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Black Breath

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-Black Breath-

By: Cassia and Siobhan


 


 

 

~*PART ONE*~

 

 

Elrond walked slowly down the hallway in his house, a warm mug of tea in his hand.  He still hadn’t quite woken, it was fairly early in the morning yet and they had danced and celebrated in the Hall of Fire late into the night the evening prior.  He was slightly surprised to note that all of his sons were up and conversing quietly by the front door with Prince Legolas.

 

“Morning father,” Elrohir called out cheerfully.

 

Elrond raised an elegant eyebrow and assessed the youths.  “And what pray tell are the four of you doing up so early? I was certain I would not see a one of you until at least mid-morning.”

 

“We’re going up to the rivers head to...” Estel’s answer was interrupted by his older brother.

 

“We are going to see how the river is faring and just to take a look around.”  Elladan finished the sentence off for the human.

 

Aragorn’s mouth dropped slightly as he glared at his brother. 

 

Elrond simply stood and stared all three of his boys down before speaking, “And what do you expect to do there?”

 

“Hunt.” Elrohir answered innocently.

 

The elf lord glanced at Legolas who had remained silent through the whole exchange.  The prince simply raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders in feigned ignorance, pretending not to know of the days plans.

 

“To hunt what?”  Elrond sighed deeply and turned back to his eldest, “Must I drag everything out of you?”

 

“Why to hunt deer of course father.  Celboril said that the cellars were getting low.”  Elladan’s expression was hard to read but Elrond had the distinct feeling that the youths were hiding something from him.

 

He slowly resumed his walk to the main room, shaking his head, “Well mind yourselves. I have heard reports of orcs near the river’s head.  Do not go hunting them.”  He stopped and looked back at his sons, “Do I make myself clear?”

 

“Well unless they hunt us.” Estel murmured.  Elladan smacked the back of his head and glowered at the ranger.

 

“Do I make myself clear? No orcs. I have had quite enough patching up of young elves and humans around here to last me well into the next millennia.  Stay away from them.” Elrond stepped back towards them, demanding an answer with his proximity.

 

The human elbowed his older brother.  “Of course father, no orcs, we promise.”  Elladan answered for them.

 

Elrond pierced his youngest son with the sternest look he could, but the human smiled back impishly. “Unless they attack us first.” And with that comment Aragorn stepped quickly out of the range of his brothers and darted out the front door, Legolas fast on his heels.

 

“Elladan.” Their father’s voice was irritated; he knew how much trouble the four of them could get into.

 

“Not to worry father. I promise you, no orcs, no trouble, no broken bones or bodies.”

 

“Well there’s no telling about that thick skull of Estel’s...” Elrohir muttered to himself.

 

“No broken bodies!” Elladan repeated grabbing his twin and moving quickly for the door.

 

Elrond watched them go and sighed deeply, “Iluvitar protect them all, they’ve not a wit about a one of them.”

 

 

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

 

 

“Have you no thought for your own preservation?” Elladan growled at Estel when he and Elrohir had finally caught up with the ranger.  The human ducked the open-handed smack intended for his head.

 

“How can I, when you keep smacking it out of me. It’s a wonder there’s anything in there.” Estel threw the old torment back at his brother sarcastically.

 

Legolas started laughing, “Estel, that’s not true!”

 

The ranger rolled his eyes and cast the elf a doleful glance, “It’s what they keep saying.”

 

“Would that I had had brothers.”  The elf prince laughed helplessly.

 

“Oh, why? So they could torment you into insanity?  Here you can have mine!”  Estel threw himself against Elladan rocking the elf off balance so that he stumbled towards Legolas.

 

“Why you little nift!” The twin hollered at the human as he pelted up the dirt pathway ahead of the elves.  In moments they were all running after the ranger trying to gain the top of the pass first.

 

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

 

Mist from the falls coated everything in a fine sheen of water as the companions climbed the edge of the cliff, gaining the head of the river.  By the time they reached the top of the mountain it was mid-day and the spray from the falls was a welcome respite during the climb.

 

They rested at the side of a deep pool that collected at the edge of the cliff before tumbling from the heights to crash into the hollowed out-bowl many feet below them, its dull roar a lulling rumble that hung in the warm, late summer air. There the four friends shared a meal of dried venison and bread that Celboril had packed for them that morning.

 

The small lake they rested beside was visited by all sorts of animal life as they sat quietly and watched over the glassy waters. 

 

“So what’s it like in Mirkwood these days?” Elrohir rolled over and glanced at Legolas, his eyes half lidded, sleepy from the heat and a stomach full of food.

 

Legolas’ gaze was unfocused as he allowed his eyes to fix on the gently rippling water and his answer was soft and wistful, “Well if you mean is it anything like this?  Then the answer would be no, although it used to be.” He breathed in the high mountain air deeply, thinking on his home, “Mirkwood used to be beautiful, but the woods have fallen over the years into darkness.  The power of the elves keeps the evil at bay, yet it is not what it once was.”

 

Aragorn lay on his stomach next to Legolas, listening to the prince talk about his home.  The young ranger’s face and arms overhung the rocky drop-off into the deep pool and he was completely motionless, perfectly still as he searched the depths of the water.

 

“You’ll never catch anything Estel.”  Elladan glanced over at the human.  His youngest brother held one of his arrows over his head waiting to plunge it into the water, trying his skill at spear fishing.  If the human heard him he didn’t respond, his breathing was slowed and his eyes were fixed.

 

“It’s been a while since we were able to visit Mirkwood for any amount of time.  Why the last time we were there for your and Estel’s judgment was only the second time in oh what...?” Elrohir scrunched up his face and turned to his twin, “How long has it been Elladan?”

 

Only Elladan was not in the space he had occupied moments before.  The elf was quietly sneaking up on his younger, human brother in an attempt to scare the ranger.

 

Elrohir quickly took note and kicked Legolas’ booted foot, redirecting the prince’s gaze.

 

Although he wasn’t watching what was going on behind him, Aragorn had been listening intently and when the conversation lulled he immediately redirected his attention.  Searching the water in front of him for the reflection of his brother, he waited.  In moments he was rewarded for his patience.  The glassy mirror of the water clearly showed Elladan stalking up behind him with a devilish smile on his face.  As the elf leaned over the supposedly unsuspecting ranger, Estel turned onto his back underneath his brother. Dropping the arrow he pulled his knees up to his chest and catching the elf on the soles of his boots he pushed upward and back, pitching Elladan into the lake over his head.  He twisted around and jumped back from the edge as the elf shot to the surface of the icy water, sputtering in surprise.

 

Elrohir and Legolas were beside themselves with laughter and Aragorn slowly walked backwards to hide behind them, using them for a shield as Elladan hefted himself out of the pool.  The ranger grabbed Legolas when the prince stood, trying to get out from between the two of them.  The human ducked behind the prince’s back, holding onto the elf’s shoulders and using him as a barrier.

 

“You will be sorry that father ever kept you when I am through with you.” Elladan growled, trying to circle around Legolas and get a clean shot at his brother.

 

“Now wait a minute none of this was my fault!” Legolas raised his hands to fend off the angry, wet elf as his friend turned him to the right and pulled them a few feet farther away from Elladan.

 

“Elrohir a little help here please!”  The ranger shouted to the twin.

 

“Not on your life little brother.” Elrohir backed away, “I have no death wish as you apparently seem to.”

 

“Come on Elladan,” Aragorn ducked and spun Legolas toward his brother again, keeping squarely behind the prince’s back, “Fair is fair, you were going to throw me in and don’t you dare deny it.”

 

“I deny nothing, especially the fact that when I get my hands on you, you are dead.”  The Noldor elf grabbed the prince by his forearms and jerked him away from the cowering ranger.

 

Legolas, finally free from the melee quickly stumbled to Elrohir’s side. “Should we help?”  He asked as the ranger nimbly avoided the elf that was after him.

 

“No way.”  Elrohir, laughed helplessly, “Let them have at it.”

 

“Now Elladan, you know you can’t take me home beat up. You promised father.”  Aragorn jumped to his left vaulting over a fallen tree and using the downed pine as a barrier between himself and his brother, “Besides I am your *little* brother, you have to protect me.”

 

“No, you are a ranger.”  Elladan feinted to the left, causing Aragorn to step to the right in an attempt to get away, but the ruse put the human closer to the elf and the warrior grabbed the man, hauling him bodily over the fallen tree and locking his arms around the human’s neck, dragging him back towards the lake, “And as you are always so fond of telling me, you can easily take care of yourself.” He growled quietly in the ranger’s ear.

 

Legolas and Elrohir watched wide-eyed as the elf picked the human off his feet and pulled him to the waters edge.  Aragorn reached out toward them begging, “Help!” His voice a mere squeak as his windpipe was constricted.

 

Elladan glanced at the two who immediately stepped back, hands up in surrender.  Returning his attention to the ranger, he smiled wickedly at the man, “No help this time little brother.”

 

“I don’t feel right just letting him throw Strider in there like that...” Legolas kept his eyes on the two as they struggled near the pool’s edge, both trying to over balance the other. 

 

“Shall we?”  Elrohir smiled devilishly at the prince.

 

“Yes.” 

 

The elves were so involved in the rough housing and so thoroughly enjoying themselves that they were not paying attention to their surroundings.  The warnings from their father that morning went unheeded and they did not hear when the forest fell silent around them.  The soft sounds of twigs snapping evaded notice, overridden by their laughter.

 

Legolas and Elrohir rushed Elladan and had nearly reached the elf’s position when their advance was stopped, blocked by arrows that rained down around them. The shaft of one whistled by Legolas’ head, its fletchings brushing the top of his shoulder.  The prince dropped into a crouched position and whirled on his bootheels, gazing intently into the forest behind them.   Elladan forced Aragorn to the ground beneath him, holding the human down protectively, stunned by the attack, their play fighting forgotten as he scanned the edges of the glade.

 

Their weapons lay in the midst of the small camp they had made, a few yards from where they now were.  Risking the exposure, Legolas ran back towards the campsite and quickly collected the bows, slinging their quivers over his back as arrows bit into the dirt near his hands, throwing up small rocks and debris.  He turned to see the brothers running for the edge of the cliff, shouting at him to join them.   Aragorn’s eyes were huge and he stopped, momentarily glancing behind the prince as their attackers gave up the cover of the forest. 

 

“Legolas!” He shouted the warning before Elladan grabbed him and drug him to the edge of the water at the top of the falls.

 

Legolas spun, bringing up his bow and notching an arrow in one smooth motion.  The orc that stepped from the shadow of the trees was instantly felled.  But more took his place.

 

In moments the glade was filled with orcs and they rushed the elves that were trapped on the edge of the falls. 

 

“Here! Follow me!”  Aragorn shouted as he nimbly jumped out into the water, his foot making contact with a submerged rock.  The stone was slippery with moss and the current pulled at his leggings as he righted himself and leapt again.  From where the elves were at the edge of the water it appeared that the ranger was walking on the top of the lake, teetering on the lip of the falls, but as they neared the point he had jumped from, they too could see the natural bridge that the submerged stones made just inches under the water’s swirling surface.  Elladan pushed Elrohir in front of him, grabbing the prince and jerking him out of the way as a an arrow whizzed through the air where the elf’s head had just been.  The projectiles hit the surface of the lake, causing ripples in the water that made the rocks positions harder to judge.

 

Elladan retrieved his bow from Legolas and began to return fire, covering their retreat.  The prince jumped to a stone midway across the lake and turned back, notching his bow with two arrows and releasing them with deadly aim.  He called for Elladan to follow them as he kept the orcs from attacking the elf.

 

Elrohir was right on Estel’s heels, jumping from stone to stone behind the human.  The ranger was nimble and fleet footed for a man but he still had a hard time keeping his feet under him, it was much easier for his elven companions.  Elrohir had intended to be close enough in the event that Estel slipped. One misplaced foot here and the unfortunate one who had stumbled would be over the side of the falls.  The elf reached out and righted his brother as the man tried to balance on a particularly slippery rock. 

 

The orcs had gained the edge of the lake now but they were loath to cross the water, renewing their attack with ferocity on the intruders.  The press of the onslaught reached Elrohir and Aragorn and the two were forced to duck as the orcs arrows narrowly missed them, falling about them into the water. Aragorn turned to see how Elladan and Legolas were faring but the misstep proved fatal.  As he turned the human lost his footing and pitched forward, back toward the lake, trying desperately to right himself.

 

“Estel!” Elrohir leaned out to grab the ranger just as the orcs loosed a volley of projectiles their way. One of the arrows found its mark and embedded itself deeply into Aragorn’s right shoulder.  The force of the weapon threw the human backwards. His feet slipped out from under him and before he even knew what had happened, he fell over the falls.

 

Elrohir froze, all of his senses stunned by the quick sequence of events that he was unable to stop.  He leaned out over the falls, barely hearing Legolas as he called for Aragorn.  The elf prince reached the rock that the twin stood on and wrapped his arm around Elrohir’s waist pulling the elf back.

 

“We must cross, quickly. We can search for him when we reach the other side and safety. Come!” He wrested the twin away from the edge and gave Elrohir a shove.  When the elf started moving again, Legolas swallowed the fear that was threatening to overwhelm him.  He had seen his friend fall, had watched from helplessly far away as the human’s face turned from pain to shock to fear and it seemed as though the ranger had fallen in slow motion off the rock where he now stood.

 

Elladan leapt on to the submerged stone behind him and followed the prince’s gaze over the falls.  The water tumbled and frothed in angry billows at the bottom of the gorge. Mist from the furious pace of the falling water obscured their view and it was difficult to see if any one lay at the edges of the deep pool below them.

 

“Go!” Elladan shouted at Legolas, following the elf to the other side of the lake.  Elrohir stood on the bank, waiting to catch them as they jumped the last span and together they ran into the safety of the covering trees. 

 

They could hear the orcs on the opposite side of the lake but they were out of arrow range and the foul creatures would not follow them over. 

 

Quickly Elrohir led them to the edge of the cliff and showed them the natural path down that he had found. The granite rocks of the cliff had been broken over the years by wind and water and they provided a steep-sided stairway that wound to the floor of the rift.  The mists made their descent precarious and more than once one of them had slipped and nearly fallen but they made it successfully down the to the base of the falls without any trouble from the orc raiding party.

 

Legolas could not help remembering the last time he had climbed down into this gorge in search of Aragorn not so very long ago.  The weather was much more agreeable this time, but his heart no less apprehensive and he hoped that he would once again find his friend alive and in one piece.  Yet his heart misgave him and fear for the young ranger’s safety made him feel cold even under the bright sun light.

 

At the bottom of the cliff they fanned out calling to Estel, searching the edges of the lake.  The ranger was nowhere to be seen and there were no tracks near at hand on either side of the river that indicated anyone had left it recently.  Elladan waded out into the middle of the pooling water, fighting the current.

 

"What are you doing?" Elrohir called out to his twin.

 

"I'm going to see if he is trapped underneath."

 

"But if he is trapped..." Elrohir stopped talking, he couldn’t even speak the words.

 

"I know that Elrohir! You think I don’t?!" Elladan was standing in the water yelling at his brother, his fear turning to anger and causing him to lash out.

 

"Elladan, please, go see if Strider is trapped.  I will help you if you find him."  Legolas moved to stand next to Elrohir, draping an arm around the upset elf’s shoulder.

 

Elladan nodded curtly and dove under the water.

 

"It was my fault." Elrohir’s words were soft and filled with self-loathing.

 

Legolas turned to Elrohir and raised his eyebrow, "What was?"

 

"Estel." The elf choked back a sob.  Tears were welling up in his eyes and Legolas had to look away to keep his own emotions at bay.

 

"It was not." The prince replied, his voice rough as he lost the war with his own emotions.

 

"Our fingers touched for just a second... but then he slipped away, I couldn’t hold onto him!"

 

Elladan surfaced in the middle of the lake and quickly dove back in.  It was hard to see in the churning water and the undertow from the falls kept trying to drag him back against the rocks of the cliff.  He felt blindly along the bottom of the sandy floor, his fingers snagging on rocks and submerged logs.  His lungs felt about to burst when Elladan finally realized he needed to head to the surface, but the current pulled at him, grabbing his clothing and wrapping its invisible fingers in his heavy tunic, dragging him backwards.  He fought the pull of the water frantically, slowly gaining ground against it.

 

When he broke through the water Legolas and Elrohir had waded out into the lake and were calling out his name.

 

"Elladan!"  Elrohir stumbled towards his brother and helped the elf stand to his feet, wading back out of the lake, "You were down so long."

 

Elladan slipped down onto the bank and buried his head in his hands, "I couldn’t find him."

 

"I'll try looking."  Legolas stripped quickly out of his tunic, dropping it to the ground near Elladan and waded into the water, diving in when it reached to his chest.  He systematically searched the floor of the lake, trying to get as close to the rock wall as possible with out being sucked in by the undertow.

 

In a few moments he was joined by the twins and the three spent the next few hours searching the entire area.

 

"He is not in there."  Legolas waded out of the lake last, joining the elven brothers on the beach.  "Perhaps he was washed down stream. Let us search the edges of the banks."  The prince was unable to give up or allow himself to think that his friend was dead.  They had not found his body, there was still a chance.

 

"Good idea."  Elrohir nodded his agreement, scooping up their sodden tunics and stuffing them into his knapsack.  "Elladan and I can take this side.  There is a narrow part in the river where you may cross to the other.  How is that?"

 

"Very well, let us try it." Legolas nodded grimly, praying silently in his heart to Iluvitar that they would find his friend and soon.  He glanced back to the top of the falls and followed them slowly down with his eyes.  Shaking his head against the dark thoughts in his mind and the sorrow winding its way through his heart, he started out after the twins, hoping they would succeed before nightfall.

 

The three elves moved slowly down the river following the stream back down the gorge calling out Estel's name again and again.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART TWO*~

 

 

 

Sharp pain from the orc’s arrow shot through Aragorn's mind as the tip embedded itself in his right shoulder.  The force of the weapon threw him off balance and he felt his feet slip out from underneath him.

 

Fear wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed all thought from his mind as he found himself tumbling over the falls.  The water bore him to the foot of the chasm and forced him to the bottom of the lake.  His face was pressed into the pebbled sandy floor and before he could get his hands underneath him he was dragged backwards as the water rolled him closer to the granite cliffs.

 

Trying to swim against the current was impossible and Aragorn couldn’t tell which way was up in his watery prison.  The tumult of the falls roared in his ears and he was smashed against the cliff side before being drug along its’ length.  The gritty rock easily bit through his tunic and dug into his skin.  He hadn’t the breath to cry out and in fear he started to panic.  Pressing his feet against the stone wall he pushed off in an attempt to clear the cliff and gain the surface.

 

As he struggled against the current and the deep burning in his lungs, he was carried backwards once again towards the granite cliff.  He had to surface and it had to be soon or he would die down here.  He clawed at the water, heading, in his confused state, to what he thought was up but the waves swirled around him oddly and he was rolled off balance, his head slamming hard into the rocks behind the falls.  His body went limp and he barely clung to consciousness.  If he lost that, he would have no chance of surviving.

 

The water kept pressing him back and he thought it odd that the rocks gave way beneath him. It felt as though the stone wall had sunk in behind him and he was being carried inward.  In fact he had been forced into a subterranean cave and was carried by the water through the constricted tunnel.   As he tumbled wildly between the dark rock walls, the shaft of the orc arrow snagged on an outcropping and broke.

 

The pain of the arrow shaft being ripped from his shoulder caused him to cry out and the last of his air was expended.  Dark spots danced before his eyes as his oxygen-starved lungs overrode his will and begged him to inhale.  Water choked his nostrils and a numbing peace stole over him as he realized with sudden clarity that he truly was going to die.

 

He had almost given his will over to the idea of death when his head broke the surface of the water around him.  He gasped in the dank air greedily, instinctively drawing the oxygen into his lungs.  His fingers touched the edges of a rocky shelf and without conscious thought he pulled his upper body out of the water, collapsing in the dark of the cave as consciousness fled him.

 

He never heard the frantic cries of his brothers or his friend as they searched throughout the day for him.

 

 

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

 

 

It was well past midnight when Elladan, Elrohir and Legolas finally made their way back to Rivendell.  The three elves stood in the courtyard, unwilling to go any further.  How would they ever be able to tell Elrond that his youngest son had been lost?

 

Legolas dropped wearily to the stone steps and buried his face in his hands.  His shoulders shaking slightly from the quiet sobs he had held back all day.

 

Elrohir knelt in front of him, pulling the unwilling elf into his arms.  "Don’t give up Legolas, we haven’t found him yet... we don’t know for sure..." but tears streamed down his own face, leaving silver tracks in the moonlight.

 

The door to the house opened silently and Celboril stepped out, a bucket of kitchen waste in his hands.  He nearly stumbled over the young elves on the steps, their presence giving him a start.

 

"Hey now, what is this?"  He looked from one face to another.  When Legolas didn’t look up he mistook the elf's sorrow for pain and ran swiftly back into the house to fetch Elrond.

 

"No Celboril!  Wait!" Elladan called after the retreating elf but it was too late.

 

In moments Elrond rushed out onto the steps, trailing his servant.  "What is wrong?  What is it?"  The elder elf took Elrohir's face in his hands and forced the young elf to look at him.  Legolas had stood and walked to the far side of the courtyard, concealing himself in the shadows.

 

"What has happened?"  Elrond glanced from one young elf to the other, looking between the three.  They were damp and disheveled, but none of them looked obviously hurt or injured...  Then he realized that someone was missing.  His heart caught in his chest and he forced the words from his lips, "Where is Estel?"

 

"It was my fault." Elrohir whispered brokenly, his eyes searching his father’s.

 

"What happened?  Tell me my sons."  Elrond implored them softly.

 

Elladan spoke up as he approached Elrond.  "We were at the river head, just like we told you we were going to be.  We weren’t even hunting.  Estel was fishing," a short humorless laugh escaped the twin as he remembered the afternoon, "We were ambushed by orcs.  And we fled.  We had almost escaped by crossing the falls when Estel was hit.  The force of the arrow knocked him off the edge and he fell."  Elladan's words were a whisper as he recounted the events for his father.  Swallowing the sorrow that threatened to choke him he continued, "We looked all afternoon and until it was too dark to see.  He was not at the bottom of the lake that we could tell and we could not find him on the edges of the river."  Elladan's eyes were huge in the moonlight and tears spilled over them as he spoke.  "I-I’ve lost him.  I am sorry father.  I am so sorry."

 

Elrond nodded silently and pulled Elrohir against him.  With his keen eyes he saw the outline of the elf prince against the far corner of the courtyard arch.  He could see the slant of the proud shoulders, his sorrow obvious as Elladan spoke.

 

"Celboril," Elrond called the stunned servant to his side.  "Please go start some tea, get into my medicine cabinet and use some of the herbs that are good for resting, you know the ones."  The elf lord’s voice was soft and held the slightest waver.  He gently pressed Elrohir into the house after his servant.  "It was not your fault my sons, do not take that burden on yourselves.  We have not found his body, Estel may yet live.  Do not lose hope."

 

Elrond gently touched his eldest son’s shoulders as the young elf walked dejectedly into the house after his twin, "We will search again tomorrow.  When everyone is refreshed and the sun is up once more. You did well.  I am thankful you have returned safely."

 

Legolas moved away from the arch and headed back out towards the path away from Rivendell.

 

"Prince Legolas," Elrond’s deep voice stopped the younger elf. "Come inside. It is late."

 

The elf halted but did not answer, his head lowered in response but he did not turn.  He stiffened slightly when Elrond approached him and laid his hand gently between the princes' shoulders.

 

"Legolas?"

 

"I can not go inside when he is out there."  The words were so soft that only the elven hearing could catch them.

 

"It will do you no good to go after him tonight.  Knowing Estel he is probably hidden himself somewhere and even you would not be able to uncover his hiding place."  Elrond smiled softly when the prince finally turned to gaze up at him.

 

The tear tracks on the fair face caused the father’s heart to clench.  The elf looked all of his younger years, not unlike his own sons.  He placed his arm around the prince’s shoulders and led the reluctant friend back to the house.

 

"A runner from your father passed through here this afternoon."  He needed to convey this information to Legolas and would rather do it outside the presence of his sons - he had an inkling the conversation would produce a fight.

 

"He did?"  Legolas stopped and turned to the elf lord, "What did he say?" the prince dried his eyes with the back of his hand, staring hard into the older elf’s kind gaze.

 

"Your father has requested that you return home. It is the last year of the yèn and your people are celebrating it.  Your presence is required."

 

Legolas’ jaw tightened.  “He didn’t request, he commanded,” he said simply, knowing that a summons from his father was never a request.  “But I cannot think to leave now! Not with Strider missing!”  Legolas paced away from the elder elf, thinking.  It was true, the last year of every elven marked year, which comprised about 432 of Middle Earth’s standard years, was a leap year and it was considered a high celebration, especially in Mirkwood were it was treated as the most important of their holy days.  There were games and dances and feasting that lasted for the entire day and much of the following week.  The royalty was always supposed to be in attendance.  It was an incredibly important holiday for the wood-elves and the King and his son both needed to be on hand to give the special, traditional blessing to the people of Mirkwood.  But the thought of celebrating right now made Legolas sick, how could he ever enjoy himself when his friend was lost and more than likely dead? 

 

No, he would not go, he would not return until Strider was safe or his body was found, no matter how upset his father would be with him.  He had made up his mind and turned back toward Elrond, but the elf lord was prepared for the refusal. 

 

He held up his hand stopping the prince, a small smile graced his lips.  "Listen to me now young one," His voice was soft and Legolas stepped nearer.  "My sons know this land and their brother far better than you do.  They will be doing all they can to find him.  Your presence is not necessary and your place now is by your father’s side.  It may be that you do not feel like celebrating, but Mirkwood needs her prince through this time. It is not forever, you can return as soon as your duty is done.  You know what this means to your people, do not deny them or your father.  Estel would not want you to either."

 

The argument gently rebuffed the prince’s objections and he quieted immediately.  It was true; Strider would not want him to stop celebrating life just because he was lost. Still Legolas hated the thought and his heart balked at the necessity of it.

 

"Our peoples are not on the best of terms yet young prince.  The relationship that you have forged with my son has gone a long way to healing those broken ties.  Do not let your heart lead you in this one.  If you do not return to your father it will not be seen well by your people that you stayed here during their high holiday, shunning them in favor of us, no matter what the reason.  Your return to them and then your absence afterwards to find your friend will do more good for both our peoples than if you were to stay and help to search for Estel."  Elrond walked slowly back to the steps leading into the house, "Do you understand of what I speak?"  He turned to the prince and pushed the door to the house open, motioning with his hand for the younger elf to join him.

 

"Yes, my lord.  And you are correct, though my heart would tell me otherwise and I hate that I must choose my position and duty over my friend. Sometimes responsibility is a bitter draught indeed."  Legolas slowly walked up the steps and stopped, eye level with Elrond.

 

"That it is my young prince, that it is.  And it does not get any easier with age." He smiled softly into the sliver blue eyes, "Trust me."  Elrond led the prince into the house and down to the room next to Aragorn's.  "I will have Celboril bring you some tea.  It will help you sleep and calm your nerves.  See that you drink it, you'll need it."  He leveled a serious stare at the elf until the prince nodded in compliance.

 

Elrond wearily walked back to his room.  The night had taken an awful turn and his heart was heavy with grief.  The unimaginable had happened and he was left to pick up the pieces.  He had always feared this day but he had hoped that it would come long after he had left for the undying lands.  To have to deal with his youngest son’s death now was overwhelming.  It was incredible how much he had come to love that boy, and he could not help but feel that he must have failed him somewhere, for his heart told him that Estel was meant for greater things and greater struggles... that his life was important... not that it should end like this, a pointless death taking him away so young, even for a human.  Elrond sat down on the edge of his bed and let his head rest in his hands, pressing his palms hard against his eyes to stave off the tears. Elladan stopped in his father’s doorway.  The older elf’s shoulders shook with the sorrow that he could no longer contain and a soft sob escaped his lips. 

 

“Father, no.” Elladan walked quickly in and wrapped his arms around the elf lord.  “You are right, we will find him.”  Elrond nodded and allowed his son to hold him.  Celboril entered moments later, trailing Elrohir.  The youngest twin walked forward and kissed his father’s head as the elder elf looked up at his sons.

 

Elrohir walked back to an over stuffed chair and dropped heavily into it, cradling a warm mug of tea that Celboril handed him.  Elladan took the ones proffered to him and passed one to his father.

 

“Sleep my lords and rest. Morning will find that errant son of yours.  He’s too much an elf himself to let any such thing as a waterfall get the best of him.”  The servant spoke softly.

 

“True words, good Celboril, rightly spoken.”  Elrond wiped his eyes off on the sleeve of his robe and drank deeply from the mug he held.

 

Elladan grabbed an extra blanket and curled up on the floor below his brother.  Elrohir’s hand dangled from the chair’s arm and rested on his twins head, the slight touch saying more than any words.  Elrond smiled softly as the two fell to sleep.  Estel just had to be alive, he had to be.

 

His last conscious thoughts were prayers carried to Iluvitar on wings of hope, asking that his son might be brought safely through the night and led home.

 

Celboril turned out the lights and left his lord’s chamber, a deep sigh escaping him.  He noticed that Legolas’ light was still on down the hallway and moved quietly into the room to turn it off, but the prince was not in his room.  Curious, the servant stepped next door into Estel’s room and smiled sadly.  Legolas lay on top of the ranger’s bed, with Aragorn’s old night-light burning low in the corner. 

 

The servant covered the sleeping prince with a soft blanket and went to blow out the tiny light.  As he approached the shell carved lamp a thought occurred to him and he took the little light instead and set it in the window, “Let him know we wait for him.” He whispered quietly to the lamp, “Let your light show him the way home.”  Silently he left the prince to rest, he had his own prayers to pray.  He knew Iluvitar would hear them, Iluvitar always heard.

 

 

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

 

 

Someone was groaning and the noise was waking him up.  He realized with an odd detachment that that someone was him.

 

Aragorn pulled himself clear of the small underground pool, dragging his feet up onto the shelf and pressing his back against the rock wall.  He could hear the water as it ran through the chamber but he could see nothing.  Shakily he touched his eyes just to make sure they were, in fact, open. 

 

His shoulder throbbed incessantly and he probed the wound gently with his fingers.  The arrowhead was embedded too far in to remove himself, he would need help.   Water dripped into his eyes and he brushed it away.  It felt strange and oddly warm, he touched his fingers to his tongue and realized that it was not water but blood.  That was why his head hurt so badly.  The brow above his left eye was split, he must have hit his head against the rock walls.  He remembered being slammed against the cliff and gingerly touched the back of his head.  A swollen, tender knot attested to the fact. 

 

The sounds of the falls reverberated in the small cave he found himself inside.  The ceiling of the hollowed area he occupied was just inches above his head.  Curious, he followed the wall of the shelter, listening, smelling, using his other senses where his eyes could not aide him.

 

Near the front of the cavern where the river pressed in under the rocks he noted that he could just barely make out the image of his hand before his face.  There was light somehow filtering into the hole behind the falls.  He felt the walls, his fingers pressing into a deep fissure in the rock.  He smelled fresh air and could feel the spray of water on his face when he pressed close to the crack.  Suddenly the ranger realized where he was.  He had been forced behind the falls into a subterranean cave, the water he felt on his face came from the falls outside and the light he was seeing was the sun slowly rising over the mountain ridge that held Rivendell. 

 

Aragorn pulled away from the crack and pressed back against the wall, allowing himself to relax for a moment.  He was cold and his body was starting to protest the abuse that it had taken yesterday.  He couldn’t remain in the cave and hope that help would find him.  He was almost positive his family would think him dead, who would possibly know that a cave existed behind the falls?  Claustrophobic thoughts wove into his heart and mind and the ranger concentrated on breathing slowly and evenly as he calmed himself.  He had come in under the falls, he would go out the same way. 

 

Crawling to the edge of the shelf he swung his legs down into the cold water and sat for a few moments, breathing deeply, pulling all the oxygen he could into his lungs and expanding them as far as possible.  When he was ready he turned and slid over the side of the rock and eased into the underground stream.  The current was swift and threatened to drag him farther back under the mountain.

 

Bracing his feet on the rocks and using the rough walls as handholds, he pulled himself to the mouth of the tunnel. With one last deep breath he plunged under the water and began moving up the channel towards the opening in the lake. 

 

It was hard to see in the dark swirling waters and his right shoulder spasmed in pain as he forced himself forward against the current, kicking with his feet and pulling himself out, hand over hand as he grasped the rocks around him.  In seconds he was free of the short tunnel and into the lake.  The force of the falls slammed the human against the granite cliff.  He flattened out against the rock wall and edged sideways through the pounding water. 

 

His air supply was almost gone and it seemed that he was no closer to the edge than when he had started.  Panic flared in Aragorn’s heart and he closed the emotion off, slowly moving along the wall of the lake, trying to remember how far around the hollowed-out bowl really was.  He was thinking on these things to distract himself when he realized that the water forcing him down was lessening.  Placing his feet at the bottom of the lake he pushed himself upwards.  His head broke through the surface of the water and he gulped in air greedily.  Free from the pulling current, he swam to the edge of the lake and pulled himself out of the water, laying on the ground and simply breathing. 

 

Looking about him, the young ranger smiled slightly at being able to see the trees of the nearby forest and the sun as it reflected on the far mountains.  The sounds of the surrounding forests edged into his hearing as the roaring of the falls dissipated, warring with the ringing in his head from the abuse he had taken.  He carefully shook the water out of his hair, aware that he was more injured than he had originally thought as the slight movement made him somewhat nauseous, threatening to throw his world into a tight spin.  

 

Aragorn pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, suddenly aware that he could be in danger.  He glanced to the top of the falls, from here it looked like a long way down.  He remembered the orcs that had ambushed them and felt fear rise up in his chest.  He needed to get to shelter, out of sight.  The forest around him grew silent as he crept into the foliage at the edge of the lake, warning him of danger as he moved deeper into the forests and down the valley towards home.  He had no idea who or what was nearing the lake but he did not stay to find out.  Stumbling into the brush he worked down the rift away from the falls and the perceived threat.

 

Behind him on the opposite shore several elves stepped silently from under the cover of the trees.  They were searching the edges of the embankment, looking intently for any signs of their missing friend.  Two of them crossed at the small point of the river and headed back towards the bottom of the falls.  They moved quietly, knowing that orcs were in the area and unwilling to allow them to find out that they were indeed searching for someone.  One of the warriors knelt in the mud near the water’s edge.  It was apparent that something had drug itself out of the lake and laid in the dirt, the faint impression of where a body had lain could barely be seen and the footprints leading away from the water were fresh and definitely human.  The elf whistled to his companions and motioned them over pointing back into the forest behind him.  In moments the fleet footed beings were tracking the human back down the gorge.

 

Aragorn heard the soft sounds of his pursuers.  The thought never occurred to him that they could be family or friends and he quickly concealed himself, his heart hammering in his chest.  His vision was blurred and his head pounded, making it hard to concentrate.  A twig to his left snapped softly and he pulled a small dagger from his boot, holding it against his chest, hoping that he would not be forced to use it.  He was sure in the shape he was in that he wouldn’t stand a chance against a single orc, let alone a pack of them.  Closing his eyes for just a moment he tried to calm his heart and slow his breathing.

 

Moranuen followed the broken trail left by the man.  The twins had fanned out behind him, trying to locate where their brother had hidden himself.  Elrond had warned them that he might have done just that.  They had spotted orcs not far from their location and their joy at discovering that Estel may still be alive was dampened by the proximity of the enemy.  They hoped to find the human in time.

 

Moranuen stopped short and stared down at the base of the trunk he had just rounded; something odd had caught his eye.  Hidden in the ferns that grew around the base of the large tree, Aragorn had concealed himself.  The tips of the man’s boots could barely be seen; only the sharp eyes of the elf had even caught the anomaly that gave away the dark leather.  The others were too far away to alert and Moranuen was afraid of what he may still find.  Kneeling quickly he carefully moved the fronds of the fern away, exposing his friend’s hiding place. 

 

Aragorn sat with his back against the large tree, an elven dagger clenched in his hands, sleeping soundly. His face was bruised and scratched from being drug along the bottom of the lake and pressed against the granite.  Blood from his split brow mixed with the water that dripped from his hair and mingled in the dark stain that was spreading across his tunic, the broken tip of the shaft just protruding from the man’s right shoulder. The right sleeve of his over shirt had been torn away and cuts and scrapes decorated the length of his arm.

 

Moranuen breathed a silent sigh of relief and reached towards his friend, gently grasping the human’s hand.

 

Aragorn started and woke, trying to move away from the touch.  He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, only rest for a moment and catch his breath. He jerked his hand free and thrust the blade forward, grabbing his opponent by the back of the head and forcing the weapon against the elf’s soft throat.  Moranuen held very still, his hands slowly closing around Aragorn’s as the human stared at him with huge, frightened eyes.

 

“Estel, it’s all right, it is I, Mora.”  The elf smiled softly as the ranger allowed the blade to be taken from him.  His friend gently pushed him back, seating him on the forest floor once more, “It is well.  You’ll be just fine.”  Tears welled up in the elf’s eyes as the man smiled back at him. “We thought you were dead.”

 

“Mora?” Aragorn looked around them into the forest; he matched his voice to the elf’s, keeping it low and quiet.  “Are you alone?”

 

“No.” The elf shifted and leaned around the tree searching for the others that had accompanied him, “Elladan and Elrohir as here as well.  Plus a few of the others that we couldn’t keep from following us.”

 

“There are orcs here.” The ranger gripped his friend’s arm, trying to listen.

 

“Yes, we know.  We sent a few warriors to route them out and keep them away from this area until we found you.”  The elf pressed his fingers to his mouth and loosed a low whistle.  “We need to move quickly, can you walk?”

 

The ranger nodded slowly and allowed the elf to help him stand. He had just gained his footing when several elves stepped from the surrounding trees.

 

Moranuen turned to the warriors, “Did you drive the orcs out?”

 

“Yes” an elf to his left reported, “They headed north towards the pass.  We will have no more trouble from them today.  How is Elrond's son?”  He glanced at Aragorn who wove unsteadily on his feet, reaching behind him to brace himself against the tree.

 

Elladan and Elrohir erupted from their right, pressing through the warriors and converging on Moranuen and Estel.

 

“Estel.” Elrohir stepped past the other elves and pulled his brother towards him, holding the human against him.  “I am so sorry.”

 

“No, it’s all right.” Aragorn murmured in his ear. “I’m fine.”

 

“Where were you last night?”  The elf gently pushed him back and began to look the ranger over, taking note of the wounds he had sustained from his fall.

 

“I was sucked into a cave behind the falls. I didn’t wake up until just this morning.” Aragorn winced and drew his breath in quickly as Elrohir pushed the edges of the torn tunic away from his shoulder wound.

 

He smiled as Elladan walked up near him.  The elf leaned over his twin and wrapped his hand around the back of the young human’s head pulling his brother in close until their foreheads barely touched.  “Oh Estel I thought we had lost you.”

 

“I’m sorry.”  The ranger apologized quietly. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”  He gripped the elf’s forearms with his hands. 

 

When Elrohir edged out from between them Elladan pulled Aragorn into a gentle embrace. “We have to get you home. Father thinks you’re dead.”

 

Aragorn began laughing softly, his shoulders hitching as he tried to catch his breath.  His brothers mistook the actions for tears and immediately became worried.  “Estel what is it?  What’s wrong?”  Elladan gently cupped the human’s face with his hands and forced Aragorn to look at him.

 

The smile that spread across his countenance hurt in a thousand places but he couldn’t help it as he looked on his brothers.  “Well we did hunt orcs, and I did get wounded and you are going to take me back home to father in need of patching up again.”  He laughed at himself, causing the others to join him.

 

“Estel you idiot.”  Elladan pulled him away from the tree and began to slowly walk him home, “only you would find humor in a situation like this.”

 

Moranuen walked closely behind the brothers, the warriors flanking them, still uneasy about the fact that orcs had been so close to their home.

 

“I think father would take you any way we brought you home right now, so long as you were alive.” Elrohir spoke up.

 

“Wait, where is Legolas?” Aragorn looked behind them at the elves who were following, his step faltering as he realized his friend was not among them.  “He’s not...he didn’t... the orcs, they didn’t, did they?” He could not bring himself to ask the question and yet the absence of the prince caused fear to spike through his heart as he stopped and searched the faces of his friends.

 

“NO! No.” Moranuen understood what he was asking first, “No, Legolas is fine.  His father sent for him and he had to leave early this morning.  He came with us searching for you as far as he could before we parted, but he was unable to remain behind.”

 

“Why, what was wrong?” Aragorn’s fear did not abate, it simply jumped tracks faster than his mind could process. 

 

Elladan wrapped his arm around the ranger’s shoulder and started the man walking again as he explained. “Nothing was wrong. Mirkwood is fine and so is King Thranduil.  But it is approaching the yèn, the leap year celebration, and in Mirkwood they honor it with a high holiday.  His presence was required.”

 

“Oh. That’s right, I forgot.” Aragorn answered absently, trying to process everything and keep upright.

 

“He promised to return when it was over.” Elrohir added encouragingly. “He’ll be back as soon as he can.  Father had to force him to go.  He didn’t want to leave without finding you.”

 

“Yes, but it was important for him to be there, I would not want him to miss something like that on my account.”

 

Elladan laughed softly, “Exactly what father told him you would say.”

 

Aragorn stumbled and fell into Elrohir, his steps becoming more unsure.  He was safe now and his body was beginning to betray him, making every tiny injury known.  Weariness stole over him, replacing the fear and adrenaline and he was very glad they were nearly home.

 

Elrond stood in the courtyard.  He hadn’t eaten that morning and if not for the tea he had forced on himself last night he wouldn’t have slept either.

 

Sending Legolas home had been one of the hardest things he had to do.  The young elf was visibly torn and tried to reason his way out of it, but in the end he had consented, accepting the fact that royalty did not always have the luxury of doing what pleased them.  He had promised to help search for Estel as far as he could before the northern passageway split from the edge of the river.

 

With a heavy heart he had left Rivendell, promising to return as quickly as possible.

 

It had been hours since the young elves had gone out searching.  Moranuen had insisted on accompanying the brothers and had brought with him several of the warriors who lived in Rivendell to help deal with the orcs.

 

Elrond found himself pacing back to the middle of the courtyard, listening to the noises of the forest around him and yet lost in a world of worry unto himself.

 

The sounds of people approaching reached the elven ears and Elrond turned quickly towards the entry, stepping forward just as the warriors passed through it.  They bowed formally to their lord and stepped aside.  Elrond tried to gauge from their faces if they had been successful but they passed quickly by him.

 

Moranuen walked in behind them and bowed low to the elf lord. But he was unable to suppress his joy and when he stood up the smile on his face betrayed him.  “My lord we found him.”  Moranuen glanced over his shoulder as Elrond’s three sons walked slowly up behind him, “He was hiding just as you said he would be.”

 

“I thought you were orcs.” Aragorn quipped lightly.

 

“We sound nothing like orcs!” Elrohir glared at him.

 

“No but you smell like one.”  Elladan glanced at his twin over their brother’s head, his comment eliciting laughter from the young human.

 

Their father however was oblivious to their banter, his eyes fixed on the sight of his youngest.  The human stepped away from his brothers and Elrond quickly closed the distant between them, pulling the ranger against him and holding him there, wrapped in his arms.  Elrond glanced at the twins and smiled at them, “Thank you.” He whispered.

 

Aragorn allowed himself to be held and simply relaxed against the tall, strong elf.  He suddenly felt very young as he leaned into his father’s embrace.

 

“I didn’t hunt them I swear.” He whispered, his voice muted by Elrond’s soft robe.  “I didn’t even get the chance to shoot back.”

 

“Right now, I wouldn’t even care if you had Estel.”  The strong arms around him tightened slightly, “I am so glad you are home.”

 

“Even though I am not quite in one piece?”

 

“Even though.” Elrond smiled and slowly released his grip on the man, feeling the way the ranger was unsteadily remaining on his feet. “I have never been more happy to see you than I am today.”  Elrond held his son against his side as they walked slowly back into the house, it wouldn’t be long before the boy collapsed, his energy was spent and he slumped sideways, allowing himself to be directed down the hall to his room.

 

Aragorn vaguely remembered being led to his room and helped onto his bed.  His father was speaking to Elladan and Elrohir and he heard Mora leave and return at one point but the words began to blur together and as his body slowly relaxed into the softness beneath him, his consciousness released its’ death grip and he allowed himself the luxury of falling asleep.  The last thing he remembered was his fathers face looming into view above his own and the softly spoken elven words, “Rest Estel.  It will be all right.  Just rest.”  He fell into sleep with a slight smile on his face, simply glad to be home once more.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART THREE*~

 

 

Opening his eyes slowly, Aragorn glanced about his room. He could tell it was midday from the bright light that streamed in through the open curtains.  His gaze landed on Elrohir who sat in a chair near the picture window, his fingers laced behind his head and his feet propped on the chest of drawers, staring lazily out across the ravine.

 

Aragorn tried to speak but his throat was incredibly dry, he swallowed hard and tried once more, “Father know you are disrespecting the furniture again?” the words came out barely a whisper and his voice cracked as he spoke.

 

Startled, Elrohir jerked into a sitting position his boots crashing to the floor as he jumped to his feet.

 

“Estel you are awake!” His brother headed quickly for the door. “I’ll fetch father.”

 

“No, wait.”  Estel reached out to stop his brother from leaving, “I just wanted a drink of water.” He let his hand fall back onto the bed and sighed, looking towards the pitcher of water on the end table; an impossibly long ways away.

 

Aragorn eased himself up in bed, the slight movement proved to be too much for his aching head and he stopped, resting his head in his hands until the pounding stilled.  His fingers brushed the stitches that knit the cut in his brow and he idly touched the bandage that wrapped around his temple.  He realized that the arrow had been removed from his shoulder and had been bound sometime while he slept.  His arm was lathed in ointment where it had been rubbed raw by the granite.  All the tiny aches in his body had begun to demand his attention at one time and he closed his eyes, trying to block out the painful signals.

 

Elrond entered the room followed quickly by the twins.  He noted the way Estel was hunched over himself, holding his head as though it were going to break apart any moment.  Sitting carefully down on the edge of the bed, he took the young man’s hands in his own and moved them away from the injuries, tipping Aragorn’s head slowly up to look into his eyes.

 

“Just what do you think you are doing?” He smiled at the ranger.

 

“It hurts.” Aragorn groaned softly.

 

“I bet it does.” Elrond gently reached behind the boy’s head and touched the knot at the back of his skull, “That was quite a hit you took.”

 

Aragorn’s reached his hand back, placing it over his father’s and drawing in his breath slowly.  “Is that why I feel sick?”

 

“Yes. More than likely it is.”  Elrond pushed his hand down gently and readjusted the bandage, “You are lucky you have a very hard head my son.”

 

“You should have seen what you did to the granite wall.” Elladan muttered, a smile on his face.

 

“Is that why there was a crack in it when we went back?” Elrohir questioned.

 

“Funny. Very funny.”  Aragorn frowned at his brothers as his father pressed him back down, pulling the pillows up so that he could rest against them, “Next time you get to fall off the cliff. I’ve had it with that.”

 

Elrond reached out and grabbed the pitcher, pouring the cool water in to a glass and handing it off to the ranger.

 

“Thank you.” Aragorn replied somewhat grumpily, “That’s all I wanted.”

 

“Well, for now, when you want something,” Elrond reseated himself and stared into the silver eyes, “You will ask for it and someone else will bring it to you, until I say otherwise.”  He held up his hand staving off the argument he could see in the youth. “Do you understand?  You took a very nasty fall and you have quite an assortment of injuries, none of which I am pleased with.”

 

“It wasn’t my fault.” The human muttered before taking a drink of water.  He coughed as the liquid touched his dry throat.  “How long I have I been out?” He asked, relinquishing the glass to Elrond.

 

“Two days.” Elrohir answered, dropping lightly down into the chair in front of the window.  He tipped the seat backwards and stared out into the valley, balancing his weight on the back two legs of the chair.

 

Elrond cleared his throat and pointed to the ground when the twin gave him his full attention.  Guiltily, Elrohir let the chair fall back into place.  Aragorn had totally missed the entire episode, his thoughts caught on his brother’s words. 

 

“Wait a minute. Two days?”  He reached out for the glass of water again and his father passed it to him.

 

“Slower this time.” Elrond cautioned, “Yes my son, two days. Which is why you will take it easy.  Part of that was my doing, you needed the rest but you have woken long after the medicines would have worn off.”

 

Estel tipped the glass to his lips and took a small sip of the liquid, letting it run slowly down his parched throat.  He nodded his head in understanding.

 

“Has anyone sent word to Legolas?”

 

“Not yet.” His father stood and walked to the doorway, “He said that he would return when he was able.  If he has not by the time you are better, we’ll discuss it again.  Remember Estel, Legolas is royalty and he has duties to his standing as such.  He has tarried here with us far longer than he originally planned.  His father may need him for a time. I will have a runner leave word with his house that you are safe.” 

 

“Thank you father.” Aragorn gently pressed his fingers to the skin around his left eye, it was sore to the light touch and rough. “My face really hurts.” He murmured, pressing himself up in bed so he could glance into the oval mirror above the chest of drawers on the opposite side of the room.

 

“I can imagine it does. I will get some more ointment for you, it will take the sting out.” Elrond left and returned in moments.

 

Aragorn stared at the reflection in the mirror.  The left side of his face was black and blue and his eye was reddened.  There were scratches and cuts all over his face from where he had been drug along the bottom of the lake.

 

“You had dirt and small stones embedded in your skin. It took a bit to clean you up after they brought you home.”  Elrond gently wiped the cuts with a soft cloth that he dipped in the soothing ointment.

 

Aragorn winced at the gentle administrations.  “Perhaps it’s a good thing that Legolas is not here,” He growled testily, “I’d never live this down.”

 

“Don’t think that you ever will.”  Elladan smiled wickedly at his younger brother. Dancing out of the human’s reach before being chased out of the room by his father.

 

“For now you will take things easy.” Elrond sat back and smiled at the human, “I am sure that Legolas is fine and enjoying himself. You too will be back at it in no time I am sure.”

 

Aragorn laughed lightly, “Well the next time we are ambushed when we go fishing, it will be them and not us who do the running.”

 

“Estel.” His fathered warned with him with his tone, “Hunting orcs will do nothing but get you into trouble.”  He smiled as the young human laughed heartily.

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas slapped the tree branches out of his path as he made his way rapidly up the steep, rocky incline that led further and further into the Misty Mountains.  He had made good time since he split company with the sons of Elrond two or three days ago and moved at a steady, determined pace.  The faster he got home the sooner he could return.

 

To say that Legolas was angry or upset would have been going too far, for he had more sense than to waste time on either of those feelings when they changed nothing.  It was impossible to harbor resentment towards a festival or event because it was merely the way the passage of time fell and one might as well curse the rising of the sun, but that would be absurd.  Beyond that, Legolas knew that his duty was his duty and it did not serve him, nor do him any credit to feel angry towards his father for being his constant reminder of just what was and wasn’t expected from a Prince of Mirkwood, no more than it would have been justified for him to be upset with Elrond for agreeing with his father on this issue.

 

Still, it could hardly be said the Legolas’ frame of mind was entirely settled, or that his heart was peaceful, because it was not.  He hated leaving without knowing Aragorn’s fate, or being able to help in the search. 

 

With his thoughts tangled up in the web of emotions running through him he almost did not sense the other presence nearby until he had just about passed it. 

 

Legolas froze suddenly.  He had been making hardly any noise at all, even in his slightly agitated state, but now he was completely soundless as he turned slowly round, trying to find what had alerted his senses. 

 

Slight sounds, audible only to elven hearing, gave him the information he was seeking.  There was someone or something hiding between a large, jagged outcropping of stone and the thick, tangled over-growth that was choking the life out of the shrubbery some distance away on his right.  Whatever it was was watching him and trying to conceal its presence.  Legolas was aware that the orcs who had shot Aragorn were still out here somewhere and did not particularly care for the idea of any of them skulking around and watching him.  Especially if it were a scout and meant to see which way he went so as to bring the whole pack down upon him at some inopportune moment. 

 

Fading back into the shadows of the broken, crumbling rocks that littered the area Legolas worked his way silently around until he flanked the intruder.  So quiet and stealthy were his moves that the being hiding in the thicket did not know he was near until Legolas stepped up and parted the overhanging vines with one swift move.  Grabbing the dark, hunched figure by the arm Legolas pulled the being out into the light, one of his long, ivory handled knives clenched firmly in prince’s other hand.

 

“Who are you and why are you spying... on me,” Legolas’ demand faltered as he took in the young, human girl who was staring up at him with wide, terrified eyes, curled over her knees on the grass and cringing back from his grip on her upper arm.  Wavy auburn hair spilled in tangled ringlets around her flushed face.  It looked as if she had recently been crying.  The young woman could not have been much over seventeen years of age and regarded the fierce looking elf with paralyzed horror, too scared to even move. 

 

Legolas quickly sheathed his knife and released her arm.  The girl started crying.  Or rather resumed crying, since Legolas felt that he had perhaps interrupted her in the middle of such a state.

 

“It’s all right,” Legolas knelt next to her.  “I’m sorry I frightened you, I thought you were an orc.  But be assured, I mean you no harm.”

 

“I-I’m not an orc!” the girl snapped, trying to dry her tears.  Irritated now at her own weakness and still more scared than she wanted to admit of the strange warrior she found herself facing.  “My name’s Maraen, from Holswollow.  W-what are you?!”  She had never seen an elf before.

 

“My name is Legolas, good lady, an elf, from Mirkwood.”

 

“An elf...” she breathed.  She had heard a lot of stories about them, most of them good, but some of them not, and she was unsure which to believe.  As her panic calmed she couldn’t help noticing that this elf was perhaps the fairest man she had ever seen.  “Are all the elves as beautiful as you?” she asked before she could stop herself. 

 

Legolas quirked an eyebrow in amusement.  “Are all humans as forthright as you?” he answered her with a question of his own. 

 

Maraen flushed a little more at her own forwardness.  “Forgive me... my head is spinning, it makes me say foolish things without thinking.”

 

Legolas just rose and offered her his hand up.  Maraen rose with difficulty, one hand wrapped tightly around her midsection.  When she was standing beside him Legolas realized for the first time that this girl was pregnant - very pregnant. 

 

“You should not be out here in the wilds in your condition,” he said quietly.  “Holswollow is a days journey from here at least.  Let me take you back.”

 

Maraen eyed the elf prince warily, still not sure she could trust him.  After everything that had happened these past few days, she wasn’t sure she could trust anyone.

 

“There’s no Holswollow to return to, so you needn’t bother,” she said somewhat tartly, but Legolas could tell her shortness came from fear and heartache. 

 

“What do you mean?” the elf’s face turned grave.

 

“The orcs destroyed it!” the girl choked slightly, pressing her eyes shut against the horror of her own memories.  “T-they just swept down out of the hills... raiding, sacking, killing... nothing like that had ever happened before!  Everyone who could ran for the hills and scattered, but they followed us... I don’t know if anyone else made it out or not.”  Maraen was trying hard not to start crying again. 

 

“My husband Erron and I made it into the woods and hid.  B-but the next morning he insisted on going back to Holswollow to see if anyone else had made it... he said he’d be back in a few hours.  That was four days ago.”  Maraen’s voice broke and she turned away so that Legolas would not see her distress.

 

“I waited as long as I could, but I had to find water and... the baby... it’s due any day now.  I-I tried to go to Sendwait, but the orcs had hit it too.  There was nothing left.  Now I don’t know what to do...”

 

Legolas reached out and took the girls’ trembling shoulders, turning her gently around.  With a small sob, Maraen buried her face against his shoulder.  The elf prince let his arm rest lightly around her back as she cried, knowing that although she turned to him for comfort, she was not yet comfortable with this stranger that she hardly knew. 

 

In a few moments Maraen pulled back again, once more wiping her eyes and trying to put a little more distance between herself and the elf.  She wanted to trust him, his eyes seemed honest and true, but he was so different than anyone she’d ever met before and she was scared.

 

Legolas was deeply disturbed by the news of the violent level of orc activity.  To wipe out two entire villages, even ones as remote and isolated as Holswollow and Sendwait, showed more aggression and ambition than the orcs in these parts had exhibited in a long time.  By nature, orcs did not work together very well unless they could all see clearly what was in it for them, or, unless they were guided by some stronger will or plan.

 

“The baby is due soon?” Legolas resisted the urge to touch the large, full, hump of her stomach.  He did not wish to seem forward with her, and had been around very few pregnant women in his life.

 

“Any day now,” Maraen sniffed slightly, pulling herself together.  When she heard Legolas coming, she had thought he was an orc, much as he had made the same mistake about her, and the terror had unsettled her.  Now that she was coming down from the scare, her natural resiliency was taking the front again and she resolved to herself that she would cry no more, not even at the horrible, painful loss of her dear, dear Erron, husband for only a year, but sweetheart since childhood.

 

“If you will consent to come with me Maraen, I will take you back to Rivendell with me,” Legolas offered her.  “It is not far.  They will take excellent care of you and you can have your child in safety.”

 

Maraen nodded slowly.  “Thank you,” she said quietly.  She knew it was her only, and probably her best chance, but she hated leaving these hills, because it meant leaving Erron... even though she was sure he must be dead.

 

Legolas read the hesitation in her eyes; it was one he knew all too well.  “I know you don’t want to leave your husband behind, not knowing what happened to him, but he would want you to look to yourself and your child.  If he is alive, he will find you.”

 

Maraen looked up sharply, surprised that the elf could read her so easily.  “Can you hear my thoughts?” she asked somewhat suspiciously.

 

“Nay,” Legolas shook his head, smiling gently.  “No matter what they say in tales, that is not something my people can do, although the very wise can sometimes see into others hearts.  But it takes no great wisdom to see what is in yours young one, because it is greatly akin to my own.  I know what it is to have to leave behind someone you care for.  But come, let us get you to safety and make both of our sacrifices worth something, shall we?”

 

Maraen nodded slowly and allowed Legolas to lead her back down the path he had recently come up, heading once more towards Rivendell.

 

 

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

 

 

Although it had only taken Legolas a few days to get as far as he had, the way back was much slower traveling because Maraen could not go fast or far in her condition and they had to make frequent stops. 

 

Legolas was incredibly patient with their achingly slow progress and never pushed Maraen more than she could take.  He was quiet and did not talk much, but Maraen realized that although he said little, he seemed to be aware of everything and it felt a little comforting to know he was watching over her so closely. 

 

The second day they were together storm clouds rolled in and it began to rain torrentially.  Legolas quickly led Maraen to a place where the thick, interwoven bows of two huge trees that grew side-by-side kept off the majority of the rain.  The pair seated themselves against the trunks of the two great oaks to wait out the thunderstorm.  Legolas draped his cloak around Maraen’s shoulders to stave away the chill.

 

For a while thunder pealed and lightning split the cloud-darkened sky like jagged daggers.  Presently however the fury of the storm spent itself and it settled into a steady, simple downpour.

 

“Where were you going, before you found me?” Maraen inquired, now that the wind had died down enough to allow comfortable conversation.

 

“I was on my way home to Mirkwood.  My people are celebrating an important festival soon and my father requires my presence,” Legolas replied simply.

 

“You don’t sound like you want to go,” Maraen observed curiously.

 

Legolas glanced sideways at her.  “Now who’s reading people’s minds?”

 

She grinned slightly, but didn’t let the subject go.  “Who is it?”

 

“Who is what?” Legolas was slightly puzzled. 

 

“Who did you leave behind?  When we met you said you had had to leave somebody behind too.  I see it in your eyes, the same thing I feel in my heart at leaving Erron to an unknown fate.  Was it your wife?  Your brother?” Maraen inquired softly.

 

“No,” Legolas shook his head.  “Although he had become quite like a brother to me this past year or so.  He was... a dear friend of mine.  His name was Estel.  He was felled by an orc arrow and went over the falls... we had not yet found him before I was compelled to leave.”

 

“And your father would bid you do such a thing?” Maraen did not understand.

 

“Unfortunately a prince cannot always do as he pleases,” Legolas said with a sigh, glancing sideways at Maraen, judging her reaction to the revelation of his identity. 

 

The girl looked at him with fascination, but since she had never expected to find herself sitting in the forest, in the rain, with an elf in the first place, it wasn’t that much greater of a shock to discover that she was sitting with an elf prince.

 

“The yèn celebration is very important to my people, almost a holy day.  The king and one of his sons are supposed to be on hand to receive and to give the traditional blessing to the people.  Since I have no brothers, that responsibility falls to me.  I had already delayed as long as I could and would only just have had time to make it.  Although it is a joyous celebration, the day of blessing is taken very seriously in my realm,” Legolas tried to explain.  “They place a great deal of importance upon it.”

 

“You won’t make it in time now I suppose, not with backtracking all this way,” Maraen said quietly, playing with a blade of grass between her fingers as they watched the falling rain, waiting for it to stop.  She felt guilty for putting him out like this.

 

“I suppose not,” Legolas concurred, shifting his position slightly against the thick trunk of the tree. 

 

“My father died two years ago, but when he was alive he hated it if I didn’t come home when I was supposed to.  Of course I was a little girl then,” Maraen watched Legolas with interest.  He was much nicer to look at than the rain and she was just young enough to not really be able to hide the fact that she was staring at him.  The elf who had become her protector and guide was as enigmatic as he was beautiful.  He was a mystery to her, and now that she had gotten over her initial fear of him, Maraen wanted to know more about her quiet companion.  Yet if he wouldn’t talk to her, she could never find anything out. 

 

It hadn’t exactly been a question, so Legolas did not realize she wanted a response and just nodded to acknowledge her words.

 

“Will your father be upset with you?” Maraen prodded, trying to start a conversation.  The elf could be very difficult at times.

 

“It is not something you need to concern yourself about,” Legolas brushed her worry aside lightly.

 

“But you said it was very important to your people.” Maraen noted that Legolas had not denied what she had said, he had merely told her not to worry about it.

 

Legolas resisted the urge to look peeved.  The girl minded her own business about as well as Aragorn did.  The thought of his friend hurt, so Legolas shoved it aside quickly.

 

“Are *all* humans as nosey as you and Estel I wonder?” he mused, cocking one eyebrow as he turned his head to gaze at her.

 

Maraen didn’t know whether the elf was amused or annoyed.  She shrugged, unsure how to respond.  “I take it then that your father *will* be angry with you, and it will be my fault.  I’m sorry.”  She looked away.

 

Legolas sighed softly.  “No, it won’t be your fault.  If he’s angry I’m the only one to blame.  It probably wouldn’t matter that much if it were just about this one yèn celebration that I will miss...” Legolas rubbed his temple absently.  “But it’s not.  It’s the one before it, and the one before that...”

 

“Oh,” Maraen nodded slowly, watching him again.  She couldn’t help it.  “So this celebration happens often?  When was the last one?”

 

“About 432 years ago by your way of reckoning,” Legolas replied without much thought. 

 

“Four-hundred and thirty two *years*?” Maraen’s eyes widened.  She found it impossible to believe that her companion was old enough to have missed anything that happened that long ago.  She knew elves lived longer than humans, but it was still something of a shock to her.  “How can you miss something that you knew was coming for over four hundred *years*?” she didn’t understand.

 

Of course, to the elven mind, time was entirely a different matter, so Legolas did not completely understand her question.  “It just seems to be the way it ends up... I don’t know why, but unfortunately it always seems to work out that I am somewhere else at the time of the celebration,” Legolas chuckled dryly.  “And usually against my father’s wishes.  It started a long time ago.  You see, when I was a child I had a... disagreement with my parents shortly before the yèn festival.  It doesn’t matter what it was about now, but it culminated in the fact that I wanted to go with my friends on their first hunting party, and was not allowed to because... well because of many reasons, but one of which was that they might not return in time to attend the celebration.  Being young, and stupid, I got angry, ran away and hid in the woods until it was over,” Legolas grinned slightly at his own childishness, but he had been quite young then. 

 

“You will never hope to see someone as angry as my father was about that.  Of course, it had very little to do with my missing the celebration and everything to do with my running away,” the prince shook his head ruefully.  He could look back with humor upon the situation *now*, but of course it hadn’t been at all funny at the time.  Yet time had a way of changing things, and he could also understand his father’s other reasons now as well, for there was quite a bit more to the situation and the story than he saw fit to try to explain to Maraen at this time. 

 

“I’m just lucky that my Mother was still with us then, or it would have been worse for me.  That was the first yèn festival celebrated in Mirkwood after my birth, and also the first one that I missed, but it wouldn’t be the last.  To be fair I have been to several after that without event, but it is the exception rather than the rule I fear.  The celebration before last I got caught up in a border skirmish that held my patrol and I pinned down for over a week.  Unfortunately, we weren’t supposed to be in that area in the first place,” Legolas gave it all in an overview, not caring to go into much detail. 

 

“And then last time I was tracking a warg pack that had been ravaging the countryside and was forced to disregard father’s summons because I didn’t want them to escape when I had just about found them out.  He was not pleased.”  Legolas sighed.  He knew his father loved him dearly, but just sometimes it seemed as if there were very little he could do that did, in fact, please the elder elf. 

 

“And now you’re going to miss again,” Maraen finished for him, beginning to see the irony of the situation. 

 

Legolas nodded.  “Yes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he hung me for it this time,” the elf muttered with good-natured humor. 

 

Maraen was not certain he was joking and her face paled.  “H-he wouldn’t really, would he?”

 

Legolas actually laughed at her grave face, but smiled gently to let her know that he was not laughing at *her*, merely at the notion.  “No indeed good lady, fear not, I was jesting only.  Until the day that disapproving looks can kill I shall be in no mortal danger from my father’s wrath.”

 

“Well good then, you had me worried,” Maraen settled back once more, her hand resting on her large girth.  She shifted as a tense, squeezing pain made her wince slightly.  It faded presently and she let her breath out slowly.  “You elves are such curious folk, I’m not sure what to believe about you.”

 

Legolas smiled and let his gaze drift away again.  “Not half so curious as humans are.”

 

Maraen grinned slightly, trying to look at it from his point of view.  “I suppose.”

 

The rain had slacked off to a mere trickle now and Legolas rose easily to his feet, helping Maraen with her more difficult assent. 

 

“The rain has let up, let us be moving on,” the elf said as he led her on once more.

 

 

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

 

 

The girl and the elf had traveled for about three more hours when the first shadow began creeping into Legolas’ awareness.  Dusk was stealing fast upon them and the evening star had just become visible, but it was not that darkness which Legolas felt pressing uncomfortably close.  His movements instinctually began to become stealthier and his steps quieter.  It seemed now that Maraen made an incredible amount of noise as she walked, and he held up his hand to halt her so he could listen better to the distant sounds that were disturbing him. 

 

Maraen stopped and looked at him curiously, but the seriousness of Legolas’ stance told her not to speak. 

 

A look of intense concentration crossed the elf prince’s face as he listened to something that Maraen could not hear.  Legolas glanced around, but his keen eyes could not see through the trees and that was all that could be seen, crowded densely on every side of them.  Dropping to hands and knees, Legolas listened to the earth for a few moments before jumping to his feet again quickly, a flash of dim alarm lighting his bright silver-blue eyes. 

 

“Many feet are heading this way, at a great pace.  The earth groans beneath their steps, it does not welcome them,” Legolas answered Maraen’s unspoken question quickly and silently. 

 

The girl tried not to look as alarmed as she felt.  “Orcs?” she whispered, hoping beyond hope that she was wrong.  She was not.

 

Legolas nodded once.  “I fear so.  Come, we must move quickly and silently now.”

 

Maraen followed his lead without question, although she hardly felt capable of being either quick or silent.

 

The orcs were moving swiftly and were not now far away.  Legolas pushed faster than he had been before and Maraen struggled to keep up, panting slightly and feeling uncommonly like a fat, waddling duck trying to follow a fleet-footed ferret.  Yet Legolas was careful not to leave the young mother-to-be behind.

 

They came upon two orc scouts that must have been running ahead of the pack quite unexpectedly, but Legolas was not totally caught by surprise and had his bow drawn and an arrow launched before the two creatures had finished recognizing their presence.  The first orc never got a chance to even make a sound, but fell dead at once.  The second rushed them with a cry, but tumbled to the earth a moment later, clutching the arrow through its throat.

 

Legolas grabbed Maraen’s wrist and broke into a dead run, practically pulling her along.  There were other orcs on the way, drawn by their dead companion’s cry.  They had to get well away from there and quickly or they would have more trouble on their hands than Legolas felt prepared to deal with alone.

 

Maraen stumbled and tripped, trying to keep up.  Legolas released her hand when it became an impediment to their rush through the trees, but still they ran on, hearing the shouts of the orcs recede into the distance a little ways behind them.  However they were still far too close for comfort.

 

Legolas paused, realizing that the girl was not behind him anymore.  Turning he saw that Maraen was a distance back, holding onto a tree and leaning heavily against it for support.

 

Quickly, the elf retraced his steps, glancing around them warily before fixing his eyes worriedly on the young human.

 

“Are you all right?” he queried with concern.  It was now almost so dark he could only just see her, but Maraen did not look very good.

 

The girl nodded bravely, one arm tightly clutching her large girth.  “I-I’m just having some kind of cramps,” she brushed it off, breathing hard.  “It’s been going on for a while now, they’re just getting a little worse... I think I’ll feel better when we can rest a bit.”

 

Legolas nodded, his brows still furrowed in concern.  “All right, but come, we cannot linger here, the orcs are still far too near, we must keep ahead of them.”

 

Maraen nodded and pushed off from the tree, struggling after the tall elf, despite her growing pain.  Neither she, nor Legolas had enough experience with babies and childbearing to realize what her symptoms really meant.

 

Ten minutes later, Legolas froze, his sharp ears picking up the sound of approaching feet.  Quickly pulling Maraen back into the dense foliage, he hid her in a small hollow between several fallen trees.  Venturing cautiously back out, he remained in the shadows and watched as the large orc troop came into view.  They passed directly by his position without seeing the prince.  About 2000 yards away, the orcs stopped and began to drop their gear, obviously intending to make camp.

 

Quietly, Legolas slid back to where he had left Maraen.  “We must leave quickly and silently,” he said with veiled urgency.  “The orcs make camp close enough for us to see their fires.”

 

It was true; their small enclave was actually being dimly lighted by the too-close-for-comfort glow of the fires the orcs had already kindled.  In that dim, ruddy light, Legolas could see that Maraen was terribly pale and her eyes were large with fear.

 

“It’s all right,” he assured, thinking he had frightened the girl with his words.  “We just need to leave.”

 

Maraen shook her head and Legolas realized that beads of sweat were standing out on her pretty face.  “I-I can’t...” she whispered, doubling over and holding her large belly tightly as anther contraction ripped through her. 

 

Legolas looked puzzled and a little alarmed, not understanding what was happening. 

 

“Legolas... it’s – it’s time.  The baby...” Maraen gestured helplessly.  “It’s coming!”