A/N: While BoaE has been written so that it is can be read as a stand-alone story, it was created as a tag to Neoinean's 1st Place Teitho story …and it was done, for the challenge Good & Evil. aiwd is an exquisitely wrought piece of perfection in my humble opinion, but being a devotee of H&C, I needed a bit more comfort. So I screwed up my courage and asked Neoinean if she would mind if I played in her sandbox, and she very graciously gave permission to do so! I know it's asking for a huge time commitment, but I would highly recommend that you read …and it was done in conjunction with BoaE as there are bits and pieces that will make more sense if you've read Neoinean's story. Because ff doesn't allow links, I can't link it directly, but you can find it on this archive. And while I'm making attributions, I must include the fact that Ziggy also graciously allowed me to borrow from her exquisitely beautiful description of Legolas' song. It is used in a different context in this story, but I'm so enamored of her WIP, Sons of Thunder, her descriptions of elven song have become fanon canon for me.
So without further ado …
Breath of an Elf
Nothing could drown it out.
Not the pounding of hooves as the Grey Company negotiated the folds of the foothills through which they sped, nearly blind in the moon's waning light. Not the rush of wind created by their swift passage, burning the Dúnadan's ears with cold even as sweat found its stinging way into the little creases around his narrowed eyes. Not even his own labored breathing drowned out the harsh sound of the elf's breath.
Aragorn dropped his gloved hand, lowering the reins, bidding the mare to slow as he attempted to adjust the dead weight of the elf's shoulders cradled awkwardly in his left arm. He loosed the reins yet more and the stretched-out, head long gallop eased smoothly into a loping canter.
One could stand back to back with an elf in the middle of battle and never hear them breathe, so it troubled him now, each raw, grinding inhale from the inferno pressed shoulder to thigh against him, the sound rasping in his ears as if dwarves grated stone against stone.
The mare's ears twitched to the softly spoken Sindarin praise as she slowed to a seamless trot, then to a walk before coming to a full stop as Aragorn bade with his knees.
Behind them the Grey Company slowed as well, reining in their mounts, the sound of the elf's laboriously drawn breath even more strident as the noise of thundering hooves ghosted to silence. No jingle of bridle among the Dúnedain, no creaking of saddle leather, was born back on the stiff, cold breeze as they loosely ringed the trio in their midst. Their gear was well kept and silent as could possibly be; their stealth nearly as legendary as that of the elves.
"How fares he?" Halbarad swung his blowing mount in a wide circle around the sword-sheathed, broken leg of the elf, closing with the Dúnadan on his left side.
"Poorly. I sweat from his fever."
"Yet we halt again?" Aragorn's lieutenant inquired keenly, troubled that the chieftain's finely honed instincts seemed blunted. An avalanche of doubt appeared to have been swept away with the successful retrieval of the captured elven princeling
A gasp, as Aragorn's shifting on the mare's bare back brought his elbow into sharp contact with Legolas' ribs, warned of the elf's impending consciousness. He glanced down at the battered face briefly, before turning back to Halbarad. "The moon wanes and my mind runs like a river." He sighed deeply. "We cannot continue at this pace. Fortune alone has kept the horses from harm thus far."
For a moment Aragorn sat unmoving, trying to order his chaotic thoughts. "I sense no pursuit, but I would know this to be true. Leave me Durhíth to assist and send the rest out in as many directions as possible." The rush of strength that accompanied a warrior into battle had fallen away, its aftermath leaving him drained and weary beyond measure. He carried with him more than just the elf; the stench of torture and surprise death hung about him like a necklace of rancid reason.
Halbarad studied the unusual wearied slump of the shoulders hunched over in an effort to shield the prince from the bone-jarring journey. "A river, indeed, if you think to split the company now," the lieutenant murmured. "Nay, Aragorn, I will not do so. Think you there was no purpose behind this abduction? 'Twas merely for the sport of it?"
A tense silence stretched between them, until at length, Aragon murmured, "I know not what to believe, save the night is near spent and every breath he draws is fought for."
In deference to that long pause, Halbarad waited a moment more before asking, "Legolas knows naught of why?"
"He's been barely mindful; I have not tried to question him. Though the why matters little now."
"An we're pursued, the why could matter a great deal. To have lost their amusement would be a lesser spur than to have lost a looked-for prize," Halbarad suggested cautiously, well aware he pushed boundaries even with the mild statement.
"They made no attempt to conceal their camp," Aragorn argued, less from conviction than inclination. "An act of revenge, merely; chance met in all likelihood. It was ill luck Legolas was recognized."
Again Halbarad let the silence lengthen. Shifting in his saddle, he draped an arm across the bow and leaned forward. "Will you not acknowledge the truth of your own words? An act of revenge would have been swiftly dealt; the body left for carrion crows. You have a blind spot, Heir of Isildur, as wide and as long as the trail we have left the villains. You are known to ride with the peredhil and the prince. Two would be much harder to take than one alone."
It was an old and oft repeated argument, though never before exercised under these particular circumstances, to which Aragorn's usual sharp retort came naturally. "Does Sauron know my identity, it is because I ride with the Dúnedain, not with my brothers or the prince." The Heir of Isildur sighed again. "Sauron knows the line of Isildur descends through the Númenórean Dúnedain. If he has not learned of my identity these last sixty years, it is unlikely he's learned of it in the last sixty days."
Halbarad rolled around the metallic tang of jealousy on the back of his tongue. There was truth in the chieftain's argument, but like Kin-slayer blood, the flavor of old resentments lingered long in the memory. "Many know the wizard commands the elven guard mounted in your defense. It is an ill-concealed fact any of them would count their lives well lost in defense of a king who has little desire to rule his kingdom."
The lean jaw hardened as the bowed head lifted and turned, grey eyes glittering in the pale face raised to the lieutenant. "No one commands the peredhil, or the prince." Aragorn made a concerted effort to moderate both anger and voice, though his words still rang as steel on steel. "You would do well to remember you are not the chieftain and presume less rather than more in my presence. Take whom you choose and backtrack our trail," Aragorn commanded again, resuming the mantle of authority. "And send the rest out as ordered."
Halbarad, heedless of the simmering rage, reached a hand to snag the loose reins as Aragorn walked his horse forward. "I will take some of the men to backtrack, but I will not split the company and leave you with only Durhíth for sentry." He met the hard gaze unflinchingly. "Would you draw your sword from its current sheath, ere you're set upon?"
Briefly, the cousins' easy camaraderie teetered on the brink of disaster as the would-be-king faced the king's man wordlessly.
Aragorn dusted a gloved hand across his thigh before raising it to dig at his burning eyes. "It is good I have you to keep me humble, Hal." If he was wrong and what was left of the band of brigands had followed, Halbarad had the right of it; they had left a trail even a troll could follow. "I am too weary to argue your well-honed point. Do as you will, I must to see to Legolas."
Halbarad inclined his head briefly and wheeled his mount to face the ring of riders, immediately issuing orders. "Lingonar! Take Brothnan and scout a place to camp. We are in need of a water source and as secluded a hollow or dale as you can find nearby."
"I will send Durhíth to you immediately, my lord."
The title had long been a game between them - though rarely played - as Aragorn was as likely to repay Halbarad's impudence with some devilry of his own in an unlooked for moment down the line. This night, however, Halbarad played it not for ribaldry's sake; rather, with the offered reverence, he strove to draw out some of the poison his harsh words had driven deep into a wound that would not heal.
For more than eighty years, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, had held the title-in-fact of Chieftain of the Dúnedain, and had indeed, for some fifty of those years, led his people, though often from afar and ever without acknowledgment. The shards of Narsil remained enshrined in Rivendell. Until Aragorn chose to take up the sword reforged, he would remain Stick-at-Naught-Strider, best known for his taciturn anonymity.
"Hal—" Aragorn raised his free hand abruptly. "I do not fault your sincerity; but I will not address this argument again, nor tolerate even you questioning the loyalty of family and friends."
"I regret my haste," Halbarad ceded with sober dignity, "the words and timing were both poorly chosen, though you misunderstand; I question not the loyalty of the twins or Legolas. But you would do well to learn what the elf knows." The lieutenant reined his horse into a hard right turn. "The more we know the better prepared we may be," he said over his shoulder. He had planted the seed; he could only hope it would grow until it could no longer be ignored.
Aragorn closed his eyes as Halbarad moved away, shutting out the uneven timing of his own harried heartbeat and tuning his mind to listen to the elven rhythms of pulse and breath - too long between heartbeats, too long between hard drawn, rattling breaths.
Oh that he had paid less attention to the sweet distractions of Rivendell when last he'd visited, and more consideration to restoring his depleted medicinal stores from his foster father's well-stocked stillroom. Just a pinch of the prized cayenne could ease the labored breathing now; even a bit of slippery elm would be helpful. And Elrond, despite his vexation, would not have turned aside any such request.
Shifting again, he addressed his unconscious comrade. "Your father is likely to chain you in the dungeons for the next millennia does he hear of this, my fair prince."
"Sir? Halbarad said I was to help you?"
Aragorn's glance strayed briefly to the youth standing at his free-hanging boot. His mind elsewhere, he did not at first register the instant physical response of his body; ere it did, his hard gaze swung back. For a moment, Durhíth's features swam in his vision as sensory memory hardened every muscle in his forearm around another's throat. He'd left two dead and a youngster destined to wake with a headache the size of Mount Doom in the aftermath of his solitary mission to rescue the elf not that many hours ago. The boy, he had left alive; his conscience was clear on that count. However, youth or not, there would be no further mercy if the degenerates followed and chance brought them together again.
"The men have found a place not too distant." Halbarad, too, had returned.
Durhíth remained standing between them.
Aragorn threw off the image with an impatient shake of his head, consciously easing hard-flexed muscles. "If someone sought knowledge of me, their choice of hostages was poor indeed," he submitted with quiet bitterness, his mind still turning over Halbarad's veiled conjecture.
'Let us hope that is true,' Halbarad worried, though he was wise enough to keep his thoughts to himself this time. Mortal or elf, ten days was a long time to withstand the brand of persuasion the prince's condition bore witness too. "We are off. If you must move again and we do not come up with you, we will meet you in Rivendell." Sighing, he gentled the harsh tone fear had lent his voice and indicated his youngest ranger with his chin. "You are exhausted, Aragorn. Let Durhíth take Legolas before you both take a tumble."
He did not wait to see if the chieftain heeded his words, backing away and turning the sidling gelding into their previous path. With quiet efficiency, he sent the company to make camp, collected the men he needed and was off, thundering toward what he hoped would be a swift and sure resolution. A little blood-letting might ease some of the strain of the last several days.
"It is some distance, yet, to the spot the men have found. If I may lead your horse, it would free your arm to ease the other, and I would not need to take him, sir."
Aragorn started at the voice at his boot. Exhaustion was taking its toll; he'd forgotten the youth again in just the few short moments that had passed. But the young ranger seemed to have divined his thoughts. "Thank you. I would be grateful for the reprieve." He willingly passed the reins over the mare's head, loath to allow another to bear the elf even a little distance.
"Aragorn—" His name wheezed like the sound of a reedy chalumeau on the elf's lips.
"Nay, mellon nîn, I would have you sleep a little longer," Aragorn hushed, keeping his voice low and quiet, tethering the elf's wandering fëa with a light brush of his own.
Legolas stilled, drifting back into the shadow world of dreams.
"Come, m'lady." The youth gave the horse's glossy arched neck a pat before rubbing the velvety muzzle as he gathered and shortened the reins. "We shall soon have you cleansed of your dirt and fed as well."
Durhíth led them eastward over several small hillocks, down into a hollow cup of land, arid still, with no more cover than the surrounding ring of earth mounded by nature.
"There is little to recommend it, sir, but Rageroth found a small spring-fed pool in the rocks yonder. And a low fire will not be seen from any distance."
"Halbarad marked the spot?"
"Aye, sir." Durhíth dropped the reins so they trailed on the hard-packed earth and stepped back to Aragorn's boot.
It strained every muscle from thigh to neck leaning sideways and forward to make the exchange. The youngster took the weight of the elf easily, waiting as Aragorn threw a leg over his horse and slid to the ground, where he had to hold for a moment as dizziness assailed him and his screaming knees threatened to fold under him. He shoved an arm over the mare's bare back for balance and slumped against her lathered flank.
"You've not slept these last ten nights," the lad braved.
Aragorn turned his head sharply.
"You look in need of a healer yourself, sir."
The uncalculated movement only increased his dizziness and Aragorn had to wait it out, but there was truth in the avowal he could not refute.
He had expected to part with the Grey Company in Tharbad, anticipating journeying on with Legolas into Harad. But the prince had not been there to meet him and Aragorn had immediately begun casting about for signs of trouble. The word late had never made it into the elf's lexicon.
One ivory-handled knife and three dead bodies – discovered east of the Loudwater and just north of the ruins of Tharbad – had also revealed a wide, unbroken trail headed further north, at speed. Aragorn's tracking skills had estimated Legolas' captors had been two days ahead of them.
They had ridden deep into the night every night, laming a horse in the process and leaving his rider to make his way back to Rivendell on foot. Aragorn, his legendary stamina among the Dúnedain standing him in good stead, would have gone on alone, but Halbarad had refused to let him. The lieutenant had threatened to keep his men in the saddle until they dropped if Aragorn refused to rest.
Ten times they'd stopped. Ten long nights Aragorn had exchanged saddle for bedroll only to stare at the stars for an hour or two before rising to pace until dawn lightened the sky and he could be back in the saddle again.
That was irrelevant now; he needed to engage his brain in the present. In truth, the strain of this night's exacting exercise had been taxing as well and he was weary beyond measure, but Legolas had need of his skills yet and he could not let fatigue distract him from his purpose.
"Very well, Durhíth, you may bear my burden yet a little further." Aragorn straightened and raised his voice slightly, addressing the remaining rangers. "Set guards well out; keep a wide perimeter," he ordered the waiting company, only a few of whom had dismounted, though one of the men was already ringing stones to set a fire. "Hot water soon as may be."
The hollow would do well enough, perhaps better than he had imagined, Aragorn decided, glancing back as Lingonar took charge of the mare. He topped the small rise, following Durhíth down inside. It was large enough to accommodate all those Halbarad had left behind, but small enough it would help sustain the body heat they generated and stave off some of the chill that chafed bare hands and faces.
By the time the elf was laid upon a bedroll next to the fledgling fire, he was fully awake, his jaw clenched tighter than a virgin's knees. Poultice of starwort, to ease the swelling, Aragorn thought as he hunkered down beside his friend, barely suppressing a groan as his knees twinged painfully.
Fortunately the elf's weight was not proportionate to his height, or hauling him piggyback up and down the hillocks of Carn Dûm would have been an impossible feat. There had been little choice in the method of their departure, but it had done nothing for Aragorn's knees.
He bent forward and laid a hand lightly along the lesser-marked side of the elf's face, applying just enough pressure to cause the dark eyes to open.
For a moment he merely watched. It was three days ride to Imladris, even at speed, but speed, from here on out, would have to be secondary to further aggravating injuries such as those ribs.
There was pain deep in the gaze that met his own willingly enough. Either too great to conceal, or Legolas wasn't trying.
Aragorn hoped it was the latter, though he knew the elf's pride better than most. It ran through those veins like the spells of the Eldar, unceasing, and difficult to bend to another's will. Three days close riding, however, would be as effective as one of the Grey Wizard's interrogations in revealing any other hurts the elf had suffered, whether he spoke of them or not.
"Legolas." Aragorn purposefully gentled his touch, offering comfort rather than command. "If it will ease your breath, let Durhíth prop you up. He has learned much of how to tend the ill in the house of his mother. One of the men has located a pool nearby; I must go and cleanse at least my hands before I tend you further. I have no wish to putrefy a wound with my dirt."
The flickering fire gave little depth to the dark eyes, but they darkened further before the jaw unclenched enough to utter a single syllable. "Aye."
"It is good you bend willingly." Aragorn offered a tired grin. "I have no desire to pour a sleeping draught between your clenched teeth and force you to swallow."
Legolas shifted, managing to raise a shoulder by shoving an elbow into the blanket under him.
"Nay! Do not try to rise!" Wincing himself, Aragorn pressed the lifted shoulder back down on the bedroll. "Of all the stubborn fools—"
Scowling, the prince pushed back against the restraining hand. "Not … entirely … helpless." A sharp drawn breath gave lie to the words, but did nothing to stop the resistance.
One did not arm wrestle an elven archer, nor, it appeared, keep him down against his will, even injured. Aragorn lifted his hand straight away. Any contra-pressure on the shoulder could easily shift one of those ribs straight through a fragile lung.
Aragorn slid an arm under the archer's shoulders, beckoning Hal's youngest ranger again. "I do not believe you have met Durhíth, he's new to Halbarad's company," he informed his friend. "Durhíth, meet Legolas, heir to the throne of Mirkwood; though heir is somewhat of a misnomer in the case of an immortal. Since he is a mere prince, your majesty is not a required form of address, though you may refer to him as your royal highness an he gives you trouble. In addition to that broken leg, he has a cracked rib on the right, two broken on the left, and the right ankle is badly sprained. As you can imagine, the ribs are not helping his breathing; support him as you will, or as he will allow it. He is occasionally too stubborn for his own good." The chieftain shifted to make way for the younger man.
Durhíth, taller than Aragorn and built like a small mountain, dropped awkwardly to a knee and gingerly slipped his arm beneath the Dúnadan's.
Aragorn rose, though with neither his usual grace nor swiftness. Crossing his arms over his chest, he stood for a moment looking down at the pair. "Beware elven enchantment, Durhíth. He may not be able to ensnare you with his looks just at the moment, but his voice alone is enough to spell you." The man twitched back a smile. "Save your breath," he advised the scowling elf, "I will await your revenge with pleasure." With a familiar tilt of his head, he turned and strode away in search of the promised spring.
"Lackwit." As though it was brittle twig, easily snapped, Legolas moved his head carefully to rest his fever-bright gaze on his new attendant. "Dúnedain … have as much royal … blood … " His chin dropped to his chest and it was a moment before he found breath to finish the thought, "… as I."
The young man's eyebrows wandered up, though he said nothing, merely watched with a patience foreign to the elf's acquaintance with mortal youth.
With effort, Legolas raised his head again to meet the unfamiliar pair of grey eyes. "An you dare address me as your royal highness … there will be … a blood feud between us."
Durhíth chuckled softly. "I know som'mat of elvish ways." A hand flickered in Legolas peripheral vision, indicating the retreating back of the Dúnadan as Durhíth moved slowly and carefully behind the chieftain's boon companion. "A blade fits poorly in my hand, and he thinks me slow and stupid in the way of sword craft. But he appreciates the bit of healing I've learnt and takes pains to share with me the teaching of the lore he says Master Elrond taught him." Durhíth slid his palms up under the elf's arms. "The pain will ease som'mat if your ribs are not so pressed together, but let me do the work."
Legolas drew in a long breath as he relaxed into the surety of the hands drawing him up and back so his ribcage lengthened and the back of his head rested against the solidity of a wide shoulder. He closed his eyes, ignoring the complaints of his body, and used his ears to track the path Aragorn trod.
For a moment, he wished for a bath. To be covered in filth was nearly as excruciating as the gut wrenching pain, only som'mat - to quote the infant supporting him - eased by Aragorn's potions. But only for a moment. Fevered as he was, the combination of freezing night and weakened lungs were no match for a spring-fed pool; nor would Aragorn countenance any such proposal. The examination of reality, however, did nothing to lessen the desire.
Cautiously he lifted a hand to his head. Every one of his finely-tuned senses was clamoring for attention, though he found, with a little concentration, he could separate the twining threads of pain. His head pounded as though the drums of the Wildmen beat irregularly inside it; he was cold and hot at the same time, a circumstance to which he was unaccustomed; his left leg throbbed in time to his thumping heartbeat and the right ankle felt as though someone had run a white hot poker through it. Which perhaps they had, he thought, bringing his hand down to his chest since to draw breath deeply felt as though a lung had been pierced by an arrow shaft.
In all the centuries he'd roamed Arda, he had never fallen prey to human illness. Wounds he'd borne aplenty. One did not captain a company in Mirkwood without feeling the sting of spider venom or the tearing of wolf fangs, not to mention the many orc arrows and blades that had found their way through elven amour. This strength robbing weakness of fever and lung congestion was a new enemy though; one he knew not how to fight. And for the Prince of Mirkwood, that alone was humiliating.
"Heir to the throne of Mirkwood," Legolas' companion remarked, obviously a gregarious sort and clearly not the least intimidated by the fact he was supporting an elven prince. Though, the elf considered, the youngster might well have taken the Dúnadan's light tone as jesting.
Even concussed and fevered, Legolas had heard the steel beneath the banter. He was used to Aragorn's insightful, occasionally invasive, sometimes aggravating forays into his mind. He knew the man well. Those words had been meant for him, not the young ranger. "Told you … humor … lacks wit."
"Humor? The Dúnadan?" There was incredulity in the awkward pitch of the voice verging on the edge of manhood.
"He employs it rarely," Legolas admitted, shifting awkwardly, unable to find a comfortable position that didn't stretch or pull or torque something painfully. "But ... is capable." He had not the breath to continue speaking and the man-child seemed to recognize it. No further commentary trailed him as Legolas let his mind fall back into the waking darkness.
Dancing with the fear of death rarely entertained the elven mind. In this age, with the power of Sauron waxing again, one went into battle and if one survived, it was to fight the next battle and the next and the next until either the sea song overwhelmed the heart, or arrow, axe, lance, pike, or sword ended life.
For twelve long nights, mortality had been flexing its cold fingers around the prince's spine. Legolas shivered and his attendant drew up the blanket that had slipped from his shoulders. Life suddenly seemed a desirable and precious gift he'd squandered with impetuous disregard.
Mayhap his father had been foresighted rather than merely angry, when he'd predicted his son would come to no good end. Repeatedly.
When he opened his eyes again, it was to find Aragorn beside him, regarding him intently once more.
"I am … at your mercy." To speak was to enable the little daggers of pain darting like fish deep inside his lungs.
"True," Aragorn drawled. "Perhaps now I could best you on the target range; perchance even in a wrestling match." He picked up one lax wrist and began to unwrap the bandage soaked through from the weeping wounds, his imagination easily supplying the lengths to which the elf must have gone to free himself from the iron cuffs. "Tell me, your highness, how many lives were sacrificed in the taking of one Legolas Thranduillion?"
"What fey … mood … enthralls … your lordship tonight?" Legolas returned, though his voice lacked the power to fully enter into their verbal sparring. He had no desire to revisit the raw, deeply etched memory of his stupidity in allowing himself to be captured; though he had little doubt he had suffered far less compunction in his killing than his friend. He had not missed the two awkwardly sprawled bodies as Aragorn had hauled him, in a most ungainly fashion, out of the hideous hut and away from that ridiculous excuse for a camp.
Aragorn looked up from rewrapping a warm, wet, instantly soothing bandage around the weeping wrist. "A question for a question? Fair enough, I suppose. Do you know," he remarked conversationally, changing the subject, "my heart arrested when I strolled into yon palace and found your highness … so alert and rested … and ready to leave." He felt the prince's amusement, though no visible trace of it showed between facial bruises the color Aragorn imagined dragon scales might be – a sort of shiny greenish-purple.
"It has been … ever so, my liege," Legolas murmured. "From first we met."
"Like an engaging pup that follows you home," Aragorn agreed, the warmth of his tone negating the gentle mockery. He rewrapped the second wrist before tucking it beneath the blanket and moving to the elf's feet. "How many?" He looked up as he drew off the supple leather boot he'd replaced after binding the ankle several hours ago.
Air hissed through clenched teeth. "Fewer than desired." Legolas met the stared command with effrontery. He was willing to honor the mortal's need to preserve life even in the face of such twisted evil, but he would never understand it.
Aragorn gave way gracefully. Three dead outside of Tharbad, two more in Carn Dûm, four left alive; nine seemed an odd number with which to stage an abduction. And it had only taken nine men to capture Legolas? Under normal circumstances the elf would have dispatched the lot of them without rumpling his clothing. Something was badly off, though Aragorn could not put his finger on what – but he had other things on his mind and his question had opened the door he'd intended.
"And no ransom demand?" His hands moved over the ankle with deliberation; it needed further attention and time to rest, though time was a commodity in as short a supply as the medicinals he carried.
"Nay." The brevity of the reply arose not from lack of air, though the lungs yet strained to draw it in.
"This was more than Rhudaur." A hiss of pain met the declaration as Aragorn, without warning, rocked forward onto his knees and reached up to pinch the bridge of the aquiline nose, straightening the cartilage with a swift, sure glide of his fingers. He had wanted to believe the charge against the hill-men's rapacious attacks on Mirkwood travelers – led by Legolas – had been the root cause, but Halbarad's verbal blade had slipped quietly 'twixt his ribs. "I've nothing to splint a nose with; though do you avoid doors for the next while, it may heal on its own."
"Twas a stubborn head," Legolas replied between gritted teeth, gratefully latching on to the new subject.
"Aye, your own." The wry witticism was sheathed in years of keen observation; Aragorn raised an eyebrow inquiringly.
"True enough." Heavy eyelids drooped to half-mast. "I had no … liking … for their plan."
The young tree behind the elf grunted, the tone angry. "It's sorry I am they're not all dead, Master Legolas."
"You took no further hurt?" Aragorn sat back on his heels, determined to have the answer to this question.
"The first died two nights after. I swore to kill any who tried again." He had broken the man's neck with his feet, and such were his lethal skills he'd done it in such a way that the man had lived in agony long enough to jolt the cowardice of his remaining companions.
So there had been ten originally – still too few to have taken down the prince.
Aragorn was silent for a moment, judging – rightly - this would have been the reason for the four-point restraints. Underestimating the incredible tensile strength, especially of a coiled elf, was rarely repeated. He guessed, too, it would have taken the combined strength of the six remaining men to affect the shackling of the Mirkwood prince. And no one would have wanted to release him.
Yet if Halbarad was right, there was still another truth requiring elucidation between them. "Was this done for my sake?" he inquired harshly, unconsciously holding his breath.
"It matters not," Legolas returned just as sharply, the effort costing dearly as his lungs seized and he arched back against his support.
"Fight not 'gainst it, Master Legolas," Durhíth instructed quietly. "Calm and the seizure will cease of its own accord." He thrust his shoulder gently between the elf's tense shoulder blades, forcing Legolas' chest to open further, allowing freer passage of air through the strain of built-up fluid.
Legolas had a nodding acquaintance with alarm, though mostly from observing it on the faces of men in battle. He felt it now, scrabbling at the edges of his mind, trying to gain a foothold on the slippery slope of his customarily calm disposition. However, there was no breath with which to vocalize the intense flashes of pain sparking like lightning striking his chest.
Aragorn touched the elf's face. "Match Durhíth's breath," he said slowly, locking eyes with his panicked friend. He knew what it was to feel as if one was drowning inside one's own body. "Slowly … slowly," he repeated, moving his hand to rest lightly over the archer's heart. It fluttered wildly beneath his palm for a several heartbeats of his own before hitching twice, then settling into something closer to a normal rhythm. "If you die on my watch, mellon nîn, I will haunt you living or dead, for eternity."
"Then … let me not … die."
"Aye, my prince, I will do all in my power to keep the shadow at bay, but I require your assistance in this matter. I cannot do it alone." Aragorn held the dark gaze with all his force of will, until Legolas tacitly yielded, closing his eyes as the paroxysm loosed its claws, and muscles drawn bow string tight finally began to ease.
The balance of power often teetered between them, though Legolas, as an elf as well as a recognized prince of the realm, usually held the upper hand. Aragorn's aristocracy notwithstanding, he'd chosen the inherited title of Dúnadan chieftain, forswearing, with purpose and intent – at least for the moment - the mantle of kingship Elrond would have him choose. The choice, however, had not lessened the inherited power to command.
"No arguments; you will do as I say and allow me to convey you however is necessary to the house of Elrond."
"Do we argue so soon?" Aragorn cut him off.
"An observation merely," Legolas conceded swiftly, opening his eyes mere slits.
The ranger accepted the concession and accorded one in return. "It is closer by a little, I admit. But your father's healers have little experience with human illnesses, whereas my foster father has refined his practice on me for years now. We ride for Rivendell at first light, or when Halbarad returns. In the interim, I would have you clean, since you ride with me." Aragorn leaned forward again, adding quietly, "Do not presume that because I am allowing a further subject change, that we are done with the question of why."
As if spelled into existence, a kettle of steaming water, along with a cloth and a small pot of soap, appeared in Aragorn's hands. "You will allow this, and you will allow Durhíth's aid in this endeavor. Fight me and I will have Durhíth strip you and I will carry you to Rivendell in a blanket."
The familiar grey eyes hardened implacably.
"As you will."
"There is tea with a small dose of poppy if you would rather sleep through it; it will likely be hurtful and I have no wish to distress you further." Nor humiliate the injured elf more than necessary to gain his cooperation.
"Nay. I would accept a dunking in the pool to be clean again."
Aragorn bit back a slight smile. "It is hardly large enough to accommodate, but I promise, this will not be so daunting, nor extreme, as bathing in the pool." He should have known browbeating would be unnecessary when it came to cleanliness. He had never seen the elf so filthy. "I think we will tackle the hair first though." Laying aside the water and cloth, with thumb and forefinger he turned the usually resistant chin into Durhíth's shoulder and began working on the snarled bird's nest of hair marking the ends of the braids.
Moments later, grunting with frustration, he reached for the knife on his belt – and found his wrist immobilized by strong, biting fingers. Aragorn spared a moment to be thankful they hadn't known the elf's habits well enough to damage his hands.
"No … cutting …"
"The binding cords only; it is snarled in a knot I haven't the patience to pull apart one strand at a time. Twas not an easy thing done this night; I am nearly as weary as you."
The fingers loosed instantly, accompanied by an exhausted sigh. "Cut … then … at need."
Aragorn sliced through the thin pieces of leather, replaced the knife on his belt and drew his fingers through the tangled mess, carefully loosening the braided plaits that kept the long hair from wrapping around the archer's bow string. He marked the tightening of the jaw again as his fingers brushed the raised lump behind the angled ear.
"A moment only …" Closing his eyes, Aragorn traced the shape of the swelling, following the paths of the vessels stretched to capacity beneath the bruised flesh.
"Sir!" Durhíth warned as Legolas' hand shot out to grasp Aragorn's knee.
"Aragorn!" Legolas spat the name like a curse. A half-stifled moan progressed rapidly to panting as pain wrapped around the base of his skull, coiling up with the lethalness of a striking serpent.
"The pain will ease in a moment." The youth dropped his chin so he pressed his cheek to the straining elf's. "It will pass," he murmured, stroking his free hand back over the grimy, snarled hair. "It will pass."
The Dúnadan ignored them both, concentrating all the healing power he could conjure in his weary state, in the tips of his fingers. His efforts were rewarded with the gradual loosening of the painful grip on his knee and, eventually, a deep, somnolent sigh.
Aragorn sat back, needing a moment to clear his head. "This would be much easier if you slept." He bent forward again, cautiously holding hanks of filthy hair close to the scalp as his fingers worked to draw through the snarls.
"No more poppy … sick already."
"Sick? Oh - sick, as in nauseated," Aragorn observed, wiping his fingers on a grimy rag. "I'd forgotten poppy takes you that way. I am sorry. I do not know how effective the king's foil I have left might be. Turn your head." He touched the elf's chin and Legolas, jaw clenched again, turned as instructed.
The Dúnedain tending the fire rose with a bowl brimming with wisps of steam and carried it over. "What next?" he inquired, stooping to set the bowl next to the elf's shoulder.
"A moment; let me finish this." Aragorn teased out the last knot and drew his fingers once more through the loosened hair. "A mortar and pestle cushioned in clothes resides at the bottom of my pack," he said, glancing up at the ranger. "In one of the small bags beneath is comfrey. I require a paste, enough to wrap the ankle, thoroughly warmed, but not so hot it burns. If there is masterwort still, make up an infusion in tea; steep it at least a quarter of an hour."
"I know comfrey, sir, but masterwort is unfamiliar to me."
"Angelica? Tastes like wild celery?" Aragorn shook his head at the blank look he received. "Bring the bag to me." Potion's agent dismissed, he returned his attention to the matter at hand. "Bed rolls."
"Sir?" Durhíth, too, looked at him blankly.
"Something to raise his head from the ground without causing further strain on the lungs. If we arrange three or four, folded under him, it should be sufficient."
"Aye!" The youth's face brightened with understanding. "That would work."
"Legolas? It would mean you would be lying down again, but we will work quickly."
Almost, Legolas was tempted to accept the nauseating poppy. The few minutes lying flat had been frighteningly awful; barely able to breathe, constrained to stillness by inordinate pain if he so much as flinched, yet shivering uncontrollably as fever stoked first fire, then ice, in his flesh. But a second dose of poppy would induce liquid in his guts on waking and he had not the stamina to endure those after-effects either.
Aragorn cupped the elf's cheek again. "Open to me," he commanded softly. He did not wait for permission, but pushed gently against the instinctive opposition Legolas threw up.
"Do not," Legolas snarled, though the intent was somewhat undermined by the breathiness of the response. It was a rare thing for him to pay attention to how he felt, but the abnormal requirements of his physical body were diminishing his mental resources faster than he could compensate for the drain. Always before he'd had the strength to shield the deeper recesses of his thoughts, those arcane places he rarely exposed and never in the extemporaneous bondings he had shared with Aragorn. He did not have the wherewithal to deny the ranger access to those freshly afflicted repositories.
"Do not make me one of them," Aragorn entreated.
Legolas ground his teeth in frustration.
To breach the barrier without consent would be no less invasive than what had been perpetrated upon the elf by the barbarians, but the healer deemed the circumstances warranted further persistence. It was his gift, also, that he could lessen the pain of another by absorbing some of it into himself. It was taxing, both physically and mentally, and though the elf knew it not, he had already done so in an effort to assuage some of the harsher effects of riding interminably through the night, though he had gone no deeper than needful.
Aragorn pressed now with more authority against the resistance, until it melted under his persuasive insistence. He was braced for the initial overwhelming flood of sensation, but he had underestimated the power of the intransigence he had forced; the unusual spate of emotions literally rocked him back on his heels. He recovered quickly, though, and sustained the motion so he swayed forward to one knee, bent with consummate grace as if in obeisance offering fealty, and rested his forehead lightly against the elf's.
He had no words, for he knew immediately why Legolas had used up the last of his reserves to resist the invasion. And it was markedly an invasion, especially as he had coerced the capitulation.
"You know nothing," Legolas ground out rapidly, chest heaving with the effort. "Nothing! It is …" he lost momentum precipitately, "It is not … what … you think."
"You did not purposefully withhold my identity," Aragon interpreted, the irony in his voice unmitigated by levity.
"I had … no wish to die … sooner than … necessary." Legolas dragged his hands from under the blanket, pressing one to his side and the other to Aragorn's chest. "Nothing … heroic … in that."
Inside this bond he shared with the elf, Aragorn could feel the rawness of abraded flesh, the tension of every stretched and torn muscle, the grating of bone against bone; he, too, was experiencing each pulsing blood beat in raw, exposed nerve endings.
"Your candor is somewhat redundant, your highness." There was no trace of mockery in the title this time and Aragorn yielded slightly so there was space between them. Taking the trembling hand in both his own, he straightened, chafing the cold fingers.
He had more than just the answers to Halbarad's why question, including the recognition that his refusal to entertain the obvious reasons for Legolas' inveiglement did him no credit.
If he could have wept upon his discovery of the elf's broken body shackled to the wall of that vile hut, he was hard pressed now to hold back the searing emotion that instantly clogged airways and pricked daggers at the back of eyes and throat.
Had it been his family – his father or even one of his brother's – he might have been able to comprehend. But this caliber of sacrifice, a life offered up without rancor, on his behalf, was so far beyond his conceit as to be nearly unfathomable. That they might die together in battle had been an ever present thought; that Legolas would expend all his energies on Aragorn's behalf had never been in doubt. But this willful withholding, even unto death, of a thing that must someday surely be announced far and wide if Aragorn was ever to pursue the futile fate hanging over his head – it confounded the mind.
In that moment, he did not know if he could bear the cost of his arrogance in refusing to cede to the fragile resistance Legolas had contrived.
The elf was a peerless warrior. He might kill without remorse when faced with inherent evil, but never in the perverted parody that had been perpetrated upon him. His stroke was ever clean and righteous, dealing in death as he dealt in life, with even-handed authority and mercy no matter what enemy he faced.
But his was the soul of an artist; he had been born with the propensity and compulsion to create. Had he awoken under the stars of Cuiviénen, he would have undoubtedly been among the consorts of Yavanna. His gifts for song and the intimate understanding of all things green and growing, surely tuned to enhance the Vala's own gifts.
Aragorn felt the rent gouged into the elf's fëa, the jagged edges pulsing with anxiety now as well. He did not have the gift of healing souls, only bodies, and understood, too well, that his uninvited invasion injured more than just the prince's pride, it had hacked at his friend's morale with all the subtly of a dwarven battle axe.
"Please," Aragorn barely breathed the words, "do not turn me out now. Let me carry this so that you may rest awhile. I would take it wholly if I could; let me at least take what I may."
Legolas had neither the strength nor the will to sustain his chagrin. He returned no reply, merely let go of the last tattered shreds of pretense, opening himself as he not done since he'd been a small child in need of surcease from the pain of the abrupt, tearing loss of his mother.
Such vulnerability was a bestowal of trust beyond measure; Aragorn felt the jolt of it deep in his own fëa. And his heart broke afresh at the mangled, deviated dissonance of the elf's song. Instinctively he began to croon that part of Legolas' song he knew like the back of his own hand.
There were no words to the inaudible articulation of the music his mind hummed as he rounded up bedrolls and helped to shift Legolas on to them. But the flowing notes conjured withe willows on the banks of the River Running; the soft susurration of gossiping tree tops; moss-covered stones lining deep-green forest pools; the omniscience of the ancient woods and wild things that surrounded Legolas' home. A medley of just a few of the aspects of the aria that was the elf's song.
Legolas hunched away, a moment of almost feral fear contorting the already disfigured features as Aragorn knelt beside him again.
Whether he wanted to revisit it or not, it was there, rising like a cloud of gnats hovering over the Dead Marshes. And there could be no marshaling of the resources needful to block the memory the song evoked.
The ranger swayed back on his knees, a finger of fear feathering his own spine. "Legolas? What is it?" he asked quietly, holding himself well back so he did not loom over the elf.
"Song …" Legolas rasped, "It was … you … only … it was not."
"I know," Aragorn said soothingly, leaning forward again to brush back wisps of hair from the elf's hot forehead.
"Thought … thought it was … you."
"I know," the ranger repeated uncomfortably, letting the familiar melody fade since it was clearly causing more distress than comfort. He knew, not because he'd had any inkling of the subterfuge, but because he had compelled surrender and deduced by means more foul than fair, not only the why, but the how as well.
Almost from their first meeting they had affected the use of the unique qualities of their individual songs as identification; Aragorn's haunting descant set over a simple melodic line, and the rills of Legolas' enchanted streams and deep forest pools. It had been an effortless and effective way of finding one another – until now, when somehow Aragorn's song had been suborned.
For Aragorn knew Legolas had thought the oddity of the familiar song had been caused by injury or illness and had – just as he himself would have done – ridden straight into the effectively simple gambit.
He needed to warn his family, any of whom would be equally taken in by such artifice; needed to ascertain how the cretinous characters had cobbled together such an effective plan. Though he supposed it required only one who had the ability to separate the individual chords composing the great song that encompassed all life on Arda. Having spent years living among some of the most beautiful life songs imaginable, Aragorn knew his own to be simple in comparison and could not imagine how it might have caught the attention of Sauron. Nor by what sorcery it could have been transposed for another to wield.
Above all, he thought angrily, he should have disregarded any and all principles and murdered the lot of them, eradicating further threat. Should one or more of those he'd left alive foolishly return to their master, they might live long enough to impart their success in having captured an elf and if they knew they'd snared the Prince of Mirkwood …
Aragorn hurriedly smothered those thoughts. Linked as he was to the elf, illumination was a two-sided coin. Legolas could similarly discern the inner workings of Aragorn's mind, though fortunately the elf was still too dazed and disoriented to be wandering through the ranger's accumulation of caliginous places.
It was time to change the subject again.
"You have no objections, I presume, to burning these clothes?" Aragon did not want Legolas lingering on thoughts of usurped songs, or the malevolent chaos swirling between them that neither presently had the strength of purpose to reorder.
"As I imagined." Motioning for the silent Durhíth to lift again, Aragorn drew his knife from its belt sheath once more. With a single deft flick of the wrist he split both the gore-stiffened tunic and the shirt beneath, from collar to hem down the middle of the back – then the front – exposing the snugly wrapped bandage supporting the broken ribs. Stripping off the separated clothing, he carefully unwound the bandage, making a mental note to turn it over before using it again.
"Legolas!" Aragorn admonished as he laid aside the sword-splint he had just unbound and moved forward to draw up the blanket the elf had pushed down. "I know you are uncomfortably hot, and we will address that just as soon as we have you clean, but you must stay covered." He knew very well, just how hot the elf was, and was glad of the cold air himself, but he was not suffering from actual lung congestion, only the symptoms of it. He knew too, that every pull and tug as they removed the close-fitting clothing, was keeping the elf just over the edge of agony.
Aragorn's presence buffered some of the affliction for which Legolas was grateful – in a disgruntled sort of way – but it could do nothing more than temper the severity. He fisted his hands in the blankets beneath him and endured in silence, grateful for the occasional drift of cool air as either he, or the blanket over him, was moved or lifted.
His companions worked swiftly, sluicing layer after layer of gore and grime and filth from his battered body, trying as best they could to ease the hurt of their ministrations with each turning or glide of hands over tortured flesh. Their success was limited.
By the time they had his hair clean, he was gasping for air again.
Rather than try to manipulate contused and lacerated limbs back into clothing, Aragorn just rewrapped the ribs, and then the elf in a clean blanket, and had Durhíth move him closer to the fire.
"Here, sir." His bag was thrust into his hands and Aragorn was drawn abruptly back to the moment. The man had waited patiently, without interruption, for them to finish.
Aragorn upended the backpack, dumping the contents out on the ground. The spare clothes he set aside to attire his friend later, the mortar and pestle he handed up to his potions master and then began opening small, cinched leather bags at random until he found what he wanted.
"Disregard the masterwort; this will be more efficacious." He withdrew a goodly pinch, handing over both the herbs and the bag. "Grind it finely and brew it in the pan about half full of water. Set it so it infuses while you make the poultice. It also must steep a good quarter hour at least, the longer the better."
"What is it?" the man inquired, sniffing at the aroma exuding from the open throat of the bag.
Aragorn was well aware Halbarad had assigned this man because he often assisted the lieutenant in these duties during the long spells when their chieftain was absent. Though it chafed to be asked to teach in the moment, it was a simple enough request and easily answered with that part of his mind that knew these things by heart.
"A mixture of herbs; valerian and chamomile, with some linden, kava and catnip, helpful in inducing dreamless sleep. A remedy of my foster father's." It didn't matter that it had been blended specifically to his body chemistry; the beneficial effects would still aid the elf, if less powerfully.
The comfrey was ready quickly and Aragorn was recovered enough from the joining to better control the flow, though he found the relief of being clean had already made a difference in the elf's capacity to manage the painfully buffeting sensations on his own.
His precision was slipping, however; it took much longer than it should have to rewrap the newly poulticed sprained ankle. Aragorn looked up from the careful work to find the green eyes watching him, clearer, though anxious.
"Be at peace, mellon nîn. The ride to Rivendell is yet ahead of us and I do not think you will sleep through all of it. We will talk later."
"Hush." He did not try to rise, his very bones ached in sympathy with the elf, but he crawled forward on hands and knees. "The anger you are sensing is only for that which has befallen you."
Aragorn closed his eyes briefly in an effort to tamp down the righteous indignation that overflowed. "How could I be angry with you?" He gathered up the lax hands, turning them palms up, and in a rare gesture of affection, kissed both, and then the bandaged wrists. "Such selfless love will wear down even the stoniest heart and mine has long been over sown with rocky ground. But we will talk of this later, when both our heads are clear. Shortly, Durhíth is going to flex his newly discovered healer muscles and order us both to sleep. I do not think I have the will left to flout him in this."
"In truth, I was going to insist that you sleep as well, sir," the young Dúnedain echoed instantly.
Aragorn swallowed his laugh at the palpable relief evident on Durhíth's face. He had watched the youth screwing up his courage for some minutes now and turned to wink at the elf, feeling Legolas' shared amusement again.
"My thanks …" Legolas offered through teeth clenched to keep them from chattering. "To be clean again …" he trailed off without finishing the thought.
"Hush," Aragorn repeated, wrapping another blanket loosely around the shivering elf as he helped him sit up. "We appreciate your cleanliness as much as you. Now lean to me." He drew the pliant body against his own, so shoulder and head rested against his chest and then leaned to the side, but not so far as to cramp the broken ribs. Without warning, he smacked his open hand low between the elf's shoulder blades.
A gasp became a strangled cough and a second precisely calculated blow wrought the desired effect. The cough became a sustained hacking.
Legolas would have cursed, but he hadn't the breath. There were hands holding him up, supporting his grating ribs, soothing over his back through the blanket, running over his damp hair, words pouring into his ears he could not make out as he coughed up viscous knots of those little fishes that had been darting around in his lungs not so long ago. Or rather, he thought, he might be coughing up a lung. It surely felt like it.
"May you … die slowly," the elf cursed weakly.
"Had I warned you, it would have been worse." Aragorn slid around behind and drew his friend back against his chest, acting as a human bolster. Reaching around the shoulder pressed against his, he lifted the waiting mug of tea. "Drink a little if you are able. It will ease your throat."
The cup was tipped against his lips and Legolas had either to swallow or have it spilt down the front of him. He drank obediently, the warm liquid sliding soothingly down his throat as promised. And then the mug was removed just as it became too much effort to hold his head up and his blanket-wrapped form was enfolded in a loose embrace, a cheek was pressed to his and a sigh tickled his ear. No words required his attention though and he let himself drift in the pleasant sensation of warmth and safety and something more that brushed his consciousness but refused to coalesce into any coherent thought. Sleep stole silently past his guard, settling in with intent to stay.
Durhíth glanced up at the Dúnadan, though Aragorn marked the young man's gaze skittering back to the immortal.
"He must be very beautiful when he is not marked so."
"Best not repeat that in his hearing or you will, indeed, have a blood feud on your hands. Best not even think it, lest he hear the whisper of your mind." Aragorn chuckled softly. "But yes, even among his own people, he is counted fair."
"He is asleep?"
"Aye, and will sleep for some while now. Durhíth, this would have been much more difficult for him without your help. I thank you."
The youthful giant inclined his head in a manner so reminiscent of Aragorn's regal nod, the ranger was hard pressed to hold back a twitching smile. Instead, he returned the nod with equal solemnity as the youngster rose.
"You have gentle hands, Master Durhíth. If you wish it, I would make arrangements with Master Elrond for you to study in Rivendell."
In the act of turning away, Durhíth spun back, a look of such awe suffusing the youthful features it turned that twitching smile rueful and allowed it to blossom.
"I offer you no boon; working with Master Elrond is no picnic, it will be long hours of hard work and will involve as many hours spent with books as with the Lord of Imladris, if not more. But you will learn the healing craft thoroughly if you chose this path."
"Of course! Of course I would choose this path," Durhíth repeated excitedly, "if Halbarad allows it."
Aragorn cocked his head. "I did not realize Halbarad was your near kin. Does he stand as your guardian?"
The young man's mouth opened and closed. "I … I …" he stammered. "I am sorry, sir, I forget for a moment you are the Dúnadan."
"I see I have been gone far too long this time. It is neither Halbarad's responsibility, nor pleasure, to dispense with your services. That is my right. Your talents do not lie in sword craft and you will be much more valuable to the clan if your natural instincts are tutored by an expert. Since we are on our way to Rivendell, I will speak to Lord Elrond at the first opportunity, and if he is agreeable, you will remain behind when the company moves on."
"Aye, sir. It would my privilege if Lord Elrond would agree to take me on as a student."
"So be it." With a nod and flick of his fingers, Aragorn dismissed the young man to join the company of rangers not expressly standing guard, sitting companionably 'round another fire set near to the front of the little hollow. Durhíth's excited chatter as the news was shared drifted back to him, but it did not hold his attention long. While his eyes had tracked the youth, his gaze had turned inward.
It had been years since Aragorn had been reminded of his own youth, but the two he had encountered so dramatically this night had drawn forth old memories.
From the time his destiny had been made known to him, it had ruled him with an iron fist, and though humble of spirit, pride had ever been a savage task master. The dichotomy had nearly sundered his sanity in the beginning; which was perhaps why the wizard had fostered the friendship that had sprung up instantly between Isildur's heir and the Prince of Mirkwood all those years ago.
Admittedly, wizards were few and far between on the shores of Middle-earth, but surely there were other folk who would be worthy mentors of the young and restless. If just one found the youth he'd spared this night, those feet might be turned from the path of truancy. Or perhaps if that young man found a friend like Legolas, his joy in life might wax again. If, however, he was truly under the sway of the Dark Lord, his life would be better forfeit now than lived under the hellish dominion of Sauron.
Aragon put away those thoughts, tucking them neatly into that space labeled Until where he hoped he would never have to look at them again, but knew well enough that too was wishful thinking.
His mind drifted back to Legolas and the support and succor he'd so unexpectedly found in the prince – who had been far less princely than his own brothers. Though that could easily be attributed to their difference in ages, since the twins were thousands of years old and Legolas had not yet seen five hundred years when they'd first met.
Like the flower that shattered stone, Aragorn thought the elf had been planted in his life for a purpose, and Legolas, whether by design or choice, seemed to have flourished there. They had been comrades in arms for years and yet he had never before met the elf he held in his arms now – the one who would have accepted death on his behalf rather than betray him. It was at the same time humbling and frightening that he had inspired such devotion. And yet … and yet, he realized with sharp clarity, to be a king would require a willingness not just to accept, but to believe himself worthy of such fealty. And Legolas had just set the first stone to pave the road to that acceptance, because if Legolas thought him worthy, then he must be.
It cast an unlooked for rightness upon the intimacy of holding the elf as he slept in the arms of the one who had inadvertently wrought upon him this evil that shadowed the indomitable fëa.
Surprisingly, the mere recognition of the devotion of this doughty companion allowed Aragorn to look squarely in the face of his destiny without flinching. And in that moment, he knew with the foresight of his ancestors, this would be the connection that would imbue him with the courage to pursue, undaunted, the fate he had for so long kept at bay.
Overhead, the dim light of the frozen stars began to wink out one by one by one. The Dúnadan closed his eyes and slept, safe at last in his own unlooked for harbor, lulled by the breath of the elf.