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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!”

 

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

~*PART FOUR*~

 

 

 

It was the elf’s turn to go wide-eyed.  “You can’t!  Not here, not now!” he shook his head emphatically.  In sight of an orc camp with nothing and no one on hand was a horrible place to deliver a baby, even had he known how to do so, which he didn’t.

 

Maraen gasped slightly as she sank down to a sitting position but managed a weak, wry grin.  “I don’t know how it is with elf women Legolas...” she panted slightly around the building contractions.  “But I have no control over this.  The-the baby’s coming whether I want it or not!”

 

“Can you move?  Can we...” Legolas was at a complete loss.  He didn’t know how it was with elf women either, much less human ones.  In his centuries of life experience, this was not something he had ever been called upon to do before.  Birthing was work for midwives, not warriors. 

 

Maraen shook her head somewhat desperately, the terror of their situation clutching at her young heart.  “Legolas... I can’t!  It’s coming *right now*!”  She looked up at him with large, pleading brown eyes, looking much younger than her seventeen years.

 

“I-I thought I’d have my mother with me... my aunt Betha even... Legolas... Legolas I’m scared!  I-I don’t know *how* to deliver a baby!”  Maraen was nearly crying, but they were both careful to keep their voices at the lowest whisper possible to avoid detection by the nearby orcs.

 

“That makes two of us,” Legolas murmured, too softly for her to hear.  Running his hand over his face he forced himself to be calm and rational.  Maraen needed someone to be strong and in control of the situation, even if he did have no clue what he was doing.

 

“It’s all right Maraen, everything is going to be fine,” the elf assured gently, crouching down next to the girl and squeezing her shoulders gently.  “Your body knows what to do, listen to it.”

 

“Well right now it wants to scream,” Maraen whispered dryly.

 

“Well *don’t* listen to *that*,” Legolas replied with a small grin.  “Unless you want to invite a troop of orcs to this happy event.”

 

“Let’s skip that,” Maraen gritted out through her teeth.  She bit her lip hard and took a deep breath.  Fear was not helping her pain any.  “Legolas... what do I do?”

 

Legolas’ mind sought blankly for information it did not contain, but when he spoke he acted with confidence to give the girl courage.  “You need to lay down, come on, I’ll help you.”

 

Gently, the elf prince laid the young human girl down upon the mossy ground, wishing he had someplace better and someone more experienced on hand.  He rested his hand gently on her stomach, feeling the little life move under his fingers. 

 

Maraen was trying to be brave, but as the time drew nearer, her resolve began to crumble.  “They’re going to kill us... they’re going to kill my baby like they’ve killed Erron...” tears slid down her cheeks.  She restrained a sob.

 

“Shh, shh...” Legolas soothed gently, lightly stroking the girl’s hot face with the back of his fingers and brushing her auburn hair out of her eyes.  “Breathe deeply and try to remain calm, it will make this easier.  I’m not going to let anything happen to you or your baby, I promise you that.”

 

“Y-You swear?  You won’t let them get my baby?” she pleaded with large, childish eyes, tightening as the contractions became more forceful.

 

Legolas gripped her hand firmly, squeezing it and letting her hang onto him.  “I swear,” he reiterated seriously.  “I will die before I let any harm befall you or your child.”

 

The girl seemed to relax a little, obviously trusting the elf implicitly.  “Y-You’re so good to me Legolas, and you don’t even know me...” she murmured.  “Here you had to leave searching for your friend to get home and now you’re waylaid by some pregnant girl and a pack of orcs...” Maraen winced and drew a deep breath in as another contraction gripped her sharply.  “You-you didn’t ask to get stuck with me, and now this... I’m sorry.  I’m sorry this is happening...”

 

“Shh,” Legolas placed his fingers softly against her lips, stilling them.  “None of this is your fault.  You can’t control when your baby comes, I just wish I had someone more knowledgeable here to help you.  Father will just have to manage the ceremony without me; it will hardly be a crisis I think.  As for Estel...” Legolas closed his eyes.  He couldn’t think about his missing friend right now.  That was too hard and too painful and he had to keep all his attention on the task at hand.  “Lord Elrond was right, he and his sons do know this area, and Estel, better than I do, if he’s out there, they’ll find him.”  He wished he believed that, but it eased Maraen’s mind a little, so his words served their purpose.

 

The girl stilled slightly, but then her eyes grew large and she gripped his hand tightly.  “I-it’s coming!”

 

Legolas knelt by her side and laid his hand on the top of her skirt and hesitated, looking questioningly into her eyes for permission.  He was not at all comfortable with this situation, but someone was actually going to have to deliver the baby, and unfortunately the only someone around who wasn’t an orc was him.

 

Maraen nodded slightly.  She was hardly more comfortable with the situation, but what couldn’t be helped couldn’t be helped, and she had started to trust Legolas.  At first the strange elf had frightened her, but she had come to like him and respect him quite a bit in the last day or so.

 

Gently, Legolas helped her get ready to bring her baby into the world.  It was not a moment too soon because everything was happening rather swiftly now.  Maraen clenched her jaw and kept perfectly silent, no matter how she hurt, because she knew that the slightest sound would bring down a horde of orcs on their heads.  Legolas spoke softly, soothingly to her.  He slid in and out of elvish and the common tongue, but it didn’t matter because she was barely hearing his words, just his gentle tone of voice and the comfort of having him near.

 

When the child began to appear, Legolas was relived... but he quickly became concerned, because the baby was not coming out.  He could see the infant’s shoulder and arm, but nothing else.  He had no way of knowing that this was not the way the baby should be coming, but his mind suddenly flashed to the only reference he had, which were stories he had been told about his own birth.  It had been a difficult labor and he had been lodged sideways in the birth canal.  He and his mother had both nearly died, or so he had been told.  A zing of panic shot up Legolas spine.  He didn’t want Maraen and her baby to die like this, just because he didn’t know enough to do anything...

 

Praying that he was doing the right thing, Legolas tried to turn the baby so that it was head-first, because that seemed logically the best way for it to be.  It was difficult and he could only hope that he was helping the situation and not making it worse.

 

Maraen was scared; she could tell something was wrong.  “Legolas?  Legolas!” she whispered desperately, wanting to know what was happening, why the pain was different now. 

 

“It’s all right Maraen,” Legolas lied for her peace of mind.  “The little one’s just a bit twisted, but it’ll be all right.”

 

Legolas had no idea how long it took, but just as the sky was beginning to streak with grey, the baby did somehow end up in the right position for delivery and the elf caught the small infant so that it did not have to touch the ground.  He breathed a sigh of relief as the baby spluttered a few times and then let out a soft, low burble.  He bounced it gently, soothing it with soft, elvish words, not wanting the child to cry and give them away. 

 

“Maraen,” he whispered softly to the exhausted mother.  “You have a daughter.”

 

Maraen laid her head back in weary relief and happiness.  “And she’s all right?” 

 

“She’s fine,” Legolas assured, looking down into the tiny face.  “She’s beautiful.  Maraen...” Legolas glanced about, uncertain what to do now, he had the general idea, but did not want to do anything wrong. 

 

Fortunately, Maraen did have some idea about follow-up care and was able to tell the elf what to do and how to separate the baby from the umbilical cord. 

 

Finally the whole thing was actually finished and Legolas pulled his outer-vest off, wrapping the tiny child in the soft, warm, fleece-lined leather.  Laying the baby in her mother’s arms, he brushed gentle fingers over the infant’s forehead.  The small babe looked so incredibly tiny and fragile.

 

Maraen beamed down at her baby.  “She’s so perfect...  What shall I name her Legolas?”

 

The prince was surprised by the question.  “Surely, that is a question for yourself and your husband to decide.”

 

A shadow crossed Maraen’s face and her eyes glistened.  “Erron must be dead Legolas... he would never have left the baby and I alone otherwise,” she choked out softly.  She loved her husband so terribly much, it was a horrible thought, but one she could no longer deny.

 

Legolas laid his hand gently on her shoulder.  “You don’t know he’s dead Maraen, there are many things that could have happened,” he comforted gently.  It was the same thing he had been telling himself about Aragorn so many times now it was almost painful to try to give that hope to someone else, yet he knew how important it was to cling to hope, no matter how slim. 

 

“Perhaps...” Maraen said wearily.  “But even if he is, I know he’d be grateful to you for the care you have taken of a complete stranger.  And... I-I want you to name her.”

 

Legolas was slightly staggered by this turn of events.  “You offer me an incredible honor young one,” he smiled gently down at the girl.  “Very well, if I were to name her, I would call her Estelle.”  He brushed the now sleeping baby’s cheek.  “Estel means hope in the Elven tongue,” he explained.

 

“That was the name of your missing friend, was it not?” Maraen said softly, compassion and understanding showing in her tired eyes. 

 

Legolas nodded once.  “It was... one of his names.  One that fit him very well when he was...” Legolas kept himself from saying, “When he was alive” because he still refused to accept that Aragorn could be dead.  He still clung to that hope.

 

Maraen smiled weakly.  “Then I am most honored for my daughter to carry that name.  It’s beautiful, and it seems perfect, just like her...”

 

“Rest a little now Maraen,” Legolas said quietly, “Regain your strength.  We will leave for Rivendell as soon as you are ready.”

 

They would not have as long to rest as they would have liked.  Legolas slid out of the grove to check on their unwanted company in the woods, leaving mother and daughter sleeping.  A few minutes later the baby’s cry broke the stillness, loud as only a baby can be, and insistent.

 

Legolas turned on his heel and fled back to the enclave where he found Maraen sitting up and rocking the baby hurriedly, her eyes wide as she tried to shush the child’s perfectly normal testing of it’s new lungs. 

 

“I-I’m sorry, I don’t know why she did that...” Maraen shook her head, fear igniting in her eyes. 

 

Legolas guessed that the little one was hungry, but there was no time to worry about that now.  “Babies cry, it’s not your fault.  Come, we’ve got to get out of here, there’s no way the orc sentries will have missed hearing that.”

 

Maraen struggled weakly to her feet, clutching her baby to her breast.  It was far too soon after delivery for her to be moving and her body protested sharply, but she ignored it because she had no other choice. 

 

Legolas saw how pale she was and gave her his arm to lean on.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry but we have to go.”

 

The young mother just nodded and the new threesome hurriedly pressed further back into the trees as the sound of crunching footfalls and coarse shouts confirmed their fears; the orcs had indeed heard the cry and come to check it out. 

 

Legolas chaffed at their slow speed and pressed Maraen as fast as he dared, but he was beginning to fear it would never be enough. 

 

They could hear the orcs behind them clearly now and knew they were on their trail.  Giving up stealth for as much speed as they could get, Legolas and Maraen ran through the trees, although Maraen felt sure each step would be her last. 

 

Finally she tripped and stumbled, unable to go on.  Legolas halted by her and she pushed her baby into his arms.  “Run Legolas!  Take Estelle, take her away from here!  Don’t let them get her!”

 

Never in a million years would Legolas have left a young, vulnerable thing like Maraen to the mercy of the orcs.  Instead, he stooped and scooped both the girl and her baby up into his arms, with one arm under Maraen’s knees and the other supporting her back.  She wrapped her arms around his neck and he moved off as fast as he could with his new burden. 

 

It was a good thing that elves were naturally stronger than was normal by human standards, but Legolas was still considerably slowed by his burden. 

 

The desperate flight ended minutes later when a dozen orcs that had split off and cut around another way to outflank their prey, burst out of the trees on the left, near at hand. 

 

Legolas was forced to relinquish his load, setting Maraen down on her feet and quickly drawing his bow.  The young mother clutched her baby tightly as Legolas’ hand flew in a blur of motion, stringing arrow after arrow until five of their attackers lay dead. 

 

Unfortunately, the delay was all the main troop behind them had needed to catch up.  The hideous creatures poured from the trees with shouts of the hunt and Legolas moved to stand squarely between them and Maraen and Estelle, his bow already in motion.  He had sworn to protect the two humans to the death, and he did not make light promises. 

 

Drawing his bowstring back again he let the arrow fly as the black horde rushed towards them like the horrendous floodwaters the elf had beheld earlier in the year, easily as frightening as any force of nature they had yet witnessed.

 

Legolas picked off as many as he could with rapid, steady shots until they crowded too close for his bow to be very effective and then he drew his knives. 

 

The elf prince’s speed was almost inhuman as he spun, whirled, deflected and slashed, trying to be everywhere at once, trying to counter the enemy and at the same time keep them away from Maraen and Estelle. 

 

The odds were overwhelmingly against them and Legolas held no illusions.  This was a battle he could not hope to win, there were far too many orcs and with Maraen in tow he could never hope to outrun them.  The cliff wall to their back both helped and hindered their efforts.  It helped, because it at least kept the enemy down to only three fronts they could attack on, but at the same point it was a liability because it left the small trio nowhere to flee, even if they could have.

 

Four orcs rushed Legolas at the same time.  He stabbed one, twirling away from another and slashing at the third, but the forth slipped inside the tiring elf’s guard.  Without realizing it, Legolas side-stepped just in time to save his life, but felt a blinding stab of pain shoot through his shoulder before he even had time to register the danger.  The elf had barely a moment to take in the orc, the knife blade buried half-way into the soft flesh of his shoulder, only inches from its intended target, which had been his heart.  He had even less time to react, but somehow he did. 

 

Striking out with the swiftness of a serpent, Legolas buried his own blade deep in his assailant’s midsection, kicking the beast back.

 

The orc fell away with a cry, ripping his blade free of the prince’s shoulder as he did.

 

Legolas couldn’t stifle his own cry of pain as the curved, serrated blade did further damage on its way out, leaving a fast growing crimson stain spreading across the front of his forest green tunic.  He was not allowed time to deal with the pain or the injury.  

 

Grimly, the prince ducked and struck, leaping away from another assailant, but his strength was running short.  It was incredibly painful to move his left arm and the orcs, spurred on by the scent and sight of blood, redoubled their attack.

 

A heavy orc body slammed into him and Legolas flipped the creature over his back, but his injured shoulder screamed in pain, slowing his movements.  The fallen orc grabbed the elf’s ankle, wrenching his feet out from under him.  Legolas fell and landed heavily upon his left side, making his head spin dizzily.  Before he could rise the orcs were on him.  One kicked him in the back, another in the chest and shoulder as Legolas tried desperately to roll away from the jabbing, slicing blows of their scimitars.

 

Legolas stabbed one of the creatures in the leg and the orc howled, hopping away.  Just as swiftly, another of the beasts kicked the prince’s knife out of his hand, ruthlessly stamping on Legolas’ wrist and hand, forcing him to drop it. 

 

The press of the orcs was suffocating and Legolas was slowed by pain and blood loss. 

 

Nearby, Legolas heard Maraen scream.  His heart wrenched and he struggled harder against the orcs that were attempting to keep him down, but there were just too many of them and flat on the ground like this he had no room to maneuver.

 

A heavy boot landed on the elf’s chest, pinning him to the ground and crushing the air out of his lungs.  Dark spots danced before Legolas’ eyes as he felt the harsh steel of an orcish blade bite the flesh under his chin, pressing down on his neck.  Overhead a loud, blood-curdling shriek filled the air, but Legolas had no time to wonder what it was, indeed, he barely had time for the realization that he was about to die... before the orcs were suddenly stopping... looking up.  In his confused and slightly oxygen starved state Legolas couldn’t figure out what was going on.

 

Whatever the reason, the orcs did not bring their blades down for the deathblow, and Legolas could have sworn that they looked almost frightened.  That was not too much of a wonder actually for at the same moment a dark shadow fell across his own heart and he shivered as if an impenetrable cloud had crossed the sun, turning its rays to frost.

 

From his position he could see little, but something did indeed sweep across the sun for a moment, like a great bird coming in for a landing.  Legolas heard a thump as if something had landed close by and the orcs holding him drew back a little in fear.  It was then that Legolas had the first clear look at the approaching evil that would haunt his nightmares for many years to come. 

 

A great, evil looking black beast stood about two stone throws away, folding up it’s great, bat-like wings in evidence of the fact that it was what had just landed.  But it was what was sitting atop the beast that was turning every heart in the clearing cold.

 

Robed all in black with only the tips of his cruelly pointed boots and sharply jointed gloves showing, a figure dismounted from the creature and walked towards them.  It was the first time, although not the last, that Legolas beheld something he had only ever heard of before in tales... a Nazgûl.  One of the Nine most dreaded servants of the Dark Lord Sauron.  Ring Wraith.  Witch King.  Master of nightmares and lord of all that was dreadful and twisted.

 

The Nazgûl spoke a command in the black speech that Legolas did not understand, nor did he wish to for the very sound of the black words hurt his ears. 

 

Immediately the orcs pinning him down took him by the arms and dragged Legolas to his feet, holding him roughly between them and intentionally twisting his injured left shoulder, causing their prisoner to wince.

 

Now Legolas could see that Maraen also stood captive between a set of orcs, clinging to Estelle and trembling.

 

At a nod from its master, the dark beast the Nazgûl had arrived on lifted up into the air and flew away, giving the captives a wicked glare before it did so, as if it would have liked to be allowed to eat them all.  Legolas reflected for a moment how very much he would like to shoot the loathsome creature out of the sky, but that was obviously not possible at the moment... maybe another time.  If he lived through this current situation that was.

 

As the ring wraith approached, Legolas pulled against the orcs that held his arms and was rewarded by a swift blow to the head that made sparks dance before his eyes.  His shoulder throbbed unmercifully as he hung forward against the hands that held him. 

 

The Nazgûl’s dark gaze swept the area, taking in the frightened, sobbing girl clutching her baby, the bleeding elf warrior with the flashing eyes and the heaps of dead orc bodies that strew the glade.  Obviously the girl and the child were not responsible for any of them, which meant that this one elf had taken on and killed more than two dozen orcs in hand-to-hand combat, totally unaided.  It was impressive, even for an elf. 

 

The Witch King cared little for the lost orcs in a personal sense, they were easily replaceable.  They were tools to use, he felt no responsibility towards them, however, they were tools that had been wasted and resources that were lost because of this elf, and that did not please the wraith at all. 

 

The Nazgûl stepped carelessly over the bodies in his path, his black robes swirling around him like dark mists.  Legolas watched his approach with apprehension.  The elf felt a dark fear such as he had never before experienced clutch at his heart.  The being before him was completely evil, more so than anything he had ever crossed in all his many years on Middle Earth.  Indeed, the only way he could have been faced with a greater dread would have been if he were to come face to face with Sauron himself and all his evil malevolency.  However, this was quite as close as Legolas cared to come... a lot closer actually.

 

The wraith paused by Maraen and Estelle, stooping slightly and sniffing them.  Maraen turned positively white with fear and the baby shrieked in uncomprehending terror as the young mother clutched at the precious bundle so tightly as to almost risk hurting the child. 

 

Legolas tightened.  He was afraid that Maraen was going to pass out, but amazingly she did not.  The young girl was sturdier than she looked.

 

It only took a moment for the Nazgûl to know that neither of these humans was of interest to him.  He moved on, stopping in front of Legolas, his empty hood regarding the prince with a blank, dark glare.  Legolas did not shrink from the malevolent gaze, but met it with his own.  Inside his heart hammered roughly in his chest and he felt icy cold, but his will was strong and he had the strength of the Eldar in his blood, he did not back down. 

 

It felt as if the wraith were looking for something, as if he was searching every fiber of Legolas’ being.  A call was being issued, but for what purpose the elf prince knew not.  In any case there was no answer and when the dark being was satisfied that the elf did not have what he was seeking he withdrew his will. 

 

The elf warrior was strong, but he did not possess the one thing that the wraith’s master coveted above all else.  Yet Sauron knew it was stirring.  He was calling it to himself and he knew it would try to answer.  That was part of the wraith’s mission now, searching, looking... somewhere, somewhere out here the One Ring was trying to return to its maker, and he wanted to find it.  They had been scouring the banks of the Anduin for years now, but Sauron’s eye was beginning to turn its attention to the almost forgotten lands west of the Misty Mountains, yet secrecy was still essential.  The time was not yet right for anyone to know that the shadow was once again re-gathering itself in the darkness of Mordor.

 

The Witch King laughed softly, a low, chilling sound.  “You are strong, even for an elf,” he hissed, his dark voice both harshly grating and strangely seductive, unsubstantial like mist, yet as piercing as steel.  “You would be more of an asset to me alive than dead I think, at least for now...” he turned back to his orcs.  “Kill the woman and child.  I have no use for them.”

 

Maraen bit her lip in terror as the orcs turned on her, knowing there was no escape.

 

“No!” Legolas cried urgently.  Kicking out suddenly, he caught one of his captors in the shins, pushing them back as he twisted sideways, wrenching his arms free and causing no small amount of pain to his injured shoulder.  Ducking one orc he punched his good shoulder into the creature’s gut, flipping it over his back and relieving it of its weapon in one fluid move.

 

Jumping away, the elf prince clutched the orc scimitar easily in one hand as he put himself between Maraen and the creatures that intended to kill her.  Dispatching all three of them in under half a minute, Legolas once more found himself battling almost a dozen orcs as the creatures recovered from their initial surprise and rushed to retake the captives. 

 

Legolas retreated quickly, keeping Maraen and Estelle behind him, but he knew he had no more chance of escaping with the two humans than he had before.  Alone, yes... but not with the woman and child.  Yet if they all had to die, he would die fighting.

 

The orcs pressed the elf back, until the small trio found itself forced up against the face of the cliff at their backs.  There was nowhere to go and no way out.  The orcs paused their attack, circling their prey like a pack of wargs preparing for the kill. 

 

The Nazgûl laughed darkly.  “Brave, but ultimately futile.  You’ll never get out of here with them alive.  Now on your own I do believe you just might, but you’re too noble to leave them behind, aren’t you elf?  Such a pitiful weakness for one so strong.  It’s too bad, I would have enjoyed shaping you into something more befitting.”  He shook his head mockingly. 

 

Legolas still stood protectively in front of Maraen.  He was breathing hard and agony was shooting through his shoulder; he was nearly spent, but his gaze was firm.  “The only way you’ll ever touch me is if you kill me,” the prince said, his voice low and dangerous. 

 

“Unless...” Legolas hesitated.  He glanced back at Maraen’s pale, terrified face.  Estelle was too over-wrought to even cry anymore.  He had sworn his life to protect them and he meant it.  The prince swallowed his own fear and plunged ahead.  “Unless you let them go.  I offer you this trade dark one, their lives for mine.  What are they to you?  A girl and a mere babe, they can do you no harm.  Let them go free, and I will stay with you, whatever you have in mind.  It is the only way you will ever get me alive if you truly want me.”  Legolas had never made an offer he was more afraid of in his life, but it was the only chance he seemed to have left to try to save Maraen and her baby.

 

“Legolas, no!” Maraen protested from behind him.  She would not see the elf prince make such a sacrifice to save her life. 

 

“Hush Maraen!” Legolas said quietly.  “Think of your baby.”

 

The wraith seemed intrigued by the offer.  “You are in a very poor position to bargain with me elf, but still... it is an interesting idea.  And do you give your word that you will not run if I do as you ask?  You will submit to whatsoever I choose of you?”

 

Legolas took a deep breath.  “So long as it harms no one save myself... then yes.” 

 

The Nazgûl knew better than to expect unconditional obedience from the elf, but that didn’t matter.  Once he got his hands on the fair being, that would all change.  “Very well then.  Lay down your weapon.”

 

Legolas obeyed slowly.  Immediately several orcs rushed forward and bound his hands, obviously not trusting the elf very much, but the wraith waved them away from Maraen and Estelle.  Striding forward he let his shadow fall upon the young woman, gazing down at her trembling form.  A foul wind stirred around him and Maraen felt as if she had suddenly been plunged into a lake of ice as the black breath washed over her.  Her knees buckled and she swooned senseless to the ground with her baby still in her limp arms. 

 

“What have you done to her?!” Legolas demanded both angry and afraid.

 

The wraith walked away from the still forms.  “They are not harmed, merely unconscious.  When they wake they will not remember you elf, nor me, nor anything that has happened these past two sunrises.  Now come... you have promises to keep.”

 

Legolas choked back his fears as the orcs moved out, prodding him along with them.  Glancing back over his shoulder to where Maraen lay, the elf prince hoped that no evil would befall them, alone and helpless as they were, and that they would make their way safely to Rivendell, whether they remembered what had happened or not.  At least worrying about them kept him from considering the dark possibilities of what exactly the Nazgûl had in store for him, and he was sure that whatever it was would not be pleasant.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART FIVE*~

 

 

 

The foul troop halted several hours later.  Legolas’ back was placed against a tree and he was forced to sit at its base while his arms were tied behind him, around its trunk. 

 

Presently the Nazgûl approached him, crouching down in front of the elf.  He held a long, dark-bladed, evil-looking knife in his gloved hands.  Holding it up where the prince could see it, he twirled it lightly between his fingers.

 

“Do you know what happens to mortals when their hearts are pierced with a morgul blade?” the Witch King inquired somewhat tauntingly, like a cat with a plaything. 

 

Legolas did, but he said nothing.  He wouldn’t play the evil one’s game.

 

“They fade.  They become as myself, neither living nor dead, bound to the will of the mighty one I serve,” the wraith placed the tip of the dagger lightly against Legolas’ chest.

 

“Not so an immortal,” Legolas said coldly.  “The firstborn do not fade, nor do we serve the dark power, ever.”

 

“No, no, you are right more’s the pity,” the Nazgûl admitted.  “My blade would kill you, but it would not turn you.  However... there may be other ways.  You will serve me in the end.”

 

Legolas’ hard gaze turned even icier. “I will never serve you.”

 

“So you think,” the wraith’s voice held cruel amusement.  He let his knife drift along Legolas’ chest until it came to rest against his blood soaked shoulder.  The wraith pushed Legolas’ bloody tunic off his shoulder, cutting away the fabric that did not give and revealing the wound.  His actions were un-gentle and Legolas flinched slightly in pain. 

 

The elf did not know what the Nazgûl intended, but was taken by surprise when the wraith thrust his blade into the open wound, widening and deepening the injury. 

 

Legolas cried out in surprise and pain as the evil knife cut deeper into his flesh.

 

The wraith seemed pleased with his work, and presently withdrew his blade. 

 

Fresh red blood ran down Legolas’ shoulder and he felt almost dizzy with pain.  He closed his eyes for a moment, attempting to calm himself.  When something pressed against his injury, his eyes popped open again and he found that the wraith was applying some kind of poultice to him, but something about it felt wrong, incredibly wrong.  Whatever the Nazgûl was working into his wound was evil and done with evil intent. 

 

Legolas struggled, wincing at the fiery pain blossoming in his shoulder as the wraith forced the dark concoction down into the elf’s wound.  The poultice burned like fire and bit like steel and the elf had to clench his teeth tightly to keep from making any sound.  A cold, icy dizziness swept over Legolas as the wraith’s potion worked it’s way into his bloodstream, assaulting his mind and making his body scream at the evil intrusion.  After a few minutes, Legolas blacked out, his exhausted body unable to handle whatever was being done to it.

 

The Nazgûl continued to work over the unconscious elf.  He had been wanting to test this new evil on someone and the elf was the perfect subject.  If he could subdue a strong will such as this, then weaker ones would crumble before him like dust.  It was going to take time to bend the elf to his will.  Time, and much pain on the elf’s part, but he would see it done.  Since the forging of the One Ring, no elf had ever walked in the service of the Dark Lord.  The wraith intended to change that.  He looked down at Legolas’ unconscious form with a cruel gaze.  “Soon you will serve me elf, whether you desire it or not.  Soon.”

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn held his bow strung and ready as he crouched in the underbrush.  Something approached and he waited patiently for it to enter the clearing that he had covered in his sites. 

 

The young ranger had expected a deer or even a boar, for he and his brothers were on a hunting party after all, but what came into the clearing instead surprised him. 

 

A young woman with auburn hair and a bundle in her arms stumbled into the view through the trees.  A few steps closer and Aragorn could see that the bundle was a baby.  The young mother’s face was drawn and pale.  She looked nearly ready to drop. 

 

Aragorn sprung quickly from his hiding place. It was obvious that the girl needed help. 

 

Maraen was not prepared for his sudden appearance and stumbled back with a small cry of fear, bumping into a tree behind her.  Clutching her baby tightly she sank wearily to her knees.  She had been wandering for a long time now in the wilderness.  She didn’t even know how long she had been out here because somehow it seemed as if she had lost time somewhere... and her sense of direction had been unclear ever since then, although she attributed the haze to the stress of the birth of her daughter, an event she could only dimly recall. It had been weeks now since Estelle was born and Maraen had woken up in the woods confused, disoriented and completely lost. By this time she had almost given up hope of ever making it out alive.

 

“Don’t hurt us, please,” she whispered, pressing her eyes closed and hunching over her baby.  She felt ill and a perpetual chill that even the bright sunshine could not drive away clung to her like evening mists.

 

Aragorn crouched next to her, laying a gentle hand on the young girl’s shoulder.  He could tell that she was quite a bit younger than he.  “It’s all right, I’m not going to hurt you.  I want to help.  Who are you?  What are you doing way out here?”  The baby in her arms could not have been more than a few weeks old at most, yet the area they were in was almost completely unpopulated, where had these two come from and why were they alone in this vast wilderness?  The questions concerned Aragorn.

 

“My name is Maraen.  O-orcs destroyed our village, higher up in the mountains.  M-My husband and I were trying to get away... but I-I fear they got him too,” the woman seemed too emotionally drained and too ill to even cry, but her voice held her anguish.  “I-I’ve been lost out here forever... I don’t even know how long...”  There was more.  She felt like there was more, but she could not remember it if there was. 

 

Aragorn squeezed her shoulder comfortingly.  It was amazing that they had survived as long as they had.  “Come, you need food, shelter and rest.  Rivendell is less than a day’s travel from here, let me take you there.  You and your child will be safe.”

 

Maraen nodded slowly.  “Thank you,” she whispered as he helped her to her feet.

 

Elladan and Elrohir came upon them then and glanced inquiringly between the woman and child and their younger brother.

 

“Well Estel, this is an unusual catch you’ve bagged,” Elrohir joked with a smile. 

 

Aragorn rolled his eyes.  “She’s ill and in need of shelter and rest.  I’m taking her back to Rivendell.”

 

“We will come as well,” the twin elves agreed, but Maraen was looking strangely at Aragorn.

 

“He called you Estel,” she said softly.  “That means hope... doesn’t it?”

 

Aragorn stopped, a puzzled look on his face.  “Yes it does, but how did you know that?”  Most humans had a very minimal grasp of elvish.

 

Maraen glanced down at the sleeping child in her arms and a real smile touched her weary face for a moment.  “Her name is Estelle.”

 

“A beautiful name for a beautiful child,” Elladan said softly, as he and Elrohir exchanged covertly questioning glances.  It was an unusual name for a human to give their child. 

 

Aragorn too was a little surprised to hear the female form of his own elven name.  “You know elvish Maraen?”

 

The woman shook her head blankly.  “No.  No, someone else told me what it meant...” her brows furrowed as she tried to remember who, but her memories were hazy and slid uncertainly through her fingers when she tried to grasp them.  She wavered slightly on her feet, dark spots dancing before her eyes.  “I-I can’t remember who...” she nearly swooned, but Aragorn caught her.  Elladan and Elrohir hurried over to help their brother.  Elladan took Maraen from his younger brother, gathering the young girl up in his arms, while Aragorn took the baby from her mother’s limp grasp.  Elrohir hurried to get their horses.

 

Elladan shook his head as he shifted the girl’s weight in his arms.  “She’s burning up, we have to get her home as quickly as possible or I fear she will not live.”

 

Elrohir came back with the horses and they mounted up.  Elladan kept Maraen’s unconscious form with him on his horse while Aragorn held Estelle carefully in one arm, holding his reins in the other.  He realized that the child wasn’t even swaddled in a proper blanket, but wrapped in a fleece-lined leather vest.  It was obviously a man’s vest and Aragorn wondered somewhat sadly if it had belonged to the child’s father.  He knew what it was to loose parents before you were even old enough to remember them.  “Don’t worry little one,” he whispered as they rode hard for home.  “We won’t let your mother go too, not if we can help it.”

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas resisted the urge to moan.  Even opening his eyelids hurt.  For almost three weeks he had done nothing but endure the slow, poisonous torture that the ring wraith had seen fit to put him through.  They traveled but little, since in these initial stages Legolas was left too weak to walk very far and the Nazgûl was directing most of his strength and attention at overcoming the elf’s will.

 

Outside, the elf prince refused to give any quarter that he could not help giving.  Inside, Legolas was terrified because he felt as if he were losing himself slowly.  A shadow was creeping into his thoughts and his mind and although it could not own his spirit because he was not choosing it, it was wearing away at his will and seeking to take control of his body away from him.  And it was working.

 

He realized that in some way the Nazgûl was indeed trying to turn him into a wraith of sorts, and the thought horrified the elf more than any other could have. 

 

Until he had him completely under his control, the Witch King made sure that Legolas was kept bound and under guard at all times.  It wasn’t so much that he doubted the elf’s word that he would stay, but he knew that now that the fair being was aware of what he was trying to do to him, it was very likely that Legolas would prefer to choose death at his own hand rather than life as a servant of Mordor. 

 

Legolas tried not to flinch as his black robed torturer knelt over him again.  He knew what would come, but couldn’t help jerking in pain when the foul potion was applied to him yet again.  Each time it left him weaker and weaker.  The elf did not know how much longer he was going to be able to fight the doom that was coming for him.

 

When it was over, the prince felt dizzy and ill.  He could barely move on his own and each breath was beginning to feel like an unbearable agony. 

 

“Who is your master?” the wraith demanded, fixing Legolas’ clouded eyes with a piercing stare.  He was not pleased with how long the elf had been resisting him.

 

Legolas did not answer but turned his head away. 

 

The Nazgûl grabbed the elf’s chin between the spiked fingers of his glove and forced the prince to look at him.  “Who is your master?!”

 

“I have... no master,” Legolas forced out around the shrieking protest of the darkness that was growing inside him. 

 

The wraith slapped his head to the side.  This was not going well.  The elf should have been his by now.  Rising in cold anger, the Nazgûl summoned the captain of the orcs under his control.  “Tell your men that I’ve decided to let them have a little fun with the prisoner,” he said harshly, glancing down at the bound elf.  “They can have their sport, but be sure that they do not damage him severely, or permanently.  Just teach him a lesson.”

 

“Yes, sir,” the orc captain grinned evilly.

 

Legolas swallowed hard, trying to still his trembling body.  He was trapped in hell and there seemed to be no way out.  He wondered if anyone would ever know what had happened to him.

 

 

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

 

 

“Is she going to be all right?” Aragorn inquired of his adopted father with concern as the elf lord emerged from the guestroom where Maraen had been laid. 

 

Elrond nodded, but his eyes were lost in thought.  “She is awake, but incredibly weak.  Some of the ladies are still with her.  She was severely dehydrated and I doubt she has eaten in a long time, it’s amazing her body found anything to give her child at all, but the daughter seems to have fared better than the mother.  Her fever comes from not being properly cared for after childbirth, but we have caught it in time and she will be all right.  However...” he shook his head slowly.  “That is not the sole cause of her illness.  I see on her a shadow that I do not understand.  She has been touched by an evil far greater than she should have had to cross I fear, but how or why... I know not.”

 

“And the baby?” Aragorn inquired, deeply troubled.  This young woman seemed full of mysteries. 

 

“I am on my way to check on the little one now,” Elrond said as they walked down the hall together.  “Telwen is looking after her and I believe your brothers are down there as well.  She is being well cared for I think,” he grinned slightly.  “It has been a long time since there has been a baby in this house.”  The elf lord glanced fondly at his youngest son. 

 

Celboril approached them and they paused to hear his message. “Lord Elrond, visitors from Mirkwood are here to see you,” the elf reported.

 

“Oh?” Elrond queried. 

 

Celboril nodded.  “Two warriors, one is very short.  They are looking for Prince Legolas I believe.”

 

“It must be Raniean and Trelan,” Aragorn surmised, remembering Legolas’ friends quite well.  Trelan was about the only elf he could think of that ever fit the description of being short, although he had enough fire in his blood to more than make up for his size.  Why they would be looking for Legolas immediately concerned the ranger.

 

Aragorn had actually been planning on going to Mirkwood to seek out Legolas and let the prince know personally that he was well.  The elf had not returned yet as he had promised and Aragorn was well enough to travel now.  He had intended to leave after the hunt, if they were successful, but it seemed as the though the turn of events had conspired against him.

 

“Then you can greet them for me my son,” Elrond told Aragorn.  “I will be there presently, but I wish to see the child first and be sure that she is all right.”

 

Aragorn nodded and followed Celboril away.  True to his suspicion, it was Raniean and Trelan who waited for him in the audience hall.  They traded warm welcomes and greetings, but the eyes of the two Wood-elves were troubled. 

 

“King Thranduil was concerned,” Raniean explained, but Aragorn could see in the elf’s eyes that the king was not the only one.  “According to the last word we received Legolas is long overdue.  We thought to meet him on the road perhaps... but we did not.  We were hoping that he had merely extended his visit again without informing us.  He did not attend the yèn celebration.”  The warrior was trying to remain light and hide the true depth of his concern, but Aragorn could see through that.  Worry gripped his own heart.  There was no reason that they should not have met Legolas on the path, indeed, no reason that the elf prince should not have already made it home. 

 

“Legolas left here almost a month ago specifically to attend the celebration, I thought him safely home by now,” deep concern flashed in the ranger’s dark eyes.  "I was coming to visit in the next few days when we have had some unexpected guests whose arrival changed those plans.  I had wanted to tell Legolas myself that I was all right.

 

By the looks on their faces, Aragorn could tell that that was not what the Prince’s friends had wanted to hear. 

 

“Then I fear something grave has befallen him,” Raniean said softly.  “They were to send out runners after us if he arrived after we had left, none have come and I do not think it likely that we could have missed him on the road.  There is only one safe path between Mirkwood and Rivendell.”

 

“Strider, we would speak to Lord Elrond if we could,” Trelan requested.

 

Aragorn nodded, his heart beginning to spin with gnawing fear.  “Of course, come, I’ll take you to him right away.”

 

They found Elrond still with baby Estelle and his sons.  The elf lord held the wee babe cradled in one arm and was speaking to her softly, his ancient face gentle as the little one gazed up at him with huge, innocent eyes.  Elrond looked up when Aragorn and the Wood-elves entered and the looks on the threesome’s faces instantly told him that something was wrong. 

 

“Father, Legolas never made it back to Mirkwood and Raniean and Trelan did not meet him on the road,” Aragorn informed quickly, not waiting for pleasantries. 

 

Elladan and Elrohir stiffened visibly.  They had come to like the elf prince quite a bit and they knew how close Estel was to him, the news that he was missing was a hard blow not made any easier by the fact that they had had to practically chase the elf prince out of Rivendell.

 

“This is indeed grave news,” Elrond said seriously. 

 

Telwen re-entered the room at that moment, having left in search of some proper clothing for the baby.  Elrond passed Estelle to her and the elf maiden removed the child from the vest she had been wrapped in these many days and slid her into a clean, new blanket.  Among other things the little girl would need a bath, but on the whole she seemed to have faired better than her mother and Elrond had only been able to sense the very slightest tinges of shadow around her.  It was still enough to be troubling however.

 

“Ai!” Trelan reacted when he saw the discarded vest, snatching the article up and showing it to Raniean.  The warrior’s face reflected recognition and confusion.  “Where did you get this?” he asked the others in the room.

 

“The baby was wrapped in it when we found her and her mother wondering around in the woods,” Aragorn said, puzzled.  “Why?”

 

“Unless I’m very much mistaken this belongs to Legolas,” Raniean explained slowly, turning the article of clothing over in his hands as if searching for something, stopping when he found it.  “See, here?” he pointed at a small crest emblazoned into the leather near the waistband.  It was easily missed if one didn’t know what to look for. 

 

“That circle of leaves is the crest of King Thranduil’s house.  Only he and his heirs may wear it,” Trelan explained, but it was not necessary, almost everyone in the room already knew that.  Elrond certainly did, and even if he had not known what the crest meant, Aragorn had seen that particular device worked into most of Legolas’ clothing in one way or another and had thought it a design his friend must favor.

 

“The question then is how did this baby come to be swaddled in an elven vest and given an elven name and yet her mother remembers none of it?” Elrond said after a moment of thought. 

 

“The prince would not willingly abandon anyone he had taken under his care,” Raniean shook his head.  “If he aided this woman he would not have left her to wander the woods alone as you say you found her.  So then what happened?"

 

“I think these are questions we had better put to Maraen,” Elrond said as he rose.  He knew he needed to get back to her anyway.  He was still greatly concerned about her state of being.

 

At his father’s bidding, Elrohir stayed behind with Telwen and Estelle to keep watch on the child, because as slight as her brush with whatever darkness they were dealing with had been, Elrond did not wish her left alone until something could be done.

 

Elrond, Aragorn, Raniean, Elladan and Trelan made their way back up to the room in which Maraen lay resting.  Only it didn’t sound like she was resting when they arrived.

 

Low, wailing cries assaulted their ears from half way up the hall and they hurried faster.  When they entered the room they found Maraen tossing and turning restlessly on the bed, emitting infrequent, keening cries.  The two elf maidens attending her were beside themselves with worry. 

 

“Lord Elrond, thank goodness you’ve come, I was just about to send for you,” one of the ladies rose with deep concern in her eyes as Elrond approached.  “She started acting like this about five minutes ago.  We can’t seem to get through to her.”

 

“It’s all right Eliwen, I’ll take over from here,” Elrond nodded quickly, dismissing them.  The elf maidens left and Elrond sat down on the edge of the bed, beside the young girl.  The others gathered around the bed, looking at the shaking, moaning girl with worry and alarm.

 

“It’s as I feared,” the elf lord said with deep concern, smoothing the girl’s hair back from her clammy forehead and trying to still her trembling, convulsing body.  “The shadow is devouring her.  It is possible that it is also what was affecting her memory.”

 

“You... I-I know you...” Maraen fixed fever-bright eyes upon Raniean, reaching out towards him for a moment before her arm fell limply back to her side.  The blonde elf reminded her of someone... another elf... but not the dark haired elves of Rivendell who had been caring for her.  She tossed her head on her pillow with a small moan.  “No... no I don’t, not you...  where is he?  He said he wouldn’t leave me, he said he wouldn’t!” she continued to ramble deliriously, but Aragorn and the elves did not miss the implication of her words. 

 

“Who said Maraen?” Elrond asked gently, squeezing her shoulder in a calming manner and holding her hand.  “Who?”

 

“E-elf...” she murmured, her face creasing with pain as if trying to remember actually hurt her.  “Beautiful elf.  Saved me... saved me from them... delivered my baby...” her words broke off in a small cry of pain as her body convulsed and she retreated back into the delirium that had her in its grasp. 

 

“Orcs!” she cried in wide-eyed terror, her eyes springing open again.  She tried to push herself further back against the headboard of the bed, trembling with fear and illness.  Her face was wild and she was obviously not seeing anyone who was truly in the room.  “Orcs!” she half-screamed a second time.  “Don’t let them get my baby, don’t let them get my baby!!” she was nearly shrieking in hysteria. 

 

Elladan and Aragorn helped Elrond restrain the delirious girl before she could do herself damage, gently trying to push her back onto the bed.  Whatever she had been through must have been horrible.

 

“Shh, shh...  It’s all right child, it’s all right,” Elrond soothed reassuringly, reaching out to her with the power of the light that was within him and attempting to dispel the darkness around her, but the shadow was curiously strong.  Still, he had a calming effect on her and Maraen’s tense body relaxed a little bit as they laid her down again. 

 

“Don’t let them get Estelle... Take her Legolas, run!” Maraen murmured in fevered exhaustion, dry sobs shaking her slim shoulders as she relieved the events that were still partially blocked from her full memory. 

 

Everyone in the room stiffened at the mention of Legolas’ name.  They had already felt almost sure that the prince was the elf Maraen spoke of, but now there was no doubt.  Yet what had happened?  Where was he now and why had Aragorn found Maraen and the child alone?

 

“No, no...” Maraen moaned softly, closing her eyes and clutching at her head. 

 

Elrond softly told Elladan the things he needed and the younger elf hurried off to get them.  Elrond knew he was going to have to do something for Maraen soon or they would lose her, but he could not let go of her because at the moment he was about the only thing keeping her from disappearing into the shadow of madness and death that wanted to have her.

 

“No, let him go!” Maraen’s eyes sprung open once more.  “Let him go!”  her eyes roved the room wildly.  “They took him,” she moaned.  “They took him.  It’s my fault.  They took him.  No, no, no, no, no....”

 

Aragorn felt a cold sick feeling settle in his stomach.  The glance he exchanged with Raniean and Trelan told him they were feeling the same thing.  If Legolas had been taken by orcs... Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment, repressing evil memories with a shudder.  He knew first hand what that was like.  Yet how could he have been taken and Maraen escape?  It didn’t make sense. 

 

Elladan re-entered the room with the things Elrond had requested.

 

Without warning the girl’s body shuddered and went still.  Elrond rose quickly.  “She is not dead,” he answered the unspoken question.  “But she soon will be if the shadow upon her is not lifted.  I need everyone to leave so I can work.”

 

They all obeyed immediately, but Elrond caught his youngest son’s arm.  “Not you Estel, I want you to stay here with me.”

 

“Yes, father,” Aragorn nodded quickly.  He was glad to be able to help, but pained because he wanted to begin searching for his missing friend immediately. 

 

“Patience my son, all things in their time,” Elrond accurately read the young ranger’s heart.  “Right now we must be swift if Maraen is to have any hope.  Heat the water,” the elf lord instructed as he unrolled a cluster of herb leaves.  Aragorn recognized the plant as athelas, or kingsfoil in the common tongue. 

 

“Estel I want you to pay attention to what I am going to show you,” Elrond said as he worked.  “This girl has been touched by a morgul darkness.  I know not how, but it is an evil that comes from Mordor in whatever form she encountered it.  The shadow must be driven away and she must be called back to the light before it is too late.”

 

Aragorn nodded gravely, even if he did not completely understand what his father had just told him.  He watched as Elrond took the athelas leaves in his hand and breathed across them.  Crushing them and releasing their sweet, fragrant odor into the room, he threw them into the water.  Aragorn had seen his brothers do something similar for his father when Elrond had been injured in an earthquake some time ago, for the wholesome herbs cleaned the air and seemed to aid the healing of mind, body and spirit, but what Elrond did next was wholly new to Aragorn. 

 

Bending over Maraen, Elrond took her hand again in both of his.  “Maraen, Maraen...” he called softly.  A call so compelling that Aragorn did not think any who heard could resist answering.  “Leave the shadow behind child.  Be free.  Wander no more down the dark paths of forgetfulness and death, return to the light.  Return to your daughter whole.”

 

Maraen stirred slightly and a faint smile brushed her lips as some of the lines began to ease from her young face. 

 

Elrond stepped back, satisfied.  Squeezing her hand one more time he laid it back by her side.  “Rest then young one, regain your strength.”

 

Aragorn watched with wonder.  It was as if he could physically see the change come over her; see the darkness fleeing away as Maraen returned to herself.

 

Elrond laid his hand upon his son’s shoulder.  “There are not many now who can dispel the morgul darkness when it falls upon someone Estel.  Your brothers and I are some of the last.  But the reason I show you this is because you alone among the world of men have the ability do as I have just done, and someday my son, you may need it.”

 

Aragorn regarded Elrond seriously.  “I don’t know that I could ever do that...” he whispered softly, looking at Maraen’s still form, so changed from what it had been just moments before. 

 

Elrond shook his head.  “Do not underestimate yourself.  The power of the kings that runs in your blood is stronger than you know, son of Arathorn.”

 

 

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

 

 

Legolas wasn’t sure when his eyes were open and when they were closed.  Darkness seemed to be all around him now, his very being ached with it.  He had tried to cling to his memories, but slowly the shadow had grown up and devoured them all.  He couldn’t remember anything past the pain.  He could recall no time when he had not lived in this murky twilight world.  He didn’t feel like he belonged there, but he must because there was nothing else. 

 

A voice called out to him.  A voice he could no longer refuse.  Indeed, he couldn’t remember why he had been refusing it.  Something in him resisted, wanted to fight... but he didn’t know why, and the call was too strong.

 

“Who is your master?” the ring wraith hissed at the helpless elf, looking deep into the prince’s pain-glazed eyes. 

 

Legolas blinked slowly, and when his gaze came to rest on the robed figure above him it was as dark and empty as the blackness that hung behind the shadow of the Nazgûl’s dark hood.  “You are,” the elf’s voice was toneless and as dead as his eyes. 

 

The wraith hissed in pleasure.  Finally.  Finally it was beginning to work.  “And whom do you serve?” he pressed.

 

“The Dark Lord of Mordor,” came the response.  Yet even as he said it something twisted inside of Legolas.  The words were what was expected, what he felt he was supposed to say... but something somewhere felt terribly wrong. 

 

The wraith was pleased; he stroked the elf’s pale cheek lightly.  “Good... good,” he purred softly.  Cutting Legolas loose from his bonds, he let the elf sit up on his own for the first time in weeks. 

 

Legolas rubbed his raw wrists absently.  They hurt, but pain was beginning to take on a new meaning to him.  It seemed that it was part of life and it almost didn’t matter.  Every moment seemed painful because of the darkness that had wrapped itself around him, but he did not know of any other way to be, so he could not think it an unusual thing.

 

“Get him something to eat and drink,” the Witch King instructed one of the orcs.  That was another thing that Legolas had had precious little of this whole time. 

 

The wraith placed his hands on the elf’s shoulders and Legolas repressed a cold shudder, but did not pull away. 

 

“It’s time to start building your strength up again.  The more I find I can trust you, the more freedom I will give you.  Please me elf, and you will be rewarded.  Provoke me and I will make your life miserable... do you understand?”

 

Legolas nodded slowly, his empty eyes focusing on nothing.  “Yes.”

 

The ring wraith’s hand tightened on his shoulder slightly his voice quietly seductive and threatening at the same time.  “Yes, what?”

 

“Yes, master,” the elf murmured.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART SIX*~

 

 

Aragorn lay awake in bed. He couldn’t sleep.  With a deep sigh he turned over and gazed unseeingly out the huge picture window opposite his bed.  The light curtains had been left open and they blew gently in the soft night breeze.  But even the quiet sounds of the valley couldn’t calm him this night.  He closed his eyes in frustration and forced himself up in bed, pushing the sheets away from his upper body.  He could take it no longer; he couldn’t just stay here while Legolas was out there somewhere captive to orcs. 

 

And what if he’s already dead?

 

The little voice inside his head wouldn’t quit asking questions, awful, horrid questions that brought up deep, painful memories.  No matter what he did, he couldn’t silence them.  He still remembered the way the orcs smelled, they way the whip bit into his skin, the way he wished they would just kill him and end the cruel pain...  and Maraen had said that the orcs had taken Legolas.  He kept hearing her repeated phrase, “They took him.  They took him.”

 

Quietly, the ranger collected his things and quickly dressed.  The conversation he had had with his father earlier reverberated in his mind, rebuking him.  He wished the last time they had spoken had not ended in an argument, but there was nothing he could do about that now. His heart was already too heavy.  Shrugging into his overcoat he stole silently out into the hall.

 

Growing up in Rivendell he had learned early on as a youngster exactly where and where not to step on the wooden floors to keep his exit from being noticed and he expertly crept across the threshold, soundlessly making a quick stop in the small room where his father kept the medicines and poultices. Grabbing a pouch of the leafy athelas that Elrond had instructed him in the usage of earlier that day, he stuffed the potent medicine in his knapsack and stole back out.

 

Pressing his hands firmly against the front doors Aragorn slowly pushed them open just enough so he could squeeze out between them, carefully shutting them from the outside.

 

For a moment he considered fetching a horse from the yards but the sound of the animal’s hooves would surely wake the household and he wanted a decent head start before they came looking for him. 

 

Aragorn glanced back up to the open windows of Rivendell, easily finding the one that shuttered his father’s room. Their last conversation came to mind again unbidden -

 

---------

 

“I am going to find him.” Aragorn turned and resolutely headed for the door after he and Elrond had left Maraen’s room.

 

Elrond placed a firm hand on the young ranger’s shoulder stopping him, “Let us wait until Maraen awakens.  Perhaps it will be that she can tell us more of what happened to Legolas. Do not be so quick my son to rush into danger, we do not know who her attacker was.”

 

“We know it was orcs father, what more needs knowing?”  Aragorn looked around them in frustration, “I can’t just leave him there!”

 

“And I did not suggest that you should.  In the morning we will be able to question Maraen.  Then you and your brothers, with the Prince’s friends can go out well prepared,” He held up his hand to forestall the argument that his son was trying to interrupt with, “Prepared for what you will face.  It may not simply be orcs.  It sounded as though there was something else.  Besides Estel,” Elrond took the boy’s chin in his hand and redirected the silver eyes that had sought the floor, “no orc could cast such a darkness over a soul as to pull them into the shadow realm.  I fear there is much more to her story than we have heard.”

 

His father’s eyes had held an unknown fear to them even as he spoke the words but the shadow passed quickly and he smiled gently down at the human who stood next to him.

 

Anger and helplessness radiated from Aragorn, “He is my friend.” The words were soft and driven and he shook his head, breaking eye contact with the elven lord.  “I cannot just wait. You cannot ask me to.  You don’t know what they do to elves...” Even as the words left his lips he regretted them and he glanced quickly at his adoptive father, hoping that somehow the elf had not heard him. 

 

But the pain was there, showing that the elf had, and Elrond simply nodded, “Yes my son. I do.”  How could he ever forget the sight of his wife when his sons had brought her home...?  The elf turned his gaze back to Maraen’s room, “Please Estel, be patient, wait.”

 

“I’m sorry father I didn’t mean to...”

 

Elrond shook his head, “I know.  Don’t worry my son, you are simply upset over Legolas, that I understand also.”  He draped his arm around the boy’s shoulders pulling him close and walked with him down the hall.  “Let us go see to Estelle before Celboril calls us for dinner.”

 

With a heavy heart Aragorn had followed.  He knew he would never be able to obey his father, but he would try.

 

----------

 

“Forgive me father.  I will return with Legolas, I promise you that.”  He whispered quietly into the night, standing for a few moments longer to stare at his father’s room before turning and running swiftly up the path from Rivendell and heading out towards the place where he had found Maraen. 

 

He had in mind to track back from where he had discovered her.  In the shape she was in, even though she had been in the woods several weeks, she couldn’t have gone far.  He had a hunch he would be able to pick up Legolas’ tracks if he could just find the last place she had been with the elf.

 

Using the light of the stars and the full moon he had nearly gained the meadow where he had found Maraen by the time the sun was blushing the skies a soft shade of pink.

 

 

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

 

 

“Father!” Elrohir ran into the dinning hall, interrupting the morning meal. He had been sent to fetch his younger brother to join them.  “He is not there!”

 

Elrond simply stared at the young elf.  He had known, known in his heart that his youngest son was going to go out after Legolas on his own and now he chided himself for not being more aware last night. 

 

“You do not think he has gone after Legolas on his own do you?” Elladan cast a worried glance at his father already knowing the answer that he feared. 

 

Trelan and Raniean had stopped eating.  Trelan’s fork clattered to his plate as he listened to the conversation.  “We must go after him.”

 

Elrond raised his hands and stood to his feet, “No one is going anywhere.” He sighed deeply and returned Elladan’s worried gaze, “Estel has an eight hour lead on you at least.  If he has tracked back to where he originally found Maraen then he will already have left that area.  Let us eat, and when we are done I will question the girl more on Legolas’ captors.”  The younger elves began to protest but Elrond’s tone turned firm, “Listen to me.  Whatever put that girl and her child under such a dark spell was not an orc. No orc can bind another to Mordor in such a way.  You need to know what you are up against, just like I warned your brother.”  The elder elf turned away from the group seated before him, “That young one, will be the death of me.”

 

“He needs to learn to listen a little better.”  Elladan muttered darkly, “I think I’ll beat it into him when I get him back.”

 

“If we get him back.” Elrohir spoke softly.

 

“Don’t.”  Raniean stopped the self-berating, fearful talk, “Strider is a smart ranger, I saw that when he was in Mirkwood on more than one occasion.  As strange as it sounds, I believe that he’s got a better chance of finding Legolas than anyone other than maybe Trelan and I.  And we will be out searching for the both of them.”

 

Elrond turned back to the table and eyed the warrior.

 

“Eat.” Trelan spoke around a mouthful of fruit, “You’ll need your strength.  Raneian is correct.”  The small elf raised his eyebrows at the twins, trying to encourage them. “You think you have it bad, imagine having to tell Lord Thranduil his son is missing.” The warrior rolled his eyes and smiled at Elrond.

 

“He’ll have our heads.” Raniean continued the thought for his friend.

 

Elrohir snickered softly from his side of the table and leaned forward, “Its really not so bad, we get it all the time here.  Estel is forever getting us into trouble.”

 

“Estel is?” Elrond re-seated himself and smiled at the twin, “Funny I was under the impression that it was the two of you who were always getting him into trouble.  Or at least that’s what he says.”

 

“Just another thing to beat him for when I get a hold of him.” Elladan’s mood had not improved, his worry getting the best of him.

 

“Uhm...father, perhaps you can keep Elladan here with you.  He might not be very helpful and I’d hate to drag Estel home half dead again because he got to him before you do.”  Elrohir leaned towards his father trying to evade his brother’s reach.

 

“You have a point my son.”

 

“Father!” Elladan stared at the elf lord wide eyed.

 

“Eat, all of you.”  Elrond smiled and swept his hands over the table indicating the still untouched food, “You all will be going so that I may have some peace and quiet in this house – for a bit anyway.”

 

The laughter about the table broke the dark mood that had fallen, but the father’s heart was still tight with worry as he thought on the safety of his human son.

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn knelt in the still moist grass.  The dew hadn’t quite dried on the green blades as his keen eyes searched the small glade.  This was where he had originally found Maraen.  He needed to know where she had come from before that morning.  Carefully he paced the exterior of the glen, his vigilance finally rewarded as he approached the south side; the branches of a tender sapling growing on the edge of the meadow were broken, the sap from its damaged outgrowth had caught a stray hair from the one who had passed this way and it was auburn, definitely Maraen’s. 

 

Easily the ranger spied the outline of her booted foot in the dirt beneath the trees and began to follow the weaving trail off towards the west – deeper into the forest.

 

 

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

 

 

The Nazgûl couldn’t have been more pleased than if he had found Sauron’s desire himself.  It was long since anything they could do had been able to effect any of the firstborn, and if this were indeed successful then his master would be very pleased with him.  He watched the elf prince quietly from where he stood.  It was time to test his latest servant and see just how far the elf would obey him.

 

“Elf,” The wraiths voice hissed soothingly, “Come here.”

 

Legolas placed his food on the forest floor and rose gracefully in one swift motion, moving to stand before the dark lord. The silver blue eyes were dead of emotion as they locked on the faceless darkness beneath the wraiths hooded countenance.

 

“Do you see that orc on the far side of the fire, the one with the axe?”

 

Legolas turned and looked in the direction indicated before slowly gazing back at his new master, “Yes, my lord.”

 

“Kill it.”  The nazgul folded his arms across his chest and waited.

 

Turning, Legolas watched the orc who stood in shock, surprised by his master's command but at the prodding of his companions he gleefully took up the challenge.  The elf was unarmed and the orc had a debt to settle with this one anyway.  Killing the fair being could actually be fun.

 

Inside Legolas balked.  As much as he hated orcs, there was no reason to kill this one.  It was just something the dark lord desired for his own pleasure and he had no want to please the wraith.  But the part of Legolas that balked, that was still himself, was weak and small.  It was as if his very control over his own body and his consciousness had been pressed back into a small prison locked inside his mind and there was no way out.  He could see, he could hear, he spoke, but the words were not his own – he in essence did not exist as the free being he once was.  He was truly owned by Mordor’s minion and the thought horrified him.

 

The elf moved towards the orc, unfazed by the jeers and taunts of the creature's peers.  He had not been given a weapon to dispose of the being but it did not seem to matter as he coldly stalked the orc, circling the dark creature, moving just outside the arc of its swinging blade.  Easily he spun and ducked every jab and swing the orc threw at him, slowly wearing down his opponent.

 

He waited until the orc had raised the axe blade once more and charged the foul creature.  Every bit of Legolas’ memories, strengths and combat skills had been commandeered by the evil poisons in his system. His body reacted to his master's command as he slammed the orc backwards off balance forcing the creature to stumble over the stones of the fire ring and fall into the pit.  As the orc tumbled backwards into the fire the elf wrenched the axe from the creatures hand and threw it into the beast’s chest before he had a chance to even stop falling.

 

Legolas screamed inside his own head but no one paid him any attention, no one listened, no one cared and he was forced to watch in muted silence as he walked back to the nazgul and kneeled.  His voice even and dead as he spoke, “As you commanded, my lord.”

 

The orcs in the camp had grown silent at the defeat of their comrade.  Their tiny eyes latched onto the dark lord for explanation.

 

The Nazgûl’s high pitched laughter rent the air causing, icy fear to shoot through Legolas’ soul but his body did not flinch.  “Well done my servant.  Yes, well done.”  He turned his hooded gaze on his orc minions, “Let that be a lesson to you.  The elf will come to no harm unless I say so.  Understood?”

 

The orcs stood dumbfounded.

 

“Is that understood?”  The wraith asked again, his very presence seeming to darken and grow and the lethalness in his voice was chilling to bear.

 

Legolas cringed inwardly.  If only he could die.  He almost did not care what happened to his shell of a body.  He begged Iluvitar to free his soul.

 

 

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

 

 

Aragorn had found the rocky shelf that Legolas had made his last stand in front of.  The ranger inspected the ground about the edges of the tiny plateau that butted up against the cliff, noting the trampled down plant life and the very obvious prints that were uniquely orc.  But the set of boot prints he was crouched over now confused him.  Whoever had occupied this spot had stood in one place and watched the entire proceedings of what had happened.  The edges of the imprints were deeper than those of the orcs and the boots were oddly shaped, seeming to be of plates of metal riveted to one another.  Whomever had accompanied the orcs was also apparently their leader for his prints had overlapped those of the orcs as they came into the glade and they had been the last to take their leave when the company had left with Legolas heading out in the opposite direction.

 

A slight chill made the ranger shudder and he glanced around him to see if the trees stirred from a breeze but the glade was still, deathly still and the feelings of lingering darkness caused thrills of fear to skitter up his spine.  Something had definitely gone wrong and his friend had been in the middle of it.  His father had been right, something far more evil was afoot here than merely orcs.

 

It didn’t take him long to pick up their trail and track the orcs back.  Their path was muddied and even after all these weeks the grass had not grown back over their footprints as though the very forest itself detested their presence. 

 

Aragorn couldn’t remember ever seeing orcs this far north and he trailed them all afternoon, nearing their camp by sunset. 

 

The forest grew deathly quiet around him and he frowned as his keen hearing picked up the sounds of many feet heading his way.  Quickly, the ranger concealed himself in the brush on the side of the path and waited.

 

Several orcs stalked by his position; obviously it was a hunting party.  But what caught his attention was the elf that walked unbound in their midst, seemingly at ease with the foul creatures.  He was relieved that Legolas was in fact able to walk and still alive, but puzzled at the same time.  What had they done to the prince?  He needed to free his friend and quickly.

 

Waiting until the hunters had passed him by, the ranger attacked them from behind; the element of surprise was on his side as he cut down the two creatures bringing up the rear.

 

The commotion Aragorn's attack had caused halted the hunting party and they turned in confusion towards the human.

 

Legolas stopped and looked over his shoulder.  In his mind he almost cried for joy as his tortured consciousness caught a glimpse of the human, but his body simply stood and watched the melee as his friend slew orc after orc.  The elf was so relieved that the ranger had survived being drug over the falls that if he had been able to he would have cried.  He had never thought to see Strider again and now he was forced to watch as orcs attacked the human relentlessly.  Unable to help, Legolas beat against the prison of his mind until his agony had nearly numbed him senseless.

 

"Slave."  The Nazgûl’s dark call drifted to the elf caught on the winds by his sharp ears.  The wraith had heard the disturbance and was coming with more orcs, "Return to me."

 

The elf prince turned casually and walked away from the man who was fighting for him, calling his name repeatedly. 

 

Aragorn was completely surprised.  He watched as Legolas walked away under the darkness of the trees - confusion sweeping through him.  But he had little time to ponder what was wrong as another orc stepped near him, attempting to cleave through him with a wicked looking scimitar.  The ranger caught the scimitar on his blade and spun beneath the locked weapons, sliding his sword along the length of the blade and driving a sweeping lethal blow to his opponent's side.  The orc dropped dead to the forest floor.

 

Under the cover of the trees in the fading afternoon light the wraith watched the human as he fought with the orcs.  The man's display of lethal combat was almost as stunning as the elf's had been but not nearly as graceful.  Legolas approached his liege and inclined his head.

 

"Bring me that human, he interests me. I will return to camp and await you there."

 

Legolas nodded and walked back towards the small open area where he had left the orcs fighting the human, another contingent of orcs at his heels.

 

As the elf stepped into the glen the ranger felled the last of the creatures that had rushed him.  The entire hunting party lay dead at his feet, their bodies decorating the small meadow.  The ranger was breathing heavily and his eyes widened as he saw the elf walking towards him.

 

"Legolas! Thank Iluvitar you are all right."  Aragorn had not noticed the dead, glazed look his friend laid on him as he moved closer to the elf, nor had he glimpsed the orcs that trailed the prince.  "Quickly, before more come."  Aragorn spoke breathlessly as he turned to lead his friend away.  "What happened to you?  When I saw you with all those orcs..."

 

His question was cut off as Legolas grabbed his wrist, stopping his retreat.  Confused, Aragorn turned back and glanced around them, "What? What is it Legolas?"

 

The orcs encircled the two friends, trapping them in the small area.  Even though he was winded, the ranger had no doubt that he and Legolas could take them on and escape unharmed, but when he glanced up into the eyes of his friend his heart stopped and his mouth dropped open in silent question.

 

Legolas' bright blue eyes were dead, dead and glazed.  This was not his friend that he had known.  It was Legolas’ body, but there was no recognition in the glassy stare.

 

"Legolas?"  The elf didn’t seem to hear Aragorn as he pulled the ranger with him toward the far side of the grassy meadow, his fingers tightening on the human's.

 

“Legolas, what are you doing?” Aragorn gazed worriedly between his friend’s blank eyes and the elf’s iron grip on his wrist - dread clawing at his heart.  “What’s wrong?”

 

“My Lord wants to see you, you must come with us,” Legolas said tonelessly, his grip tightening even harder on the young ranger’s arm.  The orcs moved in closer.

 

Apprehension and wariness blossomed into near panic in Aragorn’s chest at the icy deadness he saw clouding his friend’s countenance.  “I did not know that the Prince of Mirkwood answered to anyone save his father and I have not heard that he was near,” a hard edge crept into the young man’s tone. 

 

“When a Nazgûl calls, you do not keep him waiting,” the iron bite in Legolas’ voice was chilling.  At that moment, the young ranger barely recognized his friend and fear flooded through him.

 

Aragorn tried to wrench his arm away in horror, but Legolas held on tightly, spinning him around and twisting it painfully behind the ranger’s back, refusing to set the younger being free. 

 

“Since when do you serve the shadow of Mordor Legolas?!” Aragorn spat darkly, somewhere between uncomprehending anger and breathtaking betrayal. 

 

There was no answer, but the elf started to bind the human’s hands behind him.  Reacting quickly, Aragorn bent sharply forward, ignoring the pain that shot through his twisted arm and rolled Legolas over his back, wrenching free. 

 

In an instant the orcs were on him.  Drawing his sword, Aragorn crossed blades with them, whirling as he fought and dispatching two of them.  Then suddenly he was face-to-face with Legolas.  For a few split seconds, he had a clear path and could have taken the elf down with a stroke.  With any other foe, Aragorn would not have hesitated, but this was not a foe, this was his friend... or at least so he had thought to this point. 

 

The Dùnadan did not strike, he could not, but that moment of hesitation cost him the battle.  Legolas did not pause, but yanked the sword out of the ranger’s grip and struck out with an open palm.  His blow caught Aragorn’s chin and mouth, knocking the young man to the ground.  In an instant, the remaining orcs were on Aragorn.  They bound him securely and dragged him back to his feet, but Aragorn’s eyes never left Legolas.

 

“What’s happened to you Legolas?!” Aragorn demanded, caught between anguish and anger.  “What have they done to you?”  He refused to believe that his friend would ever willingly betray him like this, yet the empty look in the elf prince’s eyes scared him.  

 

Legolas did not answer, but turned away.  “You must come.  He is waiting.”

 

“I’ll be damned if I will!” Aragorn exploded, struggling like a wildcat against the orcs that held him.  He had never met one of the legendary nine ring-wraiths before and he had no desire to do so now, especially not if they wanted to do to him whatever they had done to his friend. 

 

Legolas stalked back to where the orcs were trying to subdue their prisoner.

 

“I don’t know what they did to you Legolas, but you’ve got to snap out of it!  This isn’t you!” Aragorn pleaded desperately with his friend.  “I know who you are, you are not this darkness!  You are Prince Legolas of Mirkwood, son of King Thranduil, not the thrall of some dark lord, not the servant of the Nazgûl!  Come back to yourself!”

 

For an instant something flickered across Legolas’ eyes, something akin to pain, anguish... but the deadness quickly took its place once again and before Aragorn knew what had happened Legolas lashed out sharply, striking the young ranger so hard that the world swirled black before the Dùnadan’s eyes and he fell back in the arms of the orcs that held him, unconscious.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART SEVEN*~

 

 

----

I’m not afraid of tomorrow,
I’m only scared of myself,
feels like my insides are on fire,

and I’m looking through the eyes of someone else...

(“Tomorrow” -- SR-71)

----

 

 

Aragorn woke to find that dusk was fading and he was being carried over someone’s shoulder.  Were it not for the pain in his head and the fiery numbness of his bound hands he would have thought what had happened back there in the clearing was all an incredibly bad dream, but he knew it wasn’t. 

 

Presently he was dropped to the ground and left there.  They still thought him unconscious, so Aragorn lay unmoving, not anxious to let them know otherwise, and still unsure of what exactly they wanted with him.  Darkness had fallen not long ago and the orcs who had captured him moved about their camp, for that was obviously where he had been taken.  From under partially lidded eyes, the young ranger watched them, but his gaze was more or less centered on the tall, slender figure who stood out in sharp contrast to the hideousness of the orcs around him. 

 

Legolas moved like one in a trance, doing what he was told, but initiating very little action on his own. 

 

Aragorn still ached where his friend had hit him and he longed to know what was going on.  What had these people done to the prince to change him so much?  To make him totally forget who and what he was?  And more importantly, what could he do to get back the Legolas that he knew and whose friendship he treasured? 

 

The young ranger remembered the absolutely dead look in the elf’s eyes when he struck him down and resisted a shudder.  What if there was no way to bring him back?  Aragorn clenched his jaw.  No.  He refused to think of that.  He refused to let that be an option.

 

The young human realized that something was going on and risked opening his eyes a smidgen further to see what it was.  Several of the orcs had taken Legolas’ arms and were leading him somewhere.  The Nazgûl stood nearby, watching calmly with folded arms.  Aragorn knew what he was without being told.  There was no mistaking the aura of sheer horror and evil that the Witch King carried with him like a mantel of darkness.

 

Legolas did not fight them, but there was a stiffness in his movements that suggested he would have liked to resist if he could.

 

The orcs guided the prince to lie on his back on the ground and to Aragorn’s surprise they bound his wrists and ankles, staking the elf down firmly until he could not move on his own.

 

His tunic was pushed off his left shoulder and a bandage that Aragorn had not realized was there was removed to reveal a healing wound.  Exactly how old it was was hard to tell because elven bodies healed more swiftly than those of men. 

 

As Aragorn watched, the Nazgûl knelt over Legolas and the night seemed to darken around them like a cloud.  The elf prince’s body trembled slightly and Aragorn felt his ire rising swiftly.  He didn’t know what they were doing to his friend, but whatever it was, it was evil.

 

The Witch King roughly re-opened the wound as he had every night since Legolas had come under his power.  The elf stiffened and choked back a cry at the pain as a new trickle of red blood welled up from the injury.  He twisted weakly in his bonds, gritting his teeth against the agony of the Nazgûl’s un-gentle ministrations, for the flesh around the wound had become highly inflamed and incredibly tender from the repeated treatments. 

 

Calmly, the wraith pressed something into the wound.  Aragorn could not see what it was, but from the way Legolas’ body reacted it must have been evil indeed. 

 

The elf’s body spasmed and jerked, trying to pull away, but was not allowed to do so.  He moaned softly in pain as the wraith rubbed whatever dark herb or poultice his evil had devised into the wound, strengthening his hold over the elf, renewing his control.  The struggle to hold Legolas was far more intense than it would have been for a mere mortal.  A human would have completely succumbed to the wraith’s power a long time ago, but elves were strong and their spirits hard to harness, so this was still necessary if the Nazgûl wished to retain his control over the prince. 

 

“You are mine...” the evil being whispered softly over the elf.  “You hear only my voice, you think only my thoughts, you feel only the black breath of Mordor in your body... you are mine.”

 

Legolas thrashed weakly, but could not fight for long.  Numbness followed the pain and spread slowly through his being, perhaps even more frightening than the pain had been.  When the elf stopped fighting him, the Witch King knew that the foul medicine had done its job.  Wrapping Legolas’ shoulder up once more he moved away, leaving the elf lying as still as death in his bonds.

 

Aragorn’s heart burned.  If he had thought it would do any good he would have liked to jump to his feet, bound or no, and aid his friend.  But now was the time for cool heads, not impulsiveness and he knew better than to act before he could hope that it would do more than bring down more trouble on both their heads.

 

At least he was able to glean some small amount of comfort from the horrible thing he had just witnessed.  Aragorn glanced sadly at Legolas’ still form as several of the orcs knelt to cut the elf free.  Whatever they were doing to him, Legolas was still resisting, it must not be permanent yet, or there would be no need for what he had just witnessed.  However, Aragorn feared that something was going to have to happen soon, or it would be too late, perhaps for both of them.

 

Sleep eluded the ranger throughout the remainder of the night.  He had kept a close watch on Legolas.  The elf had lain on the forest floor without moving for the better part of the night.  As the sun barely brushed the tops of the canopy of trees Legolas had stirred, his eyes seeking out the dark lord.

 

Aragorn had no idea where the wraith had secluded itself during the nocturnal hours. He was alerted to the evil beings approach by Legolas' intense gaze.  The elf's eyes followed the dark creature as it paced slowly through the camp towards the ranger.

 

Aragorn lay very still, hoping the Nazgûl would think him still unconscious, but his bluff was called.  The wraith sniffed the air above the man and laughed softly.

 

"You are awake.  Good."  He turned his back on the ranger and motioned to the orcs near the campfire.  The foul creatures made their way quickly to the wraith’s side, awaiting his commands.  Across the camp, Legolas watched with apparent disinterest, but inside the fear for his friend drove the captive elf into a frenzy.

 

The ring wraith approached the bound human once more, eyeing him curiously as two orcs jerked him roughly to his knees.  They were motioned away by a flick of their master’s hand.

 

There was something about the man that was different, the wraith knew it, felt it, sensed it.  Could he be the one who carried the ring, the one long thought lost?  The wraith raised his hand palm outward towards Aragorn and concentrated.  Waves of darkness swept around the ranger, numbing his thoughts, stealing his consciousness.  Bands of evil like steel bonds wrapped invisibly about his chest seeming to search his being for something, something he knew not of.  He began to pant as the pressure and pain increased and he couldn’t fight off the terrible darkness that swirled out of control around him.  Somewhere inside him, he felt a spark of resistance welling up, ready to fight, ready to match the evil one’s will with his own, but at the same moment something inside told him to wait, told him now was not the time... he didn’t understand.  Unable to endure the wraith’s painful searching any longer he cried out under the onslaught and collapsed to the forest floor.

 

Satisfied that the human did not carry his liege’s ring, or anything else he sought, the Witch King took a different tactic with the man.  With a long slender finger he pointed at one of the orcs.  The foul creature stepped forward and bowed slightly.

 

“Yes my lord.”

 

“I may have need of your services.  Get the human up.”  The wraith instructed calmly.

 

The orc pulled the man back up to his knees with one hand. With the other he shook out a cruel looking whip, allowing the leather strips to fall in front of the ranger’s face as the kinks were worked out of them.

 

“Who are you?” the Nazgûl demanded, the hood of his dark, seemingly empty robes glaring straight at the young human.

 

Aragorn's jaw tightened but he did not flinch under the wraith's gaze.  “Strider, Ranger of the North.”

 

The Witch King hissed shrilly and the orc standing behind Aragorn brought the lash in his hand down sharply across the young man's shoulders.  The many-tongued instrument raked fire across the Dùnadan’s skin and Aragorn couldn't help jerking slightly.

 

“Who are you?” the question was repeated, the dark, empty voice holding a tone somewhere between perilous impatience and deadliness. 

 

The young ranger schooled his features to blankness.  “Strider, Ranger of the North,” he repeated tonelessly, knowing what kind of response he would get for that.

 

Predictably, his words earned him another burning cut with the lash.  Aragorn gasped slightly through his teeth and rocked forward a little, but gave no other sign.  He knew that it was not for naught that his true identity had been hidden from even himself for the first twenty years of his life.  Elrond had fully impressed upon him the seriousness of his situation, and the importance that the enemy never find out his true heritage, not yet.  Not until the time was right.  Aragorn was unsure that time would ever come, or if indeed he wanted it to, but for now, it was enough for him to know that a truthful answer to the Witch King’s question would bring about a fate a hundred times worse than death.

 

The Nazgûl lord looked down at the kneeling human with a wary gaze.  Perhaps he was just another man, although being a ranger was cause enough for the wraith to plan a gruesome demise for him... yet... there was something about this one.  Something that smacked of Nùmenor, something that smelled too much like elves and a power behind the dark, determined eyes that the Witch King doubted the young man himself even understood yet.  It was... curious. 

 

“Tell me the truth Dùnadan, or you’ll wish you were never spawned,” the wraith threatened darkly, moving forward until his shadow fell over the helpless human.

 

Aragorn felt an involuntary shudder run up his spine.  The mere presence of the Nazgûl was terror, and far harder to endure than any torture the wraith could devise.

 

Aragorn jerked when the whip struck him again, and a second and third time in rapid secession.  The last two strokes drew blood and the Witch King dropped one gloved hand down, running the sharp tips of his fingers along the bleeding welts on his prisoner’s back.

 

Aragorn was not prepared for the sharp, biting agony that the Nazgûl’s simple touch wrought and only half-stifled his cry of surprise and pain at the icy needles of dread and torment that stabbed through his already wounded flesh.

 

The wraith laughed softly and moved his hand away, letting Aragorn slump forward as if released from an electrical charge.  The Witch King’s head turned towards Legolas who stood motionless several yards away.  Glancing down at the human, the dark lord walked over to the elf.

 

The Nazgûl placed his bloodied hand on Legolas’ cheek, but the elf prince did not move or flinch, he simply stared ahead with empty eyes.  His will was not his own and he could do nothing to stop what was happening.

 

“You know this man?” the wraith asked.

 

“Yes,” Legolas’ voice was toneless.  Inside him his heart twisted violently and Aragorn’s blood burned against his cheek, but the wraith’s hold over him was too strong and he could not battle himself out of the corner he had been shut into.  Some part of him remembered who he was and he had momentary flashes of lucidity, but not of control, and always again the black shadow would overpower him and he would forget once more, lost in the illusion he could not escape.

 

Aragorn gazed up at his one-time friend, fear creeping into his heart.  Legolas knew full well who he was, something that was true of very few people outside his father and brothers.  At one time, he was sure that that secret was safe with the elf prince, but now the young ranger was sure of nothing.  When Legolas looked at him, the elf’s beautiful silver-blue eyes were dead and completely empty.  Aragorn’s heart sank.

 

“Then tell me my faithful servant... who is he?” the wraith hissed, and if you could have seen the shadow world in which he dwelt, the Witch King was grinning evilly. 

 

Legolas’ body stiffed slightly, as if there were a war going on inside, but none of this showed on his face.  For a moment the elf opened his mouth, then closed it again, his jaw trembling. 

 

The Nazgûl leaned closer, his grip on Legolas’ cheek tightening painfully.  His shadow engulfed the captive elf and although his expression did not change, inside, the prince screamed in pain at the darkness that was overrunning his will.

 

“He is Strider, Ranger of the North,” Legolas’ tone was flat and dead, but his voice trembled ever so slightly.  “He is Estel, an orphan raised in Rivendell...” the elf closed his eyes for a moment.  “He is nothing more.”

 

Aragorn resisted the urge to let his breath out in relief.  Desperately, he searched for some trace of his friend in Legolas’ dead eyes.  He found none, yet he had a measure of hope now, however slim, because for whatever reason Legolas had protected him.  He knew the Prince knew he was Aragorn, son of Arathorn, descended of Isildur and Elendil and heir to the empty throne of Gondor, but even though Legolas was obviously under the Witch King’s control, he had not betrayed his friend.

 

The Nazgûl backhanded Legolas with enough force to send the elf sprawling, his studded gloves cutting the prince’s lower lip.   Legolas re-gathered himself and rose quietly back to his feet.

 

The wraith had no reason to doubt the prince’s answer, thinking as he did that Legolas was completely under his power, but there had been a moment of hesitation in the elf’s reply and it was for that that the Nazgûl punished him. 

 

Having been raised in Rivendell explained the elveness he felt about the ranger at least, and the evil one supposed that was all that he sensed.  After all, all Dunèdain held some of the blood of Nùmenor in their veins, curse them.

 

“Then we have no more use for him,” the Witch King said coldly.  Pulling the long, black-handled dagger from his belt he pressed it into Legolas’ hand, closing the elf’s fingers around the hilt.  “Kill him.”

 

The elf turned and walked towards the bound human. The orcs stepped back, smiling wickedly and laughing amongst themselves. 

 

Legolas stepped in front of Aragorn and stopped, his eyes slowly lowering to fix on the man kneeling bound in front of him. 

 

Aragorn noted the way that the elf’s fingers tightened around the hilt of the dagger until his knuckles were white and trembling.  There was a war going on unseen behind those dead blue eyes but the body in front of him betrayed none of the torment of the soul deep inside.  Slowly Legolas raised the knife into a defensive position.  He grabbed the ranger by the hair and tipped the man’s head back, exposing his throat.

 

“Legolas,” Aragorn spoke softly in the grey tongue knowing the elven ears could hear him, “Legolas you are my friend, I know you are in there.  Fight it - don’t listen to that creature.  You are light, you are not this darkness.  Legolas...” 

 

The blade drew closer to Aragorn’s exposed throat and he flinched involuntarily, closing his eyes against the sight of his friend.  If Legolas were going to kill him, he did not want the dead eyes of his friend to be the last thing he saw.

 

“Please my friend, wake up.”  The soft begging tone of the human broke the elven heart and something inside Legolas wrenched free. 

 

“No.” The softly spoken word surprised Aragorn and he opened his eyes to stare at his friend.

 

The elf was trembling; his loyalty to the ranger fighting the hold of the dark lord and his entire being was in conflict.  Shakily his fingers released their death grip on the morgul blade and the knife fell to the forest floor, his hand falling limply to his side.

 

“Legolas?”  The ranger tried to stand to his feet but the orcs had noticed the change too and had rushed in to press the human back down.  Pinned under the weight of the foul creatures he couldn’t help the elf when the Nazgûl descended on the helpless prince.

 

“Slave!” The hissing shriek made the hair on Aragorn’s neck stand on end.

 

Unable to disobey, the elf turned around only to be backhanded once again by his master.  The blow caused Legolas to stumble.  He caught himself against the trunk of a large tree and the wraith pursued him, pressing the prince against the tree’s trunk.  The Witch King wrapped his hand around Legolas’ neck and pulled the elf off his feet.

 

The prince’s eyes widened in fear as his airway was cut off.  The wraith’s hard glove cut deeply into the soft skin under the elf’s chin as he was held there, suspended above the ground.

 

“Did you think I would tolerate disobedience?” the wraith hissed in anger. He turned his dark hooded face towards the orcs and called them to him as he ripped Legolas tunic from his shoulder, exposing his bandaged wound.

 

Dropping him back to the floor he glared at the orcs, “Bind him.”

 

Immediately they pulled the elf’s arms behind him, wrapping them back around the girth of the tree and bound him in place.

 

“You will obey me or you will die.”  He closed the small space between the elf and himself, the darkness encompassed Legolas’ consciousness, compressing his will with its foul evilness. In utter torment and darkness Legolas cried out within himself but his body would not respond as he struggled against the Nazgûl’s rule.  The bandage was torn from his shoulder and the Witch King pressed the palm of his hand down against the healing scar, breaking it mercilessly open once more.

 

The cry of terror and pain that was forced from the elf’s lips ripped through the ranger and he struggled against his bonds.  Having been momentarily forgotten by the orcs, Aragorn rolled over onto his side, bringing his knees up to his chest and eased his bound hands from around his back shifting his arms until his hands were in front of him.  He grasped the knife from the ground where Legolas had dropped it and quickly severed his binds.  Jumping to his feet he threw the blade into the back of the nearest orc that was holding Legolas still as the ring wraith practiced his evil art on the helpless elf, enslaving the prince to the darkness even further.

 

The orc fell with a shriek and his companions turned quickly, eyeing the freed human.

 

Aragorn glanced around him wildly for a weapon. There was nothing close at hand.  He looked at the fallen orc and rushed towards the dead body, grabbing the hilt and pulling the blade from the carcass. The ranger rolled over onto his back, using the dead orc as a brace and fought off the first of the orcs that had reversed its course and followed him back to their fallen comrade.  The human ducked a sweeping arc of the orc sword and thrust the blackened dagger at the advancing creature, slicing through the monster and stopping his attack.  He kicked the dying orc away and threw the blade down exchanging it for the creature’s own sword.  With fierceness brought on by survival instincts alone he charged his assailants, taking them by surprise.

 

The Ringwraith took the moment of inattention and finished his work on Legolas.  The elf arched against his bonds, writhing with the pain of the forced poison.

 

“Strider!”  The word was ripped from Legolas throat as he suffered through the mind-altering effects of the darkness.

 

Aragorn caught a parrying blow on the edge of his sword, blocking his attackers advance.  He spun beneath the press of the blade coming up on the right side of the orc and drove his sword through the creatures throat, decapitating it.  The cry of his friend broke through his battle frenzy and the ranger whipped around to see Legolas sag against the trunk of the tree, drugged senseless once more.

 

He kicked an orc to his left out of his path and ran towards the Witch King, intent on destroying the evil being.

 

The Nazgûl sensed his approach and spun with an unearthly howl, viciously backhanding human.  The blow sent the man stumbling back and he lost his footing, falling just inches from the still burning campfire.  The sword pried from his fingers by the force of wraith’s strike, flew into the midst of the fire, scattering the wood and sending sparks flying into the air.  Trying to regain his bearings, Aragorn pressed himself up unsteadily on his hands.  His fingers brushed a heated log jutting out from the fire pit.  Recoiling from the intensity of the flames, a thought struck his subconscious and he reacted without thinking.  Snatching the burning timber from the fire he leapt to his feet as Legolas cried out again. 

 

When the dark creature had swept the human out of its path it had redirected its anger and hatred at the cowering elf.  His orcs could deal with the human.  It would not tolerate disobedience or treachery from its minions.  Bent on the fair beings destruction it did not see the ranger approaching, unimpeded by the scattered orcs, until it was too late.

 

The witch king cut Legolas’ bonds and grabbed the elf by his wounded shoulder digging his long nailed fingers into the soft, newly torn flesh.  The prince cried and his knees buckled beneath him as the pain of the evil darkness swept in agonizing waves through his body.  He only wished it would kill him and ease his suffering. 

 

With his free hand the ring wraith grabbed a handful of the elf’s long blonde hair and jerked the fair being’s head back so that Legolas was forced to stare into the faceless mask of darkness.

 

“I told you to kill that whelp of a human.  You belong to me elf, body mind and soul, you are mine and you will obey me.  Do it now.”

 

Fear shot through every fiber in Legolas’ mind and the dark poisons in his systems screamed at him to obey.  The force of the conflict within him was a like a whirlwind and it tore at his mind, shredding his thoughts and setting the very threads of his consciousness on fire.  His body shook with the effort to maintain control.  Deep within him, his loyalty flared briefly and in his last act of defiance he fixed his eyes on the evil blank hood and replied through gritted teeth, “Never.”  The one word was a mere whisper, but the strength in his eyes belied his body’s weakness.

 

The wraith drew him closer, “Then for that slave, you will die,” it hissed evilly at him.  The creature threw the elf hard to the ground and pressed his pointed metal boot against the prince’s chest.  He pulled his sword from its sheath, the weapon screaming as the blade slipped from its metal casing and held the sword above Legolas prepared to plunge the weapon into the elf and kill him.

 

“NO!”  Aragorn ran towards the dark apparition, he wouldn’t allow the wraith to murder his friend.

 

The Nazgûl whipped around and glared at the human.

 

“Why don’t you kill me yourself.” The ranger growled at the wraith.   Taking the attention away from his wounded friend, he circled the Witch King until he stood between the Nazgûl and the elf.  Aragorn pulled the flaming torch in front of him and held it out towards the wraith, warding off the advancing attack.  The witch king shrieked and retreated from the flame, seeming to shrink in on himself.  The effect of the fire on the evil being was not lost on the ranger and he danced forward weaving the firebrand in front of him.  The wraith brought his sword up in a tight arc, trying to get underneath the fire and cut the torch from the human’s hand.  The flat of the blade snapped sharply against Aragorn’s fingers and with a cry he released the burning piece of wood.  But the wraith was too close and as it fell the torch brushed the edges of the creatures black robes, setting the cloth on fire.

 

Screaming in anger and fear the Wraith attempted to put the flames out but to no avail and within moments the fire had consumed his outer cloak.  In panic the foul beast ran off into the woods shrieking.  When the orcs saw their master so easily routed they quickly took to the forest, abandoning the wounded human and the dying elf.

 

Aragorn dropped down next to the still elf prince.  Gently brushing the hair away from the elven face he bent close to the elf, talking to him softly in the grey tongue.

 

“Legolas?”  When the prince didn’t respond, the ranger carefully inspected the wound to his shoulder.  It was hot and ragged.  The edges of the skin were dark from the foul poison that the wraith had injected into his body.  Tendrils of black ran under the skin, spreading away from the cut.  Legolas moaned as Aragorn pressed his hand against the elf’s shoulder feeling the heat of infection beneath the skin.  “Legolas can you hear me?”

 

The elf’s eyes flicked open and he gazed unseeingly at the human.

 

“I have to get you out of here.”  Aragorn glanced around them into the forest. There was no telling how soon the Wraith and his orcs would return and the sky looked like it would open up and pour on them at any moment.

 

“Can you stand?”

 

Legolas didn’t respond, he simply stared straight ahead with the same dull dead gaze that Aragorn had first seen on him.

 

Large drops of rain began to fall gently around them, increasing in frequency as the seconds ticked by.  Nothing the human did provoked any type of a response from the elf and in frustration the man finally pulled the prince to his feet.  The fire sputtered and died out as the rain turned into a downpour.

 

“We have to get to shelter!”  Aragorn spoke to the elf even though nothing he said seemed to get through to him.  “Come on Legolas.”  He grabbed the elf’s arm and drug the prince after him, collecting his pack and his weapons on the way out of the camp.

 

They crested a small hill on the far side of the glade where the Wraith had set up camp and followed the spine of the knoll as far as they could before Legolas collapsed.  Aragorn knelt over him, shielding him from the rain.  He watched in horror as the elf’s eyes rolled back into his head and his eyelids closed.

 

The ranger scrambled down the opposite side of the hill and frantically searched the surrounding area.  In moments he found what he was looking for and ran back to his fallen friend.  Lifting the elf onto his shoulders Aragorn stood carefully to his feet and descended the hill once more heading straight for the partially hidden opening of a small cave.  Once inside he set the unconscious elf down on the dry dirt floor and quickly stripped Legolas of his wet tunic. 

 

Grabbing his pack he untied his bedroll and used the soft fabric to dry his friend, redressing the elf in a spare shirt to stave off the chill.   Shaking out the contents of his pack he sifted through the assortment of things that he carried with him. He had what he needed but did he have time?  Gathering what dry branches and leaves he could find, Aragorn started a small fire and filled the tiny pot he carried with him with water.

 

 

Chapter Text

___________________________________________________________

~*PART EIGHT*~

 

 

When the black breath blows

When death’s shadow grows

And all lights pass

Come athelas, come athelas

Life to the dying

In the king’s hand lying...

 

 

Legolas’ body was so cold to the touch, it was frightening.  Were it not for the faint falling and rising of his chest Aragorn would have thought him already dead. 

 

The Dùnadan had already cleansed the elf’s wound of whatever foul substances the Witch King had been giving him, but Legolas seemed to be falling deeper and deeper into the shadow. 

 

Aragorn knew what the elf needed; he only hoped that he could do it.  Elrond had told him that he could, that he had the strength within him to drive back the shadow... but Aragorn was still afraid.  Afraid that he would fail when it was most important for him to not.

 

With trembling fingers he poured some of the boiling water he had used to clean the prince’s wound with into a small dish.  Holding the athelas leaves he had gathered in the palm of his hand, Aragorn breathed on the handful before crushing them and dropping them onto the water.  The clean, beautifully wholesome scent that reminded him of Rivendell and Elrond immediately filled the air.  The steam wafted around them and seemed to hang in the air, moistening every breath that they took with its healing fragrance.  He found himself relaxing as the herb cleansed the pall that surrounded them.

 

After a few moments he was encouraged to see that a faint pink tint had returned to the elf’s dangerously grey skin.  Aragorn took hold of the prince’s hand.  Still cold, but not as cold.  Gently he rubbed Legolas hand with his own willing the heat of life to return.

 

“Legolas,” he called quietly, with more authority than he knew he had.  “Legolas Greenleaf, come back.  Leave the shadow.  Return to the light.  Come back to me, to light, to life...” He spoke in elvish and his words lingered on the air.  “Legolas...” He closed his eyes and quieted his fears hoping that the athelas would work, unable to watch if he had failed.

 

The prince stirred.  The slim hand that rested in Aragorn’s began to warm. The ranger reacted to the small change in the elf, leaning near, searching the prince’s face for signs of consciousness.  Legolas breathed in deeply and very slowly, opened his eyes.  They were blurry and clouded with pain and confusion, but for the first time in days Aragorn could see his friend in their silver-blue depths and he smiled in relief at the recognition in Legolas’ eyes.

 

The elf blinked slowly.  “Wh-what happened?” he whispered faintly.  “I feel as if I have lived a nightmare somehow... yet I cannot remember...”

 

“You have had a very bad dream my friend, but it’s over now.  It’s all over,” Aragorn soothed gently, lightly touching his friend’s tangled hair.  There would be plenty of time for Legolas to remember, and deal with what had happened later. For now, he was just glad that the elf was recalled from the shadow.

 

Legolas was not content with his answer, but felt too weak to protest. 

 

“We will talk about it later,” Aragorn warded off any further questions.  “Rest now.  Rest.”  The sound of the grey tongue was so soothing to the elf, he couldn’t remember the last time he had heard it and he allowed the ranger’s words to comfort him.  There was a nagging unease in the back of his mind as though something had gone terribly wrong and he needed to be worried about it, but he couldn’t focus.

 

Aragorn noted the tension in his friend and moved from his kneeled position, seating himself near the elf’s head.  Gently he pulled Legolas into his lap and held the prince in his arms, cradling the elf’s head against his chest.  Fear from almost loosing his friend caused his breathing to hitch in his throat.  “Relax Legolas, you are safe now.”

 

Legolas allowed himself to be held, letting go of the nagging fear that he couldn’t quite shake. “I’m sorry.” He whispered, although he didn’t know why he was apologizing.

 

“No, no it’s all right. Don’t be.  Everything will be fine.”  The sweet clean scent of the athelas wound about the two of them, filling the small cave with a sense of peace and serenity as the rain gently continued to fall outside, its patter a calm resounding in the hollow.  Within moments the elf was sleeping soundly, his chest rising and falling normally and his open eyes staring vacantly, contented in rest.  Aragorn bent down and gently kissed the top of the elf’s fair head. It had been so close, too close.

 

The ranger closed his eyes as the alternatives flashed through his mind.  A waft of athelas blew past him and he banished the dark thoughts from his consciousness, whatever might have been, wasn’t.  Legolas stirred lightly in his sleep and Aragorn looked down at the elf and nodded, yes they would be all right.

 

 

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

 

 

The night was rent with a piercing cry and Aragorn jerked awake.  The cave was dark and the rain had finally stopped falling.  He heard the cry again and recognized it for what it was, elvish.

 

“Legolas!” the ranger moved quickly to the dying fire and blew into the still warm embers, igniting the small flicker.  By the light of the fire he found the elf pressed up against the far wall, his eyes squeezed tightly closed and pain etched on every line of his face.

 

“No. No more!  Stop please!” the elf was crying out, speaking rapidly in the grey tongue, caught in the midst of a nightmare.

 

Aragorn scooted near the prince and gently gripped Legolas shoulders, talking softly to the elf, trying to calm the terrors he was caught in.

 

“Legolas it is I, Estel.  Wake up. You are safe.”

 

The elf shook his head, trying to pull away, “No, I killed him, he is dead.” The words came out in a sob.

 

“Legolas, open your eyes, I live.” The human shook the elf with more force than he had meant to and the prince cried out, and gripped his wounded shoulder tightly, his eyes flying open to lock onto the silver ones staring at him.

 

“I slit your throat,” Legolas’ voice trembled, not yet entirely free of the terror of the dream or conscious of the reality of his waking. 

 

“No, you didn’t, you couldn’t.”  Aragorn gently eased Legolas’ hand away from his shoulder and checked the bandage to make sure he hadn’t accidentally reopened the wound. “You saved me.  You didn’t obey.  I am alive.”

 

“I was going to kill you.   I betrayed you to Mordor and I...”

 

“Stop!” Aragorn shushed the elf gently, touching the prince’s split lip with his fingers and silencing the self-condemning tirade.  “You were not acting as yourself, you were under the Nazgûl’s control. But he did not own you completely.”

 

Legolas was staring at the ranger, listening, trying to make himself believe the words. “I remember everything Estel.  I remember what he made me do. I remember holding the knife to your throat. I remember it all...”

 

The utter look of sorrow on the elf’s face touched Aragorn’s heart and he pulled the prince into his arms and held him while he spoke softly, whispering in the elf’s ear, “I half hoped you wouldn’t remember anything my friend.  I’m sorry.”

 

Legolas pulled back and stared at the ranger, “Where is he?”

 

Aragorn shook his head and looked back out into the forest, “Gone I think. I am not sure he survived... although I fear he did.”

 

“Survived what?”

 

“I set his clothes on fire and he ran off into the woods.” The human shuddered at the memory of the wraith’s screams as they had echoed through the woods.

 

Aragorn was jerked back to the present when Legolas lunged forward and grabbed his arm, demanding his attention.  “There was a woman and a child.  Did you find them, are they safe?”

 

With a smile the man answered, “Maraen and Estelle?  Yes we found them.” He covered the elf’s shaking hands with his own, “They are safe and doing well thanks to you and my father.  They are the reason I knew where to come looking for you.  Maraen didn’t remember anything when we found her but her memory slowly returned and father was sure he would be able to heal her completely with the athelas. I didn’t wait to find out if it worked, I had to come looking for you.”

 

Legolas relaxed slightly and looked to the floor of the cave, speaking softly, “They are the only reason I consented to staying with the Nazgûl.  He wanted to kill them and I traded my life for their own. Perhaps it was not the right choice...but I could think of no other.  I hoped they would make it to your home safely.”

 

“They did and they have you to thank for it.”

 

“You don’t know what I did.” Legolas stared into the silver eyes, a haunted shadow darkening his own before he dropped his gaze. “I couldn’t stop myself from obeying him.”

 

Aragorn reached out and placed his hand behind the elf’s head, pulling his friend closer, forcing the prince to focus on him, “I don’t need to.  I know who you are.  I know what lives inside you, and it is not darkness, it is light.  We have been here before my friend.  You know that your heart is good.  Darkness can never truly own light.”

 

Legolas nodded slightly in agreement and the ranger smiled back at him changing the subject quickly, “Now come over here by the light and let me take a good look at that cut on your shoulder.  If you are feeling well enough, we’ll start back for home today.”

 

The elf shifted nearer the fire, watching his friend closely. “Strider, tell me something.”

 

Aragorn was preoccupied with Legolas’ wound.  “Sure, anything.” He muttered absently as he lathered the cut with crushed athelas leaves.

 

“What happened at the falls?”

 

The ranger stopped what he was doing and looked up at the elf in confusion. “What falls?”

 

Legolas rolled his eyes and smiled lightly, “Did you hit your head on the way down?  Have you forgotten that you fell from the heights that day we went hunting?” It was, in fact, indelibly etched into the elf’s mind.

 

“Oh!” Aragorn caught on to his friends train of thought, “Yes, I guess I had forgotten, its been over a month now since I fell.” He rolled his shoulder testing it, it barely even ached now from the old wound.  He laughed at his forgetfulness, “I was so worried about you I forgot that you haven’t seen me since then.”  The ranger tied off the bandage and stopped talking as he noted the look of shock and pain on the elf’s face.

 

“Legolas what is it?”  Aragorn leaned forward and touched the prince.

 

The elf jumped slightly and stared at the ranger, “I’m sorry, did you say a month?”

 

With a slight nod, Aragorn answered.  He watched his friend carefully, letting the silence grow between them before he spoke again.  “Did you not know how long you had been in the captivity of the Nazgûl?”

 

“No.” Legolas whispered, looking away to the back of the cave to hide his horror.

 

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize...”

 

“Everything was dark.  There was no day or night.  There was only pain and darkness.  I knew when I slept and when I woke, but I had no knowledge of time at all.  It was as though I was neither here nor absent from this life but caught somewhere in between in shadow.”  He shuddered as the recollection caught him up once more.  “It seemed an eternity, but I had no idea it was so long.”

 

Aragorn didn’t know how to respond.  He shifted closer and laid his arm across the elf’s shoulders.  “I’m sorry I didn’t come to find you sooner. I never imagined that you weren’t simply home with your father.  If I had known...”

 

“My father!”  Legolas turned huge eyes on the ranger, “I never showed up!  He will know some ill has befallen me!”

 

“Yes, he does.  He sent Raniean and Trelan to find out what had happened.”  Aragorn gazed into the fire, a small smile tugging at his lips, “I imagine they are pretty upset right about now.  I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night and left them behind.  No one will ever find us here, I made sure of it.  And if I know Elladan and Elrohir they are probably out hunting us right now.”

 

Legolas was not consoled by the humor, “It will tear at his heart.  I was not there for the last yèn.  He probably thinks that I disobeyed his request - again.”

 

“Legolas, you didn’t.”  Aragorn focused his attention back on the elf, “You were going home. You even left without knowing if I were alive or not – which is how I would have had it.  When he hears what happened he will understand.”

 

The elf looked at the ranger incredulously, “Obviously you do not know my father very well.  He will be relieved that I did not disobey and then infuriated that I was taken captive, and by a Nazgûl no less!”

 

Aragorn laughed, shaking his head, “I’m sorry.  It’s not funny.  I was just thinking that it’s a very good thing that your father never had anymore sons and none the likes of me or my brothers, we would have brought his head down to the grave!”

 

Legolas started laughing, pushing the human away from him, “I can't believe you said that!  But you are probably very correct.”

 

“Don’t worry. I’ll go back with the three of you and we’ll explain it together.  It’ll work out just fine, you’ll see.”  He shook his head slowly, as he moved to the opposite side of the fire and began to collect their things, packing them into his sack as he spoke.  “And speaking of them, we best be heading back if you are able.  They were worried sick about you.  Sounds like the rain has stopped, we should be able to travel with no problem.”

 

“I am able to travel,” Legolas affirmed. “Let us go.”

 

Aragorn turned and stared hard at the elf, “If you feel the least bit sick or need to rest, you had best tell me.  If you let that elven pride get in the way, I will never let you forget it.  Understood?  We can stay here a bit longer if you like.”

 

The elf stared at the ranger with a look of disdain, “Are you quite through mothering me?”

 

“Not until father says you are well, no!” The ranger set his pack down and leaned forward, returning the hard stare.

 

They locked eyes for a few moments neither backing down.  Aragorn had the patience to wear the elf down in this instance and Legolas dropped his gaze with a rueful smile, “You are more like your father than you realize.”

 

“Thank you.” Aragorn smiled brilliantly at the elf, stepping lightly around the fire and seating himself back near his friend.  “Now are you ready?”

 

“Under one condition.”  Legolas glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes.

 

“All right.” Aragorn turned serious and stared openly back at the elf.  His intensity caused the prince to start laughing and Legolas pushed the ranger over with a gentle shove.

 

“You must tell me what happened to you at the falls!”

 

Aragorn broke out laughing as he forced his hands underneath him and moved to the entrance of the cave, “That, I can do!”

 

 

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

 

 

“So you are telling me that the whole time we were calling for you, you were *behind* the falls?” Legolas picked his way carefully around the roots of a large tree, his footing not as sure as he would have liked it to be as he trailed the ranger.

 

“Yes.  You cannot believe how relieved I was to discover that I was in a cave just inside the falls.”  Aragorn slowed his pace and glanced behind him, discreetly watching the elf navigate the rough terrain.  “I have never been more afraid than when I realized I was trapped. What an awful feeling.”

 

“Yes.” Legolas’ voice lowered as he thought, “I can understand.  I know exactly how you felt.”

 

Aragorn turned and met the silver blue eyes of his friend, “You were conscious then, inside yourself the whole time?”

 

“Yes.” The prince swallowed hard.  “I just could not keep myself from obeying. I had no control over my body.  It was like being locked inside a prison and I couldn’t get out.”

 

“Well, then I guess we both probably have difficulties with tight spaces.”  Aragorn smiled a lopsided grin at the prince, intentionally trying to be light and draw his friend back out of the pain Legolas had begun retreating into again.  It worked, for the moment at least.

 

“Indeed we do.” The elf laughed, “At least you were able to...”

 

His words were silenced as Aragorn held up his hand and stopped moving, kneeling quietly behind the cover of the brush that littered the forest floor.  Legolas crouched down next to him.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Someone approaches.” The ranger barely spoke, glancing slowly around the wooded area.  “Can you not hear them?”

 

The elf nodded as the muted sounds of footsteps carried softly to him.  He laid his hand on the ranger’s back and when the man turned to look at him, the elf extended his hand palm up requesting a weapon, as his own had been taken from him by the wraith. 

 

Aragorn slipped a knife from his boot and passed the dagger to the elf.

 

The approaching foot falls had stopped and they both tensed in the unnatural silence.  Quiet, hushed conversation drifted to Legolas on the slight breeze and he touched his ear quickly before pointing in the direction that it came from. 

 

The ranger nodded and motioned for the elf to stay while he moved around to scout out their new guests.  The elf pulled the ranger close and whispered softly in his ear, “I will go around the other side.”

 

“No, you stay here.”  Aragorn whispered back, his breath moving the blonde strands of hair, “You are not fully well yet.”

 

“I am fine.” Legolas leaned back and stared hard into the dark silver eyes to emphasize his words.

 

Aragorn grabbed him and pulled him back in close, “You are not. Now do as I say.” Without waiting for the elf to respond he twisted on his bootheels and crept off to the right to search out the unseen company.

 

Stealthily the ranger passed the small group up.  He could tell from the sounds that there was more than one person on the path.  Gaining a good position behind the company, he trailed them back towards Legolas.  As he closed the gap between himself and the persons in front of him he recognized the small group and couldn’t help the smile that broke out on his face. 

 

Quietly slinging his bow back over his shoulder he unsheathed his sword and stepped silently up behind the elf that brought up the last position, Trelan.  Moving quickly he grabbed the elf around the waist and jerked the fair being back against him bringing his sword up under the small elf’s chin, tipping Trelan’s head back till it rested against Aragorn’s shoulder. 

 

The company had ceased immediately, turning at the slight sounds of the scuffle.  Trelan was barely breathing as he opened his eyes and glanced out of the corner of them at Aragorn.

 

The ranger was smiling with open delight at the fear on the elf’s face. “Missed you Trelan.  How have you been?” He whispered fiercely at the shaken warrior.

 

“Oh for the love of Valar, Strider!” The elf sagged back against the ranger with relief and annoyance. “Let me go!”

 

“Did I scare you?”  The human asked, egged on by the deep laughter of Raniean, “I told you I’d pay you back for that Trellep joke you tried to play on me.”

 

Trelan sighed in disgust and pushed his elbows against the human, forcing the man to release his hold and drop his weapon so as not to harm the elf. 

 

“He got you good Trelan.” Raniean laughed as the small warrior made his way back to his friend’s side, trying to regain his dignity. “You should have seen the look on your face.”

 

The human smiled brilliantly at the two elves that accompanied the Silvan warriors.

 

Elladan just shook his head, “That was very well done. I didn’t even hear you come up on us.”

 

Elrohir looked about them into the woods, “Estel, did you find the prince?”

 

“Yes he did.”  A voice behind the company turned the attention away from the ranger as Legolas stepped onto the path.  He smiled at the small grouping as Trelan and Raniean walked quickly to his side, quietly asking him questions.

 

He gently reassured his friends and joined the others.  There would be enough questions to be answered and he did not wish to relive the events of the recent past just yet.

 

Elladan glanced between the prince and his human brother.  They were quite a dirty, bedraggled sight, but they both seemed to be in pretty good health.  “You are both walking under your own power and neither of you seems over-grievously injured.  How did you pull that off Estel?”

 

The human rolled his eyes and smirked back at his older brother, “As if that’s a first?”

 

“It is.” The twin replied sarcastically.

 

“No Estel, it is.” Elrohir cut off the human’s argument agreeing with his twin. “I think father will be very impressed.”

 

“That remains to be seen.” Legolas replied seriously.

 

Aragorn walked back to the prince and stared up into the blue eyes, “My father will be very impressed.”  He held the elf’s gaze for a long moment.

 

The small company of warriors shared a questioning look, obviously something occurred that could not be readily seen and from what the elves knew it couldn’t have been good.  But the fact still remained that the two friends were by all outward appearances safe and well and so the warriors surrounded them without further question and walked them back to the city built into the rift.  They would know the full story soon enough.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART NINE*~

 

 

Elrond heard the commotion in the common room and left his study to investigate.  He could hear Celboril arguing with the twins, an occurrence that was rare. Stepping into the doorway the elf lord quickly took in the situation and had to stop himself from laughing out loud.

 

Elrohir and Elladan were holding a wet and dirty ranger between the two of them, the human’s feet barely touching the floor.  The servant was trying to press prince Legolas forcefully out of the room complaining about the dirt the two bedraggled beings had brought in with them. 

 

It was true; Aragorn was filthy from the fight he and Legolas had survived.  Soot and ash discolored his overcoat where he had nearly fallen into the fire.  His boots were covered in mud and his face was dirty and bruised.  Prince Legolas faired no better.  He was wearing one of Aragorn’s old shirts and the left shoulder was stained dark with blood.  The elf’s face was as bruised and dirtied as his human companions although he had obviously suffered more, attested by his split lip, and the half lidded gaze that belied his weariness.

 

“Not there either!” Celboril shouted, shooing the elves away from the couch that they were about to deposit their brother on.

 

“Put me down!” Aragorn growled shifting between the two, “this is my house I can come into it dirty if I like!”

 

Elrond hid the smile on his face as Legolas dropped into a chair much to Celboril’s dismay, “Not there! Prince Legolas you must go change.”

 

“I will. I will.” Legolas wearily answered the servant.  He was too tired to think.  The prince looked up and took note of the elf lord standing in the doorway, trying to conceal his laughter.

 

As the room quieted and all eyes turned towards the entry, Elrond stepped in and brought the argument to a close, “Enough.  This is my house and I say who can come and go in it and how they may do so.” 

 

Celboril immediately stepped back and bowed slightly, “Yes my lord, forgive me.”

 

Elladan and Elrohir dropped Estel and the young human stumbled off balance tottering back against the couch.  He jumped up quickly brushing off the seat and glanced guiltily at his father. 

 

“It is well.  Sit.  It is only furniture, it can be cleaned.” Elrond glanced at Celboril with a small smile before turning his attention back to Aragorn, “And you look as if you will fall down any moment. I’d rather have you on the couch than on the floor.” 

 

“I’d rather have you on the couch too, because I do not wish to pick you up off the floor. You’re getting rather heavy you know that?” Elladan murmured to his human brother.

 

Aragorn allowed himself to fall back onto the couch, kicking his leg out at the same time and causing his brother to trip over him.

 

“Stop.” Elrond spoke darkly, glancing at the siblings.  “This is not the way I wanted to end this day.”  The elf lord looked over at the prince and motioned for the young elf to join them as he took a seat opposite the plush couch, “Please Legolas, come sit over here. It is warmer, near the fire and more comfortable.”

 

Aragorn scooted over as Legolas joined him.  The two made for quite a sight and Elrond looked them over carefully, shaking his head slightly, “At least you are both walking and were able to enter the house under your own power.” 

 

“For the most part.” Aragorn glared at Elladan who had walked around Elrond’s chair and leaned against the back of the seat.

 

Trelan and Raniean edged closer to hear the conversation.  They had stayed out of the room during the whole altercation with Lord Elrond’s servant but now that things had settled down they moved back towards Legolas, hoping to discover what had happened to their friend.

 

Elrond graced his human son with a stern stare, “Aragorn, you and I will have a serious talk when this is over.  Patience is something you lack yet young one.”

 

Aragorn leaned forward, his demeanor completely changed from the cockiness that had spurred the argument moments earlier, “Father, when you hear what has happened you may change your mind.”

 

“I have the feeling I may.  I think I know partly what you will tell me already.  But I will reserve my judgments for later.”  His gaze softened as he noted the way Aragorn’s eyes begged him to understand.  Something else had happened.  Breathing in deeply to settle himself the elf lord caught the slightest hint of a familiar scent and his eyes narrowed.  “Tell me what happened.”

 

“Well, I found Legolas.” Aragorn graced his father with an impish smile before glancing at his friend.

 

Legolas barely met the ranger’s eyes, his countenance was somber and he did not smile back.  It seemed to Aragorn that the prince was closing himself off and the human scooted a little closer to his friend.

 

“So you did.” The slight shift in emotions was not lost on the elderly elf and he smiled softly at the two of them, “And I am very glad that you did Estel.”

 

The same familiar smell hung in the warm air.  Elrond stood from his seat across from the two friends and approached his son. He gently laid his hands on the young man’s head.  Bending down the elf lord barely touched the ranger’s hair with his face and breathed in deeply trying to catch the scent that had been evading him.  The sweet, clean smell of athelas clung to the young human.

 

“I thought I smelled athelas on you.”  Elrond reseated himself and stared at his son, curious to hear what had transpired.

 

The ranger became suddenly nervous.  He hadn’t given a second thought to taking some of the healing herb with him, honestly, it was common enough in the wild, but feelings of self-doubt flickered through his mind and he wondered if he had done something wrong.

 

Legolas shifted uncomfortably next to him, eyeing the occupants in the room before glancing at Aragorn.

 

The elf lord observed the slight exchange.  Noting Legolas’ unease and the discomfort he had exhibited when the subject of athelas was brought up Elrond asked the other elves to leave them for a bit.

 

Trelan and Raniean were instantly reluctant, unwilling to leave their friend and wanting to know what had become of him during his absence.  Celboril immediately departed with the twins close behind.  They had no worries that their younger brother would tell them in privacy later when time permitted what had transpired.

 

“Please,” Legolas looked over his shoulder at the two Silvan elves, “leave us. I will be fine and there are things I need to discuss with Lord Elrond.”

 

With a slight nod Raniean pushed Trelan out of the room in front of him, allowing the prince the space that he requested. 

 

Aragorn watched them all leave before glancing back at the two elves, “Shall I go as well?” He was uncertain as to whether or not his father wanted to speak to Legolas in private.

 

“No.” The prince touched his arm, holding him in place.

 

“No,” agreed Elrond, smiling at the two friends as they locked eyes, “I would hear your part in this as well my son. But I sensed that you, Prince Legolas, were having difficulty discussing recent events with the others in the room.”  The elf lord glanced at the human, “The fact that you were forced to use athelas worries me and says in and of itself that your situation was far more grave than what I originally had thought.”

 

“What did you think had happened father?” Aragorn leaned fully back against the soft cushions, realizing he was overly tired.  The fire snapped and crackled softly and the warmth from the blaze had a calming effect.

 

“Maraen awoke this morning.” Elrond glanced at Legolas, “She remembered everything.”

 

“How is she?” Aragorn questioned, concerned.  He recalled the last time he had seen the young woman.

 

“She is well and will recover completely.”

 

“Recover?” Legolas glanced between Aragorn and Elrond, “But he said...”  He stopped talking and dropped his head in his hands, knowing he shouldn’t have been surprised.  “I knew he was lying.  Never trust a...  I never should have agreed.”  The words were a mere whisper.

 

Aragorn leaned down, trying to look into his friend’s eyes.  He gently pulled Legolas’ hands away from his face, “You didn’t know he would lie.”

 

Legolas exhaled with as much disgust as his weary, hurting body could muster and shook his head.  Maybe he had known, maybe he hadn’t.  He had suspected that the wraith was hardly trustworthy, but what other choice had he really had?  “I should have killed him.”

 

“He would have killed you.” Aragorn’s eyes flashed angrily as he spoke, “And then he *would* have killed Maraen and the baby.  You did the right thing.” Legolas nodded silently before shifting his gaze to the fire.

 

“Who is *he*?” Elrond questioned softly, “Maraen could only describe him as someone or something evil and clothed in black, a dark lord.”

 

“He is.”  Legolas’ eyes were fixed on the fire.  He allowed the hypnotic weave and dance of the flame to flood his mind as he thought back to that first day, willing himself to relax.  It was hard to relive the nightmare, so hard.

 

Elrond spoke quietly, beginning the tale from what he knew, “Maraen said that you found her after their home had been attacked by orcs.  She believes her husband was killed by them.  I have sent Moranuen to Taradin in hopes that the two of them can find the girl’s husband.  She claims to have escaped, whereupon she was found by you.” Elrond glanced at the prince.  The young elf simply nodded.

 

“Yes, I found her.”  With a deep sigh Legolas turned back towards the elf lord, “She was too near her time to birth and the baby came.  We were within hearing of the orcs camp and the child gave away our position.” 

 

Legolas ran his hand back through his hair, pulling the wayward strands out of his face, “We evaded them for as long as she was able.  But in the end they overwhelmed us and we were trapped.  And then he came.”  The elf shivered with the dark memory.

 

Aragorn draped his arm around his friend, “Its all right, he’s gone.”

 

“Not gone.” Legolas glanced at his friend, “Fire will not kill what that one is.”

 

“Legolas?”  Elrond leaned forward, his brow was knit with a frown as he followed the conversation, “Who did you encounter?”

 

The young elf swallowed hard, the answer difficult to speak, “It was an Ulaire my lord.”

 

"A what?" Aragorn asked in confusion.  He had never heard the elvish term and it surprised him.

 

Elrond sat back in the chair, unable to answer for a few moments as the implications sunk in.  That something so evil should be so close to his home was no small matter. 

 

Glancing at his son the elf lord explained, "Ulaire is the elvish word for Nazgûl, Estel.  Nazgûl or ring wraith is their common name derived from the dark tongue."  Aragorn nodded mutely.

 

“He was searching for something I think.  But what it was I did not possess.”  Legolas watched the elf lord carefully.

 

“He searched me for it also.” Aragorn spoke softly, remembering the way the wraith had probed his very soul looking, searching, desiring to find what the ranger did not have.

 

Elrond glanced up sharply when the human spoke, fixing the youth with an indecipherable gaze.  “He searched you?”

 

“I think that’s what you would call it.” Aragorn looked over at his friend for confirmation.  “He didn’t exactly touch me, but it was as though he could see through me and it felt like bands of darkness wrapping themselves around me until I couldn’t breathe.  Then he let go.  I wanted to resist him, I wanted to fight his will... but something stopped me.  Almost as if something was telling me I shouldn’t.”  The young ranger allowed his puzzlement to creep into his voice.  He was still a bit perplexed by that.

 

Elrond stood from his chair and walked towards the fire, leaning against the ornate mantel.  “It is well that you did not Estel.  For then he would have seen you for what you are and it is not yet time for you to be revealed to Mordor.  The time is unripe and you are not ready... not yet.”  The elf lord sighed quietly, the weight of ages seeming to come into his eyes.  He understood far more about this situation than his son or the prince.  “It was only a matter of time before they took up in search again.” He said quietly.  “I told them did I not? It is moving... it will be found again.  I had hoped we would have longer.”

 

“Father?”  Aragorn had never heard his father speak with such weariness.

 

“It is nothing to worry about yet my son.”  Elrond turned back to the two of them, “But the council will need to know, and especially Mithrandir.” A small smile pulled at the corners of the elf’s lips, “Knowing him, that wizard already knows full well and just let it slip his mind.”

 

“Well you are beginning to sound like him, speaking in riddles.” Aragorn muttered sarcastically.

 

Elrond laughed lightly, “Go on, tell me the rest.”

 

Legolas recounted the horrors of being subject to the evil being.  As he forced himself to tell Elrond about Aragorn’s capture and his part in it and his near inability to stop himself from killing the ranger, tears welled up in his eyes, spilling down his fair cheeks.  The prince looked away, brushing his palms across his eyes quickly and blinking hard, ashamed of what he had to relate, and of his own weakness now.

 

“I’m sorry.”  He stopped speaking, dejectedly staring down at the floor, his breathing hitching as he tried to regain control of his emotions.

 

Aragorn kneeled on the floor in front of his friend, forcing the elf to look into his eyes, “I told you before it was all right.”

 

“I watched you fall over that cliff, fearing you dead.  I was forced to leave before they found you and then when I saw you next I handed you over to the enemy and tried to slit your throat.  Now, you tell me, what is all right about any of that?” Legolas’ voice was soft and strained.  He didn’t know how he could ever deal with what he had done, with the darkness that had touched him.

 

The young human turned and implored his father for help.

 

“I will tell you young one.”  At the sound of Elrond’s deep voice Legolas looked up, “The fact that you are here, free from the Nazgûl’s control.  The fact that you saved Estel by your actions.  Your will was not controlled by the evil and you never stopped fighting it.  The very fact that you sit in my presence and acknowledge these things openly speaks of the good in you, which is indomitable. *That* is what is right about all that has happened.”

 

Legolas watched the older elf, weighing his words, allowing the truths to sink into his soul and vanquish the lies that had been eating at his heart.  “Yes, you are right.”  He finally agreed.  He knew the truth when he saw it, and although lingering traces of guilt remained, he tried his best to shake them off.

 

Smiling, Aragorn pulled the elf forward and whispered, “I told you so.”

 

With a laugh, the prince pushed the human backwards, tipping him off balance.  The ranger caught himself on his hands before he fell, his mirth uncontained until a thought struck him.  Turning towards Elrond, Aragorn seated himself on the floor leaning back against the couch and questioned his father, “Do you think we killed it?”

 

“The Nazgûl?” Elrond clarified the cryptic question. When his son nodded the elf lord continued, “No. Legolas was correct, simply setting him on fire would never release that tortured soul that is bound to Sauron himself.  The black-cowled figure you saw was merely one of the corporeal forms taken by the Nazgûl, convenient for them when they travel abroad.”

“Will there be any lingering effects from his evil?” Legolas needed to know.

Elrond stood from his seat and approached the elf prince. He pulled back the young elf’s tunic and inspected the healing wound.  Satisfied that it would heal with the proper care, Elrond leaned down and pressed the palm of his hand against Legolas forehead, closing his eyes, he listened.

 

In seconds the elf lord withdrew his hand and smiled down at the young prince, “There is no darkness within you young one.  The athelas has cured you completely.  You have nothing to worry about.”  Elrond smiled at Estel and nodded to the young ranger, “Well done my son. You have used the athelas well.”

 

The elven lord walked to the far side of the room and opened a tiny drawer hidden behind the ancient books stacked on the shelves that lined the wall. Retrieving a small object he walked back towards them, explaining, “There is an old saying, a true saying.  It is said that, ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer’. ” The elf did not finish the old prophecy for now was not the time yet for the young human to know his full destiny, this much was well uncovered for the present.

 

Elrond sat down across from the two friends and opened his hand, holding it out, palm up.  In the center of his palm lay a ring.  It was made of two entwined silver serpents with eyes of emeralds met beneath a crow of golden flowers that the one upheld and the other devoured.  The silver circle sparkled in the firelight.  Elrond held it out to Estel. 

 

“Take it my son. It is yours. It is part of your heritage.”

 

Aragorn picked up the ring and slid it onto the forefinger of his left hand - it fit perfectly. 

 

“The ring has been in Isildur’s family for generations.  It marks you as an heir of that house.” Elrond smiled softly at the human.  He knew how hard it was for the young man to accept who he truly was and so they had agreed to take it slowly.  His son nodded his head, looking back to the ring and admiring it.

 

“It is called the Ring of Barahir, for it was a gift to Barahir and his descendants in reward for the saving of Finrod Felagund’s life, many, many years before your father’s father was born.  It has come into your family and has been known as an heirloom in the House of Elendil for generations. And now my son it is yours. Your abilities in curing Legolas with the athelas are only more proofs that you are Isildur’s heir.  In time your lineage will be known by all men, but for now it is enough that you accept it.”

 

The ranger was fingering the ring.  He slipped it off his hand and passed the token back to Legolas who was leaning over his shoulder trying to glimpse it.  The elf took the ring and looked it over, running his fingers around the edge and feeling the intricate detailing.  It was a stunning piece, and the history that went with it even more so, for Finrod Felagund, King of Nargathrond and brother of the lady Galadriel, had perished defending the mortal, Beren, err this age of the world began.  The prince passed the ring back to the ranger with a smile.

 

Aragorn slipped it back on his finger and looked up at his father. The elf lord was smiling sadly down at the human.  His adopted son was growing into the man he had raised him to be. 

 

“Now up with the two of you.  You are filthy and wet and Celboril will have my hide for letting you sit on ‘his’ couch.” Elrond teased.  “It is nearing the dinner hour.  Go change out of those clothes and clean up.  There are fresh clothes in Estel’s room.”  As the two headed for the door the older elf stopped them, “Legolas, I will want to look at that wound personally before you retire for the evening.  You did very well young prince, your father will be proud.”

 

“My father,” Legolas shook his head somewhat ruefully, but he grinned with good humor, even if it was laced with exhaustion.  “My father is going to have my head next time he sees me, of that you can be sure,” the prince muttered softly. 

 

Elrond grinned softly.  “I think not once he has heard the entire tale.  He will be glad that you are able to return to him *whole*, nevermind *when*.  Trust me, for I know a father’s heart.”

 

Legolas nodded, rubbing his aching eyes.  He was too tired right now to worry about anything anyway.  All he wanted at the moment was to get washed and into something clean and be able to rest a little before he had to face anyone else again.  Eventually he was going to have to confide in Raniean and Trelan, but not yet.

 

“Estel,” Elrond’s voice halted his son in the doorway.  “I would have a word with you.”

 

The ranger smiled at his friend guiltily and walked back towards his father.  Legolas wearily mounted the stairs and headed for the guest room adjacent to his friend’s.

 

“Yes father?”  Aragorn walked back up to the older elf and looked into the silver eyes. 

 

Elrond pulled the boy near the fire, turning them away from the door so that any who happened by would not accidentally hear their conversation.

 

“What you did with the athelas yesterday, in healing Legolas, few can do.  It is a skill that has been reserved by Iluvitar for the use of royalty only.  Be careful how you use this gift, but do not hesitate to employ it when it is needed.” He glanced sideways at the human who stood next to him staring into the flames.

 

“I am still not used to this...” Aragorn struggled for the right words and Elrond let him have time to respond. “This heritage that I have been given.  I was truly happy simply being Estel, son of Elrond.”  He turned and locked eyes with the elf lord, “Is there anything so wrong with simply being that?”

 

Elrond smiled softly and shook his head, “My son, you will always be Estel and no, there is nothing wrong with that.  However the time will come I think when you will be called to be even more than simply the adopted son of an elven lord.”  Aragorn began to protest but the elf quieted him, placing his arm around the slumped shoulders of the young man, “I said that time would come, I did not say it was now.  You have plenty of time to simply be Estel.”  He laughed lightly as the ranger glanced up at him through strands of wayward hair. “Do not trouble yourself with the future, today has quite enough trouble all to its own.”

 

Elrond glanced behind them into the hallway.  The twins stood on the threshold, their glances curious and worried, “I think your brothers will be enough to occupy you for the time being.”

 

Aragorn glanced over his shoulder and threw the elven twins a devilish grin before Elrond redirected his attention, “This conversation will remain between us and you may wear the ring or put it away as you should choose.  It is up to you.”

 

The ranger fidgeted with the silver circle for several seconds, “I’ll wear it.  But I’ll still be called by my right name, my elven name.” He clarified.

 

Elrond laughed and pushed the boy towards the door, “As you wish Estel.  Now off with you before Celboril calls super. Do not think he will tolerate you at his table looking like that.”

 

“Nor will I!” Elladan teased him, ruffling his hair as he walked past. 

 

“What have you there Estel?” Elrohir fell into step with his younger brother, walking tightly next to the human as Aragorn showed him the ring.  They traipsed quietly up the stairs, talking softly together as Elladan joined his father near the fire.

 

“Told him more?” the younger elf asked his father, recognizing the ring his youngest brother was now wearing.

 

“Yes.” Elrond watched the two climbing the stairs, “He has much to think about.  Perhaps you can lighten his mood.”

 

The elder twin snickered evilly, “Oh, not a problem there father.”

 

“Elladan,” Elrond turned to his oldest, “I said lighten, not torment.  Now please go see to the warriors from Mirkwood.  Have them join us for dinner tonight.”

 

“I’ll see to it father.”  The younger elf quietly left and Elrond turned back to the fireplace, watching the dancing flames. 

 

So much had transpired in the past day that it would take some time to absorb it all but the fact remained that the Nazgûl were near and searching.  There were others who would need to know of Mordor’s quest and he quickly penned a brief recount of Legolas and Aragorn’s mishap.  Sealing the notes with his signet ring he called a runner and instructed the servant to stop for no one, but deliver the letters, one to Lothlòrien, one to Isengard and one to the care of an innkeeper in Bree who would hold it until the person it was addressed to should turn up.  With that chore taken care of the elf lord walked towards the dinning hall, seeking the company of others.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

~*PART TEN*~

 

 

Elrond’s dinning area was filled with people when he entered it and he couldn’t help smiling as the atmosphere of the celebrating beings banished the darkness that had settled in his heart, sweeping away the worry the events of the day had brought with them.

 

Estel was seated next to his brothers and across from the Silvan warriors.  He had changed and cleaned himself up, but the bruises and the dark circles under his eyes attested to his weariness.  The younger elves were entertaining themselves teasing the human.  It wouldn’t be long before the ranger got back at them.  Presently he was laughing helplessly and shaking his head, protesting whatever Elrohir saying.  However, the empty seat beside the young man worried the elf lord.

 

At the other end of the table sat the elves that served in Elrond’s household.  They were talking quietly amongst themselves.  Marean accompanied them; she had quickly taken to the female elves and seemed to truly enjoy their presence.  Elrond had even considered allowing her to stay in Rivendell if her husband was not found.  Curious, he looked closer and caught sight of Estelle beside her in a basket on the floor, the baby was sleeping contentedly.  He smiled at the girl and nodded in acknowledgement of her presence. It cheered his heart to see their table so full.

 

The opposite end of the hall erupted in laughter and Elrond turned his attention back to the elves that were talking animatedly amongst themselves, arguing.  Shaking his head the elf lord approached his youngest son.

 

Estel stopped laughing and turned in his chair looking up at the elf lord, when his father placed his hand on the ranger’s shoulder.

 

“Where is Legolas?”  Elrond questioned quietly.

 

With a start the ranger realized the seat next to him was empty.  “I’ll go see.”

 

“If he is sleeping, let him rest Estel, we’ll bring him something to eat later.”  The older elf called after his son as the human swiftly climbed the stairs.  Aragorn smiled as he listened to the laughter coming from the large hall; he loved being with his family.

 

At the top of the steps Aragorn turned right and walked past his room towards the guest quarters.  He knocked softly on the closed door.  When Legolas didn’t answer right away he quietly entered the room.  The chamber was dark save for a small glowlamp in the corner.  At first glance he didn’t see the elf and concern gripped his heart.

 

“Legolas?”  Aragorn whispered softly into the darkened room.  Stepping into the interior, his eyes lighted on the lithe form.

 

The prince was asleep, sitting in the overstuffed chair that occupied the corner right behind the door.  He must have sat down to just rest for a few minutes, but his injuries and the stress of the past month had caught up with him and overwhelmed him.  He was finally safe, he could finally let his guard down.

 

Aragorn smiled down at his friend.  Legolas had changed from the dirty clothes he had been wearing and had slipped into his silver leggings and matching tunic.  He had had every intention of joining them for dinner.  It was the only dress outfit he had brought with him and he often wore it for mealtime.  Silently Aragorn moved to the bed and pulled the extra blanket from the foot of it where it was neatly folded.  He shook out the soft fabric and gently laid it over the sleeping elf trying not to disturb the prince.  Tucking the edges around the elf he turned to the darkened fireplace and quickly started a small fire to warm the cool room and give his friend light throughout the night.  He remembered Legolas telling him how dark it had been where he was and the ranger remembered how he had first felt when he had returned home after escaping the cave.

 

When the fire was stoked enough to satisfy him, Aragorn turned to leave.  He glanced at his friend before heading for the door and smiled softly, the elf was watching him.

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to wake you.”  The ranger whispered.

 

“It is all right.”  Legolas returned the smile and stiffly sat up.  “Did I miss dinner?”

 

Aragorn stifled a soft laugh, “No, not yet. But you might wish you had.  Elladan and Elrohir are giving Trelan and Raniean tips on bowhunting.”  He laughed in remembrance of the argument.  “Father says you may stay up here and he’ll have dinner brought to you later if you like.  He thought you might be overly tired.”

 

“I’m not.”  Legolas lied, pushing himself into a standing position with a soft moan. “I’ll join you.”

 

The elf stopped and stared at his friend.  Aragorn was glaring at the prince, one eyebrow raised in accusation.

 

“What?”

 

“WHAT!?” the human stalked towards him, “You can hardly move.  Stay here and rest.”

 

“I am going down there to eat with your father. You may join me if you like.”  Legolas stared stubbornly at the ranger.

 

“You are the most stubborn creature I have ever met!”  Aragorn frowned at his friend as they moved towards the door.

 

“And you and your kind are the most intrusive.” Legolas turned back towards him and feigned an indignant glare. “Now, I really am hungry. I can't remember eating decent food in...” the elf stopped and glanced at the ranger, “Well I can't remember eating!”

 

Aragorn’s laughter was interrupted as they reached the stair well.  An insistent knocking on the huge doors of the house echoed up to them.

 

“I wonder who that is?”  The human quickly descended the stairs, followed more slowly by his elven friend.  The laughter and talk about the dinner table covered over the sound of the persistent rapping as Aragorn pulled the wooden doors open.

 

Moranuen stood in the entryway with Taradin and another man that Aragorn did not recognize.

 

“Mora! Taradin!”  The ranger pulled the elf into the house pounding his friend on the back and motioned for the hunter and his companion to enter.  “How are you?”  He looked the older man over and smiled, “You look well.”

 

Taradin stepped back and eyed the ranger and Legolas, carefully frowning at the two of them.  The elf prince had slowly joined the small group, a smile on his bruised face that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

 

“Well you look like wargs got the best of the both of you.” Taradin observed.  “What happened?”

 

“Uhm, it’s a rather long story.”  Aragorn looked sheepishly at Legolas.

 

“And it would bore you to tears.” The elf quickly picked up, unwilling to speak of it and wanting only to be near others and around cheerful faces.

 

“Right.”  The hunter smiled a lopsided grin at the friends, “Well knowing the two of you I highly doubt that, but I’ll leave it for later.”  He quirked a bushy eyebrow at the ranger and continued, “But don’t think you’re getting out of it. A tale as good as whatever beat the stuffing out of the two of you is worth waiting for.”

 

Aragorn laughed and clapped the man on the back, “As you wish.  I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the only entertainment you ever get.”  The human smiled devilishly at the hunter.

 

Taradin let out a booming laugh as he cuffed the younger man good naturedly on the shoulder, pushing the ranger back a step.  Aragorn winced and sucked his breath in, his hand going instinctively to his bruised arm.

 

“It’s all right. Its all right.” He reassured as he massaged his shoulder lightly.  “Just a bruise.”  He commented quickly as he caught sight of the slight smile on Legolas face, his look the very epitome of feigned innocence.  The ranger tried to quickly change the subject and leaned around Taradin to glance at the man standing behind him.  “Who’s this you brought with you?” The human smiled impishly back at Moranuen, “Don’t tell me, *he’s* the one?”

 

“That he is!”  Taradin answered for the elf. “He heard you got something that might belong to him.”

 

“More like two of them.”  Legolas smiled at the man, immediately understanding of what they spoke.

 

“This is Erron.” Taradin introduced the man who had until now remained quietly behind him.  “I picked him up over a month ago. He’s been working with my company, right useful with a sword I might add.”

 

Erron couldn’t have been older than Aragorn, in fact the young man looked to be two or three years his junior.  He was taller and more filled out than the slender ranger and he towered a good head over his host.  A thick mop of curly brown hair spilled about his face, it was cut short and neat and his green eyes held an excitement to them that couldn’t be contained.

 

“Is it true?  Maraen lives?”  His voice was soft and deep and Aragorn smiled up into the open face.

 

“Yes, she does at that.”

 

“And not only she but your child as well.”  Legolas stepped near Aragorn and addressed the young man.

 

“I thought she was dead or worse yet, taken by the orcs. Blasted beasts almost got the drop on me after I left her.  Had to hide in a cave, only to get trapped by a bit of a rockslide.  When I finally dug my way out again... I-I couldn’t find her.”  His eyes misted over slightly as he thought back to the past month.  “I tried but... well, Taradin was good enough to take me in and give me a job and a place to stay.”

 

Aragorn smiled conspiratorially at the older man, “Softie.”

 

“What?” The hunter shrugged his shoulders and glanced away as though indifferent, “You take in one orphan you take in another, makes no difference. One, ten, they all the same.”

 

“Right.”  Aragorn rolled his eyes, and began walking them slowly towards the dinning hall, “Speaking of orphans, where is Garith?”

 

“He’s back home, minding the trading post.  I’m not staying long.  Just here to drop this one off and set back out.”

 

Erron stopped and glanced at the man, “Taradin, are Maraen and I still welcome with you?  I mean, may we stay until I build a new house?”  The young hunter seemed suddenly at loss. “You and Garith’s the only family we have now.”

 

The older hunter smiled as he answered, “What did you think I was going to do, throw you out?  Of course you’re staying - you and that little family of yours. Why Garith would never forgive me if I left you here. But winter’s coming on fast and we’ve still to stock the basement good.  We’ll be needing to get back at it right soon.” He leveled the tall hunter with a serious stare.

 

“But what he didn’t tell you,” Aragorn interrupted glibly, “Is that now that you’re in Lord Elrond’s house you won't be able to leave until he says so.”  He smiled wickedly at Taradin.

 

“Taradin says he’s an elf lord.”  Erron whispered, half in awe.

 

“Yes, he is.”  Aragorn answered, glancing quickly at Legolas before laying an open, questioning gaze upon the older hunter.

 

Leaning in close to the ranger Taradin whispered, “He ain’t never seen an elf before.  Well not a lordly one if you get my meaning.” He nudged Aragorn and glanced back at Moranuen.

 

The elf rolled his eyes and walked past the two humans, “I think I’ll inform Lord Elrond that he has guests.”

 

“That would be good. Thank you Mora.”  Aragorn shook his head and pushed Taradin away from him.  “Legolas is a prince.” The ranger nodded at the elf that stood next to him, watching with uncontained humor as Erron’s eyes grew wide.

 

“Really?”

 

“Thanks a lot Strider.  Shall I tell him who you are?” Legolas glared at the human who was helplessly laughing next to him.

 

Aragorn turned so that he faced the elf and quietly whispered, “If you think he’ll believe you go ahead.” His smile a dare in itself.  “Didn’t think so.”  The ranger taunted when Legolas simply glared back at him.

 

“Well shall we all go in now that we have been announced properly?” Aragorn ushered them down the hall to the spacious dining room.

 

Elrond had stood from his seat and was listening intently as Moranuen explained how he had found Taradin who in fact had only a month ago employed a man who claimed to be the only living person to escape Holswollow alive.

 

Maraen quickly jumped to her feet as the room quieted listening to the elf’s tale.  “Did he give you a name?” she questioned.

 

A shift in the shadows behind him caught Moranuen’s attention before he could answer and he glanced into the darkened hallway catching sight of Aragorn out of the corner of his eye.  The human had raised his finger to his lips; a twinkle of merriment lit his eyes.  The elf knew that look well and easily played along with the man. 

 

“I am afraid that he did not my lady.  We have brought the trader and one of his men here in hopes that they could shed more light on the man from Holswollow.”  Moranuen quickly dropped his gaze to the floor and wouldn’t return Elrond’s stare.

 

It took only seconds for the elf lord to realize what was going on as Elrohir snickered quietly from his seat, his eyes fastened on his human brother out in the hallway, whispering into the ear of a tall man that the twin had never seen.  Elrond glared at his sons, shaking his head slightly – they never lost the opportunity to play lighthearted jokes on whomever was unfortunate enough to be near.

 

Moranuen stepped aside as Taradin walked up next to him, removing his hat and twisting it nervously between his huge hands. He bowed slightly, the movement awkward and stiff. “Lord Elrond.”

 

“Taradin. It is good to see you again, please join us for some dinner.  Perhaps you can shed more light on this man you hired.  His wife has done nothing but weep for him the entire time she has been here. I fear that her heart will break if you do not bring some good news with you.” The older elf cast a quick small smile back towards the doorway, he knew full well what he had said was not the full truth but he also knew that Maraen’s husband would not be able to stand the thought of the young girl crying over him. 

 

Aragorn stood just beyond the arch, his mouth dropped open in total surprise.  Never in all the years he had lived in Rivendell had his father teased anyone nor played along with any of the teasing of the younger generation.  And he couldn’t help laughing out loud as Erron roughly brushed him out of the way, bursting into the hall.

 

“Now I know where you get it from.”  Legolas leaned against the doorframe and glanced at his friend, a cocky smile on his face.

 

“I can not believe he just did that.” Aragorn couldn’t help smiling as he shook his head at his father who simply returned the look of disbelief with a satisfied grin.  He followed Legolas’ lead and leaned into the room to watch the reunion of Maraen and Erron.

 

“He really got you.” Legolas quipped.  He couldn’t help smiling as the large hunter knelt on the floor next to the basket that held his sleeping daughter and gently scooped the tiny bundle out of the makeshift crib. Maraen was crying with joy and Legolas was glad that this moment was possible and that he were able to witness it.  At least some good had come out of the nightmare of the past month. 

 

“He did.”  Aragorn turned away from the sight of the reunited family and carefully watched his friend.  Legolas eyes were half lidded and he winced slightly, moving his wounded shoulder to a more comfortable position against the hard wood doorframe.  The elf was worn out but too proud to admit it.  Aragorn realized with some surprise that he himself was rather weary.  They both needed rest.

 

“Let's let them have their time.”  Aragorn steered his friend away from the bright hallway, “We can eat later. I mean, really, are you hungry?”

 

Legolas allowed himself to be led away, thinking over the question his friend had just asked him.  Oddly enough it took a bit for him to answer.  “No. I’m not hungry now, not really.  What I really am is tired.”

 

Celboril entered the hall just ahead of the two as they slowly walked its length.  “I saw the both of you leave.”  He held out steaming cups of warm, sweet, amber colored liquid.  “To keep your strength up and help you heal.”

 

“And put us to sleep I’ll wager.”  Legolas glanced warily at the mugs.

 

“Not this time good Prince. It looks like you have no need of help there.” The servant laughed at them, pressing the cups into their hands.  “Now go on upstairs with the both of you. I’ll bring you food later.”

 

They had just reached the foot of the stairs when a soft voice behind them stopped them both.

 

“Legolas?”

 

The two turned towards the speaker. It was Maraen; Erron stood behind her, his large hands resting on her slim shoulders.

 

“I just wanted to thank you...” She hesitated and glanced back over her shoulder at her husband.

 

“*We* wanted to thank you,” Erron finished the statement, “for all that you did for us.  I am in your debt for protecting Maraen and Estelle with your life. And to you ranger, for bringing them to this house of healing where they were safe.”

 

“It was my pleasure to help.” Aragorn replied softly.

 

“Mine as well.” Legolas answered with a smile, “And it was worth it. I am glad that you were able to find one another again.  Life is a precious gift and you have been given a second chance.  Iluvitar has been watching over you all.”

 

“Will you not eat with us?”  Maraen questioned them.

 

They were spared from answering as Elrond walked up behind them and stepped into the entryway.  He smiled at his son as he released the two friends from attending dinner, “Legolas and Aragorn have just made it back to Rivendell. I imagine they are weary from their travels.  I will have food sent up to the two of you.  Celboril will attend you should you have any needs.”  The elf lord turned back to Maraen and Erron, “As for you, the food is getting cold, please make yourselves at home.” He escorted the couple back to the dinning hall.

 

Aragorn and Legolas had made it to the first landing when Elrond reappeared at the bottom of the stairwell. 

 

“Estel?”

 

The ranger stopped and gazed down, “Yes father?” there were black circles under his eyes and he yawned as he spoke.

 

“Are you and Legolas all right?  You both look worse than you did earlier.”

 

“Thanks.”  Aragorn rolled his eyes and smiled.

 

“I, for one, am just tired my lord.” Legolas leaned against the balustrade resisting the desire to yawn after Aragorn just had.

 

Elrond doubted that weariness was the younger elf’s only problem, but given the circumstances that was understandable.  “Very well.  Go get some rest.  Tomorrow morning you may say your farewells to Maraen and Erron.  They will be leaving with Taradin.”

 

“We should be leaving as well.” Legolas glanced at Aragorn who only nodded because to speak would have required more effort.

 

“Neither of you are going anywhere until I say so. Is that understood?” Elrond glared at the elf and the human.

 

“I must return as quickly as possible, my father will be beside himself.” Legolas argued halfheartedly.

 

“And I have to go with him to help explain about the...about what happened.  I have to, I promised.”  Aragorn realized he was finding it difficult to finish his sentences.

 

Elrond stood in the entryway, the intensity of his gaze unwavering.  Anyone could see that the ranger and the prince were nearly exhausted and he knew that arguing with Estel in the shape he was in would get them nowhere. Tomorrow he would enforce his ban on their leaving until the prince was fully recovered from his poisoning.

 

“We’ll discuss it in the morning.” He answered them.

 

“That just means no.” Aragorn looked over at Legolas, “That’s what he says when he doesn’t want to argue.”

 

Elrond laughed lightly at the human, “Exactly Estel.  Besides no one is crossing the northern pass until I am sure that the orcs are well away from the area.  The southern pass will take longer and require more traveling so you will need to be well to journey that way. I will send message to your father by carrier hawk, that you are well and will be returning to him by the southern route so he can expect your delay.  But until I say so no one leaves this house. Now off with the both of you and get some rest.”

 

“I’m not arguing with him. You can if you like.” Aragorn glanced at Legolas and mounted the last flight of stairs to the bedrooms.

 

“I’m not arguing with him either.”  Legolas followed his friend up the stairs, dragging himself into the warm, softly lit guest room, “It makes sense to me.  I don’t think I want to leave for a bit anyway.  I’m glad I can't. Father will be just as angry if I get home tomorrow or a year from now, he can wait.”  The elf set his mug down on the nightstand and dropped down onto the bed, asleep before his head hit the pillow. His ordeal had pushed him far past his limits, strong though his elven endurance was.  Elrond was right; he needed to regain the strength he had lost before attempting the long journey home over the southern pass, down through the Gap of Rohan and beyond.

 

Aragorn picked the blanket up off the floor and draped it over his friend.  He threw a few more logs on the fire to keep the room warm through the night and then headed for his own room.  The interior was dark and he stumbled awkwardly about trying to find the small shell light he had since a youngster.

 

“Looking for this?”

 

The ranger jumped and turned at the sound of his brother’s voice. Elrohir entered the room balancing a tray of food and the tiny light, its wick trimmed and burning.  “I borrowed it yesterday and forgot to return it.”  The twin set the food down and placed the light on the mantel at the foot of the bed, lighting the room with its soft glow.

 

“Thanks.  I don’t think I am hungry though,” Aragorn murmured, rubbing his eyes and blinking a couple of times. He carefully balanced his mug on the tray, making sure it wouldn’t tip over.

 

Elrohir laughed softly, “Well it really doesn’t matter. Father said bring you food and so we have.” He motioned with his head back towards the door, “Elladan brought some to Legolas.”

 

“He’s sleeping.” The ranger spoke around another yawn as he sat down heavily on his bed.

 

“I know.” Elrohir seated himself across from the ranger and leaned forward talking quietly as Aragorn pulled his boots slowly off his tired feet.

 

“So tell me Estel *what* was it that you and Legolas ran into out there?”

 

Aragorn glanced up quickly before busying himself with the other boot.  “It was a Nazgûl.”  He looked at his brother to watch his response.

 

Elrohir only nodded. They both jumped when Elladan spoke from the doorway. “I thought it had to be worse than orcs, the way father was acting.”

 

Their human brother only nodded, looking to the floor and absently wondering if he should even bother taking his socks off.

 

Elladan motioned to his twin.  As Elrohir stood Aragorn looked up at them both, “I’m sorry. I’m just tired.”

 

The elves nodded, “Its all right. Get some rest.” Elladan smiled at the human warmly.

 

“Yeah when you’re better Elladan can beat it out of you.”  Elrohir ducked as his twin swatted at him. “I do remember him saying there were a few things he wanted to beat into you.”  Elrohir laughed as he moved out of the way back towards the staircase.

 

“Really?” Aragorn raised an eyebrow and grinned mischievously at his eldest brother.

 

Elladan suppressed his own laugh and rolled his eyes, “You know Elrohir, he makes things up. Like how big that warg was that he took down last week. Stuff like that.”

 

Aragorn could hear Elrohir protesting in the stairwell.

 

“Get out of here both of you and hush him up before he wakes Legolas.”  The ranger laughed at them both walking slowly to the door and shutting it.

 

Elladan pressed his palm against the smooth wood and held the door open a second longer, “Estel, it is good to have you home, even if father has to enforce it for a bit.”  He smiled at the human who laughed softly.

 

“It is good to be home.” Aragorn answered honestly.  His smile turned devilish as he tightened his grip on the door knob on his side, “And I look forward to you *trying* to beat anything out of me. It’ll be a nice challenge for you in your old age.”  He shoved the door firmly shut and pressed his weight against it, laughing as Elladan tired to push the door back open.

 

When it grew quiet outside he pressed his ear to the door and cracked it slightly open, “Just you wait my little brother and I will show you what an *old* elf can do to the likes of you.” His brother whispered through the crack in the door.

 

Elladan heard the ranger laugh softly at his comment as he descended the stairs. The celebrations in the dinning hall could just be heard as he joined Elrohir at the foot of the stairwell.  Together the two walked back to the festivities.  Things were well in the House of Rivendell this night and it was time for celebrating.

 

Upstairs the ranger pulled himself wearily into bed, a huge smile on his bruised face as he recalled his brother’s threats.  He was looking forward to that immensely and with Legolas here it would be even more fun.  They would leave as soon as his father allowed it but until then...he laughed as he blew out the small light.  Until then he would enjoy being home with his family.

 

And things were good that night in the Last Homely House.

 

However things do not always remain unchanged...

 

 

The End

 

______________________________________________________________________

 

Epilogue:

 

(Taken from the Fellowship of the Ring, by JRR Tolkien)
(with the final paragraph being our own addition)

 

--Some sixty or more years later--

 

 

Legolas laid down his paddle and took up the bow that he had brought from Lórien. Then he sprang ashore and climbed a few paces up the bank. Stringing the bow and fitting an arrow he turned, peering back over the River into the darkness. Across the water there were shrill cries, but nothing could be seen.

 

Frodo looked up at the Elf standing tall above him, as he gazed into the night, seeking a mark to shoot at. His head was dark, crowned with sharp white stars that glittered in the black pools of the sky behind. But now rising and sailing up from the South the great clouds advanced, sending out dark outriders into the starry fields. A sudden dread fell on the Company.

 

“Elbereth Gilthoniel!” sighed Legolas as he looked up. Even as he did so, a dark shape, like a cloud and yet not a cloud, for it moved far more swiftly, came out of the blackness in the South, and sped towards the Company, blotting out all light as it approached. Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night. Fierce voices rose up to greet it from across the water. Frodo felt a sudden chill running through him and clutching at his heart; there was a deadly cold, like the memory of an old wound, in his shoulder. He crouched down, as if to hide.

 

Suddenly the great bow of Lórien sang. Shrill went the arrow from the elven-string. Frodo looked up. Almost above him the winged shape swerved. There was a harsh croaking scream, as it fell out of the air, vanishing down into the gloom of the eastern shore. The sky was clean again. There was a tumult of many voices far away, cursing and wailing in the darkness, and then silence. Neither shaft nor cry came again from the east that night.

 

Giving one last look up at the sky Legolas shouldered his bow.  He had a good idea what it was he had shot out of the dark sky that night.  A faint smile of satisfaction pulled at the corner of his lips.  That was something he had wanted to do for years.