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Change of Mind, Change of Heart

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Change of Mind, Change of Heart

 

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~PART ONE~

 

Aragorn was loosing and loosing badly.

Legolas spun around the young ranger and landed a light blow to the man’s head. The impact was enough to split Aragorn’s lip and knock him backwards for a fraction of second. The elf danced around the human and sliced the air with the knife he held lightly in his hand; his wrist twisting at the last possible second as he turned the blade towards himself and raked the spine of the knife up the side of Aragorn’s cheek. Had it been a real fight and not just sparring, the blade would have cut deeply into the ranger, perhaps even to the point of mortally wounding him.

Aragorn had had enough of being beaten yet again. He was tiring and his leg was beginning to ache as well. The endurance of elves far outlasted that of men and the human was very aware that he had reached his limitations. He remembered sparring with his two twin brothers, the sons of Elrond.

The eldest of the twins, eldest by moments only, had taken him aside one day and secretly taught him how to fight elves. It was an ancient form of warring that had been banned from being taught. Only elves possessed the knowledge and the use of it only worked against elves. Several pressure points could be taken advantage of and used in combat to incapacitate or kill an elven opponent. The implications of such knowledge falling into enemy hands had made it a deeply guarded secret. Hence the art of such war tactics had been restricted to the royal family only, and only for use in self-defense. The usage of such knowledge had long ago passed from being necessary. Elladan however, knew the lineage of his mortal brother and had a faint idea of the challenges that the human would face. So he had taught the young man how to fell an elf without killing it.

Aragorn had tried many times to perfect the technique on Elladan and Elrohir, much to their amusement. As things would have it, he had never been able to fell either one of them and had only come partly close to attempting it on Moranuen, his closest friend in Rivendell.

Parrying another blow from the elf and nearly loosing his balance again Aragorn figured he had nothing to loose. His dignity had already been stripped and his energy was gone. He thrust his blade at the prince’s head, ducked the arcing return of the elf’s blow and spun quickly to Legolas’ right side, coming up parallel with his sparing companion. The elf made to turn towards the man as Aragorn feinted a low sweep with his broadsword. As Legolas shifted his stance to catch the blow, Aragorn stepped towards him and smashed his forearm into the side of the elf’s head, catching the prince with the ball of his fist just below the elf’s ear, pressing against the soft unprotected area behind his jaw.

The elf’s eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed soundlessly to the forest floor, unconscious.

Aragorn paused in utter surprise before letting out a wild whoop and shouting, "It worked!! I did it! It really worked!"

Legolas began to stir and the ranger’s battle instincts kicked back in. Aragorn quickly moved to stand over the fallen elf, his chest heaving from the exertion of simply bringing the nimble being down. With the tip of his sword he just barely touched the soft underside of the elf’s chin, dangerously brushing against Legolas’ throat with each exhale of the man’s breath.

A cocky smile touched the human’s eyes and slowly spread across his face. He licked the blood from the corner of his lips where he had taken the well placed blow from the elf only a few minutes earlier. He couldn’t believe the move had actually worked on the graceful elf prince. This daily sparring with his friend had been the highlight of his stay with the Mirkwood elves and his victory in the mock battle had just topped it all off. Wait until he told Elladan what he had done!

Slowly he stood from his defensive position and stepped away from his companion as Legolas regained consciousness and tried to sit up. Lowering his sword, Aragorn reached his hand down towards Legolas to help the elf stand. His hand was quickly swatted away by the prince who carefully stood from his prone position. His grey blue eyes were dark and deadly, irritation at being bested by a human clouding them momentarily as realization of what the ranger had done to him sunk in.

Aragorn realized a minute later that he might have just made a mistake. Warily he took a step backwards as Legolas gained his feet.

"Legolas?" Aragorn retreated another step, suddenly unsure as the woods around them erupted in elven laughter. ‘Just perfect’, thought Aragorn darkly as he realized that some Legolas’ friends had been secretly watching them. He was in trouble.

"Very good move human." Legolas dusted off his tunic, trying to block out the taunts from the other elves. "Who taught you that?" His voice was low and cool. He resisted the urge to rub the throbbing knot behind his jaw. What Aragorn had just done he should not have known how to do.

Aragorn swallowed hard. Legolas hadn’t called him human in that tone since their first meeting. Of course he remembered *now*, when it was too late, the warnings that Elladan had given him about just how kindly elves looked upon having those tactics used against them. With his brothers and Moranuen it was all right because they were prepared, they *knew* that he knew those moves; besides, it had never actually worked before on any of them...

The man’s eyes were locked on the elf’s and to the prince’s delight he saw touches of fear glint in their depths. He raised a fair eyebrow in question and stepped towards the young man. Aragorn back peddled again, ignoring the snickers around him.

"Where?" The question was repeated firmly. Legolas had just been humiliated in front of his friends and his peers and he wanted an answer.

"My brother," the words squeaked out and Aragorn’s eyes shifted quickly about them looking for a way of escape, "He said it was an area of weakness, for an elf. I guess he was right, only it never worked before now."

"Bested by a child Legolas? You’ll never live this down." A tall elf stepped from the shadows looking between Aragorn and Legolas.

"Quiet Raniean." Legolas glared at the warrior.

Aragorn chuckled in spite of himself and immediately realized his mistake. Legolas feinted at the ranger in mock threat but the man turned, and, with speed spurred on by fear, tore off through the woods. He had to get away until his friend calmed down a bit or at least away from all the other elves so he could formulate a sincere and humble apology without laughing mid sentence.

Legolas glared at the elf warrior nearest him. "Well done", he growled as he watched the ranger’s retreating form. His retort only served to amuse his fellow elves and he ignored them as he nimbly leapt into the lower branches of the nearest tree in an attempt to chase down his friend.

In minutes he had overtaken the fleeing man. Leaping from tree branch to tree branch and running swiftly along their slender lengths he passed up the human below him and dropped lightly down in front of Aragorn, blocking his escape path.

The ranger skidded to a halt, his boots sliding on the pine needles and forest debris that littered the floor of the woods. His eyes were wide as he watched the elven prince rise from the crouched position he had assumed as he jumped to the ground.

"I didn’t mean to." Aragorn froze, there was nowhere left to turn, "I really didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. I really didn’t think it would work." He had begun to fear that it had been a dirty fighting trick he had used on his new friend. He hadn’t thought of it that way before, and now he was afraid that he had either hurt the prince or marked himself as an underhanded fighter, neither of which had he wanted to do.

Legolas reached over his shoulder and pulled one of the elven blades from his quiver. Aragorn dropped his sword to his side and stood perfectly still. There was no way he was fighting anymore and he’d never outrun his friend. The elf continued his advance until he stood mere inches from the man. The silver blade came up and touched Aragorn’s neck, biting softly into the flesh. The man closed his eyes and flinched. Long strands of blonde hair brushed the ranger’s face and he felt the warm exhale of Legolas breath as the elf leaned forward and whispered in his ear, so only Aragorn could hear him.

"That was a very nice move. I’m proud of you." A smile split the serious, fair face as Aragorn squinted at him out of one eye, cautiously venturing a glance at the prince. "Your brother was an excellent teacher …human." Legolas emphasized the taunt with a small laugh and lowered his blade. He stepped to the side of the young ranger and clapped him on the back. "I have never been bested so quickly or so efficiently and never by a man!"

Aragorn watched with wide-eyed confusion as the elf began to laugh. "They are right I will never live this down."

"I will never understand elf humor, never." Aragorn muttered as he sighed in relief, bending over and resting his hands on his knees as he tried to get his breath back. His leg ached deeply and he massaged it lightly with his fingers.

The muttered retort only caused the elf to laugh harder and soon the young ranger found himself joining in. Legolas pressed his hand to the youths back and turned him towards the palace. "Lets get back before they fear I really did do you some harm and come looking for us." He hooked his arm around the man’s waist and allowed Aragorn to lean on him for support.

"How is your leg?" Legolas asked as he helped the man limp down the path.

"It hurts."

"Good!" Replied the elf as he massaged the side of his head. The laughter of the two friends floated through the hollows on the afternoon breeze as they slowly headed home.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Aragorn and Legolas entered Lord Thranduil’s dining hall. The room was large and comfortable and a fire leapt in the corner. The two had made it back in time for the evening meal, with just minutes to spare for freshening up before joining the small party of elves that ate with the royals nightly.

As the kitchen help began bringing out the food, a messenger entered the hall and approached the King.

"My lord there is an envoy from Rivendell. They wish to speak with you before you take your meal. They said they were in a hurry and could not wait. They apologized for the inconvenience. Would my lord like them escorted in?"

"Did he say Rivendell?" Aragorn leaned towards Legolas and whispered as the King responded.

"Yes. Would you know them?"

"Oh I am sure I do." The ranger answered drolly, "In all likelihood they are …"

His answer was interrupted as two tall, princely elves walked into the room and turned towards the King at the head of the table. They hadn’t even glanced about the dinning area, so intent were they on their errand.

"..my brothers." Aragorn finished speaking.

The elves were twins, completely identical. Few could tell them apart, but Aragorn knew them well enough to know the subtle differences. He watched as Elladan and Elrohir entered and bowed low to King Thranduil. They had not seen Aragorn yet and he smiled at their single mindedness. He knew why they had come.

"We beg your pardon Lord Thranduil. We are sent from Lord Elrond, he bids you well. We are looking for one of our brothers and wondered if you might have word of anyone passing through your realm in the last fortnight."

Lord Thranduil frowned in thought, "Welcome and good will to your father. But as far as I know we have had no elven visitors from your lands in quite awhile. Do you have a name I might inquire around about?"

Aragorn cleared his throat and stood slowly from his seat. All eyes in the room turned towards the human.

"Estel!!" the delight on the elves faces was obvious and they both began talking at once.

"It’s been a fortnight!"

"Where have you been?"

"We were worried sick."

"Father sent us out to find you."

He smiled a lopsided grin at the battery of questions, his eyes twinkling with merriment. He hadn’t realized how much he had missed the two of them. It was good to see friendly faces amongst the elves he was visiting.

"Well it’s a long story." He tried to settle their questions easily but they would have nothing of it.

"Knowing you, we can only imagine." Elladan rolled his eyes.

"So?" Elrohir prompted, but was cut off by his twin bother.

"We tracked you to the wasteland." Elladan’s voice held an edge of accusation in it.

Aragorn groaned at the mention of his latest mishap as he moved to welcome the two elves.

"Just tell us you didn’t cross it." Elrohir eyed him carefully, wary of his answer.

"Okay, I didn’t cross it." The ranger lied, smiling innocently. Next to him Legolas barely covered his surprise with a cough that garnered him a glare from the human.

As he approached the twins, the brothers’ alarm grew.

"You’re hurt!" Elladan observed as Aragorn limped around the table to greet them.

"Yes well, that’s a long story too." He laughed trying to swiftly change the subject.

"What happened?" They practically shouted at the human as he embraced them both. "And don’t tell us it’s a long story!" Elrohir finished the sentence.

The ranger laughed nervously and made his way slowly back to his seat.

Thranduil took the advantage of the lull in conversation and requested that the brothers join them for dinner. The twins were quickly seated across from Aragorn and Legolas and place settings and food were brought out to them.

Aragorn had hoped the distractions would have been enough to cause the elves to forget their former line of questioning, but his hopes were in vain.

As the food was brought in and the room settled down to friendly conversation, Elladan once again pressed his human brother for information, "So tell us, really, what happened to you?"

Aragorn looked guiltily at Legolas.

The elf prince thinking that the ranger needed help with his overly protective brothers answered simply for him, "We were caught by a band of orcs."

"Orcs?" Elladan whispered the word in horror as the twins turned to stare at one another, sharing an unspoken thought.

Aragorn dropped his gaze to his hands resting in his lap. He absently moved the palm of his right hand over his thigh where the arrow wound was still healing.

Thranduil had stopped eating and was watching the interchange, having full knowledge of Elrond’s past dealing with orcs, he understood the brother’s response. Legolas realized he had said something wrong as he glanced between the elven and human brothers. Looking to his father questioningly he raised one eyebrow, silently asking for explanation. Thranduil raised his hand palm up cautioning his son to silence, he would tell the prince later what had transpired if it were not brought up in the conversation.

"Aragorn." Elrohir was the first to speak. He leaned across the table in concern. His eyes were hard and tense with worry.

The ranger still had not met the elves eyes. He swallowed hard, knowing what their next question would be.

Elladan’s lips were drawn tightly together as he gazed hard at the young man, "Estel?" He softly called the boy’s elven name.

The human looked at him, the sorrow evident in his eyes for the painful memories he was causing his brothers to live through. He knew that their mother had been caught by orcs and tortured. The twins had saved her but not before she had been poisoned. Nothing in all of Elrond’s expertise could heal her and she had left them ages ago for the undying lands. Her loss was still an open wound in the heart of the elven lord and that of his sons.

"Was there morgul poison?" He continued, asking the question Aragorn had dreaded.

"Yes" He whispered, dropping his gaze back to the hand that was gently rubbing the wound. "An arrow tip."

"You did cross the wastelands then, did you not?"

"Who removed the arrow?" Elrohir over road his brothers question. He looked to the King accusingly.

"I did." Legolas spoke up. "I did not find it in time though. It became infected and I removed it that night. The poison has been purged from his system. Your brother is in no danger now."

"You?!" Aragorn’s self-appointed older brother accused.

"Leave him alone." Aragorn caught Elladan’s challenging gaze and held it. Chastising him for his stupidity was one thing, attacking Legolas who had saved his life was another. "Legolas brought me here to his father’s home and the physicians here did the rest."

He looked from one twin to the other. Holding their gaze long and hard. "I am fine." He spoke the words softly in elvish. "The wound is nearly healed. I am well."

Elladan shook his head in exasperation and looked to the far wall of the hall, trying to get his emotions under control. Elrohir spoke for them both, "Do you know what it would do to Father to loose you early?"

"Yes." The whisper held all the penitence and regret that filled the young man’s heart.

"You are not immortal Estel." Elladan snapped at him, fear for his human brother causing his words to have more of a bite than he intended.

"I know that." Aragorn answered, they had to be made to understand, "I have been painfully aware of that since the moment I was brought into Elrond’s home. I have grown up with that knowledge. But by human standards I am an adult." He paused letting them think about what he had said, "And I can not guarantee it won’t happen again. You can’t protect me forever."

"An adult." Elrohir snorted, "A twenty year old tells a thousand year old he is an adult. To an immortal that is a mere child."

"Yes" Aragorn leaned across the table and touched his brothers arm, "And when a thousand year old tells an elderly immortal that *he* is an adult, to the three thousand year old that one too is but a child."

Thranduil chuckled at the gentle barb, "Well spoken young human. Well spoken." He glanced at Legolas, who only rolled his eyes and shook his head, "We have had this very discussion many times beneath this roof." He smiled at his son’s reaction. "I can assure you both," the King turned serious eyes on the twins, "Your brother suffers no ill effect from the poison that his body was subjected to. And while it is true that your father’s healing skills are far better than our own, being so close to orc territory, we are not unfamiliar with healing morgul wounds and his was not of the most serious kind. The best of my physicians cared for your brother and he is healing well." Thranduil smiled at Aragorn and nodded.

The man released his breath in a sigh of relief and looked back towards the twins. They seemed satisfied with the answer if not still a bit worried. But Elrohir smiled at the young human. "Next time, be more careful!" He laughed and the tension in the room fell.

Legolas ventured speaking again, "Why don’t you tell them what you did this morning?" He looked at Aragorn out of the corner of his eye.

Aragorn frowned at the prince, remembering suddenly becoming a difficult thing as he switched from one subject to another.

Elladan watched the human openly, his eyebrow raised in question, "What did you do?"

"Good question," Aragorn racked his brain for where Legolas was trying lead this conversation.

The elf prince tapped the side of his head just below his ear, behind his jaw and smiled wickedly at the man.

"You didn’t!" Elrohir caught on before Aragorn could speak.

"I did!" the human stifled a giggle as he glanced at the eldest twin.

"You used the warring techniques I taught you?!" Elladan stared in surprise at the young ranger.

Aragorn laughed slightly and admitted his actions, "Yes!" He ate a bite of food while he let them hang on his words, eyes twinkling with merriment, "And it worked!"

Elrohir laughed out loud, "You didn’t?! What poor unwitting soul did you do that too?"

"Me." Legolas answered, embarrassment tingeing his fair cheeks a light crimson. "I was unaware that he had been thus taught." He looked accusingly at Elladan.

Elladan’s eyes darkened, "You tried it on a royal?"

Elrohir hadn’t stopped laughing and the new information caused him to laugh even harder as he choked on the food he had been eating.

"What am I going to do with you!?" Elladan stared at the young man in utter surprise.

Aragorn stifled a laugh and shrugged, the totally innocent look on the man’s face started Legolas laughing as well. "I didn’t think it’d really work." He tried to defend himself.

At the lame excuse Elladan dropped his head in his hands, "I give up!" Shaking his head in utter amazement he muttered, "Oh just wait till father hears about this."

"You can’t tell him!" Aragorn leaned across the dining table whispering the words frantically.

"We are so sorry." Elrohir apologized to the elf prince, trying to contain his laughter.

"It is truly all right." Legolas had finally restrained himself and gotten his breathing under control. The whole situation between the brothers had been enormously entertaining.

"HEY!" Aragorn gave Elrohir a shove at the apology.

All eyes turned towards the human.

"It worked." He emphasized each word as though his statement had not sunk in yet. The excitement on his face sent Elrohir back into a fit of laughter. Helplessly Aragorn glanced at Legolas for support.

"Oh it did." The elf rubbed his jaw for emphasis.

Elladan threw his hands in the air, "What I have told you? Do you never listen to me?"

This time Aragorn couldn’t suppress his own laughter as Legolas gently cuffed him upside the head eliciting a ‘thank you’ from the eldest twin.

Thranduil had been watching the conversation with growing interest and spoke up addressing his son, "Is this something I should know of?"

The Rivendell twins glance at Legolas, startled. Aragorn’s possession of secret elven knowledge was not something that was commonly known, it might not be well understood by elves outside of Rivendell. "No father, its nothing. I assure you." Legolas glanced at the ranger out of the corner of his eye.

Elladan leaned across the table and growled at the human in a low whisper, "Do not do that again!"

"Unless its absolutely necessary." Elrohir chimed in his muttered warning.

"Not to worry." Aragorn replied with disappointment, "They wont let me!"

At this both Elrohir and Legolas erupted into laughter

"Elrohir you are not helping things." Elladan chastised his sibling.

Having enough of the younger ones antics Thranduil spoke up, "Eat. The food is getting cold." His deep booming voice silenced the youthful giggles and the room returned to a peaceful silence once more.

Aragorn glanced quickly at Legolas. The elf smiled back and nodded his head, things were all right; it was good to have them all there for the evening.

 

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~PART TWO~

 

Aragorn was enjoying himself. His brothers had left a few days ago, after spending the remainder of the week with him here at Lord Thranduil’s estate. They had set out for home to return to their father with word of Aragorn. He had wished them well and sent a letter back to Elrond with them. The ranger had decided to remain in Mirkwood for a few more weeks. It had been agreed between Legolas, the twins and himself that Aragorn’s true identity would not be made known to the other elves at this time, but would remain a secret between the Prince and the Ranger. The others would continue to know the Dunèdain only as Strider.

His leg was feeling almost normal again and he had decided to go for a walk in the immediate area surrounding Thranduil’s castle. The prince had accompanied his father on business to the north of the woods and had promised the young ranger he would be back in the early afternoon. The castle and grounds were spacious and it had taken the better part of the morning to explore them.

But the woodlands beckoned him now, and Aragorn was ready to be outdoors. He walked idly through the woods listening to the sounds; pinpointing groups of elves as they walked and talked nearby. He heard the shuffle of the horses as they grazed in the broad plains to the east of the king’s mansion. The songs of birds lifted on the heavy warm air and the safety and peace of the free woods settled like a blanket on the young human. His attention was dulled and he simply enjoyed himself as he walked, blocking out all else but his own thoughts.

Without warning an arrow shot by his face, startling him with its proximity as it slammed into the tree on his left burying its head in the thick trunk. He ducked involuntarily almost loosing his balance.

Whirling on his heels Aragorn turned back towards the path the arrow had taken and was faced with a dozen elves, bows raised and arrows notched. He recognized Sarcaulien in their midst but the elf’s smile was anything but kind. Legolas had introduced Aragorn to Sarcaulien some time ago, but the other elf did not seem over-fond of the young human and they had not had much to do with one another.

Slowly Aragorn stood from his crouched position.

"Oh, so sorry" called out an unfamiliar elf standing next to Sarcaulien, "I did not see you there." The elves near him snickered quietly at the condescending tone of the bowman.

A thrill of fear ran down Aragorn’s spine but he ignored it. He wouldn’t let these elves know they had startled him. He remembered the warnings of Elrond before he had left, ‘not all elves will look upon you kindly’. This must have been the response his adopted father had foreseen from the residents of Mirkwood. The young ranger decided to respond kindly and only nodded in answer, his half smile belying the fact that he had been taken off guard and was more than a little unsettled by the welcome he was receiving.

"Could you be so good as to grab that arrow for me…" the elf asked.

His courage returned some, perhaps it truly had been an accident and they hadn’t seen him. Inside he knew it wasn’t true but he wanted to believe it and so he complied. The ranger turned back to the tree and placing one hand against the trunk, pulled the arrow from where it had become embedded

"…like a good boy." The elf continued.

Aragorn froze, one hand on the tree, one hand on the arrow shaft, his face turned away from the laughing elves. For a moment he seriously considered stringing the arrow on his own bow and sending it back to it’s owner. He knew better than to react in kind. Instead, closing his eyes tightly against the sneering and jests, Aragorn took a deep breath and simply turned around, walking the arrow back to the elf and placing it carefully in the upturned palm.

"Now run along." Another elf taunted him, "we cant have the prince’s pet getting hurt in bow practice now can we?"

Aragorn, had continued to casually walk past the group when the jest had been thrown at him. His anger got the best of him and he spun back towards his tormenter. Sarcaulien jumped forward and slammed the young ranger against the nearest tree, pinning him in place with his forearm. Aragorn’s head impacted hard with the trunk and he stifled a cry as he glared up into the tall elf’s grey eyes. "Let it go...human." Sarcaulien spoke the word like the slur he had meant it to be. He grabbed Aragorn by his coat pulling him away from the tree, and shoved the ranger back towards the palace. The man stumbled catching himself on one hand before he fell.

The fear shown in his eyes and the sense of betrayal that beat at his heart and mind was a foreign emotion. His father had been right. Secretly in his heart he had believed that all elves were his brothers, he couldn’t have been more wrong and the ones standing over him were eager to prove his doubts right.

The sound of horses hooves on the dirt path caught the elves attention and they turned back towards the simple road that cut through the woods.

The prince, passing through on his way back home, had recognized the elves and seen Aragorn in their midst. He reined in his mount and let his gaze fall over the silent group. Legolas locked eyes with Aragorn who looked away quickly, shame burning like a fire in their dark depths. The exchange was not lost on the elf warriors and they looked down in discomfort as the prince pierced each one with a knowing glance.

"What is going on here?" More mounted elves joined the prince as the King’s entourage caught up with the young elf lord.

It was Aragorn who answered Legolas. "Nothing my lord," his words fell fast and tumbled out a little too quickly, "we were simply having a conversation." The ranger’s eyes were cast down to avoid the stares of the elves around him. Aragorn’s gaze flicked quickly onto the prince before dropping back to the forest floor. Without another word the human turned and walked off into the woods.

When he was out of sight of the elves, the young ranger ran through the forest heading away from the palace and away from his first encounter with a people he thought he had belonged to. He was too proud to admit his heart was broken and he wished to be near no one for a while. He had to think, he had to be alone.

Legolas pinned Sarcaulien with an even stare as Thranduil rode past and called the prince to join him, "We will talk later." With that caution the elf spurred his horse after the retreating royals.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Legolas stood on the edge of the woods near his home. He hadn’t been able to find the young ranger and the sun was beginning to dip low on the horizon. He had sent some of his most trusted companions out to find the young human but Aragorn had hid himself well.

"Where would I go if I were a human in a wood full of elves and I had just found out that some of them were not kind to my presence?" The prince spoke the words out loud, idly thinking to himself, trying to remember all the places he had shown the young man over the past month of his stay.

"I hope he did not return home my lord."

Legolas turned and smiled at the elf who walked up next to him, "No luck Trelan?"

"None. He was not near the ford and I tracked back all the way to the river’s head." The smaller elf followed the prince’s gaze into the woods, "Shall I continue searching?"

Legolas returned his attention to his friend, "No, but thank you. Worry not Trelan, I will find him. There are a few others I need to find also." The elf frowned as he thought about the warriors he would need to speak with.

With a sigh he headed out into the woods, his senses alert for any lead on the whereabouts of his friend.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Aragorn sat cross-legged on the rocky outcropping that overlooked the deep valley of Mirkwood. He had found this place purely by accident. From his vantage point he could keep track of all the elves as they came and went. Those he didn’t know, he simply hid from when they got too close to his hiding place. He had become better at melting into his surroundings and being invisible when he wanted to. And today he had wanted to.

His thoughts strayed back to his encounter with Sarcaulien and his friends. He frowned at the memory. Perhaps it was time to go home. It had been much longer than a fortnight, like he had promised his father, and he was beginning to miss his own family, especially after the visit from Elladan and Elrohir. And maybe, just maybe he had worn out his welcome here in the fair woods.

He swung his legs over the edge of his rocky perch and tapped his boot heels against the shale rock face, kicking small pebbles loose, that cascaded down the cliff landing far below him. The sun had warmed the blackened rocks and he closed his eyes, letting his head fall back as he soaked up the last of the warm rays before they slipped below the canopy of the trees.

The winds shifted slightly and the quiet sounds of the forest rose up to his vantage point. He heard the pines rustling in the breeze and the sounds of a group of elves walking beneath the trees and talking. He recognized Sarcaulien’s voice among them and glanced quickly down into the valley. Slipping out of sight he silently slid down the back of the rock and curiously trailed the small group staying far enough behind to not be detected. He was utterly surprised when he heard the elves hail Legolas and begin talking to the elven prince.

Aragorn sidled up to large pine down wind from the group of elves and within earshot. The conversation he overheard gripped his heart and he found himself barely breathing as he tried to catch every word.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"He’s dangerous Legolas." Sarcaulien turned towards the elf prince. "He has knowledge of us and our people that a mortal should not have. He bested you with ancient techniques and warfare that is denied even to us and we are your brothers." The warrior paused before continuing, "I am going to approach Thranduil and request that he be sequestered, here in the woods."

Legolas began to protest but Sarcaulien cut him off, "I saw your last sparring match and found nothing humorous in it, unlike Raniean. He could live a good long life here in these woods. You said yourself; he is a young, arrogant Dunèdain. He’ll probably just get himself killed. Here at least he would be safe and so would we."

"He’s not dangerous, you do not know him Sar." The young elf lord used his friend’s nickname trying to calm the warrior.

"What business does a prince of Mirkwood have with a mortal anyway?" Sarcaulien’s anger was barely restrained. "Especially with you. You hate men do you not? Or have you forgotten Dorolyn? This… this Dunèdain is a man, Legolas!"

Legolas’ shoulders tightened and his lips compressed into a tight line.

The small band of elves that accompanied the warrior quietly voiced their agreement with Sarcaulien’s statement.

Aragorn pressed himself back against the trunk of the tree that concealed him from the group of elves. He closed his eyes and held his breath. He had dreaded this moment since he had stepped foot in Mirkwood. He half feared the words that would next come out of the elf prince’s mouth but he couldn’t tear himself away. Swallowing hard he resigned himself to betrayal and waited.

Legolas riveted his grey eyes on the elf in front of him and spoke slowly as though talking with a young child, his tone was even and hard and the words that fell from his lips were clipped in anger, "You know not of what you speak Sarcaulien. That Dunèdain is no ordinary mortal. That one is my friend and I will not suffer him to your persecutions nor your ill placed fears. Any of you." The elf prince stepped closer to the warrior, daring the others to contradict him. "You will not contain him in any way. Beneath these woods he will come to no harm. Do you understand the things that I am saying to you?"

When the others nodded and lowered their gazes, Legolas continued, his voice low so only those near could make out the words. Aragorn leaned slightly out around the tree base straining to hear the conversation. "If you speak any of this folly to my father, you will find more than me against your position. Leave Strider alone." He turned back to the small band of elves that had gathered. "Let no elf touch that Dunèdain with any intent to harm him or you will answer to me. Am I understood?"

The ascent of the elves was enough to satisfy the prince. His presence softened and he nodded at the warriors gathered around him. "Go now. We will not speak of this again. It will not be held against you." With muttered thanks the small group disbanded. Legolas gently laid his hand on Sarcaulien’s back and evenly met the other’s gaze, "I thank you for your concern, although it is misplaced. Give him time, you will see him as I do. You are a good friend Sar." The warrior looked to the forest floor momentarily before smiling and accepting the compliment. Within moments only Legolas stood in the small glade.

He turned towards the stand of trees to his right and smiled. "You can come out now."

Aragorn froze. Surprise stealing all thought from his mind. He really had thought he had been quiet enough to be undetected. As the realization sunk in that Legolas had known of his hiding place the whole time he wondered if the elf had meant the things he had said at all or had only said them because of Aragorn’s presence. Was he in danger?

So preoccupied was the young ranger with deciding what to do next that he never noticed when the elf stepped up next to him and leaned quietly against the tree. "You heard it all?"

Aragorn jumped and stepped back warily.

With a sigh Legolas pushed away from the tree trunk, "Then you did." He looked down to the ground considering his next words but the ranger spoke quietly.

"Did you mean any of it?"

Legolas’ eyes snapped up and fixed on the human’s.

He continued before the elf could answer, "If you didn’t I’ll understand. But you know full well you cannot keep me here. I will leave tonight if you wish. I never meant to cause you any trouble."

"Aragorn." Legolas whispered his name, loud enough for the human to hear. "I thought I had your trust."

"So did I."

"Do you still think I hold against you the fact that you were born a man?" Legolas shook his head slowly, almost sadly.

Aragorn did not answer.

"Then I guess I have a lot to prove to you." Legolas circled the human, speaking softly, "I meant every word I said. You are my friend. You know my secrets and I know yours. Our lives our bound together. I would no sooner betray you than I would my own heart." He stopped in front of the ranger and pierced him with a knowing gaze, "Aragorn son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, you have my loyalty and while under these trees you have all the privileges and safety of any of my father’s people. You have nothing to fear."

Aragorn was speechless. Reaching out swiftly he clasped the elf’s forearm with his hand and gripped it tightly. "Thank you." His voice was soft and he searched the grey eyes that stared openly back into his. "As I live, you will always be welcomed in the house of Rivendell. I am honored by your friendship."

Legolas pulled the man into a warm embrace and pounded the human on the back. "Besides, it would do me no good to make enemies with one who has been taught in the forbidden knowledge of elven warring." He teased as pulled lightly away.

A brilliant smile spread across the ranger’s face and he fell easily into step next to his friend as they walked back down the overgrown path. "You know I was thinking about that," Aragorn watched Legolas out of the corner of his eye, "Do you think I could practice that move with you some more, I think I am still rather rusty on that one."

Legolas danced swiftly out of reach. "Not with me you don’t! Perhaps I can find you some poor unwitting soul, but it will not be me again!"

"I’ll go easy on you." Aragorn prodded with a grin.

"No." Legolas rolled his eyes.

"Well can we practice if I just..."

"No." The elven prince cut him off.

"Will you let me at least..." the ranger persisted but was again cut off mid sentence.

"No!"

"I could..."

"Strider!" Legolas turned to Aragorn and pointing at the man to silence him, cutting him off before he could continue further, "No! Do not speak another word!"

Aragorn’s laughter caught at the elf and soon they were both laughing at the human’s impudence.

 

__________________________

~PART THREE~

 

The air was fresh after a light rain fall and the weather excellent for hunting. When Legolas asked Aragorn if he wanted to go, the young ranger immediately accepted. However, when he realized that the Prince’s party was intended to include Sarcaulien and some of his friends, he began to wonder if it was a good idea after all.

Squaring his shoulders and deciding that it did not matter *who* else was going to be there, Aragorn joined the party in the courtyard before the great gate that guarded the royal grounds.

Some of the hunters were mounted and some preferred to walk. Aragorn fell among the later. Already the elves were chatting, or singing, or joking merrily and Aragorn began to feel more at ease and able to enjoy the prospect of the hunt.

At a command from Legolas, the huge gates swung open on their own to allow the party to exit. Aragorn had witnessed enough elf ‘magic’ in Rivendell to not be overly amazed by the unusual gateway, and followed the others out without another glance. The gates fell to behind them and the party moved off into the woods beyond.

The first part of the day went uneventfully. Perhaps too uneventfully for the hunting party. They found precious little game and after a time that began to put all of them in a less than cheerful mood. Legolas and Sarcaulien actually did manage to bring down a hart at about midday and the party stopped to make camp so they would have some place to leave the deer until they were ready to return home. Several of the elves stayed behind to begin preparing the game, and the others took the opportunity to discard their packs and extra gear in favor of being able to travel lighter and swifter.

The mounted hunters left their horses behind at the camp as well and from that point on everyone continued on foot.

There was some disagreement about which way should be taken. They were now very near the end of the closely protected areas of the forest as was obvious by the growing frequency of spider webs and the darker cast that the trees were taking on.

Half of the party was of the opinion that they should stay in this area and venture either east or west, while the other half was restless from the long and mostly fruitless search and felt that the hunting would be better if they ventured further south, deeper into the dark lands. In the end the more adventurous ones won out and the party delved into the darker, more dangerous parts of the woods.

Here the trees were not so beautiful and the air became somewhat oppressive. Sometimes one could see a giant spider scurry somewhere in the high branches above them, but the hideous creatures were always sure to keep their distance, for they knew there was no future in hunting elves and the Wood-elves despised the foul creatures above all else. If any came even remotely near they would have shot it on sight.

Legolas and the other elves were by now well used to the fleeting presence of the spiders and paid them no mind, but it was still one of Aragorn’s first encounters with them and he could not help the crawling feeling that he was given by the luminous shadow of their bulbous eyes, peering down here and there from the branches high above.

Moving with sudden swiftness, Legolas paused, strung an arrow and shot it upward in one swift move. An ugly, thick-bodied spider fell to the earth with a sickening thud, it’s thread severed and the prince’s arrow through its body.

Legolas curled his lip in disdain and kicked the creature off the path. These spiders were the only living things upon which the Wood-elves had no compassion, for they were wholly evil.

Aragorn skirted the ugly black body with revulsion. He had never seen creatures like that before. He was still looking at its large body and disgustingly twitching legs when he felt something soft brush his neck and shoulder. He jumped slightly in surprise and pulled away, only to find Sarcaulien grinning condescendingly at him. The young ranger realized with an embarrassed flush that the elf had been teasing him and he had fallen for it.

Several of the elves laughed. "Frightened young one? You’d better watch your back or the spiders will carry you away to their lairs!"

Aragorn tried to laugh with them and pretend that they weren’t laughing at him, but his cheeks still felt hot. "I think I’d be a little big for them to manage."

"Oh no, they’re unnaturally strong these beasts..." Sarcaulien shook his head with a wicked grin. "And they hunt in packs. They can sneak up on you from above and you never even know they’re there..."

"Hanging, in the treetops above, waiting to pounce!" one of the other elves put in helpfully.

"Why whole hunting parties have disappeared that way," Sarcaulien nodded. "Mummified bodies hanging from the trees... that’s all they find..."

Aragorn knew exactly what they were trying to do, but he couldn’t help shivering slightly at the thought.

"Sar," Legolas rolled his eyes, having backtracked when he saw that not all of the others were with him still. "What on earth are you telling him now?"

"Just warning him about the woods and the spiders," Sarcaulien shrugged carelessly.

The elves laughed at the unintentionally wide-eyed look that Aragorn did not even realize was on his face and Legolas gently touched his friend’s shoulder, trying not to smile too large himself. "They’re just playing with you Strider. We’re in no danger here."

"Wouldn’t be too sure about that," Sarcaulien countered, his smile turning hard. "The spiders might like tender young flesh like his."

Legolas’ stern gaze told the other warrior to back off. "But you exaggerate my friend. Entire hunting parties?" he shook his head dryly. "I think not. Not unless they were some bumble-footed dwarves or orcs. They far prefer culling out one or two loners, or individual prey." Unintentionally, Legolas was not exactly helping Aragorn’s feeling of comfort.

"But come, we do not hunt spiders, and there’s got to be some game worth catching somewhere in these woods," the prince said lightly to get the party moving once more.

Presently they came upon the bank of a swift, dark river and halted at the edge.

Aragorn knelt as if to take a drink, but, Legolas quickly grabbed him and pulled him back. "Do not drink nor touch the water of this stream Strider," the elf warned seriously. "Enchantment flows through it and all who do so fall into a deep sleep."

Aragorn backed off quickly, realizing how close he had come to making a grave blunder. He was beginning to realize that much of Mirkwood was not a very safe, or even a very pleasant place, although he supposed it had not always been so.

A little ways upstream, a long, slender tree had been cut so that it fell across the river, with an end resting on either bank. The elves lightly jumped up and crossed the slender beam without hesitation.

Aragorn hung back, not liking to admit that he did not look forward to the thought of trying to cross the dark, foreboding water on the thin, slippery trunk of the beach tree.

Legolas would presently have thought to remember his human friend, but at that moment a whole heard of snow-white deer bounded into view ahead of them on the opposite shore and the elves gave a delighted cry, finishing their crossing quickly and taking off in pursuit of the highly prized game. For white deer were rare and hard to catch, even for an elf. They made magnificent trophies indeed and each of the elves was eager to bag one.

This left Aragorn alone on the opposite bank with only the option of trying to cross and follow the elves, or having to go back to the camp alone. Not about to suffer the humiliation of not being able to keep up with his companions, Aragorn made up his mind and stepped hesitantly out onto the tree trunk. The moist wood was slippery and the round surface hard to balance upon, but the young ranger’s balance was good and Aragorn was surprised to find the crossing not nearly as difficult as he thought it would be, although it did take him nearly twice as long as it had his elven companions.

He gained the opposite bank with a feeling of triumph. But that feeling was short-lived because he now realized that he had been left behind by the rest of the party and was not entirely sure which direction they had taken.

Taking off in the direction that he thought they had gone, he tried to follow their tracks, but it did not seem as if all the elves had gone the same way and their tracks crossed and confused one another. Presently, Aragorn realized he wasn’t even sure he was following any tracks anymore, or if he was simply seeing things where he wished to see them.

He stopped dead in his tracks, listening for any helpful sounds, but heard nothing. Nothing but the eerie patter of soft, sticky feet in the endless canopy above his head.

"Perfect", Aragorn muttered to himself as he turned around in a circle trying to get his bearings and locate the hunting party, "leave it to the human to get lost."

Glowing eyes looked down at him from above and he remembered Legolas’ words with a small chill.

"They far prefer culling out one or two loners, or individual prey..."

Just like he was now. The young man swallowed hard and started moving again. He still didn’t know where he was going, but anywhere was better than standing still.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Legolas and the other elves pursued their quarry until suddenly the bobbing white tails of the deer disappeared from view around a bend.

Still following, the hunting party entered a partially open glade and stopped just under the shelter of the trees.

"It smells wrong here." Sarcaulien whispered his concerns, watching the shaded meadow through slitted eyes.

"Where is Strider?" Legolas turned suddenly towards the back of the group as the tension in the elves raised a notch. He wanted the young ranger where he could keep an eye on him if there were to be trouble and he suddenly realized that he had forgotten about him entirely in the heat of the chase.

"Someone has been here before us. Not long ago." Raniean approached the elf prince, glancing hard into the wooded area that surrounded them.

"Raniean have you seen the ranger?" Legolas searched the small meadow for a glimpse of his friend. Worry coursed through the prince as he realized that the last time he had seen Aragorn was right before they had crossed the river. He could have kicked himself for being so carried away that he had not thought to stay and make sure that his friend had made it across safely. He knew that men were less agile than elves when it came to crossings such as that... what if Aragorn had fallen into the enchanted river and drown because it put him to sleep? His worry spiked and he stepped quickly backward to get a better look over the heads of his fellow hunters.

The light touch of his boot depressed a hidden mechanism buried under the forest debris and leaves. He heard the metallic click seconds before the fangs of a steel trap sprung up around his leg and locked into place. There had been no time to move. With a cry the elf prince fell to the forest floor. He grabbed the edges of the metal jaw and tried to pry them apart but it was no use. The metal teeth were buried in the soft flesh of his calf and he could not force them open. A painful sob broke from his lips and he submitted to the contraption and the fact that he could not escape it on his own.

"No! Wait!" Raniean called out as the hunting party rushed forward into the glade in an attempt to free the prince.

The combined weight of the elves triggered a secondary trap meant for larger prey that had perhaps chanced upon whatever had been unlucky enough to step into the steel trap. With a sound like arrows cutting the wind a huge net lifted its corners from the edges of the glade capturing the elves inside its cavity and rocketing towards the trees, suspending the small group feet above the forest floor.

Aragorn was still cursing his bad luck at getting lost when he heard Legolas cry out. His sharp ears picked up the direction that the sound had come from and turning left he ran head long through the forest, concerned only for the well-being of his friend.

Raniean tried to reach the elven blade sheathed in his quiver but the net had the elves bound too tightly to even free themselves. He spoke to the elf crushed against his side to see if the warrior could reach his knife; they needed to get free before the ones who had set the trap returned. He could hear the elf prince, still caught in the trap and tangled somewhere in the press of bodies, moan with the effort of keeping the pain at bay and it only served to heighten his panic at being caught.

A shuffle below them silenced the warriors and they watched as six dwarves crept into the meadow.

"By the stone!" A large burly, dark haired elf glared up at the captive hunting party, "It’s a pack of elves."

"Well what do we do with the lot of them?" A red bearded dwarf walked up closer and poked one of the elves with the tip of his axe, "We can’t eat them. And we’re still empty handed." He eyed the ropes closer, warranting him a glare from the trapped elves, "From the looks of it they’ve ruined this net!"

"Balrain! What would we want with elves? They’ve no meat on their bones." The lead dwarf teased, laughing a deep throaty laugh that rang through the glen. "Come on men, let’s leave them there. I’m sure there’s something in these woods that would love the free meal!"

Aragorn hearing the conversation and the coarse laughter had slowed his headlong rush. Gaining the edge of the meadow he crept stealthily around the perimeter keeping to the wooded areas and taking in the situation. He couldn’t see Legolas but had a good idea of where the prince was, suspended over the glade.

"Release us!" Sarcaulien spit the words fiercely at the dwarves below them, "Now!"

The demands of the elf humored the dwarves and they taunted their captives prodding the elves with the blunt ends of their weapons.

Aragorn had seen enough and his anger flared. True, not all the elves deserved his compassion but Legolas was bound up in that net somewhere. The fact that he had not heard the prince’s voice worried him.

He moved into position behind the dwarf that appeared to him to be the leader of the band of small men and leapt at the stout figure. Grabbing the short creature round the throat Aragorn snapped the dwarf’s head back hard. The humans broadsword flashed in the sunlight and he brought the blade up underneath the dwarf’s long beard scrapping the hairy thick neck with its razor sharp edge; the element of surprise was on his side as the other dwarfs scattered quickly and silence fell in the meadow.

"Looks to me like you’re having fun here." Aragorn whispered the words coldly into the dwarf’s ear, "Too much fun." He jerked the small figure back and bit the edge of his blade harder against the dwarf’s throat for emphasis. "Let them down now."

Undaunted the lead dwarf twisted slightly in his captors grip and glanced over his shoulder. Surprise was etched on every line of his face as he took in the sight of Aragorn. The human frowned back at him, his eyes darkened with anger.

"A human!" The dwarf laughed at the irony of a man defending the elf warriors. "And a boy at that. Let me go young human and we’ll have a round of ale on me when we get back to the camp. You don’t want to be with these elves. They’re an evil bunch. You can’t trust an elf!"

The other dwarves had recovered from the shock of Aragorn’s attack and slowly approached the two, laughing heartily at this new twist in events.

"I say we learn the boy a lesson Rorin!" An exceptionally rounded dwarf to Aragorn’s right laughed addressing the captive, "Seems he musta learned a thing or two from these creatures, he sure caught you good! Imagine a boy catching a Coppercryer!"

Rorin bellowed a laughed despite the metal edging his throat, "Say, what business has a man with elves anyway?"

"My own." Aragorn growled, tired of the friendly banter between the dwarves. "Release them." His arm tightened around the dwarf’s chin, raising the leader’s head a few inches higher.

"These elves hate your kind. They have no love for anything but their own lives. Do you really think they will thank you?" Rorin glanced out of the corner of his eye at the man behind him.

"Times are changing, you never know." Aragorn chanced a look up towards the net and saw the elves quietly watching him. "Now do as I say or I will take your bearded head off for you."

"Kill me and my men will kill you." Rorin sobered immediately. He too had, had enough of the whole situation and was more than ready to end it.

"They may kill me, but by that time my friends will have escaped and they will kill your companions, everyone of them."

"Either way you die young human." The stout dwarf shrugged as though uncaring.

"That may be. But it seems a fair trade to me. I may die but my friends will live. You and your whole company however will die. Either way you loose Master Dwarf."

The seriousness of the situation settled on the dwarves; they had been caught poaching, had trapped some of the King’s own warriors and now were in danger of loosing their lives at the hands of a human. Rorin eyed his men. Each one returned the steady gaze and Aragorn could feel the tension rise as axes were hefted and swords were drawn from their scabbards.

The man tightened his grip on the dwarf and pulled the small being up onto its toes. "Release them now." Aragorn’s voice was soft and lethal and his eyes flashed as he regarded the odds of escaping the confrontation alive. Whether or not he lived, he would not allow his friends to be tormented by these dwarfs or left to die suspended over the forest floor like some hunters unwanted catch. "Do it! I grow tired of asking you." As he pressed his broadsword deeper against the dwarf’s throat, he could feel a trickle of warm blood run down his fingers.

Rorin felt it too. "Release them." He ground the words out glaring at the elves trapped in the net. When his men failed to obey him fast enough he shouted out his order at them, "Do it NOW!"

One of the dwarves rushed to a nearby tree and brought his axe head down against the rope that held the net suspended, releasing the tension and allowing the elves to fall free from the net.

Aragorn shoved Rorin away from him and crouched into a defensive posture his sword held out before him as the dwarf turned on him. "Don’t." He spit the word at the small man and slowly backed towards the elves placing himself between them and the dwarves.

A pain filled cry caught his ears as the elves tumbled to the forest floor and he chanced a glance over his shoulder to see Legolas dangling from the net. The steel trap still closed about his leg, had snagged on the net and had jerked him to stop a few feet above the ground. The sight of the offensive metal and the wounded prince enraged the human and he advanced on the small company of dwarves now huddled together and backing slowly out of the meadow.

"You had better pray that he comes to no ill end or so help me Rorin Coppercryer, I will hunt you down and you will wish we had never met." There was no taunting response from the threat as the master dwarf stared the human down. The protective fire in the man’s eyes surprised Rorin more than anything. Perhaps the human was right and times were changing. He would have a lot to think over when they were well away from here.

As the elves lowered Legolas to the forest floor, the prince cried out and curled over his injured leg, drawing in on himself in an attempt to still the sharp spikes of pain that radiated through him. A deep, ominous, crimson stain had already spread across Legolas’torn pants leg and now dripped down onto the ground, staining the verdant foliage beneath him.

Aragorn heard the steel trap click as Raniean triggered the release and opened its jaws. He turned and saw the deathly pale face of the elf prince as he winced in pain with the return of feeling to his leg. Raniean glanced up and was surprised by the dangerous look in the human’s eyes.

The ranger stepped back around the offensive piece of metal and kicked the trap towards the dwarves. The steel jaws clanged shut dropping inches from where Rorin stood. It took all the dwarf’s nerve not to flinch as the trap settled against his boot toe.

"And take that with you." Aragorn spat the words at the poachers. "You have no business in these woods. See to it you don’t return."

"And if you do," Sarcaulien stepped forward, his courage regained, "pray you don’t meet up with us."

"Or what?" The one called Balrain challenged.

"You will find out what, if you return, rockdweller." The elf replied with disdain.

The slur was not lost on the dwarf who hefted his axe and threw the heavy bladed weapon toward the elf. Sarcaulien had no time to move and his own weapons were no match for the dwarf blade. Aragorn had watched the exchange and with out thinking he threw himself in the path of the axe, bringing his sword up and catching the weapon mid-flight, he severed the head from the shaft. The handle fell to the forest floor and the axe head spun wildly off into the woods missing the elves altogether.

Adrenaline surged through the man and he spun towards Rorin pointing at the dwarf with the tip of his sword, "Go! NOW!" Something in the man’s eyes, in their depth and the loyalty the boy held to the elves he protected, convinced the dwarf to hurry his companions out of the glen.

"Real smart." Aragorn growled as he turned and glanced up at Sarcualien, frowning at the elf. He was breathing hard trying to get his body to relax when his attention was drawn back to Legolas.

Sarcaulien brushed past Aragorn and knelt with Raniean on either side of their liege, deeply concerned by the amount of blood the injured elf was loosing.

Hot agony shot up Legolas’ injured leg as Raniean unwrapped his soft leather boot from around the injury. The elf was trying to be gentle, but when he pulled the boot off Legolas’ foot the prince had to stifle another outcry. Gripping his thigh, above his knee, Legolas squeezed the injured leg tightly, trying to give his body some other input to process other than the flaming hurt of his injury.

Aragorn shouldered his way through the small knot of elves enough to see what was going on. Worry creased his young brow. Raniean and Sarcaulien were trying to staunch the worst of the bleeding, but the stain beneath Legolas’ leg was still growing at an alarming rate.

The two elves working on Legolas exchanged glances. The prince should not have been bleeding this badly. It should have already begun to slow at least a little. But it was not.

__________________________

~PART FOUR~

 

Perspiration beaded on Legolas’ brow and gathered on his upper lip. His head spun dizzily and his vision hazed. He was surprised by the sheer, throbbing power of the pain that made his leg feel as if it were being held in a slow fire. He drew in a deep breath and held it before letting it out through his teeth and sucking in another, trying to slow his pounding heart and calm his shaking body, but the pain seemed to just keep getting worse, almost as if it were spreading slowly up his leg and making more and more of his body burn. The elf’s heart was racing unnaturally fast, and that did nothing to help Legolas’ lightheadedness. Near hyperventilation made a ribbon of pain lance between his temples, his grip on his thigh tightening urgently as the agony shooting up his leg threatened to overwhelm his control.

Aragorn observed Legolas’ symptoms with rising concern. He had seen something like this before, but not in a person. He was suddenly struck by the memory of finding an injured fawn caught in some hunter's snare in the woods near Rivendell when he was ten or eleven years old. Being a thoughtful and kindhearted boy, he had tried to help the little fawn, but it was dead before he could get it home. Elrond had examined the creature and gently explained to the boy that he had done nothing wrong; some snares were laced with a certain kind of poison that entered the bloodstream quickly, disabling normal clotting functions and speeding up the victim's heart rate until they died from either blood loss or coronary failure.

Aragorn remembered the way the fawn's heart had hammered against his chest as he carried it and the glazed look in its eye... It was far too close to the look he saw on Legolas' face at this moment.

Touching the arm of one of the elf warriors who were gathered with concern around their prince, Aragorn sought the elf's attention. "They have to slow his heart..." he started to say, but the elf, concerned about Legolas and not particularly fond of the brash young human, shrugged the ranger off and shushed him as if he were a child, which, in point of fact to the elven mind, he was.

"They know what needs doing young one," the elf brushed him off with mild annoyance.

"You don't understand!" Aragorn tried again, but no one was listening to him. Highly frustrated, Aragorn turned and ran back to their camp, not far distant. Hastily dumping his pack on the ground, he sorted through the items with a fevered haste. Partly at his adopted father's insistence, the young ranger always carried a small supply of healing herbs and medicinal powders with him. Now he sorted through them quickly, pulling out several different items that he knew he would need and laying them aside.

Uncorking a small vial with his teeth he poured it into a small wooden dish and added some of the other items he had laid aside. Mixing the herbs quickly, he avoided taking any deep breaths. Aragorn hesitated as he prepared to add the last ingredient. He hadn't had the call to do this very often and he found himself suddenly unsure of how much of which vial he was supposed to add now. The last thing he wanted to do was get this wrong and make the potion too strong. Finally, hoping he did right, he put in a few drops of the yellow liquid and re-corked the vials.

Pulling a rag from his pack, Aragorn folded it into a hasty square and soaked it in the greenish-amber-colored mixture he had just prepared. If he had done his work right, the drug he had mixed should put Legolas into a deep sleep, which would slow his heart rate back to normal and remove the risk to the prince's life. If he had done it right. The young ranger desperately hoped that he had.

Tucking the rag in his pocket and returning to the elves, Aragorn saw that Legolas was worse. The look on Sarcaulien and Raniean's faces was grave as they finally gave up trying to staunch the bleeding, and simply began wrapping the injured leg as tightly and securely as possible, hoping that that would help. Many elves were exceptionally skilled at healing, but these were warrior elves, not healers, and although they did their best for their prince, Aragorn feared it was not going to be enough.

The young ranger tried to approach, only to be shouldered aside by the other concerned elves.

Aragorn bit his lip. He was getting mighty tired of their cold-shoulder treatment, but now was not the time for it. If he was right about his suspicion, then his friend may be in real danger.

"Let me through!" Aragorn pushed his way into the circle of elves around Legolas. The elf prince was curled tightly into himself, rocking slightly as he tried to deal with the pain.

The ranger shoved a warrior out of his path, ignoring the glaring looks his actions generated and knelt behind the wounded elf.

"Legolas." He softly spoke the prince’s name but there was no response, "Legolas, it is I, Aragorn." Still no response. The elf seemed to have pulled up inside himself in an effort to deal with the pain of his wound and the dangerous reaction his body was having.

The elf prince's face was pale and Aragorn could feel Legolas' pulse racing under his hand when he pressed his fingers against the side of his friend's neck.

Quickly making up his mind, Aragorn pulled the square of herb laddened fabric from his coat pocket and leaned forward. He wrapped his left arm around Legolas’ chest and pulled the elf back towards him. He could feel the prince tense under his touch and knew the reasoning behind the resistance but he didn’t let up, forcing the elf to uncurl. Legolas panicked at the restrictive touch as his mind, slowed by the pain, surfaced memories long forgotten. The ranger moved quickly and with his right hand, Aragorn gently placed the cloth over Legolas’ nose and mouth.

Legolas reached up to stop the ranger, but Aragorn pulled the elf back until his head rested against the man’s chest. Within seconds the prince lay limply in the human’s lap, unconscious.

"What do you think you're doing?" Sarcaulien snapped protectively, rising and moving towards Aragorn as if to pull him away from Legolas.

"Trust me," the young human shook his head earnestly. "I just put him to sleep. I think there may have been poison on the trap, and his body needs to be relaxed or he could die."

Aragorn pulled the drugged cloth away from his friend and brushed the elf’s hair back from the fair face to make sure the prince was completely out.

The circle of elves, momentarily too shocked by Strider's abrupt actions to stir, erupted around him and Sarcaulien brusquely pushed the man out of the way as they hurried to tend to their now unconscious companion.

"*If* there was poison," Sarcaulien muttered somewhat darkly as he smoothed Legolas' rumpled tunic and helped a second elf replace the prince's boot and wrap the ties around his bandage to help keep pressure on the wound. However, he could not deny that it was better for Legolas to be unconscious rather than in all that pain.

The human paced the exterior of the circle, to which he had once again been edged, trying to see how his friend was doing. "You still need to stop the bleeding." Aragorn interjected as he watched them working binding the leg up. He pressed in next to Raniean who gently pushed him away.

"They are doing their best, leave them to it."

"But I can help." Aragorn shook his head. He couldn't believe they still didn't trust him.

"Stay out of the way Strider. They don’t need you right now." The elf warrior tried to set the man’s mind at ease.

Frustration washed over the ranger and he ran back to the edge of their camp, gathering up his pack and the medicines he had dumped out of it earlier. He picked through the assortment of herbs and powders, and, grabbing a small pot, began to prepare a poultice, stirring the odd contents over the small campfire. If the elves wouldn’t listen to him then he would simply be prepared for later. He did not doubt their own healing skills, but he had had extensive training in the healing arts due in no small part to his adoptive father’s own knowledge in the profession.

Legolas was carried back into the camp and the unconscious elf was made as comfortable as possible.

When the confusion and bustle in the camp had died down and the elven warriors had settled around the fire and taken up their positions skirting the camp, Aragorn crept back over near Legolas. The elf prince still had not gained consciousness and that in itself worried the ranger. Had he made the potion too strong? Had he given Legolas too much? Usually he had Elrond, or one of his brothers to check his potions and poultices with, but now he was on his own and he had better not have made an error or his friend would pay for it. His finger's slid down to check Legolas' pulse and he was gratified at least to feel that the elven prince's heart beat had begun to return to normal. No one seemed to take notice of his ministrations, so he seated himself next to his friend and unlaced the elf’s soft leather boot once more, exposing the bandaged wound. The deep cuts had started to bleed again, if indeed they had ever stopped, and the dressing was already soaked.

Sarcaulien moved from where he sat near the fire, but Raniean pressed him back down. "Let him be. Prince Legolas' heart did slow as he said it would, did it not? Just watch him and he can do no harm."

Aragorn leaned over Legolas and brushed stray locks from the elf’s face, worriedly pressing the palm of his hand to prince’s forehead. Legolas' skin was no longer clammy, but it was still a little pale, even for an elf. Gently he touched the others eyelid and opened the eye wider to the dim firelight. The pupils of the blue grey eyes were normal; there was no dilation. His worry dropped a notch and he returned his attention to Legolas’ leg. The gashes had cut deep into the soft tissue and muscle of the elf princes’ calf, in places the steel trap had bitten through to the bone.

Shaking his head in disgust, Aragorn set himself to the task of cleaning the wounds again. He discarded the bloodied bandages and pulled the poultice from the pocket of his overcoat. Carefully he spread the thick solution on the cuts and ripping strips of cloth from his shirt he rebound the elf’s leg. The poultice would help Legolas' body fight the non-clotting agent in the poison and the elf's strong body would do the rest.

Aragorn set the leather boot aside and removed his heavy overcoat, draping it over his friend’s still form and tucking the edges in around the prince to keep the cool air from slipping underneath its heavy warmth. When he had finished his tasks, he scooted up near Legolas’ head and laid his hand on the elf’s chest waiting for his friend to awaken. There was nothing more he or any of them could do until morning.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The horses made soft sounds in the night, tied just outside the circle of the camp. The fire had died down and the elves were stirring in the predawn, preparing to break for the day’s ride back towards the heart of Mirkwood and home. Aragorn had not moved from where he sat, keeping vigil over the fallen elf.

The warriors in the camp had contented themselves with letting the human care for their prince since trying to deny him had already proved a futile gesture. They had watched the young ranger gently caring for the elf throughout the watches of the night. Raniean had not left the inner circle of the fire, still not quite at peace with a human in their midst, but that had changed sometime in the night as he had seen the care and efficiency that the ranger took as he watched over Legolas. The human had finally given in to sleep less than an hour ago. He sat in the same position he had all night, legs crossed, one hand on the elfs chest to feel for any irregularities in pulse or breathing. Slowly Aragorn’s head had nodded, eventually falling against his chest, as his eyes grew heavy.

Raniean hated to wake him. He was spared the task by the stirring of Legolas. At the slight movement from the body beneath his hand Aragorn came fully awake. He raised himself up on his knees and leaned over the elf, talking softly to him as he woke up. He spoke so quietly that not even the elves near the two friends could hear the words he uttered.

"Legolas." Aragorn whispered his friend’s name, "Are you okay?"

"Aragorn?" Confusion and pain drifted across the elf’s features as he attempted to blink the world into focus.

"Shh..yes I’m here." Aragorn replied, gently squeezing the prince’s shoulder.

"What happened?" Legolas questioned groggily.

The ranger smiled a lopsided grin as his friend’s eyes locked onto him, "It was my turn to drug you." Aragorn was very glad to see that it appeared as if the danger was past and Legolas' body had dealt with and neutralized whatever poison had remained in his system. However, the elf was still weak from his wound, which was bad enough on its own terms.

Legolas laughed slightly the chuckle turning into a cough. "Where are we?"

"We are still in camp."

Sarcaulien kneeled next to the ranger and leaned over the elf prince interrupting the conversation, "How do you feel my lord? Can you travel? We are almost ready to leave."

Aragorn slipped quietly to the back of the knot of elves that had gathered around Legolas, talking to him softly in their native tongue. He edged towards the horses and stood among them, helping get them ready to leave.

The ranger looked back across the camp as Legolas was helped to his feet and two elves assisted the elf prince in making his way towards the horses. The elf smiled at his friend who walked a dappled grey steed to intercept them, holding the animal’s head until Legolas had been seated on it. Legolas winced as the perpendicular position caused more blood to flow into his injured extremity and adjusted his position until his throbbing leg was as comfortable as was reasonably possible

Aragorn was forgotten in the chaos of breaking the camp down and as the first of the elves rode out, he remained behind to help clean up. When they were through it was impossible to tell that anyone had stayed there throughout the night.

Legolas was among the first to leave. Turning carefully in his saddle so as not to disturb his hurting leg, he watched as Aragorn was ordered about and patiently complied. The ranger’s eyes caught his and the human smiled at the elf as the small entourage rounded a bend in the path.

"Sarcaulien," Legolas addressed the elf nearest him. "Please go back and see to it that Strider gets a horse. I’d like him to ride with me. I’d rather he wasn’t walking with the warriors alone just yet."

The elf nodded and reined his horse in, turning back towards the camp to retrieve the human. The other elves had finished and those on horseback were just mounting up when Sarcaulien stopped his horse inside the empty campground. He spoke quietly with the elf in charge of the camp and was immediately handed the reins of a dark brown stallion. Drawing even with the walking ranger, the warrior paced the human and blocked his path with the horses.

Aragorn was so tired from staying up near the whole night that he almost ran into the side of the steed before he realized that Sarcaulien had been speaking to him.

"I’m sorry what did you say?" He squinted up through the sun at the seated elf.

Sarcaulien shook his head and repeated himself, "My lord wishes you to ride up with him. Are you able?"

"Of course." Aragorn replied in surprise and delight. The elf held the horse steady for him and passed the reins to the man when he had gained his seat. Without looking back the elf warrior nudged his horse into a full trot and left the human in his wake. Aragorn kicked the underbelly of his steed and gained the elf in minutes. He cantered up next to Legolas and smiled at the elf prince. The two rode together talking quietly and laughing surrounded by the other elf warriors.

After a while, the talking ceased and the rocking motion of riding the horse began to lull the man to sleep. It had been a long wearisome night for him. He had had neither water nor food as no one had thought to offer it to him and worry for his friend had consumed him, taking its toll. Slowly he fell forward in the saddle until he lay along the length of the powerful animal’s neck fast asleep.

Sarcaulien noticed the ranger first and slowed his horse down, pacing the beast that the man rode and coming alongside him prepared to catch him should Aragorn slip. He called out softly to Legolas, "My lord, your friend has fallen asleep."

Legolas circled his horse back and sidled up on Aragorn’s flank. "Did he not sleep last night?"

"No lord, he did not. He took neither food nor water and he would not leave your side. I think he feared he had over-drugged you."

Legolas leaned forward over the neck of his horse and snagged the reins of Aragorn’s steed, just barely caught in the mans limp fingers. Slowly he reined the animal in bringing the horse to a full stop. The cessation of the rocking motion woke the man who sat up blearily and looked around him. His eyes lighted on Sarcaulien on his left and a frown creased his brow, "Why have we stopped - is Legolas alright?

"I am fine, Strider," the elf prince spoke from his right causing him to swivel quickly in his saddle. "Come over here." The elf patted the back end of his own horse.

"No, I’m fine." Aragorn swallowed and yawned, "really."

"No. Do as I say." The elf stared into the sleep weary eyes, "Now Strider, you are holding us up." he chastised gently, with the hint of a smile pulling at his graceful lips.

Slightly confused, the young man slid over onto Legolas’ horse and seated himself behind the elf, careful to keep his distance. He rested his hands lightly on his thighs and balanced himself behind the saddle.

"Are you settled?" Legolas looked over his shoulder at the ranger as the man watched Sarcaulien walk the steed to the back of the small group and hand it off to an elf that was walking.

"Excuse me?" He refocused on the elf prince.

Legolas laughed lightly, "Hold on then, we are headed home." Aragorn nodded absently and leaned around to look at the elf’s leg.

"How is your wound?"

"It is good, thanks to you." Legolas glanced back at the ranger, "Raniean told me what you did."

Aragorn didn’t answer he just smiled and nodded. He was having a hard time fighting off the sleep that was stealing back over him, fogging up his mind. He tried to keep himself upright behind the prince and not touch the elf, but in the end he lost the battle and he slumped forward, his head coming to rest between Legolas’ shoulder blades.

Legolas slowed his mount down to a calm gait as Raniean cantered up next to him, taking note of the situation. The elf warrior pressed the human forward, pushing the man’s full weight against Legolas as instructed by the prince. Reaching back behind him, the elf grabbed the cuffs of the ranger’s overcoat, wrapping the man’s arms around his slender waist, holding them in place there with one hand.

He thanked the warrior for his help and paced the other as they slowly walked through the forest.

"Humans." Raniean looked at the man seated behind the prince, his dark hair spilling over his young features and partially hiding his eyes. "They need so much sleep."

"Why didn’t anyone care for him last night, Ran?" Legolas eyed the elf.

The tall warrior looked away uncomfortably before replying, "I think they were testing him."

"And did he pass?" There was a hard edge to the question.

"Yes my lord. I don’t believe it will happen again. The warriors were very impressed with your young friend."

"Even though he is human?"

"Even though." Raniean smiled at the elf prince knowingly.

Aragorn shifted slightly in his sleep; a small sigh escaped his lips as he turned his head and lay it back down against the elf’s soft leather tunic.

Legolas glanced cautiously over his shoulder trying to see if the man had awoken.

"He still sleeps." Raniean answered the unspoken question as he monitored the man’s breathing. After a spell of silence he continued, "You pick your friends well. The human performed admirably. If it had not been for him those dwarves would have left us in that net. And he was the one that stopped your leg from bleeding, we could not."

"There is more to this one than meets the eye Ran." Legolas smiled and nodded at his companion, "A lot more."

"Yes my lord. I am beginning to see that."

"Make sure he is not forgotten again Raniean."

"I can assure you he won’t be my lord." Raniean smiled back at the prince knowing in his heart that somehow the human that had been brought into their midst would change many things in his world, including his own perceptions of men.

 

THE END