Chapter 14

All was still in the forest. Throughout the vast expanse of the Greenwood, shafts of light filtered down through the trees, casting a soft glow on the leaf-strewn floor. Particles of dust and pollen could be seen floating through the patches of sun, creating a shimmering effect.

From where he sat, Legolas could see and sense everything that moved. With his back nestled comfortably against the great oak, his particular friend, he felt himself becoming one with the forest. The hum of water flowing through the roots of the trees and up through the inner wood was soothing to his ears.

Whenever Legolas spoke with the trees he could feel himself finding purpose with his life and the every day stresses would dissolve away into the bark of Doron, as if the great tree was purposefully giving him an outlet. Even now his hands rested comfortably against Doron's bark on either side of the limb upon which he sat.

His blue eyes slid out of focus and his breathing slowed as his senses melded with the tree. He could hear the scamper of rodent feet rustling through the roots on the forest floor, the soft scratching hardly audible. As the warm air entered his nose he could smell the musky and rich scents of the forest. The musty smell of rotting leaves mixed with the sharp scent of tree sap from a nearby pine.

Time lapsed into distant memory as Legolas let himself become one with the tree. Whether it was minutes or hours that passed, he did not know. The soft brush of air exiting his nose with each exhale was warm and gentle, his heart beats slow and steady.

Each creak of Doron's branches and the rustle of the oak's leaves told a story of the forest. The groan of the tree as it settled itself told the prince that all had been calm and the forest was at peace.

Suddenly a rustling of a branch pulled Legolas from his trance and his blue eyes snapped open, adjusting quickly to the light of the forest. Doron just told him they were not alone.

Without daring to move he slowly scanned his eyes across the forest floor, looking for their visitor. At first he saw nothing, but then he saw a flash of gold in a lone patch of sunlight. Being careful to move slowly, he pulled away from the trunk of Doron silently, trying to pinpoint what had captured his attention.

Her back was facing him but Legolas could tell from his perch that it was a golden haired elleth. The attire she wore and the bow at her side were clear signs she was one of his people. Curiously he turned his head to the side, trying to find a better view of who this lone elleth was.

But instead of turning around she began to walk away from him, toward the darker shadows of the forest. Silently Legolas laid a hand on the trunk of Doron and offered his thanks before descending to the soft forest floor. He crept forward, his steps silent as he drew closer to the elf in front of him.

Suddenly she stopped and spun. The prince had barely enough time to step behind a tree before her green eyes could find him. He could feel the shock radiating through him as he saw her face. 'Aruiniel.' He thought silently as he watched his friend surveying the land behind her.

Her eyes showed a dark pain and her lovely brow was creased. The hand that held her bow was gripping the wood so tightly that Legolas could see her knuckles turning white with the effort.

Clearly she was in trouble and Legolas wanted to help her. But when he opened his mouth to say her name he found that no words could come out. His lips moved with the speaking of her name but his vocal chords were paralyzed.

Disconcerted, he said her name again and with more effort yet no sound escaped through his lips. Legolas looked up to see that Aruiniel had started forward again, her head looking to and fro. From the way she paused every few steps and looked about he could tell that she seemed lost.

But that could not be right because they were in the Greenwood. Aruiniel should know her way around these trees. Concerned, Legolas followed after her, hoping to catch up with her and see what was the matter. She was only a few steps ahead of him so Legolas lengthened his stride and reached toward her, aiming to grab her by the shoulder.

Just as his hand should have closed around her small shoulder however, she disappeared. Legolas stopped bewildered, his curled hand resting mid-air where Aruiniel should have been. Frantically he spun around, his eyes searching for her golden hair.

He looked behind the trees around him and ran back the way he came. But she was nowhere to be found. His heart was racing and he could feel a cold sweat trickling down his back. What sorcery was this?

Dismayed he spun back around only to find Aruiniel standing in front of him. His heart jumped into his throat as he felt his eyes widen in astonishment. Unlike last time though he did not reach out to her for fear that she would disappear again. Instead he stood still, his blue eyes locked with her green ones.

He watched her hand come up through the air slowly, her palm open and fingers wide. With deliberate slowness he followed the hand until it rested upon his cheek. Except Legolas did not feel anything. Where he should have felt the warm touch of her hand upon his face was nothing but air.

Was she dead then? Was Aruiniel's ghost sending him a message? Panic began welling up in his stomach at the thought and he searched her eyes, looking for some clue. But he found nothing.

Then just as he decided to reach out toward her again she opened her mouth and said, "Help."

Legolas jerked awake and nearly fell off the stool he had been perched upon, his chest heaving and his eyes frantically scanning the tent. His blue gaze rested on Aruiniel and took comfort at the small swell of her chest rising up and down rhythmically.

Putting a hand to his chest to calm the racing of his heart, he reached out with his other hand and took one of Aruiniel's hands into his own. The warmth of her skin and the feel of the blood coursing through her veins was such a comfort that he raised it to his lips and brushed the back of her hand with a light kiss.

He sat for a moment more, terrified to let go of the link between them in case she should disappear again. His eyes scanned her head and took in the deep purple bruises that were covering part of her face. Her eyes were closed as she slept, a sign that she was in great pain, but her lips were parted as air rushed in and out of them.

Feeling the need to step outside and relieve himself, Legolas gently set her hand back on the bed and moved toward the tent flap. The light outside was grey and the cold air sharp as he took a deep breath. Dawn was approaching soon.

Once he had finished, Legolas stood looking out over the camp, his eyes searching for the distant shape of Esgaroth. If Rhov did not already know his sister was missing, it would only be a matter of hours before he did discover her absence.

He felt a jolt in his belly at the thought of Rhov. The two siblings were very close and Legolas had seen the strength of their relationship over the course of their trip. This was sure to wound Rhov deeply.

Legolas turned his head to look back at the tent he stood in front of and asked himself the same question from the previous night. 'Why are you here mellon nin?' he thought sadly and with some frustration. He could not grasp her decision. It was selfish and stupid, but also incredibly brave of her to come to this camp alone.

She had also come unarmed. That last thought made him angry and he felt his fists clenching at his sides. Why on this good earth would she approach a hostile camp at night, alone, and without any weapons?

Legolas had been pondering this last question late into the night after he had tended her. But he had not come upon a good answer and had fallen asleep with the words still echoing in his mind. He would have to wait and ask her once she felt well enough.

Letting out a sigh, Legolas turned and stepped back into the darkened tent, his eyes adjusting quickly. The sun would soon rise so he did not bother to light a candle. Instead he once more took up his seat upon the stool, his gaze resting on Aruiniel's battered face.

His chief concern apart from her well-being was how he was going to convince her to act as his betrothed. Yes they had developed a strong friendship over the past week, but Aruiniel was strong willed. It would not be easy to sway her toward the idea of acting as if her love for him had taken over common sense.

Legolas's feelings for Aruiniel were puzzling. He was strongly attracted to her from a physical standpoint, but he felt that she was simply a friend. Aruiniel was just Aruiniel to him. Her stubbornness, determination, and loyalty were her more dominant traits. She did have a softer side that Legolas had just started to witness before being handed over to the mountain men and Hagralan. Her love for her brother and her rafting kin was strong and overrode her sense of reason if it meant keeping them safe.

Could he convince Hagralan they were betrothed? Legolas had courted an elleth before and he knew many of the more intricate behaviors he should show toward her. Soft touches, secret looks, and body language were all behaviors that he would have to adopt starting immediately. But would she be willing to reciprocate? A vision of Aruiniel slapping Legolas across the face after he tried to nibble on her ear fleeted through his mind.

A wry smile crossed his face at the thought and he turned to pour some clean water into the basin. He stoked up the coals on the brazier and set the basin over the top to warm it. Then he reached for a clean cloth that he had obtained from the healer's tent and dropped it in the water along with a sachet of herbs. The smell of lavender, bark, and arnica rose sweet through the tent and Legolas breathed deeply.

He had never heard of the flower they called arnica, but the healer had told him it was good for bruising. It grew wild near their villages, she had said, and would help the dark bruises that would cover Aruiniel's face for the next week. She had also offered leeches but Legolas had declined with a slight shudder. The wood elves did not use leeches but he knew that other areas of Middle-Earth did.

Just as he began to recall the first time he had heard of such dreadful little creatures, he saw Aruiniel's chest rise high. A deep breath came and went through her lips and Legolas could see her eyelids starting to crack open. Turning, he grabbed the wet cloth from the basin and wrung it out before applying it to the side of her head.

Aruiniel emitted a small moan at the touch of the heated cloth to her head and her eyes fully opened, the pupils sliding in and out of focus. From her vantage point she could see naught but a hand and the white edge of a cloth being pressed to her face. But from the gentle touch to her temple, she knew it must be Legolas. She could barely recall anything from when she first encountered the soldiers the evening before, but she did remember waking at one point to see Legolas sitting by her side, his brows drawn tight with worry.

Her eyelids blinked several times and she groaned in pain as she tried to tilt her head toward the owner of the hand. A second hand appeared and cupped her cheek, forcing her to remain motionless.

"Stay still mellon nin, you do not want to move quickly." Legolas's voice was gentle and the elvish rolled off of his tongue beautifully. Aruiniel made a small noise in understanding and felt the brush of his thumb as he stroked her cheek. Then both hands disappeared and she saw the face of Legolas come into view.

He looked tired from the lines she could see around his eyes, but otherwise she could read nothing but relief on his face. Aruiniel felt a corner of her mouth turn up in a smile and Legolas returned it with a small smile of his own. "What has happened?" she asked, the words croaking out of her mouth.

Her throat was desperately dry and her tongue felt thick and heavy in her mouth. Instead of answering, Legolas brought a canteen to her lips and raised her slightly. The water trickled down her throat and she felt it's cool relief settling into her belly. She placed a hand delicately on his arm and Legolas took the water away before easing her back down upon the cot.

Aruiniel looked pointedly at Legolas to let him know he could not escape her questions. A brief smile lit his face and then he turned back to the basin beside him to wring out a warm cloth. "You are always to the point Aruiniel." He said briefly, his voice holding a bit of strain.

She watched as he gathered his thoughts while taking great care to apply the warm compress against her head. Then he let out a sudden breath and looked at her directly. His blue eyes looked stormy with conflict and dismay as he held her gaze. Aruiniel felt her heart jump into her throat and she knew at once that he was not happy with her.

"I think it is rather I who should be asking you that same question." Legolas said haltingly in an attempt to keep his emotions in check. He felt electrically charged with all of the feelings that were coursing through him but he knew he could not spring everything upon Aruiniel at once. While she may be awake he could still see that her eyes were somewhat glazed over.

"I must say, it is not a pleasant experience to be called into a tent to find you unconscious and bleeding upon a table." He said pointedly, watching her face carefully. "I do not know what possessed you to come here, Aruiniel, but you have put all of us in very grave danger because of your actions."

Legolas was trying to lay the matter out simply but he could tell he wounded her based on the way she flinched when he made his last remark. He did not know what to say next so instead he removed the compress from her head and put it back in the bowl, watching the cloth rapidly absorb the scented water. He felt her eyes upon him but he did not look at her again. His heart was pounding in his chest and his mind was reeling with the events of the past twelve hours.

"I worried for your well-being, Legolas." Came her reply. Her voice was weak but the meaning of her words held strength. Legolas turned his blonde head to look at her and saw her attempting to reach a hand toward him. He grasped it in his own and brought it to his lips, laying a gentle kiss upon it.

"I guessed as much." He said quietly, his blue eyes locking with her green ones. "Did I cause you much trouble?" she asked inquiringly, her eyes becoming clearer by the second. She watched the shadows darken Legolas's face and he carefully set her hand back upon the bed. Legolas ran a hand over his face in resignation and then sighed explosively. He would have to tell her.

With a grimace he looked up at her and said, "You are charged with sneaking into the camp which is punishable by execution." He saw the little color she had in her face drain rapidly away and her lips opened in a gasp, the realization hitting her hard. A strangled sound escaped her lips and she turned her head slowly away from him to face the wall of the tent. Despite her maneuver Legolas could see the tears forming at the corner of her eye and he once more took up her hand between his own.

"I have done a grievous wrong by you, my family, and my people." She said huskily, her tears cutting through her voice. Aruiniel felt the vertigo gripping hold of her and her stomach churned with dread. Never in her forethoughts of carrying out this task did she think she would be killed. Her sense of loyalty once more masked her sense of self-preservation.

Fleeting images of Rhov, Lythfain, Uncle Nostalion, and Aunt Linnadhiel crossed her mind. 'I will have disappointed them and created a blemish on our family reputation for my carelessness' She thought bitterly. Aruiniel felt the first sob wrack her body and she gave into it, not knowing where else to turn. Her head pounded as her body shook but the realization of her actions pierced her heart like a knife.

Legolas watched helplessly as Aruiniel began to cry, her body vibrating with sadness as she gasped for breath. He tried to turn her around so he could comfort her but she shook him off and wrapped her arms about herself protectively.

Then the gravity of what she had done to Legolas hit her full force. Her actions put their prince, the Crown Prince of Mirkwood, in a dangerous situation. If he were to be killed by these mountain men it would be Aruiniel's fault entirely. Her entire kingdom would be without their future king if they were to lose Legolas on this expedition. She would need to cut ties with him immediately to save his integrity and to take blame away from him. Legolas must survive to return to Mirkwood.

"Prince Legolas, you must leave me. I am a stain to your royal reputation. You must let them execute me for my carelessness. Please leave me be so I do not bring you further into danger." She gasped between hiccupped sobs, her arms wrapped protectively about her. Each word stabbed at her heart. Legolas had become a friend to her over the past week and now she had cause irreparable damage to their friendship.

Her words stung Legolas but he did not leave. Instead he got up from his stool and slid onto the cot beside her. Carefully, so as not to injure her, he lay down behind her and wrapped his arms about her, cradling her with his body. He could feel her sobs shaking the cot and he tightened his embrace and whispered softly into her ear.

"Mellon nin, I will go nowhere. You do not stain my reputation. Even if you did I would not leave you now." He said into her golden hair. "Rest easy pen-neth, I have found a way out of this for us both."

His words were soothing and Aruiniel felt her sobs quieting as the strength of his arms provided her shelter. Her nose was running horribly and she sniffed every few seconds as she tried to catch her breath. As her own noises subsided she became aware that Legolas was humming a song in her ear, one of his hands rubbing up and down her arm.

After a while of this quite reassurance, Aruiniel's scattered mind began to make sense of what Legolas's last words had been. Turning slowly so as not to upset her head, Aruiniel asked, "How are we to get out of this?"

Legolas immediately stopped humming and he sat up, his eyes unreadable as he smoothed his tunic down. He would not look at her and Aruiniel began to feel wariness leeching into her bones. Something was wrong. The first tendrils of panic set in and she could feel her blood turning into ice.

"Help me sit up." She asked Legolas, extending a hand toward him. He studied her face carefully to make sure she was well enough to be up and then he gently pulled her into a sitting position with his arm behind her as support.

For a moment her vision blacked out and she heard Legolas call her name sharply. Then the black spots cleared and her vision swam into focus to reveal Legolas sitting in front of her with his hands about her arms, panic showing on his face. "Aruiniel?" he asked again as he saw her green eyes focus on his face. She blinked at him in answer and said meekly "I am well."

Legolas frowned at her words and shook his head. "You are not well Aruiniel. You should rest more before we discuss anything. I do not want to cause you a set back." He said sternly, his eyes narrowing as he studied her pale and sweaty face.

Aruiniel in turn narrowed her eyes and lifted her chin slightly. "I am well. Tell me what has happened Legolas. I cannot stand another minute of not knowing. You said you had a plan and I must hear it." Her words shook slightly and her body swayed but the stubbornness was there and Legolas sighed deeply. By telling her of their "betrothal" he risked upsetting her. But if he did not tell her he would only cause her anger and stubbornness. Personally he preferred the first risk to the second; he had seen her arguments with Rhov.

Legolas let go of her arms and removed himself from the cot to sit upon the stool. He took the warm cloth from the basin for a third time and wrung it out before handing it to Aruiniel. "If I am to tell you then you will hold this to your head." He said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Aruiniel glared at him but took the cloth from his outstretched hand and moved it up to her throbbing and bruised temple. She did not let the relief show on her face even as the compress sent warm soothing tendrils down her face. Legolas could not see her as weak if she was to get an answer. After a moment of silence, Legolas settled back further on his stool and regarded Aruiniel. Then he told her of her appearance at camp, what Hagralan had said about her behavior, and repeated the execution orders.

"He was going to execute you that moment and I felt panicked. Hagralan had just reached for his sword when I called out." Legolas was saying now, his blue eyes never wavering from Aruiniel's green ones. Aruiniel felt as if her chest was bound with iron and her lungs could not expand properly. "What did you tell him?" She asked quietly, her blood rushing through her veins.

Legolas broke eye contact for the first time since the beginning of his tale and exhaled loudly. Then he looked up and said, "That you were my betrothed."

Aruiniel felt as if she had been punched in the gut and all of her breath left her. She could feel herself swaying where she sat and was dimly aware of Legolas calling out to her and his hands grasping at her upper arms again. A loud buzz filled her ears and her gaze darkened.

When her eyes refocused again she was lying down on the cot and Legolas was moving the damp cloth across her face and neck. She could see the relief cross his fair features as her eyes focused on him and he sat back slightly, his shouldering slumping with the sudden release of tension.

"Betrothed?" she croaked with dismay, her thoughts dancing around her head. Mentally she was reaching out for any train of thought she could grab but her thoughts were fleeting and continued to elude her grasp. Legolas barely nodded and he stood up from the bed. She could see him move to the tent flap and open it, staring out into the early morning sun.

"You left me no choice. I could not convince him to spare your life any other way."

His voice was quiet and rang with helplessness. One of his hands rested against the tent pole, his hand gripping the wood tightly. When he heard no response from her he turned around to see her regarding him quietly from the cot, her eyes wide.

"Will you say something please?" he asked, the desperation heavy in his voice. She looked pale and she had drawn inward, hiding her emotions as quickly as they came. He felt dread rushing through him and he braced himself for the fight that he was anticipating.

Aruiniel did not turn her gaze from Legolas but she was also not looking at him. She was looking through him back to the time that she had been betrothed to Tegalad and all of the promises he had made her over a century ago.

'Tegalad, melamin, I shall pine for you every day that you are gone from my bed." Aruiniel said wistfully, her arms wrapped around Tegalad's chest and her green eyes looking up into his blue ones. He had just been accepted into the army as a warrior and he was to be leaving soon for a patrol.

Tegalad had smiled and kissed her softly on the brow. "Do not worry melamin, I shall always return to you. We are betrothed now. Nothing but death could keep me from your side." His deep voice had been soft and tender, his hands running up and down her back.

"You are strong my warrior. After battle you shall come home to me and we shall celebrate your safe return." She had said with equal tenderness.

"Promise me you will come home to me. Promise that you will never leave me alone in this world." she said desperately.

He kissed her brow one more before replying, "Melamin, I will return to you always. I promise."

Aruiniel felt an itch by her eye and lifted her hand to her face to find tears streaming down her cheeks. She blinked rapidly and looked up to see Legolas regarding her with a sad and forlorn expression.

Hastily she brushed the tears away and lay down upon her cot, turning her back to the door. She did not wish to speak with Legolas right now. Her heart felt heavy and her chest felt tight. The wound on her temple was pounding heavily and Aruiniel wanted nothing more than to be taken back into the deep abyss of sleep elves entered when wounded.

She heard Legolas sigh quietly and then the flap of the tent door as he left. Aruiniel felt guilty that she had caused Legolas such stress. But how could he ask this of her? It brought back such painful memories and the tears started anew as Tegalad crossed her mind.

Aruiniel sighed and drew the blanket further over her. Of course Legolas would not know of Tegalad or her past. He had seen the scar upon her neck, but he had never asked about it or even stared at it. She should not be so hard on him for only trying to save her. After all, it was her fault that they were in this predicament.

'But his betrothed?' she thought angrily, and slapped her hand against the cot. She had gotten herself into this situation but she did not want to admit it was her fault. Instead she pulled the blanket up under her chin and forced her eyes closed. If she could not face the truth then she was going to ignore everything else as well.

Sometime later the tent door parted silently and Legolas stepped hesitantly inside, waiting to receive more reprimands from Aruiniel. Instead of continuing to see the pain on her face he had chosen to leave. He felt rather miserable for having been the one to put her in that sort of pain, especially since she was so grievously wounded.

'But she is the one who snuck into camp.' He chided himself as he looked upon her sleeping form. She was still turned on her side, the wounded side of her head remaining visible. Legolas watched the rise and fall of the blanket over her shoulders and stepped up to the cot.

Her face looked peaceful in contrast to the angry purple bruises covering her face. He sighed softly and placed a parcel upon the table next to the cot. When he left he had gone to visit the healer to obtain more herbs for her head. After receiving some medications he had wandered about the camp, watching as men tended their fires for the day and prepared for more drills.

Fortunately he had avoided both Rastra and Hagralan on his walk. He was not looking forward to his next visit with them. Legolas was fairly sure he could not convince Aruiniel to pretend to be his betrothed, putting them both in a dangerous place. The thought left him trembling and filled with anxiety. He could not afford to think of their present situation any longer.

Legolas hesitated next to the stool, unsure if he should sit down. Thinking better of it he turned back around and grabbed the spare blanket sitting in the corner. He had barely slept last night and he did not want to wander around camp again in case he ran into Hagralan.

Carefully he set the blanket down upon the ground near Aruiniel's cot and then lay down upon it, pulling his green cloak around to cover him. He might as well attempt to sleep more. For a few moments he listened to the sound of Aruiniel's even breathing that reassured him she was still alive. Satisfied that she would be well, he let his eyes slide out of focus and he surrendered to the world of elvish dreams.