The Games We Play

by Menel

Part 1. The Players

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Legolas stood at the edge of the large wooden flet, still looking about in wonder at the mallorn trees that surrounded him. Their bark was smooth and shone silver gray in the moonlight. The Mirkwood Prince had never visited the Golden Wood before, and it was though the tales and songs he had heard about the glory of Lothlórien had sprung to life. A sense of peace had overcome him the moment he had stepped foot within this sacred realm, easing the burden of Gandalf’s loss. Even the Dwarf’s mutterings about an evil sorceress of great power had failed to dampen his spirits. Relief spread through the Fellowship to be away from the living darkness of Moria, and the company had soothed their feet in the healing waters of Nimrodel. As they rested by the gentle stream, Legolas had found it within himself to sing once again. But the tale of Nimrodel and her star-crossed lover, the Elven Prince Amroth, had a bitter end and his voice faltered as his memory failed him.

Still, it was good to be among the Eldar. The Galadhrim were tall and fair of face. Clad in their cloaks of gray, they moved soundlessly and blended effortlessly into their ancient forest. Their manner remained reserved, cool though somewhat distant in the eyes of the Fellowship.

“I don’t think they like us,” Legolas had overheard the youngest hobbit say to his cousin.

“It is not that they don’t like us,” the Elf had explained gently, “they are merely being cautious. In these perilous times, it is difficult to know whom to trust.”

“Well,” Pippin sniffed. “We hardly look like the dangerous sort.”

“And you’re a Prince, Legolas!” Merry exclaimed.

“Who is traveling with a Dwarf, four Halflings, a Captain of Gondor and an exiled King,” he had replied, laughing. “A rather motley crew, wouldn’t you say?”

The Elf had smiled to soften his words, but the Hobbits understood their meaning well enough. Now he stood by the flet’s edge while Merry and Pippin continued their quiet conversation. On the other side of the talan sat Frodo and Sam; near them were Gimli and Boromir. A little behind Legolas, Aragorn remained in whispered discussion with Haldir, the ranger’s emphatic gestures giving some indication of how heated their conversation had become.

The Prince could feel the March Warden looking intently at him, and he turned his head to meet the other Elf’s gaze. Haldir held it for only a moment, and then returned his attention to the Man before him. Legolas looked away and concentrated on the peaceful sounds of nature. He had noticed the curious looks that he had received from the Galadhrim, who were trying to discreetly scrutinize their woodland cousin. The Prince paid them no mind. He had spent enough time at his father’s court to remain unaffected by whispers and stares. However, it was the March Warden who intrigued him the most, but he ensured that his interest remained unseen.

~*~*~*~

“I can let you go no further,” the Guardian said sternly. “I have already done much in allowing you to come this far.”

“Haldir of Lórien,” Aragorn replied, “we come to you at a time of great need and great loss. We seek shelter and the counsel of the Lord and Lady of the Wood, for surely they have heard tidings of our quest.”

“It is true that Elves bearing messages from Lord Elrond have come to our realm,” Haldir answered, “but these tidings said nothing of a Dwarf in your company.” He glanced at the hadhod with a mixture of disdain and distrust. The Galadhrim had not had any dealings with the hadhodrim in centuries, and Gimli had hardly endeared himself with his opening remarks.

“I apologize on the Dwarf’s behalf,” the Ranger said sincerely, “and I hold myself accountable for his actions.”

The apology and acceptance of accountability seemed to please the Elf, but still he shook his head.

Aragorn could feel the first signs of desperation start to creep inside him. So much had already gone awry, they could not be turned away now!

“What can I do to change your mind?” he said quietly. “What can I offer to earn your trust?”

At these words the Guardian’s eyes focused on something behind the Man. Aragorn knew who stood there and he forced himself to take a deep breath, not to read too much into what he saw within the Elf’s gray eyes. At length, Haldir looked at him again.

“You already curry the favor of the Lady,” he said. “You have nothing to prove, Dúnadan. It is those who travel with you that we do not trust. It is fortunate then, that one of your companions is our woodland kin, the son of Thranduil, no less.” Haldir’s eyes drifted back to Legolas, looking over the Elf admiringly. “He is very beautiful,” the Guardian mused aloud. “Our race is fair, but even by our standards, he shines like a rare jewel.”

“What you ask is not within my power to give.” Aragorn’s voice was low and lethal, interrupting the Elf’s thoughts.

Haldir glanced at the Ranger sharply. “I did not *ask* for anything,” he said coldly.

“That is true,” the Man conceded. “But what you *implied* is beyond my power to give,” Aragorn said, rephrasing his previous statement. “And even if it were . . .” he could not help muttering, his voice trailing off as he looked at the trees beyond the Elf.

“You would not give it,” the March Warden finished for him. “I see.”

Aragorn felt uneasy at the glint in the Guardian’s eye at this newly acquired knowledge. He felt like a fool for carelessly revealing too much. He had not been himself of late. Distracted. Grieving. He felt heavy in body and soul, the call of duty and obligation ever present in his mind.

“You debase our quest by bartering passage in this way.” The Man’s words were uncharacteristically harsh, but he did not curb them.

Rather than being offended, the glint in the Guardian’s eye grew and his delicate lips formed a devious smile.

“He has a youthful, almost innocent appearance,” the Elf observed, “but I suspect that beneath that façade is a hardened warrior and a passionate lover. Would you agree with my assessment, Dúnadan? Or perhaps,” he paused, raising an eyebrow questioningly, “you know that already?”

It took all of Aragorn’s resolve not to strike the stunning creature before him. It was true. He and Legolas had been lovers once, during a youth that seemed impossibly distant. It had been another lifetime to the now care worn Man. They had not parted amicably and their friendship had faded with the passing years, during which they seldom saw one another. There had been times, especially when the Ranger had been alone in the wilds, where not even the grace of the Evenstar could drive his loneliness away, that the desire to seek out the Prince had become almost unbearable.

When news reached him that his foster father had chosen Legolas to be part of this quest, his reaction had been a mixture of surprise and joy. He knew that he could put aside their differences in order to work together effectively, perhaps rekindle a valuable friendship. So much time had passed. But Aragorn had forgotten that the perception of time was not the same for Men and Elves. What had been many long seasons to him had merely been the blink of an eye to his former lover. Legolas was as beautiful and ageless as the Man remembered, but the Prince greeted him with a stiff formality, and he understood at once how it was going to be. Taking his lead from the Elf, he accepted the lessened familiarity and mutual respect that existed between them.

The quest had been long and difficult, and as the burden of leadership fell upon him, he found that he missed his friend and confidant more and more. Aragorn would not lie to himself. Great loves never die. Not really. Though he had sworn himself to another, he would take no slight to the Prince’s honor, even from one as respected as the Guardian of the Golden Wood. So lost was the Ranger in his thoughts that he did not realize that the March Warden was speaking once more.

“I will take you to Caras Galadhon,” Haldir was saying, “so that you and your companions may stand in judgment before the Lord and the Lady. But I do so on the condition that you will allow me to pursue my interest with no interference on your part. I understand that the Prince, as well as the other members of your company, are under your protection, Dúnadan. Rest assured that whatever may pass between myself and the Prince will be mutual. I admit that my intentions are not pure, but I would never force anyone against their will.”

For a while the Man said nothing, contemplating this prospect. The Guardian exuded an aura of self-confidence, leaving Aragorn no doubt that the Elf was used to getting his way. But Haldir’s original assessment had been correct, whether he knew it or not. Youthful and innocent the Prince may appear, but the Ranger knew that he was far from either.

“Very well, Haldir,” Aragorn said at last. “If that is the price for our passage then I fear that it is you who has received the short end of our bargain. The Prince’s affection is not easily bought.”

This challenge made the light in the Elf’s eyes burn a little brighter.

“We shall see about that, Dúnadan,” he said in a low voice. “Perhaps the Prince has missed the company of the Eldar and the pleasures that only one of his kind can give.” Turning away and walking to where Frodo and the others waited, Haldir said commandingly, “You will follow me.”

The Fellowship was then divided into two groups. The four Hobbits stayed in one talan with Haldir and his brothers, while Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli and Legolas slept in another.

“Keep a close eye on the Dwarf,” Haldir had warned the Ranger and the Elf. “I will hold you both responsible for him.”

Legolas nodded, swiftly climbing the silver rope that lead to the flet with Gimli muttering and grumbling behind him. Boromir then followed his two companions, but Aragorn paused and held the Guardian’s gaze, a final moment of understanding passing between them.

~*~*~*~

The night was not uneventful as a troop of Orcs passed beneath them, their foul steps marching in rhythm. Gimli and Boromir managed to take some rest, despite the Dwarf’s objections about sleeping in the trees. In the end, even he could not argue that they were safer in the boughs of the mallorns than they would be upon the ground. Safer, Aragorn reflected, was a matter of perspective. The trees did not so much provide protection as they did concealment. Orcs were great climbers, after all. Legolas seemed to be of the same mind and spent the night on watch. No word passed between Man and Elf. From his flet, the Guardian observed the two companions as they sat side by side in silence.

~*~*~*~

Morning came soon enough and with it the knowledge that Orophin had left during the night to warn the city of the passing Orcs. “They will not leave our borders,” Rúmil, the Guardian’s other brother told the Fellowship darkly.

After a quick breakfast, the company set off lead by Haldir, with Rúmil bringing up the rear. For the most part, they walked without speaking, content to enjoy the wonders that the wood presented them. They made good time and it was not long before they reached the mighty Celebrant, flowing swift and strong through the Golden Wood.

“There is no bridge!” Gimli exclaimed as the company stood by the bank.

“The Dwarf has a talent for stating the obvious,” Haldir remarked dryly, giving Legolas a sideways wink. The Prince smiled, appreciating the joke, while Aragorn looked away. The seduction had begun.

“This is how we cross,” Haldir said to the others, bringing out a coil of gray rope. He gave a low whistle and an Elf, similarly clad in Lórien gray, stepped out from a thicket of small trees on the other side of the river. Haldir skillfully cast the rope across the river and the other Elf caught it, securely tying it around a tree by the bank.

“Follow me!” the Guardian called and the others, save Legolas, Aragorn and Rúmil, watched in amazement as the Elf lightly ran over the rope to the other side.

“I can walk this path,” Legolas said, “but the others have not this skill. Must they swim?”

“No,” Haldir answered. “We have two more ropes that we will tie above this one so that your companions may cross with care.” Then he cocked his head to the right, slipping into their native tongue as he said, “Unless you wish for the Dwarf to swim?”

“Tempting though it may be,” Legolas answered in their language, laughing at the thought, “that will not be necessary.” Satisfied with the solution, the Prince nimbly leapt onto the rope and crossed it as swiftly and skillfully as the Guardian had done.

>From the other side, Aragorn watched Haldir as the Elf’s eyes, sparkling with that same glint from the day before, freely roamed the Prince’s body. He could almost see the wheels turning in the Guardian’s head as Legolas displayed his balance and agility, two skills that could be put to good use in other, more intimate, activities.

When all of them had safely crossed the river, the slender bridge was dismantled. Two ropes were kept on the eastern shore, where the company now stood, while Rúmil untied the third rope and slung it over his shoulder. With a wave of his hand, the Elf disappeared into the trees.

“My brother is returning to Nimrodel to complete his watch,” Haldir explained. “You have now entered the Naith of Lórien,” he said seriously. “Few strangers are permitted to set foot here, especially during these dangerous times. I must insist that the eyes of the Dwarf be bound. The others may walk freely for a while, but in time, I must bind your eyes as well. We do not divulge our secrets to foreigners.”

“I will *not* be blindfolded,” Gimli spat, greatly displeased by the proposition. “I am not your prisoner, nor am I a beggar to be lead by a rope through this forest!”

“It is our law,” Haldir replied, drawing himself to his full height and towering over the Dwarf. “I cannot set it aside for *you*.”

“Then I shall leave this cursed wood. Why should I stay if I am not treated with respect?” The Dwarf turned as if to walk away, but the Guardian’s words stopped him.

“You cannot go back!” Haldir said, his voice leaving no room for argument. “There are sentinels on duty that would slay you before you even saw them. Nor would you be able to cross the river again. Nay, you have come this far and you must be judged before the Lord and the Lady. They will do with you as they see fit.”

Gimli folded his arms and obstinately planted his feet on the ground. The tension in the air was palpable until the Dwarf spoke again. “If this is the way it must be,” he said slowly, “I will allow myself to be blindfolded only if you blindfold the Elf as well.”

Haldir was taken aback by the request and he glanced at the Prince, who had become angry in his turn.

“I am a kinsman here!” Legolas cried, offended by the suggestion.

Fearing that the situation would escalate, Aragorn stepped forward and intervened. “We will *all* be blindfolded,” he told Haldir. “Even you, Legolas,” he added, fixing the Elf with a firm look. “Come!” he said to the others. “If I am to lead this group, then you must do as I say. We are a Fellowship, and no one shall be singled out.”

There were murmurs and nods of assent. The decision made, Haldir and the other Lórien Elf set about blindfolding the members of the Fellowship, when Gimli suddenly laughed out loud.

“What a merry troop of fools we shall make!” he chuckled as his eyes were covered. “Marching single file and being led on a string like some traveling show.”

Legolas was the last to be blindfolded and remained unhappy at the situation. He waited, head held high as Haldir stepped closer than was necessary to place the cloth over his eyes. The Prince inhaled the Guardian’s scent, rich and heady, so unlike his own. It made his skin tingle.

“Your pout,” Haldir whispered into his ear, warm breath ghosting over the sensitive tip, “only serves to heighten your beauty. But I would much prefer to see you smile.” The Guardian’s insinuation was rewarded by the slow curving of the younger Elf’s sensuous lips.

“It is a shame that you must be blindfolded while the sun shines and the weather is fair,” he continued, leisurely tying the cloth behind the Prince’s head, “but removing your sight heightens your other senses. Much pleasure may still be derived from a simple touch and the sounds around you.”

While Haldir spoke, his companion passed a length of rope to each member of the Fellowship so that they became the merry troop that Gimli had so ably described. Legolas was the last to receive the rope and he held it in his right hand, waiting for Haldir to grasp the end. However, the Guardian had other plans and instead of taking the rope, he reached out and clasped the Prince’s free hand. Haldir watched Legolas’ face carefully for any kind of reaction, but there was none. Still, he noted with satisfaction, that the smile he had coaxed from the Prince remained on his lips.

Thus the company continued their journey in this way, walking single-file connected by the long rope. Gimli had warned Haldir that he would seek amends for every stumble and stubbed toe, but the Dwarf’s concerns were soon laid to rest as the path proved to be smooth and unfettered.

At the head of the line, two golden-haired Elves walked side by side. Haldir held Legolas’ hand as though it were a delicate bird; not so tightly that he would crush it, but not so loose that it would slip through his fingers. For this simple gesture reflected the art of seduction to the Guardian. It was a means to keep his prey close, while at the same time not suffocating or frightening it. Every now and then, he would brush his fingers against the Prince’s knuckles or draw soothing circles at the back of the Elf’s hand. He teased and tantalized until Legolas responded, and two ivory hands were engaged in their private erotic dance.

The company walked for the rest of the day, until the evening breeze began to whisper in the trees. They encountered a host of Elves from the city, who were on their way to protect the northern borders in case of an attack from Moria. They bore a message from the Lord and the Lady, which said that the Fellowship was to be able to walk freely, including the Dwarf. The blindfolds were removed and Haldir bowed low before them.

“Your pardon,” he said sincerely. “Look upon us now with friendly eyes,” he added, purposely directing his gaze to the Mirkwood Prince. Legolas nodded imperceptibly, blue eyes shining as he accepted this apology.

“You have come to Cerin Amroth,” the Guardian continued, sweeping an arm before him. “Here we shall rest a while and arrive at the city of the Galadhrim by dusk.”

The Ranger went to the March Warden as the others sat or lay down in the field. “Our passage has been granted by the Lord and the Lady,” he said quietly. “I see no reason why we must keep to the bargain that was made yesterday eve.”

“Is that so?” Haldir said, amusement in his eyes. “Ever the protector, Dúnadan. You need not concern yourself. I shall take *very* good care of the Prince.” The Elf turned around and left before the Man could reply, setting his sights on his prey who stood a few feet away.

Legolas was delighted to be in open space and free of the confines of his blindfold. He felt the rich, lush grass beneath his feet and admired the star-shaped golden flowers that studded the sward. Contented, he reached down and brushed a pale white flower as it blew on its slender stalk.

“That is the niphredil,” Haldir said as he approached the Prince. “And the golden one is called–”

“Elanor” Legolas supplied, drawing himself up so that he could look into the Guardian’s eyes. They were standing as close as they had been when the March Warden had tied his blindfold.

Haldir resisted the urge to bend down and kiss those soft lips. It was too soon. Instead he tore his gaze away, saying, “Would you climb with me up Cerin Amroth?”

Wordlessly, Legolas nodded and the two Elves walked to the mound of Amroth, where the house of the Elven Prince had been built in ages past. Upon the mound grew a double crown of trees. They passed through the outer circle, whose trees had a bark of snowy white, and then into the inner circle of great mallorns arrayed in gold. At the center of the mound stood the tallest of all the trees and amid its branches was a gleaming, white flet. Grasping the gray rope ladder, Legolas climbed it, emerging onto the white talan and a breathtaking view. Instinctively, the Prince looked to the south, where he knew that the city of the Galadhrim lay. He saw clearly a hill of mighty trees, out of which a light and power seemed to emanate that held all the land in sway. Looking to the east, he followed the land of Lórien as it ran along the river Anduin until his gaze rested upon Southern Mirkwood, where darkness was tangible to his keen eyes.

The Prince felt the Guardian stand behind him, the Elf’s rich scent and warm presence that threatened to touch a part of him that he had closed off years ago. Tis nothing but a physical reaction, he reprimanded himself harshly. You have been away from your people for too long. Why should you deny your body’s desires?

“The Dol Guldur has been rebuilt,” he said aloud in an effort to drive these unsettling thoughts away. “Its shadow grows long over my father’s realm.”

“Your people are fine warriors,” Haldir said softly. “For centuries have they kept the Enemy at bay. Your father will not let evil overrun his land.” The Guardian noticed that the younger Elf stiffened slightly at the reference to his father, and he filed this knowledge away for future use.

“My father is proud and willful,” the Prince replied with a note of bitterness in his voice. “But he has always had the best interests of his people at heart.”

“As all good rulers do,” Haldir answered, brushing a stray lock of hair behind the Prince’s ear.

Legolas turned around at the touch and the Guardian once again found himself mesmerized by those shining blue eyes. Did they turn indigo when they were lit with the flames of passion? He would find out. But not yet, he reminded himself. The game had only begun.

The Prince seemed to be studying him, and for a moment, Haldir wondered if the younger Elf could read the desire in his eyes. He was left wondering as Legolas broke the spell to look down at someone who had attracted his interest in the field below them.

Peering over the Elf’s shoulder, Haldir spied the Ranger standing apart with a golden elanor flower in his hand, oblivious to the goings-on of the others.

“He is lost in his own reverie,” the Guardian commented.

“That he is,” the Prince agreed, “for this place holds great meaning for him.”

Haldir waited patiently for the Prince to elaborate. Legolas’ voice became cool and distant as he said; “This is where he pledge his troth to the one who holds his heart.”

“And do you have such a place for the one who holds your heart?” the Guardian whispered, warm breath against the Prince’s mask of ice.

“I give my heart to no one,” was the cold reply.

~*~*~*~

The city of the Galadhrim was unlike any city the Fellowship had ever seen before. Haldir had described Caras Galadhon as “the heart of Elvendom on earth,” and no one thought to disagree. Lit with myriad lanterns that hung from the boughs of the great trees, the company walked along many staircases and passageways to be presented before the Lord and the Lady, whose piercing gaze read each of their hearts in turn.

Now the Fellowship gathered in the pavilion that had been laid out for them by the Elves, the Hobbits and the Dwarf very much relieved to be sleeping on the ground. Though the journey had been long, the travelers stayed up for a little while discussing the day’s events. Eventually, their conversation touched upon the Lord and the Lady of the Golden Wood. Each was curious to know what the Lady Galadriel had said to the others as she held their gaze, but none would tell. For to do so would be to reveal their heart’s deepest desire, and it took great strength to face such a harsh truth. Their strength was yet to be replenished during this time of grief.

Legolas sat and listened to his companions speak, but participated little in their discussion. He was content to remain a passive observer, while the haunting voices of the Galadhrim filled the night air.

“It is a lament for Gandalf,” he heard himself whisper, though he declined to translate the words of the song.

The conversation continued and the Elf found his attention drawn more and more to the Dwarf, whom he was starting to look upon with new eyes. Gimli had changed since meeting the Lady Galadriel. The others did not see it, but Legolas knew. It happened the moment the Lady had looked kindly upon the Dwarf, speaking of the glory of the ancient city of Dwarrowdelf. Gimli had feared falling under the enchantment of the Lady of the Wood – the Elf-Witch he had called her – and rightly so. When he heard the names of the places that he cherished spoken in his own tongue, he looked into her radiant face and saw not an enemy, but a being of immense wisdom and compassion. Indeed, the Lady’s spell had been cast and Legolas knew that the Dwarf was willingly enthralled. It was this stout but brave member of the Fellowship that the Prince understood the least. That would have to change.

The Elf put these good intentions aside for the moment. Tonight his heart was heavy, not only with grief for Gandalf’s loss, but also with the words that the Lady Galadriel had addressed to him alone. She had seen through the bitterness he had tried to hide and gently rebuked him for it. She knew that the love and friendship of a youth called Estel had forever changed the Prince’s life; that the ending of their relationship had lead to much sadness and despair; that the Prince had drawn strength from his wounds and hardened his heart to those who would offer him love and comfort. She understood why he had turned to combat to exorcise his demons, mastering any weapon that was placed in his hand, though his love for the bow and arrow dominated all his other skills.

“You have come far, son of Thranduil,” she had said, “but the road before you is longer still. You will need his strength, as he will need yours. Strength comes from within, but sometimes, true strength reveals itself in one’s weaknesses and in knowing in whom to place your trust. He loves you still, though you may not believe it. Do not abandon him now.”

Legolas had been too stunned to react in front of the Lady, his mind swimming with the implications of her words. Now that he had dwelt upon the matter, anger and old pain flared inside him. *He* was the one who had been abandoned those thirty odd years ago. How could strength come from weakness? What madness had put him on this quest that he should walk by his former lover’s side, the distance between them like a never-healing wound?

The Prince had been chosen by Lord Elrond to represent the race of Elves on this quest – a great honor. Yet, he remembered that Elrond had placed no oath or bond on any member of the Fellowship, save for the Ringbearer whose quest this was, to go no further than they chose. The closer the company came to Mount Doom, the harder it would be to turn away. But there was still time. Legolas had only been sent to Rivendell to deliver the unfortunate tidings of Gollum’s escape, and as darkness continued to infest the land, the image of the Dol Guldur continued to burn in his mind’s eye. It made the Prince wonder, was his place not with his people and by his father’s side?

As these thoughts continued to occupy the Elf, he did not notice that the others were already preparing for bed. It was not until the Dwarf began snoring did the Prince become aware of his surroundings. As his friends slept, Legolas stood up silently and left the pavilion.

~*~*~*~

When Aragorn awoke it was still night and he knew instinctively that the Elf was not among them. Limbs protesting at being disturbed from their much-deserved rest, the Man got up and tread his way through his sleeping companions.

The city was eerily quiet as the Ranger stood by the edge of the field where their pavilion had been built. Time for a smoke, the Man decided, taking out his travel pipe and a bit of weed. After the pipe was lit, Aragorn stood and smoked, contemplating what he was doing there. Did he mean to search for the Elf? He did not have the faintest idea where Legolas could have gone. But his feet began to walk of their own accord, leading him to a destination that eluded his mind.

After some time, he heard the sound of voices talking and laughing, their lovely melodic lilt breaking the stillness of the night. Aragorn recognized one of them instantly, and the second he had grown familiar with in a short space of time. The Ranger emerged into a small clearing and saw to his right, two golden-haired Elves sitting cross-legged at the base of an ancient tree. Legolas was leaning against the mallorn’s broad trunk, while Haldir relaxed against a giant root to the Prince’s left. The Man observed two bottles of fey wine between them, one already empty and the other almost finished. Legolas held up a hand to greet him, while Haldir took a sip from his goblet, turning his head to the side to see who this newcomer was.

“Aragorn!” the Prince called. “Come and join us.”

The Man accepted, noticing how the Prince’s cheeks flushed a becoming rosy shade from the effects of the wine. His manner was unrestrained, his laughter light and tinkling. It was a marked contrast to the serious and reserved conduct the Elf maintained around the Fellowship. Indeed, it was the friendliest greeting Aragorn had received from the Prince in many a year, and for a moment he feared that he had underestimated Haldir’s skill in this arena, and perhaps Legolas’ own resolve. What they do is none of your affair, he reminded himself, but another part of him refused to believe this rationalization.

He sat down on the other side of the Prince, opposite the Guardian, who flashed him a silky smile. Almost a challenge, the Man thought.

“I’m afraid we only have two goblets,” Legolas said with some dismay, oblivious to the tension that had arisen between his two companions. With a casual shrug, he poured the remaining wine into his goblet and passed it to the Ranger. “Drink from mine,” he offered.

Aragorn nodded his thanks, taking a sip of the red wine. It had a rich berry taste, laced with a touch of spice. An unusual, potent combination, but delicious nonetheless. The Man took a deeper draught, savoring the strong liquid as it warmed his throat.

“Is the wine to your liking?” the Guardian asked him.

“It is unlike any fey wine that I have ever tasted,” the Man answered truthfully.

“That is because it is Haldir’s own brew,” the Prince said conspiratorially, placing his hand on the other Elf’s knee.

Aragorn watched the two Elves and realized with some surprise that Legolas was drunk. The Prince had always been able to hold his liquor. Was *this* part of Haldir’s plan? He glanced sharply at the Guardian, suddenly suspicious of this homemade brew.

Haldir was silently laughing. The Ranger could see it in the Elf’s eyes. As if I would need to inebriate the Prince to have my way, they seemed to be saying, allaying the Ranger’s concerns. A drunk Legolas would be a willing Legolas, but that was not the type of conquest the Guardian desired.

“Then Haldir is not only skilled but generous in sharing this with you,” Aragorn said.

“With both of you,” the Guardian corrected. “Tis a pity that you did not come sooner, Dúnadan.”

“Yes, it is a shame,” Aragorn agreed. “I’m sure the conversation would have been stimulating.”

“It has been most stimulating,” Legolas said innocently. “Haldir is fine company, Aragorn. I suspect that you two would get along quite well.”

The March Warden could not suppress a laugh. “What makes you say that?”

“You are very similar,” the Prince replied, but would not elaborate further. He lapsed into silence, absently taking the goblet from the Ranger and sipping the wine.

“Well,” Aragorn said after a while, “I had best be heading back.”

“But you have just arrived,” Haldir chastised.

“That may be so,” the Man said, “but my body is telling me that it needs more rest. Long has it been since our company has been able to sleep within such well-protected borders.” He then turned to Legolas, who was still lost in his own thoughts and said, “Will you not be retiring soon?”

“Yes,” the Prince said. “Haldir has offered me his quarters for the duration of our stay.”

Aragorn looked to the other Elf for confirmation and the Guardian nodded. A bold move, the Ranger thought, but hardly subtle. He had expected more from Haldir. Somehow this did not fit his image of the cunning Elf.

“When will you be returning to the northern border?” the Prince was asking their host.

“Tomorrow morning.”

“So soon?” A note of disappointment.

“I’m afraid so.”

“It is a shame that we only have this night.”

“The night is not over yet.”

Legolas did not say anything, but a thoughtful expression was on his face. Haldir’s offer hung heavy in the air. The two Elves appeared to have forgotten the Ranger’s presence, and Aragorn believed that now would be the best time to remind them.

“The Fellowship would be sorely disappointed to know that you did not spend the first night in Caras Galadhon with them,” he told the Prince. “They would miss your company tomorrow morning, Legolas.”

Legolas looked to his right where the Ranger sat, the familiar mask now back in place. Then he turned to Haldir. “Aragorn is right,” he said. “I feel that it is my duty to stay with the Fellowship on this first night.”

“Of course, you must do what you think is best,” the Guardian said graciously. “The offer to stay in my quarters while I am away is still open,” he added. “My quarters are humble, but if you seek a place of solitude, where you will not be disturbed, then there you may find some peace of mind.”

“I accept your offer,” Legolas said without hesitation, flashing the Guardian one of his most alluring smiles. “We shall have other nights, Haldir.”

The older Elf nodded with his own smile. “I look forward to them.”

The Guardian then gathered the two empty wine bottles, together with the two goblets and stood up. “It is time I also retired,” he announced and with a small bow, he left the clearing, humming a little tune.

Aragorn and Legolas sat by the tree a while longer, the Elf twirling a pale niphredil in his hand. “Shall we go?” he asked suddenly, startling the Man.

“Yes,” Aragorn agreed, standing up. “Do you need help?” The Prince was loath to accept assistance, but the Ranger was not sure if the Elf would be able to return to the pavilion unaided.

“No,” Legolas replied, a little curtly. “I am fine.”

Then, to the Man’s surprise, the Prince stood up without any difficulty, brushing his clothes off as he did so. His movements were quick and precise, his eyes clear and focused, as if he had not just polished off a bottle of wine.

The Elf smiled slightly to see the look of amazement on the Man’s face. “You did not seriously believe me to be drunk?” Then he laughed, leaning towards the Man as he said, “Really, Aragorn. I would have thought that you knew me better than that.”

“It is difficult to say these days,” the Ranger answered, “when you act like a stranger toward me.”

The Elf drew back as though wounded by the Man’s words. His face hardened and he turned away, walking back to the pavilion without waiting for the Ranger, but the Man’s long strides soon caught up with him and they walked together in silence.

Silence, Legolas reflected, had become the norm between them. It was not the silence born of peace and contentment, nor the silence derived from long years of companionship. It was the silence of unfinished matters, of bitterness and heartache. Was he the only one who grieved for what had been lost?

“Why did you accept Haldir’s offer to stay in his quarters?” Aragorn asked, interrupting the Prince’s thoughts. “Have you grown so tired of our company?”

The Elf seemed reluctant to answer, finally saying, “The journey has been hard. I need this time to myself. To think. To find my peace of mind as Haldir said.” He stopped suddenly and grabbed Aragorn’s arm. “You can understand that, can’t you?”

“Yes, Legolas. I can.”

The Elf looked so vulnerable at that moment. So young and lost. There was so much Aragorn wished to say, but he did not know where to begin. No words would come.

The moment passed and the Man watched with wonder as a shroud seemed to fall over Legolas’ face and he released Aragorn’s arm. The note of urgency disappeared from his voice, returning to its measured calm as he spoke, “I will still spend time with the Fellowship, of course, and take my meals with them. I have grown fond of their company, particularly of the Halflings.”

They resumed walking and no more was said. When they reached the clearing where the pavilion was laid out, Aragorn stopped and told the Elf, “You are attracted to him.”

The words froze the Prince, and he slowly turned around to face the Man who still stood in the shadows of the trees. He knew of whom the Ranger spoke.

“His intentions are not pure, Legolas.”

“And you think mine are?”

The Ranger did not respond and the Elf took a step closer to him. “I did not lie when I said that the two of you are similar,” he whispered. “There is nobility beneath Haldir’s façade.” He reached out, running his hand along the Man’s face, until he cupped Aragorn’s chin beneath his fingers.

“You would barter me in exchange for passage through Lórien.”

Aragorn tried to shake his head in protest, but the Elf’s firm grip held him still.

“You were right to think that my affection is not so easily bought,” he continued. “I shall enjoy this challenge that you have presented me with, and I think that you know well enough my skill in this arena.”

With these words, the Prince released him and the Man was left standing amidst the trees as the Elf strolled towards their sleeping companions. He closed his eyes and let the cool night air envelope him. How had it come to this? he wondered. How would the game play out now that Legolas knew?

 

Part 2