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-Exile-

 

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~*PART ONE*~

 

Velvet. The curtains that hung gracefully bunched along the far wall were made of deep, verdant velvet. He hadn’t noticed that before. Come to think of it he didn’t know why there were curtains there in the first place when there was no window... Aragorn dropped his eyes back to his hands, his weary, wondering mind pacing in small, disturbed circles about him; seeking to latch onto something, anything other than his current situation.

Minutes were beginning to seem like years. Eternities. The young ranger sighed and closed his eyes. He opened them again quickly a moment later, realizing his mistake.

Every time he closed his eyes Aragorn could see Sarcaulien in his mind’s eye. The way the elf had dropped slowly to the forest floor holding the shaft of the arrow that protruded from his chest in both hands. His wide startled eyes, and the confusion as he realized for the briefest of seconds that he was, in fact, dying. And then he was gone. His life was over. An immortal had perished. The anguish on the faces of the elves around him had been even more heartbreaking. Rarely if ever had any of them seen one of their own die. For an immortal, death was never thought of as an eventuality, rather it was a rarity, an oddity, an accident.

An accident.

That was what it was.

But no one save Legolas had believed him. Aragorn swallowed hard as the emotions from the day before threatened to overwhelm him yet again. He knew he hadn’t killed Sar, the warrior was a friend of Legolas and although it was true he had never felt comfortable with the elf, he never in his darkest moments had thought of killing him. He didn’t even really know how it had happened. And now he sat guarded by two tall, armed warriors, awaiting judgment in King Thranduil’s hall.

His mind raced back over the events of the last two days. He couldn’t have stopped his thoughts even if he had tried or wanted to, he had been forced to go over them again and again. They haunted him in his sleep and denied him rest.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

He was on his way home, it was time to go. He had put it off for so long now, but Aragorn had decided that today would be the day he headed back out into the wilderlands. Legolas was sad to see him leave but he had known it was inevitable. As they entered the courtyards that day, a hunting part was assembling getting ready to head out. The warriors called to the elven prince and his companion urging them to join them, the hunt would be good, they didn’t know what they were missing.

"What do you think?" Legolas turned to the ranger, "Would you like to go out one more time before you leave?"

Aragorn smiled, he had come to truly enjoy the elf prince’s company and in all honesty he hated to leave Mirkwood and his friend. On an impulse he had complied and so the two of them had joined the hunt.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Aragorn shook his head sadly. He remembered the way Legolas’ eyes had lit up when he had asked him to stay for one more day, one more hunt. The words echoed like whispers in his mind. He shivered from more than just the cold. It was inhumanly silent in the large anteroom of Thranduil’s meeting hall. No one spoke, they all waited. If only he had said no.

If only...

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

It was a typical spring day, the kind that starts out cold and ends up warm. Tracking had been easy that morning because the dew made the ground soft and pliable; the hoof prints of the deer were easy to follow as the hunting party picked up their trail and tracked the game through the forests.

Within hours they had made the small herd of animals. Three young bucks and an older stag shared a guarded meadow watching over the does that grazed under the canopy of trees.

They had agreed to split the hunting party in half and encircle the deer, cutting off their escape and sealing them in. Legolas had Sarcaulien lead around to the far side of the meadow. Aragorn had remained with the prince and the elves that had chosen to keep to the west side of the glen. As they approached the shallow, Aragorn found himself between Legolas and an elf named Morifwen. He had taken a liking to the warrior immediately and had even spent a little time with him. As he notched his arrow he thought back to the day Morifwen had taught him how to fletch the projectiles, allowing the human to use his supplies and feathers, and the patience the elf had with him when he had learned so slowly at first. It had given him great joy to be accepted by the others after such a rough start.

At a silent command the elves had released their arrows and felled the unsuspecting animals. A shout went up from the warriors as they allowed the living deer to flee the glenn. They only killed what they needed and they would have plenty now for a time.

And at that point it had all gone bad.

Legolas and the elves with him had run out into the meadow. But Sarcaulien and his warriors did not. And the shouts of joy turned to alarm. Aragorn had followed the others to the far side of the grassy bowl leaving their prey behind as the elves shouted for help. When he gained the edge of the meadow he had seen Sarcaulien. The elf looked just fine at first glance.

But then Aragorn had seen the arrow.

Spreading across the warrior’s tunic was a deep crimson stain. An arrow was embedded in his chest and he held the shaft in his hands. His gaze lifted from the protrusion and he locked eyes with Legolas and then with Aragorn. The prince ran forward and caught the elf as he slowly fell to the forest floor. But the arrow had been true and had pierced the elven heart, stopping it forever.


*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

A sob broke from Aragorn as the memories washed over him.

 

He could still see Legolas’ face when the prince had turned to him. His eyes wide and full of tears, his hands trembled, stained with the blood of his friend.

The rest of the day had been a nightmare, a blur.

Morifwen had jumped forward and pulled the arrow from Sarcaulien, inspecting the weapon. He had turned towards the human and accused Aragorn of killing the warrior. Legolas had come to his friend’s defense but the sorrow of loosing their companion overrode the warrior’s sensibility and they had quickly seized the human. His quiver was taken away from him and the arrow fletchings were compared. The arrow that had killed Sarcaulien was of the same fletching as the ones that Aragorn carried. The human had denied it and Legolas had tried to shout them down.

It was circumstantial, it was an accident, it couldn’t have been Aragorn...

He remembered them taking him back to the palace. They had bound him and brought him before the King. Legolas was furious and had forced the warriors to release the human; he hadn’t been proven guilty.

Aragorn had been put under house arrest at that time; as much for his own protection as to keep him from leaving Mirkwood so he could stand trial.

He had seen Legolas only once during that long day. The elf had visited him that night. The palace was quiet and the elves had retired for the night but sleep denied itself to Aragorn. Every time he closed his eyes he saw Sarcaulien’s gaze fall on him, he saw Legolas turn tearfully towards him, he felt the fear in his heart as he was surrounded by a race that suddenly and passionately despised him again.

Legolas had found the human leaning against the balustrade on the balcony of the room the man had been sequestered in.

"Aragorn?"

The ranger had jumped at the sound of his name, his thoughts so loud and tortured, he hadn’t heard his friend enter.

Words tumbled out brokenly from the man as he backed away from the elf, "Oh Legolas, I didn’t do it. You have to believe me. I had no problem with Sar. It wasn’t my arrow. I know it wasn’t. Please believe me."

The elf nimbly caught the man as he backed away, grabbing the ranger by his arms and stopping the tearful tirade.

"He can’t be dead." Aragorn whispered, his eyes were bright with tears as he implored his friend to tell him it had all been a bad dream.

Legolas looked down and swallowed hard, his own emotions were too near the surface for him to deal with the human’s. "I know you didn’t do it." When the ranger tried to speak the elf pressed him down into a nearby chair, "I know it Strider. I was next to you. I saw your arrow, it felled the stag. I went to retrieve it afterwards but it was gone. There is proof somewhere and some one knows of it. I don’t know how this happened but I will see your name cleared."

Aragorn looked out over the castle forests, it had all been too much, the entire day. And now to find out that there was proof it wasn’t his fault, but that proof was missing and perhaps intentionally. He was shaking his head slowly as the thoughts jumbled through his mind, unfocused and brutal.

He was brought back to the present by a soft touch to his arm. When he looked back, Legolas was kneeling before him and speaking quietly.

"What?" the word came out soft and choked as he asked the elf to repeat himself.

Legolas smiled gently, it was now that the ranger truly looked like the child he was, "It will be alright. I have already spoken with my father."

Aragorn was trembling slightly from the shock of everything.

"Now listen to me." The elf needed the ranger’s attention and he needed the human to snap out of it, "I must tell you what will happen tomorrow. Do you understand?"

When the man nodded he continued, "Tomorrow there will be a formal hearing. It is a formality only. While you have been kept here this day, all sides of the argument have been presented and all parties have been questioned."

Aragorn’s heart nearly stopped and he caught his breath, they had tried him in absentia and he hadn’t been given a chance to defend himself. The fear must have shown on his face for Legolas immediately stopped and reassured the man.

"No Aragorn, it is well." The elf placed his hand behind the man’s head holding the ranger’s attention to himself, "I spoke on your behalf. My word carries more weight than any in the party, more than your own. I was standing next to you. I saw your arrow. I gave my defense of you."

The man was shaking his head but the elf continued, "Yes. My father has already ruled."

The young ranger went totally still. Legolas feared he had even stopped breathing, so he quickly continued, "The evidence is circumstantial. You will not be held accountable for Sar’s death. However he was killed, it was an accident and not premeditated on any part."

Aragorn had in fact been holding his breath as Legolas spoke. The relief smoothed lines of fear that had been etched in his face, worry that knit his brow and the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that had kept him up this late into the night.

A soft knock at the door interrupted the elf prince and he rose as a warrior walked out onto the balcony, "My lord?" The guard let the question hang in the air. The prince’s time was up.

"I will be out shortly, leave us." He stared hard at the warrior until the elf nodded and turned to go.

Legolas turned back to the ranger as Aragorn stood, glancing between the elf prince and the warrior that had just exited his room.

"Do not worry Aragorn. We will figure this out. There is much more that I must tell you, but I am out of time." He looked back over his shoulder at the door to the room. It had been left slightly ajar by the warrior, an oversight that was not lost on the prince and he lowered his voice. "Tomorrow you will be brought to trial. It is a formality only. My father will ask you if you have anything to say in your behalf. Tell him no."

When Aragorn started to argue he stepped closer to the human and grabbed his shoulder, his voice lowering so only the ranger could hear him, "Do not argue with me. Trust me Aragorn. Tell my father no. Tell him you are innocent and you wish to subject yourself to his mercy." Legolas eyes implored the young human to trust him with the information and he continued once the man had nodded his compliance, "They will want you to argue your case so they can trip you up, turning your words on you and attempting to show probable guilt. By asking my father for justice alone, he will be forced to find you not guilty. The arrow that killed Sar is also missing. Morifwen claims he turned it over but it is not in the armory anywhere. There is something else afoot here. Do as I say and we will take the next step together after that."

"My lord." The voice of the elven warrior could be heard from the doorway.

Legolas stepped away from Aragorn and moved towards the door, but the ranger stopped him. "Thank you."

The elf prince nodded.

"I am so sorry." Aragorn whispered, shaking his head helplessly.

"It is well Strider. Sar was a friend but his heart was not always good and any elf will tell you that. Tomorrow things will work out, trust me and you will see." Legolas smiled slightly at the weary man.

"I do." Aragorn answered. He smiled back when the elf raised an eyebrow in question, "I do trust you."

Legolas’ smile grew bigger and he nodded in understanding, taking leave of the human.

 

______________________________________________________________________

~*PART TWO*~

 

The ranger still had gotten no sleep and the guards that came for him the next morning found him in the chair Legolas had sat him in the night before.

He had gone with them compliantly and given them no trouble. Small talk was out of the question, and they had simply directed him to his seat in the front of the audience chamber of King Thranduil. Walking past the hall full of elves had been the hardest thing the young man had ever done as he was escorted to his place. He finally dropped his gaze to the floor and followed his guards to avoid the stares of the elves in attendance. There were no friendly faces in the hall that morning and he couldn’t find Legolas anywhere.

He knew he had only sat in the audience chamber for mere minutes, but it seemed like hours before the doors on the far side of the room opened and Thranduil stepped out, followed by his son. Aragorn hadn’t needed the prodding of the warriors spear tip to know to rise, he had been brought up in elven halls and his respect was not dimmed by the seriousness of the situation.

The ranger bowed low as the King took his seat, joined by his son on his right hand side. When the hall of elves had reseated themselves, Aragorn chanced a look at Legolas. The elf prince was stoic and his bearing betrayed every bit the royalty he was, but when his eyes lighted on his human friend there was a softness to them and a kindness there that reassured the young man.

Aragorn released the breath he hadn’t known he was holding and relaxed slightly as Thranduil addressed him.

"The Dùnadan will stand."

The human was dragged roughly to a standing position by the guards on either side of him.

"Do you know of the charges that have been stated against you?" The king asked with out preamble.

"Yes my lord." Aragorn replied, bowing his head slightly.

"Have you anything to say in your behalf?"

"No, my lord. I am innocent in the death of Sarcaulien. I wish only to place myself at your mercy and will accept your judgment." The man kept his eyes down. If it hadn’t been for the guards holding him in place he would have formally knelt.

There were whispers of surprise from the room behind him and Thranduil fought the urge to glance at his son. For his part Legolas appeared aloof and disinterested, but he held his breath as he waited for his fathers next words.

When the room had quieted once more, the king continued, "Very well then. I have already heard the testimonies of all parties in witness. As you have chosen not to give your own, I will accept the one given for you."

Aragorn raised his gaze back up to meet that of the king’s.

"Because of the evidence presented, I do not find you at fault. The death of Sarcualien in all respects appears to be nothing more than an accident. Your part in it is not in question before this court. The charges against you have been dropped." The king gazed out at the room full of elves. "If there are no more testimonies or objections this session is complete and the Dùnadan known as Strider is free to go."

For a moment the room remained hung in silence at the edict. But the spell was broken by the shuffling sounds of several elves standing to their feet. An elven voice that Aragorn did not recognize spoke from the audience.

"My lord. I am Sarcayul second son of Traycaul, brother of Sarcaulien. I speak for my brothers and our relatives when I request the right of familial retribution." The elf held the king’s gaze.

Legolas released his breath quietly beside his father and looked away from the warriors that stood in the audience. He had been worried of this very thing but had not had time to warn Aragorn.

The king however did not drop his gaze from the brothers’. Sarcayul noted the displeasure of the royalty and continued. "My lords we do not fault your findings. But they are, as you yourself stated, based on circumstantial evidence and we do not agree with them. It is our right by the old code to request retribution."

"You are correct in stating that it is your right, however I do not agree with your choice. By law I grant you your request, with stipulations."

Thranduil turned to Aragorn who had been trying to follow the exchange. He could tell from Legolas’ reaction that something had gone wrong but the exact details eluded him. Never during his years in Rivendell had anything like this ever had the occasion of happening and the elven rights and rules associated with such an event were foreign to him.

"Strider, do you understand what has transpired?" The king asked the human.

"No, my lord I do not." Aragorn shook his head.

Legolas would not meet his eyes, so the ranger focused on the king.

"Sarcaulien’s family has asked for the right of retribution. Because the evidence surrounding Sarcaulien’s death was circumstantial and not proving either fault or innocence I cannot convict you of wrong doing and because you have not been proven innocent beyond any doubt Sarcaulien’s surviving family can exact vengeance on you." He stopped to let his words sink in. "Do you understand now? They may seek your life and take it." When the ranger nodded the king continued, "However I am allowed to put restrictions upon such a request. As is my right, I do so now."

Thranduil gazed back out at the assembled elves, "The family of Sarcaulien has requested the right of retribution as is our law, I grant them that right with the following restrictions. While in this house, the Dùnadan known as Strider is safe. Beyond any of Mirkwood’s boundaries the human may not be harmed. If you kill this man and so violate my restrictions his blood will be on your head and you will be accountable to me for his death. If Strider comes to an end by any elven hand in this wood, then his blood is on his own head. This rule stands until the last of Sarcaulien’s relatives leave for the undying lands. As my word it is law, and cannot be contested."

The elven lord stood, "This meeting is completed." He looked again at Aragorn and addressed his guards, "Release the human and clear the hall." With that the king walked back out the door he had entered and Legolas left with him.

Aragorn’s guards stepped away from him and followed the others out of the audience chambers. No one spoke to the human and within moments the hall had emptied completely. Aragorn fell back down into his seat, dropping his head into his hands.

"How is it that you get into these messes?" He spoke softly to himself, mumbling towards the floor as he tried to sort through everything that had happened in the past few hours. "Maybe father was right, I should have stayed home and learned how to be a healer. Healers never end up in these situations." He groaned sarcastically, shaking his head. "Wait till Elladan hears about this."

"Is it common for humans to talk to themselves?"

The voice of the elf startled the ranger and he sat up quickly. When he caught sight of Legolas’ amused frown he smiled and leaned back with a sigh.

"Well it’s common when they are in situations that are over their heads." Aragorn ran his hand through his hair brushing the stray locks out of his eyes. "And I am my friend, I am."

Legolas’ smile was sad. "I shall have to remember that." He nodded towards the door, "Come I’ll see you safely on your way."

Aragorn stared at the elf in disbelief and questioned him, "What do you mean? Aren’t you going to help me?"

"Help you?" Legolas sat down next the ranger, a frown creasing his brow as he tried to understand, "Help you what?"

"Help me clear my name!" Aragorn’s voice rose as the fear inside him escalated once more.

"No," Legolas shook his head as if Aragorn were a little slow today. "You have to leave Mirkwood."

"You of all people know that I can not do that. Not now."

"Aragorn..."

"No, Legolas. They think I killed Sarcaulien. Your people still believe that I am guilty. There is someone out there that knows the truth and I need to find them or the proof that I am innocent." He plead with the elf, "Will you help me clear my name?"

"Do you not understand that any of Sarcaulien’s relatives may take your life under the guise of familial retribution? Do you not realize that the only safe places for you are here in this building and outside Mirkwood’s borders?" Legolas’ own fear was heightened. The human didn’t realize the danger he was in.

"If I don’t clear my name, I will never be able to return. Have you not thought that through!" Aragorn stood from his seat and paced in front of the elf prince.

"They will kill you Aragorn!"

"What is it with your people that they hate humans so much?!" He rounded on the elf, his anger touched off by the helplessness he felt, "I know the stories, they have been driven into my mind by the countless years of retelling, how the elves and the humans fought side by side and many elves died and..."

"And man allowed evil to flourish." Legolas finished the tale softly.

Aragorn turned towards him, his eyes were dark and fierce and the elf sat back slightly as the human approached him and knelt down in front of him, never dropping his gaze. When he spoke, his voice was hushed and dangerous, "Yes and man fell and their power was weakened. And the one man who continued the legacy of evil, that one is my ancestor. His blood runs in me Legolas you know that. I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, heir of Isuldur, the very one who could have ended it all, cleared *his* name and that of man, but did not and now I live with that shame. With that knowledge. And you are asking me to accept this, this death sentence on top of that?"

"Don’t be a fool Aragorn!" Legolas stared intently into his friend’s eyes, a hint of helpless anguish in their silver-blue depths. "I can’t protect you, don’t you understand that? I *can’t* help you! Royalty is forbidden from interfering in these cases! Because I am prince, I cannot even aid you as a friend normally could! I would not see you die over a baseless charge. Go home Strider. Please." Legolas’ voice dropped down to a soft, distressed whisper.

Aragorn rose and shook his head resolutely. "I appreciate your concern, but it’s all right, I don’t *need* your help, I can do this on my own." The young ranger’s tone had acquired a hint of frost. He did not really understand Legolas’ reluctance to assist him and it hurt more than he wanted to admit.

"Human! You cannot! And what do you expect to accomplish? Where will you start?" Legolas tried to get the young man to see the hopelessness of the situation. "Don’t you realize they will hunt you down?"

"Then they’ll have to catch me first." The ranger grabbed his over coat and headed to the door.

"Strider!" Legolas called after him trying one more time to stop his friend, "Aragorn!"

The man stopped on the threshold, not turning back, he dropped his gaze to the floor, he would not let the elf see how truly upset he was. "What?" His voice however betrayed his emotions.

"Where will you start?" Legolas slowly approached his friend.

Aragorn shook his head slowly, thinking through the possibilities, "I can’t let it go. Don’t you see that?" Finally he turned back as Legolas gained his position. "I always thought that somehow I could fit in here too. My father told me it wouldn’t work that way. But then I met you and Raniean and Trelan, hell even Sar. I know you are elven, I know I am human. I just thought..."

He turned back to leave, but Legolas stopped him and slowly closed the door, blocking his path. When the human turned around, Legolas sighed and dropped his gaze to the floor, "I have hated men for more centuries than you have been alive." When Aragorn did not speak he continued, "My people are good people Strider, but they have become very wary in the last few millennia. Things have changed so much."

The prince turned and walked back to the front of the hall. "There have been times in the past that these halls were full of people from everywhere celebrating our conjoined friendships. But those days have long since slipped from the memory of most and mistrust has displaced the joy of my people. You my friend, have changed a lot of that."

He smiled at the ranger, "You are the first human that has been allowed under these woods without threat and with the freedom to come and go as he pleases for longer than I can recount."

"Until now." Aragorn said softly.

"Yes, until now." Legolas agreed sadly.

"Don’t you see then, why I must clear my name?" He grabbed the elf by the shoulders and forced his friend to look him in the eyes, "I want to be welcome here. I value our friendship."

Legolas broke free and moved away, shaking his head. "Why I ever saved you that night is beyond me." Aragorn couldn’t see the light in the elves eyes or the smile on his fair face.

When he turned back, the human was staring at him wide-eyed, speechless. The elf couldn’t help himself and he started to laugh. Aragorn caught on a few minutes later and finally smiled as he watched the elf.

"So..." He held out his hand in question, "will you help me?"

Legolas had grown serious once more, but the smile still played about his lips as he consented, "Yes. But one does not just walk out the front door when he has a death sentence hanging over his head!" Rolling his eyes he hooked his long graceful fingers in the cuff of the rangers overcoat and drug the man behind him as he walked to the front of the hall.

"We will take the back door my human friend and it may be that you might live long enough to clear your name."

Aragorn started laughing as he was directed out of the hall by means of a private door that he had not seen before.

"So where do we start?"

"At the beginning." The elf answered cryptically.

"And which beginning would that be?" The ranger tried to remember the all the twists and turns they were taking deep inside the palace.

"Lets try the beginning of yesterday to start with, shall we?" Legolas pushed a side door open and they stepped out into the castle’s courtyard, well behind the hall they had just exited.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Legolas twirled an arrow idly between his fingers, lost deep in thought as he stood beside an open window, leaning slightly against the frame. He and Aragorn had tried to puzzle out what must have happened in the woods yesterday, re-creating the situation as best they could. Yet their efforts had not gotten them very far. They had only three solid facts to work from: Sarcaulien was dead, somebody shot him, and it was not Aragorn. That really wasn’t much to go on. The missing arrows held the key somehow, Legolas felt sure, but without them... he wasn’t exactly positive what their next step should be.

They had separated so Legolas could do a little private investigating without drawing the kind of attention he would garner with Aragorn hanging around. The prince had turned up nothing useful and was not sure what to suggest to his friend now.

"Legolas." Thranduil’s voice made Legolas jerk slightly, so lost in thought had he been.

"Yes father?" Legolas looked up, pulling away from the window.

"Legolas, why is the human still here?" the king’s brow was knit in concern. "Elrynd tells me he has not left. For his own sake sooner would be better than later. I thought you were going to see him on his way?"

Legolas fiddled with the arrow in his hands. "He... has decided not to leave. Strider wishes to stay and try to clear his name."

"What?" Thranduil replied incredulously, just as Legolas had known he would. "Has he lost his mind? Does he *wish* to die?" Suddenly the king stopped, fixing his son with a suspicious, hard gaze.

Legolas knew what was coming next.

"Legolas, tell me you are not encouraging this. Tell me you are not helping him," Thranduil demanded quietly.

Legolas did not look up to meet his father’s eyes. He said nothing and that was an answer in and of itself.

"Legolas what are you thinking?!" Thranduil said somewhat harshly. "You know the law! Once the right of familial retribution has been passed down it is out of the hands of the court and neither the king nor any of his household may interfere or offer aide to either side!"

"I know," Legolas interjected, holding up his hand for peace. "But I am not aiding him as a prince, I am aiding him as his friend. I would not use my position to-"

"The law does not differentiate," Thranduil cut his son off with a shake of his head. "It makes no difference. You are a prince first Legolas, you cannot be less than you are. You cannot aide the Dùnadan in this or you make yourself guilty, and that I would not see happen. Strider chooses his own folly, leave him to it."

"You don’t understand," Legolas shook his head. "Strider is not just another Dùnadan. He is Aragorn son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, heir to the throne of Gondor! Surely he deserves more consideration than just anyone."

Thranduil was not moved by the information. "It matters not whose heir he is, and Isildur is not an ancestor to be proud of. The kingdom of men is lost, they are scattered and weak. Loosing one more human will not hurt Middle Earth at all. Sarcayul’s request was within his rights and I granted it, end of story. If the Dùnadan is stubborn enough to not heed wisdom when he hears it he calls down his own doom."

"He has done nothing deserving of death, yet that is what they intend.  It will be no less than murder, you know that!" Legolas said with thinly veiled disgust. 

"I know that it is not our place to interfere," Thranduil said firmly.

"If not me, then who?" Legolas reasoned, trying to remain respectful, but feeling his frustration mount. "He is my friend..."

"You are a prince," Thranduil cut his son off, raising his hand in a warning for the boy to halt. "You know what that means. We may not become involved."

"But-"

"Do you not think that I feel as you?" the King shook his head sorrowfully, meaning what he said. "I do not think the boy guilty and I wish not his fate upon him, but if we do not stand behind our laws Legolas than we are nothing! Kings and princes may not change the laws of the land simply to suit their own feelings, I would think you were old enough to understand that my son."

Legolas let his head sink to his breast at the rebuke, but his determination was not quelled and his father could see that.

"If the human would just leave..." Thranduil said slowly.

Legolas looked up sharply. "You mean run away, like a frightened cur? Would you do that? Would you not be filled with shame if I were in his position and took that course? Nay. At first I counseled the same thing, but I think better of it now. He cannot-"

Thranduil gripped his son’s shoulders tightly, almost surprising Legolas by his vehemence. "Listen to me Legolas! I do not care about him, I care about you! I fear what folly may take you away from me my son. So I tell you, as your father and your king, stay away from him!"

Legolas’ brows knitted. "Is that a command, father?" he said somewhat coldly.

"Yes," Thranduil said firmly, releasing his child. "If that is the only thing you will understand. I forbid you to have anything more to do with that man until this situation is resolved, is that clear?"

Legolas’ mouth tightened and his eyes flashed, but he gave one, succinct nod. "You have made yourself very clear, am I dismissed now?" His voice was strained.

Thranduil sighed and shook his head. "You think me unreasonable my son, but you must understand! We do not have the luxury that others have of acting only on our feelings, however noble they may be."

"I understand perfectly," Legolas said, still somewhat cold. "The law is more important than an innocent man’s life. What is there to not understand about that?"

"Legolas!" Thranduil’s eyes were filled with the anguish of his situation and his voice sharp from the conflict between law and loyalty inside him. "I understand how you feel, but your disrespect only shames you!"

Legolas looked down. In that at least, his father was right. "I’m sorry father," he murmured, and that was genuine. He was not sorry about what he felt, but he was sorry that he had spoken contemptuously to his father and his king.

Thranduil sighed, passing his hand wearily before his eyes. "Legolas... you know what I would be forced to do if you insist on getting involved in this! My son... don’t make me do what would break both our hearts!"

Legolas looked away. "Just because there is a law does not mean it is right, does it?" he asked quietly. "Cannot there be bad laws as well as good?"

"Maybe, but it is not our place to change them at our discretion alone," the king said earnestly.

Legolas met his father’s eyes. "Then whose place is it?"

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Aragorn waited for Legolas for a half an hour. When the prince did not show, the young man became restless. He supposed Legolas had been detained following whatever leads he had found, but he had no wish to sit around and wait for him any longer. Inaction did not suit the young ranger.

Leaving the palace he began crossing the gardens beyond. It did not occur to him that by leaving the walls of the palace, even if still on palace grounds, he made himself vulnerable.

That is, it did not occur to him until suddenly a dozen elves dropped from the trees around him with their weapons drawn. Sarcayul was among them, and the others Aragorn had seen with him at the hearing. Also several persons that Aragorn did not recognize. He was disappointed to see Morifwen there. Morifwen had been on good terms with him at one time and it brought home to Aragorn again how much had changed and how quickly.

Aragorn knew better than to try any sudden movements. Elven archers could drop a man before he had time to blink.

Sarcayul edged his way to the front, glaring at the young human. "You should have left Strider. Now you’re mine. I could just kill you, but that would be too good for you," his voice was low and angry. "So you go ahead and fight us, and when you lose I can savor your defeat before I take your head." Sarcayul pulled his sword.

Aragorn did not go for his weapon, but raised his hands in a petition for peace. He did not wish to spill Elven blood, especially since that was what he already stood under suspicion of. "Sarcayul, please, I do not wish to fight you. I did not kill your brother!"

"Then I call you a liar *and* a coward human!" Sarcayul spat angrily. Reaching out he shoved Aragorn backward a few paces, advanced and shoved him again. "Are you afraid of us? I think you are. Well you have reason to be. You ended my brother’s life, you extinguished an immortal flame and for that we *will* have retribution on you!"

"I_didn’t_kill_anybody!" Aragorn ground out through his teeth, shoving Sarcayul’s hands away from him. That was all it took and the elf lunged him. For a moment they grappled, but Aragorn refused to draw a weapon on the elf, even when Sarcayul’s sword grazed his right shoulder. The young ranger tried to pull away from the confrontation, but the others wouldn’t let him.

Aragorn was an excellent fighter, but he could not battle all of them at once, especially when he did not wish to kill anyone, and they did. Presently he was brought to the ground, landing hard on his back. Immediately, a long, elven dagger at his throat pinned him there.

Sarcayul straddled Aragorn’s chest, pinning his arms to the ground with his knees and pressing the knife down hard until it bit into the young man’s flesh. "And so my brother is avenged," he whispered coldly, his grip tightening on the knife as he prepared to take his opponent’s life.

 

______________________________________________________________________

~*PART THREE*~

 

 

Legolas walked out into the late afternoon sunshine. The day was bright, even as it began to wan, but his thoughts were troubled. He knew that Aragorn would be wondering where he was. He was supposed to have met him almost an hour ago. Yet his conversation with his father troubled him and now he was unsure how to proceed.

He could not imagine simply abandoning Aragorn now, yet neither did he wish to go against his father... he wasn’t sure what he was going to do.

Angry voices in a glen off to his right caught the elf’s attention. When he drew closer, his heart stopped at what he found there.

~*~

Aragorn closed his eyes as he felt Sarcayul’s blade bite into his throat. He knew there was no way out of this now, he could not move had he wanted to. He found himself wondering what death would feel like.

"Move that blade another inch and I’ll drop you where you stand Sarcayul!" a familiar voice threatened suddenly and Aragorn’s eyes popped open.

Legolas stood about five yards away, his bow drawn. The arrow across its strings was aimed directly at the elf who was sitting on Aragorn’s chest.

"Stay out of this Legolas!" Sarcayul turned his glare upon the prince. He eased up a little on the knife, but did not get off of Aragorn. "This does not concern you."

"I say it does," Legolas countered. "Let him go, now!" He drew the bowstring back slightly. "I’m not making idle threats Sarcayul," he warned quietly.

The other elf scowled darkly as he rose to his feet, giving Aragorn a swift kick to the ribs as he did so.

Aragorn quickly scrambled to his feet, his hand going to his sore throat. Once the young man was safely at his side, Legolas lowered his bow and let the arrow slide out of its notch.

Sarcayul and his companions glared at the two friends, but none of them were stupid enough to raise a hand against Legolas. His father would have all their heads for that.

"You are out of line Legolas!" Sarcayul said angrily. "You have no right to deny me my kill and you’ll pay for this! You can’t protect the human forever. I’m going to your father; we’ll see what he thinks about your interference! And once you are out of the way I will do what I should have done now," he threatened darkly, turning his simmering gaze upon Aragorn. "You’re a dead man Strider, you just don’t know it yet. You can hide in the palace for only so long, but as soon as you set foot outside, you’re mine!"

Legolas’ lips pressed into a tight line of anger. "Do not think to tell me what is and isn’t my place on the grounds of my own home Sarcayul! Now get out of here before I put an arrow in you for your folly!"

The other elves left with many a dark and hateful look over their shoulders.

Legolas slung his bow over his shoulder and turned to Aragorn. "I thought I told you to stay in the palace until I got back."

Aragorn guiltily rubbed his neck, which was stained with blood. "I didn’t realize that the palace grounds were not considered part of the palace, I’m sorry."

Legolas sighed and shook his head. "You could have been sorrier. This isn’t a game Aragorn. These people are deadly and they mean business. They were not joking about laying in wait for you. We have to get you out of here now."

"But-"

"Don’t argue with me Aragorn," Legolas cut him off. "I’m not suggesting you run away, just that we find a better place to conduct our investigation from. As soon as Sarcayul and his cronies speak with my father I will no longer be able to help you if we remain here, and they will lay in wait for you just as they threatened, and there will be no escape." A shadow passed over Legolas’ face, but he dispelled it quickly. What was done was done. He could not change it. Nor would he if he had to do it over again. They had to take the moment and the situation they were handed and deal with it the best they could.

Aragorn nodded, seeing the sense of the suggestion. "Legolas..." he asked hesitantly. "Have I just gotten you in some kind of trouble?"

Legolas grinned wryly to hide the very real shadow of uncertainty and concern inside him. "My friend you excel at that. But come, I would see those wounds tended quickly before we leave. No good getting out into the wild and having you die on me!" he laughed lightly, gesturing to the blood on Aragorn’s shoulder and throat.

Aragorn smiled and shook his head.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Thranduil’s eyes were dark and he glared at Sarcayul and his companions as if he would like very much to take his anger out on the message bearers in this instance. "You are certain of what you speak?" he queried harshly. "This is a serious thing you bring to me, I swear I shall have your tongue out if you have lied to me!"

Sarcayul was not backed down by the threat. "We all saw it, we all swear to it. I wish I could tell you otherwise my King."

"Hmph, I’ll bet you do," Thranduil said darkly. These tidings disturbed him greatly. Legolas had defied him and wantonly broken the law. His son had betrayed him in favor of a *man* of all things. The king’s look was grim and angry when he summoned his guards.

"Find Prince Legolas. Bring him to me at once. He may try to leave, so seal off the palace grounds. No one gets in or out until I say so, is that clear?" Thranduil ordered.

"Yes, your Highness," the guards nodded and bowed. On their way out the door they exchanged curious, concerned glances. These were strange doings going on in Mirkwood this day.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Aragorn’s wounds had been tended as quickly as possible and the two friends made their way towards the great gate, being careful to avoid being seen.

Not careful enough apparently.

"You two, halt!" a voice called from behind them. Legolas turned just long enough to see Amil-Garil, captain of the palace guard, calling out to them.

"Run!" the elf gave Aragorn a shove to get him started and together they took flight.

"Wait!" Amil-Garil called after them, obviously surprised by their course of action. "Your highness, Prince Legolas, wait!"

But they did not wait. Legolas knew what he had done, and how his father would take it. If he went back now he did not know what would happen exactly, but one thing was sure, Aragorn would become trapped in the palace and to attempt leaving would be death for him. They had to leave now, or it would be too late. Later, when this whole mess was solved... then Legolas would have to face his father, but not yet.

They had the element of surprise because Amil-Garil had not expected the prince to flee from him and so the two friends managed to lose their pursuers. The gate was in sight now. It was closed, of course, but Legolas quickly put his hand up and commanded them to open. "Edro!"

Nothing happened.

Legolas tried again. Again, no response. Legolas pounded his fist against the inside of the sealed gate in frustration, realizing what must have happened. Never before had the magic gates to the palace been closed so that he could not open them. Only Thranduil had the power to do that.

"Is this a bad thing?" Aragorn looked around breathlessly, his chest heaving as he sought to regain his air from their flight.

"These gates are sealed by magic," Legolas said, giving one last, useless push against them. "Usually I can open them... but now they do not listen to me."

Aragorn nodded grimly, understanding. "So we’re trapped then. There is no other way out of the palace grounds."

Legolas considered this for a moment. "Maybe, maybe not..." his sharp elven ears picked up the sound of someone approaching and he quickly pulled Aragorn into the shadows with him. They had to get out of the palace and into the woods.

They pressed themselves back into the dense foliage to the side of the gate and Legolas could feel Aragorn’s quickened breath stir his hair as two guards approached and took up positions on either side of the gate.

There was no danger of anyone getting in the magic gates, so these guards were obviously there to prevent anyone from getting out.

Legolas closed his eyes for a moment, repressing the stab of pain that went through his heart. His father hadn’t wasted any time.

"Listen to me Strider, there is another way that we may be able to use. Follow me," he breathed into his friend’s ear, before edging silently away.

Aragorn followed soundlessly. Legolas led him swiftly and silently through many twisting halls and tunnels that the elf prince knew by heart.

They had descended far under ground by now and Aragorn wondered where they were going.

They were in fact on the level of the palace which the dungeons and cellars were kept. They were hurrying down a torch-lit hall when footsteps coming fast from the corner behind them made their rapid pace turn into a quick, last minute dash for the cover of a side passage.

Several porters and one of the jailers passed by. Aragorn felt sure they would hear the heavy pounding of his heart, but the elves passed by without pause.

Beside him, Aragorn heard Legolas let out his breath once the other elves had passed and suddenly paused to wonder what it must be like for the elf prince to have to sneak around like a criminal in his own home. A pang of guilt passed through the young ranger, but there was no time for it because Legolas was already moving again, beckoning him to follow.

At last they reached a long, steep stairway.

"Down here, quickly!" Legolas said urgently, leading Aragorn down the seemingly endless staircase. Upon reaching the bottom they found themselves in a large cellar packed with rows upon rows of barrels filled with everything imaginable from wine to apples.

Legolas leaned lightly against the wall for a moment, battling down the dull ache in his still-healing leg. Pushing off quickly, he made his way to where two large wooden trap doors interrupted the stone floor.

Aragorn’s brows knit as he noticed that the elf was walking with a very slight, but just noticeable limp.

"Legolas, are you all right?" Aragorn asked with concern. "Does your leg hurt you?"

The limp immediately disappeared. Legolas shrugged the question off.

"We do much trade with Esgaroth down on Long Lake," the elf explained briefly, gesturing to the barrels of goods around them. He pulled open the trapdoors and, to Aragorn’s surprise, revealed a rushing stream of dark water flowing beneath their feet.

Legolas smiled at Aragorn’s surprised look. "The Forest River flows beneath the castle on its way to join the River Running. Empty barrels are dropped down through these doors and the current carries them down to Lake Town."

Aragorn nodded slowly, understanding dawning upon his features. "Then the stream exits the palace. And so can we."

"Ah, you’re brighter than you look," Legolas teased and Aragorn rolled his eyes.

Legolas’ gaze turned a little more serious as he looked down at the dark water flowing only a few inches below the surface of the doors. Heavy rains upstream had swollen the river and it was much higher than usual. Normally, there was plenty of air between the water and the roof of the stone tunnels that channeled the river beneath the palace, but now... Legolas could not be sure they would have any opportunity to draw breath until they were safely out the other end of the underwater tunnel.

He did not tell Strider about his concerns yet, but pulled the heavy, creaking lever to open the portcullis, or steel underwater gate that prevented anyone from entering the tunnel from the outside.

The young prince returned to the edge of the trapdoor, winding his hair behind him into a quick loop to keep it out of his way as he looked down at the swollen river at their feet.

"You *can* swim?" he thought to ask, pausing to look up at his young human friend.

Aragorn nodded quickly. "Of course."

"Well what about holding your breath? It may be a long trip to the other side," the elf cautioned. He had no desire to drown his friend by accident.

"I can make it," the ranger assured, but then paused. "Legolas, do you think this is a good idea?"

"Do you have any better ones?" Legolas shrugged. "The tunnel isn’t *that* long, we should be-"

"I don’t mean about the water..." Aragorn shook his head. "I mean... I don’t want to get you in any more trouble," he admitted with concern.

Legolas grinned wryly, pulling off his boots and tucking them under his belt. "Too late for that, isn’t it?"

Dropping lightly down into the water before anything more could be said, Legolas disappeared into the dark, swirling current and there was nothing for Aragorn to do but follow.

Aragorn took a deep breath and let himself down into the water. He was immediately caught up by the rushing current and swept away from the trapdoor, sucked down into the underwater tunnels that channeled the river out. The water was freezing cold and the weight of the current pressed against his chest, as if trying to squeeze the air out of his lungs. The young man bumped his head against the top of the tunnel and the shock of the impact caused him to let out some of his breath. It was a mistake.

He tried to swim, but the current made a controlled swim impossible and he found himself being jostled and thrown against the sides of the tunnel as the water pushed him through. There was no air in the channels, just as Legolas had feared, and a terrible claustrophobic feeling gripped at Aragorn’s heart, making his already aching lungs tighten from the added weight of fear.

Legolas quickly found that fighting the water did no good, so he accepted its power and let the current take him, trying to keep his heart from speeding up in fear and using more oxygen as the freezing water rushed him through the tiny, closed tunnels. The chilly water bit at the new flesh of his heeling leg, making the old injury throb painfully.

Aragorn’s lungs burned and a frightened panic gripped his heart despite his best efforts to remain calm. His air was gone and he was trapped under water and thousands of pounds of stone above that. There was no air left in his lungs and his body screamed at him as bright, artificial bursts of light exploded across his vision in the inky blackness.

Just when the young man thought he wasn’t going to make it, the bright light of sunshine touched his face and his head broke the surface. For a moment he saw the tree-laden riverbank on either side, with tree branches dipping down to touch the stream as if seeking an extra drink. Then his head went under again.

Remembering that he had to actually swim now, Aragorn clawed desperately at the water as he tried to figure out what way was up. His head broke the surface again and he tried to draw in a gasping breath of air, only to get a mouthful of water with it. The young ranger choked and floundered slightly, disorientated and dizzy.

Strong hands caught him before he could go under again as Legolas grabbed his friend’s sodden tunic and forced him above the water, helping him keep his head up as Aragorn choked on the water he had inhaled, coughing desperately as he tried to get air into his starved lungs.

Legolas’ leg burned mercilessly as he struggled to keep both himself and his friend on the surface. They had to get the riverbank *now* or he was going to be in trouble.

"I *thought* you said you could swim," the elf remarked as he attempted to guide them both towards the shoreline. His tone was the only thing about them that was dry.

Aragorn had recovered himself pretty quickly and was actually swimming on his own now. They pulled themselves up onto the bank and sighed in relief. Aragorn coughed a couple more times, then leaned up on his elbow, wiping his dark hair out of his eyes.

"Swim, yes, breath water, no," the human retorted, once he had enough breath to do so. "I thought *you* said that those tunnels weren’t very long!"

Legolas shrugged, pulling his sodden boots back on and wincing at the aggravated ache in his right calf. Elf bodies healed quickly and his wound was already considerably mended, but what he had just put it through had not helped any.

Aragorn wiped the last of the stinging water out of his eyes and saw Legolas for the first time. The elf prince’s long hair was slicked back flat against his head, his clothing clung to him and water was dripping from his pointed ears. In spite of everything, the young ranger could not help laughing. The puzzled and slightly irritated look on Legolas’ face did not help and Aragorn chuckled helplessly, setting off another coughing fit.

"And what, pray tell, is so funny?" Legolas raised one dripping eyebrow questioningly.

That was almost too much; Aragorn curled over helplessly, holding his side and trying to stop, which of course only made him laugh harder.

"Y-you!" Aragorn managed to squeeze out around his mirth. Legolas always looked so graceful and collected, somehow seeing him like this was just too funny. "You look like-like a drown rat!"

"Save us," Legolas muttered, rolling his eyes as he tucked one dripping strand of hair behind his ear. "I seriously begin to question your sanity sometimes Strider."

The elf rose with exaggerated dignity. "Besides," he quipped, looking down at the dripping ranger who was still leaning on his elbow on the ground. Aragorn’s dark hair was plastered down across his face and his silly grin did very little for his waterlogged appearance. A smile quirked the elf’s graceful lips. "Look who’s talking."

 

______________________________________________________________________

~*PART FOUR*~

 

By the time night had fallen, their sodden clothes had ceased to be a laughing matter.

Aragorn resisted the urge to chatter slightly, hugging himself for warmth against the chilly night air and the damp coldness of his own wet clothing.

Elves are not as effected by the elements of hot and cold as some other races, so the chill did not seem to bother Legolas over-much, however, the still-damp clothing was distinctly uncomfortable.

It had not taken long for their presence to be missed. Search parties had started looking for them not a full half-hour after their escape. This had forced the two friends to retreat deep into the darker, southern reaches of the forest.

The first two times they had had to hide from the searchers Aragorn had followed Legolas’ lead and concealed himself without question. Yet as the groups of elves forced them to retreat further and further south, he had begun to wonder what exactly they were hiding from, especially when a troop of the royal guard passed them by. He understood the need to stay away from Sarcaulien’s brothers, and the others that had been openly hunting his blood, but surely not all the elves would want him dead... especially not with Legolas with him...

"Legolas," the young man shook his head, turning questioning eyes upon his friend. "Why are we hiding? What are all these people doing out here? You said I was free to go if I wished..." he didn’t understand.

The question had been nibbling at the back of his mind since they had been locked inside the palace, but he hadn’t had the time for it to form into a conscious thought until now.

Legolas’ gaze followed the retreating form of the guards, intentionally not meeting his friend’s eye. "They’re not looking for you Aragorn," he said quietly. "Come, they’ve gone."

"Whoa, wait," Aragorn caught the elf prince’s arm, halting him. "What do you mean they’re not looking for *me*? Then... who are they looking for?"

Legolas sighed, giving his friend a look that seemed to question his intelligence. "There’s only two of us Strider. If they’re not looking for you, who do you *think* they’re looking for?"

"But... but why?" the young ranger shook his head, his brows furrowing in concern.

Legolas looked away, obviously preferring that they not have this conversation. "My father and I had a... a difference of opinion regarding my involvement in your case. It is a small matter," he made light of the situation. "We should be going."

Aragorn wasn’t about to let it drop that easy, he was beginning to realize that he may have gotten his friend into worse trouble than he thought and that notion did not sit well with him.

"Legolas," his voice was serious and he gestured towards where the last search party had disappeared a few moments previous. "*That* is not a ‘small matter’. They have half of Mirkwood searching for us. What’s going on?"

Legolas looked perturbed by his friend’s unwillingness to let the matter go. "You recall I mentioned to you that there is a law forbidding royalty to interfere in situations like yours?" he said at last with a small sigh. "Well it seems my actions have placed me on the other side of that edict."

Aragorn’s eyes widened. "They want to arrest you?"

Legolas fixed him with an almost amused stare. "That seems to be the general idea."

Aragorn didn’t find it funny. "Legolas..."

The elven prince raised his hand, cutting off his friend’s words. "We need to prove your innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt Aragorn, we need to figure out what happened to those missing arrows. *That* is what we must concentrate on now," he said firmly.

Aragorn nodded slowly. He figured that the sooner they got his name cleared, the sooner Legolas would be able to go home as well.

Right now however, all Aragorn could really think about was how very cold it was. Night had set upon them and along with the chill, he had to fight back the shudder that ran up his spine whenever he let his gaze drift out at the darkness around them. Eyes glittered dully in the dark, seeming to be illuminated in their own light. Bulbous spider eyes, and hard, squinty, evil eyes that he could not even begin to guess at the nature of. They made his flesh crawl, although he was not about to admit that to anyone, especially since Legolas seemed unperturbed by either the darkness, or the eyes. Of course, Legolas had lived in these woods a long, long time.

"I still don’t see why we can’t have a fire," the young ranger shook his head. The elf might not need the warmth, but dang it all, he sure wouldn’t mind some right about now. "We’re deep into the southern reaches now, there’s no search parties about, no one to see us... there’s plenty of kindling..."

Legolas rolled his eyes. They had been over this before. He wasn’t about to try explaining again. "All right," the prince didn’t argue this time. Instead he simply settled down onto the ground with his back against a tree and waved his hand permissively. "Go ahead and start one."

Aragorn set to work and soon had a cheery little blaze started. He didn’t understand why Legolas had been against the idea... for about five seconds. Then, the eyes began to appear. He had thought that the three or four sets peering out at them on occasion were bad, now there seemed to be hundreds of them. The creatures stayed just out of reach of any light that might reveal them, but their eyes shone brightly in the firelight and Aragorn could swear they looked hungry.

Almost instantly a huge cloud of great, grey-bodied moths descended upon them, drawn by the light of the fire. The air was suddenly thick with their large, flapping bodies as they whirled around the two friends’ ears and threw themselves heedlessly into the flames, creating quite a foul odor.

Aragorn swore and swatted at the moths, but there was no getting rid of them, nor the menacing presence of the eyes.

Legolas watched impassively from his place against the tree, only blinking and turning away when the moths fluttered into his face. He looked at Aragorn with a gaze that seemed to say: "Well, isn’t this fun?"

After about a minute of that, the young ranger quickly kicked out the fire and some semblance of calm began to return to the area as the eyes faded and the moths began to disperse. However, Aragorn couldn’t shake the awful thought that maybe the eyes weren’t really gone, you just couldn’t see them without the reflection of the firelight.

He dropped down next to Legolas, as close as he could get without actually seeming like he *wanted* to be close. He could feel Legolas looking at him in the dark. "Don’t say it," the young man warned.

"Say what?" Legolas asked innocently, but there was hedged amusement behind his tone.

"That you tried to warn me, about the fire. Don’t say it." Aragorn glared at the elf in the darkness, shivering involuntarily.

"I don’t seem to need to, you just did," there was no mistaking the hint of laughter in the elf’s voice this time.

Aragorn grimaced and shook his head. "You know, I’m afraid I really don’t think much of your home right now Legolas."

The elf prince beside him sighed. "It was not always like this," he said quietly. Aragorn had meant the words as a jesting barb, but Legolas was serious in his reply. "I can remember the days when Greenwood the Great was beautiful and exceedingly fair. Before evil came and turned it into this place. Into Mirkwood. Many things are changing Strider. Many things have changed. Some for the better, some for the worse."

Aragorn just nodded. He was used to elves and their ways. He was accustomed to the ease with which they could go from merry to serious and back again in the blink of an eye; and their often-mysterious comments did not puzzle him. Perhaps that was one of the reasons that he and Legolas were able to become as close as they had, because at some times, Aragorn could think almost like an elf, although at others he was obviously all human.

Legolas took the first watch. Aragorn thought that sleeping would be next to impossible for him that night, but he managed to doze off eventually, worn-out by the events of the day. It seemed he had only just closed his eyes when Legolas was shaking him awake.

"What? What is it?" Aragorn forced his sleep-leadened eyes open, trying to pierce the thick gloom around them. In the dark he could just see the outline of his friend’s face. "Is it my turn already?" he yawned, but Legolas pressed his fingers to the man’s lips, bidding him be silent. Instantly, Aragorn was alert, if not fully awake. He probed the darkness around them for any sign of danger, but heard nothing.

Nothing. Not even the sound of the crickets or nighttime birds. The out of doors should never be this dead silent.

Aragorn scrambled quietly to his feet, looking around warily. "What’s out there?" he breathed quietly, knowing Legolas could hear his faintest whispers.

"I don’t know," Legolas shook his head. "But we’re not safe here, come on."

Aragorn followed the elf without question, trusting to Legolas’ knowledge of his own woods. They pushed silently through the nearly pitch black forest and for all his trained skill, Aragorn had no idea which direction they were going. He could see nothing but the faint outline of Legolas in front of him.

Suddenly that too disappeared and Aragorn stopped in his tracks. "Legolas?" he whispered. "Legolas!"

"Shh!" the voice came from above him as Legolas popped his head down, hanging onto a tree branch above Aragorn’s head. "Come, we’ll be safer up here tonight," the elf beckoned the ranger to follow before swinging farther up into the tree.

"Right. No problem," Aragorn murmured somewhat sarcastically as he grabbed the branch above his head and pulled himself up. Aragorn climbed slowly up to where Legolas waited for him. By now he knew better than to compare himself to elves. He could never match their speed, agility or grace. Growing up with them had taught him that and he did not particularly care that his own assent was somewhat slower and more clumsy than his friend’s had been.

High above the ground, two thick branches crossed, one on top of the other, forming a slanted v with each other and the tree truck. Legolas sat easily in the groove, his back against the tree trunk, one knee bent, the other dangling freely over the side of the branch.

"Trouble?" he inquired when Aragorn dropped down heavily in front of him.

"No," the young ranger shook his head with another yawn. "I love being woken out of a dead sleep to climb trees in the pitch black. It’s such fun."

Legolas laughed quietly, then hushed his friend once more. Beneath them they heard a menacing growl and the rustle of bodies moving low to the ground.

"Wargs," Legolas said with a disgusted look. "We must be further south than I thought."

Aragorn nodded in the blackness, suddenly glad for the distance between themselves and the hunting beasts below. "They can’t climb trees, we’re safe up here," he breathed with some relief.

"Yes, from everything but spiders," Legolas said glibly. Casting his friend a wicked glance that Aragorn could not see in the dark.

Aragorn sighed. "Did I tell you how much..."

"You don’t like this place?" Legolas interrupted with a grin. "Yes. Several times. I begin to think you are a most ungracious guest in my home. Now get some sleep or you’ll be intolerable tomorrow. I know how you humans are about that."

Aragorn rolled his eyes, stifling another weary yawn. "Sure, just curl up and fall asleep right here."

Legolas nodded matter-of-factly. "Of course."

Aragorn did not protest, but leaned back against the branch behind him and attempted to rest, but he was too tense and could not seem to forget the long drop beneath them. The branches they rested on were entirely too thin for his comfort, although they certainly seemed to be proving sturdy enough. His sleep was fitful and every time he started to doze off he felt as if the floor had dropped out from under him and he was falling... falling... only to jerk awake when his body tensed up from the dream.

After a half hour of listening to the young ranger jerk, turn and fidget on the branch next to him Legolas had had enough. "Come on Strider, come over here."

Aragorn gave a muffled grunt that was supposed to be some kind of answer but it came across more like the sound one might get if they poked a cranky bear who was somewhere between hibernation and waking.

"Come on," Legolas persisted, half dragging the human closer to him. Positioning Aragorn in front of him he pulled the young man’s head back against his shoulder, wrapping his arms securely around his friend’s chest.

"What’re you doing?" Aragorn slurred sleepily.

"Ensuring that I get a little peace tonight and can hear something other than you jerking all night long," Legolas said lightly as he pushed Aragorn’s head to the side a little more so that the ranger’s hair was not in the elf’s face. "Now rest. Rest..."

And Aragorn did rest. Secure in Legolas’ grip he did not stir again until dawn began to frost the trees in milky-golden light. Only because they were high up amid the treetops could they even see the breaking dawn. Down on the forest floor no glimmering trace of its radiance could penetrate the perpetual twilight that held sway over these parts of Mirkwood.

When Aragorn awoke he was not entirely sure where he was, but he quickly became aware that a pair of strong, slender arms was wrapped securely around his waist. He stirred and started to pull away automatically.

Legolas tightened his grip slightly until he was sure that Aragorn was all the way awake. "Easy my friend, it’s a long drop down if you get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning."

Aragorn remembered where they were then and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes before moving away with more caution. "You didn’t wake me," he semi-accused as he glanced at the growing light filtering in through the canopy of leaves about them. "You were supposed to wake me for the second watch."

Legolas shrugged, stretching the stiffness out of his arms and back that had accumulated from supporting Aragorn all night. "You were sleeping so peacefully, and you seem to need so much more rest than I do."

"Legolas," Aragorn’s gaze was serious. "You don’t have to take care of me. I can take care of myself and I can pull my own weight. I know I must seem like a child to you, but I’m *not*."

Legolas smiled at his friend, but his eyes were serious this time as well. "I know, Aragorn. But neither do you have to do *everything* on your own. Pride only serves you so far Strider." He grinned lightly then. "So, do you want to race to the bottom of the tree?" It was a slight barb and Aragorn knew it. Legolas was well aware that he could move faster through the tree tops than the human could.

Aragorn turned a devilish grin upon his friend. "Beat you there!" Without stopping to think about it another moment, he swung off the branch he was sitting on, catching it with his hands and allowing himself free-swing for a moment before letting go and dropping straight to the ground, far below them.

"Aragorn!" Legolas shouted in concern, so surprised he didn’t move fast enough to catch or stop his friend’s impulsive act.

Aragorn landed sure-footed, dropping into a crouch to absorb the impact of his landing. He was standing and leaning against the base of the tree when Legolas made it down a few moments later, dropping lightly to the earth from a slightly saner jumping-off spot a few branches up.

"What kept you?" the young ranger couldn’t help saying carelessly when his friend turned worried, irritated eyes upon him.

"That was foolish Aragorn! You could have broken your neck," Legolas chided, having been more frightened for a few moments than he liked to admit.

"I won," Aragorn pointed out. "You were beaten by a human and *you* don’t want to admit it."

Legolas rolled his eyes. "What did I do to deserve you?" he asked in exasperation. "I’m out here trying to save *your* hide and your reputation and you have nothing better to do than nearly kill yourself with crazy stunts like that!"

Aragorn just grinned infuriatingly, the kind of grin that usually guaranteed a scrap if Elladan and Elrohir had been around. Fortunately for the young human, Legolas was slightly more reserved with him than his adopted brothers were.

Legolas just threw his hands up in defeat and turned away with a half-stifled laugh. "I give up. You are hopeless Strider."

Aragorn had to jog to catch up with the Prince. "So what do we do now? How can we prove anything way out here?"

"I thought you had all the answers for everything," Legolas eyed him from the corner of his vision. A deep ravine slanted downward before them.

"Come on Legolas, I’m being serious," Aragorn shook his head.

"So am I," the elf prince returned with a sigh as the two of them picked their way down a rocky path along one side of the ravine. "We’re going to have to go back... but that may be easier said than done."

"All right, so we go back, and then what?" the young ranger pressed as they circumvented a large knot of tree roots.

"I haven’t figured that out yet," Legolas said bluntly. "Have you?"

"Not yet," Aragorn admitted. He really hadn’t expected Legolas to have any answers for him, he had just hoped...

Legolas stopped and caught his friend’s eyes with a reassuring smile. "Don’t worry Aragorn, we’re going to get this worked out."

The young ranger nodded slowly and smiled back.

Several moments of silence followed as the two friends made their way down the north face of the ravine, along a small, forgotten trail that wound slowly downward.

"Legolas?" Aragorn’s voice broke the stillness as they gained the bottom of the ravine. "Are you sure this is the way back?"

Legolas did not answer, but pushed past a ledge of sweeping vines.

"Legolas?" Aragorn’s concern mounted quickly.

"No I’m not sure, is that what you want to hear?" Legolas responded somewhat testily as he looked around them. It was not easy for him to admit to being turned around in these woods, but he had never been in this area before and their trip in the dark last night had not helped matters.

Aragorn’s eyes widened. "We’re lost?"

"No, we’re not lost," Legolas assured. "There’s a stream down here, you see?" he pointed to a broad, swift-flowing brook that cut its way through the dark, tangled undergrowth of the ravine. "Now it’s got to be going to meet up with the Forest River, if we follow it we’ll reach the river and can easily find our way from there."

"In other words, we’re lost. I never heard of an elf getting lost before." Aragorn ventured unwisely, not quite suppressing his grin enough.

"And I on the other hand have heard plenty of stories about how young rangers disappear in these woods without a trace," Legolas said pointedly with a thin smile.

Aragorn wisely chose to shut up.

"If you hadn’t been so busy trying to kill yourself this morning and looked around in the daylight," Legolas said after a few moments as they forged deeper into the shadowy depths of the ravine. "You would have been able to see the far distant shape of empty black towers." Of course, without elven vision it was doubtful that Aragorn would have been able to see anything.

Aragorn sobered immediately, not having realized that they were that far south. "Dol Guldor?"

Legolas nodded. "Not quite a hundred miles to the south. My people do not venture in this area Strider, or at least not often. I have not been this far south in Mirkwood in more than a thousand years. And I do not believe I have ever been in this area before, or if I was it looked significantly different."

The elf prince stopped short, reaching for his bow. "There’s something here..."

 

______________________________________________________________________

~*PART FIVE*~

 

Suddenly something whizzed by Aragorn’s head and hit the tree next to him with a sticky splat. The young ranger jumped back. He had just enough time to notice the thick, rope-like strand that seemed to have suddenly become affixed to the tree in front of him before another sticky rope shot through the air towards them.

"Spiders!" Legolas spat, whipping off several arrows faster than thought. Two big, black-bodied beasts fell to the ground not far away, their eight hideous legs still twitching, but there was no abatement in the hail of webs being thrown at the two friends.

Aragorn drew his sword quickly, and looked up. What he saw there froze the blood in his veins. The treetops above them, in front of them, behind them and on either side seemed to be alive with spiders. Huge black bodies swarmed over the branches like ants on an ant hill, their wicked, glowing eyes fixed on the two friends who had just become their prey. He couldn’t even begin to count their number, not that he felt particularly inclined to try.

Legolas continued to fire at point blank range into the mass of swarming insects as he and Aragorn retreated quickly back and sideways, looking for a chance to escape. Unfortunately, retreating didn’t do much good as the enemy had them completely surrounded.

One spider dropped down onto Aragorn’s back and the young ranger bent over sharply, flinging the arachnid off and dispatching it with a quick sword-thrust.

"I thought you told me these things only attacked stragglers!" Aragorn said breathlessly as he sliced through a web that wrapped around his leg and thrust upward into the belly of a spider that attempted to drop down onto their heads.

"And what do you think we are?" Legolas shot back distractedly, dropping spiders out of the treetops as quickly as he could; yet more just kept coming.

The sticky cords were flying around them like unraveled nets now and the air was thick with spider chatter. The two friends quickly realized that the spiders were busy at work in the trees around them, webbing them in. The ugly beasts had already spread their thick webs between the tree trunks on every side and were working quickly to turn the webbing into a prison in which to hold their prey captive until they brought them down.

"They’re hedging us in, we’ve got to get out of here!" Aragorn said with no small amount of alarm.

Legolas nodded quickly, his own breath beginning to come a little short. "I’ve never seen so many at one time!" he said, slightly wide-eyed as he fitted yet another arrow across his bow strings. He was running dangerously low and his quiver was nearly empty. "We must have stumbled upon some sort of nest!"

"Pleasant thought," Aragorn mumbled, slashing sideways at a spider that swung down towards Legolas’ head. He had noticed something about their attackers and quickly leaned closer to his friend.

"Legolas look, the spiders have gotten so intent on their wall building that the path to the east has cleared a little," Aragorn whispered hurriedly, not wanting the spiders to hear them.

Legolas quickly understood his friend’s mind. "We make a break that way and try to get out of this ravine. On three."

Aragorn nodded.

"One..." Aragorn and Legolas stood back to back, fending off the massive onslaught of the spiders.

"Two..." The spiders seemed to sense something was up and pressed their attack closer, harder.

"Three!" The two friends broke left at the same time, bursting through the spiders’ unguarded east flank. The creatures had woven a sturdy wall, and it took two or three blows from Aragorn’s sword to cut the thick webbing while Legolas covered their retreat.

They stepped through the pathway they had made, but Aragorn’s sword was tangled in the sticky webbing he had just sliced and he had to yank it free. At that moment three of the spiders dropped down from the trees above. One landed on Aragorn’s back, trying to get at the human’s neck, and the other two hung from their threads, spinning around him and pinning his arms to his sides with their strong webs. The young ranger tried to break free and move his arms but he couldn’t, the spider silk had done its job in a most horribly effective manner.

Legolas unsheathed his knives, one in either hand, and skewered the spider on his friend’s back before it could sink its pincers into Aragorn’s unprotected neck. At the same moment a sweep with the knife in his other hand cut the web of one of the dangling spiders and the prince kicked the beast as it fell, sending it skittering away from them. Legolas cut Aragorn’s arms free as the third spider rounded on them again.

Because the spiders could move completely silently when they wanted to they were able to keep the upper hand in the battle, not making themselves known until they wanted to. Distracted by the battle at hand, not even Legolas heard the spiders crawling up the tree behind him.

Without warning four more of the beasts dropped down silently from above. Two of them slammed into Legolas’ back, causing the archer to stumble forward. The others joined the one that was still alive, trying to wrap Aragorn up in their webs again.

Legolas had no time to fight, to react. As the spiders bore him to the ground he instantly felt the burning sting of the topmost spider’s bite sink into the side of his neck. The elf stumbled to his knees under the onslaught, feeling the spider’s venom course into his veins, making his vision blur and his head swim.

Reaching over his shoulder and grabbing the beast by the legs, Legolas yanked the spider off his back, throwing it to the ground and pinning it there with a quick blow from one of his knives. The other spider was trying to get its pincers into him too, and another dropped down from the trees, attempting to pin his arms and his legs in its web.

Aragorn dispatched the last of the beasts intent on binding him up and had a moment to turn towards his friend. The look on Legolas’ face frightened him. The elf was very pale and the prince’s usually quick movements were slowed.

Quickly diving into the fray, Aragorn skewered the spider on its thread and hacked the one on Legolas’ back in half. Grabbing the prince’s arm he half helped, half dragged the elf to his feet. Legolas gripped Aragorn’s arm tightly for balance as they scrambled away from the spiders, being forced deeper and deeper into the ravine.

Aragorn didn’t have time to ask if his friend was all right because in a matter of moments both of them were running as fast as they could with the swarm of angry, seething, chattering spiders chasing after them. The beasts cut off any hope of making it back out the way they had come and the two friends were quickly being forced farther into the spider’s territory.

Legolas fought the venom that was working on him and forced his body to move and respond to the situation at hand. It was a battle he knew he could not win for very long.

Suddenly the earth was slanting downward and they found themselves splashing into the edge of the stream. They paused for a moment, considering the broad body of water before them. Legolas leaned lightly against Aragorn’s shoulder, letting his hand rest on the young human’s back. He hated to show weakness, but at this point he could hardly help it.

Aragorn felt his friend’s rapid breathing against his neck and ear and knew that for whatever reason, Legolas was in trouble. They couldn’t run anymore, there were spiders ahead of them as well as behind... Thinking quickly, Aragorn grabbed Legolas’ arm and waded out into the middle of the stream. The water was swift and the current pulled at them, but rather than attempting to cross, Aragorn turned with his back to the current and started traveling swiftly downstream with Legolas following.

The spiders swarmed the banks on either side, but the stream was wide enough that no trees directly overhung the middle of it and the spiders would not venture out into the rushing water.

The river rose up to the two friends’ waists, and the current became fierce, hurrying them along even faster than they were already going and trying to pull their feet out from under them. Suddenly the ground dropped out beneath them as the stream deepened and it pulled the two of them under. The rough current easily carried them along, and away from the spiders.

When they finally were far enough downstream for it to be safe to exit the river again they did and quickly made their way out of the treacherous ravine. Once again dripping as they made their way through the trees, Aragorn wrung the water from his shirt and shook his head.

"Why does it always have to be water?" he mumbled at having been soaked twice in as many days. The young ranger turned to say something to his friend, only to find that Legolas had stopped some distance behind him and was leaning against a tree, apparently trying to catch his breath. He quickly made his way back to his friend. "Legolas, what’s wrong?"

"Spider venom," Legolas said simply, pulling his shirt away from his neck enough for Aragorn to see the nasty red, swollen flesh where the spider had bitten him. Blood from where the spider’s fangs had been torn out when he yanked the beast free ran down the side of his neck.

Aragorn’s eyes grew very large as he gently touched the injury. His fingers came away red with the prince’s blood. Then, suddenly, as if things couldn’t get any worse, they both heard the sound of approaching riders. Away through the trees on their right they glimpsed a party of elf warriors and Aragorn swore silently. This was just great. This was the last thing they needed right now. Aragorn quickly turned, his hand coming to rest against the tree next to them and unintentionally leaving Legolas’ blood behind on the smooth bark.

Legolas had seen the riders as well. Urgently tugging on Aragorn’s sleeve he pulled him back, behind some fallen logs where they would be less easily discovered. The riders passed by, but stopped not three hundred yards away. The rustle of light footfalls told that they had dismounted.

Aragorn knew it would only be a matter of minutes until the elves picked up their trail. They had to move and move fast.

Edging quietly out of their hiding place, the two friends crept away silently, taking cover under the craggy face of a rock outcropping that rose up sharply on their left. Behind them they heard voices. Their trail had been picked up by the other elves! They may not be able to hear the elves’ quite approach, but Aragorn knew they must not be far behind them now.

Dimly, Legolas realized that he recognized the area they were in. But that did not help him much as the spider poison began to grab hold of him in earnest. He could hear the rustle of his people, growing steadily closer as they honed in on the two fugitives’ position. He tried to move faster, but his body betrayed him and his clumsy limbs refused to obey his urgency.

The elf prince stumbled as he followed Aragorn, the toxins in his system beginning to overwhelm him at last. He knew he would be fine if he could just get somewhere safe and relax. The spider’s venom was not poisonous in itself, it merely drugged the victim into a coma like sleep, slowing down the autonomous systems while keeping the prey alive until the spider was ready to eat. In a few hours he would be okay except for the annoying side effect of a horrible headache that the poison left as its marker.

However, Legolas knew they had to get to safety before the drug overtook him or they would both be caught.

"This way! Legolas quickly!" Aragorn caught at the elf’s tunic and drug the prince with him to the entrance of dark foreboding cave he had spotted. Its opening looked like the maw of some creature half buried in the dank woods. Water dripped from the rock protrusions near the entrance and echoes of cascading condensation could be heard deep within its’ dark depths.

Aragorn ran into the cavern, looking about wildly for a place to hide from the elves that chased them. The inside of the cave was spacious, its moist, gravelly floor dotted with odd rocky formations that grew from the ground, twisted and warped by years of wind and water. The stalagmites dripped with the fog that seemed to live in the dank cave, wrapping itself around the bases of the columns and shifting around his ankles as he walked deeper into the hollow.

It took a moment for the ranger to realize that Legolas was not following him. Had the poison taken effect and caused him to pass out? Frantically he raced back into the entryway to find the elf frozen in fear, staring blankly into the darkness.

"Legolas?" Aragorn approached the prince cautiously. "What’s wrong? We need to get out of view. They are coming, can’t you hear them?" When the elf didn’t respond he pressed him, "Are you all right?"

The elf could indeed hear their pursuers and the soft sounds of the approaching elves heightened his panic but he was unable to move as memories long forgotten and repressed slammed into his awareness cutting through the fog of the spider’s poison.

"We cannot go in there. He lives here." Legolas words were a mere whisper and Aragorn looked about them searching for the source of his friends distress.

"No one is here Legolas."

"Yes they are. They live here." The elf’s eyes were wide as he searched the interior of the cavern with his gaze, he remembered just such a place, "You just do not realize that you are looking at them. They see you though." He grabbed the human and tried to pull the man back with him

Aragorn took the elf’s face in his hand and redirected Legolas’ horrified gaze until the prince was staring into the ranger’s eyes.

Legolas trembled slightly under Aragorn’s touch and he grabbed the man’s overcoat, trying to steady himself as the drug took hold of his autonomous system, his hands balled into fists gripping the worn leather.

"You don’t understand." He had to make his friend understand, he couldn’t go past those stalagmites. In his drugged state, with his senses heightened, he couldn’t overcome the fear of the memories embedded in his mind. "I have seen them, I know what they will do to you."

"There is no one here." Aragorn was desperate, he needed to get through to the elf and fast, he could hear their pursuers approaching. He realized the drug was wreaking havoc in the prince’s system but he had no choice but to press the elf farther into the cave despite his fears. "Legolas look at me. Look at me!" He shook the prince gently to get his attention, "I will not let anyone hurt you. But we must go deeper into the cave. And we need to go now."

Legolas eyes grew wider if that were possible, his pupils were huge in the darkness and Aragorn wondered if it was partly from the poison. "We have to go."

The prince started to resist and Aragorn leaned forward, resting his forehead against his friends, breathing in deep breaths to calm himself and clear his mind, his frustration threatening to overwhelm him, as he tried to understand the elf’s fears. The contact stilled the prince and he relaxed against the man.

"Trust me." He spoke the words in elvish, "Trust me Legolas. I will not hurt you and neither will they. I will see to it." He stepped back and looked into the wide, terrified eyes.

The elf watched him, swallowing hard as he glanced behind the ranger into the depths of the cave. A shudder shook his whole frame as stared through the darkness, fears too deep to reason with fought for his loyalty. In the end his trust of the Dùnadan won out and with a slight nod he complied.

It was all Aragorn needed. He grabbed the elf and turned him towards the back of the cave, leading him deeper into the ominous hole. He felt Legolas’ light touch on his shoulder as they stepped past the first of the oddly shaped stone pillars, but he did not stop, allowing the elf the contact he needed as Aragorn led them away from the elves that were hunting them.

"Elves were not made for caves human." The sound of the voice echoed oddly in the large cavern and Aragorn pressed himself against a rock formation, grabbing Legolas and pulling the elf in front of him, out of the line of sight.

The ranger heard the soft crunch of footfall on the moist sandy floor. The distant drip of unseen water and his own breathing were the only other sounds. Legolas leaned hard against him as the drugs overpowered him and he began to lose consciousness. Aragorn hoped that he was in no danger, he was not familiar with how the spider’s venom worked within an elf’s system, but this side effect was ill-timed.

Slowly and as quietly as possible, he eased Legolas down onto the ground. He was partly thankful the elf was unconscious; whatever had happened to him the last time he had been in a cave like this must have been horrific. The ranger knelt next to the elf prince and pressed his fingers against his neck, checking his pulse. It was definitely slowed but steady; he was relaxed, simply put to sleep by the toxins. With a quick nod to himself Aragorn moved away from their hiding place and circled the large cavern.

Three elves had entered; he counted five more outside. They were all tense, watching the forests around them as though expecting someone at any moment. Aragorn recognized Raniean and Trelan among those that had entered the cave. Raniean shifted quietly nearer to the Dùnadan’s hiding place. If they got too close to where he had left Legolas, Aragorn would need to be ready.

 

______________________________________________________________________

~*PART SIX*~

 

"We know you are in here." Trelan called out, scanning the immediate area, trying to find any clue as to the whereabouts of the fugitives.

"We mean to help you Strider!" Raniean stepped back next to the rock column that Aragorn had concealed himself behind, "We have provisions. We know the prince is wounded, we saw his blood on the tree, we have medicines, we want to help you!"

The ranger pressed back against the stalagmite weighing the new information and wondering if they were telling him the truth. Raniean had never treated him like the other elves, even when the warrior had been unsure about Legolas bringing the wounded ranger home when they first met.

Moving more stealthily than a human should know how, he rounded the rocky formation and stepped up behind the elf. He kicked the warrior’s feet out from underneath him and pinned the tall elf to the floor of the cave by kneeling on his chest, his knee just pressing into the man’s sternum.

When the others saw Raniean felled they ran to his aide but Strider pulled his sword and held it flat against the elfs neck, "Tell them to go back. I just want to talk to you."

Raniean didn’t answer. He was angry, angry with himself for being bested by a human and angry with the ranger for knowing his weaknesses and using them against him. The man was more resourceful than he had given him credit for.

Aragorn leaned down slightly, pressing his knee harder under the elf’s rib cage. Raniean grunted with the pressure and motioned with his hand for the other warriors to back off.

When they had sufficiently moved far enough away, the man leapt off the elf and helped him rise to his feet. Raniean accepted the help easily as he rose gracefully, trying to regain his breath and his dignity.

"You of all the elves have never lied to me. If you have started now I’ll kill you." Aragorn threatened the tall warrior standing in front of him. He continued when the elf did not speak, "Legolas has been bitten by a spider and he is hallucinating. I have hidden him in the cave. Did you really come to help us?"

"You should not have brought him in here." Raniean looked around the spacious interior, the floor was littered with rocky formations, "Legolas has had encounters with the Gondrauko. They resemble the stalagmites that grow naturally in here."

"The Gondrauko?" Aragorn repeated the foreign word.

"Great, hideous creatures of the ancient world. They were imprisoned by the prince’s ancestors, and with the help of the ruler of Dorolyn they sought his blood to free them from their bondage. They have been destroyed many centuries now, but their memory is dark, for they were wholly evil."

"Doroyln." Strider spoke the one word as the curse it was.

"Yes but do not speak of it again. What I have told you, I have told you in confidence to prove to you that you can trust me." Raniean looked around them and motioned his men back. "We truly have come with supplies and with aid. We believe you to be innocent and the prince is in danger. We do not agree with the king’s edict to not give you aid or assistance."

"That must put you in bad favor with him?" Aragorn began walking back to where Legolas lay, leading the warriors farther into the cave, "How do you suppose to keep it from him, what you are doing?"

Raniean smiled, "We are on a hunting trip. We will be gone for several days and needed many supplies." The elf followed the Dùnadan to the back side of a large formation and watched as the man dropped next to the unconscious prince.

"Will he be all right?" Aragorn looked back up worriedly at the elves ringing him, "Will he live?"

Trelan smiled and the gesture was actually warm and friendly. Lightly the smaller elf dropped next to the ranger and reached out towards Legolas, checking the elf’s pulse. "Spider bites in themselves are not deadly Strider."

He turned his attention to Raniean and the warrior that accompanied him, nodding to them both and raising to his feet as they lifted the unconscious prince between them. Trelan helped the human stand and pushed him gently out of the way as the elves maneuvered carefully back out of the cave.

"The deadly part is the spider! The toxins work in your system to slow everything down until the victim is in a coma like state. That way you are kept alive until the spider wants to eat you." He laughed at the way Aragorn’s eyes widen at his explanation. "The problem is," Trelan continued as he led the ranger out of the cave after the other, "that as your system is being depressed your senses are heightened so you feel everything that is happening to you. And that is probably why the prince’s memories were so vivid and clear."

"He was very upset." Aragorn watched as the elves gently laid Legolas down outside.

"I can imagine he was." Trelan moved off to help the others, "The fact that he let you take him this deeply into the cave says something of his trust of you Strider." The elf smiled and hailed the warriors who were quietly talking about their next move.

Raniean split from group and approached the ranger. "We will take you back to our camp. We can hide you easily there."

"No one will be suspicious?"

"We are too far south to be followed at this point and no one will suspect that we have come to aid you." The elf looked at the ground for a moment, guilt overwhelming him at his next words, "We made sure that no one would doubt our hatred of you or your kind before we left."

Aragorn stared at the warrior. He knew the necessity of covering the hunting party’s intentions but the slander still ached and his face burned from the shame of it.

"It is not how we feel but we had to make sure we wouldn’t be followed or under suspicion." Raniean held his hands out imploring the human to understand.

Aragorn lifted his gaze from the forest floor and looked up into the tall elf’s eyes. Everything the warrior had said was true and he could sense it as he stared at the elf. The ranger nodded his head in understand, "It’s all right. I understand. It’s better for you and us."

"When this is over and you are publicly cleared, our true feelings will be made known."

A half smile touched Aragorn’s lips, but he truly wondered at the elf’s words. By the time they were cleared no elf in Mirkwood would truly be the man’s friend, even if they honestly believed him not guilty. He wondered how long it would be before they really trusted him. "Thank you for coming for us. I am glad for the help with Legolas. The spider bite really had me worried." He passed off the elf’s admission and easily changed the subject as they headed back to camp.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

When Legolas awoke it was to a terrific headache and blurred vision. He could tell it was night and he was near a fire. That in itself was odd... the only time a fire was wise as far south as they were was when there was a group of elves present.

The sounds of conversation and laughing startled him. Listening closer he found he recognized several of the elven voices conversing with Aragorn. Looking about him, he tried to focus; noting that they seemed to be in a makeshift camp for the night, but how they had gotten here was beyond his recall. His memory was vague, he could only remember following Aragorn as they ran through the forest trying to evade capture.

A shout of laughter rocked the camp and the elf’s attention was redirected to the present. Confusion overtook him and he wondered at this turn of events. Had he and Aragorn been caught and taken captive, the thought ran fleetingly through his mind and yet he was not bound.

Rolling over carefully he stared across the fire at the ranger. Aragorn was laughing so hard there were tears streaming down his face. He was trying to get himself under control but every time he had just about achieved normal breathing the snicker of an elf would send him off again. The human’s mirth amused the elves and they egged him on mercilessly.

"You shouldn’t have told him that there is no such thing as Trellep hunting, Raniean," Trelan laughed glaring at the warrior, "I almost had him there."

"I couldn’t let you take him out there and tie him up," Raniean glanced around into the darkness feigning fear, "we are in southern forest you nift! The spiders would have gotten him!"

"That is not funny!" Aragorn’s eyes widen much to the amusement of his companions.

"Ah," Trelan waved the danger off, "I wouldn’t have left him out there *that* long."

Aragorn gaped at the elf, finally having caught his breath, "Oh thank you so much. Your thoughtfulness is overwhelming."

This only sent the elves into another fit of laughter. Legolas was hopelessly confused. They were in the presence of his elven brothers and yet they were free and Aragorn was enjoying himself.

Carefully the prince pushed himself up on one elbow to get a better look. The movement caught the human’s attention and he was on his feet in moments, skirting the elves seated next to the fire. As he passed Trelan he smacked the elf lightly upside his head.

"Don’t you know it’s not nice to tease the human?" He smiled wickedly at the helplessly laughing elf, "I’ll get you for that you know."

Raniean’s booming laughter answered the threat and he pointed at the small elf, "You had better watch it. A human is going to get you."

Aragorn smiled and stifled his laughter as the elves began taunting one another.

He knelt down next to Legolas and smiled into the bleary confused eyes.

"How do you feel?" His voice was soft and low but he knew the elf prince could hear him.

"What is going on Strider?" Legolas glanced behind the human as Raniean rose from his seated position and moved to join the ranger, "Are we safe?" He reached out and steadied himself with one hand resting lightly on the ranger’s shoulder.

"Yes my lord," it was Raniean who answered him, "You are safe."

"I don’t understand."

Another burst of laughter erupted behind them and the warrior glanced back curiously, a grin spreading across his face.

Aragorn seated himself next to Legolas and helped the prince into a sitting position, placing a steaming cup of mead in his hands. "Raniean and his men have been hunting us."

Legolas shot the warrior an intense look but the elf quickly put him at ease, "To help you my lord. We don’t believe the Dùnadan killed Sar and we want to help you prove it."

Turning to the man Legolas eyed him carefully, "Are you all right? I heard them speak of tying you up outside the camp. What is happening?" He trusted Raniean but he wanted to make sure the others had been treating him well.

Aragorn ducked his head hiding a smile, "Well they wanted to take me out hunting."

"No, my lord *we* did not." Raniean glanced at the ring of elves that had suddenly taken an acute interest in their conversation, "It was Trelan."

The guilty elf’s eyes grew huge and he sputtered as the warriors around him teased him. Legolas had not found the humor in the situation and his headache was irritating him. He frowned at the elf warrior next to him but Aragorn came to his defense.

He touched the elf lightly redirecting the princes attention, "No it’s all right Legolas. Trelan offered to take me Trellep hunting." Snickers from the elves behind him caused his cheeks to redden even though he smiled in spite of himself. "And of course I was more than eager to go with him." He rolled his eyes at his own naivety. "Raniean here saved me."

At the admission the camp erupted in laughter. With the tension lightened and his friend obviously well taken care of the elf prince smiled and shook his head, "Strider!" He smiled at the young man, wrapping his hand around the back of the human’s head he pulled him forward staring seriously into the dark eyes, "You do know there is no such thing as a Trellep?"

Aragorn dropped his gaze, trying not to laugh while he nodded in answer. "Raniean explained it to me."

"And" Trelan butted in, "Raniean also told him about the time he took *you* Trellep hunting!"

"Trelan!" Raniean whirled around, his eyes wide.

Aragorn looked up at Legolas and said quietly, "He said you shot your father?"

Legolas grimaced, closing his eyes at the rehashed story, "In the foot! Raniean had left me out there for five hours when my father heard and came to find me. I thought he was a Trellep and shot him, but it was in the foot." When the human started laughing uncontrollably the elf prince shoved the man back and glared at the others trying to affect an air of seriousness, "You need to find new stories to tell!"

As Aragorn regained his balance he saw that Legolas had started laughing too. The light heartedness in the elves was contagious. When Legolas stood and bowed they cheered him and raised their mugs in toast. The prince tipped his to his lips but Raniean snatched it away from him and replaced it with a mug of tea.

Legolas swiveled and stared at him. "No mead for you my prince. A nice cup of fallon tea for you after that bought with spider toxin. You know better."

Aragorn frowned at Raniean, "What? Why? I gave him the mead."

"Mead will not help the headache the toxins leave behind. Fallon tea will help and it will help you relax," he turned back to Legolas. "You need to rest."

He steered the prince to the side of the fire and drew back a curtain made of the very foliage itself. "We made a lean to for the both of you." Aragorn bent down and looked into the hidden tent. The area inside was spacious and he walked to the back of the hollowed out space. The ground was covered with soft fronds and pines and two blankets were laid out on it. Legolas stepped in after him and quickly sat down, he was feeling badly and the fallon tea was beginning to take effect.

"There is another hunting team to the west and it would not do good to have them scouting us out and find the two of you here. Trelan is going to go in the early morning and see who comprises it and if they hunt you." He nodded seriously to the two refugees. "You’ll be safe here tonight."

Legolas nodded, "Thank you Raniean."

The warrior smiled, "Thank you. I don’t think we have had so much fun at campfire as we did tonight with Strider. Sleep well." With that he stepped away from the lean to and dropped the side of the shelter back down.

Pinpricks of light from the fire danced between the leafy boughs that had been woven together. Legolas lay down with a sigh, throwing his arm over his face to block out even the slight light.

"Is it bad?"

He rolled over to look at the human, sitting cross-legged near the far side of the tent.

"Your headache," Aragorn explained, "Is it bad?"

"Yes. Tomorrow it will be gone though." He smiled lightly, "Thank you for saving me today."

"I am sorry about the cave." The ranger looked down at his hands as he nervously twisted a pine needle between his fingers.

"The cave?"

The sounds of the camp were dying down as the elves settled down for the night. Only the crackling of the fire could be heard on the still night air.

"You don’t remember?"

"What cave?" Legolas swallowed hard, afraid of his friends answer. "No I don’t remember anything after following you through the forest from the spider’s lair. What cave?" He repeated the question.

"The cave near Shellen’s Fallow."

Legolas turned away from the man as he sifted through the information he had received. He knew the cave, he hated it. It reminded him too much of...

"I’m sorry. I didn’t know."

"What did I say?"

"You just didn’t want to follow me in. You said *he* lived there." Aragorn watched him curiously. When the prince did not respond he continued, "Raniean explained it to me, though not everything. He just explained what the formations in the cave resembled."

Legolas nodded silently as his thoughts turned dark in remembrance.

"I don’t need to know. I just wanted to apologize for pushing you so hard." Aragorn leaned forward and touched the elf lightly bringing him back to the present. "Are you all right?"

His friend met his eyes; the lights reflecting in their depths from the dying fire.

"Yes, I am all right. And you have nothing to be sorry for." He smiled in reassurance and lay back down on the pine bed. "Now go to sleep Strider, you have had a busy day."

He heard the man chuckle as he lay down wrapping himself in the large blanket, "I did and I ache from it. Even my face hurts from laughing so much."

Legolas smiled as he settled into sleep, safe in the knowledge that there were friends beneath Mirkwood’s canopy. They might have a chance of proving the Dùnadan innocent after all.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was early in the predawn when Trelan awoke and headed west to scout out the hunting party they had caught sight of yesterday. Raniean thought it wise to find out their intent and what their prey really was.

He attained the edges of the camp before the sun had crested the far mountains and crept quietly forward. Here the elves were already awake and the camp in the process of being broken down. He could hear the sounds of a heated conversation taking place and made his way around the outskirts to get a better vantage-point.

"I still think we will be found out! Why couldn’t the arrow have just struck the Dùnadan instead of Sar?"

"The Dùnadan was standing next to you, that’s why Morifwen!"

"And that is why it was so easy to frame him." A third elven voice could be heard. "That and the fact that no elf under these trees has any love for the human."

"It was an accident Mori." Sarcayul spoke up, "I don’t fault you for it. We all know you and Sar were friends since the beginning. His death is a great loss. But this works out best to get rid of that ranger. My brother would be glad that his death served some purpose."

Trelan edged closer, silently closing the distance between himself and the speakers; he wanted a look at their faces.

The camp in the process of being broken down for the day was bustling with activity; elves were saddling horses and readying their weapons as a small knot of warriors spoke openly near the fire pit. Trelan recognized a few of them including Sarcayul and Morifwen, the elf who was speaking.

"You have nothing to worry about." Sarcayul assured Morifwen grimly. "We will kill the Dùnadan and the inquisition will end. No one will ever bring it up again and the people will be satisfied that justice has been served."

"You do still have the arrow don’t you?" another warrior questioned.

Morifwen unslung his quiver and pulled the still bloodied arrow that had killed Sarcaulien, from a latched compartment on the side of the leather pack, holding it out in proof.

"This is it." Reaching back in he pulled out another nearly identical arrow and held it up next to the first, "And this one belonged to that Dùnadan."

"Its too bad the prince brought him here."

"Well we wont have to worry about that for long. Good thing you taught that human how to fletch arrows Mori. These are almost identical." The elf warrior twirled the projectiles in his fingertips and laughed, "He learned very well. Only another warrior could tell the difference." The elf ran a fingertip over the tiny markings on the band near the fletching of the arrow that had felled their fellow elf.

"Yes," Morifwen snatched the weapons back and stashed the arrows inside his quiver. He dropped the satchel to the ground next to his supplies for the day and walked off with the others as they went to saddle their horses, his tone suggested that he was not taking this as lightly as some of his companions. "But now the prince is aiding him."

"You worry too much Mori." A tall warrior clapped him on the back, "When we reach the enchanted river you will be able to throw those arrows in the river and no one will ever be able to prove the truth."

The elves laughed and joked as they walked away. Trelan heard the last snatches of course talking as they moved beyond his earshot, "And by this evening the Dùnadan will be a problem no more either."

Trelan’s heart froze and for a moment he could only remain hidden thinking through what he had heard. So Morifwen had accidentally shot Sarcaulien and he and his hunting party had seen the opportunity to frame Aragorn. He needed proof though; his word would be no good against their combined opinions.

Stealthily he crept out and located Morifwen’s quiver. Quickly locating the hidden compartment he relieved it of the arrows and turned back on his path. He needed to get back to camp and quickly, Raniean and the prince must know. They had little time before Morifwen’s camp broke down and the warriors started to hunt the human. It wouldn’t take much to track him to the cavern and from there.

Trelan didn’t wait to think through the outcome, when he had cleared the camp enough to not be heard, he ran through the forests towards his friends.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

"You swear by these things that you heard Trelan?" Raniean questioned the elf hard, holding the two arrows on the palm of his hand.

Trelan simply nodded, he was winded from the run and his knowledge made him skitterish. The camp was awake by the time he had returned and they had quickly gathered around him to hear what he had discovered.

"Retrieve your quiver, Strider if you would please." Legolas turned and addressed the human. Aragorn started and looked at him. The proof that he had not killed Sarcaulien changed everything. Once Morifwen and his hunting company realized the arrows were missing they would be twice as dangerous as they were now.

Aragorn ran back to his things and retrieved his quiver. Raniean snatched the leather pouch from him and dumped the arrows on the ground. Crouching down over the weapons he picked them up indiscriminately carefully going over their lengths and comparing them with the two Trelan had returned.

"They are identical Trelan." He frowned up at the young elf.

"No, they are not." The warrior squatted down next to him and took the blood stained one from his hand, "See this." He ran his fingers over three tiny bands of elvish writing near the fletching. "They say, Morifwen, third hunter, son of Loriflen," he interpreted the etchings.

Legolas reached down and snatched the arrow from him, eyeing it carefully. Aragorn leaned in next to him to try to see what they were looking at.

"It is as he says." Legolas agreed. Turning to Aragorn he asked gently, "Strider, who taught you how to fletch your arrows?"

"Morifwen." The ranger replied sadly.

Raniean nodded and stood followed by Trelan. He looked solemnly around the group of elves. "He forgot about the identifying inscriptions. Prepare the horses we ride for Lord Thranduil’s palace now."

Trelan touched the tall warriors arm, garnering his attention and spoke softly, "It is worse."

Raniean turned back on the elf and Legolas stopped to hear, snagging Aragorn’s coat sleeve and pulling the human back close to them.

"They intend to kill Strider to cover up their fault and end the investigation." Trelan’s eyes locked onto the prince’s, "I’m sorry."

"I would like to see them try." Legolas said darkly.

 

______________________________________________________________________

~*PART SEVEN*~

 

The sound of horse hooves rang through the palace as Raniean led his small band of warriors back into castle’s courtyard. Their horses were hot and lathered from the long push home and they paced uneasily as the elves threw themselves out their saddles and pelted towards the common area.

"Close the gates!" Legolas called out to the guards. He had no idea how far behind them Sarcayul and his men were but he would take no chances until his father had heard their case. Grabbing Aragorn by his coat sleeve, the prince drug the human with him as he chased down Raniean and Trelan.

Elrynd intercepted the warriors, "Peace. What is wrong?" He took note of the prince’s presence and bowed slightly to the royal.

Legolas pressed to the front of the group of elves and addressed his father’s servant. "Elrynd find my father ask him to meet us in the assembly hall. We have word of Sarcalien’s killer. It is not the Dùnadan and we can prove it." When the servant nodded in understanding the prince shoved Raniean towards the meeting hall, the elves following them quickly. "Hurry Elrynd." He called back as the servant swiftly left the courtyard.

Once inside the huge hall, Raniean stationed two of his warriors near the doors with warning to let no one pass. The elves paced nervously waiting for their liege to enter. Legolas pressed Aragorn down in a seat near the front and cautioned him, "Stay seated and stay out of the discussion. Let Raniean, Trelan and I deal with this. We walk a very fine line my friend and this still may go badly for us. Do you understand?" He stared down into the brown eyes intently watching him.

Aragorn simply nodded. Any response he would have formed was cut off as the king entered from his side chamber flanked by a small contingent of guards.

The elves immediately bowed low, waiting for Thranduil to address them. The king’s eyes swept the small group of warriors, settling on his son. His heart contracted as he noted the young elf was well, how he had missed him, but his anger with his son’s actions warred against his emotions and he cast a dark glance at the ranger before speaking.

The glare was not lost on the human who quietly maintained his seat.

Finally Thranduil chose to speak, "Elrynd tells me you have proof that the Dunadai is not guilty of Sarcaulien’s death."

"Yes my lord," Raniean answered for them all.

"I would know of it and how you came about it." The king speared them all with a serious look.

Raniean glanced at Trelan and nodded at the small elf. The warrior stepped up and bowed once more. "My lord it was I who discovered and retrieved the evidence."

Thranduil raised a hand indicating permission to speak, "Tell me of your evidence then."

Trelan quickly, but thoroughly explained how he had overheard Morifwen, Sarcayul and Sarcayul’s men discussing Sarcaulien’s accidental death and their purpose for hiding the truth about his demise; simply put, a reason to get rid of the Dùnadan permanently.

It was several moments before Lord Thranduil addressed the warriors. During Trelan’s explanation his ire had risen. He was angry with Sarcayul and his men for hiding the truth and putting a guest of the house of Thranduil in mortal jeopardy but he was even more incensed that this whole cover-up had involuntarily drug his son into the middle of it, in a fashion that he was now powerless to control or repeal.

Legolas watched his elder. He noted the way Thranduil’s lips tightened about the edges as Trelan had explained their discovery and he had seen the way the king’s eyes had narrowed. He knew the monarch was terribly angry and he found himself slightly fearing his father’s next words.

"You realize what you speak is very treacherous if you are lying to me?" Thranduil gazed hard at the small elf warrior standing before him. "This proof you speak of, have you it in your possession now?"

"Yes my lord." Trelan dropped his eyes and turned back to Raniean. The tall warrior passed him Strider’s quiver and the elf quickly removed two arrows from its main chamber. "With your permission my lord." He held the shafts out on his open palm.

Thranduil motioned and one of his guard stepped forward and retrieved the arrows from the warrior, passing them to the king for inspection. The elf lord looked up from the weapons and shook his head, "These are identical. I fail to see your proof."

"My lord if I may?" Raniean stepped forward and bowed requesting permission to approach the king. Thranduil motioned him forward and leaned towards the elf as he stepped near.

"The one with the blood on it," Raniean twirled the arrow lightly on the kings palm where he held them, "See this my lord?" He ran his finger around the band of elvish writing, "It says..."

"I can read elvish Raniean." The king warned, smiling as the warrior’s cheeks reddened slightly at the barb.

"Yes my lord forgive me." The elf raised his eyes back up to meet the king’s and relaxed when he saw the elder elf smiling back at him. Thranduil motioned for him to continue. "This blood stained arrow belongs to Morifwen. And this one belongs to the Dùnadan. They are identical, for Morifwen taught the ranger how to fletch his arrows and he gave Strider his own fletchings. But the human has no knowledge of the ways of elven warrior’s and he did not mark any of his arrows with his name."

Thranduil’s eyebrows raised as he glanced from the warrior to the human. Aragorn had not moved since Legolas had seated him and he stared back openly at the king.

"Father," Legolas moved from the group of elves, speaking for the first time, "the Dùnadan is innocent. Sarcaulien’s blood was spilt by the hands of elves, it was an accident. Will you now lift the death sentence that Sarcaulien’s family requested?"

Thranduil’s gaze softened as he looked on his son. His own, who forfeited everything to clear the reputation of a man. How things had changed in the last few thousand years. How could he not grant his son’s wish; what they both knew would be Legolas’ last grantable wish. The king shut his emotions out and ignored his feelings, they had no place in ruling in a kingdom, what was done was done. With a sigh Thranduil turned to Elrynd who stood nearby, quietly listening to the proceedings.

"Have scouts sent out after Sarcayul and his men. Bring them back here by nightfall and inform the people that I have convened an assembly at dusk." He turned back to the elves standing in front of him. "You are confined to this hall and to its premises. You may make use of its guest quarters to freshen up and I will have refreshments sent to you. You are not free to leave this hall under any conditions. I will summon you when the assembly is prepared. Do I make myself clear?"

The murmured responses pleased the king and he stood, without a backward glance towards Legolas he left the hall.

Aragorn stood from his seat, unsure of what was going on. He approached Legolas who still stood watching the door his father had exited from. His face was sad and his eyes were full of longing. When the ranger touched his arm, he quickly steeled his emotions and turned towards his friend.

"Are you all right?"

"My father is upset. But he will rule in your favor Strider." Legolas smiled at the worried look the ranger gave him.

"That’s not what I asked." The human pressed.

Choosing to ignore his question, the elf prince walked back towards the group of elves, "Come let’s go make use of the guest quarters. There will be food and refreshment there and we can rest before tonight."

Aragorn hadn’t moved as the elves walked quietly towards the far side of the stepped throne entering into a large spacious room that was set behind the hall. Legolas looked over his shoulder and turned back toward the man, "What’s wrong?"

"I don’t know you tell me." He glanced in the direction that Thranduil had left, "Your father didn’t even speak to you Legolas. I don’t feel very sure about this whole thing. What aren’t you telling me?"

The elf looked down momentarily, "Aragorn there is much to this that you don’t understand and I cannot explain it all to you right now. If the scouts find Sarcayul and his men, which I am certain they will, we will face the court tonight. It will go well for you but it would be best if you took rest while we can. There will be food prepared for us also, you should eat."

Aragorn grimaced at his friend, "I don’t think I can eat. My stomach’s all tied up inside."

The elf’s laughter lightened the moment, "Then at least come back and rest. We’ll be safe there. It will work out alright, trust me."

Nodding his head the man followed the elf to the back room and joined the elves as they waited for the assembly.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

True to Legolas’ word the scouts had indeed found Sarcayul’s band with plenty of time for an evening assembly.

The elves in the guest quarters listened intently as the hall filled and the attention of all was brought to order.

"Bring in the accused." Thranduil motioned his guards who retrieved the prince and the warriors.

"Say nothing unless directly questioned by my father." Legolas whispered to Aragorn as they were ushered into the meeting hall.

"I think I hate this place." the human quietly retorted; the sarcasm eliciting a sympathetic smile from the prince.

Once they stood before the king’s throne, Lord Thranduil’s guard took up position on either side of Legolas and Aragorn flanking the two and separating them from the rest of the elves.

"It has been brought to this courts attention that the request for retribution on the Dùnadan is out of order. Proof has been procured that irrevocably clears the human from the accidental death of Sarcaulien." Lord Thranduil addressed the hall of elves.

The proclamation brought forth a quiet chatter of whispers from those attending the meeting and the king held up his hand for silence. He nodded to the back of the hall and the great doors were opened as Sarcayul and his men were walked down the main aisle by a contingent of elven warriors. They were herded to the right of Raniean and his men and surrounded by guards.

"Morifwen, third son of Loriflen, step forward." Thranduil fixed the elf with a danger steady gaze.

The elf warrior swallowed hard, his eyes huge with fear as he stepped forward, trembling slightly.

"You have been accused of the accidental death of Sarcaulien. How do you plead to this charge?" Thranduil’s gaze never left the elf.

Morifwen glanced quickly at the prince and the ranger but the king’s booming voice brought his attention back.

"Know you that I have in my possession evidence that supports this accusation." Thranduil leaned forward, "What have you to say?"

Morifwen dropped to his knees and bowed low to the ground, "My lord it was I whose arrow felled Sarcaulien. It was an accident my lord."

"And yet you thought to frame the Dùnadan and seek his life for your mistake? The very Dùnadan who was a guest in this house?" When the elf didn’t answer quickly enough the king’s voice rose, "You used your bigotry of men to attempt to end this ones life as well? Was not the death of Sarcaulien enough for your conscience to hold?"

"Oh my lord, it is too much!" The elf looked up at the king, tears streaming down his face, "It is true. I did these things that my liege speaks of. The fault is mine, have mercy on me my lord." A sob broke from the guilty elf and he looked quickly back to the floor.

"The guilt is not yours alone." Thranduil’s eyes narrowed as he fixed his glance on Sarcayul. The elf warrior looked down, but there was no sorrow in his eyes. "In fact Morifwen I would say that you had help with this plan. I know your family and I have watched you grow up; this is not at all like you to bring shame on your household in this manner."

"Yes my lord." Morifwen replied brokenly not even daring to look at the king.

"However I am also very aware of the bent of the hearts of the sons of Traycaul. Your whole company Sarcayul stands condemned because of your actions and your subterfuge. The sentence that I passed on the Dùnadan allowing you the right of familial retribution is here and now revoked." Lord Thranduil thought about his next words very carefully, letting his verdict sink into the hearts and minds of the people.

His gaze landed on the human standing next to his son and he seized upon an idea, it was not unheard of, and so he proceeded.

"Strider, step forward."

Aragorn glanced quickly at Legolas as he stepped towards the king. He glanced at the pitiful form of Morifwen before he met Thranduil’s gaze.

"You are free now. You may no longer be hunted under these woods. Do you understand?" When Aragorn nodded the king continued, "The ones who requested permission to end your life are the very ones who now stand guilty. As they so requested to pass judgment upon you, I now pass permission for you to decide their sentencing. They have requested mercy, what say you human?"

Aragorn was speechless. He glanced back at Legolas and the warriors who were watching him expectantly. He looked over the crowd of elves intently quiet as they waited for him to speak. The only sound that drifted to his ears in the large hall was Morifwen’s quiet sobs. His glance lighted quickly on Sarcayul’s narrowed hate filled eyes before he again looked to the elf on the floor. There had been too much pain and hurt and anger, it had to end.

Deciding in that moment he took another step towards the king and a bit closer to Morifwen.

"Have you decided?" Thranduil raised his eyebrow as he assessed the human.

"Yes, my lord I have." He turned back towards the hall of elves, "You are immortal, your lives far extend beyond that of men and so too do your memories. When I am gone you will still remember this day and if the conversation permits, you will discuss it even then, it will not leave your hearts nor your minds. There could be no greater punishment than for an act of cowardice and bigotry to live in the minds of an eternal people as yourselves are. There has been enough hunting and killing." Turning back to Thranduil he addressed the king, "Give them mercy my lord, let them live. Let them live among you. Let them live with all these in attendance as witness to what they have done, what could be worse than a life sentence of shame?"

Thranduil was surprised by the human’s words and the wisdom and grace by which they were spoken. He nodded slowly as he appraised the ranger. For a moment his anger against the human was abated; Elrond had taught the boy compassion well. But the proceedings were not over and the king’s countenance darkened in thought.

"Very well let it be on them as you have said." He motioned towards the guards surrounding Sarcayul. One of the elves moved forward and gently but firmly pulled Morifwen to his feet. "You are not permitted to hunt the Dùnadan any where in the realm of Middle of Earth and you and your families will live with the shame of your actions all your days." The king looked at the guards and spoke quietly, "Remove them."

The small contingent of warriors was quickly taken from the hall.

Aragorn turned back to Legolas a small smile on his face but the elf prince was staring intently at the king; the proceedings were far from over.

Returning to Legolas’ side the human was brushed out of the way as at a silent nod from Thranduil the guards took Legolas by the arms, one on either side of him. Crossing his wrists in front of him they bound him securely, yet with the utmost respect in their movements. It was a paradox to see. The prince submitted quietly, knowing this was coming.

Aragorn glanced between Legolas and his father, stunned incomprehension written across his face. But before he could question the situation, Thranduil spoke to his son.

"Prince Legolas you broke our law, defied my word, resisted arrest and fled the palace like a common criminal. Do you acknowledge your deeds?" Thranduil asked quietly.

"I acknowledge them," Legolas replied softly, but without remorse.

"Then do you now choose to submit yourself voluntarily that your actions may be tried or will you require me to use force to restrain you here?" The king found sanctuary in the formality and tradition of his words, where he could try to forget that he was speaking them to his own flesh and blood. Legolas had defied and run from him once, he wanted to know what to expect, and strangely enough, he trusted his son to be truthful with him.

His father’s voice held an edge that Legolas did not miss. "I am here, am I not?" Legolas looked around as if proving his point. "I came back here willingly to face up to my actions, and I will remain so."

The prince raised his bound hands slightly for his father to see. "These are not necessary. I have accomplished what I set out to do, I will not run again."

Thranduil regarded his son quietly. There was no remorse in Legolas’ eyes and that angered him more than he wanted to admit.

"Take the Prince to his chambers to await trial for his actions. Post a guard. You may unbind him *when* you get there," the Elvenking’s voice was hard.

Legolas’ jaw tightened slightly, but he did not protest at the notion of being led through his home in bonds, he knew it would do no good. His father was angry right now and there would be no talking to him until he had calmed down a little. After all the centuries they had known each other, Legolas knew his father’s moods fairly well.

Aragorn was sadly confused and alarmed by this turn of events. "But-but we proved-"

"That you did not commit murder. But Prince Legolas *did* break the law, and he admits that," Thranduil’s look was dark when he fixed it upon the human.

Aragorn shook his head in shock, too surprised to even protest. He had never imagined that Legolas would be in any trouble once the truth was proven... Legolas had never given him any indication that anything like this would happen!

"But..." Aragorn didn’t even know what to say. He felt as if his breath had failed him suddenly.

Legolas caught his eyes as the guards led him away, halting any further protest with a quick, firm shake of his head. Legolas knew that right now was not the time to press his father and if Aragorn persisted the young human would only end up in trouble again.

"Not now Aragorn," Legolas commanded quietly. "You won’t be helping me." Then the guards ushered him out and Aragorn was left standing alone, staring after them and wondering how everything had gone so wrong so quickly.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

"Good going human," a soft voice hissed in Aragorn’s ear as the young ranger stepped numbly out of the throne room, still trying to understand what had just happened in there.

Aragorn jerked and turned to find Sarcayul leaning against the wall and appraising him with a cold eye. Aragorn’s brows furrowed and his gaze narrowed.

Sarcayul pushed off from the wall, his eyes not leaving the young human. Aragorn’s kindness to him earlier had only given him a deeper reason to hate the ranger. He would never allow himself to be indebted to a human, and definitely not this one.

"Do you realize what the Prince has given up for you? Or do you just bumble through life without thinking about others?" the elf accused.

"What do you mean?" Aragorn demanded, in no mood for games.

"I mean that Legolas could face permanent expulsion for what he’s done on your behalf," Sarcayul sneered cruelly. "He interfered with the right of family retribution. He’s royalty, and that’s not allowed. Now he’s got to pay the price and if King Thranduil isn’t too weak to enforce his own laws, he’s going to have to banish his son, making sure that Legolas can never show his face in Mirkwood again for the rest of his life. Do you have any idea how long that is for an immortal? Do you, human?!"

Aragorn resisted the urge to stumble back a step under the shock of the elf’s angry words. "You’re lying! You haven’t said one true thing since I met you, why should I believe you now?!"

The elf just shrugged and turned to walk away. "Believe me or not. I don’t care. It’s the truth. Good-bye Strider. I hope you’re happy with yourself."

Aragorn felt eyes on him and spun around to find Raniean and Trelan watching him. "It’s not true?" he begged them to tell him that the other elf had been lying to him. "It’s not true is it?"

The two elves looked at one another sadly. "Strider..." Raniean said quietly, trying not to feel angry with the young ranger for the position that Legolas was in now. It was obvious that Aragorn cared just as deeply for the prince as Raniean and his other friends did. He couldn’t fault the human for what he hadn’t known. "He wasn’t lying. Legolas is in serious trouble."

"But I wasn’t guilty! We proved that! Sarcayul and his people had no right to seek my blood, so he broke no law by interfering!" Aragorn protested vehemently.

Trelan raised his hands to calm the young man. "You don’t have to convince us Strider. And perhaps the King will see it that way too, we don’t know..."

Aragorn turned away from the elves in anguish.

"Don’t fear the worst until we know it for certain," Raniean tried to remain optimistic. "It’s not so sure a thing as Sarcayul would have you believe."

Aragorn nodded, unable to believe that any of this could really come to pass. "I-I’ve got to talk to Legolas."

Raniean laid a halting arm on the young man’s shoulder. "Give him a little time Strider. The King may want to talk to him before he is called back for sentencing." Secretly, Raniean hoped that the king would. For his Legolas’ sake, and for Thranduil’s.

 

______________________________________________________________________

~*PART EIGHT*~

 

Aragorn nodded uneasily to the guard who was stationed in the hall. The tall elf made no attempt to halt the young ranger and since he neither seemed to be keeping anyone in or out of the prince’s room, Aragorn was doubtful of his purpose. Indeed, the guard himself was hardly more certain of his assignment, but one did not question orders that came directly from the King.

The young man’s emotions churned as he hesitated outside the door to Legolas’ chambers. He had waited as long as he could, but soon they would be calling Legolas back for his hearing and he had to talk to him before that. And yet now that he was here... what could he say? What could he possibly say to his friend... how could he ever make up for this?

Stealing himself to the fact that he had no answers, Aragorn pushed open the door and slowly entered the room. For a moment the chamber looked empty, until his searching gaze found Legolas outside the window, sitting perched on the broad sill with one knee drawn up to his chest and the other leg dangling down over the three-story drop below.

The elf was singing softly to himself, but Aragorn did not have time to catch the words, for Legolas heard his approach and stopped.

Aragorn poked his head out the window and cast a skeptical look down at the ground, far below them. "Don’t you think there are safer places to take your ease?"

"Perhaps," Legolas said lightly, in no particular hurry to move, although he turned slightly inward towards his friend. "But I have loved this spot since childhood. The day is fair and from here I can see so much of my home... and who can say when each look may be the last? You must take the moments when you find them son of Arathorn, and not question fate."

Aragorn tried in vain to swallow the huge lump that swelled in his throat at Legolas’ words. This was his fault, this was all his fault...

"Legolas this isn’t fair! They-they can’t really... your father wouldn’t..."

"Banish me?" Legolas caught the young ranger’s eyes, supplying the word his friend seemed unable to find.

Aragorn nodded miserably.

Legolas sighed. "My father is a king and will do as kings must," he said quietly. "Not even a Prince is above the law, Strider." It was true that Legolas had hoped his father would send for him, or come to speak to him... but as time drew on it became apparent that Thranduil did not intend to see his son until the official hearing. Whatever decision the king was going to make, he was making it alone, there was nothing Legolas could do about that.

A darting flutter of scarlet caught the elf’s keen eye and he pointed towards the tree on their left. "Look, a red-tail. They are rare in these parts..."

"Damn it all Legolas this is serious!" Aragorn exploded at his own guilt and pent-up emotions. He may have lived all his life with elves but right now he felt as if he would never understand them and he certainly did not understand this situation now.

Legolas swung around quickly, dropping his feet inside the window once more and fixing his friend with a steady glare. "You don’t think I know that?"

The prince rose to his feet and looked away. "What would you have me do Aragorn? Rile against what I myself caused? Nay, I have more honor than that."

Frustrated and upset, Aragorn balled his fists in anger at his own helplessness. He couldn’t even find the words to say what was inside him, he wasn’t sure he even knew. At last he dropped down onto a corner of the table behind him and gripped the edge.

"You’re angry with me," Legolas observed calmly, with the damnable ability that elves had of seeing right through another being. Of course at this moment Aragorn was hardly being subtle about his feelings.

Aragorn bit his lip but did not deny it. He knew Legolas was looking at him but he couldn’t meet his friend’s eye.

"Why?" Legolas asked softly, and to Aragorn’s surprise there was a hint of sorrow in the question. "It seems I have disappointed everyone else, what have I done to you?" the elf’s quiet voice nearly broke Aragorn’s heart. The last thing he wanted to do was further hurt his friend, but right now he was so mixed up inside he didn’t know what to do or what to say. Guilt was burning a hot hole inside of him and he could not hold it in.

"You didn’t tell me!" Aragorn accused, anguish tingeing his words. "You didn’t tell me this would happen! You didn’t tell me that even if we found the truth, you would still suffer for helping me!"

"Would it have made a difference?" Legolas shook his head, trying in vain to get his friend to look at him, but Aragorn’s feelings of self-condemnation were too strong for that.

"It should have!" Aragorn bit back the tremor that wanted to creep into his voice, folding his arms across his chest and pulling inward as if he could hold inside of him the growing storm that was tearing him apart. "Why Legolas? Why did you do this? Why did you leave me in this terrible debt to you that I can never pay? You could be exiled, you could be stuck with an immortal lifetime of never seeing your home, your family or your people again... and why? Just to save my stupid pride? To clear my name? Stars Legolas, how can I live with that?!" Embarrassing tears that Aragorn did not mean to shed slid down his cheek and the young ranger roughly scrubbed them away with the back of his hand.

"I could have left, I could have let it go, and everything would be all right... I mean what was it all for?" Aragorn shook his head, unable to believe he could have been that selfish, even unwittingly. "Why didn’t you tell me what was at stake? Why would you sacrifice so much? Just for my good name?" His voice choked and he was unable to continue.

Legolas took his friend’s shoulders and pushed him back a little, forcing Aragorn to look up into his face. "No Aragorn, not for your name, nor for the sake of your pride, or even for the pursuit of justice," he said quietly, fixing the young human with an earnest, intent stare. "But for our friendship. I chose to stand by you because you are my friend, Strider, and I would not see you die before your time. It was my decision, not yours and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Fault yourself not for that because it is my choice and my right."

Aragorn shook his head wordlessly, his gaze searching deep into the eyes of his friend. "My life isn’t worth this," he rasped quietly.

To the young ranger’s surprise, Legolas actually smiled. Releasing Aragorn, the elf stepped back with a wry shake of his head. "You humans, always ready to put a price on anything, thinking you know so much..." the words were spoken fondly. "Do not sell yourself so cheaply heir of Isildur, for although prophecy is not my gift, I foresee that you will yet have an important role to play at some point in time. Besides," Legolas leaned close, smiling somewhat sadly at his friend. "Were you no one, were you a serf off the streets, still, you are my friend and that is of ultimate value to me."

There was a knock at the door. "Prince Legolas? Your Highness? It is time."

Legolas pulled back with a small sigh, closing his eyes for a moment before letting them drift open again. "They have come," he said simply, turning towards the door.

"Legolas, wait!" Aragorn caught his friend’s arm. Time seemed to be slipping away from them too fast and he could not let the prince leave with angry words behind them. "Legolas please, I’m sorry... I-I’m so sorry! About everything..."

Legolas shook his head gently and caught hold of Aragorn’s hand, squeezing it tightly. "I am not," he said firmly. "No matter what happens today, I will always count you my friend."

Aragorn could not speak around the lump in his throat.

The knock on the door was repeated more insistently. "Your Highness?"

Legolas rolled his eyes. "Come, I think we had better go before they break down the door. *That* would be a rather undignified thing, don’t you think?"

Hesitating in the doorway, the elf cast one last, long look out the window of his chambers and silently prayed that this would not be the last time he was allowed to take in the sweeping vistas and shady glens of the forest he loved. Nor the last time he was allowed to call it home.

 

______________________________________________________________________

~*PART NINE*~

 

 

Legolas strode purposefully into the huge throne room, holding his head high and his shoulders squared as befitted one of his noble birth. Murmurs swept the corners of the court, but the prince ignored them. Two guards followed respectfully in the Prince’s wake, but they were formality only, obviously Legolas was here of his own volition.

From his side of the room, Aragorn watched and held his breath. His heart twisted inside him as he waited anxiously for Legolas’ fate to be decided. The fate that Legolas had brought upon himself for no other reason that being his friend. The young man felt ill.

Legolas stopped before the stairs leading to his father’s throne and bowed gracefully. "Father."

When he straightened up he met his father’s eyes and his father’s eyes only, ignoring the rest of the people who stared at him intently on every side. Legolas was glad to see that at least his father’s eyes were no longer angry. However now they seemed very deep and very sad. The prince wasn’t sure whether this was a good change or not.

King Thranduil’s face was grim and he obviously was not pleased with the situation he found himself facing. Whether or not he was, in fact, displeased with Legolas as well, the young elf could not begin to guess. He hated to think that he had made his father ashamed of him, yet he knew he could do naught but what he had done and if given to do over again, he would have chosen the same road.

"Legolas," Thranduil acknowledged his son. "My son, you stand before me on a charge that I would you had not brought upon yourself," the Elvenking said slowly, pain evident in his eyes. "It is the curse of a ruler that he must follow the law and not his heart, even when dealing with his own flesh and blood," the words were obviously hard for him.

"You are royalty Legolas, you are a Prince of Mirkwood and I am the King. That means that we are held to even higher standards than the rest of our people. You know what you have done, and you know what the law requires me to do. What do you have to say for yourself?" Thranduil’s voice was grim.

Legolas swallowed and took a deep breath. He gave no outward sign of whatever nervousness must surely have been in his heart. He met his father’s gaze squarely and held it.

"I will not defend what I have done," Legolas said quietly. "I did what I believed, what I *still* believe, was right. You raised me well my father. You taught me the meaning of loyalty, of friendship, and of placing the good of others ahead of one’s own. I do not feel that I could have been true to that upbringing, nor to you, nor to myself if I had allowed Strider to die for something he did not do." The prince paused for a moment before continuing.

"I wish... I wish I could beg your pardon, but I cannot. I do not regret my choices. I would make them again. I regret only that my actions hurt you. For that my father, I do ask your forgiveness," Legolas said quietly, his eyes pleading for his father’s understanding.

Thranduil held his son’s gaze for a moment before breaking the contact and looking away.

Legolas dropped his eyes with a heavy heart, staring down at the carpet beneath his feet. Gracefully, Legolas knelt on one knee, bowing his head in submission. His golden hair slid off his shoulders and hung about his face. This time he did not look up at his father’s throne.

"You know now what I have done and why. As your son, I ask your forgiveness, but as your subject I beg no mercy. Judge me now, and if my deeds find disfavor in your eyes then do with me as you must. I surrender myself to your justice my Lord." Legolas’ voice was soft, earnest and remarkably calm. He had conducted himself in a manner that did him great credit. No one could fault him if he clasped his hands tightly against his stomach to keep them from trembling, or if he unconsciously held his breath in the long silence that followed.

"Now is the time when being a ruler is most ill," when Thranduil finally spoke his voice was strained and grim. "Because I cannot do what my heart tells me is right... I cannot act as your father Legolas, because you have taken that out of my hands, so I must act as your king. And as your king I must obey the law no matter how badly it breaks my heart to do so." The Elvenking steeled his voice and his heart against what he had to do.

Aragorn felt the blood drain slowly from his body as a cold, sinking feeling ran through him. He feared where this was going.

"Legolas Greenleaf, you are hereby banished from the realm of Mirkwood... forever."

Legolas flinched as the sentence was pronounced and his worst fears were realized.

"Furthermore you are disallowed sanctuary in any elven home anywhere in Middle Earth, from Rivendell to the Golden Wood, from the mountains to the sea. You are dead to all those of your race," Thranduil forced himself to speak the words of the terrible sentence, although each one tore another piece of his heart out with it. "You are an outcast. You have neither people, nor country now and none may harbor you nor give you aide, such is the nature of the sentence that I am cursed to have to place upon you my son..." the king’s voice was hoarse and he could not keep the pain out of it. "I may never look upon your face again."

Legolas pressed his eyes tightly closed against the burning sting of the tears that he refused to allow expression to and his throat swelled with the silent sob he could only barely choke back. He had never imagined it would hurt this much.

The young elf couldn’t breathe. He had known this might happen, but part of his mind had refused to really accept the reality of it. Now that it had indeed come to pass he felt frozen and unable to move. His shoulders stooped and his head dropped nearly to his knee in misery. He felt as if his father’s words were a knife passing straight through his heart and he did not know how he was going to survive the blow.

Aragorn stood rooted to the spot, his own horror, guilt and anger rendering him dumb and motionless. He could not believe what he had just heard... no one could be that heartless to their own son... he *knew* Thranduil loved Legolas... how could he do this to him?!

"Escort the Prince out of our lands," Thranduil said to his guards, his voice trembling slightly. He could not look at the kneeling, miserable form of his own son, whom he would never see again, never hold again, never laugh with again... Thranduil thought he must surely die from the pain of this terrible duty. "And be it known that he may never return, on pain of death." The last words were forced out, barely a whisper.

The guards moved up to either side of the kneeling elf Prince, but seemed hesitant and loath to carry out their orders. Finally, they touched Legolas’ arms lightly; bringing the Prince out of the daze the pain in his heart had put him into.

"No!!" Aragorn shouted in horrified anguish, finally loosed from his initial shock as if set free by a magic spell. Pushing past those in his way, he rushed forward to stand in the middle of the throne room beside Legolas. "No, you can’t do this! Your Majesty please..." his voice choked on his own emotion. This couldn’t be happening, it couldn’t!

"Silence human!" Thranduil snapped harshly, fixing Aragorn with a steady glare. "Have you not done enough?"

Aragorn flinched visibly, the anguish on his face deepening. "Yes, yes I have, and I’m sorry... but you cannot punish Legolas for my folly! It is not fair!"

Thranduil’s eyes were cold and hard and at the moment he had no great love for this young human who had caused his son to be taken from him. "My son suffers for his own actions Strider, not yours. And you would do well to hold your tongue in my court!"

Legolas rose in one fluid motion, shaking the guards’ hands off his arms. His face was etched with pain, but it was composed once more.

"Peace Aragorn," Legolas said softly, casting a sad, calming gaze in his friend’s direction and shaking his head. The elf prince turned back to his father.

"I said I would accept your judgement my Lord and I do." Desperately, Legolas tried to catch his father’s eye, but Thranduil refused to look at him. The king *could* not look at his son or he would break into a million pieces on the spot.

Legolas swallowed hard, but the knot in his throat remained unmoved. Almost worse than the sentence itself was his father’s rejection.

"Well I don’t!" Aragorn raged hotly, tears in his own eyes at the horrible pain he saw written in the depth of his friend’s soul. Maybe Legolas could be so confoundedly graceful and noble about all this, but the whole thing just made him downright sick. And the young human was just brash and guilt-ridden enough to not mind letting everyone else know exactly how he felt.

"I think this is cruel and unfair! But I know you don’t care what I think," Aragorn shook his head, and from the angry faces of the elves around him, he knew he was right.

"Aragorn..." Legolas shot his friend a warning look. He did not want the young man to get himself in any trouble. He was touched by the bold young human’s loyalty, but he did not wish for him to make a scene, it would accomplish nothing.

Aragorn brushed Legolas’ warning aside with a vehement shake of his head. "No, Legolas, I *won’t* just let this go. You are in this mess because of me, because of our friendship. What I owe you I can never repay, but here, with all these people as my witness I, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, pledge my life to you as counter for my debt. Your fate is my fate."

"Aragorn!" Legolas snapped sharply, his eyes flashing with alarm. "Don’t speak madness! You do not realize what you are saying!"

"Yes I do!" Aragorn countered right back. "And you cannot stop me my friend."

Legolas shook his head earnestly, glancing around at the members of the court who were watching everything with grim, quiet faces. "My lords he does not mean what he says," the elf tried to get his friend off the hook. "He is young, he is human, and it is the tendency of both to speak first with their heart and only think later with their heads." Legolas turned with sharp urgency upon his friend.

"Aragorn don’t *do* this! Don’t you realize that if you share my fate you can never go home to Rivendell? You can never look upon your father and brothers again?" Legolas hissed quietly through his teeth, trying to bring the young ranger to his senses before he made a choice that would damn him for the rest of his life. "You are a child Aragorn, you have your whole life ahead of you, do not throw it away in a moment of passion! Take back your words while you still can."

Inwardly, Aragorn quailed at the horrible thought of never seeing his home or his family again and nevermore being allowed to wonder in the beautiful elven realms. His heart recoiled in pain, but his mind was made up. It was the same thing that Legolas was facing because of him; he would not let the elf face it alone.

"I am not a child," he said firmly, his dark eyes flashing. "I am a man and that which I have pledged, I have pledged. I share your guilt Legolas, I will share your fate."

"So be it," Thranduil’s voice stopped the argument. "The Dùnadan has chosen. Go, both of you, and may the heavens have upon you the mercy that I could not." The last part was spoken for Legolas.

Legolas sighed heavily, closing his eyes. It was too late now for both of them. With guards flanking them, both he and Aragorn were ushered numbly towards the exit.

Legolas paused once more before he left his home for the last time. Turning in the doorway he looked back at where his father sat, slumped sideways in his throne, his head resting in his hand. The king still refused to look up, although he knew his son’s gaze was upon him, and Legolas felt that his heart must break in two at this parting, denied even a last look by the man he had loved for centuries and centuries.

"Namárië father," he whispered quietly, then turned and followed the guards away without looking back.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

Legolas and Aragorn were taken outside the Wood-elves’ realm and there the guards left them, with the warning that they must be well on their way out of the forest by sundown.

After the guards left, the two friends found themselves standing alone, with the vastness of the forest around them, and the burning emptiness of their own hearts.

Although he did not wish to admit it, Legolas was glad for Aragorn’s company. Not glad at what the ranger had sacrificed, but glad that he did not have to walk out of these woods as completely alone as he felt.

For his part, Aragorn was still trying to process the consequences of the actions he had chosen, but although his mind was spinning numbly, his heart and soul had no questions or doubts. He knew he had done the right thing. Indeed, he could have done nothing else.

"Well," Legolas sighed after a long moment of silence. "Since it seems that fate has found fit to bind us together when we are cut adrift from all else... what are we going to do now?"

Aragorn took a deep breath and looked around at the gloomy woods around them, unused to having Legolas turn to *him* for direction.

He shrugged. "Start walking I guess. And from there..."

Legolas finished for him. "From there, who can say?"

 

_________________________________________________________

THE END

.....................