Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
W.B. Yeats, from The Stolen Child (1886)
"Then bitter will my days be, and I will walk in the wild alone." Aragorn, from 'The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen,' JRR Tolkien, Return of the King
Part One: Into the Trees
He took leave of his foster father, bade a fond farewell to his mother and to the house where he had been raised, and he went out into the wild, alone and with a heavy heart. He did not set his feet towards the west, where of late he had performed many brave deeds of errantry with his foster brothers. Instead, he turned his face to the east, along a path he had not followed in many years.
The trail up to the Old Pass above Imladris seemed much as he remembered it, but the going was far easier. He stood a full three feet taller than the last time he had made the journey and his legs were long and strong even for a man of his height. The last of the winter snows had just melted, and the warmth of the spring was in the air, even high in the mountains. There were still a few orcs in the pass, but they were easily avoided by keeping to the sunlight. He did not fear orcs.
Once he had traversed the pass and reached the eastern slopes of the Misty Mountains, he could see the wide vista of the plains bordering the Great River stretching into the distance. The dark mass of Mirkwood Forest lay beyond. Even from the clean heights of the mountains, the forest did not look to be a wholesome place, yet it was to that dark mass of trees that he was headed. The woods stood between him and the lands to the east.
He followed the road down to the Old Ford, and, once across the river, he turned north. The Necromancer had recently been expelled from the tower of Dol Guldur in the southern reaches of the forest, but orcs and other foul things remained there. The Old Forest Road was still not a safe or prudent route. The library of his foster father held many old maps of the territory, and he had learned of a better way through Mirkwood farther to the north. It was this path he intended to take.
The journey took a number of days, but he found it no hardship. He had become used to sleeping under the stars and living off the land, and his long strides carried him faster than most other men on foot.
He traveled on, all the while coming ever close to the forest edge, and on a misty spring day in the early afternoon, he found himself at his destination, a dark archway between two leaning trees, where a narrow path led into the darkness of the woods.
Now that the entrance to the forest lay before him, he found he much preferred being out in the fresh air of the open plain, but he took a deep breath and plunged in beneath the overhanging branches. Once inside the wood, it became much darker, and the air felt damp with the mist. He moved as quietly as he could on the wet carpet of leaves, wondering if it might not be a good idea to leave the path and be less visible, for he felt a prickling at the back of his neck as if there were eyes upon him. A glance to right and left showed some spider webs strung between the trees, very large and thick webs, and where the webs were not, the undergrowth was so thick that he knew he would lose his way within twenty feet.
He had gone far enough into the forest to lose sight of the light of the forest gate, when he found himself staring down the shaft of an arrow. He had heard no sound of an approach, nor had he seen the archer until he materialized in his path. From the corner of each eye he could see two more arrows aimed at him from the side, and he did not have to look behind him to know there was one at his back as well.
"Who are you, Manchild, and what is your business in our woods," said a soft, musical voice. He had no trouble understanding the words, but they held an accent that sounded strange to one used to the speech of Rivendell. That slightly lilting inflection brought back a flood of fond memory.
"My name is Aragorn, son of Arathorn. I mean no harm, only to find safe passage to the other side of the wood. After that, my business is my own."
"Safe passage is something you will not find if you go on as you have been doing," said the wood-elf to his right, in a faintly mocking tone. "Keep him safely here," he said to the others and melted soundlessly into the trees.
He was not likely to be going anywhere at the moment, Aragorn thought, for the other three arrows remained pointed at his head, and the bows of Mirkwood were large and powerful. The elf he could see was dressed in green and brown colors that made him nigh unto impossible to pick out from the forest background, and the warrior's hair was a fair color that faded to invisibility in the dim light.
"Wherever did you learn your woodcraft?" said the elf to his left. "You made as much noise as a troop of orcs on wargback."
"The sons of Master Elrond taught me," answered Aragorn. The elf behind him sniggered.
"There are none better in the skills of the wilderness than Elladan and Elrohir," Aragorn said indignantly. "And there are no fiercer slayers of orcs in all of Eriador!"
"Eriador is one thing," said the elf who stared him down. "Mirkwood is quite another. You will find worse things under these trees than orcs. You are fortunate we found you first."
"Stand down, you three," said the fourth wood-elf, reappearing from out of the trees. "The captain wants to speak to this one."
Aragorn's three captors let their bows relax. "Follow me," said the fourth, "and if you are so foolish as to risk an escape, it will be your own fault if a spider gets you." The elf headed off again into the trees, finding gaps that Aragorn could not have spotted had he not stayed close on the heels of his guide.
About fifty paces in, they came to a broad boled oak with a rope ladder hanging down. "Up you go, and may Mandos take me if I can understand why the captain would want to interrupt his sleep to talk to the likes of an adan barely out of his nap-cloths by the looks of it."
Aragorn climbed to a platform high above the ground. The flet was a small one, and the green cloth shelter seemed little more than a lean-to hung from an upper branch. The elf captain sat at the rear of the shelter with his back against the trunk of the tree and his arms draped over his bent knees. Aragorn could make out little more than a shadowy figure and a pair of eyes glittering out of the gloom.
"What brings you to our woods, my young friend?" said a soft voice, musical and very familiar.
"Legolas . . .? Legolas!" exclaimed Aragorn with the joy of recognition as the elf unfolded his body and stood to greet him.
"Aye, one and the same," he said, a smile illuminating his fair face. "By Elbereth, Estel, how you have grown! You are almost as tall as I am!"
"I do believe I am taller than you are," Aragorn insisted, delighted at seeing his friend again after so many years.
"No, I still overtop you by a finger's breadth," Legolas said with a laugh. The two stood eyeing each other as if to compare height and then embraced, slapping each other on the shoulder. "And I see you have the beginning of that beard you used to speak of."
"Aye, it sprouted during my nineteenth summer."
"I am pleased to hear that Master Elrond has finally gotten around to telling you who you are. What relief it is to call you Aragorn at last," said Legolas. "You have no idea how hard it was keeping it from you, curious and perceptive little scamp that you were."
"That, too, is since summer last. I had ridden out with Elladan and Elrohir. I fought my first orcs, and Master Elrond was so pleased with the way I acquitted myself that he showed me the shards of the sword, gave me the ring of Barahir, and told me my true name and lineage. I understand the need for secrecy now, so I suppose I must forgive you for the deception."
"If I must choose between incurring the wrath of Elrond of Imladris or that of a seven year old boy, I would have to choose angering the boy. No matter how good a shot you were with a handful of ripe berries. My father raised no fools," Legolas said. "You must tell me the latest news from Rivendell. I hear the Lady Arwen is newly returned from Lothlórien. And how is your mother? I cannot think she was pleased with your accompanying Elladan and Elrohir on their errantry."
"No, her face was like a storm cloud when she learned of it, and she was much relieved when I came home safely. She has become unhappy with me again lately, but this is not the time to speak of that." As he spoke, Aragorn averted his eyes, hoping to shield his troubled heart from the keen perception of the elf. "But indeed, Legolas, I had hoped to see you back at Rivendell before now. How is it I find you asleep during the day in a flet on the western marches of Mirkwood?"
Legolas shrugged. "I prefer the nighttime watch. I can see better in the dark than the others. We had some unexpected visitors come this way a few years back, and since that time my father has kept the path guarded. Not much comes through here, except for orcs, deer, and the occasional drunken Beorning who has lost his way. The orcs we shoot, the deer we let past, and the Beornings, we sober up and send home before the spiders make a meal of them. You are the most excitement we have had in months. What brings you here?"
"I have a hunger for new sights," Aragorn answered noncommittally. "I hear there are lands where the very stars are strange. I go first to Laketown and then southeast to Rhûn. After that, I may visit Gondor or even Harad. Who knows where my feet will carry me? But first I must pass through Mirkwood."
Legolas looked at him quizzically for a moment. "And so you shall," he said at last, "but you will not go alone." He whistled softly over the side of the flat, and soon the wood-elf who had escorted Aragorn came up the rope ladder.
"Heledir, I will be giving this adan safe passage through the wood. I leave you in charge."
"But my prince, what if your father . . .?"
"Heledir, what have I asked you to call me when we are on duty?" Legolas said sweetly, although Aragorn marked that his voice held an edge.
"I'm sorry, my . . . captain."
"Thank you, Heledir. If my father finds out, which he surely need not, for I am certain you are capable of guarding this path from the dread hordes of Beorning invaders as well as you did in the years before I arrived, you may tell him that this is a very important visitor. The Master of Rivendell would be most displeased if his kinsman came to any harm in our forest. My duty is best served seeing him through safely. If that does not satisfy my father, then I suppose you will be getting a new captain -- one who is more seasoned than the one you have now. And that captain will not be so understanding when his orders are questioned. Are we clear?"
"Yes, my . . . captain."
"Good. I'll be taking some of the waybread, but I'll leave you most of the wine." Legolas took some supplies from a chest and put them in a pouch at his belt before he and Aragorn descended the ladder.
"What was all that about?" Aragorn asked as the two of them reached the ground and headed back toward the path.
Legolas whistled again to warn the other three wood-elves that friends were passing. "Oh, nothing very important. There are still a few among my father's warriors who tend to treat me like a brainless elf-child. It did not help that my father got wind of my solo scouting trip to Amon Lanc and our small adventure with the orcs. I swear, he has eyes and ears in the trees. With the exception of one small respite when Adar needed every warrior he could muster, Legolas Thranduilion has spent most of the last fourteen years guarding the palace. As boring as the Forest Gate can be, this duty came as a heady draught of freedom for me."
"Guarding the palace?"
"At great peril to life and limb you may be sure," Legolas answered sardonically. "I was constantly twisting an ankle dancing with the lasses, and I got a wicked painful paper cut in the library three years ago. Seriously, Estel, I would have liked to come see you at Rivendell, but my father wished me close to home. It is ever thus in the world; kings rule, and princes serve."
"At least you have a father to worry after you. I had none."
"Aragorn, you said your mother was unhappy with you. Is there a shadow come between you and Master Elrond as well?"
Aragorn shook his head. "Maybe later, Legolas. I don't wish to speak of it now." He headed off down the path, feeling the eyes of his friend upon him.
"Wait, Aragorn. A trek through Mirkwood is not like a walk through the gardens of Rivendell. I see you carry a bow. May I have a look at it?"
Aragorn handed over his bow. Legolas took it and hefted it appraisingly. "This is a fine weapon. Not so much range as mine," he said after taking an experimental pull, "but distance is not so important here in the woods. Are you any good with it?"
Aragorn gave him a haughty look and reclaimed his bow. Without a word, he drew an arrow and sent it flying into a tree twenty paces down the path. Although the air inside the wood was breathless, the trees began to stir and rustle.
"Not bad." The two proceeded down the path. Legolas pulled the arrow from the trunk where it had lodged, stroking the bark gently as he did so. The rustling died down. "I have some advice for you, Aragorn. Never blunt your arrows just to prove a point. And when traveling through Mirkwood or any other forest, don't annoy the trees."
"Oh, wonderful! Next you'll be telling me I'm as noisy as a troop of orcs on wargback."
"Who told you that?"
"One of those four who stopped me." Again, Aragorn heard a barely stifled snort of laughter. "Is it some kind of elvish tradition to insult strangers?"
"Only among the Silvans," Legolas laughed. "Perhaps, it would help if you tried to avoid stepping on those small twigs."
Aragorn narrowed his eyes. He had never seen a forest so old and unkempt as this one, and debris fallen from the branches above littered the pathway in a thick mat. "Perhaps I could learn to fly. It seems the only way." He paid close attention to the way Legolas moved up ahead, copying his friend's gliding toe to heel stride. As he did, he managed to step on another bit of fallen deadwood, which parted with a crack. "Curse it!"
"Next time, Aragorn, write ahead and I will have the path swept for you."
Aragorn smiled wanly. "I don't suppose you have a horse hidden around here. At least that way we'd be as noisy as a troop of elves on horseback, which is a much more pleasant thought, and we'd make better time."
"I am sure we would, but even though we have rebuilt the bridge, horses west of the Enchanted Stream are more trouble than they are worth, unless one means to journey outside the forest. We are on foot, and you must get used to it. I can promise you an easier form of transport once we reach the stream. That will be in about three days' time, if you keep up the pace."
"I walked all the way from Imladris, did I not?" Aragorn said.
"So you did. Perhaps when you have walked a bit more, you will be willing to tell me the reason behind this sudden wanderlust of yours. When I was your age, I would not have traded a warm bed in Elrond's house for the rigors of the wild. Especially when the lady Arwen was in residence."
That shut Aragorn up, and the two proceeded in silence through the misty wood. Two hours after leaving the forest edge, Legolas let out a soft whistle, and another whistle answered from the trees. They were passing another guard position, Aragorn realized, although he could spot no sign of the elves no matter how hard he peered into the forest depths.
Soon after, the mist turned to rain up above the forest canopy. Large drops began to pelt them at random as the water collected on the leaves above and fell to earth when it became too heavy to remain.
"Ai, what a dismal place!" Aragorn exclaimed in exasperation as a large drop landed on the back of his neck and ran down inside his shirt, staying cold until it had rolled all the way to his buttocks. "No wonder you are so serious all the time, having grown up in such depressing surroundings."
Legolas laughed. "It is not always quite so forbidding. Our foresters keep the western edges thick for a reason, but when we get close to the eastern woods where most of my father's people live, the woods open out a bit. The forest floor becomes visible, and you can see off between the trees. Winter is just ending, but in a few weeks the ground will be carpeted with soft grass and the blossoms of Nephredil. When the sun shines above, the light is far more pleasant to the eye, and in some places there are glades where the sunlight reaches the ground. It is always cool under the trees, and the wind is never harsh no matter how hard the gale that shakes the branches above. In summer the light is so green it almost blinds you, and in the autumn, when the leaves turn, it is like someone spilled rubies, amber and topaz from a generous hand. I hope you can see it some time. It is my home, Aragorn, and I have always accepted its beauty without question, even though each year the light grows darker and the mists grow heavier."
"What about the spiders?"
"Oh, well, the spiders." Legolas shrugged. "We hunt them to keep their numbers down. With luck, we will not see any."
"I think you exaggerate the spiders to keep outsiders ill at ease," Aragorn grumbled.
Legolas merely laughed. "Just keep close, Aragorn."
As he trudged along behind the elf, staying within a few paces as directed, Aragorn found himself bemused, not by the easy way he and Legolas had taken up their friendship against after so many years, for the Eldar do not feel the passage of time as much as men do. The fourteen years that had marked more than half of Aragorn's life were just the blink of an eye to Legolas. Nor did he marvel much at the way Legolas accepted him as an adult rather than the small boy he had been at their last parting, for Aragorn had seen that the elves of Rivendell took change in their stride, having experienced so much of it in their long lives. Rather, he was fascinated by the change in his friend. On his home ground, under the sheltering trees, Legolas seemed much more relaxed than he had been out on the grassy plains of the Anduin or even at Rivendell, which was the most safe and secure of locations. In this sinister place, with its spiders, lowering trees, and whatever other unimaginable dangers, Aragorn had seen more smiles and heard more laughter out of Legolas than he had in the number of weeks he had spent in his company before.
"Hush, Aragorn, and keep your hands at your side," Legolas whispered suddenly. "You shall see a special sight."
Aragorn took heed and froze. In the gloom on the path ahead, he could make out the figure of a white doe. Two others who had small white fawns at their side soon joined her.
Legolas held out his hands. "Avo 'osto, my lovelies, I mean you no harm. I do not hunt this day. And you, little ones, not for many a year."
Slowly, he approached, with Aragorn trailing him, until they were almost close enough to touch the deer's pale flanks. The animals regarded them with no concern. One doe bent down to crop a bit of fallen greenery while another reared up on her hind legs to snatch a leaf from a high branch. Then, with one backward look, the does ambled out of sight into the trees.
Legolas turned to Aragorn with a joyful smile. "You see? Mirkwood has its beauties."
"They glowed," Aragorn breathed in wonderment.
"Yes, they do so in the twilight. Night is falling, and it is time for us to get off the trail and rest."
Legolas broke off from the path and headed twenty paces to the south. He looked about appraisingly. "This should be a good spot to spend the night."
Aragorn looked up in disbelief. "Legolas, we are under one of the largest spider webs I have ever seen. I doubt I will sleep a wink in this spot."
The elf reached up and stroked the web confidently. "Feel, Aragorn. The stickiness is gone from the web. This spider has been dead for several years. It was a big one, though. They leave a scent around their nests to warn to others off their territory, which lasts beyond the glue. We should not be bothered tonight."
Aragorn looked up and shuddered, imagining the size of the spider that had inhabited the web above his head.
"Trust me, Aragorn, I can judge the age of a spider web. We gather them and spin them into silk thread once they have aged enough. We weave it into cloth. The tent at the flet was of spider silk, and so is the shirt I'm wearing."
"Yours too, most likely. Where do you suppose Rivendell gets most of its silk? It is wonderful stuff, really. It repels water, wears well, and it takes a dye better than linen."
Aragorn looked down at his own sleeve in horror. "But, Thranduil trades for his silk with the lands to the east!" He caught Legolas looking at him strangely.
"I suppose this would be a good time to swear you to secrecy about the origins of dyed Mirkwood cloth," he grinned. "A small amount of raw silk comes in, and a large amount of finished cloth goes out. Truly, Aragorn, why be so squeamish? It all comes out of an insect's behind to begin with."
Aragorn found himself grinning too at the idea of Elrond decked out in a scarlet spider web. He wondered if the noble lord knew of the origin of his robes, and whether his foster brothers, Elladan and Elrohir, and the other elves of Rivendell knew as well. Then, at the thought of one of the other elves, he grew gloomy.
"I suppose we will have no fire this night?"
"You know better than that. What, are you cold, or are you afraid of the dark?"
Aragorn shot the elf a dirty look. "It may be spring, but the ground is chilly. I doubt this plot of land has seen the light of the sun since the beginning of the Second Age."
"Would you like to come under my cloak, as you used to do?" asked Legolas with a wicked smile.
"No, thank you," said Aragorn, glaring even harder. "My own cloak will keep me warm enough."
"Well, take some of this," said Legolas, reaching up to the web and pulling down a mass of the silken strands, half of which he tossed to Aragorn. "This will shield those tender hach of yours from the cold ground."
Legolas tossed his own pile of web at the base of a tree and sat down with his back to the trunk. Aragorn did the same, and found the spider fluff to be not sticky at all. It felt soft and rather pleasant to the touch, once he managed to forget its origins. Legolas tossed him a chunk of waybread and held out his wineskin companionably.
Aragorn took the pouch "Dorwinion?"
"Hardly. When I am out on the marches, I drink what the other soldiers do. Much to my father's dismay, I have developed some plebian tastes. This is our own Mirkwood domestic, made from berries, cherries and whatever else falls into the vats. Try some. It's rather good."
Aragorn took a swig. "By Elbereth," he exclaimed, "That has a kick to it!"
"Take another. It will help you sleep in these trying conditions," Legolas chuckled. "Have no fear. I will remain watchful."
Aragorn did as he was told, took another sip and handed the wineskin back.
"Simple gifts," Legolas said amiably, taking a sip for himself. "Fresh air, strong wine, and a silken bed -- what more could a man or elf ask for?"
Aragorn could think of a few things, but already the wine had moved to his head and he felt his spirits lifting and his eyelids lowering. He leaned back against the tree and let himself drift. Legolas began to hum softly to himself, and that was the last sound Aragorn heard as sleep claimed him.
He awoke with a hand over his mouth preventing him from crying out. Legolas crouched above him, one finger to his lips signaling silence. Aragorn nodded, and the elf removed his hand. It was early morning, just becoming light, and Aragorn could hear the footsteps approaching from the east that had alerted his friend. Legolas sniffed the air and curled his lip. "Orcs," he mouthed silently.
The two crept silently to the edge of the path, keeping low. A group of orcs trudged westward in single file. Aragorn counted seven of them.
Aragorn remembered Legolas saying once that five to one was poor odds, even for a Silvan warrior. Seven against two was better, especially with the element of surprise. He flicked a glance at the elf and saw a cocked eyebrow as if to ask 'can we take them?' Aragorn nodded, and the elf's lips moved without a sound. "No mercy."
The two lead orcs fell simultaneously, transfixed by arrows, one from Legolas and one from Aragorn's bow. Legolas drew and shot again, and another orc fell. The remaining orcs began to whirl in confusion as their attackers erupted from the trees. Aragorn drew his sword and an orc swiftly parted company with his head, while Legolas set an arrow to his bow and fired another time, then took out his matched knives and slashed. The sixth orc, who had been reaching for the elf's throat with a dagger, halted in mid stride and dropped like a stone with his chest laid open and his innards spilling out. The seventh orc cut and ran westward down the path as fast as his bowed legs could carry him.
Aragorn began to run after him, but Legolas let out a weary sigh and shot the fleeing orc in the back.
"I always hate doing that," he said. "Until I remind myself what that lot was probably doing among our eastern settlements." He turned one of the bodies over to reveal crude leather armor stained with spots of reddish blood that looked to be only a few days old. Around the neck of the orc he had shot in the back, they found, on a leather thong, a tiny silver clip such as an elf woman might use to bind her hair. Legolas tore it free and put it safe inside his tunic. Then he retched and spat. "I'm sorry, Aragorn. You may think back-shooting cowardly, but that one was not worth risking your life over."
"I thought Thranduil had his palace in a cave along the Forest River," Aragorn said.
"It is, but many of the Folk live in the forests nearby, in huts on the ground and telain in the trees. Some like to hold to the old ways, before the coming of the Shadow, and dwell apart from the others. It leaves them vulnerable to raiding bands such as these. If there is one comfort, it is that eighty years ago my father decreed that any couple with a child must come to live behind the palace walls until the young one has grown. These orcs killed no children, at least."
"Does that not become crowded? Providing quarters for that many extra families, I mean."
Legolas looked at him strangely. 'No, Aragorn, even drawn together from throughout the realm, there are never more than a few at any one time. That is why we cannot afford to risk them. Here, help me get these foul creatures off the path. We will leave them for the spiders to deal with. They prefer live meat, but they will take it dead as well."
After recovering their arrows from the dead orcs, they left the corpses in the forest on the opposite side of the path from where they had slept. "There are no old spider nests here," Legolas assured him. "These bodies will be gone practically before we have turned around."
With the orcs disposed of, Legolas cleaned the black blood from his arrows and his knives. That done, he used handfuls of moist leaves to wipe the spatters of orc blood from his tunic and his skin. Watching him flick one last speck of blood from his hair, Aragorn laughed.
"Truly, Legolas, you look just like a cat licking its fur when you do that."
"Do I?" said Legolas. Rather than taking offense, he seemed genuinely pleased at the comparison. "I like cats. They are very clean creatures. Would you like some breakfast now, Aragorn?"
Aragorn shook his head. "I will need some time to regain my appetite after such an awakening."
Legolas nodded, and they began their eastward trek once more. After an hour, Legolas spied some trampled undergrowth and turned aside.
"I had meant to chide the next guard position for their slackness, but I see it was not their fault. Those orcs came through the woods from the south and joined the path here, from the look of it. There must be a fallen tree across the Enchanted Stream somewhere to the south for them to have crossed it. Why they were foolish enough to risk the path, I suppose we will never know." He followed the obvious trail a few paces into the trees and halted. "We could backtrack the trail, but it is hardly worth taking the time."
With one last glance to the south, Legolas turned and then froze. "Aragorn, stay very still," he said softly, drawing his bow.
For one horrified moment, Aragorn thought his friend had taken true offense at the cat remark, because the elf's face was twisted in an expression of malice and disgust. Before he had any further time to react, an arrow flew past his left ear, so close it ruffled his hair. Aragorn heard a strange high-pitched hiss from behind, followed by a thump. He whirled and then jumped back in horror as the biggest spider he had ever seen lay writhing on the ground. It thrashed for a moment and then curled its legs in death.
"Elbereth's nipples! You were not exaggerating about the spiders," Aragorn said, somewhat shakily. "That one was as big as a mastiff!"
"Aye," said Legolas stooping to pluck his arrow from the spider's eye. "Next time I caution you about danger, perhaps you will listen."
So began Aragorn's second day in Mirkwood.
They reached the Enchanted Stream on the afternoon of the third day. After the incident with the spider, they had picked up their pace by mutual consent, moving at an easy run. Aragorn was young and fit and Legolas seemed tireless, so they made good time. The weather had improved too, and Aragorn saw a few scattered shafts of sunlight knifing down through the trees.
The stream looked as dark as ink, and Aragorn felt grateful for the newly built bridge of roughhewn logs that spanned the rushing waters. He saw boats tied to the bank on the other side. Again, Legolas let out a whistle, and Aragorn knew the crossing was being watched by elvish eyes.
"Have you ever been in a boat of this type?" Legolas asked as he untied the rope securing one of them to the bank.
"I cannot say that I have," Aragorn replied. The craft appeared strange to him, consisting of pitch soaked hides stretched over a narrow light wooden frame and seemingly having no bow or stern. "Which is the front end?"
"Neither. We call these craft canoes. They are best for maneuvering through the sort of streams we will be traveling until we get to the Long Lake. All you need to know is that they will tip more easily than a rowboat, so keep your body low. I am putting you in front. The stream is swollen with the spring runoff and the current is so swift we will not even need to paddle. Just let me steer and put your paddle in the water only when I tell you to. The last time I was splashed with water from the Enchanted Stream, my face felt numb for days."
"Is there some evil in the water?"
Legolas shrugged. "It flows from the Mountains of Mirkwood in the south, from a peak where we do not go. Do not drink the water or even trail your hand in it. You would sleep for days, and while I have heard it can be quite pleasant, I have not the time or the patience to watch you snore and dream of delicious feasts and willing maidens. Have no fear. By the time we reach the rapids, other streams will have joined this one and diluted the water."
"As we approach the Forest River, the land drops. The river becomes very much like the Bruinen, full of white water and rocks. You can expect a soaking, but enough of the enchantment remains in the water that you will not feel the chill of it so badly. Just paddle to whichever side I tell you and enjoy the ride."
Aragorn stepped carefully into the boat and knelt quietly as Legolas settled in behind him and pushed off from the bank. The trees on either side began to move past swiftly as Aragorn got used to the feel and balance of the boat beneath him.
"Did I not promise you easier transportation?" Legolas said gaily.
Aragorn could only nod. They were surely moving more swiftly than they might have done on foot or even on horseback. The scenery changed little that day, and they tied up along the bank to make yet another camp among the trees when night fell.
About midday the next day, the banks of the stream began to grow higher and steeper, and soon the stream ran through a deep cleft. Other small streams joined from either side, each from its own steeply wooded ravine, and the stream widened into a swiftly moving river. As the height of the cliffs about them grew, the river did indeed begin to remind Aragorn of the Bruinen where it ran past Rivendell.
The first rapids were easy. Aragorn paddled to right and then left as Legolas called out his instructions, and the narrow boat threaded the rocks with ease and shot into the calmer waters beyond. Aragorn began to see the genius of the design, for a broader, deeper drafted rowboat would not have done so well, nor would a person facing backward have been able to steer so skillfully.
They slid through the next set of rapids as well, although this time the boat bucked and plunged with the current, and the two of them were splashed with the water. Aragorn laughed aloud at the exhilaration of it. His beard tingled, and though he was sitting in at least two or three inches of ice cold water, his privates felt no chill.
"This is fun!" he yelled.
"One more set," Legolas shouted back. "We can portage if you wish."
"No, not for anything!" Aragorn exclaimed, and before he knew it, they were on him. Left and right, he paddled with all his strength through the white water. They went over one small set of falls that took them airborne, and then they smacked down onto water that veered to the east.
Laughing, Legolas steered them onto a spit of sandy bank. The river here was wide enough that the sun actually reached down to the beach. "Let us stop here to dry off a bit," he said.
They turned the light craft upside down to empty the water from the bottom and then laid themselves out on the bank to let the sun have a warming shot at their clothing.
"Will you teach me to steer one of those boats?" Aragorn asked, staring up at the patch of blue sky.
"I think you already begin to understand," Legolas replied. "It turns away from the paddle stroke, unless you hold the paddle still and use it as a rudder. The only truly difficult skill to master is to move a canoe through still water or against current with only one person paddling. I'll let you take the rear position and steer once we get to calmer waters."
"How soon will that be?"
"Two more days of paddling with the current, and we will reach the forest edge. The river changes there. After that, two more days until we reach the Long Lake and Esgaroth. No spiders will trouble us upon the river, and there are only a few more challenges I must get you past."
The banks continued to grow higher as they followed the Forest River east. The brief glimpse of sun faded between the high tree-clad cliffs. On the next day, they passed a fork in the river that cut off to the north. Legolas took the southern route, and soon thereafter, he laid up against the northern bank. A high hill, almost a mountain, rose to the north, and ahead of them a stone bridge spanned the river.
"This is it," Legolas said. "Under that mountain lie the halls of my father, King Thranduil. It is not quite the equal of Menegroth of old, but it is the closest he could come without asking for the help of Naugrim craftsmen. My father's own elves delved the living rock of the mountain into wondrous chambers. I was born and grew up there. I am one of the few elves you will meet who do not hesitate to go beneath ground."
"A cave," Aragorn said. "That sounds dark and dismal."
"Was Thingol's vast city a dismal place?" Legolas replied. "We have light and air in abundance. The lower chambers have shafts lined with mirrored glass to catch the light of day and bring it down. The upper chambers have windows concealed in the mountainside to let in the light and air. They are in such places as the orcs may not reach, and there are strong wooden grilles to keep out the spiders. You cannot see it from here, but my own room has a private balcony concealed behind a waterfall, and my father's chamber is directly above it, with a finer porch still under the same falls. It is truly a wondrous place. My father designed well."
"So may I ask why we are huddled up against the riverbank in stealth while such wonders of comfort might be had?"
Legolas sighed. "I will show it to you some day, Aragorn. Right now, it is complicated. If I were to take you inside and introduce you to my father, you would be treated as our honored guest. But then we would find ourselves proceeding on to Esgaroth at the head of an armed train of elvish retainers, as befits two lordlings, and any chance for our quiet enjoyment of our time together would be lost."
"So that's why we're sneaking past?"
Legolas made a face. "Sneaking is such a low term. We are proceeding with discretion. I happen to know the time of the changing of the guard, and it will happen soon. It is my own fault. Along with dancing with the lasses and reading in the library, my father gave me the job of improving the palace guard after an unfortunate escape of some prisoners ten years back. Merely forbidding drinking on the job made quite a difference. The bridge guards are now very attentive to their duty. So please shut up, Estel, and let us hope we can shoot the bridge when they are not looking."
Aragorn did as he was told. Soon, the vast stone gates opened and a pair of elves marched out onto the bridge and faced the two guards at the forest edge. They exchanged salutes.
"Now!" Legolas hissed, and he pushed the boat out of the cover along the bank. Aragorn paddled for all he was worth with Legolas doing the same behind him, and the boat shot under the stone bridge. They fetched up along the bank further down, behind some poplars.
"I think we made it," Legolas said. "Once we have passed the barrel cove and the huts of the raft elves, we will see no one until we have left the forest and arrived at the Long Lake."
"What will these raft elves make of the sight of the two of us paddling past?" Aragorn enquired.
Legolas laughed. "No doubt they will think their prince keeps some strange company, but they will say nothing about it. The raft elves are a good lot, though a bit rough around the edges from dealing with Men so much. I know a thing or two about their doings in Esgaroth and hold my tongue about it, so they will do the same when it concerns my comings and goings." He swung the boat out into the current and began to paddle again. "The cove is not far now, just a short distance beyond the eastern tip of the island."
A smaller stream joined the river from the left. Aragorn looked back to see a water gate into the side of the mountain, guarded by a portcullis. As he did so, he saw Legolas stiffen.
"Oh, turds!" Legolas exclaimed, under his breath.
Avo 'osto: Have no fear