It was late when Aragorn heard it, a harsh, repetitive thump that pushed its way into his mind, rousing him from a sleep deeper than he had had for many a long night. Letting out a low groan, he buried his face in his pillow and did his best to ignore it.
It was only minutes later, however, when he stirred again. The noise had not ceased. Irritated, the young ranger thrust back his heavy bedcovers and rolled grudgingly to his feet. Grabbing his coat from where it was slung over a chair and shrugging his way into it, he staggered out of his room and stumbled, half-blind, through the dark corridors of the Last Homely House until he reached the tall door that led out onto the main courtyard, which was shuddering under the weight of the pounding it was receiving from the other side.
Wishing that his half-elven family were not away from Imladris on a visit to the Golden Wood, leaving him to receive late-night visitors, Aragorn wrapped his fingers round the cast-iron handles that adorned the elaborate wooden door and heaved, opening it to the night.
Gildir, one of the border guards, was standing outside, his normally pale complexion white under the shifting blend of moonlight and shadows. “My lord,” the elf gasped, forgoing his kinds’ usual reserve in his urgency. “He needs your help!”
“Who?” Aragorn demanded.
But Gildir was already away, a shadow vanishing behind the eastern wall of the courtyard. Muttering an oath, Aragorn shoved his feet into the boots he had discarded just inside the doorway only hours earlier and followed the elf, hopping the first few steps until he managed to jam his second boot on properly by kicking the door shut behind him.
The trees whispered to each other as Aragorn ran past in chase of the elf hurrying swiftly before him, and more than one curse spilt from his lips as he stumbled over the numerous straggling tree roots that laced the ground, his limbs still heavy with sleep.
Finally, the silent shadow that was the border guard slowed to a halt at the entrance of one of the several hidden huts that were scattered along the borders of Imladris, positioned to provide a safe, secure place for any elf that found himself in need of its shelter. Twisting slightly, the dark-haired elf beckoned to Aragorn before disappearing through the open doorway.
Slightly out of breath, Aragorn slowed to a walk and entered the hut warily, sensing the several hooded figures waiting inside before he saw them, darker blots in the shadowy surrounds. As his eyes grew used to the lack of light, he noted their slightness of build and the strange luminosity to their skin that marked them as elves, and also realised that all of them, Gildir included, were gathered around a body that was stretched out on the ground, taking up nearly the whole length of the rough wooden structure.
As a waft of wind blew through the low doorway, the sharp scent of blood reached Aragorn’s nostrils. Stiffening, he took a step closer to the prostrate figure, whom, he now realised, was wounded. Whilst he briefly wondered why Gildir had not sought out an elven healer, whose knowledge would have surpassed his own, his attention was quickly drawn as a soft rasp filled the air and a lantern flared to life, sending shadows streaking for the corners and casting an uneasy flare of flickering light over the gathered company.
Reaching for the medical packet that was held out to him without request, Aragorn crouched down next to the still figure. Noting the pointed ears without comment, he eyed the several ominous stains that had seeped through the wounded elf’s tunic, each of them gleaming forebodingly as they were caught in the low glow of the lantern.
His eyes growing ever more used to the shifting half-light, Aragorn allowed his fingers to probe soft as feathers down the elf’s body, feeling for any wounds that could be hidden beneath the mixture of seeping blood, journey dust and blood-soaked cloth. It was not long before he found the broken shaft of an arrow sheathed in the figure’s shoulder, just below the bone. Knowing that the wound needed swift attention, he nevertheless took a moment to run his hands over the elf’s head, searching for cuts and gashes that could prove just as dangerous to the elf’s wellbeing if left unattended.
In his search, Aragorn pushed back the hair that was plastered over the elf’s face, sticky and stiff with blood. The rust-coloured strands parted to reveal a sweep of blonde underneath and Aragorn’s gut twisted in a wrench of recognition.
“Legolas?” he murmured. He said the name uncertainly, hoping that he was wrong, even as his hands moved to the elf’s throat to check swiftly for a steady pulse before delving into the medical pack, bringing out bandages, cloths, thread and needles. Silently, he thanked his elven half-brothers, for it was they who had drilled the need into the guards of Imladris that the aid-kits were always to be kept fully stocked.
There was no response to his question, and he said the name again, louder, certain of the elf’s identity, though his heart sunk with the surety. Finally, there was a stirring beneath his hands and a murmur of a groan let him know that his friend was conscious, if barely so.
“It is well, mellon nin,” he said softly, slipping easily into the Grey tongue of Legolas’ brethren. “I am here now.”
The pained movements stilled, and Aragorn used the chance to run his hands over his friend’s torso and limbs once more, wanting to be sure that he had located every wound. Finally assured, he glanced up at the elves around him. “I need more light,” he demanded, his voice short. “And some water.”
These were provided to him with little delay, and if Aragorn was unsure how much his friend was loved and respected by his people, and by those of the other elven realms, the promptness of the swift response answered his question as much as the barely concealed fear that was etched on the pale faces surrounding him. He did not let such thoughts distract him, however, but turned his attention back to the limp body beneath his hands.
“What happened to him?” he asked sharply, as he used his knife to part the blood-soaked cloth of the prince’s tunic. The blade cut through the expertly woven material like it was butter and Aragorn carefully dampened it before pulling on it gently, revealing the ugly wound underneath, where the wooden shaft of the arrow still protruded, repugnant, from the swollen, inflamed flesh.
“It happened in Lindbourne,” one of the hooded elves replied, his tone a tight mixture of anger and anxiety. Recognising the voice of Cendoril, a captain of Mirkwood who had accompanied Legolas to Imladris on both of his previous visits, Aragorn nodded, his careful fingers probing the wound.
“We were passing through on the way to the eastern mountains,” Cendoril continued. “The village has been victim to several murders in the past months and its people are suspicious of anyone unfamiliar. The prince was invited to attend a meeting of the village leaders. He accepted their invitation, and barely made it back to us alive.” The elf’s usually melodic voice sank into bitterness. “From what we gathered before their treachery was revealed, the murderer is believed to be light of foot and to have pale hair.”
“And so they targeted Legolas,” Aragorn finished harshly, casting another glance at the dark-haired elves surrounding him. At a pained grunt from beneath him, he forced himself to calm.
“Take care, my lord,” one of the elves cautioned. “His back…”
Aragorn glanced up, his gaze sharp with disbelief. “Tell me they did not.”
When the elf’s eyes merely darkened, Aragorn reached for the underside of Legolas’ shoulder, pressing upwards as carefully as he could manage, just enough to let him glimpse the elf’s back and the cloak he lay on. Sure enough, the material was streaked with the russet tones of drying blood. Muttering a vapid oath, Aragorn levered his friend down to the floor, letting loose another curse as the elf let out a groan at the movement.
“It is no good,” he muttered to himself, before raising his head to the elves surrounding him. “I cannot do this here. We must take him to the House of Elrond.”
“But it is so far-” Gildir began. “That is why I was sent ahead to fetch you-”
“You would have done better to fetch an elven healer,” Aragorn snapped. “Not I.”
“Our prince speaks highly of your skills as a healer,” an elf at Aragorn’s back retorted.
Aragorn snorted. “Your prince is blinded by his own misguided hope for the future.”
The next second, Aragorn felt the cool prick of a blade at his throat. He stilled.
“You would do well to show our prince the respect he deserves,” said Cendoril, his voice menacing.
Turning slowly, Aragorn met the hooded gaze of the Firstborn whose sword was at his throat. “And you would do well not to waste precious seconds defending the pride of one who lies bleeding out at your feet.” Raising his hand, Aragorn pushed the blade away. “I do not have time for this,” he muttered. “Legolas needs help beyond what I can give.” Rising to his feet, he looked at the elves around him. “We must go.”
The shards of the Sword-that-was-broken lay on their velvet and stone dais in the Chamber of Narsil, glimmering under the muted light which lit the small yet majestic room. His hand clenched loosely over his heart, Aragorn bowed low before the dais and its contents, then stepped back, his mind on other, more immediate, matters than the now-broken weapon that his ancestors had wielded against Sauron so many years ago.
So deeply focused was he on his own thoughts, that Aragorn did not immediately hear the almost soundless press of elven feet over the cool stone floor of the Chamber. It was only when the still silence of the room was broken by the soft murmur of his name that he looked up to see the lithe figure of the prince of Mirkwood silhouetted in the narrow passageway which led from the chamber doorway.
“Legolas!” he exclaimed. With a few swift strides, he closed the distance that separated them and reached forward, clasping the elf’s forearm in greeting. “It is good to see you up and about, mellon nin,” he said warmly.
“It is good to be up,” the blonde-haired elf replied with a smile. “I have been abed too long.”
Releasing his friend, Aragorn stepped back. “Your injuries were grave, Legolas. You needed the rest.”
Legolas lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, wincing slightly as the movement pulled on still-healing wounds.
Aragorn frowned. “Perhaps it would be better for you to return to your room.”
The elf prince shook his head dismissively. “Nay, Estel, I am well.” When Aragorn narrowed his eyes further, Legolas let out a soft laugh. “Almost,” he conceded.
Aragorn felt his face crease into an unwilling smile. The prince, however, had sobered. He looked up at Aragorn, his blue eyes fixing on the ranger’s grey ones. “I wish to thank you, Estel,” he said solemnly.
Aragorn raised an eyebrow. “For what?”
“For your help that night. I am in your debt. If either I, or my companions, can do anything to repay you-”
Aragorn shook his head. “There is no need for you to thank me,” he said dismissively. Then, reconsidering his statement, he shot a sidelong look at the elf, a glint of humour in his silver-grey eyes. “I ask only that you avoid a repeat of this incident the next time you enter a village of Men.”
The elf looked at him, a frown on his face. “The Men who inhabit Lindbourne are good people, Aragorn. It was a mistake, nothing more.”
“A mistake?” Aragorn repeated disbelievingly. “Legolas, the whip marks on your back do not speak of a mistake! Had I not been at Rivendell during Lord Elrond’s absence, had I not managed to get you to an elven healer in time-”
“Then I would not have healed half as well as I have,” said Legolas firmly.
“Then you would likely be dead!” Aragorn retorted. “By the Valar, Legolas, whether you wish to admit it or not, the people of that village nearly killed you! And what is more, they did so as punishment for a crime you did not even commit!”
For a brief moment, the elf prince stared at him, his gaze unreadable. Finally, he spoke, his usually melodic voice abrupt for once. “For the kindness you did me in treating my wounds, mellon, I will let this matter lie. I ask only that you do not tell my king.”
Aragorn stared at the elf prince. “You are not serious?”
“You need not lie. Just do not tell him the entire truth.”
Aragorn shook his head in disbelief. “By the Valar, Legolas, why would you keep this concealed from your father? He would want to know!”
Legolas’ gaze hardened. “Relations between your people and mine are already strained during these dark times. I do not wish to make things worse.”
Half turning away, Aragorn ran his fingers through his hair, struggling to understand what the elf was saying to him. “Legolas,” he said, turning back so that he faced the elf, “those men committed a crime, a grievous one. Why should they be allowed to escape the punishment that is due them?”
The elf’s voice was sharp as he responded. “I have already told you, it was a mistake, a mere error in judgement.”
“That is no excuse for what they did.”
“It is excuse enough!” the elf snapped. “Aragorn, I will not see my people go to battle against a village of innocent Men.”
“Innocent!” Aragorn exclaimed. “Mellon nin, the day you find a Man who is truly innocent is the day the elves take to the skies. It will never happen. Men are weak, too easily subject to the flaws that have plagued their race since its very creation.”
Legolas’ face had grown hard, the sharp planes of his cheekbones jutting stubbornly forward as he argued his point. “It was an honest mistake, Aragorn! Do you really think those Men would have done what they did had they known who I was?”
“Had they not been a village of spineless fools in the first place, they would have made sure you were the one they sought before they did anything!”
“They made a mistake, aye, but they do not deserve to be destroyed in some foolish act of revenge, particularly when they have no hope of standing against an army of elven warriors set upon them by Mirkwood’s king!”
Aragorn rubbed a hand over his face in despair. “By the Valar, Legolas,” he said desperately. “They almost killed you.”
“But they did not.”
“Not for the lack of trying.”
Aragorn looked at his friend of almost five years, taking in the stubborn face that was far paler than usual. It was clear that the elf was nowhere near his full strength yet, and was tiring quickly the longer he was out of bed. And there was no doubt that their argument was not doing him any favours. Taking a bone-deep breath and releasing it, Aragorn finally relented. “Very well,” he said. “For the sake of our friendship, and for that reason only, I will not tell your king of this. I swear it.”
Legolas bowed stiffly. “My thanks, mellon,” he murmured, then turned and began to make his way towards the passageway that led from the Chamber of Narsil, his usually graceful movements slow and awkward.
Aragorn nodded in return as he watched the elf prince leave. “But do not think that I will let this matter lie,” he muttered, his words too soft for even the sharp ears of the elves.
Almost two weeks later, Aragorn stood looking out over the valley which held the Last Homely House, watching as the setting sun sent long shadows stretching over the narrow, arched bridge that led towards the outside world. For the second time in as many weeks, he was lost in thought, his mind weighted down with the events of the day and his heart even heavier.
Startled, Aragorn let out an oath that caused the half-elf standing behind him to blanch.
“Where in Valar’s name did you learn that word?” Elrohir, son of Elrond, asked, his voice mildly curious.
Regaining his composure, Aragorn shrugged half-heartedly. “I learnt it last summer, from the rangers,” he replied shortly, hoping that his adopted brother would realise that he wished to be left alone.
His hope was short-lived. “Do not let Father hear you using that word,” the elf commented conversationally, as he stepped forward to stand next to the man who had been raised in his family’s house. “He would not be pleased that the hope of Men was aware of such language.”
About to make a sharp retort, Aragorn forced himself to bite his tongue, knowing that the dark-haired elf did not deserve his anger. Instead, he changed the subject. “I did not have the chance to ask you when you first arrived home: why is it that you are back so early? I thought you were not due to return from Lothlorien for three days yet.”
The youngest son of Elrond shrugged his shoulders, which were slightly broader than was usual for one of the First Born. “Father decided that only one of us was needed. I elected to return home.”
Nodding, Aragorn returned his gaze to the sun-draped hills. “I must say, it is good to see you again, brother. I have missed you these past weeks.”
“As have I.”
Silence descended between the two of them as they watched the sun sinking towards the tops of the distant mountains. Finally, Elrohir spoke again, his tone casual. “I could not find you today.”
“Glorfindel tells me that you took your horse from the stable early this morning. He said that you were spotted riding towards the village where Legolas was wounded.”
“He was not ‘wounded,’” Aragorn said shortly. “He was tortured.”
Elrohir fixed the man with a sharp gaze, his grey eyes, so like those of his father, piercing. “What did you do?”
Aragorn kept his eyes fixed on the arcs of the stone bridge. “Nothing that did not need doing.”
“Aragorn. Tell me where you went this morning.”
“What is it about the elves, that they are never satisfied with the answers they are given, yet they so rarely give any answers in return?”
Elrohir’s mouth settled into a grim line. “Do not think to distract me, little brother. I want to know what you have done.”
Aragorn closed his eyes, steeling himself, knowing that Elrohir would not rest until he had the answers he desired. “The one who murdered those people,” he said finally, his voice toneless. “He will not trouble anyone again.”
“You killed him.”
“I did what was necessary.”
“I see. And the villagers?”
Aragorn shrugged. “They will think twice before stumbling to a wrongful assumption again so quickly.”
Elrohir’s gaze narrowed and he grabbed the man’s shoulder, swinging Aragorn around to face him. “What did you do to them?”
Aragorn shrugged his way roughly out of the elf’s grip. “Do not concern yourself, gwador. I did nothing that can be traced to the elves. You are safe here in your valley. As are the elves of Mirkwood in their forest.”
“Does Legolas know what you have done for him?”
Aragorn shook his head. “It was not for him. The man was a murderer. And the villagers deserved no less.”
Elrohir looked at the young ranger standing before him, his gaze heavy with regret. “This was not a task you should have had to take on, gwador.”
“There was no one else capable. It took all my skills as a tracker to find the man responsible for those deaths.”
“That is not what I meant.”
Aragorn met his brother’s gaze evenly. “I do not ask to be excused for my actions. I will accept whatever punishment is dealt.”
The elf looked at him silently, his expression unreadable. “You are growing up, Aragorn,” he said finally. “That is punishment enough.”
Aragorn did not respond, instead focusing his gaze on the sun as edged down behind the mountains. He blinked swiftly, tearing up as the last remnants of light struck his eyes, but he waited until Elrohir had left him before brushing the tears away.