Chapter Fifteen: Rites and Rituals

"Let us give them some time alone now."

Elboron's hushed voice made Aragorn jump to his feet, so engrossed in the scene he had not heard anyone enter the room. He turned and saw Mithrandir, too, and felt the prince take hold of his arm. With a last glance at his mate, the man permitted himself to be led from the room into a side chamber, a formal parlour meant for entertaining guests, and here he was more or less pushed into an armchair and given a small cup of some restorative liquor.

He drank it automatically in a single swallow, thinking it would be Miruvor, and regretted it for several seconds thereafter, gagging on the strong, bitter drink. Mithrandir thumped him on the back as Elboron dragged a chair closer and sat, not as close as Thranduil and Legolas, but nearly so. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands loosely clasped between them, and peered at the man.

"As I am to be muindor-en-gwaedh to you, it is time we learned of one another. You have questions," he said.

"Ai Valar. Questions!" Aragorn barked out a harsh, sardonic laugh. Then he sighed. "Yes, Elboron, I have questions. Does this soul-rending tableau conclude the ritual of death? Is Legolas free to go with me or must we fight our way from here?"

"What nonsense," tutted Mithrandir, frowning.

"It is a ritual we were forced to design. Tell us another remedy and we will readily adopt it," admonished Elboron, but he was indulgent rather than angry. Aragorn was only a man; no matter his affinity for elves he could never really absorb the true horror of the Tower's secrets. Thus, his reactions centred on the consequences to his mate. And rightly so. Legolas chose well. "All this was established long before Oropher came over Hithaeglir to settle here. There are some things beyond enlightenment, for enlightenment only indicates a harsher solution rather than a more merciful one.

"For Legolas, it is almost over. There is a formal and public ceremony in which Thranduil will decree mercy. He will most likely announce your bond with Legolas and give his blessing to it at that time. You will be offered some post in the stronghold, but it is a courtesy, a position of title and honour rather than duty and work; you must accept, but none would expect you to take a seat in court. One thing I must make clear: no matter how much we love Legolas, he cannot stay here now. Even if he did not have you, still he must…"

"So much I have learned already," Aragorn interrupted, on his feet, steaming to hear this, "and it pleases me not at all."

"You do not mean to have your mate at your side?" queried Elboron calmly, glad to give the man this outlet for his rage and frustration. Aragorn wanted to ease Legolas' woe and knew he was powerless to do it. For his part, Elboron felt profound sympathy and respect for the mortal.

"You know that is not the issue here," Aragorn hissed, raising a pointing hand at the prince. "Mercy and banishment for her heroes, is that the way of it in Greenwood?"

"Aragorn, hear him out," snapped Mithrandir. "This is what is best for Legolas, not what the law requires."

"Mithrandir is correct," nodded Elboron, reaching for the man's wrist and pulling him down again. "The people are beset by much strife and adversity. The Wood Elves were always a superstitious lot anyway and mingling with the Sindar has served rather to make the resultant hybrid just as distrustful and suspicious. Most of the people will shun Legolas, for he has slain his own and this will never wholly be forgiven nor forgotten, though time will soften its impact and strengthen his own ability to overlook it."

"He shouldn't have to…"

"Nay, Aragorn." He shook his head sternly at the man's sputtered exclamation and talked over him."Wishing it were otherwise is fine, but does not help Legolas at all. I am not saying he may never return; indeed, that would break his father's heart and cause my nephew more hurt. I am telling you there needs to be a lengthy interval between his visits, and while Greenwood will always be his homeland, it is no longer his home."

"Elboron, do you know how it will wound him to be told this?" Aragorn pleaded. "There must be another way. Hasn't he lost enough without losing the home he loves, too?"

"He has not lost his home, Aragorn," Elboron insisted, his eyes burning bright with an intensity that could not be ignored, as if he hoped to infuse the man's thoughts with his own. "You must see it; Legolas' home is wherever you and he are, together. This is the way for mated elves, especially when the bond is one of life over death."

Aragorn sat in speechless astonishment, for this was a beautiful sentiment for the prince to express, and now the man began to feel Elboron would become as a brother in truth. He relaxed and allowed himself a sad, subdued smile. "I thank you. That will take some of the burden from him, then, and from me."

"Aye," Elboron smiled warmly. "I am more thankful to you than you can know, Aragorn. These have been the worst years of my life, save only the years of war and grief at the end of the last age when so many dear to me were lost. Perhaps that strife made us all draw closer to those remaining. For Thranduil to lose Legolas, for the child to lose his father after the other losses: this would destroy them both. For me to be the one who would have to kill the young one…Ah! Perhaps it would be more than I could bear, too.

"Without the line of Oropher to rule, what would become of this beleaguered land? The elves would be killed or scattered, and Greenwood would be no more, replaced forever by the dire darkness of Mirkwood. So, Aragorn son of Arathorn, you have salvaged all that remains of the noble Sindar of old and preserved the most ancient and long-lived of all elven realms." He smiled broadly, gave the man a sound slap on the thigh and sat back. "Now, are you prepared for what you must do when the bond is announced?"

"I …yes. That is, what is expected?" Aragorn did not know what to make of Elboron, slipping from serious discourse to rather jocular commentary in the space of a breath, but this had been his dilemma since first meeting the elf. He flickered a glance at Mithrandir, but the wizard seemed completely at ease with the peculiar mannerisms of these volatile Wood Elves.

"Well, surely you know there is more to it than just taking him to your bed," Elboron goaded cheekily, a sly grin on his aristocratic countenance.

"What say you?" Aragorn was back on his feet, fists clenched and face red. "That was not my intent at all. In my home, it is not acceptable for a mortal man to claim one of the First-born for even the best of reasons. I have only the most exalted reason, and thus have espoused your nephew for my own. Yet, I resisted and it was his doing, his choice, and he would not let me go. Whatever must be done to make this an honourable union, that is my intent."

Through this tirade Elboron sat impassively, unconcerned about the man's bruised conscience, for it was to test this very aspect of his character that he had spoken so contentiously. Now he shook his head, not entirely pleased with the response. "There is no dishonour here to correct," he said, "except that which your thoughts have conjured. Legolas made his choice; this we can all accept, many of us with joy. Still, your words tell me you are not convinced of your degree of choice in the matter. Do you imagine Legolas has ensnared your heart without your consent?"

The question shocked Aragorn, for he had thought it not so many days ago and arrived at no satisfactory answer then. He sat slowly, the heat lifting from his cheeks until he was pale, grey eyes haunted. He swallowed, glanced at Mithrandir, licked dry lips, stared at his hands. "The Sindarin princes of Greenwood are astute," he began, raising a troubled visage to Elboron, but feared to go on.

"I am you muindor-en-gwaeth. Speak, Aragorn. This is usually the father's task, to query daer (groom), but Thranduil and Legolas are in agony and we cannot let them have this burden also, can we? When Thranduil asks you the questions, your replies must be firm and free of doubt."

"Aye," the man agreed. He drew a deep breath and decided to trust this strange and capricious elf. "I felt drawn to him, that is true, for he is beautiful and brave, loyal and true-hearted, and he saved my life at great cost to his own. Legolas nearly died and even so grave a wound did not stop him from giving of his light to restore me."

"Ah, you fear this giving and receiving of light is what bound you to him?"

"Aye, that is what I think," Aragorn ground the words out, for he felt they were hard ones both to speak and to hear and he dreaded the prince's response. "Legolas has referred to it many times."

"So, you believe your love was bought," Elboron nodded. He had known this already, but needed to hear Aragorn admit it. He smiled and shrugged with elegant nonchalance. "This is not a dishonourable means of securing a mate among our people."

"What?" Aragorn stared agape.

"Oh, please dispense with all this shocked moral rectitude, Aragorn," growled Mithrandir, a scowl of supreme distaste contorting his features. "Most marriages are arranged for a reason beyond the common ones of lust and procreation, or even love."

"A man needs to have free use of his will in such an undertaking," insisted Aragorn.

"So that is the crux of it," Elboron laughed with high good humour. "Your pride is wounded to have been conquered instead of being the conquerer."

"No, it isn't so," denied the man.

"Isn't it?" barked Mithrandir.

"I believe I can relieve your worries," soothed Elboron. "You were brought up to believe a certain thing is a sinful abuse and now you have broken this tenet of your people. Among the Noldorin elves, we heard this tale of woe long ago: that union with a mortal ensures only eternal suffering in the Halls of Mandos for the elf so entangled, gripped with grieving sickness never to be healed and reborn. It has been circulating since the First Age when human-kind and the Noldor both arrived among us. Do you not know it is all lies? No elf need die from grief. Look around you, echil. In Greenwood there is more grief than you can find should you search through all the nooks and crannies of Imladris and Lindon together.

"Has Thranduil faded? Have I? Did you cross the river to meet a defeated people, hiding and cringing in the shade of the trees? Nay, you were met by mighty warriors, diligent, strong, and noble. Legolas will lose you someday and he will grieve. Dear as you are to him, do you believe his suffering then will equal the misery he endures now? He lives and he will continue to do so long after your spirit departs this world."

Aragorn sat up straight, eyes wide, for this was logical and gave him new hope. Indeed, he could see the truth of Elboron's lecture. Neither Elrond nor any of his family had faded with the passing of Elros. Celebrian had not faded after the torment of her capture, nor had her parents, her husband, or her children perished over her ill-fate. A frown creased his brow. "Then why was I told thus?"

"Noldorin pride. Arrogance. They do not want to 'dilute' their superior bloodlines with a mortal strain. We of the trees know it is no diminishment. Did we not thrive under the reign of Beren and Luthien? Did we love Dior less because of his mortal heritage?" He leaned closer and peered into the man's grey eyes. "Does Galadriel scorn her law-son because of his link to that human lineage?"

"No, she does not," Aragorn answered strongly and a smile overtook his features as the burden lifted from his soul. "I have been plagued by this guilt, that I would cause my beloved to mourn and fade. I turned that guilt against him, not with malice or by intention, but it happened nonetheless, all because I could not own it. I was too ashamed to admit the truth."

"What is that truth, Aragorn?"

The voice was not Elboron's and everyone turned to find Thranduil filling the doorway, haggard visage showing a hint of hope, eyes eagerly seeking to delve the man's soul as he awaited the answer. Behind him, Legolas peered over his father's shoulder, expression calm and reassuring, filled with encouragement. Aragorn stood.

"The truth," he said, beaming at the archer, speaking only to him, the room's other occupants forgotten, "is that I chose you that first night, secretly, hiding it even from myself. The truth is that I wanted you for my own even if it meant you would perish with me when I die."

A soft sigh filled the room, the collective exhalation of glad hearts and relieved minds, and Legolas pushed past his father and leaped at his mate. Aragorn caught him.

"Knowing this, how then could I not give you my light, Kalrô?" whispered Legolas, arms wrapped tight about the man's neck.

"You knew it?"

"I knew."

"Hervenn," Aragorn whispered in wonder, and kissed him.

There followed a succession of days filled with urgency and excitement, all the elves of Thranduil's household rushing about madly to prepare for this great public pronouncement, though everyone knew the King's verdict already. It was also known that there was to be a bonding ceremony in conjunction with it and this was the source of the frenzied effort to prepare. Such a commotion of cleaning, decorating, rehearsing, arguing over appropriate clothing for Legolas, the food to serve at the feast afterward, and the number of citizens invited into the throne room to witness the event Aragorn had never imagined.

He felt rather lost and forgotten amid all this hubbub, and found himself thinking that he wished his mother could be there to see this, or at least Lord Elrond. He wondered what the Twins would think of his fate, and whether Halbarad would be shocked or congratulatory. A man did not usually join his soul to another without his kin at hand to witness the happy event. When he asked leave to send word, he discovered that the Wood Elves had no messengers prepared to make so daunting a journey, and he was referred back to the wizard. Mithrandir had methods that Elrond could receive and interpret, but Gilraen and the Rangers were too far to be reached in this manner, even if they possessed the gift of far-speaking, which no mortal did. Aragorn had to content himself that Elrond would send his sons to Fornost with the news.

Seeing his melancholy, Legolas suspected the cause. "I would like to meet her in truth," he said one morn as they stole a moment alone in a little-used storage room Legolas was wont to hide in as a child hoping to elude his lessons and chores. "Do you think Lady Gilraen will approve of the mate you have chosen?"

He lay belly-down, sprawled over Aragorn's torso, head lifting and falling with the man's every breath, the two of them naked and spent in a nest of cushions and quilts and discarded clothes. Languidly his fingers ran through the dark track of hair trailing down the man's abdomen. If his touch grazed lower and fondled the lax equipment resting in the inky thatch of pubic hair, he felt he could not be blamed for it was too great a temptation to resist. He palmed the weighty sac and grinned when Aragorn groaned and shifted, thighs twitching and parting wider.

"Melethen, I am not exactly comfortable discussing my mother under these circumstances," he said, but smiled when the elf checked to make sure he hadn't offended. "Such maternal references tend to create conflicts between what your actions make me want to do and what your words would have me say."

"I would hear your answer," Legolas said seriously and stopped his teasing for a time. "Will she welcome me?"

The man's eyes opened in surprise, for he heard real concern in his mate's tone and saw plainly the worry in his eyes. He reached to stroke the high, smooth cheek. "Aye, Legolas, she will welcome you with joy," he promised.

"You are certain of it?"

"Whatever gives me happiness, this is the only desire of her heart."

"Will we go to her first when we leave here?"

"Do you wish it?"

"Aye. I promised to tell her of all your rude behaviour, remember? I want to see her box your ears." The archer was grinning now and did not protest when he was lightly slapped on the rump.

"Impudent elf," growled the man. He kneaded the supple flesh beneath his palm and burrowed into the seductive crease, probing the sticky opening he had already fucked, finding the idea of his seed oozing from that hole excited him. He wormed a finger in and caught his breath at the hot, slick sensation.

Legolas wriggled and then clenched the powerful muscles tight about the invading fingers as though to force them back out. "Do you want me?" he whispered and darted his tongue out to lick the rim of the man's navel; wide, blue eyes peering up in feigned innocence. His hand migrated back to the thickening cock and shook it, pulling a bit to enhance the erection.

"I do. Are you trying to deny me my right to claim my mate when and where I will?" Aragorn extracted his fingers and landed a louder smack on the ripe, round rear.

"I would deny you nothing," sighed Legolas and rolled to his feet. He planted one slender foot on either side of the man's waist and struck a stance of bold defiance, red and rigid shaft bobbing forward as it filled. "Nothing you can claim, that is. Otherwise, it is considered polite to ask."

"Oh, we are back to manners, are we?"

"Aye, and yours are atrocious."

"How so?"

"Many, many ways. You might, for example, ask me to sit."

Aragorn's eyes blazed and he came to full arousal in seconds. Pulse pounding, heart racing, he licked his lips and cleared his throat. "Have a seat, Melethen."

Legolas did, impaling himself with a shuddering moan on the engorged organ waiting for him. Aragorn's hands came to support him at the hips but he had little need of the help, squatting as the man thrust up with urgent, frantic motion; thick, golden mane bouncing about them in the frenzy of their passion. He rode the man relentlessly, falling hard upon him and crying out with every impact, lost to the sensation of Aragorn's cock filling him, piercing him, striking his core with unerring accuracy. When the swordsman's calloused hand took hold of his shaft, Legolas gave in and let the ecstasy of their union transport him, aware of the hot spurt of Aragorn's semen that soothed these final jarring thrusts. When he was capable of rational thought again, he found himself cradled in the man's arms.

"So then," Aragorn managed between puffing breaths, smiling as he smoothed away an errant lock of hair from the elf's face. "Was that courteous enough for you?"

"Nay," grinned Legolas. "You did not say please."

Aragorn could not help but laugh, but he realised what Legolas was doing and his heart swelled, for no matter the depth of his own sorrow, the archer would spare his mate even the least discontent. "Valar, Legolas, I love you more than life." The words brought such a jubilant light to the sapphire eyes that they became a daily refrain.

Thus the archer buoyed the Ranger's flagging spirits and did not fail to seek him out as often as possible, leading his love away to one secluded spot after another. Their encounters were not always so amorous and it was equally common for them to simply hold one another in quiet contentment or sit side by side in the treetops telling each other tales from the years before they met. They shared Legolas' quarters in the stronghold and none disturbed them during Ithil's hours out of respect for the mortal's need for sleep.

On first introduction to the apartment, the man found it as fresh and clean as if Legolas had never been absent, and this affirmed his approbation of Thranduil: the King had never given up hope. The rooms were luxuriously furnished and Legolas made no reference to this splendour, obviously so accustomed to it that he never noticed it, and once more Aragorn worried about the life into which he was taking this fair prince of the First-born. He thought of Imladris and whether he could station his mate there while he was out patrolling the wilds, but knew neither he nor Legolas could bear to be parted. He had not broached the topic with Legolas, but learned his concerns were not something to which the archer was immune.

Legolas, true to Elboron's prediction, was the one who truly needed sleep, having endured two years' worth of torture, and did so, long and late into the day, as though gathering up strength and accumulating rest he might never have again. Aragorn had thus come to expect to be the first awake and had taken upon himself the task of securing a morning meal from the kitchens which he and his mate enjoyed privately in their bedchamber. One day a week or so after their arrival, he was surprised to arise in an empty bed.

The door stood open and from the sitting room came voices: Legolas' and someone he recognised as a cousin on his father's side, but could not recall the ellon's name, for it seemed there were hundreds of cousins, nephews, and nieces spanning many generations. This elf was not much older than Legolas, the archer had told him, and then Aragorn found out this meant the cousin had in fact lived almost a thousand years longer. The two were discussing that very topic which had begun to plague the man. Though he should not have done, he lay abed and listened, for he was the focus of conversation.

"He's a mortal and not only that but hasn't even a home, Legolas. You are going to become like the Avari, roaming as the weather shifts, following the trail of game and watering holes."

"Aragorn is a man, true enough, and a man with noble lineage. He has a home and it is in Gondor."

"What? He says to everyone that asks that he is a Ranger bound for Fornost in Eriador."

"Of course. Those, too, are his people and he must go out among them and secure their loyalty and support. Yet Aragorn will not remain always there in the wilds, serving as protector to the lost realm of Arnor and its scattered populace. Someday he will rule from Minas Tirith."

"Truly? You believe your mate is going to march into Gondor and ask of Ecthelion the sceptre of the Kings of Old?" At this the cousin laughed and Aragorn frowned to hear his mocking jeers, but he was not the only one displeased.

"I see nothing amusing about it," Legolas replied with icy wrath in his voice. "The inheritance is his to claim and doing so will not be easy, but neither must it go unclaimed. Middle-earth has need of Aragorn."

"I think it is you who has need of a pretty dream of a noble and glorious life to be taken up at some distant future, so to make your immediate future of hardship and dearth endurable and your ultimate future of grief and loss less horrendous."

That was too much for Aragorn, for now the elf was mocking his mate, and he sprang from bed, snatched a robe about him, and stormed into the sitting room. "If that were true, then shame be upon you for saying it," he admonished harshly. "Such unkind words ought not issue from friends and family. Are you one of those whose jealousy of Legolas makes you gloat over his leave-taking from the home he loves and the comforts of his princely station? Speak, for if it is so then I must insist you go from our chambers and leave us in peace, lest I be forced to challenge you for abusing my mate's…"

"Ai! Sîdh! Sîdh! I am not counted among that hateful lot," insisted the ellon, hands raised in supplication, not so eager to have this challenge issued and find himself facing Aragorn's champion in a duel of honour. "Legolas, he is right. My words were unnecessarily petty, please forgive me."

"Aye, it is forgotten, Turumâ." Legolas clasped arms with his kinsman and escorted him to the exit. "I will meet you later for the hunt." Once the door was closed on his friend he turned to Aragorn, contrite and apologetic. "I am sorry you had to hear that, Kalrô. Most of my people know little of men and nothing of the greater world beyond the woods. Greenwood is all the world for them." He ignored the cousin's allusion to the finite measure of their union.

"I am not sorry," announced Aragorn, doing the same, for so they had promised one another on the plains of Rohan. Instead, he looked Legolas over with pleased amusement. The archer was clad as was he, in a robe of blue silk and nothing more, his golden hair loose about him, tangled and mussed from their amorous activity in the dark hours, hastily snatched behind those enchantingly pointed ears. Aragorn came to full arousal quickly and could not help but notice the same condition overtaking his mate.

"Your answer was a compliment to me and I would rather know how these kinfolk of yours really feel about our bond. Everyone is very polite but their disapproval is evident nonetheless." He watched the ellon move toward him, raising a brow at the deliberately, seductively predatory manner in which Legolas neared and then circled him. He decided a change in roles was indicated and made a sudden lunge for the elf.

Legolas giggled, leaping high out of reach and making a bold and successful grab at Aragorn's robe, which he whisked away and carted off as he raced for the bedroom. The man shouted a startled exclamation and gave chase, tackling the elf beside the small settee near the fire grate. Quickly he divested Legolas of the robe and wasted no time lavishing caresses and kisses upon the lithe body, but then abruptly rolled him over and mounted him at once, thrusting hard and fast so to bring them both to pleasure before some servant or steward came knocking at the door to inform them of the schedule for the day. Aragorn loved it, dominating the elf this way, a mix of playfulness and forceful mastery, and Legolas relished submitting to him.

Once spent, Aragorn gathered his mate close and stood, carrying him on to the bathing chamber where there was a pool of water that remained always hot and mineral rich. They soaked and rested and then coupled with luxuriant sloth, delaying release as they enjoyed teasing and tempting each other, tasting and caressing and kissing, touching and toying and stimulating until there was no holding back and both came suddenly and explosively from relief as much as erotic pleasure. After that, they rested and relaxed, washing one another, and Aragorn took up the topic dropped along with his robe.

"Are you disappointed?"

"What? How can you ask that when I have just contributed to the contents of this pool?" laughed Legolas, settling between Aragorn's thighs as though he was a chair, resting against the man's chest with a contented sigh as he lounged in the water.

"Nay, you know I didn't mean that," chided Aragorn. "I was referring to the rugged life we are facing out in Eriador. There is much comfort here in your father's stronghold."

"Ai, Aragorn!" Legolas sat up and moved so to look his mate in the eyes, disappointment plain in his. "Did you think I was some pampered courtier, strutting about in velvet robes and holding fêtes in the glade?"

"Well, no, not exactly that, but…"

"After seeing me fight so many times you doubt my value to this country? I am a warrior, Aragorn, and no stranger to hardship."

"Forgive me, Melethen, it was not your skill I doubted but your age. I thought…"

"That I was a spoiled favoured son, kept at home and out of danger," spat Legolas, standing and striding about in the pool, furious. Water sloshed everywhere and he stepped over the man's outstretched legs three times in his confined, stomping circuits. Then he stopped and faced Aragorn, arms folded over his chest and a frown contracting his brows. "Well, you're right. Ada would not let me join the southern patrols," he admitted testily, "but that was not my choice and we fought over it almost daily, and most bitterly."

"Elbereth, Legolas, I did not mean to touch so sore a nerve," Aragorn rose and unlocked those rigid arms, pulled his mate in for a soft kiss. "I didn't know the two of you were at odds so often." Indeed, from the man's perspective father and son were almost inseparable, and he had not grudged them their time together, knowing a long separation was imminent. Now, he recalled the reason Legolas had not gone with the disastrous trading party. The elf relaxed against him and they sat side by side, hands clasped. A long sigh escaped the archer and he let his eyes drift shut.

"I believe what I said to Turumâ," he said quietly. "You are not so much Isildur's heir as Elendil's, and the day will come when that destiny calls you from the wilds. On that day, I will be with you, Aragorn."

There was such conviction in his voice that Aragorn was visited by an immediate sensation of the weight of that destiny. A vision of the White City passed through his mind's eye, the walls gleaming and pennants streaming from every pinnacle, the banner that of his esteemed forebears: seven silver stars above one white tree. A shiver ran through him and he looked to find Legolas studying him. "You see this as reality? Have you the gift of sight?"

"I don't know," said Legolas. "I see it and it seems so real I might stand and step into the shadow of myself residing there at your side. If that is foresight, then I have it. What I truly think is that I see what Mithrandir saw in the Mirror, and these scenes transferred to me when he wrought his spells to cleanse me."

This seemed plausible to the man but before he could comment, the long dreaded knocking began, followed by Galion's entry into the bedchamber where he stood just outside the bathing room and called in to them. Legolas had another fitting with a tailor and Aragorn was needed in Aran Thranduil's study, post haste, as both of them were overdue.

The couple left their relaxing spa with reluctant grumbling, but Aragorn carried their conversation with him, finding the idea not so outlandish after all. This was the very future he had seen for himself and the cause for which he'd left the service of Ecthelion, save for a single, crucial difference. If he succeeded in this endeavour the elf had so staunchly proposed, then he would become a king among his people with all the duties that entailed, including providing heirs for the inheritance upon his death. Legolas could not give him those heirs.

They both must have been thinking of it, for a gloomy pall dropped over them as they readied themselves for the day, and neither spoke. At last they were clothed and must part and then Legolas sighed and went to his mate, snuggling in against the man's heart, appeased by the strong arms that closed round him.

"We promised each other not to dwell on the sorrows bound up in our love, remember?"

"Aye, I remember. So be it; we will let it alone for now and follow the course on which I was set before," Aragorn answered. They parted after another kiss and Legolas went down one corridor, the man following Galion through a labyrinthine course to Thranduil's chambers.

"The King has been waiting a long time, Hîr Aragorn," informed Galion with a vague note of disapproving censure in his tone.

"In truth?" the man was surprised at this, for the meeting was meant for after the morning meal and neither he nor Legolas had taken time to eat as yet.

"Aye, he has been at his wits end dealing with his younger son and the animosity between them was coming close to undermining that genuine love and regard in which they spent so many happy years. Legolas grew up, but Thranduil could not see it," the august steward lectured. "It was the Queen's belief that their son needed a mate and then he would become less contentious, more willing to have patience with his father's requests. Thranduil was, prior to this tragedy, attempting to find such a person."

"Really?" Now Aragorn was shocked indeed, so much so that he came to a halt. "Who is my rival, then?"

"There is none," assured Galion, smiling as he waited for the man to join him. They resumed their walk. "Legolas was as furious about that effort, perhaps more, as others the King had previously devised in hopes of diverting his single-minded insistence on serving in the southern patrols."

"I see," Aragorn was relieved to know there was no grieving suitor watching him with secret enmity, counting the years until he should die and Legolas be free. That thought jarred him severely, for he hadn't considered whether or not Legolas would desire another bond after his passing, and he faltered again. The ancient servant eyed him quizzically and he resumed motion, but spoke no more. In due time they arrived at Thranduil's rooms and Galion announced him, but did not leave them, instead busying himself in the study while Aragorn joined the King at his morning meal.

"Maur Aur, Aragorn," he said, smiling through the weight of his grief and the man was struck by the similarity this expression bore to Legolas'. "Please sit and accept my apologies for taking you from my son so early. I know it is your custom to break fast privately together, but the days grow short and we have yet to talk."

"Aye, Aranen, it is no hardship. There will be many mornings ahead with Legolas," answered Aragorn.

"Many, yet ultimately too few," sighed Thranduil.

"That is also a concern that haunts me," nodded Aragorn. "He has suffered greatly and additional sorrow is not something I would have in his future."

"Suffering is the lot of all free people in Middle-earth now, I fear," said Thranduil. "There is remedy for the kind of sorrow you mention, for I perceive you speak of that day when at last your spirit flees the bounds of Arda and takes its place in the proper home Eru designed for the Second-born."

"There is?" Aragorn was wary, for he had already experienced the King's keen insight and was not so sure he wished to hear this.

"Of course. Legolas needs to find someone to whom he can form a deep friendship, a closeness second only to that with you. This person will step in at the end and give his riven spirit succour. He will not fade, I promise you that."

"Ah, well, I am glad to know it," Aragorn shifted uncomfortably, for he was not, and a flick of a glance at Thranduil proved he was not fooled. The man decided truth was the only option before so wise and wily an elf. "Nay, I am jealous already, even knowing I won't be there when this person takes my place. I love Legolas; he is mine."

"Well said and I would expect nothing less from the one who would claim my son's heart," nodded Thranduil, his smile bittersweet. "Bury your hurt, for Legolas will never betray you, even when remaining constant must wound him deeply."

"Nay," Aragorn exclaimed, "I will not give him cause to regret his choice, Aranen; this I promise."

"I did not say he would regret, Aragorn." Thranduil studied the man and could see the fear of this thing hiding in his heart. He hesitated, wondering if he should leave it be and let the couple face the issue privately. Yet, a father's heart is hard to overcome, and he must ease his child's burden if he could. "Let me be direct," he said with crisp determination and held the pale grey eyes captive. "You have a destiny to fulfil and Legolas will see that you do. When you are crowned in Gondor, how will the people view this mate you have taken for your own? A King must have heirs and the folk of Gondor will want their King to wed a mortal woman of high station to get them."

"King Thranduil," Aragorn stammered, pale and astounded to find himself quaking. He opened his mouth, shut it, swallowed, tried to break from that compelling stare, failed, drew a harsh breath. "Aranen, I…I do not know what to say."

"Is there truth in my words?"

It was long seconds, the passing of many thundering beats of his agonised heart before the man could manage to utter a single syllable: "Aye."

"Good, that obstacle is passed," sighed Thranduil and reached out to pat the man's hand kindly. "It is hard to own truth and my esteem for you rises steadily due to your willingness to do so, Aragorn. Now, what is to be done?"

"Valar!" Aragorn stood suddenly and turned from the table, clutched at his hair as he strode the room. He paced to the grate and stood staring into the empty hearth at a surface already swept free of ash and coals from the morning fire. A lingering heat and the acrid scent of coal reached his nostrils. He did not like this, discussing how to answer the needs of a realm not yet won. "It is too cruel, this fate. If I had kinsman who could provide me their sons, then it would answer."

"Are there none left, then?"

"A few," the man nodded slowly, seeing Denethor in his mind and instantly rejecting the man. Yet, perhaps he would marry well and the union produce a suitable son. He sighed. "It is too soon to know, but that would seem to be the only option." He glanced back at the King and Thranduil shook his head grimly.

"Not the only option."

"The only one acceptable to me."

"It is to your credit to say it, but I must tell you a truth you may not have realised. Once you become King, what is acceptable to you becomes secondary to that which serves your Kingdom best. The will of the people cannot be ignored, or if you do it is to the detriment of the whole populace, for a divided Kingdom must fall."

"I say I will not bow to any will, no matter if it is the collective design of every soul in Gondor and Arnor, that asks of me such a thing. I would not take a wife, and that is what you are suggesting."

"Again, it is a testament to your love and commitment to Legolas that you say this, and as his father I am gratified to know he is so fully cherished," assured the King. He rose and joined the man, took his elbow and steered him to the settee, sat them both down. "Believe me, I am not discussing so painful a subject out of delight. Yet I fear you have not considered all the realities ahead and it is necessary you do so now before they are faced and the moment demands your answer."

"I appreciate that, but would rather not cloud my mind with these worrisome ideas while the future containing them is so distant, and, indeed, may never come to pass."

"Do you not think Legolas deserves to have a mate as exalted as the High King of Gondor would be?"

"Ai! Of course I do, but…"

"Good! That is not less than he deserves and I will tell you frankly he has already confided much of this to me, that he means to see you on the throne of Gondor or die in the attempt."

"He told you that?"

"Aye, in so many words. I am trying to explain to you the nature of your mate's heart, Aragorn, so that you may appreciate the depth of that love he bears for you."

"I am not complacent about it, Aranen, I assure you."

"Perhaps it is a matter of how much you permit your mind to realise. It is a gift I have noted among humans, an ability to seal off from themselves ideas that by their nature induce pain and sorrow. Elves have not this knack."

"I am not shielding myself from truth," Aragorn said, but immediately knew it was a lie and felt a warm flush creep up over his face. He scowled and shook his head. "Well, mayhap you are right after all." He drew a steadying breath. "Tell me what you would have me know. If it concerns Legolas' heart, it is my domain and I must not shirk my duty to it, however hard to hear this may be."

"Ai Elbereth! It is not a terrible thing, Aragorn, to be loved like this," smiled Thranduil, pleased with the man's responses thus far. He patted the mortal's knee consolingly. "It is this: Legolas will not stand in the way if the day comes that you must bend to the will of your people and wed another."

Aragorn stared, dumbfounded. He could see in Thranduil's eyes the sorrow speaking these words had caused him, and swirling through it was also the pride and love of a father, his admiration for the purity of his son's good, true heart. Legolas would stand by his mate through all, no matter what trials and troubles hounded them. Their bond of life over death was their shield, nay, Aragorn's shield, against the dangerous possibilities lying in wait along that shadowed path he must tread, for Legolas would have nothing less than the man's birthright restored in full. The archer would suffer the hurt of stepping aside should need demand it, and probably be there at the marriage, smiling with proud affection upon the couple.

Even this. He loves me to this degree.

The weight of such truth overwhelmed him suddenly and Aragorn's face crumpled. He buried his head in his hands and wept.

"So you can understand it now, Aragorn," spoke Thranduil softly, firmly. "Why you must not resent this friend my son will so sorely need. I think now you see cause to rejoice that there will be such a person to stand with him then."

"Ai Valar," sobbed Aragorn. "How can joy hold such grief within it? This is horrible, unbearable. I don't want him to suffer this. I am not sure I can endure it either. Why did he choose me?"

"Do not condemn his choice. For mortals, fate is something you can bend to your will, but for elves it is never thus. We are not so prone to despair over the destiny ordained for us and so Legolas will not suffer as you imagine it. He sees all this clearly and understood it when he chose you. The reasons he did so are many: natural attraction, admiration of a noble man, a desire to feel whole again, to love instead of hate, to know joy instead of despair. Beyond these obvious ones is something else you must know but have hidden away from your heart. So be it: I will speak the words, because I, too, try to hide from this truth. He is a kin-slayer, Aragorn. Who among my people would have him now?"

Aragorn cried aloud and shook his head, fighting the rise of bitter bile that burned his throat, and when he raised his head found Thranduil's face stricken and wet with tears.

The King sang, pouring out his sorrow in a torrent of sombre notes, the words clothed in grief and draped in misery, layer upon layer reaching back in time and forward into a future yet to be so that the burden of it must be insurmountable. Yet the Music of his life upheld his soul and prevented its decimation, filling it in equal measure with all the love, pride, and joy he had known and would experience in that future yet to be. Thranduil sang, and Aragorn joined him.

"Let it be known by all in my hearing. Let every heart attest to my words for all time to come. Let every tree, every leaf, every root and twig perceive the truth of this moment and spread it beyond the borders of our realm. Let Tawar bear witness to my decision and honour it. This is my right as husband and mate of Ranak'lâ. She was taken from me by Shadow and returned to the light of Eru's Song by our child, Legolas. The proof is in my keeping."

Thranduil held up the small golden band between his fingers and though it was too small to be seen clearly even by the eyes of elves, clutched there within his broad, swordsman's hand, a low sigh of mourning swept through the assembly and they swayed as one, chanting a sombre refrain: "The proof is presented and seen by all. She is gone, gone. She is gone."

"Mercy is my choice for my son, that and more. A debt I owe to him, for I should have been the one to go after her, to release her from her prison. I should have been the one to wear the shameful badge of kin-slayer. This being so, he will not be so dishonoured. I decree it now: if any use that hateful slur in speaking of him, to him, or for him, that person shall be banished from Greenwood until he or she seeks out my son and earns his forgiveness."

A murmur ran through the crowd at this, for it was not part of the rubric, and Aragorn heard both acceptance and discontent within it.

The throng filled the meadow, the same in which the company of warriors had rested on the way to the stronghold, for it was for the Wood Elves a scared place. A thousand feet or more, it seemed to him, obscured all but a small circle of grass in the centre where he and Legolas, Thranduil and Elboron, Celon'lir and Mithrandir stood. There was no dais of rare wood or canopy of rich fabric. There was no throne or sign of majesty, save a woven crown of wild flowers about the King's brow, and a similar one adorning Elboron's serious forehead. It was strange to see these humble circlets, things a child might delight in crafting, worn with upon such noble heads.

The elder prince caught the man's eye for a second and let a quick smile and a quicker wink momentarily lighten his grave countenance, as though agreeing with his view, and Aragorn was once more mystified by how these woodland royals so easily read his heart. Elboron took a step that carried him to his brother's side and spoke his part.

"Let it be known: though law demands no kin-slayer must stand in the path of inheritance, neither shall Legolas' rightful place as heir be passed to another. Elo! Here is the bow of Maha Maktâro, Taurê Târo, (Great Wood King) after Denwego, first Taurê Târo, and his son. This bow is broken and cannot be replaced, used in the service of our people too many times, lastly by Legolas only days ago." He raised high the bow from the battle at the crossing, warped and twisted, and grim silence gripped the elves observing.

"It is time to set it aside," Elboron continued, and lowered his arm. "Yet it is an heirloom of our folk and can be neither destroyed nor replaced. So it is for Legolas. None shall be raised up to replace him, nor shall I assume the right of my inheritance. I renounce it here and now. Let the sons of Doronarth make claim against me if they will!" With this challenge Elboron lifted the wilted bow overhead again that all might see.

A great and noisy tumult arose and it was evident to the man that not even Thranduil had been apprised of his brother's intentions. Legolas stood pale and worried, eyes sweeping the arguing crowd as his nephews and nieces became more vocal and voluble. Yet it was clear there was no consensus regarding this issue and Thranduil moved to quiet his people.

"A formal abdication has been announced. As this is a grave matter regarding future leadership, let the heirs of my eldest son take twelve days to make answer. Know that to contest this decision is to contest us both, and Elboron and I will defend his choice, for I confirm it as King: there shall be no heir for Greenwood but Legolas, and if not Legolas, then none."

"Ada!" Legolas answered, stunned, but the elves had become still and gazed upon their King in fear.

"Twelve days is not enough," counselled Mithrandir.

"Nay, it is too much," countered Thranduil. "If there is this much dissension between my second son and the progeny of my eldest, then Greenwood cannot endure it. Better to dissolve the monarchy and return the choosing of a king to the old ways. Since I am still Taurê Târo, this is my rule and the heirs of Doronarth have twelve days to defend their counter claim, should they so wish."

"What of us? What of the voices of Kweni Tarê (Woods People)?" called out a voice behind them, and turning Aragorn saw it was Celon'lir. "We, too, will make answer, Aran Thranduil, in twelve days time, but I will tell you that decision now. We will back Elboron's choice: no heir but Legolas for us."

"You are Doronarth's heir, too," another such exclaimed, "but you do not speak for us all. The decision will be made in family council."

"I do not speak as a son of Doronarth, but as a son of the forest. My mother is sylvan as was my father's mother. Tradition says a male must stand in the house of his bride, and my bride will be a sylvan maid. Am I not, then, a Wood Elf and a sylvan? It is for the sylvan half of my heritage I renounce my claim, for only through that heritage did my father come to such an exalted state. No heir for Greenwood but Legolas!" he cried, and immediately went to embrace his uncle. The two friends parted smiling.

Another soft smattering of muttering voices rippled through the people and now Aragorn could detect a definite sense of approval for Elboron's choice and Celon'lir's strong support of it. Many of Doronarth's people left the glade, but did so without comment or contention and the tension lessened. Thus the conflict ended before it could begin and the ceremony resumed. The man suddenly understood that this was as much a part of the rites as the rest, and felt new admiration not only for Thranduil's handling of it, but for the Wood Elves participation. They were all part of the pageant, the pageant encompassed their culture, and the culture defined their lives. Thranduil began speaking again.

"Let it be known that mercy was not granted only for the love I bear my child, though that is enough for me as Ranak'lâ's mate. Surety has been given of the integrity of Legolas' feä by three proofs: Mithrandir attests that he cleansed my son's soul and scoured it free of all traces of darkness."

"Before Manwë and Eru I swear this is true," stated Mithrandir, nodding his head and setting a firm hand on Legolas' shoulder. "His soul is purer than anyone else's here." Congenial laughter followed this mild jest.

"Second, Legolas salvaged the life of a stranger," Thranduil went on, "a man of honour and dignity beset in Baran Dalf by the minions of Shadow. Afterwards, he gave light from his purified soul to ensure the man's recovery from grievous wounds."

"Before all the Powers in Aman and the One, I swear it is so," Aragorn stepped up and called out loudly, taking his mate's hand. "We share the bond of life over death. Legolas is my mate." A soft susurration wafted through the meadow and the man looked out over a sea of kindly smiles and bright, nodding faces. The people were pleased and Legolas squeezed his hand.

"And that is the third proof: the bond of life over death has been given and received. Legolas and Aragorn are mates," the King concluded.

Now Aragorn drew a deep breath and shared a look with Thranduil, receiving a brief nod as the King stepped back. Mithrandir approached the couple while Thranduil, Celon'lir, and Elboron stood behind them. The man met his mate's happy smile and turned him so they stood face to face, gathered both his hands in both of his, and almost forgot the words he was so overwhelmed with the import of this moment. He dropped to his knees before the archer and realised this was a surprise to everyone when a hushed and startled gasp erupted and then faded away. Yet, it felt natural and right to him and he did not care about the propriety of his action, looking up into the face he loved so dearly.

"Legolas, son of Thranduil and Ranak'lâ, child of the woods, prince of Greenwood, I say to you that I love you. All that you are is precious to me: your eyes and your hair, your smile and your laughter, your clean, golden light. I treasure even that which has given you wisdom beyond your years and sorrow beyond your heart's limits: your tears and your anguish, your anger and your defiance, your need for me. All of this I love. Before the One, before your father and your uncle, your nephew and the emissary from Aman, before the witness of your people gathered here, I claim you for my mate for all time, or at least until I die. What say you, Hervenn? Will you consent to wear my ring as a token of this, our bond?"

"Ai Valar," Legolas whispered, for while all this was as rehearsed, he found the reality somewhat astonishing in its manifestation. Everyone heard him and laughed gently, but he did not hear them, concentrating on the man kneeling at his feet. "I will wear your ring, Aragorn," he answered, voice firm and filled with wonder, and he bent, taking the man's face between his hands, and kissed him deeply.

Around them the glade filled with happy cheering and much laughter, for Legolas had now broken with the forms of the ceremony, too, and affirmed the union before accepting the band, but none could fault him. Merry jesting rang through the throng.

"There's supposed to be a ring, pen neth."

"Aye, let him at least put it on you first."

"Impetuous youth; the man has taken on more than he knows."

"The ring! Show us!"

"Make it official, Aragorn, before he lays claim to you!" That from Celon'lir.

"Sorry, Kalrô" Legolas' cheeks were red and he could scarcely meet his mate's eyes. He had not meant to cause a stir, but as he ran his hands through the man's dark hair and looked fleetingly into the grey depths, he found Aragorn pleased and smiling.

"Do not apologise. Perhaps I would not mind being claimed," he murmured and got the laugh he knew he would, even from Legolas. Then he reached into the pocket of his tunic and came away empty. He felt in another pocket and found nothing. Now a frantic expression suffused his features and he began patting his leggings and then Legolas' in exaggerated panic. More laughter and a huge grin form the archer met with this burlesque and then Thranduil tapped him on the shoulder.

"Here is what you want," he said and held forth his palm. Upon it lay a simple golden band, newly made and inscribed with the names of the couple.

Aragorn took it and settled the band over Legolas' index finger, pleased to see the fit perfect, and raised his eyes to the shining countenance of the woodland archer. "Now you may kiss me." He presented smiling lips amid more laughter.

"Nay, not yet." Legolas set his fingers over the man's mouth and revealed his own surprise. "Aragorn son of Arathorn and Gilraen, Ranger of Eriador, Chieftain of the Dunedain, Heir of Isildur, I say to you that I love you. All that you are, both your virtues and your frailties, I accept and cherish. Our light is already mingled and our souls interwoven. We share the bond of life over death. I have chosen you for my own and ask if you will wear my ring as token of that bond. What say you, Besnô?"

A collective sigh of appreciation went up and Thranduil was seen to wipe at his eyes a time or two, for none had thought so good an end could come from so much horror and strife. Now in pristine silence everyone awaited the man's reply and he did not make them wait long.

"Legolas! You have a ring for me? Yes, give it to me, Hervenn, this is most wondrous," Aragorn enthused, watching as the archer reached into his shirt and withdrew a mithril chain, lifting it from round his neck. On it was suspended a heavy ring, intricately carved in filigree with three rubies set within the uppermost cuts. It was a thing of antiquity and the man caught his breath; it looked like a treasure one might find in the vaults of Menegroth, which it was. What its connection to Legolas could be he dared not guess, holding out his hand to receive it, and the weight of it was substantial as it slid over his knuckle. He smiled and looked back to his mate's proud expression. "Now?"

"Aye, now," laughed Legolas and bent again to Aragorn's lips.

They were camped for the night in a small cove of trees, the horses free to graze and play the part of sentinels, a duty Tuilelindô had taught Azrubêl during the journey from Rohan. Near at hand another woodland charger nibbled the grass: Celon'lir's brown and white piebald pony Spinê. Mithrandir's grey palfrey, by virtue of being the mount of so esteemed a being, refrained from the watch and stood with head low, already asleep thought the glow of the setting sun had yet to fade. All the sky was awash in pastel shades of lavender and apricot and vibrant streaks of fading crimson, the thick bank of clouds hovering low on the horizon. Beneath this glorious mantle the small party took their evening meal beneath the trees, chewing on way-bread and dried meat to spare the need for fire and thus preserve anonymity.

Aragorn and Legolas reposed together, the archer stretched out with his head pillowed on the man's lap, singing softly and accepting small morsels from his mate's fingers. Mithrandir sat slouched against his pack and the horses' tack, hat covering his face, hands clasped over his stomach, snoring. Celon'lir sat between them, accompanying his uncle on a small lyre perched upon his knee, his eyes intent upon the man and elf, for he had not before been this close to anyone he knew in the early days of love. He felt a small pang of envy, wishing he could enjoy the contentment which exuded from Legolas' feä, but hastily set that aside. Legolas' joy was dearly bought, and Celon'lir doubted he could endure such strife to earn the same.

He glanced round the terrain, no longer amazed at the great expanse of land rolling away to the horizon, for the most part devoid of trees. He no longer felt vulnerable and open to attack as he had first, seeing his companions' ease with the landscape. Now, he revelled in the excitement of new sights and sounds, places he could not imagine they must be so strange to an elf of the woodlands. He was more pleased than ever with his decision to join Legolas, and as he had no mate, the parting from Greenwood was without sorrow. He would return someday, he knew, but for now he felt Legolas should not be alone, the only one of his kind in this strange world of men to which his life was now bound.

They had left the valley of the Anduin far behind and crossed the clouded peaks of Hithaeglir without incident, though the bite of the cold air had been a burden to elves used to the moderate climate on the riverine valley. The road continued on westward, a thin, unwavering track that bespoke the constant travel of many feet, and this was a wonder to Celon'lir. He began to suspect the population of the wider world was a great number, and these would mostly be mortals. It opened his heart to sadness, realising the truth all elves instinctively knew: their time was drawing to an end. Two more days journey they had come since that thought reordered his reality, and Aragorn had pointed out the intersecting track that led to Imladris. The party had elected not to go there, but continue on to Fornost, for Aragorn was eager to be among his kin again.

Celon'lir paused in his plucking and reached his foot out to nudge the man. "How many more days until we reach this land of men?"

"One day less than it was when you asked that yesterday," Mithrandir suddenly grumped, coming alert and shifting his hat to send the warrior an aggrieved scowl.

"Aye, true enough," laughed Legolas, but he peered up at his mate with the same question in his eyes, just as anxious and eager as his nephew, if not more so.

"We are half-way betwixt the Bruinen Ford and the Last Bridge over Hoarwell. After we cross, we must bear sharply north and skirt the Weather Hills. That, or sludge through the Midgewater Marsh…"

"Ai Valar, no!" interrupted Legolas. "I've seen enough swamps of late, Kalrô. Let us brave these hills, since we have survived the High Pass."

"I thought the same," admitted Aragorn.

"So, then, what comes next?" Celon'lir asked again.

"We bear west toward Fornost. I predict it will take a good week of solid riding, if no trouble discovers us," replied the man.

"Well, I am going to Bree and then on to Hobbiton," announced the wizard. "I need to check on my old friends there."

"Bilbo?" Aragorn nodded, smiling, for he'd heard the tales of course, fully aware of the stir caused by the wizard's meddling in Bilbo's staid and sedate life, but was too young to be permitted to meet the dwarves and the hobbit on their visit to Rivendell. He cast a questioning eye upon his mate, for Legolas would have been quite young then, too. "You know about all that business, Melethen?"

"Elbereth, yes. 'The Barrel Incident', Doronarth used to call it. I remember when they all rode off to war, and when they came back." He paused and met Celon'lir's eyes. "It was the first time we understood that a warrior's life could be cut short."

"Aye," nodded Celon'lir solemnly. "We lost some people in that battle. Before it, I imagined the fight against our enemies was all a romance of honour and glory, without anything of pain, or fear, or sorrow in it." He stopped speaking and cast down his eyes, still ashamed that he had deserted Legolas at the Tower. Now it was the man who nudged him with a booted toe and Celon'lir looked up to find Aragorn's compassionate grey eyes upon him.

"If it helps you, many a great general has quailed in the first onrush of conflict only to discover a courage and determination far greater than he might have otherwise. Among my people, you will find ample means to prove to yourself that this is so, Celon'lir."

"I pray you are right," he said quietly and then both elves and all the horses suddenly came to attention, Legolas and Celon'lir on their feet and striding toward their mounts. "Riders," announced Celon'lir as Aragorn scrambled up and followed them.

He and Mithrandir scanned the horizon in the direction the elves faced but saw nothing.

"One rider," corrected Legolas, and then he suddenly smiled and cast a teasing look at his mate. "Now, do not slay him out of hand, Kalrô."

"What? Who is it?" The man's hand went for his sword as he strained to catch sight of the rider. Soon, a tiny black spot distinguished itself from the ground in the hazy light.

"It is Caedmon," Legolas reassured. "No need to frighten him off. Perhaps he has news for Lord Thorongil from the new King in Rohan.

"Oh. Yes, you may be right," the man was only partly mollified, for he still felt keenly the man's interest in Legolas was more than friendly. "We are mates now and I mean fro him to know it at once," he said sternly, arms crossing over his chest.

"We were then, too, and he does know it," insisted Legolas. "He does not care for males in that way, Kalrô, be at peace and welcome this soldier of the plains."

Aragorn gave grudging agreement and all waited while night fell and the rider neared, yet it was dawn before Caedmon came to their camp, met by the Ranger with gruff welcome. The warrior smiled and called a hearty welcome to Legolas as he dismounted.

"Caedmon, well met," said the elf and introduced him to Celon'lir. "Why have you followed us?"

"I have gained leave of Selwyn and Thengel King to do this," he began, too excited to sort out his thoughts properly. "I am to be the representative for my people to you, Prince Legolas, and your guard and servant wherever you may go. What say you to that?"

"Legolas does not need a guard," growled Aragorn.

"Oh, nay, Lord Thorongil, I assure you my interest is one of friendship only and extends to you both, of course. You surely cannot expect Prince Legolas to do his own laundry and mending and cooking and such."

At this Celon'lir burst into laughter. "Well, he never has before now, mellon, but we cannot keep personal servants out in the wilds of Eriador."

"Why not?" demanded Caedmon and turned back to Legolas. "In the world of men, your status must be clearly demonstrated, my prince. I will stand as a buffer between you and the curious who might encroach upon your dignity."

"Ai! I am not anybody's prince, Caedmon, but I find your reasoning logical," said Legolas.

"What?" Aragorn stared at his mate, agog. "You want to drag along a manservant to Fornost? Legolas, the Rangers do not live that way."

"All the more reason for me to come along, then," Caedmon stated. "I accept your terms, Legolas, and will drop the title as long as I can refer to you as Lord for the benefit of any men we encounter. That way, they will understand your place is set apart among them."

"As my mate, Legolas place is not one that can be set apart," argued Aragorn.

"Nay, there is truth in his words," said Mithrandir. "Among mortals, Legolas is already strange, suspect by his very nature. It may be prudent to have a human guard and an elven guard, both, that none may mistake his uniqueness for loneliness."

"I think I can adequately impress upon my people that Legolas is mine and not to be harassed," fumed Aragorn.

"Well, that's the point, isn't it?" asked Mithrandir. "Do you mean to start off your leadership by showing distrust for you fellow Rangers and barking at everyone who speaks to Legolas? He is to be at your side daily and will fight with your men. He needs to stand on his own and show that his influence is beneficial. The Rangers need to accept him on his own merits, not because he is your mate, or this isn't going to work."

"He's right," nodded Caedmon and all eyes looked to Aragorn.

The man could see he'd been overruled and thought this did not bode well for his future leadership skills. He frowned, still disliking adding the young Rohirric knight to their entourage, but sighed and then shrugged. "So be it. If you wish a retainer to accompany you, I will not oppose it, Melethen."

"Good!" exclaimed Caedmon and immediately set about breaking their camp and putting things in order, even to saddling Aragorn's horse. Before long all were mounted and on the way, and Legolas guided his horse alongside the young man's.

"The first thing you must learn is the ways of the Rangers in regards to naming their leaders," he said. "Take Thorongil, for instance."

"Legolas!" Aragorn shouted, shocked that his mate was about to reveal so serious a secret to Caedmon.

"We either trust him or we don't," announced the elf. "I, for one, trust him."

Again it fell to Aragorn to answer and once more he gave way to his mate. Over the course of the day, Celon'lir and Caedmon learned that what to call their leader depended on the time, place, and person they might be addressing at the moment. Aragorn bore their jokes and additional names with stoic mirth, finally relenting to the addition to their company with better grace. Thus, the small party travelled on, and when Mithrandir left them, the four remained together, two men and two elves entering into Fornost amid the curious and guarded reserve of the Rangers.

The End

NOTE: Well, that's where I stop this tale for now. Judging by the lack of hits and reviews for the last few chapters, people are not satisfied with the way the story concluded. Sorry if you were disappointed. Things are going very badly for me right now and I doubt I have the energy to commit to a story like this, which takes a lot from me, at least not soon. I don't know when the sequel will be started, much less finished. Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to send me feedback and reviews. You kept me going when I felt worthless.