Even having made up their minds to accept the offer of Aeslin’s father and journey to Mirkwood, it was still many years before Aeslin had summoned enough courage to actually make the journey.
In that time, Arwen returned from Rivendell, a new light shining in her eyes. Aeslin, though curious, didn’t pry initially, though she began to wonder. Eventually though, her curiosity began to tell, and she confronted Arwen about her time in Rivendell.
“My father has been fostering one of the Dúnedain, in Imladris,” Arwen finally said. This was little news to Aeslin; she had learned near the end of the visit prior to her marriage that the young boy Estel was one of the Dúnedain. She was curious about the child, wondering what kind of man he was becoming.
“Estel? You met him?” Arwen shot Aeslin an odd look.
“Not exactly. I’ve never truly talked with him.”
“Then what happened?” Aeslin asked, even more curious than before. A dreamy look overcame Arwen’s features, something that Aeslin had never seen before. It seemed decidedly out of character. “Obviously something, else you wouldn’t be looking like that.” She playfully prodded her friend, snapping Arwen out of whatever memory she was reliving.
“I’m not entirely sure,” all humour was gone from Arwen’s voice, replaced instead with a wonder that Aeslin recognized immediately, “One minute, I am walking through the gardens, the next I meet his eyes… Aragorn…” Aeslin frowned.
“Aragorn?” Arwen looked at her quizzically for a moment.
“Yes, Estel is not his true name. It was given to him by my father to protect him as he grew. His true name is Aragorn.”
“Why should your father hide his identity from him…” she trailed off as the pieces of information came together and an idea formed in her mind, “unless…” Arwen nodded, guessing what Aeslin was thinking.
“Do you think he’s really Isildur’s heir?” Aeslin’s question was hushed with astonishment. Arwen shrugged.
“I do not know. My father would not speak to me about him. He was oddly secretive about Aragorn.” She grew thoughtful again, the furtive smile returning. Aeslin still couldn’t get past the memory of the little boy this Aragorn had once been. If she was right, Arwen was falling in love with the man he had become, but the Healer only remembered him as a small child.
“Arwen, he is so young, and he is mortal.” Once again, Arwen’s distant expression disappeared. She looked at Aeslin in astonishment of her own, then after a moment, unease.
“I had not thought of that, truth be told,” the older elf finally admitted, subdued a little, but still thoughtful. After a moment though, she looked only sad. Aeslin, sympathetic, silently reached over, taking her friend’s hand. Arwen sighed, her features clearing. “I do wish to see him again.”
“Perhaps you will.”
No matter how much the prospect weighed on her heart, eventually Aeslin had to concede that, as she had agreed she and Haldir would go to Mirkwood, they probably should. By the time she and Haldir set out from Lorien, several more years had passed.
So far as journeys went, theirs was entirely uneventful, something that Aeslin was thankful for. The only downside was that they then reached Mirkwood far faster than she had anticipated. As Aeslin and Haldir stood before the edge of the forest, a feeling akin to terror began to well up inside Aeslin. Haldir, of course, noticed this instantly.
“Here I stand, finally at the threshold of the very forest to which I have longed to return. Yet, now I am afraid of the sight I see before me. I am no longer sure I trust my memory.” Her voice trembled ever so slightly, but she was surprisingly calm. Haldir reached out a hand to take hers.
“Come, I am sure it is not so dark as it seems.” She smiled at the lightness in his voice.
“That, my love, is one thing I do remember clearly. This darkness is bright compared to the night we shall encounter within.” After another moment, she urged her horse forward, entering into the shadow cast by the trees. Haldir followed close behind.
In many ways, Mirkwood was much as she remembered it. It was dark and close among the trees, and unseen animals called and scurried through amid foliage so thick and gnarled it blotted out the sun. There was a great deal of life though, but not all of it was benevolent. The things she had been told about Mirkwood since she left were true. A great darkness had been spreading, and Aeslin felt it around her like a cloying mist, grasping and clutching at her. She realized that the forest she ached for truly was a dark place, full of dangers and threats that she simply hadn’t had the skill to recognize. Were it not for Haldir’s comforting presence at her side, she would have been tempted to turn and flee.
It was not long though before they were greeted by the border-guards of Mirkwood. Out of the inky black shadows came several elves, each with their own grim expression and drawn bows pointed at the intruders. After a moment, one spoke, his voice authoritative and mistrustful.
“What business have you here in our lands, Elves of Lorien.” Aeslin nearly didn’t find her voice, but when she did, she nearly shocked herself at the authoritative tone that came from her own lips, answering his demand.
“And of Mirkwood, Master Guardian. I am Aeslin, and I have come to pay visit to my father, Thranduil, your lord and master.” As one, the elves lowered their arrows. The one who spoke stepped forward to examine the newcomers. Aeslin looked down from her mount, doing her best to imitate the imperious demeanor she remembered in her Father. She heard Haldir’s mount shift, but other than that, all was silent. After a moment, the Captain capitulated.
“My Lady, your presence is an unexpected pleasure. Indeed, we began to fear you would fail to arrive at this late hour.” Aeslin nodded once in recognition.
“That being so, I am anxious to meet with my father, if you please.”
“Of course.” With a few hushed words to the guard at his side, the Captain led the returning Princess of Mirkwood and her husband farther into the forest. Maintaining the demeanor of royal authority felt awkward and unnatural to Aeslin, but she did her best, with surprisingly effective results. Beside her Haldir couldn’t help but be impressed. Before his eyes, his lovely healer had seemed to transform.
If I doubted before that I was pledged to the Princess of Mirkwood, he said through their bond, I certainly would not be able to now. She turned slightly, shooting him a faint glare of annoyance.
Stop that, you’re distracting me. At the exasperated tone she took, he was hard pressed to keep his own somber demeanor intact, allowing his amusement to flow back through their link. Despite the haughty set of her features, her eyes began to sparkle in the darkness.
Faint lights began to appear in the distance, eventually growing brighter and more frequent as they grew closer until the dark wood was fully alight with torches, candles and great fires. Eventually they reached the heart of the Woodland Court. Dismounting, they took their leave of the border-guard who had brought them thus far. Then, with Haldir’s silent support, Aeslin gathered her courage and strode confidently through the gates that lead into the Fortress holding the Mirkwood Court.
The Great Hall of Mirkwood was wondrous to behold, all winding passageways, graceful stairways and high narrow walkways. Aeslin was no less appreciative of its beauty now than she had been as a child, captivated as her pale eyes relearned every curve and carving about her. Great trees and elegantly carved stone columns enclosed and wove through the Hall as walls and arches might elsewhere, warm light pouring from sconces and chandeliers wrought out of the wood itself. And at the end of the hall, near the great stairs that lead up to her father’s throne—
“Aeslin!” Legolas leaped from the landing on which he’d been pacing the instant he saw her enter the hall and was at her side in an instant. Completely throwing aside all restraint he swept her into an exuberant hug, completely lifting her off the ground in his enthusiasm.
“How I have missed you, little sister.” Her own solemn façade gone, she could barely speak for excitement.
“And I you. Legolas, you have no idea how much.”
“I can hardly believe my eyes, but you are here, returned home at last.” For a long moment they were unable to pay much attention to anything else going on around them, but the illusion was soon broken. Looking to Haldir after a moment, Legolas slipped back into the role of Mirkwood’s Prince.
“Welcome, Haldir of Lorien, husband of mine sister.” Returning the traditional gesture of greeting, the Marchwarden dipped his head in respect.
“My thanks, Legolas, son of Thranduil.” Legolas turned back to Aeslin, his blue eyes sparkling.
“Come, Father is eager to see you.” Aeslin’s face fell ever so slightly before she hid it behind the more solemn expression favoured in the Court of Mirkwood. Legolas didn’t fail to notice. “He has missed you, dear one, do not doubt that.” She sketched a faint smile, but she did not feel it. Legolas was about to offer her his arm, but Haldir beat him to it, giving the Mirkwood elf a firm glance. Stepping back in acceptance, the ghost of a smirk on his lips, Legolas proceeded to lead them to the end of the Hall.
As they approached, the scattered Mirkwood elves paused, some staring in curiosity, others beginning to whisper to their neighbours. It wasn’t long at all before Aeslin caught her first glance of her father in over four centuries. Thranduil sat on his great antlered throne far above the Hall, looking down over his court with the same cold imperiousness Aeslin remembered from her childhood. The picture of nobility, Thranduil sat with the wild grace and poise of a predatory cat, his crown of thorns and leaves placed perfectly on his silvery-blonde head, his mahogany robes draped elegantly around him; all restrained power and sharp majesty. His pale beauty was as cold and harsh as the frost of deep winter. He watched his youngest child approach with hard, piercing eyes.
Stopping before the Lord of Mirkwood, Legolas paused on the dais before the great throne, turning from his father to his sister, who followed close behind, a small smile on his face as he glanced to her. Taking his cues from his wife, Haldir stood stock still, though he did not presume to stare down the King as his wife did. Aeslin looked straight ahead, an almost challenging air to the gaze she fixed on Thranduil. Haldir had heard from Elrond that Aeslin favoured her mother, but in this instant, Haldir only saw the Mirkwood King in his wife; the same fair beauty echoed only by the purest of snow and eyes keen and blue as the bright winter sky.
“Father, I present before you Aeslin, your daughter, returned to us after so many years.” Aeslin sank into a deep curtsey as tradition dictated, though she did not lower her eyes. His cold gaze fixed on his daughter, Thranduil’s lips curved into a hard smile, one that contained little joy or warmth. Legolas, seeing this, grew concerned, but he continued anyway once Aeslin rose.
“I also present before you Haldir of Lorien, Marchwarden to Lord Celeborn and the Lady Galadriel of the Golden Wood, husband to your daughter.” He very nearly hesitated on the last line of his introduction, wary of his father’s reactions. To his credit, as Thranduil’s critical eyes turned to him, Haldir gave his bow with the perfect amount of deference, his face unreadable. Silence fell over the court, waiting for the King to respond.
Finally the King rose from his throne and descended to the landing below, watching Aeslin again with a considering gaze as he stepped forward, coming to stand in front of his daughter. Reaching toward her, he placed a hand on her cheek, a faint smile coming to his face that could almost be considered tender, though it did little to melt the cold austerity of his demeanor.
“Welcome home, my daughter,” was all he said before retreating, climbing up to take his seat again. Recognizing her father’s words were also a dismissal of sorts, Aeslin bowed her head in deference before stepping back and descending back down from the throne, Haldir close behind her. Below them, the court resumed their conversations, the silence and some of the tension of a moment before evaporating. Following them down from his place on the dais, Legolas came over to the couple.
“Well,” he said softly to the both of them, “that was not so bad, was it?” Haldir raised his eyebrows in a show of skepticism.
“Is he always so cheerful?” With a cynical look of his own, Legolas, glanced over his shoulder at his father.
“If you can believe it. He’s actually better now than he was even a mere handful of years ago,” He was quite serious, Haldir noted with surprise and not a little dismay. If that was cheerful, he was nervous to see him upset. Aeslin, meanwhile, continued to look up at her father, her face unreadable. Haldir, however, could feel the turmoil engulfing her. Reaching out, he took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze of reassurance.
He has always been as you see him now, he heard through their bond, and yet, still I hoped… They exchanged a long glance that was just as full of unspoken thoughts as one between Galadriel and Celeborn, something that Legolas noticed.
“You have changed, little sister.” She turned to her brother, who wore an expression of deep fondness. “You’ve grown up.” A faint smile appeared on her face, but it soon faded.
“Yes, I have.” She looked back to their father, musing out loud, though her voice was little more than a whisper. “But I wonder if he has noticed.” Legolas had no answer, for though he had known their father for a great deal longer than Aeslin had, there were still a great many times he had no idea what he were thinking.
After a while, Legolas led them out of the Great Hall, taking them instead to a smaller, more private chamber. It was a few long moments before any of them said a word, none of them moving to sit or stand nearer to the fire. Aeslin, now that she was out of her father’s imperious presence, was struggling to regain control of her emotions, her grip tightening painfully on Haldir’s hand. He made no further move, his attention focused on his wife, reaching out through her bond in an attempt to help. After a moment Legolas let out a mighty sigh, concern growing in his eyes.
“I know that was hard for you, Aeslin,” he stepped forward, hesitating when Aeslin stayed frozen where she stood, a sorrowful expression on her face. After another moment, he came to stand in front of his sister, tentatively taking Aeslin’s face in his hands. When Aeslin’s eyes met his, the Woodland Prince’s expression of concern eased, a faint smile coming to his lips. “It is good to have you home, sister. It truly has not been the same here without you.” Aeslin tried to smile, but found the effort too much.
“Nothing is the way I remember it, Legolas, save Father. It doesn’t feel like home anymore.” Her voice was small, ashamed almost, but she held her brother’s gaze, searching. Legolas leaned forward, laying a kiss on his little sister’s forehead before pulling her into his embrace, suppressing a sigh of relief when she returned it.
“I know, dear one. It pains me that you never really knew him as he was before… well, before. And trust me when I say that Mirkwood is not what it used to be either; it has changed for me too, and not just because of the darkness.” With a half-smile, he released her. Then he turned to Haldir, his manner shifting slightly until it was a look of appraisal that met the Marchwarden’s gaze.
“So you are the one to have stolen my sister’s heart, Haldir of Lorien.” His tone was casual but there was an undercurrent of curiosity beneath his words. Haldir dipped his head for an instant, silently thankful for the change in topic.
“Indeed, My Lord. I am fortunate to call myself her husband and her my wife.” Legolas studied him, his gaze now unabashedly inquisitive.
“And a Marchwarden,” he turned his eyes to Aeslin, “an—unexpected choice.” Had it not been for the way his eyes sparkled merrily, the comment might have come across as pretentious. Aeslin’s expression shifted from one of unhappiness to one of satisfaction.
“But my choice nonetheless.” Legolas chuckled.
“Yes, your choice, as it should be. Though, I do believe Father had something—slightly different in mind.” Legolas couldn’t help but notice the way Aeslin’s expression went blank, though a shimmer of resentment surfaced behind her eyes. Mentally he began berating himself, “Aeslin, I—” Her expression softened at his apologetic tone, though she didn’t meet his eyes. The Woodland Prince turned his gaze back to Haldir for a moment before turning away, moving over toward the chairs pulled near the fireplace. Legolas gestured for them both to sit, giving Aeslin an entreating glance. After a moment Aeslin followed, but not before giving her husband a questioning glance of her own. He reached out to her through their bond, reassuring her. Satisfied, for the moment at least, the two of them followed Legolas.
The exchange did not go unnoticed by Legolas, especially when Aeslin visibly relaxed, though he kept his thoughts to himself. He only politely averted his gaze, aware that the exchange was private, especially upon seeing the tenderness that passed between them, and the protective stance that came over Haldir. It was a telling moment, an unconscious demonstration of the love between the Marchwarden and the Healer, not that Legolas had needed further proof of their connection; he hadn’t truly needed any convincing in the first place. He did have to admit to himself that, when he had first heard the news of his sister pledging herself to the Marchwarden, there had been a sliver of doubt in the far recesses of his mind. He couldn’t help but wonder for the briefest of moments if, being so young, his little sister had actually found a true love match. It was immensely rare for elves as young as Aeslin to bond so strongly to another. It was in that moment, though, that Legolas knew for certain that she had formed such a bond with Haldir.
The rest of the evening was pleasant enough. They were interrupted only briefly when an attendant brought them some dinner, something Aeslin was grateful for; she was not ready to handle a public feast just yet. Legolas tried to smooth things over as best he could, softening Aeslin toward the home she didn’t remember as well as she’d thought. Haldir tried to do his part as well, encouraging Aeslin as best he could through their bond as he tried to show as much interest and absorb as much information about Mirkwood as Legolas could give. Aeslin, however, wanted little to do discussing her childhood home, overwhelmed as she was by simply arriving and meeting with her father. After a while, though, her weariness began to tell, and her manner became more subdued. It was Haldir who finally came to her rescue.
“My Lord, I fear the day has been long, and our journey has been longer still,” the Marchwarden offered quietly. Suddenly mortified that he hadn’t registered the exhaustion now clearly written on his sister’s face, Legolas looked to Aeslin, who was staring into the fire. A faint, affectionate smile on his face, Legolas stood, holding out his hands to help Aeslin to her feet, an offer she accepted. Upon standing Haldir placed a protective arm around his wife’s shoulders before looking to Legolas. Unconsciously she leaned into her husband. Until that moment, she hadn’t fully realized herself just how tired she was.
With a smile, Aeslin’s brother reached out, clapping Haldir on the shoulder.
“You are lucky to have my sister’s love, my friend,” he said quietly.
That night, the instant her head hit the pillow, Aeslin was sound asleep. Haldir, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. He sat awake for a long time, contemplating the events of the day. He knew from Aeslin that her father was not the most demonstrative of parents, nor that he was particularly forthcoming with any hint of compassion even when in the presence of family alone, but, like Aeslin, he had still expected, well, more.
Legolas had truly surprised him, though. He was far more than courteous to him; he had wholly welcomed Haldir as his sister’s husband without even batting an eye. Haldir knew that Aeslin absolutely adored her brother, but he had still anticipated a little reluctance from the Woodland Prince. After all, Aeslin was still Legolas’ little sister, and she was still very young. He had anticipated Legolas testing him, pushing him, trying to decide if he was worthy to be pledged to his beloved sister. Haldir was still anticipating some form of test from the King’s son, but he also knew that Legolas’ immediate acceptance of him had meant everything to the young healer. It was also obvious that he held no such hopes for someone of higher rank than a Marchwarden as husband for his sister, and certainly didn’t care that Haldir was a Silvan elf. He just wanted her happiness.
Thranduil, on the other hand, was a mystery. Aeslin was certain that he would not approve of Haldir, either for being a Marchwarden or not being Sindarin, but most likely both. Time would soon tell just what the King on the Woodland Realm thought of his daughter’s choice of husband; that was what worried him. No matter what Thranduil said of him, Haldir could not care less, save where his wife was involved. Aeslin was strong, there was no doubt about that; she was very much her father’s daughter on that count. But when it came to her father, she was severely at risk of getting hurt. That was something Haldir would not tolerate.
Eventually, though, his musings began to give way to thoughts of sleep. Slipping into bed beside his wife, he too began to drift off, though not before Aeslin had nestled herself into his arms, still deep in the clutches of sleep. Reaching out through their bond, he brushed against her consciousness, put at ease by the drowsy peace of her mind. Content, the Marchwarden let sleep take him too.
Though the tension never truly dissipated, Aeslin eventually started to relax in the presence of her father. Like Haldir was of a habit to do, she had taken to shielding herself with a more indifferent and aloof demeanor, though it was certainly unsuited to her personality. She had once been used to doing so, but she had gradually been weaned of the habit during her stay in Rivendell. By the time Haldir had met her, nearly all trace of the detached, almost emotionless face she had developed in her childhood had disappeared. It was surprisingly easy to recover the habit, though, and before long, Aeslin found it becoming second nature again. Haldir would’ve been lying, though, if he said he liked it; he greatly preferred it when she wore her feelings for all to see, when the only time she withdrew was when tending to a patient. He preferred to see her smile and laugh. Since coming to Mirkwood, he found she rarely laughed anymore.
Legolas too, took notice of the reversion in his sister. The few times he had seen her in Rivendell, even when she was saddened, she was still a great deal more lively than he remembered her being as a child. She had been such a solemn elfling. Even the difference in her upon first arriving in Mirkwood was remarkable. Now, however, even with the positive effect of Haldir’s presence, she was beginning to remind him of the serious child she used to be, when he had been the only one to earn her smiles.
“How much longer does Father wish us to stay,” Aeslin asked Legolas one evening, nearly a year since they had arrived in Mirkwood. The older elf froze, his eyes darting to his sister. She gazed at him mildly, waiting for a response.
“I do not know, Aeslin, but a part of me is inclined to believe he wishes you to stay here.” For the first time in several weeks, her eyes flashed. Beside her, Haldir stiffened, feeling her temper and thus his own rising fast. Legolas, though, knew to be wary. He had noticed how compromised the Marchwarden’s patience had become within the Court of Mirkwood.
“My home is in Lorien. I have duties, as does Haldir. Father cannot keep us here indefinitely,” she said calmly, though her eyes still flashed angrily. Legolas reached over, taking her hand.
“I know that, dear one. But I cannot control him, you know that. And Mirkwood was your home once, and you have only just returned. You know he will not take it well that you wish to leave so soon.” He finished gently, though his tone was also urging caution. She frowned, though resignation flickered across her face.
“I know, brother, and I have not forgotten that I wanted this too, once; to come home to Mirkwood,” Aeslin closed her eyes for a moment, gathering her composure, “but that was before I found a new home. Legolas, Lorien is where I belong now, with Haldir.”
“You know Father will not see it like that.”
“He has barely even taken the time to see me since I arrived.”
“Legolas, you are my brother and I love you dearly. You are far more in his confidence than I. Please!”
“I am not so in his confidence as I used to be, Aeslin. I told you of that,” Legolas’ answer was little more than a tired sigh. Aeslin’s temper cooled at the look in his eyes.
She had heard all about the events surrounding the Death of Smaug the Destroyer and the Battle of the Five Armies. She had heard all about her father’s near madness during those harrowing days and Legolas’ disillusionment in their father. She had heard of her Father’s banishment of Tauriel for her insolence in disobeying him—and, from what Aeslin had heard whispered, her feelings for one of the Erebor dwarves—and her death soon after from wounds she had sustained during the battle at the foot of the Lonely Mountain; that was the story Aeslin had heard whispered throughout Mirkwood. When Legolas had told her of Tauriel’s fate, it had sounded more like the Silvan huntress had succumbed to a broken heart more than any injury; to an elf, a broken heart could be lethal as any sword or arrow, for they felt love on a far deeper level than just about any in Middle Earth.
She also knew her brother had even left Mirkwood for a short time following those days, and had really only recently returned to the Woodland realm himself. She knew he still wasn’t convinced that he should have come back. Aeslin left her chair, coming to sit at his side. Her gaze was as insistent as her voice, though she strove to temper it with empathy as best she could.
“Please! Tell me what Father is trying to do. What is his intent?” Legolas shook his head.
“Truly, sister, if I knew I would tell you.” She scoffed at his answer, but Legolas knew better than to take it personally. She knew he told the truth. After a moment, she spoke again.
“I wish to speak with him.” Legolas sighed. He knew that tone.
“I will see what I can do, dear one, but he keeps his own council. You know this.”
“I do know it. Please, Legolas.” Desperation had begun to creep into her voice. Haldir placed a hand on her shoulder. Pressing her eyes shut, Aeslin reached up to grasp his hand, the contact helping her to calm down. She took a deep breath, preparing to speak again, but Haldir beat her to it.
“Perhaps it is time we departed.” She turned slightly as Haldir spoke. Legolas looked at them both, a frown forming on his face.
“I agree,” she whispered. She opened her eyes, looking up at her older brother. “I have longed to return to Mirkwood since I left; I ached to return to the home of my childhood. But now that I have come back, I find that it is Lorien my heart now craves. The Lady was right, as was Arwen, and you, my love,” she turned to face her husband, “Mirkwood has become very dark indeed, especially to me.” Her hushed voice was laden with grief.
After a long moment Legolas stood. “Come with me.”