Absence by Evergrenne|
Disclaimer: I do not own Lord of the Rings, but if it ever appears on Ebay…
Summary: Just a meeting of two friends after a long separation.
Proverb: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
In the centre of a small glade hidden among the southern foothills of Rohan, a man sat in front of the smoking remains of a campfire, surrounded by trees which whispered to each other in complaint as the afternoon sun beat against their drying green leaves. Dark tendrils of straggling hair fell in front of silver-grey eyes as the figure stared at the blackened coals before him, one hand fiddling absently with a jewelled ring worn on the other. The ring itself was a curious object, comprising of two golden serpents with eyes like emeralds, snaking around a green stone, their heads meeting underneath a crown of flowers. The metal band glinted dully on the man’s finger as it caught the warm light which radiated from the aching sun, yet, despite the beating heat, the man did not stir from where he sat. Instead, the only sign which distinguished him from the log on which he rested was the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed.
It was only when a casual waft of air dusted through the clearing that the man moved, casting a quick glance at the thickly wooded forest which rustled nervously around him. However, when nothing caught his eye, he turned his attention back to the dying fire, seemingly fascinated by the dull grey ash which danced briefly, caught in the swirling breeze, then fell once more to the dusty ground, coating the sunburnt earth with flecks of pale grey.
Once more the leaves rustled, sounding as if something had brushed against them ever so softly. The dark figure raised his head.
"I know you are there."
The words cut through the still emptiness which surrounded the small glade, yet this time not even the talk of the trees replied. Wearily, the man pulled himself to his feet, letting loose a rough groan as his tired muscles stretched unwillingly, and he closed his eyes momentarily, searching for a meagre respite from the glare of the harsh sunlight. When he opened them once more, an elf stood directly before him, clothed in woodland shades of green and russet brown.
The newcomer was lithe, as were all elves, his light, trim form ideal for moving through the dark eaves of Mirkwood unencumbered and undetected. A rustling gust of wind sent strands of blonde hair brushing over the high edge of a quiver of arrows which was strapped to the elf’s back, and the point of a carven bow could just be seen protruding over one green-cloaked shoulder, intermingled with the tops of two long knives, again sheathed at the elf’s back.
"Greetings, Dunedan." The elf’s melodious voice was soft, blending into the subdued sounds of the forest. Ice-blue eyes stared straight into those of the ranger, who returned the gaze steadily. "It has been long since our last meeting."
Unlike most other Men, the dark-haired ranger did not flinch from the elf’s steely gaze, nor did he seem in the least intimidated by the fair being in front of him. Quite to the contrary in fact, a crease of annoyance lined his grim features as he eyed the lissom creature. "It would not have been as long had you been on time," he replied levelly.
The elf’s calm visage did not change as he bowed his head, acknowledging the ranger’s displeasure. "My apologies," came the malleable words. "It shall not happen again. I shall leave you to your thoughts." The elf turned and strode the few feet to a heavily branched oak tree, then, from a complete standstill, he leapt high into its boughs and disappeared.
Left on the ground below, the ranger let out a soft growl as he closed the few steps which stretched between his camp and the tree into which the newcomer had disappeared. "Legolas!" he called, yet his efforts were to no avail. "Legolas!" he tried again, louder. "If you do not come down right now, I shall come up after you!"
A fair face framed by a pair of curiously dark eyebrows appeared between two leafy boughs. "That is something which I would truly like to see," came the amused reply, before the elf disappeared once more, lost to the green darkness.
Growling to himself low in his throat, the ranger bent down, his fingers scouring the grass. With one swift movement, he straightened and flung a small stone up into the high branches of the tree above. The unyielding missile impacted with a soft thud which was echoed mere seconds later by the sound of two softly booted feet hitting the dusty ground.
"That," the prince of Mirkwood commented, as he eyed the human standing before him, "was completely uncalled for."
"Not in my mind," was the dry response, as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, moved back towards his makeshift camp with soft, sure strides which ate up the ground beneath them, leaving faint images of his booted feet trailing in his wake.
The elf smiled to himself, lips quirking, and followed the man, eager to hear how he had been the past few years. Strangely, not even the slightest imprint was left behind amongst the dusty grasses as he stepped lightly after his human friend.
"Would your highness care to explain why he is so late?" Aragorn questioned, picking up a long stick from the fairly sizeable pile which lay next to the smouldering fire, and stirring up the dark embers in front of him, sending streams of grey ash whirling into the sky.
"I am not late," replied the elf. He shrugged out of the quiver strapped to his back and set it carefully on a sparse patch of grass before folding himself to the ground opposite the ranger, who had lowered himself down next to his bundled pack. "It is the last day of summer, is it not?"
"It is." Aragorn nodded slowly, using the stick still gripped in his right hand to draw a series of tangled circles in the dry soil. His silver-grey eyes came to rest on the elf’s fair face, a hint of irritation clouding them. "Yet I seem to remember that we had arranged to meet two days ago."
"Nay," Legolas replied, shaking his head and causing fine stray strands of loose blonde hair to blow into his eyes. "I am certain that Elladan told me it was today we were to meet. I still have the message he sent me." Reaching over to his weapons, the elf drew out a sheet of parchment from a hidden pocket concealed underneath the straps used to fasten his quiver to his shoulders, and passed it over to Aragorn, who took it silently.
The man’s gaze travelled swiftly over the brief letter, his sharp eyes easily deciphering the graceful elvish script. Near the end of the short letter, he paused, a deep furrow appearing on his forehead, half-hidden behind strands of dark hair. With a glance at the prince, he reached into his own pack and, drawing out a second piece of parchment, held it out to the elf.
"What is this?"
"It is the message which I received from Elladan," the ranger responded evenly.
A second set of eyes, blue this time, skimmed over the delicate script, pausing once again near the end of the message. Aragorn watched as the elf’s calm visage was suddenly transformed as an amused smile crept onto his fair face.
"Perhaps he thought that you needed a few days rest."
Aragorn snorted, his stick digging violently into the innocent earth. "Perhaps my kind-hearted brother wished to make me wait alone in the middle of nowhere for two days for no other reason than his own amusement," he countered.
Legolas tilted his head to the side, considering the man’s suggestion. "That does sound more probable," he admitted. "Still, I am sure that he meant no harm."
"As I said, I was out here for two days," the ranger returned, his tone gaining heat even as he spoke. "And in case you have not noticed, there is hardly a great deal to do in this clearing apart from gathering a great deal of firewood!"
The elf eyed the impressive bundle of sticks and branches which lay next to the ring of smouldering coals. "Perhaps some weary traveller in need of a warming fire will stumble upon this wood," he suggested.
Aragorn grunted sourly. "Or perhaps I shall take the largest pieces back to Imladris when I next return."
"For the Hall of Fire?"
"Nay, to throw at that fool of a Noldo."
The prince’s face curved into a smile, yet the mirthful expression soon faded as he looked at the ranger carefully, taking in the faint lines which scoured the man’s face and noting the absence of the spark which habitually lit the silver-grey eyes.
Aragorn returned the gaze in kind, his eyes questioning. "What is troubling you, mellon nin?" he enquired.
After one final glance however, the elf gave a brief shake of his head, as though discarding whatever he had been about to say. "It is nothing," he answered dismissively. "But tell me, Aragorn. What is it that you have been doing since we were last in each other’s company?"
Well aware of the not-so-subtle change in subject, yet deciding not to press the matter any further, the ranger shrugged, looking away from the elven prince to fix his eyes on the deceptively clear sky to the south. "These past few years have been wearying," he admitted. "I have been in Gondor of late, serving under the Steward." When the elf remained silent, urging the man to go on, Aragorn continued, his eyes darkening. "Ecthelion is a good man, and a good ruler, but I fear for what will happen to the White City in the coming years. Even whilst I was stationed within its walls, more and more patrols were dispersed to battle orcs, and other creatures as well, who had entered the borders of Gondor. Osgiliath itself is turning into a battlefield, and I do not see any hope that things will improve."
Legolas nodded, his mouth tightening into a thin line. "My news is not much better," he assented. A hint of sorrow mixed with anger clouded the elf’s clear blue eyes before he went on. "Mirkwood is living up to its name. Every year more of our warriors fall against the darkness that creeps under the trees, and every year more of my kin leave for the Undying Lands."
The stick in Aragorn’s hand stopped in its tracks, frozen in time. "Are you never tempted yourself?" he asked nonchalantly, forcing indifference into his tone. When the elf paused before answering, the ranger’s heart tightened within his chest. Yet, to his unspeakable relief, Legolas shook his head in denial.
"Nay," he murmured softly. "Not yet."
Aragorn noticed however, that his friend’s blue eyes strayed towards the west. For the briefest of seconds, the elf seemed to own all the legends and lore which revolved around he and his kin, becoming distant, ethereal, his skin glowing with a dim shine even in the bright sunlight. Aragorn was reminded, though not for the first time, that the elven prince came from a race far departed from that of Man; a wiser race, calmer, cursed in that their emotions could reach the highest of highs, yet also plunge to depths too low to imagine. In the next instant however, the blue eyes had focused once more on the ranger opposite, becoming clear once more, and Legolas Thranduilion became once again whom he had always been to Aragorn: warrior, prince, and, most crucially, friend.
"For myself at least, Middle-earth still holds too deep a pull," the elf continued, seemingly unaware of all that had passed through the man’s mind. "Though I do not know why, I think that it shall be many years before I leave these shores to seek what lies beyond." A small half-smile graced the elf’s lips as he surveyed the man before him, whose shoulders had lost much of their tension at his words. "Do not be troubled, Aragorn. I shall be around to torment you for many years yet."
Silence fell and reigned between the two friends as each of them thought back on the years they had been apart and those which stretched before them, their mysteries hidden by time. Then, without warning, the elf’s expression grew frosty and he gazed at the man before him with a cool glint in his eyes. "You said that you have spent two days waiting for me?" he said sharply.
When the man nodded his confirmation, still lost in his own thoughts, the elf’s glare darkened until, finally, Aragorn glanced up to meet the deathly silent gaze. "What?" he protested, raising his hands, and his stick, in proclaimed innocence.
"It did not cross your mind that I may have been in trouble and requiring your assistance during those two days when I was not where I was supposed to be?" Legolas questioned icily.
"To be fair, you were where you thought you were meant to be." When the elf just kept glaring at him, Aragorn shrugged. "You are here now, are you not?"
"Aye, but that is not the point."
"Then I see no problem," the man continued, his earlier, darker, thoughts forgotten, or, at the very least, pushed to the back of his mind. "I am here, well rested thanks to my dear brother, and you are here, more or less unharmed."
The elf’s eyes narrowed, and he scowled at the figure opposite him. "Your eyes are too sharp for your own good, ranger," he muttered menacingly.
Ignoring the elf’s words, Aragorn straightened where he sat and pointed to a small gash in the side of his friend’s greenish-brown tunic. "Your clothing seems not to have fared too well on the journey here," he commented offhandedly.
A flush lighted the elf’s pale cheeks. "It was a stray arrow, nothing more."
"And how was it that said ‘stray’ arrow, as you call it, came to embed itself in your tunic?"
"It did not ‘embed’ itself. It is a tear, nothing more."
"And is that due to the lacking skill of the shooter, or to the ability of a certain wood elf to dodge?"
Legolas’ scowl deepened. "I do not see that it is any of your concern."
"Indeed." When the elf did not deign to reply, Aragorn leaned closer over the vacant fire. "You may as well tell me, my friend, for I shall find out anyway."
"How is that?"
"I am a ranger," Aragorn replied simply.
"Indeed," Legolas threw back. "Forgive me, Estel, if I am not quaking in my boots."
Shifting until his long legs were stretched out before him, the ranger snapped off the top of the stick he still held. He looked at the elf steadily as he twisted the small piece of wood between two rough fingers. "Firstly," he began, "you are not wounded, nor do you show any signs of Morgul poisoning, thus I would imagine that for once in your life you encountered no orcs in your travels."
Swiftly crumpling the parchment which had borne Elladan’s missive to the ranger between his long fingers, Legolas launched it at Aragorn, who ducked smoothly. "Why must you, and everyone else for that matter, assume that I will always run into orcs?" he demanded, his usually melodic tone laced with irritation.
Aragorn bared his teeth in an imitation of a grin. "It is something which I have come to rely upon in the many years that I have known you, mellon nin," he said, as sweetly as was possible for a man who spent years at a time alone in the wilds of Middle-earth.
The prince let out a most un-elf like snort, yet the man ignored him and continued.
"You carry a scent-"
"I do not smell, ranger!"
"-of horses. So I think it fair to reason that you were in the company, or at least the vicinity, of some humans, as a horse can not wield a bow and arrow and therefore cannot have shot at you."
Legolas sent the man a stare which bordered on the incredulous, yet the man just sent him a cursory glance and continued his scrutiny.
"It is obvious that the men were not from Rohan, as the Rohirrim would have speared you rather than using a bow and arrow, and, as you admitted yourself, it was an arrow which pierced your tunic."
"My point is that it must have been some travellers, traders perhaps, near the northern borders of Rohan."
"I came from the east," corrected the elf, a hint of triumph lacing his voice.
"Only because you changed direction numerous times, probably hoping to throw whomever followed you off what tracks the light feet of the elves leave. Thus, the only question which remains is what it was that you did to anger these men enough that they would try to wound you."
At that very moment, the sharp whinny of a lone horse filled the air from somewhere to the east.
Aragorn paused, taking in the sound. His eyes began to travel up and down the narrow figure sitting opposite him, noting the several coarse hairs which littered a lightly-embroidered sleeve, and those which sprinkled the simple collar of the elf’s green tunic. Finally, he raised his head to glance at his friend, who met his gaze effortlessly. "You stole a horse?" he questioned disbelievingly.
The elf’s cheeks darkened. "To be fair-"
"You are a prince, Legolas!"
"So I have been told," replied the elf icily. "I did not steal a horse." When the ranger merely fixed him with a disbelieving stare, the elf blushed even darker. "It came of its own wishes," he amended.
Aragorn let out a bark of laughter. "I have tried the ‘it followed me home’ line, mellon nin, and I feel it my duty to warn you that such a tactic rarely works."
"He did not want to stay with them," Legolas reasoned, his tone becoming slightly cajoling in nature. "I was helping him."
"Him?" Aragorn echoed.
Aragorn blinked. "You called your horse ‘Strider?"
"Aye, he reminded me of you, but that is not the point-"
Yet Aragorn was still concerned with the elf’s most recent revelation. "I do not know whether to be pleased or insulted," he muttered. "Though I am leaning towards the latter."
When the hint of a smile played around the corner’s of the elf’s mouth, Aragorn became suddenly aware that he had been skilfully deterred from his original course of action, that was, determining whom, precisely, had shot at the elven prince. He fixed the elf with what he hoped was a stern gaze. "So who was it who killed your tunic?" he demanded. "Traders? Travellers?"
"I would have you know that my tunic is very much alive, for it suffered only a mere scratch," replied Legolas. "And it is suffice to say that horse thieves are not the easiest sleepers." Reaching out to tug the stick from the man’s hands, he began to draw his own careful lines in the dirt. "Though it is likely that their walk to the nearest town may tire them out and thus bestow upon them a good night’s rest." Feeling the man’s eyes on him, he looked up from his patterns to see the human regarding him intently. "Estel?"
After a brief, yet pregnant, pause, Aragorn smiled; a true smile which reached to his very core and lit his eyes with a silver gleam which had been all too lacking for many a long year. "It does my heart good to see you again," he said simply. "I have missed you, Legolas."
"You are not alone in that, mellon nin," Legolas replied, his eyes searching out, and meeting, the ranger’s own. "Often during these past years have I wished that you were near." A suddenly mischievous look appeared on the elf’s face. "For when you are around there is less of a chance that I myself will be wounded."
The ranger stared at him, his eyes narrowing. "What is that supposed to mean?" he demanded.
"If you are with me, there are more targets for the enemy to shoot at. And you are far slower than myself."
Aragorn tried valiantly to glare at the elf for his remark, yet the rising laughter in his eyes betrayed him, especially when Legolas gifted him with a smile of his own. Giving up on his incorrigible friend, the ranger stood and held out a hand to the elf on the ground. "Come, we are late enough already."
Reaching up, Legolas grasped the man about the wrist and used his friend’s firm weight to lever himself to his feet. "Have you something planned for our time together?" he enquired.
Aragorn nodded, pulling his light pack onto his shoulders and tugging at the leather straps until it rested secure against his body. "Halbarad and some others are camped just over the next hills."
The elf’s face lit up with a sudden smile as he looped his quiver over his head, tightening the buckles until they lay firm against him. "That old ranger?" he exclaimed. "I have not laid eyes on him in years!"
"Do not let him hear you call him ‘old,’" Aragorn cautioned. "Since Duran was foolish enough to point out what Halbarad claims to be his first grey hair, he has been rather sensitive in regards to his age."
"Is that so?"
Aragorn narrowed his eyes as the faintest hint of a well-contained smirk appeared on the elf’s fair face. "Legolas, promise me that you will not torment him."
"Do you truly think that I would be so cruel?"
"Aye, mellon nin, I do, and with good reason."
"What if it comes up in conversation?"
Aragorn let out a bark of laughter at his friend’s words as the two moved together into the dense trees which surrounded the small glade. For a few brief seconds, the rough voice of the ranger could be heard intermingled with the more melodious tones of the wood elf as they strode towards the northeastern plains of Rohan.
"I cannot believe that you actually stole a horse."
"I did not take one, I took several. And they will have a far better life in Rohan than they would have had had I left them with those men."
"What will your father say when he hears of this?"
"I do not intend for him to find out."
"But what if he does?"
"He will not."
"But what if I tell him?"
"Then I shall kill you."
"Ah." There was a short pause before the ranger’s voice sounded once more. "I think that what I missed most during our years apart were the death threats."
"You are a strange man, Aragorn, son of Arathorn."
"At least I have not sunk to stealing horses."
A musical laugh echoed through the now empty clearing. "Give yourself time, Estel, it will happen. I am sure of it."
And with that, the heir to the throne of Gondor and the elven prince of Mirkwood disappeared amongst the trees, reunited at last after a long separation, yet leaving no trace, except for a large pile of sticks, that they had ever spoken in a small glade somewhere under the open sky of Rohan.