Disclaimer: Not mine.
Author's Note: I owe so, so many people PMs and review replies, and I will get to them. It's been one hell of a year, which is why I've fallen so far behind on everything.
There were a lot of things I wanted to write after Dusk, things that I began and half-wrote and just couldn't get to grips with. Part of it, of course, was stress, grief, worry, work trouble, everything that just about everyone in the world has been dealing with for the last year and a half. And, among other factors, I had a catastrophic hard drive crash and lost a lot of work. But I realized last week when I was going through Dusk again that there was too much unresolved tension at the end of it. That had something to do with why I couldn't write anything else properly.
So I wrote this. It's not an essential part of Míron-arc, but once I started writing it, I found it incredibly cathartic. You do need to have read the other parts of the story to make sense of this. I'm putting it here in case anyone else feels like reading it. Maybe, now that it's out of the way, I can finish some of the other fics, but I don't want to make promises.
I very much hope everyone is safe and healthy and there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
"Letters from Minas Tirith." Baralin held up a very small stack. Other than Aragorn and Arwen, nobody in Minas Tirith corresponded with the Elves of Ithilien except on matters of business. "Will you take Legolas'? The rest are for Aeroniel. I will give them to her later."
"Yes, of course." Saeldur took the letters Baralin was holding out to him, which made up over two-thirds of the total. "What news from Minas Tirith?"
"I believe Elessar is having some difficulties with his court and council." Baralin shrugged. "Perhaps things were easier among the Dúnedain."
Baralin went in the direction of his cottage. Saeldur glanced down at the letters. The one on top, with Legolas' name in Tengwar runes far more delicately formed than Aragorn's, must be from Arwen.
He added them to the much larger pile Húrphen had given him an hour ago, of his and Legolas' letters from Eryn Lasgalen. He would be on duty for half an hour more.
He relaxed, listening to the sounds of the forest around him. It had been six months since his return to Ithilien, six months since he had made a full confession to Legolas. It would seem to an outsider – as indeed it did seem to most Men who came to Ithilien – that everything was as it had been before.
Saeldur knew better. The archers were courteous, even friendly. But they were also wary – and they were wary because Legolas was wary. It was ridiculous to suppose that one of the bravest Elves Saeldur knew was afraid of him – and so he would not suppose it – but there was no other way to explain Legolas' manner to him. It was subtle, and Legolas probably thought he was as easy as he always was, but anyone who knew him could see the signs of discomfort.
Perhaps it only needed time.
Legolas was in the sitting room, an open book on his knee, but it was clear that he was paying no attention to it.
"Letters," Saeldur said, dropping them on the table at Legolas' elbow.
"Thank you." Legolas picked them up and opened the top one.
"Wine?" Saeldur asked, going to the sideboard and pouring out a cup for himself.
"Yes… thank you."
Saeldur handed Legolas a cup of wine and sat down opposite him to open his own letters from Eryn Lasgalen. He had only slit the first when a sharp exclamation made him look up.
"What is it?"
Legolas shook his head, folding up the letter and thrusting it aside. "Nothing important."
Saeldur looked away, suppressing a sigh. Two years ago Legolas would have read the letter out – or simply handed it to Saeldur to read for himself.
Saeldur would not go so far as to say he wanted battle, but it was undoubtedly true that the ever-present danger that had characterized their lives before the destruction of the One Ring had made it far easier to resolve quarrels, both small and large.
When Saeldur looked back, Legolas' eyes were on him, brows drawn down with concern.
"Legolas, I did not intend to pry –"
"I know that. Forgive me, I –"
"You do not have to apologize. Or thank me for bringing up your letters."
"And you do not have to give me your mother's letters to read every time they so much as mention my name, but you did that the last time," Legolas snapped. Then he sighed. "Forgive me. I should not –"
"I am worried about Minas Tirith, that is all. But I should not be taking it out on you."
Saeldur forced himself to ask the question that had been nagging at him. "Legolas, would it be easier for you if I returned to Eryn Lasgalen?"
"What? No! Saeldur, I did not mean – I did not intend to – to make you feel your return was unwelcome. I am not angry –"
"I know that. I know you, Legolas. My bow is yours – my bow will always be yours. But the last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable. If my presence here does that… if you need more time… I will go. You only have to say the word."
"No." Legolas dropped his head into his hands, mainly, Saeldur suspected, to avoid looking at him. "I do not want you to go," he said. And then, more slowly, "Do you think it is always going to be like this?"
"Always is a long time." Saeldur leaned forward. "Legolas, if there is anything I can do that will make it easier for you to trust me –"
Legolas looked up. "I do trust you," he said fiercely.
"But you are afraid of giving me the power to hurt you."
"I am not." Legolas half-laughed. "How can I be afraid of giving you what you have already?"
"Then you are afraid I will hurt you."
"I do not know how to make this better," Legolas said, unhappily. "I wish I did."
"It is no longer about Arahael, is it?"
Legolas scoffed. "It was never about Arahael." He pushed himself to his feet, went to the window, looked out for a moment, and came back. "Arahael knew how to upset you, but he was never the real problem."
"No, that was my foolishness in not telling you everything at once."
"That is not what I meant." Legolas went back to the window. This time he stood there so long Saeldur thought the conversation was over, but at last he returned. "When you… when you gave me your bow… I did not… I could not…" Legolas sighed. "I knew I would never live up to your faith."
"Legolas, what are you saying? You are the finest commander the archers have ever had."
"That is your loyalty speaking," Legolas said with a small smile. "I meant – you trusted me – and not only with your life; all warriors trust each other with their lives. You trusted me with your loyalty. You trusted me to be worthy of your faith."
"You are worthy of my faith," Saeldur said, getting up to face Legolas. Legolas avoided his gaze. "You have always been worthy of my faith."
"If that were true, you would never have been in a position where you felt you had to choose between your loyalty to Candnaur and your loyalty to me."
"I never did have to choose. You did all anybody could have done to help him. Candnaur would never have wanted harm to come to you – and he would have been horrified by how poorly I handled my… my guilt over his death. But that was all it was: my guilt, and my inability to face it."
Legolas' eyes held Saeldur's for what seemed like the first time in years.
"It will not always be like this," Saeldur said quietly. "After all, when we were children, there was a period of several years when we barely exchanged two words that we did not have to."
As he had hoped, that made Legolas laugh. "I remember. You thought I was too much a spoilt child."
"And you thought I was a fool." Saeldur grinned. "We were both right."
The room seemed brighter as Legolas resumed his seat and picked up the letter he had dropped.
"It is from one of the men of court… in Gondor," he said.
Taking that for the offer it was, Saeldur sat as well. "What does he say?"
"He complains, for…" Legolas turned over the leaves. "… four and a half pages, about the detrimental effect the Elven presence is having on Gondor. He finds it uncomfortable to visit Ithilien now."
"Perhaps he preferred it when it was full of Orcs and dead birds?" Saeldur said dryly.
"He does not go so far, but I think…" Legolas shrugged. "I think he would have preferred it if the people of Gondor had revived the land as best they could, without any assistance from Elves."
"They would never have persuaded the forest to bloom as we have done… as you have done."
"No, but I understand his concern. Those of our people who stayed in Eryn Galen through the Third Age chose what peace we could win for them with bow and blade, when they could instead have fled to Imladris or Lothlórien… Oh, it is not that important." Legolas shrugged. "We will not be here forever, and most of the people of Gondor are happy. There are bound to be a few who are discontented."
"Are you going to reply to him?"
"I will see him next week in any case, when I go to Minas Tirith. Estel says it is for discussions about trade," Legolas said ruefully, "but, reading between the lines of his letter, he simply wants me to see if I can calm some of those complaining the most about how different Elves have made Ithilien."
"Asking you to charm people was a strategy my mother used whenever a new ruler of Dale proved less tractable than his predecessor. Elessar is in good company."
As Legolas opened his next letter, Saeldur said, "How long will you be in Minas Tirith?"
"Two or three days, no more. There is little point staying longer. Estel and Arwen will be occupied. It is a busy time in Minas Tirith."
He was quiet, thinking, while Legolas went through the next few letters. Then he said, "Will you let me come with you?"
"Come with me?" Legolas asked, startled. "Where?"
"Minas Tirith, where else?"
"Minas Tirith? I never had the impression that you much liked it – and I know you dislike sitting in meetings. Why would you want to come to Minas Tirith?"
"I might be able to help you. I know Eredhion and Voronwë will be there, but –"
"As a matter of fact, they will not be there. Apparently the same courtiers who dislike Elves were offended that I felt the need to be accompanied by guards the last time I was in Minas Tirith."
"Elessar asked you to leave them behind?"
"He did not. Even the courtiers do not expect that; you know how Men are about their honour guards. Almost as bad as Noldor. I thought it would be easier like this. Eredhion and Voronwë are not pleased about it, in the circumstances, but they have agreed."
"That is all the more reason to let me come with you. Nobody can object, I am not a guard – and perhaps Naneth was right all along. I should have spent more time in court."
"Is that what this is about? Saeldur, you do not have to prove anything to me."
"Were you planning to go alone?"
"I have been to Minas Tirith alone before."
"Let me come with you," Saeldur repeated. Legolas looked hesitant. "I promise I will not cause any problems or get into any fights."
"If you truly wish it," Legolas said, "of course."
Eight days later, Saeldur was sitting halfway down the high table at Minas Tirith, with one of the young ladies of court on either side of him and an unfriendly-looking lord opposite. Legolas, seated beside Arwen, shot him a look of commiseration.
At first it seemed as though the meal would not be entirely unpleasant. The young ladies were not as taken with Saeldur as they were with Legolas, but they found him interesting enough that they plied him with questions about Elven customs and listened with bated breath to the most mundane answers. The man opposite did not seem to like him, it was true, but other than the occasional glare he was content to ignore Saeldur and speak to the lady beside him.
It was when the last course was brought in that the man said, in a whisper so loud that it was obviously meant to be overheard, "I am glad it is almost over. I will be telling the mistress of the household of this, make no mistake. I can scarcely credit that renegades and traitors are seated among decent people at table."
A pointed look in Saeldur's direction left no doubt as to his meaning.
Saeldur felt his cheeks heat. It had not occurred to him that the people of Gondor would have any idea of what had happened, but if he had thought about it he would have realized that rumours would reach them.
"I could tell you things I have heard," the man went on to his companion. "If they were fit for a lady's ears."
It appeared Saeldur was destined to find out what the rumours were. He shot a quick glance at Legolas. Legolas was absorbed in conversation with Aragorn's seneschal.
"Well, if you insist, dear lady." Another glance at Saeldur, and now the young women sitting beside him had noticed as well. "I am told he is a kinsman of the Elven-prince – I suppose there is a resemblance –" The man's considering gaze turned to Legolas. "He desperately wants the throne of the Elven-king. He was willing to kill to get it."
Saeldur almost said something then – nobody in Eryn Lasgalen, even those who hated Saeldur, had supposed for a moment that he would betray Legolas for the throne – but he stopped himself. He had asked to come here, and he would not make things difficult for Legolas by quarrelling with Aragorn's courtiers.
"I suppose he could not safely be left in Ithilien. Who can trust a traitor?"
One of the young women edged her chair away from Saeldur.
Saeldur focused on his plate and tried to shut the man's voice from his mind.
He could not help hearing when the man said, just a little more loudly, "Whether there is extenuation I do not know. I have heard that the Elven-prince is weak-spirited."
A chair scraped, there were swift footsteps, and then Arwen was there, holding out her hands to him. "Are you finished, Saeldur? Come and dance with me."
Saeldur took her hands gratefully and let her lead him away from the table.
"Did Legolas send you?" he asked, as the harpist began to play.
"Yes, but I would have come in any case. I do not suffer my guests to be treated so poorly."
"I suppose I deserved it, for what I did."
"What you deserved or did not deserve is between you and Legolas. It is no reason for Lord Naith to cause unpleasantness at a state dinner."
Very soon others joined them in dancing, and then, relinquishing Arwen's hand to one of the Gondorian lords, Saeldur slipped outside. The fresh air, carrying the first hint of the snow soon to come, did much to revive his spirits. From the balcony he could look down at the city below, most of it dark, a few flickering points of light showing where somebody was still working.
Saeldur drew in a deep breath. He could hear laughter from inside the hall. Legolas would probably have to stay there and do his duty by the ladies of court – and Saeldur would go back in and help in a few minutes, once the air had cleared his head.
He had no chance to go back in. He heard the raucous mirth of Men who had consumed too much wine, and then five figures stumbled outside.
One of them was Lord Naith.
Saeldur stiffened, but, far from renewing the unpleasantness, the Gondorian lord held out his hand to Saeldur.
"Lord Saeldur, you must forgive me. My lady wife was furious that my manners were so poor that they drew the attention of the Queen. I hope you will accept my apology."
The man sounded insincere. Perhaps his lady wife had forced him out here to make peace. But Saeldur could not do anything other than take the offered hand and mumble something incomprehensible.
"And now we are friends," said Lord Naith. "I do not much care for dancing, and I see you do not, either. Would you care to join us at the gaming tables?"
"I – I am so sorry, but Legolas would not approve," Saeldur said, unable to think of another excuse.
"He must be an intimidating prince indeed," said Lord Naith. "Come with us to the archery ranges, at least – I know your prince does not disapprove of those. I have often seen him there. My nephew is learning archery," he added, pulling a young man forward. "Is that not so, Roscon?"
"Indeed, Lord Saeldur," said Roscon, "I would be honoured if you would show me something."
Still Saeldur hesitated… but, after all, there was no harm in going to the archery ranges, and he knew Legolas would not object. Perhaps he might even make friends of Lord Naith and his companions.
With a last glance in the direction of the hall, he allowed himself to be drawn away.
At Roscon's urging, he fetched his bow. He went to the archery range nearest the hall to find that Lord Naith and his companions had already set up the targets. The range was long and it would be a challenging distance for a mortal, particularly at night, but the targets would present no difficulty to an Elven archer.
Saeldur's first round proved it, when he hit all the targets with what must have seemed to the men no preparation at all. Roscon immediately demanded his help. Saeldur agreed, thankful that here, at least, was something he knew how to do: overseeing archery practice had been one of his duties for several centuries. There was soon a marked improvement in Roscon's performance.
"I hope you will accept my apology," Lord Naith said again, as Saeldur walked off the field and they stood to one side watching Roscon try his hand by himself. "It is very kind of you to help my nephew."
"It is forgotten," Saeldur said. "I am happy to help him."
"I suppose it is easier than dancing, to a warrior." Lord Naith smiled. Saeldur felt a sudden misgiving. "You should come to Minas Tirith more often, Lord Saeldur. Although it was unmannerly to say it, I was only repeating what many say in court – and will continue to say until they know you better."
Saeldur made a noncommittal noise.
"And of course, I can understand your frustration. We all know how the world works. I mean no insult to Lord Faramir, but he would not be in his present position if he had not been the son of the Steward. There are other fine warriors and men of noble spirit in Gondor. Having seen your skill with the bow, I can only try to imagine how difficult it must have been to act as second to anyone – even your prince."
"Legolas is the finest archer in Middle-earth," Saeldur said sharply.
"Oh – of course – forgive me. I meant no offence."
Saeldur forced himself to take a deep breath. He was not going to help Legolas by getting into an argument with a driveling fool.
He went to help Roscon adjust his stance.
Lord Naith did not speak for several minutes after that. Saeldur thought he had finally finished, but then he said, "I think, though, that I am not wrong in saying that there are some Elves who think your temperament more suited to command that that of the Elven-prince."
"Only those foolish enough to mistake Legolas' generosity of spirit for weakness," Saeldur said coolly. "Indeed there are some such, Lord Naith."
"But not you."
"My bow is sworn to Legolas."
"Such loyalty is commendable. I do not know whether anyone in Minas Tirith is so loyal to our lord king."
"I do not doubt that Minas Tirith is very loyal to Elessar," Saeldur said. "But, if you will forgive my saying so, the people of Gondor have known him for a very few years. It is not the same."
"Once again, I must ask your pardon for my earlier foolish words. I do hope your prince values such loyalty as he ought. It is a shame that you do not often accompany him to Minas Tirith, or such calumnies about you could not possibly circulate. I wonder that Prince Legolas has not asked you to come to Minas Tirith before now."
Saeldur stayed uncomfortably silent. Perhaps Legolas did not fully trust him – but, as Arwen had said, that was between him and Legolas, and no business of Lord Naith's.
"Come, Naith," said one of the other men, who had been silent so far. "I would not rate the Elven-prince as a complete fool." He smiled unpleasantly at Saeldur. "Naturally our loyalty to our true king is beyond question, but before his return… We know what it was like when the authority of the Steward was waning. Perhaps Lord Saeldur will not admit it here, since our King is known to be a friend of the Elven-prince, but I have heard many things – from many different people. They cannot all be lies."
Saeldur started towards the shooting line, to cover his confusion by addressing Roscon, and saw with a start that the young man was not there.
"What is happening?" he demanded, whirling on Lord Naith.
"Roscon was always lazy," Lord Naith said dismissively. "I expect he saw his chance to run away."
"You just told me he was desperate to learn the bow."
"I had to say something to bring you here. In the hall there would have been interference. We would never have been able to speak in peace."
"I believe I will return to the hall now –"
"Wait." Lord Naith stepped into Saeldur's path. Saeldur could have removed him easily, but he doubted it would help matters if he assaulted a member of Aragorn's court. "Do you not understand that we do not blame you for what you did? Why should the Elven-prince have your loyalty when he clearly does not deserve it?"
"Is it true that he was completely helpless before the one called Bregolien?" asked another man, sounding so eager it turned Saeldur's stomach. "The greatest archer of Middle-earth, helpless?"
"Legolas was not helpless –"
"Is it true that he killed your brother, and that is why you hate him?"
"I do not hate Legolas –"
"But he did kill your brother?" Lord Naith pressed.
Saeldur stared at him, not knowing how to answer. Who could possibly explain, to anyone who had not been there, the disastrous circumstances that had led to Candnaur's death, or that Legolas' act had been one of mercy?
"Did he kill your brother?"
Saeldur took a step away from Lord Naith. Two of the men were standing behind him now, determinedly blocking the exit. But if he were quick, he could probably distract them and get into the building without causing injury to any of them –
A fine picture he was making of an Elven-lord.
He took another step back. Something caught at his ankle. He fell to the ground.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said one of the men. "I left my bow in your path – how very careless of me."
"Did Legolas kill your brother?" Lord Naith said again.
"I did," came an unexpected voice, as Legolas and Arwen emerged from passage leading to indoors to the armoury.
Saeldur's stomach dropped. Legolas was even less likely to trust him again if he thought he was discussing Candnaur's death with every lord he happened across.
"Legolas," he gasped, "I was not –"
Legolas shook his head, and Saeldur fell silent.
"You should have told me you were coming to the archery ranges," he said lightly. "I would have joined you."
"And disappointed all the ladies hoping for a dance?" Arwen said in mock-sternness, as Legolas held out a hand to help Saeldur to his feet. "I would have permitted no such thing. Lord Naith, your lady is worried. You vanished without a word to her."
"I – yes, I forgot to tell her – it slipped my mind. By your leave, my Queen."
Lord Naith bowed to Arwen. Before he could go back into the building, she said, "Lord Naith."
He paused and turned to her. "May I be of service, my Queen?"
"I hope you will not make a habit of harassing my guests," she said, smiling at him gently.
"Not at all, my Queen."
"I would be greatly concerned if I heard of Lord Saeldur having any difficulties during his stay in Minas Tirith. I trust we understand each other."
"Completely, my Queen."
Arwen waited until the men's footsteps had died out before she said, "The dancing will be over soon. Unless you want to be surrounded by people begging for archery lessons, I suggest you do not linger here. Legolas…"
She paused. Legolas met her eyes and jerked a brief nod.
"Then I will bid you good night."
"Legolas," Saeldur said, as soon as she had gone, "I did not intend –"
"Not here. The walls have ears in Minas Tirith. Come to my room."
"We knew as soon as Arwen realized that Lord Naith was missing that he must be with you," Legolas said, opening the window. "He is one of the biggest troublemakers in Estel's court."
"Forgive me," Saeldur said quietly. "As always, I rated my abilities too highly."
"What are you talking about? You were coping admirably."
"How much did you hear?"
"Quite a lot." Legolas leaned against the window frame. "You were not speaking quietly. Lord Naith usually tries to provoke me into doing something precipitate that will give him cause to say Elves do not belong in Gondor. Perhaps this time he thought he would try his luck with you."
"I should have stayed in Ithilien."
"Why were you so frightened of him?"
"I was not –"
"Saeldur, I saw you. You could have overpowered them and left at any time."
"I was not frightened of him." Saeldur paused. "I was frightened of disappointing you. Again."
"You will never disappoint me by defending yourself. I know why you felt you had to come – and I am glad of your company – but do not worry so much. Many of the lords of Gondor resent Elves on principle – they are old enough to remember the time before the Ring was destroyed, and they believe the Elves abandoned them to their fate, after having created the problem by trusting Annatar."
"Noldor," Saeldur muttered.
"They do not care about the difference. And it is not important. I heard Lord Naith at dinner. We have three more days here, Saeldur. I will not be able to do anything if I am worried about what you might be subjecting yourself to because you are afraid of my reaction." He paused, and then went on with a smile, "Do you not remember how very incapable Norgalad thought me at first? And he was not the only one."
Saeldur laughed. "I would not be surprised if Norgalad still thinks you incapable sometimes."
"I am certain he does. It is not important. Do not start any blood feuds in Minas Tirith, that is all I ask. You do not have to listen to malicious gossip. I trust you – and not only because I do not know how not to trust you," he added, when Saeldur would have interrupted. "You were right – I was frightened – oh, not that you would want to hurt me. That you were still holding something back, and it might… cause trouble later."
"I am keeping no secrets from you."
"I know. I saw your face when Lord Naith kept at you about Candnaur."
"Then you also know that you are worthy of my faith."
"I know that you truly believe so," Legolas said, smiling. "And is that not what matters?"