Disclaimer: Middle-earth and its inhabitants belong to J.R.R Tolkien. This is for fun, no copyright infringement is intended.
The year 2957 of the Third Age. Mirkwood.
Aragorn had never seen a forest like this. Dark and dense, the thick foliage blocking almost any light at day and every single star at night, making it impossible to see his own hand in front of his eyes hours before the sun even set. There were other eyes however. Red eyes. Blinking eyes. Eyes that appeared and disappeared with disconcerting abruptness only to be replaced by others. The worst thing was the silence though. Deep and heavy with things that seemed to wait just out of sight. Things that watched him mutely but noting any step, any stumble. Sometimes he thought it were the trees themselves. And while he had scoffed (more or less openly) at Elrond or his foster brothers or Glorfindel or Erestor admonishing him never to leave the Elf-path – because he was a Ranger, after all, tried and tested many times in the past five years – he now found he even SLEPT on the damn thing, yes, even hardly left it to relieve himself. No, Aragorn had never seen a forest like this in his life. He wondered if the Old Forest near the Shire was any like it.
Hitching his alarmingly emptying pack higher on his shoulders the young Ranger glanced ahead and unsuccessfully tried to penetrated the gloom around him with his eyes. He had crossed the Enchanted River five days back, creeping precariously along a rope, and according to the descriptions the stifling dark wood should now slowly become a lighter one of beeches. In fact he had already seen some of these trees near the path. So he should not be too optimistic reckoning to reach the stronghold of the Wood-elves within another week or two. He felt a stir of excitement.
Both Elrond and Gandalf had been adamant that he should start his journey here and not make straight for Rohan after crossing the Misty Mountains, as had been his own intention. They had argued – separately – that one never knew when it could become necessary to enter Mirkwood in the future and that he would do well to secure leave to do so by Thranduil, the Woodland-king. Aragorn had bowed willingly to their advice, even more so since he had been curious about the Wood-elves of the Dark Forest for a long time. More dangerous and less wise than their Noldor relatives in Rivendell or the Grey Havens they were said to be – though he had never heard the elves he grew up with speak of them disrespectfully or unkindly. But there had been … it was hard to tell … some sort of undertone as well, as of a quietly amused parent. Or better yet, an older sibling, watching a younger lovingly but also with a tiny bit of good-natured superiority. It was not quite different from how some elves spoke of Man and that was enough to heighten Aragorn's interest. Though right at the moment he would have gladly forsaken his curiosity to be out of this forest!
Sighing quietly he trudged on along the winding path, every now and then glancing round in the suffocating silence. Sound did not carry well under the thick canopy of leaves and the twisting branches hung with lichen and ivy. At least it had been some time since he had last glimpsed glittering strands of great webbing in the trees beside the path. He had no wish at all to meet the famous giant spiders of Mirkwood though they were said to never set foot on the Elf-path even while hunting, and only crossing it with reluctance and in the highest treetops. Maybe the legends were true. Maybe the Elf-path really was the trail of the steed of Oromë the Great, made as he rode in front of the Eldar leading them into the West, and no evil could touch this hallowed ground.
Aragorn took heart at this thought and with new courage jumped up a slight incline, following a sharp bend on the top – and stopped short at the sight of a dead orc, sprawled no ten strides in front of him across the path.
For a long moment he could only stand and stare. Then, belatedly, he hastened to draw his sword, looking all around him.
Nothing moved. The trees stood as silent as before. The gloom was after a few steps as impenetrable as it had been for days. The orc lay twisted away from him, head to the north, feet to the south, a scimitar beside his outstretched claw.
Taking a deep breath Aragorn approached the dead thing carefully. He could now see the blood splattered beneath its head and chest. Stepping closer he coolly noted a gaping wound that nearly separated the right arm from the shoulder though the curling fingers still seemed to reach for its weapon... Or, as he discovered with a shock, for the elven warrior who lay crumpled just to the north side of the path.
Care forgotten Aragorn jumped forward but even as he fell to his knee he could tell that here any help came too late. For an endless moment he stared down at the white face, fierce and proud, hair the colour of wheat touched by frost fanned out underneath it. Then he averted his eyes with a pained sigh only to have his gaze catch on a second warrior, his broken body twisted around an equally dead orc, as if even in death the adversaries refused to cease their struggle.
Swallowing thickly Aragorn stood and forced himself to take a step back and assess the situation with a detached eye, striding slowly up and down along the trail. And like a jigsaw puzzle of wooden blocks the tracks and little details slotted together to tell their grim tale.
The party of elves had probably been hunting, for while they were armed with swords and bows they had carried neither spears nor shields. Racing up from the south they had crossed the Elf-path driven by a great band of orcs. Many times warriors at the rear seemed to have turned in a desperate attempt to stem the charge of their pursuers, and many times they seemed to have been forced to give way or were overrun and slain. But for one fallen elf at least two orcs also littered the gruesome trail of churned up leaves from where it came out of the gloom to where it disappeared back into it in the north. And north it was also that Aragorn turned after a brief moment of hesitation.
If there were any survivors he would find them at the end of the chase. Not at the beginning. Fixing his gaze on the tracks before him he swiftly made his way under the dark trees, the safety of the Elf-path soon lost from sight in the darkness behind.
An immeasurable amount of time passed. Aragorn's light yet fast footsteps and his harsh breathing were the only sounds penetrating the oppressive silence. The hilt of his sword became sweaty in his hand as he kept checking to all sides. Briefly he considered switching to his bow but dismissed the thought. He might have inherited the keen sight of his ancestors from Númenor but in this dim light danger would be upon him before he could come to a full draw. No, better to trust in the shorter range of the cold steel in his hand especially as he almost constantly had to stoop and search for a sign of life in the dark heaps of bodies on the ground, careful to do so with elves and orcs alike. Last thing he needed was a wounded enemy waking and coming at him from behind. But any flesh he touched was always cold and still.
Then the gloom in front of him suddenly grew lighter and the next moment he had stepped out into a clearing and come to a stop. His throat grew tight.
The dark canopy of leaves above was torn open where a huge beech had fallen some time ago, a mighty grandfather of trees, tearing through the crowns of the giants around him as he finally succumbed to a winter gale. The wide plate of his roots was now reaching steep into the air, earth still held fast in their grasp. And it was against this wall of root and soil that the elves had made their last stand, fighting and falling in a wide semicircle, always facing outwards and taking every single one of their enemies with them into death. Aragorn closed his eyes and bowed his head.
The air was still and silent. Not a leave stirred and as unnerved the young man had been before with the lack of sound, never had he felt it more than now, standing in this clearing where no bird sang, no squirrel chattered, where fair voices and song had ceased for ever. But there was still one last duty to perform and with a heavy heart he forced himself to sheathe his sword.
It was gruesome work to walk the battleground and search for survivors he knew he wouldn't find. Dead orcs lay almost piled where they had run fanatically against the last defences of the elves and sometimes Aragorn literally had to drag and roll them apart to get to the warrior buried under them. The elves had obviously drawn ever closer to the shield of roots as their number dwindled, closing their lines as best they could again and again in a show of courage and endurance that choked Aragorn's breath to think about it. And it had all been for nothing in the end.
Finally touching the pale throat and then reverently closing the unseeing eyes of the warrior lying before the centre of the roots Aragorn sagged with weariness. This elf must have withstood for so long only to succumb to his wounds just after he had slain his last enemy. Where was justice in that? Where? Sighing Aragorn raked his fingers through his hair and looked away.
It took him an almost ridiculous long time to notice that what he was staring at was not another root of the tree but a pair of light brown shoes, peeking out under the hem of a cloak in hues of rusty green.
For a frozen heartbeat he goggled like a fool. Then he jerked his head up and his gaze swept over folds of bloodstained cloth, following the curve of knees, across a bulge where an invisible hand held it closed near the throat and was caught by the pair of bright eyes staring back at him from the shadow of the drawn hood.
Many elven eyes Aragorn had looked into for as long a he could remember. Old some of them had seemed to him. Wise or sad or merry and dancing with joy; remote and distant or so very here, so full of life, more than any mortal would ever understand. But never had he looked into eyes quite like these.
Eyes as cold and patient as a glacier irresistibly grinding its path through stone and mountain. As hot and searing as wildfire racing across a plain.
And it seemed to him as if he had been kneeling here for ages untold, as if he was seeing this elf wandering at leisure in the carnage of a battlefield, untouched by centuries and millennia, smiling as he watched the bones of his enemies wither to dust...
Blinking sharply Aragorn came back to the here and now, shivering with an emotion he could not name.
"My lord," he said quietly in Sindarin, bowing low, "I am … Aragorn of the Dúnedain of the North and I was taught the arts of healing in the house of Elrond in Imladris. Please, may I tend to you?"
There was no change in the forbidding eyes, safe maybe a slight narrowing, and Aragorn got the distinct impression the elf-lord knew exactly that he had not told all the truth though it had certainly been no lie. He was suddenly glad he had chosen to give his real name and not the one Gandalf had suggested to use on his journey. Then the gaze of the elf suddenly released him and moved lower, taking in his travel-worn state in a quick sweep and resting for a few heartbeats on the sword hilt in his belt before coming up again. The proud white face in the shadow of the hood remained as unreadable as stone, nevertheless Aragorn could not help feeling that he had just been given some sort of consent.
Moving with utmost care he placed his pack on the ground and slid forward until he was kneeling directly at the feet of the reclining figure, marvelling how the roots themselves seemed to have opened and caught the elf-lord in their embrace. Gently reaching out and pulling the hems of the green and brown cloak apart he could not help flinching when they revealed the blank blade of a long white-handled knife, held firmly in a bloodstained fist. But even as his gaze flickered upwards in apprehension and worry a tilt of the wrist quietly folded the blade back against ivory skin of a long, elegant forearm – much like a great cat might sheathe its claws – and then the elf-lord slowly moved his arm from where it had rested on red-soaked garment across his stomach and further down beside his thigh.
Aragorn dared breath again but his relief was short-lived as he took in the long, vicious slash across the elf's abdomen. Yet he had already known that only grievous injury could have made the lord remain here so still, alone among his slain warriors. On loosening the belt he quickly discovered that the fine deer-skin tunic would not hike up far enough to clear the wound, the way the Firstborn was lying on it. Without thinking he reached for his dagger – and stopped short when he noted the tightening of lean muscles under fair skin from the corner of his eye. A moment time stood still. And Aragorn knew if the strike fell he would not even see it coming. Very, very carefully he spread his hands in a none-threatening gesture, raising his eyes once more to find the flashing gaze of the elf-lord.
"I need to cut the tunic."
The words seemed to drop in the silence like stones in a well, there and gone and forgotten. For the span of a dozen terrible heartbeats they stared at one another. Then the knife-hand of the elf relaxed almost imperceptibly. Feeling sweat trickle down his back Aragorn adamantly reminded himself to once and for all be more careful, darn it! and finally drew the dagger that had nearly brought about the end of his line.
Cutting up the soft but tough leather of the tunic proved a hard task but it got done, at last giving Aragorn his first good look at the actual wound. Involuntarily he sucked in a hissing breath.
Jagged and raw, more a brutal rip than a clean cut the wound ran yawning and weeping about three fingers below the ribcage, spanning all the way from one flank of the elf to the other. Blood was everywhere but had by now slowed down to a trickle, obviously the elf had already kept pressure on it for some time. Still, the torn flesh gaped hideously, ready to open further at the slightest movement.
Aragorn sat back and thought quickly.
Gruesome as the wound seemed, he knew the healing ability of the Firstborn was nothing but wondrous and while a man would have long succumbed to such an injury the elf had a good chance of recovery. That left the question what he was to do now. He could try stitching the wound but for that he would have to cut away at least some of the ragged edges … and somehow he could not picture this wary lord allowing any mortal to saw away at his living flesh with a dagger. Which left only binding the slash as well as he could although that – he feared – would need more clean linen than was left in his pack right now. Unless...
"I'll be back in a minute."
Aragorn hastily scrambled to his feet and hurried to the trees at the edge of the little clearing. Scanning the great trunks with a trained eye he felt a relieved grin spread across his face at finding what he sought. Double-checking his find by sniffing and tasting he carefully cut a large rectangular mat out of the thick, waterlogged moss on the bark and carried this prize back to the faintly bemused looking elf-lord.
"My people call this moss Hunter's Friend," he explained quickly, while deftly cutting the mat into smaller pieces and shaking off most of the dirt on the backside, "and they use it to ward off infection when no other supplies are at hand. In Elrond's house they also use it dried and powdered in many remedies."
Sacrificing most of his precious water and several stripes of moss to first wash his own grubby hands and then clean away most of the blood and gore around the wound he then proceeded to cover the ugly slash with a layer of Hunter's Friend. And since he wanted to move the elf-lord as little as possible he then folded up the ripped tunic, added a bit of linen from his pack and then carefully retied the belt of the elf over everything to hold it all in place. The whole thing had had to be excruciatingly painful but only when he tightened the last knot Aragorn felt a shudder run through the body under his hands as the Firstborn gave an involuntary grunt. A glance upward told him that the elf-lord had closed his eyes, a steep crease between his arching brows, and he quickly looked down again. Somehow it seemed not right to witness the pain of a being so fierce and proud. Gently drawing the folds of the cloak over the elegant limbs he turned away.
There was enough moss left to clean his hands and as he did so Aragorn's gaze wandered slowly across the slain bodies surrounding them. He had thought the elven warriors had died for nothing but now he knew better. They had fought to save their lord – and succeeded in the end.
Lifting his head he found that the elf-lord had composed himself again and was now regarding him almost thoughtfully. Wild, he still seemed to Aragorn. Fell and savage as a wounded hawk. Yet now he also sensed a strange kind of wisdom about him – not so much of books and lore but rather like that of a tree, growing tall and strong in the changing seasons, of a vixen building her lair in the fortress of its roots, of mist rising at dawn from the surface of a deep, still pool.
The eyes of the elf-lord abruptly cut to the side.
Aragorn frowned and followed his gaze but there was nothing but the looming line of trees and behind the everlasting gloom of the forest. Then he straightened in alarm as he thought he heard a distant sound. Glancing back at the elf-lord he saw the secret smile on his intent face and understood just in time to scramble up and back. Thunder of hooves had grown from whisper to roar before he finished his second step, racing horses were bursting out of the trees, lithe figures flying from their backs even as they slid to a churning stop. Cries of fury and dismay rent the air. Aragorn was backing away from two charging warriors, screaming over and over "I'm a healer! A healer! I was trying to help!" The shouts of the furious elves rang in his ears. Slamming backwards into a tree he gasped as sharp spear-points touched his throat and chest. More warriors swarmed the clearing, dropping with exclamations of pain at the sight of their fallen brothers or throwing themselves down at the feet of their lord. Horses reared and bellowed, frothing and sweating. Captains hurried back and forth, one of them ran up after bending over his lord, barking an order that made the grim warriors back up a step then hollered into Aragorn's face with flashing eyes, his slashing hand-gestures making it perfectly clear he wanted him to stay right where he was before dashing off again.
Daring to breathe a bit easier Aragorn watched with wide eyes as the chaos on the clearing quickly dissolved into purposeful action. Already warriors were taking up those who had fallen in the defence of their lord and laying them reverently in a long line. Others dragged the carcasses of the dead orcs aside, throwing them in a rough pile. Some had hastened off in the forest and now returned with long straight poles (Aragorn could not help but wonder how they found them in these twisted woods) and set about fashioning a litter. A troop left on the gruesome trail back in the direction of the Elf-path. And still more warriors poured in, some on foot, some through the trees, some on horseback, and the young ranger marvelled because they all rode in the fashion of the wood-elves, without rein or saddle. He was now actually quite sure that they were speaking Sindarin but in so strange a dialect that he still caught only about every second word. It made him question if, in turn, the elf-lord had understood anything he said to him.
What a mighty lord he had to be to command such love and loyalty as Aragorn saw in those fiery eyes all around! Like Glorfindel, maybe, or Galdor of the Grey Havens. Would he himself ever kindle such feelings in hearts of people? Would people ever be willing to die protecting him not for what he was – Isildur's heir – or what he stood for – the line of kings – but simply for Aragorn, the man? His still young heart shivered before the daunting cliff of his doom.
Therefore it was a welcome distraction when the throng of elves around the great wall of roots suddenly broke up so the finished litter could be placed under its shadow. And it choked Aragorn's breath to see the care and reverence with which the elf-lord was finally lifted from his bed in the foot of the beech and lowered on the cloaks cushioning the wooden frame. Just as stern warriors took positions at the poles a pale hand rose commandingly. A captain – it was the one who had shouted at Aragorn – jumped forward and knelt, bending his raven head over the fair face of his lord. A moment later he nodded, stood and stepped back, watching the litter being hoisted in one smooth move on many shoulders. Warriors and captains on horses gathered round with drawn swords and blinking spears and bows at the ready. Aragorn caught one last look of the elf-lord, lying still and beautiful in a ray of sunlight, the bright eyes now closed. Then slowly the solemn procession moved off and soon disappeared in the darkness under the trees.
The raven-haired captain heaved a sigh and then turned and came over to where Aragorn was still held at spear-point by the two grim-faced warriors. Dismissing them with a wave of his hand he sized him up with a long look from his cool grey eyes. It was not friendly.
"Stranger," he said finally, slowly and very clearly, "My Lord bids me to tell you that by his leave you are free to walk in this realm anytime and under any name you choose."
Startled by the permission as well as its particular wording Aragorn could only look at him for a moment. This was the very thing he had come for … but on the other hand he had been very carefully instructed in this matter. So he said after brief hesitation:
"I thank your lord deeply for his kindness but pardon my asking – I thought the king alone has right to grant such favour. Have I been told wrongly?"
The eyebrows of the captain lifted.
"You were not misled. It is the king's right alone, as it should be." And an amused glimmer sprang into his eyes as he continued, "Mortal, do you not know who you tended?"
Aragorn jerked around to look where the litter had passed into the shadows and back again and his expression was so flabbergasted that the stern elf threw back his head and laughed.
A free laugh full of mirth, ringing loud and clear in this clearing that had seen so much death today. And for a moment the everlasting gloom was gone and the woods were lush and green; and the trees straightened their twisted boughs and raised their drooping leaves; and all shadow was lifted to reveal the majesty of the forest as it once was, Greenwood the Great indeed. A fleeting moment only, the span of one elven laughter and yet it left Aragorn almost weeping with stunned wonder and awe.
"Come," said the captain, stern again though no longer hostile, "My Lord Thranduil bids me also to guide you on your passage through his realm, and to teach you the ways to survive in it. Perilous as it normally is for strangers to leave the safety of the Elf-path, the forest still provides for those who know how to avoid the dangers of the shadow."
He turned to go but paused when he saw the man did not follow. Aragorn shook his head, bewildered beyond saying, raising his hands almost pleadingly.
"But – why? I don't understand. He owes me not. I found him only a short time before you came, he would have survived just as well without me. I have done nothing to receive such a gift. How can I accept what is not my due?"
The captain tilted his head and pursed his lips, regarding Aragorn as if he saw him for the very first time.
"I do not pretend to understand all my Lord's decisions – though here, I think, I start to perceive his reasons," he finally answered slowly, thoughtfully, "It is his duty to see further than others because he is the king and we have placed our lives and well-being in his hands. And a dreadful burden it is at times. Yet he always sees the need of one as well as the need of many – and for that we call him great."
"Ah," Aragorn said quietly. And looking again at the dark wood where the litter had passed somehow he thought he might understand, in time.
Many years went by after that day. Years of toil and fight and sometimes despair before Aragorn finally raised his standard and stepped out of the shadow and took his long awaited seat as king of Arnor and Gondor. And in him people saw the might and majesty of the sea-kings returned, and minstrels praised his greatness and wisdom in many songs far and wide in his kingdom and in his fair halls.
He would listened to them silently, an indulgent smile on his lips. It was only among his closest friends that King Elessar – who was still in his heart Aragorn, the man – would sometimes say that greatness had to be achieved and wisdom to be gained … and that he had been taught by many people and in many places.
In fair Rivendell, where he learned of the mistakes of the past.
Among his kin in the North, where he learned endurance.
In Rohan, where he learned valour and generosity.
In Gondor, where he learned steadfastness in the face of an invincible enemy.
And in the south and east, where he learned of the darkness in the hearts of men.
Yet he would never fail to add that is was in dark Mirkwood, where he first learned about the greatness of a king.