The next morning dawn broke clear and bright. The breeze that began to blow lightly through the trees held the promise of another warm summer day. The sweet melodic sound of birdsong drifted from the foliage, and the small woodland creatures, who hunted and toiled in the light of the sun, were already stirring. It hadn't taken long for the inky blue of night to fade into the color of a robin's egg. A few white clouds floated lazily overhead.
At the light touch from Legolas on his shoulder, Aragorn opened his eyes. He nodded at the elf and then spent a moment taking in the glorious azure expanse above him. He was only mildly surprised that the morning had advanced as far as it had while he slept.
Unconcerned, the normally early-rising ranger made no attempt to get up from where he lay. He yawned widely and stretched his muscles, legs stiffened, arms reaching upward, and fingers splayed wide apart.
The groaning noise the man made amused his elven companion. "You sound like a bear waking up after a long winter's sleep," Legolas commented casually, as he dropped down into a crouch beside the banked coals of the campfire. At the elf's urging, which included the adding of twigs and a few deep exhaled breaths, the fire began to rouse itself, as well.
"I feel like one," Aragorn remarked, as another big yawn stretched his mouth wide to resemble a small cavern. Still not quite ready to rise, the man just rolled over on his side and watched the elf work the fire. After a moment, he announced, "The sun is up already."
"Well, it is good to see that a long night's sleep has not dulled your incredible powers of perception," the elf said, as he added larger pieces of wood and then took a long stick and poked the small flames into a larger version of themselves.
Aragorn looked around him, hoping to find something he could throw at the chuckling elf. Nothing came to hand outside of his pack and his weapons. He was using the pack for a pillow, which he wasn't about to part with it, and he thought that tossing any of his weapons might be considered a bad move by the elf. The man looked both frustrated and slightly amused.
Legolas was fully aware of what his friend was wanting to do but decided to ignore him. However, he couldn't suppress a grin, when it became clear that no object was going to come flying his way.
Soon satisfied that the fire was blazing strong enough to sustain itself, Legolas set a small pot of water over the flames to heat up. When the water was hot enough to earn his satisfaction, he slipped several pieces of dried fruit into the hot water. He wasn't planning on actually cooking the fruit, only reconstituting it.
After several moments, Legolas glanced over at Aragorn, who had been so quiet, the elf thought maybe he had gone back to sleep.
"I'm awake," the ranger, whose eyes were closed, said, when he felt the elf's gaze on him. "Is our food ready?"
"Mine is," Legolas replied.
Aragorn knew that his friend was just trying to goad him into squawking his dismay. The ranger had been through it too many times in the past to fall for it now. However, he decided to go along with the jest, as he always did. "Oh great. Now I suppose I'll have to get out of bed, come over there and prepare my own," he grumped sourly, though he had to work hard to keep the fact he was grinning out of his voice.
"You will, if you want to eat," came Legolas's casual reply, not fooled in the least by his friend's grumbling.
With his grin still firmly in place, Aragorn threw the blanket off of himself and got to his feet. When he walked the short distance to the fire, he looked down to see a plate of plump, juicy fruit and warm crusty bread smeared with honey and a dollop of butter waiting for him. "I knew you would feed me." the ranger said, as if he had won some kind of victory.
"You are too sure of yourself, human," Legolas remarked. He had poured the hot water, which was now infused with juice from the fruit, into two cups, and he handed one of them to Aragorn.
"Perhaps. But don't forget that I know you very well."
"I may surprise you one day," Legolas said. Then, in a more somber tone, he said, "I fear this is the last of the honey and butter."
Aragorn simply nodded. He knew how much Legolas loved his honey and butter on any kind of bread. To tell the truth, the man loved the combination, too. Briefly his mind went back to all the times in Rivendell and Mirkwood he had enjoyed such a treat.
After a few moments of eating in silence, Legolas looked sideways at the ranger. "I suppose you have not changed your mind about going to Orod Moru." His voice held a note of resignation. He knew better than to hope.
"Not at all. I still think it will be an exciting adventure, possibly resulting in great good for everyone." The man was smiling. It was an infuriating expression of triumph. Legolas had seen it resting on his friend's face more times than he cared to count.
"Right. Well, I suppose we will find out," was the only comment Legolas made, as he put the last piece of buttered, honey-laden bread into his mouth. Knowing he would not be getting any more for a long time, he chewed slowly and savored the sweet taste, which lingered teasingly after he had swallowed the last morsel.
Just before Aragorn popped the last piece of his own bread onto his tongue, he said, "I imagine we will."
The two friends finished eating their fruit. By then the sun was beginning to rise above the treetops. The gently swaying leaves sent the slanting rays of dappled sunshine dancing around their campsite.
"This has been a lazy morning," Aragorn commented, as he eyed his forlorn bedroll, obviously having thoughts about returning to it.
"I have enjoyed it very much, Estel. Thank you for coming all the way from Rivendell to spend time with me." It wasn't hard to detect the sincere gratitude in the archer's voice.
Aragorn put his hand on the elf's shoulder. He didn't want to dredge up old pain by mentioning the horrific events of two years ago, so instead he just smiled and said, "I am always happy to be in your company, mellon nin." He couldn't resist adding, "Even if you don't feed me."
The elf suddenly stiffened, though certainly not because of his friend's teasing words.
The archer stood up and turned his head so that his right ear was aimed in the direction from which he had sensed and then heard something. After a few seconds, he said, "Riders."
"Should I arm myself?" Aragorn asked, knowing that fair wind or foul, Legolas's instincts were to be trusted. Whatever the elf said do, he would do without a second thought.
"I do not sense danger."
"It's probably some of your friends. Or perhaps your father has sent another patrol of warriors to check up on you."
The bad part about that statement was that the king had done just that three days ago, which had been the second night the two friends had spent in the forest. The encounter with the warriors, who patrolled the northern border of Mirkwood, seemed like an accidental meeting, but Legolas knew better. It was a sore point with him that the king had seen fit to send warriors to make sure his son, himself a skilled warrior, was safe out in the forest of his own home, so Aragorn had not teased the elf about it then. Now, however, the subject appeared to be fair game.
All the ranger got in return was a look that would have caused the man to instantly combust had the elf possessed the power to accomplish it. Aragorn merely shrugged and then looked off into the trees, where he now heard the sound of hooves on bare earth.
Just before two horses broke free of the surrounding trees, Legolas relaxed. It was instantly apparent why he did not fear the two riders that now headed straight for the campers.
"Elladan! Elrohir!" Aragorn cried, as he ran forward to greet his elven brothers. He hugged each in turn, as they dismounted and returned their younger brother's embraces.
They were soon wrapping their arms around Legolas, as well. "We ran into one of your patrols nearby, and they told us where to find you two," Elladan said innocently, not having any idea of the emotional storm he was stirring up in the woodland elf. Elladan frowned when he saw Legolas frowning.
Legolas's next words were sharp. "Nearby, you say? Just where did you encounter them?"
"Just over the ridge on the other side of the stream," Elrohir informed his friend, inclining his head due west. He could not imagine why that knowledge was clearly upsetting Legolas. Elladan turned a questioning look toward Aragorn.
It was Legolas, though, that spoke first. "They have probably been there the whole time we have been here," he complained to Aragorn before turning and stalking away, jerking his head down sharply several times. The ranger could only imagine the oath that must have come out of the elf's mouth.
"Did we come in on something we should not have interrupted?" Elladan asked almost tentatively.
"Sort of. I mean, you two did nothing wrong. It's just that there's a bit of a battle of wills going on between Legolas and Thranduil."
The twins looked at each other, understanding that part of it but still in the dark as to the reason such a battle should exist. And their faces showed it.
"Come over to the fire and sit down," Aragorn told them, as he turned and stood between his brothers. With an arm around each of their shoulders, the man pushed them gently toward the blazing campfire.
"Have you eaten?" Aragorn asked them, as they each took a seat on a fallen log several feet from the heat of the fire.
"We ate at the patrol's camp," Elrohir said. "We are not hungry."
At the mention, yet again, of the patrol camped not far away, Aragorn looked toward Legolas, who was standing next to a large oak tree with his back to them. His head was still down and the palm of his right hand rested against the rough bark.
The eyes of the twins followed their brother's gaze toward the woodland prince. They still did not understand what was going on. Elladan just stared, while Elrohir's impatience was getting the better of him. "What is wrong?"
All of a sudden, it came to Elladan. "You are upset, because your father has ordered a patrol to keep an eye on you. Is that not it?" He had directed his words toward Legolas's back.
"That is exactly it," Legolas said, as he turned around and graced his three friends with a stormy expression. "He is treating me like someone who can no longer take care of himself."
"Legolas, that is not true." Aragorn found himself defending Thranduil. "He nearly lost you forever, and he is frightened of doing so again."
"I understand that, Estel. But it has been two years since Mordraug. He cannot keep me a virtual prisoner in this forest until the time we sail west to Valinor." Legolas knew that two years by immortal elven standards was hardly any time at all. However, when those two years were spent in confinement without the ability to go where he chose, when he chose, it seemed a very long time indeed. "I am sure he never would have let his father do this to him."
All present knew the King of Mirkwood well enough to be sure about the accuracy of that statement. Thranduil was as close to a force of nature as any elf they had ever seen or heard tell of.
"Well, I think that we may have a solution for you, Legolas," Elladan informed the irate archer.
Legolas turned a hopeful, yet puzzled, look on the two Rivendell elves.
With a smile, Elladan said, "We have just come from seeing your father."
"Ada had a message for King Thranduil, and we insisted on bringing it, so we could come here to see you," Elrohir explained. "We arrived late yesterday and spent the night in the palace."
Elladan took up the explanation again. "After evening meal last night, we asked him if you could come back to Rivendell with us for a visit."
"I imagine that was a lively discussion," Legolas couldn't help saying, trying hard not to sound sarcastic.
"It was actually," the oldest twin admitted. "We asked for you to come for three months, and return just before the snows would begin to close the mountain passes, but that was not acceptable to your father. We discussed it some more and after a while, Thranduil gave in."
Legolas's jaw dropped at those words. "My father gave in? Not possible."
"He did," Elrohir insisted then had to admit, "Well, part way anyway. He said you could go and be gone with us for six weeks."
The blond elf sat down on the log next to the twins, looking for all the world like someone in deep shock, which was a pretty accurate description right then. "Six weeks?" was all he could manage to get out.
No one was sure if the archer was thinking that such a length of time was much longer than he was anticipating or much too short.
Elladan said, "The funny part is that we had originally decided on that length of time ourselves, but then we thought that he would probably cut that in half, so we asked for twice as long. He did end up halving it and saying six weeks."
"I guess we kind of tricked him into that," Elrohir said, smiling in satisfaction at the accomplishment.
To everyone's surprise, Legolas burst out laughing. Aragorn did not think it was joyful laughter.
Legolas looked at the twins sympathetically. "You did not trick my father. I am sure he was well aware of what you were doing."
At Elrohir's doubtful expression, Aragorn nodded. "He is probably right, Elrohir. It is exceedingly hard to put anything over on Thranduil. I've learned that, if nothing else, over the years."
Continuing his explanation, Legolas said, "My father said six weeks, not so much as a compromise, but more because that is as long as he will permit me to be gone. It will also ensure that even should an early snow arrive to block the passes, I will be safely back here under his thumb again long before that could happen."
Even though Thranduil and Aragorn had come to an understanding during the incident with Mordraug, and Thranduil had accepted the friendship between his son and the ranger, Aragorn was relieved to know he would not have to face the king to argue Legolas's case. He would have faced Eru himself, if it meant setting Legolas free from his confinement, but in truth, he hadn't a clue as to how he would have handled facing Thranduil without lying, which Legolas had strictly forbid him from doing. This way his brothers accomplished the task in all innocent honesty.
Now the ranger's face lit up. "However Thranduil meant it, it doesn't really matter. You have been given six weeks, Legolas, so we can now go to Black Mountain."
At the mention of going to Black Mountain, both Elladan and Elrohir looked at their human brother with stunned expressions. "What are you talking about, Estel?" Elladan asked. "We are going to Rivendell."
"Yes, of course, it's just that we are taking a slightly round-about way of getting there." He grinned mischievously.
At Legolas's sigh, Elladan cringed. "You really intend on going to Orod Moru? Estel, have you gone mad?" The elder twin couldn't have been more shocked, if Estel had said he was going to cut off his own head.
"Yes, he has finally lost his mind completely," Legolas answered.
"You agreed to go, too, you know," the ranger quickly pointed out, as he stared at the blond elf.
"He badgered you until he talked you into it, did he not?" Elladan asked the young wood elf. He knew his brother's powers of persuasion. They had been used often enough on he and his twin.
Legolas nodded slightly, seemingly ashamed to actually say the simple word 'yes'.
"He had mentioned it a few times recently, about wanting to go there, I mean," Elrohir said. "But, thinking our little brother was an intelligent representative of the human race, we did not take him seriously. Our mistake."
"Estel..." the elder twin began but got no farther.
"You can save your breath, Elladan. Legolas gave me all the arguments last night that I care to hear. He and I are going and that is that. If you would like to go, then you will be most welcome. Otherwise, I wish to hear no more about it." The ranger's words sounded harsh, but his tone was not. He was just very adamant about not going over the same ground he had already covered with the Mirkwood prince.
Legolas stood up, turned and moved several paces away from his friends before turning back to face them. He was trying to decide if he should leave and let his father think he was on his way to Rivendell or whether he should go back and have it out with Thranduil once and for all. He thought that the latter was probably the better course, but he was still upset about the whole patrol business.
Watching the emotions playing across the archer's face, Aragorn had a pretty good idea what the elf was thinking, so he finally asked, "Are you going to talk to your father?"
Making his decision, Legolas shook his head. "It would do no good. I could argue with him until Middle-earth fades, and he would never agree to let me get anywhere near that mountain. We have this one chance right now, so if we are going, we will have to go directly to Orod Moru from here."