed and gently freed his tunic from Aragorn's strong fingers. "Be calm now, Estel. Legolas will be well. He is in another room, and the healers are with him. You will see him tomorrow, I promise. Get some sleep now, your body is still weak."
"He… he saved me," the man said, looking at the healer with wide, pleading eyes. "I have to see him. Please."
Miras sighed. He recognized a lost cause when he saw one. Perhaps it was better to help his patient now, instead of having him try to sneak by himself. "Very well," he said and helped the human stand. "Come."
Rivendell, 2935 T. A.
"This is what a friend is, Estel," Elrond continued. "And yet, he is even more than that. A true friend would always be ready to make a sacrifice for you. Tell me, my son, do you know what a sacrifice means?" The boy nodded. "Good," the Elven Lord said. "Imagine this, then. You are coming home from a long journey and are only a few hours away from Imladris. In your pack there is a leftover loaf of bread, but you are not hungry and you know that a warm and tasty meal awaits you here. On your way you meet a little boy, who says that he is hungry, and you give him the bread. Is that a sacrifice?"
"It is," the child said. "And I would do it!"
Elrond smiled. "I know you would, my son, but this is no sacrifice. This is mercy. Yet, it is no sacrifice because giving up that bread did not hurt you in any way and did not make your life any worse. Only when you give up something that is hard for you to do without, only then it would be a sacrifice. And if you ever have the joy of finding a true friend, you will see that he is ready to sacrifice anything for you."
"Even his life?" Estel asked in awe, his eyes huge. He had heard old stories, told inside the Hall of Fire, about warriors who had given up their lives to save a dear friend.
"His life," Elrond said, "and more."
"Mowe?" The child was confused. "What is mowe precious than life?"
"Many things are. Family, happiness, home…"
The River Anduin, 3019 T. A.
Nearly seventy years in the wilderness. Nearly seventy years of fights – fights for justice, for Gondor, for Rohan, for his friends, for a helpless little orphan whose house had been burned down, for a poor woman whose husband had been slain, for an old man who had lost his children in the war, for a little village which had been suffering the raids of the Enemy, for himself. Nearly seventy years of hard work, danger, sacrifice, pain, insecurity, loss and hardships. Nearly seventy years – and they had all led to that day.
And now, now that all was to be decided, now it seemed that all would be lost. And for the first time the battle was out of his control. It all depended on the strength of the rowers and the west wind, and the mercy of the great river. No matter how hard he stared forward, or how strong his grip on the wooden railing was, they could not go faster. And he felt that they were going slowly. Too slowly.
Someone was calling his name. Whoever that was, had been calling it for a while. Would he not stop? Ah, how he wished that voice to be quiet and leave him alone! Alone with his thoughts and doubts, with his fears and hopes. But it was not to be.
"What is it, Gimli?"
The dwarf blinked, looking surprised to receive an answer. "Are you well, laddie? I have been calling you for-"
"I am well," the man interrupted him. "What is it?"
Gimli did not seem very convinced, but for the time being he had no better option but trust his friend's answer. There were more urgent matters to take care of now. "It is the Elf."
That at least seemed to be enough to break through the mist, hanging around Aragorn's mind. His slightly clouded eyes immediately cleared. "What about him?"
"Well, you know that he is very strange sometimes, and his mind does not seem to be here, but now he acts even more unusual. He only stands at the back of the ship and looks at the water. He refuses to talk to me and does not even sing!" The dwarf's worried gazed moved from the water and back to the man.
Aragorn looked at him thoughtfully. "You are worried about him, Gimli."
The dwarf suddenly seemed to find the wooden deck very interesting. "Who? Me? Worried about an Elf? No, no, no, you misunderstood me, Aragorn. I was only thinking that he needed help, and he obviously cannot help himself, so I thought perhaps-"
"I see," the man said, forcing a smile. Gimli's words had disturbed him, but there was no good in worrying the dwarf even more. "I will try talking to him and will report back to you. Agreed?"
"Good. I hope you will have some success. The laddie needs all his wits before the battle."
Aragorn nodded and stood up, his heart heavy. No matter how much he thought on the matter, he could not begin to guess what was troubling Legolas. Could it be that he was injured? The man had not noticed his elven friend receive any injury, but Aragorn had to reluctantly admit that he had been more present in his thoughts than in the world around him and had not given his friends the attention they deserved. But why would Legolas act in such a way if he was injured? The elf would take care of the wound, would perhaps seek help if necessary, but this was not something that would make him close into himself.
Or perhaps the elf was troubled about the upcoming battle. It was true, the outcome was rather insecure even if they arrived on time. Perhaps not a single one of them would live to see the coming days. And yet, Legolas had faced hard battles before and the man could not remember his friend ever reacting this way.
Then maybe Legolas could see the end of the War coming near, and was worried not about what would happen if they lost, but about what would come to pass if they won. The strength of the Elves in Middle-earth would decline, and the time of Men would come. Many of his kin would sail west, and he would be faced with the choice to leave or stay. Surely Legolas would stay as he did not feel the call of the Elven home…
And then he heard it. Loud, piercing, screeching, high-pitched, unforgettable. Beautiful and so much hated in the years to come. The white gull cried, and Aragorn realized that this was not the first time he had heard that call after they had left the Paths of the Dead. Yet, only now he realized what it meant.
As if in a dream, in a terrible nightmare he could not wake up from, Aragorn felt his long legs moving at a dizzying speed. No, no, no, no, no… It could not have happened! This was… this was the end! Legolas could stay in Middle-earth no longer, or if he did, he would never feel content and happy as before. No matter if the War was won or lost, he would still lose his friend.
Raised in the House of Elrond, Aragorn was well aware of what it meant to awaken the sea-longing. He did not claim to understand it completely, or to know precisely what the elf felt, but he had lived with the Firstborn long enough to know the strength of their emotions – their love towards friends and family, their hatred and disgust towards the enemies who had hurt their loved ones, their joy, their sorrow – all those feelings were so intense that they would burn a mortal's heart to ashes. And when the books said that the call of the Sea, if unanswered, could cause unbearable pain, Aragorn knew that it was a pain so strong that no mortal could survive it.
He should have known. He had always known that the longing could always be awoken, and that taking an elf so close to the cursed Sea could prove to be fatal. And not only that – the Lady had warned them all, she had warned Legolas, and warned him as well. And had he listened to any of those words? No, he had been so absorbed by his own doubts that he had forgotten all else. He had forgotten that his friends needed him and had let the worst happen.
And now – now it was already too late. He would give anything to be able to turn back time. Anything. But no one could grant him that wish, and now he had lost his friend forever. Legolas…
Aragorn almost jumped as he saw his elven friend standing in front of him, looking at him with a questioning gaze. "You look as if you have seen a ghost."
"You are still here," the man muttered in disbelief, and then winced as he realized what he had just said. Of course Legolas would still be here. What did he think, that the elf would suddenly sprout wings and fly to the west? At least hearing Legolas speak brought him great relief. Gimli had said that the elf did not speak to him, and Aragorn was worried that their friend had been lost in his own world, detached from reality.
Legolas's confusion only grew. "Am I expected to be someplace else?"
Aragorn shook his head. "No, no, of course not." He leaned his arms on the railing and gazed at the sapphire-blue river. "What I wanted to say is-" The man raised his face to look his friend in the eyes. "I am so sorry, Legolas."
The elf's confusion was quickly turning into worry, and his friend's shaken expression did not help matters. "Why would you apologize? I cannot remember you wronging me in any way. Well… perhaps if we choose not to count how you tried to hide my horse when you were four, but I believe you are not referring to that day."
This surprised a laugh from Aragorn, and the elf smiled back. "That is better," he said. "Now we can talk. What happened?"
The man frowned slightly. Did Legolas not know what had happened better than him? He gazed at his friend's face, scrutinizing him carefully. Pale skin, high brow, lips pressed together in worry, eyes glistening with inner fire – there was nothing unusual. Perhaps he was wrong? Or was he? How could one recognize an elf, who had recently heard the call of the Sea? Surely he would not suddenly turn blue or start flying. Aragorn sighed in defeat; there was no way to tell.
And then he saw it. There was a new pain in Legolas's clear eyes, a pain that he had never seen there before. Alas, he was not wrong. How he had hoped that he was!
"Gimli said that you are not yourself," the man admitted. "And then I heard the gulls." He looked up at his friend, hoping beyond hope that he would say something, that he would deny his terrible guess. But Legolas stood still as a statue, neither confirming nor denying anything. And the silence was enough of an answer. "It is true then," Aragorn said sadly. "I am sorry, my friend. I never wanted to hurt you in any way, and now I have brought this upon you."
"You brought this upon me?" The elf raised an eyebrow. "Tell me, Estel, since when do you possess Valar-like powers and are able to command the Call of the Sea?"
Aragorn sighed in frustration. "You know what I mean, Legolas. It was I who brought you here. It is I who did this to you, and now I know that I can never correct this terrible wrong that I have done."
The elf furrowed his brow as if in thought. "If I remember correctly, you said that you were going through the Paths of the Dead and anyone willing to join you would be welcome, and then I choose to come myself. I cannot recall you forcing me to come, but perhaps my memory is deceiving me. It is good we have your better human memory to count on."
The man shook his head in exasperation. He was glad he could see a smile in his friend's eyes, even if briefly, but the elf was impossible to argue with. "Please, Legolas, do not make it harder. You know that I was meant to lead what was left of the Fellowship in Gandalf's absence, and now this is only you and Gimli. If anything happened to you, it would be a result of the poor choices I made. And things did happen. I am sorry, I should have thought about all the consequences when I chose this path. I should have asked you to stay behind or should have chosen another road."
"No, Aragorn. You could not have chosen another road. This was the path you were meant to take, and you could not ignore its call for the sake of a single elf. As for asking me to stay behind," a smile appeared on the fair face, "I think you already know what would have happened. Do you remember what I told you after our first encounter with spiders? I know that you do, I heard you telling Pippin about it after Moria."
The man's eyes widened. "I thought you were asleep."
"Fortunately I was not, and I could hear that you still remember your lesson."
Aragorn nodded. "You told me that I could not control or command your choices. Thus, whatever happened to you was your own responsibility and not mine."
"Exactly," the elf said, and the smile disappeared from his eyes. "The choice was my own. I was well aware of the consequences, and made my decision with full knowledge of what was to come."
Aragorn could not believe what he had heard. "Legolas – you mean – you mean that you knew what was going to happen?"
Legolas nodded and his eyes turned distant. "Of course I did. I knew the dangers of coming here, and the Lady's message left no doubts. But, most of all, I felt it. I felt that if I came here, my life in Middle-earth, as I know it, would end. Yet, I did not know that it would hurt so much."
"You mean to sail then?" Aragorn asked so softly, as if he was afraid that the elf would hear his question and answer.
"I do. I will sail and be home once again. But not yet," he added quickly as he saw the horror on his friend's face. "There is still much I need to do and see in Middle-earth, and my place is by your side. Yes, I will sail one day if I survive the war, but it will not be today, nor tomorrow, nor in a hundred years from now."
"You will stay," Aragorn whispered on shock. "You will stay and endure this. You knew you would not sail, and yet you chose to come with me and hear the Call. Legolas, why?"
And then, much to Aragorn's joy and surprise, a wide and warm smile appeared on the elf's face. "Don't you know?"
He did. "I do not deserve such sacrifice," the man said. A sacrifice, greater than life.
"Fortunately," the elf said, the smile still on his lips, "this is not for you, but for me to decide."
The man blinked to clear the moisture, which had treacherously appeared in his eyes. "Legolas, I-" he tried to speak, but his voice was think with tears. The elf gently pulled him forward, and let Aragorn's forehead lean on his shoulder. "I- I thank you," the man continued, his voice muffled. "I know the longing will cause you greater pain than I can imagine, but I promise you, you will not face it alone."
Rivendell, 2935 T. A.
"Home?" Estel asked with a frown. "How could anyone sac'fice his home fow me?"
"This is not for me to answer," Elrond said. "When the time comes, you will know it. But I have not answered your question yet."
"What question?" The child asked surprised.
"What it means to be a friend."
The boy's eyes doubled in size. "You mean thewe is mowe?"
The elf smiled. "There always is. No matter how much I tell you about friendship, there will always be something more, something that I had not told you. I can never tell you everything, but still there is one last thing I want you to know."
"What is it, ada?"
"People often say that those who stand by you in times of need, are your real friends. But this is not all. It is easy to stand by someone in their days of failure and sorrow. It is much harder to stand by them in their days of success and happiness. It is hard to sincerely share their joy and never feel any envy.
"Imagine this, my son – you live in a poor village, where everyone makes their living by hunting. One of your friends is wealthier than the rest because he is a better hunter and fortune had been with him. What would happen if that man's house burned down? Many people will give him a hand then and help him in various ways. They will do it for different reasons – sympathy, a sense of what is right, desire to make a good impression, the need to feel like better people, and perhaps some of them would do it because of friendship. But what would happen if this same man had been very fortunate one day. He had made a successful hunt and had become even wealthier. I can tell you that fewer people would stand by him and truly share his joy than those who would have shared his sorrow. And would you be truly happy for him, or would you not wonder why he is the one who keeps being fortunate, and not you? Would you curse fate that it is not you who made than hunt? If you do not, and if you find true joy and forget your own hardships, then you are a real friend."
"Ada, what does it mean to be powow?"
"What it means to be poor?" Lord Elrond sighed. "I am afraid this question requires a lengthy answer as well, and I will leave it for tomorrow. Let us imagine something simpler then. You and your friend have a competition that matters a lot to you and he wins. Would you rejoice his victory or morn your loss?"
"I would be happy for him," the boy said, without even taking a minute to think.
"Perhaps you would," the elf said with a smile. "Yes, perhaps you would. And yet, this is easy to say and hard to do. Envy is a treacherous enemy which can hide inside your heart and slowly eat away what is good. It is more dangerous than anger or hatred, because it is sly and cunning. You might not even see it, but it hides in the shadows, ready to strike. Only when your heart holds no envy towards your friend, only then your friendship is real. Only then you will be able to forget your own troubles and your own pain and be happy simply because he is happy."
Minas Tirith, 3019 T. A.
The newly crowned king gazed sadly at the lone figure standing by the window. He desperately wanted to stretch his hand and lay it on the slender shoulder, to take away all the pain, to take it all and endure it himself. The pain that he had inflicted. Legolas had lost everything because of him. Never again would he feel joy and content in the embrace of a tall tree as he once had. Never again would he feel at home in Greenwood, or anywhere else on this side of the Sea. The elf had given up everything for him. How did he wish it was not so!
Suddenly the elf turned around and Aragorn froze. The corners of Legolas's month were turned upwards in a warm smile, a smile that reached his eyes. Deep, blue-greyish eyes, filled with joy. Joy? What was there to be happy about? He had lost everything.
"You look happy," the man voiced his wonder before he could stop himself. What was the point of speaking about happiness now, now that Legolas had lost his own forever? Was this not digging into a painful wound?
To his surprise, Legolas's smile brightened. "How can I not be? Everything you have fought for has come to pass. The Enemy is defeated, you have taken your rightful place as a King of Men. Arwen will arrive soon and you can be together until the rest of your days. The question is, why are you not happy?"
Aragorn froze still and for a moment his worry about his friend's fate was forgotten. It was replaced by a new feeling, a stronger feeling. And then, suddenly the man pulled the startled elf into a fierce embrace.
Legolas quickly returned it, although he could not comprehend what was happening in his friend's mind. And how could he? He did not know what Lord Elrond had said more than eighty years ago.
Rivendell, 2935 T. A.
"Only when your friend's own heart is breaking," the elf said, "and yet he still has the strength to find joy in your happiness, only then, Estel, your friendship is real."
The child seemed frightened by the new knowledge. Being a friend was more than he had ever imagined. "Will I find such a fend one day, ada?" He asked.
"Finding a true friend is hard, my son. You have to give a lot, and be prepared to accept what is given to you. But what you gain is worth the long road you need to walk. Your heart is noble and pure, and I believe that it will not be too hard for you to find true friends."
The child nodded solemnly, but something troubled him still. It seemed he needed to know something more, but did not know how to ask.
"Did I answer your question, Estel?" Lord Elrond asked.
"You did, ada," the child said softly. Yet, he made no move to leave.
"Do you have another question?" The elf prompted. He knew his foster son well. The boy nodded, and he smiled. "Then speak. I am here to help you find the answers you seek."
"Lelas said we were fends," the boy murmured. "Did he mean it?"
Lord Elrond stood up from his chair, and turned towards the garden, breathing in the fresh air. "I fear I cannot answer your question, my son. Neither can you, and neither can Legolas. Only the tests of time will show. In the years ahead your friendship will face many obstacles. But if it will pass them successfully, only the future will show."
But as the elf turned around, so that the boy could not see his face, he smiled. For Lord Elrond possessed the gift of foresight. And he already knew the answer.
~*~ The End ~*~