Legolas turned on his horse, giving his friends a proud smile. “Here we are,” he said, “this is my home. Welcome to the Halls of the Woodland King!”
They had arrived at a clearing with a swift river at the far end, spanned by a narrow bridge. On the other side of the bridge rose a rock face with a huge portal at the base, flanked by some trees which served as pillars. Two sentries were standing guard at the portal, but other than that, the surroundings were deserted.
Aragorn threw his brothers a quick glance. They did not seem to find anything unusual, so he smiled politely in return, hiding his surprise. Should the halls of a king not be something a bit more elaborate? The home of Master Elrond was just called ‘House’, but it was so much larger than anything that could hide behind this portal. Add to that the continuous flow of people going hither and yonder, from house to stables to outbuildings and to the workshops, or the numerous guards securing the accesses to the valley - and Master Elrond was not even a king!
Elladan leant over to him. “They live in caves,” he whispered to his foster brother. “Do not let show your surprise, Estel, they are very sensible that way.”
Aragorn nodded and wished Legolas had told him a bit about his home before. He had always assumed that the Wood-elves lived up in the trees in Telain, like the Elves of Lórien. But the blond Wood-elf was not the most talkative person, and Aragorn knew little enough about him anyway. It did not matter, though; this was the home of his friend and he was determined to like it. He urged on his horse closing up to Legolas, who now dismounted and exchanged greetings with the guards. Then he spoke something in a language Aragorn did not understand, and the large gates of the portal opened, revealing a wide, illuminated hallway, looking equally deserted like the clearing.
Followed by Elladan, Elrohir and their escort of four warriors, the young Man dismounted, and out of nowhere several Elves appeared to take their horses and lead them inside. All of a sudden, there seemed to be people everywhere, crossing the clearing or coming across the bridge, while more appeared from within the hallway to leave the caves. Bustling activity had replaced the forlorn impression of the surrounds of just mere moments ago.
Legolas laughed at the astounded expression of the young Man who was blushing when he saw the good-natured smiles of the Elves.
“Forgive me, Estel, it was not my intention to tease you,” he said. “It is on purpose that we create an image of defencelessness. The element of surprise has often been to our advantage in the past. As soon as any strangers are sighted at the boundaries of our realm, everybody hides along their path until word is given that they present no danger.”
The others had already followed an attendant inside. Legolas linked arms with Aragorn and drew him into the hallway. Cleverly hidden by spurs and ledges and invisible from the entry, more hallways opened to the sides, one obviously leading towards the stables, and all clearly well-used, judging by the sounds and the people visible in the distance. While they walked along, Legolas pointed out to him the hallway leading to the workshops, others where storage caves or emergency shelters were situated, and many more. Aragorn learned that the Wood-elves did live among the trees after all, in Telain as well as in huts on the ground, and that these caves - no, halls - were mainly the King’s palace, but also their stronghold against the enemy and the place to store their winter stock.
As they followed the sloping hallway deeper inside the mountain, more and more signs of a regular, active settlement appeared. Aragorn also noticed how the state of the hallway gradually changed from rough, unhewn rock to a crudely smoothed surface and then to even walls decorated with ornaments and pictures carved out of the stone. Finally, it opened into a hall of such enormous dimensions Aragorn stopped short, gasping.
“My, this is huge!” he exclaimed.
“This is Thranduil’s Hall,” Legolas said proudly, “the heart of our realm. Here, we gather for celebrations and daily meals, court and market is held, and sometimes those who live in the woods also spend some nights here. But come, I will bring you to the guest quarters and your rooms.”
He drew Aragorn on, slowing down his steps so his friend could look his fill.
A short flight of wide steps led down into a roughly oval-shaped hall, so large that, by Aragorn’s estimation, the whole Last Homely House might have fitted into it. The ceiling was so far up that it vanished in a dark gloom, and the walls seemed to swing and bulge outwards in a way giving the whole room a globe-like appearance. In the middle several huge columns rose up to the ceiling. They looked like trees, though this was impossible, there was no way a trunk of that size could have been brought inside. But when they got closer, Aragorn realised that the material was stone, though carved to look like a tree in a very natural way. He could see small concavities with little animals hiding inside, branches, twigs and leaves - but all cut from stone and painted to look as if real. What looked like living eyes were really gems, and he now also saw more and more gems and jewels set into the pillars and the surrounding walls. They reflected the light, augmenting the shine of fire and torches, but also bringing other light into the hall Aragorn could not identify. The overall effect was a nearly natural illumination of the whole space, and if you did not look too close, you could almost feel as if you were outside.
Birdsong and the sound of water added to the realism of this illusion. He now saw small rivulets of water running in carved beds along the walls and on the floor and found out that the birdsong was real: a number of live birds were hopping through the artificial trees or drifting elegantly through the open space. He looked upwards and saw tiny dots of light up in the ceiling.
“They look like stars,” he muttered.
“Yes, they do. But they are really small holes in the roof of the cave, which reaches up to the top of the mountain. They were created to let in natural light which is reflected by the gems to give enough light by day even if no torch or fire is on.”
“Ah, so this is the other source of light! I was wondering,” Aragorn said. “This is really amazing. I would never have thought it possible that people could create something like this.”
“According to my father, who grew up in Doriath in the First Age, it pales in comparison to Menegroth, King Thingol’s palace. But come on, you can find out all about it later.” Legolas smiled, and Aragorn punched him lightly on the arm, as his interest in everything down to the last details was something Legolas often teased him about.
At the front and middle of the hall, wooden structures and screens woven of grasses and reeds were creating smaller spaces to both sides of a wide path for all kinds of usages, but the space between the pillars and the far wall was made into a large gathering place. An enormous fire pit in its centre was surrounded by tables and benches, and archways in the walls led deeper into the caves. Along the back wall, a raised dais held several richly carved chairs, with the King’s throne in the middle. Like most of the gathering place, it was empty.
“Do you also sit up there?” Aragorn asked.
“No, thankfully not,” Legolas laughed. “We do not have much ceremony, and although many call me ‘Prince’ I am just one of the warriors of the realm. These chairs are reserved for those holding an office at the court. I do not hold a position at court and therefore I may sit where I please.”
“I wonder if you chose to be a warrior just so you would not have to wear formal robes and sit up there,” Aragorn teased, hinting at Legolas’ abhorrence of formality, but Legolas did not deign to answer him.
Instead, he led him through an ornate archway to the right of the dais into a smaller hallway. From here, three hallways branched out. They chose the one leading around the back wall of the hall and upwards. Here and there, openings into the hall let through light, adding to the illuminating torches. About one level up the hallway levelled out, again branching in three.
“Down there are the offices, and some official places, like the council chamber and the library,” Legolas explained, pointing to the left. “Straight on are the apartments of the higher ranking Elves who lie here, and lodgings for guests. To the right are the apartments of the King and his family and some quarters for guests of honour or personal friends. You three are lodging there.”
He entered the indicated hallway. Aragorn followed, looking curiously around. Legolas had answered all his questions about the custom of his people patiently while they walked. Now he asked him:
“Why are you celebrating Midwinter and not Mettarë?”
“When my grandfather, Oropher, came to the Greenwood, most of the Tawarwaith living here were descendants of the Nandor, mixed with the Avari tribes of the region. Some followed the customs of the Eldar and celebrated the holidays as you know them, others followed the more earth-bound rituals of the Avari, celebrating the longest and shortest day of the year. Since my grandfather aimed at uniting them to one people, he wisely chose to combine all the holidays. Nobody objected, and as a result, we are now celebrating Mettarë as well as the Winter Solstice, or Midwinter. Mettarë is for festive celebrations and lavish dinners, entertaining guests or visiting, and giving gifts, while on Midwinter, we celebrate the return of the light and the renewal of life in a more physical, earth-bound way, with dancing, competitions, a big hunt and, of course, the Longest Night.”
“The Longest Night?”
“I will explain it to you later,” Legolas promised as they had now arrived at the guest chambers, and led Aragorn into a suite with two bedrooms flanking a small solar. His brothers’ cloaks lay over the back of two chairs, and through the open door of one of the rooms, he saw their saddle-bags at the foot of a large bed and their swords lying on the coverlet, though their owners were nowhere in sight.
Legolas went to the second door. “This room is for you.”
Aragorn frowned. “Are you sure? My brothers do not usually share a room when we are visiting.”
“Here, they do,” Legolas said with a smirk. “They have good friends here, and one of them might not need the bed at all. Or both.”
“But - oh.” Aragorn blushed.
Legolas looked into Aragorn’s room. “Your bags have been brought up as well. I will leave you to freshen up and change. You can take a bath, if you like, there is a bathing chamber two doors down. Someone will fetch you in time for dinner, but you can come down by yourself if you like. I need to change as well, and see my father.”
Aragorn was suddenly feeling self-conscious at the prospect of being left on his own in these foreign surroundings, without knowing where he might find somebody he knew. But this was ridiculous, he was not a child any longer!
“All right. Until later, then.”
His brothers returned not long after, both bathed, with washed hair and in the best of mood. Aragorn was glad that he had also done both when they told him to put on his best tunic.
“Tonight is the Longest Night’s Dinner,” Elladan explained, “a very festive occasion. Everybody dresses up, and they serve the most delicious food.”
“What is this Longest Night?” Aragorn asked, rummaging through his saddle-bags for his finery. “Legolas mentioned it, but I do not know what it means.”
“The Longest Night?” The twins exchanged a knowing look. “Ah, well, little brother,” Elladan began, and Elrohir finished: “this is going to be a bit complicated to explain.”
“Very complicated,” Elladan repeated.
Aragorn rolled his eyes, well-used to the good-natured teasing of his brothers. It had grown particularly bad since he was reaching manhood, but he bore it patiently since they also always explained everything he wanted to know, in all necessary detail, and without making too much fun of him. Growing up as a Man among Elves had its own challenges. The twins, who had seen many of his forefathers growing up in Imladris, knew them well and had often helped him to avoid embarrassing situations or making a fool of himself.
“Tell me already,” he said, “I am old enough, you said so yourself when you convinced adar to let me come.”
“Brother, I think he is really old enough,” Elrohir said with mock emphasis to his twin, who nodded solemnly. Aragorn punched him on the shoulder, and Elrohir fell back on his bed with a pained moan. “Help me, brother, the little menace is upon me!” he cried, causing his brother to tackle him with tickling fingers.
“I wonder if _you_ two are old enough,” Aragorn remarked drily.
Elladan rolled off his brother and held up his hands in surrender. “Have mercy, little brother, we will tell you.”
“Yes, you are much less fun to tease than Arwen,” Elrohir added, sitting up again. “She always fell for our little games.”
Aragorn rolled his eyes.
“As the name suggests, the Longest Night is the night of the shortest day of the year. The whole Midwinter festival is about celebrating life, and at night, when the competitions, the dancing and the feasting are over, the adults switch to more informal celebrations. They drink a lot and dance more wildly, and whoever is so inclined goes to the hot springs to have some fun.”
“Yes, you know, with each other.” Elrohir winked.
Aragorn grinned back, his hands getting sweaty. He suddenly felt much less adult than a moment ago.
“Here in the Greenwood, there is also the tradition for those Elves who are old enough to choose this night for their first time. You know already that in Imladris and Lothlórien, the young Elves choose an experienced adult they like and trust for this very important moment in their life. To my knowledge, the Wood-elves are no different, just that here, the Midwinter and Midsummer celebrations are the preferred occasions for a First Time.”
Aragorn swallowed. “I see.”
“What about you, Estel? You have not had your First Time yet, have you?” Elladan asked kindly, all teasing gone.
Aragorn shook his head, feeling a blush creeping up his cheeks. “No,” he croaked.
“Then why not here, and today?” the other twin joined in, giving him a fond smile.
Aragorn was saved by a knock at the door and an attendant telling them it was time for dinner.
Down in the great hall, the tables were beautifully decked with winter greens and splashes of colour, and garlands of the same kind were hung along the walls. A large number of Elves in their holiday finery milled about, talking and laughing, while children ran around in great excitement. The hall was filled with a delightful aroma of the greens and the hot spiced wine everybody drank, and the burning of scented wood in the large fire pit. Cheerful music resounded from above, and looking up, Aragorn saw minstrels playing on galleries high up over the hall.
Legolas, dressed much more elegant than he had ever seen him, met them and brought them up onto the dais where officials in festive robes stood talking and drinking wine. The King, easily recognisable by his long, white-blond hair, stood with his back to them, deep in conversation. Aragorn was astonished at his slight statue and only average height. He had always imagined the King of the Wood-elves, with his infamous temper, to resemble the magnificent Glorfindel: tall, muscular and bearing himself with the easy grace of a warrior. The only similarity, though, was that the King wore his hair unbraided like the Captain of Imladris. But when Legolas addressed him and he turned, he showed such an air of authority that Aragorn had no doubt about his Kingship.
“Aran Thranduil.” Legolas placed his right hand over his heart and inclined his head in the traditional Elven greeting out of deference for his king. “Permit me to present my good friends, the Masters Elladan and Elrohir of Imladris, as my guests to our celebration. With them is their foster brother whom I would like to introduce to you. This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, of the Dúnedain, fostered by Master Elrond himself.”
Aragorn stepped forth and greeted the King with the same gesture, which was returned by Thranduil.
“Welcome to the Greenwood and to my Hall, Aragorn, son of Arathorn,” the King said, looking at him with a piercing glance. Aragorn felt himself blush. As so often in the company of Elves he felt inferior, not only because of his young age and lesser height, although he had nearly reached the height of a Mannish adult by now; but mostly because he knew how little most Elves thought of Men.
“It is rare that we allow Men into our domain, but I trust my son completely, and it will be my pleasure to introduce his friend to our customs.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Aragorn made a little bow.
Thranduil inclined his head to one side. “There is no need for ceremony for the friends of my son. You may call me by my name. But the feast is about to begin, I suggest we shall take our seats.”
“I do not think your father likes me,” Aragorn said, settling down besides Legolas, glad to be so close to his reassuring presence.
“Not like you? Why?”
“He looked at me so oddly, from the side, as if with disdain.”
“Oh, that.” Legolas frowned. “There is a reason for that, but it has nothing to do with disdain. He does not want strangers to know, but you are no longer a stranger, I suppose.”
Aragorn looked at his friend with curiosity. “What do you mean?” Legolas looked uneasy, and he would have liked to take his hand, but he was too shy for it.
Legolas took a deep breath. “My father… he is older than yours, did you know? Master Elrond, I mean. Back in the First Age, at the War of Wrath, my father fought a dragon and was badly injured by its flame. He is blind in one eye, and so he turns his head slightly if he wants to see better.”
“Oh.” Aragorn sat back. A tell-tale glitter of professional interest started to light up in his eyes.
Legolas laughed. “Oh no, stop it! I am not going to tell you more, soon-to-be-healer-apprentice!”
Aragorn joined in the laughing. “Forgive me. I fear my father has instilled in me a never-ending curiosity about anything that has to do with healing. I have never heard about anybody surviving being attacked by a dragon.”
“My father is the only one still living in Middle-earth,” Legolas said proudly.
Aragorn noticed how Legolas’ eyes shone as he talked about his father, and also how much alike father and son were. Legolas’ hair was a darker shade than Thranduil’s, but both had this silken sheen to them that made him want to touch it and let the strands run through his fingers. Not the King’s, of course, but Legolas’s … the Wood-elf had never been more attractive than tonight, Aragorn thought. Instead of the buckskin leggings, tunic and leather jerkin he usually preferred he was wearing a tight-fitting pair of woollen trousers hugging his legs in a way that made Aragorn feel uncomfortably warm. They were dyed in a brilliant blue, some shades darker than the sky-blue wild silk of his tunic which echoed the colour of his eyes. The tunic was simply cut but decorated in a way he had never seen before. With long sleeves and a high standing collar it looked nothing out of the ordinary. But wide cuffs and the whole collar down to the collarbone were made from open-work embroidery in a pattern of swirls and curves that revealed the creamy skin underneath. The effect was stunning, even more so than Legolas seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he was probably the best-looking ellon tonight.
More Elves joined them, and a row of attendants brought in platters and bowls of food and placed them on the tables. Legolas introduced Aragorn to his friends sitting close, and after the King had opened the celebrations with a short speech, the feasting began.
Aragorn soon lost track of the proceedings, letting the evening pass in a whirlwind of friendly faces, food, wine and lively talks. Everybody seemed interested in the young Man, though Aragorn suspected this was more due to the popularity of his brothers and Legolas than due to his own personality. He did not mind, though. He felt a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of everything going about around him and was content to sit at Legolas’s side and observe.
Later, the tables were cleared away - a simple affair since they consisted of long planks laid over trestles - and the dancing began. Aragorn noted with interest that the children were not brought away as it was custom in Imladris, but allowed to stay and join in as much as they liked, though most were eventually falling asleep in the arms of a parent. At first, the dances were familiar, but as the night advanced, wilder and more atavistic dances took over, evoking a strange sense of ferocity in Aragorn. He joined in with gusto, and there always was an ellyth or ellon showing him the steps or drawing him along into the whirl of the crowd.
After a particularly wild spin which left him winded, Aragorn took a break and went to a sideboard where drinks and snacks awaited the dancers, and poured himself some fruit juice. Legolas joined him, piling a plate with savoury pastries and fruit, proclaiming he was hungry again.
“No wonder the way you are dancing,” Aragorn laughed, enjoying the shine in his friend’s eyes and the happy smile on his face. “I do not think I have ever seen somebody move with such speed and swiftness, and to jump so high during the figures.”
“This is just my way to celebrate the joy of the season,” Legolas smiled. “But the dancing is soon coming to an end. Are you already tired, do you want to retire?”
Aragorn looked inquiringly at the blond Elf. “That sounds as if there is something else in store other than sleeping.”
Now Legolas grinned outright. “Indeed there is! Your brothers, our friends and I are going to the hot springs for bathing. Do you want to join us?”
Aragorn hesitated, remembering what his brothers had told him earlier. Bathing in the hot springs sounded tempting, but in all likelihood everybody was going to do much more than simply bathe. He felt rather self-conscious again. He was by far the youngest, simply because any Elf who had seen as many summers as he had was still a child, and those Elves he had met all seemed to have been adults for a very long time. Surely, none in the circle of Legolas’s friends would not have passed their First Night yet, just him? He was quite unsure how he would fit in there.
“You do not have to come, Estel, nobody would think less of you if you went to bed, or remained in the Hall. But if you decide to join us, know that nobody is expected to do anything they do not want. This night is all about joy and pleasure, because this is how we honour the renewed life that has been given to us. Many of us feel that sharing the pleasures of the flesh is the most delightful way to celebrate that joy, but it is not mandatory when coming to the hot springs tonight. Just being together with friends and enjoying the comfort of the hot water is enough.”
Aragorn hesitated. This was what he had hoped for since they had left Imladris. But now, as he had indeed time unobserved with Legolas, to talk with him, he was afraid after all. Then he made up his mind. Such an occasion was unlikely to arise again.
“Can I ask you something?”
His tone must have given something away as Legolas turned to him, giving him his full attention. “Of course, Estel.”
Aragorn took a deep breath. “You see, I - I have not had my First Night yet, as you probably know. And I - I would indeed like to come very much, and to - well, to share in the pleasures.” He felt heat crawling up from his collar and his palms going sweaty.
Legolas looked at him with concern.
“But you should first have a proper First Night! I do not think anybody would feel comfortable sharing pleasures with you otherwise.”
Aragorn blushed even deeper. He felt horribly embarrassed to have to talk about all of this, but he would not be deterred, not when he was so close, no matter what a mess he made of it.
“Actually, I had hoped that this would be my First Night,” he said. “Rohi and Lado told me that many Elves choose this night for this purpose.”
Legolas nodded slowly.
“Have you asked somebody to be your partner, then?”
“No. I mean, not yet. I - “ Aragorn took another deep breath and looked his friend straight in the eyes. “IwantedtoaskyoubecauseIhavealwaysfanciedyouandwouldyouagreetobemypartner?”
“Huh?” Legolas looked puzzled. “Forgive me, I did not catch that.”
“I wanted to ask you if you will be my partner, Legolas. Because you are the one I have always wanted it to be.”
If it was at all possible Aragorn’s blush deepened even more.
Legolas threw a glance around, took Aragorn’s hand and gently drew him into a secluded corner. He did not let go of Aragorn’s hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. Kindly, he asked: “Tell me, Estel: do you desire me?”
Aragorn nodded, feeling dejected. The look in Legolas’ eyes was not promising. Not promising at all.
“Oh Estel.” Legolas took him by the shoulders and kissed him softly on the forehead. “I am so sorry, but I do not feel for you this way. I feel for you like a gwador, a sworn brother, but not in a romantic way. It would be wrong to pretend otherwise. But I am truly honoured that you consider me in this light!”
Aragorn bit his lip, looking to the floor. He had feared that it would be like this after Legolas had drawn him aside, and he did not have much hope anyway. But still it hurt, and also embarrassed him to no small amount. He nodded.
“It does not matter. It is not as if you have waited for somebody like me all your immortal life. And I am nobody particularly interesting either.”
“Oh no, Estel, it does matter. Please do not debase yourself by talking such nonsense. You are a wonderful person, kind and generous, one I would feel proud to love. But you know well enough we cannot help our feelings. This has nothing to do with who you are, or how old and accomplished. My heart is still unclaimed, but know that I would have welcomed it to find it singing to yours.”
“You are very kind,” Aragorn said meekly.
Legolas shook his head with a sad smile. “No. This is not kindness, but honesty.”
After a moment, Aragorn asked: “Please, can you not tell my brothers? I would never hear the end of it.”
“Do not worry, they will not tease you with something so serious. They already suspected that you desire me; actually, they asked me to be kind to you even before we left Imladris. But they did not need to ask, I would never have been unkind to you, or revealed something so private to anybody else. I care too much about you for that.”
Aragorn felt horribly embarrassed and wondered what he should do now. What he wanted was a mouse-hole to vanish into, or some other place to hide from the rest of the world. He startled when Legolas gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder.
“There is still the business of your First Night, Estel. I see no reason why it should not be tonight, with my people.”
Legolas smiled at the face Aragorn made. “You know, as we are now clear about where we stand, I can be your partner if you still want me to.”
Aragorn looked up with surprise. “You can? I mean, you will? But you just said -”
“I could not have accepted your request as long as you had unrevealed feelings for me, since I do not return them. But you know that now, and know that we can never be more than gwedeir. And as such, I would feel honoured to share your First Night. But I would also fully understand if you chose somebody else under these circumstances.”
He put his arm around Aragorn for a quick hug.
Aragorn considered Legolas’ suggestion. It would be somewhat awkward after he had revealed his feelings, that was true. But he still would prefer Legolas to anybody else he could think of. He did desire him after all, though in all honesty, he also could not deny that his feelings might be nothing more than a crush. He knew he was young to fall in love, and he had already fancied the pretty black-haired stable elleth and the young librarian from Lindon. But Legolas had been different. He had taken him seriously from the start and actively sought his friendship and, eventually, he had begun to hope. But was it a good idea to follow through with his plan to learn about the pleasures of the flesh here in Thranduil's Halls, tonight, and with Legolas? He had felt ready for it for some time, but there never had been anybody he had wanted to ask.
Yes, he wanted Legolas, even if it was going to be awkward and he would make all kinds of embarrassing mistakes. He felt secure with him, more than with anybody else.
“I think I would like that very much, Legolas. Thank you.”
Legolas’s face broke out in a beaming smile. “Great! Let us go, then, before the springs get too crowded.”
He let his arm slide down to Aragorn’s hand, taking it firmly in his and leading him out of their corner towards one of the archways. Aragorn’s heart sang. He might not have won Legolas’s love, but he had kept his friendship, and would now get so much more. That was quite something.
The hand holding his intensified its pressure. “You know, this is a special night for me as well,” Legolas said. “I have been asked as a partner before, but never by somebody I cared so much about as you.”
Aragorn stopped, looking at the beautiful face of his dear friend. “Can we kiss? I mean, is it allowed at the First Night? I know that kissing usually is more about love than about pleasures.”
Legolas’ face softened. “Of course we can. You shall learn all the important things about pleasures, after all, and kissing certainly is very important!”
He drew Aragorn closer, cupping his head, and let their lips touch in a tender kiss.