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Mistaken Identity

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-Mistaken Identity-

 


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~*PART ONE*~

 

A soft continuous knocking on the large wooden doors alerted Elrond, lord of Rivendell, that someone was on the threshold of his house. He quickly crossed to the entryway and opened the door.

A dark haired elf stood in the doorway leaning heavily on the frame, he fell forward as the doors opened and Elrond caught the elf, bracing him against himself.

Elrond recognized the elf that he held as one of his own, a friend of his sons who had lived in Rivendell since he was born, "Moranuen?"

"Lord... Elrond..." Moranuen spoke haltingly, his message cut off as he passed out.

The elf had been badly beaten and his clothing was torn and stained with his own blood. As he lost consciousness a piece of wadded up paper fell from his hand settling onto the landing. Elrond glanced back into the house and called for his help, "Celboril!"

The urgency in the elf lord’s voice brought several servants running to his aide. Gently they eased the elf away from Elrond and took him to a guestroom at their master’s bidding.

When they had left the entryway, Elrond stooped down and retrieved the discarded paper Moranuen had dropped. He smoothed out the wrinkles and quickly scanned the contents. The page held a crudely drawn portrait of an elf with the words "reward, dead or alive" stenciled in block lettering on bottom – ‘wanted for the murder of five men in the eastern range' completed the explanation. The elf that stared back at him from the paper held no resemblance to the dark haired elf that had returned to him from the errand he had sent him on and anger burned within the elven lord at his servant’s mistreatment.

His own sons had left early before sunrise to go hunting and so he had sent Moranuen to the town of Straytonto inquire about a letter that had been received that morning in his household. The very manner in which it had been delivered had bothered him greatly and he should have been more wary. Driven into the wooden gate near the road down to Rivendell was a knife with a threat scratched on a piece of paper that read;

"Elves beware. If you murder any more of my men we will retaliate. Stay in your valley if you want to be safe."

Taradin

The elf lord knew that there were bands of men that roamed the ranges of the mountains that bracketed Rivendell on either side but they had lived in peace for a very long time. It was true that there were more men moving into the surrounding areas of late, but the hills were rich with game and there was enough for everyone. This turn of events was unexpected and it bode ill for the elves in his realm. Thinking to discover what the source of the men’s complaint was, he had asked Moranuen to inquire about it and return with information. He had no desire for confrontation with the humans and intended to work with the men of Strayton to solve whatever was going on, but it did not appear that the sentiment was returned.

He moved quickly through the halls of his home until he reached the room that Moranuen had been removed to. His servants scattered out of the way as he approached the bed the elf had been laid on. Gently he moved the long strands of dark hair away from the bruised face.

"How is he?" Elrond glanced quickly at Celboril.

"Not good my lord." The elf moved nearer his liege and touched the injured elf’s face carefully. "He has several broken ribs and his left arm is fractured. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a concussion. I don’t know what they did to him but they were cruel." Gently he picked up one of the elf’s hands and turned it palm up in his own, displaying bloody rope burns on Moranuen’s wrists. "I can't imagine what he would have done that could make anyone treat him thus."

In answer to his question Elrond handed Celboril the paper that Moranuen had dropped, he was sickened by the treatment of the young elf and trying to contain his anger.

"My lord!" The servant glanced up in surprise, "No elf in Rivendell would kill any man!"

Nodding his head slowly he answered the other, "I know. Nor would they provoke an attack such as this." He glanced darkly at the wounded elf, "I think we may have a problem on our hands. But we need more information."

"If they wouldn’t talk to Moranuen..." Celboril left the statement open.

"I know, they will not talk to any of us. And I will not suffer any one else to be treated this way." He looked back at his attendant, "Find Moranuen’s family, ask them to come and stay here while he heals. Clean him up and I will return to see what can be done for him. I want to see that arm set quickly as soon as the swelling goes down. If he should wake, tell me immediately."

"Yes my lord." Celboril stopped Elrond before he had left the room, "Where will I find you my lord?"

Elrond didn’t turn back when he answered, he needed to think, he needed to be alone for a bit. "In the common room Celboril. I will be there by the fire. I have some thinking to do but I will return shortly." With that explanation he left the room.

 

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

 

Aragorn stepped lightly into the main room of his father’s house. A fire was burning brightly in the alcove and the rich muted smells of dinner wafted through the warm air under the vaulted beams of Rivendell.

Elrond was seated before the fireplace, his tall frame wrapped in a large wingback overstuffed chair, his eyes fixed on the dancing weaving flames, allowing himself to be mesmerized by their interaction as his mind was lost deep in thought.

His meditations were distracted as his youngest son, his human son, entered the room and dropped down onto the veranda next to him. The young man brushed long dark locks of hair from his face and fixed the elf with silver eyes. He didn’t speak, he simply watched his elder, waiting the other out. Growing up in an elven home had shaped the young human differently than he would have grown up had he not lived among a race millennia his senior. He had learned the art of patience and waiting.

Elrond watched him for a few moments without speaking until the human started to smile at him. Smiling back Elrond nodded at the young man, "How was the hunting Estel?"

"Good. We found a small herd not far from here." When his father simply returned to watching the fire the ranger spoke. "How was your day?"

Elrond glanced back at the boy and raised an eyebrow curiously. "You never ask how my days go."

"I never find you just sitting quietly before the fire."

"And what is so odd about that young one?" He smiled at the human.

"Well you just have that same look on your face, like the time you found out that Elrohir had broken his leg when he took that dare from Elladan and tried to jump the falls."

"Oh yes," Elrond shook his head and chuckled softly, "That was fun. Thank the heavens they have stopped that nonsense."

Estel glanced quickly down at his hands, his whole demeanor changing slightly as the elderly elf watched him. Elrond’s eyes narrowed as he considered the human, "Estel?"

"Yes father?"

The act of over stated innocence was not lost on the elf and he leveled the young ranger with a serious glare, "Is there something I should know?" His sons had been known to pull some of the most idiotic stunts. They had a penchant for daring each other.

Estel fidgeted with the heel of his boot where it lay across his thigh. "No." He answered innocently and then trying desperately to change the subject he continued, "But you *do* look like something’s wrong." The man turned serious and leaned forward, "What is it father?"

Smiling slightly and letting the redirection go, Elrond gazed back at the dancing flames and steepled his fingers as he thought through the day’s events. "Very well, it’s probably best I don’t know." He conceded.

"You couldn’t be more right." Estel whispered to himself shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

Elrond had heard the slight comment and had just started to speak when Elladan and Elrohir entered the common room, stopping up short when they saw the serious look on their father's face.

Elrohir broke the silence first, "You told him didn’t you Estel!"

"You swore you wouldn’t!" Elladan glared at the man.

The human stared wide-eyed at his brothers shaking his head vigorously.

"Tell me what?" Elrond raised his eyebrow in question of his two sons. Elladan wouldn’t look his father in the eyes and Elrohir suddenly found the carpet very intriguing.

"I think I hear Celboril, I better go see what’s up he might need help in the kitchen." Elrohir tried unsuccessfully to exit the room but his brother grabbed the back of his tunic, stopping his forward motion as his father rose from his seat.

"Estel told me nothing of what the three of you were up to today." Elrond rounded his chair as he spoke, "And I am not sure that I want to hear it anyway." He motioned to the couch were Aragorn sat quietly, "Sit, I have something of importance that I need to discuss with the three of you."

The twins immediately obeyed, seating themselves on either side of their human brother. It was rare that their father spoke like this and the sudden seriousness of the situation bore down on them.

"I was just about to tell Estel what took place here while you were gone hunting this morning." He paced to the front of the room and stood with his back to the brothers quietly resettling the wood in the fireplace with an iron tool that stood nearby.

Elladan and Elrohir glanced at the ranger but he shrugged his shoulders, he had yet to discover what bothered their father. Without turning around Elrond continued, "Moranuen was beaten today when I sent him into Strayton on an errand for me."

"What!" Aragorn leapt to his feet, "Where is he? Is he all right?"

Moranuen was the human’s best friend in Rivendell other than the brothers themselves.

Elrond turned back to his youngest son and reassured him, "He is resting Estel. I will not lie to you. He is not well. He was badly beaten by the men in the town. He is under our roof and he and his family will stay here until he is well enough to leave. That will not be anytime soon I am afraid."

Aragorn tried to step forward, his worry for his friend overriding the conversation, but Elladan grabbed his coattail and pulled the man backwards, tipping him far enough off balance that he fell back onto the couch. Elrohir shifted over against the ranger and placing his arm on the human’s shoulder he leaned gently down pinning him in place.

"I would hear the rest father," Elrohir softly spoke as he glanced at his human brother, "It will be all right Estel."

"In time Moranuen will be just fine. You may visit him later, right now there are other matters that must be dealt with first." The elven lord then went on to explain the note posted on the gate of their road and passed the trio the paper that Moranuen had brought back with him.

"This cannot be allowed to continued father, we must find out who this elf is that they claim is killing their men and stop whatever is going on." Elladan handed the wanted sign over to Estel who shared it with Elrohir.

"You are correct, but as you can see we can send no more of our people out of this valley without them being in danger. We will have to take a very different route." His eyes lighted on Estel who was frowning down at the picture of the elf on the wanted poster. Elladan and Elrohir exchanged worried looks over their brother’s head before focusing on the human.

"This looks nothing like Moranuen. In fact this looks nothing like any Noldor elf that I know." He glanced up when no one answered him. Wondering what it was that he had missed, he looked from one serious face of his family to another and quickly rewound the conversation that had just been spoken, running it back through his attentive consciousness.

As he caught up with the essence of where his father was leading to he nodded slowly in understanding, "I can come and go and not be in danger. I am a man, they will not attack me."

"Yes Estel, that is exactly what I was thinking." Elrond paced back to the chair and lowered himself into it, staring intently at the young human.

"You cannot think to send him alone! Look at what they did to Moranuen, what guarantee do we have that they will not treat anyone who leaves these gates in much the same way?" Elladan voiced his concerns.

"He is a human Elladan, they will not bother him as they would the two of you and I would know what is going on so that we can bring this to an end. Estel’s childhood here is at an end, soon everyone will know that a Dùnadan frequents Rivendell even if they do not know his ancestry or his upbringing." He smiled at the man, "His presence here has been a well kept elven secret for many years but that time is over. Still most have not associated Estel with our house and he has the name Legolas gave him as an alias, as well as others. He could easily fit into this group of men and discover the truth about them. It is important to me."

"I can do this." Aragorn leaned forward eagerly, garnering a smile from his adoptive father.

"I know you can my son," Elrond locked eyes with the boy, "I want you to be careful though. These men are not like the Dunèdain, they run on their own set of rules. Otherwise Mora would not have returned as he did. Be wary, be observant, use what you have been taught. See if there is any validity to their accusation that an elf is murdering men in the eastern range. If that proves to be the case then we will need to deal with it. But *we* will deal with it, and not they."

"Of course father. I will leave tonight. May I have the letter that was posted on the gates?"

Elrond passed the scrap of paper to the human.

"Taradin." Estel repeated the name committing it to memory before passing the written threat back, "I’ll see what I can find out and I will return by the end of the week with word." He looked at his brothers as he made the last statement. If he didn’t return by that time they would know to come looking for him.

Elladan nodded seriously as Estel glanced at him.

"Then come, let us get you prepared." Elrond stood from his seat and held his hand out to the young man, "I imagine you’d like to see Moranuen before you go and I will have Celboril prepare you some food to take with you."

 

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~*PART TWO*~

 

Aragorn entered Strayton as the sun dipped below the tallest of the wood buildings in the small town situated just west of Rivendell. A chill was just touching the evening air as he dismounted and handed the reins of his horse to the stable keeper and the ranger pulled his hooded leather coat tightly about him.

The stable master took note of the man's attire and when Strider inquired about the inn he simply nodded his head up the street and turned back towards the stables, trailing the ranger’s horse.

Strider nodded and headed to the center of town. He was getting used to the odd looks and the quiet distance that most other humans kept when in his presence.

The inn was marked by the usual manner of folk coming and going and the downstairs bar was full of patrons when the ranger pushed the doors open and entered the warm, dimly lit room. The innkeeper greeted him warmly, the way he greeted all folk, for every creature that passed through his doors only added to his coffers. So Aragorn was quickly given a room and a mug of ale.

The ranger kept the hood to his coat up, it helped to keep away those who might be too curious and it allowed him privacy as he seated himself at a table located in the rear of the bar. From this vantage-point his back was against the far wall, and he could easily see every nook and cranny in the place, plus all the comings and goings of the patrons as they passed through the heavy wooden doors.

As he relaxed into the atmosphere and the beings in the room began to ignore his presence, Strider started to concentrate on the groupings of people, focusing his attention and tuning his hearing to their conversations one by one. His hood hid his eyes and no one could tell where the ranger was looking. Smoke hung thick in the air from the pipes and the weed that was being put to use. The strong, heavy scent was not unpleasant and it masked the odor of the men around him.

He ignored the smaller beings that sat at the overly large tables, their feet barely touching the floor; hobbits. He had heard of them but as of yet had not had extensive dealings with their kind, for with the exception of one, they rarely, if ever, ventured near Rivendell and he was sure the tiny men had no news of import to him.

Raucous laughter diverted his attention. A group of men to his left was enjoying the evening – a little too much. The ale had loosened their tongues and one of them spoke arrogantly, boasting of his latest catch. They were hunters by their garb and their weapons. He knew they would be telling each other long tales full of lies, bragging about who was the best at their work, but the catch they boasted of now caused Aragorn’s heart to hammer in his chest and the bile to rise in his throat. He steadied himself and steeled his reactions as he listened as the man proceeded to describe how he had caught and beaten an elf half to death the previous day.

"The damn creature never would speak." The dark haired man laughed at his own joke, "Well not anything anyone could understand after we were through with him!" The table erupted in laughter.

"Now wait just a minute, Seon. You’re telling me you caught an elf bare handed with no help?" A man with bright blue eyes and hair the color of the earth leaned forward, questioning the braggart. His gaze was skeptical and his face weatherworn.

"No. That’s the most amazing part," Seon took a gulp of his swill, banging it down harder than necessary on the table, "the fool of an elf walked right up to me! Said he was looking for information and I says right back at him, ‘So’s I!’"

The table had quieted as they listened to him recount his capture and subsequent torture of the elf. The elf that had been Strider's best friend since the first day he had been brought to Rivendell. It was Moranuen who had befriended him almost immediately when all the other elves had been too busy to entertain the questions of a child. With the exceptions of his brothers and his father, Moranuen had always been the closest to being a part of his adoptive family. He closed his eyes as the men laughed about cutting the elf loose and how the being had barely been able to walk on his own.

"I shoved one of those wanted posters in his hand and gave him a quick kick to his backside to get him moving out of town." He laughed with the others as he recounted watching the elf try to pick himself up and limp away from them and the fear on the creature’s face.

The same fair face that Strider could see in his mind’s eye as he looked away from the men. When he had visited Moranuen before he had left for Strayton, the elf had still not woken. His face was bruised and his lips were cut, a bandage encircled his head where he had been brutally kicked. Elrond had said they had fractured Moranuen’s skull, he was not sure the elf would be the same *if* he ever woke. It took every ounce of strength Aragorn possessed to keep his seat and when the group of men called to him, he glared at them through narrowed eyes. Eyes hidden by his hood.

"Ranger!" Seon called to him from their table beckoning him with a wave of his hand, "Ranger! It's been a long time since any of your kind have visited Strayton. Join us for a drink, and tell us of the world beyond this sorry woodpile."

Aragorn raised the fingers of his hand and waved the invitation off, "Perhaps later my friend."

The hunter, undaunted by the ranger’s decline, turned back to the others and toasted the day’s hunt. Regaling his listeners with another tale that Aragorn was sure was more lie than truth. By the end of the hour the hunter had collected his men and left the tavern barely able to walk himself to the door.

The man named Taradin watched him go, shaking his head. He leaned over onto the young man next to him and indicated the retreating hunter, "You see that one Garith?" When the younger human nodded he continued, "You don’t want to grow up to be like that. That Seon’s more lie than he is truth. Never exaggerate your kills, everyone will know you’re not worth your pay."

"Do you believe that, what he said about that elf?" The smaller man looked up at the elder.

Taradin eyed the lad seriously, "That was the one time I don’t believe Seon was lying. He’s going to bring the wrath of them all down on us."

"What if that had been the killer elf?"

"Well, that would have been different, that one would have deserved whatever he got. But my lad, that murderer won't come up and ask you for directions. He’ll simply put a bolt in your heart and walk off and he most certainly would not come into Strayton." Taradin shook his head, "Don’t know where that elf came from but I hope he made it home to his kin."

Strider had been listening carefully to the conversation. Taradin felt the ranger’s eyes on him and turned towards the hooded man. Leaving his table he approached Strider and motioned back to the now empty seats where he had sat. "Be obliged if you joined us for a drink or two. I, for one, would very much like to hear of the goings on in other cities."

"I’m afraid I wouldn’t be very good company right now." The ranger answered quietly.

Taradin nodded and pressed on, "Very well, but no man should drink alone. Garith and I will only be here for a few minutes more, join us."

Slowly, Aragorn stood and followed the hunter back to his table and the wide-eyed youth that sat there waiting for them. The youngster fixed Aragorn with a look akin to hero worship, his mouth dropping slightly as the ranger pushed his hood back and fixed his silver eyes on the young hunter. Whatever stories he had heard about the rangers had obviously made a very acute impression on the lad.

"Strider." He said by way of greeting, smiling at the boy. The young man couldn’t have been more than fifteen. His eyes were green like the forest and his hair red, like the sun at dusk. He had a slight build and still retained his boyish looks. He would have some growing to do.

Taradin sat down next to the youth and smiled back at the ranger, "His name’s Garith. I took him in when his father was killed a few years back by a pack of wargs when we was out hunting deer. The boy’s mother died in childbirth and seeing as how I never had no kin, he’s become my family."

Aragorn nodded and smiled sadly, "Good to meet you Garith. My parents died when I was young too."

"Really?" Garith stammered out. Taradin laughed at the boy and gave him a playful shove.

"Garith it's not polite to stare." The youngster looked horrified with himself and attempted to apologize but Aragorn stopped him, easily changing the subject.

"I couldn’t help but overhear your friend." The ranger fixed dark eyes on the hunter, "Strange conversation for people who live in the shadow of a realm of elves, wouldn’t you think?" When Taradin looked down into this glass and didn’t answer Strider pressed on, "It has always been my experience that elves do not meddle in the affairs of men, nor do men harass elves. Tell me what has happened that would change all that in the world of men?"

The hunter sighed deeply and fixed troubled blue eyes on the stranger, "Where have you been lately that you haven’t heard the happenings in the mountains east of Rivendell?"

Garith spoke quietly from where he sat at Taradin’s side, "There’s a rogue elf living up in them mountains near that elf city that’s been killing men."

Aragorn leaned forward and eyed the elder hunter, "Are you sure of this?"

Taradin nodded, "Two of the victims were my men, and I found them. No one should have to die like that." He glanced down at the boy next to him before continuing, "Garith, go fetch us more ale."

Garith jumped up and wandered merrily off towards the bar in obedience.

"He’s a good kid." Taradin watched him go, his eyes sad as he watched the youth, making sure he wasn’t given a hard time by the inebriated patrons near the bar, "Tis not for the boy's ears, he hasn’t seen enough of the world yet to know how hard it can be. He’ll learn soon enough." When he was satisfied the boy was doing fine he returned his attention to the ranger and finished his explanation, "They were shot through with arrows. But not so’s they’d die right away if you get my meaning. They were bound, stripped of their clothes and left there to die."

The muscles in Aragorn’s jaw tighten and he swallowed against the anger in him, Taradin was right, no being deserved to die in fear and pain like that. "How do you know it’s an elf doing it?" He pressed, his emotions repressed, his countenance a mask of false calm.

The hunter dropped his eyes, his lips tightening as he remembered, "I found that foul creature standing over two of my men. Elbamir, he wasn’t dead yet. I chased the elf off, think I might have surprised him or I would be dead now too. Was lucky that’s all." He stopped and collected himself before continuing, "Elbamir said that the elf was the one that killed Zarrinor and the elf forced him to watch. He said the elf admitted to killing them all. All them men that’s gone missing here the last few years, said he hated men and Middle Earth needed to be rid of them. Elbamir died in my arms, I’ve known him since we was little, he didn’t deserve to die that way. Rinvan, my sharpest shot was hit by that demon but we got away before he could catch us. We been hunting him ever since."

Garith walked back up to the table, balancing three huge mugs of ale, and seated himself excitedly across from Aragorn, his youthful exuberance causing a smile to pull at the corners of the ranger’s mouth as he thanked the young man for the drink.

Taradin continued, "We spotted him once up on the mountain high above the northern pass into Rivendell, strangest of all places being that high up, but never again that near that area. Always since we seen him, he’s been down by the ruins, haunting that forsaken place close by the north pass just above the gorge of Rivendell. We try to stay away from there, but the boys do have a want to catch that elf. Our men aren’t the only ones to go missing." He glanced at Garith and ruffled the boy’s hair as he looked fondly down into the huge green eyes.

The youngster turned to Aragorn watching him carefully before questioning the ranger, "Don’t suppose you could help us Mr. Ranger, sir?"

Aragorn smiled slightly, "Please, it’s Strider. I might be interested in joining your party if Taradin wouldn’t mind the company for a few nights. I’d like to see if I couldn’t track down that elf for myself. Be interested in finding out who he is."

The hunter nodded and extended the invitation, "You’re welcome to join us, we are heading back out tonight. We just stopped into town for a few more supplies."

"What’s your business in that area if you don’t mind my asking." Aragorn leaned forward resting his chin on his hands.

"No, not at all." Taradin leaned back in his chair, tipping the wooden seat until it rested on only its back two legs. "We are hunters, we live here in Strayton and do our hunting above Rivendell in the good seasons. Been real safe until just a few months back, leastwise for us that is. Don’t know what’s got into those elves. Posted a warning on their gate myself, day before yesterday. No creature owns the whole woods like that. Them sending out assassins on us just ain’t very neighborly. They coulda just asked us to go and I would have packed my men out of there."

Aragorn sighed deeply, this was worse than he thought. There was a dark elf in the woods hunting men and now the men had turned against every elf they encountered. No good would come of this, "Have you spoken with the lord of Rivendell?"

Taradin snorted in disgust, "Nah, there ain’t no talking to elves. Seon and his men caught one in town day before yesterday, roughed him up a bit, but he wouldn’t spill anything."

"Roughed him up a bit?" Aragorn's eyes grew dark as they spoke so easily about his best friend. "From what I heard they nearly killed him. How do you think that will look to the residents of Rivendell?"

The accusation hit the hunter more deeply than he wished to admit and he brushed the challenge aside, not caring to deal with the situation at the moment, he wasn’t so sure he wouldn’t have done the same thing had he been in Seon’s place, if he had thought the elf was the rogue that is. The whole affair was starting to grate on the men’s nerves and he was afraid that it would only end badly.

Dismissing the ranger's question he shrugged, "Well, them elves can take a whole lota beating. Besides I guess they finally let him go and sent him home with a message." Taradin took out a yellowed square of paper from his pocket. It was a copy of the wanted poster that Aragorn had seen earlier. The hunter unfolded it and smoothed out the creases before passing it to the ranger, "This the elf we are looking for."

Aragorn eyed the drawing for the second time that day, the difference in the elves striking home harder now that he had heard the callousness with which the men of Strayton considered the elves. "Odd, it doesn’t look anything like the elf Seon beat up."

Taradin’s eyes narrowed, "What would you know about that elf ranger?"

Aragorn returned the dark stare, "I overheard Seon talking about him. He said the elf had dark hair, according to the description, this one is blonde."

The ranger’s gaze and the truth in his statement made Taradin uncomfortable and he took a drink of ale before muttering, "You seen one elf you seen ‘em all. They all related anyway." He shrugged off the feelings of guilt that ate at his stomach.

Aragorn bit back his frustration and the sigh that almost escaped his lips. He had had quite enough of bigotry over the last few months but sometimes it seemed all of Middle Earth was tainted with its stain.

Taradin changed the subject, turning the question back on the ranger, "What, you ain’t no friend of them elves now are you? Didn’t think you rangers were friends of no one."

Aragorn waited his timing and shrugged his shoulders, staring at the man. "I’ve known my share of elves. Just interested in the goings on here in these parts." He handed the paper back and took one more drink of the ale, draining his mug.

The hunter re-pocketed the wanted sign and followed suit. "Well we best be back to camp, they’ll be wondering if we’re all right or not. Garith, go pay the man." Taradin handed the youngster a few coins and pushed away from the table. "Care to join us?"

Aragorn nodded and before long the three of them were on their way, Aragorn having notified the innkeeper that he would not be needing a room for the night after all.

Taradin’s camp was not far away, but the stars were already pulling themselves from their slumber by the time they got there. The camp was somewhere between 15 to 20 men strong, but many of them were already bedded down for the night. Fires burned low and after a round of general introductions with the men that greeted them, Taradin showed Aragorn to an unoccupied sleeping place and bid him a good night.

 

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

 

It was early before the sun had risen when Aragorn woke and stirred from his resting place. He quietly rose and stole away from the sleeping camp. He intended to go search out the area that Taradin had told him about where they had originally surprised the dark elf and he did not want any of the hunters tagging along with him, he knew he could travel quicker and more quietly on his own. He did not think as the others did, that the elf had simply been walking through the forest in that area hunting the men. The fact that the men had not glimpsed the elf there again bothered him. If he were an elf he would make sure to draw the intruders away from his abode, keeping his sanctuary clear of them. He tried to put his thoughts into those of the dark elf’s. How would he think? How would he act? Where would he go?

The forests where the elf had originally been seen were thick and old and the ways and passages through them were overgrown and dark. The area did not hold the sense of evil that he thought one might expect, but Aragorn had the distinct feeling that he was being watched and so he kept his guard up, treading lightly, his passage through the undergrowth silent.

The path he was on suddenly disappeared and the tracks ended. In frustration he stopped and looked around him, smelling the wind, listening to the sounds about him. His sharp eyes caught a break in the foliage to his right and on impulse he walked towards the odd pattern that had been created in the green carpet. A very light, slightly overgrown, but well used path lay hidden beneath the leafy canopy. Only an elf could use the same path repeatedly and not bear the foliage down with his weight. Tracking elves was something that the best human hunters had a hard time with, but the ranger knew what to look for, what to expect. He picked up the barely perceptible run and tracked the rogue high into the forest, following the minute, telltale signs.

Presently Aragorn came upon a small glade set against the hills on the edge of the upper forests where the foliage turned to small brush and stunted trees. The tiny glade backed up against the face of a sheer granite cliff. Trees hugged the rock face and grew down the sides; their boughs bent low towards the ground, lichen and moss covered the rock around them. But there was a scent on the air that was foreign to the forest. Spices mixed with the smell of burning wood. The scent was old but yet not quite swept away; testimony to the presence of a human or some being.

Aragorn cautiously walked forward, drawing his sword from its scabbard, the metal singing quietly as it was unsheathed. The wind sighed through the gorge below him sweeping up through the forests and brushing past the ranger as it climbed up the mountain. The trees at the foot of the granite bowed under its gentle onslaught and the flicker of metal beyond their branches caught the human’s attention.

Confused, Aragorn stepped forward and parted the foliage. Astonished, he stood still on the threshold. Behind the covering of the trees the granite had been hollowed out in the shape of an inverted bowl. Less a cave and more a deep shallow, the natural concave have been turned into a dwelling place. Aragorn surmised that this was where the dark elf lived as he entered the now empty hovel, scanning the interior quickly.

A small hammock hung suspended to the left. Metal spikes had been hammered into the rock face and the sleeping bed had been hung between them in the curve of the shelf. To his right was a small desk that sat in front of a bookshelf carved from the rock itself. It held a few precious books on it and a journal lay open on the desk an old quill laid near it. A near empty ink well, perched precariously on the bookshelf, attested to the fact that lair was used, and often. Aragorn turned the open book towards him. The words inside were penned in elvish, but that was no hindrance for him and he quickly read the last few lines.

 

They came again. Every time they come closer. Don’t they know they aren’t welcome here? Why are they allowed in these mountains I wonder. This range was given to me. These humans weren’t like the last. These were harder to kill, but it was enjoyable nonetheless and I was able to hone my skills. How lax I have become. Their boots will make nice sheaths for my tools and I have been wanting a pair of sleep shoes.

Their companions are still nearby. I wonder what treasures they will give up at their deaths? My food runs low again so I must leave to hunt; perchance I will meet up with the men again. Why Illuvitar ever created men I will never know.

 

 

The journal left off there. The entry was dated that morning although the date had a question mark beside it as though the writer were not entirely sure what day or year it truly was. The ranger looked about him with new insights into the writer’s mind. He noticed for the first time the articles that were definitely not of elven nature. The small stack of clothing, neatly folded and placed in a nitch in the rock. Removing one dark green shirt, he shook the tunic out and fingered the tear near the right shoulder; there was dried blood on the cloth. A small pile of assorted shoes lay on the floor, some already had been taken apart, their leather and soles having been put to some other use now that their owners no longer needed them.

Aragorn shuddered involuntarily as the last entry in the journal repeated itself in his mind-

Why Illuvitar ever created men I will never know.

His father was right; this truly was a dark elf. Something inside the ranger resonated; he had been here too long. He needed to leave and leave now. His brothers had taught him to trust his instincts and they were screaming at him to get out. He replaced everything like it had been and crept back to the hidden entrance. Every sense was alert as he stepped out into the glade. It was quiet in the surrounding forest, but he could still hear the buzzing of the grass bugs and the sounds of the birds in the canopy above him.

Making quickly for the edge of the clearing Aragorn had almost gained the trees when he paused mid-step, the sounds of the forest about him had abruptly ceased. Slowly, he gazed around him, turning back to stare at the elf’s hidden lair. He froze in his tracks and watched as the rogue elf stood before his makeshift home, bow drawn and arrow notched, his eyes locked on the young ranger. He had approached so quietly that Aragorn had not even heard him.

The ranger was sure that his heart was sighted by the tip of the arrow aimed at him. Cautiously, he turned to fully face the elf. The warrior was not of Noldor descent. His hair was blonde and long and swept back from his face by a catch at the nape of his neck. His eyes were blue and his face was fair. His clothing, though worn, definitely resembled that of the wood elves and his body was lithe and strong just like one accustomed to living in the forests. If Aragorn hadn’t known better, at first glance, he would have thought he were gazing at his friend Legolas. But as he watched the Silvan elf, he could see the differences, differences lost on most humans who thought all elves looked alike. He was slightly surprised to notice that the elf was lowering his bow. The ranger raised his empty hands slightly palms up, showing the elf he was unarmed. He really hadn’t come to battle the rogue, he was just seeking information.

As he gazed at Aragorn, the elf dropped his bow slightly. The eyes on the young human reminded him of someone he once knew and the resemblance of spirit threw him off his guard. But it couldn’t be. That one’s mate had left years ago; it was impossible was it not? And this was no heir of Noldor; it was a human. The oddity of it stopped him. His mind fell to memories long ago lost to him and yet so seemingly recent; how long had it truly been? He turned his attention to the gorge of Rivendell, wondering to himself. And yet this human had been in his things, knew where his home was, he could not let the man live. Raising his bow he sighted back on the man, but where the ranger had been standing moments before there was no one. The dark elf smiled slightly to himself. Let the man go back and tell his friends, let them all come. He would wait for them and he would not let them get away this time, not any of them, not even the ranger with the curious eyes. Stalking back into his lair the rogue elf prepared for the inevitable.

Aragorn ran and did not look back. He could not hear the elf pursuing him but he did not wait to find out if he would. It had surprised him when the elf had dropped his weapon and he found it very odd that the rogue warrior had looked toward Rivendell. The ranger could have sworn that there was longing in the elf’s eyes as though he were reliving some memory from his past. However that moment of inattention was all the young human had needed and he had taken the opportunity to flee.

When he had reached the path back to the hunter’s camp, Aragorn finally slowed down and stopped, listening carefully to his surroundings for any hint of a pursuer. But no sounds assaulted his ears save the soft noises of the forest and the rapid beating of his own heart. Leaning over, the ranger rested his hands on his knees and caught his breath, waiting for his heart to slow down before he began the final walk back to camp.

He knew the elf would be watching for him now. He had been caught in the rogue’s territory, so there would be no safe way of walking back in. He had been targeted; he would need to be extra careful that he did not endanger the hunters any more than they already had themselves. With all the information that he had sought now in his possession he would need to find a way to return to Rivendell and inform Elrond. Aragorn had the very distinct suspicion that the elderly elf would be more than interested and probably not at all surprised when he told him what he had discovered.

 

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

 

Legolas Greenleaf turned his face towards the rising sun as it worked its way up the eastern sky. He had broken camp when the glowing orb was still extracting itself from the distant horizon and had already covered a good distance since then.

All yesterday and today he had been slowly descending down the western foothills of the Misty Mountains and today he hoped to make Rivendell by sundown. A fortnight ago the Prince of Mirkwood had promised to pay a visit to his young friend Aragorn, adopted son of Lord Elrond and that was where he was going now.

The journey between Mirkwood and Rivendell and the path over the Misty Mountains was hardly an easy one, but Legolas had encountered no serious problems or obstacles. The only real trouble he had had was discovering that hunting packs of wolves and wargs were ranging near the rift that he would have normally taken to get to Rivendell. However, even that was no more than a mere inconvenience, for it simply meant that he had to take the high pass over instead. The high pass was a little bit longer and added at least a half a day’s travel onto his trip, but that was not too much of a price to pay to avoid having to deal with any warg packs, especially since Legolas traveled alone.

Originally, the prince had thought to bring Raniean or Trelan, or some of his other friends with him, but for one reason or another none of them had proved to be available at this time and Legolas preferred traveling alone to traveling with any kind of royal escort. His father had long ago given up trying to force the young prince to take his guards with him when he went out. Legolas could take care of himself.

Yet no one could have foreseen what would happen, and certainly Legolas himself had no premonitions that morning as he made his way lightly through the trees and down a sloping hill towards a dished valley, dotted with the ruined remains of some once-mighty fortress or dwelling that was now busy crumbling itself slowly into the dust.

From a distance off, several pairs of eyes caught the elf’s unconcealed movements and their brows darkened.

Taradin watched the elf pick his way nimbly across the crumbling ruins with a dark scowl. "There you are again then you devil," he muttered quietly to himself. "Well the shoe’s on the other foot this time, isn’t it?"

Legolas moved easily across the broken ground, unaware of the men that watched him. He felt sure that there were others in the area somewhere, but whether they were friend or foe he did not know. However, this close to Rivendell he was not particularly worried.

Suddenly Taradin looked up to see that the man beside him had risen and laid an arrow across the strings of his longbow. The fellow was tracking the elf in his sites, about to fire.

"Hamset! No!" Taradin leapt to his feet just as the arrow left the bow, slightly spoiling the archer’s aim.

"You idiot!" Taradin shouted. "I wanted him alive!"

The ruins dropped away sharply on their eastern edge and Legolas leaped lightly down, not perturbed by the eight-foot drop. The prince had just jumped off when his sharp eleven ears picked up the distinctive sound of a bow twanging. Mid-air, there was no way he could react to the perceived threat and a moment later he felt a sharp, burning pain lance through the side of his left thigh, about five inches above his knee.

Startled by these events, Legolas was unprepared to land and hit the ground hard, his injured leg giving way under him so that he ended up pitching to his hands and knees on the stony earth.

Wincing, the elf rose quickly to his feet, obviously favoring the left. He spared a quick glance down to see the sickening sight of the arrow protruding from his lower thigh, but had not the time to do anything about it. Whoever had shot him was still out there and he had better get to cover quickly. Unable to keep from limping, Legolas quickly put the face of the plateau he had just jumped off of between himself and the direction from which the arrow had come.

Taradin swore at having lost the element of surprise as he watched the elf limp swiftly away. "Get down there and get him! Now!" he shouted at his men, but they were already in motion. With a wave of his arm, Taradin motioned for his men on the opposite side of the plateau to move in.

Pulling his own bow off his back and fitting an arrow on the strings, Legolas peered warily around the edge of his hiding place, but from this angle could not see anyone, nor get a clear shot at them even had he been able to.

The elf grit his teeth against the pain radiating from his injury as he forced his leg to support him, hurrying towards the woods about 300 yards distant. Besides the scanty cover of the ruins, this area was wide and open; a terrible place to be trapped if someone was shooting at you. Legolas intended to get to some suitable cover as soon as he could.

Taradin’s men burst from around the other side of the ruins, right on the elf’s heels.

Legolas considered turning to fire at them, but already slowed by his injury, he did not want to risk the time it would take, especially since for whatever reason, they were not shooting at him at the moment.

The elf stumbled, but pressed on, infuriated by the clumsiness brought on by his injury. He could never outrun them like this, or even get enough distance between them so that he could make use of his bow without making himself vulnerable.

Reaching the trees with the men literally right behind him, Legolas slung his bow back over his shoulder as he sprung up to catch hold of the lower branch of a white oak, grimacing as he pulled his injured leg up onto the limb with him. He was reaching for the next branch above his head, when one of the men caught hold of his injured ankle, yanking the elf’s foot out from under him.

Legolas grabbed for the branch to steady himself, going for his knives. He didn’t get the chance, for at that moment one of the men grabbed the arrow still protruding from his leg and used it like a handle, yanking down hard.

The sudden, shocking burst of agony swept over Legolas’ senses, flooding all his perceptions with a haze of pain as his feet were half pulled, half slipped out from under him. The abrupt jerk ripped the arrow completely out of his leg, pulling Legolas downward as it did so. The elf tried to catch himself as he fell, but the tangle of hands grabbing and clutching at him threw off his balance and hampered his attempt.

Legolas twisted away as he slammed into the ground on his hands and knees, landing more heavily on his injured side than the other, causing another brilliant flash of pain to jolt through his leg. The elf was given no time to collect himself, for before he had even finished hitting the ground, one of the men brought the hilt of a sword down violently across the back of the elf’s skull.

Legolas crumpled forward to the ground, dazed by the powerful impact. Two more equally vicious blows rendered the stunned elf unconscious.

Taradin arrived at just about that time. He looked darkly at the elf’s unmoving form, until he was quickly assured that the prisoner was unconscious only. "Good," he grunted as the unresponsive elf was bound and hefted up between two of his men. "This one’s got a lot of answering to do before he dies. Take him back to camp!"

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART THREE*~

 

Legolas was brought back to consciousness by a slap of cold water and someone shaking him roughly, which did nothing for his throbbing headache.

Right after his headache, the next thing he noticed was the pain in his leg. Then his wrists... but why did they hurt? With a shock the elf realized that his hands were tied tightly together above his head, with the rope that bound them looped up over a high branch that held him upright and barely allowed his feet to fully touch the ground. Additional coils of rope around his chest and legs held him firmly against the tree at his back.

For a moment a bright flare of panic at his own helplessness washed over the elf before he got control of himself and pressed it down to a dull fear. What did these men want with him? Forcing his eyes open and struggling to bring the blurry world into focus, he could have sworn that he recognized none of them.

"Finally, you’re awake," Taradin said somewhat impatiently.

"What do you want with me?" Legolas forced the grogginess from his voice, keeping it remarkably clear and strong for his condition. "I have very little that is worth stealing and I think you will find me rather expensive quarry if anything ill should befall me," he said calmly.

Taradin rolled his eyes. "Don’t be cute. I’m sick of you picking off my men and playing games with us. You’ve fooled us before, not now. I want answers and I want them straight. If you’re smart, you’ll cooperate with me," he warned.

Legolas’ brow crinkled in confusion and irritation. "I don’t know what you’re talking about, release me!" The pain in his head from the repeated blows was bad and it was making it hard to think, so he wasn’t quite sure if the man actually wasn’t making sense, or if he was just having trouble processing what was said.

Taradin shrugged. "I’ll get it out of you one way or another. If you want to play games with us, I can do that too. He pulled a small flask out of the front of his shirt and uncapped it. "Thirsty?" he asked Legolas, offering him the bottle.

Actually, Legolas was, but something in Taradin’s eyes concerned him and there was no way he was voluntarily taking *anything* from these people. Turning his head, he refused.

With shocking suddenness, Taradin drew back his large fist and slammed the elf upside the head with incredible force, rocketing Legolas’ head back into the tree behind him. Starbursts exploded across the prince’s vision at the treatment of his already battered skull and he nearly blacked out again.

Legolas wasn’t even aware that Taradin had pressed the flask to his mouth or poured its contents down his throat until he felt a strange burning in the back of his mouth and realized that there was liquid there and his body was swallowing automatically to keep his airway clear. The elf coughed and tried to spit whatever it was out, but he was still dazed and weak. Taradin grabbed his jaw and roughly forced his mouth shut, holding the prince’s nose until Legolas was forced to swallow the rest of the liquid or else choke himself.

With that accomplished, Taradin released the prisoner and stepped back, watching and waiting. He was sure there was no mistake being made this time. He had seen this elf before, he would recognize him anywhere. And this elf would pay for the cold-blooded murder of his friends.

Legolas let his head fall back against the rough bark of the tree behind him. Blinking his eyes to try to clear his mind as he felt a strange, light-headedness creeping over him. Pain lanced between his temples and it seemed to him that he was having trouble with conscious thought, or at least, his control over his conscious thought.

Frighteningly enough he felt as if whatever they had introduced into his system was attempting to pry control of his body, his thoughts and his words away from him and place that power in the hands of his captors. The elf steeled his jaw. He was not about to let that happen if he could help it.

Wave after wave of dull nausea swept over the prince and he closed his eyes tightly against the pain that was spreading slowly throughout his body. When he opened them again he found that the lead man was watching him intently. Obviously they knew very well what Legolas was going through right now.

"What have you done to me?" Legolas asked through sluggish lips. Even forming the words in his mind seemed hard. He did not like what he felt happening.

"Ensured that we’ll get a little truth out of you, that’s all," Taradin said darkly, watching the elf’s eyes. They were sufficiently glazed and cloudy now, he knew the dragon water he had administered had taken effect. "With this stuff in you, you can’t lie to us, and that’s good because I’ve got plenty of questions that I want honest answers to."

"Who are you? What do you want with me?" Legolas asked, wincing and rubbing his forehead against the side of one of his bound arms, wishing he could rub out the headache. Taradin’s voice throbbed painfully in his head and he wished he could escape the ache of it.

"I’m one of those people you’ve been trying to kill, elf!" Taradin said with controlled anger. "Or don’t you pay attention to who you’re shooting at anymore? I was a friend of Elbamir and Zarrinor and I will see you pay for what you did to them!"

Legolas’ brow creased in growing confusion, which added to his pounding headache. "I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ve never seen you before in my life. Let me go."

Taradin struck the elf across the face, knocking Legolas’ head back into the tree behind him again and making a small trickle of blood run down the corner of the prince’s chin.

Legolas stifled a moan at the pain that the blow caused to explode across his senses. Many more like that and he was going to black out again, whether Taradin wanted him to or not. His head lolled limply to the side and for a few moments he did not have the strength, or the will to raise it again.

Taradin grabbed the elf’s long hair near his scalp on one side of his skull and tugged Legolas’ head up. "I’m not going to play games with you elf! I want to know why you’re killing my people, and if there are any more of you involved in this!"

"I don’t know what you’re... talking about..." Legolas licked his bleeding lip. What else could he tell them? The drug in his system was robbing him of much ability for rational thought, but he was beginning to think that these men must have mistaken him for someone else. "I don’t know who you think I am, but I’m not."

"Right. Then who are you?" Taradin demanded harshly.

Being bound and questioned by these men, especially now that this drug had put him into a highly suggestive state, was bringing back evil memories to the prince’s mind, memories of the last time he had been taken captive, beaten and questioned by men. They had wanted to know who he was too. Legolas’ sluggish, reeling mind seized up and refused to allow an answer. He would not tell these men who he really was. He didn’t know them, the truth could be dangerous. Besides, he doubted they would believe him. "Not whoever you think I am..." Legolas’ words slurred slightly. It was the truth, just not all of it.

Taradin scowled. "Right. Garith, get me another vial of the dragon water. One obviously isn’t doing the trick." Legolas was right, the man would not have believed who his captive was even had he been told at this point.

The young man complied, although he hesitated slightly when handing it over. "This is pretty potent stuff... I thought you weren’t supposed to give more than one dose at a time?"

Taradin shrugged. "Maybe it’s different for elves. They’re not like us. Besides," his look turned dangerous. "It’s not like he’s got very long to live anyway."

Uncorking the small bottle, Taradin ordered Legolas to drink it and to the elf’s surprised horror, he did as he was commanded. Obviously, the drug was working better than Taradin thought it was. The only reason Legolas did not speak was because he did not know what they wanted.

The man’s reasoning was faulty. Two doses of dragon water were too much for anyone’s body, man or elf alike.

Legolas pressed himself back against the tree, fighting the urge for his knees to buckle under the double-assault of the drug. He began to tremble as the overdose took full affect. His heart pounded as if it were trying to beat out of his chest and his breathing caught and hitched spasmodically, leaving him gasping for air. He twisted his wrists feverishly in the bonds that held them over his head, but to no effect. The drug tore at his mind, creating a blinding haze of pain inside his head, so sharp that he actually saw rending flashes of light obscuring his vision and making the world a hazy yellow color.

The elf gasped in pain, moaning softly between shuddering breaths as the drug ripped the last of his ability for conscious, rational thought away from him, leaving his mind a confused jumble, overridden with blinding agony.

"Are there others?!" Taradin demanded. "Where were you operating from? Tell me!" he was nearly shouting and Legolas flinched away from the loud sound.

"I-I don’t k-know..." Legolas murmured helplessly, shuddering as the dragon water coursed violently through his veins.

"You’re lying!" Taradin struck him roughly in the stomach and Legolas doubled over as far as the ropes allowed him. "Where?!"

Legolas nearly sobbed at the agony spearing through him. He couldn’t breathe. He felt like he was suffocating and his body’s warning signals kicked in, adding panic to his already over-loaded senses. The throbbing pain of Taradin’s questions were like knives inside his head, yet he couldn’t answer, he couldn’t give them what they wanted because there was nothing there. He couldn’t make it stop, couldn’t satisfy the harsh demands being placed on him. He didn’t know!

"I-I c-can’t..." he was almost sobbing now. The substance in his blood was demanding that he give them what they wanted and he was unable to obey.

Taradin and his men took no pity on the elf. "What were you doing in the ruins? Where were you going?" the questions pressed harder and harder until Legolas felt like he was going to scream.

"What were you doing there?!" the question came again.

"A-Aragorn..." Legolas was almost fully delirious by now and he no longer even knew what he was saying. He never would have said anything about his friend otherwise. "Aragorn..." he had been going to see the young ranger, but right now he couldn’t find strength or breath or peace of mind enough to even finish a thought. He winced and dropped his head forward, battling incredible pain.

Taradin was beside himself with rage. Two doses of dragon water in him and the creature still wouldn’t talk? What kind of inhuman beast were they dealing with? "If you want to be stubborn, I can teach you not to be," he threatened darkly.

Picking up a thick branch from the pile of firewood, Taradin struck the elf in the ribs. Once, twice, three times... Legolas cried out helplessly, much too far gone to attempt any kind of control over his hurting body.

Several of the other men followed his lead, picking up clubs of their own. When they all started in on him, Legolas did not even have enough breath to scream. He felt himself slipping away swiftly, falling towards the darkness of either death or unconsciousness, he knew not which, nor did he care, so long as it took him away from the agony that he was in right now.

"Aragorn..." delirious, he called out for his friend before the darkness claimed him.

 

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

 

Aragorn made his way up the hill, deep in thought. He walked slowly back to the men’s camp, still disturbed by the fact that the dark elf hadn’t killed him outright. It was almost as if the elf had thought he recognized the human. He was wondering what a Silvan elf was doing this far from his people’s lands and what his father would say about the rogue’s strange actions, when a young man came running up the path towards him.

Garith saw him and ran out to meet the ranger before he was even fully in sight of camp.

"Strider, you’ll never guess what happened while you were gone!" Garith said excitedly, obviously pleased with himself.

Aragorn repressed a small smile at the younger man’s enthusiasm. At fifteen, Garith was the youngest of Taradin’s group. On the whole, Aragorn had found these men to be a lot more impulsive and less... scrupulous, than the Dunèdain, or other rangers he was used to working with. But they weren’t a bad lot...

Garith didn’t wait for the ranger to speak, but continued on breathlessly. "We caught him! We caught the dark elf!"

Aragorn’s eyebrows quirked upward sharply as they entered the camp. "Really? How did you-" the young man stopped short, horror shooting up his spine when he saw the fair-haired elf that was bound to the birch tree on the opposite side of the campfire. The elf’s hands were tied together over his head, suspended from a tree branch above him, and a second coil of rope around the elf’s chest and legs held him in a standing position. The fair being’s head had fallen forward and his golden hair spilled about his face, clinging to fresh blood that marred one corner of the elf’s smooth mouth and right temple. His body hung heavily against the ropes that held him.

The young ranger froze, his face going pale. Oh no. This couldn’t be happening.

Garith was still talking, not having noticed the change in his companion’s demeanor. "Gave us a hell of a lot of trouble. Taradin gave him a double-dose of the dragon water, but he still won’t talk..."

Aragorn finally shook off enough of his shock to find words. "You idiots!" he nearly shouted as Garith’s last words sunk in. "By the heavens, what have you done?!" Crossing the camp quickly, Aragorn brushed his friend’s hair gently back from his face, lightly examining the elf’s wounds.

Barely half-conscious and still under the influence of the dragon water, Legolas flinched at his touch and tried to draw back. His eyes were unfocused and hazy and he did not seem to recognize his friend, if he even saw him. He had passed out earlier, only to come back to a hazy semi-awareness about fifteen minutes ago. Yet it was as if he were trapped between two worlds, hanging somewhere in limbo and fully aware of neither.

Hot anger burned bright inside Aragorn’s chest as he quickly pulled a knife from his boot and cut the ropes that held his friend’s hands strung above his head. Legolas slumped forward limply and Aragorn caught him. The elf hissed in pain at his touch and the young ranger began to fear that his friend had taken more hurt than he could see.

"What are you *doing* Strider, are you crazy?!" Taradin demanded as he stalked quickly over. "He might get away! Have you forgotten what I told you this devil did to Zarrinor and Elbamir? What they looked like... How they died... He doesn’t deserve our mercy!"

Aragorn’s eyes flashed as he defiantly cut the rest of the ropes and lowered Legolas gently to the ground. His mind was still whirling. He hadn’t known that Legolas was anywhere in the area, and guilt washed over him as he realized that the prince had probably been on his way to Rivendell to see him, just as they had planned a fortnight ago. "I haven’t forgotten Taradin, but you have let your anger and your hate blind you! You have the wrong elf!"

Taradin’s brow furrowed darkly. "What are you *talking* about Strider? We caught him skulking about the ruins, just like he was the other night when he shot at us!" He did not like being rebuked by the younger man, nor the idea that he had captured and tortured the wrong person. It was impossible... wasn't it? "Look I don’t care if you are a Ranger. This is *my* territory and my people. I give the orders. Now you put him back up there or I’ll-"

"Don’t be a fool!" Aragorn shook his head angrily as he checked Legolas’ vitals. The elf’s heart was beating way too fast and his skin was clammy. His body trembled softly and his breathing was uneven at best. People could die from being given too much dragon water, and somehow Aragorn felt sure that Taradin and his people had been none too careful about how much they administered.

"Taradin, I’m telling you, you have made a grave mistake! This elf is my friend! He’s saved my life more than once, you think I wouldn’t know him? This is Legolas, son of Thranduil and *prince* of Mirkwood!" Aragorn said as he gently unclasped Legolas’ dirty, torn tunic. His ire raised several notches at what he found there. Deep, purple-black bruises mottled Legolas’ chest, shoulders and torso. Just looking at them was painful. If the elf had no broken ribs it would be a miracle.

Some of the bruises had crisp, clear edges and Aragorn guessed that Legolas had been clubbed repeatedly with a blunt object, probably *after* he had been tied to the tree, judging from the placement of the bruises. The elf moaned softly as Aragorn passed his hands probingly over his bruised ribs. The moan turned into a sharp hiss when he pressed on the third rib down and Legolas convulsed upward slightly, confirming Aragorn’s fear that his friend had at least one broken rib, probably more.

Aragorn soothingly pressed his friend back down and turned a hard glare on Taradin, who was trying to process Aragorn’s shocking words. "You’d better pray he lives Taradin," the young ranger said darkly. "Or you won’t have to wait for King Thranduil to seek retribution on you, I’ll demand satisfaction myself."

 

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

 

The fire burned low and still Aragorn sat attentively by his friend’s side. He had done what he could for the elf, there was nothing to do now but wait. If by morning Legolas had not taken a turn for the better, Aragorn was going to take him back to Rivendell, to Elrond, mission be damned.

Garith sat quietly nearby, watching them. He felt incredibly guilty about his part in all this, now that they knew they had the wrong person, and had tried to help Aragorn as much as he could.

Legolas stirred and murmured, still delirious. "Aragorn? Aragorn..."

Aragorn bit his lip and gently placed his hands on his friend’s shoulders. "Shh... shh... it’s all right Legolas. It’s all right." He could not admit to belonging to that name here in the midst of Taradin’s people, who knew him only as Strider.

Garith scooted forward slightly. "He keeps calling that name," the young man said softly. "Earlier, after Taradin gave him the dragon water, when we were... when they- when they thought he was the dark one," Garith said uncomfortably, obviously not wishing to say: "when we were beating him" to Strider’s face. "He called that out several times."

Aragorn let his head sink into his hand, turning away so that Garith could not see how the words affected him.

"Does that mean something to you?" Garith inquired, peering curiously at the young ranger.

Aragorn shrugged. "Somebody we both know." He attempted to be light, but the fact that Legolas had been calling for him when he was drugged and being tortured tore at his heart, along with the burning knowledge that he had not been there. Legolas had been there for him when the orcs had him in Moria, but when Legolas needed him...

Aragorn pressed his palms into his eyes, taking a deep breath. Legolas was going to be all right. This was going to work out, somehow...

When Legolas called out to him again the ranger could stand it no longer and leaned over the elf prince, quietly slipping into the grey tongue he spoke softly, knowing the elf could easily hear him. He gently placed his hand on his friend’s chest and stilled his movements.

"Legolas it is Strider. I am here, it’s all right now. I am so sorry my friend." The elf stirred at the sound of his voice, the words soothing his fears and nightmares. When he saw the effect his words had he chastised himself for not doing so earlier.

"Strider, how do you know elfspeak?" Garith started to move closer to hear the ranger's words more clearly, but Aragorn quickly raised his hand and stopped the young man.

Legolas was slowly regaining consciousness.

"Course he talks elfspeak," Taradin looked up from where he sat across the fire, slowly burnishing the edge of his sword with a whetstone, "he’s a ranger Garith. What’d you expect? They all speak it."

Aragorn was sure that wasn’t true but he let the statement slide as he moved nearer Legolas, blocking the elf’s view of the rest of the camp. He didn’t want the first face his friend saw to be that of the men that had beaten him earlier.

"Garith," The ranger turned back to the young man, "could you move around the fire and stay over near Taradin until Legolas is fully awake."

"You think he’ll be trouble?" Garith eyed the elf warily.

"I think you and the men beat him and I don’t think he’s going to want to see you right away." Aragorn’s words had more of bite to them than he had intended. "I’m sorry Garith, just give us some space all right?" He smiled gently at the youth as the boy nodded and moved to sit next to Taradin.

Legolas' hand touched Aragorn’s where it lay on the elf’s chest, bringing the human attention quickly back to the wounded prince. "Legolas?"

Legolas' head hurt and the light from the fire was so bright. He was slightly surprised to find that he was lying on the ground and no longer bound. Someone was leaning over him speaking his name but it was hard to focus.

"Ara..." The ranger pressed the fingers of his free hand gently against the elf’s lips, quieting him.

"No, it’s me, Strider." He smiled down into the bleary silver-blue eyes.

Legolas was at once tense beneath his hand, Aragorn was hiding who he was and it alarmed the elf.

The ranger felt the change in his companion and immediately put him at ease, "No, it’s all right. I am using the name you gave because we are still in the camp of men. They do not know who I am and they mistook you for someone else. They know now they were wrong." He spoke the words in elvish and felt free enough to partly explain the truth to Legolas since it was obvious that no one here could understand them. The elf’s eyes were locked onto his but he hadn’t relaxed. "We aren’t far from my house. Tomorrow I am going to take you there. I’ll think up something."

Legolas tried to look around them at the others nearby, he could hear them and he was not at all comfortable in the situation he found himself. Aragorn caught the side of his face with his hand and redirected the elf’s eyes back to his own. "I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you."

"It hurts." Legolas winced curled in on himself slightly, "Hurts to breathe."

Aragorn sighed, leaning forward until his forehead touched the elf’s, "I know," he whispered, "you have a broken rib and a lot bruising my friend and your leg is not doing well where that arrow was ripped from it."

Legolas was taking small breaths and holding them as long as possible as waves of nausea warred with the pain in his chest. "What else?"

"The water you were forced to drink is a toxin, a drug." Aragorn sat back on his heels and looked down into the pain filled eyes. "Damn, I should have been here." He cursed himself reverting to common speech. He gently dipped a cloth in a small bowl of cool water and wiped the perspiration from the elf’s face.

"Poison?" Legolas queried slowly. He had had more than his share of scrapes with various toxins in the past year or so.

"No," the ranger shook his head switching back to elvish, "no, you just wish it was. It’s more like a – a truth serum of sorts. It’ll wear off. In time." He smiled slightly trying to lighten the situation. "It’ll wear off faster if we get some fluids in you."

When Legolas shook his head the ranger laughed, "Now you wouldn’t want me to make a scene would you?"

The elf glared at him darkly. "Are they all still here?" Meaning the ones who had beaten him earlier. He was shaking slightly, his body’s reactions beyond his control.

Aragorn’s gaze hardened and he looked over his shoulder at the men in the camp who were watching the two friends with great interest. "Uhm, yes." He switched to common and raised his voice, "But they won't give you any more trouble now and they are sorry they ever did." He glared back at Taradin who dropped his gaze. Garith had edged his way back around the fire and slowly came up alongside Aragorn.

Legolas fixed his eyes on the boy and the ranger followed his gaze, "I thought I told you to stay over there."

"I thought you might like some water for your friend." He held up a deerskin bottle, "I fetched it from the stream, it’ll be nice and cool and it’ll help him get that toxin out of his system. He hasn’t had anything else since we..." Garith looked down guiltily and shoved the water skin at the ranger before quickly backing away from the two.

Aragorn closed his eyes, shaking his head, inwardly chastising himself again for what had happened to Legolas.

"Don’t." The quiet word averted his attention and he looked back at the elf. Legolas had read his thoughts on his face.

"I never thought you’d take the high pass. I thought you would come down through the rift, if I had known I would have gotten word to you." Aragorn’s voice was soft and full of regret as he brushed the long strands of blonde hair away from the elf’s clammy face.

"Word of what?" Legolas questioned as the human slid his arm beneath the elf prince and helped ease him up, careful of the wound to his leg, so he could drink. He handed Legolas the water skin and pressed his fingers against the bottom of it, indicating he wanted the elf to drink.

When his friend obeyed, he answered, "Don’t worry yourself with it now. We’ll talk about it later."

Legolas dropped the water bottle and curled in on himself. He wrapped his hands around his stomach and turned away from the ranger. Alarmed Aragorn leaned over him pulling the elf’s hair away from his face, "Legolas?"

"I’m going to be sick." He moaned softly.

Aragorn took the deerskin bottle from the elf and set it aside. He pressed his friend gently back down onto the blanket beneath him and quickly shed his own coat wrapping it around the shaking elf.

Turning back to the men around the fire he caught Taradin’s eye, "I’m taking the prince to Rivendell, first thing tomorrow. He’s got too much dragon water in him. I can’t even get him to keep water down. The elves there will be able to help him." The worry in the ranger’s eyes was unconcealed. "Think next time before you pour that stuff into someone."

He refocused his attention on the wounded elf, but Legolas had passed out again.

"I’ll send some of the men with you." Taradin offered quietly.

Aragorn did not turn to acknowledge him, "That wont be necessary. I’ll be fine."

"You’ll be in elf territory."

With a sigh Aragorn responded slowly, his words sharp and biting, "I will be fine. It is you who should be worried." The ranger laid his hand over the elf's heart and let the steady beat calm his anger. He was thankful that the prince’s heartbeat had finally begun to return to normal, only skipping every now and then.

When he spoke again his voice was calmer, "I will need a horse."

Taradin nodded even though the ranger had not turned around yet. It had been a statement, not a request and after the abuse they had heaped on the man’s friend it was the least they could do.

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART FOUR*~

 

It was still pre-dawn when Taradin was awakened by the soft sounds of movement in the camp. The fire had died down to hotly glowing embers and in the slight light he could barely make out the dark form of Strider seating himself on a horse behind the wounded elf they had caught and tortured the day before. He made his way quietly through the sleeping camp until he stood next to the mounted ranger.

"I’ll be back later. I need to get Legolas to Rivendell as soon as possible." Aragorn glanced down at the man. In fact, Legolas had taken a turn for the worse during the night and he feared that any delay would only slighten the elf’s chances of healing.

"For what it’s worth Strider, I truly am sorry we hurt your friend," Taradin said quietly.

The ranger nodded, wrapping his arm around the elf’s chest, he held Legolas in place in front of him and grasped the reins with his free hand. "Do not hunt the dark elf Taradin, and do not use that dragon water on anyone else. Stay in camp and wait my return."

They locked eyes for a moment, the younger man warning the older with his gaze. Legolas moaned and shifted in his grasp and the ranger’s attention was diverted. Taradin had understood and he slapped the horse’s haunches, sending the steed into a quick trot down the mountain path. "I hope he makes it." The old hunter spoke quietly to himself.

He hadn’t noticed that Garith had woken and stepped up behind him, watching the ranger speed off with his elven friend, "Me too." He whispered.

Part way down the mountain Legolas stirred and tried to move out of Aragorn’s grasp.

"Easy." Aragorn tightened his grip on the elf and slowed the horse down to a walking gait. "It’s alright, I’ve got you."

"Where are we going?" Legolas moved his arms up to encircle his ribcage, crossing his hands over the top of the rangers.

"Home."

"Mine or yours this time?"

Aragorn laughed, "Mine. Its closer."

"I do not wish to see your father in this shape Aragorn," Legolas grit out between his teeth. He had his pride after all, and it was not his wish to be continually entering Lord Elrond’s house in this manner.

"And he will not pleased to see you either." The ranger shook his head as he thought of the reception that would await them, "Actually he will not be pleased to see me dragging you home half-dead again."

"I am not half-dead," the elf protested with mild irritation.

"Near dead."

"Aragorn..." Legolas warned the ranger darkly.

"Well you aren’t exactly well are you?" teased the human. "One of these days our fathers are going to ban us from being around each other – it’s rather bad for our health or haven’t you noticed?"

"Don’t make laugh." The elf leaned hard against Aragorn’s arm and moaned as the pain in his body flared through his awareness, causing him to fight against the waves of nausea that assaulted him. The jouncing of the horse’s gate was grating painfully on every injured muscle and broken rib in Legolas’ body.

The horse stumbled beneath him, its foot slipping on the loose dirt. Aragorn tightened his grip on Legolas, inadvertently pressing against the elf’s broken ribs as he kept he and his friend upright in the saddle. The pain was overwhelming and the prince cried out, slumping forward.

"Legolas?" He pulled the elf’s head back against his shoulder, dropping the reins and letting the horse slowly pace down the road to Rivendell. "Legolas!" Brushing away the strands of hair from the prince’s face he noted that the elf had lapsed back into unconsciousness, his eyes closed. "Stay with me." Aragorn whispered to his friend, "We are almost home."

"Estel!"

Aragorn turned in the saddle towards the shouted greeting. His brothers emerged from the forest to his left and galloped up alongside the ranger’s horse.

The twins took in the situation and Elladan’s expression turned from one of joy to seriousness. "What happened?"

"Or should we ask what happened again?" Elrohir chimed in sarcastically.

"Oh very funny Elrohir. Legolas was caught by Taradin’s men." Aragorn glanced at his eldest brother who was glaring at his twin. "Can you ride ahead of me and let father know we are coming?"

"Estel, do you know what he’s going to do when he hears you are bringing the prince home three steps from death’s door again?" Elrohir glanced between his two brothers staring down their glares, "Well I for one do not want to be the one that breaks it to him." He stared at Elladan.

"I don’t have time to argue with you," Aragorn rolled his eyes. "GO!"

"I agree. I don’t want to tell him either. I can just imagine his response." Elladan closed the space between his horse and Aragorn and reached out to lift the prince’s head up slightly. "He’s unconscious. We’ll ride back with you."

With a nod from the ranger the three brothers headed quickly home.

 

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

 

"Just once I would very much like to see you come walking in under your own power." Elrond glared darkly at his youngest son as the human reined the horse to a stop inside Rivendell’s inner court. Elrohir’s mount skidded to a stop and the elf threw himself out of the saddle handing the reins off to a servant that stood by waiting quietly.

Aragorn began to protest, "I am fine, it’s..."

But Elrond cut him off, "I would like to see you *both* come in without needing any aide, either of you."

"Probably not likely in your lifetime father." Elladan muttered as he dismounted and walked over to help his brother with the wounded elf. "Told you he’d be less than pleased to see you."

"Elladan, you aren’t improving my mood at all." Elrond walked up next to the horse that Aragorn sat on and looked up at his son. The ranger had wrapped one arm around Legolas waist, with his free hand he cradled the elf’s head where it rested against his shoulder. "Tell me Estel, what happened?"

The ranger began to explain as he shifted the unconscious elf in his arms, slipping off the horse he gently pulled his friend with him. The twins quickly came to his aid grabbing hold of Legolas and shouldering his weight until Aragorn had safely dismounted.

"I found the rogue elf’s lair. It's near the high pass, by the ruins up that way. I also know what he looks like."

Elrond motioned the boys into the house after a cursory exam of the elf prince, the dark look on his face had deepened to a scowl and the twins stopped and turned back. Aragorn’s eyes lighted on Legolas’ still form, "He looks like Legolas. He is a Silvan elf, although what he is doing this far west I have no idea."

The human looked back up at the elf lord, "Taradin and his men captured Legolas as he was traveling here, they thought he was the rogue. Legolas said he would come visit in a fortnight." Aragorn looked down and sighed, "I had forgotten completely or I would have been looking for him. I did not come back to camp until late last night and... it was too late already."

Elrond motioned the twins into the house and Aragorn quickly stepped near, following them in. He continued his explanation, "They overdosed him with dragon water and when he could not tell them what they wanted, they tried to beat it out of him." The ranger grabbed the eldest twins sleeve and directed him away from the guest quarters into a larger room. "Please let him stay here." When Elrond nodded his agreement the brothers laid the elf down on the soft bed.

Aragorn immediately went about lighting the small glow lamps situated in the corners of the bedroom and pulled the curtains shut against the bright morning light. "He has a leg wound where one of those idiots shot him." The ranger’s anger was rising again and he turned away, trying to control his emotions.

"This has to stop!" Elladan gazed hard at his father, "First Moranuen, now Prince Legolas... They can’t keep doing this to us! Let me go out there with a contingent, I will see to it that they leave our woods."

Elrohir looked up from where he sat on the bed next to the elf prince, "Father?" Elrond’s attention was divided. Memories surfaced in his mind, lost, forgotten ones, the face of a young, fair-haired elven child. It couldn’t be though or could it?"

"Yes Elrohir?"

"I think he wakens." The elven twin leaned over the prince and spoke quietly to him in the grey tongue.

Aragorn whirled around and moved close in, lending comfort with his presence.

"Hmm.." Legolas smiled slightly up at the worried faces around him, "I remember this place." His voice was soft and rough.

"Yes, well one day I would very much like to see you walk into it instead of being carried in, young prince." Elrond smiled down at the elf.

"So would I." Legolas gazed at Aragorn, "I really would Estel."

The human laughed softly, "Me too. You’re kind of heavy you know that?"

Pain seized the wounded elf as he tried to laugh and he turned on his side pulling into himself. Elrond pushed the younger elves out of the room and attempted to clear his youngest son out of the way as well but the human was having nothing of it. He knelt on the floor next to the bed, near the prince’s head, talking quietly to him as the elf worked on calming his breathing and relaxing.

"Estel, I will work better with you out of the room."

"Yes father, I know." The human simply walked back into the small fresher unit and retrieved a soft cloth and a bowl of water.

"Estel."

Silver eyes met and locked until the elder elf relented, shaking his head. "Why Illuvitar thought I needed anymore sons is beyond me." He teased the young human. Gently catching Legolas’ shoulders Elrond eased the elf onto his back once more and began to carefully inspect the bruised wounds to the prince’s upper body.

Aragorn slipped his knife from its sheath and cut away the bloodied legging around the elf’s thigh where the arrow had deeply bit into the muscle. He gently began to clean the wound as his father tended to his friend, slowing his movements considerably when Legolas drew his breath in sharply from the pain.

"I’m sorry." Aragorn whispered, catching his friend’s gaze. "I’ll be more careful."

Legolas didn’t respond, he was in too much pain to speak and the effort was not lost on the elf lord.

"It would be best if you slept through this." He smiled softly at the prince. "It would be less painful."

Aragorn glanced between his father and his friend. Finally Legolas nodded slowly fixing his eyes on the human. Elrond left the room and the ranger moved to sit on the bed near the elf prince. "You can trust my father."

Legolas barely smiled, "Young human I trusted Lord Elrond before most of your human father’s ancestors were ever born. It will be well."

Elrond re-entered the room and stopped in the doorway. He listened quietly as the two friends talked softly, letting them have a moment before he cleared his throat. Both turned to look at him, a smile graced the prince’s face but worry and guilt edged the eyes of the elf lord’s son. He would have to speak with his youngest later about the matter.

Stepping up near the bed Elrond held out a warm mug of thick yellow liquid, a slightly acrid smell lingered in the air. Aragorn took the cup from his father’s hands and smiled down at Legolas, "Looks like I get to drug you again. I guess next time it’s your turn."

"There will absolutely be *no* next time." Elrond leaned in close to the two glaring between them in mock indignation, "Is that perfectly understood?" The warning garnered slight laughter, having done its job in lightening the mood.

Aragorn slipped one hand under Legolas’ head and raised him slightly up, with his other he gently pressed the cup to the elf’s lips, tipping it ever so slightly. Instinctively, Legolas hand came up and gripped the ranger’s forearm as he took a sip of the warm liquid. It didn’t cause his stomach to react and at Aragorn’s prompting he took a longer drink, relaxing slowly as the drug took effect and he drifted into unconsciousness.

 

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

 

Elrond stepped quietly into the bedchamber. A fire was burning softly in the stone fireplace throwing warm shadows around the room. Legolas lay on the large bed finally breathing easily, his face turned towards the wall, and his left leg bandaged and elevated on a small mound of pillows to help stave the bleeding. The warm confines of the room had lulled its occupants to sleep.

Aragorn sat on the floor, leaning back against the tall bed, his head tipped back and resting against the mattress, hands in his lap. He was asleep.

Elrohir had commandeered a large overstuffed chair. The boys' familiarity with the house caused them to be careless with the furniture at times. The younger twin sat sideways in the soft recliner, his head resting on one arm and his legs draped over the other, snoring softly. Elladan had pulled a small stool near the bright flames warming his back, his unfocused eyes betrayed the fact that he was dozing, albeit lightly.

Elrond eased himself down in an empty chair and watched his sleeping sons. His eyes stopping on the form of the human, so relaxed and yet the elf knew that under the circumstances his every awareness was focused on the bed behind him, if Legolas even turned over the ranger would be awake instantly. Sensing someone watching him, Elrond glanced back at his eldest, smiling slightly at the young elf who sat there watching him.

"Don’t worry, he won’t wake up." Elladan smiled at the older elf, speaking quietly so as not to wake the others, "The only thing that could wake him now is if Legolas regained consciousness."

"I was just thinking that." Elrond smiled absently and glanced out the large window that decorated the southern wall. Night had fallen and the stars could just be seen.

"What is it father?" The young elf noticed his father’s distraction.

"This is my fault you know." The elf lord leveled the warrior with a heavy gaze.

"I don’t understand." Elladan frowned and leaned forward.

"Hebrilith." Elrond took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. He stood to his feet walking slowly to the picture window, his eyes not seeing the darkened night but reliving a time long ago. Elladan didn’t push his father; he knew the elder elf would speak when he felt like it.

"Hebrilith was a child when your mother and I were first married. His family lived in Lothlorien and when he was very young some men raided the woods there and captured several elves, Hebrilith among them." He stopped, frowning in remembrance, "We were able to rescue all of them, but of the child..." His voice fell off and he shook his head sadly.

"Father?"

Elrond turned back to elf and continued, "No one ever found Hebrilith. He had been given to a very wicked man who used the boy, as an object of curiosity." He glanced over at Legolas, his thoughts returning to the first time he had met the prince and the cruel captivity that the young elf had endured so long ago. "Much as Legolas was used once. The child was treated ill and grew up in hostility. He learned early on to hate men and he learned the lesson well. It was driven into his heart and carved in his memories." Walking back to the chair Elrond sat back down heavily.

"Finally, many years later, Hebrilith killed his captor and escaped. He returned to his parents and the elves in Lothlorien but he had been scarred too badly."

"Physically or emotionally?"

"Both. But the physical part we were able to heal. The emotional part was too far beyond our skills." Elrond’s eyes were sad as he remembered the fair-haired being, "He did not get along well with others after his return, not even others of our kind. He began to withdraw and the elves grew fearful of him. It was thought best to banish him, when he became uncooperative, choosing to live in seclusion in the woods."

The elf lord smiled to himself, "Your mother," He shook his head fondly, "She felt for the boy. You and Elrohir were mere infants when his banishment was considered. Her heart was always big enough for the least of the beings on this earth. She petitioned the court to allow the boy to live here in Rivendell." He glanced at Elladan, "Her request was granted. Of course I had agreed."

Elrohir had awoken and was watching his father intently, "Why would you do this?" He spoke softly.

"I too have been a captive, more than once. I know what the pain can be like, how it does not go away. How one must fight it everyday. I know what it is like to be elven and to not be, to be accepted and to not be. In a moment of weakness, I allowed the boy to live here near Rivendell."

"Nay, not weakness father, compassion." Elrohir spoke softly.

"Whatever moved us then was ill advised. Hebrilith chose to live in the mountains alone. He was at peace when he was away from all else and he was fine when undisturbed. We would see him from time to time when he had need. But as he became more self sufficient, his visits grew less frequent. Over the years I had lost track of him. In all truth I was not sure he was still alive. When your mother left for the undying lands, that was the last time I saw him. He was on the bluff over looking the bay, watching as she left."

Elrond ran a hand over the back of his neck as he continued more softly. "I had heard of rumors of people, men, meeting their ends in the mountains near where Hebrilith had chosen to reside. I always attributed their deaths to their own ignorance of the mountains; it is easy to loose ones way or footing there. As men have grown more abundant and as they now range farther into territory they never before occupied they are meeting with things far older than their race and more deadly than they are equipped to deal with."

Aragorn moved slightly, stretching slowly as he woke, the soft voices finally working their way into his consciousness. Elrond graced the young human with a small smile and it was returned from the bleary eyed human.

When he caught sight of his brother’s serious glances the smile slipped from his face and he jumped to his feet turning toward Legolas, but the prince was fine. Confused at the tension in the room he glanced back at his father who had risen from his seat and crossed the room to stand behind the boy, "Legolas is well. He is just resting, let him sleep. I was explaining to Elladan and Elrohir that I know who this dark elf that hunts the high ranges is."

Surprise lit the ranger's face and he easily allowed himself to be pressed back down to the floor as Elrond stared seriously at him, "I want you to be very careful when you hunt the dark elf, do you understand me Estel? I would rather that you did not go at all but I know I cannot keep you from it."

Aragorn looked between his father and his brothers in concern. Elrond crouched in front of the boy, eye level with the human, "You must promise me this. Hebrilith hates men, he was taken by them my son and he could never get over what was done to him. He will not hesitate to kill you. In fact if he sees you with your brothers or Legolas or even with other men, he will single you out and go after you first. I want you to be very aware of your surroundings at all times. Do you understand me?"

"Yes father, I promise." Estel’s words were mere whispers but his response satisfied the elf lord.

Elrond nodded and laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder as he stood once more. Turning to the twins he continued, "Hebrilith must be put down. Obviously, his heart has fallen into darkness and he can no longer be allowed to live. He has become more bold and men will simply continue to spread into the mountains and Hebrilith will hunt them."

Elladan started to protest but the elf lord stopped him, "It is mercy my son. He has lived a long life but he cannot live with others, it is torment to him. It will be in kindness that his wanderings here are cut short. He is... twisted inside. He has obviously allowed his hate to eat away at him until darkness is all he knows and whatever light was in him once is hidden and trapped by the evil he has let take his heart. Only in death can he be set free. It is something I should have done myself years ago but was loathe to."

Elladan nodded glancing at Elrohir. Something unspoken passed between the twins and they both looked at Estel. Elrond watched the silent communication with interest and he knew in that instant they had vowed to keep Hebrilith from killing again or coming anywhere near injuring their human brother.

"We will see it done father." Elladan smiled at the elder elf. "You did what you thought best. There is no shame in that."

Estel had the distinct feeling that he had been left out of something very important. As was his want to do he sat quietly listening to his father and brothers gleaning any information from them that he could.

Elrond noticed the boy's over attentiveness. It was a trait the young human had learned growing up in a house of elves millennia his senior and the elf lord had a feeling it would suit him well in his life to come. He smiled softly at the ranger, "Your brothers will fill you in on the details when Legolas awakes."

"I am awake." A soft, slurred voice spoke from the bed where the elf prince lay, "Although I am not sure I wish to be."

Aragorn scrambled to his feet and leaned over his friend. His eyes bright and a smile spreading across his face. "How do you feel?"

"Horrible. I ache." The elf smiled back, "Everywhere."

Elrond gently moved his son aside and pressed in close to the bed. Aragorn, unwilling to leave simply sat on the edge of the bed and watched as the elf lord carefully opened Legolas’ tunic and pressed his hand against the young prince’s ribs, feeling the swelling around the broken bones that were beginning to mend.

Legolas drew his breath in slightly, closing his eyes at the touch. His chest was discolored from the beating he had taken and every muscle seemed to protest the gentle touch of the elf lord.

"It will take you a couple of days before you are well enough to get out of bed," Elrond said quietly. The elf prince nodded as Elrond’s hand covered his forehead, "At least your fever is gone young one. You gave us quite a scare."

"Us?" Legolas pressed one elbow beneath him, raising himself up to look around the room. When he caught sight of the twins still seated where they were he chuckled, "Oh good."

"At least you won't be want for company while you heal. They have made your room their permanent residence." Elrond glanced back at Elrohir and raised an eyebrow at the youth.

Elrhoir gazed back at his father open eyed in question. A small throw pillow smacked him in the face, lobbed at him from across the room by his twin.

"He means respect the furniture." Elladan growled from his stool as his brother smiled sheepishly and righted himself in the chair. When their father had turned his attention back to the elf prince. Elrohir chucked the pillow at Elladan with more force than was necessary. The elder twin caught it but before he could retaliate Elrond’s voice stopped them both, "I saw that. Don’t think I didn’t. And do not throw that pillow again Elladan. There are decorations in this room older than the both of you that I can no longer replace." He glanced over his shoulder, "Behave."

Aragorn snickered. His humor was cut short however as the small pillow clobbered him in the face and sent him off balance so that he fell back against the bed. Elrohir began to laugh helplessly as Elrond turned to glare at his sons, "Elladan!"

"I have no idea how that happened father." The eldest twin replied, his face the very essence of innocence.

His act was not lost on the elf lord who simply stared at the warrior until the younger elf dropped his gaze with a guilty smile, "How old are you?"

Elrohir was trying unsuccessfully to still his laughter.

"Shut up Elrohir!" Elladan growled softly, "You are only a minute younger."

Legolas laughed softly at the brothers, his hand crossing his chest to keep from drawing in too much breath as the ache in his body restricted him.

"I can remove them if you like." Elrond teased looking at the twins out of the corner of his eyes.

"No, please." Legolas smiled up at the elf lord, "Let them stay, it is good to hear laughter."

"All right then," Elrond stood and looked around the room, "I’ll have food sent in for you shortly." He smiled fondly down at the human seated on the bed near his friend, "Be sure you keep them in line Estel. I do not need the prince injuring himself any further because of you all."

"Not to worry father." Aragorn smiled brilliantly back at the elf.

"Oh yes, he’s a big threat." Elladan said under his breath.

"Very scary." Elrohir chimed in sarcastically.

Elrond glanced a warning at the two and growled, "Behave." With that he turned and left the friends to themselves, their laughter reaching his ears as he walked out into the hallway towards the kitchen.

 

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

 

Elladan and Elrohir had retired to their own rooms for the evening, leaving Aragorn alone with Legolas. The elf prince was seated on his bed propped up against a sea of pillows that the brothers had scavenged from all over the house. Aragorn stirred the dwindling fire, stoking the embers.

"Aragorn go to bed. You look like you could fall over." Legolas teased the ranger as he slowly straightened from tending the fire.

"I will." The human stumbled to the overstuffed chair opposite Legolas’ bed and fell into it.

"No, *your* bed." The elf smiled at the sleepy ranger. "I’ll be fine."

"I know." Aragorn stretched himself out in the easy chair and watched his friend through slitted eyes. "I’m sorry Legolas."

The elf’s demeanor changed and he quieted immediately, "Aragorn, it’s not your fault." His voice was soft; they had been over this before.

The human turned his gaze away and watched the fire. "I wanted to kill Taradin when I found you. I wanted to kick myself for leaving. If I had been there, none of this would have happened." He shook his head; his thoughts dark with the memory of finding his friend strung up like a criminal, "When I saw you there..."

"Aragorn." Legolas voice stopped his reminiscing. "I am fine. You are the one who rescued me. If it were not for you, for your return, those men would have killed me - they made it very clear. You stopped all that."

The ranger was shaking his head but the elf ignored him, "How do you think I felt when I stood on the other side of that rockslide and listened to the orcs torturing you?"

"That was different." The young man leapt to his feet and paced the large room.

"It wasn’t different at all." Aragorn rounded on the elf but Legolas didn’t stop, "No, it wasn’t different at all. You were being tortured and I got there after the fact. After the fact Strider."

"They said you called my name." Aragorn’s voice was soft and slightly choked.

Legolas looked down at his hands. "I did?"

"They had drugged you." Aragorn seated himself on the bed and leaned over. "If I had waited for someone to go with me instead of stealing out of camp on my own I would have been there."

The elf wouldn’t meet his eyes. Bits and snatches of memory were coming back to him. Angry words, blurry faces, the pain... he almost shuddered as his mind slid backwards, mixing old memories with the new. And the old memories were more painful.

"Legolas?" Aragorn's concerned voice drew him back.

The prince shook his head, "Memories."

"Yes, of other men!"

"But not you. None of this was your fault and it was not even really Taradin or his men’s fault either." He stared hard at the human, "They thought I was Hebrilith. If he had been a man and done to my people what this elf has done to yours I am not sure that we would have handled him any more gently than they."

He knew Aragorn was not convinced and it was no use arguing with a human when they were tired, he had learned that well when they were traveling together on their way to the Mines of Moria. The elf smiled at the tired face watching him, "Go to sleep Estel. In the morning it will be better. Besides I was wondering what kind of trouble we could stir up in your woods and it seems that it has found us." He laughed at himself and pushed the ranger off his bed. "Go, so I may sleep."

Finally the ranger smiled back at him, his mind weary from the day and slow from being overly tired. He paced back to the deep cushioned chair and curled up in it.

"Your own room human." Legolas chided fondly.

"This is my room." He muttered back at his friend as he closed his eyes and laying his head on his arm he was instantly asleep.

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART FIVE*~

 

Aragorn had stayed on in Rivendell, unwilling to leave Legolas until the elf was well enough to move about on his own. It had been nearly a week since he had visited the men's camp and in all honesty he had temporarily forgotten about them.

They however had not forgotten about him.

Elrond had decided it would be nice to break their morning fast on the terrace overlooking the Bruinen and requested that their meal be brought to them there. A light breeze lifted off the water, cooling the sun-drenched deck.

Elladan was arguing the finer points of bow hunting with Elrohir.

"I am telling you brother, your fletchings are too long," Elladan spoke around a mouthful of food, "it's why you overshoot every time."

"Please." Elrohir rolled his eyes, "Everyone knows the only reason I never make a clean kill is because you are there whispering in my ear and throwing me off!"

Legolas started to laugh. Being with the family of Noldor elves was always a welcome change to his own. He loved his father dearly but Elrond and his sons just seemed to be more casual around each other and easily given to lighthearted conversation.

Elrond glanced at his sons. Estel was quietly listening to the argument, but his eyes could not hold back his mirth. It wouldn’t be long before he would be adding his own opinion to the conversation just to keep the argument going. The elderly elf had noticed that his human son seemed to be adept at keeping the twins stirred up and he smiled to himself.

Just as he had thought, Estel began to speak, but his words were cut off as a messenger hurriedly stepped out onto the veranda.

Elladan stood from his seat and Elrohir quickly moved from his own, offering the chair to the out of breath warrior. But the elf waved off the formality turning quickly to Elrond and bowing.

When the elf lord acknowledged the messenger the warrior began to speak.

"My lord we have discovered intruders." The elf took a deep breath trying to still his racing heart.

"Easy, speak slowly." Elrond stood and handed the warrior a glass of water, resting his hand lightly on the young elf’s back. When the messenger had calmed slightly the elf lord questioned him further, "Where did you find these intruders? And do you have them now?"

"Yes my lord, we have them restrained down in the courtyard." At his words the elves around the table erupted with action as the younger ones headed for the doorway followed closely by Elrond and the messenger. "We discovered them on the south face near the main path. They were definitely trying to conceal their approach. One of them put up quite a fight and we had to restrain him. And my lord," The warrior paused, "they are human."

The messenger’s last words halted Aragorn in his tracks and he turned sharply towards the warrior. Legolas and Elrond stopped up short and watched with interest as the ranger’s full attention was riveted on the elf.

"Did you say they were humans?"

The messenger glanced at Elrond who only nodded encouraging the elf to speak.

"Yes Estel. They are human. Why do you ask?"

"What did they look like?"

"Like humans?" The elf was confused. Didn’t all men look alike?

"No," Aragorn was afraid of the elf’s answer and his frustration was showing, "Are they townfolk? Are they hunters? All men?"

"Yes they are all men. Perhaps, yes, they are hunters." Understanding shaded the silver eyes of the messenger but Aragorn did not see it.

"Taradin! I should have thought..." He ran for the door, bursting out into the courtyard.

Just as he feared, Taradin, Garith and three other hunters he barely recognized were standing in the courtyard, ringed by a contingent of Rivendell’s warriors. Elladan and Elrohir were questioning the warriors.

Taradin himself was bound and had been forced to his knees, in order to restrain him. Garith was in tears, watching the older man from the side, his hands bound in front of him and guarded by an elven warrior.

"Release them!" Aragorn move towards Garith and gently but firmly pushed the warrior away, severing the young boy’s bonds. The youth ran to the older hunter and immediately began trying to pry loose the ropes that held Taradin bound.

Elrond stepped into the courtyard, quickly taking in the situation. He nodded wordlessly at the elves who immediately obeyed and released their captives.

Aragorn had knelt in front of Taradin and was cutting through the ropes that were looped about his chest.

"I’m sorry. Are you all right?" The ranger helped the man to stand.

"Well except for these damned elves..."

"Don’t." Aragorn turned hard eyes on him. The ranger stepped in close to the man, he couldn’t tell the hunter that this was his family but he would not let the human threaten or curse them either. They were his family.

Legolas stepped out from behind Lord Elrond and the men stopped arguing as they caught sight of the elf they had beaten only a week prior.

Taradin glanced at the elf prince and looked back to Aragorn, "He lives?"

"Yes." Aragorn smiled, "He lives."

The ranger stepped towards his father. With a slight smile he winked at the elderly elf and the elf prince. In the next moment his entire demeanor changed, Legolas was fascinated by the transformation. The human stepped back and bowed low to the two elves.

"My lords these are the hunters that your servant informed you of." Aragorn straightened up and looked over his shoulder towards the group of men. "May I introduce Taradin and his adopted son Garith. These men work with him. Forgive me for I have forgotten their names."

The ranger continued the introductions, "And this is Lord Elrond, Master of Rivendell." Strider turned towards his elven brothers and redirected the men’s attention, "These are his son and heirs, Elladan and Elrohir, masters of this house. Legolas Prince of Mirkwood has been recuperating under Lord Elrond care. Lord Elrond is an expert in the healing arts and has kindly seeing to his restoration."

Taradin and his men followed the ranger’s lead and bowed to the elves when the introductions had been made. "I hope that you are well again Heir of Mirkwood. And I ask you to forgive me and my men, we mistook you for an elf that has been killing our companions."

"I trust you have learned from your mistake." Elrond spoke up. His voice was low but his tone was firm and commanding.

"Yes my lord." Taradin bowed again, "It will not happen again."

"And yet you were caught sneaking onto our lands." Elrond clasped his hands behind his back and stepped down onto the courtyard, "Explain your actions. Rivendell is open to all who would enter and yet you treat us as though we were your enemy. Why is that?" dark eyes leveled the man with their piercing gaze as Elrond stepped close to the human.

Taradin shifted his glance towards the ranger but Garith who had finally recovered from his scare found his voice. "It’s not his fault Lord Elf. We was worried about Strider. He never came back and we was thinking it was cause you all might have thought he was the one who hurt the other elf there. We was coming to rescue him, with all due respect, sir."

"Garith, hush." Taradin put a protective arm around the young man and pulled him back tightly against him. "Its true your lordship. We just came to make sure that Strider here was all right."

Elrohir, on the edge of the group, snickered lightly. His soft laugh was only heard by the elven ears nearby and his human brother. Of course the man had been safe but the hunters had no way of knowing that. Elladan elbowed his twin, silencing the elf.

Elrond glanced at the twin, repressing a smile, knowing exactly what was in the thoughts of his son.

"As you can see the ranger has been well cared for." Elrond answered.

"Why hasn’t he been allowed to return?"

Aragorn stepped forward, finally realizing why the men had thought they needed to sneak into Rivendell, "Taradin, I’m fine. I stayed behind with Legolas to see to his recovery. I should have sent word or come back to you. I’m sorry, the mistake was mine."

The hunter looked the ranger over carefully. The younger man looked well fed and healthy and under no distress. Convinced that Strider was indeed all right he nodded and glanced at his men, "Are we free to go?"

"Of course." Elrond answered, "But we would welcome your company." The elf lord motioned back into the interior of the house, "Come and eat with us, surely you are hungry?"

Taradin glanced uneasily towards the open door, thinking over the offer. There had been so much bad blood between the men and the elves of late, perhaps it was time to put an end to that way of thinking. He nodded slowly and met Elrond’s easy gaze, "We would like to join you. May I send one of my men back so that the others know we are alright?"

"Of course." Elrond turned to a nearby warrior and addressed the elf, "Please see that this man gets a horse and is given water and something to eat before he goes."

The older hunter’s mouth dropped open at the generous offer and he turned huge eyes on Strider. The ranger simply smiled and nodded, escorting the men that were remaining into the house. "Your man will be well taken care of. The townsfolk are wrong about the elves you know."

"I am beginning to see that." Taradin answered awestruck as they entered Elrond’s dwelling and were escorted out to the veranda overlooking the deep gorge the dwelling was seated on.

Legolas watched his friend with fascination as the morning wore on. The ranger deferred to the elves in every matter, treating even his brothers as the royalty they were. His joking and lightheartedness had been replaced by a cloak of seriousness and quiet stability. Aragorn easily mediated between the humans and the elves, keeping himself out of the way and quietly off to the side until needed or addressed. His keen eyes watched everyone and when he spoke his words always tipped the conversations away from a confrontation or misunderstanding, slowly working the talk around to the subject of Hebrilith.

Elrond took note of his younger son’s intent and easily addressed the situation.

"You mentioned earlier that your men have been killed by an elf?" Elrond watched the hunter carefully as he asked the question.

Taradin laid his fork down on his plate and nodded, glancing up at the elven lord, "Yes they have. We thought Legolas here was him, there’s quite a resemblance between the two. Can’t seem to track him down or stop him. And no disrespect meaning but if we could put him down we would."

The elf lord’s gaze did not drop and Taradin was forced to look away from the piercing eyes. "It is true we have heard of this elf. However an elf cannot be easily tracked and caught by a human if he does not want to be. You see the problem?"

"We caught him alright." The hunter on Taradin’s left pointed his fork at Legolas.

Legolas stopped mid-bite, pausing to level an unreadable glare at the man. He was doing an admirable job of looking past what had occurred the last time he had been with these men, but they didn’t need to push their luck.

"That was because he was not expecting you to be hunting him. Nor did he have any reason to believe you would be." Aragorn spoke quietly from the side, his words leveled and hard. "Do you see the difference?"

The hunter locked eyes with the ranger until Taradin intervened, "Derent, behave. These here elves aren’t related to that one out there in the woods. Now mind your manners or I’ll have you sent back too."

"I see your point though Lord Elrond." Taradin sighed heavily and draped his arm across the back of Garith’s chair subconsciously touching the youth to make sure the boy was fine. "Do you have any suggestions? Could we perhaps work together?"

Elrond smiled and leaned forward, steepling his fingers as was his want when he had a plan in mind. "Perhaps our companies could work together to find this elf and stop the killings."

"Any help you could give us would be much appreciated."

Elladan and Elrohir exchanged knowing glances, smiles pulling at the corners of their fair lips.

"I would accompany Strider back out to the men’s camp and assist." Legolas spoke up first, glancing at his friend.

"Very well. You are mended well enough to do so. And I will send my sons to give their aide also. They are skilled trackers and bowmen. They will be an asset to your endeavor." Elrond glanced at the twins who both nodded in understanding, repressing their obvious delight.

Plans were quickly made and Lord Elrond saw that provisions were provided to the hunters. The generosity would go far in healing relations he hoped. Within the hour the hunters and the elves were mounted and headed out. Hebrilith’s true identity and background had been withheld from the men of Strayton, it was a little known secret that would go with the elf to his grave to protect him as much as to protect Rivendell.

Elrond stood once more on the steps of the house overlooking the courtyard. He called to his youngest son, "Ranger, I would speak with you a moment."

Aragorn moved from the line of beings heading out and steered his horse back towards his elven father, a smile on his face that the others could not see.

He bent near the elderly elf, "What is it father?" He asked softly. Legolas reined his horse in a few yards away from Aragorn’s giving the ranger a moment of privacy with his elven parent.

"Be very careful my son. Do not underestimate Hebrilith. With these men hunting him, he will have become even more dangerous than before."

"I understand," The dark silver eyes stared down into the deep blue ones, "Don’t worry father, I will be careful."

Elrond laid his hand on the young man’s thigh, stopping him from leaving, "Watch out for Legolas and your brothers as well. Not all the men will look kindly upon their presence in camp. See that they are not left alone with the hunters just yet. They think they are always safe and sometimes they overstep their limitations. Among men they are never safe, you will be their safety. Do you understand?"

Aragorn laid his hand on top of his fathers and squeezed it, "Yes father I do. I will bring them home safely."

"And yourself as well Estel." He stared hard into the smiling eyes.

"Always." The human replied with a light laugh.

Elrond shook his head and stepped away, "Now be off with the two of you before they return to find out what has happened."

Elladan and Elrohir were waiting just outside the archway that led to the main path. When Legolas and Aragorn joined them they raced to catch up with the retreating humans.

 

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

 

The help of the elves had been easily received by the company of men. The fact that the Noldor elves were darker haired and dressed differently helped the hunters to accept them more readily than they did Legolas. The men seemed to stay far away from the prince, giving him a wide berth. Whether the shun was intentional because the elven prince so resembled Hebrilith, or out of guilt because they had beaten the elf half to death Aragorn never discovered. But the distance gave the elves and the ranger time alone and privacy.

The two companies held camps apart. The elves bedded down a good hundred yards from the hunter’s camp, allowing the keen elven ears to hear the conversations that the men had, but too far from them for the men to hear their quiet talking.

They had looked for the past couple of days for the dark elf. Staying to the high pass and the areas where the hunters had claimed to have seen Hebrilith.

This particular morning, Legolas and Aragorn had split off from the twins and the hunters had taken the day to resume their trade; they still had families to feed and the presence of the Noldor elves in the woods seemed to bolster their confidence. The twins found themselves the center of welcome attention.

However the entire situation had unnerved Legolas and he found himself lost in his thoughts as Aragorn scouted around the small glen they had decided to rest in for the moment.

Legolas sat, quietly perched on the stone with his hands folded on his knee and a distant expression on his face. Distant and sad.

Aragorn sat down next to his friend, but Legolas did not stir or acknowledge his presence. The young ranger glanced sideways at his friend.

"Elladan said they would meet us back in camp by nightfall," Aragorn informed.

Legolas nodded absently and made a non-committal sound that was supposed to serve as an acknowledgement. Aragorn was not impressed.

"Elrohir burnt down the camp because he found a giant spider’s nest in your bedroll," the young ranger continued without changing his tone of voice, but looking side-long at his friend to see if Legolas was even paying any attention to him at all.

Legolas wasn’t. He nodded again. "That’s good," he murmured, obviously responding automatically to his friend’s tone of voice, without having heard a word he said.

Aragorn resisted the urge to laugh. Half a moment later a strange look crossed Legolas’ face as his friend’s words finally registered.

"What?" he turned a bewildered look upon the human.

Aragorn laughed, he couldn’t help it. "Weren’t you listening to a word I said?"

Legolas gave the young ranger a slightly withering glance, but the corner of his mouth twitched in an almost smile. "Apparently not," he admitted.

"What are you thinking about that’s got you so preoccupied?" Aragorn asked, settling himself back on the rock and pulling his knee up to his chest.

"Many things," Legolas sighed, gazing out at the horizon as his look turned distant again.

"Like..." Aragorn prodded.

Legolas shot him a wry grin. "You humans are extremely nosey, you know that?"

Aragorn nodded unashamedly. "Yes. So...?"

Legolas rolled his eyes and stood up, crossing the clearing and leaning against a tall oak tree, his gaze continuing to be far away. Aragorn followed him.

"You don’t like what we’re doing, do you?" Aragorn queried softly. "I’ve seen it in your eyes."

Legolas sighed deeply and met his friend’s eyes at last. "No. I don’t like it. And yet... I know it is right. We must do what we must do..." there was a struggle behind the elf prince’s clear silver-blue eyes that Aragorn did not yet fully comprehend.

"I know it’s hard, he’s one of your own kind..." Aragorn started, but Legolas shook his head, cutting him off.

"No, it’s not just that. Don’t you understand Strider?" pain filtered through the elf’s gaze. "When Taradin’s men mistook me for him, they weren’t making as big a mistake as you might think... There is more about us that is alike than simply how we look." Legolas’ voice was quiet.

Aragorn wore a frankly puzzled expression. He could not see a thing about his friend and this cold-blooded killer that was at all similar.

"He wasn’t always evil... you remember what Lord Elrond said? About what happened to him?" the hurt in Legolas’ eyes was deepening.

Aragorn ached for his friend’s pain, but did not yet follow his train of thought. "It’s tragic, yes..."

Legolas shook his head and looked away, no longer able to meet his friend’s eye. "But don’t you see? That could be me." The words were a whisper.

Aragorn’s brows furrowed deeply. "Legolas..."

"I was hurt by men, Aragorn," Legolas stared steadily out in to the trees, not looking up. "Badly hurt. They tortured me because I was an elf, because I was different than them and they wanted to own me body mind and soul. I hated them. I spent a long time almost hating a whole race for what King Melèch and the men he gave me over to did to me in Dorolyn so many, many years ago." Legolas had not spoken openly about any of this in years. He had dealt with the feelings, especially since meeting Aragorn, but he had not yet spoken of the experience, or its affect on him.

Aragorn didn’t say anything, but laid his hand gently on his friend’s shoulder. There really was nothing he *could* say at this point. He knew a little about what had happened to Legolas so many years ago. Elrond had been there, and had once told young Estel the story of how very close Middle-Earth had come to having the horrible power of the Gondraukos unleashed upon her. Aragorn had been significantly younger then, and Elrond had seen fit to gloss over some of the worst parts of the tale, but the young man could fill the missing pieces in for himself with an adult mind now and he could guess just how badly and how deeply Legolas had been hurt. It had been something he understood since meeting the elf, and although it no longer stood between their friendship, many of the little ways that Legolas still reacted to things sometimes told Aragorn that the elf prince had not put the experience as fully behind him as he liked to think.

"When I found you on the eves of Mirkwood that first time..." Legolas continued softly, ashamed of himself. "Part of me wanted to leave you there." He glanced somewhat warily at his friend, afraid of what kind of reaction such a confession would bring.

Aragorn just smiled and squeezed the elf’s shoulder tighter. "But you didn’t."

"No," Legolas sighed slightly in relief. "I couldn’t. And I am very glad now that I did not. I would have lost a dear friend. You have opened my eyes to many things Aragorn, not the least of which is that just like elves, men are all very different, and need to be considered individually, not as a whole. But I can’t help thinking... if things had been different... if I had not had my father and Lord Elrond there after it happened, helping me through the pain that those men left behind in my heart, my body, my mind... If I had never met you... would I have ended up so different than him?"

Legolas’ eyes searched Aragorn’s for an answer and the young Dunadan swallowed hard, wishing he had one.

"Legolas... I don’t know what-ifs, but I do know this: you may have been hurt, but you did not turn around and start hurting in return. You may have not liked, or even hated men, but you didn’t start killing every one of them you could get your hands on. You didn’t let your hurt consume you, and that was a *choice* Legolas, a choice you made. Hebrilith made that choice too, and he chose poorly. You are *not* like him Legolas. You’re not."

Any argument the elf might have made was cut off as the sounds in the forest around stopped. Silence fell like a net on the glade and the ranger immediately unslung his bow listening to the stillness for any signs of its source.

Legolas crouched near him, studying the far side of the glen. He motioned the human under the covering of the woods and quietly stepped back into the shadows near him. Whatever was approaching either did not realize they were there or was simply hunting them.

The brush on the edge of the shallow rustled and a large male warg entered the open meadow. He lifted his head, smelling the air for hints of his prey. A low growl emanated from his throat and he pulled his lips back revealing long sharp teeth. Small yellow eyes pierced the half shadows where the ranger and the elf hid and the evil creature laid his ears flat against his head as he saw the two hiding there.

"He sees us." Aragorn whispered to Legolas who was crouched just in front of the ranger.

The elf simply nodded and raised his bow, sighting in on the beast. The warg was unaffected by the sight of the weapon and crept steadily nearer, the promise of a meal overriding his self-preservation.

Half way across the glade Legolas loosed his arrow, neatly felling the animal. The two remained concealed for several moments after the beast fell dead. The forest sounds had still not returned.

Cautiously, Legolas moved out from their hiding place. Slowly stalking towards the dead creatures side. He motioned for the ranger to remain beneath the forests protective shadows but the human trailed him ignoring the warning.

The elf shot the human a glare over his shoulder but stopped short of reprimanding the ranger. Something, rather yet someone, had caught his eye. His keen sight had seen the ever so slight movements in the underbrush across the way. And he was certain that he had glimpsed the dark outline of another pressing back against the trees.

Aragorn approached the tensed elf slowly, searching the surrounding area for what might have triggered his friend to stop and move into a defensive posture.

He barely breathed as he crouched beneath the darkness of the trees, watching the two beings in the glen. Such odd partnering, that an elf should be accompanied by a human. He wondered at what it meant and why the elf would suffer himself to be in the company of a man. It mattered little he would relieve the elf of the burden the human was to his existence. Hebrilith drew his bow, the tip of his arrow aimed for the rangers heart.

In a split second Legolas spotted Hebrilith concealed in the brush under the far trees, he saw the arrow loosed from the elf’s bow and knew the target.

There was no time to shout a warning. The prince threw himself to the forest floor, kicking his feet out in a sweeping arc and catching the ranger’s ankles, tangling the man’s legs in his own and toppling the human.

Aragorn, caught completely unaware, and surprised by his friend’s swift movements fell hard to the earth. The arrow screamed through the empty air he had just occupied, snagging his right sleeve and slicing across his arm, barely cutting through the skin as he fell.

Legolas rolled up into crouched position and fired back on Hebrilith’s position.

The action was totally unforeseen by the rogue elf and his utter surprise threw him off guard. Why would the elf protect the human? The arrows embedded in the tree trunks inches from his face were proof but he had no time to ponder the oddity of the situation as Legolas ran towards the dark elf’s position his bow already re-notched.

Hebrilith turned and fled. He was not prepared to face down this elf and he had never thought to kill one – yet. The fear he felt inside was a strangely foreign feeling and he had no appreciation for the emotion or the ones who were causing it. He hadn’t known this feeling in many centuries. Pressing it down, deep inside himself, Hebrilith locked it away with his anger and hatred, he would use it later. All things could be useful he had learned and today had taught him something knew – elves had been corrupted by men.

Aragorn gained his feet unsteadily and ran after Legolas. It took all his skills to keep up with the elf. The nimble being ran through the forest lightly, dogging branches and roots that reached out to snag the clumsier human that followed him. The ranger rounded a large tree and almost ran headlong into Legolas.

The elf stood perfectly still, ready for the slightest hint to direct him. His breathing was only slightly labored and his every sense was thrown outward. Aragorn knew better than to speak, the prince had lost the dark elf’s trail and was using every bit of his expertise to relocate his prey. The ranger used the small respite to catch his breath. He turned around and backed close to the elf, protecting them from behind in case Hebrilith had doubled back and was intending to take them from that position by surprise.

The forest erupted with sound to their left. A small flock of birds exploded from the canopy of trees and shouts and cries of men could be heard. Legolas was gone in an instant heading for the sounds of chaos.

"Legolas! No wait!", Aragorn tried to warn his friend off, but the elf was intent on tracking Hebrilith and did not heed the ranger’s warnings.

"Damn elf." The man muttered under his breath as he ran after the prince. The shouts had been those of men, not of elves. If Legolas came upon the men and they in their fear and distress mistook him once more for the dark elf... He didn’t want to think of the repercussions.

The ranger burst into the glen moments after the elf. Taradin’s men had Legolas surrounded and the elf had not backed down to them one bit.

"Release me, let me go after him!" Legolas anger showed in his eyes and he had not dropped his bow, his chest heaving from the exertion of tracking the rogue and his frustration with the men in his pathway. "Taradin!"

At the sound of his name the hunter looked up from where he knelt over a wounded man. Quickly standing to his feet, the older man caught sight of Strider running into the small open area where they stood.

"Taradin!" Aragorn shouted at the hunter when he saw his friend surrounded by the man’s companions. He pressed his way past the hunters, taking up position in front of Legolas and glaring at the men who encircled them, "Put your weapons down."

"I can’t hear him any more." Legolas pressed in close to the ranger and whispered, frustrated that he had lost Hebrilith’s trail.

"Easy." Aragorn whispered back not dropping his gaze from the men around them.

Taradin pushed into the circle, shoving his men out of the way. "Put your weapons down. Its Strider and his friend Legolas." The hunter walked up to the ranger and pressed the man’s sword aside, smiling sadly at the elf. "Sorry you two, but we just had a run in with that killer elf you’re hunting."

Muttered apologies floated to the three of them as the band of men stood down and dispersed. Tensions were still high and they turned their gazes out into the surrounding trees, jumping at the small sounds of the forest, ready to attack any intruders.

Legolas dropped his bow to his side and relaxed, "He is gone. I have lost his trail. I can’t hear him, and I know not which way he left here." Aragorn nodded and rested his hand on the tense elf’s shoulder.

"Its all right, we’ll find him again later." He spoke the words softly in the grey tongue, knowing how frustrated his friend was. Turning back to the hunter he questioned the man further, "What happened here Taradin?"

The big man sighed, "That damned elf, what do you call him, rogue? He came running into our campground. Never seen anything like it. I think he didn’t realize we were here. Scared the men good. Caught us all by surprise. He shot Chalhden before we could even respond. I didn’t see where he went after that, all hell broke loose. A couple of my men ran after him I think."

"That was foolish." Legolas turned back towards the hunter, he had been trying to pick up any hint of where the elf had run off to.

"Maybe so but we’re a might tired of that elf coming in and shooting us up whenever he gets a hankering too."

"We were chasing him. I think we drove him into your camp. That was our fault, I’m sorry." Aragorn looked around them at the destroyed campsite.

Taradin waved off the apology, "We weren’t bedding down here, just stopped for some mead and to clean the catches from this morning. It was fine hunting till just now." He smiled ruefully at them, his eyes taking in the elf, "Sorry about the scare my men gave you. You still look an awful lot like that rogue. ‘Cept there’s something about your eyes that’s a whole lot kinder to look at. Looking at the eyes that creature has is just like looking at death, they’re dead inside if you get my meaning." He shuddered slightly but shook off the dark mood with a hearty laugh, "I think the mead’s still good and warm, will you have some with us?"

Two hunters crashed through the forest depositing themselves in the middle of the campground and disrupting the calm that had just resettled. One dropped to the ground breathing heavily, the other leaning against his companion, resting his hands on his knees as he spoke.

"We followed him Taradin. But he got the best of us. Seemed a bit more frightened than usual. Didn’t even fire back at us when we tried to fell him." The man gulped in air before talking again, "Then all of a sudden we realized he was just gone. Couldn’t find his trail or nothing."

"Got afraid that’s what we did." The hunter seated on the ground spoke up, "We came back straight away after that."

"That was smart." Aragorn answered as he stepped forward offering his water bag to the men.

It was received readily with nodded thanks. But their conversation was interrupted by a shout.

"Taradin!" Garith called frantically from where he knelt by Chalhden.

The hunter glanced at Aragorn and Legolas, "There are just days when I hate hearing my name." He stalked over to the fallen man muttering to himself, "This is one of them."

Legolas watched as the hunter knelt down near the wounded man. "Wait." He called out, moving quickly near the small knot of men who parted as he stepped close. Aragorn trailed him protectively, not comfortable with his friend in their midst after what had just happened here.

The elf knelt next to the others and pushed Taradin gently away, carefully inspecting the wound. They had been about to remove the arrow that was embedded in Chalhden’s shoulder but the elf prince had noted that the arrowhead protruded from the back of the man – it had nearly gone straight through the human, pulling it back out would cause only more damage.

Aragorn knelt next to his friend and examined the exit wound. "I wonder if he used poison on the tips?" The ranger quietly asked.

"It can’t be pulled back through, it is double edged and will only cause more damage."

A soft groan emanated from Chalhden interrupting them. Aragorn stood and stepped over the prone man kneeling down near the hunter’s face. Taradin had cleared his men away and pulled Garith from the immediate area, giving the ranger and the elf the room they needed. After having watched the ranger keep his friend alive through the night when they had overdosed him on dragon water, he did not doubt that the man knew what he was doing.

"What’s the trouble?" Taradin questioned. Chalhden’s pain filled eyes followed Aragorn’s every move.

"The arrow has nearly exited his shoulder in the back, pulling it out as you were prepared to do would only do him more harm."

"What do you propose?"

Aragorn glanced at Legolas who was holding the man, keeping Chalhden from rolling onto his back. The elf nodded and slipped one of his elven knives from its sheath.

Chalhden tensed as he saw the blade and Taradin jumped forward, "Now wait just a minute!"

"No," The ranger pressed the hunter back, "Legolas will need to cut the arrow head off..." He stalled, unwilling to say the rest, "After I push it all the way through." The old hunter started to protest but Aragorn continued, "There could be poison on it Taradin, we have no way of knowing and, trust me, it will be less painful."

Taradin glanced at Chalhden who only nodded, the pain was making him sick and he knew that he needed their help.

"Relax, it will be quick." Legolas spoke kindly to the man, who watched him warily.

Aragorn knelt back next to the man, placing his left hand on Chalhden’s shoulder and grasping the arrow shaft with his right. He smiled warmly down into the green eyes and tried to get the hunter to relax, "So your name is Chalhden?" At the man’s nod he kept up the light banter. Legolas saw what he was doing and waited him out, ready whenever the ranger was. "You an archer or mainly a sword man?"

"Archery." The man ground out relaxing slightly as his attention was diverted. He didn’t notice when Aragorn tensed his hand on the arrow shaft.

"Well that’s good." The ranger smiled at the man, "Then this little flesh wound won’t stop you hardly at all."

Chalhden smiled slightly but his response was cut off as Aragorn pressed the arrowhead the rest of the way through his back. He cried out with the sharp intensity of the pain. Legolas had been ready. He quickly cut the head from the shaft grabbing the arrow tip and nodded at Aragorn who just as quickly pulled the shaft back out. The hunter fell forward as the arrow came free and the ranger caught him, easily moving aside as Taradin and Garith took over. The younger man quickly scooted beneath the wounded hunter and supported him as Taradin cleaned and bound the areas where the weapon had penetrated.

Aragorn joined Legolas who had moved off to a patch of sunlight. He was carefully examining the arrowhead, turning the sharp metal in his fingers and allowing the sun to play on the tips of the cruel point. It gleamed red with the blood still clinging to it.

"Anything?"

Legolas turned to his friend, "Not that I can see. But that does not mean it is not there." He glanced over his shoulder at the hunters, "Let us get back to camp and we can test it there."

Aragorn walked back to Taradin, "We should go. Come back to the base camp, we can test the arrow head there and we have medicines to treat Chalhden’s wound."

The old hunter nodded and called his men to him. In minutes the temporary camp was broken down and the hunters were headed back to base. Legolas and Aragorn brought up the rear, keep watchful eyes on the forest around them.

--------------------

Hebrilith watched from his vantage point high in the trees as the men left. He followed Legolas’ actions carefully, interested in an elf helping men but obviously not well liked by them. The elf seemed somehow familiar. That human had called him Legolas. Was this Thranduil’s heir? Did Thranduil even realize that his son was in the company of men? There was no logic to it that the dark mind could conceive. He would need to watch, he wanted to watch and see just what became of an elf who lived among humans. He was patient, he could wait, however he had no intentions of missing the ranger they called Strider again.

--------------------

When they arrived in camp they were met with a roaring campfire and meat cooking on the slowly turning spits. Elladan and Elrohir were tending the fire, preparing dinner. They had brought down two of the large wild pigs that roamed the forests around Rivendell and were waiting for the others to return.

They listened intently to the tales of the brushes the men and Legolas and Aragorn had had with Hebrilith. Unnerved by the near miss on their younger brother’s life.

"Estel that was too close." Elrohir accompanied his brother back to the far side of the camp. Although the hunters had an easy alliance with the elves, the two companies still kept separate from each other.

"I was fine." The ranger dropped down wearily on his pallet, "Legolas was there." He smiled impishly at the elf.

"Yes, well, tomorrow Legolas will not be if we follow the men’s plan." Elladan interjected walking up next to the human and glaring down at him.

"You worry too much." Estel smiled back up at the elf, pushing at the soft boots to get his brother to move away, "It’ll turn your hair gray."

Elrohir snickered at the comment, garnering him a glare, "That would be funny. Not even father has gray hair yet."

"Laugh all you want my brother but just wait till we have to report back to father that Estel was injured because he was hunting Hebrilith alone."

"He doesn’t have to know and *I* wasn’t injured."

"This time." Came the dark reply.

Aragorn pushed at Elladan again, giving up he jerked his blanket out from under the elf’s boots and rolled up in it. "Besides he’ll only know if you tell." The man muttered.

Legolas laughed lightly as he seated himself near the fire. "Nothing will happen. Estel can take care of himself. He can take the northern pass near where the men will be hunting while we go farther east. They will all be on the look out for Hebrilith and he will be within easy access of their temporary camps."

Elladan started to disagree.

"He is a ranger after all." Legolas continued, smiling at the glares from the elven twins and rested his head on his arms, drawing his knees up to his chest as he redirected his gaze into the fire.

"Thank you Legolas." Muttered the half asleep man, "At least someone realizes I am fine on my own."

A short laugh stirred the man, "I did not say that young one." The elf’s blue eyes twinkled with merriment as he glanced at the human, "I said you were a ranger."

With a snort of disgust Aragorn dismissed them all. Growing up with elves could be a great disadvantage too he was beginning to think. In the morning they would head out and see if they couldn’t track Hebrilith. He would show them all then.

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART SIX*~

 

 

Aragorn returned to camp first. They had decided to split up that morning, with the help of Taradin’s men they would be able to cover much more ground than normal. Aragorn had taken the high pass that ran parallel to the northern road out of Rivendell staying near the main road while his brothers and Legolas covered the area Aragorn had indicated that Hebrilith lived in normally.

Aragorn had taken the high pass that ran parallel to the northern road out of Rivendell. He had found several old campsites most of which had belonged to men. He could tell they were men camps by the left over refuse and the abandoned firepits. But two barely recognizable sites had been frequented by an elf and were still being used from time to time. It was harder to detect an elf’s resting place for they tended to remove any trace of their stay, but there were telltale signs; crushed plant life around the perimeters, dirt cleaned of pine needles, light impressions of soft leather boots.

Aragorn knew just what to look for and had been rewarded for his diligence. He believed he had found where the rogue elf had been traveling recently and bedding down of late, it would account for Taradin’s tails of mishaps in this region and the coincidence of them mistaking Legolas at the ruins. He was eager to pass on the knowledge he had obtained and was slightly disappointed when he realized that he had returned first. To occupy himself he began to start a fire and set about preparing the meal for the evening.

The sounds of soft footfall behind him brought a smile to his face and he turned expecting to find Legolas or his brothers walking into camp. Instead the hilt of an elven knife slammed into the back of his skull throwing him sprawling onto the forest floor. His ears rung and he tottered on the verge of blacking out as his vision hazed. Sounds drifted in and out of his awareness as he tried vainly to press himself up into a sitting position. A knee was rammed between his shoulders and he tasted dirt as his face was pressed into the ground. Rough hands jerked him over onto his back and his hands were tightly bound in front of him.

Sight and coherent thought returned slowly and he was momentarily stunned when he saw who his captors were. Truth to be told, he had more than expected to be greeted with Hebrilith’s icy glare, but it was not the dark elf’s eyes that met his. Instead the young ranger was completely taken by surprise to find himself staring into a different, although at the moment hardly less deadly, set of Elven eyes.

Sarcayul stood over the young man, glaring down at him. When he noticed the human had recovered he kicked the man viciously in the ribs and leaned down towards the ranger, "Did you really think I would let you get away with that pitiful display of mercy you favored us with in Mirkwood? Do you think you did us any favors? Why that fool of a king and his puppet son ever befriended you is beyond me." He spit at the man, who flinched away from him.

Aragorn was still trying to catch up with this sudden twist of events. He had never expected, nor hoped to see Sarcayul or any of his followers again after the elf had tried to take his life back in Mirkwood over a fatal hunting accident involving the elf’s brother. Sarcayul had known the young ranger was not responsible for the death, but had hunted him nonetheless, eventually putting into motion the events that resulted in Legolas and Aragorn’s painful expulsion from Mirkwood. Given the choice, Aragorn had spared these elves’ lives when he could have demanded their blood, but they did not seem to appreciate his kindness, in fact, it appeared that they simply taken it as another excuse to hate him more than ever.

"Just kill him Sarcayul and let us leave before anyone returns." An elf near the edge of camp turned and called back to the warrior. Aragorn could see the tension in the elves that stood round him glancing between the wooded forests and their leader. He silently prayed that someone would return soon.

Sarcayul glared at down at his prisoner, "Nothing to say? What, no wise witty statements, no magnanimous displays of forgiveness?" He reached down and grabbed the man by his bound hands hauling him to his feet. "Let’s go. I have no intentions of getting caught here by Thranduil’s brat. It doesn’t matter where I kill this one, he’s dead already."

Everyone in Mirkwood knew of Sarcayul and his followers' dishonorable behavior and they had become outcasts in their own land. Leaving in anger, they had determined to hunt down the one who they felt was responsible for their shame. Hunt him down and kill him.

Figuring he had nothing to lose, Aragorn wrenched himself free of the elf’s grip and made a break for the forest. If he could just get away he could find Legolas or one of his brothers and get to safety. He had nearly gained the far side of the camp, momentary surprise on his side, when an elf warrior stepped into his path and raised his drawn bow pointing it straight at the ranger’s head. The man skidded to a stop and looked wildly around him for another venue of escape. Sarcayul caught up with him, rage contorting his features and before Aragorn could react he smashed his fist into the side of the ranger’s head causing the man to stumble and his vision to haze out of focus.

"I grow weary of you." The elf growled into his ear as he jerked the Aragorn around. Taking advantage of the human’s condition Sarcayul drug him out of the camp, back to the road where the horses were waiting. They forced the ranger to mount up. Sarcayul grabbed the reins of the human’s steed once he was seated in his own saddle and jerked the animal around, leading them away from the camp and up the northern pass road.

Nausea threatened to overcome the ranger as the elf pressed the horses into a fast trot, trying to put distance between themselves and the Noldor elves’ camp. Aragorn swallowed hard, trying to calm the sickness pressing up inside of him. His head pounded from the beating and he knew his system was simply reacting to the abuse. Panic gripped his heart like a vise and he breathed slowly as he tried to regain control of his own emotions. He had not even known that Sarcayul still hunted him. He had thought that he was free from this threat. Dealing with Hebrilith had been quite enough... having *more* elves out for his blood was a little bit more than Aragorn was prepared to deal with.

The horses began to slow and Sarcayul reined them back into a slow walking gait as they began the steep ascent over the northern rim. Aragorn realized with a spike of fear that they were entering Hebrilith’s territory, if the dark elf saw him in the company of the Silvan elves, he knew that he would jeopardize the whole contingent.

He wondered vaguely where Legolas and his brothers were and if they would realize what had happened to him.

 

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

 

Legolas had come back to the camp later than he would have liked. His forays south had uncovered nothing new about the rogue elf and he was discouraged by the lack of evidence he had turned up. Hoping the others had had more success he had given up and headed back to the camp.

As he reached the edges of the forest that surrounded their makeshift campsite he had heard voices, angry voices, voices he recognized that should not have been in this part of Rivendell, voices that made his blood run cold.

He ran through the now empty camp and reached the passage out of Rivendell just as the last of Sarcayul’s men rode around the bend out of sight. He barely glimpsed Aragorn, bound and riding next to Sarcayul, before they were gone. Fear spurred him on and he ran up into the forests that grew along the roadside shadowing the company as they passed on their way out of Rivendell. He had to stop them before they left the area. So intent was he that he did not realize that they had passed through the very area that the rogue elf had last been spotted in. His focus was on the man in the middle of the Silvan elves. He had nearly gained their position as they slowed to a walking gait passing through the narrow high pathway when the situation took on an unexpected, dangerous turn.

 

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

 

Sarcayul led Aragorn’s horse up the steep winding path that led through the mountains. The passageway cut dangerously near Hebrilith’s territory and the ranger glanced about them nervously. He fought with the ropes that bound his wrists in front of him; it was hard to balance on the horse without the use of his hands.

Sarcayul glared at the human as he tested the knots, "Stop it." He growled at the ranger giving the reigns he held a sharp jerk. The motion caused Aragorn’s horse to skitter sideway and canter closer to the elf.

The elf rode to the outside of the pathway blocking Aragorn’s horse between himself and high rock cliff face on the ranger’s right. The edge of the slight passage on Sarcayul’s side was a deep cliff face that plummeted down to the base of the gorge that comprised the rift Rivendell was built into.

Aragorn’s horse was uneasy and skitterish, it moved with small steps back and forth between the hill and Sarcayul’s mount. The horses senses were better than the humans and suddenly became acutely aware.

"Sarcayul, we are in danger" The ranger leaned over towards the elf speaking quietly so as not to alarm the warrior’s men behind them. His presence in their midst would be seen by the rogue elf as a threat and Aragorn did not wish to bring trouble down on their heads, "We need to get to cover, quickly."

The elf turned in his saddle faster than Aragorn was prepared for and viciously backhanded the human, "Shut up!" The force of the blow sent Aragorn rocking back on his horse, splitting his lip with the impact. It was enough for the animal to loose control of its fear and shy back away from Sarcayul in an attempt to bolt.

Time seemed to slow for the human. He tried to regain his balance on the animal he rode but was unable to. Sarcayul leaned forward to grab the horse’s reigns once more and as he did so the sound of an arrow whistled inches from Aragorn’s face. The weapon flew past him and bit deeply into the warrior’s shoulder above his heart. The force of the projectile threw the elf backwards and he found himself slipping from his saddle. Wildly he flailed his arms trying to maintain his balance or grasp hold of something stationary to stop him. His fingers found purchase in Aragorn’s overcoat but the man was still attempting to reign in his mount and was unable to compensate for the weight of the elf, with his hands bound before him he was helpless.

Unbalanced and mounted on panicked horses the two found themselves thrown backwards, free-falling off the cliff towards the bottom of Rivendell’s gorge.

 

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

 

The elf watched from his hiding place, smiling softly to himself. Another one was gone. He was sorry that the warrior had gotten in the way but it had been worth it to kill the human. He had been waiting for just such a chance ever since he had found the man in his camp going through his things. Middle Earth would be better off without the ranger and so would the elves. He had just started to lower his bow when a shout from his right surprised him.

A fair-haired elf leapt from the cover of the underbrush, very near his own position, and ran to the edge of the cliff where the warrior and the human had gone over. He was calling someone’s name. Hebrilith notched his bow and tracked the elf with it. He had a clear shot at the warrior; he could easily take him out. But something stayed his hand, something in the elf himself as he watched this one and he lowered his bow, crouching down in the undergrowth to see what would come of the situation playing out below him. This was the same elf from the day before. The one who traveled with the man. He would wait to see what transpired.

 

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

 

Fear shot through every cell in Aragorn’s body. His brain was near panicking to the point of blacking out. Sarcayul had pulled him from his horse and had taken the human with him over the edge of the cliff. The ranger knew it had been Hebrilith that had targeted them but even this he had not expected.

He fell several meters before his body impacted a small shelf of rock jutting out from the face of the cliff. Aragorn scrambled to catch hold of anything that would keep him from falling further but the weight of the elf who still held onto him pulled him off the narrow ledge. Throwing his arms out in front of him in a last ditch effort to stop their descent, his bound hands came down around the root of a tree that had grown out from the side of the rockface. The ropes tightened around his wrists painfully and jerked the human to a stop, wrenching his shoulders horribly as he hung from the binds, his hands supporting Sarcayul’s weight and his own. The abrupt stop pulled at every muscle in his arms and back and he cried out at the pain that lanced between his shoulders and tightened across his chest.

His breathing was ragged and choked but his mind was racing, now fully aware since they had stopped. He looked down at the elf dangling below him holding tightly to his legs.

"Sarcayul!" He couldn’t quite see the elf’s face so he shifted carefully and glanced down his back catching the warrior’s eyes, "there is a shelf just above my head. Climb up me and you can stand there, you’ll be safe till they can rescue us."

Even in the face of their impending deaths the elf was defiant and he regarded the human through narrowed eyes.

"Listen you don’t have any choice!" Aragorn shouted at the warrior, the pain in his arms increasing by the minute, "Go! What’s wrong with you? Too proud to even save yourself, damn you elves."

Sarcayul’s expression softened almost imperceptibly and he shook his head, "I cannot feel my fingers. I am loosing my grip."

Aragorn glanced at the arrowshaft protruding from the elf’s shoulder, realization dawning on him. He spoke quietly and calmly, "Sarcayul listen to me." The elf below him closed his eyes, letting his head rest against the rangers calves. "Sarc!? The arrow was poisoned, you have to move now before it’s too late."

"Sarcayul!"

Slowly the elf raised his head and met the human's eyes, "It is already too late." He could feel the poison in his system like a river of ice, shutting off his body slowly. The toxin reached his heart and he caught his breath, his muscles spasming as his body shut down completely.

Aragorn watched the elf in horror as the warrior’s eyes rolled back in his head and he released his grip, slowly slipping away, his body falling soundlessly to the bottom of the gorge.

"NO!" The ranger pressed his face against the rock in front of him. The loss of another immortal life pressing grief upon his heart. "Legolas! Elladan! Elrohir!" He glanced above him shouting for his friend, for his brothers... for anybody. "Legolas!"

Chapter Text

~*PART SEVEN*~

 

The elf prince had seen Aragorn and Sarcayul fall from the edge of the pathway, from his hiding place he trailed the Silvan elves waiting for the right moment to free the young human.

When he had recovered enough from the shock of watching his friend pulled over the cliff face, realizing that Hebrilith was near, he gave up the safety of the wooded area and ran to the edge of the pathway, calling to his friend.

Throwing himself down on the dirt path, he leaned out over the edge. He could hear Aragorn calling his name. "Strider!" The elf could see no one but he could still hear the human frantically calling him.

"Strider I am right here!!"

Aragorn’s voice quieted and he allowed himself to calm down, resting his head against his arms still, suspended over his head.

"Where are you?" Legolas’ voice floated down to him. "I can’t see you!"

Elladan and Elrohir had heard the commotion and had crested the hill from where they were hunting Hebrilith; their position just above the rogue elf and the chaos that was spreading through Sarcayul’s warriors as Legolas shouted angry commands at them. Not seeing their brother anywhere in the vicinity they had pressed their horses over the small pass and joined the group of elves that were staring over the cliff.

"I am here." His voice broke as he called up to them, the pain in his arms catching his breath, "Get me up."

Elladan threw himself down next to Legolas, "Tell me it’s not Estel."

"It is." Legolas glanced worriedly at the older twin.

"Estel!" Elladan leaned out trying to catch sight of the human.

"Elladan! I am below the outcropping. I am stuck on a tree root." His voice trailed off as he drew in a shaky breath, it was hard to breath suspended as he was. "Help me!"

One of Sarcayul’s warriors glanced over the rock face, "What of Sarcayul?"

"He’s gone." Aragorn looked back towards the rock face and quietly repeated himself, "He’s gone. I am so sorry."

The sharp hearing of the elves picked up his torn apology and Elladan closed his eyes shaking his head at the grief he heard in the human. He turned on Sarcayul’s warrior fiercely and shoved the elf away from the edge, "Get back, all we need is more of you down there."

Legolas motioned with his head to the group of warriors standing unsure on the pathway, "Go, see to the horses. Get yourselves back to our camp. I know you know where it is, and leave us two of the animals. The one Sarcayul rode and Strider's. Move!" He barked the commands angrily at the elves. His anger rose from his fear for Aragorn and his frustration with Sarcayul for his stubborn refusal to accept the human.

"I’m going down there." The prince stood and walked to the group of warriors. He grabbed Sarcayul’s horse by the reigns and stopped the beast from pacing as he quickly searched through the dead elf’s packs. Pulling a length of rope from the saddlebag he ran back to the twins and wrapped the cord around his waist, tying it off, he passed the end of the rope to Elladan who tracked it quickly around the base of a nearby tree to give them better leverage.

Legolas stepped to the edge of the cliff, faced the twins and simply pushed off, disappearing from their sight. The brothers steadily fed him line as he descended down the steep incline. Lightly, he touched down on the rock shelf above Aragorn and called up to the twins to tighten the rope for a moment. He felt the cord pull around his waist as he knelt on the small outcropping and leaned over to stare down at the human.

Aragorn hung a good four feet below the ledge, his eyes locked onto the elf. Legolas noted the way his hands were turning purple from lack of blood flow and the crimson stain that was spreading through the rope gave him cause to worry.

"I’m stuck." The human looked up at him helplessly.

Legolas smiled softly back down at the man, "I’m so glad you are."

Aragorn chuckled and rolled his eyes, "Can you get me up from here?"

"Can you feel your fingers?"

"No." Aragorn tried to move them but the ropes about his wrists had been wrenched too tightly.

The elf nodded and glanced back up towards the cliff ledge. "Elladan! More slack, I’ve found him." The cord eased slightly and loops of it fell around him where he sat. "That’s enough!" He called back.

Sitting on the ledge Legolas swung his legs over and slipped down the cliff face until he was even with Aragorn. He caught his fingers in the ranger’s coat and drew himself near. Using the rock as leverage he eased himself underneath the man until he was face to face with the human.

"I lost him Legolas." Aragorn’s eyes were huge and sad. "I couldn’t hold onto him. I tried, but..."

Legolas glanced between them quickly, spotting the place far below where Sarcayul’s broken body lay. Closing his eyes against the sight he refocused on Aragorn, "Its not your fault Strider. His lust for vengeance and foolish pride took his life, not you."

Unwinding a second length of rope from his belt the elf wrapped the cord around the human’s waist, tying the man off to himself. When he was content that the knots would hold he drew his boot up to his hand and slipped a small knife from inside it.

"I am going to cut the ropes." He held the human's gaze intently, "It will probably hurt." When Aragorn nodded he continued, "A lot Strider. Don’t worry about holding on to me, I have you."

Aragorn nodded as the elf slipped the sharp blade between the palms of his hands and cut the bindings from his wrists. He groaned in pain as his arms fell to his sides, the muscles in his shoulders, released from the tension, contracted sharply and the blood flowing to his fingers was more painful than anything he had imagined. He fell against the elf, trying unsuccessfully to keep from crying out as the prince pulled him tightly against him, shouting to the twins to pull them up.

Aragorn breathed in deeply, filling his lungs that had been unable to expand as his body hung from the side of the cliff.

"Stay with me Aragorn." The prince whispered in his ear as they were slowly pulled to the edge of the cliff. He shifted one arm and pressed the man’s head against his shoulder as the human tensed.

"Where would I go?" the ranger ground out through clenched teeth, trying to ignore the pain his body would not dispel.

Legolas laughed softly, "You know your father is going to kill us."

"Wouldn’t be the first time." Aragorn closed his eyes and tried to relax as blood flowed once again through his extremities.

Hands reached down and pulled the pair the last of the way to the edge, dragging them to the far side of the pathway before they were cut loose of one another. Aragorn made no attempt to rise but simply lay where he was. His heart was hammering in his chest, the adrenaline in his system was finally abating and he began to tremble uncontrollably. His shoulders ached and he still couldn’t feel his fingers. His eyes were closed tightly as he worked to calm himself now that the danger was over and it surprised him slightly when he realized that someone was holding his hands.

He opened his eyes and stared up at Legolas. The elf was gently massaging the man's fingers in his hands, trying to get the blood to flow back into them and feeling to return. Elrohir draped a blanket over the human as Elladan kept watch.

"We aren’t alone." The elder twin whispered at his companions. He stood very still, watching a small grove of trees. A flock of birds burst from its canopy. "We need to move now."

"Give me a minute." Legolas was watching Aragorn worriedly; the young human was worn out from his ordeal.

"No, Elladan’s right," the ranger glanced about them, "Hebrilith is nearby. When he discovers I am not dead, he will try again. We have to go."

"Can you make a fist?" Legolas released the man’s hands. Aragorn concentrated but his fingers would not fully cooperate. Elrohir quickly wrapped strips of cloths around the cuts left in the soft flesh of his wrists by the rope bindings. The human winced, drawing his breath in sharply as his brother tied them off.

"Until we get to camp that will have to do."

Aragorn nodded and stood to his feet with some help. He was surprised when Legolas gently wrapped his arm around the man’s shoulder and herded him quickly towards one of the horses that Elladan had pressed next to the mountain that bracketed the path, using the hill itself as a shield.

"You won’t be able to ride if you can’t grip the reigns, you’ll ride with me." The elf gracefully mounted the horse and reached back down. Aragorn raised his hand up towards the elf and cried out in pain when the prince grabbed his forearm to pull him up. Legolas immediately released him and slid off the horse. "Your shoulder could be dislocated."

"We haven’t got the time!" Elrohir jumped from his mount and raced towards them. Locking his fingers together he caught Aragorn’s boot in his hands and boosted the human up. Legolas steadied him as he gained his seat and swung up behind the man, wrapping an arm lightly around his waist while holding the reigns in his other.

Elladan was waiting for them, his bow drawn and notched as Elrohir gained his mount again and turned the horse to follow his brother down the mountain.

"He will be waiting. Ride and do not look back, I will cover us." Elladan whispered to the others. "Go!"

Elrohir and Legolas spurred their horses forward and raced back down the path towards their camp. As soon as they were away from the safety of the rock overhang, Hebrilith targeted them.

Legolas wrapped himself around the ranger and shouted at his steed, urging it on as Elrohir followed fast on his heels. The twin dropped the reigns of his mount and unslinging his bow he notched two arrows and released them towards the area where the attack originated. Between he and Elladan, they were able to drive Hebrilith back with their barrage of arrows, effectively covering their escape.

 

---------------

 

Hebrilith glared at the retreating forms. He still could not understand why they had saved the human. He was frustrated that his attempt to kill the man had gone awry again and confused that the elves had thwarted him. Straightening slowly from his hiding he place he walked back to his camp. There would be more time, there would be another opportunity and he would not fail and if any of the three of those elves got in his way again...

He smiled softly to himself committing their faces to his memory. He had plans to make.

 

----------------

 

The three horses tore into the makeshift camp, stirring up the dry dust of the pathway in their wake.

Sarcayul’s men stood from the fire they had started and cautiously walked towards Elladan. Leaderless and confused they were unsure as to what their next move should be.

The elder twin glared at the elves and they stepped back. "Sarcayul is gone. He died because of his own stubborn pride. You came here hunting my brother, in my lands. You are no longer welcome. Tomorrow you will leave by way of the vale pass. Do not go back the way you came it is dangerous." Without a backward glance he turned away from them and stalked toward Legolas and Aragorn.

"Elladan?" An elf called to him. When the Noldor elf turned back the warrior continued, "We would help."

"You have helped enough." He brushed their request aside, "I’ll speak to you about it in the morning if I have changed my mind."

Aragorn slid to the forest floor, leaning back against the trunk of the large tree behind him and closed his eyes.

"Don’t touch me." He whispered as a hand was laid gently on his shoulder. His whole upper body was on fire and even the slight pressure hurt.

He didn’t pay attention to the elves as they talked quietly about him a few steps away.

"I think his left shoulder was dislocated. The weight on his body was enough to do this." Legolas glanced at the human.

"Then you know we have to set it." Elladan glanced between the two elves and the prince grimaced remembering how the dwarves had set his own shoulder when it had become dislocated in Moria.

Aragorn opened his eyes and watched them warily as Legolas approached him and knelt down in front of him. "What?"

"I need to see your shoulder for a minute."

The ranger arched an eyebrow, not moving his arms from where he had them resting across his midsection.

"I think your shoulder is dislocated."

"That’s all right." Aragorn had no intentions of suffering any further and was hoping to put the elves off.

"No, it’s not." Legolas laughed lightly. He picked the man’s left arm up and gently moved it, the pain almost caused the human to jump to his feet as he tried to get away from the elf.

Aragorn simply wrapped his good arm around his hurting left one and hugged it to him. "See. I’m all right." He scooted a bit away from the elf.

With a wry grin the elf answered him, "No, you are not."

Elladan knelt near his right and Elrohir stepped in front of him, blocking his path. For a second the human actually panicked.

"Your shoulder is dislocated. If we set it quickly the worst of the pain will be over." Elladan placed his hands against the human’s right shoulder and held him in place against the tree.

"I don’t think this is a good idea." Aragorn looked from one elf to the other. Legolas braced the young ranger as best he could on the man’s left side and glanced at Elrohir who leaned over and gently grasped Aragorn’s arm.

It took every ounce of strength the man had to not cry out as his brother carefully but forcefully reset the bones in the shoulder socket. He slumped forward, his head resting against Legolas as Elrohir gently placed his arm back across his chest.

"I’ve had enough for one day." Aragorn said quietly, his voice muffled by the elf prince’s tunic.

"Me too." Legolas sympathized with man, gently wrapping his arms around the ranger, thankful that the human was simply alive. "Why don’t you rest?"

Aragorn nodded against the elf and let himself be lowered to the forest floor. He pulled the edges of the blanket around him that Elrohir had draped across his shoulders and closed his eyes, letting his body slowly relax. His shoulder did feel better but the stress of the day had taken its toll and within moments the human was sleeping lightly near the fire.

 

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

 

When Aragorn awoke he lay unmoving where he was, wrapped in a warm blanket and tucked in Elrohir’s cloak. He watched the late night fire and listened to the quiet conversations of the elves and humans in the camp. His body ached, but not the fiery ache from earlier, now the pain was just a dull over-all feeling.

No one had noticed that he had awakened and he took advantage of the inattention, concentrating on the quiet argument that his twin brothers were having with Legolas.

"There has to be a way to draw Hebrilith out. We can suffer no more accidents or injuries." Elladan leaned forward, speaking softly.

"I think it would be best to send the hunters home also. You saw what the dark elf tried to do to Estel." Elrohir glanced at Taradin and back to Elladan, "They are a liability to themselves and to us." Sarcayul's warriors had already left, heeding Elladan's strong advice to them earlier. Legolas hoped they would go back to Mirkwood and find a new path now that Sarcayul's questionable influence was removed.

"I agree with Elrohir. In the morning we can ask Estel to send them home." Legolas looked over at the still form of his friend. A smile brushed his lips when he saw the silver eyes watching him.

The twins turned to stare at the human as he slowly rose, clutching the blanket and cloak tightly about him and seated himself stiffly in their circle.

"How long have you been awake?" Elladan asked ruffling up his hair.

"How do you feel?" Legolas leaned forward and interjected before the human could answer.

"I feel better." He nodded at his friend. "And I have been listening to your talk. I think its good to send the men away and I will explain the necessity of it to them. I also have an idea of how to draw Hebrilith out so that no one else gets hurt."

The elves leaned in and listened intently while the man explained his idea.

"That’s insane!" Elladan sat back, staring hard at his human brother.

"You must have hit your head on that rock outcropping Estel, what are you thinking?" Elrohir glared at him shock, "It’ll never work."

"We won’t let it work." Elladan muttered darkly.

"No, Estel has a good point." Legolas looked between the twins, "he is right, Hebrilith will come after him. He alone knows where the rogue lives and he has been in his dwelling. That by itself is enough to mark him out for death in Hebrilith’s mind. Allowing himself to be used as bait is the best way. The dark elf will not come after us, but he has been hunting Estel."

The twins both protested at the same time.

"It’s a stupid idea." Elladan cut the argument off.

"It is not a stupid idea!" Aragorn countered. "It can work, besides the three of you will be right there the whole time. He’ll never get to me." The ranger smiled at the elves, totally confident in their abilities to protect him.

Elrohir looked to the far side of the camp and did not speak. Elladan simply glared at the ranger, shaking his head.

"What?" Aragorn raised his hands palm out in question, "You don’t want anyone else hurt, I already am, there’s nothing to loose."

"Good argument Strider." Legolas muttered sarcastically, smiling at the human.

"Elladan," the young ranger reached out and touched his brother on the arm drawing the older elf’s eyes back down to stare into the human ones, "You have the hard job. The three of you must put him down. Mine will be easy, nothing will happen to me with you there."

Silence fell over the small group. Elrohir picked up a branch and shifted the logs in the fire quietly, stirring up the embers. Legolas glanced to the men’s campfire and noted that the humans were starting to retire for the night.

Elladan spoke first, "It is a good plan Estel. I just wish you were not the bait. You’ll be the death of me yet little brother." He sighed deeply and locked eyes with his twin.

Elrohir dropped his gaze nodding his head. "But we can’t let Hebrilith get a hold of Estel."

The others nodded their agreement.

"So what do you think, should we go up the high pass tomorrow and track back into Hebrilith’s territory? I am sure we won’t get far before he finds us." Aragorn was plotting out the most logical course of action. He fully intended to lead the elves straight to the rogue elf’s lair.

They discussed the specifics late into the night, agreeing that taking the fight to the elf was the best route. Aragorn would send the men home first thing in the morning and they would head out.

When the plans had been decided and the twins had moved off to rest for the night, Legolas unrolled his bedding and laid it next to Aragorn’s carefully propping his bow up against the trunk of a tree not inches from his head and within quick reach should he need it.

He rolled over and looked at Aragorn, "You’re sure about this Strider?"

The ranger glanced at the elf sleepily, "It needs to stop Legolas. I am not worried, you’ll be there." He smiled and closed his eyes, "Go to sleep. I think tomorrow may be a very long day."

 

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

 

Morning came very quickly and it took Aragorn a bit of persuading to convince Taradin and his men to leave the mountain while the elves tracked the rogue. Reluctantly the group of hunters left.

Taradin turned in his saddle and glanced back at the ranger, "You’ll let us know when it's safe to return?"

"You have my word."

The hunter nodded, that was good enough for him. He smiled at the man and waved his goodbye, "Then happy hunting to you Strider. Watch yourselves." Prodding his horse he galloped after his men.

Aragorn turned back to the camp to find the elves slightly upset. They were carefully inspecting their bows and their quivers.

"What’s wrong?" the ranger walked up next to Legolas and frowned at them as he sensed the seriousness that had fallen over them.

The elf prince looked up from his inspections. He was running his hands carefully along the spine of his bow, feeling for fractures or anomalies in the smooth wood. "My bow was on the ground on the far side of the tree this morning. I did not leave it there last night." He frowned at the ranger.

"You think one of the men moved it?"

"What reason would they have? They were never near our side of the camp." Elrohir spoke up, "But my bow was also moved during the night."

"Is there anything wrong with them?" Aragorn took the weapon from his brother’s hand and stepped into a patch of sunlight, letting the bright morning light play along the wood, hoping to detect any damage that might have occurred. "I see nothing." He continued, handing it back.

"Neither did I." Elladan replied, "But the fact that they have all been moved bothers me greatly."

"Did you see tracks of anything nearby? Animals? Men? Elves?" Aragorn asked the last with anxiety, if Hebrilith had been in their camp last night they could be in more serious trouble than they realized.

"Nothing." Legolas shook his head as he slung his bow over his shoulder. "I cannot imagine that anyone could have gotten past the watch *and* approached us without our knowing. I suppose it must have been nothing more than the strong night winds. Still... it is disturbing."

Elrohir walked back to the others, circling two horses near the dying fire and holding the reigns of one out to his twin. "We’ll stay a good pace behind you two, but we will keep you in sight at all times."

Elladan fastened the strap of his quiver across his chest and mounted the horse his brother had brought to him. "If you get into trouble or see anything, signal us."

Legolas nodded and he and Aragorn set off down the trail, back towards Hebrilith’s lair.

"Estel!" Elladan’s voice stopped the pair, "Don’t get yourself killed, I really do want to be able to return home and face father."

Aragorn smiled, "You worry to much! We’ll be fine."

The twins allowed the friends to climb a good pace into the woods before they set out, paralleling their path on the northward passage.

When they had finally reached the high pass it was mid-morning and there had been no signs of Hebrilith.

"You don’t think he would have followed the men do you?" Aragorn questioned Legolas as he searched the wooded area for the path he had discovered earlier in the week that would lead them to Hebrilith’s lair.

"It’s unlikely that he would stray far from these parts." Legolas tugged at the ranger’s sleeve and pointed towards the barely trampled edge of what appeared to be a little used pathway. "Is this it?"

"Yes, that’s it." Aragorn stepped onto the run and turned eastward. Now that he knew what he was looking for it was easy to see where the hidden path ran under the forests overgrowth. He glanced behind them for a glimpse of the twins but did not see them.

Legolas looked over his shoulder and listened carefully, "I can hear them, they are just beyond that hedge there. They will move out when we do."

"I can’t hear them." Aragorn stilled his breathing and focused his hearing but only the sounds of the forest floated to him on the light breeze as they walked up the barely visible path.

The elf prince laughed softly and turned to the ranger, "Strider, you don’t have elven ears and you never will. Trust me, they are still behind us."

Hebrilith watched the odd pair from his hiding place. He let the elf and the human pass by him and waited patiently. They had spoken as if there were others nearby. He had nearly given up when two elves appeared on horseback, whispering quietly and watching the ground. They easily picked their way through the foliage and silently followed the ones on foot.

So that was how they wished to play this. Hebrilith smiled to himself; that was well. He had prepared for just such a surprise as this, ever since he had found that ranger in his home, he had set about protecting it. He was ready. It didn’t matter this time that they were elves, they had protected that human, the one who had violated his home. In the end, if he had to kill them all to get to the ranger what were three elves?

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART EIGHT*~

 

Stealthily, Hebrilith left the area and circled back up the mountain, placing himself between the mounted elves and the ranger and his companion; checking his traps. He needed to take care of the horses first. The human thought he was so smart bringing them back up this way, well Hebrilith had something fun in mind for them. He had wondered if he would ever have a chance to test his little diversion. It delighted him that today would be that day.

Elrohir and Elladan picked their way carefully through the undergrowth, silently following their brother and the prince. As the pair picked up the trail and moved out the mounted elves followed.

Elrohir’s horse spooked and shied sideways. The twins stopped their mounts and listened for any sounds out of the ordinary. The forest still chattered incessantly about them, bugs in the fields, birds in the canopy overhead. They could hear the light footfalls of the ones they followed. It must have been nothing. Elladan motioned for them to continue and pressed his heels against his horses flanks, urging the animal forward.

A tiny snap beneath his horses hoof was all the warning that the twins had. Hebrilith had rigged a snare net, the type that humans and dwarves were fond of using when trapping; the type capable of ensnaring an entire glade at one time. He had staked one edge into the ground and the other side of the net he had tied to green tender saplings, bending their thin wiry trunks backwards close to the forest floor and pinning them there. When Elladan’s horse had triggered the release, the rope holding the trees down had been loosened and the saplings threw the net high into the air as they snapped back and forth their tension gone out of them. The far side of the net had been weighted with rocks and as it flew over the elf’s heads it came swiftly crashing back down behind their mounts.

The horses reared up at the unknown threat attempting to throw their riders, but the elves were not easily unsaddled and the net quickly caught them all, bearing the steeds to the ground with the twins pinned on top of them.

Immediately the warriors began attempting to cut the thick, steel-bound ropes away. Their attempt at stealth had been caught, their presence noted and Aragorn and the prince were in danger.

----------------

"Legolas," Aragorn whispered to his friend, "It’s over here, we are almost there."

"Wait!" Legolas had frozen and turned back the way they had come, "Did you not hear that? I think we are not alone and I believe we have lost your brothers!" The elf prince began to walk quickly back down the path towards the sounds he had heard, thinking the ranger was following him.

But the ranger hadn’t heard his friend’s warning and proceeded to cross the open glade without the prince. It wasn’t until he had gained the other side that he realized he was alone and a spike of fear shot through him as he turned back to search for his friend.

A dark shadow erupted from the trees on Aragorn’s left. Without warning, Hebrilith charged the human, he spun at the last possible moment and with the force of his circular movement he smashed his elbow into the ranger’s chin, knocking the man off his feet and stunning him.

The elf kicked the human onto his stomach and quickly bound Aragorn’s hands behind his back. The ranger came to his senses seconds later. Realizing what had happened, he kicked out with his legs, connecting his boots with Hebrilith’s shin. The unexpected resistance knocked the elf backwards and Aragorn turned over onto his back, trying to right himself.

Hebrilith recovered quickly and with a lethalness that made the ranger’s blood run cold, the elf removed a long, thin, curved blade from its sheath on his waist. He stalked back to the human and kneeled down on the man, pressing the air out of Aragorn’s lungs with his weight. Without warning he pinned the man to the earth, driving his dagger through the ranger's left shoulder.

Aragorn arched against the pain, his mind was reeling but with no air in his lungs he couldn’t even cry out and bright spots of light danced before his eyes as consciousness threatened to leave him.

The elf was speaking to him but he had a hard time understanding the words.

"Did you?" Hebrilith moved off the human and grabbed a handful of the dark hair slamming the man’s head back down hard against the ground, "Did you really think you could capture me?"

Aragorn gasped air into his starved lungs as Hebrilith pounded his head hard down against the earth again, "What are you just a toy to them? Obviously they care nothing for you or they would never let you come back near me. I have been waiting for you, fool of a human. Did you honestly think I’d let you live after I found you in my home?"

The quiet rage in the elf scared the ranger and he stared up into the incensed face. He was a having a hard time focusing on the elf and at times it seemed like there were two Hebriliths staring down at him.

"Oh don’t worry about your friends on the horses I already took care of them and I will see to your other elven friend too, right after I kill you." He whispered to the man. With a cruel smiled he pulled the blade from Aragorn’s shoulder, causing the man to cry out. He forced the ranger’s head to the side, exposing his jugular vein.

-----------

"Strider, I don’t hear your brothers, I think we should go back." Legolas called softly to the human scanning the surrounding forests. When his friend didn’t respond, the elf looked over his shoulder and realized for the first time that the man had gone on without him. "No!" he turned and ran headlong back for the glade where they had last been. He heard the human cry out and reached the end of the glade as the rogue elf pressed the man’s head to the side, ready for a quick kill.

"Let him go Hebrilith!" Legolas stalked forward, his bow strung and notched. "Let him go, now." The elf prince stopped part way into the glade as the rogue elf turned quickly towards him.

Hebrilith smiled and looked back down at the human, "Care to watch me take your friend out?" He lifted Aragorn’s head and beat it hard back against the forest floor, just for spite, as he stood and faced down the angry elven prince.

Hot anger flared through Legolas and he stepped closer, "Move away from him and do not touch him again." He cautioned dangerously.

Aragorn tried to lift his head but it hurt so badly, the woods seemed to be spinning slowly around him and he could see the stars moving in and out between the trees.

"I’ll kill your friend." Taunted the rogue elf.

"And I will kill you." Legolas motioned the elf away from the prone human, "Move now."

 

"Really?" Hebrilith crossed his arms a slightly amused grin on his face, "Will you now?" Slowly he picked up his foot and pressed his boot down against Aragorn’s throat, leaning down slightly he taunted, "I think not."

Aragorn struggled weakly against the new abuse, panic at the lack of air and a sudden sense of wrongness flooding his awareness. Hebrilith wasn’t afraid of Legolas. He had no fear that the elf prince would shoot him. It almost seemed as though he wanted Legolas to try. Why?

Legolas stared unflinchingly at the dark elf. Hebrilith laughed lightly and stepped away from Aragorn and towards the prince, allowing the ranger to breathe again. He opened his hands palms out displaying his lack of weapons or defense, "Well shoot me. Isn’t that what you came here for?" Something like a deep look of satisfaction crossed the elf’s face.

Aragorn rolled slowly over onto his side and awkwardly moved into a kneeling position just out of Hebrilith’s range of sight

Legolas increased the tension on his bow, the wood beneath his hands quivered slightly. The movement was odd and the prince frowned as he concentrated, attributing the waver in his weapon to his own nerves. He had known this moment was coming but still he was unprepared to kill the elf in cold blood even though he knew it must be done. Hebrilith could not be allowed to continue to harm men or others elves and if Legolas didn’t stop him, he would surely kill Aragorn.

Aragorn watched between the two elves. The seconds slowed immeasurably as he looked from his friend to the rogue. Something was seriously wrong. Legolas’ bow wobbled slightly under the increasing pressure – the image of finding the bow in the wrong place earlier that morning flashed through Aragorn’s mind. He glanced at Hebrilith. And cold fear shot through his veins as he realized, that wasn’t a look of satisfaction on the rogue elf’s face it was amusement. Everything that happened since this morning clicked in the ranger’s mind – Hebrilith had sabotaged their weapons.

"Legolas, No!" He called out in warning to his friend, trying to gain his feet.

The elf prince started to release the arrow when his friend called out to him. He allowed the arrow to fall from his fingers and turned his face away from the bowstring, moving the bow away from his body. The arrow clattered to the forest floor and his bow snapped backwards, the powerful tension released in it as the string broke in half and whipped wildly outward. One half caught his hand and slashed across the top of his fingers causing him to cry out and drop the bow to the ground. The other half lashed into his hair. Had he not turned his head away, the force of the tension released when the string broke would have cut his face open, perhaps even blinding him. Now he knew why his bow had been moved. Somehow, Hebrilith had indeed gotten past all of them, he *had* been in their camp last night and had carefully nicked their bowstrings. If they had thought to use them, the strings would have snapped just as his had done, causing horrible damage to their users.

Hebrilith turned on the human in pure rage. He slammed the man backwards with his forearm causing Aragorn to stumble as he tried to regain his balance. The force of the impact split his temple and he slumped to the ground, half conscious.

Legolas turned back in time to see his friend fall to the forest floor. "Strider!" But even as he called out he knew he was too far away to stop the dark elf. He ran forward trying to intervene, but Hebrilith was not about to let the man get away again. He had had enough of the two of them. It was time to kill the human, he could deal with the other elf afterwards.

Aragorn couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t think. His overly abused body betrayed him and refused to respond to any of the jumbled commands coming from his brain.

Hebrilith knelt over his prey, ready to finish the young ranger off completely. The long, wicked knife gleamed in the elf’s fingers as he drew back his hand...

Suddenly a swift, booted foot kicked the knife out of Hebrilith’s grip. A second kick knocked the dark elf off of Aragorn and onto his backside on the ground.

"This one is not for you!" Legolas said fiercely as he put himself protectively between the young human and the dark elf who sought his friend’s blood.

Hebrilith retaliated with surprising speed from the suddenness of the attack and Legolas had to jump to the side to avoid a sweeping blow from the other elf’s knife. In an instant, Legolas’ own weapons were in his hands, one blade in each fist as was his want.

Hebrilith matched his opponent, drawing a second knife of his own and for a moment they circled each other warily. When Hebrilith attacked it was with the lightning swift responses and graceful moves of the elves. Legolas countered just as swift, evading one sweep, stepping under the follow-up jab and returning with his own blows that were just as skillfully evaded.

Aragorn tried to pull himself up off the ground, tugging against his bound wrists but his head whirled dizzily as the serious concussion he had sustained made his vision blur. Falling back and catching his breath, he could do little more than watch helplessly as Legolas and Hebrilith turned and whirled, sometimes almost faster than sight, slashing, parrying, ducking, dodging... locked together in their graceful dance of death. It was both terrifying and oddly beautiful in a horrid sort of way. Aragorn had never seen two elves fight one another with deadly intent before and the young Dùnadan was dismayed to see that Hebrilith seemed to be every bit as good a fighter as his friend was.

Hebrilith rolled away underneath one of Legolas’ advances and Legolas jumped lightly to the side only just in time to avoid a swipe aimed for his legs. Both were holding their own, but neither seemed to be able to get an advantage.

"This has nothing to do with you son of Thranduil!" Hebrilith spat at the prince. "Leave the human to me to face the fate that all his race deserves! He’s not worth your consideration!"

"He is my friend Hebrilith! The killing must stop! You can’t live this way forever. You cannot punish all for the sins of a few!" Legolas reasoned as they circled again. The two elves’ eyes never left one another, watching for an opening, a misstep... any sign of weakness.

Hebrilith jabbed and Legolas deflected the blow, returning with a sweep of his own, which Hebrilith sidestepped. Lashing out with the side of his foot, he caught Legolas’ still-healing leg. Grabbing Legolas’ arm he tried to spin the other elf around onto the point of his blade, but Legolas twisted his wrist and threw his body to the side, flipping Hebrilith over his back instead. The dark elf landed as easily as if he had meant to do that and lashed out with a rapid series of double-handed slashes and strokes that drove Legolas back a few paces, causing the prince to have to go on the defensive. They both knew that this was a contest that only one of them could walk away from alive.

"Your friend?" the dark elf sneered, his beautiful face twisted with cold rage. "How can any elf call a human friend after all they have done amiss in this world? Especially you, little whore of Dorolyn! Or did you enjoy what they did to you there?!"

Legolas’ jaw tightened and his eyes flashed deadly fire. He hadn’t realized that Hebrilith knew of his own past, but since this elf seemed to know their every move before they made it, he shouldn’t have been so surprised. The other elf’s words had a far more unsettling effect on the prince than he would have liked to admit.

Hebrilith followed his last jab up with a twisting, sweeping stroke, which Legolas sidestepped. Unfortunately that was what the dark elf had expected him to do. As Legolas moved to the side, Hebrilith was already there, and Legolas only just got his arm up in time to keep the dark elf’s knife from cutting straight into his throat. With no time for a proper block, Legolas caught the knife with his unprotected forearm. The sharp elven blade bit deeply into the prince’s flesh and Legolas could not help wincing as he jumped back, making the knife tear a ragged gash along his arm as he yanked it away.

Red blood flowed freely from the cut in his sleeve, staining the emerald fabric and running down over the prince’s hand, making his grip on his weapon slippery. Legolas recovered quickly, driving his opponent back with a quick series of slashes and forcing his right hand to remain closed tightly about the hilt of his knife despite the blazing pain that it caused.

"It stings, doesn’t it?" Hebrilith glowered coldly, meaning much more than Legolas’ injury. "You don’t fool me!" the dark elf hissed, his eyes slitting as he circled for another opportunity. "You and I, we’re no different. You hide your hate and fear under words and platitudes that you have been taught, but I see it inside you. You claim this human is your friend, but you run from him when he gets too close."

Another series of moves drove Legolas back again. The prince grit his teeth against the pain of his injury and the fury that Hebrilith’s taunting words were building in his chest. Fury... and pain. Fear. Those last two emotions disturbed Legolas, for they should not have been present. Did some part of him fear that Hebrilith was right? The uncertainty tossed the elf off balance, putting him more and more on the defensive.

Hebrilith’s lips twitched in a feral grin. "Oh yes, I’ve been watching you. I know more about you than you know about yourself. You’re a liar Legolas, Greenleaf! And the most pathetic thing is that you lie to yourself!"

Legolas knew that Hebrilith was trying to psyche him out, taunt him into making a mistake... the frightening thing was that it was almost working. The elven prince steeled his resolve and tried to close his mind and heart against his opponent’s words.

Aragorn watched the confrontation with growing horror. He hated what he saw Hebrilith trying to do to Legolas and wanted to yell, wanted to tell his friend not to listen to anything the twisted elf said! But he was afraid of tossing off Legolas’ concentration, so he kept silent and twisted against the bonds on his arms and wrists. His head was still throbbing and blurring mercilessly, but he struggled anyway.

"You don’t know me half as well as you think Hebrilith!" Legolas shot back. Both elves were beginning to breathe hard now as the fight dragged on and the intensity level only kept increasing. "Maybe it wasn’t as far behind me as I thought it was, but I will *never*, EVER be like you!" He shoved his opponent’s blade back on itself, cutting low and swinging sideways to extract himself from the cornered position that Hebrilith had been attempting to maneuver him into. As he spun away, Hebrilith brought the hilt of his knife down in an unexpected move, driving it painfully into Legolas’ wounded arm. At the same moment he brought his knee up into the prince’s healing thigh once more. The harsh shot of agony from his injuries, both old and new, threw Legolas’ concentration off a tad and the elf prince stumbled, ever so slightly. With an orc, or a man as an opponent, the small slip would have made very little difference, it was only a moment of inattention, but in a battle between elves, it was all that Hebrilith needed.

The dark elf drove one dagger around behind Legolas’ neck, forcing the prince to move closer him to avoid the blade, at the same time thrusting the second one forward at waist-level. They were barely three inches apart and Hebrilith’s grin hardened cruelly as he watched Legolas’ eyes registered both shock and pain as the long knife slid into the prince’s side. Legolas moved sideways at the last moment as he felt the slick pain of the blade enter his body, twisting away in a desperate effort to keep the weapon from its intended path into his vital organs.

"No!" Aragorn’s cry echoed in the fighting elves’ ears, but they were too locked in their own life or death struggle to pay the hapless human much attention.

Legolas’ movement made the knife catch on one of his ribs instead of going straight into the unprotected soft tissue of his belly, as had been its original aim. The sharp blade skittered along the bone before sliding off and hitting another. Bouncing off this one as well, the knife dipped and slid between the next two ribs, burying itself deep into the elf prince’s side, but damaging nothing immediately fatal. The pain however was shockingly indescribable and momentarily debilitating. Hebrilith twisted the knife sharply and Legolas cried out without meaning to, doubling forward.

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART NINE*~

 

 

Hebrilith's look hardened as Legolas doubled over and the dark elf started to turn the knife inward, bringing his other weapon up to finish the job, but Legolas took advantage of their close quarters. Circling his good arm up, he knocked the dark elf’s second knife hand away before it could find its target. Instead of trying to pull away, as Hebrilith expected, Legolas moved in closer, ignoring the jolt of pain from the knife still in his side, and whammed his forehead against that of the other elf, knocking his adversary back several paces. Slashing quickly, Legolas landed a deep cut across Hebrilith’s left shoulder, bringing the handle of his other knife down across the dark elf’s hand and making him drop one of his weapons.

But Hebrilith still had his hand on the knife in Legolas’ side and when he yanked that free, the blinding flash of pain made the elf prince reel. Hebrilith grabbed the opportunity and landed a sound punch to Legolas’ injured side and midsection, swinging around and whacking the younger elf across the face and knocking the blade out of his injured hand. Legolas grimaced and stumbled sideways, but refused to lose his footing. Kicking out hard and twisting away from a second blow, he caught Hebrilith in the knees, causing the dark elf to stumble back and nearly fall down. Unfortunately, the prince was not in good enough shape to press his advantage while he had it. He needed the moment to recoup his own strength.

Pressing one hand to his injured side, Legolas felt the flow of warm, sticky blood that was making its way freely from the deep wound. Holding his remaining weapon in his good hand, Legolas crouched defensively, watching as Hebrilith regained his footing, ready for the dark elf’s next attack. The elf prince’s breath was coming in short, ragged gasps and yellow spots danced before his eyes, accompanying the burning pain from his side, arm and re-injured leg. Things were looking desperate, but he refused to let defeat be an option. Because he knew that if Hebrilith won, the price would not only be his life, but Aragorn’s as well. Legolas would not let that happen. Not while he had a breath of life left in him.

"Give it up Princeling!" Hebrilith taunted, but his own breath was coming more than a little short. "Is the human worth your life? Leave now while you still can!"

Legolas did not waste his breath answering, but moved forward, feigning low and driving high. Hebrilith met him and the two locked weapons, parted, locked again, and parted. Legolas was wearying, critically so. Hebrilith could see that, so he kept his opponent moving, forcing Legolas to expend his energy just matching the dark elf’s blows.

Horror coursed through Aragorn’s veins as he saw Legolas’ knife tremble in the prince’s hand. He had seen Legolas fight on many occasions, but he had never seen his friend this weary. Ugly, dark crimson was spreading quickly across Legolas’ tunic and the young ranger had no way of knowing how badly his friend had been hurt. His own helplessness was maddening and he thrashed desperately against his bonds. Stars and black spots erupted in his vision and his efforts were rewarded by a wave of dizzy nausea that nearly made him pass out. His concussion was not pleased by his vigorous movements, nor the heightened adrenaline and panic that were flowing through him.

Through blurry, doubled vision, Aragorn saw the two elves tangle and go down, their fight turning into a wrestling match on the ground. He didn’t see how it happened, but another of the knives had been lost and now the two elves struggled for control of the remaining one that hung between them.

Hebrilith nailed Legolas in the side at every opportunity, using the other elf’s injuries to his advantage. Legolas rolled the dark elf over and over, seeking to avoid giving his opponent the chance to use his weaknesses against him. The two elves’ blond hair fell about them as they struggled, and it was nearly impossible to tell whose was whose.

Legolas ended up on the bottom again and this time Hebrilith pinned him there, sitting on the prince and locking him down with his legs as they struggled for control of the knife. Hebrilith pressed the blade down towards Legolas’ throat, but the prince fought him and the knife stayed locked between them.

"You fight well," Hebrilith grit out through his teeth, frustrated by the difficulty he was having overcoming this one, wounded elf. "But against the wrong things! You fight your memories so you can pretend they didn’t happen, so you can hide what’s truly inside you! But I know. You can’t hide it from me. I lived that nightmare. I learned cruelty and I learned it well. Men taught it to me and I have returned the favor!" Hebrilith drove the knife slowly downward, closer to Legolas’ neck.

"I will never forget. I *can* never forget!" there was pain as well as twisted rage in the dark elf’s hard eyes. "But you know what it’s like, don’t you? The hands, the eyes, the touch, the beatings, the helplessness... again and again until you want to go mad! And you hate them! Hate them so much you want to kill them all! Tell me it wasn’t so? Tell me you did not rejoice to see the men who did that to you perish! Tell me you did not enjoy the fact that they died a horrible death?! But you can’t, can you?"

Legolas momentarily closed his eyes, his breath coming quick and fast as the dark elf rubbed his face in things he had worked long and hard to forget. Hebrilith was hitting way below the belt with these tactics. The knife dropped lower, until it was resting against Legolas’ exposed throat and only a little more pressure would end the elf prince’s life forever.

"Legolas! Don’t listen to him!" Aragorn shouted desperately, murderously angry at the games Hebrilith was playing on his friend. He knew Legolas’ own insecurities on this subject, knew that Legolas had already been having his own doubts... now the dark elf was using those doubts and those old hurts as a deadly playing piece.

The young ranger blinked rapidly, trying to see which of the two sets of fighting elves were real as he finally dragged himself halfway to his knees. "You are so much more than he says you are!" Aragorn struggled to stay conscious.

Aragorn’s voice pulled Legolas back from the seductively hopeless power of the dark one’s words. His grip on the knife handle tightened.

Hebrilith scowled at him. "Yes, yes, listen to the little human. Yet he has not the strength to save himself, or you. Men are weak! They deserve to die!"

Legolas’ eyes hardened. "So you say. Yet I have learned much from this one, about forgiveness and letting go of the past, something you should have done long ago Hebrilith!" the prince ground out between his teeth. "I do not deny that I was not sorry to see the men who hurt me die! But I did not take their lives, and I have not sought the lives of others to pay for their crimes!"

Legolas looked squarely into Hebrilith’s cold eyes. "I am *not* like you Hebrilith. I never will be." For the first time, Legolas really believed that as he said it, and the resolve strengthened him.

Hebrilith growled in anger and pressed down hard against the knife, leaning on his arm and adding the weight of his body to force the weapon downward.

Suddenly, in one quick move, Legolas risked swinging one arm free of the struggle and struck Hebrilith upside the head, his curled fist seeking out the soft spot just below the dark elf’s ear and jaw, which were pressure points unique to elves.

The move worked and Hebrilith’s eyes rolled back in his head as he was momentarily stunned. Legolas seized the advantage to roll him over and gain the upper position, placing the tip of the knife directly over the dark elf’s heart for the cleanest, fastest kill. Yet... the prince hesitated. It was hard, hard to think of taking the life of someone who could not fight back. He knew that Hebrilith intended to kill both he and Aragorn, he knew that Lord Elrond was probably right, there was no other way... yet warrior though he was, Legolas was not a killer by nature or inclination.

Hebrilith blinked slowly as the stun wore off, and Legolas knew he may be losing his chance, but when he looked down at the elf below him he felt such incredible sadness... so deep it nearly broke his heart. If compassion was a weakness, then it was one of Legolas’ faults.

Hebrilith took in the situation, but did not move. He knew that Legolas could kill him instantly with a move, but the elf prince hesitated... he didn’t know why. "Do it," he said darkly.

"Hebrilith..." Legolas shook his head slowly. "I don’t want to kill you."

The elf looked up at Legolas with a slightly nonplussed look on his face. "Then you really aren’t like me," he said coldly.

"Hebrilith, let us help you," Legolas pleaded softly. "Lord Elrond and the others... they would help if you let them! You could be free... if you just let go of your hate and your pain..."

Hebrilith met Legolas’ eyes with a surprisingly honest stare. "It’s far too late for that," he whispered. "There is no help for me in this life."

Away through the trees they heard the sound of people approaching. "Estel? Legolas? Estel!!" it was Elrohir’s voice calling desperately from a distance off.

Hebrilith’s face tightened. "I will not be taken a prisoner! I will not live behind bars again!" Moving suddenly, Hebrilith grabbed Legolas’ hands and forced the knife down, into his own heart.

Shocked by the sudden, unexpected move, Legolas pulled away from the knife, bending forward quickly, but it was too late for Hebrilith.

"It’s better this way..." the dark elf murmured as his eyes closed. "If you wanted to set me free son of Thranduil... you have..." Then he breathed no more and his spirit fled away, free at last of the tortured existence it had led.

Legolas folded the dead elf’s arms over his chest, removing the knife. "May you find peace for your hurting soul beyond the halls of Mandos," he whispered quietly.

Moving slowly and painfully to Aragorn’s side, Legolas used the bloody knife to cut the ropes between the Dùnadan’s wrists and ankles. Aragorn didn’t know if it were Hebrilith or Legolas’ blood on the knife. Aragorn could hardly sit up on his own, so Legolas helped him up and the young ranger leaned slightly against his friend.

"Aragorn... you’re hurt..." Legolas blinked several times to keep his own vision clear.

Aragorn laughed weakly, but his eyes reflected his true concern. "That’s the pot calling the kettle black, isn’t it?" he asked, observing his friend’s bloodstained appearance.

Legolas smiled but was too weary and drained to retort.

Elladan burst into the clearing with Elrohir not far behind. They took in the situation quickly. Hebrilith dead on the ground, Aragorn half leaning against Legolas, with the elf prince bending over him... they did not yet see Legolas’ injuries.

"Estel! Estel are you all right?!" Elrohir dropped to his adopted brother’s side, concern etched across his features.

"I told you this was a bad idea!" Elladan sank down on the other side. "Estel you could have been killed!" He gently moved the ranger’s cloak from his shoulder and inspected the knife wound the man had sustained.

"Yeah... I know," Aragorn regarded them wryly, he flinched slightly from his brothers attention to his shoulder, and simply held his throbbing head, while the elf tried to staunch the bleeding. "Next time I volunteer to be bait, please just shoot me first, all right?"

"I may take you up on that brother!" Elladan shook his head, obviously relieved beyond words to find his little brother alive.

"Hebrilith is dead then," Elrohir said softly, glancing over at the still form.

Legolas nodded slowly, battling the haze in his vision. "I-I think he actually wanted it... he..." suddenly Legolas fell backward, consciousness fleeing him without his leave.

"Legolas!" Aragorn and the twins said at nearly the same time. Elladan checked the prince’s vitals while Elrohir moved Legolas’ bloodstained hand away from his side, revealing the nasty-looking injury concealed beneath.

Aragorn pressed forward, despite his own wooziness. "He-he fought Hebrilith to save me... I think he was hurt pretty bad. We’ve got to get him back to father..."

"We will Estel, we will," Elladan assured as they quickly bound up Legolas’ wounds to stop the worst of the bleeding. The wounds were serious, but not fatal, and nothing that couldn’t be healed completely in Rivendell.

"You know..." Elrohir couldn’t help shooting his human brother a small grin. "This really is going to top it all off, I hope you realize. Father is going to get *so* tired of you dragging this poor prince back to him to get fixed up... honestly, do you two hunt out trouble, or does it just find you?"

Aragorn gave his older, elven brother a withering glare, but was spared from answering because Legolas was waking.

"I heard that," the elf prince murmured as Elladan helped his twin brother maneuver their semi-conscious guest onto the back of Elrohir’s horse. "I can walk," he protested. "Just once I’d like to enter to your house under my own power..."

"Not today," Elrohir held Legolas still with a firm hand as he swung lightly up behind the prince. "You’ve lost a lot of blood my friend, don’t make this more complicated for us all."

Aragorn laughed as he struggled to his feet, only to stagger and have Elladan catch him.

"That goes for you too Estel," Elladan added, fixing the young human with a dry look that wiped the smile off the Dùnadan’s features.

"But I’m fine! It’s just a little knock on the head, a flesh wound that’s all..." Aragorn protested, but his brothers would have none of it and in the end he was seated on Elladan’s horse with his older brother’s arms wrapped firmly around his waist. In reality he supposed he oughtn’t to complain so much, his head was still hammering so painfully he was surprised that no one else could see the sparks flying and his shoulder throbbed incessantly from the knife wound. The young ranger tilted unsteadily to one side, but his elven brother’s strong arms were there to keep him balanced and secure.

"Rest now Estel, you’ve had a rough couple of days... kidnappings, cliffs, attempted murder... I think you’ve got some kind of new record going," Elladan shook his head as he settled his little brother’s weight back against his body more fully. He glanced sideways at where the Prince of Mirkwood was similarly situated in Elrohir’s protective hold. The elder twin shook his head, letting his chin rest lightly against Estel’s dark, wind-tossed hair. "You know Legolas, I’m beginning to think that you’re a bad influence on our little brother!"

"Me?!" Legolas protested. "I had a perfectly normal life until your brother inflicted himself upon me! Just look what has happened since!" The jest was gently meant and they all knew it.

"Normal, right," Aragorn rolled his eyes, then winced because that hurt. "Father’s not going to like this at all, is he?" he sighed as they made their way through the woods. It seemed he was forever ending up in trouble for his jams and scrapes... but they weren’t his fault... really... well, maybe a little, but...

"Oh just wait until he hears about your brilliant bait idea..." Elrohir shook his head, an impish glitter in his eyes. "You really outdid yourself Estel, even for a human..."

"Hey, it worked didn’t it? Maybe not like we planned..." Aragorn protested.

"Nothing you come up with ever works like it’s planned!" Elladan laughed.

"You know, you two went along with it Elladan, what do you think Father’s going to think about *that*?" Aragorn mumbled with semi-playful grumping.

The twins exchanged a look. "Oh Valar," Elrohir sighed. "We’re *all* going to be in trouble."

It was so ridiculous that they all laughed a little, despite everything.

 

___________________________________________________________________
~*PART TEN*~

 

 

A highly un-amused Lord Elrond found himself once again having to patch up Legolas and his foster son. At first Legolas’ stab wound and Aragorn’s concussion had him a little too concerned for levity, but once the true danger was past he did not miss an opportunity to note the reoccurring irony of their situation.

"You know Estel," the elf lord remarked as he changed the dressing on Aragorn’s shoulder wound. "Until you came along I lived many generations in the contentedly mistaken thought that Elladan and Elrohir were as much trouble as a father could ask for."

Aragorn grinned around a wince. "They’re just better at hiding it."

Elrond chuckled despite himself. "Considering I didn’t have to remove an arrow from either of them until they were well over 100 years old, and I have taken three out of you in the first twenty years of your life, not to mention concussions, stab wounds and the odd assorted poison oak incidents..."

Predictably, Aragorn protested that that been his brother’s fault, and Elrond quietly ignored him. "...I would have to agree with you," the elf finished, tightening the bandage.

"It’s not fair to compare us, elves age slower and live longer." Aragorn pointed out.

"And watching you I begin to understand why!" Elrond shook his head. "Estel, given what I have seen of you thus far, if you had the life span of an elf, I would hate to see what kind of shape you would be in by the time you reached your brothers’ age."

Aragorn gave into his father’s teasing and settled back against the headboard of his bed. "With your excellent care? I’ll be fine."

Elrond smiled somewhat softly. "The world is changing and many things are drawing near in the mist-shrouded future. I cannot say what they portend, but I feel that the wheels which shall turn them have already been set in motion. I may or may not always be here Estel. Someday my time to pass over the sea shall come and I will leave Middle Earth as so many have already done."

Aragorn sobered and nodded. "Would I sound selfish if I hoped that it did not come too soon?" he said quietly.

"Fear not young one," Elrond assured. "I will not depart and leave these fair lands to the creeping darkness. If the elves do not oppose the evil one, who will? But things must soon change, for better or worse. Besides," his gaze turned warmer. "I would not leave until I have seen you come into your destiny Estel, wherever it may lie."

Elrond rose from the bedside and passed to the door. "Now Estel, I have some good news for you. Moranuen has recovered almost fully from the injuries the townsfolk dealt him. He woke up several days ago and has made rapid progress."

Aragorn sat up once more, a happy smile lighting his face. It eased his heart to know that his old friend was going to be all right. "Can I go to him?"

"No," Elrond shook his head and Aragorn looked slightly crestfallen. "Young one," the elf lord smiled gently. "You are not well yet and I am still concerned about the after-effects of your concussion. You need to remain still for a time and take it easy. However..." Elrond opened the door. "There’s no saying he can’t come to see you."

A dark-haired elf, slightly shorter than Aragorn’s brothers, entered the room. One arm was still in a splint and carefully tucked into a sling across his chest, but his merry eyes were smiling and alert, a thing which did Aragorn’s heart good to see.

"Mora!" Aragorn said when the elf seated himself on the edge of the bed and gave the ranger a careful hug. "They didn’t tell me you were up and about. I’m so glad you’re doing better."

Moranuen smiled. "Which is more than I can say for you. What happened to you Estel? You look like a cave troll got at you!"

Aragorn rolled his eyes. "It’s a long story..."

 

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

 

Two or three days passed uneventfully, which, as Elrond saw fit to remark, was unusual with Aragorn around. Aragorn was finally released from his enforced bed rest on the conditions that he take it easy yet until Elrond told him otherwise.

Legolas was also able to be up and about and right now he had found a moment alone in the great Hall of Fire. The elf sat cross-legged in the corner, perched easily on the high, thin, decorative shelf that spanned the upper half of all the walls of the room. He was staring thoughtfully at the fire when the young ranger entered.

Aragorn wondered how his friend had gotten up there, but had finally given up paying much attention to the elf prince’s penchant for taking repose in unusually odd places and flopped quietly down into the seat of a chair below.

"Better view from up there?" He inquired of the elf above his head with a small smile.

Legolas jumped down gracefully, lighting almost weightlessly next to the young human’s chair. "Quieter. You should try it sometime." The elf was incredibly mobile considering that his injuries were still so fresh.

It was late and the great hall was empty except for the two friends and the many roaring fires. Shadows danced and flickered across Legolas’ face and Aragorn watched his friend with concern.

"I didn’t mean to interrupt," Aragorn apologized. "If you want to be alone..."

Legolas shook his head as he took a more normal seat next to his young friend, reassuring the human that no intrusion had been made.

"Thinking of Hebrilith?" Aragorn queried softly after a few moments of silence. He immediately wondered if it had been a wise thing to say, but before he could tell Legolas to ignore the question, the prince spoke quietly.

"Yes, I was. Of him... and other things," Legolas’ eyes were distant, still seeking the fire. "I’m glad he is at peace now. He was right about some things you know."

Aragorn’s brows knit tightly. "Legolas... the things he said to you... they weren’t-"

Legolas raised his hand for silence, his eyes finding his friend’s at last. "He was right that I had not let go of what happened to me as much as I told myself I had. The pain was still there if something prodded deeply enough to disturb it, but I didn’t realize that. It took you, and he, for me to really see what I’ve been carrying around all these years. But he was wrong about what it meant, my pain did not poison my soul as his did."

Aragorn remained silent. There was nothing he could think of to say. Legolas’ frank confession to him was startling. He would never have dared ask for, or expect his friend to be so entirely candid with him about the very personal hurts of the prince’s past.

"As strange as it may sound Estel," Legolas shook his head slowly. "I am glad for everything that’s happened. And I’m glad I met Hebrilith, even under those circumstances. He forced me to look at things I didn’t want to look at. But I needed to see them, so I could finally let go of the hurt... and let go of my own fear that it had somehow changed me deep inside, planted something dark there that I needed to fear..." Legolas had never admitted that secret fear to anyone in all the hundreds of years of his existence. Until now, he could not have.

Legolas stopped and couldn’t help smiling at the very serious, almost overly-intent look on his friend’s face. "I’ve lost you, haven’t I?" he chuckled lightly.

"No, no!" Aragorn shook his head. "I understand completely..."

Legolas’ smile widened, but it was gentle. Aragorn was too young and unburdened to understand the effects of long buried pain like Legolas had had to deal with. "No, you don’t, and I’m glad for it. All too swiftly the world will rob you of your innocence and I would not see that happen too soon."

Aragorn was used to essentially being told he was too young to understand things by the elves around him and sighed good-naturedly. "Well considering I shall never have your hundreds of years of experience, I suppose I shall have to take your word for it," he replied with a puckish grin. "But I already knew that something was working for the better inside that elvish head of yours."

"Oh?" Legolas raised an eyebrow inquiringly. "And why is that?"

Aragorn’s eyes softened a shade. "Because when I checked your bandages earlier you did not pull away from me when I touched you," the young human said quietly. "And when I looked in your eyes, you were only seeing me, not ghosts of the past."

Legolas was taken by surprise. He had never realized that Aragorn was aware of the involuntarily reaction he sometimes had to the human’s touch. The elf blinked several times as he absorbed that. "It was never because of you."

"I know," Aragorn nodded simply.

Legolas smiled softly. "Maybe you understand more than I gave you credit for."

"Finally!" Aragorn smiled playfully at the elf, trying to lighten the mood, "I've been trying to tell my family that for years."

The elf shook his head confused momentarily, "What?"

"That I understand more than I am given credit for!"

"Oh, right." Legolas moved a pace back from the human before continuing, "That same old argument, 'I am older than you think I am'. Is that the one?" He smiled openly at the ranger.

"The one he will never win." Elladan had quietly entered the room, hearing the tail end of their conversation. He walked up behind Aragorn and ruffled the young man’s long brown hair as he passed him.

Aragorn tried to move out of the way but he still ached severely from the abuse he had taken from Hebrilith and his actions were noticeably slower. He glowered at his elven brother and graced his friend with the same scowl, knowing the elves were taking advantage of his weariness.

"So what makes you think you are suddenly so much older than you were two days ago?" The eldest twin seated himself out of the range of the human’s reach. He knew full well that his taunting would have garnered him a good fight if the man had felt any better.

"I don’t recall anyone addressing you during our conversation." Aragorn growled at his brother.

Legolas stepped back near Aragorn and seated himself on the chair’s large arm, his eyes locked onto the human's, "No I do believe it is true. You understand more than you are given credit for human." The elf smiled at the dark eyes, watching him carefully, "And you are able to teach more than you realize. Without your help, I would have been defeated by Hebrilith. It came very close."

Elladan smiled and stood to his feet, leaning down as he passed by the young human, "I guess father was right in keeping you Estel, instead of selling you to the traders." He teased the ranger, knowing full well Aragorn wasn’t up to the challenge.

"Yes, it's you I question Illuvitar on Elladan." Elrond entered the room, smiling at his eldest son, caught in the act of tormenting his younger brother. He had heard the old taunt throughout the many years the human had been under the roof of their house.

Elladan's face turned red, having been found out. Aragorn smiled wickedly up at the twin, "Told you he always liked me best." He whispered fiercely at the elf.

Legolas couldn’t help himself as he started laughing at the easy banter and the look on Lord Elrond's face as he barely overheard his youngest son's taunt.

Elladan leaned down on the armchair pressing in close to Aragorn, speaking so low that Legolas had to strain to hear him, "It’s a good thing young human that you are still wounded or Elrohir and I might have to take you out for a little trip into the hills."

"Why so I could beat you again?" Aragorn smiled innocently back up at the elf.

Legolas easily grabbed the human and pulled him back against the arm of the chair he sat on, out of reach of the twin. Aragorn tipped his head back so his gaze was redirected, "Perhaps you would be safer if you accompanied me home. Raniean and Trelan should be here any day now. You might live longer that way."

The offer of protection caused the human to laugh. "They can’t kill me. Father would have their hides."

"No, but it does seem that they do try from time to time." Elrond moved away from the window he stood near and approached his sons, smiling at the eldest twin and interrupting the conversation.

"Sorry father we failed again." Elladan smiled sweetly at the elderly elf.

"That’s not funny!" Aragorn glanced at Elrond who simply shook his head.

"Out Elladan." Elrond motioned towards the door, "I need to see to these two for a few moments, alone and without you aggravating them."

"I'd love to stay and help. Perhaps I can change Estel's bandage for you." He smiled at the human knowing the offer was only in jest.

"Out, now." Elrond turned to the elf, "You may take him out later when he's well and finish this conversation then. But not in my house or while they are still wounded."

"Yeah gives you an unfair advantage." Aragorn cocked his head to the side thinking, "Although you may need it."

"Enough!" Elrond pushed the twin out the door and glared at the prince who was still laughing at the whole exchange, "Estel, you do not help your situation at all."

"And you." The elf lord approached the young prince and guided him over to a chair seating the elf in it and carefully looking over his nearly healed wounds.

"Forgive me my lord." Legolas glanced at Aragorn, "I miss the banter, being an only child."

"Lucky, that’s what I call it." Aragorn murmured.

"Estel, hush."

"He's still outside the door I can hear him breathing out there." Aragorn argued.

Elrond walked over and kneeled down in front of the human, his eyes smiling as he worked gently with the man, "You keep me young my son. But you also take years off my life coming home as you do."

"I'm sorry father. Truly I am." The ranger turned serious. "You know we were only teasing."

"Yes." He stared at the man, "And so does Elladan. You scared them more than you can know. Both of you did." He turned and glanced at the prince, who dropped his gaze. "But I sense something different about you, both of you. You are older Estel, somehow calmer. And you young prince, " he turned back to the elf seated across the way, "You are free." His smile was sad, "It has been many years, but I can see the difference in you. It is a welcome one."

Legolas' smile was bright and he nodded once in understanding as Elrond stood. "If you would remain our guest, I will send to your father. It is spring and the mountains are beautiful this time of year. It would please us if you stayed on a few more weeks."

"Stay." Aragorn leaned forward. "You haven’t seen the best parts of Rivendell yet." A small smile played across the ranger’s lips, "Besides I think I could use the protection."

A soft snicker could be heard just outside the door.

"Elrohir!" Elladan’s hushed voice came to their ears.

"He's right! He's going to need protection from you!" Elrohir protested.

"Be more loud would you?" the elder twin’s voice was exasperated.

Elrond glanced at the friends and pressed his finger to his lips, silently walking back near the door. "Both of you are loud! Have neither of you anything better to do?" He stepped into the hallway, startling the eavesdropping twins.

"I wanted to make sure Estel and the prince were all right." Elrohir's face came into view around the edge of the door, "You will stay won’t you?" He addressed the question to the prince, "There is a great pool that we swim in, in the summer, we would love to show you."

Aragorn glanced at Legolas, "What about it? Stay a bit. Let me show you my home. There is more to do here than get into trouble."

The prince smiled back at him from where he sat, "I would love to stay longer." He looked to the elderly elf, "Lord Elrond I would take you up on your offer. Would you please inform my father that I will be staying?"

Elrond nodded and was about to speak when Elladan's voice could be heard from the hallway, softly muttering, "Good that should even things up a bit."

"He's teasing father." Elrohir spoke quickly as the lord of the manor turned a dark glare upon the twin.

"No I'm not."

"No he's not." Aragorn spoke at the same time his brother answered the retort.

"This will be fun." Legolas laughed from his seat.

"Yes, maybe you can teach them how to shoot too, they are after all Noldor elves." Aragorn spoke up.

"What!?" The chimed response set the friends to laughing.

"Illuvitar help us." Elrond rolled his eyes, "I’ll need to keep an eye on you after all. Hopefully we can return you to your father in one piece someday young prince."

"Just not today." Aragorn smiled the elf ignoring his brother’s threats.

The summer would prove to be very full and interesting indeed with an extra young elf under Rivendell’s roof.


But we get ahead of ourselves for that is another story entirely...


THE END