This story continues on directly from the meeting of Aragorn and Legolas described in 'To The Ends Of Middle Earth'. It helps if you've read that, but isn't vital.
When Aragorn and Legolas returned to Lasgalen following the debacle with the wolves, there was a message from Rivendell, carried by one of the messenger birds trained by the elves. They were not used for vital messages, due to the unreliability of delivery - birds could be lost in the fierce storms over the Misty Mountains, or fall prey to goblins. Aragorn read it quickly, then threw it to one side. "I have to go home. It seems there are trolls again near Imladris." He sighed. "I thought Mithrandir said he'd dealt with them ten years ago."
"Mithrandir? I didn't hear that. What did he do?"
Aragorn laughed. "He tricked them into the daylight, so they turned to stone."
Legolas smiled. "That sounds typical of Mithrandir. I remember trolls near Rivendell, long ago, in a small wood there. I wonder if they were the same ones? You should take Elladan and Elrohir with you - they would love to go troll hunting."
"Why don't you come too? Come back to Imladris with me. When did you last visit?"
"Not for over a hundred years" sighed Legolas. "I cannot. Not now. I was unable to get close enough to discover what had happened at Dol Guldur on my last journey, so I will try again. This time, though, I'm taking a patrol. Come and see."
Aragorn followed him to the area where Mirkwood's army trained. As they toured the practice sessions, as Legolas commented on an individual's progress, as he intervened to demonstrate a particular move or suggest an alternative, and from the respect with which he was greeted, it became clear that his rank of army commander was not merely an honorary one, a sop for the King's son, but had been earned purely on merit alone.
In one corner of the grounds, near the stables, the patrol Legolas had chosen was checking weapons and gear. He had hand picked them, all seasoned warriors, selected for particular skills that would be needed for this venture. Two had been out riding the borders and had only returned the previous day. Legolas had decided to delay and await their return, rather than go without them - hence his trip with Aragorn. Aragorn was mildly surprised to see two females in the group. One of them, Taniquel, was an archer. She was firing at a group of targets that looked impossibly small and far away.
"She's as good as you are" commented Aragorn.
Taniquel glanced over her shoulder. "Nearly" she said with a laugh. "I haven't beaten him yet, but I will one day!"
"She's right, she will. It keeps me alert, though!"
Next they went into the stables. It was a long, low building, light and airy. There was a sweet smell of hay and horse. As they entered, one or two horses came forward to investigate the newcomers. Several others turned their heads curiously. A big grey stallion butted his head at Aragorn, imperiously demanding tit-bits. Legolas pushed him aside with a laugh. "You're too greedy, Fanuidhol! Go away, don't tell me Alfiel never feeds you."
At the sound of his voice, another horse came forward, whickering softly. He was a beautiful pale gold, with a creamy coloured mane and tail. Aragorn looked at him in admiration. "What a beauty! I've never seen that colouring before."
Legolas patted the horse on the nose. "This is Pavisel. He's mine, a gift from my father. I wish I could have taken him south with me last time - I've trained him to fight with me, to use his hooves in battle. He would have been a lot more use than the other poor beast!"
From outside the stables, voices could be heard calling. Legolas gave Aragorn an apologetic look. Before he could speak, Aragorn said "I must return to Imladris tomorrow. I need to prepare, so I'll see you later."
As Aragorn went back across the practice grounds, Legolas rejoined the rest of the patrol for a final briefing. As he approached them, he watched them carefully, consideringly, weighing up their various skills. Elthan was an archer, and a talented healer. Hopefully his abilities would not be required, but on a mission such as this it was reassuring to know he was there. Alfiel was his second, skilled in all forms of combat, but most importantly, a trusted friend as well.
He could equally have picked Tirnan instead, for all the same reasons, but as he had chosen Eléntia to join the patrol, it would not be a good combination. Eléntia could be very prickly and difficult to work with, and Tirnan, frankly, could not stand her. However her abilities as a scout were legendary, and her knack of moving silently phenomenal even for an elf.
Taniquel was much easier to get along with. Her archery skills near matched his own, and he could see her promoted to captain in the not too distant future. Finally there was Math'rin. The oldest of the group, he had fought at the Last Alliance, long, long, ago. He was deadly with a sword, but gifted with a harp.
After outlining the mission ahead of them, they discussed the task they faced, then Legolas finished with: "Remember, this is a surveillance mission. We need to find out what's down there, learn as much as possible, and then return here to report back. We avoid entanglements with orcs, or anything else, unless there's no alternative. I don't want to alert Dol Guldur to our presence. Be careful."
They left at dawn the next day. Aragorn rode with them for part of the way, before turning west to follow the track which led towards the Misty Mountains. He drew away from the patrol for a last word with Legolas. "I wish you a safe journey. If you can, will you send word to Rivendell of what you find? I think Elrond and Mithrandir will wish to know of this. I know Mithrandir thinks we haven't seen the last of the Necromancer."
Legolas agreed readily. "All the wise should know if the shadow has indeed returned. I will send a message to you and Elrond as soon as I return to Lasgalen. Ride well. Namárië!"
Aragorn turned his horse then, and rode into the dim green light of the elf path. The path twisted, and soon he was lost from sight.
Alfiel gazed after him. "I hope there will be nothing of importance we need to report," he said. "But the sooner we reach Dol Guldur the sooner we shall know the truth."
They rode south through the forest, following narrow paths that other eyes would not have seen. As they reached the Mountains of Mirkwood, running west-east across the forest, they veered right, ascending a narrow pass through the mountains. The trees had changed to pines on this higher ground, and the air was cooler. It was only early evening, so Legolas hoped they could cross the pass and descend towards the old Forest Road before full night fell. In this time of early summer twilight lasted long, and full dark rarely fell.
The moon was rising as they crested the pass, dropping down into the southern forest. In a clearing of pine trees they halted, tethering the horses and settling for the night. In this relatively safe area they lit a small fire, and over a meal talked about their journey.
"I like your new friend," commented Alfiel. "He seems to know a lot about our ways, for a mortal."
"He grew up in Imladris" explained Legolas. "He knows Elrond and his children." He did not go into further detail - Aragorn did not want his background generally known - but he trusted this group implicitly, and they were naturally curious.
Taniquel was looking speculative. "He's very good looking. I wonder - "
Legolas laughed at her. "No, Tani, he's spoken for! Besides, what would Tirnan say? I think it's just as well he didn't come on this trip - he'd be jealous!"
"Tirnan? We're not even engaged yet. A little competition wouldn't hurt him! If you like, I'll take the message to Imladris when we return from this mission."
Eléntia spoke up. "That's a very good idea. But I don't think you should go alone, Taniquel, the forest can be very dangerous. I think maybe I'd better go with you."
Alfiel and Legolas laughed. "That's very generous of you both, but I plan to go myself" said Legolas. "I haven't seen Elladan or Elrohir for a long time."
Eléntia leaned over to Taniquel. "Do you think he'd like us to go with him?" she murmured.
As they settled for sleep, they drew lots for the first and final watches that night, and Legolas, as was his custom, took the middle, most difficult watch.
Math'rin had the first watch, and the others fell asleep or rested lightly to the sound of his harping. He played late into the night, sending flurries of harp notes drifting into the dark forest. After two hours, Legolas roused himself, sending Math'rin to rest. The moon was nearly full, and he lifted his face to it, letting the light shine on him. He had lost count of the nights he had been awake and watchful, alone or guarding a patrol, but it was a useful time to plan the day ahead, or review recent events. He reflected on his meeting with Aragorn. They had had an adventurous few days, but the foundations of a lasting friendship had been built. When this mission to Dol Guldur was over, he hoped they would be able to travel together again.
He sat in silence, the quiet of the night broken only by the crackle of the fire, the soft sound of the horses grazing, and the gentle breathing and movements of the others of the patrol. After a few hours he awoke Eléntia. She grumbled at him, but he fell asleep, safe in the knowledge that they were in the mountains, and guarded.
The next day they crossed the Old Road and travelled deeper into Mirkwood. The elven paths they used grew more impassable, and thick strands of spider webs were more apparent. At one time webs blocked their path, and rather than cut their way through and enrage the spiders, they left the path and bypassed the webs. It was a more prudent move than blindly hacking at everything which stood in their way, but refinding the path proved difficult. The trees grew thickly here, thickets of bramble grew everywhere, and the cobwebs were thicker than ever. Long strands hung down from the trees, ensnaring cloaks, hair, and bows. Casting wary glances upwards, they continued, hoping to avoid an encounter with the giant spiders, which would be dangerous and time-consuming. A single bite rarely proved fatal, but had been known to kill, and even a single bite left the victim in great pain and delirium for several days. Legolas had been bitten once, long ago, and had no wish to repeat the experience. Besides, it was a delay they could not afford to make.
As they moved further south, Eléntia left the group to explore the surrounding land more and more often, leaving Bahnfrei, her horse, with the others. Her extraordinary skills as a scout and tracker were well suited to her solitary nature. While the rest of the patrol kept to the forest tracks, she would range through the trees to the east and west, alerting them to occasional orc patrols, or spider haunts. She would rejoin them at intervals during the day, unexpectedly, waiting for them as they rounded a bend in the path, dropping from the trees in front of them, or hailing them from the top of a rock outcrop she had climbed for a better view. At other times they saw no sign of her from dawn until dusk.
They continued in this way for several days. Progress was slow, as the tracks twisted and turned, and sometimes disappeared completely. Picking their way through the forest, skirting vast clumps of bramble, fallen trees, and negotiating sudden, unseen ravines that crossed their path, they had already been away from Lasgalen for nearly a week.
They moved steadily to the south, and were about half a day's journey from Dol Guldur when they came to an open area of forest. It was mid morning. Eléntia had gone off at dawn when they broke camp, but had not yet returned. Legolas had come this way once, long before and remembered that a short way ahead the land rose, ending in a sheer cliff from which there was a clear view of the forest far to the south, and all around. He signalled to Alfiel. "I want you to stay here, while I climb up to see what's ahead. Take Pavisel."
Leaving his five companions concealed in the trees and watering the horses, Legolas scrambled to the top of the escarpment, dropping to the ground as he approached the edge so he was hidden from unfriendly eyes that might be watching. He gazed first southwest. From this height he could see the forest spread out before him. The fresh green of beech mingled with the darker green of oak, and merged imperceptibly with ash, birch, and pine. Bright sunlight gilded the leaves and treetops. Far to the west he could see the line of the Great River, Anduin, beyond that the trees of Lothlorien shining golden in the sun. Beyond Lorien the peaks of the Misty Mountains rose, partially veiled in mist and cloud as befitted their name, and stretched south and far to the north.
This was a part of Mirkwood he rarely saw, and despite the influence of the Dark Tower and the Necromancer, it was still beautiful. In the distance he could see the tower, seemingly shadowed as if the morning sunlight did not reach it. Dark specks circled all around. Birds. Spies for whatever dwelt there. Now more than ever convinced that a new evil had indeed returned to Dol Guldur, Legolas finally studied the forest to the east and west, and back to the north from where they had come. There seemed to be a creeping darkness moving through the trees from the west. He waited as it drew nearer and seemed to spread out. He looked more closely and swore quietly. It was an army of orcs and goblins, and it was heading straight for them.