In Your Image

by Menel

Chapter 4. The Competition

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For the past two weeks, parties and delegations had been arriving at the White City. All the major fiefs of Gondor were represented, the largest contingents coming from Ithilien and Dol Amroth. Arwen's wish was fulfilled as large numbers of her kin had decided to partake in the festivities. A host of Elves came from Ithilien, happy to be reunited with their Prince. A surprisingly large party also arrived from Lórien, headed by the silveren Wood's ever-faithful Guardian, Haldir. The Guardian had greeted Legolas with a kiss so intimate, both King Elessar and his son had watched in stunned silence. Indeed, many Elves were eager to see the fair Elven Prince, none more so than his elder brother and sister, Orothor and Onela, who had come from Greenwood on behalf of Thranduil. Among the parties from Lórien and Greenwood were some of the most talented Elves in song, dance and lore who had agreed to perform during the succeeding nights of the celebration.

King Eomer of Rohan had also been one of the earliest to arrive. The Rohirrim looked forward to the jousting competition, which, with their unparalleled riding skill would be their greatest strength. However, they were no less eager to spar with the men of Gondor in the field of swordplay or any other aspect of man-to-man combat. The archery they were less keen on and with the number of Elves present, thought it best to leave it be. They insisted on attending to their own horses and did so religiously. No one was surprised, nor took offense at this, for all knew the consequences of one foolish enough to stand between a Rohirrim and his steed.

Together with the Rohirrim came the Dwarves of the Glittering Caves. What a sight they made as they entered the White City; each rider carrying a most unhappy Dwarf. Since then the Dwarves had been patronizing the many taverns of Minas Tirith, pleasing their proprietors to no end. Although the ale flowed freely and the bars echoed with boisterous drinking songs, never did things get out of hand.

During the day, Men, Elves and Dwarves worked together to prepare for the great celebration. It had been twenty-five years since the War of the Ring and peace had been brought to the land. It was fitting that the silver anniversary of the destruction of the One Ring should be celebrated as such. The celebration would take place over three days with different competitions being held during the day and the banquets and entertainment to take place at night. The first day was devoted entirely to archery; the second to one-on-one combat of different weapons including broad sword, long knife, mace and axe; and the third to jousting.

An enormous pavilion had been constructed at the base of the city. It served as a meeting place for the participants of the various competitions, to receive instructions and to keep track of their progress as well as that of their fellow competitors. Airy and spacious, it had become a natural gathering place for all the races; where one could relax and have their fill of food and drink should they desire it. Numerous grandstands were also erected to accommodate the growing crowds of spectators. The archery range was carefully prepared and would easily be converted into a jousting arena for the third day of competition. For the combat contests, many smaller arenas had been constructed to allow multiple matches to take place at the same time. These areas quickly became popular with the crowds, as they were intimate enough to allow greater access to the competitors.

King Elessar oversaw all the proceedings in his city and was pleased with the co-operation and warm interaction he witnessed among the races. It was as it should be. He thought about all this as he escorted his wife to the royal grandstand, where they would watch the archery competition. The people rose as they approached, waiting respectfully for the King and Queen of Gondor to take their place before sitting down again. Aragorn scanned the royal stand searching for a certain fair-haired Prince. He soon found him talking animatedly with his sister. On his left was Gimli, who had a broad smile on his face as he listened to Legolas' tale. The Elf was gesturing with his hands, no doubt recounting one of his more amusing teaching experiences with Eldarion. Gimli and Onela both laughed in appreciation. Just as Legolas finished his story, he glanced in Aragorn's direction. The King held his gaze and for a few moments the two of them were locked in a battle of wills. Then Legolas' eyes softened and he bowed his head slightly before returning his attention to his companions.

Aragorn looked away, a familiar feeling of frustration coming over him. It had been three months since Legolas first came to Minas Tirith and nothing had been resolved between them. If anything, their forced proximity to one another had increased the tension in their already strained relationship. Although the Elf lived within the same walls, his room in the same wing as the royal bedchambers, Aragorn rarely saw him. Legolas was a ghost flitting in and out of his life, the memory of a friendship that once saw him through life's vicissitudes all but a distant recollection.

Though the King rebuked himself harshly, Aragorn could not help but feel the pangs of envy at the amount of time his son spent with the Elven Prince. The archery lessons were merely the beginning. Now, it seemed as though they were together every waking moment. They had taken to one another so quickly and so easily. Could Aragorn really have expected it to be any other way? His son was the mirror image of himself in both temperament and physique. As for Legolas, the King knew firsthand of the Prince's bewitching charms. The possibility that their closeness had exceeded the bonds of friendship was a thought that crossed the King's mind more often than he cared to admit, though neither had given any indication for him to believe so.

About two weeks ago, Legolas had given Eldarion a magnificent bow and quiver that the Elf had finely handcrafted himself. The words "Strength and Courage" were inscribed in Elvish on the hilt of the bow and the quiver was made of the finest Elven material, making it light yet durable, with the seal of Gondor embroidered in its center. Eldarion had been understandably delighted, embracing Legolas warmly in thanks. Aragorn had watched the scene unfold with a mixture of emotions. While proud of his son's accomplishments and believing the gift to be most fitting for the occasion, the bond between the two had become strikingly apparent to him. It made him realize how much he had sacrificed for his people and the good of Gondor. Could he ever truly know how great was his own personal loss? After twenty-five years, was he now starting to question his decision?

Aragorn shook himself out of his musings. He was being selfish. He did not know what he wanted from the Elven Prince, nor what he could offer in return. The decision had been made long ago and he would have to live with it. He would not begrudge his son's newfound friendship.

And yet, however illogically, he still hoped.

~*~*~*~

The response to the archery competition had been overwhelming. There was a fair mixture of both Men and Elves with a total of 160 competitors in all. They had been divided into eight groups of twenty archers for the elimination rounds. Slowly but steadily, the numbers of the competitors diminished until there were only five archers left in each group. From there, three archers per group would move on to make up the final twenty-four competitors.

Eldarion stepped up to the firing line, waiting for the signal to be given. He drew his arrow and took aim. The herald blew his trumpet and five arrows were released into the air. Three of them hit the bull's eye, Eldarion's arrow among them. He would be one of the final twenty-four competitors along with the two remaining Elves from his grouping, Gwaidor of Greenwood and Hrethil of Lórien. Eldarion had paid particular attention to Gwaidor during the course of the morning. He was one of Greenwood's finest archers, as well as being the Captain of the King's Guard. He had gone on many a patrol with Thranduil's youngest son and their roles had been reversed over the course of millennia. Where once Gwaidor had been the teacher and leader, Legolas had gradually matured into his role of Commander and Prince. Legolas held Gwaidor in the highest esteem, and in turn the Captain of the King's Guard would gladly give his life for the young Prince. Eldarion played these thoughts in his mind as the final round began. He knew Gwaidor would be there until the very end. He only hoped that he would be as well.

The last twenty-four competitors were composed of sixteen Elves and eight Men. As the targets grew farther in distance and the shooting ever more precise, Eldarion soon discovered that he was the only Man left in the field. The Prince was honest with himself at all times. He knew full well that the reason for his success thus far was just as much due to his exceptional eyesight, which far exceeded that of an ordinary man, as it was to his skill with bow and arrow. Still, he had a burning desire to win this competition, not so much to prove himself as one of the greatest archers in the land, but for Legolas. Although he knew the Elf would be proud of him regardless of whether or not he became champion, Eldarion did not feel that was enough. He wanted to leave no doubt in the Elf's mind that he had absorbed every lesson and had valued every moment they had spent together. Just as Legolas had given him a bow and arrow as a symbol of the depth of their friendship, winning this tournament would be his gift to the Elf in return.

Eldarion turned to look at the royal grandstand, hoping to get an encouraging smile from the fair Prince, but Legolas' attention was directed elsewhere. Slightly curious, Eldarion followed the direction of the Elf's gaze and discovered that Legolas was looking at his father. He would have not given this a second thought, except for the intensity that his father exhibited in return. The two seemed oblivious to their surroundings, wordlessly communicating with their eyes. Eldarion watched them, puzzled by their reaction. The Elven Prince's usually infallible mask betrayed a strange expression that the young man could not quite place. He looked back and forth from Legolas to his father and found the same sad expression touched the King's features.

It was at that moment his mother's words from months past suddenly became clear to him. *Why does he close his heart to me?* he had asked her. *When you know the answer to that question, you shall understand the depth of his sorrow and how much he must overcome before he can return your love.*

Eldarion quickly looked at the ground, his mind trying to comprehend this stunning realization. How could he have not seen this sooner? Was he really so blind? The pieces fit together. It explained why Legolas had never visited the White City before, although all told him that the Elf and his father were the fastest of friends. It also explained why Legolas conveniently, albeit skillfully avoided the King's company whenever possible. He could not bear to be so near the one he loved. And as for his father! The King reciprocated the Elf's feelings. That much was clear to him. How long had this been going on? Did his mother know? His mind was assaulted by questions that he could not hope to answer. Breathing was becoming difficult. The air appeared to have grown thin, as though he were on top of a high summit, instead of in the midst of an archery range.

"Prince Eldarion?"

He looked up to see Gwaidor standing in front of him. The ancient Elf looked utterly composed and Eldarion wondered why he had not been blessed with that most Elvish of traits.

"It is your turn, my Lord." The Elf gestured towards the firing line.

"Thank you," Eldarion replied, still disoriented. He found himself automatically looking in Legolas' direction again. This time the Elf's attention was directed solely at him, an expression of concern on his delicate features. Eldarion smiled weakly to reassure him. Legolas did not appear convinced but he smiled encouragingly in return. Eldarion stepped up to the firing line once more. His vision was clouded as he released his arrow and he knew that it was not his best shot. But it was enough, as the arrow of the remaining Lórien Elf had been slightly wider of the center of the bull's eye than his own. He would now face Gwaidor for the mantel of tournament champion.

"Your pupil seems distracted," Gimli commented to Legolas as they watched Eldarion waiting for Gwaidor to take his next shot.

"I agree. It is most unusual. I wonder what could be distressing him."

"A certain Elven Prince, perhaps?"

Legolas glared at the Dwarf warningly, but did not justify the comment with his own remark. Instead, he turned his attention back to the range. Gwaidor had just released his arrow. It was a perfect shot, hitting the dead center of the red bull's eye. Legolas knew Eldarion would be hard pressed to do something better, if that were at all possible.

Eldarion had watched the shot, a feeling of resignation creeping over him. The target seemed impossibly far away; he could not recall ever having fired from such a distance before. The Prince took a moment to clear his mind. He closed his eyes. What would Legolas do? The Elven warrior would never surrender, even if the odds were heavily against him. Eldarion felt the same. He opened his eyes; clarity had returned to both his mind and his vision. Deliberately, he drew an arrow from his quiver and took aim. "Strength and courage," he whispered to himself. For Legolas.

In the hushed silence, all could hear the Prince's arrow as it sang through the air until it hit its target. There was a surprised gasp. Gwaidor's arrow had been split in two.

~*~*~*~

The Elf and the Dwarf walked through the bright pathways of the fair that had been set up not far from the Pavilion. Bustle and activity surrounded them. There were numerous food stalls, games, fortunetellers, puppeteers, street players and acrobats to keep the people occupied. Among this excitement the Elf and Dwarf went unnoticed. It was a far cry from a similar walk the two friends had taken through the streets of Minas Tirith for the first time, twenty-five years ago. At that time, the sight of the tall, regal Elf and his short, stocky companion had drawn many an amazed stare.

"You have done a fine job," the Dwarf told his friend. "I confess I did not think it possible for young Eldarion to win the tournament. To go far in the competition? Yes. To make it to the final round? Quite possible. But to win?" The Dwarf shook his head.

Legolas laughed. "You underestimated him then. Eldarion is an excellent student."

"Clearly." The Dwarf thought for a moment, considering the best way to broach the subject he wished to discuss. "He has also become one of your closest friends, has he not?"

"Without doubt. I cherish his friendship." The Elf hesitated. "Though sometimes, I wonder if I see too much of his father in him. Then it is I who am not doing justice to our friendship."

"If that were true," the Dwarf mused, "then it would also explain why you are yet to accept his offer."

"His offer?"

"Do not play dumb, Legolas," the Dwarf said, reprovingly. "It does not suit you."

The Elf smiled, but said nothing.

"Eldarion is good for you," the Dwarf went on, "it is you who are afraid to show your feelings. You are an Elf of contradictions," he declared. "You are passionate about life, archery, music and poetry, but when it comes to matters of the heart, you hide behind your Elven mask of ice."

"You presume too much in thinking that I return the mortal's feelings."

"Do you deny it?" the Dwarf challenged.

"There was an incident three months ago," the Elf began. "In fact, it happened the very day you left Minas Tirith and gave me such *sage* advice. I decided then that I would not pursue a romantic relationship with Eldarion and would discourage him from doing the same. It is for the best."

"Bah," the Dwarf scoffed. "Then you have been deceiving yourself." Gimli stopped and crossed his arms defiantly. "Eldarion has waited long enough. You do love him! And you must tell him! Tonight!"

Legolas looked at his friend in a mixture of surprise and amusement. "Really, Gimli," he chided. "You are even more belligerent than usual today."

"It is your foolishness that makes me so," the Dwarf retorted. "If there was anything I could do to make you confess your feelings to the youth, I would do it."

"Is that a promise?"

"Yes," the Dwarf answered immediately, missing the mischievous glint in the Elf's eye.

"Very well," Legolas replied slowly. He surveyed the fair grounds until he found what he was looking for and then turned to face the Dwarf. "Come," he told his friend. "There is *something* you can do."

The Dwarf followed the Elf suspiciously. Whatever had he gotten himself into?

Legolas led them to one of the most popular game stands, aptly named "The Wet Seat". A contraption with a trapdoor had been built, suspended over a rather large wooden container of water. The hapless victim sat on the trapdoor, taunting the spectators to hit the bull's eye to the right of the apparatus. Thus far, ten people had already been dunked that day. The Elf and the Dwarf arrived just in time to see the device at work.

"If you sit in that seat," the Elf told him, "I will tell Eldarion of my feelings towards him this very eve."

The Dwarf looked at him in disbelief. "You are joking," he stated.

"I am completely serious. I will do as you ask, if only you sit in that seat."

Gimli stomped his foot in consternation. Curse these fey creatures and their ultimatums! He glared at the machine, as if by doing so he could disintegrate it into ashes. With a fierce look over his shoulder at the Elf, who was doing a poor job of containing his mirth, Gimli stalked over to the blasted contraption.

"You!" he bellowed somewhat rudely at the man in charge. "I shall be your next victim!"

The man smiled broadly. "D'ye hear that ladies and gents?" he called to the crowd. "A willing volunteer!"

The crowd laughed and cheered appreciatively as Gimli was helped onto the seat. He glowered at the Elf the entire time.

"Who shall take a turn? Who shall take a turn?" the man asked the spectators.

Legolas stepped forward. "I shall," he said.

Gimli's glares had turned into daggers sharp enough to slice through the toughest orc hide. He vowed to himself that the Elf would pay for this humiliation.

"Remember my friend," Legolas called to the Dwarf as he accepted an orange from the attendant. "I am an Elf of my word."

Laughing blue eyes and sun-kissed silveren hair were the last things Gimli saw before he was drenched to the bone.

Author's Notes: Special thanks goes to Liadon for the beta.

Chapter 3