|School of Rings I.
Frodo liked history. He liked the sense that the past was filled with long, unfolding stories like the tales his uncle Bilbo had told him as a child in front of the fire at Bag End. He had been eagerly looking forward to his first history class, where he would be studying in a mixed class of four races and learning from Gandalf, the story-master, who, in his old, gravelled voice could spin words like the threads of magic light that it was said he could conjure from his staff.
When Gandalf said, "Today, we will be learning of Celebrimbor and the founding of Eregion by the Noldor, whose skill and smithwork became famous throughout Middle-earth. In about the year 1200 they began to receive emissaries from a mysterious stranger calling himself Annatar . . ." Frodo thought to himself, I'm really here.
"And how do you find high school, young Frodo?" Gandalf had said to him, after class.
"It's--big," said Frodo, who had spent most of the day talking up to the larger races, humans, teachers. His head felt stuffed full of knowledge, and that was a good feeling, but there was a little crick in his neck.
Gandalf's eyes had twinkled. "That it is. It's a place where big people rush around dealing with big problems. But perhaps it's also a place where little people find they can do big deeds."
"I did enjoy the history class, sir," said Sam, from his usual place, by Frodo's side.
"Samwise Gamgee, I hear you got into the intermediate Elven class," said Gandalf, "well done, well done."
Sam turned plum-coloured, suddenly finding the floor of great interest. He mumbled something that sounded like, "It weren't nothin'."
"Frodo." Gandalf had turned to him, and there had been something about the serious tone of his voice. The way that he had looked at Frodo, looked deep into Frodo's eyes with a searching gaze. If he had been asked to choose a single clear moment from the dark confusion of those early weeks, Frodo might have said, It started then. "Your uncle is retiring tomorrow, and I had hoped to be here to smooth over his passing, but to my dismay I find that I too may have to leave the school for a short while. If I do--there's something that I want you to remember. If it should happen that you find yourself in trouble, you can always trust the members of the Student Council, as well as the headmaster, Saruman."
"Why would I find myself in trouble, Gandalf?" Frodo asked, blinking up at him.
"Boys of your age are always getting into trouble, aren't they?" said Gandalf, but not until after a pause, and Frodo experienced the curious sensation of cold running down his spine. Gandalf patted him on the shoulder and disappeared out of the classroom.
Students were swarming past him down the hallway, and Frodo, being a hobbit, was bumped and jostled, but he barely noticed. He stared after Gandalf.
"Come on." Sam was tugging at him. "I want to join the archery circle, and they start practice at four."
"The archery circle?" Frodo shook his head as the mood was interrupted.
"Elves!" said Sam.
The archery field lay on the distant fringe of the school grounds, and was ringed by the whispering trees of the great forest. It was quite a stretch of the legs, even for big people; Sam and Frodo had to scurry to get there by four o'clock, and by the time they reached the first railing, Frodo was more than a little out of breath. Visible above the tree tops was the elven house dormitory of Mirkwood, and there were more than a few elves strolling the paths, sporting immaculate school uniforms and school backpacks, and carrying books slung under their arms.
"Can you believe that we're really going to the same high school?"
Sam meant, as the elves, not as each other, but both prospects were a source of delight for Frodo, who smiled. He had been scared, for a while, that one or other of them would not pass the entrance exams, and he had been bone-scared that it would be him. Rivendell High was one of the top schools in the country, and extremely difficult to get into.
"No, Sam," he said, looking out over the field. "I can hardly believe we're here."
Bright banners in house colours decorated the targets, waving in the afternoon breeze. Mirkwood, the elven house, dominated the inter-house archery competitions; their green and yellow banner seemed to fly proudest of all. Only elves ever got picked for the archery team when Rivendell competed inter-school. The archery circle, however, was open to all, with no tryouts. There were more than a few humans on the field. But, Frodo couldn't help notice, no hobbits, and no dwarves.
"Are you two thinking of joining?" A human had wandered over to them. Frodo turned towards the voice, and saw legs. He looked up.
A friendly enough face was gazing down at them.
"We don't get many hobbits on the archery field," the human said.
"Why not?" Sam asked.
"Well, this, for a start." The human stuck one end of his long bow in the ground beside Sam; the other end reached four inches above Sam's head.
Sam's face was falling. Frodo said quickly, "We can watch for a while, can't we? Then decide if we want to join."
"Sure," said the human, who gave his name as Barliman. They wandered to the gate together. On the field, a line of elves loosed perfect shots. Sam paused, obviously entranced. Barliman watched Sam with amused interest. A minute or so passed. The archery display was graceful, thought Frodo, shifting his weight, but . . .
"The elves are kind of boring to watch," said Frodo. "I mean, they always hit their targets."
"Watch the two second years," Barliman said, indicating a pair of elves not far from where they stood. "Legolas," he said, pointing at one, then the other, "and Faramir." Frodo obligingly looked over.
At first glance, Legolas and Faramir appeared no different to the others, except that their targets were set further back--double distance. Then he saw that what looked like an impromptu competition had sprung up between the two. They each loosed four arrows in remarkably quick succession, and the arrows thunked into the centre of their targets in a display of accuracy higher even than that of the other elves.
"Draw," said the elf who seemed to be arbitrating.
"Too easy," said Faramir.
"We can move the target back," suggested the arbiter.
"Just call it," said Legolas.
"The knot above the lowest branch, third oak," the arbiter said.
"Huh?" said Sam, squinting. "Where?"
Legolas had already sighted. He loosed the arrow as Sam spoke. It flew straight and true, and in an instant it had buried itself deep into the trunk of an oak tree that stood a startling distance away from the archery field.
Calmly, he turned to Faramir, who gave the distant oak a long look, then frowned and took his shot; there were a few catcalls when the arrow went wide.
"Don't you think you'd be better off with a short sword, or something?" Frodo said, trying to judge the expression on Sam's face. "If you join the sword circle, I'll join with you."
"Don't let size put you off," said Barliman. "You can get a bow made up special from the circle, if you don't mind paying extra. And arrows." He squinted. "They just might not fly very far."
"Thank you," said Frodo, a little sharply. "Sam?"
"Swords it is, Mr. Frodo," said Sam, but as they made their way from the field together, he was smiling in the same way he had when, despite all his studies, he had not made it into the advanced Elven class.
On the third day back at school, the Elven professor, Elladan, was between five and ten minutes late for his class. Without prompting, the students took out their books and begun to study. If the room had been filled with humans, it would have quickly deteriorated into a state of mayhem. However, this was the advanced class.
Legolas, like the others, had the appearance of one studying silently and obediently. Unlike the others, he was doodling a leaf border on his notepad. His mind was elsewhere. As the minutes went by, curling plants crept up over his page.
There were three streams of Elven available on the curriculum: basic, intermediate and advanced. The racial divide was clear. Dwarves didn't study Elven. The basic and intermediate classes were filled with humans and the occasional precocious hobbit, like Sam Gamgee. For elves, however, the advanced class was compulsory. It assumed fluency and focused on studies of obscure Elven dialects, and the epic song-poems that made up so much of Elven literature.
The advanced class was a rarefied environment, a sea of blond heads and a smug undercurrent of superiority. There were only two humans in AE, and they were spotted, bookish types who studied hard to keep up with the class. Elves could all speak Human, it was the language in which the majority of the school curriculum was taught. Humans, however, never seemed quite smart enough to learn Elven; they were a different species, after all. They could not be held to the same standards. Their deficiency was not their fault, simply a fact. It was a consequent fact that when elves talked to a humans in Human, they were always, on some level, talking down to them.
Legolas had filled half a page by the time the door swung open on Elladan, who had with him the deputy headmaster, Elrond, as well as--a human student? Legolas blinked and sat up, and then felt the full force of the situation hit him. All the elves had sat up, in near unison. Elrond and Elladan exchanged a few hushed words at the door, and then Elrond departed after giving the human boy an encouraging pat on the back.
Elladan addressed them, briefly. "Aragorn is moving up from the intermediate class this year. Aragorn, please find a seat."
Legolas felt the shock, the polite lack of expression on thirty elven faces. Every elf knew the name of Aragorn: Aragorn the upstart. Aragorn the challenger. They knew of his victory over Haldir. The attention of every elven student was riveted on the human.
Raking his eyes over the class, Aragorn saw Legolas, and, no doubt recognizing him as a familiar face--the only familiar face in the class--raised his hand in a friendly wave.
Legolas's cheeks were heating. No, he wanted to say to Aragorn, who was so clearly oblivious to what his casual greeting had signalled to the rest of class. No, you can't have just done that. And then to his continuing horror, Legolas found himself moving, unable to stop himself, sliding his books from the desk beside him and opening his mouth and saying, "You can sit here, if you like." His invitation came out soft and steady, in the lyrical Elven language. Faramir, beside him, arched a single pale brow.
Elves were too well mannered to whisper behind hands but it was there, unspoken, subtle changes in body language, they would exchange looks about it after class.
Aragorn just said, "Thanks," as he slipped into his seat and that was that. He opened his books and focused on the lesson. If Aragorn was discomforted by joining an all-elven class, he didn't show it at all.
The worst thing that he could do, Legolas remembered that thought.
No loose tie or unbuttoned shirt, nothing untoward to give him away today, he was dressed perfectly. In accordance with school rules, Legolas's long hair was even tied back in a tight pony-tail, just a few bangs escaping at the front. Next to the prim and proper elves, it was the human who looked like he had just woken up on the forest floor. Aragorn's chin-length hair unsure whether it was curly or straight, his school tie was loosened and his body language was too loud.
His jaw was strong, the look in his fine eyes was unwavering and intense.
Legolas looked away quickly. He gave his attention to the lesson. His schoolwork, like his neat appearance, was beyond reproach, and he took pride in it.
He finished the class exercise with time to spare. Aragorn was not quite so swift. He was writing quickly, but his Elven script, Legolas noted with amusement, was like that of a child. A mess of overlarge letters, smudges and crossed out lines.
With ten minutes left, and no work to keep him occupied, Legolas propped his chin on one hand and gazed at Aragorn openly until the other boy perforce looked up at him.
"Your handwriting is terrible," Legolas said coolly in Human, but he was playing with a strand of his own long, blond hair while he said it.
"I type all my essays," Aragorn replied in perfect Elven, friendly tone, though he met Legolas's eyes steadily.
"Haldir is going to have your head," Faramir said to him, at the school lockers, after class.
"Are you walking back to the dormitory?" Legolas asked, closing his locker with a little slam and clicking the padlock, ignoring Faramir's statement. Determinedly not thinking of anything.
"Then let's go." He swung his schoolbag onto his back.