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~*Part One*~

 

It had been several long and silent weeks that Aragorn and Legolas had been wondering in the wilds, and they had traveled a fair distance in that time. Little had been said between the two exiles, there was not much to say. Each was lost in his own thoughts.

They had crossed the wastelands the day they had been banished from Mirkwood. Legolas had stayed awake that first night, silently keeping vigil over the fair woods that had been his home for millennia, committing the layout to memory, watching as the moonlight brushed the tree tops in its pale, shadowy covering. Aragorn had found him the next morning in the same place he had left the elf the night before. The dew had bejeweled the forest below them, painting it with the colors of the rising dawn. When the ranger had gently touched the elf, Legolas had started, not having noticed the man’s approach. Aragorn was sure he had seen tears in the elf’s eyes but when the prince looked back at him, he could not say if it hadn’t just been the morning light.

Together they left the realm of Mirkwood and made their way south, with the craggy, weatherworn face of the Misty Mountains looming cold and silent on their right. Traveling up into the foothills, they were now not far from the Dimrill Dale and the eastern side of the vast, dwarven realm of Moria and far away from both Mirkwood and Rivendell.

Aragorn wondered how his adopted father and brother’s were. He missed them and he longed to see them again. He was concerned about what they had been told and how they had reacted to it. Would his father reject him as Legolas’ had? What did they think of him now?

King Thranduil had told them both that he would send messengers to all the ends of the elven territories and inform them of the banishment of the ranger and Legolas. He wondered if that news had reached Elladan and Elrohir by now. He almost smiled as he thought of their first reactions. He could hear Elladan saying that he had known it would only be a matter of time. He half hoped they would seek him out. He couldn’t imagine being cut off from them forever and he still hadn’t accepted the reality of his situation.

Glancing over at Legolas, seated across the fire from him, he wondered how the elf was faring. The prince had barely spoken. He had simply followed the ranger away from his home and after that first morning, to Aragorn’s knowledge, he had never looked back. The man knew the elf’s heart must be breaking, if it felt anything like the crushing sadness that gripped his own, he wondered how an immortal being could even begin to live with such a sentence.

With a sigh, Aragorn opened his pack and grabbed a handful of nuts and berries. He ate the meager breakfast and offered his companion some. Legolas shifted his gaze to the man and simply shook his head. The gloom that clung to the elf like the mists, which were even now burning off in the morning light, bothered the human. He had never seen the prince like this and he didn’t know how to break through to him.

"You need to eat."

Legolas literally jumped at the sound of the ranger’s voice.

"I’m not hungry. Thank you." The elf turned back to watching the small glade they were encamped above.

Aragorn shrugged and pulled more of the mix he had collected from his pack. He followed the prince’s gaze and let his eyes rest on the peaceful meadow. His thoughts were wandering idly when he felt someone watching him.

Looking back across the fire he met Legolas’ grey blue eyes. Out of habit he raised a handful of nuts and berries towards the elf and cocked his head to the side in question. His companion gave a slight nod and he scooped up his pack and moved around the fire to sit next to the tall, quiet elf.

The ranger pushed the edges of the pack back revealing his cache of nuts and berries and set the food down between them with a smile.

He ate quietly; content to sit by the fire until the earth warmed to the rising sun. In moments he could feel the elf’s eyes watching him again.

"What?" he asked around a mouthful of berries.

The elf rolled his eyes, shaking his head slightly.

After a few moments Legolas looked at him again appraising him out of the corner of his eyes, "We need to go hunting."

"All right!" Aragorn was more than ready to do something different for a change, anything to get his mind off of the predicament they were in.

"You need to eat." Legolas watched as the man’s demeanor changed.

"I am eating."

"You need meat." He gazed back out into the woods knowing the response his next statement would garner, "*You* are still growing."

"WHAT!?"

If his heart hadn’t been so heavy Legolas would have started laughing as the man choked on the bite of food he had taken.

"I can’t believe you said that!" Aragorn swallowed hard and caught his breath, glaring fiercely at the elven prince.

Legolas simply shrugged and looked back out at the woods.

"Well...well what about you?" Aragorn stammered throwing the words at his friend more harshly than he had intended. "Oh, I suppose a diet of nuts and berries is good for an elf?"

"Aragorn," Legolas turned towards his friend, "You need to eat."

"I am." He held up the food he had scavenged. "Aren’t you hungry?"

"I could eat."

"Really?" The Ranger sounded truly surprised. It had been the first time he been able to draw the elf out since they had left Mirkwood.

"Really." Legolas raised his eyebrow and stared hard at the man.

Aragorn snickered lightly realizing he had in fact asked the same question twice.

Something about the young man always brought out the humor and the fun in the elf and try as he might he couldn’t repress the smile that tugged at his lips as he watched the human smiling at him. Legolas gave the ranger a playful shove, tipping him off balance as he gracefully stood and unslung his bow.

"Come on human", the elf smiled down at the man, "let’s go find something to hunt."

With a huge grin, Aragorn gained his feet and followed the silent footed elf deeper into the wooded areas. It was good to see glimpses of the old Legolas back; he missed the cheerful elf. He had decided he would do whatever it took to raise the prince’s spirit.

As they walked stealthily through the forest Legolas began to quietly teach the ranger about the foliage and creatures that inhabited the area. There was much that the ranger still did not know.

He pointed out a dark leafy foliage, the plant resembled a fern curled in on itself, the boughs covered with fine soft hairy protrusions. Aragorn moved closer to the plant and reached out to touch it.

Legolas grabbed his wrist, pulling him back and whispered in his ear, "Its poisonous. The dwarves in Moria have been known to crush the leaves and dip their blades in its poison. They call it Kilwandea. It only grows here."

The elf froze as the sound of a twig breaking underfoot caught his hearing. Slowly he looked over his shoulder in the direction of the noise.

Soft snuffling sounds could be heard and the tentative crunch of footfalls gave way the presence of an intruder.

Aragorn turned quietly and followed Legolas as the elf crept back to the edge of the meadow they had just crossed. A small stream ran through its’ low point and it was there that they spotted the source of the sound; a large buck stood at the riverside. He tested the wind with his nose, smelling the air for hints of any other animals in the vicinity. Satisfied he was safe, the huge deer lowered his head and drank from the cool stream.

The ranger looked at Legolas and the elf simply nodded encouraging the human to make the kill.

Aragorn raised his bow, notched an arrow and let the projectile fly. The arrow went wide, missing the buck by a foot. The motion startled the deer and it leapt for the underbrush but not before Legolas had fired his own arrow. The shaft flew straight and true, piercing the animal between its ribs and rupturing its heart. It fell to the forest floor and did not rise.

Aragorn sighed in frustration at his near miss and glanced at Legolas.

The elf was frowning at him, "Who taught you to use a bow?"

"My brother, Elrohir." Aragorn had to think about it for a moment before he answered.

"Well that explains a lot." The prince muttered and shook his head in disgust, walking off towards the downed animal.

"What does that mean!"

"You shoot like a female."

"WHAT!" Aragorn turned towards his friend and yelled at the retreating elf.

Legolas stopped mid-step and looked back at the ranger, repeating himself, "I said you shoot like a female. Which is only to be expected, you learned from Rivendell elves and not Mirkwood elves."

Aragorn rolled his eyes, "Of all the arrogant, egotistical, bull head things I have ever heard come out of your mouth that has got to top them all off!"

"I did not mean to offend you. Everyone knows that my people…," Legolas stopped himself and shook his head remembering he had no people, "Everyone knows that the elves of Mirkwood are great hunters, renown for their bow skills. That was all I meant." He pulled an arrow from the quiver on his back and strung it, "Here watch." Notching the arrow and pulling the string back he explained, "Do it like this." The elf grew completely still for the fraction of a second, almost becoming a part of the inanimate objects that surrounded him as his entire concentration was consumed, focused on his target. His world narrowed as his vision sighted in, slowly his index finger released the bowstring and his arrow flew from the bow, deftly beheading a small pine that stood a hundred yards across the meadow. Smiling as though he had done the simplest thing in the world he turned to Strider and stepped back, "You try it."

Aragorn stepped up next to the elf. Reaching over his shoulder he grabbed an arrow shaft notch the projectile, sighted a tree and released the arrow; which flew wildly past the small pine and ricocheted off a nearby rock, shattering the tip.

"I told you, just like a Noldor elf!"

The ranger threw down his bow and lunged at the elf prince who was mercilessly laughing at the human.

Legolas took a step back thoroughly enjoying the challenge and raised his hands palm outward, "Stop!", he yelled at the advancing man. Pointing to the bow on the ground he spoke evenly and with authority that came from living a thousand years his companion’s senior, "Pick it up."

To his surprise Aragorn stopped his forward motion and obeyed the simple command.

"Now notch it."

The ranger pulled another arrow from his quiver and without a word notched the shaft.

"Draw it." Legolas’ voice had dropped slightly and he nodded at his friend. When Aragorn had complied he stopped the man again, "Now freeze!"

The ranger stood absolutely perfectly still watching the elf with a wide concentrating stare. The intensity of the man and the way he had perfectly, if not stiffly obeyed his every command caused the elf to start helplessly laughing again.

"Legolas!" Aragorn dropped the bow to his side and stared at the elf in complete frustration.

Trying to get himself under control, Legolas walked over and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, barely controlling the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth.

"I am truly sorry it was just so funny. Like teaching the young ones."

The glare on the ranger’s face did nothing to help the elf control his mirth and he broke out laughing again. Aragorn tried hard to affect an air of disgust and impatience but it had been a very long time since Legolas had laughed or smiled and his joy was contagious. The ranger rolled his eyes and started laughing. "So would you like to teach this young one to not shoot like a female or shall we just stand here all day!"

Legolas clapped the human on the back and straightened up, wiping his eyes on his tunic and breathing deeply in an attempt to get himself under control. When he could finally speak again he smiled at Aragorn and said, "Forgive me. Let us try again."

Aragorn shook his head unable to hide his own smile, "Thank you."

He reset his bow and stopped at the point Legolas had asked him to before.

"There." The elf moved behind the man and placed his hands on the ranger’s shoulder, "That is what is wrong." Gently but firmly he pulled Aragorn’s right shoulder back until his shoulders formed a straight line. The elf placed his hand between the man’s shoulderblades and pressed Aragorn’s right elbow down until his arm was straight, perpendicular to his body. Leaning forward, Legolas sighted along Aragorn’s arm. With his face so close to the Dùnadan’s he spoke softly, instructing the man to sight in on the pine across the way.

Aragorn cocked his head down slightly leaning into the bowstring. With his fingers the elf tipped the man’s head back up. Aragorn rolled his eyes and tried again, moving his entire body as though he and the bow were one, until the broad head of the arrow just covered the tip of the pine.

"Breathe in." Legolas whispered in his ear.

Aragorn breathed in deeply, the tip of the arrow readjusted, offset by the slight motion of his body.

"Breath out and do not move."

Again the human obeyed, releasing his breath until his lungs were empty. His body grew completely still and his hands stopped trembling. Legolas leaned forward once more sighting along the length of the arrow shaft. Seeing the tip of the arrow on the pine he gently readjusted Aragorn’s stance until the arrow head was just above the pine itself and whispered his command once more, "The path of an arrow arcs my friend always remember that. Now, release."

Aragorn’s index finger moved slightly and the arrow shot from the bow and struck its target true.

Aragorn turned in surprise.

"See, it is easy." Legolas smiled at him, his eyes twinkling with merriment.

The human didn’t respond right away looking from the elf to the tree, "Can I try it again?"

"Just like teaching the young ones." The elf sighed looking innocently at the man, before breaking into laughter. Aragorn shoved the elf away from him with his elbow, pushing his friend out of his reach.

"Yes!" Legolas finally answered him, "Let us try it again."

 

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~*PART TWO*~

 

After they had harvested their catch and put the venison on to cook, Legolas worked with Aragorn for several more hours. The young ranger caught on to what the elf was trying to teach him remarkably fast.

Somehow during the course of the day the gloom of their banishment had at last begun to lift somewhat, lost like the morning fogs that were receding with the onset of summer and as evening beset them. Twilight found the friends enjoying a warm meal and companionship, spending the late night talking about everything and nothing at all. Aragorn had fallen easily asleep somewhere near midnight but Legolas had stayed awake, listening to the night sounds; sounds that were foreign to his ears.

Grabbing his bow and quiver, he stole to the far side of the wooded area they had camped in. The glen overlooked the Dimrill Dale and the eastern entrance to Mines of Moria. The elf watched in fascination at the scene unfolding before him.

Orcs and dwarves battled each other on the rocky entrance to the underground dwelling. This was exactly the scenario Legolas had witnessed months earlier when he had rescued Aragorn. It surprised him slightly to note that the battles continued. The orcs were better prepared this time and there appeared to be more of them.

The elf kept his silent vigil into the night until the sky just barely edged pink with the warning of morning. As was their want, the orcs noticed the approaching daylight first and began a slow retreat. They had done serious damage to the dwarves over the course of the night and had nearly gained the entrance to the stone hall.

The crack of twig behind him alerted the prince to Aragorn’s presence. The man crouched down beside the seated elf and overlooked the rocky platform.

"Been here long?" He cast a sideways glance at the elf.

Legolas didn’t meet the gaze but nodded out towards the plateau, "They are the same orcs I was tracking when I found you. Only I think they have merged with another clan and they are more numerous. They have dealt the dwarves a serious blow this night."

Aragorn turned towards his companion, "You have been here all night and watched them slaughter dwarves and have done nothing about it?"

Idly the elf met his glance, "They are dwarves." The statement was meant as an explanation but the meaning was lost on the human.

"Legolas, they are living beings." Aragorn was surprised that his friend could act this way.

"Dwarves do not accept help from elves." He looked incredulously at the man, "What did you want me to do? Go down there and get in the middle of that?" Legolas pointed at the steps of Moria where the battle was finally easing, gesturing at the chaos. "What good would it have done?"

The dwarves were tending to their wounded and dying companions and the last of the orcs were heading back to their own hiding place well out of the reaches of the encroaching light.

Aragorn rolled his eyes, "Dwarves, humans, spiders, orcs. You elves have a lot of dislikes you know that?"

Legolas chuckled beside him, "Human. I suppose you can tell me that men are the friends of all?" He jumped to his feet as the last of the orcs left the plateau heading west through the wooded lands. "There see? Come on!" The elf started to move off parallel to the creatures.

"Legolas, we should go help the dwarves." Aragorn watched as the smaller beings cared for one another in the midst of the battle carnage.

"Trust me." The elf was locked onto the last point the orcs could be seen, his keen eyes and ears tracking their loud retreat through the woods, "This is important." And with that cryptic answer he ran after the fleeing creatures.

It was all Aragorn could do to keep up as the prince trailed the orcs back to a large, sunken cave. The opening to the mouth of the pit lay at a forty-five degree angle to the ground, half obscured by the twisted and warped pines that grew around its outer edges. Legolas stopped near its perimeter as the sun broke over the mountains and spilled into the forest, lighting the well-trodden path they were on. He crouched in the trail and inspected the dirt, noting that the vegetation had moved far away from the run. Crushed plant life decorated the edges of the large path, proving that Legolas was correct; the orcs had just recently gained new members to this clan. He studied the footprints that had not been obliterated by those that had come after, noting the differences in the structure.

"It is as I feared." He glanced up Aragorn who was warily watching the forest around them. The sun was too high in the sky for any renegade orcs to be about but one could never be too sure. "Two clans have merged. The orcs are growing stronger."

The cry of a nearby wolf carried to them on the slight breeze and the elf was on his feet immediately, "Let us leave this place, it is an evil place and the wolves guard it for those foul beasts." He marked the entrance to their lair in his memory and led Aragorn back out on the granite plateau that butted up against Moria’s entrance.

As they approached the scattered remains of the battle, they were met by a company of dwarves.

"What business have you here on the doorstep of Moria?" a rotund dwarf asked them gruffly.

"We came to see if we could be of help." Aragorn called out in a friendly tone, stepping slightly in front of his companion.

"An elf and a human?!" a dwarf to their right laughed, "I think not. We can see to our own."

"I told you." Legolas leaned forward and whispered quietly in Aragorn’s ear. "Let us leave."

"Is the elf your pet?" Another dwarf taunted.

At the jest Legolas stiffened, his hand tightening on his bow. His gaze was fierce and hard as Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at the prince.

"I would watch my tongue Master Dwarf if I were you." Aragorn stepped forward and placed himself directly in front Legolas blocking the elf momentarily from the smaller being’s line of sight, "It is royalty you address whether or not you want to. Besides it looks to me like you are not fairing well. It could be that we might be helpful to each other if you laid your prejudices aside."

A red haired dwarf shoved his way through the small semi-circle that had gathered around the newcomers. He stepped right up in front of Aragorn and pressed his finger against the human’s chest.

"I remember you." His eyes were slitted and his words were low. "You’re the one who ruined my traps!"

"Rorin." Aragorn nodded slightly and brushed the dwarf’s hand away, "I am the one that saved you and your men from being Mirkwood’s latest casualty." He smiled wickedly down at the bearded face that glared at him.

The dwarf harrumphed and crossed his arms over his chest, "Why be you here now?" Rorin glanced around the human, "I see you’re still keeping company with the likes of them. Come to share that tankard of mead with my men and I, have you? Maybe improve who the companions you keep?"

The dwarf laughed at his own joke, and his fellow warriors joined him.

Aragorn stepped back next to Legolas and the laughter immediately stopped. The elf wore a dark expression and graced the human with it as Aragorn turned and smiled up at him.

"Well I might take you up on the mead. But we thought you could use an extra hand with your wounded. We have medicines and you look a little light on the help." He gestured at the dwarves that still dotted the steppes below the plateau.

Rorin seemed to consider it.

The man looked again at the elf who glowered back at him and rolled his eyes.

After quick discussion amongst them, the dwarves assented and the elf and the human found themselves trailing the smaller beings slowly back towards the entrance of Moria, stopping near the small groups of dwarves and seeing to the wounded.

"Why do the orcs attack you?" Aragorn looked up from his kneeling position near a wounded dwarf. Legolas was very gently binding up the small being’s broken arm and the human was surprised at the tenderness the elf exhibited, knowing how much he hated being here.

"They want Moria!" Rorin replied as though the answer should be obvious.

"What for?" Aragorn pressed the dwarf, not understanding.

"Do tell. Its such a lovely hole in the ground, who would not want it?" Legolas murmured softly under his breath.

"Legolas!" Aragorn whispered fiercely at the elf who only smiled wickedly back at the human shrugging in feigned innocence.

If the dwarf heard he didn’t respond to the taunt but simply continued, "Why for the mithril of course."

"Please, Orcs care nothing for mithril." This time when Legolas spoke it was for the ears of all hearers. "It is the tunnels and the living quarters you have dug out of this hill they are interested in."

"Bah! They have their own caves to inhabit. They know these hills are full of treasure." Rorin smiled proudly as they stood and moved towards another grouping of wounded.

"I think not." The elf replied a little more harshly than he intended, "Orcs care very little for treasures or jewels." He lifted his eyes to take in the stone heights of the dwelling they were approaching, "But there are tales of evil that lives in these hills. It is the darkness and the deeps they desire."

The dwarves they were walking with stopped to look at the two unlikely companions in confusion. "We will drive them out. Moria will never be taken by orcs." A small fierce dwarf on Legolas’ right challenged.

"They will if you do not stop them."

"What do you think we have been doing every night?" Rorin glanced at the elf and frowned.

"Entertaining them only." He replied absently. Legolas had stopped on the threshold of Moria’s entrance. Turning he looked longing back out into the woods, considering his options. Aragorn stepped next to him and touched the prince on his shoulder.

"Legolas?"

With a sigh, the elf turned towards the man and Aragorn could see the deep hesitation inside of his friend, "Elves do not belong in caves, Strider." He quietly explained to the man.

Aragorn smiled slightly, "I seem to remember some one else telling me that before."

"You obviously didn’t listen to him then." The elf returned the smile. "I do not wish to enter Moria."

Aragorn’s demeanor turned serious and he walked with the elf back a few paces away from the stone doors. "If you are not certain about this, we will go."

Legolas eyed the human for a long moment, "You have an idea don’t you?"

When the man nodded slightly the elf smiled and looked away, shaking his head, "I knew it."

"Look, we haven’t been banished from being with the dwarves. Hunting is scarce this side of the Misty Mountains and we need some supplies. I do not wish to visit men right now as I am sure you don’t either and we cannot go to our own, so let’s trade."

"With what?" Legolas inquired skeptically.

"Information. We know where the orcs live now. Let us stay here one night, and lead them to their lair. It should be worth a meal and a warm welcome again later. You never know when we might need it." Aragorn raised an eyebrow in question, "You with me in this? Because if you aren’t we leave now."

"It would rid Mirkwood of this latest orc problem also." Legolas glanced back into Moria and the waiting dwarves. "I have been trying to do that for months now."

"So?" Aragorn cocked his head smiling.

Legolas pushed the human away from him playfully, "Very well let us go. And pray that all goes well or I will never let you live this down."

"Hey, you’ll get to see the fabled Mines of Moria!"

"Just what I always wanted to do." The sarcasm in the elf’s voice caused the human to laugh.

The dwarves seeing Aragorn’s laughter as a good sign, clapped the ranger on the back and escorted them both into the deep cavern of Moria.

"Have you ever seen anything like this!" Aragorn asked his companion, awed by the immensity of the carved out cavern as they passed beneath Moria’s entrance. The interior was suspended by columns that towered over their heads into the dimly lit ceiling of the room.

"No, nor do I have any desire to again." Legolas eyes were huge and it wasn’t from the awe of seeing the dwarve’s handiwork. He glanced about them nervously and his hand tightened on the grip of his bow.

Aragorn stepped closer to the elf, his proximity bringing the prince’s gaze back on the young ranger. "Stay with me Legolas. Think of it as a palace, just a whole lot different than your father’s. We’ll stick close to the entrance we don’t have to go in too deep. We can stay up here with the warring parties and help out."

The elf nodded slowly and Aragorn shifted nearer to his friend’ lending his support without making a scene.

Legolas did not like the underground city, but he could tolerate it at need. Aragorn had tried to liken this ancient realm of the Dwarrowdelf to his father’s halls, and in fact there was a certain similarity, although it was mostly lost upon the elf. Many of the Elvenking’s halls and chambers were in fact, underground, connected by bright, airy tunnels hewn from the stone that the palace rested upon, yet Legolas would have never called those pleasant places *caves* although many outsiders did.

They moved through the wounded Dwarves, helping here and there where they could. Aragorn fetched his pack and was able to provide such healing aides as he had and Legolas added his elven skill to the ranger’s knowledge.

Presently, an elderly looking dwarf who had an official bearing came up to them. His flowing white beard was tucked into his belt and a red hood was hanging down his back. He said nothing at first, but watched as Aragorn administered a healing salve to one dwarf’s nasty head-wound and Legolas helped him bind the wound up.

He had apparently already been apprised of the appearance of the two strangers by one of the other dwarves, because he showed no surprise, but bowed politely, in dwarvish fashion, once Aragorn and Legolas had risen from their work.

"Balin, son of Fundin, at your service," he introduced himself. Aragorn knew enough about dwarven customs to know that such a greeting required an introduction of like kind.

"Strider, Ranger of the North, at yours and your family’s," Aragorn returned the greeting correctly, but couldn’t help glancing sideways at Legolas. He had become quite comfortable with the alias that the elf had given him.

"Legolas, of..." the elf stopped abruptly and did not finish his sentence. "At your service," the prince finished somewhat hurriedly. This dwarf was being polite and he had intended to return in kind, but the elf had not counted on the stab of pain that passed through him as he realized that he had no place, no home, no heritage to claim.

Aragorn cast a quick, sympathetic glance at his friend, guessing what was going through the elf’s mind.

Balin appraised them curiously, eyeing Legolas with a measure of not-so-concealed distrust. Yet whatever his feelings they did not color his words when he spoke to them next. "It is rare that a human and an elf travel together thus, and even rarer that they should stop to aide my people. What brings you to the Dimrill Dale and the courts of Moria?"

That was far too long a tale to tell, even had the friends wanted to, so Aragorn opted for the shortest route out. "We are wanderers, we observed your battle. You looked like you could use some assistance. But tell me, it has been even a longer time since dwarves inhabited the halls of Moria, is it not? What brings you here now?" The ranger turned the question around on the dwarf and efficiently evaded answering any further questions about their past at this time.

"We have come to claim back what is ours," Balin said with a fierce glitter in his eye. "My people and I have come from the halls of the King Under the Mountain on this quest. Rorin and his clan have been living long in the Misty Mountains and they have joined us in this endeavor."

Legolas glanced curiously at the dwarf at the mention of the King Under the Mountain. That was the title given to Dain, the Dwarf-king who reigned over the halls of the Lonely Mountain, not far from Lake Town and his father’s Kingdom.

"Do you honestly think that so few of you can accomplish such an undertaking?" Legolas inquired.

Balin huffed out his chest. "With fewer than this I have seen more accomplished! Fourteen of us reclaimed the Lonely Mountain from that evil worm Smaug! No thanks to the Wood-elves I might add," he put in parenthetically. Legolas may not have stated his origin, but his manner of dress and the workings on his clothing gave him away. Especially since Balin had, in fact, seen Wood-elves before, although he had no particular reason to remember them very fondly.

"I’m sure that would be quite a tale to hear," Aragorn interjected quickly, wishing to head off trouble before it got started. "But right now I believe these wounded need our attention. Do you have more fresh water that I could use?"

The distraction worked and after all the dwarves had been cared for there ended up being only one fatality, proving that the little folk were as sturdy as their pride. A dwarf named Flòi had taken an arrow wound that killed him almost instantly. When everyone else was tended to, Balin, Rorin and the other dwarves buried their comrade under the green grass near Mirror mere.

"He fought bravely," Balin said solemly, but no other words were said over the grave because Dwarves did not often put their grief into words.

When the brief ceremony had ended the diminutive warriors headed back into the halls and set about celebrating their good fortune of being dwarves, telling long tales about the orcs they had slew or were want to.

Aragorn was pulled away from his friend by a swarm of dwarves as the small beings crushed merrily into the hall, pressing towards the fire pits and the barrels of mead that sat nearby. A cup of the brew was pressed into his hand and he was momentarily lost in the whirlpool of bodies around him as the dwarves gathered in close to fill their steins with the thick yellow liquid and obtain their portions of meat from the spits that were roasting over the open fires.

The human caught sight of the elf from across the hall and slowly made his way back to where the prince waited, leaning against an ornately carved wall. His face was tight and tense and for their part the dwarves had paid him no attention, the oversight bothered Aragorn immensely and as he made his way back to his friend he grabbed Rorin and pulled the small man with him.

"That elf is my friend." He pointed at Legolas, leaning down and talking loudly in the dwarf’s ear; the sound was almost deafening with all the warriors in the hall cheering and singing and making merry over their victory of last, what victory it was.

"Yes well, that’s your problem."

"And now it’s yours." Aragorn stopped up short and pulled the dwarf around in front of him out of Legolas’ line of view, "He has helped all day long with your wounded and he alone has information that can help your people. He knows where the orcs bed down during the daytime. So if you have any hope of ending these night time excursions of yours then I suggest you start paying him a little attention." The ranger tipped his hand and tapped his mead filled stein against the stout dwarf’s chest plate, "Do I make myself clear?"

"And you think he’d help us?" Rorin glared at the man.

"Try him." Aragorn glanced over his shoulder at the elf and smiled. Legolas simply locked eyes with the man. He was even now beginning to resent his decision to follow the ranger into the mine.

Rorin snapped his fingers and two of his companions turned their attention on him. He nodded in the direction of the elf prince and passed them his own stein. Wordlessly they conceded and approached the elf pressing the mead into his hands and herding the prince towards where Rorin and Aragorn had seated themselves around Balin’s table in the middle of the hall.

The elf for his part was not very willing to follow the smaller beings until he caught a glimpse of Aragorn. The human was laughing at the sight of the prince being prodded and pushed towards the circle of dwarves where he was just sitting down.

Stopping mid step the elf brushed the small hands away from him, handed back the mug of mead and glaring at the man he proceeded to walk unaided to the circle of merry dwarves and gracefully sat down next to Aragorn, resting his hands lightly on the wooden surface of the circular table.

"Will you not share in our celebrations Legolas?" Balin asked merrily from the other side of the table politely holding up a sterling stein and offering to the elf.

"Thank you my Lord but I am not thirsty at this time." He bowed his head slightly in deference to the elder dwarf. "It is good to simply share your company."

"Liar." Aragorn leaned close to the elf and whispered so only Legolas could hear him.

The elf smiled for the first time since entering the cavern and his response to the human caused the dwarves to cheer and toast him. The mead was beginning to take its effect as the barrels began to run dry.

Rorin leaned over and whispered into Balin’s ear. The master dwarf sat back and stared incredulously at the warrior seated next to him. Rorin only nodded his head confirming whatever information he had passed on.

Balin turned towards his guests and from the look on his face Aragorn knew that something had transpired. The dwarf’s demeanor was serious and set.

"Rorin says that you know the where the orcs hide during the day. Is this true elf?" The dwarf lord stared hard at Legolas who simply glanced at Aragorn.

The ranger held up his hand halting the prince from answering and directed the attention back to himself.

Balin narrowed his eyes as he focused on the ranger. "You mean to keep this news from us?"

"No Lord Balin not at all. I would propose something else though."

The rotund dwarf sat back in his chair appraising the young human. "So now we get to the matter of the issue. What is it you desire in exchange for this information?"

Legolas raised his eyebrow watching the man as Aragorn slipped into his natural element. A slight smile touched the prince’s lips as the human began to trade with the dwarf.

"The information was obtained at a high price. But your hospitality and a meal now again would be payment enough." His eyes did not waiver as he spoke and he held the attention of the dwarf lord.

Leaning forward Balin stared the ranger down. "That is all you require?"

"That and.."

Rorin cut the human off with his loud accusation, "Aha! I knew there was more."

"Quiet Rorin! I would hear his proposal, now let him speak." Balin roared at the dwarf.

With a nod Aragorn continued, "We will take you to orc’s lair and we will even help you bring down that hole in the ground they call a dwelling. We do this to aid your people and to protect the elves of Mirkwood. This same band of orcs has been tracked from the forests to here. When the orcs are gone the wastelands will be clear and safe. All we ask in return is that you leave the forests of Mirkwood alone. That your people no longer poach in the vicinity and give the elves the peace they desire."

Balin glared at Legolas. But the request had quite taken the elf by surprise also. He had not expected Aragorn to barter for the peace of his people and he stared in shock at the man. When the elf finally glanced back across the table he openly returned the dwarf’s dark gaze.

All those seated at the table had gone deathly quiet. For his part Aragorn had not broken eye contact with the dwarf lord hoping that he had not pushed his fledgling diplomatic skills past their point of expertise. He wanted the elves to be able to roam their woods free without the fear of falling victim to any more of the traps like the one that had wounded his friend not so long ago.

"And if I should refuse?" Balin questioned the young human, stalling on his answer.

Aragorn shrugged indifferently, "Then we will leave your fine company on the morrow. And perhaps by chance you will be fortunate enough to find the orc lair on your own. Someday."

Slowly Balin nodded his head as he thought through the request. He desperately wanted to end the nightly forays that the orcs pressed against them day in and day out. The battle was wearying his men and slowly decimating them, a fact he did not want to openly admit to. Reaching across the table he extended his hand towards the ranger.

Rorin’s mouth dropped open as the man took the open hand and shook it.

"Then we have a deal?"

Balin nodded silently again, still trying to think over his options; the hunting grounds in the woods were flourishing with game and he hated to give up the ability to enter into them and take what they needed even if it was ill looked up on.

"Yes, we have deal." The dwarf finally replied. "You will take us to the orc caves and help us seal them up and in return you shall have our hospitality and we will leave the elves to their woods."

Aragorn nodded and smiled turning a quick glance upon his companion who was still regarding him with slight surprise.

"But..but..you can't my lord!" Rorin stood to his feet in protest, his anger getting the best of him. His complaint echoed around the table.

Balin regarded the dwarf with a deep frown and replied, "I can and I have Rorin Coppercryer. Now sit you down and do not stir up the others again or I will have you working the deepest mithril vein we have open. Understand me do you?" He glared at the others as the dwarf obediently if not sullenly took his seat. "I grow weary of the orcs. I am tired of seeing my companions slain by them. If we can end this and it costs us a few venison then so be it."

The dwarf lord glanced at Legolas, "You have my word, elf, my people will bother your people no more."

"Thank you." Legolas nodded deferentially.

"Well then, off to sleep with you all!!" Balin rose to his feet shouting down the chaos of the hall, "Today before dusk we will go and see to an end of those orcs that harass us! Get rest men! Today marks our victory!"

Cheers and shouts shook the rock columns of the cavern as the dwarves jumped to their feet mugs in hand toasting their lord and the promised conquest. The large room emptied quickly for the amount of beings that it held.

As the last of the stragglers were helped off to bed to sleep off their drinks, Balin turned to Legolas and Aragorn. "I am afraid we are not equipped for guests as we rarely entertain any more. Would a place by the fire side be enough for you?"

Aragorn bowed slightly, "Yes that would do. We would rather sleep near the fire pits by the doors Lord Balin if it is alright with you."

The dwarf granted his permission eagerly and pallets were brought for the companions. Aragorn positioned them near a brightly burning fire pit a few hundred yards from the great stone doors that opened onto the steppes of Moria.

Legolas sat crosslegged on his mat eying the human with a half smile.

"Thank you for asking for a place by the door." He quietly thanked the ranger as the young man lay down on his bed and rolled over to face the elf.

"I know how you hate caves." Aragorn chuckled.

"Did you always have in mind to barter with the dwarves for the safety and peace of my..." Legolas caught himself mid sentence, "for the elves of Mirkwood?"

The ranger smiled at him sadly, "No. I had in mind to do it for *your* people." And with that explanation he turned over on his back and closed his eyes. "Go to sleep my friend. It’s going to be a long day." He murmured.

The elf shook his head watching as the man placed his forearm across his eyes to block out the late morning light. "Thank you Aragorn." He whispered but the ranger had already fallen asleep and was breathing deeply. Legolas leaned back against the wall and kept watch over his companion as he slept, his eyes straying out to the forest beyond as he wondered if anyone back in Mirkwood would ever know that the man they had deemed an outcast had just bartered for their peace.

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART THREE*~

 

 

The sun had barely ridden three quarters of the way through the sky when Legolas shook his friend awake.

"What? What is it?" Aragorn slowly woke as the hall filled with dwarves assembling to hunt down the orcs armed with double-headed axes and wicked looking serrated swords.

Legolas smiled down into the dark sliver streaked eyes, "Let’s go hunt some orc."

Aragorn chuckled as he came fully awake grabbing his sword and cloak and readily accepted the hand up as Legolas pulled him to his feet.

"What time is it?"

The elf stepped to the doorway of the cavern and gazed up into the waning light. "Later than I would care for. We should have started out nearly an hour ago."

Balin stepped up next to the elf prince and gazed up at him, "What say you elf? Ready to lead us out?"

Legolas glanced over the dwarf’s head and quirked his eyebrow at the human, garnering a brilliant smile as the man nodded his head in agreement. "Yes master elf lead us out." Aragorn quipped, motioning with his hand at the legion of dwarves waiting for word behind him, "Your army waits."

The prince rolled his eyes and addressed the dwarf King, "Lord Balin if you and your warriors would follow me I will take you to the orc’s lair."

Turning to the assembled dwarves Balin called them to attention, his deep voice echoing through the large cavern, "Today we stop the orcs!" He waited until the shouts had died down, "We will follow the elf, he knows where they bed down. Be on your guard men, I have no want to lose any more of you than I already have. We have mithril to return to and mine!"

The roar of a hundred axes handles slamming the cave floor in rhythmic unison deafened the human and he turned to Legolas with a smile motioning with his hands for the elf to start walking out of the hall.

Legolas turned and gracefully exited Moria to the cheers of the dwarves who raced after him. Aragorn easily leapt aside as the small beings flooded out the gateway onto the steppes following his companion. Casually the human brought up the rear, guiding any stray dwarves back onto the path that he and Legolas had taken previously as they had tracked the orcs back to their lair.

By the time the entourage had gained the small dark glade, the afternoon sun had slipped below the trees and evening was quickly approaching. Legolas led them silently up to the front of the cave, his senses alert and keen; he was slightly on edge, it was later than he wished to be here. The orcs would be preparing to leave the cavern soon, they would need to act quickly or lose the opportunity. The elf cautioned the warriors to silence as they entered the dark trampled glade.

Aragorn gained Legolas’ side and edged close to the elf. "It will be dusk soon. We have come late."

"I know." The elf shifted warily, glancing into the gloom of the cavern. He bent down near the dwarf lord and spoke quietly to him, "This is their lair. We need to bring the cave mouth down. Can your men do it?"

Balin eyed the opening. With years of skill, he gazed back into the wooded area that covered the sides of the downslopping tunnel before he answered, "Aye, we can. My warriors are experts and this will not be difficult."

"How long will it take you?" Aragorn edged in, glancing quickly back at the cavern himself. He had picked up on Legolas’ unease and an anxiety filled his own chest.

"Not long." The dwarf lord turned and motioned silently to half his contingent directing them to the top and sides of the cave. The rest of the dwarves fanned out around the perimeter some taking up guard while others began to mark trees near the lair, starting their companions on the work of bringing the giant foliage down.

Several dwarves had gained the top of the ugly access and using the pick sides of their broadheaded axes they began to loosen the rocky formation that structurally kept the cave open and intact, working deftly with the stone.

Aragorn was surprised at the stealth with which the small compact beings moved and carried out their tasks but with the soundings of the metal on stone and wood reverberating through the dale, there was no masking their presence now.

Legolas stood to the side of the darkened shaft listening intently for any sounds that might alert him to the approach of the orcs. Aragorn had climbed the rocky side of the tunnel and worked with the dwarves to loosen the structural integrity of the opening. He learned quickly as the warriors pointed out natural stress cracks in the granite that could be used to their advantage and the unbalanced weight from the stones that had naturally formed around the lip. Precise blows increased the stressed fractures and pressure placed on the unbalanced formations easily put the cave at risk of collapse. No matter how fortified the tunnel was inside it would not withstand the external damage the dwarves were wreaking.

Warriors to the sides of the maw were quickly cutting through the bases of the twisted pines that surrounded the orc’s lair. Aragorn took note that the wicked serrated swords the dwarves had brought along were being put to use to saw three quarters of the way through the large trees; it wouldn’t take much to topple the giant pines on either side of the cave crushing it beneath them.

Their work was almost finished and the light in the glade was nearly gone when the first of the orcs realized their plight and began a counterassault. The air in front of the cave was wrent with a volley of arrows as the beasts inside took the war home to the dwarves.

"Legolas!" Aragorn heard the sound and turned quickly toward his friend shouting at the elf as the arrows filled the air around the prince.

Several shafts cut close to Legolas, one just barely grazing the elf’s tunic as he ducked, crouching low to the ground. A dwarf to his right was not so lucky taking a direct hit, the small being crashed to the ground dead. Anger gripped Legolas and he unleashed his own answering volley, his deadly arrows finding their prey and bringing them down. But the press of orcs was too much.

Shouting up to his friend the elf called for help, "We must prevent them from gaining the mouth of the cave! Are you ready?"

Aragorn glanced worriedly at Balin, who shook his head curtly; they would need a few more minutes.

"We have not time to spare!" Legolas shouted as he jumped behind the trunk of a large tree narrowly avoiding a second rain of orc arrows.

"Ori! Rorin!" Balin braced himself against a secure spot and leaned down shouting at the dwarves, "Get the front of the cave sealed off, I don’t care how you do it!"

The two warriors glanced at each other for a moment until Rorin grabbed Ori calling out to the others who raced into the surrounding forest.

Legolas panicked. The glade was empty now except for himself, with no resistance the orcs would over take them in moments.

"BALIN!" He shouted up to the dwarf king.

"Give them a minute elf, they’ll be right back."

"A minute is all I may have." Legolas muttered darkly to himself as stepped away from the safety of the tree and began to rapidly fire back into the darkness of the orc cavern.

Just when he was beginning to think he had been abandoned to the orcs a line of dwarves appeared dragging the trunks of three huge trees they had felled and sheared from the forest. The tops of the pines were left in tact and they began to set the needles aflame. As the fire ripped through the branches igniting and popping fed by the wood and the sap, they rammed the tops of the trees into the mouth of the cave while Legolas covered their advance. The smoke from the fire grew thick in the glen and the attack by the orcs was cut off as the air became unbreathable.

"Quickly before they escape out the back. Tell me master dwarf that you are ready!" Legolas shouted up at the dwarves that were scampering down the rock face. He covered his mouth and nose with the sleeve of his tunic as he breathed the noxious fumes.

Balin was running in front of his men, shouting at them to get free of the cave. Aragorn appeared out of the smoke on Legolas’ left and grabbed the elf, pulling the prince with him.

"They are bringing the cave down now, we have to move!"

When the contingent had sufficiently cleared the area and gained the knoll of a nearby small hill Balin turned towards the orc lair and cupping his hands around his mouth he yelled back into the smoke filled valley, "NOW!"

For seconds there was no sound, no movement and everyone gathered around the dwarf king held their breath, waiting to see if their work had been for nothing.

"What are they doing?" Legolas whispered in Aragorn’s ear.

"Shhh..wait." The ranger held up his hand his eyes glued to the small vale.

Slowly the tree on the left of the lair began to bend downward, the creaking, tearing of its very fibers split the air as the tree to the right also tilted wildly angling down, its crown falling beneath the smoke. A roar of wood and stones reverberated through the forest, shaking the ground and a cloud of debris and smoke exploded upwards from the glen as the trees crashed down on the cave, hitting the rocks that had been structurally damaged and bringing the whole tunnel down itself as the initial collapse created a chain reaction. The orcs would use this entryway no more, the damage was irreparable.

A small team of dwarves ran towards them out of the smoke, their clothes and beards white from the dust of the shattered rocks, contrasted sharply with the smiles that decorated their round faces. A cheer rose from the warriors around them and Legolas turned towards Aragorn a smile on the elven face. "Mirkwood is safe now."

The ranger smiled back, "For a bit anyway. I am sure there is a backdoor to that thing."

"Perhaps but for now they are free from the orcs and the dwarves." He said the last softly, wisfully and only the ranger heard his words. When Balin approached them he swiftly guarded his features and turned to congratulate the small king.

Unbeknownst to the warriors two orcs were watching them from the cover of trees. They had been separated from the pack when they had left Moria that morning and had had to seek shelter elsewhere until night returned and they could safely rejoin their clan. They had watched silently as the cave was brought down by the dwarves.

"We should go help." One of the dark beasts said to the other.

But the orc questioned, simply shook his head no. His yellow eyes memorizing the faces of his enemy.

"Then we should go kill the dwarves and their friends."

Again the orc resisted. Two against one hundred was folly and even the dark anger in his heart was not enough to jeopardize their lives for the sake of their dead companions.

"Thlurglol, we cannot just stay here. We cannot get home now." The first orc whined at the other.

"We will take the back tunnel and join the others." Thlurglol answered quietly, turning yellow hatred filled eyes on the young orc beside him, before he turned and headed out.

"It will take all night to get there and even then we may not have enough time." The first warned again.

"Then we best leave now. Shut up or stay behind, I care not." Thlurglol watched as a human and an elf descended the small hill heading back to the Mines of Moria in the company of the diminutive warriors. The combination of beings was puzzling to the small dark mind. He would remember them. Oh yes, he would remember them all.

 

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

 

The party in the halls of Moria that night was unparalleled by those in attendance. And everyone swore it was better than any they could ever remember under Moria’s halls. The dwarves celebrated their victory well through the night with Balin bringing up the best of the mead he had stored away and the finest fruits and meats that his storehouses held.

Legolas and Aragorn had simply watched the wild celebration for the most part, keeping to themselves as their hosts indulged in gluttony and self-congratulation. In all, only three dwarves had lost their lives in the skirmish and though their loss was terribly felt, the mood was nothing less that an abandonment to good cheer. Aragorn had decided that the only thing dwarves did better than mine mithril was to celebrate. Legolas laughed at his observations as they watched the revelry slowly begin to wind down and the celebrants began to break up finding their way back to their own places to rest for a while.

Balin found them as they headed for their pallets, ready for a few hours of sleep.

"Would you like to see a mithril vein up close? They just uncovered a nice one to the east I am informed." The dwarf lord offered magnanimously, his face rosey from the mead he had imbibed and his countenance light with mirth; it was an honor bestowed on few.

Aragorn turned back to the king and answered brightly, matching the dwarf’s smile, "Why yes, we would love to." To his surprise his voice was overridden by that of Legolas who spoke at exactly the same time.

"Thank you, but no we will pass."

The smile slipped from Balin’s face and he looked in confusion between the two friends.

Aragorn stared at Legolas, smiling and questioned the elf quietly through gritted teeth, "Legolas?"

The elf glowered at the human before turning to Balin and graciously accepting the king’s offer, "We would love to. Please lead the way."

When the ranger beside him choked back a laugh he glared once more at the man. Aragorn whispered under his breath, knowing full well the elf could hear him, "You are a horrible liar. I’ll have to show you how to do that better sometime."

Legolas stared at the ranger through narrowed eyes, sarcasm etched across his features, "Just what I always wanted to learn." It took all of the human’s control to not burst out laughing. In an attempt to still his compulsions he focused on the dwarf lord who had stepped away from them and commandeered the help of two miner dwarves.

"This is Rill and Rullyra." Balin introduced the miners, "They will lead you to the tunnel that the mithril runs through. I must see to a small matter regarding empty mead barrels and I will join you shortly." The dwarf king laughed good naturedly at his own joke as he shoved the two guides in front of him, "Go on now boys, give them a good tour."

Rill and Rullyra nodded and headed off to the far side of the hall talking all the way to the two friends about the great vein of mithril that had been uncovered just that morning while the warriors were out.

Legolas stepped around the ranger to follow their hosts, smacking the young human upside the head as he did so. He had no wish to go any farther into this dank hole than was absolutely necessary and now his friend had accepted a guided tour into the very bowels of Moria itself; exactly where he did not want to be.

Aragorn couldn’t stifle the laughter and ran to catch up with the elf when he recovered from the light blow. They followed the dwarves deep down into the depths of Moria toward the areas where the mines were located. They had passed up and turned onto so many branches and adjoining tunnels that Aragorn had easily lost his way a bit ago. He noticed that Legolas had become more edgy and jumpy the farther down they went.

"We are almost there!" Rill cast a look over his shoulder to the two friends.

"He has said that now seven times." Legolas muttered darkly. "If he says it once more I will put an arrow in him."

Trying to lighten his friends mood he teased the elf lightly, "Oh come on Legolas. How many of your people can ever say they saw the mithril veins? You’ll be the only one! Just think of it."

"My people brag about never seeing mithril veins human." Legolas ignored the man who paced alongside him, "Our dealings with mithril are as crafters, not delvers. In fact it is with great pride that they can say they have never seen the inside of any cave deeper than our own halls!"

"You have got to get out more." Aragorn dodged behind the elf as the prince turned on him. Legolas merely shook his head as the ranger jumped back from him. He had intended to retort to the barb but a strange sound cut him off, reverberating oddly through the tunnel. It sounded familiar in a way that Legolas could not quite pinpoint. When the memory slammed into his awareness it was too late.

A low rumble and a trembling of the earth beneath their feet was the only warning they had. It was not enough.

Suddenly the air was filled with dust and great chunks of the roof of the tunnel were falling around them as the walls buckled and compressed spasmodically inward as if clapped together by invisible hands.

Legolas, standing in the mouth of the shaft, jumped forward a pace; narrowly avoiding a boulder that would have crushed him. A second falling missile that the elf could not avoid struck his shoulder and drove him to one knee.

"Legolas!" Aragorn shouted in concern when he saw his friend fall. "Legolas!" but his voice was drown by the roar of the collapsing passageway.

Suddenly the ground beneath Aragorn’s feet dropped away sharply and he fell forward as if a carpet had been yanked out from under him. The drop was too abrupt for him to try to catch himself, and the young man found himself half tumbling, half-sliding down and backward.

Chaos reined supreme for the three breathless moments that it took the tunnel to completely come down on itself. Then there was a sudden, eerie silence, broken only by the soft sound of small rocks rolling and settling into their new positions.

Legolas choked on the thick dust that clogged the air, coughing as he tried to clear his lungs. His left shoulder was on fire and moving his arm was painful. He doubted anything was broken, but it certainly was not moving properly. Severely sprained at the very least he guessed.

Rising to his feet and hugging his injured arm to his chest with a small hiss of pain, the elf blinked against the dust and grit in the air, seeking some sign of his friend.

"Aragorn?" he called, turning slowly around and attempting to pierce the gloom with his keen eyesight. There was no answer. "Aragorn?" Legolas’ call picked up a tone of urgency.

As the dust finally began to settle, Legolas could see what had happened to the tunnel. Simply speaking, there was no tunnel anymore. Instead there was a twisted, mangled heap of splintered support beams, ruined masonry, jagged boulders and broken stone. Aragorn was nowhere to be seen.

Icy panic gripped the elf prince’s heart as he picked his way carefully across the boulder-strewn floor to where the collapsed tunnel had sealed itself off. Searching the mound quickly, Legolas tugged at the rocks with his good hand. The boulders shifted and settled, making whatever headway he could hope to have absolutely futile. There was no way of digging through this. The entire mouth of the tunnel had come down and was sitting under the weight of the hundreds of thousands of pounds of stone and earth that hung over the elf’s head.

Legolas repressed a shudder. And Aragorn wondered why he did not like caves? What was there to like about the feeling that you had a mountain sitting on your head, one that could obviously crush you at a moment’s notice? The prince had been caught in a cave-in before, very long ago, and had almost not survived the experience. And now Aragorn was lost somewhere in this ruin...

The two young dwarves who had been waiting for them in the larger chamber picked themselves quickly up off the ground, having been knocked off their feet by the shaking of the collapse.

Legolas turned to them quickly. "Go get help. Now!"

Rill and Rullyra obeyed immediately, running off towards the long stair at the far side of the room, their faces filled with grave concern.

Legolas fought back the rising fear that clutched his heart when he considered his friend’s fate. Placing his hand on the twisted, lifeless rocks that blocked his path he willed the young ranger to have somehow survived this experience.

"Aragorn!" he called desperately. "Strider, can you hear me?" His own voice echoed hollowly in the empty, cavernous hall behind him, but there was no response from beyond the rubble.

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART FOUR*~

~~~~~~~

"I too once passed through the Dimril Gate, but although I also came out again the memory is very evil. I do not wish to enter Moria a second time." -- Aragorn, in the FOTR book.

~~~~~~~

 

Legolas sank forward against the rocks, letting his forehead fall forward to rest against their rough, cold surface. "Aragorn," he whispered quietly, pain, both physical and emotional, stealing his breath away from him.

Suddenly a faint sound made the elf’s head come up and he listened intently. There... there it was again, clearer this time! Hope filled him once more as he was able to distinguish the sound for what it was: a voice calling his own name. Aragorn!

Legolas called back, but without the benefit of elven hearing, Aragorn did not seem to be able to hear his friend as clearly as Legolas could now hear him.

Aragorn’s fall had ended in near pitch-darkness. His head throbbed and his ribs ached. He could see nothing, but could feel the rocks that blocked his way. With a sick feeling he remembered seeing Legolas fall and called his friend’s name repeatedly. He quickly found that trying to dig his way out was just as useless as Legolas’ attempts to dig his way in. There was no moving the mass of stone that had fallen between them.

When the ringing in his ears finally began to clear, he was able to hear his friend’s voice, faint and almost impossibly far away to his human hearing, but definitely there. Aragorn felt a dizzying wave of relief sweep through him upon finding that Legolas was in fact still alive and breathing.

"Aragorn, are you all right? Where are you?" Legolas’ voice filtered faintly through to him. The elf had to repeat the question several times before the ranger was actually able to make it out.

"I think so," Aragorn called back, knowing that Legolas could probably hear him a lot better than he could hear Legolas.

It was true, Legolas now had no trouble hearing Aragorn’s words and they seemed to him only slightly muffled, as if they were standing on opposite sides of a mere wall instead of opposite sides of five tons of stone.

"I’m alone in the dark," Aragorn shouted back, his voice laced with a certain amount of dry humor at his friend’s rather useless question. "I can’t see a thing and there’s about a million pounds of rock in front of me, other than that I have no..." he stopped abruptly. Inexplicably, Aragorn found that he was beginning to be able to see the stones under his hands, and it was not because his eyes were adjusting to the dark. "Wait, it’s not so dark now..."

Turning quickly, the young man saw torchlight approaching swiftly from up the passage behind him. For an instant it crossed his mind that this tunnel he found himself in now was not the same one he had been in earlier. The walls were rougher and clumsily hewn, not like the other dwarf-work they had seen here. A moment later those thoughts were banished from importance when the twisting torchlight rounded the corner and he was able to see from whence it originated.

The young ranger’s eyes widened slightly and a cold chill shot up his spine as more than two dozen orcs and goblins spilled around the corner. They pulled up short when they saw the human and the jumble of stone behind him.

"And I’m not alone. But I think I’m in trouble," the last part was spoken softer, but Legolas’ sharp ears still caught it and the elf stiffened, able to hear the tone of apprehensive fear in his friend’s voice.

Aragorn drew his sword quickly, clenching the hilt tightly in his hand. Trapped in this dead-end tunnel with scores of enemies blocking the only way out, the young man knew his chances were very slim, but he was prepared to take as many of them with him as he could.

With a cry, the orcs rushed him.

"Aragorn what’s happening? What’s wrong?" Legolas called, but his friend did not reply and the elf heard a more frightening sound answer his question instead. The horrible sound of orc voices, many of them, and then the metallic clang of weapon meeting weapon.

Helpless frustration swept through Legolas as he realized what was happening. It was impossibly infuriating to know that his friend was fighting for his life not more than fifty yards away and he was powerless to help.

Grim determination burned in Aragorn’s eyes as he turned, twisted, parried and spun to keep up with the wicked pace of the assault his attackers launched at him. He slew orc after orc, but more just kept coming, hedging him in, leaving him no room to maneuver. The acrid taste of fear bit at the back of his throat, although he tried to deny its presence.

Bringing his sword up he caught an orc on the long blade felling the ugly beast. His options were growing slim and in an attempt to maneuver better in the rapidly decreasing space he moved back towards the rockslide behind him. His fear escalated as he saw more orcs press into the tunnel.

The tales his brothers had told him surfaced in his mind. He remembered the unspeakable things they had recounted upon finding their mother trapped in an orc lair. Their warnings echoed freshly in his mind, ‘never be caught by the orcs, we may not be able to reach you in time’. Now he found himself trapped with no one able to reach him and his chances for survival were closing in on him like the hordes that pressed him back.

Unable to watch his footing, Aragorn stepped on a small bolder, catching the rock with the side of his boot causing him to lose his balance. A goblin rushed him and the ranger threw himself at the oncoming creature but the misstep was fatal and he twisted painfully as his ankle buckled underneath him. His enemy took advantage of the slip in his concentration and tackled the human. Aragorn fell under the attack of the goblin and was pinned in place by the beast’s weight. His enemies cheered and rushed him as another goblin joined the first and pulled the human to his feet.

The two goblins threw Aragorn roughly onto the ground on his face. Kicking the young man’s shoulder viciously, they flipped him onto his back. Several wargs had been brought in and one of them snapped at the prisoner with its long, wicked teeth, straining against the end of its’ chain. Aragorn couldn’t help flinching and trying to jerk further away from the beast. The orcs found this immensely amusing and held their captive still, pinning him down on his back and laughing.

"Stubborn little thing!" they jeered. "Make nice tender food for our pets, hmm?" The orc holding the warg’s leash let the beast surge forward. The warg pounced on Aragorn, its claws catching and tearing the young man’s tunic, its gleaming fangs and dripping mouth snapping and snarling only a few inches from his face.

Aragorn could not keep the terror out of his expression as he tried desperately to scoot further back, away from the wolf-like creature, but his captor’s did not allow him to do so. They laughed harshly at his fear, letting their hold slip a little on the creature’s restraint, giving the warg even closer access to their frightened prisoner.

Aragorn’s heart hammered in his chest as he pulled his head as far back as he was allowed, feeling the hot, rancid breath of the snarling creature on his chest brush against his face as the warg strained against its leash to get at him. For all Aragorn knew they truly intended to feed him to the wargs and that was not an end he would have chosen.

"He’s too scrawny to make a decent meal," the orc holding the warg’s collar jeered cruelly, finally pulling the beast back, away from their prisoner’s prostrate form. It wasn’t actually true, but the orcs did not intend to kill their captive just yet, they had merely been playing with him.

Dragging Aragorn to his knees, they held his arms at his sides. A vicious kick in the stomach doubled the young man over and his long, dark hair hung in strands about his face as he sought to regain his breath.

One of the larger orcs, named Velugulv, crouched in front of Aragorn, taking a chunk of the young human’s hair in his hand. Yanking the ranger’s head upright and tipping it to the side he cocked his own to match, leering evilly at the prisoner. The orc sniffed in almost animal fashion, as if he were smelling Aragorn to confirm what his eyes told him.

"Now the dwarves are sending humans to spy on us? And children at that?" the evil being grinned wickedly, poking at Aragorn’s youthful, soft-edged features that had not yet fully slimmed out or hardened into the face of an adult man.

Aragorn glared angrily at Velugulv, but said nothing. He guessed that at this point silence was probably the best policy.

"What are you doing down here little rat? Skulking about? Looking for our passages? Trying to thwart us?" the orc’s voice turned steely as he glanced at the blocked passageway, which he seemed to hold Aragorn responsible for.

"Wait, I recognize him..." one of the orcs shoved his way past the others, stooping down to get a good look at Aragorn’s face. Thlurglol’s eyes slitted in recognition, hissing as he pulled back in anger. "This one was with the elf! The ones I only just told you of! Who sealed Lûzbuk and the others in their cave and left them to rot! I saw it with my own eyes."

"Was he now?!" Velugulv scowled darkly, fixing Aragorn with a dangerous gaze. "I thought I smelled elf-stench about him!" It was ironic to hear these foul, reeking creatures talk about ill odors.

"Trying to do the same to us were you?" Velugulv demanded, twisting his hand painfully in Aragorn’s hair and giving the prisoner’s head a vicious shake. "Busy sealing up our tunnel-work too are you?!"

Aragorn winced and pulled his head back a little. He was beginning to understand what had happened, and what had caused the unfortunate cave-in. "It was not my doing, there was a cave-in. Your tunnel-work has made the passage above unstable and it came down." He kept his voice steady, but he could not keep his racing pulse from pounding in his ears. He doubted he would be believed anyway, and he was right.

"Liar!" the orc backhanded Aragorn sharply, cutting the ranger’s lip with the edge of his hard, spiked glove. "Well you’ll not succeed. We have been working on these tunnels for weeks now, a little obstruction like this will be soon be cleared again!"

"But if the dwarves know we are tunneling under them, then our element of surprise is already lost!" the orc who had spoken before snarled unhappily.

"Shut up Thlurglol!" Velugulv snapped at the other orc. "We’ll make a new plan. After all, we have one of them now; one who can tell us exactly where the dwarves have set up their pitiful stronghold. We’ll tunnel up from under them and have them all for supper yet!"

Aragorn really did not like the way this conversation was going, and when Velugulv’s eyes turned back to him he caught his breath at the malicious hatred he saw mirrored in their dark, sunken depths. "You’ll have no problems telling us where the dwarves have set-up their secret stronghold, now will you young one?" the orc ran his claw-like fingernails lightly down the young ranger’s cheek.

Aragorn’s mind whirled emptily and he felt a sick feeling like a cold, sinking stone in his stomach. He wouldn’t have told these wicked beings anything they wanted to know anyway, but in this case he honestly had no clue what they were talking about. If the dwarves had a secret stronghold here in Moria that they had fortified and would retreat to if pressed, he had no more notion than did his captors of where it could be found.

"I don’t know," he shook his head, already knowing they would not believe him anymore than they had before.

Velugulv grinned maliciously, dropping Aragorn’s head and rising from his crouch. "I hoped you’d say that. Come boys, the little rat won’t squeak, let’s loosen his tongue for him!"

Aragorn tried in vain to battle his rising terror as he was dragged roughly to his feet. The orcs held him firmly between them as they roughly tore his shirt off him, stripping the young ranger to the waist. Slamming him face-first against the damp, cold wall of the tunnel, they yanked his arms out to the side. Two of the orcs’ crude, makeshift tunnel supports stood almost exactly even with his wrists and they bound him securely to them, staking the young man against the wall and rendering him even more helpless than he already was.

Thlurglol thrust a cruel looking, multi-pronged whip in Aragorn’s face, fingering the knotted ends of the lash with a wicked grin. "This tickler’s got a pretty bite, how ‘bout we let it play on you for a while. Tends to make the stubborn ones *very* talkative."

"I told you I don’t know anything about any dwarf stronghold," Aragorn ground out between his teeth, his breathing coming quick and fast. "You may not believe me, but it’s the truth, I cannot tell you what I do not know!"

The orcs just laughed. "We’ll see about that! We’ll see what it takes to make little birdie sing!" In truth, they would have tortured their prisoner just for sport and spite even if they had wanted nothing out of him.

The stinging lash raked painfully across his bare shoulders and Aragorn drew his breath in sharply. Another stroke quickly followed the first and then another, and another.

Aragorn pressed his lips together hard, jerking slightly as the painful blows fell but refusing to make a sound.

~*~

On the opposite side of the wall, Legolas’ heart wrenched in fear for his friend when he heard the orcs begin their questioning. It was horrible, being able to hear them, to know what was happening and be so helpless to stop it.

The elf heard the brave timbre of Aragorn’s voice when he tried to make them see that he did not know what they wanted of him, but Legolas knew his friend was afraid, who wouldn’t be? The orcs had a nasty reputation concerning what they did to those unlucky enough to become their prisoners.

The prince heard the orc’s cruel threats and taunts, followed by the ugly sound of a whip hissing through the air and finding flesh. He had never felt more powerless in his entire life.

The last thing he wanted to do was to have to stand here and listen to this, but his options were sadly limited. The truly aggravating thing was that while Aragorn and the orcs were close enough for the elf to hear them, they could be miles and miles out of his reach. Moving this pile of stone could be impossible, and would take days even if it were. Days Aragorn did not have. The only hope Legolas had of getting to him at all would be to hope that when Rill and Rullyra got back with help, the dwarves would know of another way to reach the other side of the collapsed passage. He had to hope that there would be some way from there to reach his friend.

The hissing snap of the whip wrenched a muffled grunt of pain from Aragorn’s throat and Legolas clenched his teeth until his jaw hurt; raw, bubbling rage seething like a dragon in his chest.

Melkor take it all, where were those dwarves?! Legolas was not willing to leave unless he knew that there was some way he could get to his friend. If standing by and listening was all he could do, he would do it no matter how badly it hurt him inside.

~*~

Aragorn couldn’t help his gasps of pain presently. The orcs were cruel and thorough at their work and the pain that was exploding across his senses was quickly becoming too much for him to handle silently.

Pressing his forehead against the wall and screwing his eyes tightly shut he tried to hold the agony inside him, but it was too much and too searing for him to completely control. His lungs burned from holding his breath in an attempt to stave off the pain and his back was on fire from the abuse.

The young ranger felt a keen wave of burning shame sweep over him when the pain finally wrenched a choked cry from his lips. He wanted to be stronger than this, he did not want to give any quarter to his tormenters, but his body betrayed him and he could not help crying out in pain as they continued to whip him mercilessly.

The orcs laughed and jeered at him, delighted that they had finally broken through his stoic silence.

Aragorn refused to listen to their cruel taunts and evil jokes, he didn’t need their condemnation, he had plenty of his own for himself.

~*~

Legolas slammed the side of his good fist against the pitiless rocks that separated them, passionately hating his own helplessness.

Aragorn’s cries went straight through him, nearly driving the elf insane. If he could have torn through the earth that separated them, he would have, but there was nothing he could do. Nothing.

Tears of frustration and heartache glistened unshed in the elf’s eyes. He swore silently to himself that if he ever got his hands on the orcs who were doing this to his friend, they were going to pay a terrible price for their cruelty.

~*~

Aragorn’s chest was heaving with silent sobs he could not hold back when Thlurglol finally let the bloodstained lash fall still at his side. But the orcs were far from finished with their prisoner.

The young man leaned heavily against the wall for support and when Velugulv cut one of his wrists free he sagged slightly, until the orc roughly wrenched his arm around. Flipping Aragorn around so that he faced his tormenters, with his back to the wall, they roughly tied him again, cruelly pressing his bleeding back against the rough stones behind him and eliciting another moan of pain from their captive.

"The stronghold, where?!" Velugulv snapped harshly in the young ranger’s pale face.

Aragorn closed his eyes, his breathing ragged. "I don’t know." His voice was roughened with pain and hopelessness. They would never believe him. It probably wouldn’t matter even if they did. Yet he had to wonder how much more of this he could take.

"Not talking yet? Well we’ll change that." An iron fist slammed into his stomach, doubling him over against his bonds. His head was jerked back up again by the hair and Velugulv laid a curved, wicked-looking knife against the young man’s throat. The orc leered as he ran the tip of the weapon lightly down the side of Aragorn’s face, before letting it drop down to his chest. Pressing down suddenly so that the knife bit into the young man’s flesh he dragged the knife slowly from Aragorn’s shoulder to his collarbone, leaving a thin trail of blood across the young human’s damp, clammy skin. The foul creature grinned wickedly as his captive tensed and grit his teeth under the bite of the steel. "That’s all right, we have something special for you."

Velugulv rattled off a command in the black tongue that Aragorn did not understand, but by the gleeful reaction of the other orcs, he guessed it meant something bad.

A few moments later Thlurglol uncorked a small, black bottle and pressed it against Aragorn’s lips, fairly shoving the neck of the vial into his mouth. The small taste Aragorn got was stomach turning and he was certain that if they wanted him to take it, he did *not* want to. Turning his head away, he clenched his jaw shut, refusing to drink the evil potion.

Of course, the orcs did not take kindly to that at all. Thlurglol grabbed Aragorn’s head and held it still while Velugulv forced the bottle to his lips once more. Suddenly socking the young ranger in the midsection, he purposefully knocked the air out of the prisoner’s lungs. Reflexively, Aragorn gasped for breath, and when he opened his mouth, Velugluv tipped the bottle, forcing him to drink in order to breathe.

Aragorn coughed and choked helplessly on the hideously foul liquid and felt it burn all the way down into his stomach.

The orcs stepped back, waiting for the poison they had administered to take effect. It did a few moments later.

Sharp pain lanced through Aragorn, doubling him over from the intensity of it. The poison raced through his system, wreaking havoc on his already weakened body. He retched miserably, but his body refused to expel the nasty toxin.

His captors laughed evilly.

Aragorn’s head spun as every nerve in his body felt like it had been set on fire. He trembled softly, uncontrollably, extreme nausea washing over him again and again. The horrid concoction was not fatal and would not kill him, but at the moment Aragorn almost wished it would.

"The little rat doesn’t like our brew," Velugulv snarled with evil amusement. "Well we’ve got more where that came from! You want a second dose, or you want to tell us where your skulking dwarf friends are hiding themselves?"

Aragorn’s head lolled against the wall behind him, his breath coming quick and uneven between clenched teeth, but he did not attempt to answer. There was no point.

"All right then!" Velugulv and Thlurglol forced another dose into him and Aragorn quickly discovered that no matter how badly he thought he had hurt before, it was a hundred times worse now.

When the orcs started to beat him, the young human had no strength left to deny expression to his pain. His captors toyed with him, taking turns pummeling their prisoner and enjoying making him scream.

~*~

Legolas pressed his eyes tightly shut, sinking to his knees by the wall and resisting the urge to press his hands against his ears to block out the sound of his friend’s pain. Hot fury burned inside the elf, mingled with crushing pain and self-condemnation. It was true that there was nothing he could do, yet having to stand by helplessly like this made Legolas feel incredibly guilty.

He wished he could reach Aragorn. Wished he could give him strength if he could not give him aide. Darkness pressed down on him as he knelt there alone in the empty vastness that was Moria, with only the painful cries of his young friend to keep him company.

He had not felt so incredibly wretched or hopeless in a very long time and he was sure that Aragorn was feeling much worse. If he could not give him anything else, Legolas wished at least to try to give his friend hope. Give him the knowledge that he had not been forgotten.

Taking a deep breath in an attempt to calm his own rapid heartbeat, Legolas began singing softly in the darkness, slowly letting his voice rise and hoping that it might somehow reach Aragorn through his pain with the only thing Legolas had to offer, however slim it may seem: hope.

"A Elbereth Gilthoniel,

silivren penna mìriel

o menel aglar elenath..."

~*~

Aragorn hung limply forward against the bonds that held him, his breathing ragged, his body shaking. He couldn’t ever remember being in this much pain in his entire life. It seemed as if that was all there was and all there would ever be and in this evil darkness any light and hope seemed impossibly far away. The dark drug they had given him sought to wind itself around his heart and poison him with despair, attempting to break his spirit.

Another fist slammed into his side. His vision hazed yellow. He wished he would pass out, but he did not.

Faint and far away, he suddenly thought he heard something... something beautiful that reminded him there was more to life than pain and darkness.

"Na-chaered palan-dìriel

o galadhremmin ennorath,"

The lovely, lilting elvish words carried faintly to his ears. It sounded like Legolas’ voice, but Aragorn didn’t know whether it was, or whether he was hallucinating or imagining them, but he didn’t care because the song penetrated the dark haze that had been growing about his mind and his heart, holding at bay the despair that wanted to break him.

"Fanuilos, le linnathon

nef aear, sì nef aearon!"

Aragorn knew the song, he had heard it many times in Elrond’s house and it took him back to the bright, happy times, sitting in the Hall of Fire and listening to the elves’ merry-making...

He drew in a sharp breath as cruel, punishing orc hands brought him back to the reality of the moment, but they could not chase away the small measure of inner strength that he had regained.

Velugulv halted for a moment, his eyes narrowing sharply as he too heard snatches of the muffled singing. Thlurglol and some of the other orcs clapped their hands over their ears, snarling in consternation as the fair tongue assaulted their senses.

"I don’t know what you’re doing, but stop it!" Velugulv snapped harshly at Aragorn, but the young man just grinned grimly through his pain. It was gratifying to see something irk his captors.

"Stubborn slug! We’ll fix you!" Velugulv lost his patience with Aragorn’s continued defiance of them and struck him roughly upside the head, slamming the young ranger’s skull back into the wall behind him and opening a nasty gash along his temple.

For a moment bright flashes crowded Aragorn’s vision and then the world went dark as merciful painlessness claimed him at last.

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART FIVE*~

 

Legolas had thought that nothing could be more disturbing than listening to his friend cry in pain, yet when the screams stopped suddenly, Legolas found that the silence was worse. What had the orcs done? Was Aragorn dead, or merely unconscious? The uncertainty was horrible.

He pressed himself against the rock wall and tried to hear any sound of the ranger, any hint that his friend was still alive. He could hear the orcs arguing with one another. They seemed to be debating what to do with Aragorn but he couldn’t make out if the human was alive.

Closing his eyes Legolas tried to pay better attention to the conversation on the opposite side of the rockslide but his concentration was broken as Rorin entered the collapsed tunnel followed hard by three younger dwarfs.

"What happened here?" The dwarf was incensed as he scrutinized the jumble of rocks that littered the floor blocking off the access. Cave-ins were nearly unheard of in Moria.

"The tunnel collapsed and Strider was trapped on the opposite side." Legolas pushed himself away from the pile of stone and debris. He grabbed the warrior and turned him back toward the way he had come, "We must find another way into that passageway and get him out now!"

Rorin brushed the elf’s hands from his tunic and peered around the prince as though sizing up the situation. The dwarves behind the warrior stepped forward and began talking quietly to each other.

Legolas’ panic was rising, they were out of time and he was out of patience. "Rorin!" The dwarves jumped and turned towards him, "Strider is trapped in there! With orcs!"

The older dwarf stepped towards the elf, his eyes darting around them unwilling to meet Legolas’ stare.

"There’s no way we’re getting through that mess. It could take days to find another way into that passage, what if he’s already dead?" Rorin pointed out. "Not everyone can be spared all at once, there’s defenses to think about, and we’ve just found the tail of a mithril vein in the lower hall... we have to protect that..." the dwarf was by no means intending to be callus to the situation. Rather, from his point of view, he was thinking logically.

Legolas did not appreciate his point of view.

Everyone present was surprised when the tall elf actually grabbed the dwarf by the front of his shirt with his good arm, slamming Rorin roughly back against the wall behind him. Dangerous fire glittered in Legolas’ eyes and his fair face was hard with the anguish of what he had just been forced to allow happen.

"Listen to me dwarf," he ground out between his teeth; his anger fueled by the pain of the horrible ghosts of Aragorn’s cries ringing in his ears. "You would not be free to have discovered *anything* down here if Strider and I had not helped you with the orcs! I am not going to leave him down there with those... those creatures for any longer than necessary! Now you *are* going to help me find a way to get down there, *right* now, or I swear by all the stars in the heavens and by Illuvitar himself, that I will have your head Rorin Coppercryer, and lead all the orcs ever spawned in through your front door!" Legolas was not exactly shouting, but his voice was incensed and deadly.

Legolas had already been cut off from his people and his father; from everything he had ever loved and ever belonged to. If he failed his friend now, if Aragorn died in this cursed hole at the hands of those foul creatures, then the elf had nothing worth living for left in his life.

Rorin scowled darkly at Legolas. He felt badly about Strider, and honestly did want to help get him back if that were possible, but being ordered around by an elf was another thing, and being threatened by this one made the dwarf’s stubborn pride rear up to match his anger.

"Get your hands off me or lose them elf!" Rorin spat angrily trying in vain to loosen Legolas’ iron grip on him. The other dwarves drew nearer, not sure what direction this confrontation was going to take.

Things could have gotten very ugly very quickly had not Balin entered the room at that moment. "Peace, all of you!" he said sharply, his aged face crinkling with displeasure. "Rill, Rullyra, Ori let it go. Master elf, please put him down, we’ll not accomplish anything this way. Rorin, one of these days someone is going to put an arrow in you for your thoughtless words and you had better not say I didn’t warn you," Balin addressed them all by turn.

Legolas dropped Rorin disdainfully and stepped back. Rorin rubbed his neck and divided his glare between the elf and Balin.

"Young Strider helped heal our wounded and fight our foes, that makes him one of us. Of *course* we are going to make all effort possible to get him back. Certainly, we have to think of our defense, but everyone who can be spared will. Ori, didn’t you say you had found a passage in the upper hall that seemed to lead off to the east? I suggest we start there."

The small group of dwarves ran through the passageways leading the elf back up the hall. They crossed the dinning area and headed for an adjoining tunnel that ran parallel with the one they had just exited.

When Balin gained the large cavernous room he began shouting orders to the dwarves that were resting in the immediate area calling the warriors to himself. Legolas did not wait to see the outcome but pelted down the stone hallway after the young dwarves that ran ahead of him leading the way.

A mere three hundred yards in, the elf skidded to a stop. Ori called out to the others when he noticed that Legolas was not following and they quickly ran back to where the elf stood. Balin and his men gained Legolas’ position at the same time. The dwarf lord started to question Legolas but the elf held up his hand and cautioned for silence.

Moving close to the rock wall the elf prince pressed himself up against it listening intently. He could hear the sounds of the orcs and their wargs on the opposite side, it seemed their argument about their prisoner had grown and they were now fighting over who could claim the human as his own. Relief and fury swept through the elf as he listened to their crude conversation; relief that Aragorn was still there somewhere and fury that they found the human no more than a possession to be toyed with until they grew bored with it.

He turned to Balin and tapped the wall gently with his finger indicating that there was another passage beyond the tunnel wall.

The frown on the dwarf lord’s face deepened and he motioned Ori forward. The young warrior hefted his axe and softly tapped the side of the passage. The hollow ringing of metal on stone resounded through the tunnel. Balin nodded and motioned the dwarf to the opposite side of the hallway. Ori tapped the opposite wall with his axe and was rewarded with a dull thunk, the sound of thick stone rang back at them.

Balin scowled at Legolas as the full realization sunk in. The orcs had in deed been tunneling underneath them and that unfortunate act had brought the tunnel down on the human. Looking up and down the passage at his men, Balin motioned them forward. Some of the warriors hefted wicked double sided picks; an axe head was joined to the opposite side of the digging tool, making the pick a fearsome weapon.

At his command the dwarves let out a horrible war cry and attacked the tunnel wall, bringing the rock between the two passages down and allowing free movement into the orc-hewn tunnel.

Legolas’ left arm was almost useless but his determination outweighed his inability to fight. Unable to use his bow, he pulled both of his elven knives from their sheaths on his back. Holding one in his left hand he readied himself, while balancing the other in his right hand. As soon as the wall was crumbling on his side he threw the blade into the dust cloud. An orc scream resounded and the elf leapt the pile of debris on the floor slashing his way into the enemy ranks on the opposite side. He crouched down and pulled his knife from the body of the orc he had felled and gripped it as tightly as he could with his left hand.

The crush of the enemy about him was more than he had expected and he spun quickly thrusting his blade into the press of orcs that surrounded him. His aim was true and his movements were fast and gracefully even in battle; the beasts near him dropped to the floor on top of each other as he felled them.

Legolas chanced a glance up the tunnel and caught sight of Ori. The small dwarf was battling a rather large orc and a goblin had sighted in on the preoccupied warrior. Legolas balanced himself and threw his knife straight at the goblin, cleaving through the creatures helmet and dropping the beast immediately. Ori killed the orc that stood in his way and turned wide eyes upon the elf silently mouthing a thank you.

Legolas only had time to nod before he was seized from behind. Without thinking he leaned hard forward, using his enemy’s momentum he threw his attacker off his back. But the blade of the orc’s sword caught the elf across the chest as the orc fell, opening a nasty gash through Legolas' tunic. The deep crimson stain ran from his sternum to the side of his ribs and the bite from the steel almost stole the elf’s breath. Stepping on the orcs throat he grabbed the creatures own twisted sword and buried it the beast's chest.

A sound to his left was all the warning he had; Legolas pulled the wicked blade from the orc's chest and thrust it behind him impaling an attacking goblin. He pushed the creature away from him leaving the unwieldy weapon buried in the goblin’s abdomen and spun towards the open end of the tunnel. The fighting was lessening but the break in the wave of orcs would only be momentary.

He sought out Balin and called to the dwarf lord, "Seal the tunnel behind us or there will only be more!"

Balin nodded and shouted at his men, pointing towards the passageway. In moments the dwarves had brought down the tunnel, pulling the crudely placed struts from the sides of the ill hewn walls. With the roar of twisting steel and falling rock the hall collapsed sealing the orcs from ever using this access again.

Silence hung thick in the air for a brief moment as the rocks settled onto one another.

Legolas stood in the swirling dust cloud, his chest heaving as he drew ragged breaths into his starved lungs. His hand unconsciously touched his burning ribs where the orc blade had grazed him. The cut was not deep but it felt like it was on fire and Legolas’ hand came away from his tunic bloody. He bit back the reaction to the wound and searched wildly around him.

Everywhere underfoot there lay orc and goblin bodies but he had seen nothing of the human. He picked his way carefully to the back of the orc tunnel where the cave-in had first occurred.

A few dwarves were slowly standing from the chaos of battle and torches were being handed into the partial tunnel so the survivors could better see.

Legolas' sharp eyes caught a glimpse of the young man in the dim lighting and his heart stopped for a brief second as the shadowy outline of the man could just barely be seen.

"Strider!" The elf stepped over the bodies of the fallen orcs and ran to the back of the dead end tunnel where the ranger was still tied between the crude struts, forgotten by his tormentors when the dwarves broke through the passageway.

The human was unconscious and slumped forward, his weight hanging from his wrists where they were bound by the rough orc ropes. His head hung forward and his face was obscured by the strands of hair that had fallen across his features concealing the wicked gash on his temple and the bruises forming on his cheeks. Legolas was almost afraid to touch the man, afraid they had been too late and that the human was already dead. He didn’t know how he would react if Aragorn had died. Very gently he slid his hands along the sides of the man’s face and slowly tipped the rangers head up. The elf could feel his friend’s pulse beating beneath his finger tips as he bent down and looked into the unconscious face. The rangers broken lip and the bruises on his face re-ignited the elf’s fury and as blood from the gash on Aragorn’s temple dripped onto his fingers he lost the last shreds of his calm demeanor.

Legolas shouted over his shoulder at the dwarves as he leaned into the man trying shift the human’s weight off of his wrists, "Come over here and help me now!" His voice betrayed his fears trembling slightly as he yelled at the small warriors. "Balin! Help me!" He pulled Aragorn forward letting the man’s head rest on his shoulder and lifted him slightly. The jarring motion lanced pain through the human and Aragorn awoke.

He was being held by someone, and the person was shouting orders. It sounded oddly like Legolas but that was impossible. Aragorn watched as though from a place far away as the Dwarf Lord rushed towards him followed by Rorin and a company of warriors.

"Legolas?" When Aragorn spoke the word was soft and choked. The poisons he had ingested were still wreaking havoc with his system and he felt as if he were going to throw up, though he knew it would be impossible.

"Strider!" relief washed through Legolas as he held the man against him, ignoring the pain shooting through his shoulder and trying to support the young man’s weight as the dwarves cut his bindings loose. The ranger fell forward unable to stop himself.

Slowly the elf lowered the man to the rocky floor, laying him on his side, careful of the wounds to his back, cradling Aragorn’s head in hands.

The ranger cried out as his body spasmed from the pain and he curled in on himself wrapping his arms protectively around his mid-section trying to stave off the sick feeling that swept through his awareness.

"Strider? What is it? What’s wrong?" Legolas leaned over the man trying to get him to relax, "You must tell me or I cant help you."

"You can’t help him."

Legolas turned towards Balin and stared at the dwarf. Rorin was handing the king a small black vial, his face was scrunched up from the reeking smell that wafted from the empty bottle.

"Defaifel." He passed the container to the elf who jerked away from the foul stench holding the vial at arms length.

"Is it poisonous?"

"Yes," Balin frowned as he watched the human writhe in pain, "and no."

"Speak plainly Master dwarf, my patience is thin."

Balin chose to ignore the elf; instead he pulled Rorin in close and whispered instructions to the dwarf. The small warrior nodded repeatedly at the requests and darted back through the tunnel out of sight.

Crouching down near Aragorn, Moria’s lord gently touched the human’s forehead, nodding in ascent of his own predictions. The human was loosing consciousness again and that was mercy in itself.

He turned his attention to Legolas and explained, "Defaifel is a lichen that grows in the lower caves near the water supply. It is an evil algae. When mixed with the water it becomes a poison to the system and causes intense pain and high fever. Left to itself it will kill its victim, and that only over a period of time. We have had whole clans poisoned in this fashion before we discovered its antidote." The small dwarf rocked back on his heals and motioned more of his warriors forward. "I thought we had cleared all of it from the area but perhaps the orcs found a supply of it near their dwellings and learned of its potency."

He stood to his feet as the warriors gained their position and surrounded the ranger. Legolas was easily brushed aside and the dwarf lord took hold of his arm and lead him out of the way as the small men lifted Aragorn between them and began to move out of the tunnel carrying him carefully to the higher passageways.

"And the antidote?" Legolas winced as his own wounds begged for attention. He ignored the signals his body was sending him and walked with the king toward the adjoining tunnel.

"The antidote is a mushroom of all things." The king laughed at the absurdity of it, "One fungus curing another! We find it out on the steppes and when dried and crushed it can be served as a tea that counteracts the moss. It has other healing properties too. We use it frequently. Remind me to send some with you when you should decide to take your leave of us."

They exited the orc tunnel and a team of dwarves swarmed into the area. The tunnel would be collapsed and sealed so further incursions would not be possible from this section of the mountain. Already measures were being taken to find any other orc tunnels that may run beneath or parallel to the dwarves own passages. Cave-ins were very rare and the dwarves went to great lengths to see that such things never happened. The events of the day were disturbing and could not be allowed to persist.

"Yes but Strider?" Legolas winced and stumbled. The dwarf lord reached out casually and grabbed the elf by his good arm steadying him as they walked.

"Rorin has gone to see that the tea is prepared. Your friend will recover just fine. Give him a day and he will be back to normal I guarantee it. He feels worse than he is at the moment. The lacerations to his back concern me more." Balin cast a secretive glance at the elf, "However it is you I am a little more worried about at the present."

Legolas stiffened slightly at the attention, "I am fine. I would see to Strider though."

The Dwarf king nodded, "When we reach the main hall we will find a place for you and the human to stay until you are well. You can see to him there. All of our medicines and comforts are at your disposal."

Legolas nodded in gratitude as they stepped into the main hall and was ushered into a corner of the massive living area, "Thank you my lord."

He found Aragorn lying on his stomach on a padded mat. The human was still unconscious and Ori was gently swathing his back in a healing salve as another Dwarf cleaned the blood from the young man's back and face. His wrists had been bound where the ropes had cut him. Legolas seated himself near Aragorn’s head and taking a clean strip of cloth he wound it around the man’s temple, binding up the wound.

The ranger pulled away from his hands slightly as awareness returned to him.

"Where?" the word was barely a whisper as Aragorn tried to come to grips with what had happened. He winced drawing in his breath as Ori completed his task, and carefully spread the ointment over the last of the cuts that marred his back.

Legolas touched the back of the ranger’s head and whispered softly to him in elvish, "Strider, you are safe now."

"What happened?" The human responded in the grey tongue, it was easier for him to concentrate on the elven words.

"We did not come in time. I am sorry." Legolas apologized softly, tearing his eyes guiltily away from his young friend’s injuries.

"Why, what happened?" Aragorn moved his arms beneath him and rolled slightly onto his side to look at the elf as he gained more strength.

"What happened?" The elf asked incredulously as he helped the ranger sit up, "You were taken by orcs and I could not reach you."

"Oh that." Aragorn looked around him at the hall full of dwarves, "No, was anyone else was hurt?"

"What you weren’t enough?" Legolas laughed lightly. The man doubled over and moaned as the poison reacted through him savagely. The elf turned serious and scooted closer to his friend, "No. No one else was hurt."

Aragorn frowned at him, "No one?" He touched the elf lightly on the gash that crossed his ribs, following the jagged stain from where it started near his chest. The light touch caused Legolas to flinch. "Not hurt, huh?"

Another lance of fiery poison shot through the man and he moaned softly. Legolas searched the immediate cavern looking for Rorin they needed that tea now.

"They are bringing the antidote for the poison you ingested." Legolas caught sight of the dwarf and stood stiffly to his feet, meeting the warrior on his way towards them.

"He must drink it all." Rorin passed the cup to the elf prince, "He will not want to but you must see that he does." When Legolas nodded in understanding the dwarf released his hold on the cup and watched as the elf made his way back to their corner in the great hall.

Aragorn had lain back down on the mat and was dozing lightly. At the touch from the prince he started and pushed himself back up into a sitting position. The salve on his back had cooled the pain and he was able to move more easily than he had when he had first awoken.

Legolas pressed the mug into his hands, "Drink this. It will counteract the poison."

The ranger pressed the cup back towards the elf, "No I don’t want anything in me right now."

Switching back to elvish Legolas became firm, "Aragorn, you must drink it all, it will stop the sickness in you."

When the human made no move to comply the elf moved forward and spoke in a low voice, "If you do not drink it by yourself I will force you to drink and that would make for quite an ugly scene would you not agree?" He smiled wickedly at the man.

"You wouldn’t."

"Care to find out?" Legolas offered him the cup of tea once more. Aragorn snatched the mug from the elf and frowned at him. The movement made him wince as he was reminded once more that his temple had been cut open by the orcs sharp glove. He touched the bandage wrapped around his head as though realizing for the first time it was there. Legolas leaned forward brushing the humans hand away and checking the cut.

"I thought you were dead." The elven words startled Aragorn who stopped drinking the tea, watching the elf.

Legolas glanced at him, "Drink it all." He switched from common back to elvish. "When you stopped screaming I thought..."

"I’m sorry. I tried not to scream at all. I knew you could hear it. I wanted to be braver." Aragorn looked down at his hand that now rested in his lap, he was beginning to feel rather sleepy.

The elf noted the change and hooking his fingers under the almost empty mug he nudged the human to finish the last bit of tea. Nodding, Aragorn drank it all in one last gulp, scrunching up his face at the nasty taste the liquid left in his mouth.

"I knew you would come in time." His eyes closed and he slowly fell forward as the antidote did its work and put him back to sleep.

"Elladan always said I was too eager and one day no one would be there to help me, but he forgot about you." The ranger murmured the words in elvish before he fell unconscious. Legolas lowered him back to the mat removing the now empty mug from his hand. He watched the sleeping man for a few minutes glad that they had made it in time and very aware that Elladan’s prediction had almost come true.

Relief had taken its toll and the adrenaline in the elf’s system was beginning to fade now that they were safe and things had finally quieted in the great hall. Legolas sat back wearily. Aragorn was mending now, but he felt terrible. Passing his hand over his face he settled back against the wall and tried to battle the odd dizziness that was fighting for control of him. His wound throbbed dully, although it was not very deep, nor dangerous in appearance. Adding to his pain was the burning ache in his shoulder that had only gotten worse instead of better. He could barely move the limb at all now and this concerned the elf greatly.

He hadn’t realized he had phased out slightly until he came back to reality to find Balin shaking his shoulder. The elf winced and pulled away.

"Legolas?" Balin’s face was concerned. "You do not look well. You have seen to Strider, but no one has seen to you."

"I will be all right," Legolas brushed his concern aside. His temples ached and the dwarf’s voice seemed unnaturally loud in his throbbing head. He just wanted them to go away and leave him alone. Although he usually slept with his eyes open, the elf was finding the dim light to be irritatingly bright, so he shut his eyes and hoped Balin would leave.

"You can’t move your left arm at all, can you?" Balin shook his head; not at all deterred by the elf’s put-off. He had seen the elf’s difficulty fighting earlier, and had to admit to being candidly impressed that Legolas had done so incredibly well against the orcs with only one truly functional arm when the other one was obviously causing him great pain. There may be more to the elf than he had given him credit for. At least the dwarf had to give him points for loyalty. The dedication he had shown to his injured friend was admirable.

"I just need to rest," Legolas opened one eye and then shut it again.

"You’ll need more than that," Balin poked Legolas’ injured shoulder none-too-gently with one short, stubby finger. The elf inhaled sharply and pulled back, leveling the smaller being with an irritated glare.

"Are you *attempting* to make my life miserable, or is it just a side benefit?" the elf said crossly. The ache in his body and pain in his shoulder was not doing anything to improve his mood.

Balin chuckled. "All I’m trying to do master elf, is possibly save your arm and fingers. Ten-to-one that shoulder is dislocated."

Legolas resisted the urge to moan softly. He had been afraid of that himself, but he didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to have to deal with that on top of everything else. First he had been too concerned with finding Aragorn, and now he felt so very bad that he despised the thought of having to put the shoulder back into place, which he knew would be very painful.

"You can be too proud to accept our help if you want and let it be, but it’s not going to go right by itself and you’ll be lucky if you don’t permanently damage your hand control if you let it go much longer," the dwarf pointed out bluntly. "Even an elf should know better." The last part was not stated with any venom and if he had been in a better disposition, Legolas might have taken it for the jest that it was.

Legolas spared Balin a baleful glare, but he knew the dwarf was right, and that was not something he liked admitting. And in truth, he did know better, he just was feeling so strangely...

With a sigh, the elf prince finally conceded the point to the dwarf. "All right then, do as you must."

Balin grinned wryly. "That’s what I love about your people, they’re *so* polite."

Legolas scowled darkly and the dwarf only laughed.

"Ori, Rorin, come over here," Balin called the other two dwarves over to assist him. "Our friend here needs a little help with his shoulder."

Rorin grinned a little too largely. "I’ll do the pulling!" he offered quickly.

Balin shot him an amused, but withering look. "*I’ll* do the pulling. We want him to have some arm left when we’re done! You and Ori hold him."

Legolas grimaced and wondered what exactly he had gotten himself into. He knew basically what they were going to have to do, and it wasn’t pleasant under any circumstances.

Ori offered him a swill of potent alcohol to dull the pain and relax his tense muscles to make the procedure easier, but the elf already felt ill and the thought of trying to drink anything that strong right now turned his stomach.

"Just get it over with," Legolas shook his head and the dwarves shrugged compliantly. No skin off their nose if the elf wanted to do it the hard way.

Ori and Rorin stood on either side of the sitting elf, bracing Legolas back against the wall with their hands against his chest and collarbones.

Balin took Legolas’ left forearm in his thick, stout hands and rotated the elf’s arm to the angle he wanted it.

Legolas winced at the movement. Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, he told his body to be calm and let the injured joint move back into place. It was more difficult than it should have been.

"This is gonna hurt a mite," Balin said cheerfully.

Legolas rolled his eyes. "Just do it!" he said through his teeth.

Balin took him at his word and braced his foot against the elf’s left collarbone, yanking the arm sharply out and down before rotating it up and to the side. Used to working with stout dwarves of his own kind, he unintentionally used a lot more force than was necessary for an elven body.

Legolas’ injured muscles spasmed sharply at the over-vigorous action. Hot pain flashed through his senses and his shoulder screamed at the motion. He pressed his head back against the wall, unable to stifle the sharp moan of pain that escaped his lips. Rorin and Ori had to exert all their strength to hold the elf back against the wall as his body reflexively fought what it mistakenly perceived to be further injury.

The joint popped neatly back into place and Balin laid Legolas’ arm gently across his chest. The elf was very pale and his breath came quick and fast. Still, now that the worst of it was over, his shoulder did actually feel a bit better, and he felt the tingle of renewed blood-flow to his numb fingers, for which he was very glad. An archer could ill afford to lose the precise use of one of his hands.

Rorin and Ori released Legolas slowly and the elf resisted the urge to slump forward. He did not wish for the dwarves to see his weakness.

"You’re welcome," Balin said with a dry grin after a few moments of silence.

Legolas took a deep, shuddering breath and returned the ironic half-grin. "Thank you," he replied, equally dry, yet he really did mean it and Balin could see that.

The dwarf just shook his head with a chuckle and walked away. "Elves," he muttered to himself with amusement.

Legolas rolled his eyes. "Dwarves."

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART SIX*~

 

 

The drugs in his system had finally worn off and Aragorn slowly rolled onto his side as consciousness returned to him. He glanced around the large hall. It was quiet tonight, unlike the previous evenings; there were no orcs to battle and the dwarves had all retired to their rooms to rest, only a few warriors kept guard over the gates.

A fire crackled in the huge fire pit, dimly lighting the large hall. The ranger placed his hands beneath him and started to rise when he caught sight of Legolas and stopped, freezing in place. The elf was seated nearby leaning against the wall, his left arm clutched to his chest. But it was the fact that the elf’s eyes were closed that startled Aragorn. He had never seen an elf sleep with his eyes closed. In his experiences he only remembered seeing them with their eyes closed when they were...dead. He lunged to his feet, slipping on the mat beneath him, ignoring the pain in his back and the edges of the dull ache that remained in his stomach and threw himself next to the seated elf.

"Legolas!" The ranger gently shook the still elf, "Legolas!" His fear was rising.

The elf prince was caught off guard by the panic in the human's voice and started out of his rest, nearly jumping to his feet. His eyes were huge as he turned toward Aragorn and grabbed the man by his shoulders.

"What!? What is it!?"

Aragorn stared at the elf open mouthed, a look of pure shock on his face, "You’re alive."

Legolas looked around them in confusion and frowned back at the young man, "Yes I am." He answered slowly. "You thought else wise?"

"Your eyes were closed!" Aragorn still hadn’t released the elf. He allowed his head to fall forward for a second as the adrenaline in his system unwound from his heart.

The elf for his part was thoroughly confused and pushed the man back so he could look into the dark eyes, "What is wrong with you?"

"Don’t ever do that again!" Aragorn sat back and stared at his companion, brushing the stray locks out of his eyes as he glared daggers at the elf.

"Do what?" Legolas was at a loss trying to follow the humans thinking, "Are you all right? I thought we gave you the antidote, did it not work?" He reached forward to touch Aragorn’s forehead, checking for fever, only to have his hand brushed away.

Aragorn frowned at him, "I thought you were dead." He leaned back against the stone wall next to his friend and looked over at him.

"Why ever would you think that?" Legolas voice rose in disbelief.

The ranger rolled his eyes as though speaking to some one very slow and replied, "Because elves don’t sleep with their eyes closed." Shaking his head he looked back out across the cavern, "They only close their eyes when...when they are dead."

"Or resting," Legolas countered.

"They do not." Aragorn turned back toward his friend, resting his head against the rocks behind him.

"They have been known to."

"No they don’t."

"Aragorn! Do you always have to argue with me?" Legolas looked away from the human in frustration, "I think I would know better than you what an elf would or wouldn’t do, and I say they do."

When the ranger didn’t answer Legolas looked over at the human. The man’s eyes were mere slits and he regarded the elf cautiously, taking special note of the way his hand never left the right side of his body, protectively lying against his ribs. The edges of a bright stain on the green tunic could just be seen between his fingers. Self-consciously Legolas moved his hand to conceal the blood.

The feigned look of innocence he tried to affect was lost on the human as Aragorn moved into a kneeling position and scooted closer to the elf.

"You are wounded."

Legolas averted his gaze, "I only need rest."

"Don’t try that self sufficient I’m-an-elf-I’m-just-fine line with me." The ranger moved the prince’s hand from where it covered his side and drew in his breath as he inspected the cut. "This looks bad Legolas. Have you had someone see to it?"

When his question garnered no response he stopped his inspection and glanced up at the elf, who was not meeting the rangers questioning gaze.

"Legolas?" Aragorn’s voice held a warning tone. He was positive the prince had not allowed the dwarves to treat him. "Stubborn elf. Let me take a look at it." He murmured as he undid the buttons on Legolas tunic to get a better look at the gash.

The elf jumped at his friend’s gentle administrations, grabbing the ranger’s hands and quickly pushing them away, the look on his face a momentary combination of fear and distress.

Aragorn’s eyes widened and he sat back. Many times he had seen to his brothers wounds, cutting off a legging to get at an embedded arrow or removing a tunic to better tend a gashed wound. And many times they had found him and taken care of him in much the same way; it had never dawned on him that it was out of the ordinary. Which it wasn’t, but he had forgotten that Legolas was not his brother. He had meant no offense and was unsure how to proceed. Legolas for his part would not look the man in the eyes; his hand had protectively resought the wound and covered it once more.

"I only meant to help you." Aragorn spoke the words softly in elvish. "I did not think...I am sorry."

"No, it’s not you." Legolas did not look up, highly frustrated with himself. He would not have had that reaction to another elf trying to remove his tunic and he knew it. Aragorn was a good friend, right now in fact, he was his only friend... what did it matter that he was human? Why couldn’t his body let go of the old fears? The young Dùnadan had just wanted to help, he was nothing like the last men who had undressed him...

"Memories?" Aragorn realized he might have accidentally triggered a response that came from the elf’s past. He had to keep reminding himself that he was not an elf and Legolas was not a man.

"Yes." Legolas’ voice was a mere whisper and he faltered slightly. He hated coming across these long forgotten and deeply buried reactions. Yet it seemed that being with Aragorn was destined to forever keep bringing them up. It was all so ridiculously long ago, he couldn’t believe he still had any reactions at all to those long distant shadows of the past.

Aragorn dropped his gaze and nodded. "All right, I understand," He drew back near his friend as the elf slowly raised his eyes to meet the other’s, "But that tunic has to come off, I need to see to your wound. It’s not good and you are not well I can tell, or you would not be resting with your eyes closed." He smiled softly at the elf trying to lighten the seriousness that had settled about them, "Help me out here all right?"

Legolas nodded and undid the buttons on his tunic. He groaned slightly as he tried to remove the over shirt and Aragorn came to his aid. Moving slowly and carefully the human gently pulled the side of the tunic back and looked at the cut that ran the length of the elf’s ribs. He pressed his hand softly against the hot flesh feeling for broken bones. The touch caused the elf to moan and double over.

"All right, that’s it." Aragorn rocked back on feet and motioned towards the mat, "I need you to lie down and I need that shirt off of you."

When his friend started to protest the ranger glared at the elf. It was true, Legolas really wasn’t feeling that well. His head hurt and he was slightly dizzy and the elf really did just want to lie down for a bit. He nodded and let the man help him gingerly out of his tunic.

Although his dislocated shoulder had been seen to it was tender and did not move well when Aragorn removed his shirt and the elf bit his lip to keep from crying out even at the gentle movement. Aragorn saw the way his friend winced and moved even more carefully as he helped the elf lay down.

Moving Legolas’ arm out of the way he washed and cleaned the cut, keeping up a steady stream of small talk, using the grey tongue to busy the elf with something other than the work the human was doing on him.

The gash was jagged and the flesh around it was red and hot to the touch. Aragorn looked up from his ministrations and focused on the elf’s eyes. Legolas smiled softly and raised an eyebrow in question. Without answering Aragorn pressed his hand to the prince’s forehead. As he suspected the elf was running a fever.

"You were poisoned." He spoke quietly staring down into the silver-blue eyes. No infection could be working that fast, nor would it have caused such wide, glazed dilation of the elf’s pupils. There was no doubt that it had been a poisoned blade that wounded Legolas. Just how serious that poison would turn out to be he had no way of knowing yet. Sometimes one might just get very ill. Sometimes they died. Yet he held out hope that it was not the most deadly kind, since, after several hours, Legolas was in fact still alive.

The elf only nodded, he had already surmised as much about his injury.

Aragorn shook his head, "Why didn’t you let anyone help you?"

"Dwarves?" Legolas laughed at his own joke.

The ranger deflected the humor, "It’s not funny *elf*." But he smiled even as he spoke, turning to retrieve an ointment from his pack.

"I don’t know if this will help or not but it will take the sting out of the cut," the young ranger said.

"Good because it burns." Legolas draped his arm over his face covering his eyes to block out the light from the fire.

Aragorn bent down and stared at the elf, "Just don’t close your eyes." He teased, his smile widening.

"Get on with it human." Legolas swatted at the young ranger as the man ducked quickly out of the way.

"Tomorrow we’ll see if the dwarves have anything that will work better." He gently rubbed the ointment over the wound and covered the cut with a clean cloth. Carefully grabbing Legolas arm by the wrist he placed the elf’s hand over the bandage and stared down at his friend. "I think it will not be enough though." The ranger grabbed his coat and draped it over the prone elf tucking the edges in around him.

Legolas nodded and conceded what they both feared, "It was an orc blade Aragorn," he said softly. "If there was poison on it, it is poison from the depths of the Morgul world, there are few medicines that can heal such."

"Well perhaps the dwarves will know of something we do not." Aragorn looked out across the hall, hoping in his heart that he was telling the truth and knowing deep inside that he was wrong.

 

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

 

King Thranduil gazed at the leaping flames in the fireplace with unseeing eyes. Much of his time was spent thus lately and his courtiers had begun to become worried about their liege. The Elvenking no longer took part in feasts or hunts, indeed, he barely left his chambers and seemed disinterested in affairs of state. Thranduil was pulling back from life and no matter what his friends and subjects tried, they could not bring him back.

Thranduil jerked when a hand was laid on his shoulder and he looked up quickly. Raniean knelt respectfully, then rose again. "You’re Majesty?" the younger elf could tell by the momentary look in the King’s eyes that for an instant, roused suddenly from his faraway thoughts, Thranduil had half-thought, half-wished that Raniean were someone else. It was not too hard to guess who.

"What is it Raniean?" Thranduil turned his gaze back to the fire. He looked so surprisingly old for an elf lately and his health had begun to take a turn for the ill.

"Your Majesty, there has been another incident of a hunting party being harassed by spiders," the elf warrior explained his visit. "None were harmed, but this is the third time it has happened in less than a week."

"If our warriors can’t defend themselves from a few spiders we have fallen low indeed," Thranduil said darkly, still not bothering to spare the younger elf a second glance.

"This has never happened before your Majesty," Raniean shook his head, reining in his frustration. "*Something* is going on. The spiders are becoming increasingly bold and I have seen wargs wandering the woods not five miles from here. Evil stirs my Lord, we must take measures against it."

"Do as you think is right," Thranduil waved him off wearily.

Raniean tried to remain diplomatic despite his own irritation with Thranduil’s unconcerned approach to the situation. "Sire, everyone has a different opinion of how to handle this and what it means. We have had no official word on the matter in over a week now. The people are fractionating my Lord and the resulting disunity is making the problem worse!"

"If they fraction they fraction and it is their own folly. I can do naught about it." No one had ever heard the king this despondent.

"The people need their King, Sire!" Raniean’s impatience got the better of him and he spoke more harshly than he intended. "They need leadership! Not a Ruler who hides in his chambers and nurses his private wounds."

Thranduil’s eyes flashed as he turned his gaze up towards the impetuous, younger elf. He would have spoken, but Raniean pressed on. "I know you miss Legolas, I miss him too. But do not sacrifice the kingdom for your grief."

"What know you of my grief?!" Thranduil rose out of his chair, glaring dangerously at the elf warrior before him.

Raniean knew that the words he spoke were dangerous, but he did not hold back his thoughts. "I know that it is destroying you and our land. The old laws are flawed, do not cling to that which will be our undoing. It is not too late, call him back your Majesty, lift the curse you have placed upon your son’s head. It is what your heart desires, is it not?"

"You know not of what you speak Raniean," Thranduil said sharply, his face flushed with anger. "I cannot undo what has been done."

"Cannot or will not your Majesty?" the younger elf asked bluntly, folding his arms. He walked a dangerous line, but it was a chance he was willing to take.

"Legolas forced this on me Raniean, it is not my choosing," the Elvenking said somewhat bitterly. "He knew what it meant and chose to betray me anyway."

"He did not betray you," Raniean defended his friend as he had been burning to defend him since the horrible sentence had been passed and Legolas was taken away without a chance for Raniean, Trelan or any of the Prince’s other friends to even say goodbye to him. "He defied a law that is old and out-of-date. Which would you fault him for more? For disregarding an antiquated law? Or for allowing a man who was later *proved* to be innocent be murdered in cold blood?"

Thranduil glared at Raniean darkly. "I know you were Legolas’ friend. For that reason alone, I will pardon your words to me now." The king spoke very slowly and clearly. "But understand this: my son is dead to me. His name is not to be spoken again in my hearing and you will watch your tongue." The king’s words broke off into a coughing fit and the elf leaned wearily against the back of the chair he had previously been seated in, seeming more drained and ill-looking than ever.

Raniean clenched his fists tightly at his sides. "Then let your stiff neck drive us all to ruin. I say to you, Legolas hurt your pride, not your heart." He had intentionally just defied his king’s orders, but he was angry enough that he did not care.

Surprisingly, the king did not flare at this, but looked wearily up at the younger elf, fixing him with a gaze of such crushing, immeasurable sadness that Raniean actually had to blink to keep his own emotions clear.

"That Raniean, is where you would be wrong," Thranduil said quietly.

Raniean was surprised to see the incredible pain that was reflected in the elder elf’s eyes. He realized with a start that King Thranduil’s heart truly was breaking over what had happened and with it it was taking his health and his energy.

"Forgive me my Lord," Raniean apologized softly, bowing his head. "I spoke out of turn."

Thranduil wavered slightly on his feet. "You may go," he dismissed the warrior.

"Yes, you’re Majesty. But... the spiders..." the original reason for Raniean’s visit was still un-addressed.

"Yes... yes, the spiders..." Thranduil passed his hand before his eyes as if trying to clear his head enough to think. The faintness that had been growing in him the past couple days took hold of the Elvenking and Thranduil was forced to sit abruptly back down in the chair to keep from falling.

"My Lord?" Raniean asked with concern, for the King’s face had become very pale.

"Leave me Raniean," Thranduil waved the other elf away, leaning his forehead upon his hand. "I do not feel well."

"I will summon a healer..."

"No," the King shook his head wearily, his voice drained. "They can do nothing for me. Just go, and leave me to my memories for they are all I seem to have lately."

 

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

 

Aragorn and Legolas left the halls of Moria behind and stepped out into the bright sun. It seemed like forever since they had felt its warm rays brush them and Aragorn turned his face towards the orb set high in the sky, closing his eyes against its harsh light.

The young ranger breathed in deeply and smiled before turning his attention back to the small cache of supplies that the dwarves were carrying out with them.

"It seems that I am not the only one who was not made for caves." The elf whispered with a conspiratorial smile. He felt weak and ill, but was hiding it well. He nodded his thanks to Rorin as the dwarf handed him a soft bedroll tied with dwarvish rope, the strongest in Moria.

"More than you know my friend." Aragorn replied, his eyes tired and haunted by the recent past. His own injuries were far from fully healed and the horror of their memory was still a shadow on his spirit.

When they had sorted through the dwarves’ gifts and dried food and packed their treasures away Aragorn and Legolas bid the dwarves farewell and headed back out into the wooded lands that hedged the steppes of Moria’s eastern gate.

It had been decided that there was no help to be had inside the Mines of Moria for the kind of poison that was working on Legolas. Aragorn had gone back to the scene of the battle to test what was on the blades of the felled orcs so he knew what they were dealing with. Fortunately the dwarves had not yet disposed of the bodies. It was hard for the young ranger to go back into that place where he had suffered so much, but he had set his jaw and just done it. He did not like what he found when he tested the twisted weapon that had injured Legolas.

The poison was indeed of morgul origin, it was slow, but deadly. Untreated and uncountered, it would continue to slowly drain Legolas’ life away bit by bit until it killed him; a slow and horrible kind of way to die. But although Aragorn could recognize it for what it was, he had no notion of how to treat it, neither did the dwarves, and so the two friends had opted to leave the dwarves palace and seek help from an outside source. Just whom that source might be had never been discussed. The only persons capable of healing Legolas’ wound were Lord Thranduil and Lord Elrond, both of which were no longer options and the third, Gandalf, of whom no one knew his present whereabouts.

Aragorn knew the outlook was grim, but he wouldn’t stay and allow Legolas to die in the Mines. He had an idea forming in the back of his mind but he was loathe to discuss it with the elf for fear Legolas would reject it out right. He would know when the time was right and he would press his option then. After walking for over a day the time to present his thoughts grew dangerously nearer.

Legolas’ walked slowly behind Aragorn and as they traveled deeper into the woods he stumbled more frequently now.

After several hours the ranger stopped them and waited for the elf to catch up. Legolas stumbled on a tree root that had broken through the surface of the forest floor. He fell hard down onto one knee and did not rise, resting in that position while he caught his breath, hugging his bruised knee to his chest.

Aragorn ran back and knelt beside his friend, brushing away the dirt from his torn legging and gently inspecting his knee. Legolas winced at the smarting sting the human’s touch caused.

"And where do you suppose we go from here?" The elf tried to remove the attention from himself, glancing idly about them as Aragorn dipped a cloth into his water pouch and cleaned the cut the elf had just sustained.

The ranger looked up at his friend through worried eyes, noting the sweat beading on the prince’s fair face and his quick, shallow breathing.

He shook his head and muttered, "You need proper attention and I cannot give it to you here."

"We will be fine." Legolas smiled at him, "I merely need to rest."

"You need more than rest and you know it. Do not try to pass off your wound as something less than it is." He glared at the elf, "I told you what I found. We both know what it means."

Legolas did not reply but stared hard back at the human who was crouched next to him. He knew what the man was going to say and he dreaded it.

Getting up his courage Aragorn dropped his gaze while he gathered his thoughts. Turning his attention back to the grey eyes that watched him, he made his appeal, "We need to turn home."

"It is out of the question." The elf cut him off before he could complete his thought.

"Legolas, my father..."

"Aragorn we cannot go either to my home or to yours. Do you not remember? We do not *have* homes anymore. You know the edict my father passed against us." He angrily gestured about them. "Every elf in Middle Earth knows that helping us would bring the same fate we suffer down on their heads."

"Yes but if ..."

"No." Legolas stopped the ranger, trying to end the conversation.

Aragorn stood swiftly and turned his back on the elf, his anger just below the surface of his calm demeanor; he had reached the end of his patience and his fear had given way to frustration.

"Strider," Legolas softly called the young man’s name hoping to diffuse the tension, "Listen to me..."

"No." Aragorn whirled on the elf, cutting him off and holding up his hand to silence further argument, "You may be older and you may be wiser. But right now I will live to see the end of this week and you will not. Either you come with me to Rivendell or I will take you there by force."

A small smile graced the elf’s lips as he faced down the threat, "And how exactly do you think that you will force me?"

Aragorn looked around them as if trying to find the answer in the woods that surrounded him. He took a step nearer the elf and leaned down towards him, the ranger’s voice was low and serious, "I’ll use the warfare technique on you that Elladan taught me and I’ll drag you there if I have to."

"Not on me you won’t." Legolas arched his eyebrows and defiantly stood to his feet.

The ranger’s demeanor changed to desperation, "Then don’t make me. Please come with me. This is outside of my area of expertise. I can’t heal you."

"We cannot go and endanger Lord Elrond like that." Legolas spoke slowly as though talking to someone who was having difficulty understanding and shook his head sadly. "Don’t you realize the position you would be placing him in? Do you really want to force him to make that kind of choice?"

"Listen to me you Silvan elf," Aragorn spat the slur at his companion, asking nicely hadn’t worked and neither had threats, so it was time to follow through. "I don’t know about you, but I really don’t intend to live like this forever, if I can help it. I don’t believe there is no way for this sentence we’re under to ever be changed. There’s always a way somewhere! And if there is any chance that we can reverse that stupid law your father enacted then I will do everything I can to help you get home. But you cannot return if you are dead."

"It’s not a stupid law." The elf stated simply ignoring the rising anger in his friend, although he was beginning to believe otherwise.

"It is a stupid law."

"It is not Strider." His own frustration at the human was beginning to wear on him.

"It is and you know it or we wouldn’t be standing here having this conversation while you are dying. Stop arguing with me!" He stepped in close to the elf and was pleased to see that Legolas took a step back, "Now decide, follow me or so help me, prince or no, I will drag you there by your pointed ears if I have to."

The look on the man’s face and the threat of being dragged by his ears, a punishment he hadn’t heard threatened in millennia, caused the elf to burst out laughing. "Stubborn human, I will follow you." He finally assented. As he spoke he wavered on his feet and leaned against the tree next to him, trying to deal with the pain that swept through his body. He had been trying to deny it for a long time now, but it was having him slowly, eating away at his strength. The nausea he had first felt was coming back with a vengeance and the light-headedness he had been battling was swelling into almost full-fledged vertigo.

Aragorn saw the elf react to the poisons in his system and jumped to help steady him, "Only because you can hardly do anything else, here lean on me." Hooking his arm around Legolas’ waist he steered the prince towards a sheltered section of the forest where the trees created a natural barrier and the foliage was thick and concealing.

Here the ground was covered in pine needles only because the light could not penetrate the leafy canopy above them. It was the perfect spot to bed down for the night and start a fire. When he had gently lowered the elf to the forest floor Aragorn set about unrolling their mats and kindling a small fire to warm the area.