“Ha! You owe a forfeit, Ro,” Aragorn called out merrily.
Elrohir looked up indignantly, his lapse in concentration allowing his twin to pin him to the grass. Elladan bore down on his brother, seeing victory literally within his grasp.
“Do you yield?” the Man asked his foster-brother.
“Never,” Elrohir grunted as Elladan dispassionately applied leverage.
“Ah, for the Valar’s sake! Yield!” Elladan said. “Why must you be so stubborn?”
“He is his father’s son,” Aragorn quipped.
“Indeed.” A dry voice spoke almost in Aragorn’s ear.
The young Ranger spun and faced Lord Elrond. So intent had Aragorn been on mediating the wrestling match that he had not heard his foster-father approach. Elves are stealthy by nature, but Aragorn should have had some intimation of the powerful Lord’s presence.
“Ada!” the twins chorused as they rose and brushed off their clothing.
Elrond cocked an eyebrow at his natural sons. “It is good to see you back at Rivendell,” the magisterial Elf said. “When were you planning on informing me of your arrival?”
“Sorry, ada,” Elladan said sincerely. “A quarrel arose on our way from the stables and Estel offered to help us settle it.”
Elrond’s eyebrows climbed farther toward his hairline. “I might have known. A Man would choose a physical solution to a problem.”
Aragorn looked away from his foster-father’s gaze. The young Man’s cheeks grew warm as he perceived the reprimand in Lord Elrond’s words.
“Arwen will be arriving home any day,” Elrond continued. “Would you wish her to be witness to such unseemly behavior?”
Aragorn’s humiliation was complete. He’d been looking forward to meeting his foster-sister since he’d first seen her likeness portrayed in alabaster. Arwen had been living in Lorien since long before a fleeing Woman had come to Elrond begging sanctuary for her child. Aragorn was devastated by the thought that the Lady Evenstar might have seen him for the first time while he was belly-down on the sward, encouraging his foster-brothers to fight.
“Please accept my apology,” Aragorn said.
Elrond sighed. “You are a good Man, Estel,” the Lord said. “Sometimes, however, you are impetuous. If you would but think a thing through before you act, I would never have cause to speak to you thus and do not think I do not see your smirks, my sons.”
Elladan and Elrohir’s faces sobered as Elrond’s hawk eyes fastened on them.
“You would also do well to have a care for your dignity,” Lord Elrond told the two tall young Elves. “I expect all of you to conduct yourselves as befits princes when you accompany me to meet with King Thranduil.”
“The King of Mirkwood?” the twins exclaimed simultaneously.
“Do you know of another Thranduil?” Elrond asked dryly.
“He never leaves Mirkwood,” Elrohir said. “Everyone knows that.”
“Are we going to Mirkwood?” Elladan asked.
Elrond held up a hand. “I received a message from Thranduil requesting that I meet him on the eastern side of the Misty Mountains where his kingdom begins. I discerned his mind from afar, but could only surmise that a great worry occupied his thought. His message requested that I bring my sons with me. I saw no reason to refuse his request.”
Elladan and Elrohir exchanged an excited look. “When do we leave?” Elrohir asked.
“At first light tomorrow,” Elrond said. “See you are garbed to do honor to Rivendell.”
Just after midday, the troop of Rivendell Elves arrived at the eaves of Mirkwood. Several pavilions of silk in turquoise, white and scarlet were set up at the edge of the ancient forest. Servants moved about, placing food and drink on the low tables. As Lord Elrond and his companions drew rein, a muscular Elf wearing a circlet of royal rank approached them. In all their long years, Elrond and Thranduil had never laid eyes on one another and both took this opportunity to satisfy curiosity.
As Elrond dismounted, Thranduil marked the severe elegance of the Lord’s tall, thin frame and the unconscious majesty revealed in each small gesture. Thranduil saw also the unyielding nature of Elrond’s personality in the set of the Lord’s jaw and mouth. Rivendell’s ruler was not one to be trifled with it seemed. That was well for it was no trifle that brought Mirkwood’s king here today.
Elrond viewed Thranduil’s bare chest and heavy, ornate jewelry with a skeptical eye. The Woodland Realm was as far removed from Rivendell in time as it was in space. The fact that Thranduil still styled himself King, instead of Lord, told Elrond much about the other Elf. Though he deplored the display, Elrond could not deny that Thranduil’s appearance was impressive. Beautiful, even by Elvish standards, the king had the vivid coloring typical of Wood-Elves. Thranduil’s eyes were green as milky jade; his skin was pale as ivory and his hair was a rippling dragon’s horde of rich red-gold. His muscular frame clad in little more than his regalia and a length of violet silk wound about his loins, Thranduil no doubt overwhelmed most visitors to his court. Lord Elrond was not one of them.
“Hail, Thranduil of Mirkwood,” Elrond said. “I have come as you requested.”
“Hail, Elrond of Rivendell, Herald of Gil-galad,” Thranduil answered. “Thank you for coming.” The king’s bright eyes strayed over Elrond’s shoulder. “Are these your sons?” he asked.
Elrond gestured and the twins stepped forward. “Elladan and Elrohir,” the Lord said proudly, “and I see Estel is hanging back. Come, Estel and stand with your brothers.”
“A Man,” Thranduil said in an ambiguous tone.
“My foster-son,” Elrond said. “As dear to me as my own blood.”
Thranduil cocked an eyebrow at Rivendell’s Lord. “Is he?” the king said. “Intriguing. I must hear more of him later. Will you sit and share the midday meal with me?”
Elrond inclined his head in polite acceptance. Whatever Thranduil wanted to say, the king obviously thought it would go more smoothly in a social setting. Elrond did not mind in the least; he was, quite frankly, hungry and the food smelled delicious.
Not until everyone had a chance to refresh themselves did Thranduil speak again. The king spoke a single word.
Elrond and his companions found themselves at the center of a ring of sharp points. A party of Mirkwood Trackers in green and brown had appeared from nowhere and now took aim on the Rivendell Elves. Elrond’s eyes went to the king.
“What is behind this treachery?” Elrond asked calmly.
“The Trackers are here to ensure that no one leaves before we’ve finished our business,” Thranduil said. “I regret the necessity, but as a father, I think you will understand.”
“Explain,” Elrond said curtly.
Thranduil signed the archers to lower their bows and step back before he spoke. “Some time ago, one of your sons made the acquaintance of a Mirkwood Tracker who was far afield hunting wild Orc. I use a euphemism for it would be more honest to say that your son assaulted the Tracker. I have called you here to see justice done.”
Elrond’s eyes narrowed. “What evidence do you have?” he asked.
“I have the Tracker’s word, which I extracted with much difficulty,” Thranduil replied.
“Let this Tracker be brought forward that my sons might face the accuser.”
“That is my intention,” the king said. “On your feet.”
Elrond rose and gestured to his companions to do likewise. With icy dignity, Rivendell’s Lord gazed at the King of Mirkwood as though he were prepared to wait until the stars burned out for Thranduil to produce his witness.
“No! I will not! You cannot force me!”
Heads turned toward the entrance at the sound of a desperate voice outside the pavilion. Two strapping Elves in the livery of Thranduil’s house dragged a struggling prisoner into the big tent. The captive was long and lithe with an eye-snaring spill of moon-colored that fell to his waist. Though his wrists were bound in front of him, the pale-haired Elf managed to jab his elbow into the stomach of the guard on his left, as he drove his heel into the shin of the one on his right. The prisoner lunged forward, but his legs became entangled in the folds of the long gown he wore. He staggered and would have gone to his knees had Aragorn not darted forward. The Man caught the falling Elf and set him on his feet. Looking up, Aragorn met the captive’s cobalt blue eyes and was lost.
“Lasse,” the Man said warmly.
The young Elf looked stricken as the human took his bound hands. “I hope you can forgive me,” he said, “but I lied to you. My name is not Lassegalen; it is Legolas. I am not a free Tracker but a prince of Mirkwood. I have no excuse for deceiving you. Please believe that I did not do it with the intent to harm you.”
“I do not care what your name is,” Aragorn said. “I love you.”
“Well,” Thranduil said. “I guess that mystery is solved, but now I have another quandary.”
“Indeed,” Elrond agreed, eyeing Prince Legolas’ fecund form.
“I am sorry, Aragorn,” Legolas said softly. “I did not tell father your name, but his spies garnered enough information to point to a prince of Rivendell. I did not wish this to happen. Can you forgive me?”
“Of course, I forgive you. I am happy to find you again.”
“Even like this?” Legolas asked looking downward.
Aragorn finally pulled his gaze from the fascinating blue eyes. His mouth fell open and he took a big step back. The heir to Gondor’s throne gaped in disbelief at the Elf’s ripe belly.
“You are . . . with . . . child!” Aragorn gasped.
“And you are not the simple Ranger you pretended to be. Estel,” Legolas said.
Aragorn had the grace to look sheepish. “I imagine my reasons were much the same as yours, your highness,” he said, “but how is it you are pregnant?”
Legolas gave the Man a disbelieving look. “Surely you know the way of it; you seemed quite practiced to me.”
Two spots of red appeared on Aragorn’s high cheekbones. “I mean, how could you be pregnant when you are male?”
Elrond sighed. “Estel, do you never listen when I am speaking? I warned you about Wood-Elves when you took it into your head that you must be a Ranger or die. I knew you might encounter our Woodland brethren on your travels and be enchanted into an error in judgment. It would seem that my fears were founded on bedrock.”
“Error in judgment?” Thranduil repeated. “An odd choice of words to describe the defilement of my son.”
“Defilement!” Elrond said. “I doubt Estel forced himself on Prince Legolas.”
“How else would Legolas come to be in this condition?” Thranduil countered.
“I would imagine it came about in the traditional fashion when your son opened his legs,” Elrond said somewhat stiffly.
“Do you dare insinuate that my child is a wanton?” Thranduil shouted in outrage.
“You dared imply that mine was a rapist!” Elrond returned.
Elladan looked at Elrohir in shock. Never in their lives had the twins heard their father raise his voice whatever the provocation. Of course, Lord Elrond had never been faced with a situation quite like this one.
“Aragorn did not force me!” Legolas burst out, drawing everyone’s eyes again.
“You lay willingly with this . . . Man?” Thranduil sputtered.
“Yes, ada,” Legolas said defiantly. “Willingly and more than once. For a glorious season I knew what it was to be loved unreservedly for who I am and not what I am.”
“And was it worth it?” Thranduil asked. “Now you find yourself heavy with child and no fit mate to raise the Elfling.”
“I will not hear Aragorn spoken of this way,” Legolas said.
Elrond put a hand on Thranduil’s forearm above the golden wrist cuff. “Wait,” Elrond said, forestalling the king’s wrath. “Aragorn, Legolas, do you claim to love one another?”
“I do not wish you to think I am trying to trap Aragorn into marriage,” Legolas said. “I loved him when my eyes first beheld him and when he touched me; I found I could deny him nothing. What I gave to him, I gave with my whole heart.”
“Legolas has taken the words from my mouth,” Aragorn said. “Except to say that once I had seen him, I knew I would never find peace unless it be in his arms. I was bereft of it soon enough, when I woke one dawn to find my love gone.”
“You are a Ranger,” Thranduil pointed out. “Why did you not track Legolas to his home?”
“I left a letter forbidding him to follow me,” Legolas answered. “I knew what your reaction would be to my human lover and did not wish to cause so much pain to so many. Of course, my noble silence was set at naught in few months.”
Aragorn echoed Legolas’ smile as the Elven prince put a hand on the swell of his stomach. The Man’s hand covered the Elf’s in a tender, protective gesture. Elladan nudged Elrohir and pointed with his chin. Elrohir nodded and spoke softly in Elrond’s ear.
“King Thranduil,” Elrond said. “What justice do you wish?”
“Were Estel an Elf and your natural son, I would demand that he marry Legolas,” Thranduil answered. “However, thanks to my son’s lapse in good taste, that is not possible.”
“You find my foster-son . . . unsuitable?” Elrond said with an edge to his rich voice.
“He is a Man,” Thranduil rested his case.
“He is the last scion of Elendil’s bloodline,” Elrond countered. “His given name is Aragorn, son of Arathoran, heir to the ancient kingdom of Gondor.”
“And I suppose that in the short annals of Men on Middle-Earth that pedigree might have some meaning, but my son is descended from Oropher who fought with Gil-galad.”
“I knew Oropher,” Elrond said. “He was . . . enthusiastic in battle. His spear and sword rid the Second Age of many foul things. However . . .”
“Ada,” Aragorn said softly. “May I speak?”
“Of course,” Elrond said, calming himself. What sort of example was he setting for the young Man? “It must be very frustrating for you to hear your future decided for you.”
Aragorn inclined his head in respect. “I do not know if my lineage is worthy of Legolas’, but I do know that I love him and the child that grows beneath his heart. If he will have me, I will plight my troth to him and be the happiest Man under the Sun.”
“You need not do this,” Legolas told the Ranger.
“It is my fondest wish to be with you, melme nin,” Aragorn said.
“Have a thought for the future,” Elrond said quietly. “Gondor may not accept an Elven consort.”
“That will never be an issue,” Aragorn said. “I have rejected that path. I will stay in Rivendell and defend the northern borders.”
“Then I will make no bar to this union,” Elrond said, stepping back.
Thranduil’s beautiful face was a study in conflicting emotions. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to get the fight he was hoping for and could not assuage his anger with violence. There would be no opportune moment to signal an archer to shoot the Man from hiding. Worse than that, Thranduil’s beloved youngest child was looking at the scruffy Ranger as if the human had set the Stars in the sky.
The King of Mirkwood fetched a deep sigh. “Is this Man truly what you want?” he asked his son. When Legolas nodded, Thranduil sighed again. “Then I suppose all we must decide is whether you will go to Rivendell or Estel will come to the Woodland Realm.”
“The bride should come with the husband,” Elrond said, and added, “traditionally.”
“There is nothing traditional about this,” Thranduil said. “I will not send Legolas to be cared for by Elves with only two sexes. You would not know how to attend to him.”
“His majesty is right,” Aragorn said. “I will return to Mirkwood with Legolas until the child is born. When my betrothed is ready, we will come to Rivendell for the wedding.”
Elrond and Thranduil exchanged a speculative glance and nodded graciously. Legolas looked at Aragorn as their fathers drew aside to nail down the particulars of this merger. This was only the beginning of negotiations, but some things needed to be decided now. Legolas held up his hands and Aragorn quickly drew his knife to cut the silken bonds.
The Wood-Elf threw his arms around the Ranger’s neck. “Are you really pleased by this?” Legolas whispered.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Aragorn said in a monumental understatement, “but once the shock wore off, my heart rose up like a soaring Eagle. My heart was broken when you left without a word, save for your letter, which ground the pieces of my heart to powder.”
“Forgive me,” Legolas said, touching his lips to the hollow at the hinge of the Man’s jaw.
“You are forgiven,” Aragorn said in an elegantly upswept ear.
“We are betrothed now,” Legolas prompted, drawing a blank look from the Man. “You may kiss me,” the Elf elaborated.
Elladan and Elrohir grinned at the expression on Thranduil’s face as their little brother took the lovely prince’s sweet lips in an ardent kiss. Elrond was more circumspect, hiding his smile with the trailing sleeve of his robe. When Aragorn and Legolas’ lips parted, the Elf looked breathlessly up at the man, his love shining in his chatoyant eyes. Aragorn gazed back at his beloved, silently pledging his life, his heart and his soul.
When King Thranduil’s entourage took the road that ran beneath the branches of Mirkwood, they numbered one more in their company. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir to the throne of Gondor rode with them. The young man kept close to the side of the young prince and Legolas’ laughter was heard to ring out more often than it had of late.
At the front of the procession, Thranduil could not help but smile at the merry sound. The king was still opposed to this match, but more than anything, he wanted Legolas to be happy. For the sake of his love for his son, Thranduil would suffer this mortal and all under Thranduil’s sway would suffer him as well.
As for Legolas leaving Mirkwood for Rivendell . . . Who knew how things would stand when that time came?