‘My lord, a stranger approaches.’
Elrohir grimaced. His time would be far better spent hunting down the orcs swarming in the mountains. However, with his father absent on unnamed business with the White Council, it had been left to him and Elladan to see to the day-to-day running of Imladris. And his duties included welcoming any traveller who arrived at the refuge.
‘Where is he now?’ he asked the guard who was awaiting his response.
‘He has just crossed the Bruinen. He’s travelling slowly; his horse appears to be lame.’
At least this offered him a chance to leave the confines of the house. ‘Fetch my horse and assemble an escort. We’ll ride out to meet him.’
As he was turning away, the guard halted him. ‘One more thing, my lord. He wears the garb of Mirkwood.’
Mirkwood? Elrohir went to change into his riding gear with an extra spring in his step. No one from Mirkwood had crossed the borders of Imladris in this Age. Suddenly losing to Elladan over the chance to lead a three-day patrol didn’t seem so bad.
All the way down the path to the ford, Elrohir strained his eyes ahead, scouring the icy landscape for the visitor. Rumours of a great battle at the foot of Erebor the previous month had already reached them. A battle involving Thranduil’s army. Did this stranger bring tidings, and if so, were they good or ill?
But even more than tidings of war, Elrohir was consumed with curiosity to meet one of Thranduil’s folk for the first time. On more than one occasion, he had heard his father and his tutors dismiss Wood-elves with a scathing: ‘more dangerous, less wise.’ However, ever since Elrohir had learnt of Oropher’s desperate charge in the last alliance, his interest had been stirred by these mysterious Elves.
Less wise? He had no way of knowing, but he wondered if the Wood-elves’ wisdom lay in matters beyond the book-lore which was so venerated in Imladris. And as for the more dangerous…the mere thought set his pulse racing. To think he was about to meet one of these fabled folk after all this time; maybe even one who had taken part in that glorious, all-or-nothing charge.
However, all thought of battle and glory fled when he spied his quarry.
The first thing he saw was a magnificent grey stallion standing beside the path, grazing on a patch of grass that was lit by the sun and therefore free of frost. It took a moment for Elrohir to find his rider, standing motionless beneath a beech tree, so still that Elrohir could almost have believed him part of the trunk if it hadn’t been for the puffs of vapour rising from his lips into the chill air. He was pressed against the bark, as though listening, his golden hair cascading over one shoulder and clinging to the trunk like gleaming cobwebs.
He was tall and slender but Elrohir could sense a great strength lurking beneath the surface.
And great sorrow.
He signalled his men to stay back, then dismounted and approached the stranger.
‘Well met,’ he said when the stranger gave no sign of registering his presence. ‘If you seek shelter then you are most welcome here. I am—’
‘I know who you are, Elrohir Elrondion.’ The Wood-elf straightened and turned. Elrohir had to suppress a gasp when he saw the grief etched into his face and the faded light in his blue-green eyes. It lent a harshness to a face that should be breath-taking in its beauty. Even his voice lacked the musicality of the Elves, sounded almost mortal.
His abrupt words would have caused Elrohir to lash out in most circumstances, but he got the impression that this man was simply too exhausted, too grief-stricken to bother with courtesies.
‘Then you have me at a disadvantage. How may I address you?’
‘I am Legolas.’
Elrohir frowned. No mention of parentage or home. Yet no matter their simplicity, the fine cut and exquisite stitching of his clothes revealed him to be of noble birth, or even….
Legolas. Now the name struck a chord.
‘Prince Legolas? Thranduil’s son?’
A spark flared in Legolas’s eyes but was gone before Elrohir could interpret it. ‘Just Legolas.’ Then, in a voice so low Elrohir wondered if it was meant for his ears, Legolas said, ‘I no longer have the right to any other title.’
There was a story here and Elrohir was determined to learn it. He signed his men to withdraw, leaving the spare horse they had brought with them. Maybe Legolas would be more forthcoming if they rode to the house alone.
As soon as his men were gone, Elrohir pulled out a flask of miruvor from his saddle bag. ‘You must be weary after your long journey,’ he said. ‘Rest here awhile and take some refreshment. Then we can make our way to the house at our leisure, if that’s your intended destination.’ He hoped it was. Even if he had already met a thousand Wood-elves, he would have wanted to learn more about this sorrowful stranger who was clearly royalty, yet refused to acknowledge it.
Legolas hesitated, then nodded. ‘I hadn’t intended to come here, but my horse went lame on the High Pass. Now I fear I must beg your hospitality for some days until he is well enough to be ridden.’ He uncorked the flask and took a sip. His shoulders sagged as some of the tension drained from them.
Elrohir frowned. ‘Then what was your destination? I had thought you brought tidings of the battle.’
Another spasm of pain creased Legolas’s brow, quickly disguised. ‘I do indeed come fresh from battle. I will gladly trade my news for my board and lodging.’
‘My father’s house is a refuge for any that seek it. We don’t demand anything in return for our hospitality. If you wish nothing but solitude, be assured no one will seek to disturb you.’
Legolas took another draught and a little colour returned to his cheeks. ‘I have had my fill of solitude these past days. I would be glad of company until I must leave you.’ He handed back Elrohir’s flask. ‘Come, let us ride on.’
The miruvor must have loosened Legolas’s tongue, for once they were on the road, Legolas began to speak without further prompting, although Elrohir doubted he was aware he was talking out loud.
‘So much death and destruction, and I fear that was just the start. Mithrandir tells us Dol Guldur is overthrown, but I can’t believe the Necromancer would have given up so easily unless he already had another stronghold prepared.’
‘Mithrandir?’ Elrohir couldn’t hold back his cry. ‘My father was summoned to his aid. He is safe, then? And my father?’
Legolas started. His gaze snapped to Elrohir’s face and he blinked as though roused from a dream. ‘Forgive me; I wasn’t thinking. Your father is safe, although I haven’t seen him. Mithrandir bade me bring you news of him if I should pass this way. He is escorting the Lady Galadriel to Lorien before he returns here.’
The tension that had clenched Elrohir’s spine from the moment he had bid Elrond farewell drained away. ‘That is a great relief. And you say the Necromancer has departed? How is that possible?’
‘I don’t know. If the news had been brought by anyone save Mithrandir, I wouldn’t have believed it. The battle was at its height when I saw him; there was no time to question him. And after…’
Legolas fell silent, gazing down at a mithril band upon his forearm. He twisted it and it flashed in the sunlight. Elrohir thought he caught a glimpse of an engraved beech leaf. He knew little of the Woodland Realm, but even so, he recognised the symbol of the House of Oropher. There was no doubt in his mind now that this was Prince Legolas. Thranduil’s heir.
‘What then?’ he prompted, when Legolas gave no sign of continuing.
Legolas tugged his sleeve down to cover the bracelet. ‘I had to leave.’ He gave a tight smile that failed to reach his eyes. ‘But you asked for tidings of the battle.’
And before Elrohir could say anything, Legolas launched into a tale that caused the hairs to stand up on the back of Elrohir’s neck. He spoke of wave after wave of orcs and wargs that poured from the mountains; the desperate struggle to stem the seemingly unstoppable tide. And the cost. The terrible cost. The loss of unimaginable numbers of Dwarves, Men and Elves.
He fell silent again when his tale was done and Elrohir didn’t have the heart to press him further just yet. He drifted into his own reverie, remembering the visit of Thorin’s company just a few short months ago.
‘I grieve for the deaths of Thorin and his nephews,’ he said after a while. ‘Their loss will be a great blow to the people of the mountain.’
‘Oh, yes. A great loss indeed.’
Elrohir glanced at Legolas, shocked at the bitterness in his tone.
The prince’s mouth twisted. ‘They were holed up in their safe caverns while Elves and Men were mutilated and killed, trying to hold back the evil that those vile stone-eaters had drawn to the mountain. And yet when they finally emerged and were killed for their foolishness, I am expected to mourn them. Well I won’t, no matter what she—’
He flushed scarlet and bit his lip. ‘I pray you’ll excuse me. I’ve had a tiring journey and hardly know what I’m saying.’
Despite his contrite words, he looked more embarrassed at having spoken his feelings. There was a deep resentment against the Dwarves that seemed to go further than the general suspicion Thranduil’s folk held against them. Elrohir wondered briefly at it, then connected Legolas’s hostility with the miasma of grief that hung over him. Maybe he had lost someone dear to him in this battle. The she who was in his thoughts to such a degree he had not needed to utter a name, perhaps? That would explain much, although it didn’t feel right, somehow. But judging from the clenched jaw, Legolas would not be easily drawn on the subject.
Time to change the subject. For now.
‘You mentioned that you had not intended to come to Imladris. What is your destination?’
A sudden thought hit him, a punch in the guts. Not the Havens, surely? It was only then that Elrohir recognised the attraction he felt for this mysterious Wood-elf. He sensed a strength and beauty hidden beneath the bitterness and grief, if only he could find the key to revealing them. Legolas’s departure would be a loss not just to Middle-earth, but to him, personally.
A roaring in his ears drowned out Legolas’s response, forcing him to ask the prince to repeat himself.
‘I know it sounds mad,’ Legolas said, clearly interpreting Elrohir’s request as incredulity, ‘but my father said it was up to me to learn his true identity. He would only say he’s known as Strider.’
In his relief at finding Legolas wasn’t bound for the Havens, it took a moment for Elrohir to register what he had heard. ‘Strider?’ In his surprise he only just managed to prevent himself from blurting out Aragorn’s true name.
‘That’s right. Do you know him?’
‘He’s my foster brother. He’s on patrol with Elladan at the moment, but he’s due to return within the week. You need only remain here and I’ll introduce you when he gets back.’
Frown lines bit even deeper between Legolas’s brows. ‘Odd that my father seems to know all about this Strider, yet neglected to mention that he dwells in Imladris.’
‘Maybe he knew you were certain to come here. This is the only house for many leagues, after all.’
‘Perhaps. Although it’s not like him to leave anything to chance.’
‘Why does he want you to meet Strider? I’d have thought you would be needed in the Woodland Realm more than ever, after such a desperate battle.’
Shutters slammed closed behind Legolas’s eyes. ‘I cannot go back. Not now.’
After that he would say no more.