Coming of Age|
Summary: When The Three Hunters and Eldarion head to the woods for some peace and companionship they find instead pain which affects them all; and Eldarion learns a lesson about what it means to be a man.
The forest is not my favourite place. I do not trust these trees and there is an appalling lack of stone here. When I befriended a wood elf I did not realise quite how much time he would require me to spend, actually in the woods. Sometimes I wonder at my obvious lack of common-sense becoming friends with the elf. While I would never wish away our friendship, life would be so much easier if Legolas were a Man…or a dwarf
Aragorn laughs at me now as I follow him through the foliage, towards our camp, complaining as I go. He is no help at all.
"How much further, Aragorn?” I grumble. “ Surely we have gone far enough. Some of us have shorter legs than others, and some of us are far less enamoured of trees. I will never know what you and the elf see in them."
"Peace, Gimli," he smiles back over his shoulder at me. "We will stop soon enough... Listen to them... Do you want to spoil their fun?"
Ahead of us are Legolas and Eldarion, mischief-making in the trees. Eldarion has grown much since I last saw him; he is lanky and gangly, all awkward angles. He is almost a child no longer, but still a boy, not yet a man. When he heard we were planned a retreat to the world outside Minas Tirith—to find respite in the woods, just the three of us—he begged to come along and surprisingly, this time, Aragorn agreed.
And now he has run off with the worst possible influence—the Elf.
"I cannot believe you have let him loose with Legolas,” I sigh. "Aragorn, have you no sense?"
And he just grins back at me.
"I have no worries with Legolas. He loves Eldarion almost as much as I do. He will not let any harm befall him."
"No harm, no. But what of the terrible behaviour he will teach him? Legolas is not exactly calm and sensible."
Aragorn opens his mouth to reply, probably with cheek, when the laughing merriment ahead of us in the trees is broken.
That is Legolas and he is stern, at his most commanding. He can be that when he wants, though that is not very often. He reminds me of his father the Elvenking then. What is the boy up to that has caused Legolas to shout so?
I feel Aragorn tense beside me and the woods seem suddenly silent, eerily so, before the strange peace is shattered by a crack, a splintering crash of branches. There is a child's cry of terror and then, a louder one, the elf, and that is pure pain.
For a second we are frozen, the both of us. Frozen in time as if we cannot move, and then the boy's voice reaches us—it is high and frightened.
"Father!" he calls. "Father!"
And there is desperation in that young voice, desperation, urgency and fear. It breaks the spell that has held us fast and we are running—blindly running—towards that sound.
The boy is knelt in the middle of a clearing, broken branches surround him, but at least he seems unhurt. He lifts his face to us as we enter. We are short of breath and panting from the run and the boyish face that greets us is white, wide-eyed and pale.
Beside him on the ground is the elf, that foolish creature, and it is obvious to all that he is hurt. He is as white as the child—his face a grimace of pain— and he clutches his leg, blood oozing through his fingers.
When I see what he has done I feel sick
A piece of wood, a branch, has impaled his thigh. Did he land on it? Or did this happen somehow in flight? Whatever the cause, it has made a mess of him. It must be agony.
"What happened?" Aragorn is instantly at his side, instantly the healer. Even he pales at the sight of this injury. "What happened, Legolas?"
I fell," Legolas replies through gritted teeth, and Aragorn rolls his eyes for Legolas never falls. It is an obvious lie.
He turns then to Eldarion.
"What happened, Eldarion?"
The boy stares at his father, and I feel sorry for him. He looks terrified.
"Father—" he begins, but Legolas cuts him off.
"I fell, Aragorn. That is all. It was foolish and I pay the price. Can you stop questioning me and help me?"
He is failing to control his temper, but the pain must be agonising, so I do not think I will hold that against him.
Aragorn gives his son a measured look and then, suddenly, he is all action.
"Eldarion. Go back to the camp. Get my pack and bring it here. Now! You can find it?"
The boy leaps to his feet. I think he is keen to get away, and I notice he is shaking. This is a nasty injury and he loves Legolas with all his heart. No wonder it upsets him.
I watch as Eldarion heads for the camp at speed and I am diverted only by Aragorn barking my name.
"Gimli. Get behind him. I will have to remove this and it will be painful."
"Painful?" Legolas gasps. "It is already painful."
"Agonising then!” Aragorn snaps, “If you want me to spell it out to you.”
"Aragorn!" I snap right back at him.
He is angry—I see that—but the elf has not done this on purpose; There is no need to speak to him so and I have no hesitation in reprimanding Aragorn when he needs it. King or no King.
He has the decency to look shamefaced at least.
I cradle the elf in my arms and hold him tight, for Aragorn is right: this will hurt. I will hold him still; I will not let him go.
Eldarion is back then, out of breath, for he has run at speed. He has his father's long legs and youth to help him. He deposits Aragorn's pack by his side and stands uncertain, not looking at Legolas, not looking at the hideousness that is his leg. He is young yet and injury is still a relative unknown for him. He is distressed and cannot hide it.
So we watch as Aragorn, slowly, carefully, takes what he needs and lays it on the ground beside us; blade, scissors, potions and bandages. It mesmerises me watching the careful ordered way he does this. If it wasn't for the quiet, muffled groans of the elf as he lies in my arms, I would be fascinated by the dance Aragorn does as he prepares.
At last he stops and picks up a vial.
"You will need to drink this,” he says, but Legolas stubbornly shakes his head. He is a nightmare to care for. He always is.
"I want my wits about me."
"Believe me," Aragorn lowers his voice but I can still hear it. “You will not want your wits about you when I do this."
"I need to have control!" Legolas hisses, and a part of me understands why he wants that. "Aragorn, do not embarrass me in front of the boy."
The last is said very softly but Aragorn hears it. I know he does. He sighs and puts down the vial.
It seems Legolas has won.
Instead, Aragorn turns to Eldarion, who stands silent and rigid, watching it all with his wide, horrified eyes.
"Eldarion." He suddenly sounds tired and burdened. "You must help us hold Legolas. Take his legs. Remember he is strong; you will need all your strength—your whole body—to hold him. You must stop him kicking you off. I need him very still to do this."
The boy nods solemnly but both Legolas and I protest. The elf is foolish enough to attempt to stand then. To prove his wellness? To send the boy away himself? Sometimes I do not know how his strange mind works. But he barely moves; even that causes a cry of pain and Aragorn restrains him with a single hand upon his chest.
"Aragorn, you and I can do this. The boy need not be here," I say loudly, but he silences me with a wave of his hand.
"He will be here. Eldarion!"
It is a command, and the boy quietly obeys. He kneels, takes hold of Legolas' legs and lays his whole growing, young-boy, body across him.
And then Aragorn raises his knife.
“I do this only because I have to, to help you,” he whispers softly to Legolas, the knife hovering above the skin.
"I know," Legolas murmurs back. "Do it, Aragorn."
And the knife descends.
Aragorn is skilled. He moves fast as the blood surges up, a wave of red through the wound. There is a hiss from Legolas when the knife pierces the skin and then a cry as Aragorn slices deeper. I feel the elf twist himself against me. He is so strong, holding him still is not an easy task. There is a muffled gasp from Eldarion that tells me he struggles also.
Then Aragorn drops his knife. His hands grip what remains of the branch in Legolas' thigh and he pulls.
And Legolas screams.
It is a hideous sound. I wish I could forget it but I do not think I will ever be able to.
And then, suddenly, he is still. I wonder if he is no longer conscious— I would not be surprised—but he is awake.
"Is it done?" he asks, and his voice is hoarse and raw.
"It is done," Aragorn says gently. His hand presses against the wound where blood still flows, and the elf collapses against me.
There is a sob in the quiet and I look to the boy where he lies spread-eagled across the elf's legs. He is crying, tears stream down his cheeks. This is too much. He is just a boy and I am angry at Aragorn making him be here. We could have done this without him.
Aragorn bends low and speaks in Legolas' ear so only he and I can hear.
"I must clean this now and open it up. It is not an easy job. Will you take the sedative? Please Legolas, for my sake if not your own."
Legolas' eyes flit towards the boy and Aragorn, seeing it, turns and reaches for Eldarion, placing his hand upon his shoulder.
"Eldarion," he says gently, "Go with Gimli. See to the camp for me. Stoke the fire and get us food. Legolas and I will be there shortly."
The boy pulls himself to his knees. His eyes are reddened and his cheeks tear-streaked. He turns his eyes for the first time towards the elf where he lies against me, gasping.
"I am sorry Legolas," he says.
But Legolas makes an attempt at a smile—I know not how he manages it—and waves him off.
"I should apologise. I kicked you, I think."
"It does not matter," Eldarion murmurs, hanging his head, and I think the boy has had enough... I will get him out of here so he can begin to breathe again.
Aragorn gently supports my exhausted elf as I ease myself away from him, although I admit I am reluctant. But the boy needs support and his father must give all he has to Legolas. So I will take Eldarion under my wing until Aragorn can care for him. I will do that for my friend.
As we head across the glade, towards our camp, I look back to see Legolas finally drinking that medicine of Aragorn's. At least the rest of the job will not cause either of them as much pain.
Eldarion says little as we follow the instructions we were given and ready the camp. I give him jobs to do to occupy his mind. Legolas will need to sleep, so I set him to making a comfortable place for him to lie, and he does it diligently. He is not always so diligent, I have noticed this visit, and not always so obedient. He thinks himself older and wiser than he is and rails against his father with strong words and loud sighs.
It is a problem with boys.
Still, all is set, and I am cooking food when Aragorn returns, the elf unconscious in his arms, thigh covered by crisp, white bandages. He has obviously given him much of that sedative, and Eldarion stands silently by the fire watching every movement as his father lays Legolas on our makeshift bed.
Aragorn stands then and approaches his son, his boy, and he places a firm hand upon his shoulder.
"You did well, Eldarion. That was a hard task I set you." Personally, I still think it was an unnecessary one for a boy so young. It would have been more difficult, but Aragorn and I could have managed keeping Legolas still on our own somehow.
The boy's demeanour cracks and he sobs, breaking down into a torrent of tears, and Aragorn's arms are around him holding him tight as he cries his heart into his shoulder.
"It is alright," I hear Aragorn murmur. "Legolas will be proud of you."
"He will not!" the boy cries, and it is anguished.
"He will." Aragorn is soft but firm. The tone of his voice brokers no argument.
"He will, believe me. You did a man's job today."
"And I have a man's appetite," I say from beside the fire to break the tension and ease the boy's load. "And I have prepared a man's dinner. Do you want some?"
And Aragorn laughs.
It is the middle of the night when I wake, and I lie there for a time, wondering what it is that has woken me. The boy lies on one side of me and he is sound asleep. His slow gentle breathing tells me so, but then I hear a murmur of voices, low and indistinct across the glade.
I look over, across the soft warm glow of our fire, and see Aragorn with Legolas. He holds him in his arms and offers him water. It is they who are talking. Legolas settles back, as I watch, so he leans against his friend’s chest. He turns his eyes to the stars.I I I know they help him calm himself when he is troubled or in pain.
Eventually Aragorn speaks.
"What did he do?” he asks.
I wonder who he talks of. It takes a few seconds before I realise he means the boy.
"It doesn't matter Aragorn," Legolas sighs. "He is young yet. I do not hold it against him."
"It does matter. I heard you discipline him." Aragorn's voice is soft and deep and full of sadness. "Tell me, Legolas. I need to know."
And Legolas gives in. He must not be feeling well for it is with surprisingly little fight.
"He ran ahead when I told him not to. It was dangerous. He felt he knew better. But I caught him for you, Aragorn. No harm was done."
"Great harm was done," Aragorn says sternly. "Great harm to you."
"I will be well. It is of no consequence, Aragorn. Do not punish him on my behalf."
Legolas is always far too soft with the boy.
"I have already punished him.”
I am surprised to hear that for I have not seen it.
“When you made him hold me down." Legolas says it as a statement, not a question.
“That was too much, Aragorn. He is too young. It was too hard."
"He is a child no longer," Aragorn says sadly. "He must face the consequences of his actions. I was not going to shield him. He will be a man soon, Legolas, and I want him to be a good man. He will think twice before questioning those wiser than him again."
"Sometimes questioning is a good thing." Legolas argues. "We are not always right. We will need him to challenge us."
"And yet sometimes it is dangerous. He has learned that today, and he has seen what may happen to those he loves when he does what he wishes."
There is silence then as the both of them stare into the dark. The flames throw shadows which dance through the gold of elven hair as it falls across Aragorn’s tunic. Eventually it is Legolas who speaks.
"He will be a good man, Aragorn. You need not worry about that. For his father is one."
And Aragorn gives a soft chuckle, as he rests his chin upon Legolas' head.
"Thank you," he whispers. I can barely hear him. "Thank you for saving him for me, for taking this pain for his sake."
"He is your son," Legolas replies. "I would take much more than this to keep him safe. You do not have to thank me."
"Oh but I do," Aragorn murmurs in reply. "I do."
When I have heard nothing more from them for some time I rise and approach them. Aragorn lifts his head and smiles but Legolas is asleep.
"You should sleep," I tell him, for he is weary. Repairing the elf was not an easy job.
“I am awake; I will keep watch."
And I take the chance to brush my fingers across the elf's face, just to reassure myself he is well...or he will be, eventually.
Aragorn knows what I do.
"He will be himself tomorrow," he smiles. "And on his feet the day after. It was a nightmare to clean, and I have made a mess of his leg, but he will heal, thank goodness. A week’ s time and you will barely know I have been there."
"Sometimes I am grateful he is an elf, for he damages himself so badly and with such abandon. Were he a Man we would have lost him long ago," I say, and I mean it, but Aragorn just laughs.
"Were he a Man, he would not be Legolas," he says, and it is true.
I leave him then, and I am truly thankful when I look across a short time later and he is asleep, Legolas in his arms.
The light is still new and the sun barely reaching into the sky when Aragorn wakes and gently extracts himself from the elf. He nods at me as he strolls across the glade towards his son and I take the chance to stretch and walk off the night’s stiffness.
"I will go and wash," I tell him and he gives his agreement.
When I return—clean, fresh and ready for a new day—he is gone and the boy with him. Legolas has propped himself against a tree—or has Aragorn done that? Probably the latter now that I think about it—and he is happily filling his stomach with a chunk of bread.
"Gimli, you have returned to me!" he cries, pretending excitement to see me.
Aragorn is right; he is himself again.
"Where is Aragorn?" I frown. "Where is the boy?"
"They have gone for a walk." Legolas waves his hand airily towards the trees. "Do not worry. He did not leave me alone until he was sure you were returning."
So Aragorn has taken his son off to speak with him about what it takes to be a man.
I wonder, with a rush of curiosity, if Legolas will protect the boy’s secret?
"What do they want with walking so early?" I ask him.
"Oh Gimli," he leans forward conspiratorially."They grow sick of our company I think… Sometimes Men, well, they have this need to be Mannish. Far rather they do it on their own than involve us."
And I cannot help but laugh. So he will keep it to himself and so he should. The boy has suffered enough without my disapproval on top of it.
"Eldarion is a boy yet, not a man," I say to return Legolas' teasing, pointing out the flaw in his argument, and he is suddenly all seriousness when he replies.
"He is nearly a man, Gimli. He grows too fast. I go to Ithilien and when I return sometimes he is changed completely."
I know this frightens him, our rapid change, and the boy's is particularly apparent. It reminds him Aragorn has aged also. Sometimes I think he feels us slipping through his fingers.
I sit beside him. I think he needs me. I think he needs my steadiness before he flits off into anxiety and grief.
"You would not wish him to be a boy forever, Legolas. This is but another stage. You will have many years to enjoy him as a man. He will always love you."
"I know that."
He snakes his hand out and grasps mine, entwining our fingers together, rooting himself in the reality of now, not the dark chasm of the future.
"We have all been working together to grow him well, Legolas, and now that time is upon us. I think it is as hard for Aragorn as it is for you."
And he smiles then, his sweet, mercurial, heart-lifting smile.
"Oh it is far harder for him, Gimli! For the day is nearly upon us when Eldarion will best him. He will be impossible to live with then!"
His laughter fills the glade, bright and strong. I imagine even Aragorn and Eldarion will hear it wherever they are.
And I think of my words in the night, the ones I spoke to Aragorn.
I am glad Legolas is a wood-elf.
As frustrating as he can be, I would not have him any other way.