When the company had halted and all was made ready for their first night's camp, Aragorn went searching for Legolas. He stopped first by the supply wagons, thinking to find the elf with Lady Alathiel.
The lady in question had set up an informal surgery beneath a gnarled oak tree and was absorbed in treating a young soldier. "There you go, my lad. I've lanced your blister and bandaged it. Remember what I said about keeping your feet dry, and you'll do just fine." Aragorn leaned against a tree, wanting to watch her without making his presence known.
Alathiel's next patient was an even younger boy. Aragorn could see nothing wrong with him and wondered what his complaint might be. He could not hear clearly what Alathiel said, but suddenly the young boy buried his face in her skirts and began to cry in great heaving sobs. Aragorn moved closer, staying within the shade of the great tree.
"Hush, lad...hush." Alathiel soothed, patting the boy's thin back. "'Tis no shame in being frightened. Why, Lord Aragorn himself told me just yesterday that even he feels great fear sometimes." She looked directly at Aragorn and he could swear that she winked at him--he knew then that she had been aware of his presence since he'd arrived.
"But we can't have you heaving up your supper every night...that is not becoming to a brave soldier, is it?" She dried the boy's tears with the corner of her apron and handed him a small brown bottle. "Just a capful of this an hour before you go to your meat, and you will tuck away as much as the little Hobbit, Pippin...have you met him?" Her light chatter clearly soothed the boy and by the time he left the surgery, he was smiling faintly.
"My lady, it is good to see you practice your arts. The men are the better for your presence." Aragorn said quietly, coming to stand beside her.
"Are they? It is well then, that lies and poppy syrup can heal an army," she replied bitterly. "What has our world come to when our children must march to war?"
"It has come to a dark pass, indeed, when not only boys but gentle ladies must take the field against such evil," Aragorn replied. "'Tis simple, Alathiel. Either we stand together, men and maids and children alike, or we are lost. Why think you that I allowed you to come?"
"Allowed me? Because of this evil, I will never look upon my husband's face again nor rest in the shelter of his arms," said Alathiel bitterly. "Do you think you could have stopped me?"
"Peace," Aragorn held up his gloved hands in submission. "We all do what we must, you and I included. But I came not to argue with you. Have you seen Legolas? I desire to speak with him."
"I have not," she replied softly. "It is in my mind that he is angry with me, for he has not come to see me since we left Minas Tirith." Her slender fingers worried the edge of her apron, the only outward sign that she was much disturbed by this.
"He is not angry with you, Alathiel, only frightened. For himself, and for you, and for what the future holds for you both." Aragorn touched her shoulder lightly. "When I was young, I wished for endless life, such as the elves have. But now I know it to be a great burden on those that bear it. Legolas knows he must live with the consequences of whatever may come for much longer than you and I. It wears heavily on him."
"But come, do not puzzle about it any longer, my lady. It is likely that he is merely scouting ahead or hunting in the forest. When I find him, after I have spoken with him, I will send him to you."
But he did not find the elf that night, or the next.
On the third day out from Minas Tirith, when the army paused to camp, Aragorn tired of leaving messages for Legolas only to be ignored. Starting at the spot where Arod was tethered, he tracked the elf into the surrounding forest. He was thankful for his ranger skills, for not all men could track an elf who did not wish to be found.
He came upon his quarry sitting in the low branch of a tree beside a gurgling brook. The elf was fishing with a bit of twine and a hook fashioned from a sharpened twig. Already two fine trout dangled from another line in the brook.
"Legolas," Aragorn said sharply, startling the elf. He chuckled to himself. No, not many could track an elf who did not wish to be found and fewer still could surprise him. "I have left messages with many people, my friend, that you should come speak with me. Why have you not sought me out?"
"Because it was in my mind what you wanted to discuss and I do not wish to speak of it." Legolas did not look at him but remained intent on his fishing.
"Since you know my mind so well, oh wise one, I will come directly to the point." Aragorn was greatly irritated at being so easily dismissed. "You're hurting Alathiel. Think you that she deserves this after all she has been through? She loves you, Legolas, though she does not yet realize it."
Legolas looked up, black eyes dangerous in the waning light. "Do you know of what you speak, ranger?" His voice was lethally soft.
Aragorn laughed bitterly. "Who better, my friend, to understand how she feels? I, too, love one of the fair folk. Have you forgotten?"
Legolas wound up his fishing line and jumped lightly from the tree, making no sound as he landed. "I had not forgotten. I sorrow with you that you are separated from your beloved. You know that." He tucked the line into a pocket and shouldered his quiver and bow, which had been resting against the trunk of the tree. "But this is different." He began to walk back up the path.
"How so?" Aragorn picked up the string of fish and followed his friend. "But that she is a maid and I am a man, I see no difference."
"Do you not? Arwen's blood is not pure, Aragorn." Aragorn frowned and the elf continued hastily. "I mean no offense by it, only that the sea does not call to her as strongly as it does to me. I must leave these shores one day, Aragorn. I would not leave Alathiel behind and cause her still more pain. But neither do I want to see her age and die as all her kind must do."
Aragorn considered this for a moment, not knowing how to respond. Then he remembered a thing Arwen had said to him, long ago. "So since your love has obstacles you will cast it aside?" he said, silently blessing his wise lady as he repeated her words. "Love comes to us when it wills, Legolas. Are you so sure if you cast it off that it will ever come to you again?"
"I know it will not," Legolas replied, sounding hopeless. "Aragorn, you know the language of my people. Do you know what iest inden means?" He stopped in a small glade of trees and faced the ranger.
"That is the literal meaning, but it is more than that. You know that my people are more...free...than yours about these matters. Before we take a mate we couple with whom we will, with no obligation." Aragorn nodded his understanding. Long had he dwelt in Rivendell and the customs of the wood elves were not that different.
"Some of my people never take a mate. Some do, but there is no...passion. You would call it a marriage of convenience, I guess. But some...some find iest inden...their heart's desire. One that they love with great passion." Aragorn was intrigued. He had never heard of such a thing among the elves of Rivendell, at least not spoken of openly.
"For some, their love is returned-my father and mother were lucky enough to share this. Others are not so lucky. If their love is not returned, they suffer great pain...some even die." Aragorn must have looked incredulous for Legolas became insistent. "Perhaps being human you cannot understand. But know this, Aragorn. I think I have found my iest inden and it frightens me greatly."
Aragorn reacted swiftly and from his heart. "Legolas, you are the most courageous warrior I know. You shot a Nazgul from the sky without flinching. You fearlessly walked upon the Paths of the Dead. You march to meet a darkness that could swallow us all yet I have not heard you utter one fearful word. Do you mean to say you are frightened of a little slip of a maid?"
"No...yes...I don't know." The elf's stoic composure was quite shattered. He smashed his fist into a nearby tree in an outward display of frustration and anger Aragorn had never seen from any elf. "Why can I not decide?"
Aragorn could not help laughing. "Did you think you were special, immortal one? That you were immune to falling in love? I'm sorry my friend...man or elf, no one is strong enough to resist that spell."
"This is no laughing matter," Legolas muttered, much displeased to be the object of Aragorn's mirth.
"My friend, we should be grateful that something can make us laugh, still." But Aragorn was suddenly serious. "We are on the edge of a great cliff, Legolas, and you cannot torture yourself with thoughts of what may or may not be. For even the wisest do not know whether we shall stand or fall. You can fear the future when there is a future to fear. For today, here and now, simply love her." He bound his companion's bleeding hand in a clean cloth as he spoke. "Now go see your lady and get that treated."
Legolas gave him one last fearful, hopeful look and disappeared into the forest.
iest = wish
inden = my heart
iest inden = heart's desire (in my world, anyway!)