Okay, so it's been… checks calendar TWO YEARS since I've updated. TWO YEARS? Has it been that long? And I still get E-mail about this story, at least one or two a month. So here you go. Persistence and bugging the author pays off. That and severe writer's block that keeps me from working on my novel. So here I am, trying to lure my muse back from her trip to Tijuana with fanfic. Gods help me.
Of course it also helped that Hurricane Dennis knocked out my power for a while today and all I could do is work on the laptop and finish this.
This story has one chapter left to finish the tale, and I can say without a doubt that it won't take TWO FRIGGING YEARS to finish it. I mean, I might as well… It's so close to being done…..
Jeez. I hope this doesn't suck too, too badly after TWO YEARS of not writing in this world….
The torchlight gave a warm glow to the stone walls, but it was false warmth. Flecks of mica embedded in the granite sparkled but the stone still radiated a biting cold and Legolas' breath steamed in front of him as he ran.
His feet made no sound but his heart beat in his ears so loudly he was sure it could be heard in the city below. :Slow down.: He forced his steps into a walk, although he still hurried. :Someone will take notice if you run, he scolded himself.
He paused by a stairwell and listened, straining to hear if anyone was coming to discover him huddled there. Silence met his ears and he moved on after an additional moment of waiting.
He forced his steps even slower, trying by force of will to make his heart stop hammering and his breath stop coming in panicked gasps. His hands pulled absently at the fur collar of the heavy night robe he'd donned. There was no way he could have laced himself back into the dress that he'd worn tonight, even if he'd been brave enough to go back into Aragorn's rooms to retrieve it. There was no time to waste in finding other clothing. :I cannot trust myself anymore. I think I could trust him, but I cannot trust myself around him.:
The halls were fortuitously empty. It appeared that everyone was in the great hall, enjoying the food and entertainments that had been so lavishly prepared for tonight. The winter had been hard and any diversion that would take the people's minds away from the dark and cold was enjoyed to its fullest.
He paused at another hallway and listened again. :I've been lucky. It sounds as though no one is about tonight.: He paused and then turned down the hall that led to the nursery. :Of course, I've not had great amounts of good luck in the past year. Perhaps I am due for some, but I do not wish to hang my fate on that faint hope.:
The nursery door was heavy oak, but swung open soundlessly on well-oiled brass hinges. Squeaky hinges woke up sleeping babies, an unhappy circumstance that was prevented at all costs.
The front room was a play room; countless toys perched on shelves to spoil the royal brood that was supposedly to come. Dolls waited on the shelves for Luthiél to be old enough to play with them, their glass eyes glinting coldly in the candlelight that shone from the bedroom. It seemed they knew that he was coming to take their princess from them. Legolas shuddered and turned from the dolls and their empty gazes.
He crossed the room and entered the small room where a dull eyed woman drowsed in a chair next to the cradle. There slept Luthiél, her golden curls gleaming in the dim light. She slept on her stomach; her arms spread wide and small face pressed to one side with sweet lips parted as she dreamed.
Legolas stood soundlessly in the door for a long moment, hovering on the edge of choice. It was not too late. He could still turn back now and pretend nothing had happened and wait for a more opportune time. The baby was still young; it was too cold for her to travel. Surely he could wait a little longer.
He raised a hand to his lips, touching them lightly. They were still raw from stubble laden kisses. He could not wait. He would not wait. He could not trust himself. His sense of self would not survive another night like tonight. His glance fell back to the baby again. :And if I wait too long, she may be bundled off in some arranged marriage before she can even walk: It wasn't true but the lie made another small justification and tilted the balance overwhelmingly towards flight.
Moving forward, he lightly touched the baby's hair and forced himself to smile at the woman. He had no memory of her name at this moment. The need to be gone from this place was chasing all other things from his mind.
The woman blinked as if rousing herself from a dream, and then stood awkwardly and half bowed. "My lady" she whispered, "I thought you'd be down in the hall with the others tonight."
"I decided to retire early, and wanted to bring her in to sleep with me." He forced his lips into a gentle smile that he hoped showed nothing of his nerves. :There is nothing unusual with this. I've been having her sleep with me for weeks now for just this reason. She has no reason to suspect.:
The woman bowed again. "Of course, Lady. I just thought it strange that you didn't send one of your maids for her, is all."
He could feel a worried frown ghost his lips before he forced them back up into a stiff smile. "They're all still down in the hall, and I would hate to ruin their fun for such a small thing." He wrapped a blanket around the small, limp body and gently picked up the child. "I can carry her back easily enough."
Luthiél grumbled in her sleep and then wriggled into her mother's arms, falling back into deep slumber.
The woman bowed and then looked up, a gleam in her eye. "If you've no other use for me then…."
Legolas nodded. "Of course. Go down and enjoy yourself. The night is still young." A feeling of panic threatened to overwhelm him as she hesitated, torn between duty and temptation. He choked it down and sweetened the deal. "I think that the dancing will be starting soon. If you hurry…"
The woman smiled, her homely features transformed. Then she skipped lightly out the door after a sketchy curtsey. Legolas stood and unconsciously rocked the bundle in his arms, swaying back and forth as he waited long enough for the woman to clear the hallway. :Good. It'll be hours before she comes back to be questioned:
He followed her path, feeling the dolls glower at him as he passed.
He was amazed he reached his room unseen and sighed with deep relief as he shot the bolt securely on the inner door. Placing the sleeping baby gently on the carpet in front of the hearth, he started gathering the things he needed.
At a soft noise from Aragorn's room he frantically looked up, fearing the man was there to witness his betrayal. His gaze then fell on the place where the mirror had been and cold fear filled his heart. :Is she strong enough to stop me, I wonder? Would she:
He wrenched his attention back to the small fur sleeping gown and booties he held. He fingered the fur as he prayed it would be warm enough. Even though the cold was not as intense as in deepest winter, Luthiél was still so very young.
Shaking his head, he unwrapped the other things he had collected and laid them next to the sleeping baby.
It was a matter of seconds to dress in old leggings and a tunic. It was a few moments more to put everything along with a few changes of clothes for himself and Luthiél into a pack and then secure his knives on top. He then turned to the sleeping baby.
She mumbled sleepily as he changed her clout and gently dressed her in the fur gown. The booties and a warm hat followed.
He gathered her up into a sling he'd looped over his left shoulder, holding her tightly against his heart. She squirmed for a moment but calmed quickly. He then shrugged into a heavy wool cloak not only to keep Luthiél warm but to hide her from view.
With one arm, he picked up the pack and swung up into the window. It was a long drop into the garden below, but one he could easily make even with the precious burden he bore.
He left no footprints in the snow as he ran to the stables.
Aragorn looked at the slip of a girl in his doorway and scowled. "I'm really not in the mood for games, Disa."
The girl pushed past him and walked into his room with an offended sniff. "Not in the mood for games? I'm sure that you were a few minutes ago. The smell of the game you were playing lingers in the air. The stench of your 'game' offends my senses, my lord."
The king rolled his eyes. "You shouldn't be in here, girl." He tried to make it a menacing growl but it came out more as a frustrated whine. It had been a long night. He didn't need this.
"No, I shouldn't. There is no chaperone and no one here to make sure you don't impugn my honor, is there?" The girl's lip curled as she looked around the room. After several moments of consideration, she wiped the seat of the chair nearest the fire with her sleeve and sat gingerly on the edge. "But here I am. And here you are. And here we are, together. What ever shall my father say, my lord king?"
Aragorn sighed. "He would say nothing. I am the king, after all. You are here on my pleasure." He stressed the last word as he leaned against the far wall.
Disa examined the arm of the chair and diffidently wiped it off with the hem of her skirt before putting her elbow on it and resting her chin on her hand. She regarded Aragorn with a look that spoke of being so much older than her years. "You're king by the will of the people. If the people turn on you, then king you'll no longer be. I think you should remember that, MY LORD."
"Is there a purpose to this, or are you merely here to make me more miserable than I already am?"
"If I were here to make you more miserable, I'd be forcing you into an honorable marriage." Disa leaned forward and warmed her hands by the fire. "It's been a horribly cold winter, hasn't it? Think you the spring will come soon?"
Aragorn sighed and threw himself into the chair across from her. "The winter has been cold, yes. The spring will come, yes. The point to this conversation had better come before then."
Disa snorted. "I could almost learn to like you. Almost." She turned back to the king and began to speak.
Arod snorted as he made his way to the south gate. The horse's breath rose into a cloud of steam and Legolas fought down an irrational fear that it would rise as a beacon to show Aragorn where he was. Hooves clopped sharply against the cobblestones, but there was enough noise from the ongoing celebrations that they were drowned out.
Legolas hunched into the depths of the cloak, hiding his face as they passed another crowded inn. It was excruciatingly slow progress through all the levels of the city, but it was the only way to the smallest and least used gate.
His shoulders ached with both his tension and Luthiél's weight by the time the postern loomed into sight. All the main gates were barred at sunset, but all he needed was this small side gate to slip out into the night. Once he was free of the city, he could give Arod his head and make his way to the Havens.
Free of the city. Free. He rolled the word around in his mind, savoring the feel and the flavor of it. It was smooth and seductive, but bitter at the same time. No matter. Once he was free, Aragorn could never catch him. But he had to make it out of the city first.
He gave a nervous look over his shoulder\at that thought. He'd intended to drug Aragorn's wine the night he ran, but things had moved too quickly. He'd panicked. He'd discarded all his carefully wrought plans and simply ran as fast as he could. Not exactly behavior befitting an Elven prince, but he didn't care at this point. The head start on which he would have relied did not exist. Now it was simply up to how long it would take the man to overcome his anger and guilt at what had gone so horribly wrong tonight and discover the Elf missing. There would be a few more minutes while the palace was searched and then they would find Luthiél gone.
Once that was discovered, the alarm would be raised and the race to stop him would be on.
Luthiél stirred against his chest and he held her tighter as they approached the guardhouse.
"Who passes?" The man was old, too old to be standing watch at any gate, even one as small as this one. Legolas frowned at the thought of the city not being properly protected, and then shook his head. :It's not like the Orcs are out there trying to knock down the gates this time. Defend a city once and I feel like I own the place.:
His lips curved into a smile at the thought, but it disappeared at the second challenge. "Who passes? Speak!"
"I do." He pulled the hood across his face and looked down at the old man from its dark depths.
"And who are you, Lady?" The man shuffled closer to Arod to peer up at the cloaked and hooded figure.
Legolas studied the man. He was thin and looked to be hobbled with the swollen joint disease that struck humans as they aged. The guard's movements were slow and painful as he finally reached the horse and patted Arod on the shoulder. There was a flare of anger in the Elf's heart that someone so aged and infirm would be left to guard the gate to his city.
He took a deep breath. The cold air smothered the flame in his chest. Not his city. Never his city, and certainly not any more if it had ever been. "It doesn't matter who I am. Just open the door and let me pass."
The man patted Arod's shoulder and spoke, "I'm sorry, Lady, but I can't. It's much too dangerous for the likes of you out there. Come back in the morning with some Men-at-Arms to protect you."
Biting down his irritation, Legolas spoke again. "I can take care of myself. I simply require the gate to open in front of me and close behind me. I am no threat to the city; I am leaving and will never return." He took a shuddering breath. "Let me go free, old man. Please."
Shaking his head, the old man sighed. "I'm sorry, my Lady. I cannot open the gate. I have no orders." He turned and made to hobble back to his post.
The guard stopped and turned back. "Lady?"
"A few hours ago, maybe less, did you let Synan and his band of traders out?" The words rushed out in a desperate gasp.
There was a long silence and then the man nodded and spoke. "Yes. They left the city through this gate but a candle mark ago. They said they camped off the south road a few miles down, Lady."
"I am with them. Here is my safe conduct." Legolas pulled an emerald ring off of his finger and held it before the old man's eyes.
"That", he said dryly, "looks more like a ring to me, Lady."
"To some it might look like a ring. To another it might look like a year's pay." He paused and then spoke again through dry and parched lips. "To me it looks like my safe conduct to the Trader's camp." He turned the ring so it sparkled in the torchlight. This would be enough that the man would never have to pull guard duty on midwinter night again. He'd never have to do guard duty again, in fact. He could just stay home with his wife and enjoy the benefits of living this long, at least until the cold darkness that all mortals faced took him. Legolas turned away from such thoughts and focused on the man. "Don't you agree?"
There was a long silence before the old man finally reached up and took it from the Elf's fingers. "I must have been mistaken. My pardon, Lady. Here's the king's seal and all. My eyes, they're not what they used to be."
Legolas' shoulders sagged in relief. "I forgive you. None of us are what we used to be." He smirked bitterly at that statement and then pulled a second ring off and held it before the man. This time red fire bloomed in the firelight. "You never saw me. I was not here. Do you understand?"
"Saw who? The whole city is either passed out drunk or taking comfort at the wrong person's hearth. No one passed here tonight except the traders and their ilk." The guard took the second ring and then shuffled painfully to wheel that would raise the bar on the gate.
As he slowly turned the wheel, he spoke again, as if to himself. "I know you're not here, but if you were I'd tell you to be careful. There's still some Orcs and Eastern men wandering around that the king hasn't managed to hunt down and kill yet. Filthy creatures, Orcs. Be wary and stay on the road, Lady. The road is still safe. Mostly."
Nodding in his hood, Legolas nudged Arod through the gate and disappeared into the night without another word. The old man closed the gate behind the dark figure and hobbled back to his fire where he dreamed of what he would do with his new-found wealth.
"What would you give to know what I know?" Disa pushed a wisp of hair out of her face and looked at the king through slitted eyelids.
"What would you want, little Disa?" Aragorn stressed the 'little'. The girl was acting entirely too much like a courtier for his comfort.
"I want to be free. I want to be able to live my own life free of my father, of my brothers, of any man. I want to be able to choose for myself what is good and right for me." She laughed bitterly. "I've been around your lady too long, I fear. She's made me unfit for proper society and made me dream of living a life on my own."
Aragorn watched the fire, and then leaned forward to grab the poker and move a log into a better position. The fire flared up and painted his face in shades of orange and red. "I wouldn't say that. I'd say you've grown into a young woman who wants to direct her own life. There's nothing wrong with that." He put the poker back in its place and sighed sadly. "Arwen was much the same, even if she was much older than you."
There was silence from the girl for a long time. "You do know you're a fool, don't you?"
"I mean that you're a fool." Disa pushed more wisps of hair out of her face with an unconscious gesture of impatience. "You know as well as I that the Lady is not going to be what you want her to be. You know this but you still hold some perverse hope in your heart that if you keep pushing her she will turn to you for comfort and healing."
With an uncomfortable shift Aragorn found a stain on the hem of his tunic that caught his attention. Was that gravy? Or maybe butter? Who could tell at this stage of the game? "I only want what is best for the kingdom. Gondor demands the best."
"Gondor demands nothing of the sort. Gondor is your kingdom. You, yourself, have demanded these things in the name of Gondor. Just because you want them doesn't mean that the kingdom wants them." She paused and studied the fire, almost as if gathering courage. "What will you give me for what I know?"
There was a long pause. "I would give you your freedom. Not only from your father, but also from any man who would try to control you."
"That is what I wanted. Nothing more, nothing less." Disa sighed and began to speak.
It was dark. The moon was the barest fingernail paring in the sky and it barely illuminated the road, even to Elven eyes.
Legolas urged Arod to greater speed, trusting his eyes to find the way for the horse. Arod was used to this, having done this through the years and he ran as if the very legions of Sauron were behind him.
The road unfolded under Arod's hooves and Luthiél slumbered on, soothed by the beat of her mother's heart.
"She will run and she will take Luthiél. She feels she has no other choice in the matter."
"I don't believe you. She swore to me that she would stay and make a peace in order for Luthiél to be happy." Aragorn glanced towards the door to his queen's chamber. It had been silent behind that door for entirely too long.
Disa shook her head. "Why do you think the lady incapable of deception? Even if she wasn't able to when she arrived, you have lied to her so many times that she surely has learned the art of deceit at your knee."
Aragorn suppressed the urge to beat the slip of a girl. "Legolas cannot lie to me. She is incapable of it." He stood and walked to the door and pulled the bolt to. "She will tell you herself. You'll see."
The door creaked open to an empty room and Disa sat by the fire, a small, sad smile on her lips.
"Indeed, my lord. I see very well. I would check the nursery if I were you." She rubbed her hands over the flames and silently mourned the loss of her innocence. If only Legolas had taken her with him….
The road narrowed and led into trees, weaving in and out of the edge of a forest that stretched beyond sight.
At first Legolas was gladdened to hear the song of the trees, no matter how faint and sluggish from winter's grip it was. Arod slowed as the Elf leaned over and brushed his fingertips against the rough bark of the first tree, and then the second. Words of greeting were whispered and Legolas almost wept for the joy of their welcome.
Arod dropped to a walk and then stopped, using the opportunity to catch his breath from his headlong run. His Elf had asked and he would give unto the ends of his strength, but it was certainly nice that he didn't have to. The horse's nostrils flared as he sucked in the freezing air, his sides heaving.
Suddenly the horse froze, every muscle stiff and alert. He grunted softly to his Elf but Legolas had already sensed something as well. Reaching stealthily to the pack strapped behind him, Legolas loosened first one knife and then the other in their scabbards. His bow would be of no use with Luthiél slung across his chest, but if he had to fight he was far from defenseless.
The trees whispered a weak warning and Legolas thanked them as he wrapped his left arm around the sleeping baby and urged Arod to run. The horse sprang forward, obviously agreeing that was the best course of action.
Hooves clattered on the road, the cold making every impact ring like a bell to the Elf's ears. He could see the edge of the trees ahead, where the road came out into a clearing. He leaned closer to Arod's neck and whispered that there was safety ahead, he could see it.
Bent down as he was he missed the dark shadow perched on a low-hanging branch until it had dropped to land lightly behind him on Arod's rump.
The horse screamed in rage and reared to rid himself of the unexpected passenger. Legolas held on with his thighs and his right hand wrapped in Arod's mane. The dark shadow resolved itself into a man, and the man wrapped his arms around the Elf to stay on. Arod landed back on all fours and began to dance furiously, trying to scrape the intruder off on a nearby tree. Legolas held Luthiél even tighter with his left arm and elbowed the man in the face with his right.
There was a grunt of pain and a satisfying crunch as the man lost his grip and fell off. Arod made sure to trample him on the way back to the road.
More shapes came out of the underbrush by the side of the road, far too many of them. Bandits. Legolas wrinkled his nose and pulled his knife with his right hand. Arod charged the men and pulled up short when one of them brandished a spear. Legolas urged the horse to wheel with a subtle pressure on Arod's barrel. With one slash he cut through the wooden haft of the spear and with a return stroke sliced the man's throat.
The shadow crumpled and fell with a gurgling noise, and was replaced by three others. This time a spear was thrust into Legolas' face. Arod danced back as rough hands grasped at the heavy wool cloak, trying to pull the Elf from the horse. Legolas kicked out and felt bones break under the heel of his boot. One of the dark shapes fell with a cry of pain.
Another slash of his long knife sheared through flesh and bone, leaving another bandit without hands. The scent of blood began to fill the air with a bitter iron smell.
The bandits fell back, still blocking the way. It seemed as though they were considering if their prey would be worth the fight. Arod feigned a charge at them, but they stood their ground. Once again they grabbed and pulled at the cloak, and this time would not let go. Legolas let them have the garment this time, thinking that he could fight better without it.
He knew within seconds that had been a mistake.
There was a pause as what little light there was illuminated his hair and skin, making him glow like the face of the moon. There was an awed silence from the men on the ground, and then a deep laugh. One man stepped forward and rubbed his bearded chin in a calculating manner. "Now there's a pretty prize worth fighting for! Think of the ransom she'll bring us. What say you, men?"
The bandits roared agreement. Arod screamed defiance back at them while Legolas felt cold fear lace its icy fingers over his heart.
The leader moved to grab Arod's halter but jumped back when the horse made to bite him. The man shook his head and laughed as he waved his men to surround the Elf.
Perhaps it was the sound of the man's laugh, or perhaps that Legolas' heart started beating so rapidly but at that moment Luthiél woke and began to fret.
The laughter died as quickly as it had started. The leader stepped forward and smiled at the Elf. "Now we know why you fight so, but you can't win. Throw your weapon down." He paused and looked at Legolas appraisingly. "Come down here and I'll be sure no one hurts the babe." He continued on, not noticing that Legolas had gone utterly still. "If you're good, I'll be sure that no one besides me touches you, either." He ignored the sounds of protest behind him.
Legolas did nothing but raise an eyebrow. The man was a bear, massive and hairy. The stench of him rolled off his body in waves, making the Elf breathe through his mouth as to not gag. "I did not just escape a man a thousand times your better to be bound again. If you lay one finger upon me, you will pull back a bloody stump."
The mountain of a man smiled and saluted. "So be it, Lady. Can't say as I mind. Always did like my women feisty." With a speed that belied his mass, he leapt forward.
Instead of attacking Legolas, he slashed at Arod's forelegs. The horse screamed in pain and stumbled. "No!" Legolas lashed out with his knife but the man danced back, staying on the Elf's left side. Arod struggled to stay up, but screamed again as another attack, this time on his back legs, scored.
Arod tried to rear up to protect the precious cargo he bore, but his back leg buckled and he fell. Legolas kicked free and rolled, remembering at the last minute to bring his hand up to protect the wailing baby at his chest.
He landed awkwardly and felt rather than heard the snap of bone in his left arm.
Breathing through the pain, he rolled back up to his feet and raised his long knife before him with his right hand. He tried to hold on to Luthiél with his left, but the arm would not work.
The smell of the man hit him first, and then the figure loomed over him out of the dark. The bandit leader was so much bigger on foot than from the lofty perspective of horseback. Legolas looked wildly about for some way of escape, but he was surrounded. "Well, now. Not so high and mighty any more, are we?" Legolas had heard that tone of voice before, thick with humor and a shading of lust. The creature had used it often when Davyn had reigned in Gondor.
Legolas backed away from the man, holding the long knife before him. Luthiél's cries got louder as she sensed her mother's fear. "Everything I have is in the saddlebags. Take them and let us go."
The man danced forward, his sword gleaming in the dim moonlight. "You're not in the position to be making demands, Lady." Legolas could make out a wolfish grin under his heavy beard. "Besides, I suspect you're the true prize here. What would the king pay to get his Elf queen and daughter back?"
Glancing over his shoulder, Legolas found the way to the woods blocked by more of the bandits. He turned back and raised his knife higher. "You may take us eventually, but I will make the cost dear. Are you prepared to pay such a price?"
The man saluted with his blade. "I am. Are you?" He gestured with his free hand at Luthiél. "One stray blow will kill the babe. You dare not lay her down to fight, and you have no place to run." He leered at the Elf again. "I offer you again to lay down your weapon. I won't let anything happen to the babe if you behave yourself."
Legolas shuddered as he considered all the definitions of 'behave yourself". But the man was right. Luthiél was vulnerable, and he would not be able to protect her. The tip of his knife wavered and slowly dropped inch by slow inch until it pointed to the ground.
"That's better." The man lumbered over, his eyes glinting in the dark as he surveyed his hard-won prize. "You'll look so lovely spread out on my furs tonight. I wonder if you glow like that all over." He raised a hand to touch a golden lock of hair.
Out of the darkness came a buzzing sound that Legolas knew well. He leaned back as an arrow with black and silver fletchings buried itself in the man's hand mere inches away from the Elf's face.
The bandit stared at his hand, mouth working yet making no sound. The silence stretched seconds into eternity as the bandits stared at their leader.
The big man reached forward again, not seeming to realize that they were under attack. Legolas stepped backwards, raised his knife and slashed. There was a dull thud that echoed in the stunned silence as the man's hand hit the leaf covered ground.
This time the bandit leader realized he was supposed to scream, and did so. His roar of pain was so loud it drowned out the sound of hoof beats.
Horses crashed out of the woods, their riders armored and blazoned with the white tree on their surcoats. A gurgling cry from behind heralded the death of one bandit. A crunch of armor and bone, another. Chaos erupting around him, Legolas ducked and ran, clutching a frantically sobbing Luthiél against his chest with his good hand.
Man-shaped shadows screamed and bled around him as he ran, keeping his eyes on the tree line. :Just a little further. Once I'm in the trees, no human can track me.:
A horse and rider suddenly loomed before him, blocking his way. "No, you don't", Aragorn said as he stowed his bow. His voice was muffled by his helm, but Legolas heard his anger all too well.
The Elf tried to dive sideways and under the horse, but the man was too fast. He leaned over in the saddle, grabbed Legolas as if he were a sack of grain and deposited him gracelessly in front of the saddle. "Is Luthiél hurt? If they touched one hair on her head…"
Eyes closed so tightly he saw red against his eyelids, Legolas gasped in pain. His arm throbbed, and being grabbed and thrown as he had been made things even worse. He took a deep breath and clenched his teeth against the darkness that lingered at the edge of his vision. "She's fine. I would die before I would let any harm come to her."
"You nearly did." Aragorn's voice was rough with emotion. There was a pause as he took note of the limp arm. "You're hurt."
"So you will." Aragorn's voice went flat. "But we'll take care of that directly."
Luthiél sobbed against Legolas' chest. The Elf reached down with his right arm, allowing Aragorn's grip around his waist to hold him steady. He crooned to the baby, swaying back and forth as best he could from his precarious position.
Aragorn's arm came around Legolas' left side, carefully avoiding the broken limb. Hands that were so large but could be so gentle stroked the baby in her sling. "Such a brave girl," the man whispered to his daughter. "Ada's brave, brave girl."
Luthiél stopped fretting and cooed at her father. After another wriggle to settle herself, she yawned and fell back asleep, exhausted from her screaming.
Hoofbeats approached from their left. Legolas looked up to see a Captain ride up and salute. "Majesty, we've killed or captured them all." There was a pause. "We have their leader alive as you ordered."
"Good." Aragorn guided his mount over to where a group of men restrained the bleeding, swearing mountain of a man. Losing his hand had done nothing to slow him down. The soldiers kicked him to his knees at the king's approach.
"So", Aragorn spoke slowly, in measured tones. "You thought that you would force yourself upon my queen? That you would have your way with my wife and then ransom her back to me?" He stroked the golden head in front of him as he spoke.
Legolas stiffened but said nothing.
The bandit laughed, spitting blood from a broken tooth at the hooves of Aragorn's mount. "Why not? You don't seem to be able to keep her home on the cold winter nights."
One of the men holding him buried his fist into the bandit's gut. The laughter turned into a gasping cough of pain.
"Indeed?" Aragorn turned to the Captain. "Make him an example of what would happen to those who would dare touch my queen or harm my daughter. Leave what's left of him up as a warning to others when you're done."
The soldiers smiled grimly as their Captain saluted and then gestured to them. Aragorn turned and rode south towards the fires of a distant camp as screams echoed off the trees behind them. Legolas tried to turn and look back, but the strong arm around his waist held him still.
Synan's tent was as richly decorated and unique as the trader himself was. Richly woven carpets covered the floor. Hangings covered the walls, keeping in the heat from the ornate bronze braziers. The furniture was beautifully carved but light and easily folded away.
Lamps hung from the tent poles on light chains and cast a merry glow. The scented oil they burned made the tent smell of spices and sandalwood. A comfortable bed comprised of heaps of cushions rested in the far corner. Luthiél slept there now, curls gleaming in the lamplight.
Legolas sat gingerly on the edge of a stool made from what he had been assured was the hide of a giant bird that stood taller than most men. He'd started to scoff playfully when Synan told him such a bird never flew but ran as swiftly as a horse. Then Aragorn had returned to the tent with bandages and wood for a splint. The king had glowered at the trader; Synan had smiled, white smile gleaming in dark skin, and bowed his way out, giving them some amount of privacy.
Aragorn gently handled the Elf's arm, feeling around the swelling for the break. Legolas winced but made no sound.
After several minutes of silent searching, the man spoke. "You lied to me."
Legolas looked at the far wall, not wanting to meet the grey eyes. "Yes. I lied." He paused. "I won't say I'm sorry."
There was silence as the hands continued probing. They were unfailingly gentle, unlike the man's voice when he spoke next. "I trusted you. You swore to me that you would stay."
Legolas winced again, this time not at the pain. "You trusted me as I trusted you that day I came to Minas Tirith last year?"
Now it was Aragorn's turn to wince. "That was not my doing. You know this."
"I know this. But I also know that I am as trapped now as I was then, even though you swore it would not be so. You tell me: which lie is worse? Yours or mine?" Legolas snapped back, and then sucked in air through his teeth in a pained hiss as fingers touched the broken bone through his skin.
"Here it is," Aragorn said absently as he reached over to bring the splint next to his leg. He massaged the area gently as he spoke, his voice still harsh with emotion. "Of all the people around me, I knew you would never lie to me. That was one of life's truths. Now all I can think is that there is no one in the world I can trust. Not even you."
Legolas was at a loss for words. He closed his eyes and then spoke quietly, "I feel as though I cannot trust myself." He sighed and then chuckled sadly. "It seems we have a severe deficit of trust between the two of us."
Aragorn firmly grasped the small hand in his large one, pulled and twisted. The bone snapped back into place as the room spun behind Legolas' eyelids. The man began to splint the injured arm. "I would say we do. I cannot trust you, you refuse to trust me." He stopped to adjust the splint a fraction of an inch. "I thought tonight we had come to something more than an agreement to tolerate each other."
The Elf turned his head away and blushed. "That was not me." He whispered the words, knowing how they would sound.
"What are you talking about? I seem to remember quite clearly that you were there and that you were more than willing. Is my memory faulty?" Aragorn tied off the first roll of bandages and moved on to the second, his gentle hands still not giving any indication of his turmoil.
"It wasn't me." Legolas turned back to him and looked directly into the king's eyes. "When I say I am of two minds on something, it means that I am truly of two minds." He made a laughing sound that sounded as though it bordered on a sob. "When I broke the mirror, she got out. She's so strong. So strong, Aragorn. I'm can't fight her anymore. I'm too weak."
Aragorn's brow crinkled. "I'm not understanding, Legolas. Who is 'she'?"
Legolas hugged himself with his good arm, and pushed back the tears that threatened to overwhelm him. "She's me, but not. She's the me that you want me to be." The Elf drifted off into thought and spoke distantly. "I wanted to put her back, but I broke the mirror too badly. She got free and now she wants to live. She wants me to give up and fade and let her be what you want." His eyes came back into focus as Aragorn tied off the second roll of bandages. "I can't explain it any other way. I don't think that even I understand who she is or why she is. She just simply is, and I can't fight her anymore."
There was a long silence as Aragorn finished wrapping up the arm.
"You think I'm insane." Legolas spoke softly to the man.
"No." Aragorn answered quickly. "Not insane. Confused and hurt, yes. Insane, no."
"Liar." The Elf said it flatly, with no fire.
"On other things between us, yes. On this, no." The man took a deep breath and let it go. "You are not insane. Stubborn, pigheaded, impossible to deal with certainly. But not insane." Aragorn still held the injured arm, minutely adjusting the wrappings and knots with gentle hands. He finally spoke again. "You were going to take my daughter from me. How could you do such a thing?"
"I couldn't leave her." Legolas glanced over at the sleeping child and a small sad smile touched his lips as a memory crossed his mind. "Father would never hear of it."
Aragorn gave a wry smile. "I can imagine your father would be in a right rage. I'll feel the heat of his wrath all the way from Valinor when he finds our about this." He sobered. "Is there nothing we can do solve this between us?"
The Elf looked down at his arm still held securely in the man's large hands. "I don't know." He shrugged and looked uncomfortable. "You still want me."
"Who wouldn't? I'm a man. I have a pulse. Look at you."
"Yes, look at me. Really look at me, Aragorn. Answer me this. Could you bear to be trapped like this for the rest of your days? To be lusted after by your best friend?" His voice dropped to a whisper. "Even if I could accept the being female part, do you think I could endure being seen as nothing but a royal broodmare? Could I bear it until you died?"
Aragorn sighed. "I don't know, Legolas. I really don't know." The man looked down Legolas' arm still in his hands. He gently released it, fingers lingering a few seconds longer than needed as he watched the Elf pull it carefully to rest in his lap, Then he reached to his belt and unhooked a water skin. He pulled the cork and passed it to the Elf. "Here, drink. You must be thirsty."
"Thank you." Legolas drank deeply, ignoring the musty, flat taste of the water. It was cool and felt wonderful trickling down his dry throat.
There was an awkward silence as Legolas drank. He made to offer the skin back, but Aragorn waved it away. Finally the Elf spoke again. "I said before that I wouldn't say that I was sorry." He shook his head. "I lied to you then too. I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I lost faith in you, Aragorn. You deserve better."
The man made to speak but Legolas held up his hand. "Hear me out. I'm also sorry that any of this ever happened to either of us. Part of this was my fault. Whatever I did to make you feel the way you do about me, to make you think that this was the only way to…" He paused and swallowed hard. "If I'd known, perhaps none of this would have happened and we would not be where we are today." He looked down at his feet as his vision blurred with unshed tears. "I am so very sorry."
Shifting uncomfortably, Aragorn sighed and spoke, his voice as gentle as his hands had been just a few moments before. "We cannot change what has gone before, Legolas. We can only work with what we have now." He stood up, stretched and walked to the tent flap. "I have thought long and hard on this, and I have come to the conclusion that what we have now is unworkable. You know how it galls me to admit defeat, but in this case I feel that it is best for all of us, especially Luthiél."
He held open the tent flap and waved someone in. A small, cloaked figure entered and curtseyed to a precise degree and then lowered her hood.
"Disa? What are you doing here?" Legolas found the words sticking to his tongue as he tried speak again.
"She is here to take care of Luthiél. She has accepted the position of royal Governess." Aragorn waved in the direction of the bed.
Disa nodded, walked over to the cushions and gently picked up the sleeping child. With another curtsey in Legolas' direction and a curt nod to Aragorn, she left the tent.
"Where is she going? Where is she taking Luthiél?" Legolas looked at the tent flap and made to run after the girl, but his legs would not move. He then blinked and spoke softly. "She betrayed me, didn't she?" He tried to be angry but found he didn't have the energy to do so. He was tired, so very tired.
Aragorn ignored the question. "I wasn't lying when I told you how sorry I was for everything that has happened." Aragorn walked forward and knelt at Legolas' feet. "Know that. Know also that this breaks my heart into a thousand pieces but I see no other way."
"What have you done?" Legolas held onto the side of the stool with his good hand as the tent began to grow dim around the corners.
"I'm setting you free. I'm giving up any claim I ever had to you in this form or any other." He paused. "I can't keep you captive any longer. It would only kill you and cause everyone around you pain." A shadow passed across the man's grey eyes. "I've had enough pain for a lifetime. Let it end now." He stood and walked towards the tent flap, looking as if he had aged decades in the time it took to say his piece.
"Luthiél?" Legolas asked in a small voice.
Aragorn turned back, his eyes glinting in the lamplight. "I can't let you take Luthiél." He paused and then said so quietly even Legolas was barely able to hear it, "She's all I'll have to remind me of you."
"No!" Legolas sprang to his feet and staggered forward a few steps before he fell to the floor. He cried out in pain as his arm was jolted, and then turned hopeless eyes up at the man who watched him impassively. He shook his head, this time pleading. "No. Please." The tent spun around him and went dark.
The king ran forward and caught the limp body before it hit the ground. "I'm sorry," he whispered to the golden head as he ever so gently lifted up the Elf and carried him to the bed in the corner. "You'll have eternity to forgive me," he murmured as he pulled a sleeping fur up to cover the slender frame. "I hope that's long enough."
He smoothed the blonde hair with worshipful hands and then shouted at the tent flap. "Come."
Synan walked in, his dark skin gleaming in the lamplight. He said nothing to the king about the fact that he didn't need permission to enter his own tent, choosing instead to bow. "Majesty?"
Aragorn stroked a pale cheek, and then stood up. "Has my man given you the gold?"
"Yes." The trader's smile gleamed white against his skin. "Your Majesty is most generous. What cargo would you like me to deliver and where?"
"I want you to take Legolas to the Havens."
"Legolas?" The smile dimmed as the trader looked down at the sleeping Elf in his bed. "The Havens?"
"I'll have a map brought." The king reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a small flask. Handing it to the trader, he spoke again. "Dilute this with water and give it to her twice a day. Don't let her wake up until she's on the sea."
"I mean it. Keep her asleep until she's on a ship home. She'll only hurt herself trying to get back here otherwise." Aragorn sighed and stroked Legolas' hair again. "I don't want to be responsible for any more pain, and I know you don't either."
The trader paused for a long moment and then bowed. "As you command, Majesty. I will care for her as if she were one of my own daughters."
"I could ask for no better standard of care, Synan." The king leaned down and kissed Legolas on the forehead. "She'll be grateful for this eventually. It'll probably take longer than our great-grandchildren will live, but she'll be thankful we did this. I promise you that."
Synan smiled and slowly nodded. "Yes, Majesty."
Aragorn straightened and walked out of the tent, leaving Synan staring at his most precious cargo ever.
Disa waited by a small pony, Luthiél slumbering in her arms. The king looked at her and shook his head. "I still cannot believe that your father did not teach you to ride."
The girl rocked the baby absently and answered, "I cannot believe that you expected me to be able to ride at all. Proper women…" She sighed, then smiled grimly and started again. "But I am no longer a proper woman, nor do I ever have to be one again. I will learn to ride, my lord. I will learn."
"I believe you will." Aragorn mounted his horse and held his arms out. "Pass her up to me. I'll carry her back. You'll need both hands to hold onto the pony."
Handing the baby up, Disa looked at the tent. "Is it... done?"
Aragorn wrapped the sleeping child in his cloak and looked back. "It is done. Don't speak of it again."
Disa scrambled up and clung to the saddle horn as the king slowly rode away from the trader's camp, her pony following behind. She looked back at the white tent glowing from the lamps within, a forlorn look on her face.
Aragorn never looked back at all.