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Interrupted Journeys: Part 7 The course of love  by elliska

How far away the stars seem, and how far is our first kiss
William Butler Yeats

Chapter Four: How far is our first kiss

At first, it was only a few steps into the forest, away from the fire, and Legolas thought--if he was thinking at all--that it should be no problem because Tulus and Colloth could probably have still seen him. Surely they could have, if they had craned their necks. Aewen's soft hand in his, leading him away, had been too much to resist.

If they had gone a bit more than a few steps, Legolas did not really notice. Aewen had her arm entwined with his as they walked. She was so close to him that her skirts brushed his legs. So close that he could have slipped an arm around her waist. His thoughts were focused on deciding if he dared do that, not on how far away from camp they were.

Before he mustered the courage, Aewen stopped and seated herself on a soft patch of grass, pulling Legolas to sit with her.

"I love the forest at night," she whispered as he settled next to her. She scooted over so that she was pressed against his side. "It is so serene in the starlight," she said, entwining her arm around his again and leaning against his side as she spoke. She turned her face towards his. "Do you not think the forest in the starlight is beautiful?"

Legolas nodded, looking down at her, trying not to look at her lips. "You are beautiful in the starlight," he whispered in reply, without thinking. Then he tensed, held his breath and looked at her closely, praying she would not think him overbold.

Apparently she did not. Her eyes lit at the compliment. "I wondered if you thought me pretty at all," she said, turning her gaze demurely towards her lap. He could still see the smile on her lips. "You hardly ever have time for me."

Legolas tried not to frown, lest she think him cross with her. He was not feeling cross, just confused. "Aewen, we dance together every night on the Green." He paused. "And you are beautiful when you are dancing," he added.

Her smile deepened, but she still kept her eyes lowered. "We have danced every night on the Green since we were five years old, Legolas," she said dismissively. "You have danced on the Green every night since you were five with Eirienil too."

"Perhaps, but I never wanted to kiss anyone but you," he answered, again without thinking. And again, he tensed and held his breath.

Aewen's eyes widened and she turned swiftly back to him, appearing both delighted and shocked by his words.

Legolas raised an eyebrow slightly in response to her obvious surprise, but he did not ponder her reaction for long. Her gaze turned to his lips and then, slowly, she leaned towards him. He drew a soft breath in an attempt to quiet his racing heart and reached for her cheek with his free hand to draw her nearer still. He felt her body press against his just as his lips were about to brush hers.

Before they did, Aewen gasped and pulled away from him sharply.

Legolas stiffened, unable to believe he had completely misread her, but he must have--she scrambled as far away from him as she could, until her back was pressed against the tree they were sitting near. She pressed one of her hands to her mouth to stifle a frightened, strangled noise that was somewhere between a whimper and a scream. Legolas stared at her, unable to move. Finally, she dragged her hand away from her mouth and reached for the knife she wore at her waist. She raised her other hand and pointed over his shoulder.

Realization dawning, Legolas spun around, fumbling at his boot for his own knife as he did and cursing himself for not even having a bow. Cursing himself for slipping his guard. As he turned, he heard snorting several paces away and hoped, for a moment, there was only a boar behind him. A boar, or even a wolf, he could manage, despite how poorly he was armed. But he quickly recognized the snorting noises were the horses they rode to the border, also reacting to whatever Aewen had seen. Legolas turned and what he saw made him freeze. A man was holding one of the horse's headstalls in one hand, while pointing a knife at Legolas with the other.

"You just stay right where you are," the man said in Westron, "and nobody has to get hurt." His voice shook.

Legolas stood slowly, holding his knife at the ready in plain view, and positioned himself between the man and Aewen. Aewen pressed herself against him, shaking, but he saw her knife also in her hand.

The man was an adult, young and broad of shoulder. He had the flaxen hair of the men of Dale. His clothes were worn and, like the knife in his hand, they were obviously made by the man himself. The hand holding the knife shook almost as much as his voice.

Legolas remained perfectly still, holding his knife at the ready in case the man should suddenly do something more threatening, but not willing to provoke him. It did not seem wise to start a fight simply to prevent the man from taking a horse. Especially when the Eastern Patrol and Path Guard could and would easily recognize a horse wearing the ornaments of the House of Oropher and arrest the man for stealing it.

The man jerked the knife in his hand.

Legolas crouched instinctively in a defensive posture, but the man made no other move towards them. Instead, Legolas's attention was drawn to another shadow moving amongst the trees. The man had been signaling for someone else to come join him.

Legolas's hand tightened around the hilt of his knife. That changed the situation. One man, armed with a knife, might not attack an elf, also armed with a knife. But two men would believe they had an obvious advantage, especially over a child. Legolas quickly considered if he had better attack the man now, or at least risk provoking him by calling for help, before his companion arrived with better weapons. But the approaching footsteps seemed light for a man's. And they were uneven somehow, as if the person was dashing forward and then hesitating, like a frightened animal. Legolas decided to hold his attack.

Finally, from the shadows of the trees to the east, a woman ran into the man's arms.

Legolas's eyes widened in surprise. He had not expected the approaching person to be a woman, much less a woman like this one. She wore a fine gown. Granted, it was torn around the hem and stained in various places, but it was every bit as richly made as any of his mother's gowns. If the woman had not just willingly thrown herself into the man's embrace, Legolas would have assumed he had abducted her.

The man motioned for her to mount the horse he held. As she moved to do so, she spied Legolas. She loosed a startled squeak, spinning around to face him fully and jumping back against the man at the same time. "Please don't hurt us!" she begged in Westron.

Legolas frowned.

"Get on the horse so we can get out of here," the man ordered, trying to guide her towards the horse, while still holding the headstall so the horse could not run away and while still brandishing the knife at Legolas.

The woman looked back at the man. "We cannot steal it," she whispered.

The man looked exasperated. "We already talked about this. We can't hide in that cart forever. It's going nowhere. We have to make our own way and to do that, we need one of these horses. Now, get on it."

Legolas drew a sharp breath, suddenly grasping the meaning of their argument. "You were hidden in the traders cart," he exclaimed. "You are why the load was unbalanced. Why the axle broke."

The woman looked back at him, guiltily, but shook her head. "It was already splitting when we asked Kadril to help us escape Laketown, but we did not know that until I had already given him a coin to hide us and share his bread with us. He was supposed to hide us for six days travel from Laketown." She looked down. "He hid us for six days, but we only traveled for one of them, to the forest edge. He told us tonight to leave or give him another coin."

"And we're not giving that greedy, conniving..." He cut himself off when the woman's eyes widened. "We're not giving him another coin so we can spend another six days smothering under old sacks, going no where, in a cart with a broken axle. We'll make our own way," the man interrupted. "But we need a horse to make it across the forest," he said, again pulling the woman's arm. "Let's go, before we are caught."

"You are caught already," Legolas said as calmly as possible. "This part of the forest is currently heavily guarded, both by patrols and by my guards. You will not get far. You would be much wiser to take your lady's advice and not try to steal one of the Elvenking's horses. If you needed to 'escape' Laketown in secret, you are obviously in trouble there. Do not add to your troubles by committing a crime in the Woodland Realm."

"None of your guards have shown up yet, boy," the man responded gruffly. Then he tugged on the woman's arm. "Get on the horse," he repeated.

The woman hesitated, clearly frightened, looking between Legolas, the man and the horse. Then she took a step towards Legolas, holding out her hands when Legolas took a step back, "Please help us. My father intends to kill us both. We are only trying to get away from him. We do not want to steal from you. I can pay you for the horse." Her hand moved towards her waist, but froze when Legolas raised his knife. "We only want to get to the other side of the forest." Her voice was pleading and, as she spoke, she began to cry.

Legolas had tensed when she stepped towards him, and even more so when she reached to retrieve the purse tied to the sash of her gown. He was not willing to underestimate her just because she was a woman. But when she said her father intended to kill her... Her own father! He did not lower his weapon, but he did stare at her, completely unbelievingly. Surely his command of Westron had failed him there.

The man gave up holding his knife on Legolas and reached for the woman's arm to pull her back to him. "Almiel, get on the horse, before it is too late," he pleaded, sounding every bit as desperate as the woman did. But it was already too late.

A bow's twang rang out in the silent forest.

At the same moment, a screech owl's call echoed amongst the trees--the signal the night watch used to announce danger.

Legolas leapt back, pushing Aewen behind a tree. The man grabbed the woman around the waist and threw her roughly to the ground, crouching over her and searching the woods. An arrow narrowly missed his head and drove into a nearby tree. The horse the man had been trying to steal reared up, whinnying wildly, and bolted back towards its fellows. The other horses also bolted, deeper into the forest. Another man, an older man, rushed towards the man and woman, his bow drawn, an arrow pointed at the woman on the ground. The man jumped between them and the older man turned his bow on him. The woman screamed and struggled to get up to help the man.

Just as Legolas was gathering himself to try to help the man defend the woman, four elven warriors jumped from the surrounding trees, their bows also drawn, some aiming at the old man, some at the younger one.

"Stop where you are!" one of the warriors shouted in Westron. Legolas recognized him as one of the lieutenants of the Path Guard.

The older man faced that warrior, never turning his bow from the man. "This is none of your concern. It is a family matter. Leave me to it and I will be on my way."

"What happens in the Woodland Realm is my concern," the lieutenant answered.

The old man narrowed his eyes. "If that is how you want it." He spun around and aimed his arrow at Legolas. "Either agree that my business is my own and leave me to it, or I will make certain that this becomes your business too."

Legolas watched the lieutenant's eyes widen when he realized where the old man was now aiming--at whom.  The warrior's gaze darted quickly between the man and Legolas and the surrounding trees, judging the odds of bringing this situation under control.

The old man strained to draw his bow even further. "You might kill me," he declared, "but I have nothing left to lose, so I don't care. If I die and this arrow is loosed, it's going to kill him and probably the girl behind him too. Now, if you lower those bows and leave me to my business, I'll let you take them with you when you leave."

The lieutenant lowered his bow and signaled for the other warriors to do the same.

Legolas glanced behind himself, searching for Aewen, to make sure she was still hidden behind the tree where he had shoved her earlier. She was. He held his breath. The warriors would not allow the old man to shoot a defenseless woman. They only wanted him to turn his bow from Legolas. Once he did, one of the warriors on the ground or another still hidden in the trees would end this standoff. But Legolas knew a good deal could go wrong with that plan. And there was still another armed man, desperate to protect his woman.

The old man hesitated, still holding his bow on Legolas. He recognized his predicament, it seemed.

Before the old man could decide what to do, Tulus appeared in front of Legolas, jumping from the trees to land between him and the old man. Legolas found himself thrown behind a tree along with Aewen. At the same moment, Colloth pounced on the old man, grabbing the shaft of his arrow while driving him to the ground with the full force of his weight.

Instantly, there was a flurry of movement. Two of the warriors dove towards the younger man, disarming him, throwing him to the forest floor and pinning his arms roughly behind his back. The lieutenant helped Colloth do the same to the older man. The last warrior seized the woman. He pushed her against a tree and held her there, his sword to her neck.

"Please do not harm her," the young man cried, struggling to turn so that he could see the woman. "She is with child."

Legolas' eyes widened at that and his gaze darted over to the woman. He stepped around Tulus, aware that his guard was speaking to him, but not really registering what he was saying. The woman was sobbing, nearly hysterical, trembling so violently that she risked injuring herself against the sword held to her neck. Legolas came to stand in front of her. "What is going on here?" he asked her as gently as he could in Westron. "Is that man truly your father?" In his peripheral vision, Legolas saw the warriors react in shock to that question.

The woman nodded and, eyes fixed on the sword at her neck, answered him. "I married Sadron and my father does not approve. He wanted me to marry the silversmith."

"You are married to the silversmith," the older man managed to grunt out, despite the Colloth's knee pressing on his back. "Or widowed of him, at least. Sadron murdered him."

"To defend my wife," the younger man countered. "She was pregnant with my child when you gave her to him. What did you think I would do?"

"She is not your wife and if you laid hands on her, I will have your lands, pitiful as they are, confiscated and you drawn to the town square and hanged." He laughed coldly. "I intend to do that whether or not you laid hands on her. You murdered your better and the Master will see to it you pay for that."

Legolas listened to this interchange, hoping that he had not understood it well, but the woman's sobs in response to her father's threat confirmed he had. She looked at him and the warriors around her pleadingly. "Please help us. We only want to raise our child in peace. Take us to the far side of the forest and let us go. I swear we will never bother you again," she begged.

"At the very least," the younger man interjected, "let Almiel go. She has done nothing." His voice was equally pleading.

"You are both going back to the Master in Laketown," the old man declared. "That is what the elf captain promised me he would do with you. And the Master will give me justice."

The woman began to cry again in response to that. "Please do not send us to him. The Master owes my father a good deal of money. Sadron will never get a fair trial from him," she moaned.

Legolas stared at the old man and the woman. He had heard his father accuse Men of being inconstant and untrustworthy. He had seen, first hand, the evils of Dark Men. But these were not Dark Men. This was a man from Esgaroth! Intent on killing his own daughter! Legolas knew that men occasionally murdered other men. But he had just seen this man attempt to kill a defenseless woman who was his own daughter. And if what the younger man said was true--that the old man had tried to give his pregnant daughter in marriage to another man. That was...utterly unthinkable. The old man must be insane. Surely the Master in Laketown would not allow this? But what of the woman's claim about the Master? Legolas frowned. He had also heard his father say, numerous times, that Men were driven by greed. If the Master owed the old man enough money..... Legolas looked at the woman, sobbing, her eyes begging him for help, and his heart went out to her. He truly wished he could help her. He looked at the lieutenant, expecting him to order the warriors to remove the men and woman to Laketown.

His mouth fell open when he saw the warriors, including the lieutenant, looking back at him, as if waiting for him to speak. He looked down and quickly brought his expression under control. He would be happy for the opportunity to help the woman if he could and the warriors seemed willing to let him.

"Take them to the King," he said quietly, turning to the lieutenant and looking at him cautiously, not certain at all how he would respond. He released a long, quiet breath when the lieutenant simply nodded. His relief was short-lived, however.

Tulus laid a hand on Legolas's shoulder to get his attention. "The King does not make a habit of interfering in Mannish crimes, my lord," he said softly, obviously unwilling to openly contradict Legolas, but the warning in his tone was plain.

Legolas was completely aware of that. He also was aware that he was overstepping his bounds. He was not of age. Despite Tulus's deferential treatment, he was not yet anyone's lord and he was certainly not an officer. He had absolutely no right to give any orders to anyone, and he knew that perfectly well. He suspected the lieutenant did as well and, like him, could not live with himself if he did not try to help this woman. Legolas's presence was as good excuse as any to ignore his captain's orders and try to find a better solution to this situation.

"You are certain you will not get a fair trial from the Master in Laketown?" Legolas asked the woman.

"Never," she answered. "He is too much in debt to my father. But I do not want to be tried by the Elvenking either. Please just let us go."

Legolas shook his head. "That is not within my authority to order. I must take you to the King."

"The Elvenking has no right to judge Sadron for murder or the theft of my daughter. Those crimes took place in Laketown," the old man exclaimed.

"True enough," Legolas shot back, "but you threatened me with an arrow in this Forest. And Sadron threatened me with a knife and tried to steal my horse. The Elvenking does have the responsibility to respond to those crimes." He faced the lieutenant again. "They are both going to the King to answer to those charges before you take them to Laketown to answer for any crimes in a Mannish court. Take them to the stronghold," he said firmly.

The two men began to protest that order, the older man claiming he was not subject to Elvish laws and the younger again begging that the woman be set free, since she had done nothing wrong in any land.

As they argued, the lieutenant signaled to his warriors to secure the men to take them to the stronghold. Then he turned to speak into Legolas's ear. "My lord, if you send them to the King with the charge that they threatened to kill you--if that is what I report to the King--he may well execute them both himself. And if you send them merely to ask him to try the case they have tried to plead to you, he will send them straight to Laketown. I sympathize with what you are trying to accomplish, I truly do, but I am not certain this will turn out as you wish."

Legolas sighed. That was an accurate assessment of what was likely to happen, that was certain. And that meant one thing. With a great effort, he suppressed a groan and looked about himself for Aewen. She was still standing next to the tree he had tried to use to shelter her earlier. She did not speak a word of Westron and Legolas realized she likely had no idea what was going on. She was looking at him with wide eyes.

She was going to be absolutely furious.

"We are taking them to the King," he said with finality, speaking Sindarin so Aewen would understand him. "I will go with you and explain the reasons for their appearance before him myself."

The lieutenant nodded, smiling with obvious satisfaction. "As you wish, my lord." 

Aewen, in contrast, stared at him as if he had lost his mind.

*~*~*





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